Posts Tagged ‘a behanding in spokane’

Culture Vulture: Best theater of 2010

December 26, 2010

YEAR IN THEATER

A strong year in theater, I would say. Here’s my pick of a dozen top productions:


1. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – Les Freres Corbusier’s smart/stupid rock musical, my first exposure to excellent writer/director Alex Timbers and his fearless crew, including rock-star caliber lead performance by Benjamin Walker. As the subway ads put it, “History just got all sexypants!”


2. The Myopia – David Greenspan in a spectacular solo performance of his own crazy play

Lily Rabe, Al Pacino, and Byron Jennings in "The Merchant of Venice"

3. The Merchant of VeniceDaniel Sullivan’s deep, upsetting staging of Shakespeare’s play in which Al Pacino’s Shylock and Lily Rabe’s Portia were 2 out of 20 strong performances

Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber in "A View from the Bridge"

4. A View from the Bridge – direction by Gregory Mosher, with terrific performances by Liev Schreiber, Jessica Hecht, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Cristofer, and Corey Stoll

Billy Porter, Robin Weigert, and Christian Borle in "Angels in America"

5. Angels in America – Michael Greif’s revival of Tony Kushner’s play with extra-fine performances by Christian Borle, Zachary Quinto, Bill Heck, Robin Bartlett, and Robin Weigert

Danielle Skraastad, Susan Pourfar, Marin Ireland, Miriam F. Glover and Michael Chernus in "In The Wake"

6. In the Wake – Lisa Kron’s play (lynchpin of the Public Theater’s admirable political-theater season) with superlative performances by Michael Chernus and Deidre O’Connell

Alessandro Nivola and Karen Young in "A Lie of the Mind"

7. A Lie of the Mind – Ethan Hawke’s surprisingly beautiful re-imagining of Sam Shepard’s play, with a revelatory central performance by Alessandro Nivola

8. A Disappearing Number – fine smart new work from Complicite directed by Simon McBurney with a dazzling production design by Michael Levine

9. The Kid – the smart and tuneful musical adaptation of Dan Savage’s memoir with a good cast well-directed by Scott Elliott, most notably Christopher Sieber, Susan Blackwell, and Jeannine Frumess

Jeffrey Wright in "A Free Man of Color"

10. A Free Man of Color – John Guare’s ambitious stylized epic staged in high style by George C. Wolfe with a huge cast in which standouts included Jeffrey Wright, mos, and Veanne Cox

11. Another American: Asking and Telling – perfect timing for Marc Wolf (above) to bring back his Anna Deveare Smith-like solo performance surveying the topic of gays in the military

Zoe Kazan, Christopher Walken, and Anthony Mackie in "A Behanding in Spokane"

12. A Behanding in Spokane – Martin McDonagh’s hilarious new play with knockout performances by Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell and a superbly seedy set by Scott Pask


I’m not quite sure where to put three shows I’d seen before but were still high-water marks for 2010: Fela! (last year’s #1, which I saw twice again this year), Gatz (above, which made my top 10 in 2007), and the Wooster Group’s North Atlantic (the third revival, with a great new cast including Ari Fliakos, Kate Valk, Steve Cuiffo and Zachary Oberzan).

Miscellaneous highlights:

– William Kentridge’s dense and dazzling production of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera and his equally theatrical retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art

— Norm Lewis singing “Being Alive” in Sondheim on Sondheim at the Roundabout

— Christine Jones’ set (above) and Michael Mayer’s direction for American Idiot
— Mark Rylance’s justly acclaimed performance in La Bete

The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway – sheer fun!

— Most Valuable Player (male): Scott Shepherd (above) for North Atlantic and Gatz

— Most Valuable Player (female): Bonnie Thunders, Gotham Girls Roller Derby (above)

Performance diary: back and back and Bach

May 9, 2010

May 7 – I’m not the kind of theatergoer who sees shows again and again. I have to really like a show to see it more than once. Aside from the Wooster Group, whose every production I have seen three or more times (because I love them so), it’s rare for me to repeat. Same with movies, same with books: I’d rather experience something than revisit something I’ve already encountered, even something I loved. I have seen Fela! three times, and I saw Spring Awakening 4 ½ times (once I employed the time-honored theater-geek tactic of second-acting the show, grabbing a seat in the balcony just to re-live the ecstasy of watching the number “Totally Fucked” rock the house). My friend Tom Dennison is the opposite of me – when he likes something, he likes to watch it over and over. He saw Spring Awakening seven times (and that was after the original cast left), and he’s seen David Cromer’s production of Our Town about a dozen times. I admire that kind of devotion.

My friend Misha Berson, the theater critic for the Seattle Times, was in town this week for her twice-a-year marathon catching up on new shows, and we were supposed to see Enron together. But once they posted their closing notice, it seemed no longer newsworthy to cover, so she switched gears and arranged to see Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane. Of course, I had no problem switching gears with you, since I liked the show very much. Seeing it a second time yielded no big rewards, but it was interesting to experience the squeeing of the Christopher Walken maniacs in the audience. Zoe Kazan and Anthony Mackie were very consistent and energized. I got the sense that Walken and Sam Rockwell were laying back, now that the show has been running a while. Not that they were phoning it in, but there was a certain slackness to their energy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed noticing the trade-off: what was lost in a certain kind of Pinter-esque tension, there was a gain in wacky rock-and-roll assurance between those two guys. Walken is so so deadpan, dropping his voice for impact so you have to really lean in and pay attention, while Rockwell relishes playing fast and loose, as if he’s some guy who just wandered onto the set. I did look forward to his front-of-curtain monologue, which does have an explosive impact on the audience. When he says, “I keep waiting for something exciting to happen. Maybe a prostitute will get stabbed…” the audience responds with a combined gasp of horror and surprised laughter. A guy in the balcony got caught up in a bout of barking laughter so helpless that Misha found it creepy, understandably. Classic McDonagh moment.

May 8 – Then Saturday afternoon we reconvened at the Public Theater for my second dose of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which I loved again. I really respect the incredible energy of each individual performer, including the musicians, but of course most of all the charismatic Benjamin Walker in the title role. The staging is tremendous, and the play itself continues to impress me with its daredevil juxtaposition of classic American contradictions – generosity and selfishness, smarts and stupidity, victim and bully. Populism, yeah yeah! I understand they’re putting out an original cast album. Can’t wait! Misha had seen an earlier version of the show in Los Angeles and hadn’t cared for it, thought it was sophomoric and shallow. She liked it much better this time, said they’d sharpened the script, and that the addition of Danny Mefford’s choreography made a huge difference. It is sensational. In the lobby, Misha met a ninth-grade girl who was seeing the show for the third time. I can understand that. There’s a heat and energy to the show that’s just delicious to have blasting at you again and again.

Afterwards, I grabbed a falafel and lemonade at Tahini and then made my way to my next gig, a concert called “The Roots of Bach and Beyond” by the Dessoff Choirs at Calvary St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square. Okay, I went because my boyfriend sings with the Dessoff, but I’m so glad I went. It was a beautiful concert, organized and conducted by Patrick Dupré Quigley. The centerpieces were two Bach motets (“Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied” and “Jesu, meine Freude”), one before intermission and one after, each preceded by pieces by composers who influenced Bach: Mendelssohn, Kuhnau, Pachelbel, Schutz, Frescobaldi, and Buxtehude. (I just love saying the name Buxtehude.) Actually, the second half began with “Immortal Bach,” a fascinating, slightly nutty 1988 piece by the Norwegian Knut Nystedt in which the sections hold notes for different intervals. The choir was in fine voice, the acoustics in the church are amazing, and Quigley’s conducting and introductory chats were exemplary. A fine time.

Performance diary: A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE and MR. & MRS. FITCH

March 10, 2010

March 3 – I’m in awe of Martin McDonagh as a playwright for his humor, for his theatricality, for his sly storytelling, and for his sheer mastery at composing sentences that explode in the air. His new play, A Behanding in Spokane, had me from the very beginning and never lost me. First of all, there’s Christopher Walken with his wild hair and ruined face, sitting on the bed in a crappy hotel room with one hand and one stump, looking grim. That gets a laugh all by itself, somehow. The flimsy latticed wardrobe door starts rattling, being kicked by someone apparently bound and gagged inside. That gets a laugh. (The crappy hotel room is beautifully designed by Scott Pask: the wardrobe has been built as an afterthought to the room, without any attention to the wallpaper pattern.) Walken goes to the wardrobe, opens the door, leans in and fires two shots. That gets a laugh. He closes the  door, walks over to the phone, dials a number, and speaks the first line of the play: “Hi, Mom.” Laugh. This insane mixture of menace, goofiness, surprise, and mundanity – the essence of McDonagh’s dramatic universe – may not be everybody’s cup of tea but it’s absolutely mine.

The play occupies a territory midway between David Mamet and Sam Shepard. Like American Buffalo, the play is a caper that involves bumbling low-level thieves, terse sentences, and fast-flying obscenities. Walken’s character, Carmichael, has spent the last 47 years trying to retrieve the hand that a gang of hillbillies chopped off when he was 11 years old. Somehow he ends up in small-town Arizona (?) where two young dumbass pot dealers (Toby and Marilyn, played by Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan) claim to know where they can get his hand for $500. There’s always been a strong connection to Shepard in McDonagh’s plays – as here, at the center is a showdown between two guys who are more or less alter-egos, and there’s a wittily self-conscious theatricality afoot. Carmichael’s unlikely sparring partner is Mervyn (played by Sam Rockwell), the guy who works at the front desk of the hotel. Mervyn, who is quick to insist that he’s NOT “the receptionist” and was apparently doing sit-ups in his boxer shorts when Carmichael arrived to rent the room, is the play’s Fool, meaning he seems like a loser but winds up being the voice of truth and reason, sort of. He’s both a character and a device, the picture pointing to the frame, the writer talking to himself and punching holes in his own story.

The plot is very slight and not especially plausible, but key moments tell us to let go of naturalistic drama and pay attention to McDonagh’s postmodern hijinks. Mervyn first appears at the door to inquire about the gunshots he heard, and after repeating back the ludicrous explanation Carmichael gives him he asks, “Where is this story going to go?” Carmichael says, “We’ll find out as soon as you leave the room.” And although it wouldn’t seem too hard for two energetic kids to run away from a one-handed man, even if the other hand was holding a gun, all Carmichael has to do is whistle and jerk his head and his two captives willingly walk across the room to be handcuffed to heating ducts, as if under a spell. There’s no intermission, but the action is interrupted by an interlude in front of a drawn curtain in which Mervyn steps out to give us his hilariously discursive back-story. It’s a kind of vaudevillean moment that contributes to lifting the play out of the kitchen sink and conjures both Beckett and Brecht. And the scene is written and played in a manner very close to the bravura letter-reading monologue in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the play that introduced us to Martin McDonagh.

Directed by John Crowley, the cast is spectacular – David Zinn called it “the character-actor Olympics,” although as he pointed out, the roles of the two kids are so thinly drawn that you end up feeling sorry for the actors, especially Anthony Mackie, an excellent actor (see him in The Hurt Locker!) who has to spend most of the show playing a stoopid guy with vocabulary that ranges from “motherfuckin’ this” to “motherfuckin’ that.” The New Yorker’s Hilton Als was enraged by the shallow stereotypical nature of the character and Carmichael’s casual racism, and DZ objected to Carmichael’s needling Toby for “crying like a fag.” Somehow those things didn’t bother me – I saw them as part of McDonagh’s edgy examination of theatrical language, which included Marilyn’s hilariously earnest/lame challenging Carmichael for his homophobia and his use of “the n-word.” If anything, I wound up thinking that Mackie and Kazan were miscast. They’re terrific actors, up-and-coming stars (in Ian Rickson’s production of The Seagull last year, she was the best Masha I’ve ever seen), but a little too squeaky-clean to really represent small-town losers. Christopher Walken is, of course, amazing – ceaselessly inventive, scary, present, vulnerable, and as DZ put it, he has the deadest deadpan on earth. I was knocked out by Sam Rockwell’s performance because he goes nose-to-nose with Walken and holds his own without budging, and his performance is a comic triumph of its own.

The show got mixed reviews – Ben Brantley in the Times called it “erratically enjoyable” – but then so did McDonagh’s debut as filmmaker, In Bruges, which I think is one of the funniest and best-written movies of the last decade. David was much cooler toward the play than I was, but we had a good juicy conversation about it over drinks at Angus McIndoe, where McDonagh apparently does all his interviews and post-show drinking. I didn’t see him there, but he was at the theater greeting well-wishers, and I got a kick out of seeing the silver fox in person (see above).

March 5 – DZ called Behanding “the slightest excuse to gather 1000 people in a room,” but that encomium is much more appropriate for Mr. & Mrs. Fitch at the Second Stage, Douglas Carter Beane’s hard-hitting satire about…celebrity journalism. In an attempt at Noel Coward-style brittle and topical comedy of manners, John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle play gossip columnists who drop about 100 literary names to suggest that they’re superior to everybody else. But it’s thin, hasty stuff that recycles old jokes (“Bi now, gay later”) and dispenses with character continuity altogether (one minute She’s avidly encouraging Him to invent a fake celebrity – the play’s major plot point – and the next minute she’s castigating his journalistic ethics for doing so). The funniest idea is that headline writers at the New York Post use “Camptown Races” as the rhythmic model for their creations – you can tell they’ve hit on a classic if you can follow it with “doo-dah, doo-dah!”

March 6 – Andy sings with the Dessoff Choirs, a volunteer group that symphony orchestras job in for massive choral works (like Britten’s War Requiem). Every so often they do a concert by themselves, and this program at Merkin Concert Hall consisted of three contemporary pieces: three Psalms by the recently deceased Lukas Foss, a pretentious and ugly piece by Harold Farberman called Talk inspired by dialogue overheard at an upstate diner, and Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Sonnets, based on a series of poems by Jones Very (1813-1880). The Foss and the Gann at least provided some beautifully lush choral singing, and the two soloists were excellent – tenor Jeffrey Hill and soprano Megan Taylor.

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