Performance diary: Neil Gaiman, BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK, Dessoff Choirs, and GOOD PEOPLE

May 19, 2011

Quick and dirty notes on stuff I saw that I don’t have time to write about in more detail:

April 27 – “Magical Realism: The World of Marvelous Stories with Neil Gaiman” at Symphony Space was Andy’s choice. He’s a huge fan of Gaiman (the deluxe edition of the Sandman series on his bookshelf is testimony to that), whom I know only from seeing the stage and film versions of Coraline, which I enjoyed very much. I’m always impressed by the cool New York actors that show up for these Selected Shorts evening. Tonight it was Marin Ireland, Boyd Gaines, and Josh Hamilton joining Gaiman himself, who is very well-spoken and rock-star hip. The thread through all the stories had to do with stories eating themselves. I especially enjoyed Gaiman’s “The Thing About Cassandra,” performed by Hamilton with a surprise return appearance by Ireland. And the evening was introduced by the legendary Isaiah Sheffer, who does political literary stand-up to match the best of them.

April 30 – went with Misha Berson to a matinee of Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. It’s essentially an essay about how black women in three different eras were affected by Hollywood’s reflections of their lives. It’s well-performed by a good cast (I especially admired Stephanie J. Block as the pampered Gloria Mitchell, Karen Olivo as super striver Anne Mae, and David Garrison as the late ‘60s TV talk-show smoothie Brad Donovan) and well staged by Jo Bonney (with a terrific black-and-white film by Tony Gerber that opens act 2). The first act is often funny watching the ridiculous and humiliating lengths perfectly intelligent black actresses went through to get cast in stupid demeaning roles as housemaids and eye-rolling slaveys. But I can’t say that Nottage conveys anything especially new on the subject, and the second act traffics in tired trashing of academic jargon about pop culture (too easy a target).  The play is nowhere near as original and impressive as her last three – Intimate Apparel, Fabulation, and Ruined – but those three were pretty damned good, so topping them would be a tough job for any playwright.

May 14 – The Dessoff Choirs, which Andy sings with, gave their spring concert at St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square, a fascinating eclectic program called “Dance On! Music for Pianos and Percussion.” The first half consisted of Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” selected “Liebeslieder Waltzes” from Brahms, and a long interesting song cycle for double chorus by the contemporary British composer Jonathan Dove called “The Passing of the Year” set to poems by Blake, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Nashe, and George Peele (my favorite, “Hot Sun, Cool Fire”). The second half contained another odd mixture of pieces by Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, Henryk Gorecki (a gorgeous a capella “Tonus Tuus”), David Conte (“Invocation and Dance,” a setting from Leaves of Grass), and a composer new to me named Gwyneth Walker. The acoustics in the church sounded a little muddy at first but overall the singing was exquisite, conducted by Christopher Shepard.

May 17 – I avoided seeing David Linday-Abaire’s Good People for a long time, because I’ve never liked his plays. I don’t always agree with John Lahr’s opinions, but his review in the New Yorker described this one as Playwriting by Numbers, which is one of my pet peeves. But enough people I respect spoke very highly of Good People, so I broke down and actually bought tickets. The play did bug me, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and trying to figure out why. I know that it bugged me that the play (and/or the production, directed by Daniel Sullivan) seemed to encourage the audience to laugh at and feel superior to the working-class Bostonians portrayed by Frances McDormand, Becky Ann Baker (loved those shaved eyebrows), and Estelle Parsons (loved her costumes by Mr. David Zinn). And the schematic set-up of the second act, which pits McDormand’s tackily dressed Margie (so desperate for a job that she’ll stalk a high-school boyfriend to beg for janitorial work at his office) against the suburban chic of said boyfriend, now a successful doctor with a beautiful young (and black! ooooh!) wife, totally replays God of Carnage’s bogus, self-congratulatory, guilt-trippy drama of class-consciousness. I think what bugged me most was what how thinly drawn the character of the doctor is – we know nothing about what happened to him between high school and Margie’s knocking on his door asking for work, except that he’s kept his (over-broad) Southie accent and married a doctor’s daughter from Georgetown. Meanwhile, we’ve learned a lot of nuanced information about Margie’s life (although the playwright also stacks the deck to make her as put-upon and victim-y as possible). This is lazy, manipulative playwriting. For better and fairer treatment of similar material, look at the plays of Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens). Nevertheless, little scenes stick with me. Except for Tate Donovan, playing the thankless role of Mike, all the actors give terrifically honest performances. I think I was most touched by Patrick Carroll in the smallest role of Stevie, who has to fire Margie from her job at the Dollar Store and takes shit from the peanut gallery because he likes to play bingo.

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