Posts Tagged ‘douglas carter beane’

Culture Vulture: Steve Kazee, THE NANCE, THE DESIGNATED MOURNER, Edmund White on Rimbaud, and more

July 10, 2013

CULTURE VULTURE

MUSIC

7/4/13 – Since I’m not a big fan of flag-waving, fireworks, and/or hot dogs, I was happy to spend part of my Fourth of July evening at the Stone, the tiny storefront music venue founded by John Zorn deep in the heart of the East Village at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C. The place is very basic and stripped-down – it sells no refreshments and no merchandise, just music, with a very cheap door charge ($15 tonight). Different musicians curate a whole series of performances each week. This week’s honcho was Eyvind Kang (below center), who has played violin and viola with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Bill Frisell. He lives in Vashon, WA, with his wife Jessika Kenney, a spectacularly talented singer who often appears as a guest for concerts of Javanese gamelan given by the group I play with, Gamelan Kusuma Laras.

7-4 jessika eyvind hidayat honari
For this occasion, the two of them were joined by tar and setar player Hidayat Honari for a program called “Rokh-e Khåk (رخ خاک),” an hour of classical Persian music – new, old, and improvised tunes with texts taken from the poetry of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian mystic. I know Hafiz’s work mostly from the sly, ecstatic English versions by Robert Bly. It was utterly transporting to hear this trio perform this music and to experience Jessika’s amazing, soulful voice communing with ancient Arabic. Apparently, the three of them all study with the same Persian master. It was a sweltering night, so Eyvind thoughtfully created an intermission after half an hour to turn the air conditioning and fan on for a while before resuming.

54 Below Press Preview - Barbara Cook, Steve Kazee & Jonathan Tunick With Rebecca Faulkenberry

7.8.13 — Handsome and talented Steve Kazee’s warm, expressive voice made him a star on Broadway and won him the Tony Award for Once, so I was excited to see his cabaret act at 54 Below. He appeared onstage with his four-piece rock band, the Shiny Liars, two guys (on bass and drums) and two gals (Elizabeth Davis, his fellow Once cast member who’s married to the bass player, and singer-songwriter Lora-Faye Whelan) and performed a set of all original material, which was okay but not especially memorable. He made it a point to tell the audience right away he wouldn’t be singing any songs from Once, and later he mentioned that any women he encountered on OK Cupid who mentioned seeing him in the show would instantly be blocked – which I thought was weirdly hostile. There is something strangely uneasy about his personality – he seemed surprisingly insecure, couldn’t believe how quiet and attentive the audience was, kept apologizing for using swear words, fretted about not having enough material to fill an hour-long show, and floated several negative comments he imagined audience members might be thinking, which came off as defensive, paranoid, not very attractive. Except for a tune about his mother (who died shortly after Once opened on Broadway), much of his material consisted of romantic break-up numbers or “Fuck you” songs, and a picture of him started to form as a bitter, arrogant dick. I’d prefer to believe that he was just very very nervous, and when I went online to check out his website I noted that he had to leave Once prematurely because of an injury to his vocal cords, which would make any rising star pretty unhappy, I should think. 

DVD

greenberg
Greenberg  — I’m fascinated by Noah Baumbach without feeling obliged to see every single one of his films. I caught up with Greenberg via Netflix mostly out of curiosity because it apparently brought about the end of his marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh (whom I admire tremendously) and the beginning of his relationship with Greta Gerwig, about whom I have not formed a definitive opinion. She’s strange-looking, sort of pretty and sort of lumpy, a little like Lena Dunham, although more than anything else she reminds me of Aimee Mann. Gerwig is a brave soul, willing to throw herself into roles that require awkward and unpleasant self-exposure. Actually, that might be a perfect description of the Noah Baumbach School of Cinema: awkward and unpleasant self-exposure. Greenberg certainly demands plenty of that from Ben Stiller, who plays the eponym, a disagreeable chap who’s younger and better-looking yet even more neurotic than any Woody Allen character ever. The running joke of the movie is that he incessantly writes complaint letters. Interesting, quirky film. I liked it, didn’t love it.

Yvonne Furneaux, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Valentina Cortese, and Anna Maria Pancani (from left to right) in a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni's LE AMICHE (1955)

Yvonne Furneaux, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Valentina Cortese, and Anna Maria Pancani (from left to right) in a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s LE AMICHE (1955)

Le Amiche – Whatever qualities you might associate with Antonioni (long, slow, taciturn, full of dry and not especially sensual shots of women’s naked backs) do not characterize this early (1955) black-and-white film (whose title in English is “The Girlfriends”). It’s screwball-comedy fast with people talking nonstop with the kind of peculiar, fleetly observed comic behavior more familiar from early Fellini and the visual luxuriousness of Max Ophuls, dominated with remarkably strong female characters, many of them modern businesswomen whose romantic interactions with hunky but emotionally immature men don’t follow predictable narrative contours. Some of the acting stays soap-opera shallow but mostly I found the movie riveting and bracing.

THEATER

the nance

7.5.13The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s newest play produced by Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway, honorably intends to convey two lessons about gay history to younger generations: 1) there was a time not so very long ago (the play is set in 1937) when the socially repressive policies we hear about in places like Uganda and Iraq pertained in New York City – gay guys could get arrested just for cruising other men in public; and 2) at the very same time, behavior that was deemed socially unacceptable and legally sanctioned played for laughs on burlesque stages, where the strippers, novelty acts, singers, and vaudevillean comics sometimes incorporated “queer doings,” skits and sketches featuring campy clownish depictions of effeminate men (fairies, pansies, or nances, in the parlance of the day). I’m familiar with the cinematic equivalents of these caricatures, played by the likes of Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton, but I don’t know much about this stage history. Beane apparently extrapolated the germ of his play from some pages in the classic history book Gay New York by George Chauncey; as a tip of the hat, he named the title character (played by Nathan Lane) Chauncey Miller. The play that contains these history lessons unfortunately comes across as a clumsy mixture of musical comedy, romance, and social commentary, with a lot of contemporary political attitudinizing retroactively laden onto a period piece. The politically conservative Chauncey proudly proclaims himself a Republican – but the term had a very different political meaning in the ‘30s and didn’t invite the same sort of badge-wearing it does today. And the romance between Chauncey and Ned, a young guy from the sticks he picks up at the Automat (played by Jonny Orsini), never feels authentic – Beane shoves them around to dramatize the conflict between monogamy-minded nesters (Ned) and intimacy-averse promiscuous guys (Chauncey).

7.6.13Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner takes place in a world that looks similar to ours and yet scary and alien at the same time. The government and the military have started to merge, and intellectual life is coming under siege, at first with occasional and remote acts of repression that become more frequent, more brutal, and closer to home. Shawn himself plays Jack, the title character, the hapless narrator of this tale from his perspective – both intimate and envious — just outside a literary social circle that revolves around Howard (Larry Pine), a prominent poet and the father of Jack’s wife Judy (Deborah Eisenberg). It’s one of the most impressive plays I’ve ever encountered – dense, deep, dark, disturbing, and yet in Andre Gregory’s production at the Public Theater it’s also amazingly entertaining, funny, and theatrical. The same cast and crew did this show at a disused gentleman’s club in the financial district in 2000 for an audience of 30 every night. The production at the Public looks and feels quite different and yet equally intimate and impressive. It’s so easy to think of Wally Shawn as an enjoyable character actor in lots and lots of movies – with this production, it’s impossible not to be bowled over by the mastery of his performance, all the more spectacular because it’s not especially showy or dramatic. Yet his energy and focus and how he manages to surf the play’s mind-boggling swerves from domestic chitchat to philosophical exploration to reporting of horrendous events to smug self-blindness is utterly remarkable. Pine and Eisenberg do equally impressive, haunted performances under difficult circumstances — they are onstage, often silent, always implicated.

designated mourner playbill
I think anyone who cares about theater of substance will want to see this play. I’ve already bought tickets to see the show again. If you don’t live in New York so can’t see the play live, you might be interested to know that there is a radio version of the play available online here: http://www.wnyc.org/articles/arts/2006/jul/18/the-designated-mourner/. And there is a film version of the London premiere production, which is directed by the playwright David Hare and stars none other than Mike Nichols.

At the Public Theater, I was fascinated to observe how Wally makes himself available after the show. He’s just given a relentless and intense three-hour performance, and yet as the audience files out of the theater, there he stands, smiling and open to meeting and greeting anyone who cares to approach. I’ve known him for 30 years and was happy to chat and praise his performance, and he graciously introduced me to Andre Gregory, whom I’d never met and whose work I also cherish. But I also enjoyed observing the different ways that audience members interact with him – from the earnest young theater scholar who’s clearly composed an entire essay about the playwright’s work that he intently wants to share on the spot to the individual who stands 10 feet away and snaps a flash photo without asking. Andy was tickled to meet Wally and also a little weirded out that we’ve now seen three shows at the Public Theater that ended without curtain calls for the actors.

ART

I tried once again to check out Random International’s popular environmental piece Rain Room at MOMA, but even at 9:00, half an hour before the museum opened for Member Early Hours, there were already 50 people in line, which meant standing in the queue for at least an hour, and frankly I just don’t have the stamina to wait that long. That’s how I missed Christian Marclay’s The Clock and the Alexander McQueen show at the Met, and I never even got in line to lock eyes with Marina Abramovic. I’m delighted for the success of these cutting-edge art spectacles, but this waiting in line things seems geared to…whom? People who grew up standing in line for rides at Disney World? Apparently the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim is also massively popular and you pretty much have to build in at least half an hour of waiting time.

BOOKS

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Edmund White’s Rimbaud – I love the whole concept of Brief Lives, the series of short biographies of important people crafted by distinguished contemporary writers that editor/author James Atlas has shuttled around to various major publishers. They are really extended biographical essays rather than definitive histories with footnotes and index – which makes them compulsively readable. I very much enjoyed Wayne Koestenbaum’s Andy Warhol and Edmund White’s Marcel Proust, which came out under Penguin’s imprint, and I just happily gobbled up White’s Rimbaud – The Double Life of a Rebel, another perfect pairing of biographer and subject. Certainly, Rimbaud’s short life lends itself to a succinct biography – he only wrote poetry for four years as a teenager, published in two slim volumes. White began his publishing career writing encyclopedia entries for Time-Life Books, a job that you could say developed and/or exploited his gift for synthesizing vast swatches of information into elegant, witty, erudite prose. Here he digests everything written by and about Rimbaud (doing all the French translations himself) in fewer than 200 small pages. Whether evaluating Rimbaud’s best poems, detailing his love affair with Paul Verlaine, or tracking his dizzyingly peripatetic post-poet life, White’s commentary is informed without being boringly academic or scholarly, and it frequently betrays his own personal touches and obsessions. He notes with amusement that, after his affair with Verlaine made him persona non grata among the culturati of Paris, Rimbaud befriended a diminutive poet named German Nouveau who in letters referred to Rimbaud not by name but simply as “Thing” (“Chose”), as in “Miss Thing.” And a discussion of Verlaine’s medical examination to determine whether he has had anal intercourse veers into this digression:

“If the reader imagines that such examinations belong to the era of pseudoscience in the nineteenth century, he or she should be reminded that in the English town of Cleveland, from January to June 1987, more than five hundred children were forcibly removed (sometimes during midnight raids) from their parents’ homes by social workers because two doctors had determined that they’d all been buggered by their fathers. The doctors were using the highly questionable ‘anal dilation test,’ a sort of inserted balloon. If the children couldn’t grip the balloon with enough force, the doctors determined that they’d been anally violated. Soon there were no more foster families or hospital rooms in the entire region for the ‘victims.’ Ultimately the tide of opinion shifted against the doctors and most of the cases were thrown out of court. The whole unsavory episode was seen as a modern instance of a Salem witch trial. Verlaine’s examination by ‘experts’ had no more validity and revealed the same sort of disgusting prurience. As a result of it, curiously enough, we know more about the condition of his penis and anus than we do about the intimate anatomy of any other major poet of the past.”

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.

Quote of the day: THEATER

January 28, 2010

You know, theater. That thing that movie people do when they want to announce they’re available for television.

— Douglas Carter Beane, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch

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