Posts Tagged ‘john lithgow’

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.

From the deep archives: John Lithgow

January 22, 2010

Inspired by running into him at Fela! last week, I decided to post my interview with John Lithgow from my book Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face. The book, published in 1986, was a collaboration with photographer Susan Shacter, who took the fantastic portraits, including this one, which is one of my very favorites in the book.

A little piece of the interview:

“In movies, an actor has to do a great deal more, because directors aren’t accustomed to worrying about it, and their ideas are usually not very concrete. So especially if you’re going to do anything sort of unusual — use an accent or prosthetic makeup or something like that — I feel much better if I get a big head start. For instance, for Buckaroo Banzai I got these rotting pale green teeth and this shocking wig of bright red hair that I went around astonishing my friends with, and I got together with this very sweet little tailor in the MGM costume department with this fabulous thick Sicilian accent. I sat and talked with him for an hour and tape-recorded the conversation to get his accent down.”

You can read the whole interview here.

Performance diary: Mamet and Shepard

January 19, 2010


January 13 – It’s hard to know whether to call Race a classic David Mamet play or a generic one. It recombines familiar elements of previous Mamet plays in a way that inspires multiple and conflicting reactions – which is fitting, I suppose, because that seems to be how he wants audiences to respond. I recognize how individual his voice is at the same time that I feel slightly cheated by his recycling familiar tropes; I witness how he employs a playwriting formula in a way that’s almost cynically mechanical, and yet I can admire the ways in which that formula operates theatrically. At the center of Race are two savvy guys (extremely well-played by James Spader and David Alan Grier) talking tough about their line of work, in this case lawyering. (Their predecessors include the coin thieves in American Buffalo, the real estate hawks in Glengarry Glen Ross, the Hollywood producers in Speed-the-Plow, and the Washington insiders in November, to name a few.) They face off against a hapless customer, in this case a wealthy white businessman (played with suitable stiff unlikeableness by Richard Thomas) accused of raping a young black woman. (This character has echoes of the duped home-buyer in Glengarry, the turkey farmer in November, Bobby in American Buffalo, etc.) And there is The Girl, in this case a young, smart yet untrustworthy legal assistant – an always-thankless role (see precedents in Speed-the-Plow, November, and Oleanna). The wise guys spew volumes of blunt, rude, sometimes outrageous comments about race, sex, politics, law, justice, and truth (some of it reminiscent of November and Wag the Dog, for which Mamet wrote the screenplay). There is a key philosophical contention – that people have a need to confess – that is very familiar from other Mamet works, most notably the film House of Games. And there’s a ruthless way with narrative construction that Mamet is fond of and extremely adept at, throwing in plot reversals and character incongruities that defy logic and often feel extremely manipulative and contrived…and yet they succeed in creating a certain amount of tension in the theater. And in the case of Race, that tension is a reflection of tension in the culture about how sex, race, politics, and justice chase one another round and round the mulberry bush, in service of the American way, if not of truth. I was glad that my friend Misha Berson, visiting theater critic from Seattle, invited me to see the play with her. The last two plot points seemed lame, forced, unbelievable to me, but otherwise I appreciated the play and the performances.

January 15 – I went with Misha to see Fela! – my third time, her first, and she loved it as much as I did. The full house, fervent weekend crowd, and the momentum of a hit show had the cast working up a sweat big-time. I especially enjoyed having the leisure to spend more time watching the individual dancers, who are phenomenal. The show is such a spectacle that it’s easy to take for granted and overlook the choreography, which is not generic at all but amazingly intricate. And I never get tired to taking in every inch of Marina Draghici’s environment (above) and watching how it interacts with each number and the ever-flowing video. We sat in great seats, row G on the aisle, and John Lithgow sat right behind us. So in the processional after the curtain call, all the performers spied him and lit up and high-fived him. There are probably celebs in that seat many nights of the week, but it was fun watching how the actors deal with it. I bought the fancy souvenir program, fanboy that I am, just to drool over the pictures…but they’re from the Off-Broadway production and don’t quite give me the kick I hoped they would. But here’s a tip: if you want a free mp3 download of  the real Fela performing one of his biggest hits, “Zombie,” send an e-mail to felaonbroadway@fela.net and type “free download” in the subject line. You’ll get a reply instantly with a link to the track.

Andy met us afterwards for drinks at Pigalle and to look at the photo research Misha has been doing for her forthcoming book Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination.


January 16 – The University Glee Club of New York hosted the Cornell Glee Club for a concert at Alice Tully Hall that Andy, a fervent Cornell alum, bought tickets for, so I went along, like a good boyfriend. It’s kind of wacky watching a stage full of 100 almost-all-white alter kockers crooning sea chanties and Negro spirituals. The Cornell undergrads were a little crisper and more interesting musically. Their a capella doo-wop subset, the Hangovers, did a lovely rendition of “Fire and Rain.” Both clubs did a couple of numbers together, and then the conductor invited all the Cornell Glee Club alums in the audience to join them onstage for the school cheer and alma mater. Andy, a former Hangover, ran up to the stage as if his pants were on fire. Very sweet, however dorky. There was a black-tie reception afterwards, so we even wore tuxedoes! But the reception looked pretty stodgy so we bailed fast and wound up at Bartini, where Andy’s swimming-team mates were celebrating Win’s birthday. Whew! Talk about packt like a tin of sardines! And when the DJ sprayed the crowd with Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” the three queens next to me went apeshit, practically tossing the furniture in the air with drunken glee. As they left, one of them said to me, “I’m so sorry you had to see that. We don’t get out much….”

January 17 – My final date with Misha Berson for her most recent theatergoing spree sent us to the Atlantic Theater Company for Sam Shepard’s new play, Ages of the Moon. This is the second of two plays Shepard wrote specifically for the actor Stephen Rea to premiere at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s most famous theater. (The previous one, Kicking a Dead Horse, played at the Public Theater last season.) The reviews from Dublin focused on the play’s debt to Beckett, which is fair enough. It’s got minimal action, two guys sitting on a porch in some desolate location philosophizing – not unlike Waiting for Godot, the first play that Shepard ever encountered and that launched his playwriting career. Misha and I both have long, intricate histories with Shepard. Misha came of age as a theater critic in the Bay Area when Shepard was out there in residence at the Magic Theatre, in his pre-Jessica Lange days. And I wrote a biography of Shepard that was first published in 1985, then again in a revised edition in 1997. I can’t really encounter any of Shepard’s work with any other perspective than that of The Biographer, and given what I know, all his writing comes across as intricately autobiographical.

As with David Mamet (see above), Shepard has a certain formula that he returns to repeatedly. His writing has virtually always been a dialogue with himself. At the center of many, many, many of his plays are two guys bantering – True West is the best-known, and a perfect example of one male ego split into two parts, one sort of polite and erudite, the other ornery and given to bursts of macho violence that would be tired clichés if they weren’t so comically lame. Ages of the Moon harks back to Shepard’s very earliest plays, Cowboys and Rock Garden (his first double-bill in New York City), both two-handers, but forwarded now to middle age. All of Shepard’s writing these days (including his prose, like the new collection Days Out of Days, which Walter Kirn reviews on the front page of today’s Sunday NY Times Book Review) chronicles the restlessness of his soul, barely acknowledging his 30-year relationship with Lange and his movie stardom (he’s made 50 movies, most recently playing Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire’s father in Brothers) but reflecting his incessant cross-country drinking, driving, and guilty womanizing. Ages of the Moon begins, like any number of Shepard’s plays, with the main character, Ames (Rea), having summoned his best buddy, Byron (Sean McGinley), to his side to commiserate over the latest, always seemingly irreconcilable blowout with his woman. This time she found scribbled on his fisherman’s map a woman’s name and phone number, a woman Ames can barely remember and would never ever think of calling up “even for a minor blowjob.”

These two guys sit drinking bourbon all day long, waiting for the total eclipse of the moon, as Ames rambles through a disjointed remembrance of his beloved, how they met and cemented their relationship, including a wacky story involving Roger Miller. In advance, it sounded like thin soup, and I suppose it is, relatively speaking, but I was surprised at how much it held my interest, thanks to no small degree to the Irishmen who staged (Jimmy Fay) and performed it. Rea is a wonderfully haggard actor, perfectly suited to span the gap between Beckett and Shepard, and McGinley, who’s new to me, is sensational in what could be a thankless second-banana role. Although the characters are absolutely American, holed up in a cabin somewhere in Virginia or Kentucky, framed by country music classics, the Irish/Beckett flavor seeps out in their synchronized bourbon-sipping and their wry humor, understated where American actors would be tempted to amp up the slapstick.

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