Posts Tagged ‘lanford wilson’

From the deep archives: Jeff Daniels

March 24, 2016

I almost never listen to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the goofy NPR talk-radio game-show, but I happened to catch a replay of the December episode whose celebrity guest was Jeff Daniels. It reminded me what a great talker he is, voluble and hilarious and pretty unfiltered. He’s appearing on Broadway now in David Harrower’s play Blackbird, which he first performed a few years ago at Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage I at City Center, whose aged subscription audiences left something to be desired. Daniels quoted Amy Sedaris as saying about that particular theater, “It sleeps 300.”

jeff daniels CITA 001

I interviewed Daniels in 1985 for Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face, the book I did with photographer Susan Shacter. (That’s her portrait of him above.)  He was one of the liveliest of the 55 men I interviewed for the book. You can read the published interview online here. There’s one story he told me that I didn’t include in the book. He always talks about revering the playwright Lanford Wilson and meeting him on his first day ever in New York City. What he doesn’t always tell people is that when he first met Wilson, the playwright greeted him by immediately sliding his hand down the back of Daniels’ pants, slipping a finger into his butthole for a quick goose, and saying, “Hi!” That’s one way of saying Welcome to New York!

Performance diary: THE FLICK, KINKY BOOTS, THE MOUND BUILDERS, and Liza Minnelli & Alan Cumming

March 21, 2013

3.2.13 – THE FLICK. In the last five years, Annie Baker has distinguished herself among young playwrights by zeroing in on the minute particulars of mundane lives and mining them for drama with a richness that bears comparison to Beckett (with whom she shares a reverence for silence) and Chekhov (whose Uncle Vanya she adapted for a production at Soho Rep that was one of last year’s best). The settings are unpromising. Circle Mirror Transformation took place entirely within the confines of a small-town community drama workshop in Vermont. The Aliens happened on the back porch employees’ smoking deck of a restaurant in the same town, next to the dumpster. Baker’s latest, The Flick (at Playwrights Horizons through April 7), depicts a decrepit, barely populated movie theater in Bumfuck, Connecticut, one of the last in the country to project celluloid rather than digital films. Two of the three main characters – black teenage movie nerd Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) and head usher Sam (the mesmerizing Matthew Maher) — spend the better part of three hours sweeping popcorn off the floor (the set designed by David Zinn immaculately recreates, let’s stay, one of the dingy theaters at the Quad) and pining for the projectionist, a girl in her twenties named Rose with long hair dyed washed-out green (Louisa Krause). Beautifully staged by Baker’s frequent collaborator Sam Gold, the production takes its perverse, pokey time telling this story, and plenty of people bailed at intermission, but I was riveted the whole time and by the end felt like I had witnessed these characters’ entire lives. There were one or two moments I didn’t quite buy, but they didn’t take away from my respect and enjoyment of the endless movie gab, Zinn’s dowdy costumes, and Jane Cox’s lighting, which tells its own story.

the flick

 Incidentally, the Playwrights Horizons website offers a bunch of cool additional info on the play: an interview with the playwright, an interview with Matt Maher, and a fascinating video about the set and props for the show, revealing how they keep the debris that the usher sweep up looking like “first-run trash” and how they avoid attracting mice (shellack the popcorn). If you “follow” Playwrights Horizons on SoundCloud, you can listen to podcasts of interviews with a whole slew of playwrights and other artists who’ve worked at the theater in the last five years — very cool.

3.8.13 – KINKY BOOTS. Based on the 2005 British movie about a family shoe factory saved from bankruptcy by reinventing itself as manufacturer of fetishy footwear for fierce drag queens, the musical Kinky Boots marks Cyndi Lauper’s debut as a Broadway composer, with book by Harvey Fierstein, directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. With that creative team, it should be the most fun show on Broadway this season, right? I’m bummed to announce that it is not. The first act held my interest, even though the only song that really stood out was “The History of Wrong Guys,” the first trace of certified Cyndi Lauper-ism in the score, sung by the delightful Annaleigh Ashford. At intermission, Andy admitted that he had a headache from trying to love the show and failing. The second act fell apart – the creators didn’t trust the story on its own terms so ladled on a lot of sentimental preaching about what makes a man a man and accepting people for who they are. Two back-to-back Big Numbers stop the show dead in its tracks – super-earnest “The Soul of a Man,” sung by Stark Sands (a good actor but surprisingly bland as the factory owner), and what shockingly was staged to look like this show’s version of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” as performed by a drag queen at a nursing home, at the end of which said drag queen makes a bathetic speech to the audience, confessing abjectly “I am…a man.” Except for that mawkish scene, Billy Porter as Lola had the audience eating out of his hand – he’s a great performer and it’s nice to see him polishing up his Broadway star. We saw the show about halfway through previews. Undoubtedly there will be changes. Enough to make the show really fly? Much as I admire Jerry Mitchell as a fun pop choreographer who came up the ranks as a dancer himself, as a director he’s no Tommy Tune or Michael Bennett, or not yet anyway. I suspect a stronger directorial hand was needed to help shape this material.

3.10.13 – THE MOUND BUILDERS is one of Lanford Wilson’s rarely performed plays. I’d never seen it, and I’m grateful to Signature Theater for programming it. Wilson was a master at creating complicated group narratives, partly the legacy of his intimate collaboration with the exceptional acting ensemble of Circle Repertory Company. Intelligent, energetic, highly skilled naturalistic actors like Tanya Berezin, Jonathan Hogan, Trish Hawkins, Joyce Reehling, Amy Wright, and William Hurt gave Wilson state-of-the art tools to work with in dramatizing the light and shadows of human beings. The Mound Builders won him an Obie Award when it premiered in 1975, and when I interviewed him for Rolling Stone he told me it was his favorite among all his plays. The story revolves around a group of hotshot archaeologists unearthing a Native American burial ground in southern Illinois on a site whose prospects for commercial development have the local residents dreaming of life-changing windfalls. Characters who are academics and writers give Wilson license to unleash the dense, smart dialogue he does best, and each of them has a distinct world-view and a personality strong enough so that the audience is constantly being thrown off-guard and having to reconsider where the story is going. Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard unmistakably lurks in the background but Wilson gives the theme of class conflict a particularly American spin, with plenty of ambisexual juice below and above the surface. I thought Jo Bonney did a fine job staging The Mound Builders for Signature and coaxing good performances especially from Danielle Skraastad, Will Rogers, and Zachary Booth, whom I didn’t even recognize as one of the stars of Ira Sachs’ film Keep the Lights On until Tom pointed it out to me at intermission.

mound builders

3.13.13 – LIZA MINNELLI & ALAN CUMMING at Town Hall. Daniel Nardicio, a nightlife entrepreneur who specializes in underwear parties, produced a concert on Fire Island last summer pairing Liza Minnelli and Alan Cummings that was a big hit, so he booked Town Hall for a two-night return engagement. ‘Twas quite a scene. There were one or two homosexuals in the audience. As for the show: he was absolutely charming, and she was a wreck, hobbling around with an injured ankle and gasping for breath, none of which staunched the tidal wave of Liza Love pouring from the audience. After they did a medley from Chicago (“Nowadays” and “Class”), she toddled offstage and he did his act, the high points of which included: Adele’s “Someone Like You” (mashed up with Lady Gaga’s “On the Edge of Glory” and Katy Perry’s “Fireworks”), “Falling Slowly” from Once, an Elvis Costello song mashed up with Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind,” and a medley from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (“Wicked Little Town/Wig in a Box”). He’s handsome and sexy and graceful and utterly endearing. As a storyteller, he’s the world’s best talk-show guest, dishy and revealing and funny. Recalling their triumph last summer, he said, “Liza Minnelli in Cherry Grove…it was like a papal visit. If you can imagine the Catholic Church filled with homosexuals…Don’t cry for me, Argentina!” Without pause for intermission, Liza came out and sang her greatest hits, one after another: “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time,” “The World Goes Round,” even “Liza with a Z,” which ought to be retired by now. Her voice is shot; she doesn’t bother to even reach for the big notes. I found it hard to watch her, with her strange twitchy body habitus. But I’ll never forget how great she was on film in Cabaret and New York, New York.

R.I.P.: Doric Wilson

May 10, 2011

Doric Wilson, who died Saturday May 7 at the age of 72, was virtually unknown to mainstream America, even to most theater people. But within the world of Off-Off-Broadway and post-Stonewall gay theater, he was a pioneer. He was one of the young out gay playwrights who made the legendary Caffe Cino his artistic home in the 1960s (along with Lanford Wilson and Robert Patrick), and in 1974 he founded the first gay theater in the United States, The Other Side of Silence (TOSOS). He had a tremendous influence on me as a young theater critic and baby gay liberationist hungry for historical touchstones.

We met in the summer of 1976, when I interviewed him and John Glines (separately) for a series of articles about gay theater for Boston’s Gay Community News. I was an earnest, starry-eyed 22-year-old Boston University student at the time, and I ended up publishing a rambling Q&A with Doric in GCN that strikes me now as embarrassingly naïve. But it was true that, as I wrote in the introduction, “As a person, Wilson is not ‘sort of’ anything – he is extremely intelligent, well-read, opinionated, headstrong, garrulous, and energetic.” Among the things that impressed me about Doric was his outspoken critique of gay homophobia, his willingness to describe himself unapologetically as “very promiscuous,” his openness as a leatherman, his refusal to distance himself from gay bar culture, and his frankness in articulating the subliminal ways that sexual attractiveness affects the way people interact professionally.

I don’t think anyone in the press had ever paid such close attention to Doric. I think he was flattered by my attention, as I was flattered by his openness (and his flirtatiousness, which led to the inevitable and inevitably anticlimactic one-night stand). Every time I saw him after that, he went right back into lengthy expostulation, as if I were still interviewing him, as if I were his personal historian, which was a little bit charming at first but quickly grew wearying. For all I know he did that with everyone. A large man physically and energetically, Doric spoke with a resonant, commanding voice as if addressing the multitudes, even in intimate circumstances.

In some ways, I was glad to take on the mantle of gay theater historian, because I had an ardent interest, particularly in the early days of Off-Off-Broadway. And I admired Doric’s plays (such as A Perfect Relationship and Forever After) for their willingness to depict the mundane aspects of gay life and romance with directness and humor as well as a sturdy but unpretentious theatricality. He liked to emulate the epigrammatic wit of Noel Coward but he also incorporated the casual way drag queens talk directly to the audience.

In 1977, I wrote a review of Doric’s play The West Street Gang for The Advocate, the national gay newsmagazine. (It was reprinted in Mark Thompson’s Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement.) The play addressed the topical issue of gay-bashing and was performed site-specifically at the Spike, a leather bar in the West 20s, an area quite vulnerable to late-night attacks by marauding haters. Similarly, his play about the Stonewall uprising, Street Theater, premiered at the notorious Mineshaft and has a history of productions staged in funky gay bars. I was proud to include Street Theater in my anthology of gay and lesbian plays, Out Front, published in 1987 by Grove Press.

At a Queer Theater Conference in 1995, I moderated a panel discussion among several ground-breaking artists about the emergence of an out theater aesthetic. (A redacted transcript of this discussion appeared in The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater, edited by Alisa Solomon and Framji Minwalla, who convened the conference for CLAGS.)  Doric was the grand old man on the panel, and he spoke very personally about his background with details I had never encountered anywhere else:

“I came to New York in 1958 from a ranch in Washington State. I did not come to New York in the cowboy style of the seventies. In the fifties, if you came from a ranch in Washington State, you came to New York trying to look like Noel Coward, and I looked as much like Noel Coward as I could. I’ve always been out. I grew up in a sort of pioneer family in a very unpopulated pioneer country, at that time, in Washington, the Five Cities.
There weren’t any five cities when I grew up. There were only two cities. But my grandfather had more or less founded the county, and built the roads and what-have-you.
So, I had that wonderful old-time American arrogance of pioneers, that it didn’t matter what I did, nobody had a right to say anything to me. So I came out in school. I came out because a friend who was gay killed himself when he realized that he was about to be discovered, and I decided I wasn’t a good enough shot to kill myself, so I’d better come out…
I came to New York to be a set and costume designer, but I was so naïve, I had no idea where one studies set and costume design. So I was used as an actor. I did any number of stock productions of Auntie Mame as young Patrick Dennis. My roommate at the time was a straight English actor and I wrote a play for a little theater workshop that we were in, an Adam and Eve play called And He Made a Her.
An actress in that company had just done a Tennessee Williams play at this coffeehouse on Cornelia Street in the Village. Now those of you who know New York City and know Cornelia Street know that it runs for one block. In the early sixties, what is now the West Village was almost part of Little Italy. It was not part of Bohemia.
So, the Caffe Cino was really more in Little Italy environment than New Bohemia. This actress, Regina Oliver, took me down to the Cino, introduced me to this short, impish, round man behind the counter: Joe Cino, who always had one hand on the arm of the cappuccino machine or ringing a bell to start the performance, so I always see Joe Cino with one arm in the air. I started to hand him the play while he was making a sandwich and making cappuccino. He opened the notebook, and he said, “Three weeks from now, on Friday,” and closed the notebook and pushed the play away. I turned to Regina and said, “What does that mean?” She said, “That’s when you open.” From that point on, we all just did plays at the Cino. Lanford [Wilson], myself, Tom Eyen – we all wrote gay plays there, but it never occurred to us that’s what we were doing. We also wrote bad plays there. Joe was completely open.
The other side of the coin was critics. In the sixties it was a problem if you were known as an out gay playwright. There were theaters that would not do your work. The most important of them was the Public Theater. Most of the Cino playwrights were not done at the Public. But we had the Cino.”

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