Posts Tagged ‘noah baumbach’


November 19, 2019

Another Culture Vulture marathon! (click photos to enlarge)

Thursday night at Soho Rep with for all the women who thought they were   Mad by Zawe Ashton, the British actress and author currently on Broadway in Betrayal. The idea of the play was worthy: a young businesswoman juggling numbers and motherhood struggles to find her way up the corporate ladder while haunted by the voices of the women from her village life back in Africa. The protagonist (ironically named Joy and played by Bisserat Tseggai, below photographed by Julieta Cervantes) occupies a glass-walled cubicle that spins midstage, while her sister-relatives sit, sing, chant, and sprawl around her. I admired the costumes (by Andrew Jean) and the many amazing faces among the female cast (Gibson Frazier has the unenviable task of playing all the smug white men in Joy’s life) directed by Whitney White, but the play’s dry, pretentious language left me out.

Friday night: the Metropolitan Opera’s ravishing production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, staged by Phelim McDermott with production design by Tom Pye, costumes by Kevin Pollard, and knockout performances by Anthony Ross Costanzo in the title role of 14th century BCE Egyptian pharaoh and J’Nai Bridges as his wife Nefertiti, conducted by Karen Kamensek. I agreed with Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review in viewing the opera as ritualistic and mystical; I also agreed with Justin Davidson’s Vulture review referring to the show as the essence of capital-C camp. (To get a sense of what I mean, you only have to read the program’s synopsis of Act I, preferably aloud in the portentous, shouting-to-the-fifth-balcony voice of Zachary James playing the quasi-narrator.)

Unlike both reviewers, I never got tired of watching the team of jugglers (led by choreographer Sean Gandini) whose ball-tossing struck me as a witty and fun visual corollary to Glass’s looping repetitive score.

After a visually trippy-murky first scene of his predecessor being eviscerated and his heart being weighed in relation to a feather, Costanzo as Akhnaten makes his entrance stark naked (with a gold stripe on his forehead) and takes six minutes to descend 12 steps to the stage floor. He prostrates himself, and a troupe of courtiers picks up his rigid body and airlifts it into a pair of pantaloons before snapping him into a giant skirt-cage over which they arrange the most fluffy-gilt Bo Peep costume you can imagine (above, photo by Karen Almond). It’s another several minutes before you hear Costanzo’s amazing countertenor voice break into song (a lot of “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!”).

His love duet with Nefertiti (above) and his “Hymn to the Sun” in Act II are gorgeous, slow, shimmering, staged against large bright symbolic geometric sets. In the course of the opera, Akhnaten’s gender seems to morph. He and Nefertiti both wear gauzy garments over smocks with drawn-on breasts and female genitals; I found myself thinking about punk artist Genesis P-Orridge and his mate Lady Jaye, who underwent a series of cosmetic surgeries in order to resemble one another. But when their six daughters appeared wearing indigo weaves, facelift bandages, and goth-girl makeup looking like refugees from a John Waters movie (see below), I couldn’t help audibly snickering.

I’m glad I saw it, though. Who knows what the regular Met audience made of it. The woman to my right gamely compared-and-contrasted it with Doctor Atomic, John Adams and Peter Sellars’ opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer. The man to my left turned to me afterwards and said, “Give me a one-liner.” I said, “I’m not good at one-liners.” He said, “Give me a two-liner then. I’m puzzled.”

Saturday afternoon: Black Exhibition at the Bushwick Starr, aka “for colored faggots who considered suicide/when feeling invisible in gay paradise.” Five queer black men representing five literary figures (Kathy Acker, Samuel Delaney, Yukio Mishima, Gary Fisher, and Tiger Mandingo – the last not a writer but the guy convicted of having sex without disclosing his HIV+ status) haunt the mind of @GaryXXXFisher (the non-secret pseudonym for Jeremy O. Harris, currently represented on Broadway with his edgy Slave Play) hanging out in Fire Island Pines. “I came here to write and all I did was look…all I did was fuck and cry…all I did was read.” Very incantatory, referencing Suzan-Lori Parks specifically and Ntozake Shange implicitly. Aggressively sexual, even hostile, extremely explicit. In three parts, the third of which takes place in Berlin, where he attends the Laboratory and likens playwriting to being face-down ass-up in a dark room waiting to see if anyone takes an interest.

In this last section Harris lolls about onstage in a jockstrap talking about how tight his hole is, at considerable length. Lots of repetitions of a favorite tweet: “Ooops! Fleet water too hot. I almost made chitlins.” The last literary figure to arrive is Mishima (Miles Greenberg), who seems ready to enact a bondage/flogging scene with Harris/Fisher (above, photo by Sara Krulwich) but suddenly says, “You’re too skinny, I want to see you eat!” Et voila, two tables arrive onstage with gigantic trays of take-out food, and the four other performers chow down – until Harris dashes offstage to the bathroom to purge. It’s a phenomenally raw and honest outpouring.  I appreciated that, except for Frank J. Oliva’s set design (a haunted house version of Pines boardwalks) and Christopher Darbassie’s deep-dub sound design, almost the entire crew are women of color, which is what happens when you have a smart, savvy woman of color director, Machel Ross.

Sunday: first walk through “the new MOMA.”

It was the end of the day, so I only had time to stroll through “Surrounds: 11 Installations” on the top floor, pausing to inspect Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller’s The Killing Machine (above) and Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc. (below).

Among the galleries devoted to new juxtapositions from the permanent collection, I admired Morris Hirshfield’s Inseparable Friends (1941).

David Siqueiros’s trippy textured Collective Suicide (1936) never fails to catch my eye and drag me ten feet.

Then there’s member: pope L., the generous retrospective of this tireless eccentric artist’s multimedia tricksterism.

Along with paintings, drawings, and objects, much of what’s shown documents his ephemeral performances, often nearly naked in public places, as artist-sannyasin. The walls and art works frequently have holes drilled into them, a witty placeholder for what’s holy and what’s missing/unknown/unknowable.

Sunday night: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. A rare peek into the exotic mating rituals of white cisgender heterosexuals. Excellent performances throughout, none more so than the amazing Adam Driver whose finest moment is such a surprise I don’t want to spoil it for you. Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda surpass themselves (a tribute to fine writing and directing) playing contrasting flavors of warrior divorce lawyers. The supporting cast brims with wonderful New York stage actors (Matt Maher! Merrit Wever! Becca Blackwell! Jasmine Cephas Jones! Julie Hagerty! Wally Shawn, perfectly capturing the veteran ensemble actor always boring other company members with his name-dropping tales of long-distant triumphs!). Lovely score by Randy Newman. It’ll be on Netflix any day now, but I was perfectly happy to watch it at the Paris Cinema, the last single-screen theater in Manhattan.

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: medical artwork at the Rubin Museum

July 24, 2015

(click photos to enlarge)

Last Friday Andy and I went to the Rubin Museum of Art for the screening in their Cabaret Cinema series of Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie, a very young Jennifer Connelly, and a million puppets. While milling around with the Friday night K-2 Lounge cocktail crowd and waiting for the movie theater door to open, we took the time to check out the exhibition downstairs of tangkas (Tibetan paintings) related to medical treatment. They’re very beautiful, intricately drawn and inscribed, and frank enough in their depiction of bodily functions to conjure comic books inspired by Hieronymous Bosch.

Take, for instance, this display of “Herbal and Animal Medications”:

7-17 herbal and animal meds tangka7-17 herbal and animal meds detail 17-17 herbal and animal meds detail 2
Other paintings (the equivalent of those anatomical posters doctors display in their examining rooms) focus on “Urinalysis: Demonic Possession and Divination,” “The Lesser Elixir of Rejuvenation and the Causes of Virility and Fertility,” and “Indications of Physical Decay and Dream Prognosis,” any one of which would make a great album title, don’t you think?

7-17 elegant pooping7-17 dream images7-17 animal droppings7-17 menstrual woes7-17 kissing fucking naked
The art exhibit turned out to be more engrossing than the film, sadly. For some reason, Andy thought it was going to be introduced by the team that created High Maintenance, a web series that we like very much, but the more logical speakers before the screening were Henson puppet masters Rollie Krewson and Connie Peterson, who shared their recollections about the technical challenges the film entailed. The movie itself and Bowie’s performance in particular seemed quite silly to me, but it did lead us to the discovery — Googling at home — that Bowie’s juggling double for the scenes with the crystal balls was none other than the magnificent Michael Moschen.

While we’re on the subject of underwhelming films, I’ll mention that I was looking forward to seeing Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young because some reviews mentioned that the characters take part in an ayahuasca ceremony and I was curious to see if it would be handled respectfully or if it would be treated as some sort of trendy spiritual fad. Any guesses? A couple in their thirties — Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts — are getting to the last possible moment of becoming parents. Watching their close friends — played by Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz — settle into baby-centered middle age freaks them out, and they find themselves befriending a couple in their twenties — Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried — and suddenly doing things that the young folks do. It’s pretty predictable and ultimately pretty infuriating. But the casting is great; thanks to the amazing Doug Aibel, you get to see wonderful New York performers in small roles, including the playwright Annie Baker.

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

July 10, 2013



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. 


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.


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: 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.


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.


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.”

Culture Vulture: PIPPIN, NATASHA, MACBETH, ANN, FRANCES HA, and Amy Winehouse

May 27, 2013


5.22.13 My dear friend Misha Berson, a dedicated theater scholar who reviews theater for the Seattle Times, visits New York twice a year and always takes me as her guest to a couple of shows. I got lucky this time – both shows we saw together were terrific. Pippin is not a musical I harbor any great love for. I saw and reviewed the post-Broadway national tour when it arrived in Boston in 1979, but it left no impression on me one way or the other. The current revival has gotten pretty sensational reviews and word-of-mouth. Still, I kept my expectations low and it turned out to be much better than I would have thought possible. I’ve not loved Diane Paulus’s productions of The Donkey Show, Hair, or Porgy and Bess (though I did admire her Laura Nyro jukebox musical, Eli’s Comin’ at the Vineyard Theater) but I thought she did an excellent job staging Pippin. Her central good idea was to hire a Canadian circus company, Les 7 doigts de la main, to create an entirely new and different form of “Magic To Do” than the passel of sexy dancers with which Bob Fosse dressed up the original Broadway production.

The circus performers are fantastic, as are Scott Pask’s circus tent set and Kenneth Posner’s lighting. And the leads are surprising, quirky, and satisfying. At first I thought Matthew James Thomas (whom I liked in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark) was too bland in the title role until I realized that the journey of the play is one of a callow young man moving toward maturity and individuation. Patina Miller (who made a splash in Sister Act) is an intriguing, spiky Narrator – Misha found her “scary,” and indeed at the end when she’s cleared the stage of everyone but Pippin, his wife, and their child, I thought she looked like she was going to eat them. Again, not an unreasonable interpretation of the role. Charlotte D’Amboise and Terrence Mann (married in real life) inhabit their vaudevillean roles like the troupers they are. But the performance that has put this production on the map is Andrea Martin as Pippin’s grandmother. In all my years of theatergoing, I have never seen a performer get a standing ovation in the middle of the first act – Martin does, and she deserves it and the Tony Award that she will undoubtedly walk away with on June 9.

5.24.13 From the glowing reviews it received for its initial limited run last fall, I suspected that I would dig Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 – but then I thought that about Murder Ballad, which left me cold. (Misha, on the other hand, liked Murder Ballad much more than I did, almost certainly because she sat in conventional seating rather than having to wheel around in her onstage cabaret seat all night long, as I did.) Natasha, Pierre is another immersive theatrical experience – the audience sits at cabaret tables and is served dinner and free vodka shots while the show takes place all around them – performed at a special pop-up temporary space you enter on West 13th Street directly under the High Line. It’s cleverly conceived, designed, and staged on the caliber of Sleep No More (and as expensive), and its ambitions are not modest – it’s an adaptation of a chunk of Tolstoy’s War and Peace with an expertly devised text, luscious score, superbly contemporary orchestrations, and leading performance (as Pierre) by Dave Malloy.

Julliard-training Philippa Soo, as Natasha (above), torn between two lovers, is sensationally good – a real star-in-the-making along the lines of Kelli O’Hara and Lea Michele. It’s a rich, intellectually demanding, quietly profound theatrical event – so much so that the eating and drinking distracted me a lot. High praises to director Rachel Chavkin – she and Malloy deservedly took home Obie Awards for their work – as well as to Paloma Young’s luxurious costumes and Matt Hubbs’s engulfing sound design. This show apparently can only run in this space through September 1, and tickets are going to be gone soon. Worth the investment – you’ll remember it long after you’ve forgotten even good Broadway musicals conventionally staged.

5.25.13 Weeks ago, perhaps high on seeing Alan Cumming dazzle Town Hall in concert with Liza Minnelli, I talked Andy and his college buddy Terry into buying tickets to see Cumming’s conceptual one-man performance of Macbeth. Some good omens: it was staged by John Tiffany, whose stagings of Once and The Black Watch were impeccable; and theater-savvy friends who saw early previews found it compelling to hear the text of The Scottish Play spoken by An Actual Scotsman. After the fact, I remembered that I didn’t care much for Cumming and Tiffany’s previous collaboration on The Bacchae, seen at the Lincoln Center Festival a few years ago.

cumming macbeth
This show takes place in a mental institution – it opens with Cumming’s character being examined and relieved of his personal belongings by a crisp, kind female doctor and a kind, burly male nurse. As the other two start to leave the room, Cumming says, “When shall we three meet again…?” and then proceeds to enact a truncated version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, playing all the roles. Nothing new is churned up from doing the play this way, nor do we understand something coherent about the character of the mental patient. All we’re left with, really, is a different way of doing one of Shakespeare’s most (over)familiar plays. And a show in which we witness Cumming’s considerable physical agility without his tremendous comic ability is a bit of a waste. The show felt of a piece with Fiona Shaw’s antic, arid performance art rendition of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

5.26.13 I felt very torn about seeing Ann, the living portrait of former Texas governor Ann Richards written and performed by Holland Taylor at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. I didn’t think the play would be very good; I’m allergic to one-person bio-dramas. Yet several people I trust liked it very much (although I think my friend Dave’s experience of the show got skewed somewhat by sitting behind Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were with Meryl Streep and Gabby Giffords and her astronaut husband). It was on TDF, and my friends Tom and Melissa were game for going, so what the hell, we went, and I found that I liked it much more than I expected I would.

It’s a beguiling performance eerily true to a remarkable woman whose forthrightness and willingness to speak bluntly and truthfully to power made her a hero to many people, including me. (And my mother, who transferred her voter registration from Colorado to Texas just to vote for Richards for governor. Another family connection – Richards grew up in Lakeview, the pitiful lake-free suburb of Waco where we spent five years living in a trailer park while my father was stationed at nearby James Connolly Air Force Base.) The show goes on too long and insists on covering every scrap and tittle of Richards’s life, before and after her one-term governorship. But the middle section is a bravura set piece to match the second act of Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Richards is sitting at her desk signing a pile of documents while fielding a relentless succession of phone calls – employees she yells at, reporters she coos to, children she cajoles – and calling out instructions to her offstage secretary. It’s a pretty good stylized condensation of a day in the life of a charismatic high-powered elected official.


On a break from theatergoing, Mr. David Zinn and I took in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, the new black and white film by the maker of The Squid and the Whale, co-written with Greta Gerwig (his girlfriend), who plays the title role. The film is quirky – always an admirable trait in my book – telling its story in tiny fleet snippets frequently chopped off in such a way as to subvert conventional pleasures. And the story itself undertakes an unreliable-narrator gambit familiar in fiction but hard to pull off in a movie.

frances ha
The narrative revolves around Frances’s friendship with high school chum Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting) but by the end you can’t really tell whether the friendship has grown distant and sour or whether it was a figment of Frances’ imagination all along. Gerwig plays an impetuous, bumbly underachieving twentysomething surrounded by rich kids with more social savvy. Her performance is not meant to be charming, and it’s not – it’s lumpy and awkward. The inevitable comparison, to Lena Dunham’s Girls, does not favor Frances Ha. It’s like a movie centered on the listless house cleaner Aimee Mann plays on Portlandia. Only in beautiful and admirably dark black and white. With Adam Driver in a key role.


For my birthday, someone gave me a copy of the wonderful two-disc Amy Winehouse at the BBC. Disc 1 is a CD containing previously unreleased live recordings of songs from her first two albums; disc 2 is a DVD of a film called The Day She Came to Dingle, documenting Winehouse’s appearance at Other Voices, a festival held in a tiny hall in seaside Ireland. It’s an incredible document – thrilling, shocking, heartbreaking. She performs six songs from Back to Black, which hadn’t yet been released, backed only by a guitar and electric bass – in other words, without the sensational sonic environment and classic horn-heavy R&B arrangements by Mark Ronson.

amy winehouse
In a backstage interview, Winehouse talks about the evolution of her musical taste: from Kylie and Madonna, to hip-hop (Salt ‘n’ Pepa) and jazz (Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk), and only recently to gospel (Mahalia Jackson) and early ‘60s girl groups (the Shangri-Las). The film interpolates archival footage of the people she mentions (including some British acts I’d never heard of – Carleen Anderson and Soweto Kinch). It’s naked and as riveting as any live performance video you’ve ever seen. It was shot five years before she died. She was 22.

In this week’s New Yorker

April 26, 2013

Another week of exemplary reporting. Editor-in-chief David Remnick literally overnight called on his years of experience reporting from Russia to post on the magazine’s website his amazingly thorough, thoughtful, deep Talk of the Town piece on the Tsarnaev brothers and the Chechen culture they came from.

With his typically tenacious reporting and dry-eyed scrutiny, William Finnegan reports (“The Deportation Machine”) the horrific story of Mark Lyttle, a 35-year-old biracial mentally ill American citizen from North Carolina, who  — through a series of bureaucratic mishaps that even Kafka might have considered far-fetched — was deported, shoved across the Mexican border with three dollars in his pocket, and forced to spend four months wandering (sometimes on foot) through Central America until the American Embassy in Guatemala contacted his family and sent him home. Except that he was arrested at the airport in Atlanta under the assumption that his newly issued passport was a fake.

Then there’s Luke Mogelson’s “Letter from Aleppo,” a soul-wrenching dispatch from the bloody midst of Syria’s raggedy civil war. Mogelson’s piece focuses on the people who have assumed the task of burying the corpses that get pulled out of the River Queiq that runs through Syria’s largest city (234 in recent months) and the heavily-traveled bridge on which Syrian Army snipers shoot commuters “in order to bait rebel fighters and would-be rescuers,” except that most of the victims turn out to be women, children, and old men who can’t run fast enough to escape.

I confess that after reading Finnegan’s and Mogelson’s pieces, I was relieved to turn the page and read Ian Parker’s profile of filmmaker Noah Baumbach.

Also in the issue: excellent piece about writing by echt New Yorker staffer John McPhee, who makes a case for the dictionary being a writer’s best friend; a portfolio of pieces (including “Onlookers,” below) by photographer Roger Ballen, whose images fueled Die Antwood’s stunning music video “I Fink U Freeky”; and a column in the Current Cinema department that reminds me that the way to brighten anyone’s day is to read aloud Anthony Lane’s movie reviews out loud.

bollen onlookers

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