Posts Tagged ‘race’

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 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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