Posts Tagged ‘the new group’

Culture Vulture: ONE IN TWO, FEFU AND HER FRIENDS, HALFWAY BITCHES GO STRAIGHT TO HEAVEN, and other plays

December 11, 2019

For a three-actor one-set 85-minute no-intermission play, there’s A LOT going on in Donja R. Love’s one in two, which just opened in a production by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Theater.

It’s part of the single most exciting development in contemporary American theater, the explosion of productions by playwrights of color who are not only telling stories we otherwise wouldn’t be hearing but conveying them in convention-smashing, formally inventive ways that are reconfiguring our fundamental ideas of what theater can be. As a 60-something white cismale theater maven, I love watching the trickle of once-a-generation innovators like Maria Irene Fornes, Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Young Jean Lee turn into a torrent of fiercely talented, jaggedly individual poets of time-space-language (Jackie Sibblies Drury, Aleasha Harris, and Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, to name just a few of an emerging fertile crop). Donja R. Love belongs to a subset of that group, the tribe portraying queer black male experience with tremendous courage, humor, and sexual honesty (cf. Robert O’Hara, Jeremy O. Harris, and Michael R. Jackson). Even within that group, Love steers into a much smaller subset of writers dealing with the ongoing impact of HIV on black gay lives; most of the others that come to my mind (Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint) were swept away at the height of the epidemic.

The title refers to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016 that chillingly asserts that “one in two Black gay men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.” (By comparison, the stats are one in eleven for white gay or bisexual men, one in four for gay or bisexual Latino men.) Numbers figure heavily in the play. When the audience enters, the three actors sit silently on the austere white set (by Anulfo Maldonado) under screens racking up numbers at an alarming rate. When the play starts, their first action is to “take a number” like from a deli counter, and then they engage the audience in an applause-o-meter process of deciding which of them will play characters #1, #2, and #3. Jacobs-Jenkins used a similar ploy with his play Everybody, in which certain roles were assigned by lottery, but after seeing one in two it’s even more mind-boggling to realize that all three actors have the entire script memorized and are ready to play any of the characters at a moment’s notice.

The main character, #1, has a name (Donté), while the other two actors play all the people he encounters on his journey from HIV diagnosis through all the hurdles of denial, depression, telling your family, getting treatment, joining a support group, contemplating suicide, negotiating hook-ups, the solace of substances. These fleetly morphing scenes are skillfully staged by Stevie Walker-Webb with minimal props and Cha See’s evocative, precise lighting. At the performance I saw, chubby, dark-skinned Edward Mawere played #1 (below, right, photos by Monique Carboni), while willowy, light-skinned Jamyl Dobson was #2 (below, left) and buff, scruffy Leland Fowler was #3. All three were excellent, brave, and beyond vanity. One provocative aspect of the show is contemplating how different certain scenes might have looked if the roles were switched around.

A statement by the playwright, handed out with the program as the audience leaves, reveals to what extent the play is autobiographical and how much speaks for the community of his peers. Because like the earliest AIDS plays (I’m thinking of William M. Hoffman’s As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart),  one in two functions as potentially life-saving community education. It’s easy to be blasé about HIV these days. I mean, everyone knows it’s evolved into a manageable chronic disease, treatable like diabetes, right? And everyone knows that there’s this miraculous new drug regimen called PREP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) that pretty much guarantees you will never contract HIV, right? Well…not so fast. Not everybody has the same access to information, resources, community support, and internal wherewithal.

Watching the play I was haunted by a disturbing op-ed piece by a young black gay writer named Daryl Hannah that ran in the New York Times in September 2017 with the headline “Why Anti-HIV Medicine Isn’t For Me.” Much as I wanted to argue with Hannah, I couldn’t contest his personal feeling of lacking a community of peers with whom he could sort out his anxieties and hesitations, any more than I could dismiss the widespread suspicion the black Americans have toward doctors and Western medicine, given the Tuskegee syphilis trials and other hideous historical abuses. And not just black Americans. Hannah’s op-ed piece appeared the same week that the supernaturally gifted theater composer Michael Friedman died of AIDS at age 41. You would think such a death would be preventable in this day and age, in New York City…and yet I just heard another sad story of a biracial 32-year-old suicide in Brooklyn, too isolated and too scared to share his HIV status with his family.

one in two doesn’t traffic in preachiness or Pollyanna attitudes. It lays out messy scenes from Donté’s dilemma in the manner of Brechtian lehrstücke (learning-plays). I can imagine a peer-group discussion minutely dissecting the scene in which Donté fumbles his way through questions about disclosure and condom use with a Grindr hookup who calls himself Trade Hung Like Horse Underscore 99 (one of many hilariously meta touches in the play).

The playwright impressively omits easy conclusions. As soon as I saw the set, I noticed there were no exits onstage. Besides referencing Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist drama, Maldonado’s set also reminded me of Adrian Piper’s stark-white installation What It’s Like, What It Is #3, with its evocation of prison surveillance panopticons. And the play doesn’t wrap things up with a tidy ending because, guess what, the story of HIV isn’t over.

Other Culture Vulture expeditions in brief: among the seven other shows I saw in the last two weeks, the only one that really left me cold was 32 rue Vandenbranden by the Flemish company Peeping Tom at the BAM Next Wave Festival, an acting-school exercise in competing for attention onstage. I didn’t love Jagged Little Pill, the Alanis Morissette musical on Broadway I had such high hopes for (mainly out of admiration for book writer Diablo Cody), though I completely dug Lauren Patten’s understated performance as teenage lesbian Jo, whose literally show-stopping rendition of “You Oughta Know” (above, photo by Matthew Murphy) has Tony Award written all over it. (Director Diane Paulus engineered that for Andrea Martin in her staging of Pippin.) Oskar Eustis’s revival of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day at the Public Theater is as clunky and unsatisfying as the original was, but Crystal Lucas-Perry is dazzling as Zillah, and Jonathan Hadary as Xillah speaks not just for the playwright but for the audience when, pointedly likening the current political atmosphere to German in the 1930s, he delivers the raw cry, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

I very much admired Thomas Ostermeier’s well-acted production of History of Violence at St. Ann’s Warehouse, my introduction to hotshot young French literary star Edouard Louis. I loved seeing the multimedia spectacle Come Through at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn (above, photo by Eric Timothy Carlson), a strange and sublime collaboration between the St. Paul-based company TU Dance and adventurous experimental rocker Justin Vernon, whose band Bon Iver shared the stage performing a mixture of songs from their latest album and odd numbers written just for this piece.

I also loved Stephen Adly Guirgis’s rambling, raggedy Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (above, photos by Ahron R. Foster), with its crazy, beautiful, harrowing, poignant scenes of life in a Harlem women’s shelter and a gigantic ensemble of amazing actors, including LAByrinth Theater Company superstar Liza Colón-Zayas (below left, with Andrea Sygowski), who I think is one of the finest actors onstage today.

Best of all was Lileana Blain-Cruz’s revival of Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends at Theatre for a New Audience. I’m one of the dinosaurs who can boast of having seen the legendary original 1977 production at the American Place Theatre, directed by Fornes herself, most memorable of course for its unprecedented middle section, which shuffled the audience through four scenes taking place simultaneously in different areas of the theater. Talk about breaking the fourth wall! Blain-Cruz’s production, though, is better in every way. Sleek, beautiful, wittily designed (count the animal images hidden like Hirschfeld Ninas among Adam Rigg’s set and Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes — see below, photo by Gerry Goodstein), wonderful performances by excellent actors, all of it perfectly preserving the enigmatic poetry of Fornes’s play.

I enjoyed having dinner afterwards with my friend Jay (at the delicious new Mexican gastropub around the corner, Las Santas) and parsing the echoes of Mabel Dodge Luhan (intimate friend of Gertrude Stein’s) in Fefu, expounding on how the final image of the play influenced Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, and counting the number of lesbians onstage.

 

 

Theater Review: INTIMACY

March 6, 2014

intimacy logo
I’ve mostly cycled out of writing theater reviews, in an effort to concentrate my writing energy in the direction of my therapy practice. But I couldn’t resist writing about Thomas Bradshaw’s latest play,  Intimacy, because of the issues it raises, particularly about how pornography has become an integral part of our lives in a way that hardly anyone talks about. Directed by Scott Elliott for the New Group, the show is finishing up its run — the last performance is Saturday night. It’s really worth seeing and discussing.

Here’s my first paragraph: Thomas Bradshaw is a 33-year-old black American playwright who might as well have his middle name legally changed to Provocative, because no one seems to be able to talk or write about his work without conjuring that adjective. The most recent of his 11 plays, “Intimacy,” has been playing Off Broadway for the last two months; the production at the New Group concludes its run March 8. I’m fascinated by this play not just as a theater scholar but also as a sex therapist. Bradshaw’s plays almost always address hot-button issues of race, class, and sexuality very directly and explicitly. His previous play, “Burning,” performed at the New Group two years ago, took off from the Marquis de Sade’s “Philosophy in the Bedroom” and included several extremely graphic scenes of simulated sex by naked actors only a few feet away from the audience. “Intimacy” goes even further by taking as its main subject the prevalence of pornography in American culture, specifically as it plays out among three suburban families.

You can read the entire review for CultureVulture online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Theater review: BURNING

December 2, 2011

My review of Thomas Bradshaw’s mind-boggling new play Burning, directed by Scott Elliott at the New Group, has just been posted on CultureVulture.net. Check it out and let me know what you think.

The play is strong stuff but had a big impact on me. “The 30-year-old author of ten plays (including “Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist”), Bradshaw does not, I think, set out primarily to shock, although shock he does…His remarkable accomplishment is to build a clear-eyed contemporary narrative that is as matter-of-fact about sex, drugs, and violence as it is about death, art, and politics. And he does so in a way that makes other playwrights look coy, cowardly, or faint-hearted.” You can read the full review online here.

Performance diary: A LIE OF THE MIND

February 20, 2010

February 18 – I’ve been on the Sam Shepard beat for thirty years now, and every time I think it’s time to take a break, the universe sends me a different message. I thought I could live my whole life without ever seeing A Lie of the Mind again, and then I woke up the other morning absolutely convinced that I had to see the New Group’s revival directed by Ethan Hawke with a hot cast including Josh Hamilton, Laurie Metcalf, Marin Ireland, Karen Young, and Keith Carradine. Minutes later, I got an e-mail from my friend Richard inviting me at the last minute to the opening night performance (he’d won tickets at a fundraiser for the New Group, whose executive director Geoff Rich is an old friend of his). And the seats turned out to be front row center – an almost overwhelming vantage point from which to study not only the spectacle of hairy-chested Alessandro Nivola in boxer shorts (where is After Dark magazine just when you need it?) but also Hawke’s carefully rethought, re-imagined, and beautifully performed production of a problematic Shepard play.

The 1985 original production of A Lie of the Mind is one of those legendary star-studded New York shows. Shepard himself directed an unbelievable cast: Harvey Keitel, Amanda Plummer, Geraldine Page, Aidan Quinn, Will Patton, Ann Wedgeworth, Jim Gammon, and Karen Young. The show was four hours long, with lots of live music by a bluegrass band, the Red Clay Ramblers. Unlike Ben Brantley, whose rave review of the New Group production declared it a “masterwork,” I thought it was a little ponderous and self-consciously epic. Having just written my Shepard biography (the book party was held in the lobby of the Promenade Theater, where A Lie of the Mind was playing), it was hard for me to see the play as anything other than a sequel to his four previous, more than semi-autobiographical plays (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West, and Fool for Love). The previous plays had lots of merit as free-standing entities. In A Lie of the Mind, at least when it opened, the lines between imagination and autobiography were especially blurry because Shepard’s celebrity had suddenly pushed his personal life in public consciousness. He’d famously hooked up with Jessica Lange on the set of Frances, and he left his wife and 10-year-old son to live with her. The agony of that situation clearly propelled the writing of A Lie of the Mind, which opens with Jake calling his brother Frankie to say he’d just beaten his wife Beth to death (it’s easy to understand how the guilty party in a divorce might feel that way).

Ethan Hawke has a long history with Shepard: he was in Steppenwolf’s 1995 production of Buried Child in Chicago directed by Gary Sinise, Shepard played Hamlet’s father in Michael Almereyda’s fascinating film of Hamlet with Hawke in the title role (Shepard brought tears to my eyes when he pulled his son into his arms and growled into his ear “Remember me!”), and Hawke played one of the two leads in the New York premiere of The Late Henry Moss (see below, in the role originally played in San Francisco by Sean Penn). A whole generation younger than Shepard (he is, in fact, the same age as Shepard’s first-born son, Jesse), Hawke rounded up a posse of actors like himself who tread back and forth from theater to indie film with occasional forays into mainstream movies and TV.

From the get-go, his production departs from Shepard’s. First of all, he cut out almost all music except for underscoring and occasional bursts of song provided by Latham and Shelby Gaines, playing on homemade sound sculptures from a cubbyhole visible to the audience stage left. And instead of two separate areas floating in space, Jake’s family and Beth’s family occupy the same resolutely indoor set, fantastically crammed floor to ceiling with dusty old wooden drawers and boxes and family baggage. It looks like a cross between my grandparents’ farmhouse (I come from exactly the same kind of Midwestern white-trash family Shepard did) and I Am My Own Wife.

I understand that Shepard took one look at the set and declared “You ruined the play.” He was wrong. To my mind, Hawke and his cast have rescued the play by applying a vast amount of attention to the specifics of each character and each scene in such a way that, paradoxically, they open out into something much bigger and broader. For one thing, there’s no pretense that these folks are normal, psychologically stable individuals. They’re all quite out of their minds, in one way or another. Beth’s mother Meg and Jake’s mother Lorraine pretend not to know that their kids are married to each other. Even though Jake has indeed beaten Beth up badly enough for her to sustain brain damage, she clearly had more than a few screws loose beforehand. The way she attaches to Frankie when he comes to check up on her tells us a lot about her boundarylessness (and her love-starved relationship with her father). And especially in Nivola’s riveting performance, we see Jake’s violence as a highly unstable, combustible compound of genetics, alcoholism, wounded masculinity, love, fear, and blazing self-ignorance.

I could talk at length about each scene, each character, and each performance, but I don’t have all day so I’ll just hit the high points.

1.    Although Shepard pooh-poohs psychological reality, the psychotherapist in me can’t help identifying the impact of trauma on both Jake and Beth. One lie in Jake’s mind is that he’s killed Beth, but that’s a strange displacement of his guilt about his participation in his father’s death, which he’s buried so deep that he doesn’t remember it. It only surfaces as a seizure that takes over his body, although he tries to articulate it in a scene that Nivola plays with terrifying clarity, when he says, “There’s this thing – this thing in my head…A scream from a voice I don’t know. Or a voice I knew once but now it’s changed. It doesn’t know me either. Now. I used to but not now. I’ve scared it into a different form.” In other plays (such as The Unseen Hand), Shepard has dramatized this phenomenon in almost science-fiction terms. And I know from my research that this self-alienation relates philosophically to the Gurdjieff work that Shepard has studied deeply. But Nivola plays it in a fantastically visceral, emotionally immediate way.

2.    The mothers in a lot of ways seem like the same character – the same paradoxically ditsy and down-to-earth woman, paradoxically scornful of men and ferociously attached to them. I found it touching to watch how these actresses pulled that off – Young’s Lorraine infantilizes Jake like some textbook bad mother, completely unruffled by his bad behavior (as above — she’s seen it all her life and pretty much expects it) and Metcalf’s Meg doggedly serves her neglectful husband — without any extra commentary.

3.    I found some moments of the performance unexpectedly personal and shocking. In the first scene with Jake and Frankie, during Jake’s frenzied temper tantrum Frankie instinctively knows to go stand in a corner and avoid eye contact, which certainly matches my experience of living with a raging alcoholic madman. My father, like Shepard’s, was a military man (and drunk) who died in 1996. He was still alive when I first saw the play, whose first act ended with the beautiful and touching image of Jake blowing his father’s ashes into the air. This time around, as soon as that scene began, I kinda lost it and watched the rest of it through tears of re-living my own father’s funeral — being presented with the American flag by uniformed riflemen, handling the box of ashes, the whole bit. Surprisingly powerful.

4.    The romantic triangle and the family dramas that drive A Lie of the Mind speak to virtually anybody, but close followers of Shepard’s work will inevitably see the connections to his other plays. I was very impressed with the specific ways Hawke conjured the creepy, claustrophobic, murky tone of Buried Child – the set is very important in that way, but also the way Frankie spends most of the play stretched out on the sofa echoes the succession of lame (and lame-brained) men who occupy that position throughout Buried Child (and lower-class middle American life – as Sandra Bernhard would say, “the picture Norman Rockwell forgot to paint”).
And I was amazed to see the way he conjured Fool for Love in the unmistakably erotic tension between Jake and his sister Sally. That did NOT exist in the original production. Karen Young, in the role of Sally, had zero sexual energy. (A little gossip: Rebecca DeMornay was originally cast in the role, but after Jessica Lange walked into a dressing room and caught her with Shepard, DeMornay was gone, and Karen Young took her place. Young’s blank sexuality works a lot better in the role of Lorraine, even though she seems quite a bit too young for the part.) Maggie Siff has taken shit in the blogosphere for her supposedly weak performance in this show. I completely disagree. She comes in with a different energy from the others in a way that recollects Shelley in Buried Child, fittingly. She is a terrific match for Nivola’s scary/sexy energy. Plus, the two of them are so fucking hot I was afraid/hopeful that they would have sex right in front of me. (Or with me.)

5.    Some other echoes of the Shepard canon: in the original production, Meg and Baylor folded up the American flag in a very simple way that communicated both domestic familiarity and unquestioned patriotism. Since then, Shepard wrote a whole play basically decrying post-9/11 flag-mania (The God of Hell) so Hawke shrewdly plays the scene for a few different flavors, including one pointedly stylized moment where they’re holding the flag fully open behind Jake, who says “Everything lies!” We seem to be in a moment of political commentary…and then it’s dropped. Which I think is cool and preserves the several mysterious undercurrents of the play. And at the very end of the play, having the oilcan of Lorraine’s family memorabilia burning in the same room where Meg is looking out the window to see “a fire in the snow” conjures the inside/outside speech of Action, one of my favorite early Shepard plays.

6. With this kind of omnibus set, lighting is crucial. Designer Jeff Crotter does a fantastic job of using light to define, slice up, isolate sections of the stage to create the simultaneity of time and place that is part of the quirky magic of Shepard’s plays.

7. A few quibbles. Shepard plays fast and loose with naturalistic action in this play. Still, in this production Beth seemed to move with amazing swiftness from not being able to stand up straight to lap-dancing with Frankie on the sofa. I’m a huge admirer of Josh Hamilton, who played Frankie, and he does a terrific job here, though sometimes that leg injury seemed to come and go. And during the whole weird scene when Beth’s brother Mike (a pretty thankless role, reasonably fired up by Frank Whaley) drags Jake into the house with a rope around his neck, Laurie Metcalf has to lie on the floor conked out, pretending to be invisible. I felt a little sorry for her in that moment. Otherwise, Metcalf was nonstop brilliant. The one cast member who didn’t do it for me was Keith Carradine as Baylor. All the other actors succeeded in suspending my memories of the original cast, but Jim Gammon was completely believable as a crusty old pig-headed hunter with feet so gnarly and calloused that he needed to rub them with mink oil. Carradine – no way.

Opening night was predictably buzzy, attended by the New Group in-gang: Wally Shawn and Debby Eisenberg, David Cale, Matthew Broderick, etc. I chatted with Scott Elliott, who’s about to go into rehearsal with the musical of The Kid, Dan Savage’s book about gay parenting. There was a party afterwards at Montenegro, a new restaurant in the NY Times building. I was happy to run into Emily McDonnell, who was in Wally’s play Grasses of a Thousand Colours in London. And I was amazed to see that Sylvia Miles is still around a kicking and going to opening-night parties.

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