Tag Archives: theater

Macbeth: It’s No Hamlet

Macbeth, at the Lyceum Theatre, New York. Tickets at Telecharge.com.

If you haven’t read Macbeth, this is your show. If you haven’t seen Macbeth, this is your show. If you’re a fan of Macbeth, this may also be your show. It’s big, it’s accessible, it’s well-done from casting to staging and it’s original enough that it’ll keep you interested.

It’s set in the first half of the last century in a chilly basement, so no moors and highland mania. The institutional staging is excellently suited to all the blood: dingy white tile and metal furniture on wheels. (The sink downstage stays put, which is just as well given the aforementioned blood.) The tile provides a backdrop for projections of bloody smoke and the forest, among other things. Nice work there. Less so with the extreme sound effects. They are so jacked up that they lose whatever original effect they might have had and register only as, “Goddamn that’s loud.”

Lady Macbeth wears those silky bias-cut dresses that only women with no thighs can rock and her sexy ambition is a convincing reading of the pushy missus. Patrick Stewart is a solid thane and king and does not tug his jacket down once. I appreciate that his Macbeth unravels with sanity. Macbeth is too-often wild-eyed and wild-haired (not an issue with Stewart, needless to say), as if he were not the maker of his own demise. The wilder Macbeths are sexier but Stewart’s makes more sense. The witches are standouts, creepily decked out as nurses, white whimples and grey dresses and all. Their sinister incantations are all the creepier for the saintly uniforms and their handling of the ill and injured and, finally, the dead.

It is big and bloody. It is timely. (Macbeth is a Shakesperean for the Bush age – blood and torture and ambition in the face of clear error.) It is all the things I hope Shakespeare will be. It will draw new fans; it explicates the play. Why, then, was I unmoved? Why did I check my watch every fifteen minutes? Why did I leave with the feeling that I did the right thing but did not enjoy doing it?. After thinking about it for a while, I don’t think it’s the production. I think it’s Macbeth. I’m just not that into him.

As I tried to pin down why, something I’ve noticed in corporations came to mind: the skillsets that make a good worker are not the same set that make a good manager. Good workers get promoted to management because it’s the natural next step up the corporate ladder. They fail because they are unsuited for the role – a role for which they were not hired.

So goes Macbeth. Suited for the battlefield, he brings only battle skills to his promotion, with predictable results. I prefer my heroes paralyzed with misgivings (Hamlet) or evil but clever (Richard III). There’s more drama in their predicaments, more suspense. Macbeth is tragic but not that interesting because the deterioration is so predictable. Given the choice, I’ll go for a story whose ending is less obvious, a story whose progress is less foreordained. This is probably the same reason I’ve never enjoyed the Greek plays much either. Where there is choice, there is agony but where there is no choice, there’s also less interest for me. Macbeth feels to me like a particularly brutal children’s story, a cautionary tale about what will happen when you overreach…or slaughter kings and kids…or listen to witches and your wife…no, wait, that’s not it. Just witches. Which I wasn’t going to do anyway. So I’m in the clear.

Now that I’ve sorted that out, I’m still sticking with my recommendation: if you’re ever going to see Macbeth, see this one. Also, don’t kill your boss. Or children.

Almost An Evening

Almost an Evening by Ethan Coen, directed by Neil Pepe, playing through June 1 at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker, New York, NY. For description and background, click here. For the inevitable Times review, click here.

Go. That’s it. Go. Just go already. There’s no reason not to go, so put on some shoes and get on the subway and go. Even if you’re not a rabid theater-goer, you should go, because this is Coen brother(s) theater, so it’s not what you think it’s gonna be. Stop thinking about it. You could have gotten on your pants already and be out the door.

For one, it’s completely entertaining. Three short plays by Ethan Coen with an all-star-ish cast that includes all kinds of people whose names you won’t recognize but whose faces you will. (Joey Slotnick, Johanna Day, Mark Linn-Baker, and Tim Hopper, who replaced the tasty Jonathan Cake* when the show moved from The Atlantic Theater.)The notable exception here is F. Murray Abraham. His features have gotten even bigger over the years since Salieri, he plays God among other roles and he yells a lot of profanity. What’s not to love?

For two, even if you don’t love live theater, it’s brief – an hour and a half – so it won’t cut into your evening. And it’s not rocket science, so you won’t be depressed afterwards or argue with your date or say things like, “I didn’t get it,” or, “I’m going to have to think about that,” or, “Next time, we’re going to the kung fu festival at the Film Forum.”

On the other hand, if you do froth at the mouth when you talk about the theater, as I do, you will not be left out. It’s clever, it’s interesting and the acting and writing are of a consistently high quality, (even if you there are notable moments when you’re aware that Coen is used to writing for the screen). The plays are a testament to what quick material can be in the hands of capable actors.

For three, it’s at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker (cross street Lafayette), so you’ll already be in a hip neighborhood for drinks afterwards.

For four, R and I are on their web site laughing it up. Click on the Audience Testimonials link on the home page – we’re about halfway through.

*Cake played a a buff and be-toweled Iachimo in the Lincoln Center production of Cymbeline last year. The Coen role also calls for a towel (see photo). That must say something about specialization opportunities in the theater, right? “Well, there’s a towel in the scene…let’s call our man Cake!” I need a go-to niche like that. Please send suggestions if you see them.

The Reading, Part I

The reading was last weekend. We were offered seats at the performance of Speed the Plow that preceded the reading.

This was the plan. I was going to wear a crown. (Yes, I have one, and not a mass-manufactured one either, thank you very much.) R was going to go to the trophy store and score the tallest trophy he could find. I made it clear that nothing shorter than four feet would be acceptable, it must sport blue marbelized pillars and, if at all possible, it would have a bowler in mid-stride on top. I would settle for a boxer or a tennis player but no mainstream athletes. This was a special night and I was going to have a special trophy.

While he was hitting the trophy emporium, I would be at the Jessica McClintock outlet I’ve been dying to visit ever since we moved to the neighborhood and I would find a lovely gown for the event. I was really hoping to find something in a shiny peach like the dress I wore to homecoming in high school. It was too much to expect that it would come with a bolero jacket in a matching peach brocade like the original. Still, if it had had short puff sleeves and a very wide sash I would have been satisfied. I’d have shoes dyed to match and would pick out a tasteful wrist corsage of tinted carnations and baby’s breath.

We considered renting a red carpet.

I won’t pretend there weren’t challenges in the plan. Where would the trophy be stored during the performance? How would we carry both the trophy and a rolled-up carpet, especially with me in heels? Would it seem ostentatious to wear my crown to the performance as well as the reading or should I just put it on before the reading? We felt equal to it all though. You have to be prepared to step up when duty calls. Like Dolly Parton says, you can’t disappoint your public. They love you for your work but they also love you for your eyeshadow.

I don’t know what happened, but the day got away from us and none of that happened.

Peter and Jerry

Edward Albee is the man. He was my gateway drug into modern theater. When I read The Zoo Story in high school, it almost convinced me to go to Rice because that’s where Albee was teaching at the time. Rice. In Texas. Texas, people. Where the weather is hot and where our President picked up that phony accent. And we all know how I feel about hot weather and our President.

Anyway, a few years ago, Albee wrote a lead-in play for The Zoo Story called Homelife. It covers the hour or so Peter spends with his wife at home before he goes to the park and meets Jerry. Homelife and The Zoo Story are up as a double bill at Second Stage in New York and, if you can, you should go. They close this weekend, so you’ll have to get on the stick quickly.

Oh – and avoid a matinee if at all possible. I didn’t manage that and was subject to a long line of horrifying, substantial matrons waiting for the bathroom and saying things like, “Well, that was strange,” “What happened?” and, “We can talk about it in the cab.” I know these women are the life’s blood of the theater – they like an afternoon out and the play’s the thing – but Lord save me. Also, these women take forever to pee, with their wraps to unwrap and girdles and jackets and pantyhose. So help me God, when I am 70, I will be trim and quick and wear excellent, bold jewelry, swish pants and well-cut sweaters.

The Zoo Story is just as good as it’s always been and the acting is top-notch. Dallas Roberts* carries the day with a pitch-perfect, insistent Jerry. He threatens and sulks and dodges around the minimal set looking scruffy and sad and frightening all at once. It’s a performance to remember. Bill Pullman as Peter is appropriately conventional and nervous and uses his long stretches of silence to good effect.

I can understand why Albee wrote Homelife. The subjects of The Zoo Story – alienation, artifice, failures of communication – attract expansion, as does the nearly silent character of Peter. Despite very good performances by both Pullman and Johanna Day, the execution felt too explicative, which seems to be a feature of the aging male, onstage and off. The pauses in the conversations between the married couple felt more like failing momentum than breakdowns laden with meaning. However, I was glad to have seen the piece and it is still a far stretch better than a lot of what’s out there.

(A day later, I talked to a young actor who had seen the show and thought the reverse – that The Zoo Story was the weaker link and Homelife a triumph. He was by far the most pretentious person I have met in the last few months however, so I’m sticking with my opinion. Perhaps it’s a guy thing, this preoccupation with bringing the point home. I’ll have to think about that one…)

*Google would have us know that Dallas Roberts is also the name of an Academy of Hair Design and Aesthetics in Provo, Utah. In case you look up Dallas, let me remind you that I am referring not to the hair design but to the actor. Despite being preoccupied with Aesthetics, the Academy does not feature in this production.

Who’s Afraid?

Anyone in the path of the tour of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? should go. It stars Kathleen Turner, who is predictably at home in the boozy, buxom Martha and Bill Irwin who is fluid and excellent as George. (Am I the only one who read the books about the hippos when I was a kid?) It is a rare opportunity to see Mr. Irwin, who trained, as I did, at the Circus Center in San Francisco. His rubbery and precise physicality serves George well. I saw this same production last year in New York with Nicole Kidman and it was exactly as painful as it should be and just a little more brilliant than that.

No, that’s not right. I didn’t see it “with Nicole Kidman” as in, “she was in the show.” I saw it “with Nicole Kidman” in that we went to see it together. I mean, I didn’t actually see it with Ms. Kidman per se. We were both there. We both stood in line for the bathroom. We sat a couple of rows away from each other, which I’ve done with people I do know, so it might have been like we were together. Except for her not knowing my name. And being there with other people. Except for that, we were there together. Just like me and Mats Wilander were dating when I was 11. Like that kind of “together.” You know what I mean.

Like a good New Yorker, I studiously avoided granting her any special attention, unlike the middle-aged woman from Omaha or Debuque or Tampa or who cares where because it was clearly Not New York in front of me, who chattered relentlessly at Ms. Kidman. I do not do this with celebrities. I feel that it would bring shame upon me and upon my family, although I’m unclear on what form that might take, since I do not usually offer both attention and my home address in the same breath.

For the record, I do not enjoy Ms. Kidman’s work. If you knew me, you would know this because I can’t stop myself from saying something cutting and personal every time she wafts onto a screen. I find her brittle. I also wish she would acknowledge the fact that she’s gay instead of continuing to marry men as if she weren’t. (I have third-hand confirmation on this, but I can’t tell you from who because I promised I wouldn’t, even though my source is notoriously indiscreet. And a psychiatrist, which, now that I’m thinking about it, is a little disturbing.)

On the other hand, I am in love with Edward Albee. In an unfortunate turn, I am taken and he is gay, but who’s counting? I have loved him since I read The Zoo Story when I was sixteen and seeing this production renews my love.

The tour will be in San Francisco for now and then move to Tucson in mid-May.

Party People

The birthday party I attended on Thursday was for a friend I met at a wedding. In the bridal twilight over Long Island Sound, she and her husband had stood out from the mass of blazers and rep ties. He wore a lip stud, a purple shirt and shaded glasses. She wore a head scarf. She’s a professor and author and theater producer who writes and works for the rights of South Asian women. He motors around the art world in various capacities. The next time I went to New York, I called her up, we all had dinner and we’ve been fast friends ever since. That’s Story #1.

The closing party I attended on Sunday followed the final Broadway performance of Sweeney Todd (in which R’s brother starred). I’ve met one of the actresses at least half a dozen times, including at my birthday party. She squeeled when she saw us, ran over, said several things I’ve completely forgotten and squeeled away. I spied one of the producers about six feet away. He and I and R had talked at length on the opening night of the show and at the post-Tony party when all of us were somewhat drunk. He didn’t acknowledge either of us. That’s Story #2.

I have one question: what is wrong with people in the theater that they cannot be human beings unless what you can do for them is stamped on your forehead and preferrably also your T-shirt and your business card?

Untitled – A Mamet Impersonation

This was my winning submission to American Conservatory Theater’s (ACT) Mamet Writing Competition. The charter was to write a three-page scene in the style of Mamet within the stated parameters of one the categories. I chose, “A scene depicting a family (fictional or non-fictional) facing an ethical crisis, written in the style of Mamet (i.e. the Simpson’s or the Bush family).”

Two men are standing behind a counter in a diner. The Father, about 60, reads a newspaper on the counter. The Son, half his age, busies himself with the coffee machine and then the cash register before turning to his parent.

Son: (abruptly) Here’s the thing.

The Father looks up.

Son: Three men walk into a hardware store and buy a machine – a coffee machine – for $30 from the kid behind the counter. They each pay ten dollars. They leave. The owner comes back. He sees the receipt, turns to the clerk and – here it is – says, “That machine – that coffee machine – is $25. You go find the guy, pay him back.”

The Son is gesturing with pens and a receipt pad.
Son: With me?

Father: Right.

Son: The clerk takes five dollars, takes five ones, and leaves. He’s thinkin’, the clerk, “Can’t divide five three ways, and here’s me runnin’ after ’em.” So he finds ’em, the guys, gives each of ’em a dollar, pockets $2 for himself, hmm? Done deal. No funny change, no one the wiser.

Father: Right.

Son: Now here’s the thing. Three times nine, right? Each guy paid nine now – is 27. But $30 – the total price, you with me? – minus $2 – the clerk’s take – is 28. See?

Father: See what?

Son: How does it make sense? 27 or 28. It should work out. You see?

Father: All right.

The Father goes back to reading his paper with no change in demeanor. A phone rings. The son disappears halfway through the doorway to the kitchen, stage left, picks up the phone on the wall.

Son: No. Nope. We’re open… We’re twenty-four hours… What? No….we don’t close…at any particular…no, twenty-four hours in a row… No, that means we’re always… Right. Always here… No, that’s OK.

Beat. The son reappears in the same doorway.

Son: It’s about character.

Father: Hello again.

Son: I say, it’s about character, not about math. The math is tricky, a small trick at that. You’ve missed the point: the clerk is a thief, an opportunist.

Father: I haven’t missed… (straightening, turning from his paper)

Son: You have. It’s about character. (After this last statement he points his finger at the Father.) A certain kind of character. You gotta work for your place.

Father: That’s what I believe.

Son: Work’s the thing. But it’s not enough. That’s what I’m saying. But the clerk – the man who doesn’t just work for it – he still profits. It’s not wrong.

Father: He does work. There is nothing harder, being a good clerk. He should have stuck there.

Son: But he’s not a good clerk. My point. He’s a thief. In this story, he’s a thief.

Father: Still, he’s a clerk and that’s hard. He might…

Son: Yeah, that’s the goddam mess of it, the curse of working: if you don’t succeed, you didn’t work hard enough. Your fault, no matter how hard you worked, that you didn’t succeed.

Father: That…

Son: Couldn’t it be that you did work hard and still didn’t get ahead, like this guy, the clerk? His thieving is no reflection on his clerking, the hard life of a clerk. You said it yourself.

Father: (Serious, turning to the Son.) It is. It’s the opposite of it.

Son: Nope, no…it’s the result of it. You can’t get around it, you’ll always lose. It’s a catch 22, hopeless: you’re down ’cause you blew it somehow. (Beat.) You know what it is?

Father: Nope.

Son: It’s the American Dream. You can be a goddam clerk, you can be a loser, a drunk: you can still get ahead. The all-American, the optimist, the smorgasbord catch 22. It’s what keeps us here, separates us from the animals, from the socialists. It’s what makes him a clerk ‘ those guys on the bottom ‘ the poor guys who wanna win that lottery, who think they can be President. Work a lifetime hoping American good luck’ll kick in and save ’em, that someone’ll recognize their goodness and bring ’em up. No fucking way. No fucking way.

Father: There’s work, I’m saying…

Son: No. That’s just messing with it, saying you’re successful ’cause you already worked as hard as you did. Bullshit. Opportunism, I’m telling you. The clerk, he’s the guy who broke the code. He’s getting ahead as he can. That’s what I’m saying, what I’ve been saying – that you can’t get ahead without…

Father: Theft? (Losing interest again, turning back to his paper.)

Son: It isn’t cheating. He’s gotta look after his interests. He needs his two bucks. He’s the American Dream, that guy. He’s the dream we all have…

Father: …of stealing.

Son: No. No. Of working. Of getting forward with it, getting away with it. Getting away. Moving along in an unfair…

Father: Not impossible that he could get ahead without cheating. Not impossible.

Son: It’s not impossible but it’s more than work. A different kind of work. That’s my point.

Father: The crime isn’t work, it’s crime.

Son: No, it’s not good work. By your definition, because you said so. But we’re ignoring the quality of the theft, the ingenious math that I’m standin’ here running through with you: the math that doesn’t make sense, however you run it. The math covers the crime. Plus, he might’ve had to hustle to get to the guys. How’d he find the guys? All three guys? That’s my point. He worked harder at the crime than at the sale, but the crime’s where the profit went. And who’s to say it’s a crime?

Father: Me.

Son: Yeah, well, good thing you weren’t tellin’ the joke. Here…

Father: Good thing. You’re a goddam criminal. I wouldn’t trust you to tell a joke.

Son: …here’s the last fact of it: it’s wrong. The whole thing’s wrong. You’re looking at it wrong. (He lays out the math in saucers and napkins on the counter, a mess.) It’s not three guys times nine dollars is twenty-seven versus thirty dollars minus two dollars for the kid is twenty-eight. That’s the goddam beauty of it! Start from the other end – and here it is – which is fucking brilliant, just goddam brilliant.Take the cost of the thing, the machine – twenty-five, right? – and add on the discount for the guys plus the profit for the kid. Twenty-five plus three plus two. That’s what equals thirty. It’s all how you tell it. The kid’s in the clear ’cause it all works together: discount coffee plus refund plus something extra for the guy making it all happen. There’s nothing wrong in that. (Finished, he clears the counter with conviction.)

Father: It’s all in how you tell it. Yup yup. (Re-engrossed in newspaper.)