So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

An American in Paris (musical, G, too complex for small children, reviewed here)
Fun Home (serious musical, PG-13, virtually all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Hamilton (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Hand to God (black comedy, X, absolutely not for children or prudish adults, reviewed here)
The King and I (musical, G, perfect for children with well-developed attention spans, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, many performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (comedy, G, ideal for bright children, remounting of Broadway production, original production reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
The Flick (serious comedy, PG-13, too long for young people with limited attention spans, reviewed here)

Guys and Dolls (musical, G, closes Nov. 1, reviewed here)
Sweat (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 31, reviewed here)

Sweet Charity (musical, PG-13, closes Oct. 31, reviewed here)
You Never Can Tell (Shaw, PG-13, closes Oct. 25, reviewed here)

An Iliad (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Oct. 4, reviewed here)

The Island (drama, PG-13, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)

l_bcp_spellingbeecast_smallCLOSING NEXT WEEK IN NEW HOPE, PENN:
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, G/PG-13, extended through Sept. 13, reviewed here)

The Twelve-Pound Look (one-act comedy, G, not suitable for children, closes Sept. 12, reviewed here)

A Streetcar Named Desire (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

Mother of the Maid (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

The Weir (drama, PG-13, remounting of original off-Broadway production, original production reviewed here)

On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Edward Abbey on melancholy

INK BOTTLE“As a confirmed melancholic, I can testify that the best and maybe only antidote for melancholia is action. However, like most melancholics, I suffer also from sloth.”

Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Vox Clamantis in Deserto): Notes from a Secret Journal

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From the diary of a peripatetic drama critic (II)

mediumMONDAY, AUGUST 10 I’m not afraid to fly anymore, but I still hate it with a passion. I sometimes say that The Wall Street Journal pays me to sit in airports and on airplanes, not to write about the plays I see once I finally get to wherever I’m going. My recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was a case in point—not horrific, just disagreeable, rather like a protracted bout of chronic but tolerable pain.

Judging by the preponderance of evidence, I might as well stay up all night before embarking on an early-morning transcontinental flight. Yet I find it impossible to do so, even though I never manage to get more than three hours’ sleep. You’d think I would have known better this time, seeing as how I had to hit the road at five-thirty in order to reach Kennedy Airport in time to stumble through security and board a plane bound for Portland. No such luck: I didn’t turn the lights out until three-thirty.

Why Portland? Because there are no nonstop flights from the New York area to Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. You have to fly somewhere else, usually Los Angeles or San Francisco, then change planes, and long experience has taught me that this is more flying than I care to do in a single day. So I decided to fly into Portland and drive from there to Eugene, which is roughly halfway to Ashland, which is three hundred miles from Portland.

The flight itself was uneventful. Suffice it to say that I amused myself by listening to my iPod and watching a couple of old movies, and that I felt only moderately battered when we finally landed in Portland. Alas, the drive that followed was unpleasant in every possible way. As I tweeted shortly after checking into my Eugene hotel, “The highways of Oregon are made of coarse-ground rubble lightly coated with used motor oil. So are the drivers.” Had it not been for the whirlpool and Dungeness crab chowder at Valley River Inn, I might well have turned around and gone back home.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 11 Twitter being what it is, I heard the next morning from a sympathetic Oregonian who advised me to get off the interstate just south of Eugene on Highway 58 and spend the next couple of hours driving through the Willamette National Forest. It would, he assured me, soothe my soul.

beaver-pond-1976-Neil-WelliverI took his advice, and within a few minutes I found myself approaching the Lowell Covered Bridge, which was so pretty that I pulled off the highway for a closer look. It was a good omen. The rest of the trip was exactly as advertised, and the further I drove, the happier I felt. I ascended by easy stages into the Cascades, noting the terse signs that indicated the changing altitude and other relevant local phenomena: ELK. ROCKS. SLIDES. The traffic on the two-lane highway was sparse, the views breathtaking. It was as if I’d somehow wandered into a mural by Neil Welliver. Every time I passed an RV, I recalled my as-yet-unfulfilled dream of renting a Steinbeck-sized camper and driving from coast to coast without benefit of itinerary, governed solely by whim. Alas, Mrs. T would never go for it—she likes to plan ahead—but the dream, inspired by my youthful admiration for Charles Kuralt, lingers in my soul to this day.

2317aa5c-0e10-44f1-92b5-478adad993f9_dSomewhere along the way it hit me: Nobody in the world knows where I am right now. That thought filled me with a pleasure bordering on ecstasy. At fifty-nine, I find that my life is at the mercy of curtain times, deadlines, and endless responsibilities, and I spend far too much of it sitting in front of a laptop, plugged into the world. Now the plug had been pulled, if only for a day. No one was waiting for me in Ashland, nor did I have a show to see that evening, and Mrs. T, who was tired of travel, had stayed behind in Connecticut. I was beholden only to myself.

At length I reached Odell Lake and noticed that both my stomach and my gas tank required attention. A sign told me where to fill the former, and shortly thereafter I pulled into the parking lot of Odell Lake Lodge & Resort, a rustic mountain hideaway patronized by outdoor types. I went into the restaurant and ordered a smoked salmon salad sandwich, and the young waiter brought me a thick slab of fish stuffed between two buns. I took a savory bite, then asked him, “Did you guys smoke this fish here?”

odell-lake-lodge“Sure,” he said matter-of-factly, as if such culinary miracles were commonplace.

After lunch I picked up an Odell Lake Lodge brochure at the front desk and poked my head into one of the rough-hewn cabins, longing as I did so to shred my schedule and spend the rest of the week there. Then I drove to the nearest gas station. As I filled the tank, my long-forgotten cellphone rang for the first time in two days. It was Mrs. T, calling all the way from the other side of North America to see how I was.

“You won’t believe where I am right now,” I said, the spell of the Cascades not yet broken.

“Probably not,” she replied.

(To be continued)

* * *

The Lemonheads sing “The Outdoor Type”:

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Snapshot: Ray Price sings “Invitation to the Blues”

TV CAMERARay Price and the Cherokee Cowboys perform “Invitation to the Blues” on a 1959 episode of Country Style, USA, a TV series produced by the U.S. Army. The song was written by Roger Miller, who sings the backup vocals in this performance:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

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Lookback: on being funny—on paper

LOOKBACKFrom 2005:

I wrote what I thought was a pretty funny theater review this morning. It took me two and a half hours to finish the first draft and an hour to polish it. I spent most of that last hour cutting 120 words out of my 1,070-word first draft. None of the cuts was longer than a single sentence–it was mostly a matter of trimming individual words and phrases. The first draft contained all the jokes that made it into the final version I e-mailed to my editor, but they were much funnier when I was done.

To the extent that I have a reputation for being funny (though only on paper, alas), it’s probably because I take such pains to trim away superfluous verbiage from my best lines. Wit, I suspect, is mostly a matter of self-editing ….

Read the whole thing here.

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From the diary of a peripatetic drama critic (I)

SUNDAY, AUGUST 9 I review a hundred shows a year, more or less, for The Wall Street Journal. This means that I rarely have time to see anything I’m not reviewing, and that I also have to forgo a not-inconsiderable number of shows, most of them off Broadway, that I’m pretty sure would be worth seeing. This used to trouble me, but I’ve long since learned from hard experience that I don’t profit from theatrical gluttony, so I no longer lose sleep when I make a wrong call. If an off-Broadway show that I’ve chosen to skip ends up making a splash, as was the case with Clybourne Park, The Flick, and Hand to God, I know I’ll get a second chance to review it, usually on Broadway or in a regional revival.

Penn-and-Teller-On-Broadway-Playbill-July-15All that said, it was with much reluctance that I passed on Penn & Teller on Broadway in July. I like magic and I love Penn & Teller, but the Journal decided as a matter of policy a number of years ago not to send me to Broadway shows that are “events” rather than full-fledged plays or musicals. In any case, I was already booked to visit the Shaw Festival in Ontario when the show was in previews, so that, I assumed, was that.

Toward the end of the run, though, Teller and Mike Jones, the jazz pianist who accompanies Penn & Teller at their live performances, separately invited me to come to Penn & Teller on Broadway purely for my pleasure. By then my calendar was already congested, meaning that in order to see it, I’d have to drive down to New York from Connecticut first thing Sunday morning, catch a matinee, then fly from New York to Portland very early the next day to cover the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Never having seen Penn & Teller live, though, I felt I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to do so at last, so I said yes.

No sooner did Mrs. T and I stroll into the Marquis Theatre than I felt an uncanny and unfamiliar sense of something like relief. I was on a busman’s holiday, seeing a show strictly for fun. I wouldn’t have to take notes or worry about hitting a deadline: I could simply surrender to the moment. I think I’m pretty good about being “present” (as theater people say) at the shows I review, but there’s no getting around the distracting fact that I’ll sooner or later have to sit down and write a coherent piece about what I’ve just seen, which means that I have to pay attention in a different, less totally involving kind of way. Yes, it’s a small price to pay for the inestimable privilege of getting to go to the theater as often as I please, but it is a price, and on the rare occasions when I don’t have to pay it, I’m forcibly reminded of the mental freedom that goes with being a civilian who attends performances solely and only because he wants to see them.

CMAL_CjUAAALxhyOne aspect of that freedom was made manifest midway through the afternoon when Teller pulled me out of the audience to assist him in his celebrated version of Houdini’s East Indian Needle Trick, in which he appears to swallow one hundred embroidery needles and six feet of thread, then pulls the needles out of his mouth—threaded. I didn’t think twice when he walked down the aisle to my seat and gestured for me to accompany him to the stage, as I would have if I’d been reviewing the show. I simply got up and went, and was amazed by what I saw (or, rather, didn’t see) while standing at arm’s length from Teller. For the record, I wasn’t even slightly nervous, just thrilled.

“Well, I just made my Broadway debut!” I said to Mrs. T after returning to my seat, grinning like a kid.

“Do you think he knew it was you?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” I replied.

It happens that Teller has staged three shows without Penn that I’ve reviewed in the Journal, two Shakespeare plays and an off-off-Broadway “spook show” called Play Dead. Since my picture is printed next to my Journal reviews, I took it for granted that he knew what I looked like and decided to amuse himself. But no: Mike Jones assured me afterward that it was pure happenstance that Teller chose me, and that he was astonished to learn that I’d been his obliging stooge.

Needless to say, it was great fun for me to share a stage with Teller, just as it was for me to “perform” with Jefferson Mays and J. Smith-Cameron last year. But it was more fun by far for me to see Penn & Teller do their stuff in front of sixteen hundred wildly enthusiastic fans—though “fun” isn’t quite the right word for it. Never having seen them live, I didn’t realize how oddly, quirkily poetic their act is: I expected to find it amazing, but not poignant. Yet poignant it most certainly is, both when Teller performs his exquisitely wrought solo tricks and when Penn pauses toward the end of the show to chat for a few minutes about fire-eating:

When I was a kid I used to go the Franklin County Fair. That’s where the carnival came in my hometown. And that fair would be in town about ten days every year, and every one of those ten days, I’d go to the fair…I loved the freak show. I loved it because you’d pay your seventy-five cents and you were allowed to go into a tent with people who were entirely different from you, and then you could just stare at them. And I loved the freaks, but I especially loved the self-made freaks, the fire-eater, the sword-swallower, the tattooed people, because they had made an extra decision to be there. I can remember standing in that tent watching the fire-eater, and I swear, my whole life was there. It meant everything to me.

I teared up as I listened to Penn describe that experience. It reminded me of how I’d felt the first time I saw a play on the tiny stage of the junior-high auditorium in Smalltown, U.S.A. I was thirteen years old and the show was, believe it or not, Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward’s 1941 farce about a dotty medium who, much to everyone’s surprise but her own, summons up the ghost of the protagonist’s first wife. A couple of years later I trod the creaky boards of that very same stage, playing the part of the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, all unknowing that my destiny was (so to speak) magically unfolding before me.

104560 copyAfter Mrs. T and I returned home, I looked up “A Couple of Eccentric Guys,” the New Yorker profile by Calvin Trillin that first brought Penn & Teller to my attention back in 1989. I hadn’t read it for years, and was startled to find that Teller had talked to Trillin about the aspect of Penn & Teller on Broadway that had fascinated me most:

I think that when people leave the theater at the end [of the show] they leave with the sense of having seen a sort of poetic event….I would like for people to have the experience I would like to have. Which is that for a period of time I would like to have my attention compelled by something that moves me from one place to another, from one feeling to another, from one understanding to another—and hints at mysteries that somehow fit together.

Not bad for a guy who never says a word on stage.

(First of four parts)

* * *

Teller does the needle-and-thread trick on a 2012 episode of Celebrity Apprentice:

The original theatrical trailer for David Lean’s 1945 film version of Blithe Spirit:

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Almanac: Andrei Sinyavsky on style vs. genius

INK BOTTLE“A stylist is usually a very diffident person who tries to compensate for his sense of inadequacy by careful attention to every word. A diffident man cannot allow himself to work badly, in slipshod fashion–as a genius can.”

Andrei Sinyavsky, A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward, courtesy of Patrick Kurp)

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