Michael Gorra (ed.), The Portable Conrad (Penguin, $18 paper). I blush to admit that I failed to notice when the much-loved old Viking Portable Conrad edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel in 1947 was replaced two years ago by this updated and expanded edition, which covers much of the same ground but adds The Secret Agent. Not only is that a highly significant improvement, but Michael Gorra’s introductory essay might just be the best short discussion of Conrad and his work ever to see print. Among other good things, it strikes a perfect balance between aesthetic and political considerations, doing full justice to both sides of the coin (Gorra’s comparison of Conrad to Cézanne was so startlingly apposite that it took my breath away). Even if everything in this seven-hundred-page volume is already on your bookshelf–as well it should be–you owe it to yourself to read Gorra’s essay, which can also be found here. It’s a model of lucidity and concision (TT).
Archives for April 2009
The Broadway season ends today, thus freeing me to head for the hills. This afternoon I hop a plane for Chicago, there to begin my theater-related summer travels. If you’re planning to see TimeLine Theater Company’s production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys on Friday or Remy Bumppo’s revival of Harold Pinter’s Old Times on Saturday, look for me in the audience. I’ll be there, assuming I don’t catch swine flu en route.
In between shows I plan to hang out with Our Girl, chow down on some encased meats at Hot Doug’s, and stop by the Buckminster Fuller retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Otherwise I’m going to do as little as possible. I’m staying in a nice hotel, I haven’t finished correcting the page proofs for Pops, and I don’t feel any pressing need to cram my waking hours with hyperactivity.
More as (or, more likely, after) it happens.
P.S. My drugstore on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is out of hand sanitizer and face masks. It’ll be interesting to see how crowded–or not–my flight is.
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.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
• August: Osage County (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Exit the King * (disturbingly black comedy, PG-13, closes June 14, reviewed here)
• God of Carnage * (comedy, PG-13, closes July 19, reviewed here)
• Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (drama, PG-13, closes June 14, reviewed here)
• The Little Mermaid (musical, G, entirely suitable for children, reviewed here)
• Mary Stuart (drama, G, far too long and complicated for children, closes Aug. 16, reviewed here)
• The Norman Conquests (three related comedies, PG-13, comprehensively unsuitable for children, playing in repertory through July 25, reviewed here)
• South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)
• Ruined (drama, PG-13/R, sexual content and suggestions of extreme violence, extended through June 28, reviewed here)
“Shakespeare was the great one before us. His place was between God and despair.”
Eugène Ionesco (quoted in the International Herald Tribune, June 17, 1988)
Because so many shows are opening on Broadway in the final week of the current season, I’m filing two separate drama columns for this week’s Wall Street Journal. Today I write about Desire Under the Elms and The Philanthropist, the first of which is horrible and the second lackluster. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
Was Eugene O’Neill really a great playwright? Nobody was asking that question when he died in 1953, but nowadays his greatness tends to be asserted by critics rather than demonstrated by actors: O’Neill’s work is no longer seen on Broadway with any regularity, and most of the plays that made him famous in the ’20s are rarely done elsewhere. Robert Falls’ revival of “Desire Under the Elms,” O’Neill’s 1924 tragedy about an aging farmer (Brian Dennehy) whose nubile young wife (Carla Gugino) lusts after her angry young stepson (Pablo Schreiber), marks the first time that this once-shocking, now-dated play has been performed on Broadway since 1952. I wish I could say it was worth the wait, but the play is silly and the staging comprehensively ludicrous, Ms. Gugino’s steam-heated performance notwithstanding.
Connoisseurs of unintentional comedy, on the other hand, will find much to like about Mr. Falls’ production, which has just transferred to Broadway after an inexplicably successful run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Imagine “Tobacco Road” set in a rock quarry and you’ll get the idea. The evening begins with a tableau in which two knuckle-dragging idiots (Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman) slaughter a jumbo rubber hog and extract its internal organs one by one, accompanied by thunderous electronic music. The idiots in question turn out to be Mr. Schreiber’s half-brothers, who live with him and their father in a two-story house that flies into the air at random intervals. Other pieces of furniture, including a stove, a kitchen table and a brass bed, appear and disappear no less randomly through trap doors….
Ms. Gugino, a vibrant and compelling TV and film actress who has had the misfortune to appear in two bad plays in a row, “After the Fall” and “Suddenly Last Summer,” is now three for three. Here as before, she manages to slice through the surrounding stupidity and give a performance that leaves no doubt of her exceptional gifts, but everything she does is wasted by Mr. Falls, who seems more interested in simulating sexual intercourse onstage than in making the best possible use of a major talent….
Christopher Hampton’s “The Philanthropist,” written in 1969 and last seen in New York a quarter-century ago, has now been revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company as a vehicle for Matthew Broderick. A postmodern inversion of Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” it revolves around an unworldly, anagram-spouting professor of philology (Mr. Broderick) whose inability to say a bad word about anybody or anything enrages everyone he meets. At once clever and aimless, “The Philanthropist” can’t decide whether to be funny or serious, and never quite manages to be either….
* * *
Read the whole thing here.
An excerpt from Sidney Lumet’s 1962 film of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, starring Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards:
(This is the latest in a weekly series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Wednesday.)
“When great changes occur in history, when great principles are involved, as a rule the majority are wrong.”
Eugene V. Debs, speech, Sept. 11, 1918
Virtually every drama critic in New York, myself included, praised the revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests that opened on Broadway last week. One, Richard Zoglin of Time, went so far as to declare that Ayckbourn is “the greatest living English-language playwright” (an exaggeration, but a forgivable one) and complain that his work is rarely seen in America:
For this American fan, following Ayckbourn over the years has been a cycle of hope and frustration. First there’s the trip to London to see each new Ayckbourn play…Then the wait, often in vain, for a New York City production (his work turns up more often in regional theaters) or the dismay of seeing it done poorly by American actors.
I’m glad that Zoglin admires Ayckbourn as much as I do. On the other hand, I have more than a little bit of a problem with the parenthetical throwaway in the paragraph I just quoted. For it so happens that Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are produced with some frequency by America’s regional theaters, a fact of which I’m aware because I’m the only New York-based drama critic who makes a habit of seeking out and reviewing these productions. Indeed, I may be the only New York-based drama critic who knows about them, even though some take place close enough to Manhattan for any critic with a dime’s worth of initiative to go and see them.
Zoglin, for instance, said of Ayckbourn’s Time of My Life that he’d “never seen it staged (though Chicago’s Steppenwolf gave it a try some years back), but it reads like a dream.” Well, guess what? Westport Country Playhouse, a well-known Connecticut theater located fifty-one miles from the Broadway house where The Norman Conquests is currently playing, performed Time of My Life last April. I was there, and gave it a rave in The Wall Street Journal. Where, pray tell, was Richard Zoglin–or, for that matter, any of my colleagues save for Anita Gates of the New York Times?
I haven’t read each and every review of The Norman Conquests that ran on Friday, but so far as I know, I’m the only critic who made a point of mentioning that this production was not the first American revival of Ayckbourn’s trilogy since it was last seen on Broadway in 1975. What’s more, I know for a fact that I’m the only one of my brethren who reviewed the last revival, which was given by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater a year and a half ago and was exactly comparable in quality to Matthew Warchus’ Broadway staging.
Why am I going on about this? Partly because I’m proud of the exhaustingly hard work that I put into covering American regional theater, but mostly because it disturbs me that The Wall Street Journal is the only national general-interest publication that bothers to cover plays outside the New York area with any regularity. Yes, the Broadway transfer of the Old Vic revival of The Norman Conquests is big news, and I strongly recommend that everyone reading these words go and see all three installments. But it’s also big news that the Milwaukee Repertory Theater has already revived The Norman Conquests, not just once but twice–and the biggest news of all is that equally great revivals of equally great plays are taking place from coast to coast, not once in a while but week after week.
That’s the stop-press news about American theater. You don’t have to go to New York to see first-rate shows. You can see them in the place where you live, or in a city not too far from your home town–but save on the rarest of occasions, you can’t read about them in Time or Newsweek or the New York Times. You’ve got to pick up a copy of the Friday Journal and see where I went last week. This summer I’ll be seeing shows in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin. I expect that many of these shows will be very, very good. I also expect that I’ll be the only out-of-town critic covering most of them.
It embarrasses me to say it, but most American drama criticism is provincial, and New York City is every bit as provincial in that regard as the smallest town in America. I’d like to see that change. Sure, I’m fiercely proud to be America’s drama critic, and no less proud that The Wall Street Journal is willing to put up the money to send me all over the country in search of great theater. Without that commitment, I couldn’t do what I do. Still, I’d much rather be one of a dozen traveling critics–and until somebody joins me out on the road, I’ll continue to be embarrassed for my benighted profession, which operates on the mistaken assumption that if it doesn’t happen in New York or London, it isn’t happening.
“Mediocre people have an answer for everything and are astonished at nothing.”
Eugène Delacroix, journal entry, Feb. 25, 1852
If you read the Friday Wall Street Journal or this blog with any regularity, you probably know that I’m the only drama critic in America who routinely covers theatrical productions from coast to coast. As I wrote in my “Sightings” column a couple of years ago:
The time has come for American playgoers–and, no less important, arts editors–to start treating regional theater not as a minor-league branch of Broadway but as an artistically significant entity in and of itself. Take it from a critic who now spends much of his time living out of a suitcase: If you don’t know what’s hot in “the stix,” you don’t know the first thing about theater in 21st-century America.
But suppose you run a company I haven’t visited? How might you get me to come see you? Now’s the time to start asking that question, because I’m starting to work on my reviewing calendar for the fall of 2009. So here’s an updated version of the guidelines I use for deciding which out-of-town shows to see–along with some suggestions for improving the ways in which you reach out to the press:
• Basic requirements. I only review professional companies. I don’t review dinner theater, and it’s unusual for me to visit children’s theaters. I’m somewhat more likely to review Equity productions, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and I’m strongly interested in small companies.
• You must produce a minimum of three shows each season… That doesn’t apply to summer festivals, but it’s rare for me to cover a festival that doesn’t put on at least two shows a season.
• …and most of them have to be serious. I won’t put you on my drop-dead list for milking the occasional cash cow, but if The Foreigner is your idea of a daring revival, I won’t go out of my way to come calling on you, either.
• I have no geographical prejudices. On the contrary, I love to range far afield, particularly to states that I haven’t yet gotten around to visiting in my capacity as America’s drama critic. Right now Colorado and Texas loom largest, but if you’re doing something exciting in (say) Mississippi or Montana, I’d be more than happy to add you to the list as well.
• Repertory is everything. I won’t visit an out-of-town company that I’ve never seen to review a play by an author of whom I’ve never heard. What I look for is an imaginative mix of revivals of major plays–including comedies–and newer works by living playwrights and songwriters whose work I’ve admired. Some names on the latter list: Alan Ayckbourn, Brooke Berman, Nilo Cruz, Liz Flahive, Brian Friel, Athol Fugard, Adam Guettel, A.R. Gurney, David Ives, Michael John LaChiusa, Kenneth Lonergan, Lisa Loomer, David Mamet, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Itamar Moses, Lynn Nottage, Stephen Sondheim, and Tom Stoppard.
I also have a select list of older shows I’d like to review that haven’t been revived in New York lately (or ever). If you’re doing The Beauty Part, The Cocktail Party, The Entertainer, Hotel Paradiso, The Iceman Cometh, Loot, Man and Superman, On the Town, Rhinoceros, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Visit (the play, not the musical), or anything by Jean Anouilh, S.N. Behrman, William Inge, Terence Rattigan, or John Van Druten, kindly drop me a line.
• BTDT. I almost never cover regional productions of new or newish plays that I reviewed in New York in the past season or two–especially if I panned them. Hence the chances of my coming to see your production of Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them or reasons to be pretty are well below zero. (Suggestion: if you’re not already reading my Journal column, you probably ought to start.)
• I group my shots. It isn’t cost-effective for me to fly halfway across the country to review a single show. Whenever possible, I like to take in two or three different productions during a four- or five-day trip. (Bear in mind, though, that they don’t all have to be in the same city.) If you’re the publicist of the Lower Slobbovia Repertory Company and you want me to review your revival of Dancing at Lughnasa, your best bet is to point out that TheaterSlobbovia also happens to be doing The Playboy of the Western World that same weekend. Otherwise, I’ll probably go to Palm Beach instead.
• Web sites matter–a lot. A clean-looking home page that conveys a maximum of information with a minimum of clutter tells me that you know what you’re doing, thus increasing the likelihood that I’ll come see you. An unprofessional-looking, illogically organized home page suggests the opposite. (If you can’t spell, hire a proofreader.) This doesn’t mean I won’t consider reviewing you–I know appearances can be deceiving–but bad design is a needless obstacle to your being taken seriously by other online visitors.
If you want to keep traveling critics happy, make very sure that the front page of your Web site contains the following easy-to-find information and features:
(1) The title of your current production, plus its opening and closing dates.
(2) Your address and main telephone number (not the box office!).
(3) A SEASON button that leads directly to a complete list of the rest of the current and/or upcoming season’s productions. Make sure that this listing includes the press opening date of each production!
(4) A CALENDAR or SCHEDULE button that leads to a month-by-month calendar of all your performances, including curtain times.
(5) A CONTACT US button that leads to an updated directory of staff members (including individual e-mail addresses, starting with the address of your press representative).
(6) A DIRECTIONS or VISIT US button that leads to a page containing directions to your theater and a printable map of the area. Like many people, I now rely on my GPS unit when driving, so it is essential that this page also include the street address of the theater where you perform. Failure to conspicuously display this address is a hanging offense. (I also suggest that you include a list of recommended restaurants and hotels that are close to the theater.)
This is an example of a good company with an unattractive, poorly organized Web site on which much of the above information is hard to find.
This is an example of a good company with an attractive, well-organized Web site on which most of the above information is easy to find.
• Please omit paper. I strongly prefer to receive press releases via e-mail, and I don’t want to receive routine Joe-Blow-is-now-our-assistant-stage-manager announcements via any means whatsoever.
• Write to me here. Mail sent to me at my Wall Street Journal e-mail address invariably gets lost in the flood of random press releases. As a result, I no longer recommend that anyone write to me there. I get a lot of spam at my “About Last Night” mailbox, too, but not nearly as much as I do at the Journal.
• Mention this posting. I’ve come to see shows solely because publicists who read my blog wrote to tell me that their companies were doing a specific show that they had good reason to think might interest me. Go thou and do likewise.
UPDATE: I’m not the only theater blogger with a bee in his bonnet when it comes to badly designed Web sites.