“In Bye Bye Birdie, the 1960 musical about the coming of rock and roll to small-town America, the members of an Ohio family sing a song called “Hymn for a Sunday Evening” in which they tell of their abiding love for The Ed Sullivan Show, the Sunday-night TV variety show on which they are about to appear with Conrad Birdie, an Elvis Presley-like pop idol: “How could any family be/Half as fortunate as we?/We’ll be coast to coast/With our favorite host.” But while most people who see Bye Bye Birdie today know that Sullivan, unlike Birdie, was a real person and that Elvis Presley’s 1956 performances on his program were a watershed moment in the singer’s early career, the larger point of the song is lost on younger viewers, few of whom are aware of how central a role The Ed Sullivan Show once played in American culture…”
Archives for February 2010
In today’s Wall Street Journal column, I review the Transport Group’s superb off-Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, plus Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project production of The Tempest and a new play by Douglas Carter Beane, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch. Here’s an excerpt.
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If I had to draw up a list of the most effective American plays of the past half-century, Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band,” in which a group of unhappy gay men gather for a birthday party and spend the night picking at one another’s psychic scabs, would be on it. Mr. Crowley’s best-remembered play may not be a masterpiece, but it’s exceptionally well constructed and as compelling as a fist fight, and the Transport Group’s Off-Broadway revival–only the second in New York since “The Boys in the Band” opened in 1968–does it near-complete justice.
The Transport Group is presenting “The Boys in the Band” in a site-specific “environmental” production directed with taut fervor by Jack Cummings III, designed by Sandra Goldmark and set in an actual penthouse space in midtown Manhattan, with the 99 members of the audience scattered throughout the living room. The results are unnervingly intimate–the nine actors are in your lap all evening long–and so believable that you’ll flinch when the insults start flying….
Does Sam Mendes really like Shakespeare? The staging of “The Tempest” that he’s mounted under the auspices of the Bridge Project, in which Brooklyn’s BAM Harvey and London’s Old Vic Theatres jointly produce a pair of classics each season performed by binational casts, makes me wonder. Like last year’s “Winter’s Tale,” it’s so cluttered and idea-ridden that the play comes close to getting lost in the shuffle…
Douglas Carter Beane’s latest, “Mr. and Mrs. Fitch,” is the tale of a pair of washed-up gossip columnists (John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle) who rejuvenate their careers by publishing a scandalous story about an imaginary person. Even if the premise were less trite, the play would still be a bore, consisting as it does of several thousand bitchy one- and two-liners lined up in a row, few of which are funny….
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Read the whole thing here.
“Great ladies cultivate those occupied with the arts as in former times they kept buffoons.”
W. Somerset Maugham, preface to The Plays of Somerset Maugham, Vol. 3
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.
• Fela! * (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• God of Carnage (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• South Pacific (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)
• A View from the Bridge * (drama, PG-13, violence and some sexual content, closes Apr. 4, reviewed here)
• Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• The Orphans’ Home Cycle, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (drama, G/PG-13, too complicated for children, now being performed in rotating repertory, closes May 8, reviewed here, here, and here)
• Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)
• Venus in Fur (serious comedy, R, sexual content, closes Mar. 28, reviewed here)
But little people are so difficult.
They’re lousy snobs, the lot of them.
Talk like an Englishman, they think you’re Jesus Christ.
Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (courtesy of Mary Foster Conklin)
“Lincoln Center Festival is for all intents and purposes in the business of bringing foreign artists to New York–and American regional theater, unlike British theater, is devoid of the made-in-Europe snob appeal that goes over so well in New York. But what if Washington’s Kennedy Center, or some ambitious presenter in Denver or Palm Beach or San Francisco, undertook the task of putting on an all-American Shakespeare festival? Or, better still, a festival of great American plays performed by our top regional companies?…”
Donald E. Westlake (a/k/a Richard Stark) talks about the creation of Parker:
(This is the latest in a weekly series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Wednesday.)
“If there is anyone who owes everything to Bach, it is God.”
E. M. Cioran, All Gall Is Divided: Gnomes and Apothegms
Among the fascinating tidbits in David Grann’s The Lost City of Z. is a mention of a “Gumption-Reviver machine” used by Francis Galton — Darwin’s cousin and an adventurer, statistician, and inventor (later in life he would expand on and warp Darwin’s theories to create eugenics) — while he was an undergraduate at Cambridge.
I’ve been putting in a lot of writing time at my desk lately and the idea of a Gumption-Reviver is infinitely appealing. A couple sources credit Galton with the machine’s invention, but in the same letter excerpted below he mentions that a tutor recommended it to him so it may have already been in use at the college. The basic idea: A portable funnel suspended overhead drips a steady stream of water on your head to keep you awake. As Galton writes, “We generally begin to use this machine about 10 at night and continue it till 1 or 2; it is very useful.”
Should you want more specific instructions to create your own, I direct you to Galton’s letter to his father on the subject, found in Karl Pearson’s Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton. All you’ll need is a funnel with graduated stopcock, a supporting apparatus, a napkin and a servant to keep the funnel filled with water!
My dear Father,
I should have sent a letter to you yesterday if it had not been that the one that I had written was spoilt by an accident in my Gumption-Reviver machine which covered it with water. This machine as it has perhaps come into use since your time I describe to you.
[Sketch of the Gumption-Reviver machine: a student sits reading at a table, elbows on table and hands support head, lamp in front to right; funnel dripping water which runs off a cloth bound round head to left. Additional sketches of gallows to carry funnel and of method of arranging cloth.]
A large funnel is supported on a double stand about 6 ft. high, it has a graduated stopcock at the bottom by which the size of the aperture can be regulated. This as you read is placed above your head and filled with water. Round the head a napkin is tied, dependent on one side where the bow and end is so [arranged] that the water may drop off. Now it is calculated that as the number of hours of study increases in an arithmetic ratio, so will the weariness consequent on it increase in a geometrical ratio, and the stream of water must in that ratio be increased…
Galton explains that your “gyp” (Cambridge slang for servant) should refill the funnel every quarter-hour. You will not wish to spread a sheet or towel across your clothing as their wetness is desirable; as Galton says, “damp shirts do not invite repose.” However, the mention of the ruined letter makes me think that you may want a protective guard for your notebook or laptop.
“Celebrity is what a democratic society has instead of aristocrats.”
John Leonard, Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television and Other American Cultures