“So no, we can’t have more plays like Tribes on Broadway, not unless some producer with cash to burn finagles a Hollywood star into taking three months off to appear in a limited run. Nor is that situation going to change any time soon. And until the media shift their focus to off-Broadway and regional companies–which is just as unlikely–then live theater, important and vital though it is, will remain on the margins of the larger American culture, vaguely respected but increasingly ignored…”
Archives for March 2012
In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, I report with the utmost enthusiasm on an off-Broadway revival of Lost in Yonkers, followed by brief and mostly unfavorable notices of Arena Stage’s Ah, Wilderness! in Washington, D.C., and the Broadway transfer of Newsies. Here’s an excerpt.
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Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 and whose original production ran for 780 performances on Broadway, is being revived for the first time in New York–in a 99-seat Off-Broadway house. How are the mighty fallen! But here’s the surprise: TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, one of the best small companies in Manhattan, is giving “Lost in Yonkers” a production that will make even confirmed anti-Simonites rethink their position. I’ve never seen a more emotionally persuasive Simon revival, not even David Cromer’s short-lived 2009 Broadway staging of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
The plot of “Lost in Yonkers” sounds like the premise for a second-rate sitcom: Eddie (Dominic Comperatore) gets into hot water with a loan shark, stows his two boys (Matthew Gumley and Russell Posner) with his gargoyle-like mother (Cynthia Harris) and goofy sister (Finnerty Steeves) and goes on the lam. What makes it work is that Mr. Simon has upped the ante by turning Eddie into a grieving widower, his mother into a loveless monster and his sister into a slightly retarded woman-child with mature sexual urges. The result is a play whose wisecracks float atop a roiling current of anger and despair.
How to balance these seemingly disparate elements? Jenn Thompson, the director, does it by staging “Lost in Yonkers” as though it were a straight-down-the-center family drama. No winks, no nudges, no slapstick: Every scene is played for truth. Yes, you’ll laugh–a lot–but never at the expense of believability…
Everything that’s right with TACT’s “Lost in Yonkers” is wrong with Arena Stage’s in-the-round version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” It’s like an illustrated lecture on how not to stage a period comedy, a protracted exercise in joke-jerking that seizes every opportunity to be obvious. The only way to perform a play like this one, in which O’Neill imagined the tranquil family life that he never had as a boy in turn-of-the-century Connecticut, is to do it without a trace of irony. Kyle Donnelly, on the other hand, has directed “Ah, Wilderness!” so broadly that you have to wonder whether she takes seriously O’Neill’s expressly stated intention to write a comedy that was “not in the satiric vein.”…
Imagine, if you dare, a cross beween “Waiting for Lefty” and “High School Musical.” Should you find such a combination appealing rather than appalling, you’ll like “Newsies,” the droningly earnest new Disney musical about the newsboy strike of 1899. Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book, has turned all the characters into flimsy cardboard cutouts, and the songs, by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, are namby-pamby pop-rock sprinkled with phony-sounding period touches….
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Read the whole thing here.
In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I offer a hard-boiled answer to a heartfelt question. Here’s an excerpt.
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Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” which opened Off Broadway earlier this month, is a superb new play about a dysfunctional family whose youngest member is deaf. Beautifully staged by David Cromer, it was hailed by the critics, myself included, and has extended its run through September.
This was the last sentence of my review: “Why can’t we have plays like this on Broadway?”
Everybody in the theater business knows that it’s become dismayingly hard to open a commercial production of a new play on Broadway….
Now turn back the clock and look at this partial list of new plays that ran on Broadway during the 1961-62 season: Tad Mosel’s “All the Way Home,” Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker,” Paddy Chayefsky’s “Gideon,” Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker,” Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana,” Ossie Davis’ “Purlie Victorious,” Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” Terence Rattigan’s “Ross,” Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey,” Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns” and the original production of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man.”
So what happened in the past half-century? Did playgoers get stupid? Is everybody staying home to watch TV? Maybe–but something else is going on. The best-remembered new play to hit Broadway in 1962 was Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It was budgeted at $47,000, the equivalent of $361,000 in today’s dollars. By contrast, the 2009 Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” cost $3 million to produce….
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Read the whole thing here.
“The critics? No, I have nothing but compassion for them. How can I hate the crippled, the mentally deficient, and the dead?”
Ronald Harwood, screenplay for The Dresser (courtesy of Mrs. T)
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.
• Anything Goes (musical, G/PG-13, mildly adult subject matter that will be unintelligible to children, closes Sept. 9, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Death of a Salesman (drama, PG-13, unsuitable for children, all performances sold out last week, closes June 2, reviewed here)
• Godspell (musical, G, suitable for children, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (musical, G/PG-13, perfectly fine for children whose parents aren’t actively prudish, reviewed here)
• Once (musical, G/PG-13, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Other Desert Cities (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes June 17, reviewed here)
• Venus in Fur (serious comedy, R, adult subject matter, closes June 17, 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)
• Million Dollar Quartet (jukebox musical, G, off-Broadway remounting of Broadway production, original run reviewed here)
• Saint Joan (drama, G/PG-13, unsuitable for children, extended through May 13, reviewed here)
• Tribes (drama, PG-13, extended through Sept. 2, reviewed here)
“For any authentic work of art must start an argument between the artist and his audience.”
Rebecca West, The Court and the Castle
A master of American music died today.
In lieu of restating the obvious, here’s a televised version of one of my favorite Flatt and Scruggs songs, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”:
Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, directed by Barry Davis and originally telecast on the BBC in 1987. The cast includes Dinsdale Landen, Tessa Peake-Jones, and Prunella Scales:
(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)
“To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:
“1. Who wants what from whom?
“2. What happens if they don’t get it?
“3. Why now?”
David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business
Hilton Kramer, who died today after a long and debilitating illness, was a great art critic who also founded an important magazine, The New Criterion. He was, like so many other great critics, more than a little bit narrow in his enthusiasms, but whenever he wrote about the artists who engaged his sensibilities most powerfully, he never failed to be illuminating.
I last had occasion to write about Hilton in 2007, when he brought out his final book, The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985-2005:
Kramer is best known for his unfavorable reviews, and in recent years he has spent an ever-increasing share of his time commenting on politics. As a result, too many younger readers are unaware that he is one of the best critical advocates we have. I saw several of the shows reviewed in The Triumph of Modernism when I was first starting to take a serious interest in art, and I vividly remember how reading what Kramer had to say about such critically undervalued modern painters as Fairfield Porter, Arthur Dove and Richard Diebenkorn helped give shape to my inchoate excitement. For all his gifts as a demolition man, it is this aspect of his work that continues to mean the most to me. Nothing is harder to write than a good review, and nobody writes better ones than Hilton Kramer.
John Podhoretz, who has written well about Hilton’s political passions, portrays him as a difficult man who was hard to like. For my part, I found him so intimidating that it was impossible for me to get to know him more than superficially. I regret that, but I am proud both to have known Hilton at all and to have published in The New Criterion. He was a man of the highest possible seriousness, forthright and fearless, and I expect that he will not soon be forgotten.
UPDATE: The New York Times obituary is here.
Franklin Einspruch gets Kramer exactly right.