Beat me, daddy

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I report enthusiastically on two new plays, Robert Askins’ Permission and Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt. Here’s an excerpt.

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permission8f-2-webRobert Askins’ “Hand to God” set the bar very high for “Permission,” in which he returns for the second time in a row to the mysterious world of fundamentalist-flavored evangelical Christianity as practiced in suburban Texas. Mysterious, that is, to Manhattanites: Most residents of flyover country (as it’s known on the godless coasts) don’t find it strange at all. But here as in “Hand to God,” Mr. Askins has found a decidedly peculiar corner of the culture that spawned him and put it on stage for the rest of us to puzzle out.

“Permission” is about two Christian couples, one of which hews to a cultish practice called “Christian Domestic Discipline” in which the wife is “submissive” to the all-powerful authority of her husband and consents to be spanked by him if she fails to do his bidding. “Permission” proceeds from the premise that CDD (which really exists) is actually a stealthy way of legitimizing the sadomasochistic longings of its practitioners. This notion isn’t all that amusing in and of itself, but Mr. Askins uses it to fuel a knockabout farce (so to speak) in which things get out of hand with dizzying and delicious speed.

Mr. Askins doesn’t content himself with sniping lazily at easy targets. Yes, his benighted characters are engaging in absurd behavior, but they’re real people, not grotesques…

media_01Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” which made it to Broadway in 2011, did nothing for me, but colleagues familiar with her previous work assured me that it didn’t do her justice. Then I saw “Our Lady of Kibeho” and found it impressive—the best new play of 2014, in fact. So I decided to check out Arena Stage’s premiere production of “The Blood Quilt” to see which way the coin would fall, and the verdict is positive. By turns raucously funny and electrically intense, “The Blood Quilt” is a tale of black family life that places Ms. Hall alongside Amy Herzog as the most promising young American playwright of the past decade.

The plot of “The Blood Quilt” is old-fashioned in all the right ways. Four half-sisters (their mother got around) return to the home in rural Georgia where they grew up and where their mother has just died. When she was alive, they came home each year for a quilting bee, and their plan is to continue the ritual. One of them, though, is a big-city lawyer (Meeya Davis) who broke away from the family and didn’t make it back for the funeral, thus setting in motion a well-wrought kitchen-sink drama whose dramaturgy is reminiscent of “A Raisin in the Sun” but whose subject matter is wholly contemporary. In addition, Ms. Hall shares with August Wilson and Horton Foote the magical ability to sift poetry from everyday speech…

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To read my complete review of Permission, go here.

To read my complete review of The Blood Quilt, go here.

A video featurette about Permission:

Katori Hall talks about The Blood Quilt:

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Strike up the (pit) band

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I hold forth on the rise, fall, and temporary return of the Broadway musical-comedy overture. Here’s an excerpt.

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If you’re under the age of 50 and you somehow manage to score a ticket to Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of “The King and I,” get set for a surprise at the top of the show. Here’s what happens: The lights go down. Ted Sperling, the conductor, steps into the pit, raises his baton and gives the downbeat. The 28-piece orchestra starts playing…and nothing else happens. No singing, no dancing, no explosions. Instead, you hear a medley of tunes from the show that you’re about to see, and when it’s over, you’re so worked up by the thrilling music and brilliant playing that you give Mr. Sperling and the orchestra a huge round of applause.

Then the show starts.

orchmainlgIf, on the other hand, you’re older than 50, you won’t be surprised in the least by what I’ve just described. That’s the way pretty much all Broadway musicals used to begin—with an extended orchestral prelude called an “overture.” Most musical-comedy overtures consist of a string of instrumental excerpts from the songs of a show, played in a continuous sequence with the curtain down and orchestrated in a cymbal-crashing style designed to whip the audience into a frenzy of expectancy. And that they do, on occasion spectacularly so, as in the raucous overture to “Gypsy,” whose climax is a shrieking take-it-all-off trumpet solo that never fails to bring down the house….

Broadway overtures started going out of fashion in the ‘60s and were all but extinct a decade later. Just as Hollywood directors of that era preferred to plunge straight into the action of a film in advance of the credits, so did prominent musical-comedy director-choreographers like Jerome Robbins (“On the Town,” “West Side Story”) and Michael Bennett (“A Chorus Line”) decide that it was more dramatically effective to cut to the chase. Younger audiences suckled on today’s faster-moving TV shows are even less likely to want to sit around for five minutes waiting for the show to get going.

But there’s more than one way to start a musical. Christopher Wheeldon’s “An American in Paris,” for example, begins with an extended dance number that contains no dialogue, while Cy Coleman’s elaborate overture to “On the Twentieth Century” is “accompanied” by equally elaborate stage action. And when you’ve got a full-size synthesizer-free orchestra in the pit, as is the case with “The King and I,” even clock-punching millennials will surely be disarmed by the sheer beauty of its playing….

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Read the whole thing here.

Leonard Bernstein leads the London Symphony in a 1989 live performance of his overture to Candide:

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How the Second World War made America literate

UnknownMy monthly essay for the June issue of Commentary, whose occasion is the publication of Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II , can now be read on line. Here’s an excerpt.

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It’s said that two things about war are insufficiently appreciated by those who, like me, have not known it first-hand: 1) It is, when not terrifying, mostly dull, and 2) it is, like all human enterprises, subject to the operation of the law of unintended consequences. Few aspects of World War II better illustrate both of these points than the Armed Services Editions publishing project. Between 1943 and 1947, the U.S. Army and Navy distributed some 123 million newly printed paperback copies of 1,322 different books to American servicemen around the world. These volumes, which were given out for free, were specifically intended to entertain the soldiers and sailors to whom they were distributed, and by all accounts they did so spectacularly well. But they also transformed America’s literary culture in ways that their wartime publishers only partly foresaw—some of which continue to be felt, albeit in an attenuated fashion, to this day….

Starting from scratch, these civilians quickly managed to get large numbers of books into the hands of large numbers of grateful servicemen. Without their efforts, America’s soldiers and sailors would have found their wartime service to be even more cruelly burdensome than it was—and America’s authors and publishers would have faced a very different set of problems when the war ended and those servicemen returned home….

Great-Gatsby-WWII-cover-of-Armed-Services-Edition-F-Scott-FitzgeraldThe story of the ASEs is told efficiently enough in When Books Went to War. But Manning is a lawyer, not a literary scholar, and she appears to have little or no awareness of their cultural context, thus making it impossible for her to interpret the project’s larger significance other than superficially. It is revealing, for instance, that the word “middlebrow” appears nowhere in When Books Went to War. Yet the most casual perusal of the list of books reprinted by the Council on Books in Wartime reveals that it reflected in every way the democratic assumptions of the middlebrow culture that dominated America throughout much of the 20th century. The vast popularity of the ASEs testifies to the strength of those assumptions.

At the heart of middlebrow culture was the belief that high art was accessible to anyone who was willing to put in the effort to understand it, and that reading “serious” bestsellers such as Irving Stone’s Lust for Life or John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley could serve as preparation for more ambitious ventures into great literature. For those servicemen who were already in the habit of reading for pleasure, the stateside counterpart of the ASEs was the Book-of-the-Month Club (which is mentioned only in passing in When Books Went to War). Both enterprises were essentially aspirational in their goals, both drew on the same wide-ranging pool of books, and both were broadly successful in elevating the literary tastes of those readers who made good use of them….

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Read the whole thing here.

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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, virtually all performances sold out, reviewed here)
Fun Home (serious musical, PG-13, all performances sold out, reviewed here)
Hand to God (black comedy, X, absolutely not for children or prudish adults, some performances sold out, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
The King and I (musical, G, perfect for children with well-developed attention spans, all performances sold out, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)
On the Twentieth Century (musical, G/PG-13, all performances sold out, closes July 19, contains very mild sexual content, reviewed here)
The Visit (serious musical, PG-13, far too dark and disturbing for 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)

Sense and Sensibility (musical, G, closes June 14, reviewed here)

It’s Only a Play (comedy, PG-13/R, closes June 7, reviewed here)

Grounded (drama, PG-13/R, explicit sexual references, reviewed here)

Side Man (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

Biloxi Blues (comedy, PG-13, sexual content, reviewed here)

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Snapshot: an interview with Aaron Copland

TV CAMERAAaron Copland is interviewed by James Day on Day at Night, originally taped by CUNY-TV in 1973:

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

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Tweets in search of a context: a visit to flyover country

imagesMrs. T and I have been catching up in recent weeks with a string of once-new films that slipped past us when they came out. On Wednesday we finally got around to Nebraska, which we both found deeply moving.

It surprises me in retrospect that we didn’t make more of an effort to see Nebraska two years ago. Alexander Payne, after all, is one of the very few contemporary film directors who speaks for me. I know his world—I grew up in it—and his feeling for the parts of America that figure in his films is precise and perfect. (Likewise Mark Orton’s score for Nebraska, which is as beautifully plain and direct as the film itself.)

file_111194_1_nebraskaint2Part of what draws me to Payne’s work is that I have a special fondness for “satire” so close to literal representation as to be all but indistinguishable from it. That’s his specialty, and it’s what Nebraska is like. At times, in fact, it almost suggests a satirical version of The Trip to Bountiful. Yet just behind the comedy is an emotional affekt similar to that of Horton Foote’s masterpiece, whose simple but profound plot is undoubtedly echoed in Bob Nelson’s screenplay. Yes, Nebraska is funny—but all the laughter hurts.

I reviewed Payne’s Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways in Crisis, and the second of those reviews also hints at the way I felt about Nebraska. Here it is, reprinted for the first time since it originally appeared in 2003.

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In Hollywood, ordinary middle-class life is a state to be escaped, not examined. Unlike their novel-writing counterparts, American filmmakers are almost never willing to set a serious drama in a believable-looking small town (Kenneth Lonergan’s masterly You Can Count on Me was a rare exception) or even a medium-sized city anywhere other than on the East or West Coasts. To them, the vast expanse of terra incognita known in New York and Los Angeles as “flyover country” is little more than a breeding ground for cross-burners, serial murderers, and Republicans.

This iron law applies with particular force to the part of America where I was born and raised. It happens that I am writing this month’s column in a small midwestern town, the sort of place whose existence is all but unknown to most movie directors. As I unspooled a decade’s worth of memorable films in my head, I was hard-pressed to think of any that conveyed the slightest sense of what it looks and feels like to live in Red America. It’s revealing that the first ones to come to mind were Waiting for Guffman and Election, both of which are satires.

Now Alexander Payne, the director and cowriter (with Jim Taylor) of Election, has returned to Omaha, Nebraska, to make a very different sort of movie about life among the regular guys. To be sure, About Schmidt is also a satire, but its comic effects are much less broad than those of Election—indeed, you almost have to come from the Midwest to know that Payne and Taylor are exaggerating anything at all. Had Payne cast an actor other than Jack Nicholson, who is incapable of understatement, to play the part of Warren Schmidt, a superfluous middle manager whose tightly wrapped life unravels when he is nudged into the comfortable oblivion of retirement, it might well have been possible to take About Schmidt at something close to face value.

As it is, Nicholson does his best to keep from over-egging the pudding, but for all his palpably good intentions, I kept wishing that Payne had cast someone more like William H. Macy. But, then, you can’t make a big-budget movie without at least one big-budget star, and Nicholson is more than good enough to make About Schmidt much more than plausible. Even with Nicholson, it is one of the very best movies about which I have been lucky enough to write in this space.

retirement1Like Barbershop, another fine film that seeks to show the world as it is, About Schmidt doesn’t have much of a plot. Warren Schmidt is settling uneasily into a boring retirement when he comes home one day and finds his wife, Helen (June Squibb), dead on the floor of their kitchen. The shock of her death throws him into a depression from which he seeks to extract himself by driving from Omaha to Denver in his motor home, there to visit his soon-to-be-married daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis, one of the best of the many fine actresses to come out of the indie-flick movement). Randall, Jeannie’s fiancé (Dermot Mulroney), is a long-haired waterbed salesman whose family never quite got over the Sixties. Jeannie loves him, but Schmidt loathes him, and the prospect of seeing his only child vanish into a mediocre marriage forces him to take an unsparing look at his own unsatisfying life.

One of the smartest things about Election was Alexander Payne’s refusal to let any of his characters off easy, even the ones with whom he might well have been expected to sympathize. Yes, Schmidt’s life has been emotionally constricted, but that didn’t make it altogether meaningless; yes, Randall and his family are more open to experience, but this openness has not made them better than Schmidt, just different. Most filmmakers make it agonizingly clear which side they’re on, but in About Schmidt as in Election before it, Payne casts a cold eye on all he sees. (It tells us everything we need to know about Randall, for instance, that he and Jeannie walk down the aisle to the insipid strains of Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer.”)

Interestingly enough, the only aspect of midwestern life about which About Schmidt has nothing interesting to say is religion. Warren Schmidt is experiencing a full-blown spiritual crisis, one whose seriousness is in no way diminished by his own smallness of soul, and it is surprising—to put it mildly that at no time in the course of the movie does he look to religion, organized or otherwise, as a possible source of enlightenment or solace. One could easily imagine his having been left in the lurch by the spiritual blandness of latter-day mainline Protestantism, in much the same way that Kenneth Lonergan skewers the sin-free Methodism of the clergyman he plays in You Can Count on Me. Yet in a film otherwise notable for its uncanny fidelity to fact, it is impossible to forget that a couple like Warren and Helen Schmidt would almost certainly have been fairly regular churchgoers in real life.

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Lookback: fighting a losing battle with Mrs. T

LOOKBACKFrom 2008:

Time: near the end of a leisurely dinner. Place: Restaurant 15 Main, Narrowsburg, New York. Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Thanks for the Memory” is playing in the background.

SHE I never liked that song.

HE Well–

SHE Don’t say it–I already know what you’re going to say. “Well, I like it.” Of course you like it. You’re got more in common with your parents’ generation than with ours.

HE What do you mean? I know twice as much about rock and roll as you do.

SHE Yeah, but you never hung out in bars and danced with girls when you were in high school.

Read the whole thing here.

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