Monthly Archives: November 2009


(Ben Brantley's review appeared in The New York Times, November 20.) 

Heart of a Small Town, Vast in Its Loneliness 

Two fresh-faced fishermen, wearing solemn expressions and suspenders, sit on a riverbank, looking as if they were waiting for Norman Rockwellto show up with his easel. “You’re on your own now,” one of them says

“I’m on my own,” the other answers, staring straight ahead. He is 12, and his father has just died. He is not kidding. He is also absolutely right.

This sun-clouding moment of perception, in which an all-American idyll takes on a mortal chill, occurs in the opening chapter of what promises to be the great adventure of this theater season: the New York premiere of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” Horton Foote’s heart-piercing, nine-play family album about growing up lonely in Texas in the early 20th century. The boy who sees his future with so little mercy one afternoon in 1902 is named Horace Robedaux. And though he is hardly what you would call a happy lad, he is unusually honest, and I think you’re going to want to spend as much time in his company as you can.

That means sitting for roughly nine hours at the Peter Norton Space of the Signature Theater Company, where the three three-play installments of the cycle will be playing during the next four months. But on the basis of the first part, which opened on Thursday night under the umbrella title “The Story of a Childhood,” nine hours may not feel like enough.

(Read more)

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(Lynn Gardner's review ran in the Guardian, 11/21.) 

The Roman Tragedies

Barbican, London

Shakespeare gets a close-up in Toneelgroep's compression of three plays – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra – a remarkable six-hour marathon played without an interval. If that sounds like a penance, think again: this is an exhilarating pleasure. Director Ivo van Hove gleefully reinvents these tragedies of private obsessions and passions, political ambitions and expediency to make it seem as if Shakespeare is not only our contemporary but only finished writing the plays this morning. The final hour of the final play, Antony and Cleopatra, is about as good as theatre gets; combining astonishingly inventive stagecraft with glorious acting, raw as an open wound, totally invested and decidedly unpretty. I'd happily see it all again for those 60 minutes.

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(Doing our best to bring you John Simon reviews of plays he actually liked, this article appeared on Bloomberg, Nov. 20.)

Ruhl’s Flighty ‘Vibrator Play’ Lives Up to the Buzz: John Simon

Wonders will never cease. Sarah Ruhl, whose previous work I execrated, has written a smart, charming, iridescently funny-serious jewel, “In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play.”

Presented on Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater, it is about American women at “the dawn of the age of electricity” (circa 1880) achieving sexual emancipation thanks to the vibrator.

The device was prescribed for “hysterical” women — more rarely men — and applied discreetly to the private parts of undergarmented patients. The doctor would, with his fancy gizmo, reach under a pristine sheet and administer three to five minutes of electrifying vibration, at the end of which women in paroxysm would achieve something transcendent, for which they had no name let alone full understanding.

We get the story of Dr. and Mrs. Catherine Givings in “perhaps Saratoga Springs,” who have a very Victorian marriage and an infant daughter, Lotty. Catherine, mortified, cannot provide sufficient maternal milk; a wet nurse is required.

One of Dr. Givings’s patients is Mrs. Sabrina Daldry, whose hysteria is quite pronounced, but whose vibrator-induced orgasms are even more pronounced, what with earthquake-like paroxysms and eloquent outcries.

Sizable Contraption

Catherine, her inquisitive ear applied to the door of her husband’s “operating theater,” listens with intensely increasing excitement. The vibrator, by the way, is a sizable as well as irresistible contraption.

Profiting from a rare absence of both the doctor and Annie, his midwife assistant, the two ladies penetrate the inner sanctum and tumble onto the illicit but paradisiac ecstasies the mutually applied vibrator provides. Their prudish, unfulfilling marital relations forgotten, a brave new world intoxicates them.

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Each week the expert staff of the renowned Drama Book Shop in Manhattan, just seconds away from Broadway, recommends plays that are new, interesting, or just flat-out fantastic. Picking the best of published work, they help keep us up to date and aware of the little known, broadening our horizons and encouraging dialogue. Order a play from The Drama Book Shop, read it, and e-mail them with your thoughts–they'd love to hear from you:


The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh

Modern Irish theatre enthusiasts who haven’t already will want to check out Enda Walsh’s new two-play collection, The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom. Walsh’s keen talent for witty, absurd dialogue (and monologues) makes these plays a delight and a challenge for the reader and audience member. They both explore Irish mythmaking and creative interpretations of the past.

The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom were both produced by The Druid Theatre in Galway and moved on to win Edinburgh Fringe First Awards in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Both made their American debuts at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

The Walworth Farce revolves around Dinny, an Irish man, and his two sons in a subsidized apartment in South London dramatizing the heroic tale of his departure from Ireland. Their daily ritual of cross-dressing, carrying around cardboard coffins and playing old Irish ballads is interrupted by a change in routine and a fourth member of the cast unwillingly joins their farce. These changes also cause the sons to question the truth behind Dinny’s story. A humorous and exhausting tale of male bravado and the crippling fear of change, subverts the legacy of Synge, Yeats, Friel and even McDonagh in a surprising and disturbing way.

Cast: 3m, 1w

A companion piece to The Walworth Farce in theme and structure, The New Electric Ballroom is set in a poxy harbour town in the west of Ireland. Three unmarried sisters live together in the family house and relive their glory days of adolescence leading up to one night at the New Electric Ballroom that shattered their dreams of romance and escape. Their charade is occasionally interrupted by Patsy, the lonely fishmonger, with his own stories of life in the village and social anxiety. The play is equal parts Three Sisters and Beauty Queen of Leenane with a gorgeous lyricism that turns universal heartbreak and disappointment into a funny and bleak exploration of storytelling and the inability to move forward and take risks.

Cast: 3w, 1m

Scenes/Monologues: Lyrical monologues for men and women (40s, 60s), funny and bizarre scenes for men and women (20s, 40s, 60s).

Recommended by: Kate 

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"The Walworth Farce" and "The New Electric Ballroom"


Praise for "The Walworth Farce":

"Complex, dark, and emotionally rich. . . . The central conceit, that this is a farce within a tragedy, is a master stroke of meta-theatricality. . . . It rewards with a theatrical experience that claws at the imagination for days afterwards."-"Variety"

Praise for "The New Electric Ballroom":

"For the second year in a row at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe] Enda Walsh supplied the most intoxicating and original piece of writing with his pitch-dark but tender-hearted play. . . . "The New Electric Ballroom" affirms his growing reputation as a contender to take his place in the long, distinguished line of great Irish playwrights."-"The New York Times"

This volume brings together two masterworks by the London-based Irish playwright Enda Walsh: unmistakably Irish, galloping gothic comedies about the use of theater and oral traditions to warp family history. In "The Walworth Farce," one-play-playwright Dinny forces his adult sons Sean and Blake to enact his own version of why they are living in a rotting London flat, in exile from their native Cork. "The New Electric Ballroom" is set in a small fishing village in Ireland, where spinster sisters Breda and Clara, and their much-younger sibling Ada, replay a scandalous incident at a dance hall when they were in the bloom of their youth.

Enda Walsh has been recognized by numerous awards for his plays, which include "Disco Pigs," "Bedbound," "Small Things," and "Chatroom." He also wrote the screenplay for "Hunger," winner of the Camera d'Or award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.

Product Details

Publisher : Theatre Communications Group
Published : 11/01/2009
Format : Paperback , pages 160
ISBN-10 : 1559363541
ISBN-13 : 9781559363549



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Ragtime is a difficult musical to revive, to re-envision, because, as is, it’s so  compelling commercially (interestingly, though, the show didn’t earn out during its initial 1998 run, apparently due to production costs and the salaries of the large cast).  Today, whether it’s the fault of the concept or the recession or both, the number of actors in Broadway’s new version at the Neil Simon Theatre is limited to a not insubstantial forty, and the sets are streamlined: a two-tiered unit, reminiscent of Tiffany and Grand Central is used (it’s still big, though, and, at times, it even appears barnlike, dark, and empty). But the decision to read “big,” within a budget, for Ragtime is warranted:  This is a serious candidate for hard-earned holiday dollars.  The musical, an adaptation of a famous novelist’s arguably most famous novel, can stand on its laurels, too—besides being based on Doctorow’s work, Broadway A-listers won Tony awards for best book (Terrence McNally) and music (Stephen Flaherty). Even if the creators seem a little self-important in a recent New York Times promotional article (Doctorow called the musical an opera and McNally said they weren’t doing “a reproduction of the original,” even if he didn’t rewrite anything), it’s the kind of show you can safety take your kids to (no sex or bad language to speak of ).  A kaleidoscopic history of the early twentieth century, its characters include J. P. Morgan and Houdini; Henry Ford and a ragtime pianist named Coalhouse Walker; uptight WASPs and activist Jews, unknowingly, meant for each other–the Irish (uppity), African Americans (hunted), non-immigrant Dads (out of it), and Republicans (Republicans) don’t fare as well in terms of the plot, but, today, in terms of generic cultural portrayals in the media, they’re probably used to it.  There’s a contradiction, though.  Such lack of dimension, for characters with names like Mother and Father (the same as in the book), is awkward—the audience is reminded of the dangers of stereotyping (and sung to that we’re all the same in the dark), yet quick character thumbnails are what we see on the stage.

Truth be told, Doctorow is right:  Ragtime should be an opera.  Despite the high artistic and monetary stakes, it should be taken another step—and, amazingly, go beyond high-level Broadway craftsmanship. Maybe the creators didn’t feel they could engage an audience in a different way; maybe there were collaborative dynamics we don’t know about (today, we see the creators posing collegially for the New York Times camera). But the issues of the musical were expressed rather straightforwardly the first time it opened in New York (I didn’t see the show in its initial run, and I haven’t read the current review of Ragtime in The New York Times).  In 1998, Ben Brantley wrote, however:  “The musical is a carefully constructed pastiche of period charm and contemporary mechanical efficiency. . . . [It] has the aura of something assembled by corporate committee. . . . The skills and virtues . . . are many and undeniable; but a distinctive human personality is not among them.”  Given this lukewarm assessment, it’s surprising that Ragtime wasn’t changed more (not that critics are part of a creative team but because Brantley was making sense). What does go right is that McNally really does do a masterful job of condensing the book and tying up loose ends; because he is largely working without an obvious central character, I was concerned that–despite his knowledge of  the tricks of the trade and stage devices–the musical would only end up as period events and details piled on top of one another.  His book does payoff extremely well, though—he really does make the musical resound before Coalhouse’s last exit.   After Sondheim and Kander and Ebb, Flaherty’s work doesn’t seem emotionally complex enough to my ear—but it’s also difficult to fault him; this is a huge score in a huge undertaking for all. He knows the music of rags, cake walks, and marches—and Broadway as well (you’ll also be reminded of Sondheim and Kander & Ebb in Ragtime)–and he can reproduce all skillfully over the two and a half hours of the show, even if he continues to seem too much the mimic (although I really was starting to groove on a song called, “He Wanted to Say” before it was abruptly over).  What I’ve been continuing to think about, given this embarrassment of riches,  is something that Joseph Papp said way back in 1978 concerning Lincoln Center:  “Be careful not to have too many people . . .  theatres [and maybe musicals] can’t be run by committees.”  And that’s where I think the problem may rest here –the absence of a prevailing artist.

This is a true conundrum given that theatre—and maybe musical theatre most of all–is such a collaborative art.  All I can intuit is that somehow, some way the creative team misconstrued getting A’s in entertainment with producing art.  If it were art, Doctorow really would have his musical opera; if it were art, Flaherty would have found his own musical voice (and maybe even given us one unforgettable song or aria, like Webber did with “Memory” (in the otherwise rather forgettable score for Cats); if it were art, McNally and Lynn Ahrens would also have found a way to fashion more fully dimensioned characters (even if there are so many of them) and not contradict one of their most important points.  I actually think such a feat could have been achieved, I actually think they are very close to the transmutation—but, for now, commerce has won again.

–© 2009 by Bob Shuman

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(Sam Shepard's story appeared in the 11/23 New Yorker.)

Indianapolis (Highway 74)

I’ve been crisscrossing the country again, without much reason. Sometimes a place will just pop into my head and I’ll take off. This time, down through Normal, Illinois, from high up in white Minnesota, dead of winter, icy roads, wind blowing sideways across the empty cornfields. Find myself stopping for the night outside Indianapolis, off 74, just before it makes its sweeping junction with 65 South to Louisville. I randomly pick a Holiday Inn, more for its familiar green logo and predictability than anything else. Plus, I’m wiped out. Evidently there’s some kind of hot-rod convention going on in town, although I seem to remember those always taking place at the height of summer, when people can run around in convertible coupés with the tops down. Anyway, there are no rooms available, except possibly one, and that one is “Smoking,” which I have nothing against. The desk clerk tells me she’ll know in about ten minutes if there’s going to be a cancellation. I’m welcome to wait, so I do, not wanting to face another ninety-some miles down to Kentucky through threatening weather.

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(Alfred Hickling’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/13.)

The Fever Chart

Theatre Royal, York

Sometimes it is the quietest responses to humanitarian disaster that make the loudest impact. The war in Iraq inspired Canadian dramatist Judith Thompson's superb trio of monologues, Palace of the End. Now, Pilot Theatre presents the British premiere of American playwright Naomi Wallace's triptych of short plays about the Middle East.

Spanning the period from the first Gulf war to the present day, Wallace examines the conflict through three elliptical encounters at a zoo in a West Bank border town, in the waiting room of a clinic in Jerusalem, and at a pigeon fancier's convention in Baghdad. The offbeat settings enable Wallace to shift the emphasis from the vagaries of international politics to the impact it has on everyday lives. Whereas the living conditions of the West Bank are almost impossible to imagine, Wallace creates an empathetic image of a half-demolished zoo, where a rare breed of turtle has been wiped out beneath the treads of Israeli tanks. Similarly, she finds a means of conveying the impact of international sanctions on Iraq in a monologue lamenting the loss of prize pigeons, shot down for food. The conceits become a little strained at times: there's a degree of enmity within these encounters that draws attention to their inevitable contrivance. But the acting is exemplary, particularly from Lisa Came as an Israeli nurse faced with an awkward Palestinian patient (Raad Rawi). Daniel Rabin also impresses as an eloquent idealist in his pigeon loft.

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(Simon Callow's article appeared in the Guardian, 11/14.)

Lord of the dance

Simon Callow on the great impresario Sergey Diaghilev of the Ballets

 In the theatre, there is a distinction to be made between an impresario and a producer. Sergey Diaghilev was both. He produced the work – that is to say, he raised the money, hired the artists and the craftsmen and ensured that the show opened on time – and he did all this superbly. But what has made him legendary is that he also created the conditions in which the work was initiated, he prepared the public for it, and he made sure that when it was done, it was the cynosure of the artistic world. This is the work of the impresario, who must be part huckster, part rallier of the troops, part goad and tormentor of his artists, part keeper of their artistic conscience, part networker. He needs to be absolutely in tune with the public and always ahead of it, and to create a perpetual excitement around the work. He must be a huge personality, but he is never the creator of the work itself.

(Read more)


(Dwight Garner's review ran in The New York Times, 11/12.)

Impresario of and for the People 

One of the best lines in “Free for All,” the big, bouncy new oral history of Joseph Papp and the Public Theater, isn’t about Papp at all. It’s about the mesmerizing effect the director Mike Nichols had — and still has — on playwrights. “I think if an Eskimo wrote a play,” the playwright James Kirkwood says, “he’d put it on an ice floe and push it toward Mike Nichols.”

It’s no knock against Mike Nichols to observe that, throughout most of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Papp was the man with the most clout, and the most nerve, in the English-speaking theater world. There had been no one quite like him. A scrappy Brooklyn kid, the son of a Yiddish-speaking trunk maker, Papp, who never went to college, founded and ran for decades two of New York City’s signal cultural landmarks, the New York Shakespeare Festival (now called Shakespeare in the Park) and the Public Theater.

He invented and nurtured these nonprofit institutions through force and charm and occasionally bristling aggression, but also through fine taste and uncanny intuition. His first love was Shakespeare, but he also had a feel for offbeat musicals like “Hair” and “A Chorus Line” (at its time, the longest-running musical in Broadway history), both of which had their start at the Public, and for works like Ntozake Shange’s poetry-driven “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”

(Patricia Cohen's article appeared in The New York Times, 11/4.)

Long-Delayed Opening for History of, and by, Joseph Papp

If Joseph Papp had had his way, “Free for All,” the newly published oral history about him and the Public Theater he helped found, would never have seen the light of day. The memory of how Papp, more than 20 years ago, inexplicably turned on the project he initiated even now causes its author, Kenneth Turan, to wince. “It was so traumatic when Joe told me the book wouldn’t be published,” he said, remembering Papp’s reaction to the manuscript to which Mr. Turan had devoted nearly two years. “It was like someone died.”

Now a film critic for The Los Angeles Times, Mr. Turan started collaborating with that grand impresario in 1986 on a definitive oral history of the Public and its forerunner, the New York Shakespeare Festival. Mr. Turan elicited memories from Papp of the grinding poverty of his Brooklyn childhood; the leftist ideology that inspired him to produce free theater; his defiant testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s; his surprising victory over the most powerful man in New York, Robert Moses; and the making of hits like “Hair,” “That Championship Season” and “A Chorus Line,” and fiascos like his own production of “Hamlet” (later called “Naked Hamlet”) and “True West,” which the playwright Sam Shepard and the director Robert Woodruff both ended up disowning.

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(Caitlin Moran's article appeared in the Times of London, November 12.) 

Eddie Izzard: 'I keep thinking if I do all these things she'll come back'

The death of Eddie Izzard's mother when he was aged 5 haunts him. He reveals why it still drives him 

We’re four rows from the front of the MEN Arena, Manchester. With 13,000 people sitting behind us, these are pretty much the best seats in the house — yet, still: we can’t see Eddie Izzard’s eyes.

Well, more specifically, there’s no time to look at Eddie Izzard’s eyes while he’s humming and buzzing across the stage, like some super-bright sunshine kid in full-on “delight” mode. You have time only to register his grin — like a predatory Cheshire cat — as the characters fall out of his one-man phantasmagorical ensemble pieces.

Here comes a traumatised squirrel from Brooklyn; a raptor in a pork-pie hat being pulled over for speeding; a Persian soldier very slowly impaling himself on Spartan spears at Thermopylae. Caring sharks. An entire swarm of bees.

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(Patrick Healy’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/11; the above video was not part of the Theater of War presentation.)

The Anguish of War for Today’s Soldiers, Explored by Sophocles

The ancient Greeks had a shorthand for the mental anguish of war, for post-traumatic stress disorder and even for outbursts of fratricidal bloodshed like last week’s shootings at Fort Hood. They would invoke the names of mythological military heroes who battled inner demons: Achilles, consumed by the deaths of his men; Philoctetes, hollowed out from betrayals by fellow officers; Ajax, warped with so much rage that he wanted to kill his comrades.

Now officials at the Defense Department are turning to the Greeks to explore the psychic impact of war.

The Pentagon has provided $3.7 million for an independent production company, Theater of War, to visit 50 military sites through at least next summer and stage readings from two plays by Sophocles, “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” for service members. So far the group has performed at Fort Riley in Kansas; at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md.; and at last week’s Warrior Resilience Conference in Norfolk, Va.

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