Monthly Archives: December 2009


(Erik Piepenburg's article appeared in The New York Times, 12/30.)

Plays That Changed Your Lives

When Patrick Healy reviewed the new book “The Play That Changed My Life,” the review was accompanied by audio comments from some of the playwrights featured in the book about how their own works had affected their lives. We also asked readers to share their thoughts about shows that had been pivotal in their own lives.

The responses — more than 200 so far — range from Broadway musicals (“A Chorus Line,” “Annie”) to socially conscious works (“Rent,” “Angels in America”) to high school or community theater productions of classics (“The Glass Menagerie”).

Here are excerpts from some of those comments.

“Hands down, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ with Vanessa Redgrave. I can’t even think of an adjective powerful enough to describe her intensity. The entire audience didn’t even breathe for the length of the show.” — Catherine

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times Marc Anthony, left, and Ruben Blades in the 1998 production of “The Capeman.”

“Without a doubt it would be ‘The Capeman.’ Though not a perfect production by any means, at 17 I was transfixed by the music and the performances and ended up seeing the show a dozen times.” — Melinda

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(Tanya Gold's article appeared in the Guardian, 12/30. Video of part of the interview appears on the Guardian site.)

Mickey Rooney: 'Why retire? Inspire'

As a happy-go-lucky child star, Mickey Rooney was Hollywood's biggest draw. But he doesn't seem so cheery now he's playing panto in Milton Keynes at the age of 89 …

Where to begin with Mickey Rooney? He has been an actor – if not a star – for a long time. His debut was in 1927, when he was seven. By 1938, he was the biggest box-office draw in the world, a smiling robot from the MGM star factory. They put him in the Andy Hardy series, where he played America's favourite son.

He was an athletic singer and dancer – the beaming foil to a young Judy Garland in the "let's put on a show, kids!" films – and a good dramatic actor, too. But after the war he slumped – eight marriages (the first to Ava Gardner), alcohol, drugs, bankruptcy and professional destitution, including a spell as a Mickey Rooney impersonator.

Then came his eighth wife, Jan Chamberlin, conversion to Christianity and a partial professional renaissance, although the days when he and Judy stopped the traffic in New York were gone. Today he is a sort of American mascot – the child star who lived. He is warmhearted, bombastic, up for anything. Isn't he?

No. The Mickey Rooney I meet at the Milton Keynes Theatre is tricky and hostile. He is here playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella. He sits aggressively upright, looking as if he will stagger out if I say the wrong thing (questions seem to be the wrong thing). He is tiny – 5ft 3in – and bald. At 89, he is desiccated and withered, except for his teeth, which are strangely perfect.

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(Jennifer Homans's article appeared in The New Republic, 12/28.)

The Art of Work

La Danse: Le Ballet de L’Opéra de Paris

Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman’s new film about the Paris Opera Ballet begins with a building. In a series of staccato shots that follow one after another like a silent slide show, we move from an overview of Paris into the streets of the city until we find ourselves squarely in front of the Palais Garnier, the ornate nineteenth-century theater where the company performs. The next image is a shock. From this light-filled, outdoor Parisian world we suddenly find ourselves in a dark underground tunnel: we are in the catacombs and the bowels of the theater. The “slides” continue, still in silence: shots of dimly lit backstage areas with ancient-looking pulleys, cranks, pillars, and ropes neatly wound on the floor as if on an old ship’s deck. The weight and the age of the theater’s physical plant is palpable. Then we see a hallway, hear music, and Wiseman cuts to a rehearsal studio where dancers are taking class.

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(Michael Feingold's article appeared in the Village Voice, 12/29.) 

In Misalliance, Ernest in Love, and Orphans' Home Cycle, Part 2, It's Passion vs. Parents

By George Bernard Shaw
Pearl Theatre Company (MTC Stage II)
131 West 55th Street, 212-581-1212

Ernest in Love
By Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street, 212-727-2737

The Orphans' Home Cycle, Part 2
By Horton Foote
Signature Theater
555 West 42nd Street, 212-244-7529

The decades before World War I, when the Industrial Revolution was just rolling into the century of unremitting technological change that followed, mark a kind of summit, a seemingly peaceful hilltop from which one could look back with pride on the many ways mechanical progress had made life easier—or look forward, either with hope or with deep foreboding, on the upheaval that would soon be wrought by progress yet to come. All three of the works covered in this column take place on that serene yet trouble-beset hilltop. Part 2 of Horton Foote's Orphans' Home Cycle views it in memory, from the perspective of still-isolated, small-town Texas, where change comes slowly. Ernest in Love, librettist Anne Croswell and composer Lee Pockriss's 1960 musicalization of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, reanimates it with puckish, epigrammatic twinkle. And Shaw's Misalliance, the only one of the trio written in the period (1910), gives, expectably, the most searching analysis of this resting place's many bustling levels.

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(Patrick Healy's article ran in The New York Times, 12/28.)


Falling, Falling, Falling for the Footlight Parade

One of my favorite childhood memories is of my father’s acting debut in a community-theater production of “The Mousetrap,” the Agatha Christie murder mystery. I smiled in my seat the entire time as I watched my dad, an 11th-hour replacement in the role of Detective Sergeant Trotter, piece together the Christie puzzle, stealing glances at a script in his hat because he hadn’t had enough time to learn his lines. Theater seemed so fun and alive, an adventure. Soon I began writing plays and acting, both of which proved essential in overcoming my painful shyness.

It’s impossible not to recall such memories while reading “The Play That Changed My Life,” a valuable new collection of essays and interviews from the American Theater Wing, founder of the Tony Awards and a sponsor of theatrical education programs. Anyone working in theater probably would have something to contribute, but the Wing wisely chose to resist the commercial benefits of turning to stars for anecdotes. Instead it solicited insights from 21 of America’s best playwrights, artists equipped to write knowingly and movingly about the  ways that plays and theater gave them a calling.

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(K. Leander Williams's article appeared in New York magazine, 12/27.)

Radical Shakespeare

A young playwright exiles King Lear from his own play. 

King Lear without Lear, you say? What would be the point? For playwright Young Jean Lee, it is to experience the Bard’s great tragedy in the most thrilling and freewheeling fashion—which is the only way Lee can approach a subject, as anyone who saw last winter’s acclaimed The Shipment can attest. Yet for someone whose plays have garnered so many accolades, Lee talks a lot about failure. One might say she’s made it part of her process. “Here’s how it goes,” she told me last fall, following the second workshop performance of her Lear, opening shortly at Soho Repertory Theatre. “I start with something that doesn’t work, and then I fail, fail, and fail again, until it comes together. What you just saw? I’m not happy with much of it. And it’s completely different than the first workshop a few months ago. That may seem nerve-racking, but it’s the only way I know how to do this.”

Theatergoers witnessed Lee, 35, perform a similar bit of anxiety transferal with her experimental The Shipment, which dared the audience to laugh at racial tropes and stereotypes through a succession of satiric tableaux, by turns probing, discomfiting, and hilarious. “I was disturbed by several things at the earliest stages of that work, too,” Lee says. “At previews, people got that it was humorous, but they were laughing in the

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(Young Jean Lee's work is included in One on One: The Best Women's Monologues for the 21st Century and Duo!:  The Best Scenes for Two for the 21st Century—both from Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.)

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(Rebecca Mead's article appeared in the 1/4 edition.)

Norse Goddess

Liv Ullmann—actor, director, muse—has been in town for her production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the other day she dropped by the Chanin Building, on East Forty-second Street, to perform a role for which she is less well known, that of honorary chair of the Women’s Refugee Commission. Ullmann had in tow a woman with mussed short blond hair and Prada glasses: “the Barbara Walters of Norway,” as Ullmann put it, who is making a documentary about her. The Barbara Walters of Norway—whose name is Anne Grosvold—was wearing comfy flats and carrying her own tripod, something that the Barbara Walters of America probably hasn’t done for a while.

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(Edward Rothstein's article appeared 12/23 in The New York Times.)  

Grandish Wordplay: Harburg’s Ish List

In Avatar Studios in Manhattan recently, something sort of goofish came over me, manifested by a persistent grin as I listened to Christopher Fitzgerald and Kate Baldwin sing. The cast of this season’s Broadway production of “Finian’s Rainbow” was making a recording for February release, and in this case, the musical’s leprechaun (Mr. Fitzgerald), slowly turning mortal, was discovering a new kind of feeling whenever he was near Sharon (Ms. Baldwin).

It was very like the feeling I recognize in myself when in close proximity to the best work of this 1947 show’s lyricist, E. Y. Harburg, known as Yip, which is why I was listening to this session. That is also why I went to a rehearsal for a production of the 1951 musical “Flahooley,” a less distinguished achievement than “Finian” but one in which Harburg was also verbal master of ceremonies. (“Flahooley” is being performed through Jan. 3 at the Theater for the New City in the East Village in a joint presentation with the Harlem Repertory Theater.)

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'FLAHOOLEY' at Theater for the New City:


'FINIAN'S RAINBOW' at the St. James Theatre:

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(Jorg von Uthmann's review appeared on Bloomberg 12/24.)

Chaplin’s Grandson Charms in Paris Show of Mime, Magic:


James Thierree’s show at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris is no less mysterious than his previous ones, and no less enchanting.

Thierree, 35, is tired of being compared with Charlie Chaplin, his grandfather, whom he eerily resembles. Let’s simply say that irrespective of his famed lineage, he’s one of France’s most original performers.

Like Chaplin, he has shunned spoken theater in favor of mime, which has a venerable history in France. Those who have seen Marcel Carne’s 1945 movie “Les Enfants du Paradis” will recall Jean-Louis Barrault in the role of Debureau, playing the white-clad, ever-hopeful, always disappointed Pierrot.

Another celebrated forerunner was Marcel Marceau and his creature Bip, the white-faced clown with sailor trousers and a striped jacket. The heretofore nameless heir to Pierrot and Bip is called Raoul.

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(Adam Thirwell's article appeared December 19, 2009 in The New Republic.)

The Animator

Charles Dickens

Michael Slater

Yale University Press, 696 pp., $35


For a long time, everyone has known that Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, the city where the modern was invented: the society of the spectacular. But everyone was wrong. The capital of the nineteenth century was London. Think about it. Walter Benjamin’s symbol of the Parisian modern was the arcade. The arcade! In London-according to the social campaigner Henry Mayhew, there were 300,000 dustbins, 300,000 cesspools, and three million chimneys. It was there that the truly modern was invented: industrial, overpopulated dirt. Its symbol was the slum. London was managed by a majority of minority trades, all in the business of garbage: bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, toshers. And London’s greatest describer, who converted the ghostly industrial city into a new world of words, was a novelist who could taxonomically and poetically enumerate, say, the varieties of polluted fog: “Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was grey, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, and then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City–which call Saint Mary Axe–it was rusty-black.”

And yet, in public, this same writer could also put on an act like this:

Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, that to the earnestness of my aim and desire to do right by my readers, and to leave our imaginative and popular literature more closely associated than I found it at once with the private homes and public rights of the English people, I shall ever be faithful,–to my death-in the principles which have won your approval. [Loud applause.]

Charles Dickens gave this sincere speech in Sheffield, the city of steel factories, in December 1855, on being presented by the mayor with a service of cutlery. It is unbelievable, perhaps, but it is true: that, too, is the voice of the most avant-garde European novelist of the nineteenth century.

Of all his impersonations, Dickens’s greatest was his fluent mimicry of what the bourgeois public imagined that a novelist should be–through prefaces to his novels, which offered doctored accounts of their geneses as serial sketches in magazines; through his efforts on behalf of the Guild of Literature and Art, or his work with the Royal Literary Fund; through his collected editions (he supervised the following editions: the Charles Dickens, the Cheap, the Library, the Diamond, the People’s, and the Hachette). He had a mania for canonization, for the public paraphernalia of authorship.

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