Monthly Archives: February 2022

HARPER LEE ESTATE TOLD TO PAY $2.5 MILLION IN DISPUTE OVER ‘MOCKINGBIRD’ PLAYS ·

(Alexandra Alter’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/10; via Pam Green; photo: In 1969, Harper Lee and Dramatic Publishing agreed on a contract that authorized the company to license a stage adaptation of her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”Credit…Donald Uhrbrock/Getty Images.)

The estate is contesting an arbitrator’s ruling that it had been too aggressive in limiting productions of a 1970 adaptation of the novel as Aaron Sorkin’s new staged version came to Broadway.

The ruling found that under pressure from Scott Rudin, then lead producer of a different adaptation of the book, which was intended for Broadway, the estate interfered with Dramatic’s contracts, and tried to prevent some productions of the work.

The ruling, made in January, comes nearly three years after Dramatic invoked an arbitration clause in its contract to prevent limits on productions of its adaptation.

Dramatic’s adaptation, by the playwright Christopher Sergel, has long been a staple at schools and community theaters around the country. It’s the version of that has been staged every year in Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, Ala. And for decades, Dramatic was the only publisher Lee had authorized to license a theatrical adaptation of her beloved 1960 novel about a crusading lawyer named Atticus Finch who represents a Black man who is unjustly accused of rape in a small town in Alabama.

Then, in 2018, Rudin brought the new Aaron Sorkin adaptation to Broadway, where it became a box office hit.

Christopher Sergel III, president of Dramatic Publishing Company and the grandson of the author of the first adaptation, claimed that the Lee estate acted in concert with Rudin to prevent some local productions of the play from going forward. In cease-and-desist letters to local theaters, Rudin’s lawyers claimed that those productions were no longer permissible because of the Sorkin adaptation. As a result, at least eight theaters canceled productions of Dramatic’s version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

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***** ‘ANNA KARENINA’ REVIEW – TOLSTOY MEETS BAZ LUHRMANN IN A MAGNIFICENT SPECTACLE  (UK) ·

(Nick Ahad’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/11. Photo: Through the wringer … Adelle Leoncé (Anna) in Anna Karenina at the Crucible, Sheffield. Photograph: Marc Brenner.)

Crucible, Sheffield
With hula hoops and a giant cake, this show bashes the narrative with disco glitz but keeps tragedy at its centre

That the props department had to source a giant birthday cake, a pink flamingo inflatable swimming ring and several luminous green hula hoops for this production should tell you everything you need to know about the reverence in which the source material is held.

Director Anthony Lau, using a celebrated 1992 adaptation by Helen Edmundson, shows almost no respect for the milieu of Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece, and in thumbing his nose at the weighty reputation of the Russian’s magnum opus activates the story to create a production that is thrilling and utterly compelling.

It is all built around an absorbing performance from Adelle Leoncé as the eponymous heroine. She goes through the wringer over the course of the three-hour piece, leaving everything on the stage.

Around her, Lau makes some seriously bold choices. The costumes and staging are Baz Luhrmann-esque; indeed one scene that descends from Russian aristocratic ball to all-out disco could slip into any of the films in the Australian director’s red curtain trilogy.

Edmundson’s smartly economical storytelling has Anna and Konstantin Levin, played here by the highly watchable Dougie McMeekin, asking each other “‘where are you now?”. Standing on an empty stage Anna can tell him “I’m on a train heading for Moscow” or “I’m in an Italian town in an old, shabby palazzo” and so she is and with her we go.

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CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (131) ·

The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

The main difference between the art of the actor and all other arts is that every other artist may create whenever he (or she) is in the mood of inspiration. But the artist of the stage must be the master of his (or her) own inspiration and must know how to call it forth when it is announced on the posters of the theatre. This is the chief secret of our art. Without this the most perfect technique, the greatest gifts, are fruitless. (MLIA)

‘COLETTE’ ON BBC RADIO 4 “IN OUR TIME” ·

Colette

Listen

In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the outstanding French writers of the twentieth century. The novels of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873 – 1954) always had women at their centre, from youth to mid-life to old age, and they were phenomenally popular, at first for their freshness and frankness about women’s lives, as in the Claudine stories, and soon for their sheer quality as she developed as a writer. Throughout her career she intrigued readers by inserting herself, or a character with her name, into her works, fictionalising her life as a way to share her insight into the human experience.

With

Diana Holmes
Professor of French at the University of Leeds

Michèle Roberts
Writer, novelist, poet and Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia

And

Belinda Jack
Fellow and Tutor in French Literature and Language at Christ Church, University of Oxford

Producer: Simon Tillotson

 

WHY MARLON BRANDO’S STREETCAR CO-STARS COULDN’T STAND HIM ·

(Isaac Butler’s work appeared in Slate, 2/1. Excerpted from The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2022 by Isaac Butler Photo: Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in A Streetcar Named DesireJohn Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images. Via Pam Green.)

“An impossible, psychopathic bastard,” fumed one.

Marlon Brando was cast in Streetcar almost against his will, and he was not the first choice for the role of Stanley Kowalski. Originally, producer Irene Selznick had wanted John Garfield for the part, but negotiations broke down over Garfield’s demand to be cast in any future film of the play and his refusal to commit to a long stage run. Bill Liebling, an agent whose wife, Audrey Wood, represented Tennessee Williams, thought Brando was perfect for the part of Stanley but couldn’t reach him to tell him to audition. By the summer of 1947, Brando had drifted away from acting after being fired from a Tallulah Bankhead vehicle. He didn’t have a phone or an easy way to be reached.

Liebling had to put the word out on the street, telling everyone he knew that if they happened to run into Brando, they should tell him to call the office. On Aug. 20, Brando finally auditioned for Elia Kazan, who immediately knew he was right for the role. Irene Selznick, however, was still hopeful they could get Garfield or, failing him, someone else famous. Williams’ last play, The Glass Menagerie, had been a hit, but Streetcar was still a risk. A name star would make the show a surer thing. Besides, wasn’t this kid too young for the part? Kazan persisted. Selznick agreed to cast Brando, but only if they could get him to audition for Williams at the playwright’s house in Provincetown. Brando told Kazan he had no money to make the trip. Kazan gave the young actor bus fare and told Williams to expect him.

Brando was always irresponsible, but his irresponsibility reached spectacular heights when he was ambivalent and conflicted, as he was about both acting and the role of Stanley Kowalski. He’d been mistreated by Tallulah Bankhead, mistreated by acting teacher and director Erwin Piscator, who had demanded an obedience from Brando that he was incapable of giving when he was a student, and mistreated by his father, whom Stanley resembled in more ways than one. Did he want to do this? Did the ever-restless Brando want to commit to doing the same thing eight times a week for the foreseeable future? While he tried to figure that out, he spent Kazan’s bus fare on supplies for a party at the apartment of his friend Maureen Stapleton.

When a week went by and Kazan hadn’t heard anything, he phoned Williams, only to learn that Brando had never shown up. At that moment, Marlon was hitchhiking to Provincetown. There, he met up with Ellen Adler—daughter of his acting mentor Stella Adler, and his former lover— and trudged over to Williams’ house. When he arrived, Williams and his friends were sitting in the dark, occasionally getting up to pee in the woods. A fuse had blown, the toilet was broken, and the house was full of artists who had no idea how to fix either. Marlon quickly repaired both toilet and fuse, wowing the assembled guests. “He was just about the best-looking young man I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. That night, Marlon read the role for Tennessee, who could see, moments after Brando started talking, that they had found their Stanley.

Soon all of America would see what Williams saw in Marlon Brando, and would embrace both him and the strange new kind of acting he embodied. This new way of performing was remarkably suited to a style of playwriting that emerged alongside it. As Brooks Atkinson described it, “There had been a latent feeling after World War I that something could be done to solve the problems of human existence rationally.” In the interwar years, dramatists like Clifford Odets, Thornton Wilder, and Robert Sherwood had channeled this optimism into their work, only to watch, aghast, as the problems of the ’30s were “concluded … by the desperate organization of the nation into a war machine to produce goods and armies to kill human beings.”

A new darkness entered American drama in response. During World War I, plays about the military had been, in Atkinson’s formulation, “fond propaganda.” During World War II, however, Americans wrote plays like Arthur Laurents’ Home of the Brave, a difficult drama about a Jewish soldier’s survival guilt, or John Patrick’s The Hasty Heart, about wounded servicemen in Burma. Even John Van Druten’s smash romantic comedy The Voice of the Turtle, about a jilted actress who begins a romance with a soldier on leave, is shot through with melancholy.

There was lighter fare to be found—Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Mary Chase’s Harvey, and Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday joined revivals of The Front Page and Lady Windermere’s Fan—but serious American drama had only gotten more pessimistic. It also turned inward, the same direction in which American acting increasingly pointed. The end of World War II did nothing to abate this pirouette toward darker, more introspective territories. Anxiety over what the war had done to the human soul found its way both into film noir and into Arthur Miller’s searing Ibsenian drama All My Sons, which portrayed the ideal small-town American family as a mirage hiding war profiteering and corruption. The 1946–47 season in which All My Sons premiered on Broadway also included Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, a play whose characters fritter their lives away in an alcoholic haze, prisoners of empty lies and pointless dreams.

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‘SKELETON CREW’ TRACES POWER DYNAMICS AT A FACTORY ·

 

(Vinson Cunningham’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 1/21/22; Phylicia Rashad plays Faye, a tough, wisecracking union leader and matriarch.Illustration by Owen D. Pomery.)

Dominique Morisseau’s new play, set in a Detroit automotive plant, is, among other things, about the subtle and ever-shifting class distinctions among Black people.

Bristling and jumping and speeding forward with skillful talk, “Skeleton Crew,” the new play by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson for Manhattan Theatre Club (on Broadway, at the Samuel J. Friedman), stakes out ground that’s viable only in the theatre: the piece offers hope—and a kind of proof—that conversation carried out seriously is its own undeniable action. As Morisseau’s characters think, they speak in eloquent earfuls, and, in speaking, they push themselves and one another toward crises and discoveries that can be resolved only by yet more talk. Friendly insults are a goad and a salve. Side comments grow into rafts of rhetoric. Everyday complaints—those absolutely necessary companions to repetitive work—grasp toward, and often reach, an earthy philosophy. Fuelled on the diesel of ardent chitchat, this play moves and purrs and swerves and does its humane thing, teaching its audience how to keep up as it goes.

The setting is a dowdily crowded break room at an automotive stamping plant in Detroit. If you’ve had a job whose paycheck you appreciated but whose particulars you could take or leave, you know this kind of scene. There are notes on the food in the fridge and, on the walls, big flyers sharing meeting times and picking disciplinary nits.

Faye (Phylicia Rashad) is the tough, wisecracking matriarch of the space. She’s a union leader, undisguisedly admired by her young co-workers Dez (Joshua Boone) and Shanita (Chanté Adams). Faye’s funny and bawdy, openly queer and never afraid to talk some shit and smoke a cigarette, those rule-ridden signs be confounded. “Been this way over fifty years, don’t see why I gotta change now,” she says. She opens up especially when she’s flouting rules. She and Dez—whom she jokingly beckons to “bow down and lick the dust off my Tims”—have a conversation over a game of cards, and she tells the story of her early pregnancy, an older woman giving the young kid a bit of perspective:

Once you shame your mama and turn up with a fast tail, you got to be put out and ain’t no lookin’ back. I was scared shitless but somethin’ in me knew I was gonna survive. Not cuz nothin’ was promised to me or cuz I could see the light at the end of the tunnel or no shit like that. But somethin’ in me knew what I was made of. I was gonna survive cuz I had to.

Rashad—whom I tend to associate with an urbane and respectable Black upper-middle-classness, undoubtedly because of her famous role on “The Cosby Show,” as Clair Huxtable—plays Faye as rooted and brassy, funky and frank. She maintains a mismatch of tempos: Faye moves slowly but talks at a sprint. She, Dez, and Shanita are a working-class team, more or less aware of one another’s woes and gently soothing them with jokes.

Their supervisor is Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden). He’s weighed down by his structural position, dangling between management and the workers he gruffly likes. He wants it both ways, as reluctant bosses often do: he’s in charge but also wants a family feeling. We find out early on that the plant is soon going to close, but it stays a secret between Reggie and Faye, who do have a family tie: Faye and Reggie’s mother were bosom friends, closer than close, and Reggie has known Faye all his life. “Skeleton Crew” is, among other things, about the subtle and ever-shifting class distinctions among Black people, which result not only in dialectical clashes but in other, more complex formations—councils, congregations, choruses, all somewhat fractured by the inconveniences of money and work.

Reggie is “management,” but he comes from the working class, and he knows that one misstep will send him back to the other side of the line. The people he reports to seem to be white and safely distant from the fallout of a plant closure in a way that Reggie could never be. He asks Faye to trust that he’ll help the workers land on their feet—a proposition that shouldn’t fly in a union setting. This is how race and class and family work in this play, all expressed through coaxing conversation: it makes a smart, bold woman soften up just enough to accept such a tenuous agreement. Reggie’s proud that, after so much effort, he can wear a “button-up to work,” as Faye puts it; all of her labor savvy notwithstanding, Faye’s proud of him, too. The love ethic of race and place, familiarity and origin, makes women defend men, and workers cover for their managers and cross lines more consequential but less concrete than the picket.

Tellingly, the play is set around 2008—there’s an Obama bumper sticker prominently displayed on the break-room fridge. The upwardly mobile former President offered the nation, briefly, a way to think about racial uplift without the troubles of racial capitalism and its discontents. The strain falls on guys like Reggie, who eventually have to pick a side.

Dirden is consistently good as a put-together man under pressure—he flushes pinkly with color when his characters have a lot on their minds. So he’s good as Reggie, who wants to move on up, but also to stay “down” with the people he knows. “I’m sick of walking that line,” he laments. “Line that say I’m over here and you over there and even though we started with the same dirt on our shoes.”

Santiago-Hudson directs the actors wonderfully: it’s an ensemble that always works and sometimes crackles, handling Morisseau’s cerebral and joyously verdant text easily. Adams and Boone are soulful as a sensitive, tentatively flirtatious pair: Shanita is pregnant but seemingly estranged from the baby’s father; Dez, head over heels for Shanita, is streetwise but tender, a classic young man in a hurry, with something to prove.

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