Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

9/11: The TV Movie

While the news is dominated by the appearance of the Osama Bin Laden videotape that has emerged pre-election, my eyes (and imagination) have been captured by this announcement that ABC and NBC are developing TV versions of 9/11, based on the 9/11 Commission Report.

The creative force behind the NBC version is Graham Yost, a versatile figure who's been involved with series TV ("Boomtown"), film ("Speed"), and high quality minis ("From the Earth to the Moon," "Band of Brothers"). No news yet on who will take on the ABC project.

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine.com sees horror:

"Please, no.

There are so many reasons not to:

It's too soon.

It's exploitive.

It's another effort to enshrine the 9/11 Commission report as gospel. It isn't.

There hasn't been a decent miniseries in decades and the thought of turning this national tragedy into network kitsch is unbearable."


I can't argue with Jarvis's fear of kitsch. He's making an assumption it will be done badly.

I share the fear but also hold out some respectful hope.

Basically, as an initial reaction, I think a high-quality telefilm based on the 9/11 Commission report would be a potentially compelling, dramatic piece. There's no reason, based on the small-screen medium itself or the immediacy of the historical moment, why it can't be an artistic high-point in television. My sense is the public (I include myself) still really doesn't understand the 9/11 plot, and I think this could be eye-opening.

It could potentially play against the arch simplicity of politics -- the portrayal of the hijackers as simply inhuman barbarians with no motivation in life other than to sow death and destruction -- by forcing us into the minds, and potentially, the deeper motivations of the hijackers.

That doesn't mean I sympathize with the hijackers or their cause, or want to; it means that I believe we haven't come to terms with the fact that they were human beings, who for some reason that we seem unwilling to contemplate, offered to sacrifice their lives for a cause they deemed larger than themselves. Sure, some of these causes were probably individual and psychological, but the movie would have to take on some under-explored geo-politics.

It is one of the great purposes of the dramatic arts to get inside the heads of people we can't otherwise understand and help us see another point of view. NOT necessarily to sympathize with or, or identify with it, but to understand it so we can fight against it. It's worth remembering the oldest surviving play in the western canon, Aeschylus's "The Persians," is told from the point of view not of Aeschylus's Greeks, but from their enemy's.

That said, I'd feel a lot better if HBO were doing this than the networks. I'm deeply concerned about the commercial (advertiser) issues and how the networks will want to water down certain elements. Even more importantly, though, I've been thinking about the artistic/structural considerations of this for network TV. (I worked in television development, with an emphasis on network TV movies, for 5 years in the late 90s, before writing TV and theatre reviews for Variety.)

First, network TV movies are based on a 7-act structure -- that means they're divided into 7 narrative chunks broken up by commercial breaks. Each "act" should end with a "button," or a climactic, hopefully suspenseful moment that will bring people back after the break. The biggest "button" should come at the end of the 3rd act, which would usually happen at the half-way point -- the hour break. For mini-series, of course, there needs to be a big "button" at the end of each 2-hour episode (the typical length).

Along with the commercial necessity of avoiding controversy (or, at least, avoiding the wrong type of controversy, a la CBS's "Reagan" movie which the network had to shelve), this formulaic 7-act structure is what could force the story into simplistic beats, and bring Jarvis's fears of kitsch to fruition. I can imagine rather easily that the buttons will be based on moments that present a possible alternative reality -- in other words, moments that could have meant 9/11 never happened. If the potential political controversy of this makes it too hot to handle, then the writers will have to opt for more blatantly emotional "buttons," with the following of innocents going to work at the towers, saying goodbye to relatives they'll never see again, etc.

One of the main reasons HBO films are superior to network ones is because they don't have to be broken up into such frequent mini-climaxes. (I don't mean to diss Showtime, but they produce so many more original films than HBO, and typically spend so much less on creating them, that while some are good the quality of their product is generally inferior.) They can focus more on historical sweep, narratives that build more slowly, greater character development, etc. Certainly, there's the subscription audience issue, too, but the issues of craft are significant.

I'm sure that one of the conversations being had behind closed network doors is the portrayal of the Arabs in the film. They won't want the hijackers or Al Qaeda figures to be the only ones there -- they'll want a counter-balance to the depictions of Arabs and Muslims as killers. The question is whether this will come off as a token figure.

The first thing I'd like to hear from the networks is that they'll be having at least some of the picture happen in foreign languages, including Arabic, with subtitles. While this presents all sorts of issues in and of itself, at least it would signal that the networks are putting considerations of both craft and reality above purely commercial ones.

I'm also waiting to hear what the networks say the films will be "about." The thematic drive behind the films will be essential. For example, a movie about 9/11 that's "about" how it didn't have to happen and could have been prevented is one kind of movie. That story is certainly there, and would be fairly predictable. Or it could be "about" why some people hate America so much and how they've been deceived into doing so -- it could be "about" brainwashing and its causes and consequences. It could be "about" what Americans value and how that may have changed permanently during the events of 9/11. There are many more possible "abouts," and one of the first things the networks will need to do is determine which story they really want to tell.


Thursday, October 28, 2004

Funding Fiasco?

The funding problems bedeviling Broadway, mentioned in this post earlier, now threaten to bring down the much-anticipated opening of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean."

Apparently, over half of the $2.3 million capitalization has fallen out, although none of the articles mentions the specific investors.

Producer Ben Mordecai has agreed to step aside to seek help from some big-name competitors.

I'm a bit troubled by Michael Riedel's piece in The Post, which labels Mordecai as a producer "with a history of financial problems on Broadway."

Mordecai has certainly had his fair share of flops, including Wilson's last, "King Hedley II," and the re-written "Flower Drum Song." And I can't claim any knowledge of the current situation. But let's be very clear here: Ben Mordecai is a leading theatrical producer, and not some seedy Max Bialystock. Maybe Riedel didn't intend the innuendo, but it certainly comes through.

Mordecai for years has run the management program at Yale Drama School. I'm an alum and encounter Mordecai every once in a while. I don't know him well, but have never sniffed even a scent of scandal surrounding him. I feel very comfortable saying that, without further info, he deserves sympathy for the current situation, rather than Riedel's implications of fraud.

Bombs Thrown at "Brooklyn"

Goodness.

You know a show is in for it when a review begins, "Oh dear."

I should have been more blatant in my predictions. I saw it coming, this plethora of painful ponderings on the overwhelming sentimentality of the show "Brooklyn: The Musical."

David Rooney in Variety:

"Oh dear. The caterwauling vocal calisthenics that are de rigueur among 'American Idol' contestants have planted their demon seed on Broadway in 'Brooklyn, The Musical,' a series of overwrought white-bread gospel ballads strung together in search of a book."

As predicted, Rooney was not the only critic to mention "American Idol" in discussing the show's tendency toward stop-the-story-and-belt-like-crazy pop songs. This is exacerbated since the show's story leads up to a sing-off at Madison Square Garden between the main character, the sweet, innocent Brooklyn (Eden Espinosa), and her nemesis Paradice (Ramona Keller).

Ben Brantley at The Times calls the show "loud and gooey," then puts it in context. I like his comparison to "Pippin;" I hadn't thought of it, and it's right on target:

"A tale told by street folk of 'family, fame, faith and fate,' as the script has it, 'Brooklyn' is in many ways a throwback to the quaint, simple and whimsy-laden little musicals that first blossomed Off Broadway and then sneaked into the mainstream in the late 1960's and the early 70's. Try to imagine 'Hair' without the dirty parts and with more goopy songs like 'Good Morning Starshine,' or a secular 'Godspell,' with a bittersweet sprinkling of Jacques Brel-esque romance.

"Now throw in a helping of funky disco à la LaBelle and a soupçon of Motown as it was reinterpreted in the 1981 musical 'Dreamgirls.' Filter the whole thing through the throat-stretching, note-holding, eardrum-testing vocal pyrotechnics of 'American Idol,' and you've got 'Brooklyn the Musical.' If the idea of such an amalgamation appeals to you, you're welcome to it. If not, you may find yourself feeling like a cranky commuter in a subway car, trapped with a perky team of harmonizers who say they just want to leave you with a smile on your face."

If it's possible, Eric Grode at Broadway.com is even less kind, expressing a certain embarrassment at having to sit through such an evening. Note again, another "Idol" reference.

"This misbegotten hybrid of Brecht, story theater, Amelie and American Idol fails so dismally on so many levels that the prevailing impulse is to look away from the stage."

Brantley is the only critic to dismiss Tobin Ost's costumes. He felt they were too much like Halloween costumes. Others found at least something of a saving grace in them. Here's Linda Winer in Newsday:

"The costumes, created from garbage by Tobin Ost, are a hoot, especially the diva's gown made of crime-scene tape."

Rooney liked them too:

"Urban refuse is used cleverly in the props department and even more so in the inventive costumes, the high point of the show's design. Tobin Ost's imaginative creations supply the only steady source of wit, most notably in Paradice's glamazon ensemble of trash bags, crime-scene tape and bubble wrap ('I call this Salvation Armani). "

Howard Kissell in The Daily News is even kind enough to lead with a comment on the costumes, although he gets in his overall negative appraisal in between the set-up for the compliment and the compliment itself.

"Four years have passed since "Cats" closed. For all those who yearn for another musical that takes place on a garbage-strewn set, there's now 'Brooklyn, the Musical.'

"In terms of book and score, both by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, 'Brooklyn' is entirely synthetic, its plot a series of showbiz clichés, its music similarly generic.

"But in its use of garbage, 'Brooklyn' takes refuse to new levels, especially in its use of trash in costume design."

In Newsweek, Marc Peyser disses, then sums up what's to like:

"...'Brooklyn' is [not] without its charms. Eden Espinosa (Brooklyn) and Ramona Keller (Paradice) are rafter-shaking singers who, unlike so many belters in the 'Idol' era, know how to heat up a song slowly before letting it boil. They almost make you feel something for their cardboard characters. And their outfits are a hoot."

In case you're counting, that's 2 "hoots" for Ost.


Director Jeff Calhoun doesn't fare so well as the cast or the costumer, which is the one thing I found surprising. Despite being given sporadic credit for energizing the show, the critics mostly note he existed, then ignore him. Perhaps because they can't quite forgive him for shepherding the show in the first place.

There is, though, one exception to all this, a kinder, gentler critic, one who admits that he can't say he really liked the show, but thinks others will. He doesn't even deride its sappiness:

"A banner musical unites its audience; Brooklyn, I think, divides it. Those under 30 should groove on its pop accessibility, those over 60 be mostly left cold. Much will depend on the swing voters between those ages. I myself am left bemused by the show, but would hate to spoil the fun of the amused.

Brooklyn belongs to a genre characterized by less sophistication, less complex melody and harmony, more demotic language, looser rhyming, in-your-face attitudes, and rampant reiteration.... If you’re not very young, your choice is cooptation or resistance—having no pride, or getting no satisfaction. But let’s not be too judgmental: The ultimate verdict belongs to history."

Who is this non-judgmental theatre critic? None other than the notoriously negative John Simon in New York Magazine
.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

"Bare" Has Trouble Exposing Itself

A bit of surprising news, and something of a disturbing trend. There seems to be real trouble with funding of some commercial shows: even when the money seems to be there, it isn't. Last week, there was an announcement that a group of Canadian investors in shows like "Brooklyn" couldn't come up with promised cash. Now, there's the apparently out-of-the-blue news of the cancellation of the off-Broadway show "Bare: A Pop Opera."

This is a show that premiered in L.A. and became a big small-theatre hit there. George Wolfe expressed interest in the show for the Public, but that didn't work out, and the show played at a tiny off-off-Broadway house and sold well. Dodger Theatricals picked it up for their new mid-town, mid-size space.

The show actually has quite a bit in common with "Brooklyn." It's another highly sentimental, sung-though show, but with a passionate score (and an amusingly informational subtitle). To be honest, I thought it was rather absurdly over-rated in Los Angeles, in part because of its tragic treatment of its gay subject matter -- it's a love story between two teenage boys at a Catholic school. As with "Brooklyn," though, my own sap-o-meter doesn't reflect general audience tastes, and it was clear the show really struck a chord with a young crowd. I also got to know the composer, Damon Intrabartolo, a little. I was clear about my reservations regarding the show (I told him that if I reviewed it, I would have lead with, "What hath Rent wrought?"), but also expressed honestly that the show demonstrated genuine talent. As with "Brooklyn," I was pulling for the show even if I thought it was going to face some serious obstacles.

Good luck to it. It's a real shame it's not getting a chance to be judged on its merits.

"Brooklyn" to Bow

I've commented previously and at length on "Brooklyn: The Musical" below. Tomorrow, we'll see if my analysis of its reception is accurate, as the NY critics weigh in. This Denver Post story is worth reading, and I'm glad to hear Jeff Calhoun say that about a quarter of the book has been revised.

"'People loved the talent in the show, but there was some confusion in the storytelling, and we've addressed that,' said Calhoun. 'A lot of it has been establishing whose point of view this story is coming from. And just that has added such very serious overtones that you'll no longer feel it's been Disneyfied in any way. Some depth was missing in Denver, but it has become a complete story that really seems to be moving people.'"

I should note that the show moved people in Denver too, just a bit too sappily. Again, I'm very curious to see how hardened NY critics respond to the show's emotionality.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Cirque du Vegas, Part I

As I mentioned in a brief blog earlier, I've been spending a lot of time in Vegas, which is beginning to play a larger and larger role in the business of theatrical entertainment, particularly with the announcement that "Avenue Q" would bypass a road production and sit down in Steve Wynn's new casino. Vegas has historically been tough territory for traditional Broadway shows, although recently "Mamma Mia!" has managed to break through at Mandalay Bay, and, as the "Avenue Q" plan suggests, hotels are looking for more. A 90-minute version of "Phantom of the Opera," for example, is on its way to the Venetian.

But all of these shows need to contend with the dominant theatrical force in Vegas, Cirque du Soleil. I don't really think you can under-estimate the influence Cirque du Soleil has had on Las Vegas. Dishing out a series of sit-down shows for over a decade, Cirque now commands serious attention, and serious money, on the Strip, a place where something like 37 million people descend every year. The Mirage is planning to spend $100 million -- I didn't add any zeroes there! -- on a new Cirque show featuring music of The Beatles.

A brief history: Cirque du Soleil was there when Vegas tried to appeal to families during the late 80s and early 90s, with its first eponymous Vegas show and then "Mystere" at Treasure Island, and the shows' success maybe even spurred the trend. When Vegas discovered that the high arts co-existed with Sin City, Cirque delivered "O" at the Bellagio -- an Esther Williams meets Robert Wilson spectacular that remains the pinnacle of their achievements. When Vegas, in the last few years, went back to marketing itself as a haven of hedonism, Cirque followed suit with "Zumanity" at New York New York, although both artistically and commercially the show hasn't quite played as well as the others.

Why has Cirque been successful when so many other theatre shows have not? There are a number of reasons, but it ultimately boils down to the fact that Cirque and Vegas are a phenomenal fit.

Cirque du Soleil is not a niche show, but has as broad an appeal as any show I can think of. It's abstract and yet mainstream. It's about great acrobatics, and beautiful stage imagery. It requires NO knowledge of English -- until "Zumanity," it used created languages for its songs. (That really can't be under-estimated in a city that draws this number of international visitors.) It's for kids and adults and seniors (again, except "Zumanity," which is overtly sexual).

The shows are easily made to fit the needs of its hosts: a Broadway theatre wants an intermission so it can sell concessions; A Vegas theatre wants no intermission, wants people in and out in no more than 90 minutes so they can go back to the slot machines and game tables. That's why "The Phantom of the Opera" will be cut down. (I should also note, however, that "Mamma Mia!" is a big hit at its regular 2.5 hours length with a break -- still, from the hotel's perspective, an hour less gambling time....)

The question now is, can Cirque keep delivering? Can it keep creating that signature blend of entertainment -- a wondrous mix of abstract high art and sheer mainstream entertainment -- without falling into predictable formula and losing its lustre?

More thoughts on the subject to come as Cirque turns to an offbeat theatre artist, a greater effort at narrative, and gets on the rock-and-roll nostalgia bandwagon.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Life Imitating Art

OK, this is funny. Weird funny, but funny. It's a picture of NJ soon-to-be-ex Gov. Jim ("I'm a gay American") McGreevey with the puppet Rod from "Avenue Q". If you haven't seen the show, Rod (a take-off on Burt of Burt and Ernie) is a closet case who sings about his non-existent girlfriend in Canada.

Cirque du Sergeant Pepper?

Cirque du Soleil will be creating a new show based on Beatles music for the Mirage in Las Vegas. Lots to talk about here, as I've been spending quite a bit of time in Vegas lately. More later.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Will "Brooklyn" Be Welcomed?

I saw the workshop production of "Brooklyn: the Musical" (a title that still makes me giggle a little) in Denver last year, and reviewed it for Variety (this is a subscription site, but you can sign up for a free trial). I'm very curious to see how it will be received on Broadway.

I think it's fair to predict that the reviews will be mixed, but I'm curious how the critics will balance their evaluations. I know some work has been done on the show since Denver, but I still expect its pros and cons to be easily identifiable. The question is whether the positives will win over the writers, or whether the obvious flaws will overwhelm any enthusiasm.

The Pros:

1. Jeff Calhoun's direction. Calhoun is a choreographer-cum-director, and he's been finding great ways to energize a production with expressive movement (not dance). His deaf-theatre production of "Big River" was fantastic; signing was used in a way that made it seem people were singing even when they weren't. The production took what is really a mediocre musical and made it something unique and thoroughly enjoyable. (I had the pleasure of seeing his first experiment with this, a deaf-theatre production of "Oliver!", which was also excellent.) With "Brooklyn," there's no signing, but the show never stops moving, as a group of street performers "act out" a play-within-a-play. This set-up gives Calhoun the opportunity to use all sorts of found objects to create new spaces and settings. He really is an exciting director. Expressiveness is the key word -- he's always seeking new uses of physicality to impact the audience emotionally. If this show works, he's why.

2. Tobin Ost's costumes will win the Tony. Full stop. But that nod to an artistically questionable award does not do justice here. I gotta tell you, I can't think of another show where a year later, I still think about the costumes, two gowns in particular: one made of bubble wrap, the other of a garbage bag and "Caution" tape. I consider myself a constrained critic who tries fairly hard not to over-praise, although I've been guilty occasionally. I wasn't when I wrote: "It's the most inventive costume design I've ever seen or hope to see." Other critics will agree.

3. Eden Espinosa's singing and Ramona Keller's acting and singing. They both have booming voices; Keller has the much better role as a love-to-hate semi-villainess. I predict that, as I did in my review, at least one critic, and probably more, will mention "American Idol." The story-telling does come to a standstill for many of the songs, which have rather predictable but effective poppish crescendoes (more in a moment on the score). The singers really do get to command the stage and show off. In Denver, in a much smaller house, there was lots of applause in the middle of songs, and it did feel sometimes like Simon Callow's best-of Idol performances. That's good for the audiences, maybe not quite as good for the critics.

Pro/Con:

The Score. How the critics respond to Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson's score will likely be the determining factor. It's got some catchy tunes, but at least in Denver certain melodic threads get repeated mercilessly. No question, some effective, and affecting, songs, and lots of pop passion, but as a whole I was definitely on-the-fence about the score and I'll be very curious to see other opinions. The best musicals have stories and music that advance one another; here the story is mostly an excuse to the set up the songs (see cons), which aren't narrative but descriptive. They express a characters' feelings, but don't advance the plot. Which brings us to...

Cons:

1. The story. The frame, the idea of street performers acting out a "sidewalk fairy tale," works, thanks to Calhoun. But the tale they tell was very raw in the workshop production, and I hope it has improved. It starts out OK, but gets rather silly and abstract towards the end. Throughout, it always exposes...

2. An unbridled sentimentality. This show will be more popular with audiences than with critics; there's really no question about that. This show is very emotional, which is good, but it's also gooey. Critics who don't get turned off by its thick servings of sauce, or at least don't get theatrical heartburn, will be far more likely to spin everything positively.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Bernal in "Blood Wedding"

I don't plan for this blog to be a repository of casting info, but I was excited by the news that Gael Garcia Bernal, the very hot (choose the meaning you prefer) Latino movie star of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" fame, will star in a stage production of Lorca's "Blood Wedding" in London.

I'm a big Lorca fan, but his work is very hard to do well. "Blood Wedding" most of all needs to have real sexiness or it just doesn't work.

The deeper issue that I do plan to write about more is simply the power of celebrity, and how it can affect productions, both positively and negatively. Let me start with the simple statement that I think more movie stars should be doing theatre more regularly: it would be good for the theatre, and good for the film world too. One of the real inhibiting factors of our nation's theatre is that the film and television world is based 3,000 miles away from the theatre mecca of NYC.

"Blood Wedding" will happen in London, but no matter: I'm happy to see Bernal's name, his sex appeal, and his image as the actor with a poetic soul, adding excitement to a production of Lorca. Seems like a very good fit.

Is What You Get What You See?

I enjoyed this piece in the Daily News evaluating the publicity posters for upcoming Broadway shows.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Miller Time

There seems to be a fairly negative critical consensus on Arthur Miller's newest play, "Finishing the Picture," which recently opened at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, but the critics don't seem quite comfortable coming out and saying it in forthright fashion. Aside from Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal, who calls the play "horrible," the critics work hard to be respectful to Miller. Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times sums up why:

"At 89, and with a golden legacy of plays behind him, Miller has the right to do pretty much anything he pleases and have it staged in splendor. "

And the draw of a new Miller play about Marilyn Monroe, with a cast that includes Matthew Modine (who gets hammered for being "wooden" in the reviews), Linda Lavin (becoming a genuine stage luminary) and Stacy Keach, has enough public appeal to have prompted a week's extension of its Goodman run. Chris Jones in Variety thinks the play's "voyeuristic, gossipy appeal" even gives it a chance for a Broadway transfer, although he carefully suggests that the play isn't ready artistically.

Although they have praise for director Robert Falls, the critics uniformly consider the play slow, using words like "static" and "draggy."

The play is clearly based on the troubled filming of the Miller-written "The Misfits," and Jones synopsizes the plot this way:

"This is a play about what happens when an important woman will not get out of bed. Pure and simple. All pass the [first] act asking the question 'Why won't she get up' time after time, except when they can be found asking the other question of the night: 'What can we do to make her get up?'

In the second act, we see [the Monroe character] Kitty naked in bed, maybe getting up, maybe not. "

For Jones, the ultimate success of this play rests on whether such a non-plot rises to the level of allegory. He and the other critics are dubious about that.

Kitty barely speaks, and the critics all seem to note that Miller's treatment of his former wife Monroe is typical rather than enlightening in any way. Ben Brantley, who, after Teachout, writes the most consistently negative notice in The New York Times, comments:

"This latest offering from America's most eminent living playwright for the most part floats passively in the usual mists of mythologies.... [T]heatergoers interested in gimlet-eyed looks at either Mr. Miller's relationship with Monroe or the making of a legendary flop would do better to consult film biographies. This play's window on the past is not clouded by prurience, but it does not provide much in the way of illumination either."

And Brantley wittily suggests that the Elton John/Bernie Taupin "Candle in the Wind" is superior to the plethora of clunky metaphors Miller puts in the mouths of his mouthpieces, who include satirical takes on Lee and Paula Strasberg, purveyors of the Method style of acting. Many of the critics refer to Miller's dialogue as "awkward" and rife with overblown metaphor -- more than one review specifically mentions the comparisons of Monroe to the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains as notable clunkers.

I did manage to catch Miller's last play, "Resurrection Blues," in its Minneapolis premiere a couple of years ago. It was an unsuccessful, if fitfully intriguing, mix of satire and earnestness, and based on reading these reviews, "Finishing the Picture" seems to suffer from the same competing impulses. Miller was never known for his humor, and a lot of the jokes in "Resurrection Blues" were barbs at easy targets. What surprised me about that play, and what seems somewhere buried in this work as well, was a gnawing doubt from the author, a sense that despite his willingness to dole out moral judgment, he wasn't quite as confident about what was right and wrong anymore.

With "Finishing the Picture," critics disagree on whether they prefer the earnest, contemplative, emotional Miller, digging for some elusive profundity (which seems to elude him here), or the Miller who lashes out.

Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune prefers the latter. Saying that the work is really three plays in one, "coexisting uneasily within the same frame," he counts the first two as the making (or unmaking) of "The Misfits"and the theme-heavy allegory on "the mystique of stardom."

"Then there's the third play, the one that works.... It's about the Strasbergs, here disguised as the Fassingers. Decked out in beautifully absurd flame-red cowboy boots..., [Stephen] Lang mixes it up to memorable results with Linda Lavin's Flora Fassinger, Kitty's coach and handler. Shrewdly written with equal parts admiration and contempt, ripely and wittily acted, these two take the stage clean away from Miller's other characters, who are given to unhealthy portions of what Flora calls 'caviar philosophy.'"

Weiss agrees:

"It is the blackly comic parade of self-satisfied and self-deluding characters of the play's first half that gives 'Finishing the Picture' whatever life it has."

On the other hand, Elysa Gardner in USA Today says the Strasberg characters "appear too cartoonish to have inspired anyone; they seem to have wandered in from a bad sitcom."

Jones appreciates the "anti-Method parody," but prefers the other Miller.

"[T]he real core of this play, ironically, lies in its most underwritten and underdirected sections: namely, the moments when the writer-husband [played by Modine] cannot save his wife because he cannot love her the way she needs. "

The critics want to like the play, and find nuggets to praise, but they all express a fundamental dissatisfaction.




Another Marquee with Meaning

Following up on ideas for people to name theatres after, how about the Marlon Brando? It says, this is a theatre where great acting happens, where the experience is larger than life, and not always safe. And, yes, Brando is mostly known because of his films, but nobody did more to change acting than Brando did. The Schoenfeld title is all about competence; the Brando would be about inspiration.

Monday, October 11, 2004

All Hail the Theatre CEOs!

The Shubert Organization has announced that they will name two Broadway houses after two of the Shubert's own executives, Gerald Shoenfeld and the late Bernard Jacobs. Now, I have no doubt whatsoever that these men have been fine executives, and that they've made an important contribution to the American theatre. But, naming theatres after them? It certainly says something about the current values of the Broadway theatre, that the people we honor most are not the artists but the property managers.

Charles Isherwood has it just right in the NY Times.

I don't mean to suggest that producers are not deserving of notice, or that business considerations shouldn't come into play -- maybe that's why the American Airlines Theatre made for a joke or two, but somehow didn't rise to the same level of puzzlement as the Shubert's navel-gazing decision.

I have to admit, I spent much of my teenage years going to Broadway shows, and I never did connect the names of the theatres to the theatres themselves. Tell me that a show is playing at the Royale, and I'd ask, "What played there last?" and "What street is that on?". The Playbill feature, "About This Theatre," has always been a fun pre-performance must, taking me back in time to previous experiences I'd had sitting in the same building. For long-time theatre nuts, going to a Broadway show is in part about such nostalgia.

It does seem like it would serve the Broadway theatre to brand their houses more effectively. I'd like to walk by a theatre and have its name bring back fond thoughts. Jacobs and Schoenfeld ain't gonna do it. Last year's name change at the Martin Beck, which became the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, was a smart move. Hirschfeld's name evokes a feeling, and a pleasant feeling at that.

I still haven't been to the Samuel Beckett, the mid-town off-Broadway theatre, but its very name makes me want to find a reason. OK, so Beckett's a bit rarefied -- and not exactly a Broadway stalwart -- but at least the name says, to the right crowd, that the theatre is aiming high. What does the Schoenfeld say? That you'll see a production that's been well planned, if not necessarily well-written, well-directed, or well-acted? With all due respect, impresarios they weren't.

So who would make exciting namesakes? Stephen Sondheim, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Julie Harris, Ethel Merman, Tony Randall (who tirelessly, but fruitlessly, pursued a national theatre) have all been mentioned. Many valid picks there, although for me Merman and Williams would evoke the most emotion.

In fact, think about the varied possibilities. How differently would you think of a theatre named after Edward Albee, author of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "The Goat," as opposed to one named for Jerry Herman, who composed "Hello Dolly" and "La Cage aux Folles"? A name can actually say something about the space, whether it's an intimate house for plays, or one built for old-fashioned, grand musicals.

If it's an in-between theatre, how about the Jonathan Larson, which would bring to mind the story of the struggling artist who wrote "Rent" and died just as he was seeing his dream come to fruition. Tragedy and triumph would suddenly attach themselves to the building.

And let's not fool ourselves that these names are permanent anyway. I've got to be honest: I don't know who Martin Beck was. If Larson and "Rent" are long forgotten in a decade or two, then fine. For now, a nod to Larson, who did in fact have a significant impact on Broadway, would be appropriate.

If one show does not a namesake make, how about the Michael Bennett, named for the director/choreographer/producer behind "A Chorus Line" and "Dreamgirls."

Heck, I'd settle for the Mel Brooks. At least I'd look at the sign and laugh a little.