Tuesday, September 19, 2006

One Degree of Separation

Couched Condolences. While enjoying David Lindsay-Abaire’s ‘Rabbit Hole’ (at the Geffen through October 13, 2006), the stand-up comedy of Albert Brooks came to mind. Before he started making films in the mid-70s, Brooks, like Steve Martin, was creating comedy not by telling jokes, but by being a joke. Each created characters in his likeness. But where Martin’s wildly silly character was obviously 180 degrees from his true personality, Brooks’ persona was only off by a tick of the dial. Many did not see the humor. But in that single degree of variance, Brooks managed to be just as ridiculous if not more so.

Lindsay-Abaire’s ‘Rabbit Hole’ is close enough to reality to be mistaken for simple melodrama, especially after the playwright’s previous central characters were given 180-degree turns: ‘Kimberly Akimbo’ is a teenager who looks 50 because she’s aging at an accelerated rate and ‘Fuddy Mears’’ principal characters are an amnesiac and a criminal crippled by limp and lisp. The folks in ‘Rabbit Hole’ are not only normal looking but quite attractive. But while the damage has been internalized, it has not been minimized. And Lindsay-Abaire and Carolyn Cantor, his director with talent aging at an accelerated rate, offer a versatile metaphor to help us get at it.

Becca (Amy Ryan) and Howie (Tate Donovan) lost their only son when he chased something into the street and was killed by a teenage driver. Jason (Trever O’Brien) was alone, sober, paying attention, but unable to stop his car in time. Though still angry, Howie wants to limit the loss of life to one, his son, and salvage what's left of his and Becca's. She, however, cannot function in that way. She has been blasted out of her orbit by the loss. Though she wanders her home, cooking and cleaning, she has separated from it as cleanly as a capsule from its booster. Floating this way, and to her husband’s incomprehension, she gravitates to her fellow damaged drifter, Jason, who has dedicated a story about unseen corridors – the kind the physicists theorize link to parallel universes and the kind Lewis Carroll did link to one – to his victim.

In the way Brooks held his comic mirror up close to our faces, Lindsay-Abaire and Cantor keep Becca unmistakable – as recognizable as any neighbor we might pass in the market. It's impossible to guess the displacement and alienation she is suffering. That tight clutch of normalcy, as Ryan and the rest of the cast (which also includes Joyce Van Patten and a stunning Missy Yager) show, is what makes for such a huge explosion when the fission finally comes. The physical production is also stunning, with a beautiful set by Alexander Dodge, lit by Matthew Richards.

For the record, credit must be given to a first public reading of the play, also directed by Cantor, two summers ago at South Coast Repertory. SCR had commissioned the script from Lindsay-Abaire, as it had done with 'Kimberly,' which it premiered. Anna Gunn as Becca, Kevin Kilner as Howie, and Lynn Milgrim, Sarah Rafferty and Phillip Vaden filling out the rest of the cast proved this untested script so road worthy that its next public performance would be on Broadway. W
ith virtually no visible separation between art and audience, those five actors also reasserted the simple magnificence of great theater. In an auditorium of a few hundred people in casual clothes, five virtually indistinguishable from the rest sat before the others on stacking chairs, turning a hundred or so pages of fresh text into two hours of life experience. They rendered it to such a degree, that everyone in that room was moved.

Photo: Trever O'Brien and Amy Ryan.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Counter Intuitive

Nighthawks,’ sang Tom Waits on his 1975 live recording, ‘at the diner of Emma’s Forty-Niner, there’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight.” That sketchy nod to the frozen loneliness of Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting was a palatable bit of extra-disciplinary referencing. But according to Los Angeles crama critics, Douglas Steinberg has gone one worse in his 'Nighthawks,' receiving its premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through September 24, 2006. With some inspired in-breeding, Steinberg has apparently produced a mutant child of tableaux vivant and film noir. His reason for doing so is a mystery -- in more ways than one – involving the diner’s three customers and attendant and a couple "off-stage" characters. The Los Angeles Times’ Charles McNulty suggests that the reason “they don't yet exist in three dimensions only underscores their need for someone with an imagination big enough to hear what they really sound like.” In 'Variety,' Robert Verini calls it a 'clumsy, interminable dramatization,' with 'cheap gags in his first act and over-the-top melodrama in the second.' Whether there's sufficient heft in the Steinberg stylus to pull off this sleight, one wonders whether such conversions can ever take. With due respect to Jon Hendricks and the vocalese set, I wager that if Joe Zawinul wanted singing in ‘Birdland' he'd have written lyrics. Same with Paul Desmond and ‘Take Five.’ (The exception that proves the rule is Cassandra Wilson’s ‘Run the Voodoo Down,’ which eerily expands Miles' universe.) Siimilarly, a great song is only diminished by becoming a video. I remember losing interest in MTV (even before I lost interest in the next generation’s music) because I didn’t like limiting the songs of Talking Heads or Squeeze or whomever into a single visual interpretation. (I still see Chevy Chase's stupid mug every time I hear 'You Can Call Me Al.') It’s what people complain about when artists sell their songs for use in advertisements. It's not the sell-out we object to. It's the way songs that were once important to us are now appliqued over with with images of Cadillac SUVs (Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’), Kaiser Permanente health care (Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’) and Chase credit cards (The Beatles' ‘Love is All You Need’). Just as I prefer letting my subconscious throw up images for 'Birdland,' 'The Weight' and ‘Burning Down the House' each time I hear them, I'm sure I'll be glad I can create my own seedy stories for those denizens of Hopper's diner.

Photo collage: Brian T. Finney and Colette Kilroy "step outside" Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks' for a little play.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Old Times, Good Times

All Together Now. The good news about the 12th Annual West Coast Jazz Party is that it lives up to advance billing. As promised, it’s a unique atmosphere in which to relax and enjoy middle-ground, straight-ahead jazz. Organizers, musicians, and audience mingle like lodge members, clearly veterans of many previous events – either here at the Irvine Marriott over Labor Day Weekend or at the Newport Marriott over Presidents Weekend. Interviews with drummer Jeff Hamilton and trumpeter/conductor Bobby Shew for a story in The Orange County Register drew high praise for the 'Party's' special way of allowing musicians to see friends they haven’t seen in a while and play with people they’ve only heard. The way the players are mixed together by co-Founders John McClure and Joe Rothman – the latter a born emcee – keeps the energy and imagination keen. Among the highlights was trumpeter/vocalist Byron Stripling, graciously leading a Louis Armstrong tribute, but keeping his own style evident. He has the timbre and easy accuracy of Nat Cole, with a dash of vocal unpredictability reminiscent of Diz. Bill Mays provided another indelible when he offered up Jimmy Rowles’ ‘Peacocks,’ a colorful rumination for solo piano in honor of his late friend. Pianist/singer Dena DeRose displayed great feeling in her sets, providing plenty of jazz and soul without resorting to scat. She was ably backed by bassist Christoph Luty and Hamilton. Hamilton was an omnipresent utility player. He had said he was most looking forward to introducing Hammond B3 player Atsuko Hashimoto to America through the Party. In the first of two sets together, they teamed with tenor saxophonist Houston Person – another musician who seemed to be everywhere – on Friday night. While some musicians in the audience were cool to the keyboardist, I was generally impressed, primarily for what a surprisingly soulful streak that occasionally made its way into tunes, especially her big showcase, 'That's All.' Hamilton, Person and she will record and appear elsewhere in the next week or so, and I’ll be anxious to hear more. Bassist Chuck Berghorfer, who also played with just about everybody, said from the stage last night, during a two-man set with Person, “Looking out at this audience brings tears to my eyes. It’s the only place we can play where people aren’t talking during the set. The only thing missing are the 20 year olds!” It was and wasn’t what the crowd wanted to hear. But, it leads us to the bad news: the average audience member was in his or her 60s, quite possibly high 60s. Maybe it’s not fair to judge jazz’s audience by a group who – although pound for pound are among the most educated and supportive – look like extras from a ‘This is Florida Retirement’ infomercial. Perhaps a three-day-four-night event in a classy hotel has a prohibitive tab for youthful, casual fans. Then again, there aren’t many young adults who love jazz so much they’d spend the weekend with clones of the their grandparents. No matter how hip they are. Fortunately, in the months ahead, we’ll be reporting on some teenage jazz players and their fans. All of which should make folks breath a sigh of relief.
Photo: Berghofer, Wycliffe Gordon, Hamilton, Stripling, Person, DeRose, Hashimoto.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Blustery Days

Promo Seltzer. This week the Windy City was blowing gusts of disgust in a knock-down exchange of letters, emails, blogs and articles. The tempestuous snit between the 'Chicago Sun-Times' and Theater Building Chicago, a 30-year-old company, attracted the input of nearly two dozen of theater’s most distinguished blowhards, including Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Arthur Kopit and Dramatist Guild President John Weidman.

What sparked the dramatists' high dudgeon was Sun-Times Critic Hedy Weiss’ review of the company’s 2006 showcase of new musicals. Even though the works are billed as in development and in some cases not completed, Weiss, a former dancer who has been reviewing for more than 15 years, had drifted from doing advances to help promote the festival to doing reviews.

In her defense, Ms. Weiss, who truly seems not to know better, was not condemned in 2005 after writing what amounts to brochure copy on that year’s works-in-progress. She called the musical Tevya, "a remarkably fine piece of work. Not only does it play fully on the powerful frame of reference created in Fiddler, it moves the story forward in intelligent and believable ways, stepping gracefully and confidently into those giant footprints while building on the blend of humor, bitterness and debate that animated the original."

She said the musical version of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, "deserves a thriving future. Along with its ready-made tragicomic story and marvelous characters, it comes with a lovely, lyrical score that very skillfully blends traditional Irish melodies and a Broadway sound.”

On August 16, 2006, her overview story stated that "the eight deeply flawed new musicals showcased in this year's Stages 2006 marathon at the Theatre Building seemed to suggest the artform [sic] has fallen on very hard times."

This was an egregiously inappropriate opinion for a major paper to print regarding theater pieces that were expressly available as part of their development. But technically, it was no worse that the raves she gave shows last year. The problem for the American theater is that our only true allies are newspapers, a community that is itself increasingly marginalized. The point of contact between theater and paper, which I know only too well, requires a kind of rigidity that may cost a story.

As barrage after barrage of pent-up critic-critique from America's greatest living playwrights was gathered by DGA to be dumped on the desks of Sun-Times editor John Barron and publisher John Cruikshank (like Albee's "Ms. Weiss has a reputation as an irresponsible critic, and there are many occasions that are brought to my attention where her reviews have been shocking in their irresponsible provocation and others in which her opinions and prejudices have seemed curiously contrived."), the theater's executive director Joan Mazzonelli began to look for cover. Whereas she earlier had told Jeffrey Sweet (as reported on his blog), "Ms. Weiss was explicitly told that these presentations were not for review," when she spoke to Campbell Robertson for yesterday's New York Times story, she was "acknowledging that she had not made the festival’s policy clear to Ms. Weiss, whom she had encouraged to attend, along with other members of the press."

Whether Ms. Weiss is a good witch or a bad witch, the issue of theater criticism in this country is one which needs much more attention. (And, publicists need to keep a stiff spine despite the potential loss.)