Saturday, December 29, 2007
While there are many popular recording artists both male and female who successfully cross genres, it is those who have mastered the throaty "throb" -- that emotional cry of the heart -- who top the charts. That's not to denigrate their gifts--it is their ability to cut to the emotional core of a song and, with a god-given gift, share that emotional catharsis with us, the ordinary listener (who, chances are, lacks that gift of . . . the throb) that makes them the stars they are. Certainly Barbra Streisand has it. Michael Bolton. Liza Minelli. Luciano Pavrotti. Rufus Wainwright. Celine Dion. (Okay, now I'm starting to cringe. The throb is admirable but when it gets overused, the performer becomes known for excess and thereby undercuts their own effectiveness.)
And then, there's Reba McEntire.
Everything about this lady is honey-colored: her voice, her looks. And this is meant as a compliment. For while there is always that honest "throb" in the voice, along with an amazing sincerity, there is also intelligence, skill and honesty. She's the real deal, and her talents shine both in her native country singing as well as her work on TV, on film, and even Broadway, where she discovered new heights (and depths) in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN then anyone ever suspected, giving a truly remarkable, classic Broadway performance. (Her performance as Nellie Forbush opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell in the concert version of SOUTH PACIFIC for PBS is also worth cherishing.)
All of this is by way of saying that her new album, DUETS, is understandably a hit, not only on the country but the pop charts as well. Reba brings honest soul to the often soap opera-ish material country deals with, such that you understand why it speaks to so many Americans. Divorces, alcoholism, lost loves, miscommunications--all are part and parcel of our lives, but while most country singers dutifully wail them out, Reba really discovers the character underneath and makes them live. And on this collection, each number is worth the time. "Because of You," her duet with Kelly Clarkson, is enormously effective and is receiving the majority of radio air time, but her work with LeAnne Rimes on "When You Love Someone Like That" is equally deserving. An incredible one-act play occurs in "Every Other Weekend," wherein Reba and Kenny Chesney rendezvous regularly at a parking lot to trade off custody of the kids in their divorce settlement, despite the feelings they may still have for each other, now assumed to be lost in the other. (For those like myself who are not natural country fans, this number alone makes me want to learn more about Mr. Chesney.) Justin Timberlake shows his abilities beyond "boy toy" with the lovely song he contributed, "The Only Promise That Remains," proof that a very long, gifted career is ahead. "Everyday People," a collaboration with the venerable Carole King, champions those folks who rise beyond their humble circumstances to do honestly noble deeds that help and enrich the lives of others. Vince Gill and Faith Hill do more than rhyme on this album, and Trisha Yearwood, Rascal Flats, Don Henley and especially Ronnie Dunn contribute mightily. If you're into country, of course you'll love this album, but even those "too good" to be taken in will be swept away by Hurricane Reba. A splendid album to end the year on.
EXCEPT . . .
James Taylor is back with yet another revisit of his classic material in ONE MAN BAND, this time with just an admirable piano accompaniment (by Larry Goldings) and his own fine guitar work. Recorded in concert in Pittsfield, MA (his hometown in the Berkshires), Taylor reveals the methods behind his madness for an accompanying DVD that captures all the joy, silliness and emotion of his live concert performances. You almost want to slap him for laziness, for not bringing new work to the table--and yet the honesty and freshness that he brings to each "classic" makes the new album just as valuable as the original recordings. An hour with James Taylor is just bound to make you feel good.
And finally . . . if you are a latecomer to the gifted Marc Cohn. join the club. Or better yet, JOIN THE PARADE -- a wonderful new album that reflects on New Orleans and Hurrican Katrna, first encounters, old cars and reflections of one's infinite past. Cohn seems like the love child of Randy Newman and Bruce Springstein, if you can imagine(!), yet he also manages more intimacy and awider range of growl and humor. This album made me rapidly turn to discover his initial, self-titled Grammy winner of almost 20 years ago, MARC COHN, on which he introduced the hit, "Walking in Memphis." A listen to either (or both albums) and you'll be wondering where your ears have been hiding for the last two decades!
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Wouldn't it be lovely if these festive holidays when you're supposed to celebrate with family and friends didn't happen to be the exact same time of the year as bad weather, bad road conditions, and nasty colds and flus? Having been in irreparably behind, it is no surprise that I just now can sit down to this column!
The Writers Guild strike continues on--let's face it, a lot of innocent people (not necessarily writers or producers, mind you!) are suffering because of this protracted squabble. The writers are fairly well paid. The producers are nervous about any precedents they set, since negotiations with the actors and the directors are also just around the bend. But if there's money to be made, then ALL should share in the pie (and God knows in show business, at that level, there's plenty to go around). The irony is that make-up artists, set painters, crafts services folks--folks who live paycheck to paycheck in service to these folks--these are the one's who are suffering--and they won't get a piece of the pie, even when everyone is busy congratulating each other for outfoxing their opponents.
And of course, a promising TV season has been drying up and withering on the vine. Who knows when a favorite show is on, whether or not its a new episode, when it will return . . . oi! If TV is intended as an escape, it hadn't fail in its mission just now--especially as Internet and other home media have threatened its very success rate. And fewer folks are going OUT for a movie than ever, even as the prices steadily rise. So the writers and the producers are definitely risking the patience of the American public, who can be fickle when their devotion is abused.
Okay, so what's still giving me entertainment these days (when not busy at work or on future artistic endeavors)?
PUSHING DAISIES, Wednesdays, 8 pm, ABC - Visual appeal is always nice. Creative casting is invigorating. This show has both, and its gifted ensemble just gets more interesting by the episode. (The stunningly beautiful Anna Friel and the equally gorgeous Lee Pace just picked up Golden Globe nominations for their leadership--and its rare for a new show to win nominations before the first season is even up!) But Bryan Fuller, the creator of this innovative comedy/fantasy continues to find new twists in this fairy tale of pie-maker with the gift of life-and-death in his little finger. Just when you think you know where they're going or whether they're taking a shortcut, they come up with something unexpected. You get the feeling that they've decided to welcome the challenge of coming up with new variations on their "deadly" central conceit, doing so with brio! As wonderful as Friel and Pace are, this is an ensemble of scene-stealers--Chi McBride has never been better, and Kristin Chenoweth is a goddess. And then, when you think it can't get any better, Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz waltz in to pull out the ground from under you! The murder mysteries are getting increasingly witty and humorous, with spectacular guest shots from the likes of Barbara Barrie, Christopher Sieber and Grant Shaud. But audiences have already fallen in love with Raul Esparza's travelling homeopathic salesman and eagerly await his return, and anyone who's wondered about the future of Paul Reubens have had their doubts erased by his mesmeric turns as Oscar, a scent-obsessive living in the sewers who is onto the secrets of the pie-man. I really look forward to my Wednesday night fix! (For those who've missed it, go to ABC.com, where you can sample full episodes online!)
CHUCK, Mondays at 8pm, NBC--Another show that operates from a high concept (which means it could fall flat as a souffle once the inspiration is gone), CHUCK trusts the charm of its characters (and its delightful cast) to keep audiences tuning in. And they're right--we don't watch for real spy thrills but for the excitement that happens on a daily basis in the electronics outlook where Chuck and his buddies work! (I'm not kidding! The Nerd Herd is hilarious and disarming.) Zachary Levi is charming--and like Jack Benny, smart enough to know when to play straight man to the bunch of loonies surrounding him. It's a great strategy, which makes the viewer readily return its attention to the beleaguered young man in danger due to the computer information implanted in his brain. Yvonne Strahovski and Adam Baldwin are the most interested government agents to come along in a generation, and Joshua Gomez makes the annoying sidekick role a surprising treat. Until MEDIUM returns, CHUCK is the jewel in NBC's crown this season.
Next time: end-of-the-year musical treats!
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
There are things to be thankful for this holiday season. Maybe they require thinking about, some searching for--but if we don't count our blessings every so often, they threaten to disappear when we're not looking.
Be thankful you are employed. Regardless of the supposedly improving unemployment figures (like you BELIEVE any of the numbers they're putting out in D.C. these days!), I am finding more and more people in my, er, age range with a lifetime's experience no longer employed in the jobs they trained their whole lives for and for which they are eminently qualified. I am happy to be back for a long-term assignment at a certain leading financial journal where, if the data is not up my alley, the professionalism and friendliness of co-workers is delightful.
Be thankful you are healthy. After nearly a MONTH of the flu and respiratory distress, I am finally on an even keel. This flu starts as a cold and then zaps you--chills, aches, fever, stomach distress. You don't want it--just avoid the x-million fellow New Yorkers who already have it and are willing to share.
Be thankful for friends and family. Yes, no man is an island, misery loves company, yadayadayada. But in truth, we ARE all in this thing together. Sometimes lending an ear to a friend is actually more of a "cure all" for you then whining about your own situation--there's something positive to be gained in being positive for someone else!
Be thankful for your imagination. Yes, that very creature that makes you neurotic and self-absorbed with fantasies of doom is also your salvation. Why not imagine something positive? It's just as easy as the opposite. And for those who are creative, the imagination engaged through art (writing, painting, performing) is a wonderful therapy, a way to work out all the frustrations that a currently out-of-whack world can provide. Creativity is not only the key to sanity, it is perhaps the only way to keep it.
Be thankful for dogs, cats, avocados, and chocolate. (Because really, how can you not be?!)
Be thankful that being a pampered neurotic is your worst problem! It could be much, much worse.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!
Friday, November 16, 2007
Sunday, October 28, 2007
BLOODY GOOD TIME
About nine years ago, there was a little TV show on cable about a Jersey mob boss who killed with brutality but who also had a wife and kids, anxiety attacks and bills to pay. THE SOPRANOS caught our attention because it attempted to balance the mythology of the mob with the reality of daily life and how real people could balance their everyday activities and emotions with an almost Grand Guignol mode of operation. How to survive in a life of almost operatic proportions and yet keep your footing as a human being on a day-to-day basis captivated us for almost ten years, up until the very---
(Sorry, couldn't resist.)
Of course, there really are such things as mobsters, and THE SOPRANOS was (we're told) the closest thing to real life as has ever been done on television. (Marty Scorsese, we hardly knew ye.)
Now that's mobsters, not monsters.
But what if monsters, particularly vampires, really existed among us? They have a lot of bad press and a nasty rep to overcome, not to mention zillions of books, movies, legends. They are "the undead" who feed on blood, usually human blood, sleep in coffins by day and roam by night, and basically suck parasitically off the human race. Of course, they have perks like speed, heightened senses, superhuman strength and, oh, yes, they never age. And in recent years, thanks to Anne Rice, they more resemble Calvin Klein models than Bela Lugosi.
And what if you did a similarly landmark series about the real vampires among us in modern L.A.? What you might come up with--possibly--is the strangely appealing MOONLIGHT (on CBS, Fridays at 9 pm).
Okay, it's not a David Chase production and it lacks the gravitas of James Gandolfini et la famiglia. But following the increasingly stupid GHOST WHISPERER (and preceding the ever- shrivelling NUMBERS), MOONLIGHT is a charming little divertisement/romance that explores a growing friendship between a handsome private eye, Mitch St. John (Alex O'Loughlin) and a plucky female Internet reporter, Beth Turner (Sophia Myles). Beth actually gets Mitch to share details of his life with her--how he was unexpectedly "turned" at age 30 by his new bride on their wedding night, and how new vampires must be mentored to peacefully co-exist with humans right away or else they can become feral terrorists who threaten the human population while embarrassing and endangering the secret existence of their fellow undead colleagues. (There's even a covert "clean up squad" of vampires, the fixers who make sure the messes made by renegade vampires is neatly covered up.) Not all vampires fall in line--just as there are humans who behave badly--and Mitch, a rather good private investigator in any event, is particularly sensitive to vampires behaving badly and has very particular aims in re-claiming them to the fold. You see, Mitch still really rather likes human beings, due to a surprising episode with a child some years ago, and now Beth has arrived in his life without judgment or disapproval (but already spoken-for by a rather nice human boyfriend) . . . His vampire friends, who also operate effectively undercover in the human social whirl, tease him for his prissy proclivities but seemingly side with him and pride themselves in their abilities "to pass" without detection. To expose their primal instinct and behavior to mortals would be gauche, an embarrassment. But for Mitch, to find trust in a human like Beth, is surest sign that his life's work is not in vein . . . so to speak.
O'Loughlin and Myles are appealing to watch and are capable actors with a palpable chemistry. (But speak of underground cults and vampires, what IS it with all these non-American actors playing Americans on American TV? O'Loughlin's Australian, Myles is British. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but on BROTHERS & SISTERS, the remarkable Rachel Griffiths plays American Sarah Walker without being detected as an Aussie (as she did on SIX FEET UNDER) and Brit Matthew Rhys plays gay brother Kevin. THE BIONIC WOMAN, an all-American archetype is being played by young British actress Michelle Ryan. On Chuck, all-American CIA agent/love interest Sarah Walker (yes, another Sarah Walker) is played by another Australian, Yvonne Strahovski. Christ, Hugh Laurie is a limey-bastard as the pain-in-the-ass American curmudgeon, Dr. Gregory House! These actors are just wonderful, mind you, but this is becoming an epidemic!)
But back to MOONLIGHT. It has a great after-midnight look and feel, edgy editing, good underscoring and fast-paced direction. Ron Koslow, one of its creators, has mined this dual-mythology landscape before with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and knows how to give us a romance with just the right undercut to keep it fun and just short of sappy. It may not be the stuff of cutting-edge TV drama--I believe no one else will be comparing MOONLIGHT with THE SOPRANOS this season--but as escapist entertainment, one could do far worse.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
ANYONE YOU LOVE ON FOUR LEGS?
A recent edition of ABC's Nightline concentrated on the relationship Americans have with their pets, spending billions of dollars on food, pet care products, toys and now surgeries and medical procedures. Those who think from their wallets may say it's just a pet, why spend the money for treatment? What a waste. Obviously, these are people who have never bonded with a pet.
Dogs, cats, birds and other animals may not be as convoluted or complex as we are--at least, as far as we know (or as far as they have revealed themselves to us). But for relatively little, they give back so much--affection, companionship, loyalty, love. It is not all that rare to hear the tail, er, tale of a housepet who alerted a family to a house fire or did what they could to protect the baby from an attacking wild animal. When a family member is ill, the family pet will frequently stay bedside, patiently providing any support or comfort they can without complaint. (Dogs trained as assistants for the physically disabled seem to not only do their jobs but enjoy them as well.) And who is a better, more patient listener, understanding instinctively that when you love someone, being there is more important than passing judgment or forcing a conclusion. Animals can provide the type of love we frequently fail to bring to the table as humans. But just as importantly, the honesty of communion with a pet is an elevating experience, a connection in its purest, most uncomplicated form.
In New York City, the animal shelters deserve support for the food, leashes, grooming and housing facilities they provide to take care of these creatures who, for one reason or another, have found themselves abandoned or in trouble. Yet city fiscal budgets being what they are, many of these shelters are woefully under-funded. Playwrights for Pets, founded by Sue Yocum, is an organization that raises money for shelters that, in turn, serve animals in need. As written up in the national publication, Animal Companion, PFP gives theater artists a chance to use their skills while raising money that will be used to help an animal (who in turn helps many a human). Recent benefits for Animal Haven, for example, have raised funds that helped rescue abandoned pets in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and have gone towards the new Animal Haven SoHo, a combination shelter/adoption agency/training space, where pets are not only matched up with owners but where the appropriate care, training and education is provided to ensure a positive, long-lasting relationship between pets and their humans.
On Monday, October 22nd, Playwrights for Pets will present another wonderful evening of original, humorous plays performed by a crackerjack cast--IN TRANSIT: Six Plays that take place in Motion! Those of you who've come to our other evenings know that the plays are usually delightful, the actors delicious, the setting (Baruch's Performing Arts Center in the Recital Hall) highly comfortable and attractive and the post-show wine-shmuzathon reception divine! For those of you who haven't attended, it's a delightful evening (an hour for the reading and what-you-will for the reception), with all of the $10 proceeds going to Animal Haven, the wonderful no-kill shelter that provides food, care and adoption opportunities for dogs and cats in need.
A reading of short plays that take place in motion
Jim Dalglish, Bill Dudley, Ron Frankel, Griffin Miller,
Susan Shafer, Judd Lear Silverman & Sue Yocum
Kaseem Bristow, Erin Cronican*, Elizabeth Gee, Laura Gillis*,
Jonna McElrath*, John Moss* & Dana Watkins*
Monday, October 22, 2007 at 7:30 pm
BPAC - Baruch Performing Arts Center
"an incubator for the arts"
55 Lexington Ave @ 25th Street (btwn Lex & 3rd Aves)
Reservations: call 718-768-4213 or email email@example.com
Donation Requested: $10 • Baruch ID: no donation required
Running time approximately 1 hour • www.playwrightsforpets.com • www.animalhavenshelter.org
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
THE SEASON UNFOLDS . . . and unfolds . . .
Well, it takes a while to let all those shows return and debut, even as we continue to drool over the twists and turns of such summer nail-biters as DAMAGES (Tuesdays, 10 pm, FX). Glenn Close signed a multi-year contract, gang--so clearly they're not gonna kill her or send her to the Big House. Anyone else, on the other hand, would seem to be fair game--but who will it be?!
Three weeks in, CHUCK (Mondays, 8 pm, NBC) remains inventive, fast & funny, a joyful exercise with Zachary Levi making a sympathetic and rather charming nerd.
DANCING WITH THE STARS (Mondays, 8 pm, ABC; results shows, Tuesdays, 9 pm) is still enormously entertaining--and the level of performance has been unusually high from the start. Hard to predict who will take home the trophy at this point . . .
ABC seems to be taking the lead with a wide range of offerings, from the ridiculous to the sublime. (Have you noticed there have been no commercials or promos for MEN IN TREES, which starts on Friday? Not a single picture or commercial--what's that about? Are they sorry they committed to bringing it back? Will they burn it off right away? They've stuck it at Friday at 10 pm, one of the most notoriously difficult time slots.)
CAVEMEN (Tuesdays, 8 pm, ABC) is, sadly, just dull. Afraid of being too allegorical, the pilot show was re-shot to take out an overload of prejudice jokes. But why do a show about heavily made-up cavemen if you're NOT going to look humorously at being out of sync with the rest of America? (That was, after all, the thrust of the Geico campaign that spawned the show.) The unrecognizable actors have appeared on everything from THE VIEW to DANCING WITH THE STARS in character, responding to real-life stimuli, and were quite quick-witted and funny (especially Nick Kroll), but the actual first show was tentative, stiff and bland. Give these guys something to work with stronger than basic male dating problems, folks--the joke that all men are basically no better than cavemen is kinda tired.
DIRTY SEXY MONEY (Wednesdays, 10 pm, ABC) is neither especially dirty or sexy, but clearly this cast (Peter Krause, Donald Sutherland, Jill Clayburgh, William Baldwin) costs a lot of money. An idealist lawyer follows in his father's footsteps to become the attorney for a family of very questionable morals and behavior. Spoiled people behaving badly--c'mon, folks, unless there's something new or honest to say, do we need another program telling us that rich people are unhappy, too?
PUSHING DAISIES (Wednesdays, 8 pm, ABC) At last, something new!!! The power of life-and-death (and all the ethical questions that ensue) gets whimsical and humorous treatment with this visually-splendid, fast-paced comedy. Scripts are sharp and imaginative, with bite and panache. Ned, the hapless hero who also bakes pies for a living, has the power to bring people (and pets) back to life and then has one minute to decide whether or not to send them back to Death Valley, all with a mere touch. If he touches them again, they return to death forever. If he doesn't touch them within the minute, someone else in proximity dies in their place. It's a quirky concept, but it's pulled off with great, gleeful abandon. And the cast is priceless: Kristin Chenoweth, Chi McBride, Swoosie Kurtz, Ellen Greene, top off-beat professionals all, performing with enormous precision and detail. But none of this would work if it weren't for the superb anchoring performance of stage veterans Lee Pace and Anna Friel as star-crossed lovers who are re-united but simply can't touch! They are genuinely warm, attractive presences, cute but not never cloying or cutesy. Kudos to creator Bryan Fuller for risking an unsavory topic in order to create such a unique treat--sweet-and-sour rarely tastes this good! For once, a show that lives up to its hype!
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Well, after weeks of well-placed hype, a new year has begun--and I'm not referring to the Jewish New Year! Nope. It's the start of a new TV season, and the networks are spitting out their golden moldies and their retreads. So if you're not watching re-runs of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN on Saturday nights on American Lifetime Network, chances are you are exploring the menu of delicacies served up by the broadcast networks.
DANCING WITH THE STARS kicked off their season with a three-night premiere that was, for the most part, rather entertaining. Tom Bergeron and the judges (Carrie Ann, Len and Bruno) are back, along with a slightly stiff Drew Lachey (subbing for new mom, Samantha Harris). This is a show that really works because ballroom dancing is in fact a discernible skill--and contestants with some degree of street creds in other areas must check their superiority at the door in order to find out what they can do on the floor. There is no guarantee of crossover success. Along the way, the poetry of human motion and human emotion combine to create a genuine portrait of people trying to learn an art form and execute the work at a reasonably high quality in front of millions of viewers. It's daunting and brave. (Wayne Newton doesn't really have to prove himself anymore, and yet there he is!) Early prediction--watch for the infectiously-charming Helio Castronoves to remain a leader throughout. And Jane Seymour, the oldest of the female competitors, is a lesson in class and deportment, undercut with just the right amount of giddy pleasure. Even the results show this week, with an effervescent Dolly Parton and the amazing Savion Glover performing, was delightful. Welcome back! (ABC, Monday and Tuesday nights)
PRIVATE PRACTICE, the spin-off series from Grey's Anatomy, picked up where it left off in its sample episode from last season. Addison Montgomery (Shepherd), played by an angular Kate Walsh, moves to California to join the alternative-lifestyle practice of her old college chums. Marin Duguy from the pilot has been replaced by Broadway's Audra McDonald, and it's lovely to have her on TV again. (She actually seems to awaken and challenge the often somnambulent Taye Diggs.) Tim Daly is back as a laid-back holistic healer but so far has nothing real to do. In fact, the only truly engaging storyline of the opening episode belonged to Amy Brenneman, whose psychiatrist had to quickly figure out and intervene during a patient's psychic break in a department store. Grey's Anatomy initially charmed with its detailed human portraits amidst standard medical show plotlines, but by the end of last year it had become just another primetime soap. Will Private Practice similarly devolve? Will it waste the talents of a gifted (and high-priced) ensemble? Time will tell. (ABC, Wednesdays, 9 pm).
BIG SHOTS, promoted as the male Sex in the City/Desperate Housewives counterpart, also features a pricey and attractive cast (Dylan McDermott, Christopher Titus, Michael Vartan and Joshua Malina) who say things like "men are the new women." But they're not, are they? As portrayed here, they are mostly inept oafs. Anyone looking for an honest look at men today is likely to be disappointed--no crime for a glossy TV comedy, I guess, but are we being entertained enough? THAT is the question. So far, aside from a couple of quotable quips, the inventiveness level here is fairly flat. (ABC, Thursdays, 10 pm)
On the other hand, what seemed like a potentially vacuous premise--a department store nerd who ends up a reluctant spy when subliminally-defined encoded government secrets are downloaded to his brain (perhaps by accident)--turns out to be a witty and suspenseful brew, due to a charming cast and honestly felt details that surprise and enlighten. CHUCK had me alternately on the edge of my seat AND giggling. Zachary Levi as Chuck is fun to watch and amazingly available--you feel you know him, and while his circumstances are extraordinary, his responses are believably real. His annoying best friend, Morgan, is played humorously by Joshua Gomez with just the right calibration--bothersome but loyal, he stops just short of being too much. And the stunning Yvonne Strzechowski makes the improbable CIA agent Sarah Walker the most attractive and strangely likable spy since Barbara Feldon's warm presence graced Get Smart. Add to that some genuinely funny writing, some spectacular special effects, and some truly first-rate suspense action superbly directed and edited and you've got a surprise winner. CHUCK may not be high-brow entertainment, but there's a really lovely aesthetic at work here and it's genuinely FUN! (NBC, Mondays, 8pm)
Saturday, September 22, 2007
On this holiest of days, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), I wish my fellow Jews a good fast, a day of peace, and that they may be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. (Minus the fasting, I wish the same for all my non-Jewish friends as well.)
I still am trying to find my way to a spirituality I can live with on a permanent daily basis. I DO in fact believe in a power greater than ourselves, and that there is some sort of purpose out there, even if it only seems random to us because we are not capable (speak for yourself, Judd) of fathoming the larger picture. I am proud of my Jewish heritage and rituals but not in love with organized religion (as I've written before). So on a day like today--a unexpectedly rainy one--I'm at a loss, torn between a desire to spiritually reflect and a sense of guilt that I am not being "traditional," even though I'm not a traditional person in almost any sense of the word.
Religion, in my opinion, is a wedding of morality/ethics and faith. The morals and ethics of a religion (those tenants that make us good human beings) are a set of guidelines that we try to subscribe to and hopefully succeed in following. (Of course, all practicing religions would be out of business if we even had a 20 percent success rate--the idea that we are all "sinners" seems to be the key selling point.) And then there's faith--a belief that beyond clear and apparent evidence, the things we hope and pray for will ultimately come true--peace, love, prosperity, health, etc.
But doesn't the only hope for this combination (which I suspect most people really do need) lie in our defining for ourselves what is ethical, what is moral, and what is likely? Should we let others define these for us? Ultimately, since we are personally responsible for our actions and behavior, should we not first make sure we agree with what we practice? I feel we SHOULD believe in something--it is part of human nature. But why do we feel the need to have others define that belief? This is not to knock any organized system, but they are theologies with track records, certainly to be considered but never likely to be as perfectly tailored as a system that we personally adopt as our code of belief and behavior. Like any man-made structure, religions suffer from human failings. And history has shown repeatedly that blind adherence to any one belief system, particularly to a fundamentalist degree, has led to atrocities of the worst kind--all perpetrated when we knew that God "was on our side."
By all means, celebrate holidays and rituals. The fact that a Day is set aside for atonement and reflection is laudatory. ANYTHING that makes us take pause, to think about our lives and how we treat our fellows, is valuable to the quality of life for sentient beings. And guilt is certainly a good motivator in exploring how we treat our brothers and sisters. But the guilt should remain where it belongs, in the strange behaviors we have perpetrated--not in the process of how and why we explore our spiritual side. Any belief draws credibility when we take personal responsibility and act accordingly, so it perhaps it is best that it comes directly from our own design.
But as I say, who am I to tell anyone else what to believe? I'm still figuring it out for myself.
Saturday, September 08, 2007
For centuries, there has been a strange dichotomy between the arts and religion, particularly in the United States. In religious circles, art devoted to religious topics is considered good,while art that depicts human desire and autonomy is not so good. The purer the religious devotion of a given sect, the plainer (to non-existent) the art seems to become. Fundamentalists are usually not passionate art lovers, choosing to channel their energies to the deity. Thus while one of the indisputably greatest art patrons of all time is the Roman Catholic Church, there are fundamentalist movements (in all religions) that have branded art heretical and artists blasphemous. The arty and the artistic have always been morally suspect in our culture. Our American founding fathers, mostly good protestants, shied away from artistic endeavors and flashy decorations, and artists to this day are still viewed in this country as strange, lewd and slightly sinful, even as the culture thrives on their images and creations and the society spends millions to enjoy the work.
I mention all this because of the odd experience I am currently having with a show I'm directing, MASS. MURDER, which is opening this Thursday at 8 pm. (See the article below from September 1st--maybe you'll even buy a ticket!) It so happens that September 13th is RoshHashanah. Of course, Jewish holidays run from sundown to sundown, so that technically speaking the holiday WILL be over by the 8 pm curtain . . . that is, if you're reform. (Orthodox Judaism celebrates the holiday for two days, such that Jews all over the world will have experienced the holiday together.) Being the director but not the producer, I really didn't schedule this, nor did I even think about it when told the dates, which I guess one could say is my "fault." And, as I say, we do open after sundown, such that those attending opening night are safe from bolt lightning, even if I will be punished for attending the dress rehearsal. (But then again, dress rehearsals are frequently punishing anyway.)
The funny thing is, I feel really elated that the show is playing on the Holiday, and I'm trying to figure out why. Normally, for the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur making the equation complete), I stay home, meditate and write in my journal (often some extra pages), and reflect upon my life. This is my version of religious practice, in my own words, a one-on-one. I love my Jewish heritage and the rituals and mores of the religion, but I'm less enamored of "organized religion," and the seeming self-righteousness it can engender. I cannot afford a year-long membership in a temple, and certainly will not spend a ridiculous sum for tickets to attend two days a year when I can "pray" at home in ways that mean more to me spiritually. I do feel connected and reflective with a higher power on those days, as well as to my fellow Jewish brethren. But being surrounded by strangers who are judging each other or pledging to be more active in the synagogue with their monetary and time promises--this does not work for me. And yet because I was raised a good, middle-class conservative Jew--and because, I suspect, my core Jewishness incorporates an ingrained neuroticism--I always feel guilty as I observe but not publicly. Like it's good that I do it, but I'm not really doing it right. (On the other hand, for many years I felt enormously disconnected and uncomfortable in the temple while simultaneously doing "the right thing.")
Now why--if I'm "praying" in my own words and thoughts by writing meditations in my journal and speaking from my heart, reviewing my deeds and evaluating my actions of the past year-- am I doing it wrong? Is not using my brain, the words, the very artistic impulses that I have been gifted with the greatest way to express my thanks for what I have been given?
Strangely enough, this show seems to be giving me an answer. Three darkly comic one-acts dealing with rudeness, injustice, avarice, bullying, and vengeance, they look very powerfully (if humorously) at the sense of entitlement we feel and the actions we excuse in the name of self-defense and self-preservation. And for a change, I feel I'm doing something highly religious on the High Holidays--I'm using my art and my abilities to get people examining their own morals and morality. I certainly didn't set out to do so, and whatever conclusions the audiences draw for themselves are fine with me. But my neurotic guilt didn't come crashing in as usual when friends pointed out my scheduling flub. In fact, I felt strangely on target. If the theater is my form of religion, then certainly it can't be ill to welcome a new year and explore issues by using the work to do so? I'm even tapping into a sense of belonging, of community, as I spend the evening with my fellow artists and audience members. I'm home.
I suddenly don't feel so on the fence about Rosh Hashanah. Of course, I will STILL write and meditate that day, but I will also celebrate the art I was born to pursue, and that's very pleasing to my sense of spirituality.
Now if only I had a project for Yom Kippur--we'll be closed long before the 21st . . . !
Saturday, September 01, 2007
For those who like their comedies twisted, Edward Musto's work is like a box of good dark chocolate. Unlike Forrest Gump's drugstore candy box, you know what you're getting inside and you savor it with anticipation. Musto, who's previously been an Edgar Award nominee for mystery writing, knows how to create a great twist--and then twist it around a bit further for good measure! (His play, The Ninth Circle, is included in Martin Denton's collection, Plays and Playwrights 2003, published by The New York Theatre Experience, Inc.)
Having been a fan (and friend) for many years, I am delighted that I am getting to direct a delicious bill of three of his one-acts, under the umbrella title, MASS. MURDER (all of which feature murder and mayhem in Massachusetts). SHUTE BRANCH takes place in a quiet library extension, where the Librarian has advice for a young reader. BURNT SUGAR CAKE shows that you can't have your cake and eat it too, even in the world of soccer moms and well-kept yards. And in MANNERZ, we see how one young man chooses to leave a legacy. The wonderful cast includes Elizabeth Gee, Nell Gwynn, Eric Hunt, Bellavia Mauro, Annie Pesch, Robbie Rescigno and Abigail Ziaja, with costumes by the redoubtable Catherine Fisher. The show is being produced under the banner of La Muse Venale, M. Stefan Strozier's acting company, and will be performed for five performances only at the Blackbird Studio Theatre, 347 West 36th Street, 13th Floor, September 13-16. Sure, I'm biased, but this has been a truly fun project to work on and should be a blast to watch. The performance schedule is Thursday, Friday & Saturday nights at 8pm, with matinees on the Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm. SEATING IS LIMITED, so contact Theater Mania at 212-352-3101 or www.theatermania.com, to purchase tickets ($18). Click here for more information.
And Now on Home Video . . .
Without a doubt, Peter Morgan had a banner year, penning both of the Oscar-winning lead film roles: Idi Amin, which won the award for Forrest Whitaker (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) and Queen Elizabeth II (for Helen Mirren) in THE QUEEN. Morgan also brought us the stage hit, FROST/NIXON, wherein the classic David Frost interviews with the disgraced President created an indelible portrait (and Frank Langella in turn received the role of a lifetime). Indeed, Morgan seems to be the "go-to" guy for great translations of real life figures into art. He himself didn't collect the Oscar or the Tony this season--but I'm sure there was plenty of comfort for him on the way to the bank.
Of course, it doesn't hurt if your leading lady is as gifted as Helen Mirren. Mirren is a great screen goddess, capable of a roar or a whisper that speaks volumes of truth, as anyone who's seen her work on PRIME SUSPECT can attest. Her previous Oscar nods (GOSFORD PARK, MADNESS OF GEORGE III) were entertaining and skilled, as were her various stage forays (she played last in New York City in DANCE OF DEATH opposite Ian McKellan), but her portrayal of the living monarch so perfectly captures England's figurehead as to completely blur the line between drama and documentary. (It also doesn't hurt to have the brilliant Stephen Frears as your director.)
In any event, THE QUEEN is available on DVD and cable, and while James Cromwell and Michael Sheen give admirable support, it is Mirren's show. (Although the real Princess Di, in memory alone, manages to be a remarkable antagonist.) It is well worth watching to understand some very real changes in the monarchy due to a particularly touchy period in Britain's modern history. Well worth watching.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Speaking of Allen Coulter, DAMAGES, the new F/X legal series, is gritty, disturbing, twisting and twisted--which, of course, makes it great fun. Glenn Close could well be tired of playing iron maidens of dubious personal character--is EVERY strong woman selfish and evil at heart? Nonetheless, she does it so well and they're no doubt fun to play. (Meryl Streep did a similar turn in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA--but there, the stakes were in high fashion versus murder--okay, I guess that's the same thing!) Rose Byrne holds her own as a young associate who works for Close's super lawyer, Patty Hewes, who has to adjust her own moral sense to keep her job while balancing the loved ones in her life. (Oh, and did I mention the show starts with a bloody, half-naked Byrne in a police interrogation room, needing a lawyer herself?) A superb theater-trained supporting cast includes the always protean Tait Donovan, Zelko Ivanek, Phillip Bosco, and, in a role that finally taps a deeper vein in his talent, Ted Danson as a wealthy Enron-like executive. (Before getting trapped in TV comedy land, Danson was riveting on the big screen in character roles in films like BODY HEAT.) The camera work is dark and foreboding, the editing edgy, and the scripts witty and terse. This nasty series (it is F/X, after all) will keep you biting your nails wondering what's to happen next--and wondering who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. Damages, Tuesday nights at 10 pm, F/X Channel.
For those high-minded, low-motivated souls who want to see the latest (and best) movies of 2006 & 2007—but somehow can’t rouse oneself out of genetically-planted inertia—it is a boon thing that On Demand services were created. (Can’t wear out our tootsies braving a trip to a video store, or even to the mailbox, for Heaven’s sake!)
Two flicks (among millions) that I previously missed I’ve now had the chance to catch up with—and though I may be the last soul on the planet to view them, I can now recommend them to you.
HOLLYWOODLAND: The sad, mysterious death of George Reeves, TV’s Superman, is grippingly re-visited (without any firm conclusion) in this wonderfully noir feature by one of cable’s best directors, Allen Coulter (THE SOPRANOS, SIX FEET UNDER, DAMAGES). Ben Affleck gives the performance of his career thusfar, stunningly lacking in vanity, as the tragic Reeves, an actor who aspired to serious consideration and yet felt like a clown in a stretchy jumpsuit, playing a superhero in this cheap and pathetic new medium called television. (Whether this is truth or conjecture is the filmmaker’s prerogative—Reeves death was ruled a suicide, but to this day, questions remain, which is precisely where Coulter wants us for this outing.) Diane Lane is stunning as a Hollywood mogul’s wife who pretty much “keeps” Reeves, and Bob Hoskins and Joe Spano are appropriately menacing as studio men with shady reputations to uphold. Yet the film is told in flashback and really belongs to Adrian Brody, the Oscar winner for THE PIANIST, who is still slowly unveiling his talents to the public. Brody is a poet of moral conflict. As the hapless detective tracking the case, his face is an increasingly dented mask that nonetheless reveals a wide range of contrasting emotions as he pieces together a case while barely holding his own life together. HOLLYWOODLAND is fascinating, knowing the ways in which show business and television now operate—and the continuing obsession Americans have with stars and their pursuit of stardom. (Have Lindsay, Brittany or Paris seen this one? They might think twice before some of their choices if they did!)
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING: in the 80s and 90s, Ivan Reitman made a name for himself as one of the most successful directors of light comedies with a vaguely political edge. Now his son, Jason, seems to have taken up the mantel, with a slightly darker edge and a less glossy veneer. The results are quite positive. THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (based on the novel by Christopher Buckley) is sitcom-quick but subtly more stinging. Aaron Eckhart, by stealth the most versatile leading man in Hollywood, gives one of his sharpest turns yet as Nick Naylor, a tobacco industry lobbyist who takes pride in both his ability to spin and his love for his young and impressionable son. He is shameless as he defends an industry he fully recognizes as evil and self-serving, and yet (as he explains to his kid), EVERYONE in America deserves a good defense. His chief antagonist is the wonderful William H. Macy as a Vermont senator currying favor with a rabid anti-smoking/pro-Cheddar platform, and there are numerous star cameo turns from Robert Duvall, Maria Bello, Joshua Jackson, J.K. Simmons, and Mrs. Tom Cruise (Katie Holmes). Young Cameron Bright, seemingly the successor to Haley Joel Osment in the deep-thinking kid department, provides a great moral tent post to the piece as Naylor’s young son, and Rob Lowe is once again effectively glib as a power broker who never lets a care crease that pretty face of his. But it is Eckart’s film and he has never been more affable, even as he approaches total moral bankruptcy. This is a fun summer watch that also manages to be a good litmus test of American marketing and mores.
Friday, July 13, 2007
No, I'm NOT referring to Dubya seemingly missing the point that Al-Quaeda's gained strength, we've lost thousands of lives, and that Scooter Libby's punishment was not harsh but on the most forgiving end of the federal guidelines, nor that the government is here to serve the people versus his personal business interests and those of his friends. ("When you come down to visit me in Texas in retirement, you'll find me proud to see I acted on principle, not politics." Yeah, right. How about acting on FACTS?!)
Believe it or not, today's column is not political. (And those arty types know that the above quote is from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.)
Riding the subways of New York these days, look around you--IF you are able to pull yourself away from your ipod. More and more people are wired, literally--earphones, headphones, peering into tiny little screens to watch some downloaded video. These devices are wonderful, mind you--small, compact, light, usually good sound fidelity.
But are we isolating ourselves into oblivion? Are personal entertainment devices and cellphones and blackberries and gameboys causing a social breakdown (not to mention severe neck injuries, thumb injuries, and hearing loss)?
It's often said one shouldn't speak to strangers and to a certain extent caution is wise and prudent. But simple social interaction, an exchanged glance or smile on the subway, even a simple courtesy seems to be getting rarer and rarer. People are retreating into private worlds even when crammed into a world of many physical bodies and, whatsmore, they are refusing to acknowledge their very environment. Like many poorly-advised young acting students, they are so busy negating what they're given and replacing with "substitutions" that they're not giving real life a chance. In doing so, an individual's very humanity dies by degree. Not healthy for the society. Not healthy for the individual.
We are enriched by social interaction far more than we are ever depleted. And while I'm not advocating banning miniature electronics by any means--hey, I still love my little Zen and enjoy having Jennifer Hudson ripping through "And I am telling you" while I demurely hold onto the subway bar--I think we need to remind ourselves not to retreat so far as to miss the wonder of ongoing life happening right in front of us.
Oh, and while Dubya's brilliant foreign policy continues, we need to remain ever vigilant.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
At the risk of sounding like an old fart--which is little risk at all, since I usually do!--there's precious little in film comedies these days for thinking adults (versus protracted adolescents). And why would there be? Folks who are entertained by reading and by Bill Moyers don't spend as much time or money at the movies these days. (HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE, anyone? Not a slam, mind you--I haven't even seen it.) But the fact is that an intellectual, literate comedy is generally not what brings them in by the carload to the local box office. Stars, therefore, go slumming in "art house" films when they want to do something presumably more thoughtful, taking a cut in pay in order to save their souls (so to speak).
The effect when that film is a) risky in style, b) released by a major studio on a larger scale, and c) literate (God help us) is more chilling than the air-conditioning in a freezing multiplex. Sometimes the film itself doesn't really work--RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, for example, despite some wonderful work by Annette Benning and especially Jill Clayburgh. (If you can get past some serious tonality problems, this is a fun flick for a weekend night in front of the home tube.) And the word of mouth on the star-laden EVENING from the pens of Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham is deadly. But sometimes, a marvellous film was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and no one knew what to do with it--but they went ahead and made it anyhow. Sometimes the right things just happen, even for the wrong reasons.
And so my nominee for most overlooked, most ignored, and perhaps most undiscovered gem of 2006--and thereby now available on cable and on-demand in 2007, is . . .
STRANGER THAN FICTION.
See, many of you don't even remember the title. But under the direction of Marc Forster (MONSTER'S BALL, FINDING NEVERLAND, and the forthcoming KITE RUNNERS), a diverse team of actors (Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, and Queen Latifah, among others) turn in wonderfully honest and engaging performances in a truly different and thought-provoking (but never knee-slapping) comedy.
Will Ferrell (who's done his share of populist comedies plus a few under the radar indies) is marvellously sweet and understated as Harold Crick, an IRS auditor living a mundane life--until he suddenly hears his life being narrated by an unidentified female narrator. He realizes he is a character in her book (even though he's actually alive and real), and while he is at first annoyed by her commentary and her familiarity with his mundane habits, he becomes alarmed when she speaks of his imminent demise! After consulting two different psychologists (Linda Hunt and Tom Hulce in lovely cameos), he ends up with a literature professor, played with charming discretion by Dustin Hoffman, in an attempt to track down just whose book he is habituating. (We are already ahead of him by this point, as blocked writer Emma Thompson has shown us her dilemma in trying to figure out just HOW to kill off Harold Crick under the watchful eye of her publisher-assigned assistant, Queen Latifah.) And wouldn't you know that all of this pressure would happen just at the point when Harold's life may change, thanks to a protesting, tax-evading baker (Ms. Gyllenhaal)?
I can't tell you more. Or I'd have to kill you. I can tell you that you will identify with Harold, as we are all the central characters of our own stories. This is not a new idea, to be sure, but the various takes on it in STRANGER THAN FICTION are achieved with charm and flair, and the film raises questions that will have you scratching your head about your own life. And when the company is this enjoyable, it makes for a lovely ride. Forster's touch never falters nor hits a wrong note, resulting in a whimsical but not annoying tale that takes you on a most enjoyable ride.
Overlooked in 2006? You bet (despite some awards for screenplay and a few passing nods for Ferrell and Thompson). But then, if there weren't overlooked films at the Box Office, we'd never have those little gems to discover on the quiet nights at home. So now's the time to catch up.
Monday, July 02, 2007
We must be pretty dense as a people--after all, how many times and in how many ways do they have to give us the same message? "We will do whatever the hell we want."
Bush has commuted the sentence of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's former Chief of Staff who leaked the secret identity of a CIA agent to get at her husband, a political rival of the White House Boys and then lied to cover it up. Found guilty, he owes $250,000 (which his cronies will pay), and his 30-month sentence was commuted by Dubya. In short, he gets a slap on the wrist. Like the MasterCard commercial says, priceless.
This comes, of course, on the heels of Dick Cheney trying to close down the government office that wanted to subpoena his visitor log because he feels its no one else's business but his own whom he consorts with (and who, of course, contributes to his causes and benefits from his political largess).
All this while we supposedly fight a war for our freedoms, our democracy. Well, I suppose if you define democracy as the right to do whatever YOU want while others pay for it, I suppose they would consider it worth fighting for after all. Selfish men, unfortunately, can flourish under a democracy as easily as in any system, IF they control the keys to the kingdom.
And then, of course, they have freedom of speech--to decry any one who protests their war-like actions as being unsupportive of the troops. (Need we remind anyone that the contracts for rebuilding Iraq were not sent to open bid but given directly to Haliburton?)
This is, of course, primarily an arts column. It just goes to show how soulless the times are that even an arts maven cannot go unscathed by the selfish actions of selfish men. It is theater, of a sort--pretending to lead a country for the country's good, but like Richard III, they almost dare us to marvel at their greed, their evil deeds, their selfishness. They're not partisan, oh, noooo . . . indeed, what they do benefits neither Republicans nor Democrats, neither Liberals nor Conservatives. It supports business, their business, and it crosses multinational lines. This is not about religion. It's not about countries, philosophies, forms of government. It's strictly business and you're either part of the team or you're there to be strip-mined.
If not thrown in jail for having an opinion, we'll get back to talking about art eventually.
On cable: If you haven't seen it yet--and I'm always the last to see everything, I fear--Tod Field's LITTLE CHILDREN is powerful, engrossing, steamy and disturbing. It works well on the small screen, capturing the small, trapped lives of small people in a small town. Oscar-nominated performances from Kate Winslett and Jackie Earle Haley in no way disappoint, and rising-star Patrick Wilson successfully plays yet another beautiful young man who has lost his moral compass. Not a fun movie, perhaps, but it will keep you on the edge of your chair with unease for the full 2 hours & 18 minutes. Now available on demand and in your local video store.
On disc: Barbara Cook hits her 80th year soon and shows no signs of slowing down, bless her. Like the late Rosie Clooney before her, each year brings more color and warmth into each and every syllable. What is traded in crystalline clarity (though she sounds damned good!) comes back a thousand-fold in nuance. NO ONE IS ALONE, her latest album, is a version of her most recent Carnegie Hall concert, but for various reasons is recorded instead in the studio, and the relatively relaxed situation makes a lovely contrast from her excellent but highly theatrical concert recordings. An intimate performer as always, this really feels like a private conversation, a sharing of favorite songs, and if none of them feel new, well, hey--sex with a great lover who knows you can be a wonderful thing, too! Available in most stores, on the DRG label.
Friday, June 15, 2007
When a news outlet's columnist writes about their own ventures, it's wrong and self-serving. When a blogger does so, it's . . . all in a day's work, I guess.
Hence, I can't resist mentioning that Gallery Players 10th Annual Black Box continues on. Still playing this weekend is Joe Lauinger's full-length play, BURY HIM, directed by Alexa Polmer. Lauinger is a Gallery stalwart and portraitist of some sensitivity--indeed, his play WEDDING ALBUM was a collection of inter-related two-handers stemming off one wedding, in which we got to know a myriad of folks intimately vis a vis their relationship to the bride, the groom or the main event. Other works have included office co-workers, divorced people working through sorting and assigning the things and people in their lives, and numerous other human negotiations. I'm seeing BURY HIM tonight, so I'd tell you more but I don't know much, other than a) I believe it deals with the death of a family patriarch and how family members (especially the daughter) move through the aftermath, and b) the production, which performs tonight and tomorrow at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, features a talented cast along with Joe's insightful writing. (The world being a small place, I also just found out that a play of Joe's is being performed in the Dayton FutureFest this summer in Dayton, OH. Having participated a couple of summers ago and knowing the folks he will be working with, I'd say Joe's in good hands.)
Why is this self-serving? Because on the THIRD weekend of the Black Box Festival, June 21-23 (Thurs-Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 3pm), there will be a delightful bill of four plays by three other regular Gallery Players writers: the talented Daniel Damiano, the gifted Staci Swedeen, and . . . yours truly, who will have two plays on the bill--VIOLATING UNCLE PIGGY and A TEMPORARY LAPSE. The rehearsal processes, under the direction of Amanda Friou and Rich Ferraioli respectively, has been lots of fun, and the young and vibrant casts have been going out on the high diving board fearlessly, so I'm fairly certain this should be a fun evening. To order tickets for this limited engagement, call 212-352-3101 or purchase tickets online at www.galleryplayers.com.
As I wait for the cable repairman (who's just about to miss the window of his four-hour appointment time), I'm still thinking about last Sunday night.
On the Tonys, we saw hard work rewarded. Certainly, shows that broke new ground were celebrated, like SPRING AWAKENING (not yet seen) and GREY GARDENS (truly lovely exploration with killer performances). Other classics were revisited, like the venerable JOURNEY'S END, the eloquent plea to stop man's senseless propensity for war. There were many fine artists and craftspeople honored and rightly so. And doesn't the network understand that awards shows are just another form of reality TV, like IDOL or DANCING WITH THE STARS. People are actually more interested in the acceptance speeches representing years of hard work and struggle than they are with flashing well-known starts credentials. This process of chasing folks off the stage with music that drowns that out only serves to make the thank yous MORE mundane, rushed and problematic--and then the cruelty of chasing folks off. It's like getting the hook! And yet having a host can usually tie things together and keep a show moving. This year's Tony's--disjointed, ungrounded and somewhat dull, despite a rather good season with a lot of potential entertainment clips to show. Sigh . . .
Folks are more concerned about the BIG Tony, Mr. Soprano. Great show up until the last 20 seconds--suspenseful, taut and tingle-producing. But while the various messages interpreted into the great blackout are indeed interesting, the fact remains that one feels tricked, cheated. Even THAT may be an appropriate response, but I believe that an audience's loyalty deserves better than that. Time is precious; devotion and loyalty rare. Why squander that? Maybe THE SOPRANOS won't feel it, but other HBO series will as they develop, mature and end, as all things must. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
But still, Mr. Chase, thanks for the terrifying, funny and intense ride.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Saturday, June 02, 2007
"GARDENS" IN BLOOM
In 1975, just as I was graduating (gulp) high school, the independent documentary film was on the crest of a wave, with the work of D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers setting the groundwork for Barbara Koppelman, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and many others to come . Documentary film was becoming its own genre, American newsreel reporting giving way to more subjective explorations of non-fictive subjects. (One could argue this had already happened with Leni Riefenstahl and others in Germany, but this was a distinctly American wave.) Jumping on a fascinating news story, the Maysles Brothers created what was and has remained one of the most startling film documents of the 20th Century--GREY GARDENS, the cinema verite exploration of the world of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie, cousins of Jackie Kennedy Onasis, who after being passed over by the rich and the aristocratic in the 40s and 50s were now living in total squalor with over 50 cats, crumbling plaster and faulty plumbing in a once-grand mansion that had been called Grey Gardens in East Hampton. Even a high school senior saw the articles and pictures, and the film was one of the most talked-about events of the year. I remember desperately wanting to see it, but documentary films and teenagers living outside of major cities rarely came together. (And by the time I was in college, things had moved on.) Yet to this day, GREY GARDENS is on the list of top ten all-time great documentaries (as compiled by the Independent Documentary Association or IDA).
That someone would think to create a piece of musical theater from this 30 years later is pretty hard to believe, but that they would do it so well is amazing! GREY GARDENS: THE MUSICAL is currently at the Walter Kerr Theatre, adapted by Doug Wright (Tony winner for I AM MY OWN WIFE), with a score by Scott Frankel & Michael Korie. Michael Greif (RENT) has directed with sensitivity and imagination, and a gifted supporting cast (John McMartin, Bob Stillman, Erin Davie, Michael Potts, Matt Kavenaugh, Sarah Hyland and Kelsey Fowler take a bow) is anchored with lightening-bolt performances by Mary Louise Wilson (playing Edith in Act Two) and the incomparable Christine Ebersole (playing Big Edith in the Act One and Little Edie in Act Two).
If you weren't part of the select few who saw the off-Broadway production, you must see its Broadway transfer. If not always the perfect show, it is at the very least perfection in what it is trying to do--exploring people in a piece of history and their emotional lives, while doing said exploration in a most imaginative and theatrical way. To essay mental, physical and emotional deterioration is certainly a challenge worthy of Tennessee Williams, and to do so to people who, due to who they were AND to the cult status of this film, are icons of American culture is a risky challenge that could border on the kitsch. But GREY GARDENS heroines are treated unsparingly but with respect, and the result is a fascinating journey into madness. Act One is mostly supposition based on fact--one day in the life of the Bouvier-Beale household on the day Edie is to become engaged to a young fighter-pilot and senator-to-be, Joe Kennedy Jr. In a beautiful well-manicured estate, we detect some rot under the surface and the potential for the disaster of a lifetime. Act Two, more than 30 years later, shows how the rot had taken over and settled in, with mother and daughter now living like two bag-ladies in a place they hadn't the courage or strength to leave, surrounded by stray cats, raccoons, and filth.
What's so scary about the documentary--and what continues to work in the musical--is not that the mighty have fallen so far, but that it is easy to feel yourself sucked into the madness. These women have both lost it and yet not, such that you begin to fear for your own sanity--and begin to understand that unless the fates are kind, such a thing could happen to you. Ebersole's amazing dual performance of a glamorous, eccentric society star in the first act and a slightly unhinged former debutante in the second act is sure to remain in the pantheon of classic Broadway performances. But Ebersole and Wilson are not merely imitating the speech patterns and appearances of these two abandoned harpies (although they are indeed spot on as far as that goes). They indeed have channeled these women, and much as the documentary bares their souls, you feel these women on stage as truly as you do in the film.
There may be lags and limitations to a stage adaptation--one might wish for more of the cats and their presence (who seem to function as a feline Greek chorus in the film). But to see this kind of audacious exploration done with such talent and bravery deserves support and encouragement, for this is the realm to which great theater endeavors to take us.
Oh, and did I tell you it's also genuinely hilarious amidst the heart-break?!
Highly recommended for anyone who loves to see new, different and well-crafted theater.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
. . . SO ROSIE WENT HOME
When I was growing up, one of my Dad's favorite hoary old jokes was, "Everyone was feeling rosy . . . so Rosie went home."
Rosie O'Donnell is a wild, passionate, emotional person, full of humor and smart observations. She is committed Mom to four kids, committed to her wife, committed to her love of theater, and enormously outspoken. A larger-than-life personality. I often find that my political views are exactly in line with hers.
But Rosie suffers from depression (as do I), and often looks to get her feelings hurt. It is one thing to feel free to put your thoughts out there. But you can't expect people to flip their opinions, even if they LIKE you, and defend your thoughts and actions against their own.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck is pretty, charming, smart, straight-as-they-come, and also outspoken--and as conservative as Rosie is liberal. They claim (or claimed) to love each other on THE VIEW and to respect each other's right to disagree. At times, neither of them listen very carefully to what the other is saying, so eager are they to get their points of view out there. For those who love to argue and debate, the hammer home approach is popular because, frankly, it's fun and aggressive. But you will note that my all-time favorite conservative--and one of the world's classiest intellectuals--was William F. Buckley, who never had to shout or hammer to make his point. He'd simply put it out there for you to agree or disagree.
Rosie got upset when Fox News, which Elisabeth loves, misappropriated Rosie's words, saying that Rosie call our troops "terrorists," which Rosie denies. She feels our government's actions create terror in other countries, which I agree with, but knows that the troops are following the orders of their leaders and risking their lives to defend our rights even under dubious circumstances. Again, I agree--and find spurious those who take opposing views to the war as disloyalty to the troops, which is a cheap and disingenuous argument used to enrage emotions and deflate opposition.
But Rosie tried to trap Elisabeth into saying that Fox News was inappropriate and conservative and further tried to box her into a position where she would have to deny her own comments in support of Fox News in order to support Rosie--it had to be one way or the other. Elisabeth said to her that she (Rosie) was a grown woman who could defend her own viewpoints. Rose called her a coward. And then Rosie asked to be released from the remaining three weeks of her contract from THE VIEW and ABC obliged.
I'm not playing with you anymore. You hurt me.
C'mon, Rosie. If you and Elisabeth can't find ways to play nicely together--and you supposedly like each other--then what hope is there for us to solve wars and major world conflicts. What kind of message are you sending your kids if you walk away pouting when you don't get your point of view validated the way you want it to be? I know what you wanted from Elisabeth and I don't disagree with your desire or your opinion, and I would have liked Elizabeth to have admitted Fox's manipulation (Elisabeth does tend to buy whole packages without looking or questioning the ingredients) but your BEHAVIOR sandbagged her, and your subsequent BEHAVIOR damages your credibility and your cause. A leader takes the licking and keeps on ticking, and the ways you move beyond the petty is even more of an inspiration and example than the actual argument itself. Taking your toys and going away is not the appropriate action--as Sanford Meisner used to say, "An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words." And if the war can't be discussed or even argued about between friends, then nothing is ever going to be resolved. Is this really the message you want to send, the legacy you want to leave on THE VIEW?
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
MORE GOOD REVIEWS FOR "EDDIE"
A pleasant surprise--a new review from T.F. Rice, Hidden Valley Farm, Publisher of THE OTHER HERALD in Perry, NY.
Helping Allergic Kids (& Others) Feel Better About Their Peculiarities!
19 Apr 2007
by T. F. Rice
Author Judd Lear Silverman offers up encouraging words disguised as fun in the story EDDIE HAS ALLERGIES. Full of rhyming and other wordplay, this is a story the kids will want to finish. Laughter is one of the best medicines! And reading a story about someone else having similar difficulties can make a big difference in a worrisome child's life.
Allergies are an extremely relevant topic these days. If it is difficult for an adult to "deal with" their allergies, it must be awful for a kid to do so. Help is on the way... Silverman can't wave a wand and make the allergies go away... with mere words... but he's proved he can make a kid feel better in other ways! Hip- hip- hooray! -T.F.Rice
Now if I can just spread the word . . . !
Saturday, May 19, 2007
In tandem with severe spring allergy season comes "TV Finale Season," and some of the symptoms are the same for both--watery eyes, a queasy feeling in the pit of the stomach, congestion and general malaise. TV Finale Season is characterized by end-of-season, end-of-series finales for dramas and comedies, while competition shows present their finals and/or semi-finals.
Many dramas suffer from cliffhangeritis, the need to overload their final show with so much bad news that those who are involved with their favorite characters simply won't rest until next fall--when they find out that the big deal their hero was going through was merely a blip they'll forget about by the first commercial.
In the hour-long department, GREY'S ANATOMY takes the prize for stuffing more melodramatic claptrap into an hour than just about any other show. The show, once one of the more intelligent offerings, has gotten enormously mushy, throwing in every kind of classic, melodramatic twist. On this season's finale, there was desertion at the altar on a wedding day, careers destroyed, memories restored and loves betrayed, near-death and break-ups by those who were "meant to be together." The smart and subtle shadings that made the show so watchable have been flattened out into heavy, even leaden layers of black and white. It's not fun to watch an hour of endless hand wringing. I simply don't care who Izzie's in love with anymore. George and Callie should grow up. Meredith can go ahead and jump back in the river. At least Addison's smart enough to go off and get her own show, (to be called PRIVATE PRACTICE) with much wittier characters and more believable conflicts and dialogue (at least in the pilot).
Far better scores go to GILMORE GIRLS, which ended seven years with far more subtlety: Rory's heading off to cover the campaign trail, her first job as a reporter, and while she's saying good-bye, friends and family make temporary peace, saying the things they wish they'd said in daily conversation. No one rushed to a quick decision--no flash marriages nor deaths--and while the possibilities for happily-ever-after were introduced (yes, Luke & Lorelei finally kissed after Luke threw a going-away extravaganza for Rory against all odds), we got the sense that these people would go on living their normal lives while Rory began her coverage of Barak Obama's campaign. That this show exited with some dignity is gratifying, especially when it began the season without the flippant wit that had previously characterized its charmingly dizzying manner.
And MEDIUM ended a multi-part cycle without losing its head (although many characters lost theirs!). The fact is that after all the bad behavior, Alison just walked into a meeting, pronounced the real killer and said "You want the details? I'll fill you in later!" Classic, fun, AND time-saving. These people knew we'd been watching and trusted we could handle it. We're not going away this summer worried to death about Alison, Joe and the kids--hopefully, after all they've been through, they'll get some rest and be fresh and ready come the fall!
But the real thriller comes this week.
No, not the AMERICAN IDOL finale--it figures that in a country that elected this administration for a second term and wonders why the world is in such deplorable condition, the remarkable grace, skill and talent of Melinda Doolittle would be passed over in favor of the moderately talented but cute Jordin and Blake. Let's face it--skill is not rewarded in this country, and intelligence is looked down on as an elitist activity! Sad, very sad.
No, I refer to the consistently entertaining DANCING WITH THE STARS on ABC, where after an increasingly competitive series of performances and eliminations, there are three couples left standing, only one of whom can take away the mirror ball: Laila & Max, Joey & Kym, Apolo and Juliana. Unlike IDOL, the contestants are "adults" who have trained hard, taken what the judges have told them to heart, and have put on their best game time after time. It's really impossible to predict who will win--all are so very different, and yet equally deserving. The suspense is terrific. But then think about it--how many shows appeal to so many different ages and demographics? This is a show that families actually want to watch together. The musical guests come from numerous age groups and music types, as diverse as the contestants themselves. Judges actually talk about the fine points of ballroom dancing ( toes turned out versus in, breathing through the whole body, posture) and people are enthralled. Everyone learns something and has a good time. The show is thrilling, with an expert hosting turn from Tom Bergeron. I don't even dare to predict the winner--but we'll be watching!