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)

, 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 Marin Duguy from the pilot has been replaced by Broadway's Audra McDonald, and it's lovely to have her on TV again.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


Impossible? Perhaps.

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, 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.