Monday, May 31, 2010

Wild Week

Just back from New York, from speaking in front of the Jewish Book Council (quite enjoyable, and I made notes of which other authors' books to buy, based on their presentations), closing on an apartment, and catching up on the theater and restaurants, the former of which included taking in 8 shows in 8 days. Not as exhausting as the Telluride Marathon I participate in every Labor Day -- seeing 15 movies in 3 days, and waiting on line for each of them! -- but it can still wear you out. One trend I noticed is that shows are getting shorter. In Shakespeare's time, plays were five acts and three-and-a-half hours long if the actors spoke quickly. Then we went down to a three-act structure, which included my father's play, Kataki, which was on Broadway in 1958 (for only 42 performances because the New York Times' reviewer, Brooks Atkinson, didn't like it, and that was all that was necessary to close a show in those days). More recent shows have been two acts long, with the occasional one-act play, or more typically, two one-act plays performed together for a satisfying evening of theater.

But as evidenced by my recent experience with Broadway and Off-Broadway Theater, plays, even musicals, are getting shorter so as to match our attention span. Six out of the eight shows had no intermission, which I consider a good thing, unless the show is so horribly painful that you want to feign illness to get out of the theater. (The only show in recent memory that was that bad was the musical based on Bob Dylan's music -- I know; how could you ruin that? -- at San Diego's Old Globe Theater. Too much stuff we see in San Diego is pre-ordained to go to Broadway, which is not a good thing.)

Anyway, most shows lasted 90-100 minutes, which was the correct length of time to tell their particular stories. I particularly loved GOD OF CARNAGE, by Yasmina Reza, a French playwright with remarkably intimate knowledge of life in suburbia for two yuppie couples who take things way too seriously. From the very first line, a recitation of an informal contract that was presumably to be signed by both parties, it was clear that the playwright understood these couples who are of a type we know to exist, even if we don't know them personally. A kinder, gentler VIRGINIA WOOLF, with more alcohol and less sex.

Not proceeding chronologically, the next best were A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE, the latest by Martin McDonough who has a wicked sense of humor that is occasionally too creepy for my taste (THE PILLOWMAN, for example), but A BEHANDING, though a little grisly, was all fun. So, too, was THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE OF CHAD DEITY, which was about professional wrestling. The subject alone cues that this will be an over-the-top comedy. Well-acted, and highly entertaining (although this play would have benefited by not having an intermission, and, hence, a second act). Almost everything that needed to be said was in the first act.

Then there were the musicals. THE BURNT PART BOYS, about the reopening of a mine in West Virginia ten years after a disaster killed 4 miners, 3 of whom were parents of the principal actors in the show, was exceptionally well-directed on a barebones stage in which ladders and chairs stood for the mountain, the mine, and individual homes in the town. Oddly, though, this bluegrass musical had no 'heart.' How can you not feel for these kids who lost their fathers at a young age? I don't know, but you didn't. FELA! was based on the life of a man who tried to bring reform to a corrupt Nigeria. The theater was decorated like a nightclub, and offered the novelty of being able to bring drinks to your seat (which certain other theaters allowed for a surcharge -- the cost of a "commemorative" plastic cup for your wine). A Bill T. Jones dance show with Afrobeat music. Maybe it was too warm in the theater, but the second act dragged, for me. AMERICAN IDIOT, based on the album of the same name by Green Day, was a RENT or HAIR pretender, but was really just the album with a lot of flashing lights. Turn the music up loud and listen to it at home. I don't know about you, but I wasn't all that interested in Andrew Jackson, our seventh president, the face on our $20 bill, either before, or after, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON. Overhyped; inadequate voices, but a nice try. RED, about Mark Rothko. Turns out he had a ego. What a surprise.


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