Wednesday, December 9, 2009


I have long been an admirer of David Mamet, as most people would be who admire rapid-fire dialogue, twists and turns and the ultimate realization that most people have their own agendas, are weighted down with self=interest, and no reluctance to betray. Good is not a given in Mr. Mamet's world, and was nowhere visible at the star-studded opening of Race the other evening, including the after-party.
The play itself concerns a would-be client accused of rape(a believable Richard Thomas, though it's hard to imagine him as violent, or, for that matter overly sexual) of a very small law firm with a very big office-- too large for the play, really, not to mention its two lead-lawyers, James Spader and David Alan Grier, and a young associate, Kerry Washington. The set, stretches the full width of the stage, ostensibly because they had all those law books to show off,) literally overpowers the actors, quietly feral fierce as Mr. Spader always is, and as reasonable a foil for him as the vocally controlled Mr. Grier is. Miss Washington, as the young black associate is uninspired and ultimately disappointing, but perhaps that is the fault of this member of the audience, who was on the alert for perfidy, the bad-faith twist that usually ignites a Mamet piece.
Mr. Thomas, accused of raping a black woman(in a red sequin dress, an important factor in the indictment)comes to them after having exited another law firm, probably one with even more law books and a heavier staff, insisting he is innocent, that it was consentual, that they were lovers. Future sworn testimony in the upcoming trial includes overheard(by a white preacher in the hotel room next door)racist threats to the woman. The outcome of the trial will hinge on the surprise the cagey Mr. Spader-- not too far, if indeed only a tiptoe away from his role on Boston Legal-- has ready for the jury.
A little pat, perhaps, but still highly intelligent as Mr. Mamet usually is and Spader always seems.
But there is a worm in the apple. I will not spoil this for those of you who read reviews before going to the theater and tell you who and how, but it is, unfortunately, not hard to see coming, which is, in itself, a departure for Mamet, who can usually outmaneuver anyone in his plotting. Suffice it to say the play is not up to his customary par.
I was particularly disappointed as I am a longtime fan of Mr. Spader's, having watched his growth from the creepily pretty boy he was to the seductive and vulnerable young widower in 'White Castle,' my particular favorite in his film career, to the authorative, highly sexed and patently brilliant member of TVs most addictive law firm. I would also like to include, among my personal recollections, a time I opened my door in Beverly Glen on Halloween, to reveal his trick or treating for his children, which seemed so out of character for who I thought he was that I had more of a shock than was supplied by Mr. Mamet. So I was sorry that in this, his much-awaited Broadway debut, that he was not given more opportunity to show new facets, besides being allowed to shout. I do not know whether to blame the narrow confines of this appearance on Mamet the playwright or Mamet the director.
Later at the party, I moved among Broadway investors and acolytes and was awarded a close-up view of what seemed a non-stop hustle, as no matter how much money anyone had or seemed to have, they were looking for someone else's. Tt began to appear that maybe Mamet is not so much inventive as a careful observer, in a world where everybody is on the make,you better not trust anyone or you'll get a terrible surprise, and it won't just be in the theater.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play

Arguably the worst, most over-rated new play of the season(which is not too young, but there's time for a worse one) is the Lincoln Center production of 'In the Next Room.' Set in the 1880s in the living room (and the next room) of a Victorian furnished home in a spa town, where electrcity has just hit the lamps, behind a beautifully painted curtain that gives us suburbia, this allegedly breakthrough comedy about the big O for women was nothing short of discomfiting. As raucous laughter permeated the theater at the diagnosed hysteric, Mrs. Daldry, being electronically(and very quickly) helped to orgasm, some of us in the audience wondered what diagnosis might be given for the people who found it... well, hysterically funny. A woman I met at the bus stop on Sixth Avenue after the performance, going home, was personally offended that anyone found a woman's orgasm funny.
Pleasure in women has long been a source of uneasiness in men,and to have bruited this amateurish and ultimately overlong and tedious play as some kind of breakthrough is to me, a woman writer who has written openly and, I hope, well, about women's sexuality, ridiculous. Thick pamphlets, well-designed, passed out in the lobby before the play began chronicling the literary and medical history of orgasm, to give the thesis of the play heft and moment, could not make up for the truth that the fabric of the play had neither. And not a real plot, either, yet.
None of the characters is particularly sympathetic, including the wife of the doctor performing the electronic massage under the sheet that induces a 'paroxysm' in the patient, and paroxysms of laughter from (from the sound of it) men in the audience. The wife, played by an indisputably attractive but in my opinion unmoving Laura Benanti, Tony award winner for her performance in Patti LuPone's Gypsy, which I had left at intermission, so frightened was I by Miss Lupone's aggressive attack on the songs(and Herbie) in the first act that I was fearful her Rose's Turn might kill me, so missed Benanti's star turn in the second act, something I rued until last night. Her at once swift and almost catatonic recitation of her lines was characterized by the woman at the bus stop as shallow, to which I shall add 'jejune', a word I have never fully appreciated (or used) till now. Her husband the doctor, played by an unassuming Michael Cerveris who is given the opportunity to strip naked for the final scene, which takes place on a moving stage filled with snow, which must have cost a cold bundle,and is gratuitous, to put it mildly. If they were finally going to have a good fuck, they could have done it on the couch. The black wet nurse, played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, is given more weight than made any sense, though she looked solemn and sad enough, but certainly gave no clue why she might inspire the overwrought passion of the painter Leo irving, whose hysteria is a mental block, unloosed by electric anal penetration. There was a picture of John Barrymore in the very old, dankly colorful Lyceum theater, so I was hoping his ghost might be fluttering about so he could see someone could finally out-ham him. Mrs. Daldry's husband, played by Thomas Jay Ryan is a cipher. And last, but least, is Annie, the assistant to the doctor who inexplicably erupts with lesbian longings at the good piano playing of Mrs. Daldry. And it is good, to give the poor woman her due.
This was allegedly directed by Lee Waters, but I could detect no sign of a guiding hand, and felt the play, such as it was, would have better benefited from Basil Beckett Burwell, who directed the Christmas pageant at the Cherry Lawn School our sophmore year. I have nothing but admiration for Lincoln Center, and the good things it does. This is not one of them.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


It is a sign of our times, the end of the world as we knew it, what with vampires besieging the screen, and right wing media guiding our non-course, that the best play on Broadway, the only piece of theater I have seen in eons on the-used-to-be Great White Way, is about to close. I am speaking, sadly, and I am sad about it, of 'Superior DOnuts.'
I was in the minority, (and not on the Pulitzer Committee) about Tracy Letts' much lauded 'Osage County,' considering it Long Days'Journey into Afternoon, Eugene O'Neill turned sideways and upside down, re-shaped into borderline sit-com. So it was with something just short of trepidation, trying for an open mind, that I went to this latest offering of Mr. Letts. When what to my wondering eyes should appear but an actual play, filled with humor and pathos and people you could actually root for, portrayed with admirable restraint by a cast of players who brought their characters to believable life, even if they came from Chicago. Michael McKean infused his role as the pony-tailed,tie-dyed leftover Hippie, Arthur, who'd Canadaed his way out of Vietnam, losing family and pride in the process, with an undercurrent of sorrow that managed to sidestep self-pity, bringing genuine wit to his curtain call. (It is the season of Broadway fights Aids, when performers ask the audience to help, and Mr. McKean said "If you're interested in spending more money, and these days, who isn't?" giving the audience as good a laugh as the playwright.) But there were legitimate laughs a-plenty in the play itself, most of them elicited by the gifted young Jon Micheal Hill, portraying the desperate young black who comes to work in Arthur's old-fashioned coffee shop(Starbucks looms threateningly nearby,) trying to pull himself out of a very deep hole, and lugging a written-by-hand Great American Novel.
Yasen Peyankov is overpowering(the point, I think) as a blowhard Russian who wants to buy Arthur's coffee shop, and the darkly coincidental(one hopes) Robert Maffia(saved by the 'f') plays the bad guy who threatens the sweetly heroic Franco. The supporting cast does just that. All in all, an entertaining and ultimately moving evening.
So it is with a heavy heart, as dentists say when they advise their patients they're retiring, that I hear the play will close. When I leave the theater and look at that once Great White Way, it appears to me with all the overlit dazzle more like an out-take from 'Blade Runner' than an actual place. So maybe what we loved about theater when theater was theater, as this play genuinely is, might be doomed to disappear into lighting effects and comic-strip characters whirling through the air on webs that not only they, but the end of genuine sensibility have spun. Alas.