Some Wise Words from Kirk Lynn

One of the most thought-provoking plays I've seen this year was Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, at Playwrights Horizons, by the playwright Kirk Lynn. The theatre distributed a printed Q&A with Mr. Lynn after the show, and I've kept it for several months because there's a lot in the following that really resonates with me about art and life:

Q: You recently started running the UT Austin Playwriting and Directing program. What’s your pedagogy? What’s required reading in your playwriting courses?
A: ... The most controversial thing about me as a teacher, which surprises me, is that I—trained by my wife, who’s a poet—have really come to believe in a catholic taste: you should like everything; you should read everything. And this ties back to the no-experts thing. If you see something and think it’s totally full of shit, then you probably haven’t studied it enough. And you should spend time in its presence. I say this sentence, which I borrow from this classical music scholar Charles Rosen, who’s now dead. He said, “Admirers are never wrong.” For example, I find Shaw to be really stuffy. But people who authentically like Shaw aren’t lying. They’re not idiots. They’re not wrong. And if I place myself in their proximity, I can learn to appreciate—you can learn to appreciate any kind of art. I say this to my students and, more than any other crazy shit I say, that’s the one where people just get outraged. They think the avant-garde is full of shit, or they think the Well-Made-Play is full of shit. They don’t want to task themselves with the possibility that they’re full of shit and they can learn something from all of these. 

When I was first dating my wife, I would wake up and she’d be sitting up in a chair, with a little light on, reading poetry constantly, every morning. I would always ask her, “What are you reading?” She would tell me, and I’d be like, “Do you like it? Is it good?” And she’d be like, “No.” And, just, the discipline of reading everything in the world because you’re an artist, and to be in conversation with it, seemed so radical to me. It has since become a practice of mine, to try and place myself—as much as I want to be in the company of plays that speak to me about my life—to put myself in the company of Shaw because I do not understand what he’s doing or why, and I need to stretch those muscles. 

If nothing else, it’s just a more interesting world to live in. 

I believe in this Wittgensteinian philosophy that words don’t correspond to meaning. There’s not a thing called “love” that actually corresponds to the word, there’s a kind of cloud of understanding that is different for each of us. So if I say I love you, you understand it as you understand love, but you don’t understand it as I understand it, and there’s a Venn diagram of how we sort of overlap in understanding. And if every word works like that, then making meaning together as humans is very complicated and we have to agree that there’s some leeway, that there’s not a right understanding of those things. That there’s not a right way to live, even. 

So you got a text from your wife last night after the preview, about how your daughter Olive has a crush—

—I don’t know if we should say his name! It’s Daniel.

We’ll just call him “D---.” And you were so excited about it. Can you talk about why?

Yeah, this’ll probably make me cry more than anything else. Some of it’s just longing, because I miss my daughter and it’s fun to know about her life. It’s also such a great mystery.  It’s interesting to have kids and realize that I’m not the central character in Olive’s life; Olive is the central character in her life. And [my son] Judah is the central character in his life. …I think there’s a little bit of fear in me that it will turn out that something like Christianity’s true, and I’ll become a crazy person who, like, wanders up and down the highway with a cross on my shoulder, shouting like, “Pleeeease repent.” Because if any of that is true, if what Christians believe is true, then everything you do is all wrong. There’s no sense in doing any of this. Making plays, being married. There’s just heaven and hell, and everyone’s fucking up really bad. I’m fucking up really bad. I don’t believe that’s true, thank goodness, but I do think placing yourself in service to people, there is a kind of—

You sort of make up for your narcissism by loving people. Does that make any sense? So knowing that my daughter is having this life, outside me, where she has her own friends at school, and she won’t tell me about any of them, and she has a crush at age three and a half, it just seems like a miracle. It seems like magic. And my job is to serve Olive so that she can have better and better crushes with crazier and crazier three-year-olds, and then four-year-olds, and then five-year-olds. That seems to me to be in the presence of the great mystery. It is insane that there’s a living being that I’m responsible for in some sense, and then that living being will jump ship and go off into the world and have the same experiences, both terribly traumatic and hard. And just the crushing sorrow and depression and, god forbid, addiction, anxiety, abuse, all those things. But then she’ll also have the experiences of friendship, and love—it’s insane. It’s a terrible system that we’re involved with! It seems poorly structured. My daughter’s life is this great thing that’s gonna unfold before me, and I get to watch it, and even participate a little bit. By recommending Daniel over, say, Ethan.

I think what I really appreciate and admire in this are Mr. Lynn's ideas that there is something to be learned from everything, even the things that don't resonate with you at all, about how art is made or how lives are lived. And how he decenters himself repeatedly, first from a universal absoluteness of meaning in language (meaning that all meanings would be dictated by him), and then from his daughter's life -- recognizing that she's her own person, doing her own thing, at age three, and finding that beautiful and sacred. To read the entire Q&A, click here.

Some Thoughts I Had In Relation to "Quidam" by Cirque du Soleil Tonight

  • "Wow, my now-rather-intermittent blogging still qualifies me as a member of the media? Thanks for the free tickets, Cirque du Soleil!" 
  • "Hmm. The Barclays Center may look like a pile of old farm equipment on the outside, but it's super-nice on the inside, with great food options: Calexico, Fatty 'Cue, sushi, Nathan's, a kosher deli. . . . And these Calexico fish tacos are really good. Hooray for mango salsa!"
  • "This is my fourth Cirque du Soleil show, after two big-top performances on Randalls Island and O in Las Vegas, so I know the drill: a 'quirky' frame story featuring a wondrous child and a goofy clown, linking acts of incredible beauty and physical accomplishment, all set to music by French-Canadian Enya impersonators. Will Quidam surprise me at all?"
    • "Ah. No."
  • "But the formula works as ever: astonishing acrobats, gorgeous tableaux, swelling music, imaginative costumes, many moments that make you go 'Ooh' . . ."
    • "Or as the Brooklyn lady next to me said to the contortionist as she lifted her leg over her head: 'Oh no, honey, don't!'"
  • "The German wheel? This is new to me. How does he do that?"
    • "(The answer that makes all things in this show possible:  abs.)"
      • "What's a Cirque du Soleil performer's favorite liquor? Abs-inthe."
        • "And her favorite vodka? Abs-olut."
  • "James and I should do this at our wedding."
  • "Or perhaps we could involve the whole wedding party."
  • "What do Cirque performers do on their days off? Abs-eiling."
  • "The humor in this lengthy clown interlude isn't entirely scatological, but there are certainly more poop jokes than you get in the American circus. This accords with French picture books as well. There's a sociology article in here someplace . . ."
  • "With sights like this, 
    I'm almost ashamed to confess: I was a little bored. I felt I had seen it all before, either at prior Cirque shows or on the Olympics or even just at cabarets in the city. The problem in our modern age: When we can see everything at any time, it's harder to generate awe."
    • "Though this problem  may be entirely personal to me, as I'm old and spoiled. Children would have a wonderful time." 
      • "And if you've never seen a Cirque show before, Quidam would be a great introduction, as it's short, relatively cheap, easily accessible by public transport (as the Randalls Island shows weren't), and gorgeously executed and produced, as all Cirque shows are. Well worth the seeing."
    • "I am in awe of the abs, though, really."
  • "Of course they try to teach their kids to practice abs-tinence . . ." 
    • "(What must it be like to grow up as part of this international traveling human menagerie?)"
  • "And if they fail, they go to church for abs-olution." 
    • "(Or be pregnant as a contortionist? Do you have to stop contorting for a while? Can you still do this with a baby?")
  • "A stronger narrative would help the show as well here. . . . The Olympic gymnasts did many of these same moves, but because they happened in the context of a conflict against other athletes and their own limits, their story had stakes and meaning. The pleasure here, in contrast, is all in the beauty for beauty's sake." 
    • "The current Broadway revival of Pippin, which uses circus techniques, is really fun."
    • "Cirque should hire Neil Gaiman to write a frame story for them. Or adapt Sandman! They have the dreamy sensibility and visual artistry for it, and it would bring a new audience in."
  • "But perhaps this isn't fair to Cirque. They do what they intend to do, and do it well; and you can't ask for more from an artist or a show." 
  • "What do two Cirque artists in a relationship say when they go off on different tours? 'Abs-ence makes the heart grow fonder.'"
  • "And on that note, good night."
Quidam runs through July 28 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For tickets, please visit the Barclays Center box office; or,, or; or call 1-800-745-3000.

The Best Thing I Have Seen This Year

. . . was the LeakyCon 2013 Opening Ceremonies musical finale, written by Tessa Nutting et al., performed by an amazing cast (all of whom had about 48 hours' notice), and staged last Thursday in Portland, Oregon. If you're a fan of Rent, Doctor Who, Glee, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Hunger Games, Sherlock, The Avengers or other superheroes, Bonnie Tyler, Disney musicals, Twilight, or John Green and Brotherhood 2.0, there was something in this number for you. (The basic plot setup is that while Frodo and Samwise Gamgee sought the Ring of Fandom, Loki tried to dissuade the various characters lost in the Forest of Fandom from hoping there could be a place where they could all unite . . . until the 12th Doctor showed up, and the rest is "La Vie Fandom.") Click the little "CC" beneath the YouTube window to turn on the captions and catch all the references.

And if you enjoy the video, come next year! It's a fantastic weekend.

For the New Year: "Finishing the Hat"

The title of this post relates to two things in my life in 2010. The first is that it's the title of the first volume of Stephen Sondheim's memoir, which is the book I'm most looking forward to reading (besides those I work on, of course) in the new year. And the second is that it's one of Sondheim's most rich and gorgeous songs, about making art, the sacrifices it can require, and yet its dizzying pleasure . . . the last two lines, sung right, always make me catch my breath for a moment. Here's good wishes and inspiration to all of us looking to start, create, or finish our own hats in 2010.

Finishing the Hat
from Sunday in the Park with George
by Stephen Sondheim
(sung above by Raul Esparza)

Yes, she looks for me--good.
Let her look for me
to tell me why she left me
As I always knew she would.
I had thought she understood.
They have never understood,
And no reason that they should
But if anybody could...

Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat

Mapping out a sky
What you feel like, planning a sky
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky

And how you're always turning back too late
From the grass or the stick
Or the dog or the light,
How the kind of woman willing to wait's
Not the kind that you want to find waiting
To return you to the night,
Dizzy from the height,
Coming from the hat,
Studying the hat,
Entering the world of the hat,
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window,
Back to this one from that

Studying a face,
Stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way like a window,
But to see--
It's the only way to see.

And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, "Well, I give what I give."
But the woman who won't wait for you knows
That, however you live,
There's a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat...
Starting on a hat...
Finishing a hat...

Look, I made a hat...
Where there never was a hat

"Die, Vampire, Die!" from [title of show]

Yesterday Melissa Anelli and I spent a fascinating, exhausting day in Pennsylvania canvassing for the Obama campaign (more on that later tonight). Back in New York, we treated ourselves to a musical -- the incredibly funny, smart, self-reflexive, and, sadly, now-closed [title of show]. It's about four friends struggling to write a musical and get it produced, first at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, later off-Broadway, and finally *on* Broadway. It's performed by the two men and two women who created it, and a great part of the pleasure of the show was knowing that we were watching the "good guys" -- the people who struggled with all the difficulties of creativity, money, self-doubt, others' doubt and judgment, paralysis, procrastination, etc., in the name of their art and their love of that art -- and now they were living the dream on Broadway, visibly exhilarated by it. This number was one of my favorites, all about that self-doubt and how creative people have to work to overcome it: "Die, Vampire, Die!"

(This is a student production, but a pretty decent recreation of the Broadway number; to listen to the OBCR version and read the lyrics, click here.)

My 500th Post, Just As I Like It

Three years and a bit, some good thoughts (I hope), and much silliness: 500 posts. I thought about posting "The Anniversary" by John Donne, one of my very favorite poets (and a poem which gets quoted in Busman's Honeymoon, if you, like me, enjoy tracking down Dorothy Sayers's references); but then I thought it would be more appropriate to post a bit of the play after which this blog is named, As You Like It. This is from my favorite scene, Rosalind's School of Love (to quote Harold Bloom), Act IV, Scene i:

Am not I your Rosalind?
I take some joy to say you are, because I would be talking of her.
Well, in her person, I say I will not have you.
Then in mine own person I die.
No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish coroners of that age found it was 'Hero of Sestos.' But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.
I would not have my right Rosalind of this mind, for, I protest, her frown might kill me.
By this hand, it will not kill a fly. But come, now I will be your Rosalind in a more coming-on disposition, and ask me what you will. I will grant it.
Then love me, Rosalind.
Yes, faith, will I, Fridays and Saturdays and all.
And wilt thou have me?
Ay, and twenty such.
What sayest thou?
Are you not good?
I hope so.
Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?

. . . . . . .
Now tell me how long you would have her after you
have possessed her.
For ever and a day.
Say 'a day,' without the 'ever.' No, no, Orlando; men are April when they woo, December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives. I will be more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen, more clamorous than a parrot against rain, more new-fangled than an ape, more giddy in my desires than a monkey: I will weep for nothing, like Diana in the fountain, and I will do that when you are disposed to be merry; I will laugh like a hyen, and that when thou art inclined to sleep.
But will my Rosalind do so?
By my life, she will do as I do.
O, but she is wise.
ROSALIND Or else she could not have the wit to do this: the wiser, the waywarder: make the doors upon a woman's wit and it will out at the casement; shut that and 'twill out at the key-hole; stop that, 'twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney.

And my other favorite lines from this play:

Sunday Afternoon on the Coast of La Lac Michigan

A few weekends ago I went to visit my friend KTBB in Chicago, where we spent a lovely Sunday at the Art Institute. There we saw George Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte":

Or as I kept thinking when I was in the room with it:
By the blue purple yellow red water
On the green purple yellow red grass
Let us pass . . .

Or also: dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot

In another room, we found, I must say, the fattest baby Jesus I have ever seen in my life, the son of an equally rotund Virgin Mary. I forget who the artist was, but -- living up to stereotype -- he was a medieval German.

The Art Institute also has a wonderful Matisse collection. Matisse is my favorite artist, and I'm always on the lookout for images of this room:

The carpet and red curtains recur here, as you can see:

and the furniture, draperies, and carpet also come up in The Inattentive Reader at the Tate Gallery and Interior with a Violin Case at MoMA. I hope very much this room is preserved in Nice somewhere. . . . If you ever see any other images of it, let me know.

Art museums always make me want to take artistic-seeming shots of my own, like these pictures of a perfect stranger looking at a map and his digital camera:

The afternoon ended, unexpectedly but delightfully, with tea at American Girl Place. Say what you will about the evils of Pleasant Company, they do a bang-up afternoon tea, complete with champagne, many delicious sandwiches, scones, and our very own doll on loan:

To paraphrase Sondheim again:
There are worse things than staring at the pictures
while you're visiting your best friend
having tea in corporate girldom
in the city of Chicago
on a Sunday . . .

Lovely Laziness

I am still in my pajamas at 10:42 in the morning. Lord, I love vacation.
  • The resolution of the mystery (which I'm sure has kept you all on tenterhooks): I went to Texas to visit my dear friend KTBB, who was staying with her in-laws in Fort Worth, and she and I took a girls' night at the Beaumont Ranch in Grandview. While we'd been attracted to the Beaumont because it promised a comfortable B&B experience on a real Texas ranch, it ended up being one of the most bizarre places I've ever stayed, starting with the spa/ranch combination, continuing through a reproduction 1880s Texas town on the property (utterly deserted), and culminating in a giant mural devoted to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Eventually Katy and I pieced together the Ranch's provenance: The "Beaumont" of the name was Ron Beaumont, former CFO of the infamous telecom giant Worldcom, and the Ranch had originally been developed as his private retreat-cum-corporate conference center. After Worldcom melted down (Beaumont turned state's evidence and was never charged), the Beaumonts opened it to the public as a dude ranch/B&B/spa. They're still working on the B&B piece, however -- despite excellent food and good service, there were 23 dead crickets found in our room on arrival, holey sheets, and zero security at night. Thus Katy and I do not recommend the Beaumont accommodations, but we thank the ranch for giving us many more memories.
  • From there I came home to Kansas City, where my Iowa family was waiting. Two inches of hard-frozen snow outside kept us from playing our usual game of Killer Klein Croquet, but because the Frog was at stake, my father and Uncle John devised a clever solution: They drilled holes in wood blocks to form standees for the wickets, and we played in the house, with inflatable plastic balls replacing the usual wooden ones. Everyone devised their usual impossible wicket setup (I created a ramp using a metal sign and a wooden "M"), and Melissa's dog and cat served as moving obstacles. It was a wonderful game, just as competitive and hilarious indoors as it always is outside. My cousin Hans came away with the victory and the Frog, which he will take to the Iowa caucuses on the 3rd before bringing it home to New York (upstate) later in January.
  • James and I went to see "Sweeney Todd" on Wednesday. Every time I see this show (which is now touring the U.S. on stage, in the brilliant John Doyle revival) I'm struck by what a paradox it is: a story filled with murder, cannibalism, rape, near-pedophilia, obsession, and betrayal -- undoubtedly the most misanthropic musical in the canon, with all the worst and ugliest parts of human nature -- portrayed in what is highest and best in human accomplishment: soaring, searing, unforgettable music and lyrics. The movie captured both sides of this paradox respectably, though Tim Burton clearly takes more glee in the spurting fountains of blood than the more subtle aspects of Sondheim's score. But Helena Bonham-Carter and Johnny Depp were both suitably demented and Alan Rickman is a perfect Judge Turpin. . . . I feel sorry for Timothy Spall, who plays the Beadle, because his physiognomy so often regulates him to those ratlike roles; someone should write a romantic comedy just for him and have him get the girl.
  • I love the Wii.
  • Reading on vacation: The Subtle Knife; Sondheim & Company; The Lonely Planet Guide to India.
  • I don't normally write about acquisitions here, but I wanted to note I just bought a manuscript that started as a SQUID: Olugbemisola Amusashonubi-Perkovich's (aka Mrs. Pilkington's) EIGHTH-GRADE SUPERZERO. Foremost among its many virtues are wonderful, wonderful characters and a terrific voice; I'm really looking forward to working on it and with Gbemi. Yay!

Brooklyn Arden Review: "Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine"

Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine, by Jordan Harrison, directed by Les Waters. At Playwrights Horizons through December 23. For discount tickets ($45 instead of $65), call (212) 279-4200 by December 11 and mention code DDBL.

The most common and cliched piece of writing advice in the world is (say it with me, everyone): "Show, don't tell." In practice I often turn this into another piece of advice: "Dramatize!" If it's important to your story, don't just say the couple went on their first date and really liked each other: Play out the whole thing, who picked who up, what their greeting was like, where they went, what was said, letting the dialogue and actions alone chart the process of their getting to know each other, the rising emotional temperature. Good showing gets the reader in the moment with the characters and keeps them there, with telling serving only as confirmation of the emotion the showing engendered or narration to skip moments that aren't relevant. Showing is preferable because it creates feeling, the end goal of all art, so the cliche is a cliche because it works.

But telling in the right circumstances can be showing -- where the writer's conscious expert choice to break the convention of showing, and the reader's awareness of that breakage, reveals something even more powerful and real than conventional enacted drama could achieve. I am thinking of the middle section of To the Lighthouse here, and sometimes Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings," and, on and off, "From Doris to Darlene," currently running at Playwrights Horizons. I'm going to plagiarize and edit the press release for the show to summarize the plot:
"In the candy-colored 1960s, a biracial schoolgirl named Doris (De'Adre Aziza)
is molded into pop star Darlene by a whiz-kid record producer named Vic Watts (Michael Crane) who culls a top-ten hit out of Richard Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Rewind to the candy-colored 1860s, where Wagner (David Chandler) is writing the melody that will become Darlene’s hit song, under King Ludwig II's (Laura Heisler) obsessive supervision. Fast-forward to the not-so-candy-colored present, where a Young Man (Tobias Segal) obsesses over Darlene’s
music — and his music-appreciation teacher Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis), who loves Wagner's operas."

So, six characters, three interpersonal dramas, and seven decades -- for Doris's story spans the period from the 1960s to the 1990s, while the Wagner-Ludwig drama lasts until the king's death in 1886. Doris becomes Darlene, gets her #1 hit, gets married to Vic, gets disillusioned, and gets revenge. Wagner and Ludwig become co-dependent -- the composer on the king's money and admiration, the King on the composer's music and myth. And the Young Man becomes a Wagnerian disciple, thanks to Mr. Campani's passionate teaching, and begins to explore his sexuality, inspired by Mr. Campani himself. Any one of these dramas would be more than enough for a two-hour play, and to pack them all in, Mr. Harrison uses telling -- having the characters narrate their actions or feelings to compact the situation, characterization, or emotion. For example:
LUDWIG II. Young King Ludwig the second builds a dream palace in the mountains of Bavaria. The peasants are scandalized by the pink marble. Inside, Wagner sleeps very quietly. His sleep is quieted by the pink stone, which repels sound more effectively than all other colors.

WAGNER. Wagner dreams of enchanted swans and dragons and swords with names.

LUDWIG II. In the next chamber, Ludwig dreams of taller mountains, and pinker palaces -- and Wagner.
As with all telling, it helps that it's really good prose, witty and specific. (Mr. Campani is described as "looking as if he came into this world clean and stayed that way.") And the technique is incredibly effective in moving us through the decades where appropriate and then zooming in on particular moments with a well-timed zinger or detail. Nonetheless, I went back and forth between enjoying the wit and wishing Mr. Harrison had stuck to straight dramatization, showing -- especially because his showing, when it does happen, is so damn good. When Mr. Campani lectures on Wagner, the Young Man goes out on his first date, or Ludwig experiences one of the operas, the scenes are funny and moving, characterful and real. It's a compliment to the playwright that I came out of the show thinking both "I'd love to see this guy write a novel" and "I'd love to see another one of his plays that's all show."

Of course, my impatience with some of the telling is also symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that the Doris section is not nearly as interesting as the other two. Doris and Vic are basically caricatures of Connie Francis (say) and Phil Spector, and the decades their plotline has to cover and Ms. Aziza's awkward performance only highlight the essential flatness of those characterizations. Wagner operas and mentor/mentee relationships link all three sections, but the connections feel flimsiest here, and Doris and Vic run out of story long before Ludwig dies or the Young Man finds his courage. I think I would have been happy with an all Wagner-Ludwig/Mr. Campani-Young Man play, to allow more time for Ludwig's sad, strange story and a real resolution to the present-day relationship . . .

And more stage time for Tom Nelis, the actor who plays Mr. Campani, who was just wonderful. Precise in his pronunciations, point-device in his accoutrements and gestures, and with a strong singing voice, he beautifully conveyed Mr. Campani's operatic passion and resigned loneliness, and, what is more impressive, the connection between the two -- how the passion marks Mr. Campani as different even as it saves his life, and the character's consciousness of that fact. Everyone in the cast does at least triple duty as bit players in the other plotlines, and Michael Crane and Laura Heisler deserve special recognition for their excellence in both their main gigs and their supporting roles. (Indeed, all the actors should get kudos for negotiating the complicated staging, involving two turntables and lots of sliding doors; and kudos to the director and stage manager, too, for keeping it all running smoothly.)

In conclusion: Doris to Darlene is a "cautionary valentine" about the power of music in the lives of its creators, performers, and fans; and I send the show a cautious valentine in turn, for its ambition, its ideas, its wit, and, in Mr. Nelis's performance, its transcendence.

Discount Theatre Tickets: "A Feminine Ending"

Playwrights Horizons presents
A new play by Sarah Treem
Featuring Alec Beard, Gillian Jacobs, Marsha Mason, Richard Masur, Joe Paulik
Directed by Blair Brown
October 4 thru November 11 only
Having recently graduated from a major conservatory, and with her rocker boyfriend on the brink of megastardom, aspiring composer Amanda Blue’s “extraordinary life” seems to be all mapped out. But when she’s called home to answer a distress call from her mother (four-time Academy Award nominee Marsha Mason, “Chapter Two,” “The Goodbye Girl”) about a marital crisis, Amanda’s grand plan starts to unravel. A Feminine Ending is a bittersweet new comedy about dreams deferred, loves lost and learning to trust a woman's voice in a man's world.
SPECIAL BLOGGER DISCOUNT! Order by Oct 17 and tickets are $35 for performances Oct 4-15 and $40 for performances Oct. 16 – Nov. 11. Reg. price $50. Use code FEBL.
Online at
By phone with Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
In person at the Box Office: (Noon-8pm daily)

Brooklyn Arden Review: "100 Saints You Should Know"

Reality is not simply there, it must be searched and won. -- Paul Celan

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As I was thinking over what I admired about "100 Saints You Should Know," Kate Fodor's quietly excellent new play at Playwrights Horizons, the first quotation here sprang into my head. In searching my quote file for the exact wording and the attribution, I found the second quotation, which is relevant by virtue of its irrelevance to the question the play asks: why bad things happen and how to go on. And the third quote, like the first, underlines Ms. Fodor's and the cast's accomplishments: to have constructed a story and characters so genuine they seem to be real -- a house you can walk through and breathe in. The characters are five:
  • Theresa, a cleaner, never married
  • Matthew, one of her employers, a Catholic priest
  • Abby, Theresa's hellion of a teenage daughter
  • Colleen, Matthew's widowed Irish mother
  • Garrett, a teenage delivery boy

The play is a simple chain of conversations over the course of one night: between Theresa and Matthew in his rectory, just before his departure on a forced leave of absence (for possession of pictures of adult male nudes); Theresa and Abby in the girl's bedroom; Matthew and Colleen as they play Scrabble in her living room, she not knowing his "vacation" is mandatory; Matthew and Garrett just outside Colleen's house; Theresa, Matthew, and Colleen in the living room, after Theresa brings Matthew something he left in the rectory; Garrett and Abby as they wait outside for the adults. Then tragedy strikes -- an accident, inexplicable -- and the players are juggled round again, still always in domestic settings, rarely more than two of them onstage at a time.

There is no showiness to the play; there are no grand plots or grandiose desires. It is rather a story of people confused by their desires, for others, for goodness, or for God. They cannot escape the people they are, which leads to their lives of quiet desperation, and the situation that follows from those lives has even less rational explanation: There is neither good nor evil here (pace Dr. King), only the search for meaning in meaninglessness. But the characters' struggle to search and win a greater reality -- the possibility of redemption -- combined with their utter recognizability as people give them both dignity and poignancy.

In keeping with the spirit of the play, the performances feel restrained, letting the characters' pain carry the drama rather than overemphasizing it in the acting. (The exception was Zoe Kazan as Abby, but as Abby is a histrionic teenager, that may well have been intentional.) The scenic design by Rachel Hauck and costume design by Mimi O'Donnell is likewise elegant and in service to Ms. Fodor's themes. This is a wise and thoughtful play worthy of your time -- a marvelous portrayal of the characters' reality, and an enrichment of our own.

Discount Theatre Tickets: "100 Saints You Should Know"

The good people of Playwrights Horizons are once again kind enough to offer a discount to my blog readers. And so:

A New Play by Kate Fodor
at Playwrights Horizons

August 24-September 30, 2007

Theresa (Janel Moloney) cleans the rectory of the local parish to support her unruly teenage daughter (Zoe Kazan). When its priest (Jeremy Shamos) leaves the church under uncertain circumstances and returns home to his protective mother (Lois Smith), Theresa finds herself compelled to pursue him. One eventful night joins them all, forcing a reckoning with the broken memories and shaken faith that divides them — and the discovery of a shared, tenuous common ground. Written by Kate Fodor (Hannah and Martin) and directed by Ethan McSweeny (Broadway revival of The Best Man, Never the Sinner), 100 Saints also features the distinguished cast of two-time Tony Award nominee and Drama Desk winner Lois Smith (The Trip to Bountiful), two-time Emmy Award nominee Janel Moloney (TV's "The West Wing"), Zoe Kazan (Sam Mendes' upcoming film "Revolutionary Road"), Obie Award winner Jeremy Shamos (Gutenberg! The Musical!), and Will Rogers.

Save over 35% when your order by September 18th!
$40 (Regular $65) for all performances August 24th through September 2nd.
$50 (Regular $65) for all performances September 4th through September 30th.
Performances Tuesday through Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 and 8 PM,
and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 PM.

To Order: 1. Online at or and use the code SABL. 2. Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon to 8 PM daily) and mention the code SABL when ordering. 3. In person by visiting our box office (Noon to 8 PM daily) at 416 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th) and mention the code SABL.

From "The Lady's Not for Burning," by Christopher Fry

JENNET. . . . But even so
I no more run to your arms than I wish to run
To death. I ask myself why. Surely I'm not
Mesmerized by some snake of chastity?

HUMPHREY. This isn't the time--

JENNET. Don't speak, contemptible boy,
I'll tell you: I am not. We have
To look elsewhere--for instance, into my heart,
Where recently I heard begin
A bell of longing which calls no one to church.
But need that, ringing anyway in vain,
Drown the milkmaid singing in my blood
And freeze into the tolling of my knell?
That would be pretty, indeed, but unproductive.
No, it's not that.

HUMPHREY. Jennet, before they come
And interrupt us--

JENNET. I am interested
In my feelings. I seem to wish to have some importance
In the play of time. If not,
Then sad was my mother's pain, my breath, my bones,
My web of nerves, my wondering brain,
To be shaped and quickened with such anticipation
Only to feed the swamp of space.
What is deep, as love is deep, I'll have
Deeply. What is good, as love is good,
I'll have well. Then if time and space
Have any purpose, I shall belong to it.
If not, if all is a pretty fiction
To distract the cherubim and seraphim
Who so continually do cry, the least
I can do is to fill the curled shell of the world
With human deep-sea sound, and hold it to
The ear of God, until he has appetite
To taste our salt sorrow on his lips.
And so you see it might be better to die.
Though, on the other hand, I admit
It might be immensely foolish. -- Listen! What
Can all that thundering from the cellars be?


(N.B. I discovered The Lady's Not for Burning through the fantasy novel Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. It is one of my very favorite plays, lovely and funny and romantic and wise, and written almost entirely in gorgeous blank verse. One of the reviews calls it "The best Shakespeare play not written by Shakespeare," and Dean compares it to Austen for the perfect balance between the comedy of its actors and the near-tragedy of their actions. I've seen only one staging, on film, with Kenneth Branagh and Cherie Lunghi; if you ever hear of another production, please let me know.)

Brooklyn Arden Review: "Essential Self-Defense"

"Essential Self-Defense," by Adam Rapp. Directed by Carolyn Cantor. An Edge Theatre production at Playwrights Horizons; through April 15.

A few years ago, for reasons I don't remember, I was thinking about what would be the hardest art form to do well, based solely on the number of people involved in its production. With this criterion, a poem, a novel, a short story, or a painting or sculpture would be easiest ("Ha!" all the writers out there say. "Ha! Ha!"), as it involves only one performer, the author or artist; followed by a monologue, song, or performance art, which would require both a writer and a performer (or one person with talent at both skills); followed by a play or symphony, which would require a writer, a director, and multiple performers (actors or musicians); and so on and so forth. I finally decidest that the hardest possible art form to do well would be a film of an opera or musical, as it would require all the talent necessary for a quality musical/opera, as well as all the talent necessary for a wonderful film. (This is one of the reasons "Singin' in the Rain" is superior to "The Godfather.") What makes each level progressively more difficult is that art is a series of choices, conscious or not; and with each additional person involved, you have one more person who can make a bad choice or give a bad performance. So each person raises the tightrope that much higher, makes the art that much less likely to be a full success -- and of course it's that much more of a miracle when an artistic work is a success, that much more worthy of praise and celebration.

This hierarchy came to mind again last night after I saw "Essential Self-Defense" by Adam Rapp, a play with music, and many of the choices on display -- from Mr. Rapp, from the director Ms. Cantor, and from the two principal actors -- utterly baffled me. When the curtain rises, a young woman named Sadie (Heather Goldenhersh) -- a production editor for a children's book publisher, natch -- is taking a self-defense class in the small town of Bloggs somewhere in the Midwest. She accidentally knocks out the tooth of the man serving as the attack dummy, Yul (Paul Sparks), and asks him out for a drink in apology. As their relationship develops over the course of the play, they trade personal stories, roller-skate, and sing punk-rock karaoke, while other characters periodically provide bulletins on the disappearance of some teenagers from the local junior high school, adding to the overall atmosphere of threat and oppression. The play as a whole is a black comedy on the role of fear in modern life -- fear of the culture, fear of corporations, and fear of other people, which may or may not be justified.

Sounds good, right? But here comes Baffling Choice #1: Yul, the hero, is played (and was presumably written and directed) as Forrest Gump with Asperger's and a violent streak -- a man with strange speech patterns, bizarre behavior, no skill at relating to other people (he says of Mein Kampf, "Boy, that man sure struggled"), and a near-perpetual grimace. His antisocial tendencies are explained partly by his having a thyroid problem, and he does display an unexpected ability to rock out in an early karaoke scene; and yet I was left unsure how to take him -- whether to sympathize, laugh, or shudder -- for pretty much all of the play. Baffling Choice #2: Sadie, the heroine, is played (and was presumably etc.) as a nervous nellie who may have some mental problems herself. Actually, the nervousness is understandable, considering that she fears attack by a wolfman at any moment; what's not clear is why she would be attracted to Yul for any reason other than her fear and loneliness, which aren't quite enough for the attraction the play wants us to believe. And the mere existence of said attraction made me distrust her in turn.

So I didn't much care for the protagonists or sympathize with their aims, which made it difficult to care about the play, period. Given this distancing, the musical numbers, and the way the fear theme drove both the characters and the action (Baffling Choice #3: The mystery of the teenagers' disappearance is resolved in a way that has everything to do with theme and virtually nothing to do with any of the people onstage), I wonder if perhaps Mr. Rapp and Ms. Cantor were going for Brechtian epic theatre here, deliberately pushing the audience away so we would focus on and think more about the fears in our own lives. If this was their intention, all the Baffling Choices would make sense; and it did succeed somewhat, as I thought a little about the current American atmosphere of corporate dominance and (this being New York) Republican fearmongering. But I'm afraid I thought far more about how off-putting I found the characters.

Being Playwrights Horizons, the production values are excellent and excellently carried off, and Mr. Sparks and Ms. Goldenhersh maintain their Baffling Choices with admirable skill. Cheryl Lynn Bowers as the punk librarian Sorrell, Joel Marsh Garland as Klieg the Butcher, and Michael Chernus as Isaak Glinka all turned in refreshingly human performances. The backing punk band -- consisting of Ray Rizzo on drums and an awesome guitarist named Lucas Papaelias -- rawked (they also wrote the music with Mr. Rapp). And, perhaps because Mr. Rapp is also a YA novelist, it contained an enthusiastic shout-out to YA literature, with Sorrell exclaiming "M. T. Anderson is a genius! Burger Wuss is one of my favorite books of all time!" -- surely the first time such sentiments have been expressed on the New York stage.

So, as a person who likes caring about characters and getting involved with the action, I can't say I enjoyed "Essential Self-Defense." But it's a thought-provoking evening of theatre, for both its themes and its artistic choices.

Discount Theatre Tickets: "Essential Self-Defense"

The good people of Playwrights Horizons are once again generous enough to offer my blog readers a discount on an upcoming show -- this time with a children's-literature connection! The playwright is Adam Rapp, author of the YA novel Under the Wolf, Under the Dog and brother of Anthony Rapp from "Rent" (as I'm sure Adam *loves* to be described). Anyway:


Featuring Cheryl Lynn Bowers, Guy Boyd, Michael Chernus, Joel Marsh Garland, Heather Goldenhersh, Lucas Papaelias, Ray Rizzo and Paul Sparks

When a disgruntled misfit (Paul Sparks) takes a job as an attack dummy in a women’s self-defense class, he finds himself mysteriously drawn to the repressed bookworm (Heather Goldenhersh) who’s beating on him. But all’s not well on the mean Midwestern streets of Bloggs: with local children vanishing at an alarming rate, our hero, his lady friend and a motley assortment of poets, butchers and punk librarians prepare to battle the darkness on the edge of town. ESSENTIAL SELF-DEFENSE is a grim fairy tale with generous helpings of rock n’ roll karaoke by the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of Red Light Winter.
[CK note: Repressed bookworms, random violence, and punk librarians in the Midwest! Ah, it takes me back . . .]

Special Discount Offer
Order by March 28th and receive $40 tickets (reg. $50) for all performances March 15 – April 15. Mention code “EDBL’’ to receive discount:
  • Voice: call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
  • In Person: Visit the Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily)

Looking for Good Theatre in NYC This Weekend?

Come to the Impact Theatre Winter One-Act Festival, featuring six new works by six exciting new playwrights! My boyfriend James (who henceforth shall be called by his proper name here) directed the first show on the list, "Snow in Galveston" by Schatzie Schaefers. It's on a bill with plays entitled "CAUTION! The True Imagined Story of My Parents' Romance," "The Fears of Harold Shivvers," and "Suicide Gal, Won't You Come Out Tonight, Come Out Tonight," among others, so it ought to be an interesting, thought-provoking evening of theatre.

The Impact Theatre itself is at 190 Underhill Avenue between Sterling and St. John's Place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (Q train to 7th Ave. or the 2/3 to Grand Army Plaza). The first week of the Festival runs this Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.; tickets available here.

Brooklyn Arden Review: "Frank's Home"

Last Saturday I went to see “Frank’s Home,” a new play by Richard Nelson at Playwrights Horizons.* The title is both a complete sentence and a noun, and laced with irony in both constructions: As a sentence, in reference to this play, it recounts the tumultuous homecoming of Frank Lloyd Wright from Japan in 1922, where he met again the children he hadn’t seen in fifteen years and a country not as confident of his genius as he was. And as a noun, it is what Mr. Wright seeks and never finds, even as he builds houses for others from his own aesthetic visions. The play is like all the best features of Mr. Wright’s houses: strong-boned; elegant; contained, but with a view to the distance; and deeply inhabited by the spirit of its source materials—that is, the historical figures who populate the play, to whom Mr. Nelson brings understanding, great sympathy, and again no small dose of gentle irony in his recognition of their humanity and contradictions.

As the play opens, Mr. Wright has just returned to the U.S. from six years in Japan. He is confident, careless, energetic, broke; an architect without a house of his own, a prophet without recognition in his own country, and, as so often happens, both a true genius in his work and an absolute bastard in his personal life. He has come to California, where his grown son (Lloyd) and daughter (Catherine) live, accompanied by his mistress, Miriam Noel, and soon joined by his mentor, one of the first major architects of the skyscraper, Louis B. Sullivan. Lloyd and Catherine hate Miriam, not least because their mother has finally agreed to give Frank a divorce, and they love and hate their father in turn: He casually denigrates Lloyd’s abilities as an architect and he’s never met (or tried to meet) Catherine’s husband. Miriam is a morphine addict who expects Frank to marry her, but he’s just as likely to send her away for her unpredictability; and Louis Sullivan is a wry alcoholic who has been eclipsed by the apprentice he now must beg for a job. And then, in the middle of this idyllic family reunion, news arrives that the Imperial Hotel in Japan, the lifework of Frank’s last half-decade and the world’s first “earthquake-proof” building . . . has been destroyed by an earthquake.

Historical plays, like historical fiction, live only as much as the characters who inhabit them, and Mr. Nelson has done masterful work here in that every character seems effortlessly real. His Frank Lloyd Wright especially has just the right degree of cruelty and charisma—he’s astoundingly attractive for the very assurance and vision that blind him to anyone else’s needs. As Frank, Peter Weller (yes, Robocop) offers a terrific performance that never slips over the top, as much as that must have been a temptation given the character’s egomania. Weller is equally matched by the rest of the fine cast: Chris Henry Coffey and Maggie Siff as Lloyd and Catherine, who each reveal the longing and hurt beneath their characters’ priggishness; Mary Beth Fisher in a brief but searing appearance as Miriam; Holley Fain as a young woman who shares Frank’s arrogance and thus manages to resist his advances; and especially the wonderful Harris Yulin (yes, Quentin Travers) as the ever-observant Louis Sullivan, a man past his prime both personally and professionally but still maintaining a worthy dignity. Special appreciation also to the lovely costumes by Susan Hilferty, which subtly enhance each individual character while uniting in a coherent and beautiful stage picture. This is an excellent play given an excellent production (transferred from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre), and worth seeing by all students of architecture and character.

Through February 18; for tickets, see the discount here.
* Full disclosure: Playwrights Horizons offers me comp tickets to previews of its shows in exchange for posting a discount offer and a review of the play here on my blog. I am allowed to say whatever I like regarding these shows, and I do, as you can see from my reviews here and here. Many thanks to the PH staff for the opportunity.

Discount Theatre Tickets: "Frank's Home"

Playwrights Horizons is once again kind enough to offer a discount on their new show to my blog readers. From the press release:

A new play by Richard Nelson
Directed by Robert Falls
January 13 – February 18, 2007

It is summer 1923, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright (Peter Weller, “24,” “Robocop,” “Naked Lunch”) has recently left Chicago for California, determined to embrace Hollywood's youthful zest and mend broken relationships with his adult children. Having completed his latest "wonder of the world" – Tokyo's Imperial Hotel – Wright is poised to settle down and embrace his new home. But his splintered family still holds deep-seated resentments. Frank's Home is a lyrical, heartbreaking story about one of our greatest, if less than perfect, visionaries – a man who created a new architectural vocabulary but couldn't create a home for himself and his family. Joining Mr. Weller in the cast are Harris Yulin (Fran’s Bed; Arts & Leisure) as renowned Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, Chris Henry Coffey, Holley Fain, Mary Beth Fisher, Maggie Siff, Jeremy Strong, and Jay Whittaker.

Discount: Order by January 30th and receive $40 tickets (reg. $65) for performances thru Jan. 21, $50 thru Feb. 18. Mention code "FHBL" to receive the discount.

Voice: call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
In Person: Visit the Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily)

Brooklyn Arden Reviews: "Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky" and "Northanger Abbey"

I went to see two enjoyable shows this weekend. The first, "Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky," at Playwrights Horizons, featured a down-on-his-luck singer-songwriter named (surprise) Floyd, living out of his snow-covered Studebaker in Nowheresville, Montana. After the demise of his career, Floyd is pretty much just planning to drink himself to death, but then a teenage girl named Clea who wants to be a singer-songwriter herself discovers him and adopts him as a mentor. She keeps coming back and keeps coming back, despite his general curmudgeonliness, and eventually she breaks through his shell and helps him get up on his feet. In Act II, she leaves to go to Los Angeles, a.k.a. the Pit of Sin and Mouth of Hell for any aspiring ingenue, and while she succeeds in film and music (breaking into the charts with a song Floyd wrote for her), she indeed turns away from the enthusiastic young Clea that Floyd knew to become a cynical drug-using wreck. After they connect through a chance phone call, Floyd convinces her to come out and visit him in his new digs in Austin, Texas, and that fresh Midwestern air and clean Midwestern living restore her to her former bloom. The show ends with the two of them onstage together singing a good knee-thumpin' country song about how they'll never get divorced. George W. Bush would be mighty proud.

I am being sardonic here simply because I was slightly astonished how much the plot smacked of middle-aged-male wish-fulfillment to me: the teenage girl who is devoted to saving you, but then you get to save her in the end, from big bad L.A. and those young men who don't treat her right and, you know, a successful career as a singer and actress . . . And then you get married, despite the thirty-year-difference in your ages, and live happily ever after singing Carter Family country songs. The fact that David Cale not only wrote and directed but stars in the show, opposite a comely twentysomething, rather reinforces my suspicions of male egotism.

But I am not being entirely fair either. It isn't 100% clear that Floyd and Clea have gotten married in the end -- the song lyrics may speak only for their personae in the song -- and the double salvation gave the show a pleasing balance. ("If he can't save her, what do you propose instead?" I can hear Mr. Cale asking me. "They grow away from each other and never talk? Where's the dramatic satisfaction in that, you feminist harpy?" "He can save her, but they could have stayed just friends," I reply firmly, "and he could go to California and support her career.") I would also be remiss not to say that both actors were very strong, especially Mary Faber, who sang her heart out as Clea; the writing was filled with real human moments; and the backing band was a joy, with special shout-outs to the two lead guys on guitar. Altogether I commend the show as an enjoyable evening of theater, particularly if you like quality country-rock music . . . but if you are Gloria Steinem (or the princess of Liechtenstein), it's not for you.

If the first show demonstrated the male ego at its most well-meaning, the second showed feminine wit at its most subtle -- being an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, "Northanger Abbey." Northanger Abbey was Austen's first novel, which she later rewrote, and functions as a parody of the Gothic romances popular at the time, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho, a book which thrills the heroine (Catherine Morland, the very definition of an ingenue) no end. The playwright Lynn Marie Macy cleverly stages scenes from Udolpho as dream sequences within the action of "Northanger," which not only acquaints modern theatrical audiences with the conventions of Regency Gothics, it points up the multiple parallels between the two works, both structural and comedic. (The show signalled the shifts between Northanger and Udolpho by having the characters turn the pages of a giant onstage book.) Everything about this show was sprightly, swift, and filled with good cheer and Austenesque humor, and I had a great time. I also enjoyed a post-show coffee with Maggie of AustenBlog and Julie, who pretty much convinced me I need to join JASNA at last.

"Northanger Abbey" runs for one more weekend at Theatre Ten Ten on the Upper East Side, and it gets the Brooklyn Arden Squid of Approval:

(Squid graphic courtesy the Squid Page here.)

Discount Theatre Tickets: "Floyd and Clea under the Western Sky"

Playwrights Horizons is once again kind enough to offer a discount on their new show to my blog readers. From the press release:


A new musical
Book and lyrics by David Cale
Music by Jonathan Kreisberg and David Cale
Directed by Joe Calarco
It’s a freewheeling musical journey from Montana to Austin (with a side trip to Hollywood) when a burnt-out former Country & Western star (Mr. Cale) joins forces with a twenty-year-old free spirit with an electrifying voice (Ms. Mary Faber, Avenue Q). Their meeting and unlikely friendship, and the musical partnership that arises from it, form a tale of sweet heartbreak – a parable about finding the strength, against all odds, to keep on keepin’ on.
Performances Tuesday – Friday 8 p.m., Saturday 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.
  • Order by December 5, and all seats are $45.00 (reg. $65) for performances November 10 – December 17 with code FCAL. Additional performance Monday, November 20.
  • Thanksgiving Weekend Special! All seats $40.00 (reg. $65) for performances Friday, Nov. 24 thru Sunday, Nov. 26 with code FCAL. Limit 4 tickets per order. Subject to availability.

Order online at, or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (noon - 8 p.m. daily), or use code at the Ticket Central Box Office 416 West 42nd Street (noon – 8 p.m. daily).

Hope some of you get the chance to see it, and enjoy!