If you’re setting sail on the perilous journey of adapting a long historical drama for the stage, particularly one that tries to deal with the glorious (or not) story of America’s early days, you should be very familiar with two examples from the genre that define a spectrum of possible outcomes.
On one end, HAMILTON, the international juggernaut that breathes life into history by using forms and multi ethnic bodies of the present. On the other, RED, WHITE AND BLAINE, the show staged inside of the film WAITING FOR GUFFMAN that has become a defining reference for amateur community theatre and (more subtly) oblivious historical white washing of what life on the merry frontier was like.
9.3.2015 UPDATEI saw the show for a fourth time on August 15, 2015, and it has gotten much, much better since March/April, when I saw it three times in close succession. It appears a number of the issues I called out below have been addressed. I definitely recommend seeing it now.
Original review based on three viewings in March and April of 2015
Solid – but not without lots of small issues and a couple of big ones. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (LDJIN), Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece and family expiation, is hampered by age-inaccurate casting, non existent Irish context and a general lack of directorial vision and style.
Despite the limitations, as this ultra marathon of pain moves on toward its near four hour length in the second half, the sheer fascination of watching a literal reenactment of the psychic alchemy that made America’s first great playwright wins us over. Though he surely did not intend to, O’Neill has assured himself personal and artistic immortality by weaving his own life story deeply into the fabric of this late play, which becomes only more revealing and valuable to fans each year as we move farther away in time from O’Neill’s own era.
Even while the first half may drag a bit and the play ends with truly the worst directorial choice imaginable for O’Neill, the total experience on offer is still rewarding. It’s a good first viewing of the play for anyone coming to it new. Unfortunately it will not stand out for the devoted O’Neill scholars and enthusiasts who have seen the play many times before and travel the world ceaselessly (like ghosts in a Eugene O’Neill play), ever in search of great, defining performances of EON’s work.
As an American touchtone, this long journey into O’Neill’s soul could be (should be) so much more than this. Especially when done on a prominent national stage like OSF.
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
What happens when everyone else melts away and it’s you and your partner left alone? Perhaps you’re eating a meal at home, or maybe you’re driving somewhere. Things are going along ok, and then out of nowhere there’s a lapse of attention, one ill-chosen word or glance, and suddenly you realize you don’t know this other person at all. There’s not much company to share this revelation with: after all, it’s just the two of you now.
Such a moment kicks off Amy Herzog’s dark, sharply uncomfortable play BELLEVILLE, which opened last night at Third Rail in a somewhat mixed production. In Herzog’s story, American Abby (Rebecca Lingafelter) has just returned to her Paris apartment mid day. She discovers her husband Zack (Isaac Lamb) in their bedroom watching porn. Zach’s supposed to be at work.
From one unexpected and unrecoverable discovery, we watch over an intermissionless 100 minutes as this young expat couple’s marriage moves from rocky to the stuff of horror films.
Abby and Zack moved to Paris for Zack’s job at Doctors Without Borders. Abby has not yet detached from her own original family back in the US completely and still talks to her father daily for support. Stateside, her sister is just about to have a baby, and Abby wanted to be there but something went wrong with their visas (thanks to Zack). The young American woman doesn’t speak much French – she stopped going to her lessons because the teacher made fun of her. Zack has a college kid’s weed habit and has found a stoner buddy in his North African landlord. Though they are both in Paris physically, Abby and Zack aren’t very engaged with the surroundings. As we’ll learn, they’re too caught up in their own problems to have much chance of engaging with a foreign culture.
Herzog is a tough and exacting writer, and she finds a lot of beats that ring true in this couple’s deformed relationship. Abby, not quite willing to believe her marriage may be in trouble, flips in an instant from fighting to considering the plan for the evening: where are they going for date night? Faced with his cratering life, Zack focuses on (what else) finding the next joint to smoke.
This version of young Americans foundering abroad is significantly hampered by casting two actors who are quite a bit older than the 20-somethings of the script. Lingafelter must be at least a decade older than the 28 Abby is supposed to be, and though she does some strong acting to portray the younger woman, there’s often confusion here as we watch what sounds like a younger person’s drama but looks like a middle-aged one.
The show starts off playing up the comedy of the initial surprise at home, which feels awkward and doesn’t set the right tone. At any minute you can picture the two leads breaking decisively into the humor they are known for (particularly Lamb), but that’s not this play. Going genuinely dark seems to be a harder task for the two.
It’s good to see Herzog searching for new subjects, even if the world she creates isn’t a whole lot of fun for the audience to be around. She’s after a larger point here about America and the world.
You can take the play out of New York – but you can’t take New York out of the play. The comedy that begins OTHER DESERT CITIES has a surprisingly hard time connecting with Portland audience members, probably because they lack the Jewish context crucial to Jon Robin Baitz’s humor and the Grauman sisters on stage. But once the story deepens and darkens in the taut second act, this ambitious new main stage play takes us on an epic journey through the last 30 years in the life of one family – and by extension the entire American establishment.
OTHER DESERT CITIES by Jon Robin Baitz at Portland Center Stage
Remember that long and grinding American war of not too long ago – the one that might not even be completely over, the repercussions of which will be felt for years to come?
I know, I know – it’s Christmas Eve. But still, let’s talk of war.
I don’t mean Viet Nam or Iraq or Nicaragua. I’m thinking closer to home and smaller in scale. The setting is not the Middle East or Southeast Asia, though there are palm trees and sand involved. The front line has been cold for years in this conflict, but all of a sudden a new guerrilla campaign is bringing both sides to full alert. The war I’m talking about is heating up again, and before the night is over and Santa Claus touches down, there could be some serious casualties for all involved.
You need look no further than the desert enclave of America’s old guard Republican elite. The place is Palm Springs, and the combatants are the tanned and traumatized Wyeth family of Jon Robin Baitz’s latest play, OTHER DESERT CITIES, now receiving a fine production at Portland Center Stage.
Running over three hours in length, this unfocused work contains many infectiously crafted pop songs but is unable to deploy them in service of a workable core narrative. The result is an intermittently entertaining experience memorable mainly for the songs and not story. The central debate around whether it is better to be a real artist and not make much money or to sell out and become financially successful – as if those are the only two possibilities – feels artificial and way past its shelf life. The show is redeemed by the presence of a radiant Miriam A. Laube.
ASHLAND – The thing with musical shows about rock stars is that (surprise) they kind of depend on rock stars. There are no real rock stars in FAMILY ALBUM, the new musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald now receiving a bright and colorful world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, though its two creators wield justifiable rock star cred as a result of their stunning first success, PASSING STRANGE (watch it here if you missed it on Broadway). But this time around they’re not actually in the show. And part of the challenge for the audience as we witness this tale of middle age artistic regret and indecision is regarding several of the figures on stage as real rock stars – when they aren’t.
Not that any of the musicians here are lacking. As the stand in for Stew, Luqman Brown is a solid and captivating bandleader Heimvey. Casey Scott is a fiercely scowling Claudia (a stand in for Rodewald), the base player and hard-hearted current (or former?) romantic partner of Heimvey. Christian Gibbs is Gibbs, a thin second guitar player with frizzy hair and a 70’s Marlboro man moustache (which appears to be real). Vinnie Sperrazza holds down the drum kit as Charles Andy. And the incredibly dynamic Lawrence Stallings, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Breaker, who played the central youth character from PASSING STRANGE and keeps hilariously proclaiming “I can’t believe my life!”, is tambourine player Paul. All the players are fine. But at the end of the day they’re not rock stars. And no one is ever going to replace the presence of the real Stew on stage. This is an absence we will feel, particularly during some of the weaker moments between songs.
The story before us concerns a hard working road band that’s long since arrived at middle age, minus the commercial success they all hoped for. They’re still going through the motions, playing shows at bars in Hoboken, and living out of the van, when all of a sudden along comes a somewhat incongruous chance to be the opening act for the mega teenage band of the moment, The Vomit Puppies, at Madison Square Garden. We’re asked to believe that playing this show at a monster venue would actually mean anything for the fortunes of our fearless rockers – which seems unlikely.
But with this big possible moment a few days out, our band points the van for Brooklyn and comes to crash at the upscale Park Slope pad of Cleo (the ever wonderful Miriam A. Laube), who is a former member of the band and former romantic partner of Heimvey. Cleo got out of the supposed dead end life of being a real artist and married the rich art dealing Norman (Alex Emanuel). They also have a kid (no real name), who is portrayed by the adult actor Daniel T. Parker. Depending on your tolerance for wildly over the top exaggeration and the genius child syndrome – you will either love Parker’s performance or be driven close to insanity by it. With our marginal rock heroes installed in the glam digs of two artists who have supposedly sold out (and god forbid, procreated), the stage is set for all sorts of friction between past and present, dreams and ideals.
As the narrative arc comes off the rails (particularly in the second act), the enjoyment to be had here is really from the songs – whether they make any sense in reference to the larger story or not. There are some gorgeous, sparkling numbers. And as pop songs must, they will mercilessly infest your brain. Some that still ring are Mistress Melody, Sexy Brooklyn Mami, Black Men Ski, and especially the super-charged, hook-laden and beautiful Dysfunctional Family Song. Gorgeous.
Quite a large tonnage of hay is required to stuff the numerous straw men into which our characters repeatedly thrust their under-sharpened jousts. “You either stay pure and mean – or you sell out your art to the man!” “Park Slope is an evil yuppie lair!” “Cash in before you’re old!” “All suffering is caused by desire!” “Yeah!”
There are many cliches in the air, but you also want to stop the music and ask: “Wait – who among us actually believes any of this?” The problem that no amount of heaven sent song writing will fix is that the story offers little of consequence. There’s a general lack of seriousness to everything. Nothing much matters so – sure, go ahead and sing a song about how a Ken doll thinks he’s gay.
At one point, Heimvey takes a deadpan crack at a band whose name the world DOES know. “And you know, as REM says, ‘Everybody hurts sometime’,” he wails forlornly, mocking the hyper sensitivity of it all. It’s funny but would be a lot funnier if Michael Stipe weren’t a household name and musical genius – and if the reference didn’t remind at least one audience member that some of us are hurting NOW, and that we could be spending the afternoon watching an REM tribute band instead.
While the absence of (musical) rock stars has been noted, what saves the show is the presence of one very real theatre rock star. And that’s the entrancing Miriam A. Laube. A lot of the show becomes about watching Cleo and trying to figure out where she’s at. Laube has a gaze that could drown out a Marshall stack or hold a packed MSG (Madison Square Garden) rapt, and when she’s staring right at you in the small Thomas Theatre, the effect is electric. She delivers a starry performance given the material she has to work with, essentially transforming thin air into drama by sheer force of personality. And, as those star OSF-ers do, she’s on double duty at the moment, also starring in INTO THE WOODS simultaneously. Very impressive.
A final major stage presence to note – Lawrence Stallings. This guy, who is a background character here, is so so good. He really needs to be given more runway to come out front and center and really show what he has, because there’s clearly a huge amount of talent. And when that breakout moment happens, he is going to knock our socks all the way to Madison Square Garden.
Or even Brooklyn.
ABOUT HOW YOU CAN’T BE RICH & GOOD
I JUST CAST A SPELL
SEXY BROOKLYN MAMI
20 MILLION UNITS SOLD
MY LIFE YOUR HOBBY
DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY SONG
BLACK MEN SKI
SOMETHING LIKE RELIEF
MISTRESS MELODY REPRISE
“MILLION DOLLAR FEELING
UNFINISHED PAUL SONG ABOUT THE MEDIA’S FADING INTEREST IN CLEO
LOVE IS A CULT/SOMETIMES I WISH I HAD IT LIKE MY DAD
Incredibly, even though he has already won every award there is and been produced all over the world, Bruce Norris only continues to improve and hone his contemporary relevance. With THE QUALMS, a skillfully crafted, compact exploration of monogamy and its limitations as experienced inside an alternative polyamorous (aka partner swapping) community, this questing, ambitious artist delivers his best play since CLYBOURNE PARK and shows that there is seemingly no aspect of contemporary American life that does not interest him.
Audience members may be surprised to find that Norris’s heretofore customary abrasive tone is noticeably absent in THE QUALMS. In fact, his sympathetic treatment of many of the play’s characters and the sensitive exploration of some of hu(wo)manity’s deepest flaws (as well as most endearing assets) suggest a most unexpected discovery: Bruce Norris is happy.
CHICAGO – It’s any night of the week in a small southern (or is it western?) city. And as several middle class couples who could be anyone arrive for dinner at a gated beachside complex, the conversation turns – as it always does for ordinary Americans kicking back with friends – to the anachronistic human institution of monogamy, the abstract concept of sharing sexual partners, and the rather more specific proposition of turning your own spouse over to someone else for the next 20 minutes.
Or a full half hour if it involves a three way.
Wait. What? From the very first line of this sharp and sticky world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, you sense that, despite the realistic setting (kitchen sink and all) of a comfortable home, this is not going to be just any ordinary night at the theatre. But then this isn’t just any ordinary playwright at the helm. It’s bomb thrower Bruce Norris, who has made a career out of lobbing anti-complacency grenades deep into the box seats of the American class system and mercilessly picking apart the commonly held but often inadequately explored beliefs and assumptions that underpin some of contemporary society’s thorniest topics. He’s taken on race, money, and privilege. And now he trains his sights on marriage, fidelity, monogamy and sexual possessiveness.
In this fast-moving play, which at only 90 minutes with no intermission positively flies along, Norris is like a man with a torch walking briskly past a long line of cannons pointed at the audience, merrily lighting the fuses on all of them. He then disappears into the night, and after a short delay all hell breaks loose. A vast number of questions and issues are opened up, but very few are resolved. As you leave the theatre, the scope of the play keeps expanding. Which is what good theatre does.
As the play begins, married couple Chris and Kristy are discovered visiting with Gary and Teri in the latter’s home. We quickly figure out that Gary and Teri are hosting some sort of sex party for couples and that Chris and Kristy, for the first time, have decided to come and see what’s involved. The two couples met on vacation in Mexico a while back, at which time Gary mentioned “the lifestyle” and extended an invitation to learn more. The two newcomers, an attractive wholesome looking duo, have now decided to do just that, and they become the audience’s entry point into this strange new world (to all of the audience? some?) ahead. Much of the dramatic action involves these two finding out exactly what they have gotten themselves into, and then interrogating, resisting, arguing with, or submitting to the group’s activities.
Within the first few lines, Gary (a perfectly cast Keith Kupferer as a stout swinger in floral shirt with thinning hair and a penchant for electronic hookahs) immediately marks out where we’re headed: “Why do people get married? We’re not naturally monogamous, you know.” Chris (a hilariously uncomfortable and uptight Greg Stuhr) is the straight man whose sensibilities are going to be violated by just about everything all night long, all the while assuring us that he’s “not conservative.” Kristy (a fabulous Diane Davis, recently seen in the outstanding revival of THE MODEL APARTMENT by Donald Margulies at Primary Stages in New York) is a very attractive and eventually more interested explorer than her husband, though when we later find out which half of the outside couple wanted to come and why, we’ll be surprised. Teri (a sexy and affectionate Kate Arrington) makes it clear she is potentially interested in both Chris and Christy. Teri and Gary are not married.
No sooner do we grasp the setup than the rest of our marvelous cast of characters for the evening (dazzling actors all) begin to arrive at the house. Two other couples soon materialize (for a total of four), and we figure out that this gathering, which takes place in some unspecified coastal location, is one that people from all over the country attend, and its location moves around to different hosts every few months. Gary reminds everyone to “check the web site and pay your dues if you haven’t already”. In short, we have a society of swingers, and they have known each other for some time.
Next to arrive are Deb (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Ken (Paul Oakley Stovall), also not married. Deb is a large woman (you know Norris is going to do something with that). Ken is a flamboyant, buffed out guy, whose exact sexuality will puzzle straight man Chris (who thinks he is gay) to no end. And then Regine (Karen Aldridge), a French woman from Marseille, and Roger (David Pasquesi), a thin and prickly Gulf War vet arrive and our group is complete.
And so now with our full group of eight on hand, what happens next is…
Unfortunately, I really do not want to give away any more than I already have about the play’s trajectory. Suffice it to say that every social taboo against enjoying multiple sex partners is soon arrayed on the table and taken up by different members of the assembled group, to devastatingly funny but also provocative effect. By about an hour in, the evening’s planned schedule has been reduced to rubble, and some characters are threatened to the very core. And then there is some real ugliness.
But it is in the play’s final seven minutes that yet another trademark Norris coup de théâtre takes us to a whole different plane. No one can let a silent, heavy moment hang there like Norris. And then with a single line he converts all that built up emotion into anarchic, uncontrollable, revolutionary laughter. The kind that upends everything you thought you believed and knew. The kind that could even change your mind. We end the play with one of those moments that can only happen in the live theatre. And we could all do with a lot more of those.
An actor as well as a playwright, Norris knows how to create material for an ensemble like Steppenwolf to shine. And watching these eight phenomenal actors (expertly directed by Pam MacKinnon who, fresh from the extraordinary WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID by Sarah Treem at Manhattan Theatre Club, has now directed two of the most exciting new American plays of 2014 – both concerned with sex) command the stage (and each others’ bodies – oh behave) is truly inspiring.
A split screen of two stories, WATER references big subjects like the Iraq war, cocaine addiction and family disintegration – but does not have much new to say about any of them. Lengthy staging of “social media” dramatically inert.
The second in a trilogy of plays about the Puerto Rican-American Ortiz family in North Philadelphia, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL follows two separate threads that eventually converge. One concerns Elliot, a 31 year Iraq war vet with serious leg injuries who is working for low pay at a sandwich shop and still trying to leave the psychological impact of his tour of duty behind him. The other follows a chat room for cocaine addicts with a crew of three regulars and one occasional visitor who is new to the game. Scenes alternate between the two worlds, and for a while it’s not clear what the link between them is.
The stronger half is the real world plight of Elliot, here played by a talented Daniel José Molina. Molina looks great in the part and deftly conjures the swagger, hurt, and confusion of a damaged Marine who has come home to no particularly promising opportunities. Elliot was raised by his aunt Ginny, who is now older and has been needing assistance from him and his cousin Yazmin, an adjunct music professor. Elliot’s actual birth mother Odessa gave him up when she descended into drug addiction. As the play begins, Elliot receives a text from his estranged father that Ginny could pass at any moment. She soon dies and Elliot and Yazmin have to tend to her funeral arrangements with scarce available funds. Also in the mix is a ghostly presence in the form of an Iraqi who keeps appearing to Elliot and repeating a phrase that has lodged so deeply in the young American’s psyche that he has asked Yazmin to put him in touch with an Arabic-speaking colleague of hers to help translate.
The addiction chat room world consists of den mother HAIKUMOM in Philadelphia, who runs www.recovertogether.com and her two addict charges ORANGUTAN, a 31 year old woman raised in Maine who has gone to Japan in search of her real parents, and CHUTES & LADDERS, a 56 year old black IRS employee in San Diego. HAIKUMON guides the other two through sobriety and provides encouragement as they struggle and/or succeed. Of course she has her own backstory with addiction. Into this status quo one day comes FOUNTAINHEAD, a wildly improbable new member who is a high-flying entrepreneur with a yellow Porsche and thinks he may have just a little problem with crack. The existing group tries to get FOUNTAINHEAD on course, with mixed results.
Whether or not anything like the chat room portrayed here still existed in 2009 (certainly it did in 1995), it feels like an extremely creaky setup. Indeed, if even hearing the ancient term “online chat room” gives you the willies, you may be similarly intolerant of watching the awkward staging of old-fashioned “online exchange” here. The conceit is that the characters all login now and then and then talk amongst themselves. They sit at different locations on stage and do not directly interact with each other. Most of the time they just talk aloud, and we get that they are typing and posting. But later in the play when Elliot’s narrative joins with the chat room, there are the dreaded moments when a keyboard is deployed.
Some things do not work very well on the stage. Car chases. Long walks. Closeups. And online activity, aka “social media”. We see many attempts by current playwrights to stage the minutiae of how people actually use social media, as if it is either new or even all that noteworthy. In a wide open audio medium like theatre, where anything is possible, what is interesting and compelling is THE VOICE – a character speaking. S/he might be speaking to another character who is present, or s/he might be on the phone, writing a letter, sending a telegram, sending a text. Or it could be a solo speech to the universe. Whatever the actual technology being used to transmit, the audience gets that the character is speaking. What is important is the WHAT (the character is saying), not the HOW (they say/send it).
Watching someone at a keyboard or on a mobile banging out text one character at a time that slowly appears on a screen behind them rarely works in the theatre. It is passive and undramatic and usually kills any momentum dead. Whereas in an engaging play, the action is flying along one step ahead of the audience and there’s an exciting feeling of hanging on for dear life, when it comes to dramatizing social media on stage like this, the dynamic switches and the audience waits for the slowed down play to catch up. It kills the dramatic through-line.
Did 19th century playwrights pack their works with long sequences showing people realistically tapping out telegrams just after that technology was born, or farther back putting quill to papyrus when all the cool kids were doing it? Would anything be gained by watching a character spend 5-10 seconds dialing out a long number on a rotary phone (another social media) before placing the call? Not really. Just pick up the phone and talk. With luck, we’ll soon be able to move on to a better standard way of conveying that a voice on stage is communicating via text or email or chat. But for now a lot of these exchanges are burdened by slow-moving, overly realistic rendering.
The play’s tone wobbles unconvincingly. The subjects at hand are serious, but there’s a strong sitcom, throw away one-liner energy that keeps popping out whenever it can, with many of the jokes seeming to serve no larger purpose or part of the narrative – they are simply little blips of humor that come to mind, asking for a laugh in return. It feels like the playwright has done plenty of research into the worlds of war vets and addiction and is painting by numbers to create characters based on what she learned. But none of the resulting figures has the ring of truth or authenticity.
There’s another confusing piece of fabric woven into this canvas – the music of John Coltrane. At one point Yazmin gives a dramatically inert lecture to her students about dissonance and how Coltrane’s music changed after 1965 as he moved into free jazz. The problem with inserting snippets from a masterpiece like A Love Supreme into a play’s soundtrack (other plays have the same problem when they project sections of famous films) is that unless the play is really good, you run the risk of making the audience wish you would just leave the music on. In this case, even five seconds of Coltrane’s eternal depth instantly upstages the entire play. I found myself wondering what the theatrical equivalent of such shimmering art would be, and wanting that.
It’s very hard to understand how this slight play won the 2012 Pulitzer, especially as Jon Robin Baitz’s considerably more ambitious and better executed OTHER DESERT CITIES was also in the running.
Singing the blues: THE UNFORTUNATES lacks dramatic development and works best as visual tableau with music
A group of weakened prisoners huddles in a dark cell, singing the St. James Infirmary Blues for solace. In comes an indifferent, well-armed guard, moving fast. He grabs a man, hustles him outside, we hear a gunshot. Evidently we’re not in the land of milk and honey any more (if we ever were) – or even habeas corpus.
A moment, and the guard returns for another victim. The context is not identified, but we sense the prisoners are “us”. They’re Americans, the “good guys”, as if from some bygone age when we could all root guilt free for the home team. And the jailer, the bad guy (who would be a Nazi, except it’s the WWI era), is a godless Hun, large and (of course) leather clad. He takes another guy out. Bang. Then another. Soon our group is down to one.
And then time stops, or rather opens out into the world of that blues song. And the rest of the intermissionless 90 minute piece takes place in that final moment before the last prisoner is led away.