According to Page Six, there’s a second act to the story of Charles Isherwood leaving the New York Times.
You’re already a regular listener to producer Ken Davenport’s weekly podcast, right?
If so, you know that every Sunday as regular as an A train (just kidding – Davenport’s podcast runs on time) you can look forward to a fascinating new chat with some Broadway luminary. Davenport has already snared a stream of big league agents, producers, theater owners, playwrights and marketers. If you’re interested in the American theatre and how it works at the very highest level, there’s simply nothing else like this intimate back channel.
Looking for some must-hear recommendations from past shows? There are so, so many. But here’s two: Kevin McCollum and Michael Riedel. You have not heard world class dishing until you’ve heard New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel talk. Oh lordy. You’ll want to keep a lookout for Riedel’s upcoming book, RAZZLE DAZZLE: THE BATTLE FOR BROADWAY.
But lo and behold – who should appear in Davenport’s latest podcast but a lil’ critic you may have heard of – the NYT’s Ben Brantley.
Some sad news popped up in the feed this week. After 114 episodes, the interesting, searching and independent Portland theatre podcast 5 Useless Degrees and a Bottle of Scotch (5UDBS) has decided to call it quits.
For a city with few unbiased, sharp voices on theatre left, it’s a major loss for the larger ecosystem.
Why did James and Eric decide to roll up the red carpet? You’ll just have to give a listen and find out.
There’s some good craic talking and a few zingers in the closing monologue. And some very funny anecdotes that illustrate how microscopically small and timid the Portland theatre scene remains at times – despite hysterically delusional coverage from some media.
In case no one noticed, two of the four biggest theatres in town scaled back their 2016 seasons from 2015. Is that a sign of a golden age for theatre? Probably not. Any probing stories on why that is or what’s going on? Not in a million years. And when the city’s largest theatre sticks the tax payer for millions and millions of dollars in fallout from an absurd goliath building that should never have been built – any dialogue at all from the local beret-wearing arts media? Nope. Nada. Just keep whistling in the dark and declare our work is “world class”. Ouch.
But the real audience isn’t dumb. I mean the people who turn out for world class events like TBA or NT Live or Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There’s a reason tickets for major Portland shows are still dumped for $12 or even $8 on Goldstar: That’s all they’re worth. Note to self: If you can’t sell main stage tickets for $8, the market is telling you as clearly as it possibly can that there is no demand for the product on offer.
Fake reviews or happy boosterism that don’t tell it like it is help no one. Crappy criticism, like crappy shows, just drives people away. Bad criticism tries to camouflage the real state of things and hopes no one notices. Good criticism helps the audience prune the crap and find the good stuff. That’s what 5UDBS did.
What was great about 5UDBS was that the two critics had absolutely NOTHING to fear. All sacred cows were gored, the hard questions were asked. That’s what criticism in a big city looks like.
The weekly 5UDBS show was very well done and clearly took a ton of work. Despite what Eric and James may think, I suspect a lot of people tuned in and found the frank dialogue a desperately needed sliver of reality.
Guys, I disagree. It was not a failure at all. Like those handful of great shows each year that give a glimpse of what is possible and set a high standard, your content was a reminder of the kind of real dialogue we need more of.
This channel will be missed BIG TIME.
Broadway has a truly otherworldly marketing genius for convincing experienced theatregoers who should know better that “this is a groundbreaking show”.
All those other ones weren’t. But really – this one is. We promise.
Like a mirage in the desert, this utopian promise is dangled before theatre-starved eyes repeatedly. It happens over and over – a slick and engaging stream of publicity that slowly works on you until you find yourself about to hit that “Buy” button. It almost never works out. You go only to find a godawful show and resolve “never again”.
I rarely go to Broadway, but a few memories of fateful decisions when I abandoned reason and got a ticket anyway would include OUTSIDE MULLINGAR by John Patrick Shanley at Manhattan Theatre Club and A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE by Martin McDonagh.
Well, on this trip once again those little marketing demons started to whisper in my ear. “Pssst! HAND TO GOD could be ground-breaking! It sounds really good. You really need to see this if you claim to be interested in the cutting edge of contemporary American theatre.”
I won’t tell you how close I came to falling for this nonsense on HAND TO GOD. Even though I just saw a deeply underdone non play by the same playwright. Even though there are pictures of yet another profane puppet all over town. Despite all the clear evidence to the contrary – I was still thinking that no, HAND TO GOD “would be different”.
Mercifully, just as that delusional, exultant soundtrack was reaching fever pitch and I was about to press down on the “Buy” button on TDF, just in the nick of time, I came across something from a reviewer I read and respect more and more these days – Misha Berson from the Seattle Times.
And BAM! The needle scratched across the record. The music stopped. I put the mouse down and backed away from the credit card entry field.
When you’re on the same wave length as a critic, all it takes is one confident line like this to tell you everything you need to know:
“Hate to be a killjoy, but I found it contrived and glib, derivative and queasy-making.”
As I’ve argued before, the reviewer’s job is to take a bullet so we don’t have to. In this case, Misha staggered out of the Booth Theatre riddled with lead – but still managed to send word back to the troops to steer clear.
“Hand to God” (Booth Theatre)
by Misha Berson
I won’t be coy here: I am sick to death of puppet sex.
There’s plenty of it, in this Tony-nominated new play that crassly crosses “Avenue Q” with “Jekyll and Hyde” with mental-illness melodrama and devil worship.
Many critics and theater patrons are finding Robert Askins’ genre-hopping Tony nominee hilarious. Hate to be a killjoy, but I found it contrived and glib, derivative and queasy-making.
The satirical targets are overly familiar. So are the grotesquely etched rube characters orbiting around a schizoid adolescent puppeteer, Jason (a deft double performance by Steven Boyer). Jason’s widowed mother is a horny cougar. The square family pastor (Marc Kudisch, doing his best to humanize the role) is another style of lech. The archetypal fellow teens in Jason’s church puppet-club class? A zoned-out, sex-crazed slacker boy and a smart, deadpan potential girlfriend.
I wish the thick coating of snark and exaggeration made me laugh more. But as Jason’s jiving alter-ego sock puppet takes over, urging him on to do increasingly gruesome things and require pronto psychiatric treatment, “Hand to God” amused me less and less — and failed to move me, when it tried.
My reaction may have to do with a generation humor gap. But compared to the cheap laughs in “Hand to God,” the satirical, profane snark in “South Park” is endearing.
It doesn’t take all that much to get on Irish Times theatre critic Fintan O’Toole’s shit list. But to rise to the remote and windy top of that list is no small achievement. For O’Toole has been reviewing Irish theatre at home and abroad for decades. And many, many shows meet with – well, start reading him and you’ll see.
The list of pans and slams is long, so you’d think that singling out an all time worst from the list of candidates would be challenging for O’Toole. Apparently not. While some Irish fans may feel slighted that this elite honor goes out of country, no doubt most will be delighted to hear an American is wearing the laurels.
Despite the odds, John Patrick Shanley has brought home gold with his “Irish play” OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, now on at Seattle Rep. In O’Toole’s annual recap of Irish cultural highs and lows for 2014, he named Shanley’s play as including “perhaps the worst single line I’ve heard in the theater.” We won’t spoil the drama. You’ll have to go and find out which line it was. Though it won’t initially be easy to pick out just one.
The show earns a pass from Seattle Times critic Misha Berson. Sounds hideous.
It’s amazing what a Tony nomination and a famous playwright’s name can do. This nonsensical story, projected onto a culture that is apparently as foreign to Shanley as Timbuktu, is now making the rounds of mediocre American regional theater. And nothing draws an unthinking stateside smile faster than a bad Irish accent on stage. No matter how far from reality the representation of Ireland may be, as long as someone drinks a beer, makes a joke about the rain, and says “shite”, all is well. When this sort of slapstick gets really, really bad it’s pure greenface.
But In Ireland theater is serious business indeed. And in the Irish theatre, fools are not suffered. Rather, fools suffer – usually at the hands of O’Toole.
O’Toole’s original review (see below) says it all.
Remember last year when Seattleites protested cultural misrepresentation in THE MIKADO? Any Irish Americans in touch with their heritage should be up on barricades for this one as well.
Culture Shock: ‘Outside Mullingar’, and beyond the edge of awfulness
All the hokum that had been happily discarded became, in Martin McDonagh’s hands, a workable proposition again. It didn’t occur to me that an intelligent American dramatist such as John Patrick Shanley might look at those plays and miss all the layers of mockery and irony and manipulation.
Feb 22, 2014
When plays are bad, their badness is usually easy to explain. Occasionally, though, there is a play whose woefulness demands a whole new theory. John Patrick Shanley’s faux-Irish drama Outside Mullingar , currently on Broadway, is mystifyingly awful. The obvious explanation, that Shanley can’t write, doesn’t get us very far. He won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Doubt , and an Oscar for Moonstruck . Neither is especially to my taste, but they are at worst highly competent and professional. They don’t prepare you for the moments in Outside Mullingar when you find yourself shaking your head in abject, surrendered, uncomprehending disbelief.
After much reflection, my theory about Outside Mullingar is what we might call the McDonagh Effect. Martin McDonagh took the ramshackle old Irish naturalistic play, with its odd mix of kitchen comedy and 19th-century melodrama, and made it look both easy and viable. All the old hokum that had been happily discarded became, in his hands, a workable proposition again. If you were Irish, of course, it was also obvious that his was a postmodern version of Irish hokum, utterly self-aware, drenched in irony, deliberately anachronistic and brilliantly deployed to manipulate an audience’s expectations.
It didn’t occur to me, at least, that an intelligent American dramatist might look at those McDonagh plays and miss all the layers of mockery and irony and manipulation. That it would be possible to think, Great, the Abbey play of the 1940s is up for grabs again – and to think this in all innocence, with no hint of malicious intent. The only way I can explain Outside Mullingar is to assume that poor Shanley was misled in this way. Even this doesn’t explain why nobody, especially the Irish people involved in the production, had a quiet word to put him right.
Outside Mullingar is set, well, outside Mullingar. The time is given in the programme as “recently”: we know this because there are references to Irish boxers winning medals at the Olympics. As the old farmer Tony Reilly (played by Peter Maloney) puts it, in a line that is all too typical, “Sure, we’re good with our fists, no surprise there.” But theatrically, it is set in a different time and place: the Abbey, some time between 1930 and 1959.
If you were to do a random cut-up of the rural social comedies that were the staple diet of that period, you would more than likely end up with most of the following elements: a funeral, cups of tea, a dispute about land, a dying parent, a will, a returned Yank, an ageing virgin son and the headstrong woman he is secretly in love with but has never got around to informing of his feelings. If you shuffled those cards a few times, you’d come up with the bones of Outside Mullingar . To complete the job, you’d have to have mistaken McDonagh’s dark surrealism for Oirish quirkiness and added enough of that to tip the whole thing from mere dullness into embarrassment.
In Outside Mullingar , we begin in Tony’s kitchen after the funeral of his nearest neighbour. We quickly establish three things. Tony is thinking of cutting his son, Anthony (played by Brían F O’Byrne), out of his will and leaving the farm to a Yankee nephew. The Reillys have been in dispute with the neighbour about a right of way. (The term “land-grabbing” is, I’m afraid, inevitable.) And the disputed land has passed to the neighbour’s daughter, the fiery Rosemary Muldoon (played by Debra Messing – Grace from Will & Grace ).
I would normally be careful about revealing how it all works out, but in this case it will hardly surprise readers that the resolution will involve two elements: (a) a deathbed scene of more than usually revolting sentimentality in which Tony makes it all right with Anthony; and (b) Anthony and Rosemary finally getting around to wearing the face off each other.
All of this would be weird in itself, especially as the pastiche of midcentury Irish drama is always slightly off-kilter. Shanley’s ear for Irish speech – he has cousins outside Mullingar – is not well enough tuned to avoid having people “go to church” or “pass on”. Messing’s Rosemary tries so hard at an Irish accent that her voice ends up drowning in the Atlantic. It doesn’t help that her mother is played by Dearbhla Molloy, whose precise characterisation makes you wonder where her daughter came from.
But what makes the whole thing almost unfathomably bad is that Shanley has some vague sense that McDonagh’s plays do something more. Hence we have rain falling outside the cottage window as in the Druid production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the casting of O’Byrne from that same production. Rosemary has elements of Slippy Helen from The Cripple of Inishmaan , and her resentment of Anthony goes back to a McDonaghesque childish slight. Worst of all, Anthony’s big revelation is an unintended parody of the way McDonagh inserts oddities and nonsequiturs. He explains that he has stayed away from Rosemary all these years because “I think I’m a bee”. This is not a joke or a metaphor: he thinks he’s a bee. I tried to convince myself that I was an ice-cube so I could melt into the ground in embarrassment.
Well, it figures. Right after we shoot our mouth off about how the O is no longer capable of writing negative reviews – along comes a zinger. Just goes to show that hope springs eternal.
All we can say in response to a salty review from the paper of record of a fragrant-pile-of-cheese-of-a-show on the city’s largest (and most expensive and tax payer-subsidized) stage:
Can I get a witness?
“In the midst of a Portland theater renaissance rightfully giddy with its own vitality, it is especially disappointing to see a directorial vision as lacking in originality and excitement as the one Jane Jones brings to Portland Center Stage’s current production of CYRANO.”
Meanwhile, you know what WOULD be a truly enjoyable experience?
A standup routine by Lauren Weedman on how absurdly boring and old-fashioned this CYRANO is. Serious gold waiting to be prospected here, folks.
Lauren, this may be your next show. Just not one you can do at PCS…
Meanwhile, tired of the corn and cheese that passes for theatre at PCS, despite almost unlimited subsidies from Portland’s taxpayers?
Start speaking up: #PCSTimeForAChange
For the amount of money Portland has spent on this white elephant leviathan we should have a world class theatre that draws people from around the world.
Instead, we are served up CYRANO, SANTALAND DIARIES and TWIST YOUR DICKENS for the zillionth time in a row, TV stars, etc.
If artistic leadership at PCS doesn’t know how to create durable, original, important theatre that will bring in paying audiences, it’s time to hand the wheel to someone who does.
As was pointed out recently in the context of Seattle, hard-hitting and negative (when called for) theatre criticism is an indicator of a healthy theatre scene. You can’t have a real theatre scene without real criticism, because the audience (which is needed for theatre) wants a trusted intermediary to help guide them to the good stuff – and tiptoe ’round the tulips of the bad stuff. That’s what real criticism does.
Without real criticism, the mainstream audience is left scratching their heads. Maybe once or twice they’ll read a sunny, boosterish recap of something and mistakenly decide to go – only to discover the show is crap. That boy who cried wolf story? Bad criticism simply teaches the audience that they can’t rely on the paper anymore. So they stop risking it. And they stop going to the theatre.
Unbiased theatre coverage is declining in Portland. What now runs in the O is mostly extremely dull plot recap. It’s advertising – and not even good advertising. Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury still have the editorial power to tell it like it is, but how many people they reach is an open question. Portland does not have a mainstream source for criticism that isn’t compromised by conflicts of interest. Real criticism works for the audience – not the advertisers.
You are already, surely, a devout reader of Ken Davenport’s blog The Producer’s Perspective.
If not, go sign up. We’ll wait. Waiting…
And what about Did He Like It?, the ingenious way to track all New York Times reviews (and also other outlets) in one place – also by Davenport.
No? Go sign up. We’ll wait again. Tra la la…
Now. There is also an iPhone app for Did He Like It? Have you downloaded it yet? No?
Then go here pronto.
So. Now that you have it – glory in its functionality. In one simple app, you can find any show and see what the all mighty NYT thought of it.
Pretty cool. The app shows just how easy getting the info you want should be – or already is.
Putting on the new product hat… Imagine a single app with all reviews for shows anywhere in the world. You simply search by city, show, playwright, etc. You can set up alerts so that you get reviews for any company, theatre, playwright, actor etc. you care about. Now that would be powerful.
Surely Davenport must be working on it…
When it comes to writing bad plays, there are no barriers to entry. It’s an equal opportunity endeavor, and anyone with a laptop, tablet or smart phone can jump right in. An entire playwriting industrial complex with classes and instructors (many former playwright wannabes themselves) is standing by ready to help.
But where the sailing gets a little stiffer, where the company grows more select, is producing bad plays. When it comes to putting a full version of that idea about a singing tea kettle or flying bath tub or three cutthroat real estate saleswomen in front of a live audience, rarely does a bad play get the nod. In theory.
In theory, there is a gatekeeper function in place at theatres to protect audience members from bad plays. Gatekeepers are the performing arts equivalent of a bomb squad, and they fan out daily in flak jackets and helmets to poke and prod that stack of newly arrived envelopes or PDF’s down at the literary department. Are the contents friend or foe? Artistic directors and the higher ups watch through binoculars, safely outside of blast range, as staff and volunteers undertake this potentially lethal first encounter with a new play. If the experience proves survivable, the script may move up the feeding chain. If something blows up, the play gets filed.
Unfortunately, not all clear and present dangers are detected early enough in the process. Plays get passed around, they get a reading, they gain a certain momentum. They become interesting or desirable to theatres because of subjects they address (whether or not they effectively dramatize said subject) or demographics they tap. In short, obvious problems get missed. And then the next thing you know, holy mother of jaysus, there they are up on stage. And there you are sitting in the audience wondering why why why this play was ever selected for production.
Such is the case with THE COMPARABLES by Laura Schellhardt at Seattle Rep.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll recall that Irish Times theatre and social critic Fintan O’Toole labeled John Patrick Shanley’s “Irish play” OUTSIDE MULLINGAR “mystifyingly awful” and “unfathomably bad” last February. Not inconsequential words from one of the most important living English language critics and the man with the definitive word on Irish culture.
But behold! In O’Toole’s annual look back at the previous year’s cultural highs and lows, he has bestowed a rarely awarded (and fiercely contested) title to Shanley’s work. According to O’Toole, OUTSIDE MULLINGAR includes “perhaps the worst single line I’ve heard in the theatre”.
Now O’Toole sees a lot of plays (many, as you may know, not to his liking), and he kind of had to hedge himself with that “perhaps” – because there are so many competitors vying for the designation and he can’t keep track of them all (maybe there’s an app for that). But still. Making it to the top of such a hallowed heap is no ordinary achievement. For any playwright.
American plays that are “set in Ireland” but actually have no understanding of the place is a kind of evergreen cottage industry in the US and no doubt keeps the interns at Christopher Guest’s office busy filing story ideas for future films.
Meanwhile, Shanley’s play is starting to pump through the mass-produced theatre industrial complex pipeline to many regional theatres that should know better. For example, lo and behold, to our north Seattle Rep has elected to do OUTSIDE MULLINGAR in April.
Last summer’s production of THE MIKADO with an all white cast by Seattle’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society drew hundreds of Asian American protesters onto the streets decrying stereotypes and cultural appropriation in the American theatre. Why wouldn’t Irish Americans similarly rally (or, in their more familiar format, riot) against a work that reduces the Irish to a series of greenface types? Not only is the Ireland of Shanley’s play a simple fantasy world that does not exist – it’s a bad play. A horrible play. A play so preposterously bad – that it almost becomes good in a way.
And the truly weird thing here is that actually existing Irish theatre (plays about Ireland by Irish writers) is some of the very best there is. How do you start with one of the mightiest theatre traditions the world has ever known, a stream of writers stretching back hundreds of years who have redefined live performance, and create a play so bad that it should be vetoed even at the junior high level (not to mention Broadway)?
Shanley can take solace knowing that, if ever done in Ireland, OUTSIDE MULLINGAR would go down in memory as one of the funniest “Irish” plays ever seen on stage.
But for all the wrong reasons.
+++O’Toole’s list below+++
Fintan O’Toole’s cultural highs and lows of 2014
Sat, Dec 27, 2014
What were your cultural highlights of 2014?
Michael Longley’s beautifully fragile evocation of life, death, nature and memory in The Stairwell. Bryan Cranston’s utterly gripping Lyndon Baines Johnson in Richard Schenkkan’s All the Way. Colm Tóibín’s intricate, moment-by-moment plotting of grief in Nora Webster. The wonderfully loopy Leonora Carrington exhibition at Imma.
Catching up with and being caught up in Eimear McBride’s ferocious and fearless A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. The unconfined joy of The Gloaming. Mikel Murfi’s deeply moving performance in Ballyturk and Ciaran Hinds’s in The Night Alive. Lorrie Moore’s impeccable and inimitable stories in Bark. The rapturous linguistic landscape of Sebastian Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman. Finally getting to see some kabuki in Tokyo.
And the year’s biggest disappointments?
The Government’s malign neglect of the arts and culture: not a red cent extra in the budget; no action on the sale of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre; the John McNulty and Imma-board farce; allowing the National Library of Ireland and National Museum of Ireland to approach collapse. And perhaps the worst single line I’ve heard in the theatre: “I think I’m a bee,” in John Patrick Shanley’s faux-Irish drama Outside Mullingar, on Broadway.
What caught you by surprise?
Lisa Dwan’s performance of three short Samuel Beckett plays – Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby was startling in its power, originality and virtuosity. There’s been nothing quite like it before. Also in Beckettland, Adrian Dunbar’s magical-mystery-tour production of Catastrophe at Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival.
And what will you be glad to see or hear the last of?
Ministerial blather about how much we value culture. Maybe “we” do, but you certainly don’t.
Who or what was 2014’s unsung hero?
Not quite unsung, but unplayed: the great Tony McMahon’s farewell to music leaves a silence in the air.
What’s your top tip for 2015?
The Druid/Mark O’Rowe version of Shakespeare’s Henry plays should be a dangerous walk on a high-wire strung between “these islands”.
2014 in three words?
In spite of . . .