Friday, November 19, 2010

Intermission Talk: November 19, 2010

Pitmen Painters,
After the Revolution,
The Pee-wee Herman Show
...and some new Afterpieces

by Tony Vellela

Back when I was a kid [phones were always connected to a wall with a length of cord], parents either sent their pre-teen offspring to the movies, or they brought them, depending on the percentage of adult material the older folks might enjoy. Same is true with two current Broadway offerings, Elf and The Pee-wee Herman Show. But if you don’t fall into that parent category, we’ll come back to those shows in a minute.

Let’s look instead at three decidedly grown-up, even dare I say mature dramas New York has to choose from [feel free to attend all three]. Pitmen Papers by Lee Hall, Middletown and After the Revolution can help you believe that American culture is not, in fact, going to Hell in a foreign-made hand-basket.

'Pitmen' is by Lee Hall [inspired by William Feaver's book]. Hall’s creds include Billy Elliot x 2 [screenplay, as well as book and lyrics for the musical], and this drama arrived by way of London’s West End [the easiest way to make it to Broadway, it seems]. This remarkably inspirational tale follows the journey taken in the mid nineteen-thirties, by several coal miners in Newcastle [as in "coals to ..."] and a dental technician friend, who take advantage of a government-sponsored program to bring adult ed classes to the underclass. Thinking they were going to learn about economics, and therefore the reasons behind their meager subsistence wages, they enroll, only to find out that the last-minute substitute course will be in art appreciation [!]. Their original intent, they tell the multi-syllablicly inclined professor, was “to know the secret behind what’s going on.” They begrudgingly stay on, get lulled into expressing themselves through their own art, and reveal a stunning talent, one and all, for doing just that. Known as the Ashington Group, their work was exhibited, showcased, sold and studied.

As their understanding of and appreciation for art grows, criticism follows from some, who lament the lack of political commentary in most art of the day, when the world is in such a perilous state. One miner/artist brings in a print of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ to demonstrate how a work of art can visualize the horrors of war. Others feel that art should provide a respite from the real world. Whatever their subjects, they become beneficiaries of patronage from a wealthy art collector, and soon discover the tightrope of having financial support impinge on free expression. Whatever you think of that balancing act, the messages provide plenty to reflect on, class divisions between poor artists and rich patrons being just one of them.

Class inequality is front and center in Amy Herzog’s gripping new play After the Revolution, at Playwrights Horizons. It’s 1999, and in true progressive-liberal fashion, lefties are bemoaning the shortcomings of the Clinton era, unaware of what’s ahead. This family, however, has much much higher standards for what a political regime should accomplish – they want a workers’ revolt. The life of their recently-deceased patriarch, a hero from the McCarthy Blacklist years, has inspired his granddaughter Emma [named for Goldman?], a star law student, to create a foundation in his name, to advance the causes he championed. Her father, uncle and grandmother applaud this choice. When the dead hero turns out to have a very live skeleton in his closet, all bets are off.

In a novel twist on a classic coming-of-age tale, the granddaughter finds herself at odds with her conscience, with her family and with the young man whom she employs at her foundation, and whom she has planned to partner with in life. The storyline shreds many liberal-nurtured myths about themselves, such as their belief that they oppose all forms of racism, and applies a scalpel to the analysis of the folks who questioned the body politic of the post WWII era. Like that ringing slogan from the Sixties, ‘politics is personal.’

Complementing the communal themes mouthed by the family, this ensemble cast hangs together nearly perfectly, a great opportunity to see sterling performances in service of a thoughtful, well-crafted piece. Peter Friedman’s shattered dad bristles with the pangs of thwarted expectations. Mark Blum’s peacemaker uncle strains to find hard-won common ground. And above all, Lois Smith, as the patriarch’s indignant widow clinging to the principles that bonded them to each other and to their Marxist fellow travelers, generously gives us another memorable characterization that again demonstrates why she has come to hold a place of honor among theatre-lovers.

Like any revolution, there are aspects that don’t bear out as one would hope. A secondary story line, about the other sister’s drug problems, rehab time and then her coming out, feels oh-so gratuitous. And as Emma, Katharine Powell relies on too much ‘actor-y’ behavior that tends to make her character needlessly unsympathetic and not smart enough to believe as being at the top of her law school class, a real weak point that occasionally throws off the balance between plot and performances.

Political commentary of the symbolic variety gets a pretty good showing in Middletown, by Will Eno, at the Vineyard Theater. [an aside: back in 1949, Robert Wise directed a film noir picture called 'The Set-Up,' with Robert Ryan as a washed-up boxer limping from second-rate town to second-rate town, and one of those burgs is called Middletown.] The like-named town in this Enos saga shelters inhabitants whose life stories and daily routines slowly unfold in a dispassionate style uncharacteristic for any piece trying to break new ground in the realm of the dysfunctional. They’re usually so frenetic.

Everyday folks make outrageous, hilarious pronouncements with the deadpan delivery of Stephen Wright. When newcomer John, played with engaging ordinariness by Linus Roache, encounters a couple in a park near a war memorial, their explanation for their interest is that “there’s a long history of death in both our families.” Town librarian Georgia Engel, playing the truth-teller – in – chief, sincerity personified, nods approvingly when John applies for a library card, and comments “Good for you, dear. Most people figure, why bother? I’m just going to die anyway.”

But this is not simply a clever humor-piece trading on life’s misfortunes and missed cues. Enos has a rare sense of craft, as he reshapes familiar ‘types’: the zealous small town cop, whose urge to maintain order who choke-holds a young nonconformist mechanic for failure to “be a good human”, or ‘Mary,’ a despairing, timid young wife whose neglectful husband is not helping her become pregnant. They all float through the ‘town,’ aided by David Zinn’s well-conceived set design, that includes two side-view frame houses with picture windows affording views of John and Mary as they aren’t living their fulfilling lives.

Others trying to pigeon-hole the play have used the facile tag of post-modern Our Town. This misses the point. Thornton Wilder wrote about a time and place that grew out of his half-century’s removal of time, colored by a nostalgia that described what might have been. Enos’ “Middletown” may have started in Grover’s Corners, but it arrived there by way of James Thurber. Enos allows us to discover these lives in a tale that revolves around the role of names, nouns, places and the stories they reify. Yes, these inhabitants break the fourth wall and the stage line. “Middletown” deserves a good long run somewhere, to give it a chance to become one of those little gem pieces that people return to from time to time, and recommend to friends, neighbors, co-workers and visiting relatives from out-of-town.

And if those out-of-towners have humans in tow who only learned to speak during the 21st century, they may seek your advice on where to spend their holiday bankroll, since most people are not rolling in it these days. So – back to the opening paragraph.

In short, you can take the kids to see Pee-wee. You can cut the cards to see which adult shepherds all the kids to see the Elf.

Fortunately for me, my friend John Eng, who works with pre-schoolers [he is a very patient person], accompanied me to the Pee-wee party. I knew why I liked the show. It’s funny. But John gave me the insight into why kids do, and it’s not just because it has bright colors, goofy clothes and furniture that talks. Kids like the comfort that comes from the familiar and the structured, and this show has them in the same way that a kindergarten class does – it’s PuppetLAND, there’s snack TIME, and in fact, calling anything XXXX – TIME makes it sound like a treat to kids. There’s even a word of the DAY, which happens to be ‘fun,’ and everyone is encouraged to yell and clap whenever it’s mentioned [remember Groucho's 'secret word?'].

No need to chronicle here all the bits that Paul Reubens quick-steps through. At nearly sixty, he has entered the same universe as Dick Clark, Robert Cummings, Ann-Margret and others who basically still look like they did when they were twenty-somethings. Let’s just say that many of the short sequences are built like vaudeville routines, with solid pay-offs. Comedy writing has basic rules that don’t change, as evidenced by a bit about teaching English pronunciation – it echoes the hilarious routine early Second City’s Andrea Martin perfected as an immigrant trying to speak English, with riotous results. And there are plenty of double entendres to cause a smile or a chuckle, at least. Pee-wee tells the postman, there with a delivery, that he has a cute … package. The Handyman, Pee-wee notices, is wearing new, big boots. And he notes that a guy with big boots must have … big feet. Adults who grew up with Reubens’ popular children’s show in decades past give him a tumultuous entrance applause, and do the same every time any character from that era appears. They seem like theatre queens [and kings] who would attend any performance of Carol Channing’s “Hello, Dolly!” and applaud for every single event in the show. So, in a word – it’s fun! [Yeah! Clap, clap!]

“Elf,” brought to cartoon-y life by tall, lithe, sunshine-y Sebastian Arcelus, is fun for anyone who comes up to his belly button. It starts off in the North Pole, where elf Buddy, surrounded by fellow elf helpers, done by actors who take to their knees a la “Shrek – the Musical,” learns that he is not a real elf at all. Seems he was a human baby who happened to crawl into Santa’s bag almost twenty years ago, and was brought home and raised by Mr. and Mrs. Claus. Buddy decides to head South to the place where his careless Dad lives, big bad New York City. He has adventures. He falls in love. He converts his Dad, a Scrooge-y type with a neglected wife and neglected son, into a caring guy with a liberated family. And it all happens set to a pleasant score, punctuated by TV variety show choreography. Most memorable moment – the reveal that shows Santa town. It looks like the center piece in a giant pop-up book.

This new column feature, for those non-theatre geeks, is named for the short pieces that were performed after the main play of the evening in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on English stages.

Like the other “La [Cage]” on the Big Apple Boards, “La Bete” stars a very talented actor whose box office creds skyrocketed when “Frasier” hit the NBC airwaves. David Hyde Pierce has returned to the city that gave him his valuable stage experience at the start of his impressive career, taking on one of contempo theatre’s most daunting works. Written by David Hirson in verse, and co-starring the versatile Mark Rylance, it’s getting the best production it likely ever will. Performed without an intermission, possibly for fear of losing half the audience during a break, huge laughs alternate with labored sections often enough to make it important that you choose to attend as much for the theatrical experience as it would be for the amusement of it. Rylance’s by-now heralded stunning thirty-minute monologue is matched by Hyde Pierce’s remarkable ability, through fluid, sensitive delivery, to make the verse disappear. And if your Rylance ‘Jones’ needs more juice, he’ll be back in the spring, starring in Jez Butterworth’s play “Jerusalem,” being imported from Blighty. Natch.

What does not disappear in “Lombardi,” the play about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, at Circle in the Square, is the disappointment in its lax story-telling. A volatile, success-obsessed man with a volcanic temper and a really loving wife, the title character is impersonated well enough by Dan Lauria. The play occurs during the events that surround the career-changing 1965 game when his beloved Green Bay Packers vied for the NFL championship. If you love, really love football and its cast of characters, know their stats, speak their language, and can interpret their actions based on your own knowledge, this is one you can cheer for. Anyone can cheer Judith Light’s empathetic portrayal of Lombardi’s emotionally short-changed wife. Anyone else? Well, have you seen “Time Stands Still” yet?

Since David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre” is shuttering early, no need to ponder over its highs and lows. This one is a kinda curious string of more than 25 short and shorter scenes that are best thought of as sources for acting class scene study exercises.

Speaking of Kelsey Grammer, when he leaves the Cage in early February, co-star Douglas Hodge also leaves, and book writer for the show Harvey Fierstein will don the drag as Albin. And speaking of Christmas shows, a new work by Duane Poole [book], Larry Grossman [music] and Carol Hall [lyrics] celebrates Truman Capote’s heart-warming tale “A Christmas Memory,” which was once adapted for television, with a shatteringly-real performance from Geraldine Page. The musical stars Penny Fuller, and runs December 1 – 16 at TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre, in Palo Alto.

And finally, if it’s good news closer to home you’d like to hear, Donna Murphy will get one of those rare chances Broadway A-listers have these days to create a new role, rather than step into a revival, competing with a ghost or a memory. Roundabout Theatre Company will mount “The People in the Picture,” by Iris Rainer Dart, about a one-time Yiddish theatre actress in Poland before WWII, in the spring.

On Book
The era hashed over in “After the Revolution,” when Senator Joe McCarthy unleashed his political reign of terror, followed the social upheavals of the 1930s. The theatre’s response at that time came from actors, directors and writers who chose to address what was going on in the street, and Harold Clurman’s vivid chronicle “The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre & the 30s” brings it all to life.

And the side-splitting life of the early days of Second City, where Andrea Martin honed that foreigner speech flubber and so many other laugh gems, is captured in “The Second City Unscripted,” by Mike Thomas. From Gilda to Tina, so many comedy giants of the last four decades all started there.

TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre “Character Studies.” His award-winning play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts. He has written several other plays, musicals and the Cable ACE award-winning documentary “The Test of Time.” He has taught theatre-related classes at Columbia University, HB Studio and arts centers across the country, and continues to teach small intensives and acting coach sessions privately.

The Pitmen Painters (Play)
by Lee Hall
April 2008, Faber & Faber UK
Paper, 144 pages, $19.95

Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group
by William Feaver
Northumbria University, 2010
Paper, 176 pages, $25.00

by Will Eno
TCG, (as of 11//10: due Dec. 1, 2010, Available for Pre-order)
Paper, $13.95

Billy Elliot: Vocal Selections
Elton John and Lee Hall
Hal Leonard, 2009.
Paper, 87 pages, 16.99

Our Town
by Thornton Wilder
(Various Editions)

The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre & the 30s
by Harold Clurman
Da Capo, 1983
Paper, 352 pages, $18.00

The Second City Unscripted
by Mike Thomas
Villard, 2009
Hard Cover, 288 pages, $26.00

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