Thursday, June 29, 2017

THROWAWAY TONYS

Some Tonys are sound and meritorious, such as the 2017 ones for Kevin Kline Rachel Bay Jones, “Jitney,” Nigel Hook (set designer for “The Play That Goes Wrong”), Santo Loquasto, Gavin Creel, Mimi Lien (set designer for “Great Comet”). Alex Lacamoire (orchestrator for “Dear Evan Hansen”), Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer for “Bandstand), “Oslo,” Michael Aronov (featured actor in “Oslo”), Cynthia Nixon (Birdie in “The Little Foxes”) and “Hello, Dolly!” along with the, alas, unavoidable Bette Midler in a champion role. But others are disputable.

I often wonder why drama critics and Tony people tend to have such poor taste. Case in point, the rave reviews for “Dear Evan Hansen” and its six Tonys, including the one for best musical. Helping what I consider worthless become a blockbuster. “Evan” is the only show within recent memory that I had to grit my teeth to prevent walking out on in the middle. Note that I have a strong stomach and have been able to sit through countless garbage without blinking or temptation to regurgitate. Not so, however, with non-dear “Evan.”

Let me explain. It is the story of a highschooler who has very few friends and hopelessly admires dashing and rebellious Connor Murphy. This leads the lonely boy (his single mother is too desperately busy as sole support) to send himself a chummy e-mail addressed to  “Dear Evan” and signed “Connor.”

Connor, however, out of some kind of unexplained arrogance. commits suicide. This leaves the Murphys—father Larry, mother Cynthia, and sister Zoe—understandably devastated. Coming upon the fake e-mail, though, they conclude that Connor and Evan were bosom buddies and proceed to all but adopt the writer as a cherished substitute. At the same time, with the help of two classmates, a Jewish boy and a Negro girl, Evan becomes some kind of hero. The previously withdrawn, beautiful Zoe even ends up going to bed with him.

Most peculiar are the symptoms assigned to Evan’s problematic persona. One is talking so fast as to be borderline incomprehensible; another is fits of trembling worthy of a sputtering machine gun. This is supposed to convey troubles that, in reality, would be internalized, and gain sympathy from the audience that, were if smarter, would be repelled.

Instead , the embodier, Ben Platt, has gained almost universal raves, and the Tony for leading actor in a musical. This over the much more deserving Andy Karl in “Groundhog Day.” But it is the ordinary, even slightly dopey, looks of Platt, and Evan’s terrible tremors—and later pangs of conscience about falling in with a fake persona—that endear him to the kindred viewers and Tony voters. Nothing, it seems, plays like pathos.

All this could be mitigated if Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics amounted to anything. The music, especially, is deplorable, what with not a single worthwhile tune, almost nothing that, far from being hummable, was not exasperating. There was, to be sure, some redemption in the orchestrations and arrangements by Alex Lacamoire, which at moments managed to make things sound as if there were some underlying melody there. But how much can well-made clothes do for a poorly made body?

Well, there was decent lighting from Japhy Weideman, yet not even the sets, including the projections elicited from the the fine Peter Negrini, could be countenanced. The equally fine David Korins provided several columns of piled up computer screens displaying a chaos of images, some of them related to the play, but most of them unrelatedly from (anti)social media. You couldn’t even, as the old joke has it, leave humming the scenery.

Though much was the fault of Steven Levenson’s book, I tend to suspect equal harm from the staging of Michael Greif, a director I have scant use for. Granted that he doesn’t go in for deliberate atrocities like, say, Sam Gold, his steady mediocrity is not all that preferable.

I do not, however, blame the supporting cast, which includes the appealing Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and the excellent Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s kind but overworked mother. I even wondered at the ability of most of them to sing totally tuneless stuff with a straight face. Especially absurd was the scene in which father Larry Murphy and beloved son-substitute Evan rummage through Connor’s things and come upon a barely used baseball glove, which they put to immediate joyous practice.
I will certainly try to forget the many scenes in which the dead Connor palavers with Evan or just peers at him from almost the wings. Isn’t it rude to hover?

Another questionable Tony was the one for leading actress in a play to Laurie Metcalf for her Nora in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” The play, by the oddly named but not untalented Lucas Hnath is a sequel to Ibsen’s “Doll House,” as it should be rightly named. The added possessive ‘S is wrongheaded: it is not about a house belonging to an infantilized Nora Helmer, but the ridiculous toy house in which husband Torvald Helmer has kept all of them.

But never mind. I have always admired Laurie Metcalf in various roles, but currently, doubtless egged on by her quirky director, she overshoots the mark. She is playing Nora, who, fed up with being a doll-wife, leaves, shutting the door on husband and children, and heads for a  new life. After other jobs, she finally writes a book about more or less her own life, which becomes a huge bestseller and makes her wealthy.

But husband Torvald has never bothered to divorce her, and she comes back now, fifteen years later, to seek the divorce she needs to be fully emancipated and not require Torvald’s signature on some of her dealings. Under Norwegian law, it was very hard for a wife to get a divorce, whereas a husband could have one in a trice. So she is back in a home that hasn’t changed much, and first has a long conversation with Anne Marie, the faithful retainer, who still treats her as if she were her child, but fills her in on what little has happened here. Whereas Nora has had new friends and lovers, Torvald still dithers and has never sought another marriage. Will he now give her a divorce? Nora’s grown and independent-minded daughter, Emmy, is supposed to act as a necessary intermediary, but is none too keen on getting involved.

Finally comes the awkward, somewhat painful conversation with Torvald, with bittersweet memories and some recrimination, but likelihood of a divorce. The play ends with Nora looking forward to an, as she thinks, certainly coming era when women will have full independence and privileges, something Torvald doubts will ever happen. As she is about to shut that door behind her again, they both stand close to it, but look forward to different futures.

The writing is mostly clever, though I wish Hnath wouldn’t have it both ways, with language and mores both old and new, including a goodly measure of “shits” and “fucks.” The play, although not without merit, is hardly the wonder as which it has been hailed.

Now a play in which the four characters successively talk in place can seem confined and boring. So here we have the alleged genius director, Sam Gold, given to some good as well as some bizarre ideas. He does come up with interesting movements for the actors, which almost take the place of action. But when Nora lies down on the floor or makes as if she were about to climb up the walls, we think of caged animals, which Nora is trying to get away from, while Torvald is reconciled to remaining. This does constitute a kind of kinetic scenario, but does not replace real action.

It does , however, encourage Ms. Metcalf’s doing her elegant version of  Saint Vitus dance, and accosting an interlocutor from every possible direction, behind, before or beside, till I could not but recall a famous director, I think Noel Coward, telling a fidgety Actors Studio method actor, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

My last complaint is about the short shrift accorded to the musical “Bandstand,” which may not be outstanding, but is still superior to the competition. It was nominated in only two categories and won only in one, for Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography. The choreographer did much the same also for “Hamilton” but here managed it even better. It is a sort of through-dancing, going on, when not upfront, often around the edges, yet somehow  creating not confusion but confirmation.
                                                                                                                                                                 The often spectacular acrobatics--involving highly original steps, holds, and leaps--seconded the narrative without any conflict, even when it could have easily become redundant by usurping the attention.

Equally commendable is that the show, with music by Richard Oberacker and book and lyrics by him and Rob Taylor, tells the story of six war veterans in 1945 Cleveland, each of them a musician on a different instrument, and features men all as adept with their instruments as with their roles. They form a band playing mid-century jazz, overcoming sundry dissensions in ultimately thrilling harmony.

They are also the background to the love story of their leader and pianist, Danny Novitski, with Julia Trojan, who previously sung only in church, but whom Danny, against her intense resistance, persuades to become their consummate vocalist. Everyone, including Julia’s mother, is eventually winning, with the added pleasure of Julia being played by Laura Osnes, one of our prettiest and most gifted performers.

It hardly matters that the plot is rather conventional when everything, including a hymn to the glories of Cleveland, is droll and delightful. “Bandstand” was evidently too subtle for the Tory nominators and voters to apprehend and appreciate.

19 comments:

  1. "Only Us" is a killer song. Here are Platt and Dreyfuss on Today performing it. Dreyfuss is better, but Platt holds his own.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FgEKPxcXEU

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  2. The tendency among some playwrights to return to classics for inspiration and then make a comic muck of them is not new but rarely works well. The recent travesty of Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL (STUPID FUCKING BIRD) comes to mind and now Ibsen’s DOLL HOUSE. One wishes playwrights would just do their jobs and create new works rather than feeding off the dead.

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    1. Some remakes have been outstanding. The LA Weekly loves the new Chekhov treatment. I'll delineate asap.

      http://www.laweekly.com/arts/stupid-fucking-bird-is-the-best-chekhov-adaptation-in-two-decades-4843524

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    2. Uncle K:
      I knew Anton Chekhov. Anton Chekhov was a friend of mine. Aaron Posner is no Anton Chekhov. I saw his STUPID FUCKING BIRD in 2015 at Sideshow Theatre Company - doesn’t surprise me it did so well in La La Land! A year later I steered clear of LIFE SUCKS, his jokey update of UNCLE VANYA. He’s also done funny ha-ha versions of the THE THREE SISTERS and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. Please make him stop it! PLEASE!

      That said as a director Posner collaborated with the magician “Teller” on a superb production of THE TEMPEST at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre that was one of the best nights I’ve ever spent in a theatre. But Posner didn’t monkey with the Shakespeare text and the “Teller” magic was - well, magical. Next year the same duo is producing MACBETH at CST and I look forward to it. “Teller” will do something wicked with those witches. Who knows, maybe Penn will play Lady Macbeth!

      Happy 4th of July!
      Happy hurricane season!
      Dig the pink necktie:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeDADr2M6qo

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    3. Joe, I'll defer to you. I haven't seen the Posner version, to be honest.
      I was thinking more along the lines of musicals. Musicals do better with remakes/adaptations than do classic plays. It makes sense. Uncle Vanya is great literature. I don't think many musicals would qualify as such. Anton had fantastic hair, as well.

      We're hoping the hurricanes leave us alone this year. The house has taken a beating the last two years.

      I'm a Neil Young freak. Your clip is an interesting time in Neil's career. 1982 was toward the beginning of Neil's eccentric period and continues even today. You don't see much of him on stage during this time, Here's my favorite Neil video. The sound is great, and the photography captures his essence perfectly. An excellent documentary by the BBC. I love when he's looking for his harmonica before 'Heart of Gold.'

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ycit4OwYPNg

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    4. Classic! And he looks so “young!” Few rockers have delivered the goods so well for so long. Even in his “eccentric period” I’m somewhat fond of AMERICANA. Though how and why he ended up with Daryl Hannah is a mystery.

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    5. Americana is very good. Great idea for an album. I had no idea he was dating Daryl Hannah. That's a good catch for Neil.

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  3. Anyone here remember playwright Pär Lagerkvist? Here's composer Malcolm Williamson (anyone remember him?) in praise of Pär:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkg6k_EO1rQ

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    1. I don't know this author. I should. I'm going to look for translations. Do you know any good ones?

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    2. No, I don't know of good translations of Lagerkvist. I borrowed a volume my library has; but I've been kept from reading it because of my immersion in 'Apocalypse' by D.H. Lawrence, a freewheeling polemic on the Bible's Book of Revelation. It's an amazing book!

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    3. I’m not familiar with that book but D. H. Lawrence frequently strikes an apocalyptic note in his work, such as the first paragraph of LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER:
      “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

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  4. Here's some quotes from 'Apocalypse':

    "The human heart needs, needs, needs splendour, gorgeousness, pride, assumption, glory, and lordship. Perhaps it needs these even more than it needs love: at last, even more than bread. And every great king makes every man a little lord in his own tiny sphere, fills the imagination with lordship and splendour, satisfies the soul." --- from chapter four of 'Apocalypse' by D.H. Lawrence

    “…[I]f we really try to grasp the pagan symbolic psychology, in its great range and its great depth of understanding---symbolic understanding---it does make our modern conception of the human being look small and trashy. And we really *are* smaller and sillier, as understanding emotional beings, than the pagans were. We are cleverer mentally. But physically, emotionally, vitally we are smaller and sillier than the intelligent pagans of St. John’s day.” --- from Fragment 2 of ‘Apocalypse’ by D.H. Lawrence

    "So it is! Power is there, and always will be. As soon as two or three men come together, especially to *do* something, then power comes into being, and one man is a leader, a master. It is inevitable...Accept it, recognize the natural power in the man, as men did in the past, and give it homage, then there is a great joy, an uplifting, and a potency passes from the powerful to the less powerful. There is a stream of power. And in this, men have their best collective being, now and for ever, and a corresponding flame springs up in yourself. Give homage and allegiance to a hero, and you become yourself heroic. It is the law of men. Perhaps the law of women is different." --- from chapter three of 'Apocalypse' by D.H. Lawrence

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    1. Here's a link to a great blog post with big bleeding chunks from Lawrence's 'Apocalypse':

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2012/02/11/d-h-lawrence-the-proto-pagan-part-2/

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    2. "But act on the reverse, and what happens? Deny power, and power wanes. Deny power in a greater man, and you have no power yourself. But society, now and forever, must be ruled and governed. So that the mass must grant *authority*, where they deny power. Authority now takes the place of power, and we have “ministers” and public officials and policemen. Then comes the grand scramble of ambition, competition, and the mass treading one another in the face, so afraid they are of power.

      "A man like Lenin is a great evil saint who believes in the utter destruction of power. It leaves men unutterably bare, stripped, mean, miserable, and humiliated. Abraham Lincoln is a half-evil saint who *almost* believes in the utter destruction of power. President Wilson is a quite evil saint who quite believes in the destruction of power---but who runs himself to megalomania and neurasthenic tyranny. Every saint becomes evil---and Lenin, Lincoln, Wilson are true saints so long as they remain purely individual;---every saint becomes evil the moment he touches the collective self of men. Then he is a perverter: Plato the same. The great saints are for the *individual* only, and that means, for one side of our nature only, for in the deep layers of ourselves we are collective, we can’t help it. And the collective self either lives and moves and has its being in a full relationship of power: or it is reversed, and lives a frictional misery of trying to destroy power, and destroy itself.

      "But nowadays, the will to destroy power is paramount. Great kings like the late Tsar---we mean great in position---are rendered almost imbecile by the vast anti-will of the masses, the will to negate power. Modern kings are negated till they become almost idiots. And the same of any man in power, unless he be a power-destroyer and a white-feathered evil bird: then the mass will back him up. How can the anti-power masses, above all the great middling masses, ever have a king who is more than a thing of ridicule or pathos?" ---from 'Apocalypse' by D.H. Lawrence

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  5. Bravo, John! Still the most intelligent, erudite, incisive, articulate, and insightful critic we have. What a pleasure and a continuing education it is to read your work.

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    1. Damn. You like Simon more than I do. I like that.

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    2. Believe this is the same Jerry Kavanagh who worked as an Editor at NEW YORK MAGAZINE back in the day when John Simon prowled that alley.

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  6. Great to hear your take on the usual crap being marketed as singular, breathtaking, performance of a lifetime. The Little Foxes was great, but Lillian Hellman is dead. Laurie Metcalf is mediocre and she is soon to share a stage with Glenda Jackson (damn!) Wish you would write more about theatuh and save consumers from themselves.

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  7. So critics and Tony voters are "right" if they agree with you and wrong if they don't?

    Did you actually SEE Dear Evan Hansen because your synopsis is so incorrect it's amazing. Evan didn't idolize Connor, nor did he email himself AT ALL and didn't sign it Connor. They were letters to himself, written by himself and not signed. Quite clear in the show.

    And then you write "Jewish boy and Negro girl" -- glad to see you are still a piece of shit like you always were. You can go away now, we've never needed you, and especially not now.

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