Monday, April 17, 2006

Pulitzer Prediction

I read a few weeks back that the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Drama is to be announced later today (Monday).

Usually these things come out around 4 p.m. (EDT) in the afternoon.

I am going to make a wild (or, depending on your perspective/knowledge, conservative) prediction: this will be one of those years when no prize is awarded.

It's been a while since this has happened -- last time was in 1997 -- and it does seem to happen about once a decade or so.

This has been a rather underwhelming year for new American plays (plays have to have their professional premiere between March 2005 and March 2006 to be eligible, so that really limits the potential contenders). And this coming after a number of recent, rather underwhelming winners (e.g. Wit, Proof, Dinner with Friends).

Now, this is a somewhat random prediction, since I have neither read nor seen the rumored finalists. But doesn't that make it all the more fun if it turns out I'm right?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Theater Matters

Isaac at Parabasis and I have continued our comments on the Isherwood Humana review controversy. You can catch up over there.

Tonight, he's also posted a letter to the editors of the New York Times from Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists.

I'm debating whether to post on this, since it rather proves the point I made in my last comment on the Isherwood review (how the two sentences in question make rather weak ammo for the points about his alleged biases).

My thought is to wait and see if it gets into the Times -- I tend to expect it would -- and then to comment on its form there. If it's not published, my inclination is to withhold comment, since there could be any number of reasons for its non-publication (for instance, if Mr. London withdrew it).

On a personal note, I've been chewing on possibilities for a rather complete rewrite/revamp of If There Were Monuments for the last month or so. I'm afraid that I did commit a cardinal sin of playwriting in the current version.

I am sometimes known to say that if you want to write up your political opinions on an issue of the day, you should write an editorial, not a play. There are two reasons for this, as I've found out.

First, the facts behind a political issue of the day (like, say, torture, or the Iraq War) can change substantially from the time you write the play to the time it gets anywhere close to production. If the plot of the play turns on such details to a significant degree (as mine does), then it's in danger of falling out of date (and thus out of favor).

Second, I have my own bias against didactic plays, and I suppose I should narrow that to the small subset of contemporary plays that attempt to lecture their audiences on political issues of the day. Following from the first point, I don't think this is best use of the very limited resources of today's theater (what, when you could accomplish the same at much lower cost and effort by writing a newspaper editorial). Moreover, I can't see how such political sermonizing wouldn't be a matter of preaching to the choir, given the generally assumed political sensibilities of today's professional theater audiences (at least, in places like New York City).

In other words, I don't think it takes much courage or political risk to use the professional stage to say something that the vast majority of your audience will agree with before the lights come up and the actors open their mouths. Why waste 90 minutes or more of an audience's time when 800 words in the Village Voice would do the trick just as well?

My point is not that there should be no political theater, or certainly not (as some conservatives have argued in terms of college faculty) that there should be a quota for politically conservative (or at least non-orthodox liberal) plays.

My point is, when a play's politics can be neatly reduced to an 800-word editorial stating the author's views, it's not likely to be very interesting (except, perhaps, to ardent members of the choir) or revelatory.

Now, where I'm very much in favor of political theater, and where I do try and include politics in my own plays, is when it comes to issues that are not so clearly cut, where characters may take multiple conflicting sides without me playing favorites -- and, indeed, where my own views on the issue at hand may not at all be clear.

I think this kind of play gives actors, directors, and audience alike a lot more to chew over, think about -- making for a more compelling theatrical experience. And one that's not likely to be put out of date by tomorrow's headlines.

Which is my roundabout way of saying -- I'm redoing my play. It's going to be very intense over the next couple weeks, I think (since I'm going to shoot for this reading opportunity) -- but I think it's ready. And when it's ready, you got to go for it.

Random Cultural Observations

From this weekend, in no particular order:

Inside Man: First great popcorn movie of the year. Spike Lee pulled it off, all while minimalizing the prerequisite racism (limited to the one beat cop who can't help almost using the n-word to Denzel Washington) and casual misogyny (although we are made to watch in close-up as Jodie Foster is called a "magnificent cunt" to her face). I suppose this is what Oscar winners can expect when signing on with Mr. Lee.

But Denzel was in top form, Clive Owen sizzled (which is all I'll say without revealing plot points). And Jodie Foster --- mm, mmmm, that Jodie! She is truly magnificent in every way in this one. She oozes power from every pore and has a great time doing it. Girlfriend was fierce (and I do not use the F-word lightly).

The Washington Post: It's been my paper of record for a while now, what with the New York Times making shit up (see also: Blair) and repeatedly (and very unjournalistically) kowtowing to the Bush administration (see also: Miller; Bumiller; Woodward).

The Post gets special props today for a fine story on the special prosecutor's view of Cheney et al.'s "concerted effort" to discredit Iraq War critic Joe Wilson, and a wonderful news feature on the pressure to enlist felt by high school students in a rural town in Mississippi.

Sample quote from the latter:

A few weeks ago, some mail came for Blake Johnson. A cold front had blown through the working-class community of Meehan Junction, outside Meridian, and the daffodils of early spring shivered in the wind. Sticking out of the mailbox across the road from Johnson's trailer were two recruiting letters, one from the Army and the other from the National Guard -- the Guard offering a $10,000 signing bonus. All of Johnson's senior year, the local recruiters have come after him; the national mailers were the latest enticements.

As his mother said, as she placed them on the counter, "That's a whole lot of money when you are in the 12th grade."

Anne Hull does the details very perceptively, and movingly. You really should read the whole thing.

The West Wing: I've said it before. This thing was unwatchable for a while there, but the last season and a half, it's really been hitting its marks. Tonight was quite an hour, as the effects of Leo's death (and John Spencer's) resonated, and on Election Night no less.

One of my favorite shots was of the crowd assembled for the victory party as news of his death was announced on TV. That ballroom full of stunned faces in their straw hats. And then the nice moment, when CJ came in to tell the president that Leo had died at the hospital, without having to say those words -- and the president got up from his desk and came around to give her a hug.

But, really, this was Josh's episode, a fitting end to the arc that started last season when he told Leo in despair he was disappointed with the field of potential Democratic presidential contenders. And Leo asked him, you know a guy who would be good? Then you go and get him to run. And that led to many wonderful Josh Lyman moments (perhaps even inspiring some of my own).

Black Horse & A Cherry Tree: I heard this song by KT Tunstall on the radio for the first time this week, I came in toward the end and I thought, What the heck is that? I had to hear it again, soon I did, again only part of it though, so I kept waiting for the next time. I couldn't make out all the lyrics, but those I did were really something else, and of course there's that distinctive woo-hooing.

So I went and got it off iTunes and I can't help listening to it over and over. Boy, does it get my blood up, and in such a goooood way. Although I keep thinking it's some kind of lesbianic thing, and I don't know that that's right.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Great Theater Debate

. . . continues over at Parabasis. Check the comments for the latest.

I may have some more thoughts about this over the weekend, either here, or there, or maybe on someone else's blog. Who knows.

Right now, it's Friday night, and the mood is right for a fish fry. So I got to bolt.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Catching Up on My Stories

In TV news, we have a major development here at the ranch: we got DVR! Time Warner finally sent a highly competent and very nice man to fix our cable Internet connection -- which he did! -- and I asked him about fixing the TV cable.

Amazingly, DVR is only $4.95 a month and you don't have to buy the box, which I believe makes it quite a bit cheaper than TiVo (did I capitalize that right?). You can do any variety of things, including pausing and rewinding live TV, not to mention you can set it to record a show, and then start watching it while it's still recording. Apparently, everyone in our area is getting DVRs, so I wonder how this will affect ad revenues. (Ever handy with a remote, I can get through most commercial breaks with a high degree of accuracy in about 10-15 seconds.)

Thus it's time to catch up on my various stories -- which is mainly the few shows I still have time to watch:

The Shield: I knew that season finale was going to be something, but man. They took it to a whole new level and hit it out of the park. It was pretty obvious Lem was gonna buy it, and, at one point early on, I consider the possibility that Shane would kill him just for a moment before waving it away.

Then, before you know it, there's Shane, the first one to meet up with Lem, right away taking him to another secret location that the others don't know about. And that wonderful long scene, all the slow takes, where it becomes very clear in its underplayed way that Shane is going to do it -- just a matter of when, and how. And that last moment, when he gives Lem the sandwich, and Lem is so happy for those seconds to finally have something to eat before he's seen what Shane did, and the rest of us -- thinking Shane was going to shoot him -- have to figure it out as Shane walks away -- and then the explosion.

There were some intensely resonant echoes to earlier moments in the series. I particularly liked when Shane sat in his truck -- having gone to get the sandwich, and also the grenade, which he had to steel himself to use -- a nice mirror to the moment at the end of season 3 when Lem sat alone in the van for that long moment, deciding to go on his own and burn the money.

And then there is the murder itself, paralleling Vic's murder of Terry Crowley at the end of the series' very first episode. Vic and Shane have now each killed one of their brothers in blue to protect each other. But Terry was already cooperating with the feds, while Lem was firm about resisting Internal Affairs. And, of course, Shane was a witness to Vic's act; Vic has no idea what Shane did, and if anything wanted to protect Lem and keep him alive.

The Shane-Lem scene was one of the most intense and harrowing things I've seen on TV in a long time, perhaps ever. I had to take some moments to recover during the commercial break. And it's a good thing I did, because then, as if the preceding scene wasn't great enough, the people behind The Shield gave us a choric scene right out of Greek tragedy.

The entire cast was there, in a spread out circle around Lem's body, still in the car. The hot young Latina probie who is a complete screw up burst into tears as soon as she saw Lem, and her sobs play in the background as Vic and the remaining Strike Team guys arrive to take in the horror. Lots of more slow takes, lit by the headlights from the patrol cars all around.

And then Forest Whitaker's Lt. Kavanaugh, unable to resist, chimes in with: "Are you happy now?" And Vic turns to him, and he says "Are you happy now, Detective Mackey?" After which they proceed to jump each other and wrestle violently before being pulled apart.

And then Vic, followed close by Ronnie and a secretive Shane, storms off, vowing, "We're gonna find out who did this, and we're gonna kill them."

And now, somehow, I'm gonna wait until January for the next fix.

24: I have to say, I think this is probably the best season so far. The writers have done a very nice job of setting up different story arcs, so they can keep building the tension without having to overly stretch out a single terror threat or resort to the implausible or ridiculous (e.g. Kim and the mountain lion, Kim and the wacko survivalist . . .).

I've previously singled out Jean Smart's fearless turn as the kooky/politically savvy First Lady. I must also sing the praises of Gregory Itzin as President Bush -- er, Logan -- always so much more concerned with his legacy and passing the buck to others; the latest twist at the end of Monday's ep will no doubt play into this (and how did the writers manage to hit so close to the truth?).

And I also have to give kudos to Kim Raver as Jack's girlfriend/wingman Audrey. I was very so-so on her last year, but she has really come into her own. I was never big on Third Watch, and Kim Raver always seemed so willowy to me, so it's nice to see her get all fierce here.

And kudos to my dad. He was saying back in Hour 2 that (if I may quote precisely) "That handmaiden knows something. She's more than just a handmaiden." (To which Mom speaks for both of us: "Since when do you use the word handmaiden?")

The Amazing Race: Okay, so maybe I am just being a pushover and not watching very much TV, but I'd say this season's race is the most exciting in a long time, the most exciting since the one where Reichen and Chip raced into history as the "married" gays.

The Race has long been the only "reality" show I can stomach, for two reasons: 1) the rules are very straightforward; it's straight-up get to the finish line first, no funky alliances and voting others off -- and, more importantly, 2) all the players enter with a pre-existing relationship.

Instead of watching strangers treat each other as social archetypes, we get duos who've known each other for a while, but probably never spent quite so much time together, and certainly not so intensely. Whether it's a couple who's married or dating, or sibling, or friends, or parent and child, you get to see a whole bunch of pairs of people as they push themselves and each other, seeing what they can do while seeing the world.

And that's even better this time around, where team after team is worth rooting for. Favorites, obviously, are those witty hippies, as well as "Married 40 Years" couple Fran and Barry (she has to be the most kickass breast cancer survivor ever).

The dentist from Mississippi (who actually says "dad-gum it") is there to annoy us, and he does, maybe even more so than he does his wife, who he is constantly belittling and "overruling." He's even ripped on Fran for not being a good doctor's wife (!) and, as my mom noted, needs to be constantly reaffirmed by his little woman.

Thankfully, they moved it back to 8 p.m. (from the late shift at 10). It's one of the few shows on network TV that families could actually watch together. We sure do here.

As the World Turns: Now, you know I said stories, so I got to include at least one actual story. Mainly I want to give the writers major props for not only having Lily and Holden's teen son Luke turn out to be gay, but even more so for this utterly delicious story line they've given him.

Remember Lily's long-lost identical twin sister Rose? (Don't worry, she died mercifully a few years ago.) Well, this teenage girl showed up, claiming to be Rose's illegitimate child long ago given up for adoption. And, moreover, she was Rose's biracial illegitimate child, raised by nuns, and named Jade.

Lily started to question why nuns would name an illegitimate baby Jade. She did research into the Catholic Church and discovered that in fact Jade is not Rose's daughter but a total lying minx!

And now this biracial orphan minx is blackmailing Luke! She knew Lily would throw her out, what with all the lying and her being a minx. And so she told Luke that if he didn't help her to stay, she would tell his parents that he's gay! Which is of course the one thing in the world he is completely terrified of doing.

So here's where it gets even more outlandish. The biracial orphan minx, now that he knows she's not his first cousin, tells him her plan: they'll have Lily catch them in bed together! This way, Lily and Holden will think he's straight, and they (Jade and Luke) can threaten to run away together if Jade is not allowed to stay.

And this is all before we even get to Luke's various health problems, what from only having one kidney, and a donated one at that. And before we even factor in the extreme fabulousness that is Elizabeth Hubbard as Luke's chemo-suffering/CEO titan grandmother, Lucinda Walsh, who simply devours every line, doing everything with her eyes, all while wearing unfortunate cancer patient wigs -- as only a true grande dame can.

And that's only one storyline. You really should be watching.

In Defense of Isherwood (and Reality)

Also, and more significantly, I can't stop blogging now because of this big brouhaha on some playwrights' blogs (variously, here, here, and here) over Charles Isherwood's review of this year's Humana Festival.

Now, perhaps it's not fair for me to chime in, since these others are taking issue, in part, with other reviews in the Times (by Isherwood and others) that I haven't read. Since I'm not seeing shows in New York City on a regular basis right now, I don't routinely read the Times theater reviews. So I'm hardly an expert on Isherwood, and I can certainly understand how a critic can rub someone (or a whole lot of someones) the wrong way. (I feature my favorite film critics, while winning an award for an assignment mocking Roger Ebert's writing style, for much the same reasons.)

With those disclaimers, let's look at Isherwood's most controversial remarks:

There's not much point in aiming high if you can't hit your target. And is it really necessary for playwrights to dream up new worlds? As Ms. Rebeck's intimate and affecting play reminds us, the one we live in still provides durable material for theater that moves us, makes us laugh and allows us to see even a small frame of experience in a new light.

Now, for the context. The first sentence follows a paragraph about a play described as a "dark sci-fi comedy" that Isherwood found "annoyingly lacking in internal logic," before declaring the play "handily takes the festival prize for sheer ambition" yet failing miserably as a "mostly obvious and jejune" satire.

It's that failed ambition that leads into the first controversial sentence. I suppose you can interpret the admonition as applying to all playwrights, not just the author of the sci-fi piece. Even so, I take it as a warning against overambition, not any ambition. You have to have a certain amount of ambition to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) day after day, draft after draft, to even have something to show to actors and send to theaters in the first place. Part of Isherwood's point here, as I take it, is knowing your talents and abilities -- and also your limits -- and working within them.

Then there's that question that's caused so much grief, and the follow-up praise of Theresa Rebeck's piece. This has been read as an endorsement of "bourgeois conservatism" and of one single theatrical style (quoting Isaac at Parabasis): "the kind of cookie cutter reenactments of our culture that we get almost-for-free every day on our television sets"; "in our age, only Realism will do."

This would surely be a problematic claim if made by a leading theater critic at the nation's leading newspaper in the nation's leading theater city. The only problem is, I don't see how you squeeze that sour juice out of what Isherwood said.

To paraphrase, I take him as saying: Many playwrights think it's necessary to create fantastical and highly theatrical new worlds in their works today (whether it's to get produced, connect with a distracted audience, etc.). However, it's not necessary for those ends, and may not even be sufficient, since many of these same plays (as he criticizes them earlier in the article) fail to say or reveal much of substance about the verities of human experience -- the way people think and act and love and fear and try (and sometimes fail) as they make their way through life.

It's on these grounds that he praises Rebeck's play, both while talking about it earlier, and in the final paragraph: "As Ms. Rebeck's intimate and affecting play reminds us, the one [world] we live in still provides durable material for theater that moves us, makes us laugh and allows us to see even a small frame of experience in a new light."

Rebeck's play sounds like an exemplar of contemporary theatrical realism (small cast, one imagines relatively short scenes in multiple locations with minimal sets, at least from the pictures on the Times slideshow). But, as I read the review, Isherwood isn't praising the play for its use of realism. He's praising it for its reality, what it reveals about the actions and emotions of its characters, which corresponds in some recognizable and meaningful way to the actions and emotions of real people in the real world. He's praising the play first and foremost for what it presents and reveals, rather than how it presents and reveals (e.g., its theatrical style).

Sorry if I'm getting all pedagogical here, this point (realism vs. reality) is one I spend a lot of time on in my theater history courses. Certainly all the great plays from earlier eras (that is, the ones we still have, still read, still produce) reflect the realities of human experience very deeply and resonantly -- otherwise, we wouldn't still be coming back to them. And in saying that, I include the widest possible range of theatrical styles, aesthetics, and approaches, from the highly stylized plays (comedies and tragedies) of the Greeks, to Shakespeare and his highly affected (not at all realistic) language, to the wide range of latter-day avant garde playwrights, from Beckett to Reza Abdoh.

The point is, we can find all kinds of great plays from the past that in no way correspond -- in their original time, or in adapted productions now -- to our 20th/21st century American concept of realism (which is more like the original theatrical concept of naturalism, but that is another topic for another lecture).

As for the plays of today -- whose disputed quality is causing so much controversy -- I have to agree with Isherwood. I've definitely noticed a trend in the last five or ten years of professionally produced plays (at Humana and elsewhere) that seem to rely very heavily on various theatrical tricks and spectacles without having much of anything to say or reveal about human experience. Now I suppose some will say this is unfair, since, given my grad student budget and love for reading plays, I read a lot more plays than I see, particularly when it comes to those of this type.

As an example, take Isherwood's critique of Jordan Harrison's Act a Lady. Isherwood says there is lots of "diverting frippery," which, brushed away, leaves "Mr. Harrison's tidy homilies about the fluidity of gender and the inspiring power of 'art' look[ing] flimsy."

After blaming the playwright for a failure to contextualize the drag -- and comparing the rural 1920s drag queens to their more polished sisters in Charles Ludlum, there's this: "Even the most outlandish of Mr. Ludlam's plays, I'm afraid, have a greater respect for psychological and social truths than Mr. Harrison evinces here."

It's those "psychological and social truths" of human behavior that Isherwood, and I, and so many others, are looking for in plays, regardless of their theatrical style or particular brand of frippery. Of course, on this I can only speak for myself, and perhaps also for the various yentas I've chatted up during intermissions and before the lights go down.