Archive Review: Bent to the Flame

From August 2007:

Doug Tompos is ridiculously talented (not to mention dashingly handsome). In Bent to the Flame the one-man show about Tennessee Williams which Tompos has written and continues to perform at the Fringe Festival, he does a totally convincing impersonation of Williams to words that are as entertaining as they are erudite.

In Flame the young Williams probes his own needs and neuroses, and, most importantly, his passionate love of Hart Crane’s poetry. It is a simultaneously witty and moving portrayal, offering a penetrating look into the deeply queer links between the two writers. At one point Tennessee says something along the lines of: “How can I explain what Hart’s poetry means to me without mentioning that he liked to pick up sailors on the waterfront – and so do I”?

In a brilliant conceit that allows Tennessee to talk directly to the audience while being devastatingly frank, we find the young playwright in his hotel room rehearsing what he is going to say at a lecture about Crane’s poetry that he has been invited to give. In such a context he dares to expose the real roots of his attraction to the flame of Hart’s subtly homoerotic poetry that draws him like a moth.

Through it all, Tompos does a dazzling job of capturing Williams’ matchless insights about art, perseverance and the struggle to remain compassionate through the test of instant success. The play finds Williams in the midst of his first major creative breakdown, just as The Glass Menagerie is becoming the runaway hit of 1945.

Ultimately, through his contemplation of Crane’s poems he finds the courage to continue work on Blanche’s Chair a theatrical sketch that would eventually become A Streetcar Named Desire.

While Flame is the single best thing I’ve seen at the Fringe this year, it’s not without a few flaws. While Tompos has captured the exact cadence of Williams’ speech, he more than once sacrifices comprehensibility to more accurately capture Tennessee’s accent. Given that this piece is all about the emotional and expressive power of American English, he should perhaps be occasionally a little less “Suhthuhn” and a little more enunciated.

Also, Tompos occasionally glosses through his readings of Crane’s poetry, only allowing the audience to get what Crane is driving at through Williams’ analysis. A little more devotion to performing every single syllable of Crane for all it’s worth might illuminate Tennessee’s obsession all the more clearly. That said, this is head and shoulders above most of what you’ll see at the Fringe

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Archive Review: Top & Bottom

From August 2007:

This provocatively titled Fringe show deals with an encounter between a submissive yet aggressive bondage bottom boy and a socially awkward leather top. Playwright Kevin Michael West has created the most sensitive and intelligent portrayal of kinky gay men I’ve seen on-stage – not that I’ve seen that many! More plays about kinky gay men, please!

While there are moments of Top and Bottom that are rife with sexual tension, it is perhaps most remarkable for an almost sentimental sweetness that arises between bottom Tommy (the suitably sassy and sexy David Smith) and top James (Mark Gaddis giving you comically khaki personality while wearing a harness). While James and Tommy occasionally spark with chemistry, most of what we see is a series of misfires and miscommunications: James’s clumsiness is a turnoff for Tommy, and Tommy’s pushiness doesn’t really work for James.

It turns out, though, that these surface problems mask deeper conflicts in both men, which they work out during breaks in their bondage session. They start over at the very end of the play, and you get the sense that the fireworks are just beginning. West skillfully communicates the psychological complexities that lead men to explore the darker side of their sexuality. He also gets the pain of being stigmatized for being kinky, and the profound liberation and camaraderie that can be found with someone who shares your fetishes.

The cast are admirably committed and give compelling performances; Smith in particular makes Tommy’s playful eroticism titillatingly palpable. Top and Bottom isn’t the most earth-shaking play you’ll ever see, but it does a great job of portraying the achingly vulnerable moments that happen in any sexual encounter. That it does so with a light touch and an abundant sense of humor marks West as a playwright to watch.

Archive Review: Xanadu

From July 2007:

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that as a theater director, I have myself actively wanted to adapt the movie musical Xanadu to the stage for a long time. So when I first heard that a production was in the works, to be directed by Christopher Ashley with a book by Douglas Carter Beane, my heart momentarily sank. Seconds later, however, I realized that, if it wasn’t going to be me who brought this cult classic to the stage, there really wasn’t a better choice than Beane and Ashley to do it.

Happily, the clever, hilarious and joyously light confection on stage at the Helen Hayes Theater has borne out that intuition. Sure, the original movie had tons of leaden dialogue and was shot with all the imagination and skill of an old newsreel. But the musical score (which produced five top 40 hits, including the chart-topping “Magic”) was deliriously lively and inventive, often quite beautiful in a pop-rocky way.

Also, the underlying idea – a heavenly muse inspires a young artist to realize his dreams by creating the titular nightlife utopia – had loads of potential, and the design and choreography of the film for the most part reflected the vibrant inspiration of the score. Beane has written a marvelously witty book that weaves comic gold out of the film’s tale of forbidden love between a mortal and an immortal. Further, Beane’s thematic preoccupation with the life-giving power of creativity is obviously deeply felt and, to me anyway, deeply touching.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that this Xanadu is also deeply, deeply gay! Let’s just start with the Sonny, the young artist, played by Cheyenne Jackson, a gorgeous mountain of an out gay man. Costume designer David Zinn has done us all a huge favor by costuming Jackson in the skimpiest of costumes, consisting of cut-off jeans that display Jackson’s stunning legs to their best effect (only to be bested by even skimpier satin shorts in the finale – when injured James Carpinello resumes playing the role, his twinkier form should inspire another subset of gay men).

Jackson also sings the Jeff Lynne and John Farrar songs with breathtaking power and emotion, as does Kerry Butler, who recreates the role of muse Kira made famous by Olivia Newton-John with great good humor and endless energy. Top-flight comediennes Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa look like they’re having the time of their lives playing Kira’s jealous sisters (Calliope and Melpomene respectively), and when they’re having fun, you can bet the audience is having twice as much. I seriously “heart” this version of Xanadu and everybody involved with it!

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Archive Interview: Lily Tomlin In Her Own Words

In 2007 I did an interview with Lily Tomlin that I cut down to fit into print, although true to form with one of my favorite people, most of what she said was gold. Here are uncut quotes from that interview.

“Erenstine has a reality webcam chat show now. So she calls President Bush or whoever’s in the news It’s much more informal, much more freewheeling that if I was doing a more theatrical piece like Search for Signs or something. More interaction with the audience. I’ll try to talk about topical things about Washington DC, do what I’ve always done.”

“Here’s a story: I was playing at the Gaslight in the Village [The Gaslight was originally a “basket house”, where performers were paid the proceeds of a passed around basket. Opened in 1958 by John Mitchell the  Gaslight had showcased beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso but became a folk club when Sam Hood took it over. Dylan premiered Masters of War and many other songs here], people would say, ‘Well people don’t understand if you do all these characters, they don’t know who you are’. And I’d say ‘That’s ridiculous, I’m standing right there and talking as myself between the characters’. So I was always trying to develop a persona, like Joanie Rivers, she had a persona which she worked out of the last screw on the freeway, like her mother had a sign up that said ‘Last Single Girl before Exit to Freeway’. And other people, like Totie Fields, you know, would work out of a persona that was close to them but exaggerated. I was at the Gaslight one night; I tried to work out a persona of someone who does all these characters and tries to relate to the audience. So I’d sit down at the table and look deep into their eyes – I’m on the phone, honey – I’d be frank with them, I’d say, ‘I’m trying to be myself on stage, and I’m going to try to relate to the audience as a human being’ (laughs.) And I’d say ‘This is the part that’s kept me in the small money all these years, and when I do the character part you’ll see that’s the good part’. People were cheering by the end and I’d say ‘Now that I’ve used you to this extent, I’ll be moving on to bigger and better things’. There weren’t that many places to do comedy in those days because music, folk and then rock music was so prominent.”

“Something came out about Karl Rove’s playbook being disinformed misinformed you come right around to being uninformed again. The more you peel back the layers, the more the misinformation and manipulation is so strong, why do we give these people credit for being masterful, being masters of misinformation, Why do people give Karl Rove credit for being a strategist, a genius just because he’s put out these destructive, heinous, manipulative, rotten. What is my point of view on the state of things? What could it be? Not much. You try to make it funny, laughable – it’s kind of payback. What so frightening is that so many people, the average person is so busy with their lives that they only catch a fragment of something on the news, that’s why there’s so much confused opinion. No wonder so many people still believe Saddam was behind 9/11, with most of the media co-opted, it amazing how thorough this misinformation is.”

“I first came to New York in ’62 because I’d gotten into a show in college. For the first time I consciously did a character it was pegged to the fact that Grosse Pointe was covertly segregated, which had just been exposed, the little bit I did was very relevant, I thought oh God I maybe I can make a living doing this. I was not a really great student I  first lived on Second Avenue over the old B & H Dairy. These are deep imprints on me, I don’t know exactly how they manifest themselves. I lived in an old railroad flat for a few weeks, I lived with a friend, Jenny, I knew very slightly in college and she was living a guy, Jerry, who thought he was carrying the legacy of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline who died in ’62. They didn’t speak, they hated each other. At eye level they would curse each other — ‘I hate you, you’re mother’s dirt’. So I come in like Holly Golightly — that was the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s came out, and I was profoundly influenced by that. I could show you photographs where I had major Audrey Hepburn damage. I get to New York I borrow nine dollars from five people, I go to the thrift shop where by some lightining of god there was some cream-colored trench coat like she had in the movie, and I got my hair up like hers. And I immediately am going to clean up the apartment and get rid of the roaches, and I painted the whole apartment – ack you don’t want to get me started on this story, this is a movie in itself  – Jerry slept in the living room and painted all night, with a ¾ bed on the airshaft, she wouldn’t let me sleep with her and I couldn’t fraternize by sleeping on his rollaway during the night so I had to sleep on a  there was no mirror in the house so I had to use a mirror up the street, the roaches, just profound, unbelievable.”

“I got a job right away at a talent agency Marvin Josephson Associates – Marvin later became a founder of ICM. I came to be a waitress at the Figaro, and I was going to study mime, that was my first ambition in New York. This was a job in midtown so I had to start wearing pumps and heels, I moved to NY with a burlap skirt and a striped jersey and a great big old pair of sandals (laughs), and I get a job a this talent agency because I knew how to be a bookkeeper, I was very good with numbers. And here I am going to work with two girls from Queens and the Bronx, who had big teased hairdos and long fingernails, and I thought of myself as a bohemian, a beatnik, sort of. Even in the East Village in those days women weren’t artists. Nobody believed even in musicians – you had to be composer, you were nothing if you only an interpretive artist like an actor or musician, you had to be a playwright or composer to be taken seriously. To be an actress was just so narcissistic (laughs).”

“So I went to the American Mime Theater, and lasted about three weeks because it was so movement-driven, and of course I loved words, so I wasn’t going to be happy being a mime. Everybody there was so physically gifted anyway; they’d fall from one end of this huge dance studio to the other wall, and do it differently each time. I didn’t think I wanted to put in that kind of work to just fall from one end of the room to the other, because I could do a fairly decent job of that anyway, and when I got there I’d rather say something, or better yet, say something on the way. In August it would be so hot in New York. This was in the days when construction workers would yell and grab there crotches for anything in high heels that walked by, and really say anything to you. I had to take the bank deposits to the bank, between 6th and 7th. There’s a reason people rail against high heels I can tell you.”

“I was so focused on auditions then, I’m trying to remember when I became aware of that whole downtown scene, like Candy Darling and everybody but that was later, for me that was the early 70s. I came to know some of the Cockettes, but I was pretty focused on my own work by that point, which in the case of ‘Laugh-In’ took me to California. I eventually bought an apartment up on the fifth floor. A couple of gay guys had lived there and it was fantastically finished. I was so lucky to get this apartment, the windowsills in those old tenements are covered with years of different paints, but these were all sanded down beautifully, it was like living at the Pierre or something.”

“I worked the Improv which back then was on the West Side, and I would hit the thrift shop, I used to buy so many gowns and things at the thrift shop. The first time I appeared at the Improv, must have been 66. I had a white fox fur and a bias cut halter dress that I’d gotten at the Salvation Army or something for about 50¢. I told them I have to go on between 9 and 9:30. I don’t know how I got Budd Freidman to do because in those days a woman doing comedy was so rare you had to have someone to vouch for you. In those days the Improv had a plate glass window that faced right on the street, so you could see the people coming in the club. I took the subway uptown to the theater district where I know there would be limos waiting for people. I gave the guy 5 bucks, and he drove me over to the Improv, I got out went right into the club did five or ten minutes, swept out went back in the limo, and he dropped me off. That made a big splash for me at the Improv. Plus my set went really well.”

“So after that I could go to the Improv. If I was working out a monologue and I would go to the Laundromat at Second Avenue, and then I’d go to the bar for a couple of drinks (laughs). So if I’d see somebody at the Laundromat that I knew, or even a person on the street. I would drag them back up to my fifth floor apartment, and I do it for them. It was probably a monologue they’d seen six or seven times, but if I’d change one syllable of course it was just revelatory. I can’t imagine how many times I did that with my pals on the Lower East Side.”

“New York of the Sixties is when Ernestine came about. Having some political inclinations, I hated the phone company because they were involved with governmental eavesdropping. So it was appropriate to satire the phone company on that level, too. And on the everyday level. I later learned when I became famous from ‘Laugh-In’, then I was adopted by all the union workers at the phone company — they told me that during that era, they completely ignore the private subscriber, because the subscriber had no alternative. They were putting all of their money into databasing and research and development. You didn’t have to go very far because the phone company did have all kinds of information on you, Ernestine would suggest they taped conversations and that they had access to all of your financial personal business and she would harass everybody.”

Review: La Cage Aux Folles (with Harvey Fierstein)

Director Terry Johnson has concocted a production of La Cage aux Folles that has more to do with grimy gay bar genius than Vegas glitter, and it’s the most authentic, fun and touching version of this drag-centric story I’ve ever even heard of. Now the show has been recast with Harvey Fierstein, the musical’s book writer, as drag performer Albin, and Christopher Sieber as Georges the impresario of the trashy but charming drag club in St. Tropez on the French Riviera where Albin is the star. With them in it, this La Cage is even more completely what Johnson set out to create – in spades, and for real.

If you don’t know the story by now, George and Albin lead a happy existence until their son announces his engagement to the daughter of a conservative right-wing politician — who’s coming to dinner. This production’s original Albin, Douglas Hodge, was quite believably a trashy drag diva, singing this line as Piaf, this line as Dietrich.

Fierstein goes even further with a performance that also evokes the high-art drag of Charles Ludlam, as well as the highly polished camp of Charles Pierce. I don’t think there has ever been an Albin, in any version of this story, that has paid as much loving tribute to drag’s rich, complex history – or has stolen from it so gleefully and mercilessly. Harvey is also the most deliciously expressive and happy Albin ever, by a long shot.

But it’s the combination of Fierstein with Chris Sieber that makes this edition of La Cage truly magic, not to be missed. Sieber is the first George that has filled the line “plain old homosexual” with deep, if rueful, sincerity, and therein lies the key to the genius of his performance and his chemistry with Harvey. I have never felt the reality of their love as I do here, which makes those moments where George has to fight with Albin all the more heartstopping. Sieber’s George loves Albin so much that the audience is reduced to moved silence whenever Sieber expresses that love.

This is a nearly perfect La Cage, itself nearly a perfect musical. Especially since the show’s run ends on May 1, you absolutely cannot miss Fierstein and Sieber, I simply won’t allow it!

For tickets, click here. I’m serious, click now! I’m watching you!

Review: The Motherfucker with the Hat

For about the first half-hour or so of The Motherfucker with the Hat I was thinking “I’ll be damned if this Stephen Adly Guirgis hasn’t found a way to make this foul-mouthed, straight-boy playwright idiom work as genuine article comedy.” Well, that turned out to be an overly optimistic assessment, but Guirgis certainly does more interesting things with this genre than, say, David Mamet, making Motherfucker a slightly above average comic melodrama, and one helluva star vehicle for Bobby Cannavale.

Cannavale plays parolee and recovering alcoholic Jackie, who’s in a fiery relationship with still-using coke-head Veronica (Annabella Sciorra), with whom he’s been in love since the 8th grade. After seeing the titular hat on Veronica’s table, he goes crazy with jealousy, from which his AA sponsor, Ralph D (Chris Rock) talks him down. That’s the story of that promising first half-hour. Things unravel from there, sometimes compellingly, more often tiresomely.

In the character of Jackie, however, Guirgis has created an involving role that offers abundant pyrotechnic possibilities for the right actor, as Jackie undergoes a complex and unpredictable evolution from loose cannon to the play’s moral center. Cannavale knows what acting gold he’s got his hands on, and plays it for all its worth. I don’t know if he has the Tony in the bag with this one, but if he doesn’t get a nom it’ll be a crime.

Chris Rock, from a publicity angle the star of the show, in fact obviously knows that he’s in a supporting role, and he provides a magnificent foil for Cannavale. The rest of the cast deliver sharp performances under director Anna Shapiro’s well-calibrated tutelage (although all of them could use a refresher course in the Acting 101 idea of “holding for laughs”). Not as good as it seems to be at first, but certainly not a waste of time, and seeing Cannavale’s performance is almost worth Broadway ticket prices.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Daniel Radcliffe is nothing if not conscientiously professional. This is hardly surprising, since both of his parents are “in the biz” (dad’s a literary agent, mom’s in casting) – he’s wholly aware of what is expected of him as “the talent” and works assiduously to rise to the occasion. In the case of director Rob Ashford’s revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying he’s expected to carry a big musical comedy on his shoulders, singing and dancing all the way.

And what do you know, the kid does it. He is immensely charming and charismatic as J. Pierrepont Finch, a young window-cleaner who follows the advice of a book entitled “How to Succeed in Business” and meteorically rises from the mail-room to Vice President of Advertising at the World-Wide Wicket Company.

Radcliffe’s love and respect for musical theatre is crystal clear, and here he successfully lays claim to a rightful place in it. For one thing, his voice is already stronger than Robert Morse’s was in the original production. He also makes the strong choice not to soften Finch’s ambition with winsomeness, as Morse did, and Matthew Broderick in the most recent revival. Radcliffe’s Finch isn’t mean but he’s crisp and unapologetic, a bracing and refreshing take on the role.

The production itself feels like Ashford is getting right most of what he got wrong with Promises, Promises with the lively choreography and colorful design of the two productions looking awfully similar. Then again, in many ways How to Succeed is the show that the original Promises was trying to be, and How to Succeed is a much more straightforward piece of craftsmanship. So starting with stronger material, Ashford gets considerably further with his hyper-kinetic frugging and monkeying. All in all, a thoroughly entertaining revival that has the size and sizzle you expect from a Broadway musical.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.