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Posts tagged ‘Theater’

Extraordinary “Follies of God, Tennessee Williams & the Women of the Fog”!

Follies of God 1Every now & then a book comes along that is so extraordinary that you just have to drop everything & run to it! Such a book is “Follies of God, Tennessee Williams & the Women of the Fog” by James Grissom. Just when you thought you’d heard everything that there was to hear about the late, great, multiply-awarded as well as multiply-addicted playwright Tennessee Williams, along comes “Follies of God” and blows nearly everything else that’s been written about “Tenn” out of the water.

It’s an absolute must-have, must-read for anyone who loves the theater, as I do, and loves great actresses, as I do, and loves to write great roles for great actresses, as well, I try to do.You can’t put it down! It’s an absolute page turner. And the story behind “Follies of God” is as amazing as any plot Williams ever concocted for his great heroines.

You see, a year and half before his death, he summoned a young fan who had written him a letter, and that young man was James Grissom. Williams dubbed him “Dixie” (They were both in Louisiana at the time) and unbeknownst to the 20-year-old aspiring actor/writer, Williams concocted an epic plan of the book, a pseudo-memoir, he would endow Dixie with the task of writing sometime in the future when he was long gone. And 30 years or more later, he did.

He had Dixie write down nearly every word he said in little blue note books. And Dixie(Grissom)like Boswell, with Samuel Johnson, wrote down EVERYTHING. And Williams gave him MORE. Shopping bags full of fragments of unfinished plays and poems,”leaves of his mind” Williams said.

And most importantly, he gave him introductions to the greatest actresses of the past 50 years, the greats of the American Theater, and he tasked Dixie with writing down what THEY thought of him. And he wrote lyrical elegies to them all, and sent mementos, which inevitably reduced all of them to tears. They, to a one, had no idea how he felt about them.Follies of God 2

Williams knew instinctively that he had the right person for this incredibly daunting task, and he did. But it’s taken nearly a lifetime for Dixie, who turned into a wonderful adult writer, James Grissom to bring this book into print. But the work and the wait were well worth it.

Focusing ONLY on the relationships of these great stage actresses to the iconic roles in his plays, it’s a fascinating, breath-taking read. As Dixie encounters saints (Marian Seldes, Maureen Stapleton),sinners(Kim Stanley, Jo Van Fleet) and stars (Geraldine Page, Katharine Hepburn) who all burst into tears on reading what Williams wrote about them.

And wait! There’s more!

Grissom reveals, for perhaps the first time, that Williams and William Inge were life-long lovers, as well as sometimes haters. That on-again, off-again tempestuous romance fueled both writers and in turn endowed the theater(and the films) of mid-Twentieth century America with some of its’ greatest writing. And the greatest parts for actresses, bar none.

Some are missing. Elizabeth Taylor, for instance. But most are there.Jo Van Fleet 1

The worst of them was evidently Jo Van Fleet, the Oscar-winning mother of James Dean in “East of Eden” who became so penurious & eccentric in her sad later years that she would carry her “mottled” Oscar with her in a tote bag and plunk it down whenever she couldn’t cash a check or pay a bill.”THIS is who I am!” she would angrily declare. Frightening all who heard her.Jo Van Fleet 2

Why “Women of the Fog”? The fog was what Tennessee would always declare his great female characters came to him out of, as it rolled across the proscenium stage of his mind.

Gossipy, gilded and glorious, it’s all  here in James Grissom’s wonderful “Follies of  God, Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog.” It’s now out in paperback, too. By all that is holy, you must read this great book!

Jayne Houdyshell Triumphs in Bways’ “The Humans”!

The Humans 1Jayne Houdyshell Humans 1Jayne Houdyshell, an actress I’ve always found astonishing, reaches the peak of her long career in Broadway’s newest and most unlikely hit, “The Humans.” Houdyshell had a two decades long career in regional theater and was “discovered” in mid-life as the mother that couldn’t stop criticizing her lesbian daughter in Lisa Kron’s break-through play “Well” that started at the Public Theater and moved uptown to Broadway. And Broadway has pretty much been her home ever since.

Houdyshell is the kind of actress playwrights dream of and though she has won tons of awards( the Drama Desk gave her a career achievement award a few years back), I can’t remember her having a leading part like the one she has now, and in a hit play to boot. “The Humans” is powered by her powerhouse performance as Deidre Blake, again a mother, but this time an Irish Catholic mother to end all mothers. Deidre is caught between a rock and a hard place as she tries to hold her unwieldy family together as they embark on a tumultuous Thanksgiving gathering in her daughter’s duplex in Chinatown.

It’s one of the best plays of the year. Playwright Stephen Karam has written what all of the American theater has been longing for. A great new American play. Set today, it’s totally current and absolutely vital, and unflinching in its’ detail of the lives we New Yorkers, we humans, live .

With horror film and Internet references galore, Karam and the titanically talented director Joe Mantello ingratiate “The Humans” into your soul and invite you to be a member of this troubled family. They hook you into sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with the at-first-glance very bland Blakes, and there you are experiencing something that you’d never thought you’d be experiencing, a top-level, quality evening in the theater, by some one who’s now going to be considered one of America’s important young playwrights.

What a joy this is to discover so much talent in one place, at one time, doing the thing it should be doing, bringing us the best in theater! Which is what Broadway is supposed to be doing. After all, shouldn’t that be going on all the time on the Great White Way? And so seldom is.”The Humans” is so good, it’s shocking.

And to have the majestic Jayne Houdyshell at the top of the bill, guiding this ship into port, as it were, with a superb ensemble who are all excellently cast and doing what sounds easy, but is really almost impossible, make you believe that they are the Blake family and you’re a friend, who they’ve also invited over for Thanksgiving dinner. But little did you know what you’re in for! Folding chairs, card tables and paper plates and cups. And not a turkey in sight! Only health foods!

Reed Birney is perfect matched as Deidre’s troubled husband Blake. Lauren Klein, is simply amazing and amazingly simple, as Deidre’s wheel-chair bound, dementia-ridden mother “Momo”, Cassie Beck & Sarah Steele as their struggling daughters, one gay and one straight, and Arian Moayed as the genial, still not married, but living together sort-of son-in-law.

Cassie Beck The Humans

Cassie Beck, in particular, (above) as the frazzled lesbian lawyer daughter,Aimee, who is going through a difficult break-up with her lover. And  it is to “The Humans” great credit that the Blake family treat this as something to be compassionate about and otherwise her sexuality is totally accepted in a refreshingly matter of fact way.

And the set! Once again I’ve seen astounding theater set design in one week! First “Hughie”s haunting green-lit majestic, ruined hotel and now David Zinn’s Chinatown duplex that is not as grand as it sounds, and as is just as knock-about and seems about to fall down as the Times Square hotel of the 1920’s in “Hughie.”

You just can FEEL this place shake,as it quavers under the  supersonic,crashing thuds that periodically drop on it from the (un-seen) floor above (sound design by Fitz Patton.) It’s a ground-floor apartment attached to the basement by a spiral stair-case that’s in, as Reed Birney’s father describes it, “A flood zone.”

At one point Birney’s character quips, noting his daughters’ obsession with health foods, “If you’re so miserable, why do you want to live forever?” “The Humans” is so good it will restore your faith in the American theater and make you want to live forever, too, so you can see it over and over and over again. What a joyful surprise this play, Jayne Houdyshell and this production are!

Drama Desk Awards!Alex Sharp Continues to Win Best Actor in a Play!

Alex Sharp 1Young, just graduated (from Julliard), Alex Sharp thanked his SCHOOL! A first, I think at any major awards ceremony tonight, when he continues his probable march to the Tony, too, at the Drama Desk Awards. He won for playing the leading character, who is “on the spectrum” as Sharp put it, or autistic to the rest of you and me for “A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time” The challenging British play won big with six awards, winning everything it was nominated for  at the Drama Desks. 24-year-old Sharp also won Best Actor in a Play from the Outer Critics’ Circle.

Considered the most prestigious of the theater awards handed out right about now, the Drama Desk Awards are voted on solely by press. It’s 125 members consider Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway equally in all categories.

Held at Town Hall, the ceremony seemed a little bit glossier than usual, though the winners took forever to get to the stage it seemed.

Both Best Actress in a Play Winner Helen Mirren(for “The Audience”) and Best Actress in a Musical Kristen Chenoweth(for “On the 20th Century” complained of the length of the ceremony, though. Dame Helen said “I’m so hungry I want to eat this!” indicating her well-deserved award and Chenoweth said “I’ve got to pee!”

“American in Paris” won four awards including Best Actor in a Musical for Robert Fairchild, who thanked “Gene Kelly, without whom none of this would be possible.” But “Hamilton” the Off Broadway sold-out sensation won seven Drama Desk Awards, making it the big winner of the night. Lin-Manuel Miranda the author/creator/star won three awards himself personally.

“Hamilton” is an Off-Broadway show, heaving to Broadway, next month. So it won’t figure in the upcoming Tony Awards which only consider theater work done on Broadway. But expect the four major acting winners, who are all in Broadway shows currently running to repeat their triumphs Sunday night at the Tonys. That would be Mirren, Chenoweth, Sharp and Fairchild.

Best Revival of a Play went to “The Elephant Man” whose entire cast is currently in Ldndon, repeating its’ success in the West End. It’s top-lined by three-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Allesandro Nivola.

Best Revival went to Lincoln Center’s “The King and I.” My personal fave “Gigi” won Best Costumes for the great Catherine Zuber.

“Something Rotten” only won one award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical Christian Borle.

Holt On, Bro! Summer IS coming! & Scott Cakes Is Pinker Than Ever!

As it remains, colder than a witch’s (blank), it’s forever summertime at Scott Cakes and the pinker than ever Scott Cunningham! Who actually ENCOURAGES me to sing a few forgotten ditties from “Promenade”, Al Carmines and Maria Irenes Fornes’ sole collaboration, which started at the Judson Church, where Al was the minister and ended with an Off Broadway run that was so beloved they named the theater after it! And it’s there today! The Promenade!

And enjoy this high camp high tea at the Pink Cupcake shop on Angel’s Landing in Provincetown! You’ll feel like you’ve gone to Gay Heaven!

AND IT’S ALL PINK!

Oscar Whisperings

Oscars 2Sometimes I hear things, Oscar-wise I mean. And I try to talk to as many members of the Academy that will speak to me about this.

So here’s the skinny. Whether I wanted to hear it or not. “Boyhood,” a film I frankly didn’t like, is WAAAAAAAAAAY out in front. So this is as an objective opinion as you’re gonna hear on this blog. I hoped this wouldn’t be true, wouldn’t be the case. But it seems it is. Despite IFC(the distributor)’s notorious lack of experience in landing an Oscar winner, “Boyhood”, like the film itself is out- lasting everything else so far.

And another funny thing. Patricia Arquette’s performance as the mother of the boy in question is the one female acting performance that is being discussed. She STILL could end up in the Best Actress category, not Supporting, if the Academy voters write her name down in that, the leading spot.

But it’s early days still.”Still Alice” and others have yet to hit the Academy’s radar, which always gets things LAST.The Academy has its’ own screenings for these films, remember.

“The Theory of Everything”, “Imitation Game”, and many many others have not really landed, as they say, yet.Same can be said of “Foxcatcher” and certainly, the other later entries still to come.Including the Big Musical “Into the Woods.”

And reviews count for a lot. And box-office for even more. If a film that is open and out in the world already isn’t really doing all that well, like for instance, “Whiplash”, it hurts its’ Oscar chances. Which in the Supporting Actor category, is its’ J.K.Simmons. All the acclaim means a nomination but not necessarily a win. More likely so far, as I’ve already noted is Edward Norton’s flamboyant turn in “Birdman,” but what happens if it, too, disappoints or flops, as it goes wide?

But I’m betting it doesn’t go wide til after the nominations are announced, which is January…

However, they WANT to give Michael Keaton an Oscar, no matter how many reservations this quirky film has with voters.It’s very negatory of big blockbuster films and LURVS the theater and New York, New York. Hwood isn’t a theater town.IT’s where they MAKE block-buster, comic-book hero films. Those people could be insulted or maybe not. They may think “Birdman” is dead on.

However, it’s insular quirkiness could lead to box-office falling off(A friend reported seeing it in a theater that only contained 12 audience members)could let Eddie Redmayne take the prize. He’s constantly being compared to Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” and look what happened with that small British film!

“Instellar” has gotten trashed by the very critics whose support it needed stateside, but in the U.K. they loved it. But the U.K. isn’t where most Academy voters live. It’s here. And particularly in Los Angeles.

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” A surprise & a triumph!

Who knew that behind the facade of one of the most unlikely Pop Culture/TV icons of the last century lay such a tragic back story? “Becoming Dr. Ruth” lays all that bare to chilling, enlightening, suspenseful effect. It’s a one hour 40 min. show, with no intermission but it flew by at 100 mph. Powered by an unforgettable performance by Debra Jo Rupp as the eponymous title character. And oh yes, it’s one woman show.

At the always charming Westside Theater on W.43rd St., it’s pint-sized house and stage is just the right size for this tiny titan’s staggering story.

She is simply packing up her Washington Heights apartment that she shared with her late third husband. The stage is full of brown packing boxes, which trigger, doing the most mundane of casts, in the plainest of settings, but with the most gorgeous views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridges, Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s many memories of her childhood destroyed by Hitler and the holocaust come flooding back .Each item she packs invariably reminds of childhood moments. memories, both devastating and sweet.

As a child, she was sent out of her Frankfurt Orthodox Jewish home on the Kindertransport that got her safely to Switzerland for the remainder of the war, but she never say her father, mother and grandmother again. These memories are told plainly and without sentimental effect as Dr. Ruth, formerly Karola Sigel, lays them out in stark detail. You think “Great! She escaped to Switzerland!” but the loss of her family, and later in life, her  seeking to rebuild her own, as  first on a kibbutz in Israel and then later in Paris and finally New York, haunts her. And us.

The loss of her parents, about whom she was never able to find any information, is an ineffable tragedy that powers her drive to succeed, and succeed she does! As America’s Go-To guru of sexual advice in the ’70s. She clearly helps rebuild Americans’ damaged libidos and spirits with her always jovial, infectious optimism, which is the note on which the play ends, as she finally says proudly displaying a picture of her four grandchildren, “You see, Hitler, you lost.”

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is the best new play I’ve seen so far this season, and although there is only one woman on stage, Debra Jo Rupp, fills it with Dr. Ruth’s ebullient, indomitable spirit, and a cast of thousands.

“Vertigo” One of Hitchcock’s Best & Now Best Film of All Time

I just HAVE to write more about “Vertigo”s great ascendance to being named “The Best Film of All Time” by the British film mag “Sight and Sound.”

I first saw “Vertigo” in college. At a special stand-alone screening. That was introduced by a film “expert,” a professorial type, who made sure everyone got “notes.” It was like he was TEACHING this film. This I thought was ludicrous. Since when did they TEACH movies? Movies were just something you went to and enjoyed or not enjoyed. That was it.

Yes, that shows you how long ago this was. Back, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back before the dawn of film schools. It was my first film lecture. And I was eager to go, because it was a Hitchcock film that was new to me, that I had never even heard of.

And this eager older gentlemen seemed so earnest in his presentation, I remember. It was like we HAD to understand “Vertigo” HIS way.It was a “Very special film” and it “was not received well by critics when it first opened.”

And I remember he laid special emphasis on the scene in the bookshop where James Stewart and Barbara Bel Geddes went to find out about the history of Carlotta  Valdez, the mystery woman from the past, whose portrait Kim Novak’s character, Madelyn, keeps returning to gaze at, at a museum.

This guest lecturer, who was brought in from elsewhere, and who was NOT a teacher at my school, wanted us to particularly note how increasingly DARK that scene became, as the bookstore-keeper who reveled in San Fransisco history, kept talking and talking about just how tragic Carlotta Valdez’ life was. And the darkening room lighting, when it was not dark at all outside,( It was the middle of the afternoon. Out the window you could see bright sunshine),was Hitchcock’s way of ominously emphasizing how dark the film was going to get. And of course, it did.

He wanted us also to notice how Midge, the Bel Geddes character, was always surrounded by light. indicating mental and physical health and common sense. This meant(I can’t believe I remember all this!) that she, Midge, was the one we were supposed to listen to.  And Stewart and Novak, of course, were not, and they were often enveloped in fog.

I think it was unequivocally both Stewart’s and Novak’s career-best performances.

I remember that lecture situation to this day.It was such an anomaly back then. To see a film, as a subject for a lecture. It was treated as a Special Event, and it was shown at night. It was not part of my theater curriculum.

I guess it made a lasting impression, remembering it all these years later. I guess I was a cinephile even then. I didn’t know that but I knew I always loved Alfred Hitchcock’s scary movies.

And I remember that it was the first time I had ever seen “Vertigo.” And so when the climatic turn of events began to unfurl, and the TWO dives off the Spanish mission, San Juan Bautista’s bell tower occurred. I was utterly shocked and screamed bloody murder. Especially at the end. For those two of you who have never seen it, I’m not going to reveal it here.

But I guess suffice it to say, that that incredible short scene that ends the film is like being scared to death by nuns.

In one of the interviews which I started to look up last night on You Tube on Hitchcock, it was revealed that Hitchcock was taught by Jesuits. So he must have been Catholic. Something I did not know, and something that is barely mentioned in the immense amount of scholarly film criticism that has been heaped upon him and his ouevre and rightly so, since then.

And since I came to that first screening of “Vertigo” back at URI, the University of Rhode Island, where I had the misfortune to be an undergraduate in THEATRE(but that’s ANOTHER story) I remember how profoundly moved and shaken and absolutely scared to death I was by that double-twist ending.

I remember feeling just awful for Kim Novak’s character, Judy. And for James Stewart, too.

In his famous interviews with Francois Truffaut, of which there are podcasts available online somewhere…or there WERE…I remember Hitchcock not wanting to talk about “Vertigo.” I think he said something like “Mistake! Mistake! The film didn’t work!” and Truffaut asked in French through the translator “Why?” and Hitchcock said “The man was too old.” Meaning James Stewart, the policeman who had to retire because he had vertigo. Hence the title.

How wrong Hitchcock was!

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