Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lanford Wilson

Today, Lanford Wilson died. He was a great playwright. “Burn This” was one of the plays I wrote about in my Master’s thesis. He was one of the playwrights from the 60s and 70s who got his start at the legendary Caffe Cino. I’ve always loved that idea of early off-off Broadway, especially the very gay friendly Caffe Cino – him, Robert Patrick, Sam Shepard, John Guare, and many others. It was the place, along with La Mama and Circle Rep, that I would see listed on the first page about the cast and production when I read plays and was inspired to do theater. Years later, at Po, a little Italian restaurant on Cornelia, I went into the bathroom and saw that this was that place. I almost had a seizure. I was covered in goosebumps for 10 minutes and almost started crying for joy/sadness. My dinner companions – not so much. I’m digressing here…but suffice it to say, I romanticized that time a little.

Wilson was one of the first out gay playwrights to write about gay men, and to have gay characters in major commercial Broadway plays, especially whose lives weren’t completely defined by their sexuality. 5th of July has a gay couple at its center, one of whom is a Vietnam vet; Lemon Sky is about a gay man coming to terms with his past, and The Madness of Lady Bright is about an unhappy queen. I’m rethinking my thoughts about Burn This and I’m excited to see it when it opens at the Taper next month.

There’s no short way to put this, but I’ll try- Burn This is about a female dancer who is mourning the loss of her best friend, a gay man, and ends up falling in love with his tough, macho brother who shows up after his death. There’s another friend, and a caustic gay man. I thought, when I was, what? 22? that Wilson put himself in the character of Anna, the dancer, and that the play was about her learning to love and let down her guard for a love that was dangerous to her.

This was in 1991, living in New York, in the midst of the AIDS crisis. I was writing a thesis about the construction of heterosexual desire by gay playwrights, and how the times in which they were living and attitudes toward gay men are mirrored in their construction of heterosexual desire. I see now that this is quite an assumption: that the playwright is necessarily masking his sexuality and writing about heterosexuals because he either won’t write about gays, or is hiding something. With Wilson, this doesn’t account for the other plays in which gay men were quite prominent; for his own place possibly being in a character other than the central man (the gay character in the play); that perhaps he was just writing a play about characters dealing with the particular death of a gay man, which was a central narrative at that time. Basically, you get a little older and things get more complicated, lives need more room, and you see that writers write about what they need to. And, also, to give myself a little credit, a product of their time. My ideas now, 20 years later, feel like a product of theirs.

I will probably write about this more after I see the play – I have a lot of thoughts about it and I haven’t thought about this in a while. Mainly, though, I am thinking what a trailblazer he was – that while I was faulting him for not writing a play about gay men, he already had. I was young, it was a very different time, and I desperately needed role models. Who knew that one was there all along? He was a man who wrote about what he needed – possibly post-gay in a world that hadn’t even had a term for it yet, though I could see it at the time as possibly apology or shame for the sake of commercial success. I had a lot of ideas.

Most importantly, he gave us great words, great moments, great American drama. Rest in Peace, and thank you.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

33 Variations and stuff

Wow. It’s been a while. Like I’ve documented a little, I’m not sure what I’m doing on this blog, but it’s nice to write things down a bit. I’ve been doing more performing, and though that doesn’t quiet a critical mind, it does make me unsure of what I want to write if I’m wanting to eventually work with people. Not that I’m snarky – that’s not my thing – but still you never know. Mostly my absence was rehearsing and performing a 2 act musical for a benefit for a friend, and now doing a reading of a new musical. Nice to be busy, but finding the time to sit down and write has not been the easiest task.

So – things I’ve seen lately –

33 Variations at the Ahmanson

Lovely performances all around, and a smashing set by Derek McLane. I don’t normally call out the set, but it was one of my favorite parts of the show – ingenious, attractive, and added to the proceedings. Everyone is talking about this for Jane Fonda, who does a great job with the central role of a musicologist obsessed with Beethoven and wanting to finish a monograph on his Diabelli Variations before her eventual death from ALS.

Like I said, the cast was great, my only issue was with the play itself. It felt like a bit of a mashup of Wit, Amadeus, possibly Whose Life Is It Anyway. Wit kept coming up, as I watched this emotionally shut-down central character come to life through her central academic obsessions. The problem is that Wit is a stonger piece of theater. The only emotion I felt was watching Fonda in a hospital bed with ALS, and that was just a reaction to having a father with MS, not from anything that was happening in the play. It’s not a bad play, just not a terrific one. There were a couple of mis-steps, including having the cast sing at one point, which served to push me out emotionally rather than pull me in – it was a contrivance. I suppose that’s what I came away with – the play felt obviously constructed to me. During the talkback one of the actors said in an earlier version the central character had had cancer but that felt too much like Wit so they changed it. That said it for me, I suppose. A friend pointed out that much of the audience was older, and that the central question of Fonda’s character aging and her relationship with her daughter were probably issues they were dealing with. That’s true, but like my reaction to the ALS, that feels extra-textual to me.
That said, it was a great production of a perfectly sound play. I guess we don’t see those that much anymore, since it’s so rare to see new, fully produced plays. It was a fine play. Fonda was great, and I loved that it didn’t feel like a star turn. Her physical work was impressive and didn’t call itself out. She felt like a member of a company, rather than a star surrounded by a bunch of other actors in a different play. It was a good performance, and I’d love to see her onstage again. There is one moment of literal and figurative nakedness that she did beautifully, when the character is being x-rayed – beautiful moment. I did love Greg Keller, who played her daughter’s nurse and eventual boyfriend. He was a bit of comic relief, but also a full character. I liked him a lot. I was disappointed not to see Zach Grenier as Beethoven, but I did see Michael Winther and that was fun – I performed “Songs from and Unmade Bed” here and that was written for him. That was fun to just put a face to the name, and he was a good Beethoven – shades of Amadeus once again, but I think that’s the writing. Samantha Mathis as the central character’s daughter and Susan Kellerman as the German doctor were great as well.

One of the reasons that the play felt a little diffuse and/or familiar may be that Kaufman generates the pieces with his company. During the Q & A, one of the actors mentioned they recieved a copy of the first act, and then only sketches for the second act. That act was generated. Though I did feel the second act was emotionally stronger and more engaging than the first (less obviously "written"), it was at the same time less from one point of view, so the story moved from being about Jane Fonda's character and more about the mystery. That would probably also explain the clumsy (for me) moments of simultaneous speaking and then the singing. Hard to pull off. Glad I saw it though, and alway happy to engage in good theater. If my only criticism is that it wasn't fantastic and life-changing, then that's not a bad thing. I mean, I have opinions about everything.

Adjustment Bureau

I was dragged to see this, and didn’t love it. Started as a thriller and ended up as a metaphysical romance. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are very easy to watch, and support by Terence Stamp and John Slattery helps, but it just didn’t hold for me. Some great shots of New York, but I just didn’t know what this movie wanted to be. It struck me a little like that remake of Wings of Desire – City of Angels. Somehow the ideas it was taking on felt more complex than the treatment they were given. Or in the end they were so simple that it felt overblown – not sure which.

The Red Shoes – Criterion Collection

Criterion had a 50% off sale. I’ve written about this movie before, but to have it on HD in a beautiful restoration – it’s a wonder. I think Anton Walbrook’s performance in it is one of my favorites on film ever. It just continues to astound. Moira Shearer is lovely as ever, and her performance is effortless. The whimsy of the design comes through, making it feel even more like a fairy tale. I cherish this film.

So, keep you posted. Going to see the NT LIVE version of Frankenstein next week – very excited about this.