Saturday, January 19, 2013

Tru, Tommy, Gore, a Tavern and a Seminar

In the theatre, oftentimes good things come in very small packages.  Over the decades, some of the best times I've spent in a darkened auditorium have been in the company of just one actor.  But in reality, of course, it's not just one actor.  That actor is surrounded by other talent…the designers, the director, the stage crew, the venue personnel; in other words, all the folks and disciplines that make live theatre such a collaborative effort.  All are vitally important, but probably the most important is the writer.  Why?  Because without a good script, a one-person show, despite its potential, concept, acting or production, can seem flat and endless.  Of course, a good script is necessary for any show, but it's crucial in a one-person show because of the intimate nature of the show, a dialogue between just one person and you (and a few hundred other people, but a truly fine actor will make it seem like he or she is talking only to you).  If the playwright doesn't supply the solo actor with a first-rate script, the cracks will show because there's not a lot to divert the audience and no matter how fine the actor is, the show will suffer.  One the surface, it might seem easy to write a show for just one actor, but, trust me, from experience I know how difficult it is.  Many, many years ago (early, early, early DOS-based word processing programs on a 286K Tandy computer), I wrote a one-person show.  Doing the research was great fun and, boy, I thought I had written a killer of a show.  Then, I read it out loud to some friends and the thing just droned on and on and on, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!  And that, as they say, was that. The subject matter was and is still fascinating.  The research, if I must say so myself, was impeccable.  The dialogue, however, was…uh…okay, the dialogue felt like one was sitting in a lecture hall listening to a sporadically clever, not necessarily boring, but pretty dull lecturer.  And I had absolutely no idea how to fix it.  With only one person actually onstage, the dialogue has to be consistently sharp.  And when it isn't, the one-person show becomes a very mixed bag indeed.

I'll start off today with one of those wonderful times spent with just one actor. 

November, 1991.  Robert Morse was unrecognizable and simply amazing in his Tony Award-winning performance as Truman Capote in this one-person show written and directed by Jay Presson Allen.  It was hard to believe that the person onstage was Robert Morse, an actor that, up until then, I thought was sometimes hard to take.  All that unrelenting enthusiasm and perkiness can grate on a curmudgeonly soul like myself and, I think, can camouflage the actual depth of an actor's talent.  Any doubts I had about Mr. Morse's talents were demolished after seeing this wildly entertaining tour-de-force that was funny, cruel, bitter and very sad: a portrait of a talented writer who had unceremoniously fallen from grace.  Ms. Allen's script came in for some critical barbs (the NY Times called it a "melodrama"), but I didn't have any problems with it.  I understand the script has finally been published.  It's on my list.  Note:  I just noticed that the wonderful Jayne Atkinson was one of the recorded voices. - at the Shubert Theatre, Chicago

May, 1999.  This was a New Trier field trip with Bob and a busload of NTHS students.  Officially billed as "The Who's Tommy," this show has never been on my list of shows to see, but the price was right (free…the producers were papering the house) and it had a healthy, well-reviewed run on Broadway, and the score is rather classic, and the movie was great kitschy fun, so I figured why not.  First off, let me state that the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, while a truly gorgeous venue, is too large and simply not appropriate for many shows.  The famed acoustics were rendered useless by the ear-splittingly loud sound system which rendered 99% of the lyrics unintelligible and since I'm not a groupie, I was lost for most of the show.  The physical production was fairly impressive and the cast worked very hard and performed energetically, but the fact remained I was pretty bored. - at the Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

March, 2012.  Officially billed as "Gore Vidal's The Best Man."  Really?  Has that become the title?  What is with this new annoying trend of billing the authors as part of the title?  Stop it right now!  It's "The Best Man" by Gore Vidal.  Okay, now that I'm ranted out…  Fifty-two years old and still relevant, especially in an election year that resulted in one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history.  Loaded to the teeth with star wattage, this revival put its money out there with a stunning physical environment: sets, lighting and spot-on clothes.  Great to look at and wonderful to watch.  There really wasn't a weak performance to be seen.  Admittedly Candice Bergen started out a bit tentatively (it'd been a long time since she was onstage), but, in the end, turned in a solid performance.  Angela Lansbury was conservative-creepy wonderful.  Eric McCormack was truly slimy and not at all "Will-friendly," John Larroquette was appropriately sympathetic.  Kerry Butler, as McCormack's wife, in a wonderful turn, gave me the icky chills, and Jefferson Mays and Michael McKean both could not have been better.  And, frankly, I will watch James Earl Jones read the phonebook if he wants to.  There were critical quibbles, of course.  But there is no denying that Gore Vidal was one of the greatest writers of our time and the fact that this play could have written yesterday is a testament to that.  Absolutely first-rate. - at the Schoenfeld Theatre, New York

August, 1972.  The Academy Playhouse was a summer fixture at Barat College's Drake Theatre in the early 70s (for two seasons in the late 60s, it was at Loyola Academy).  Producer Marshall Migatz was a much-loved Chicago theatre figure who, tragically, was killed in an auto accident during his tenure at the Academy Playhouse.  His mission was to bring top-quality, first-tier talent to the north Chicago suburbs in challenging works, many of which were Chicago area premieres.  I don't remember much about this George M. Cohan play.  Truth be told, I only went because Brian Bedford and Tammy Grimes were in it and I'm a fan of both, having seen them teamed together prior to this in Academy productions of Private Lives and Blithe Spirit.  They had a delightful chemistry in both Cowards and this play was no different.  I do remember, though, that I didn't find this as funny or as good as I had hoped it would be.  I'm not big on Cohan.  Maybe that was the reason.  The Academy Playhouse didn't survive long after the death of Migatz and both Barat College and the wonderful Drake Theatre have been demolished.  During the 1972-73 school year, I was a "guest actor" at the then all-girls Barat College and performed in five plays there. - at the Academy Playhouse (Drake Theatre), Lake Forest, IL

February, 2012.  I'm not especially keen on Theresa Rebeck.  She's got a good ear for dialogue and can write an entertaining-enough play, but I just don't get why she's as popular as she is.  This was thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly forgettable; an intermission-less piece about a cynical, jaded writer of some renown and his interactions with the four aspiring writers who've hired him for private lessons.  The quips and barbs were fast and furious and the audience, myself included, laughed a lot.  And, yes, Alan Rickman was quite excellent and more than ably supported by a superb ensemble of actors: Lily Rabe,Hamish Linklater, Jerry O'Connell, Hettienne Park.  (A note about Ms. Rabe: not only does she look a lot like her mom, Jill Clayburgh, but sounds so like her, it's almost eerie.) The play zooms along, not saying a whole lot about anything in particular, though while it's going on, it seems to be saying something of artistic importance.  But then, near the end of the play, Ms. Rebeck gives Alan Rickman (well, the character Alan Rickman plays, of course) an amazing monologue where something is actually said and which, for the length of that monologue, takes the play to another level.  A true Broadway hit still eludes Rebeck, but, with all the "Smash" income, I'm sure she's laughing all the way to the bank.  - at the Golden Theatre, New York

.......... Ta for now!

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