Saturday, October 1, 2011

Broken Gates: Tennessee Williams' Period of Adjustment at the Berkshire Theatre Festival

Rebecca Brooksher and Paul Fitzgerald in Period of Adjustment (Photo: Christy Wright)

Like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams wrote only one full-length comedy, but the comic efforts of America’s two greatest playwrights stand in different relationships to the rest of their output. O’Neill’s 1933 Ah, Wilderness! is a wish-fulfillment fantasy version of his own family; it’s the flip side of his autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night, with every tragic detail neutralized or reimagined to produce the benign, affectionate all-American family life he could only dream of. The best productions of the play air traces of the melancholy that the play deftly represses; the worst are situation comedies.  By contrast Williams’s Period of Adjustment (1960) isn’t at a far remove from his dramas.  In the two awkward, disappointed couples Williams juxtaposes on a snowy Memphis Christmas Eve, we recognize the playwright’s ongoing portrait of a fumbling humanity out of step with its own worn dreams but still on its feet.  A rare and sensitive production of the play by David Auburn at the end of the Berkshire Theatre Festival season highlighted the lovely qualities of this forgotten work. (A broad, frantic movie adaptation in 1962 with Jane Fonda, Anthony Franciosa, Jim Hutton and Lois Nettleton didn’t do much to bolster the play’s reputation.)

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Tale of Two Series: Science Fiction in Different Dimensions

The cast of Alphas and the New York City skyline
Bye-bye, Alphas. Your season finale left me looking forward to seeing you again in 2012. Hello, Terra Nova. Have I already seen enough in your recent debut to know you’re no substitute for Alphas?

For discerning fans, the current human condition filtered through the lens of forward-thinking ideas is far more interesting than futuristic spectacle. But Hollywood is Hollywood, a place in the thrall of explosions and CGI. The creators of Alphas, on the SyFy channel, set their contemporary drama in New York City (but shoot it in Ontario, as per usual). The always formidable David Strathairn appears as a psychiatrist who guides a clandestine team of crime-fighters with special powers. Don’t label these quasi-federal agents who frequently clash with the bureaucratic U.S. government as superheroes just yet, though. Their limitations are derived from serious personality issues. They’re too normal-looking to qualify as mutants in an X-Men scenario, despite the fact that Alphas co-creator Zak Penn wrote the 2006 sequel of that movie franchise, The Last Stand.

On the Fox network, Terra Nova like Falling Skies, executive-produced by Steven Spielberg ricochets from a smog-choked and repressive 2149 back to pristine prehistoric days of yore (as imagined by production designers in rural Australia). It follows one particularly photogenic nuclear family that wins a lottery to join the Tenth Pilgrimage of pioneers willing to slip through a “fracture” in the space-time continuum. They leave behind an Orwellian nightmare for the potential paradise of an unruined Earth, albeit one with necessary supplies sent via the magic portal. But this is one-way-only travel to a new frontier that harbors dinosaurs and more mundane dangers galore. As Jean-Paul Sartre so helpfully pointed out, hell is other people. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The House that Tina Fey Built: Women Take Charge of the New Fall Sitcoms of 2011

Tina Fey
We are now firmly in the second week of the new fall TV season, and so far one thing seems clear: quirky and complicated women seem to be taking over our airwaves. Beginning in mid-October, ABC will offer two new comedies with a male perspective, Last Man Standing and Man Upboth promising to look at the modern beleaguered man. But for now, September is awash with new sitcoms boasting an array of strong, funny women: Zooey Deschanel in New Girl on Fox; Kathryn Hahn in Free Agents, and Whitney Cummings in Whitney on NBC; and Kat Dennings in 2 Broke Girls on CBS.  
Strong female characters are of course nothing new in the history of the American sitcom: Gertrude Berg (The Goldbergs) and Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy) basically invented the situation comedy in the early 1950s, playing women who were brazen, funny, and regularly willing to make themselves the joke. But as the TV mother and wife evolved through the decades, fallible and funny women characters were generally replaced by the long-suffering and inordinately pretty wives of fallible and funny men – roles like Mary Richards, Maude Finlay, and Roseanne Conner became the exception instead of the rule. No doubt emboldened by the critical and ratings successes of Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation), executives have clearly decided that perhaps it is time to return to their roots. And generally speaking, the viewers are all the better for it – though as usual, not all the new shows are equally worth our time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Of Politics, Publishing and the People: City Lights Book Store Shines

Even the name is evocative and meaningful: first a Chaplin film, then the title of a literary magazine, finally the name of the iconic San Francisco bookstore and independent press which straddles Chinatown and North Beach. But City Lights is on the cusp of more than just urban divisions; it’s a place that doesn't shy away from protests or avoid the political. And as I walk through the door, I sense that this is not to be a typical book buying experience. Staff members are infinitively knowledgeable about not only what City Lights sells, but also what they publish. And it is their published monographs, not bargain books, which take a place of prominence here. From icons like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to lesser known but equally smart authors like Toronto-based Hal Niedzviecki, this press publishes a range of titles. As the name suggests, City Lights is a beacon of truth in the books they make available.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Macho Imperative: The Enigma of Straw Dogs

Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs (1971).

In Sam Peckinpah's beautifully spacious and thematically rich western Ride the High Country (1962), two aging former lawmen Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), both old friends, are hired to guard a gold shipment as it is delivered down from a mountain mining camp to a town below. During the trip, the men reminisce about their many years together as friends and contemplate how the times are changing (and not for the better). While Gil considers stealing the gold as one last stab at glory, he looks to Steve and inquires, "Is that what you want, Steve?" Without a moment to reflect, Steve replies, "All I want is to enter my house justified." That moral conflict with its Biblical sense of justice and retribution would come to define much of Peckinpah's work in the coming years, such as in The Wild Bunch (1969) and Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), where he continually sought that elusive house to feel justified in. By the time he made Straw Dogs in 1971, however, that home became much more literal and the conflict much less complex.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Classic American Musicals: Porgy & Bess and Show Boat

Porgy and Bess

Diane Paulus’s production of Porgy and Bess, which is running at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge (where she’s artistic director) before heading for Broadway, came encumbered with controversy. Shortly before it opened Paulus, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (who revised the DuBose Heyward script), and star Audra McDonald gave interviews to The New York Times and The Boston Globe trumpeting their mission to render the classic 1935 American opera accessible to twenty-first-century audiences and made a lot of other fatuous comments in addition.

Stephen Sondheim answered with a furious and brilliantly argued editorial in The Times that took apart their remarks one by one. Evidently Sondheim’s objections had some effect on the production Paulus, Parks and the composer Diedre L. Murray, who had reworked the final scene of the show to make it more uplifting, restored the original ending. Sondheim was careful to separate out the hype from the work itself, expressing the hope that Paulus’s Porgy would turn out to be as exciting as the cast promised in addition to McDonald, it stars Norm Lewis as Porgy and David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life while reiterating the importance of acknowledging the magnificence of the opera that George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward had fashioned from Heyward’s 1925 novella. Among other corrections, he pointed out the iniquity of renaming the show The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, when Heyward and not Ira Gershwin made the most substantial contribution to the libretto a fact that anyone familiar with Ira Gershwin’s lyrics can spot ample evidence of, whatever he or she may think of them. (Sondheim is not an Ira Gershwin enthusiast; I am.) 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Beautifully Rendered Fragments: Lindsay Buckingham’s Seeds We Sow

It must have been weird being in one of the world’s biggest groups, on the cover of Rolling Stone, writing a few top ten hits, and then settling in to a low key solo career.  Lindsey Buckingham describes it in recent interviews as the difference between being part of a giant machine, or a small business.  In Fleetwood Mac, he was responsible for creating the hits.  Even when he was taking songs written by Stevie Nicks or Christine McVie, he often added his own quirky touches to make the sonic sheen unique.  On his solo records he has tended to focus inward, to play all (or most) of the instruments, to harmonize with himself, and make music that is at once sonically superior, yet still maintaining a punky edge.  When I saw him in concert during a 2008 tour promoting Gift of Screws he played to a half empty theatre, but still gave one of the most exhilarating, rocking shows I’ve ever seen.

Seeds We Sow is a step back from Gift of Screws to a more low key, personal, folksy sound.  More like Under the Skin, the record that predated Screws. While he utilizes backup musicians sparingly on his solo releases, they are for the most part solo performances with Buckingham playing guitar, bass, keyboards, percussion and vocals.  In this way he builds a temple of audio that echoes his hero Brian Wilson.  The addition of a stray drummer or bass player, whether it is Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, or touring partners Wilfredo Reyes and John Pierce, does little to change the personality of the music.