Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Road Show

John Doyle and Stephen Sondheim make a dazzling theatrical couple. In Road Show, their third collaboration in nearly as many years, Doyle once again devises a theatrical milieu for Sondheim’s music and lyrics that simmers the project into an acid trace reduction, then finds physical metaphors that etch the show into the audience’s consciousness and conscience. But the stark Brechtian environment of Road Show is tempered by its strangely appealing emotionality, a new element of the Doyle/Sondheim collaboration. After the chilly bloodlust of Sweeney Todd (2005) and the icy remove of Company (2006)— Doyle-directed Sondheim revivals notable for using their actors as the shows’ musicians—Road Show encourages the audience not only to consider the story at hand but to feel our way through the tale it recounts and its contemporary resonances.

Sweeney and Company seemed to take place in a grand nowhere of Doyle’s imagination. His set design and direction roots Road Show in the palpable materiality of the late 19th and early 20th century history of American finance and real estate development. Wooden boxes and steel file cabinets, late 19th century architects’ drafting tables and drawers, cardboard suitcases and ramshackle closets compose the set. Every piece of décor serves a dual purpose. It creates a schematic environment for the action, and it offers the meticulously choreographed cast places to perch and lurk as they observe the story’s beginning and ending with the fateful moment of Addison Mizner’s death, scenes that bookend a flashback that explains his arrival at a death no one mourns.

Road Show describes the lives of Addison and his brother Wilson, charged by their idealistic dying father (the distinguished, sincere William Parry) to make their way in the world. Urged by their adoring widowed mother (Alma Cuervo, radiating warmth) to head to Alaska, Addison (Alexander Gemignani) weathers cold and misery, digging a claim until he strikes gold. Wilson (Michael Cerveris, in a tour-de-force performance of depraved greed and ethical indifference) prefers the lazy way, finding himself more comfortable cosseted by the warm corruptions of town in the company of gamblers and prostitutes.

The moral, ethical tussle between the brothers forms Road Show’s backbone. Addy attempts one bad business deal after another, each promising to make his fortune. After casting about desperately, Addy realizes that he loves architecture, and sets himself up in business with Hollis Bessemer (Claybourne Elder), a sweet, rich young man he meets on a train. Eventually, Addy’s proud artistic dreams, as well as his romantic and business partnership with Bessemer, crumble against the force of his brother’s lust for cold, hard, easy cash. Addy gives in to Willy’s schemes and joins him in a swindle to sell swampland in Florida.

Road Show’s cynical portrait of American opportunism seems prescient, given the economic news of the day. The brothers follow the money, moving through one get-rich-quick scheme after another, leaving the good and the righteous drowned in their wake. They celebrate success by throwing stacks and stacks of cash high into the air and letting it drift down to the stage floor like leaves in the fall. Before long, the stage is littered with counterfeit bills; so are the laps of spectators seated in the first few rows of the theatre. The brothers toss their bucks into the flies with arrogant exuberance that eventually morphs into hubris. They easily replenish their stock, as more fat and messy bundles always seem to be waiting in still another file cabinet drawer. The omnipresence of money not just as a prop but as the set’s key bit of gestic décor neatly delivers Sondheim and Doyle’s moral: America built its ethos on greed.

This cynicism extends into each of the show’s relationships, which seem divined only for immoral intent. As the brothers obey their father’s charge to "find their road," they leave strewn behind them the hearts of those they used and abused to make their way. There’s no such thing as love in this world, except for the brothers’ incestuous narcissism. Fuelled by cocaine and alcohol, this Cain and Abel sell themselves for cash and wind up alone together, tucked beside one another in the bed of their birth and their mutual demise.

Doyle directs with imaginative high theatricality. When the brothers first travel to Alaska, Willy overturns a bucket of white paper flakes on Addy’s head to represent the region’s frigid snow. The set’s boxes and cabinets house props that lie in wait for the characters to find as the story progresses. A liquor set-up suddenly sits on an architect’s flat drawer; a bowler hat conveniently appears from a file cabinet. Nothing comes from offstage in this production—it’s all there.

With the props ready and waiting to be disclosed and used, Doyle and Sondheim imply that the instruments of our success and our failure are always close at hand. In what appears to be a character’s sleight-of-hand, glasses, architectural elevations, liquor bottles, and hats are brought from their hiding places not unlike the gold for which the brothers first search. When the vein of metal or the props finally appear, however, Doyle and Sondheim remind us that how we use them depends on adherence to our own moral code. Willy's and Addy’s are increasingly bent and broken, as the brothers progress through their own history and remind us of ours.

Following from Doyle’s impeccably Brechtian vision, the objects that quickly appear and disappear haunt the mise-en-scene, just as each actor’s choice—of gesture, of character, of movement—is haunted by those she didn’t select. History, too, in Road Show, is a Brechtian “not-but,” reminding spectators that as actors in time, our lives, too, are haunted by choices made and not. The metaphor works gracefully in the realization of Road Show’s fable.

The set’s only moving unit is a bed on wheels, stored under the collection of boxes stage right. It rolls out to provide the platform on which the characters travel their lives’ road and to represent the bed on which all the principals finally die. The platform bed, moved by the chorus at a frenzied pace, underlines that the road that moves us through life is the same one that delivers us at death.

Doyle keeps the whole cast and chorus always present on the wide stage, sitting or standing to watch the action. Papa and Mama Mizner look on with openly emotional concern, the mother earnest, sincere, and frequently disappointed in her boys’ progress. Papa, who’s responsible for setting them on the road toward the proverbial American Dream, becomes increasingly disgusted by their willingness to compromise his ideals for the money they almost seem to manufacture, despite the success or failure of their schemes. The chorus, with its active listening and intense, impassive watching, mirrors for spectators our own intent presence and our various investments in the meanings we cull from Road Show’s rich, dense cartography.

While Sondheim’s music isn’t catchy, it’s true to the story the production tells. I find myself still thinking back to the sounds, images, and moments Sondheim, Doyle, John Weidman—who wrote the book—and the show’s wonderful designers wrought through emotion, time, and space. The memory of that money tossed high into the air like so many snowflakes, wafting down to be trampled by characters who care only for what it can buy them, remains vivid and full of import. Each time I watch a news commentator discussing the pros and cons of bailing out the US auto industry, after we’ve already saved the big banks to the tune of $2,000 per citizen in taxes, I’m reminded of Road Show’s stacks of cash, floating to the floor like so much trashy confetti.

The American Dream indeed.

The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pal Joey

It might not be fair to comment on a show as early into its previews as Pal Joey was at the Roundabout’s Studio 54 when I saw it on Sunday, November 16th. But given the attention the production will no doubt receive, with a prominent feature on the lead, Christian Hoff, already in the Friday Arts section of the New York Times on November 20th, it bears registering some preliminary reactions.

The Rodgers and Hart show apparently hasn’t been revived often because although the music and the choreography (here by Graciela Daniele) are memorable, the awkward book is unsuccessful. Even in playwright Richard Greenberg’s revision, the story can’t redeem its hero from his fatal, womanizing charms. Since director Joe Mantello stays faithful to the original, setting it in the demimonde of 1930s Chicago’s nightclubs and high life, he asks spectators to consider the show a museum piece.

But aside from a spectacular set and lighting that evokes the seamy underside of Chicago’s Depression-era club culture, the production doesn’t register as much more than irritating. Its sexism remains unreconstructed and, for a show about jazz-era nightclubs, people of color are peculiarly absent in Mantello’s cast. These lapses make the show anachronistic instead of historical, as the revival’s concept doesn’t offer a new way of considering the characters or their actions.

The show hinges on spectators believing that Joey’s sexual charms endear him to a revolving cast of characters who then quickly recognize the banality and emptiness in his arrogant, manufactured romancing. Martha Plimpton plays Gladys Bumps, the sleazy but dignified chanteuse who tangled with Joey long ago, but not long enough to forget that he left her alone, unrepentant and irresponsible, with an illegal abortionist. That he can’t even recall her face fuels her desire for revenge, which she eventually exacts by blackmailing him and his latest romantic mark, the wealthy enabler, Mrs. Vera Simpson.

Plimpton smokes up the stage, playing against type as the tough, slinky Gladys. She finds emotional layers in a character that could easily be tossed off. Each of her dynamic numbers showcases her surprisingly rich voice and seductive dance moves, refreshing to see in an actor not known as a musical theatre magnet. Plimpton is the only one of the leads to project any charisma.

Stockard Channing, on the other hand, given top billing as the older woman Joey’s now fleecing, isn’t miscast so much as desperately underplaying the role. While the character’s sarcastic irony comes through in her performance, Channing’s nearly immovable face can’t register any emotion. Whether she’s enjoying Joey’s bragging about his masculine prowess or recognizing his inability to be faithful or honest, Channing’s face always looks the same. Even her body assumes the same weary, sardonic posture throughout, whether she’s swanning into nightclubs with her two male pieces of arm candy along or posing post-coital, peering at Joey with bemused regret.

Channing’s vocal investment is about as energetic as her physical presence. “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” should be the show’s most poignant number, but she sings it as though she’s humming it in the shower, barely projecting the melody or enunciating the lyrics.

The rest of the cast hits their marks, with Jenny Fellner nicely executing good-girl shop clerk Linda English’s offended self-righteousness when Joey throws her over for Vera. Robert Clohessy plays a grounded, nuanced Mike, the closeted gay man who runs the club in which Joey starts out. (I’m not familiar enough with the original to know if the character was always gay, or if Greenberg added this element to his revision of the book.) When Vera buys the nightclub for Joey, Mike becomes his hounded and humiliated employee, but finally finds his come-uppance by reluctantly joining Gladys in her scheme to blackmail Joey and Vera by publicizing their secret affair. Mike’s vulnerability as a gay man in 1930s Chicago is a major plot point, but it’s given little historical depth and no contemporary twist in this production.

Mantello’s direction serves but never illuminates the show. Daniele’s sexy and exuberant choreography outshines every other aspect of the revival.

It’s difficult to imagine how a few more weeks of previews (Pal Joey officially opens December 14, 2008) will address the hole at the production’s center. Christian Hoff is woefully miscast as the charismatic Joey. Hoff won a Tony for starring in Jersey Boys, but his dancing and his singing here are only adequate. Joey requires a performer of enormous magnetism, who can make his lovers, his business partners, and the audience believe his boastful claims and allow themselves to be swayed at least temporarily by his charisma. In the preview performance I saw, Hoff’s insecurity about his blocking, his lines, and his character prohibited any such seduction. Forced to play against Hoff’s hollow center, the other actors worked valiantly (except Channing, with whom Hoff managed to generate not one iota of chemistry). Without a virtuosic performer as Joey, the production teeters on the edge of the abyss Hoff opens.

Without a solid Joey and a steamy relationship between him and the redoubtable Vera, and with only Gladys showing any gumption as his nemesis, what remains is a sexist, misanthropic tale of an irredeemable shyster who uses women and gay men to promote himself. That Linda, who’s had the sense to toss him out when she learns of his infidelity, wants him back at the end plays as ludicrous here, another example of a smart but self-abusing woman willing to blind herself to the peccadilloes of an inappropriate mate.

Who needs to sit through that story again?

The Feminist Spectator

[NOTE: Just as I was posting this entry, I read in the New York Times “Arts, Briefly” (11/25/08, C2) that Christian Hoff has “withdrawn” from the production. The short piece cites producers who say that Hoff “injured his foot during a Friday night preview performance.” Hoff’s understudy, Matthew Risch, took over the rest of the weekend’s performances, and has now been cast as Joey permanently. Maybe with a new lead and a new opening date of December 18, the production can find some of the chemistry the preview I saw sorely lacked.]

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama Redux: I Think We Can

I spoke too soon (or didn’t research enough) before I posted my last blog about Obama. His new transition team-generated web site,, has retooled the rhetoric of his campaign in ways that make me much more hopeful, especially about LGBTQ civil rights issues.

Under “arts,” which are still listed in “additional issues,” the web site notes, “Our nation's creativity has filled the world's libraries, museums, recital halls, movie houses, and marketplaces with works of genius. The arts embody the American spirit of self-definition. As the author of two best-selling books—Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope—Barack Obama uniquely appreciates the role and value of creative expression.” The NEA/NEH Review Team includes Bill Ivey, who served as Chair of the NEA under Clinton. Ivey now directs the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. His book, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect have Destroyed our Cultural Rights (U of California Press, 2008), offers a pretty smart, interesting critique of how the arts have been professionalized away from direct participation by what he calls “citizen-artists.”

Better still, now includes a full section called “Support for the LGBT Community.” I’m quoting it in its entirety here, from, then commenting below:

"While we have come a long way since the Stonewall riots in 1969, we still have a lot of work to do. Too often, the issue of LGBT rights is exploited by those seeking to divide us. But at its core, this issue is about who we are as Americans. It's about whether this nation is going to live up to its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect."

-- Barack Obama, June 1, 2007

The Obama-Biden Plan

· Expand Hate Crimes Statutes: In 2004, crimes against LGBT Americans constituted the third-highest category of hate crime reported and made up more than 15 percent of such crimes. Barack Obama cosponsored legislation that would expand federal jurisdiction to include violent hate crimes perpetrated because of race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical disability. As a state senator, Obama passed tough legislation that made hate crimes and conspiracy to commit them against the law.

· Fight Workplace Discrimination: Barack Obama supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and believes that our anti-discrimination employment laws should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity. While an increasing number of employers have extended benefits to their employees' domestic partners, discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace occurs with no federal legal remedy. Obama also sponsored legislation in the Illinois State Senate that would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

· Support Full Civil Unions and Federal Rights for LGBT Couples: Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples. Obama also believes we need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and enact legislation that would ensure that the 1,100+ federal legal rights and benefits currently provided on the basis of marital status are extended to same-sex couples in civil unions and other legally-recognized unions. These rights and benefits include the right to assist a loved one in times of emergency, the right to equal health insurance and other employment benefits, and property rights.

· Oppose a Constitutional Ban on Same-Sex Marriage: Barack Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2006 which would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman and prevented judicial extension of marriage-like rights to same-sex or other unmarried couples.

· Repeal Don't Ask-Don't Tell: Barack Obama agrees with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and other military experts that we need to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty, and a willingness to serve. Discrimination should be prohibited. The U.S. government has spent millions of dollars replacing troops kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation. Additionally, more than 300 language experts have been fired under this policy, including more than 50 who are fluent in Arabic. Obama will work with military leaders to repeal the current policy and ensure it helps accomplish our national defense goals.

· Expand Adoption Rights: Barack Obama believes that we must ensure adoption rights for all couples and individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation. He thinks that a child will benefit from a healthy and loving home, whether the parents are gay or not.

· Promote AIDS Prevention: In the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama will develop and begin to implement a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies. The strategy will be designed to reduce HIV infections, increase access to care and reduce HIV-related health disparities. Obama will support common sense approaches including age-appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception, combating infection within our prison population through education and contraception, and distributing contraceptives through our public health system. Obama also supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users. Obama has also been willing to confront the stigma -- too often tied to homophobia -- that continues to surround HIV/AIDS. He will continue to speak out on this issue as president.

· Empower Women to Prevent HIV/AIDS: In the United States, the percentage of women diagnosed with AIDS has quadrupled over the last 20 years. Today, women account for more than one quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. Barack Obama introduced the Microbicide Development Act, which will accelerate the development of products that empower women in the battle against AIDS. Microbicides are a class of products currently under development that women apply topically to prevent transmission of HIV and other infections.

A few things are notable here. First, in the first several statements, Obama includes “gender identity” under those he would protect legislatively, which is a very good sign. ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) foundered in Congress because of disagreements about the place of gender identity in its language, and some liberal LGBT advocacy organizations have been harshly criticized for their willingness to compromise gender identity to win ENDA for sexual orientation. Obama’s language links them here, and seems to indicate no compromise will be necessary for his backing.

Second, under what might generally be called “family” or “domestic” issues, he skirts close to implying that he would indeed support same-sex marriage. While the statement above spells out his support for civil unions that mimic (supposedly) the legal rights and privileges of married couples, he also calls for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and stands against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Including adoption rights for LGBTQ couples also seems to me a step forward, given the recent vote in Arkansas banning such rights at its state-level policy.

Likewise, Obama’s willingness to repeal the ludicrous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that Clinton instituted when he couldn’t fulfill his promise to allow gays into the military also seems to move him in a progressive direction. His language on HIV/AIDS, too, adopts more forward-thinking language and practices, indicating that he’ll repeal the federal ban on needle exchange and work against the homophobia that stigmatizes HIV/AIDS policy and prevention strategies. Including women in his HIV/AIDS policy also seems positive.

Thanks to reading through, I feel less ambivalent and more hopeful about the real changes an Obama administration might bring. While news commentators note that his recent appointments—especially of Tim Weithler as Treasury Secretary and even Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State—lean farther to center-right than they do left, I respect his decision to fill his cabinet with experienced leaders who can advise him well. I continue to hope that he won’t sell out his more progressive principles, including those I’ve quoted here.

It’s looking like maybe we really can . . .

The Feminist Spectator

Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama’s Arts Platform: Can We?

Since November 5, 2007, I’ve been excited and energized by Barack Obama’s election as the next President of the US. After suffering eight years of anti-arts and anti-LGBTQ Bush initiatives, I’m hopeful that the tide will turn favorably for those of us committed to the arts and progressive social change.

During the campaign, I searched out the Obama campaign’s arts policy statement (still available at Although the statement reads with the sweeping generalities typical of stump-speech rhetoric, the drift of his plan is notable for its emphasis on the arts and education. The platform trumpets Obama’s dedication to “nourish[ing] our children’s creative skills,” and quotes current NEA chair Dana Gioia, who says, “The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, of course, arts education attunes people to the expressive possibilities of daily life, as well as exposing us to cultural practices through which we learn about our own and our society’s potential. With luck, arts education also teaches us to critique social restrictions on equity not just of expression but of existence.

At the same time, I wonder why we shouldn’t make it a public goal to “produce more artists.” This country needs more people capable of not just reflecting a range of values and norms but of helping us reinterpret present reality for new visions of possible futures. Artists’ unique ability to use images and metaphors and to demonstrate critically, emotionally, and spiritually how human relations move through time provides much more to the nation than just “byproducts.”

In addition to its focus on arts education, Obama’s arts platform proposes the creation of an “Artists Corp” “trained to work in low-income schools and their communities.” This, too, is laudable and important (and sounds much like Clinton’s AmeriCorps program), but it makes art an instrument of the economy and education. The platform cites studies that “show that arts education raises test scores” at the K-12 level, relying on arguments about the functionality of arts education. These rationales skirt the intrinsic and even aesthetic importance of the arts, as well as the need to support a vision of artists and their work as vital for free and creative, diverse and even contradictory national expressions.

Obama’s emphasis on internationalism is heartening. He wants to reinvigorate the cultural diplomacy the State Department championed during the Cold War, this time to “help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism.” Clare Croft, who’s writing her dissertation on dance and Cold War cultural diplomacy at the University of Texas at Austin, points out the complications of asserting American nationalism through the arts. She describes how artists meant to stand in for the nation at the same time asserted their own agency in ways the State Department neither intended nor could ultimately control. I’m pleased by Obama’s interest in pressing the arts back into the service of the nation’s relationships abroad, but wary of the kinds of xenophobic chauvinism that might be invoked in the process.

On the other hand, the platform promises that Obama-Biden will “streamline the visa process to return America to its rightful place as the world’s top destination for artists and art students.” Those of us who’ve invited international artists to conferences and festivals in the dark years since 9/11 know how difficult it’s been to bring people across the borders. Obama’s plan to ease restrictions and increase efficiency will help significantly, and make global artistic exchange feasible again.

But on still another hand . . .

Let me interrupt myself here to note how ambivalence seeps into my ruminations about our future under Obama’s leadership. I am deeply moved by the prospect of an African American president, and love the proliferation of images of Obama and his family looking toward the White House. Yet the same night Obama changed history, Prop 8 passed in California, representing a huge step backwards for LGBTQ civil rights by revoking same-sex rights to marriage that citizens of the state already enjoyed.

Most progressive activist organizations that pushed so hard for an Obama win are now turning their attention to redressing this discriminatory insult, as well as the anti-gay marriage votes in Arizona and Florida and the prohibition against gay adoptions in Arkansas. This one-step-forward-two-steps-back trajectory of social change frustrates me and makes it difficult not to see the lead interior in the silver lining of this election.

As performance artist Tim Miller has been explaining for many years, without marriage rights, he and his Australian partner, Alistair McCartney, will have to leave the country when Alistair’s visa runs out if they want to stay together (see So while Obama might want to make it easy for international artists to visit, it will still be impossible for those who wind up in committed same-sex partnerships to settle in this country to pursue their emotional desires and needs. Gay and lesbian concerns aren’t even listed under “issues” on Obama’s web site, nor do they show up under the subsidiary inventory where the arts are housed. Under “civil rights,” Obama-Biden indicate they will “expand hate crimes protection by passing the Matthew Shepard Act.” No where else does the site even so obliquely mention LGBTQ issues. The platform includes a detailed statement on women’s issues (see, which are desperately important. But LGBTQ folks are pretty much invisible as you scroll through the site.

Once Obama takes office, he’ll have to prioritize as he moves deliberately and surely (one hopes) through the promises he made during his campaign. For “yes we can” to really gather force as the Obama administration enacts a new vision for the country, the arts and civil rights for LGBTQ people need to move to the top of his agenda.

Filled with a wary kind of hope that yes, we can,
The Feminist Spectator