NEW YORK PRESS columns

 
In September 1995, Sarah Schulman and I started writing a weekly theater column for New York Press, a free paper in Manhattan. We had written a pilot version of this column for a LGNY and wanted a wider circulation. The editors of New York Press liked the idea of what they called a he-said-she-said column. We wrote the column for half a year before they fired us because we didn’t succeed in making theater any less boring than it already was to them. We considered it a revolutionary experiment in theater criticism. Unlike most reviewers who convey the impression that there is only one possible opinion -- theirs -- on the show at hand, we demonstrated each person sitting in the theater is entitled to her or his own perspective and judgment on what they’re watching. Here is my side of the conversation; Sarah published most of hers as part of her book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay Culture. -- Don Shewey

 

“Shame Sex: Brave Insights Vs. Stupid Lies”

*Floating Rhoda and the Glue Man*

by Eve Ensler; directed by Ariel Orr Jordan

HERE, 145 Sixth Ave., 647-0202

I love sex, and unlike the title character who makes the same declaration in the first sentence of Paul Rudnick's hit play and movie *Jeffrey*, I haven't given it up for fear of AIDS. But I have noticed there's an undeclared epidemic that interferes with a happy sex life nearly as much as the dreaded virus. It's called shame, and it attacks just about every spot along the gay-straight continuum, from Here to Zone DK.

Gay men, for instance, will pay money to go to a sex club, thereby presumably declaring their willingness to touch and be touched intimately by strangers in public -- then they'll cram into the tiniest, darkest corners as if to hide the desires that brought them there in the first place. You'd think they'd been persecuted by church and state for centuries, or something. The AIDS Prevention Action League recently threw a "Save Our Sex Party" at Zone DK that attempted to tackle both epidemics at once by plastering the joint with provocative pro-sex posters, handing condoms to everyone who entered (most people pocketed them for home use), and staging safe sex demos (surprisingly cuddly, maybe because staying hard enough to, uh, achieve penetration onstage is a rarer talent than we know).

The party aimed at embodying the best parts of APAL's smart 16-point manifesto: "The solidarity of gay men with each other is essential...We do not deal with our grief and dread [about AIDS] only as individuals; we need the public gay world as a resource of survival and must fight to protect it...We must therefore resist those who confuse public sex with unsafe sex and who, in the name of prevention, are attacking our bars, bathhouses, sex clubs and other public venues, where many men find pleasure, safety and contact with other gay men." The party was fun, yet despite the high concentration of HIV educators and pleasure activists on hand to dispense shame-busting smiles, eye contact, and friendly words, there was a lot of the Same Old Shit: high-velocity alienated cruising and frenzied passion in tight dark corners -- what I call the Crock Pot Syndrome. APAL gets an A for effort, but fighting sex shame is an uphill battle.

Playwright Eve Ensler undertakes something similarly brave with *Floating Rhoda and the Glue Man*, which plunges into the sticky mess of sex more directly and honestly than you usually see in the theater. Barn spies Rhoda at a showing of his erotic paintings, but she's inexplicably devoted to a misguided men's movement acolyte named Coyote so she sends her best girlfriend Terrace on a date with him instead, which only serves to remind Terrace how much she hates penises and sends her into the arms of a horny lady doctor named Storm who's already had a zipless fuck with Barn.

The first act left me in a daze of mixed feelings. Much of the writing thrilled me. Like Wally Shawn in his great plays *Our Late Night* and *Marie and Bruce*, Ensler turns her characters inside out, so raw, vivid language pours out of their civilized yuppie exteriors. She nails the disgusting way therapy has poisoned the way we talk about our inner lives. And she cleverly theatricalizes the dissociations that happen during sex: Rhoda and Barn (Myriam Cyr and Dylan McDermott) have stand-ins whom we watch thrash around in bed while they coolly dissect their feelings. At the same time, her malicious mockery of men infuriated me; the idea of men expressing their feelings is presented as a ludicrous joke, and all wife-battering is laid at the feet of Robert Bly. Before the show, Sarah and I had just been arguing (as is our wont) about some positive stuff I'd written about the men's movement, and at intermission she turned to me and said, "I'm on your side now. To attack something, you have to present it accurately first." Mostly, though, I was disturbed at how rapidly the play flickered back and forth from insight to stupidity.

Then the second act got completely derailed. We're led to believe Rhoda wants men to connect with her, but it turns out sex revolts her. She sets up situations that reinforce her sex shame, and then she blames men for it. This really comes out in an idiotic S&M scene that wilfully misrepresents leathersex as brutal and coercive. I hate it when artists dabble in taboo or queer sexuality to titillate audiences and then retreat to stereotypical bourgeois condemnation of what they've just been exploiting for their own profit. The play limps to an implausibly sweet ending in which Barn, otherwise a cipher, explains why he puts up with Rhoda's neurotic behavior: he seeks damaged women so he can put them back together (hence the title).

I'm being nitpicky about the script's failings. They barely register while you're watching the show, which looks like a million bucks and plays like a speeding locomotive. The best thing director Ariel Orr Jordan does is prevent the play from descending into some yuppie soap opera. He keeps the stage picture constantly surprising and charged. Mark Beard's orgiastic mural and two live musicians frame an Alice-in-Wonderland dreamscape within which the actors (especially Cyr, McDermott, and Tara B. Hauptman as Terrace) nimbly track Ensler's ever-shifting emotional currents without trying too hard to "explain" or "unify" their characters.

*Floating Rhoda*'s not a great play, and I detest the lies Ensler perpetrates about men, but you know what? I prefer theater like this that shakes me up and keeps me arguing for hours to one that sends me home under the illusion that everything is hunky-dory.

September 27, 1995

“Identity Crises: Inner Lives, Multiple Personalities” : Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Emperor Jones

When I was growing up, my father could enrage me with a single word. It wasn't "faggot" -- he never hurled that word around or at me. But I took "nigger" just as personally, maybe because I identified with the targets of his redneck scorn. He couldn't understand why the word was offensive. Where he came from, it was common parlance. It only got him into trouble once that I can recall. We were sitting around watching "American Bandstand," and he said, "Look at that white girl dancing with that nigger." My sister said, "That's not a nigger." "Sure it is," he insisted, "nigger or Portuguese." My mother, who's Portuguese, came steaming out of the kitchen: "Who are you calling a nigger?"

This year the word is inescapable, in high culture and low. The kids in *Kids.* Quentin Tarantino going on about "Dead Nigger Storage." I noticed the *Times*, in a magazine piece about Elvis devotees, cleaned up Sam Phillips' famous line "If I could find a white boy who could sing like a nigger, I could make a million bucks," but still reported every scurrilous comment from the Mark Fuhrman tapes. I can't help it. When I hear the word "nigger," I tune everything else out for a while until I get my equilibrium, the way other people get mesmerized at babies or animals or the first hint of sex. I flinch, I get scared, I duck for cover. Who gets to use it? How much self-awareness makes it acceptable?

The "niggers" flew, without PC apologies or just-kidding italics, in the two shows Sarah and I saw this week. In Adrienne Kennedy's 1964 *Funnyhouse of a Negro*, which inaugurates an all-Kennedy season by the Signature Theater Company at the Public, the title character (alternately known as Negro and Sarah) is breaking down in her walkup apartment. Attended by multiple personalities, including Queen Victoria, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba, she obsesses to suicidal extremities about the "disaster" of her kinky hair and the tragedy of her skin color. Though her mother "looked like a white woman," her despised father is dark, a "black beast" of the jungle, "a nigger who eats his meals on a white glass table." Kennedy takes us deep inside a brain that bell hooks would call "colonized" by "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy," but the playwright makes no such sociopolitical noises. If anything, she presents Negro-Sarah's madness as her psychic birthright -- equal opportunity self-loathing.

*Funnyhouse* makes a fascinating double bill with her 1976 *A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White*, in which a young black woman's diary entries about her travels, family crises, and artistic aspirations merge with her favorite scenes from Hollywood movies. This time the colonizing works both ways. Clara doesn't separate herself from Bette Davis in *Now, Voyager,* Jean Peters in *Viva Zapata,* or Shelley Winters in *A Place in the Sun.* Yet they speak her words, their glamor and celluloid immortality providing a structure for her own chaotic narcissism. As theater, these brief, delicate plays teeter on the edge of preciousness. The language is poetic and repetitive, the action dreamy and minimal, and the characters bloodless. The actors move like dancers or figures in a painting, subordinated to the plays' continuous inner monologues; the white people in the first play and the men in the second occupy the margins and almost never speak. Still, they dramatize something that otherwise you don't get to see -- the brainstorms and dream life of a black woman turned inside out.

*The Emperor Jones* is a textbook example of Eugene O'Neill's early expressionistic drama and his love for thick dialect. In the Wooster Group's production (at the Performing Garage through October 8), rapid-fire speeches about "dese fool bush niggers" and "dese ign'rent black niggers heah" blaze from the mouth of the title character, a railway porter turned island despot originally played by Paul Robeson and here impersonated by Wooster vet Kate Valk. Yes, in drag. In blackface. In Kabuki costume. Director Elizabeth LeCompte continues to test, almost scientifically, how many extreme, alienating theatrical effects you can load onto a play without losing the audience's emotional identification. I believe it's her commentary on television, the most manipulative medium on earth which tricks us into perceiving it as unmediated reality. The blackface-as-mask, Brechtian stage management, ambient video, and sudden eruptions of Polynesian dancing are LeCompte's way of digging a cool, distancing moat around the bonfire at the center of the show, which is Valk's amazing performance as the Postmodern Nigger of white America's nightmares. Simultaneously playing a character of tragic dimensions and exposing the vitality of historically racist coon-show depictions of blacks, she's explosive as a volcano, precise as surgery, disturbing as a hurricane.

October 4, 1995

 

“From a Jack to the King”: Mathew in the School of Life

"Television does not vary," the *New Yorker*'s George W.S. Trow wrote in *Within the Context of No Context*. "The trivial is raised up to power in it. The powerful is lowered toward the trivial. The power behind it resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive. It is *bewitching.* It interferes with growth, conflict, and destruction, and these forces are different in its presence. 'Entertainment' is an unsatisfactory word for what it encloses or projects or makes possible.

"No good," Trow concludes, "has come of it."

John Moran's *Mathew in the School of Life*, directed by Bob McGrath and performed by Ridge Theater at the Kitchen through October 29, could be a theatrical investigation of Trow's ideas about television's impact, especially his idea of "the cold child," the blank sadist with the short attention span who is formed by TV and who is its ideal consumer. *Mathew* ostensibly shows us three days in the training of a robot by that name, who is attended by a nurse-nun-mother figure named Lucy (as in *I Love*?) and a harsh paternalistic technician named Fred (Flintsone?). We see several different actors playing these characters, but it's not really clear if these are multiple versions of one character or if, in the show's reality, all robots are named Mathew, all nurses are Lucy, and all technicians Fred. Mechanical reproduction is, in fact, the primary vocabulary of the piece, which Moran calls an opera. Instead of a script, the show is based on a sound score created by Moran which mixes recorded dialogue with thousands of digital samples. The actors mime and lip-synch every line, gesture, echo-y footstep, and beer-can placement on the tape. Perhaps this is meant to illustrate Jean Baudrillard's assertion that, in today's media-saturated culture, "The real is not only what can be reproduced but *that which is always already reproduced.*"

I'm bending over backwards to give some intellectual credence to *Mathew* because I would like not to believe that I wasted an evening watching something really obvious and half-baked, but I'm practically getting a hernia from the exertion. In some ways the show seems to reflect something I've been thinking about watching my sisters and nieces raise their broods: nurtured from day one on a steady of diet of sugar and adrenalin, endlessly replayed Disney videos, relentlessly violent cartoons, the nightmare of *Sesame Street*, kamikaze video games, and a boob tube that seamlessly fuses sitcom laugh tracks, evening-news tragedies, and Coke commercials, it's a miracle any kid makes it to 20 without a psychotic shootout at the supermarket.

I don't think that's ultimately what Moran and McGrath had in mind, though. The composer's program notes goes on about how cool it is that he used 100 different samples to create a 45-second sequence -- for him, the show is a kind of high-tech stunt. Meanwhile, the director describes the title character as "an android built to absorb human suffering" and slips into the slide show a key line from the gospel according to St. Matthew (also the source of the pop-gospel musical *Godspell*) -- so he seems to think he's making some kind of sci-fi Bible story. I think the audience is supposed to be dazzled by the barrage of visual images (slides, films, clown masks, fancy lighting) and energized at having to connect the dots themselves. I'm usually pretty good at reading these high-tech po-mo spectacles. I even like doing it. But this show bored me silly, because aside from the inevitable and gorgeous tableau of Lucys in the sky with diamonds, the rewards were slim.

Laurie Anderson can slap up a giant photo of a wall socket with a wolf howl on the Synclavier, and it's both funny and emotional. Philip Glass churns out lots of scores, some for great shows and some for shitty ones, but at least the music delivers a visceral kick. *Mathew in the School of Life* reminded me more of Lypsinka's pantomiming gal singers, which has always struck me as a dubious achievement. It's an arty version of those shows that minutely recreate episodes of *The Brady Bunch.* I know there's an audience for stuff like that, but it leaves me cold.

October 11, 1995

“Three Trips to the Diva Bank”: Patti LuPone on Broadway

Divas are not famous for their good taste. Divas thrive on excess and extravagance. We love them because they are too much: too loud, too tough, too needy, too fat, too weird. They flaunt what we try to hide about ourselves. Poor choice of material, fragile health, and devoted cults of hyperemotional women and homosexual men come with the territory. They wear gowns no mere mortal could get away with.

Patti LuPone wants to be a diva real bad. You can tell from her limited-run concert appearance on Broadway. As soon as the lights go down, the queens start screaming. She shows up first in silhouette, her head in profile tilted up, her hair cut a la Simply Streisand circa 1965. She drags out four black chorus boys and a long canary boa to sing "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens," like Bette Midler's lounge-act alter ego Vickie Eydie, and she dishes herself and others in dry patter that smacks suspiciously of Midler's secret weapon, Bruce Vilanch. And like Judy Garland she knows how to work her crowd into a frenzy at the end of the evening, so much so that she can't tear herself away. She has to have the fake closing number, the surprise closing number, the real closing number, the reprise, the post-curtain call "impromptu" send-off. Stay all night and do what, honey?

LuPone gets halfway to the Diva Bank but two things hold her back. One, she's not just a personality but a real actress with Juilliard-instilled expertise. Not only can she make mouthfuls of intricate lyrics come out lucid and conversational, she can give her 4000th rendition of "Don't Cry for Me, Ike and Tina" and still wind up with wet cheeks -- that's technique. Two, she's surrounded by queens with way too much taste to let her indulge the more vulgar aspects of her diva-lust. A few moments in the second act, during the parade of her famous show-stoppers (from *Evita*, *Oliver*, *Les Miz*, etc.), unleashed the flavor of LuPone's singing that makes me cringe, a steely, clenched-fists bray that passes for peak emotion. This is where she departs from Streisand. Barbra's at her best when her voice soars; it opens your heart wide. LuPone's best voice is a sweet, light soprano with Joan Baez's tendency to hit just below a note and modulate up; her belting voice can be like a dentist's drill -- you can't wait for it to stop.

Aside from those few moments, though, *Patti LuPone on Broadway* is an astonishing exercise in understatement. She practically murmurs a pair of Kurt Weill tunes ("I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and "It Never Was You"), pulling the audience down to cabaret intimacy. With the help of director Scott Wittman, musical director Dick Gallagher, and several arrangers (including the great Marc Shaiman), she sprinkles pop gems among the show tunes. James Taylor's "Looking for Love on Broadway" turns into a showgirl's shy confession, and in a medley of Bob Telson's "Calling You" and Brenda Russell's "Get Here," LuPone locates the yearning curve that links the two tunes. Best of all, when she sits on the floor in her poofy black skirt to sing "Sleepy Man" from *The Robber Bridegroom*, backed by a minimal bass-guitar-piano trio, you can't believe how quiet a Broadway musical can get. After all the overmiked, overproduced Cameron MacIntosh spectacles of recent years, it's a thrill just to hear a great singer sit still and sing beautifully.

Understatement is not the usual hallmark of a diva, though, so LuPone faces a bit of a dilemma. Her musical artistry centers on a simple and elegant gift, but there's a trashy Taylor Dayne side of her that creeps out in her show-stopper belting and makes her adoring fans roar, and who can resist that? The tug-of-war between these two personas was the subterranean drama I observed watching *Patti LuPone on Broadway*, which otherwise is essentially a revue, a classy version of the kind of TV specials they don't make anymore. It lacks the triumph-of-survival narrative that made Lena Horne's similar Broadway foray so memorable, but she does milk her getting axed from *Sunset Boulevard* for all its worth. By the time she gets to the line "I've come home at last," the claque goes crazy. She's not Judy Garland -- as Sarah points out, she's not tragic enough -- but I predict slap-fights at Marie's Crisis over who does a better Norma Desmond, Betty or Patti.

October 18, 1995

“Tennessee Schmaltz Hides the Truth”: Suddenly Last Summer

Elizabeth Ashley in a Tennessee Williams play will pique my curiosity anytime. Her performance as Maggie in Michael Kahn's Broadway 1974 revival of *Cat on a Hot Tin Roof* branded my impressionable young theatergoer brain with an erotic presence that still sizzles in memory. She gave the kind of wild, generous, unpredictable, sexually radiant, *dangerous* performance that you hardly ever see. Some actors and lots of rock stars try for that charisma and either burn themselves out or pull back and look way too calculated. Imagine Courtney Love's voluptuous feistiness mixed with John Malkovich's demented intensity, and you might get close to picturing how Ashley inhabited the role of Maggie, one of Williams' many portraits of women pent-up in social circumstances too puny for their restless imaginations.

In 1987 at the WPA Theatre Off-Broadway, Ashley tackled Williams again, this time playing the role Tallulah Bankhead originated in *The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore*, an eccentric matron dying on a mountaintop in Italy who's dictating her memoirs to a secretary and obsessed with achieving salvation by sleeping with a young poet who stumbles onto her doorstep. It's one of those Williams plays that confuses people with its vacillations in tone between campy archness, low comedy, and poetic headiness just on the verge of going overripe. Director Kevin Conway wisely steered Ashley to a performance that revealed, underneath a lot of fruity plumage, a stripped-down soul with a yearning for God as naked as a prisoner's for bread.

Now Ashley's on Broadway again in *Suddenly Last Summer*, a surprisingly popular Williams play these days. It was on TV not long ago with Maggie Smith as the enraged mother of the deceased poet Sebastian Venable and Rob Lowe (!) as Doctor Sugar, whom she hires to lobotomize her niece Catharine (played by Natasha Richardson) so she'll stop telling those awful stories about watching Sebastian get eaten alive by street urchins in a Spanish seaside town. JoAnne Akalaitis staged a bizarre production last year in Hartford that skipped the surface melodrama and carved deep into the mythological heart of The Monster Mother and The Queer Poet. The setting, Sebastian's garden, was an insanely artificial green-and-gold miniature golf course designed by Salvador Dali with Violet Venable (played by former Broadway comedienne Anita Gillette) in her blazing vermilion gown and orange-frosted hair looking like human lava.

Watching *Suddenly Last Summer* at Circle in the Square, I couldn't stop thinking about Akalaitis' version, which had not only startling images but a concrete idea -- that the force of repression is a built-in human instinct no less powerful than the liberation of truth-telling. My mind was in Hartford because Harold Scott's slow, deadly production had no images and no ideas to speak of. It simply plunked the play down on Circle's awkward theater-in-the-round and marched it through a plodding, naturalistic reading that exposed all its flaws and none of its febrile poetry. I cringed for the cast, good actors all, uniformly ill-directed. For some reason Ashley looked like a hunchback slathered with Man Tan, and she spoke in such an ornate and leisurely Louisiana accent that it practically doubled the show's running time. Jordan Baker bravely tried to play the almost sexual excitement of Catherine's insistence on saying what nobody wants to hear, but in such a leaden production she just came off looking fussy and hysterical.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the curtain-raiser, *Something Unspoken*, which had also accompanied *Suddenly Last Summer* when it first appeared on Broadway in 1958. It turned out to be a little lesbian domestic drama that had never shown up on my queer-theater radar before. Myra Carter, an aged British actress whose brilliance New York discovered when she opened in Edward Albee's *Three Tall Women* a couple of years ago, plays Miss Cornelia Scott, a genteel Southern bulldyke trying to remote-control a meeting of the Confederate Daughters into electing her as their president. When she's not on the phone with her stool pigeon, Miss Esmeralda Hawkins, Cornelia is desperately trying to tone down her characteristic crustiness in an effort to solidify what she's belatedly realizing is the foundation of her life, her love for her "secretary"/companion Grace (played by Pamela Payton-Wright), whom she has taken for granted for 15 years. The bathetic setup is deftly undercut by the performances, which steer clear of tired butch-femme cliches, and Theodore Mann's efficient direction. Mann smartly coaxes out the humor of Williams' wickedly precise observation of Southern society ladies. Denied the presidency, Cornelia announces that she couldn't have served anyway because of her pressing duties to the Colonial Dames, the Huguenot Society, and the Daughters of the Barons of Runymede.

October 25, 1995

See other NYP columns: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-27

  
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