Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Diane of 'The Little Dog Laughed" -- the early years

The filthy underbelly of the entertainment industry once again is topside at Second Stage Theatre with Theresa Rebeck's "The Scene," now in previews for a Jan. 11 opening. Only this this time, the snake is just cutting its baby teeth.

Sad-sack Charlie (Tony Shalhoub), once of middling success as an actor, now finds himself reduced to schmoozing for bit parts in dim sitcoms while living in New York off the wages of wife Stella (Patricia Heaton), a frumpy, frustrated but successful booking agent for a television talk show. Hardly Hollywood royalty. There was a time, after all, when Charlie attracted the suck-ups at the party rather than being one himself. So when he and his pal Lewis (Christopher Evan Welch) meet a vacuous, worshipful and seemingly fresh-off-the-Buckeye-truck Clea (Anna Camp) at one of those parties, it's obvious from the start that the poor schlub doesn't stand a chance.

Comparisons will be inevitable between "The Scene" and Second Stage's last Hollywood cautionary tale, the now-on-Broadway "The Little Dog Laughed." While the latter has had moderate critical success as an engaging cartoon anchored by the tour de force of Julie White as the deliciously soulless agent Diane, "The Scene" benefits by a much smarter book and a stronger ensemble of performances. Besides, Diane wouldn't wouldn't notice people this far down the entertainment totem pole if they were on fire.

Camp, Heaton and Shalhoub all are superb. Although best known as television's Monk, Shalhoub boasts an impressive resume of New York credits, and he perfectly captures Charlie's descent as he loses, as he describes it, his final shreds of dignity. Even though the character is utterly unlikeable, he manages to still elicit empathy in his ultimate destruction. No doubt thanks to her own sitcom experience, Heaton has great comic timing as Stella, who seems initially to have made peace with her mediocre lot. She also proves her acting chops in later scenes after discovering her husband's infidelity.

Camp, most recently part of the stellar ensemble of Off-Broadway's "columbinus," makes her mark on the New York theatre scene here. A Lady MacBeth for the "Mean Girls" set, Clea is, as Stella observes, "a fucking nightmare of a human being," detestable to the core. Camp masters the typical Clea speech pattern: a loosely tied strand of thoughts that says nothing and everything at the same time. Vapid and evil is a killer combination. One can't help but think this could be how Diane got her start.

Welch is mostly effective but problematic in a few spots. As the one who initially has his eye on Clea, he needs to, as my theatre companion put it, butch it up in a few spots. His character also is a bit muddily written compared to others, as it wasn't clear to me by the end whether his character was a noble hero or a calculator giving Clea a run for her money.

Rebeck's dialogue is excellent for most of the show and is aided by great pacing by the actors. Like Clea's thought pattern, characters often wander off and never really get to the point, even when attempting to make grandiose pronouncements. But somehow, this makes the overlapping dialogue clearer.

A weak ending, however, hampers the entire show. During the final glimpse at the shell of what is left of Charlie, he mutters what could be one of the most predictable final lines this season. Still, it's just one final bad taste in what otherwise was quite a satisfying evening.

The performance I attended featured a talkback with director Rebecca Bayla Taichman. The audience response overall was largely positive toward the acting and dialogue, although they also had problems with the ending. One man put it nicely: It seems like a lot of good parts that don't quite add up to as good as a whole. They also had problems with the upbeat rock music choices, which my companion and I thought were quite appropriate.

A final note: A lot is being made of Heaton's recent conservative political stances and how they won't jibe with the average New York theatregoers. Barring any Anita Bryant-style campaigns, I have to say good acting is good acting, and I think it would be rather hypocritical of me to criticize her for her stances in this context, seeing as it had no effect on her performance (especially considering my earlier post about Barbra Streisand). I thought she was fantastic, and I have no problem with saying it.

I couldn't help but notice, however, that one of the books on Charlie and Stella's bookcase was one by conservative commentator Larry Elder. I wonder if that was a compromise over the considerable number of F-bombs Heaton had to deliver.

Monday, December 18, 2006

My nomination for most callous lede of the year

Bill O'Reilly was the latest Fox News personality to get a tour of Iraq. Now, as newly announced Democratic presidential contender Tom Vilsack mentioned on "The Daily Show" tonight, any visit is largely a scripted experience, but I'm sure we can count on O'Reilly's "no spin zone" to cut through the staging and get the real story. If not, at least it might give him something new to put on the placemats or whatever it is he's selling nowadays.

In the meantime, I was quite taken aback by the press release from the Multi-National Force -- Iraq on the visit. It begins:

In a war that has perhaps been even hotter in debates than it is on the streets of Baghdad, the one constant in the media has been “spin.”

Even with the "perhaps" to mitigate it...just wow. But I guess they're right. Every member of the armed forces I interviewed upon their return from Iraq said something like: "Yeah, sure, it was rough, but I'd rather be there than stuck between Brent Bozell and Donna Brazile on that Tucker Carlson show."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Peachy Pitts

Pam's House Blend today links to a great column by Leonard Pitts Jr. The column speaks for itself, but I was quite surprised by the number of people in the comments section who had never heard of Pitts, as I find him consistently to be one of the best columnists around today. And it's not just because I usually agree with him.

When I worked for The Facts, Pitts was one of two progressive writers (although the editor at the time we added him called him a moderate, which might be more accurate) whose work we ran. The other was Molly Ivins, known by many of the local editorial page readers as Satan Incarnate. People despised her. Her mere mention of the word "shrub" would inspire dozens of angry letters to the editor. Yet Pitts, even when talking about hot-button issues like gay rights, never provoked such a response. Why was this?

I admire columnists like Ivins, Christopher Hitchens and such who can shred their targets with their caustic wit. I also can admire florid writers like Peggy Noonan, which can sometimes be overly gooey but nonetheless paints a lovely picture. But when it comes to a straight hammer to the point -- no overwriting, no Ann Coulter-esque phony controversy, no pretension -- no one can beat Pitts. He's the type who actually makes people examine their own opinions, not someone who panders to already formed political opinions.

Just read his famous post-Sept. 11 column. No one said it better at the time.

My least favorite columnist, if anyone is wondering? No, it's not Ann Coulter. It's not even Chuck Norris or Pat Boone. At least they have some camp value.

It's David Limbaugh. And it's not because I almost never agree with him.

It's not so much any particular column he has written. Rather, it's that he exemplifies everything that Pitts isn't. His typical column is the most lifeless, condescending rehash of whatever Republican Party issue du jour is at the top of the Roger Ailes memo this week, the graveyard where prose goes to die. I'd sooner listen to his brother for three hours than make it all the way to the end of one of his pieces.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Accentuating what I can

The gorgeous Will Chase, on his myspace blog, is lamenting the eagerness some critics have in releasing their poison nowadays, spurned on by people like me who enjoy taking to the Internet to pick apart a show still in previews. While I could mention that every wannabe John Simon today could never pack a venomous bite like Dorothy Parker, I'll instead agree with him on the basis that critics did seem overly harsh with this show, which I saw tonight. And while I could also analyze why that might be, I see little point in picking apart a show that will be heading to that big flophouse in the sky tomorrow. So in honor of our antihero Rob, here's my Top 5 Things I Found To Like About "High Fidelity." In autobiographical order, or something like that.

1) The cast was mostly spectacular, particularly Chase, dynamite leading lady Jenn Colella and "Rent"/"Avenue Q" refugee Christian Anderson.

2) Amanda Green's lyrics hit more than they miss, even if the songs sometimes sound like rejects from "The Wedding Singer."

3) Mr. Chase starts the second act in his boxers.

4) It's hard to deny the enthusiasm from most of the audience. Despite everything, this show had its following, and I might even get the cast recording if it ever actually gets on the market (hello, "Lestat").

5) Ummm...the gingerbread latte I had before the show was delish.

So that's all I'll say about that -- except I couldn't help but admire the flop power displayed in the cast bios. "Lennon," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Ring of Fire," "Tarzan" (I'm assuming), "All Shook Up," "Urban Cowboy" and even "Bring Back Birdie." The show definitely beat all of those, as well as "Thou Shalt Not," "Hot Feet..." Wait! There's my No. 5 with a bullet.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Gay dating in the styx

Once again, I'm preparing to return to Brazoria County, this time for an extended Christmas vacation. I haven't had one of those in years! So to honor the moment, here's a recount of the worst date I've ever had, courtesy of Lake Jackson, Texas.

There being no gay hangouts in a 60-mile radius, I was always excited whenever someone local responded to my gay.com profile. Unfortunately, most of these people turned out to be married men in their 40s. So, whenever the person didn't fall into that category, I was sometimes willing to let my standards slip a little. That is, until I met Tim.

At 19, Tim admittedly was a bit young for me, but I was only 25 or so at the time, so the age difference was not that vast. There were other red flags that I ignored. He first wrote to me using his ex-boyfriend's account. He and his mother verbally sparred like Martha Plimpton and Dianne Weist in "Parenthood" while we talked on the phone. And he seemed quite proud of an eBay scam he was running.

Loneliness does funny things to one's judgment, however, so I agreed to a date. I met him near his house in Lake Jackson one Friday night after work, and he wanted to take me to a friend's party. As we walked to the front door, he handed me a small, white tablet. "This will get us rollin'," he smirked. Yup, ecstasy. I quickly pocketed the pill when his back was turned.

Once inside the friend's house, I found myself surrounded by a ring of strung-out, babbling girls, none of whom could have been older than 17. One particularly unfortunate one was nearly comatose against the wall, but the rest were too busy trying to sing along to Ruben Studdard's "Sorry 2004" to notice. The ecstasy was already starting to take its effect on Tim, and conversation with the girls was proving pointless, so I went ahead and poured myself a drink. After all, I was the only one there anywhere near a legal age.

After about an hour of this party that could have been a perfect PSA for the council on drug prevention, someone began pounding at the door. It was the party-thrower's father. The girls and Tim seemed calm, but I began to panic. Regardless of my sexuality, having a dad catch me, a 20-something, with a glass of wine in my hand while sitting around his polluted teenage daughter and her friends didn't seem like it would have a favorable outcome. Dad, however, was as polluted as his daughter, fresh from the Mosquito Fest (yes, the city of Clute, Texas has a celebration around the mosquito). Dad was so jovial, in fact, that he offered me a sip of the Snuffy Smith moonshine he was drinking out of a metal flask. I politely refused.

The party started breaking up at this point, and for some reason, Tim and I got stuck with the task of taking the comatose girl home. She managed to mumble out the directions to the trashiest trailer park I never knew existed in Clute, and after dropping her off, Tim suggested we visit another of his friends. This one happened to live in the same apartment complex that my sister did when I was a kid, and at least having her own apartment should indicate that she was above high school age, I thought.

She was. A typical Brazoria County blonde, she greeted me cheerfully enough but mostly ignored me after my arrival. I chatted with -- it was either her boyfriend or her roommate's boyfriend, but whoever it was, he was the most sane person I saw all night. The girl did take enough notice of me to ask why I was wearing men's shoes. After all, I was gay, right? Small town ignorance is so charming.

Later on, the ditz decided she was getting a bit of an earache, so as a cure, she thought it would be best to stick a cone of newspaper in her ear and light it on fire. Unfortunately, the newspaper kept burning, even on the grass after she tossed it over the balcony when she was finished.

After an interminable amount of time, and amazingly enough during which the apartment complex did not burn to the ground, it was time to go. Tim decided IHOP would be best. It was 2 a.m. or so, and that's about the only place open in Brazoria County at that time anyway.

Lo and behold, we met some more of Tim's friends upon arrival. I saw some people I knew, too: a few policemen from the Lake Jackson Police Department who I knew because of my job as a reporter at the local paper. They gave me a wave as I walked to the table with our new companions.

As it turned out, Tim had called these people beforehand, because they were his pot suppliers, there to give him weed in exchange for his ecstasy. In horror, I watched the clumsiest exchange of pills and grass beneath a syrup-stained IHOP table with two policemen only a few tables away. I pictured my arrest written up in the newspaper in a few days. When a reporter gets arrested, you see, it gets written up no matter what, as a point of fairness. We're treated no differently than elected officials. One of my fellow reporters even saw herself in the paper after a minor fender bender.

By some miracle, the police didn't notice, and I managed to quickly get my goodbyes. It was nearly 3 a.m. I had been out from more than six hours and barely even talked to the guy with whom I was on the date. He was supposed to have gone with me to a Gloria Estefan concert a few days later -- we had set it up before the first date -- but thankfully, my mother stepped in as a replacement at the last minute. I never saw Tim again, and the last I heard, the original boyfriend -- the one whose account he had used to contact me initially -- had moved in with him at his mother's house in Lake Jackson. I'm sure the three of them are a regular Norman Rockwell postcard every night.

When I go solo to my friend's New Year's Eve party in Houston in a few weeks, I'll keep this story in mind to cheer myself up. When there's nothing but cold rice left on the buffet, sometimes it's better to go hungry.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

NBC rapes my childhood

Starting with a shameless self-promotion: I had a blast making my Carnegie Hall debut with the New York City Gay Men's Chorus last night, and I think the show went swimmingly.

During the show, however, I missed what I thought was going to be a cute television moment: a live-action remake of "The Year Without a Santa Claus," one of those cheesy Rankin-Bass shows that I can never switch off once they come on. So I set my VCR (I'm old-fashioned that way).

I know, I know. These things are inevitably terrible, but I thought this one had promise. I liked everyone involved: John Goodman (Santa), Delta Burke (Mrs. Claus), Michael McKean (the Snow Miser), Harvey Fierstein (the Heat Miser), Eddie Grif---uh, never mind. After popping in the tape tonight, I tuned out after about 30 minutes. Not only was it dull, dull, dull, but they had the nerve to give Dr. Laura Schlessinger a needless, fawning cameo. I didn't even know she was still around. Isn't there some theater in Branson that she should be performing in? What's next? Sean Hannity as the honking penguin in "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"?

Ah, well. I'm sure ABC Family will rerun the original plenty of times in case I need to restore the sanctity of my memory. Meanwhile, here's some fun trivia. The original Snow Miser (voice) was Dick Shawn, who also played the acid-dropping Hitler in "The Producers." And the original Heat Miser (voice) was George S. Irving, best known for, uh, playing the Heat Miser. But I did see him in a staged reading of "70, Girls, 70" earlier this year. So he's still around.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

When life hands you a lemon, make applesauce

One's opinion of "The Apple Tree," which opens this Thursday at Studio 54, is going to boil down to the opinion of the show's star, Kristin Chenoweth. Those who find her a cloying presence are going to find this show as indigestible as a mock apple pie made with packets of Equal. I like her, however, so I was able to appreciate the show for what it is: a half-hearted revival of a mediocre musical that has the benefit of three great Broadway performers.

The show, which last ran on Broadway in the 1960s, is really three short musicals in one, all tied loosely together by the motifs of desire and temptation: adaptation's of Mark Twain's "The Diary of Adam and Eve," Frank Stockton's "The Lady, or the Tiger?" and Jules Feiffer's "Passionella."

Chenoweth plays a title character in two of the three segments (she plays neither the lady nor the tiger), and she's certainly the star in all of them. She's not breaking any new ground here, as the characters are all variation on the one(s?) she has played before, but she's a good fit for all of them. She's the naive sweetheart in Adam and Eve, the Galindesque bitch in "...Tiger?" and gets to be both in the modern Cinderella story "Passionella." Her fans will lap it up, and she'll probably gain some new ones from those unfamiliar with her work, although I doubt she'll win many converts.

The Adam and Eve story, which accounts for the entire pre-intermission segment, is the strongest, largely because it's the only one that gives co-star Brian d'Arcy James a worthy part. A handsome leading man who recently proved his comedy chops as a replacement in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," James makes a good balance for our perpetually perky leading lady. He fades into the background in the other two stories. "The Lady or the Tiger?" might tie with "The Little Engine That Could" as the thinnest source material ever chosen for a musical, and this adaptation doesn't even involve roller skates. "Passionella" is cute and enjoyable but ultimately of little substance.

Marc Kudisch also does his usually great work in all three segments, although as with Chenoweth, he's largely playing parts we've all seen before. Few can ooze smarmy as he does. That was a compliment, by the way.

Aside from great casting choices, however, this production has its shares of misfires as well. I wish Roundabout had approached this revival more in the traditional "Pajama Game" approach rather than the minimalistic effect it was trying to get across. Bock and Harnick's music and lyrics are charming, if not somewhat forgettable, and there's plenty of good humor and even some proper poignancy in the book, but "The Apple Tree" is no "Cabaret." It's a bagatelle of a musical, and stripping away production elements--the Adam and Eve portion, for example, is done largely on a bare stage with little more than a few ladders as props and an enormous brick background--highlights its weaknesses rather than erases them. Still, it was a nice touch, I'll give them, to use Alan Alda, the original Adam, as the voice of God in the opening.

Overall, it's a good show for families, theatre neophytes and Chenoweth fans. For everyone else, stick to the original cast recording or the memories of the City Center Encores! performance (also starring Chenoweth) which is really a more appropriate venue for the show.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Tell me: Is this fair?

I've lived in New York for almost a year now, not to mention living in New Jersey and Connecticut for a year each and visiting the city most weekends. In all that time, I have never stumbled across a corpse in the street.

My roommate has lived in the city for about a month. He came across one the other day. Or at least he thinks he did.

I've always considered finding a corpse a rite of passage for New Yorkers. How is it that he came to his so fast? I did see a murder scene in the Wall Street area when visiting several years ago, but I don't think it counts, because the bodies had already been cleaned up.

I'm so sending this in to Al Scaduto.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Much more grateful than sorry

I grabbed a student rush ticket (yes, I keep my college ID for such occasions) for "Company" tonight. Although I know virtually every song from the show, I had never actually seen a production of it before tonight, so I was a little apprehensive that it might lose something with the John Doyle actor/musician approach. Fortunately, that wasn't the case at all. In fact, I think the convention worked better than it did in "Sweeney Todd." Overall, the production didn't quite have the strength of its Doyle/Sondheim predecessor. Still, it was enough to convince me that Doyle is not a one-trick pony.

Most of the cast members are making their Broadway debuts in the production, and there does seem to be a bit of polish missing from some of the performances, be they the fault of blandness or charicature. Still, I'm talking about a minority, and there are certainly a few shining players among the neophytes. Angel Desai is a knockout as the gregarious Marta and delivers "Another Hundred People" with enough zest almost to erase the memory of Pamela Myers' original interpretation. Elizabeth Stanley is another standout as another of Bobby's girlfriends, April, and her duet "Barcelona" along with her monologue leading up to it is one of the best moments of the show. So is the "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" trio with Desai, Stanley and Kelly Jeanne Grant (as the third girlfriend, Kathy), where the three girls bleat a furious saxophone flourish at the end of each phrase. Never in "Sweeney Todd" was the line between instrument and actor so delightfully blurred.

Broadway veteran Barbara Walsh, as the acid-tongued and vodka-soaked Joanne, has the impossible task of performing in Elaine Stritch's shadow. Other than the cast recording and the other innumerable instances of Stritch singing "The Ladies Who Lunch," I didn't have that comparison to make, so I found a lot to appreciate in her performance. I still couldn't get Stritch's voice out of my head every time she sang, but that was probably just my problem.

But it's Raul Esparza who makes this show worth seeing. I had long wondered what the fuss surrounding him was about, because the only show I had ever seen him in was "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Now I know. His charming presence and gorgeous voice anchored the show, all building to an absolutely heartbreaking "Being Alive." It was almost cruel to subject a single person in New York to it.

Perhaps it's because the cast is a bit bigger and the instrumental selection is more diverse, but the orchestrations sounded much richer than they did in "Sweeney Todd," which at times sounded to me like a piano accompaniment with a few trumpet bleats here and there. "Side by Side by Side" sounds like there's a full pit in the theatre with the entire ensemble--except Esparza, who appropriately plays no instrument (not counting a few seconds with a kazoo) until his final epiphany.

Yes, the Doyle convention will get old if we start seeing it every season, but I was glad to be a guest at this party. Even if Patti LuPone and her tuba were a no-show.

Monday, December 04, 2006

When bad movies happen to sensitive, omega-list celebrities

WorldNetDaily today alerts us to an alarming trend: pedophelia flights!

Yes, it seems that the inflight movie on a recent Delta flight was too much for Mike Seaver and a traveling companion of lesser celebrity caliber. Said companion, Ray Comfort, recalls his experience:

Halfway into the flight, Kirk suddenly looked up and said, ''What's going on!'' We looked up at the more than twenty screens to see what looked like a nine-year-old child sexually gyrating and stripping in front of an adult audience. As we watched in horror, a few of the adults in her audience stood to their feet and began to clap to the music, obviously encouraging her to strip further, which she gladly did.
Now, unfortunately, Mr. Comfort never clues us in to which movie contains the Dakota-Fanning-gone-wild scene. Delta's Web site shows the most recent movies on westbound flights have been "Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest" and "Rudy," so I'm guessing neither of those were it, although those tiny airplanes screens could have distorted Sean Astin's figure to a confusing degree. But horror of horrors, the flight attendant and the other passengers didn't seem to care!

She smiled and gave her standard response, ''You don't have to watch it. Just get on line on the Delta website and register a complaint.'' She was too busy caring for the needs of the passengers to see the movie. One of the other passengers heard our protests and began to say that he actually enjoyed the film. Personally, I would like to know the names and addresses of anyone who enjoys watching little kids take their clothes off in public. I would like to warn the families in their area.
What a bitch that flight attendant was! How dare she worry about some schlub's ginger ale whenever a (probably edited) movie already approved by the MPAA was on the loose? Sadly, though, I think Mr. Comfort's anger might have clouded his sanity for a second:

This wasn't some in-house meeting of NAMBLA where perverts were getting off on seeing a young child take her clothes off in the privacy of their own clubhouse. This wasn't in some dirty little back room in downtown Los Angeles. This was in front of mothers and fathers and their children on a domestic flight on Delta airlines.
Oh, Ray, Ray, Ray. As punishment for reaching for the always stupid NAMBLA card, let me point out the obvious stupidity by saying that whatever they do at NAMBLA meetings, I'm betting "getting off on seeing a young child take of her clothes" is not an agenda item.

But cheer up, Ray. At least the inflight movie wasn't "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" or "Left Behind II: Tribulation Force."

On another note, I've added two links to my blogroll. First up is Steve On Broadway, who not only was kind enough to add me to his list, but who also does a great job of compiling theatre news and wise commentary with a focus my ADD self could never hope to have. I also added Diary of a Blood Ray, another brilliant theatre mind from one of those other big cities in the country. I forget the name, but it's in one of those states with lots of vowels. At any rate, his commentary on that vile "Christmas Shoes" song won my heart long ago. Not to mention that, as seen in his most recent post, he managed to come up with a life soundtrack that was even gayer than mine.

Friday, December 01, 2006

A job tailor-made for Florida State grads

Working in media, I get a lot of silly stuff from PR agencies and marketing departments trying to catch my attention. My workout clothes, in fact, consist heavily of freebie shirts sent along with a press release. My favorite is one from a certain airline boasting about its leg-room: a plain, black T-shirt with white lettering on the front that says: "Want an extra six inches?"

I've got to hand it to Four Points by Sheraton, however. They certainly got my attention by sending me a box of beer. Woo! And this was just a few months after they sent us pie.

What's better, though, was the release that went along with it. It seems the hotel is looking for a "chief beer officer" as a consultant for its best brews program. And it also seems that this is no joke, as the hotel has taken out ads in the Wall Street Journal promoting this. Quoth the release:
The world's first ever CBO will be responsible to share his or her in-depth knowledge of the wide world of beer and help cultivate, curate and promote its new Best Brews offerings at brewery tours, beer festivals and on bar stools across the country.

To be eligible, all one needs is a love for beer, a thirst-hand knowledge of this glorious libation, an interest in perks that are as tasty as beer itself and be 21 years of age or older.
Unfortunately, I'm just learning to like beer again after an extremely unfortunate incident with Old Milwaukee several years ago. Frankly, I think the fact that Old Milwaukee has touched my tongue should probably disqualify me automatically from any chief beer officer position ever. Now if there's a chief vodka officer job out there...

Oh, and truly sorry for subjecting everyone to the "thirst-hand knowledge" pun. At least I left out the part about applicants needing a "bubbly personality."