Sunday, February 27, 2011

On "Miss Julie"

"That my tragedy depresses many people is their own fault."

-- August Strindberg

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Few Recent Reviews

I'm particularly proud of the first one:

Monday, February 14, 2011

What We're Up Against

(Pamela Gaye Walker and Sarah Nealis. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.)

It’s no surprise that gender discrimination still runs rampant in the workplace—especially in architecture, the historically male-dominated field that is the backdrop for Theresa Rebeck’s What We’re Up Against (at the Magic Theatre). What is surprising is that Rebeck, who elsewhere has spoken passionately on the prejudices women encounter in their places of business, has written such a simplistic drama on the subject.

It’s not that the play, under the direction of Loretta Greco, is boring. On the contrary, characters ignore and swear at each other enough to ensure that conflict constantly brews, even as they supposedly comprise a “team” at an architecture firm—a fiction that might have been easier to maintain before Eliza (Sarah Nealis) joined, with her youth, her femininity and her wanton disregard for standard protocol.

But if Rebeck’s play entertains (and it does, amply), it fails to enlighten. Yes, men can deny women opportunities, condescend to them and treat them as sexual objects, all while rewarding the less qualified among their own. They can cloak their discrimination in vague, unquantifiable terms like “procedure” and “initiative,” then refer to women as “cunts” behind their backs—all with impunity. And yes, women themselves often fail to ally when they are tokenized—especially across generations—perceiving themselves instead as competitors for some unattainable prize.

None of these problems are new. And in Rebeck’s drama, the characters fall a little too clearly into the “right” and “wrong” camps. We can tell almost from the beginning that Eliza and Ben (Rod Gnapp) will eventually find common ground in their love for and talent in their craft, while Weber (James Wagner), Stu (Warren David Keith) and Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker) are conveniently both upholders of the inequitable status quo and bad architects. Is Rebeck trying to suggest that discrimination derives from lack of self-confidence?

A fine point to allude to, but understatement gets lost in a play in which every character almost always says exactly what’s on his or her mind—a style the actors can’t get the hang of at the beginning, when the story hasn’t unfolded enough yet to merit that much urgency. Story is everything for Rebeck; on the page, each of her characters is little more than a single interest that responds to a series of events. This ensemble does admirable work in adding humanity to a dehumanized group of people—with a special nod to Walker for lending some moral gray area to a character who could have been more definitively black. But in the end, we emerge confirmed in our knowledge that gender discrimination exists and that it’s bad—but with little idea as to how real people might actually respond to it.

A side note: Isn't it a little convenient that every character in the play is white?

What We’re Up Against continues (Tuesday to Sunday, various times until March 6 at the Magic Theatre, in Fort Mason, San Francisco. For tickets ($20 - $60), visit

Friday, February 11, 2011

Spider-Man and Critical Ethics

On Monday, many critics published reviews of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark even though the show is technically still in previews. Ben Brantley, at the New York Times, justified his decision thus:

"I would like to acknowledge here that 'Spider-Man' doesn't officially open until March 15; at least that's the last date I heard. But since this show was looking as if it might settle into being an unending work in progress — with Ms. Taymor playing Michelangelo to her notion of a Sistine Chapel on Broadway — my editors and I decided I might as well check out 'Spider-Man' around Monday, the night it was supposed to have opened before its latest postponement. You are of course entitled to disagree with our decision. But from what I saw on Saturday night, ‘Spider-Man’ is so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair."

As Patrick Healy reported the following day, the reviews sparked a small controversy:

“[The critics] argued that the show had already become the highest-grossing on Broadway and that ticket buyers deserved to know what they were paying for. The producers complained about the fairness of assessing a show while its creative team was still at work.”

The producers, of course, might not have raised such a fuss about critical integrity if most of the reviewers hadn’t agreed with Brantley about the show’s problems. (Healy found only a couple laudatory clips.) But this situation merits more reflection than Healy offers in his he-said/she-said account. Major questions remain unanswered: When exactly does a show become reviewable? Who gets to make that decision? In a spectacle as financially ridiculous as Spider-Man, it feels right to take the total number of audience members and the amount of money they’ve already spent into account. But for most other theater (including the shows that are actually interesting), outlandish sums will probably never come into play.

So how will the Times approach similar situations in the future? What might even constitute a similar situation? Is it just about popularity? The newspaper owes its readers a more explicit statement of critical philosophy.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Dresser

(James Carpenter and Ken Ruta. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

San Jose Rep’s advertisements for The Dresser (directed by Rick Lombardo) made me assume the show would be a two-hander. It isn’t. The big names, James Carpenter and Ken Ruta, are actually supported by a sizeable ensemble, which came as a relief at first, as the play runs for over two and a half hours. But now I almost wish they weren’t.

Admittedly, the group comes in handy at times. Without other people, the play, about "Sir," a seasoned tragedian (Ruta), and Norman, his costumer (Carpenter), might never get out of the dressing room. And in staging a play-within-a-play—specifically, Sir’s 227th performance of King Lear—scene designer Kent Dorsey creates a clever backstage world. The characters’ stage faces stage-right; their audience is suggested only through a tiny proscenium far upstage. Wings, curtain ropes and stage lights comprise the space we see—an eminently suitable choice for a play in which the backstage world is the real world.

But aside from that mechanical function, the ensemble parts actually come more alive in Norman’s witty telling than they do in live appearance. The problem is not just that playwright Ronald Harwood allots almost all his verbally acute lines to Norman; many of the other characters’ motivations and backgrounds either appear too late or just don’t make sense. For so many people, young and old, male and female, to be plausibly attracted to or even in love with Sir, he would have to evince a certain personal magnetism—at least, more than Ruta does in his gruff portrayal—to make up for his substantial years. In its present staging, his power feels contrived.

We are, of course, meeting Sir when he’s fallen “ill”—which means some combination of senility and the strain of performing in England during WWII air raids, when so many other actors (!) have been killed. So as with the other characters, it is Norman’s vision that paints the fullest picture of Sir. (Ruta milks his punch lines much more skillfully than he suggests nuance.)

Carpenter’s performance makes this show. He is a master of technique, able to convey everything from Norman’s fascinating combination of pomposity and self-loathing to the rich musicality of English inflection (without going overboard on the accent). His fastidious yet fearful gestures epitomize theatrical embodiment. And he uses his every interaction to establish the possibility of his revelation at the end of the play, even as no other character even attempts such a journey.

So even if The Dresser had had only these two characters, as I initially assumed, the way Harwood writes, a monologue might be preferable.

The Dresser continues (Tuesday to Sunday, various times) at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. For tickets ($35 - $74), visit

Friday, February 4, 2011

From "Dunghills as Artistic Material"

"You cannot find a better police for literature than criticism and the author's own conscience."

-- Anton Chekhov