Knock-Off

Somewhere there’s a CD of a never-aired show vaudeville survivor Eddie Cantor was giving to a radio audience who didn’t yet know they’d been bumped for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He kept doing the only thing he knew how to, and this was what they’d rather be hearing anyway. Cold War-era TV was in many ways one prolonged vamp to divert viewers’ attention from the country coming apart around them, and Titter Time shows the center cracking pretty thoroughly too.

IMG_1816

We’re at the end of 1968 and on the set of some desperate duplicate of the real world’s Laugh-In, opened by smarmy co-host Larry (Tucker Dally Johnston) and doggedly upbeat chanteuse Julie (Melissa McGuire); their respective slapstick and music-hall shtick is already far out of date, but reminds us of the way that major-network-approved counterculture could be largely composed of warmed-over cheese from a generation or two before. Larry and Julie are refugees from a world whose illusions are being cancelled, but Julie may make it into a new one if she can escape from Larry.

The Carruthers Brothers (Smothers Brothers stand-ins who’ve taken the reverse draft-dodge route from Canada) make political jokes and tempt the network censors’ wrath; Julie’s sister Jackie (Brianna Sauvage) insists on singing protest anthems to deliberately sabotage the show; a dance team of Sammy (Brendan Patrick McGlynn) and Marianne (Emily Edwards) keeps falling over the line of acceptable body-language and behavior; and the episode is disrupted every few minutes by content- (and cast-) revisions called down from the sponsors (an apparent nod to the real-life Laugh-In imitation Turn-On, which in many markets was canceled after its debut episode’s first commercial).

IMGP9769_

The sketch segment “Sassy Secretaries” alternates with a backstage conflict over getting one of its female stars’ scripts to be read by the sexist head writer Leo (Craig Anderson); the sketch itself, wittily accompanied by the enforced cheer of a period-accurate laugh-track, lets Mim Granahan cut loose in the whole play’s most vivid performance as the sardonic senior secretary speaking wisecracks to male authority (her character-within-a-character even gets named “Maude”).

IMG_1815

Granahan, who also wrote this portion, has an unfailing ear for period speech and structures and would have been a good choice to script the whole evening; the framing off-air narrative sometimes feels more like a sitcom of the era than a view of how people talked and acted. But the dancers are phenomenal (and usual boy-next-door McGlynn’s persona as an evil sleazeball a refreshing revelation); Sauvage is an astounding singer and this is the closest I’ll ever get to hearing “Blue” in Joni’s old voice; Josh Hartung and Adam Files as the Carruthers Brothers at times hit the mark of their models’ subversive wit; and Johnston and McGuire are 100% committed to their crassness and innocence respectively. The show ends with an uprising of sorts whose principals know their careers may die for the cause, but to us it’s 50 years later and we know at least that the revolution will be rerun.

Continues through Dec. 15, 2018, details here.

Photos: Mike Cho

Advertisements

Boardwalk Emptor

Caponester

Hell is a nice place to visit. I spent a year there one night (1918 to be specific), in Coney Island’s legendary Sideshows by the Seashore theatre, minimally dressed up as an immorality play about the gangland genesis of America’s playgrounds, in the auspicious place where Al Capone was carved into being exactly a century ago.

Fringe-culture legend Dick Zigun’s The Education of Al Capone as if told by Jimmy Durante casts us into a dive called the Harvard Inn, where mobster Frankie Yale winds down from his ice-delivery, cigar and funeral-parlor rackets by tyrannizing a longsuffering bar staff that includes a pre-famous Durante on piano, a still-teenage Clara Bow as singing-and-dancing waitress, and a young thug named Alphonse at the door.

Duet ensemble

It’s like a diabolical (and much more entertaining) version of those animatronic or role-play re-creations you can see at historical tourist traps; set up as a dinner-theatre in the majestically creaky antique space, I got the authentic feeling of being amongst the groundlings without the Shakespeare play (and as Capone was known to say, I mean that as a compliment).

Zigun sees the primal appeal of the earth-level entertainment that made people like Durante and Bow legends, and sticks to the prehistoric sexism and stereotypes that surrounded it, the better to encase it in a bubble we can keep our distance from and unhesitantly laugh at. The play makes its old auditorium feel like a cave on whose walls true forms of what once was flicker; we know the future will be whisking us back out soon enough, along with most of the characters.

CaponeSlash

By the time I was a kid, Durante was long-since the most respectable of performers, even as he carried his leprechaun charm and hobo chic to the end; Bow was long-dead, but known to me in the eternal life of her ur-youth-culture silent movies. The primeval murk of violence and exploitation they grew out of is a strangely reassuring commentary on the compulsory wholesomeness I associated their era with as a kid.

Even figures like Yale and Capone have been transubstantiated into pure entertainment, so it’s fair enough that guys like them gave so many artists their start. In the play Durante starts as the omniscient MC/Greek chorus figure and gradually sinks into the ensemble; the narrative is drifting away from him and he’ll soon leave it behind for good. Between the gloriously corny old saloon numbers and gangster trash-talk, Bow launches into a brief outburst rapidly cataloging her rapist dad, violently psycho mom and other ordeals; reality flares out through the curtain of fiction and is stamped out quickly, since the real-life Bow will keep it quiet for decades to come.

Yale ensemble

As Durante, Rob Romeo is antic and enchanting; Natalie Michael’s enforced charm and defiant cheer as Bow is luminescent; Will Thomae makes a convincing and unsettling Capone-in-training; Rita Posillico has walked straight out of a Busby Berkeley movie and looks back with knowingness and wit as toughgirl waitress Columbia; Robert Aloi is a man of a thousand well-wrought personalities as the dive’s bartender, a series of passing patrons, and the rival hood who gives Capone his “Scarface” nickname in a fight; and with stiff competition Nikos Brisco is perhaps the standout as the sociopathic Yale, buffoonish and menacing by hairpin turns.

In real life, Durante worked the College Inn, and Bow was a bun-slicer at Nathan’s hotdog palace; Zigun accounts for these discrepancies in an inventive way that acknowledges the unreliability of historical records and the authenticity of myth. An entire way of life was rubbed out and redrawn in early 20th century America time and time again, and The Education of Al Capone as if told by Jimmy Durante adds some master strokes to the portrait while making it as clear as it’s ever been.

The show’s first run continues through Nov. 25, 2018; the lowdown is here: https://www.coneyisland.com/theeducationofalcapone

Break the Story

36673887_10156658311397577_6586061795541123072_n

Mateo Moreno is an actor of superlative intuition…which may be why his scripts for the anthology-play Broken Pieces are both a constraint and a structure that doesn’t quite hold together. The tagline that “We are who we break” is an eloquent manifesto for these times of rampant disregard, but the work mostly remains in fragments.

It’s refreshing and revelatory to see Moreno himself play the quietest role I’ve seen him in, with just as much conviction and unpredictability, as a divorced dad reconnecting with his daughter in the first vignette. Frances Ramos bookends the evening as both the disaffected kid and an unheeded, prophetic child immigrant carried off in the closing scenario (a dystopian literally-bet-your-life gameshow), each with a contained power that’s shaded and magnetic.

After the sweet but inconclusive opening act, we see two ghost stories, each told with genuine emotion by the actors but with explanatory devices that are tacked on at the end, making it feel in each case like we’ve watched one detached half of a mystery; dramatically broken does not mean no assembly required. A confrontation between a hitman and the femme fatale who hired him, like a comic-relief interlude in a Shakespeare tragedy if directed by Guy Ritchie, is barely worth mentioning.

By far the most fully-realized segment is the sparest, in which the entire dramatic weight is placed on Kayla Wickes, soliloquizing to a surveillance camera on the eve of her forced marriage in a dystopian patriocracy. Moreno’s pessimistic imagination is well-applied in the rituals, slogans and structure of this prison existence (even beyond what features perhaps inevitably overlap with The Handmaid’s Tale and Bitch Planet), but even here, the protagonist’s determination to pursue her genuine love with the best of the four candidates selected for her by the state seems a strange goal for a feminist revolutionary.

Still, Wickes’ considered intensity and the cold hellish loop Moreno has constructed for her circumstance carry this segment despite the collection’s overall tendency to lose its own threads. The final piece, that allegorical gameshow, pokes holes through the thin wall between abstract satire and direct polemic at several points, not laying bare the brutality of chummy public entertainment so much as going off its own script (and straying from its own premise; Moreno plays the appalled point-of-view contestant in this Rollerball-esque spectacle but we wonder why he seems so shocked when it’s presumably required viewing, and he signed up to be on it).

Ian W. Hill’s lighting design provides economically eerie atmospheres and brisk visual punctuation, and the minimal, essential costuming and settings show a good sense of how little is more. But the drama itself could be further developed. In this era of waning light and widening isolation we’re all still sifting for causes and clues; I just wish, from the ongoing artistic reportage of it, a bit more care in how the pieces are picked up.

The Narrative Engine

MistyLuke2

“Inside is inside,” one character says to another when going back over their prison romance and how it can’t exist, or even be spoken, between two gangster males in their unforgiving “real” life. It’s at the exact midpoint of season 2 of Marvel’s Luke Cage series on Netflix, and in its only sustained highpoint, an Emmy-worthy episode called “The Basement,” about many forms of buried self-truth. We can’t control the stories we live in no matter what we tell ourselves, and characters who are wholly fictional have it even worse.

The inside/exterior schism is key to the whole season; Luke of course has impervious skin but a repeatedly breakable heart; his estranged dad tells him more than once that his true power comes from inside; a conflicted loved-one of the main villain tells Luke he’s worse because of the anger he keeps within him.

LukeStage

At the start, we’re not sure what movie we’re in; Luke is a local hero in Harlem, and the opening episode plays like an upbeat 1970s action-comedy. Clearly this is mostly in Luke’s mind, but it spills out in ways that make you wonder who is in on the joke. Not much later we’re all inside a soap-opera, and it’s here that the surface starts getting too solid and opaque. Claire Temple is worried about Luke not reconciling with his (justifiably rejected) dad, warning of the damage this can do to his psyche and its danger to those around him; Luke rejects this by laying out all the unfair assumptions projected on him, and impossible standards he needs to meet, as a Black man in contemporary America. It’s all wisely written, but directed like melodrama and delivered by the actors as if they’re reading from brochures.

CarnivalBruise

From this point on, it feels like Mike Colter, as Luke, is straining against the magnetic pull of a story he doesn’t belong in. We see him bullying minor neighborhood thugs; beating an adversary senseless and trashing his apartment in the process while the guy’s battered girlfriend and her son look on in more terror of Luke; and making devil’s bargains with master criminals to keep a cordon of safety around Harlem. After what has essentially been three seasons (Jessica Jones 1, Luke 1 and The Defenders) there’s no reason to expect any of this from the dude we’ve seen survive prison, work out his grief at widowhood, deliver stirring civic speeches, restrain himself to the point of shielding his landlady from an entire collapsed building, and speak truth to superpowered White privilege as embodied by Danny Rand. Why this season chooses to deny him his grace is mystifying.

Bushmaster

In the vacuum, attention is locked on Luke’s new adversary, Bushmaster, a vengeful scion of the Jamaican rivals to local mob-boss Mariah Stokes’ family. The woundedness and incurable fury of Bushmaster is conveyed with titanic, irresistible charisma by Mustafa Shakir, lifting more that a building’s worth himself, since the portrayal of the stateside West Indian community is another of the season’s most insurmountable surfaces. The show’s creative team had (and evidently chose) an opportunity to comment on colorism and the very real faultlines between nationalities within African-America, but other than some awkwardness from Luke and a steady barrage of slurs from Mariah, the character and status of the Jamaicans portrayed does not reach much beyond gangsta caricatures or early-20th-century melodramas of ethnic refugees in the New World.

BiggyStokes

The result is a lot of talking-at. Time and again Luke is told, though we are not really shown, what a ticking time-bomb he is. This strange backslide into racial shaming from unexpected directions has shown up elsewhere lately, as in the Ta-Nehisi Coates/Yona Harvey Black Panther & The Crew comic, which started with several issues of the most natural portrayals of people of color and bravely-observed characterizations of institutional racism (removal by gentrification, execution by police) in all of pop culture , and ended with the heroes trying to stop the citizens of Harlem from hurting themselves in violence incited by (surprise!) Hydra — a bafflingly regressive scold that I had to hope was imposed by Editorial (though that’s not good news either).

Shades

The sad thing is that this season shines whenever there is true talking-to, as in the dialogue between psychotic but layered gunman “Shades” and his comrade/former lover “Comanche” mentioned at the top of this article, or a phenomenally honest, eloquent and sublimely painful conversation/confession between Luke and his dad chatting on the back bumper of an ambulance late in the season. (Even the interplay between Luke and an outsider to his world, the aforesaid Danny Rand, stands out; their attitudes are unguarded and their cultural frictions confronted head-on, in a genuine communication that sparks completely unexpected chemistry.)

BigDaddyCage

As Luke’s dad, the late, incomparable Reg E. Cathey spills several lifetimes of contradictory regret and pride and wisdom and helplessness, while as “Shades” (get it?) Theo Rossi shows a world of sorrow and cruelty and hope and calculation by how stonily and unsuccessfully he tries to suppress it. Inside is inside, and inner life is what we spectators need, paradoxically, to see. It is entirely obscured by Mariah, in a multi-polar performance by Alfre Woodard that follows up her profound pathos last time; her tapestry of unhinged ticks is bravura in its own way, but, while this time she is a superlative villain, she is no longer a full person. From Simone Missick (as Misty Knight) and Colter, the interior seeps out through their eyes; they are masterful actors of reaction and contemplation, given this-time often murky roles to contemplate.

SuitCage

The tidal pull of criminality distorts whatever is actually in Luke’s head. By the end, (SPOILER — or is it really?) he’s been convinced that you can beat ’em by ruling ’em, taking over as a kind of peacekeeper at the head of what had been Mariah’s club, imposing order on rival gangs while letting them do some contained business as usual. The close of this season would have been a perfect point, I think, to lead into a crossover The Crew miniseries, to take the place of the optimally-one-off Defenders show; we’ve already got Misty and Luke, and Marvel’s cinematic division could surely okay a Josiah X to lay the ground for Chris Evans’ departure and greenlight a spare Dora Milaje on-assignment to the hood (like when Lady Sif showed up on one of the best S.H.I.E.L.D.s). It would be more Luke’s style to pull together an ethical, unifying anti-gang (as he did in the superb Mighty Avengers comic with its storefront superteam) than become a gang-lord…but in the universe of Luke Cage season 2, there’s a blurry (sloppy?) line between power and crime. Even musical guest the unsurpassably conscious KRS-One is cool with playing the most transparently mobbed-up club in NYC (one of several strangely demeaning implications). But Luke doesn’t get to pick the narrative that’s driving him. In unsparing but aspirational fantasy, that’s something I wish both he and we could escape.

Flight of the Discord

SFB poster

The fourth wall has been broken beyond repair — but postmodern characters can put up layers of subtext as they retreat across the stage. Anton Chekhov was a pioneer of theatre-about-theatre, so it’s only fitting that a few extra degrees of nesting narrative be layered over his classic The Seagull in Aaron Posner’s rewrite, Stupid Fucking Bird.

Put on in the sprawling square-footage of Long Island City’s Plaxall Gallery, a donated warehouse, the dramatis personae feel like ghosts, and they seem to have passed from preoccupying Chekhov to haunting the house of Posner’s head. Updated to contemporary self-made stars and media wannabes, they are wearing dead characters’ names and straining against long-established structures.

SFB group

Con, an artist (heh) is putting on an experimental one-woman show (whose one woman is his girlfriend, Nina) on the home stage of his famous mainstream-actor mom Emma, who’s there with her legendary-novelist boyfriend Trigorin, her doctor brother Sorn and two of Con’s friends Dev and Mash. The oedipal, um, con-flict between avant-garde son and marquee mom spills over into the son’s play and sweeps it away when it has barely started; we are left with the unwritten drama (dashed ambitions, romantic parallelograms) that each character thinks they’re the hero of.

Chekhov may have been chasing the inner narratives we conceal behind the camouflage of polite conversation, but Posner understands that his own century is one in which consciousness of an audience is almost never switched off. This is a smart basis for the spectator-address that inevitably crosses the fictional line the players are performing behind. Of course monologue is futile (though still fun) because we’re long accustomed to soliloquy and we know we can already see everything the characters don’t want us to. But since that doesn’t stop all of them from trying to manage everyone else’s feelings, the motif of Con or Mash turning outward to ask us how they should live or command us how to react magnifies the sense of natural disarray and endlessly desired but forever unattainable control.

SFB company

The characters indeed barge in on each other’s audience confessionals, and at times submerge back completely into the play they know best; a middle section with cast and audience led into the spacious art center’s narrow galley pushes them into literal kitchen-sink drama, but even then some characters turn to us; this story wants followers, and its players are fighting a losing resistance against the dissolving screen of their personal fantasy.

Posner himself is fording a tidal pull between the material’s deep despair and its comic possibilities; there’s a tension that stays bravely but sometimes distancingly unresolved. Particularly at the end, the script dares itself to dance to the cliff’s-edge of doomed-lovers bathos and is repeatedly pulled back by the 200-percent commitment of Olivier Renaud as Con and Tana Sirois as Nina; consummate performers immersed in every emotion they plumb, they also keep mindful of the barriers that will never be crossed, onstage or off, in what we think we see.

SFB duo

Sirois is alternately heartbreaking and delightful as the easily-illusioned Nina, a bird lining up to be shot time after time. Renaud’s comic chops and related consciousness of dives from grace serve him well in a portrait of alternating hysteria and rage and dark blankness and pleading helplessness; both controlling and utterly out of, he’s like some virtuoso gene-splice of Jack Lemmon and John Cleese. David Leeper radiates melancholy insight and honest solitude as Sorn, and Donal Brophy is irresistible as the burrito of rakish remoteness and manipulative humility that is Trigorin. The kinetic direction (Adam Knight) and design (Paolo Martínez Fiterre on sets, Eric Goodman on lighting) — Con maintaining a rant up the concealed stairs, across the utility mezzanine and back out of a door at the opposite end of the space; a ghostly Nina knocking at the bay-door of the (serendipitously maritime) warehouse, lit from behind by bilious harbor lamps that come on by the time night has fallen on the play — make well-conceived use of both frame and free-range, the predestined and the unpredictable, in this porous play (or “whatever it is,” as several characters successively say).

SFB smoothie

Toward the end, a jaded and traumatized Nina describes her high but hollow stardom, confessing that she can’t say anything that’s true onstage — a paradox that sums up this whole production’s veils of reality and displacement of feelings. On the globally-networked world’s collapsed horizon and under its threatening sky, Stupid Fucking Bird soars low, and sees a good amount to salvage.

Tickets and more details here.

When you were mine

junothed-crop

I knew J. unwell enough to play a guessing-game with which character was most like the real him. Everyone assumed he was Yunior from Wao, which seemed a little too automatic; I wanted him to be the innocuous neurotic from “Boyfriend” or the hypersensitive nerd Wao himself (of course, since that was mine); I suspected that the truth was closest to the well-meaning, emotionally unequipped, hiding-out-in-the-open guy from “Edison, New Jersey” — caught, or at least not leaving from, somewhere in-between.

I went straight to “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” in The New Yorker the week that issue came out, and straight through the story; when my late wife asked how it was, I said, “a.) It’s a masterpiece, and b.) it guarantees that m’man isn’t gonna have sex again until, like, 2032.” I didn’t realize at the time that he already was, and had presumably moved as far away from that guy as he seemed to me, having committed to a person who I can’t imagine taking one minute of shit from him. I was only assuming that other readers would assume that story was autobiographical.

A certain longtime friend of mine’s unfaithful, unfeeling novelist ex-husband was a lot better on paper, so it didn’t seem implausible to me that J. could be better in life. That friend let me know (and wanted me to tell him) that she’d been curled in a ball on the floor since the moment she finished This Is How You Lose Her, being horrified and amazed, re-wounded but redeemed by the honest opening up of a damaged and damaging male mind.

People turn out to not be who you thought they were, or disappointingly confirm that they are; either way, it is not they who have changed. J.’s stories were always field-reports from, not critiques of, the male psyche; case studies of men which make you think though the men themselves are reluctant to. The usefulness of this work has not changed, though the usefulness of its author may have come to an end.

He said not long ago that “Remembering is not as powerful an engine for the creation of identity as forgetting is,” and to not know him may have been to know him best. Right before multiple women began accusing him (without contradiction) of forcible kissing, creepy advances, abusive rants, questionable ethics and being a hellish boyfriend, he published his revelation of having been raped as a child, and the inner- and outer-directed destructions that that led to. His accusers saw it as a preemptive bid for sympathy before their own revelations finally came to light. He wrote of the “mask” his trauma put over his true self, but the essay is the most anonymous thing he’s ever written, as that repeated cliché and the others the text is built on display. This makes it of little use to anyone but him, and while any motivation of seizing the narrative can only be speculative, and while forcing your tongue past someone’s lips or flirting unwantedly with minors is not as extreme as rape, J. is also no doubt aware that sleeping around on your fiancée and being a soul-crushing boyfriend are not crimes, but assault and harassment are; his essay only addresses the former, and setting the terms of what’s to be admitted to is a one-sided and thus self-negating version of making amends.

Every public person who faces disgrace has his or her defenders, those who see him or her on some level as one of “theirs.” These defenders want a way to adjust things back to the way they were, which is to say, the way they seemed. They call for balance. In a case like J.’s, where the protectiveness (possession?) is unusually pronounced, some form of mediation, a literary truth-and-reconciliation process, with accuser and “great man” on an agreed-to equal footing and no transgressions negotiated off the table beforehand, might salvage some actual rehabilitation for the transgressor and redemption for the injured. But it would restore nothing; instead it would move the parties forward to uncharted and unguaranteed territory; a new plane we can’t envision because we’ve never seen it.

There is no such thing as alternative truth, but there are different ways we can reach and react to it. Arranging the facts to suit yourself doesn’t fool anybody forever, but fashioning an emotional truth beyond the immediately evident is what fiction and all art does. When Woody Allen was a private person, the real him could remain a kind of Schrodinger-being who always might be as tragically honest and unflinchingly insightful as, say, Crimes and Misdemeanors (one of his last releases as a fully private person) suggested him to be; after the shallow schmuckiness (and probable child-molesting, and definite statutory rape) was exposed, he seldom regained his artistic footing in the ensuing 25-plus years (though the same can’t be said for his industry standing, until, maybe, now). So far, everything J.’s said from the minute his mask came off is generic sentiment about the most personal of realities (his person I mean; the women get one letter or less). It’s J.’s life, not mine, but the mask might have been what allowed more of what’s good in him to come through (and for him to do any good). Even now, it seems there were parts he didn’t want removed, which the aggrieved had to pull off for him, and this will likely determine what we can associate him with and how full a perspective he can access from this point onward. There’s a lengthening line of people with bad stories to tell and no reason to lie. Before (and during) that, J.’s fiction and fine thought did me and millions of people immense good. All of which was so much more possible when it wasn’t about him.

A Petard of One’s Own

CMfaith

Oral sex might not have been the subject of every ’70s rocksong, but it was the most discernible reason for ’70s rockbands’ existence. The Crazy Muchachos correct the record by lightly adapting a brief history of classic pop to work in the phrase “suck my dick” wherever possible. It’s like what two 12-year-olds would think was endlessly funny, and be right; the two 12-year-olds in this case were guitarist Jesse Krakow and percussionist Jon Damon, who came up with their persona-band The Crazy Muchachos in 1989. They show unlimited ingenuity and perfect comic timing in the application of their one idea; while titled “The Crazy Muchachos in Super Magic Destiny: A Night of Succulence” as befits an epic three decades in the making, in every sense this could have been titled “Never Get Old.” It’s as if some supervillain had reversed reality and, instead of tampering with recordings to make them all “clean” versions (like our own world’s supervillains do), took every innocuous ballad and dubbed curses over it (“Speaking words of wisdom, SUCK MY DI-IHHHCK!”, etc.). On premiere (and closing) night at Sid Gold’s Request Room, towering vocalists of New York’s divebar pantheon like Mike Fornatale, Joelle Lurie and Xavier Smith joined the Muchachos onstage, in ones and twos like a downsized Last Waltz and for a full-cast finale that put me in mind of some historic, “We are the world, we are the SUCK MY DICK” moment. Krakow is equally adept at orchestrating satirical bloat and sending up solo pomposity, as we see when he gives a lone guitar encore of a seriously soiled “Message in a Bottle”; that song seems to stem from the Muchachos’ promised followup suite, Fuck My Butt, and if this and the final encore by Krakow, Damon and fearless pianist Leslie Goshko of a similarly defiled “Don’t Stop Believing” are any measure, the duo can be counted on to produce an equivalent Number Two. With a gag a minute, “Super Magic Destiny” will get a clap from me every time!

CMshame