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Mike Daisey & This American Life: Yes, But Is It Journalism?

About ten years ago, Tommy Tune was starring in an Off-Broadway revue; a nightclub-style act he had been performing in Las Vegas.  I hadn't seen the show yet, but one night I was browsing through a theatre chat board and read a comment by someone who had just seen a preview.  The writer was very excited to report about one of those special moments the audience witnessed that night that could only happen in live theatre.

Part of Tune's show was a question and answer segment with the audience.  After some of the expected queries about his career, there was a woman who asked if he remembered her.  She said she took classes from him years ago and, after shyly admitting having a crush on the teacher, he invited her to come up on stage with him and he partnered with her on a basic soft-shoe routine.  After the audience was sufficiently charmed by the spontaneous moment, she returned to her seat and the show continued.

You know what happened next, right?  Another reader on the chat board posted that the same exact thing happened at a different preview performance.  Subsequent posts made it apparent that the woman was a plant in the audience and her appearance was a regular part of the show.

By the time I got around to seeing the production myself, I think it was safe to say that most of New York's theatre community was aware of the bit.  (If I were the bolder sort, I might have been tempted to raise my own hand and, if called upon, ask if Mr. Tune remembered me from his dance class before the assigned actress got her chance.)  But I noticed something interesting in the way Tommy Tune would introduce the segment.  I don't recall his exact words except for one important one.  He told us that when he would do his show in Las Vegas he would always have an audience Q&A and that he thought it would be fun to "recreate" that for us here in New York.  Sure, if you had no idea that there was a plant in the audience you probably just assumed this would be an actual Q&A, but that word "recreate" served as a safety net against accusations that Tune was deceiving the audience.  Whether you noticed it or not, you were given fair warning that you were about to witness an artist's interpretation of the truth, not the truth itself.

See, that wasn't Tommy Tune up there on the stage talking to the audience.  That was the on-stage version of Tommy Tune performing in a show.  And whether the artist you're watching is a stand-up comic, a singer/songwriter or an actor discussing his or her own career, you must never ever assume the complete truthfulness of their art.  The facts aren't always entertaining without some tweaking of the details.

We've come to expect a bit of dramatic license to be used in historical drama to streamline the proceedings and allow the creatives to make their subjective points, but sometimes an artistic presentation is so lacking in theatricality that we might be tricked into confusing it with journalism.

Take Mike Daisey, who has established himself as a premiere storytelling monologist dealing with social and political issues through a series of shows based on his own experiences.  In If You See Something Say Something he described his visit to the site where the atomic bomb was tested.  The Last Cargo Cult dealt with his trip to a remote Pacific island to observe the relationship between the indigenous people and the relicts of World War II that were abandoned in their home.

His performances all follow the same format.  Daisey sits at a desk throughout the evening, talking extemporaneously from his notes.  Since he does not work off of a prepared script, and he tends to revise at will, no two performances contain the exact same text.  It may seem a little too real to be theatre, but it is.

Since the summer of 2010, Mike Daisey has been performing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a piece that describes his observations at the Foxconn Technology plant, the city-sized factory in Shenzhen, China, where iPads and iPhones are manufactured; detailing working conditions so harsh that nets had to be placed outside the factory's windows in order to stop employees from committing suicide by leaping to their deaths.

He had just begun preview performances of his first New York engagement of the show at the Public Theater when Steve Jobs passed away, prompting eulogies that described the Apple co-founder as one of America's great visionaries.  Then, shortly before performances of his return engagement commenced (it ends this Sunday), a New York Times story seemed to confirm Daisey's findings by reporting on working conditions at Foxconn. ABC News then brought cameras into the factory and spoke with workers.

This past January, the public radio program This American Life, aired a 39-minute excerpt from The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.  However, in this statement released today, the program's host and executive producer, Ira Glass, retracted the episode, stating that Daisey had lied to him during the fact-checking process:

Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey's monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. In his monologue he claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple's audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn't located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited.

In response, Daisey has written in his blog:

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

Personally, I have no knowledge of the conversations that went on between Daisey and Glass regarding the context in which The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs would be presented on the program - as a journalistic piece or as an artistic expression - so I won't comment on that.

However, I will say this about Mike Daisey's work in general.  I cannot recall ever hearing Mike Daisey refer to himself as Mike Daisey during the course of a performance.  The lights go up, and he's there talking about the matter at hand.  There's no, "Hello, I'm Mike Daisey and this story I'm about to tell you is all true."

As far as I know, Mike Daisey does not appear on news programs to discuss these issues, outside of appearances as an artist who is presenting a show.  As far as I know, Mike Daisey does not give lectures on the subjects in his shows.  He appears in stage as an actor, whose performances are directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, and at the end of each performance, like any other actor, he takes a bow.  These are not the behaviors we generally associate with investigative journalists and I don't believe his theatre work should be held to the same standards.

For centuries, artists have alerted the public about injustices throughout the world, but we'd be better off if their passionate pleas were taken as a call to inform ourselves of the facts and not take their subjective creativity as the whole truth.

I'll admit it.  I was sucked in by the power of Daisey's storytelling and was willing to believe everything he said.  But now that I know that some of the things he described were not his own eyewitness accounts, I'm not going to say he lied to me.  I ask that an artist's work be creative, imaginative, passionate and engaging.  I'll seek out objectivity and accuracy from journalists.

UPDATE:  After this entry was posted, This American Life posted this follow-up episode where Glass and Daisey discuss how theatrical embellishments became included in what was meant to be a factual report.

Photo of Mike Daisey by Joan Marcus.

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Posted on: Friday, March 16, 2012 @ 10:09 PM Posted by: Michael Dale

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 3/11/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"The hardest years in life are those between ten and seventy."

-- Helen Hayes


The grosses are out for the week ending 3/11/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.


Down for the week was: MAMMA MIA! (-8.3%), MARY POPPINS (-4.2%), THE LION KING (-2.8%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-2.5%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-1.1%), GODSPELL (-0.9%),

Posted on: Monday, March 12, 2012 @ 04:05 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Hot Lunch Apostles & Gotham Burlesque

Sidney Goldfarb's Hot Lunch Apostles might have been quite the shocker when The Talking Band's original production, with its run-down carnival setting that has strippers trying to spice up business by presenting religious tableaus, premiered at La MaMa in 1983.  But if director Paul Zimet's spirited revival offers more of a nostalgic look at the type of avant-garde that had congress debating the value of arts funding three decades ago, the material is wrapped in a fun, participatory production.

Before taking their seats, audience members are treated to a one-room fairground, dressed in the gritty style you'd find over at the Coney Island side show.  On display are human oddities such as a shy Zug Poet (Linda Tardif) and a singing dead cowboy played by the great folk singer Loudon Wainwright III.  You can munch on a hot pretzel and wash it down with a beer or try your hand at the test of strength or the beanbag toss.

Once the play begins, it's all proscenium theatre.  Though written in the 1980s, it was set in a future where millions are unemployed (how convenient for this revival) and the proprietor of a burlesque-themed traveling carnival show (Wainwright) finds it's getting tougher and tougher to make a buck.  Tina Shepard and Jack Wetherall play strippers (full nudity), reprising the roles they originated in '83.  Whatever age they may be, they both look great and perform with spunk and enthusiasm.  nicHe douglas (That's the way she spells it.) plays the new stripper on the block and, aside from dancing, the ladies played by her and Shepard also offer customers a chance to pay for a little extra referred to as a "hot lunch."

But sex isn't selling like it used to, so the troupe turns to mixing up the skin display with some religious pageantry, with any question of appropriateness squashed with the attitude, ""If Christ came back right now, do you know who he'd hang out with?"

While there isn't much character depth to deal with here, the cast amiably goes forth in their lightweight scenes and snippets of performance pieces.  Inevitably, risky theatre tends to lose its edge with age and though this production of Hot Lunch Apostles is a fine mounting, the text doesn't hold up without its ability to make viewers feel uncomfortable.

Photo by Darien Bates: Tina Shepard (on floor), Ellen Maddow, Jack Wetherall and Will Badgett.


"That's how I like 'em, fake and gorgeous," quips the self-proclaimed "female female impersonator" known as World Famous *BOB* as she surveys the Triad crowd at the March edition of Gotham Burlesque.  Most of her punch lines can't be repeated here (although I loved her comments about how gaining weight and wearing tight clothes eliminate the need for ironing) but her combination of elegance and trashiness exemplifies the cheery and oddly gender-uniting qualities that make contemporary burlesque such fun.

Gotham Burlesque is closing in on a year of presenting top-shelf talent in their monthly shows at The Triad.  With World Famous *BOB* serving as host, each edition features a different lineup, and a survey of past and future acts proves an impressive mix.

March's headliner, Harvest Moon, is known for dangling from trapezes and climbing swathes of silk.  The lack of airspace on The Triad's stage may have kept her earthbound, but her enticing undulations and wild hair-whipping - first as a temptress in black and later as a silver-clad goddess - still thrilled the crowd.

The popular Helen Pontani, known as the "Tapping Tornado," brought the adorable flavor of an early Ziegfeld-era chorine, decorated in feathers and rhinestones, while Pinky Special go-goed in a mod 60s style, remarkably managing to remove her mini-dress while hula-hooping.  (I won't tell you where she hides her lollipop.)

Medianoche performed a hot Latin ballroom dance with her partner, Ariel Rios, and later on her classic strip-tease revealed a corseted figure that was the closest I've ever seen to seriously resembling an hourglass.

Tanzi had a very funny routine stripping out of a Snow White outfit, lip-syncing a duet with a feathered friend before the music abruptly changed to Jewel Akens' classic "(Let me tell you 'bout) The Birds and The Bees."  Madame Rosebud looked chic wearing black lace and a traditional gown.

Stage kitten Dangrrr Doll tastefully teased in her duties clearing the stage after each act and go-going for tips at intermission.

For those seeking thrills of a less erotic nature, The Great Fredini dazzled the crowd with his comic sleight of hand and fearless sword swallowing, bringing a tipsy bride-to-be on stage for a few wedding night tips.

Gotham Burlesque returns to The Triad for two shows on April 7th, where boylesque star Tigger! heads the bill, and on May 5th, the fabulous Dirty Martini pays a visit.

Photo: World Famous *BOB*

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Posted on: Saturday, March 10, 2012 @ 05:25 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

An Iliad

Somewhere around the middle of Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson's solo play adaptation of Homer titled An Iliad, the storyteller, known simply as The Poet, halts his detailing of the Trojan War because something he just mentioned reminds him of an event that occurred in... And then he takes several minutes to sequentially list every major conflict in recorded history from ancient days to the present.

Many of the names will be familiar and trigger specific thoughts and reactions from audience members, but eventually they seem to dissolve into some meaningless blur of words; these wars which were life-changing events to those they directly affected, now, to those with no knowledge of the issues involved, have been reduced to a collection of nonsensical sounds and rhythms.

"It's always something," he sadly concludes when searching for the meaning of it all.

Perhaps a diligent researcher could create a corresponding monologue sequentially listing anti-war plays that were written during each of the above conflicts.  They might blur as well, despite each, no doubt, being a heartfelt and passionate plea to stop the killing.  An Iliad's cry for a peaceful resolution of conflicts is a familiar, albeit important one, and the play's strength lies more in the observation of the protagonist's emotional connection to the warriors whose tales he tells.  He is painted as an ageless sole who has been telling this story for centuries, always adapting the details to suit the time and location of his audience.

Peterson directs both O'Hare and Stephen Spinella, as the two actors alternate performances.  I saw Spinella's hearty and showman-like delivery, with the poet treating his bare-stage presentation as a battle he must daily fight, supporting only by Scott Zielinski's wonderfully expressive lighting and Mark Bennett's somber tear-stained music, played above the actor by bassist Brian Ellingsen.

The legendary aspects of the conflict - the fight over the beautiful Helen, the involvement of the gods, the Trojan Horse - are touched upon lightly as the poet focuses on the heroism of the Greek Achilles and Hector of Troy, two men he loves and admires greatly; agonizing over the waste of their and countless other lives.

His description of the man-to-man bloodshed on the front lines is detailed and blunt, emphasizing the confused fascination of the soldiers as they find themselves capable of killing what are probably very nice guys.  He imagines the survivors from opposing sides, years after the war, kicking back together and reminiscing about each battle, as if they were weekend athletes remembering the big game.

At 100 minutes, An Iliad seems a bit padded, but Spinella proves a storyteller of the first order as he immerses himself into an assortment of characters, and the text provides enough high moments to keep the evening engaging.

Photo of Stephen Spinella by Joan Marcus.

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Posted on: Thursday, March 08, 2012 @ 04:33 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 3/4/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"I love awards, especially if I get them."

-- Ben Gazzara

The grosses are out for the week ending 3/4/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE ROAD TO MECCA (7.9%),

Down for the week was: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-32.0%), PORGY AND BESS (-22.7%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-22.5%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-21.7%), MEMPHIS (-18.6%), VENUS IN FUR (-16.7%), JERSEY BOYS (-16.1%), CHICAGO (-14.8%), MARY POPPINS (-14.1%), WAR HORSE (-13.9%), MAMMA MIA! (-12.3%), SISTER ACT (-11.0%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-10.7%), ANYTHING GOES (-9.4%), GODSPELL (-9.1%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-8.2%), SEMINAR (-6.0%), WICKED (-5.5%), ROCK OF AGES (-4.2%), THE LION KING (-3.1%), WIT (-1.1%), DEATH OF A SALESMAN (-0.9%), SHATNER'S WORLD: WE JUST LIVE IN IT (-0.4%),

Posted on: Monday, March 05, 2012 @ 10:53 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Assistance: Caffeinate-the-Plow

In its opening moments, it would be completely understandable to assume that Assistance, Leslye Headland's viciously fun satire of the cutthroat dealings among entry-level twenty-somethings, might be mimicking David Mamet's dark comedy of film executives, Speed-the-Plow

In the downtown Manhattan office (David Korins' terrifically detailed converted loft space set) of a company dealing in an unspecified business, Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), the just-promoted former first assistant to a high-powered, demanding boss, is celebrating his moving day with former second assistant, now bumped up to the first chair, Nick (Michael Esper).  Theirs is a slickly moving verbal ping-pong of a relationship; the professional ass-kissing jerk and his slacker right-hand man, cocky and sarcastic when they're alone, but soft-spoken and humble when the big guy, the never-seen Daniel Weisinger, is on the phone with a steady stream of high-priority demands.

Vince's parting words to Nick are a reminder to always be working on an exit strategy.  Make sure that the person beneath you is better at the job than you are, so the boss won't feel he's losing an irreplaceable assistant by promoting you.  As the play progresses we see Nick's world as one of partnership and competitiveness, where passive aggression is just part of team-building.

Nick's new second is Nora (Virginia Kull).  (Yes, Nick and Nora.)  She's a transfer from the Canal Street office which is apparently where the company keeps its supply of sincerity and business ethics.  She'll learn.

The episodic ninety-minute play allows Kull to make an uproarious comic impression, taking Nora from a well-groomed professional to a cynical, frustrated dynamo with no life outside of the office's exposed brick.  She and Nick comprise one of those office marriages; starting off as a crackerjack team and dissolving into something out of Edward Albee.  Their chemistry is thick during all phases of their relationship, with Esper effectively showing Nick's lack of ambition to be a sanity-preserving tool.

The only other characters in the play are those who come in taking turns at the third assistant position, with strong performances by Sue Jean Kim as the sweet but inept innocent trying to balance her career with her personal life (She doesn't stand a chance.), Amy Rosoff as the ambitious Brit who lets off steam guzzling drinks at bars then downs enough espressos to get her alert enough for work, and Bobby Steggert as the unflappable overachiever who brings new meaning to taking one for the team.

Balancing acerbic, clever dialogue with some very funny monologue scenes, Headland's text is smart and energetic, staged by Trip Cullman (Perhaps the best director in New York that hasn't been nabbed by Broadway.) with his exemplary light comedic touch that straddles reality and fantasy.

I won't pretend to fully get the meaning of the ending, but Headland, Cullman, Korins, Rosoff and choreographer Jeffrey Denman combine for a wild Busby Berkeley-like finish that will send you out with a big smile; even if it's a cynical one.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Michael Esper and Virginia Kull; Bottom: Sue Jean Kim.

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Posted on: Monday, March 05, 2012 @ 04:46 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Rutherford & Son / The Best of Jim Caruso's Cast Party

Though the underrepresentation of contemporary female playwrights in American theatre remains a controversial issue, in a nondescript office building on 43rd Street, the Mint Theater Company has been continually boosting the visibility of women dramatists of the past.

In recent seasons they've reintroduced modern audiences to fascinating rarities by the likes of Teresa Deevy, Rachel Crothers, Maurine Dallas Watkins, Dawn Powell and Rose Franken.  Now they make their second go at Githa Sowerby's 1912 domestic drama, Rutherford & Son; a play that was previously mounted by the Mint in early September of 2001 and, naturally, did not have a smooth run after the events of 9/11.

Premiering to enthusiastic notices at London's Royal Court Theatre, the playwright was billed as K.G. Sowerby in order to disguise her gender.  And while theatre critic Adolph Klauber of the New York Times also praised her skill when it moved to Broadway, he also advised against encouraging playwrighting as an appropriate ambition for young ladies.

The play involves a pair of women who, in separate turns, are able to stand up to a tyrannical family patriarch when the men around them prove lacking.  Aging entrepreneur John Rutherford (a understatedly grim Robert Hogan), has dedicated his life single-mindedly to building a successful glassworks business that he intended to pass along to a male heir, but considers his eldest, also named John (Eli James) - who dared to marry the working class Mary (Allison McLemore) - not suitably dedicated to the task.  Their newest friction is that John, Jr. claims to have found a new, improved formula for glass which he offers to sell to his father, who believes that it should automatically belong to him.

As for his other son, he calls Richard (James Patrick Nelson), a minister, of no use to him.  His somber daughter Janet (Sara Surrey), unmarried and over 35, has been kept away from suitors all her life and lives like a servant in her father's home.

To say more about the plot would give away too much, but the tricky conclusion has all parties pretty much getting what they want, though not all in the way they intended.

Director Richard Corley's handsome production has a fine ensemble navigating through material that can move a bit slowly at times, but steadily heads for a satisfying comeuppance.

Set designer Vicki R. Davis places Victorian furnishings within glass walls etched with attractive depictions of wintry scenes outside; a reminder of the vulnerability of this household about to shatter.

Photos of Sara Surrey and Robert Hogan by Richard Termine.


A typical New York nightclub might promote their open mic evenings by reminding patrons that they never know when they might wind up seeing the next Liza Minnelli.  Over at Birdland, attendees at Jim Caruso's Monday night open mic known as Cast Party never know when they might wind up seeing the current Liza Minnelli... or Chita Rivera... or Christine Ebersole...  or any number of Broadway, cabaret or jazz luminaries who are known to stop by on occasion to do a number.

Last week's second edition of The Best of Jim Caruso's Cast Party, produced at Town Hall by Scott Siegel as a benefit for The Actors Fund, had its share of star wattage - Linda Lavin and Marilyn Maye were among the guest performers - but the show's flippant personality is always defined by the chemistry between comic and vocalist Caruso and his right-hand man at piano, Billy Stritch.

Stritch, of course, is among the finest arranger/music director/pianist/vocalists working the cabarets.  His low-key, genial cool slickly plays off Caruso's smarmy, wisecracking charm whether they're engaged in a breezy swing arrangement of "When Duke Was King" or trading quips between acts.  ("If the room were smaller we'd be packed.")

Joining the duo were nightlife regulars Tom Hubbard on bass and Daniel Glass on drums, playing for a lineup that included Julia Murney, Terri Klausner, Liz Mikel, Jane Monheit and Janis Siegel.  Laura Osnes was joined by composer Frank Wildhorn to play his and Leslie Bricusse's Jekyll & Hyde favorite "Someone Like You," and Stephanie J. Block was accompanied by composer Paul Loesel for his and Scott Burkell's hilarious first date patter song, "Invention."

Just like on Ed Sullivan's weekly program, there were fun novelty acts like rockstar juggler Marcus Monroe, who kept rings, balls, clubs and knives flying, and "acromedian" Rudi Macaggi, who began his act doing back flips, somersaults and splits in a padded suit while lip-syncing to Pavarotti.

Legit opera star Paulo Szot ended the evening with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "This Nearly Was Mine."  No back flips were required.

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Posted on: Friday, March 02, 2012 @ 05:06 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Blood Knot

It's not your garden variety playwright who can draw you into a two-person drama with an extended dialogue comparing the healing effectiveness and fragrance of competing brands of foot salts.  But the comfortable comic exchanges that sweeten the early moments of Athol Fugard's Blood Knot cleverly turn horrific by the final blackout, thanks to an excellent pair of performances created under the playwright's own direction.

Premiering in 1961 with one performance in Johannesburg and eventually reaching Off-Broadway in 1964, Blood Knot was the first piece to bring international attention to the South African whose plays helped educate the world of everyday life during apartheid.

The story is set in the ramshackle home shared by half-brothers Morris (Scott Shepherd) and Zach (Colman Domingo).  Though they were raised by their black biological mother, their different fathers are the reason the dark-skinned Zach and the light-skinned Morris would be unrecognizable as brothers.

With Morris able to pass for white, they make a meager living and spend much of their time playing adolescent fantasy games, one of which has the educated Morris helping Zach start a correspondence with a woman advertising for a pen pal.  But when the woman sends a photo, revealing herself to be white, and writes that she'll be visiting their area and wants to meet, it leads to the surfacing of attitudes and resentments previously bottled inside, signaled throughout the play by the periodic rings of a symbolic alarm clock.

After a jarring moment involving Christopher H. Barreca's set, a dilapidated hut seeming safely isolated from reality, they play out the most disturbing of their inner fantasies.  Shepherd and Domingo do exceptional work balancing the text's abstract moments with a realistically uneasy bond between the brothers.  While the play has its slow-moving sections and seems a bit stretched by the end, the evening's high points are potent, particularly if you place yourself as a viewer back in the 1960s.

Photo of Scott Shepherd and Colman Domingo by Joan Marcus.

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Posted on: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 @ 03:59 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 2/26 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"(The Drowsy Chaperone is) so entertaining you can overlook the fact it came from Los Angeles."

-- Howard Kissel

The grosses are out for the week ending 2/26/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.


Down for the week was: SHATNER'S WORLD: WE JUST LIVE IN IT (-12.9%), CHICAGO (-6.8%), VENUS IN FUR (-6.4%), SISTER ACT (-5.4%), GODSPELL (-2.6%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-1.9%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-1.7%), WIT (-1.3%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-0.3%),

Posted on: Monday, February 27, 2012 @ 03:20 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Beyond The Horizon: We've All Got Our Junk

Though Eugene O'Neill was a grownup thirty-one years of age when Beyond The Horizon, his first full length play, opened on Broadway in 1920, the landmark domestic drama is boiling over with so much youthful angst you might expect its trio of lovers to start whipping out microphones to belt out emo rock numbers.

In Facebook terms, "It's Complicated" best describes the romantic status in America's first great playwright's first Pulitzer winner.  The Mayo brothers, Robert and Andrew, are the best of pals despite both being in love with the pretty neighbor girl, Ruth.  The hard-working Andrew keeps the Massachusetts family's farm profitable while Robert frequently goes off by himself to read poetry and dream of a life of adventures beyond the horizon.

Their seafaring uncle has offered Robert his first chance at seeing the world with a job on his next outgoing ship, but the day before he's to leave he learns that Ruth returns his feelings for her.  So Robert ditches his previous dreams to get married and settle down as a farmer.  Crushed, but not wanting to spoil his brother's happiness, Andrew decides to take Robert's place on the boat.  But as time goes by, Robert's ineptitude at farming, Andrew's inability to shake his feelings for Ruth and Ruth's realization that Robert will not be the kind of responsible provider that his brother would be all contribute to the troubles and tragedies to come.

By contemporary standards, Beyond The Horizon seems quite heavy-handed without a hint of subtext, but in its day the play was considered a refreshingly realistic tragedy compared with the melodramas of the period.  Director Ciaran O'Reilly's Irish Rep production takes a direct, sincere approach to the emotions behind the contrivances of the plot and actually turns out to be quite charming.

Lucas Hall might have the toughest job of the night, giving realistic readings to the overly poetic speeches O'Neill assigns to Robert, but he's a likeable innocent, especially in scenes with his young daughter, Mary (a delightful Aimee Laurence).  Rod Brogan does a terrific job as Andrew, showing the character's growth from a content, uncomplicated worker to a shrewd businessman, all the while trying to hide his love for Ruth out of loyalty to his brother.

Wrenn Schmidt does an outstanding job taking Ruth from a sweet and shy girl to a woman hardened from frustration over her husband's ineptitude to a battered soul just about giving up on any chance for happiness.

John Thomas Waite makes a humorous impression as the crusty old salt of an uncle and doubles as the plain-speaking doctor who delivers bad news.

Set designer Hugh Landwehr and lighting designer Brian Nason provide some lovely visuals utilizing an abstract backdrop of seaside horizons.

While O'Neill certainly had greater achievements to come, the Irish Rep's production embraces this rarely performed youthful work, and the result is surprisingly satisfying.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Wrenn Schmidt and Lucas Hall; Bottom: Lucas Hall and Rod Brogan.

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Posted on: Monday, February 27, 2012 @ 04:51 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Shortly into Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, the 17th Century Italian scientist shows his young companion a model of the Ptolemaic system of the universe, a gyroscope-looking creation depicting the sun and planets and other celestial bodies revolving on golden bands of orbits around the earth.  And if you choose that moment to take a look around you at Classic Stage Company's inviting new production, you'll notice how cleverly the environment created by set designer Adrianne Lobel replicates the look of the model, with large celestial globes suspended above the Earthlike playing area and hints of their golden orbits.

Director Brian Kulick's intimate mounting uses the 1947 version of Brecht's drama of the conflict between science and the church in determining our planet's place in the universe, which is said to be influenced by the moral questions brought up by both the use of the atomic bomb and the playwright's own experience being called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  The elegant and naturalistic English translation by actor Charles Laughton, who starred in its premiere, depicts the central character as a visionary with a pragmatic side.  He takes credit for the invention of the telescope before the Amsterdam fad hits Venice and earns a tidy sum selling them.  But when the device leads him to contradict church doctrine, he is called to the Vatican and threatened with torture if he refuses to recant.

Originally written for a large ensemble, Kulick multicasts a company of nine, centered on the low-key but authoritative Galileo of F. Murray Abraham.  Played with tense passion and a sardonic edge, Abraham very effectively shows us a man who delights in his own intellect, whose tragedy is the discovery of how human he is when facing the consequences of his teachings.

The supporting company includes fine turns by Robert Dorfman as the cardinal (and eventual pope) who sees the value of compromise when dealing with science and faith and Amanda Quaid as the daughter who must deal with her father's growing reputation as a heretic.

Though we're pretty secure these days in our knowledge of what exactly revolves around what, the conflicts between religion and science continue to dominate contemporary politics, making Galileo's story one that refuses to lose its immediacy.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  F. Murray Abraham and Andy Phelan; Bottom: F. Murray Abraham.

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Posted on: Sunday, February 26, 2012 @ 05:26 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

About Michael: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.