The New York Weekend

Ken AshfordTheatre4 Comments

So I haven’t blogged for a while.  Been busy fighting the flu and going to New York to see theater, the latter being, naturally, the highlight.

Emily (who tells her tale here) and I flew up Friday morning on Continental.  Emily, not one for air travel, handled it well.   It could have been worse…

We checked into our hotel, the Crown Plaza, which was centrally located in Times Square/Theatre District.  35th floor, giving us a nice view of Jersey, the sunset, and a peculiar man in an adjoining skyscraper who liked to shower in front of an open window (whom I quickly dubbed "Emily’s boyfriend").

And so began the weekend.

Play643bAugust: Osage County.  This, for me, was the raison d’etre of the weekend, and I wasn’t disappointed.  This is "the play" of the season and gets favorably compared to Long Day’s Journey Into Night and other classics.  There’s talk of Pulitzer and, of course, many Tonys.  As the Times said:

A fraught, densely plotted saga of an Oklahoma clan in a state of near-apocalyptic meltdown, “August” is probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Oh, forget probably: It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.

The writer is Tracy Letts ("Bug") and performed by the Steppenwolf Company. 

It clocked in at over three hours, with two intermissions, but there was not a moment I was bored.  August is a comic drama about a dysfunctional Southern family.  The matriarch is addicted to pills; the patriarch, an alcoholic.  He makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the play, explaining the situation to a housekeeper he’s hiring: "My wife takes pills and I drink. That’s the bargain we’ve struck … one of the bargains, just one paragraph of our marriage contract …. cruel covenant."

Shortly after this, he disappears from the house, sending the play off.   His mysterious disappearance brings the three daughters, their husbands/fiances, a pair of in-laws, and a grandchild all together, although "together" is one thing this family is not.

For a play that touches upon drug addiction and alcoholism, and includes blood relatives falling in love with each other (cousins? siblings?  I ain’t tellin’…), the seduction of a 16 year old pot-smoking girl by her soon-to-be-uncle, infidelity and an awful lot of familial fighting, it would be hard for one to believe that the show could have such raw humor.  But it was very very funny.  So funny at times, that you forget that you are watching a contemporary epic tragedy.

The dialogue was witty and sharp, full of memorable one-liners like "Thank God we can’t tell the future, or we’d never get out of bed” and interesting monologues (one, for example, calling bullshit on the whole "greatest generation" thing).  Some scenes were absolutely flawless in writing and execution — I’m thinking in particular of the "dinner scene": the awkwardly comic grace uttered by one of the characters, the explanation by the little girl of why she won’t eat meat (when animals are slaughtered, they experience fear; so at the time of their death, animals are excreting chemicals into their blood, like adrenaline; so therefore, when you eat meat, you are literally "eating fear"), and the inevitable "honest" criticisms from the mother of those at the table, which ends up in violent plate-smashing.

The three-story set (which you can get a sense of in the picture below) was fantastic.


The performances were phenomenal, and you found yourself caring about every character, despite their flaws.  Deanna Dunagan is certain to take the Tony as the unbearably mean and tragic Violet Weston, the matriarch of the family.  She brought a certain physicality to the role, especially during the times when she was high.  Other times, her beady eyes would scan the family, looking for the next victim of her no-bullshit verbal abuse — ironic since her pill addiction was largely a by-product of having mouth cancer.

Amy Morton as the daughter Barbara also was amazing, especially once she decided to stand up to her mother and others and take control ("I AM RUNNING THINGS HERE!!"). 

Well, they all were really good.  This is Steppenwolf, which has some of the best ensemble acting in the country.


(Pictured above: Jeff Perry, Mariann Mayberry, Deanna Dunagan, and Amy Morton)

Xanadu.  This was our theatre fare for the Saturday matinee.  If there ever was a show that was the polar opposite of August, it would be Xanadu, a campy no-intermission 90 minute musical based on the horribly bad film.

I didn’t have high expectations for Xanadu.  First of all, I thought the movie was bad, but not bad in a good way.  Just plain bad.  But I actually kind of liked the music in the movie, especially the ELO stuff, and I knew they were butchering it in the stage production.

But I really really liked Xanadu.  It was extremely funny, and most of the credit goes to Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson, as well as the writing.  I couldn’t get enough of Kerry Butler’s over-the-top Australian accent ("My name is Kiiiiiiiiiiiiirraaah") and Jackson’s vacant stare as the California surfer-dude type who just wants to open a rollerdisco and arts center (with the help of Butler, as a Greek muse).  The supporting cast was great as well.  The stage was comparatively small, made smaller by the fact that some of the audience sits on stage (the actors loved to play and "ad lib" to them).

It was campy good fun.  Can’t understand why Jamie didn’t like it, but I think it’s because it’s one of those shows that is aware that it’s a show.

Emily got her pictures taken with Kerry and Cheyenne afterwards.


Tony & Tina’s Wedding.  Well, here’s the thing about T&TW.  It may seem a bit obvious, but it didn’t really dawn on me until I was there — when you attend this show, you’re going to a wedding and a wedding reception.  Think about what that means: that means you sit through a ceremony (which normally is held in an actual church, but they didn’t have one for our particular performance), and then you go to a party afterwards.

And that was the problem for me.  Attending Tony & Tina’s Wedding, while not unbearable, was not unlike going a wedding for two people you don’t know, and then going to a party populated by people you don’t know. 

General_invites_thumb_1_2Now, I recognize that some people don’t really need a reason to do this.  If there is food and alcohol and the chance to do the Electric Slide, then some people are like "Hey! Sign me up!".  But I’m just not one of those people.

There really wasn’t much of a plot (nor did I expect there to be).  It was just a bunch of characters, acting as those characters would act.  For example, Tina’s brother was flamboyantly gay.  So throughout the evening, you might see him dancing or talking, and always acting flamboyantly gay.  And that was it.  The photographer got slowly drunk as the evening went on.  And that was it.

It wasn’t that it was a bad show, and every so often something amusing might happen (if you happened to catch it, because everything is happening all around you at the same time).  It’s just that once you kind of "got" what each character was about, there really wasn’t more to it.  And in fact, there were several characters there that just seemed to "be there" — you weren’t sure why.

I couldn’t help think that it would be a much more fun show to perform than to actually see.  Unless, of course, you happen to like to attend weddings of total strangers of Italian descent who hail from New Jersey.  Which, you know, I’ve never particularly felt compelled to do.

So, I’m glad I found out what the experience was like, but I was a bit disappointed.

PoppinsMary Poppins.  Ah, yes.  The Disney musical.

I’m not a big fan of the film.  Not that I hate it, but I just don’t have the emotional attachment to it that others have.  Except for "Feed The Birds".  Love "Feed The Birds".  Don’t know why.  Just a softy, I guess.

The stage version is interesting in that it incorporates the songs from the Disney classic film, and adds some new songs (most of them not bad at all), but the story itself is more based on the books.  So it wasn’t like the film was plastered on to the stage.

That said, it was everything you would expect from a Disney show.  Spectacular effects.  Amazing moving sets.  Outstanding choreography.  Ashley Brown was terrific.  As was Gavin Lee.

It’s hard not to watch something like that and just not be enthralled.  But my complaint is what I have with most Disney shows, save (perhaps) The Lion King.  It was too much flash, too little substance.  The show seems to rely on you being DAZZLED.  They are there to DAZZLE you dammit, and DAZZLED you shall be.  And DAZZLED I was. 

Marypoppinsbegin460 The problem with that is this: if three minutes go by without a special effect of some sort — someone flying, or an animatronic dog barking, or a high-stepping dance number — you can almost feel the audience thinking "Come on!  What’s with the talking here?"

But taking it for what it is, it is a very good show and a really fun time.  Someday, I wish someone would mount a scaled-down version of a show like this, and let the actors, rather than the set and special effects have a greater role.  But that’s just me — I’m in the minority on that one.

Emily commented that the show seemed "dark".  And it was.  I’ve always thought there was something creepy about Mary Poppins.

The rest of the weekend.  Well, we managed to keep ourselves busy visiting the sites in the area, from Rockefeller Center to St. Paul’s to a walk in Central Park.  Going to Colony Records to get sheet music, and theatre bookstores to get plays.

We had to hunt around for Starbucks.  They’re a little hard to find in Manhattan for some reason. </sarcasm>

I saw Conan O’Brien very briefly while Emily and I were at Dean & Deluca.  Emily missed him, but we both saw Michael Emerson (Ben of "Lost") with his child.  I thought he was with a woman (perhaps his wife, Carrie Preston), but it was such a brief celeb spotting, that I couldn’t be sure.

On Saturday night after Tony & Tina’s Not Real Wedding But Actors Just Pretending That They Were Getting Married, Emily and I went to one of my favorite NY nightspots, The Duplex, down in the Village.  I always liked the vibe there, although I’ve noticed the past few times I’ve been there, that the "Broadway" piano bar really doesn’t do that much "Broadway" anymore. 

No matter though.  The piano player was great, as usual, and it was a nice atmosphere.  Well kinda.  One of the barkeeps was in a bad mood, having just recently been dumped by her girlfriend.  She made the wildly incorrect prediction that Emily, being straight, would enjoy sex with a lesbian such as herself (well, I’m assuming she was incorrect on that prediction), followed shortly by the even more inaccurate prediction that Emily and I would "fuck" that night.  Well, that’s what you get for sitting up front.  I should have known better.

And of course, one of the joys of the weekend was seeing the always lovely and very pregnant Heather and Jeff.  (Clarification: Heather was lovely and pregnant; Jeff was just lovely)  We had brunch with them on Saturday, and Heather stopped by to see us Sunday as we waited outside the Mary Poppins stage door (she works concessions at the show).  She looked great and the layers of winter clothing made her look ready to pop.  She’s not ready yet — the baby has another month or so in the oven.  But I got the sense that Heather was hoping it would come sooner.  Pregnancy — a bitch and a blessing, I guess.

We arrived back in Greensboro way behind schedule, thanks to Continental’s decision not to have a flight crew ready when both the plane and passengers were all prepared to fly.  So much for Continental "Express".