Monday, February 22, 2010

Humanizing a Dramatic Conflict (or vice-versa)

Theater Review

Return to Haifa
A World Premiere play by M.E.H. Lewis
Next Theatre, Evanston, IL

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't exactly a new story, and while people from all sides can get worked up over the geopoliticial ramifications and debate the pros & cons, merits & madness of a two-state solution, as complicated as the big picture seems to be, viewing the situation in individual, human terms can be even more discomfiting.

Inspired by a 1970 novella of the same name by Ghassan Kanafani, and supposedly similar in some ways to a book called The Lemon Tree, Return to Haifa--presented as a world premiere at the Next Theatre in Evanston's Noyes Cultural Center--is a newly-penned play by M.E.H. Lewis, herself an Evanston resident. Commissioned and directed by Next Artistic Director, Jason Southerland, the play centers around the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, the arrival of European Jews and the resultant displacement of Arabs, in this case from the port city of Haifa.

To humanize this weighty topic, Lewis and Southerland focus primarily on just two Jews--husband & wife Holocaust survivors--and two Arabs--a similarly upstanding couple who has been living in Haifa, but are forced to flee their home. In coming to occupy their house just a few days later, the Jewish couple finds that the Palestinians have left behind a baby boy.

While essential to the play's plot, this twist did seem a bit implausible, and the First Act exposition leading up to it was a bit slow. But the Second Act, in which the Arabs return to their old house almost 20 years later, crackles with intensity and leaves the audience with a number of personal debates. Lewis, Southerland and several actors from the fine cast of six conducted a post-show discussion in which some audience members were as emotionally-charged as the play's characters.

So while not quite a perfect play, Return to Haifa is a very good and challenging one that leaves you with plenty to think about. But while I would happily advise that you should be able to get 1/2 price tickets on HotTix, that relegated us to sitting in an ad hoc back row with no elevation above the rows in front of it. The tickets weren't sold as obstructed view, but clearly were, diminishing an otherwise enjoyable and enriching afternoon of theater.

Yet while I am a bit disappointed with Next in this regard, I have been regularly finding them to be putting on stellar productions, making them one of my favorite local theaters--on par with Timeline and Profiles at a level just below, though sometimes above, Steppenwolf and Goodman.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Smoking Popes Live Upon My Couch

I am old and fat. Perhaps not as old and fat as those who are older and fatter, but old and fat enough that I cannot comfortably stand in the same place for extended durations. Which means that while I don't necessarily love but still can occasionally tolerate the cost/hassle involved with getting to, parking near, getting into, dealing with crowds at and passing off-stage time before & during rock concerts, I no longer can comfortably attend those that don't offer a seating option.

So although I still--and conceivably always will--love rock 'n roll, and love it best in live form, I'm pretty much limited to shows at arenas, stadiums and theaters. Although I usually stand much of the time at those, I can periodically sit if I need to. But unless/until I drop 40 lbs., clubs, festivals and other SRO venues are likely a thing of my past, except when extreme fondness for a certain act convinces me to suffer. But fortunately for me, if perhaps unfortunate for rock 'n roll's future, most of the acts I favor have long-since reached the level of touring seated venues almost exclusively (Springsteen, U2, REM, Paul McCartney, etc.)

I don't know if it's because I'm making less of an attempt to know about them, or if there aren't really that many I should know about, but there doesn't seem to very many acts that make me wish I were younger and fitter enough to go to the Metro, Double Door, Schuba's, Aragon, Pitchfork Music Festival, etc.

Anyway, to get to my real point by way of a crude transition, the Smoking Popes are a punk-pop band hailing from Chicago's far northwest suburbs that I really came to like in the mid-90s. Their 1995 (Born to Quit) and 1997 (Destination Failure) albums were two of my favorites of the post-grunge era, and I saw them live once "back in the day" and--after they went on a long hiatus--in 2007 after their reformation.

When I saw that they would be playing at a new Chicago club called Reggie's Rock Club yesterday and tonight, I took note but didn't rush to get a ticket. I assumed Reggie's to be an SRO venue and already go to more than enough live performances for someone without a job. But when my sister mentioned the Popes' shows, I took another look at the website listing. I considered putting the show on my calendar, but not with much real conviction, but then I saw something interesting accompanying the show listing.

It said that for $1--the show itself was only a $15 entry--you could buy a live feed of the show as it happened, to view on your computer. Or, in my case, as I already have a projector (rather than a TV) connected to my DVD and cable box, upon my wall, simply by connecting the computer to the projector rather than the monitor. So I did.

Mind you, while I have tons of concert DVDs and watch bunches of music clips on YouTube, nothing replicates seeing a band live. And I urge those of you with the fortitude, to forever support live music. But given that my set-up allowed much better comfort and image size than watching on my computer, that the "as it happened" aspect gave it an important sense of immediacy, and that webcast technology has gotten pretty good with the necessary bandwidth to eliminate most (but not all) buffering stalls, for someone old & fat, who would've skipped the show or gone alone, thereby devoting 6+ hours to a show where the headliner played for 75 minutes, watching the Smoking Popes live upon my couch was pretty damn good.

This is short video clip I shot of the show upon my wall; if I didn't tell you it wasn't shot live at Reggie's I doubt you would know the difference:

Sure, I should've been walking on my treadmill while the show was on, so as to lose those 40 lbs., but I had already done so while watching the Rolling Stones and Nirvana on my wall (from DVD) earlier in the day. Anyway, not that I universally applaud technology that makes us anti-social, but this really worked out well and I'd happily watch other shows this way again. Besides, club shows in Chicago aren't the same now that you don't come home smelling like an ash tray.

(One brief note: after signing up for the live-stream, I didn't get the confirmation email I was promised, so I called Reggie's. Far from the mono-syllabic interaction history had led to me expect when calling bars & nightclubs, I spoke to a guy who was really nice and explained that I didn't need the email. He also revealed that Reggie's does have a balcony with some seating, so that I could conceivably comfortably attend shows there in person, and I look forward to doing so. Especially if the couch isn't an option;)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hey Joe, Where You Going...

Theatre Review

Killer Joe
A Play by Tracy Letts
Profiles Theatre, Chicago

Killer Joe was the first play by Tracy Letts--now famous for winning the Tony & Pulitzer for August: Osage County--to be produced. It is also--during its 1993 world premiere production at Evanston's Next Theatre--the first play I ever saw of my own volition (i.e. not with parents, for a class, etc.).

Until last night, I had not seen it again since then, and had not even noticed it ever again being staged, although Wikipedia says its been done in at least 15 countries in 12 languages. I recalled it having a good bit of violence and nudity, and remembered having liked it way back when, but that's all I could have told you about it.

After seeing Profiles Theatre's searing production of it, directed by Steppenwolf's Rick Snyder and starring Darrell W. Cox (he of erstwhile histrionics in many a Profiles production) and a solid cast of five, I still don't know if I can tell you what it's really about. Yes, it's over-the-top in a Tarantinoesque way (though it predates even Natural Born Killers) and eminently watchable, but perhaps in the end--with fake blood, real coleslaw and much else splattered all over the stage--it felt more like a superficial feast for the senses than anything deeply substantive. That, or I just didn't get what Letts was trying to say. But even back then, he had a way with dialogue that was riveting.

So while I gladly give this production and performance @@@@ and do recommend seeing it, particularly with discounted tickets through Goldstar, I think the play itself deserves a 1/2@ less.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Good Time (for Free!) Rag

Concert Review

Reginald R. Robinson
Jazz Showcase, Chicago

While admittedly a bit of a dilettante, within any art form that I know of at least one current practitioner, I typically could name a few. But in the category of Ragtime composers and pianists, beyond the legend everyone should know, Scott Joplin--and he's been dead over 90 years--there is exactly one artist I can name.

So while I have no real point of comparison for Reginald R. Robinson, a young, Chicago-based Ragtime specialist who gave a free concert last night at Jazz Showcase (sponsored by WDCB 90.9, the great jazz station operated by the College of DuPage), all I can tell you is that he sounded phenomenal.

And given that he won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2004, I guess I'm not the only one who thinks he's pretty good.

The concert last night was ostensibly to promote his new 3-disc CD/DVD called Reflections, but Robinson showcased compositions from the last 20 years, dating back to when he was 16 (and per his Wikipedia entry, likely living in a Chicago housing project). And while "ragtime" is clearly his niche, he demonstrated a variety of styles within his playing; fast, slow, blues-based, ballads, etc. It really was quite a showcase, and somewhat like VH1 Storytellers, Robinson gave the title, date of origin and impetus for each composition he played, including a Joplin rag that opened his set. He was engaging in every sense.

At $45, Reflections was a bit pricey for me to pick up, but I did buy his 2007 release Man Out of Time, which is delightful and likely a great place to start, as you can download it for just $8.99 from Amazon (or $9.99 on iTunes).

I only stayed for the first of his two sets, which lasted about an hour, in order to let others refill the packed joint--as longtime Jazz Showcase impresario Joe Segal noted, "nothing brings 'em out like free"--but it was quite long enough to get a good sense of how special Robinson is. I love virtuosity in any form, and this demonstration was not only quite unique, but endlessly enjoyable. I don't know if Robinson is truly peerless, but I could listen to this "Entertainer" all day.

This video isn't from last night, but is a good example of what he does, and should demonstrate why I was so impressed.

Re-Getting the Knack, In Memory

Although their mega-hit, My Sharona, has been indelibly etched in my memory since the summer of 1979, I haven't given The Knack much thought since I don't know when. But after a friend on Facebook posted the sad news that the band's lead singer, guitarist and chief songwriter, Doug Fieger, passed away from lung cancer at age 57 this past weekend, and then another friend did the same while noting that he was personally friends with Fieger, it got me thinking about the group that rocketed to fame accompanied by double-edge sword "new Beatles" hype.

Foggily recalling that I had at some point replaced my "Get the Knack" LP with a CD version, I fortunately found it without too much digging and gave it a couple listens as I drove back and forth on an excursion downtown. In doing so, especially by the second spin, I was surprised by how delightful it was beyond My Sharona and Good Girls Don't, the only other song I actually recalled.

While the Beatle references always likely had more to do with the Knack's styling than their music--and from Duran Duran to Oasis such allusions have proven to be silly in every case--the Knack's sound is more similar to late-70's power-pop/punk"ish" contemporaries like Cheap Trick and The Undertones (from Northern Ireland) than truly Beatlesque. All Music Guide cites The Kinks and Who as being much more influential on the Knack than the Beatles, and in this 2003 interview, Fieger describes how Pete Townshend was an early Knack champion.

Although I think I continued to pay a bit of attention to them after their first album, I never purchased any others, and other than "one hit wonder" status for My Sharona, the Knack largely--and precipitously--fell from my own, and the general public's, consciousness. In looking them up now, I see that they were reunited in the '90s and into the early '00s, but I never knew it.

Until just now, The Knack were one of a smattering of bands whose brief heyday came and went before I hit puberty--such as Off Broadway and The Kings--who I still recall fondly, perhaps beyond their artistic merit, but didn't often revisit. But while it's clearly a shame that a talented man died much too young, it was nice to be reminded that the Knack--at least on their glorious debut album--were actually better than I remembered.

If you never did, or like me lost track, do yourself a favor and Get the Knack.

Spotty at Best, but Fine for the Pups

Theater Review

The 101 Dalmatians Musical
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago

Theoretically, I have no real problem with musicals overtly aimed at family audiences. I think "Broadway" is an art form that children can enjoy and I appreciate, in moderation, shows that make an attempt to indoctrinate them.

In fact, I have found the best "kid-friendly" musicals--particularly the Disney stage productions of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins, as well as Seussical The Musical--to be rich enough in imagination and quality to appeal to children of all ages, from 4 to 105. But while I believe that this version of 101 Dalmations--not a Disney production--was probably a lot of fun for those under 10, it wasn't so great for the rest of us. (If you're wondering why I went, it was part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription)

The music and most of the lyrics were written by Dennis DeYoung, of Styx fame, and while there were a few nice pieces that I hope the kids enjoyed, most of it was saccharin enough to make DeYoung's old Styx schmaltzer, Babe, seem Dylanesque in comparison. And while Broadway veteran Sara Gettelfinger--assuming the Cruella De Vil role in Chicago after Rachel York abruptly left the tour--was quite solid, the rest of the cast of humans (including many children) dressed as dalmatians was cute, but far from invigorating.

So if you have kids aged in the single digits and are looking for a show they might enjoy, this really isn't a bad choice; for those from about 4-to-7, this might even be a better bet than the fantastic yet sometimes scary Lion King (coming back to Chicago in the fall). But otherwise, The 101 Dalmatians Musical really isn't worth its time in the "spot"light.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Remembering a really cool guy I once met

I called a friend today and learned she was in New Orleans. Upon hearing that she was there ahead of Mardi Gras and that she would be in the French Quarter for the bulk of the week, I told her about someone I wanted her to look up, once I verified the location of his store and whether it and he were still in existence.

Unfortunately, a quick internet search revealed that Johnny Donnels passed away last year and his photography gallery, which was at 634 St. Peter Street, is now closed.

Though this wasn't all that surprising, given that Johnny was already over 80 when I met him at his gallery in October 2007, it still is saddening (especially in reading how he died, via a heart attack following surgery due to a freak accident). For although I only met him once--actually twice, on two visits to his store on my one & only trip to NO--he is someone I still remember and likely won't soon forget.

While I very much enjoyed my trip to New Orleans and hold memories both great and grim of seeing the city two years after Katrina, the most enjoyable and memorable aspect was the time I spent exploring Johnny Donnels' photography, buying a picture from him and having friendly & fascinating conversations.

Although it was just one small facet of a man who lived 84 years and was quite an artist himself--beyond his photography, he was also an accomplished painter--I was quite intrigued to hear Donnels speak of his friendship with Tennessee Williams, who in 1946 lived in the building next door to Donnels' gallery--in the same place for over 60 years--and wrote A Streetcar Named Desire while living on the top floor of main building in the photo below. Donnels' gallery is at the bottom right.

While his photographs were phenomenal in their own right--you can still see a bunch at conjunction with our enjoyable conversation, I couldn't help but to buy a picture from Johnny and wish I could afford more. The one I bought, hand signed and titled "Morning," was shot--if my memory serves correctly--in the apartment that was once Williams.' I think that's made me decide to buy that one--shown just below--rather than the other one I also loved, underneath.

I'd like to return to New Orleans one day and was hoping another visit with Johnny was in the cards. For even more so than the frat party scene on Bourbon Street or all the overpriced art galleries on Royal, Johnny seemed to capture the real spirit of New Orleans--or at least the French Quarter--and not just through his lens. I'm certain that my friend would have loved to meet him and I'm sorry she won't get the chance. For I'll long treasure the fact that I did.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

88 Keys to the Kingdom

Jazz Review

Keith Jarrett, Solo Piano
Symphony Hall, Chicago
February 12, 2010

One man onstage with a piano, almost exclusively improvising for 2 hours might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world. And to be fair, it wasn't. But when the pianist is as imaginative and innovative as Keith Jarrett, it was nonetheless fascinating and never boring. And as Jarrett himself said in thanking the crowd for coming, "if you're just getting into me, it's not the easiest thing to do."

Before going to his performance at Symphony Hall on Friday night, other than in snippets on YouTube, I had never to my recollection heard Jarrett play before, whether on recordings or live. But having long heard him referenced as one of the great living jazz pianists, he seemed like someone I should know more about.

From reading a bit about him in various brief biographies, I learned that he has played in many styles, including classical and in a jazz combo with bass and drums. But a large part of his renown comes from his solo improvisational performances, such as the one on Friday night.

Certainly, he left no doubt about the extent of his talent, as he played many types of pieces all across the piano, and seemingly can do just about anything he imagines with 88 keys. It was a good introduction and I'm glad I went, but I think I might prefer him playing off of others in a combo, or playing more actual compositions as he did toward the end of the performance.

Also technically and sonically impressive, there was something a bit cold in some of this improvisations, at least to this first-timer (the crowd loved him and he played at least 5 encores, including his famed rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow). Although my vocabulary of legendary jazz pianists--especially among those I've seen live--is rather limited, Jarrett's playing and performance wasn't as expressive and inspiring as McCoy Tyner, my primary point of comparison.

So while I liked but didn't absolutely love the performance, it was still entirely worthwhile. Although one disappointing side note is that the CSO's fine Symphony Store is now closed, except for some tables of merchandise they sell before CSO performances only. Of all the cultural gift shops I've been to, The Symphony Store was one of the very best, with lots of unique items I never came across elsewhere. I particularly liked their bass-shaped (the instrument not the fish) mirror and imagined I would buy it one day when my funds were robust. I don't know why the store went out of business, but I'm sad that it's gone.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Long Must We Sing This Song?

Theatre Review

Awake and Sing!
A play by Clifford Odets
Northlight Theatre, Skokie

Excepting references to Greta Garbo, Enrico Caruso, vaudeville and just one world war, which clearly establish it as current to the time it was written and first produced, Clifford Odets' 1935 play about the struggles and strife of a Bronx-based Jewish family during the Depression could easily take place in 2010. In fact, while director Amy Morton's production at Northlight was stellar throughout, I could have imagined it being done in modern dress. Although that likely would have undermined the point that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

While I had heard of Awake and Sing! referenced as a classic American play in the vein of Death of a Salesman, Our Town, A Streetcar Named Desire and other timeless tales, I had never read nor seen it until this afternoon. But the chance to see a Morton-directed show starring the wonderful Mike Nussbaum for just $20 (a day-of-show ticket through the Northlight box office) convinced me to check it out.

Though as with the other classics named above, and many other legendary plays, Awake and Sing! required a bit of post-show homework to ensure I understood both the plot points and the play's message, even at face value, the play was quite worthwhile. Odets' language was fast-paced and the play was never dull. And having just seen August: Osage County, it was also interesting to note similarities in plays written over 70 years apart.

For instance, both feature a family matriarch--and central character--who is angry, nasty and overbearing. Not sure what it is, but from these two examples and myriad others that I can--A Long Day's Journey Into Night, Gypsy--and can't cite, the theater isn't always too kind when it comes to mothers.

I'm still not completely sure I comprehended everything that Odets was going for, but keeping in mind that the title, Awake and Sing!, is meant to be taken as a command, I guess that the main theme of the play is perseverance--through tough times, unemployment, etc.--while maintaining both hope and dignity. While it's a shame that whether in 1935 or 2010 we have to sing the same old song, some notes--those of grace and integrity and hope--still ring true.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Just Super

The stereotype of Super Bowls being blowouts or bores is really a thing of the past. In fact, most of the last 10 have been close, exciting games and tonight's 31-17 final score is misleading about a game the Colts certainly seemed on their way to tying with about 3:00 left.

While I certainly have no argument with Peyton Manning being one of the great quarterbacks in history, part of his legacy will have to be that he lost a whole lot of big games, going back to his college days when Tennessee could never beat Florida until after Peyton graduated and then all the years he couldn't get by the Patriots and Brady. Heck, I still think the Bears should've beaten the Colts in Super Bowl XLI if they didn't have a child playing QB.

Manning actually had a very good game tonight until the interception, but he just didn't get it done. So while I had no money on the game and no real emotional attachment to either team, I'm happy the Saints won. Although I think Saints' owner Tom Benson's victory stand comment about "New Orleans being back" is simplistic and stupid--absolutely nothing really changed for the 25% of the city that is still displaced, nor anyone else who is still struggling--if any city deserves to have an uplifting moment, New Orleans certainly does.

In addition to a great game, watched with friends & family, I really enjoyed The Who's performance at halftime. Sure, Roger Daltrey's voice sounded a bit ragged at first and isn't the amazing instrument it once was, but heck he's almost 66. I thought it was an entertaining performance of some great songs, a bit chopped due to the time crunch, but more good than bad. Call me a geezer, but I'll watch that all day and night before wanting to again see the Jay-Z/Rihanna duet that opened the telecast.

As for the commercials, forgettaboutit. Nothing reminds America of our joy in stupidity like Super Bowl commercials and while a few gave me a chuckle, there are none I really remember. Except maybe the stupidest one of all; if anyone knows why there was a groundhog playing violin in a spot for or why that should make me want to use the site, please tell me.

Anyway, the Super Bowl is the king of overhype, but having paid no attention to the coverage for the last 2 weeks and having watched very little of the pre-game crap today, as a game itself and even a spectacle, XLIV was pretty darn good and a lot of fun. Congrats to the Saints and the city of New Orleans. Enjoy a cool Brees all the way through Mardi Gras and beyond.

'Savage' Amusement

Theatre Review

Savage in Limbo
A play by John Patrick Shanley
Village Players Theatre, Oak Park, IL

I first heard of John Patrick Shanley when his play, Doubt, was earning raves on Broadway in 2005. I saw Doubt in 2007 in Chicago with the original Broadway star--Cherry Jones, now playing the U.S. President on 24--and named it My Favorite Play of the 00s. I saw and very much enjoyed the movie version of Doubt, which Shanley wrote and directed, and also saw one of his subsequent plays, Defiance (not the basis for the Daniel Craig movie of the same name), but didn't like it nearly as much as Doubt.

According to Wikipedia, Shanley has authored 23 plays and 10 movies, including Moonstruck for which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. I haven't even seen that, but just on the basis of Doubt alone, I would be quite interested in getting to know more of his work. So when the Chicago Reader raved about a version of his 1984 play called Savage in Limbo being done at the Village Players Theater in Oak Park, and especially when it was on HotTix for just $10.00 (plus Ticketmaster fees), it well-justified a ride out to that Frank and Ernest community.

Especially after I saw it. Although clearly set in the early '80s, the one-act play about five 32-year-olds struggling with questions about their life, worth and future, did not feel dated, with the central themes still resonant today, even on a personal level. And though clearly a community-level production, the acting was excellent throughout, particularly by Chris Conley as Denise Savage (hence the play's title) and Jordan Blythe as Linda, the second most prominent role.

While not an accomplishment on the level of Doubt, this was a fascinating glimpse into the early work of a writer then in his early 30's who would write a masterpiece in his 50's. And per the regard of one of the actors I spoke to after the show about his eagerness to appear in a "Shanley play," it's possible that much of his work between Savage In Limbo and Doubt, besides Moonstruck, is also excellent. I don't yet know, but I hope to one day.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Great American Play...about everything!

Theatre Review

August: Osage County
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago

August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts, is a big play by just about every measure. It's 3 acts, runs well over 3 hours and has 13 characters, all of whom have substantive stage time. After its world premiere at Steppenwolf in 2007, it went to Broadway, ran for 648 performances (remarkable for a play), won the Tony Award for Best Play, earned Letts the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and then played in London with much of Steppenwolf's (and the Broadway production's) original cast.

It is, according to Chicago Tribune Theatre Critic Chris Jones, "perhaps the most successful piece of theater to emerge from this city."

But with all its size and success, it is a still a play--and one with lots of rapid-fire, intense dialogue at that--so as it is now on its first post-Broadway national tour, going into Tuesday night's performance I was wondering how well it would work in the 2,344 seat Cadillac Palace Theatre. I had liked it very much when I saw it in Steppenwolf's 515-seat venue, but even in New York & London it played in sub 900-seat theatres, so with tickets literally in the last row of the Cadillac, I didn't know if its intensity would hold without the intimacy. (I even brought along the script in case there were lines I missed) I also wondered if I would like it as much without the Steppenwolf cast.

Well, if you've never seen it, there's nothing about the performance & production at the Cadillac that suggests you shouldn't see it now, even from nosebleed seats. Although the cast wasn't quite as pleasing as the original, it was excellent throughout, including Estelle Parsons as the matriarch of the Weston family. Parsons, an Academy Award-winner for Bonnie & Clyde, was the only holdover from the Broadway production, where she took over the role for which Deanna Dunagan won a Tony.

According to the Tribune's Jones, the central set piece of a 3-story house is a bit smaller than on Broadway, but it was still quite impressive. And while I would say that something was certainly sacrificed in terms of impact in such a large space, and I did have to check my script during the two intermissions for a few missed lines, my attention and interest was completely held for nearly 3-1/2 hours.

That in itself should qualify August: Osage County as a great play. I've seen 90-minute plays--heck, even a 50-minute one the other night--that have bored me to dreamland.

However, whereas some raves may refer to it as "The Best American Play in a..." decade, generation, etc., upon my second viewing, I believe my placement of it as the 8th best play I saw in the 00s, still feels about right. Hence, my giving it @@@@ here, not @@@@@.

In short, while August never feels long, it still has a bit too much going on. I understand that in telling the story about a dysfunctional American family in a fresh way, sharp dialogue, humor and histrionics are needed, and Letts is a master at writing all of the above. But to address substance abuse, suicide, literal & figurative familial distance, adultery, divorce, incest, pedophilia, the displacement of Native Americans and much more in the course of one play, and one family, just felt a bit implausible. Or that any of the subjects and characters might have been covered more effectively had a few of the others been left out.

Let's just say that while, given the acclaim, this will likely go down as Letts' masterpiece (and it's worth noting that Tracy Letts is giving another great acting performance right now in American Buffalo at Steppenwolf), it's not inconceivable--and to me quite desirable--that he will author something even better in the years to come.

In sum, August: Osage County, even in its touring incarnation, is a great play and completely entertaining, but clearly not the be all, end all.

Monday, February 01, 2010

A Dramatic Disappointment

Theater Review

Hughie/Krapp's Last Tape
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
@@@1/2 for Hughie / @1/2 for Krapp's Last Tape

I have enjoyed being a Goodman Theatre subscriber for several seasons and have seen over 50 plays (including a few musicals) there over the past decade. While I have found much of their work worthwhile--and for a Sunday night subscriber price of $22 per show, quite a good value--looking back I'd have to say that I have been disappointed more often than not.

Although the acting has generally been stellar, the content of the plays being presented has been, to me, largely less than superlative. And having last night gone to the second show of my 2009-10 subscription season (in the Albert, the larger of Goodman's 2 theaters), I would have to say they are 0-for-2. Or perhaps, more precisely 1-for-3, barely.

Back in October, I didn't care all that much for their mounting of the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers as a stage musical. And while Brian Dennehy in two rare one-acts by legendary authors might sound like a sure thing, it sure wasn't.

Dennehy is a great actor, and nothing he did last night disproved that, but the combination of Hughie (by Eugene O'Neill) and Krapp's Last Tape (by Samuel Beckett) did nothing to enrich or enlighten me, and only Hughie managed to at least entertain.

A 42-minute dialogue between a lifelong gambler and a hotel night clerk (played by Joe Grifasi) who has replaced the recently deceased Hughie, this was a slightly enlarged but not really enhanced version of a play the Goodman staged in the Owen in 2004 with the same actors. Dennehy and Grifasi are both fun to watch, but overall the work feels solid but slight, certainly not special.

But compared with Krapp's Last Tape, which features only Dennehy and a tape recorder, Hughie was spectacular. Although I never have seen nor read Waiting For Godot, it seems wrong for me to lambast a writer as acclaimed as Beckett. But along with me not liking this show, from the comments of those around me as the theater emptied, it seemed no one did. Dennehy plays an old guy who records his thoughts every year on his birthday, except the "play" is largely just him listening back to past recordings. And it opens with Dennehy's character stalking around the stage eating bananas for 20 minutes. So of the 50 minutes that delayed my getting home to watch Grammy highlights--I liked the pairings of GaGa/Elton & Taylor/Stevie--Dennehy only spoke live for less than 10. And that was in an often hard-to-understand Irish brogue.

Long story ending, if you have a subscription, go, but don't expect to love it. If you don't, don't bother. Steppenwolf's American Buffalo, Redtwist's The Pillowman and Profiles' Killer Joe all demand your attention before this Krapp.