Thursday, May 31, 2012

[ title of show ] Isn't What I'd Call Terrific -- Theater Review

Theater Review

[ title of show ]
a recent musical
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 9

[ title of show ] is an intimate musical with a somewhat intriguing premise and interesting origins, which are directly intertwined. But ultimately the material itself is too slight for the show to feel truly consequential. It's OK, but not essential.

I had seen it early in its brief mid-2008 Broadway run, when the show starred its creators--Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen--as two friends who decide to write a musical, and wind up writing a musical about writing a musical. Entirely self-referential, [ title of show ] reveals its course of initially being created for submission to a theater festival, which was followed by a successful Off-Broadway run and an eventual Broadway transfer. This trajectory resulted in additional material being added along with way, but alas, [ title of show ] has not been updated to reflect a transition to post-Broadway local productions with other actors now playing Hunter, Jeff and their friends, Susan and Heidi.

Although I found the show beguiling if well short of brilliant on Broadway, and reviews for the Northlight rendition--both from the press and relatives--have been lukewarm, I was curious about how it would translate to a regional rendition, with other performers taking the place of those who wrote it.

Of course, my interest was abetted by being able to buy a day-of-show $20 discount ticket five minutes before curtain at a theater five minutes from where I live.

While [ title of show ] retains certain charms in providing an inside perspective on the world of theater, and the actors in Skokie--Matthew Crowle (Hunter), Stephen Schellhardt (Jeff), McKinley Carter (Susan), Christine Sherrill (Heidi) plus on-stage pianist/musical director Doug Peck--are all talented, tuneful performers, the end result at Northlight is rather middling.

I'm not suggesting that regional productions of this show employing non-biographical casts are impractical, at least in theory. While I didn't sense that the audience loved the show--which may have been rather profane for the preferences of Northlight's mostly mature audiences--I doubt many left thinking, "That was OK, even cute at times, but would've been better with the real Hunter, Jeff, Susan, Heidi and Larry (the original pianist, who is named in the show)."

But given the metadramatic (a word I've borrowed from the Tribune's Chris Jones) conceit, having the real creators onstage added a sense of "this really happened to them," which served to make the off-the-cuff songs and lame jokes more acceptable as true-to-life banter among friends.

Yet while Crowle, Schellhardt and the women play their parts engagingly, at Northlight [ title of show ] feels more like any other show--necessitating genuine entertainment value--and not just a fun gimmick featuring real-life dreamers who wind up aping their real lives on Broadway.

So with a sparsity of memorable songs--"Die Vampire Die," a wry number about battling insecurities and other self-imposed obstacles, is the best of the bunch--along with some lackluster dialogue and several dated or obscure cultural references, one is left with the feeling that there is nothing particularly special about this show, especially with the non-fictional elements a step less pronounced.

If you're a Northlight subscriber, there's no reason to skip [ title of show ] and with very reasonable discount tickets available through the box office and HotTix, I wouldn't dissuade anyone so inclined from checking it out. Though the set design is intentionally minimal, Northlight does a typically stellar job in staging a production. But especially given the litany of other options at stages throughout Chicagoland, this [ show ] seems best in [ title ] only.

Note to Northlight: Before the performance, it was announced that there would be a post-show discussion. I and about 20 other patrons waited around, only to be informed that the person who was to lead the discussion was called away on an emergency. This is understandable, and I hope things have worked out, but couldn't you find anyone else to substitute? Why not have one of the actors talk to us, or even an usher who's seen it multiple times? I was tempted to go up front and lead the discussion myself.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Red Hot Evening as the Chili Peppers Rock Rosemont -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Red Hot Chili Peppers
w/ Little Dragon
Allstate Arena, Rosemont, IL
May 28, 2012

Lest there be any doubt that the Red Hot Chili Peppers' recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was well-deserved, last night at the Allstate Arena the SoCal foursome provided forceful, often ferocious, evidence in their favor (and their own unique flavor).

Though original members and childhood friends Anthony Kiedis and Flea are turning 50 this year and longtime drummer Chad Smith already has, joined by new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer the band sounded great in running through 20+ years of punk/funk chestnuts with an energy that would put many younger acts to shame.

While last year's I'm With You album failed to generate much buzz, certainly compared to megahits like 2000's Californication and their 1991 commercial breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik, I find it to be pretty strong with setlist-included cuts like "Monarchy of Roses," "Look Around" and "The Adventure of Rain Dance Maggie" demonstrating rather impressive latter-day songcraft. Of course, as befits their legacy, the RHCP also reached back for their 1989 cover of "Higher Ground" and three great ones off Blood Sugar..., "Under the Bridge," "Suck My Kiss" and "Give It Away."

I don't know too much of their real early stuff all that well, but I would have preferred that they reached back even further, for "Me and My Friends"--which they've been playing elsewhere on tour--or "Fight Like a Brave," perhaps instead of a few songs with which I was unfamiliar from 2006's Stadium Arcadium double set ("Charlie," "Strip My Mind," "Hey").

You can see the full setlist on Quite heavy on songs from the past decade, it was a pretty satisfying selection; I like that we got "Otherside," likely in lieu of "Scar Tissue," and other than another oldie or two, I really only missed hearing "Parallel Universe."

Like a lot of people I imagine, I've been a Chili Peppers fan primarily since Blood Sugar Sex Magik, although the band's origins date back to 1983. Still rueing that--while living in L.A.--I didn't see them in late '91 with Nirvana and Pearl Jam as their opening acts, I caught the Peppers live for the first time in 2000 (in Madison, WI, with Foo Fighters and a then-unknown Muse as openers).

I've seen them three other times since, and while I can't cite specifics--especially in regard to Klinghoffer's playing (which sounded strong to me) vs. John Frusciante's--I can't recall the Red Hot Chili Peppers being any better than they were last night. They were particularly stronger than when I saw them at Lollapalooza in 2006, when they came off as somewhat boring (my being all the way across a field surely didn't help). By the way, which they did play last night, RHCP will be performing at Lollapalooza again this year, headlining on Saturday, August 4.

Hopefully by then--although I doubt I'll attend--Kiedis will work out with the roadies whatever technical issues (seemingly regarding his ear monitors) kept him agitated, and resultingly a bit disinterested, all night. He sounded fine when he sang, but though Flea is the one who more frequently interacts with the crowd, Kiedis seemed particularly detached from any kind of audience engagement.

I won't hold his bad haircut or mustache against him, nor that unlike Flea he's not quite the Tasmanian devil he once was onstage. But I suspect that whatever was irking him may have contributed to some minor pacing problems, as well as Chicago getting a couple fewer songs than played at most other tour stops.

Yet while this kept the show from quite being a full @@@@@ performance, it's a relatively minor quibble. Halfway through, the performance was perfect, and it remained powerful throughout even if it felt a trifle disjointed at times. And the soldout crowd--which was louder than any I readily recall--seem to love it, singing along with almost every lyric.

A band called Little Dragon, hailing from Sweden, opened the show. I don't anticipate them becoming as big as some of the Peppers' past openers--my friend Dave, who attended last night, had seen Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins with RHCP at the Aragon in '91--but they did their job sufficiently for about 45 minutes. Dave, and another friend, Paolo, who both loved the Peppers, pegged Little Dragon as being reminiscent of Bjork and various '90s electronica acts.

Nearly 30 years along in a career that has seen its share of turbulence--including the overdose death of founding member Hillel Slovak and Kiedis' own substance issues--the Red Hot Chili Peppers are deserving of being called legendary, but as proven last night, they're still very much of their time.

Smith was impressively thunderous on the drums all night and force-of-nature Flea remains a human pogo stick. Long a sports fanatic, he cited both the Cubs and White Sox and expressed sympathy for Derrick Rose's injury. And toward the end of the show, as shown above, he traipsed the stage while walking on his hands. Not to mention how his funky bass playing powered a tremendously enjoyable show as the Chili Peppers lived up to their compound adjective.

Here's a clip of "Otherside" I found on YouTube. Especially at the distance it was shot, you'd be hard pressed to tell that this isn't a band 20 years younger.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Rather Than First-Rate Garbage, 'Not Your Kind of People' Feels Disposable -- Album Review

Album Review

Not Your Kind of People

Although I have found it less than essential, I do not mean to trash, nor bag on, the first new album from Garbage in seven years.

I've been a big fan of the Madison, WI foursome since their 1995 debut album--which I rank among the 20 best albums of the '90s--and have enjoyed, to varying extents, all four of their past studio albums. They've also been great when I've seen them live. 

And back in the day, when Tower Records still existed, I stood in line to have them sign their second CD and found them to be--contrary to the title of their latest album--very much my kind of people.

Friendly, down to earth, humble. And I don't just mean Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson--star producers and journeyman musicians who struck gold when they formed a band and recruited Shirley Manson from Scotland to be their singer. Despite a persona that's brash and outspoken, Shirley herself was lovely as can be.

So it gives me no pleasure to suggest that this album will likely wind up on the scrap heap of history. With rather little else I've musically loved of late, I've been very much looking forward to a fresh batch of Garbage, especially having noted on Facebook how excited Shirley was once the new songs were in the can.

But while it certainly doesn't live down to the band's name, there is little here that outshines Garbage's previous output. With enough listens, the disc has become pleasurable enough as background music, and the band's trademark variety of sonic textures remains apparent & appealing, but I don't foresee Absolute Garbage--their 2007 greatest hits album--needing to be reissued with many songs from Not Your Kind of People.

The album starts solidly, with "Automatic System Habit," "Big Bright World" and lead single "Blood for Poppies," adequately reminding of, candidly, better songs they've written before--but also why I love Garbage. Yet by about the 6th or 7th track, the satisfying-but-short-of-superb consistency starts to wane, and the 15-song deluxe version of the album especially tends to drag.

As always with Garbage, I can tell that this is a record made with integrity. The group is good at what they do, and it's certainly no crime if their best happens to be behind them. I wouldn't dissuade anyone from buying this album, but both existing and prospective fans will likely find far greater pleasure in the debut and greatest hits.

For while this isn't a collection of throwaway songs, and far from junk, Not Your Kind of People just feels rather disposable.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Especially Without Looking Too Close or Thinking Too Hard, A Night of Fun, Fun, Fun -- Concert Review: The Beach Boys

Concert Review

The Beach Boys
Chicago Theatre
May 22, 2012

(Note: I wasn't able to take photos inside the show; for an additional review, with photos and full setlists for both Monday and Tuesday night's shows, visit Consequence of Sound.)

In my admittedly convoluted mind, thoughts about the Beach Boys over the years have been somewhat confused and conflicted, which likely at times has shortchanged my appreciation for their legacy.

Too young for their initial wave, I think I came to know of the Beach Boys in the mid-to-late '70s, when their greatest hits set, Endless Summer, became part of my family's record collection.

I certainly enjoyed the myriad pop gems--"Help Me, Rhonda," "Barbara Ann," "In My Room," "Surfin' Safari," "I Get Around" and on and on--but they just weren't as cool as what else I was getting to know in my youth, like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Queen and Pink Floyd.

It wasn't until many years later that I became aware of the brilliance of Pet Sounds and widespread reverence for Brian Wilson as a songwriter and innovator on par with Lennon & McCartney. And learning about Brian also meant learning about his mental health and substance abuse issues, his much devolved role with the band, his controversial therapy with Eugene Landy, etc.

The Beach Boys of my lifetime always seemed like an overtly populist oldies act, replete with lawsuits between various band members over rights to the band name. Other than "Kokomo," which I didn't even love, whatever new music they created never made much of an impact. Although I didn't pay too close attention to their biography, Mike Love didn't always seem like a great guy, I learned that Dennis Wilson had befriended Charles Manson (before the murders) and Brian's story was such a sad one.

Hence, despite seeing concerts by hundreds of different artists, I've never seen the Beach Boys in any form, excepting--once I became well-acquainted with his genius--a solo performance by Brian Wilson in 2008.

Although Dennis and Carl Wilson passed away in 1983 and 1998, respectively, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and two other members from various early incarnations--David Marks and Bruce Johnston--are currently touring the U.S. to celebrate the Beach Boys' 50th anniversary (they actually formed in Hawthorne, CA in 1961 but didn't release their debut album until the next year).

Intrigued enough to want to see them, I was initially shut out when tickets went on sale, but was recently able to score an upper balcony ticket on StubHub for under face value.

I'm glad I did, for the music I heard--43 songs over 2-1/2 hours--was fantastic.

Of course, the five core members are a long way from being "boys" and thus were backed by 10 additional musicians.

Although Brian sat at a grand piano and Johnston stood at a keyboard, neither actually played anything. At times Brian became relatively animated and still sang beautifully, but more often he resembled a statue. Sadly, the man is still not running on all cylinders.

But even with such impurities, the Beach Boys were more than enjoyable. I'm glad I saw the real thing (or as close as I'll come) rather than "The Beach Boys' Vegas Revue" or some other such concoction.

I'm not certain who is handling the musical direction for this outing, but he--everyone on stage was male--deserves high praise. The musicians sounded great--many of them had previously backed Brian on solo tours--and Jeff Foskett, a guitarist who also provided backing vocals, helped ensure that the glorious harmonies remained so while also hitting the falsetto notes when needed. Which isn't to imply that the five core members weren't singing live; all sounded in good voice.

I can be a purist at times, but on a night like this, there seemed to be no reason to get too particular about why things sounded so good; they just did. The Beach Boys have a new album coming out, from which they played the title track, "That's Why God Made the Radio," and if you had heard last night's concert on a radio, I'd suspect you'd think it sounded pretty wonderful.

While I probably haven't always given them their just due--on this 2010 list of My 100 All-Time Favorite Artists of Popular Music, I ranked the Beach Boys #81--I do now appreciate their brilliance. They have one of the greatest, and deepest, songbooks in rock history.

And most of the major chestnuts were mined last night--including "Good Vibrations," "Don't Worry Baby," "Fun, Fun, Fun" and many more you can see on the setlist. There were also a number of songs with which I wasn't familiar--"Cottonfields," "409" and others--that still sounded great, plus some choice covers such as "Then I Kissed Her" and "Why Do Fools Fall in Love."

It might sound somewhat maudlin that, in tribute to Dennis and Carl, the live musicians played and sang along with their recorded vocals on "Forever" and "God Only Knows," but these actually worked pretty well.

While standing and singing along with the full house--no, John Stamos wasn't there--on classics including "Sloop John B" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" from Pet Sounds was as fun as I could have imagined, my favorite moment came when Brian Wilson followed these two songs with another from his masterpiece, "I Wasn't Made For These Times." He sang it beautifully, and it was hard not to be moved.

So even if the Beach Boys don't move with the same spring in their step anymore, and should be thankful they've surrounded themselves with such stellar singers and musicians, far from being a superficial showcase, their concert last night at the Chicago Theatre only helped take my regard for their legacy to even higher tide.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pop Sensation: 'Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective' Connects the Dots with Intriguing Depth - Art Exhibition Review

Art Exhibition Review

Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective
Art Institute of Chicago
Thru September 3

Walking through the Art Institute's terrific, career-spanning Roy Lichtenstein exhibition--which calls itself the "first major retrospective to broadly examine his art since his death" (in 1997)--struck me as being somewhat akin to watching The Simpsons.

In saying this, I'm only slightly referencing the cartoon-like qualities of Lichtenstein's Pop Art paintings, especially his early '60s replications
of comic book panels.

For it's been my experience that--even without understanding many of the jokes or references--young kids love Homer, Bart, Marge, Lisa, etc. because of the animation, the way they look, the funny sounds they make, etc. But adults--excepting those grumps who dismiss it as juvenile--appreciate The Simpsons on another level, because they "get" (some more than others) the gags and allusions.

As simply eye candy (though well beyond for those who can appreciate his points of reference), Lichtenstein's works should have similar multi-generational appeal. Just as I was viscerally wowed by the surface-level whimsy--especially in the "War and Romance" gallery of comic book imagery--kids of all ages will conceivably be captivated.

If nothing else, the New York native's paintings are pretty and witty and bright. Even if critics in the early '60s might have dismissed them as simplistic and derivative of commonplace sources--per the exhibition's wall text, in 1964 Life magazine asked "Is he the worst artist in the U.S.?"--Lichtenstein created works of art that are enjoyable to look at.

If "great art" is only to be judged as such based on degree of technical difficulty, Lichtenstein--and similarly Warhol, who I also like--clearly can't compare with Raphael, Rubens or Seurat. Though beautiful in their own way, his paintings don't have an equal aesthetic richness.

But in my opinion, "great art" is whatever you think it is, and for me, originality and "curb appeal" weigh heavily into the equation. No one I'm aware of created artwork that looked like Lichtenstein's before Roy did, and even if enlarging a comic book panel might not seem that artistically strenuous, just in the galleries of early Pop Art gems, there's plenty more than meets the eye.

Lichtenstein always reworked his source images; they weren't simply duplications of comic book panels or advertistments. As he's quoted on the wall text, "I was interested in using highly charged material, like Men at War and Love comics, in a very removed, technical, almost engineering drawing style."

Although for me, strolling through the "War and Romance" gallery felt like walking through a giant comic book, which is why I believe kids should love it too--do they still read comic books?--as the exhibition text points out, Lichtenstein's paintings "look even more like comic images than the comics themselves."

And especially when taken in sum, one can see that through his depictions of chagrined lovers, affected art patrons and wartime exploits, as well as household objects like radios and washing machines, Lichtenstein was providing modern social commentary while not only capturing but defining a moment in time.

But while the "War and Romance" gallery, which includes works from 1961-1966, is the "Oh, wow!" centerpiece of the exhibition, those of us who appreciate art a bit more deeply--like adults watching The Simpsons--will find plenty to fascinate throughout the entire span of the retrospective (primarily 1960-97, but with examples going back to 1951).

Reflecting Lichtenstein's statement that "the things that I have apparently parodied, I actually admire," the "Art History" gallery features his unique interpretations of works by Picasso--the painting at left references this one, which itself apes one by Delacroix--Monet, de Kooning, Mondrian and others.

I particularly smiled at Still Life With Goldfish, because not only does it reference a painting by Matisse that is similar to some shown at a recent Art Institute exhibition, but the original and the homage were featured last month on my FACE 2 FACE: The Masterpieces Comparison wall calendar.

The "Art History" gallery, as well as the "Artist's Studios" gallery--which features four Lichtenstein works that reference old European studio interior paintings showing an artist's workspace with various canvases strewn about--illustrate just how astute a scholar of art Roy Lichtenstein was.

And even though virtually every one of the exhibition's 170+ paintings is instantly identifiable as "a Lichtenstein"--excepting a few early stabs at abstract expressionism before he hit upon Pop Art with 1961's "Look Mickey"--the retrospective impressively conveys how many different themes and styles the artist explored across his career.

I haven't watched much of The Simpsons in recent seasons, but when I have I've been struck by how much has remained familiar but also has changed over the years. I haven't been as routinely captured as I was during the early years, but there is still much to like, with varying degrees of depth (many likely beyond me).

Similarly, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective--which runs through Labor Day--will most overtly pull you in with the works he created before 1966. These are still the greatest hits. But perhaps just as much, if not more so, it is what the perfectly-curated exhibit reveals well beyond Lichtenstein's rise to fame--including, along with the aforementioned, his wryly intriguing takes on Art Deco, nudes, landscapes, mirrors and more--that will not just open your eyes, but truly make them "pop."

Drowning Girl

Ohhh, Alright

Sunrise, 1965 (below)

Artist's Studio, "Foot Medication" - 1974 (Poster shown)

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Scourge of Cancer, the Importance of Protests

It seems that the NATO Summit in Chicago has wound down, meaning that the city streets will again be free from the "scourge" of protestors.

Yes, that's a bit of sarcasm, referencing what I've gleaned as largely derisive sentiments--from news reports and social media--about the Occupy sympathizers and myriad others who have accompanied world leaders on their visit to the Windy City.

Although "the protester" earned recognition as TIME's Person of the Year in 2011, it feels to me that the term is largely being used as an euphemism for "vagrant," "thug" or, at best, "hygiene-challenged hippie who's disrupting normal routine due to envy of the rich."

I think this kind of feeling is needlessly insulting and rather misguided.

While I do not personally know any current protestors, let alone all of them, I am fairly certain that as with any group of people--including both the 1% and the 99%, as well as Republicans and Democrats--among their ranks are people I would like, admire and applaud, and others that I would abhor, disagree with and repudiate.

This dichotomy would also hold true regarding the police, but I have tremendous respect for what they must do and face, such that--albeit still with a disclaimer about possible mitigating circumstances--I'll stipulate that any protester who threatens a cop, causes damage to property or harms another human being (or advocates such) is rightfully deserving of contempt.

But any other protester, who peacefully dedicates time and energy to heightening awareness of a perceived wrong, is entitled to our appreciation, not disdain. And having gone to the National Nurses United rally at Daley Plaza on Friday, where thousands of nurses were accompanied by the great Tom Morello, Tom Hayden and protesters from many organizations in proposing a financial transaction tax that sounds quite sensible to me--and certainly worth at least considering--I never felt even the slightest sense of threat.

Protesters outside President Obama's campaign office in Chicago
Some out-of-town protesters have been sleeping in tents--and they look like it. As a gross generalization, many hardcore protesters more closely resemble fans at a Metallica concert, rather than those who might jam to Dave Matthews...but I have no problem with that. And from small glimpses, "the protester" cuts across gender, race and age rather robustly.

And rather than ridicule them for being "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore," I applaud them.

Because I'm mad, too.

It's been too long since I've had steady employment, and comparatively speaking, I'm lucky. I'm still a ways away from losing my home or being in a truly desperate situation. But I'm plenty pissed off about our state of affairs and what got us here, and anyone who wants to raise their voice in anger or disgust--without otherwise doing any harm except occasionally annoying commuters--is someone I fully endorse.

And while my anger (and conceivably that of many protesters) is--in sound-bite terminology--aimed at "the 1%," I don't have status envy. Though I'm not a fan of conspicuous consumption nor selfishness, I have no hatred of the wealthy. If you work hard and make a lot of money--or even inherited it--more power to you. Enjoy your life and its blessings. 

While "being rich" isn't something to which I acutely aspire, I'd certainly like to make enough money to live comfortably, not only without worry but with some pleasurable indulgences like nice meals and an occasional overseas trip. But I'd want this for everyone else, too, rather than personally having $1 billion while others go hungry (as it's estimated 1 in 6 Americans do).

And when I've made a decent buck, I've paid my fair share of taxes, without griping. When I've owed money, I've paid it back. I'm well underwater on my condo, and paying a mortgage rate I can't lower without a steady job, but so far I've been able to stick with it, thankfully, even if walking away from my mortgage might make more fiscal sense. 

So when people "get mad at the rich," it isn't that (most of them, I presume) want to lead an angry mob up Sheridan Road, it's that we want millionaires to pay taxes at a higher rate, albeit one that will never cause the slightest difference in their lives. It's that we want corrupt Wall Street gamblers who lose all their firm's money to suffer some consequences beyond getting a rebate from the taxpayers. It's that we don't want corporations controlling Congress, especially when they've been bailed out with our money.
The protests aren't about wealth; they're about soulless greed, corruption, criminality and a sense of fairness. 
And if you're wondering what that has to do with NATO, I think any call to action and awareness is a good thing, but more pointedly, after hearing yesterday that Robin Gibb passed away from cancer--which in recent weeks has also taken Donna Summer, Adam Yauch, Levon Helm and thousands of less famous people--I did a bit of internet research.

As you can see above, it is estimated--in Cancer Facts & Figures, by the American Cancer Society--that cancer of all forms will kill over 577,000 people in the United States in 2012.

Regardless of your political persuasion, financial stature, personal beliefs, etc., I think we can all agree on one thing: Cancer Sucks. It's hard to imagine very many people not having at least one relative or friend who has suffered--and possibly even died--from cancer. Talk about a real "scourge."

So I would think it would follow that there'd be common consensus that everything possible should be done to find a cure for cancer, which is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., following only heart disease.

And as published on Wikipedia--as sourced from this 2008 Newsweek article--since President Nixon declared "War on Cancer" in 1971, roughly $200 billion (plus the outlay since 2008) has been spent on cancer research by the government, foundations and companies.

This might sound like a lot of money that's been put toward (so far with scant success) eradicating a disease that has killed--extrapolating the 2012 estimate--over 23 million Americans since 1971.

But consider that in 2012 alone, defense-related expenditures for the U.S. are estimated at more than $1 trillion.

The more narrowly-defined United States "2012 defense budget" of $711 billion is not only well over three times what was spent on cancer research from all sources--over 40 years!--but is more than the annual military expenditures of the next 20 highest-spending countries, combined.

Dare I say--with full deference to the importance of ensuring our security--that perhaps it might be wise to reassess some of our government's budgetary priorities?

According to this study, which provided participants with in-depth information on defense spending, 75% of Americans would elect to reduce the 2013 Defense Budget, "including two-thirds of Republicans and 9 in 10 Democrats."

On average, the respondents indicated they would lower defense spending by 23%. If my math is correct--using just the defense budget, not all related expenditures--this would free up about $163 billion in just one year.

Think about all the research into cancer and other deadly diseases that could be funded, let alone better education and so much else to help right the world's economy.

Add to that the $350 billion National Nurses United estimates their proposed Financial Transaction Tax would raise annually, and suddenly--without substantively impinging on anyone's wealth or well-being--things are looking a lot brighter for everyone.

Given that one of the NATO protests was a Healthcare Not Warfare gathering--this one acutely focused on stopping the shutting of mental health clinics as part of Chicago's austerity program--it seems to me that the protesters, and what they're protesting, deserve a bit more respect and consideration, even if their presence happened to be somewhat disruptive and annoying.

Apathy won't cure cancer.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Imaginary Heroes Reign While Real Villains Rule ... and I Can't Help But 'Marvel' (plus, some simple ways to start Avenging)

Believe me, I understand and endorse how "heroic" entertainment can provide escapism from the real world, particularly during troubled times. I don't think it's coincidental that both Superman and The Lone Ranger first arose during the Great Depression.

And I realize that ever since superheroes became part of the cultural landscape, cinematic adaptations have been quite popular, especially with teenage boys, the prime audience for turning movies into blockbusters.

Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc., etc., have routinely done huge box office--regardless of the state of the economy--and to make huge piles of money is the main reason the Hollywood studios make movies (as this article from Cracked points out along with other shrewd insights).

Although I am commonly chagrined by the type of tripe that Hollywood serves up, I acknowledge--as David Mamet brilliantly suggested in Speed-the-Plow a quarter century ago--the folly in demonizing Hollywood for feeding us garbage when the public shows an Oscar The Grouch-like appetite for it.

But while saying that, I really don't mean to specifically denigrate The Avengers nor anyone who has chosen to see it. And that's a lot of us.

At this stage in its release, the superhero supergroup has outpaced all rivals in history's box office battle, making over $1 billion worldwide (and $389 million domestically) in just 19 days (12 in the U.S.). Box Office Mojo estimates that after this weekend, The Avengers will be the fourth highest grossing movie ever. Though it will still have a good ways to go to catch Aviator or Titanic for the all-time lead, its take to date has been stunning.

Especially coming soon after The Hunger Games--not officially a superhero movie, but with similar themes--did similarly startling business, at least domestically.

This summer will continue to be huge for superhero movies, with both The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises certain to pack theaters.

I don't acutely have any problem with this. I've seen many of the big superhero blockbusters in theaters, including taking in The Avengers yesterday. I wouldn't call it awesome, at least in terms of a story, but director Joss Whedon certainly has provided sufficient entertainment with the help of thousands (the credit roll was more robust than any I recall).
Yet I can't help but wonder in a "Nero fiddled while Rome burned" sort of way, whether there's something more than coincidental about our mass consumption of cinematic superheroes at the same time we continue to demonstrate mass apathy about the real villains and the havoc they wreak.
Certainly, there are many, many people--especially I imagine among those who read my blog--who are arduously aggrieved by the corporatocracy, Wall Street, the military industrial complex and others that I believe are placing criminally corrupt self-interest above the common good.

In Chicago this weekend, we should see just how pissed off a whole lot of people are about economic conditions around the world, which have been largely decimated as a consequence of actions taken within just a few blocks in Manhattan and Washington, DC.
Given my opening paragraph, it's possible that many people are going to see The Avengers as some kind of salve for their struggles, whether the connection is conscious or not. With a whopping 52% of people under 25 unemployed in Spain--where overall unemployment is nearly 25%--why shouldn't they spend a few Euro to see Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, The Hulk, Thor, Hawkman, et. al. try to save the world from an intergalactic attack?
But as the villain in the Avenger--Loki, Thor's brother--hails from another galaxy and has a vague reason for wanting to destroy Earth, and his alien army is so devoid of humanity, I have a hard time seeing a the movie as a metaphor for heroes battling the Wall Street demigods that continue to bring Earth to its knees, or anything in a similar vein. (see item #1 in the Cracked article I cited above)

While I like to imagine that a mass market phenomenon such as The Avengers will get people thinking about real-life heroes and villains, I think that may be a leap of faith.

I'm not accusing Marvel Studios or their ilk of anything more that trying to make globs of money, but I suspect that these supersonic cinematic monstrosities--along with our addictive electronic devices, mind-numbing reality TV shows (or whatever genre of entertainment you despise) and mind-altering substances (including a preponderance of anti-depressants)--may be serving to numb society's senses, and not accidentally or innocuously.

Sure, some of the things I often rail about, here and elsewhere, such as the erosion of social commentary in our popular entertainment, may seem rather whiny and inconsequential, but consider that...
If the decline of America--and the world--over the past 5 years (and well beyond) was the plot of a science fiction movie, part of the alien scheme would involve the hypnotism of the masses via what my friend Ken calls "electronic hallucinogens."
So while including myself among those who enjoy an over-the-top superhero movie every now and then, I'll wish that more people--including young moviegoers, but not just--start to pay more attention and do more to change things...or at least start pressuring our "leaders" to do so.

Not just because I and many people I know (and millions that I don't) can't find a job, but because as JPMorgan Chase bungled away what is now looking like $3 billion in speculative trading losses, it's estimate that 1 in 6 Americans are going hungry. And because Europe's at the precipice of insolvency, with revolution and/or fascism theoretically not that far behind. And because if you own a home, it's worth less than half of what it did before everything went to hell. And because no matter what your political beliefs, you aren't being represented by people more concerned with your interests than those of the lobbyists who enrich them.

Go see The Avengers if you wish and if you haven't already, but after we're done rooting on fake superheroes, let's do something real.

How Can You Start "Avenging"?

These suggestions are rather simplistic and I certainly could use some more myself. They also tend to mesh with my personal beliefs, so I realize the content may not be universally agreeable. That's fine; to me there is nothing more patriotic than debate and dissent. But though they're just a starting point limited by my scope of awareness, I believe that if everyone who sees The Avengers (or any other blockbuster movie) were to also do most or all of the following, the world could truly start changing in heroic ways:

Monday, May 14, 2012

Family Secrets, Deeper Implications -- Theater Review: After the Revolution

Theater Review

After the Review
a play by Amy Herzog
directed by Kimberly Senior
Next Theatre, Evanston

It is 1999. Emma has just graduated from law school in New York City, to the delight of her father, who is a college professor and avowed Marxist.

With the help of her boyfriend, Miguel--about whom her left-wing family is both accepting and bigoted--Emma runs the Joe Joseph Fund, named for her grandfather who had been an American Communist. They are working to prevent Mumia Abu-Jamal from being executed, and Emma is trying to garner a big contribution from a wealthy donor.

Also factoring in are Emma's stepmom, step-grandmother, an uncle and a sister who has been through rehab multiple times.

But things in Emma's life don't really get complicated until [SPOILER ALERT, but the play is historically-based and this is shared in pre-show materials] she learns that her grandfather wasn't just a Communist, but also gave secrets to the Soviets as a member of the OSS.

This is the setup of Amy Herzog's compelling, largely biographical play, After the Revolution, now in its last week at Evanston's Next Theatre. Herzog's grandfather, Julius Joseph, was revealed as having been a spy--along with many other American Communists--when a book about the Venona Project was published in 1999.

With so much going on, the play isn't pitch-perfect throughout but raises enough thought-provoking questions to quite worthwhile, especially given the discounted HotTix I was able to get (the show is already listed for next weekend).

Christine Stulik delivers a strong, believably-chagrined performance as Emma, and the cast is fine throughout, including MaryAnn Thebus, Marvin Quijada, Phil Ridarelli and Mick Weber.

I was disappointed to learn only upon arriving at Next that the great Mike Nussbaum, shown in Chris Jones' review of the play, had moved on from the production, but his role (of Morty, the prospective donor) wouldn't have been that big and was ably handled by Fredric Stone.

Next typically has a post-show discussion on Sundays and yesterday's included a special guest, Northwestern University law professor Martin Redish. His insights about American Communism in the '40s and the repercussions of the Venona Project revelations provided even more fodder for consideration.

Powerful plays often pose more questions than they answer, as real life--especially where families are concerned--can be rather oblique. After the Revolution does, although the "isms" that surround the play--communism, McCarthyism, etc.--are more interesting to me than some of the on-stage interactions between Emma, her family members or boyfriend.

The set was impressive for the size of Next's stage, but the same backdrop serving numerous settings at times came close to confusing me. But even if the on-stage dynamics weren't quite as riveting to me as Chris Jones' 4-star (out of 4) review suggests, the questions After the Revolution left me with seemingly serve to make a good play even better...afterwards.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

You Can't Stop the Beat: 10 Years On, 'Hairspray' Still Holds Its Frizz at Drury Lane Oakbrook -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook
Thru June 17

In addition to finding it a fantastic musical, I've had a special affinity for Hairspray since the first time I saw it on stage.

Not because of the John Waters movie that inspired the adaptation; for no good reason, I've never seen it.

But because back in June 2002, already with a voracious appetite for musicals, I happened to be go on a trip to Seattle with no awareness that Hairspray was even being turned into a stage musical, let alone having a pre-Broadway tryout at the 5th Avenue Theater.

Despite already having tickets to a Mariners game and a play, and intending to drive to Vancouver, Victoria, Olympic National Park and Aberdeen, a newspaper ad in the dear departed Seattle Post-Intelligencer excited me enough that I used a computer at the company store of Microsoft's headquarters to buy a ticket for Saturday night--and then made sure I got back to Seattle in time.

I thought the show--music, lyrics, storyline, book, dialogue, message, humor, all of it--was phenomenal and before I even left the balcony, I called my mom and told her that Hairspray would win the Tony for Best New Musical the following June (after it had moved to Broadway).

It did.

So although I've since seen the show on early tours in Chicago and Milwaukee, and its first local staging at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire in 2009, given the wonderful productions I've seen of late at Drury Lane Oakbrook--including The Sound of Music and Sweeney Todd last year--and the confluence of an 11am job interview in Naperville and a half-price ticket through, I decided to check out how Hairspray was holding up ten years after I first caught a strand.

I'm happy to report--as attested to by an auditorium full of dancing octogenarians--that it remains a robustly bouffant delight. Even if the DRO rendition was a tad less ebullient than I recall the pre-Broadway version, and a few roles weren't performed quite as flavorfully as I've seen before, it's quite possible that Chicago area residents will never again have a chance to see a production of Hairspray this good again, especially for so little money.

I paid just $17.50 before fees for a show that had 17 Equity contracts--including Felicia Fields, Tim Kazurinsky and Michae-Aaron Lindner--among a cast of 33.

With the Broadway run over and the original national touring cycle long completed, any future national tours are likely to be fully non-Equity and even if another stellar local troupe--Light Opera Works, Paramount Theatre Aurora, Marriott again, etc.--stages Hairspray, tickets won't be any less expensive and it'd be hard for the quality to be significantly better.

Tracy Turnblad can't be that easy a role to cast, but Lillian Castillo was perfectly sung as the little big girl who wants to dance and change the world at the same time. As Edna, the role originated by Divine (in the non-musical movie) and Harvey Fierstein on-stage, Michael-Aaron Lindner was dramatically and vocally stellar, even if not as humorous as past Ednas. SNL vet Kazurinsky was fun as Wilbur and Felicia Fields sounded typically great as Motormouth Maybelle.

Without having seen the Waters movie, I don't know how much credit he deserves for how well the musical's civil rights storyline works, but with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (also responsible for such on TV's Smash) and a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Hairspray is more effective in covering socially-conscious ground that Memphis would later traipse.

Given this week's news about gay marriage being rejected by North Carolina and endorsed by President Obama, and the high school bullying incident for which Mitt Romney apologized, the set-in-1962 scenario of Hairspray seems as relevant as ever, as does the musical 10 years down its road. (This seems like a good place to reference my previous post, about bullying.)

Drury Lane Oakbrook deserves much praise for the level at which its shows now regularly seem to reside. I've enjoyed going there for years, but in the past few DRO has noticeably stepped up its game, including large casts, first-rate performers & directors and impressive scenery on a relatively small stage.

Understandably given the weekday matinee, there was a large motorcoach crowd of seniors, a group every local theater should pray stays alive forever.

But there was also a surprising number of empty seats. Hopefully this isn't the case at evening and weekend shows, especially with free, easy parking making the Goldstar discount pricing even more of a bargain.

Hairspray stands as one of the best musicals of the 21st century and Drury Lane Oakbrook is presenting it at near-Broadway quality for--particularly with readily available discounts--very reasonable prices. If you love musicals, want to see the art form remain commercially viable on a local level and especially if you have never seen this show, there's no reason you shouldn't catch Hairspray while you "can."

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Commonality Conversation, or One Small Suggestion Toward How To Stop Bullying

Yesterday, I read about Mitt Romney apologizing for an ugly bullying incident he led while in high school. I doubt this 1965 episode will remain much of a campaign issue--although gay rights certainly will--but I am fairly certain it was never forgotten by Romney's victim, who is now deceased.

Although I have not been in high school for over a quarter century--and not substantively, or at least memorably, bullied since then--nor do I have kids of my own or any acute awareness of what goes on within high schools these days, bullying and related topics (status-based subdivisions, popularity caste systems, bigotry, hate speech, online antagonism, party-line polarization, etc.) are things I think about rather frequently.

For I believe that bullying and high school hierarchies have consequences and repercussions far beyond the acute tragedies of kids taking their own lives and, such as in the Columbine High School massacre in 1999--which is probably the event that most made me focus on these topics since my days of getting "charley horsed" in gym class--the lives of others.

Last week, I attended a lecture at a local synagogue on the topic of bullying. It was worthwhile, but I felt it focused a bit too much on how one might better cope with being bullied and how we all should communicate more kindly, rather than really addressing the causes of bullying and how it might be curbed, particularly in schools.

Last month, I made a point of seeing the new documentary, Bully. In portraying five heart-wrenching cases of kids who had been bullied, two of whom took their lives, the movie was certainly substantive and important. But I felt it could have been considerably more powerful if it had spent some time exploring bullying from the point of view of the bully.

I'm aware that in recent years school administrations have become quite cognizant of the bullying epidemic--and perhaps exacerbated by the social media, its virulent expansion--and I'm told that various anti-bullying programs are routinely conducted and many schools have cracked down harshly on anyone caught bullying.

I've never been privy to the specifics of in-school anti-bullying initiatives, so I do not mean to make critical assumptions about any program or person that attempts to reduce bullying and its effects. I would love to talk to kids, parents, teachers, psychologists, administrators and others to learn more about what is being done and anything that's proving effective or not.

But without suggesting this is definitively the case, I suspect that many school anti-bullying programs focus largely on:
1) Lectures in which students are educated about the consequences of bullying and urged not to engage in it
2) Efforts to bolster the reporting mechanisms and self-esteem of bullying victims so that harassment can be curbed well before consequences turn tragic
3) Security and training--per diminishing school budgets--to curtail bullying in school hallways, classrooms, locker rooms, school buses, etc. 
All of the above are necessary and laudable. In regards to the second item above, one of my intrinsic aims with this blog--although I don't have nearly enough traffic to make real inroads--is to instill in anyone else a similar love of cultural literacy, because for me it's had immeasurable importance. From my high school years when I was never invited to the cool parties to right now when I am writing this blog in lieu of being gainfully employed, having an emotional foundation built upon an abiding love of music, movies, art, theater, books, learning, etc.--in conjunction with great friends and family--has literally saved my life. If all I had was reality TV and alcohol, I'm not sure I'd be able to cope to whatever extent I do.

With the caveat that I don't know what the anti-bullying regimen is in any school, let alone all of them, I want to make a suggestion while A) hoping that someone more expert might pick up on it and B) really hoping something similar is already being done.

And in no way, is this a solution in itself as it's not acutely going to stop a kid from being hit--or simply intimidated, which can be nearly as bad--on a bus or in a locker room, etc.

But I suspect that one of the root causes of bullying and ostracization problems in high schools, America and the world is that we focus too much on our differences, not our similarities. And this can have lifelong effects; a generally well-adjusted relative going to her 50th high school reunion conveyed to me her trepidation in seeing some of "the popular girls."

Yet if you lined up 100 similarly dressed high school classmates from anywhere in the U.S., other than perhaps a few particularly attractive or athletic looking kids, I doubt I could distinguish which ones are popular and which are geeks; who's on the football team and who's on the chess team; who's cool and who's outcast. But they would all know the pecking order, which I think can be nearly as detrimental as in-your-face bullying.

But maybe, just maybe, if a dean walked into the school cafeteria and said, "Everyone get up and sit next to someone you've never talked to before, turn off your smart phones and have a hourlong conversation," kids might start to see that they're a lot more alike than any reasons they have to avoid each other.

The Commonality Conversation

So my proposal is that a few times per year, every high school--and perhaps even junior high--in America, take some time out from preparing students to ace standardized tests and get into great colleges, and instead help them to really learn about each other. Again, any refinements are welcome from those with more acute awareness, but my thoughts run to:
  • Separate students, probably at random but ideally so that various "cliques" are represented in each cluster, into groups of 2-6 kids
  • Tell them to talk to each other for 2-3 hours, asking and answering questions from--or similar to those upon--my list below
  • Instruct each student to write a report expressing what he or she learned from the exercise 
  • While respecting any privacy issues, have several of the reports read aloud in class
(Note: Some of my questions are intended to invoke individuality, but any collection of 10 or so should spur much common identification, regardless of popularity, appearance, ethnicity, etc.)

1) Who are your favorite musical artists?

2) What do you like on your pizza?

3) Describe a time when someone made you feel lousy.

4) Describe a time when you made someone feel lousy. 

5) What’s most important in your life?

6) If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why?

7) What might you change about the way you look?

8) Have you experienced a friend or relative dying, or suffering from a serious illness? Please elaborate. 

9) What compliment would you most like to hear?
10) Describe a time when you were extremely disappointed?

11) Who do you love and why?

12) What book would you most recommend that someone else read?

13) Describe your relationship with one of your family members. 

14) What are you most proud of?

15) Think about a friendship that no longer exists and explain why it ended.

16) Who or what makes you laugh?

17) Finish this sentence: "Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning and see myself in the mirror, I..."

18) Name a movie you like that might surprise your friends.  

19) What is your favorite piece of clothing?

20) Describe the best lesson you’ve ever learned.

21) Describe the best teacher you’ve ever had.

22) If you could do any one thing, by yourself, for the next hour, what would it be?

23) What do you fear the most?

24) What’s your favorite food?

25) Name someone famous that you admire.

26) If you could change your past in any way, how would you?

27) If you could change the present in any way, how would you?

28) If you could change your future in any way, how would you?

29) Have you ever been bullied, picked on or outcast? Please elaborate.

30) How do you wish people might see and/or treat you differently?

I like to believe any people, of any age and place, could benefit from having a conversation based around these sorts of questions. And I don't know that it would need to overtly be asked, but the point would be...

How many of your answers would be different if you were more or less popular, had a different skin color, had more or less money, were of a different religion, held different political beliefs, had a different sexual orientation or lived in a different country?

As a corollary, you may wish to see how I believe everyone should be treated.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Goeth to Seeith 'The Iceman Cometh' -- If You Caneth -- but Taketh a Nap Beforeth

Theater Review

The Iceman Cometh
a play by Eugene O'Neill
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 17

With seats scarce and pricey throughout its extension until June 17, The Iceman Cometh seems to be the hottest ticket the Goodman Theatre has had in many a season.

It deserves to be. Qualitatively and quantitatively.

Iceman is a classic play by one of America's most legendary playwrights, and it is rarely staged. In Chicago, it is being directed by the Goodman's superstar Artistic Director, Robert Falls, and features a stellar cast of 18, including two of the finest theater actors ever, Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy.

The set design by Kevin Depinet--inspired by a design by John Conklin for a Goodman production Falls did with Dennehy in 1990--is quite impressive, as are the 1912 period costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh.

And including four acts and three intermissions, the play runs nearly 5 hours.

So if you can snag a ticket for any price you can afford, do so. You'll get your money's worth. Perhaps even more than you need.

I certainly feel fortunate that my Sunday night subscription ticket for $20 was nearly $100 less than most of the few remaining tickets are going for through (the Goodman offers some nice discount programs, but there's probably slim pickings for this show; shame the four seats next to me were empty last night).

While my previous exposure to Eugene O'Neill--Long Day's Journey Into Night, Hughie, Desire Under the Elms, The Hairy Ape; all at the Goodman, most Falls/Dennehy collaborations--ranks him behind Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the way I regard "America's greatest playwrights," I do appreciate his stature and was very much looking forward to The Iceman Cometh.

But until I read a plot synopsis on Wikipedia the other day, I really had no knowledge what the play was about, nor even that the title really is a suggestive double entendre about the guy who home delivers ice (and has relations with one's wife). All I knew was that as Max Bialystock in The Producers--my favorite musical in which he delivered one of the best performances of any sort that I've ever seen--Lane uttered the title as a punchline: "Just make it out to cash!" "It's a funny sort of name for a play, Cash...." "Yeah, so is The Iceman Cometh!"

What I now can tell you, without wanting to give much away in case you are able to get a ticket to see it here or elsewhere, is that The Iceman Cometh, written in 1939, takes place in the bar room of a Greenwich Village rooming house in 1912. Along with the proprietor, two bartenders and three prostitutes, nine down-on-their-luck drunks hang out hypothesizing about a return to their past glories while awaiting a periodic visit from 'Hickey,' a life-of-the-party (at least previously) salesman, played here by Lane.

Dennehy is typically great as Larry Slade, a former anarchist, and is matched by the excellent young Chicago actor, Patrick Andrews, who I've previously seen be terrific in Cabaret, American Buffalo and Red. All the performers are first-rate and it was fun to see local stalwarts like John Reeger, James Harms and Steppenwolf's luminous Kate Arrington do such fine work here. Noted Shakespearean Stephen Ouimette is also superb as Harry Hope.

But the true star, in all regards, is Nathan Lane. Though more renowned for musicals and/or comedies, he demonstrates in a challenging dramatic role that--at least IMHO--there is no better stage actor working today. Dennehy, Andrews and O'Neill's gift for dialogue allowed the Laneless bulk of an 80-minute first act to flow effectively, but the show lit up--literally and figurative--when Hickey arrived in the form of Lane. And while I can imagine other gifted actors, including Dennehy in 1990, playing the role, I can't perceive liking anyone else as much.

With no disrespect meant to O'Neill, Falls or any of the other cast members, The Iceman Cometh was considerably less riveting when Lane wasn't on stage.

And without wanting to sound like the clueless emperor in Amadeus telling Mozart to take out some notes-- "which ones do you have in mind?"-- the only criticism I have of an otherwise outstanding evening of enriching entertainment is just how long it was.

Having napped beforehand, I stayed awake throughout and there are no parts I can judiciously cite as unnecessary. But should any play really have you sitting in your seat longer than a transcontinental flight?

It was excellent, but I can't deny that it was arduous as well. So even if you can find a ticket, keep the duration in mind before planning to attend on a work night.

While I followed the story pretty well, and think I might get the general gist of what O'Neill was trying to say and explore, I don't know that I completely grasped the motivations of Hickey nor perhaps some of the play's gestalt.

Also, for any O'Neillites who know this play well: Wikipedia and IBDB list a character named Pat McGloin, a former police lieutenant, who is seemingly omitted from this production. If you know why Falls might have made this choice or what it may have affected, please comment.

Noting the difficulty of finding a ticket to The Iceman Cometh at this point, it might be moot for me to offer a recommendation unless he stayeth just a little bit longer. But even without a frame of reference, I envision this is as good a production of this play one could hope to see. Unless Lane has other commitments, the Goodman staging can conceivably transfer to Broadway, where he--and perhaps Dennehy and Falls as well--should win yet another Tony.

So even if you have to go through StubHub to see a play that's longer than some mini-series, you may nonetheless--especially without necessitating a New York flight or hotel--find this Iceman too stone cold good to misseth.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

'Stay Close' Is Far From Awful, but Doesn't Approach Coben's Best

Book Review

Stay Close
by Harlan Coben
now in hardcover

I can't judge a book by it's cover, or so an adage long ago admonished, but I often wonder about the veracity of judging a book by how long it takes me to read.

I realize that quality literature is frequently defined by depth, density, insight and originality that doesn't always dovetail with the expedient page-turning thrills that a great suspense novel can offer.

But as someone who likes books far more than I acutely enjoy reading many of them, it seems that though many of the brand name suspense novelists who routinely top New York Times Best Seller list aren't often acclaimed as brilliant authors, a certain amount of success must be equated with writing books that people can't wait to read...and never want to put down.

Over the past decade, Harlan Coben has become my favorite author. Not because he writes on the legendary level of Twain, Dickens, Hemingway or whomever else I should extol, but because I've read 20 of his novels--quickly--and always look forward to reading the next one.

Coben's novels almost always take place in New Jersey or somewhere close by. Most of his early ones featured the recurring character of Myron Bolitar, a basketball star turned sports agent who solves mysteries with the assistance of a preppy badass named Win and other regulars. Coben still pens Myron mysteries, but intersperses them with stand-alone books, which typically feature a main character trying to resolve the disappearance of a loved one.

Other authors, including Linwood Barclay, write mysteries in a pretty similar milieu, but what makes Coben my favorite is the wit and wisdom he often tangentially tosses in, whether about modern society, trends and technology, suburban culture, etc. Dear to my heart, he'll often cite Springsteen or reference Howard Stern or otherwise touch upon something with which I can identify.

That he's done so, engagingly, over 22 novels--the only ones I've yet to read are one targeting young adults and a recently re-released, long out-of-print early work--is pretty impressive. Coben is one of those guys who churns out a new bestseller every year, and the artistic ability required to do so must be much, much harder than the regard often bestowed.

So this review of his latest, Stay Close, is meant as much to praise him for writing yet another book I've enjoyed reading in less than a week, as it is to note that it took me a bit longer than some others and didn't seem quite as fun. Which, given my pondering above, may suggest some greater qualitative heft.

Perhaps. But I suspect that it's just missing a touch of anticipatory oomph.

I've noted that Stay Close is going to be made into a movie--though many Coben novels would seem to lend themselves to the screen, only Tell No One has been adapted so far, and in French at that--and there's certainly enough here that can lend itself to a pretty good one.

And if like me, you're a Coben devotee who--regardless what anyone opines--is planning to read Stay Close as soon as your library hold pickup notice hits your inbox, I'm not here to dissuade you. There's more than enough of what Harlan does well here to make it worth your while.

But if I'm here to pretend that this blog might turn the uninitiated onto things they might enjoy, for those who have never read a Harlan Coben novel, Stay Close isn't where I suggest your exploration should begin.

I can't clearly explain why, except to say that unlike many of his books, this one didn't make me stay up reading into the wee hours. I was intrigued enough to want to reach the conclusion, and was a bit surprised by the twist at the end, but I just didn't care all that much about what took place, or even the proverbial "whodunit."

There was nothing specifically off-putting about the tale of a broken-down photojournalist, former stripper turned soccer mom and how their shared past has complicated the present. On paper--or whatever the Kindle equivalent of a book jacket may be--the scenario sounds as ripe with possible tension as any Coben set-up, but using whatever metaphor one prefers for a great thriller--rollercoaster, runaway train, racecar--Stay Close just never went into overdrive for me.

If you're tastes run similar to mine, Harlan Coben is an author you should know about, but start with any of the Myron Bolitar books--you may want to go in order, though it's not mandatory--or stand-alones like Tell No One, Gone For Good, No Second Chance, Hold Tight or Caught, which I reviewed here.

Stay Close doesn't stray so far as be avoided by fans, or anyone seeking a good quick read, but shows that even for outstanding practitioners, writing a truly mesmerizing thriller isn't automatic. This isn't Coben's best book, by some distance, but actually makes me appreciate what he does a bit more.