Friday, July 31, 2015

A Somewhat Irresolute Assessment of 'Bad Jews' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bad Jews
a play by Josh Harmon
a Theater Wit production
at Northlight Theatre, Skokie
Thru August 8

I'm sure that others, and even I myself, could cite numerous examples that contradict this statement, but I generally prefer artistic expression that leans more toward subtle than blatant, let alone crass or brazen.

Though it was a hit in New York in 2013, garnered a strong review from the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones when it opened in May at Theater Wit and has been running just down the street from me for over a month after a transfer to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, I largely ignored Bad Jews in part because the title struck me as overtly provocative.

But thanks to cheap tickets at the door and nothing else to do on a warm Thursday night, I decided to see if Bad Jews lived up or down to its name.

And while I won't argue that it's not artful, I essentially have the same issue with Joshua Harmon's play as I do with the title. Though it raises some thought-provoking issues, it does so largely in cringe-inducing, over-the-top ways.

Despite the title and certain insinuations within the work, neither Daphna (Laura Lapidus) or her cousin Liam (Ian Paul Custer) are, IMO, especially bad or good Jews. But both characters--perhaps to the credit of the performers and Harmon's script, but odious nonetheless--are annoying as all hell.

Daphna is a twentysomething Vassar student who purports to be dating an Israeli (after a trip there) and intending to pursue rabbinical studies.

The play opens with her in the apartment Liam shares with his brother, Jonah (Cory Kahane), in the wake of the death of their grandfather, referred to as "Poppy."

Due to a technological snafu while on vacation, Liam has missed Poppy's funeral and isn't present at the beginning, but even in her conversation with the rather timid and non-argumentative Jonah, Daphna is nails-on-a-chalkboardish.

Though not obviously devout, the extremely opinionated Daphna is holier-than-thou, and religiously observant enough to position herself as the "Good Jew" in opposition to Liam, who arrives home with a shiksa girlfriend in tow, the sweet-but-simple Melody (Erica Bittner).

Lapidus undoubtedly does a fine acting job in making Daphna unlikable, although despite being imbued with some ugly traces of superiority and intolerance, I found her more irritating than despicable.

Perhaps not so unlike me, Liam seems to be a Jew respectful of his heritage and reverent of his parents and Poppy (a Holocaust survivor), but non-practicing to the point of being an athiest, disdainful of the ritualistic nature of religion in which hypocrisy, contradiction and condemnation are often inherent and more acutely interested in exploring other cultures. (He is pursuing a Master's degree on Japanese culture.)

But rather than serving as a counterpoint to Daphna's strident righteousness, Liam is just as indignant and exasperating.

Thus histrionics ensue, of the sort that would prompt one's hasty departure from Thanksgiving dinner, but pretty much demanding that we see how things play out over the show's 90-minutes, with no intermission presumably to preclude so-inclined patrons from walking out the door.

A central thread to Harmon's narrative involves Daphna's desire to inherit Poppy's Chai necklace, a particularly cherished family heirloom that represents his remarkable story of survival through the Holocaust.

Jonah, who steadfastly--and ultimately rather irksomely--"doesn't want to get involved," stakes no claim on the piece of gold jewelry, but Liam very much wants it, for a reason Daphna finds particularly loathsome.

This leads to a rather fierce denouement that, while not pleasant to watch, is more riveting than the petulantly polarized verbal sparring that consumes the first hour.

There is a good amount of humor in the 4-person play, but not as much as one might think; Bad Jews is really more drama than comedy.

Quality writing is present--as is good acting by the cast originally at Theater Wit, now within the Northlight Theatre space--and while neither Daphna nor Liam are particularly likable, Harmon does allow both to make good points.

As posed by Fiddler on the Roof and various other works, the battle between being proud of one's heritage and wanting cultures to survive vs. being intolerant of those who find love across cultural/ethnic/religious lines makes for weighty consideration here, and it shouldn't surprise that easy answers aren't forthcoming.

The writer also does a fine job in eventually engendering empathy for all four characters, with a compelling glimpse into the psychosis that may be driving Daphna. I sensed I would have liked Jonah to be more prominent in the ongoing quarrels, but as played by Bittner, the Melody character is well-employed in part to defuse an undercurrent of haughty intellectualism.

There is certainly something to be said for creating artistry out of discomfiture, and just because the characters in Bad Jews are often unlikable doesn't mean the play itself isn't good.

But it does make it hard to recommend, to those of any faiths or beliefs. (Despite its title, which certainly doesn't hurt in drawing those of the Jewish persuasion, Bad Jews is largely universal in its prevailing themes.)

I guess if you're someone who likes theater that you don't really like, you well might admire Bad Jews. If nothing else, you should appreciate how good writer Harmon, director Jeremy Wechsler and the talented performers are in turning you off.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Finding NINA, Anew: Appreciating the Unique Lines Drawn by the Great Al Hirschfeld

(All artwork © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation;

Even before I became massively addicted to the theater--i.e. pre-Y2K--I became aware and fond of the legendary theatrical caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld.

I don't even quite remember how, for although Hirschfeld was most noted for augmenting Broadway reviews and features in the New York Times Arts section--though he also drew movie stars, musicians, politicians and much else--I didn't regularly read the Times.

I think I may have first encountered Hirschfeld's work, at least knowingly and en masse, in an exhibition somewhere in Chicago.

While I was certainly taken with his unique and whimsical portraits, I was also fascinated by learning of his trademark of hiding "NINA"--the name of his daughter--in most of his drawings, often repeatedly.

It was also cool to note that although I didn't come to know of him until he was in his 90s, Al Hirschfeld remained quite professionally active after I became aware--pretty much up until his death at in January 2003 at age 99-1/2.

I bought a sizable compendium of his work--Hirschfeld On Line--loved perusing it and hunting the NINAs, and watched the terrific 1996 documentary, The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story, which you can probably find at your local library.

Al Hirschfeld, Self-Portrait at 99.
When in Las Vegas in 2003, not long after the artist's death, I purchased a signed lithograph of his last self-portrait, Al Hirschfeld at 99, which remains the most treasured and valuable piece of art I own, not that I really have much of a collection.

Recently, I became aware of the release of The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age, a 2015 book edited and with text by David Leopold.

Although likely somewhat duplicative of Hirschfeld On Line, the Alfred A. Knopf publication seemed worth acquiring for under $20 on Amazon.

And it's pretty damn cool.

Admittedly, so far I've spent more time looking at the pictures than reading the text, but it's great to have the full swath of Hirschfeld's long career--including early movie posters promoting the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy and then through Al's 75 years with the New York Times, which essentially serves as a history of the American theater--accompanied by biographical information.

Certainly, Al Hirschfeld's illustrative insights on the personas of actors/characters and mirthful depictions of shows transcending generations are much more substantive than the NINA gimmick--which he was somewhat reluctantly compelled to continue beyond an initial salute to his daughter's birth due to public demand--but I valued author Leopold's illuminations, such as:
"Searching for "NINA' took on a life of its own as the Pentagon asked permission to use his drawings in the mid-sixties to train pilots to pinpoint targets. Later, a University of Pennsylvania medical researcher used Al's drawings to train doctors to read X-rays more carefully when looking, for instance, for breast cancer tumors. The U.S. Postal Service asked, on orders from the postmaster general, that he include "NINAs" in his stamp designs, overruling its own regulations against hidden messages. "It wouldn't be a Hirschfeld without a NINA," said the official."

I also valued the new book for its inclusion of Hirschfeld art that goes beyond his typical theater and pop culture caricatures, including several color lithographs from a Kabuki series inspired by a visit to Japan.

Below I will include some of my favorite pieces included in the new tome, while reiterating that all artwork is © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. You can see much more at as well as on, run by the artist's longtime exclusive dealer, Margo Feiden. (I'll also note that my recent post on My 100 Favorite Artists of Popular Music included an image at top comprising several Hirschfeld rock 'n roll portraits.)

I apologize if the resolution on some of the images below don't allow you to search for NINAs; you can click on them to enlarge somewhat, but may want to seek NINA elsewhere--online and whenever you come across a Hirschfeld drawing.

 Another Fine Mess, 1930. Hirschfeld's posters for the first eight
Laurel & Hardy films helped establish their personas with the public.
Too early a piece for any NINAs to be included.

The Sound of Music (movie). Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, 1965.
4 NINAs indicated in the signature subscript; I see at least a couple in the children's sleeves.

Peter Pan. Mary Martin, Cyril Ritchard, Richard Wyatt and Don Lurio, 1954.
No NINA subscript indicator, but I found at least two.
The Beatles v. Sister Sourire, the Singing Nun, 1964.
No NINA indicator, but I see at least one prominently.
Aerosmith, 1977. Used on the Draw the Line album cover.
3 NINAs indicated; the hair is always a good place to start searching.
Frank Langella as Dracula, 1977.
No NINA indicator, but I see 2, maybe 3.
Elvis Presley, 1968.
5 NINAs indicated; all should be findable even at this resolution.
Eubie Blake, 1978.
No NINA indicator, but a nifty one should be quite apparent.
Shibaraku, from the Kabuki series, lithograph, 1976.
No NINA indicator and I don't see any.
The Movies, 1954.
Good luck finding any NINAs; no indicator number.
The Owl and the Pussycat. George Segal and Barbra Streisand, 1970.
7 NINAs indicated. I see a few; all may be rather tiny.
Sunday in the Park with George. Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, 1984.
No NINAs indicated and I'm not seeing any, but like the way Hirschfeld mimics
Georges Seurat's pointillist style for the musical inspired by his painting.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love: Van Halen is Good Enough, but Newly Renamed Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre Remains a Losing Bet -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Van Halen
w/ Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre
July 24, 2015

Note to self: Stop patronizing--ever!--the eternally shitty "shed" down in Tinley Park, IL. 

Newly rechristened the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, the outdoor concert venue remains the abomination it was when named the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, Tweeter Center, New World Music Theater, World Music Theater and otherwise known as "that crappy joint down in Tinley."

Before I go on bitching, let me be clear that it is technically not the venue's fault that it took me 2 hours to reach it from my home in Skokie--it is quicker to attend shows in Milwaukee--and, even with relative brevity in exiting a parking lot that in the past has taken hours to escape and without much tollway traffic, essentially 1-1/2 hours to get home. 

I also appreciate the Live Nation-owned shed's policy of including general parking in the ticket price--though $30 Premium Parking is prominently promoted--when there really would be no choice but for attendees to pay parking fees of any exorbitancy. 

And while my consternation is genuine, the truth is that nothing truly terrible transpired at the Van Halen concert on Friday night. If this is my worst entertainment experience of the summer, let alone ever, I will consider myself an extremely fortunate man. 

That said, one might reasonably expect that in the 8th row of the pavilion's 200 sections--basically the second half of the paviilion, but relativelly close to the stage--it wouldn't be so challenging to clearly see and hear the performer. 

Believe me, I've hated the joint under any name for years, not just due to its inconvenient location, or because it is inordinately bland and sterile, but due to the worst acoustics I've experienced--repeatedly--at any of the hundreds of concert venues I've attended in Chicagoland and far beyond. 

In 2010, I took advantage of really cheap tickets to see Aerosmith from the lawn of the then-First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre with some friends, and reviled the atrocious acoustics so much that--like now--deriding the venue took up the bulk of my review

Already disinclined to hit Tinley except for really cherished acts not playing anywhere else nearby, I decided that I would only go there if I could get tickets in the covered pavilion, which seemingly offers much better sound than back onto the open-air lawn. Such was the case in 2013 when I saw Depeche Mode with predominant satisfaction, and Radiohead in 2012.

But even with a seemingly "good seat" for Van Halen, I often couldn't see the band through heads in front of me--suggesting the pavilion isn't properly sloped; I didn't have this issue with the Rolling Stones at Milwaukee's Marcus Amphitheatre, even in bleacher seats behind the pavilion.

Coupled with the annoyance of the guy behind me constantly leaning into my personal space and screaming "Eddie!" about 50 times--often indiscriminately--partway through Van Halen's set I politely asked an usher if I could sit in an empty seat 3 rows up and 1 section over.

Unfortunately, the young usher between sections 201 and 202 told me, "No," which even if upholding policy seemed like bullshit given the imposition it would have had on exactly no one else in the universe.

Even worse than my sightline was, again, the sound.

As Van Halen took the stage--following a nice set from Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his band, highlighted by a closing cover of Jimi Hendrix' "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)"--the first thing I jotted down as they launched into "Light Up the Sky" from Van Halen II was:

"Terrible mix."

Eddie Van Halen's guitar, which sounded muted all night, almost to the point that I preferred Shepherd's playing, blended too much with his son Wolfgang's bass and his brother Alex's drums.

Some of Eddie's riffs and solos are so good and iconic that they powered through the acoustic problems--"Feel Your Love Tonight," "Dance the Night Away," "Unchained," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" all delighted--and though David Lee Roth's diminished vocal skills are well known, they weren't intolerable.

For people sitting in the right spot, hearing the music at the right levels--or not caring if not--it may have been a highly enjoyable performance.

Though I can't help but reflect on my entire experience, which made for a show I more endured than holistically enjoyed, I don't want to downgrade Van Halen too much for factors perhaps beyond their control (though it would seem their crew may be complicit in not ameliorating the acoustic issues at a notoriously challenging venue).

In fact, it says a lot about my regard for Van Halen that I not only ventured down to Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre by myself--I attend lots of concerts alone, but this is one of the places where I'd prefer company--but that I was far from miserable, just not as pleased as I was hoping.

Or at least wanted to be.

Beyond the sonic quality, the music sounded much more good than bad, with a well-planned setlist mixing up songs from all seven of the Van Halen albums recorded with David Lee Roth on vocals.

A now rather hulking Wolfgang Van Halen, still taking the place of Michael Anthony as he has since his dad welcomed Roth back in the fold in 2007 but booted the founding bassist, plays a good bass and has improved his replication of Anthony's important-but-underrated backing vocals. 

Roth was in good spirits, but unfortunately the acoustics blunted my ability to understand almost all of his stage patter, save for a mention of L.A. Pink's Hot Dogs during a story about him missing a plane, which he told amidst an initially solo acoustic "Ice Cream Man."

And though I really didn't need to hear another Alex Van Halen drum solo, at 62 it doesn't seem that his power is diminishing.

So although this was my 7th time seeing Van Halen with any lineup, and my 4th show by the current foursome since 2007, it's not inconceivable that I would like them a good deal more at the United Center or Allstate Arena, and perhaps might go again, such being my sentiment for a seminal band in my childhood embrace of rock 'n roll.

But I didn't entirely love their 2012 gig at Allstate, and even giving deference to sight and sound deficiencies impeding my enjoyment on Friday, I also couldn't help but sense that maybe Van Halen just isn't that exciting anymore.

Though I never saw the band with Roth in their initial up-through-1984 incarnation, I sense he's far from the kinetic frontman he once was, and certainly less the singer.

And while Eddie remains the guitar god of my generation, during his long solo with flourishes from and/or reminiscent of 1978's "Eruption" and 1982's "Cathedral," I couldn't help but wonder why he seemingly hasn't--at least to my awareness--hatched any iconic new tricks in all these years.

Still, my ceaseless affinity for the best of Van Halen--including the show-closing "Panama" and "Jump"--made for much music I was happy to hear yet again during the band's 2 hours on stage.

That I still liked the show as much as I did despite the drive, sightlines, sound, unkind usher, dude yelling "Eddie!" in my ear--even when EVH was off-stage--etc., etc., makes me feel @@@@ (out of 5) is a fair rating, even if my own overall enjoyment was a bit less.

I'm not certain I need to see the same band another time, but I certainly won't in the same place.

Coincidentally, with my disdain for the venue in my mind as I shlepped back to my car--the parking lot logistics are another mess--I checked my email on my phone and had a message from Live Nation for "Van Halen Fans."

I thought they might be telling me of a newly announced VH show elsewhere, but instead were offering $29.50 pavilion tickets for Def Leppard at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre.

Although I like Def Leppard, saw them at the venue in 2009, wouldn't mind seeing them again and couldn't help but note a rather good value for pavilion tix, I have now let the special "2-day offer" pass by unanswered.

I'm sure I'll continue to be tempted; such is how much I love certain artists that may wind up being booked at my most-loathed venue on the planet. But with due regard to Van Halen, Friday night served as a good--or I guess, bad--reminder of why I hope never to go to the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre (or whatever it may be called in another few years) ever again.

Now if only I could remember that.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Walking and Talking with the Animals on Another Uplifting Visit to Lambs Farm -- Photo Gallery

Lambs Farm, just off I-294 at Route 176 in Libertyville, IL, is one of my favorite places, especially in a heartwarming, good-for-the-soul sort of way.

With its mission to provide educational, residential, recreational and employment opportunities for those with developmental disabilities, Lambs Farm offers the chance to interact with some of the sweetest people you'll ever meet, particularly within its Magnolia Bakery & Cafe and other retail shops.

And as illustrated in June 2012 and again now, Lambs Farm is one of my favorite places to take pictures, thanks to the ability to mingle among farmyard animals genteel enough for the smallest of children to pet.

There is also an on-site pet adoption center that enables those interested to take home more domesticated animals, such as dogs, cats and birds.

On my latest wonderful visit--even without kids I find it a joy to interact with the animals and support a great cause--I took hundreds of pictures, the best of which I share below with a suggestion that you make a point of stopping by.