I’m awake in a lonely room

In which I mourn live theater and my emotional wellbeing.

I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands recently. Anyone else? And while many of us seem to be more productive than ever, using social distancing as an excuse to finally move forward on creative projects, I have mostly been sitting around watching YouTube videos and trying not to scream. Which I think counts as self-care, so I will not be shamed for it! I couldn’t get my act together to write a newsletter earlier in the week — I wasn’t sure what to say. And so I made this playlist, because I miss theater and human contact, almost equally. You can listen to it on Spotify, and read my annotations below.

“Lonely Room” (from Oklahoma!). I mean… mood. Patrick Vaill felt like the right way to start this playlist. Any playlist, really.

“Greenfinch and Linnet Bird” (from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). This isn’t exactly my favorite song from Sweeney Todd — I included that one later on the list — but it’s one of Sondheim’s best about captivity. Teach me to be more adaptive, please!

“Stay With Me” (from Into the Woods). This is an Into the Woods-heavy playlist, because, well, I made it. There are just so many songs from this show that work for our current moment! “Don’t you know what’s out in there in the world?” Yes, which is why I’m self-isolating. We are all Rapunzel.

“Waiting for Life” (from Once on This Island). I tried to group the playlist into thematic categories throughout. Thus begins the “I Want” section, with Ti Moune singing about how much she wants to get the fuck out. Relatable!

“In My Own Little Corner” (from Cinderella). Did I mention categories? How about a sub-category? That’s right. It’s the princesses! Anyway, I have definitely felt like Cinderella over the past week, except I’m cleaning much less.

“Out There” (from The Hunchback of Notre Dame). OK, Quasimodo isn’t a princess, but like, close enough. And either way, we’ve reached the sub-sub-category of Disney. (Friends, I put… too much thought into this.) Anyway, despite being safe behind these windows and these parapets of stone, I am struggling!

“Part of Your World” (from The Little Mermaid). I started crying as soon as I tried to explain this song choice. You get it. Moving on.

“When Will My Life Begin?” (from Tangled). Yes, I cheated. It’s a movie musical, so this isn’t actually a showtune. But given that this song became a quarantine meme on Twitter — and because I already had a Disney section of the playlist — it only felt right.

“Home” (from Beauty and the Beast). I wasn’t sure about this one, since being home is the problem right now. But: “Am I here for a day or forever?” Preach, Belle.

“Santa Fe” (from Newsies). Much like Jack, I need space and fresh air.

“If I Had a Fine White Horse” (from The Secret Garden). And much like Martha, inside I’ll have to stay!

“Anything But Lonely” (from Aspects of Love). I confess that I’m not an Aspects of Love fan, but I couldn’t resist a song that opens with “anything but lonely, anything but empty rooms.” Points were made!

“Around the World” (from Grey Gardens). No one practiced social distancing quite like the Beales of Grey Gardens.

“I Read” (from Passion). OK, Fosca is also a social distancing icon.

“Our Little World” (from Into the Woods). More Into the Woods! Here’s everyone’s favorite song — you know, the one they only included in the highly maligned revival. But it felt like the right way to kick off this thematic category of “isolating with someone else.”

“I Will Never Leave You” (from Side Show). I mean, I realize that Daisy and Violet didn’t exactly have much choice in the matter. Nevertheless!

“Last Night of the World” (from Miss Saigon). When you’re in love and no one else understands, it can feel like you’re the only two people in the world. And when you’re in love and quarantined together, it’s probably kind of the same? (This is the sub-category of “isolating with someone you’re in love with.”)

“Only Us” (from Dear Evan Hansen). See above. Nobody else but the two of us here, indeed!

“You Walk With Me” (from The Full Monty). One of the most underrated Broadway love songs of all time. This song always makes me cry, and it’s perfect for the walks I’ve been taking recently. By myself.

“I Am My Own Best Friend” (from Chicago). Baby’s alive! But baby’s alone. (I’m baby.)

“Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk” (from A New Brain). If I hadn’t included a deep-cut Bill Finn song on here, I would never have been able to forgive myself. Also: “Here I am, detestor of small spaces. Unable to breathe, I turn loquacious.”

“Wig in a Box” (from Hedwig and the Angry Inch). I don’t know, this song just makes me think about making your own fun in challenging times. And the strangest things do seem suddenly routine.

“On My Own” (from Les Misérables). Can you believe I almost forgot to include this classic? If there is a better song about social distancing walks, I don’t know it.

“Alone in the Universe” (from Seussical). On the one hand, Seussical is a supremely silly show. On the other hand, I am absolutely getting emotional thinking about closing my eyes and flying to Solla Sollew. We are all so tender and isolated right now!

“I Don’t Need a Roof” (from Big Fish). I’ll be honest: I’m not sure this one fits. I just really like it. But it’s a song about how it doesn’t matter where you’re sheltering in place if you’re sheltering in place with the person you love.

“A House Is Not a Home” (from Promises, Promises). This one is probably more apt, as it’s about sheltering in place without the person you love. We’re not meant to live alone, OK? (Incidentally, have you been following Cheno’s quarantine content? Truly exceptional work.)

“If I Have to Live Alone” (from The Baker’s Wife). We’re in the living alone section of the playlist. This song felt appropriate.

“Sonya Alone” (from Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812). “I will stand here right outside your door” because social distancing.

“You Learn to Live Without” (from If/Then). When I read the lyrics to this song — which is about grieving the death of a spouse — I was honestly shocked at how perfectly they fit our current situation. Because while the context is vastly different, the themes of personal sacrifice and adjustment to dramatically different circumstances is… relatable.

“Losing My Mind” (from Follies). I’m not sure who the “you” is in my quarantine playlist-specific inclusion of this song. Coronavirus? It’s like I’m losing my mind.

“Johanna” (from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). See, I told you I’d make room for the best Sweeney Todd song. Isolation, loneliness, longing, city on fire. It’s all here.

“No One Is Alone” (from Into the Woods). It’s not just a comforting reminder at a time when the feeling of being alone is overwhelming — it’s also a reminder of how important our individual choices are. There is nothing like a pandemic to show us how connected we are, for better and for worse. “You move just a finger, say the slightest word, something’s bound to linger, be heard.” Anyway, I’m weeping again.

“Edges of the World” (from Fun Home). Yeah, this was kind of a dark choice for the playlist, but uh, welcome to my mind after a week alone in a studio apartment. It’s a constant push-and-pull between falling into nothingness and flying into something so sublime.

“Memory” (from Cats). I wanted to final arc of this playlist to be something approaching hopeful. I kept it pretty bittersweet, because, well. But is there anything more resonant than belting “touch me” right now?

“Wicked Little Town (Tommy Gnosis Version)” (from Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Personally, I find the lack of mystical design to be comforting, but your mileage may vary.

“Answer Me” (from The Band’s Visit). God, this song was gutting every time I saw The Band’s Visit, and it’s that much more gutting now. “That’s the sound of longing.”

“Being Alive” (from Company). “But alone is alone, not alive!” Add ‘em up, Bobby, fuck. (On a personal note, Company was the last show I saw before the Broadway shutdown, and… ouch.)

“Some Other Time” (from On the Town). This song always hits hard. When you’re not sure when you’re going to be able to see and hold your loved ones again, it hits really hard. Oh, well!

“Time Heals Everything” (from Mack & Mabel). Sticking with the theme of time and the uncertainty of it all. When will life be back to normal? Some Tuesday, Thursday, April, August, Autumn, Winter, next year, some year…

“Hold On” (from The Secret Garden). Seriously, though, we need some hope now. We deserve hope. And so: “It’s the storm, not you, that’s bound to blow away.”

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” (from Carousel). And speaking of storms, “at the end of a storm, there’s a golden sky.” The overall message of this song is also particularly useful during a time of occasionally devastating isolation.

“We’ll Meet Tomorrow” (from Titanic). I probably should have thought twice before including this song during the inspirational section of the playlist, but it’s a lovely sentiment if you ignore what happened to the passengers on the Titanic.

“Home” (The Wiz). As I said with the other “Home” on this list, I wasn’t sure about including a song about longing for home when we’re all so homebound. But if you think of “home” as the world as we know it — a reprieve from the upside-down reality we’ve found ourselves in — it certainly fits.

“Light” (from Next to Normal). And this felt like the right way to end things. You find some way to survive! At this point, I think the best we can hope for is not going back to normal, but finding something next to normal. And with that in mind, there will be light.

Photo via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Swallow it down (what a jagged little pill)

In which I take a break from the horror with some horror.

How’s everyone doing? I’m just going to go ahead and assume you, too, feel a sense of dread and anxiety best articulated by the GIF of Dorinda Medley saying “not well, bitch,” because it’s simply more comforting to imagine that we’re all spiraling together. (Don’t panic! I don’t want anyone to panic. I don’t think panic is helpful. Preparedness, though, is fantastic. Can’t recommend it highly enough! I feel like I’m getting off-track.)

I’ve been watching a lot of horror films, because that’s when I do when the world is terrifying. And also when it’s not, but it does feel more soothing when I’m especially freaked out. Horror has always been a tremendously effective outlet for our anxieties — there’s a reason so many people are tuning into on-the-nose choices like Contagion and Outbreak right now. Me, I prefer slightly more escapist entertainment, with the knowledge that the scary shit onscreen, whether or not it has anything directly to do with my current fears of infection and societal collapse, does offer some kind of catharsis. Maybe it can help you, too.

Here are a handful of horror films I watched recently and either really dug or mostly liked. If I had to provide a unifying theme, I’d probably default to my best Saoirse Ronan as Jo March voice and say, “women.” (Also: one-word titles? Call it a trend.)

Bliss

Dezzy (Dora Madison) is an artist in search of creative inspiration when she gets fucked-up on a hallucinogenic drug that has her craving human blood. A trippy, chaotic, relentlessly bloody mess, Bliss has a music video aesthetic that I’d normally find grating but that works exceptionally well here. It helps that Madison is so good as Dezzy, making the character feel real whether she’s being a strung-out asshole or chewing someone’s fingers off. The practical effects are great, ensuring that the carnage is equally grounded. I’m not exactly a gorehound, but I’ve talked a lot about how artful gore can elevate a horror film — this is a great example of that.

Stream it on Shudder.

Sweetheart

Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) finds herself stranded on a desert island and thinks she’s alone until she has a run-in with a humanoid sea monster. This is another movie where the lead performance is the primary reason it works as well as it does: With all due respect to the legitimately great creature effects, Clemons is the real star here. If Sweetheart falters, it’s in the third act, which (vague spoiler alert) brings in the added element of shitty men and gaslighting. And while I am all about exploring that terrain — particularly in horror — it feels weirdly tacked-on here. Still worth watching for Clemons, that monster, and a couple instantly iconic shots.

Stream it on Netflix.

Harpoon

Jonah (Munro Chambers), his best friend, Richard (Christopher Gray), and Richard’s girlfriend, Sasha (Emily Tyra), are trapped on a boat together. That’s about it, plot-wise, but this thing takes some serious turns. You can probably tell pretty early on that it’s going to be another exploration of toxic masculinity and male entitlement, and it is absolutely that, but I still never really knew what was going to happen next. My major issue with Harpoon is in its sneering, tongue-in-cheek tone — like, I get it, and it’s fun for a while, but by the end I just wished it had been dialed back a bit. I also could have done without the Brett Gelman narration. Still, it’s a nasty little dark comedy with some solid performances. You could do a lot worse!

Rent it on Amazon.

Swallow

Hunter (Haley Bennett), neglected and unappreciated by her empty shell of a husband (Austin Stowell), develops an unusual desire to consume inanimate objects. It’s funny, I didn’t really intend for these films to be thematically linked — they’re just the last four horror films I watched, presented in order. And yes, I realized they were all about women, to some extent, but I think they’d actually make for a pretty compelling marathon. As with the vampirism in Bliss and the sea monster in Sweetheart, Haley’s pica is a metaphor, baby. And a fairly obvious one at that, but god, Bennett is so, so good, and the film as a whole is really stunning. Like, unbelievably beautiful, given that it involves a woman eating and shitting out sharp objects. Weird and haunting and oddly cathartic. Don’t miss it.

Rent it on Amazon.

Photo via IFC Films.

Video killed the Broadway star

In which I beg Ivo van Hove to do less.

I have seen West Side Story. I have thoughts about West Side Story.

My thoughts are, yes, largely on the negative side, although there were elements of this production I loved deeply, which is actually more annoying than when I just hate something. Instead of writing off an entire show as a disaster, I’m left frustrated by the fact that a director can’t get out of his own way. Rather than allow the more effective aspects of West Side Story to speak for themselves, he insists on the endless distraction of a giant-ass screen. I’m not here to trash the use of projections in the theater. I’m simply saying that if Ivo van Hove wants to make a music video so badly, perhaps he should do that.

When I say there were things I loved about this West Side Story, I mean that. I’m mostly referring to Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel, who are delivering fantastic performances that somehow rise above the noise of this production. The cast as a whole — with, uh, one notable exception — is pretty extraordinary. The dancing is gorgeous. Some of the video elements actually do work, like the stunning shots from above. And at the end of the day, it’s still West Side Story, which means of course I fucking cried during “Somewhere,” are you kidding me. (The added touch of having some of the pairs be queer just made me cry harder.)

But the screen. My god, the screen. I used to be a budding Ivo stan, particularly after I saw and loved his A View From the Bridge. (Sparse, homoerotic, raining blood. What’s not to love!) Then I saw Network and became resentful that the one experimental director Broadway seems ready to wholeheartedly embrace is a man who appears to me to be weirdly disdainful of theater. The fact that there were multiple scenes in Network that you couldn’t see onstage, that so much of it relied on camera tricks, that the entire enterprise felt pointless because we already have a pretty flawless version of Network on film — with all due respect to Bryan Cranston, but if I wanted to watch the 1976 movie Network, I would have watched the 1976 movie Network! I mean, come on now.

This isn’t about Network, but it is, in the sense that West Side Story feels similarly resigned to keeping audience eyes on the screen instead of on the stage. There are times when I believe projections can help a show immensely. (I recently saw The Headlands at Lincoln Center. Lots of projections there, and I thought it was wonderful. You should go see it!) But West Side Story’s screen just drags everything down. At times it feels like you’re watching Ivo van Hove’s film adaptation of West Side Story being shadowcast. And that’s not why I go to the theater! I don’t mind having video integrated, but when that’s the focal point, it becomes an obnoxious intrusion. What are we even doing here?

It also comes across as a crutch, particularly given that so much of the director’s perspective here seems muddled, to say the least. I’m not sure what this West Side Story is trying to say, and I’m not convinced that Ivo is either. The nadir of the production comes when he stages a “Gee, Officer Krupke” that’s designed as an indictment of racist police violence and the ways innocent people fall victim to a corrupt system — then follows it up with a scene in which the Jets rape Anita. Are these misunderstood young men, or remorseless sexual predators? The whiplash of these scenes feels incoherent at best, and deeply offensive at worst.

And yet! And yet, there is something there, brief glimmers of what might have been if Powell and Pimentel were starring in a production less weighed down by its own bullshit. In many ways, I think it’s still worth seeing, if only for his “Maria” and the “Tonight” they duet together. Also, yes, “Somewhere,” which I’m getting a little teary thinking about, because I’m soft as hell. Listen I’m excited by the idea of directors continuing to probe the material and mess with the classics — I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I was kind of into the Oklahoma! That Fucked. I don’t mind if I don’t always get it, especially when it exposes new audiences to the work, and elevates up-and-coming talent. But let’s give another director a shot next time.

Photo via Jan Versweyveld.

I promise you a bummer ending

In which I don’t wanna make the world laugh.

On Sunday evening, I took myself to see the Encores! production of Mack & Mabel, and I say “took myself” because I a) went alone, and b) paid for my own ticket. (Once again I am checking my comps privilege, but yes, I usually don’t pay for theater because I write about it!) It was my first time seeing the show since the production put on by Reprise (the Encores! of Los Angeles) 20 years ago. That also starred Douglas Sills as Mack Sennett, with Jane Krakowski as Mabel Normand. I don’t remember it leaving much of an impression, but it must have, because the score has lingered in my head ever since. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve watched this video of OG Mabel Bernadette Peters singing “Time Heals Everything” approximately 600 times. It is the finest performance of what may be my all-time favorite Jerry Herman song, and you should take the time to watch it now if you haven’t — or hell, if you have.

I digress! I wanted to see Mack & Mabel again largely for that score: “Time Heals Everything,” “I Won’t Send Roses,” “Wherever He Ain’t,” “Look What Happened to Mabel,” “When Mabel Comes in the Room” — it’s an embarrassment of riches. But I also wanted to see it for Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha, both of whom I have loved in everything I’ve ever seen them in, and somehow rarely get the adulation I feel they deserve. (They were wonderful, naturally.) And finally, I wanted to see Mack & Mabel again because, like all of my favorite theater people, I am obsessed with Broadway flops. Maybe it’s because I read Ken Mandelbaum’s magnum opus Not Since Carrie at a formative age. Maybe it’s because I still feel personally attacked by the untimely demise of American Psycho. But really I think it’s just that Broadway flops are fascinating.

Mack & Mabel is no exception. Seeing the City Center production was illuminating in the sense that I loved it and also could absolutely see why the show failed. No matter how beautifully performed — and no matter how undeniably great that score is — the book is fundamentally flawed. I’m not sure there is a version of Mack & Mabel that could ever really work, though of course I spent a lot of time after seeing it (and OK, during the Keystone Cops song) thinking about what I would do to fix it. I’m not deluded enough to believe I actually have the answer here, and also I think my tastes don’t exactly match that of the general public (see above re: American Psycho), but I can’t help myself: I have some thoughts.

To me, the biggest issue with Mack & Mabel is that it’s a tonal mess, never fully embracing the melancholy until — surprise, Mabel is an addict and they can never be together and whoops, she’s dead now. I am not the first person to feel this way. As Kenneth Bloom wrote in Jerry Herman: The Lyrics, A Celebration, “Deep at its core was a simple love story and an exceptionally appropriate score. The urge to turn what could have been a bittersweet drama into a huge musical comedy was fatal.” The problem with Mack & Mabel isn’t that it has a bummer ending — I love a bummer ending — but that the bummer ending doesn’t feel earned. There’s too much silliness and slapstick and not enough emotional interiority and character development. The relationship between the title characters is deeply fucked, and that still feels roughly sketched.

So much of Mack & Mabel is rendered in broad strokes, which is bizarre given the pathos it ultimately aims for. Why, for example, do we know next to nothing about any of the characters who aren’t Mack and Mabel? Lottie and Frank each get one memorable song, but they hardly seem to exist as characters beyond their standout moments. (It’s actually kind of funny that Mack tells us, as an aside, that Frank was probably in love with Mabel the whole time. Good to know!) The book of this show often feels at odds with the score, yes, but beyond that, the show as a whole seems afraid to delve into its own darkness. And so when we’re suddenly informed that Mabel is an addict and a shell of her former self, it causes whiplash. In trying to walk the line between escapist entertainment and tragedy, Mack & Mabel repeatedly stumbles.

At least, I think it does. I’m not actually an expert, and I’m not convinced whatever vague, bleaker version of Mack & Mabel I’m imagining could ever make it to Broadway, let alone succeed there. (And please, god, spare me Ivo van Hove’s Mack & Mabel… though now that I’ve put that out into the universe, I’ll confess a morbid curiosity.) And yet, there’s so much good here. There are moments in this show that are truly transcendent, and such potential even in the weaker bits. It would be nice to see someone at least try to keep tinkering with it, even if that’s a lost cause — if only so I can see Alexandra Socha sing “Time Heals Everything” again. I ask for so little.

Photo via Joan Marcus/New York City Center.

Of monsters and men

In which I can’t be expected to judge Rose Byrne objectively.

Apologies for the impromptu hiatus, but rest assured I was using my time away from this newsletter to see as much theater, stream as many horror films, and binge as much Housewives as possible to give me ample material for upcoming posts. And then I decided to inflict some capsule reviews on you, because, well, I’m impatient to get my thoughts out. More to the point, it’s been a while since I recommended theater, and I love getting to hear from people who saw shows I wrote about and ended up loving them. (Weirdly, I almost never hear from people who hated whichever show they saw on my recommendation, so I can only assume I have perfect taste!)

In this case, I decided to write about some plays I actually had mixed feelings about but that I still felt were worth seeing. On the other hand, I recognize that I have comps privilege, and not everyone has the time or money or interest required to see theater that I’d call “flawed but worthwhile.” Nevertheless!

Medea

The problem with me reviewing a play starring Rose Byrne is that I would literally gush about Rose Byrne in anything. She is one of the greatest actors working today — supremely underrated no matter how many accolades she’s getting. (I feel like at this point it’s become a Gay Twitter cliché that she should have been nominated for an Oscar for Spy, but, well, she should have been nominated for an Oscar for Spy.) Obviously I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Rose Byrne do Medea, especially alongside the also great Bobby Cannavale, her IRL husband. It’s always fun seeing real-life spouses play a couple onstage, and even more so when the material is this fucked-up.

Naturally, people are very interested in this production of Medea, a new (loose) adaptation by Simon Stone. But when I’ve been asked for my thoughts, I haven’t been able to muster much past “Rose Byrne is amazing.” Because Rose Byrne is amazing, and it’s worth seeing Medea in the sense that one should never pass up the opportunity to see Rose Byrne onstage. That having been said, I’m not sure what this adaptation is trying to say exactly. If you’re going to do a modern take on Medea, you have to be very deliberate in avoiding the easy pitfall of misogyny. And while I admire Stone’s efforts to build compassion for the title character, she’s ultimately still a monster who inadvertently plays into some unfortunate tropes. If anything, trying to ground this classic myth in the real world of 2020 makes her climactic acts of violence that much harder to swallow.

Buy tickets to Medea here.

Dracula

Shout out to Classic Stage Company for the clever idea of doing new adaptations Dracula and Frankenstein in rep. I missed the latter, but I caught Dracula last week, and found myself charmed by Kate Hamill’s cheeky feminist reinvention of the story. Dracula has been — sorry — done to death, so I can’t say I was all that enthused about seeing it originally. (If CSC wanted to do a stripped-down Dance of the Vampires, however…) But even if this Dracula didn’t feel quite as revolutionary as it could have, it was still fresh and fun, and by the time we got to the play’s exciting new iteration of Van Helsing, I was pretty much under its thrall.

At the same time, while I was mostly entranced, I did occasionally find myself frustrated by this Dracula’s inconsistency. There are some tonal shifts that caught me off-guard: I’m all for a blend of satire and sincerity, but these moments didn’t feel particularly earned. This Dracula is at its best when it’s diving deep into absurdity. I didn’t mind so much that some of the themes were hammered home so unsubtly when the production as a whole felt larger-than-life — going broad allows for that sort of thing. And on the whole, it’s a lot of fun, underlined by Hamill’s note in the script: “There is no point in doing a vampire play if you can’t have fun in doing so. If you explore the glee, the darkness will also pop.” Wise words!

Buy tickets to Dracula here.

Hamlet

I feel about Hamlet the way I feel about Rose Byrne — my fandom is too deep and my adoration too intense for an objective review. To put it bluntly, I will pretty much always fuck with Hamlet. As basic as it may be to declare Hamlet one’s favorite Shakespeare, Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare. Even the worst production is still Hamlet, and so I simply can’t be trusted when I recommend one. Which is my long-winded (and backhanded) way of saying that I really enjoyed the production currently running at St. Ann’s Warehouse, led by the phenomenal Ruth Negga in the title role. It’s Hamlet starring Ruth Negga! Part of me just wants to flail (and urge you to find a way to see it).

But despite my stanning, I can acknowledge where I felt the production faltered, aside from my feeling that Hamlet is simply too long (even in a slightly truncated version) to be performed without a second intermission. There were times when the show didn’t seem to have a cohesive perspective, resting solely on the strength of the material and Negga’s performance. And I mean, that’s plenty! But I felt like it could have used a more deliberate point of view. To that end, I will say that I thought the cuts made were smart, and helped create a truly haunting (if also, yes, sometimes aimless) production.

Buy tickets to Hamlet here.

Photo via BAM/Richard Termine.

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