Friday, June 26, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Ann, the Fast-Taking Texas Broad" on Benjamin Ensley Klein's play Ann

ann, the fast-talking texas broad
by Douglas Messerli

Benjamin Endsley Klein (with contributions by Holland Taylor, writer) Ann / the production I saw was a taped version of the play from 2016 at the Zach Theatre in Austin, Texas

Were it not for the topnotch acting of Holland Taylor—dressed in a handsome Chanel white suit, a bowl-like wig of gray curled hair planted upon her head, with a continual application of bright red lipstick—Ann, the one-woman play written and directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein (augmented by stories told to Taylor by friends of the woman she portrays, Texas Governor Ann Richards) might have several times lost its energy as this work moves from Richards supposedly giving a Commencement speech to graduating college students, to a discussion of her life as a child, her marriage and its failure, her attempt to be a perfect wife and growing alcoholism, and her first political role as a local commissioner of Travis, Texas—all before we’re made privy to what a full day might have been like during her tenure as Governor of Texas. Fortunately Taylor doesn’t let the action and the play’s one-liners lose momentum for one moment, except perhaps for the very last scene where she preaches the importance of not perceiving government as an issue of “them” and “us,” insisting that, each in our own ways, all should become involved with the government.

     Richards, if you are too young to remember, first came to national attention at the 1988 Democratic Convention, beginning with the comment that she is glad to be speaking there on that evening because “after listening all these years to George Bush, I figured you needed to hear what a real Texas accent sounds like.” “Twelve years ago Barbara Jordon, another Texas woman,” Richards continued, “also gave the keynote address to this convention, and I figure two women in 160 years is about par for the course. But if you give us a chance, we can perform. After all Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.”
       Howard and I were there through a live-television broadcast which almost immediately made every Democrat in the country fall in love with her.
       Playing this larger-than-life figure with uncanny preciseness—as The New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood put it, “If you can spy even a crack of daylight between actor and character in this performance, you’ve got better eyes than I do.”—hardly missing a beat between her clear adoration of her towering (6 some feet) father—who took her on regular fishing trips as well as to the local town storefronts, where, as one of the “good ‘ole boys,” he lovingly allowed to enter his world, and her impossible to please mother, who after attending one of Richards’ most famous speeches, gushed her pleasure not over her daughter’s words, but the fact that she had been able to meet the local weatherman.
       Ann was clearly blessed, so she felt, by her marriage to the noted Civil Rights lawyer, Dave Richards, quickly attempting to become the more-than-perfect-wife, celebrating and hosting his many friends with large family dinners, as well as helping with his several law cases. Her reward for all this activity, as she recounts, was a few vodka martinis at the end of each of her long days.
       By the time her friends got around to telling her that after a few martinis she was a different woman, encouraging her to join AA, her marriage was also beginning to fall apart. As she humorously summarizes her experience: “I musta drunk eleven hundred thousand martinis by the time I landed in A.A. — and by then, I was this big ol’ county commissioner! So I like to think I broke a barrier for politicians with an addiction in their past. And nowadays, hell, you can’t hardly even get into a primary unless you’ve done time in rehab.”
     When she, despite these issues, was elected as Governor, we are treated to a set imitating her office in the State Capitol where, for nearly an hour of the play, she barks orders to her off-stage secretary and speaks on her phone to a wide range of figures, including Bill Clinton, to whom she attempts to pitch a successful program, started in Texas, for Federal implementation; blows up at her financial advisor who, afraid of even visiting her office, must tell her that he has improperly vetted a supporter who has flown her on his airplane to a Texas event—meaning she will have pay the $8,700 some bill out of pocket (as she bemoans, that’s more than I get paid for two months); cajoles her children to attend a planned family dinner, assigning them each a ham, pies, and a turkey (when that youngest son seems leery of even attending since at the last such event, his older brother has assigned him the near-impossible, to act out Rob Lowe’s sexually orgy for a game of charades) which ends her belting out “All right, I’ll bake the turkey!”; insistently berating a female aide for never being in her office; and ordering up cowboy boots for her entire staff and other friends as gifts of appreciation—all the while signing requested autographs, planning for that evening’s speech she is to deliver in El Paso, while a quick return so that she might meet with her lawyer after she is determined to grant a murderer on death row a stay.
    After all of that, is it any wonder that she nearly forgets to return her heels to her feet, quipping: “You know, I’m getting more and more forgetful. Soon I will be able to hide my own Easter eggs.”
       When she is defeated for a second term by George W. Bush—primarily over the issue of whether or not Texans can carry concealed arms (at another time, not presented in the play, Richards berated the younger Bush as “having been born with a silver foot in his mouth.”)  
       Without any money to speak of, and no obvious source of future income, she is fearful that she will end up in a trailer in her daughter’s driveway. But suddenly, she brightens, just as I was about to buy a bait and tackle shop, people began to invite me to lecture, and a large group of Democratic politics ask her to join them in New York, for they had causes while I had all the addresses.
       Even with a less-than-perfect ending, this play is a delight throughout, as Taylor
takes her wise-talking hero on a walk through the past she so much deserves.
        Richards died of cancer in 2006, but through her still many living friends and acquaintances, her larger than life persona, the fast-talking political diva came alive at the Vivien Beaumont Theatre in New York and in the numerous theaters in other cities throughout the country where Ann was performed. Even as a reviewer, I could not get tickets when it ran at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2020
Reprinted from ISTheater, Opera, and Performance (June 2020).

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Dancing with a Dead Man" (on O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten"

dancing with a dead man
by Douglas Messerli

Eugene O’Neill A Moon for the Misbegotten 1947 / the production I saw was of the 1973 revival filmed for ABC television

As some critics, over the years, have commented, Eugene O’Neill’s last play, a kind of sequel to the then (A Moon for the Misbegotten premiered in 1947) unproduced Long Day’s Journey into Night, is a fragile work that needs a near-perfect cast to bring it to life, reiterated, almost, by the various lengths of the play’s runs.
     The original Broadway production, directed by Carmen Capalbo, despite some first-rate actors in Franchot Tone and Wendy Hiller, lasted only 68 performances, a flop by any definition. Its failure also meant the playwright’s break with the Theatre Guild, who had previously produced a great many of his works.
     The Off-Broadway revival of 1968 by the Circle in the Square Theatre, directed by Theodore Mann and starring Salome Jens as Josie, ran for less than a week.
      The second Broadway revival of this play at the Cort Theatre, directed by David Leveaux, in 1984. Kate Nelligan, as Jocie, was nominated for a Tony, but it ran only for 40 performances, even less that the original production.
      The third revival, directed by Daniel Sullivan in 2000 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, with Cherry Jones as Jocie, lasted a bit longer at 120 performances. Perhaps by that time audiences had grown somewhat more accustomed to O’Neill’s longish monologues, the tough-and-rough language of Jocie and her father, and the long pauses in the rhythm of the play.
     In 2007 there was yet a 4th revival at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre—starring the wonderful Eve Best as Jocie—which lasted for 2 ½ months, after a 112-performance run at London’s Old Vic.
     As dreary as these figures are, however, there was one extremely important exception, revealing the effectiveness of this play.
     In 1973, José Quintero directed three actors with long careers and life-long devotion to O’Neill works: Colleen Dewhust, Jason Robards, Jr.,—who later performed the same character, at a younger age, in the 1962 film version directed by Sidney Lumet.
     For the acting in this production both Dewhurst and Ed Flanders as her father, won Tony awards, as the play when on to run for 314 performances (a solid run for a serious Broadway drama), and is pretty much recognized now by most critics as the definitive production.

    As O’Neill scholar Travis Bogard wrote: “Doomed to failure without superb acting…no subsequent production ever recreated the magic of those 314 performances.”
     That version, after its Broadway run, went on to be performed at Washington D.C.’s The Kennedy Center, where, amazingly, Howard and I saw it also in 1973.
     Yet, I remember little of it, only perceiving it fully in the ABC taping of the same production, which I saw yesterday. The film received 5 Emmy nominations, with Ed Sanders winning the award for Supporting Actor.
     O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten in terms of plot, is hardly complex. The work begins with with the farmer Hogan’s (Flanders) third son, Mike, escaping the hard work and abuse from his father he has had to endure for most of his life to live with his two other brothers. His sister Jocie, abets that escape, even producing the boy with a few dollars she has stolen from her father’s money box.
     She remains in good stead with the now furious father through her bluster, her quick-witted tongue, and a large stick she holds onto so that her father can feel justified for his inability to beat her for her participation in the betrayal.
     Their hardscrabble farm is owned by Jamie, now spoken of as Jim and Jimmy, whose father, the noted actor James Tyrone, Sr. one day inexplicably purchased it. The younger James is a regular visitor to the farm, loving to chat with her father, and secretly in love with Jocie, who also has the reputation of being the nearby town’s whore, a moniker she seems herself to encourage.
     Yet James realizes the lie of that boast, perceiving her (correctly) still as a virgin, and finding her tall, somewhat imposing stature (She describes herself “a cow of a woman”) as a thing of beauty.
      If in the early scenes there is a great deal of coming and going, James paying them a visit to announce that their wealthy, pompous neighbor Steadman Harder will soon be paying them a visit to protest the fact that Hogan’s pigs occasionally escape their pen and slip into Harder’s pristine pond.
      But the major events occur in the second act in a series of non-events surrounding the central two figures. We first glimpse Jocie, attired in her best dress, including socks and shoes—throughout most of the play this Amazon is barefooted—awaiting the would-be lover who is now several hours late.
     Furious, she pulls off her stockings and shoes, as her father finally returns from the same nearby bar where he has gone with James.
     Under the cover of drunkenness, he angrily complains to his daughter that they can no longer trust James, since at the bar their landlord has agreed to the now outrageous price for their worthless farm for $10,000, enough surely that Jim might return to New York and his “Broadway tarts.”
     Still furious for being stood up, and now hearing what she believes as the truth, Jocie plots revenge. If her father will bring James to her, she will drink with him (she is a near teetotaler), getting him drunk before carrying him in her bed, while her father and others he brings with him at daybreak will attest to sexual misconduct, allowing the Hogans to get back the $10,000 which they know he will pay out of guilt.
     Hogan goes off, but James, hours late, finally does finally show up, while Jocie attempts to get him soused. Knowing her as well as he does (he has long perceived the lie of her sexual indiscretions), he refuses to allow her to drink.
     And as they two talk in the moonlight, she gradually uncovers the truth, that the offer from Harder was verbally accepted only so that the next day he can again refuse him, bedeviling the vile, rich neighbor.
     Recognizing his honesty, Jocie nearly swoons over a couple of kisses between the two of them and his frenzied head buried on her lap, as he alternates between coherent banter and almost shrill drunken memories that continue to haunt him.
     Allowing herself to be taken in love, she brings him into her bed, where he quickly, again in his drunken state of mind, attempts to rape her, she running from the room declaring that she is not a “whore.”
     He apologizes but also suggests it may be good that she has seen him like that, his real self who would totally destroy her if they become more romantically entwined.
     Finally, he drunkenly mumbles out the terrible story of how, upon his mother’s death and, with her coffin in baggage, during his voyage to her final burial he called each night for a $56 dollar whore with whom he had sex. He was so drunk by the time they reached their destination that he missed his mother’s final funeral.
     Jocie is shocked, but ultimately forgives him, and realizes that he has told her something he had told no other. She allows him to rest on her lap for the rest of night, only awakening him with the sunrise.
     The result is obvious since James is off to New York by the end of the week, probate on the family home finally coming to an end.
      Not only has Jocie realized the truths of his private confession, but accepts it as an unconditional offering of love, while still perceiving that the man whom she loves is actually, like his entire family except Edmond (O’Neill) who is extremely ill ghosts.
      What most fascinates me about this dance with a dead man is Jocie’s—and to a certain extent James’— constant effort to pull and push away from one another while at the very same moment they entice each other back into embrace. It is truly a kind of dance with death punctuated with fearful hope and utter disgust. By the exhausting end of this “dance,” Jocie can hardly walk, so tied up in knots are her legs for holding and protecting him all night.
      But by the daylight, when her father returns, claiming it was all scheme, not for the money, but to bring the two of them together, his daughter has grown strong knowing that once in her life she did possess love, even if it was delivered from the dead of the Tyrone family. She threatens to finally leave her father, but by the end of the play remains with him.
      And it is, ultimately, this alternating sense of love and rejection which makes O’Neill’s work so very brilliant—even if it takes only great actors to achieve it on stage.

Los Angeles, June 18, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "The Confession" (on Bruce Jay Friedman's Steambath)

the confession
by Douglas Messerli

Bruce Jay Friedman Steambath / 1971; the production I saw was from the PBS broadcast of 1973

With the recent death of novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman, I determined to watch his 1971 play Steambath. The version I saw was the 1973 PBS version, broadcast at time on only 41 outlets. Since then, the play has been revived numerous times.
     If the play was originally filled with obscenities, uttered most by God, in this case a Puerto Rican who cleans and cares for a steambath, in the television version many of these works were excised, the play tamed down a bit—although still showing a woman, Meredith (calmly strolling into this men’s den to take a shower, and the two gay men of this work, do a kind of strip-tease to “Let Me Entertain You.”)
      In this production Bill Bixby plays the central figure Tandy, and Valerie Perrine the bubbleheaded Meredith—whose major activities include shopping at Bloomingdale’s, getting a new hairdo, and paying her Bloomingdale’s bill.
      Tandy, on the other hand, has just begun what he describes as a new life. Having divorced his sexually promiscuous wife, he has found a new very calm—perhaps too calm—partner, has begun a book on Charlemagne, and finally connected with his daughter on a trip with her to Las Vegas.
      In the early scenes he and Meredith are just a little confounded in how they have come to be in the steambath with such bizarre figures, an older man who seems to have experienced everything in life, including erotic adventures and a good thorough sweat, an unclean man who expectorates, eats oranges, spitting out the pits on the floor, and who watches television loudly). And then there are the two gay men who we later learn hung themselves over their love of a handsome dancer in Zorba.
      At first, however, Tandy and Meredith do not perceive that they are dead, until speaking with one another they realize that they had simply been going about their daily lives, Tandy eating at a Chinese restaurant and Meredith, as always, shopping when they suddenly themselves in the steambath, and in recounting that realize that, as strange as it seems, they must be dead. (Friedman has recounted the fact he had a “bad experience with food at a Chinese restaurant” that had led him to contemplate mortality.)
       Tandy and Meredith both refuse their deaths, Tandy demanding to see the person in charge. The old codger says there is someone who, from time to time, enters the steam room to gather up the towels and wash down the surfaces.
        When he finally does show up, he is a foul-mouth Puerto Rican who, with the help of a machine, orders terrible deaths and a few good deeds in succession. When the Puerto Rican (José Perez) who describes himself as God, Tandy refuses to believe it, locked his bigotries and incapability of imagining God as a kind of janitor (“I find it relaxing,” he insists, given all his other duties).
     But Tandy will not believe. You cannot be God, he insists.
     To prove his godhead, the Puerto Rican does stage-bound card tricks, and pulls a large group of colored scarves from his pants, Tandy taunting him for his mere magician’s tricks.
     Bit by bit, however the Puerto Rican goes further and further to counter Tandy’s taunts, eventually drinking a six-foot high glass of alcohol in a few sips, and, finally, serving up a kind of multi-media mural of glorification, to which all kneel, even if Tandy only bends one knee.
     Yet even this non-believer is somewhat overcome with awe, and has to admit the possibility that the Puerto Rican is something more than his surface projection.
      Soon after, another man joins their group, projecting the daily stock market results upon the wall. As he laments, he has bet only on sure and safe stock instead of chancy ones. Yet his have all gone down, while the chancy ones have continued rise. He too must have a suicide.
      When God finally orders all of them to enter the door which will take them to the void—which they one by one enter. A new group is about to enter.
       All except Tandy who tries again to argue his way of death, explaining his divorce, his new writing and companion, and closer relationship with his daughter.
        Yet strangely, without God saying anything, he seems to hear an invisible dialogue, slowly realizing that his new girlfriend is absolutely boring, that he writing a trivial work on something he knows little about (although God has previously told him that 20th Fox, having bought what he as written from his estate, will make a film of the fragment), and that is daughter might be better off in a room of young girl’s like herself than in the hands of her estranged father. The whirlwind he has experienced is merely empty air.
      Yet, even got listening to this man’s heartfelt confession, and suggests he may keep him on for while as his assistant.
       The play ends, however with a spotlight on Tandy, as he sits alone suffering the repercussions of what he has come to realize.
       Friedman’s play is fiercely funny, yet dramatically serious in its metaphysical in its implications. In the original Tony Perkins played Tandy. And I’d like to see someone of that stature perform it on Broadway.

Los Angeles, June 14, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera and Performance (June 2020).

Friday, June 12, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "The Finale" (on Schwartz and Hirson's Pippin)

the finale
by Douglas Messerli

Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics), Roger O Hirson (book), Bob Fosse (contributions to the libretto) Pippin / 1972. The production I saw was filmed for Canadian Television. 

I never saw Pippin on Broadway and had no inclination to listen to an original cast recording, particularly since Stephen Schwartz—despite his great successes with Godspell and Wicked—the latter of which I listened to simply because I was trapped on an airplane, and had already listened to classical music and jazz. I was not impressed, to say the least. May the tourists keep the show open for years, but I’ll never visit it.
      I very much like the dancer/singer Ben Vereen, but from the few clips I’d seen of Pippin it seemed to be more like a circus than a serious musical. And I must admit, I’ve never been a deep admirer of circuses.

The other day, however, I noticed that a Canadian television version of the musical was available on my HDBroadway site, and decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did.
      And yes, there is a kind rowdy circus atmosphere to much of the show, particularly with those who guide the confused young Pippin, son of the conqueror Charlemagne, through his search for a meaningful life.
      Pippin, who has been well educated—perhaps in the manner of Candide by Dr. Pangloss—believes that he destined for an identity that defines his being. As he sings in “Corner of the Sky”:

Everything has its season
Everything has its time
Show me a reason and I'll soon show you a rhyme
Cats fit on the windowsill
Children fit in the snow
Why do I feel I don't fit in anywhere I go?

Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly
I've got to be where my spirit can run free
Got to find my corner of the sky

     To find how he might fit into the world the young Pippin (played in the production I saw by William Katt) first explores war with his violent half-brother, whom even Charlemagne (Benjamin Rayson) calls an idiot. War is clearly not the gentle Pippin’s destiny.
     The troupe—who through Bob Fosse’s choreography and directorial additions look more like figures out of Cabaret than a traveling circus band--next proffer up to Pippin a magical landscape of sex, lesbian, gay, and heterosexual. The educated young man clearly does not perceive this as his “corner of the sky.”
     Hearing the protests of the peasants against the harshness of his father, however, turns the son suddenly, and with a little help by Vereen, into a revolutionary. As his father goes to pray at Arles, Pippin meets him there and attempts to change Charlemagne’s ways without success. The only way to rule is through power, dominating your subjects, argues the King. The musical suddenly speaks to us in Trumpian terms.
     Charlemagne argues that if Pippin thinks he can do better he should kill him, which Pippin quickly does by stabbing him in the back.
      Immediately crowned King, Pippin is suddenly met head on with numerous conundrums, none of which he can solve. Begging for release from his newly attained position, Pippin begs for his father’s return. The Leading Player suddenly brings Charlemagne back to life, Pippin stalking off in search of his true destiny once more.
      All along this musical has also been a sort of statement about theater itself. And there is no better evidence of this in the next adventure along Pippin’s path when he meets a wealthy widow with a young boy who is smitten by the arch of Pippin’s foot.
      Taking him back to her home, she nurses him back to health, and encourages him to become one of her hired hands, who plant her gardens and fix up any areas of the estate that need carpentry.
Pippin, expectedly, grows tired of this as well, and she finally invites him into her home to sit at her table, possibly becoming her new husband. The two have sex, the first time a disaster, but the second time a success. As she pleads with Pippin to sit at the head of the table, The Leading Player suddenly reappears to criticize her acting, demanding that she do the scene over, scolding instead of speaking pleasantly.
      This time Pippin is almost tempted to take on the new role, but still believing he is of special worth cannot be bothered with such a closed-off destiny, and sadly leaves the widow.
      The Leading Player and his troop try to cheer him up with their Finale, which does include magic tricks, including one figure who seemingly immolates himself. Pippin scoffs, knowing it was a trick. “But it won’t be when you perform it,” argues The Leading Player.
      In short, they demand for the finale of the show that the always searching Pippin end his searches by allowing himself to be burned up alive.
      If Pippin utterly rejects the idea, they cajole him on how perfect it would be, the audience going home teary eyed for the death of the always unhappy hero.
      Suddenly Pippin determines that he is better off with the widow and her child that being dead, and determines to return to her.
      Angry with the course of events The Leading Player and his troupe suddenly take away all the theatrical elements of this work, halting the orchestra’s instruments, stripping the stage of curtains, lights, and other elements of the set. It is a stage the way it might appear before any theatrical sleight-of-hand.
       The widow, Pippin, and her son now stand, almost naked in theatrical terms, on a devastated stage, but sure of their futures and, finally for Pippin, his own true identity. It is the story of Candide all over again. They almost sing “Make Our Garden Grow.”
       One commentator complained that the Canadian production “truncated” the original, primarily it seems, by dropping two words and cutting one song, “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.” But any production that also brought in three Broadway legends: Verren, Chita Rivera as Charlemagne’s sexy and plotting wife (“I’m just and ordinary housewife,” she declares), and Martha Raye as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother (who demands that the audience sing along with her until last chorus, when she takes over),  is just fine with me.

Los Angeles, June 12, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (June 2020).