Friday, July 31, 2009

Breathing room

Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum only occasionally breathe life into The Breath of Life.

I had a dream. A dream about Gloucester Stage's season turning into a virtual Greatest Actress Smackdown this summer, following Karen Macdonald's brilliant performance in Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and the current turns by Paula Plum and Nancy E. Carroll in David Hare's The Breath of Life.

But alas, the dream is over, because the celebrated, cerebral Hare often leaves our local leading ladies high and dry - particularly in his first act - even though The Breath of Life was originally designed as a vehicle for those grande dames across the pond, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. And who knows, perhaps those stars kept things moving, but I'm not sure how, because Hare seems to have forgotten to give this vehicle a working set of wheels.

Perhaps the problem lies in the essential contradiction at the heart of the piece. Hare is known for his cool dissections of political and moral failure, in which the political and the personal, we slowly realize, are all but impossible to tease apart; his outlook is unsparing, his voice tinged with wearily knowing acid. But how this approach could map to a high-brow matinee vehicle is a little hard to parse, and Hare certainly hasn't solved the problem. He gives us an intriguing set-up (long-time wife and long-time mistress finally meet, in a lonely cottage on the Isle of Wight), but rather than really dig into the specific conflicts of these characters, he spins yarns of generational decline and political irony that might have been lifted from any of his other plays (indeed, I felt a few were out-takes from Skylight or The Secret Rapture). Meanwhile the playwright lets drop - or perhaps drip is the better word - details of this pair's actual past at an almost irritatingly slow pace (and he barely bothers with anything like complicating action - to get us into slumber-party territory, for instance, lazy David simply has one character fall asleep for no reason).

Or perhaps the problem lies in Eric C. Engel's direction. Engel is know for his subtle work with local actresses - only this time maybe he got too subtle. Plum and Carroll are superb craftswomen, but neither has a high-voltage presence in repose, as it were, and Engel indulges Hare's theatrical reticence almost to a fault; he's going for mystery, we can tell, but what he gets is anomie.

Things look up, it's true, in the second act, when the implicitly-promised long, dark night of the generational soul finally begins to kick into gear, and Hare starts to limn a political metaphor for his two leading ladies. This doesn't quite count as dramatic conflict, but at least it's ideological conflict, and it's literate and intelligent, and skewers with deadpan skill the fatuous self-image of the Baby Boom (motto: "We left no loft uncoverted!"). And once they're given something to actually play, Carroll and Plum begin to bloom, and for a while Breath of Life seems to really breathe.

And perhaps that's enough. Certainly Hare shows us, yet again, that political theatre needn't descend into the nuttily surreal antics of so many "edgy" American authors to needle us with uncomfortable truths. Indeed, his political critiques - of American moral blindness, of an entire generation's insufferable self-indulgence - are all the more effective precisely because they are set in an utterly conventional theatrical frame. So even if The Breath of Life isn't always dramatically alive, at its best it's still a breath of political fresh air.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gettin' festive

August is the most festive month - who said that, T.S. Eliot? Well, whoever said it, it's true, at least for the Hub Review. This weekend I'm off to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, then a week later I jet off to Scotland to take in the Edinburgh Fringe, then it's off to Ontario to the Stratford Festival at the end of the month. By the time September rolls around, I may be pretty dissatisfied with this provincial burg. Edinburgh, of course, is a case unto itself. Over the course of the month, the city expects to present over 2,000 groups in a total of over 30,0000 performances in some 250 venues. On many days the performances begin around 9 AM and go past midnight. I warn you, Hub Review readers, I may never come home.

Lost in translation

Superfrog (Michael Tow) prepares to save Tokyo in After the Quake.

I was late to Company One's After the Quake, which is probably just as well, as I was surprised at how big a misfire it proved to be. It's actually rare that I come across a production in which the creative team has completely missed the point of their chosen text (probably the last time was the ART's Sexual Perversity in Chicago), but that's what seems to have transpired here. The show is certainly well-intentioned, and nothing in it offends, indeed many things about it - the music, the set design - are intricate and beautiful. They're just beside the point.

And this seems strange, given that the style of of play's "author," pomo-lit pop star Haruki Murakami, is such a known quantity. (The drama consists of two of his short stories, "Superfrog Saves Tokyo" and "Honey Pie," entwined and adapted by Steppenwolf's Frank Galati.) Murakami is famous for his interpolation of fantastic, manga- and anime-like elements into delicately rendered, morally serious realist frames. He began writing well before the Internet came to prominence, but his themes generally align with what a friend of mine calls "interfiction" - stories which reflect the cultural pressure of that unseen, virtual universe in our lives. In "interfiction," parallel worlds intertwine, and often exchange affinities, influences, and something like emotional 'data,' but never quite penetrate one another; evocative 'interstices' always remain. Indeed, that lack of genuine contact is a fetish of interfiction, and has become a sentimental trope throughout the current culture (think of the exchange we can't quite hear in Sofia Coppola's Murakami-esque Lost in Translation, for instance, or young people's intense squeamishness over social 'awkwardness').

Thus the inspiring events of After the Quake - the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the later sarin attacks in Tokyo - are never mentioned; they exist in some parallel world of trauma that it would be dangerous to re-visit. Instead, Marukami's surrogate, Junpei (Chen Tang) spins fantasies of comfort and triumph - about loveable bears and amphibian superheroes - to distract young Sala (Sydney K. Penny) from her nightmares of death (she keeps dreaming - another parallel world, btw - of a man who wants to force her into a box, at left). These tales, it turns out, cannot cure their listeners - or authors - but can, at least, calm them; the two stories end in mutual sleep, a poignant equilibrium that's typical of Murakami. Adapter Frank Galati's contribution has been to make this "interfiction" a little "meta" - he not only braids the short stories, but sources some 'fictional' characters within Junpei's "life," while others provide the frame story within which Junpei himself exists. Thus the narrative serpent once again devours its own tail, etc., etc. You know the postmodern drill.

An earlier pop amphibian responds to another Japanese trauma.

The implicit challenge of staging this kind of writing is to suggest a devastating dislocation, as well as a playful, therapeutic route to healing through something like simultaneous consciousness. Thus we should sense, even though it is never mentioned, a great tragedy looming in the past, while a nimble form of emotional play moves forward in the present, even as the script's meta-narrative threads slither past each other without ever actually connecting. I'm not saying this would be easy to pull off, but Company One doesn't even seem to attempt it (or even, to be brutally frank, understand that the challenge is there). Instead, everything about After the Quake is unitary; it's got a unit set, and the onstage (actually center-stage) musicians provide a unified set of cutesy musical motifs, and the acting is in a consistently presentational, almost hearty style.

And therefore there's little resonance to the actual drama, and plenty of obvious artistic missteps by director Shawn LaCount and his cast. Little Sala, for instance, is the only character who seems to be dealing with any trauma at all, when of course she is merely a proxy for the adults in the show, who are at least as ravaged. But as Junpei, Chen Tang is almost irritatingly chipper, and emotionally blank; we're stunned to realize, for instance, that he's been longing for Sala's mother, Sayoko (the equally blank Giselle Ty), from afar. And the dove-tailing parallels that Galati has built into his structural frame (Junpei styles his superfrog's sidekick after a happily arrogant friend, for instance, who actually wooed Sayoko, sired Sala, and perhaps was injured in the quake) seem to only register as meta-plot points. Meanwhile, amid all the light, broad blandness, Michael Tow's frisky Superfrog has struck many reviewers as "over the top" (one even compared him to William Shatner!); but I felt that if anything, Tow should be even more goofily surreal; and he at least understood how to underplay Superfrog's sudden morphing into Murakami himself, in his odd asides about Nietzche and Conrad. There are a few more bright spots in the acting, here and there: Martin Lee was repetitive as Superfrog's sidekick, but channeled an appealing chutzpah as Junpei's college chum, and even Ty had some fun in a broad comic cameo. But these weren't enough to triumph over the strange hollowness at the production's core. Even the beautiful set, by Sean Cote, felt oddly wrong, as it evoked traditional Japanese forms rather than the neon-lit pop labyrinth that is modern Tokyo.

Well, perhaps After the Quake was simply a necessary first step in "changing the face of Boston theatre," as Company One's slogan would have it; the production proves that Asian actors exist, and that there are "Asian plays" worth doing. Let's just hope that next time, this adventurous troupe actually does the play in question.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why the Gates affair won't go away

This may take more than a couple of beers in the White House.

When a Rose is no longer a Rose

Finally, someone has mounted a legal challenge to Brandeis's plan to sell off the Rose Art Museum collection. Three overseers of the museum have filed a lawsuit in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court demanding that either the Rose remain open (although it recently re-opened in a stripped-down state) or the state seize the art collection and place it in the hands of the newly-formed non-profit Rose Preservation Fund. Greg Cook has the details on what should prove to be an interesting legal battle, and one that could turn on intriguing questions regarding all art collections housed within organizations with potentially conflicting goals. In the meantime, with a preliminary injunction against selling the art likely, the sales will either begin very quickly indeed, or won't happen for a good long while.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mirren triumphs in Phèdre

Every now and then, you can feel the future cracking open before you on stage. Or on screen. Or on both. At any rate, I had that feeling this weekend, when I took in the National Theatre's cinema broadcast of Racine's Phèdre, starring the great Helen Mirren (above, with Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus), at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. I was already a fan of the Met broadcasts (next up at Fenway: The Barber of Seville and the Julie Taymor Magic Flute), but I still wondered if the National Theatre would be able to pull off quite the same trick with a 'straight play,' particularly one as obscure and (potentially) static as Phèdre.

I shouldn't have worried. The theatre was packed (at $20 a seat), the crowd no doubt pulled in my Mirren's marquee name rather than the play - but the audience (generally graying, like the live theatre's) sat spellbound throughout the presentation. The broadcast looked radiant, at the same quality level as the Met's; the sound was clean, the camerawork unobtrusive, yet involving. And it was hard to shake the feeling that these broadcasts do constitute a new form of electronic theatre - one which does not shape material as willfully and completely as a film does, but instead uses the techniques of film to subtly track the attention and focus of a live audience, while somehow making theatre feel titanic (even as movies seem to be getting smaller and smaller). Stranger still, these transmissions do feel "live," or at worst "mediated live" - which is still a helluva lot better than canned (the sense of continuity and build that one senses in forceful live performance, but rarely in film, was palpable in Mirren). The National already has a full season of broadcasts planned - and my guess is that soon the Royal Shakespeare Company and others will be following suit - and a new standard for classical theatre will suddenly be unavoidable in America.

That is, if the broadcasts are all of the same quality as Nicholas Hytner's fluid, insightful Phèdre (from a muscular, if not particularly elegant, translation by the late Ted Hughes). Bob Crowley's stunning set - a balcony cut into a Greek cliff, burning with shafts of brilliant sun, and pierced by a single, perversely twisted shaft of stone - was probably worth the price of admission alone (see above). And then there was Mirren, whose first, desperately shrouded appearance sent a palpable thrill through the theatre, and who gave a full-throttle grande-dame performance throughout, in utter command of the text yet somehow unleashed physically in a way you rarely see American actors pull off. No one else in the cast, it's true, was quite in her league. But the redoubtable Margaret Tyzack proved sympathetic and astute as the meddling Oenone, even if she didn't fully convey the secret love that drives this character (as it drives all the characters); likewise Stanley Townsend made a suitably imposing Theseus, but didn't pull off the character's Lear-like disintegration in the final scene. Meanwhile the younger cast was competent and sexy, but slightly lightweight (like their costumes, which tended toward the skimpily chic).

Every time Mirren entered, however, I felt my heart skip a beat, and all this was as nothing. Could Phèdre count as the best classical production "seen" in Boston this year? Yes, rather obviously. Those who missed it are advised to pray for a re-broadcast (but catch it in a theatre, with other people, not on TV). Meanwhile, those of us who caught it are already looking forward to the National's next effort, All's Well that Ends Well on October 1 (also at the Coolidge Corner).

Friday, July 24, 2009

Speak now

DesireG says it all much better than I did. (One small note - I believe the passerby who dropped the dime on Gates wasn't actually a neighbor.) [Update: Obama just called and apologized to the police officer, as I suggested. Smart guy. He must read the blog.] [Second Update: It now seems the woman who called the police did not, actually, mention the race of the supposed intruders.)

Why Henry Louis Gates, Jr. should sit down and shut up

I couldn't believe my ears at the end of Obama's press conference on Wednesday night. As usual, the President's performance had been intelligent and thorough, perhaps slightly plodding, but still wonderful when compared to the cluelessness of his opponents, or the previous administration. For a few sweet seconds, it looked like the presentation could claim "Mission Accomplished" - the public option in a new national healthcare plan might actually come to fruition.

But then came those five little words - "the Cambridge police acted stupidly" - and everything went down the toilet. It was as if Obama had suddenly set for himself a more clever trap than FoxNews could have ever contrived, and his press conference was suddenly yanked away from his control and went into a spin cycle orchestrated by his racist opponents.

So thank you, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (above left, during his widely-publicized arrest); you may have effectively derailed the campaign for healthcare reform.

And for what?

Well, most likely for the good professor's own career - and no doubt a forthcoming PBS special! (Before you write in, Gates has said as much himself.) In short, we may all have to continue to pay higher healthcare costs so that one of Harvard's best-and-brightest publicity divas (and one whose last PBS outing, about DNA profiling to test for African ancestry, fed neatly into the business plan of his own DNA-testing company) can climb back on his soapbox.

Oh, but what about the serious issues of racism in play, I can already here you mumbling angrily to yourself. To which I respond - this was always really more about class than race. I'm well aware of the unfair indignities that many African-Americans and Latinos must submit to at the hands of the police (and other, clueless whites) - being stopped for "driving while being black," for instance - and I don't want to belittle those offenses. I disagree with such practices, and understand how humiliating and angering they can be (even though my feelings are a bit mixed about some instances of racial profiling, because some have argued these policies are actually effective in fighting black-on-black crime).

But the Gates case is obviously not about racial profiling, at least not by the police. You could argue that the passerby who called in her concerns was, perhaps, succumbing in part to the siren call of "racial profiling," but the police were simply responding to a call about a possible crime in progress.

Once the (white) officer in question accosted Professor Gates at his home, the accounts of what transpired suddenly, unsurprisingly, diverge. The single photograph of the incident, however, seems to buttress the officer's claims of Gates's aggressive behavior, and he has since been revealed as quite a sympathetic character, who once struggled to save the life of Reggie Jackson, and has even led classes on (wait for it) racial profiling.

And I can well imagine how Gates's behavior could have gone out of control, in one of those time-honored displays of pique so common to Harvard students and professors while encountering a representative of law enforcement whom they believe is beneath them. (Somehow nobody's talking about that, because we all love to talk about race rather than class, but of course buried class resentment is driving the FoxNews spin even more than racial resentment.)

There's also the simple fact that most whites, as well as blacks, know by heart: you don't insult the police. They have the discretion to arrest you. Period. It's good that the charges against Gates were dropped, and that the police department apologized - the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. But the entire affair should be dropped at this point, too. The formerly "post-racial" Obama doesn't need this distraction - indeed, truth be told, while in the middle of a difficult legislative fight, he might do well to offer more of an apology to the cop involved (who, of course, is far beneath Obama and Gates in status, yet has steadfastly refused to apologize).

That way, maybe all our lots could be improved - especially the lot of poor African-Americans (rather than all the black executives the Globe has been interviewing).

Or then again, maybe a lot of harrumphing about race (in the People's Republic of Cambridge, no less!) is more important than universal healthcare. I guess we're about to find out.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reagle Players step onto a larger stage

I'm sure you've heard the news by now: Lee Meriwether can't really coax the blues right out of the horn as Mame, at the Reagle Players through July 25. I'm not here to argue differently, although I still found Ms. Meriwether appealing (but not compelling) in the role. The old gal still has plenty of stage presence, looks smashing in gold lamé and fake fur (at left), and all but beams with a bemused warmth that elegantly solves what's usually thought of as the complicating aspect of the part: how to make this boozing glamour hound's attachment to her nephew believable. It's the other half of the role that gives Meriwether trouble - the brassy, grab-life-by-the-bugle dame that everybody is shocked, but then charmed, by. Plus, it's true, the top end of her singing voice has gone wobbly, and an understandable lack of stamina (she's seventy-something) led to her coasting through a few dance routines (she even admitted in a recent interview that "it’s the singing and dancing where I’m in trouble," which makes you wonder why she took the role).

So if you were expecting Angela Lansbury on the stage of the Waltham High School (or even Rachel York, who seems to have lit up Reagle's recent Hello, Dolly!), then you're going to be disappointed. But I have to confess that I wasn't really all that disappointed; the show sort of bobs along at an amusing level, and it never got stoopid or irritating the way the Huntington's high-powered Pirates! often did. And the packed house - most of whom were in Meriwether's age range - seemed to feel they'd gotten their money's worth, and even gave the star an affectionate standing "o."

And the whole Reagle phenomenon struck me as intriguing. I'd never made it out to the wilds of Waltham to catch them before, but felt I had to begin to now that the North Shore has gone under, and there's no fully professional local outfit dedicated to the tradition of the American musical. Reagle is, instead, a unique amalgam of community and professional forces - and with the sudden disappearance of the NSMT, they clearly sense an opportunity for themselves in the local theatre scene. The company operates out of Waltham High (where they run education programs during the school year), and generally hire in faded stars of stage and screen to topline, along with a core of other professionals (some with Broadway experience) for the supporting leads. Smaller roles go to community types (some of whom, as is often the case with community theatre, definitely have some chops), who I imagine work for little, or for free.

This means that the chorus and singing ensemble can be enormous - indeed, often in Mame there were close to fifty people singing and dancing on stage. But they're all impeccably turned out, in costumes and sets that are billed as a "recreation" of the original staging - a claim that I find roughly credible. Indeed, part of the interest of Mame was how it felt like a kind of time capsule (with even its original audience watching from the gallery!). It's obvious that this is a theatre company in the nostalgia business, openly disinterested in "new forms," that would never in a million years proclaim there should be "no more masterpieces." The masterpieces are just fine by Reagle - and by me, too.

Not that Mame is a masterpiece - but like many Jerry Herman shows, it's schmaltzily entertaining, and can claim its own place in Broadway, and even American, history. It's no secret, of course, that Herman is gay; he's been battling AIDS for years (kind of like Angel in Rent, dontchaknow), and his longtime lover died of the disease. Add to that the fact that he's a self-taught Jewish kid from Jersey City (rather than from Columbia by way of MOMA), and you can sense immediately how he all but personifies that naïve, lower-bourgeois faith in the "classy," "glamorous" "magic of theatre" that I personally hope never deserts the stage, but that causes the lips of lefty intellectuals to reflexively curl in contempt.

Now it's true I'd never have invited Antonin Artaud to a revival of Mame (although it might have done him good; he was, after all, a kind of drag queen). But I can't ignore its touchingly serious content. All of "Jerry's girls" were, essentially, middle-aged gay men in drag, and you can sense an arc from Hello, Dolly! to La Cage aux Folles that ends with the leading lady finally revealed as, yes, literally a middle-aged gay man in drag, preening in a happy paradise of bourgeois adorability: she/he is both a wild bohemian and a loving mother and wife who just wants to live a little, dammit!

That Mame fits in almost the exact center of this arc makes it fascinating; with it, Herman seems to take his first half-step out of the closet. By turns he hints that his title character is a lesbian (although her sexual allegiances shift at will), a some-time nudist, and maybe a Communist, as well as an obvious alcoholic, and the script flirts with such then-edgy material as unwed mothers and the occasional bit of "blue" language. We slowly realize that Mame is meant as a free-living fantasy figure - a bohemian kaleidoscope of such charisma that even the bigoted crackers of the deep South and the country-club Republicans of Connecticut (Herman sets her up against both) cannot withstand her fabulousness. Needless to say, Herman never actually brings any African-Americans (or any other minorities) onstage during these bizarre red state/blue state love-ins, so they can hardly be taken as genuinely progressive statements. But they still exude a strange wistfulness; they're like a dream of Caucasian co-existence without all the attendant political baggage.

And much of that dream does, in fact, come true over at Reagle, due to the skill of the supporting cast, and the generally sensitive, if not quite crisp, direction of Frank Roberts. There's a broad but crack comic turn from Maureen Brennan, who has played on Broadway (and currently teaches at Boston Conservatory), as well as an archly acid one from Maryann Zschau as Mame's "bosom buddy," Vera Charles (Zschau even gamely leads Meriwether through a softshoe). As Patrick Dennis, the innocent nephew who falls into Mame's distracted care, young Troy Costa is absolutely adorable (and poised as an old pro), while Curly Glynn brings a beautifully expressively singing voice to the all-grown-up Patrick (Mr. Glynn hasn't quite found the key to the acting side of the role, however - as an adult, Patrick should seem more internally torn about his snobby Connecticut bride). There's more impressive singing from R. Glen Michell as Mame's Southern beau, and in general the chorus came off well (particularly in their rich, resonant version of the title tune), as did the "core" corps of trained dancers. (Sometimes the promenades and kicks of everybody else got a little tiresome, though.)

So there you have it - Reagle could be on the verge of a new phase of importance locally, but this particular production stumbles, largely due to its star. The real news, however, may be the curious community/professional balance that Reagle seems to have perfected. Right now, I'd argue that the company may, indeed, be too committed to a nostalgic, "time capsule" aesthetic. But at the same time, the group clearly has a deep bond of trust with its community - in part because members of that community are also right up there on its stage. So can Reagle grow aesthetically without betraying that trust, or that commitment? Could its unique business model even become a template for preserving the tradition of the American musical? Perhaps - but it will require brighter star turns than the one shining in Mame.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I really hope this is my final post on those high BSO salaries . . .

My post regarding the salaries of the BSO's unionized players continues to generate as much misguided comment as my postings on Emily Glassberg Sands. So my apologies for repeating myself, but I felt I had to state once again, quite clearly, the issues at hand.

Many BSO supporters seem a little unclear on economic concepts - even though, in a rather foggy fashion, they imagine their debating points are actually based on economic concepts (I guess because that's the way people with college degrees think they should talk these days). Matthew Guerrieri, for instance, over at Soho the Dog, seems to imagine that the BSO is somehow competing for talent in an open market, with organizations like the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But it's very hard to understand how this could be so, at least in any classical economic sense - even though, yes, the auditions themselves are competitions, and a better-than-average salary would have to be offered to attract applicants. (Guerrieri also imagines there's some sort of valid comparison between annual orchestral salaries and one-shot SAG commercial pay, but never mind about that!)

The difficulty in Guerreri's proposition is that all kinds of problematic conditions exist that prevent us from applying "free market" principles to comparing the salaries of major orchestras. The jobs available at these institutions, for instance, are often de facto life appointments - sometimes there's no opening available for a particular instrument for years (and years) at a time. This makes the wages involved very "sticky," in economic parlance - add to that the fact that many of these jobs are unionized, and you can pretty much throw free-market labor analysis out the window. Then there's the problem that in the end, something like 40% of these wages' cost is covered by donors, not customers.

Given these issues, the very fact that the wages at various major cities match so closely could well be evidence of price collusion, rather than free market equivalence. There is, as I pointed out above, very little labor movement between the major markets - and said markets could well reflect very different lifestyle preferences and costs. And yet somehow the wages match almost exactly? The most likely argument for how this could be so is that the wages are essentially "fixed" by management and donors - due to, yes, appreciation for talent, but also due to a funny mix of civic pride and the sense that to be considered high quality, an orchestra generally has to be as expensive as it is in New York or L.A.

And if we look at our own actual musical market, here in Boston (the one that truly counts), we find anomalies that would seem to back up that "collusion" argument. First, to be blunt, there are freelance musicians available within our own market, whom the BSO deems up to the job, who will do the job for less. Therefore it is quite correct to say, by that pesky dictionary definition, that the unionized BSO players are "overpaid": they get double (or triple) what other people are paid who can do the same job. Of course Matthew and his readers can protest all they like that there are mysterious conditions, like a secret pinch of extra talent, or more expensive instruments, or even "toughness" (as one commenter would have it), that justify that discrepancy; but they've got no proof, and of course I'd be happy to lay a bet that they couldn't tell, from a blind listen, whether or not they were listening to the BSO with freelancers or not. (Indeed, there are one or two reliable freelancers whom I personally prefer to the respective BSO player, who's being paid three times what they are.) And of course, if the freelancers ever got their act together and organized against the BSO, their wages would miraculously rise, while the wages of the unionized players would probably fall - with no change in anybody's talent or ability. Only the political component of the wage determination would have changed.

And that political component is precisely what I've been talking about. I've been struck by the sweet, but seemingly unconscious, snobbery of many of the commenters on this issue (including Guerrieri): it's rather clear that they hold the high cost of the BSO close to their hearts, as proof positive of its value (and therefore the value of their own taste). This, of course, is how much of the world has always run. But it's not an economic argument. And given the wild discrepancies between the wage rates of different performing artists, it's time we gave the political component of our arts spending a long, hard look.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Meanwhile, on the other side of the generation gap . . .

Who needs David Hare or Edward Albee when we've got these guys?

Yes, Bill Marx is hurtin'. The fifty-something, status-craving bane of local theatre, stung by my recent ridicule, tries to get hip with Company One (a group he's completely ignored heretofore), fire another salvo in his seemingly eternal feud with Israel Horowitz, and reply to me without ever mentioning my name, all in an amusingly transparent new post. Please don't take this as a slap at Company One - even though I've sometimes found their racial politics tiresome, I'm interested in After the Quake (and mean to see it this weekend), and have bemoaned the lack of Asian actors on local stages before (something which, again, I can't recall Marx discussing till now). Still, it's worth noting this particular theatre piece allows Marx to indulge in his favorite subliminal pastime: finding performance art secondary to literary art (most of his praise goes to novelist Haruki Murakami).

But what's funniest about Marx this time around is his sudden ageism. I think he's about fifty-five, yet suddenly he yearns for a far younger posse. Not for him the geriatric tropes of David Hare, Edward Albee and Joan Didion, who are "veterans of the lefty counterculture, 'names' to attract boomers and the older crowd." Fuck 'em - they're old (although no older than Haruki Murakami, who's a youthful 60)! Of course our local theatrical éminence grease isn't merely groping for an excuse for his recent behavior (which some have interpreted as just more bitter jabs at Horovitz), but is instead concerned about drawing in younger audiences, keeping the theatre alive, blah blah blah (via a 60-year-old Japanese guy?). Funny, then, that he's been trying to kill off this particular art form for what seems like years. But hey, I'll give Bill the benefit of the doubt - after all, like Auntie Mame, you're as young as you feel, right? So I breathlessly await his appreciation of the Jonas Brothers!

Is Rent really a better musical than Mame?

That's what our youngest critic, the Herald's Jenna Scherer, would have us believe in a review that's pissy even by her own standards of critical uremia. Now Scherer has her valid points to make against this production of Mame (it's not great - I caught it Saturday and will write about it later in the week), but I was still struck by her nastiness. To her, Mame is "dated as can be," and is even, apparently, racist: Mame's Asian major domo, Chao, in Scherer's view, is "racially stereotypical": "The audience shuddered every time Chao minced across stage and pronounced his W’s as R’s," she huffs.

Funny, though - nobody shuddered at the performance I attended. The character of Chao is, indeed, stereotyped, but utterly affectionately, and in rather obvious "air quotes;" and Mame herself is portrayed as wildly in love with "the Far East" (take that, Jenna!). The idea that this queeny show about a bohemian lesbian socialite/naturist actually fosters racism is, well, pretty ridiculous.

So I just want to say to everybody out there who is, like me, of a certain age, and who, like me, pushed and prodded for liberal causes (and against racism) back when it actually counted: don't you get tired of immature, twentysomething pisspots like Jenna Scherer imagining they are the ones battling racism? On the back of a sweet, silly, too-gay vehicle like Mame, no less?

And let's compare little Miss Generation Why's take on Mame with her recent rave for Rent, shall we? Now there is a cringe-worthy musical - and since I'm gay and had friends who died of AIDS, shouldn't I be its target demographic? But I'm afraid its all-too-obvious narcissism - which naturally sails right over Scherer's head ("it’s still the same beautiful, flawed diamond," she coos) - never ceases to irritate me. Indeed, the gay men I know who lived through the crisis all find Rent vacuous, or even slightly insulting - its fans seem to be, like Jenna, white suburban kids who thrilled to the plague vicariously, at a safe distance, during high school. So let's be honest - it's a bubblegum show in which the dying gay guy in the East Village is (dare I say it?) an affectionate stereotype.

So let's ponder for a moment what's really funny about "generation gaps" - they cut both ways. When I look at Mame, I see a gay man's cry for tolerance through a half-open closet door. When Jenna sees it, she tries to think of some way to put down Mom and Dad. When I see Rent, I see a sappy, passionately mediocre rip-off of Puccini that somehow lacks even a single memorable song (and whose relentlessly uplifting chord changes seem to have put a stake in the heart of the Broadway musical - give me Jerry Herman over Jonathan Larson any day). Scherer sees - oh, I guess a mirror for her generation, or something like that, in which their whininess looks heroic. And not, not, not racist!

Monday, July 20, 2009

The last of the stone-cold kill-joys

Ken Baltin and Karen MacDonald re-heat Last of the Red Hot Lovers.

It sometimes seems that certain local critics just don't want you to have a good time - unlikely couple Louise Kennedy and Bill Marx come immediately to mind, following their pans of Gloucester Stage's Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which closed last weekend (I guess you could call Marx's screed a pan-once-removed, as he smeared the show without even seeing it). Yesterday I made the trek up to Gloucester to catch the last performance, while delivering the first check of the Bill Marx Theatrical Benevolent Fund (see post below) - and was unsurprised to discover that, just as I'd heard, Macdonald's performance was among the best of the year, and that Baltin's was nearly as good. If you skipped Lover because of those stone-cold kill-joys Kennedy and Marx, then you missed out on a red-hot evening.

Now I'm not here to pretend that Neil Simon is Chekhov, much less Shakespeare - still, (dare I say it?) he has his mild virtues in his better plays, and Last of the Red Hot Lovers is one such play - or at least was revealed to be one in David Zoffoli's sensitively-directed production, which struck me as superior to the miscast, mediocre film (which featured an unlikeable Alan Arkin). Red Hot is certainly several cuts above the likes of, say, the ART's Trojan Barbie or The Communist Dracula Pageant - fatuous dreck I couldn't even bring myself to review - or, yes, the Huntington's How Shakespeare Won the West or The Miracle at Naples. And it's certainly rooted in timeless human experience - in a word, the eternal urge of even the happily-married man to rove. When Bill Marx wrote "what planet is this play on?", I could only think "Uh, Bill - what planet are you on?"

Of course it's true that Simon is severely limited as an artist. Indeed, maybe he isn't really an 'artist.' He can't seem to envision a character who is knowingly cruel (much less evil), and when it comes to the ravages of such social ills as racism, poverty, classism (you name it), he can't relate. He's a politically-blindered craftsman of white (okay, Jewish) domestic comedy, and rarely swims into even the deep end of that shallow stream. Hence he can't manage much in the way of a developing arc; Simon is all about premise, not plot, and depends on tics or repeated gags to get him through an entire act. Indeed, the basic structure of Red Hot repeats itself three times, with minor variations (take that, Beckett!).

And yet there are stretches in the play where you feel Simon's suddenly much better than the paragraph above would lead you to believe he could be. His nebbishy middle-aged hero, Barney Cashman, is attempting to have a "fling" (in his mother's apartment, no less), because he's driven by a dawning awareness that everyone who reaches a certain age eventually shares: that death is on the horizon, growing slightly closer every day, and that what life we have left looks increasingly circumscribed. Men feel this, women feel this, everybody feels this, and it has its poignance, clichéd as that may sound - and to give Simon his due, he not only evokes this sentiment expertly in Barney, but then has his first "conquest" slam it to the mat with even more expertise. Other masculine delusions take even broader body-blows, because, of course, the point of this three-part exercise in attempted adultery is to guide the errant Barney back into the arms of the good woman he has at home.

Yet this time-honored tale strikes Bill Marx as "representative of the zombie-like dependence on the hopelessly dated." I kid you not. He rattles on: "does anyone think that the one-liner ridden Last of the Red Hot Lovers would have even a tangential connection with life-as-we-know it? Even mildly misogynistic escapism has moved on." Instead, Marx proclaims, the theatre should take a hint from (wait for it) the academy's favorite schizophrenic Shakespeare-hater, Antonin Artaud (at right), and "supply us with new “myths” that meditate on reality, fresh ways of looking at the conflicts in today’s world that provide a sense of context as well."

Wow. That sounds like fun, doesn't it. Somehow I rarely get the yen, on a warm summer evening, to meditate on reality in a fresh way that provides a sense of context. Indeed, I can't imagine anyone suggesting that while the sun was setting over a nearby bay - not even Antonin Artaud, the poor schmuck. But hold that thought, because I'd like to take a glance at Louise Kennedy's caveats, too.

Unsurprisingly, where Marx found mild misogyny, Kennedy found, yes, sexism. To her, Red Hot is "too old, too stale, and too dated in its approach to men and women to feel like a real comedy of human life." And why? Well, because "Simon stacks the deck so much in Barney’s favor that we start to get annoyed on behalf of the women."

And let me say upfront: that's flat wrong. Simon simply doesn't stack the deck in Barney's favor - indeed, in the final scene, for a while Barney looks like something of a shit, and the playwright comes closer to judgment than he does in the case of any of his women.

Kennedy likewise says that Simon's women "exist only as fantasy figures - and disappointing fantasy figures at that . . . They’re props, not people." But again, dead wrong. The lines just don't work that way. All three female roles are complex, and Karen Macdonald has a heyday with each. There's Elaine, the tough, suburban sex addict hiding psychological (and probably physical) wounds from her brutal husband; Bobbi, the 60's butterfly whose "freedom" is a mask for her instability; and finally the hilariously morose Jeanette, whose loss of faith in humanity (because her husband's best friend is - Barney!) finally brings our "hero" to his senses.

But then Kennedy gives herself away with this line: "Barney, apparently, has a right to reinvent himself, to explore the sexual revolution, to be free" while those fantasy-figure women, apparently, do not. Simon, however, makes it clear that Barney doesn't have that right; indeed, that highly conventional moral is the point of the play. So how did Kennedy get things so wrong? I don't know, but her review - like so many others about plays that deal with the battle of the sexes - has the feel of a template of personal grievance pounded down onto artistic material that actually doesn't fit the mold she wants to see. Kennedy mentions that in the performance she attended, an audience member whispered "It's all about him" - when actually, as usual, Kennedy would prefer that it be all about her.

So I just want to say, once and for all: "Louise Kennedy, you have the right to reinvent yourself, to explore the sexual revolution, to be free. Just like Barney Cashman." There. Let's hope that takes care of it.

Meanwhile, Marx would prefer that theatre be all about what the professor said it should be (never mind that no, Bill is not actually a professor). This is a tougher nut to crack - in fact, it may be uncrackable. Is there a cure, after all, for anhedonia? Maybe, but it would require years of therapy.

So let's get back to Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Surely director Zoffoli's most inspired gambit was to turn all three of the show's female roles over to Karen Macdonald, the long-under-utilized mainstay of the A.R.T. This both gives the script a conceptual punch it otherwise lacks, and of course, gives this talented actress a chance to show us exactly what she can do. And no one could deny that Macdonald went to town - indeed, she acts as if she's just gotten out of prison (which is in a way what the A.R.T., which seems to be dismantling its acting company, amounted to). Macdonald has worked through different accents, different body languages, different everything for her three women, and pretty much commands the stage every second she's on it. Baltin plays well off her, and develops an awkward sweetnes that actually works better than the nervous frustration of Alan Arkin (and, I imagine, James Coco, the role's originator on Broadway). But basically this is Macdonald's show. Here's hoping she has many more like it.

Before signing off, however, I have to praise the design work of Frances Nelson McSherry (costumes), Rachel Padula-Shufelt (wigs and makeup) and Eric Levenson (set), who together expertly conjure the late sixties without quite tipping over into self-conscious parody. Which, of course, also provides the perfect frame for the "dated" attitudes that bug Marx and Kennedy. This production did play as "dated" - precisely dated; it brought me back immediately to the year of its premiere (1969) in a way that many conjurations of the 60's (like TV's "Mad Men") do not. That within that musty frame a few human truths might lurk seems to have never occurred to these critics. But the many middle-aged (or older) couples roaring with laughter at the performance I attended seemed to understand the play just fine.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Just one more thought on the BSO . . .

I've gotten a little flak about my post below regarding BSO salaries - why publicize this kind of information in the current economic environment, people want to know - if at all?

My answer goes something like this: remember that controversial post so many moons ago about how people should not donate to the ART, BSO or MFA? That there were other, equally (if not more) worthy cultural organizations in far more dire straits? Well, consider this just one more piece of evidence to bolster that argument.

For while there are, no doubt, some Hub Review readers who make around $150,000-200,000 a year (my estimate of the annual pay, with extra gig money included, of a senior BSO player), I think there are many more of you who do not. So ponder this, underpaid minions - if you donate to the BSO, you are actually giving money to people who make more money than you do.

And why, exactly, would you do that? I'm just sayin'.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why is the BSO so overpaid?

I was amused by Geoff Edgers's post in his Exhibitionist "blog" about the conclusion of the BSO's salary negotiations (conductor James Levine, at left, screaming "Show me the money!"). Edgers seemed to be expressing relief that the BSO's contract with its players would remain unchanged, despite our turbulent economic times. Salaries were frozen in this negotiation, but not cut.

So score one for the working artist, right? Well, maybe. But succinctly enough, Geoff left out any mention of what the terms of the BSO contract actually are.

So here's the scoop: according to the Berkshire Eagle, a BSO player makes an average weekly minimum of $2,465, or $128,180 a year.

I repeat: that's the bottom of the scale: $128,180. Senior BSO players make more - often quite a bit more. And they perform only about half the year - there are 191 concerts scheduled annually between Symphony Hall and Tanglewood. And many, if not most, players don't make quite all those performances. Session players are routinely called in, often at the last minute, at rates far below those of the unionized players. So even if you think you're listening to the fully-unionized BSO, you're probably not.

And I'm just wondering why Geoff never writes about that. I don't mean to begrudge the BSO players their hard-earned dollars, but when you add in to their take the fact that most of them land plum local teaching assignments at local music schools because of their BSO connection, you're looking at total annual pay that can clear $200,000 a year.

Again, not that there's anything wrong with that - except that, to be blunt, no other artists in the city of Boston have it so good. No other classical musicians, certainly - even though many of them are session players with the BSO! And when it comes to actors - don't make me laugh! Our best, most senior local actors would count themselves wildly lucky to make a third of a BSO senior salary, if they really scrambled to make industrials and voiceovers. (The Equity base line isn't even a quarter of the BSO baseline.) And as for dancers - fuhgeddaboudit!

So you know, life ain't fair. And I suppose if your organization buys a lot of ads in the Globe, suddenly Geoff Edgers cares about your salary not being cut! And the rest of you performers can go hang.

[Correction: Please note Geoff Edgers has let me know that he wrote about the discrepancy between the pay scales of unionized BSO players and freelancers some three years ago, at the last salary negotiation. But to my mind, there's no time like the present. - T.G.]

Spread the word about Shhhh

The economy may have collapsed, and theatres may be closing left and right, but darn it, kids still want to put on a show, and they're still finding ways to do it.

Take Shhh! (at left), for instance, presented by New Exhibition Room at the BU Playwrights' Theatre. The script has been developed by the actors themselves, and it's being presented for free (at Kate Snodgrass's barn!). So what's not to like?

Indeed, not much. The performers are talented, the action light and clever, and yes, there's even a little nudity. The group takes its name from a troupe that illegally performed plays in post-Colonial Boston - hence, perhaps, the theme of its first show, a series of skits about censorship. That's "censorship" considered rather loosely, however - for after all, does not picking your nose really count as "censorship," as one skit would have it?

Somehow I don't think so - and that blurring of self-restraint with actual censorship is part of what keeps the show from becoming genuinely thought-provoking. For censorship is, of course, engrained in the "civil" part of civil discourse; we have to have it at some level to maintain respectful communication at all. But what level is "appropriate"? Should teens be sending each other pictures of their tits on their cell phones? Should folks on the T be allowed to scream "You cocksucking cum dumpster!!!"?

Shhh! in rehearsal.

Well, maybe yes, but maybe no. And if Shhh! had actually grappled with those issues, or developed the situations it sets up, it might have been really exciting. As it is, the sketches generally tease out an instance of censorship - admittedly, even in currently-celebrated social modes like "branding" and texting - then cut to the curtain. Still, give these folks (along with "contributor" Theo Gooddell) props for being consistently entertaining; these kids do know how to put on a show. The skits are witty and crisply directed (by A. Nora Long), and the cast - Melissa Barker, Nathaniel Gundy, Hannah Husband, Chuong Pham, Alejandro Simoes, and Christina Watka - is uniformly talented, and up for anything: competitive hula-hooping, cheerleading, stripping, you name it (rehearsal video, above). They perform in mime make-up , which struck me (again) as a slightly muddled metaphor. I mean, are mimes really self-censoring? But then who knows? Perhaps all Marcel Marceau was really trying to communicate was "Fuck you, you cock-sucking cum bucket!!!"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Bill Marx Theatrical Benevolent Fund

Well, after a little awkward communication, Gloucester Stage has indicated they'll accept my donation in honor of Bill Marx. How and when it ends up being listed in the program is still in negotiation.

And all I can think is:

Why didn't I think of this sooner?

It's just such a beautiful means of blunting the nasty edge of Mr. Marx's brand of criticism - every time he lays into a company with an eye to fluffing his own ego, I'll make that company a donation. (As this is bound to happen often, the donations may become quite small, so battered theatrical entrepreneurs, don't get your hopes up!) And in the future, can a Bill Marx Theatrical Benevolent Fund be far off? The mind boggles!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Anne Hawley gets her way, destroys part of Gardner legacy

Above is an image of the Gardner Museum carriage house in mid-demolition last week, as ordered by the museum's director, Anne Hawley, and approved by its Board. At left, an image of the building as it appeared at the time of Mrs. Gardner's death, in 1924. Below, a photograph of the source of the design, a building in Altamura, Italy. "Altamura" was a fictional utopia devoted to art, dreamed up in an essay by collector Bernard Berenson, which served as Mrs. Gardner's inspiration for her museum. For more poignant imagery of the legacy that the Gardner Board has taken from us forever, visit "bu1459's" photostream at flickr.

Reply to Isaac Butler

Something seems a bit funny with the comments function over at Parabasis - a chunk of my reply keeps getting scrambled - so I thought I would post my entire reply to Isaac Butler here, as well:

Really, Isaac, Julia Jordan and Steven Levitt are free to respond to my blog postings at any time; I don't see why you should feel compelled to do it for them. Of course if you had something to add to the discussion - some new fact, some compelling insight - that would be a different story; but you don't.

Instead, you throw insults and toss about accusations you clearly haven't thought through. You criticize me for "repeating a phone conversation whose veracity" [sic] I have no proof of, for instance - but of course I'm quite within my rights to repeat a conversation which I myself took part in, and took copious notes regarding, and typed as close to verbatim as I knew how. For some reason you seem to imagine that the blogosphere should operate like a police procedural - only oops, if I were indeed on the witness stand in a court of law, I would still be allowed to repeat my conversation with Emily Glassberg Sands, just as any reporter is allowed to print his notes regarding conversations he himself has had. Indeed, I even told Emily at one point that I would be writing about our conversation, precisely so that she wouldn't stumble into a "gotcha" moment. (Of course she did anyway.)

So much for that. Nice try, though.

You also say that my discussion of Julia Jordan and Steven Levitt is "entirely speculative" - well, "common-sensical' might be a better adjective. I simply note that Julia and Steve are high-powered, and good friends, and that Julia has an axe to grind about sexism, and that Emily Glassberg Sands wandered into their orbit. That's hardly speculative; it's fact. Indeed, a short, unsympathetic version of the facts could go something like "Julia Jordan used Emily Glassberg Sands, who was so eager to be used that she cut ethical corners when presenting her results." This would be a cynical take, true, but it would also be hard for a disinterested observer (which you are clearly not, Isaac) to deny. I suppose you could claim that one of my sentences, "Levitt was no doubt looking for another public forum for the methods of Freakonomics" is, indeed, speculative. But that phrase 'no doubt' tells you as much, Isaac.

But you didn't seem to pick up on that - instead, nostrils aflare, you insist that "It's worth noting not only that he has literally not one piece of evidence for his j'accuse! meanderings but that the premise of his attack is that Sands draws conclusions in places where she has insufficient evidence to draw them."

The only problem with this, Isaac, is that Julia Jordan's comments on sexism are easy to find on the Intertubes. Indeed most of my " j'accuse! meanderings" came directly from an NPR interview with Sands and Jordan, who I guess were given to their own je m'accuse! meanderings. My portrait of Jordan, the description of Levitt as "geeky," the popularity of Freakonomics, the difficulty in finding data sets appropriate to its methods - it's all out there, Isaac. Try this thing called Google.

And one last point. You wrote that "the premise of [my] attack is that Sands draws conclusions in places where she has insufficient evidence to draw them." But that's not the real heart of the matter. The central issue is that Sands pretended, through a sophisticated set of maneuvers, that she had data she didn't have. She committed "fraud lite." Although I suppose that's not really a "premise." It's more like an observation.

Up the Sands box

The fall-out from my ongoing fisking of Emily Glassberg Sands has begun. Over at Parabasis, Isaac Butler (looking surprisingly calm and even-tempered, at left) gets his panties in a bunch here. Meanwhile Matthew Freeman offers an appreciation here.

(Another) Reply to Bill Marx

Over at The Arts Fuse, Bill Marx has taken his nose out of the books he's been reading just long enough to take a gratuitous swipe at Gloucester Stage, which is currently running Neil Simon's schmaltzy, sexist Last of the Red Hot Lovers.

I couldn't help but reply, of course - and since I'm not sure Marx will publish my comment, I thought I'd post it below:

I just wanted to say I found this piece somehow pathetic, and deeply unfair to Gloucester Stage Company. Gloucester Stage's complete summer season includes David Hare's The Breath of Life, which I believe has only had one prior production in America; Edward Albee's ode to bestiality, The Goat (only one prior New England outing); founder Israel Horovitz's latest, Sins of the Mother; and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

I think it's telling that you found time not to support any of these productions of new or almost-new plays by this small theatre, but instead decided to puncture (without even bothering to see) the one turkey on the Gloucester Stage menu, Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. With a hilariously pretentious quote from whackjob Antonin Artaud, no less.

Could you have more expertly (if unconsciously) skewered your own pseudo-intellectual, theatre-hating M.O.? I don't think so. Now I don't mean to praise a silly, schmaltzy, sexist sex farce like Last of the Red Hot Lovers, but I also know better than to deny a summer theatre even a single evening of light summer fare. (And just btw, hold onto your hat, Bill, because Karen Macdonald is getting IRNE buzz for her performance.) And I want you to know that I'll be making a donation to the Gloucester Stage, on the condition that it be listed under your name in the program.

[Note: The Arts Fuse has, indeed, ignored my comment.]

Opening the Curtain on Emily Glassberg Sands, Part II

Last week I took apart the final chapter of Emily Glassberg Sands's (at left) much-discussed study on sexism in the theatre, and her (illusory) conclusion that Broadway producers had closed female-written shows "early." Indeed, I demonstrated that her entire argument there was a charade of averages, dummy variables, and proxies for data she actually lacked. Next, I mean to look more closely at her "script experiment," in which a survey of regional theatre artistic directors and literary managers revealed that women rated female-written scripts lower than men did.

But before I do, let's take a time out to consider the press response to Sands's work for a moment. I find it striking that no one else in the mainstream media or the blogosphere has questioned Sands's final chapter, even though only a moderately educated person like myself could quickly see the huge holes in her argument. And several heavy hitters have reported on the study - the New York Times did, twice - once even in its "Economix" blog! New York magazine also wrote about Sands's work, the Guardian posted the thoughts of two different writers on her conclusions, NPR interviewed Sands on the air, and the LA Times published a hilariously uninformed piece on its "Culture Monster" blog. Yet none of these writers questioned the study seriously; Sands's somewhat-sophisticated statistical snow job sailed right over all their heads.

Why did that happen? Part of the reason is the technical illiteracy of most journalists, and, of course, most writers on theatre. But another reason is the backing Sands had from three heavy hitters - Steven Levitt, the co-writer of Freakonomics (who seemingly suggested the study to Sands, at the behest of playwright Julia Jordan), Christina H. Paxson, the chairwoman of Princeton’s economics department and the newly named dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Cecilia Rouse, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, and co-writer of a famous paper that inspired Sands. All these people "vouched" for Sands (according to the Times), and all have been somewhat derelict in their academic duty in this case, I'd say - not because of any intellectual dishonesty within Sands's study itself (she's upfront about the gaps in her data in print, although less so in public), but rather in giving her work their imprimatur as unassailable in its methodology, and allowing it to be floated as a kind of cultural touchstone. It's obvious that either they hadn't actually read the study carefully, or were simply sure that sexism must exist on Broadway, so the gaps in methodology didn't matter. And undoubtedly they have their defenses for their behavior already formulated; they've all toed their "professional" lines (the wordings in their statements have been careful); they've merely allowed uneducated journalists to draw their own conclusions. But nevertheless, a false impression has been created, and they've been behind it.

But why are the gaps in Sands's last chapter so important, anyway?

In a word, because her final, flawed conclusions are the only time she "finds" evidence of sexism in the theatre.

But how is that possible, you may ask, when there are so few plays by women being produced?

Hints regarding the answer to that question are easily found within the study itself. But first, I want to say upfront that yes, very few plays by women have reached Broadway - less than 8% of Broadway productions are by females, in fact. And it's undeniable that in the not-so-recent past, the theatrical world, like the world in general, was just as sexist as it was racist. I'd even argue that sexism remains a more powerful force than racism in the country at large; or at the very least it seems true that sexist statements and actions can more easily be culturally cloaked than racial bigotry can.

But is that true of the theatre? I'm not so sure. The stage is its own political world, with a decidedly left-liberal tilt, and is chock-a-block with aging radicals and former hippies. In several cities (such as mine, Boston), it's entwined with the academic left. Looking around my local burg further, I can't help but note that all the major print critics are female - and all of them are middlebrow feminists. (In New York, it's true, almost all the important print critics are gay men - which leads to a certain catfight atmosphere, but little, I think, overt sexism.) And when you add into the mix the fact that the majority of theatre tickets are bought by women, you realize you're looking at an industry where, at least in my hometown, women are the critics, and the customers - and increasingly the artistic directors, too (we've got two new women A.D.'s in Boston).

Thus, unsurprisingly, in Boston (at least) one often hears that "we need more plays by women." (While I've never heard anyone ever say, "We need more plays by men!" much less "We need more plays by white men!") And for what it's worth, this is almost always a blatantly political, not aesthetic, statement; it's always made by, yes, a woman, yet without reference to any particular text, or theory, or even author. It's just an un-self-conscious political assertion: we need more plays by people like me! I suppose there's nothing wrong with that - perhaps it's how everyone feels inside - but I do want to point out that it indicates the political currents in the theatre actually run counter to the assumptions of Emily Glassberg Sands. (Indeed, it's no surprise to read in her study that there are some thirty women-only theatre companies, such as New York's New George Theatre, in existence.)

So why the gap in play production? Well, first of all, outside of Broadway, Sands's study indicates that there isn't much of a gap. This conclusion must, of course, be taken with a grain of salt, because the source of her data is, a site with a gigantic, but largely self-reporting, playwright database. Still, that grain of salt is much smaller than the one we had to swallow regarding her conclusions about Broadway, because this time she at least has the type of data she needs, and she deploys it in straightforward multiple regressions, or in even simpler cross-tabulations.

And Sands admits flat-out at the top of her analysis that "I find that scripts on Doollee written by women are equally likely as those written by men to be produced" (p. 41). The gap in play production, it seems, is largely tied to the fact that there are more than twice as many male playwrights as female playwrights, and what's more, those male playwrights write more plays. Indeed, in the more restricted sample Sands must use for her multiple regressions, she even discovers that "female-written are slightly more likely to reach production." (Emphasis added, p. 44.)

Hmmm. Undeterred, however, Sands keeps digging - and we quickly realize that once again we're on a freakin' Freakonomics fishing expedition. Sands tells us that "it has been hypothesized that, in order to get their works produced, female playwrights feel compelled to write plays with fewer total parts." But this oppression scenario doesn't get her very far - it turns out that on average, female-written plays have 6.8 parts, while male-written plays have 7.7 parts - a difference which she's forced to admit "reduces the likelihood of production by about 0.7 percentage points" (p. 44). And indeed, later she discovers that women are "1 percentage point less likely to have one work produced." That's right: one percentage point (the difference is slightly higher - 4 percentage points - within a restricted American sample).

You get the picture: Sands has got nothing, or at least not much. But she keeps scrambling: she notes that female playwrights are somewhat less likely to have an agent (but this doesn't seem to matter much in gaining actual production). They also write scripts with predominantly female roles - and such scripts are six percentage points less likely to achieve production (again, not that much, but intriguing given the results of her "script experiment;" more on that later). To be fair, she all but admits defeat in the conclusion of her chapter about Doollee: "I find ample occupational differences between men and women, but no evidence of employment differences between male and female playwrights," she sighs.

But when Sands doesn't like what comes out of her equations, she is quick to doubt her data: "These results, however, must be considered with an eye to the incomprehensive nature and likely sample selection problems of the data" (p. 53). It's ironic, therefore, that she wraps her study with a "conclusion" based on faultier, or even non-existent, data, don't you think? Still, her search for sexism does inspire Sands to implement what's by far the most interesting, and certainly the most statistically valid, part of her study - her by-now-notorious "script experiment," in which she sent play excerpts by female playwrights - but attributed to males - to a large sample of theatres. More on that intriguing gambit in the third part of this ongoing series.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Why all the Brüno-phobia from the critics?

This weekend I checked out Sacha Baron Cohen's latest provocation, Brüno (above), with some trepidation. Would it, I wondered - as some sensitive gay groups had claimed - inflame homophobia rather than satirize it?

Well, maybe; but first I have to admit I laughed my gay ass off at Brüno, which, it turns out, is far funnier than Borat. But it is also much edgier and nastier, and perversely multivalent. Indeed, from the start Cohen really works that R rating (the original cut was, of course, NC-17) - he opens with a montage of anal antics (involving champagne bottles and fire extinguishers) that's pretty much designed to clear the room, and even after that there are talking penises and the occasional anal "bleaching" to squirm through.

Still, the (young, straight) crowd I saw the movie with seemed to take this very much in stride, and actually maintained a kind of dazed sympathy with the title character's many travails. The general response to the appearance of a dildo or Cohen in his birthday suit was a murmur of "Oh, nooooo!," akin to the gasp that occurs at the top of a roller coaster, followed by gleeful screams. But then this is the "2 Girls 1 Cup" generation we're talking about; their reaction to the sight of Brüno pouring Cristal from the sphincter of his "pygmy lover," for instance, was merely gasping, happy, laughter. And they seemed to understand the movie as a parody of not only homophobia but also the "extreme" edge of gay life - which is exactly what it is. There are, I'm afraid, gay men who derive pleasure from pushing very large objects up their lower digestive tracts, and I guess I think it's okay if straight people think that's ridiculous and worthy of derision.

Indeed, if anything, I wish Brüno had parodied the gay ghetto more; it was interesting to ponder, for instance, that gay anal acrobatics were given a lot of screen time, but gay drug use was barely mentioned. Instead, the movie offers many a telling snapshot of the ongoing car-crash between our gay and celebrity subcultures (the associated GQ spread, at left). For even more than he wants an anal orgasm, Brüno wants fame, and he pursues it with an unapologetically crass stupidity that is, indeed, somehow endearing in its infantility: he wants to be famous now, for no reason, and can't we understand that's simply fabulous? Well of course we can, because so many of us feel exactly the same way!

This would be reason enough to see the movie - indeed, the shot of fame-whore Brüno dazzled by closeted stars John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Kevin Spacey all at the same time is probably alone worth the price of admission. (And that's not even counting the stage mothers willing to starve their babies, the deliriously sick "Abort or Not?" talk show, or the bizarre interview with a dazed Paula Abdul; alas, we have to do without, for now, a notorious encounter with LaToya Jackson that was cut upon Michael Jackson's death.) But what hauls Brüno toward greatness, and beyond the shenanigans of "outrageous" shows like South Park, are two sequences that channel American bigotry with more force than anything in Borat, and probably with more force than we've seen in any American movie in years. The first of these occurs on a staged, Jerry-Springer-like TV show, in which Borat parades his African "gayby" - which he claims he traded for an i-phone - before a scandalized African-American audience. The satire here spins fast enough to give you whiplash as Brüno's own vapid brand of Eurotrash racism collides with black homophobia. It's a tour de force of competing victimization and bigoted outrage, with the kind of edge that network television (or even cable) can only dream of.

But this is nothing next to the film's finale - a staged anti-gay wrestling smackdown in which the clueless crowd is all but howling for gay blood. Actually, forget the "all but" - these cracker retards are howling for gay blood, indeed so hungry for it they're jumping up and down. But when the promised slugfest turns into a make-out session instead, the crowd really goes wild - so ferociously wild, in fact, that if barbed wire weren't separating Cohen from his audience, he probably wouldn't be alive today.

It was at such moments that I had to admire Cohen's balls; he certainly has the biggest in the business (although no, we don't actually get to see them). If only the nation's reviewers sported similarly-sized pairs! The critical response to Brüno has been dispiritingly timid, and only re-inforced for me my general impression that, well, most print critics are whores. Rotten Tomatoes informs us that only half the nation's reviewers found the film "fresh" - and most offer the dopey claim that while Borat hilariously unearthed and satirized bigotry, Brüno is just too icky and "confrontational." (Uh - ponder that one for a moment - this time the bigotry was too openly confronted!) Even the Globe's Wesley Morris tut-tutted over the film (he called it "desperate") - and isn't Morris gay? No, I don't know for sure, but he certainly seems gay, or at least so metro-sexual that the difference hardly matters. (Of course he's black, too - perhaps that's why he was non-plussed by the talk show sequence, and found the screaming anti-gay reaction at the finale "not entirely unfair"!)

Now don't get me wrong - Brüno is hardly a masterpiece; indeed, like its predecessor, it's just a ragged assemblage of raunchy skits. And occasionally - as when Cohen keeps taunting a pack of dumb, but harmless, redneck hunters - we feel some sympathy with his targets. But usually we don't, and the movie's wildest moments - the crazy, naked dominatrix with the whip comes to mind - leave Borat in the dust; certainly the audience I saw the film with laughed harder and longer than any audience I've seen in years (including the crowds at the entire Judd Apatow oeuvre).

To be honest, what's striking about many of the MSM reviews is their dodgy sympathy with homophobia - they feel Cohen has just pushed the audience too far (the poor dears). All I can say is that my experience at the multiplex seemed to undercut that perception - although national numbers reveal that after a huge opening night, the movie's box office fell, even though it hung onto the #1 position for the weekend. So maybe the nation's critics know their masters better than I do. Or maybe Cohen simply pushed many reviewers too far, be they closeted or just plain crotchety. The rather toothless "controversy" of Borat is much more up their, um, alley.

Another short flight from the Conchords

Just because (do you have to have a reason?). This one's directed by Michel Gondry.

Friday, July 10, 2009

And now the bad news . . .

It seems Shepard Fairey will not do jail time in penance for his not-so-brilliant career. A plea bargain for probation has been struck. Sigh! And here we had our hopes up! A spokesman for the aging tagger released a statement saying that Fairey is happy to have the case behind him so he can "return his attention to painting other people's art on other people's property."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

An unprecedented offer from ArtsBoston and local theatres

In a move that's startling in both its generosity and marketing savvy, ArtsBoston has arranged for twelve local theatres to offer free tickets to North Shore Music Theatre subscribers who were stiffed, as it were, by that theatre's sudden bankruptcy. Patrons angry at the NSMT's decision to stage High School Musical 2 rather than A Christmas Carol last year can even take their pick of two different Carols next winter - at either the New Rep (at left) or the Hanover Theatre. Participating companies include Gloucester Stage, The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, Huntington Theatre Company, The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, New Repertory Theatre, Ogunquit Playhouse, Reagle Players, Seacoast Repertory Theatre, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Stoneham Theatre, and the American Repertory Theatre. Details are here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Opening the curtain on Emily Glassberg Sands, Part I

Emily Glassberg Sands puts over her presentation. NY Times photo by Chester Higgins.

What felt like my personal "gotcha" moment with Emily Glassberg Sands (above, late of Princeton, now at Harvard) came halfway through my phone conversation with her a week or two ago. I'd just finished reading her study, "Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender, etc." and I was in two frames of mind about it. I was greatly impressed by the thoroughness and forethought of its central portion (the much-discussed "script experiment"), but I was confused and uncertain when it came to the vague methodology of her final conclusions, in which she seemed to find that Broadway producers had closed female-written shows early, despite their above-average weekly revenues.

Now the ultra-articulate Sands had been in high gear from the very start of the conversation, but as I got closer to my concerns, she began to power-chatter at a nearly alarming rate. I kept trying to steer the conversation to what I thought should be the central question of her final chapter - were those closed shows actually more profitable than the male-written shows she was comparing them to? (Because profitability, or the lack thereof, is the reason producers close shows.) But every time I tried to phrase this question, Emily deflected it by claiming that I wouldn't understand her even if she explained her method, that I wasn't trained enough in statistics to comprehend what she was doing, etc., etc. Finally, I managed to blurt out the full question:

"Emily - do you or do you not have valid data on profitability?"

And suddenly the chatter ended abruptly; a long silence ensued. And ensued. For what seemed like minutes. "Emily? Emily, are you there?" I asked. "Yes, I'm still here," she answered quietly, but said nothing more. "Can you answer my question?" I then ventured. "I'm still here," she repeated. And again fell absolutely silent.

Then she began trying to end the call. "Look, I don't really have time for this," she said. "I've been working on this for more than a year, I've talked about it to a lot of important people!"

"Yes, but Emily - do you have valid data on profitability?"

She then let me know that the paper had been accepted for publication by the MIT Press; she'd already told me she would soon be on The Colbert Report. "I've been told that people like you would be calling me!" she said (which I took to mean people had predicted lonely, gay bloggers would soon be on her tail). "You're just going to write something scathing, aren't you," she went on bitterly. "I have to go!"

"But - "

"I have to cook, I have to clean! I have things to do!"

And so we went back and forth for awhile, during which time I just managed to sneak in my final question:

"But Emily, if producers are ending profitable shows, can you speculate as to why? If a producer were sexist, he wouldn't produce a show by a woman to begin with, would he? Why would he produce it, then shoot himself in the foot by killing his own profits?"

There was another long pause.

"Because there are always costs to taste-based discrimination," she finally offered.

"And that's what you think this is."

"Yes. I'm signing off now."

And that was that. I followed up with an e-mail (posted below) to try to tease out a more credible answer, but she hasn't replied, and somehow I don't think she ever will.

Because, of course, there is no reply. There's a gaping hole in the final chapter of her study, and smart girl that she is, Sands knows this as well as I do. And you don't have to be a statistics whiz to see it; indeed, I'd like to point out to all the dazzled liberal arts majors out there that Sands doesn't actually do anything too mathematically sophisticated in her study (although yes, its design and administration are admirably complex) and I had no real trouble following it until she suddenly began to fudge things to come up with her "profitability" proxy. Of course if you don't understand regressions and don't know what natural logs are, her equations look like some form of indecipherable magic. To someone like me, with a rusty knowledge of statistics and college-level math, they were at first heavy going, but after some glances back in the old textbooks, they pretty much came clear.

Because, of course, this is an undergraduate thesis, and functions in the same way undergraduate theses always have: it covers the techniques it's supposed to cover to demonstrate that the student has been paying attention and has a command of the material. I had to write one of these myself years ago (although it was nowhere near as complicated or impressive as Sands's!), and so I soon recalled the essential problem of all undergraduate papers on statistics: finding a data set appropriate to the techniques you know you have to apply.

What happened to Sands was that she wandered into the sights of a very high-powered crew with an obvious agenda. Her mentor was none other than Steven Levitt (looking geeky at left), co-author of the pop economics phenomenon Freakonomics - who was friends with Julia Jordan (looking sexily persecuted, below right), a fairly successful stage and television writer who had long told anyone who would listen that sexism must be holding back her career. Jordan wanted back-up for her personal theory of grievance; Levitt was no doubt looking for another public forum for the methods of Freakonomics, which had begun to seem a little irrelevant since its micro-analyses had served as a distraction from the macro-problems that had been brewing during its heyday (and about which it had little or nothing to say).

Of course the appeal of Freakonomics hadn't been hard to understand - its methods seemed to validate policy decisions while transcending traditional political biases. Not that it doesn't have an implicit libertarian/liberal bias - it does; indeed Levitt's first, eye-opening finding was that access to abortion correlated to later lower crime rates (since crime rates have risen recently, however, while abortion rates have remained stable, I'm not sure where that particular debate stands now). This of course, wasn't actually a political or moral argument - but its pure (if unspoken) utilitarianism seemed just as good as a moral politics to a lot of people. And to be fair, Levitt always reported his unexpected results - indeed, that honesty is central to the pleasure of reading Freakonomics, and its elevation as a kind of economics-lite substitute for political thought. No doubt that badge of honesty was also part of what lured Jordan to pursue a Freakonomics-style analysis to vindicate her claims of sexism in the theatre.

Enter Emily Glassberg Sands, in her own words "a young economist in the making" who is also rather clearly on the make. Only I'm sure Sands soon found the freaky catch in Freakonomics - it's quite hard to find data samples that match the requirements of its methods; indeed, the search for such data, I've read, has become a kind of cottage industry among economics grad students and post-docs. So Emily did what any smart undergraduate would do who'd already invested who-knows-how-many hours in a thesis topic:

She began fudging.

Only Sands eventually had to fudge a lot. Ironically enough, the "controversial" audit survey portion of her thesis seems pretty air-tight; the problem was that it had come up with contrarian results - it seemed to indicate that women, not men, were discriminating against other women. (OMG, Julia!) Still, if Sands had stopped there, she'd have already done enough to attract a considerable amount of attention.

But she went on to attempt to tease out evidence of sexism on Broadway - only to discover that she really couldn't do that with the data available. Sands says in her text that she's trying to apply Chicago price theory to the Broadway scene, but that requires marginal analysis, and she just doesn't have the numbers for that - indeed, she openly admits she has to infer marginal values from average values (a technical no-no). And frankly, even those average values are flawed, as Sands could never find actual data on production costs and profitability. So what we're looking at is a simulation of marginal analysis based on proxy variables (from a possibly flawed sample; see post below).

What's more, she's conceptually high and dry. One even begins to wonder whether "Chicago price theory" could ever be applied to as anomalous an economic scene as Broadway. Indeed, Sands herself wonders aloud at one point, "How would one define the 'marginal' male-written or female-written play on Broadway?" Good question; I've no idea either (Sands ponders 'an examination of plays just off-Broadway,' but that would bring up a raft of new problems). But I can tell that her entire final analysis is a kind of charade - a charade done while dutifully lifting the curtain over and over, and pointing out to her professors that she's using averages and dummy variables and proxies; but a charade nonetheless.

So is Ms. Sands guilty of fraud?

Well, when it comes to her auditors at Princeton - no. She clearly covers her ass in the text of her study - like so many undergraduate theses, her final chapter operates with an understood subtext of "I can't really do this with the data I could find, but if I could, I would do it this way, just like you showed in class!"

When it comes to the rest of us, however - yes, Ms. Sands has been a bit fraudulent. Or at the very least has allowed herself to be manipulated into giving a misleading impression. Because somehow all the provisos and explanations of her study have been dropped in her public presentations. In her initial public foray in New York, she even put up slides (one is reproduced below, note headline) that seemed to indicate that she actually had data on profitability, and every discussion I've read of her work in the press has implicitly or directly repeated that false claim (and she's had plenty of chances to add comments on these posts clarifying her position).

But if Sands did clarify her position, she'd be left saying the last thing that Julia Jordan wants to hear - that she found hard evidence indicating women believe sexism exists in the theatre, but no actual hard data proving that it does exist.

And what should we make of that possibility? More to come in Part II of this (at least) three-part series.