at the theatre: the anarchist

When David Mamet writes a play with emotionally driven characters and a plot hinging on dangerous points-of-no-return and vigorous debate the results are often visceral, whether you appreciate the mise en scene or not. This playwright specializes in unflinching drama and, yes, it is often riotously funny and startlingly vulgar, too. The point being that love him or hate him – and Mamet has his fair share of vocal champions and detractors – there is no arguing with his skill as a dramatist when he delivers to an audience people living his or her own desperate emotional truths. When Mamet chooses to write a dialectic, however, the results are often less than engaging. His chief skills as a master storyteller drop by the wayside – as they should, the dialectic method is a dialogue in search of the truth and not a debate. Disguised as drama, however, it has little resonance below the neck. The Anarchist, Mamet’s latest play, now in previews at the Golden Theater, unfortunately falls in to the later category. For a man whose reputation has often (maybe unjustly) been said to rest upon a propensity to display his dramatic balls, so to speak, it makes for a doubly disappointing evening at the theater. What’s most frustrating is that the premise doesn’t lack the potential for dramatic fireworks: Cathy, a longtime inmate with ties to a violently anarchic political organization is up for parole. Her warden, Ann, wants to be certain that if Cathy is released it’s for the right reason. What follows is an almost Shavian point-counterpoint on the individual’s responsibility to society versus the state’s responsibilities to the individual, which would make for fascinating reading but not, alas, compelling viewing. Stars Patti LuPone and Debra Winger do their level best to inject a human element into the arguments but the drama onstage is not anarchic or revolutionary or even radical. It’s confused.

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at the theater: seminar

Theresa Rebeck’s new play Seminar is like so much of the fiction that comes in for slaughter from the Hitchens-esque writing teacher played with a deliciously malevolent glee by Alan Rickman: hollow. In fact, to paraphrase the playwright, her play is like the perfect New Yorker story: middlebrow, not too long, intellectually perplexed, and wholly irrelevant. That’s not to say you don’t enjoy it while it plays. Rebeck is great with the one liners. And in a play that’s ostensibly about the creative process (four writers in an overpriced masterclass led by a has-been novelist is a scenario worthy of Sartre) there are ample opportunities for zingers both earned and superfluous. What Rebeck lacks is an attention to detail – not to mention the storyteller’s craft. (What little plot exists hinges on a suspension of disbelief worthy of an Adam Sandler movie.) Current “it” director Sam Gold doesn’t help matters. Is this supposed to be a farce or a comedy of ideas? It’s not outrageous enough to hit the mark as farce and intellectually it’s as thin as weak minestrone. And while we’re at it, why is everyone constantly fidgeting at the wet bar in yet another oversized living room in an unbelievably rent-controlled Upper West Side New York apartment? Crucially what’s missing is believability in both plot and character. It would give the people on stage something worth risking; something relevant, instead of what amounts to a hill of idle, if occasionally amusing, chatter. Hats off to Lily Rabe for suffering the indignity of showing her ass while bringing another dimension to the all-too-simplistic role of a Jane Austen-obsessed feminist who – spoiler alert – fucks her teacher in the end. Alan Rickman is perhaps too good. His sonorous bass imparts Rebeck’s lazy prose with the mistaken semblance of intellectual heft. That’s more weight than this Seminar can bear.

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obit (the dust) of the month: you’ll never find anyone as good for you as i am

Arthur Laurents, the playwright, screenwriter and director who wrote and ultimately transformed two of Broadway’s landmark shows, “Gypsy” and “West Side Story,” and created one of Hollywood’s most well-known romances, “The Way We Were,” died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93. Mr. Laurents once described writers as “the chosen people” and said he was happiest when sitting alone and putting his “daydreams and fantasies down on paper.” He did so in various genres. His film credits include Hitchcock’s “Rope”; “Anastasia,” with Ingrid Bergman; and “The Turning Point,” with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. His screenplay for “The Way We Were,” with Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, was adapted from his novel by the same name. But the stage was his first love, and he wrote for it for 65 years, turning out comedies and romances as well as serious dramas that often explored questions of ethics, social pressures and personal integrity. Early on, he once said, he realized that “plays are emotion,” not simply words strung together, and it became his guiding principle. Read the full story HERE. On a personal note, I knew Arthur and at various times both loathed and loved him. After a long drought on the New York stage, he returned with a play called The Radical Mystique at Manhattan Theatre Club in the early 1990’s.  A thinly veiled satire that took on the Weatherman, Bernstein and the Black Panthers, it was a story rich in both ideas and ideals. Two weeks into the process Arthur inserted himself quite vocally into rehearsals, disapproving the director’s choices and shaping of the story. When the director finally up and quit, Arthur took command. As the AD, I was left to take sides. I had never quit a show before but believed Arthur was artistically misguided on this one and so I, too, left the production. In performance it turned out that his direction of the play was a mistake, undercutting everything I had believed to be good and true about the script. Oh well, it opened and closed with little notice. Years later, however, when I was mentoring a group of up-and-coming musical theater writers, I wrote to Arthur and asked if he would mind sharing his considerable experience with young ears for an afternoon. He agreed immediately, even going so far as to interrupt his summer vacation in Quogue to attend. It made for an insightful and inspiring afternoon, yet before we said our goodbyes I couldn’t help but bring up the first and last time we had worked together. “Arthur,” I told him, “I really loved that play.” I wavered, hesitated, then finally blurted out, “You know you torpedoed it, right?”  He shot me the stink-eye before breaking into a wry smile. “You’re damn right I did, kid.” I like to think he was as pleasantly surprised by my candor as my praise. Chief among Arthur’s many virtues was his near inability to shy away from brutal honesty.

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at the theatre: being harold pinter

Since 2005, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin have led a courageous group of underground theater artists in Minsk, Belarus. Their work together with director Vladimir Shcherban, under the banner of Belarus Free Theatre, includes producing original devised theater as well as presenting the work of emerging and recognized writers from Belarus and many other countries.  In Europe’s last dictatorship, this simple act has meant they and their families have been blacklisted, beaten, jalied, and censored.  They have seen their friends disappear, their families fired from state jobs and witnessed the bodies of murdered colleagues turn up unexplained.  These facts alone merit that attention be paid. Yet what makes Being Harold Pinter, playing downtown as part of the Under the Radar Festival, such essential viewing is its scrupulously compelling dramaturgy: intercutting passages of Pinter’s controversial Nobel address with fragments from some of his bleaker explorations into man’s inhumanity to man. That might sound a bit dry – or worse, preachy – but it’s not; it’s compelling, putting Harold Pinter the citizen in the bullring with Harold Pinter the playwright.  Before long, the battle spirals downwards into a circle of totalitarian hell. (Violence trumps language every time, don’t you know – and it’s startlingly clear why the government in Minsk would rather everyone involved just shut up and disappear already.) Even at rock bottom, however, Pinter seems to tell us there’s an ember of hope still to found in the dignity of man.  Within this company of committed artists, it’s a fire.

We don’t need Julian Assange to remind us – or do we? – that one of the most damaging things about a country in which individual expression, the freedom of the press, art and public assembly are all curtailed unilaterally by the government is that the truth is compromised at every level. When any artist is kept from expanding what we think is humanly possible and meaningful, we are all responsible to help keep them free.   To sign the Global Artistic Campaign in Solidarity with Belarus and Belarus Free Theatre, please text:  Belarus (space) Your Name (space) Your Zip Code to 27138.

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