Sunday, December 31, 2006

Weekend update

What's with that trend of bands playing one of their albums live from top to bottom? My thoughts on the phenomenon in today's New York Times.

The Christmas break has just flown by and thanks to a nasty case of flu I didn't accomplish a single of my goals—go to MoMA, see movies at noon, walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to Chinatown, play Halo while eating delicious Indian sweets from Jackson Heights.

When I was five or six, I got my tonsils taken out in Paris. As soon as I was out of the operating room, my mother, never one to miss an opportunity to see some art, took me to the ballet at the Paris Opera (I'm pretty sure it was Coppelia). Alas, I got sick at intermission and we had to leave; on the way out, I left a trail of crimson-red (I'd been fed strawberry sorbet to soothe my throat) vomit all over the marble staircase. It took me 35 years to be so sick that I'd have to leave a show, which is what happened at yesterday's Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo matinee. Right in the middle of Pas de Quatre, I was overwhelmed by a coughing fit worthy of Marguerite Gautier, aka Camille, aka Violetta Valéry; the only option was to leave. So ended my one and only outing in this lost week. What a waste of free time.

Speaking of free time, and perhaps too much of it, Sufjan Stevens has released a box set collecting his Christmas songs over the years. I find Stevens interesting mostly in the context of his relationship with Daniel Smith, the brain behind Danielson; it's touched upon in JL Aronson's new doc on Danielson (which I reviewed for TONY). If Aronson had had more guts, he'd have centered the entire film on the All About Eve connection between Stevens and Smith, and used it to show how the more banal talent gets less recognition than the pricklier one.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

20/20 hindsight

Yep, there was quite a bit of good theater in New York this year, and here's what I liked, listed in chronological order:

1. Red Light Winter, by and directed by Adam Rapp, at the Barrow Street Theater. Rapp is moving beyond shock tactics and into craft.

2. BLACKland, devised by Krétakör and directed by Árpád Schilling, at Montclair U's Kasser Theater. A political revue created and interpreted by a super-physical Hungarian troupe. The Kasser is quickly becoming one of the area's most daring venues. But the one thing that depresses me every time I go there is the dearth of students in the audience, especially considering they get free tickets. I guess those cretins would rather be at some sports event.

3. The Wooster Group's revival of its take on O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte at St. Ann's Warehouse. Fucking A! This is theater!

4. Measure for Pleasure, by David Grimm and directed by Peter DuBois at the Public Theater. The year's smartest, warmest, most generous comedy. And the most unfairly neglected.

5. The History Boys, by Alan Bennett and directed by Nicholas Hytner at the Broadhurst Theater. Enough has been said about the merits of Alan Bennett's play. But why American directors can't put together anything as kinetic as what Hytner does here is a mystery to me.

6. The Drowsy Chaperone. Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison's score is delicious pastiche of the old Gershwin/Wodehouse musicals of the 1920s. The show is an oddly intimate experience at the cavernous Marquis Theater.

7. Spring Awakening. I missed the Broadway version but on the Atlantic's small stage Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's ode to burgeoning teen sexuality was pretty darn cool. And it showed the horrible, embarrassing High Fidelity that rock & roll is a state of mind, not a few hasty references and a couple of dudes in band T-shirts.

8. Eraritjaritjaka. Heiner Goebbels hardly ever disappoints and this year's entry, part of the Lincoln Center Festival, was gripping, using technology in a thrilling way. The Met should get him to direct an opera.

9. Mother Courage and Her Children. Edge-of-your-seat spectacle from the two merrymakers known as…Bertolt Brecht and Tony Kushner?

10. Mary Poppins. Some say it's too long or clumsy or overblown—I don't care. I'm sure the ungainly sight of my jaw hanging fairly low in amazed delight was a turn-off for my neighbors at the New Amsterdam but yeah, I loved it. This is exactly what an all-ages show should be.

But the best thing about going to the theater may well be watching actors at work. Here are my all-stars:

• Julie White in The Little Dog Laughed—but the Off Broadway version, which I found less shrill.

• Kate Valk in The Emperor Jones. The best actor in New York. Only Elizabeth Marvel comes close.

• Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens. Yeah yeah yeah…but she really is that good.

• Michael Stuhlbarg and Euan Morton in Measure for Pleasure. Stuhlbarg is acknowledged as a great by now, but Morton is turning into a real asset to the New York stage. He was rather cool in Brundibar as well.

• Sherie Rene Scott in Landscape of the Body. She can sing, she can act, she can slink. Old-school sass and an underrated performer.

• Nellie McKay in Threepenny Opera. Watching that show, I could not figure out what the hell McKay was doing. Then I realized she was doing the part filtered through an old Hollywood idea of an ingenue done by someone who can't act. Not sure it worked at the moment, but several months later it sticks in my mind and remains the only thing worth saving from that wretched production.

• Ian McDiarmid in Faith Healer. The play was a snooze (and Cherry Jones was uncharacteristically awful) until McDiarmid came in at the beginning of the second act, with his ratty orange hair and fantastic timing.

• Judy Greer in Show People. Watching the quirky Greer was taking a master class in reactive acting: Even when she wasn't speaking, Greer was in the scene—without mugging to draw attention to herself. It's a fine line, and one she walked beautifully.

• Felicia Finley in The Wedding Singer. A couple of quick in-and-out numbers were enough for Finley to bring down the house. It was fun to watch someone chew the scenery with such gleeful vulgarity.

• Nina Hellman and Jeremy Shamos in Trouble in Paradise. Subtle comedic chemistry from these undersung stalwarts of the Downtown stage.

• Sherry Vine in Carrie. Whaaaaa…???

The year's visuals belonged to the opera, though: Joyce DiDonato going mad in Hercules at BAM; Viviva Genaux and Elizabeth Futral in super-sexy Handelian closeness in Semele at City Center; Madama Butterfly's gorgeous death at the Met. (Note to potential employers of Julie Taymor, however: Stick a fork in her, she's done.)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


I've always been fascinated by novels and films taking place in a post-apocalyptic world. Give me a small group of survivors trying to make it in a dramatically altered landscape, and I'm happy. I'm not talking about movies depicting the catastrophe itself (ie Deep Impact or The Day After Tomorrow) but about the ones specifically dealing with the aftermath—the nuclear winter of our discontent.

Entries in the well-stocked post-apocalyptic genre include novels like Stephen King's The Stand, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island, even Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, and quite a few films: Ray Milland's Panic in Year Zero!, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later…, Michael Anderson's Logan's Run, Boris Sagal's The Omega Man, Lynne Littman's still-striking Testament (which shows just how much of an emotional punch you can pack with a budget of approximately $12).

On two completely different planes from each other, we can add Cormac McCarthy's The Road and the CBS drama Jericho to the shelf. Neither is hot-off-the-press new, but I'm just getting to them so fine, I'm late.

I'd never been able to finish a Cormac McCarthy book until The Road. His prose felt too affected for my taste—goth for boys—but The Road's stark minimalism actually allows the flights of poetry to support the book rather than choke it. The plot is simple: A man and his son travel through a blighted, ash-covered landscape where nothing grows anymore. They encounter some of the post-apocalyptic staples, like cannibalism and a hidden stash of food, but mostly McCarthy zeroes in on primal emotions and describes incredibly well the abyss the characters face on a daily basis.

Like The Day After, Jericho takes place in Kansas—shorthand, obviously, for all-American. I've only seen the pilot so far but the show looks decent, even though there's a surfeit of hugging. (Hugging has got to be the single most overused—and irritating—gesture in American movies and TV shows. It's a skin-deep show of support that signifies a lot and means nothing.) Jericho follows the Lost formula pretty closely in terms of the group of people it throws in together, down to a hunky-but-broodily-sensitive male lead. What the show lacks so far is that sense of existential dread that permeates the best post-apocalyptic fiction (I'd even include Bergman's Shame in that bunch), as illustrated by the fact that the creators couldn't even bring themselves to let the little girl die on the crashed school bus. Oh well, I'll take Jericho, even if it turns out to be more like Dawson's Irradiated Creek.

Next: Arctic expeditions run amok!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Will it snow in July?

Will it rain toads? Is this a sign of the impending Apocalypse? In the middle of the latest issue of Vice there's quite a 1-2-3 punch: an excerpt from a text (unpublished novel titled Velvet? unclear) by Andrea Dworkin sandwiched between short stories by Chuck Palahniuk and Neil LaBute. Ka-POW! I mean, I never thought I'd see these names in such close proximity, and in Vice, of all places. And the Dworkin story, nominally about hitting a dog, is the most surprising of the bunch (I did enjoy the other two as well, but their authors deliver exactly what you'd expect from them).

Actually when I first noticed that there was a piece by Dworkin in the fiction issue of Vice, my first thought was that one of the mag's smart asses had written a parody. But the story, "I'm Half Dead" isn't what anybody would consider a "typical" Dworkin screed so it had to be real.

More depressing is the LaBute piece, "Slave to the Office," which somehow aims to make you feel faint pangs of pity for an office bully halfway between asshole and pathetic. Boy has LaBute painted himself into a corner at this point. He has such ease as a stylist, but for what? Cheap effects in the service of devious targets. Still, I keep going back to his stories and plays. It must be nostalgie de la boue.

Palahniuk, at least, achieves a certain 21st-century Freaks-ishness in "Mister Elegant." The take on ideas of normalcy and physical appearance may be only Twilight Zone–deep, but I found the piece's black humor rather effective. It somehow reminded me a bit of what I like in Judy Budnitz's stories. Her work is less anchored in a certain type of hyper-reality, but she also captures the grotesqueries of life.

So there you go: Vice's fiction issue. It's free, pick it up.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Squeeeeal like a pig!

Coming out of a rock show half-deaf, I'm familiar with; but emerging half-blind as well, that was new. Not only did Clockcleaner play loud at Cake Shop on Friday night, but they also turned off the stage lights and turned on a couple of blue strobes. My ears! My eyes! It was sensory-
overload agony, and I was in ecstasy. And I'm pretty sure it wasn't all because of some nostalgia trip either: Sure, the Philly trio sounds like it's listened to the entire AmRep catalogue back to front, but it's already developed a live power that's all its own. And bassist Karen has a sturdy, no-nonsense presence that reminds me of the glory days of Kim Deal (not a coincidence I guess, since I hear Clockcleaner did a Breeders cover at its WFMU appearance earlier this month.)

The band has recentish MP3s on its website, so here's a couple of older tracks, from its 2004 debut EP The Hassler: "Walking With My Lady Friend" and "Shingles/Black Baby."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What the jury heard

Updates have been woefully rare since the end of November, as that period has been uncharacteristically busy. At least I can now reveal the main reason the Dilettante got so little attention: I was a member of the advisory review panel for the New York State Music Fund, which has just announced a new batch of grants. You can see discover where they went there.

In short, the NYSMF was redistributing money from fines paid by the major record labels, which had been sued by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for payola. Being a panelist for the Fund was extraordinarily demanding but also extraordinarily exciting. I can safely say I learned more about music-related institutions in New York State in the past couple of months than in the past couple of years. And soon, we'll all get to hear what that windfall help produce.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Help raise the freak flag

A group of New York theater gals led by playwright Kate Moira Ryan, director Leigh Silverman and writer/actor (and New York Theater Workshop associate artistic director) Linda Chapman has teamed up with the equally excellent Hourglass Group, whose past productions include a wonderful stage adaptation of Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (starring the always fine Nina Hellman).

And to what end, you may wonder, already bedazzled by this introductory list of names, slathered with praise like jam on toast ? Well, they want to stage Ann Bannon's pulpy book The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, and they're now doing some fund-raising. The novel is a classic of overheated 1950s paperback lit, as examplified by its front-cover blurb: "Lost, lonely, boyishly appealing—this is Beebo Brinker—who never really knew what she wanted—until she came to Greenwich Village and found the love that smoulders in the shadows of the twilight world." Come on, what would you rather see on stage, this or the latest hairball coughed up by Richard Greenberg?

So giddyup and fork out some $$$. After all, it's the time of the year when we're meant to be generous. You can donate through their new website, or check in with the Hourglass Group.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

It's astounding, time is fleeting…

…madness takes its toll. And boy, did it!

Based on a glowing recommendation from my colleague Adam Feldman, I dropped by Joe's Pub Friday evening to check out Leslie Kritzer Is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches, an unwieldy title that turned out to hide a dynamite show, as Ed Sullivan would put it.

The basic concept is that Kritzer reproduces Patti LuPone's last set at Les Mouches, a Chelsea boîte where Patti held a Saturday residency for 30 weeks in 1980—performing right after appearing in Evita on Broadway. Oddly, this is the second show I've seen in the past couple of months where a performer has turned a nominal homage into a memorable, completely original evening. And Kritzer had set herself a challenge even bigger than the one Terese Genecco faced in her tribute to Frances Faye, because Genecco dealt with Faye in general, telling the audience about her subject's life for instance; Kritzer, however, is reproducing a particular set's song list and banter, making it trickier to both avoid simply mimicking her model and put her own stamp on the material. That she delivers the most high-octane performance I've seen in ages must be credited to her powerhouse voice, interpretative chops and deadly comic timing—and those are her own and nobody else's.

Making her grand entrance with "She's a Latin from Manhattan," Kritzer hilariously emphasized LuPone's tendency to slur lyrics into complete unintelligibility, but she dropped the strict emulation quickly and somehow managed to appropriate songs indelibly associated with Her Royal Pattiness, like "Meadowlark" and "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."

A side result of listening to this recreation is that I was once again struck by the porous barriers between genres in 1980. Patti was doing "Love for Sale" but also "Superman" and "Because the Night," rock songs that were newish at the time—compare this to contemporary cabaret artists who pat themselves on the back for dipping into the back catalogs of Randy Newman, Laura Nyro or Joni Mitchell. And let's not forget the time-warp experience of "Heaven Is a Disco," a 1977 song by Paul Jabara—author of the immortal "Last Dance" and "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)"—that suddenly turned Joe's into Studio 54.

After looking her up, I realized that I had actually seen Kritzer before—in a 2000 revival of Godspell at the Theater at St Peter's that also starred then-unknowns Barrett Foa and Capathia Jenkins. I can't honestly say I had singled out Kritzer at the time, essentially because the entire cast of that zippy production was surprisingly good.

And while we're on the subject of Patti LuPone, I may have to check out Jet Blue's fares: She and Audra McDonald are starring in Brecht and Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at Los Angeles Opera in February/March; even better, the production is directed by John Doyle, who excellently staged Sweeney Todd on Broadway last year (and, granted, is less successful in the current revival of Company).

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Rural Juror

The "rural juror" joke alone would be enough to make me eat crow, but there's been plenty more of that ilk on 30 Rock, the sitcom I once described as a turkey. A hasty judgment, obviously, since against all odds (1. Tina Fey as an actress, 2. Tracy Morgan, 3. Tina Fey as an actress) the show has been steadily improving and now qualifies as a weekly delight. Okay, so I was wrong—at least give me some brownie points for admitting the error of my ways.

And while we're in the realm of "things I never thought I'd say": The Met Opera is exciting! The recent announcement that it's going to present Philip Glass's 1982 Satyagraha in 2008 may have raised my pulse by a couple of ticks on its own, but what really makes me count the weeks is the news that it'll be staged by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, of Britain's Improbable company. McDermott and Crouch co-directed Shockheaded Peter, a wonderful, innovative piece of musical theater which, under the pretense of being a kids' show (its first NYC production was at the New Victory), brilliantly exposed the stuff that nightmares are made of. Their Hanging Man at BAM in 2003 wasn't too shabby either.

Now if we somehow could get Tina Fey and Peter Gelb to meet…

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Charity, Scandi style

Just because they're giving it away doesn't mean it's bad!

The Swedish label Sudd, operating out of Goteborg, has had the brilliant idea of doing an MP3 advent calendar: They're offering a new track every day of December until Christmas eve. Today, for instance, is Sophie Rimheden and Sofia Talvik's lovely techno-pop number "Xmas on the Dance Floor" (which made it to my top ten of last year, despite usually having very little patience for holiday songs).

Elsewhere in Sweden, Stockholm duo Small Feral Token (pictured) has put up 17 of its songs for free download.

December is the best time of the year to enjoy Swedish deliciousness!!!