Black Gold: You had to be there
Dan Rottenberg e-mailed me an objection to my enthusiasm for Seth Rozin’s new play, Black Gold: "You haven’t persuaded me that this play deserves comparison to either Brecht or Larry Gelbart. Most of the humorous examples you cite sound mighty heavy-handed to me."
Dan is correct, to a degree, and he opens a subject that’s worth discussing.
When a critic tells us how funny– or how smart – a play is, we want him or her to cite examples. Don’t just tell us; show us. But a script is meant to be performed, and it may not look effective on the page.
When Charles Isherwood gave Tracy Letts’s play, August: Osage County, a rave review in the New York Times in December, he quoted an example of humor: "Your shoulders are slumped and your hair’s all straight and you don’t wear makeup. You look like a lesbian."
Another line from that play that gets a big laugh is this: "You’re 50 years old. You’re not going to New York. You’ll break a hip." Both examples are not funny on paper. The play has to be seen on stage.
My review of Black Gold quoted two jokes from the first scene that, alas, look unimpressive on paper. To compare Rozin with Brecht seems preposterous, but Black Gold’s presentational style and its political ideas are in common with the work of Bertolt Brecht. On the other hand, Brecht wasn’t exactly known for comedy, so I was reminded more of Larry Gelbart. Again, Rozin’s writing can’t be equated with the Gelbart who combined humor and political statement in the TV series "M*A*S*H" – but Gelbart’s recent work, such as his musical version of Lysistrata, can’t compare with "M*A*S*H," either.
Comparing Rozin or any other playwright with established giants doesn’t necessarily imply that all their work is on the same level. So I’m not sorry that I called attention to the parallels.
But I’m not sure how often one should quote from scripts. Gag lines may seem heavy-handed and dramatic lines may seem over-heated when read alone. You might say that I (and Isherwood, and others) should just make better selections, but I don’t think that’s the problem. Guidance from readers will be appreciated.
King of Prussia, Pa.
February 23, 2008
Editor’s comment: I’m not sure I agree with your last sentence. When a performer starts asking his audience for advice, I usually head for the exit.
I just can’t find strong enough words to praise Beeri Moalem’s writing. With his depth of knowledge and first-hand experience with the music, coupled with a vivid and informal writing style, he leaves the rest of us in the dust.
February 19, 2008
Tom Purdom did more than see the opera Cyrano. He absorbed it like an amoeba absorbs its food. How do I know? Because his review spins and dances with life just like the play. It sparkles just like Cyrano’s blade.
William L. Clovis
February 19, 2008
Editor’s comment: Given our budget limitations, amoebas are the highest species of critic we can afford right now.
Skylight: ‘An extremely boring play’
Re your reviews of Skylight, by Robert Zaller and Jim Rutter—
I cannot fault the superb performances in the Lantern’s production of Skylight, or its meticulous set design and construction, or its subtle and intelligent direction. I must disagree, however, that any of these excellent production values can salvage what is, essentially, an extremely boring play.
It’s fairly common among reviewers to suggest that the appeal of drawing-room psychodramas like Skylight, which is essentially a two-and-a-half-hour study of two people coming to terms with the exposition, is that it gives the audience the sense of eavesdropping into the lives of real people, or, at least, people who are real enough. I wonder what seats those critics get. My seat was behind a fat woman sporting a halo of color-damaged hair, so that I had to keep shifting around in order to see the action on the stage. No amount of actually cooking spaghetti sauce with a working oven was going to convince me that I was anywhere other than a theater.
Moreover, the second you have to actually cook food on stage to prove the reality of the situation is the second you need to realize that your script is fundamentally flawed.
Your counter-reviewer, Robert Zaller, at the very least describes the piece as unsatisfying, but I think this gives too much credit to David Hare. Not only are the political arguments hackneyed and crude—maybe in 1995 no one had ever thought to describe a businessman as feeling guilty for his own success? Or maybe no one had ever suggested that social workers try to help people simply to assuage their own guilt?— but the relationships are equally hackneyed.
Two people feeling guilty about an affair is the stuff of cheap melodrama in the best of circumstances, when it’s actually happening right in front of us; but Skylight has them working out their guilt over an affair that took place years ago. The entire play, rather than being about two people doing something that they can feel guilty about, is about two people explaining why they feel guilty about something they’ve already done.
There’s only two ways that a story like this can end: they get back together, or they don’t. By the time we get to the last 45 minutes, the resolution approaches with the inevitability of a freight train. A very slow freight train, which we can see coming from a long way down the tracks, and which affords us plenty of opportunity to hop out of the way.
Again, the production team and the actors at Lantern are certainly talented, and do their level best to lend dramatic intensity to the piece. It’s not their fault that Skylight, as a script, doesn’t do anything more than wallow in clichéd tedium.
February 13, 2008
I resent Steve Cohen’s assertion that the hit musical Avenue Q is "narrowly targeted" and "petty." For the narrowly targeted accusation: whether you are before, during or after the post-college dysphoria phase, the message should still be meaningful. For youngsters, the cheerful jollity with which the song "It sucks to be me" is sung can be an encouragement. For oldsters, you can finally look back and laugh, the way you one day said you would. And I don’t know what’s petty about addressing the issues of our times head-on, with unabashed confidence and humor.
The following hilarious rhymes aptly capture the social and political issues of our times:
"Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes / doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes" (sung by two lovers with an ironically glowing positive vibe).
"That is why the net was born: porn, porn porn!" (sung by a monster with huge horns!).
"If you were queer, I’d still be here, year after year, because you’re dear to me." (sung by a grown up Ernie to a grown up Benz— remember how they shared their bed 20 years ago?).
"Sex!/ Is only for now!/ Your hair!/ Is only for now!/ George Bush!/ Is only for now!" (sung at the end of a long list).
The puppets and pop-up cartoons are gimmicks that add another show, and allude to that show we all grew up with: Sesame Street. Just as Sesame Street taught us the basic skills we’d need for kindergarten, Avenue Q teaches us the basic skills we’ll need for the adult version of kindergarten: life.
February 18, 2008
Editor’s note: To read Steve Cohen’s response, click here.
Philadelphia architecture: Going, going….
Re “Calamities on Broad Street,” by Robert Zaller—
Professor Zaller, your list of baddies is mine if you will add that wretched Symphony House sundae, the top
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