Tag Archives: play

Life List #58 – Part III

If you check out my life list, you’ll see it’s a work (life) in-progress. #58, See every show/lab in an entire season at the Vineyard Theatre, is ongoing. This is the third post in the series on #58. You can find the first post here and the second one here

Back in April, I attended a performance of Christopher Shinn‘s play, “Picked” at the Vineyard. It was a solid production of a play filled with fascinating ideas about a film actor, Kevin, who subjects himself to neuroimaging, intense, in-depth interviews and testing in order to deliver an emotionally authentic performance for a legendary director. We learn early on the film script is being developed around the results of the lead actor’s tests. It’s all big ideas and James Cameron-like dreams of moviemaking. To some extent, it’s not far from the truth of how movies, especially the high-tech, high-concept ones, are almost intangible ideas. I had recently come from working on a movie where a majority of our central characters were computer-generated. Human actors would recite dialogue to a red dot placed in their eye line. We would shoot whole scenes where the set would be the only thing to look at, for now. There’s an interesting challenge to work on something that feels like a movie, but it’s only half there.

Similarly, in “Picked,” Kevin isn’t entirely certain what all the testing is building up to. He spends a year of his life fulfilling his contractual obligations without ever shooting a frame of film. He has no idea what the script is (if it’s even any good) and he takes a huge gamble in his first leading role. This is not unlike how the moviemaking process really is. 200+ people show up every day to work on something that may/may not be good. Your life is held up for the better part of a year or more while you were insane hours, lose friends and alienate those you love. But, you also make friends, too — your trench mates. The people you see and communicate with the most over the course of a production. “Picked” also offered a subtle glimpse into the major build up behind a film, from shooting (and the inevitable high to low everyone experiences when a production wraps) to anticipation of release, and running the crazy and repetitive publicity gauntlet.

The most interesting aspect of “Picked” was the ending. It was real and honest. Shinn captured an eloquence and melancholy that was pitch-perfect in its execution. A lovely, solid (and somewhat insider-y) exploration of the beginning of a career all the way through the end — for those who live a life absorbed in a specific world for so long and then begin to fall out of love with it.

33 Variations

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend. “
– Ludwig van Beethoven

True artists are their art. There is no separation between the human being and their creation; humans are merely a vessel for their creation.

These are some of the hypotheses offered in Moisés Kaufman’s new play, 33 Variations, which is currently in previews tn-500_fondawm0129211488at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. The idea of combining the story of how a series of songs came to be through the eyes of both Beethoven, himself, and the musicologist studying his sketches nearly two hundred years later, is what initially drew me to this play. When it was announced Jane Fonda, after a 46 year absence from the stage, had signed on to play musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt, I bought my ticket knowing that the words “sold out” would likely follow soon after.

As expected, I was the youngest person in the theater, by a good 30+ years — and that’s being generous. Nearly everyone at the Sunday matinee I attended came to see Jane. They thought they had an idea of the Jane they were going to see:Barefoot In the Park Jane, Klute Jane, Julia Jane, Coming Home Jane, The China Syndrome Jane, and, maybe even Hanoi Jane. If you grew up in my generation, however, your point of reference is more likely to be this Jane:jane-fonda2
which is probably why the audience tipped in favor of the grey-headed set.

But now the older crowd has one-upped their younger, theater-going counterparts, because 33 Variations is a beautiful, exquisite, modern work of theater. It is everything a play should be and more. Frankly, I’m almost surprised it made it up to Broadway and didn’t find a home downtown. It has the feel of experimental theater with a spare, but detailed and ingenious set, which combines pen, ink, paper, piano, sound, words, and musical visuals, via a screen on stage.

Moisés Kaufman has created an original piece of theater that marries language and music in an arresting fashion. To hear each line played on a piano by Diane Walsh, while Ludwigkellermannandfonda van Beethoven (played tremendously by Zach Grenier) “thinks” each note through out loud allows you to feel as if you are right there with him. In the words of Dr. Katherine Brandt, “I feel like I am looking over his shoulder as he composes.”

There were beautiful moments of straight monologue underscored, softly, by the piano, that nearly had me in tears. Like when Dr. Brandt says Beethoven’s variations stopped time: “They found moments to live in and expand. Right before he takes her hand to dance, when he misses a step, or asks, ‘will she like me? ‘” And, the goal of the present-day story in 33 Variations is to stop time as well. Katherine needs time to finish her paper, to learn more about her daughter, and to leave the world with one last thesis proved.

Oddly enough, for a woman so well-learned, Dr. Brandt seems content not having any sort of self-exploration beyond her investigation into the past of others. The story might be at fault here, but this is where Jane Fonda shines the brightest. In Dr. Katherine Brandt, Fonda has created a character, a vessel, that does not allow second-guessing. She comes up with a hypothesis and proves it, no further questions asked. The confidence, cockiness and self-absorption run high, but instead of writing the character off as a bitch, Fonda plays her as a deeply flawed, but fiercely intelligent woman. Perhaps the kind of woman we all are, deep down. She may show a few cracks, but does not break. She is, quite possibly, the ultimate expression of the public woman.

The supporting cast carve their own characters so meticulously, it feels as if each of them take turns becoming our lead actor, from Susan Kellerman (Katherine’s German counterpart, in more ways than one) to Samantha Mathis (who portrays Katherine’s daughter) and the dynamic Don Amendolia (as the music publisher, Diabelli who composes the thema on which Beethoven’s variations are based), Erik Steele (as “Friend of Beethoven”), Colin Hanks as “Nurse Mike,” (who manages to make the most of a part thatfullcompany331 could use a little more), and of course, Zach Grenier as Ludwig van Beethoven, they are all vital notes in each of the variations. It is a testament to both Kaufman as a writer-director, and the cast themselves, who appear to have the utmost respect for each other and allow each character, each variation, its moment to shine.

With all the revivals and adaptations, it’s rare to walk out of a theater feeling as if you’ve witnessed something unique and learned a few things along the way, but33 Variations allowed me to feel a glimmer of promise for the future of theater. Hopefully, this play will inspire the work of other playwrights and perhaps in their work, we’ll catch a similar turn of phrase, a note, emotion, or maybe even discover the next Beethoven.

The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents

I’ve been seeing a lot of theater lately, but hadn’t really been impressed by anything. I wasn’t carrying a tune with me when I left a preview of the new Sondheim musical, ROADSHOW, nor was I leaving a theater still thinking about what I’d just seen (THE SEAGULL; A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) … until tonight, when I saw The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents at The Wild Project.

A little synopsis from the producersAfter ten years on tranquillizers, Dora emerges with an adamant sexual hunger that pits her violently against a secret and deviant adult world…not your normal coming of age story; not your everyday sexual awakening.

The play is a beautiful meditation on our relationship — as both individuals and a society — to sexuality and the act of sex, no matter which adjective one uses to describe it. As viewed through the eyes of the protagonist, Dora, it makes you wonder, for a moment, why it’s such an uneasy subject matter between parent and child.

There were several elements of the story that are reminiscent of the 1996 film,Citizen Ruth, (minus the campiness). The play is more like peeling back layers of an onion and not just because of the moral, ethical and political questions that arise, but the sheer emotional levels you go through, as if each scene opens up a trap door to a new depth of feeling.

The production of Sexual Neuroses is elegantly directed by Kristijan Thor. The cast is hard-working and I adored them all, but the two biggest standouts, who make it seem effortless, are Grace Gummer and Max Lodge. Both these young actors have that innate, instinctual acting qualities which allow their power to quietly unfold through their characters. It makes me feel confident both will have big, bright futures ahead of them. And, I’m glad I’ll have the privilege of saying “I saw them when …”

P.S. Based on what I read about the play in NY Magazine, Miss Gummer never had the intention of being on stage, rather she was “doing costume design in Rome.” I hope after this experience she’ll reconsider, or at least pursue both.