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Morning Joe’s Willie Geist on Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, and the Necessity of End Zone Dancing

Anyone who watches Willie Geist on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, or somehow manages to rise in the dark at 5:30 a.m. to watch Willie’s own show, Way Too Early, knows that he’s a pretty significant sports fan. So we thought we’d check in with Willie to get his take on the current state of New York sports.

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OK, so how would you fix the Knicks?

Assuming I have a time machine at my disposal to address the problem, I would go back to 2003 and throw my body between Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden, like a patchouli-smelling environmental activist chained to a tree keeping the chainsaws from striking down a mighty oak. Just think how different our lives would be if Isiah had quietly opened a Ford dealership outside Chicago or a chain of steakhouses in the Detroit area after his playing days were over. Instead, he spread his rare strain of viral “genius” across the basketball landscape. New York was hit hardest by The Isiah Plague. Hadn’t we been through enough?

Without Isiah, there’d be no Stephon Marbury, no Steve Francis, no Eddy Curry, no Jerome James, no Jared Jeffries, and no Zach Randolph, just to name a few. These players had three things in common: They made tons of money with contracts that suffocated the franchise, they weren’t very good at basketball, and Isiah loved them. The Knicks had the highest payroll in the NBA and finished near the very bottom of the league every year. Think about that. It’s like the Yankees, with their payroll, finishing 28 games out of first place. That would be tolerated for about two months before everybody was fired. We don’t have time for the full Isiah dissertation here, but suffice it to say he set the Knicks back a decade. A decade I could recover in my time machine.

In the present, the Knicks obviously need to sign one of the big summer free agents. The entire point of the franchise’s existence over the last couple of years has been to clear salary cap space to sign LeBron James. Dwyane Wade would be good, but the Knicks need LeBron to fully erase the years of memories of Curry jogging back on defense four steps behind his man and Jamal Crawford jacking up a fadeaway three-pointer with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. Don’t let people tell you that Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire are acceptable alternatives next summer. They’re both really good, but Bosh’s mid-range jumper won’t electrify the city and rescue us from nearly 15 years of irrelevance.

My argument to LeBron would be very simple: Do you want to be the most famous human being on the planet? Come play and win in New York City. Mr. Jeter will be your orientation guide.

Did you have a favorite Knick growing up?

Bernard King was my favorite player in the pre-Ewing era. To me, he’s one of the most underrated players in the history of the NBA. I used to practice that quick turnaround jumper he got off before the defender even had a chance to leave his feet. My dad and I used to imitate the way Knicks’ color analyst Butch Beard said King’s name–“Buh-nah Keeng has the strenth to be suh-sess-ful.” I also remember the way King smacked the floor in pain after he blew out his knee in Kansas City. It was upsetting for a kid. I knew something was very wrong. Incidentally, I saw him years later in a Williams-Sonoma buying a chafing dish–kind of brought him down to Earth.

I loved Patrick Ewing too. Like so many New Yorkers, I invested some of the best years of my life in Ewing–from the ecstasy of the 1985 announcement that the Knicks had won the lottery to get him, to the sadness of the final years when he was a lumbering jump shooter who clearly was not going to get his title. He never got us to the Promised Land, but we had a hell of a lot of fun watching him try. Patrick had the bad luck of coming along during the peak of the greatest athlete to ever stride the Earth. And, I hate to say it, he probably was never as great as we hoped he’d be.

By the way, I still have the stuffed Patrick Ewing doll I got as a kid. I brought it with me to college and told my freshman roommate if he had a problem with Patrick sleeping in the room, he should ask to be transferred out. The Patrick doll was non-negotiable. After the Knicks lost Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals, Patrick and I slept in separate beds for a few nights. It was a time in our relationship I’d just as soon forget.

How about a favorite obscure Jet or Giant?

I’ve been a Giants fan since the day my best friend’s dad brought us to a game in the mid-1980s. We went up and visited one of those fancy luxury boxes and there sitting in the front row was the great Don Johnson. This was during the height of Miami Vice, mind you. I thought to myself, “If Don Johnson roots for the Giants when he’s not busy arresting Cuban drug lords on Biscayne Bay in his undercover cigarette boat, by God, I root for the Giants too. ” It wasn’t until years later that I realized people who sit in luxury boxes, and especially Don Johnson, don’t care about the game. By then it was too late. I was a Giants fan.

My favorite Giant was Mark Bavaro. He’s obscure in the pantheon of great NFL players, but a hero to Giants fans. He was quiet, he was tough as hell, and he looked exactly like Sylvester Stallone (that was a good thing at the time). Bavaro would catch a routine 10-yard pass and then carry a team’s entire secondary on his back for 15 more yards into the end zone. Afterward, there was no chest pounding, no dancing, and no trash talk. Bavaro would just jog back to the bench and sit next to Lawrence Taylor who was doing a couple of key bumps to get ready for the next defensive series. What a team that was.

I find myself rooting against the Giants simply because of head coach Tom Coughlin. What’s your take on him?

I hear you, but I don’t dislike Coughlin as much as a lot of people seem to. Sure, I could live without the head-tilted, mouth-agape, hands-on-hips looks of bewilderment during the games, but they’re not as bad as Eli Manning’s patented shoulder-shrug/hang-dog-look combo we’ve all come to accept as part of our autumn Sundays.

It took Coughlin a couple of decades in the league to realize that professional football players don’t respond to rah-rah nonsense. We used to roll our eyes at the old “Five minutes early is on time to a meeting, four minutes early is late” line when we were 14 years old and listening to our freshman football coach. Imagine what Michael Strahan thought when he heard it.

Bottom line, Coughlin was the coach of the team that won the Super Bowl and ruined the historic season of a Boston franchise and the happiness of its fans. For that, he will always have my gratitude. Just remember, “On time means five minutes early.” It might be objectively wrong, but it wins championships.

If you could add one rule to the NFL, what would it be?

I’d make end zone dances mandatory, with a panel of celebrity judges determining whether or not it warranted an extra point added to the team’s score. I’m thinking Drew Lachey, that third member of Destiny’s Child, and a wisecracking Brit to be named later sitting on a riser and scoring the dance on creativity.

Even though the meathead analysts who talk about the NFL want you to think football is life-and-death and the equivalent of war, it’s a game. A stupid, great game where grown men run into each other to advance an oblong ball down a field with middle-aged men in prison stripes telling them when they’ve done something wrong. It’s entertainment, so let’s make it entertaining with some celebrity-judged end zone dancing.

Also, I’d make a law that gets rid of that TV commercial that comes after the kickoff that follows a touchdown. So my team just scored a touchdown and you go to commercial. Fine. But then my team kicks off into the end zone for a touchback and you go to another commercial. Why? It’s the most frustrating part of my week and it must be stopped, with offenders sent to CIA black sites in Eastern Europe outside the reach of international anti-torture statutes.

If Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski suddenly divorced and married a New York pro athlete, who do you guess it would be (and why)?

First, I want it on the record that I object to this hypothetical. Mika is a great wife and mother. The chances of her getting a divorce, like those of all married Americans, are no greater than 50 percent. Any other assumption would be cynical.

If it did happen, God forbid, Mika wouldn’t go for the obvious choices (Jeter, David Wright, Mark Sanchez, Henrik Lundqvist, etc.) because she’s totally unimpressed by athletes and sports in general. As a kid, she used to play Parcheesi at Camp David with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, so Jeter’s .406 on-base percentage doesn’t really impress her.

I think she’d just go for the guy with the best name. That guy is, of course, D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Mika would have fun learning the intricacies of pass blocking over dinner with Da Brick. I’d also have her ask him about that apostrophe before a consonant in his first name. You typically see that only before a vowel. I guess we can cross that bridge when we get to it.

Where is Morning Joe co-host Mike Barnicle’s favorite barstool at the ESPN Zone?

Barnicle’s pretty easy to please at the ESPN Zone these days. Since dementia began to creep in several years ago, we’ve just propped him up in front of a TV with ESPN Classic on. Doesn’t matter what time of day – there’s always an old game on Classic. We tell him, for example, that the 1986 MLB All-Star Game is Game 7 of the current World Series (even though it’s 10 a.m. and late December). You should see the look on his sweet face. It’s adorable. I sit next to him at the bar, wiping the blue cheese dressing from his chin and explaining why Fernando Valenzuela still looks so good pitching to 52-year-old Lou Whitaker.

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Interview: MSNBC’s Willie Geist on New York Baseball, His Jeter Love, His Desire to Drill Pedroia, and More

We’re pleased to see that our Morning Joe favorite Willie Geist has finally been given his own TV show. Way Too Early With Willie Geist now leads off MSNBC’s morning schedule, airing (if one “airs” on cable) at 5:30 a.m. (That’s 2:30 a.m. Pacific time, where the show is no doubt known as Way Too Late With Willie Geist.) Among other highlights, Brian Williams, Maureen Dowd, and Donald Trump have all phoned in from their beds to chat with Willie. Rod Blagojevich is scheduled to call on Monday, perhaps from a bed in a country with which we share no extradition treaty.

On the occasion of his new show, we sent Willie some questions about our local baseball teams. His replies demonstrate yet again Willie’s well-deserved reputation as the Ring Lardner of morning cable news programming.

You’re a Yankees fan. If you ever got a pitching start for the Yanks and could bean one opposing player, who would it be?

Does throwing at A-Rod during batting practice count? If not, I’d go with Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox. I’ve never been big on the baseball tradition of throwing a hard ball 90-miles-an-hour at another person from a short distance, but I’d have no problem putting an offspeed pitch in Pedroia’s back.

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He symbolizes the Red Sox’ completely phony “scrappy underdog” narrative. Last year’s Tampa Bay Rays were underdogs. A team with the second-highest payroll in the American League is not. The only odds the Red Sox franchise has ever defied is those that say that a team composed of professional ballplayers would almost have to win at least a single World Series title in a span of 86 years.

But back to Pedroia. You made it to the majors, dude. You’re the American League MVP. You just signed a $40 million contract. You can stop sprinting on and off the field like you’re trying to impress your high school coach. We get it: You hustle. Real major league stars loaf around the field with a sense of entitlement. Let this 77-mile-an-hour change-up in your back be a reminder to you.

Have you ever had to take off your shirt and challenge the Morning Joe crew to a fight, like Mets VP Tony Bernazard did with those Mets minor leaguers?

No, I’m not so sure the removal of my shirt would inspire people to do better. We do have a Morning Joe Fight Club that meets the second Tuesday of every month in the bowels of Rockefeller Center, but naturally, I can’t get into that. Pat Buchanan literally would kill me with a bicycle chain if I disclosed any of our secrets.

Would you rather be Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez?

Jeter, and it’s not close. I don’t know anyone who would tell you otherwise. He’s had the greatest city in the world in the palm of his hand for more than a decade, and he does it without appearing to try. You could make the case that he has the best life in all of New York City. Whose is better? Women love Jeter. Men love him more.

Confession: I thought very seriously last year about buying a Ford Edge exclusively because Jeter is in the commercials. It’s one of those crossover SUV things. I already had a very fine car and no real practical use for the Ford Edge. It was to be nothing more than a mobile shrine to Jeter. My wife talked me down as I regurgitated to her Jeter’s TV sales pitch about dual-side climate control and automatic sunroof. Apparently all cars have those things. Even the ones not endorsed by Jeter.

I guess my only complaint about being Jeter would be the accountability. If you get arrested for doing something illegal while partying with the Victoria’s Secret Angels, you let people down. Kids are disappointed. Gatorade lets you go. Your jersey doesn’t sell anymore. If you’re a rock star and you do that, it’s just another layer to the legend.

I will say A-Rod is a great player who gets more crap than he deserves. It’s just hard to envy a guy who kisses himself in a mirror while posing for a Details magazine photo shoot. A-Rod, ask yourself at a moment like that, “WWJD?”: What Would Jeter Do?

Who is your all-time-favorite obscure Yankee or Met?

He’s not really obscure because he was a good hitter, but Rusty Staub always fascinated me. I remember thinking as a kid, This guy is a professional athlete?! Maybe there’s hope for me after all. He was totally out of shape and pasty-white with bright red curly hair. He was exclusively a pinch hitter because he was so off-the-charts unathletic that there was nowhere in the field they could put him without putting the game in jeopardy. I always got the feeling Rusty was sitting at the Flushing OTB down the street when they called him to pinch-hit.

Dave Kingman was cool too because he either hit a home run that broke someone’s windshield in the parking lot at Shea or he struck out on three pitches and looked like he had no business playing professional baseball. I’d be shocked if he isn’t running a batting cage/Go-Kart track somewhere right now.

I grew up during the Yankees lean years of the mid and late 1980s when almost everyone on their team was obscure (except for Dave Winfield, to whom I used to mail postcards from our family vacations – true story). Steve Balboni was among my favorites. He was chubby, balding, and had a porn ‘stache. The pinstripes were not flattering on Steve. He seriously looked like he should have been the cleanup hitter on the beer-league softball team for a pizza joint in Staten Island. Luis Sojo will always have a special place in my heart too. He sucked, but he would always come up with some ugly-ass, pinch-hit slap double down the right field line to drive in a run in a huge playoff game. Yankee fans hold a special place in their hearts for Sojo.

What’s your view on the proper height exposure for a major league player’s socks?

I’m OK with the long pants. Melky Cabrera wears a nice full break on his. C.C. Sabathia’s baggy pants bug me a little bit, but he’s just trying to work with that frame, I guess.

I also don’t mind the full colored sock pulled up all the way with the pants just covering the knee. Kind of the Roy Hobbs in The Natural look. Brett Gardner pulls that off pretty well. Jesus, I sound like Tim Gunn.

The real uniform outrage is these third jerseys all the teams wear. They look like slow-pitch softball teams. Why exactly are the Mets wearing black jerseys and black hats? Perhaps they’re in mourning. I know everyone wants to sell more gear, but somehow the Yankees seem to make a couple of bucks every year with just two classic uniforms. It always disappoints me to see the Red Sox wearing those red jerseys. As much as I disapprove of everything that franchise stands for, they’re better than that. Do you think Ted Williams would have put on a red jersey? Of course not. He would have stood there and berated a little kid asking for his autograph in a nice clean white uniform.

Is it true that Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinksi is not allowed to sit near the visiting team dugout at Yankee Stadium, because of the barrage of abuse she hurls down on opposing players?

Oh, you heard about that? Yeah, Mika started jawing one night from her front-row seat with Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu about his misuse of the bullpen. She’d had a couple tumblers of Grey Goose in the Legends Lounge by the time Wakamatsu failed to bring in a left-hander to face the left-handed hitting Robinson Cano in a tight spot. Mika had seen enough. If there’s one thing that sets off the usually poised Mika Brzezinksi, it’s the mismanagement of a pitching staff.

Long story short, she eventually threw a fully dressed ballpark frank at Ichiro as he stood in the on-deck circle and then tried to make out with Mariners’ slugger Russell Branyan before security mercifully intervened. So, yeah, we’re going to lay low for a while before we take Mika back to The Stadium. Luckily she has no recollection of the evening. She thinks she was at the opera.

Your new show Way Too Early With Willie Geist starts at 5:30 a.m. That’s about the time Darryl Strawberry would get home after Mets games. Is the time slot an homage to him?

It wasn’t until you mentioned it. Now it is. I love Darryl. I met him a few weeks ago at a charity event. Great guy who’s overcome a lot. Having said that, the man knew how to party. Can you imagine being on that 1986 Mets team? They were the most dominant team in baseball and the toast of New York City at the height of the ’80s excess. That Mets team single-handedly put Pablo Escobar’s children through college. Some people have suggested that Keith Hernandez used to snort part of the first base line in between innings to keep his edge. That’s probably not true. I do know that Dwight Gooden, known to Mets fans as “Dr. K”, will forever be known in some circles as “Dr. Yay”.

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The Public Theater Announces Its 2009-2010 Slate

Every spring, we here at Voice receive a stream of press releases from local theaters and theater groups announcing their play lineups for the coming season. They’re quite the tease, these schedules, always promising more artistically than they ever really deliver. With that in mind, though, we can’t help but be impressed by next year’s Public Theater roster, announced yesterday. While the theater season is not exactly a competition, artistic director Oskar Eustis’s Public is looking like 2009-2010’s winner.

The Public’s fall will kick off with Peter Sellars directing Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz in Othello, a show likely to be one of the hottest tickets in town. Might it be doing battle with a Broadway transfer of Theatre for a New Audience’s version, starring John Douglas Thompson, who just won an Obie for his performance? Stay tuned on that one. The Public moves Cyprus a few blocks west for this outing, mounting the play at NYU’s Skirball Center, running September 12 through October 4.

Iago and friends will be followed by the latest from Tarell Alvin McCraney, of The Brothers Size and Wig Out! fame. His Bayou-set trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays Part 1 & Part 2 will run October 21 to December 13. The play grouping features two new works, as well as a reprise of The Brothers Size.

McCraney will be joined in the Public’s halls by avant-impresario Richard Foreman, who returns to the Public with his play Idiot Savant, which will star Willem Dafoe. It’s Dafoe’s Public debut, and the first Foreman production at the Public since he directed Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus in 1996. The piece runs from October 27 to December 13, a fine, autumnal time to make your own head a sledgehammer.

As Foreman is finishing up, monologuist Mike Daisey will get a chance to rant again, with his solo piece The Last Cargo Cult, about “a remote South Pacific island whose inhabitants worship America at the base of a constantly erupting volcano.” (Specific December dates still to be announced.) And speaking of Suzan-Lori Parks (no relation, sadly), in March the Pulitzer-winner and Public fave offers up Snake, a Sam Shepard-sounding story of a battling family in South Texas. The Public Lab series will live again, and January sees the return of Under the Radar. Mark Russell’s ever-enterprising performance festival has become an annual must-see; happily, the rest of the Public’s new season promises to keep the theater fully on the radar throughout 2009-2010.

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Le Serpent Rouge—Excellent Space, But No Buffet

The most impressive thing about Company XIV’s Le Serpent Rouge is not the show but the troupe’s fabulous theater on Bond Street in Brooklyn. I’ve argued for a while that Gowanus would make an ideal alt-theater district, given its many industrial spaces and garages. Hopefully, Company XIV is leading the way with its converted tow-truck warehouse.

They’re leading a little less, though, with Le Serpent Rouge, a lovely-looking but perhaps too familiar piece of dance-theater. On a round, Baroque-themed stage, a handful of performers enact a mashup of Bible stories—Lillith, Adam and Eve, the Seven Deadly sins—while overseen by an s&m Ring Mistress. Trying to work a sexy vibe, the piece—directed by Austin McCormick—features a fair amount of nudity, but occasionally feels like one of those “exotic” topless casino shows. Nonetheless, Yeva Glover (Lillith) and John Beasant III (Adam) are both talented dancers, and a late section of the piece that has each methodically pacing around the circular set is oddly compelling.

Not at all compelling is the show’s drag queen, lip-synching singers such as Peggy Lee. Hey folks, it’s 2009—drag queens are tired. Especially mediocre ones who want to give audience members—unlucky me!—a lap dance. If you insist, though, please deploy an actor without such nasty breath.

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The 2009 Village Voice Obie Award Winners Announced

Congratulations to this year’s OBIE Award winners! The 54th Annual Village Voice OBIE Awards ceremony has just been held at Webster Hall in Manhattan. Co-hosted by former OBIE winners Martha Plimpton and Daniel Breaker, this year’s honors were presented by actors Anne Hathaway, Brian d’Arcy James, Gavin Creel, John Shea, Karen Olivo, Kate Mulgrew, Marc Kudisch, and Nilaja Sun.

THE 2008-2009 WINNERS:

Lifetime Achievement Award

EARLE HYMAN

Best New American Play (includes a cash prize of $1,000)

RUINED by Lynn Nottage (Manhattan Theatre Club)

Performance

Francois Battiste, THE GOOD NEGRO (Public Theater)

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, RUINED (Manhattan Theatre Club)

Kevin T. Carroll, sustained excellence of performance

Saidah Arrika Ekulona, RUINED (Manhattan Theatre Club)

Jonathan Groff, PRAYER FOR MY ENEMY (Playwrights Horizons) and THE SINGING FOREST (Public Theater)

Birgit Huppuch, TELEPHONE (Foundry Theatre)

Russell Gebert Jones, RUINED (Manhattan Theatre Club)

Aaron Monaghan, THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN (Atlantic Theater Co.)

Sahr Ngaujah, FELA! (37 Arts)

Lorenzo Pisoni, HUMOR ABUSE (Manhattan Theatre Club)

James Sugg, CHEKHOV LIZARDBRAIN (Pig Iron Theatre Company)

John Douglas Thompson, OTHELLO (Theatre for a New Audience)

Music and Lyrics

Stephen Sondheim, ROAD SHOW (Public Theater)

Directing

David Cromer, OUR TOWN (Barrow Street Theatre)

Katie Mitchell, THE WAVES (National Theatre of Great Britain / Lincoln Center Great Performances “New Visions” Series)

Ken Rus Schmoll, TELEPHONE (Foundry Theatre)

Design

Toni-Leslie James, sustained excellence of costume design (with special reference to WIG OUT, Vineyard Theatre)

David Korins, sustained excellence of set design (with special reference to WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM, Public Theater)

Special Citations

Sarah Benson (director) and Louisa Thompson (set designer), BLASTED (Soho Rep)

David Esbjornson (director) and Christian Camargo (actor), HAMLET (Theatre for a New Audience)

The Ross Wetzsteon Award (includes a cash prize of $2,000)

HERE Arts Center

OBIE Grants ($10,000 divided equally among three theaters)

The Chocolate Factory

The Classical Theatre of Harlem

Lark Play Development Center

The Voice‘s chief theater critic, Michael Feingold, chaired this year’s OBIE Awards committee. His fellow judges included Voice critic Alexis Soloski and six guest judges: freelance writer and Voice contributor Eric Grode; critic Andy Propst of Americantheaterweb.com, also a Voice contributor; actress-playwright Eisa Davis, an OBIE Award winner for her performance in Passing Strange and author of the recent Angela’s Mixtape; actor-playwright Ty Jones, 2003 OBIE Award winner for his performance in The Blacks; playwright-director Moises Kaufman, 2004 OBIE Award winner for his direction of I Am My Own Wife, currently represented on Broadway by 33 Variations; and playwright-director Chay Yew, 2007 OBIE Award winner for his direction of Durango.

And our thanks to this year’s OBIE Awards sponsors: Macy’s, Virgin America, Metro PCS, Le Tourment Vert, Sierra Nevada, Sea Grape Wines, Fragoli, Pal Talk.com, Harlequin Books, Likeme.net, Crumpler, Highline Studios, and Webster Hall.

For more information about the OBIE Awards, please visit here.

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Q&A With Playwright Craig Lucas, the Man Who Would Have Written Peter Pan

It’s been a big theater season for playwright Craig Lucas. In November, his Prayer for My Enemy made its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, and now comes The Singing Forest, currently in previews at the Public Theater. The new piece–directed by Mark Wing-Davey and featuring Olympia Dukakis and Jonathan Groff among its cast–explores sexual desire, psychiatry, family history, and the legacy of the Holocaust in both grave and farcical tones. On the occasion of the new play, we sent Lucas a few questions….

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Tell us about the impetus for The Singing Forest.

I wrote the first scene for Uta Hagen’s 80th birthday. I sent it to her and she wrote back, “Can you really imagine me saying all these filthy things?” Olympia Dukakis does not apparently share these qualms.

A program note by Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis mentions that you’ve been working on the play for almost a decade. Is that an unusually long time for one of your plays?

There was never a time when I was not writing The Singing Forest. I will be writing The Singing Forest in my next life.

Are there any newer or younger playwrights with whom you are especially impressed??

I just spent some time with four MFA playwriting students at Brown University. Their names are Mallery Avidon, Jackie Sibblies, Mia Chung, and Joe Waechter. Absolutely amazing, all of them.

What play by another writer (not counting Shakespeare) do you most wish you’d have written?

Peter Pan. (Can you even begin to imagine the royalties?)

What’s the most entertaining mishap (at least in retrospect!) that’s ever occurred during one your plays’ performances?

Preview performance of my first play, Missing Persons. During the scene change, Margo Skinner was to enter with a glass of water in one hand and a lighter in the other and sit at one side of a card table as Richard Backus entered with a cigarette between his lips and the chessboard which he would place on the card table as he sat opposite Margo. Theoretically, the lights would come up, she would reach across the game to light his cigarette, then sip her water, wait a few beats, and then say, “It’s your move.” They collided in the dark. Ugly noises. Lights up. Man with broken cigarette dangling from lips, water dripping off cigarette and clothes, woman with empty glass of water, all the chess pieces scattered about the floor. The actors looked like two horses being led from a burning barn. She flicked the drenched lighter several times to no avail as he attempted to repair the cigarette. Silence. The rest of my life has been a complete blank.

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Interview: Playwright Craig Lucas, the Man Who Would Have Written Peter Pan

It’s been a big theater season for playwright Craig Lucas. In November, his Prayer for My Enemy made its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, and now comes The Singing Forest, currently in previews at the Public Theater. The new piece–directed by Mark Wing-Davey and featuring Olympia Dukakis and Jonathan Groff among its cast–explores sexual desire, psychiatry, family history, and the legacy of the Holocaust in both grave and farcical tones. On the occasion of the new play, we sent Lucas a few questions….

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Sonic Youth, Merce Cunningham Deploy Giant Cricket Helmet at BAM

Of all the strange bandstands Sonic Youth have played on over the years, this had to be one of the strangest. This past weekend, the group joined Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and composer Takehisa Kosugi to provide the soundscape for Merce Cunningham’s highly anticipated Nearly Ninety dance show at BAM. But the musicians were not stationed down in the pit; instead, they were mounted on a towering and elaborate metal construction at the rear of the Gilman Opera House stage, churning out their grinding aural endeavors as Cunningham’s choreography unfolded before them. The three- or four-level (hard to tell!) contraption, designed by architect Benedetta Tagliabue, did an entertaining job of upstaging Cunningham’s dancers, despite their 1967-season Star Trek costumes.

The New York Times said the bandstand looked like “an ugly science-fiction cross between various Marcel Duchamp works (“Nude Descending a Staircase,” “The Bride and the Bachelors”) and some “Star Wars” battleship.” Us? Well, we’ll call it a cubist pirate ship. Or a giant cricket helmet, as sported by an advanced, Anglophilic civilization in a remote corner of Alpha Centuri. Or a kind of glowing off-shore oil platform, drilling down deep into untapped fields of the dissonant avant-garde. The dancing? Check back on Wednesday for what’s sure to be Deborah Jowitt’s sage review…

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Morning Joe’s Willie Geist on the NCAA’s Final Four

Knowing that our friend, Morning Joe‘s Willie Geist–“The Oracle of MSNBC”–is a big sports fan, we thought we’d check in with him about the NCAA’s Final Four. Willie has fielded some questions from us before, so we’re pleased he had time–between Indian-wrestling matches with co-host Mike Barnicle–to answer a few more.

OK, give us the Willie Geist breakdown of the Final Four.

First, a disclosure: I have massive, life-changing amounts of money riding on North Carolina beating UConn for the national championship. This country’s fascist anti-gaming laws prevent me from saying anything more, but I do have a rooting interest here.

My financial considerations aside, UNC and UConn are the two teams that should play in the title game. A typical college basketball team is lucky to have two good players. Carolina and UConn each have four or five. I don’t like most of those players, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good. North Carolina’s star Tyler Hansbrough is perhaps the least likable college star to come along since Christian Laettner. He has a boring, old-man’s YMCA-league game and he plays with all the joy of Meryl Streep’s character in Sophie’s Choice. His unchanging facial expression is reminiscent of the one you see on hostage tapes–“Someone’s forcing me to be here. Send help.” The good news is that he has no chance of being a good NBA player, so we won’t have to watch him much longer.

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The other hateable thing about Carolina is coach Roy Williams’s put-on, weepy folksiness in post-game press conferences. He’s always tearing up in front of the cameras and talking about how he can’t wait to get back to the locker room to hug some “big ole rascal” on his team. Shut up. The strange thing is that I’ve always liked Carolina. Not this year. They’re too good. I love their opponent, though. Villanova’s tough as hell and afraid of no one, as they’ve shown against UCLA, Duke, and Pitt in the tournament. Carolina’s a whole different animal, though.

In the other game, you have to root for Michigan State playing in Detroit, a city and a state that could use a win right now. I was shocked that the Spartans beat Louisville so badly. UConn should beat State, but you never know in this tournament. Tom Izzo is a great coach. Plus, it’s the 30th anniversary of the season Magic Johnson led Michigan State to the national title (which means nothing, but the media loves a dumb storyline).

Bottomline: My heart wants Villanova and Michigan State to win, but my rotten, vacant, money-grubbing soul will be cheering for two teams I really don’t like. UNC beats UConn for the title.

What do you think of UConn coach Jim Calhoun’s impassioned defense (“Not a dime back!”) of his exorbitant salary?

I know we’re supposed to be outraged by people’s salaries these days, but most college coaches are worth the money they’re paid. The big revenue sports (men’s football and basketball) bring huge TV, licensing, and ticket money to universities. A study out just this week showed the UConn basketball program brought in more than $14 million dollars last year. Calhoun made $1.6 million. A lot of that revenue goes back to help sports that could not exist without the money Calhoun’s team brings into the school (yeah, I’m talking to you men’s water polo).

The University of Kentucky just signed coach John Calipari to an eight-year, $32 million deal. Somebody at these schools seems to think the big salaries are worth it because they’re not getting any smaller. In fairness, a large percentage of Calipari’s paycheck will go toward purchasing cars and homes for the families of high school recruits. The money is not all for him.

What college or pro basketball player does your co-host Mika Brzezinski most remind you of?

Definitely former Knicks and Nets star Michael Ray Richardson. Like Michael Ray, Mika has all the talent in the world, she has no flaws in her game, she’s fun to watch, and everybody likes her. But, also like Michael Ray, the demons of substance abuse will ultimately prevent her from reaching the stardom for which she was destined. Hers will become a cautionary tale for future generations. Substitute Michael Ray’s cocaine with Ambien and you have “The Mika Brzezinski Story” (sure to be the subject of a future HBO documentary narrated eerily by Liev Schreiber).

If you’re able to get out to watch the Final on Monday night, what bar might we find you and Barnicle at?

First of all, I would never be seen outside of work with Mike Barnicle. Our whole back-slapping comraderie thing is an act for TV. I assume he’ll be watching from his usual steamy bench at the Russian & Turkish Baths on the Lower East Side. Barnicle likes to be beaten with Platza Oak Leaves while he watches college hoops. He says it heightens the pleasure of watching top-flight athletes in competition. I don’t get it.

I’d love to say I’ll be watching the game in a rowdy bar and high-fiving my buddies like they do in Bud Light commercials, or hanging out in the VIP room at the 40/40 Club with Jay-Z and Beyonce, drinking champagne and talking about our new projects. The truth is I’ll probably pass out at halftime after polishing off the pot pie my one-year-old daughter didn’t finish for dinner. Our pre-dawn Morning Joe wakeup call doesn’t allow for much entertainment after 10 p.m.

Say you had to design the mascot costume for Morning Joe–what would it be?

Boy, that’s a strange question. I think we’d look good as those giant Racing Sausages the Milwaukee Brewers have. Joe could be the All-American hot dog. Mika, given her family heritage, would be the Polish sausage. And if it’s just the same to everybody, I wouldn’t mind being the bratwurst: German, spicy, and often cooked in beer.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Theater

Caryl Churchill’s Controversial Seven Jewish Children Gets New York Hearing

For a minor playlet, Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children has certainly generated quite the brouhaha. In seven brief scenes, the 10-minute piece tracks 80 years of Jewish history–from the Nazi era to the recent Gaza invasion–in the form of a conversation about how Jewish children should be taught about what’s happening in the world around them.

In London, the Royal Court’s February production of Seven Jewish Children caused a tempest, with some championing the play’s provocation and politics, and others calling it anti-Semitic. (Read our earlier coverage, or check out the script for yourself.) So it was with much anticipation that a crowd gathered at New York Theatre Workshop on Wednesday night to see a staged reading of the play, which was followed by an audience conversation (hosted by GritTV’s Laura Flanders) and an encore solo performance of the piece by theater legend Andre Gregory.

The play consists mostly of adults giving one another instructions on how to talk to the children, from an early line such as “Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting”–evoking the terrors of Jews in hiding–to later lines like “Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed.” The general arc of the piece traces Jews as the victims of persecution, later to become victimizers themselves through the conduct of the state of Israel.

The intentions at NYTW were good all around, but in the end the evening could best be described as “unenlightening.” Churchill’s script is pointed but unremarkable, and was not aided by an obviously underrehearsed group reading–the lack of a full staging served to emphasize the piece’s polemics rather than its potential artfulness. The audience conversation that ensued was the predictable one–earnest, sometimes contentious speakers from various sides of the question citing history and statistics to support their view of the Israel-Palestine question, from left-leaning folks condemning Israeli overreaction, to the requisite nut-job bemoaning the tragedy of Jewish settlers being forced out of the Gaza Strip. While there was certainly energy to the event, at the same time it all felt rather familiar. Verdict: Art underserved, the Middle East still unresolved.

NYTW will host two more evenings of the play, Thursday’s moderated by playwright Tony Kushner and former Voice theater critic Alisa Solomon, Friday’s by NYU media-studies professor Mark Crispin Miller. Here’s hoping that these two nights prove a little more vital.