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C.O.G. Misses the Sedaris Mark But Here’s to Trying

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s C.O.G. is the first film to be based on the work of David Sedaris. It’s clearly a passion project for Alvarez, and the picture is faithful to the events of the autobiographical story “C.O.G.,” about Sedaris working in rural Oregon to see how “real” people live (and to cheese off his father in the process). But the choice not to include narration robs the movie of Sedaris’s voice, and consequently much of its joy, as does the decision to portray the character of David (Jonathan Groff) as a smug, Yale-educated atheist who’s running away from home because his mother rejected him for being gay. What was very funny in print becomes serious and occasionally dour onscreen, with fewer laughs than you would expect from a Sedaris project. The faithfulness to the original story is almost jarring for those who’ve read it, since the character has been changed into an insufferable nozzle, playing up the worst stereotypes of the intellectual atheist, so when amusing, Sedaris–specific details appear, they no longer fit this version of David. Still, if C.O.G. opens the floodgates for Sedaris adaptations, here’s hoping someone (maybe even Alvarez, who has the chops) will do justice to “The Santaland Diaries.”

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The Submission: The Playwright as Stinker

Sharp-edged, fast, frequently funny, and extremely well-realized in Walter Bobbie’s taut, speedy production, Jeff Talbott’s The Submission (Lortel Theatre) has one little problem: It wants to be two different plays, a desire that puts a lot of bumps into what was clearly meant to be its smooth, nonstop trajectory. Despite the driving skills of Bobbie’s uniformly admirable high-power cast, the script’s divided intentions cause constant, annoying turbulence.

Danny (Jonathan Groff), Talbott’s hero, is a young gay playwright, white and male, who has just written a highly producible four-character work. There’s only one catch: All four characters are black. When he submits the play under an African-sounding pseudonym, and it’s accepted for production by the Humana Festival, issues of authenticity and cultural appropriation loom ominously ahead.

To dodge them, Danny, urged on by the enthusiasm of his lover, Pete (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and his best straight friend, Trevor (Will Rogers), recruits a young African American actress, Emilie (Rutina Wesley), as his authorial stand-in. She’ll explain away the pseudonym as a matter of actor shyness about playwriting instead of an ethnic bait and switch. Predictably, comic tensions follow, with Danny text-messaging casting instructions, e-mailing rewrites, and tying himself in knots of envious frustration while, from a distance, he watches Emilie bond with the theater staff, her cast, her celebrated black director, and finally with a cheering opening-night audience.

At this point, the work shifts gears, grindingly—a shift Talbott has prefigured in small, clumsily inserted, earlier jolts. Where you might have suspected him of satirically updating Martin Ritt’s 1976 film comedy of blacklisting, The Front, with Wesley and Groff standing in for the film’s Woody Allen and Zero Mostel, Talbott’s actual artistic inspiration seems to be the generalized snideness of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. The pseudonymous script’s opening-night success abruptly turns everybody onstage into a hung-up abstraction: Emilie and her unseen black colleagues generically proprietary about “their” culture, Danny’s wounded ego garnering a typically white-guy fixation on his property rights. Rival culturally conditioned senses of superiority start blazing away: By the time the shouting’s over, everybody is revealed as just a little bit racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic.

Talbott cunningly makes Emilie the person who, in this fraught situation, does the right thing, although we only hear about it after her stormy exit. But that just underscores the climactic confrontation’s arbitrariness, which burns away the play we thought we were watching to reveal layer after layer of questionable thinking. If Danny’s the kind of stereotyping nitwit the last 20 minutes show him to be, how could he get away with the whole escapade? And why would he want to?

In this context, we start to wonder about the unanimous acclaim we hear of Danny’s play getting. From the tidbits of it that Talbott supplies, it actually sounds like a fairly trite recycling of old-hat black-theater motifs—another copy of what George C. Wolfe once defined as the “momma-on-the-couch play,” only with alcoholism added. Is Talbott’s idea that anything submitted by an African American writer automatically gains increased respect (African American playwrights would have plenty to tell him on that topic), so that Danny has merely recycled an old tune? Or has he actually achieved, as he’s repeatedly told, something exceptional? If the latter, and if he’s so hungry for the success of the work, why can’t he make his ego shut up half an hour longer and enjoy his triumph by proxy?

To judge by the sourly sad epilogue, Talbott perceives Danny as a self-destructive schmuck who can’t enjoy anything, destroying love, friendship, and career all in one bratty sulk: the playwright as stinker. But this calls into question the tender consideration everyone else has shown for him throughout. Despite Groff’s good looks and appealing energy, it’s hard to see what Danny has that wins others’ affection. Pete, about whom we learn only that he’s devoted to Danny, seems a particularly vague figure, notwithstanding Thomas’s strong, sympathetic presence. Rogers, a smart, subtle actor, makes Trevor’s equivocations viable; Wesley, new to me, gives a powerhouse, nuanced performance as Emilie. But their efforts can’t save The Submission from its own divided soul, half cultural tragedy and half smarmy neocon stunt.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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THE NAME GAME

Shaleeha G’ntamobi’s new play is generating a lot of buzz. And why not? Isn’t everyone eager to acclaim a new African-American female voice and her edgy drama about a mother and son struggling to free themselves from the projects? But don’t make space for that Susan Blackburn prize just yet. The problem: Shaleeha is actually a Danny, a very white, very male scribbler with a flair for an alias. Broadway darling Jonathan Groff stops into MCC to star in The Submission as a playwright who becomes entangled with his alias. The other stars of Jeff Talbott’s new play are Eddie Kaye Thomas, Will Rogers, and Rutina Wesley. Walter Bobbie (or is that a stage name?) directs this pseudonymous comedy.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. Starts: Sept. 8. Continues through Oct. 22, 2011

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In Twelve Thirty, Talking and Fucking and Talking Some More

In Twelve Thirty, getting fucked by a bright-eyed college kid proves a bonding experience for one Iowa family. In the aftermath of three wildly different sexual encounters with twentysomething Jeff (Jonathan Groff), spunky Mel (Portia Reiners), her morose sister, Maura (Mamie Gummer), and the pair’s mom, Vivien (Karen Young), re-establish a measure of interfamilial intimacy—both with each other and with the latter’s gay ex-husband. Sexuality runs from the thrillingly casual to the squeamishly disagreeable in Jeff Lipsky’s film, but mostly screwing—like trust, love, and happiness—becomes the stuff of ceaseless conversation. Essentially a series of verbal pas de deux, the film pairs off its six characters (Maura’s Satanist friend completes the sextet) in various arrangements for chats by turns aggressive and stutteringly awkward. These exchanges have an echo-chamber feel to them, as if they’re cut off from both the outside world and the way actual people talk, but realism is clearly not what Lipsky is after. Instead, he crafts an odd self-contained universe in which the characters’ compulsive need to explain themselves or simply hold their interlocutor’s attention stands in for the meaning of the words they actually say, resulting in a film more satisfying in occasional isolated moments than as a coherent dramatic entity.

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SENSITIVITY RULES

The dreamy Jonathan Groff returns to Shakespeare in the Park after his wonderful incarnation of sensitive hippie Claude in Hair last year, which he sadly did not reprise on Broadway. The actor, who is also known for playing a sensitive schoolboy in Spring Awakening, now tackles the sensitive deity turned party boy Dionysus in Euripides’ The Bacchae. The freshman-year-of-college-required-reading play involves the madness wrought by a desire-deprived society. JoAnne Akalaitis directs the production, which features original music by Philip Glass.

Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: Aug. 11. Continues through Aug. 30, 2009

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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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Prayer for My Enemy and Too Much Memory—Overpacked Suitcases Bursting in Transit

It’s clear now: The 21st century exists mainly to drive playwrights crazy. Playwriting, after all, involves finding the sense of things. A playwright struggles to cram a coherent vision of the world into the limited space of one theatrical evening. The more extravagantly disparate the world gets, the tougher the cramming job becomes. No wonder plays by intelligent writers increasingly look like overpacked suitcases, ready to burst open in transit. It’s impossible for even the tidiest packer to be orderly with so many matters, of such varied shapes and sizes, demanding inclusion.

Craig Lucas’s Prayer for My Enemy (Playwrights Horizons) seems to have exploded open before the journey even starts. Lucas has always had a somewhat combative relationship with dramatic form, like a guy who hates packing so much he has to make a game of it to get it done. His fans go in expecting any baggage he carries to be full of hidden surprises. Prayer for My Enemy offers a whole trunkful, including a character who seems irrelevant to the action until it all turns out to be about her, and a system of inner thoughts spoken aloud that recalls O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. He focuses on a family burdened with a roster of issues that could keep Oprah booked for the next decade, and one so fragilely bonded that calling them “dysfunctional” would seem a compliment. Nobody could accuse this playwright of skimping on his materials.

Whether he might have put them in better order is a different question. The combination of our wildly fragmented world and our theater’s economic need for a tight dramaturgic focus poses a challenge to every playwright. Lucas, bravely independent-minded, makes it that much harder for himself: He’s fascinated by contradiction. Perturbed about Iraq, he looks at why U.S. soldiers enlist and even re-enlist; concerned with gay identity, he explores what makes bisexuality and parenting appeal to men with same-sex leanings.

Though inherently dramatic, contradiction doesn’t always merge readily with other elements. Oedipus freed Thebes from the Sphinx but, being who he was, brought a plague in its wake: contradiction. To compound matters by making Oedipus, say, a wife-beating substance abuser with pedophilic tendencies, would only clutter the narrative. In a sense, this is what Lucas does. The wounded soldier who hates the war but re-ups, from a mixture of honorable and murky motives, makes a fascinating and troubling figure by himself, needing only a strong story to move within. The elaborate environment Lucas builds around him—12-stepping bipolar father, passive-aggressive enabling mother, shaky rural family business, sister with conflicted sibling attitudes, autistic nephew (unseen), new brother-in-law bringing his own festoon of problems—supplies only a fascinating clutter of distractions. The central story, such as it is, turns out not to be the one we thought we were watching, and occurs only in the last few scenes. Even then, we’re uncertain exactly why it occurred or how it connects thematically with everything else.

Lucas clearly loves these people; he didn’t create them merely as distractions. They’re thriving, perplexing parts of the world he’s trying to capture. Prayer for My Enemy often turns, like his best plays, enthralling, passionate, and articulate. But it also often feels contradictory and unclarified as it jumps almost nervously from topic to topic. What drives the evening, more than anything said or done onstage, seems to be Lucas’s struggle to find the connections that give life meaning. That his methods visibly aren’t working only makes the effort more grippingly painful. While hopelessly inchoate, the play also at times seems only a breath away from being a masterpiece.

Bartlett Sher’s production struggles in its own way, searching for a unified style in Lucas’s exploding fragments. He never evolves a workable convention for the inner-voice speeches; too often, the actors—even artists as fine as Jonathan Groff and Victoria Clark—abruptly lurch into shouting in a void. Floating TV sets and other dislocated visual elements drift inexplicably across John McDermott’s set. In this uncertain world, only Groff, steadfastly holding his character’s contradictory ground, conveys a faith that something more certain lies within the script. It may take another production, or another decade, before the rest of us come to agree.

“There’s a difference between ‘the present’ and ‘contemporary,’ ” says the Chorus (Martin Moran), introducing Too Much Memory, Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson’s new version of the Antigone story. But nobody involved seems quite clear on what that difference might be. There’s no “motorized scenery” or characters “riding motorcycles”—the Chorus’s examples of “contemporary”—but the electronic media, and a lot of today’s other realities, come into the retelling, not always harmonizing well with the ancient myth of Oedipus’ rebellious daughter and the tyrant whose family her recalcitrance destroys. The old tale’s power remains tangible; Reddin and Gibson (the latter also directed) try a variety of methods for rousing it to life. Intermittently, they succeed: Antigone’s defiance can’t lack relevance to a time that holds so much worth defying. Their partial success prods up recollections of both the craziness waiting for us outside the theater and the innumerable stabs made over the past century, by equally brave and sometimes wiser artists, at giving the myth immediacy. Laura Heisler and Peter Jay Fernandez, playing Antigone and Creon, often seem, like the authors, to be pushing at the material, as if trying to see how far into the present it will go. Unfinished, provocative, and occasionally wrenching, the result is less like catharsis than a constant ache; it doesn’t gratify, but it tells you you’re alive.

So, in its harmless way, does Beasley’s Christmas Party, a Booth Tarkington story turned into a tiny seasonal treat by director Carl Forsman’s Keen Company. It builds to its irresistibly charming climax on the outmoded assumptions that good and bad always stay true, with good usually coming out ahead—a notion neither Sophocles nor Craig Lucas would countenance. The acting’s sometimes overly earnest, but Joseph Collins carries off the impossible title role, which involves dancing an eight-person quadrille by himself, with elegant grace.

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Hair’s Central Park Revival Still Shines With Youthful Energy; Buffalo Gal Skillfully Reworks Chekhov

Hair is 40 years old. And I was already a practicing (though still unpaid) theater critic when it opened at the Public Theater in the fall of 1967, as part of the company’s first-ever season on Lafayette Street. I was of course only three years old at the time (I don’t know why people have so much trouble believing that), but they gave me press tickets anyway: Joe Papp loved youth. Other than Shakespeare, it was the thing he loved most in the world. Nothing pleased him more than the idea of young people seeing and enjoying great theater except, maybe, the thought of young people making great theater.

There should probably be a statue of Joe somewhere near Astor Place, but the kind of memorial he’d have liked best is what happens every night at the end of the Public’s new production of Hair in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater: After the bows, the band keeps playing, the cast starts dancing again, and in what seems like one seamless movement, a large part of the audience is up there dancing with them. I think this moment should officially be named the Joseph Papp Memorial Disco Curtain Call, and I feel sure that if Joe were here, he’d be up there dancing himself. It’s what he craved as an artist, what Hair is entirely about, and what so much of the best theater moves toward: the complete union of artists and audience, the engulfing of everyone by the spirit of the performance. Act I of Hair ends with a representation of a “Be-In” in Central Park; Act II, in this production, ends by becoming one. Those who believe in theater as a transformative ritual should be smiling broadly.

Much of the audience experiencing that surge of shared feeling may not know what a Be-In is, or what the boys are supposedly burning in a trash can during the one that closes Hair‘s first act. Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s head, has to explain in his pre-show speech that these objects are draft cards, a near-meaningless concept to those who grew up in the time of the all-volunteer army (invented by shrewd conservatives to make sure the youthful rebellion of the ’60s would never happen again). Things were different when half the country’s 18-year-olds had to walk around with little ID cards in their pockets telling them they were 1-A, which meant they could be shipped to Vietnam at the government’s pleasure. And that card was federal property, not yours, which meant that burning it was a felony. There’s ample reason for the climactic moment when Claude (Jonathan Groff), the more conflicted of Hair‘s two heroes, wavers about adding his to the blaze.

Claude’s choice—follow the flower children or obey the law and get shot at overseas—is the closest that Hair gets to drama. The show’s book is as lackadaisical as the stoned street people it celebrates. In that first Public Theater production, director Gerald Freedman apparently labored to give it some spine; his reward was to see the show move to an uptown disco, die, and get reborn, as a far looser event, under Tom O’Horgan’s direction. After which it moved to Broadway and became an enormous commercial success; looseness, not dramatic spine, was what the public wanted. O’Horgan’s nonstop visual inventiveness—some of it drug-fueled, and some the visionary product of one of the most highly cultivated minds ever unleashed in the theater—supplied dazzle. Authors Gerome Ragni and James Rado, with composer Galt MacDermot, balanced it with hippie-beaded charm, stringing onto the few thin strands of plot the glittery sweetness of their perky, tuneful, never-quite-complete songs.

Hair is no masterpiece, but as a piece of its time, it’s lodged so firmly in the public memory that you can’t ever get it out, like party glitter that lingers on your clothes for decades. And maybe that does make it a sort of masterwork: It catches young people’s urge for innocent, loving rebelliousness so accurately that, 40 years later, it still seems fresh, performed by and for youngsters who can have only a vague hearsay acquaintance with the life it ostensibly depicts. Diane Paulus’s Park production is to O’Horgan’s what Kathleen Marshall’s Park revival of that other Galt MacDermot musical, Two Gentlemen of Verona, was to Mel Shapiro’s original: Everything onstage seems streamlined, simplified, a little unimaginative, a little uniform. The amount of space left for human eccentricity, for a range of shapes and attitudes and personalities, has shrunk over the decades.

Inside the narrowed space, though, the spirit still jumps. Though many of Paulus’s young cast seem more hardworking than engaging, they clearly love their work. The standout among them, for charm and resourcefulness as well as sheer energy, is Groff, who can get from one end of the Delacorte’s wide auditorium to the other faster than any Puck or Ariel I ever saw, and without losing an iota of breath or a flicker of charismatic eye contact. The word “starshine” is distinctly applicable. I pity Christopher J. Hanke, who’s replacing Groff for the last three weeks of the run; taking over for a triathlon champ in Beijing would be easier.

A.R. Gurney’s new Buffalo Gal, at Primary Stages, revisits the past too, as a fading TV star comes back to her hometown (always Buffalo in Gurney’s work) to play Ranevskaya in a small local theater’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Since Ranevskaya herself, in Chekhov’s play, comes home only to sell the family estate and depart again, we know how ruefully this will end, but Gurney has his usual skillful fun juggling the juxtaposed stories. The estate that his diva (Susan Sullivan) has turned her back on is the theater itself; in lieu of an impossible lover in Paris, she has to choose between a juicy new sitcom out west and the local dentist (Mark Blum) who’s pined for her since adolescence. Director Mark Lamos, working with a lighter touch than usual, teases a bittersweet, loving sensibility out of Gurney’s cunning jokes and variants on his Chekhovian source. The whole cast, like Hair‘s, feels spiritedly engaged, especially Sullivan, Blum, and Jennifer Regan as the small theater’s beleaguered artistic director, while little Carmen M. Herlihy, an animated dumpling of a comedienne, steals laughs like crazy as an overeager assistant.

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Ass You Like It

The onstage seats at the Broadway hit Spring Awakening come in two types: the ass seats and the boob seats. For the bargain price of $31.25, two dozen lucky theatergoers each night get a unique view on not only the show itself, but also a serious gander (for those stage right) of actress Lea Michele’s breasts, or a tasty gaze (for those stage left) of Jonathan Groff’s rear end. Could this be why tickets for these seats aren’t available until May?

On a recent Wednesday night at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, a group of onstage audience members arrived to fill the chairs on either side of the spare, evocative set. (The musical, based on Frank Wedekind’s play, takes place in Germany in the 1890s and tells the story of a group of teenagers exploring sexuality and love.) Onstage ticketholders were first directed to a locker bay next to the concession stand, where they were required to stow jackets, purses, and anything that could be a distraction to the rest of the audience or the actors. “You’ll receive your Playbill after the show!” the usher shouted, pacing the floor. “Cell phones need to be turned off and put in the locker!” The audience, feeling a bit naked themselves now without their things, slowly trickled onto the stage via staircases leading up to either the ass side or boob side and took their assigned places in hard wooden chairs.

The minimalist set features a raised center platform painted with a leafless tree; framed family portraits and landscape paintings hang from surrounding brick walls. A seven-piece rock band readied itself in back, beside a large chalkboard scribbled with song titles. And in front of the stage, hundreds of eyes stared expectantly. “Do you have a cell phone?” a forgetful boob-seater asked the person next to him, wanting to call down to a friend in the audince he was waving at.

An usher wearing a jacket, tie, and dour expression walked onstage to announce the rules: No standing, no moving around, and no changing seats for a better view. Everyone shifted one last time, trying to get comfortable, jealously eyeing the people in the house, who appeared far more relaxed and happy, sprawled out in their cushioned seats and chatting to one another.

The actors—boys in school uniforms and girls in dresses—took their places among the onstage chairs, mixing with the audience. The sides went dark, and the opening scene between Michele’s character, Wendla, and her mother began. As Wendla tries to get her mother to talk about sex (a taboo topic in 19th-century Germany), people in the house laughed and clapped. But most of the onstage audience remained silent and stone-faced for their Broadway debuts, perhaps overly concerned with all those warnings the usher had given.

JoAnna—a 28-year-old boob-seater with waist-length ponytail, glasses, jeans, and a polo shirt that advertised The Scarlet Pimpernel—stared straight ahead with her hands in her lap. She did not want to give her last name for this story because she was fearful that the ushers knew too much about her already: It was her 14th time onstage (27th visit overall), and she planned to return 40 more times before the end of April. “Some people you see shifting around and changing positions and stuff. I don’t,” she said with the sort of pride that, truthfully, better befits a Tony winner than a boob-seater.

At intermission, Sandy Radnovich and her boyfriend, David Taylor, a peppy couple who didn’t want to give their ages (“just put old,” she said), rushed to the locker bay to check their phone messages. Neither was aware that they had such good boob seats before the show, not to mention a solid view of Groff lifting Michele’s dress to hit her butt with a stick. “I was like, ‘Don’t look, they’re getting undressed,'” Radnovich said, glaring sideways at her date.

“It helps keep you awake,” Taylor acknowledged.

“I guess if you were sitting in the audience there were parts you wouldn’t necessarily see, but that we’re seeing because we’re behind. You know what I mean?!”

“They can’t see that?” Taylor asked.

“Where he’s beating her with a stick, I don’t think they would have gotten a rear view there if you were in the front row. And the last scene—we saw all of that.” “That” being a reference to the first-act climax, in which Groff and Michele simulate sex with such professional skill that teenagers and adults in the house could be seen blushing.

As intermission wound down, Matt Kleinman, 28, in a plain shirt and jeans, was standing near JoAnna, waiting to return to his seat, It was his 13th time seeing Spring Awakening. “It’s a lot more fun up there,” he said. “The first time I sat up there I was probably self-conscious, but not anymore.” JoAnna said she notices people who seem uncomfortable during the sex scene. “It’s not like you’re seeing something dirty,” she said. “If you’ve seen it often enough, you don’t have to look at every single thing every single time. It’s like, OK, I can look at the lights today.”