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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Real Life Rock Top 10: Rebounds, Time Outs, and the Carters at the Louvre

1. Eleanor Friedberger, Rebound (Frenchkiss)

From a singer who in Fiery Furnaces could come across as someone backing you into a corner and talking a mile a minute while giving you the unsettling feeling she’s thinking over every word as she says it, music that, with no sense of hurry, wraps each song around the next. Angelo Badalamenti synths from old Julee Cruise records carry the tunes as if teaching them how to swim. It’s a report from a certain state of mind, one that’s saying, Time out. And as one number fades into another, a bigger question: And what if I said time out and froze everyone in the world in place and walked away? What would that sound like?

2. The Carters, “Apes**t” (YouTube/Tidal)  

First impressions:

There’s a lot of nice art in the Louvre.

The smugness of the poses doesn’t erase the thrill of the faster-than-sound words coming out of Beyoncé’s mouth.

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3. Neil Young, Roxy — Tonight’s the Night Live (Reprise)

His death record, and if on the original album the chant of the title song seemed almost too much to take, here the killers — and they can make you skip a breath — are “Roll Another Number” and the oh-so-casual fatal dope deal of “Tired Eyes.” There’s a lot of stage talk, particularly about the stripper Candy Barr. “We’re doing OK in the Seventies,” Young says near the end of a show recorded in late September 1973. “We really are. History’s coming back” — there’s that displacement of someone historicizing a moment as it takes place — “everything’s OK.  Spiro says it’s all right.” The vice president resigned on October 10.

4. Dana Milbank, “Finally, a president with the guts to stand up to Canada,” Washington Post (June 11)

“They inflicted Nickelback on us. We did nothing. They sent us Justin Bieber. We turned the other cheek. They were responsible for one abomination after another: Poutine. Dipthong vowels. Hawaiian pizza. Instant mashed potatoes. Ted Cruz. Still, we did not retaliate — until now.”

5. Overheard, Minneapolis (June 8)

Two young children idly singing “Nation-wide…” and you realized that this lilting, wistful insurance commercial, bathing the airwaves with Brad Paisley and Leslie Odom Jr. and Tori Kelly offering the tune as if it held more truth, more revelation, more of themselves than anything they ever recorded before, had already colonized the minds and corrupted the aesthetic sensibilities of the nation’s youth, until the kids finished the line: “…is suicide.”

6. A reader who goes by Uhuru Comix writes in (June 14)

“Tonight, there was a surreal moment on Jeopardy. The category was Combat Rock, and the $800 clue was ‘Pere Ubu: 30 Seconds Over ________.’ None of the contestants knew the answer, of course, and Trebek had to say (in a tone that made it sound as though he thought the answer was obvious), ‘What is Tokyo.’ I think there must be an Ubu fan lurking among their writers. Either that, or the apocalypse is upon us.”

7. Daniel Zakroczemski, illustration for Marc Stein, “Warriors and Cavs Star in N.B.A.’s Version of Groundhog Day,” New York Times (May 31)

“How can you root against LeBron?” a friend asked. “Because I’ve been a Warriors fan for more than forty years and I live in Oakland?” I said. “But it’s like rooting against John Henry!” he said — and the next day, taking up more than half a page, was a blazing, Cubist-like painting by an artist whose work usually appears in the Buffalo News showing just that: an embattled but indomitable giant stopping the balls of four other muscled men as if they were just so many steam drills. And then LeBron broke his hand.

8. Allen Ruppersberg, “Intellectual Property: 1968–2018,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (through July 28)

Born in Cleveland in 1944, working out of Los Angeles, Ruppersberg practices ideas in action, and despite the time covered in this vast but uncrowded retrospective the feeling was that anything that might catch your eye could have been made either fifty years ago or the day before yesterday. Among dozens of other works that could as easily be called phenomena as constructions, with a revisit to the 1969 Al’s Café (where among the all-non-food items on the menu the cheapest was a diner plate with a 45 of the Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie”) and a room devoted to blowups with cutouts of Uncle Scrooge’s battle with the Maharajah of Howduyustan over who can build the biggest statue of himself, my favorite was the 1996 installation Good Dreams, Bad Dreams — What Was Sub-Literature, with a announcement for “Lecture today at 4 PM,” which unfortunately was idea, not action, because the piece really made you want to know. There were real books in a vitrine, and rows of titles on the wall behind it: Was an 1891 cheap paper Oliver Twist sub-lit because of its format, or its writing?  What about a gorgeous edition of Evangeline? Classics Illustrated versions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Typee? You could probably put money on Jack Hanley’s Let’s Make Mary as sub-literature, but what about Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly, which may have been a lousy book, but was made into a great movie? The titles were a riot of pure id and the actual books were the mental attic of a whole country.

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9. Here to Be Heard — The Story of the Slits, directed by William E. Badgley (Head Gear Films/Moviehouse Entertainment)

A documentary about the punk band that began in London in 1976, dissolved in 1982, put part of itself back together in 2005, and ended when singer Ari Up died in 2010 at 48. It’s workmanlike, and because of the story as it was captured then and the present-day testimony of bassist Tessa Pollitt, drummer Palmolive, and guitarist Viv Albertine, stirring. There are bits of revelation that capture the essence of both the band’s mission to confront, attack, and destroy the marginalization of women in culture and of rock ’n’ roll as such, as when Palmolive describes the Slits on the Clash’s White Riot UK tour in 1977: “Sometimes we were playing different songs. And we couldn’t even tell! Sometimes we could tell”. There is the absolute primacy given to the clothes the Slits wore, as public action, free speech, political demonstration, and pleasure (Albertine, on “feeling like myself for the first time in my life”: “They couldn’t tell if we were male or female, or even human”), and the way the end of the band felt like a death sentence. “I fell into the terrible bath of heroin,” Pollitt says; Albertine, who as a Slit was all screaming blond hair and frilly white slips, “started dressing in brown clothes. I let my hair go back to brown.”

10. Nathan Lane, acceptance speech for Best Featured Actor in a Play, 72nd Annual Tony Awards (CBS, June 10).  

https://youtu.be/OpIoO9SpPcw

For his role as the tribune of McCarthyism, mob fixer, and AIDS death Roy Cohn in Angels in America — a role that took on far more resonance in this year’s revival than it could have had when the play premiered in 1993, since in the 1970s Cohn was also a mentor to Donald Trump — Lane produced a real thrill in the way that, in under two minutes, he thanked twenty-two individuals and groups, often in detail, with nuance, without a crib sheet, without pauses or hesitations, until the end, when he thanked his husband. It felt like a kind of rounded farewell, not that he doesn’t still have work to do. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Donald Trump said in a moment of frustration not long ago, and you can just imagine what Lane would make of the chance to materialize in his face.

Thanks to Steve Perry and Bill Brown.

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‘Modern Family’ Star On Gay Terminology, Gurl

Douglas Carter Beane‘s Broadway period piece The Nance has Nathan Lane as a gay Republican minstrel grappling with heavy-duty self-loathing. He’s the original GOProud member. On opening night, I asked Beane who the ultimate nance was. He replied, “The ’60s triumvirate of Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde, and the forgotten Alan Sues.” Whom I remember!

“What’s a nance?” I teased Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who ended up sitting next to me during the play. “It’s something from an era before my time,” he said. “I have a feeling it has something to do with a flamboyant man who applies makeup in a mirror.” (He gestured toward the Playbill cover, which has Lane doing just that.) “It’s like the way we say ‘Mary’ or ‘gurl’ with a U today.” Yes, the modern twist on nancing involves deliberate misspelling. Whatever werques, hunty.

Gay wit Paul Rudnick mentioned some prominent nance names to me, like character actors Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, who swished up many a screwball comedy. But I wanted to know about Rudnick’s next novel, Gorgeous, which deals with a correctly spelled female. “It’s about a girl from a Missouri trailer,” he obliged, “who gets summoned to New York by one of the world’s most legendarily reclusive designers. He says, ‘I’ll make you three dresses—one white, one red, and one black—and if you do as I say, you’ll become the world’s most beautiful woman’.” Gosh, Calvin sure has a lot of time on his hands these days.

But back to The Nance. At the after-party at the Marriott Marquis, I mentioned to Beane the Times review that had just come out. “I don’t read reviews,” he cracked. “I have my Guatemalan children read them to me. I say, ‘I want to hear a hard B in ‘superb.’

“I’ve been in rehearsal since December,” he went on wearily, having also written the script for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. “I went to the doctor because my eyes were burning. They said, ‘It’s because you’ve been looking at stage lights!'”

“We’ve got pastrami!” Beane suddenly exclaimed, his singed eyes blazing at the buffet. “They’re not doing this at Matilda!” No, they’re just serving big bowls of ham. (Oh, lord, I’m becoming a nance with these jokes. Right, gurl?)

Before nancy-boying my way home, I spotted Cynthia Nixon at a table, so I told her about the gay Sex and the City–type show HBO is doing a pilot of in San Francisco. “A male one?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. “We need more shows set in San Francisco,” she said, sensibly. “Yeah, there hasn’t been one since that Michael Douglas one,” I said, and Cynthia topped me with “Nash Bridges!” Damn, she’s good. (As for our own dazzling city, Cynthia thanked me for putting my name on an event she’s hosting to promote Bill de Blasio for mayor. It’s a bit idealistic, but we gotta try, Mary!)

Two nights later, another new play, The Assembled Parties, opened a few blocks away, and drew all kinds of theater types and Lisa Lampanelli. “I live across from Lincoln Center,” the raucous comic explained to me, “but I’m not classy enough to go there, so I came here.” Well, this was pretty hoity-toity in itself—a sprawling family drama by Tony-winner Richard Greenberg. But could Lampanelli relate to the Jewishness of it all? “Jews and Italians are the same,” she answered. “Loud, fucked, and they eat till their death. By the way, there better be lots of food tonight!” “Huh? You had part of your stomach pulled out,” I reminded her in shock. “But I’m hungry,” she replied, inarguably.

Before heading to the snack stand, Lisa told me that Donald Trump loved the interview I did with her for this column, in which she refused to dis her experience on Celebrity Apprentice. “He circled all the good parts and sent it to me, really happy,” she related. The most column-circling he’s done in years, I’m sure.

The food at this party (at the Copacabana) didn’t involve pastrami, despite the ethnicity of the characters, but there was still plenty to feast your choppers on. In between potatoes, I caught up with Cherry Jones, who was sobbing during the play (“I’m devastated”), Patricia Clarkson, who’s angling to play Tallulah Bankhead in a movie, and The New Normal‘s funny Andrew Rannells, who told me he’ll be back on Girls (with an I) this season. “Anything Lena wants me to do, I will do,” he said. “Even double pen?” I wondered. “Yes!” he gushed. I felt icky having stooped so low for a joke, though raunchy stuff had been on my mind because I’d just been thinking that Lena Dunham is a great porn name, as in “Lena Done ’em.” At least I’d said The New Normal properly; fewer people get that title right than can misspell “gurl” correctly. “They call it all kinds of things,” Rannells agreed with me. “I get The New Normal Heart. Also, Next to New Normal and The New Normans. And I recently was asked, ‘Aren’t you on Modern Family?’ ” Which brings it all back to Jesse Tyler Ferguson, gurl.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Nathan Lane Rules in The Nance

Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance (Lyceum Theatre) has got what it deserves from Lincoln Center Theater: a first-rate production, handsomely staged by Jack O’Brien, with a gigantically fine performance by Nathan Lane in the title role. Beane’s play deserves these splendid enhancements, not because it’s perfect in itself—its premise and many of its smaller points are highly debatable—but because, like far too few plays seen in New York these days, it sets out to wrestle with a big subject, on a big scale, in a wide-ranging, spectacular style that will simultaneously entertain the audience and make it think.

Beane uses the work’s value as comic diversion to enrich the dark matters he’s dealing with, not to cover them up or distract from them. You must take his play, and argue with it, as a large, rich, substantive whole, not as a string of set pieces in which the fun can be disentangled from the sour realities.

Lane’s performance as Beane’s hero, the bitter, self-hating homosexual burlesque comedian Chauncey Miles, embodies the complexity perfectly: You constantly watch Chauncey drawing a sharp line between his offstage behavior and the “nance” routine that’s made him the main draw at a seedy burleycue house on Irving Place circa 1937. At the same time, Lane, elegantly steered by O’Brien’s direction, always shows you how Chauncey’s private emotions bleed into his stylized stage business—and, more disconcertingly, how his act’s stereotyped postures seep into and warp his offstage life. Having made the twinkle-eyed cartoon swish with the sissified hand-waves his professional specialty, Chauncey is his own dybbuk, a man possessed in life, thanks to his dismissive view of himself, by the role he plays onstage. He is not, you might say, a happy camper.

Beane’s approach involves some historical oversimplification. Unlike vaudeville, in which performers built and toured with their own acts, burlesque comedy was more like revue or rep company work. The performers applied their distinctive stage personalities to a string of standard sketches, in which the roles they played depended less on their particular personae than on their status in the troupe: top banana, second banana, or straight man. (The “banana” names themselves derive from one of the most familiar sketches.) “Nancing” wasn’t so much a persona as a shtick that every comic could employ as needed, for a “bit” or for a role in a single sketch. In old movies, you can often see the burlesque comics who went on to legit stardom, like Bert Lahr and Phil Silvers, go “girl” for a momentary effect.

Chauncey, however, is all nance, in every sketch. Beane further complicates matters by making him not only a gay man who confines himself to nellydom onstage, but also a fervently ultra-conservative Republican. Chauncey’s backstage life at the Irving Place Theatre is bound on one side by Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen), the house’s bossy top banana, a homophobe who tolerates Chauncey for his comic gifts and for the cash his camp followers bring the box office, while on the other side lie endless dressing-room spats with Sylvie (Cady Huffman), a vehemently leftist stripper whose solidarity with her gay fellow worker vanishes when he rants about FDR.

Into this already sticky situation, fate throws love at Chauncey one late night in a Greenwich Village cafeteria, in the form of Ned (Jonny Orsini), a penniless young drifter from Buffalo. Their furtive one-night stand stretches into several serious weeks. Ned, who’s escaping the youthful mistake of a heterosexual marriage back home, sees the new relationship lasting. Chauncey sees it as provisional but then, anomalously, gets Efram to hire Ned when the troupe’s straight man jumps ship.

Ned and Chauncey’s trajectory as a couple, living and working together, starts to turn downward just as New York’s theater licensing commissioner, a prudish bachelor, starts to make life tougher for the city’s burlesque houses, which he claims promote “public displays of immorality.” He’s backed by Mayor LaGuardia, notoriously iffy on individual rights where moral matters are concerned. (Historically, LaGuardia was also aware that the nation’s military buildup was bringing ever-larger, and rowdier, crowds of soldiers and sailors into New York on weekend furloughs.) Irving Place is raided and charged with indecency: Chauncey, expecting his personal conservatism to get him off the hook, instead gets a rude shock. Life with Ned falls apart just as mayoral decree shutters burlesque in New York for good. The last thing we see, ambiguous and ominously symbolic, is Chauncey’s farewell to a now-darkened theater.

Questions, though, plague the play’s core. Manifestly, a gay man can be a conservative, but how conservative could a gay burlesque comedian, trapped in his own stereotype, really be? When the city’s license-revocation threats force the theater to cut down Chauncey’s appearances, he exclaims—and Lane plays it as heartfelt truth—”All dignity is removed from my life.” Dignity, while making jokes about anal intercourse, with appropriate gestures?

Similar contradictions beset the Chauncey–Ned relationship. Ned, young, handsome, and new in town, demands total fidelity; it’s aging, unhappy Chauncey who prefers surreptitious promiscuity. So culturally clueless on arrival that he doesn’t even know movie stars’ names, Ned quickly becomes an onstage whiz and born mimic. Yet nothing happens to tempt him away or to make Chauncey envious. (And Efram, who dislikes gays, never kvetches about Chauncey putting his boyfriend into the act.) Orsini’s sweet sincerity has to work overtime to make it all plausible.

Even so, the thick pileup of material—sex, culture, politics, economics, censorship—makes Beane’s play richly exciting. He toggles back and forth between the burlesque stage and the everyday world, with the sketch scenes growing progressively eerier as Chauncey’s situation grows more dire, till you’re unsure whether to take them as actual stage scenes or nightmares. Lee Beatty’s set design and Japhy Weideman’s lighting slide increasingly toward the crepuscular, evoking Reginald Marsh’s blurry, shadowy paintings of burlesque scenes. The overall production, beautiful without artsiness, makes a fitting home for Lane’s authoritative performance, always pitched with perfect precision as it ranges from extravagant, sassy highs to mordant Beckettian lows.

The Nance‘s accomplishment overrides all its debatable aspects. That it raises so many ideas worth debating, in terms of both history and the present, is a sign of its stature. And that it does so in such a beautifully realized production, with Lane reigning at its center, is a gorgeous rebuke to the mostly shoddy goods surrounding it on Broadway.

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TIME OUT

Is there anyone more reviled in theater than the understudy? Whether it be Nathan Lane in anything, or the star of Carrie: The Musical (provided there had been enough performances for her to miss one), the absence of the lead sends audiences into full-fledged rages, as they demand ticket exchanges or pout through comparable (and often better) performances. Here’s hoping none of the leads takes a day off from Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy about the lowly profession, The Understudy: They are the Tony-winning Julie White, Weeds‘s Justin Kirk, and Saved by the Bell‘s own Zack Morris (a/k/a Mark-Paul Gosselaar).

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: Oct. 9. Continues through Jan. 17, 2009

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Gay Celebs Descend on Atlantic City!

Despite the seeming contradiction of the term “casino culture,” Atlantic City has long overflowed with everything I’ve ever needed, from inexpensive buffets to elaborate diva concerts, from 99-cent stores hawking breast mugs to a boutique pier dotted with high-end merch to drape on your spa-waxed body. For extra pleasure, I relish the chance to watch people in iron lungs routinely throw their life’s fortunes away at the crap tables as I glide by, feeling oh-so-wealthy and superior.

But the one thing the place has never had was anything overtly gay (aside from an occasional Carol Channing show). Much as I enjoy visiting the West Side Club­—the David Lynchian hangout in the shadowy part of town, where the bar nuts are not on the bar—I’ve always been astounded that the casinos never catered to the lavender dollar, obviously cowing in terror of the family-values folks who thump Bibles in between playing card games and hiring hookers.

Well, all of that changed last week—for a few days, anyway—when Harrah’s Entertainment sent us for a “Weekend OUT” hosted by rapper Cazwell, inflatable toy Amanda Lepore, and various stars from canceled TV shows and boy bands. The group they sent down include a blogger who billed himself as “a positive Perez” (though he was understandably thrilled when Mischa Barton‘s show got canceled) and promoter Daniel Nardicio, fresh from Fire Island, where the Grove Hotel burst into flames, someone claimed to have been raped, and a plane crash-landed on the beach. (“I put that on Facebook before I called 911, shamefully enough,” admitted Nardicio, cutely).

No such disasters took place in Atlantic City, thankfully enough. First came an LGBT bash at Showboat’s Club Worship, MC’d by one of the town’s four drag queens, who blared, “We spend money, too—am I right?” (And not just on blush—we also buy shadow.) Just then, the expensively cosmeticized Lepore took the stage, slyly working some of her songs together (“I know what boys like . . . My pussy, my pussy . . .”), and though some of the crowd looked a little dazed, that shows they were paying attention.

The next night, the gals really came out for the The L Word reunion at House of Blues’ Foundation Room, which drew hard-core fans of the show from lipstick to pantsuit to prison matron. I cared only about Pam Grier, the ’70s blaxploitation goddess who brightened the show as the bi-curious Kit Porter. Pam told me she just finished her memoirs, “and I’m still in therapy from that. Several cases of wine later . . .” An example of some insight from the book? “When I was dating Richard Pryor,” she remembered, “his horse was attacked by the dog. I put the horse in the car, and we took him to get help. I thought we’d be arrested: ‘There are two black people in a Jaguar with a horse in the back seat!’ “

So Pam Grier is actually a gentle, loving soul, not the kickass character she rose to fame as? “I’m kickass right now,” she replied, mercilessly tickling my tummy. “I had a military upbringing and was taught martial arts. And I have a rural background.” Pam’s so comfy with the great outdoors, in fact, that she often sleeps on her back on her Colorado grounds, with nothing but a thong and a down comforter. To summon one of her old movie taglines, “Coffy, she’ll cream you!”

Several cases of wine later, the weekend brought a Lance Bass party and a Jai Rodriguez–hosted bingo game, but by then, I had cashed in my potato chips and gone back to my natural habitat of Times Square. There, the gays were lining up to drool over Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in A Steady Rain, even though a poster on a Broadway chat board called it “nothing more than a long synopsis for a movie on Spike TV.” I tend to agree—I never cared for the “And then I said” genre of confessional drama, even with twists—but it’s definitely the event piece of the season (meaning, people break their necks running to the stage door the second the show’s over) and Jackman is particularly fine. (I mean his acting. Hush.)

Cute—and super-talented—Cheyenne Jackson was very present for last week’s meet-and-greet promoting the revival of Finian’s Rainbow, just another musical about sharecroppers, a leprechaun, and a dancing mute named Susan the Silent. (“When you see her leaping around like a crazy person,” the choreographer told us, “she’s speaking!”) It’s all very relevant, we were reminded, because Obama is president and because the show is a parody of the excesses of capitalism and the absurdity of over-borrowing. And one thing this production won’t borrow from previous ones: blackface! When the bigoted character changes colors, it paves the way for a whole new actor to gain employment.

(Speaking of job ops, I hear Cheyenne tried out for Carl Magnus in A Little Night Music, but was told they didn’t want to go the conventionally-good-looking route. Don’t tell that to the guy who got it.)

Good-looking in boots or otherwise, ’60s icon Nancy Sinatra invited me to a Cipriani fundraiser for the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, which turned out to be a real education. MC Nathan Lane was a scream, cracking about Ernie Anastos‘s recent on-air gaffe: “Even Kanye West thought it was in poor taste.” Lane also got in quips about the Sinatra school, saying, “It’s across the street from the Billie Holiday Medical Center.” Best of all, The Addams Family star introduced a speech by Bill Clinton, but the ex-prez didn’t materialize right away. “He is coming,” assured Lane. “It’s not the first time you’ve heard that—but he is coming.”

The Coen BrothersA Serious Man came and proved to be a darkly funny peek at gefilte-fish-out-of-water Jews in the Midwest, where they seem as out of place as gays at Trump’s Taj Mahal. The film premiered at the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival at the Ziegfeld, where cineastes mixed with borscht belt comics over popcorn and wisecracks. Before the movie, the Friars’ Freddie Roman introduced the Coens as “two Jewish boys who grew up in a hotbed of Judaism—St. Louis Park, Minnesota. In their synagogue, the cantor was Norwegian!” After the screening, that non-Scandinavian actor Fyvush Finkel cornered me to say, “I told the Coens: ‘I’ll be so good I’ll put the “h” back in your names.’ “

Italian-American kvetcher extraordinaire Joy Behar just put the HLN back on her résumé. She feted her new talk show on the channel with a TV-icon-filled Oak Room party, where she sat at a back table, when her feet started hurting. But Joy perked up when a waiter brought over some buffalo-chicken dumplings. “Ooh, baby!” gurgled the TV star. Not have much sex lately? “Good point,” she replied, laughing. “After 27 years, the dumplings start to look good.” So why her own show? Not get to talk enough on The View? “I’m going to have to interrupt myself,” Joy said, grinning. Will she wear suspenders? “No,” she answered, plainly.

More important, her thoughts on Mackenzie Phillips‘s consensual incest revelations? “It’s so fucking awful,” she said. “You spend your life avoiding your father.” Still, she obviously didn’t avoid him that much. But why wait for a book deal to spill this? “Maybe she needs the money,” offered Joy. “If not, it could be payback, like Christina Crawford.” “That one I believed,” I muttered. “I believe them all!” said Joy, seductively eyeing another dumpling.

One last tidbit: I hear AOL might roll the dice and appeal to the lavender market by launching a big, gay website. They should call it “Gay-O-L.” Ooh, baby.

musto@villagevoice.com

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Godot’s Worth the Weight, The Philanthropist Donates Little, 9 to 5 Shows More Heart Than Art

Counting The Norman Conquests as three, eight Broadway shows opened just before the Tony nominations’ cutoff date. This manic pileup carried a surprisingly un-Broadwayish weightiness. After Ayckbourn’s rotating-repertory trio came Desire Under the Elms and Waiting for Godot, two somber modernist works that Broadway never wholly learned to love, and two relatively obscure light-comic antiques, 1934’s Accent on Youth and 1971’s The Philanthropist, refitted for popular male stars of today. Of the eight openings, the only one resembling 2009 Broadway business as usual was 9 to 5, yet another musical version of a not-quite-forgotten film.

Of the lot, Waiting for Godot (Roundabout Studio 54) undoubtedly qualifies as the most notable event, both as the best piece of writing on the list and by dint of Anthony Page’s relatively solid, sane production. Godot has not been an uncommon sight in New York since its Broadway premiere in 1956. There have been at least half a dozen Off-Broadway productions, including two editions of Beckett’s own staging and the post-Katrina version with which the Classical Theatre of Harlem created a stir a few years ago. Studied everywhere and a known quantity to most theater artists, the play is remote only from Broadway’s recent experience.

On a country road, two tramps, Didi (Bill Irwin) and Gogo (Nathan Lane), wait every evening for someone named Godot, who never seems to come and whom they might not even recognize if he did. Apart from the nightly arrival of a small boy who may or may not be Godot’s messenger, their only encounters are with an arrogant figure named Pozzo (John Goodman) and his doggedly servile factotum, Lucky (John Glover), whose knotty relationship seems to cover all the best and worst possible interactions of master and servant. Their two contrasting scenes, one at the center of each act, function mainly to divert Didi and Gogo from the agony of their own lives.

In terms of strict dramatic logic, the play contains no action. Act Two is Act One with variations, except for two minute differences: The barren tree they wait by (which makes them contemplate hanging themselves) sprouts a few leaves, and Didi’s response to the boy messenger is altered by one word. Those who recall the tramps’ opening conversation about the two thieves and the four gospels may see the changed word as containing the tragic core of what’s otherwise, essentially, an extended vaudeville routine with metaphysical flavoring.

Though bare of drama and stark in ambience, Godot is a very rich work, full of physical business and verbal detail, of a kind even a Broadway audience can love, that ingeniously conceals the nothingness going on, often by brazenly making it the topic of conversation (“That passed the time.” “It would have passed in any case.” “Yes, but not so rapidly”). Beckett’s sensibility is bawdy, his dialogue tautly rhythmed even when poetic; he welds theology to the wisecrack.

Page’s production achieves its rapport with Broadwaygoers by doing one important thing right: He’s made his skillful cast play Beckett’s terse text as human conversation, instead of either ornate abstract poesy or a clown routine stylized past all meaning. He’s achieved particular success with Lane, whose frowsty, glum, pathetic Gogo is one of his best creations yet, and a triumph with Goodman, who conveys the self-centered meanness under Pozzo’s patrician airs with scary conviction.

Page has slightly less success with Irwin, whose postmodern-clown background always tempts him to formalize his speeches, and with Glover, who gets the mania of Lucky but not the pain. And in his eagerness to keep the event moving, Page has let the conversation’s colloquial flow rush past the many places where Beckett’s characters take their time; time is the play’s essence. Even Santo Loquasto’s set, imposing a rocky enclosure on Beckett’s country road, seems eager to force into tighter focus a dramatic event that’s meant to chill us by drifting away into infinity.

Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist (American Airlines Theatre) drifts away into dramatic nothingness, leaving no feeling behind, despite the many clever devices with which Hampton has tried to tighten it. Molière’s misanthrope, Alceste, is a figure of power: His fierce integrity makes everyone seek his approval. Hampton’s philanthrope, Philip (Matthew Broderick), approves amicably of everybody and everything, making it hard to fathom why the professorial intellects around him would desire his approval or, if female, desire him. Apart from constantly offering everybody else food (which Hampton inexplicably equates with gluttony), Philip, a philologist, seems mainly interested in constructing anagrams and tracking other people’s verbal patterns.

This pallid setup generates some amusing theatrical games, but no drama. The minimal plot (will hapless hero get spunky girl in time for final clinch?), an old-fashioned standard model, works very well for Accent on Youth, of which The Philanthropist sometimes resembles a fogged mirror image. But it can’t energize a work in which the hero is so pleasantly passive. Earlier productions, to dodge this defect, cast lead actors whose inner fire belied Philip’s outward placidity, but Broderick’s genius lies in the comedy of solipsism. He lures you into his dream world rather than stepping out into yours, but contentedly passive Philip has no such place. David Grindley’s production situates him in a believable though exceptionally drab university atmosphere, and the Roundabout’s cheesy sound system makes the Baroque music between scenes hit your ears with painful coarseness.

9 to 5‘s score comes off sounding classier. Songwriter Dolly Parton’s honest, simple-hearted good sense comes through clearly, empowering the four terrific performers in the lead roles: Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, and Megan Hilty as the variously victimized office gals, and Marc Kudisch as the preening boss they all abominate. Unhappily, other aspects of the show—a lackluster book, busy-busy direction, and bland choreography—only hinder these hard-working folk, and the story’s tricksy, urbanized comic tone makes a bad match for Parton’s country-bred sincerity. Her talent needs, and deserves, a more heartfelt tale to tell.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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Disillusioning America

The big, explosive laughter that starts early in David Mamet’s November is of a kind I haven’t heard in decades: It’s the laughter of people who’ve been granted an unexpected degree of public permission. As everybody now knows, Mamet’s new comedy deals with an incumbent president campaigning for re-election with poll numbers “lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol” (the line’s been much quoted, but who can resist?). Though the action takes place now, in a U.S. at war in Iraq, President Charles Smith (Nathan Lane) is not particularly George W. Bush. He resembles the Shrub, however, in being a complete disaster. When he asks plaintively why everyone’s turned against him, his chief counsel, Archer Brown (Dylan Baker), tells him curtly: “Because you’ve fucked up everything you’ve touched.”

That’s the detonation, and I won’t spoil any of the subsequent explosions in the chain of laughs it triggers as Smith rolls his disastrous self from mess to increasing mess, till persistence and luck turn his disaster into a sort of muck-coated triumph. The cartoon situation and the sordidly happy ending may be the matter at hand, but they’re not what November is about. Its existence onstage is predicated on our desperate need to laugh, and to share our laughter, at the real-life disaster the current administration has made of our existence as a nation. Here we are, the despised of the world, mired in an endless unwinnable war, our economy sinking rapidly into a depression, our environment in tatters, our civil rights shredded, most of the government agencies we rely on for protection corrupted beyond belief by White House–generated partisanship and bigotry, and the rich, with presidential sanction, robbing us blind. No administration in our history has ever been this crooked, this selfish, or this oblivious to any concerns beyond its own greed and that of its corporate cronies. In order to hope that the noxious fumes of the Bush administration might actually be dissipated through the democratic process, the first thing we need is exactly the kind of large, loud, communal laugh that November supplies.

Such laughs can’t be triggered by the gritty details of Bush’s vileness, which hurt too much to be funny, while a satirical rendering of them would breed only pained grimaces. Instead, Mamet’s created a cartoon analogue for presidential corruption, not specific to either party, tossing in actual issues only insofar as they further his farcical plot. He’s grasped the central notion of American politics: It’s about money and imagery, not issues. For an election to be about issues, you need an educated populace. Where Europe has an educational system, we have TV; dollars buy the airtime by which images are promoted. President Smith’s goal is to raise the big bucks that his campaign committee, smelling defeat, has stopped shelling out. To get them, he initiates what burgeons into a crisscrossing chain of blackmail, bribery, threats, and trade-offs as it winds around poultry producers, Chinese adoption mills, Native American casinos, and secret CIA prisons in Bulgaria, occasionally colliding with some halfway honorable person’s attempt to act on principle—an effort, in this context, about as useful as trying to read The Federalist Papers aloud during a performance of Room Service.

The naked corruption, always leaping further toward cartoon implausibility, licenses the laughter. Listening to it, while watching Lane’s button eyes glisten with greed and his nose point up like a bird dog’s whenever the scent of cash wafts onstage, I was taken back to a dank Sunday afternoon in 1967, at the old Village Gate, where I heard the same kind of laughs explode around me while I guffawed in amazement at Stacy Keach, playing a bloodstained Shakespearean monarch with a yew-all accent in Barbara Garson’s MacBird!. Mamet’s cartoon, built on sturdier lines and addressing a wider audience than Garson’s, eschews contentious issues, though it never hesitates to breach taste barriers. Its unremitting stream of profanity and ethnic slurs, like its money-centered action, confirms America’s worst suspicions about those who strive to look “presidential.” Joe Mantello’s production, barring an occasional awkward patch, keeps the animated action figures moving speedily, with Lane’s eager, bounce-back clownishness elegantly balanced by Baker’s immaculate deadpan and the hilariously convincing sniffles of Laurie Metcalf as an ailing speechwriter with her own agenda to push.

Nobody looks less presidential than the people of William Inge’s 1949 “pathetic comedy,” Come Back, Little Sheba. Inge’s folk are America’s small-timers: oldsters trying vainly to keep up illusions long since worn out; energetic youngsters building up the illusions that will wear them down as they age. The truth, like the lovable puppy of the title, has long since deserted them. Only Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson), a hapless, slovenly housewife tied in loving resentment to her alcoholic failure of a husband, Doc (Kevin Anderson), still wistfully calls after it.

The past, where she was pretty and Doc was promising, is Lola’s booze. Feeling trapped in the marriage, both fixate on their boarder, Marie (Zoe Kazan), an attractive young art student with a rich fiancé out of town and a hunky local for interim use. Doc, idealizing Marie’s “purity,” resents the hunk; doting Lola frets about Marie’s double game. But Marie can take care of herself; when Doc finds out what she’s up to, it’s the bottle and then Lola that he attacks. Once Marie’s gone, calm’s restored, maybe this time without illusions. Maybe.

Michael Pressman’s revival for MTC, with its biracial casting, gives Inge’s sad little fable an extra twist: Doc’s having married “beneath him” now involves crossing what was, in 1949, still a major social and legal barrier. This gives the couple’s acceptance by everyone else a queasy underpinning—which helps, since Pressman’s production, with its steady
forward drive, doesn’t always leave space for the silent loneliness that wells up
in the interstices. Merkerson, always touching and real, seems less inattentive to her housework than busy dealing with the minor characters who bustle nonstop in and out. She also derives less pain than Lola needs from Anderson, a big, burly, healthy-looking fellow who seems, till the last act, the optimistic opposite of a recovering alcoholic. Kazan’s imperturbable Marie, too, could use a hint of the dark currents below her surface sweetness. Brenda
Wehle, as Lola’s less-than-admiring next-door neighbor, supplies Merkerson’s best seconding; the air in their brief scenes together runs thick with unspoken comment.

In Ethan Coen’s Almost an Evening, contrariwise, the air runs thin and empty during the large gaps between the lines. Coen’s three meager sketches derive from glib stereotypes that stay unexplored as the sketches plod their predictable way to equally meager punch lines. A lot of good actors are wasted on this arid piece of ego-indulgence; only F. Murray Abraham, as a temperamental actor playing an equally temperamental Old Testament God, gets a few blessed chances to show off. Don’t waste your time.

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Six Days on the Pink Team

For all the joys of pressing the flesh—or merely lusting after it—at the annual Pride parade, sometimes an urban queer longs for a rainbow week that’s not quite so, so, so . . . .

Luckily, Pride week wears many colors, not all of them shades fit for a disco ball. See the following listings for a taste of what’s out there, and then check out the Voice Choices calendar for even more picks. And remember: It’s your party. Spend it just the way you want.


WEDNESDAY June 20

[Show]
Will Sing for Food

Really now, you can’t go just anywhere to hear a live rendition of a song with a name like “Nice Jewish Boys,” followed by one named “Fagnet.” You can get all that and more (like a couple of smooth drinks and an awfully sweet date) at Mel & El: This Show Rhymes. Having conquered the midtown theater scene, Melanie Adelman and Ellie Dvorkin are taking their act straight—OK, directly—to one of their most loyal audiences. At 7 p.m., The Duplex, 61 Christopher Street, $15 with a two-drink minimum. Part of the proceeds to benefit the Food Bank for New York City. See canneryworks.org for more scheduled performances.


THURSDAY June 21

[Exhibit]
Remembrance of Prides Past

These days, you’re lucky if you can get close enough to the curb to see the actual three- quarters-naked bodies sashaying along the Pride Parade route. But there was a time, not all that long ago, when taking to the street meant marching along with a small and determined queer platoon. See Suzanne Poli’s photo evidence of their courage, and of how good you’ve got it now, at A View From My Window: Christo- pher Street Liberation Day March 1970–1984. Hey, in the relative quiet, you might actually meet someone.
From 6:30 to 8 p.m., LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, free, gaycenter.org

[Outdoor Dance]
DJs by Moonlight

If you’re feeling as rich as the homophobes like to say we are, head uptown for the gala Lincoln Center Salutes Gay Pride. Host Jai Rodriguez and DJ Brenda Black get the crowd in motion, while an open bar and free appetizers round down the price. Dance lesson at 6:30 p.m., live music at 7:30 p.m., Josie Robertson Plaza, at Lincoln Center, Columbus Avenue between 62nd and 65th streets, $50 in advance, $75 at the door, lincolncenter.org


FRIDAY June 22

[Boat Race]
From the Left Bank

Set your course for adventure. The Fifth Annual Stonewall Sails Regatta blows through the Upper Bay, in full view of the Statue of Liberty, this afternoon. After the action, find somebody cute to ferry you—or take the PATH train—across the Hudson River for the big awards dinner and after-party. Races at 1 p.m., free dinner and party at 6 p.m., at the Newport Marina, Jersey City. Further details at ksa-nyc.org/racing/2007/stonewall/nor.php.


SATURDAY June 23

[Road Race]
Run for Your Life

Anyone up for hot quads in tight Lycra? The Front Runners Lesbian and Gay Pride Run kicks off in Central Park this morning. The five-mile race, led by the queer Front Runners Club and the utterly friendly folks at New York Road Runners, promises the best in cardiovascular conditioning. If you’re taking part, you’re bound to meet your target heart rate. If you’re just watching, the flow of sexy bodies might ?—just might—accomplish the same. Proceeds benefit a range of LGBT causes, including HIV/AIDS and breast cancer. Limited same-day registration from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., $25 for non-NYRR members. Race starts at 9 a.m. Course begins and ends near 99th Street and East Drive, nyrr.org.


SUNDAY June 24

[Dyke Drama]
Chicks, White Satin Take Stage

Billed as a love triangle with a twist, The Engagement: A Snatch of Life in 3 Acts follows the pre-nuptial contortions of a lesbian couple with enough exes, hangers-on, bystanders, and nutty family members to make a winning TV pilot. At 8 p.m., Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, $25 in advance, $35 at the door. See snatchoflife.com for more scheduled performances.


MONDAY June 25

[Serious Stuff]
Help When They Need It

Mark your so-called recovery from the gleeful dissolution of Pride with
Harmony, Heart & Humor
, a music/comedy benefit for the Trevor Project. Since its launch in 1998, the nation’s only 24/7 suicide hotline for queer and questioning youth has gotten calls from 96,000 kids. Now you can help make sure there’s always someone standing by. This year’s event honors actor Nathan Lane. Reception and silent auction at 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m., the Hudson Theatre at the Millennium Hotel, 145
West 44th Street. $40–$80. See the trevorproject.org.

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Tragic Kingdom

The ancient Greeks knew that tragedy could be funny, but for the most part, they didn’t see it as laugh-out-loud funny. For them, it was a state occasion. The fate of the hero or heroine had the dignity to represent the destiny of the state as a whole: This was what we could come to if we didn’t live moderately and acknowledge the power of those tricky external forces that the Greeks called the gods. For modern playwrights, living in the era since serious religion died, the hard part has been making the fate of the individual meaningful enough to be taken seriously for a full evening. If the individual’s a king, and the whole nation will crumble with his downfall, that’s tragedy no matter how many jokes are made during its course. But if the individual is only the guy in the next cubicle, and his disaster is precipitated by his own personal circumstances, that’s funny.

So, although the story of Medea, as retold by Euripides, is full of bitter laughs but manifestly tragic, the story of My Deah Hedgepeth, Southern beauty queen turned wifely avenger, is just as manifestly not, even if John Epperson had aimed beyond mere camp laughs in dramatizing it. And Simon Gray’s story of Ben Butley, a drink-sodden English professor on the downslide, is also distinctly non-tragic, though when Butley starts going after his ex-spouse and ex-lover, he can wreak almost as much destruction as Medea. Both My Deah and Butley see themselves as living out tragic roles: My Deah has seizures of classical speech and witch-goddess incantations, while Butley, getting the news of his wife’s divorce action and his lover’s desertion on the same afternoon, praises them for upholding the classical unities.

Ostensibly just a spoof, My Deah is too extended (90 minutes) and follows Euripides too scrupulously to settle for such shallow intentions, even if the characters do crack antique vaudeville wheezes like “You rip-a dese, you pay for dese.” A thorough and inventive collagist, Epperson can twist any stock phrase to his own purpose with Nascar-level speed. Now if he only had some purpose, beyond a scattering of mild laughs, that was worth 90 minutes of our time.

Epperson and his director, Mark Waldrop, find My Deah‘s raison d’être in Nancy Opel, who plays both My Deah and her devoted, demented, gumbo-accented nurse. Insofar as comic meaning can be squeezed out of Epperson’s jocosities, Opel squeezes it, with style. Though her recent Broadway work might lead you to brace yourself for shrillness, here she is ranging from extreme vindictive frenzy to breathy seductiveness and back without putting a scrape on her voice or falsifying an emotional beat. Her performance often seems less of a parody than certain recent “serious” attempts at Medea. That’s the show’s real problem: To spoof material this overworked is superfluous.

Butley seems oddly superfluous, too, and the fault certainly doesn’t lie with Nicholas Martin’s smart, speedy production, or with Nathan Lane’s scrupulous performance at the head of a first-rate cast. Butley is a paradox, an articulate, knowledgeable man who knows his world and ought to function well in it, but somehow just can’t. Despite the ready wit and encyclopedic gift for literary quotation that he can display even after heavy alcohol consumption, he’s apparently abandoned both his love of literature and his desire to teach it, his defection accelerated by the breakup of his marriage, and the collapse of his relationship with the male protégé who began as a student disciple and now shares his faculty office. From what we see, it’s hard to know whether any of Butley’s loves were real. He alienates people so systematically that you wonder how he kept them in his orbit this long, while his literary knowledge serves him mainly as a weapons storehouse for the verbal darts he zings at anyone who drops by. Students, colleagues, ex-wife, ex-lover, ex’s new lover, eager prospective student: To Butley everyone’s a handy target. He’s no tragic hero, he’s a Thersites.

Yet even while wrecking his life, Butley’s presumably meant to be a sort of hero, for whom we’re meant to feel some degree of compassion or empathy. We would hardly put up with a full evening of him just for the sake of the wisecracks; there’s limited fun in watching a man dig his own grave and then fall slowly into it. Alan Bates, who created the role, made Butley a ravaged romantic: Under the ranting and the drink-raddled obnoxiousness, you saw someone who could have been an intellectual contender, and whose ferocious contempt for everyone else was fueled by resentment at his own failure. Lane, nobody’s idea of a romantic hero, wisely doesn’t aim for this failed-Byron image. Instead, subtly, he invents a Butley who was once the life of the party, now bitterly aware that the party has moved on. This makes the play seem smaller, but not because Lane’s concept is less tenable: He simply reveals a shortfall in the script that Bates’s bravura had concealed. Hearing only Butley’s comic vociferations, we realize that we don’t know what he wanted to be, or do, that might have made him meaningful to us. Life was less perplexing when tragedy had kings.

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Your Show of Shows: The Movie of the Play of the Movie

Susan Stroman’s adaptation of The Producers is a reasonably accurate representation of the Mel Brooks musical she directed on Broadway, albeit as seen through opera glasses slouched down in a seat in the front row. The sense of magnified shtick—with Nathan Lane bellowing at the balcony from the fake confines of his impossibly vast office—is not unlike the moment in the new King Kong where the ape erupts into Times Square, grabbing blondes and petulantly tossing them away. Flaunt it, baby, flaunt it!

A flop in 1968 and a cult movie thereafter, The Producers popularized the term “creative accounting.” Max Bialystock, a washed-up Broadway impresario who finances his shows by romancing little old ladies, teams up with the mousy accountant Leo Bloom to bilk their backers by overselling shares in a guaranteed flop. But the scheme backfires when their carefully selected neo-Nazi musical Springtime for Hitler becomes a camp smash hit—just like the musical that Brooks contrived from his movie in 2001. Does the new Producers retain any of the original’s shock value? Need you even ask?

The perfunctory ’50s setting hardly restores the joke—although it celebrates a no-longer-extant Broadway. Brooks’s clever, not exactly parodic, score is pleasantly retro and better than serviceable. The “Springtime for Hitler” set piece still conveys a powerful inanity—it’s the best song in the show, and, like Brooks’s Sinatra-friendly “High Anxiety,” is a classic that no one, to my knowledge, has dared to cover. Some klutzy sub–Freed Unit choreography aside, Stroman’s direction flirts with vulgarity without ever crossing over. Lane and Matthew Broderick make a far cuter couple than the original Max and Leo, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Broderick is a genuine trouper, hoofing his way through his big numbers, while Lane’s antics are difficult to resist, despite his need to signify merriment by opening his mouth in a pantomimed hysteria. Gary Beach’s impossibly queeny director and even riper consort Roger Bart (both of whom originated their roles onstage) constitute a massive inoculation—not unlike the gay-baiting in last year’s prize movie musical, Team America.

There’s no business like show business, and the musical Producers‘ considerable success showed the original movie to have been prophetic—of itself. Thus, The Producers has mutated into a story of self-actualization. Is there a Saturday-morning cartoon series in Max and Leo’s future? The Producers: The Musical: The Movie insists, even as it demonstrates, that the show must go on . . . and on.