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Four Movies at the Tribeca Film Festival That Don’t Pretend

A film-within-a-film is a well-worn narrative conceit, but one that seems more complicated in the context of a documentary. Madeleine Sackler’s extraordinary It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It was shot entirely at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison near Indianapolis. (The occasional animated interludes were done by Yoni Goodman, of Waltz With Bashir.) The incarcerated men there are both subjects and filmmakers in Sackler’s construction, talking about their lives in front of the camera while learning film lingo and devices from the classroom environment Sackler creates.

We sit in on the filmmaking lectures Sackler delivers to the inmates. (At the same time this was going on, she shot a separate feature at the prison: the narrative piece O.G., starring Jeffrey Wright and also showing at Tribeca.) During the sessions, the men interview each other about their experiences and discuss what they want to add to the final cut of the movie. We witness the canny results first-hand, as when the men decide to finally share — midway through, after we’ve gotten to know them — their sentences and crimes in the form of onscreen text just below their faces. Poverty, abuse, addiction, and racism all play familiar roles in these stories. But the haunting exchange that best illustrates the divide between the men and the director (who hails from a wealthy Connecticut family), along with most of us who see the film, comes when one of the inmates expresses incredulity at the fact that none of Sackler’s former high-school classmates have either been murdered or killed someone.

He asks, “No one?”

She replies, with certainty and sadness, “No one.”

The sharp cast of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” helps to cohere its verbose source material.

Writer-director Desiree Akhavan, whose 2014 film Appropriate Behavior (in which she starred) was a loose, autobiographical jaunt through queer women’s experiences in New York City, could not have picked a more different approach for her second feature, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance). An adaptation (Akhavan wrote it with Cecilia Frugiuele) of Emily M. Danforth’s popular YA novel, the film takes place in Nineties Montana, mostly in an isolated teen residential program that implements Evangelical Christian, anti-queer “reparative” therapy. The script omits the verbose source material’s many tangents and spins its lively, last third into a more cohesive whole.

I had been worried in the lead-up that Chloë Grace Moretz would be too femme to play Cameron, who is a butch athlete in the book. But Moretz’s appalled face in reaction to the program’s dogma, along with her other responses to life in the facility, won me over. A poker-faced “good” is how Cameron invariably replies to staff questions about how she’s progressing. After Erin, a fellow “disciple” (as the teens in the program are called), catches her shoplifting, Moretz’s Cameron quickly adds a disingenuous, “I feel so ashamed,” to keep Erin from telling staff. Sasha Lane, whom writer-director Andrea Arnold famously plucked from the mass of college students during spring break to star in American Honey, proves a delightful comic presence in Miseducation as Jane, another resistant teen at the facility. Her skeptical, liquid stares say as much as her expertly delivered punchlines.

The repressive setting would be, in a less nuanced film, a site of unadulterated horror. But Cameron, Jane, and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), like queer people through the ages, find ways to bond, joke, and help each other through the circumstances. When something terrible does happen (eliciting gasps in the audience, as it does for readers of the book), the experience cements the three together with newfound determination.

The killing of a trans woman in the Philippines galvanizes outrage in “Call Her Ganda.”

Call Her Ganda, a documentary from Filipinx American PJ Raval (Trinidad), covers the trial of an American Marine, Joseph Scott Pemberton, for the killing of Jennifer Laude, a trans woman in Olongapo City, Philippines. The 2014 incident occurred in a motel across the street from the disco where the two had met earlier one evening. The case, and the dismissive reaction to it, prompts outrage from Jennifer’s devoted sister, mother, and fiancé, as well as a spirited legal battle from the family’s pro bono lawyer, Virgie Suarez. As the murder of Rita Hester did in the U.S. two decades ago, Laude’s death galvanizes the trans community to take to the streets in protest. Owing to colonialist influence, any crime American service members committed in the Philippines had never previously been brought to court. Pemberton’s lawyers attempt to justify his actions as “trans panic,” an enraging defense that’s been used in the U.S. in murder cases with trans women victims.

The doc also follows trans Filipina investigative journalist Meredith Talusan, who has lived in the United States since she was a child, as she returns to her birthplace to extensively report on the case for VICE, the Guardian, and Buzzfeed. Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, known globally for the mass killing of his own citizenry, even plays a peripheral role, manipulating anti-colonial sentiment around the case (and others like it) to win votes. In the end, the verdict appeases neither side, but it has had lasting effects on the trans community and has set a long-overdue precedent for holding individuals in the American military responsible for heinous crimes.

Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, 79, is the focus of the moving doc “Every Act of Life.”

I wasn’t prepared for the emotional release of Every Act of Life (written and directed by Jeff Kaufman), a wonderful documentary on the prolific playwright Terrence McNally. McNally’s life has the sweep of an epic novel, except that the novel’s inevitable movie version could never have as much star power as his life did. Edward Albee was his first boyfriend. Nathan Lane and Audra McDonald both affirm they wouldn’t have their careers without him. Angela Lansbury was the one who told him to get sober. He even had a brief, secret relationship with the acclaimed playwright Wendy Wasserstein. (His brother reports that seeing the two of them in a romantic kiss made him think, “He has a girlfriend?!”) He also was one of the first playwrights to put queer life and characters front-and-center in his work. Even though, as his husband, Thomas Kirdahy asserts, cancer surgery has left McNally with a total of less than one functioning lung, he’s still energetic and writing new pieces — and having them produced.

The film conveys a refreshing lack of pretense about the work of being a refined artist. Over two decades into McNally’s stellar career, when the script for Lips Together, Teeth Apart — a highly anticipated play for “his favorite actors” — was handed to the ensemble, only one member, Christine Baranski, summoned up the courage to tell him it sucked. McNally took it home, rewrote it, and it ran for over a year Off-Broadway. Four years later, he wrote Master Class, which went on to win Tonys for its stars (Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald) and for McNally himself — another inspiring chapter in a life full of them.

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Confronting Loss Head-On in Mothers and Sons

“Dead is better!” exclaims six-year-old Bud in Terrence McNally’s new play, Mothers and Sons. Bud has just learned, to his shock, what people actually mean when they say a person has “passed,” and what he’s really saying (even if he doesn’t know it) is that euphemisms don’t help. We should confront loss head-on, rather than hiding behind fancy turns of phrase.

In Mothers and Sons, now playing at the Golden Theatre in a production directed by Sheryl Kaller, McNally confronts an enormous loss head-on. His new play examines the lingering aftermath of the AIDS crisis and the generation that it ravaged, a history we have yet to fully comprehend. Our protagonist, Cal (Frederick Weller), lost his first love, Andre, to the disease 20 years ago, at a time when medicine hadn’t found a way to slow the virus’s progress. Eventually, Cal moved on, marrying Will (Bobby Steggert), a charming millennial thrilled with family life and too young to be traumatized by the epidemic.

Now things are good: Cal and Will are parents to the precocious Bud (Grayson Taylor), living in the most enviable apartment. Set designer John Lee Beatty has conjured the perfect Manhattan home, complete with high ceilings and a view of Central Park. Then one day, Katherine Gerard (Tyne Daly), mother of the long-dead Andre, drops by, bearing her son’s diary and a desire stir up the past.

Katherine can’t accept what happened to her son, or forgive herself for her homophobic behavior during his life. So she stays long into the winter afternoon, forcing Cal to hash out painful questions about parenting, love and loss, homophobia and gay rights. (Daly is striking as the bitter, confused Katherine — unable to understand the past, terrified to live in the present, but always quick with a sharp remark.)

McNally’s writing is filled with quiet sadness and peppered with much-needed pithy one-liners. Much of the play consists of an extended conversation between Katherine and Cal as they dip into Andre’s journal and pore over old photographs of Cal and Andre together (much tsk-ing ensues, as many of these turn out to be too risqué for Katherine’s old-fashioned sensibilities). This meditative tone is apt for a play attempting to confront such painful history. And it’s natural that McNally — who addressed the AIDS crisis in plays such as Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valor! Compassion! — would bring to our attention the still-urgent need to confront homophobia and register the full destruction of HIV/AIDS (even in an era of rapidly expanding marriage equality). Cal is a figure for changing times: He’s old enough to have lost his first love to AIDS, but young enough to have married his second love. Weller is sensitive in the role, and Steggert plays up the sweetness of his husband.

But for an author who has written so eloquently on these themes before, McNally runs out of new ideas quickly, and even at 90 minutes, the plot becomes repetitive. Katherine gets angrier and drunker, but her anguish stays the same. McNally also can’t resist preaching, indulging in lengthier, weepier speeches as the play wears on. By the end, I felt the way Cal’s husband did: Give that angry lady an Oreo, and show her to the door.

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Terrence McNally’s Not-so Golden Night at the Opera

Terrence McNally loves opera. Besides writing plays like The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class, he has written opera libretti, contributed to Opera News, and been a frequent guest on the Met’s Opera Quiz. When an important premiere or a significant singer’s debut takes place, expect to see McNally there. His love for opera is unbounded.

But McNally gives his love, like some doomed operatic hero, “not wisely but too well.” His love and his lack of wisdom about it have shared equally in the shaping—more accurately, “misshaping”—of Golden Age (Manhattan Theatre Club), which ostensibly takes place backstage at an important premiere: the first-ever performance, on January 24, 1835, at the Theatre-Italien in Paris, of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani.

The Puritans, to translate its title, scored a gigantic success that night, and is still often revived today. Every coloratura soprano sings its hit tune, the wedding polonaise, “Son vergin vezzosa.” The singers who created its four leading roles became famous all over Europe as “the Puritani quartet”: the soprano Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel), the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas), the baritone Antonio Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni), and the basso Luigi Lablache (Ethan Phillips). The next year, minus Rubini, they became three-fourths of an even more celebrated quartet in Gaetano Donizetti’s still-cherished comic masterpiece, Don Pasquale.

No famous mishaps marred the Puritani premiere, so McNally has invented some probability-stretching incidents to keep his backstage bustling. Instead of witnessing the public’s reaction to his work’s first hearing, neurasthenic, sickly Bellini (Lee Pace) alternately rants and mopes, attended by his adoring patron, protégé, and possibly lover, Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers). The singers quarrel, fret, backbite, and throw hissy fits over who is or isn’t in the house. Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), Grisi’s rival, turns up unexpectedly from Naples to trigger several forms of factitious havoc. Bellini, who in real life died of some intestinal ailment, intermittently suffers spasms of Traviata-like tubercular coughing. For a finish, the aging, gout-ridden Rossini (F. Murray Abraham) hobbles in to smooth everything over.

While full of opera lore and opera data, the show’s busy back-and-forth bears minimal resemblance to anything dramatic, least of all anything that might have occurred, then or now, at an actual opera house during a performance. For starts, you have to imagine such a house with no impresario, stage manager, crew, dressers, or even a stage doorman, and only one tiny page boy (Coco Monroe) to do all the dirty work. McNally’s indefatigably detailed knowledge of Bellini’s score, his biography, the lives and quirks of his singers, and the musical world around them functions here as a mere appliqué of flatly stated facts onto a cardboard-thin set of arbitrary situations that arbitrarily reverse as needed. Grisi and Malibran loathe but adore and honor each other; Bellini despises the absent Donizetti as a talentless opportunist, but would rather gush over his favorite Donizetti melody than listen to his own premiere.

Even more maddening than the arbitrariness are the half-translations and the jokey anachronisms by which McNally, like a guilty lover, tries to make his exotic subject appeal simultaneously to aficionados and the untutored. The characters address each other by American nicknames (Vincenzo becomes “Vince” or “Vinnie”); the singing offstage is in Italian, but opera titles are given in English. Bellini dreams, as Verdi did in real life, of composing a King Lear opera; the melodies he improvises for it include the theme from The Godfather and “Memory” from Cats. It’s all done out of love—McNally adores opera so passionately that even mocking it or trashing it become, for him, ways to salute it.

Regrettably, to the rest of us such love can only seem a muddle-headed amour fou. At the script’s best moments, when McNally, through Bellini, rhapsodizes about what opera can be, we follow him gladly. But these verbal flights take off from no solid ground, and arrive nowhere. It’s enormous praise of Pace that he can scoop up the jokes, the petulant cattiness, and the tantrums into a febrile, multi-hued performance from which the grandeur seems to arise naturally. Nobody else in the cast, struggling with McNally’s patchwork text under Walter Bobbie’s heavy-footed direction, comes anywhere close to opera’s magic.

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Master Class Looks at Callas Behavior

“Forget all about me,” says Maria Callas (Tyne Daly), preparing to conduct the titular activity of Terrence McNally’s 1995 play, Master Class (MTC/Friedman Theatre). “Poof! I’m invisible.” A likely story. Through her entire career, through all the triumphs and scandals and miseries and disasters of her rampageous decades as the world’s most celebrated and most argument-provoking opera star, the one thing of which no one could ever accuse Maria Callas was invisibility. You could as easily accuse the Empire State Building of lowness.

In an art form that chronically arouses audience passions, no singer ever aroused more passion than Callas (1923–1977). Through her powerful fusion of acting and singing she became, and remains, the universal synonym for what music-theater at its peak can achieve. Two decades after her death, she was still the best-selling classical artist in recording history, and may still be so in downloads.

When Callas gave the 23 master classes at Juilliard in 1971–72 that served as inspiration for McNally’s play, her voice, like her personal life, was already in shambles. (She did subsequently sing in recital, but with unhappy results.) Nevertheless, she had a vast amount to communicate to students, of which McNally’s play gives only the briefest hints. Instead, his script vacillates uncomfortably between the tabloid-headline stereotype of a tempestuous prima donna to which Callas was often reduced in the public eye, and the passionately committed, thoroughly knowledgeable artist that the actual classes revealed her to be. John Ardoin’s transcription of her comments, Callas at Juilliard (Amadeus Press), remains one of the essential textbooks for anyone aspiring to sing onstage.

As we watch McNally’s Callas alternately inspire, bully, and dismiss three variously resistant student singers, sinking into autobiographical reveries linked to their arias, the script’s vacillations become a problem for the lead actress: Which Callas is this, anyway? Original star Zoe Caldwell, remote from musical sensitivity, played the brittle, defensively arrogant diva; her students’ resentment seemed justified. Patti LuPone balanced the personal and musical passions most effectively. Daly, a forceful, convincingly complex presence in the coaching scenes, seems uncertain and unfocussed in the reveries (where Stephen Wadsworth’s scattershot staging doesn’t help). The four colleagues who play her students and their accompanist do well. It’s particularly reassuring to hear Sierra Boggess produce her lustrous upper register without the belting that made her Little Mermaid an earache-causer, proof that well-trained voices can withstand even Disney disasters.

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WWJD?

When Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi debuted in 1998, an unholy scandal erupted over the depiction of a Christ-like figure named Joshua and his disciples as homosexuals. Protestors troubled the Manhattan Theater Club, and the staff received death threats–at one point, MTC even announced the show’s cancellation. Perhaps cheeks have turned in the intervening decade, and now audiences can concentrate on the play’s more liturgical–er, literary–aspects. Unlike the premiere, the Rattlestick revival won’t require spectators to file through a metal detector and will also feature women among the disciples. L.A. company Theater 108 Productions will donate the proceeds to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, thereby living up to the play’s creed: “God loves us most when we love each other.”

Sundays, 3 p.m.; Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: Oct. 12. Continues through Oct. 26, 2008

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PASSAGE TO INDIA

A perfect Ganesh shouldn’t be too hard to find. Statues, portraits, and murals of the elephant-headed god absolutely litter India. But in this 1993 Terrence McNally play, Americans Katherine and Margaret want more than aesthetic enjoyment from the pachyderm-ish deity. They want the god to help them reconnect with their spirituality. What a trunk show.

Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 p.m. Starts: Aug. 27. Continues through Sept. 13, 2008

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Sports and Past Times

The past was beautiful; the past was terrible. The past was a glorious time of opportunity; the past was a bigoted hell with every door closed. The past was a time of loving, sharing, and communal respect for tradition; the past was a vicious time of greed, spite, and climbers out for themselves. Am I talking about the evolution of African-American neighborhoods, or about the history of women’s tennis? Both, as it happens. August Wilson’s Radio Golf and Terrence McNally’s Deuce, which opened on Broadway in the same week, are hardly the same play. In structure, style, story, tone, and intent, they couldn’t be further from each other. Yet they both sing the same song: Things were better then; things were worse then. To be stuck in the past is to be doomed, demented, dead; to forget the past, and trample it into the ground as you march toward the future, is to be dead a different way. To lose the past is to lose something irreplaceable, but there is no way, ultimately, not to let it go.

Radio Golf, the 10th and final play in Wilson’s cycle about 20th-century black American life, is set in the late 1990s, and is full of the electronic busy-busy of contemporary existence: cell phones and media appearances, talk radio and mixed-use urban high-rises. In earlier Wilson plays, the men who did well were the minister, the undertaker, the taxicab dispatcher; in this newly upgraded black world, the key figures are a realtor and a banker. One of the two men will go forward, cutting shady corporate deals that simultaneously keep down the black community and promote the advancement of enterprising black individuals; the other will retreat, preserving an important piece of the community’s heritage at a tragic cost to himself. Wilson’s sympathies are clearly with the latter, but as a writer he knew better than to let sympathy cast the deciding vote, and the effect of the play is to leave an unanswered question hanging in the air long after the final curtain.

The urban-development project that brings the two men from partnership into open warfare looms for Wilson’s beloved Hill District, a region now as familiar to American playgoers as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is to the literary set. Dealing as it does with real estate, Radio Golf is amply stocked with references to places from the earlier plays, often evoking the characters whom we remember inhabiting them. The play’s key point of contention is the apparently deserted house at 1839 Wylie, the scene of the cycle’s opening play, Gem of the Ocean, and alluded to in many of the others, including Seven Guitars and King Hedley II. A Federalist-era house full of beautiful architectural features, lovingly described by the realtor, Harmond (Harry Lennix), it turns out to have not only spiritual but also genealogical significance for the play’s characters, some of whom find themselves with bonds stronger than those of “community” in the abstract sense of the word. The inescapable sense of memory as a kind of invisible water of life that holds us all together, and that progress inevitably dries up, gives this bustling, sardonic, plot-driven play its melancholy undertow.

Harmond’s newly discovered passion for the old house receives visible opposition onstage from a huge rendering of the characterless shopping-and-residential tower that he and his banker partner Roosevelt (James A. Williams) have been planning to build on its site-—another of those characterless glass-and-concrete things produced by our modern empire builders. Roosevelt himself embodies the opposition physically: A big, affable man who looks the picture of success, he is preoccupied with his golf game, and particularly with the idea of playing golf with wealthy and influential whites. (The title comes from his actually doing a radio show, in the latter part of the play, on which he gives golf tips.) But Roosevelt, too, has a tragic undertow: His very name—the “white” name of a U.S. president whose humanitarian policies were the antithesis of Roosevelt’s own—signals the unease with which he vacillates between the black and white communities. He fixates on golf precisely because it’s one of the sports from which blacks were so long excluded.

Plotted tautly, more like an Ibsen play in its tightening mesh of social and psychological circumstances than Wilson’s usual slow outpouring of competing narratives, Radio Golf often seems, like its more get-ahead characters, to be leaving something essential behind. The rich experience embedded in the writing shows occasional faded patches, as if it too could use a shot of urban renewal, and Kenny Leon’s production, smooth and proficient, doesn’t always convey the richness of what is there. This is particularly hard on Tonya Pinkins, struggling to realize in three dimensions the sketchiest role, that of Harmond’s ambitious wife. The men have an easier time of it, with Anthony Chisholm and John Earl Jelks, as the obstinate householder and local handyman who are the gadflies to Harmond’s conscience, pretty much carving the show up between them and taking it home in triumph. Williams’s suave expansiveness finds infinite shadings in a role that could have been played for glib villainy, and Lennix, his lips compressed in a bitter half-smile, seems to dig ever deeper into Harmond’s inner pain.

Inevitably, Tiger Woods’s name gets tossed about in Radio Golf. Deuce, too, drops the names of the African-American athletes who blazed a trail for the integration of that other once whites-only sport, tennis: Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, the Williams sisters. Terrence McNally’s script, like Wilson’s, is wisely evenhanded in acknowledging the goods and bads of past versus present. But the script’s wisdom, like the similarity, regrettably ends there. Nobody is better than McNally at spicing up a laggard scene with a quick volley of verbal badinage, but
Deuce gives the overall effect of a laconic, faintly perfunctory chat about what tennis was vis-à-vis what it’s become, by two retired champions, themselves once trailblazers in giving women equal stature in a game where they, like blacks, were once distinctly second-class citizens.

The play’s thinness is heightened by the casting that made its production on a Broadway scale possible: Two distinctly unretired champions of acting, Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes, play the two retirees. Apart from speakable lines varied by an occasional laugh, McNally hasn’t given them much to work with: a little backstory, a bit of update, one or two minuscule revelations. More boisterous chat by two sportscasters occasionally interrupts the stars’ remarks (they’re ostensibly guests of honor in the stadium at a women’s singles match). Occasionally there are interventions by an autograph hound with a fanatical interest in women’s tennis—his autograph book, inherited from his father, gives McNally easy cues to riffle through the sport’s history. The character also serves intermittently as a narrator, though there’s no particular event to narrate. It’s best to think of
Deuce as a sort of tennis players’ telephone book, read by two beloved artists whom you’d gladly pay to hear reading almost anything. Advantage, the ladies.

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Time Travelogues

Terrence McNally and Adam Rapp, whose new works opened the same week, can conveniently be taken as specimens of older-generation and younger-generation American playwriting today. The two generations turn out to have more in common than you might expect: So much for generational conflict.

The structure of McNally’s Some Men at Second Stage, a series of scenes loosely linked by a few recurring characters, resembles the loose-jointed approach of our tv-influenced young hotshot writers more than it does the small-cast, single-focus dramas of McNally’s recent years. It also harks back, not irrelevantly, to the knife-edge Absurdism of McNally’s own earliest phase; short bursts of excitement are a youthful trait that an oldster can weave into more knowing patterns. Meantime, Rapp’s Essential Self-Defense, a few blocks away at Playwrights Horizons, strives to cover a wider canvas than his previous works, which were small-cast, single-focus dramas, like McNally’s in form though not in tone. The helpless, deadpan fatalism of Rapp’s characters here, a feeling that may strike many of his young enthusiasts as very much of today, evokes the early plays of McNally’s coeval Sam Shepard; Rapp also echoes the way such works draw on motifs from pop-horror kitsch. At the same time, he and McNally share, surprisingly, a fondness for an equally deadpan comic tone that recalls the sketch-comedy writing of the 1960s: In both plays, when couples try to put romantic feelings into words, the dialogue’s absurd crisscross instantly starts sounding like Nichols and May.

The chief difference is that McNally’s characters are all gay; his play is a chronicle of the changing ways in which gay men have dealt with the world and each other since the 1920s. Sex, though, is more of a passing incident in Some Men than its focus of interest; most of the script deals with the non-sexual problems that arise from two men sharing, or not sharing, their lives. Though Rapp’s main characters form couples, sex is rarely at the forefront of their concerns, either; the diffident lovers at his play’s center explicitly eschew it. It’s as if the omnipresent sense of oppression and fear has dampened the sexual drive: In McNally’s 2005, men in a gay chat room go off together to discuss their enthusiasm for the Bible; in Rapp’s near future, high school students go off together to hold a prayer vigil.

Not that either play’s spiritual yearnings would give much comfort to red-staters. Some Men begins and ends in the near future, at the next threshold of queer civil rights—a gay wedding at the Waldorf. In between, scenes skip non-chronologically from the 1920s to the present, each one lightly brushing in the obstacles to male-male relations, provided either by society’s rules and the varying prejudices of the men themselves, busily stereotyping their fellow gays by age, by look, by economic class, by the willingness to be top or bottom, in the closet or out and proud. “There I go, judging other people,” says a coarse-mouthed drag queen (one of several roles wonderfully incarnated by David Greenspan), who’s been made to feel out of place in a buttoned-up 1960s piano bar. “If anybody should know better, it’s a fucking drag queen…. I’ve been judged every fucking second of my fucking life.”

Rapp’s characters, in contrast, couldn’t be less judgmental. Mostly viewing society as an inexplicable “they” that’s set on destroying them, they take self-defense classes—Rapp’s version of a meet-cute is to have his heroine fall in love with the hero when she knocks out one of his teeth during a classroom exercise—or they work out their frustrations by chanting rock songs in the local karaoke bar; they let each other’s weirdnesses pass virtually without comment. When the hero says he’s read Mein Kampf and expresses empathy for the author’s struggle, nobody utters a peep.

Yul (Paul Sparks), Rapp’s hero, has lost his assembly-line job by making a political gesture at which his boss took offense, a situation worsened by a complex series of mishaps. Now acutely paranoid, Yul sees American industrial society as a conspiracy of “heart-sucking marketing gremlins and industrial warlocks.” Can the love of Sadie (Heather Goldenhersh), a children’s-book production manager whose occupation has endowed her with a teenager’s sentimental heart and the diction of a copy editor’s manual, rescue Yul from Unabomber-level anomie? Rapp proffers a lot of tricks and diversions, as well as musical numbers, on his way to giving this question its predictably negative answer, but the general air of unhappy helplessness, far more than the story’s specifics, is really his subject matter. If Some Men is the erratic social history of a sexual preference, Essential Self-Defense is the equally erratic, ahistorical (what’s a small-town butcher doing in this post-industrial drama?), biography of an antisocial attitude. If McNally’s drag queen wandered into Rapp’s karaoke bar, probably nobody would blink twice.

Trip Cullman’s cool-toned, suave production of Some Men, on an ingenious all-white set by Mark Wendland, gives McNally’s over-easy chronicle just the light touch it needs. Besides Greenspan, Frederick Weller, Michael McElroy, and Romain Fruge stand out in the generally fine cast; Kevin Adams’s lights do subtle architectural work. Carolyn Cantor’s production of Essential Self-Defense, rawer and harsher, features two fine supporting performances, by Cheryl Lynn Bowers and Guy Boyd; Sparks and Goldenhersh, in the leads, somehow manage to give their characters one pained note each and yet make it sound varied.

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Chita 10, Show 3

Easy to love when in the right role, Chita Rivera is equally easy to admire in general. Here, after all, is a lady of 70-plus, with 16 pins in her left leg from a mid-1990s car accident, and when she makes her entrance in the new show based on her life, she does a kick. She does it with the right leg, granted, but the principle of the thing is what counts: Chita wants you to know she is still a game gal. She may lack the flexibility of the youthful spitfire whose physical pizzazz enlivened West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, and Bajour!, but she still has a dancer’s chops, a dancer’s heart, and a dancer’s desire for you, watching her, to have a great time.

That last is what makes Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life
such a dismaying evening. We’d all love to have a great time in the theater, and Chita, sharing her memories and zipping through highlights of her career, generously does everything in her power to give us one. What gets in the way is her material—or rather, for much of the evening, her lack of material. Because almost everything’s presented in the past tense, the show has the effect of receding from the present. Chita herself, her brisk, go-getter personality of old enriched by a new suave knowingness, is as vivid a presence as you could want at the center of a musical show. But caught by Terrence McNally’s script in long strands of name-dropping reminiscence, or fussing in musical numbers over an image of her younger self (played by the appealing child dancer Liana Ortiz), she often seems less to be performing in the here and now than to be acting as an urbane guide to a museum tour of slightly musty exhibits from her past.

This, one realizes, was the wrong road for the show to take: Cherishing Chita’s past is something that those of us with long memories, or a good set of video clips, can do at home; to go to the theater is an expression of the desire to cherish Chita in the present. Which may be why the show’s two new songs, by Ahrens and Flaherty, one early on and one in the next-to-closing spot, produce a stronger effect than almost anything else in the evening. It’s not that they’re earth-shatteringly great songs in themselves, but that they put Chita’s recollections in a fresh frame, giving her a living present to stand in as she looks back on the past; when she sings them, she’s there with us in the theater, and her presence has the electric effect for which you go to a musical. The one other number that makes an equivalent success, interestingly, works this double time situation from the opposite angle: Chita, downstage, speaks for the past, reminiscing about the great choreographers she’s worked with, while upstage, in silhouette, a parade of dancers goes by, performing the moves we associate with Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, or Peter Gennaro. Here the movement’s alive in the present; framing it in memories gives its vitality an extra nostalgic charm, as if we were watching Chita introduce her young backup dancers to the great tradition she embodies.

New songs delivered by an old and beloved performer, old familiar routines made fresh by young executants: The two elements suggest a kind of show largely, and regrettably, absent from Broadway in the last few decades, and one for which quasi-biographical or -autobiographical shows like Chita’s (not to mention misguided excursions like Lennon and Jersey Boys) are a savorless substitute. I am speaking of the revue, a form that, as loosely structured extravaganza or as taut, fast, and funny intimate entertainment, has always been part of our musical-theater tradition. Revues could be built around themes, ideas, attitudes, or personalities. They often mixed beloved songs (and beloved stars) of earlier decades with their new material. What they rarely did was stay locked in somebody’s past; given their ability to range freely, they dived for the present, using the past as a little extra salt to the dish. Frankly, Chita’s life story—the story of a working artist who just kept on working—is less interesting than the presence of Chita herself. The elaborate elements with which it’s told—a cast of 14, new songs, a fair amount of scenery and elaborate lighting effects—invite the audience to expect something more than fleeting remarks about shows of the past. (Elaine Stritch’s autobiographical show At Liberty, in contrast, was really a solo drama about survival, illustrated with song and dance simply because the heroine happened to be a song-and-dance gal. Done on a bare stage, with no physical production elements except Stritch and a stool, it invited you to focus on her story alone.)

Why, I ask, couldn’t Chita be the star of a revue, with 12 new songs (by various young writing teams) instead of two, and with a few actors and singers mixed in among the dancers for sketches by McNally (a gifted hand with short comedy scenes) and others? In that context, if she wanted to introduce a dance parade paying tribute to her great choreographers or sing, as she does here, a number about the joy of taking on a new role, into which she interpolates favorite moments from her résumé, who could possibly object? Certainly not I; all I regret in the present situation is the absence of the rest of a good show. Hiring a star to drive your vehicle when you’ve forgotten to put on the wheels is no way to make things move forward.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Love, Death, Confusion

That Terrence McNally loves the theater, there’s no doubt. Where other playwrights of his generation have let themselves be engulfed by Hollywood’s vast maw, churning out screenplays and TV scripts, McNally has largely stayed in the theater, churning out plays and books for musicals. The difference is, McNally’s churn is a freelance operation, beholden to nobody else’s demands, free from the weekly quota of pages and the sponsor-approved storyboards that shackle TV writers. Like or dislike his plays, they’re the ones he chose to write. And McNally is not merely a commercial churner. Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Love! Valour! Compassion !; and Corpus Christi are not the products of a playwright allergic to risk.

Now McNally has written a play about how much he loves the theater, which reveals a brand-new, if ironic, reason for loving him: His love for the theater is so intense that he’s incapable of expressing it coherently, or even allowing the characters who embody that love to convey it through any but the most factitious of dramatic gestures. If it weren’t self-evident, in every second or third speech, that Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams is about a love for the theater that goes beyond all reason, you wouldn’t have the faintest idea what McNally meant it to be about. It has three plots, none of which makes any particular sense or gets resolved in any believable fashion. Its central image is its setting, a disused and crumbling old theater that seems to have an infinite number of entrances, exits, and storage spaces, containing what implausibly appears to be five centuries’ worth of discarded props, costumes, and set pieces.

This unlikely old theater survives in a small upstate town, where it’s eyed covetously by Lou Nuncle (Nathan Lane) and Jessie (Alison Fraser) who operate a pathetically underfunded children’s theater at a nearby strip mall. Lou and Jessie are hapless losers, refugees from the Broadway rat race, but visions of greatness dance in their heads. Lou is crazy for theater—any and every kind of theater. And despite the apathy that has crept over their relationship during decades of scrambling to keep their shoestring kiddie shows alive, when Lou starts ranting about theater, Jessie’s in love with Lou. Otherwise, she loves acting and Arnold Chalk (Michael Countryman), their theater’s overworked technical director, who loves theatrical lore and Jessie in roughly equal measure. Arnold is one of McNally’s grosser improbabilities. A stagestruck t.d., a Brit socialist who loves America, a divorced man who’s ostensibly raising two kids and sustaining a full-time day job while devoting all his energy to Jessie and the children’s theater, he’s more a convenient bundle of traits than a character. That Countryman makes him even mildly believable is no small miracle.

Enter, from opposite sides of the aesthetic spectrum, good and evil angels. Ida (Miriam Shor), Jessie’s daughter from a youthful marriage, is a rock star on the verge of superstardom. Just out of rehab, she arrives trailing a need to make amends to her mother, plus a hunky roadie (Darren Pettie), an apparently subliterate boor who duly turns out, like a younger Arnold, a sensitive soul nearly as devoted to Shakespeare as to Ida. If the owner of the shuttered theater would come to terms, Ida would gladly buy it for Jessie and Lou. But wealthy Mrs. Annabelle Willard (Marian Seldes) seems to have no patience with amends, or sensitivity. Tart-tongued, eccentric, and resolutely mean-spirited about everything, she professes to despise theater, most of all children’s theater. When Ida asks her to name a reasonable price, Mrs. Willard demands $2 billion; when Ida protests, the price goes up to $3 billion.

Mrs. Willard’s loathing for theater, though, is as much a pose as her alleged negativity. The play’s most theatrical character, at heart she’s just a stock stage miser, whose exceptionally blunt line of wisecracks conceals the inevitable heart of gold. One of the first things she tells Lou is, “I like a man who discourses with passion,” after which we know she’s going to give him the theater; the only question is on what terms.

The terms have to do with death, a running subtheme that McNally seems bafflingly unable to integrate with either his characters’ desires or their passion for theatrics. From the first scene’s implausibly open trapdoor to the prop guillotine at the end that improbably turns out not to be a prop, the script dwells on death, in tricksy, melodramatic ways that suggest an ungainly merger of Light Up the Sky and Death Trap. Sex, marriage, and a string of family secrets that are no secrets get tossed into the peculiarly viscous mixture as well. Pivotal events happen with no seeming motivation, till the characters’ patent unlikelihood starts to discredit their constantly reiterated love for theater: They’re hardly real enough to know what it is.

Michael Morris’s production moves the clashing improbabilities around with a kind of slapdash efficiency, and his skillful cast does everything it can to keep the contradictions and false trails from bothering your mind. Lane, playing tenderly, makes hapless Lou’s faith in his art seem real, while Seldes, behaving with discretion that befits a goddess, never seems to gloat over the fact that her role contains all of the play’s best malicious gag lines, as well as the lion’s share of its pathos.