Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Small Fire: A Lesson in Loss and Gain

Michele Pawk and Reed Birney
It’s unsettling to be a woman on Broadway these days.

No, I’m not referring to the announcement that Natalie Mendoza, a lead actress in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, is leaving the show after suffering a concussion during the troubled musical’s first preview performance.

Rather, I am thinking of the spate of current shows, both on and off Broadway, depicting women suffering from any number of mental and physical illnesses. To name a few that come to mind, there’s treatment-resistant bipolar disorder in Next to Normal; post-coma trauma in A Kind of Alaska; Valium addiction and loss of self in Angels in America, and a lengthy stint in a mental institution in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Now we have a new play to add to the list—A Small Fire, written by Adam Bock, and directed by Trip Cullman, currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons.

Michele Pawk, a versatile musical and dramatic actress, gives a sharp-elbowed yet ultimately moving performance as Emily Bridges, a fiercely independent tough-as-nails building contractor who is stricken by a cascading series of physical losses that force her into what she considers to be a most humiliating position of having to depend on others.

The first sign of trouble occurs when Emily is unable to smell the smoke from a burning napkin that has caught fire after she has accidentally left the stove on. Emily’s long-suffering husband John (well-acted by the estimable Reed Birney) teases her about her absent-mindedness, until they both find out that Emily has a very real disease, of unknown origin or treatment, that quickly spreads from the loss of smell to a loss of taste, and later, of sight and of hearing.

The core of the plot focuses on Emily’s reaction to these losses, and the extent to which she is able or unable to accept them as her world closes in on her.

All of this would be merely an intellectual exercise if the playwright hadn’t been able to find the emotional core as well, and, compellingly and winningly, A Small Fire is as much about personal relationships as it is a medical mystery.

More specifically, it is about a marriage that has held together through many years, however mismatched the couple may seem to the outside world. Emily and John clearly have a history that binds them together, even if their daughter Jenny (played with just the right amount of twenty-something ego-centrism by Celia Keenan-Bolger) finds her mother to be difficult, rude, and distant, and frequently wonders aloud why her gentle father stays with Emily.

The cast is rounded out by Victor Williams as Billy, Emily’s right-hand man in her construction business. Emily and Billy share an ease of familiarity as well as their own history—strictly platonic, in case you were wondering—that she does not have with her own family. Their friendship, while perhaps a little shoehorned into the play as a whole, allows us to see another side of Emily.

All told, Adam Bock has shaped a solid play about a woman and a family in crisis. We do worry about Emily as she faces an inner struggle about her own future—a struggle that, to Mr. Bock’s credit and in keeping with Emily’s reticence, is never spoken of directly but which we nevertheless understand she is going through until the very end.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spider-Man: Nobody Knows What You Are

Despite the fact that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark does not officially open until February 7—the exact date being a moveable feast that should be written lightly in pencil on the calendar—the schadenfreude crowd has been circling Broadway’s Foxwoods Theater like a flock of ravenous vultures. The New York Post’s Michael Riedel has been especially vitriolic, predicting the show will be an “epic flop.”

Is it any good? Can it be saved? What about all of those delays, canceled performances, technical glitches, and injuries to cast members? And what on earth has Julie Taymor, the show’s co-writer and its director, done with the $65 million said to be the cost of mounting Spider-Man?

To judge by her interviews, Ms. Taymor appears to be quite unperturbed by the gathering of those eager to feast on the carcass of her show. She could be faking it and actually may be quite concerned about the possibility of Spider-Man’s sinking into oblivion under the weight of its own hubris. Or she may simply believe that she and her creative team will be able to make sufficient adjustments to the show so that when it finally has its formal opening, it will be quite ready for prime time.

But I would like to propose another explanation for Ms. Taymor’s sanguinity. Perhaps, as far as Spider-Man is concerned, success on Broadway is largely irrelevant.

I recently attended a performance. Here is my take on things.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was never conceived as a Broadway show in the first place—at least not in the traditional sense of offering a compelling story, plot-related songs, and theatrical acting. It was always planned as an “arena show,” to be performed in the U. S. and abroad before audiences numbering in the thousands, a majority of whom would be sitting a great distance from the stage.

The script does a minimal job of retelling the familiar Spider-Man story and does so only in Act I. The dialog is perfunctory. The performances are “large” and loudly amplified so as to strip the sketchy characters of any humanity or intimacy. In short, Spider-Man has been designed from the outset with the purpose of showcasing the visual effects and the accompanying score by rock superstars Bono and The Edge of the band U2.

Much of the criticism to date has been aimed at Taymor's chutzpah for failing to work on Spider-Man out of town, so that it might arrive on Broadway in fairly good shape. But here’s a thought: what if Broadway itself is the tryout town, where Spider-Man is being readied as an event to take on the road? Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if were announced that U2 will be performing the music live against the backdrop of Spider-Man as it travels the globe.

If you think of Spider-Man in these terms, the cursory stab at story-telling that eats up the overly long Act I is almost irrelevant, and the nightmarish imagery of Act II—which has been attacked by many as a confusing and disconnected mess—offers up a visual and auditory extravaganza that works just fine. Think of Spider-Man as being divided not into two acts, but two variations on a theme. Act I takes its inspiration from the well-known story of Peter Parker, the teenager who is transformed by the bite of a genetically altered spider; Act II is like a jazz riff on the theme of Spider-Man. If you need to find a theatrical logic to Act II, think of it is a fever dream brought on by the bite from a toxic arachnid.

The sets, by George Tsypin, are quite good, by the way. Act I has the appearance of a comic book; Act II, with its hallucinogenic quality, has the look of a graphic novel. There are also very compelling digital projections by Kyle Cooper, colorful costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and lots of aerial maneuvers, designed by Scott Rogers. All of these will serve nicely as Spider-Man hits the road.

As for being an “epic flop,” I don’t think it matters much what happens to the initial $65 million outlay. Spider-Man has a real shot at finding its financial success around the country and around the world—and the heck with Broadway.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal!

All right. So the fall theater season was rather on the tepid side.  Still, ever searching for a grand and glorious evening of theater-going, I am looking forward to seeing a number of promising new productions in the coming months.

Let’s begin, shall we, with the coming week and three new productions on my schedule.

First off, there’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, now in previews at the Foxwoods Theater.  What can I say? I cannot resist going to see what $65 million buys these days.  If there is no such thing as bad publicity, then Julie Taymor, Bono and The Edge, and the rest of the creative team should be thrilled by the buzz generated by stories of major technical difficulties, numerous injuries, questionable artistic choices, multiple delays, canceled performances, and predictions of financial doom that seem to have made Spider-Man a must-see.  If they can pull this off, it will be a major triumph of willpower and determination as much as anything.  For a cute spoof of the woes plaguing Spider-Man, you might wish to view Conan O’Brien’s skit at

The second show I will be seeing in the days ahead is one I hope will be a stylish and funny production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest, presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater.  Certainly the cast is a strong one, including, among others, veterans Dana Ivey, Paxton Whitehead, and the indomitable Brian Bedford as the equally indomitable Lady Bracknell. Let’s see how Mr. Bedford compares with my thus-far-unchallenged memory of Dame Edith Evans when he utters one my favorite lines from any play:  “Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture; it is most indecorous.”

I plan to wrap up my theater-going week by attending a preview of the world premiere of a new play by Adam Bock, who snagged an Obie Award in 2007 for The Thugs.  When it was reviewed The New York Times, critic Jason Zinoman called The Thugs (which I did not see) “chillingly realistic and pointedly absurd.”  Sounds like an intriguing mix, so I look forward to seeing Bock’s new play, which is launching previews at the Playwright’s Horizons.  It is called A Small Fire, and is described thusly: “When a tough-as-nails contractor finds her senses slipping on the brink of her daughter’s wedding, the impact on her family is nothing less than seismic.”   
Playwright’s Horizons is offering discounted tickets, information for which I am happy to pass along.

Order by December 31 with code SMGR and tickets are only: 
$40* (reg. $70) for all performances December 16-30, 2010 
$55 (reg. $70) for all performances January 1-23, 2011

Order online at Use code SMGR
Or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily) 
Or present a printout of this blog post to the Ticket Central box office at 416 W 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).

*A limited number of $40 discounted tickets will be available for purchase. Subject to availability. Valid only in select rows.

Further along in the season, some I the shows for which I carry the torch of hope are War Horse, coming to Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater from across the Pond; The People in the Picture, a new musical starring Donna Murphy; the final two installments of Signature Theater Company’s season devoted to works by Tony Kushner (The Illusion, and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures), and revivals of John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves, Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, and Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig.   

I see lots of potential in these upcoming shows, so let me just end by wishing us all—as my friend Bill would say—Happy New Season!

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.