Thursday, August 27, 2015

THE GOD GAFFE: Will A Christian Conservative TV Talk Show Personality Survive Her Controversial On-Air Remarks?

Reality and creative imagination cross paths in the theater when a play draws its inspiration from actual people or events. The writer begins with a topic that is worthy of digging into and then helps us to look at things in ways we hadn’t considered, or, alternatively, turns the situation into a springboard for lampooning. 

So partial thumbs up to John William Schiffbauer, whose play The God Gaffe takes on the very “now” issue of the high-profile clashes that occur between liberals and conservatives when they are given a chunk of media time, an audience in the millions, and a spotlight in which to have at each other. There is lots of fodder here that could provide food for thought or that could be exaggerated into a sharp satire.  As it stands, however, the play feels very much like an early draft, and it falls flat by following an exposition-heavy middle ground. 

The catalyst for The God Gaffe, one of the entries in the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC), is the television talk show The View and the often-testy on-air disagreements that arise among its panelists. We’re talking specifically about Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a Christian conservative who frequently found herself locking horns with her co-panelists and guests on the show during her 10-year stint, before she finally left (or was pushed out) in 2013 and made her way over to the more receptive Fox Broadcasting. 

Hannah Beck plays Patricia, the Hasselbeck-like character whose job is on the line when she says something the network execs deem to be unacceptably offensive. 

Rather than letting us see the actual on-air incident as it happens, however, the playwright gives us a second-hand account of it during a meeting between Patricia and her executive producer Jeremy (Vincent Torres). The two of them have been on friendly terms during her time with the network, and she has been quite successful at pulling in a conservative demographic that feeds the ratings numbers, but without alienating the more liberal viewers. But her anti-gay remarks during an interview with a young guest have raised hackles in the front office. She must make a public apology or go on an immediate hiatus. 

The play’s strength lies in the depiction of Patricia as someone who is not an in-your-face wacko, the sort of self-identified Christian conservative whose extreme views are usually the only ones the public gets to hear. It is significant that she and Jeremy have had a positive and friendly office association, particularly since Jeremy is gay himself and in a long-term relationship that may be heading toward marriage. (His boyfriend Brett, played by Tom Giordano, shows up on a couple of occasions, though he mostly serves as a mouthpiece for the complaints aimed at Patricia). 

The potential is there for a very interesting play that could allow for an airing of reasoned views on both the right and left.  What happens to "moderation" when neither side is willing to budge on issues they both feel strongly about?  

But if Patricia feels bullied by her talk show colleagues, as she says, then let us have scenes that depict this. If her professional behavior has been affected by events in her personal life, as Jeremy suggests, then let us see some of that.  And if we are going to be able to judge for ourselves whether her on-air remarks were, indeed, beyond the pale, then let us see it, not just hear about it.  

This is the basic problem with The God Gaffe. The playwright fails to heed one of the basic tenets of the profession: Show, don’t tell. With such an interesting concept to work with, here’s hoping he will go back to the drawing board and start to flesh out his ideas for a future production. 

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

THE REPORT: Little Known Tragic Incident of World War II Makes For A Most Compelling Drama And A Great Addition To FringeNYC

Stuart Williams and Michael Countryman
Photo by Lia Chang

A small plaque at the entrance to the Bethnal Green underground station in London commemorates the event: “Site of the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War.”

In the grand scheme of things, it was just another unfortunate incident of World War II – this loss of 173 lives – a bit of “collateral damage” easily forgotten in the wake of the many millions of civilian losses overall, or even among the 40,000 non-combatant deaths that occurred during the infamous “Blitz,” the German air attacks that blanketed Britain. 

What makes this event noteworthy beyond the interests of the families and friends of the victims is how it came to pass, during what was a common enough occurrence as the neighborhood’s residents were prompted by air-raid sirens to seek shelter. Tragically, without a single plane on the scene, without a bomb being dropped or a weapon fired, more than half of the shelter-seekers fell, were pushed, or tumbled over one another and were crushed to death after a woman carrying an infant lost her footing on the unlit staircase, starting an unstoppable pileup.

Many years later, in 2010, writer Jessica Francis Kane made the incident the basis for a novel, The Report. In it, the author used the mode of fiction to explore the aftermath, including how the official inquiry was steeped in wartime secrecy that left the community puzzled, angry, and bitter.   

Now playwright Martin Casella has translated that novel into a play, also called The Report, being given a first-class production as part of FringeNYC.

Michael Countryman, an American actor with the chops to pull off a credible upper class British accent and demeanor, plays Sir Laurence Dunne, the man charged with investigating the incident and writing the official report. As the play opens, it is 30 years later. Sir Laurence has a visitor, Paul (Stuart Williams), a documentary filmmaker who wants to uncover the truth about what really happened that night. The play flows back and forth in time as the uniformly excellent cast of 12 enacts the event and provides the sometimes contradictory, sometimes self-serving testimony. 

Be aware that things move slowly at first, paced like one of those genteel BBC dramas on Masterpiece Theatre that we find ourselves enraptured by despite ourselves. During the first act, the playwright takes great pains to keep things at an emotional remove, so that our attention is focused on the gathering of details. What was the mood of the crowd that night?  Did the distrust of “foreigners” (meaning Jewish refugees who had recently moved into the area) feed into a frenzy of panic?  Were the people spooked by the sounds of some new secret anti-aircraft weaponry that was being tested?  Was the entrance to the underground station so poorly designed and poorly lit as to invite disaster?  And, most significantly, did the woman with the baby really stumble, or was she shoved? 

The tone of the work shifts gradually so that during the second act, as the bits and pieces of information become the stories of real people, the play turns out to be not so much about the victims as it is about the psychological impact on the survivors. Some are devastated by their losses, while others are torn apart by a sense of guilt or responsibility, or they feel compelled to cover up errors in judgment or irresponsible behaviors that they relive over and over again.

Director Alan Muraoka does a splendid job keeping things well-paced and accessible for the audience, despite the numerous characters who are being portrayed, the back-and-forth movement of time, and the layers of information we need to sift through. 

Among the cast, Mr. Countryman and Mr. Williams are standouts, as is Zoë Watkins as Ada, who is most affected by the disaster and of her role in it.  For the survivors, it is not enough that this was a terrible accident for which no explanation can suffice. Their lives are undone, and that, more than anything, is the truth of the story of Bethnal Green.    

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Friday, August 21, 2015

SCHOOLED and THE SCREENWRITER DIES OF HIS OWN FREE WILL: Two Smart and Funny Complementary Plays Stand Out at FringeNYC

Jim Shankman and Steven Mark Friedman
Photo by Hunter Canning

In the past few days, as I have sampled some of the entries that make up the head-spinning summer theater circus known as FringeNYC (200 shows, 1,100 performances, 16 days!), I happened upon two excellent plays that deal with the highly competitive and risky world of the professional screenwriter.

One of these, Schooled, by Lisa Lewis, is about two young and ambitious budding screenwriters — Claire and her boyfriend Jake — both students in an elite New York college writing program. The two are vying for the attention of their instructor, who holds the key to a grant that will fund only one of their potentially career-launching projects. Directed by James Kautz, the play is smart and often savagely funny (and well performed by Lilli Stein and Stephen Friedrich as the young couple and by Quentin Maré as their cynical instructor) as it skewers the manipulative gamesmanship and misogyny that mark the territory of those who would be players in the film industry.   

At one point during Schooled, the instructor, Andrew, has a few choice words to say about screenwriters who eschew formulaic writing in order to offer up works of greater depth and substance.  “You know who makes art?” says Andrew.  “Retarded people. Really. It’s called outsider art. People who have extreme mental disabilities; they draw because they can’t help themselves. Everything else is about fame, getting paid and getting laid.”

I bring up this short, cutting speech from Schooled by way of introduction to another smart and funny play that is also having a brief run in the Fringe, called The Screenwriter Dies Of His Own Free Will. Written by Jim Shankman, it relates the story of a successful screenwriter named Willy (performed by the playwright), who is dying of cancer. He meets up with Gabe (Steven Mark Friedman), a studio head and an old friend from their Princeton days, in order to pitch his final screenplay, one that is exactly the kind of piece that Andrew is mocking in Schooled.  It is Willy’s artful farewell to the world.    

Willy is a mess as he enters Gabe’s office. He is “one toke over the line” on medical marijuana, and can barely complete a coherent sentence as he offers up his script. The play, well acted by its co-stars and nimbly directed by Craig J. George (who also provides the very clever audio design), deals with the mostly-out-of-control conversation between the two. Is Gabe really interested, or is he merely being polite to his former friend, whose obviously declining health scares him?  And is Willy really eager to turn over his final and most significant work to someone he views as an unimaginative studio hack? 

One of the things that make the play work so well as the pair hash things out is the way that Willy (or perhaps the playwright who is looking over his shoulder) manages to manipulate the conversation so that Gabe says things he does not mean to speak aloud, and is occasionally prevented from being heard when Willy is caught up in his own thoughts.  Viewing it in this light, you could say that The Screenwriter Dies Of His Own Free Will is an act of revenge by a real screenwriter/playwright who has an axe to grind with some of the Hollywood types he’s had to deal with during his career. Until he turns over his work to others, he is in complete control.  

The Screenwriter Dies Of His Own Free Will, which runs but 40 minutes, resembles the kind of short works that David Mamet excels at — literate, smart, and filled with rapid-fire and frequently laugh-out-loud-funny dialogue.

Mr. Shankman, the playwright, says that the version of the play being offered to Fringe audiences has been expanded into a full-length work that he hopes to have produced down the road. I can’t comment on the lengthier version, since I’ve not read it.  But I will say that, as it stands, this is a damn good one-act that is exactly the right length for the story it tells and the way in which Shankman tells it. So, let me try my hand at a little matchmaking.

Instead of stretching out the story, and thereby risking the loss of its perfect pacing, how about pairing it with Schooled?  That would make for a very interesting full evening of theater.  Think of the PR: “They met at the Fringe!”  Mr. Shankman?  Ms. Lewis?  Their agents?  

(How’s that for the art of the pitch?!!)

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