Saturday, April 3, 2010

Theatre Droppings: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria

Is there anything more exciting than watching superb work happening onstage, live, in front of you? I don't think so. I attended two-thirds of Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera festival at the Kennedy Center this week, and can't recall being so jazzed by so many great performances. There wasn't a stinker in the bunch.

McNally is having a great week here in DC, though a difficult one elsewhere (more on that in a mo'). I missed his newest work, Golden Age, which actually received some subdued reviews, but I did catch two other plays which validate him as one of our best contemporary dramatists. I was familiar with both plays, having seen previous high-profile productions, so these actors at KenCen had some impressin' to do.

The Lisbon Traviata may be my favorite McNally play, due in no small part to the first production I saw of it, in Los Angeles many years ago. Nathan Lane was recreating the role he created in New York, and it was a stellar performance (this was years before his Broadway Tonys and film appearances). I was so impressed with this guy, whom I had never seen nor heard of before, that I went back to see the show two more times, in the space of a month. In this production, he was playing opposite Richard Thomas (above), who was at the time determined to smash the image he had created as John-Boy Walton; the two of them together were very, very good. They were aided by Dan Butler, before he became a bit of a celebrity with his recurring role on Frasier (he played the vulgar skirt-chasing sports announcer); Dan played Thomas's lover in the piece.

In the Kennedy Center production, John Glover and Malcom Gets are playing the Lane and Thomas roles. I read somewhere that Glover was reluctant to attempt the role which had put Lane on the map so many years ago, and it's true that Nathan's performance would be hard to top. Glover makes the role his own, though, and I thoroughly bought into his interpretation of Mendy, the aging, needy opera queen. And speaking of needy, Gets came into his own in the second act, when we witness his long-term relationship disintegrate into violence. I have enjoyed the work of both Glover and Gets in previous endeavors, and hold them in high esteem for their ability to maintain full careers while declining to hide their own sexuality. The press usually describes them as "openly gay," which they are, but I consider that they are two members of what I call the "Quietly Out," a group of actors who just do their work, and don't bother too much with what the public may think of their private lives. (And because they don't care, the public doesn't either.)

But their work in The Lisbon Traviata is terrific, whether they are sleeping with men, women, or livestock. They are ably assisted by two actors of whom I have not heard, Chris Hartl (right) and Manu Narayan; the four of them comprise a very strong ensemble, and deliver a potent production.

I think I read that McNally was in rehearsal with this show, and did some adjusting to a script which, let's face it, is several decades old. I am sure he was tinkering with the final moment of the play, which is the only moment in the Los Angeles production I found difficult to swallow. Here, though, it's jolting and surprising and frighteningly real.

Master Class is one of McNally's big hits, for which he won a Tony award in its original production. The show ran long enough for his leading lady, Zoe Caldwell (she won the Tony, too) to be replaced by Patty LuPone and, even later, by Dixie Carter. I saw LuPone in the role, and wrote about it here. This month at the Kennedy Center, Tyne Daly has taken the role, which is large enough to be described as a tour de force. She never leaves the stage, and every eye in the audience is on her every moment of the play. She's playing Maria Callas, giving a Master Class at Julliard. I loved LuPone in the role, and ditto Ms. Daly.

I'll admit when I heard Tyne was cast in the role, I was sceptical. I thought she was a bit too old, but I have been proven wrong. I've seen Daly onstage before, in one of her final performances in Gypsy on Broadway, a role which won her a Tony (she also has numerous Emmys for her television work). I enjoyed her Mama Rose, but I admire her Maria Callas even more. Truth be told, I have found her small screen work to be a little, well, calculated. Never bad, just...well...unspontaneous. She won four Emmys, back to back, for her work in Cagney and Lacey, and I always thought her costar Sharon Gless to be much more effortless in her choices. (Gless finally won for her work, too).

Anyway, whatever problems I have had with Daly's film work have not translated to her stage work, where her sparkling extravagance has always served the character.

I'm not sure why, but I was more invested in the students who appear onstage with Callas in this production of Master Class, as opposed to the original Broadway production, when I didn't give two hoots about them.

And I really enjoyed the fact that my buddy Clinton Brandhagen, who is playing the walk-on part of the stagehand, garnered so many laughs from his few moments on stage (his Shear Madness experience may be helping a bit there).

Playwright Terrence McNally is having a good week in DC, but in NY and in Texas, not so much. His 1991 play, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, was to have a major Broadway revival this month, courtesy of Roundabout Theatre. After two weeks of rehearsal, star Megan Mullally (above) quit the show, citing creative differences with the director, and the production collapsed. This must be very frustrating for McNally, as this would actually have been the show's Broadway debut; its original run was Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club.

It's doubtful McNally was going to garner much press for the classroom production of Corpus Christi which had been scheduled to be performed in Texas last week. That is, until now. This is McNally's most controversial play, a modern retelling of the gospel, with Jesus and his disciples portrayed as gay men, and it's ignited fundamentalist bigotry all over the planet in years past (I wrote a bit about this play on the 10th anniversary of Matthew Shepherd's death). In this instance, a young college student at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, TX, was using the play for a class directing project. There were no school funds used for the production, and the presentation was not open to the public (in fact, it was scheduled at 8 AM on a Saturday to avoid confrontation). A local radio host, who also happens to be the pastor of a local church so you know how interested he is in freedom of speech, took issue with the student's right to explore new ideas in the privacy of the classroom. Though this upstanding reverend never saw nor read Corpus Christi, he was sure it blasphemed his own personal beliefs, so he swung into action. Initially, the college's administration backed the student, declaring the presentation, quite rightly, "a class project not intended for the public anymore than a student’s math assignment.” The student in question identifies himself as a gay man who is also a Christian, and chose the piece "to bring people together," and to promote the acceptance of gay Christians. But this church leader, David Harris of the Hillcrest Church of Christ, was more interested in censorship than tolerance, and he whipped up a public frenzy which even included the state's lieutenant governor. The college capitulated, and the student's directing project was cancelled.
Got that? This mouthy Christian bigot personally disagreed with McNally's play, and caused a college (you know, a seat of higher learning, which teaches tolerance and freedom to explore new ideas) to disallow a student's homework.

Happy Easter, everybody! Jesus would be so proud.

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