The question you might find dancing in your head while watching Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party—a livelier title than show, to be sure—isn’t why it landed a prime locale in the current Off Broadway season, but how it even got into last year’s New York International Fringe Festival to begin with. This is not meant to be a patent insult (well, okay, maybe a little), but really a query as to how such a preachy tract with a gimmick wowed the nudity-starved, thrill-seeking Fringers. Judging by the production mounted right now, it’s about as edgy as the Fred and Daphne segments of Scooby-Doo. And the clothes aren’t even as cool.
The above-mentioned gimmick is how the play unfolds: One audience member is chosen through a democratic system at the top of the show to pick the order in which the night will unravel, and what results is a sort-of Rashomon for the pink team. Chronicling a trial in which a grade school teacher is accused of imposing a gay agenda on her young’uns in Illinois by telling them that Abe Lincoln had a longtime lover, with political wheeling and dealing, closeted small-towners, and journalistic ethics inter-meshed amid it all, Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party isn’t exactly going to make one forget The Norman Conquests as the end-all bullseye of one-day triptych plays.
While admirably restraining from profanity-laden, jocular nipple twists to get its points across (something another prez-based show headed to Broadway could never resist), it isn’t aces with subtlety either; one character even says at one point that “gay is the new black people”-a sentiment one assumes any given Ryan Murphy TV show uttered eons ago. Between the lumbering, twee dance breaks (choreographed more dutifully than originally by Vince Pesce), the cumbersome, busy set that always threatens to swallow the actors, and the fluctuating energy levels, it’s far from a party and more akin to a long soiree in which the cool people haven’t arrived yet.
Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party is now playing at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St at 9th Ave) in New York City through Sept 5. Schedule: Tue at 7pm, Wed-Sat at 8pm, Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm and 7pm. Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, two intermissions.
Interview: Kate Burton on Coriolanus in Central Park and Her Path to Success
The actress discusses her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and more.
Kate Burton is no diva. Despite her illustrious theatrical lineage, the actress is warm and down to earth. Daughter of international movie star Richard Burton, she certainly had a fabled childhood, surrounded constantly by showbiz luminaries. Growing up, if she wasn’t spending summers with her famously tempestuous Welsh actor father and glamorous stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor, she was mixing with celebrities at Arthur, the popular 1960s New York disco hangout owned by her mother, Sybil Christopher.
However, avoiding the pitfalls of inherited celebrity, Burton, a three-time Tony and Emmy nominee, has carefully forged her own path, balancing her lauded acting career with a stable family life for more than three decades. She’s currently playing the role of Volumnia in Coriolanus in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. I recently chatted with Burton about the production, her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and her path to success.
What is Coriolanus about to you?
It’s the story of an extraordinary warrior, a soldier who’s thrust into a highly political and governance-related situation—areas where he isn’t comfortable being. He loves war, combat, and the military world. He doesn’t love what a leader has to do in order to get the people to love him. And, of course, the juxtaposition of this with the fascinating time that we are living in—it does give you pause. That’s what makes Shakespeare so unbelievably enduring and so relevant, no matter which play you do and when you do it.
And what’s Volumnia’s function within the play?
She’s definitely the most powerful influence on her son. She’s the woman behind the throne. She saves Rome. Coriolanus is such a complicated character. He doesn’t respond like a normal son would in a lot of ways. It takes quite a lot of coaxing and pleading to get him to do what she wants him to do. It’s true that Jonathan Cake, who plays Coriolanus, and I are only 10 years apart in age, so I said to him that my interpretation is that he’s about five years younger, and I’m a little older. Volumnia was a single mother—no father is mentioned in the play—and she had him when she was young. So, she’s a lioness, a tigress, about her child. I’ve heard that Denzel Washington has a great quote about mothers and sons, something about the son being the last great love of a mother’s life, and the mother being the first great love of his.
So, what’s at the core of the relationship between this mother and son in the play?
There’s a fascinating dynamic between them. Shakespeare didn’t have tons of mothers and sons in his plays. Gertrude and Hamlet come to mind—another fascinating, very complicated relationship. With fathers and daughters it’s different because, of course, Shakespeare was so devoted to one of his own daughters. In the plays written in the Jacobean period—like Coriolanus—there’s a different dynamic than in [the plays written] in the Elizabethan period. I happen to have done a lot of Shakespeare plays from this same Jacobean period: Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. You know, the monarch on the throne in that period was James and his mother was Mary Queen of Scots—kind of a fascinating mother! Doing this role is great for me because in my real life as a mother I’ve raised two wonderful children and I totally get it. Although I’m very cherishing, nurturing, I always play these kind of growling women. These are the characters I’m comfortable playing because it takes something completely different from me. For instance, my character in Grey’s Anatomy is a very hard woman, tough on her child, exacting, incredibly ambitions. Also, quite honestly, this is a perfect role for an older actress. It’s taxing but it doesn’t wipe you out. It is just six scenes.
I understand you also have some family history with Coriolanus.
My father had been a very famous Coriolanus, before I was born. And now that I know the play, I can totally see it: complicated, driving everybody nuts, yeah! We’re so lucky to have Jonathan playing the role. Not only is he such a talented actor, he has also played the part before. And, you know, with these big Shakespeare roles, it’s great if you can get a couple under your belt, because it takes time to digest it and get it into your bones. Kevin Kline played Hamlet twice, my father played Hamlet twice. And I’m looking to do the The Tempest again.
Speaking of which, what was it like to play Prospero, the lead male character in The Tempest? How did that come about?
It happened very organically four years ago when I did Cymbeline. Daniel Sullivan said he wanted me to play the Queen, and then he said he also wanted me to play the role of Belarius. I thought it was some spear carrier—two scenes, funny hat. But it was a huge role, and he wanted me to play it as a man. That was my first time playing a male role. Then I was all set to do something else last summer when I got an email with the subject line “Prospero.” It was from my great friend [director] Joe Dowling. I just replied, “Yes!” We talked about whether I should play it as a man, but this is one of those Shakespearean roles than can translate to a female playing the part as female. And, of course, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave have done it. When I worked on it [at the Old Globe in San Diego] I realized that this role can really work naturally as a woman—the relationships with Miranda and Ariel and Caliban. So, now playing Prospero is something I would like to have another go at. I’m actually talking to a few people about it right now. Volumnia, to be honest, is a very masculine woman—just in the way she approaches things. She’s not some sweet little mom. The first thing that Shakespeare has her say in Corolianus is how pleased she is to send her son into war. I wanted him to seek danger because it created more spine, gave him more honor. So, I’m glad I’ve played a couple of male Shakespearean roles because it really helps me with Volumnia.
Is it true that acting wasn’t your first choice of profession?
I went to the United Nations International School here in New York City, and I was planning to be a diplomat. It wasn’t until my senior year at Brown University that I took an acting class. I had a professor who just loved the arts and he saw me in the plays that I did as extracurricular activity and he said that I have this gift and that I was squashing it down. My father at that time was so incredibly well known, but it wasn’t just that. It’s that I didn’t know that I wanted to pursue this mad life. It can be fantastic, but it can also be really challenging, because, you know, you’re an itinerant worker. I’d seen everything—my father, my step-mother, my step-father were all in show business. My mother had been an actress when she married my father, when she was extremely young. But she just didn’t love performing, although she loved rehearsing and she loved being backstage. Then she became an artistic director [founder of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor]. So, I came into acting with my eyes wide open. I’m also married to Michael Ritchie, who’s the artistic director of the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, but he’s not an actor. We have a son who’s an actor, who also loves writing, but our daughter is interested in other things.
And your mother supported your choice to become an actress?
Oh, yes, she saw me in everything. She almost never said anything negative. I think if you have a child who’s an actor, you just have to be unconditionally supportive. It’s going to be their journey no matter what. The only disagreement that my dad and I had about any of it was that he wanted me to train. He never trained, by the way. I just want to point that out! He wanted me to train in England because I was offered an opportunity to go to Central School of Speech and Drama in London. I chose instead to go to the Yale School of Drama because I was American. I said to him, “I’m your daughter so let me find my own path.” I’ve met a few children of luminary types who are now graduating from school and I just say to them it’s all about you finding your own voice, you don’t want to be just considered the daughter of blah blah blah. So, as long as you find your own voice, that’s the most important thing.
How do you feel about the time it took for you to establish a name for yourself?
You know, I kind of had the right trajectory. I first worked in the theater. I did tons of plays in New York and a few out of town. I started in TV when I was a bit into my 20s and moved into more TV and film in my 30s. Then everything sort of happened with Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man, and that was in my early 40s. And then in my mid-40s, on TV, I got Grey’s Anatomy and then, five years later, Scandal. So, Hedda Gabler put me on the map in one way and Grey’s Anatomy in a completely different way. It all worked out nicely and then I moved to Los Angeles. I love L.A. and I get to do theater there as well. I’ve done two projects for my husband at the Taper and also The Tempest at the Old Globe.
So, here you are back in New York, doing theater in Central Park. What are you looking forward to this time?
I love coming back to New York, it’s my hometown. And this worked out perfectly. I like to do a play once a year and to be in New York ideally every couple of years. So, two years ago I did Present Laughter on Broadway and The Dead 1904 off-Broadway. This is my second time in the Park. I did Cymbeline there in 2015. That production was fantastic and challenging because it was multiple characters, as I was involved in all the fight scenes. And let us remember that we are outside and it’s hot and steamy. Now I’m playing a single character and I’m not in any of the fight scenes so I’m very happy! What I’m excited about is that the audience is going to discover this play that hasn’t been done in the Park since 1979. It’s so virulent and so vital. There’s a primal aspect to it. And, then, I mean, free Shakespeare in the Park. New York on a summer night! It doesn’t get any better than that.
Coriolanus runs through August 11.
Review: In Mojada, Immigration Is an Ill-Fitting Costume for a Modern-Day Medea
The play reduces Medea’s decisions to an act of madness, adding little to our understanding of the Medea mythos.
Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, a modern-day adaptation of Euripedes’s Medea, begins and ends with scenes of Medea’s (Sabina Zúñiga Varela) life in a foreign country, prior to the woman murdering her own child. An argument can be made that, in this context, Medea’s actions are a direct result of the trauma she sustained while making the arduous crossing from Zamora, in the Mexican state of Michoacan, to Corona, Queens. But Alfaro, who once found success mirroring ancient tragedy in a contemporary Latinx moment with Oedipus El Rey, doesn’t convincingly make that connection. The contextual changes he makes to the circumstances of and relationship between Medea and Jason (Alex Hernandez) reduce Medea’s decisions to an act of madness, adding little to our understanding of the Medea mythos.
In Mojada, Medea and Jason, who aren’t technically married, must live in hiding. America’s a far less welcoming country than ancient Corinth, which also gives a new context to Jason’s decision to marry an American citizen. He expresses shame over trading sex with Pilar (Ada Maris), his wealthy developer boss, for the right to stay in one of her many properties and, eventually, for citizenship through marriage. He’s protecting himself and his son, Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken), not to mention gaining legal employment for Tita (Socorro Santiago), the loyal servant who followed the family from Mexico. His entire “crime”—sleeping with another woman—is contextualized as a necessary transaction, and the play backs him up, both in its depiction of the family’s precarious situation, and in the fact that Pilar herself, a Cuban immigrant, achieved her wealth and success by once marrying a rich American.
In Greek mythology, Medea enabled Jason and his crew of Argonauts to recover the Golden Fleece. He owed his success to her, and she rejected her father’s kingdom to relocate to a new country with him. Mojada’s version of Medea is far less empowered and helpful; in truth, it’s hard to see why she and Jason are together at all, since they seem to want entirely different things for themselves and their son. Jason embraces America, taking Acan to Coney Island and encouraging him to use American words like “dad” instead of “papi.” Conversely, Medea, who’s shown on multiple occasions clearing her mind with sewing and ritual prayer, not only stubbornly refuses any sort of cultural assimilation, but bristles at others’ show of it.
Throughout Mojada, Alfaro provides reasons for why Medea is closed off from Jason and the world: When she tries to be intimate with him, she’s reminded of her rape, and when she attempts to leave their home, she’s overwhelmed by the cacophony of sounds emanating from her bustling section of Corona. These traumas are real, and a tragic result of the price she continues to pay for having crossed into America, but Alfaro so briefly addresses them that they come across as thin excuses with which to make the agoraphobic Medea so reliant on others. In the end, neither her suffering nor her unauthorized status hold her back as much as the plot of Medea: She has to kill Pilar and Acan because that’s how the story goes.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set—the backyard of a rundown two-story house—suggests both shelter and a place of danger, as if this family’s American dream might collapse at any moment. And Haydee Zelideth’s costuming points to an insidious erasure at work in the characters’ lives. Medea is a talented seamstress, but because she has no papers, she must standardize her work and cheaply sell it to middlemen. It’s further frustrating to her that while she proudly wears a plain white dress, her family begins to cast off the clothing they brought to America, with Acan trading in a Mexican jersey for an American one, and Jason happily upgrading to a pair of expensive boots offered to him by Pilar. Medea tries to foreground her culture, adding a colorful flourish to her attire before Jason introduces her to Pilar, but she never commands the focus of the room, and the rest of the cast’s clothing only grows more casual and everyday. These subtle elements do far more to give weight to Medea’s fears of being culturally erased than does blunt declamatory dialogue like: “That’s the problem with this country, you can get everything you want, but then you spend the rest of your life fighting to keep it.”
That Medea feels like a costume worn by Mojada to justify its existence becomes apparent with how easily the Medea-related content is cast off midway through the play. Twice, Alfaro shifts from active dialogue to passive monologues in which Medea recounts how her family crossed the American border. Instead of showing the ugly realities of death, dehydration, rape, and ICE that they encountered along the way, Alfaro uses terse poetry (“I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I am dead inside.”) and stale metaphor (“She makes a concoction. I drink it. It kills the soldier inside me.”) that keeps these things at a comfortable distance.
Mojada, under Chay Yew’s direction, attempts to make this recitation more direct by projecting images of Medea’s family’s journey onto the wall of their home. But these well-intended images of a nighttime desert, stretches of highway, Port Authority, could be snapshots from any family’s memories of travel; they’re so generic that they don’t specifically speak to the arduousness, the horror, of Medea and Jason’s journey to the States.
Mojada is at its most specific and resonant when it isn’t focusing on Medea, but on Luisa (Vanessa Aspillaga), a garrulous Puerto Rican who’s returned to America in the wake of Hurricane Maria, driven to succeed at any cost. In her case, this means entrepreneurially operating a churro cart (“Cops eat free”), despite the cultural scorn from her neighbors, and secondarily by adopting a new name, Lulu, so that she might be more appealing to hipsters. A character with no corollary in Euripedes’s play, she’s free to simply exist and tell her story, which she does, and in such a comic, rapid-fire fashion that when she abruptly starts to sob over her husband’s work-related back ailments and their lack of energy to have a kid, it may catch you off-guard. There’s a spark of humanity here that the rest of Mojada, beholden both to Medea and the Big Idea of immigration, is otherwise unable to ignite.
Luisa is actively hustling, and she details the steps and compromises she’s going to take to get the future she wants. Medea is more passive, making no effort to break out of her one-woman sweatshop. Alfaro is so fixated on having her make political pronouncements—“They can never build a wall big enough. But they will always try”—that she becomes nothing more than a mouthpiece, which is why her sudden and violent pivot feels so disproportionate. Medea, both the character and the play, create unearned drama for Mojada, moments that wrongly wrest focus away from thoughts of immigration. For a more effective classical tragedy, simply watch the news, with its raw images, wailing interviews, and chorus of pundits.
Mojada is now playing through Sunday, August 11 at the Public’s LuEsther Hall.
Review: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune Shines a Light on the Vagaries of Love
The play depends especially on the strength of its leads, and here it has two eager thespians who make the most of its drama.
The only characters in Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune are two single fortysomethings who work menial jobs at the same Manhattan greasy spoon. Johnny, a line cook, lives in Brooklyn Heights. Frankie, a waitress, lives in Hell’s Kitchen. The show opens toward what should be the end of their first date: after a round of sex at Frankie’s place. It’s three in the morning and she wants him to go home, but he wants to stay until they’ve agreed that they will fall intensely in love, get married, and have kids.
In the end, Frankie and Johnny stay up all night, batting back and forth about whether they can make a conscious decision, based on convenience, to love each other, even if they’re not naturally, helplessly falling head over heels for one another. The play offers the possibility of an old world-style romance in modern New York City, where few have to tie the knot for any reason but true love. “What people see in one another!” Johnny says. “It’s a total mystery.”
The 1987 play’s investigation of this mystery can feel thin, as its characters at times suggest cats chasing each other’s tails around the same circles over more than two hours. But the Broadway revival, now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre on 44th Street near Eighth Avenue (about 4,500 feet from Frankie’s apartment on 53rd and 10th), is great fun anyway, and more than a little moving, thanks to Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald. The play depends especially on the strength of its leads, and here it has two eager thespians who make the most of its drama, which in lesser hands could easily just feel like an acting exercise.
Shannon’s inherent menacing weirdness is perfect for Johnny. The character’s intimidating dominance comes across not only in his propensity for talking too much, but also in Shannon’s hulking intensity. It’s in the way Johnny stares at Frankie or lords his body over hers too closely—a little drunk on beer but intoxicated by amour. Johnny’s hyper-romanticism becomes increasingly threatening throughout the play, a weaponized malevolence, but Shannon also laces his character’s overeager declamations or goat-gotten indignations with great humor. An early laughing fit, which we eventually learn arose from a memory of an ill-timed fart, is particularly infectious. McDonald is no less sharp as Shannon’s exasperated straight woman, tripping over her words and getting a lot of laughs as an audience surrogate, amazed at the sparring partner who won’t just put his clothes on and go.
Director Arin Arbus coaxes performances from McDonald and Shannon that are certainly naturalistic, especially when they’re au naturel. Especially early on, the actors appear naked from head to toe. The costuming—or lack of it—often reflects something about the characters: Though they may initially both appear vulnerable, Frankie quickly dons a robe, a sign of her need to erect emotional barriers, while Johnny, who’s like an open book, hardly ever puts on a shirt. All the while, the city looms over the set: the back wall is the pale image of an apartment building façade, filling the stage with a stony exterior, another suggestion of Frankie’s “walls.”
The production retains the original’s 1980s setting, and it abounds in period signifiers, such as an oblique reference to the AIDS crisis, which once loomed especially large over the casual hook-up, like the one between Frankie and Johnny. At one point, Frankie, impressed when Johnny says he owns a VCR, starts to wheel around a small television on a cart around her practically furnished but slightly messy bachelorette pad, and the two listen all night to classical music broadcast on the radio. Johnny calls the station to request “the most beautiful music ever written,” a score for their strange night of up-and-down courtship. The late-night jockey, who’s been playing light piano music that Frankie admiringly calls “chaste,” opts for something a little more frankly beautiful: Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” which is French for moonlight, though the term suggests something literally like the clarity of the moon.
The music is clear, as well, especially at the end of act two, when the action stops as the characters listen to it play out at length. This is a gabby play, but the instrumental offers the characters a respite, a chance to listen to something else—something more lovely, honest, and pure—than their own squabbling, stumbling dialogues. It’s so gentle and graceful that it provides its own sentimentally clarifying light. Basking in it, the characters seem to recognize their desperate loneliness—and maybe the audience its own, as well.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Interview: Terrence McNally on the Timeless Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
The dramatist and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, discuss what makes Frankie and Johnny so enduring.
It takes a romantic like Terrence McNally to infuse so much warmth into a one-night stand. That’s what you sense as you watch Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Well known for his ability to soothe the pain and anguish of his characters, and our own, with the balm of laughter, McNally takes a gentle approach in this romantic comedy about a waitress and a short-order cook whose first night of passionate sex looks as if it may blossom into something even more intense. The new Broadway revival of McNally’s 1987 play is directed by Arin Arbus and stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon as the pair of working-class loners who get swept up in something beyond their expectations.
McNally’s belief in true romance is fulfilled in his own life as well. Now 80 years old, he’s been together with his husband, lawyer and theater producer Tom Kirdahy, for nearly two decades. Next month, the eminent playwright will receive his fifth Tony Award—for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre—and PBS will air Every Act of Life, Jeff Kaufman’s documentary on his life and six-decade writing career. I recently sat down with McNally and Kirdahy in their New York apartment to talk about the Frankie and Johnny revival, McNally’s wonderful new lease on life, and the celebration of his career on Broadway.
Why revive Frankie and Johnny now?
Terrence McNally: I think the play still has lot to say to people. I’m delighted to have it back on Broadway with two magnificent actors. That’s the easy answer!
Tom Kirdahy: The play is timely and timeless. It’s better doing it now than it might have been even a year ago, because I think people are feeling very disconnected from one another. In the age of social media, people have the illusion of being connected with others, but, in many ways, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been before. Our country is very fractured, we have so many walls between us. Johnny is determined to tear down the walls that separate people, and Frankie, I think, wants those walls torn down but has shielded herself from the pain of rendering herself vulnerable. This is a play about two people taking a leap across the void of loneliness and trying to connect with one another. It feels so fresh and urgent, so “now.”
There was no social media in the ‘80s when you wrote the play, but you’ve noted how the availability of movies on VHS provided a similar obstacle to social interaction.
McNally: People were afraid to make any kind connection with strangers because AIDS was on everybody’s mind—gay and straight alike—and they were spending a lot of time alone on weekends. What kicked off the play, actually, was that I noticed these crowds at—was it called Blockbusters? I noticed them checking out 20 movies at a time because they had no intention to set foot out of their apartment once Friday night came. They would watch videos instead.
You’ve said that this is the first play of the second act of your life. Can you tell us something about that time when you began writing Frankie and Johnny?
McNally: Well, I was about to turn 50. I was at the end of a relationship and a good friend told me, “You’ve had your last cookie.” That was how they put it, which was rather harsh, but I know what they meant. It was the New York of graffiti and it seemed gray all the time. There were a lot of homeless [people]. There were a lot of people with greasy rags and squeegees who’d approach your car when you got to an intersection. You could rent any theater on Broadway, practically; they were all empty, gathering dust. It was the bleakest period I remember of New York. I’m not a bleak person and I wanted to imagine something positive. I’m a bit like Johnny that way. There’s a little of me in each character. This is the kind of play where you go, “No one is ever going to want to do this. Only middle-aged people would remotely be interested in it.” But I just wanted to write it. It was kind of my personal SOS. It was to connect to someone—and it turned out to be with an audience.
Only connect. Would you say that’s a theme through the plays you’ve written?
McNally: Probably. And people thinking they’re the only person in the world—never more acutely than in this play.
Did you have to do any updates or revisions for this revival?
McNally: No. We decided to leave it in period. Giving them cellphones and devices like that doesn’t make a play up to date. I will try to fix plays that I didn’t quite get right the first time. I’m 30 years older, and the play is 30 years older, so it surprised me in a way how much it moved me and how relevant it still is. What it is truly about is the distance between people. That stayed with us. Maybe that was my big theme in all my work: connection, which is so difficult. We have substitutes for it—like getting the Maria Callas [recording of] Lisbon performance of La Traviata—but people still want the real thing.
Do you think that audiences may be unprepared for the frank language and nudity in the play—more so than they were 30 years ago?
Kirdahy: I think so. At the first preview, the audience was so electric and so startled by the frank sexuality. I do think we might be entering almost more puritanical times, and I feel like this is a good antidote to that as well. We’re using an intimacy director for the first time on Broadway. Her name is Claire Warden. Working with her has allowed us to bring great reality to the sex in the play, and also ensure a safe space for our actors.
Now you’re speaking in the language of today.
Kirdahy: That’s correct. And in doing that I think we’re marrying the present with the past, but I do think the play’s comfort with sexuality and frank talk about sex is a bit startling and very, very exciting too.
If we say you’re now in your third act, would you agree that it started when you and Tom first got together 18 years ago?
McNally: I certainly don’t think I’d be sitting here if Tom had not come into my life. It was a very strong flash of lightning that went off when I met him, as something profoundly important happened. And to add to the drama, by our third date, literally, I found out I had lung cancer. That used to be a death sentence, but I’ve managed it for all these years. We also have an important professional relationship together. He’s easily the best producer I’ve ever worked with. He’s smart, he knows how to talk to creative people. He doesn’t operate out of fear, and he gets things done. And everybody likes him. It’s kind of extraordinary.
Congratulations on receiving the Tony for lifetime achievement. How do you feel about being recognized for six decades of work?
McNally: I feel pretty wonderful. I won’t pretend false modesty. To think how reviled my first play was. One review began: “The American theater would be a better place this morning if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.” That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?
Indeed it is. What’s remarkable is that in that play And Things That Go Bump in the Night, you portrayed gay sexuality openly on Broadway in 1965. And this was three years before The Boys in the Band made its landmark appearance off-Broadway.
McNally: I’m of the school “write what you know about,” so I didn’t think I was doing a breakthrough. Also, when you write a play, you don’t write a Broadway play differently than you write an off-Broadway one. You still have to bring the best you can to the project with honesty, develop interesting characters. I think what was innovative about And Things That Go Bump in the Night was that they were two men who had an active sex life. Because before that, gay men in plays were always the next-door neighbor comic-relief character, or the sad alcoholic who you’d find out in the third act had committed suicide. They were tragic and lonely and desperate, and were dead by the end—or they went on decorating, or fixing women’s hair, saying witty things about people. What The Boys in the Band did—that was a first I believe—was that all the characters were out gay men, with varying degrees of comfortableness with being gay. That was a seminal play, and it was great that it was revived last year with an all-star famous cast. Originally, they had trouble getting actors to be in it.
What do you think of when you look back to that era?
McNally: The changes we’ve seen are extraordinary. From men furtively darting down staircases into little bars to now—we have many friends with lovely children, male couples who have adopted. And it’s extraordinary that this has all happened in my lifetime. I remember when I went to Columbia [in 1956], almost the first time I went to a gay bar I saw my advisor there. He was startled to see me, and I never saw him there again. And for the four years he was my advisor, we never mentioned that we’d seen each other there. I think it could have been the basis of some kind of relationship, a friendship, who knows? But instead, it was this thing you never acknowledged. I never expected as a young man that I would be married one day. I expected to be in love and be loved by another man, but not publicly—that we could own a home together, adopt a child, do anything like that.
Yet, unlike many of your contemporaries, you were out from the start of your career.
McNally: Yeah. I was reviewed as a gay playwright in my first play and that’s simply because I was partners with Edward Albee and they all knew that. On the opening night of Bump—this was when everyone used to smoke in theaters—we had eight daily papers, and the eight critics, they were the last ones in because their seats were in the aisles and they could smoke until the very last second. And the lights were blinking, they put out their cigarettes, and as they went in, one of them said to the other: “Well, let’s go see what his boyfriend has come up with.” I just felt sick to my stomach when I heard that. It made me sad and angry. I thought in that second how they’re not reviewing a new writer, but reviewing a play by Edward Albee’s boyfriend. I wasn’t a person, I was bit of theater gossip.
That play, I knew it wasn’t a triumph at previews, but there were people who liked it. But the venom of the press—almost every negative review had words like “obscene,” “disgusting,” “immoral,” “vile,” and it was only because of the relationship between the two men, because they’d just had sex. But that didn’t deter me. I read the other day someone said that part of being a success at anything is starting over again after you fail. It’s when you give up—then you’re the failure. I never thought of giving up playwriting and, as I said to Tom the other day, I think I’d rather receive an award like this now than be praised too much when you’re in your 20s and 30s. The timing is right. I consider it the nicest 80th birthday present I could have.
The Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.
2019 Tony Nominations: Hadestown and Ain’t Too Proud Lead Field
Both shows were joined in the Best Musical category by Beetlejuice, The Prom, and Tootsie.
Nominations for the 73rd Tony Awards were announced this morning, with CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King and actors Bebe Neuwirth and Brandon Victor Dixon revealing the nominees in the top eight categories. Leading the pack with 14 nominations Hadestown, followed by Ain’t Too Proud—The Life of the Temptations with 12. Both shows were joined in the Best Musical category by Beetlejuice, The Prom, and Tootsie.
See below for a full list of the nominations.
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations
Choir Boy by Tarell
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
What the Constitution Means to Me
Best Revival of a Play
Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
The Boys in the Band
The Waverly Gallery
Best Revival of a Musical
Kiss Me, Kate
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Paddy Considine, The Ferryman
Bryan Cranston, Network
Jeff Daniels, To Kill a Mockingbird
Adam Driver, Burn This
Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Annette Bening, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
Laura Donnelly, The Ferryman
Elaine May, The Waverly Gallery
Janet McTeer, Bernhardt/Hamlet
Laurie Metcalf, Hillary and Clinton
Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Brooks Ashmanskas, The Prom
Derrick Baskin, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Alex Brightman, Beetlejuice
Damon Daunno, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Santino Fontana, Tootsie
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Stephanie J. Block, The Cher Show
Caitlin Kinnunen, The Prom
Beth Leavel, The Prom
Eva Noblezada, Hadestown
Kelli O’Hara, Kiss Me, Kate
Best Book of a Musical
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations, Dominique Morisseau
Beetlejuice, Scott Brown and Anthony King
Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell
The Prom, Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin
Tootsie, Robert Horn
Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre
Be More Chill, Joe Iconis
Beetlejuice, Eddie Perfect
Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell
The Prom, Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin
To Kill a Mockingbird, Adam Guettel
Tootsie, David Yazbek
Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Bertie Carvel, Ink
Robin De Jesús, The Boys in the Band
Gideon Glick, To Kill a Mockingbird
Brandon Uranowitz, Burn This
Benjamin Walker, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Fionnula Flanagan, The Ferryman
Celia Keenan-Bolger, To Kill a Mockingbird
Kristine Nielsen, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Julie White, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Ruth Wilson, King Lear
Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
André De Shields, Hadestown
Andy Grotelueschen, Tootsie
Patrick Page, Hadestown
Jeremy Pope, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Ephraim Sykes, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Lilli Cooper, Tootsie
Amber Gray, Hadestown
Sarah Stiles, Tootsie
Ali Stroker, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Mary Testa, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Best Scenic Design of a Play
Miriam Buether, To Kill a Mockingbird
Bunny Christie, Ink
Rob Howell, The Ferryman
Santo Loquasto, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Jan Versweyveld, Network
Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Robert Brill and Peter Nigrini, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Peter England, King Kong
Rachel Hauck, Hadestown
Laura Jellinek, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
David Korins, Beetlejuice
Best Costume Design of a Play
Rob Howell, The Ferryman
Toni-Leslie James, Bernhardt/Hamlet
Clint Ramos, Torch Song
Ann Roth, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Ann Roth, To Kill a Mockingbird
Best Costume Design of a Musical
Michael Krass, Hadestown
William Ivey Long, Beetlejuice
William Ivey Long, Tootsie
Bob Mackie, The Cher Show
Paul Tazewell, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Best Lighting Design of a Play
Neil Austin, Ink
Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Peter Mumford, The Ferryman
Jennifer Tipton, To Kill a Mockingbird
Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden, Network
Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Kevin Adams, The Cher Show
Howell Binkley, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Bradley King, Hadestown
Peter Mumford, King Kong
Kenneth Posner and Peter Nigrini, Beetlejuice
Best Sound Design of a Play
Adam Cork, Ink
Scott Lehrer, To Kill a Mockingbird
Fitz Patton, Choir Boy
Nick Powell, The Ferryman
Eric Sleichim, Network
Best Sound Design of a Musical
Peter Hylenski, Beetlejuice
Peter Hylenski, King Kong
Steve Canyon Kennedy, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Drew Levy, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, Hadestown
Best Direction of a Play
Rupert Goold, Ink
Sam Mendes, The Ferryman
Bartlett Sher, To Kill a Mockingbird
Ivo van Hove, Network
George C. Wolfe, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Best Direction of a Musical
Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown
Scott Ellis, Tootsie
Daniel Fish, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Des McAnuff, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Casey Nicholaw, The Prom
Camille A. Brown, Choir Boy
Warren Carlyle, Kiss Me, Kate
Denis Jones, Tootsie
David Neumann, Hadestown
Sergio Trujillo, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, Hadestown
Simon Hale, Tootsie
Larry Hochman, Kiss Me, Kate
Daniel Kluger, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Harold Wheeler, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Recipients of Awards and Honors in Non-competitive Categories
Special Tony Awards for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre
Special Tony Awards
Jason Michael Webb
Regional Theatre Tony Award
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award
Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre
Broadway Inspirational Voices
Joseph Blakely Forbes
FDNY Engine 54
Tony Nominations by Production
Hadestown – 14
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations – 12
Tootsie – 11
The Ferryman – 9
To Kill a Mockingbird – 9
Beetlejuice – 8
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! – 8
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus – 7
The Prom – 7
Ink – 6
Network – 5
Choir Boy – 4
Kiss Me, Kate – 4
Arthur Miller’s All My Sons – 3
Burn This – 3
The Cher Show – 3
King Kong – 3
Bernhardt/Hamlet – 2
The Boys in the Band – 2
Torch Song – 2
The Waverly Gallery – 2
What the Constitution Means to Me – 2
Be More Chill – 1
Hillary and Clinton – 1
King Lear – 1
Review: Agree or Disagree, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie Keeps Us at a Distance
The play’s always-at-arm’s-length subtext makes it hard for us to appreciate or connect with the material on an emotional level.
Six parents of varying demographics take part in a focus group. It’s 1979 and they’re there to answer questions about a popular children’s television show, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie. The play, the mastermind of the Mad Ones theater company, shares the same title as this much-discussed show within a show, but the lessons taught to its adult audience are much less obvious, so much so that they’re likely to be missed entirely. The structural choice of following a focus group largely in real time limits the emotional range of the production, distilling too much to the instructions given to the focus group: “Thumbs up is agree, thumbs down is disagree; thumb to the middle is neutral, somewhat agree.”
Dale (Brad Heberlee), of the data-collecting company Blue Horizon, is an anodyne presence. His intentionally bland moderation makes for a problematic focal point for the play, since his task is to avoid conflict. In this way, he serves to turn moments that would make for entertaining drama into dry data. His lightning-fast questioning dredges up only the most superficial of responses, a process so dull that the production plays it for laughs, with Dale’s assistant Jim (Marc Bovino), always struggling to keep up as he hastily transcribes all of the notes onto a chalkboard. Dale’s not interested in these people, and only slightly more so in their answers, as shown by the way he parrots things back with queries that aim to get everyone on the same, easily digestible page: “Can you distill that down to one word?”
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie succeeds only by showing the struggle against such reduction: the subtle ways in which these parents, sometimes with only the choice of a single word, manage to maintain their humanity in the face of such aggressive neutrality. We learn a lot about June (Carmen M. Herlihy) not by her negative gut-response to a mouse puppet, but by the way in she psychoanalytically draws a distinction between the speaking and non-speaking puppets on the children’s program. Elsewhere, the hardscrabble divorcee Gloria (Stephanie Wright Thompson) is fleshed out less by what she says than by the way in which she’s desperately trying to impress and emulate her more successful female counterpoint, Cici (January LaVoy).
Ernest (Phillip James Brannon) is perhaps too straightforward, serving as the play’s conscience, but at least his refusal to bend on certain moral issues is rooted in a real sense of him as a father. Blue-collar Wayne (Michael Dalto) is particularly fascinating: When he describes a character on the unseen show within the show as “soft,” he’s being inadvertently homophobic, and yet when he’s called out on it, he’s also the most sincerely apologetic.
It’s in the slight pauses and earnest fumbles that these characters show themselves to be exceedingly human. This is an interesting, albeit subtle and attention-demanding conceit, because if you blink then you’ll miss what’s really going on beneath the surface. But it’s not always theatrically effective. Lila Neugebauer’s direction and You-Shin Chen and Laura Jellinek’s set can’t help but partially obscure some of the cast; they’re sitting at a round table, which inevitably leaves their backs to some of the audience.
It’s easy to respect Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie on an intellectual level, but its always-at-arm’s-length subtext makes it hard for us to appreciate or connect with the material on an emotional level. The drama exists in a negative space, by dint of what doesn’t happen in this focus group, a too-clever reflection of the group’s pivotal discussion around the role of consequences in a children’s television show. You can appreciate the play’s period-specific craft, the accuracy of Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costuming, or the precise rhythms of an ensemble-penned script that brings to mind the hyperrealism of Annie Baker, but it’s at a distance.
The play’s most direct arc is the most relatable. Roger (Joe Curnutte), one of the six parents, at first appears to be a fairly decent guy—so long as he’s being heard. Over time, as focus shifts to the others, he relaxes his genial salesman façade, revealing the smug and fragile man underneath. When he’s lightly ribbed for his disagreeability, he unleashes the entitled asshole lurking beneath that smile. For a while, he parrots Gloria, antagonizing her in plain sight; later, he goes a step further and places his hand on Cici’s leg as he makes sexual insinuations about her. He’s got a transformative arc, one that’s intentionally left incomplete, given that he faces no consequences for his actions. (Difficult, too, not to read into Dale’s humoring of Roger’s bad behavior as Trump-like: “I want to take a minute to reiterate that both of your opinions—both of your viewpoints—are valid and absolutely essential for our discussion.”)
This is another instance of the way in which the play uses negative space, and a marked delineation between the fairytale children’s programming that’s being discussed, and the grownup reality these participants are living in. But does having a solid thesis protect against narrative bloat or the subdued emotions? You are left to decide: Agree, disagree, maybe.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is now playing at Ars Nova at Greenwich House.
Review: What the Constitution Means to Me Is a Perfect Union of Past and Present
The play is positioned as a coping mechanism for Heidi Schreck and, by extension, the audience.
Thirty years ago, What the Constitution Means to Me playwright and performer Heidi Schreck toured around the United States, participating in speech competitions about the Constitution so as to raise money for college. She spoke excitedly—so much so that her voice would sometimes crack—and fancifully, describing the Constitution as a “witch’s cauldron” and the founders as “a bunch of magicians.” She idealized Amendment Nine, and William O. Douglas’s use of the word “penumbra,” and long before she understood what a negative rights constitution was, before Castle Rock v Gonzales, before Trump, she really and truly believed in the Constitution. So much so that, in these dark times, she enlisted the aid of scenic designer Rachel Hauck to reconstruct the American Legion Hall in Wentachee, Washington, returning nightly to a simpler time where there were clearer rules.
More than a memory play, then, What the Constitution Means to Me is a coping mechanism for Schreck and, by extension, the audience. It’s a way to confront the very real present traumas of America through the veil not just of a hopeful (and naïve) 15-year-old, but through her emotionally guarded younger self. This non-naturalistic recreation is designed to be a safe space, and though the production could have functioned as a series of monologues, Schreck explains that she’s brought actor Mike Iveson on stage to counterbalance all the violence in her life: “I really wanted some positive male energy up here with me.” Of course, despite some improvisational flourishes in the play, this itself is also part of the gimmick, a side-door into a meaningful conversation about the Constitution, a living document that’s grown up—or is it aged poorly?—right alongside Schreck and the audience.
Ironically, to better show that aging, there’s theatrically no difference between the two versions of Schreck: “I’m going to be 15, but I’m not going to do anything special to make myself 15. So here I am. I’m 15.” At first, director Oliver Butler seems to be helping to separate the two, calling upon moderator Mel Yonkin (Iveson) to freeze each time Schreck interrupts her own play within a play to add some modern context or clarification, and using physical cues like the ringing of a judge’s bell or a pivot back to Schreck’s speech-giving dais to “tag” young Heidi back in. But as the asides and tangents grow longer and more complicated, those lines break down, giving way to Schreck’s modern-day weariness. That sharply sunny yellow blazer she wears courtesy of costume designer Michael Krass? It is respectfully laid to rest over the back of a chair once What the Constitution Means to Me abandons the childhood conceit.
The show’s casual appearance is weighted with intent, and Schreck doesn’t need to lampshade nearly as much as she does when she asserts that “I know some of you think I’ve gone off on a tangent but I promise you I haven’t.” What, really, isn’t shaped by the Constitution? Whether Schreck speaks of the penumbral privilege accorded to her 15-year-old self’s Ninth Amendment-protected right to have an imaginary friend (because rights not enumerated cannot deny or disparage those others retained by the people), or of her present-day affection for a sock monkey, these things are all linked by the promises of our country’s urtext.
Moreover, the stream-of-consciousness-like tone of What the Constitution Means to Me and its shifting between past and present allows Schreck to potently invert the traditional way in which comedy cuts the tension of a tragedy. Here, the comic tangents and light digressions are stabbed to death by the constant and casual acknowledgments of a woman’s reality: “Neither of us were having sex yet, but we wanted to be on birth control just in case we went in a hot tub and the sperm swam up and attacked us.” You start to chuckle, perhaps, at such an absurd and childish belief, before she adds: “Or, you know, in case of a real attack.”
Just as Schreck describes the two versions of her mother that once screamed at her about the possibility of being pregnant—one a proud feminist, the other a woman terrified from personal experiences—there are two conflicting versions of the play. There’s the young and idealistic one that the play comes full circle to, as it gives over the last 15 minutes to a mock debate between Schreck and a 14-year-old student (Rosdely Ciprian). But there’s also the harried, put-upon older one that can’t ignore the reality of a world that routinely ignores constitutional protections, or keeps redefining them, as with Scalia’s quibbling over the meaning of a word like “shall” or the Constitution’s inability to outright qualify everyone as a “person.”
Ultimately, in giving control of the outcome of the show to one audience member—a representative democracy, after all, however unfair that might sometimes be—Schreck liberates audiences of their passivity, arming them with pocket copies of the Constitution. In the end, there are just two people on stage, and though they’re huddled together in the near dark of a single spotlight, you can see them, all the illusions and artifice momentarily stripped away. How you treat them depends now on what the Constitution means to you.
What the Constitution Means to Me is now playing at the Helen Hayes Theater.
Review: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men Is a Deconstruction of Privilege
Despite some realistic touches, Straight White Men, as directed by Anna D. Shapiro, goes to lengths to call out its artificiality.
The four main performers in Young Jean Lee’s provocative and hilarious play Straight White Men are precisely attuned, like the members of a string quartet, playing off each other to create something richer than the sum of their parts. They’re a true ensemble, though some are stars in their own rights: Josh Charles plays Jake, a divorced banker; Armie Hammer plays Drew, an acclaimed novelist; and Paul Schneider plays Matt, one-time valedictorian, Harvard man, and hardcore communist, now a temp living back at home, crushed by student-loan debt. All three are brothers, home for Christmas to see their widower father, Ed, played with gruff joviality by Stephen Payne.
Right off the bat, Todd Rosenthal’s set is a marvelously nondescript suburban home that looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since the 1990s. Case in point: the chrome-face speakers atop the bookcases and the Raymour & Flanigan-style furniture that occupies the sunken living room, where the play—the first on Broadway by an Asian-American woman—is set.
Despite such realistic touches, Straight White Men, as directed by Anna D. Shapiro, goes to lengths to call out its artificiality. The stage is literally framed with handsome wood, a brass plaque at its bottom etched with the name of the play. But the theater is also improbably decked out like a club: seats upholstered in crushed velvet, a stage curtain of shiny silver strands, and, before the show, contemporary dance music blasting from the sound system. Emcees Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe, both gender-nonconformist performers, explain in preshow remarks that this is intentional, to make the typically square Broadway audience uncomfortable—the way that people such as Bornstein and Defoe are often made to feel in normative spaces.
The two actors also appear between scenes, supervising the stagehands as they shift props and furniture, then literally positioning the other actors before the action begins, giving them—the typically marginalized—literal power over the straight white men. But Bornstein and Defoe’s presence mostly seemed to serve as a reminder to the audience that, despite the play’s stars, not everyone fits into the category that gives the play its name, providing a little diversity to a work that otherwise would have none.
The cisgender male actors on stage spend most of Straight White Men’s first act establishing a deep rapport, making their characters seem like a close group of guys, reliving past embarrassments and pushing each other’s buttons as only those intimate to us can. But every outrage would be quickly followed by a smile—as if true love means never taking offense or intending to cause it. The three younger actors especially engage in a seemingly infinite series of choreographed antics and practiced call-and-response, as if they’ve really lived their whole lives together, establishing infinite routines.
Mere description will fail to illustrate just how funny these can be. A scene in which Schneider squawks like a bird and Charles hysterically screams while Hammer recoils with a hangover will likely reduce you to tears of laughter. And in another equally uproarious scene, after all the characters have just walked away from each other following a fight, Jake blasts Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and dances rigorously, joined one by one by his brothers and then father.
There are often deeper emotions at work throughout Straight White Men. What at first appears to be a hard-earned, easygoing bonhomie between the four main characters soon looks more like a mask, obscuring their hurt and sadness. While eating Chinese food with his family on Christmas Eve, Matt starts crying, and afterward no one but Drew wants to talk about the moment. When they all finally do, Matt becomes a canvas onto which the other characters project their own worries and desires, as they fight over him by proxy, seeking to identify his problem with their own.
To Jake, Matt’s seeming failures are principled, the noble act of a privileged white guy sinking to the bottom so that other, more marginalized people may rise. (The brothers are steeped in the language of social justice, a remnant of their dead mother, who, for example, left behind a rejiggered version of Monopoly called Privilege, in which white people lose money for passing Go.) To Drew, Matt is psychologically damaged and in need of therapy—to focus on and repair himself in order to find happiness. And to his father, Matt has given up and needs a kick in the pants to rediscover his ambition.
Matt, however, says he’s happy with his simple life and the simple pleasures it affords him, and this is the drama’s lingering provocation: Can a person—especially a straight white man, with all the privileges that affords—really be happy without striving for greatness and professional and romantic successes? Most of the characters need to recast Matt’s ambitionless satisfaction as an outrageous tragedy of unrealized potential.
The play presents four possible prisms through which to view the ambiguity of Matt’s situation, and many in the audience are likely to choose one, consciously or not, that fits in best with the preconceptions with which they’ve entered the theater. But the play’s rewards come from instead embracing uncertainty and admitting, as few of the characters will, that the secrets to living a fulfilling existence are impossible to name.
Straight White Men is now playing at the Hayes Theater.
Interview: Kate Bornstein on Their Broadway Debut in Straight White Men
It’s clear that at 70, the trail-blazing author of the seminal work Gender Outlaw is still a formidable force to be reckoned with.
When Kate Bornstein, self-described as a non-binary femme-identified trans person, talks about their remarkable life journey, it’s clear that at 70, the trail-blazing author of the seminal work Gender Outlaw and subject of the documentary Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger is still a formidable force to be reckoned with. Bornstein isn’t content on resting on their laurels as a pioneer in transgender rights and acceptance, acknowledging that positions they once held are always subject to reassessment. As the reader will learn from our interview, Bornstein, who’s debuting on Broadway in the new Second Stage production of Straight White Men, is uniquely positioned to broaden our vision on gender in a rapidly evolving world.
What is your preferred gender pronoun?
For many people it’s very important to be acknowledged for a hard-won identity. I’ve been blessed with living my weird identity for so long that I don’t mind anymore. Your editor will probably be upset if I say, “Whatever you want,” but I think it would be fun to alternate “they” or “them” and “she” or “her.” Those are the two sets of pronouns that give me the most tickle. But if we need to be consistent, “they” or “them” is great. It’s an accepted way of saying this person isn’t revealing any particular binary gender. If you insist on “he” or “him,” that tells me more about you than it does me. My own view on pronouns: Is it that we want to know a person’s pronoun or that we want to know a person’s gender? I think it’s the latter. I’m Kate Bornstein. I’m a non-binary femme-identified person. That says it.
What can you tell us about the play Straight White Men? That’s certainly not a title one would associate with you!
Young Jean Lee wanted to write this play about straight white men from the point of view of someone who wasn’t one. It’s a beautiful, well-crafted play about three grown sons visiting their dad on Christmas eve. She doesn’t make fun of straight white men. She holds them to task, but she isn’t mean. And because she’s so subtle, very few people got it. So she invented a device whereby the play is framed by a performance piece. There are now these two performers—Person in Charge #1 and Person in Charge #2—and wherever it’s been done since the play was revised, these two roles have been written for the performers playing those roles. In my case, I get to say, “Hey, I used to be a straight white man.” And then I say, “Well I tried. It didn’t work!” The other Person in Charge is played by Ty Defoe, a Native American trans man. So, we’re two trans people framing this show. Young takes two different forms of theater—performance art and traditional theater—and breaks a binary that as far as I know hasn’t been broken to this degree on Broadway.
Is the performance-art section based on your own words?
When you come into the theater, we’re there to greet you. Our job is to make you comfortable, so we talk with you. We think people will have questions and we’ll be adlibbing for about half an hour before the show. Then we climb up on to the stage and have an introductory moment and [for that] we have a script. The way we wanted to talk about the show was more like docents.
So we get to look at the straight white men in the play with an anthropological eye?
Yes, but not a straight white male gaze. There’s no mistake that [these characters] are the insiders, that they have power and that the pressure in the culture on everybody is to either be a straight white man or be like a straight white man. Or, if you can’t do either those, at least be liked by straight white men. If you can’t be any of those three, then you’re totally on the outside. We’re looking at a group of insiders in their natural habitat if you will. And they are good guys, they really are. Each of the four characters, they’re lovely. They’re as liberal as you could be. You wouldn’t expect this.
Tell me a little about the journey that’s brought you to the Broadway stage?
Acting is what I trained for back in college at Brown. I went to Brandeis graduate school for acting, but then my journey took a major detour when I joined the Church of Scientology before I graduated. These were the days when hippies were trying to save the world and this was the way I thought I could do it. Twelve years later I hadn’t saved the world and found out that L. Ron Hubbard was embezzling the money we were making for him and so I left.
Soon after that I came to terms with what I had been living with all my life: that I am not a man. In those days, there weren’t many choices. You were a drag queen, a closeted cross-dresser, or a transsexual. I didn’t think I was fabulous enough to be a drag queen and a closeted cross-dressing route was just heartbreaking. So, I took a deep breath and moved for a sex change. Doctors told me, “Well, if you aren’t a man you have to be a woman.” Non-binary was not a word, let alone an option. So, I called myself a woman by default. I had been lying and pretending to be a man and acting like a man.
Then I discovered that I was repeating the same kind of behavior, only this time acting out as a woman. I had given up acting when I decided to go through the gender change, but this is when my theater stuff kicked back in for me and I wrote a play about that. This was the 1980s, the heyday of performance art and solo performance. Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, Karen Finley were out there. So, I started writing my own work and started acting again. But then the NEA was defunded by Jesse Helms and our venues dried up.
So, I cast around, wondering how I was going to pay the rent. I had been writing for the Bay Area Reporter, and that led to Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. I said I wrote it to pay the rent, but it didn’t. But because the book did well and was taught in colleges, I started to get hired as a speaker and a performer on college campuses. That paid my rent for years. But when the offer came through for Straight White Men, I thought I could put my college speaking on hold a little bit for Broadway!
Has your thinking about identity evolved over the past couple of decades?
I first wrote Gender Outlaw to explain the idea of my identity as not a man and not a woman. But my great joy is to walk through the room as a woman. We didn’t have any word for it back then, but my “gender expression” is woman. And that I wasn’t able to express in the first edition of the book. Also—I use today’s language for it—there were binary identified trans people and non-binary identified trans people. Because I was just staking out new territory, I made the big mistake of creating a new binary by saying non-binary is good and true and binary is bad and false. This laid in an enmity with binary-identified trans people which lasted 20 years.
That first edition of Gender Outlaw, while it was very eloquent about a non-binary identity, partially did so by putting down a binary identity. Thank goodness Vintage asked me if I would be interested in revising and updating the book. They thought it would be just a few words here and there. I said, “Please let me correct this,” and it became a lot more inclusionary. I think it will last another 25 years before it becomes cringe-worthy. I think I said in the first edition that I can’t wait ’til this just becomes history and people will go, “Wait, in the old days you mean there were only two genders? Really?”
And sure enough, here we are to the point where people who aren’t men and not women are performing on Broadway. Ty Defoe, Peppermint, and myself are on Broadway. Justin Vivian Bond was the first non-binary trans person on Broadway. It fills my heart. It makes me cry happy tears that I had the opportunity to say all this stuff 25 years ago and that now I’m able to benefit from having said it. I’m very, very lucky.
Why do you think knowing a person’s gender is important for people?
Straight White Men doesn’t address this directly, but it does address the fact that it’s the gender “man” who’s in charge. And it’s not just man, it’s straight man. And it’s not just straight man, it’s straight white man who’s in charge—who has got all the money, who has got all the power. So, gender becomes an indicator of “Have you got power? How am I supposed to react to you, power-wise? Am I supposed to bow to you, or am I expecting you to bow to me?”
There’s also a completely different way. There used to be this heteronormative imperative: If you said you were a woman it was assumed you were attracted to men, and if you said you were a man it was assumed you were attracted to women. When I went through my gender change in the 1980s, in order to qualify for surgery I had to say I was attracted to men, that I wanted to get married and that my regret was that I’d never be able to give birth. In fact, I saw two different doctors and they turned me down because I didn’t say that. I went to a third who said, “I can give you some depth here in your vagina,” and I said I didn’t need that. And then we went around and around. It was like a little vaudeville routine until he went, “Oh, yeah, you’re a lesbian, oh, okay!” But he was in the minority.
So, for reasons of sexuality and for reasons of power, gender has been important. Not so much anymore for sexuality. But still for power. This play Straight White Men examines how very deep that goes and what it does to straight white men who think about it.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m working on two books. I have the title and subtitle for one of them: Trans Just for the Fun of It: Compassionate Gender Strategies for a Divisive Age. But, honestly, it’s acting that I love. I’m involved with two other shows that are aimed at New York. They’re both in different stages of development.
There seems to be more of a call for trans actors. I think we’ve passed the age where we need Jeffrey Tambor to play us. More people are writing trans characters and writing them respectfully, with as much love and care as they would any other character. This is a change. It’s no longer all Silence of the Lambs. We’ve been through that phase and someone doing that today would be called out. So, we’ve entered a new phase and I’m just glad I’m alive to do it.
In 2012, when I found out that I needed chemo for my lung cancer, I didn’t have the money for it or that kind of insurance. My girlfriend and a dear friend put together one of the earliest crowd-sourcing campaigns and within a week people who knew me and people who didn’t know me raised $100,000. I went through two years of chemo and radiation and came out on the other side. My lung cancer and leukemia are both in remission. I owe each and every one of those people my life. And I’m dedicating my performance and my writing now to those people who helped me stay alive for this.
As an elder in the trans community, how do you see your role today?
My role today is, once again, informed by what I claim my identity to be. Chemo therapy basically poisoned my bones—and as you get older they collapse anyway. I was close to six feet tall and I came out of it five-foot-eight. You wouldn’t call that little, but in my mind I’m a lot littler than I used to be. And, certainly, I’m old. People tell me 70 is the new 50. No, 70 is the same old 70. Believe me, it is! So, I’m old. What I have always wanted to be is the gender that my mum modeled for me: a lady. My two favorite genders are gentleman and lady and I think neither has a damn thing to do with biology because they are just elegant ways of dealing with others. So, I aspire to lady and I’m little and I’m old. I’m a little old lady! This is how I define myself these days.
Well, usually little old ladies are helped across the street by others. In your case, you’ve been helping other people across their lives.
That’s very sweet of you to say that. People just think I’m a little old lady—maybe feisty because I have tattoos all over my arms. There’s an invisibility that frankly I’m grateful for. And here’s where there’s a difference between a non-binary identity and a gender queer identity. Gender queer is mixing it all up in both identity and expression. My identity isn’t man or woman and that’s why I overlap with gender queer, but I’m not gender queer. My expression, my great joy, is walking through the world like a little old lady. I don’t mix it up very much, but in this play I will. When I was asked what type of costuming I wanted, I said I’d like the audience to know that I’m non-binary. I said, “I’d like it to be reminiscent of some non-binary. Oh, I know, Bowie!” So, I’m pretty damn Bowie in this show! That’s very cool.
Straight White Men is now playing at the Hayes Theater.
Interview: Ivo van Hove on Adapting Visconti’s The Damned for the Stage
We spoke to the Belgian-born titan of the theater about the experience of bringing new life to Visconti’s provocative The Damned.
There are no half measures with Ivo van Hove. Whether he’s revisiting modern classics like Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and The Crucible, or premiering David Bowie’s musical Lazarus, you can expect riveting—and in some instances controversial—theater fare from the Belgian-born director. So there’s great anticipation for his latest New York production: an epic staging of The Damned at the Park Avenue Armory, which runs from July 17 to 28.
The production, created for the Comédie-Française theater in Paris, premiered two summers ago at the Festival d’Avignon and is adapted from the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the 1969 film by Italian auteur Luchino Visconti. An operatic tale of decadence and greed, The Damned recounts the internecine struggles and disintegration of the powerful von Essenbeck family as they collude with the rising Nazi regime in 1930s Germany.
Hailed as a visionary, and sometimes dismissed as a provocateur, van Hove is currently in great demand in theater capitals across the globe. His upcoming international projects include the world-premiere stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, opening in September at the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, van Hove’s home-theater base; a new adaptation of All About Eve, set to premiere next February in London’s West End; and Électre/Oreste, a combination of two Euripides plays that will be presented next Summer at the ancient Epidaurus theater in Greece. And it’s just been announced that van Hove will helm a new interpretation of the classic American musical West Side Story, slated for Broadway at the end of next year.
Recently, I had the chance to sit down with van Hove and talk about the experience of bringing new life to Visconti’s provocative The Damned.
What drew you in the first place to Visconti’s film?
The first thing that was important for me when I read the screenplay is that it talks about the venomous alliance between the industrial world and the political world—in this case the steel industry and the extreme right-wing Nazi regime. They need each other for some reason. And that’s the great shocking thing, because this family is based on the Krupps, the world-famous steel industry family. There’s a wonderful moment in the beginning where the patriarch says, “I hate this man”—he doesn’t even mention Hitler by name—“but for the good of the company, for the prosperity of our family we have to do this.” So that’s how people make alliances—things to think about.
As you know from my work, I like a big family story. So that’s the second reason. But this is also a terrible family. The mother has a very complicated relationship with her son; the son doesn’t feel loved by his mother. I call it a nest of vipers. Is that a good English word for it? There is no tenderness, or if there is, it’s manipulative. This is a family that’s everything you don’t want your family to be. They are the anti-family. At the same time, it was one of the most influential and powerful families in Europe at that time.
Then I discovered during my preparations, and even more during rehearsals, that there was also a story about two young men: The famous one is Martin [grandson of the patriarch], but there is also [his cousin] Günther. Günther wants to be an artist and play music and Martin just doesn’t know what he wants in his life. He’s searching and he wants some guidance; he has no parents taking care of him so he’s like an adolescent kicking around and making provocations. These two young people are totally in this minefield of politics and financial interests, which they couldn’t care less about; they are totally apolitical. And then you see, step by step, how these two young people develop into Nazis. They turn into destroyers—people who are going to destroy other people. Even if they think the Nazis are going to change the world, these two join the Nazis purely for personal reasons. One does it for revenge on his mother and the other to avenge the killing of his father.
Was it difficult to recreate that period of German history?
I not only hesitated but refused to bring Nazis on stage [before this] because it is so difficult. Nazi ideology is the most terrible you can imagine so I don’t want to make fun of it; I don’t want to make it kind of a freak show. I wanted to have a “Heil Hitler!” moment that really frightened me and gave me goosebumps. I think we found a theatrical solution to do that. But when I read the story, I think it was much more. It almost becomes emblematic for what is still going on. We must not forget people really believed that this was a change for the better and Hitler was democratically elected. The people of Germany at that moment wanted him. Of course, he used them all for his goals, which was the exclusion of a lot of people.
There’s a chilling line in The Damned where an SS officer talks about channeling the young man’s hate.
Yes, obviously the Nazis use Günther. I thought about the system of radicalization. You see that a lot now. You see that these young people are used because they have a frustration against society. They have a grudge against society because they don’t feel accepted, they don’t feel assimilated, and they have a hard time finding the right education and finding a great job. These things are connected. A lot of ideologies feed on this frustration.
Does it feel like The Damned has become very timely?
More timely now, I dare to say it. Visconti was a visionary you can say, but in his time it was more like looking back to a period. Now we are living in it.
In recent years you’ve adapted many film scripts for the stage. What is it that attracts you to the movies?
When I do a movie on stage I do an adaptation of the movie script, not of the movie. In this case I didn’t see the movie again. I saw it when I was young, and of course there are many images that are so strong in your mind. You can’t avoid them. But for me, it was very easy when I read the script to find my own aesthetics. If I don’t feel that immediately then I don’t do it. Because it makes no sense to repeat the aesthetics of a movie that has been made already.
Is it difficult working with a text that wasn’t intended for the stage?
One of the reasons why I started doing movie scripts on stage is because of the themes. And when you do a movie script on stage, most of the time it’s a world premiere. It’s as if you are doing Hamlet for the first time. That is for me a huge challenge: how to invent the theatrical world for this material. It pushes me further in my thinking about theater.
You seem to be a fan of Visconti. You previously adapted three other of his movie scripts: Rocco and His Brothers, Obsession, and Ludwig.
I was a movie freak when I was young. Actually, I didn’t go to the theater because I didn’t have much money. Movies were cheap, and I lived around the corner from a movie theater, so I went to the movies three or four times a week. I’m a child of the ‘70s, and so I lived in the great times of American directors like Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola. Also, Italian movies were at a very high level as well as French movies. Then, German movies were just emerging. This was also a time when it was very normal for a theater director to be an opera director and a movie director. Fassbinder did it, Bergman did it, and later on Patrice Chéreau. And, of course, Visconti did it. His movies are like huge canvasses of cruelties of humanity, of cravings of humanity, of despair. As I said, I love family dramas, but not in itself. It has to be telling something about the world: the family as a kind of metaphor for the world. This is something Visconti always found in most of his movies. He has these very personal stories about very recognizable people against the bigger cosmos. He didn’t make very many movies, but every movie that he made dealt with something really specific and was different from the other. He was very much politically engaged.
Would you say there’s also a Shakespearean element to The Damned?
Visconti was a big classicist. The Oresteia is clearly there, a family drama with someone who is killed. Then there’s Macbeth. At a certain moment, this woman marries her lover. He’s not the normal successor, but he’s pushed by her into the kingdom [to become the head of the firm]. There’s a sexual energy between them that pushes them toward evil. That’s justified for total victory and for power—actually not to do anything with that power but just to own it. It’s a great script, really very well written.
Will the staging at the Park Avenue Armory be different from the original that you staged at Avignon two years ago?
It will be close to the original. We opened at the Festival d’Avignon at the Pope’s Palace, which is a huge space, about the size of three Broadway theaters. We have the same width at the Armory. The Pope’s Palace is open air and seats 2000 people. It’s a hard space. I had seen many productions there, so I knew what I had to do and also what not to do. We will have the same feeling here in New York. The Armory does productions that come alive in that space; the space has to give something extra. The Damned is a big production with a lot of actors on stage and it’s very interactive with video and music. The set is more like an installation. When you first see it, the set doesn’t mean anything, but when you start using it—it starts to mean everything. For us, the whole production is always what we call the ritual of evil—so there are a lot of ritualistic moments. This family starts killing each other, and they are killed by the Nazis. A lot of people get killed.
What was the biggest challenge you faced with this production?
To make all these rich themes in The Damned come alive and be visible, and hopefully to create something that also moves people. It’s not about making a historical document—the ending is a very specific thing that’s not in the movie. I won’t say too much more.
The Damned runs from July 17—28 at the Park Avenue Armory.
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