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  • Jonathan Kalb

Holiday Roundup 2022

Here it is, folks! For the first time in three years, the holiday roundup—five plays now running in New York City that you should absolutely, positively, unfailingly . . . maybe read about here before deciding to see.

The characters in Will Arbery’s Evanston Salt Costs Climbing—a play that dates from before his exquisite Heroes of the Fourth Turning, a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize—are two municipal road workers, their supervisor, and that supervisor’s step-daughter. Two of these are avowedly suicidal, all are self-critical, and their fumbling efforts to connect through pieces of story, meandering discussions of road maintenance, dark energy, cat diarrhea, Domino Pizza, and invocations of the renowned author Jane Jacobs, inject candor and sweetness into a prevailing sense of void, colored by their pervasive self-loathing.

What’s important in Will Arbery’s plays occurs in the interstices. Stuff happens in his plots—people die, disappear, misunderstand or disappoint one another, dance, sing, appear as ghosts or dreams—but that’s not what usually grabs your attention. The drama invariably comes from the characters’ nervously unsettled emotional lives, which rise to visibility in anomalous moments of fugue, reverie, truncated storytelling, panic, rage, that sort of thing. His characters don’t tend to be clinically disturbed, but they’re not exactly stable either. The central ones are beset with a kind of existential dread that ordinary people don’t usually allow in. For reasons they sometimes explain well and sometimes struggle to articulate, his people come to doubt their normal ways of organizing and explaining experience, suddenly seeing dreadful abysses open up beneath them. And what’s astonishing about that is that Arbery treats those terrifying visions as unavoidable hazards of living a thoughtful life.

Danya Taymor—who also directed Heroes—has cast Evanston Salt Costs exquisitely. The actors (Quincy Tyler Berstine, Jeb Kreager, Ken Leung, and Rachel Sachnoff) deserve huge credit for sustaining the oddly breezy-sad tone, which keeps the play unpredictable and quirky. Arbery isn’t for everybody—those who need dramas securely anchored in explanation lose patience with him—but his perplexities and mysteries are high points of any theater season for me.

Jukebox musicals are, by definition, absurd contraptions in which a popular song catalogue is trotted out for expensive new consumption, repurposed as the stuff of drama. Expectations are low and contrivance unimportant because storytelling holes will be overlooked by fans who just wanna hear familiar songs belted out live. & Juliet’s twist on this is to make contrivance into a comic virtue. David West Read wrote the smart book for this show built around the songs of Max Martin, who has written earworm hits for a list of stars so long that the chart in the program reads like a Who’s Who of Pop over two decades (Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, you name it).

The show’s conceit is that Shakespeare’s beautiful, strong and clever wife Anne Hathaway shows up one day at a rehearsal for Romeo & Juliet and has such forceful opinions about how to improve it that the couple ends up rewriting it in front of us as a mock-epic Battle of the Sexes. As they twist the plot like taffy, the results are played out onstage, with expectable absurdity. Who cares that “Show Me Love” doesn’t really make sense as a score for Juliet’s jubilant escape to Paris before she finds a new boyfriend (“This love I’ve got for you could/ Take me ‘round the world now/ Show me love”)? And who’s bothered that “Teenage Dream” has nothing really to do with the rekindled affair of Juliet’s middle-aged nurse Angelique (“You think I’m pretty without any make-up on/ You think I’m funny when I tell the punch line wrong”)? Taffy is fun and delicious, husband-wife spats reliably chewy, and & Juliet is a rollicking, well-oiled carnival ride. My favorite unintended irony is the cataract of triumphal assertion of the authentic self at the end (“Let me show you the shape of my heart”; “I know who I am, and where I’m from, and what I’ve done, and I really love me”), blared to the rafters by characters who have just spent two and a half hours stuffing themselves into pre-fab pop songs.

Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous has a permanent place in my heart as a coming-of-age story about a young critic. I’m well aware of all the reasons other people love it: the woozy-sexy aura of the 70s rock scene, the amazing soundtrack featuring The Who, Allman Brothers, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and so many others, the unforgettable performances by Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Hudson. All that understood, the film’s main distinction for me is the serious respect it pays to a budding critical intelligence, which is an extremely unusual movie subject. Fifteen-year-old William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit) improbably lands a plum assignment profiling a fictional band called Stillwater for Rolling Stone, and his talent and integrity are fiercely tested in the crucible of a chaotic cross-country tour. It’s worth noticing that while William’s vocation is mocked it’s never truly denigrated in the movie. He’s respected, without ever talking very much about anything—that would be un-filmic! It’s the way Hoffman’s Lester Bangs talks to him, and the way the Stillwater guys react to him, always off balance, that gives him dignity.

Now Crowe has teamed up with Tom Kitt, composer of Next to Normal and If/Then, to reimagine Almost Famous as a musical, and the result has been lambasted by several prominent reviewers. The blanket scorn seems to me undeserved. Any average person attending this show for what might be called “jukebox reasons” will certainly come away entertained. The famous songs are all there to be relished, and so are 18 new ones, and the film’s hilarious distended-caper plot, replete with its rampant canoodling and multiple betrayals and reconciliations, is mostly intact and performed lucidly by a fine ensemble with excellent vocal chops.

The one undeniable failing for me is that the musical never frames William with due respect. He’s as laconic as ever, played by Casey Likes, but stage musicals have no reaction shots (actors and their dialogue partners are always right there sharing focus), so no one’s reaction to William is ever highlighted or framed. Also, everyone in a musical is expected to sing, including William, so he ends up having extroversion thrust upon him, tagged with a dopey “I want” song (“No Friends”) just like everyone else. I wish Crowe had remembered that part of what’s special about people like William and Lester was that they don’t say everything they think, even under pressure. They keep their emotional powder dry to ignite it in dynamic, explosive prose. Almost Famous: The Musical may not be boring nor inept, as its detractors claim, but it has wandered far from the film’s unique writerly soul. Like’s William is just a greenhorn kid on a crazy caper, and that simply can’t move anyone in quite the same way.

Ill-advised as it may sound, I went to Kimberly Akimbo—David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori’s new musical version of Lindsay-Abaire’s 2000 play—to grapple with a childhood trauma. When I was 11, waiting on line at the grocery store with my mother, I spotted a National Enquirer headline that read “13-Year-Old Dies of Old Age!” and was terrified by it for days. I was sure I had the disease in the story and only a very inconvenient doctor visit reassured me I would ever reach high school. I mention this humiliating episode in the spirit of admitting that I’m the worst conceivable spectator for Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori’s dark screwball comedy about a 15-year-old girl with Methuselah Syndrome, an accelerated aging condition that makes her resemble her own grandmother. I saw the play two decades ago knowing nothing about it beforehand, and remember finding Marylouise Burke’s lead performance poignant and pointed without laughing once at her supposedly comic dilemma.

Why then, you might rightly ask, would I go see the musical? Well, one reason is that all the artists involved are reputable and many people I respect loved the show at the Atlantic Theater last year. Another is that comic incongruity is an interesting phenomenon. Theater has been blending the funny with the gravely serious for millennia, and it’s pretty clear that laughter can at times give us a new handle on our fears. I thought I’d give the musical a chance to work magic the way the straight play couldn’t. But it didn’t work. Unfortunately, I still find the basic dramatic situation—in which a rare disease deprives a bright teenager of her entire future—so upsetting that neither Tesori’s fine songs nor the eccentric antics of Kimberly’s shady, degenerate family (which those around me found hilarious) could lift my spirits. Here’s the more general point, though. My own fears aside, this musical (like the play) doesn’t really have anything to say about fear, period, even though any kid saddled with such a disease would certainly feel it aplenty. The musical’s focus is on arranging its tumble of antic incidents so that Kimberly finds her way to a good friend and an exciting life adventure while she can still enjoy them. That’s a sweet story—living for the now—but some might find it (especially from a thoughtful author like Lindsay-Abaire) a tad incomplete.

After four years, following much-celebrated runs at Steppenwolf and the National Theater, Bruce Norris’s Downstate, his most disturbing and provocative play to date, has arrived in New York in a sharp and subtle production directed by Pam MacKinnon. Many here know Norris mainly from his decorated yet much more mildly provocative Clybourne Park—a sequel of sorts to A Raisin in the Sun about the corrosive effects of gentrification and housing discrimination. Let me take this occasion to report, then, that the bristles on Downstate are much stiffer, sharper and more painful than Clybourne Park’s.

The subject is pedophiles living in a group home in Illinois after release from prison. The story considers the effectiveness of and justification for the many severe restrictions on them imposed by draconian laws (e.g. no internet, alcohol, smartphones, or shopping or residing within half a mile of schools or playgrounds). Are these measures all legitimately protective, or do some amount to vindictiveness, or opportunistic virtue-signaling by authorities too busy to think through what might really work to reduce recidivism? The play risks sympathy with men guilty of unspeakable crimes in order to ask terribly difficult questions about what our social response really ought to be to such behavior. This is the kind of taboo-breaking subject that fine modern dramatists have reached for before to force us to look at ourselves in newly critical ways. I have no idea whether Norris will eventually be classed with the likes of Ibsen and Gorky for employing that strategy, but it’s not unthinkable. This finely observed play is so hard to watch that I suspect in the future it’s destined to be more read than performed. All the more reason to see MacKinnon’s searing and sensitive production while it’s still around.

Photo credits:

Evanston Salt Costs Climbing: Monique Carboni & Juliet: Matthew Murphy Almost Famous: Neal Preston

Kimberly Akimbo and Downstate: Joan Marcus

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