How Are You Julian?

October 22, 2014

Alex-Podulke-as-Julian-Barbara-Kingsley-as-Claire-in-Uncanny-Valley-by-Thomas-Gibbons-photo-by-Seth-Freeman.UNCANNY VALLEY is a provocative piece of social science fiction in the form of a play. In a just world, this is the sort of thing that would be winning the Hugo Award (science fiction’s Oscar) for Best Dramatic Presentation instead of the latest fan favorite from tv or the multiplex. Despite its out-of-genre antecedent, it certainly deserves to be considered alongside other serious works in the field. After all, the very term “robot” is derived from a play: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

This play, by Thomas Gibbons, tackles serious moral and ethical questions about robotics and artificial intelligence, based on one Big Lie, the “What If?” proposition that underlies nearly all worthwhile sf. In other words, let’s pretend just for now that a particular bit of technological advancement is not only possible, but already achieved in the “not distant future” of the piece’s setting. What might happen then?

There are two actors. Only one of them plays a human being. She is a neuroscientist named Claire whose team created a state-of-the-art automaton known as Julian. The two of them converse in her office, and in the process we watch Julian progress from childhood to…but that would be telling.

The night I saw it, Claire was played to perfection by Barbara Kingsley, whose resume is long and distinguished. In the role of Julian was the amazing Alex Podulke, a name new to me, one of those actors who can utterly control his facial features, even refrain from blinking when necessary; he has also perfected that rigid head-turn and slight overshoot-and-correction that suggest his movements are being powered by servomotors. (Street mimes can do that too, but usually it’s all the act they have.) Thus can a talented and committed flesh-and-blood actor regress into the “Uncanny Valley.”

The term was coined in 1970 by Prof. Masahiro Mori, who hypothesized that we can easily feel empathy for stylized characters (like those in cartoons), but as a representation comes closer to actual human appearance and behavior, we approach an area that inspires revulsion, or at least creepy wariness, a phenomenon that climbs back into empathy once again as we move closer still. That empathetic dip is the Uncanny Valley. To experience this phenomenon and perhaps nod to Prof. Mori’s insight, I invite you to consider Tom Hanks’s animated avatar in THE POLAR EXPRESS, or any of the characters in the 2001 film FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN. There are many reasons that 2011’s MARS NEEDS MOMS was a colossal failure (lousy script, an ill-advised moms-in-peril story, etc.), but prominent among them, in my view, was that audience members were forced to stare into the Uncanny Valley for an hour and a half. Or, to save you some trouble, just look at this “actroid” from Japan, where very sophisticated work in robotic simulation continues.

th-1We discover Julian as a disembodied head on a stand, crammed with raw information but lacking any emotional intelligence, which he learns from his mentor. He gains body parts in a series of time-lapse blackouts as the unseen engineers gradually construct him: first a torso, then right arm, then left arm, and finally legs that allow him to walk around and explore. This represents his early education at Claire’s hands, and when we first see Mr. Podulke, he is damn near drawing the Uncanny Valley all by himself. He and his mentor even talk about it. (This play swats away the storied Turing Test — can a machine fool a person into thinking it’s human? — within five minutes. Kid stuff. Our ethical journey is already far more nuanced than that.)

The blinking comes first, perhaps so the audience can be gently brought up to speed regarding the Uncanny Valley. Claire explains that humans blink an average of five times a minute. But Julian’s blinking — of course, he has no physiological reason, unlike we dry-eyed people — is programmed for random intervals rather than once every twelve seconds, to help him avoid acting like a machine. One of Julian’s first questions when he sees his face in a mirror is, “Why are my eyes blue?” It sounds charming and naive, but it is actually an important plot point and will in fact be answered later. The servo-like movements are most pronounced when we first meet Julian and gradually dissipate as he gains appendages and social experience. I won’t go any farther except to tell you there is another dimension to Mr. Podulke’s performance, and that’s when the proceedings really transcend. The intricacies of Mr. Gibbons’s story give each character plenty of room to roam, and enough conflict to let both actors summon every note on the histrionic scale.

The trite greeting “How are you, Julian?” actually becomes profound when one removes the comma, and that tiny snip is the very crux of this smart, thought-provoking play. I don’t seriously think you’ll be able to catch it before it ends its New York run this coming Sunday, but I bring it up because its producer, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is billing it as “A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.” I take “rolling” to mean that there may well be an engagement near you; check their website. If it gets close, buy a ticket, and let me hear from you. Me, I loved it.

P.S.: Don’t confuse this with a similarly titled play. I haven’t seen that one, so can’t comment.


The Guy Next To Me On The Train

July 18, 2014

I was waiting on the platform at the Rhinecliff train station last Monday. I was talking to a newly-made friend who had also just attended Ricky Jay’s magic-appreciation-immersion weekend. The Amtrak train to Penn Station pulled up. I had to say goodbye because, weeks before, just after I’d ponied up the fee for Ricky’s “Congress of Wonders,” I’d also decided to treat myself to business-class seats on the train, up and back. A gentleman in a light brown suit pointed me to the right car. I walked through the “café car” and found only one empty seat, next to a window seat already saved by a small pack. The helpful gentleman returned from the café car; I’d begun to make myself at home without thinking that he might have been ordering a veggieburger and needing to slip past me.

“Do you know Marc Connelly?” he asked, once he’d settled in and gotten his burger situated on his tray table. Startled, I looked straight at him. “No,” I said. “You remind me of him, I thought you might be related.” I was aghast. “Are you in the theater?” “Yes,” he said, with an inimitable side-of-the-mouth grin, at which point I pegged him.

“You look like John Astin,” I said. “I get that all the time,” said he as he dressed his veggieburger. “And,” said I, “you sound like John Astin.” Now he reached for my hand. The next ninety minutes flew by as we plied each other with conversation. It was the final bit of magic from the Congress of Wonders; I’ll never know how Ricky did it.

astinMr. Astin was returning to his Baltimore home from teaching a master class upstate. (His base is Johns Hopkins, but he’s frequently elsewhere.) He knew who Ricky Jay was, and seemed interested in my weekend experience, which I could only describe to him as a series of outré TED Talks, each of which had at least one spoke aimed at the art of magic. He was amused by my inability to communicate, but sensed a fellow mind.

We talked about our upbringings, what brought him into performance, what led me into studying theater in college, the close relationship between theater and magic, how theatrical arts can be taught and what that means (in subsequent real life, I have depended far more on my college theater-major training than on my political-science-major training), one-man shows (he loved learning about the William Faulkner evening I co-wrote and described the opening minutes of his own Edgar Allan Poe piece, which are chillingly cool), and more and more and more.

He even mentioned Gomez Addams. That led to a discussion about fame, or simple notoriety. Chance had sat me next to Ricky Jay the previous night in the back room of a Rhinebeck tavern, and I couldn’t help but watch countless sycophants bring stuff up to Ricky to sign. This natural curmudgeon endured them all and, as I confessed to my new train-bound friend, the jagged line — you think you’re done, then one more person walks up! — actually became tedious to me, and I’m not even Ricky! He reminded me that he’d already enjoyed some tv notoriety before THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and that what you have to do is just be thankful and continue moving on: in truth, there’s nothing to complain about. I assured him that, even to ten-year-olds, it was his show that was the transgressive one, and the other one that was relatively square. He’d probably heard something similar before, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

As we were pulling up to the final stop, he thanked me for entertaining him on the trip. Heck, he’d done the same for me my whole life! As we departed inside the terminal, “See ya later, John!” “I think we just might, Tom!” Man, I hope so. What a well-read, well-spoken guy. I’m a deeper fan than I was before.


Disco Rules! (For One Night)

May 3, 2013

hereliesLike many guys, I’m not much of a dancer. I feel self-conscious. I can’t help it. Intellectually, I know others don’t care, they’re too busy having a good time themselves to stop and stare at my geeky moves, but in that primitive fight-or-flight territory of my brain, dancing in public probably qualifies as a near phobia, what public speaking means to some people. You do it only when you have to. I’ve tried to avoid dances all my life except when it was socially necessary, such as a school prom or a fraternity party. (Not a kegger, a dance!) Dancing in a stage musical, for which you have to memorize and repeat the choreography, is somehow different for me, and I’ve done that several times without any anxiety beyond the normal butterflies. But I still have a little improv-dancing-in-public prob.

So it was that I absorbed many warning signals about the immersive theatrical experience HERE LIES LOVE as it prepared for its world premiere engagement at the Public Theater. You’ll stand for an hour and a half, on a set that’s made to look like a disco (I hate disco). You’ll be encouraged to dance. Wear comfortable shoes. If you really have to sit down, tell us in advance so we can scoosh you into a spot where you can. As the ticket date approached, even despite glowing reviews (I don’t read the details beforehand, just try to suss the general opinion), I was apprehensive enough that I suggested my wife invite another friend in my place. It didn’t work out, so I reluctantly trudged down to Astor Place last night. An hour and a half later, I realized what a close call it was. If I had turned down the chance to see this show, it would have been the most colossal mistake of my theatergoing life.

More indications that this one was Different appeared as we walked up the stairs to the third floor of the Public complex. Signs reading, we really think you should check your coats and bags, trust us. No theater program upon entering; you and I’m guessing 150 others are just in this disco with blinking lights and a pumping beat, a DJ gyrating on a balcony level above your head. There are a few seated people peeking over the edge, but since the action darts around, the only way to see the entire show is to be on the dance floor: there will be occasional obstructions from any balcony seat, just as most of the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE audience, encircling the stage one level above, can’t see everything that’s happening on the Studio 8H floor.

There was a raised horizontal stage in the center of the room, the people milling about all around it. When it came time to start, the DJ pointed out a few stagehands in light orange jumpsuits, standing among us. When they want to move the stage around, he said, they’ll herd you to make room, so go wherever they point you. For a practice run, they rotated the stage as we followed them in a wide circle. From then on, the set crew would work nearly as hard as the actors, transforming the performing space into two room-ending stages, a horizontal walk-through ramp, all the permutations in between, and finally a huge stairway like the one in Duffy Square, where the two-thirds of the audience that had accepted the offer to come up on stage themselves could sit down for the finale. (So it’s no spoiler to say if they invite you on stage, by all means GO.) The DJ also asked us to shut off our cell phones, but anyone dumb enough to ignore him would have been unable to hear their call anyway, and trying to text on an active dance floor is, let’s just say, counterindicated.

The piece itself is a mostly sung-through operetta about the origin and brutal reign of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 through 1986 (under martial law beginning in 1972) and its public face, his wife Imelda. It’s also about the spirit and resilience of the Filipino people, who finally took back their country after four days of intense but nonviolent protest. This sounds (a) grim, and (b) kind of like EVITA II, but nope, it’s neither one.

The disco setting is used as a metaphor for the motivating power of celebrity as wielded on the masses, and also because that’s pretty much the kind of life Imelda Marcos lived. You’re swept up in the excitement, which literally, physically, carries you along. One minute you’re in the back of the crowd watching the soloist from forty feet away, the next minute everything has moved around and she’s right in front of you – or even next to you. When Imelda comes down into the audience to meet her adoring public – played now by us — a video camera follows her and the images are projected on all four walls as smitten audience members take her hand and smile beatifically. When her husband first runs for office, he’s surrounded by Men In Black Ray-Banned bodyguard types, who walk down the ramp all the way across the room, leaning down to shake hands and bark, “Vote for Marcos!” One of the goons grabbed my hand, and it was all I could do to keep from saying, “I will!”

David Byrne dreamed all this up and wrote the lyrics, and collaborated with Fatboy Slim on the music. It’s not exactly disco, not that droning metronomic vibe. Not exactly hip-hop, though it feels fresh and new. Not exactly show tunes, either, though several performers get rare quieter belters that garner applause. It’s mostly smart, melodic dance music, but the intimate setting lets the thirteen billed performers – if they’re not all Filipino, they can sure play it – engage the audience more viscerally than anything I’ve seen since the heyday of the Living Theater. And that includes rock stars who numbly order you to “clap yo hands!”

David Byrne is probably the “sell” on the show – that’s certainly why we bought our tickets – but for my money the guy who deserves just as much credit is the genius director, Alex Timbers. He co-wrote and staged the fiercely entertaining BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON a couple years ago; directed PETER & THE STARCATCHER, a charming piece that uses low-tech theatrical effects to beguile its audience with the Peter Pan backstory; and won the Obie a while ago for directing A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT. I adored them all. This summer, he’ll be reunited with ANDREW JACKSON collaborator Michael Friedman for a new musical version of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST as the second Shakespeare in the Park show at the Delacorte. In the dictionary, that’s his picture beside the word “creative.” From now on, if Timbers’s name’s on the show, I’m there. Here, as in STARCATCHER, he uses “hand-rolled” theatrical moves (most big set changes on Broadway are done by computer now, along little tracks just under the stage) to down-tech the show, dunk the audience in it (I’d like to meet the guy who manages to fall asleep!), and lift their heads up while it’s still refreshing. I also want to send props out to sound designers M. L. Dogg and Cody Spencer: even above the dance-club din, we made out more of Byrne’s brainy lyrics than we had during the “state-of-the-art” production of MATILDA (which is a scream, by the way).

The dancing? Oversold. You can stand there like a potted plant if you want to, but the music is just too much to resist, so you’re moving around, there’s that. Then they show you how to jump, clap, left, right, in unison, like Imelda. The moves were pretty easy, but I still sucked, yet I didn’t care, and that went double for everybody else standing near me. How close I came to missing all this. Note to self: listen to wife all the time from now on! We got the Playbill upon leaving, and my one and only beef was with two female dweebs who’d retained their crammed, bloated backpacks despite the quite reasonable pre-show suggestion and, like nearly every other urban backpack carrier on earth, were oblivious to whatever they’re swatting from behind. One Trendora whirled toward me in irritation at feeling a bit of resistance, thus swatting somebody else! A pox on all backpackers who aren’t climbing mountains, on safari, or attending grade school.

After a long time seeing uninspired cookie-cutter musicals, and sadly noting that too often the best dramas on Broadway are revivals, it feels great when something comes up behind you and smacks you with a 2×4. The last time was probably GATZ, also here at the Public. Anyhow, if you can get a ticket, do it. They have held this show over twice, and now it runs through the end of June. It can’t move to a big Broadway theater (as, recently, did the Public’s ANDREW JACKSON and its Central Park productions of HAIR and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE). This piece has to happen in a room just like this one. But if you get the chance – can L.A. be far behind? – DO NOT MISS. Oh, and wear comfortable shoes.

P.S.: If it’s been more than, say, nine months since you’ve been to the Public Theater facility in the historic Astor Library (a New York City Landmark in its own right), you will find it transformed, particularly the gorgeous lobby area, after a $40 million renovation of which we were happy to be a small part. We had a light dinner beforehand in the new lounge The Library, a great addition that helps you cut it much closer to curtain time.

5/31/13: Today the Public announced one final extension, through July 28. This show could probably run forever, only it can’t.

7/24/13: I take it back! Yesterday, the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, announced that they’re looking for a new space in New York to keep the show going, in one of four possible configurations, and mulling productions in other cities.

8/1/13: Damn! It’s raining tonight, so they canceled the pre-show backstage dinner for Public donors, an informal serve-yourself deal where you can eat, meet and schmooze. Tonight we were scheduled to hear from LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST songwriter Michael Friedman (BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON) and director Alex Timbers. I was actually going to be able to walk up to Mr. Timbers and tell him how much I enjoy his work, just as I personally congratulated Oskar on winning the Tony for the Public’s revival of HAIR. Alas, not to be. Damn! We’ll see the show next week instead. Yes, if you gotta have problems, this is a ludicrously lightweight problem to have, but still, I was really looking forward to meeting Alex Timbers.

3/21/14: It’s back, for another run at the Public, beginning in about a month.

10/14/14: No Timbers, but I did finally get to meet Michael Friedman just before a perf of the new musical THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, based on a Jonathan Lethem novel. (These creative folks aren’t afraid of anything!) I thanked him for writing so much great Shakespeare music, especially for those sweet summer nights in the Park.


With Great Power Comes Great Entertainment

April 5, 2012

Patrick Page, the real star of this show, without his Green Goblin facial prosthetics.

I saw SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK yesterday.

Snicker if you like, but its stagecraft is next-generation: costumes, sets, lighting, sound, actors being where they’re supposed to be in split-second increments. It is old-style Broadway taken to an astonishing new level. Then there is the flying, on top of you, all around you.

Finally, Patrick Page takes Act II into his pocket and walks away with it as the Green Goblin. In potentially scary garb, he manages to charm all children, even the youngest, within :05 of his appearance, and the adults just follow. You want him back on stage the instant he slinks off.

In full regalia.

I saw a Wed-matinee Spidey-sub so new that he wasn’t even listed in the program, and still he frickin killed. So why isn’t this breaking all records everywhere? Um, the score. It blows. There are two or three U2-deserving rockers, but the rest is Bono and The Edge trying to fit square musical pegs into round holes, because they have real problems with the big blasting representative number that is a Broadway musical staple. They try. They fail.

SPIDEY is the ultimate tourist attraction, which puts some snobs off right there, but if you know anything at all about how they actually do this stuff, I say you MUST NOT MISS IT.

11/18/13: The producers hung the closing notice today. Although a family/tourist favorite, it was just too expensive to perform before 3/4-strength crowds. SPIDEY will close in January and then re-open as a Las Vegas attraction in 2015. Patrick Page had long since left the cast; I next saw him in John Grisham’s A TIME TO KILL, which itself sputtered and closed.


Daisey, Changed

March 18, 2012

This has to be the week of progressives calling out their own. (Yes, poor “victimized” right-wing media, it does indeed happen.) First, Bill Maher airs a one-sided view of Mississippi and then compounds the error with an oafish election-night tweet. And Friday, the exemplary THIS AMERICAN LIFE radio program “retracts” the most popular story in its history, a piece by Mike Daisey about working conditions at Foxconn Technology in Shenzhen, China, where iPhones, iPads, and many of our other most prized devices are manufactured – mostly by hand.

The TAL piece was an excerpt from Daisey’s highly successful one-man show THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, ending its encore run today at the Public Theater (the closing date is a coincidence unrelated to this incident). We saw it down there last December. The heavyset Seattle-based monologist employs a cadence, and dynamics, that remind you of DAILY SHOW contributor Lewis Black: he’ll talk softly for most of a sentence and suddenly SHOUT OUT a word or two, so you tend to pay attention. (I had previously seen his monologue 21 DOG YEARS, about his experiences as an early employee of Amazon.com.)

This time, Daisey’s topic is Apple Inc. First, how wonderful and magical their life-changing products are; and then about the human cost of manufacturing them in China, an aspect that has escaped most Apple customers over the years. (Other companies use Chinese labor as well, but Daisey concentrates on Apple.) I don’t know about you, but I always pictured iPhones and iPods being assembled by robot arms in giant white high-tech clean rooms. Not so. The work is done by hand, with mind-numbing and body-grueling repetition, at places like Foxconn, the mammoth campus which Daisey visited. By Western standards, cheap labor is being sorely misused, and no matter how hip the company – as Nike discovered years ago – its role ought to bring shame and embarrassment, especially if executives in the supply chain are aware of the working conditions, and how could they not be?

But there turns out to be a HUGE problem. Not only can’t Daisey corroborate certain events which happened outside his purview, he also lied to TAL’s fact-checkers regarding the very identity of his Chinese translator who was first to dispute the accuracy of his account – meaning he knew there was something there to be discovered. Here is a detailed look at TAL’s objections. Also note that by Chinese standards, most Foxconn workers, mainly poor migrants, seem happy to have their jobs, even working exhaustingly long shifts for a pittance; instances of abuse and physical harm (such as hexane poisoning) certainly exist but may be rarer than Daisey insinuates; and, most seriously, he can’t possibly have seen everything he says he did in one six-day visit. He is describing something true using a fictional method. Nothing wrong there – most enduring works of art operate that way – but look at his stern assertion in the next paragraph.

Daisey’s halfhearted defense seems to be, yes, but this is theater, I shouldn’t have presented it to TAL as journalism. In response, I’d like to quote two bold-faced lines from the Playbill I was handed as I walked in the theater door (yes, Virginia, there is a straight guy who saves all his Playbills):

THIS IS A WORK OF NONFICTION.
SOME NAMES AND IDENTITIES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT SOURCES.

If the root issue is real, and Daisey’s heart is in the right place – he has certainly worked and succeeded, through drama, in bringing consumer-electronics labor issues into the public consciousness, and there’s reason to believe things are gradually changing at Foxconn – then why is this so important?

I can trust that Daisey’s basic premise is true not because he says so (though I took him at his word back in December, per that Playbill disclaimer), but because it’s been corroborated by independent news and labor organizations, most notably the New York Times, whose reporters have filed front-page stories about working conditions in China (arguably urged on by people like Daisey).

I can assert that his presentation is at least in part fictional because of those same independent news organizations. In fact, Times reporters in China also questioned specific points in Daisey’s piece as unlikely. Even the one with egg on its face, THIS AMERICAN LIFE, had guts enough to do the right thing retroactively after making one fatal error: they should have never allowed the story on the air after being unable to contact Daisey’s translator.

News and opinion can exist side by side. Away from its editorial pages, which of course are all opinion, The New York Times indicates the difference instantly using typography: each day, any story with a justified-right margin is reporting, truth, accuracy; any story with a “ragged-right” margin, like the one you’re reading right now, is opinion or analysis. TAL itself has a coterie of bright, thought-provoking contributors whose subjective musings are clearly labeled as just that.

But the fact that TAL has fact-checkers at all shows you they’re trying to ensure that what they present as truth actually is. Political blowhards on both sides of the spectrum (world’s most unavailable job: Sean Hannity fact checker!) spout opinion so fast and so loud that some folks probably can’t be blamed for taking it seriously. But if, say, Bill O’Reilly states that something happened today, I’m gonna need corroboration. (He earned my skepticism by inventing or adopting specious news items for his silly “War on Christmas.”)

We need independent news, and thank God we still have some of it amid all the cacophony. Meanwhile, what of the dramatist?

When the lights came up after AGONY/ECSTASY, my wife used an earthier term to say, “He’s a hypocrite.” If he’s so upset, why does he continue to use Foxconn-made gear? And the stars in his eyes during the show’s opening moments, when he’s describing his own happy Apple addiction, are those of somebody who trades in for damn near every new model. We didn’t yet know that what we’d just heard had been juiced for dramatic power. But now I can’t help but wonder if he was telling the truth about Amazon in 21 DOG YEARS. So that’s something that Mike Daisey must share with Bill O’Reilly. No more trust; I now have to verify.


Dead, And Live Too

November 21, 2010

This has definitely been the year for unusual theatrical experiences. First there was GATZ, the unexpurgated eight-hour performance of THE GREAT GATSBY, and now I’ve returned from a much shorter but still relentlessly outre production. Like GATZ, it isn’t exactly a play, but whatever it is, it’s a doggone good one. It’s called PLAY DEAD, and I loved it.

It’s inspired by the “midnight spook show,” a bygone midcentury staple in movie theaters across the country. A magician would book the room, dress up his tricks with ghostly patter, and preside until the finale, when a live monster would burst into the audience just as all the lights went out. You went there so your girlfriend could scream and grab on tight. PLAY DEAD is the best “midnight spook show” there could ever be.

The piece is co-written and directed by Teller, the quieter half of Penn &. His co-writer and on-stage performer is Todd Robbins, an old hand at carny feats and other forms of magic. And they have found the perfect dilapidated theater, the Players on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, the same venue where I saw the Fugs live 43 summers ago. This place looks like it was haunted even before the master illusionists moved in.

Teller and Todd Robbins, the creators of PLAY DEAD.

I can’t go into detail about what happens during PLAY DEAD’s 75 minutes without spoiling surprises – and you might well get your chance to see it, because this is a show which could not only settle in for a long run at the 200-plus-seat Players, but it could also travel anywhere the creators can physically mount their stuff. Let’s just say that not only do spooks visit the theater, they visit you personally. Several times during the show, the house goes black, including exit lights. You can’t see your hand before your face. And in the darkness, something touches you. I have no idea how this effect is achieved. In the prerecorded turn-off-your-phones message, Teller instructs us not to stand up during the blackouts; for safety reasons, “eyes are watching you.” There was absolutely no room behind me the first time a ghost connected, and that’s where it felt like it was coming from.

The meat of this one-man (or is he alone, nyaaa-hahaha) show is close contemplation of death, triggered by grisly true tales of horrible killers, told with immense charm and Hitchcockian morbid humor by Mr. Robbins. He enters, illuminated only by the bare-bulb “ghost light” (which, by long theatrical tradition, remains onstage when nobody else is present), in an immaculate white suit. Beyond that I must not stray, except to tell you that the white suit will be slathered with stage blood before we repair homeward. Audience members – the production swears they are not actors or plants, they learn certain secrets spontaneously as I once did – are chosen to do and/or undergo amazing things, and the Grand Guignol magic is first-rate. As another reviewer noted, if Mr. Robbins ever invites you onstage, say yes!

I was in the second row, one seat from the stage-left wall, and I sussed out the method for one small early gag, but I never would have noticed had I not been situated so close and on that particular side. That’s the only one I won. But that was small change. Later, I beheld the most astonishing magical appearance of a human being I’ve ever seen, from barely fifteen feet away in full theatrical light. Again, and as usual, I had no bloody idea. I have my suspicions, but unfortunately they involve discovering another dimension through which to build a trap door, and these mega-grifters aren’t exactly hanging around in Stockholm waiting for the Nobel ceremony in physics. Mixed together with some tiresome carny moves we’ve long learned to reject, the genuine, unexpected one absolutely floored us. So clever. I still have no bloody idea. As Hitchcock boasted about PSYCHO, these people were playing their audience, like an organ.

I’ll also reveal that PLAY DEAD attempts to top the typical spook-show finale, and it succeeds. The show is one-third laughter, one-third heart palpitation and screaming (oh, believe me, you will exclaim out loud), and one-third amazement at some brilliant, jaw-dropping illusions. Johnny Thompson, a veteran “invisible man” who’s worked with most of the greats, gets a credit for “Magic Design,” though I suspect that role was collaborative — but however it arrived, the magic design is in fine form here. I should emphasize that PLAY DEAD is definitely not for children, and the copious blood is only one reason. The language is mild. Hmmm: what else could there be?

There is even a point to it all, beyond the yelps and yucks. One of the fiends which Mr. Robbins brings back from the grave, the monster who earns his deepest ire, is Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918), a fraudulent “medium” who preyed on the griefstricken by claiming to put them in touch with deceased loved ones. He demonstrates the effect – “it’s easy!” — with audience members, and it is this heartless charlatan for whom he reserves the word “evil.” Con artists who fleece the gullible, taking cruel advantage of such a vulnerable moment, are beneath PLAY DEAD’s contempt. In a nice, safe theater, where things are “fake and fun,” as Mr. Robbins puts it, phony seances can be exhilarating. But in the world outside, sometimes we forget that such “events,” however craftily simulated, are just as fake: always have been, always will be. Thus does a spook show actually conjure the spirit of Houdini.

PLAY DEAD held its workshop production in Las Vegas, Penn & Teller’s home base, establishing that it’s potentially mobile, as I noted above. But the Players is just perfect. I read that the creators have considered hosting special post-show reveal performances in which the lights don’t go off, to show us how the startling “touch” effects are done. That would be a typical Penn & Teller stunt, but don’t do it, boys. I want my spirits to remain mysterious.

P.S., one month later: However, I did manage to take a photo of Mr. Robbins and an ethereal…um…well…in the lobby afterwards. (Penn & Teller also greet their audience personally after each show, a fine tradition which is kept alive here.) The snap was my very first try with my new smartphone and it’s far too shaky to post here, but if you still want to see it, let me know and I’ll email it to you. (It won’t reveal much that you couldn’t already expect.)

3/5/11: For one performance, there was a “plant,” sort of. New York Times obituary writer Bruce Weber tells about his chance to play dead.

7/24/11: PLAY DEAD’s New York run ended with today’s 7pm show. I can’t imagine that this much creativity and covert intelligence will be denied further audiences at other venues. Watch out!

8/30/11: OK, now that the show’s closed, here’s my shaky photo:

I’ve seen worse smartphone snaps, but this was my first. Todd Robbins (l.) and a covert operative.

4/8/13: I read in Variety today that they’re planning a Los Angeles engagement. Don’t miss it!


Fitz Like A Glove

October 25, 2010

We see an office. A bland, vaguely decrepit place; all metallic grays, industrial tans, and accumulated grime. Long fluorescent lights. Standing files on a desktop. An ancient black shoe-sized cordless phone. A haphazardly cluttered bulletin board. Metal storage racks stacked high with deteriorating cardboard boxes, organized only by scrawled words on the sides. There’s no hint as to what the people in this office do, but you know it has to be mind-numbing, the kind of work that makes you dread getting up in the morning.

A man enters and hangs up his overcoat. He’s slim, red-haired, neatly comported, blue shirt and conservative tie. He goes to his work station and tries to turn on his computer. It doesn’t work. He toggles the switch on the tower below his desk. Taps the keys uselessly. Nothing. He leans back in disgust, or maybe just ennui, and idly flips open a monstrous black Rolodex to his left. Stuffed inside is a well-worn paperback copy of THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He opens the book and begins to read it aloud — and he does not stop. Aside from some dialogue provided by colleagues, he reads every single word (except for chapter titles) until there are no more.

The Scribner trade paperback edition of THE GREAT GATSBY, the one used on stage in GATZ.

That’s a bare-bones description of Elevator Repair Service’s astonishing production GATZ, which has finally arrived in New York after years of local producers’ haggling over rights. It takes seven hours and forty-five minutes to reach Fitzgerald’s final line, counting two intermissions and a dinner break. Yet GATZ straddles form and content in a way I’ve never before encountered in a theater – and hurrah for this age-old but undercelebrated art form, for the effect is something I believe I could only experience in a “legit” theater. It’s a triumph, a fully avant-garde piece that actually means something, a seemingly cuckoo idea that explodes like a Roman candle and causes oohs and aahs, only they’re time-released: they occur long afterward.

Just after a glowing review appeared in the New York Times, my friend, the writer Scott Edelman, casually asked online if anyone had caught this piece. It just so happened that we had bought our tickets three months earlier and were headed down to the Public Theater later that very day. Act I began a little after 2 p.m., and we filed out of Act IV not much past 10. When I got back home, I messaged Scott that it wasn’t necessarily the best piece of theatre I’d ever seen, but it was definitely the most remarkable. I’m going to try and explain why I used that particular word, but you should know some things first.

One: I’ve never read THE GREAT GATSBY. My wife Linda has, but it was one of those classics I missed in high school and college – everybody has a few of these lapses – and after I saw the 1974 Jack Clayton film, I basically removed the novel from my personal must list. I had no intention of spending any more time with these snooty, self-absorbed people. It was as if I’d read the Cliffs Notes version: I knew the characters and their relationships, and the basic plot of the story, but I’d never luxuriated in the prose.

Two: If you do not know that basic plot and for some godforsaken reason wish to remain ignorant, you should probably stop reading right now. The story is critical to what I want to say, but I’d rather not spoil it for you if you think there’s any chance you might seek it out in the future. (P.S.: I’ll bet you won’t.)

Three: I’m well aware that Andy Kaufman “read THE GREAT GATSBY” to concert audiences, even performed the bit on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Though this stunt almost certainly inspired GATZ – Elevator Repair Service are serious Kaufman fans and even use the comedian as a character in another of their shows – the purpose here is edification, not stultification. ERS continue with GATSBY until the bitter end, appending to a theoretically nutty premise a startlingly powerful payoff.

The narrator is played to near-perfection by Scott Shepherd. I only noticed one flub, and that was understandable: his concentration had been so intense that he stammered on the word “fifteen” when he broke character to announce the first intermission. He begins reading in a bored monotone befitting the dingy office, stumbling over words, apparently killing time until the IT people can fix his computer. Time itself is malleable here: he looks at a desk clock for the first of perhaps a dozen times, and it never, ever changes. Other office workers trudge in: there’s a receptionist; a strapping handyman with a set of keys; a cute girl who lazily leafs through golfing magazines; and finally the office manager, a gaunt, balding fellow with a permanent near-scowl of utter seriousness. They pantomime office routine as if there’s nothing strange about their colleague reading Fitzgerald aloud. At one particular moment – it’ll be different for every audience member – you notice that the narrator’s interpretation has become far more confident and animated; he’s really into it. Shortly afterward, the handyman steps forward and utters a line of dialogue. He has become Tom Buchanan. From this point on, all dialogue is acted, and the narrator – obviously Nick Carraway, and “Nick” is how he’s listed in the credits – supplies everything else, including “he said”s. The golfer has become Jordan Baker. An elegantly dressed woman is now Daisy Buchanan. And the story displays an utterly new dimension, for the novel is insinuating itself. It’s taking over.

The office manager leaves to run an errand early on, and when he comes back, he’s exchanged his bland “corporate” tie for a hot yellow one, the boldest blast of color on the stage. His first line – “I’m Gatsby” – occurs not quite a third of the way through, and Linda remarked at dinner that she’d forgotten how long it took to bring on the title character. Actors know that the juiciest part in a play can actually be the smallest one – so long as it’s the character everybody else can’t stop talking about, not even after he’s dead. Gatsby seems to have been here the whole time.

By now, another remarkable thing has happened. The novelty of the staged reading has utterly worn off, even turned transparent. Except for one monologue of Jordan’s, Mr. Shepherd never lets the book out of his grasp until he comes to a bravura recital at the end. (On their website, the troupe answers the question “I heard that narrator guy actually knows the whole book by heart. Is that true?” with “Yes.”) The artifice of flipping pages in a paperback book never leaves the stage, yet its constancy allows you to ignore it. Aided by superb lighting and sound design (sound man Ben Williams is on stage and takes some small roles), not only can you forget the fact of reading, you can also forget your very surroundings. Instead, you’re in Gatsby’s Long Island mansion, or Tom’s Manhattan apartment, or a “well-fanned Forty-second Street cellar.” Stephen King has a lovely phrase to describe becoming immersed in a book: you “fall through a hole in the paper.” Well, you do that here. That lost-in-the-story feeling is so powerful that it startles when such a scene is over: Oh yeah, I forgot — we’re really looking at an office set on a stage! And a guy’s reading a book! That’s two levels of reality which have to be sundered for such magic to work, yet this production does it again and again. The “long” running time is no more of an issue than the hours that pass unheeded when you’re really enjoying a book. Except for that grimly stalled desk clock, time passes when we’re not looking.

The notorious party scene.

This is an arresting new way to “read,” to “see a play.” It combines elements of both art forms into something different that could only happen in front of your eyes. As a film, with one’s vision sternly constricted, this conceit would sink like a stone. I do feel that I’ve experienced the novel, like anyone who listens to an audio book; it requires a similar bit of imagination. But this is even better, more vivid and immediate. There are precious few (but a few nonetheless) costume clues to help you picture a scene; the actors by and large do not resemble their physical descriptions in Fitzgerald. Therefore, much of the heavy lifting will be your responsibility. Only one scene, the drunken party at Tom’s New York apartment, calls attention to itself by having the characters fling office files and papers around the stage. It’s a great visual representation of debauchery, but, atypically, it does bring your attention back into the office. The whole boozy mess is then cleaned up while you watch, the restored neatness anticipating the reappearance of Jim Fletcher as the office manager, now transformed into Gatsby.

This tilted angle between literature and theatre does expose some shortcomings. As with THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, a dramatic climax occurs well before the piece is finished. Just as we have lots more play to see once Shylock is foiled in court, so THE GREAT GATSBY deflates dramatically after Gatsby’s murder. The reader remains warmed by Fitzgerald’s luminous phrasing, but his coda, taking up all of the concluding chapter, feels soft and languid to the playgoer, even as Mr. Shepherd finally casts the book aside and concludes from memory, a bit of theatricality that seems calculated to elevate the text. (After all, every stage actor works “off book” every night…) His performance is iconic, brilliant, magical. After it’s over, you find yourself wondering about ephemera. How the hell does he keep his voice? I didn’t see any understudies listed, and it sounded to me as if Victoria Vazquez, as Daisy, was fighting a little huskiness. What happens if Nick takes sick? Does a stage manager crack open the paperback and start reading? We also felt some of the miming in Act I, before the cast took over Fitzgerald’s dialogue, was broad and offputting, particularly Susie Sokol as Jordan (undoubtedly following director John Collins’s instructions). She’s a very gifted physical comedienne, but we didn’t want the tale spinning in that direction, in opposition to the sense of dread and gloom that permeates Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age — and indeed, in Act II Ms. Sokol settled down and absolutely nailed Jordan’s monologue.

You can’t stop thinking and talking about what you’ve just seen, a reaction reserved for the highest level of artistic fireworks. I’ve written before about the virulent tendency to give anything a standing ovation, but this night, everyone in the audience, including us, leapt to their feet. Enthusiastic applause seemed to fall short of what we really wanted to communicate to the cast and crew. This thing is transcendent. It joins my very short list of unforgettable moments in the theatre. If I could, I’d actually go back again and strap in for another eight hours.

1/12/11: Now I have read the novel, and I found a vital difference between it and the theatrical version, at least for me. The final chapter, the coda after Gatsby’s murder, which felt so drawn-out on stage, doesn’t read that way at all. The obligation of faithfully staging the visit from Gatsby’s aged father, the funeral, and Nick’s gorgeous final summation — which Mr. Shepherd performs without referring to the book — make this sequence run longer than it should, longer than even the author intended. Fascinating: three months after I saw it, GATZ continues to illuminate.

2/28/12: GATZ is returning to the Public for another New York engagement. Here’s a trailer for the show.

3/8/13: I saw a MoMA preview of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation tonight, but I still think this theatrical piece is the best GATSBY ever.


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