Friday, March 19, 2010

Standing Ovations

"The Subject Was Roses" is playing here in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Form. The play was written in 1964 by Frank Gilroy, won the Pulitzer, was on Broadway where it won a Tony Award for Best Play and was made into a film.This particular mounting was put in motion by it's star, Martin Sheen. Sheen was in the original Broadway production and nominated for  Tony and Jack Albertson won the Tony for his portrayal as the father -- the role Sheen inhabits today. It's a homecoming of sorts for Sheen.

Two things need to be said right off the bat: I'm a huge fan of both the Taper (It's great space and I am rarely disappointing in the productions) and of Martin Sheen. Pound for pound he is one of My favorite actors of all time. Missiles of October, Apocalypse Now, The Execution of Private Slovak, Da, That Championship Season. Those films alone put Sheen in my books as one of our best actors. Then, of course, there's The West Wing. Not just a masterpiece of television drama by Aaron Sorkin, but a brilliant cast lead by Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet. Sheen's President Bartlet spoiled me for any other President in my lifetime. But I digress....

Liz and I always love going to the Taper. We'll usually have dinner and drinks al fresco at the Pinot Grill just outside the Taper doors. We'll saunter in with the other patrons, take our seats and let the play wash over us. All of this we certainly did on this evening. The play was good enough. Just good, not great. Most people probably came to see Martin Sheen live and in person on stage. fair enough. And Sheen was fine. Frances Conroy as the wife and mother was fine. Brian Geraghty (from the Hurt Locker) was obviously green and needed a firmer hand from the director, but serviceable enough considering his relative lack of theatrical chops. The set was fabulous! Later, our ride home would be filled with an intense discussion about why this play was chosen, how we would have addressed some of the problems we saw, etc. You know, the kind of stuff all theatre folk tear apart and chew on when we go see a play. But, all in all, a pleasant enough evening at the theatre. We enjoyed it.

Then the play ended. The applause started and everyone stood up. Not to leave, but to applaud. A standing ovation.

Now I can count on one hand the number of times I have been in the midst and a willing participant in a true heartfelt standing ovation. A performance so enthralling or so fabulously moving no one present would have even known they were rocketed to their feet by some unseen force of the theatre. Antony Sher as Richard III at the RSC in 1984. Kenneth Branagh as Henry V that same year, same place. Ian McKellan in his one-man show Acting Shakespeare at the Westwood Playhouse (now the Gefffen). No question: Standing O. Brilliant, moving, tours de force, passionate, exquisite, nonpareil. Whole theatres on their feet in a flash, knowing they had seen something truly special.

Since then, however, and particularly over the past ten or fifteen years, I've noticed that audiences will bestow a standing O on anything they pay money to see. Liz and I have been the only one's seated at some of the most mediocre plays and performances of the last millennium. We have seen dreadful celebrity performances bring the house down. We have witnessed $100 a seat musicals receive standing ovations, yet not a single tune was whistled fondly on the street afterward. What gives?

Has the sheer price of tickets made us believe that what we are seeing is spectacular? Have we become so enthralled by celebrity that we will always stand for star because he or she is in the movies? Do we just not go to enough theatre to know good from bad? Are our expectations just so low that we are simply amazed that poeple can learn that many lines?

I'm worried. The standing ovation at the Taper could not have been for the performance that evening. It was fine. It wasn't fabulous. It was journeyman work. It wasn't transcendent. The only explanation must be that Martin Sheen is famous. So we should stand for the famous guy. 

I rarely agree with reviews. But for once I agree with a review in the Hollywood Reporter. It is a fair assessment of this production. Some of it is the fault of a dated play that just doesn't mean what it once did. Gilroy's play has become a period piece. Some of the fault should fall at the feet of the director for not doing more to address the play itself and for not guiding a young actor better through the minefield that is live theatre. But most of the fault lies in the clapping hands and standing bodies of audiences that demands nothing more than a nice evening out.

I hope to see a play soon that will force me to my feet without a second thought. Indeed, I long for the rush that fills my head and face as I stand in awe of a massive display of talent and words and collaboration to powerful that my very being is catapulted from my comfort. Until that show comes around, however,I will continue to enjoy my play going with my wife and friends. I will continue to work in and support the theatre and the artists who work in it. I'll just do it from the comfort of my seat.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Award Shows: They're Kinda Like Crack -- Only With Commercials

I watch all the awards shows. Well, not ALL the awards shows. The big ones that have to do with movies and theatre. Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, SAG Awards (my new favorite), Golden Globes. I'll also tune into the Grammys for a few minutes here and there. Awards shows are the ultimate guilty pleasure. Oh, sure, I could be watching a great re-run of Law & Order: SVU or trying to catch up on Burn Notice or making sure that the episode of Bones isn't the One that my wife keeps telling me about but I can NEVER find..., but awards shows are just too much for me to miss. The drama, the beauty, the ego, the BS, the ridiculous clothing, the bad hair, the unshaven masses, the terrible local coverage. I love it.

Things never work out the way I think they should. Of course, the movie I thought was heads and tails above the rest is always slighted somehow. The one film I didn't see always wins something huge. The actor I thought just sucked out loud is guaranteed a trophy of some kind. Someone will always say something rude and stupid. And, thankfully, something nice and good and kind and maybe even inspiring will eventually occur. At least once. Maybe twice.

I'm still amazed, though, at how an industry who's sole purpose is to entertain us can't put together a better 3 hours of entertainment. With few exceptions, the opening numbers are labored. Getting presenters on and off stage takes forever. They have to walk FAR! The writing is a little heavy handed at times. Oh, and why does everyone have to be announced in? Don't we know who these people are? They are famous after all. If we know Kate Gosslin and Chloe Kardasian, sure we know who Matt Damon and Charlise Theron? Don't we?

Someone or something is always forgotten or flubbed. Leaving Bea Arthur and Farah Fawcett out of the "In Memorial" piece really was inexcusable. I sit through the end credits of every film I go see and I'll bet they don't forget anybody. How does that happen? You remember to put in Michael Jackson AS AN ACTOR but NOT Bea Arthur or Farah Fawcett? Hum. Don't get it.

Then there are the speeches. I have a love/hate relationship with the speeches. I so want them to be inspired oratories on art and dreams. Usually, they are frantic attempts to be sure to thank an agent or publicist. Vapid lists of names no one watching has ever heard of. So you just won an Oscar. What's your agent gonna do, drop you if you don't thank him? Thank your agent at the party. Thanks your manager at the hotel bar or in the limo on the way home. This is YOUR award. YOU did the work. Inspire us with your dreams, fill us with the journey of creating the role, regale us with exotic locations. Don't thank the valet for parking your car close to entrance.

Oh, and for the sake of film and theatre people not as fortunate as you, show some class. Don't cop major attitude when accepting the award as if it actually means something to the rotation of the Earth. More than likely, you weren't the only one considered for the role. More than likely, you don't have the body of work that other more talented nominees in the category have. More than likely, you don't have the training or the experience that your colleagues have. More than likely, your performance struck a cord in the culture and wasn't all that terrific anyway but the the film you were in made an impact that couldn't be ignored. So really, your award is less about YOU and more about the ROLE you played. I'm just saying....

Every year on every show there's gonna be one. At least. One moment that makes you squirm in your La-Z-Boy. One out of place political statement (Oscars/Remember the Brando and Sasheen Littlefeather affair?), one amazing display of ego (VMAs/Can you say "Kanye?"), or one moment of total grandstanding (Oscars/Michael Moore). Hey, it happens. We can't control ourselves.

We show biz folk do have large egos, but most of us also realize that we don't do what we do all by ourselves. Sandra Bullock certainly didn't NEED to be self-effacing and funny. She could have been bitchy and arrogant. She could have told us how awesome she was in the The Blind Side and how all the other nominees were there by the sheer fact that their schedules allowed them to go on talk shows. But she didn't.

See, this why I love awards shows. Other than waiting for Brett Favre to retire and un-retire again, when does a fella really get a chance to this worked up? Now, what's playing at The Bridge tonight?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Robert Prosky

You might not know the name, but you certainly know the actor. Robert Prosky is one of those actors whose career I have always respected... and coveted. First of all, he was a gifted actor. Second, most people would not recognize him if they bumped into him in the produce aisle. Some might do a double take thinking he was a distant uncle or former school teacher. If you were to ask me to "type" him, I guess I would say he is like a softer version of Ed Asner. He generates the same power with less bombast. 

Prosky died in 2008 at the age of 77. He was an actor that did everything: Stage, films, television. "Either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light." I had the pleasure of seeing him in A Walk in the Woods. Sometime ago Actors' Equity sent the following Robert Prosky missive in the mail to all its members. (I came across it while catching up on some filing I promised my wife I would get around to back in 2009.) I have shared it just as Equity had sent. I'll bet the capital "A' in Actor was Prosky's.

"I love Actors and by extension, the theater. I love the minutia that surrounds them both. I love listening and telling Green Room war stories. I love the onstage triumphs and yes, I love even the disasters. I love the adrenaline that shoots thru every Actor onstage when something goes wrong, and the relief that sweeps thru when some heroic Actor saves the day. I love performance. That time when the human beings on stage interact with the human beings in the audience and together they create the event of performance. It's one of life's most civilized experiences.

It has been said that an Actor must have the hide of a rhinoceros, the courage and audacity of a lion, and most importantly, the fragile vulnerability of an egg. It also has been said, and I'm not sure by whom, that the moment of not knowing is the moment that has the greatest potential for creativity. The professional and private lives of most Actors are filled to the brim with moments of not knowing. Actors are survivors and will continue to strive because they have the need to celebrate, in performance, that sacred communion between Actor and audience."