Category Archives: Theatre

Tex and the City: Pass the Valium

Today on Tex and the City: Jon Paul needs a valium to recover from the mess of Broadway’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

At times on Saturday night, I felt like the ladies of Broadway’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown were warming up for the New York Marathon.  What with all the choreographed pacing back and forth and up and down the non-stop moving set.  Unfortunately, no amount of movement could breathe authentic energy into this show.  It’s like their coach, er director Bartlett Sher, was too worried about distracting gadgets like colorful projections and flying set pieces, and lost site of the fundamentals like character development and interaction.  Granted, it’s never easy to adapt a beloved classic, but I was on the edge of my seat wondering what in the world Pedro Almodóvar thought of the mess this production had made of his lovably funny and tender film.  Like the women on stage, I needed a valium to stay calm—and get by.

The problem starts from the opening scene setting number “Madrid” which is supposed to paint a picture of an exciting capital city in 1987 undergoing rapid changes after a decade of democracy.  Much of the audience is probably unfamiliar with the history and pulse of Madrid—and this number certainly doesn’t rectify that.  The city conjured up here feels dull and lifeless.  It’s not like it’s impossible to create an electrifying opening number about an unfamiliar Latino ‘hood—think the first pulsating moments of In the Heights.

What happens next is a weird back-to-back montage of musical numbers with almost no character interaction.  One of the things that made the movie so heart warming was the relationships—good and bad—amongst the women.  We get none of that here.  Which is tragic since the talent assembled here is near legendary Broadway proportions.

Sherie Rene Scott in one, fleeting captivating moment

Sherie Rene Scott, who normally dazzles, seems like she’s in an entirely different production from the rest.  As Pepa, the centerpiece, she plays the whole thing straight, and sad, yet not pathetic enough for us to think she’s funny or even interesting.  Patti LuPone—I mean, hello, if there’s anyone that could nail the crazy diva of Lucia it would be this icon—but she’s not given anything to work with in either the book or the score.  Both of her big numbers have no real ending so the audience couldn’t even applaud.  What?!

Laura Benanti dazzles

The only bright spot—and she shone, thank god—is adorable Laura Benanti.  She lit up the stage and overcame all the overplayed set pieces around her when she pranced about.  I turned to Chef and uttered, “Thank god she’s here.”  Her turn as Candela, the model who has fallen for a terrorist, is the only one that comes close to nailing the comic nature of the original film role, and yet made it all her own.  Her big number “Model Behavior” brought down the house—I think we were all relieved that at least someone was worth watching.  When she left the stage, I nearly had a breakdown.

For the most part, this is a musical that relies on a mixed bag of special effects tricks to keep us from noticing the lack of character development or story.  Not to say that some of the tricks don’t work.  Some of them are splendid.  When Pepa and her recently ex-lover Ivan (played by an oddly smarmy not sexy Brian Stokes Mitchell) dub a love song into a re-enacted movie projected onscreen, it’s truly stunning and heartbreaking.  And then my heart breaks that the trick never shows up again—it’s the only time that an effect merged with character and storytelling device.  Nope, once a trick is finished—we move swiftly onto the next one.  Like a real onstage burning bed (an iconic image from the movie) which made everyone around me nervous that it was a mistake.  Not to mention that it completely upstaged poor Sheri Rene Scott having to sing some unforgettable song next to it.  Unforgettable, except that’s the one song that kept being reprised.  And it’s not nearly interesting enough for that.

I could go on and on about a million other quibbles.  How the taxi—another centerpiece from the movie—comes off as campy and sad.  How many throw away one-liners are included at the expense of real character development.  How the accents seem to come and go at will and are all over the map—some seem Cuban while others seem Argentine.  The only consistency is when anyone says “gazpacho” with a slight lisp.  It’s the one thing delivered over and over again with just the right blend of humor and zest.

Believe me, I wanted so much to love and embrace this show.  It had so much talent going for it, which made it even more nerve wracking to watch it go so wrong.  Someone pass me a little blue pill.

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Tex and the City: The Parent Trap

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul has a hard time deflecting questions of parenthood, and turns to the theater for help.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that my answers to intrusive questions about my relationship with Chef are increasingly becoming more complicated.  I’m not talking about gay guys inquiring if after 9+ years we’re monogamous, but straight folks who have the best of intentions.  Early on we got “How did you meet?” and I had an entire amusing routine built around the reply, “On Gay.com” (read about it here and in Alphabet City: My So-Called Sitcom Life).

Slowly, the question became, “Are you guys going to get married?” which allowed me a riff on “Not in Canada!”— today that punchline doesn’t work so well substituting DC.  Lately, we’ve been getting, “Are you guys going to have children?”  When I shrug and stammer out some kind of “Oh, I don’t think so,” the inquisitor invariably soldiers on with a mix of shock and encouragement, “But you guys would make such great Dads!”

I appreciate the enthusiasm for our supposed parenting skills; although, honestly, I’m not so sure I agree—being an Uncle is enough for me.  But I suppose what troubles me the most about my discomfort with these questions is that as a gay kid, I never in my wildest fantasies thought I would be encountering such progressive notions.  It just wasn’t part of my worldview.

As a gay kid, I never dreamed of marriage or kids.

In 1982, when I was 13, my father as a federal judge declared unconstitutional the law in Texas criminalizing private homosexual conduct.  It was such a monumental—and controversial—decision at the time that I remember thinking that the most I might hope for in my lifetime was to be tolerated by the “straight” majority and allowed to live my life with a loving boyfriend.  There was no talk of marriage.  And kids?  You’ve got to be kidding.

My how things have changed.  Yes, I’ve got the boyfriend, but now we’re on the cusp of marriage equality and possibly parental rights.  All right, maybe that’s a little Pollyanna, but work with me.  Basically, my worldview of what’s possible and achievable in my lifetime has dramatically changed.

I suppose that my introspection on this topic has been ramped up by recent attendance at a couple of Off-Broadway plays.  The Pride and Yank! both thematically tackle issues of gay identity and challenges from the 1940s until today with resoundingly different emotional results for me.

I had high hopes for The Pride.  Not only does it star one of my Jane Austen boyfriends Hugh Dancy, but it’s at the Lucille Lortel Theater on Christopher Street—a little rundown gem of a playhouse where I saw one of my first plays after moving to New York, Douglas Carter Beane’s As Bees In Honey Drown starring a pre-Sex in the City Cynthia Nixon (loved her ever since).

But my enthusiasm for the theater couldn’t overcome my cold (war) feelings about the play’s overly earnest and belabored approach to a doomed post WWII love story of an uptight married British man (Dancy) and his affair with an artistic/out children’s author (Ben Whishaw) who has visions of a better life after a visit to Delphi (don’t ask—this plot device never actually develops).  All blame for my disinterest can’t go to the writing—but some of it must go unfortunately to the staging from one of my usual favorite directors Joe Mantello.  Somehow, at this tiny theater, Chef and I ended up with the worst seats in the house—who knew that the actors would be positioned in such a away on stage that our 3rd row left orchestra seats would be perfectly blocked from seeing any of the actors’ faces for approximately 75% of Act I?!  Let’s move it around on stage, people.

Fast forward to Act II which takes place in modern times feautring a gay couple with the same names breaking up over an issue of monogamy.  Oddly, the couple never actually talks about what’s at issue here—trust?  Power?  Whishaw’s character is left to beat himself up over his love of no-strings-attached sex with no hint that maybe Dancy’s character’s notions are possibly old-fashioned and outdated?  The most interesting thing in this section for me—apart from the engaging performances by Andrea Riseborough and Adam James—was the comfy sweater framing Whishaw’s whispy body (even NY Magazine’s Matrix calls out the “lady sweater.”).

So the oracle at Delphi was wrong?  Gay guys will still have problems in the 21st century.  But anguish over monogamy is it?

Meanwhile, The York Theater Company’s Yank! A WWII Love Story takes a musical approach to questions of forging a gay identity during a closeted and chaotic time.  This homage to WWII era movie musicals is charming, sweet, and yet hits all the right notes about the struggle of a young GI (innocently sweet Bobby Steggert) who falls in love with a fellow squad member, a closeted Cary Grant hunk (Ivan Hernandez).  It’s got tap dancing with a featured actor-dancer (Jeffrey Denman) in a role made for Ann Miller, and even a dream ballet sequence—because, well, that’s period authentic and still awkward.  I overheard one fellow patron tell her companion, “At least this dream ballet was better than the one in West Side Story!”  Amen, sister.

At one point, the young GI Stu tries to convince his ill-fated lover Mitch that things will be better in the future, “Say in 1948 or 1950.”  The line got a knowing laugh.  Ultimately, Stu realizes that just living his life truthfully takes courage and makes him a fighter—not on the frontlines in the Pacific Rim, but on the battlefield of life.

I felt myself really drawn to Stu.  Like him, I never quite realized how much better things could get in my lifetime.  And although I appreciate and crave a good dramatic turn every once in awhile, I often prefer singing and tap dancing my way through life’s issues.  But that’s to be expected from a guy who thinks of his life as a sitcom, right?

Still, I need to work with my writers on a quip and a comeback for the question of having kids.  Any suggestions?

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Scarlett Letter

Today on Alphabet City: An original Spit List fixture takes a final bow. Guest Star: Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber.

Scarlett Johansson has been officially removed from my Spit List.  While many of you can breathe easier now, others are probably confused and might want to bone up on my go-to game of celebrity distaste.  The Spit List debuts in “Episode 11: Bold Faced Names” of Alphabet City: My So-Called Sitcom Life and also in this Thanksgiving blog post.

Since the creation of the Spit List (SL), I’ve discovered that the easiest way for an actor to move away from any wet loogies is to turn in a laudable performance.  To be honest, Scarlett has been headed off the SL for quite some time mostly helped by Woody Allen.  But it was her Broadway debut in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge that sealed her exit.  Chef, Susan and I took in the Sunday matinee and were impressed with her dark hair, raspy voice and ability to project the budding confidence of a 17 year-old on the precipice of escape.  Scarlett shines because her co-stars are truly remarkable including Jessica Hecht and the always captivating Liev Schreiber.  Yowsa, that man’s presence can fill a vast stage.

Incidentally, Chef and I have always had a thing for Liev since we ran into him years ago in the Bath & Bodyworks near NYU.  He had his Jack Russell terrier in tow, and Chef and I scrambled to the floor to play with the pup, stealing glimpses up at the towering actor while he picked out some bath scrub.  I don’t remember he paid us much attention, but we didn’t care, we just wanted to be part of his pack for a few moments.

So congrats, Scarlett.  I’m sure the honor of being removed from The Spit List supersedes any other awards and tributes (do I see a Tony nom in her future?).  Take heart, Dakota Fanning—there’s hope for you yet.

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Who moved my chi?

Technical viewer note: due to a “station upgrade” there’s a new way to receive RSS feeds and email updates for Alphabet City.  Make sure to sign up!

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s learns a lesson from Ann Richards, then runs into trouble on the subway.

Last Friday, the spicy and lovable Texas Governor Ann Richards came back to life for me on New York’s Second Stage courtesy of Anna Deavere Smith’s one woman “show” cum meditation on health care Let Me Down Easy.  Given economic challenges, Juan Pablo and I choose our theatre outings very carefully, although thanks to discount codes on TheaterMania.com I wouldn’t say I’m an incredibly deprived theatre queen.  Since the onset of the recession, Susan and I have said about anything from an event we are planning to our fall wardrobe that, “Everything needs to work a little harder.”  Theatre is no different.  And boy, was Anna’s show working overtime.

What a concept.  Interviewing people in depth about their experiences with American healthcare, and then painstakingly constructing a performance piece out of the transcripts.  The results are riveting.  While I’m not sure her recreation of celebrity personalities were the most fascinating, I did walk away with a perception of Lance Armstrong as maybe a little bit of a jerk.  Instead, the standout characters included a doctor at Mercy Hospital in New Orleans and her eye-opening account of the desperation of Katrina, and later a woman’s refusal of kidney dialysis after witnessing her daughter’s horrific treatment for the same procedure.

But it was Ann Richards who brought my house down with her indomitable spirit in the face of cancer adversity.  As detailed in the show, once Ann moved to New York from Texas, one of her alternative medicine specialists advised her that she can’t just keep giving herself to people, she has to “protect her chi” to help her fight the disease.  From then on, when people called Ann and droned on about needing something, she hung up the phone by saying, “Gotta go, you’re wasting my chi.” As a fellow transplant, I love Ann’s combination of Texas pragmatism with New York time sensitivity, and plan to use that chi line frequently.

Anna Deavere Smith had Ann Richards’ wisecracking and big-hearted mannerisms down pat.  Many Texans have their own Ann story, and mine takes place in the Admirals Club at Chicago O’Hare.  I was traveling through on one of the many layovers during Tyra Banks’ book tour and an announcement over the intercom blared, “Jon Paul Buchmeyer, please recheck with an agent at the front counter.”  And then across the lounge I heard Ann Richards’ telltale twang, “Jon Paul Buchmeyer?  What the hell are you doing here?!  Come on over here and let’s catch up.  Tell me how your Daddy’s doing.”

Just like my mother, Ann had worked to put her husband through University of Texas law school and they all became friendly taking apartments in a small house together.  I hadn’t seen her since she gave an address years earlier at my high school Greenhill (a speech I later imitated for speech competitions), but here she wanted to catch up with a fellow Texan.  Now I know she was blessing me with a little bit of her valuable chi.

On the subway ride home, I dozed off while Juan Pablo caught up with the New York Times on his iPhone.  I awakened suddenly to a scuffle between Juan Pablo and a disgruntled man who had grabbed Juan Pablo’s iPhone screaming, “Quit taking pictures of me!”  Juan Pablo immediately launched into battle mode trying to reason with the clearly disturbed individual, “I wasn’t taking pictures.  I was reading the Times!”

Juan Pablo may be the calmest guy in the world, but in the face of danger, he doesn’t flee—he fights.  I had seen this dangerous tendency one time before when we were mugged at rusty knifepoint in Lisbon and Juan Pablo battled it out over a beloved coin purse.  I like to say that Juan Pablo’s aggressive tendencies were learned growing up on the “mean streets” of Mexico City, although in reality I think his upper middle class childhood was more gentrified than mine.

That night, the crazy guy kept shouting, “Quit taking pictures of me!” Juan Pablo lunged for his phone, wrenching it from the guy’s grasp, and I was waiting for the guy to pull a knife. Juan Pablo yelled, “It’s not all about you!”  Given that the guy was clearly suffering from paranoid delusions, it was probably a safe bet that he thought everything was about him.  Thankfully the stand off ended when the train pulled into the 175th Street station and the guy got off.  I turned to Juan Pablo, “I’m not sure it’s worth losing your entire chi over an iPhone.”

As we walked up the hill to our home, I remembered that a little part of Ann Richard’s chi would soon be near me in Washington Heights.  Thanks to Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project Ann will be memorialized with a special garden at a renovated Swindlers Cove—so I guess her chi will always be watching over me.

All I can say is that night definitely worked harder than I had ever anticipated.

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