Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Things I Learned from Avenue Q

It was recently announced that after a six-year run on Broadway, the raunchy puppet musical Avenue Q will be closing on September 13. While it’s sad to see such a brilliantly funny show close, it did have a great run and is one of those rare success stories of a show that started small in an Off-Broadway theater, then went on to achieve greatness on Broadway (even beating out the musical behemoth Wicked for the Best Musical Tony in 2004). Seeing as it’s formatted like an episode of Sesame Street for adults, it seems appropriate to share the lessons I learned from Avenue Q:

* It’s OK to wonder what I’m supposed to do with a B.A. in English.

* Women of all ages, and even those made out of felt, wonder whether a guy likes them likes them, or just plain likes them.

* If everyone could just admit that they’re a little bit racist, it would be so much easier for us all to get along.

* I’m not alone in getting a schadenfreudic thrill from letting the elevator doors close on someone who’s running to catch it.

* It’s OK to sometimes wish you could go back to the life you had in college, as long as you eventually realize what a loser you would be going to college at your age.

* Saying you have a girlfriend in Canada is a lie told not just by straight men.

* The Internet is now, and will always be, for porn.

Photo © Carol Rosegg

Thursday, June 25, 2009

TV on DVD: Skins

Maybe I’m old fashioned, or just completely naïve about how teenagers actually live, but I find television shows about teens who live and behave like adults sort of disturbing. In between all of the cocktail parties they attend in designer clothes, the endless stream of sexual partners, and the heavy drinking and drug use I wonder, “When do these kids get to actually be kids?” Granted, I grew up with a somewhat overprotective family in Middle of Nowhere, USA, so maybe there was an entire subculture of my peers who adopted this “live hard, die hard” way of life, but the major dramas my friends and I dealt with were trying to get into R-rated movies and how to tell our parents we got a “D” on a science test.

Despite my aversion to these teens-as-adults shows, based on several recommendations and critical acclaim, I decided to give Skins—a British series about teens in Bristol—a chance. After renting the first two seasons, I have mixed feelings about the show. There are some of the same annoying clichés you’ll find in any number of American series, but there are some things that the show got just right. I was pleased to see that the actors in the show were actually teenagers (and not overly glamorous ones), unlike the “teens” in most American shows, who are played by overly made-up 20-somethings. These actors look just like the type of kids you’d expect to see in a Bristol school; they’re awkward, they have acne, they have questionable haircuts, the boys are lanky and goofy-looking, and the girls wear ill-fitting clothes and amateurishly applied makeup. But while they don’t look like adults, that doesn’t stop them from living lifestyles beyond their years.

The first season of Skins seems to exist to merely shock you. It focuses mainly on Tony, the ringleader of the group of friends mainly due to being the best looking and most charismatic of the bunch. He’s dating the blindly devoted Michelle, who he regularly cheats on and tells has uneven breasts, and is best friends with his lackey Sid, the dork of the group who wears glasses and a knit cap at all times and is, tragically, still a virgin. Each episode highlights a different member of the entire group and the various trials they face; one has an eating disorder, one has parents who are getting divorced, one is gay and his best friend has trouble accepting that, one is abandoned by his mother, and the list goes on with nearly every teen drama staple touched upon, including having an affair with a teacher and crushing on your best friend’s girl. And of course there is plenty of drinking, drug use, and explicit sex scenes to both keep you entertained and wonder what the parents in Bristol are doing, since raising their kids is obviously not a priority.

The second season tones down the shock factor a bit and focuses more on heavy emotional issues, allowing the show to shine as a teen drama rather than a teen soap opera. Tony is recovering from a major accident that leaves him both mentally and physically impaired, causing a struggle for Michelle and Sid who both want to stand by his side while he recovers, but also feel the need to live their own lives. The entire gang is preparing for exams and to go on to university, which causes tension as they realize they’re all growing up and some will be moving on and others will be left behind. There’s even the death of one of the major players to deal with, which is felt and processed deftly by each of the other characters.

There is a third season of Skins that brings in a new generation, lead by Tony’s hard-partying younger sister, Effy, but it’s not out on DVD yet. I’ll probably rent it once it’s available, though I’m sort of disappointed that I won’t get to see where the first generation of Skins is going. While I kind of disliked them and resented their hedonistic lifestyles in the first season, they grew on me in Season 2 when they proved they were capable of doing more than getting high and emotionally manipulating each other. Perhaps in a few years there will be a reunion for the first generation and we can see what they’re like when they actually are adults. Though after witnessing the debauchery of their unsupervised adolescence, would anyone want to see them survive the normal things in life like finding a job, struggling to make ends meet, or getting married? While their teenage way of life may have been unrealistic, there’s no denying it was a lot more entertaining than watching Tony try to get a mortgage will ever be.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Movie Trailer Review: Shutter Island

Opens: October 2, 2009

Website: Official Shutter Island site

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, Michelle Williams, Jackie Earle Haley

My Review: After Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed, we’re all in agreement that Martin Scorsese and Leonard DiCaprio make excellent movies together, right? The two men team up together again for Shutter Island, and it’s this collaboration alone that makes me at all interested in a movie that looks like it will scare the crap out of me.

I’ve never been a huge fan of scary movies, with a few key exceptions (Silence of the Lambs still manages to enthrall and horrify me). In Shutter Island, DiCaprio is a US Marshall (utilizing the same lowbrow Boston accent he had in The Departed) who with his partner (Ruffalo) is investigating the disappearance of a patient at the dilapidated Shutter Island mental hospital in the 1950s. The missing woman appears to have completely vanished, and as the two men’s investigation digs deeper into the bizarre world of Shutter Island, horrible things begin to happen and it begins to look unlikely that they’ll ever be permitted to leave the island.

On the surface, it seems like run of the mill stuff: Man goes to “haunted” asylum, man goes crazy, man becomes prisoner himself. But I’m willing to give Scorsese the benefit of the doubt, as I’m sure he has something much more than that in store for us. Plus I have a strange sort of fascination with the mental hospitals of years gone by; they were inhumane, sadistic, torturous, and scariest of all, completely real. The sort of horrors that those who were deemed “insane” used to go through trump any supernatural or otherworldly thriller you can name, and in the hands of DiCaprio and Scorsese, I’m intrigued to see what Shutter Island has to offer.

Would I Pay For It?: Barring any truly horrible preview reviews, there’s a good chance I’ll go see this in the theater. At the very least, it’ll definitely make its way to my Netflix queue, if only to avoid the increasingly annoying trend of people bringing their babies to my movie theater. Can’t you check that thing at the door along with your coat?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Movie Review: The Hangover

Rated: R

Website: The Hangover official site

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Heather Graham

My Review: It would be really easy to dismiss The Hangover as just another “men behaving badly in Vegas” movie, but you’d be missing one key element; it’s a friggin’ hilarious “men behaving badly in Vegas” movie.

The premise is simple and borders on cliché: Four guys from California head to Las Vegas for one last hurrah before one of them gets married, looking forward to binge drinking and irresponsible gambling, and the dimwitted one of the bunch even shouts “Road trip!” on the way there. Then they wake up the following morning with a trashed suite, unable to remember a thing from the previous night, and find a live tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, and the groom-to-be missing. And then the cliché ends as they use various clues to piece together what exactly happened that night and where their missing quartet member is.

The funniest moments in The Hangover are the surprises that happen along the way, so I won’t spoil anything that happens. As the hungover trio pieces together what happened the previous night I was expecting each occurrence to be tied to another, like one of Law & Order’s mysteries of the week, but the fact that everything seems to have been just a random series of events adds to hilarity and absurdity of the entire movie. Like me, you might find yourself wondering, “Well, how did they go from X to doing Y, and then end up at Z?” But save yourself the trouble of making sense of it all, and chalk it up to simply, “Hey, it’s Vegas!” By the end of the movie, most of the mysteries have been satisfactorily solved, and while the chronology of the entire night may not make total sense, it’s still one hell of a “Road trip!”

Bottom Line: The Hangover is one of the best and most consistently funny adult comedies I’ve seen. Even the presence of a screaming baby in the theater wasn’t able to detract from my enjoyment of the movie, and that’s saying something.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Movie Review: Up

Rated: PG

Website: Up official site

Starring: voices of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, John Ratzenberger

My Review: In its 10th movie release, Disney-Pixar manages to do it again. Not only is Up visually stunning, but the story manages to be both heartbreaking and heartwarming, often in the same moment. A bit of sentimental plucking of the heartstrings is nothing new for a Disney movie, but I found Up to be more emotionally wrenching than any of their previous offerings (and that includes when Bambi’s mother was shot).

The movie opens with a montage highlighting Carl and Ellie’s life together, from meeting as children, to marriage, to old age. Both are wannabe adventurers who dream of traveling to a mystical waterfall in South America, and when it becomes clear that they are unable to have children, they begin saving for their big adventure. But as it so often does, life gets in the way, and as the car needs new tires and the house needs a new roof, their adventure fund dwindles, and Ellie passes away before the trip ever happens. Now a crotchety old man, Carl decides to make the trek to South America on his own rather than be forced into a retirement home, and does so by floating his house there with the aid of thousands of balloons. Unfortunately, Russell, the over-eager scout of some sort who wants to earn his “assist the elderly” badge, was coming to help Carl at the time of takeoff and becomes an accidental stowaway on the trip. Once they finally touch down in South America, Carl gets to have an adventure, though it’s slightly different from the one he always imagined.

While the Disney-Pixar movies have always been a bit less juvenile than the Disney animated features of days gone by, I was surprised (but happily so) by some of the mature themes Up touched on. There’s the implication of infertility when Carl and Ellie are unable to have children, the loss of a spouse when Ellie dies, the questionable treatment of the elderly when Carl is nearly forced from his home, and a villain who apparently kills innocent intruders out of pure paranoia. If it hasn’t been made clear already, Disney-Pixar isn’t kid’s stuff, and parents should duly note the PG ratings attached to their movies. There are message boards all over the Internet with parents whining about “how am I supposed to explain the concept of infertility to my 4-year-old?” My response: Why did you bring a 4-year-old to a PG movie? Disney-Pixar already killed Nemo’s mother, had Syndrome attempt to assassinate the Incredible children, and dealt with abandonment issues in Toy Story 2; they’re making family movies for thinking families with older children. And I hope they keep up the good work.

Bottom Line: The latest in a long line of homeruns, Up is another excellent offering from Disney-Pixar. But be sure to slip a tissue in your pocket before you go. If you don’t at least tear up during the opening montage, you may be a sociopath. Thank god for those 3D glasses; not only are they fashionable, but the easily hide the fact that a 29-year-old is sobbing during a cartoon.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Theater Review: Twelfth Night

Location: Delacorte Theater, Central Park

Website: Shakespeare in the Park official site

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Raúl Esparza, Audra McDonald, Julie White, Jay O. Sanders, Hamish Linklater, David Pittu, Michael Cumpsty

My Review: The Public Theater kicks off its annual Shakespeare in the Park celebration with one of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night. Before attending, my knowledge of this play was limited—a shipwreck, cross-dressing, and many comical errors were all I knew of it—so I was thrilled to be lucky enough to score a pair of tickets through the Public’s virtual line. Especially after spending the better part of last summer trying to get tickets to the production of Hair, but alas to no avail.

As with most of Shakespeare’s works, trying to summarize Twelfth Night in a few sentences is no easy task. Viola washes up on the shores of the pastoral Illyria after surviving a shipwreck, which she believes has killed her twin brother, Sebastian. Not wanting to be a woman wandering about alone in an unfamiliar place, she disguises herself as a boy, calls herself Cesario, and offers herself as a servant to the Duke, Orsino. Orsino pines for the Countess Olivia, who has no interest in his advances, so he sends his new page Cesario to win the lady’s heart for him. Which of course means Olivia falls for Cesario, not knowing he’s really a woman in disguise. And Cesario has fallen for the Duke, but is unsure how to proceed since he thinks she’s a man and she is working in his service. And naturally, Sebastian has actually survived the shipwreck, and is wandering about looking exactly like Viola does in her disguise, which causes all sorts of problems and misunderstandings. While all of this is going on, there are plots involving a group of clowns led by Olivia’s perpetually drunken uncle and her scheming maid which are far too complicated to even begin to explain.

Anne Hathaway leads the Shakespeare in the Park cast as Viola/Cesario, and while she is primarily known as a movie actress, she certainly holds her own here (and she must feel the pressure to do so since she shares the same name as Shakespeare’s wife). She actually studied stage acting as a child at the PaperMill Playhouse in New Jersey, but having to perform alongside such Broadway stage veterans as Raúl Esparza and Audra McDonald has to be intimidating. Esparza is Duke Orsino, who is actually only onstage for a handful of scenes, but they manage to find a way to have him sing, which was incredibly gratifying for those of us in the audience who were already familiar with his swoon-worthy voice. McDonald is his unrequited love, Olivia, who is at her hilarious best when blindly throwing herself as the disinterested Cesario; she certainly makes it clear that Olivia is a woman who never takes “no” as an answer.

While Viola, Orsino, and Olivia are commonly acknowledged as the primary parts in Twelfth Night, the bulk of the play belongs to the clowns. Jay O. Sanders plays Olivia’s drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch, with all the gusto and bravado you would expect from a truly stupid fat man, which is exactly what Toby Belch is. His constant, and just as stupid, shadow is Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Hamish Linklater as a hilariously fey and cowardly man. Rounding out the trio of mischief makers is Olivia’s maid Maria, played by Julie White, who is no stranger to handling roles of women with a mean streak and a biting tongue. As Malvolio, the steward who falls victim to the tricks of these three, Michael Cumpsty is probably the most accomplished Shakespearean actor in the entire cast, easily making Malvolio both pompous and comically tragic. Rounding out the cast is an ensemble of musicians, led by the cruelly blunt fool Feste, who provide a soundtrack of Irish/Scottish minstrel music throughout the play, creating a perfect Shakespeare evening under the stars.

While this performance of Twelfth Night is well-performed and highly enjoyable, it’s not without its problems, though I’m not sure if that’s the fault of this production or of the Bard himself. Certain scenes lag as they continue to play long after the audience has already figured out what is going on, which makes me wish they hadn’t chosen to adhere so faithfully to Shakespeare’s script. There’s also the Malvolio storyline, in which he winds up falsely imprisoned due to the scheming of Toby, Andrew, and Maria. Once all is revealed, he is left a broken and humiliated man, but it’s all treated as, “Oh well, our prank was all in good fun. This is a comedy after all!” But Malvolio’s humiliation isn’t meant to detract from everyone else’s happily ever after, which they celebrate in spades as the production closes with a joyful song and dance, and love reigns supreme in the end, just as Shakespeare intended it.

Bottom Line: While Shakespeare in the Park is free to attend, getting tickets can be a hassle, unless you relish camping out in Central Park overnight to be at the front of the line the next day. There are precious few things I would be willing to spend the night in the park for, but luckily the Public Theater now offers a small number of tickets daily through a virtual line you can join on their website. Twelfth Night is a lovely production and easily lends itself to being enjoyed in an outdoor theater on a warm summer night. So try your luck on the virtual line, which is how I got my tickets, or if you’re truly devoted, you may want to give the actual line a try, and I will continue to marvel at how some New Yorkers are willing to live like a hobo for a day all in the name of getting something for free.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Quest for the Best: Eleni’s Review

Location: Chelsea Market, 75 9th Avenue, NY, NY

Website: Eleni’s

Price: Cupcakes are $2.50-$3.75 each

Atmosphere: Candyland come to life. The shop is small, but brightly lit and candy-colored, with all of Eleni’s delicious treats on display under glass. There is also a selection of bulk candy for sale, as well as pre-packaged sets of cupcakes, cookies, and brownies. There are a couple of small tables and chairs for enjoying a snack there, or there are several other seating options within Chelsea Market.

My Review: If you’ve ever been wandering around 9th Avenue down in Chelsea and came across a building that looks like it was designed by a drunken basket weaver, it’s actually the Chelsea Market. Originally a Nabisco cookie factory, the building has since been converted into an indoor marketplace that offers a variety of fresh produce, meats, baked goods, and other assorted treats, as well as housing businesses like the NYC Food Network headquarters on its upper floors. One of the Chelsea Market tenants is Eleni’s, a bakery that is the perfect stop for something sweet.

Eleni’s Chocolate Ganache cupcake is giving my old favorite, the Dragon Devil’s Food cupcake at Batch, a run for its money. It’s simply a chocolate cupcake, with vanilla buttercream filling, and topped with a chocolate ganache frosting. But the chocolate used is so rich and flavorful, it’s clear that Eleni’s only uses the best ingredients. And the amount of frosting used on these cupcakes is much more generous than at Batch, which is causing my old #1 cupcake pick to slowly be bumped down to second place.

Eleni’s Red Velvet cupcake was a bit of a letdown, since traditional buttercream frosting is used rather than cream cheese frosting, which is what most bakeries use since it compliments the somewhat odd flavor of red velvet cake best (is red velvet a sort of chocolate flavor? I’m still not sure how to describe it). The cake part was good; very moist and flavorful. But I definitely prefer my red velvet cake topped with a slightly tangy, slightly sweet, cream cheese frosting.

The Oreo Madness cupcake was a lot better, with its brownie cake base, topped with crumbly cookie bits and mini marshmallows (which get gooey and toasty in the baking process), followed by buttercream frosting and half of an Oreo cookie. Don’t even tell me the calorie count, because I don’t want to know. Also delicious in its simplicity is the Coconut cupcake, which is available as either a chocolate or vanilla cupcake, topped with vanilla buttercream frosting and coconut flakes, which tastes like a better version of a Hostess Sno Ball.

Bottom Line: Chelsea Market is a fun place to visit if you’re a foodie, and Eleni’s makes the trip all the more special. The cupcakes are available in a variety of flavors, all delicious (at least based on the ones I’ve sampled), and I have it on good authority from others that the brownies there are worth the price, too. And ever since my stop there, all I can think about is how long is a respectable time to wait before going back for another Chocolate Ganache cupcake? Probably at least a couple of days, right?

Monday, June 8, 2009

2009 Tony Awards Post-Mortem

The Tony Awards were last night. And that pretty much sums up the entire evening. They weren’t terribly exciting, nor were they terribly…well, terrible; they just were. For an event that’s commonly known as the gayest night in New York, the ceremony was surprisingly subdued. Neil Patrick Harris did the best he could with the thankless job of being host; he hardly had any stage time (and I continue to wonder why awards shows even bother to have hosts at all), but when he did appear he was entertaining, joking about how he’s actually a TV star and poking fun at sushi-overdosing Jeremy Piven.

As expected, I performed pitifully in my winner predictions, but I did get the play and musical picks right, which were the only ones I guessed at with any confidence. Billy Elliot was the night’s biggest winner, though Elton John lost the Best Original Score prize, which was surprising given the show’s sweep in nearly every other nominated category. Angela Lansbury took home another Tony for her performance in Blithe Spirit, which is a remarkable feat for a woman in her 130s (or so). Liza Minelli beat Will Ferrell for Best Special Theatrical Event, and after lisping and slurring her way through the acceptance speech, I continue to wonder why anyone still enjoys seeing her perform (entertainers should eventually retire from work, just like regular people do). Some other highlights (and lowlights) from the evening:

* Holy technical difficulties, Batman! The entire ceremony was fraught with audio problems, starting from the opening moment when the performers’ microphones weren’t on, but everything going on backstage could be heard loud and clear. Then during the musical number from Guys and Dolls the lead performer’s mike wasn’t working, so a stagehand had to dash onstage to give him a handheld one. And during several presenters’ speeches, the audio would fade in and out. Hey Tony Awards audio director, step into my office. Why? Because you’re fucking fired!

* The performance from Best Original Score winner, Next to Normal, which consisted of the actors scream-singing at each other about how “you don’t understand”…and that was pretty much all the number consisted of. To quote Homer Simpson, “I’ve seen plays that were more exciting than this. Honest to god, plays!”

* In the evening’s cutest moment, the three boys who share the responsibility of playing Billy Elliot in Billy Elliot (obviously) collectively won for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. At first they stood around the microphone, nervously giggling, then each gave heartfelt shout-outs to their families and the various teachers that helped get them where they are. I don’t even like children, and that goes double for child actors, but even I said “Aww…”

* Angela Lansbury is a classy old broad who always dresses age-appropriately, and still looks lovely. Susan Sarandon and others, please take note.

* Hair. Good god, Hair. While performing the show’s title number, the cast stormed the audience just like they do every night at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, giving the Tony Awards a much-needed energy boost during the final hour. And making me wonder if I can scrape together enough pennies to go see it again. And again, and again, and again…

While the evening as a whole was sort of lackluster, host Harris closed the night with a cute song saluting some of the winners and encouraged everyone to come see a Broadway show. I’d love to see him get a chance to host again next year, provided they give him something more to do. And maybe check the audio equipment during dress rehearsal.

Photo © Anita and Steve Shevett

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien: Surviving Week One

Conan O’Brien has officially taken over hosting The Tonight Show and successfully survived his first week. Personally, I’ve always loved Conan’s bizarre brand of humor that’s part slapstick, part nonsense, and more often than not, completely juvenile. So I’m loving his brand of The Tonight Show and think he adds a much needed jolt of energy to the show. But I can see how those who were fans of former host Jay Leno’s more middle of the road humor will have some trouble adjusting to the silliness that is Conan. And silliness did abound in his first week as host, where while he did often appear nervous and overwhelmed, I think he did a great job and I look forward to seeing how the show progresses once he’s settled in.

Some of my favorite things from the first week:

* The first episode’s cold open, in which Conan runs cross country from NYC to Los Angeles, passing monuments like the St. Louis arch and the Las Vegas welcome sign, and making an obviously much needed stop in a Victorian doll shop. Then once breathlessly arriving at his new studio, he realizes he left his keys back in NYC, so he uses a bulldozer to gain entrance. It was a cute and entertaining way to start the show, and showed that Conan had no intention of abandoning the ridiculous taped sketches that he always had on Late Night.

* Also in the first episode, when Conan hijacks a Universal Studios tram tour and takes them out on the street, stopping at a Dollar Store to buy all the passenger gifts. Why? Why the hell not?!

* The new set. The Late Night set in NYC was teeny and very dark. But the new Tonight Show set on the Universal Studios lot is bright, airy, and cheerful, which fits Conan’s type of jubilant and silly humor much better. And as was pointed out in Friday’s episode, the blue art deco backdrop resembles scenes from Super Mario Brothers, and what’s more fun than Super Mario Brothers?

* After musical guests Green Day present him with a guitar, Conan mock-snidely tells his other guest, Tom Hanks, to “next time, bring a gift!”

* The gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) ribbing of band leader Max Weinberg continues. On Late Night, Conan always took childlike delight in teasing the stoic Max, who usually reacted with a disdainful poker face. In the course of the first week of The Tonight Show, Conan implies that Max is an elderly Asian lady, a registered sex offender, and a bigger media whore than Jon & Kate Plus Eight. I can’t wait to see what false atrocities Max will be accused of in the second week.

* Also, the utter nonsense continues. Some of my favorite Late Night moments were the ones where the joke doesn’t seem to make any sense, but like when a ten-year-old tells you a knock-knock joke they made up themselves, you still have to laugh. After saying how bad the traffic is in LA, Conan then cuts to footage of simulated traffic jams (made of Matchbox cars) to see what the holdups are. And naturally, they’re a flock of ducklings crossing the street, a baby, and a dog having a bar mitzvah. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but that didn’t stop me from laughing anyway.

The only part of the new Tonight Show that I’m not a huge fan of is Conan’s former sidekick, Andy Richter, as the show’s announcer. I do think Richter can be an entertaining guy, and it’s a shame that all of his attempts at starring in a sitcom haven’t gone well, but as the show’s announcer, he just doesn’t fit. His voice is too nasal and whiny, rather than booming and authoritative. And rather than having him enclosed in an announcer’s booth somewhere, he’s at a podium right on the floor, so whenever Conan gets flustered or a joke doesn’t get the audience reaction he was expecting, he turns to Richter with a comment, to which Richter has to come up with some lame response. I never had a problem with the sidekick format the two men has during Late Night’s earlier days, so if they want to go back to that, do it. But the Richter as announcer setup isn’t working, and it’s coming off as a pathetic attempt for Conan to throw a bone to his consistently unemployed pal. Which is exactly what the situation is, but I don’t think we as the audience are supposed to actually know that.

Photo © Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hair and The Norman Conquests: Reassuring My Faith in Broadway Theater

While I consider myself an massive theater geek and will gladly babble on to anyone about the many merits of attending live theater, I do have to admit that a lot of what Broadway’s had to offer the past few years has been questionable. One of the main problems seems to be that Broadway has forgotten that it needs theater actors, not movie actors. I remember years ago when I first started making my way down to the city to see shows and I would hardly recognize any of the cast member’s names, since they weren’t household names; they were trained professional New York City theater performers.

But lately Broadway seems to be relying on bringing in big name celebrities to sell tickets. Julia Roberts made her Broadway debut in 2006 in Three Days of Rain…and the reviews were terrible and the show closed. Katie Holmes made hers in 2008 with All My Sons…and no one really seemed to care. Then there’s the revolving door of “celebrities” that take turns starring in Chicago, like Lisa Rinna and Wayne Brady, and the who’s who of American Idol rejects that rotated in and out of the now-closed Rent. It’s no secret that Broadway theaters have been hurting for money for years and have been forced to turn to measures like corporate sponsorships to stay afloat, but the name-dropping casting is a stunt that just doesn’t work. Newsflash: Even if the star of a show is a big name, if the show is terrible, people aren’t going to shell out the money for the exorbitant cost of a Broadway ticket. When a theater ticket can cost the same as a full day’s salary, audiences want to see performances by people who know what they’re doing.

Broadway theater also has a tendency to forget one of the fundamental rules of the theater: Theater is meant to be entertainment. What was once designed as a way for everyone—from kings to peasants—to enjoy a couple of hours, has turned into 150-minute long lectures on issues like tolerance, matrimonial strife, and how hard it is to be young/old/black/white/poor/rich in the world today. While there’s nothing wrong with a show offering a lesson or insight on a common problem, no one wants to be bored during a night out. There’s night school and poetry readings for that.

It’s due to these common ailments that so many Broadway productions are suffering from that added to my utter delight in both Hair and The Norman Conquests. Hair offers lessons galore—being young is tough, war is horrible, marijuana can be a lot of fun—but it’s never heavy-handed, and good god is it fun! The singing! The dancing! The daisies! It’s a rocking good time set to a story you can relate to. The Norman Conquests is also highly entertaining, but in a more subdued (and British) way. The trilogy of plays offer a lot of laughs with their physical humor and awkward pauses, but they also hold a mirror to problems that most people come across at one time or another—unhappy in love, unhappy out of love, unfaithful partners, and a cat stuck in a tree (naturally).

And both shows manage to accomplish theatrical greatness without one big celebrity name between the two of them, and they continue to sell tickets. I just pray this trend continues, because if next year I start seeing ads for the Jonas Brothers starring in Billy Elliot, I will throw up and move out of the city.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Breaking Bad Season Finale: Awesomeness Exemplified

As I’ve written before, AMC’s series Breaking Bad is one of the best shows currently on TV, and last night’s Season Two finale just solidified this fact. My only complaint is that it’ll most likely be another year before we get a new season to see how everything in this finale plays out. A whole year?! That’s like, sooo far away!

In one of the bleakest moments of the show so far, at the end of the penultimate episode, we saw Walt stand by and let Jane (business partner Jesse’s formerly recovered addict girlfriend) die while choking on her own vomit after a massive heroin bender. You could see in his face that he was asking himself the same question we were: “What the hell have you become?” What started as a business venture of desperation to provide for his family after his guaranteed demise has morphed into something much darker and sinister.

Walt’s cancer responded well to treatment, and while not cured, he now has time. But rather than letting this news lead to his gradual retreat from the world of dealing meth, he’s working with a shady lawyer who has the hookup (or the hookup of the hookup) with one of the southwest’s biggest underground dealers. Atrocities that would once have sent him in a tailspin, like the gunning down of one of his distributors, he barely bats an eyelash at. And of course there’s that whole stand back and watch Jane die thing. What happened to Walt the concerned family man who just happened to know the recipe for the best crystal meth? Is he still a guy we want to root for, despite all the illegal things he does?

Maybe he is. One of the things Breaking Bad does best is play the moral ambiguity card with finesse. It would be easy to look at all his wrongdoings and say that Walt has completely lost himself, but then you get glimmers of his old self peeking through. He’s absolutely distraught at having missed the birth of his daughter due to having to deliver his stash to a new distributor when Jesse is too drugged out to do it. He can barely keep from falling to pieces when his son tells a TV news reporter about what a great, stand-up guy his dad is, and how Walt is his role model. And when going back to the dead Jane issue, you have to wonder, did he let her die so that she wouldn’t rat him out, or because he saw how she was bringing Jesse with her in her downward spiral?

While Walt and Jesse have never exactly had a tender and loving relationship, it became clear over the course of this past season that Walt does care for his former student, despite the number of times he screws up. When Walt gets annoyed and lays into Jesse for his various mistakes, a large part of his anger comes from the fact that he knows Jesse is smarter than he acts and is capable of so much more. When Jesse’s recreational drug use turns into addiction, primarily influenced by recovered addict Jane falling off the wagon, it’s almost like Walt is watching his surrogate son self-destruct. Their final scene together, when Walt finds Jesse drowning his sorrows in a horrifying drug den, then takes him to a fancypants rehab spa to get clean, is one of the most bizarrely touching scenes I’ve ever seen on a TV show (especially one about drug dealers).

While the finale did answer some of the questions that have been lingering all season long (we finally know where that one-eyed burned teddy bear came from), it raised even more for the next season. Is Skylar really kicking Walt out for all his lies? And will he finally confess everything to her? And if he does, will that make things better or worse? Will Jesse finally get his shit together? Will Jane’s grieving father play a part in what’s to come? Were the two bodies in Walt’s front yard after the plane crash simply passengers from one of the planes, or are they affiliated with Walt’s story in some way? And what’s going to happen now that the chicken man/meth kingpin knows that Walt’s brother-in-law is in the DEA? Next spring never seemed so far away.