We had the pleasure of attending a production of the Carly Mensch play Oblivion this weekend. It's a four-character family dramedy, where the first act is almost a sitcom but the end of Act One and most of Act Two supply the drama.

Two "cool" parents in their 40s struggle to connect with their teenage daughter. She is looking to organized religion to help explain her world, which drives her parents a bit nuts, particularly Mom (shades of The Americans). The performances are good, as is the play, although the somewhat happy ending was a disappointment after spending time with Nietzsche.

The main reason we were there was to see our friend Arthur Keng. We've been following his acting career for a long time, now ... there aren't many posts here with the "theater" tag, but they can be broken down into two categories: famous people come to Berkeley Rep, and Arthur. Since he went to SoCal, we don't get to see him as often, but he is guesting in Oblivion in Sacramento, so you know we had to be there. (It worked out perfectly ... I hope Arthur agrees ... after the matinee performance, we went over to Sara and Ray's house and went out for dinner, meaning Arthur got to meet the irrepressible Félix.)

Not only did we get a chance to see Arthur's latest role (he was quite good, with several monologues I'll get to in a second), bnt his character was a teenaged filmmaker who obsessed over ... Pauline Kael. Once in a while, he'd give one of those monologues, which amounted to him reciting letters he was writing to Pauline, thinking aloud and asking for her advice. A parallel is drawn between his connection to Kael and the daughter's attempt to communicate with God ... it's only a bit of a stretch to say both teens are up to the same thing. The daughter knows that Nietzsche said God was dead, and Arthur's character has a similarly deflating moment when he finds out Kael had died a long time ago.

The bios in the program draw our attention to Mensch's participation in Weeds, and I can see that, although as far as I can tell, she came on during the later, lesser seasons. Mostly, though, I mention the program because of something Robin noticed as we sat awaiting the start of the play.

She nudged me and pointed at Arthur's bio, which includes the following: "Arthur would like to dedicate this show to Steven, the biggest Kael fan around, and to Steven's amazing wife Robin. Their support has always, and will always, mean the world to him."

First time I wanted to cry before the play had even started.

Oblivion runs at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento through April 19.

harold pinter's no man's land

Here are a few items gleaned from the Wikipedia page for Harold Pinter’s play, No Man’s Land.

Michael Billington, who wrote an authorized biography of Pinter, admits that he can never fully understand No Man’s Land. “Who can?”, he asks. Critic Michael Coveney, who found the play “gloriously enjoyable”, nonetheless asks, “Yes, but what does it all mean?” He also referred to Kenneth Turan’s claim that the play was full of “gratuitous obscurity”. And critic Paul Taylor takes “Pinter virgins” to see the play … one says “Obscure and exhausting”, another wonders “Where’s the joke?”

Longtime readers know that I am not a fan of “gratuitous obscurity”, although I’m less bothered by the gratuitous possibilities. I just don’t like what seems like purposeful obscurity. It’s just a taste preference of mine: I don’t mind having to think about a movie, don’t object to movies that have a core that lies hidden beneath the surface, but wonder why I should bother watching something that is made to frustrate my understanding of what I am seeing.

In short, while I didn’t know until I’d seen it, No Man’s Land is not likely to be my cup of tea.

We attended a preview performance of the play (now at Berkeley Rep, on its way to Broadway) for the shallowest of reasons. The lead actors are Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. We’ve gone to other star turns at Berkeley Rep in the past. My wife’s favorite might have been the one with Mandy Patinkin, because she has always loved Mandy Patinkin, and she is also a fan of the X-Men, so it’s not much of a stretch to know we would find ourselves at a play starring Professor X and Magneto. It was an added bonus when we learned that Billy Crudup would also be in the play. Robin was initially hesitant, saying she wasn’t a big fan of Harold Pinter, but soon enough, we had our tickets (reasonably priced, too, since it was one of the preview shows … thanks to our friend Arthur for explaining that a preview would be just fine).

It is a credit to both McKellen and Stewart that I soon forgot I was watching Gandalf and Jean-Luc Picard. Stewart was wearing a toupee that was distracting because it reminded me of the actor’s shaven head, while McKellen’s suitably shabby clothes had no such problem. But they entered their roles with enthusiasm, and they were fine throughout. Stewart’s voice can lead him astray on occasion … he has such a powerful speaking voice that it’s not always easy for him to crank it down a bit (although he is not a ham … he doesn’t try to grab the stage at the expense of the play, he just has a big voice). And we were close enough for Robin to claim that she could tell Stewart has worse arthritis in his hands than I do (which, it turns out, is true). But these were all just tidbits, not things that overwhelmed the experience of watching the play.

Ah, the play. The first act was intriguing … clearly it was a character study, not a plot-driven tale, but the characters were interesting and the acting was good. The second act, though … I was thrown for a loop fairly early on, and realized that, character study or not, I am enough of a sucker for narrative that I was almost completely thrown off by the fact that I no longer understood what was going on. The play became less intriguing and more frustrating. As usual, in our post-mortem, Robin explained the play for me, at least her interpretation, which is as good as any. She never seems to get lost in plot intricacies, the way I do.

I hadn’t yet read the Wikipedia article. If I had, I might have known that “what does it all mean” and “gratuitous obscurity” were warning signs for someone like me. I disagree with the person who wondered where the joke was, though. I mean, I still don’t know what the damn thing was about, and I don’t have the slightest idea what the overarching “joke” was, or even if one existed. But there were many funny moments throughout the play … on a couple of occasions, the actors had to pause until the audience quit laughing, and I could swear there was a scene where Stewart was having trouble not laughing, himself.

Am I glad I went? Sure, it was only two hours out of my life, and I got to see something special in the casting. Billy Crudup was good, although when he smiled during the curtain calls, I thought, “he’s the guy from Almost Famous, only with short hair, I have to watch that movie again”. Shuler Hensley, the “unknown” cast member, was as good as everyone else (“unknown” meaning “unknown to someone who doesn’t pay much attention to theater”, since he is an award-winning stage actor). But five years from now, the two things I’ll most remember are that I once saw McKellen and Stewart together on stage, and that I don’t much care for Pinter’s No Man’s Land.

love in the dark: pauline kael and the movies

First Person Singular is a “dramatic reading series” that grew out of a book store employee’s frustration with the standard format of book readings by authors. Works are read by actors, rather than authors, which hopefully allows for a more entertaining, and thus enlightening, approach to writing.

Tonight I saw Mary Baird reading as Pauline Kael. It was a mostly chronological tour through some of Kael’s highlights: West Side Story, The Graduate, Nashville, “Trash, Art and the Movies”. Baird’s readings were good enough, although I could hear Kael’s actual voice in my head (she was not one of the boring ones at readings). The selections were a bit oddly chosen … a few words about Marlon Brando but nothing from her great essay on Cary Grant, plenty of Robert Altman but only a brief mention of the Bonnie and Clyde review that solidified her reputation (and nothing of Last Tango in Paris). When introducing the play, Joe Christiano (who adapted Kael’s writing) noted the conversational tone in her work, and indeed, Baird’s various readings were easy on the ears. There was a section that portrayed an interview with Kael, which was a way to work in some of her famous one-liners.

It was something an acolyte like myself could appreciate (I found myself quoting lines silently as Baird read them), but there was something insubstantial about it all. It was hard to understand why people might still be interested in Kael 20+ years after she quit writing, and while the references to old movies charmed the mostly middle-aged-and-over audience, who nodded nostalgically, they did nothing to advance the possibility that Kael might still seem vital to some current readers.

Still, it was a nice blast of Kael, unadulterated, and the lack of big production values was appropriately intimate. Having said that, I’d note that “unadulterated” doesn’t mean “unedited” … Christiano had to decide what to put in the play, and thus was the one charged with creating a version of Pauline Kael for the audience.

royal rumble 1993

Twenty years ago today, I attended the Royal Rumble. This is the key Pay-Per-View event leading up to Wrestlemania, and in 1993 it was held in Sacramento.

I don’t remember a lot about it at this point. I can refresh my memory via Wikipedia, but not a lot has stuck in my mind over the last twenty years. The Rumble itself was mostly a dud, won by Yokozuna. Still, thanks to YouTube, you can decide for yourself, if you’ve got an hour+ to waste:

Yokozuna, whose real name was Rodney Agatupu Anoaʻi, was born in San Francisco and had Samoan heritage, but when he came to the then-WWF, Vince McMahon turned him into the Japanese wrestler Yokozuna. He went on to become a two-time WWF Champion, but he fought weight issues for his entire career, eventually reaching a reported weight of almost 800 pounds. He died at the age of 34, weighing 580 pounds at the time of his death.

ghost light

Some friends got us tickets to see Ghost Light at the Berkeley Rep for Xmas, and today was the day we got to go. It’s the emotional story of the son of George Moscone, the San Francisco mayor who was assassinated along with Harvey Milk in 1978. It’s directed by that son, Jonathan Moscone, and written by Tony Taccone.

Ghost Light takes its ghosts seriously. They are all over the play, in often confusing ways. Jon has dreams that take him back to his father’s death when he was 14, while he tries to put on a production of Hamlet that gets stuck with an inability to figure out how best to present the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This all works better on an emotional level than any other way … you always sense how tortured Jon is, but it’s not always clear exactly what is happening or whether this or that scene is “real” or a dream.

The acting was strong, although the dialogue felt stagy to me, and there was too much didactic speechmaking in the early part of the play. (I’ve been obsessing about an odd piece in Salon about sitcoms, which may have inspired me to look for staginess where it didn’t necessarily exist.) The play also runs too long after what feels like the proper ending.

But the entire production is innovative, and it is definitely worth seeking out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a filmed version show up at some point on HBO.

anna deavere smith, let me down easy

Tonight we saw Anna Deavere Smith’s solo show at the Berkeley Rep. It consists of Smith performing as real-life interview subjects, a format she has used in several plays.

It’s Studs Terkel brought to life, with a couple of important differences. First and foremost, Smith conducted the interviews, but on stage, she plays the various interviewees, which is an impressive achievement, one that seems a bit exhausting (it doesn’t seem like the kind of performance where the actor would want to talk to folks immediately following the play). Smith does a fine job of delineating the characters, who range from Lance Armstrong and Lauren Hutton and Ann Richards to hospital workers and patients and religious leaders.

At the beginning, it’s not clear how these stories will connect, and Smith is never obvious. But by the end, you feel like you’ve seen a coherent work.

The more problematic difference between this play and any random Studs Terkel book is that Smith occasionally falls into a bit of snobbery. I’m sure she is quoting the exact words of supermodel Lauren Hutton, for instance, and for all I know the mimicry in that scene is accurate. But Hutton comes across as spacey and unconnected to the realities of life. Smith doesn’t do this for most of her characters, so it stands out when a less-than-positive portrait is painted. Studs always respected people, even ones he disagreed with.

Still, Smith’s performance overall is amazing, moving, funny, and effective. I’m glad we saw Let Me Down Easy.

tales of the city

Our friends Jillian and Doug gave me a very sweet birthday present, a trip to ACT for the new musical, Tales of the City. It was the perfect setting for the play … not only is it charmingly provincial that it takes place in The City, but, as librettist Jeff Whitty pointed out, it’s even more specific: when a character sings about bag ladies on Geary and points into the distance, she is pointing at the actual Geary Street on which the theater is located.

I also think Bay Areans of a certain age feel provincial in a protective way towards Tales of the City. We remember reading the daily installments in the Chronicle, and think of it as “ours.” What is fun about the musical is that it reminds us of the universal nature of the tales. Jake Shears and John Garden of Scissor Sisters do the music, and Shears tells of how important Tales was to him as a young gay man (who did not live in San Francisco). Jillian is from England, and she read the books when she first arrived in the Bay Area many years ago, feeling a firm connection to the basic story of Mary Ann Singleton, new to The City. And, of course, the television miniseries brought Tales of the City to a larger audience. So it’s not really “ours” at this point.

Still, there was a feeling that the audience was full of people who call San Francisco “The City,” and who chuckled at all the right reference points.

Yes, I hear you asking, but how was the play? I had a lot of subjective angles competing as I took it in. On the one hand, I remember the emergence of “Tales of the City” in the Chronicle, and it all came back to me … 28 Barbary Lane, Mrs. Madrigal’s secret, Mona Ramsey. And there’s the pleasure of being with friends on a lovely birthday excursion. Still, musical theater is not exactly my genre. And, a day later, I can only recall a few of the songs, and even in those cases, I remember lyrics, not melodies.

But I had a fine time! I think it could have been shorter by half-an-hour, and could have lost a few of the lesser songs, but the main actors were quite good, with Judy Kaye as Mrs. Madrigal and Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann being the obvious vocal talents (which isn’t to say the rest of the cast was tuneless, only that Kaye and Wolfe are top-class singers, and thus had most of the show-stopping numbers). Mona has always been my favorite character … it didn’t hurt that Chloe Webb played her in the first miniseries … and Mary Birdsong was a delight in the part. (Her frizzy/curly wig had a life of its own, so I didn’t really recognize her, and was thus startled when I realized later she had been a regular on Reno 911 and an occasional correspondent on The Daily Show.)

Do I think my dear readers would like it? Yes, I do. None of the flaws are fatal, the spirit is good and fulfilling (and corny, but I suppose “good and fulfilling” implies “corny”), and it’s a solid production. (I should mention the set, which is a marvelous piece of carpentry and pulleys and backdrops, used in a versatile fashion.) All in all, a memorable start to my extended birthday weekend.


We don’t go to the theater much since our friend Arthur moved south, but Robin loves Mandy Patinkin, so tonight we went to see him in Compulsion at the Berkeley Rep. They got the star worship out of the way quickly … Patinkin just walked onstage to begin the play, giving everyone a chance to cheer Inigo Montoya, after which we all settled in. Patinkin buried himself in his part (a semi-fictional recreation of Meyer Levin, who wrote a novel, play and movie based on Leopold and Loeb called Compulsion and who had a long, complicated relationship to Anne Frank’s diary), but to my eye, it was his interaction with the two other actors that wiped away the “look, it’s a big star” feeling … soon enough, we were watching three fine actors instead of a star and two fine actors.

The most interesting part of the play was the use of marionettes. I don’t know much about them, and haven’t seen them live more than once or twice, so it was fascinating me to see the remarkable way they were manipulated to not only appear as Anne Frank and others, but to be acting.

Patinkin’s character, called Sid Silver in the play, gradually goes over the top with his compulsive desire to get Anne Frank’s story told the “right” way. By “right,” he means to emphasize the Jewishness of Frank, and to connect her story as a Jew to the larger story of Jews during the Holocaust and forward into the creation of Israel. His criticism of the play based on the book, which is taken out of his hands and given to others (it won Tonys and a Pulitzer as a play, and three Oscars as a film), is directed to what he sees as the burying of Frank-as-Jew in favor of a more “universal” message. The play Compulsion insists, as well, on its identity within Jewish culture … it doesn’t make many efforts towards the universal, assuming, like Sid Silver, that the universal should come to the specific Jewish culture, rather than the culture giving way to the universal. But Silver’s obsession results in an unhappy man with an unhappy wife, beating his head against the wall unsuccessfully. If The Diary of Anne Frank is taken as oddly uplifting, Compulsion is the opposite, even as it ends by lifting the diary’s famous line, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”

40 years ago today: steven rubio IS winston smith

My primary extracurricular activity in junior high and high school was theater. I’m talking about officially sanctioned stuff, of course … my real primary activities were music, drugs, and chasing girls. I played a lot of parts over those six years … the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, a faux-William Jennings Bryan in Inherit the Wind, a faux-Boris Karloff in Arsenic and Old Lace, a faux-Harpo Marx in The Man Who Came to Dinner. In between all of these classics, I managed to meet my future wife … she was, in fact, my makeup girl for one play, and we ended up making out at the cast party, leading to the fine fellow you see before you today.

The last play I wassteven in makeup 1984 in was also the only time I was the lead, expected to carry much of the show. It was a version of 1984, with me as Winston Smith. Others will have to say if I’m right about this, but I suspect there was a bit of typecasting involved, as if I was already a faux-Winston Smith before I put on my makeup (or, as the photo shows, before someone else put on my makeup, in this case, not my future wife, although this person is still a friend): a rebellious sort who got squashed by The Man (no matter that I squashed myself far more than any Man ever did). I don’t know if I was any good, since I obviously never watched myself. I know that it was the only part I ever played where I was an inward sort of character, faceless, morose. I can remember one scene where my interrogator, O’Brien, is standing behind me and he smacks me on the ear … I was too lame to get the timing down right, I kept flinching before the hand got close to me, so I just said fuck it and took a big swat on the face each night, since I couldn’t figure out how to fake it realistically.

The other thing I remember was the end. The director, also the head of the drama department and a man who passed away not that long ago, decided on something different for the big penultimate scene where Smith, threatened with his greatest fear (rats), betrays his lover, shouting out “Do it to Julia!” Our director decided an implosion would be more effective … the play was in the round, the audience was close. So I started out screaming in fright, but when the moment of betrayal came, I went limp, barely muttered “Do it to Julia,” and crawled inside myself.

I suppose it worked. But it played havoc with my insides. Each night, I’d work myself up to a frenzy, and then, before I could release the tension, I’d shut down. Where, if memory serves (and it rarely does), I’d stay for hours afterwards.

It’s only a coincidence that my own attempt at something resembling “method acting” was also the last time I appeared on a stage. I was about to graduate from high school, I wasn’t going to be continuing in the theater in college (in fact, I wasn’t going to college), and, let’s face it, I was high pretty much every day of those last few months of high school, and wasn’t much good for anything else. But the feeling of being full of emotions that had nowhere to go? I can still remember that now, February 14 2010, which happens to be the 40th anniversary of my final performance as Winston Smith.