The playing out of dark desires: The Nether, at MCC

Sophia Anne Caruso as Iris and Frank Wood as Sims in MCC Theater's production of The Nether. (Photograph by Joan Marcus)

Sophia Anne Caruso as Iris and Frank Wood as Sims in MCC Theater’s production of The Nether. (Photograph by Joan Marcus)

The Nether, by Jennifer Haley, is a futuristic techno-thriller that’s firmly situated amid present-day concerns about violent games and online malfeasance and rooted in a form established years ago, that of the police procedural. In a time when the natural world has gone gray and gloomy and people largely occupy themselves online, Detective Morris (Merritt Wever) is interrogating a man named Sims (Frank Wood), who’s suspected of solicitation, murder, and more in the virtual-reality realm that he operates. Once we see the Hideaway, as it’s called, the allure is obvious: it’s a nostalgic piece of Victoriana alive with colors and sounds (a gramophone plays in one scene), tastes and scents, to which nature itself seems to have retreated—there’s a garden, symbolic of course, with a stand of poplars, which hardly exist in the real world anymore. Yet the Hideaway’s purpose strikes us as repellent, for Sims is making it possible for men to visit, dally with, and eventually dismember pretty little girls in doll-like dresses. An ax makes its presence known fairly early, and we know what Chekhov said about a weapon that appears in a tale.

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Briefly noted: Three Brecht bits

(1) In connection with its current production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, England’s Royal Opera engaged novelist and essayist Will Self to lecture on the piece. The Guardian recently published an edited extract of his lecture, which you can find here. It struck me as an oddly dyspeptic piece of work, although from a certain standpoint it’s rather a hoot. I’d love to have been in his audience to sense the response to declarations such as these:

If there’s one thing about which I feel confident – despite the radical contingencies that typify our world – it’s that there will be no rioting or disruption whatsoever at the Royal Opera’s production of Mahagonny.

In our febrile contemporary milieu, scandals and riots cannot be generated at will.…

In that case, why bother to serve Mahagonny up? This woeful tale of a consumption-led Cockaigne that degenerates into anarchic tyranny cannot possibly have any real impact on us.

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Married to the bomb: A new play looks at how it all began

Josh Doucette (as Frank Oppenheimer), Hugh Sinclair (as General Groves), and Jordan Kaplan (as Oppie), in Jack Karp's Irreversible. (Photo courtesy Red Fern.)

Josh Doucette (as Frank Oppenheimer), Hugh Sinclair (as General Groves), and Jordan Kaplan (as Oppie), in Jack Karp’s Irreversible. (Photo courtesy Red Fern.)

British playwright Tom Morton-Smith, author of a play about J. Robert Oppenheimer that’s about to get a second run at the RSC in England, told The Observer early this year, “I wanted to make it clear that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the building of the atomic bomb, were very much done by people with real lives and real feelings.” The words could just as well have come from American playwright Jack Karp, whose new play, Irreversible (now being presented by the Red Fern Theatre Company), takes much the same tack. In fact, as Karp tells the tale, the birth of the A-bomb is something of a family affair, attended by Robert; the little-known figure of his younger brother, Frank, also a physicist; Robert’s wife, Kitty; and even his mistress, Jean Tatlock. And the vastly complex Manhattan Project has inescapably personal dimensions for the other two people in the play as well, General Leslie Groves and Niels Bohr.

That Irreversible presents its characters as driven by ordinary human desires is, perhaps, no more than you’d expect. He would be a rare playwright who would attempt to put on the stage, and to sell to the public, the problems of math, science, engineering, and organization that the Manhattan Project confronted. But Karp’s play is really concerned with something other than bringing the wizardry down to earth. It’s more a fantasia on historical and contemporary themes than an exact recreation of history, and it’s more a discussion play than a pure drama. Hence a sneak-away visit that Robert actually paid to Tatlock in 1943 is positioned by Karp within the time frame of summer ’44 through summer ’45 that his play covers; Tatlock, who had been Robert’s lover before he married Kitty, brings up a question of loyalty for purely personal reasons, but the question arises again in other ways. Likewise, a remark that Robert made years later about the prospect of the so-called Super (the H-bomb), that it was “technically sweet,” appears here, as one among many reminders that pure science always exerted a siren call on him. Furthering the point, Robert insists more than once to Frank, who comes to disagree with him, that “Nothing is more important than physics.”

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…And a Passion: Q&A with Jeff Still

“All you need for theater is two planks and a passion”—one version of a saying attributed to Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (who actually said something a little less pithy). Planks can be gotten anywhere. For passion, you need actors.

Given the cooperation of the Fates, this will be an occasional feature, exploring the life and work of actors by means of a standard set of questions. My current respondent was suggested to me by a mutual friend in Chicago, actor Rick Peeples, whom I thank.

In the entire opening-night performance of Fish in the Dark, Larry David’s current Broadway comedy, Jeff Still is the only cast member who got a laugh from New York Times critic Ben Brantley. (You can find the review here, along with a photo including Still.) He’s from Edison, New Jersey, and now lives in New York City. Still’s presence on the Web is confined to his Facebook page.

Jeff Still headshotWhat’s your current role?
Currently I’m playing Jay Leventhal in Larry David’s Fish in the Dark, on Broadway.

What sparked your interest in acting?
My original major in college was broadcasting, as it had been my childhood dream to be a baseball broadcaster. After a year of radio work in college, I decided I really didn’t like that environment and, after a meeting with a playwright-in-residence at Trinity University in San Antonio, decided to take a chance on acting. I remember this famous exchange: I asked him, “Isn’t it risky to go to college and get a degree in theater?,” and he responded, “It could be risky to get a degree in accounting; you might as well major in something you enjoy.”

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A view from the World Trade Center, 2/23/15

Late-afternoon sun and sky, as seen from the Vanity Fair offices on the 41st floor of One World Trade Center. One World Financial Center is the domed building. Ellis Island is at bottom center, with the Statue of Liberty to its left. (Tech note: Though the image was shot at ISO 80, it shows noise, which I take to be the result of the iPhone 4 sensor.)

Late-afternoon sun and sky, as seen from the Vanity Fair offices on the 41st floor of One World Trade Center. One World Financial Center is the domed building. Ellis Island is at bottom center, with the Statue of Liberty to its left. (Tech note: Though the image was shot at ISO 80, it shows noise, which I take to be the result of the iPhone 4 sensor.)

The original image can be viewed on Flickr.

The roar of the cannon: an actor joke, from Robert De Niro

From an interview with Robert De Niro in the January 1989 issue of Playboy:

PLAYBOY: Do you remember your first experience before the cameras?

ROBERT DE NIRO: There was some little thing I did that I don’t know whatever happened to. Some walk-on for an independent film: I walked in and ordered a drink at a bar.

I remember a bunch of other young actors hanging around, moaning and bitching, all made up, with pieces of tissue in their collars; it was the kind of thing you always hear about actors—where they’re just silly or vain, complaining back and forth, walking around primping, not wanting to get the make-up on their shirts.

PLAYBOY: So you didn’t exactly feel as if you had found a home.

ROBERT DE NIRO: No, I didn’t want to be around those people at all. I just walked in and walked out. I was nervous, though, just to say the line “Gimme a drink.” It makes me think of that joke: “Hark! I hear the cannon roar!” You know that joke?

PLAYBOY: No.

ROBERT DE NIRO: I’m surprised you never heard it; it’s a famous actor’s joke.

This guy hasn’t acted in about 15 years, because he always forgets his lines, so finally he has to give it up. He’s working in a gas station and gets a phone call from someone saying that they want him for a Shakespearean play—all he has to do is say, “Hark! I hear the cannon roar!” He says, “Well, God, I don’t know.” The director says, “Look, it’ll be OK. You’ll get paid and everything.” So he says, “OK, I’ll do it.” The play has five acts and he has to go on in the third act and say, “Hark! I hear the cannon roar!” That’s all he has to do. So he rehearses it when he’s in his apartment: “Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!” Every variation, every possible emphasis. They’re into rehearsal, and he’s got it written on his mirror: “Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!” And so on. Finally, comes opening night, first act, no problem. Second act, things go fine. Audience applauds. Stage manager says, “You have five minutes for the third act.” He tells him to get backstage. His time comes, he runs out, muttering to himself, “Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!” And as he runs out, he hears a big brrrooooom!! Turns around and says, “What the fuck was that?”

Source: I found the interview posted in parts online; the above was included here. According to another source, the interview was conducted by Lawrence Grobel and the material is Copyright 2002 Playboy.