Unconditional, Tribute to Musicals Songwriters, Passing Strange and Elizabeth McCann
Until February 8th, I’d been writing articles and reviewing plays for this column as a roving reporter. But Trevor Brown, a young producer, read one of the articles and invited me to attend the preview of “Unconditional” as a member of the New York Press Corps. It was opening at the Public Theatre in a production of the LABrynth Theatre Company, a company cum laboratory founded in l992 by John Ortiz, Philip Seymour Hoffman and a number of other multitalented types. I arrived, was handed my first press kit, sat myself down next to an old friend who writes for Backstage, and several seats away from the venerable John Simon, who was covering the play for Bloomberg News. Other scribes were spread about our section of the LuEsther Hall on the 3rd floor of the Public Theatre.
On entering, I was struck by the very odd configuration of the Hall itself. We were seated at one end, we faced another group in 5 equal rows directly opposite us, at quite a distance. At right angles to us, on both sides, were two rows of elevated seats, above the sets, which gave new meaning to “as seen from above”. Bits and pieces of small sets were scattered about in the playing area, separated by floating walls which we later learned could be, and would be, whisked on and off quickly and quietly.
Recorded music began the play, and instantly lights focused us on center stage, midway between our section and our opposites. There, on a chair, a white man was bound and gagged, with a rope around his neck. A black man was regaling him with a list of his crimes. It was more than unsettling; it was terrifying. At the end of it, the black man kicked the chair out from under the other fellow, and we were left with a view of him swinging in the night air. Immediate blackout, and lights up on a playing area not three feet from us at our end. Now we were in a filthy lowlife bar, neon lit, scrungy barstools, six of them. An attractive black lady was seated at one end of the line, an average looking Joe at the other. Both were smoking. A bar tender hovered behind. The man tried to engage the woman in conversation. He got nowhere in his attempt to pick her up. But he reached her – at the end of the scene, she turned to him, and it was implied we’d be seeing more of them.
And so we moved on – to be told nine New York stories converging in a racially and sexually charged tale of love, justice, rage and betrayal. Powerful stuff, and all the more fascinating because the playwright, Brett C. Leonard, a straight, white male from Southern California, was raised by parents who are still together. As he himself put it, “I had all the opportunities”. His ear for the rhythms of the would-bes and losers that populate his play is remarkable. Mr. Leonard explains his ability to draw characters far from his own background by saying “I think everybody suffers with loneliness and insecurity and feeling of being undeserving”. He certainly manages to get inside his people; his mission is to make them understandable to those who have not been forgotten or ignored or dismissed. For he has captured his broken-winged characters, and made them vividly real to those of us who would never actually meet up with them in our protected and sheltered lives. There are educated blacks in this play, articulate Puerto Ricans with zest and humor, druggies, soulful whites and blacks who, like all other people, want to be understood and loved, who want to love and understand others. Leonard’s ear for the idioms and rhythms of their speech is remarkable.
Under Mark Wing-Davey’s fluid and imaginative staging, a remarkable ensemble cast brings life to these nine very human beings. I had not seen any of these actors before, yet all of them probed and found variety in the natures of those they played. John Doman, who was added to the cast after rehearsals began, made a remarkable “Keith”, the man at the bar, who makes contact with “Lotty”, the black Westchester matron, who has left her white bread of a white husband. He, her husband “Gary”, in turn is able to find fulfillment with “Tracie”, a beautiful young black girl, who’d been rudderless, connected primarily to her girl friend “Jessica”, a volatile and vivid Puerto Rican (who was brought to vivid and sometimes very funny life by Elizabeth Rodriguez). “Daniel” is the white middle man whose unfortunate job it is to tell “Newton” that he’s been fired from the job he’s held for 25 years, just short of the years required to entitle him to a pension. It is Daniel who is ultimately lynched by Newton, it is Keith who ultimately kills a black man, “Spike”, over the mishandling of a missing four hundred dollars. Confused? You might be for a few minutes, for the characters are listed in the program alphabetically, which is no help at all. But in time, all is crystal clear, and you will find yourself involved with, caring for, and ultimately greatly saddened by the destinies of some of these blighted creatures, and moved by the hopeful endings for others.
Mark Wendland’s scenic concept and Japhy Weideman’s lighting design are enormously helpful in placing us in exactly the sections of New York inhabited by these lost and lonely folks. I was struck by how theatrical ingenuity did not in any way block the truth and poetry and dimension of the people in this play. It can be done. I would suggest that those connected with mounting “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and “Hunting and Gathering” have a look at this production. I walked in to the Public, unaware of life in these lanes; I walked out two hours later, informed, and very moved. Though the characters in these other recent off/Broadway offerings were original each in his own way, they seemed by comparison to be stick figures. Bravo, Messrs. Leonard, Wing-Davey and all those who created this powerful drama.
One caveat: What does the title “Unconditional” mean? I think these well drawn characters and this very fine play deserve a more revealing, a more eloquent title.
The New York scene is so varied and interesting in mid-season, I played a double header on Monday, February 25th. I’ll share the first event of the night with you and hope you’ll return next time for the other. A 6:30 reception at the Vincent Astor Gallery of the New York Library for the Performing Arts welcomed the exhibit “Writing to Character: Songwriters and the Tony Awards” [thru June 14]. We were blessed with clear weather, so scarves, gloves and umbrellas could be left at home. All the usual suspects were present; I ran into Peter Filichia who writes for Theatremania.com, to Michael Riedel and Susan Haskins, who co-host “Theatre Talk” on PBS, and John Kander, who was about to take off for a tribute to his late writing partner, Fred Ebb (to which I’m taking you the next time we meet here.)
The library exhibit is worth a trip to New York for those who take their musical theatre seriously. Interesting letters are framed and mounted, edited piano scores are posted, and all sorts of memorabilia have been assembled from a dozen Broadway musicals. It was fun to read a letter from producer Leland Hayward to his team of writers on “The Sound of Music”. Hayward was deeply concerned that they should not place star Mary Martin in a tree for her opening number. He reminded them that Mary was not exactly Sister Maria’s real age, she was more like twenty years older, and it might prove dangerous for her to climb down. He had other concerns too, and looking back on what turned out to be a smashing success, some of his comments bring a smile.
Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann was plopped down on a giant poof, looking perplexed. Ms McCann has brought us many a drama over the years, plays like “Nicholas Nickleby”, “Amadeus”, “Dangerous Liasons” and “Copenhagen”, but she is not known for musicals. She once said to me, “I have no idea what makes a good musical. I don’t even like musicals.”
So she might have looked perplexed because her next New York venture is a very now musical, a little item called “Passing Strange”, coming to the Belasco on February 28th. The press kit tells us it’s the story of a young bohemian on a journey of escape and exploration that takes him from his middle class church-reared youth in South Central L.A. to the drug-laced world of sex in Amsterdam to the art and anarchism of Berlin.” Now doesn’t that sound like the kind of thing that would intrigue a nice Convent Girl like Ms. McCann? For indeed she spent her early life in a convent, and emerged into Show Business in the late 1960s, and clearly she’s remained open to all sorts of new and now stimuli. We wish her every success; she’s been a dedicated and risk-taking producer for decades; may she have fun with her musical. But it’s an interesting marriage of material and producer, wouldn’t you agree?
I could only stay for one glass of wine, because I too had to skedaddle up to the YMHA on the other side of town for the final night of a five performance tribute to Fred Ebb, the dedicated and gifted lyricist of some dozen Broadway musicals, eleven of them written during his 42 year partnership with John Kander. As Mr. Kander was present at the tribute, I’m going to save my talk with him that night for the interview I will conduct with him prior to his departure for your city and the premiere of “The Visit” at the Signature Theatre. He’s a remarkable man, and deserves our full attention.
So come on back in a couple of weeks, and you can hear us chatting away about our 45 year friendship, and the joy his remarkable journey has given me and all of us.