It’s been a busy theater week for me. I’ve seen two excellent plays, one very good one and two others that need work.
Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at Remy Bumppo Theatre
Remy Bumppo performs excellent work on its second floor mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Their production of Stoppard’s Travesties is simply brilliant and I recommend it strongly. The premise is that there is a moment in time when James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin were all in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s also a moment when the world is on the brink of change. Europe is at war, revolutions loom, and decades of other wars are ahead. The era of modernism in art and culture is emerging, represented by the novels of Joyce (especially Ulysses) and the deconstructionist poetry of Tzara, the founder of the Dadaist movement. Lenin sits in the Zurich Public Library, writing and waiting.
These three geniuses may or may not have met and conversed or debated in Zurich at that time, but no matter, Stoppard makes the premise work. The character who holds the plot together is Henry Carr, an English diplomat with a substantial ego and insubstantial intellect.
Nick Sandys’ direction is spot on. The dialogue is dazzling, the entire cast is excellent, and the costuming is ravishing. Travesties runs until May 2; don’t miss it. You may see me there again.
End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer at the Windy City Playhouse
Yes, End Days is about the biblical belief in the end of days, but don’t worry, it doesn’t happen. And the story is much broader than the one character who thinks the world will end on Wednesday. (Yes, she is followed around by Jesus, but . . . no, never mind.) The script is well written and the cast is very good. The production is entertaining and thought-provoking. Direction by Henry Godinez makes all the parts gel.
The best reason to see this play is to visit this new theater venue in the Irving Park neighborhood (3014 W Irving Park Rd). End Days is the first production for the Windy City Playhouse, a theater space with an excellent bar and lobby, and best of all, super-comfy seating. Really, seating is not the only reason to go but it certainly adds to the theater experience.
See my Gapers Block review of End Days and read more about the theater itself. End Days runs through Apr 26. I’m looking forward to their next production.
La Bête by David Hirson at Trap Door Theatre
The talented Trap Door troupe does a fabulous job with this witty satire of theater, commerce and mediocrity. La Bête was first produced on Broadway in 1991—running 25 performances before closing. It was revived successfully in 2010 and then transferred to London.
The scene is 17th century Paris and involves the competition at court between the playwright Elomire (an anagram for Moliere) and a verbose newcomer actor/playwright named Valere. The script is written in rhyming couplets and the cast knows how to deliver the lines, thanks to superb direction by Kay Martinovich. Kevin Cox as Valere is simply outstanding. His electrifying act-one monologue is one of the treats of this theater season.
Some of Trap Door’s productions are minimal in design but the costuming and makeup in La Bête is lavish.
La Bête runs two hours, including one intermission, and you will enjoy every minute of the wordplay. It has just been extended to May 2. The tickets are cheap ($10 plus a small fee). Trap Door is located on Cortland and Paulina in Bucktown, at what was the very northern edge of the city at the time of the Great Fire of 1871. Just walk down that narrow gangway to a great theater experience. And put a few bucks in the actors’ box because these performers work for nothing. And that’s a travesty.
The Upstairs Concierge by Kristoffer Diaz at Goodman Theatre
After describing a theater company that does brilliant work on pennies, we come to a well-funded theater company that puts on lavish productions that are turkeys. That would be Goodman Theatre and although Goodman’s productions often are excellent, they are capable of wasting a lot of money that would have funded several storefront theaters.
The Upstairs Concierge is a perfect example. The set is beautiful. The production has been workshopped and fussed over for several years, but the script is dreadful. As I said in my Gapers Block review, “The Upstairs Concierge is a farce but the witty part is missing.” My review generously gave it two stars* (Somewhat Recommended) but other reviewers gave it one star (Not Recommended). See it at your peril.
* The websites I write for don’t use stars, although the two Chicago dailies do. Theatreinchicago.com, a website that compiles reviews and information for Chicago-area productions, uses a rating system, so my reviews appear there with a rating based on a one-to-four star system or Not Recommended to Highly Recommended.
The Good Book by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson at Court Theatre
This is the same playwriting team that created the masterful An Iliad, which Court mounted twice and I found epic and moving both times. This play is an ambitious attempt to explore the roots of the Bible, its authors, sources and gender issues. It also threads two contemporary stories through the overly long performance.
The production has received mixed reviews, from somewhat to highly recommended. The friends I attended with liked the play better than I did. I felt the parts did not hold together well and one of the modern threads would have been better eliminated. One story is that of a nonbeliever, a biblical scholar and professor played by Hollis Resnik. The other is about a teenager played by Alex Weisman, committed to becoming a priest, who over time discovers that he’s gay and comes to grips with both his faith and his sexuality. The two stories don’t mesh and the latter story, in particular, doesn’t relate to the overall ambition of exploring the roots of the bible.
The Good Book runs through April 19 at Court Theatre. I didn’t review it, but check out the reviews here and decide for yourself if you want to see it.
In March, I saw The Apple Family Plays: Sorry and The Hopey Changey Thing by Richard Nelson. These two plays are running in repertory at Timeline Theatre through April 19. They’re both well written and performed. The plays are about politics and family but the underlying theme in both is deciding how to deal with an aging relative who may not be able to live at home much longer. The second play is particularly sad as they come to grips with the issue. It is a chance to see Chicago’s fine actor, Mike Nussbaum, on stage. At 91, he’s a dynamic performer.
All photos courtesy of the theater companies.
Tennessee Williams, one of our greatest 20th century playwrights*, moved to New Orleans in 1939 and spent time there off and on for much of his life. The funky, colorful, bohemian spirit of NOLA suited Williams’ lifestyle, once he overcame the rigidity and religious upbringing of his family. John Lahr details Williams’ life and work in his biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which I wrote about last fall.
*I would have said “the greatest,” but Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller also belong in the greatest category.
Last week the American Theatre Critics Association met in New Orleans and our five-day agenda included many forays into the New Orleans that Williams loved. The 29th annual Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival was being held at the same time, so we participated in some of the many events. Our hotel was conveniently located at the edge of the French Quarter, so we walked to many venues.
Williams, of course, in known for such iconic plays as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Rose Tattoo, Night of the Iguana, Summer and Smoke, Camino Real, and Vieux Carré. But you may not know that he wrote dozens of other plays, both long and short, teleplays and screenplays, novels, poems, and letters. Hundreds of letters. Lahr says Williams was a compulsive writer. He stayed sane by writing.
One rainy afternoon, we walked through the French Quarter to the historic Hermann-Grima house to see four of Williams’ “hotel plays.” He often set plays in hotel rooms and boarding houses, which he considered “way stations between life and death.” Each play took place in a single room, with 25 or 30 of us gathered around—and sometimes on the “set.” I asked one of the actors later if he found it distracting to have to walk over an audience member during a monologue but he said, “no, I’m used to it and it doesn’t bother me.” The plays performed were:
- The Last of My Solid Gold Watches, about Mr. Charlie, an aging traveling shoe salesman, “the last of the Delta drummers.”
- Lord Byron’s Love Letter, in which two midwestern tourists visit a spinster’s historic southern home. It seems she has inherited a love letter written by Lord Byron to her grandmother and she finally agrees to read it. Actor Christine McMurdo-Wallis handles this reading exquisitely (as she does several other roles during the festival).
- Lady of Larkspur Lotion and Mister Paradise, two short plays performed back to back in a larger room. The first play features Mrs. Wire, the boarding house landlady who appears later in Vieux Carré. Mister Paradise, a poet who appears in both plays, prefers to avoid the limelight despite the protestations of an admiring young woman.
There were dramatic and musical intervals between the plays, as audience groups moved up and down stairs, from space to space. Clyde Shelby, a talented pianist, played for us in the first floor corridor and the Lagniappe Brass Band also performed.
A Friday night treat was Blue Devils and Better Angels, Tennessee Williams Tribute Reading held in a tented space at the old Ursulines convent in the French Quarter. It was a perfect space for this series of readings from and about Williams by actors and writers including director John Waters, playwright John Patrick Shanley (who read from his upcoming play, Prodigal Son), British thriller writer Rebecca Chance, and “Ask Amy” columnist Amy Dickinson.
Southern Rep Theatre, one of the few Equity companies in New Orleans, is staging Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer at the Ashé Powerhouse, a renovated venue in the old Jewish neighborhood. We saw the production Saturday afternoon. The performance was marred by poor sound quality (abetted by the constant hum of the AC system) but it was staged beautifully. The dramatic monologue by Catherine (played by Beth Bartley) about her cousin Sebastian’s shockingly bloody death was very well done.
That evening, we walked over to the Monteleone Hotel, just around the corner from our hotel, to see a reading of I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays, part of the TWNOLF schedule. This Williams one-act contains fragments that evolved into Vieux Carré, a 1973 play that Raven Theatre produced so memorably last year. This short play involves two ongoing arguments. Jane, a former Yankee society girl, and her boyfriend Tye, a stripjoint barker with an easy manner that attracts ladies, argue about their life together and apart. And the director, writer and stage manager bicker comically about the development of the script. The play is a bit disjointed but it helped to have seen Vieux Carré. You can appreciate how the relationship between Jane and Tye evolves.
Vieux Carré, by the way, is set in the house at 722 Toulouse Street, between Royal and Bourbon streets, where Williams lived. An historic plaque now commemorates that. Williams also famously spent time in Key West, which I wrote about in 2013.
The ATCA conference closed with two excellent discussions on our final morning, also part of the literary festival.
The first featured John Lahr, author of the recent Williams biography, noted above, and Robert Bray, editor of the Tennessee Williams Review and an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University. I had seen Lahr before when he and Martha Lavey discussed his book at Steppenwolf Theatre. This was a much more intense discussion on the writing of the book itself and generated many memorable quotes. Lahr described how his narrative challenge was to cover the public man, the private man and the plays and illustrate how those elements were woven together. Since Williams’ death in 1983, more than 40 books have been published about him. (Most theatrical biographies, Lahr said, involve “a lot of typing and very little writing.”)
The plays were “the interior landscape of my soul,” Williams said. His plays are all ghost stories: spectral and haunted. In his final play, A House Not Meant to Stand, Williams says goodbye to his “repertory company,” made up of his family, his friends and lovers, and himself. The play was produced in 1981-82 at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Gregory Mosher, who tried unsuccessfully to move it to Lincoln Center.
The second Sunday morning discussion was Playwrights from Page to Stage featuring New Orleans native John Biguenet; Dr. Femi Euba, a native of Nigeria whose recent plays have addressed issues related to Hurricane Katrina; and playwright John Patrick Shanley. Moderator Thomas Keith asked each playwright to talk about how his works took shape on paper and then were transformed to the stage. The comments were wide-ranging, humorous and fascinating. Shanley, in particular, is an articulate and charming commentator on his own work and the act and art of writing.
We saw two other plays (neither memorable for different reasons) and some interesting conference sessions. Bryan Batt, New Orleans native, Broadway actor, and formerly Sal Romano in AMC’s Mad Men, talked one day about his life and theater. He now lives and owns a business in New Orleans. Hedy Weiss, theater and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave an insightful and well-received keynote address on “Perspectives in Criticism.”
And there was outstanding music, food (including that NOLA special, cold-brewed iced coffee), scenery and people-watching. New Orleans is an amazing city. I’ve been there half a dozen times over the last 25 years for business, vacation and the Jazz and Heritage Festival. I always fall in love with its color and charm all over again.
Photos by Nancy Bishop except where noted.
You may never have heard of John Hammond. But if you’re a music fan or a civil rights supporter, you know he’s a major figure of the 20th century. Radiolab, the WNYC program, did a show this week titled “The Power of Music” and almost half of it was devoted to the work of Hammond, the civil rights activist and A&R executive (artists and repertoire or talent scout) for Columbia Records. During the course of his long career, Hammond, who came from a wealthy family (he had a Vanderbilt in his past), discovered and launched the careers of musicians like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. And dozens more.
Hammond was instrumental in bringing the music of African-American performers out of the “race music” ghetto they languished in for decades. Early in his career, he organized the first Carnegie Hall concert to feature black musicians—in December 1938. One of the musicians he wanted to feature was Robert Johnson, the legendary backwoods Mississippi blues master. When he learned that Johnson had died recently, he played some of his music by hooking up a turntable to the Carnegie Hall sound system. The Radiolab segment titled “Letting the Devil Tune Your Guitar” explores the legend about Hammond and Robert Johnson and the story that Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become a great guitarist. Radiolab comes to the spooky conclusion that there might have been more than one Robert Johnson. It’s a compelling piece of radio.
Robert Johnson died at 27 in about 1938 (or 1939 or 1941). His music inspired musicians like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an influencer at its first induction in 1986. He’s often credited as the songwriter of “Sweet Home Chicago.”
This weekend I watched an old documentary about that New Jersey musician who Hammond signed to Columbia in 1972. Blood Brothers: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was made in 1995 when the band got together in a studio in New York to record a Greatest Hits album. Seeing the band 20 years younger was a visual shock. Their current personas are indelibly imprinted on my brain because I saw them so many times during recent tours. Today, yes, they’re older, grayer, balder, but they seem to be more fit and energized. Many of the band members in ’95 look a little pudgy and scruffy. Even Bruce, who today looks trim, even skinny, in tight black jeans, was a bit fleshy. And the beards make a huge difference. At first I didn’t recognize some of the band members under their hirsuteness. Garry Tallent, the bass player, and Roy Bittan, the pianist, looked very different. And so did Bruce.
The reunion was the first time the band had played together in 11 years and you could see how happy and excited they were to be together again. The power of music took them to great heights in recording the 18 songs for the album. The film shows the effort and creativity involved in getting the album made. Producer Chuck Plotkin and manager Jon Landau work closely together. Bruce is rewriting lyrics on a yellow pad and taking votes for the photo on the CD cover. Nils Lofgren and Max Weinberg are writing lyrics or notations or arrangements, as they’re getting ready to record.
The songs “Blood Brothers,” “Secret Garden,” “Murder Incorporated” and “This Hard Land” are some of the new tracks on that album. The film shows each of them being worked out with instrumentation changing until Bruce, the perfectionist, is satisfied. The final section shows the music video of “Murder” (directed by Jonathan Demme) being filmed in front of an audience of fans at Tramps in New York.
If you’re interested in learning more about John Hammond, there are several biographies. This book by Dunstan Prial looks like a good choice and I’m going to read it soon. For more info on Robert Johnson, I recommend Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.
It’s spring! I knew that for sure today when I decided to get the salt washed off the Beetle and had to wait in line around the block from Bert’s Car Wash on Grand Avenue. It’s a beautiful day and I didn’t mind sitting in the car, listening to a Springsteen album. And now the Beetle is clean. (Of course, to be realistic, it could snow again. And again.)
Despite the weather, I’ve reviewed some excellent plays recently, two of them of classic origin. And I’ve spent time mulling over a remarkable 1949 film, The Third Man. Here’s a recap.
Endgame at The Hypocrites
Samuel Beckett’s midcentury play, Endgame, is said to represent the theater of the absurd. And it is absurd. Non-linear, plotless. Very funny in a black humor sort of way. The Hypocrites do a great job of staging it so that the dialog gains meaning and connects to our circumstances today. Here’s how I ended my Gapers Block review:
The 90-minute play is skillfully directed by Halena Kays, carefully following Beckett’s stage directions–to which the playwright demanded full compliance. The performances by all four actors are superb. The festive cabaret atmosphere of the venue makes the black absurdity of the play more profound.
You can see Endgame at The Hypocrites’ new space at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue through April 4.
Antigonick at Sideshow Theatre Company
Non-classic or neo-classic? Anne Carson’s contemporary translation or reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone is witty and the casting is gender-bending. The way double casting is used brings fresh insights to the age-old story of Antigone, her two slain brothers, and King Kreon’s refusal to allow proper burial rites for one of them. Antigone’s opposition to that ruling is dramatized by the words of the Chorus and of Teiresias, the blind prophet. When she tries to get her sister Ismene to help, Ismene reminds her of the tragic family history.
“Wherever we are, think, Sister — father’s daughter. Daughter’s brother. Sister’s mother. Mother’s son. His mother and his wife were one. Our family is double, triple degraded and dirty in every direction. Moreover, we two are alone and we are girls. Girls cannot force their way against men.” And Antigone responds, “Yet I will.”
And the 75-minute production is timed and measured by Nick, a servant who is busy on stage—but wordless—throughout the play.
Staging and performances are excellent in Sideshow’s interpretation of a classic story. You can see it at the Victory Gardens’ upstairs studio theater through April 5. See my review for details.
The Third Man, preferably on a big screen
Carol Reed’s The Third Man is set in Vienna just after the end of World War II. Many critics have called it one of the greatest films ever made and, after watching it half a dozen times recently, and considering all the ingredients that make up a masterpiece, I agree.
The film is noteworthy for its stars—Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard. The plot and characterizations are fascinating but the element that makes it a masterpiece, in my mind, is the black-and-white cinematography and the night-time exteriors of war-torn Vienna. The film is simply gorgeous and I urge you to see it on the biggest screen possible. Do not watch it on your phone! I have a friend who has an eight-foot screen in his living room and that was the best screening I can imagine, short of seeing it on a big screen at an arthouse.
The theme of Chicago Literati‘s current issue is “Cinematique: The Movie Issue.” I submitted an essay on The Third Man, which you can now see on the magazine’s site. I’ll bet that even if you don’t remember the film, you’ll remember the zither music.
It’s Oscar time. Love the art, if not the artist. The best films of 2014, according to me, and why it doesn’t matter if you like the character or not.
Foreign films including one featuring The Talking Heads. (Yes, one of my favorite bands.)
A classic play on screen: Ibsen’s The Master Builder translated brilliantly.
My review of This Is Modern Art, the new Steppenwolf for Young Adults play, went live on Gapers Block Monday night, soon after the scathing reviews by the two daily newspaper critics had been posted or published. I was surprised at the level of criticism in the two reviews—not criticism of the play itself, but of the theater for producing it at all.
This Is Modern Art (based on true events) is the story of the crew of young graffiti writers who decide they need to define “modern art” on their own terms and so they paint a “piece” (short for masterpiece) on the east wall of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute. The event actually took place five years ago. In the play, the artists are shown at a party where an art student brags about attending the opening of the Modern Wing and seeing all the masterpieces plus “everybody in the art world.” Clearly Seven (the leader of the crew) knows his art history, but he says “We only paint everywhere else, because they won’t let us paint inside.”
The play acknowledges the illegality of graffiti writing—and also distinguishes between gang graffiti (usually tags) and the street art created by the graffiti writers. Among the criticisms of the play is that it sends the wrong messages to young people. This is a really offensive argument for young people, who do not see themselves as naïve and malleable to suggestion. As my grandson said, “Yeah, I liked the play a lot but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and buy spray paint and write on walls.”
In my review, I commented, “Was what happened an act of vandalism or important artistic commentary? The question deserves to be addressed. The script and the characters acknowledge that they are committing an illegal act. But the important message the play articulates is that art shouldn’t be confined to elite galleries and museums with $18 admission tickets. The graffiti writers are artists shouting to be seen and heard. They demand visibility in a society that decrees them invisible–as artists and as individuals.
Twitter commenters noted, “If you see a Shakespeare or McDonagh drama, do you criticize the artists for glorifying/condoning murder?” And “Does anyone try to ban the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’ because Francis Underwood commits murder to get ahead?” The reviews by the Tribune and Sun-Times critics received their share of Twitter snark. Trust me. It wasn’t pretty.
I have written frequently about street art and post-street art (see Related Posts below) and I find the genre fascinating and vibrant. I wouldn’t want to shut it down. But I agree that I wouldn’t want to wake up one morning and find my house (if I had a house) covered with graffiti. The play also differentiates between “permission walls,” where an owner or a community invites artists to write on or paint walls. This would cover some of the paintings in highway and railroad underpasses that have been sponsored by local communities. Some graffers are happy to be able to show their art on permission walls, while to others, the risk is the drug that fuels their creativity. In any case, I believe they ought to be able to paint public walls and abandoned spaces.
And the Art Institute should have left the “modern art” masterpiece on its east wall for a few days instead of immediately calling in the graffiti blasting crew. And most importantly, Steppenwolf should have commissioned a “piece” for the south wall of their building, to be displayed at least during the run of this thought-provoking play. That would have been a meaningful way for the theater to make a statement supporting their production.
See my review of This Is Modern Art and go to Twitter and search #thisismodernart or @kevincoval to see the commentary about the play.
Let me know what you think about this issue. Who gets to make art and where should it be shown? Please comment below.
February is supposed to be a slow month, especially when the average temps are 20 degrees below average, but I’ve been pretty busy lately. So here’s a recap of my recent gallivants. (Yes, I know that’s not a noun, but I’m making it one.) The theme, it seems, is music, for everything I’ve done lately.
Greil Marcus at the Old Town School
Not only Greil Marcus, the legendary music writer, but Jon Langford and Sally Timms to sing and play along with his literary musings. It was a night of legends. Marcus was there to tell us about his new book, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs–which isn’t exactly a history in any formal sense. But it is a fine book of his commentary about 10 songs that may or may not have defined rock and roll. He’s an elegant writer, one of the best in any genre, and a charming conversationalist, so it was a pleasure to hear him talk about his book and read some selections. The music by Langford and Timms was superb, as I describe in my Gapers Block review of the evening. Maurer Hall at the Old Town School (it’s in the older building on the west side of Lincoln) is a fine venue with perfect sightlines, great acoustics and comfy seats.
Four plays explore music, each in its own way
Norma and the Maniac by the Orchard Theatre
A new playwright, his first full-length play. When I was asked to review it, I hesitated until I read that it has to do with a musician who played in a metal band. How could I resist? I was so hoping it wouldn’t be dreadful–and I was delighted to find out that it’s actually very good. The play is Norma and the Maniac, by Ray Nelson, and it’s being performed by the new Orchard Theatre as a guest company at Redtwist Theatre on Bryn Mawr. Alexander St. John is director and sound designer and he does a fine job, as do the two actors, Amy Gorelow and Noor Hamdi. The play isn’t a musical, even though one of the two characters is a headbanger. The music–punk and metal selections–plays before the show and between scenes. And there’s a country music touch too–see the YouTube video in my review. It’s a well-written play that tells us how two losers end up finding happiness. You can see Norma and the Maniac through March 30.
Accidentally Like a Martyr at Red Orchid
This excellent play by Grant James Varjas runs through March 15 at the redoubtable Red Orchid Theatre on Wells Street. The work they do in their tiny space is amazing and I have seen theatrical masterpieces many times over the years. Accidentally Like a Martyr may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a superb show that drifts between two recent eras in a New York gay dive bar. The six main characters are beautifully acted by a fine ensemble directed by Shade Murray. The show title is the title of one of my favorite songs by the late Warren Zevon (from his 1978 album Excitable Boy) so I was excited that there would be Zevon music in the show. And there was, although I had to wait until the end of the 90-minute play to hear it. “Accidentally” plays over the bar sound system as two lovers embrace to the music.
My homage to Warren Zevon. Warren Zevon was a songwriter and rock musician with a dark and bizarre sense of humor, which he never failed to display in his music. The album Excitable Boy is probably his best known. In addition to “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” that album includes the title track plus “Werewolves of London,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and “Lawyers,Guns and Money,” a cold war satire. He died in 2003 from inoperable mesothelioma. His last album, The Wind, featured some of his own compositions, a duet with Bruce Springsteen on “Disorder in the House,” and my favorite rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Check out some of his songs.
Music Hall at Tuta Theatre
Music Hall is a funny, sad play by the late French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce about three cabaret performers–the kind who traveled from town to town to perform for smaller and smaller audiences. The Artiste is played by Jeffrey Binder, accompanied by the two Boys who assist and perform with him, or her. This is a stunningly acted and staged play and deserves the acclaim it’s receiving. It runs through March 8 at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee, then it goes to New York, where it will be staged at 59E59, a just off-Broadway house. See my review.
Airline Highway at Steppenwolf
This wonderful, ebullient, full-of-life show set in New Orleans is closed now at Steppenwolf, but it too is going to New York, where it will open at the Samuel Friedman Theatre on Broadway in April. The play takes place at one of those nondescript motels you pass on the way in from the airport to your fancy hotel in the French Quarter. The people who live at the Hummingbird Motel are the hookers, the strippers, the musicians, the taxi drivers, the janitors, the almost penniless and almost homeless who hang on to happiness by their fingernails. I reviewed it for CultureVulture; you can read it here.
Visions of music: Steve Schapiro and Richard Powers. Music in photography and literature. Never too much music.
Chicago in Words and Music. This report noted another Jon Langford appearance, plus there’s a Springsteen video treat.
This has been a tough week for journalism. Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show. Brian Williams’ whole career is under investigation. CBS correspondent Bob Simon is killed in a Manhattan car crash, after surviving dozens of combat assignments. And now, David Carr has died, for no discernible medical reason, other than his checkered health past. It makes you ask, WTF anyway?
As I was coming home from the theater last night, I realized I hadn’t turned my phone on. A shocking headline popped up on the screen: David Carr, New York Times media columnist, is dead at 58.
What? How could this be? I just read his article on Jon Stewart and Brian Williams today. I started looking for information and there wasn’t much available yet. The Times had a brief obituary, which was expanded over the next couple of hours to become a meaningful overview of Carr’s career.
However, Twitter was on fire with news about Carr’s death and comments about his life and work. I tweeted and retweeted about a dozen times last night alone.
- Someone tweeted a link to the Carr archive on nytimes.com: a total of 1,776 articles.
- I tweeted a link to his last column about Stewart and Williams, both of whom grew up in New Jersey (and are both Springsteen fans):
@nsbishop: Last column by @carr2n. He was a Jersey boy too (but first a Minnesota boy). http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/business/media/brian-williamss-and-jon-stewarts-common-ground.html?ref=topics …
- Several people reminded us of his advice for writers:
“Keep typing until it turns into writing.”
Last night Carr had just moderated a panel discussion about the film Citizenfour with its principal subject, Edward J. Snowden; the film’s director, Laura Poitras; and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Just before 9pmET, he collapsed in his office and was taken to the hospital, where he died. That headline about him flashed on my phone at 9:30pmCT.
When I decided to write my own appreciation of Carr today, I started making notes and realized how much I had bonded with his writing over the years. First, I want to summarize David Carr’s odyssey. (He would hate seeing that word applied to his life.)
Midwesterner to Jersey boy
Carr grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, graduated from the University of Minnesota and worked as editor of the Twin Cities Reader, an alternative paper. During this time, he became an alcoholic, began using cocaine and became a crack addict. He and his girlfriend had twin girls and Carr raised them alone on welfare. A single dad crack addict. He kicked the crack habit and later suffered from cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma), which required a lot of radiation to his mouth and throat. He said in a radio interview: “I’ve had a very medicalized life. I have no spleen. I have one kidney. I have no gallbladder. I have half a pancreas.” He said his notably raspy voice was the result of many factors, including smoking tobacco and crack, radiation, and working on the pile covering firemen at the 9/11 site. It was during that time, he said, that he noticed his voice changing.
He left Minnesota for DC to become editor of the Washington City Paper, later moving to New York, where he wrote as a freelancer for publications including The Atlantic Monthly and New York magazine. He joined the Times in 2002 as a business reporter covering magazine publishing. He expanded that beat to include new media, and generally, the web and all media. He remarried and he and his wife have three children and a home in New Jersey.
Carr wrote a memoir of his life as a crack addict, Night of the Gun, published in 2008. He didn’t just write it as others write memoirs—from memory. He decided he had forgotten too much and attacked the project like a reporter, gathering documents and interviewing about 60 people.
“Me and My Girls,” a long excerpt from that memoir, was published in July 2008 in the NY Times Magazine. You can read it here.
My favorite quote of Carr’s, from the conclusion of his memoir, has been cited often today.
“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth
feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope
the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”
Carr was my favorite journalist. He was voracious in his interests, which ranged all over the media and pop culture spectrum from ownership and management to the way new media affect the artists and their livelihoods. He was interested in music, pop and otherwise, movies, books, magazines and web culture. He wrote long features on artists such as Neil Young and Woody Harrelson, on South Park, and on Murdoch vs. Bloomberg.
The one time I saw Carr live was during the 2011 Chicago Humanities Festival, when he and Clara Jeffrey, coeditor of Mother Jones magazine, discussed “New Frontiers in Journalism.” It was Wednesday, November 9, 2011, on the stage at Francis Parker School. I was excited to be able to see him and listen to him talk in an informal format. I didn’t take notes that evening, for some reason. However, there’s this video ….
Page One documentary
Carr also is the star of an excellent documentary about modern journalism: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times. In the 2011 film, Carr is shown working on one of his best stories, his takedown of Sam Zell’s Chicago Tribune and its frat house culture.
The Sweet Spot
Carr and A.O. Scott, the Times’ film critic, had a web series for a while titled “The Sweet Spot.” The two writers would sit in what looks like the Times employee cafeteria in their shirtsleeves talking about some cultural phenomenon that interests them. These 5-6 minutes videos are always fun. You can see a bunch of them here on the Times video channel. The series ended in 2013.
Every Monday, Carr had a Media Equation column in the Times business section. Every Monday morning, I would first read Paul Krugman on the economy and then Carr, filling myself full of juicy news concepts.
Mondays are not going to be the same.
But in the meantime, I’ll keep typing until it turns into writing.
Postscript on 02/15/15: The medical examiner’s autopsy showed Carr died of metastatic lung cancer, with heart disease a contributing factor.