Sunday, March 29, 2015

Tom and Kyra, sad sad sad

If you want to see how great acting can make a script come alive, go see what Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan are doing to make David Hare look like the best writer on Broadway. 

I have my issues with Hare as a playwright—he tends to go for the angular vein instead of the jugular, structuring his scenes so that they portray the preparation and the aftermath of a dramatic moment instead of the moment itself.  In Skylight, it’s all aftermath—the dramatic stuff all happened three years ago, which means that what we’re seeing now is two people stirring the ashes of an old fire, instead of the fire itself. (When they’re not lobbing rhetorical grenades at each other.)  I would say “typical Hare,” but the structure of Skylight is rare for him.  Between a prologue and an epilogue (or, since the male lead is a restaurant owner, an appetizer and dessert), you have a real time encounter on a single set between two people asking themselves and each other the surface question of the play (will we get back together again?) while filling you in on their shared past, which leads to a lot of “Do you remember when we” speeches that can, with the wrong actors, turn into the deadliest kind of “We both know this, but the audience doesn’t” exposition.  In other words, this is a modern Ibsen drama, complete with an independent woman and a man who means well, whose premise plays out like a sequel to some adulterous version of Doll’s House where Nora’s maid had to leave because her affair with Helmer was discovered. 

And on the page, it comes across, like a lot of Hare does, as a debating tournament between opposing worldviews where you know exactly whose side the author favors.  But in the hands of Nighy and Mulligan, all bets are off because it’s all about the people.  Each actor finds something real and human in every debating point that Hare makes, which deepens the play into something truly dramatic, where characters can be both right and wrong, likeable and frightening, admirable and pitiful, and an audience can root for them to get together even as it wants to yell at one or both of them to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction. 

All of which comes from the acting, and stellar direction by Stephen Daldry.  A couple of examples.  Bill Nighy’s Tom has come to Kyra’s apartment with the obvious intention of trying to win her back or get her to come back to him.  Yet the words “Will you come back to me?” never get spoken.  I can think of a lot of reasons why the words are missing—from Hare’s particular tics as a writer to the fact that we’re talking about a British male here—but they didn’t feel like they were missing until I thought about it later, and that’s because Bill Nighy’s character work made his Tom incapable of saying them, and made me believe, while watching him, that their absence was a character choice, and not a writing flaw.   Every time he gets close to asking, he’s like a walking version of one of those foreign language participles which expect a negative answer, physically bracing himself for the “No” he knows is coming. (At one point, if memory serves, he offers up the possibility of Kyra coming back, but it’s more like a waiter who’s afraid the kitchen might already be out of tonight’s special than someone who is actually asking for what he wants.) Which is, to me, a much more subtle and sorrowful choice than the one which Michael Gambon made to justify that missing question in the original production.  Gambon’s Tom in that version was such a presumptuous dick that you felt like he expected to get what he wanted simply by walking into the room, and that it was beneath him to ask for anything.  When he came close to a tender moment, it was like watching a bull try to stroke china instead of smashing it.   

But then Nighy is so much more charming than Gambon; and oh, does he know how to use his charm to make his Tom attractive.  If you like him in his movies, you will adore him live—the stage lets him be both bigger and smaller, it’s like the difference between a chamber orchestra and a full symphony—live theatre gives him more instruments, and he uses every one of them.  Especially his body.  He roams the stage like a scenic designer dancing around a hole in the floor, and his physicality is so specific that it’s not only given a next-generation echo by Matthew Beard, who plays his son, but it’s parodied—and parodied brilliantly—by Mulligan. 

Ah, Carey Mulligan.  (Still, and so far, the best Nina ever.)  If you only know her from Gatsby, then you don’t really know her.  Her Kyra is wounded and content at the same time, like some Graham Greene heroine who has fallen and whose inner guilt keeps her satisfied with where she’s landed.  (The set helps immensely here—unlike the original, which was more upscale and had no sense of neighborhood, this production spells out how low Kyra has gone from her days with Tom.  The moment you see it, you know exactly where you are, and you also have a pretty good idea of who Kyra is to want to live there.)

While Nighy is striding across the stage like a whippet marking his territory, Mulligan perches on the kitchen counter like a wary guard dog, now and then approaching Nighy only to withdraw again.  Her Kyra keeps things in, and when they break out, they surprise even her—like the moment when, while she’s talking about the early days of their relationship, she says “I knew it was only a matter of time” and then she realizes—and makes you realize—that the line also applies to what’s going on now.  In her Kyra, the past is an internal echo chamber which not only goes external, but comments on what’s going on now.  Of the three most touching moments of the night, two are hers: a sudden lurch into a desperate hug, and the simple act of putting a band-aid on a cut finger.  (The third moment is Nighy’s at the top of the second act, and is reflected in the picture on the program.) (And yes—I know—I just used the word "touching" to describe three moments in a David Hare play.)

Like I say: the actors make the script come alive.  They find moments of tenderness, to attempt and avoid, wherever they can; they create an emotional harmony that makes the intellectual arguments feel like they’re grounded in character; and when the political stuff shows up (as it always does with Hare), the groundwork they’ve laid makes it feel like heart-to-heart instead of mind-to-mind.   

Plus they make David Hare look like Shakespeare.  For that alone, you need to see this. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Reason And Love

Reason took Love to dinner Friday night
   To a secluded, moderate-priced venue.
Love said: “Let’s start with a tequila flight.”
   Reason explained the dishes on the menu.
And as they filled themselves with food and drink,
   They talked about how life can be unreal.
Reason kept asking Love: “What do you think?”
   While Love kept asking him: “How do you feel?”
And when the moment came to say good night
   And eye to eye they shared a pregnant lull,
Love knew that it would never be more right
   And Reason felt that it was logical.
      “My place or yours?” Love asked.  “Either is fine.”
      And Reason said: “Yours always; never mine.”


Copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells


Monday, March 23, 2015

What Do I Give When Everything Gets Taken?


What do I give when everything gets taken?
   What do I say when silence swallows all?
Where do I stand when every faith gets shaken—
   When viciousness rules, while the decent fall?
And what can one heart do to take a stand
   But bleed for it?  And what good will that do?
History is a bleak, blood-filled wasteland
   Where what’s well-meant angers the well-to-do.
Between the truth of death, and the sad fact
   That power only yields to serve its needs,
Helplessness poisons every urge to act
   And compromise infects all that succeeds.
      So since I will and must fail, let me choose
      To fail like I’ve got nothing left to lose.
Copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Apples and Oranges


Our love is doomed, my love.  It isn’t fair
   But we are just too different, I and you.
I am what people take to go somewhere;
   You are what people dream of going to.
I am the handy bridge across the pits—
   I’m someone’s perfect shortcut through the weeds.
You are somebody’s penthouse at the Ritz—
   The promised land to which each freeway leads.
The only reason that you’ll stay with me
   Is because I can get you where you’re going;
And I will stay with you so I can be
   A river bank, and not a river flowing,
      Till what we are decrees our separation:
      I’m someone’s road—you’re someone’s destination.

Copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Three Reviews From The Turn of The Century

Broadway's Hot Ticket: 12/14/98
(The Blue Room)

One of the things I like about New York is that when all the world around us is lurching into economic and political chaos, with the President days away from getting impeached in the House, and major corporations all over the country firing people left and right so their balance-sheet profits can make their stock rise (when they aren't merging with foreign companies, after which they'll start firing people left and right etcetera), papers like the Daily News put everything in perspective.  What was their Monday cover page--the top story of the day?  NAKED NICOLE TAKES BROADWAY.  Yes, a review of The Blue Room, the sold-out Broadway show starring the scientologist wife of Tom Cruise.   

Well, Georgia and I saw the show Thursday night from a pair of strategically placed audience left orchestra seats.  And naturally I have been trying to come up with the perfect response when people ask me, "What did you think?"  Here are my candidates so far: 

1.  Pure theatrical Viagra, no.   Pure acting class in need of Viagra, yes. (The "pure theatrical Viagra" line is an actual quote from Charles Spencer's Daily Telegraph review of the Donmar Warehouse production .) 

2.  Watching this show is like stepping into a theatre in the middle of Los Angeles.  The play is not the point; being seen to attend the play is.  In the same vein: 

3.  What we have here is a limited-run example of Hollywood's Law of Hookers in action.  Whenever box office stars "slum"--i.e., presume to act parts that remotely resemble real people with real dirt on them--like hookers, say--the military industrial entertainment complex starts saying things like: "It's daring.  It's real."  When it isn't either one. 

4.  The art film production values--basically harsh lighting, bare stage, a lot of bare flesh--seem phony.  Like a pose.  Like art direction, rather than art. 

5.  You think with all the money behind this thing, they could have thrown another check at David Hare to get him to do a rewrite which might actually turn the script into something that could be played by non-star actors and still get an audience--instead of something safe and trendily shocking which will never be performed again anywhere at all outside of Los Angeles (where it will undoubtedly star Yasmine Bleeth and David Hasselhoff). 

6. You know Huckleberry Finn?  You know how they con everybody in town into seeing The Royal Nonesuch?  And then rely on all the suckers to pass the word around, so everybody can get rooked equally, because nobody wants to look like a fool for saying that there's no there there?  Same thing--except in this case, there's no bare there.  Yeah, you get to see Nicole's naked butt for all of three seconds while Iain Glen slides her briefs onto her; and maybe if you're propitiously placed in a down-in-front audience right seat you might even get to see a flash of bosom while Glen uncovers her earlier in the same scene.  But the truth is, Mr Glen is more naked than Nicole, and for far longer.  We're talking full frontal here.  He even does a cartwheel.   

7.  Overheard during the planning stages:  "Let's do a play that's tailor-made for Nicole Kidman--thin and colorless!" 

8.  Instead of walking out of the theatre saying, "Wow!--that was GREAT!" you walk out of the theatre saying, "Wow! How did they make all of those quick costume changes?" 

9.  There's more excitement in the crowd waiting outside the stage door to see Nicole dash into her waiting limo than there is in the theatre. 

10.  Seriously: Nicole Kidman's skin makes Xerox paper look tanned.


The Last Disappointing Musical of the Century: 12/23/98

1.  Not only is Ragtime not bad actor proof, it's not even mediocre actor proof. We went last night because we wanted to catch Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra MacDonald before they left (Marrin Mazzie left last week). Unfortunately Mitchell's future replacement did the show last night, and while he's a decent song and dance man, there was no passion, no life.  We spent a great deal of energy imagining what the part of Coalhouse would be in the hands of a really good actor, as opposed to a really adequate one.  The only time you could feel anything electric was when Audra was onstage--all I could think of was that if this show was a string of Christmas tree lights, only one of them would be working.  And only because she had her own power supply, not because she was plugged in to the show, because the show had little power of its own.  Why, you ask? 

2.  Really (really) (really) bad story construction. A mansion with a lot of rooms but no frame or foundation.  Far too much stage time is wasted on characters who exist only as excuses for musical numbers (Evelyn Nesbit; Harry Houdini), musical numbers to justify the choreographer's salary (do we really need a ten minute dance number about Atlantic City?), musical numbers whose only justification is that the over-the-title actor needs a second-act song (Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc), and characters who have no business being part of the story in the first place (like the Grandfather, who has one quote unquote laugh line that doesn't even get a laugh).  Far too little time is used to flesh out the main characters (Mother and Father).  As a result, everything is cartoonish and obvious.  (If Evelyn Nesbit squealed "Wheee!" one more time, I was going to shoot her in the head. Not that she would have felt anything.) And once the plot takes over in Act Two, the "atmosphere" characters from Act One (Nesbit, Houdini, Emma Goldman) have nothing to do but reprise their numbers and interrupt the narrative. 

3.  I got no sense at all that anyone connected with this production realizes that the demands of the stage are different from the demands of the novel.  Instead, I saw a corporate decision to "stage" the novel, based on the faulty equation that as many different characters as possible equals a panorama.  Which is like saying that a lot of notes equals a tune. 

4.  Speaking of which, Scott Joplin should get a creative credit, if only to acknowledge the pocket from which this repetitive score was picked.  The only reason you walk out of the show humming the title tune is because in true Lloydwebber style, it's been beaten into your head for three hours.   

5.  Because a good hour of this three hour musical has been lost to inconsequential frippery, there's only time enough to tell the story in broad strokes.   The result is a series of set pieces that don't hold together from one scene to the next (a woman abandons her baby in a garden; the next time we see her, she's cooing a love song to the kid?  What's THAT all about?), supposedly dramatic choices that sound like parodies (I won't marry you until I get my car back) and scenes that should have resonance and weight but don't. (Father takes his son to the ball game because he thinks it's civilized; but it's not, it's rowdy and profane, and the kid joins right in.  Does Father have a moment to take all this in, to process the difference between his expectations and the reality, and choose to either accept it or ignore it?  Hell no--that would be good writing.) 

6.  Did I say writing?  Puh-lease.  And the bonus Ragtime Jeopardy round answer is: Because Ragtime won the Tony Award for Best Book. The correct question: Why is musical theatre dead as an art form? 

7. Instead of real drama and confrontation, we have pseudo drama.  The show is staged so that we're seeing what a little boy is seeing--he's constantly observing the action--but it's not a normal little boy, oh no, it's a Stephen King little boy who sees into the future, predicts explosions,  and cries out "Warn the Duke!" every now and then until Houdini tells him he's performing in Sarajevo, at which point we all grab our heads and go "Ouch!"  This is what passes for dramatic tension in the evening--waiting for the little boy's predictions to come true.  It's the stuff of timeless drama, I mean I can't THINK of anything more exciting.

8.  Oh yeah--no sarcasm to speak of, no humor, nothing to relieve the unrelieved earnestness, except Judy Kaye as Emma Goldman trying to light up her inflammable lines with a blowtorch.  Didn't anybody have a sense of humor in 1902?  Why not put Mark Twain on the stage, he was alive then, right?--oh--sorry--he wasn't in the novel--and God forbid we should do something that wasn't in the novel.  Y'know, like, something "creative"? 

9.  The songs didn't propel the story--they interrupted it.  In the clearest example of a missed opportunity, when Coalhouse goes to the courts and the law for justice, it should not be over in less than thirty seconds because then we don't feel any of his frustration with the system.  It should be a separate musical number (call it "The Justice Rag") where we see the man get bounced around so inhumanely that when he picks up a gun, we want to hand him the bullets. 

10.  Let's say you're in a writing class, and your final exam is to adapt Ragtime to the stage.  Here's what you do.  First, you structure the Coalhouse/Sarah/car plot so that it can stand on its own no matter how many times it's interrupted by songs.  Then you double-plot the Family stuff so that everything they do parallels the Coalhouse plot. Then you pick from the book only those characters and events that will resonate with your two plots, and you throw them into the mix and make them help you tell the story.  If you have Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman on stage, they need to have a scene with each other--they need to have a scene with the mother.  Who cares if it isn't in the book?   Doctorow played with history; what's stopping you from playing with Doctorow?  Besides, y'know, lack of imagination.

11.  I say, let's give Bill Clinton bad reviews and impeach Terrence McNally.  And David Hare, while you're at it.  (Yeah, I'm still bitching about Blue Room.  But Hare made it such an easy target.)



Moses Supposes His Showses Good Grosses: 1/4/99
(Prince Of Egypt)

1.  Sarcastic Review #1: "It puts the dead in dead serious." 

2.  It's a buddy movie with religion.  It's Blood Brothers meets the Bible.  It's Lethal Weapon meets Yahweh.  ("I'm getting too Jewish for this."  "Okay--plagues on the count of three.  One, three!")  ("For three is the number that thou shall countest.  And the number of thy counting shalt be three.  Neither shalt thou count to four, nor shalt thou count to two, unless proceeding directly to three.  Five is right out.") 

3.  As a piece of serious animation, it's actually a step back from frivolous animation.  Instead of speed and sweep, it's directed like a live action film, with facial close-ups and dramatic pauses and a lot of sighing, just as if there were real flesh and blood Method actors on the screen.  (I have never heard so much sighing from cartoon characters in over 40 years of watching animation.)  The problem being that facial close-ups don't work with line drawings--when you crosscut between Pharaoh's face and Moses' face and then back to Pharaoh's face, where we see him lower his eyes and sigh, it can't convey one-fiftieth of the emotional impact of watching Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray (possibly the blankest human face in film history). And it certainly can't compare with seeing Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner glower at each other. 

4.  Sarcastic Review #2: "This movie makes The Ten Commandments look like Citizen Kane." 

5.  The figure animation is serviceable. The background animation and the special affects sequences are superb.  The story is strictly paint-by-numbers.  It's like spending a million dollars on set and costumes just to stage DICK AND JANE. 

6.  After seeing it, I came up with Wells' First Law of Film: "No matter what the plot, the subtext is always about Hollywood."  See, this isn't about the Bible, this isn't about Moses versus Pharaoh, it's about Jeffrey Katzenberg versus Michael Eisner.  And the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is just a mask for the real God here, the God of Mickey and Goofy and Donald.  Eisner builds monuments to himself, trying to surpass the monuments of his father figure Walt. Eisner wants Katzenberg to rule his kingdom with him, and have actors like Michelle Pfeiffer roped into voicing sanctily-clad Pocahontas-type characters.  But Katzenberg helps Pfeiffer escape, and in doing so he discovers his true identity.  He will deliver his animators out of bondage.  He will lead his Chosen People out of the Eisner-dominated desert and into the Promised Land because he and he alone can hear the secret voice of Disney, the One True God.  Poor Eisner.  He still worships false gods with animal heads.  So he must lose his son and his brother.  He must watch his armies get destroyed by state of the art CGI animation.  And then he will fall to his knees and cry out the name of his brother, but his brother will not hear him.  For his brother is on the mountaintop, and that is where the movie ends, with Katzenberg coming down from on high and standing there, his back to us, his unseen face looking out at the employees of his new studio, and in his arms are two big paychecks signed by Steven Spielberg.

7. Sarcastic Review #3: "It puts the "gypped" in "Egypt."

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Love That Walks On Eggshells

The moment that you realize your life
   Is being lived so it will not offend
Someone who says he loves you, buy a knife
   To cut the halter from your neck, and send
Him on his way—that’s slavery, not love.
   That’s you suppressing who you are to get
Something your honest self would rather shove
   In front of subway cars than make a pet.
It’s love—but it’s the kind of love that feeds
   On making sure you always toe the line,
Say “What sweet flowers!” when he gives you weeds,
   And never (God forbid) step on a mine—
      A love that is, besides a sour charade,
      A frightened tyrant who must be obeyed. 


Copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Life has a way of making sure that I
   See all my past mistakes come back to haunt me—
The opportunities that I let die,
   The wasted love for those who didn’t want me,
The moments that I blew—they all come back
   Embodied in new people, to excite
Or terrify me—to show what I lack,
   Then make me face it till I get it right.
And I keep asking: am I my life’s fool
   Or my life’s king?  Are my mistakes repeated
Because they rule me, or are they the tool
   I use to test myself till they’re deleted?
      I see the strings, but nothing else is clear.
      Am I the puppet or the puppeteer?


Copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Toast To Creativity

for Dawn Kamerling 

To creativity!—It takes you out
   Of yourself, even as it drags you down
To what your inner self is all about,
   And humbles you as it gives you a crown.
Here’s to the work it takes to get it right!—
   Because the first draft’s always therapy.
If you want someone else to see the light
   That blinded you, then let them read Draft 3.
Here’s to the doubts you feel when it’s concluded!—
   And you sit there and think: “What is this worth?
No one will ever care.”  Wrong—dead wrong—you did.
   You cared.  You cared enough to give it birth.
      So here’s to you!—who dared to make the choice
      To lose yourself by finding your own voice.

Copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells

Friday, March 6, 2015

Common Knowledge

I am a fool for girls with odd last names:
   Tagrin and Yurkstas; Brandewie; Wolozin;
Shefshick and Bibeau.  Fill a room with dames—
   I’ll fall for patronyms that have no kin.
Like Shakespeare, I’m a sap for small and dark—
   The Hermias are who I want to do.
Go dance with fair Bianca in the park;
   I’d rather pick a fight with Kate the Shrew.
I am a chump for women I can’t have.
   I always try to fix the damaged soul.
I look for wounded hearts to be their salve.
   I am a slave for girls who love control.
      And yes, my sweet, I am a fool for you,
      And scared to death—because you’re something new. 


Copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


We think Love’s great arch-enemy is Hate.
   It isn’t.  it’s Familiarity.
Love dies a little each time we create
   A shortcut out of who we always see,
Or think we know each other inside out—
   Which is how love defines security—
It flies on auto-pilot over doubt
   And always lands close to complacency.
When lovers become X in an equation—
   When easy answers choke hard questioning—
Then all we think we know is just evasion
   Because nobody takes in anything.
      And that’s what real love needs to keep on growing:
      The daily risk of learning, and not knowing.

Copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells

Monday, March 2, 2015

It’s Always Easier To Look Away


It’s always easier to look away.
   Darwin would say that’s all about survival—
The strong prove that they’re strong when they can say
   They treat the weakest like a worthless rival.
But what survives when we choose not to see
   Is blindness—which is only the extension
Of animal superiority
   That says the weak aren’t worthy of attention.
So if I would be better than the beast
   Inside me, let me never fail to be
Human and strong enough to aid the least,
   The lost, and all in pain or misery
      Till charity’s the habit of our kind
      And no one living now gets left behind. 


Copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells