By Grumpy Olde Guy® (a/k/a Michael Kape)
One thing I hate more than seeing bad theatre (and I’ve seen a lot of bad theatre) is moving (one of life’s great traumas, I’m told, along with losing a spouse—which has also happened to me; more about that shortly). Right now, I’m pulling up stakes and leaving my cozy retirement abode in Palm Springs to face life again in New York City (sounds crazy, but I’m not known for my rational, sane moments; if anyone has a lead on an apartment, let me know—please!).
The realtor is on my case to “declutter” my place. I mean, how can you declutter decades of memories—some even older than me (if that’s even possible)? As I write this, I’ve just packed away 60 some odd years’ worth of Playbills and theatre programs. Those are NOT clutter! I swear they are not clutter. You might as well say my right arm is clutter. (Okay, it does get in the way sometimes, but I still need it. I need my programs and Playbills.)
Theatre has always been a part of my life—good, bad, or indifferent, it’s always been there for me. Even in the worst of times. I have had a worst of times: My partner of 23 years died in my arms on Thursday, March 27, 2008. It was all kind of sudden—and devastating (my collapse in the hospital after it happened was something out of a bad Lifetime movie). The worst [expletive deleted] moment of my life. So, what did I do? A week later, I was at New York City Opera seeing a production of Candide directed by an old friend from college. (Artie never could direct comedy, and I walked at intermission—probably because it wasn’t funny, and I just wasn’t in the mood yet for bad theatre.)
Don’t think of this as cold-hearted. If the situation had been reversed, my late partner would have been at the theatre too.
Over the next few weeks, I grew increasingly morose (understandable under the circumstances) yet continued to go to the theatre as often as I could. This was New York City, and you could get tickets to everything from the flashiest and most-expensive Broadway shows to an Off-Off-Broadway show presented in a loft. Tickets could be had for cheap from the seat filler services (Theatermania Gold Club, Play-By-Play, etc.). And in truth, I just couldn’t face the prospect of going home to an empty apartment every night. Could you?
The research psychiatrist in the office next to mine saw me one day (had I been crying?) and said, “You look terrible. I’m sending you to see my friend Bill.” He did. Turns out Bill was the leading psychoanalyst in New York City. He listened to me talk for 45 minutes and then said, “You don’t need me. You just need to remember three words: MAKE NEW MEMORIES.” And so I did—seeing as much theatre as I possibly could. A total of 245 shows in the space of 12 months. Sometimes three shows on weekdays and five on weekends. Making new memories.
Except now, in packing away those Playbills in anticipation for my move home, I discovered I’d lost a lot of those new memories. Yikes. It isn’t Alzheimer’s, I swear. I was tested six months ago and ended up showing the doctor where he was wrong. Okay, I’m still a smartass. But as someone who used to educate doctors (yeah, me with a degree in theatre), I know when I’m right.
I’ve culled several Playbills from the bad years to try to remember something about the shows my memory has lost. Some of them featured well-known names in the cast. Some of them are just not memorable. So, I’m hoping some of you can help. These are from my bad period. Do you know them? And if you were connected to any of them, my apologies in advance.
· A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, Playwrights Horizons. It had an interesting set. That’s all I can remember.
· All New People, Second Stage Theatre. Remember Zach Braff from Scrubs? He branched out into writing, first a movie, Garden State, and then this play. All I can remember about this piece is my friend Dean was the general manager. That’s kind of sad.
· Antony and Cleopatra, New York City Opera. This piece by Samuel Barber has an interesting history. It was written for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. It received terrible reviews then and was largely forgotten. New York City Opera was having a bad time; it had lost use of its home for a year (while it was being reconstructed). So, it resurrected Antony and Cleopatra in a staged concert at Carnegie Hall. Sometimes, things are better left dead. The first act was painful, which is all I remember of it now. But the most memorable thing about the night was intermission, when half the audience ran in droves for the exits, never to return for the second act. I was right there with them.
· Boy’s Life, Second Stage Theatre. Featured Jason Biggs, Betty Gilpin. Directed by Michael Greif. No clue.
· Compulsion, The Public Theater. I don’t remember this at all, despite it starring Mandy Patinkin with direction by Oskar Eustis.
· Cradle and All, Manhattan Theatre Club. Written by Daniel Goldfarb. I think I vaguely remember something about two parents who can’t handle a screaming baby.
· Dust at Westside Theatre. I should really be ashamed of myself. I actually saw this opening night. It starred Richard Masur (who was a couple of classes ahead of me in college) and Hunter Foster (post-Urinetown and pre-[title of show]). My friend Hugh was promoting it. Again, I remember nothing about it.
· Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco. The buzz was super strong about this production. It starred Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose, and Andrea Martin. What could go wrong? Even my BFF was urging me to go from the other side of the country. I took my friend Jill (a big macher in the Fringe Festival) to see it with me. I don’t remember much about it because the creative team managed to take fascinating Ionesco and make it sleep-inducing.
· Kin, Playwrights Horizons. Featured Bill Buell. Directed by Sam Gold. I’ve got nothing.
· Made in Heaven at Soho Playhouse. Nothing. I do know my friend Hugh was promoting it. Maybe I should ask him.
· Mindgame at Soho Playhouse. One of the lead producers was Michael Butler, the original producer of Hair on Broadway. The lead was Keith Carradine (The Will Rogers Follies). The direction was by Ken Russell—yes, that Ken Russell—in his first break from directing movies. Can’t remember it at all.
· Romantic Poetry, Manhattan Theatre Club. Actually, I do remember some things about this one, mostly it being one of the most misbegotten ideas for a musical, with book, lyrics, and direction by John Patrick Shanley, and music by Henry Krieger. Mark Linn-Baker was in the cast. It was not a good evening of theatre, sad to say. It was Mr. Shanley’s first—and last—outing with a musical.
· Séance on a Wet Afternoon, New York City Opera. Libretto, lyrics, music, and orchestration by Stephen Schwartz. Let’s put it this way: this production is what killed New York City Opera. Really. It wasn’t long but felt like it went on for two weeks instead of two hours. It was extremely expensive for City Opera to produce. It just was not good. It just was not memorable. It was the final dagger in the back of City Opera (which had just one good production that entire season, and this wasn’t it). BTW, this is not me being vindictive about Mr. Schwartz (I have plenty of reasons for that); this is about a substandard piece of work.
· Side Effects, MCC Theatre. For those of us of a certain age (i.e., children of the ’60s), Moonchildren by Michael Weller was an anthem play. It defined us in so many ways. Alas, not even Joely Richardson and Cotter Smith could make this piece by Weller register in our brains.
· The Book of Grace, The Public Theatre. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks. Nope. Nothing. Completely gone from my memory banks.
· The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, The Public Theatre. The cast included such notables as Michael Cristofer, Steven Pasquale, and Stephen Spinella. Direction by Michael Greif. Written by Tony Kushner. All I can remember is being incredibly bored and looking at my watch—a lot. Not one of Mr. Kushner’s better efforts (I think I’m being kind but I’m not sure).
· The Kid, The New Group. I remember the build-up of this musical, based on the book by Dan Savage. It starred Christopher Sieber (pre-Shrek) and Jill Eikenberry. The New Group invited subscribers to a talk-back with the creative team before the show opened. Directed by Scott OMG Elliott. Do I remember anything about it? The set is about it.
· The Language of Trees, Roundabout Underground. This is embarrassing for me. I received an email from Roundabout thanking me for the lovely comments I made after seeing the show. I don’t remember the comments. I don’t remember the show. Help!
· The Other Place, MCC Theater. This is one show I really do want to remember better. It starred Laurie Metcalf in a stunning performance as a woman losing her mind. It was directed by Joe Mantello (one of his best efforts). I just wish I could remember it. I do recall walking out of the Lucille Lortel Theatre sobbing.
· The People in the Picture, Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. I know it’s a play about the Holocaust. It starred Donna Friggin’ Murphy, and featured Alexander Gemignani, Lewis J. Stadlen, and Joyce Van Patten. It was a musical, but I can’t recall a single song from it. (Some of the songs were in Yiddish, if that helps.)
* * *
And that’s only half of the Playbills I culled. I’ll spare you the rest. It does go to show some talented people can do some terrible things when they try (not intentionally, of course). And if you remember any of these better than I do, please let me know.
I guess this proves there is such a thing as seeing too much theatre. I know there is such a thing as seeing too little. A co-worker of mine during this period boasted how he had only seen three live theatre performances in his life. When I told him I had seen five in one weekend, he looked at me like I was out of my mind. Maybe I was. Maybe I still am. To wit: For four years I took a generic blood pressure medication called valsartan. This generic was manufactured in a Chinese factory and distributed in the United States by three different companies (one of which was an old client of mine).
Last July, I started having horrible spasms, sometimes violent, for no apparent reason. Having done years of medical research for work, I started on a quest to find out the cause. I plowed through tons of medical literature, touching briefly on a study done by Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in 1999. It mentioned a mere 22 cases uncovered in the course of the study, all causing a rare form of Tourette’s Syndrome due to a poisonous substance known as NDMA. It was interesting but of no help to me—or so I thought. Then I received a letter from my pharmacy. The valsartan I had been taking was tainted with NDMA. A doctor on the same campus as La Jolla Playhouse (where a few of us recently saw the premiere of a new musical, Diana) finally diagnosed me as someone living with Tourette.
My biggest fear about having Tourette isn’t the spasms. I don’t do the verbal (so no inappropriate cussing). No, my biggest fear is I wouldn’t be able to go to the theatre anymore because my episodes would be disruptive to the rest of the audience (and I’d be asked to leave). For me not to be able to go to the theatre any more? A fate worse than death. Really. So far, knock on wood, I can control the spasms pretty well (not completely) and I’m still attending. Go figure.
(Grumpy Olde Guy® a/k/a Michael Kape has haunted so many theatres he’s applying for membership in the Theatre Ghost Society. He has been known to use theatre as therapy when his world is at its darkest.)