2 Broadway shows: The Ferryman, Choirboy

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By Caitlin Kelly

One of the many reasons I enjoy living near New York City is having quick and easy access to its culture, whether music, dance, art, books, theater.

We’re fortunate my husband works for The New York Times, which is unionized, and as a result gives us access to TDF, which offers low-cost tickets to a range of entertainment; as I left the matinee of Choirboy, having paid $45 for a fantastic orchestra seat, I saw that the lowest price at the TKTS booth in Times Squares was $73.

It’s a real privilege to see a show for these prices — full price for an orchestra Broadway seat can be $300 or more.

The Ferryman

First, if you don’t know much recent Irish history — specifically “The Troubles”, then acronyms mentioned in it like GPO and RUC won’t mean much. Plus thick Northern Irish accents to cut through.

Go anyway! It’s an amazing play, even if the ending is abrupt and confusing. It has more than 20 cast members — seven children, plus (!) a live rabbit, a live goose and a very calm live baby. It’s almost three hours, with two intermissions.

It opened in New York on Broadway in October 2018.

It’s set in an Irish farmhouse at harvest time, in 1981, and includes everyone from Aunt Maggie Far Away, fading in and out of dementia, to the foul-mouthed patriarch Patrick and his wife, Patricia. There’s a very bad guy named Mr. Muldoon, a betrayed and betraying priest, a bunch of rowdy cousins and plenty of whisky. The plot is too complicated to detail here, but here’s a review of it; the themes of loyalty, belonging, lost opportunity and betrayal playing throughout.

Choirboy

Hard to imagine a more different sort of play, but so terrific. It closes March 10, so if you have a chance, run!

Set in an all-male prep school bristling with secrets and shame, it stars six African-American actors — in itself unusual. The set is simple but versatile, morphing from a steamy locker room to a classroom to a dorm room shared by two room-mates, the wall above each bed plastered with posters.

As someone who spent five years at prep school, and four of those in boarding sharing space with strangers, much of this was familiar.

In addition to the plot, there’s fantastic a capella singing, of course.

It was also great to see an audience filled with African-Americans, less visible in some Broadway houses.

Jose and I have tagged 2019 the year to Try New Things!

Theater is one form of culture I tend to overlook and neglect, so this is a good start.

How “news” happens: my latest NYT piece

By Caitlin Kelly

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.

No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!

 

Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)

Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.

It can be something we overheard or saw.

Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.

That’s how The New York Times got wind of Trump’s federal income tax shenanigans, as reporter Susanne Craig described:

Friday, Sept. 23, was different.

I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.

I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.

The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.

Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.

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One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

What makes something a “story”?

— it’s new

— it’s making a ton of money for someone

— it’s the first time this event has ever happened

— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)

— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it

— it’s happened near the story’s audience

I’ve spent weeks on this new New York Times Arts & Leisure story, told to me last spring by  an editor I’ve known for many years and have written for, about someone she knows.

It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:

Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”

With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”

She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.

My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.

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Key to this piece? Serendipity!

I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.

In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.

The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?

The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.

It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.

I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!

Broadway, baby! Seeing “Blackbird” and “Hughie”

By Caitlin Kelly

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Living in New York is, too much of the time, really hard and really expensive: rents, transit, gym memberships, groceries.

Unless you’re a 1 percenter, so many of its costly pleasures dangle forever out of reach, but one tremendous luxury within my reach, thanks to the Theater Development Fund, is access to affordable theater and music tickets.

Over the years I’ve lived in New York, it’s allowed me to enjoy excellent seats to popular musicals like Billy Eliot, Carousel and South Pacific and astonishing performances of plays like August: Osage County, Skylight, Awake and Sing! and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring Robin Williams, a work that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

Seeing favorite actors and actresses live has been  a privilege in itself, faces and names we “know” from film or television, like Lauren Ambrose (of HBO’s Six Feet Under) and Edie Falco.

Theater brings a specific and immediate intimacy impossible to achieve through any screen.

 

This week brought me a $36 ticket, (regular price: $138), to see “Blackbird” at the Belasco with Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels reprising his role from 2007. I scored a fantastic seat, third-row aisle, in the mezzanine (first balcony) with terrific sightlines.

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The Belasco, at 111 West 44th street, opened in 1907 and is exquisite, a jewel box in its own right. The walls are painted in deep-toned murals, the coffered ceiling emblazoned with heraldic symbols and its lamps are stained-glass.

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Buying tickets through TDF, or the other discount options (like the TKTS  booths), means grabbing whatever’s on offer and jumping. You need to have read some reviews or have a good idea when you have only a few minutes to decide which ones are worth your time and hard-earned money.

But Blackbird? Hell, yes!

This play, which runs 90 minutes without intermission, is emotionally exhausting — even the playwright’s name is Harrower. Indeed.

 

It’s been performed worldwide, from Milan to Singapore to South Africa to Tokyo. A new film, starring Rooney Mara, (who starred in “Carol” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), is due out this year.

In it, 27-year-old Una returns to confront now 55-year-old Ray, who had sex with her when she was 12 and he was 40. It sounds weird and sordid but unpacks layer after layer of emotion, fear, damage and desire one might imagine possible.

It’s full-throttle theater, with both actors modulating rage and disgust and fear, the still and silent audience along with them.

You wonder where they summon the stamina to tear through it all, while swept up in the intensity. In one scene, they’re on the floor of a messy conference room, both of them throwing piles of trash into the air.

And eight shows a week? No wonder it’s a limited run of 18 weeks, which is still a really long time to grind it out full-throttle in this work.

I love Michelle Williams’ work and her willingness to tackle tough characters. If you’ve never seen the 2008 film “Wendy and Lucy”, it’s a grim portrait of a young homeless woman and her dog, a far cry from her 2011 portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.

As Daniels told Time Out New York:

This is not a safe choice. The tourists who come in are going to get their ears pinned back. As they should. The arts should do this.

Here’s Daniels — one of my favorites from HBO’s series The Newsroom and much other work — on what it was like to return to this role:

As drama, the fateful meeting of Ray and Una was as compelling now as it was then. Unapologetically raw and full of terrible truths, the play confronts the audience from the first page on, never letting up, never letting go, tearing into those watching it as much as it does those of us on stage trying to survive it. Still, I was hesitant. Most roles are been there, done that. What cinched the decision to return was that Ray still terrified me.

Every actor knows you can’t run from the ones that scare you. It’s not the acting of the character nor is it the dark imagination it takes to put yourself through all of his guilt, regret and shame. To truly become someone else, you have to hear him in your head, thinking, justifying, defending, wanting, needing, desiring. The more I looked back at the first production, the more I saw what I hadn’t done, where I hadn’t gone. I’d pulled up short. Found ways around what was necessary. When it came time to truly become Ray, I’d protected myself. He’d hit bottom. I hadn’t.

From the first day of rehearsals for the new production, it was exactly the same and entirely different. Michelle Williams and I had the script all but memorized ahead of time, which was essential, considering the stop-start, off-the-beat rhythm of Harrower’s dialogue. The key to any play, especially a two-hander, is the ebb and flow, the back and forth between the actors. If ever there were a need for that elusive elixir called chemistry, it was now.

 

I saw “Hughie” two nights later, at the Booth Theater, built in 1913. I think it’s not nearly as beautiful as the Belasco.

The show is an odd little play, another two-hander, and only 60 minutes — of which about 50 are Whittaker’s. He was terrific.

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The set and lighting were spectacular but I found it, written in 1942 and set in 1928, a bit too dated for my taste, with endless references to dolls and saps.

Have you been to a Broadway show?

Did you enjoy it?

 

Two Queens in The Rain

The Rainbow Dress of Queen Elizabeth I
Image by Alpha Auer, aka. Elif Ayiter via Flickr
It’s said that Broadway is too often irrelevant, expensive, a sop for tourists. Mary Stuart, playing there until August 16, is mind-blowingly great. I saw it last night and hope to see it again, even though it’s 90 minutes before the first intermission and you’re not out of the theater until 11:00.
Starring Janet McTeer as Mary, Queen of Scots and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth I, it’s the first time the play, written in 1800 and updated, has been on Broadway in almost 40 years. It’s a stunning examination of power, the fight between two reigning queens, cousins, and how lonely and brutal it was, and often still is, for women to keep and wield power in a world dominated by men. (Check out their blog!)
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the staging is stark: a black brick wall, a wooden bench that slices across the width of the stage, intense white lighting. The women wear period costumes, the men, their counselors, wear contemporary elegant suits, complete with pocket handkerchiefs. The men scheme, flatter, lie, betray. The women rely on them, dismiss them, pray to them in a dizzying kaleidoscope of need and fury.
It’s worth it for one scene, Mary and her maid, standing in the rain. Sheets of it pour down for 10 minutes, soaking Mary to the skin. She’s delirious with joy at being out of her prison cell after 19 years. The confrontation (historically inaccurate, theatrically riveting) between the two queens is extraordinary. The rain itself is a technical miracle, never soaking the audience, never flooding the stage. The evening was mesmerizing magic, what theater is supposed to be.