Saturday, January 24, 2009

"A Brass Unicorn Has Been Catapulted Across a London Street and Impaled an Eminent Surgeon!"

Just watched "The Abominable Dr. Phibes," one of my favorite Technicolor Art Deco horror films. Vincent Price doing all of his lines into that crazy golden Victrola, the camp appeal of the whole thing. Funny looking at it now, how it seems like a precursor to much darker films, like “Saw” and “Seven.” Deliriously goofy. The makers thumb their noses at trite, elitist concepts like - coherence and plausibility.

That movie contains the most passive murder victims ever. If Vincent Price came into your room holding a bunch of jugs, a tube and a needle, wouldn’t you – like –try to leave? Or if he came into your car holding some sort of homemade death ray – and a strange woman in a fur hat sat on the hood playing a violin - wouldn’t you try to – I don’t know – get out of the car?

There is not even the slightest attempt to explain how a celebrated concert organist has figured out how to do things like –build an entire clockwork band of musicians, build a device which can lower the temperature inside a car to below one hundred degrees, find a whole lot of tropical bats – never mind how to pay for it. It’s just a plain old Jacobean revenge tale. The focus is on the elaborate, Rube Goldberg set up of the murders, not anything like character or believability. (The hook – for those of you who have never treated yourself to this – those who look with proud disdain on Vincent Price films – is that the murders are based on the Biblical curses of the pharaohs.)

Favorite scene: the locust murder. We see Vincent Price making a concoction of what look like thousands of Brussels sprouts. He tastes it at one point. (He doesn’t have a mouth anymore due to a horrible accident, so he sticks his fingers in a hole in his neck and we hear these weird slurping sounds.) Then he goes into a hospital, drills a hole in the ceiling above the victim, and starts slowly dripping what looks like crème de menthe onto the sleeping woman. Why the hell she doesn’t wake up is beyond me. If someone dripped gooey syrup all over me while sleeping, I’d sure wake up. (Scratch that.) Then he lowers a tube full of big, mean looking locusts through the hole in the ceiling. That would sure wake me up if the syrup didn’t.

When next we see her – when the cops burst through the door and realize they are once again too late to STOP THE MADMAN PHIBES – she’s a skeleton. With a wig! Because everyone knows that locusts eat human flesh! Especially if it tastes like Brussels sprouts! Right??? RIGHT?????

All kidding aside – you know what I really love about this movie? Vincent Price. The movie works because Price was an actor of such incredible dignity. (Like Boris Karloff, another favorite of mine.) He could make infantile, ridiculous material work because he played it like it was the most dignified and dramatically satisfying tragedy Shakespeare ever wrote. He never talked down to his material or his audience. Price elevated material with his presence.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Info on Conversations

Press is out. Cast and dates are here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

No, I Do Not Translate Classical Spanish Literature

That's another guy named David Johnston, who writes plays. But thanks for thinking I'm fluently bilingual and have cleverly concealed it all these years.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Thanks to Martin Denton for the heads up on this - 20at20 For twenty bucks twenty minutes before curtain, you can go see a number of Off Broadway shows, including "AltarBoyz" - (it's fun - trust me), Brian Friel's "Aristocrats" and "Looking for the Pony," by a wonderful colleague of mine from the America in Play Project, Andrea Lepcio.

Conversations on Russian Literature

Coming soon...announcements on dates - very soon - for "Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Plays" with Blue Coyote at the Access. Other pieces in the evening include "Play Russia," "For Those Of Us Who Have Lived in France," and "Mothra is Waiting."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Friday, January 9, 2009

WBGO On Demand

If you're into jazz, and you've never checked this out, click here. WBGO has a new series, "Live at the Village Vanguard." Once a month, they broadcast live from there, and post it on their site. Ravi Coltrane played there in mid-November, and it's a gorgeous set I've listened to several times.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Will Eisner's "The Plot"

I had workshop on Monday night, and borrowed Chuck’s copy of “The Plot,” Will Eisner’s graphic novel on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and I read it all in one sitting. I’d loved Eisner’s stuff since I was a kid, and would read magazine reprints of “The Spirit” from the forties and thirties.

“The Plot” is something of a miracle, a broadside polemic, history of a fraud, written in – Eisner’s terms – ‘sequential art.’ Amazing also that Eisner continued to be working at such a high level of ability and creativity until mere weeks before his death at 87.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Watched “Milk” last night, and it was a very emotional experience for me- probably the biggest gut punch I’ve gotten from a film in a long time. Sean Penn is – well, he couldn’t be better. He is every inch the character – the bravado, the insecurities, the focus, the wit. He’s amazing as a man who in his forties finds his niche in life, and runs with it.

Gus Van Sant has always made interesting movies – I love Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. But he’s also made some absolutely terrible movies, like “Cowgirls Get the Blues” and his remake of "Psycho." I always wondered if Van Sant could make a good movie about something other than beautiful male criminals. But “Milk” is a grown up movie –and it’s a grown up gay movie. It doesn’t depend on shirtless beauties in discos to sell its story. It’s a real movie about gay men having real lives that don’t revolve around coming out, falling in love with a high school jock, and having tearful scenes with parents.

Two scenes really got me. The one – where Harvey picks up the phone and it’s a kid from Minnesota on the other line. He’s seen him on TV and he’s called him – obviously trying to get some help – and told him he wants to kill himself. And then he later calls again – to deliver some pivotal news from LA about the vote on the Briggs initiative. Both of those scenes just slayed me. (Slew me?) It brought home in an immediate way those kids at the time, who looked at TV and had never seen anyone like Harvey Milk, who said he was gay and was a happier man for doing so.

I was about 14 at the time of Milk’s assassination. And I only had a dim awareness of what was happening then in San Francisco. Richmond was a long ways away. But I remember that feeling – remember what a big deal it was when Billy Crystal played a gay character on “Soap?’ As a kid that age at that time, there were simply no models anywhere for what a happy gay man looked like. We clung to anything.

Van Sant starts out “Milk” with some amazing footage of gay men being rounded up, filmed in bars, shoved into police vans, hiding their eyes behind their hands. And it really brought home what those times were like, where being gay could get you fired, jailed, run out of town, or worse.

I know it's still like that some places, but things are better for most of us. Of course, Dennis O'Hare's Briggs would not be out of place on Fox News today.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Theatre of War

Went to Film Forum to see “Theatre of War,” the documentary about Meryl Streep, Brecht, and the Kushner Mother Courage in the Park two years ago. I feel about Brecht the way my old roommate Sally used to feel about brie. She’d buy brie, bring it home and not eat it. She didn’t like brie- she liked the idea of brie. That’s how I feel about Brecht – I love the ideas, the idea of a revolutionary theatre, the in your face politics, the songs – but hate sitting through his plays. I like the idea of Brecht.

Streep is articulate, smart and no bullshit. She’s asked if Courage is a tragic figure - she rolls her eyes and says, ‘I just think of her as you and me.’

She did say one thing that stopped me cold. “Mother Courage lives off the war. That’s what we all do. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re living off the war."