Saturday, December 31, 2022

2022: A Year of Books


This year, for some reason, I really got into reading. I read more than 100 books this year, twice as many as I have typically read in other years. The complete list, in the order I read them, is at the bottom of this post.

I think my biggest discovery this year in the realm of books was the goodreads website. I've been mildly aware of goodreads for a long while, I guess, but for some reason this past fall I decided to check it out more carefully and I ended up establishing a presence there. What I am liking about goodreads is that is provides me with a really helpful way to keep track of what I've read and what I'd like to read--I am a great one for getting excited about new topics, authors, and interests, and they come and go and flux and change, and so rather than just putting titles on my Kindle as they appeal to me (which is what I was doing), I am now able to organize my disparate fancies in goodreads lists, and I can read the opinions of others to try to gauge whether I really want such-and-such a book and remove and adjust the lists as needed. Overthinking, perhaps, but enjoyable to me.

The second thing I like about goodreads is that I am able to find and link up with people whose reading tastes seem to match my own. From these people I have been able to discover a lot of excellent work that I probably wouldn't have found or paid much attention to otherwise. For example, thanks to one goodreads "friend" I have gotten a taste of Young Adult fiction, a genre that never seemed interesting to me but which I now find pretty appealing. So I am grateful for all the new directions my reading is going, thanks to the advice and recommendations of folks I am meeting virtually on goodreads.

I have also been reviewing everything I read now, which is a nice way to put to practice the skills I learned reviewing theater for all those years; and also a nice way of setting down the reading experiences in a kind of permanent way, something I never did until this year (except for plays, of course). The process of thinking about and writing about what you've read is useful and edifying, and I am glad that I am doing it. Links to my goodreads reviews are at the bottom of this post.

Best Books of the Year

So which books mattered the most to me in 2022? At the top of the list has to be Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, which is a book I tried to read when I was much younger and abandoned; and then came to it at precisely the moment I was ready for it and needed it, this past October. It is such a rich, profound work full of wisdom and love; it filled my heart in a way that few books ever have. I will cite two sentences that really resonated with me:

And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.

He saw: this water ran and ran, incessantly it ran, and was nevertheless always there, was always at all times the same and yet new in every moment!

The other book that really stayed with me was Michael Cunningham's Flesh and Blood. I came to it because, as I was going through my old theater reviews to prepare some of them for goodreads, I discovered that I had seen a dramatic version of this book at New York Theatre Workshop, about twenty years ago. Yet, I had no memory of it whatsoever. I thought it might be interesting to read the source material. And I am so glad I did: Cunningham tells the story of a family so vividly and intimately and with such immediacy that I found I could not turn away and I could not stop getting more and more wrapped up in their lives. It's a beautiful book about love and the eponymous stuff--flesh and blood--that goes with it.

Flesh and Blood has drawn me into fiction in general--I rarely used to read fiction except for mystery/suspense/detective genre novels and stories--and into romantic/love stories in particular. These I always avoided, I guess because I thought they were sappy; I realize now it was probably because I thought they'd remind of what I didn't have in my life. Either way, I am glad to be embracing all of these kinds of reading and look forward to more in 2023.

Discoveries of the Year

I read more widely this year than ever, and along the way I came upon a few new (to me) authors that I have really enjoyed:

  1. Howard Fast: I have no idea how I didn't know about Howard Fast until this year! I already wrote something about him in this blog post. Since that post in September I have finished the Masuo Matsuto mysteries and read a big book of Fast short stories. He is a wonderful writer, and a deeply humanist one (although the whiffs of homophobia I detected in a few of his pieces troubled me just a bit). I'm not sure how much more of his work I will read in the future, but I am glad to have spent a lot of this year with him.
  2. Christopher Rice: On a whim, I bought Light Before Day, an early work by this writer (who is the son of Anne Rice of Interview with the Vampire fame). This is from the review I posted: "It's a vivid, intense account of a young journalist who finds himself in the middle of (quoting from the goodreads summary) 'a deadly conspiracy involving runaway sugar daddies, salacious A-list parties, and three handsome young men who have vanished without a trace'. Now, I would not normally ever read a book with a description like that, let alone love such a book, but Christopher Rice takes this material and makes it transformative." He's a fine, humane writer, and the second book of his I read this year, Sapphire Sunset (writing as C. Travis Rice) was, for sheer enjoyment value, my favorite book of 2022. It's a purely romantic tale of two young men who come to realize they belong together; there's a neat suspenseful plot in the background, but the focus is on the growth of a deep and loving relationship. I am looking forward to Rice's sequels (there are two of them, so far) next year. 
  3. Richard Stevenson: I rediscovered the Donald Strachey mysteries this year. I know I read one of them when it was new (or newish), thirty or more years ago; this time I started with the first one, Death Trick, and I'm really enjoying them. (I'm nearly halfway through the third one now.) These date from the 1980s and are set in Albany, New York, featuring a gay private detective, which was definitely a rarity back then.

Books by Friends and Colleagues

I am lucky to have so many people within my circle who are also marvelous writers. This year, I was deeply moved and inspired by a pair of books about the Covid years, Julia Lee Barclay-Morton's The Mortality Shot and Micah Bucey's The Book of Tiny Prayer. They are very different from each other but share two important aspects: both, while serious and somber, are filled with love and hope; and they are as conventional as their authors, which is to say that they are not conventional at all. I am grateful to count both of these talented artists as friends, and was enlarged in 2022 by their work.

Here are other books by folks I know or have known that I got to read this past year:

  • Iphigenia in Aulis by Edward Einhorn: a wonderful new version of the Greek tragedy, as a drama and a graphic novel
  • Life on the List by Jeffrey Essmann, a very funny sexy book by the (former) performance artist (he is now, I believe, a priest)
  • Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger: an intense, funny account of the birth of the musical Spider-Man, written by the playwright who was that show's co-librettist
  • The Lost Conversation: Interviews with an Enduring Avant-Garde by Sara Farrington: interviews with more than two dozen indie theater artists like Richard Foreman, Mac Wellman, and Ching Valdes-Aran; wonderful to hear their voices and know they're being preserved here
  • All We Buried by Elena Hartwell Taylor: a gripping, highly engaging mystery novel by a playwright whose humane and readable work (dramatic and non) I always enjoy

Some Random Notes

I finished Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small novels early in the year; I am so happy to have come to this series! They are warm, gentle mysteries (I guess we'd call them cozies nowadays) and I learned much about Judaism and humanity in reading them.

I started re-reading Ellery Queen's works this year; I have largely abandoned the project. I found that I prefer the earliest ones, where Ellery is insufferable but indisputably the main attraction of the books. Starting with Halfway House, I found the stories to feel more and more like second-rate Agatha Christie, with perky heroines and sappy love stories that she can write but he cannot.

I also tried three of the Philo Vance novels and concluded that two were plenty. Vance is as insufferable as his critics suggest. I re-read a Nero Wolfe novel that I discovered lurking on my shelf, The Second Confession, and I found that it pretty much soured me on that series. I'm quite proud of the review of this that I wrote on goodreads if you care to learn more.

I read Andrew Tobias's memoir about financial life, My Vast Fortune, and got quite a bit out of it. I emailed Mr. Tobias to let him know how much I liked this book and his earlier memoir The Best Little Boy in the World and to my surprise I got not one but two emails back from him (signed Andy). It's nice to know how approachable he turned out to be! And I am looking forward to reading his subsequent memoirs (a new one is said to be coming out next year).

I read several other memoirs and bios; the only one that really stood out was Jim Grimsley's How I Shed My Skin, which is an honest and thoughtful account about growing up inherently racist in the South in the 1960s-70s. It's a smart and courageous book.

And I read Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, and it really surprised me. It is an excellent novel! Very modern feeling, with lots of good lessons for living packed in that don't ever feel didactic or dogmatic.

All the Books I Read in 2022

(links are to reviews on goodreads)

  1. The Day the Rabbi Resigned by Harry Kemelman
  2. New York: A Bicentennial History by Bruce Bliven,Jr.
  3. Virginia: A History by Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
  4. That Day the Rabbi Left Town by Harry Kemelman
  5. West Virginia: A History by John Alexander Williams
  6. Vermont: A History by Charles T. Morrisey
  7. Massachusetts: A Bicentennial History by Richard D. Brown
  8. The Adventures of Ellery Queen by Ellery Queen
  9. Delaware: A Bicentennial History by Carol Hoffecker
  10. Knot My Sister's Keeper by Mary Marks
  11. Rhode Island: A History by William Gerald McLoughlin
  12. Jack & Susan in 1913 by Michael McDowell
  13. North Carolina: A History by William S. Powell
  14. Tennessee: A Bicentennial History by Wilma Dykeman
  15. The Tragedy of X by Ellery Queen
  16. Georgia: A History by Harold H. Martin
  17. Totally Pawstruck by Sofie Ryan
  18. Dummy Days by Kelly Asbury
  19. The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen
  20. Stamp Collecting by Charles F. Adams
  21. Master of Ceremonies by Joel Grey
  22. Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr
  23. The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen
  24. Death of a Hollow Man by Caroline Graham
  25. The Spanish Cape Mystery by Ellery Queen
  26. Murder on Wall Street by Victoria Thompson
  27. All About Me by Mel Brooks
  28. The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen
  29. The One Penny Orange Mystery by Morris Ackerman
  30. Halfway House by Ellery Queen
  31. Fun and Profit in Stamp Collecting by Herman Herst Jr.
  32. The Gracie Allen Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
  33. Lost Countries by Stuart Laycock & Chris West
  34. Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod
  35. A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps by Chris West
  36. The Door Between by Ellery Queen
  37. The Man Who Died Laughing by David Handler
  38. The Floating Lady Murder by Daniel Stashower
  39. The Tragedy of Z by Ellery Queen
  40. The Case of the One-Penny Orange by Howard Fast
  41. The Official Stamp Collector's Bible by Stephen Datz
  42. Patrick Henry and the Frigate's Keel; and Other Stories of a Young Nation by Howard Fast
  43. The Case of the Angry Actress by Howard Fast
  44. The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book by Vince Waldron
  45. The New Adventures of Ellery Queen by Ellery Queen
  46. The Affair of the Christmas Card Killer by Jack Murray
  47. Full Service by Scotty Bowers
  48. The Case of the Russian Diplomat by Howard Fast
  49. The Scarab Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
  50. Generally Speaking by Lawrence Block
  51. Death Trick by Richard Stevenson
  52. The American by Howard Fast
  53. Drury Lane's Last Case by Barnaby Ross (Ellery Queen)
  54. The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs by Howard Fast
  55. Broadway Babylon by Boze Hadleigh
  56. Light Before Day by Christopher Rice
  57. Jokebook About American History by Ray Ginger
  58. Bodies in the Library 5 edited by Tony Medawar
  59. The Four of Hearts by Ellery Queen
  60. How I Shed My Skin by Jim Grimsley
  61. The Case of the Sliding Pool by Howard Fast
  62. Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast
  63. Two Tall Tails by Sofie Kelly
  64. The Mortality Shot by Julia Lee Barclay-Morton
  65. New Leaf by Andrew Grey
  66. Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  67. Tao of Thoreau by Mark J Bozeman
  68. The Essential Enneagram by David Daniels
  69. Productivity for the Depressive Polymath by Brennen Reece
  70. Elephants in the Distance by Daniel Stashower
  71. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
  72. On the Other Hand, Death by Richard Stevenson
  73. You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn
  74. The Art of Zen Meditation by Howard Fast
  75. The Second Confession by Rex Stout
  76. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
  77. The Goat Parva Murders by Julian Worker
  78. Time and the Riddle by Howard Fast
  79. Sapphire Sunset by C. Travis Rice
  80. Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart by Steven Bach
  81. God Said, Ha! by Julia Sweeney
  82. Facebook for Dummies by Carolyn Abram
  83. The Case of the Extra Grave by Christopher Bush
  84. Iphigenia in Aulis by Edward Einhorn
  85. Government Gay by Fred W. Hunter
  86. Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story by Steve Wilson & Joe Florenski
  87. The Zen Book by Daniel Levin
  88. Sleight of Paw by Sofie Kelly
  89. Django 4 for the Impatient by Greg Lim
  90. Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham
  91. The Kennel Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
  92. Comfort and Joy by Jim Grimsley
  93. Helping Gay Men Find Love by Israel Martinez
  94. The Case of the Kidnapped Angel by Howard Fast
  95. My Vast Fortune by Andrew Tobias
  96. Out of the Pocket by Bill Konigsberg
  97. Life on the List by Jeffrey Essmann
  98. Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger
  99. The Lost Conversation: Interviews with an Enduring Avant-Garde by Sara Farrington
  100. Birthday Boys by Simon Strange
  101. The Houdini Specter by Daniel Stashower
  102. The Unexpected Heiress by Frank W. Butterfield
  103. Bourbon Street Blues by Greg Herren
  104. All We Buried by Elena Hartwell Taylor
  105. The Case of the Murdered Mackenzie by Howard Fast
  106. The Book of Tiny Prayer: Daily Meditations from the Plague Year by Micah Bucey
  107. Making the Naughty List by Darryl Banner
  108. The Boys by Katie Hafner
  109. Two Christmases by B.J. Smyth
  110. After the Ecstasy the Laundry by Jack Kornfield
  111. Men Are Pigs But We Love Pork by Woody Miller (aka Michael Alvear)
  112. Flamer by Mike Curato
  113. Is It Hot in Here (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth by Zach Zimmerman

Monday, December 19, 2022

Elephant - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

In the heyday of the New York International Fringe Festival, the last days of August were always much needed downtime for me: after two-and-a-half weeks of non-stop theater-going and review-writing, -editing, and -posting, I was glad of a little breather until Labor Day. But after the 2004 festival, for some reason I was persuaded to check out a new play at the Ontological Theater called Elephant, which was nearing the end of its run. I knew a couple of the people involved with it, notably actor Arthur Aulisi (of whom I was and remain a huge fan); but as I remember it, more than one colleague emailed me and urged me to check this play out, because it was something special.

As indeed it was: Elephant is a beautiful work; a comedy that touches on tragedy with grace and insight. We were already well into planning Plays and Playwrights 2005 by this time, but we decided to add an extra slot rather than wait until the next edition, because we wanted this lovely play to be read and seen and experienced by as many people as possible. We met Elephant's author, Margie Stokley, and happily she agreed to include her play in our book.

Elephant became one of the most popular works we ever published. I am grateful to whatever (karma? fate? luck?) made me decide to see a play during a week when I didn't want to see one. review -  August 31, 2004

The daughter, Michelle, is recovering from a nervous breakdown in a hospital. The mother, Kathleen, is so terrified of dentists that she has to be given a teddy bear to get through an appointment. The father, Henry, is driving cross-country, from New Jersey to Arizona, with a mysterious hitchhiker.

And yet they're the most functional family I've seen on stage in a long, long time. Margie Stokley's Elephant, a gorgeous, inventive, and dazzlingly warm-hearted and theatrical new play, reminds us of the things that actually matter: spontaneity, respect, love; above all, caring about people, things, each other. It's being presented by the relatively young ANDHOW! Theatre Company, with a solid staging by artistic director Jessica Davis-Irons, exquisite performances by actors Arthur Aulisi, Amy Brienes, Maria Cellario, Jessica Dickey, and Stan Lachow, and superb design by Neal Wilkinson (sets), Joshua Briggs (lighting), Anastasia Williams (costumes), and Jill BC DuBoff (sound). Talented artists all, collaborating to create one of the most moving and rewarding theatre experiences of the year. This one's not to be missed.

Elephant is about a family dealing with grief. Jay, a marine in his twenties, has recently died in a car accident, leaving behind his parents, Henry and Kathleen, his sister Michelle, and his pregnant girlfriend, Ellen. Separately, they deal with their loss, and together, they find ways to move forward. The play has a fluid structure that takes us into the physical worlds of each of the living characters and also inside their heads as they remember times they spent with Jay. Michelle is in a hospital with an apparently ineffectual therapist named Rich, obsessively over-applying makeup and lashing out at the world as she battles her sadness. Henry is on the road, delivering Jay's German shepherd Blaze to the Arizona breeder where he was born. Ellen, an artist, is in her studio, painting over a big picture of an elephant. And Kathleen is at home alone, holding down the fort, checking in on (overseeing?) her family's progress toward healing.

The memories are vivid, funny, and real: Ellen recalls her first meeting with Jay, in college, loaded with awkwardness and resulting in an unintended rejection when he asks her for coffee and she replies "I don't drink coffee." Henry drives by the Grand Canyon and remembers a long-ago vacation when he watched his son stretch out his arms, dangerously near the edge. Michelle conjures random moments like one at a family gathering, playing a game with the just-found-out-they're-in-love Jay and Ellen. It's all gentle, sweet, inconsequential: trivial details that add up to a life.

I love that Stokley focuses on the ways that the members of this family love and care for each other: Mom is bossy and difficult, but also unwaveringly smart and nurturing; Dad is detached and impetuous, but also thoughtful and warm. Stokley's not interested in trading in stereotypes or archetypes, but instead in carving out real people with whom we eagerly empathize and whom we genuinely like.

I also love how Stokley constantly surprises us and makes us re-evaluate what we understand about these people and their relationships, springing new details on us as she cannily tells her story non-linearly and non-chronologically. There is, in particular, a wonderful revelation about midway through the play that I absolutely will not spoil for you here, for it's also the heart of Elephant—one family member coming to another's rescue in a truly remarkable way.


I am positive that I did not realize that I had seen Margie Stokley in one of Mel Miller's Musicals Tonight! productions (The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd, in 2002)--I even mentioned her in my review. I saw Margie in several other shows thereafter; she is a fine actor as well as a gifted writer.

This show was my first acquaintance with the work of AndHow! Theater Company, but I became a steadfast fan of their work after this, and another show they produced, Andrew Irons's play Linus & Alora, is in Plays and Playwrights 2009. This was also the first of four plays featuring actor Arthur Aulisi that were part of our anthology series.


Survivor: Vietnam! - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

The first time I ever saw a real improv show was also the first time I ever went to The Red Room and it was also the first time I encountered the mad talents of Rob Reese. The year was 1998. The show was called Honey Harlowe, a double bill of comedy acts, the last of which featured Reese and his company Amnesia Wars doing (according to my review) "some of the sharpest, smartest, and funniest theatre in New York."

Those adjectives have applied to everything I've ever seen Rob do since that night almost 25 years ago. There have been multiple Amnesia Wars improv and comedy shows, but there have also been scripted works. In 2000, Rob adapted and directed Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the stage (originally performed in New York at the Pelican Studio Theater)--a remarkably faithful and intense rendition of the classic tale that featured four actors as the Monster. (That play eventually ended up in my anthology Playing With Canons.)

Rob's next play was this one, a satire of the then-popular Survivor TV franchise. It opened at the PIT on a Saturday at 10pm, which is late for me; subsequent performances were at midnight. review - May 17, 2003

Rob Reese—actor, writer, director, improv teacher, and world traveler—can now add Ultimate Capitalist to his impressive curriculum vitae. In Survivor: Vietnam!, his new parody of a certain very popular reality TV show, now running late nights at Peoples Improv Theatre, he gives the world the consumer product that it's been waiting for. It's called "Wipe 'N Go, the completely disposable two step cleaning system": all you need to do is open the package and then throw it away and you're done (see, two steps).

I give away just this one of Reese's dead-on satirical barbs to show you how on-target his writing is. In two hilarious, brilliantly-crafted "commercials," Reese both deconstructs and fires cautionary warning shots at the state of marketing (and consumer gullibility) in America today (he presses some other buttons as well). Performed simply at two microphones by Reese and Jason Evans, they're neat gems of comic wisdom, all by themselves worth the price of admission to this subversive little show.

Which is not to imply that the rest of Survivor: Vietnam! isn't worth your time. It is, but as sometimes happens in the world of TV, the commercials really are the best part. The premise of Survivor: Vietnam! is that a desperate network has set its newest reality show in the midst of the Vietnam War. Never mind the fact that this war ended some thirty years ago; the media honchos have thoughtfully recreated it, bombing raids and all. Oh, but this time a lot of the Viet Cong are portrayed by beautiful models in skimpy bathing suits.

Reese gives us six rather typical contestants to rough it through combat for a chance at a multi-million dollar prize. There's ditzy vegan Julia (Julia Motyka), naive student Mike (Marcus Bonnée), vaguely lascivious warrior Orf (Daniel Berman), militant feminist Erica (Eric Brenner, in extremely unconvincing drag), and a married couple, controlling Angela (Angela DiGenarro) and her doormat of a husband, Darryl (Darryl Reilly). Egged on by annoyingly chipper host Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon (Nitra Guiterrez), they are made to play "games" like a version of Russian Roulette involving six beer cans (one of the cans has been pre-shaken so it will explode when smashed against someone's head). The women are also encouraged to lift their t-shirts frequently. It's just like TV.

Of course, even as his spot-on parody of this or that reality show goes its merry way, Reese has something a bit darker up his sleeve. Eventually, the remaining survivors find themselves up against authentic danger, perpetrated by an exec-gone-mad named Kurtz. They (and we) wind up in Conrad country, exploring the limits to man's capacity for exploitation and evil (or, more accurately, the apparent lack of such limits) as Survivor morphs into Apocalypse Now.

Not that things get too serious: the finale is a silly, slapstick combat-chase sequence that feels as much like Keystone Kops as anything; Reese's primary objective is to keep us laughing, and he succeeds. Especially with those two commercial interruptions.

The company is fearless and enthusiastic and maintain the requisite high energy level to put over the gags. The staging is simple and minimalist, as befits a director whose roots are in the world of improv; don't worry, you've seen enough of the kind of TV this show is parodying to fill in all the blanks in your mind's eye.


As I noted in the review above, Rob is one of those Renaissance indie theater hyphenates we frequently come upon: he is an actor, a director, a producer, a lighting designer, a stage technician, an improv teacher, a standup comic, and many other things as well as a fine playwright. I have encountered him in all sorts of unlikely places in the course of our friendship, everywhere from the makeshift stage at The Parkside Lounge in the Lower East Side to behind a giant follow-spot at The Public Theater.

Among Rob's subsequent produced plays after this one are Keanu Reaves Saves the Universe (2004; arguably his most popular work) and  a musical whodunnit called Miranda (2012; co-written with composer Kamala Sankaram).

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Last Call - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

When I was reviewing theater, it was almost never the case that I had read the script for a brand new play before I saw it performed. But Kelly McAllister's Last Call is the rare exception to that rule. It was part of the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival, and as it happened that was the second year that I was an adjudicator. That meant that, working with two other people, I evaluated 30 applicants to the festival. One of them was Last Call, for which a very early draft of the script--I think it was only the first act--was submitted. Even in relatively raw form I loved this play, saw that it could really work, and would be a great fit for FringeNYC. My two colleagues agreed with me, and Last Call made it into the festival.

At some planning meeting subsequent to adjudication, actor Jack Halpin let a bunch of us know that he would be appearing in Last Call, and that he would be naked in it. Armed with that information, I decided not to bring my 16-year-old niece to see it, and that's why uncharacteristically I went to Last Call alone. It was performed at Theater for the New City, which provided several festival venues that summer. As you'll see below, I loved it. Within a few days I introduced myself to Kelly at another FringeNYC show and told him we wanted to publish the script in Plays and Playwrights 2003. review -  August 15, 2002

I hope it doesn't trivialize the events of 9/11 to say that they were a wake-up call for a lot of people, but I think that's true. It's certainly one of the themes of Kelly McAllister's stunning new play Last Call. Set in a bar in a suburban California town, Last Call tells the story of a group of friends who have known each other all their lives. Now in their mid-thirties, they seem to be stuck in ruts, professionally, personally, and emotionally; the dreams and ideals of their youth seem far away, if not entirely lost. Suddenly, David, the friend who "made good"—got a high-powered job and moved to New York City—returns, and like a modern-day Hickey (from O'Neill's Iceman Cometh) he sets out to free his barfly friends from the illusions that have them trapped.

Trouble is, David's pals' illusions are achingly, bitterly real: they're the soiled fabric of real life—unrequited love affairs, unsatisfying jobs, unhappy marriages. David works hard to shock these people out of their inertia (one of the things he does is take off all his clothes; there is a bit of frontal nudity in this play). His own catharsis came three months after the World Trade Center attacks, when he contemplated suicide on a subway platform; after all the carnage and loss, he thought, how could buying and selling and talking and trading matter?

David's reappearance in town catalyzes everybody into violent reaction, though how much finally changes among them is uncertain. McAllister shrewdly keeps David somewhat shadowy; the protagonist of the play is probably Jerry, the friend whose life seems to be most stunted (his big news during the past ten years was that he moved out of his parents' house into their garage). And the leading character of Last Call is neither of the above: he's a sad, damaged fellow named Jack, another friend, who lost the love of his life in a car crash fifteen years before and has never quite recovered. Space doesn't permit me to introduce the rest of the circle to you here; suffice to say that McAllister has created people we understand and care about.

Last Call is beautifully written: it's messy and poetic, like life. This production, directed by Jerry McAllister and produced by Hope Theatre, is spectacularly good. The cast is excellent: Jack Halpin (Jack), Matthew Rankin (Jerry), Brett Christensen (David), and Christine Goodman, R. Paul Hamilton, John Patrick Nord, Vinnie Penna, Masha Sapron, and Sara Thigpen. This one deserves a life after FringeNYC (but go ahead and see it now, just in case.)


I got to know Kelly and many of the Last Call cast members very well and nearly twenty years later I'm still mostly in touch with them. Kelly wrote several lovely plays in the years that followed, including Muse of Fire (2003), Burning the Old Man (2004, which was the first winner of Best Full-Length Script at the New York Innovative Theater Awards), Some Unfortunate Hour (2005), Fenway (2006; an adaptation of Uncle Vanya), and April's Fool (2014). For a long time, Kelly was also one of's reviewers, and he wrote the Foreword to Plays and Playwrights 2011.

Kelly moved to Colorado about ten years ago, and there he has his own indie theater company, teaches acting to kids and adults, and has produced and directed a wide range of plays and musicals. I miss seeing him, but knowing that he's continuing his high-energy humanist practice of theater a couple of thousand miles away from New York is reassuring.

The Wild Ass's Skin - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

 In 1999 I got an email from a young man named Barrett Ogden, who was just a couple of years out of theater school at Brigham Young University and had formed a new theater company called Handcart Ensemble with his friend Scott Reynolds. After I reviewed their first show, Andromaque, Barrett and Scott asked if the three of us could have dinner to talk more about their company and its ambitions. We met at a Tibetan restaurant on Houston Street, where either Scott or Barrett had some kind of blue soup; we had a great conversation, and I became an enthusiastic observer of all of Handcart's endeavors. Their second show was The Wild Ass's Skin, which I published in Plays and Playwrights 2002. review - August 11, 2000

One of the most gratifying--not to mention exciting--things about my job is getting to watch young talent learn and grow. The Wild Ass's Skin is a recent, vivid example: its author/director, J. Scott Reynolds, and its leading actor, Barrett Ogden, made their New York debuts a year ago in Reynolds's adaptation of Racine's Andromaque, and while their ambition and effort were praiseworthy, their craft was not yet solidly developed. Look at them now: Reynolds has written a gorgeous, thoughtful dramatization of Balzac's novel, and staged it sparely and beautifully as a simple, powerful parable for the theatre. And Ogden has honed his craft impressively, delivering a near tour de force in the physically and vocally demanding role of a suicidal young man who learns that the thing to beware of most is to get what you wish for. The Wild Ass's Skin is a special kind of theatre--entirely uncommercial and entirely uncompromising. Bravo to Reynolds, Ogden, and their colleagues at Handcart Ensemble for having the courage and good sense to create art to please themselves. Those who come to see what they've done will be pleased as well.

The story of The Wild Ass's Skin is actually quite simple. Valentine, a young man on the brink of suicide, happens upon a bountiful shop filled with all sorts of enticing objects. Its owner turns up, telling him that he's a man who takes pleasure only in acquiring beautiful things: keeping them isn't important. Valentine can have anything in the shop he wants, he says, and then he produces a magical donkey skin to tempt the young man. This skin has the power to grant anything its owner wishes; but the charm comes with a price, for with every wish granted comes a commensurate reduction in the owner's life span.

Valentine takes the donkey skin, meets up with some friends with whom he recounts the unrequited romance that drove him to want to kill himself. He ends the evening in good humor, wishing for vast wealth and riches. Instantly, he gets his wish--and the ass's skin magically shrinks to about half its original size, its charm and its curse both exerting their powers on the stunned young man.

I won't tell you how Valentine's story ends, but I will tell you that you'll be on the edge of your seat waiting to discover what happens next--that's how involving Reynolds's script and staging are. Performed by just five actors on a bare stage with a few props and costume changes, the play engages the imagination and the heart, with sincerity and clarity. Reynolds is becoming quite a fine director: I love the way, in an instant, he is able to take us from a remote street to the lush magical shop or from a dank and drafty boarding house to the Paris Opera, and always with just a subtle change in lighting or attitude. (Designers Tamara Shelp and Mireille Enos should be acknowledged for their contributions here as well.)

Ogden's portrayal of Valentine is layered and touching, showing us the desolation and despair, the elation, and then the gradual achievement of profound knowledge that accompanies this young man on his remarkable journey. In multiple roles, Kevin Ashworth, Christy Summerhays, Erin Treadway, and especially James Mack deliver fine work: Mack's portrayal of the old shopkeeper, in particular, is memorable.

Reynolds's verse is attractive and sometimes quite beautiful, and he's structured his play to make the traditional forms he employs (e.g., iambic pentameter) vital and contemporary, shifting easily among several narrators and through time and space. My only quibble is that the ending seems to come rather too suddenly: I wasn't quite ready, emotionally, for Valentine's story to conclude when it did. But this is a fine piece of work, notable for both its originality and its integrity.


The Wild Ass's Skin ran for about two weeks at the American Theater of Actors on West 54th Street.

Handcart went on to produce at least a play every year for more than a decade, most of them written, adapted, and/or directed by Scott. Among them: Matt Freeman's Genesis, Danish author Kaj Munk's Ordet, and numerous renditions of Greek myths and plays. As I wrote in my introduction to Plays and Playwrights 2002, Scott is a true intellectual and iconoclast, and I don't think he has ever been interested in following any drumbeat other than the one in his heart.

I should note that the collaboration with Matt Freeman came about because Matt was also in Plays and Playwrights 2002; I love when that kind of symbiosis occurs. Two of the other artists who worked on The Wild Ass's Skin--actor Erin Treadway and assistant director Steven Gridley--went on to form a fruitful partnership in theater and in life, and one of their works was published in Plays and Playwrights 2004. (And Mireille Enos, who served as costume designer and choreographer for The Wild Ass's Skin and was a classmate at BYU with Barrett and Scott, has gone on to a very successful career acting on stage, film, and TV.)

I don't think that either Barrett or Scott is still working in theater, which is a shame; but I hope they're still finding fulfillment of their deep artistic talent in whatever they're currently pursuing.

Update: It turns out that Barrett is still working in theater! He wrote me the following:

I served as a professor Acting, Voice, and Movement for several years at a local university, and still act and teach actors privately — in fact, a few years ago I debuted a solo theatrical version of Hamlet in which I played all the roles, and which was adapted into a feature film starring Yours Truly, which is still caught in post-production, though entirely filmed. My most recent theater role was as Edgar Allen Poe in an original Halloween-themed piece entitled Nevermore, which closed at the end of October. We’ll see what the future brings.

Friday, December 16, 2022

House of Trash - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

I think Trav S.D. and I met sometime in late 1999--maybe he can weigh in on this and provide his recollection; mine is that he wanted to write something for and so we met up. Whatever the reason, we started up an association that has lasted these twenty-plus years and blossomed into a friendship for which I am most grateful.

I know that House of Trash was the very first Trav S.D. show I ever saw. I saw its first incarnation at HERE in January 2000, and I thought it was pretty hysterically funny. Trav brought it back that summer, at the New York International Fringe Festival, where it played at Surf Reality, and I thought it was pretty hysterically funny (see below). I was already pretty sure I wanted to put in Plays and Playwrights 2001 before FringeNYC; that production clinched it. And then there was a revival only two years later, presented by DM Theatrics (I don't remember where). Still pretty hysterically funny. review - August 19, 2000

What's the funniest moment in House of Trash? Perhaps it's when Claude the gorilla sits down, crosses his legs, and starts to leaf through a high school student's composition book. Or is it when Angel, a wigged-out druggie who claims to have been abducted by aliens, lets slip that her mother is part of the Manson family? Or when Bob Maggot, an earnest garbageman moonlighting as a Baptist preacher, instructs his step-grandson Pubert to polish a telephone with the remnants of a frog sandwich?

It doesn't really matter: what you need to know is that in House of Trash, the "populist musical" written and directed by downtown comedy favorite Trav S.D., the laughs are nonstop and mostly of the belly variety. This is a burlesque, pure and simple, in the grand comic tradition of Plautus, Goldoni, and Weber & Fields: a rowdy, raucous, profane cartoon of a show--with the blessed ring of truth simmering just beneath the surface.

The story revolves around Preacher Bob's attempts to keep his extended family on the straight and narrow. His wife is a miserable old harridan addicted to tabloid TV who spouts weird malevolent folk wisdom like a deranged cross between Granny Clampett and the Wicked Witch of the West. His son is a walking timebomb of adolescent angst, in love with his high school teacher. His step-son is an imbecilic Hayseed (that's his name) who may be in love with a goat. And his step-grandson is a glue-sniffing dimwit, involved with the aforementioned Angel: a walking lost cause.

Poor Preacher Bob; lucky us. There's a lively country/rock score, as well (performed by Beau Mansfield and his band); plus grandly outrageous performances by Robert Pinnock, Reverend Jen Miller, Gilda Konrad, Loren Kidd, Hank Flynn, Jon Weichsel, and Trav S.D. himself. All are employed in the dubious but worthy cause of poking fun at white trash, who are--let's face it-- the only acceptable figures of derision left in this politically correct world of ours. And they do so with over-the-top vigor in this delicious celebration of good old-fashioned American ignorance. review - July 14, 2002

Midway through the first act of the revival of House of Trash, during a song whose chorus literally goes "I like to drive my truck/Hucketa, hucketa, hucketa huck," a pair of biker babes appear from nowhere, like pages of Hard Times magazine come to life, to sing backup. When this rouser of a number ends, just as the audience is about to burst into applause, the doorbell rings ("I Like to Drive My Truck" is sung in a living room).

Such is the sublime madness that director Frank Cwiklik brings to Trav S.D.'s populist musical farce. I can't say that everything Cwiklik has done with this audacious, giddy show entirely succeeds, but it is undeniably provocative and always interesting.

House of Trash concerns Bob Maggot, a garbage man who moonlights as a Baptist preacher, and his clan. They include a wife who believes in "haints" and watches wrestling and reality TV all day; a step-son who is in love with a goat (Trav S.D. anticipating Edward Albee by a couple of years, here); a son whose psychological profile pretty much screams serial killer (to whom, naturally enough, Preacher Bob gives a rifle as a cure for masturbation); and a step-grandson who is usually high on glue and cavorting with a weird girl who says her mother was with the Manson Family. House of Trash, which its author says is based in part on a play by the Roman poet Terence, grafts classical farce onto America's great unwashed, for fun and, one hopes, intellectual profit.

Cwiklik stages the first act like a Brechtian anti-musical, with characters coming downstage to talk or sing to us about their place in society's pecking order (often accompanied by a church choir robed in green plastic garbage bags). All the while, the far-fetched plot, which intentionally seems to be torn from the pages of the Weekly World News, unfolds. Cwiklik's take on the second act is more severe, proving that the line between broadest comedy and scariest tragedy is about one atom wide: it plays darker than I would have expected, an aching sociopolitical protest that feels heavier than perhaps the script can bear.

Music is provided by The Maggot Family Ramblers (Brian Bair alternating with Jamie Boyaca on drums, plus Greg Solomon on bass, and Pete Hennan and Bernie Li on guitar) who perform Adam Swiderski's buoyant arrangements of the eight songs beautifully: there are four more live musicians here than at the Broadway musical Contact. The cast, which includes frequent Cwiklik collaborators like Michele Schlossberg, Moira Stone, and Josh Mertz, is as energetic and fearless as the show requires.


The last sentences of my first review are wrongheaded, both in terms of popular culture and Trav S.D.'s intention. By the time of the second review, I had lived with the play for the whole gestation period of the book and understood it better. This is one of the few plays we've published that I've had the opportunity to see staged by a company other than the original one, which is instructive and also testimony to the work's strength.

Trav S.D. went on to become one of the most significant contributors to's success, serving as an occasional reviewer and then, from 2006 on, as the host of our podcast series (nytheatrecast) for eight years. He also helped us with fundraising and many many events of different kinds. He wrote the Foreword for Plays and Playwrights 2006, in which he said many nice things about NYTE and about me, including this little nugget that treasure:

For someone who has changed the life of so many people, Martin Denton is astoundingly down to earth....Like the LAPD, Martin's mission is "To Protect and Serve," with an emphasis in this case on the latter.

He's had a prodigious career in indie theater as well, as a playwright, director, producer, and actor. He's the man who can most reliably make me laugh in a theater: if he's on stage and I'm in the audience then I am probably laughing, sometimes uncontrollably.

One final anecdote: when I rejoined Facebook this year, after many years away, Trav was the first person I "friended." Cautious, he messaged me: tell me something that only you would know so that I'll know it's you. And I wrote: "I once published a play of yours that had a frog sandwich in it."

Are We There Yet? - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

Are We There Yet? was the play that inspired the most lasting work of my career, namely the Plays and Playwrights anthologies. It played sixteen performances (an AEA Showcase) in April - May, 1999 at Synchronicity Space on Mercer Street in SoHo.

I went to see it because I had seen another work from the same company and director (James Knopf, New Voices Theatre Ensemble: a revival of Jonathan Tolins's Twilight of the Golds, a year before this) and I had really liked it. I didn't know anything about the playwright, Garth Wingfield, or the play itself. But as you will read, I liked it a great deal; it really resonated with me, as a guy in his late 30s who was going through major life changes himself. Review - April 27, 1999

In terms of form and chronology, Are We There Yet? looks like a play about a disease: in about two dozen short, connected scenes we follow its heroine's progress, from diagnosis to surgery, from treatment (chemotherapy and radiation) to--we hope--recovery. But Garth Wingfield's lovely and poignant new comedy turns out to be only peripherally concerned with the fight against breast cancer.

Consider the title. No, there are no screaming kids in the back of a car here. Instead, there's a 32-year-old woman of questing temperament and quick intelligence, adrift in Manhattan in a life that lacks meaning and sustenance. When she learns, suddenly and scarily, that the lump on her breast is cancer, she embarks on a life-changing journey; toward recovery, certainly, but more importantly toward herself: Are We There Yet? is the story of a voyage of self-discovery. There are plenty of false starts, dangerous curves, and unexpected detours. But by play's end, Amanda is clearly there, or well on her way; which is to say that she has found her way, to where she is destined to be.

Despite the sometimes grim subject matter, from the audience's point of view at least, it's a terrific ride. Amanda (our heroine) is smart, self-aware, and has a great sense of humor. The people in her life share these qualities in varying degrees and amounts, the most important ones being her best friend Moss, a gay man with a penchant for dating men who already have boyfriends; her co-worker Sonya, a sardonic woman of indefinite age; her ex-boyfriend Felix, an immature and occasionally thoughtless hunk; and her mother, a bossy and opinionated woman who drives her crazy. All are sketched with deft clarity by Mr. Wingfield and acted with splendid naturalness by a superb ensemble. These are people who are worth getting to know and fun to spend time with.

Some of the scenes depicting their adventures during this eventful year of Amanda's life are absolutely hilarious. Indeed, some of Mr. Wingfield's set pieces feel almost like sketch comedy: for example there's Amanda's session with her unresponsive (and self-absorbed) therapist (the "cocktail party dream" is priceless), which is only loosely connected to the story but wonderfully funny; or consider the scene that follows, showing Amanda at work (in charge of a troupe of savvy pre-teen actors on a children's television show): ingenious, though more or less incidental.

But then there are other scenes that are so naturalistic and so intimate that we almost feel as if we are eavesdropping; these are the scenes that elevate Are We There Yet? from a clever Seinfeld-ish comedy to the deeply-felt, thoughtful work that it is. Mr. Wingfield has captured the hearts, minds and souls of his characters; so we don't just get quips and quirks here, we get fully-formed individuals that we recognize and understand: people who remind us of ourselves, who make us reflect upon our choices: people we can learn from.

Mr. Wingfield's play has received a beautiful staging by New Voices Theatre Ensemble, under the subtle, sensitive hand of director James Knopf. The performances are uniformly excellent, beginning first and foremost with Karen Sibrava, who is wonderful as Amanda, neatly encapsulating her fears and her hopes, her intelligence and--above all--her warm sense of humor. Peter J. Crosby is equally appealing as Moss in a winning portrayal that makes what could be just another gay male friend character into an interesting and compassionate man. Nicholas Rohlfing (as Felix) and Kim Reinle (as Sonya and several other characters) give performances that are uncannily honest and memorable, while Jane Ross, in the smaller, broader roles of Amanda's mother and therapist, is entirely believable even while occasionally over-the-top. Michael Anderson is fine in several roles (including two of Moss's boyfriends), especially as the busybody Indian shopkeeper in the building where Amanda works (Amanda's mother gets her daughter's phone number in Nantucket from him, for example).

Are We There Yet? is not a great play, but it's a real good one; Mr. Wingfield has an amazing ear for dialogue, a knack for building believable characters and situations, and a delightfully dry sense of humor. This is a play that deserves to be seen; yet Are We There Yet? is scheduled to run for just three weeks, and--like so many other worthy off-off-Broadway shows (David Rush's Of Love and Betrayal and Edmund deSantis's Making Peter Pope come to mind)--seems destined to disappear from view unless some producer has the guts and the foresight to move it, lovingly and respectfully, to a commercial run. In lieu of that (sadly) unlikely happenstance, I hope that at least you will head over to Synchronicity Space to experience this uplifting comedy--while it's still there.


You can glimpse the very beginning my idea to publish plays in the end of the review. We put this and Making Peter Pope in our first anthology, Plays and Playwrights for the New Millennium. David Rush's play, sadly, we ended up not including, but it surely would have been a worthy choice.

Are We There Yet? was the very first of the plays we published to get a second production, in London, in a small theater run by actor/producer Marella Oppenheim. Garth has written several new plays after this one, including two that I saw and really enjoyed: Dating Games (2003; a program of five shorts) and Flight (2005; a meditation on celebrity through the lens of Charles Lindbergh's life story).

I asked Garth to write the Foreword to the 10th anniversary edition of Plays and Playwrights, and he was able to capture the mission of everything we were trying to do in our books and our website nytheatre[dot]com: 

We'd mounted what I thought was a respectable production. But we were having a hard time getting critics and audiences in to see it. It was late spring, when 874 shows were opening on Broadway just before the Tony cutoff. Off-off-Broadway was on no one's radar. Our short run was winding down, and I remember thinking, All this work by these talented actors and designers and a very gifted director, and it's going to close and it will be like it never happened at all.

And then, snap, snap, snap, right into place: Martin loved it. He raved. And most importantly, he got inspired....Six months later he decided to publish an anthology of new plays.

And our journey as publishers began.