JOAN OF ART - The Great Stevie Wonder, A Pulitzer Prize Nominated Play and A Music Concert for Charity

Even though Christmas is still a few weeks away the holiday events are happening in full force. With that said on Sunday I'll be at Stevie Wonder's House Full of Toys 22nd Annual Benefit Concert.

The iconic singer/songwriter's holiday event, hosted by Stevie's nonprofit organization, the We Are You Foundation, will benefit children, people with disabilities, and families in need. Concertgoers are asked to bring an unwrapped toy or unwrapped gift to donate, which is 100% tax deductible since no goods or services will be exchanged.

To purchase tickets go to StaplesCenter.com/events/detail/steviewonder18 or call 1-844-425-4554. The Staple Center is located at 1111 South Figueroa Street Los Angeles.

One of my favorite plays is in town from New York City. Sam Shepard's FOOL FOR LOVE and I will be in the audience come Saturday night. This is a bi-costal production.

In a low-budget motel room on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert, May, a conflicted young woman sits dejectedly on her rumpled bed while Eddie, a rough-spoken rodeo performer crouches in a corner fiddling with his riding gear. When he attempts to console May she suddenly attacks him.

As the recriminations pour out, the desperate nature of their relationship becomes apparent: They cannot get along with or without one another, yet neither can deny their burning passion.

Fool For Love had it's Off-Broadway premiere in 1983 at Circle Repertory in New York and was nominated for the Pulitzer Price in drama in 1984. This is one of Sam Shepard's best.

'Fool For Love is playing at The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles. It runs December 6 to December 15, 2018. December 6 at 8pm, December 7 at 8pm, December 8 at 8pm and 10:30pm and December 15 at 3:00pm and 8:00pm. To purchase tickets call 323-960-7784 or visit https://www.plays411.com/newsite/show/play_info.asp?show_id=4869.

Now if you're in the mood for more music there's KROQ'S ALMOST ACOUSTIC CHRISTMAS CONCERT.

The concert takes place on Saturday evening December 8th starting at 4pm and on Sunday, December 9th at The Forum located at 3900 West Manchester Blvd, Inglewood CA 90305.

Some of the guests scheduled to perform are Smashing Pumpkins, Florence & The Machine, Third Eye Blind, Death Cab for Cutie, Bastille, Greta Van Fleet and Thirty Seconds to Mars plus many more groups. Also if Punk is your thing, Bad Religion and AFI will be on hand.

All proceeds from the event will benefit Para Los Ninos and the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center. To purchase tickets and more info go to KROQ.Radio.com/xmas.

Whatever you choose to do this weekend, have a great one!


THE PLAYWRIGHT AS HERO - Shepard, Kushner, Stephens and Yee

I am going to talk about the National Theatre Live screening of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA with Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, and two new plays at CTG theaters, HEISENBERG and KING OF THE YEES.   But, to be completely honest, I'm having trouble moving on from the death of Sam Shepard.  Silly, I know.   I mean, I already wrote about my one extended encounter with him, so what more is there to say? Sam had a great run - 44 plays written, all the honors in the world (10 OBIE awards!), 68 film and TV roles, 27 screenplay credits, 32 credits for "himself" - that is, for playing Sam Shepard.  Remarkable.

when he arrived in NYC at 21

Of course, to be honest, Sam hadn't written anything great since A LIE OF THE MIND and PARIS, TEXAS, both in 1984-85.  His 20 years of amazing creativity began in 1964 with Cowboy and The Rock Garden, and it included such gems (which you should definitely check out, if you don't know them) as The Geography of a Horse Dreamer, The Unseen Hand, and Seduced - his odd but ingenious play about Howard Hughes, whose effectiveness depends on who's playing Hughes.  I was lucky enough to see Rip Torn, and I'll never forget it.

The thing with Sam is, he never sold out.  Some of his acting roles aren't great - his dad afflicted with periodic spells of blindess in 1994's Safe Passage is definitely not going in the time capsule - but even there, he never embarrassed himself, and he rarely if ever seemed to do anything just for the money.

in 1983, when he had the world by the short hairs

He was flat-out great as both Chuck Yeagar in The Right Stuff and as Major-General "Bill" Garrison in Black Hawk Down.  He was the best thing in the film of August Osage County, though his role should have been larger.  But if you really want to see a mind-blowing performance, check out Sam in 2012's Mud as a fat, balding retired U.S. military sniper.  It's not just that he's unrecognizable, but his character is very real, and so different from anything else he's ever done.

It's hard to be as gifted as Sam was, and to become as famous as Sam did, and still hold on to your honor, your humility and your soul.  So here's to Sam: you put up a battle with your demons that we can all be proud of.  Sleep well, my friend.

In my 2004 theater memoir, Best Revenge,  I wrote, "As tremendous as Tony Kushner's achievement was [in Angels in America], its "universality" may have been largely a product of being in the right place at the right time.  It will endure as dramatic literature, not drama."  Wrong.  So wrong.  After viewing the eight hours of Angels on successive Thursdays in the National Theatre Live production, I can only say "Wow. What a writer.  And what an epic!  How universal!"  It really is one of the great American plays, which does things and goes places that no other writer has done or gone.  It has the largeness of spirit of Walt Whitman (the main character is "Prior Walter") with the analytic genius of George Orwell and the sheer theatricality of Brecht at his greatest and, well, Tony Kushner at his greatest too.  What a vision!  This production is directed by Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) and features Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, Denise Gough as Harper Pitt, Russell Tovey as Joseph Pitt, Susan Brown as Hannah Pitt, James McArdle as Louis, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize and Amanda Lawrence as the Angel.  All excellent actors, worthy of mention.  The major curiosity, of course, surrounds the two best-known actors, Garfield and Lane.  How were they?

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter. Photo by Helen Maybanks

Now I saw both the original Broadway cast  and their replacement cast, as well as the Mike Nichols film, so I have some basis of comparison.  Andrew Garfield is very good, but I'll still take Stephen Spinella, who originated Prior Walter on Broadway.  Garfield has more charisma and style than Spinella, but Spinella had more gravitas, a more matter-of-fact sense of hurt.  Spinella anchored the show in the reality of his gayness, the richness of his emotional pain.  Garfield just doesn't have that.  As for Nathan Lane -- sorry, but no.  He's a great actor, one of our greatest, but he's not right for this role; in fact he couldn't be more wrong.  Physically, he suggests J. Edgar Hoover, not Cohn.  Lane's great gift is to humanize his characters, to show us the clown crying on the inside, and that doesn't work here.  Giving Roy Cohn a soul - wrong!  That's not how Kushner wrote him.  Ron Liebman was the greatest Cohn I've seen, seething with rage at the injustice of his fate.  But Pacino was also great.  Neither of them gave Roy Cohn the gooey center that Nathan Lane does, and it simply doesn't work.  For me, this production was stolen by McArdle and Tovey, who are both endlessly fascinating as Louis the temp and as Joe Pitt, the Mormon lawyer he works for.  Both are much better than the other actors I've seen take on those roles.   Stewart-Jarrett comes alive in Perestroika, the second half of the show, but he can't hold a candle to Jeffrey Wright in the original Broadway cast.  (I doubt anyone ever will.)  Gough is fine as Harper, the pill-popping wife of the gay lawyer, but both Marcia Gay Harden on Broadway and Mary Louise Parker in the Nichols' film were better.  I loved Susan Brown's work as Hannah, the gay lawyer's mother, she's gruff at first, but then reveals her inner sexiness in a way I don't recall seeing before.  Still, better than Meryl Streep or Kathleen Chalfant?  Not really possible.  On the whole, the production didn't shake up the world the way that Wolfe's did.  But the real star is and always will be Kushner, who has written an American masterpiece about the way we dream.  My only caveate - and I have to say it - is that ending, in which Prior Walter becomes Tony Kushner and "blesses" the audience as "fabulous."  Sorry but that feels patronizing.  Just stay inside your character, Tony, and let him speak for himself.  No need to pat yourself on the back when everyone else already wants to.  That said, go and see an encore showing of this video version - essential viewing for anyone with a brain.

KING OF THE YEES by Lauren Yee, Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody

Lauren Yee's play The King of the Yees is about Lauren Yee and her family's 150 year old trade association, to which only male Yees can be admitted.  This is actually a great idea for a play, with a great central  metaphor: the red double doors to the family association, doors which Lauren as a female has never been able to open.  And I'm convinced that there's a very good - even possibly great - 90 minute play hidden in the 125 minutes of the current version about how Lauren finally gains admission to the secret history of her ancestors.  If I was a dramaturg - a position I held for 5 years at an Off-Broadway theater - and I was assigned to this play, I would say: I know that this play is based on your life and that many events related here actually happened, but that doesn't mean that they necessarily belong in your play.  Because right now the First Act is 10-15 minutes of good theater and 30 minutes of pseudo-theater, in which you're playing silly games and stalling for time, so you can slip in two minutes of a cliffhanger before intermission.  A third of your audience left, and I would have too if I wasn't contracted to stay.   Then you have 40 good minutes in your Second Act and another 15 minutes of bullshit.  Let's find a way to take this apart and put it back together into 90 strong minutes.  As Scott Carter (Bill Maher's producer) once told me, "If you do five minutes of standup, and there are two good and three bad minutes, the audience is not going to love you for the two good minutes; they're gonna hate you for wasting their time with the three bad minutes."

HEISENBERG by Simon Stephens, directed by Mark Brokaw

Mary Louise Parker and Dennis Arndt

This is an enigmatic little play which belongs in a small theater not as large a space as the Mark Taper.  The Taper seems to realize this, and they seat audience on both sides of a skinny slice of stage space, trying to create as intimate a playing area as they can.  Personally I was sitting in the 5th row, and the magic didn't quite touch  me.  (A friend of mine told me she sat in the third row, and she was swept away, so maybe that's the key.) I admired the eccentricity of Mary Louise Parker's performance as a 40 year old woman who begins the play by kissing the back of the neck of a 77 year old stranger in a bus station, an event that in real life might instigate many things, but significant dialogue is not one of them.  I was deeply aware throughout of the unlikelihood of this scenario, this sequence of events, though that seemed to be what the playwright, Simon Stephens (The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, Punk Rock), is going for.  "How far can I push these highly unlikely events?  How long can I sustain this highly ridiculous premise?"  The actors, Mary Louise Parker and Dennis Arndt, are both deeply focused and committed, though I kept wondering why Parker didn't have a British accent?  In the play she speaks again and again about how she comes from Islington in London, but Parker makes no attempt to change the speaking voice that we are so accustomed to from Weeds and so many other shows; and Arndt's character never mentions this, so I simply don't get it.  Nevertheless, there is something engaging, even moving, in the way that Stephens stretches out his slight and unlikely premise into a full-length play.  The play after all is titled Heisenberg, the scientist who is known for giving us The Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics.  Simon Stephens captures here both the uncertainty of the human condition and the uncertainty of ever really connecting with another human being.  It's only around until August 6th, so go this weekend if you can.  Just sit in the first 3 rows, okay?


SAM SHEPARD - No Joke, He Was The Real Deal

"I was in the presence of an extraordinary man, reinventing himself on the brink of disaster, and realized that this had always been the case with him and his work.  His whole life had been in the company of death, and this reminder of his own mortality informed everything he did in the theater and in life.... It was the sign by which we all recognized him as a true teacher and seer... And it was, finally, the root of his inspiration, which he transferred to us with amazing generosity and sweetness."

Sam Shepard in 2011. Photo: Brian Ach/Wireimage

These words were Sam Shepard's tribute to his friend and spiritual mentor Joe Chaikin (as printed in my theater memoir, BEST REVENGE), but they could of course apply to Sam himself.  He started out this tribute by quoting from the opening lines of his collaboration with Joe, The War in Heaven:

I died the day I was born/ and became an angel in that day/ since then there are no days/
there is no time/ I am here by mistake

Sam also read these lines at Joe's memorial event in 2004 at the West Bank Theatre Bar in New York City, but I remember feeling at the time that those lines perfectly described Joe but not Sam.  Sam seemed to belong wherever he was, and in no sense did he seem to be anywhere by mistake.  I had come upon Sam a few years before that walking towards me on a street in midtown Manhattan.  His presence there seemed as incongruous as that of a wild horse in Central Park, but at the same time he "belonged" - not on West 55th Street, but in his own world, in the reality he carried around with him, which was palpable and distinct.

As I have recounted in my memoir, Sam Shepard was the playwright-god for me and many other playwrights in my generation.  There was a spontaneity, a wildness and an authenticity to his early work that broke all the playwriting rules in ways that we aspired to.  The generation I belonged to hated Neil Simon and TV sitcoms and the impulse "to entertain" that these represented, where there had to be a joke every 15 seconds, and where the writer's  job was to plant setups and payoffs and manipulate the audience  with "twists and turns" that made them into passively happy consumers.  (Something that we've gone back to, by the way; mostly because consumerism is the law of the land.)  Sam's work was alive and unpredictable without trying to be so.  His voice was critical of American materialism and mindless violence, but it steered clear of being either academic or didactic (at least in the early plays), and it was fun.  He unleashed torrents of words, but they had rhythm, and your spirit could dance to them.  He was a beat poet without the bullshit poses, without the chest-beating narcissism, and without all that self-hatred.  He was cool.

Sam and Patti Smith in the East Village, 1971

It was a running joke in my memoir that for years I would walk into rooms that Sam Shepard had just left. I felt like I knew him because I had so many friends who did, and they spoke of him with such enthusiasm and comraderie, but in fact I'd never met him, never exchanged a word.  That changed on the day of Joe Chaikin's memorial in a manner that was as surprising as an early Sam Shepard one act.

First, Joe had been eulogized by Susan Sontag, then Sam had come out and read from The War In Heaven, nearly breaking into tears a few times.  Then both Susan and Sam had disappeared into a backstage area, while the rest of us began mingling and getting drinks from the bar.  Everybody kept talking about what a landmark this was - the passing of a generation, the end of an era.  I'm not going to start naming all the legends of Off-Off-Broadway who were there, but there were plenty.  Then Susan came out of a doorway and went off with her friends, and then Sam emerged.  He was taller than most of us, visible in a crowd.  For reasons that I will never understand, he fixated on me, walking over, giving me a big smile and patting me on the shoulder while leading us over to the bar.

A few years before that, Joe Chaikin had directed my adaptation of the Yiddish play God of Vengeance in Atlanta, and I had gone down there for the month-long rehearsal period just because I admired Joe and wanted to work with him.  During that time - and in my subsequent sporadic correspondence with him - Joe had spoken frequently about Sam, always with affection.  Could Joe have spoken with Sam about me? Doubtful, I decided.  More probably, Sam thought I was somebody else, a Jewish friend from the old days.

We ended up standing at that bar for several hours.  I drank like the social drinker I am, who only gets drunk with close friends.  He drank like a pro - constantly, compulsively and with enjoyment; and yet he never got shit-faced, never lost control.  People kept coming up to laugh or cry with him, and he was incredibly friendly and down-to-earth, or at the very least polite and patient with all those who came to worship their celebrity god.

Several women came up and chided him for leaving them in the lurch.  "Sam, you said you were meeting me at -- restaurant, I stayed there for an hour, but you never showed up."  "I am so sorry," he'd say, "I really meant to come, but something came up" or "but it slipped my mind" or "it's been really crazy."  "Would you let me make it up to you?" he'd ask, and of course they smiled and forgave him and kissed him.  One dark-haired woman told him, "Sam, you promised that you would speak to my ladies group, and all these ladies showed up, eager to hear you, and you weren't there!"  "So sorry, I feel terrible, can you forgive me?"  It took her a little longer than the others, maybe a minute or two, but she did.

As handsome as Sam looks in photographs, his appearance was less impressive in person.  For one, his teeth were bad, brown from all his smoking, and his mouth was pock-marked with fillings.  Then his shaggy brown hair was thinning on top.  Still, all those crags and wrinkles and weathered patches of skin somehow looked good on him. For someone who acted in so many Hollywood movies, there was nothing Hollywood about him.  (He seemed to regard movies as a great source of money, but he had zero interest in all the accompanying fru-fru.)  He was very much a flawed person and not a matinee idol.  In fact, the very idea of being an idol of any kind seemed to embarrass him.

Sam and Brooke Adams in Terence Malick's "Days of Heaven"

He was excited that day, he told me, because his agent had just given him word that the Coen Brothers were going to make a movie of his play The Tooth of Crime  - something, in true Hollywood fashion, that never subsequently happened.  Otherwise he didn't talk much about his work or his career or even about Joe.  Instead he went on at great length about his horse ranch in Kentucky, and how much he loved raising horses, and had I ever done any gelding?

Nope, I told him.  No gelding.  Had no plans to do any either.

Some long-haired musician came over, and they spoke with great enthusiasm about rock guitarists, especially some guy named Marc whose last name I can't remember but who Sam called "the Picasso of the guitar."  After the musician left, Sam turned to me and asked, "What is it with Arabs and Jews?  Why can't they ever get their act together?"

If I knew that, Sam, I would be at the U.N., not here, I told him.

The question had surprised me, since it came right out of the lexicon of "things to say to a Jew in a bar when you've run out of topics."  I was sorry that he felt the need to say it.  I didn't need to be entertained, just being in his company was entertaining.  Then again, maybe all that liquor he'd been consuming had started to take its toll.

Sam had several admirers nearby, all young and blond and leggy.  Every now and then he would go over to one or another young woman and smoke a cigarette with them - still legal then - and drink and laugh and make out.  Eventually he left with one girl, causing the others to leave on their own.

I stayed on and finished my drink, chatting with the bartender.  Sam was an elusive guy, I could see that, he kept his demons private and under wraps.  But he wasn't a phony or a boor, he didn't make a big deal about his prodigious talent, his genius, and I never saw him look down on anybody.

I had been in the presence of an extraordinary man, a humble and genuine person, who had treated me with "generosity and sweetness."  And I would feel like his friend, even if we never spoke again.  Which we didn't.

One final note.  Get this book if you can: JOSEPH CHAIKIN & SAM SHEPARD: Letters and Texts, 1972-1984.  Edited by Barry Daniels.  Published by New American Library, 1989.  It's simply one of the great books of American culture, and especially of the American Theater.  Otherwise, read Sam's plays.  He wrote 44 of them, and all the collections are great.