Monday, January 25, 2010

Men of Mystery vs. The Mystery of Men

It's a conundrum as old as the hills. Men struggle to understand what a woman is looking for in a partner, while women struggle to understand men. Back in 2000, when filmmaker Nancy Meyers premiered What Women Want (starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt), she tried to imagine what would happen if a man could actually understand what women were thinking.

Women already had far too many reminders of what men were thinking. Consider this lyric from 1962's No Strings (the only show for which Richard Rodgers wrote both the music and lyrics).

"What are the poor girls getting?
To whom do they raise a voice?
What are the poor girls netting?
They just have Hobson's choice.
They crane their delicate necks
But there's just one opposite sex.

How sad to be a woman.
Women are stuck with men.
A lady's life must be dreary.
Without a lady to call "dearie."
A woman's cheek is for caressing.
A man's? His trouble,
It's mostly stubble.

It's sad. It's so depressing.
Ladies, I ask again?
How can a woman
Be like a woman?
What do they see in men?

A woman's hand is tiny,
A man has just a paw.
A woman's mouth is soft and sweet.
A man has just a jaw.

Beneath her chin lies heaven.
A man has only hair.
In fact, she's entirely heaven.
It's blissful to be there.

How can they make such a fuss?
Over ugly, simple, predatory bums like us!

It's sad. It's so depressing.
Ladies, I ask again?
How can a woman
Be like a woman?
What do they see in men?"
If that isn't enough to make a feminist's blood boil, consider this scene from My Fair Lady (adapted from George Bernard Shaw's 1913 comedy, Pygmalion), in which Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) wonders why a woman can 't be more like a man:

The truth, of course, is that despite more than a century of women being able to vote -- and close to a half century of the feminist movement -- men and women often remain at a loss when it comes to understanding what the other person wants. Although romantic comedy is saturated with plenty of heavy-handed treatments that forsake charm for belly laughs, three new additions to the genre surprised me with their wit, sophistication, moments of tenderness, and genuine charm.

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Last weekend, Theatreworks presented the official world premiere of a new musical entitled Daddy Long Legs. With music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and book by John Caird (who also directed the production), the opening night performance scored a solid hit with the Mountain View audience, which rose to its feet in a standing ovation that (unlike so many others) was entirely spontaneous, genuine, and well deserved.

Over the years, I've attended the world premieres of many opera/music theatre pieces. I can't recall a single one that demonstrated such craft and intelligence (or resonated so thoroughly and immediately) with the audience at its premiere.

With much of its score through composed, there is very little spoken dialogue in Daddy Long Legs. Based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster, this two-character show struck me as one of the most charming -- and organically cohesive -- romantic musicals to hit the stage since 1963's She Loves Me.

Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis) and Jervis Pendleton
(Robert Adelman Hancock). Photo by: Tracy Martin

Daddy Long Legs is a co-production between three regional theatre companies: the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, California, Theatreworks in Mountain View, and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. An incredibly economical show to produce, Daddy Long Legs requires only one set, two actors, six musicians, and a handful of easily rentable costumes. As its director, John Caird, wisely notes:
"Musicals can get endlessly stalled waiting to get to Broadway. It would be better for all concerned to be less greedy. Other theatres have expressed interest and I'd rather have a hundred successful regional productions than one successful one on Broadway. I want lots of people to see it."
As well they should. Inspired by a novel comprised solely of a young woman's letters to the mysterious philanthropist who found her in an orphanage and underwrote her college education, the musical's creative team broadened the scope of the drama to show how charity affects not just the recipient, but also the donor.

Instead of a one-way dramatic thread as young Jerusha writes to the mysterious man whom she imagines to be old, bald, and grey, the audience also witnesses the awakening of Jervis Pendleton's soul as he starts to fall in love with Jerusha through the power of her letters. In an age when texting has become the primary form of written communication for young girls, it's refreshing to see how much a person can express and reveal about herself through old-fashioned correspondence.

The following video (in which various members of the cast and creative team talk about their contributions to Daddy Long Legs) was recorded during the fully-staged tryout at the Rubicon Theatre Company last fall. It is well worth 10 minutes of your time.

What I found most interesting about Daddy Long Legs was the obvious level of craft surrounding the project. This is a lean, keen show from which audiences can glean a great deal of emotional satisfaction. With Megan McGinnis as the spirited Jerusha Abbott and Robert Adelman Hancock as the handsome, occasionally stuffy Jervis Pendleton, the construction of many scenes is astonishing in its fluidity, forward propulsion, and the depth of emotion each character is allowed to probe.

Jervis Pendleton (Robert Adelman Hancock) and
Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis). Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

By the time Jerusha's letters have started to provoke her benefactor's curiosity, she has completely won over the audience. John Caird's stage direction avoids the kind of slam-bang climaxes often seen in musicals (pay extra attention to the show's subtle lighting changes). Special mention should be made of David Farley's ingenious unit set.

Moments of joy, confusion, heartbreak, and bewilderment are clearly communicated to the audience through Paul Gordon's accessible and remarkably sensitive music and lyrics. While songs such as "The Secret of Happiness," "What Does She Mean By Love?" and "I Couldn't Know Someone Less" are beautifully constructed, it is Jervis's surprisingly introspective Act II solo, "Charity," that is the highlight -- and in many respects, the turning point -- of the evening.

The following video clip (also taken from the tryout at Rubicon Theatre Company) gives a nice sampling of Gordon's songs. An original cast album has already been recorded and will soon be available here.

If Stephen Schwartz's cash cow, Wicked, has become the standard-bearer for musicals that empower young women, just wait until they experience Daddy Long Legs. Whereas 2003's Wicked may have been the most successful musical of the first decade of the 21st century, I'd be willing to bet that, in this century's second decade, Daddy Long Legs will become a musical that is much more deeply adored and cherished by women of all ages. Over the course of its lifetime, this mini-musical may actually deliver a stronger return on investment for each dollar shared by its co-producers than Wicked, which is an incredibly expensive show to mount.

Daddy Long Legs continues through February 14 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. If you're smart, you'll order tickets before the run is completely sold out.

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It's not uncommon these days to find a film that has been written and directed by the same person. But a film that was written and directed by the same person and in which the filmmaker also appears as the villain? That's progress!

Tony Herbert's romantic comedy, Speed Dating, is an Irish indie film with an exceptional plot twist. At the beginning of the film we meet James Van Der Bexton (Hugh O'Conor), a handsome young man who also happens to be the heir to a huge fortune. Ever since his girlfriend Jennifer (Flora Montgomery) dumped him three years ago, James has been languishing in the office of Dr. Birmingham (David Hayman), his pot-smoking shrink. Like many counseling professionals, Birmingham is tired of listening to James wallow in self-pity.

James Van Der Bexton (Hugh O'Conor) visits his shrink

Still moping about, James has been trying his luck with a variety of speed dating experiences. In his attempt to recover from being dumped, he has inflated his professional and amorous credentials to a ridiculous degree.

Whether claiming to have been an astronaut, a tree surgeon, or a microbiologist, James has developed a reputation among event planners as someone who "scares the girls." As the film opens, we witness him making his way through an evening of speed dating and listening to a variety of women who are equally scary (and who don't hesitate to reveal their sizable emotional baggage).

Although James has two drinking buddies at a local pub who are both worthless fools, dinners with his family are even more bizarre than his speed dating experiences. His father (Gerry O'Brien) is a stuffy, clueless aristocrat. His mother (Charlotte Brady) is a hopeless alcoholic. His sister (Nora-Jane Noone) is an obnoxious, rebellious punk whose latest boyfriend is a rock musician named Jupiter (Liam Carney). Jupiter's claim to fame is that his band, Elephant Sack, sounds like a cross between death metal and gospel.

When James notices a very attractive woman who enters his favorite pub, he asks the bartender (Merrina Milsap) what she knows about her. After being told that "women like mystery," James decides to go into full surveillance mode, justifying his use of binoculars (and his spying on the woman from a nearby rooftop) with the reassuring statement that "It's not stalking, it's research." However, when Victoria (Olga Wehrly) looks up and stares out the window during a phone call, she clearly sees James and points to him as she continues talking.

Desperately fleeing the scene, James gets hit by a car and bounced onto a pile of garbage. Once he is brought to the hospital, he is diagnosed with a case of temporary amnesia.

The two detectives assigned to his case are more than eager for James to regain his memory, especially after the mystery woman (who had been arrested on charges of drug trafficking) is found murdered inside their police station. As it turns out, someone else is watching James as well.

Simon Elliott (Tony Herbert) eyes James (Hugh O'Conor)

Despite annoying visits to his hospital room by his sister, her boyfriend, and his two drinking pals, the only person who seems willing to listen to James is an attractive young nurse who hangs out in gay bars (where she knows she won't be bothered by obnoxious straight men). Using her nurse's intuition, Susan (Emma Choy) decides to help James regain his memory. After an uncomfortable dinner with his family, she accompanies him to a speed dating event.

James (Hugh O'Conor) and Susan King (Emma Choy)

Shot in Dublin and Bray, the film benefits from the inane performance by Don Wycherley as the overzealous Detective Long and Tim Dillard's cameo as Coco, a campy gay bartender. O'Conor and Choy are quite appealing as the romantic leads. As for Herbert's brief role as the villain (a corrupt cop named Simon Elliott), the filmmaker notes that:
“My background is in acting, so I was always going to play a role. I believe that comedy and tragedy are very closely related and inherent in everything. So in that respect I would see Speed Dating as a black comedy.”
All told, Speed Dating is a surprisingly satisfying independent film that I would easily recommend as a rental. Here's the trailer:

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A great deal of excitement has been generated in the local press by the world premiere of a new play by Jane Prowse based on Jane Juska's popular novel, A Round-Heeled Woman. Presented by ZSpace in its new home at Theatre Artaud, the dramatization is the result of a driving effort by actress Sharon Gless (Cagney and Lacey, Queer as Folk), who loved the book and was quick to recognize the possibility of creating a wonderful starring role for aging actresses.

Sharon Gless (Photo by: Matthew Mitchell)

In her novel, Juska describes the who, what, where, when, and why she placed a personal ad in the New York Review of Books which read "Before I turn 67 -- next March -- I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." Juska (who followed the success of A Round-Heeled Woman with Unaccompanied Women: Late-Life Adventures in Love, Sex, and Real Estate) writes in her program bio that:
"In 1999, I put my ad in the New York Review of Books and it worked. I found men to play with, some to blame, some to drive me nuts, to make me laugh, and sometimes cry. My life no longer lacked drama.

When people asked me why I waited until I was 67 to venture into such a world, I gave all sorts of answers: 30 years of celibacy, a successful psychoanalysis, and I missed the classroom. I knew I was too worn out to handle it any longer, so I made a new one.

Everybody nodded an understanding yes to the first two answers. But when I tried to explain the classroom in all its variety and its intensity, interest waned. So I wrote a book. It's called The Way It Used To Be: Tales Out of School. It is waiting for a publisher.

So then I wrote another book, a follow-up to A Round-Heeled Woman, called Unaccompanied Women, available at your local bookstore. And then I wrote a novel -- why not? It is called The Ladies and is about three women who get rid of an odious neighbor. It, too, awaits a publisher.

My latest is a collection of essays, most of them having something (but not all) to do with aging. Some have appeared in Vogue, Self, Madison, and in anthologies Single Woman of a Certain Age, Mommy Wars, and Behind the Bedroom Door. It, too, rests with my agent. Wish us luck."
While Juska has since become an inspiration for postmenopausal women, Prowse's adaptation is remarkable for its dramatic strength, the lean, fast-paced direction by Chris Smith, and the fluidity with which John Mayne's set design allows Jane to rapidly shift between visits with her Berkeley-based friends Celia and Nathalie, her shrink, Dr. V, her mother's nagging ghost, and sisterly chats with the fictional Margaret MacKenzie (the heroine of Anthony Trollope's 1865 novel, Miss Mackenzie). We also see Jane struggle to interact with some of the men in New York who have answered her ad, witness how she behaves in solo moments during which she tries her skills at phone sex, and are privy to scenes of aching guilt as Jane confronts her painful estrangement from her rebellious son, Andy.

Sharon Gless as Jane Juska (Photo by: Cheryl Mazak)

Among the men who respond to Jane's ad in the New York Review of Books are:
  • Jonah: a selfish man whose dentures may be loose, Jonah crudely rejects Jane when they finally meet and tells her that she doesn't interest him sexually.
  • Sidney: a sweet 82-year-old who loves museums, musical theatre, and turns into a good friend. Sidney stresses that he never lied about his age.
  • Graham: a 33-year-old with a passion for older women. Graham is confident enough to be able to joke about relishing Harold and Maude relationships, and yet sensitive enough to cater to Jane's literary tastes with a surprisingly tender gesture. Although she initially tells him that she simply cannot deal with their age difference, Jane eventually mellows and invites Graham to come spend a week with her in a rented cabin near Lake Tahoe.
  • Danny: a vain man who tells Jane upfront that he already has a lover with whom he sleeps every night. Danny's mood swings -- and his insistence that Jane go out and spend time by herself or with other men (after she flew cross country to meet him) -- prove to be quite distressing.
  • Robert: Jane's phone sex buddy.
  • John: seemingly a perfect match. John is intelligent, tender, and a sensuous lover. He also has terminal cancer.
Ray Reinhardt, Ian Scott McGregor, Sharon Gless,
and Steven Macht (Photo by Mark Leialoha)

While A Round-Heeled Woman provides a thrilling star vehicle for Gless's talents, it also offers her supporting cast a variety of strongly-etched character roles. Bay area veteran Ray Reinhardt shines as Jonah, Sidney and a cranky library clerk, while Steven Macht demonstrates his versatility as Danny, Robert, and John.

I was especially impressed by Ian Scott McGregor's portrayals of Juska's son (Andy) as well as the impatient salsa instructor and the sensitive Graham. Ann Darragh embodied various voices of worry and reason (Celia, Jane's mother, Dr. V.) while Stacy Ross doubled as Jane's friend Nathalie and the fictional Margaret MacKenzie.

Clockwise from center: Sharon Gless, Stacy Ross,
Ray Reinhardt, Ian Scott McGregor, Stephen Macht,
Anne Darragh. (Photo by Mark Leialoha)

While A Round-Heeled Woman is very much inspired by, written for, and about an older woman's adventures in the modern sexual playground, the play resonated strongly with my own experiences as a gay man. I spent many years "untouched by human hands" while others managed to enjoy highly athletic fuckathons. As I approach my 63rd birthday, I find myself in the enviable position of having not one, but two very loving boyfriends with whom I can share a great deal of intimacy, sensuality, and affection.

I met these men -- one 12 years younger than me, the other my junior by 22 years -- by responding to their ads on and Craigslist. Little did I expect that at this age (when so many people are confronting crushing issues of loneliness), my life would be blessed with such warmth and tenderness.

Maybe I should start referring to myself a round-heeled gay man!

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