Review Hub




David Crabb’s ‘Bad Kid: A Memoir’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Bad KidI stayed up all night reading this hilarious memoir of growing up gay in the early 1990s, which is as addictive as the mind-altering substances that fill its pages.

In his last year of middle school in San Antonio, David Crabb—his bangs newly bleached—spends his lunch periods blissfully braiding his girlfriend’s hair and gushing about Taylor Dayne. But these idylls are interrupted when the school bully smacks him over the head with an encyclopedia, and the increasing calls of “faggot” in the hallways make it harder for him to ignore his locker room feelings after gym class.

There are other cases of anti-gay harassment in these pages, but what’s remarkable is how free this very funny book is of the usual coming out traumas. His mother’s eagerness to overshare—“open and honest,” she says before each cringeworthy revelation—is almost as difficult for David as his father’s discomfort with homosexuality, and neither parent ever gives him reason to doubt their love.

In high school, David meets Greg, a handsome, extremely fashionable fellow 9th grader who introduces him to Erasure and cigarettes and some pretty glorious dance moves you might recognize from your own high school career: “the ‘I’m Balancing on a Tightrope’ walk, the ‘Help, I’m Caught in a Sexy Spiderweb’ sway, the ‘Here, Let Me Erotically Deal this Deck of Cards’ hand flourish.”

They become inseparable, and one night while they’re sitting face-to-face with their hands on the plastic planchette of a Ouija board, David blurts out, “I think I’m gay.” Greg reciprocates with his own coming out—confirming what has been obvious to the rest of us for dozens of pages—and for the rest of their high school careers we watch the two of them teach each other how to be gay in a peculiarly early-90s New Wave way of lavishly gelled hair and tight jeans and far too much foundation. Thank God this book has pictures.

David’s other great friend from these years is Sylvia, an older girl he and Greg meet in a teen club one night and who wastes no time introducing David to pot. A self-professed “fag hag,” she continues Greg and David’s gay education, sneaking them into their first gay bars and teaching them about ball culture and what it means to be read.

CrabbeShe also teaches them about drugs. What starts with pot quickly extends to acid, ecstasy, cocaine, and a bewildering array of household chemicals: VHS cleaning fluid, Scotchgard, Freon, even a dismantled Vicks inhaler. Scenes of inebriation are one of this book’s marvels: Crabb writes them in a way that gives us access to the experience of being high, with all its wonder and sense of boundlessness, while also letting us see how ridiculous David and his friends are in their drug-addled hijinks.

And not just ridiculous: also very much at risk. As his drug use increases and Sylvia’s adventures and dares grow more and more deranged, David comes to realize that even as his friends have enriched his life, they’re also pushing him toward experiences he might easily not survive. As he thinks late in the book, they “exposed me to the very danger [they] saved me from.”

By the end of high school, David realizes how lucky he is to have parents who love him enough to intervene, moving him away from his friends without cutting him off from them entirely. I’m not sure I can call to mind another memoir that is so entirely free of rancor. No one is a monster in this book; almost no one is willfully cruel. What fills these pages instead is wonder at the luck of having been part of such an absurd, wondrous world, and love for the people who inhabited it.

Generous and big-hearted, Bad Kid is the first great read of the summer.

Previous reviews...
Mark Merlis’ ‘JD’
Helen Humphreys’ ‘The Evening Chorus’
Kim Fu’s ‘For Today I Am A Boy’
Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper
 
Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in early 2016. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. A recent graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow, he lives in Iowa City. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Coming up tomorrow, Crabb reads from Bad Kid in the next installment of our TowleREAD series.


Mark Merlis’ ‘JD’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Merlis-JD-A-Novel-cAt the beginning of Mark Merlis’ engrossing, ambitious new novel, we meet Martha, a 75-year-old illustrator. For decades she has lived alone in her New York City apartment, bearing the double loss of her son, killed in Vietnam, and her husband, Jonathan, who died of a stroke just a few months later.

Now her routines—painting, walks, solitude—are interrupted when a young academic approaches her about writing a biography of her husband, an obscure writer who flared briefly into fame before being forgotten again after his death.

We quickly learn that her marriage was anything but idyllic. She married Jonathan after becoming unexpectedly pregnant; she refers to him early in the novel as “the-man-who-got-me-in-trouble.” Early in their marriage they come to a tacit agreement that each can seek intimacy outside of their marriage: Martha in the summers she spends outside of New York, Jonathan in the bars and alleyways he trawls for sex—often anonymous, sometimes purchased—with young men.

Their relationship is further strained when Jonathan begins writing openly about his erotic life, in what Martha calls a “ghastly little volume of poems” and in his single great novel. It’s the erotic aspect of his work that—to Martha’s dismay—attracts the interest of his would-be biographer, Philip, who tells Martha what it was like to discover Jonathan’s poetry: “I opened this little book and there was a man telling in such a plain voice…the truth. I mean, my truth, a guy who could say outright what was beautiful in the world, which was the same as what I thought was beautiful.”

Martha’s first impulse is to deny Philip access to Jonathan’s papers, not least because she worries about how the book he’s writing will treat her. “I am not a career widow,” she says, “I have made a life of my own. But it will end on the same page as Jonathan’s.” Even so, she knows that a biography of Jonathan is the best chance she has of being remembered—and, more importantly, of preserving the memory of her son, Mickey.

And so Martha finds herself going through Jonathan’s papers, which she hasn’t seen for years, and reading for the first time the journals he kept. Merlis gives us these entries as Martha reads them, a formal conceit that allows us to share in Martha’s discoveries. It also lets us hear Jonathan’s voice and gives us access to the world that’s changing so quickly around him.

The voice in the journals is thrilling: by turns angry, needy, lyrical, and longing. In the first entries, from 1964, Jonathan writes about the pre-Stonewall gay world in New York City, where he moves between salons full of urbane, literary men he envies and bars full of working-class men he desires. As years pass and gay men become more visible and politically organized, Jonathan feels ambivalence, even disgust: “Fairies are just the too richly feathered canaries in the mine,” he writes, “warbling the truth about all of us: that we don’t believe in tomorrow.” At the end of his journal, in the early seventies, he’s bewildered to find himself surrounded at the bars by men who are open about their identity; he tries “to just relax and practice not scowling at the gay people.” 

Jonathan begins keeping a journal because he feels stymied as a novelist, and we follow him as he realizes that the subject of his next book will be the young men he longs for. The passages where Jonathan writes about his desire and his encounters are some of the best in the novel, lit with an electric longing, “an ecstatic hopelessness that was more like longing for God than longing for dick.” “I look at the emergent body of a boy stretching into a young man and see into the heart of the cosmos,” he says, though he will come to question his facility for turning sexual desire into metaphysics.

Merlis-Mark-2014-cThe title of Jonathan’s great book, JD, stands both for “juvenile delinquent” and for James Dean. Martha calls it “a love song to baby-faced hoodlums”; for Jonathan, it’s at once a hymn to “boys as they are now” and a dissection of “The tension between their…animal yearning” and “the monochrome, valueless world we expect them to grow into.”

It’s also, more than he realizes as he’s writing it, a book for his son. Merlis’ novel is deeply moving in its portrayal of Jonathan and Martha as they try to care for their child. They watch helplessly as he seems to slip through their grasp, failing out of school and spending his few waking hours smoking pot, until finally he’s called up for the draft. “Some time in his teens,” Martha remembers of Mickey, “when he should have been white-hot with lust for the world, he forgot how to speak in the future tense.” 

Reading Jonathan’s journal, Martha will be shocked and acidic about what she sees as Jonathan’s hypocrisy. “He railed against the society that drained the boys’ manhood,” she says when she reads of his paying an underage hustler for sex, “and then knelt to catch the last drop.”

She will also learn a great deal about the years when her son withdrew from her, and about the possible causes for that withdrawal. She will be devastated by a shocking, heartbreaking act of trespass Jonathan commits, and she will also come to question her own role in her son’s turning away from the future.

Both strands of Merlis’ novel—Jonathan writing from the past, Martha speaking to us in the present—are vibrant, tense and alive. Merlis has written a profound book about sex and identity and family, about the perils of artistic ambition, about radical longing and the changing social fabric of America. JD is a beautiful novel.

Previous reviews...
Helen Humphreys’ ‘The Evening Chorus’
Kim Fu’s ‘For Today I Am A Boy’
Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper
Shelly Oria’s ‘New York 1, Tel Aviv 0’

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in early 2016. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Anne Hathaway Stars in Military Drama ‘Grounded’ Off Broadway: REVIEW

Grounded0070rR

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The propelling force that drives Grounded, a solo play by George Brant that opened Off Broadway Sunday night at the Public Theatre, feels like strapping into the cockpit with its fighter pilot protagonist. Fueling every minute of its momentum, Anne Hathaway delivers a fearless and wholly captivating performance as a military aviator who both destroys lives and creates a new one over the course of the play’s 70 minutes. Under the direction of Julie Taymor, the thrilling yet intimate production navigates psychological twists and turns in the pilot’s mind with the audience sitting shotgun. 

Grounded0127rRThe story begins “up in the blue,” a vast, whizzing-by sky, where we learn the pilot feels most alive and herself. Her course veers quickly, though, when she unexpectedly gets pregnant after meeting a guy at a bar while on leave. The condition is enough to get her grounded for medical reasons, and her relationship to her beloved bird’s-eye-view is forever changed — both because she winds up starting a family with the father, and because when she does return to service, her new driver’s seat is on the ground, controlling a drone from behind a desk (in the “chair force,” as she calls it).

Grounded511rRThe transition isn’t easy. Instead of barreling through the sky solo, she works her shift in an around-the-clock war from a Nevada base, and lives nearby with her husband and daughter. While it may seem like a welcome solution to the typical scenario of going off to battle (and away from family and into harm’s way), returning home each night feels like coming home from the war over and over; this is not the sort of work that’s easily left behind at the office. Motherhood doesn’t affect her devotion to military service, but the intertwining of her civilian life with remote combat creates a whirlwind in her psyche — ultimately racking her own understanding of life and death.

If this sounds like a lot of story for one person to tell, it is — and Hathaway does it with tireless gusto and remarkable richness of feeling, maneuvering sharp turns of emotion with ease and baffling precision. Though she plays only one character, she’s also responsible for conjuring up the others who impact the pilot’s life, including her family and fellow servicemen (she is the sole female officer in the story). She does all of this while maintaining the pilot’s point of view, so her exchanges with others are always an opportunity to shed further light on her own character.

Grounded578rRTaymor’s stunning visual work is refreshingly pared down from her typical scale (blink away your memories of the scandal-plagued behemoth Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). The director’s distinctive imagination creates a vivid world of the mind with striking moments of subtle stage magic, while her physical staging nimbly steers Hathaway through the story’s many psychological ringers. Her hand is also evident in the engrossing design elements, including a floor of desert sand and haunting projections. This immersive quality helps drive the play’s disarming point closer to home, that violence out of sight should not and cannot be out of mind — as this production won’t soon be out of many.

Recent theatre features... 
‘Fun Home’ and ‘An American in Paris’ Top 2015 Tony Award Nominations: ANALYSIS
Chita Rivera Stars in New Musical ‘The Visit’ on Broadway: REVIEW
New Musical ‘Something Rotten!’ Brings Shakespeare and Sex Puns to Broadway: REVIEW
Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Novel Comes to Broadway in New Musical ‘Fun Home’: REVIEW
Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe Open In Lavish Broadway Revival of ‘The King and I’: REVIEW
Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer Open in ‘Finding Neverland’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Ballet Meets Broadway in Dazzling New Musical ‘An American in Paris’: REVIEW
'90s Political Sex Farce 'Clinton the Musical' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW
Possessed Puppet Comedy 'Hand to God' Opens on Broadway: REVIEW
Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy Open in ‘Skylight’ on Broadway: REVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus) 


Chita Rivera Stars in New Musical ‘The Visit’ on Broadway: REVIEW

Visit

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

There are a lot of questions begged by The Visit, an unequivocally strange new musical that opened last night at the Lycium Theatre — i.e. “On what dark planet is this story set?” “Who are those blind eunuchs and why are they wearing white-face?” and, “How did this daring but slight musical find itself on Broadway?” There is only one answer, and she is the legendary Chita Rivera: the two-time Tony Award winner known for her half-century-long career and formative place in American theatre, giving what may be one of her final performances on stage.

Visit_4Of course, there are also its creators, John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, the songwriting team behind shadowy mega-hits like Chicago and Cabaret, and book writer Terrence McNally, represented down the block with It’s Only a Play. There is an unmistakable thrill to seeing Rivera in a new work from the storied scribes (the final one for Kander and Ebb), and her inestimable talent comes superbly alive in every moment she’s on stage. That she holds your attention from wandering too far into sea of question marks that surrounds her is probably for the best.

Based on a 1956 avant-garde satire by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the story centers on a wildly wealthy woman, Claire Zachanassian, making a return visit to her small hometown, which has fallen into destitution. When she ran off in her youth, she left behind a great love, Anton Schell (Roger Rees), who now has his own family. Claire married rich many times to make her fortune, and upon her return, the townspeople are desperate to get their hands on it. She has a sinister plot up her sleeve to prove vengeance is best served cold, which, once revealed about midway through the intermissionless show, helps explain some of its more bizarre elements.

Visit_6An attempted meditation on greed, lust, and revenge, the story feels more like a rickety framework on which to hang an array of mostly unrelated (but not unenjoyable) songs by Kander and Ebb, strung together by characteristically rote dialogue from Mr. McNally. The musical, which first premiered in Chicago in 2001 and is directed here by John Doyle, plants its feet in two camps: one the macabre, cold-hearted revenge story, and the other a sort of wistful, sentimental tale of lost love. The uneasy combination never quite manages to find solid ground.

As befits its outsider-stepping-in story, The Visit’s cast of players is likewise split. The Brechtian company, smeared with sooty makeup, acts mostly like a presentational chorus, speaking in exposition and turns of plot. Rivera, on the other hand is fully flesh and blood (and occasionally fur), delightfully vindictive and coolly droll, commanding the stage with a single lingering look or turn of phrase. Her coyly sympathetic characterization of Claire is the captivating center of an otherwise ponderous and mottled show. Fortunately, she’s likely the reason for your visit, too.

Recent theatre features... 
New Musical ‘Something Rotten!’ Brings Shakespeare and Sex Puns to Broadway: REVIEW
Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Novel Comes to Broadway in New Musical ‘Fun Home’: REVIEW
Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe Open In Lavish Broadway Revival of ‘The King and I’: REVIEW
Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer Open in ‘Finding Neverland’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Ballet Meets Broadway in Dazzling New Musical ‘An American in Paris’: REVIEW
'90s Political Sex Farce 'Clinton the Musical' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW
Possessed Puppet Comedy 'Hand to God' Opens on Broadway: REVIEW
Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy Open in ‘Skylight’ on Broadway: REVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: thom kaine)


Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Novel Comes to Broadway in New Musical ‘Fun Home’: REVIEW

Fun_Home_0450_Sydney_Lucas__Michael_Cerveris_-_Photo_Credit_Joan_Marcus

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The dizzying rush of the first time we had sex or set eyes on a dead body aren’t the sort of memories most of us try putting into boxes (the cropped squares of Instagram can only hold so much); such is the task laid out on the pages of Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed memoir and graphic novel. The author’s coming-of-age story about growing up as a lesbian with a closeted gay father, who killed himself just as she embraced her own self-discovery, comes vividly to life in a new musical that opened last night at Circle in the Square — one of the most stirring and inventive on Broadway in years.

Fun_Home_3980_-_Beth_Malone__Emily_Skeggs_-_Photo_Credit_Jenny_AndersonFirst produced at the Public Theater last season, the transformative adaptation presents an adult Alison (Beth Malone) as the writer and cartoonist trying to make sense of her formative experiences by distilling them into captions as they unfold on stage. The show lights on key moments in her relationship with her father (an unknowable character played with aching conviction by Michael Cerveris), particularly the intertwining paths of her sexual awakening with his struggle to suppress the shame and consequences of being gay himself. His end is her beginning, and telling their stories together becomes an integral part of her identity.

Fun_Home_0088_-_Sydney_Lucas__Beth_Malone__Emily_Skeggs_Photo_Credit_Joan_MarcusA young Alison (a poised and buoyant Sydney Lucas) appears in scenes of her 1970s childhood spent in an elaborately restored home, which her father curates like a museum, and which also houses the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home (she and her brothers call it “fun home” for short). A post-adolescent Alison, played by a searching and lovable Emily Skeggs, makes her way through the often magically awkward rites of young adulthood (including an effusive morning-after song that’s a delightful high point), and faces sobering revelations about her father’s secret life and sudden death.

Music by Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron (Well) lend lifelike dimension to the already rich story, adding new and compelling layers in both dialogue and song. Tesori and Kron brilliantly transpose the graphic novel’s focus on the author’s search for her voice, as well as its framework of visual recollection. Like Bechdel’s drawings, Kron’s lyrics capture the way memories are often marked by specific, often random visual details — like a ring of keys on someone’s belt loop, or the rise and dip of telephone wires rushing past a car window.

Fun_Home_0493_-_ITR_Photo_Credit_Joan_MarcusDynamically staged in the round by director Sam Gold (The Real Thing, Picnic), the production has the nostalgic palette and warm, faded hues of a ‘70s photo — as though we are watching Alison thumb through a family album. By the end, you may feel you know the family as well as if the album belonged to you — their story may be a far cry from yours, but its extraordinary telling touches on emotional truths that will surely hit home for everyone.

Recent theatre features... 
Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe Open In Lavish Broadway Revival of ‘The King and I’: REVIEW
Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer Open in ‘Finding Neverland’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Ballet Meets Broadway in Dazzling New Musical ‘An American in Paris’: REVIEW
'90s Political Sex Farce 'Clinton the Musical' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW
Possessed Puppet Comedy 'Hand to God' Opens on Broadway: REVIEW
Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy Open in ‘Skylight’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs Open on Broadway in ‘The Heidi Chronicles’: REVIEW


Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer Open in ‘Finding Neverland’ on Broadway: REVIEW

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The plot of Finding Neverland, a new musical that opened on Broadway last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, doesn’t promise many surprises. Google can tell you that (spoiler alert!) J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan, and that by the end of this story, he’s going to do it. But, you may be surprised to discover that this adaptation (for which more than one beloved story has lit the path) could lose its way quite like this.

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg (3)There’s the proven affection for its source material — and not just for the much-celebrated 2004 movie by David Magee (or the much lesser-known play on which it’s based, The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee), but for the boy — or, more often, young woman — in the green tights. (Hey, didn’t we just see her on TV?) And, there are the pedigrees of nearly everyone involved, including the film’s producer Harvey Weinstein (in his first theatrical effort), Tony-winning director Diane Paulus, and stage and screen stars Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer, among many others.

The movie’s quietly imaginative story, about Barrie finding inspiration for the play in his relationship with a widow and her young boys, is scaled out for the stage with a book by James Graham, and amplified with middling pop musical stylings. The score, written by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, the songwriting duo whose success stories include the UK group Take That (of which Barlow is a current member and Robbie Williams a former one), has moments of cleverness, but far more moments of unabashed cheese. The act one finale shares its title refrain with anthems by both Kelly Clarkson and Britney Spears. (Quick: Name that tune!)

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg (1)Morrison, late of TV’s Glee and terrific when last on Broadway in South Pacific, is honey-voiced as ever, though he makes the business of playing make-believe seem quite sober; rather than a boy who never wishes to grow up, he is unequivocally the dispassionate adult in the room. As Barrie’s producer, on the other hand, Grammer seems to harbor an inner smile behind every stern phrase, even when he’s acting the sourpuss. (His turn as Captain Hook will almost certainly conjure up Christopher Walken flashbacks, and, yes, they even lob him a Cheers pun.)

But its marquee stars are just two of the many elements on stage that seem to have wandered in willy-nilly from different shows in the neighborhood. Evidence of Paulus’ imaginative hand — responsible for acclaimed recent productions of challenging (if proven) musicals like Pippin and Hair — is occasionally evident, and one glittering moment of stage magic knocks the air from the room. But the production’s madcap tone rarely coheres (in this respect, Mia Michaels’ strange and spasmodic choreography seems bizarrely appropriate).

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg (2)The danger of trudging up familiar stories is not just coming off as unoriginal (with so many layers of adaptation going on here, that was a given), but ringing cliché — which Finding Neverland does at nearly every turn. The musical’s frequent allusions to Peter Pan more often serve as punch lines or cues for audience purrs than compelling points along the way to the play’s writing. Whether the 9 million viewers who watched the live telecast of Peter, Hook and the Darling clan a few months back enjoyed every minute or squirmed in their seats and found it hackneyed — they didn’t have to shell out the price of a Broadway ticket to do it.

Recent theatre features... 
Ballet Meets Broadway in Dazzling New Musical ‘An American in Paris’: REVIEW
'90s Political Sex Farce 'Clinton the Musical' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW
Possessed Puppet Comedy 'Hand to God' Opens on Broadway: REVIEW
Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy Open in ‘Skylight’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs Open on Broadway in ‘The Heidi Chronicles’: REVIEW

Helen Mirren Reigns on Broadway in ‘The Audience’: REVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: carol rosegg)


Trending



Towleroad - Blogged