Thursday, April 19, 2018

Play a Day: The Space Between Her Legs

Tiffany Antone
For Thursday I read The Space Between Her Legs by Tiffany Antone, and available at New Play Exchange.

If there is one thing we have been missing in Cleveland, it's unabashed and outrageous corporeal humor theater. We're all too precious and philosophical here. We'll talk about sex, sure. But if sex is being had, if parts are being shown, then it has to be serious. Or violent. Sad, really.

Even Guerrilla Theater, even we, were too self-righteous when it came to what constituted appropriately rude humor. The entire company almost came to blows over a sketch called "Raw Ass," which was just a friendly tutorial on how to deal with a chafing anus.

"I think I saw space inside a pothead's vagina." That is a quote, and it is also the premise of Antone's hilarious new script. A woman discovers she has a wormhole to another dimension which has been transporting anything that has been put into or near it into outer space, including entire men.

To state this is a metaphor for women's power and the extent to which men with go to control that power is almost entirely beside the point, because this play is outrageous and hysterical, with the best worst date monologue I have ever read (ladies, here's your next audition piece.) Antone has a knack for hip, intelligent dialogue and a brilliant sense of timing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Play a Day: The Humans (BONUS)

Tonight the entire family took our seats at the Connor Palace to watch Stephen Karam's Pulitzer and Tony award winning play, The Humans.

For those visitors to this blog who are not from Cleveland, Playhouse Square is the largest performing arts center outside of New York City. Really, it's big and it's beautiful. The KeyBank Broadway Series has the largest subscriber base in the nation.

For years I was not a subscriber to the series, because I'm not a huge fan of musicals. Usually there are a half dozen musicals and one straight play. Last year, for example, that was the Broadway tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

When it was announced that Hamilton was coming to Cleveland in 2018, like a lot of people I got my subscription the year before, so that when the 2017-18 season rolled around, I could easily renew and have decent seats for the big show.  In early 2016, it was far cheaper to get an entire season subscription than to travel to NYC just to see that one show ... and I have kids and they want to see that one show.

It also meant we have had the chance to see a lot of Broadway shows I probably would not have seen yet, including Fun Home, Something Rotten, Waitress, and the aforementioned Curious Dog.

It also means we have spent half a dozen evenings throughout the year stressfully trying to manage after school activities, wolfing dinner and squeezing into our seats by 7:30 PM. An evening at theater should be pleasurable, but not necessarily in the middle of the week.

Anyway, I've taken to creating box lunches for the twenty-minute car ride downtown. It's like taking the kids to the amusement park.

It is very odd to sit so high up in the balcony to watch a play. Today you also have to wonder, out of two thousand people in one vast space, who will leave their phone on. Who will cough. Who will just plain chat? These things happen. Put enough humans into a large enough space absolutely anything can happen.

We were all on our best behavior, everyone was there to see an honest-to-God play. And I knew virtually nothing about this show. I did not even know the father would be played by Richard Thomas, so that was a bonus. Or that the mother would be performed Pamela Reed, who I remember so vividly from The Right Stuff. I love The Right Stuff.

There is a fear which lurks beneath the surface. It is white fear. The fear of regression. The lack of advancement. A young woman is having Thanksgiving at her new, first floor apartment on the Lower East Side. It is expansive for a Manhattan apartment, but to her parents it is a step back. Their ancestors left this place to make a better life elsewhere. The grandmother in attendance, who suffers from Alzheimer's, is a symbol this regression.

Loss of employment, not being able to find employment, chronic health problems, bad decisions which lead to loss of status. These fears, simmering below the surface. These are the fears and doubts of white people. I'm not being flip, or dismissive, I am white.  I know these fears.

They are going to lose the lake house. Oh dear. Not the same weight as being arrested for waiting while black. And though the daughter feels like a complete failure in her chosen profession, at least her boyfriend is a trust fund baby. But will he commit?

It is a deftly crafted script, tight, humorous and compelling. A revelation in the final beat, before the blackout (which had my twelve year old leaning into me in apprehension like he hasn't in a very long time) had me wanting to watch the entire play again, from the beginning.

It's those moments, when you learn something you didn't know, which retcons your understanding of your partner, of your life up until that point. Nothing makes sense, until suddenly it does. It can be horrifying, but there is relief in finally understanding.

Play a Day: The Guilt Mongers or Los Traficantes de Culpa (for those not willing to submit to the Anglicization of our people)

J. Julian Christopher
For Wednesday I read The Guilt Mongers or Los Traficantes de Culpa (for those not willing to submit to the Anglicization of our people) by J. Julian Christopher, and available at New Play Exchange.

This is one of my favorite play titles ever. Because every classic play should have this title. Death of a Salesman could have been called The Guilt Mongers. Hamlet could have been called The Guilt Mongers. Or Oedipus the King.

Those are great plays. So is The Guilt Mongers.

A deathbed family drama, people who choose to spend as little time in each other's presence as possible are pulled together for the final moments of the head of the family; she who is mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, wife, all. No one is terribly glad to see each other.

"You are on some self-loathing shit," comments a nurse, which could be said about almost any one of them. They bounce off each other like satellites, their pain is played in the open, bitterness graced with tremendous humor, with that love and need for acceptance and forgiveness that rides just beneath the surface, even in the most congenial of families (like mine, I guess.)

The release that comes when the moment has passed, it can't be called happiness, and even relief doesn't sound right. But it is a familiar feeling and through his words and characters Christopher communicates this moment of exhalation with rightness and compassion.

Technology can be a beautiful thing. As I was reaching the conclusion, a character plays music on their phone, and without really thinking about it I found the piece on YouTube and started to play that music.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Play a Day: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (BONUS)

Cleveland Play House
This week, in addition to reading a lot of plays, I am seeing a lot of plays. Tonight I took my daughter to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Cleveland Play House.

The 2002 film Spellbound (no association) is a documentary about the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Featured are the personal stories of the participants, who you might imagine from their achievement were not typical young people. In addition to having above-average intelligence and mental acuity, several are first- or second-generation immigrants. It is a very moving film, and was even nominated for an Academy-Award.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee premiered in 2005, following a trend started by Urinetown for Broadway producers to take risks on "quirky" material that used to get no further than Off-Broadway, like Avenue Q and Spamalot.

When I first heard about the concept, developed so soon after the aforementioned film, I was concerned. Spellbound is a celebration of difference, surely a musical comedy would be about mocking difference. And I'm not entirely wrong. Ha ha, one of these spelling bee participants has two daddies! One is an entirely unselfconscious, home-schooled savant! One is (really?) an over-achieving Asian-American!

Last year we took the kids to the all-girls school, where the wife is an English teacher, for their production. I was delighted by the performances, enjoyed the songs, and generally brought around to the musical. This musical, too, is a celebration of difference. I think. Only it has jokes.

(Right: Pre-show fun in the lobby. She got “comedy.” I got “cymotrichous.”)

The production at Cleveland Play House features a diverse company, and this plays to the show's current strength and popularity, in high schools (where "Chip's Lament" is often performed with lyrics altered without permission,) amateur and professional houses. It's a modern musical which reflects contemporary Middle-American society. Yes, it pokes fun. But it does not judge. And ultimately it's an empowering story about kids deciding how they are going to fit in the world.

Cleveland Play House presents "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" in the Allen Theatre through May 6, 2018.

Play a Day: Neighborhood Watch

Rehana Lew Mirza
For Tuesday I read Neighborhood Watch by Rehana Lew Mirza, and available at New Play Exchange.

The other day, the news went around that the Parkland shooter wants to donate his $800,000 inheritance to the survivors.

And I thought, huh. A white trust fund baby murdered seventeen people, and he was taken into custody alive. That would never have happened to a person of color.

Mirza's play is hilarious, she is an extremely talented writer who has tremendous skill with knowing, witty dialogue. The piece plays like a sit-com, featuring a put-upon young woman who has a walking Dad Joke for a father and a hapless, conspiracy nut for a neighbor. But when a Muslim moves in next door, look out -- hilarity ensues!

Until it doesn't. When a gun is introduced in the second act, I was praying that, contrary to theatrical convention, it would not go off. But that's not to world we currently live in, and just hoping for a happy ending will never bridge this divide.

This is what makes Mirza's work meaningful and relevant, highlighting daily microaggressions and compassionate lip-service with humor, and also exposing underlying fear and mistrust with cunning and clarity. She makes us uncomfortable and complicit, and it's brilliant.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Play a Day: Making Some Noise

Claudia Haas
For Monday I read Making Some Noise by Claudia Haas, and available at New Play Exchange.

My wife happened to have a late-afternoon therapy appointment schedule on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Suddenly remembering the date, she called to see if the office was open, and it was. She asked if it were appropriate to keep the appointment, and her therapist said something about it never being more appropriate. I was invited to join them.

Her therapist told us on that day that trauma can reintroduce trauma. That great, communal tragedy can tear open the horror of personal, intimate tragedy. We had lost our first child in March, and now this. We were told it was okay, that it was normal if we associated the two. It was a most horrible year, except for everything that was wonderful about it.

Wonderful because of us, because of what we did to survive, because of the openness of our grieving, because we had each other and our love grew stronger. The loss of a child can tear a family apart, or it can bring them closer together. Each year on his birthday we celebrate. Our children are in on it. It means a day off from school, a visit to the zoo, a special dinner. Time together as family.

But that other thing, 9/11. Our personal association with a global tragedy. Too massive to properly comprehend. There was a period, maybe ten years ago, when I became just a little obsessed with the events of that day. I read books, watched movies. I don't know what I was searching for. I think I decided there was no greater meaning or significance. Just memory. Recovering memory.

Haas has created a trio of sisters whose mother perished in one of the towers. They were teens or pre-teens on that day, and have since created a ritual of remembrance and grief. Each copes with the trauma of their mother's death in different ways, fetishization, obsession, denial. but as adult women come together to remember. The question on the table is how long must we grieve? And even now, what is appropriate?

Spending time with these women, even as they wrestled with the point of their annual, self-made holiday, I was happy for them because whatever their disagreements might be, this day brought them together under one roof. To make some noise. Eoui, eoui, eoui!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Play a Day: Through Andrew's Eyes

Oscar Cabrera
For Sunday I read Through Andrew's Eyes by Oscar Cabrera, and available at New Play Exchange.

We were told that the death of a child can pull a family together or they can tear a family apart. I have found this to be true, but I do not imagine it is limited to any specific tragedy or crisis. The same can be said of the debilitating injury of a loved one, or as is the subject of Cabrera's play, the set of crises and constant concern and care evident when a member of your family is on the autistic spectrum.

The point is, nothing is the same. Nothing is normal. No one is spared change. A mother's pleasant dream is not just one in which her son is what we might call "normal" but that she is. That her life is again "normal."

Cabrera creates a family in a sympathetic hierarchy -- the younger sister, straining to be responsible, the older brother, who desperately wishes to abdicate his responsibility, the careworn mother, who has no choice but to be overbearing and firm -- all in the service of Andrew. We see him as he sees himself in the form of Person, who finds his other self as unknowable as those others around him.

Powerfully symbolic with graceful monologues on the indelible yet inconstant effects of memory, this is an affecting work on the enduring strength of familial commitment and love.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Play a Day: The Volunteer

Cassandra Rose
Fourteen days, fourteen plays! We are almost halfway through the month, and I feel we have barely gotten started. My list of recommendations is so long, many thanks to those who have made suggestions. I may even get to all of them, if not in April, then soon.

For Saturday I read The Volunteer by Cassandra Rose, and available at New Play Exchange.

Children, gather round, and let me tell you about that far-off and mythical land, about the leader with the famous face.

Stories about the Cold War have become the stuff of myth, fantasy, and popular culture. Stranger Things, The Shape of Water, The Americans. My childhood as a quaint, charming period onto which we may ask ourselves unpleasant but merely theoretical questions about the world today.

Nine days ago I quoted the President, who said in regards to Syria, "I want to get out." Last night he ordered airstrikes on that country. Admittedly, they were intended to be feign strength and power while at the same time not offend his handlers in Russia. Still, people were killed. We won't know who they are, their lives, their names.

The Volunteer begins as a "thought experiment" inspired by an op-ed piece which posed a simple question; what if the President had to murder someone with their bare hands in order to retrieve codes to launch a nuclear strike? Playwright Rose has a knack for witty dialogue, but she also knows how to make a strong, convincing argument. At first presentational and satiric, the narrative deftly morphs into an affecting drama with real-world parallels and consequences, at once mythic and intimate. I love plays like this.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Play a Day: Calling Puerto Rico

Juan Ramirez, Jr.
For Friday I read Calling Puerto Rico by Juan Ramirez, Jr., and available at New Play Exchange.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico. Six months after, more than 100,000 people remain without power.

Remember when an enormous natural disaster struck the United States and the American President did absolutely nothing? Lobbed paper towels? You would think that would be a national outrage. And yet, here we are. Talking about porn stars.

The fact that the name Donald J. Trump, or any reference to him or his position, never comes up with Ramirez's play shows remarkable restraint and focus. Because it's not about that guy.

One of the best ways, sometimes to only way, to comprehend an epic tragedy is to concentrate on one compelling, intimate story. Joel is a ham radio operator in the Bronx, his grandfather in Puerto Rico. Their relationship is strained (neither will step foot out of their home) but Joel's relationship with everyone is strained, the only person with whom he can speak easily is a woman who sails two hundred miles over his head every ninety minutes, in the International Space Station.

Ramirez elegantly paints a picture of isolation and despair, with pathos and humor, never forgetting that there are always those around us, some we cannot see and pretend not to see, who want to help us when we are in need.

You can send assistance today through the Hispanic Federation and UNIDOS, a disaster relief and recovery program to support Puerto Rico.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Play a Day: Rubbish

Christopher Fok
For Thursday I read Rubbish by Christopher Fok, and available at New Play Exchange.

On a personal note, I'm going a little mad. There are so many stories! So many characters! I did not have this reaction to reading a play a day last April. But I am also now listening to Clare Danes reading The Handmaid's Tale in the car, reading the aural history of Angels In America before I go to sleep, and holding auditions and meeting many new people for an outdoor production of Troilus and Cressida I am directing.

So many stories. So many people. So many characters.

Fok tells a magical and very real story about trash. There are so many words for trash; rubbish, yes, and garbage, waste, and refuse. This last seems best to communicate the idea of that which is worthless, discarded. It can be a very, something turned away, refused.

The setting is modern Singapore, where a law has been established making the collection of trash for the purpose of sale illegal. The protagonist, an eighty-eight year old woman for whom this law means the end to her livelihood, selling scavenged cans and cardboard. In the end, it is clear that people can be refuse, too.

A surreal story told with humor and heart.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Play a Day: Blowout!

Guadalís Del Carmen
For Wednesday I read Blowout! by Guadalís Del Carmen, and available at New Play Exchange.

To make time each day to read one full length play, I rise before dawn so that I can have the play read and make notes before I am needed to rouse the children, make tea for the wife, and get everyone fed and out the door before rushing to take care of my own business and get to the office.

So, I need to have the play chosen the night before, to save time. This morning I opened the script and discovered it is in Spanish. I know a little Spanish. Un poquito. What to do?

I used Google translate. I hope that was okay. It was either that or not read the script. The translator is not completely efficient, but it would be a mistake to dismiss its effectiveness out of hand. I know enough Spanish to appreciate how many colorful turns of phrase and elegant and humorous metaphors were successfully translated in English for me, and what did not come through with complete clarity were easy enough to make sense of.

What a time we live in. This moment of great transition, with forces struggling desperately and violently to stem the tide of forward progress. And yet, technology is making it possible to reach through barriers of language, and listening to stories you otherwise could not have heard nor understood.

Transition is the subject of Blowout! and the place is a Chicago hair salon, the playfully named "Jair N Maykop." The neighborhood is gentrifying, and businesses like this which have served the newcomer populations of West Town are being squeezed out by higher rent and property taxes, and the trendy tastes of (to take one example) white hipsters with dreadlocks.

Change is coming, as it always will, symbolized in one fashion by the title of the play -- the "blowout," a simple process (as I understand it) of blowing and brushing until the textured hair of a person of color more resembles the straight hair of a European descendant. The eldest of the stylists comments on how everyone wants their hair to look like someone else's. "Lo general nadie está feliz como es," she says. No one is happy with the way things are.

But I was delighted with this script, which features a variety of charming women characters, great humor, interesting and welcome monologues, and hope for the future.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Play a Day: The Big Fuckin' Giant

Rachel Bykowski
For Tuesday I read The Big Fuckin' Giant by Rachel Bykowski, and available at New Play Exchange.

Last year I happened to be at my alma mater for that year's new plays festival, and had the opportunity to see a workshop production of a play I had read the week before at NPX -- This Is How You Got Me Naked by Catherine Weingarten.

That was one play presented that weekend. Another was The Big Fuckin' Giant. I regret not having seen that as well, and intensely physical piece, which you can read on the page but it must be something to see.

The subject, on the face of it, is wrestling. My son began wrestling a few years ago, when he was in fifth grade. Attending matches, I began to understand and respect what is unfortunately regarded, in the professional world, as a circus. As a joke.

The simplicity of the sport. Two people could, with no equipment, play this sport. A non-violent, non-impact sport in which you grapple and manipulate your opponent until you have dominated them, put them into a position in which they cannot move. Pinned them. No sticks, no balls, no padding, The human body is the only necessary equipment, to subdue your opponent.

This is also exactly the worst way to think about interpersonal relationships. When you enter into a mindset in which every relationship is about dominance, your kinship with men, and with women, then unhealthy things can happen.

Bykowski has created a trio of men who are each sympathetic in their own way, and in turn each of their weaknesses are exposed by the others. Women are absent, though a couple are defined for us by these men, as types -- an African-American who is fetishized and feared, the aloof, white cuckolder -- and these collegiate athletes channel their aggression and worse, practice their dominance on the women they cannot understand with or on a blow-up doll named Judy.

It is an aggressively physical script, sweat leaps off the page, and one in which weakness is made apparent, targeted and taken advantage of. It is also a painfully eloquent parable for our time, or for all times.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Play a Day: Goat Song

Charlotte Rahn-Lee
For Monday I read Goat Song by Charlotte Rahn-Lee, and available at New Play Exchange.

Witnessing theater is unique in that artists create a unique place and a unique time in real time and space. You can create brief scenes that emulate the kind of time collapse that is familiar in film, but you can also let time play out the way it does in real life, leaving the audience to choose what to focus their eye or even ear upon.

In this way, theater is greater at transporting you to somewhere new and different than film is. Because you are there, breathing the same air as the characters whose story you are experiencing.

Goat Song takes us to the Galapagos, and the subject, on the face of it, is the eradication of an invasive species. This is based in reality, I'd heard about the goats of Galapagos on the program Radiolab.

Settlers/explorers/human invaders first brought these goats to the island as a source of food, and now they threaten to upset the balance of an ecosystem which also happens to be the history home of the theory of evolution.

One character asks, "Why is everyone obsessed with maintaining the status quo on an island that is famous for change?"

On one of Darwin's islands (which does not, of course, belong to Darwin) Rahn-Lee creates her own Petri dish of characters to stir up a fascinating philosophical debate on who lives and who dies, who gets to stay and who is forced to leave, and who has the right to decide.

"Are we going to draw a line in the sand and say, there -- if you arrive before this date you're allowed to stay ... but if you arrive after this date you're invasive."

It is a cunning metaphor for today's immigration debate with a chilling conclusion.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Play a Day: The Witches' Tower

James Bartelle
For Sunday I read The Witches' Tower by James Bartelle, and available at New Play Exchange.

The past several year, the family has stopped into Salem, Massachusetts on our way up the coast the Maine. Our friend Kim lives there, and though we have often stopped by for a couple hours, last year we stayed for a couple days and had the opportunity to take out time to explore the city.

While there are a great many beautiful and interest things to take in and enjoy about Salem, the real fun is with the witches. Arthur Miller's The Crucible brought the Salem Witch Panic of 1692 to vibrant life, and arguably shaped the discussion we continue to have about those events and that time.

He was comparing that witch hunt to the "Red Manic" panic of his time. However, his analogy can suffer when you point out the simple fact, as he did in an article in The Guardian in the year 2000, that "there were communists and there never were witches." He goes on to argue, however, that his point was not the existence of a perceived threat but what the actual threat was, what was "the content of their menace?"

New Orleans playwright James Bartelle spins an original, compact and compelling tale of persecuted witches in a classic, lyric style. We are left to imagine whether the accused are truly servants of a malevolent power, or if their only crime is that of being women, punished for actions inherent in the human condition, actions for which no man in their time, or ours, would receive comparable treatment.

To have lost a mother in the course of childbirth? Would a male doctor be imprisoned for this? To have had an extramarital relationship? You could be President of the United States.

Bartelle has a way with repetition which is poetic, the condemned women's ruminations either actual spells, or an expression of madness imposed through institutionalized oppression. A powerful period piece reflecting our modern moment.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Play a Day: Fuck Cancer

Tanuja Devi Jagernauth
Seven days, seven plays!

For Saturday I read Fuck Cancer by Tanuja Devi Jagernauth, and available at New Play Exchange.

It has not even been eleven months since my father-in-law was diagnosed. We got the call in late May, he was gone in mid-December. The intervening time felt like forever, and it was no time at all.

There were discussions of treatment, but by the time his cancer was discovered, it was too late. As I am reminded from Jagernauth's play, we treated the person, not the cancer.

Much cancer treatment, in the West and elsewhere, are merely treatment. The palliate. To soothe. To provide energy, and strength, and hope. Because cancer will win.

Jagernauth’s play, however, is not so much about the patient, but the provider, whose struggles are a reminder that you cannot take care of the patient if you do not take care of yourself.

In 2017, our own personal cancer year, I was a provider for a provider; my wife who spent so much time out of town, looking after her father while I held down the fort at home. I see it. I get it.

The playwright has created a dreamlike, grounded, and heartbreaking piece about the helplessness we feel in the face of the most insidious and prevalent of maladies. "There are as many forms of cancer as there are people," her mentor says. And as many beautiful, powerful stories out there, like this one.

And now a word on stage directions. My colleague Sarah Morton wrote a play about Berthe Morisot, Eight Impressions of a Lunatic, which begins with a scene without dialogue in which the young painter is reading. I don't have the text in front of me, but there is stage direction to the effect of "she pours blue light out of her shoe."

I always loved that, and it was an important lesson in playwriting. The writer writes. Leave it to the design team to interpret and make it happen. There is a lot of water in Fuck Cancer, coming in from everywhere. On stage water can be a crisis, or it can be the stuff of magic. The writer wrote it, let the director figure it out.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Play a Day: Falstaff Riseth

Rachael Carnes
For Friday I read Falstaff Riseth, by Rachael Carnes, and available at New Play Exchange.

My daughter a high school freshman, is currently in rehearsal for a performance of Michael Frayn's backstage farce, Noises Off. It opens next weekend, I am anticipating a good time, though I am understandably anxious to witness my first-living-born child in her first full-length play, one of great physical mayhem, English wit, and above all ...

Uh, timing.

Carnes's tale is one of epic absurdity, a relentless and raucous send-up of Elizabethan and high school drama, and above all a tribute to the thankless theater parent, without whom the show would not go on (but don't tell the senior lead that.)

The pop culture references come at you fast and furious, hip-deep with turns of phrase both classic and current, as a troupe of teens unintentionally strive to produce several productions at once. It's smart, silly, and even subversive, as the playwright has created a Shakespearean showcase where the Bard himself is entirely absent and someone else has written his plays.

Hmn. Perhaps I might recommend another work which poses the Authorship Question, The Great Globe Itself ..?

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Play a Day: People of the Book

Yussef El Guindi
For Thursday I read People of the Book, by Yussef El Guindi, and available at New Play Exchange.

"Can we all agree going into this war made us less safe?"

That is a question one of the characters ask in this People of the Book, and though you may assume they are referring to the Iraq War of 2003, they could easily be referring to the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

Following the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the power-imbalance led to leaders like Saddam Hussein to press their advantage in a way which would have been more difficult in previous years.

President George H.W. Bush pressed his advantage as well. The West had not seen a wide-scale war in some time. Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was tailor-made for international outrage and for one shining moment, the United States was able to convince most of the world to join in or at the very least stay out of the way.

The war lasted thirty-three days, or has never ended, depending on how you look at it.

Taken literally, El Guindi's play is about deception, professional and personal jealousy, and the effect of American wars in the Middle East. It's a great read, with playful and cutting dialogue, and it is also a metaphor for how American has played itself, chaining our fate to the region. Each of the four central characters reflect a different point of view, about art and writing, about the war and its worth, and what responsibility the United States has yet to take for its actions.

Yesterday the President announced his plans regarding the conflict in Syria. "I want to get out," said President Trump. That's what he said. "I want to get out."

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Play a Day: I Go Somewhere Else

Inda Craig-Galván
For Wednesday I read I Go Somewhere Else, by Inda Craig-Galván, and available at New Play Exchange.

As a man in a play once said, "This play is memory." This play includes several nods and allusions to past classic plays and movies about American families and their intimate intricacies, like tiny knots that must be unpicked to be understood. These references serve to place this unique, specific tale in its rightful place as part of that larger tapestry.

I Go Somewhere Else is told from the point of one women at three stages of her life, yearning to understand her mother, for it is she, the mother, who is truly at the center of this tale. Reda, the mother, is possessive, abusive, and controlling of her daughter (first Lanny, then Langree and finally Tabitha.)

On one day, the younger self asks -- though there is an implicit request or plea involved -- "Aren't we supposed to love everybody? No matter what they've done to hurt us in the past?" For when someone we love hurts us, we assume it is something we have done to deserve it, even a blameless child thinks this.

The playwright creates a mother who is at turns proud and irrational and mean-spirited and sad, yet deftly lays out the story of Reda's life and relationships which leaves it squarely at our feet to understand her and to forgive her, as we strive to understand and forgive our own mothers. The way we hope our children may one day understand and forgive us.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Play a Day: The Tallest Building In The World

Matt Schatz
For Tuesday I read The Tallest Building In The World, by Matt Schatz, and available at New Play Exchange. On of these days I will read his An Untitled New Play By Justin Timberlake but everybody has been reading that and loving it so I thought it could wait.

You know, my wife wrote a play and that play was being produced at the New York International Fringe Festival in downtown Manhattan. We had a company of young people and during our off-hours we'd go everywhere and see everything.

One of our members really wanted to see the World Trade Center, and a small group broke off to check it out. Big, ugly buildings, or so they said. I was hungry or something and wanted to get lunch, so I passed. Maybe some other time. This was in August, 2001.

You knew I was going to conclude my little story with something like that, a fact like that, there was an obvious dread in the entire anecdote. Here it comes. And so it is with any tale bout the Twin Towers. Like the Titanic, an enormous human undertaking through which no story can be told without a foreknowledge of its horrible demise.

Schatz's play is not about the end of the WTC but its beginning, a debate between those who would determine its fate, who would collaborate and argue to create what was at one tie, for a short time, the tallest building or buildings in the world.

There was a time when we reached for the future, instead of cringing from it. Schatz tells an expansive story with great economy, utilizing a small number of interesting characters who debate and kvetch with wit and passion to build a dream for the future. The tragedy as they see it is the predetermined ephemera of architecture. Superlatives like "tallest" are fleeting, and as the playwright points out, "architecture might be the only art form where the art is destroyed as a means of progress."

The audience is all too aware of the flaws in the logic of their design, and how the techniques employed to make the thing possible are also elements which will contribute to its eventual destruction.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Play a Day: Monsters Are Made

Hannah C. Langley
For Monday I read Monsters Are Made, a new work in development by Hannah C. Langley, and available at New Play Exchange.

The playwright has chosen to post a new script which is in development, which is a brave and unique move. It would be one thing to read this 82-page script and believe it is complete, but I can see where there is room for development.

I keep these blog entries to reflect upon the work, not to critique, just to record my reading, but properly workshopped it would be fascinating to see the struggle play out between these two well-defined characters, not just mentally but physically. It is quite violent.

The #MeToo moment has emboldened women (and men) to come forward and accuse their assailants, and they have done so in overwhelming numbers and we know it is only the tip of an iceberg. We are hearing their stories, full-throated and without apology, and we who listen are learning a new language for their survival, strength and determination.

This play asks the question, though, to what extent must we understand the assailant, the rapist? What do you do with a perpetrator who demands his own punishment, when doing so is merely another form of control, dominance, and presence? One character states plainly, "you know you're a rapist but you don't even know what rape means." We now better understand what it means to be the victim, but those in positions of power do not yet understand what it means to be the assailant.

By the way, Langley's bio was written by her mentor which is a boss and creative idea.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Play a Day: Before Evening Comes

Philana Omorotionmwan
Last April I decided to read a play a day from those posted at New Play Exchange, a program of the National New Play Network. The result was joining a community of new writers across America, learning a great deal about where the work is being created, and how good so much of it is. It was an inspiring experience, and I look forward to experiencing (at least) thirty great new plays in this brief period of time.

Whether I can actually manage the time necessary to read a play a day, and comment upon it, in addition to all other responsibilities is another matter.

For Easter Sunday I read Before Evening Comes by Philana Imade Omorotionmwan, an impending graduate of Ohio University's MFA in Playwriting Program. (Bobcats, represent.)

A Dystopian parable, set in a near-future where all African-American men are legal bound to make a very specific sacrifice to maintain their own survival. In days past, those enslaved told of people who could fly (and escape their captors) and that story is wound up in this, a moving and lyric tale of the men who are complicit in the system and the women who sacrifice everything to save their children from it.

This year I have been reflecting on my own life, as I turn fifty in July. As the morning paper reminds me, in three days it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Dr. King. The world has moved forward in the past half-century, and yet today it feels as though it is spinning backward, or that it's never moved.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar (musical)

John Legend (2018)
The summer 1979 production of Jesus Christ Superstar at Huntington Playhouse in Bay Village may have been the greatest theatrical event of the 20th century. I couldn’t say for sure. I was ten, going on eleven. But as far as I was concerned, it was beyond compare.

We had albums for musicals in our house. My father really liked Godspell. That one’s a poppy, upbeat revue of parables and lessons without any real narrative structure except for some reason one of them gets murdered.

Superstar tells the story of Holy Week with a few loud guitars which has led some to call it a “rock opera” and it is, in the way Rent is a “rock musical,” which is to say it’s really not.

We had a copy of the original, pre-production concept album version, which we did not get as much play in our house as the Godspell record, and for good reason. Every track sounds like a first take, and for rock music they chose a lot of guys who aren’t very good at hitting the high notes.

I mean, Murray Head can’t sing. Am I the first person to notice that? The guys from ABBA figured this out when they gave him “One Night In Bangkok” from Chess and had him rap. I mean, Murray Head can’t rap, either. I digress.

In performance, it’s really Judas’s play. If there were another character in musical history who could be compared it’s Burr in Hamilton. He’s the narrator, we get to hear his version of events, he feels entirely justified in his actions, and he makes a terrible mistake that he immediately regrets.

In addition to making Judas into an anti-hero, Superstar pisses off some of the devout because it ends with Jesus’s burial (spoilers alert) and no resurrection. Judas is the one who gets to come from the dead for a reprise with newfound cosmic awareness of future events, to ridicule and snark. Good ol’ Judas.

I have rediscovered my turntable.
My brother was about to start his sophomore year in high school, and he was in the pit band situated in the wings of our community theater; a grand, old, moldy barn located right across the street from the lake. He was playing vibes, and I had literally nothing to do those summer evening’s but play or watch TV. It was summer!

He’d shown me how to sneak into the loft next next to the tech booth. There were couches and pillows and you could lounge and view, high above and just behind the audience. Must have been a make-out paradise, but I could not tell you.

So I went up there to watch. And I was compelled. I had been raised protestant, I was familiar with the gospels the way most Americans are -- vaguely. I knew the characters and the plot. And this way the late 70s, so sympathizing with a hip, charismatic Jesus with complexities and even hypocrisces was not a stretch, not even for the pre-adolescent mind.

I cannot remember who played Jesus, however. No one ever does. Judas, however, was performed by the late Tom Castro, a beloved educator from Lakewood. I already knew him from when he played Ogg the Leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, the same show in which my brother played Sunny, the mute sharecropper’s child … and we should leave it right there.

Unlike the recording with which I was marginally familiar, Castro was an indelible presence as Judas, a powerful singer, occasionally followed by a shadow, a female dancer dressed from toe to crown in a black leotard (SATAN?) I can see him now, and I will never forget him. I wanted to be him.

A couple of nights I watched the how from the loft. Then I asked my brother if I could sit backstage to watch the show. Just sit next to him, in the “pit” band in the wings (there was no actual pit.) It was a community theater production, there was no one around to say, no, that’s dangerous. Or no, that’s foolhardy. Or just plain, no.

So, I sat in a chair by the band one night, and for the first time, I saw how it was all done.

I saw the characters become actors once they crossed into the wings. I saw the tasty-looking food on trays and in baskets were fake. I saw the stage hands and I saw them moving the set around. I saw actors slipping into and out of costume pieces -- nothing risque, but it was suggestive enough that I thought I was seeing something I should not have been.

These things I also remember; the band was tight. High school students and adults, and they were good. One thing I love about the score of Superstar is how creepy it is, not just haunting but spooky. Atmospheric with lurking evil. It’s thrilling!

NBC's version of the last supper (2018)
By my second night backstage I was on my feet. Walking around, staying out of the way, I understood the traffic pattern. I would hide in the wings, getting as close to the action as possible. I was a kid, but not much younger than some of the other players. I could do this. I wanted someone to invite me onstage. I had a fantasy of some company member saying, here! Put this on and join us!

This did not happen, of course. My mom and dad came for closing night, and got me a ticket. We sat in the third row. I had not yet sat in a seat in the audience. It wasn’t as good.

Sunday night, NBC will present Jesus Christ Superstar as one of their live musical events. I don’t understand the appeal of these productions, most likely because I’m not really that much into either musicals or broadcast television. The thrill is in seeing them pull off a stunt like a multi-set, large cast musical production, on the night with millions of people watching.

I have heard such terrible things about them, too. They must make for tremendous ratings, because the abuse on social media is astronomical.

However, when they announced this one, I got excited. Because I do love Superstar. And I don’t like anything else Andrew Lloyd Weber has ever written. Nothing. Hate Dreamcoat, hate Phantom, despise Cats. And yet I have never been inspired to see a production again because my memories of that first are so indelible. Besides, most professional touring companies feature desiccated prog rock stars who are well-more than twice the age of Christ when he died.

The thing is, unlike A Christmas Story Live, or Hairspray Live or Grease Live, there’s no book to ruin in Superstar, there’s no acting. It is a sung through piece (inviting the comparison to opera, sure) and unless they find some way to pad it out interminably, all they need to do is to sing, but sing very, very well.

They announced the cast one at a time over the course of weeks. Alice Cooper as Herod is a stunt, they always get someone like him for that one scene, that one song. But then they said John Legend is playing Jesus! Not some fly-by-night pop star, they got John Legend! Well, okay!

Brandon Victor Dixon (2016)
And Sara Bareilles! I’ve heard of her!

But who was going to play Judas? That’s the role, right? Surely they’d get someone famous from one of NBC’s past sit-coms or procedural dramas. Someone with character, but no chops. Because that's what they do for these modern, televised musicals.

No. They got Aaron Burr.

They tapped Brandon Victor Dixon, who assumed that role in Hamilton after Leslie Odom Jr. stepped down. A name as-yet unfamiliar to the ear (he’s not even mentioned in the promos) yet with high credentials in playing another of the greatest, knowing, conflicted anti-heroes ever conceived for the musical stage.

He also lectured the Vice President, you remember that, right?

I’ll be watching. Have a good Friday.

NBC presents "Jesus Christ Superstar" Live In Concert, Sunday April 1 at 8:00 PM

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Way I Danced With You (process)

Michael Johnson & Sarah Blubaugh
(Blank Canvas Theatre, 2018)
Several of my plays have been commissions. There is a need, a proposal, I satisfy certain criteria, the play gets produced, we move on. Then there are the plays I write because I want to write them, I need to. But where do they go? And how do you know if they are even any good?

The Way I Danced With You has followed a process, it keeps moving forward. We read it at music stands in Valdez, Alaska following a two-hour rehearsal. We took three days to rehearse and stage it with scripts in hand, no tech, no set or costumes in Waterloo. And now we have taken three weeks to fully memorize the piece, dress up the actors, and see what it actually looks like or could look like in some future, premiere production.

It makes a difference, hearing the script aloud. A big difference in this case. At the first read-through a few weeks back, Sarah (playing Dani at Blank Canvas) observed that the second scene or act is entirely different when read out loud, looking at the person you’re speaking to you, about the person you're speaking to.You really have to do that to understand what is happening and the emotions involved.

It is still a script in progress, but not by much. The first two scenes are pretty much right where I want them. The first was almost completely set in stone after Alaska, I remember cutting an entire page during our brief rehearsal. Tyler and Chloe read it and I was like, wow, we don’t need that at all! It was liberating.

But that third scene … my lead adjudicator at Last Frontier was Kevin Armento (Balls, Devil With the Blue Dress) and one of the most significant questions he asked was; whose play is it? I said I wanted the play to be about both of them. He said that’s fine, but that it was currently Charles’s play, the man’s play. And that this was largely due to the third scene or act.

Chloe Cotton & Tyler Browning
(Last Frontier Theatre Conference, 2016)
Significant revisions were made, for Playwrights’ Local, and then for Blank Canvas. My wife says the play is now about Dani, the woman, that it’s her play. And I am all right with that. But even now, listening to Michael (Charles) in the third scene, playing it all out, I am in sitting in the house constantly thinking about every line -- this could be different, that is unnecessary... Hearing it, seeing it, and seeing her (Dani’s) reaction to everything … it’s important. It’s necessary. I’m seeing and hearing things I’ve never heard in the previous workshops, when scripts were in the way. Reactions are as important as the words themselves.

Having said that, the performances this weekend have been tremendous. And during that scene, that final scene, you could hear a pin drop in the house. No one in the audience moves, they’re all hanging on every word. It’s thrilling. They want to know.

Interestingly, while I leave the ending with a question, Lara, the director, has pretty much made up her mind her mind as to what happens next, after the curtain, and I think it’s pretty clear. Another director might handle that differently, and that’s okay, too.

So there are a few minor edits still to be made on that last scene. But it’s ready to go, this script is ready for a full production.

LAST CHANCE TO SEE: Blank Canvas Theatre presents “The Way I Danced With You” tonight at 78th Street Studios, March 24, 2018.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Way I Danced With You (glossary)

Michael Johnson & Sarah Blubaugh
(Blank Canvas Theatre)
Perhaps you are planning to catch The Way I Danced With You at Blank Canvas Theatre this weekend. I hope you are. But perhaps you were born after the year 1980, one of those "Millennials" people keep talking about.

Maybe when you hear the name "George Michael" you immediately think of Michael Cera. Maybe you've never been to Chicago. Maybe you don't even know where you are.

Here is a brief list of pop culture references which may help you appreciate and enjoy the performance.

All entries sourced from Wikipedia.

Deerfield is a village in Lake County, Illinois, approximately 25 miles north of Chicago. Deerfield High School is consistently one of the top high schools in the state. It is said Deerfield was a major inspiration for Shermer, Illinois, the fictional setting for several of John Hughes’ 1980s teen films.

"A Different Corner" is a 1986 song written and performed by George Michael. The song reached number 7 on the US Billboard Hot 100.

The Fly is a 1986 American science-fiction horror film directed and co-written by David Cronenberg. Starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, the film tells of an eccentric scientist who, after one of his experiments goes wrong, slowly turns into a fly-hybrid creature.

Footloose is a 1984 American musical drama. It tells the story of Ren McCormack, an upbeat Chicago teen who moves to a small town in which, as a result of the efforts of a local minister, dancing and rock music have been banned.

Glencoe is an affluent suburb of Chicago, located on the shore of Lake Michigan. This village is also the setting for the 1983 film Risky Business.

Geena Davis & Jeff Goldblum
(The Fly)
Harold Washington College is a community college part of the City Colleges of Chicago system of the City of Chicago, in Illinois. Founded in 1962 as Loop College, the college was renamed for the first African American to be elected Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, after his sudden death in office in November 1987.

"Love on the Rocks" is a song written by Neil Diamond and Gilbert Bécaud that appeared in the 1980 movie The Jazz Singer. The single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in January 1981.

Midland is a city Michigan. In 2010, Midland was named No. 4 "Best Small City to Raise a Family" by Forbes magazine.

Mel Gibson was People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” in the year 1985.

Navy Pier is a boardwalk entertainment district on Lake Michigan in Chicago, which in 2018 encompasses more than fifty acres of parks, gardens, shops, restaurants, family attractions and exhibition facilities. Established in 1916, and not yet extensively renovated until the early 21st Century, by the 1980s it was a destination in decline.

A Night at the Opera is a 1935 American comedy film starring the Marx Brothers, A smash hit at the box office, A Night at the Opera was selected in 1993 for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Older is the third solo studio album by George Michael, released in 1996. It was his first album since 1990's Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 – the six-year gap was due to the legal battle that Michael experienced with his record company. "Older" is also the title of a single from this album, released in 1997. The single peaked at number 3 on the UK Singles Chart. It did not chart in the United States.

The Palmer House (now the Palmer House Hilton) is a historic hotel in Chicago in the city's Loop area. It is a Historic Hotel of America member, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is one of the longest continuously operating hotel in North America.

Wham ft. George Michael
("The Edge of Heaven")
“The Queen and the Soldier” is a song from Suzanne Vega’s eponymous, 1985 debut album.

The South Side of Chicago has a varied ethnic composition. It has great disparity in income and other demographic measures. Although it has a reputation for high levels of crime, the reality is much more varied. The South Side ranges from affluent to middle class to poor, just like other sections of large cities.

Top Gun is a 1986 American romantic military action drama film directed by Tony Scott, Despite its initial mixed critical reaction, the film was a huge commercial hit. Additionally, the film won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Take My Breath Away" performed by Berlin.

“The Way I Danced With You” is a lyric from “Careless Whisper” (1984) by English singer-songwriter George Michael. It was released as a single and became a huge commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic and on both sides of the Pacific. It reached number one in nearly 25 countries, selling about 6 million copies worldwide.

Winelight is a 1980 album by jazz musician Grover Washington Jr. It received the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Fusion Performance in 1982. It is also the title of the first track of the album.

Blank Canvas Theatre presents “The Way I Danced With You” three nights only at 78th Street Studios, March 22 - 24, 2018.

Sunday, March 18, 2018


"I won't try to stop you when you speak of the past ..."
- Everything But the Girl, "Fascination"
We were so fucking suave.

Teenagers for time immemorial have aspired to adulthood. In the mid 1980s this was reflected in the clothes we wore, the way we stood, the music we listened to. For men the clothes were rumpled, structureless suits. We wore ties to school. We posed and smoked, drank wine coolers and listened to the music inspired by our elders.

Wine coolers. Music inspired by. Ten years later we would be doing the real thing, drinking the actual cocktails our grandfathers drank, and listening to Sinatra. But not in the 80s. We were kids. We had soda pop alcohol, and we had soda pop jazz.

Arabica, the only coffeehouse in Cleveland, was a distant oasis of cool, somewhere far on the east side. We heard there were two. But a third opened in Rocky River in 1982, and I would spend weekend nights there, getting smokes from the machine (seventy-five cents a pack) a fourteen year-old getting jittery on black coffee, talking philosophy with community college twenty year-olds whose lameness should have been evident from their hanging out with fourteen year-olds.

The soundtrack was smooth, it was stylish, it must have a saxophone. Roxy Music’s swan song Avalon was the epitome of the genre which has in recent years come to be known as Sophisti-pop, a bizarre combination of pop, blues, and jazz, with period keyboard stylings, and wistful lyrics of longing, regret, and instant nostalgia.

It is not arbitrary that the Bill Murray character sings “More Than This” for the karaoke scene in Lost In Translation.

So styling, and not yet eighteen.
Some singles were big hits on the American pop charts, including Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years.” George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” certainly falls into this category. Lesser known acts like Prefab Sprout, Everything But the Girl and The Blue Nile, never played on commercial radio, would find their way into our cassette players thanks to recommendations of other pop stars in music magazines, through college stations, and late-night MTV. And we heard them at the west side Arabica.

This was the soundtrack in my head as I wrote The Way I Danced With You, an exploration of this pretense of maturity, faced with the reality of inexperience.
CHARLES: Then I drove her back to her house and we kissed listening to "Winelight."
This music, invoking images of sun-drenched, exotic locations, smoky nightclubs, shimmering, wet city streets. Nameless, faceless lovers, hungover expressions, overcoats, eyeliner and lipstick. It’s an age-old question, and one that won’t stop being asked any time soon. Why do we want to grow up so fast?

The answer is simple, because being a teenager sucks. I’ve lost interest in childish things but am not permitted to do adult things. “There’s nothing to do,” teenagers exclaim, and they are as correct today as we were back then. There really isn’t.

So we painted a picture of Reagan/Thatcher-era wealth and sophistication (or thrift-store chic and rebellion) and put ourselves squarely in the middle.

Wouldn't it be nice if we were older?

Blank Canvas Theatre presents “The Way I Danced With You” at 78th Street Studios, March 22 - 24, 2018.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Queer Eye (TV show)

"If you can't change the world, change yourself.
And if you can't change yourself, change your world."
- The The, "Lonely Planet"
Footloose (1984) was the original makeover show for men.

Through the travails of Ren MacCormack, boys all over America learned the importance of grooming, fashion, attitude and most of all, dancing. Kevin Bacon gave the straight guy permission to dance.

The first incarnation of the reality-show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy premiered on Bravo in July 2003. My daughter was not yet six months old, I was turning thirty-five, and precisely the right age dynamic for this new makeover show for men.

I was a big fan of that first season. I found it mildly subversive, though even at the time I, like a lot of people, thought it played into some unhappy stereotypes about gay men (and female queer eyes need not apply.)

But as a maturing Gen Xer I had fallen into a lot of comfortable habits and this was a playful guide to gentle self-improvement. I watched the show, I bought the album, I got the book for Christmas.

Even today, there are tips each of the original “Fab Five” had given me which I still employ.
  • Food & Drink: Ted taught me to reheat pizza on a skillet, and to always serve in glass.
  • Style: Carson gave permission to mix patterns.
  • Design: Thom showed me how to clear and own the home space.
  • Grooming: Kyan taught me how to keep my scalp clean.
  • Culture: Jai showed us all how to easily get the wrapper off a CD case.
Okay, the “culture” guy has always been a problem. Four dudes guide us through an adventure of self-discovery, and Jai is there with tickets for a play.

By the second season I started to lose interest, and the main culprit was branding. This show has been scorned -- then and now -- for the suggestion that if a guy buys enough things, he’ll be happy. And that is a legitimate reason for criticism. But what about me? The show did not make me go out and purchase a load of skin care products, I learned how to properly use the products that are already in my house!

But the show had become popular enough that more time was spent showing off logos than providing helpful advice. It truly did become a show that was all about buying stuff.

When Netflix announced a reboot I was skeptical. Fifteen years ago, it felt cheeky. Yes, the idea that gay men are neat and clean and stylish and bitchy are long-held stereotypes -- but 2003 was also the year before Ohio voters decided to approve an amendment banning “gay marriage.” The pros of seeing these men making life better for heterosexual men outweighed the cons of reinforcing relatively innocuous impressions of the homosexual lifestyle.

But this 2018. In the intervening time, so many more of our friends and family have come out to us, and have shown themselves to be just like us, or us like them, or really, are there us and them anymore? Most of the gay men I know are like me; middle-aged, unshaven, soft around the middle, average taste in music, with an unfortunate tendency to make stupid jokes.

You know. Normal.

For this Millennial version of Queer Eye they dropped the “Straight Guy” from the title, because one of the eight episodes is actually about cleaning up a gay man and encouraging him to come out to his step-mom.

However this is still a show all about guys. Frankly, I am surprised they did not include any women on the team. Surely, if we are playing with gender stereotypes they could have at least included a lesbian as the designer or something, right? They did, thankfully, tilt the percentage of people of color. How is it that there were no African-American men in the original Fab Five?

Karamo makes up for Jai’s meager contributions to the previous series by not only providing theater tickets (he actually does this is in one episode) and how walk tall and and look a person in the eye, yadda yadda, but also curating one’s professional online persona, how to fund-raise, and even opening a dialogue on race with the police.

Much has already been said about the unfair distribution of labor on the program with Bobby (design) re-imagining people’s entire houses while Antoni (food & drink) teaches you how to pit an avocado.

I was concerned Jonathan (grooming) was trying too hard to be the Carson of the group, with an over-the-top sassiness which felt a bit put on. The difference is Carson Kressley is a cutting quip-machine where Jonathan mostly says, “Yaas, queen.” He says it a lot. I think I was also prejudiced against his man-bun. However, by the end of the second episode I had accepted that he is adorable, that this is really him, and isn’t acceptance what they tell us right off the bat is what this show is all about?

In fact, it’s Jonathan’s grooming aesthetic that won me over. Whereas Kyan had a one-size-fits all approach to men’s hair -- clean shaven, no beard, no way -- Jonathan knows it’s the 21st century. Guys have beards. Your beard can be better, though. And though product is still the thing, he describes what it is, what it’s for, how to use it, and I didn’t see a single brand name. Because this is Netflix, I hope it stays that way.

Finally, the walkaway star of the program is Tan (style) not only because of his early 80s pop star British accent and his supernaturally styled salt-and-pepper hair. He’s the most self-confident of the team, he owns himself and every room he steps into, and the recommendations he makes for his charges are always spot-on and impeccable.

The questions linger; does this program continue to perpetuate the stereotype that gay men have superficial interests, that it’s all about being neat and clean and coiffed and organized and also catty?

The proof may be in that last, as this version has far-less mockery that its predecessor. Yes, there is still that part of the show where the guys invade their subject’s home, comment on its state and try on all his clothes. But they used to be downright mean, even making cruel asides to the camera. The cruelty is gone and with it comes this desire to form a connection.

I don’t remember learning anything at all about the original team’s personal lives. Off the top of my head I can think of Bobby’s religious upbringing, that Tan is married, and that Antoni has a thing about smelling everybody's stuff. I was impressed by the original Fab Five. But I like these guys more.

Most of all, in an era of divisiveness, to watch a so-called "reality" show where the goal is to bring people together and to love each other is a breath of fresh air. And when things seem entirely out of control, where do you start to reassert control but with yourself?