The Philanthropist

4 06 2009

148437img3Last night, I had the pleasure to see the poorly-reviewed, yet undeniably masterful play, The Philanthropist, starring Matthew Broderick.  Don’t listen to the reviews, folks- this play was expertly acted, and had so many nuggets of unique thought, and such a proliferation of “ah-ha!” moments, that it is definitely worth the trip.  Anyhow, as you might guess, the play got me thinking about philanthropy. About why people choose to be philanthropists, about how people give, and about the effectiveness of that giving.

In the play, Broderick’s character (Philip) is a mild-mannered (he defines the term, in fact) linguistics professor at an English university. His nature makes him a natural giver; he is quiet, he listens, he gives his time and attention to everyone that comes to visit his home. But how is he viewed? Each time he does a good deed, or says something nice, his guest takes offense. The rest of the cast is hard-pressed to believe that Philip is being honest and kind, and they assume that he is taking sly, subtle shots at them. Is this how philanthropists are viewed today? Is every good deed, every dollar, viewed as a quid pro quo, rather than as a purely philanthropic act, by those who are at the receiving end of the deed?  I think the answer is yes; sometimes. With big businesses giving money to charity for tax breaks, and some volunteers working to build up their resume, I think people have grown skeptical of the philanthropic act.

Furthermore, Philip, despite his giving nature, isn’t very good at understanding where his guest is coming from, and what they might want. Instead, he just says what he would want to hear, and this contributes to the guest’s frustrations. This symbol, too, can cross over into the philanthropic world. Too often, those who choose to give don’t pay attention to who it is that they’re giving <em>to</em>.  This is frustrating for all parties involved, and winds up being ineffective for both parties.

So the moral of the play, and of philanthropy in general? We, as donors, have to listen to the parties to whom we are giving. Really listen, rather than just hear. And then, we have to give without any strings attached. Only then, I think, can the world begin to view philanthropy in a less skeptical manner, and give the act the credit which it deserves.

Cross-posted with


Patti’s Turn

8 01 2009

I got a great birthday gift this year from my best bud, who took me to see Patti LuPone’s performance in Gypsy. And I must say- it was not really a “wallop-packing production”(The New York Times), or “the stuff Broadway dreams are made of”(The Daily News), and surely not “as good as it gets”(The Wallstreet Journal). It was a production of a spectacular play starring a woman with a booming voice and an even more overpowering ego. I mean, Patti didn’t seem like she even wanted to be there. She rushed through almost every lyric, and didn’t act as much as recite some lines and expect people to fall over with love because of her reputation. Personally, I’ll pick Bernadette’s performance, hands-down, any day. The richness and emotional nature of Peters’ performance was scores above LuPone’s. That said, Laura Benanti, who played Louise, was fantastic. Her character built throughout, and her transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee was phenomenal. Her job, and that of the rest of the cast, pulled the performance up out of the snore-laden gutters for me.  Am I alone out there in my take of Patti’s Tony-winning “stunner”(Time Out)?

Theatre as a Social Commentary…At Last

2 10 2008

picture-1-1The recent trend for theatre in this country, the churning out of play after play based on a movie or pop band, has been a thorn in this young theatergoer’s side for many a year. Theatre is perhaps the oldest and most established way for writers to relay social commentary to a wide array of audiences, and this aspect of the art has been all but obscured by the glitz and neon of Times Square. As philanthropists, it is time we started looking for those artfully crafted jewels amongst the rubble of revivals and flashy light shows, and supporting theatrical troupes that undertake worthwhile, meaningful, yet still enjoyable, projects. One such group is DV8 Physical Theater, a troupe led by choreographer Lloyd Newson.

As you may have read before, I hold a particular esteem for what goes on in most British theatre, and this group was brought to my attention by a recent New York Times article. DV8’s new piece, “To Be Straight With You,” is based on interviews of 85+ people living in London, on the topics of sexuality and religion. The foundation of this play is reminiscent of methods used by author Studs Terkel, who revolutionized the study of history by using oral histories to build real, unadulterated views of certain eras and events. Like Mr. Terkel, Mr. Newson, rather than casting the play, realized that the best way to convey his message “would be to actually use the words of the interviewees, and that meant people from black or Asian communities, as well as white Christian communities, who had some connection with homosexuality and religion to tell their stories and give them a voice.”

Like all good social intellectuals, Mr. Newson’s piece illustrates multiple viewpoints, allowing the audience to understand various sides of the issue and form their own opinions. This method is extremely effective for theatre, as it inspires a dialogue about the work that lasts long after the show, transforming the piece from a theatrical event to a form of progressive social engagement. Further, Mr. Newson fully understands and takes advantage of the power of theatre, stating “when you know that one word, say calling a teddy bear Muhammad, can cause such rupture worldwide, then you know the power of language.” He uses this language wisely and effectively, and as donors we need to encourage art forms like this. Try looking around your own town, and seeing what local theatre troupes are doing, and supporting them by at least checking out a show or two!

As cross-posted on

Theatre for Everybody?

21 08 2008

img_48431At 8 A.M. yesterday morning, I found myself bleary-eyed in Central Park as I lined up to wait for a free pair of tickets to The Public Theater‘s production of Hair, part of their Shakespeare in the Park summer series. My fatigue soon turned to surprise and a feeling of joy, however, at the sheer number of New Yorkers willing to stand in line for 5+ hours in order to see public theatre. The line of people, to me, was a bold signifier that the everyday citizens of New York were still interested in theatre.

Since my return from a spate of living London in 2004, I have been gnashing my teeth at the lack of a national theatre in America. London’s National is a monolith of play production, producing both old and new experimental theatre at an incredibly fast pace. It compliments the West End, which is comparative to New York’s Broadway, with one key difference: pricing. For twenty pounds, a student can get a front row seat to virtually any show of their choosing through a simple rush process in London. The result is a flourishing theatre scene, where going to see a play is an easy and affordable alternative to a movie or museum. In addition, increased interest leads to competition among producers to keep audiences coming back. Hence the reason why London has been putting out so many smash hits, many of which have hit this side of the Atlantic with as hard an impact.

The high price tags associated with Broadway productions, in contrast, greatly constrains who can attend the productions. In my eyes, this has led to a vicious cycle. Tourists and members of the upper echelon can afford the tickets, but the majority of citizens are cut out of the loop (at least on an every-day basis); those who can’t afford the $120 price tag then define theatre as a snobbish event in which they have no interest. Frustrating, no? But yesterday, as I saw the vast range of fellow New Yorkers waiting on the line for Hair, I came to distrust the second half of my cycle. People- all people- still do love theatre. They’ll do a lot, at least, to see it for a low or no cost. The people want theatre. Now it’s our turn, as donors, to work toward that goal. The Public theatre is doing a great job battling the big Broadway producers for attention- check out some information here.

As cross-posted on

Emo-sage County

28 02 2008

The raw emotion in the Stepenwolf’s August: Osage County is breathtaking. As in, it literally takes your breath away as if you’ve been slugged in the gut. The flow is fast, the characters are all-too real, and the problems flow almost as fast as the cheap liquor and pills. Centered around the disappearance of the father figure, August shows a reunion-of-sorts for a dysfunctional family attempting to deal with every psychological problem possible. Literally. The laundry list is almost unbelievable: suicide, divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction, incest, pedophilia. So much that the play is told in three acts, lending it a kind of epic emotional sensation.  With plates flying and insults spraying, the 4th wall (really no pun intended) does little to shield the audience from the raw truths of this family’s issues. There is nowhere for us to hide, just as there is no place for the characters to go where their problems won’t follow. And the moral? There really isn’t any, unless you consider “give up- it’s not worth the effort” a moral. This is truly one for the ages, friends. Don’t miss it. As a comrade so aptly put it, playwrite Tracy Letts tried to write a classical discovery/angst play in the style of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and outdid both of them.


N.B. Letts even avoided the pitfall of using the sage Amerindian housekeeper as a moral figure- he deserves a Tony for that alone!

Pink Floyd, Perestroika, and the Proletariat

19 12 2007

Are things in this world changed by only those who set out to change them?  What of those people, those groups, those institutions that inadvertently have disrupted and even overturned societies, when all they wanted to do was live in peace?  These are the questions asked by Tom Stoppard’s new work, Rock ‘n Roll. Per his usual, his queries exist in the form of insanely complex, yet playful dialogue spoken by insanely complex, yet playful characters.  Departing from his recent epic which focused on Russian intellectuals who could do nothing but discuss the political climate of the world, Stoppard places at the center of his new play the character Jan, who doesn’t have much interest in where his country (Czechoslovakia) is heading.  He cares about listening to his music and writing about it without getting arrested.  He’s not a revolutionary- he would have had no place next to the philosophy-spouting indealists of Coast of Utopia; yet he is the crux of Stoppard’s discussion about Czech revolt and struggle. 


Against Jan Stoppard pins Max, an intellectual who makes the study of communism and proletariat revolt his life’s work, and Ferdinand, a member of the Czech resistance to the Fasco-communist regime of Husek.  A series of shouted battles ensue between Jan and each of his intellectual opponents throughout at 20-year span, during which the audience’s sympathy bounces between each of the characters’ struggles.  We want Jan to be able to hear his music.  We want Max to be able to live in a utopic world with square-jawed laborers and buxom ladies wearing kerchiefs.  We want Ferdinand’s letters to convince the Czech government to relax its policies of “normalization.”  So who wins? Who winds up changing history? If you’ve seen Stoppard before, you can guess- nobody wins…maybe.  Change happens, but neither Jan’s rock music nor Ferdinand’s letters makes it so.  Sure, there is the Prague Spring, the Velvet Revolution, and Charter 77, but as Max states in the final scene, those are cultural revolutions.  People’s day-to-day lives are no different from them.  Or are they?  Do we really ever change things, no matter if change is our aim or not?  Does history plunge forward, unaware of those of us yelling from the sidelines telling it to stop and turn left instead of right?  Yes, it does. It may take notice once in a while, but it never slows down to say so. And that is the tragedy.  That is the struggle of each of the characters in Rock. They all are searching for something, real or imaginary, in their past- something that has been taken from them by the progress of history. 


But what do they want? Enter Stoppard’s main theme, it’s binding element: the Pink Floyd song “Vera.”  This plays in between the final scenes: “Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?/Remember how she said that /We would meet again /Some sunny day?/Vera! Vera!/What has become of you?/Does anybody else here/Feel the way I do?”  Suddenly it all makes sense. Syd Barret’s character as the “great god pan” has his meaning revealed.  He is Floyd’s “Vera Lynn,” the part of their past that they miss the most.  It turns out, all of Stoppard’s characters have their Veras.  Jan’s “Vera” is the Plastic People, Max’s is Marx, and Ferdinand’s is Havel.   All of Stoppard’s characters, who throughout the play fought for so many different things for so many different reasons, really just all want to go home. To their version of home.  And in the end, somehow, Stoppard gets them all there by the final scene- wiser than we found them at the opening of the curtain, and most definitely happier.  As for Stoppard? I say to him: I hope that we meet again, some sunny day.

The Ritz

19 12 2007

I can’t waste any more time thinking about this play, so I leave you with my two word review: utterly terrible.