Week Ending May 22, 2010: Chenoweth and Without, Plus Rekers to the Rear

Ato Blankson-Wood and David Cale.

This week we introduce a new feature called Rise or Fall — commentary on arts and politics stories, issues and trends. A variation on the cheers-or-jeers, who’s-up-who’s-down, plus-or-minus columns that used to encapsulate a week’s worth of news into something squeezed into half a page of a weekly magazine.

Yet I decided that it would be better to summarize stories or topics than to offer no commentary at all. I don’t know how long this column will last or if anyone will respond to it. But here goes.

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Rise = it is more likely that we will still be talking about this next week.
Fall = it is less likely that we will still be talking about this next week.

And, as always, we welcome your commentary plus any suggestions on improving this feature.

This week we include some topics stretching back more than a week.

On Kristin Chenoweth, Sean Hayes and the Gays
La Chenoweth’s take-down of Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh, whose rant against Sean Hayes and how gay he seems in the bland Broadway revival of Promises, Promises continued to gain traction. The traction actually has twin tracks: first, in terms of the outpouring of rage at Setoodeh, who had the temerity to write what he thinks; and second, in terms of the box office, where the weekly receipts at Promises, Promises recently topped $1.2 million.

Setoodeh must have a death wish. As a gay man himself, he must have known what a politically incorrect fire-bomb he was throwing. But I think it also says something about our obsession with political correctness and who gets to decide what does and does not constitute political correctness. I thought, for example, there was nothing wrong with a writer asking whether an actor, both gay and out, “reads” too gay for the role he’s playing. Casting directors for stage, film and TV asks themselves that question and come to an answer about it all the time. That’s why they call it casting. And questioning the plausibility of an actor in a role is a legitimate subject for the critic. Yes, you can make the argument that Setoodeh wasn’t really functioning as a theater critic at Newsweek, per se. But I would argue that the theme and the effect of his piece, especially now that it has become a media story, makes it fundamentally indistinguishable from any other theater-oriented review, feature or think piece.

Where I depart with Setoodeh is on the core idea. And this is something that Chenoweth didn’t address because, with all due respect to her, she’s an actress in a Broadway show that earned mixed reviews and has an obligation to try and help sell tickets.

Setoodeh thinks that any gay and out actor can “read” as straight. I think some do. Cheyenne Jackson projected a sort of inexorable heterosexuality in the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow. And that observation is made entirely in retrospect: During the performance, I don’t remember even thinking about Jackson’s sexuality. Maybe it has to do with when Hayes chose to come out or with Rainbow simply being better material. I don’t know. But again, I thought asking the question was permissible.

For my money, Setoodeh betrays neither his ignorance nor homophobic self-hatred but a lack of understanding about acting as an art form at the end of his first graph:

….it’s weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is. Even the play’s most hilarious scene, when Chuck tries to pick up a drunk woman at a bar, devolves into unintentional camp. Is it funny because of all the ’60s-era one-liners, or because the woman is so drunk (and clueless) that she agrees to go home with a guy we all know is gay?

If the actor’s performance is good, then the guy that the drunk woman agrees to go home with is a character, and the sexuality of the actor is irrelevant. If the actor’s performance is something less than good, then the guy that the drunk woman agrees to go home with is not a character, or at least not a fully formed one, and then critic’s eye can wander; the sexuality of the actor is relevant because the critic isn’t thinking about the character.

Beyond Setoodeh’s dramaturgical confusion, the way he went about answering his own question was poor, or perhaps inarticulate is more accurate.

And for God’s sake, Mary, this isn’t Hedda Gabler. It’s Promises, Promises.

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As for two of Promises, Promises producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who have come out in support of Chenoweth, well, what did you expect? This excerpt makes me crazy because it’s such a direct, shameless pitch for ticket sales and should not be confused with an attempt at objective reviewing:

“Ramin Setoodeh’s Newsweek article is so obviously self loathing that one can only pity the myopic world he lives in,” said Meron. “We share our friend Kristin Chenoweth’s outrage and can only marvel at the wonderful, true and yes, sexy relationship that she and Sean Hayes have on stage every night in Promises, Promises on Broadway.”

Added Zadan: “I think what’s most frightening is the continuing disappearance of the already thin line between pedestrian blogging and authentic journalism. In this instance, Newsweek has published (and inadequately defended) a blog by a self-loathing gay man who is not only wildly off-base, but who has simultaneously done his best to help slam the closet door permanently for the many actors who were contemplating coming out. I am proud of both Sean Hayes, who is a superb actor who can play any number of roles — straight or gay — and of his co-star Kristin Chenoweth, an equally gifted actor, who, without hesitation, had the mettle to rebut the author’s specious assertions.”

Meron and Zadan are selling a product. The whole of the U.S. population is supposed to rise in a long lamentation for American journalism? Really?

For a demographic that has fought tooth and nail for equal rights for decades, the gay community, in my experience, has been a mixed bag. With some exceptions, I feel the point sometimes is this: Fail to conform to received wisdom, to prevailing attitudes, to the ruling mafia’s policies, and you will fail to move forward, fail to make friends, fail to advance in our society and fail to be granted permission to add your passion to our cause. Gays of the left and the center sneer at the disgusting groupthink of the radical right, and the radical right is disgusting. But groupthink erupts everywhere. While I wouldn’t have written the piece Setoodeh wrote — his subject deserves more nuance and tact — this idea that he hasn’t the right to write is terrible for the theater and terrible, more broadly, for America. We already have the radical right itching to curb rights in this country. Does the left need to do this, too?

The out and proud Jane Lynch of Glee, whose co-star is another Setoodeh target — out and proud actor Jonathan Groff — at least admitted that Setoodeh has a right to his opinion. She’s correct. Something about the mob mentality against Setoodeh is making me uncomfortable. Might I be more comfortable if the Promises, Promises producers, and Kristin Chenoweth, one of Broadway’s few rising legends, didn’t seem so conscious of milking this media mess for money.
Verdict: Rise.

Rekers to the Rear
The left loves when the homophobic charlatans of the radical right get caught pants down, rears up and a foot in their mouths. Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, Sen. Larry Craig and now George Rekers. This story in the Wall Street Journal — and I applaud how even-handed it is, given what a black eye this is on radical-right religious nuts — proves that Rekers is a wreck.
Verdict: Rise.

The End of America Is Our Own Fault — the Republicans’ Fault, Too
This essay in the New York Review of Books
is long, of course, but trenchant. It’s disturbing, too, as it explains how the radical-right has developed, and is actively promoting, its own Noam Chomsky-esque case for why Sept. 11 happened. That is: America is itself to blame for its monumental political dysfunction. America is itself to blame for the frothing, frightening rise of the xenophobic, fact-averse, race-baiting, assassination-craving Teabaggers. Which may explain why the essay is called The Tea Party Jacobins.

Here’s a salient graph:

The right-wing demagogues at Fox do what demagogues have always done: they scare the living daylights out of people by identifying a hidden enemy, then flatter them until they believe they have only one champion — the demagogue himself. But unlike demagogues past, who appealed over the heads of individuals to the collective interests of a class, Fox and its wildly popular allies on talk radio and conservative websites have at their disposal technology that is perfectly adapted to a nation of cocksure individualists who want to be addressed and heard directly, without mediation, and without having to leave the comforts of home.

Problem is, the essay doesn’t offer a window for the rest of us to leap out of. We’re condemned to internal destruction, it seems to suggest. Not good.
Verdict: Fall.

Brother, Can You Spare $150 Million? I Need to Build a Performing Arts Center
The amazing Julie Menin, chair of Manhattan’s Community Board 1 and a member of the board of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, reveals that $150 million — that’s $150,000,000 — in post Sept. 11 funds intended to help “utilities such as Con Edison and Verizon for emergency work to repair damanged infrastructure and restore service” remains unused. The interest on that money alone, year after year, could probably fund the arts next year in New York City and New York State. Indeed, Menin proposes that the money be used to build the long-promised performing arts center at Ground Zero. We concur.
Verdict: Rise.

The Verdict on Rand Paul
Racist. And teabag buffoon.
Verdict: Rise.

Check Out That Bulging Amicus Brief
Theatre Communications Group filed an amicus brief several weeks ago in a case in which the Colorado Supreme Court could rule on the constitutionality of a statewide smoking ban as applied to live theater. It will be interesting to see if the First-amendment-loving folks on the right embrace the cause.

You can read the brief in full here.

If I were the head of public affairs at TCG, I’d be out there raising great awareness of this case in the press. I hope that the board members of TCG recognize what a smart opportunity this is to promote the importance of live theater and freedom of expression.
Verdict: Fall.

Putting the “Und” Back Into “Pundit”
British theater critic Mark Shenton fretted about opining about the arts on TV and not getting paid for it. Unless you’re under contract, it happens here all the time. Applause for Shenton squeezing a coin or two out of his otherwise stingy media benefactors, but don’t expect the U.S. media to wake up about the arts at all, much less pay lots of commentary. The topic goes right to the heart of my experience at Fox News.
Verdict: Fall.

Show Us Your Opening, Elena Kagan
The Los Angeles Times put its finger on it: Will Elena Kagan, who is likely be confirmed for the U.S. Supreme Court, rise in favor of keeping the iconic front doors of the Court open? A Senate Democrat should ask her during the hearings. It would be a travesty not to do so.
Verdict: Fall.

Wiesel the Unwise
Playwright Deb Margolin pens a work called Imagining Madoff, and Theatre J in Washington, D.C. opts to open its season with it next fall. Unfortunately, Margolin had the audacity — could the word be “pluck”? — to situate Elie Wiesel, the 81-year-old human-rights beacon who lost millions to Madoff’s mendacity, into the heart of the play and ostensibly neither warned Wiesel nor sought his blessing until it was too late. Wiesel went after both Margolin and Theatre J, and now the production is cancelled. I can understand Wiesel’s upset, but I would argue that free speech is suffering here. Margolin was also right — despite Theatre J Artistic Director Ari Roth’s suggestion — to refuse to create a fictional character in place of Wiesel.

This from the Washington Post:

…In the fictional play, Madoff in his prison cell recalls a long-ago, all-night discussion with Wiesel in the author’s study. No such meeting ever took place. Margolin, a veteran dramatist, performance artist and associate professor of theater at Yale, explained in an interview Tuesday that her intentions in the play are purely metaphorical.

“He was metaphorically placed in the room with this man so I could investigate moral complexities about what kind of person could commit the kind of crimes Bernard Madoff committed. . . . It enabled me to look at both ends of the moral spectrum and the points in between. And so I was very sorry to have displeased Professor Wiesel. And quite devastated by his response,” she says…

I’m sorry, but Wiesel is wrong.
Verdict: Rise.

the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to review the constitutionality of a statewide smoking ban as it is applied to live theatre performances. The Court agreeing to hear the case was the first victory in a three-year legal battle between three local theatre companies and the Colorado Department of Health. Denver’s Curious Theatre Company, Paragon Theatre and Boulder’s Theatre 13 argued that smoking onstage is expressive behavior protected by the First Amendment.

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  • Lanie

    Leonard, Thanks so much for this Rise and Fall. I appreciate your thoughts on Newsweek-gate and the other news items. Your measured and interesting response is sorely needed. While I was alarmed by the Mr. Setoodeh’s conclusions, he has the right to make them without being called ‘self-loathing’ eight million times. Do we really believe the only reason he wrote about Sean Hayes and Jonathan Groff is because he hates being gay himself? I simply don’t buy it (just like I don’t buy his general thesis).

  • Paul

    This is an old saw in the gay community: when a gay person makes an observation and states their opinion – and said opinion flies in the face of political correctness – the rest of the community schlepps out the moniker of Homophobia. There was NOTHING offensive in Setoodeh’s comments. I not only think he’s entitled to his opinion, I agree with most of his comments. People like Neil Meron and Craig Zadan are pitiful examples of Hollywood producer-stereotypes trying to protect their investment in Promises, Promises. Moreover, they are not interested in Sean Hayes career beyond what he can do for them in their show. Isn’t that obvious to anyone with two working brain cells?

  • Pingback: Noises off: Imagining Madoff and the dangers of depicting living people | Chris Wilkinson | Theatre, Dance And Musicals News()

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  • Tony

    Always great food for thought, Leonard. A question on the Sean Hayes issue. Had he not spent eight years as an outrageously flambouyant character on “Will & Grace” would Setoodeh have had as hard a time picturing Hayes as straight? I’m sure there are many people who might have a hard time picturing Hayes in a heterosexual role after creating such an iconic personna. I’m not blaming Hayes, his job as an actor is to create an image, and it’s not his fault if the one he created worked so well (I have no idea if he’s like that in real life), my question is more about whether or not Setoodeh is actually commenting on the quality of Hayes’ performance in “Promises” or whether Setoodeh isn’t bringing a bit of his pre-conceived idea of who Hayes is into the theater with him.

    • Well, that’s always been the question and it’s totally the right one to ask. I don’t remember the exact words I used, but I think I said that Setoodeh was inartful at best, uneducated at worst, and, to be frank, inarticulate at very worst. But the sentiment he expressed — that Hayes is basically playing Jack, and that it isn’t plausible — is something I agree with; I sat down at the Broadway and really wanted to give him the fairest, most objective shot I could. And, I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work. For one thing, Hayes demonstrates more mugging than a night in Fort Apache in the 1970s. Now, seeing Jack may be what people are paying for. But that’s not the same thing as suggesting he’s created a character that is separate and distinct from Jack. So in this sense, I think Setoodeh was right.