There’s something a little bit soul destroying about Time Square in Manhattan, a colourful and cheery hell hole that is famous for its gigantic advertising billboards and exists nowadays as a Mecca for tourists from around the world. I was one of them! I couldn’t resist the allure of standing there and having my photo taken beneath those bright lights. Then I felt a little bit disappointed in myself as I looked around and actually absorbed my surroundings. There’s a McDonalds, a Starbucks and a three-storey high M&M store. Why do people come here again?
The worst part of Time Square is the army of spruikers on the street trying to sell you stuff. There’s people selling tickets to comedy nights, shortcut passes to the Empire State Building, day trips to Ellis Island…you name it. I believe almost all of it is a rip-off of the highest order. One of the most depressing things is the people dressed as famous characters from American pop culture who are looking to pose for photos. Elmo, Spider-man, Snoopy, Batman…they’re all in Time Square and constantly harassing you for a photo op. They want the photo so they can then demand some tip money. They are relentless in their pursuit of you which is why I momentarily got to enjoy the unexpected sight of my wife getting fed up and telling Elmo to piss off.
I remember one day in New York, I walked past Cookie Monster sitting outside a McDonalds. He must have had a long day of people telling him to get fucked and stop asking for money. He seemed depressed, introspective and lost in thought. Poor Cookie Monster. I hope he decided to quit his job in Time Square that day and return to more meaningful work in early childhood education.
Time Square is a pretty terrible place but on the other hand its also adjacent to Broadway where there is plenty of entertainment to be had. Go to Time Square and hit up the box office in the middle of the strip and you can get yourself reasonably priced tickets to some of the best shows in town. I love me some plays and musicals but in Brisbane we’re lucky to get more than a handful of shows every year and they sure as hell don’t have the variety or star power that’s on offer in New York.
Jen and I wanted to make sure we saw both a musical and a play and that’s exactly what we did. Acquiring tickets to shows don’t require any planning beforehand and you can usually get tickets for a show on the same day. We couldn’t decide between David Mamet’s stage production of Glengarry Glen Ross (my choice) and Grace (Jen’s a big Paul Rudd fan) so we ended up getting tickets for both.
We saw Grace first. It’s a small scale black comedy made by a first-time director Craig Wright about religion, faith, marriage and money. Paul Rudd (Clueless, This Is Forty) is the marquee actor but also involved were Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, Man of Steel) and Ed Asner, a veteran character actor who has had more than 300 roles in film and television including The X-File, The Simpsons, Family Guy and Up. Kate Arrington was the only one of the cast I hadn’t heard of before but she was a fine performer in her own right.
For a modest production with just a single set, I was impressed by how ambitious Grace was in its story-telling and themes. The play opens with a gun shot and then time freezes and rewinds. It definitely takes a set of brass balls to immediately test the audiences suspension of disbelief by having them watch actors on a sparse stage setting roll off the floor, unfire a gun and hold a conversation backwards.
Rudd and Arrington play Steve and Sara, a typical Mid West Christian couple who superficially have a happy and loving relationship. There are some cracks in the union however thanks to the financial pressure Steve has put upon the couple as he pours their savings into a business plan for a chain of religious themed motels. Steve and Sara’s next door neighbour is the lonely and Godless Sam. When Steve’s finances take a turn for the worse, he ropes Sam into investing in the business. Unbeknownst to Steve, Sam holds a torch for his wife Sara. Observing the train wreck unfold is Karl, a bug exterminator played by Asner, who appears throughout the play and shares snippets of wisdom to the squabbling trio.
Grace reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Carnage which also featured a quartet of characters who gradually shed their clean cut public personas through conflict before embracing their more genuine and actual beliefs. Grace is a scathing satire that picks at the hypocrisy and superficiality of televangelists and those who seek to mix religion and business. The play was dark in its tone but it seemed to be right up the alley of a raucous New York audience who was guffawing and responding favorably to jokes that poked fun at Christianity, the institution of marriage and pyramid scheme business models.
I’d like to see Grace made into a film one day. The play had a very short run and I think its a production that should be seen by more people. It’s smart and funny without ever falling into the trap of being too sanctimonious about its message.
Glengarry Glen Ross
Just look at this goddamn amazing cast right here for Glengarry Glen Ross. I’ve long been a fan of David Mamet’s film of the same name and it holds a particularly special place in my heart because I basically do the same job as these people, albeit in a different industry. When Shelly begs John for “the good leads, the Glengarry leads”, I’m basically watching a dramatization of working in a business sales channel. The money is good if you can get it but job security isn’t great if you’re a front line sales rep. You need the leads. And for three years, I’ve been one of those guys that held that key. I’ve had the conversation with a NSW sales manager who wanted the good leads.
But seriously, look at this cast. I was absolutely thrilled to see this show. Watching Al Pacino perform on stage a mere handful of metres in front of me was something I never dreamed of seeing. And a supporting cast of characters including Richard Schiff from The West Wing and John C McGinley? Are you kidding me?
The stage show of Glenngarry Glen Ross is not much different from the film. In essence they tell a story about desperate sales reps, looking to close the big deal that gets them to the top of the leaderboard. At it’s core, there is still that fantastic balance of power which shifts between each and every character in the show as the story unfolds. There are times when Shelly is down on his luck and pleading for a second chance. Then he closes a big deal and his swagger returns. Ricky Roma plays a cool cat when we meet him but when his client threatens to walk from the deal, we see the other side to him. The show treats you to at least two apoplectic meltdowns from Richard Schiff and John C McGinley, both of which are entertainingly full of bluster and bravado.
You can always tell a David Mamet production for the slightly unnatural, no-nonsense, rapid-fire dialogue that the characters speak in. In Glengarry Glen Ross, not only did I get to see it first hand, I got to see it over four acts, each about half an hour long. These fine gentlemen came in, they sat down, yelled at each aggressively in a game of brinksmanship and then I went home happy.
The Book of Mormon
Last but not least, we saw Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Tony-award winning production The Book of Mormon. We definitely knew that we wanted to watch a musical when we were in New York and this show was the top of the list. If anything, we thought we would miss it because it is so ridiculously popular that newly available tickets sell out within minutes. When it comes to securing tickets for The Book of Mormon, its definitely a case of trying your luck with the daily lottery or hanging around an hour before the show on the off chance that someone no shows and more tickets become available. It’s a bit more work than getting tickets for Ricky Martin in Chicago but believe me, its worth it. The Book of Mormon is an absolutely hilarious musical that has all the spectacle and razzle dazzle of the other big shows on Broadway but it comes with that trademark South Park sense of humour which remains as razor sharp as ever.
Any long time fan of Parker and Stone will be familiar with Trey Parker’s fondness for musicals. Although The Book of Mormon is their first Broadway production, the duo have previously made two musical films, Cannibal! The Musical and South Park: The Movie: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. Parker and Stone have also long held a fascination for Mormons having made them a subject of an entire episode of South Park as well as the lead roles in their film Orgazmo. If anything, The Book of Mormon seems like a very natural amalgamation of two career-long interests.
The Book of Mormon tells the story of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, an odd couple pairing of young Mormons. Elder Price is a clean cut boy wonder who wants to make a name for himself in the church and has great ambitions in life. Elder Cunningham is a slovenly mouth breather who just wants a friend. Together, they are sent on a year long mission to Uganda, where the Church of Latter Day Saints are yet to convert a single African. The extreme poverty and harsh conditions are a jarring wake up call for the Mormon duo. To make matters worse, there is an army warlord who also wreaks havoc in the village they are stationed in.
The ingredients behind what makes The Book of Mormon so good will be familiar to South Park fans. As Parker is a genuine admirer of musicals, the songs in The Book of Mormon are actually very polished despite their ridiculous and blasphemous lyrics. I’m something of a novice when it comes to musicals myself but even I caught on that there are musical numbers in The Book of Mormon that draw inspiration from famous musicals including Mary Poppins, Cats and of course The Lion King. This gives the songs and dialogue an added layer of depth as they are not only riffing on jokes about organized religion and their place in Africa but they are also subtly tying them together with some of the themes and tropes of musicals in general.
On face value, The Book of Mormon may seem like an attack piece on organized religion but in actuality, the messaging is consistent with the South Park episode and Orgazmo. In essence, Parker and Stone tend to express incredulity at some of the doctrine that comes from the Church of Latter Day Saints (“in 1973, God changed his mind about black people!”) but they also recognize that Mormons tend to be cheery, optimistic and delightful people. It’s worth noting that the Church of Latter Day Saints in America have never attacked or boycotted The Book of Mormon. In fact, they diligently stand outside at the end of each show handing out pamphlets raising awareness about their denomination.
The Book of Mormon was one of my favourite experiences in New York. It’s performers are absolutely fantastic at belting out show tunes and have impeccable comic timing. The costumes and set designs are top notch. It’s an experience I’d gladly pay to see again. It is clearly a labour of love for Trey Parker and Matt Stone and its one of the best things they’ve worked on. I’ve downloaded The Book of Mormon album since I’ve returned to Australia and nearly six months later, I still have it on rotation on my iPod. I loved, loved, loved this show.