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  • Posted 2/5/16 at 4:53 PM

Samuel L. Jackson, Mad Max, and Susan Sontag: My Road Trip With A.O. Scott

One day in the spring of 1998, I tagged along with a friend of mine who was making a covert pilgrimage to the New England headquarters of the Church of Scientology. Her purpose was research. She was writing a paper on its then-disputed legal status as a religion. I was along on a lark. We both took the Scientology personality test, which I sensed was meant to measure some combination of self-confidence and non-fuck-up-ness, and presumably to find some exploitable deficit. I’m proud to say that, in all but one column, my scores were very high. In that column, I hit near rock bottom.

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  • Posted 2/4/16 at 8:00 PM
  • Theater

Theater Review: Sense & Sensibility & Speediness

My Kindle tells me that it takes an average reader some ten hours to get through Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The delightful Bedlam stage version, which had a successful run in 2014 and is now being revived at the Gym at Judson, takes about two. (Saving extra time, the and in the title has been replaced by an ampersand.) Naturally, with 80 percent less eyeball engagement, there’s going to be some depth lost; Austen’s prose is hilarious and penetrating but not especially theatrical. Long stretches go by with no dialogue, and in shaping climactic moments she often lets the reader’s imagination do a lot of the work. Not so Kate Hamill, who wrote the adaptation and stars as one of the Dashwood sisters, Marianne. Like that character, her gloss on the masterpiece is sometimes too dramatic for its own good: bug-eyed where Austen merely lifts an eyebrow, its high points wanting only organ music to tip them into old-style soap opera. Still, it’s robust fun throughout, which is more than one can say about poor Marianne.  

A few too many modern gimmicks. »

8 Books You Need to Read This February

Each month, Boris Kachka offers nonfiction and fiction book recommendations. You should read as many of them as possible.

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The Hamilton Cast Will Perform a Song at the Grammys, So You’re 1/46th of the Way to Actually Seeing It

It is a truth rarely acknowledged that some of the world's most fervent Hamilton fans have not actually seen Hamilton. (Those ticket prices!) To help us poor souls, the Grammys today announced that the cast of the hit Broadway musical will perform during the February 15 telecast, finally giving us some visuals to accompany the cast recording that plays in our minds 24 hours a day nonstop. According to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the cast will perform the show's opening number, "Alexander Hamilton," from their stage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. If it's anything like past Grammy performances, they'll be joined onstage by Eddie Vedder, Steven Van Zandt, Bono, Jack White, and John Mayer, with Keith Richards making a special guest appearance as George III.

Congratulations, James Corden, You’re Hosting the Tony Awards This Year

In less than 18 months, James Corden has gone from "who?" to America's favorite karaoke singer, and now he's capped his ascent with a gig hosting this year's Tony Awards, which, like Corden's Late Late Show, will be broadcast on CBS. Corden is a past Tony winner, for Best Actor in a Play in 2012, for his role in One Man, Two Guvnors. He is also British, which means that if he doesn't come out dressed as King George III from Hamilton, we should all ask for our money back.

  • Posted 2/1/16 at 12:17 PM

Revisiting the Sleaziest O.J. Simpson Book: Our Critic Reviews O.J.’s ‘Exact Opposite of a Classic,’ If I Did It

In the annals of unreliability, there has never been a narrator less reliable than the I who governs the text of If I Did It. In fiction, an unreliable narrator is the product of an author’s design, a persona behind whose words the reader has to glimpse a deliberately obscured fictional state of things. In the case of O.J. Simpson’s 2007 memoir, we have instead an unstable mix of variously cynical narrative forces that combined to produce what was briefly a best seller and what is now a lost exact opposite of a classic.

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Bowie Collaborator Tony Oursler on the Icon’s Art-World Ties, Generosity, and Final Years

David Bowie was art’s hungry caterpillar, consuming everything in his path in order to transform himself aesthetically, again and again. Sometimes he drew the artists themselves into his orbit. One collaborator and friend was the prominent multimedia artist Tony Oursler. Within months of their meeting in 1996, Bowie was incorporating Oursler’s unsettling face projections into his Earthling tour and making cameos in the Oursler’s work. When Bowie made his 2013 comeback with the surprise release of The Next Day, Oursler directed the video of the first single, “Where Are We Now,” in which Bowie and Oursler’s wife appear in the artist’s studio as conjoined puppet heads. We spoke to Oursler last week in that studio, near the historic Henry Street Settlement on the far Lower East Side.

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  • Posted 2/1/16 at 11:20 AM
  • Tv

Grease: Live Is the First TV Musical to Feel Like Actual Theater

If theater is a hot medium, musical theater burns, making it a particularly bad match for the coolness of television. The three recent live musicals on NBC (The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The Wiz) have been more or less successful — usually less — on their own terms but in no case came close to convincing a theatergoer of the worth of the attempted temperature translation. The cold silence of the studio, the absence of human connection, and especially the phenomenon of actors belting to an unblinking lens all contributed to their eerie, dead affect, even when those actors were excellent and the material fine. The resounding success of last night’s live production of the 1971 musical Grease on Fox was therefore a huge surprise, and a relief, even if it was the result of just a few relatively sensible innovations on the part of its producers and its director, Thomas Kail. It’s not too much to say that they may finally have cracked open this recalcitrant egg — though, sadly, what was inside it was still Grease

That's the way it should be. »

  • Posted 1/29/16 at 11:30 AM

Should Lower East Side Galleries Close Sundays?

As I made my way around the Lower East Side galleries two weeks ago, a disappointed dealer said to me, "I heard what your vote is." She wasn't referring to my recent "endorsement" of Hillary Clinton. She meant my position on a procedural question now being debated around that burgeoning gallery scene. Namely, should the galleries of the Lower East Side continue being open on Sundays? Or should they switch over to the conventional (Chelsea) schedule of Tuesday through Saturday? Maybe it's quasi-gossip, but the question resonates with an art world in flux. My vote: Stay open Sunday. You’re not quite ready.

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  • Posted 1/29/16 at 8:00 AM
  • Theater

Talking With Stephen Karam, the Brilliant Young Playwright Behind The Humans

Stephen Karam’s Chinatown apartment, which he moved into after the success of his 2011 play Sons of the Prophet, is a huge step up from his last place. Yes, the elevator is tetchy, and the door to the sixth-floor landing features a graffitied penis that someone has attempted to disguise with more scratches. The sort-of-one-bedroom layout is small and irregular, like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fell off a table. Still, it’s the kind of place a parent, noticing the scripts organized by color, the cheerful troll statuettes, and the light streaming in everywhere, might call “surprisingly nice.” No one would have ventured that phrase to describe his old place, the subterranean lower half of a duplex on the Upper West Side whose one window looked onto the bottom of an air shaft. “It was spooky,” he says, “in an effortless way.” There was no outer world except when it rained. Then, as the drain backed up, he could perceive in the darkness a rising lake of cigarette butts.

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Danielle Staub Has All the Receipts on Andy Cohen and She’s Publishing a Tell-All

The Sally Bowles of the New Jersey Turnpike, Danielle Staub, will go silently into that good night no longer. Staub took to Twitter to announce that her "silence" is over and she plans to spill all the details on Andy Cohen, Bravo, and Real Housewives of New Jersey's effect on her life. What becomes of a dream that has a table flipped at it? Does it dry up like being engaged 19 times? Does it fester like being called a "prostitution whore" on television — then run? Staub is a caged bird no longer; she's Nora Helmer and she's leaving Torvald behind and slamming that door defiantly.

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I Can’t Stop Thinking About This Drawing by a Man With No Hands or Feet

The first thing you’ll think while looking at the infinitely intricate art of Matthias Buchinger — possibly through extra-large magnifying glasses — will be Unbelievable. Consider the interlacing ornamentation, teeny-tiny penmanship, minuscule portraits, and other feats of drawing that dazzle on their own terms; then consider that Buchinger was born in Germany in 1674 without hands or legs and, with the help of brushes and tools attached to his stumps, became, in addition to a world-class illusionist and magician (part of the exhibition is drawn from the collection of Ricky Jay), among the greatest calligraphers of his time and a master of the art of micrography (drawing with words). Also, he could thread a needle, was a marksman, and worked in four languages all over Europe. And he fathered 14 children by four wives and was famous enough for his profligacy, in addition to his work, that in England “Buckinger’s boot” became a euphemism for vagina (since his only “limb” was his penis). At this point, you’re in some Borgesian twilight zone of trust, love, misgiving, and terrible queasiness: “Am I being duped? By the Met?”

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  • Posted 1/27/16 at 8:54 PM
  • Theater

Theater Review: I and You and a Plot Twist, Too

Every year, American Theatre magazine publishes a list of the country’s most-produced playwrights. It makes sense that Ayad Akhtar topped the latest edition: His award-winning plays, many performed in New York and one (Disgraced) on Broadway, are compelling and topical and fairly easy to mount. Familiar names including August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller (in his centenary year) filled out most of the rest of the top ten — except for a writer, tied for seventh spot with John Patrick Shanley, I’d never heard of before: Lauren Gunderson. Based in California, Gunderson has several plays in active circulation; they’ve had a total of more than 70 productions around the country in the last few years, virtually none here. That anomaly has now been corrected with the arrival at 59E59 of her most popular work, the 2011 drama I and You, in a production from the Merrimack Repertory Theatre of Lowell, Massachusetts. I’m not sure which is more dispiriting: the play itself or what it says about the theatrical scene in the hinterlands. 

Two characters, one set. »

Diane Williams: Avant-Garde Master of Miniature Fiction

It’s hard to summarize any of Diane Williams’s stories, and it may be beside the point. But let’s try. “Greed” opens with mention of an inheritance from the narrator’s paternal grandmother: “a pile of jewels.” It’s claimed by her father, so her mother comes into possession of two gem-set rings that late in life she “amalgamated” into one: “the diamonds and the sapphires were impressively bulked together.” It’s a striking image; the narrator calls it a “phantasmagoria” and says she wanted the hybrid ring to be a reminder of her mother. Then comes the story’s last line: “It’s hard to believe that our affair was so long ago.” I’ve made an assumption here that could be incorrect: that the narrator is female. We don’t know, and we don’t know who the other half of that our is, and what the jewelry, or just the amalgamated rings, had to do with the affair. And that title — who is the greedy one? The father? The narrator? The narrator’s lover?

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That Was Fast! Trevor Noah Is Publishing a Book of Personal Essays

Just like his Daily Show papa, Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah is wasting no time inking that book deal: Noah has announced he's publishing his first book of personal essays in November with Spiegel & Grau, a Penguin Random House imprint. The essays will detail Noah's life in South Africa "during the last gasps of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that came with its demise," experiences he often inserts into his comedy. But if it seems a little premature to be shelling out millions ($3 million, reportedly) for more words from a guy who's been in the Daily Show chair less than six months, well, hey, Stewart published his first collection of essays (1998's Naked Pictures of Famous People) a year before his TDS tenure even began. So take that, Noah! Why the need to commit his life story to paper? "I couldn't find a good book about myself so I decided to write one. And just like me this book doesn't have an appendix," Noah said in a statement. Touché. Fingers crossed his essays have better editing than his old tweets ever did.

Ken Kratz, the Making a Murderer Prosecutor, Is Writing a Book Now

Action 2 News reports Ken Kratz, the prosecutor of Making a Murderer infamy, will now write a book to share his side of the case behind the Netflix series. "Finally grateful to tell the whole story," Kratz told WBAY-TV on Sunday, adding that "the one voice forgotten to this point is Teresa Halbach." Kratz's announcement follows a rough Yelp appraisal, as well as criticism calling Netflix and MaM's filmmakers biased in favor of the show's subject, Steven Avery. The ten-part docuseries revolves around Avery's contentious conviction for Halbach's murder. Kratz, who won against Avery, wants to stand up for Halbach and her family following MaM's massive popularity, which has generated no dearth of support for Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey — both of whom many viewers want pardoned and freed because of how the trial was handled.

"If I was spoon-fed only what the Netflix documentary wanted me to see, I’d come to exactly the same conclusion. I’d be outraged." »

  • Posted 1/20/16 at 10:00 PM
  • Theater

Theater Review: Linda Lavin Has a Secret, in Our Mother’s Brief Affair

Anna Cantor, the title character of Our Mother’s Brief Affair, is a suburban matron, a passive-aggressive parent, and, even in the throes of semi-dementia, a genius with a barb. (As long as he’s celibate anyway, she asks her gay son, “Would it kill you to not sleep with a woman?”) If the playwright Richard Greenberg didn’t write the role for Linda Lavin, he might as well have, so perfectly does it suit and flatter her. It may in fact suit and flatter her too well; sometimes one would like to see Lavin clawing her way out of a role instead of slipping so smoothly into it. Here, she wears Anna as fetchingly as Anna wears the perfectly cut Burberry trench coat she imbues with talismanic powers of mysterious romance. It is just such a romance that forms the central (and really the only) plot of this entertaining but threadbare play, staged for Manhattan Theatre Club by its longtime artistic director, Lynne Meadow. Really, the title tells you all you need to know: Anna, in the hospital for one of her many near-death theatricals, reveals to her adult twin children the story of, well —

But I can’t say. And neither, until just before the first-act curtain, can Greenberg.

No spoilers. »

  • Posted 1/20/16 at 3:10 PM

How Art Star Mark Grotjahn Became Art Star Mark Grotjahn: By Repainting Signs for Local Mom-and-pop Stores in L.A.

Mark Grotjahn (pronounced Groat-john) is widely recognized for his painting prowess. Since the mid-1990s, he's made radiating butterfly-wing-like bursts of rainbow color that create schisms in vision; since the mid-2000s, he's fashioned canvases with rich thickets of raffialike lines that allude to abstract faces and raw abstraction. He also makes painted bronze mask forms cast from cardboard boxes. I'd happily own any of his work, and right now, at Larry Gagosian’s Madison Avenue palace of fortune, there’s a big new show of his paintings that finds Grotjahn further exploring the possibilities of abstraction in thick furrows and clusters of paint, gouged surfaces, and opaque color, all of which gives his work the presence of simian beings or optical shamans.

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  • Posted 1/20/16 at 12:31 PM

Garth Greenwell’s Exquisite, Humorless New Novel

Perhaps like me you recall first encountering the poetry of Walt Whitman as a high-school student and reacting to certain lines with adolescent giggles. It’s an experience shared by the narrator of Garth Greenwell’s exquisite first novel What Belongs to You, an English teacher at the American College in Sofia, a midwestern stranger in Bulgaria feeling often thrilled and threatened by its foreignness. Early on he recalls walking in the mountain village of Blagoevgrad, chaperoning some students to a conference on mathematical linguistics, “a field in which I had little interest and no expertise” — a flash of offhand candor that inspires steady faith in his telling. Walking along a path between mountain and river, he does a great deal of seeing: “The air was thick with movement, butterflies and day moths and also, hanging iridescent in the sun, tiny ephemerae shining and embalmed, pushed helplessly here and there by the light breeze. The grasses and trees were releasing in a great exhalation pods of seeds, the tiny grains each sheltered and propelled by a tuft of hair like a parachute or umbrella.” The scene has him thinking of Whitman: “There were lines in Whitman’s poems that had always struck me as exaggerated in their enthusiasm, their unhinged eroticism; they embarrassed me a little, though my students read them each year with delighted laughter.”

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  • Posted 1/19/16 at 4:00 PM
  • Books

Chuck Klosterman Is Writing a Book About the Possibility of Us Being Wrong About, Well, Everything

At various points in human history, Herman Melville was a middling novelist, Shakespeare was a pretty good romance writer, and the sun was a big bright thing that revolved around the Earth. Which ideas that we take for granted today will be disproven in the years ahead? That's the premise of Chuck Klosterman's new book, What If We're Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, an attempt to imagine what the textbooks of 100, 300, or even 1,000 years from now will say about American culture at the start of the 21st century. We spoke to Klosterman about the book ahead of an exclusive reveal of its cover, which you can see below.

"We live in a period of extremely high certitude about what we believe, and we're completely obsessed with the present tense, as if the present will always be this way," Klosterman says. But any study of human history will tell you that's never been the case, and the book is Klosterman's effort to explore what our current standards of thought might be overlooking. He spoke to Richard Linklater about dreams, once considered the most important window into the human psyche. He spoke to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene about the possibility of our basic understanding of gravity being overturned one day, as Aristotle's was. And he looked at the changing reputations of various authors in an attempt to understand what makes literature get "remembered." As Klosterman put it to us, "Could the most famous American novelist of this period be completely unknown, in the case of Kafka, or known but not respected, like Melville?" (Or even a blogger at a well-regarded pop-culture site? Hmmm.)

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