August: Osage County Heads to Gammage Ushering in a New Year of Theater

Things were not going well.

I was at a holiday party, and people were doing that thing where they try to get me to talk about theater. Mostly, when this happens, it's because people assume that I want to chat about shows I have seen or am about to see. (I do not.) But because this was a holiday party — an especially gigantic one, so crowded that it looked less like a party than like Utah, if Utah had run out of condoms sometime in the '70s — the party guests I was talking to were trying to get me to tell them which shows they should take their visiting relatives to.

I'd been cornered, trapped between a colossal light-up Frosty and a misshapen gingerbread house so crispy-burnt that it looked more like a gingerbread tarpaper shack. My friend Michelle and I had bumped into one another in front of the gingerbread lean-to, and, after our quick embrace, she'd done the inexcusable: She'd turned to the couple on our left, pointed to me, and blurted, "My friend is a theater critic!" And then she'd vanished.

Now I was being grilled by this couple, the female half of which had sprayed a cheerful stripe of fluorescent red into her fried-blond hair.

"So, maybe you could tell me," she began — and I immediately thought Perhaps my spleen will burst and I won't have to have this conversation —"what show we can take my mom to. She absolutely loves Phantom of the Opera. Is anything like that playing?"

Christmas-sweatered secretaries and bored-looking teens squeezed past; I wanted to grab one and whisper, "I don't care where you're headed — even if it's over there to that Rubbermaid bowl full of seven-layer salad — take me with you!" Instead, I drew a deep breath and said, "Well, the Yeston/Kopit Phantom is playing at Arizona Broadway Theater in April, but your mother will probably be gone by then. How about Tracy Letts' August: Osage County at Gammage? That runs through January 10. The New York Times raved about its Broadway production."

"Does it have songs?" Stripey Hair whined.

"No," I told her. "If you're looking for a musical, Arizona Theater Company is doing Ain't Misbehavin' through January 17. And Phoenix Theater is doing Glorious until the end of the month. That ought to be fun. It's about Florence Foster Jenkins, an old lady who was tone deaf but still managed to sing at Carnegie Hall."

Her husband leaned in close. His breath smelled of onion dip. "Is it supposed to be good?"

I silently wished for the thousandth time that day that I possessed the power to explode a stranger's head with just an impatient smile, and then said, "Everything is supposed to be good. Maybe you should take your mother-in-law to the movies."

"Yeah, right, you hate everything," a tall, skinny guy who'd been eavesdropping snorted. "I read your thing about the play where the three women kill their husbands."

"Then you'll recall that I very much liked The Smell of the Kill," I hollered above the party din, "but not the production. Or much of the acting."

Onion Dip rolled his eyes. "Name three shows you didn't hate this year," he huffed.

"Columbinus," I replied. "Teatro Bravo's Little Queen. Black Theater Troupe's delightful The Bluest Eye. And, as a bonus answer, I loved Sharon Collar in Premiere, even if the script sucked."

I went on to tell the happy couple that I was really looking forward to Avenue Q at Gammage in March, and that watching D. Scott Withers play Herbie in Arizona Broadway Theater's Gypsy later this month sounded like a good time, even if ABT was foolish enough not to have cast Michelle Gardner as Mama Rose when they had the chance. I admitted I was hoping David Barker would remount his Dodging Bullets — a rather astonishing one-man show about, among other things, the time Barker was shot by his own brother-in-law — sometime in 2010, and that I was counting the days until Stray Cat Theater opened David Bell's The Play About the Naked Guy, a comedy about a failed theater troupe, because Stray Cat had hired Damon Dering to direct, and Damon (whose own Nearly Naked Theater company is about to bust out with David Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Meers later this month) rarely gets anything wrong on stage.

Sometime during this recitation, we were joined by an inebriated man dressed as Baby New Year. He interrupted my monologue about how I'd give anything this year to see Lisa Fineberg Malone onstage in something — anything! — to slur, "I read your review of Revenge of a King. You should really go easy on theater people!"

I figured, I'm not going to take career advice from a drunk guy in a diaper, so I simply patted him on his big, hairy shoulder and said, "No." Then I snapped the front porch off the gingerbread shanty, stuck it in my mouth, and pressed past this group of holiday humbugs.

Go easy on theater people, my Great-Aunt Fanny, I thought as I headed for the door. Once there, I kept right on going, out into the world, straight toward another year full of what I hoped would be not unpleasant plays and musicals.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela