Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
November 2008, Brooklyn—Sixty or so people crammed into a living room meant for maybe five: This is the return of Blake Schwarzenbach, the former singer and guitarist of Jets to Brazil and, more importantly, Jawbreaker, the much-adored '90s proto-emo outfit. Schwarzenbach had been out of music since the demise of Jets, in 2003; a move to Brooklyn and an entrée into a quietly vibrant community of punk houses and DIY show spaces in Crown Heights brought him back. Thorns of Life, the band he formed last fall, played only a handful of unannounced shows, and released no music—most people found out about the band the day they announced they'd broken up. But Schwarzenbach took the songs and spirit of Thorns of Life into 2009 and, in August, debuted forgetters, a new three-piece with the former drummer of the now-world-beating Florida punk act Against Me! So far, forgetters have been a slightly more public affair. Their second show was a raucous, person-packed affair in the basement of the Lit Lounge; multiple audience members could be witnessed discreetly tugging down sleeves, covering up an old Jawbreaker tattoo or three—trés 1996.
In New York theater, actors and directors are important, of course—playwrights and designers, too. But in this city, the biggest role in theater is played by real estate—the cost of renting a decent theater can be a killer. So it's with constant awe that we contemplate 59E59 Theaters, which provides one of the greatest rental deals in town. Take their Theater B, for example—the kind of 99-seater very much in demand for productions operating under Equity's showcase code. Theater B rents for $3,500 per week—not nothing, but cheaper than most rooms of its size and quality. But that's just the start. 59E59 Theaters also tosses in—for free!—full front-of-house staff, ticketing and box-offices services, a weekly Time Out ad (and sometimes a Times ABC), program design and printing, and, maybe most remarkably, a press agent. (A good press agent would normally cost your show between $2,000 and $3,500.) All of this with no box-office rake—companies keep 100 percent of their ticket sales. So a collective bravo to artistic director Elysabeth Kleinhans and executive producer Peter Tear for creating such an affordable venue for all our aspiring Belascos.
The theatrical hotbed that New York happily is, we're blessed with any number of highly talented stage directors. But the one most catching our eye these days—whose name attached to a show most warms us with optimism—is the quietly intrepid Ken Rus Schmoll. This past season, the Village Voice Obie Committee agreed, awarding Schmoll his first Obie—and likely not his last—for his production of Ariana Reines's Telephone, directed for the Foundry Theatre at the Cherry Lane. Schmoll brought a steady hand and hypnotic vision to this tricky triptych, which ended up being one of the most curious shows of the season. Indeed, oddness and calmness combine noticeably in his work—such as in his staging of Rob Handel's eerie-suburban Millicent Scowlworthy at the Summer Play Festival a few years ago, or, more recently, in his production of Kristin Newbom's amusing-sad Telethon at Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks. As much as we love him downtown, here's hoping he also finds some uptown success, perhaps with Ann Marie Healy's What Once We Felt, starting October 26 for Lincoln Center's LCT3 series.
Someone—and I'm glad it won't be me—will write a book about the Brooklyn indie-rock scene in the next five years. (Prospective titles: Brooklyn (We Go Soft), A Tweet Grows in Brooklyn, My Friend Flickr, I Don't Mean to Seem Like I Care About Material Things, Bleed American Apparel, or something involving the word "hipster," in which case you have my permission to steal all the copies you can find and throw them off the nearest bridge.) This tome will exhaustively discuss the genesis, ascendance, and far-reaching influence of such borough big shots as TV on the Radio, the Fiery Furnaces, M.I.A., Grizzly Bear, Santigold, Animal Collective, MGMT, Matt and Kim, Sufjan Stevens, Todd P, the Dirty Projectors, and on and on. If we're lucky, this author will be a rational, knowledgeable, thoroughly embedded BK native who won't resort to wackadoo stereotypes and clueless blog-baiting. If we're even luckier, though, this author will be, and do, the exact opposite. The best thing about living in Brooklyn is reading hilarious, oblivious accounts of what living in Brooklyn is like. Wayward journalistic attempts at infiltrating youth culture are a time-honored tradition, geography notwithstanding: The winsomely confused recent Santa Barbara Independent treatise that began, "There's only one viable avant-garde art form nowadays, and it's called indie rock" and declared Devendra Banhart "the Bob Dylan heir apparent of this age" sure was a hoot. But they're infinitely better when they focus on Brooklyn generally—and Williamsburg, specifically—conjuring in the befuddled reader's mind's eye a toxic utopia of snooty, self-obsessed coolness fueled by retro fetishism, mindless elitism, and paralyzing narcissism.
Time birthed a genre classic in July. Category: "Brief History." Headline: "Hipsters." Photo caption: "New York hipsters participate in a water-balloon toss at McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn." Alleged fashion traits: cowboy hats, berets, jean shorts, Converse All-Stars, and "T-shirts silk-screened with quotes from movies you've never heard of." (Berets?) Not delving into musical matters much (beyond opening the piece with "Hipsters are the friends who sneer when you cop to liking Coldplay") showed some restraint, I suppose; wrapping things up by alluding to the imminent, recession-aided demise of "Williamsburg's hipster playland" did not.
Sure, newsweeklies have trafficked in this nonsense for decades. (Either Time or Newsweek filed an epic early-'90s report on "alternative rock," suggesting that if I liked They Might Be Giants, I would love the Butthole Surfers, which is probably the single worst piece of advice I have ever received.) And nowadays, you don't even need a hapless print journalist to indulge such stereotypes, what with a glut of acidly satirical blogs (Hipster Runoff and the book-deal-adorned Look at This Fucking Hipster chief among them) to peruse. Or, for the reading-averse, you could just check out photo slideshows from Jelly's summer-long series of weekly Pool Parties, which migrated this year from an actual pool (at McCarren Park, of course) to the slightly more picturesque East River State Park, but retained the event's star attraction: unbeatable people-watching.
Dressed carefully but haphazardly, childishly but usually salaciously (i.e., "more topless women than non-topless women," as the Voice delicately chose to describe its own round-up of patrons at a Girl Talk fete), often more than 10,000 eager young'uns mashed into "the Williamsburg Waterfront" on Sunday afternoons this summer, and you only have to shuffle through 20 to 25 candid Internet portraits of beaming folks with fey tattoos and ribald undergarments and not-very-sunlight-obstructing sunglasses to get some very strange ideas about what planet they're living on, even if you're living on it as well, just down the street. In spite of yourself, you start to believe this utopia actually exists. Jay-Z got into the act, too, famously dropping by Grizzly Bear's Pool Party gig in late August, swaying along to the quartet's baroque pop with Beyonc at his side and later raving about "the indie-rock movement" and its potential to "push hip-hop even further." It all starts to indeed seem quite momentous, glamorous, revolutionary. The Brooklyn Summer of Love! It's all happening!
The best antidote to this sort of talk, of course, is to actually go to a Pool Party. They're great fun, and lousy with great distractions (dodgeball, relatively cheap food, Mission of Burma), but to your initial surprise and eventual relief, the teeming masses surrounding you carry no whiff of the Zeitgeist, do not unify into a single influential body that Time or Jay-Z or whoever can then categorize and praise (or deride) as Hipsters, Indie-Rockers, Gen-YYY'ers, etc. These are simply young, hungover, sunburned, disquietingly dressed, possibly unemployed people who showed up because everyone else was showing up, and it's free, and maybe someone will take a picture of them dancing to Dan Deacon or tossing water balloons or whatever and peg them as emblematic of an entirely new and vital social class.
Nor does Brooklyn's actual music necessarily betray a great deal of camaraderie or continuity: There are friends, partnerships, and small cliques, but no overarching, BK-centric themes connecting the interests of TVOTR, the Vivian Girls, the Drums, or MGMT. This year, we've had a run on Best Brooklyn Indie-Rock Record of All Time candidates, starting with (only somewhat affiliated) Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion and continuing on through Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest and—my personal favorite—the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca, a bewildering blend of West African guitar-god exuberance, choral elegance, and abrasive noise-rock that feels like nothing you've heard before and nothing you could possibly hear afterward. Neither the band nor its myriad Brooklynite fans can be so easily, blithely classified. Still, we hope people never stop trying.
New York theaters have many advantages over our London counterparts. Programs are free, seats a tad roomier, and you're more unlikely to be glared at should you express enthusiasm for the play and its stars. Nevertheless, there's one aspect of auditoria at which the Brits excel—the theater bar. At many London venues, a comfortable pub or chic café adjoins the performance space. Spectators can grab a quick bite before the show or linger over a drink after, often in the company of the play's cast and crew. Meanwhile, Gotham's vision of hospitality involves a small kiosk profferring stale coffee and a few packs of Twizzlers. But last season, a few theaters decided that while music may be the food of love, food and drinks are pretty loveable, too. Here Arts Center added the café-bar 1 Dominick, a charming space in which to sit and enjoy a pre-show Limonata. Now if only we can convince local playhouses to start selling ice cream at intermission, we'll have those Brits beat.
Of all the disciplines within New York theater, we're most loaded with acting talent. How many mediocre plays have we seen rescued by the performers, their creativity and ingenuity elevating the production well beyond its limitations? So it's perhaps unfair to single out a Best Actress or Best Actor from the city's many deserving thespians. But we're going to do it anyway, dammit! Our nod for Best Actress goes to the aptly named Elizabeth Marvel. While not an above-the-title star, the Juilliard grad consistently delivers some of the city's most riveting performances—the three-time Obie winner digs down so deep into her characters that it's frightening. Who can forget her remarkable performance as Hedda Gabler—covered in tomato juice—in Ivo van Hove's 2005 production of Ibsen's classic, or her slow, desperate, naked slide into a bathtub in Van Hove's 2000 deconstruction of A Streetcar Named Desire, both mounted at New York Theatre Workshop? NYTW is also often home to our choice for Best Actor, Bill Camp, who won a 2002 Obie for his role in Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul on that East 4th Street stage. Camp specializes in slippery, tormented characters—most recently, he was the Underground Man in Notes From Underground, directed by Robert Woodruff at Yale Rep. It was a grueling portrayal, in the best possible way, and we hope it hits a New York theater soon. Camp is always a pleasure—if sometimes an anguished one—to watch. Why name our Best Actress and Best Actor in the same item? It only seems fitting—Marvel and Camp are married. —Brian Parks