The Bon Mots of Michael Riedel

riedelNothing generates as much excitement around town as a smash hit musical. Or, if you’re a bit of a vulture (and I am), a complete fiasco wherein millions of dollars are lost, people are at one another’s throats and reputations are ruined.

— Michael Riedel, in an article from September 2003

Michael Riedel was our guest at last week’s Seriously Entertaining “Are You For Sale?” at City Winery. He spoke with wit and love of the late Jacques le Sourd, a critic-colleague of his whom he had known for many years. (In)famous for his outspoken, occasionally outrageous criticism, Riedel has worked as theatre critic for the New York Post for more than 15 years. To celebrate his SpeakEasy debut, we take a look at his work in the Post and on his PBS show Theater Talk.

‘Bullets Over Broadway’ on target to kill at Tonys

A recent one to kick off, covering the musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s 1994 movie Bullets Over Broadway, which is currently in previews at the St. James Theatre. Part of what makes Riedel’s work so entertaining is his acknowledgement of his own reputation. It was there in his work on the TV show Smash, whose writers referred to him as a “Napoleonic little Nazi” before asking him for a cameo. In this piece on the new sensation-in-waiting, he is full of prophecy: “‘Bullets Over Broadway’ has been in previews just three days, and already those in the know — that would be me! — are sensing it’s the show to beat this season…”

First ‘Spider-Man’ preview filled with problems

Riedel’s perverse advocacy of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has been going on since before previews began in 2010. What he nows calls his “favourite show of all time” has certainly given him a lot of material, as in this marvellous piece from November 2010:

[He was] supposed to fly off in a dramatic end to the first act. Instead, Spider-Man got stuck in midair and swung back and forth over the crowd as three stagehands leaped up and down futilely trying to grab onto one of his feet to haul him back to earth.

‘Taboo’ Postmortem: Who & What Went Wrong

When asked for a comment on Riedel, Rosie O’Donnell, who produced Taboo, told New York Magazine, “I hope you eviscerate him”. Reading this delicately constructed devastation of a piece from 2004, one can perhaps see why:

There are no “villains” in this story, really – just a volatile, distracted and ultimately ineffectual producer; a weak director; a timid bookwriter who watched his key scenes get cut because they couldn’t be acted or directed properly; and a star, Boy George, who wrote a fine score (let’s give him his due) but wasn’t much of an actor.

Diva Amanda Plummer ‘a nightmare’ backstage

Riedel has long had J. Edgarish access to backstage gossip, and his articles are heavily spiced with chat overheard from the aisles and passages of Broadway’s theatres. In this gloriously telltale piece, he takes a candid look at Amanda Plummer’s appearance in Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play last year:

As for Dad [actor Christopher Plummer], he attended a later performance — but left at intermission. “I just have to go,” he muttered to a theater staffer. “Don’t let her know.”

Theater Talk
Happy 21st birthday to Theater Talk, the PBS show Riedel co-presents with Susan Haskins. It’s a fantastic show comprising long, in-depth interviews with the top talent on Broadway and the critics who take them apart. Recent guests have included Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein on Kinky Boots and knights Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot.

“Your show made my name in this business, and I am grateful, truly grateful.” So says Riedel to Glen Berger, co-writer of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and the author of the backstage chronicle The Song of Spider-Man, in a Theater Talk from late last year. This is the first of a two-part interview with Berger on the publication of his book lifting the lid on the process of bringing Spider-Man to the stage. Did you know Neil Jordan was once attached to the show? Watch on, dear friends…

The Luminous Uma Thurman

In 1991 the New York Times marked the “earth-shattering news” that Pauline Kael was retiring by interviewing her. The great iconoclast of film criticism, whose put-downs made her unpopular with publicists but delighted readers of the New Yorker for more than twenty years, nevertheless found much to admire in the latest crop of Hollywood stars. She listed among her favourites Tim Robbins, Annette Bening, Uma Thurman, John Cusack and Wesley Snipes. That this is a list of some of the most significant screen actors of the two decades since Kael’s retirement is a testament to her uncannily splendid taste. That it features one of the special guest hosts for the House of SpeakEasy’s opening gala — Uma Thurman — is merely delightful coincidence!

On the night of the gala, Uma Thurman will be leading guests through “The Tip of My Tongue”. The Oscar-nominated actress will read out selections from three mystery books, all carefully chosen to reflect the theme of the evening (“Plays With Matches”),  and invite the audience to identify the title, the author, and the decade in which the books were written. The winner will receive signed books from the authors appearing at the gala.

Thurman began her acting career at seventeen, four years before her anointment by Kael. In those early years she had a small part in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, narrowly escaped a starring role in Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and fell for the insidious charms of John Malkovich’s Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. She was also well reviewed for her performance in Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June, in which she played June Miller, wife of Tropic of Cancer author Henry, caught up in the sexual machinations of her husband and Anaïs Nin in 1930s Paris.

And then came Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction.

Its “154 deliciously lurid minutes” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone) probably contain a higher concentration of iconic moments and dialogue than any movie since Francis Ford Coppola’s run of masterpieces in the 1970s. But ask pretty much anyone which scene they found most memorable, and it’s the dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where Thurman and John Travolta boogie on down to Chuck Berry. At my secondary school the VHS of Pulp Fiction circulated faster than rumour and everyone was doing this dance. I realise now, rewatching it, that my every move even today is a shameless plagiarism.

Thurman followed an Oscar nomination for Pulp Fiction with significant performances in The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996), Gattaca (1997), Les Misérables (1998) and the TV movie Hysterical Blindness (2002), which won her a Golden Globe. And then QT came a-knocking once more.

Warning: violence and language (arguably my favourite MPAA euphemism) follow.

Kill Bill, Thurman’s next collaboration with Tarantino, won her more accolades, including two further Golden Globe nominations. As with her Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction, her performance as the Bride/Beatrix Kiddo was immediately iconic. Aside from the physical demands of the role — exemplified by this brilliant clip from the start of Vol. 1 — the Bride showcased Thurman’s facility in tragedy. The great anagnorisis in Kill Bill, when, more than three hours into the story, she comes face to face with the infant daughter she had presumed dead, is profoundly moving. No mean feat in a film characterised by its extravagant stylistic effects and fantastic violence.

The years since have given us Be Cool (2005), Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010), Bel Ami (2012), and an Emmy nomination for Thurman’s guest role in NBC’s Smash.

But what’s next?

Now I’m a big fan of Lars von Trier but I will concede that he hardly rules over a land of critical consensus. Nevertheless, his next film, NYMPH()MANIAC (warning: link probably NSFW), to be released in the US in two parts (on March 21 and April 18 respectively), has received excellent early reviews. Based on five of these, Metacritic currently has NYMPH()MANIAC: Volume 1 scoring at 80% while Rotten Tomatoes, from eight reviews, rates it 100% fresh. Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent picks out Thurman’s “tremendous” performance, Todd McCarthy calls her “ferocious”, while the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks opts for a laconic but vivid “electrifying”. Can’t wait.

We are delighted that Uma Thurman is joining us for our sold-out opening gala at City Winery on January 27. Please click here to buy tickets for our February 24 show, “This Is Not A Man”, featuring Tom Reiss, Jeff McDaniel, Anton Sword and Dana Vachon.