Theater Talkback: The Rough Beauty of Everyday Speech

A scene from the second episode of “Life and Times,” from the Nature Theater of Oklahoma.Reinhard Werner-Burgtheater A scene from the second episode of “Life and Times,” from the Nature Theater of Oklahoma.

Generally speaking, we don’t go to the theater to listen to conversations that we might just as easily hear while waiting on line at the grocery store or commuting on the subway. Among the essential gifts most great playwrights possess is an ability to take the dross of humble human speech and give it a silvering polish.

The Elizabethans did not address each other in iambic pentameter, after all, and few marital set-tos burn with the coruscating wit of the brawl between George and Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” The language we thrill to onstage is often a more literate or stylized expression of human speech, whether it’s the filigreed lyricism of Tennessee Williams’s characters, the eloquent dialectics that perfume Shavian drawing rooms, or the staccato fireworks with which men flay each other in the best of David Mamet’s work.

But since the late 19th and early 20th century, at least, there has been a countervailing trend: an attempt to bring the halting, admittedly unbeautiful way average men and women communicate onstage without dressing it up in decorous or flashy colorings. Chekhov probably set the standard for this more earthbound approach to listening in on human nature, although his character still often engage in reveries that are hardly likely to have naturally fallen from the lips of real-life equivalents of his gentrified Russians.

Since then innumerable playwrights have brought th! e rhythms and colors of everyday speech to the stage, to match the drab wallpaper and the proverbial (if not literal) kitchen sink. Some of the playwrights I most admire today – like Annie Baker and Amy Herzog – are particularly adept at finding the poetry in the faltering, arrhythmic manner in which people really address each other, with unfinished sentences, overlapping dialogue and plenty of natural pauses.

But the Nature Theater of Oklahoma takes this aesthetic appreciation of everyday discourse to fascinating, funny, even perverse new extremes. Their marvelous new production, “Life and Times: Episodes 1-4,” which ends its run at the Public Theater on Saturday, draws its text from that most everyday of occurrences, a phone conversation (several, actually) that te directors of the company, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, conducted with one of its members, Kristin Worrall.

From the opening moments of this opus – which totals about eight hours of stage time — it becomes clear that Ms. Worrall was not chosen for the manicured eloquence of her speaking style, or a preternatural ability to turn thoughts into elegant paragraphs. Recalling her life experience, from hazy memories of childhood through to adolescence and beyond, she sounds like just about anybody you might grab from a suburban mall and plant in front of a microphone.

That’s not meant to be a knock: Ms. Worrall, who I guess to be somewhere in her late 30s, speaks in much the same way most college-educated, suburban-raised Americans of her age do, which is to say her conversation is digressive and meandering, and amply stocked with meaningless interstitial words and phrases like “um” and “you know” and “yeah” and, most memorably and repeatedly, “like.” What makes the show s! o remarka! ble is that these conversational tics that we all hear and mostly tune out are all included in the text of the show, as if each fumbling digression were as worthy of immortality as Blanche DuBois’s immortal observation about the kindness of strangers.

What are they up to Mr. Liska and Ms. Copper are not just interested in everyday language for its own sake, of course: their shows are not transcriptions of random conversations. They are intrigued by how people recollect and process experience through speech. “Rambo Solo,” an earlier production, consisted of a single performer recounting the plot of the Sylvester Stallone movie “First Blood,” and the company’s version of “Romeo and Juliet” ignored Shakespeare’s text and replaced it with often-hilarious descriptions or recollections from a variety of people, many with distinctl fuzzy memories.

In their inspired hands, the most unbeautiful, sometimes maddeningly hazy and imprecise language takes on a distinct and surprising appeal. Set to music, as much of it is in “Life and Times,” the rambling recollections of Mr. Worrall become their own form of stylized theatrical speech, simply by being presented without editing. Those endless reiterations of the word “like” become musical notes seasoning the text.

Language unshaped by an aesthetic formula is shown to have its own funky fascination by being presented in a context in which we expect to encounter an aesthetic experience. Trimmed with the traditional adornments of theater — music and dance, colorful costumes, or in the case of the last two episodes of “Life and Times,” declaimed in the melodramatic style of a creaky stage mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap” – the ! artless b! ecomes artful.

Nature Theater is not the only young company to employ what you might call “found speech” as the building blocks of their artistry. The Civilians, another young New York company, uses the texts of interviews with real people to create their clever theatrical collages like “Gone Missing” and “In the Footprint.” There may be a generational component to this new appreciation of messy everyday speech: the dialogue on the terrific HBO show “Girls” likewise hews closely to strict naturalism, including all those extraneous “likes” that English teachers find so maddening.

I certainly glory in the language of Williams and Albee and Shakespeare, and would not want every other show I attended to consist of verbatim conversations. But I also share Mr. Liska and Ms.Copper’s delight in the rough, rumpled sound of contemporary talk. And while their approach inevitably has its maddening aspects – eight hours is a long time to listen to someone natter on about him or herself, to be sure – you come away from their shows with an ear freshly attuned to how you and everyone around you actually speaks, and perhaps a heightened appreciation of that immemorially addictive pastime, eavesdropping.

What do you think of everyday speech put on stage If you’ve seen any (or all) of “Life and Times,” please share your thoughts on the company’s unique aesthetic.

New Paul Taylor Work to Premiere at Vail International Dance Festival

The latest new work by Paul Taylor, 82, the modern dance choreographer, will see the light of day in Colorado. The Vail International Dance Festival said on Thursday that Mr. Taylor’s 139th work – so far unnamed and performed by the Paul Taylor Dance Company — will have its premiere on Aug. 5 at the festival, which runs from July 28 through Aug. 10 in Vail and Beaver Creek, Colo. Larry Keigwin, Brian Brooks and Charles “Lil Buck” Riley are other choreographers who will have new pieces on the program, the festival said.

The festival, which is celebrating its 25th-anniversary season and is led by Damian Woetzel, will also feature Pacific Northwest Ballet, an evening of dances by George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet dancers Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild, the Russian dancer Sergei Polunin, the Taiwanese dancer Fang-Yi Sheu and the tango masterGabriel Misse from Argentina. Tickets will go on sale on Mar. 13.

New Paul Taylor Work to Premiere at Vail International Dance Festival

The latest new work by Paul Taylor, 82, the modern dance choreographer, will see the light of day in Colorado. The Vail International Dance Festival said on Thursday that Mr. Taylor’s 139th work – so far unnamed and performed by the Paul Taylor Dance Company — will have its premiere on Aug. 5 at the festival, which runs from July 28 through Aug. 10 in Vail and Beaver Creek, Colo. Larry Keigwin, Brian Brooks and Charles “Lil Buck” Riley are other choreographers who will have new pieces on the program, the festival said.

The festival, which is celebrating its 25th-anniversary season and is led by Damian Woetzel, will also feature Pacific Northwest Ballet, an evening of dances by George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet dancers Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild, the Russian dancer Sergei Polunin, the Taiwanese dancer Fang-Yi Sheu and the tango masterGabriel Misse from Argentina. Tickets will go on sale on Mar. 13.

After Reshuffling Funds, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ Producers Plan to Proceed

The Broadway producers of “Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’” have sorted out money problems that had the potential to derail the show’s planned opening in March, a spokesman for the show said on Thursday. One of the “Tiffany’s” investors, who had been responsible for about $1 million of the show’s $4 million budget, had told his partners that he was bowing out, and the show’s cast and creative team was notified on Sunday that the producers needed to replace the money quickly or the play might be canceled.

This led agents for some of the “Tiffany’s” actors to start calling producers of other shows to say their actors might be available for work this spring. But the show’s spokesman, Rick Miramontez, said Thursday that the investor was now sticking with the play, but providing less money, and that the other producers and investors wee making up the difference. Mr. Miramontez declined to identify the investor. Based on Capote’s 1958 novella, this “Tiffany’s” adaptation is by the Tony Award winner Richard Greenberg (“Take Me Out”) and stars the British actress Emilia Clarke (HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) as New York society girl Holly Golightly. The lead producers are Colin Ingram Productions Limited, Donovan Mannato and Dominic Ianno.

Koch in Intensive Care

Edward I. Koch at his 88th birthday party last month.Yana Paskova for The New York Times Edward I. Koch at his 88th birthday party last month.

Former Mayor Edward I. Koch, who has been hospitalized since Monday with lung problems, was placed in the intensive care unit on Thursday afternoon, his spokesman said.

Mr. Koch’s lead doctor “said he wanted to monitor the former mayor more closely,” said the spokesman, George Arzt, who declining to elaborate.

Mr. Koch, 88, is at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital, where he has been afrequent visitor lately for a series of health problems.

He was treated for anemia in September, for a lung infection in December, and earlier this month for a buildup of fluid in his lungs. He was released last Saturday after being treated for the lung ailment, only to return on Monday because fluid in his lungs had built up again.

Report Faults German Governments and Museums on Handling of Nazis’ Loot

The German newspaper Der Spiegel has published a devastating indictment of German governments’ and museums’ handling of an enormous amount of valuable art, jewelry, land and more looted by the Nazis, calling it “a moral disaster that began in the 1950s and continues to the present day.”

The report, published Wednesday, is based on an extensive search of public and private documents and details how a succession of German governments ignored or actively blocked attempts to return property worth hundreds of millions of dollars to its rightful owners or organizations that represent Jewish victims.

Some objects decorate the walls and halls of museums and government buildings, including a cherry desk that adorns the president’s office.

The newspaper discovered that in the wake of some feeble resttution efforts in the 1960s, the government misled the public into believing the issue had been fully investigated and resolved. Der Spiegel said that it, too, had been taken in by the government’s assurances at the time.

Even now, the government has devoted so few resources to provenance research that it would take several decades to search through the inventories of cultural institutions, the article said. Museums have often responded to requests for information from the families of victims with charges that the questioners are money-grubbers.

The paper extensively details how Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffman - classified as a “Major Offender” by the Allies in 1947 – nonetheless managed to reclaim after the war a huge portion of the valuables he stole.

The article exhorts the government to fully finance provenance research.

Report Faults German Governments and Museums on Handling of Nazis’ Loot

The German newspaper Der Spiegel has published a devastating indictment of German governments’ and museums’ handling of an enormous amount of valuable art, jewelry, land and more looted by the Nazis, calling it “a moral disaster that began in the 1950s and continues to the present day.”

The report, published Wednesday, is based on an extensive search of public and private documents and details how a succession of German governments ignored or actively blocked attempts to return property worth hundreds of millions of dollars to its rightful owners or organizations that represent Jewish victims.

Some objects decorate the walls and halls of museums and government buildings, including a cherry desk that adorns the president’s office.

The newspaper discovered that in the wake of some feeble resttution efforts in the 1960s, the government misled the public into believing the issue had been fully investigated and resolved. Der Spiegel said that it, too, had been taken in by the government’s assurances at the time.

Even now, the government has devoted so few resources to provenance research that it would take several decades to search through the inventories of cultural institutions, the article said. Museums have often responded to requests for information from the families of victims with charges that the questioners are money-grubbers.

The paper extensively details how Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffman - classified as a “Major Offender” by the Allies in 1947 – nonetheless managed to reclaim after the war a huge portion of the valuables he stole.

The article exhorts the government to fully finance provenance research.

SXSW Film Festival Announces Its Feature Lineup

A vintage drag queen and Richard Nixon will both be on screens at this year’s South by Southwest film festival.

The annual film conference and festival in Austin. Tex., has usually ranged far  and wide, from the quirky to the Hollywood flashy to the horror-nerd friendly. In the Visions category, which  includes some films that the programmers consider boundary-pushing, festivalgoers can find “Our Nixon,”  made up of Super 8 footage recorded by three of  Nixon’s closest aides. And this year’s selections include several addressing gay, lesbian bisexual or transgendered themes, like  “I Am Divine,” a look back at the life of Harris Glenn Milstead and how he became Divine, the drag star of several John Waters films.

Also included are the documentaries “Before You Know It,” about three gay seniors; “Mr. Angel,” on the transgender porn performer and educator Buck Angel; and “Continental,” which tells the story o New York City’s Continental Baths.

“There are a plethora of L.G.B.T. films this year,” said Janet Pierson, the film festival producer, speaking by phone from Austin. “All these films struck us one after another.”

Ms. Pierson said the programmers were looking  for  diversity in budget sizes and tone.

“We want some films that are funny, we want some films that are scary. We want some films that are thought-provoking, we want some films that are super-arty,” she said. “But mostly, we’re looking at these thousands of films that come into us and we’re looking for what grabs us and engages us.”

Of those thousands of submissions, the festival chose more than 100 features, including 69 world premieres, like Adam Rifkin’s  television satire “Reality Show,” and films that played at other festivals but fit  into the SXSW mold, like Harmony Kor! ine‘s “Spring Breakers.”

Often without intention, some similar threads emerge. In the narrative and documentary competition lineup, two films share Branson, Mo., as a location. In “Awful Nice,” from Todd Sklar, two brothers travel there when their late father leaves  them  his lake house. And the documentary “We Always Lie to Strangers,” from AJ Schnack and David Wilson, focuses on the appeal of the Ozarks town as a tourist destination.

There are fewer star-driven Hollywood offerings than usual, but  the opening-night comedy, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” does feature Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, and  Joe Swanberg‘s film,  “Drining Buddies,”  with Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston, is starrier than the work he is known for.  The cast of “I Give It a Year,” a comedy about the first year of marriage from Dan Mazer, a writer of “Bruno” and “Borat,”  includes Rose Byrne, Anna Faris and Simon Baker.

And as usual, music and musicians factor into the lineup: including the documentary “Good Ol’ Freda,” which looks at the Beatles through ! the eyes ! of the woman who served as their secretary. Documentaries about Green Day (“¡Cuatro!”), funk music (“Finding the Funk”) and Snoop Dogg (“Reincarnated”) are also on the schedule.

The film conference and festival runs March 8-16. An extended listing of films can be found here.

A Reprise for ‘Bad Jews’

The Roundabout Theater Company announced on Thursday that its production of Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” which ran last year at the the company’s 62-seat black box theater, will return beginning Sept. 20 to the larger Laura Pels Theater.

The dark comedy, again to be directed by Daniel Aukin, will feature the show’s original cast: Tracee Chimo, Philip Ettinger, Molly Ranson and Michael Zegen.

“Bad Jews” received mostly positive reviews when it opened in October. The run was extended two weeks and played its final performance on Dec. 30, 2012.

New York Live Arts Launching Arts and Ideas Festival

New York Live Arts, the movement-based arts group led by the choreographer Bill T. Jones, is expanding its footprint by introducing an annual festival of arts and ideas. The inaugural festival will run from April 17-21 and explore the work of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, Mr. Jones, the executive artistic director of Live Arts, is planning to announce on Friday.

“Perhaps more than anyone in recent history, Dr. Sacks has contributed to our growing understanding of the role of creative expression within the mind-body connection,” Mr. Jones said in a statement from Live Arts.

The “Live Ideas” festival will have a different theme each year that will be presented through conversations and performances, including film and dance. “The Worlds of Oliver Sacks” will begin with a conversation between Dr. Sacks and Lawrence Weschler, the director of the New York Institute of the Humanities at New York University and the guest curator for this yearâ™s festival.

“We thought that the series would be a way of furthering our mission,” said Jean Davidson, chief executive officer of New York Live Arts, in an interview on Thursday. “A lot of the artists we present have something in common: they are known for their conceptual rigor and active engagement with social and political currents. In asking how do we build an audience and how do build an entry point we thought, what if we have a week-long festival more focused on ideas”

New York Live Arts was created in 2010, when the boards of Dance Theater Workshop and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company voted unanimously to merge their organizations.

The events confirmed for the festival include a newly commissioned short film by Bill Morrison; using original archival footage of Dr. Sacks working with patients; a production of “A Kind of Alaska,” a play by Harold Pinter based on Dr. Sacks’ book â! €œAwakenings”; a new dance-theater work by the choreographer Donna Uchizono that delves into the themes of perception; and a ballet score based on “Awakenings,” from the composer Tobias Picker with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

All events will take place at the New York Live Arts’ theater and studios in Chelsea. Some events are free and others range in price from $10 to $60. More information will be available at www.newyorklivearts.org, beginning Friday morning.