Saturday, May 30, 2009

A brush with power

The shaggy-dog item of the week, literally and figuratively, goes to the Second City comedy theater.

They've been running a political spoof called Rod Blagojevich Superstar, which I attended on opening night and reviewed here. The show weaves a hair-raising tale, upbraiding Blagojevich for his bald ambition and refusing to comb over the misbehavior of a deeply disturbed person.

Here's their latest press release:

Blago: Hair, There and Everywhere

New ‘Blago Shampoo’ giveaway during The Second City’s Rod Blagojevich Superstar at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Chicago―May 26, 2009―The Second City’s Rod Blagojevich Superstar – now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier – will play host to a giveaway of Blago Volumizing Shampoo. Developed by Delta Laboratories, Blago Volumizing Shampoo and Conditioner is carefully formulated with special ingredients for “really big hair.” Bottles of shampoo will be given away to all audience members at the performance on Saturday, May 30 at 7:00pm.

Who: The Second City, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Delta Laboratories, creators of Blago Volumizing Shampoo

What: Delta Laboratories will give away bottles of Blago Volumizing Shampoo at a performance of The Second City’s Rod Blagojevich Superstar at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

When: Saturday, May 30 at 7:00pm

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier

The Second City’s hit musical Rod Blagojevich Superstar is now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Following a critically acclaimed run at The Second City e.t.c. Theatre, the production moved to Navy Pier where, due to overwhelming demand and irresistible new material from the ex-governor, the show has been extended once again, now running through June 14, 2009 Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. For more information on Rod Blagojevich Superstar, visit

Insert joke here; suggested topics include tax dollars going down the drain, the latest tonsorial trends in Marion Federal Penitentiary, and "extort, rinse, repeat."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Addams Family, a new musical

I recently attended a press event announcing a new Addams Family musical, the first-ever theatrical staging of Charles Addams' classic characters from the New Yorker magazine.

I've never paid much attention to the Addams Family, but as a longtime subscriber I have a warm feeling for them as a beloved part of the New Yorker canon. I was heartened to learn that the new show will be based not on previous Addams Family television shows or movies but on Addams' original drawings. It will be their first musical.

The press conference was a well-produced affair at the Arts Club of Chicago. Surrounded by original Addams artwork, producer Stuart Oken opened the afternoon by recounting the artist's story.

Born in Westfield, New Jersey, Charles Addams wanted to work for the New Yorker from his early childhood. He first sold the magazine a drawing in 1933 at the tender age of 21, launching a beautiful relationship that saw the publication of thousands of cartoons, sketches and drawings over six decades.

A few years after joining a New Yorker artistic staff replete with such greats as Saul Steinberg, Helen Hokinson, James Thurber and Peter Arno, he started drawing his now-familiar characters in 1937. They took ten or eleven years to catch on, and weren't officially a family (or even named) during that time.

After the characters became staples in the New Yorker and elsewhere, Addams agreed to allow the creation of a television series based on them. In order to help the TV writers understand the characters, Addams provided a short summary for each. Two of them looked like this:

(Excerpted from The Addams Family: An Evilution, to be published in 2010; copyright Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.)

The shy, reserved Addams was shocked and mortified to learn that the television producers decided to name the characters "The Addams Family." Not exactly the Hollywood type, he'd modeled the Uncle Fester character after himself.

The Addams Family musical will take the characters in a new direction. The daughter, Wednesday, now eighteen years old, has a new boyfriend. He and his family are invited to dinner at the shabby, haunted Addams mansion, setting up comedic fireworks as the mainstream and ghoulish worlds come together. Meanwhile, doting father Gomez Addams struggles to accept that his little girl is growing up.

The creative team includes composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party) and book co-writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman (Jersey Boys); Brickman is also a frequent Woody Allen collaborator. Lippa and Elice made the trip into Chicago for the press event, where they debuted three of Lippa's original songs with a rousing live performance.

The press conference concluded with the announcement of the show's top-tier ensemble cast, headed by two-time Tony Award winners Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia Addams. Second City alumna and in-your-face Broadway veteran Jackie Hoffman will play Grandmama.

The Addams Family will premiere in Chicago for eight weeks starting in November, then transfer directly to Broadway.

Tickets are already on sale to American Express cardholders, and go on sale tomorrow morning to the general public. From a recent press release:

Individual tickets will go on sale Friday, May 29, 2009 at 10 a.m. for THE ADDAMS FAMILY, a new musical starring two-time Tony Award winners Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia. THE ADDAMS FAMILY will make its pre-Broadway world premiere in Chicago for a limited engagement beginning Friday, November 13, 2009 through Sunday, January 10, 2010 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre (24 W. Randolph St., Chicago).

Individual tickets range in price from $28 to $105. A select number of premium seats are also available for select performances. Tickets are available at all Broadway In Chicago Box Offices (24 W. Randolph St., 151 W. Randolph St. and 18 W. Monroe St.); the Broadway In Chicago Ticket Line at (312) 902-1400; all Ticketmaster retail locations (including Hot Tix and select Carson Pirie Scott, Coconuts and fye stores); and online at Tickets are available to groups of 20 or more by calling (312) 977-1710.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Is Lou the new Dusty?

In 2003, hope sprang eternal for the Chicago Cubs. They'd inked a widely admired new manager, Dusty Baker, to an expensive four-year contract. He was the consensus top field manager available that year, having guided numerous teams to the playoffs after an impressive playing career. The Cubs had the best starting rotation in the National League and loaded up with Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton as they made their stretch run. The future looked bright as Baker led the Cubs to the playoffs in his first season, and within five outs of the World Series.

Many of us know what happened next. Steve Bartman and an eighth inning collapse took care of NLCS Game Six, Kerry Wood served up three runs to Florida in the first inning to set a losing tone for Game Seven, and so went the 2003 campaign. The following year, Mark Prior's injuries, Wood's too, and a September swoon combined to doom the Cubs. Throw in a bizarre squabble between Cubs pitchers and announcer Steve Stone, plus Sammy Sosa's infamous early departure on the last game of the season, and the North Siders were out of the 2004 playoffs.

The next thing you knew, Dusty's every hit-and-run, Zambrano pitch count and bullpen move were being questioned by Wrigley Field boo-birds and sports talk radio yammerers alike. The Cubs were indifferent in 2005 and sank badly in 2006, losing an embarrassing 96 games. By the time his contract ran out after that season, Baker had gone from the people's choice for mayor to unelectable as dogcatcher. He was not asked back.

Enter Lou Piniella. The Cubs signed the widely admired former Rookie of the Year to an expensive four-year managerial contract before the 2007 season. The consensus top field manager available that year, he'd guided the 1990 Cincinnati Reds to the World Series title and the 2001 Seattle Mariners to an astonishing 116-win season. Moving quickly to assemble another contender, the Cubs inked marquee free agent Alfonso Soriano to an eye-popping $136 million contract. They also acquired starting pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis and versatile former Penn quarterback Mark DeRosa.

They narrowly won their division and made the playoffs in each of Piniella's first two seasons, but got swept out in the first round both times. The 2009 campaign, in turn, is off to an iffy start. After Soriano homered on the second pitch of the season, things have quieted down considerably. Big-money free agent and perennial clubhouse distraction Milton Bradley is batting .188 and blaming umpires for his woes at the plate. The Cubs have lost eight games in a row and slid to fourth place in their division. Although it's still early, the playoffs are no guarantee.

Is it too soon to worry that Lou is becoming the new Dusty?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mysteries of the universe

Chicago Blackhawks right wing Dustin Byfuglien pronounces his last name "BUFF-lin."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Taking wing

On Friday evening I had the privilege of attending the opening night of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Architect Renzo Piano designed the $294 million addition to Chicago's most significant art museum. At 264,000 square feet, the expansion makes the Art Institute the nation's second-largest art museum after the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Even before we got there, the drumbeats were starting. For example, on Thursday, two of the three Arts headlines in my daily New York Times email blast were Modern Wing-related:

Renzo Piano Embraces Chicago
The new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago is the closest Renzo Piano has come in at least a decade to achieving a near-classical ideal.

A Grand and Intimate Modern Art Trove
The elegant new Modern Wing is a rarity: a work of genuinely good architecture that is also kind to art.

The Times coverage also includes nifty slide shows of the Modern Wing's collection and its architecture, including the photos above and below by Michelle Litvin.

I share the Times critics' glowing assessment of the Modern Wing: it's at once a satisfying modern art collection and an artistic accomplishment in itself. (Fittingly, a hand-drawn Renzo Piano sketch of the Modern Wing hangs in its architecture room.) As splashy as the building is, once you get into its display halls, you're in an outstanding new art museum.

The heart of the addition is an open, naturally lit 30-by-30-by-300-foot entry hall. It's anchored by a floating staircase inspired by the renowned one Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed for the Arts Club of Chicago. Coincidentally, I'd attended an event at the Arts Club a few days before. It was like saying hello to mother and child.

After benefactors and dignitaries like Mr. Piano enjoyed a formal dinner, the 10pm "Young Modern" opening night party for the rest of us was -- what did the kids say in 2006? -- off the chain. Twelve hundred people in "modern cocktail" attire crammed into Piano's sweeping entry hall for a fashion show and cocktail party; Regenstein Hall transformed into a dance club with trendy DJs; and the doors were thrown wide for partygoers to enjoy the collection and new building. Enjoy we did.

Admission to the Modern Wing is free to the public all week as the Art Institute continues to celebrate its grand opening. Check it out.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Quote of the day

From A.O. Scott's New York Times review of "Angels and Demons":
I have not read the novel by Dan Brown on which this film (directed, like its predecessor, "The Da Vinci Code," by Ron Howard) is based. I have come to believe that to do so would be a sin against my faith, not in the Church of Rome but in the English language, a noble and beleaguered institution against which Mr. Brown practices vile and unspeakable blasphemy.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Barry funny

The great Todd Barry headlines the Lakeshore Theater this weekend.

You might have caught Todd on "Flight of the Conchords," "Sex and the City" or "Wonder Showzen." Or sparring with Sarah Silverman on "The Larry Sanders Show." Or maybe you heard his flat monotone on an animated show like "Dr Katz: Professional Therapist," where he played against type as an angry, sarcastic guy named Todd.

He's best known for his innumerable late-night television appearances, such as the series of visits to "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" that inspired his one-man show, "Icky."

In any event, a Todd Barry visit is cause for celebration, and thus we celebrate. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Actually, the self-indulgently lengthy writeup I turned in was edited for space. It originally looked like this:
The sheer variety of American standup comedy burnishes its greatness. You've got your pioneering legends (Pryor, Newhart, Bruce), old-school grandees (Rickles, Cosby, Sahl), big-name headliners (Seinfeld, Rock, Chappelle), top-tier veterans (Wright, Shandling, Rivers), A+ joke writers (Silverman, Attell, Liebman), dependable workhorses (Johannsen, C.K., Gaffigan), searching intellectuals (Allen, Carlin, Katz), brilliant flameouts (Hicks, Kinison, Hedberg), sitcom crossovers (Romano, Barr, Carey), well-connected loudmouths (DiPaolo, Lange, Florentine), celeb-roast mercenaries (Giraldo, Ross, Lampanelli), NASCAR panderers (Foxworthy, Engvall, Cable Guy), talented upstarts (Galifianakis, Mintz, Boulger) and a raft of alt-hipsters (Oswalt, Cross, Garofalo, Glaser, Benjamin, Posehn, Mirman). Falling squarely into the final camp is Todd Barry, whose picture might appear in the dictionary if there were a word meaning "snide, deadpan and consistently funny." Fresh from an appearance in The Wrestler, the New York Times Magazine essayist returns to prove that even the soft-spoken can eviscerate.

If you don't know Todd's work, get into it. The guy is hilarious.

Todd Barry performs on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and 10pm at the Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway, Chicago; 773-472-3492.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Getting it

Like everyone else, Chicago Public Radio gots to get they's money.

They shrewdly enlisted the aid of some FOBB&Bs, the comedy troupe Schadenfreude, to shoot some funny videos encouraging you, me, and everyone else to donate a measly twenty bucks.

Check it all out at

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I did not know that

For all his beloved "Saturday Night Live" characters, most notably the Church Lady, Garth, and Hans, Dana Carvey's greatest masterpiece was his Johnny Carson impression.

In honor of the late Dom DeLuise, here's a taste:

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pop! goes the plantaris

I write to you today a one-legged man.

Effectively, at least. I still have both legs, thank God, but I only have the use of one of them after a freak injury yesterday. I was on the tennis court playing doubles when an opponent hit an ineffective drop shot. I rushed forward to put away the short ball, but instead of seeing my own winner, all I saw were stars.

Out of nowhere, an intense pain shot through my right calf. It was as if my doubles partner had hit me in the leg with his racket as hard as he could. However, since my partner was forty feet away at the time, and was my dad, I knew that couldn't be. It was so sudden and so painful that I also wondered whether I'd been shot, but gun violence has not historically been a problem at the Deer Creek Tennis Club in Highland Park, Illinois.

I felt certain that I'd been struck by an errant ball from another court, but after I fell to the ground and looked around, I couldn't find one. The truth became clear as my dad explained that he'd suffered the identical injury on a tennis court the day before I graduated from law school. He also thought he'd been hit by a tennis ball, but he wasn't and neither was I.

It turns out there's an obscure, vestigial leg muscle and tendon known as the plantaris that is often ruptured on the tennis court, an injury known as "tennis leg." The long, thin plantaris is easily mistaken for a nerve by rookie medical students, and so is nicknamed the "freshman's nerve."

The plantaris is thought to have been used by our evolutionary forebears for gripping with the hind foot, but as we have evolved past its use, something like 10% of the human population doesn't even have one. I have quickly gone from never having heard of the plantaris to being envious of those who don't have it.

In the sedentary hours since my immobilization, I've been doing some reading on plantaris injuries, and it's amazing how similar are the experiences of those of us who've been there. Take, for example, this excellent summary from the good people at the National Center for Emergency Medicine Informatics:
The patient will come in limping, having suffered a whip-like sting in his calf while stepping off hard on his foot or charging the net during a game of tennis, or similar activity. He may have actually heard or felt a "snap" at the time of injury. The deep calf pain persists and may be accompanied by mild swelling and ecchymosis [translation: bruising]. Neurovascular function will be intact.

Then there's this article by a sports medicine doctor in the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association:
The injury occurs most frequently during running or jumping... Even though the injury is the result of an indirect mechanism, subjectively the patient may describe direct trauma to the calf region – often the athlete feels as though they were struck on the calf by an object such as a ball or piece of equipment.
So it's not just my family.

I also came across this helpful illustration:

I don't understand a word of it, I'm just including it here because it looks cool.

In the immediate aftermath of the injury, though, I wasn't thinking about a medical explanation. I was mostly worried about whether I'd have to sit out the whole 2009 summer tennis season as I did in 2008 after a similarly bizarre wrist injury on the tennis court (between points, no less).

This time, from what I hear, it will be more like six weeks than six months of incapacitation. I'm grateful for that, as things looked pretty bleak at the time. I couldn't even walk off the tennis court under my own power; two fellow players had to help me. At least I found to my relief that I could still drive.

In the hours that followed, I got some medical advice and began treating the injury. Although it's still quite uncomfortable, I've gradually found I can limp unassisted, so should be able to get around without crutches. I'm also back to a normal range of motion today, which I find encouraging since immediately after the injury I could barely flex my foot up or down.

Sadly for you, I can also still blog.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Live long and prosper

A few weeks ago I declined an invitation to a rare Chicago preview of J.J. Abrams' new "reboot" of the Star Trek franchise. I passed because (i) I've never been into Star Trek, (ii) it was a weeknight, (iii) I was overtired as usual, and (iv) I've been burned too many times devoting an evening to an overbooked screening (translation: you have to get there an hour early) in an inconvenient-to-me downtown theater, only to have a "meh" reaction and wish in hindsight I could get those five hours back.

Apparently I picked the wrong movie to skip, because all I've heard since is how excellent it was. Friends who've seen it are raving about it, early press reports are enthusiastic, and this morning the entire Howard Stern Show crew gushed about loving their screening yesterday, Trekkies and Muggles alike.

I had the chance to meet J.J. Abrams last fall and really enjoyed talking to the guy, so this time my hindsight is passer's remorse. I wish I'd supported J.J. by attending his screening, not that he would have made any money off me, or for that matter needs my help getting the word out.

I'm happy he's got another winner on his hands; he's easy to get behind with all the high-quality TV and movies he's brought us. Plus, on a personal level, he always represents with smart, funny, self-effacing appearances like his impromptu visit to the Stern show today. What's not to like?

I recommend a lot of pop culture around here, but usually it's something I've seen and/or previewed for Flavorpill. In this case, I've done neither, but there's a critical mass of opinion building. So take it not from me, but everyone else: apparently the new Star Trek is the movie to see.

Friday, May 1, 2009

On the road with Janeane Garofalo

Janeane Garofalo isn't an acquired taste, just a highly specific one. You either enthusiastically like her or, well, you enthusiastically don't. Me, I'm a fan.

I first took note of her work in HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," the greatest live-action sitcom of all time. "Sanders" was Garry Shandling's acidic, hilarious turn as the neurotic host of a late night talk show. A young Garofalo played Paula, the world-weary segment producer.

In one episode, Paula struggles to book good guests, beginning to fear for her job when she can't land bigger names than George Miller and Ed Begley, Jr. But after she starts dating Larry Sanders' slick Hollywood agent, Stevie Grant (the essential Bob Odenkirk), doors start opening around Hollywood.

"How would you like Jennifer Aniston tomorrow?" asks Stevie.

"Oh my God, that would be great!" Paula exudes. "She's a huge star! I didn't know you represented Jennifer Aniston!"

"Oh, yeah," replies a cocky Stevie. "I've got three of the Friends."

"Which ones?"

"The ones who can act."

I saw Garofalo do standup at Cobb's in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. She performed with human joke machine Dana Gould, later a "Simpsons" writer, and Greg Behrendt, her then-boyfriend who went on to write for "Sex and the City."

Gould and Behrendt poured on the funny and had the crowd roaring, but Garofalo's material was more opinionated and introspective. At first I was disappointed that she wasn't funnier, but I came to realize that that was her style, not so much setup-joke as confessions and anecdotes intended to share a personality and a worldview.

I crossed paths with Janeane at the 2006 HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. One of the marquee events that year was a highly anticipated "Larry Sanders" reunion panel at the St. Regis Hotel. The crowd was primed for a celebratory lovefest, but it never got off the ground.

For reasons unclear to the audience, the panel was constrained and tense, with varying degrees of grudgingly short answers, obvious hard feelings and outright incoherence from Garry Shandling, Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor.

Only Garofalo seemed happy to be there, offering relatively lucid and witty answers amid all the awkward silence around her. At one point the famously moody Garofalo cracked, "What are the odds that I would be the upbeat one on this panel?"

The next night's panel on the same stage, however, was a grand slam home run. "Swingers: 10 Years Later" reunited stars Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau and director Doug Liman, who all told charming, uproarious tales of their adventures making the movie that set fire to their careers. Moderator and Rolling Stone reporter David Wild got them to spill some highly entertaining beans.

It was also surprisingly emotional, as Liman had the entire crowd in rapt attention with a moving personal story. His father, a powerful Wall Street attorney, at first resisted his choice of a film career, but once he saw his son's passion for it, saved the day by writing a big check to bail out the then-struggling independent movie. Liman would then get a daily call from his dad, the inadvertent movie producer: "What are we doing today?"

Sadly, his father was soon diagnosed with cancer, and as the filmmaking progressed, so did the disease. Mr. Liman's condition worsened even as the movie gained momentum, becoming the toast of Sundance and selling for a record price. In a poignant denouement, he succumbed to the disease just as it was becoming clear that his son was going to make it in Hollywood. There was not a dry eye in the house as Liman bravely told the tale.

As we walked out, I remarked to my buddy Dave Facchini, "That was everything the Larry Sanders panel last night should have been." From behind me, someone says, mock indignantly, "Hey, what was wrong with the Sanders panel?" 


Janeane Garofalo performs tonight at the Lakeshore Theater at 7:30 and 10. My Flavorpill preview is here.