THE BOOK SHELF: Plays By Jez Butterworth, Enda Walsh, Eugene O'Neill, Plus a Guide to Spring Awakening

By Steven Suskin
April 8, 2012

In this month's stack of books is a memoir about Cary Grant, a slew of new plays (and one very old one) and a slim tome that decodes the lyrics of the Tony-winning Spring Awakening, plus more.



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Spring cleaning has arrived, which is not altogether restful if you wish to keep abreast of all these new shows that see fit to come along at torrential pace. This is a good time, though, to clear the shelf of books that have been piling up. With an apology. With only one book column a month, it is hard to cover more than three or four at a clip — which leaves quite a few items unhappily overlooked. Just because I overlook them, doesn't mean that you should. Thus I herewith present ten of these books. If something sounds interesting to you, do pick it up and give it a try.

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Much of what we have are plays, many from celebrated authors. Penelope [TCG] comes from Enda Walsh, the innovative Irish writer who is just now thrilling Broadway with his libretto for Once. (Read about Once in the Playbill Vault.) Penelope is set beside a swimming pool, with lounge chairs and a deluxe barbecue; the title character, though, is the gal Ulysses left behind when he went to Troy in pursuit of Helen. Stunning and Other Plays [TCG] comes from David Adjmi, the Syrian-Jewish-American playwright who has been attracting attention of late. Stunning was presented at the Duke in 2009 with Charlayne Woodard, an early offering of LCT3 (which is the new arm of Lincoln Center Theater). Elective Infinities, one of the two other titles included, played a limited and unconventional run last December in a Fifth Avenue townhouse, starring Zoe Caldwell.

Cover art for "A Civil War Christmas"

A Civil War Christmas [TCG] is by Paula Vogel, Pulitzer-winner for How I Learned to Drive. The musical pageant/play premiered at the Long Wharf in New Haven in 2008 under Tina Landau's direction, and was subsequently produced in 2009 at the Huntington in Boston. The Color of Desire/Hurricane [TCG] are two plays by Nilo Cruz, Pulitzer-winner for Anna in the Tropics. Mojo and Other Plays [TCG] includes six early plays by Jez Butterworth, who lately created a stir here and in London with Jerusalem. (Opening the book at random, I found that the fourth line of Mojo is "My piss is black.")

Most intriguing of the plays is Exorcism [Yale], a lost play in one act by none other than Eugene O'Neill. A sharply autobiographical drama about the author's early suicide attempt, Exorcism was produced briefly at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in 1920. The author quickly withdrew it and destroyed the script (he thought). But even in those pre-Internet days, a copy got out; O'Neill's wife at the time squirreled it away. Long after the playwright left her for the famous Carlotta, she gave the script to a friend whose widow eventually stumbled across it. The play was initially published last fall in The New Yorker. It has now been given its own handsome volume, the play in standard format accompanied by a facsimile of the typed manuscript (including handwritten edits by O'Neill). Added material includes a foreword by Edward Albee.

Passionate about theatre books? See what the Playbill Store has on its shelves.

Cover art for "A Purple Summer: Notes on the Lyrics of Spring Awakening"
Also from TCG — which, by the way, is the Theatre Communications Group — is "Conversations with Anne" by Anne Bogart. This consists of 24 conversations with Anne, or interviews rather. Participants include Martha Clarke, Oskar Eustis, Zelda Fichandler, Richard Foreman, Andre Gregory, Bill T. Jones, Tina Landau, Peter Sellars, Molly Smith, Julie Taymor, Paula Vogel and Mary Zimmerman.

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If "a song of purple summer" sounds familiar to you, you might want to take a look at "A Purple Summer: Notes on the Lyrics of Spring Awakening" by Steven Sater [Applause]. This brief paperback — 112 pages, with a $9.99 list price — is precisely what the title implies, a lyricist's explanatory notes on his work for the ground-breaking, Tony Award-winning 2006 musical. With Spring Awakening now available for stock & amateur licensing, it seems likely that many young actors across the land (and elsewhere) will be playing these roles and singing these songs. Imagine having the author on hand, offering helpful insights. (Read about Spring Awakening in the Playbill Vault.)

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"The Actor as Storyteller" by Bruce Miller [Limelight] markets itself as an introduction to the art of acting geared towards high school and college students. Not being a high school or college student, I can't tell you how effective this is; Miller is an acting teacher at the University of Miami, so one expects that he writes with practical knowledge of what today's students walk in needing. At a glance, this book — filled with acting exercises and scene study hints — looks promising.

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Cover art for "My Awesome Awful Popularity Plan"

Also in the stack is the paperback release of "Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant" by Dyan Cannon [itbooks/HarperCollins]. This one sounds like it might just be another one of those celebrity bios, but a couple of minutes of browsing somehow turned into a half-hour and a determination to read the whole thing. Cary Grant was an interesting character, certainly; here, his fourth-of-five wives — an accomplished actress herself, with twin Oscar noms for "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and Warren Beatty's "Heaven Can Wait" — provides an illuminating view.

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Finally, we have "My Awesome Awful Popularity Plan" [Random House], a novel for young adults by none other than Seth Rudetsky. Not your everyday young adult novel, but then we wouldn't expect that from Seth. This one is about 15-year-old Justin Goldblatt, whose to-do list starts with "fall in love with someone (please let it be Chuck)." Rudetsky — author of "Broadway Nights," popular radio show host, conductor/pianist, and Playbill columnist — is as always irrepressibly entertaining. The book ends with a note to young adult readers who are having a hard time dealing with high school and other issues, urging them to reach out to TheTrevorProject.org, ItGetsBetter.org, or to Rudetsky himself.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," now available in paperback, "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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Passionate about theatre books? See what the Playbill Store has on its shelves.