Geniuses

From TV to Tuna, Texas, cultural icons at work

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LIGHT YEARS AHEAD | David Sarnoff (Jakie Cabe) faces off against TV’s creator Philo Farnsworth (Alex Organ) in T3’s brisk production of Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Farnsworth Invention.’ (Photo by Jeffrey Schmidt)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

There are two indispensable treasures of American culture being dramatized onstage right now: Television itself, and boys of Tuna, Texas.

I can’t imagine life without either.

Television — its history and creation — comes to us via the mind of Aaron Sorkin with The Farnsworth Invention. Philo T. Farnsworth (Alex Organ as an adult) was just an Idaho farm boy when he came up with the essential theories (the use of pixilation, the way to seal a cathode ray tube) that would make television possible. He was in the game for the science.

David Sarnoff (Jakie Cabe) was in it to change the way humans communicate. A wunderkind himself, he saw the potential of TV — and radio for that matter — when everyone else thought of them as novelties for rich folks. Some of Sarnoff’s innovations: playing music and covering breaking news faster than the printed word. (He would have been bowled over by the Internet.) But Sarnoff was practical, and knew that to make his vision of a globalized society work, he needed to control not only the content, but the technology.

Sorkin, a TV icon with shows like The West Wing, is a master of the Tommy-gun dialogue delivery — a style that works well when you can edit a scene, but does it translate to the stage? It does with Jeffrey Schmidt directing excellent actors like Cabe and Organ, who enunciate so clearly, ever line imprints before they move on to the next. It’s amazing how effortlessly and dramatic you can make complex theoretical science seem when you approach it smartly. (This is the best handling of this kind of material since Theatre 3 did Copenhagen.)

Sorkin takes many dramatic liberties, but what he captures is the conflict between visionaries, both driven not by personal glory but by a desire to make the world better. You want to peg one as the villain, but you end up turning on the idiot box and lamenting that, ultimately, neither succeeded in creating the utopia he imagined.
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The folks of Tuna, Texas, are more radio-friendly than TV consumers — easier to get your Baptist sermon that way. The resident of Tuna are their own kind of pop icons, anyway. It’s been 30 years since Joe Sears and Jaston Williams first joined forces with co-author/director Ed Howard for Greater Tuna, spawning three sequels and countless converts who appreciation their satiric edge couched in closed minds of West Texas.

Tuna’s Greatest Hits, now at the Eisemann, is a pastiche of the four shows in the Tuna tetralogy, cleaving its plot mostly to the courtship between beset housewife Bertha Bumiller (Sears) and shy radio host Arles Struvie (Williams).

Boiled down like this show is — it covers about 25 years of creativity from first show to fourth — you get to luxuriate in some of the details that may have slipped by: Bertha’s hideously colorful pant suits (fuchsia blouse, chartreuse vest and print bloomers send shivers down the tasteful spine); spot-on metaphors (“shaking like a faith healer”). And they reprise classic lines like good standup comedians or nostalgia musical acts on tour, some updated just enough to remind us of their relevance.

The shows are famed for their dry humor and flatly funny puns (the women’s auxiliary? The Tuna Helpers). But in this breezy 90-minute walk through Patsy Cline territory, it’s the heartfelt sentiment (never cloying) that reminds you what geniuses these guys are — not just gifted actors and savvy comedy writers, but insightful analysts of the Texas mind.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 24, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Exclusive: Theatre 3′s missing play

Last month, Theatre 3 announced its 50th anniversary season, a line-up that includes the very gay musical A Catered Affair, the Aaron Sorkin drama The Farnsworth Invention and the raucous musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Missing from the season announcement was the fifth show, which executive producer Jac Alder was trying to schedule.

Last night, Jac told me he had just picked the final show:  Art of Murder by Joe DiPietro, a comedy thriller set in the world of fine art that won the Edgar Award for best play. It will probably be a good fit for T3 — DiPietro’s I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change has been a staple at T3 for a decade (it’s Dallas’ longest-running show ever — three years in its initial run). DiPietro won two Tony Awards last year for the Broadway hit Memphis.

Art of Murder runs April 12–May 12, 2012.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Theatre Three announces 50th season

At a luncheon today at the Chase Bank Rotunda downtown, celebs and local talent turned out to pay tribute to Jac Alder, the longest-serving theater artistic director in America — a stunning achievement. Alder co-founded Theatre Three in 1961 and has been with it ever since. And today, they announced the company’s historic 50th season. The line-up (one mainstage show is still TBA):

Wild Oats, a Wild West adaptation of John O’Keefe’s 18th century comedy, adapted by Texas playwright James McLure (Aug. 11-Sept. 10)

A Catered Affair, a recent Broadway musical adapted from the Paddy Chayefsky teleplay and the Bette Davis film written by Gore Vidal. Harvey Fierstein wrote the books, John Bucchino the score. (Oct. 13-Nov. 12)

La Bete,  about the life of Moliere. (Dec. 8-Jan. 14)

The Farnsworth Invention, Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) wrote this acclaimed Broadway play about the invention of television. (Feb. 14-March 17)

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which Tommy Tune recently declared one of his favorite musicals of the last Broadway season about the young soldier and politician. (June 7-July 7)

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

A very gay night at the Golden Globes

The Golden Globes were about as gay as an awards ceremony can get Sunday night, with plenty of queer winners across the TV and film categories.

The Kids Are All Right, lesbian director Lisa Cholodenko’s family portrait of two gay women, won best picture/comedy or musical and best actress/comedy for Annette Bening. The Cher-sung song “You Haven’t Heard the Last of Me” from Burlesque, won best song. Scott Rudin, the gay producer whom screenwriter Aaron Sorkin declared the greatest living producer of film, won best picture/drama for The Social Network.

But TV was where the gays really succeeded. Glee, from gay creator Ryan Murphy, won best TV comedy series, as well as best supporting performers for the of the openly gay cast members, Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch. Lynch thanked her wife and kids, and Colfer, visibly surprised, gave a shout-out to fighting anti-gay bullying. Best actor in a TV comedy went to gay actor Jim Parsons for The Big Bang Theory, who mentioned his husband Todd without referring to him as his life partner.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

The year in entertainment

Our critics run down the best of movies, music, theater, dining and pop culture in 2010

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | jones@dallasvoice.com

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BEST OF THE BEST | The comedy ‘I Love You, Phillip Morris,’ left, was the year’s most entertaining film, while ‘Winter’s Bone’ was buoyed by a great performance by Jennifer Lawrence, below left.

1. I Love You, Phillip Morris. The best comedy of the year is this unlikely love story, told with open-hearted directness, about a gay conman (Jim Carrey), his boyfriend (Ewan McGregor) and their escapades in Texas during the 1990s. Think a gay version of Bonnie & Clyde with some hot sex and hysterical jokes. Only don’t. Whatever, just see it.

2. Winter’s Bone. A girl in the Ozarks must track down her meth-dealing dad or lose her home. Without sentimentality or cloying music, it tells a tale with such visual acuity and simplicity it gobsmacks you with its beauty. Hard watching, sometimes, and excellently acted by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence and veteran Dale Dickey.

3. The Social Network. David Fincher makes Aaron Sorkin’s complex screenplay about the founding of Facebook into the off-handed, slyly FX’d movie equivalent of a page turner, with terrific pacing, pantingly good acting by Jesse Eisenberg and Armie Hammer and a story of great relevance and psychological depth.

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Winter’s-Bone

4. The King’s Speech. Hard to imagine speech lessons being cinematic, but director Tom Hooper does just that in this entrancing historical drama about King George VI (Colin Firth, who may win the Oscar denied him last year for A Single Man) as the stuttering monarch and Geoffrey Rush magnificent as a linguistic coach. We are quite amused.

5. True Grit. After the dreadful detours of Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, the Coens are back in stride with this poetic Western — not a revisionist conceit, but a straightforward character study of revenge, exceptionally well played by Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who should win the Oscar.

6. The Ghost Writer. Roman Polanski finished the editing on this film while under house arrest, which just goes to show Polanski in the worst of circumstances is better than most directors at their best. The best film from the first half of the year, it’s a cagey political thriller than keeps you guessing.

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Scott Pilgrim versus the World,’ below, was better than its box office would indicate.

7. Scott Pilgrim versus the World. Michael Cera’s charms are wearing thin, but he squeezed out the last drips in this quirky fantasy-romance that creates its own internal world of logic. Among the best elements: Kieran Culkin as Cera’s predatory gay roommate.

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SURPRISE, SURPRISE | ‘The Kids Are All Right,’ above, proved to be a hit commercially and critically.

8. The Kids Are All Right. Although the story wandered down a path strewn with clichés, director Lisa Cholodenko still managed to spin it with unique and authentic moments as lesbian spouses Julianne Moore and Annette Bening contend with infidelity and a man in their lives (Mark Ruffalo, rascally and loveable) for the first time. Gay cinema has rarely been as clever and mainstream-compatible as this.

9. Life During Wartime. Todd Solondz’s uncomfortably dark but oddly funny follow-up to his art-house hit Happiness, centered on three sisters and their perversely dysfunctional family, was the most cringe-inducing comedy ever that lacked a bathroom scene or Woody Allen playing a romantic scene with a teenager.

10 . My Name Is Khan and Un Prophete (tie). Hard to chose between these largely foreign-language entries: Khan, one of the best Bollywood films ever with unexpected emotional resonance, and Un Prophete, a French-Muslim version of The Godfather that was a true epic.

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The South American gay film ‘Undertow,  just missed the top 10

Runners-up: Kick-Ass, Megamind, The Secret in their Eyes, Black Swan, Undertow.

Best performances of the year —
Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech; Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network; Jeff Bridges, True Grit; Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter; Tommy Lee Jones, Company Men; James Franco, 127 Hours; Robert Duvall, Get Low.

Actress: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone; Natalie Portman, Black Swan.

Supporting actor: Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech; Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right;
Armie Hammer, The Social Network; Christian Bale, The Fighter; Lucas Black, Get Low.

Supporting actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit; Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone; Barbara Hershey and Mila Kunis, Black Swan; Melissa Leo, The Fighter.

Best non-fiction films: Inside Job; Catfish.

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‘Knight and Day,’ above, was the year’s worst movie.

10 worst films of the year: Unstoppable; Shutter Island; Splice; Love and Other Drugs; The Book of Eli; Edge of Darkness; Skyline; Alice in Wonderland; How Do You Know; Knight and Day.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 31, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas