During his 14 years living in Portland, from 2002 to 2016, Sean McGrath made a name for himself as a comedy writer and performer for the public radio variety show Live Wire, as a member of the all-star sketch-comedy troupe Sweat, and as an intermittent stage actor at Portland Playhouse and other theaters. But a few years ago he moved back to his native New York, where he’d spent early childhood in, as he puts it, “the heyday of Hell’s Kitchen, pre-Bloomberg.” So what’s he doing there now?
“I’m pretty much doing whatever I can,” he says. “It’s a tough town.” He maps out what sounds like something you’d expect of a struggling theater artist’s work life: auditioning a couple of times a week for Off-Broadway roles, taking acting classes, shooting commercials (a national ad for Budweiser among them), motion-capture work for video games such as Grand Theft Auto V…
He’s even studying improv with the famed Upright Citizens Brigade. “I don’t love it the way I love sketch,” he admits. “I think of something and I want to go in the corner and refine it. Do that in improv and you’re just standing at the back of the room all night. You can’t go with your best idea, you gotta go with your first idea.”
McGrath’s best ideas, though, have brought him back to Portland as writer and director for his own sketch outlet, Bath Night, for a three-weekend run at Portland Playhouse, starting on Aug. 16.
“I’m avoiding a New York August, which is doing no one any favors,” he says. “In New York, Bath Night right now is me maybe doing 20 minutes at an open-mic now and then. Bath Night in its full production glory only exists these days in Portland.”
After Luke Burbank took over as Live Wire host in 2013 and the show began trending toward a more generic talk show approach, McGrath began looking for other outlets for sketch material. Bath Night shows followed in 2014 at Shaking the Tree and 2015 at CoHo.
McGrath refers to his approach as “dramatic sketch comedy” and it’s something he takes seriously, working over the material carefully and staying out of the performances himself in order to focus on directing. Whereas lots of sketch shows are written by ensembles, which can result in a kind of chaotic energy, Bath Night is McGrath’s vision. “There’s one writer on this show, and having that perspective I think is super-important for theater,” he says.
Rather than leading a regular ensemble, McGrath casts each show, in part looking to mix experienced sketch performers with the fresh energy of actors newer to the form. For this latest show, Portland sketch stalwarts Andrew Harris, Lori Ferraro and Alissa Bagan are joined by a pair of straight-play masters — Todd Van Voris and Damon Kupper.
“I’m so lucky they said yes to something like this,” McGrath says. “Part of the stigma of sketch comedy is that you don’t get this caliber of actor. People think of it as a bunch of guys just out of college doing jokes about a snake being their penis — sex comedy and gross-out stuff. They don’t take it seriously.
“Part of my commitment to having great actors is making sure they have great material. I spend a lot of time with this.”
History is an ever-changing viewfinder. As someone born at the tail end of the baby boom, with personal (if dim) memories of the hippie era, I find it hard to look past the stylistic trappings of Hair, things such as that unintentionally hilarious subtitle, The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. To me, it looks like a show maybe too much of its own time. But Katie McLoughlin, an alumnus of the Staged! conservatory program for young theater makers, sees something different. She’s chosen the late-1960s psychedelic chestnut for this year’s Staged! alumni production, the next two weekends at the Brunish Theatre. With the support of some professional mentors, McLoughlin directs a cast of fellow Staged! alumni, current conservatory students and professional actors. Perhaps lacking a learned aversion to tie-dye allows McLoughlin to relate to deeper currents in the work. “The most important theme for us in Hair is the empowerment of youth,” Staged leaders commented in a press release. “Hair encapsulates an era fueled by the unbridled energy, passion and love of a community uniting for peace and love against war and hate in the world.”
In a touring Broadway production, Roald Dahl’s great confectionary fantasy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory comes to the stage, with such indelibly colorful characters as Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket, Grandpa Joe and Veruca Salt, popular songs from the 1971 film adaptation (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) and a dessert platter full of new tunes by the songwriting team from Hairspray.
“Longest running scripted musical in Las Vegas history” doesn’t really qualify as a selling point in my book, but I’m a snob. And, anyway, I’m not the core target market for Menopause the Musical, passing like a hot flash through the Newmark Theatre for two shows on Saturday. There is a common (and entirely spurious) saying that the pun is the lowest form of humor; far lower is the pop-song parody, and examples here include “Stayin’ Awake/Night Sweatin’” and “Puff, My God, I’m Draggin’.” But then, if it sounds like something you think you might enjoy, please do.
THE FLATTENED STAGE
My childhood heroes were an odd lot. Walt Frazier, the New York Knicks’ Hall of Fame point guard, fascinated me with his cat-like quickness and killer instincts on the court and his ultra-cool, fashion-forward persona off of it. Dan Rather, at that time not yet a CBS anchorman but a lead reporter on such stories as the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal, appealed to me with seriousness and an air of earned authoritativeness. But the early idol that probably had the biggest imprint on me was Dick Cavett, then the best of the also-rans to late-night-TV king Johnny Carson. Cavett was the thinking-man’s alternative among talk-show hosts: He and Carson both grew up in Nebraska, but Cavett’s manner suggested roots somewhere closer to the Algonquin Hotel. Weird as it may have been for a young black kid in Oregon, I wanted to be like him.
One of the Cavett interviews that I recalled fondly was one with Richard Burton, especially because of Burton’s description of the arguments he would have with Humphrey Bogart about the difference between British and American acting styles. Thanks to the Great Cultural Junk Drawer that is YouTube, it’s pretty easy to find. That bit about the acting arguments starts around the 6:30 mark, but it’s all quite interesting.
THE BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK
“Just because things happen slow doesn’t mean you’ll be ready for them. If they happened fast, you’d be alert for all kinds of suddenness, aware that speed was trump. ‘Slow’ works on an altogether different principle, on the deceptive impression that there’s plenty of time to prepare, which conceals the central fact, that no matter how slow things go, you’ll always be slower.”
– from the novel Empire Falls by Richard Russo
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.