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Last minute gift ideas: Memorable theater books

December 20, 2011 |  8:45 am

Spalding book
Still wondering what to get your theater friends for the holiday? This year has been a particularly bountiful one for theater books. There’s something for that playwright, actor, director, composer and even (good heavens!) critic in your life. Theater-loving civilians will appreciate these gifts as well, and don't be surprised if gratitude comes in the form of an invitation to see a play or musical in 2012.   

For the playwright in your life who appreciates tragedy as much as comedy, I have two recommendations: The first is Julie Salamon’s compulsive, page-turner of a biography of Wendy Wasserstein, “Wendy and the Lost Boys” (the Penguin Press). The book, as I said in my review, suggests that Wasserstein herself may have been her most complex character. And the second is “The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956” (Cambridge University Press), which is the second in a four-volume series and the one that covers that rich period in which Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot.” Beckett was one of the sharpest 20th century wielders of prose in the English language (and no slouch in French either), so this volume should inspire writers of all stripes while giving more demanding common readers much to savor as well. 

For the actor pal you just adore, I offer two possibilities. The first is “The Journals of Spalding Gray” (Knopf), a book that I was reluctant to read (given the tragic ending of this groundbreaking theatrical storyteller) but once I started found difficult to put down. And the second is John Lithgow’s supremely eloquent memoir, “Drama: An Actor’s Education,” in which he recounts growing up in the theater with an impresario father who was something of a Shakespeare missionary.   

Wasserstein bookThe director or designer you never know what to buy for? I have an option that is certain to put you forever in the recipient’s good graces: "BAM: The Complete Works” (the Quantuck Lane Press), which is a visually spectacular volume showcasing the wide range of performance that has made the Brooklyn Academy of Music one of the most important outposts of cutting-edge theater in the world. The pictures are lush with color (there’s a blood-splattered one of Fiona Shaw’s Medea that’s absolutely chilling) and dense with history (follow the storied careers of Robert Wilson and Merce Cunningham). Essays by contributors such as Peter Brook help place this envelope-pushing work in a broader theatrical context.   

For the composer, musician or music obsessive you love but are slightly intimidated by, you can’t go wrong with Stephen Sondheim’s “Look, I Made a Hat” (Knopf), the second in a two-volume series of his collected lyrics and attendant comments. The first volume "Finishing the Hat" was the best theater book of last year, a gloriously opinionated reflection by America's greatest living theatrical songwriter on the art of lyric writing. "Look, I Made a Hat" picks up the story with "Sunday in the Park With George," the musical that has supplied the curious titles for these two volumes. Sondheim's prose is as sinewy as his lyrics, and his insights into all elements of his craft are bracing.   

And last but not least, for the critic who occupies a special place in your heart (surely there must be one or two of you out there who can relate?), I have two thoughts. Neither is theater-specific but both are written by critics with gloriously flamboyant styles and more than a passing knowledge of the stage. Brian Kellow’s "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” (Viking) is a smart and eminently readable examination of the life and career of one of the 20th century’s most influential movie critics. James Wolcott’s memoir, "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York” (Doubleday), looks back at the cultural forces (from punk rock to porn) that shaped one of contemporary journalism's feistier critical sensibilities. (The chapter on his friendship with Kael will put even the most curmudgeonly reviewer in a warm and fuzzy mood.)

Happy reading, fellow theater travelers. 


2011 year in review: Best in theater

Theater review: 'Fela!' at the Ahmanson Theatre

Review: 'Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain' by Hal Holbrook

-- Charles McNulty

Photos: Upper: Spalding Gray. Credit: Sara Krulwich / Associate Press. Lower: Playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Credit: Jurgen Frank / Knopf Publicity