Monday, 23 November 2009


Theresa Rebeck's new comedy, THE UNDERSTUDY, is one of those plays that is delightful but gets richer as one thinks about it. The basic premise is a simple one that allows Rebeck to offer a satire on the current state of the commercial theater. We see what is uspposed to be an understudy rehearsal for a newly discovered three-hour play by Franz Kafka (Wait! It will make sense). The lead in this Kafka opus is played by Bruce, a $22 million a film star who wants to have a shot on Broadway. Bruce is like God, an unseen power who ultimately controls the fate of the production. He can't act, but audiences are flocking to this play because he is in it. His co-star is Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), another film actor but lower in the pecking order -- he only earns a tenth of what Bruce does for shouting lines like "Get in the Truck" in disaster movies. Jake also understudies Bruce's role in case Bruce disappears to get a film gig. Harry (Justin Kirk) has been brought in to cover Jake's part should Jake have to move into Bruce's. Got it? In charge of this two person undersudy rehearsal is the stage manager Roxanne (Julie White). Poor Roxanne has not been warned that the new understudy is the guy who left her without a word two weeks before their wedding and Harry's reappearance throws her into emotional turmoil. Harry is also uppity about Broadway being polluted by untalented movie actors rather than relying on experienced stage actors like himself. But, as Jake and Roxanne remind him, he is at the bottom of the theatrical pecking order.
OK, why Kafka? In this understudy rehearsal, no one seems to be in control. The stage manager is at the mercy of an unseen but stoned technician who keeps moving in the wrong scenery and bringing up the wrong cues. Everyone's emotional life seems out of control. Props disappear. And everyone's fate seems controlled by the unseen Bruce. The Kafka scenes are very funny and the satire of the current state of theater is on target.
THE UNDERSTUDY depends on brilliant comic performers and, under Scott Ellis's direction, gets them. Julie White, as usual, is wonderful as the neurotic Roxanne trying to hold on to her emotions while dealing with her feckless ex-lover and the unreliable technician. Justin Kirk give Harry the right combination of arrogance and fecklessness. Both White and Kirk are great physical actors whose every emotion somehow is reflected in posture and movement. Television actor Mark-Paul Gosselaar has never appeared on the professional stage before (he has starred in tv shows written by Rebeck) but is fine as Jake who, above all, wants to be taken seriously. Jake discovers that, despite his multi-million dollar salary, he is no more in control of his fate that Roxanne and Harry are.
Great fun. And in a commercial theater where an Australian and British movie star are filling a Broadway theater playing Chicago policemen in a play that would never get to Broadway without such a gimmick, the play is timely.
THE UNDERSTUDY by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Scott Ellis. Roundabout at Laure Pels Theatre, New York. November 21, 2009.

1940s Musicals in the NYC area

When I heard that FINIAN'S RAINBOW was going to be revived on Broadway, I was very skeptical. The show has a lovely score, but the book is a bit twee (a cutesy leprechaun and a whimsical story) and potentially racist. Without changing the book -- only trimming it down -- and taking the story and characters seriously, this production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, is charming and suprisingly relevant. Yip Harburg, hwo wrote the book and lyrics, wanted to use a popular form to express serious ideas without being preachy and he succeeded. FINIAN'S RAINBOWS satire of Southern racism may be a bit dates, but its prescient presentation of a debtor society in which buying on credit is supposed to bring happiness seemed extremely timely. The simple unit set is a bit tacky, but Carlyle has wisely moved the action down to the footlights so that the talented, charming cast really plays to the audience. All the leads are superb. Christopher Fitzgerald manages to make the leprechaun funny, Jim Norton avoids the usual Irish stereotpyes as Finian and Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Baldwin look and sound great.
I have seen three attempts at reviving ON THE TOWN. The one in the early 70s with Bernadette Peters Failed because the choreography (Ron Field) was lame and the show had no sense of style. One in the 90s failed for the same reason. The English National Opera did a lovely production a few years ago. The sets were decidedly low budget but the staging and choreography (Stephen Mears) were fine and the cast was strong -- heavier on good singers than dancers, but it worked. Now the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, once famed for fine revivals of classic musicals but recently experienced a creative and audience slump, has mounted a really fine revival of the show. Perhaps I have seen ON THE TOWN once or twice too often, but I find the comic scenes that fill the 90 minute Act I repetitive and tiresome. The Paper Mill folks could have followed the example of the Encores series and trimmed to book down to essentials. Given that this production was so much a dance show, the static book scenes seemed all the more dated. But Leonard Bernstein wrote such a magnificent score for ON THE TOWN that the show should be revived.
There is more dancing in ON THE TOWN than in WEST SIDE STORY. This is the challenge for choreographers -- how to keep inventive when there is an hour of choreography to create. Patti Colombo met that challenge for the most part, and her dancers were terrific. In this production the three sailors whose story the show tells were all superb dancers as well as singers and actors. Tyler Hanes who played Gabey was a real dancer (Gabey is usually cast as a singer who has minimal dancing to do) who led most of the mini ballets that fill the show.
Lovely sets, gorgeous costumes, a good orchestra (strings replaced by synthesizers) and a great, energetic cast made this a delight.
FINIAN'S RAINBOW. Music by Burton Lane, book and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Saint James Theatre. November 19, 2009.
ON THE TOWN. Music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Directed by Bill Berry, choreographed by Patti Colombo. Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ. November 20, 2009.

Monday, 9 November 2009


I have written some on Joe Orton, have read his work and just about everything written on it, have seen a number of fine revivals of his work (LOOT and ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE in London this year) and have directed most of his plays. Of course I read John Lahr's book, PRICK UP YOUR EARS, the Orton diaries and the movie of Lahr's book. Like many gay writers, Orton's life and death have almost overshadowed his brilliant work. Now one cannot write on Orton without in some way dealing with the fifteen year relationship with Kenneth Halliwell and Halliwell's murder of Orton.

Simon Bent's play, PRICK UP YOUR EARS tries to present a view of the Orton-Halliwell relationship that explains why Orton remained with Halliwell (why Halliwell killed him is much easier to understand).

HALLIWELL: You need me to write.

ORTON: You need me to breathe.

This exchange crystallizes their relationship. The older Halliwell needs to feel he is Orton's muse. He was, after all, Orton's mentor when the two first met as RADA students. Now, barely capable of leaving their tiny flat, he seems dependent on his self-confident partner.

The play begins just before Halliwell and Orton serve their six month prison term for defacing hundreds of library books. We see them in their 12 by 16 foot Islington bedsit improvising plays and "revising" all those library books. In their little world, they are playmates, collaborators and conspirators against dreary bourgeoise respectability. The older Hall has mentored Orton in an anarchic, camp style but their "creations" remain in the bedsit. When they return from prison, Orton is a changed man, eager to strike out on his own as a writer. But how much of his witty dialogue is taken from Halliwell? Orton becomes a celebrity and Halliwell is left behind, bitter and lonely. "What do you want?" Orton keeps asking. "You know what I want, " Halliwell responds. He wants Orton to himself. He is thrilled when the initial tour of LOOT fails. But LOOT becomes a London hit and Orton has success and celebrity outside of their flat. The relationship is sexless -Orton gets his sex as often as possible with as many strangers as possible while Halliwell remains home alone with his many bottles of barbiturates.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS is an intense play. The only other person who enters the bedsit is the landlady, Mrs. Cordon, who sounds like an Orton character, but is a surrogate mother and referee to the couple. The tragic end comes after she has moved away. One really feels Haliwell's immense neediness and how awful it must have been to live with him. Orton stays out of guilt and a sense of responsibility to Kenneth, but he rightfully feels trapped. Of course we know how it is going to end, but that does not alleviate the play's power and pleasure.

The cast is superb. Chris New perfectly captures Orton's cockiness and sexiness. Orton, after all, was a kind of counter-cultural sex symbol in his white T-short and dungaress. Con O'Nell's voice has always irritated me, but here, since we are suposed to feel how irritating Halliwell can be, it is appropriate. O'Neill is a fine physical actor and one feels great sympathy for Halliwell while understanding Orton's frustration and anger. GwenTaylor is both funny and touching as Mrs. Cordon. Daniel Kramer, for once, has not filled the production with needless directoral interventions. And the set is ingenious. Over their years together, Hallwill turned the walls of the flat into an all-enveloping collage and in this production the collage grows from scene to scene making the setting both a trap and the inside of Halliwell's head.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS has not been a hit, particularly after television star Matt Lucas left the cast after his ex-partner committed suicide. The West End, like Broadway, is dependent on television and film stars to attract audiences. Con O'Neill is not as well known, but is an experienced stage actor. The play probably would have been better in a smaller space than a West End theater, but I was both impressed and unsettled by the play and production.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS by Simon Bent. Directed by Daniel Kramer, designed by Peter Macdonald. Comedy Theatre. November 5, 2009.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


As someone who has written a lot on gay drama, I was delighted last year when there were a number of gay plays being produced in London. THE PRIDE at the Royal Court won awards and is on its way to New York. Joe diPietro's FUCKING MEN was an interesting look at sexual mores among gay men. After a successful run at the small but interesting Finborough, a pub theater near Earl's Court, it moved on to another pub theater, the King's Head in Islington, where it ran for months before a short sting at the ill fated Arts Theater near Leicester Square. THE BACKROOM was revived successfully at the aptly named Cock Theatre in Kilburn. Then the Above the Stag theatre (over a gay bar near Victoria) inaugurated a series of quite good new gay plays -- I particularly liked one called PROUD about a gay working class kid who wants to be a boxer. This fall, there is very little in the way of gay drama, but in general there are fewer new plays around.
Stewart Perlmutt's MANY ROADS TO PARADISE began life at the Finborough and after a sellout run has been transferred to the Jermyn Street Theatre near Piccadilly Circus. The Jermyn Street is a smallish, but not uncomfortable basement theatre that specializes in cabaret and small musicals. Clearly MANY ROADS TO PARADISE is not drawing too well. Last night there was a small audience comprised mostly of older gay couples who all seemed to know each other.
MANY ROADS TO PARADISE is not a great play, but it is amusing and in some cases touching. The six characters all connect in some way. Eighty-four year old Stella is in a Jewish nursing home, lovingly cared for by Sadia, a Somalian Muslim nurse there. Stella is far more attached to Sadia than to her fifty-nine year old daughter, Helen. Stella sees Helen as a homely loser and demeans her at every opportunity. Helen is in a twenty-five year relationship with Avril, a former director of radio drama, who spends her days drinking and insulting poor Helen in vicious, but funny ways. Helen works for Martin, a fifty-five year old owner of a failing small travel agency. Martin is also her only good friend (Avril has driven everyone else away). Martin has a history of brief, sad affairs with younger men. During the course of the play, he is seeing Leo, a thirty-three year old who wants to be cared for but also doesn't want to be tied down, a common male problem. Leo is assistant manager of the nursing home where Stella lives. Got it?
It's a perfectly enjoyable play, though far more episodic than it needs to be. Perlmutt, who has had a fair number of plays produced on the fringe, writes plays as if he were writing for television -- jumping back and forth between short scenes more than is necessary on stage. One misses a clear through line and sense of build to his two acts.
The cast was ore than competent, though there were age problems. Helen looks to be the same age as her mother (all those insults would age one). Thirty-three year old Leo looked more 45. Anthony Biggs directed it effectively on the small stage.
It was nice to see a play about middle-aged gay people rather than humpy young men.

MANY ROADS TO PARADISE by Stewart Perlmutt. Jermyn Street Theatre. October 29, 2009.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Best of 2009 Thus Far

Here are the best of the new plays I have seen in London in the past year. Many comment on contemporary issues in challenging ways -- they make one think and question. At this stage in my life, I am far more interested in new work than more revivals of plays I have seen many times before.

1. THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN (Tricycle Theatre). Fourteen one-act plays on the history, politics and people of this country in three three-hour segments which one could see in a day. One of the best theatrical experiences in recent memory. Excellent ensemble cast performed all the plays.
2. ENRON. Lucy Prebble's almost Shakespearean drama of the rise and fall of this corporation and its leaders in a perfect production by Rupert Goold. Five star performances from Samuel West and Tim Pigott-Smith. Why isn't this playing in the US? Saw it at the Chichester Theatre festival. Now at the Royal Court (the run is sold out) and soon to be on the West End.
3. WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING. Andrew Bovell's poetic drama of love and forgiveness. Almeida Theatre. Soon to be in New York.
4. JERUSALEM by Jez Butterworth. What has happened to mythical Olde England and Shakespeare's green world. The 21st century Falstaff is a drunken, drug-addled lover to teenage girls, but also a rebel against conformity and mediocrity and perhaps possessing magical powers. Funny and sad simultaneously. I'm not always a fan of Mark Rylance but he's brilliant in htis one. Royal Court. Will transfer to the West End in January.
5. PORNOGRAPHY by Simon Stephens. A series of monologues on the days leading up to the July 5 bombings in London. Far more arresting than it sounds. Stephens is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights. He's fascinated with the anger and violent impulses behind the surface of ordinary citizens. Tricycle Theatre.
6. TUSK TUSK by Polly Stenham. A scary, touching picture of feral children trying to hold together in the absence of parents. Amazing cast of young actors. Royal Court.
7. THE PRIDE by Alexi Kaye Campbell. Three actors playing characters from the 1950s and the present. In the past a doomed affair between an artist and a terrified married man. At the center is the man's wife who is betrayed by both husband and gay friend. In the present, on Gay Pride, a sex addict grows up. Royal Court.

BEST REVIVALS -- in no particular order
TIME AND THE CONWAYS by J.B. Priestley in a production by Rupert Goold at the National.
THE WINSLOW BOY by Terrence Rattigan at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. A lesson in how to craft a play.
SONG AT TWILIGHT by Noel Coward at the richmond Theatre. Coward's last play and one of his few candid treatmment's of homosexuality.
AS YOU LIKE IT at Shakespeare's Globe. Perfect production.


Truman Capote's novella, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S really isn't the stuff of drama. It's really a character study with little dramatic conflict. Yet it is as timely as it was when it was written half a century ago.
Holly Golightly is a classic American character, a white trash girl from the sticks who ends up in a world of New York minor celebrities and gangsters. In a way, she's a female version of Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby. At fourteen Lula Mae marries a veterinarian who gives her a comfortable life, but she has bigger dreams of the world she reads about in magazines and finds herself in New York in the early 1940s (when her creator Truman Capote, a man with an even more insatiable hunger for celebrity, first worked in the city). She's charming and beautiful and men gravitate toward her, but they seem more a means to an ill-defined end. Her social world is made of up people who, like her, are basically all appearance, a world of bad actors playing self-created roles. Enter a young Southern writer who develops an obsession with Holly. He keeps saying "There are all kinds of love," and Holly seems to understand that this is a virginal gay man's crush on someone he wouldn't know what to do with if she did offer herself to him. Holly sees him as "Fred" her brother
To some extent, the formula here is the same as in CABARET (young probably gay writer and larger than life woman), but while that fine musical puts Sally Bowles at the center of a society about to be destroyed, The play gives us the heartless world Holly has chosen to inhabit, but they are really only background to Holly.
Samuel Adamson has turned this story into an absorbing play that is filling the Theatre Royal Haymarket in a brisk, lovely production by Sean Mathias. There are non great dramatic ocnflicts, no shattering moments of self-realization, no grand climax. What we get is a stage realization of Capote's character study. I would have liked the young writer to have more of a life beyond his obsession with Holly, but Adamson wants to keep the spotlight on his central character. The episodic play's success depends on two things: how much we in the audience care about Holly (not everyone will) and the ability of the lead actress to capture this amorphous character. I thought Anna Friel was superb. She's beautiful, which helps, and there seems a sadness and vulnerability that keeps us on her side. Holly is a kind of innocent in a tawdry world and Friel captures that well. When her husband finds her in New York, we see the real person: sweet, unsophisticated Lula Mae who wants to be held and loved. Lula Mae, however, is not the person she wants to be. Friel also sings well. The show is not a musical but Holly does sing a couple of songs during transitions.
Friel's co-star is a young American film actor, Joseph Cross. Like a number of young film and television actors with zero to limited stage experience I have seen recently in plays in London (Matt DiAngelis in LOOT, Matthew Horne in ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE), he has no idea how to project his voice naturally and comfortably on stage so one has the impression that he is shouting every line in a high, whiny voice. I wanted more from the character and the actor.
Friel and Cross are supported by a large, excellent supporting cast, but it's Friel and Holly's play. .
Holly was born a half century too soon. Now attractive, ambitious dreamers can more easily become celebrities without possessing any real marketable skills. Her dream is even more universal than it whas when Capote created her.

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S by Samuel Adamson. Directed by Sean Mathias. Theatre Royal, Haymarket. October 28, 2009.

London Theater - October 2009

After months of consistently excellent theater, the fall offers a more mixed bag.
Last week I saw three productions at the National Theatre.
I have never been a great fan of David Hare's plays. I always feel that I am watching a rough draft of a work he didn't bother to revise and that characters are often no more than mouthpieces for his opinions as in the recent GETHSEMANE. What he can do well is create absorbing docudramas. I have fond memories of STUFF HAPPENS, his presentation for events leading up to the Iraq war. THE POWER OF YES is another absorbing docudrama chronicling the events and leading figures of the current financial crisis. At the center is a writer trying to figure out how bankers got us into this mess. Hare had edited the material he gathered into a fascinating work. Angus McDonald's direction is just right -- fast moving and physically lively and the ensemble cast is excellent.
Tadeusz Slobodzianek's OUR CLASS takes the form of a docudrama as it presents through first person narration and short scenes, the events leading up to and the aftermath of the horrible massacre of 1600 Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne. We begin in 1926 in an elementary school with ten students, half Jewish and half Gentile who seem at first to be a cohesive group. It doesn't take long for the rifts to develop as the Jews are blamed for the Soviet occupation and anti-Semitism grows even more virulent as Nazi occupiers drive out the Soviets. But the Nazis didn't have to tell the townspeople to slaughter their Jews. The recounting of beatings, rapes and massacre is truly horrific. However, that's only the first half of the three and a quarter hour play. The second half traces the lives of the surviving eight Poles (two were killed in the massacre) from the massacre to their deaths decades later. The ringleaders go on to key positions in local government and the Church. Others either live with the secret or get out. The Cottesloe has been transformed into a theater-in-the round (actually rectangle) for this production. On a bare stage ten fine actors bring these people to life. It's not an easy play to sit through -- it is relentless and uncompromising -- but it is also totally absorbing.
Then there is Katie Mitchell's production of Ferdinand Bruckner's 1920s German play, THE PAINS OF YOUTH (terse adaptation by Martin Crimp). I keep swearing to stop going to Katie Mitchell productions. She's the darling of critics over here, but she often takes alienation too far for my taste. Often in her productions the stage is too dark to see actors' faces or she has them running too and fro on stage for no reason. Recently she has gone through a "Let's Make a Video" phase in which you see a group of good actors run around doing video setups of scenes which you watch simultaneously on a screen. It was interesting the first time. This production is more traditional, except for the many unnecessary interrruptions by black suited, bespectacled actors acting as stage hands. If a character is supposed to light a cigarette, the lights change and one of these men in black enters, puts the cigarette in the character's mouth and lights it. The man in black exits, the lights return to normal and the scene progresses. Alienation! At the end of scenes, the black-suited people (actually the actors who have to change from their characters' costumes into these black outfits when required, which is often) return with large plastic bags to collect props. Yes, it is distracting, but given the tedium of the play itself, it is welcome relief. The play depicts the lives of a group of medical students. One critic called it a study in anomie. I have to be less kind and say it is a tedious play about empty, boring people-- one of those plays when I am tempted to scream, "Who cares."
I loved Andrew Bovell's WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, which was at the Almeida this past summer and will soon open in New York. Right now there is a fine revival on the West End of his 1996 play, SPEAKING IN TONGUES, now in a limited run at the Duke of York's. In it four characters play nine people and scenes between two sets of characters often overlap. Bovell is often almost musical in his love of counterpoint. He loves to disrupt our linear sense of time. He also loves repetition of images. SPEAKING IN TONGUES centers on two married couples and the people with whom they have adulterous liaisons. It's a lovely meditation on love, need, loneliness and nameless fears. It shows how one can kill through willful inaction. The cast is brilliant.
Britain may be in a bad recession, but the theaters are filled. Go figure! The National has its usually elderly audience, but there was a mostly young audience filling the Duke of York's for the Andrew Bovell play.
More soon on this week's theatergoing.