Wednesday, 21 December 2011


All the critics I have read have interpreted Stephen Karam's lovely play SONS OF THE PROPHET at a play about pain and suffering. To me, it is a play about learning compassion.
Twenty-nine-year-old Lebanese-American Joseph Douiahy, a resident of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, has a lot of problems. At work in a small book-packaging firm, he deals with an eccentric, emotionally needy boss (superbly played by Joanna Gleason). At home he has an eighteen-year-old gay brother who needs some looking after, and a helpless, aged uncle who claims to have moved in to take care of his nephews, but has to be cared for. Joseph used to train to be an Olympic runner, but injuries have destroyed that dream. He is grieving for his father was recently killed as a result of a high-school prank gone wrong. He is also suffering from pains that may be psychosomatic or the sign of a serious illness. But Joseph is so wrapped up in his suffering that he is merciless about the feelings of those around him. He is nasty to his uncle and the handsome young reporter he sleeps with and he ignores the calls from his boss. Finally, at the end of the play, one senses that Joseph is beginning to learn compassion -- that everyone is hurting and deserves some kindness. At the same time, ironically, Joseph ends up benefitting from his nastiness thanks to a YouTube video of a very public meltdown.
My description sounds a bit sappy, but this is not a sappy play. SONS OF THE PROPHET is very funny, but deeply touching at the same time. Karam sees the good and the self-serving in his characters but makes us care for all of them.
The production, directed by Peter Dubois, couldn't be better. I can only join all the critics who have raved about Santino Fontana's performance as Joseph, but the rest of the cast is also excellent. It's just that Fontana gives one of those performances that are truly memorable, totally inhabiting his character. It's the best of many fine performances I saw in the past year in the best new play I saw in 2011.
SONS OF THE PROPHET by Stephen Karam, directed by Peter Dubois. Roundabout Laura Pels Theatre, New York.

BEST OF 2011

It was not a year of great new work in London -- so the majority of my list this year is comprised of revivals. Longer reviews of all these below.
SONS OF THE PROPHET. Review coming.  A play that deserves all the rave reviews it has been receiving. Roundabout Laura Pels Theatre. New York.
EDITH CAN SHOOT THINGS AND HIT THEM by A. Rey Pamatmat. A touching play about a young brother and sister who try to take care of each other without any help from their parents and the brother's young boyfriend who has been thrown out of his home by his homophobic mother. The way the three kids try to forge a family is funny and touching. The performances at Atlanta's Actors Express were a notch below professional, but good enough to show what a fine writer Pamatmat is.
COMPANY. This revival of Sondheim's classic musical at London's Southwark Playhouse, directed by Joe Fredericks with Rupert Young making Bobby a real three-dimensional character was the best performance of this Sondheim classic I have seen.
EMPEROR AND GALILEAN at the Royal National Theatre, London. What a thrill to see a fine production of one of Ibsen's most challenging plays. The condensation of this mammoth work made is fast moving and totally coherent. Jonathan Kent's direction was both grand and intimate. And Andrew Scott gave one of the best performances of the year in the marathon leading role.
LUISE MILLER at the Donmar. I love Schiller's work and was delighted to see this fascinating play superbly acted. Another triumph for director Michael Grandage.
ONE MAN, TWO GUV'NORS at the Royal National Theatre, London. I have always found revivals of Carlo Goldoni's farce, A SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS, tedious so was surprised that I (like everyone else) was so delighted by Richard Bean's update, presented almost as a vaudeville show with musical acts between the scenes. Set in the early 1960s, the age of skiffle music, with tacky painted sets, the play took off. The cast (James Corden, Jemima Rooper, et al) are perfect.
LONDON ROAD at the Royal National Theatre. An unconventional but totally absorbing musical.
KINGDOM OF EARTH at the Print Room, London. For the scores of pages I have written on Tennessee Williams, I have tended to write off his work after 1960. This superb production by Lucy Bailey in a small London theatre convinced me that there's a fine, poetic drama here. The poet and the theatrical realist is Williams were often at war. The poet wins out here in this piece of southern Gothic. Bailey's non-realistic production perfectly suited the play.
FOLLIES. Another fine production of the Sondheim classic. Maybe not the best production of the work I have seen, but a production that does justice to this great work. Bernadette Peters is odd casting for Sally, but playing the character as clinically depressed makes great sense. Alas, her voice is now in tatters. That may fit the role, but not the songs. Jan Maxwell is a great Phyllis) but all the Phyllis's I have seen have been great). The men are fine and the supporting divas superb. The production is on a suitably grand scale with the necessary large orchestra.
ANNA NICOLE. Mark Turnage's new opera with a libretto by Richard Thomas (not the actor) and a fine production by Richard Jones is a crowd-pleasing, wonderful night of musical theatre. Get the DVD which is now available!!!


STANDING ON CEREMONY: THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS is a highly entertaining, often moving  ninety-minute collection of nine short plays on gay marriage written by eight distinguished writers (Mo Gaffney, Jordan Harrison, Moises Kaufman, Neil LaBute, Wendy MacLeod, Jose Rivera, Paul Rudnick (2), and Doug Wright) performed by a cast of six excellent actors. Doug Wright's "On Facebook" and Paul Rudnick's "The Gay Agenda" (performed hilariously by the incomparable Harriet Harris) are amusing satires on the people who find gay marriage threatening. Jordan Harrison's "The Revision," Wendy MacLeod's "The Flight Tonight," Mo Gaffney's "A Traditional Wedding" and Jose Rivera's lovely, poetic "Pablo and Andrew at the Altar of Words" focus on wedding preparation and ceremonies. Neil LaBute's "Strange Fruit" and Moises Kaufman's "London Mosquitos" (a heartbreaking performance by Richard Thomas) are about the loss of loved ones. "The weakest, though amusing, is Paul Rudnick's Jewish-mother-with-a-gay-son skit, "My Husband," another vehicle for Ms. Harris.
The plays are performed more or less as readings, but the cast is so masterful that one doesn't miss the usual trappings of scenery and costumes. Harriet Harris plays her monster mothers brilliantly. Polly Draper and Beth Leavel make a touching couple. Richard Thomas shows once again that he is one of America's best actors. Craig Bierko and Mark Consuelos are also fine.
Of course, in New York the show is preaching to the choir. The producers are aware that it needs to be seen in places where gay marriage is still an issue.
STANDING ON CEREMONY: THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS. Minetta Lane Theatre. December 18, 2011.


     I love the score for ON A CLEAR DAY. Unfortunately, the original book was a mess, which makes the show impossible to revive. In the wake of books and articles about reincarnation, Alan Jay Lerner tried to create an original musical about a psychiatrist who falls in love with a young woman who channels people from the past. The show, like ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, the Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical of the same period,  simply baffled people despite the wonderful score. Director Michael Mayer, as big a fan of the score as I am, had a dream of finding a way to make the show work. As a result, we have a new, retooled ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER with the best of the original score plus some tunes from the MGM musical ROYAL WEDDING by the same songwriting team plus a new book by Peter Parnell that is marginally better than the original.
     Now we have psychiatrist Mark Bruckner (Harry Connick), who is grieving over the death of his wife,  taking on David, an easily hypnotized gay florist with commitment issues. Mark wants to use hypnosis to cure David of his smoking habit but while hypnotized David channels Melinda (Jessie Mueller), a 1940s band singer. Mark falls in love with Melinda, David thinks Mark is in love with him which complicates his relationship with boyfriend Warren. The trouble with the book is that Melinda isn't really a character we care about and Mark isn't well written. Moreover, the show needs an accomplished singer-actor in the central role, but Harry Connick, Jr. neither acts effectively nor projects any personality as Mark. As a result, the focus is on the relationship of David and Warren, particularly since David Turner and Drew Gehling are far more winning performers than Mr. Connick or Ms. Mueller. Connick sings well enough in his characteristic throaty style, but Turner and Gehling are better at putting over a show tune. The always wonderful Kerry O'Malley is wasted in a supporting role as Mark's colleague.
     The show supposedly takes place in 1974, but the op ed art and mod costumes are from a slightly earlier era. The staging is amateurish. There's a term in opera, "Park and Bark," for productions in which the singers just come down to the footlights and belt out their arias. The staging of this show is the musical equivalent of "Park and Bark." Only David Turner is allowed to throw any physical energy into his numbers. There is an ensemble of six -- small for a show in a barn like the St. James Theatre. In general, I thought the production would have fared better in a smaller theatre like the O'Neill, Walter Kerr or Sondheim than in the St. James.
For all that, I enjoyed looking at the show and hearing the great score well sung. The show reminded me that writing the book for a musical is a real challenge. There have been very few masters of the craft. This one by Peter Parnell justifies the songs, but has little in the way of characterization and no charm or wit. I do hope there's a cast album.
ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER. Conceived and directed by Michael Mayer. Book by Peter Parnell. Score by Burton Lane with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. St. James Theatre, December 19, 2011.