Sunday, 30 December 2012

Paula Vogel's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS at the New York Theatre Workshop

     Over the past three decades, Paula Vogel has experimented with different ways of telling a story on stage, alternating direct address to the audience and dramatic scenes. Her early plays THE BALTIMORE WALTZ and HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE have become much revived canonical works. Now she has given us a wonderful theater piece, A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, mixing narration, scenes and period songs sung by the superb eleven-member cast who play a variety of roles. A lot of earlier works of literature and theater come to mind as one watches Vogel's play, ranging from Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN to Harriet Beecher Stowe's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (used ironically as it is a white boy who crosses the ice and almost gets killed by a Black Union soldier) to history and slave narratives. In the last half hour or so, I was reminded of D.W. Griffith's silent film epics as the various narrative arcs cross cut with increasing speed. Vogel isn't ashamed to use the tricks of melodrama, particularly suspense. There are moments toward the end that one felt that the audience was collectively holding its breath.The songs, gospel songs, carols and hymns are beautifully sung by the ensemble. Other than one pianist, all other instruments (guitars, banjos, drums) are played by the cast.
     In the course of the interlocking stories, we see Mary Lincoln (Alice Ripley) in both her difficult moments and her goodness as she visits dying soldiers. Walt Whitman, almost a Santa figure, also visits the hospital to help the dying in their final moments. We see freed Blacks in Washington carving a new life for themselves but protecting each other from lingering racism. There are Confederate and Union soldiers in the last months of the war and John Wilkes Booth trying to kidnap Lincoln to protect his beloved Confederacy. The only real villains are the few remaining slave owners. If anything, A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS is a celebration of people defeating their worst instincts and helping one another. Yet the show isn't the least bit syrupy. There's real suspense and tension and a panoply of rich characters.
     Tina Landau has given Vogel's play exactly the production it deserves. There's a two-level set made out of dark wooden planks. The actors' bits of costume are hanging on hooks in the stage left aisle (for the most part, the actors are in simple modern dress). There is also Landau's characteristic colorless lighting with actors sometimes holding simple floodlights. The cast -- truly an ensemble -- is uniformly excellent.
     A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS deserves to become a holiday classic, not only in New York but around the country. It's a celebration of redemptive aspects of our history and of the true spirit of Christmas.
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS by Paula Vogel. Directed by Tina Landau. New York Theatre Workshop. December 30, 2012

Terrence McNally's THE GOLDEN AGE

     Over the years, opera has been a major subject for Terrence McNally. In addition to writing libretti for operas like Jake Heggie's DEAD MAN WALKING, McNally has focused in his plays on opera, opera singers and opera fans. THE LISBON TRAVIATA is a portrait of a group of lonely, sad, anything but proud opera queens who live for Maria Callas the way other sad homosexuals of an early period worshipped Judy Garland. A few years later, McNally wrote his most commercially successful play, MASTER CLASS, very loosely based on Callas's Juilliard master classes. Now we have GOLDEN AGE, with Callas playing in the background, a depiction of the backstage dramas at the 1835 opening night of Vincenzo Bellini's I PURITANI, starring the most celebrated singers of its time. McNally uses this event to explore questions about the nature of genius, the primacy of performer over composer, the relationship of love to art. The central relationships in the play are those between Bellini (Lee Pace) and his devoted lover, Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers) and the composer and his muse, soprano Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), the Callas of her day. This will have special meaning for opera fans, but McNally offers enough entertaining backstage banter to make the play interesting to a wider audience, at least the relatively sophisticated audience at the Manhattan Theater Club. We have a vain baritone who stuffs a cucumber down his trousers to enhance his virility, dueling bitchy divas, middle-aged basses sick of playing father figures. Bellini is the self-absorbed romantic artist without whom none of this would be happening. He is also dying (tuberculosis, though he really died of an intestinal infection). One major study of opera is titled A SONG OF LOVE AND DEATH and, at its best, this is what GOLDEN AGE offers. While GOLDEN AGE deals with opera as an historic form, it doesn't raise the key question about the future of opera -- how it can continue primarily as a museum. In the Golden Age, new operas were constantly being written and performed. Can it survive merely recycling works from the past?
     The most fascinating aspect of GOLDEN AGE is its parallels with bel canto opera: long "arias" - speeches, ensembles, duets, even a mad scene of sorts, mirroring the structure of I PURITANI. The play demands actors of wide emotional and vocal range. Alas, except for excellent performances from Will Rogers and Bebe Neuwirth, the cast ranges from OK (almost everyone else) to mediocre (Lee Pace). My spouse put it perfectly when he said Pace is an exponent of the Nicholas Cage school of acting. His monotone voice can only go from loud to louder; his emotional range is equally narrow. We should feel the spirit of Bellini's music in his performance. I didn't believe for a minute that Pace's Bellini could have written the exquisite music of I PURITANI. Because of his performance, I never understood the adoration other people feel for the composer. If the play seemed tiresome in spots, particularly in the last half house, it was because Pace didn't do anything with the material. Rogers' Florimo seemed much younger than Pace's Bellini though historically they were the same age.
     So a diverting play. I felt what I often feel at McNally's plays -- that I am watching a draft that needs revision. It sags in places and takes too long to end. But then again, I PURITANI, for all its melodic glories, is not the most tightly structured work.
GOLDEN AGE by Terrence McNally. Manhattan Theatre Club at the New York City Center. December 29, 2012.

Friday, 28 December 2012


     In no particular order, here are the performances I most admired in 2012. It helps that these actors were in excellent plays, but they still deserve bravos for their acting.

Schuler Hensley in THE WHALE. Hensley should get an award simply for surviving in that fat suit for almost two hours, but his performance is so beautifully nuanced, combining the character's self destruction and his capacity to love.

Russell Harvard in TRIBES. Harvard has one of the most expressive faces I have seen on a stage in years. He doesn't have to say much to be fully understood. As the deaf son in a garrulous family, better at speaking than listening, his performance always commanded attention.

Amy Ryan in DETROIT. Everyone was excellent in this production, but Ryan was particularly good as the 40ish wife dealing in sometimes bizarre ways with an unhappy marriage and general dissatisfaction.

Assiv Manvi in DISGRACED. As a Pakistani-American lawyer who exposes all his complex feelings about his race, his religion and his country (America), Mandvi give a brilliantly modulated performance moving from complacency to rage to violence to helplessness.

Mary Louise Wilson in 4000 MILES. I wan't too crazy about the play, but Wilson played an elderly lady aware of her physical and mental limitations with total dignity.

The entire cast of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF for making this play more three-dimensional than I have ever seen it. No "acting."

Seth Numrich and Tony Shaloub in GOLDEN BOY. Just about everyone is magnificent in this revival, but Numrich manages to capture Joe's combination of idealism, ambition and anger. Shaloub holds the stage through an honest, understated performance.

GRACE by Craig Wright

     The title of Craig Wright's new play tells you that it is going to be about the place of religion in a secular age.  What does it mean to be in a state of grace? Can one separate grace from God? How can one believe in God in a world of suffering and injustice? Can one really shed one's guilt through expiation? Many of Wright's characters are suffering from guilt at their own actions and horror at the actions of others. Karl (Edward Asner), an elderly exterminator, has survived the horror of Nazi Germany and the guilt at revealing the whereabouts of a Jewish friend to the Nazis. Sam (Michael Shannon) blames himself for the death of his fiancé in a freak automobile accident that he survived, though he is now disfigured by burns. At the beginning of the narrative the play dramatizes, the central character, Steve (Paul Rudd), believes he is in  state of grace. Like many Americans over the past two centuries, he believes that his impending financial success is a deserved gift from God. Belief in Christianity is crucial to Steve and he tries to convert everyone to his ideology in a way that is obnoxiously smug. Steve wants to create a chain of Gospel themed motels, merging religious belief and business. Single-mindedly pursuing success, he is sometimes cruel to his sweet  wife (Kate Arrington) who really believes in the importance of doing good. During the course of the play, Steve loses everything he values and lashes out in violence that is also typically American. The devout Christians are not necessarily the characters who act with compassion. At the end of the play, Steve, gun in hand, shouts, "I just want to go back" -- back to when God was in his heaven and all was right with Steve's world. Like most evangelicals, Steve wants easy answers and a God, who like a good Santa Claus, gives him what he wants. It is interesting that Sam, the disfigured, guilt-ridden person who comes to find healing through a loving connection with another person is Unitarian-Universalist. It may be because I share Sam's religion, but I see GRACE as a very UU play, depicting a world in which there are only hard questions, not easy answers, and in which loving, compassionate human behavior is the healing force.
     GRACE is not a great play, but it has its moments and does try to grapple with issues that are central to our culture. Like many television dramas it begins at the climax then rewinds to the events leading up to the carnage we see in the first minute. I'm not sure it wouldn't be a better play if we didn't know where it was going and were more surprised by the ending. The play takes place in two identical, neighboring Florida condos, but the play and the production has the events in the two rooms taking place simultaneously in one room. Characters may be separate in space, but we see them next to each other. Wright aspires to poetry and some of his imagery is arresting. Sam is a NASA scientist who specializes in the elimination of the extraneous noise that muddies signals from our probes to outer space. When asked if he succeeds, he answers "You can't." The noise that muddies communications will always be there unless one has the ability to listen  compassionately. GRACE packs a lot into ninety minutes.
      The cast is uniformly fine. Rudd's Steve verges on being manic, but the subtle, low-key performances of the other actors provide excellent balance. Michael Shannon, who gave one of my favorite film performances of 2011 in TAKE SHELTER draws one in through his intense silences.
     I'm not sure a thoughtful play like GRACE belongs on Broadway in the current state of things in the commercial theater (it hasn't been doing good business despite the starry cast). It's an intense little play that would be better served by a more intimate space. Still, if not one of the best plays of the year, it's well worth seeing.
GRACE by Craigh Wright. Directed by Dexter Bullard. Cort Theatre. December 27, 2012.

Sunday, 23 December 2012


     No one cares about this list but me, but I do it anyway. Among other things, it clarifies my understanding of my own theatrical aesthetic. The best new plays I have seen this year have some things in common. They are examples of poetic realism, resonating beyond their own characters and stories. In one sense they are geographically specific (Idaho, Philadelphia, the rust belt) but their range is really much greater. So, in no particular order.


DETROIT by Lisa D'Amour. Playwrights Horizons. Only five characters, but this play covered a lot of territory as it explored the relationship of two married couples; one middle class but on the way down, the other déclassé and barely surviving. Class, economics, contemporary anomie and barely disguised anger all play a role in a play that manages to be both very funny and a bit scary. One of the few plays I have seen recently that is really about America today. Brilliant.

WATER BY THE SPOONFUL by Quiera Allegra Hudes. Second Stage. A beautiful poetic meditation on human connection in and out of families and the ways people can both damage and heal.

THE WHALE by Samuel D. Hunter. Playwrights Horizons. A portrait of the last days of a man literally eating himself to death after the death of his lover. Hunter has an uncanny ability to find the best in an unlikely, unhappy group of characters. In their wish for love, his people transcend their banal surroundings.

DISGRACED by Amir Kapoor. Lincoln Center Theater. A dinner party from Hell play, but also as intelligent a discussion play as I have seen in years. What happens when a successful Pakistani-American lawyer tells the truth about his mixed feelings about Islam, America and the people close to him. Dark, funny and stimulating.

A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS. An epic told with the simplest of theatrical means -- and lovely period music. It is fascinating to watch the narrative strands come together in the last quarter hour. This collaboration of playwright Paula Vogel, director Tina Landau and the perfect cast truly is the magic of theater.

RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN by Gina Gionfriddo. Playwrights Horizons. The plot was a little too schematic, but this was a witty, intelligent take on what has happened to feminism.  

PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. Broadway. Kid's theatre for children of all ages. Sheer theater magic.

Thanks, too, to the directors and actors who brought these fine plays to life.


COCK by Mike Bartlett. Off-Broadway. I liked this play in London and liked it even more here with a better cast. On one hand, this is a play about a young man who cannot decide between his long time male lover and the woman who has entered his life. It is more about the ways people manipulate those they supposedly love. 

TRIBES by Nina Raine. Off-Broadway. Is our family of necessity our tribe or might we feel more kinship with people who share our difference from our family and from the majority of people? That is the dilemma facing the deaf young man at the center of this clever, complex play. His choice affects a family who needs him more than he needs them. 


GOLDEN BOY. Lincoln Center Theater. A perfectly cast and staged production of the 1937 Clifford Odets play that proves that it belongs in the pantheon of twentieth-century drama.   

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (Steppenwolf - Broadway) and THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE (Signature Theatre). Two superb revivals of Edward Albee's work. Pam McKinnon's revival of Albee's most famous play avoided camp and cliche and gave more realistic, complex pictures of the four characters than I have seen before. The real revelation, though was David Esbjornson's production of one of Albee's most critically attacked plays. This production proved that the critics were wrong about this meditation on mortality, grief and love.


FEBRUARY HOUSE. Public Theatre. An unlikely subject -- and not from a movie, this saga of an attempt at an artist's colony in Brooklyn during World War II was alternately funny and touching. Gabriel Kahane has obviously listened to Sondheim, but he has a unique musical voice and a fascinating way of blending music and lyrics.

GIANT. Public Theatre. This was a big, old-fashioned Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Michael John LaChiusa's score was uniformly gorgeous.

DOGFIGHT. Second Stage. Other critics weren't crazy about this, but I thought it presented its characters and told its story effectively and had a lovely score.

Otherwise, a dire year for musicals. NEWSIES was enjoyable, ONCE tedious, the rest just plain sad.

FINALLY a question. Why are audience for good theater so geriatric? Why aren't young people interested in good drama? Most of the plays and musicals I mention are in non-commercial theaters with reasonable ticket prices and student discounts. How can we get more young people to something other than empty-headed Broadway musicals?


     The brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning play, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is the second in a planned trilogy by Quiara Alegria Hudes. I have not seen or read the first play in the series, ELLIOTT, A SOLDIER'S FUGUE. That title suggests that music plays an important role. It does in this play as well. Yaz (Zabrina Guevara) is an adjunct instructor in music at Swarthmore, teaching jazz, particularly the music of John Coltrane. She gives an eloquent lecture on the moment when she discovered the importance of dissonance in music. Indeed, the play is an eloquent meditation on dissonance and harmony in the relationships of some spiritually maimed people. Yaz's closest relationship is with her cousin, Elliott (Armando Riesco), an Iraq war veteran haunted by the first man he killed. After a serious injury to his leg, Elliott was briefly addicted to pain killers (addiction is one of the major dissonances in the play). He is also spiritually disfigured by his inability to forgive his mother, Odessa (Liza Colon-Zayas), a former crack addict, for causing the death of his younger sister and giving him up for adoption by his aunt and uncle. Now Odessa, having overcome her addiction, runs a website for other recovering crack addicts frequented by a motley assortment of men and women. While her son hates her, other addicts depend on her for their survival. Odessa may have lost her biological son but by the end of the play, she has found an unlikely surrogate son. The extended family loses one matriarch but gains another. Life is cyclical, but ultimately positive.
     Recounting the play's narrative makes it sound more melodramatic than it is. We watch connections being made between people fighting for their survival. We also see some acts of real cruelty on the part of characters who are otherwise sympathetic and acts of mercy and kindness from characters who can be cruel. In the best sense, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is a play about fallen people seeking redemption. Hudes obviously loves her characters. She is also a master of dramatic form. The play begins with a series of scenes that don't seem to bear any relationship to each other. Slowly the pieces of the puzzle come together in ways that are both surprising and justified. Her language ranges from the prosaic to the eloquent. Hudes isn't afraid to give her characters long expository speeches, but they all ring true. There is also visual poetry, particularly as the play moves toward its denouement.
     Davis McCallum has created the perfect production for this play. Internet scenes are getting to be something of a cliche, but there is a visual flow, almost a choreography to the ones in WATER BY THE SPOONFUL. The settings (Neil Patel) are more evocative than realistic for a play that ranges from Philadelphia to Tokyo to Puerto Rico to the world of nightmares. One can't speak highly enough of the cast. In addition to the excellent Ms. Guevara, Ms. Colon-Zayas and Mr. Riesco, there are fine performances from Frankie Faison, Sue Jean Kim and particularly Bill Heck as members of Odessa's internet support group. While the play for the most part seems to isolate its characters from one another, the actors create a finely tuned ensemble.
     In a recent post, I criticized Amy Herzog's plays (critically acclaimed, so I'm in the minority here) for being thin, for not resonating beyond what we see. They are sketches rather than paintings. WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is a grand canvas capturing much more than any simple recounting can capture. It's a loving, poetic picture of the complexities of human nature.
WATER BY THE SPOONFUL. Second Stage Tony Kiser Theatre. December 23, 2012.

PICNIC at the Roundabout

     During the 1950s, William Inge was Broadway's cash cow among writers of non-musicals. He wrote four hits in a row: COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, PICNIC, BUS STOP and THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, all of which were turned into successful movies. He also wrote the screenplay to SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. While Tennessee Williams was mining the South for his plays, Inge wrote about folks trapped in the middle of the country. His subject was entrapment -- geographic, economic, social, moral and sexual -- and the relationship between sex, love and loneliness for people who crave a meaningful relationship. Inge was a self-hating homosexual who, like Tennessee Williams, wrote plays in which men were the object of sexual attraction. At the beginning of PICNIC, now revived by Roundabout, a gorgeous, shirtless young man (Sebastian Stan, more perfectly tanned and body-sculpted than any 1950s drifter would ever be) enters with a load of wood. From that first entrance, Hal is the object of the gaze of a small community of small-town women of all ages from 14 to 60 who, however hard they try, can't stop looking at him. There's a mother with two teenage daughters (the mother has obviously been left by another wayward stud), a middle-aged woman living with memories of a failed romance and caring for a nasty, aging mother, and a horny 40-ish spinster schoolteacher, desperate to marry her erstwhile boyfriend who simply wants a good time.
      The stud may be a sex magnet, but he's also a born loser. Hal's father died in jail and Hal has spent a year in reform school. He got into college on a football scholarship, but was disliked by most of his fellow male students who were jealous of his sexual prowess and his lack of middle-class manners or mores. After years of drifting, he has come to this small town looking for help from his one college friend, Alan, who is dating the gorgeous eighteen-year-old, Madge (Maggie Grace). For all her beauty, Madge has her own insecurities. She's not bright (her younger sister got the brains but not the looks), got through high school on her looks, and now works at the five and dime store. She feels insecure around Alan and his wealthy family and clearly doesn't find Alan sexy (actually, Ben Rappaport, who plays Ben, has the looks to play Hal. Paul Newman played Alan in the film, the foil to William Holden's decidedly middle-aged Hal). Of course, Madge is drawn to Hal and everyone else shows their worst side as Hal brings out their sexual longing and frustration.
     I have written a lot about Inge over the years, but actually have seen few productions of his plays. The key question about PICNIC is whether it is worth reviving as anything but an artifact of the 1950s. Unlike Williams or Clifford Odets, whose GOLDEN BOY has proved its worth in a wonderful revival, Inge is not a master of dramatic language. Odets' and Williams's plays sing. Inge's don't. The language is as flat as the landscape. Perhaps this is appropriate, but from row N of the American Airlines Theatre, it's all a bit too arid.
     I saw an early preview of PICNIC, so want to be a bit careful about judging the production or the performances. Right now the production lacks rhythm. I wanted to scream "Faster - louder." The Tennessee Williams and William Inge beefcake stud victims are almost impossible roles to play. Over time, many of their lines have become camp classics ("We ain't goin' to no goddam picnic"). Sebastian Stan is as convincing as one could expect. Right now, most of the women are a bit bland. Maggie Grace is beautiful, but her lack of stage experience shows. Perhaps Madge should be pretty and blah, but it isn't a theatrically interesting choice, if it is a choice (Kim Novak made it work in the film, but Kim Novak was a phenomenon of nature.). It was a good choice to have so much physical similarity between her and her mother (Mare Winningham), but unfortunately the similarity also includes blandness.  Madeleine Martin's Millie is outright nasty rather then unhappy. The part of the spinster schoolteacher, Rosemary, has been an award magnet for actresses (Eileen Heckart in the original production, Rosalind Russell in the movie) in part because she actually has more emotional variety than the other characters. Elizabeth Marvel captures all the moods, but needs to tie them better into a coherent personality. Ben Rappaport makes more of Alan than I imagined possible from reading the play. Of course it only makes one wonder why Maggie doesn't find him attractive. It's greatly about class, of course, but Maggie Grace's Madge unfortunately seemed more country club than five and dime. Sam Gold has been highly praised as a brilliant young director. I didn't see more than competence here and sometimes not that. Inge was a good craftsman, but you wouldn't know it from the way each scene tended not to end, but to fizzle out.  A successful revival depends in part on the director justifying the play -- arguing for the play through his production. I didn't see any love of the play in this production.
     As one who has studied and written about Inge, I was grateful to see a production of PICNIC. However, I didn't leave the theater feeling the necessity of this revival. Perhaps that will come after a few weeks more of previews. This brings up again the morality of previews. This production is being presented to a paying audience. Having paid for a ticket, we have the right to judge it now rather than wait weeks to do so.
PICNIC by William Inge. Directed by Sam Gold. Roundabout Theatre American Airlines Theatre, December 22, 2012.        

Sunday, 25 November 2012

THE GREAT GOD PAN at Playwrights Horizons

     This is the second Amy Herzog play I have seen this year and I am not impressed. 4000 MILES, which received a lot of critical praise, struck me as slight, the sort of script that might have been a one hour television drama back in the days when television drama existed. It certainly wasn't a play that resonated beyond itself. THE GREAT GOD PAN, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, is simply clunky. The first scene is one of those ten minutes of awkward exposition that I thought went out with Ibsen. Two people at a table who haven't seen each other in twenty-five years asking those, "What have you done in the past twenty-five years" questions. Then of course there's a bombshell. Frank, a tattooed and pierced gay massage therapist tells his childhood friend Jamie that he (Frank) was abused by his father. Frank wonders whether Jamie remembers anything. It turns out Jamie has no recollection of much of anything about Frank, his father, or a week long childhood stayover at Frank's house. In succeeding expository scenes, parents and a former baby sitter give Jamie more information about his forgotten childhood. Jamie is an award-winning investigative journalist who is a bit remote with everyone who wants to be close to him -- parents and partner Paige, a former dancer who, after an injury, has retrained as a social worker. She's also pregnant and something of a nag. Her nagging has some justification -- after a period of sexual dysfunction, Jamie has impregnated her and now is ambivalent about wanting the child. Jamie is showing the classic symptoms of someone who has been abused as a child. During the course of the play, he comes to realize what is obvious to everyone else seven minutes into the play. Some investigative journalist!
     4000 MILES had two interesting, well drawn characters, though it didn't really go anywhere or resonate beyond itself. THE GREAT GOD PAN does not have interesting characters and has  a plot out of a Lifetime movie. Most of the supporting characters are there merely to deliver exposition. Paige strikes me as frustratingly weak. Why doesn't she leave Jamie and have the kid? That never seems to be a choice for her. Jamie is so emotionally constipated that he isn't interesting. The title comes from a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that all the characters seem to know for some reason. It's a literary allusion that doesn't really lift the prosaic goings on.
     The actors make the most out of what they have to work with. I think director Carolyn Cantor made a mistake with her symbolic, ominous woodland setting for a play that basically takes place in a series of urban and suburban interiors. It suggests a symbolic dimension that the play really doesn't have.
     The play lasts eighty minutes. It seems much longer. The audience seemed polite but bored.
     It may be unfair to judge a play on the basis of an early preview, but this one would need major rewrites to be anything more than it now is. I doubt it can get the wholesale revision it needs during a preview period. We certainly don't need the two long scenes between Paige and her young client with an eating disorder. Paige isn't the central character , her client isn't particularly interesting, and one really has to think about how these scenes connect to Jamie's dilemma. Yes, OK, the client, like Jamie, seems to be denying sexual abuse. Does her appearance really enrich the play? I appreciate that Herzog likes endings that don't tie up all the play's loose ends into a pat conclusion, but this one feels artificial.
     Up to now, Playwrights Horizons has had a fantastic six months. This one brings down their batting average a bit.
THE GREAT GOD PAN. Playwrights Horizons. November 25, 2012.


     DISGRACED is an intelligent emotionally charged play that provokes a lot of thought and discussion.
     Things are not what they seem in successful lawyer Amir Kapoor's household. When we first see him he is immaculately dressed in a coat, tie and one of his $600 shirts above the waist, but only in underwear below. There can be no better opening image in this play about divided personalities. Amir was born in America and claims his parents were born in India. The location of their birth is now Pakistan, but Amir's hatred of Islam is so strong that he won't acknowledge that. Emily, his blonde, white wife is an artist who is incorporating aspects of Islamic art into her work. She's looking for some link to a faith system but doesn't seem very interested in the one in which she was raised. When we first see them, she is painting a portrait of Amir in the style of Velasquez's famous portrait of a Moorish slave. What does this say about her opinion of her dark-skinned Asian husband and of their marriage? Amir's nephew has changed his name from Hussein Malik to Abe Jensen (Amir has also changed his name) but is loyal to his Islamic roots. Abe wants Amir to help free his Imam who has been accused of terrorism. When, at his wife's insistence, Amir becomes peripherally involved in the case and is quoted in The New York TIMES as being sympathetic to the Imam, all hell breaks loose. The pro-Israel Jewish partners at his law firm are furious (they already think he is "shifty" -- an ethnic stereotype if ever there was one). Though Amir was due to become partner they promote Jory, a Black woman, over him.
     At a dinner from Hell, Jory and her partner Isaac, a Jewish curator who wants to exhibit Emily's work, become embroiled in an argument over Islam with Amir. During this increasingly heated debate, we see how divided Amir's feelings are -- hatred of Islam but pride at the victories of Islamic terrorists. By the end of the evening, Amir's life is shattered. His marriage is destroyed, his job is in peril, and his friendships ruined.
     DISGRACED is an intense, ninety-minute play. There are some laughs along the way, but it is a powerful look at cultural confusion. In the final scene, while Joe is helping Amir pack, he says that their people have been "disgraced" and we see that this is to some extent true. No one -- not Joe's blonde wife, his Black colleague, his Jewish bosses or the Jewish rival for Emily's attention -- see Amir as fully human. Disgraced, Amir behaves disgracefully. We're not sure who he is at the end -- nor does he.
     This is a provocative play. The production is well directed and superbly acted. In the pivotal role of Amir, Aasiv Mandvi gives a searing portrayal, moving from complacency to fury to calm bafflement. If you only know him from his funny stuff on THE DAILY SHOW, you will be amazed at what a good actor he is. The supporting cast is fine.
      It has been a year of excellent plays that argue the key issues of our time -- RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN; DETROIT: and now DISGRACED. I hope they all have a future beyond the intimate theatres that have presented them. DISGRACED is at the 100 seat Claire Tow Theatre atop the Lincoln Center Theatres, a great space for a new play.    
DISCRACED. Claire Tow Theatre, Lincoln Center Theatres. November 24, 2012.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

GIANT at the Public

     This has been anything but a red letter year for Broadway musicals, but Off-Broadway is a different matter. Last Spring there was the fascinating FEBRUARY HOUSE with an innovative, compelling score by Gabriel Kahane. Then DOGFIGHT at Second Stage. Now there is the ambitious GIANT at the Public with a lush score by Michael John LaChiusa. It's the best thing this composer has done.
     Most of us know GIANT from the three-and-a-half hour film version with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. The film and musical are based on one of Edna Ferber's historical epic telling the story of a Texas ranch, its owner and his family over three decades. Like Ferber's SHOW BOAT, also turned into an epic musical, the politics of race are an important part of the story. Here is isn't Blacks, but Mexicans, from whom Texas was taken by force and who now have to fight for a place in Texas society. It's a big story, hard to encompass in a musical. In its first performances at the Dallas Theater Center, the show was even longer than the film version. When it opened in New York, it had been cut down to three-and-aquarter hours. Since then another fifteen minutes has been shaved off. Sybille Pearson's book still needs some trimming and continuity. Somewhere in the pruning, Jett Rink's character (the part played by James Dean in the movie) has lost its arc. It's no longer clear what his importance is to the domestic drama of ranch owner Bick Benedict and his aristocratic Virginian wife who never fully falls in love with Texas. More focus on the central characters and less on some peripheral characters would improve the show. Everyone I heard on the way out felt that the story ended five minutes before the show did. Nonetheless, GIANT is never less than absorbing.
     It's greatest virtue is LaChiusa's score. I have often found him to be a frustrating composer who begins a song but never quite develops it. GIANT's score is rich, melodic, full voiced. It may be more conventional than some of his scores, but it is always masterful. He has found a style for each of the major characters. His lyrics never feel forced or artificial. The cast is full of good singers and the orchestrations (a seventeen piece orchestra -- real strings, no synthesizers. Yay again!). This is a show in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition and one of the best of its kind of show since the heyday of the legendary writing team. It's worthy of comparison to classics like SOUTH PACIFIC (which also has some book problems in the second act!).
     The large cast filled with fine singing actors. I'm not sure Brian D'Arcy James is the best choice for Bick. He sings well, but just isn't physically right for the role (he's in heels, his wife is in flats). Aaron Lazar played it in Dallas and I'm sure sang it as well and is more of a romantic leading man. Kate Baldwin is excellent as his wife. PJ Griffith is the weakest singer in the cast and has to deal with a character that needs more development.  Michael Greif has directed the show simply but effectively. The physical production is basic, but lovely.
     I hope GIANT has a future beyond its short run at the Public. It's a rich, powerful, ambitious show with the best musical score since THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. And it looks gorgeous.
GIANT. The Public Theater. November 24, 2012.


     I have to admit that I walked out of the original production of DROOD. It was a bad time in my family life and the music was so mediocre, the performances were so mannered, the sound so unpleasantly loud that I left at the intermission. I don't think I would have gone to this revival, produced by the Roundabout Theatre at their Studio 54, if the prospect for a cheap ticket hadn't appeared on the TDF website. The fact that the show was available on TDF on Thanksgiving weekend, one of the busiest times for Broadway theaters, suggests that it is not selling well, though my Friday night audience was clearly having a wonderful time.
     THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD was the brainstorm of pop songwriter Rupert Holmes who wrote the book, music and lyrics. The show gives us a Victorian music hall version of Charles Dickens' unfinished murder mystery. A master of ceremonies (Jim Norton) introduces Dickens' characters and the equally fictional Victorian performers who impersonate them. The "mystery" is delightfully overacted. There are plot numbers and boisterous music hall numbers. At the point at which Dickens died, leaving the novel unfinished, the audience votes on the outcome of the story after which the cast performs the ending the audience has voted for. It's a clever gimmick and audiences seem to love their participation in the show.
     This time around in this winningly directed (Scott Ellis) and beautifully designed (sets Anna Louizos, costumes William Ivey Long) production, the show is a pleasant entertainment. The voting business goes on far too long, but there's much to enjoy here. If I sound like I'm not totally won over, it's because of Rupert Holmes score. There is one lovely ballad and a couple of pleasant tunes, but the problem is that the score simply isn't very tuneful. Holmes seems to have been particularly interested in writing patter songs but unlike Stephen Sondheim (or Cole Porter before him), he doesn't seem to know how to make a patter song musically interesting. I still find that much of the score verges on being irritating rather than pleasant.
     The cast is excellent. My memories of the original production are of a group of actors overacting (Betty Buckley overact??). This gang has a lighter touch. Jim Norton sets the tone as the puckish master of ceremonies. The rest of the starry company (Will Chase, Stephanie J. Block, Jessie Mueller, Andy Karl, Gregg Edelman and the legendary Chita Rivera) make you believe that they're having the time of their lives doing this show within a show. It's all played for laughs, but in a a seemingly effortless way. They're all fine singers who deserve a better score than Rupert Holmes has given them. There's a good-sized band with real strings (minimal synthesizing -- yay!!!).
     So, an enjoyable show though there's a limit to the praise that can be heaped on a musical with a weak score.
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. Book, music and lyrics by Rupert Holmes. Roundabout Theatre Studio 54. November 23, 2012,      

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

GOLDEN BOY at the Belasco

     Clifford Odets wrote GOLDEN BOY to be a hit for him and for the financially troubled Group Theatre that nurtured him. PARADISE LOST had not been the hit that WAITING FOR LEFTY and AWAKE AND SING were (all three were on Broadway in 1935). In the intervening year, Odets had had his first taste of Hollywood. GOLDEN BOY shows the influence of the movies -- it is more episodic than his earlier work. We're not tied to one domestic setting and instead of long acts, Odets is writing in scenes. While home and family is still the ideal, the play moves from offices to gyms to arena dressing rooms to a New York park. This is a play that could easily be turned into a movie and was, successfully, a few years later.
     There had been stories of the rise and fall of boxers before GOLDEN BOY, but none with the poetry that Odets brings to the narrative of "the cockeyed wonder" Joe Bonaparte. Though he comes from a loving home, Joe has a chip on his shoulder. Like many of Odets's young men, he is angry because he knows he is missing something, but can't articulate what it is. Though he has been a violin prodigy and loves making music, he turns to boxing to release his anger and because he thinks success will fill the hunger that leads to anger and frustration. OK, we've been there before and been there many times since in the movies (think BODY AND SOUL with John Garfield, the first Joe Bonaparte), but no one gives this story the language that Odets provides. Here is a textbook example of poetic realism at its best. The scenes in Joe's home, presided over by a loving, baffled patriarch (the wonderful Tony Shaloub) are infamiliar Odets territory. The first home scene is comic, but also filled with the dream of success as Joe's brother-in-law Figgie desperately wants to own his own cab. Siggy and Joe's sister Anna have a turbulent, loving relationship. The language of the first domestic scene is mundane, comic lively. Has anybody ever written the banter of urban, first and second generation Americans better than Odets? The counter to the home life Joe rejects, as he rejects the expensive violin his father has bought him, is the office of fight promoter Tom Mooney. The world of boxing is one of violent conflict and of the buying and selling of young men on the make. The best of this world is the devoted trainer Tokio; the worst is gangster Eddie Fuseli who expresses his love for Joe the only way he can -- by smothering him in things. Fuseli is one of the rare three-dimensional gay characters in pre-Stonewall American drama. Since his love is forbidden, he turns to violence and to possession of men who can't love him back. There's also the love triangle of Tom Mooney, his young mistress Lorna and Joe. Lorna is young, vulnerable, guilty about the life she is leading, but able to project an aura of toughness.
      Boxing for Odets is an image of capitalism gone awry. Joe's great success comes after he kills a man in the ring. Ultimately he is killed in the symbol of his success -- his expensive car.
     GOLDEN BOY is still a good story, but it's the language that makes this play great. 'The actors director Bartlett Sher has cast relish the words. Almost everyone is totally convincing in his/her role. I have reservations about Anthony Crivello's overly sinister presentation of Eddie Fuseli. His characterization seems more external, more melodramatic than those of his castmates. Otherwise, from top to bottom, this is a fine company of actors. Seth Numrick has the right combination of swagger and vulnerability for Joe. Yvonne Strahovski captures Lorna Moon's conflicting moods.Danny Burstein give another fine performance as the insightful trainer, Tokio. Above all, Tony Shaloub makes Joe's father more of a focal character than I thought he could be. He becomes the moral center of the play.
     There are a lot of scene changes in GOLDEN BOY and Sher has used a series of wagons to roll scenery on and off. This was a preview and I imagine those scene changes will speed up a bit before opening night. Within the scenes, the pacing seemed just right. A play this good doesn't need all this scenery (Michael Yeargan is the designer) this production gives us, but this is Broadway.
     The production clocks in at just under three hours (with two intermissions) but the audience seemed totally riveted.
      I am grateful that a classic by one of America's greatest playwrights has gotten such a good revival on its 75th birthday in the very theatre in which it opened in 1937. And we have Odets THE BIG KNIFE to look forward to this coming spring.
GOLDEN BOY by Clifford Odets, directed by Bartlett Sher. Belasco Theatre. November 21. 2012,  

Monday, 29 October 2012

GOLDEN CHILD at the Signature

     This year, David Henry Hwang is the featured playwright of the Signature Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center. In addition to his 1998 play GOLDEN CHILD, the Signature will be producing an earlier work, THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD, and the premiere of a new play, KUNG FU.
     Hwang's plays focus on the culture clash between Asians and Asian-Americans and westerners over different periods in history and the ways in which Eastern culture has been diminished by western ideology and racial stereotypes. Most of the action of GOLDEN CHILD takes place in Fujian, China, in 1918-19. The head of the household, Eng Tieng-Bin is, as he claims, "the most successful Chinese businessman in the Philippines," though he keeps his family in Fujian. The family consists of three wives and their children. The wives all vie for the dominant position. "First wife," Eng Siu-Yong battles to keep the "old ways": traditional religion, foot-binding and, above all, the traditional way of sweeping all conflicts under the rug. Nothing should change. Men should continue to appear to have power though in reality women, particularly the first wife, should rule the household. "Second wife," Eng Luan, is a pragmatist, willing to adapt in any way necessary to maintain her position in the household. If her husband wants to be more western, she will wear western clothes. "Third wife," Eng Eling, is the one her husband loves. A servant promoted to the position of wife, she has the devotion of someone trained to be subordinate. We only see one of the children being raised in this house, Eng Siu-Yong's daughter, Eng Ahn, the "Golden Child," and narrator of the action of the play. As an old woman, she tells the story to her teenage grandson who is eager to record the history of his family.
     Her story is one of change. Through his enterprises in the Philippines, a meeting place of East and West, Eng Tieng-Bin has been tempted by western values and by Christianity. He brings a Christian missionary back to Fujian to help "educate" his wives and children. He removes the binding from his eldest daughter's feet to free her, but the liberation is an excruciatingly painful one. He must enter into a Christian marriage with his favorite wife, but that destroys the status of First Wife and Second Wife. He desecrates traditional religious rituals. The results of his domestic revolution lead to the deaths of two of his wives. Yet, when we see his "golden child" fifty years later, she is a devout Christian who lives in the Phillipines.
     Hwang's fascinating drama shows the validity of the "old religion" and the ways in which Christianity was destructive to one Chinese household. The dead do have power to effect the living. For all the man's assertion of power, women do rule.
     Hwang's plays are always vividly theatrical. The conflict between East and West is played out in a theatrical style that combines the two traditions. Leigh Silverman has directed a production that does justice to the play's drama and its theatricality. Within Neil Patel's beautiful two-level set, this production of GOLDEN CHILD is a combination of realism and ritual. Everything about the production is visually stunning, from Anita Yavich's rich costumes to Matt Frey's complex, effective lighting scheme. I saw a preview of GOLDEN CHILD, but all the performances already seemed polished. Greg Watanabe captures Eng Tieng-Bin's confusion and his patriarchal sense of the right to destroy his own household. Julyana Soelistyo is particularly good as First Wife, but she also has the richest character to play. The only wife of the same class as her husband (it was an arranged marriage), she has little respect for the other two wives who are her social inferiors. She argues passionately and convincingly for the old ways, but she also is ruthless about maintaining her position. Even her death gives her power.
     GOLDEN CHILD deserves a revival and this one couldn't be better. And, at the Signature's bargain price of $25, it must be seen.
       One sad observation. I assume that the Signature's low ticket price is an attempt to attract a more diverse audience than one usually finds at the non-profit theaters. Alas, the theater is still filled with middle-aged and older theatergoers. How do we excite young folks about theater????
GOLDEN CHILD by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Signature Theatre. October 27, 2012.


     It has been thirty years since Gerald Alessandrini created the first edition of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY. The 2012 incarnation of this series of spoofs of Broadway shows and stars is top notch. I wondered at first how they could spoof some of the tripe that now passes as a Broadway musical, but they did so brilliantly. The show opens with a parody of Lerner and Loewe's BRIGADOON. This show about a mythical Scots village that comes to life once a century became a figure for the Broadway musical. From then on, everything now or recently on the stage is fair game. Some of the numbers lampoon shows now running from JERSEY BOYS to the dreary ONCE. I found their extended skewering of ONCE particularly funny. As one character sings: "It's so unpretentious that it's pretentious." There are also sendups of some Broadway stars. Stephen Sondheim introduces his favorite diva, Bernadette Peters ("I cast her in all my shows, regardless of whether she's right for the part.") who demonstrates the current sad state of her voice. There's also an hilarious version of Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin's recent Broadway lovefest and of Ricky Martin and Elena Roger in EVITA ("Just a total lack of star quality").
     FORBIDDEN BROADWAY depends on good writing. There isn't a weak moment in the ninety minute show. It also depends on talented, versatile performers. The young cast of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: ALIVE AND KICKING have the musical and comedic skills, versatility, charm and energy the show requires.  Kudos to Natalie Charle Ellis, Jenny Lee Stern, Scott Richard Foster and Marcus Stevens. They are also expert quick-change artists. And bravo to the folks who created the hilarious costumes and wigs, Philip Heckman and Bobbie Clifton Zlotnik.
     Great fun!
FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: ALIVE AND KICKING. 47th Street Theatre. October 27, 2012.

Thursday, 25 October 2012


     I'm old enough to remember the excitement Edward Albee's first full-length play, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, created when it opened on Broadway in 1962. I was a senior at Princeton and first saw the play when the matinee cast played a Friday evening performance at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. The Canadian actress Kate Reid played a chubby, tough Martha who obviously wore the pants in the family. Henderson Forsythe played George as something of a milksop who finally gets his revenge. A year later a new matinee cast returned to McCarter with Elaine Stritch playing a larger than life Martha who dominated the proceedings. In both performances of the play as originally directed by Alan Schneider, there was a stylized quality to the characterizations. Martha verged on camp (Elaine Stritch, for heaven's sake!!), George was a stereotypical mild-mannered academic, Nick was a handsome blonde who didn't act much like an intellectual and Honey was a giggling idiot. The critics were right to see a strain of misogyny in the original production as well as the possibility that camp, over-the-top Martha wasn't a woman at all. I never saw the evening cast with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, who may have given somewhat different performances. I suffered through the over-wrought Mike Nichols film that drained the very funny play of most of its humor.
     WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is another American combination of realism, satire, theatrical metaphor and absurdism. The action of the play hinges on the device of an imaginary child sterile George and Martha have created for twenty-one years as a way of holding their marriage together and whom George "kills" at the climax of the play. George's murder of "sonny boy" is both the final game in an evening of increasingly cruel games and potentially a healing act, the final stripping away of damaging illusions. There are two major patterns of imagery in the play. One is fertility/sterility: George and Martha's sterility, Honey's false pregnancy (or abortion), Nick's impotence with Martha, the toy gun George brandishes in the first act, the phallic flowers he throws at Martha and Nick in the last act. The other is truth/illusion, summed up in Honey's offstage peeling of the label off the brandy bottle as the truth about her loveless marriage is exposed. Albee wants us to read the play as realism and as theatrical poetry at the same time as he exposes the hollowness at the core of the American upper middle class (as if academics are typical of the upper middle class -- as my esteemed, late colleague Reynolds Price used to say, academics are the people who as children were inside reading while the other children were outside learning to play together.). And, as Albee often does, we have a horrible domestic crime that echoes classical tragedy in the ritual killing of George and Martha's son. All this is to say that any production of the play has to perform a difficult stylistic balancing act.
     Pam MacKinnon's production, an import from the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and the fourth to appear on Broadway, emphasizes the realistic aspects of the play. From the outset, we believe that Tracy Letts' George and Amy Morton's Martha are a married couple who, like most couples who have been together over twenty years, have their own codes. They may not be the happiest couple in the world but they like being around each other. George and Martha are presented as three-dimensional  characters, not a series of performances. Their ages seem wrong -- Amy Morton's Martha, who is supposed to be six years older than George, looks a good ten years younger, but George does talk abut looking older and grayer than his wife. Morton's Martha never gets overly blowzy. Her Martha reflects the plight of many women of her time. She's brilliant, but there's no place for her to use that brilliance. Her ambitions have to be expressed through her husband's career, but her husband isn't ambitious enough. George, after all is still an Associate Professor, that purgatorial rank for academics who haven't yet fulfilled their initial promise. She, the college president's daughter, has to live with the fact that her husband has let her down and live with the fact that she cannot fulfill her domestic role as mother.  Yet Martha does love George though, self-hating, she punishes him for his academic failures and her personal failures. What we see on stage in this production is a complicated marriage, but there's love there.
     Madison Dirks' Nick  and Carrie Coon's Honey also avoid caricature. Dirks looks ten years older than Nick's twenty-eight, but he presents Nick as a complex character, essentially a good guy out of his depth and as unhappy in his own way as George and Martha. I've seen WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF eight or nine times and I've never seen Nick presented as such a complex character. Carrie Coon plays Honey as a quiet alcoholic rather than the idiot and butt of jokes of previous productions I have seen. This is a woman who is drinking because she knows her marriage is a failure. Coon should get a Tony for playing the most convincing drunk I have ever seen on stage.
     There were two surprises to this approach to the play. First, when Martha is played as a human being and not "larger than life," George becomes the focal character. In Tracy Letts' performance, George may be a failure as an academic, but he's going to be in control at home at any cost. Martha may try to humiliate him, but he gives as good as he gets. In some productions, the long scene between George and Nick at the beginning of the second seems too long. We wonder when Martha will return to entertain us. Here the scene becomes one of the strongest, most fascinating in the play. Indeed, the relationship between Letts' George and Dirks' Nick is as fascinating and complex as that between George and Martha.
     The only problem with this approach to the play is that the climax, when George announces the death of his and Martha's "son," seems less theatrically credible, more of a gimmick. However, Morton's grief is deeply moving, as are the final moments of George and Martha together, a loving couple who will go on without one of the illusions that have held them together. "Sonny Jim" was both a bond and a weapon they used against each other (as real children often are).
     If this production spotlights a basic flaw in Albee's play (is there a flawless play?) it also humanizes the work. WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century American drama. When I first saw it as a twenty-one year old, I thought I had seen versions of these people in my young life. It rang true to me. It still does. It is brutally funny and brutally honest.
     I went to a Wednesday matinee and was shocked, given the rave reviews, to see how sparsely attended it was. Of course Al Pacino is playing next door and Patti LuPone and Debra Winger are on the marquee two theaters down. If one goes to Broadway shows to see stars, there are no stars in this production and no star turns. There's only fine, fine acting and direction of a great play. Perhaps that's not enough to make money on Broadway.
     Even if you have seen WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF before, you should see this production before it closes.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF by Edward Albee. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Booth Theater. October 24, 2012.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

THE WHALE at Playwright's Horizons

     The new recipe from American drama seems to be old fashioned poetic realism spiced with a pinch of the absurd topped off with a sprinkling of the Gothic. Stephen Karam's SONS OF THE PROPHET begins with a bizaarre car accident involving a high school mascot, Lisa D'Amour's fine DETROIT moved toward a strange bacchanale that ended with a conflagration. Now Samuel D. Hunter's touching new work, THE WHALE gives us the final days of a 600 pound man who has literally eaten himself to death.
     Charlie was always overweight, but he began killing himself with food after his lover, Alan, wasted away. Alan didn't have any terminal physical ailment. He died of not being able to reconcile his love for another man with his Mormon faith. Charlie has his own problems with guilt. He is constantly saying "I'm sorry" to everyone who comes into his squalid apartment. He is cared for by Alan's sister, who is trying to keep something of her brother alive through Charlie. Though dying of congestive heart failure, Charlie won't go to the hospital. He doesn't have health insurance because he has saved every penny for his teenage daughter, Ellie, who has her own spiritual crisis. Ellis is in a state of despair and her bitterness has left her totally isolated. Her principal means of communication is a blog on which she viciously derides everyone she knows. Her mother has pretty much given up on her. Charlie, the eternal optimist through all his grief and self-destruction sees something positive and special about his daughter. Into this mix comes a nineteen-year-old Mormon missionary proselytizing on his own because he assaulted his missionary partner for lack of faith. "Elder Thomas", as he calls himself, is determined to save Charlie's soul, but he needs a bit of saving himself.
     The conflicts and collisions of this bunch of sweet lost souls makes for a funny, moving two hours. There's also poetry in Hunter's play. Charlie makes money by doing online tutoring of college students who have writing problems. He gets fired by urging them to write what they honestly feel. From the papers he reads, they honestly feel as lost as the characters we see on stage. Charlie's favorite paper, one he knows by heart, is one his daughter wrote when she was in eight grade. The topic is MOBY-DICK and, though Ellie thought Ahab was a pirate, she understood the love between Ishmael and Queequeg, the pain Ahab felt and the futility of his quest. The story of Jonah and the whale also figures in the play. Melville's story is one of a universe in which God, if He exists, is indifferent to human suffering. Jonah's story is one of God's power and the necessity of faith but, in the context of THE WHALE, the story breaks a man's spirit.
     There's a lot going on in THE WHALE. I was interested to see that, when the play ended, many in the audience at Playwrights Horizons didn't want to get up and leave. There was much to absorb emotionally and intellectually.
     I saw a preview, but I can't imagine a better performance. Shuler Hensley must have been boiling in that giant fat suit, but one believes that is his body, and one sees all the facets of the complicated human being encased in all that blubber. He's physically repulsive, but a sweet, lovely spirit. The wonderful young actor Cory Michael Smith makes us see Elder Thomas's desire to be a good person and a true believer. Cassie Beck makes us see Liz's jealous protectiveness toward her brother's lover and her devotion to him. Reyna de Courcy relies a bit too much on grimacing to convey Charlie's daughter's bitterness and still needs to find more variety in Ellie's character. Tasha Lawrence makes them most of her brief appearance as Charlie's ex-wife. Director Davis McCallum was wise to  emphasize the realistic aspects of the play and let the poetry shine through on its own.
    If anyone doubts that really strong plays are being written by American playwrights, catch the two plays now running at Playwrights Horizons.
THE WHALE. Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater. October 20, 2012.

Friday, 19 October 2012


      There have been very few great or even very good biographical musicals. FUNNY GIRL, a delightful, tuneful show, became legendary through Barbra Streisand's performance, though the show outlasted her by a year or so (comedienne Mimi Hines took over). GYPSY is as close to perfect as a musical can get. One reason both these shows were joys to watch is that they are celebrations of theater. It may be theater past -- vaudeville, burlesque, the Ziegfeld Follies, but it is theater. CHAPLIN tells the story of a legendary film star and has the intrinsic problems of theater pieces about movie stars -- the performances were screen performances that don't necessarily translate to the stage. When the show wants to present one of Chaplin's classic performances, a screen has to come down and we get a Chaplin film or a facsimile thereof. The show's creators should have looked at the history of MACK AND MABEL, an unsuccessful Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical from the 1970s about Mack Sennett and the making of silent film comedies. There isn't anything theatrical about the shooting of a film scene, so however good the score is (good in the case of MACK AND MABEL, bland in the case of CHAPLIN), the show is trapped in an alien world. One can make a good musical out of a movie (though I wish folks would try it less often), but movie making does not make a good musical  .
     Charlie Chaplin's story is a fascinating one. A Jewish waif from the London slums turns into the biggest Hollywood star of his day. Dickens would have loved it (probably not the Jewish part). Silent movie star gets in trouble when he starts talking politics. The trouble is that Chaplin's love life was a little creepy. The show begins with Chaplin as a kid in London and within ten minutes has him in Hollywood. It would have been interesting to have some representation of the stage pantomime act that caught Mack Sennett's eye. With some weird chronology, the show takes Chaplin to his winning of a special Oscar in 1972, shortly before his death. The problem is that the creators of the show (Book, Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan, Music and lyrics Christopher Curtis) haven't stuck to one style. At first, the show seems to be a highly stylized, a la Bob Fosse. Everything is in black, white and shades of grey. The performers are wearing white face paint to look like silent movie clowns. The best moments are played in this highly theatrical style. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper's (Jenn Collela) red-baiting of Chaplin, the strongest moment in the show and the one that gets the biggest ovation, is like something out of CHICAGO, as is the stylized boxing match in which Chaplin gets knocked out financially by his first three young wives. The stylized approach is one good way to go with a biographical musical -- think of BARNUM (direction Joe Layton) and THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES (direction Tommy Tune) -- but it has to be consistent and the musical staging has to be inventive (Warren Carlyle's isn't). There are, however,  realistic, book-heavy scenes in CHAPLIN that demand a different kind of response from the audience. Long dialogues between Chaplin and his brother Sydney (played by the handsome but dull Wayne Alan Wilcox), slow down the proceedings. It's always a good idea to stick to the theatrical conventions one has established in the first ten minutes or so.
     Successful biographical musicals are vehicles for charismatic performers -- Merman and her successors in GYPSY (Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone, even the miscast Bernadette Peters), Streisand in FUNNY GIRL, Jim Dale in BARNUM, Keith Carradine in THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES. In the last two cases, brilliant staging and winning star turns redeemed so-so material. Rob McClure, who plays Charlie Chaplin, is a good, hard-working performer in a role that demands a star turn. He works very hard (real stars don't look like they're working hard) but he's not a star and only a star could totally redeem CHAPLIN with its mediocre score (Christopher Curtis's songs sound like Marvin Hamlisch on a bad day and I never thought much of Hamlisch as a composer, with a little Anthony Newley thrown in) and confused style. McClure has an irritating, strained high tenor that had my fillings aching. In all fairness to McClure, I'm not sure who could have made this part work. Musical comedy stars are thin on the ground -- current musical performers are now trained to be replaceable parts. Roles -- things one brings one's personality to -- are now appropriately called "tracks". Stars are eccentric and eccentrics are not easily put into a computer program.
     I didn't dislike CHAPLIN. I saw it from a good seat at a very low price, thanks to my TDF membership. Parts were enjoyable. It looked beautiful. It wasn't a disaster, but I couldn't give it more than a B-.
     One pet peeve -- when I go to a musical, I want to see the orchestra. It's part of the excitement of a live theatrical event. It's why we old timers applauded at the sight of that large orchestra at the Lincoln Center revival of SOUTH PACIFIC and why folks applaud the band so enthusiastically at the City Center Encores productions. I don't want them on stage a la ONCE, but I want them visible in the pit. The CHAPLIN band is piped in from backstage or perhaps the basement. They might as well have been recorded.
CHAPLIN. Ethel Barrymore Theatre. October 18, 2012.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Sam Shepard's HEARTLESS

     I have seen three fine plays this week and can't help but notice their common bonds. All three plays involve an ascent into a spiritual darkness from which the characters do not fully escape. All three plays mix realism with the symbolic and/or the surreal. I should add that all three are brilliantly acted, directed and designed -- and that all three are produced on 42nd Street West of 9th Avenue. There is no question that Playwrights Horizons and the Signature Center are the premiere theaters in New York right now in every way including audience amenities. The New York TIMES today had an article extolling Playwrights Horizon's as the theater doing the most interesting work this season. I would add the Signature. When I look at the coming season, everything I am particularly excited to see is west of 8th Avenue.
     HEARTLESS places us in Sam Shepard territory, haunting and surreal. The play begins with a horrific scream. It is a while before we realize who is the source of that scream. We're in the Los Angeles hills again  as in TRUE WEST, another play with a powerful but enigmatic matriarch (mothers are as important as fathers in Shepard), but we're also in Sam Shepard country where relationships are never easily defined. Roscoe (Gary Cole), an expert on Cervantes and Borges (an early modern and modernist writer who share only their Spanish language), has left his family and has been invited by Sally (Julianne Nicholson) to stay in the Los Angeles home Sally shares with her mother, her older sister and her mother's supposedly silent nurse. Sally is hungry for a relationship with a man, though Roscoe sees her as a friend. At an early age Sally's heart gave out and she was given the heart of a young girl who died in an accident. Sally has felt strongly her possession of an alien heart and feels an odd kinship to its dead (?) owner. While Sally initially welcomes Roscoe, her bitter sister, Lucy (Jenny Bacon) and her mother, Mable (the magnificent Lois Smith), are much less cordial. Both abuse various drugs and both are mercuric, to put it mildly. Mable's nurse (Betty Gilpin) supposedly has chosen not to speak, but at various times utters agonized and agonizing cried of pain. Roscoe finds that he can not get his bearings in this household where he is alternately interrogated and hectored by Sally's mother and sister. Wheelchair bound Mable sees herself as a dutiful mother, protecting her children as a mother must, but she is also detached and self-absorbed. 
     As the play progresses, things become more dreamlike and identities blur. Is the nurse also the spirit of the dead girl whose heart beats inside Sally? Why does bitter Lucy suddenly become manic, longing for escape? What does Roscoe really want? Here is another play in which the denouement is both surprising and totally justified by what went before. Like Edward Albee, Shepard isn't a big believer in familial love, despite the family ideals preached by the matriarch. Families are battlegrounds, sometimes fights to the death. The scenes between the sisters and between mother and daughters are riddled with conflicts. What do these family members want of Roscoe? When he decides to leave, they do everything to stop him, but suddenly change their minds.
     Some reviewers have criticized Daniel Aukin's production for being too surreal -- not realistic enough. They don't understand Shepard or this play. Shepard is always surreal. Even when he describes a realistic setting, he want the audience to know that it is a setting, that the realism is merely a convention and a provisional one at that. The epigraph to this production (from Shepard or Aukin? Not that it matters) is from absurdist Eugene Ionesco, "everything does indeed seem to be shadow and evanescence." Aukin rightfully sees this as a poetic play. Eugene Lee's all black unit set allows for extreme separation of the characters. The entire cast is superb, catching the eerie mood of the play and the anguish of the characters. 
HEARTLESS by Sam Shepard Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Saturday, 8 September 2012


     The York Theatre Company has mounted a revival of the 1989 Richard Maltby,Jr./David Shire revue, CLOSER THAN EVER. Maltby has updated some of the lyrics and has staged the production on a simple unit set with a cast of excellent Broadway veterans, George Dvorsky,  Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, Anika Larsen and Sal Viviano, aided by a hard-working piano-bass combo. CLOSER THAN EVER is more a song cycle than a traditional revue. There are twenty-four songs about relationships, mostly about the sort of feelings middle-aged suburbanites might feel -- restlessness during a long marriage, anxiety about dating again after a breakup, loving the wrong person. While the performers were very good, I couldn't get into the show. Shire's songs all sound the same, mostly up tunes and patter songs with too few ballads. Maltby's lyrics tell stories within each song, but I kept thinking, "This isn't my life." I just didn't find much to relate to in all this perky heterosexual angst and Shire's music just isn't good enough to keep one's interest through twenty-four songs, many of which go on a verse or two -- or three -- too long.
CLOSER THAN EVER. York Theatre Company at St. Peters Center. September 7, 2012.


     It's a sign of the current, hopeful state of contemporary drama that many of the best playwrights are women: Annie Baker, Gina Gionfriddo, Quiara Allegra Hudes, Amy Herzog, among others. These artists work in the traditional American mode of poetic realism. There is more going on than the viewer first realizes in plays that begin as "slices of life," but take surprising turns. Lisa D'Amour's DETROIT, now at Playwrights Horizons, goes farther in the direction of poetry than most of these plays. One knows from the beginning that things are more unsettled than they seem, but the ultimate cataclysm is both horrifying and a logical extension of what has gone before.
     The initial setting is the backyard of a house in a Levittown-like community. Once a neighborly environment, it now reflects the current state of American anomie. "We have no friends," Mary (Amy Ryan - wonderful!) admits to her and Ben's new next door neighbors, Sharon and Kenny. Ben (David Schwimmer -- yes, THAT David Schwimmer) was laid off from his job as a mortgage broker and is supposedly home working on a website to start a business as a financial consultant. Mary is now the sole breadwinner. She also has a drinking problem. Sharon and Kenny (Darren Pettie and Sharon Sokolovic) have just moved next door. Supposedly (their story changes in retelling) they met in rehab and now have menial jobs. They seem to be settling in though it is odd that there is no furniture in their house. In a series of back and front yard scenes at the two houses, we see that little is as it seems and that Mary and Ben are deeply unhappy with themselves and each other, though they cling to each other out of a kind of desperation. Sharon and Kenny are not only free spirits, luring Mary and Ben into a kind of Dionysian revelry; like Dionysus, they are also destructive. There are all sorts of things going on here. In part this is a kind of class commentary: middle class and underclass trying to find common ground. Mary serves caviar to Sharon and Kenny as an hors d'oeuvre; later Sharon serves Cheetos and Cheese Whiz on Ritz crackers. At their first meeting, Mary gives her neighbors her cocktail table, a bizarre act of generosity or desperation at establishing a friendship; later she finds that it is Sharon and Kenny's only furniture. Mary and Ben own their house; Sharon and Kenny, it turns out, are squatters. For these newcomers, destruction of property is an act of liberation. Are they sociopaths or are they on to something -- that American materialism hasn't made anyone happy?
     At times, the play takes on the surface comfort of a tv sitcom, but there is always something troubling under the surface and little hope of redemption.  Neighborly backyard barbecues always lead to injuries. Mary dreams of going to the woods on a camping trip with Sharon to find some sort of peace but the two women get lost and have to return home. If Levittown and its ilk once represented the American dream -- one's own home and family as a source of peace and contentment, that dream has been lost. Surveying the destruction Sharon and Kenny caused, long time occupant of the neighborhood, Frank (that great veteran actor, John Cullum) waxes nostalgic about the time when this was a community -- when there was at least a dream of community in America, but even he admits that his memory may only be a dream. Whatever things were like in the past, now friendship is merely a performance or a set of demands.
     I found DETROIT to be an absorbing, sometimes entertaining, disturbing play. Anne Kauffman's staging is pitch perfect and the cast is excellent as they move into a kind of heart of darkness. I can see why DETROIT was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year. Unmissable!
DETROIT by Lisa D'Amour. Playwrights Horizons. September 8, 2012.


Thursday, 6 September 2012


     For more than half a century, Athol Fugard has been one of the most important dramatic voices in the Anglophone world. His topic is usually his native South Africa, but his plays always have a wider resonance. Like the playwrights he grew up reading, the great Anglophone writers of the first half of the last century, they are examples of poetic realism -- specific as to the who, what and where, but always with a mastery of theatrical poetry and big themes: death, hope, maturation, human kinship, forgiveness, faith (if of a secular kind). THE TRAIN DRIVER, now at the wonderful Signature Center, is no exception. As is often the case, Fugard has directed the play as well.
     THE TRAIN DRIVER is being performed in the Linney Theatre at the Signature, a large, rectangular black box theatrical space. Fugard has chosen to stage the play on an extremely wide playing area, which gives the two characters a sense of isolation. The action is a long flashback, framed by the narration of Simon Hanabe (Leon Addison Brown), the caretaker of a burial ground for nameless dead. His sandy cemetery looks almost lunar. The graves are marked with pieces of junk (hubcaps, old watering cans) because no flowers grow there. Dogs dig up the bodies at night and a cannibal tribe has been known to attack and bury its victims there. This is a desolate, terrifying space, a vision of hell. Simon lives in a small tin shack in the graveyard, living on a diet of beans, bread and water.
     Enter Roelf (Ritchie Coster), a white train driver seeking the grave of a young Black woman and her baby. The young woman stepped in the path of his train and her suicide and murder of her child has haunted him. He can't forget her look of despair as she faced down the train, a hopelessness that Roelf has caught from her. He has left his home and come to the graveyard to curse her, but over the course of a few days and nights, forgives her and regains some glimmer of hope. THE TRAIN DRIVER is played out in monologues, silences, and snatches of conversation between the two men, both of whom seem trapped in the past. Simon speaks of his childhood. Ritchie of his unsatisfying marriage and of the death of the woman and child. There doesn't seem to be any present or future for these characters and one senses that no one leaves this graveyard in body or spirit. At his entrance, Roelf has to climb down into the cemetery over the shell of an abandoned car, as if descending into some hellish space. He never climbs back up. The Playbill tells us that this graveyard is on the site of a squatter's camp on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. Fugard has said that his favorite playwright is Tennessee Williams. He has the same ability to create theatrical worlds that are both geographically specific and symbolic. There are also echoes of Samuel Beckett here in the landscape and the desolation one can feel in the silences. Christopher H. Barrecca's vast, bleak set and Stephen Strawbridge's constantly changing lighting perfectly reinforce Fugard's words.
     Some may find this an old-fasioned play. It is not a play for people with short attention spans. However, if you are willing to surrender to the playwright's sense of time, his mastery of language and character, you will find THE TRAIN DRIVER to be a rich, joyful (in the sense of Yeat's "tragic joy" -- there are certainly elements of tragedy here) if not a "happy" experience. Oh, yes, the actors are superb. Brown's Simon, content to live in a circumscribed physical world and Coster's Roelf, filled with questions and emotions he struggles to articulate. A totally absorbing ninety minutes.
THE TRAIN DRIVER, written and directed by Athol Fugard. Linney Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. September 5, 2012.

Monday, 23 July 2012


     I know that sometimes in this blog I sound like I'm saying, "They don't make 'em like they used to." Well, I take it all back. A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK is made like they used to -- in third rate musicals of the 1950s. We had songs about the joys of Yiddish (where was Molly Picon when we needed her?) and a song and dance at a delicatessen. We had the nagging Jewish wife played with its usual shrillness (Where was Nancy Walker win we needed her? She knew how to underplay these roles, as in DO RE MI). And a kind Kosher butcher who just happened to be friends with Harvey Milk and who eventually divulges that he had a concentration camp romance with a gay Jew. All those ersatz Jewish numbers were better done half a century ago in I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, MILK AND HONEY, DO RE MI, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF with a little BENT thrown in for good measure. The score sounded like Bock and Harnick on a very bad day. It was cringe-making. My Jewish spouse was appalled. Piled onto this was the martyrdom of gays seen through the eyes of a preachy lesbian. The show ended with an anthem in front of the rainbow flag. It was mawkishly sentimental as was everything else in the show. And all so dated. The show took place in 1986, but its heart and soul were back in the 1950s. The humor was heavy-handed, the Jewish stereotypes offensive. This show must have been sitting in someone's trunk for a long time and should have stayed there. What a parade of stereotypes I thought died long ago!
     Jeff Keller maintained his dignity as the butcher and sang well. Cheryl Stern as the ghost of his wife played her part as if she were performing in Madison Square Garden instead of a 150 seat playhouse. It was over the top, shill, and shameless. Leslie Kritzer sang well as the lesbian who is trying to teach the butcher to  become a writer. The small supporting cast entered into the proceedings without demonstrating any embarrassment. The director, David Schecter let the show sink into tastelessness and sentimentally whenever possible.
     Cringe-making. And so dated!
A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK. Book by Jerry James; Music by Laura I. Kramer; Lyrice by Ellen M' Schwartz. New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Pershing Square Signature Theater. July 23, 2012.

Saturday, 21 July 2012


     Bonnie has so internalized her guilt at having an abortion six years ago that she has not had a period since then and has painful attacks of sciatica. She turns to evangelical religion to help her with her guilty secret, but can't decide whether she wants peace or punishing pain. On top of that, Bonnie keeps getting in trouble with the school where she teaches kindergarten for mentioning God in class (not a big crime) and telling the students a story about an aborted fetus (irresponsible and a bit mad). Neil is a gay chiropractor who has come back to this Ohio small town, the scene of childhood bullying, to work on his own issues. Neil and Bonnie's turbulent relationship is the subject of SWING STATE. He not only cures her of her pain, but gets her menstrual cycle working again.
     I had high hopes for this show, but found it frustrating. First of all, the book by Dana Yeaton is somewhat incoherent. It's one thing to avoid the cliche of the clash between a staunch evangelical and a gay man, but Bonnie is incoherent as a character. Is she a believer or a deeply troubled person? Both, yes, but she needs to be better drawn. Neil's reason for leaving New York for this small town doesn't make total sense. Didn't he have any friends or any life in Brooklyn? Why is he such a loner? For all the talk about religion, the writers don't delve into the internal conflicts it is causing. When Neil is invited to a prayer meeting, he worries about what he should wear rather than the possible rejection he will face there.  When Neil tells evangelical Bonnie that he is gay, she does''t react at all, and Neil is given no reaction when he discovers Bonnie's grief and guilt over her abortion. These are missed moments of drama. When characters do have meltdowns, they don't seem dramatically justified. There's a possibly interesting script in here, but this one needs a major rethink. Second, the score (Music, Andy Mitton; Lyrics, Dana Yeaton) doesn't have much character. There are a few clever patter songs, but the music sounds like generic show tunes, and not very good ones at that. I'm not sure a piano-cello-guitar orchestration was the most effective choice for this score or story. Like everything else about the production, it softened the possible complexities and darker side of these characters.
     Morgan Weed and Jed Resnick are winning performers, perhaps too winning for these characters, but singing isn't their forte. They get through the songs, but not much more than that. They're both too good looking for their roles. Weed is just too perky and nice for the very troubled Bonnie who has a major meltdown in front of her five year old students. Like the writers, director Igor Goldin seems to be avoiding the dark side of this work. The production looked nice, but needed more conflict. Everyone -- writers, director, actors -- seem to be going for like-ability rather than honesty.
     At the beginning of this 100 minute, one-act show, I thought, "Great, a character driven, small show." By the end, I  thought, "This show doesn't make any sense."
     At least they got the air-conditioning fixed in the 45th Street Theatre. Last week it was a steambath. This week it's a deep freeze.
     I am still grateful for NYMF, which is a very important institution for the future of musical theatre.
SWING STATE. New York Musical Theatre Festival. 45th Street Theatre. July 21, 2012.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012


     As I read Ben Brantley's review of DOGFIGHT, a musical I liked more than he did, I was struck by the fact that Brantley barely mentioned the music. It made me think back to comments the great Stephen Sondheim has made about the fact that most reviewers are tone-deaf. They simply don't know how to write about music. Since what separates DOGFIGHT from the film on which it is based -- what separates any musical from its source material -- is the music, one would think that the most essential element to write about when reviewing a musical is the music. When I leave a show, the score is the first thing I think about and talk about.  When I taught the history of the musical, I emphasized the scores and the students had to be able to identify the work of the major composers and lyricists. Yet as I look back through my own reviews on this blog, I don't say enough about the music.
     For instance, in DOGFIGHT, there's a lovely duet as the young marine and the girl walk to their first date. The duet captures their thoughts as they walk silently together -- DOGFIGHT's version of "Twin Soliloquies" from SOUTH PACIFIC. It's a sweet, simple tune, more like the music associated with the girl than the early 60s rock associated with the boy. The girl, we discover, is an amateur composer and singer of the sort of folk music that would become popular in the mid-60s (Joan Baez, Judy Collins, for instance). Musically, her imagination dominates as she wins over the boy. The boy's music is gentle when with her but harsh when he is with his companions, as he is vacillating between being one of the boys and giving in to his feelings for a girl who does not fit conventional notions of beauty or "cool." What I liked most about DOGFIGHT was the way the music defined character and situation. It also stuck to the musical vocabulary of the period -- except for a few moments when it sounded like the Sondheim of the 70s, but Sondheim's voice is in the background of most strong scores of the past quarter century.
     When I wrote that the score of NEWSIES is "serviceable', I mean that it is pleasant when one hears it, though many of the songs are so similar to each other as to be indistinguishable, but does one remember it when the show is over? I remember the story, the staging, the amazing choreography and that massive set, but the music is sort of a blur, except for "Santa Fe", which I had heard many times before I saw the show and, frankly doesn't make a lot of sense in the context of the story, much as the show's creators try to make it relevant. To my mind, Alan Mencken has written one great score -- BEAUTY AND THE BEAST -- filled with lovely, expansive melodies and memorable patter songs like "Be My Guest." The rest is -- "serviceable."
     Someone asked me the other day why I was so down on the score to ONCE. My answer was that the tunes sounded like they came from the John Thompson Red Piano Book. That answer means nothing to folks who never took piano lessons as a young kid, but the red piano book is the first set of tunes a kid plays. They're of necessity slow and very easy to play and barely songs at all with basically meaningless lyrics. "Falling Slowly" and its ilk sound to me like piano pieces for five year olds. Barely a melody and vapid lyrics. The composer was playing stuff from his new album on NPR the other day and it sounded exactly the same -- musically uninteresting. It isn't that I don't like Celtic music -- I happen to love that kind of music (more Scots than Irish, I must admit. I own every Battlefield Band recording). I just don't like the music to ONCE. And, since I could care less about the characters, the show left me cold. Even if I loved the characters, I couldn't care much for a musical with a dull score. Even the handsome, talented Steve Kazee couldn't win me over to this one. This was also my problem with the musical of BILLY ELLIOTT. The story was intriguing, the production values excellent and the kid performers extraordinary, but Elton John's music was barely totally forgettable.
     There's a small-scale revival of NEW GIRL IN TOWN playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York right now. The show is a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's ANNA CHRISTIE written in 1957 as a vehicle for the great Gwen Verdon and staged by her then husband Bob Fosse. The score of NEW GIRL IN TOWN was by Bob Merrill, who had written some silly hit tunes like Patti Page's hit, "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window." He was something of a Tin Pan Alley hack before he wrote two fine Broadway scores, NEW GIRL IN TOWN and the magical CARNIVAL, as well as the lyrics for FUNNY GIRL. The score of NEW GIRL IN TOWN s a serviceable score by 1950s standards, which were much higher than those by which a sane person can judge current Broadway scores. It had Anna's haunting ballad, "It's Good To Be Alive," as she finally feels a moment of happiness other father's barge, and wonderful novelty songs like, "Flings," sung by Anna's father's mistress, played memorably by Thelma Ritter. And, since this was a Gwen Verdon show, lilting dance numbers like "When I Waltz." I haven't seen NEW GIRL IN TOWN since I was sixteen, but I remember the show vividly and I can still sing some of the songs. Yet I wouldn't say that it is one of the great scores of that era. When I judge a current score, I have to judge it against a century of Broadway scores.
     So, even if it is difficult to write about music without getting too technical, a musical has to be judged by its music. Is it memorable? Does the music fit the characters and situation? Is the score interesting and varied? Does the composer have an individual voice or does the music just sound generic? Are the lyrics appropriate to character and situation? Are the lyrics well written? Do the rhymes seem forced? Great show tunes have great lyrics as well as great tunes. Think of Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Comden and Green, Sondheim (of course), Frank Loesser, Oscar Hammerstein on a good day (I'm not a fan of all of his work). Sometimes a good score is challenging ("Art isn't easy," as Sondheim wrote). I had to go to FEBRUARY HOUSE twice to appreciate its quirky, fascinating score fully.
     Of course subject matter is important. As much as I admire Lin Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt, I'm too old to be attracted to their high school cheerleader musical, BRING IT ON.  But the most important ingredients in a musical are the music and lyrics.

Monday, 16 July 2012


     James Joyce would seem an unlikely hero for a musical. In fact, though he was known to be a good singer, he would be horrified at being the subject of a piece of romantic musical theater.  He was a great writer, but he above all wanted to be remembered for his work. Nonetheless Jonathan Brielle has created a musical out of Joyce's thirty-seven year relationship with Nora Barnacle. Nora was a hotel chambermaid when Joyce met her, but they forged a partnership (eventually, after twenty-seven years a marriage). Nora was lover, servant, mother of their two children (a sad story there), but most of all a muse.
     HIMSELF AND NORA falls into some of the traps of biographical drama, particularly plays about writers. Writing isn't particularly dramatic, and we get a bit of clunky exposition about Joyce's problems getting published. Fortunately, Brielle focuses on the turbulent relationship.
     The score is very strong. Twenty musical numbers in two hours. Appropriately, there is an Irish flavor to the songs. There is also some clever pastiche like the vaudeville routine when Ezra Pound convinces Harriet Weaver to support Joyce in Paris while he finishes ULYSSES. Most of the songs define the many facets of Joyce and Nora's relationship. It's a tuneful score with strong lyrics - a necessity when depicting a great author. I must say I remembered some of the songs when I left the theater -- and that isn't often the case these days.
     Matt Bogart and Jessica Burrows give splendid performances. Both are fine singers -- and they have a lot to sing -- and they are arresting actors. Bogart particularly does  a splendid job of depicting Joyce's aging without resorting to physical cliches. We see the man's arrogance and his insecurity. Bogart is a Broadway survivor, playing leading roles in long runs, but none of his roles have been as musically or dramatically demanding as Joyce and he fully rises to the occasion. Burrows acts best while she is singing, but Nora's fierceness is there. And her devotion to her difficult partner. The staging (Michael Bush) is simple, as it needs to be for NYMF productions, but effective.
     HIMSELF AND NORA has been around for a while. La Jolla in 2005, Dublin a few years after that. Now, finally, New York. It is doubtful whether HIMSELF AND NORA has a commercial future), but the production should certainly place Bogart, who has been stuck in JERSEY BOYS for years (lots of money but not much of an artistic challenge), in the star category. Alas, how many good parts are there these days for an excellent forty-something singing actor?
     We've had a good musical of Joyce's "The Dead", the last story in DUBLINERS. And there was a famous dramatization of the "Ulysses in Nighttown" section of ULYSSES. Now a musical spiced with some of Joyce's magical language. Can we now expect a musical of FINNEGAN'S WAKE?
HIMSELF AND NORA. New York Musical Theater Festival. The Theatre at St. Clements. July 16, 2012.    


     Warning -- this is a curmudgeonly entry.
     As I look at the coming New York theater season, I see three musicals that look intriguing, even though they are all based on movies: musical versions of Edna Ferber's GIANT, a best-selling novel before Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean appeared in the film, of Todd Haynes's film, FAR FROM HEAVEN, and the delightful British indie, KINKY BOOTS. There's lots of talent associated with these shows and they are musicals geared to an adult audience, as is the excellent DOGFIGHT, now playing at Second Stage. Like DOGFIGHT, GIANT and FAR FROM HEAVEN will be produced by small, non-profit theaters. What is the next musical to open on Broadway? BRING IT ON, a show about a high-school cheerleading competition. There's lots of first-class talent associated with BRING IT ON. Tom Kitt, the composer of the score for Pulitzer Prize winning NEXT TO NORMAL and LIN MANUEL MIRANDA, the composer-lyricist of the Pulitzer finalist IN THE HEIGHTS share composing credits, and Jeff Witty, who is one of the creators of AVENUE Q, wrote the book. Here are three of the best talents now working in musical theater and the creators of three brilliant adult musicals. Why bring these people together to write a show for kids? NEXT TO NORMAL, IN THE HEIGHTS and AVENUE Q were original musicals. BRING IT ON is yet another adaptation of a movie. This project seems a waste of the talents of these gifted artists, yet it's clear why they bothered with it. If one looks at what sells out on Broadway now (LION KING, WICKED, NEWSIES), one can see that the Broadway musical is now geared to kids. Even the hyper-kinetic revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING was turned into something resembling children's theater or at best adolescent's theater. Miranda, Kitt and Witty want to make a living in the commercial theater. So they write a kid's musical. Much as I admire their work (and even though I can get in to a preview cheaply via tdf), I have no desire to see BRING IT ON.
     When I look back on the musicals I saw as a teenager at the end of the Golden Age, my friends and I went to PAJAMA GAME, DAMN YANKEES, WEST SIDE STORY, PLAIN AND FANCY, LIL' ABNER, NEW GIRL IN TOWN (now playing Off-Broadway). I wasn't damaged by seeing shows designed for grown-ups. Quite the contrary,  my outlook on life was expanded. I would have been as bored then with THE LION KING as I was when I saw it as an adult. Would it really hurt kids to sit through a grown-up musical? Or is it that grown-ups also have no desire to see a musical about mature people with grown-up problems and conflicts?
     I thought about all this yesterday after I saw the entertaining revival of Cole Porter's brilliant NYMPH ERRANT. Now NYMPH ERRANT is about the education in love and sex of an eighteen-year-old girl, but it is definitely an adult musical. Porter's score is witty, urbane, sophisticated. The production could have been a bit more witty, urbane and sophisticated, but it was obviously a labor of love and musically did justice to Porter's favorite of his scores. I did't see any teenagers in the audience. Frankly, I didn't see anyone under sixty in the audience other than my spouse. Yet there is no reason young people wouldn't relate to and relish this show. If I were still working in educational theater I would think seriously of mounting a student production of NYMPH ERRANT.
     It is interesting that NBC's SMASH, the show all of us love to hate but wouldn't miss, is about the production of an adult musical. Now MARILYN is a terrible idea for a musical (there was a musical, MARILYN, that was a legendary Broadway flop) and everything the show presents from this fictional musical is really quite dreadful, but SMASH presents a commercial theater in which producers are committed to writing an adult show. This television saga would  be more accurate if the musical being produced were HARRY POTTER or perhaps something by Dr. Seuss.
     As in London, almost all of the interesting theater, musical or otherwise, is being produced by non-profit theaters. The problem with this is that nobody's making any money and playwrights and composers have to hope they can write something that can get to Broadway, which usually means writing a kiddie show -- or they have to move on to television. Well, those of us old enough can remember sitting through GYPSY and WEST SIDE STORY as teenagers and lament the current state of the commercial theater.