Saturday, 28 January 2012

NEXT FALL at Actor's Express

I read Geoffrey Naufft's NEXT FALL when I was on the Pulitzer Prize drama jury. At the time, I was lukewarm about the script. The hospital scenes seemed like television drama and I couldn't see how the couple at the center of the play had stayed together for four years. Seeing the very good production at Actor's Express convinced me that half of the play is fascinating.
At the heart of the play is the relationship of Adam, a highly neurotic forty-year-old hypochondriac, and Luke, a young actor/caterwaiter. They meet at a party when Luke helps Adam through an anxiety attack. Luke, a fundamentalist Christian, sees Adam as someone to save. Adam, sees Luke as a sexy young man who has some strange ideas (the rapture, for instance). Adam's feeling about Luke's religion grows from skepticism, to malice to jealousy of Luke's love for Christ. Adam may be right that Luke has to be honest with his family, but he can be downright nasty and Luke's acceptance of Adam's cruelty seems masochistic. Luke is all forbearance. Perhaps he sees Adam's cruelty as just punishment for his love of another man. I was convinced by Naufft's depiction of this odd couple and by some of the ancillary characters, particularly Luke's old friend Brandon, whose religion will not let him accept Luke's love for Adam. Occasional sin followed by atonement is one thing, but for Brandon, Luke has "moved the line" in an unacceptable way.
The play alternates scenes of the history of Luke and Adam's relationship with hospital scenes that follow the horrible accident that Luke experiences. Here Adam must deal with Luke's parents who have control of the situation -- Nauffts never explains why Luke and Adam have not gotten Health Care Power of Attorney -- a must for gay couples. Also there are Brandon and a self-confessed "fag hag" friend. Luke's father is stolid and bigoted, like fathers of gay men in 1980s made for tv movies. His biological mother (she and Luke's father are divorced) is a pill-popping eccentric who, of course comes to be kind to Adam. There scenes put us in all-too-familiar territory.
So half of an interesting play.
Kate Warner's production was effective, though once again there were too many long scene breaks that could have been simplified. Mitchell Anderson captured Adam's bitchiness but not his vulnerability. I'm sorry I didn't see Patrick Breen pay it in New York. Joe Sykes seemed perfect as Luke -- tough in his own way, compassionate (unusual for a fundamentalist Christian) and totally decent, if unable to see the logical holes in his theology. The supportive cast was all that one could ask. I was happy to see 3/4 staging instead of the usual seating arrangement.
NEXT FALL isn't the best gay drama in recent years, but it is something of a crowd pleaser.
NEXT FALL. Actor's Express Atlanta, January 27, 2012.  

Thursday, 19 January 2012


     Margaret Edson's WIT is a brilliant play, but like many fine plays, it is one that is at times painful to watch. A middle-aged university professor, a specialist on the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, finds out that she has ovarian cancer. For the rest of the play's one and three quarter hours, we watch the professor be reduced from a chilly, independent authority figure to a lab rat for cancer researchers to a dependent child. Edson has captured what a lot of people with advanced cancer go through. Fortunately for her audiences, she has also created a fascinating character. Vivian Bearing (symbolic name) represents one type of an older generation of female scholars: a force in a traditionally male preserve, a demanding intellectual who is not adept at human relations or empathy. Actually audiences are more fascinated with characters like Vivian these days than they were when the play was first produced. Just look at all the anti- or non- social characters now appearing on television: Dr. Greg House, Sheldon on THE BIG BANG THEORY, Temperance on BONES, and on British tv Doc Martin and the latest, delightful iteration of Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberpatch on television, not Robert Downey, Jr. on film), among others. We are fascinated with brilliant characters who can't relate to other people. None of these (except, perhaps Sherlock Holmes in the finale of series 2) is humiliated the way Vivian is. She is even denied a dignified death by the medical establishment.
     There's definitely an element of gender politics in WIT. The dehumanizing medical establishment is represented totally by male doctors (most of the specialists I go to are women). The only compassionate figures are a Black female nurse and an older female colleague. Edson wants us to see the parallels between the chilly way Vivian treats her students and the way the doctors treat her (the younger doctor, totally lacking in bedside manner, was a student of hers). Her body is merely a text to them as Donne's poetry is a text to Vivian. We get a little bit of John Donne's poetry -- not enough to scare off people who don't know his work, but enough to show its power and its difficulty.
     The success of a production of WIT depends on the actress performing Vivian. She never leaves the stage. Many of her lines are spoken directly to the audience which creates a rapport, but we must feel Vivian's chilliness while feeling empathy with her. Cynthia Nixon performs the role as if it were written for her. She has always been best at playing intelligent women (she was the brightest of the four pals on SEX AND THE CITY). Her voice isn't one of the strongest -- in the front of the mezzanine I lost some of her words (perhaps this is a result of days of amplified musicals) but this is a superb performance that should gain Nixon a Tony. The supporting cast all play their roles convincingly. I particularly admired Greg Keller's performance as the young researcher, Jason Posner. He was a perfect foil for Nixon's Vivian -- totally dedicated to his research but caring little about then human beings he had to deal with. There was nothing the least bit stagey about his performance. Lynn Meadow's direction on Santo Loquasto's simple revolving set was all that one could ask for. If I had any qualms, it was that WIT works better in a more intimate theatre than a Broadway house. Because of the size of the theatre, the pace had to be a bit slower than is good for the play and one didn't feel quite the same connection to the characters. Nonetheless, Margaret Edson has given the theatre one of the best female characters written since the heyday of Tennessee Williams. WIT is a play well worth reviving and this production more than does it justice.
WIT by Margaret Epson. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. January 14, 2012.

Friday, 13 January 2012


     I must admit that I am not a fan of GLEE. We tend to watch the musical numbers and speed through the dialogue scenes. The characters are cardboard and the stereotypes offensive The problem with Chris Colfer's character is not that he's gay but that he is beyond nelly. I find the sound of the musical numbers bland -- until The Warblers came along. With Darren Criss and his boy singers, suddenly there was an energy the show lacked. Criss isn't a particularly good singer but he has a sense of showbiz pizzazz and hunger for mass love that gives him a star quality the other performers lack.
     On stage during his three week stint at J. Pierpont Finch in Rob Ashford's revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WIHOUT REALLY TRYING, Criss is a living demonstration of the mystery of stardom. Criss is barely a singer, dancer (he got seriously winded after his first big number), or actor (he rushed through some of the dialogue as if he were afraid of forgetting it). Frankly I was amazed that a graduate of the University of Michigan's fine musical theater program would show so little basic training. I have seen many kids in Duke student productions who have more skill in all those categories. Everyone on stage with him has more ability than he, but it is because of Criss that the theatre was filled with screaming teenagers and a fair number of gay folk. His Finch has none of the delight in his Machiavellian plots that Robert Morse or Matthew Broderick had in previous productions. What he has is charm, energy and an obvious love of the adulation he is receiving. Will his career last beyond GLEE (whose ratings have been waning of late)? Clearly this is a question he and his handlers are thinking about or he wouldn't be on Broadway during his GLEE hiatus. This is the second time in the past month I have sat through a revival of a musical starring a famous name who isn't up to the task (see my review of the revival of ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER).
      Rob Asford's staging is nothing if not energetic. It puts big dance numbers in wherever possible and barely cares about telling the story. It throws itself at the audience rather than draws the audience in. It's a big cartoon. Perhaps the satire is too dated to be presented with any credibility. Beau Bridges seems to be having a great time as the company president. Everyone else is efficient. The production just doesn't have much personality. Criss does give it that, if little else.
      The kids in the audience saw their beloved Darren. Many rushed out before the show was over to get a good position by the stage door with the Darren Criss posters they paid $20 for. For them, the stage door appearance was as important as the show.
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. Al Hirschfield Theatre. January 12, 2012.

Thursday, 12 January 2012


     First of all, PORGY AND BESS, as it has been performed since its premiere in 1935, is not just "the Gershwin's." It is based on a novel and acclaimed play by Charleston writer Dubose Heyward. Heyward and his wife Dorothy wrote the libretto and the lyrics to many of the most famous songs. Ira Gershwin, at best, was co-lyricist. I am surprised that the heirs of Dubose and Dorothy Heyward haven't sued (they are credited in the playbill). As I understand it, the Gershwin heirs wanted a new version in order to prevent the copyright of the work from running out. Recently, PORGY AND BESS has been the province of large opera companies, performed in a long (4 hours) version with a large orchestra and chorus. Did it first appear on Broadway because of the color bar in traditional opera houses back then or because the creators wanted a Broadway opera?
     Like many early works written by whites about African-Americans, PORGY AND BESS now seems like a collection of racial stereotypes. The crippled here (castrated Black man), the coke-addicted whore trying unsuccessfully to be good, the drug-dealing pimp and hulking sociopath. In opera houses, one tends to leave one's sense of political correctness at the door, but the theater is somewhat different. The Gershwin estate, director Diane Paulus and adapters Suzan-Lori Parks And Dierdre L. Murray originally wanted to correct as many stereotypes as they could and leave the script intact. There was an enormous amount of controversy about the production before it opened, including an angry letter from Stephen Sondheim. There seems little reason for the controversy. Other than tacky cheap-looking sets (Riccardo Hernandez), the production tells the story pretty much as it was originally written. Porgy now remains upright (he used to be unable to walk or legless) thanks to leg braces. No goat cart in this production. The new text makes clear that Porgy and Bess have had sex. The score and libretto have been trimmed to 2 1/2 hours. I must say I didn't miss anything. There are new orchestrations that aren't as good as the originals by George Gershwin. There's a new very conventional "medley of hits" overture to replace Gershwin's brilliant prelude. Of course it's all heavily amplified. I can't see that much of anything has been done to the work but trimming and some rearranging of numbers. There is minimal dialogue -- just enough to tell the story.
     I didn't care much for the production. Heyward and Gershwin saw PORGY AND BESS as the evocation of the life of a particular closed community -- the Charleston ghetto, Catfish Row. This production, with its unimaginative minimalist set, lost all sense of place. Kittiwah Island was a large white cloth with some green light projected onto it. The staging was nothing more than conventional. The dance numbers turned the ensemble into another kind of stereotype. Would these people break into dance numbers at the drop of a hat? All realism, so important to the work, was lost.
     The cast, however, is fine. Audra McDonald can do no wrong though she isn't given enough to do. Norm Lewis is a fine performer but one wants more voice for Porgy. David Alan Grier is the best Sportin' Life I have seen. Everyone else is superb. It's a smaller ensemble than one is used to in PORGY AND BESS but they make a good noise albeit much too heavily amplified (more amplified than other Broadway shows I have been to recently).
     The audience was less fine. Much talking during the show. Crinkling of cellphone wrappers. The theater encourages eating and drinking -- even waitresses serving wine, etc. before the show. This is a big mistake for live theater and adds to the noise that amplification must counteract. Perhaps with less or no amplification, audiences would learn to sit quietly and pay attention.
THE GERSHWIN'S PORGY AND BESS. Richard Rodgers Theatre. January 11, 2012.