Thursday, 22 March 2012


I don't usually review television here, but since SMASH is supposed to be a depiction of the making of a Broadway musical, I think it is worth some attention. I have to admit I watch the show, though I record it and watch it later so I can speed through the dull bits as well as the commercials (we do that with every tv show). Here's my list of problems with the show:
1. A musical about Marilyn Monroe is simply a bad idea. No sane producer would take it on.
2. The two women vying for the starring role aren't star quality. Megan Hilty is homely and charmless and her singing is generic. The brunette, whose name I can't recall, is bland except when she sings.
3. The songs for MARILYN are really awful -- they sound like songs out of some 1950s flop. Ditto the musical staging. Get better songwriters for season 2. Robert Lopez, perhaps? And a better choreographer.
4. There are two male leads, Brian D'Arcy James (who plays Debra Messing's husband) and Raza Jaffrey ( who plays the brunette's boyfriend) who really are star quality musical performers (both have starred in musicals). Yet they're never allowed to perform. They're a heck of a lot more charismatic onstage and onscreen than Will Chase or the two Marilyns.
5. What is the problem with Debra Messing's character's son? He look eighteen but acts like he's 8.
6. So few gay people involved with a Broadway musical?? Really???
There's a lot of major talent involved with SMASH. One expects that they could turn out an edgier show. I'll continue watching it -- for a while.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Edward Albee's THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE at the Signature Theatre

     As theatre buffs know, Edward Albee's 1980 play THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE is one of Broadway's legendary flops. At that point in Albee's career, the critics didn't think he could do anything right. It's fair to say that he doesn't do everything right in the play, particularly in the overlong, somewhat tedious first act. When the play goes surreal in its second half, it becomes totally absorbing.
     At the opening, Sam and his wife Jo are playing party games with their friends. This is an Albee play, so the friends all seem to need and despise each other in equal measure. Indeed, my problem with the play is that I don't believe these people ever were or could be friends, but one of the givens of the play seems to be that friendship is an illusion. What gives this gathering a particular edge is the fact that hostess Jo (Laila Robins) has terminal cancer. She is in great pain and lashes out at everyone around her. It is also clear that her husband, Sam (Michael Hayden) can't deal with the thought of losing her. After the guests have been repeatedly insulted and finally leave, Sam carries Jo, now crying out in pain) upstairs to the bedroom. Enter a glamorous elderly lady and a well-dressed sophisticated Black man and the first act curtain falls. The second act takes us into surreal territory. The mysterious "Lady from Dubuque" claims to be Jo's mother and she and her companion take charge. The friends reappear (where else would they go?) and refuse to believe Sam when he tells them the lady is an imposter. The play moves from verbal to physical violence, particularly directed toward Sam. Sam has to deal not only with the loss of is wife, but with his own lack of a distinctive identity. The crucial question for Sam becomes not who are the strangers who have taken over his house, but who is he? At the end he has been reduced to silence and immobility, a kind of death in life. The Lady from Dubuque and her companion are not only agents of death; they are also agents of truth.
     This is not Albee's best play, but it is certainly worth reviving, particularly in a production this good. David Esbjornson has made his actors into a solid ensemble. Laila Robins is both vulnerable and cooly vicious as the ailing wife. Michael Hayden moves effectively from charm to terror to despair. Peter Francis James is suitably amusing but frightening as Lady's companion and henchman. And Jane Alexander is superb as the mysterious Lady from Dubuque. The original Lady, Irene Worth, was magisterial. Alexander is ethereal. She looks gorgeous and can be grand but maternal when she needs to be. She is perfect for the role. John Arnone's set looks lovely but sterile, which is perfect for these characters.
     THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE is one of the three plays now running at the brand new Frank Gehry designed Signature Theatre Center on West 42nd Street. This is a lovely space. The lobby is extremely spacious with a lovely cafe and small bookstore and the small theaters are beautiful. It's a great place to experience theatre.
THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE byEdward Albee, directed by David Esbjornson. End Stage Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. March 14, 2012.

TRIBES at the Barrow Street Theatre

     We had seen Nina Raine's fine play, TRIBES, at the Royal Court Theatre in London last year and liked it so much that we were eager to see it's New York production, superbly directed by David Cromer.
       TRIBES begins at a typical dinner of a voluble London family. Both parents are writers and their children, though now grown, live at home because they can not cope outside the family home. Daughter Rachel is a would be actress who can't keep a man. Son Daniel is a severely bipolar young man. Younger son Billy is deaf, but the family has never learned sign language because the patriarch doesn't believe people's differences should be emphasized. Billy can't hear a the passionate conversations going on around him, but he is expert at lip reading and also has a high quote of compassion, something the rest of his family seems to lack. At a party, Billy meets Sylvia, the child of deaf parents who is going deaf herself. Through his relationship with Sylvia, Billy comes to take on the identity of  deaf person and joins the deaf community his parents despise. Sylvia, who has lived with deaf people all her life, is more skeptical of that community. When Billy vents his anger toward his family for never bothering to learn to sign and leaves home, the family goes into a state of crisis, particularly Daniel who cannot cope without the brother he loves inordinately.
       TRIBES is far more universal than a play about deafness. As the title suggests, it is about the communities with which we identify. When Billy tells his family that he is now part of the deaf community, his father mockingly asks him if he is coming out. In a way, this is exactly what is happening to Billy. He identifies more with other deaf people than with his family and doesn't see the two worlds as compatible. Sylvia loves Billy but doesn't feel comfortable with his militancy or his inability to understand what she is going through. If the deaf community is, as she says, insular and hierarchical, so is Billy's family, presided over by a father who is an intellectual bully (Jeff Perry brings much more nuance to this role than his London counterpart did).
       This is an intense drama that works beautifully in the small Barrow Street Theatre. Cromer has staged the play in the round which brings the audience even closer to the actors (no one is more than four rows away).  All the performances are superb, particularly Russell Harvard as Billy. Harvard is deaf, so watching speakers intently and signing are second nature to him. But he also has an extremely expressive face. Special praise must also be given to Will Brill who gives a gut wrenching performance as Daniel. His relationship with Billy is really the center of this production. It's interesting how direction and casting can change a play. The most memorable performance in the London production was Michelle Terry's Sylvia. Here the two brothers dominate which alters the focus, but makes total sense.
      This is a beautifully written and superbly acted play that can't help but leave one shattered. Highly recommended.
TRIBES by Nina Raine. Directed by David Cromer. Barrow Street Theatre. March 11, 2012.

THE BEST MAN Revival on Broadway

     It is too bad that someone has not written an election year play that mirrors our current political situation with some with, political savvy and a sense of melodrama. Instead, Broadway producers have once again trotted out Gore Vidal's 1960 melodrama, THE BEST MAN, with one of those all star casts that will attract an audience to see just about anything. Unfortunately what audiences are seeing are veteran actors doing their schtick, one really poor performance and a few good ones. A lot of money has been spent on the production, but little imagination.
     Most of us old timers have at least seen the 1964 film of THE BEST MAN with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. The setting is the 1960 political convention of a nameless party back when candidates were chosen through back room deals and floor votes (perhaps this will happen again with the Republicans this year). The winning candidate must win the support of conservatives, liberals and moderates (clearly this is not the present ultra-right wing Republican party). The two leading candidates are William Russell (John Larroquette), a middle-aged upper class Northeastern liberal, a man of principal, and a ruthless, young midwestern populist, aptly named Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack). Cantwell will do anything to win; Russell will do anything to stop Cantwell. The two men despise each other. Russell is estranged from his wife (Candice Bergen) but she is willing to pretend to be happily married to help his campaign. Cantwell's wife (Kerry Butler) is as hungry for position and as resentful of her elite competition as her husband is.  Both these men are courting the support of the retiring president (James Earl Jones), a plain speaking old time pragmatist and of the most powerful woman in the party, a dowager who claims to speak for all women (Angela Lansbury). There's a bogus homosexual scandal (very daring in 1960 but dull now).
     THE BEST MAN is a creaky, old-fashioned Broadway melodrama that, frankly, isn't worth reviving. It certainly isn't worth doing in this production which is technically slick, but looks like the actors haven't been directed at all. There are some good performances. Larroquette and McCormack make the most of their roles. Michael McKean is solid as Russell's campaign manager. There is a dreadful performance by Kerry Butler who seems to think she's still in XANADU, bad accent and all. James Earl Jones flubs lines and shouts what he remembers. Candice Bergen wears great outfits and acts competently. Angela Lansbury plays a cartoon, but that's all her part is.
     Like many theater buffs, I couldn't resist seeing this bunch of actors. It wasn't worth it. I'd love to see what Gore Vidal would make of our current crop of political candidates. There would be a play worth seeing.