Sunday, 27 May 2012


     Kenneth Lonergan's odd, flawed but highly enjoyable MEDIEVAL PLAY raised some questions. 1. Should a playwright direct his own play? In doing so, he loses an important editor and critic. 2. Can one judge a production from a preview? As enjoyable as we found MEDIEVAL PLAY, particularly at the Signature Theatre bargain price of $25, we could tell that the play desperately needs editing. It could benefit from losing half and hour. Right now, the second act loses focus. Actually, it would be better as a tight 105 minute one-act rather than a 2 1/2 hour play that lacks some sense of forward momentum. Moreover, at least one of the leading performers was getting tongue tied on her many expository speeches.  3. Is our aesthetic judgment partly dependent on price and circumstances. At the Signature's ticket price of $25, I am more indulgent than I would be if I paid Broadway prices, particularly at a wonderful place like the Signature. Even at this price, I must acknowledge that a lot of people left at they intermission. Clearly they were not as amused as we were.
      MEDIEVAL PLAY (with an emphasis on PLAY) is the tale of two knights during the Hundred Years War. These guys are like Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon caught in the Middle Ages. One, Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton), wants to become virtuous and serve Jesus, but he can't avoid getting trapped in situations that require him to slaughter people. His buddy (Tate Donovan) is less reflective, but will follow his friend almost anywhere. In one sense, this is a medieval bromance. Lonergan has done his research about the various Papal feuds and intrigues during the time period the play covers. However, he wants to play with the conventions of an historical play. In the long first scene between the two friends, they lament being caught in the Hundred Years War. The scene plays with the anachronisms that are always part of historical drama. The men talk about the fourteenth century as if they are experiencing it with the
minset of our own time. Clearly this is a playful version of the fourteenth century very much from the point of view of the twenty-first century. There is no medieval romance here, no chivalry. The knights are basically bandits and thugs, the clergy either libidinous brutes or fanatics. There's a lot of funny stuff here, but a lack of structure. When Lonergan tries to tie up the loose ends of his history in Act 2, the focus moves from his two central characters.
     This is quite a lavish production with lots of lovely, colorful if purposely cartoonish scenery. Lonergan has directed his play well, but like many writers staging their own work, he would have been better served by working on the script and letting someone else helm the production. The cast is uniformly good. Hamilton and Donovan are a good comedy team, ably supported by a solid ensemble playing multiple roles. I hope that between now and the June 7 opening night, Lonergan does the necessary pruning and tightening. As it is, MEDIEVAL PLAY is an witty, enjoyable diversion. There are no deep insights here, but lots of laughs.
MEDIEVAL PLAY. Signature Theatre, May 27, 2012


      Thirty or so years ago, the superb British actor Roger Rees played the title role in Trevor Nunn and John Caird's legendary adaptation of Charles Dickens's NICHOLAS NICKLEBY for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In that production an ensemble of actors played a narrative chorus and took multiple roles. The settings were quite simple -- the audience was asked to imagine a lot of the setting. The acting was physical in ways not expected of British actors. Since that time, British theater has done a lot of work like Nicholas Nickleby. I think of Emma Rice's delightful production of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or Melly Still's CORAM BOY at the National or, of course, WAR HORSE. So much of our theater is still so realistic that something like PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, co-directed by Roger Rees (with Alex Timbers, movement by Steven Hoggett) of all people, and written by Rees's life partner Rick Ellice, seems new. To say this enchanting production is influenced by Nicholas Nickleby should not at all reduce the pleasure it offers.
      Like the enormously successful megamusical, WICKED, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is a prequel to a familiar children's classic, in this case Peter Pan. Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, this is the story of how a young orphan becomes Peter Pan and how a bumbling, egomaniacal pirate, Black Stache, becomes Captain Hook. Yes, this is a children's story, but it is full of adult jokes, as the best family entertainment should be. Even Ayn Rand and Marcel Proust crop up in the witty banter. Occasionally there is a musical number, like the hilarious Ziegfeldish mermaid chorus that opens the second act. The script is both funny and touching.
        Though this is an ensemble piece, things really comes to life when Christian Borle appears as Black Stache. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. Borle is now best known for his role as the gay composer on NBC's awful but unmissable SMASH, but like everyone else on that show, he is wasted in soap opera when he is a master of comedy (I felt the same way when I saw SMASH's Megan Hilty in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES a few weeks ago). Like James Corden in ONE MAN, TWO GUV'NORS,  Borle is a master of farce. He can take a bit of slapstick to the breaking point without losing the laugh. Borle is surrounded by a great ensemble. Adam Chanler-Berat seems to specialize in playing dorky adolescents (as he did in NEXT TO NORMAL), but his Peter is winning. One almost believes that he is a child (one of the conceits of this production is that adults are playing children and, in all but one instance, men are playing women).  Celia Keenan-Bolger is charming as hyper-competitive Molly, who becomes Peter's friend and gives him his first kiss, a taste of the adulthood he will never experience.
       The sets are witty -- go early and study the Victorian style false proscenium that is full of funny details. The costumes are clever. Most of all, however, you will be impressed by a script that is a joy for children of all ages, the constantly inventive staging, and the consistently excellent cast. This is one of the few Broadway shows I have seen in recent years that I would call unmissable.
PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. Brooks Atkinson Theatre. May 26, 2012.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012


"Falling slowly, snoring loudly"
     It is difficult to discuss ONCE without launching into a dissertation on the crisis in contemporary musical theater, a crisis that has been coming on since pop music parted ways with what we call The Great American Songbook. For a dwindling number of us, the greatest American music is the popular music written between the end of World War I and the rise of rock and roll. This is not to say that everything that followed is bad. It's just not as good. The Broadway musical was once the major medium for introducing great songs. Those songs were often strung together by a flimsy and nonsensical, if amusing, story, and performed by stars who were great singers and forceful stage presences. Some of us had a taste of how wonderful all that could be in the recent City Center Encores revival of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. Jule Styne wrote better scores than this (think BELLS ARE RINGING or GYPSY) and worked with better lyricists than Leo Robin (think Comden and Green or Sondheim) but this is a delightful, tuneful score and Robin's lyrics, particularly in Lorelei's two big numbers, are witty and great at defining character. More important, the score and the silly, but often witty book (Anita Loos and Joseph Stein) are "big" enough to delight packed audiences in the mammoth New York City Center which is twice the size of most Broadway houses. With excellent performances by Megan Hilty, Rachel York, Deborah Rush, Aaron Lazar et al, the revival was a delight. Yes, it was larger than life and, perhaps other than real life, but it was exciting as musical theater should be. Or take BOOK OF MORMON, a show that is in some ways a valentine to the Broadway musical. Silly, irreverent, often outrageous as classic musical comedies were at their best, self-reflexive, and celebrating the traditions of the Broadway musical from the opening chorus to the dream ballet to the silly denouement. I'm not saying that this is what all musicals have to be, but there has to be an innate theatricality to the work a larger than life quality that works in a theater. RENT had it, as does SPRING AWAKENING. One thing the musical does need is a good, theatrical score. Not necessarily great -- I liked NEWSIES, which has a pleasant, serviceable score but not a great one. The show doesn't have to be "big" -- NEXT TO NORMAL was a small show that worked because its ideas were big and it was well written and composed.
     Why all this as a preamble to ONCE? In part, because the best moments musically came in the pre-show which had more energy than anything that followed despite the silly gimmick of bringing the audience onstage as if the pub set were a real pub. Everything that followed was too small for a Broadway theater. The score is too small, the story is too small, and the performances are too small (indeed, from the fourth row of the mezzanine, the terminally bland leading lady, Cristin Milioti, was unintelligible). I felt the cast was sleepwalking their way through the performance. One couldn't forget that a little art house film was being put on stage for no particular reason. What did the show offer that the film didn't?
     Why didn't the leading characters have names? Usually in drama that suggests a universality, but these characters have quite specific backgrounds. So why no names? On one hand, we are to see the musical as realistic, but on the other hand the stylized production in which the musicians play all the supporting roles screamed "we're in a theater" (and isn't the business of actors playing instruments, or musicians also doing the acting, getting to be a tired cliche). Are we really to believe that "the guy" is a particular brilliant songwriter? The lyrics are Hallmark and the tunes are generic (listen to the Acoustic Cafe channel on Sirius XM). Steve Kazee is a good singer, but who could care about the dirges he is given to sing?
      Everyone involved in the production, particularly director John Tiffany, who gave us the brilliant BLACK WATCH, seems to be working for something both theatrical and anti-theatrical, something not "Broadway musical." Why do a Broadway musical if you don't care for the art form and are working with relatively weak material?
     A lot of the critics have raved about ONCE and it has already won a bunch of awards and will probably win the Tony. It is not doing the kind of business that NEWSIES and THE BOOK OF MORMON are doing, so audiences are voting for Broadway musicals that aren't ashamed to be Broadway musicals. I found ONCE dreary and a bit depressing. And, though it got the obligatory standing ovation (what doesn't these days?) I didn't feel that the audience with me was particularly enthusiastic about the show. Perhaps it would work in a small venue at lower prices, but at these prices this isn't a Broadway musical.
     And a post script -- the Shuberts should do something about the shabby state of some of their theaters. When I went to THE BEST MAN at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, some of the upholstery was being held together by tape. The Bernard Jacobs, that now houses ONCE, looks positively dingy. There's a theatre restoration fee added on to our ticket price. Does anybody ask where it is going? The dreariness of the theater only added to the dreariness of the experience of seeing ONCE.
     Another post script -- we now have a new category of shows that are neither just plays or musicals. I am thinking of END OF THE RAINBOW, which has a band and a number of musical numbers, and the wonderful ONE MAN, TWO GUV'NORS that has a score that is up for a Tony -- delightful original numbers in the sixties "skiffle" mode. The score to ONE MAN, TWO GUV'NERS is far stronger than the score to ONCE -- and I believe contains as many songs.
ONCE. Bernard Jacobs Theatre. May 15, 2012.

Sunday, 13 May 2012


     A while back I read a fascinating book, FEBRUARY HOUSE by Sherrill Tippins, about a short lived artists' commune in a ramshackle boarding house in Brooklyn just before Pearl Harbor. There lived an unlikely group of artists: Carson McCullers, WH Auden and his young lover Chester Kallman, Benjam Britten and Peter Pears, Erica Mann (political writer and daughter of Thomas Mann) and Gypsy Rose Lee. The leader of this crew was editor-novelist George Davis. This group was, for its time unconventional in every way. Auden/Kallman and Britten/Pears were gay couples, McCullers and Mann had an affair, Davis loved to troll the docks for sailors and Gypsy Rose Lee was  .  .  .Gypsy Rose Lee.
     I couldn't conceive of anyone turning this into a musical, but two young artists, composer-lyricist Gabriel Kahane and book writer Seth Bockley have done just that. Here is a musical theatre version of the start, middle and end of this noble experiment. Bockley's book focuses on the love lives of this interesting group. Kahane's music is not conventional show tune stuff. Occasionally we have something like a simple folk tune (usually for McCullers), but this is mostly a post Sondheim score sounding often more like a contemporary chamber opera than a musical. My impression is that Kahane is a more interesting composer than lyricist. The lyrics are often clumsy, but above all he is trying to avoid Broadway slickness. Occasionally the ensemble would sing lovely choral versions of parts of Auden poems. I wondered how a composer would try to write music for a character named Benjamin Britten. Does one try to imitate Britten? Kahane made the interesting choose to give Britten and Pears some of the most conventional music: a Gilbert and Sullivan duet, a mock operatic duet about bedbugs and the number that sounded most like a show tune for their farewell.
     I had never heard of anyone in the cast, but they all acted and sang well. The Peter Pears even looked something like Pears. The women weren't cast as strongly as the men. Kristen Sieh (Carson McCullers) was a weak singer which was unfortunate as she has some of the best music. Kacie Sheik did not have Gypsy Rose Lee's wonderful alto voice. She is given a self-descriptive number, "A Little Brain," that, alas, is nowhere near as clever as Rodgers and Hart's classic depiction of Lee, "Zip" (PAL JOEY).  The men were uniformly strong as actors and singers.
     Davis MacCallum provided  the simple, but effective staging and succeeded in creating an ensemble out of his young cast.
     This was one of those shows I admired but didn't totally warm up to.
FEBRUARY HOUSE. New York Public Theatre Martinson Auditorium. May 13, 2012.


     The enormous New York City Center was packed last night for the City Center Encore presentation of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, the classic "dumb blonde" musical that made a star out of Carol Channing and provided one of Marilyn Monroe's most famous film vehicles. Much of the excitement about this particular Encores presentation was focused on Megan Hilty's portrayal of Lorelei Lee. Hilty has had leading roles in Broadway musicals, but her fame quotient rose significantly with her role on the tv show, SMASH. Hilty wisely chose not to imitate her famous predecessor in the role, but gave us a post-feminist Lorelei who may not be a mistress of the English language, but certainly knows how to turn circumstances to her advantage. Under the guidance of director John Rando and musical director Rob Berman, she saw the anger and triumph in the lyrics Leo Robin wrote for Lorelei. Channing made Lorelei a cartoon. Monroe made her another version of the Monroe persona. Hilty made her a shrewd survivor who uses what she has (body and brains). Hilty is a fine comic actress and a good singer who moves well.  I haven't been crazy about her on SMASH, but clearly Hilty is a stage animal.
     Everything about this Encores production was well done. Effective staging, delightful choreography and, as always, then highest musical values from the great band, chorus and principals. Minimal sets, but lovely costumes for the principals.
     Rachel York didn't make as much out of Lorelei's "chaperone," Dorothy. The men were all fine, particularly Aaron Lazar, who gets some of the major ballads.
     In some ways, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES is an old-fashioned, not totally integrated show. Lord knows, not all of the numbers are motivated by the story line, but it's a Jule Styne score, which means that the songs are all worth singing. Encores pares down the dialogue and this version wisely focused on Lorelei's scenes and trimmed everyone else. Everyone tried to be off book (not always the case in Encores presentations), in Ms. Hilty's case, sometimes with hilarious results.
     There were hundreds of show queens in the audience, of course, but everyone had a ball. I think most of us were surprised at how funny the dialogue still is. Delightful!
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. New York City Center. May 12, 2012.


     David Auburn's THE COLUMNIST has received mixed notices from the press. I found it totally absorbing. The play is a portrait of famed columnist Joseph Alsop (1910 - 89). Alsop was a mandarin of the press. From an aristocratic background, he was a strange ideological mix that would be impossible today, a staunch conservative who was friends with and a backer of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys. On John F. Kennedy's inauguration night, the new president chose to come have a celebratory drink at Alsop's house.  No print reporter has that kind of power today. It is only held by the likes of right wing buffoon, Rush Limbaugh, though I think powerful Republican tell Limbaugh what to say -- Alsop told presidents what to do.  Alsop was an arrogant s.o.b. who loved his power. Unfortunately, after Kennedy's death, he never had the same influence. He was a rabid anti-communist who championed the Vietnam War long after many in the U.S. had turned against it.  He had one major Achilles heel -- he was a homosexual in an age when the closet was de rigeur for anyone in the public eye. He also did not understand that some American leaders were capable of using the same smear tactics as the KGB. When the KGB photographs Alsop having sex with a beautiful young man in Moscow, Alsop naively takes the photos to the FBI to stop the KGB from having any power over him. He feels that he is so powerful the government cannot hurt him. Alsop is a kind of monster. Brilliant, powerful, but arrogant and nasty when crossed. When young New York TIMES reporter David Halberstam writes pieces critical of the war, Alsop demands that the TIMES fire him. He marries a charming women so that he will have a hostess for his nightly dinner parties with the rich and powerful, but is cold and tyrannical toward her. He bullies his younger brother Stewart who is also a journalist. The only person he seems to love is his stepdaughter -- he even admires her courage when she becomes one of the peace activists he despises.
     Out of this character, Auburn has crafted a well structured, literate, fascinating play. Unlike Amy Herzog (see my review of 4000 MILES) Auburn knows how to craft a scene so it has its own structure and moves the play forward to the next scene. He has given the play a kind of circular structure that is highly effective. The play opens and closes with scenes between Alsop and the young Russian he has sex with in a Moscow hotel room in the 1950s. This structure emphasizes one of Alsop's key themes, the dangers of the closet in the pre-Stonewall era. Act I ends with Kennedy's death, which is also the moment when Alsop's power weakens. He will never again be buddies with a president, certainly not with the insecure Johnson who turns the FBI against Alsop, or with mad Nixon. Alsop doesn't understand the various liberation movements of the sixties, but one is gay liberation that could have changed his life if he weren't so out of touch. Auburn is too good a playwright to hammer home his themes or ideas. He trusts his audience to understand why he is telling this story at this time. Of course, Auburn rearranges history to tell a good story. This is historical fiction, after all. The point is that he has turned this long ilife and career into a highly absorbing drama.
     It is a joy to hear such elegant, literate dialogue in the theatre. Audiences are now flocking to Gore Vidal's THE BEST MAN, a dated 1960s play, but one in which the dialogue is a joy to hear. Here, too, there is a love of language. Even the Russian character loves to speak English well.
     The production is impeccable and the performances superb. John Lithgow, always one of our best character actors relishes the great part he has been given. Boyd Gaines is touching as the younger brother who isn't strong enough to make Joe see the truth. Brian J. Smith is charming as Andrei, the Russian who is more sincere than Alsop can understand. Another one of Meryl Streep's daughters, Grace Gummer, is charming as Alsop's believed stepdaughter. As always, Daniel Sullivan has given the play the right look, rhythm and sense of ensemble.
     THE COLUMNIST was a high point in this orgy of theatergoing.
THE COLUMNIST. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. May 12, 2012.

4000 Miles

      Amy Herzog's 4000 MILES has gotten very strong reviews from the New York critics. I wish I could feel the same enthusiasm for it. It's an example of what one might call the new domestic realism. Young playwrights like Annie Baker work within a realistic framework but eschew the act structure and the textbook "exposition-climax-denouement" structure of realists like Miller, O'Neill and Williams. There's no sense of the action of 4000 MILES moving toward any sort of conclusion.
     A troubled young man shows up at his grandmother's doorstep late one night. Vera Joseph is in her eighties, partially deaf and both independent and lonely. She was once a communist and peace activist and was married to a left-wing intellectual. Leo, her grandson, like many kids in their early twenties, is unsettled and self-absorbed. He has just been on a cross-country bike ride. What ensures over the next 105 minutes are a series of short scenes taking place over the month Leo stays with his grandmother who seems to be his favorite person in the family. We also see his breakup with his girlfriend and his brief, unsuccessful encounter with another girl. Leo cannot move forward because he cannot deal with his grief over the loss of his best friend in a grotesque accident during their cross-country bike trip, nor with the guilt he feels because he just moved on after his friend died.
     I get frustrated by plays written like television shows. Lots of short scenes. I keep waiting for the commercials between the scenes. There is no strong narrative arc here to lead an audience from one scene to the next. We do get the "big Revelation" from Leo close to the end, but the scene is more theatrical than dramatic as there is no particular reason to tell his story at that particular moment in the play. This is one of those plays that stops rather than ends. Herzog obviously thinks, perhaps rightly, that any traditional dramatic conclusion would be artificial.  Leo has finally at the end performed an unselfish act, in this case toward someone he doesn't even know, but somehow, even with fine performances from Mary Louise Wilson and Gabriel Ebert, it also seems a bit too small for the stage. It doesn't resonate beyond itself the way Stephn Karam's SONS OF THE PROPHET does. I kept thinking of Annie Baker's fine three-character play ALIENS in which we really feel the life of the characters beyond the confines of the setting.
     Most of the audience was Vera's age and they seemed to enjoy the play enormously.
4000 MILES by Amy Herzog. Lincoln Center Theatres Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. May 11, 2012.

Thursday, 10 May 2012


     This "play with music" by Peter Quiltey, who seems to specialize in shows about dotty divas, was quite a success in London. Judging by the half empty theatre last night, it hasn't caught on with Broadway audiences. Does the world need another Judy Garland imitator? Do we really have to see another portrait of Judy coming apart? My answer to the above would be "no." Quilter is a good craftsman and one can't fault his dramaturgy here. The play takes place in a fancy suite at a London hotel (non fancy enough for Judy who keeps complaining about how small it is although the Broadway set makes it look palatial) during her last stint at the Talk of the Town Nightclub shortly before she died. She is there with her fiancee, Mickey Deans, who is trying to get her through a five-week run so that she pay off some of her massive debt. He also tries to keep her off of booze and drugs until he realizes she can't perform without them. Also there is a sweet gay Scottish pianist who seems to represent all the gay men who worshipped Garland. In the midst of all this is Judy who is basically a spoiled child. Scenes in the room are interspersed with bits of her nightclub act (complete with small band), performed in various stages of confusion or drug-induced hyperactivity.
     Tracie Bennett is eerily brilliant as Judy. It's a virtuosic performance, though one that is not always easy to watch. As her gay pianist, Michael Cumpsty wisely underplays in contract to Bennett's manic impersonation. The play is kinder to Mickey Deans than the other characters are, and Tom Pelphrey presents him as a man out off his depth.
     I admired the play and greatly admired the performances, but I can't say it was a totally enjoyable experience. I guess now Peter Quilter can take on other self-destructive stars -- Janis Joplin, etc.
END OF THE RAINBOW. Belasco Theatre. May9, 2012.


     NEWSIES, another musical based on a movie and, I understand, not a very successful one. But the Disney Corporation is never reluctant to recycle a property into a new format. I never saw the film and only knew one song from it, "Santa Fe," a favorite audition piece for young male belters. This new stage version, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and a score by Alan Mencken and Jack Feldman, is highly enjoyable, particularly when the young men are dancing.
     NEWSIES is  fictionalized account of the 1899 newspaper delivery boy's strike. Historical characters like Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) and Governor Theodore Roosevelt share the stage with the real stars of the show, the "newsies." Here's a great story for the age of the 99% versus the 1% -- a group of homeless, poor kids take on the 1% who are cheating them out of an honest wage and win. Their leader, Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan) is tough, smart, sensitive and also a fine graphic artist who will become a political cartoonist. Pulitzer is a heartless tycoon and Roosevelt a well-meaning politician. It's simple minded as melodrama always is, but actually the book is quite strong. The songs aren't memorable, but they are pleasant and serviceable. The production (directed by Jeff Calhoun) is relatively simple but effective and the athletic choreography by Christopher Gattelli offers one show-stopper after another.
     Jeremy Jordan carries the show effectively. He's not a great singer but a charming presence and a good actor. Kara Lindsay is good in a generic ingenue-y way as his love interest. The stars of the show are the newsies who are terrific young all-around performers.
     Disney is being cautious with this show, hedging their bets by listing it as a limited run. It actually deserves to be around for a long time. I saw it on a Wednesday matinee and the balcony was filled with busloads of school kids. They adored it. I wouldn't say I adored it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
NEWSIES. Nederlander Theatre. May 9, 2012.

Monday, 7 May 2012


     Anyone who knows the details of Tennessee Williams's life knows that the last years were quite sad. The playwright was so paranoid that he alienated the people who cared most about him and became more dependent on the paid-for kindness of rent boys. Williams's mind was addled by booze and drugs. He kept writing, but nothing after the early sixties really ticked with the critics (sometimes too harsh on his work) or audiences. Still, he wrote every day.
     I have always believed that Williams was never comfortable with theatrical realism, the dominant mode of representation in the American theater. Even in his best work, there is a tension between the poet and the man who is trying to satisfy the relatively conventional taste of a Broadway audience. When the poet overtook the commercial playwright, as it did more and more in the last quarter-century of Williams's life, critics complained and audiences stayed away. Judged on their own merits, there is good material in Williams's late work. He was always experimental, anathema to audiences who want a generic "Tennessee Williams play." There was also the tension between the gay man and the prevailing heterosexism of the age in which he wrote his best work that gave his plays some of their complexity and richness.
     IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE, now being performed at the Culture Project in New York, is a work made from the drafts of a play Williams labored on but never completed in the last four years of his life. It's not a great play, but it is essential for those of us who love Williams's work. Clearly the playwright couldn't get all the elements of this work to cohere and the people who created this performing version wisely aim for something other than dramatic coherence. The narrative threads never coalesce into a sensible pattern.
     Williams must have been watching reruns of the British tv series, THE PRISONER, for IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE takes place in a combination resort/prison run by the Gideons, a group of handsome gay young men in identical suits and dark glasses. Characters don't know where they are or how they got here, but it seems clear that leaving is impossible. The play focuses on Clarissa "Babe" Foxworth and her retinue. "Babe" is another in Williams's gallery of middle-aged wealthy, booze and drug-addled women. She is at this strange location with Billy, the young husband she has purchased for a marriage that remains unconsummated. Billy is an aspiring poet who has hired his lover, Jerry, to be his secretary. Babe's surly maid is also there, though she seems to spend most of her time having sex with an auto mechanic she met at church. Yes, we have met versions of these characters before in other Williams plays, but now the homoeroticism dominates everything. What chance does poor Babe have in a place where everyone seems to be gay except the auto mechanic and he's sleeping with the maid? Babe's neighbor in this mysterious locale is the bizarre Mrs. Gorse-Bracken, dressed like a nineteen-fifties society lady going to a party at the country club. Mrs. Gorse-Bracken sings opera while her retarded, but very randy son, enjoys being gang raped. Said son, known as Playboy, cavorts wearing only a yellow slicker. They seem to be pursued by a giant Black man who can only make grunting noises and a dwarf who has to translate what the Black man tries to say.
     As you can see, this is not a realistic play. It's a smorgasbord of Williams's characters, imagery, paranoia and obsessions. A character observes that the main themes of literature are sex, death and money. Sex is everywhere in Williams's work, but here orgiastic homosex is rampant. At one point, a brush fire burns out of control. Imagery of death is everywhere Is this strange place a way station between life and death? Babe is terrified of the sea. After sex and survival, money seems the prime motivation. Babe's money is the magnet for the men around her. Where do Jerry's loyalties lie. He claims to love Billy, but he also doesn't want to lose his connection to Babe's money.
     Williams seems to have been thinking of Pirandello when he worked on this play. We are told that the Gideons -- the gay guards -- love to put on theatrical performances and this may be one of those performances. When Mrs. Gorse-Bracken makes her final, demented exit, one of the Gideons says that next time they have to hire a better actress. Is anyone not a dramatic character in this meta-play? The only person alive onstage at the end is Playboy, the embodiment of mindless gay sex.
     Director David Schweitzer obviously sees the play in post-modern terms and engulfs the audience in a bizarre techno-environment. The audience is surrounded by lcd screens. As we enter, the Gideons are broadcasting instructions while surveilling the audience. The action of the play spreads from the stage into the aisles. Lighting becomes progressively less realistic. If only Schweitzer had developed a consistent acting style to match his vision of the play. Babe (Shirley Knight), Billy (Robert Beitzel) and Jerry (Sam Underwood) seem to be aiming for the "poetic realism" of earlier Williams plays while everyone else is working in a highly stylized manner (because they are "actors" in the theater the Gideons are creating for Babe and her men?). The clash of styles is jarring. Knight seems still to be having some trouble with her lines (at least she isn't being fed them through an earpiece like the leading actor in a Williams revival on Broadway [or so it is rumored]) and needs to find her inner Geraldine Page. She is described as a gorgon, but what Knight presents is a dotty older woman. I'd love to see a fiercer actress take on the role (I'd cast British actress Frances Barber). There's certainly enough male eye candy to please the many middle-aged men who were in the audience when I saw the play.    
     No production is going to mask the flaws in this script, but I found the experience highly enjoyable. There was a lovely young German woman sitting next to me who was having difficulty making sense of the play. I told her to forget any hope of making it coherent. Just enjoy the ride.
IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE by Tennessee Williams. The Culture Project, New York. May 6, 2012.


     A half century ago, Edward Albee wrote a play, ALL OVER, in which a family gathers around the deathbed of the patriarch. As usual for Albee, what emerges is anything but a portrait of a loving family unit. The widow may sit by her husband's deathbed, but she is waiting for him to die, not grieving over her imminent loss. I thought about ALL OVER as I watched Nicky Silver's often hilarious, sometimes disturbing play, THE LYONS. Albee's patriarch is silent, but Silver's is foul-mouthed, bitter and brutally candid. He tells his gay son that in the parade of disappointments that has been his life, his son is the Grand Marshall. You can't blame Ben Lyons for being angry. His son is incapable of a real relationships and is a stalker. His daughter is a recovering (sometimes) alcoholic who was married to a man who beat her. And his wife, Rita, who seems to talk nonstop, is the latest in the gallery of monstrous Jewish wives/mothers. When the curtain rises, Rita is reading HOUSE BEAUTIFUL magazine and trying to decide how to redecorate her home when her husband dies. She is trying to play the dutiful wife, but clearly feels nothing positive about her husband or her children. Alternately trying to play the role of devoted wife and mother, and saying vicious things to husband and children, Rita is clearly responsible for the fact that her children have such low self-esteem. She may be right at the end when she tells them that they're too old to blame her, but she has done her damage. So has her husband, who clearly doesn't like his children very much.
     The first act of THE LYONS (a play short enough to be done without an intermission though this production, for some reason, has one) is blisteringly funny. The focus is on Rita and Ben Brilliantly played by Linda Lavin and Dick Latessa. Their children are superbly acted (Michael Esper and Kate Jennings Grant), but it is Lavin's name over the title and she has the role of a lifetime. Her facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. No one in the family censors their true feelings, but Lavin's Rita shows even more through her looks of disdain and condescension.
     The second act begins with a scene without Lavin and Silver turns his focus onto the son, Curtis, as he has meeting with good-looking young actor-turned-real-estate-salesman. Does Curtis, an unsuccessful short story writer, really want to buy this leaky apartment with a view of an airshaft? During the scene he alternates flirtation and hostility toward the salesman who has his own problems with his sexuality and relationships. It's a challenging scene to perform and Esper is brilliant in it, But up to this point THE LYONS has been a funny play with Linda Lavin. The audience didn't seem to know what to make of this scene and the change of focus and tone. Lavin is back in the final scene, but the focus remains on Curtis, the major collateral damage of the Lyons's marriage.
     One can't help but enjoy such a fine cast and admire Silver's take on the American family and the monster mother. Perhaps I wouldn't have been so bothered by the play's change of focus in Act II if this 100 minute play had been performed without an intermission. Silver's principal topic throughout his career has been dysfunctional, self-destructive gay men. I wasn't surprised that Curtis would become co important as the play progressed.
       Don't go to THE LYONS expecting nice, sympathetic characters. You wouldn't want to live next-door to these totally self-absorbed people. They are, however, great fun to watch, particularly as performed by this group of actors.
     What is happening to the non-musical on Broadway. On a Saturday night, the Cort Theatre wasn't even half full for a critically acclaimed play. I understand the much lauded and prize-winning CLYBOURNE PARK isn't doing well. Only the star-studded revivals seem to be doing any business. Are audiences so bound up in brand name recognition that they won't give a new play a chance? Or are ticket prices so high that people will only be satisfied with big stars or a musical? Sad.
THE LYONS by Nicky Silver. Cort Theatre, New York City.  May 5, 2012