Sunday, 24 June 2012

COCK in New York

     We had reservations about some of the casting when we saw James MacDonald's production of Mike Bartlett's witty, minimalist play, COCK, at the Royal Court Theater Upstairs a while back (review somewhere below), and were curious to see what New York actors would do with this blueprint of a script. The New York cast was better, the play both funnier and more impassioned.
     Barlett has said that he got the idea for the style of this play when he witnessed a cockfight in Mexico (the New York Times, unable to print the title of the play, calls it "The Cockfight Play"). The audience is seated on benches in a plywood ampitheater looking down on a small, circular playing area. The only lighting is fluorescent and the audience is as lit as the actors. There are no sets, furniture or props, nor is there any specific miming of actions like eating or copulating. Everything is in the words. Bartlett's script, obviously influenced by Pinter, is filled with pauses.  Exposition is sketchy and only delivered when necessary. Scene breaks are indicated by the sounding of a tone. All this creates great challenges for the actors.
     Bartlett's story is a simple one. John (the only character with a name), is in a contentious seven-year relationship with a somewhat older and more successful man who is a bit of a psychological bully. Shortly after John tries to break off his relationship with M, he meets W, a young female divorcee who does not like being single. John, both attracted to W and frightened of his first heterosexual relationship, runs back to M. Both M, W and, at the dinner from hell, M's father, push John to make a choice. Is it M or W? Is he straight or gay? COCK would be a simple minded play if it were just an argument against rigid categories like gay, straight or bisexual. John's real problem is that he doesn't know who he is. He has no fixed identity of any kind. Oddly, it is his blankness that seems to attract needy people like M and W. They can project their needs and fantasies onto him. The question that frustrates one watching this play -- one of the key questions Bartlett is asking -- is why people are drawn to this amiable cipher who is doubly crippled by the fact that he knows he has no identity. COCK is a rich play about loneliness, neediness and contemporary anomie. It's funny, smart and a bit disturbing.
     There were some problems with the London cast. Ben Whishaw seemed good casting for John -- homely, scrawny and an expert at playing angst. However, Andrew Scott, the same size and looking the same age as Whishaw (though he's half a dozen years older), was a bit small-scaled as M and Katherine Parkinson, a one note actress if ever there was one, did nothing with W. The New York cast was infinitely superior. The opening battles between Cory Michael Smith's John and Jason Butler Harner's M were much more passionate. Harner is taller and obviously older than Smith, a necessary set of contrasts. One felt both their sexual attraction and the frustrations that were killing their relationship. I never felt any passion between Ben Whishaw and Andrew Scott, but here saw that, whatever was driving them apart, John and M were physically attracted to each other. Amanda Quaid made W an interesting character; attractive, smart and tough. She really stands her ground when forced to fight for her dignity and for John. Smith made you realize why people were attracted to John even though they should run for the hills. Harner is magnetic as M, registering every aspect of his bafflement, hurt and need for John. Cotter Smith made his brief appearance as the father subtler and more complex than his London counterpart. This was a more physical, more intense performance than the London one without losing any of the wit and humor. It was thrilling to watch these actors at work in this small space. And it was a joy to see this fine play again.
COCK. The Duke on 42nd Street. June 23, 2012.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012


     This is the third Gershwin anthology show in recent years. MY ONE AND ONLY (1983), with Tommy Tune and Twiggy was a moderate hit. Then CRAZY FOR YOU, based on GIRL CRAZY, ran for four years in the early nineties. Now we have NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT, with a book by Joe DiPietro loosely based on the 1924 musical, LADY BE GOOD, which starred Gertrude Lawrence. We still have bootleggers and a playboy about to marry the wrong girl, but the book is much more coherent than the original. DiPietro has given us a delightful old-fashioned musical comedy with a lot of music and laughs. Director Katleen Marshall has wisely cast the show with strong comic performers. There are lots of leading roles, all deftly played. Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara are the name, "above the title" stars. On paper they seem like a mismatch. Broderick can carry a tune, but it isn't a great singing voice. He's not a born dancer, but he gamely gets through his dance numbers. What he can do is deliver comic lines in a winning, low-key manner. He has always been good at playing harmless naughty boys and that is what is required of him here. O'Hara is a competent actress, but a terrific singer. She's not a natural at comedy, but she's surrounded by so many great comic performers that it doesn't matter. Oddly enough, they work as a couple. They aren't Astaire and Rogers, but their dance numbers seem in character.
     Michael McGrath as the gangster turned surly butler is a delight as is the great Judy Kaye as the prohibitionist who discovers the joy of booze. Chris Sullivan and Robyn Hurder make a wonderful comic couple as not-too-bright gangster Duke and dumb chorine with dreams of being queen of England. And Estelle Parsons make a grand second act appearance as Jimmy's mother.
     This is what musical comedy is supposed to be -- great songs; a well constructed, truly funny book; superb comic performances; good singing and enjoyable dancing; lovely costumes; simple but effective sets and a great pit band. Too bad nobody around now can write a score anywhere near this good. Everyone who aspires to writing a musical should be required to see this show.
     As expected, the near-capacity Tuesday night audience was comprised mostly of folks middle-aged and older (how many under-25s have even heard of George Gershwin?). They weren't as wildly enthusiastic as the younger audiences at some shows I have seen recently (or as despondent as the audience at ONCE), but they were obviously having a good time.  Highly recommended.
     And once again, I noted how shabby the Shubert's theaters are looking. The Imperial Theatre has housed some of the greatest musicals of the twentieth century. I spent much of my youth in the balcony of the Imperial. It deserves to look as grand as its place in the history of the musical.
NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT. Imperial Theatre. June 19, 2012,

Friday, 1 June 2012


     What a delight it is to experience a play that is intelligent, provocative and highly entertaining. Essentially, Gina Gionfriddo has taken on the challenge of writing a discussion play, the sort of thing Shaw did so brilliantly a century ago. In RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN, Gionfriddo has set her sights on the position of women in 2012  through conversations between women of three generations and one man.
     Katherine (Amy Brenneman) is a highly successful forty-something academic and writer. Like many successful academics in the humanities, she has found a gimmick to give her crossover success -- books on the intersections between feminism, pornography and violence. Her books, typical of this kind of pop academic, are filled with some knowledge and a fair amount of unsupported generalizations and facile connections. Katherine sees herself as a feminist, but is in the midst of a mid-life crisis. She has come back to her New England home town after her mother has had a heart attack. Katherine has come to realize that, other than her mother, she has no one to love and no one to love her. When we meet Katherine, she is in the back yard of her college roommate, Gwen (Kellie Overbey), a stay-at-home mother, and Gwen's husband, Don (Lee Tergesen) whom Gwen "stole" from Katherine fifteen or so years ago. Gwen and Don's marriage is anything but passionate. Gwen resents Don's lack of ambition and his preference for pornography rather than her. Also in the mix are Gwen and Don's baby sitter, Avery (Virginia Kull) , a twenty-one year old who has very definite ideas about female empowerment, and Katherine's mother (Beth Dixon), whose views were shaped in the pre-feminist era.
      In order to allow these characters to banter and battle, Gionfriddo depends on two gimmicks. First, that Katherine and Gwen would want to switch roles, at least temporarily, and that Katherine would be hired to teach a seminar on feminism that only two students sign up to take, Gwen and Avery. Katherine conveniently holds the seminar in her living room so her mother can join in. One buys into these somewhat shaky premisses because the characters are so sharply drawn and well acted, the dialogue so lively and the perceptions so astute. Essentially the women come to realize that the ideas of that enemy of feminism, Phyllis Schlafly, actually have some merit. Women can't have it all. Through Don's character, we also see how men still have problems dealing with women who are smarter and more ambitious than they are. Like Shaw, Gionfriddo knows to give everyone a convincing argument. Shaw prided himself on being an iconoclast, and Gionfriddo seems to have proudly taken on that mantle.
     The cast does justice to this stimulating play, managing to make all the discussion spring from the characters' conflicting emotions and confused objectives. Director Peter Dubois has deftly paced the production.
     I thoroughly enjoyed Gina Gionfriddo's last play, BECKY SHAW. RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN is more ambitious. I can foresee some negative criticism from New York reviewers and politically correct academic critics. The audience at Playwrights Horizons gave it the enthusiastic reception it deserved.
RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN. Playwrights Horizons. May 31, 2012.