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.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

STUCK at New York Music Theater Festival

     This is the first year I have been in the city for the New York Music Theater Festival, a month-long presentation of simple productions of over two dozen new shows. Their creators all hope for a life past the festival and a number of Off-Broadway and Broadway shows have begin their lives at the festival. My sampling of productions began with STUCK, a ninety-minute musical with book, music and lyrics by Riley Thomas. The show's premise is simple -- 6 people are STUCK for ninety minutes on a New York subway train. Essentially, it's a mini disaster movie without the disaster -- a diverse group (homeless Black man; sassy, defensive Black woman; poor, bitter Latino man; middle-aged woman grieving over the suicide of her gay son; pretty Asian-American teenage girl being stalked by a troubled young man). By the end, after some squabbling, everyone has gotten a chance to express him/her self and the group realizes that everyone wants the same thing. The stalker even gets the girl. The book is a bit cliched and preachy, but the fifteen varied songs are quite strong. Thomas has shown that he has mastered just about every genre of show tune -- power ballads, Latin-inflected tunes, soulful hymns, haunting ensembles. And his lyrics seem natural, not the forced Hallmark-style lyrics one finds in many contemporary musicals.
     The productions of these shows must, of necessity be simple, but I was impressed with Michael Berry's clever, fluid staging. The small band sounded good. Everyone in the cast acted and sang well and blended beautifully in the ensemble numbers. One could have small quibbles -- Tim Young was too good-looking to be the geeky stalker. Who would believe he had trouble getting dates? However, this is not to denigrate his committed performance. Even though the characters were stereotypes, the performances gave them life.
     I enjoyed the show immensely even if the theater had minimal air conditioning (The producers kindly gave everyone a bottle of water before the show began. I wasn't sure if it was to drink or pour over ourselves.) A note if you go to one of the NYMF productions at the 45th Street Theatre -- sit toward the back. It's cooler.
     If all the shows at NYMF are at least as good as STUCK, it's going to be a great festival.
STUCK. New York Music theatre festival at the 45th Street Theatre. July 14, 2012.

Cole Porter's NYMPH ERRANT

     There's a fair amount of musical theater legend surrounding Cole Porter's musical, NYMPH ERRANT (Book by Mexican born, American actor, director, writer Romney Brent based on a novel by James Laver). It was produced in London in 1933 starring Gertrude Lawrence and ran for 156 performances (hardly a hit). It was never produced on Broadway though Porter thought it his best score. There has only been one album of the score, from a concert in the 1980s at the Theater Royal, Drury Lane with each number turned into a solo star turn for the likes of Lisa Kirk, Alexis Smith, Maureen McGovern and Elizabeth Welch (singing "Solomon" as she did in 1933). The album gives some sense of how good the score is and how absolutely brilliant the lyrics are. The Prospect Theater Company's production at the tiny Harold Clurman Theater is an attempt to present the show with its original score intact -- even including some numbers cut from the original London production. The book has been revised, but not in any sense to updated -- only to give it more coherence. The production, directed by Will Pomeranz, gives us an appreciation for what a great score Porter wrote.
      NYMPH ERRANT is, as the title suggests, a picaresque show about a young woman's sexual experimentation. Evangeline (or Eve) (Jennifer Blood) has just finished British boarding school and is in love with the gardener on the family estate (Andrew Brewer), but is reluctant to marry him until she sees a bit of the world. The script takes her to a French seaside resort, Paris, Venice, a Turkish harem, back to Paris and finally home to marry the gardener. Along the way she comes to realize that she wants sex as much as love, but sex seems to be hard to find. Indeed, the running joke of the show is that men all over the world fall for Eve, but don't want to bed her. Porter has spiced this nonsensical fable with brilliant, risqué patter songs and lovely ballads. He was right to consider it his best score. The revised book moves the show along and gives some context for the songs. Still, I thought the production could do with even less talk.
      Here the music is played by an accomplished five piece band and sung well by a mostly young, very talented cast. Jennifer Blood looks at least a decade past eighteen, but has the kind of small, wiry lyric voice that Gertrude Lawrence had. The rest of the cast play multiple roles. Andrew Brewer is the best singer in the cast and is charming (and lovely to look at) as the gardener and the plumber who gets to sing Porter's silly hymn to "Plumbing" (all the male characters Eve encounters are more in love with their professions than women). As the gardener, Brewer also gets to sing a song I have never heard before, the lovely ballad, "Dizzy Baby." The two older actors who played Eve's male admirers were anything but seductive. It was a mistake to make them total clowns. I think we had to feel that they were part of Eve's sexual education -- that they were tempting. In this production, there was no question Eve would go back to the gardener. Four young women play Eve's school chums. They all have a lot of stage presence and sing well. Veteran star Cady Huffman has a lot of older female roles, but doesn't make as much of them as I had hoped she would. In fact, she's the weakest performer in the production. In general, this is a cast brimming with talent, and Pomeranz has staged the production deftly with a tiny budget and on a tiny stage.
      I very much looked forward to seeing NYMPH ERRANT and wasn't the least bit disappointed.
NYMPH ERRANT. The Clurman on Theater Row. July 15, 2002.

Thursday, 5 July 2012


     Almost eighty years ago now, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the classic musical ON THE TOWN, about three sailors on leave for twenty-four hours in New York City in the midst of World War II. The sailors were sweet, innocent guys looking for a bit of romance. The women they hooked up with were far less sexually naive. Now in the fine new musical DOGFIGHT, we have three young marines about to be shipped off as "advisers" to Vietnam (it is 1963) enjoying their last twenty-four hours on leave in San Francisco. These guys are tougher and less innocent (or so they would like each other to think) than the young men in ON THE TOWN. Instead of looking for romance, they are planning a dogfight, a contest to see who can bring the ugliest girl to the party they are throwing. This little project is sexist and mean-spirited. These are guys not used to being around women. Male bonding is much easier for them. Eddie (Derek Klena) meets Rose (Lindsay Mendez), a waitress in a diner her mother owns. At first he invites her to the party as his ugly date, but he comes to find he really likes this young woman who is far wiser and more talented than he. Most of the musical is the story of their one night romance. Two years later, a shell shocked Eddie returns to a very different San Francisco, filled with hippies and homosexuals, a place where people spit at war veterans, hoping to reunite with Rose.
      This simple romance, adapted from a film (of course!) is the basis for a lovely show. The music and lyrics (by Ben Pasek and Justin Paul) are excellent. The songs range from rock-inflected upbeat tunes to sweet ballads to Sondheimy patter songs. Why is it that the two really fine scores I have heard this year are from Off-Broadway musicals while the new Broadway scores range from serviceable (NEWSIES) to mediocre (ONCE)? One can hear Pasek and Paul's influences, but they have their own musical voice and the lyrics are apt for the characters and don't seem at all forced. It's a tuneful, memorable score and every song seems justified by character and action. In fact, we said on the way out that the show needs one more musical number for  the final scene, now left in dialogue.
     Second Stage's production of DOGFIGHT is a class act. Celebrated director Joe Mantello staged it and Christopher Gatelli provided the choreography. The young cast is all one could ask for. Derek Klena captures Eddie's bravado and bafflement at his feelings for this homely girl. Lindsay Mendez lets us see from the outset that Rose is not only physically substantial but a person of substance. They both are terrific singers.
     I have never seen the film on which this show is based, but this musical version of DOGFIGHT is a touching romance set to a fine score. Highly recommended!!
DOGFIGHT. Second Stage Theatre. July 4, 2012.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


     Seventeen-year-old Becky is in real trouble, so much trouble that her mother has sent her to hide out for a week at her reclusive uncle's Costa Rica retreat. It seems that Becky has been blamed for the death of a learning disabled schoolmate and is likely to be arrested and sent to prison. She has already been ostracized by her friends and expelled from school. Like many adolescents, Becky fears silence. If she can't have some electronic noise plugged into her ears, she has to talk. Uncle Sterling, who is in self-imposed exile after being acquitted of misappropriation of funds at his law firm (his partner went to jail) and losing his marriage, lives pretty much in silence. Cut off from most people, he isn't used to talking and seldom finishes a sentence. Over the one-hundred minutes of Greg Pierce's play SLOWGIRL, the first production in the new Claire Tow Theater, built on the roof of the Lincoln Center Theater, Becky admits responsibility for her actions and Sterling takes some responsibility for the fate of another human being.
     In many ways, SLOWGIRL is very similar to Amy Herzog's 4000 MILES, which has been playing downstairs at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. There, too, a troubled young person dealing with the tragic loss of a friend, comes to stay with an older relative. 4000 MILES is about both the possibility and the limits of human connection. Above all, I  found SLOWGIRL to be a vivid, if frightening picture of contemporary adolescence. As we left the theater, I said to my spouse, "The play is an argument for increased supervision of teenagers." At seventeen, Becky is already a sexually active drinker and pot smoker though she has a limited sense of responsibility for her actions. She still thinks like a child, though she is given adult freedoms. Her language (beautifully captured by Pierce) is uncensored and peppered with obscenity (she describes her uncle's coconut syrup as looking like cum), half baked judgments and questions. Her ethical sense is undeveloped, but so is her uncle's. Sterling accepts no responsibility for the criminal actions of his law partner, but admits that he never questioned  the suspiciously large amounts of money that were flowing into his bank account. In a way, his Costa Rican exile is a self-imposed imprisonment.
      Sterling brings Becky to a labyrinth, a mountaintop recreation of the stone floor of a famous cathedral, where one walks the patterns on the floor either for meditation or one follows them on one's knees for penance. "I wouldn't recommend that," Sterling says. Clearly he has sought penance. The labyrinth becomes a symbol for the ethical mazes individuals must travel through, the difficulty of finding penance in our secular society, and the importance of some link with the spiritual.
     SLOWGIRL is another beautifully written, absorbing small-scale play that is more than the sum of its parts. Annie Kaufman has directed it deftly within Rachel Hauck's lovely, suggestive setting. Sarah Steele captures Becky's vulnerability and bravado. We have to feel how irritating Becky can be as well as the childlike qualities that can be endearing and destructive. Against her explosion of language, Zeljko Ivanek captures a man who has tried to push away painful feelings of guilt and loss. Sterling is a man of few words -- he seldom finishes a sentence -- but Ivanek, though facial expression and body language, shows us how much is simmering under the surface.
     The new 120 seat Claire Tow Theater is a gem. One rides new elevators up from the entrance area of the Lincoln Center Theater to a spacious lobby that is all glass on one side. Patrons can step out onto a wooden rooftop deck to look out over Lincoln Center. The rest of the roof is "green", planted with flowering vegetation. The auditorium is small without being the least bit claustrophobic. And there's lots of legroom. Seats for the LCT3 presentations at the Claire Tow are only $20, So Lincoln Center is joining the ranks of New York non-profits who are offering great theater at affordable prices.
SLOWGIRL by Greg Pierce, directed by Annie Kauffman. Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center Theater. July 2, 2012.