Monday, 29 October 2012

GOLDEN CHILD at the Signature

     This year, David Henry Hwang is the featured playwright of the Signature Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center. In addition to his 1998 play GOLDEN CHILD, the Signature will be producing an earlier work, THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD, and the premiere of a new play, KUNG FU.
     Hwang's plays focus on the culture clash between Asians and Asian-Americans and westerners over different periods in history and the ways in which Eastern culture has been diminished by western ideology and racial stereotypes. Most of the action of GOLDEN CHILD takes place in Fujian, China, in 1918-19. The head of the household, Eng Tieng-Bin is, as he claims, "the most successful Chinese businessman in the Philippines," though he keeps his family in Fujian. The family consists of three wives and their children. The wives all vie for the dominant position. "First wife," Eng Siu-Yong battles to keep the "old ways": traditional religion, foot-binding and, above all, the traditional way of sweeping all conflicts under the rug. Nothing should change. Men should continue to appear to have power though in reality women, particularly the first wife, should rule the household. "Second wife," Eng Luan, is a pragmatist, willing to adapt in any way necessary to maintain her position in the household. If her husband wants to be more western, she will wear western clothes. "Third wife," Eng Eling, is the one her husband loves. A servant promoted to the position of wife, she has the devotion of someone trained to be subordinate. We only see one of the children being raised in this house, Eng Siu-Yong's daughter, Eng Ahn, the "Golden Child," and narrator of the action of the play. As an old woman, she tells the story to her teenage grandson who is eager to record the history of his family.
     Her story is one of change. Through his enterprises in the Philippines, a meeting place of East and West, Eng Tieng-Bin has been tempted by western values and by Christianity. He brings a Christian missionary back to Fujian to help "educate" his wives and children. He removes the binding from his eldest daughter's feet to free her, but the liberation is an excruciatingly painful one. He must enter into a Christian marriage with his favorite wife, but that destroys the status of First Wife and Second Wife. He desecrates traditional religious rituals. The results of his domestic revolution lead to the deaths of two of his wives. Yet, when we see his "golden child" fifty years later, she is a devout Christian who lives in the Phillipines.
     Hwang's fascinating drama shows the validity of the "old religion" and the ways in which Christianity was destructive to one Chinese household. The dead do have power to effect the living. For all the man's assertion of power, women do rule.
     Hwang's plays are always vividly theatrical. The conflict between East and West is played out in a theatrical style that combines the two traditions. Leigh Silverman has directed a production that does justice to the play's drama and its theatricality. Within Neil Patel's beautiful two-level set, this production of GOLDEN CHILD is a combination of realism and ritual. Everything about the production is visually stunning, from Anita Yavich's rich costumes to Matt Frey's complex, effective lighting scheme. I saw a preview of GOLDEN CHILD, but all the performances already seemed polished. Greg Watanabe captures Eng Tieng-Bin's confusion and his patriarchal sense of the right to destroy his own household. Julyana Soelistyo is particularly good as First Wife, but she also has the richest character to play. The only wife of the same class as her husband (it was an arranged marriage), she has little respect for the other two wives who are her social inferiors. She argues passionately and convincingly for the old ways, but she also is ruthless about maintaining her position. Even her death gives her power.
     GOLDEN CHILD deserves a revival and this one couldn't be better. And, at the Signature's bargain price of $25, it must be seen.
       One sad observation. I assume that the Signature's low ticket price is an attempt to attract a more diverse audience than one usually finds at the non-profit theaters. Alas, the theater is still filled with middle-aged and older theatergoers. How do we excite young folks about theater????
GOLDEN CHILD by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Signature Theatre. October 27, 2012.


     It has been thirty years since Gerald Alessandrini created the first edition of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY. The 2012 incarnation of this series of spoofs of Broadway shows and stars is top notch. I wondered at first how they could spoof some of the tripe that now passes as a Broadway musical, but they did so brilliantly. The show opens with a parody of Lerner and Loewe's BRIGADOON. This show about a mythical Scots village that comes to life once a century became a figure for the Broadway musical. From then on, everything now or recently on the stage is fair game. Some of the numbers lampoon shows now running from JERSEY BOYS to the dreary ONCE. I found their extended skewering of ONCE particularly funny. As one character sings: "It's so unpretentious that it's pretentious." There are also sendups of some Broadway stars. Stephen Sondheim introduces his favorite diva, Bernadette Peters ("I cast her in all my shows, regardless of whether she's right for the part.") who demonstrates the current sad state of her voice. There's also an hilarious version of Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin's recent Broadway lovefest and of Ricky Martin and Elena Roger in EVITA ("Just a total lack of star quality").
     FORBIDDEN BROADWAY depends on good writing. There isn't a weak moment in the ninety minute show. It also depends on talented, versatile performers. The young cast of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: ALIVE AND KICKING have the musical and comedic skills, versatility, charm and energy the show requires.  Kudos to Natalie Charle Ellis, Jenny Lee Stern, Scott Richard Foster and Marcus Stevens. They are also expert quick-change artists. And bravo to the folks who created the hilarious costumes and wigs, Philip Heckman and Bobbie Clifton Zlotnik.
     Great fun!
FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: ALIVE AND KICKING. 47th Street Theatre. October 27, 2012.

Thursday, 25 October 2012


     I'm old enough to remember the excitement Edward Albee's first full-length play, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, created when it opened on Broadway in 1962. I was a senior at Princeton and first saw the play when the matinee cast played a Friday evening performance at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. The Canadian actress Kate Reid played a chubby, tough Martha who obviously wore the pants in the family. Henderson Forsythe played George as something of a milksop who finally gets his revenge. A year later a new matinee cast returned to McCarter with Elaine Stritch playing a larger than life Martha who dominated the proceedings. In both performances of the play as originally directed by Alan Schneider, there was a stylized quality to the characterizations. Martha verged on camp (Elaine Stritch, for heaven's sake!!), George was a stereotypical mild-mannered academic, Nick was a handsome blonde who didn't act much like an intellectual and Honey was a giggling idiot. The critics were right to see a strain of misogyny in the original production as well as the possibility that camp, over-the-top Martha wasn't a woman at all. I never saw the evening cast with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, who may have given somewhat different performances. I suffered through the over-wrought Mike Nichols film that drained the very funny play of most of its humor.
     WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is another American combination of realism, satire, theatrical metaphor and absurdism. The action of the play hinges on the device of an imaginary child sterile George and Martha have created for twenty-one years as a way of holding their marriage together and whom George "kills" at the climax of the play. George's murder of "sonny boy" is both the final game in an evening of increasingly cruel games and potentially a healing act, the final stripping away of damaging illusions. There are two major patterns of imagery in the play. One is fertility/sterility: George and Martha's sterility, Honey's false pregnancy (or abortion), Nick's impotence with Martha, the toy gun George brandishes in the first act, the phallic flowers he throws at Martha and Nick in the last act. The other is truth/illusion, summed up in Honey's offstage peeling of the label off the brandy bottle as the truth about her loveless marriage is exposed. Albee wants us to read the play as realism and as theatrical poetry at the same time as he exposes the hollowness at the core of the American upper middle class (as if academics are typical of the upper middle class -- as my esteemed, late colleague Reynolds Price used to say, academics are the people who as children were inside reading while the other children were outside learning to play together.). And, as Albee often does, we have a horrible domestic crime that echoes classical tragedy in the ritual killing of George and Martha's son. All this is to say that any production of the play has to perform a difficult stylistic balancing act.
     Pam MacKinnon's production, an import from the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and the fourth to appear on Broadway, emphasizes the realistic aspects of the play. From the outset, we believe that Tracy Letts' George and Amy Morton's Martha are a married couple who, like most couples who have been together over twenty years, have their own codes. They may not be the happiest couple in the world but they like being around each other. George and Martha are presented as three-dimensional  characters, not a series of performances. Their ages seem wrong -- Amy Morton's Martha, who is supposed to be six years older than George, looks a good ten years younger, but George does talk abut looking older and grayer than his wife. Morton's Martha never gets overly blowzy. Her Martha reflects the plight of many women of her time. She's brilliant, but there's no place for her to use that brilliance. Her ambitions have to be expressed through her husband's career, but her husband isn't ambitious enough. George, after all is still an Associate Professor, that purgatorial rank for academics who haven't yet fulfilled their initial promise. She, the college president's daughter, has to live with the fact that her husband has let her down and live with the fact that she cannot fulfill her domestic role as mother.  Yet Martha does love George though, self-hating, she punishes him for his academic failures and her personal failures. What we see on stage in this production is a complicated marriage, but there's love there.
     Madison Dirks' Nick  and Carrie Coon's Honey also avoid caricature. Dirks looks ten years older than Nick's twenty-eight, but he presents Nick as a complex character, essentially a good guy out of his depth and as unhappy in his own way as George and Martha. I've seen WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF eight or nine times and I've never seen Nick presented as such a complex character. Carrie Coon plays Honey as a quiet alcoholic rather than the idiot and butt of jokes of previous productions I have seen. This is a woman who is drinking because she knows her marriage is a failure. Coon should get a Tony for playing the most convincing drunk I have ever seen on stage.
     There were two surprises to this approach to the play. First, when Martha is played as a human being and not "larger than life," George becomes the focal character. In Tracy Letts' performance, George may be a failure as an academic, but he's going to be in control at home at any cost. Martha may try to humiliate him, but he gives as good as he gets. In some productions, the long scene between George and Nick at the beginning of the second seems too long. We wonder when Martha will return to entertain us. Here the scene becomes one of the strongest, most fascinating in the play. Indeed, the relationship between Letts' George and Dirks' Nick is as fascinating and complex as that between George and Martha.
     The only problem with this approach to the play is that the climax, when George announces the death of his and Martha's "son," seems less theatrically credible, more of a gimmick. However, Morton's grief is deeply moving, as are the final moments of George and Martha together, a loving couple who will go on without one of the illusions that have held them together. "Sonny Jim" was both a bond and a weapon they used against each other (as real children often are).
     If this production spotlights a basic flaw in Albee's play (is there a flawless play?) it also humanizes the work. WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century American drama. When I first saw it as a twenty-one year old, I thought I had seen versions of these people in my young life. It rang true to me. It still does. It is brutally funny and brutally honest.
     I went to a Wednesday matinee and was shocked, given the rave reviews, to see how sparsely attended it was. Of course Al Pacino is playing next door and Patti LuPone and Debra Winger are on the marquee two theaters down. If one goes to Broadway shows to see stars, there are no stars in this production and no star turns. There's only fine, fine acting and direction of a great play. Perhaps that's not enough to make money on Broadway.
     Even if you have seen WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF before, you should see this production before it closes.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF by Edward Albee. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Booth Theater. October 24, 2012.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

THE WHALE at Playwright's Horizons

     The new recipe from American drama seems to be old fashioned poetic realism spiced with a pinch of the absurd topped off with a sprinkling of the Gothic. Stephen Karam's SONS OF THE PROPHET begins with a bizaarre car accident involving a high school mascot, Lisa D'Amour's fine DETROIT moved toward a strange bacchanale that ended with a conflagration. Now Samuel D. Hunter's touching new work, THE WHALE gives us the final days of a 600 pound man who has literally eaten himself to death.
     Charlie was always overweight, but he began killing himself with food after his lover, Alan, wasted away. Alan didn't have any terminal physical ailment. He died of not being able to reconcile his love for another man with his Mormon faith. Charlie has his own problems with guilt. He is constantly saying "I'm sorry" to everyone who comes into his squalid apartment. He is cared for by Alan's sister, who is trying to keep something of her brother alive through Charlie. Though dying of congestive heart failure, Charlie won't go to the hospital. He doesn't have health insurance because he has saved every penny for his teenage daughter, Ellie, who has her own spiritual crisis. Ellis is in a state of despair and her bitterness has left her totally isolated. Her principal means of communication is a blog on which she viciously derides everyone she knows. Her mother has pretty much given up on her. Charlie, the eternal optimist through all his grief and self-destruction sees something positive and special about his daughter. Into this mix comes a nineteen-year-old Mormon missionary proselytizing on his own because he assaulted his missionary partner for lack of faith. "Elder Thomas", as he calls himself, is determined to save Charlie's soul, but he needs a bit of saving himself.
     The conflicts and collisions of this bunch of sweet lost souls makes for a funny, moving two hours. There's also poetry in Hunter's play. Charlie makes money by doing online tutoring of college students who have writing problems. He gets fired by urging them to write what they honestly feel. From the papers he reads, they honestly feel as lost as the characters we see on stage. Charlie's favorite paper, one he knows by heart, is one his daughter wrote when she was in eight grade. The topic is MOBY-DICK and, though Ellie thought Ahab was a pirate, she understood the love between Ishmael and Queequeg, the pain Ahab felt and the futility of his quest. The story of Jonah and the whale also figures in the play. Melville's story is one of a universe in which God, if He exists, is indifferent to human suffering. Jonah's story is one of God's power and the necessity of faith but, in the context of THE WHALE, the story breaks a man's spirit.
     There's a lot going on in THE WHALE. I was interested to see that, when the play ended, many in the audience at Playwrights Horizons didn't want to get up and leave. There was much to absorb emotionally and intellectually.
     I saw a preview, but I can't imagine a better performance. Shuler Hensley must have been boiling in that giant fat suit, but one believes that is his body, and one sees all the facets of the complicated human being encased in all that blubber. He's physically repulsive, but a sweet, lovely spirit. The wonderful young actor Cory Michael Smith makes us see Elder Thomas's desire to be a good person and a true believer. Cassie Beck makes us see Liz's jealous protectiveness toward her brother's lover and her devotion to him. Reyna de Courcy relies a bit too much on grimacing to convey Charlie's daughter's bitterness and still needs to find more variety in Ellie's character. Tasha Lawrence makes them most of her brief appearance as Charlie's ex-wife. Director Davis McCallum was wise to  emphasize the realistic aspects of the play and let the poetry shine through on its own.
    If anyone doubts that really strong plays are being written by American playwrights, catch the two plays now running at Playwrights Horizons.
THE WHALE. Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater. October 20, 2012.

Friday, 19 October 2012


      There have been very few great or even very good biographical musicals. FUNNY GIRL, a delightful, tuneful show, became legendary through Barbra Streisand's performance, though the show outlasted her by a year or so (comedienne Mimi Hines took over). GYPSY is as close to perfect as a musical can get. One reason both these shows were joys to watch is that they are celebrations of theater. It may be theater past -- vaudeville, burlesque, the Ziegfeld Follies, but it is theater. CHAPLIN tells the story of a legendary film star and has the intrinsic problems of theater pieces about movie stars -- the performances were screen performances that don't necessarily translate to the stage. When the show wants to present one of Chaplin's classic performances, a screen has to come down and we get a Chaplin film or a facsimile thereof. The show's creators should have looked at the history of MACK AND MABEL, an unsuccessful Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical from the 1970s about Mack Sennett and the making of silent film comedies. There isn't anything theatrical about the shooting of a film scene, so however good the score is (good in the case of MACK AND MABEL, bland in the case of CHAPLIN), the show is trapped in an alien world. One can make a good musical out of a movie (though I wish folks would try it less often), but movie making does not make a good musical  .
     Charlie Chaplin's story is a fascinating one. A Jewish waif from the London slums turns into the biggest Hollywood star of his day. Dickens would have loved it (probably not the Jewish part). Silent movie star gets in trouble when he starts talking politics. The trouble is that Chaplin's love life was a little creepy. The show begins with Chaplin as a kid in London and within ten minutes has him in Hollywood. It would have been interesting to have some representation of the stage pantomime act that caught Mack Sennett's eye. With some weird chronology, the show takes Chaplin to his winning of a special Oscar in 1972, shortly before his death. The problem is that the creators of the show (Book, Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan, Music and lyrics Christopher Curtis) haven't stuck to one style. At first, the show seems to be a highly stylized, a la Bob Fosse. Everything is in black, white and shades of grey. The performers are wearing white face paint to look like silent movie clowns. The best moments are played in this highly theatrical style. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper's (Jenn Collela) red-baiting of Chaplin, the strongest moment in the show and the one that gets the biggest ovation, is like something out of CHICAGO, as is the stylized boxing match in which Chaplin gets knocked out financially by his first three young wives. The stylized approach is one good way to go with a biographical musical -- think of BARNUM (direction Joe Layton) and THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES (direction Tommy Tune) -- but it has to be consistent and the musical staging has to be inventive (Warren Carlyle's isn't). There are, however,  realistic, book-heavy scenes in CHAPLIN that demand a different kind of response from the audience. Long dialogues between Chaplin and his brother Sydney (played by the handsome but dull Wayne Alan Wilcox), slow down the proceedings. It's always a good idea to stick to the theatrical conventions one has established in the first ten minutes or so.
     Successful biographical musicals are vehicles for charismatic performers -- Merman and her successors in GYPSY (Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone, even the miscast Bernadette Peters), Streisand in FUNNY GIRL, Jim Dale in BARNUM, Keith Carradine in THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES. In the last two cases, brilliant staging and winning star turns redeemed so-so material. Rob McClure, who plays Charlie Chaplin, is a good, hard-working performer in a role that demands a star turn. He works very hard (real stars don't look like they're working hard) but he's not a star and only a star could totally redeem CHAPLIN with its mediocre score (Christopher Curtis's songs sound like Marvin Hamlisch on a bad day and I never thought much of Hamlisch as a composer, with a little Anthony Newley thrown in) and confused style. McClure has an irritating, strained high tenor that had my fillings aching. In all fairness to McClure, I'm not sure who could have made this part work. Musical comedy stars are thin on the ground -- current musical performers are now trained to be replaceable parts. Roles -- things one brings one's personality to -- are now appropriately called "tracks". Stars are eccentric and eccentrics are not easily put into a computer program.
     I didn't dislike CHAPLIN. I saw it from a good seat at a very low price, thanks to my TDF membership. Parts were enjoyable. It looked beautiful. It wasn't a disaster, but I couldn't give it more than a B-.
     One pet peeve -- when I go to a musical, I want to see the orchestra. It's part of the excitement of a live theatrical event. It's why we old timers applauded at the sight of that large orchestra at the Lincoln Center revival of SOUTH PACIFIC and why folks applaud the band so enthusiastically at the City Center Encores productions. I don't want them on stage a la ONCE, but I want them visible in the pit. The CHAPLIN band is piped in from backstage or perhaps the basement. They might as well have been recorded.
CHAPLIN. Ethel Barrymore Theatre. October 18, 2012.