Sunday, 25 November 2012

THE GREAT GOD PAN at Playwrights Horizons

     This is the second Amy Herzog play I have seen this year and I am not impressed. 4000 MILES, which received a lot of critical praise, struck me as slight, the sort of script that might have been a one hour television drama back in the days when television drama existed. It certainly wasn't a play that resonated beyond itself. THE GREAT GOD PAN, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, is simply clunky. The first scene is one of those ten minutes of awkward exposition that I thought went out with Ibsen. Two people at a table who haven't seen each other in twenty-five years asking those, "What have you done in the past twenty-five years" questions. Then of course there's a bombshell. Frank, a tattooed and pierced gay massage therapist tells his childhood friend Jamie that he (Frank) was abused by his father. Frank wonders whether Jamie remembers anything. It turns out Jamie has no recollection of much of anything about Frank, his father, or a week long childhood stayover at Frank's house. In succeeding expository scenes, parents and a former baby sitter give Jamie more information about his forgotten childhood. Jamie is an award-winning investigative journalist who is a bit remote with everyone who wants to be close to him -- parents and partner Paige, a former dancer who, after an injury, has retrained as a social worker. She's also pregnant and something of a nag. Her nagging has some justification -- after a period of sexual dysfunction, Jamie has impregnated her and now is ambivalent about wanting the child. Jamie is showing the classic symptoms of someone who has been abused as a child. During the course of the play, he comes to realize what is obvious to everyone else seven minutes into the play. Some investigative journalist!
     4000 MILES had two interesting, well drawn characters, though it didn't really go anywhere or resonate beyond itself. THE GREAT GOD PAN does not have interesting characters and has  a plot out of a Lifetime movie. Most of the supporting characters are there merely to deliver exposition. Paige strikes me as frustratingly weak. Why doesn't she leave Jamie and have the kid? That never seems to be a choice for her. Jamie is so emotionally constipated that he isn't interesting. The title comes from a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that all the characters seem to know for some reason. It's a literary allusion that doesn't really lift the prosaic goings on.
     The actors make the most out of what they have to work with. I think director Carolyn Cantor made a mistake with her symbolic, ominous woodland setting for a play that basically takes place in a series of urban and suburban interiors. It suggests a symbolic dimension that the play really doesn't have.
     The play lasts eighty minutes. It seems much longer. The audience seemed polite but bored.
     It may be unfair to judge a play on the basis of an early preview, but this one would need major rewrites to be anything more than it now is. I doubt it can get the wholesale revision it needs during a preview period. We certainly don't need the two long scenes between Paige and her young client with an eating disorder. Paige isn't the central character , her client isn't particularly interesting, and one really has to think about how these scenes connect to Jamie's dilemma. Yes, OK, the client, like Jamie, seems to be denying sexual abuse. Does her appearance really enrich the play? I appreciate that Herzog likes endings that don't tie up all the play's loose ends into a pat conclusion, but this one feels artificial.
     Up to now, Playwrights Horizons has had a fantastic six months. This one brings down their batting average a bit.
THE GREAT GOD PAN. Playwrights Horizons. November 25, 2012.


     DISGRACED is an intelligent emotionally charged play that provokes a lot of thought and discussion.
     Things are not what they seem in successful lawyer Amir Kapoor's household. When we first see him he is immaculately dressed in a coat, tie and one of his $600 shirts above the waist, but only in underwear below. There can be no better opening image in this play about divided personalities. Amir was born in America and claims his parents were born in India. The location of their birth is now Pakistan, but Amir's hatred of Islam is so strong that he won't acknowledge that. Emily, his blonde, white wife is an artist who is incorporating aspects of Islamic art into her work. She's looking for some link to a faith system but doesn't seem very interested in the one in which she was raised. When we first see them, she is painting a portrait of Amir in the style of Velasquez's famous portrait of a Moorish slave. What does this say about her opinion of her dark-skinned Asian husband and of their marriage? Amir's nephew has changed his name from Hussein Malik to Abe Jensen (Amir has also changed his name) but is loyal to his Islamic roots. Abe wants Amir to help free his Imam who has been accused of terrorism. When, at his wife's insistence, Amir becomes peripherally involved in the case and is quoted in The New York TIMES as being sympathetic to the Imam, all hell breaks loose. The pro-Israel Jewish partners at his law firm are furious (they already think he is "shifty" -- an ethnic stereotype if ever there was one). Though Amir was due to become partner they promote Jory, a Black woman, over him.
     At a dinner from Hell, Jory and her partner Isaac, a Jewish curator who wants to exhibit Emily's work, become embroiled in an argument over Islam with Amir. During this increasingly heated debate, we see how divided Amir's feelings are -- hatred of Islam but pride at the victories of Islamic terrorists. By the end of the evening, Amir's life is shattered. His marriage is destroyed, his job is in peril, and his friendships ruined.
     DISGRACED is an intense, ninety-minute play. There are some laughs along the way, but it is a powerful look at cultural confusion. In the final scene, while Joe is helping Amir pack, he says that their people have been "disgraced" and we see that this is to some extent true. No one -- not Joe's blonde wife, his Black colleague, his Jewish bosses or the Jewish rival for Emily's attention -- see Amir as fully human. Disgraced, Amir behaves disgracefully. We're not sure who he is at the end -- nor does he.
     This is a provocative play. The production is well directed and superbly acted. In the pivotal role of Amir, Aasiv Mandvi gives a searing portrayal, moving from complacency to fury to calm bafflement. If you only know him from his funny stuff on THE DAILY SHOW, you will be amazed at what a good actor he is. The supporting cast is fine.
      It has been a year of excellent plays that argue the key issues of our time -- RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN; DETROIT: and now DISGRACED. I hope they all have a future beyond the intimate theatres that have presented them. DISGRACED is at the 100 seat Claire Tow Theatre atop the Lincoln Center Theatres, a great space for a new play.    
DISCRACED. Claire Tow Theatre, Lincoln Center Theatres. November 24, 2012.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

GIANT at the Public

     This has been anything but a red letter year for Broadway musicals, but Off-Broadway is a different matter. Last Spring there was the fascinating FEBRUARY HOUSE with an innovative, compelling score by Gabriel Kahane. Then DOGFIGHT at Second Stage. Now there is the ambitious GIANT at the Public with a lush score by Michael John LaChiusa. It's the best thing this composer has done.
     Most of us know GIANT from the three-and-a-half hour film version with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. The film and musical are based on one of Edna Ferber's historical epic telling the story of a Texas ranch, its owner and his family over three decades. Like Ferber's SHOW BOAT, also turned into an epic musical, the politics of race are an important part of the story. Here is isn't Blacks, but Mexicans, from whom Texas was taken by force and who now have to fight for a place in Texas society. It's a big story, hard to encompass in a musical. In its first performances at the Dallas Theater Center, the show was even longer than the film version. When it opened in New York, it had been cut down to three-and-aquarter hours. Since then another fifteen minutes has been shaved off. Sybille Pearson's book still needs some trimming and continuity. Somewhere in the pruning, Jett Rink's character (the part played by James Dean in the movie) has lost its arc. It's no longer clear what his importance is to the domestic drama of ranch owner Bick Benedict and his aristocratic Virginian wife who never fully falls in love with Texas. More focus on the central characters and less on some peripheral characters would improve the show. Everyone I heard on the way out felt that the story ended five minutes before the show did. Nonetheless, GIANT is never less than absorbing.
     It's greatest virtue is LaChiusa's score. I have often found him to be a frustrating composer who begins a song but never quite develops it. GIANT's score is rich, melodic, full voiced. It may be more conventional than some of his scores, but it is always masterful. He has found a style for each of the major characters. His lyrics never feel forced or artificial. The cast is full of good singers and the orchestrations (a seventeen piece orchestra -- real strings, no synthesizers. Yay again!). This is a show in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition and one of the best of its kind of show since the heyday of the legendary writing team. It's worthy of comparison to classics like SOUTH PACIFIC (which also has some book problems in the second act!).
     The large cast filled with fine singing actors. I'm not sure Brian D'Arcy James is the best choice for Bick. He sings well, but just isn't physically right for the role (he's in heels, his wife is in flats). Aaron Lazar played it in Dallas and I'm sure sang it as well and is more of a romantic leading man. Kate Baldwin is excellent as his wife. PJ Griffith is the weakest singer in the cast and has to deal with a character that needs more development.  Michael Greif has directed the show simply but effectively. The physical production is basic, but lovely.
     I hope GIANT has a future beyond its short run at the Public. It's a rich, powerful, ambitious show with the best musical score since THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. And it looks gorgeous.
GIANT. The Public Theater. November 24, 2012.


     I have to admit that I walked out of the original production of DROOD. It was a bad time in my family life and the music was so mediocre, the performances were so mannered, the sound so unpleasantly loud that I left at the intermission. I don't think I would have gone to this revival, produced by the Roundabout Theatre at their Studio 54, if the prospect for a cheap ticket hadn't appeared on the TDF website. The fact that the show was available on TDF on Thanksgiving weekend, one of the busiest times for Broadway theaters, suggests that it is not selling well, though my Friday night audience was clearly having a wonderful time.
     THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD was the brainstorm of pop songwriter Rupert Holmes who wrote the book, music and lyrics. The show gives us a Victorian music hall version of Charles Dickens' unfinished murder mystery. A master of ceremonies (Jim Norton) introduces Dickens' characters and the equally fictional Victorian performers who impersonate them. The "mystery" is delightfully overacted. There are plot numbers and boisterous music hall numbers. At the point at which Dickens died, leaving the novel unfinished, the audience votes on the outcome of the story after which the cast performs the ending the audience has voted for. It's a clever gimmick and audiences seem to love their participation in the show.
     This time around in this winningly directed (Scott Ellis) and beautifully designed (sets Anna Louizos, costumes William Ivey Long) production, the show is a pleasant entertainment. The voting business goes on far too long, but there's much to enjoy here. If I sound like I'm not totally won over, it's because of Rupert Holmes score. There is one lovely ballad and a couple of pleasant tunes, but the problem is that the score simply isn't very tuneful. Holmes seems to have been particularly interested in writing patter songs but unlike Stephen Sondheim (or Cole Porter before him), he doesn't seem to know how to make a patter song musically interesting. I still find that much of the score verges on being irritating rather than pleasant.
     The cast is excellent. My memories of the original production are of a group of actors overacting (Betty Buckley overact??). This gang has a lighter touch. Jim Norton sets the tone as the puckish master of ceremonies. The rest of the starry company (Will Chase, Stephanie J. Block, Jessie Mueller, Andy Karl, Gregg Edelman and the legendary Chita Rivera) make you believe that they're having the time of their lives doing this show within a show. It's all played for laughs, but in a a seemingly effortless way. They're all fine singers who deserve a better score than Rupert Holmes has given them. There's a good-sized band with real strings (minimal synthesizing -- yay!!!).
     So, an enjoyable show though there's a limit to the praise that can be heaped on a musical with a weak score.
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. Book, music and lyrics by Rupert Holmes. Roundabout Theatre Studio 54. November 23, 2012,      

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

GOLDEN BOY at the Belasco

     Clifford Odets wrote GOLDEN BOY to be a hit for him and for the financially troubled Group Theatre that nurtured him. PARADISE LOST had not been the hit that WAITING FOR LEFTY and AWAKE AND SING were (all three were on Broadway in 1935). In the intervening year, Odets had had his first taste of Hollywood. GOLDEN BOY shows the influence of the movies -- it is more episodic than his earlier work. We're not tied to one domestic setting and instead of long acts, Odets is writing in scenes. While home and family is still the ideal, the play moves from offices to gyms to arena dressing rooms to a New York park. This is a play that could easily be turned into a movie and was, successfully, a few years later.
     There had been stories of the rise and fall of boxers before GOLDEN BOY, but none with the poetry that Odets brings to the narrative of "the cockeyed wonder" Joe Bonaparte. Though he comes from a loving home, Joe has a chip on his shoulder. Like many of Odets's young men, he is angry because he knows he is missing something, but can't articulate what it is. Though he has been a violin prodigy and loves making music, he turns to boxing to release his anger and because he thinks success will fill the hunger that leads to anger and frustration. OK, we've been there before and been there many times since in the movies (think BODY AND SOUL with John Garfield, the first Joe Bonaparte), but no one gives this story the language that Odets provides. Here is a textbook example of poetic realism at its best. The scenes in Joe's home, presided over by a loving, baffled patriarch (the wonderful Tony Shaloub) are infamiliar Odets territory. The first home scene is comic, but also filled with the dream of success as Joe's brother-in-law Figgie desperately wants to own his own cab. Siggy and Joe's sister Anna have a turbulent, loving relationship. The language of the first domestic scene is mundane, comic lively. Has anybody ever written the banter of urban, first and second generation Americans better than Odets? The counter to the home life Joe rejects, as he rejects the expensive violin his father has bought him, is the office of fight promoter Tom Mooney. The world of boxing is one of violent conflict and of the buying and selling of young men on the make. The best of this world is the devoted trainer Tokio; the worst is gangster Eddie Fuseli who expresses his love for Joe the only way he can -- by smothering him in things. Fuseli is one of the rare three-dimensional gay characters in pre-Stonewall American drama. Since his love is forbidden, he turns to violence and to possession of men who can't love him back. There's also the love triangle of Tom Mooney, his young mistress Lorna and Joe. Lorna is young, vulnerable, guilty about the life she is leading, but able to project an aura of toughness.
      Boxing for Odets is an image of capitalism gone awry. Joe's great success comes after he kills a man in the ring. Ultimately he is killed in the symbol of his success -- his expensive car.
     GOLDEN BOY is still a good story, but it's the language that makes this play great. 'The actors director Bartlett Sher has cast relish the words. Almost everyone is totally convincing in his/her role. I have reservations about Anthony Crivello's overly sinister presentation of Eddie Fuseli. His characterization seems more external, more melodramatic than those of his castmates. Otherwise, from top to bottom, this is a fine company of actors. Seth Numrick has the right combination of swagger and vulnerability for Joe. Yvonne Strahovski captures Lorna Moon's conflicting moods.Danny Burstein give another fine performance as the insightful trainer, Tokio. Above all, Tony Shaloub makes Joe's father more of a focal character than I thought he could be. He becomes the moral center of the play.
     There are a lot of scene changes in GOLDEN BOY and Sher has used a series of wagons to roll scenery on and off. This was a preview and I imagine those scene changes will speed up a bit before opening night. Within the scenes, the pacing seemed just right. A play this good doesn't need all this scenery (Michael Yeargan is the designer) this production gives us, but this is Broadway.
     The production clocks in at just under three hours (with two intermissions) but the audience seemed totally riveted.
      I am grateful that a classic by one of America's greatest playwrights has gotten such a good revival on its 75th birthday in the very theatre in which it opened in 1937. And we have Odets THE BIG KNIFE to look forward to this coming spring.
GOLDEN BOY by Clifford Odets, directed by Bartlett Sher. Belasco Theatre. November 21. 2012,