Sunday, 30 December 2012

Paula Vogel's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS at the New York Theatre Workshop

     Over the past three decades, Paula Vogel has experimented with different ways of telling a story on stage, alternating direct address to the audience and dramatic scenes. Her early plays THE BALTIMORE WALTZ and HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE have become much revived canonical works. Now she has given us a wonderful theater piece, A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, mixing narration, scenes and period songs sung by the superb eleven-member cast who play a variety of roles. A lot of earlier works of literature and theater come to mind as one watches Vogel's play, ranging from Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN to Harriet Beecher Stowe's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (used ironically as it is a white boy who crosses the ice and almost gets killed by a Black Union soldier) to history and slave narratives. In the last half hour or so, I was reminded of D.W. Griffith's silent film epics as the various narrative arcs cross cut with increasing speed. Vogel isn't ashamed to use the tricks of melodrama, particularly suspense. There are moments toward the end that one felt that the audience was collectively holding its breath.The songs, gospel songs, carols and hymns are beautifully sung by the ensemble. Other than one pianist, all other instruments (guitars, banjos, drums) are played by the cast.
     In the course of the interlocking stories, we see Mary Lincoln (Alice Ripley) in both her difficult moments and her goodness as she visits dying soldiers. Walt Whitman, almost a Santa figure, also visits the hospital to help the dying in their final moments. We see freed Blacks in Washington carving a new life for themselves but protecting each other from lingering racism. There are Confederate and Union soldiers in the last months of the war and John Wilkes Booth trying to kidnap Lincoln to protect his beloved Confederacy. The only real villains are the few remaining slave owners. If anything, A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS is a celebration of people defeating their worst instincts and helping one another. Yet the show isn't the least bit syrupy. There's real suspense and tension and a panoply of rich characters.
     Tina Landau has given Vogel's play exactly the production it deserves. There's a two-level set made out of dark wooden planks. The actors' bits of costume are hanging on hooks in the stage left aisle (for the most part, the actors are in simple modern dress). There is also Landau's characteristic colorless lighting with actors sometimes holding simple floodlights. The cast -- truly an ensemble -- is uniformly excellent.
     A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS deserves to become a holiday classic, not only in New York but around the country. It's a celebration of redemptive aspects of our history and of the true spirit of Christmas.
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS by Paula Vogel. Directed by Tina Landau. New York Theatre Workshop. December 30, 2012

Terrence McNally's THE GOLDEN AGE

     Over the years, opera has been a major subject for Terrence McNally. In addition to writing libretti for operas like Jake Heggie's DEAD MAN WALKING, McNally has focused in his plays on opera, opera singers and opera fans. THE LISBON TRAVIATA is a portrait of a group of lonely, sad, anything but proud opera queens who live for Maria Callas the way other sad homosexuals of an early period worshipped Judy Garland. A few years later, McNally wrote his most commercially successful play, MASTER CLASS, very loosely based on Callas's Juilliard master classes. Now we have GOLDEN AGE, with Callas playing in the background, a depiction of the backstage dramas at the 1835 opening night of Vincenzo Bellini's I PURITANI, starring the most celebrated singers of its time. McNally uses this event to explore questions about the nature of genius, the primacy of performer over composer, the relationship of love to art. The central relationships in the play are those between Bellini (Lee Pace) and his devoted lover, Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers) and the composer and his muse, soprano Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), the Callas of her day. This will have special meaning for opera fans, but McNally offers enough entertaining backstage banter to make the play interesting to a wider audience, at least the relatively sophisticated audience at the Manhattan Theater Club. We have a vain baritone who stuffs a cucumber down his trousers to enhance his virility, dueling bitchy divas, middle-aged basses sick of playing father figures. Bellini is the self-absorbed romantic artist without whom none of this would be happening. He is also dying (tuberculosis, though he really died of an intestinal infection). One major study of opera is titled A SONG OF LOVE AND DEATH and, at its best, this is what GOLDEN AGE offers. While GOLDEN AGE deals with opera as an historic form, it doesn't raise the key question about the future of opera -- how it can continue primarily as a museum. In the Golden Age, new operas were constantly being written and performed. Can it survive merely recycling works from the past?
     The most fascinating aspect of GOLDEN AGE is its parallels with bel canto opera: long "arias" - speeches, ensembles, duets, even a mad scene of sorts, mirroring the structure of I PURITANI. The play demands actors of wide emotional and vocal range. Alas, except for excellent performances from Will Rogers and Bebe Neuwirth, the cast ranges from OK (almost everyone else) to mediocre (Lee Pace). My spouse put it perfectly when he said Pace is an exponent of the Nicholas Cage school of acting. His monotone voice can only go from loud to louder; his emotional range is equally narrow. We should feel the spirit of Bellini's music in his performance. I didn't believe for a minute that Pace's Bellini could have written the exquisite music of I PURITANI. Because of his performance, I never understood the adoration other people feel for the composer. If the play seemed tiresome in spots, particularly in the last half house, it was because Pace didn't do anything with the material. Rogers' Florimo seemed much younger than Pace's Bellini though historically they were the same age.
     So a diverting play. I felt what I often feel at McNally's plays -- that I am watching a draft that needs revision. It sags in places and takes too long to end. But then again, I PURITANI, for all its melodic glories, is not the most tightly structured work.
GOLDEN AGE by Terrence McNally. Manhattan Theatre Club at the New York City Center. December 29, 2012.

Friday, 28 December 2012


     In no particular order, here are the performances I most admired in 2012. It helps that these actors were in excellent plays, but they still deserve bravos for their acting.

Schuler Hensley in THE WHALE. Hensley should get an award simply for surviving in that fat suit for almost two hours, but his performance is so beautifully nuanced, combining the character's self destruction and his capacity to love.

Russell Harvard in TRIBES. Harvard has one of the most expressive faces I have seen on a stage in years. He doesn't have to say much to be fully understood. As the deaf son in a garrulous family, better at speaking than listening, his performance always commanded attention.

Amy Ryan in DETROIT. Everyone was excellent in this production, but Ryan was particularly good as the 40ish wife dealing in sometimes bizarre ways with an unhappy marriage and general dissatisfaction.

Assiv Manvi in DISGRACED. As a Pakistani-American lawyer who exposes all his complex feelings about his race, his religion and his country (America), Mandvi give a brilliantly modulated performance moving from complacency to rage to violence to helplessness.

Mary Louise Wilson in 4000 MILES. I wan't too crazy about the play, but Wilson played an elderly lady aware of her physical and mental limitations with total dignity.

The entire cast of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF for making this play more three-dimensional than I have ever seen it. No "acting."

Seth Numrich and Tony Shaloub in GOLDEN BOY. Just about everyone is magnificent in this revival, but Numrich manages to capture Joe's combination of idealism, ambition and anger. Shaloub holds the stage through an honest, understated performance.

GRACE by Craig Wright

     The title of Craig Wright's new play tells you that it is going to be about the place of religion in a secular age.  What does it mean to be in a state of grace? Can one separate grace from God? How can one believe in God in a world of suffering and injustice? Can one really shed one's guilt through expiation? Many of Wright's characters are suffering from guilt at their own actions and horror at the actions of others. Karl (Edward Asner), an elderly exterminator, has survived the horror of Nazi Germany and the guilt at revealing the whereabouts of a Jewish friend to the Nazis. Sam (Michael Shannon) blames himself for the death of his fiancé in a freak automobile accident that he survived, though he is now disfigured by burns. At the beginning of the narrative the play dramatizes, the central character, Steve (Paul Rudd), believes he is in  state of grace. Like many Americans over the past two centuries, he believes that his impending financial success is a deserved gift from God. Belief in Christianity is crucial to Steve and he tries to convert everyone to his ideology in a way that is obnoxiously smug. Steve wants to create a chain of Gospel themed motels, merging religious belief and business. Single-mindedly pursuing success, he is sometimes cruel to his sweet  wife (Kate Arrington) who really believes in the importance of doing good. During the course of the play, Steve loses everything he values and lashes out in violence that is also typically American. The devout Christians are not necessarily the characters who act with compassion. At the end of the play, Steve, gun in hand, shouts, "I just want to go back" -- back to when God was in his heaven and all was right with Steve's world. Like most evangelicals, Steve wants easy answers and a God, who like a good Santa Claus, gives him what he wants. It is interesting that Sam, the disfigured, guilt-ridden person who comes to find healing through a loving connection with another person is Unitarian-Universalist. It may be because I share Sam's religion, but I see GRACE as a very UU play, depicting a world in which there are only hard questions, not easy answers, and in which loving, compassionate human behavior is the healing force.
     GRACE is not a great play, but it has its moments and does try to grapple with issues that are central to our culture. Like many television dramas it begins at the climax then rewinds to the events leading up to the carnage we see in the first minute. I'm not sure it wouldn't be a better play if we didn't know where it was going and were more surprised by the ending. The play takes place in two identical, neighboring Florida condos, but the play and the production has the events in the two rooms taking place simultaneously in one room. Characters may be separate in space, but we see them next to each other. Wright aspires to poetry and some of his imagery is arresting. Sam is a NASA scientist who specializes in the elimination of the extraneous noise that muddies signals from our probes to outer space. When asked if he succeeds, he answers "You can't." The noise that muddies communications will always be there unless one has the ability to listen  compassionately. GRACE packs a lot into ninety minutes.
      The cast is uniformly fine. Rudd's Steve verges on being manic, but the subtle, low-key performances of the other actors provide excellent balance. Michael Shannon, who gave one of my favorite film performances of 2011 in TAKE SHELTER draws one in through his intense silences.
     I'm not sure a thoughtful play like GRACE belongs on Broadway in the current state of things in the commercial theater (it hasn't been doing good business despite the starry cast). It's an intense little play that would be better served by a more intimate space. Still, if not one of the best plays of the year, it's well worth seeing.
GRACE by Craigh Wright. Directed by Dexter Bullard. Cort Theatre. December 27, 2012.

Sunday, 23 December 2012


     No one cares about this list but me, but I do it anyway. Among other things, it clarifies my understanding of my own theatrical aesthetic. The best new plays I have seen this year have some things in common. They are examples of poetic realism, resonating beyond their own characters and stories. In one sense they are geographically specific (Idaho, Philadelphia, the rust belt) but their range is really much greater. So, in no particular order.


DETROIT by Lisa D'Amour. Playwrights Horizons. Only five characters, but this play covered a lot of territory as it explored the relationship of two married couples; one middle class but on the way down, the other déclassé and barely surviving. Class, economics, contemporary anomie and barely disguised anger all play a role in a play that manages to be both very funny and a bit scary. One of the few plays I have seen recently that is really about America today. Brilliant.

WATER BY THE SPOONFUL by Quiera Allegra Hudes. Second Stage. A beautiful poetic meditation on human connection in and out of families and the ways people can both damage and heal.

THE WHALE by Samuel D. Hunter. Playwrights Horizons. A portrait of the last days of a man literally eating himself to death after the death of his lover. Hunter has an uncanny ability to find the best in an unlikely, unhappy group of characters. In their wish for love, his people transcend their banal surroundings.

DISGRACED by Amir Kapoor. Lincoln Center Theater. A dinner party from Hell play, but also as intelligent a discussion play as I have seen in years. What happens when a successful Pakistani-American lawyer tells the truth about his mixed feelings about Islam, America and the people close to him. Dark, funny and stimulating.

A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS. An epic told with the simplest of theatrical means -- and lovely period music. It is fascinating to watch the narrative strands come together in the last quarter hour. This collaboration of playwright Paula Vogel, director Tina Landau and the perfect cast truly is the magic of theater.

RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN by Gina Gionfriddo. Playwrights Horizons. The plot was a little too schematic, but this was a witty, intelligent take on what has happened to feminism.  

PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. Broadway. Kid's theatre for children of all ages. Sheer theater magic.

Thanks, too, to the directors and actors who brought these fine plays to life.


COCK by Mike Bartlett. Off-Broadway. I liked this play in London and liked it even more here with a better cast. On one hand, this is a play about a young man who cannot decide between his long time male lover and the woman who has entered his life. It is more about the ways people manipulate those they supposedly love. 

TRIBES by Nina Raine. Off-Broadway. Is our family of necessity our tribe or might we feel more kinship with people who share our difference from our family and from the majority of people? That is the dilemma facing the deaf young man at the center of this clever, complex play. His choice affects a family who needs him more than he needs them. 


GOLDEN BOY. Lincoln Center Theater. A perfectly cast and staged production of the 1937 Clifford Odets play that proves that it belongs in the pantheon of twentieth-century drama.   

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (Steppenwolf - Broadway) and THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE (Signature Theatre). Two superb revivals of Edward Albee's work. Pam McKinnon's revival of Albee's most famous play avoided camp and cliche and gave more realistic, complex pictures of the four characters than I have seen before. The real revelation, though was David Esbjornson's production of one of Albee's most critically attacked plays. This production proved that the critics were wrong about this meditation on mortality, grief and love.


FEBRUARY HOUSE. Public Theatre. An unlikely subject -- and not from a movie, this saga of an attempt at an artist's colony in Brooklyn during World War II was alternately funny and touching. Gabriel Kahane has obviously listened to Sondheim, but he has a unique musical voice and a fascinating way of blending music and lyrics.

GIANT. Public Theatre. This was a big, old-fashioned Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Michael John LaChiusa's score was uniformly gorgeous.

DOGFIGHT. Second Stage. Other critics weren't crazy about this, but I thought it presented its characters and told its story effectively and had a lovely score.

Otherwise, a dire year for musicals. NEWSIES was enjoyable, ONCE tedious, the rest just plain sad.

FINALLY a question. Why are audience for good theater so geriatric? Why aren't young people interested in good drama? Most of the plays and musicals I mention are in non-commercial theaters with reasonable ticket prices and student discounts. How can we get more young people to something other than empty-headed Broadway musicals?


     The brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning play, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is the second in a planned trilogy by Quiara Alegria Hudes. I have not seen or read the first play in the series, ELLIOTT, A SOLDIER'S FUGUE. That title suggests that music plays an important role. It does in this play as well. Yaz (Zabrina Guevara) is an adjunct instructor in music at Swarthmore, teaching jazz, particularly the music of John Coltrane. She gives an eloquent lecture on the moment when she discovered the importance of dissonance in music. Indeed, the play is an eloquent meditation on dissonance and harmony in the relationships of some spiritually maimed people. Yaz's closest relationship is with her cousin, Elliott (Armando Riesco), an Iraq war veteran haunted by the first man he killed. After a serious injury to his leg, Elliott was briefly addicted to pain killers (addiction is one of the major dissonances in the play). He is also spiritually disfigured by his inability to forgive his mother, Odessa (Liza Colon-Zayas), a former crack addict, for causing the death of his younger sister and giving him up for adoption by his aunt and uncle. Now Odessa, having overcome her addiction, runs a website for other recovering crack addicts frequented by a motley assortment of men and women. While her son hates her, other addicts depend on her for their survival. Odessa may have lost her biological son but by the end of the play, she has found an unlikely surrogate son. The extended family loses one matriarch but gains another. Life is cyclical, but ultimately positive.
     Recounting the play's narrative makes it sound more melodramatic than it is. We watch connections being made between people fighting for their survival. We also see some acts of real cruelty on the part of characters who are otherwise sympathetic and acts of mercy and kindness from characters who can be cruel. In the best sense, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is a play about fallen people seeking redemption. Hudes obviously loves her characters. She is also a master of dramatic form. The play begins with a series of scenes that don't seem to bear any relationship to each other. Slowly the pieces of the puzzle come together in ways that are both surprising and justified. Her language ranges from the prosaic to the eloquent. Hudes isn't afraid to give her characters long expository speeches, but they all ring true. There is also visual poetry, particularly as the play moves toward its denouement.
     Davis McCallum has created the perfect production for this play. Internet scenes are getting to be something of a cliche, but there is a visual flow, almost a choreography to the ones in WATER BY THE SPOONFUL. The settings (Neil Patel) are more evocative than realistic for a play that ranges from Philadelphia to Tokyo to Puerto Rico to the world of nightmares. One can't speak highly enough of the cast. In addition to the excellent Ms. Guevara, Ms. Colon-Zayas and Mr. Riesco, there are fine performances from Frankie Faison, Sue Jean Kim and particularly Bill Heck as members of Odessa's internet support group. While the play for the most part seems to isolate its characters from one another, the actors create a finely tuned ensemble.
     In a recent post, I criticized Amy Herzog's plays (critically acclaimed, so I'm in the minority here) for being thin, for not resonating beyond what we see. They are sketches rather than paintings. WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is a grand canvas capturing much more than any simple recounting can capture. It's a loving, poetic picture of the complexities of human nature.
WATER BY THE SPOONFUL. Second Stage Tony Kiser Theatre. December 23, 2012.

PICNIC at the Roundabout

     During the 1950s, William Inge was Broadway's cash cow among writers of non-musicals. He wrote four hits in a row: COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, PICNIC, BUS STOP and THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, all of which were turned into successful movies. He also wrote the screenplay to SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. While Tennessee Williams was mining the South for his plays, Inge wrote about folks trapped in the middle of the country. His subject was entrapment -- geographic, economic, social, moral and sexual -- and the relationship between sex, love and loneliness for people who crave a meaningful relationship. Inge was a self-hating homosexual who, like Tennessee Williams, wrote plays in which men were the object of sexual attraction. At the beginning of PICNIC, now revived by Roundabout, a gorgeous, shirtless young man (Sebastian Stan, more perfectly tanned and body-sculpted than any 1950s drifter would ever be) enters with a load of wood. From that first entrance, Hal is the object of the gaze of a small community of small-town women of all ages from 14 to 60 who, however hard they try, can't stop looking at him. There's a mother with two teenage daughters (the mother has obviously been left by another wayward stud), a middle-aged woman living with memories of a failed romance and caring for a nasty, aging mother, and a horny 40-ish spinster schoolteacher, desperate to marry her erstwhile boyfriend who simply wants a good time.
      The stud may be a sex magnet, but he's also a born loser. Hal's father died in jail and Hal has spent a year in reform school. He got into college on a football scholarship, but was disliked by most of his fellow male students who were jealous of his sexual prowess and his lack of middle-class manners or mores. After years of drifting, he has come to this small town looking for help from his one college friend, Alan, who is dating the gorgeous eighteen-year-old, Madge (Maggie Grace). For all her beauty, Madge has her own insecurities. She's not bright (her younger sister got the brains but not the looks), got through high school on her looks, and now works at the five and dime store. She feels insecure around Alan and his wealthy family and clearly doesn't find Alan sexy (actually, Ben Rappaport, who plays Ben, has the looks to play Hal. Paul Newman played Alan in the film, the foil to William Holden's decidedly middle-aged Hal). Of course, Madge is drawn to Hal and everyone else shows their worst side as Hal brings out their sexual longing and frustration.
     I have written a lot about Inge over the years, but actually have seen few productions of his plays. The key question about PICNIC is whether it is worth reviving as anything but an artifact of the 1950s. Unlike Williams or Clifford Odets, whose GOLDEN BOY has proved its worth in a wonderful revival, Inge is not a master of dramatic language. Odets' and Williams's plays sing. Inge's don't. The language is as flat as the landscape. Perhaps this is appropriate, but from row N of the American Airlines Theatre, it's all a bit too arid.
     I saw an early preview of PICNIC, so want to be a bit careful about judging the production or the performances. Right now the production lacks rhythm. I wanted to scream "Faster - louder." The Tennessee Williams and William Inge beefcake stud victims are almost impossible roles to play. Over time, many of their lines have become camp classics ("We ain't goin' to no goddam picnic"). Sebastian Stan is as convincing as one could expect. Right now, most of the women are a bit bland. Maggie Grace is beautiful, but her lack of stage experience shows. Perhaps Madge should be pretty and blah, but it isn't a theatrically interesting choice, if it is a choice (Kim Novak made it work in the film, but Kim Novak was a phenomenon of nature.). It was a good choice to have so much physical similarity between her and her mother (Mare Winningham), but unfortunately the similarity also includes blandness.  Madeleine Martin's Millie is outright nasty rather then unhappy. The part of the spinster schoolteacher, Rosemary, has been an award magnet for actresses (Eileen Heckart in the original production, Rosalind Russell in the movie) in part because she actually has more emotional variety than the other characters. Elizabeth Marvel captures all the moods, but needs to tie them better into a coherent personality. Ben Rappaport makes more of Alan than I imagined possible from reading the play. Of course it only makes one wonder why Maggie doesn't find him attractive. It's greatly about class, of course, but Maggie Grace's Madge unfortunately seemed more country club than five and dime. Sam Gold has been highly praised as a brilliant young director. I didn't see more than competence here and sometimes not that. Inge was a good craftsman, but you wouldn't know it from the way each scene tended not to end, but to fizzle out.  A successful revival depends in part on the director justifying the play -- arguing for the play through his production. I didn't see any love of the play in this production.
     As one who has studied and written about Inge, I was grateful to see a production of PICNIC. However, I didn't leave the theater feeling the necessity of this revival. Perhaps that will come after a few weeks more of previews. This brings up again the morality of previews. This production is being presented to a paying audience. Having paid for a ticket, we have the right to judge it now rather than wait weeks to do so.
PICNIC by William Inge. Directed by Sam Gold. Roundabout Theatre American Airlines Theatre, December 22, 2012.