Tuesday, 31 December 2013

WHAT"S IT ALL ABOUT: BACHARACH REIMAGINED at New York Theatre Workshop

     Shortly before the show began, I hear a young woman behind me ask her father, "OK, fill me in on who Bacharach is." If you asked me who the current pop or hiphop star is, I probably would draw a blank, so I shouldn't be surprised at this young woman's question. Burt Bacharach is very much a product of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, associated particularly with the wonderful voice of Dionne Warwick. There was one Broadway musical, PROMISES PROMISES, and a lot of hit songs from movies, particularly "What's New, Pussycat" and "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." I particularly love his zany score for the 1960s oddball version of CASINO ROYALE, including "The Look of Love." Bacharach's work looked back more than forward. It is't rock, though it definitely had a beat. Most of all, it had a unique sound.
      What Kyle Riabko has done in WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT is to give Bacharach a contemporary sound. He and six versatile young singer-instrumentalists playing a variety of acoustic and electronic instruments (none of the brass and sax one associates with Bacharach), give these wonderful songs a new sound, sometimes folksy, sometimes rocking. However, the most masterful aspect of Riabko's work (with David Lane Seltzer) is to take two dozen or so Bacharach songs and turn them into a song cycle with a clear narrative of love, loss and recovery. There's no ironizing here. Riabko and his colleagues seem to love this music. Of course, the narrative Riabko gives these songs is possible because of the brilliance of Hal David's lyrics. I guess I never thought about David when I listened to Bacharach. Some of the lyrics are pop nonsense ("Do You Know the Way to San Jose"), but many of them are good storytelling. WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT simply wouldn't work without the excellence of David's lyrics. They make it possible to create a story out of these songs.
     Yes, this is another "greatest hits" show, but it is a masterful one, even, surprisingly, deeply moving. Riabko's arrangements are varied and excellent. He and his fellow performers are virtuosic and charming. Steven Hoggett has created staging that is quite elaborate but seems simple and natural. The set design (Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis) first looks like a warehouse of grubby used furniture (some of the audience sit on old sofas onstage), but transforms into magical effects, enhanced by Japhy Weideman's imaginative lighting design, which cleverly uses dozens of table and floor lamps in addition to conventional theatrical lighting. The show begins with that low-tech look of New York Theatre Workshop productions, but becomes quite elaborate. It looks informal and improvised, but is really a brilliantly constructed theatre piece.
     The final encore takes place out on 4th Street as the audience leaves the theatre. I won't give away the surprise, but it is the capstone of a delightful evening.
     After seeing WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, I'm going to revise my Top Ten List. I'd love to see it again.
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT: BACHARACH REIMAGINED. New York Theatre Workshop. December 30, 2013.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Julie Taymor's production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the new Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre

     After watching scores of Shakespeare productions, as well as teaching and directing Shakespeare for decades, I have a clear philosophy about contemporary Shakespearean production. Though the acting is usually excellent, particularly after Dominic Dromgoole took the artistic reins from Mark Rylance, I don't like the approach toward Shakespeare exemplified by the productions at Shakespeare's Globe in London. I think the interplay with the audience can be very effective, but all the Elizabethan drag just places Shakespeare's work in some other world. We can look and enjoy, but we don't have to think about it. I prefer productions of Shakespeare that are geared to expressing what the play is about for us in the twenty-first century. Shakespeare should be both timeless -- not necessarily rooted in his historical past -- but also timely. If I think about great Shakespearean productions I have seen recently, I recall Nicholas Hytner's production of HAMLET with Rory Kinnear, for instance, a production that not only set the play in the present, but also made us see its title character in a new way. A production of Shakespeare doesn't have to be set in the present, but it should make its audience think about the play, not merely watch it. Of course, however one does the play, it needs to be spoken well. Everything one needs in Shakespeare is in the language.
     Julie Taymor's new production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, now on view at the brand new Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre in Brooklyn (the new home of Theatre for a New Audience), is without doubt the most visually beautiful production of Shakespeare I have ever seen. From beginning to end, one is surprised and awed by gorgeous visual effects, all at the service of the play. Es Devlin's simple but visually arresting sets, Constance Hoffman's costumes, Sven Ortel's projections, Donald Holder's lighting -- all of these elements cohered in Taymor's appropriately dreamlike and often scary production. This was far from a mindless, ornamental production. Taymor had clear ideas about the play. The woods at night was a place where chaos could and did break out at any point. The central character in Taymor's vision of the play is Puck, the central agent of chaos. Played by the androgynous, amazingly flexible British actress Kathryn Hunter with a croaky voice and a body that can do just about anything, Hunter is the agent of magic, which can be good or bad. Fairies, after all, were mischievous creatures. The army of fairies -- called Rude Elementals --  are played by twenty or so talented children.
     Every moment in this production is clear story-telling. Time is relative. If Theseus and his court seem to be of a different time, Bottom (Max Casella) and his fellow actors are definitely from Brooklyn or a nearby borough. Oberon (David Harewood) and Titania (Tina Benko) are definitely from another realm. Trap doors and stage elevators as well as some magical aerial effects underscore the difference between the earthbound mortals and the non-humans who rule the woods. Emotional stakes are always high in this production as they should be.
     Shakespeare demands large casts (though in his time thirteen or so actors played multiple roles), and acting in Shakespearean productions on either side of the Atantic is seldom consistently excellent. In the United States, this is in part because young actors don't get enough chance to play classical roles in training or in their early careers. Duke, where I taught for eons, hasn't mounted a full Shakespearean production since I retired in 2008. Any good training program should mount a Shakespeare production at least every other year. It is not surprising that this cast had actors with less technique than others. This was particularly evident in the four young lovers. Demetrius and Helena (Zack Appleman and Mandi Masden) simply had better control over their voices and bodies than Hermia and Lysander (Lilly Englert and Jake Horowitz). I'm not always crazy about Kathryn Hunter's acting, but she was perfect as Puck. Veteran British actor David Harewood and Tina Benko brought both power and sensuality to Oberon and Titania. I was particularly impressed with Nick Bottom and his cohorts who found affecting contemporary counterparts for their characters, and who played the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe honestly instead of obviously playing it for laughs. Zachary Infante, acting Young Francis Flute who is assigned the role of Thisbe, actually performed the tragic heroine as if he were playing Juliet, a surprising and moving choice.
     I like to be surprised by a revival of a classic, but also feel that the surprises are justified by the text. From beginning to end, Taymor's DREAM was surprising, but also an act of understanding and love for this oft-performed play. Awesome.
     The design for the brand new Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre, right across the street from BAM in Brooklyn, has obviously been influenced by the former Cottesloe Theatre of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon, though this theatre is more intimate than these spaces. The audience sits on three sides of a deep thrust stage. There are two balconies, each with one row of seats (elevators for those who can't handle the stairs). Everyone has an excellent view of the stage. The lobby areas could be a bit roomier, but this is an important new theatre. Taymor's DREAM gave it the opening production it deserves.
 A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre. December 28, 2013.

Friday, 27 December 2013

MY TOP ELEVEN (Well, really twelve) OF 2013

In no particular order:
MUSICALS  
While I totally enjoyed KINKY BOOTS, there are only two musicals that I thought were really brilliant in 2013, all products of downtown non-profits.
     FUN HOME. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's brilliant musical about celebrating one's sexuality and dealing with the death of one's father is brilliantly written, composed and performed. Far and away the best musical of the year -- probably the best musical in many years.
     HERE LIES LOVE. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's techno, disco musical about Imelda Marcos was a successful experiment with totally immersive theatre.
      WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT: BACHARACH REIMAGINED (New York Theatre Workshop). In general, I'm skeptical of jukebox musicals. This one, however, takes the wonderful songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David and turns them into a moving song cycle of love, loss and recovery. Kyle Riabko's arrangements are surprising and winning and he and his troupe of young singer-instrumentalists are impressive and winning. I came away with a new respect for Hal David as a lyricist.

REVIVALS
     After years of seeing revivals of classics in London, I now try to catch most of the new work in New York. I'm not so interested in revivals, but…..
      ALL THAT FALL (59E59). Trevor Nunn found an effective way to stage this Samuel Beckett radio play and Eileen Atkins gave one of the best performances of the year.
     THE GLASS MENAGERIE (Broadway). John Tiffany's brilliant rethinking of the Tennessee Williams classic is both intelligent and deeply moving. Everyone -- Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith -- is superb. I've seen this great play at least a dozen times. This is the best version by far.
     A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre). Julie Taymor's beautiful production is visually ravishing but, surprisingly, a coherent, intelligent take on the oft-performed classic. The first production in the beautiful new headquarters of Theatre for a New Audience.

NEW PLAYS
I wish the list of excellent new plays were longer. This has not been a banner year for new work.
     CHOIR BOY (Alliance Theatre, Atlanta). Tarrell Alvin McCraney's music-filled tale of a gay boy leading the choir at a prep school for African-American boys is more a study of friendship than of prejudice. A lovely play.
     BUYER AND CELLAR (Rattlestick). I'm not usually a fan of one-person shows, but Jonathan Tolins's delightful comedy about a gay man hired to staff Barbra's private shopping mall is sheer delight. Michael Urie is absolutely charming as the protagonist, his bitchy boyfriend, Barbra, her husband, and a few other characters. I've seen it twice and would go back. I'm happy to see that it is on most critics' ten best lists. It deserves to be.
     OLD FRIENDS (Signature). Horton Foote's study of the bickering elite of a small Southern town is good, old-fashioned playwriting performed brilliantly by a terrific cast led by Betty Buckley as a fascinating monster. Great acting all-round.
     FROM WHITE PLAINS (Fault Line Theatre at the Signature). Michael Perlman's well-crafted play shows us the aftermath of teenage bullying. Ten years later, a talented gay film-maker cannot get over the suicide of his high school best friend. Unfortunately he can't see how he is now being a bully.
AND HONORABLE MENTION TO -- TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY ((Roundabout). One is left with a few too many unanswered questions, but Meghan Kennedy's play is deeply moving and eloquently written. The four actors couldn't be better, particularly James Rebhorn, who give us a harrowing picture of a man sinking into dementia.

   
   
   
   

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE at Playwrights Horizons

     Like most of the recent plays I have seen at Playwrights Horizons, Madeleine George's THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE falls in the "interesting but flawed" category. Her model seems to be Tom Stoppard's historical fantasias (like ARCADIA and TRAVESTIES) that blend different historical eras, but not all of George's historical eras really blend well. While Stoppard can write brilliantly witty long speeches that are fascinating, George writes long speeches that are just long. She doesn't have Stoppard's wit or his facility with language. Moreover, like the rants of garrulous drunks, the harangues tend to go off in tangents rather than stay on topic. Every time one of her characters goes into rant mode, and they often do, one feels the speeches are twice as long as they need to be. But, yes, there is an interesting play in there trying to get out.
     Through its use of three actors playing a variety of characters with the same names: Eliza (Amanda Quaid), Watson (John Ellison Conlee) and Merrick (David Constabile), George dramatizes our need for and fear of complicated human connection and emotions, particularly the messy complex of feelings we call love. The key phrase is the first sentence ever uttered on a telephone, "Come here, Watson, I need you" (or was it "Come here, Watson, I need to see you"?). Watson was the devoted servant, willing to sacrifice his needs to those of the famous inventor. Watson is also the devoted friend, assistant and chronicler of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Attempting to be a sleuth without Holmes, Watson is totally inept. In our own era, Watson is the computer that became a contestant on JEOPARDY, but can such a computer ever replace a human being?
     The central character is not Watson but Eliza, a brilliant expert on artificial intelligence, who wants to develop a computer that can really meet a person's emotional needs -- that can replace the need for human companionship. Eliza has just cut off all relations with her husband. She won't answer his phone calls or emails. When we first see her, she is trying to explain her feelings to Watson, the computer. Of course, her emotions don't compute. He can't help. When her angry, jealous husband asks a computer repairman named Watson to spy on Eliza, things really go awry. Yes, one might ask why he doesn't hire a detective, but THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE is filled with such lapses in logic that pull one away from involvement in the action. Are they examples of the alienation effect or just sloppy playwriting? At any rate, this Watson, like Holmes's friend, is a terrible sleuth. Eliza confronts him and they end up falling in love. Eliza is immediately attracted to him when he echoes her computer, "I'm just trying to give you what you need." Unfortunately, the overpowering feelings of love terrify Eliza. Meanwhile, back in Victorian England, Holmes's Watson follows a man who is trying to create a mechanical, totally compliant simulacrum of his wife, Eliza, that will only serve his will. See, neither men nor women can deal with a real relationship with another person.
     The scenes with Eliza and her mechanical and human Watsons are well written and absorbing. The Victorian and contemporary husbands are the most serious problem. Poor David Constabile has been given these long winded speeches that are merely tiresome. Because Merrick is more a mouthpiece than a character, the final scene between him and Eliza isn't as conclusive as it should be.
     Leigh Silverman's production moves the play along, though THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE, like so many Playwrights Horizons offerings, would be better if it were shorter. The split-second costume changes are virtuosic. Amanda Quaid is wonderful as Eliza. Conlee, who at times bears an uncanny resemblance to the British character actor Jim Broadbent, is charming. Poor David Constabile does what he can with the turgid prose he has been given.
      Not a great play, but one that has enjoyable, absorbing moments.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE. Playwrights Horizons, December 26, 2013.    
   
   

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Dennis Kelly's TAKING CARE OF BABY at the Manhattan Theatre Club Stage 2

     In the manner of the best British contemporary television drama, Dennis Kelly's fascinating play, TAKING CARE OF BABY, combines two stories that seen too disparate to mix. One is the "did she or didn't she" story of a young woman accusing of killing her two small children, then being exonerated. Did she kill them? If she did, was it because of a mental disease? Was it a mistake to free her? Certainly Donna (Kristen Bush) is unstable with moments of being totally unhinged. The second narrative focuses on the rise of  Lynn (Margaret Colin), a very savvy female politician. On one hand, these narratives are linked because Lynn is Donna's mother and Lynn has used the media attention of Donna's trial, imprisonment and exoneration to her own benefit. Is Lynn the devoted mother she seems to be or a bit of a monster? Her son died of a drug overdose, so if Lynn hasn't killed her children, she may be a source of their problems. Donna is certainly eager to get away from her. Television would interweave these yarns to create an effective melodrama, which Kelly deftly does; but Kelly has a larger topic -- truth. Dr. Millard, a smug psychiatrist, tells the audience that human beings can tell truth from lies, but sometimes choose not to. He also states that the cause of much contemporary malaise is our being swamped by falsehood. We're much more content if we can believe what we hear, but can we do that anymore? Politicians like Lynn lie. Journalists lie. Psychiatrists lie. Parents lie. We all know it. How do we live with it?
      To emphasize this idea, TAKING CARE OF BABY is presented as if it were one of those docudramas in which facts are edited, condensed and reshaped to make an effective theatre piece (another falsification). As in many of these works, the actors come on stage and seat themselves in a row of chairs. A voice repeatedly tells us that what we will see is the truth with only the names changed. But is anyone in the play capable of telling the truth? Donna's ex-husband insists that he only answer an interviewer's questions with "yes" or "no," but ultimately this is impossible. What does that say about courtroom procedure? Lynn is offered a place as the Republican's candidate and turns it down ("I'd rather eat broken glass"), thus winning the hearts of a New York liberal audience. Ultimately she accepts the Democrat's nomination and wins, but does just what the Republicans wanted anyway. The scenes of political doublespeak are particularly brilliant.
     TAKING CARE OF BABY is intelligent, funny in places, but also unsettling. It is spot on about the world we live in -- about the lies we choose to live with. Director Erica Schmidt has captured just the right tone and tempo for the play and the eight member cast couldn't be better, particularly Bush and Colin.
     Well worth seeing.
TAKING CARE OF BABY. Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II, December 4, 2013

EVERY DAY A VISITOR at the Harold Clurman Theatre

     When one looks at the demographics of the New York theatre audience these days (mostly senior at the non-profits), one can lament the future of serious drama, but one can also wonder why there aren't more plays about the lives of senior citizens. This year we have TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY, a lovely picture of grief at the end of a long, loving marriage and Samuel Beckett's ALL THAT FALL, giving us a loving, crotchety elderly couple facing the usual Beckett bleakness. Over the past few seasons, the Manhattan Theatre Club, which seems to specialize in plays about troubled middle-aged women, has given us the occasional widowed mother of the heroine. Are there no dramas in the lives of us seniors in the audience? Perhaps we don't want to see our lives on stage.
       What about the denizens of those warehouses known as retirement homes. Richard Abrons' EVERY DAY A VISITOR, an adaptation of a short story he wrote some years ago (the play was first produced in 2000), gives us a particularly bleak version of such a home. This Jewish retirement home is somewhere in the Bronx surrounded by a neighborhood that has gone downhill. The home, too, is in bad shape. There are few residents and the management is scrimping on the heat and the food -- lots of beans and cabbage rather than a balanced diet, leading to too many senior fart jokes. Indeed what we get in this play is a compendium of  comic senior types: the oversexed lady (a Jewish Betty White), the very ladylike farter, the deaf one who mishears everything, the hot-tempered Italian, the Black orderly. We see these folks attempting to playing bridge in the common room -- arguing overwhelms the game. The gimmick here is that suddenly the residents decide to take on alter egos -- Henry Kissinger, Bella Abzug, Fiorello LaGuardia -- people in powerful positions. Playing this game allows them to take some control over their lives. They argue less and become a community, this staving off individual loneliness.
     No one in the small audience found the stereotypical humor very funny. I found it difficult to care a lot about what was going on on stage. The transition to the "game" seemed too abrupt in part because characters had not been established well enough. Perhaps this is part of the problem the play is trying to deal with -- the diminution of personality in these institutions, the loss of self. I see it when the busloads of seniors arrive at my local supermarket. They seem anesthetized. There must be a way to dramatize this in an interesting way. Despite the energetic performances of the cast, I found EVERY DAY A VISITOR dull.
EVERY DAY A VISITOR. Harold Clurman Theatre. December 3, 2013.  

   

Monday, 2 December 2013

Herman Cornejo, Alessandra Ferri and Amy Irving in MARTHA CLARKE'S CHERI at the Signature Theatre

     Martha Clarke's CHERI is an adaptation of Colette's 1920 novel about the six-year affair of a young man (18 when the affair starts) and Lea, his mother's forty-something best friend. The affair ends when the young man, nicknamed Cheri, enters a "good" marriage arranged by his mother. Six months later, realizing he felt more deeply for Lea than he thought, he sleeps with her once more, but in the morning light realizes how much they are separated by age. In a sequel, Colette depicted Cheri's return from the war. Psychologically scarred, he finally commits suicide. Dance sequences between Cheri and Lea, played by ballet stars Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri, are separated by speeches by Cheri's mother (Amy Irving), which give some narrative context. The dance sequences are set to piano music of the period (mostly Ravel, I believe) played by Sarah Rothenberg.
      How is one supposed to evaluate this work, being performed in a theatre that celebrates playwrights' words? This is a dance piece and can only be evaluated on the basis of its choreography. After all, it's Martha Clarke on the Signature Theatre Playbill cover, where a playwright's picture usually appears.
      I am a dance fan, but ballet gets into murky territory when it tries to recreate specific psychological states that require words. Once in a while, as in Frederick Ashton's setting of Turgenev's A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, one sees a ballet that gives us some sense of what is going on in the heads, as well as the hearts, of its characters. As a rule that takes words and the kind of facial acting ballet dancers aren't always good at. Now Herman Cornejo is a handsome man with a very expressive face. I kept thinking this guy could have a second career as an actor (he's thirty-two, not a young man in dancer's years). His face shows us Cheri's changing moods while Ferri, alas, has that relatively blank ballerina face and, like most dancers, acts only with her body.
      The problems with Cheri cannot be blamed on the dancers. I'm not sure it was a viable idea to begin with. Each episode between Cheri and Lea was supposed to show a different facet of their relationship, but the choreography was too much the same. Cheri would lift, carry and whirl Lea around in the same steps over and over, ending, usually on the bed. There was little differentiation except the most general -- some moments seemed happy, some sad -- but for the work to be interesting we need more differentiation than that. Clarke used the space well, but her work was too repetitive. Nor did it show off Cornejo's virtuosity. Anyone who attends American Ballet Theatre performances knows that Cornejo is a spectacular dancer who can leap and twirl in breathtaking ways. His only rival is the young Russian, Daniil Simkin. Like Simkin, Cornejo is short even for a dancer, but can be an excellent partner. One waits, however, for his solo moments in which he can really show his stuff. For dance fans, Cornejo seems wasted lifting and carrying Ferri around for an hour. Finally, at the very end, he gets a solo that shows some of his abilities. Ferri looks older as she must, and still has the sylphlike grace that made her special. However, the brief narration speaks of her joie de vivre and all we see is melancholy, which is more Clarke's fault than Ferri's. Irving, playing Cheri's grande dame mother, has a total of abut six minutes of stage time, offering just enough language (written by Tina Howe) to give the dances some context, but the dances don't really dramatize Colette's work.
     David Zinn's set evokes a Paris apartment of the period and Chrisopher Akerland's lighting gives us the variety of mood lacking in the choreography.
CHERI. The Pershing Square Signature Center. December 1, 2013.
   
   

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Eileen Atkins in Samuel Beckett's ALL THAT FALL at 59E59

        The great Irish novelist-playwright-poet Samuel Beckett wrote ALL THAT FALL in 1956. It was his first radio play and the first play that had a woman as the focal character. Radio allowed a free movement in time and space not available to Beckett in the theatre. ALL THAT FALL is a more "realistic" work than one expects from Beckett. It depicts the long walk of 70-something Mrs. Rooney, a garrulous, cantankerous woman, to the railroad station to meet her blind husband and their walk home. On the way to the station, Mrs. Rooney encounters a number of local characters to whom she is not very pleasant. She softens as she talks to her husband on the way home. All nine characters are fully drawn, but Mrs. Rooney is particularly interesting, the first of those wonderful Beckett women who manage to turn the commonplace into a kind of poetry.
          How do you turn a radio play depicting characters walking along muddy paths, into a stage play? Perhaps a film would be best, but we would lose the primacy of language. Everything would be too literal. Veteran director Trevor Nunn rightly decided to keep the conceit of a radio play. The actors enter, scripts in hand, and sit on chairs along the side throughout the play until it is time for their characters to speak. A red light goes on and the play begins. Yet within that framework, the actors, basically on a bare stage with minimal props other than a simple mock-up of a car, convince us that they are in that damp, rainy Irish countryside.
         The greatest of many pleasures in this production is the magnificent Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Rooney. I have long admired the economy of Atkins's acting. She is one of those great actors who draw her audience to her rather than play to her audience. One can't take one's eyes off of her. Atkins beautifully captures this frail but tough old lady and her special relationship with her husband, played by the masterful Michael Gambon. They have their private jokes and their long-practised means of comforting each other. The world is a somewhat less fearful place when they are together. The other actors, playing the men and women Mrs. Rooney encounters on her way to the station, are fine in their small roles, but the real joy here is in the glorious language and the acting of Atkins and Gambon.
       ALL THAT FALL is only 75 minutes long, but it is a gem of a play. Like much of Beckett, it is bittersweet -- funny and also profoundly sad. The bleak Irish landscape becomes a more realistic version of the bare, lonely setting of WAITING FOR GODOT, another instance of Beckett's godless world, one in which the Rooneys laugh wildly and bitterly at the thought of a God who will raise up all that fall.
       I wonder what Beckett would have thought of the fact that in 2013 his work is selling out in two New York theaters. Perhaps he speaks to us more than he spoke to audiences sixty years ago.  
ALL THAT FALL by Samuel Beckett. 59E59 Theatres . November 27, 2013.

DISASTER: A 70S DISASTER MOVIE MUSICAL

          I actually enjoyed those 1970s disaster movies -- the AIRPORT series, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, TOWERING INFERNO. They had their own set of conventions, as rigid in some ways as those of a baroque opera, but they were campy fun, greatly because they were so earnest. Poor Karen Black trying to land that 747, poor Shelley Winters on that upside-down ship. I'm sure some people took them seriously, but I always found them amusing. Of course Hollywood quickly took to spoofing its own product with the AIRPLANE series and other parodies. Now in a dingy little theatre on 46th Street (a reminder of what Off-Broadway theaters used to be like), we have DISASTER, a zany parody of these movies with dozens of 70s pop hits thrown in. As in MAMMA MIA, part of the fun is in how the songs are worked into the score -- just when and how will they sing "Feelings" (yes, they do!). We have the fat lady a la Shelley Winters, hilariously played by Mary Testa, the singing nun (Jennifer Simard - wonderful), the Black diva with the dog, the crooked owner of the doomed ship (here a floating casino in the Hudson). I have to single out young Jonah Verdon who plays boy/girl twins. In this cast of fourteen singing comics, he manages to be the funniest.
          Written by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick and directed by Plotnick (at the performance I saw he was also covering for one of the leads), DISASTER is tacky and very, very funny.  Everybody in the cast can sing well and do the spastic seventies dance moves. And, miracle of miracles, it never flags over its two-plus hours. It's also great to hear those tunes again in this context.
           A warning, the theatre has fifteen or so rows on the same level in a low-ceiling room that was a restaurant -- minimal risers. If you're short, get a seat up front.
DISASTER. St. Luke's Theatre. November 27, 2013.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

THE LANDING by Greg Pierce and John Kander at the Vineyard Theatre

     THE LANDING is a charming, if insubstantial chamber musical from playwright Greg Pierce, whose SLOWGIRL was the first production at the Lincoln Center Theatre's new Claire Tow Theatre, and octogenarian songwriter John Kander of Kander and Ebb fame. Perhaps I should say three musicals; for this 105 minute show is comprised of three one-act musicals, all about the relationship of a boy to the grown up world. In the first, ANDRA, a lonely, nerdy boy is befriended and, he thinks, betrayed by the astronomy-loving carpenter who is redoing his family's kitchen. With a father who is always traveling and an obsessive-compulsive mother, the carpenter becomes, briefly, a surrogate father figure. In the second mini-musical, THE BRICK, very odd things happen when a boy visits his eccentric aunt and uncle. Finally, in THE LANDING, a gay couple think they have adopted the perfect son, but the boy turns out to be too perfect to be real. All three mini-musicals are performed by a cast of four, headed by David Hyde Pierce, who always seems totally at home on stage, so at home that he doesn't have to work very hard.
     Pierce's little dramas all veer toward the surreal. The first and third are quite moving while the joke of the second wears a bit thin. Kander's music sounds like John Kander -- a bit old fashioned for these contemporary stories -- Kander's music was always more convincing in show set in the 1920s. It's catchy, as always, but not always convincingly in character.
     The shows are played basically on a bare stage with only necessary furniture. Walter Bobbie has staged them effectively and the members of the talented cast get to demonstrate their versatility. If I had to rank them in order of impressiveness of performance, I would start with Paul Anthony Stewart, convincingly complex and enigmatic in Andra, hilarious in multiple male and female roles in THE BRICK and appropriately overwhelmed with his new role as parent in THE LANDING. New York theatre is now filled with child performers, but young Frankie Seratch is a special case. This kid is really a good actor with a different personality for each of the boys he plays. David Hyde Pierce doesn't have much to do in ANDRA, but he is an excellent, funny song and dance man in THE BRICK. I wish he had brought more range to THE LANDING. Julia Murney is appropriately zany in THE BRICK, but has lesser roles in the other two musicals. There's a four piece band that seems perfect for this little show.
     THE LANDING isn't going to go down in musical history. It's nowhere near as good as FUN HOME, a few blocks south at the Public. However, as a Vineyard Theatre member, I paid only $25 to see it. At those bargain prices, it offered a delightful afternoon and, on occasion, a bit more than that.
THE LANDING. Book and lyrics by Greg Pierce, Music by John Kander. Vineyard Theatre. November 9, 2013.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's FUN HOME at the Public Theatre

     In my last review, I commented on why LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE didn't work as a musical. Why does FUN HOME work so well?
      The musical is based on Alison Bechtel's autobiographical graphic novel. Here pictures and captions have been successfully turned into fully fleshed out characters. We see the quasi-autobiographical central character, Alison, at three stages of her life, played by three different actresses: Alison as a child wishing for a more ideal family than the one she lives with -- actually wishing she was a member of the Partridge Family; Alison as a college student discovering her sexuality and her father's troubled sexual orientation; and Alison as a forty-something artist who is still haunted by her past, particularly her relationship with her father. The creators of FUN HOME aren't the first to use this conceit. Edward Albee used it in THREE TALL WOMEN and in the 1950s Arthur Laurents tried it with less success in A CLEARING IN THE WOODS. In the less realistic context of musical theatre it works well, as it emphasizes the musical's idea that we never lose our past selves, particularly when we go home. Home in Alison's case was an environment controlled by her complex, controlling, deeply unhappy father Bruce (Michael Cerveris). He has two occupations; high school English teacher and funeral home director. He also has an obsession, their house, which he has renovated and redecorated. Controlling his environment is a substitute for controlling his own impulses.  Bruce wants to be a loving supportive father to his daughter and two sons, but he is too much a control freak for that. When young Alison shows him a drawing she did, he has to show her how it should have been drawn. Nonetheless, the children have rich fantasy lives, even turning the coffins into settings for funny television commercials. The one thing Bruce cannot control is his desire for young, sometimes underage, men. His wife, Helen (Judy Kuhn) has spent years suffering humiliation and abuse as Bruce's guilt is channeled into rage at her. Shortly after Alison brings home her first girlfriend, Bruce kills himself.
     This narrative is hardly THE LION KING or KINKY BOOTS. It's a serious play about loss and discovering sex and love. Tesori and Kron have found the music in it. Yes, one can hear the echoes of Sondheim, particularly in Bruce's jagged music. His final aria of rage and frustration reminds one of Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany," particularly as performed by Cerveris, a celebrated Sweeney. However influenced by Sondheim (what serious composer of musical theatre isn't?), Tesori has her own voice. There are delightful, playful numbers for the young Alison and her siblings and for teenage Alison after her first sexual experience. Helen's one big number shows that there is warmth under her protective chilliness. Equally important, Kron's lyrics never sound forced. They are articulate -- the characters are articulate, after all -- and witty, but the characters seem to have their own diction. John Clancy's orchestrations for a chamber ensemble have an appropriate elegiac mood.
      Sam Gold's has given the piece the right sense of visual style and pace. At first, as Alison begins her journey through her memories, the stage seems filled with objects randomly placed. Gradually the house becomes more coherent, more realistic as Alison organizes her memories into art. The staging balances realism and lyricism. The cast couldn't be better. Michael Cerveris is a master at playing troubled, slightly creepy characters. His Bruce can be a tyrant but one always sense the anguish underneath. If only he had the courage to see the possibility of a loving same-sex relationship, but this is the 1970s )Alison is in college during the Jimmy Carter years) and gay liberation hasn't yet hit this small Pennsylvania town. One wishes the wonderful Judy Kuhn had more to do, but when her big moments come toward the end of the show, she makes the most of them. The three Alisons (in chronological order Sydney Lucas, Alexandra Socha and Beth Malone) are all superb. Joel Perez plays the young men Bruce picks up. Roberta Colindrez seems a bit too old to be playing Alison's first college girlfriend, but she gives the role the right strength.
     Last season the most interesting musicals I saw were at the Public. This season FUN HOME will be hard to beat. Unmissable.
FUN HOME. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Public Theatre Newman Auditorium. November 3, 2013.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Matthew Bourne's THE SLEEPING BEAUTY: A GOTHIC ROMANCE at the New York City Center

      Over the years, I have been alternately frustrated and impressed with Matthew Bourne's work. I love it when he cleverly combines dance and narrative as he does in his SWAN LAKE and PLAY WITHOUT WORDS (based loosely on the Pinter/Losey film, THE SERVANT). I am frustrated when it is basically a play without words -- pantomime with minimal dance -- as it is in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. His NUTCRACKER is not an improvement upon the original, nor is it as clever or well choreographed as Mark Morris's THE HARD NUT. I did like much of his DORIAN GRAY. Bourne is very good at finding a contemporary twist on a nineteenth century work, as he did with SWAN LAKE and he does with much of SLEEPING BEAUTY. He is also good at bring out the eroticism in the stories he chooses to tell and adding a good bit of homoeroticism.
     I love a lot of the Petipa/Tchaikovsky ballet, SLEEPING BEAUTY but, like all of the great Russian story ballets, it actually doesn't tell its story very well. The original SLEEPING BEAUTY is filled with dances that have nothing to do with the narrative, which is basically told in pantomime in the last few minutes of the key scenes. What Bourne has been able to do, as he has with SWAN LAKE, is find a way to use Tchaikovsky's music to tell a coherent, interesting story. He also does some of his usual gender switches. Even the Lilac Fairy becomes male (and a vampire to boot!). All Bourne's changes to the narrative make THE SLEEPING BEAUTY into an absorbing, sexy two hour dance drama. And it really dances. Bourne's choreography isn't endlessly inventive. The same steps and turns are repeated and he seems to dislike leaps, thus robbing dance of some of its excitement. Except for some of the dances in the first scene, all the dance is there to propel the narrative. As usual, the action gets updates so that the final scenes are contemporary. Bourne cuts and pastes Tchaikovsky's numbers to tell his story. I am happy to lose all those unnecessary (to the narrative) specialty dances that comprise at least half of the Petipa ballet. What Bourne does with some of the music, such as the music for the "Puss and Boots" duet (which I always hated) is very clever.
     Bourne's Aurora (the sleeping beauty) is a feisty creature. She begins as a very energetic baby (a delightful puppet) and grows into a hyperactive, rebellious princess in love with the gardener and pursued by the villain Caradoc, the son of the evil fairy Carabosse. Count Lilac, King of the Fairies, keeps Leo alive (sort of) so he can be reunited with his sweetheart one-hundred years later. The narrative is surprising in places and absorbing giving us both good storytelling and good dance.
       As usual with Bourne's work, there are lots of semi-clad male dancers to please the women and gay men in the audience.
        Bourne's virtuosic, hard-working company of twenty-four dancers are splendid. I'm not sure who I saw last night. I did notice that Liam Mower, who was the first Billy Elliott in the London production of the Elton John-Lee Hall musical was Count Lilac. I'm not surprised that he has grown into such a good dancer.  The Aurora (Ashley Shaw or Hannah Vassalo) was a convincing teenager discovering her sexuality, a charming stage presence and an excellent dancer). Instead of a live orchestra, we got a recording of the score played at a very loud volume.
     This is a delightful work, one of Bourne's best.
Matthew Bourne's SLEEPING BEAUTY: A GOTHIC ROMANCE. New York City Center. November 2, 2013.          

William Finn and James Lapine's LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE at Second Stage

     Why turn a movie (or a book or a play) into a musical? The only good reason is that you find possibilities for musical numbers in the characters and narrative. You can imagine the characters singing. Now someone may have found the music in the film LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, but William Finn didn't. This is one of the least musical musicals I have seen. It's basically a dramatization of the film with a few songs and snippets of songs. There's an opening "We're all neurotic losers" number that's typical William Finn. It reminds me of "Four Jews In a Room Bitching," the song that opens his FALSETTOS. There's one nice ballad. The only fully developed musical scene is set in a gas station men's room where Frank, the suicidal Proust scholar, runs into his ex-boyfriend and the boyfriend's overbearing new partner. That was the only five minutes I felt I was watching a musical, that Finn was really engaging with his material. Of course, he's been there before -- again FALSETTOS. Rory O'Malley, Wesley Taylor and Josh Lamon make the most of the moment. In general, Finn is a better lyricist than he is a composer. There's barely a recognizable tune in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, just words set to notes. The big laughs, and there are some, come during the dialogue scenes.
      If you haven't seen the delightful low budget movie, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is the story of a dysfunctional family from Albuquerque traveling in a broken down VW van to Redondo Beach so their daughter can participate in one of those creepy little girl beauty contests. Husband and wife aren't getting along, their Nietzsche-reading teenage son refuses to speak, grandfather is a coke-snorting sex addict and Uncle Frank has recently tried to slit his wrists. Of course, in its feelgood Hollywood way, everyone -- well, almost everyone -- is healed by the trip and the family becomes united at the final curtain. William Finn is much better at dysfunction than positive emotions, so the resolution, which seems to come out of nowhere, is totally unconvincing.
     James Lapine has staged the show very cleverly with six kitchen chairs on wheels. There's only one elaborate setting -- that men's room, as if Lapine too saw that scene as the meatiest in the score. The cast is comprised of some of the most talented folks in musical theatre: Stephanie J. Block and Will Swenson are their usual gifted selves, but they need more songs. David Rasche is charming as the cocaine and porn-loving grandfather, though no match for Alan Arkin's memorable performance in the film. Rasche can't really sing, but maybe that's OK for his character. Rory O'Malley shines as the depressive gay uncle. He comes close to stealing the show, but then again he gets one of the only fully realized numbers. Logan Rowland is winning as the miserable, mostly silent teenage son and Hannah Nordberg is delightful as the would-be Miss Sunshine. The talented Wesley Taylor is pretty much wasted except for that men's room scene.
     All this talent work very hard to make something out of a musical that really isn't a musical. See the movie instead.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Book and Direction by James Lapine. Music by William Finn. Second Stage Theatre November 2, 2013.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY by Meghan Kennedy at the Roundabout Theatre

     I must say that I was at first a bit irritated at TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY. I have a pet peeve about plays written as if they were tv shows -- lots of short scenes with pauses between as if waiting for the commercials to be edited in. However, the scenes got longer, the pauses shorter as the play progressed and by half an hour into its seventy minutes, I was totally won over. Kennedy writes characters one comes to care about.
     I guess one could sum up the play in a simple-minded way by saying it is about love and loss. It is in the quasi-Gothic middle-American mode of a number of recent plays by young playwrights; for instance, Sam Hunter's THE WHALE and Stephen Karam's SONS OF THE PROPHET. The central character in TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY is Rose (Phyllis Somerville), a seventy-eight year old woman who hasn't left her bedroom since her husband James (James Rebhorn), in a fog of Alzheimer's, drowned in the lake by their home. Rose is cared for by her thirty-nine year old daughter Emma (Rebecca Henderson) who has also cut herself off from the world and who lives with vivid memories of her father. Every night Emma must recount to her mother how James's body was found. Enter the handsome, mysterious young preacher (Luke Kirby) who takes it upon himself to get Rose out of her room and Emma out of the house. In essence, Rose and Emma are dead to the world. Can they be brought back to life? Rose has lost the love that made her life worth living and Emma seems to live in fear of any loving connection except with her parents. The pastor, who has suffered his own tragic losses, can only be saved by saving someone else.
     I know this synopsis sounds trite -- it's a difficult play to describe without giving away too many of its surprises. Like many of her contemporaries, Kennedy writes in the classic American style of poetic realism. The writing is lovely, and it is heightened by the superb production the play has been given in the tiny Black Box Theatre under the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. Sheryl Kaller has staged and paced the play effectively and the actors couldn't be better. Somerville, Rebhorn and Kirby are familiar faces from film and television. They are also accomplished stage actors whose performances are totally honest. I liked Rebecca Henderson in THE WHALE and here she quietly and subtly brings out Emma's pain and fear. This is one of those cases where one can't separate play and production. I can't imagine it done otherwise or better.
     The play's epigraph is from Walt Whitman, Rose's favorite poet: "We were together. I forget the rest." There is no lovelier or more succinct testament of love. Without that kind of love, the characters in TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY aren't really alive even if love inevitably leads to loss. The romantic in me couldn't help but respond to this rich, touching play despite the stops and starts of the first half hour or so.
 TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY. A Roundabout Theatre Production. Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.
   

Saturday, 26 October 2013

WARRIOR CLASS by Kenneth Lin at the Alliance Theatre

     This thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking play falls into the category of what I call "con plays." David Mamet's plays tend to fall into this category as do those of Neil LaBute and a number of younger playwrights. The action of the play is built on one character scheming to outwit and foil another. Often the audience does not know until the end of the play who has been controlling the action. Unfortunately the lesser examples of this category seem mechanical because there is little more to them than the machinery.  The characters have little substance -- they are just pawns in the game. Ethan Coen's recent WOMEN OR NOTHING is an example of the pitfalls of this sort of play. The beauty of Kenneth Lin's WARRIOR CLASS is that action always seems to stem from character, yet the characters are too complex to be fully explained. We are left at the end with a number of questions.
     Julius Washington Lee is a thirty-nine year old aspiring New York politician on the way up. He's a military hero, selfless community leader, brilliant orator. He is now a state assemblyman with ambitions to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. He's also a first generation Chinese-American. There are very few Chinese-American politicians who have made it very far up the political ladder. This somewhat Faustian character has his own Mephistopheles, a political fixer, Nathan Berkshire, who lives to combine ambitious politicians with the big money necessary to run campaigns. The big money people, of course, have their own agenda. Lee really seems to be an ideal politician, eager to get ahead but also insistent on staying clean, of rising above the dirty aspects of politics. Is that possible, particularly when one puts oneself in the hands of a Nathan Berkshire (a made-up name if there ever was one, a WASP name for a Jewish political fixer).
     Being a clean politician means having a squeaky clean past, particularly in the age of the Wieners and Spitzers. Unfortunately, in doing due diligence on Lee, Berkshire has discovered an ex-college girlfriend, Holly Eames. When Julius and Holly broke up, Julius started stalking her, which frightened Holly so much that she had a nervous breakdown. Like Dennis in Michael Pearlman's fine FROM WHITE PLAINS, Holly has never been able to get over her twenty-year-old trauma. Now she can get even. The price of her silence will be a juicy government job for her unemployed, unfaithful husband who's also involved in a bank scandal. Holly is sure Julius has not changed, that he can't possibly be fit for public office.
     Our sympathies throughout this eighty minute play are with Julius, but there are gnawing questions. What's going on with his marriage? Has he really changed or is the scary kid still in there somewhere? If he really wants to be squeaky clean, why is he consorting with Nathan Berkshire?
     Everybody's home life seems to be a mess in WARRIOR CLASS. Holly's marriage is in trouble. Julius's seems to be breaking apart. Nathan's child is an addict. If people can't control their own lives, how can they govern?
     I won't give away the "surprise" ending of WARRIOR CLASS. Actually there are clear signposts along the way of what is really transpiring. The play is too rich to be totally wrapped up by its conclusion.
     I saw the first preview, so the rhythm isn't quite there yet, but the acting is excellent all around. Carrie Walrond Hood has a slightly irritating high-pitched voice, but she captures Holly's desperation. Moses Villarama looks and acts like the ideal politician who seems almost too controlled. Clayton Landey captures Nathan's bonhomie and his desperate need to control the action. Director Eric Ting has set up the black box Hertz Stage so that the audience sits on two sides of the stage. The action is played on a slow moving turntable (like those rooftop bars in old Holiday Inns) so that the audience can see all sides of the actors who are often sitting at tables. Unfortunately this mechanical movement is also distracting and robs the play of some of its intensity.
     Some readers were furious with me when I observed in my review of HARMONY that everything in Atlanta gets a standing ovation, which renders standing ovations meaningless. Oddly, last night's performance of WARIOR CLASS did not get a standing ovation. This may mean that the play left the audience cold. It also may mean that the play left the viewers with a lot to think about. If the rhythm picks up, which I'm sure it will, this will be a top-notch production of an absorbing play.
WARRIOR CLASS by Kenneth Lin. Alliance Theatre Hertz Stage, Atlanta, October 25, 2013.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Lynn Nottage's MEET VERA STARK at the Alliance Theatre

     I was a great admirer of Lynn Nottage's RUINED, a harrowing picture of women trying to survive in a war torn African country. I saw it in New York and in London and was happy to be on the jury that nominated it for the Pulitzer Prize. Her MEET VERA STARK is both a comedy and a serious exploration of how Black women have had to enact stereotypes in order to survive economically. The play is uneven, to put it mildly; funny in places, draggy and repetitive in others. In the Alliance Theatre production, slack direction and the lack of a sense of ensemble only underscores the play's weaknesses.
     In the first act, set in 1933, Vera Stark (Toni Trucks) is the maid to Gloria Mitchell (Courtney Patterson), "Hollywood's Sweetheart." Gloria is an undisciplined, gin-soaked mess kept on track by Vera's ministrations. The two have an odd relationship that should raise some red flags for the audience. How can Vera get away with being so sassy and bossy to her boss? The play doesn't answer that question until the final scene, but hints are certainly there. The smart, pretty and talented Vera shares an apartment with Lottie (Nikiya Mathis), a former Broadway showgirl who has eaten her way into Hollywood Mammy roles, and the light-skinned Anna Mae (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), who succeeds in masquerading as a "Brazilian bombshell" and bedding a major director. At a party in Gloria's swanky home, all these women perform various gender and racial stereotypes, hoping to get roles in a film epic about a consumptive octoroon in ante bellum New Orleans. There are moments in the first act that are hilarious and others that simply drag. The play desperately needs editing.
     The second act begins at a film conference in 2003 where Vera Stark's career is discussed by three caricatures of film critics including a lesbian feminist poet and performance artist sporting an Angela Davis Afro, a chic mixed-race cultural critic with the wonderful name Carmen Levy-Green and an over-stimulated Black male critic. While these academic caricatures natter on and on, they offer two superb Ć’ilm clips. The first is the final scene from "The Belle of New Orleans," the film the women in act I were shamelessly auditioning for. Here the women are flamboyantly parading stereotypes: the dying belle who announces the horrific fact that she is an octoroon; her devoted servant; the exotic woman with an accent (supposedly Creole) and the Mammy. The film saved Gloria Mitchell's career and made Vera Stark as much a star as a Black woman could be in 1933. The scene (a black and white film) is an hilarious parody. Oddly only a few in my audience caught on that it was supposed to be funny. There is also a devastating clip from a 1973 television talk show, sort of a Mike Douglas-Merv Griffin program (performed live) in which an sixty-something year old Vera, heavily made up, bizarrely clad and tipsy appears. After years of unemployment, Vera has a short stint in a Las Vegas show room. She has become a grotesque caricature of a Black (or Negro, as she calls herself) female performer. When Gloria Mitchell, now the wife of a famous British conductor, is brought on, Vera is at first affectionate, then furious at the different paths their lives have taken. The emcee keeps trying to bring the discussion back to "The Belle of New Orleans," but Vera can only note how the film has trapped her in the past and in a role she now hates. Vera made a conscious choice to play the only kind of role that was available to her in film, but it did not lead to a happy or fulfilling life.
     Nottage has a fascinating premise here, but MEET VERA STARK comes alive only fitfully. Act I is too long. The film scene and talk show scene are strong moments, but they are surrounded by the repetitive talk of the academic caricatures. The important flashback that should be a climactic moment seems tacked on. The problems in the script have been reinforced by the production. Director Leah C. Gardiner has allowed her actors to be too hammy when the play calls for discipline and a sense of ensemble. You are watching actors trying to be funny. Nothing is less funny than that, so the humor is fitful. The production also lacks pace -- tempo -- and that is deadly in comedy. I'm not sure the size and shape of the Alliance doesn't also work against the play. It's a strange space, much wider than it is deep. The play might do better in a more intimate venue. The actors seem to be working hard to fill the space. I enjoyed parts of MEET VERA STARK, but it needs both a tighter script and a tighter production.
MEET VERA STARK by Lynn Nottage. Alliance Theatre, Atlanta. October 22, 2013.  

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Elevator Repair Service's ARGUENDO at the Public Theatre

     I knew that ARGUENDO was a reenactment of the 1991 Supreme Court arguments over an Indiana statute forbidding nude dancing in nightclubs. I didn't know why the playful title sounded musical to me. "Arguendo" as in crescendo or diminuendo. Well, ARGUENDO does have a kind of musical structure, beginning with a very visually static press conference and building over its eighty minutes to a bizarre bacchanal and closing with quiet, static moments. It's not merely a re-enactment of a court case that had arguments that were like something out of an Ionesco play, though no playwright could invent the dialogue we hear. "Would the same law apply if there were nude dancing at an opera?" When is a dance expressive and when is it merely obscene? The justices sound foolish, but so do the lawyers on both sides of the case. This is not so much a play about freedom of expression and the right to dance naked as it is about the absurdity of a Supreme Court argument. And of the power games of the court. When the female judges decided on lace collars on their robes, Chief Justice Rehnquist had four thin gold strips put on the arms of his robes to show his authority. The idea came from a low budget production of Gilbert and Sullivan's IOLANTHE, and the daftness of the justice in that operetta comes to mind here. Of course Antonin Scalia comes off as chief clown, but how could he not?
     If I expected one of those parables of artistic freedom, I was pleasantly surprised to see something far richer and more disturbing. Funny, yes, but also scary. This is the highest level of our justice system sounding like lunatics. John Collins has staged the work to underscore the lunacy. Justices in wheeled chairs glide around as if in an odd ballet. Eventually the argument reaches a mad, musical conclusion with the help of the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Strauss's SALOME and the Bacchanale from "SAMSON ET DALILA." There is, as there must be, a bit of nude dancing, but not at all how one expected it. Even at eighty minutes, the work feels repetitive at times, but that is because the arguments are madly repetitive.
     The six member cast manages to do deadly caricatures of the justice's mannerisms. They have obviously listened to the recordings of the trial, but they don't merely mimic. Everything is raised to the level of cartoon. As the voices are amplified, so are the impersonations.
     I must say that at my performance a number of people didn't make it to the end. Despite the repetition, it's a work that must be seen whole. It is full of surprises.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Jack Canfora's JERICHO at 59E59

     I went to the first preview of JERICHO because two of my former students had featured roles. I hadn't see their work since they were undergraduates two decades ago. Thanks to TDF, I got a good, very cheap ticket -- another incentive. I also read the favorab;e TIMES review of the previous production at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.
      Essentially, JERICHO centers on the isolation of two people who are riddled with guilt. Because they don't like themselves, they cause damage to the people that love them. The moment of crisis for both of them was 9/11. The night before, Beth (Eleanor Handley), with a history of broken relationships, tells her husband Alec (Kevin Isola) that she wants a divorce. He goes to work in the World Trade Center the next morning and never comes back -- except in Beth's mind where he is a constant presence. She even sees him in her middle-aged female Korean therapist (the same actor plays Alec and the therapist). Beth is trying to have a relationship with Ethan (Andrew Rein) a nice Jewish bloke with his own history of multiple failed romances. Ethan's brother Josh (Noel Joseph Allain) is even more haunted by 9/11. His placing his own survival ahead of the needs of the people around him have led him to hate himself, his wife and his country. His refuge has become his Judaism. Feeling no part of any other community, he wants to go to Israel where he thinks he will find a sense of belonging. He identifies with Israel's condition of being constantly embattled. His wife Jessica (Carol Todd) is infuriated at Josh's bitterness and rejection. All this comes to a head at a Thanksgiving dinner from hell at the home of Ethan and Josh's mother (Jill Eikenberry as the stereotypical guilt-inducing Jewish mother).          
     JERICHO is a mixed bag -- one of those plays where you say there's a good play in there but it needs more work, more tightening the parallels between the two focal characters and cutting back on less essential, more stereotypical figures like the Jewish mother. Jack Canfora writes very well, but one problem is that his characters tend to alternate between inarticulacy -- speeches filled with hesitations and "You knows" -- and eloquent long speeches. There's too much of the bickering between Josh and Jessica. We get increasingly heated versions of the same argument that finally goes over the top at the Thanksgiving dinner (alcohol fueled, of course). The first long scene between Josh and Jessica cut be cut down-- one could feel the restless of the audience during that long scene.                
      With one exception, the cast is very strong. Eleanor Handley serves as a quasi-narrator, beginning and ending the play. She's a charming actress who understand's Beth's complexity. Carol Todd manages to make Jessica's rants sympathetic. Andrew Rein shows us that there's something going on under the surface of Ethan's pleasantness, an anger that could bubble up. Kevin Isola has to play Beth's imaginary Alec, more her fabrication than who he really was, but he makes Alec a totally winning figure. Jill Eikenberry wisely underplays the Linda Lavin role. This is a strong ensemble in an ensemble play. They are let down by the one note performance of Noel Joseph Allain who sulks and broods monotonously throughout the play. As a result, it is impossible to feel any sympathy for Ethan. With such winning colleagues, he stands out like a sore thumb.
     Director Evan Bergman and his designer Jessica Parks have filled the stage with stacks of old furniture. The actors have to take the furniture necessary for a scene from the stacks and replace it at the end of the scene. The set may be a metaphor for the crippling power of memory, but unfortunately the stage just looks like a bunch of miscellaneous old furniture and getting the pieces back on the stacks is sometimes a problem. Simpler would have been better. Within this detritus, the play is well staged and, with one exception, Bergman has built a solid, well-functioning ensemble.
     Despite Allain's performance and the weaknesses in the script, I enjoyed JERICHO. There's enough good stuff there to make an absorbing play. I do think it would play better as a one and three quarter hour intermissionless play. Like most contemporary playwrights, Canfora writes in episodes, not in the larger structure of an act (a lost art). The act break seems arbitrary, except as a reason to set up the big dinner scene. And we've heard those Jewish mother jokes before.
JERICHO by Jack Canfora. Directed by Evan Bergman. 59E59 Theatre B. October 4, 2013.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Norbert Leo Butz Works Magic in Susan Stroman's production of John August and Andrew Lippa's BIG FISH

     Tim Burton's film BIG FISH (screenplay John August from Daniel Wallace's novel) isn't as big and Gothic as Burton's films usually are. Its central character is Edward Bloom, an Alabama fabulist who cannot help creating and telling fantastic stories about his past involving mermaids, witches and giants. Bloom has turned his life into a myth. Is any of it true? That question plagues his much more literal minded son, eager to know who is dying father really is. Burton turned this story into a Fellini-ish spectacle, hurt by miscasting Albert Finney with a terrible accent as the older Bloom and Ewan MacGregor as his younger self. Some of the effects were interesting -- they always are in a Burton movie -- but, typical of Burton, the film is heartless
        The new musical BIG FISH (book by John August, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, direction Susan Stroman) is anything but heartless. The creators realize that essentially this is a family story, capturing a man's undying love for his wife and one of the central American dramatic themes (think DEATH OF A SALESMAN, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT), a growing understanding and love between a father and a son. Where the film is cold, the show is sweet. Where the film seems to sprawl, the show is tight, enacting only the tales Bloom weaves that are necessary for us to understand his life.
     Most of all, the show is a vehicle for a great star turn and a brilliant designer. Norbert Leo Butz plays both young and old Edward Bloom and has the majority of musical numbers. It's a tour de force and he gives a magnificent performance. He's such an immensely likable performer that the audience is with him from his first entrance. From then on he holds the stage effortlessly in what is an extremely demanding role. He totally inhabits his character. It reminded me how much better acting has gotten in musicals since I was a kid. We had star turns by good comics or singers getting through the lines passably. Directors like George Abbott weren't very concerned with the book scenes. Now we have a superb batch of singing actors who can do anything well. Even in this field, Butz's performance stands out. Bobby Steggert is excellent as Bloom's skeptical son. Like Butz, he seems to be able to do anything well. Kate Baldwin doesn't have as much to do, but plays the loving wife wwith warmth and charm and, as always, sings beautifully. The supportin cast couldn't be better.
      The second giant star of this production is British designer Julian Crouch. Visually, this is one of them most beautiful productions I have seen. Much of the work is done by video projections. I have watched this technology be used well (KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, many operatic productions) and used terribly (Trevor Nunn's production of Tom Stoppard's THE COAST OF UTOPIA, Andrew Lloyd Webber's disastrous THE WOMAN IN WHITE). Crouch and his team (59 Productions) have used projections to create both the fantasy scenes and the family saga. There are also some dazzling live effects. Everything works. And William Ivey Long's costumes, particularly in the fantasy sequences and stunning. Visually the show is sheer magic.
     Of course, one cannot credit the designer without giving ample praise to the director. Stroman has done her best work here, better as director than as choreographer. The dance routines are nothing to write home about, but she tells the story movingly and has used her actors well. I can't imagine a better production of this work. I saw a late preview that lost its rhythm in the last ten minutes -- that needs some tightening up--but otherwise looked ready to open.
     Last, but certainly not least, John August's book well constructed and deeply moving and Andrew Lippa's score is perfect for the story and even memorable. We found ourselves singing one of the songs are we walked down 8th Avenue after the show.
     Yes, I loved BIG FISH. An extremely well written and performed show with a lot of heart. It's not a well constructed machine like so many recent Broadway musicals. Much of the show's warmth comes from Norbert Leo Butz'. It's a performance no one who loves musical theatre should miss.
BIG FISH. Neil Simon Theatre. October 2, 2013.  
     

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tarrell Alvin McCraney's CHOIR BOY at the Alliance Theatre

      After reading the reviews of the New York production of CHOIR BOY and reading the script, I was eager to see how it would play. I have written a lot on gay drama. In fact a colleague and I are now putting together an anthology of dramas about gay teens (we wanted to include CHOIR BOY but couldn't get the rights). In general I'm skeptical of "victim" plays of any kind. One of the many things that bothered me about the dismal musical HARMONY upstairs at the Alliance is that it emphasizes the victim status of the Comedian Harmonists over their talent: compared to six million others during the holocaust, their victim status isn't very extreme. Our society is full of people claiming victim status. Even zillionaire right wing pundits claim to be victims of the liberal media. Victimhood does't make good drama--how people evade the status of victim or overcome it does. On the surface, Tarrell Alvin McCraney's CHOIR BOY seems to be a play about a Black teenage boy being victimized by homophobia at a private school for African-American young men. In fact, the play is far richer and more positive than that.
     CHOIR BOY begins at a graduation ceremony at the Charles Drew Prep School for Boys. Part of the graduation ritual is the newly elected leader of the school choir singing the school anthem. This year the leader is Pharus Jonathan Young. As Pharus starts singing he -- and we-- hear "sissy" and 'faggot" hissed from somewhere in the choir, slurs this young man has heard before in his life. Pharus is not only gay--he is effeminate, literally limp wristed. For many reasons (as Phyllis Diller used to quip, "There are reasons, but no excuse"), African-Americans have had difficulty accepting the homosexuals in their midst. It is also fair to say that even the gay community has had difficulty with effeminacy: "straight looking and acting" has been the watchcry. What has made it possible for Pharus to absorb the insults he has experienced are the school, which despite the homophobic slurs has seemed a relatively safe space, and music. Pharus is not the first gay man to find refuge in the arts. He also has his own sense of justice. Pharus repeatedly asks the headmaster, "Would you rather be feared or respected?" In his kingdom -- the choir -- he tries to be feared. He first fires the boy who taunted him from the chorus, escalating a bitter feud between them that Pharus cannot possibly win. The homophobic boy is the son of a member of the school's board of trustees and nephew of the headmaster. Pharus is cunning enough to be able to manipulate the headmaster. There's a toughness as well as vulnerability.
     The chorus is represented by Pharus and four other young men. There's Bobby, who hates Pharus and repeatedly calls him a "nigger" and a "faggot" -- the two most hateful terms imaginable. Bobby's constant companion Junior is small and not very bright, the sort of person who links up with the bully out of self-defense. The other two young men represent the two kinds of love Pharus experiences: brotherly love in the form of Pharus's devoted roommate A.J. and sexual and romantic love in the form of David, the most religious of the group. Because of the love these three young men can express, CHOIR BOY is anything but a depressing play. Pharus may not realize it, but he is loved even more than he's hated. The faculty and administration are represented by the somewhat clueless headmaster and an elderly white teacher.
       The play has moments of true beauty, particularly in the scenes between Pharus and AJ and the moments when David struggles with the conflict between his faith and his love for Pharus. There are also funny moments. Pharus has the sense of irony and the bitchiness of an old-fashioned queen. And there is a lot of singing of spirituals within and between scenes.
        The cast, many veterans of the recent New York production, couldn't be better, particularly Jeremy Pope, John Stewart and Caleb Eberhardt (Pharus, AJ and David). These three actors give performances as honest and touching as anything I have seen in a long time. When I think back on performances I have seen over the past year only the acting of the current perfect revival of THE GLASS MENAGERIE tops them. The other two boys, Joshua Boone as Pharus's adversary Bobby and Nicholas L. Ashe as his sidekick Junior, have less to do but are fine. The five boys also make an amazing a cappella singing ensemble. The veteran actors in the cast aren't quite as good, partly because their parts aren't as interesting. Trip Cullman has staged it effectively and brought out the best in his actors.
     Tarrell Alvin McCraney just won a MacArthur genius award. His output has been uneven. I thought WIG OUT was promising and was impressed by much of THE BROTHER SISTER trilogy--less impressed with AMERICAN TRADE, which he wrote for the Royal Shakespeare Company. CHOIR BOY is his best play so far. It is simpler and less self-consciously poetic or theatrical than his other works. It's a lovely play here given a superb production.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

BARRY MANILOW AND BRUCE SUSSMAN'S HARMONY AT THE ALLIANCE THEATRE

          There was a fine 1997 German film about the Comedian-Harmonists, an all male German singing group that was the sensation of Europe from 1927-1934 when the Nazi's stopped the group because three members were Jewish. The group created much of their own material and their songs were the top hits of the day. They also starred in twelve films. The film, THE HARMONISTS, wisely presented a number of the Comedian-Harmonists' greatest hits as it chronicled the story of their rise and fall. The actors actually lip-synched to the original recordings. Now in the musical HARMONY Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman have given us their musical take on the group. It is being tried out at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. I'm afraid the problems with the show are so basic that it can't possibly have much of a future.
           HARMONY suffers from three major flaws. First, the music Barry Manilow has written for the group isn't as good as the Comedian-Harmonist's music. Not surprisingly it sounds like Barry Manilow, not like hit German tunes from the period. Would you write a musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons without the music that made them famous? Why do that with the Comedian-Harmonists when their music is so delightful?
            Second, there isn't enough of the Comedian Harmonists' act. They have only four onstage numbers. In general, Manilow is skimpy with music. Like Andrew Lloyd Webber, he prefers to repeat the same few songs rather than write a real musical score. Most of the songs are mediocre maudlin ballads that have nothing to do with the group.
             Third, the book is awful. Manilow and Sussman are more interested in the group as victims of Nazi oppression than as fine writers and performers. The Jews in the group weren't killed -- they got out and tried to form another group. In other words, they were more fortunate than six million others. Why single them out as victims? The show spends a lot of time on the troubled Gentile-Jew marriages of two of the group. Part of the success of the Comedian Harmonists came from the fact that their bouncy tunes offered a relief from the dire state of things in Germany during the depression and the triumph of the Nazi regime. HARMONY is more focused on the Nazi horror. The show is narrated by one of the group, a former Polish rabbi who is riddled by guilt because he didn't take political action. Could he really have killed Hitler? Doubtful. In the last ten minutes of the show, he has an interminable monologue cataloguing the fate of each member of the group as if they suffered greatly. Most lived into old age -- what's the big deal? It's dreary and badly written and the poor actor who has to speak it isn't up to the task. Who would be? Somehow Richard Strauss, Marlene Dietrich and Albert Einstein, all badly caricatured, end up in this mess.
              The six performers who play the Comedian Harmonists -- Will Blum, Chris Dwan, Shayne Kennon, Will Taylor, Douglas Williams, Tony Yazbek -- are terrific in their numbers together. Too bad they couldn't do the original material. And too bad they are saddled with this bummer of a book. Too bad, too, that they don't get better direction and choreography. In every serious ballad -- and lord knows there are a lot of them -- director Tony Speciale has his performers move to the footlights and face forward. It's like bad opera direction. No one sings to the character they are supposed to be singing to or with. The orchestrations are pure Vegas and don't give any period flavor. They aren't helped by the tinny sound.
                I doubt HARMONY is going far beyond Atlanta. Its faults are too basic to be corrected in a six week tryout. The Atlanta audience gave it a standing ovation. However, the Atlanta audience gives everything a standing ovation, thus rendering the practice meaningless.  
HARMONY. Alliance Theatre, Atlanta. September 13, 2013

Saturday, 7 September 2013

CHERRY JONES AND ZACHARY QUINTO IN TENNESSEE WILLIAMS'S THE GLASS MENAGERIE AT THE BOOTH THEATRE

     I can't recall how many productions of THE GLASS MENAGERIE I have seen in the U.S. and in London. The best of Williams is like Shakespeare -- each production shows you something new about the play but none is definitive. The play is good enough to support multiple interpretations.
     For years after Laurette Taylor's performance in the original production, it was considered a vehicle for an aging actress -- often too aged for the role. If Tom and Laura are in their twenties, Amanda is probably in her forties. Jessica Tandy played in in her eighties -- her children should have been in their sixties, which would have changed the play somewhat. Recent productions I have seen have properly put the focus on Tom. In the Young Vic production in London a couple of years ago, Leo Bill, playing a very neurotic Tom who was obviously doing something in the movie theatre beside watching movies (Williams wrote a few short stories in the 1940s about furtive homosexual activity in movie theatres), and Kyle Soller as a Gentleman Caller who knew his best years had passed, stole the show from a dullish Amanda and Laura. In the current production by Scots director John Tiffany, who directed the brilliant BLACK WATCH for the National Theatre of Scotland and the not so brilliant ONCE for Broadway, THE GLASS MENAGERIE emerges as a play about a fraught but loving mother-son relationship. Tom, brilliantly played by Zachary Quinto, is driven to distraction by his mother's constant palaver but he loves her dearly. For me the most memorable moments in the production are the scenes with Tom and Amanda (played by Cherry Jones -- what more need one say?) standing close together on the fire escape. There is love in those moments. This Amanda adored her husband and sees him in her son who will also abandon her. There is more nuance in these scenes than I have ever seen -- and more humor.
     Alas, last night's preview audience at the Booth wanted to laugh at everything, even the poignant moments in the scene between Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Jim O'Connor, the Gentleman Caller (Brian J. Smith). I may be imagining this, but at the curtain call, it looked like some of the  cast found this performance frustrating. Was this an audience that didn't know the play at all and had come to see Zachary Quinto (the gay contingent was very large)? Keenan-Bolger's Laura was lower key than usual but there was nothing funny in her responses to her high school fantasy come to life. Brian J. Smith was certainly not playing for laughs. His Jim could briefly relive his long gone high school triumphs through Laura's adoration. In fact, Smith was the most "natural", believable Jim I have seen. Yet the audience saw the scene as comic. Was it the lack of realistic detail in the set and props that threw the audience off (one unicorn for the glass menagerie, for instance)? The production was actually less stylized than Williams called for. Everything in the production -- the choreographed interludes between scenes to the lovely, melancholy music of Nico Muhly; the set, an isolated island dark, glistening in a sea of memory from which a neon crescent sliver of a moon would sometimes appear; the dark, atmospheric lighting -- was there to support the idea of the play as the memory play Tom describes in his first address to the audience. So why did the audience want this to be a sitcom? During Tom's opening speech, Laura first emerges magically from between the cushions of the sofa. Tiffany used this effect of characters mysteriously emerging from and disappearing into pieces of furniture in BLACK WATCH. It's anything but realistic, but typical of his style. Here it elicited giggles from the audience who were not used to this sort of theatrical effect in what is supposedly a realistic drama (Williams's work always is in conflict with the conventions of theatrical realism). No one was more aware the Williams that something can be funny and deeply sad at the same time. Tiffany's production acknowledged this, but the audience had trouble acknowledging the sad. They weren't as boorish as most Broadway audiences these days, nonetheless  .  .  .  .   Perhaps Broadway has become so synonymous with "entertainment" that audiences aren't prepared to take a great play seriously. There is humor in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, but there is also great sadness and desperation.
     Apologies for reviewing the audience reaction more than the play. I admired the production greatly. Celia Keenan-Bolger may fade into the woodwork a bit too much, though that is just what Laura would like to do, but everyone else gives magnificent performances. Cherry Jones's Amanda is overwhelming in her bossiness, her constant recounting of past happiness, her struggle for economic survival and her love for her troubled and troubling children, neither of whom has quite grown up. She's absurd at moments, but a grand figure. Quinto finds more notes in Tom's speeches than any actor I have seen in the role. In film and on television I have always found him an unusually powerful, charismatic actor who was too good for the material he was given. Here he matches William's fine writing. He belongs on stage. Hamlet, Zachary?? And, yes, there were subtle signs of Tom's probable homosexuality -- his discomfort when Amanda asks him where he goes at night (not the panic Leo Bill expressed in London, but noticeable), and his physicality with Jim O'Connor. Perhaps Jim was also Tom's high school crush -- the text makes that reading possible. Before ONCE I was a great fan of John Tiffany's work and even there he may have done all one could with the material he was given. This is not the only way to present THE GLASS MENAGERIE, but it gives its audience a more nuanced presentation than I have seen before. Too bad about the audience.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Booth Theatre. September 7, 2013.

Friday, 6 September 2013

MATT CHARMAN'S THE MACHINE AT THE PARK AVENUE ARMORY

     I only recall seeing one Matt Charman play during our London years -- THE OBSERVER at the National Theatre. As I recall, we had seen J.T. Rogers' THE OVERWHELMING there shortly before, a powerful work about American innocents abroad in Africa that used current events to spotlight some crucial things about cultural misunderstandings and clashes. THE OBSERVER, about white bureaucrats sent to monitor an election in an African country, seemed flat to me -- earnest, but too journalistic. Now we have his play THE MACHINE, performed in a purpose-built theatre-in-the-round inside the mammoth Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, the first in a series of imports from the Manchester Festival. THE MACHINE dramatizes the famous chess match Armenian-born champion Garry Askparov (Hadley Fraser) and a giant computer, Big Blue, developed by a team of computer scientists led by the Taiwanese, Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee). In a series of flashbacks, the play compares these two driven men from their education until the match. The third player is IBM, eager for the publicity this match will bring the computer giant, particularly after their machines malfunctioned at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. At the end, both Kasparov and Hsu want a rematch. Kasparov can't believe he lost to a computer and Hsu wants another victory for his machine but IBM, which has less faith in their computer, insists on quitting while they are ahead. They got what they wanted out of the event and Big Blue is shipped off to the Smithsonian.
      There's a lot of smoke and mirrors in this production, a co-production of the Manchester International Festival and the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London, but no personality. For a variety of reasons -- Charman's flat writing, the glitzy production, the size of the space (I was in the 9th row and felt miles away), the boomy amplification -- this is a blah production. Neither central character has any more personality than the computer. Too bad. Kasparov remains a very colorful and contentious figure, a man who moved from chess to political activism. One of the problems of the play is that the defeat by Big Blue did not have a momentous effect on either major character. Kasparov remained the world's leading chess player and Hsu remained an important figure in the computer world (he now works for Microsoft) and wrote the major book on the chess match. Think what an interesting play could have been written about Kasparov (now only 50), who understood that chess could be show business and who, as an activist has tried to take on Putin and was beaten in the Pussy Riot demonstrations. In Charman's play, neither figure has much of a personality. Nor does Kasparov's ever-present mother, despite being played by the usually charismatic Francesca Annis. Another problem may be that we know the outcome. Charman has sports announcers describe the event, but they can't provide suspense to a foregone conclusion. I personally am allergic to the constant, inane chatter of sports announcers -- when I watch sports on tv (rarely, I admit), I turn the sound off, So I found no excitement or suspense in the projected images of these announcers, nor did I see any point of view toward their commentary.
     Some Americans will be impressed by Josie Rourke's glitzy, high-tech production, but it pales in comparison to some recent, brilliant British productions, such as Rupert Goold's ENRON and EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON or Marianne Elliott's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME. Rourke seems to be imitating Goold's work, but she doesn't have the same quality of material to work with. All the neon and video can't cover up a flat play. The combination of the lack of vibrant characters, the huge, alienating space and the poor sound quality made this a long 110 minutes. For the sake of honesty, I must say that the audience was less predominantly geriatric than is the norm at the theatre these days -- there seemed to be a lot of chess fans there -- and the production got a warm, prolonged ovation.
THE MACHINE. Park Avenue Armory. September 5, 2013.
     

Thursday, 5 September 2013

HARBOR BY CHAD BEGEULIN AT 59 E 59

     I was a bit leery about seeing HARBOR, particularly after sitting through WOMEN OR NOTHING the night before. Surely there are other issues for gay people than whether or how to have children. And isn't that part of a larger series of questions? Are the kids of gay parents taunted and bullied at school? Is assimilation the goal for all gay people? Are our relationships so universally accepted that there are no problems for gay families? Aren't many of us eager to assimilate into a system that is already changing radically since many young adults have very different ideas about sex and relationships? After all, statistics show than an increasing number of children are raised by single parents. All these questions are somewhat beside the point as the question of whether to have a child is only the starting point for Chad Beguelin's HARBOR, which is really about the pros and cons of maturity.
       Kevin and Ted Adams-Weller (Randy Harrison and Paul Anthony Stewart) look like one of those handsome, ideal gay couples. They have been together for a dozen years and are legally and, seemingly, happily married and living in a lovely old house in Sag Harbor. Ted is an architect and Kevin is an aspiring novelist. Their desire to be the perfect couple has led them to ignore the fault lines in their marriage. Ted has been happy to support Kevin while he works on his novel, which he has been doing for ten years and Kevin, who grew up in an unstable "trailer park trash" home has been happy to live complacently in the comfortable world Ted has designed for them. Enter Kevin's sister, Donna (Erin Cummings). Donna has gone beyond trailer park. She and her teenage daughter Lottie (Alexis Molnar) live in a van. They are, for all intents and purposes homeless. Donna has never grown up and Lottie, forced to move constantly from place to place is lonely, socially inept, but successfully self-educated. She survives by reading. Now Donna finds herself pregnant once again and, once again, has no idea who the father is. Her scheme is to leave the baby with her rich brother and his partner. Kevin, easily manipulated -- and Donna knows how to push her brother's buttons -- buys into Donna's scheme. Unfortunately Ted is passionate in his desire not to have a child. In an angry moment of truth, he tells Kevin that he already has a child -- Kevin. What will growing up mean for Kevin and can he grow up while continuing his relationship with Ted? I'm not sure I buy the ending Beguelin provides, but it has some logic and is better than the pat "happy" ending some more formulaic playwright would provide.
        HARBOR is an enjoyable play. As I walked back to the subway, I pondered why it isn't a "good" play. The characters are interesting and the relationship between Kevin and Ted struck me as totally credible. Donna is a monster who resents Kevin's life and ultimately trashes it, but I understand his decision even if I think it is a disastrous one. We've seen eccentric teenagers like Lottie before on television and in film, but she, too, seemed believable, brilliant but uncivilized and sick of dealing with her totally feckless mother. So what holds this play back? I guess I would have to say that Beguelin's writing is too prosaic. There's nothing in the language of the characters to engage our interest in them. Ted is the only one who gets flights of theatrical rhetoric in his long tirades about the horrors of rearing children and couples who flaunt their trophy children, and Stewart, the best actor of the lot, has a ball with them, but compare his tirades to the hilarious one Christopher Durang wrote for David Hyde Pierce in VANYA AND SONYA AND MASHA AND SPIKE or the beautiful long speeches Horton Foote gave Howard in THE OLD FRIENDS. They carry us along. HARBOR makes one realize the importance of the music of a play -- the language. The writing sounds like routine writing for television.
          Mark Lamos's simple direction is serviceable and the actors are all good, although Alexis Molnar has an irritating, screechy voice. Randy Harrison's boyishness was perfect for a thirty-something guy who hasn't grown up yet and he captures Kevin's desire to please. Paul Anthony Stewart's Ted is both a control freak and a nice guy -- not the easiest balance to capture. I had absolutely no sympathy for Donna -- my problem, perhaps -- but Cummings made her a three-dimensional character.  
            HARBOR is closing in New York this week, but I'm sure it will have a life in smaller regional theaters. In the right hands, and this production had them, it's an enjoyable two hours.
HARBOR. 59E59 Theatres. September 4, 2013.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

ETHAN COEN'S WOMEN OR NOTHING AT THE ATLANTIC THEATER COMPANY

     In general, I am skeptical about straight men writing plays about lesbian relationships, particularly after that arch-misogynist, David Mamet gave us BOSTON MARRIAGE a few years ago. Now filmmaker Ethan Coen has given us a play about a lesbian couple duping a nice straight guy in order to have some sperm so they can sire a child. In many ways, it is fitting that WOMEN OR NOTHING is being performed at the Atlantic Theatre Company, a theatre associated with the work of David Mamet. Like much of Mamet's work, Coen's play is built on a swindle, a con. Also, like Mamet's work, characterization is sacrificed to the demands of the plot machinery and "message" -- and plays usually get in trouble when they are written to deliver a message. The message in Coen's play is an anarchic one -- in the sphere of sex and marriage, no one should be held accountable. Everything is ruled by chance, not human intention. Coen also can't decide whether he is writing a play to be taken seriously or a ninety-minute sitcom episode. There are some good moments in Coen's WOMEN OR NOTHING and some witty lines, but nothing rings true. The play raises more questions than it answers.
     First of all, I never believed that Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) and Laura (Susan Pourfar) have lasted for years as a couple. Gretchen is a lawyer who seems to have friends and enjoy going out and dancing. Laura is a concert pianist who seems socially inept, introspective to a fault and something of a hermit. What do they have in common? Gretchen seems to have little ethical compass (Coen's idea of what lawyers are like, I guess) and Laura questions everything.
       Second, if it's Laura that loves control and Gretchen who believes in chance, how come it is Gretchen who devises the scheme to have a nice fellow lawyer Chuck (Robert Beitzel) stop by the apartment so Laura can seduce him in order to conceive a child.
       Third, why have the couple waited until Laura is forty to try to get her pregnant (supposedly Gretchen can't have children)?
        Fourth, do we really believe that telling a decent guy that you are a "Gold Star Lesbian" (one who has never had sex with a man) is a sure fire way to get him into bed? Or is Gretchen correct in asserting that guys will screw anything?
         Fifth, do we really believe that this uptight, controlling self-conscious woman would have a sitcom mother who makes Auntie Mame look tame? Is her desire to question and to establish some order in her life merely a rebellion against a dizzy, self-absorbed, amoral mother? The mother really has no reason to be in the play except to deliver gag lines about her past sexual escapades. The play is pure sitcom during her scene with her daughter. And how would petite, blonde Deborah Rush be Susan Pourfar's mother?
        Sixth, would a guy who comes out of the bedroom to find the mother of the strange woman he spent the night with then confide his inmost secrets to said mother after his bedmate gets a phone call that takes her to another room (there's clumsy playwriting for you)?
        Is Coen's message really that people shouldn't concern themselves with the consequences of their actions and their effect on other people? We keep getting long speeches to that effect.
        Minor point, but why does a 90 minute play need an intermission?
        Maybe Coen thought the play was such a barrel of laughs that no one would care about credibility.
However, the play has too many serious moments for us to see it as simply a Laff Riot. The best scene is the long one between Laura and Chuck before they end up in bed. Here two characters really connect in a way that could lead to a friendship. We come to care for Laura and Chuck in that scene, but their relationship gets ground up in the machinery of the play. Perhaps the fine director David Cromer made a mistake in going for realism and emotional honesty with a deeply cynical script that may have called for a more sitcom style, though it's the sitcom moments that are both predictable and dishonest.
         WOMEN OR NOTHING isn't a total disaster. It has good moments, particularly in the first half. The acting is good, particularly Susan Pourfar, though I think Deborah Rush is miscast in a role that demands a great comic actress -- perhaps Betty White twenty years ago.  Unfortunately Coen never decided what kind of play he was writing.
WOMEN OR NOTHING. Atlantic Theater Company. September 3, 2013.