Sunday, 17 February 2013

THE MADRID at MTC and BETHANY at the Women's Theatre Project

     I saw these two plays about women in crisis, performed in adjacent theaters in the basement of the New York City Center, on the same day. Seeing these works back to back demonstrated the importance of a mastery of the crafts of playwriting and directing. Leigh Silverman's droopy production of Liz Flahive's static THE MADRID emphasized the play's faults: too many unnecessary characters, a lack of any forward momentum. Gaye Taylor Upchurch's simple, effective production of Laura Marks's BETHANY gave the play the proper tempo and did not shirk the play's use of good old-fashioned melodrama. Both plays were episodic -- does no one know how to write a long act anymore (playwriting students should be force fed Ibsen, Williams and Albee)? At least BETHANY had a sense of forward momentum.
     THE MADRID tells the story of Martha, a wife, mother and nursery school teacher who walks off of the job and disappears, leaving a baffled, loving husband, a devoted twenty-year-old daughter and an aging, needy mother. Martha does manage to re-establish contact with the daughter, though she bribes her ($10,000) to keep her whereabouts secret. We later find that Martha has disappeared before. Home and responsibility have always been traps for her. I'm not sure there was ever an interesting full-length play in THE MADRID, but the major problem is that Flahive, a television writer and producer, seems to see her scenes as discreet episodes, rather than segments of a coherent narrative. There's no sense of pace or direction. There are long scenes with characters who are tangential, like an overgrown teenage boy whose knees lock up on him and the boys' parents who are in a troubled relationship. Yes, Flahive's point, such as it is, is that everybody's got problems. OK, but we don't need to see everybody. THE MADRID is like a soap opera, throwing in lots of characters to maintain the audience's interest, but not focussing enough on anyone. The play's problems are emphasized by the direction and acting. I kept wanting to scream, like George Abbott, "Faster. Louder." Characters spoke as if there was a microphone overhead and Edie Falco, an actress I love on television, did her usual range of facial expressions, but barely acted below the neck. Heidi Schreck, who played her daughter (really the focal role), was good, but this is the role that needed a star turn. The only real standouts in the cast were Seth Clayton, who played the teenage boy and, of course, the magnificent veteran Frances Sternhagen, who still lights up a stage. The rest of the characters were ciphers, but that was more the playwright's fault than the actors'. Director Leigh Silverman made the mistake of insisting on too much scenery, so what little momentum the play had was destroyed by long, elaborate scene changes.
     BETHANY is another mother-daughter play, except that we never see the five-year-old girl who gives the play its title. Crystal's daughter was taken away by social services when the police discovered that they had been living in Crystal's car. Now Crystal (America Ferrara) will do anything to get her daughter back. She has gotten a commission-only job at a Saturn dealership in the last weeks of the life of that particular brand of automobile and she has broken into an uninhabited home in a housing development that has been emptied out by the real estate crash. Unfortunately, the house she decides she is going to live in is already occupied by a psychotic veteran (Tobias Segal). The lengths to which Crystal will go remind one of nineteenth-century potboilers like Victorien Sardou's TOSCA (later turned into the Puccini classic). There's a tormented but tough heroine who's a bit of an actress, a Scarpia-like lecher and a demented Cavarodossi. Will Crystal go to bed with a manipulative potential customer to sell a car? How will she deal with her psychotic housemate when he goes off the deep end? There is lots of melodrama here, but the play is so well written, directed and acted (everyone is good, but Ferrara and Segal are terrific) that you happily go along for the ride. Marks is commenting on the damage that American foreign and economic policy has wrought on a variety of Americans, but like Lisa D'Amour's DETROIT, she knows how to make her commentary amusing, even scary. The men are creeps in good feminist fashion. If her ideas aren't particularly profound, at least, unlike Liz Flahive, Laura Marks has mastered the craft of playwriting.
THE MADRID by Liz Flahive, directed by Leigh Silverman. Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage 1. February 16, 2013.
BETHANY by Laura Marks, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Women's Theatre Project at City Center Stage 2. February 16,  2013.

Friday, 15 February 2013

David Henry Hwang's THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD at the Signature

     When David Henry Hwang's 1981 play, THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD, begins, we see a lone figure, aptly named Lone, practicing his acrobatic dancing in an isolated mountain area. In his whirls and leaps, he seems to take command of this rugged terrain. Enter Ma, another young Chinese man, and we begin a series of encounters between the two men that define their experience as immigrant laborers on the transcontinental railroad -- "coolies," as they were called. Ma has come to warn Lone that his fellow workers are getting angry at his haughty demeanor and refusal to participate in their gambling and drinking. The men are more idle than usual as they are striking for a shorter work day and a $10 a month raise.
     Lone was being trained for years to be a performer in the Chinese opera before his poor parents essentially sold him off to indentured servitude on the railroad. His way of dealing with his experience is to dance alone, a reminder of the life he wished to have. Lone has no illusions about his position in this country of "white devils." He has been working on the railroad for two years and has lost all hope in a happy future. Ma has only been working a month and believes all the propaganda he has heard -- that the mountains are filled with gold, that he will get rich, that he is in control of his destiny. The workers' strike proves to him that the workers have control over the "white devils." Ma also dreams of being a performer in Chinese opera and wants Lone to teach him how to dance. He does not understand why Lone's lessons often become humiliating experiences, as Lone is trying through the lessons to teach Ma the despair he feels. In the most interesting and theatrically effective scene in the 70 minute play, Lone and Ma improvise a Chinese opera that recounts their experiences crossing the Pacific and working on the railroad. Creating and performing this opera creates a temporary bond between these two displaced men and is also a brief catharsis for them. At the end, Lone is again dancing alone before going back to work.
     THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD is a beautiful, poignant, theatrically effective play, another of Hwang's East meets West sagas. If the recently revived GOLDEN CHILD showed how Western religion and morality can undermine a Chinese home, THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD shows how a bit of Chinese culture can make harsh life in the West more bearable. For these men, Chinese opera becomes a way of expressing grace and beauty in a West that is exploitation, grueling labor gambling and the vain hope for easy riches. Yet there is nothing preachy about the play. It communicates through theatrical poetry.
     This revival at the Signature Theatre, directed by May Adrales, is still in previews. The hills in Mimi Lien's set seem to be extensions of the angular design of Frank Gehry's theatre, but they create effective playing spaces for the two performers. Jiyoun Chang's lighting is very effective at capturing the changing moods of the play. Right now -- and this may change -- the problem with the production is the acting. Yuekun Wu moves beautifully and captures Lone's haughtiness and unhappiness, but he loses some of the play's humor. Ruy Iskandar captures Ma's callowness, but we need to see why he wants and needs Lone's tutelage -- why he needs to bond with the man the other workers despise. In getting all the externals right. Adrales and her actors have forgotten the more important internal dynamics that are the heart of the play. Maybe they'll find them by the official opening night, but they should have been there from the first rehearsals.
THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD by David Henry Hwang. Pershing Square Signature Center. February 14, 2013.

Thursday, 14 February 2013


     I'm usually not a great fan of solo performances -- drama, for me, involves two or more people -- but I had read the positive reviews of Martin Moran's solo show, ALL THE RAGE, and was intrigued.
     Martin Moran has had a long career as a working actor. More important, he has developed a career as memoirist and solo performer. ALL THE RAGE is his second major solo work. It is an arresting work about anger and compassion. Moran begins with a story of reconciliation with his father's second wife after years of rancor, a reconciliation caused by a brief touching of hands and a wellspring of compassion. He eventually came to feel the same compassion toward the man who sexually abused him as a child. What leads to the waning of anger and the beginning of fellow-feeling? Moran spends much of the eighty-minute performance discussing a young African man who is seeking asylum in the United States. Though he had been tortured and has been separated from his family, this man is capable of moments of great joy. Coming to know this man has been part of Moran's own spiritual healing. All this could be preachy, but Moran is such a winning storyteller that he makes those of us in the audience share his own weakness and his growth as a process. In the intimate Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, there is a sense that we are not merely auditors, but participants in a conversation. After all, we have all had our moments of rage that we have regretted. We have all wished we could be better people. Moran's piece is a celebration of those moments of compassion we feel in our best moments.
     ALL THE RAGE has been deftly staged by Seth Barrish (I'm sure Moran also had a hand in the staging). Under Barrish's guidance, Moran manages to make use of the entire stage space in addition to props and projections without losing the sense that he is talking directly to us.
      Seeing Moran's performance piece makes me want to read his previous works -- and look forward to his next work.
ALL THE RAGE, written and performed by Martin Moran. Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Playwrights Horizons. February 13, 2013.