Saturday, 30 March 2013

Jesse Eisenberg's THE REVISIONIST

     Some months ago I reviewed Amy Herzog's critically acclaimed 4000 MILES, about a troubled twenty-something young man visiting his ninety year old grandmother. There wasn't a lot to the play -- a bunch of short scenes chronicling the uneasy relationship between the young man and the elderly lady, an angry girlfriend and an unearned happy ending. The characters were well-drawn, the acting very good, but I didn't think it all amounted to much. Now with Jesse Eisenberg's THE REVISIONIST, we have another troubled twenty-something man in an uneasy relationship with an elderly lady. The difference is that THE REVISIONIST is much more than the sum of its parts with a surprise, not so happy, ending that makes total sense after one thinks about it. Eisenberg doesn't do all the thinking for his audience.
     David (Jesse Eisenberg) is a writer who is having problems revising his novel (he has already written a young adult novel that sold 64,000 copies -- hardly Harry Potter numbers -- and garnered some good reviews and a pan from the New York TIMES. For reasons not clear at first, he has decided to do the revision in the shabby Szczecin, Poland flat of Maria, a second cousin he has never met (Vanessa Redgrave). Maria has made all sorts of preparations for David's arrival, but David is not the most socially adept creature, to put it mildly, and basically rejects all Maria's attempts at proper hospitality. David, who doesn't seem to be close to anyone, doesn't like to be touched emotionally or physically. At first he wants nothing more than to be left alone, but develops a writer's curiosity for Maria's past during the holocaust when her (and his?) family was murdered by the Nazis. Losing her family has made Maria fascinated, one might say obsessed, with the lives of her remaining distant relatives, even though she has only met one of them for coffee once.
     Yes, David is there to revise his novel -- something he doesn't seem able to do -- but we discover that Maria is the real revisionist, living out a fantasy of family relationships though unable to deal with real familial intimacy, perhaps out of fear of losing loved ones again. There is a brief moment when these two lost souls come together, but not everyone can change easily. Maria tells David what she calls a joke, though there is no punch line, about a bird who falls into a pile of cow shit. The bird cleans off its feathers and flies off, only to be attacked and killed by a larger bird. The moral of Maria's story -- sometimes it's safer to be stuck in shit than to fly into freedom. Does the new post-Nazi, post-Soviet world frighten her? Would she prefer to be stuck in the shit of her isolation, except for the taxi driver who runs her errands and shaves her legs, who thinks of her as a replacement for his deceased mother?  THE REVISIONIST is a totally absorbing play; funny in parts, but ultimately deeply moving as we come to understand some, not all, of the mystery of these two characters. Their backstories are sketchy because they don't give away a lot, but we find out enough to understand and empathize and our sympathies may switch from one character to another  as the play goes on.
     Of course Eisenberg can write for actors and THE REVISIONIST delivers 105 minutes of the best acting I have seen in a long time. Maria is a plum role for Redgrave, and I must say it isn't often in the theatre that I forget the actress and become totally absorbed in the character. Redgrave managed to do that. Eisenberg has written himself a part any casting director would want Jesse Eisenberg to play, but he does so with total commitment. He's a very physical actor, always a coiled spring -- like a cat he's all over the furniture -- but he's also always acting with Redgrave. On paper they may seem an unlikely acting team, but actually they play brilliantly together. Director Kip Fagan must share some of the credit for the magic. Eisenberg as playwright and actor and Redgrave as consummate actress make THE REVISIONIST a very special theatrical experience. The run at the Cherry Lane is sold out. If you don't have a ticket, pray that the rumors are true about a Broadway transfer.      
THE REVISIONIST by Jesse Eisenberg. Cherry Lane Theatre. March 30, 2013.

THE NANCE by Douglas Carter Beane

     Douglas Carter Beane's fascinating, moving, if overlong play with music, THE NANCE, gives us a confrontation between two historic views of what it means to be homosexual. It is the late 1930s and Chauncey Miles is very much a product of his repressive times. The word "gay" is probably not yet part of his argot, though he knows the necessary codes for picking up "trade" (straight men willing to be serviced out of horniness or financial need) in the usual cruising places. Of course the late night restaurants, bars and parks where men meet for sex are often raided, but Chauncey knows this is part of the excitement of being a homosexual in New York City -- the man you hook up with may rob you, beat you or arrest you. Ironically, Chauncey is an ardent Republican, vehemently against all Franklin Roosevelt's social programs and virulently against the labor movement and communists. It doesn't matter that Fiorello LaGuardia, a Republican, is enforcing moral codes that endanger Chauncey and actually put him out of a job; for Chauncey is a burlesque comic and LaGuardia wants to ban burlesque from New York City before tourists pour in for the 1939 Worlds Fair. Chauncey thinks LaGuardia's repressive police actions are merely pre-election posturing and that nothing will change. He's very wrong. Chauncey is famous for playing the Nance, the burlesque pansy who is a caricature of effeminacy and homosexuality (totally linked at the time). Most comics who played the Nance were at least ostensibly straight, but Chauncey is a homosexual making his living by caricaturing homosexuals. He does it well enough to bring in a large audience. Unfortunately, since word is out that Chauncey is gay offstage as well as on, many in the audience are gay men who have sex with "trade" in the balcony during the performance, an activity the guardians of morality are bound to notice.
     At the opening of THE NANCE, it is late at night and Chauncey is sitting in the Greenwich Village Automat, a known cruising site, giving out the discreet signs that he is shopping for sex. Enter Ned, a handsome, destitute young man from Buffalo. The rest of the play is in great part the story of Ned and Chauncey's relationship. Ned has never been indoctrinated into the signs, mannerisms and self-loathing of urban gay culture. He left his wife because he couldn't love her and has come to the city to find a loving relationship. In fact, Ned seems to be a twenty-first century homosexual stuck in the wrong time. Chauncey first sees "straight looking and acting" Ned as "trade" and is shocked to discover that Ned is attracted to men. He is more shocked to discover that Ned wants a real relationship with him. Ultimately, Chauncey cannot be anything but a product of his time. He tells Ned at their parting: "This is not for me. It is not what I should be having," a way of saying, men like him don't deserve a real marriage with another man. As Chauncey's burlesque career goes on the skids, Ned moves into "legitimate theatre", the chorus of a Cole Porter musical.
      Scenes of the relationship between Chauncey and Ned and the end of burlesque in New York alternate with burlesque skits that mirror the scenes that precede them. Beane has done his research -- many of these skits are classic burlesque sketches.
      Director Jack O'Brien, a master at fast-moving entertainment -- the George Abbott of our day -- has assembled a great cast that does justice to the burlesque material (though my full audience only found the sketches mildly amusing) and the warmth and sadness of the main narrative. The show is a vehicle for Nathan Lane and he gets to show his full range, from pansy schtick to a comic drag act to touching dramatic scenes. I have never seen Lane show so much range as an actor. His burlesque cohorts, particularly veteran comic actors Lewis J. Stadlen and Cady Huffman, are terrific both as their onstage and offstage personae. In the midst of all the camp and schtick, Jonny Orsini is perfect as the sweet, totally non-camp young man who loves Chauncey. Eventually Orsini's Ned also gets caught up in the burlesque acts, and he is as funny as the veteran performers.
      OK, we've got a show about a burlesque comic. We've got performers who have won awards for their work in musicals. We've even got a small band -- sounding better than notoriously bad burlesque bands sounded. I kept thinking that THE NANCE is a play that cries out to be a real musical. Yes, I know we have a musical partly about burlesque that is one of the greatest musicals of all time -- GYPSY. Nonetheless, all the key moments in this show would have been more effective if they had been sung. We've also got a show that's too long. The farewell scene, in the Automat like the first scene, would have rounded out the show but, we've got another ten minutes or so after that to give Nathan Lane a few more big scenes. That may change -- the show is still in previews. The only big laughs the show got were jokes with contemporary resonance. The night's biggest laugh came in the midst of a heated political discussion, when one of the characters says, "Do you really think people will still be arguing about Social Security eighty years from now?"
     THE NANCE is only running for twelve weeks and, despite its flaws, I highly recommend it. It's an ambitious play that gives us a glimpse into the sad history of gay men. Every young gay person should see it to see how far we have come. Chauncey isn't an aberration. All of us older gay men knew Chaunceys -- may even have been Chaunceys at some point in our lives. It's worth seeing just to see Nathan Lane's bravura performance, supported by an excellent cast.
THE NANCE. Lincoln Center Theatre at the Lyceum Theatre. March 29, 2013.        

Friday, 29 March 2013

Odets' THE BIG KNIFE at the American Airlines Theatre

       Two major revivals of the under-appreciated work of Clifford Odets in one season is almost miraculous. First we had the close to perfect Bartlett Sher production of GOLDEN BOY. Now we have the first major revival of THE BIG KNIFE (1949), under Doug Hughes direction.
        Though THE BIG KNIFE is not as strong a play as GOLDEN BOY, it is something of a companion piece. Both are sagas of the price of success for a driven, talented, far-from-perfect individual. Joe Bonaparte, the boxer protagonist of GOLDEN BOY, dies young in his beloved automobile. Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), the central character in THE BIG KNIFE, has lived long enough to see his life in tatters. He's one of the biggest box-office draws in America, but success has not bought him happiness -- it never does in Odets' work. He is guilt ridden about his involvement in a fatal hit and run accident. The studio covered up Charlie's responsibility for the event. His best friend was willing to take the blame (for a price), but now the starlet who was in the car with Castle is engaging in not-so-subtle blackmail of the studio. More overwhelming than Charlie's guilt is his general sense of losing his identity. His estranged wife Marian (Marin Ireland), knows that the only way to get his self worth back is to reject a long term contract the studio is strong-arming him into accepting. However, the monstrous studio head is engaging in his own form of blackmail. Charlie must accept the contract or be ruined.
     Odets spent much of his career in Hollywood, not the most congenial environment for serious writers, and THE BIG KNIFE is his bleak picture of the corruption of the studio system and the tyrants who ran the studios (Louis Mayer at MGM, Harry Cohn at Columbia, Jack Warner). The most vividly drawn character in the play is studio head Marcus Hoff. Marcus veers between long, avuncular narratives, to teary sentimentality to ruthless manipulation. Cross him once too often and he will destroy you. In this production, Richard Kind captures Hoff's mercuric personality. The audience laughs at Kind's Hoff until his fangs are bared. Marcus Hoff is the most interesting character in the play because at its best, THE BIG KNIFE is a dark satire of the mores of Hollywood, from studio heads and their henchmen to starlets who are angry at the ways in which they are exploited to well-meaning agents to diva-like gossip columnists (Odets' picture of Louella Parsons or Sheila Graham). The less convincing parts of the play are the melodramatic ones surrounding Charlie Castle's efforts to save himself and his marriage. To some extent, this Roundabout production is a vehicle of Bobby Cannavale, and he does all he can to bring Charlie to life. I have never seen Cannavale on stage before but, despite his many excellent performances on television, you have to see him on stage to appreciate what a good actor he is. The original Charlie was John Garfield who moved from the Group Theatre in the 1930s to a successful Hollywood career in the late forties until the red scare undid him (he died young in 1953). Garfield had a very uneasy relationship with his studio, Warner Brothers (he eventually went independent), so it was possible to see both Odets and Garfield in Charlie Castle when the play had its premiere in 1949. Cannavale brings no such history to the role, but it's easy to believe that he is a Hollywood leading man and he brings a necessary sexiness to the role (for all his love of his wife, Charlie cannot seem to control his libido, even with his best friend's wife, and women can't resist him). Cannavale also matches Richard Kind's Marcus during their two lengthy confrontations, the best scenes in the play I can't imagine anyone better in the role than Cannavale. It isn't his fault that I don't find Charlie a totally believable character.
     THE BIG KNIFE isn't as good as the plays Odet's wrote in the nineteen-thirties, particularly AWAKE AND SING, GOLDEN BOY and PARADISE LOST. Nonetheless it is worth reviving and Doug Hughes' production plays down the melodrama and works to make the characters as credible as possible. It's a sound choice, but it downplays the dark satire of the piece. The men in the cast are stronger than the women. I'd like a tougher Marian than Marin Ireland gives us and Brenda Wehle could do more with the character of the gossip columnist, but that may be a result of director Hughes's softening much of the satire. She's a monster and should be as big as Richard Kind's Marcus Hoff.
Though I have reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed this revival and am grateful to the Roundabout for giving us a chance to see this play by one of America's major playwrights.
THE BIG KNIFE. Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre. March 28, 2013.    

Thursday, 21 March 2013

SMASH, kerplop

     A lot of us who love musical theater had high hopes for SMASH. Well, those hopes have been dashed. First it was the awful idea at the heart of the show's premise -- that there would be a big musical made out of the life of Marilyn Monroe and that the making of that musical would interest millions of television viewers. BOMBSHELL isn't the sort of musical that gets to Broadway nowadays and given the awful songs that were created for this fictional show, it really wouldn't stand a chance. Then there was the contest between Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee to be Marilyn. Hilty is a talented musical comedy performer. She was a fine Lorelei Lee in the City Center Encores revival of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES last spring, but all SMASH seems to demand of her is that she pout a lot. Her rival, Katharine McPhee, may win an award as the blandest performer ever to have a leading role on a tv series. Neither of these women would be cast as Marilyn Monroe in the unlikely event that a show like BOMBSHELL would be remotely conceivable in this day and age.
    OK, Season Two. First, the show has been degayed, or at least ostensible degayed. Tom (Christian Borle) is now sexless and the other obviously gay character Kyle (Andy Mientus) has no life other than his collaboration with the pouty character played by Jeremy Jordan. Even Sean Hayes has been rendered non-gay in his role as an idiotic Hollywood celebrity trapped in a musical version of LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES. Now there's a worse idea for a musical than Marilyn, but at least LIASONS closes in a week. I guess the new producers thought the gayness was turning people off. Didn't they realize that the core audience for SMASH would be women and gay men?
     I love the fact that a young songwriter can whip off a song and share it with the world without copyright, lawyers or agents. Now there's fantasy.
     The plot keeps spinning its wheels with the same conflicts occurring in each episode. No wonder most of the viewing public has lost interest. The only saving grace is the occasional song by the talented young team of Pasek and Paul that is part of the score of the musical that Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus's characters are supposedly writing. Rather than a bad idea for a musical -- BOMBSHELL or LIASONS, their musical doesn't seem to have any controlling idea at all.
     The first season of SMASH was interestingly bad. This season is both bad and boring. The show has been moved to the twilight zone of Saturday night, a way of letting it die without anyone noticing.

Saturday, 16 March 2013


     Craig Lucas's thoroughly enjoyable new play THE LYING LESSON begins like a horror movie. A deafening thunderstorm knocks out the power as an elderly lady who bears more than a fleeting resemblance to Bette Davis comes into a house in a small town in Maine. The lady who is, as it turns out, is Bette Davis, crouches on the floor with a butcher knife in her hand as an intruder comes through the kitchen window. We seem to be in a version of one of Davis's gothic later movies, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE or HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE. However, this Bette Davis is not a demented camp figure and the intruder is not Joan Crawford (or "that former prostitute" as Davis calls her), or Olivia de Haviland, but a tall, gangly young woman. From then on, the play gives us the twists and turns of Bette's relationship with this mysterious young woman. Bette may think of herself as a consummate actress, but Minnie Bodine is a pretty good actress herself. To Bette, Minnie's subterfuges aren't acting, they're lying, but what's the difference, and when is Bette acting?
      THE LYING LESSON, thank, God, is not one of those over-the-top pseudo biographies of the latter days of a camp icon like Peter Quilter's treatment, or should I say exploitation, of Judy Garland in last season's END OF THE RAINBOW. Yes, there are some details of Davis's life thrown in, but the focal character is Minnie, the young woman who would like to escape miserable small town life as Davis did, but doesn't know how. Craig Lucas's version of Davis is a shrewd woman who doesn't quite know what she wants at this stage of her life and who thinks she wants to go back to where it all began.    It is 1981 and even Davis's gothic classics are well in the past. Who is she when she's not a star?
     THE LYING LESSON certainly isn't one of the best plays I have ever seen, but it is an entertaining, absorbing play brought to life by two fine actresses. Veteran Carol Kane does not try to "do" Bette Davis. She uses some of Davis's mannerisms, but this is a dramatic character, not an imitation. In fact, Kane's Bette is much less camp, much more restrained, than Davis ever was. It's a superb performance. Minnie is Mickey Sumner's debut role and she is fascinating. As with her recent production of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, Pam McKinnon has kept the play grounded in the fictional reality of these characters' motivations, objectives and interactions. There's never a false moment. Even the stormy opening doesn't seem hokey. Neil Patel has created a suitably shabby setting. The house Bette is occupying is part of what's at stake in the play and it is both substantial and an unlikely home for even a fading movie star who is worried about money.
THE LYING LESSON, Atlantic Theatre Company Linda Gross Theatre. March 16, 2013.

Friday, 15 March 2013


     Everyone -- certainly every gay person -- knows that in gay history and hagiography the 1969 Stonewall uprising looms large. On a hot June night -- that day gay icon Judy Garland's funeral took place in New York -- a diverse group of gay men resisted a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, a mob run gay bar. Many were drag queens and many were Black and Latino. Martin Duberman has written the classic history of Stonewall. There have been documentary films as well as British film maker Nigel Finch's fictional account. Now we have Ike Holter's absorbing play, HIT THE WALL, powerfully directed by Eric Hoff, an import from Chicago"s Garage Rep, a subsidiary of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
     In ninety minutes, with ten actors and three musicians, we get a cross section of the participants in the Stonewall rebellion. Each character is a representative of a segment of the rioters: a timid drag queen in mourning for her beloved Judy and the draft dodger who falls in love with him/her; a young Black and Latino who hang out daily on a tenement stoop on Christopher Street; a young man on his first trip to a gay bar; a butch lesbian and a Black lesbian who has become a political activist. These characters are, of necessity types, but each has been given his/her own language, from rhyming jive to eloquent laments to political exhortation. One actor plays a typical affluent middle class man who thinks he has a right to have sex with any you man he encounters and who thinks the Stonewall riots are a big mistake, and another plays a distillation of the brutal police who raided the bar as they had raided gay gathering places for decades. One accepts this group of types and stereotypes because the language is so vivid and the direction so exciting. Eric Hoff has used every inch of the small Barrow Street Theatre acting area for staging that is extremely effective. There are moments of beautifully choreographed wild abandon -- the dancing in the Stonewall Inn before the blinding light that signals the police raid and the subsequent rioting out in the street. The music ranges from sixties folk to hard rock. The cast is uniformly excellent. This is exciting theater. It's also important to give young theatergoers some sense of a crucial moment in gay history.
HIT THE WALL. Barrow Street Theatre. March 14, 2013.

Thursday, 14 March 2013


     Having missed the Lincoln Center Theatre run of Christopher Durang's latest comedy because of the flu, I was delighted to catch an early performance of the Broadway run. This latest work in Durang's forty year career as a playwright is kinder and gentler than most of what preceded it. There's none of the anger that underlies many of his earlier plays and none of the violence that occurs in many of his works. Previously, Durang could make his audience laugh at some gruesome activities. Here we laugh at at his verbal wit and some outlandish comic moments. Throughout Durang's work there has been a love of literary parody. Here Chekhov is present in the title (so is Paul Mazursky's 1969 film, BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE) and in some of the action.
     VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is set in a lovely house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (where the playwright lives). Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia, both in their fifties, have lived in the house all their lives. Until recently, they cared for their aging, now deceased parents. Neither Vanya nor Sonia work -- the bills are paid by their sister, Masha, a Hollywood star -- and they are prone to lament their meaningless existence in speeches reminiscent of Chekhov. Masha descends with her boy toy Spike, an exhibitionistic would-be actor. She has a history of failed marriages -- her five husbands have all left her, probably because they couldn't deal with her monumental self-absorption. Her decision to sell the house throws Vanya and Sonia into a crisis.
      In typical Christopher Durang style, the play is filled with surprising, bizarre, hilarious moments. Much of the action centers on the preparations for and aftermath of a neighbor's costume party. Masha has decided to go as Disney's Snow White and insists that all the other characters go as her dwarfs (Spike gets to dress as her prince). Sonia, however, decides to go as the witch as she would be played by Maggie Smith. Masha is furious when Sonia's Maggie Smith is the hit of the party. There's a sweet, Pollyanna-ish girl next door, Nina, of whom Masha gets wildly jealous, but unbeknownst to her, Spike has eyes for yet someone else. There's also a housekeeper, Cassandra, who, like her namesake, is prone to making dire, but accurate predictions.
      The plays is filled with hilarious one-liners, but also long solo moments that take virtuoso acting. Durang couldn't have a better cast for the play. Over the years, he has worked often with his Yale Drama School classmate Sigourney Weaver and with the great comic actress, Kristine Nielsen, and he has again given them plum roles as the not very loving stepsisters. Add to that David Hyde Pierce wisely underplaying Vanya until his long, semi-hysterical lament of the loss of 1950s television in the final scene. Billy Magnussen manages to make the boy toy into something more than a stereotypical dumb (male), scantily clad blonde. His recreation of his audition for "Entourage 2" is one of the many great comic moments in the show. Shalita Grant makes the most of Cassandra's incantations. Everyone but poor Genevieve Angelson as the dippy Nina gets a star turn. Director Nicholas Martin has paced all this perfectly. He and Durang have made sure that every seemingly outlandish moment springs from character.
     I saw VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE with a sellout Wednesday matinee audience. More than any show I have seen since Jon Robin Baitz's OTHER DESERT CITIES (another Lincoln Center transfer), the audience looked like a weekday matinee audience from my youth. They were mostly well-dressed, middle-aged and older "ladies who lunch" with a few middle-aged and older gentlemen sprinkled among them. We all loved every minute of the play and, unlike many matinee audiences, the ladies surrounding me going down the balcony stairs were talking about the play, not where they were going next. What greater tribute could Christopher Durang's masterful comedy receive? The run is limited because the cast is irreplaceable. Get a ticket asap!!  
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE. John Golden Theatre. MArch 13, 2013.


      I remember vividly when Rodger's and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA appeared on CBS television back in 1957. It was not the first musical to be produced for television -- both NBC and CBS produced "specials" that were original musicals or revivals of classic musicals -- but it was the most prestigious. It was by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the biggest names in musical theatre,and it starred Julie Andrews of MY FAIR LADY fame. The musical was produced live (later remade in the age of videotape with Leslie Ann Warren and again decades later in an awful version with someone called Brandi). Since its first appearance on television, there have been various attempts to produce a stage version. This one, titled RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA (like THE GERSHWIN'S PORGY AND BESS), is the latest incarnation. A clever new book with several original twists on the familiar story has been written by Douglas Carter Beane and songs have been added that were cut from other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. All the "new" songs are very strong and make fine additions to the original score. The result of all this is a delightful show that will appeal to adults, particularly those of us old enough to remember the original, as well as the little girl demographic. This Prince learns through Cinderella and her friends, to be a democrat. As one would expect from Douglas Carter Beane, the show is sprinkled with witty one-liners.
     The producers and director Mark Brokaw has cast the show from strength. Laura Osnes is a delight in the title role. She's a good singer with a strong personality (SMASH might have worked with someone like her instead of that personification of blandness in the pivotal role). The wonderful, award-winning comic actress Harriet Harris does her usual stuff as Cinderella's nasty stepmother and Victoria Clark sings beautifully as the often airborne Fairy Godmother. The real star, though, is Santino Fontana as the prince. In the original television version, the prince was played by the aptly named Jon Cypher -- other than a couple of songs, the role was underwritten. In this version, the Prince gets the opening number and the story is as much his as Cinderella's. I have seen Fontana be brilliant in a number of non-musical roles. Who knew he could carry a big musical? He's also a terrific singer -- better than any other Broadway leading man I have heard recently -- and he can dance.  
     While the story has been spruced up considerably, the production looks like a traditional 1950s production. One doesn't mind that given the music. There's none of the surprising visual invention of MATILDA. The choreography is very conventional. Still, it is great to hear this score so well sung -- and played by a big, old-fashioned Broadway orchestra. We enjoyed it immensely.
     By the way, the Broadway Theatre is the most user friendly theatre on Broadway. It's gigantic and the legroom isn't good, but it has the best lobbies and amenities. 
RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA. Broadway Theatre. March 13, 2013.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


     One of the many problems with NBC's "let's make a musical" backstage saga SMASH is its picture of the current Broadway musical. Why are these people laboring on a musical about Marilyn Monroe when they're more likely to have a hit with an adaptation of Snow White, particularly if the dwarfs are replaced by seven little girls? For the most part, the Broadway musical has turned into spectacular "family entertainment" -- that is, children's theater that is also palatable for adults. When I was a kid, I went to shows like THE KING AND I,  PAJAMA GAME, DAMN YANKEES and loved every minute. I can't imagine my parents taking me to a $100+ a ticket kiddie show. I think I would have been as bored with THE LION KING as I was as a grown up. You can raise your odds of Broadway success if for kiddie show is aimed at girls. NEWSIES, about a ragtag, but gym-buffed, group of teenage boys, isn't selling as well as the girl shows, WICKED, CINDERELLA or MATILDA. All three are doing sellout business, though the latter two have not officially opened yet.
     MATILDA has a special pedigree. It began as a holiday production of the Royal Shakespeare Company at their Stratford-upon-Avon base before it settled into a run on London's West End (it's still running). The Royal Shakespeare Company isn't what it once was, to put it mildly. You get better Shakespeare at the Globe in London or at the National, in part because many actors don't want to spend long periods of time 100 miles from London. Nor does the RSC produce the best new work as they did thirty years ago. Still, MATILDA is a prestige item -- the RSC instead of Disney. Moreover, Roald Dahl, who wrote the book on which the musical is based, has a reputation as one of the more literate creators of children's fiction. In fact, MATILDA is a celebration of the joys of reading. The nerds triumph over the anti-intellectuals.
     I have to start by saying that musicals about five year old girls aren't my cup of tea. I'd prefer more mature subject matter. Nonetheless, if one has to sit through a musical about a five year old girl, MATILDA offers many pleasures. Director Matthew Warchus and his colleagues (choreographer Peter Darling, set and costume designer Rob Howell, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone) have created one of the most visually inventive and beautiful productions I have seen (I would bet it has been made more spectacular for the US). Don't worry about taking folks, little or big, with short attention spans. The visual landscape is constantly changing in surprising and literally wonderful ways. At first, I was worried that we were going to be in patter song hell with Tim Minchin's score, but it is clever and varied in its post-Sondheim way.
     Everyone in the cast is excellent, but the standout performance is Bertie Carvel's monstrous headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Carvel has garnered awards for this in London for good reason. He doesn't do the usual over-the-top British pantomime drag villainess. Miss Trunchbull, an aging athlete, looks like one of those Russian female Olympians of yore, massive of chest. Carvel never breaks character, even at the curtain call. Gabriel Ebert and Leslie Margherita are appropriately clownish as Matilda's aggressively dumb, anti-reading parents without every getting tiresome. Ebert played the lost young man in 4000 MILES at Lincoln Center last year. He is clearly equally at home in musical comedy. Lauren Ward is, as always, winning as Miss Honey, the nice teacher. The kids are amazingly good -- talented, disciplined and looking like they're having the time of their lives. Where do these kids come from?? I do wish the band was visible and sounded less tinny over the speakers.
     This was an early preview. I would have cut down or made more visual Matilda's long story of the acrobat and escapologist (and the echo mike during the story muddies her diction), but otherwise the show seems to be in perfect shape.
     I went half dreading seeing the show and feeling like the Grinch. I enjoyed it immensely. What could be better than a delightful musical about a five year old intellectual? Every child (and adult) should see that!!!!!
    An irrelevant observation. Why can't people turn off their phones for 2 1/2 hours? The young woman in front of me was texting during much of the performance and I noticed that just about everyone in the theatre was texting or tweeting during the intermission, even in the men's room! For a fair amount of people, being in touch remotely with disembodied people via cellphone seems to be more important than being in touch with the physically present people around one. Or with the performance one has paid a fortune to see. Odd!
 MATILDA. Shubert Theatre. March 11, 2013.

Monday, 11 March 2013

THE MOUND BUILDERS at the Signature

     It's good to see two major revivals of Lanford Wilson's work in New York right now (TALLEY'S FOLLY is being produced by the Roundabout at the Laura Pels). Wilson's work, usually chronicling aspects of life in the midwest, seems to be an American distillation of Chekhovian poetic realism, but there's much more going on under the surface. I don't know if they are intentional or not, but there are echoes of Wilson's work in contemporary playwrights like Annie Baker, Lisa D'Amour and Amy Herzog. There's darkness and danger just under the surface of Wilson's plays. It is appropriate that at crucial moments in Jo Bonney's revival of THE MOUND BUILDERS, eerie light seeps through the floorboards, giving the room an air of insubstantiality and danger. If only that sense of danger was present in the acting.
     THE MOUND BUILDERS mixes present and past. A group of university archaeologists are excavating the remains of an ancient Native American community in southern Illinois. They have been working there every summer for years and want to continue, though a new artificial lake is beginning to flood the area. The two archaeologists, August Howe (David Conrad) and his young assistant, Dan (Zachary Booth), are devoted to this past. Both have brought along their wives. August's sister D.K. (Danielle Skraastad), a famous novelist whose writer's block has led to notorious self-destructive behavior, has come to recuperate in the midst of this small community. The wild card in this group is a local young man, Chad (Will Rogers), whose father dreams of moving out of no t so genteel poverty when the new lake is finished. Chad and his father quixotically believe they will get rich on a lakeside resort and Holiday Inn. Chad is at first the most puzzling and most dangerous figure in the play. He is carrying on an affair with August's wife Cynthia (Janie Brookshire), but constantly courting, with no success, Dan's wife Jean (Lisa Joyce -- have they had an affair during a previous summer?). He also tries to seduce Dan and would have succeeded if Dan's wife had not appeared at an inopportune moment. Sex is Chad's way of connecting with this group of intellectuals, but he also wants to connect to keep tabs on them. He does assume an intimacy with these people -- with Cynthia, his present sexual partner, with Jean and with Dan, with whom he has done some male bonding rituals -- but these people don't do intimacy, even with siblings and spouses. It is Chad's fierce sense of betrayal from this group that leads to the play's tragic ending.
     As the purpose of this expedition is restoring and understanding the past, most of the action of the play takes place in flashback. In the play's present, August is dictating his memories of the previous summer to his new assistant. All he has as evidence are some random slides that show nothing of what the group discovered or what happened. All tangible evidence of the past summer has been destroyed.
     The archaeologists want to understand the social structure of the mound builders, but we in the audience become archaeologists of a sort, examining the social structure of this small group, particularly the gender order. In this small community, there is a definite separation of men and women. Wives are not given crucial pieces of information about the dig and the power the archaeologists hold in the community. Husbands show little to no interest in their wives. More and more, the women become a separate tribe, sharing their psychic and emotional wounds. Dan's pregnant wife, Jean, had a nervous breakdown as an adolescent. D.K. suffered from the neglect of her father and, now, her brother. Cynthia has turned to Chad for any physical satisfaction. These are brilliant women with careers (archaeologist, doctor, writer) but it is 1974 and they are still second class citizens in this tribe; yet we are told that the tribe the archaeologists are studying is matriarchal.
     There is also a symbolic overlay to the play. Water plays a crucial role -- not only the lake that is swallowing the land, but constant rain through the second act, and deaths by water. The death mask unearthed by the archaeologists seems to take on a sinister power as the play moves to its climax. THE MOUND BUILDERS is a rich, complex play about separation, loss, betrayal and death.
     There's a sense of danger missing in Jo Bonney's too placid production of Wilson's play. She has gathered a good group of actors, but they seem to downplay the dark side of the play so that the climax seems to come out of nowhere. The key mistake is in the casting of Chad. Will Rogers is a very good actor, but we have to sense the sexual hunger and the danger in Chad from the very beginning. What does Cynthia see in him? What does he want? Chad is from a totally different background than the other characters on the stage, but Rogers fit into their group too comfortably -- another clean cut upper middle class guy. If I didn't know the play, I would have thought at first that he was another graduate assistant. I didn't believe he was out fixing cars when he was offstage, and I certainly didn't believe he was the sort of person to plow his way through the women (and potentially at least one of the men). We have to see in Chad what the women see -- sex and danger and, potentially, a victim. Yes, it's a kind of D.H. Lawrence cliche -- the sexual power of the working class guy -- but one has to find a way of playing it. I'm not sure Will Rogers is the person to do that. He would have been a good Dan, but Zachary Booth plays that role very well. Without the right Chad, the production loses its center, but other than Booth, everyone in the cast seemed to be on tranquilizers. There was no palpable sexual heat, fear or anger.
     Other questions bothered me. What does August think of his wife's infidelity and why is he ignoring it? Here he seems simply not to notice and it is far too obvious for that. We have to see Jean's fear of descending again into madness and D.K.'s more cosmic fear. This D.K. was too laid back. All this needn't be obvious and melodramatic but, like the light shining under the floorboards, it has to be a presence that becomes more palpable as the play moves toward its conclusion. The play is partly about why August Howe is alone a year later as he tries to recount what happened, yet August is such a cipher in this production that this doesn't seem important. I saw a preview, so maybe all this will get fixed, but the issues I present here are so basic that they should have been addressed at the beginning of the rehearsal process.
     It was wonderful to see this play again. Too bad the production isn't as good as the script.
THE MOUND BUILDERS by August Wilson. Directed by Jo Bonney. Signature Theatre. March 10, 2013.

Sunday, 10 March 2013


      Some years ago I was having a kind of reunion dinner in New York with a good friend from high school who had, as we say, done very well with his life -- of all my old friends the best known. Yet here I sat listening to this middle-aged man talking in vivid detail about how we was bullied in high school and berating me for not helping him. It was the first time I had heard about the bullying: he had not mentioned it back then so I could hardly be responsible. But why hadn't I known? Or didn't I want to know? It was an odd and sad occasion. I thought about this while watching Michael Pearlman's fine play, FROM WHITE PLAINS. Dennis Sullivan, the play's focal character, has just won an Academy Award for his independent film, but he is obsessed with how he and his best friend were bullied in high school and is fixated on the subsequent suicide of his friend. This experience fueled his artistic creation -- his film is a slightly fictionalized version of this high school bullying -- but he can't move on from the experience. In his Academy Award acceptance speech, he names the bully he holds responsible for his friend's suicide and subsequently launches an assault of internet attacks on the former bully. This event makes Ethan, the high school bully now in his thirties, a poster boy for homophobia and bullying. To many, Ethan is a murderer. He loses his girlfriend, his job and his Facebook page is filled with threats. His relationship with his best friend, John, also seems to be on the rocks. John was himself a victim of high school bullying and his brother is gay, so revelations of Ethan's past cruelty hit him hard. Ethan is not a totally sympathetic character. He is a bit of a jerk and still has a tendency to use words like "faggot," but Dennis's constant public attacks on him are also a form of bullying. Dennis's inability to move from his past leads to the end of his relationship with his devoted boyfriend who gives up trying to get Dennis to move on. FROM WHITE PLAINS focuses on the strained relationships of these four men, particularly the relationships of Dennis and his lover and Ethan and his friend.
     The beauty of FROM WHITE PLAINS is its even-handedness. Rather than parrot the usual politically correct mantras, playwright Pearlman tests our sympathies. Indeed, my partner and I left the theater disagreeing about the extent to which Dennis's actions were justifiable. His boyfriend is sweet, but totally unrealistic about whether he can "save" Dennis from his obsession. John's need to distance himself from Ethan is understandable, but he's ditching his best friend at the worst possible moment. In terms of having action spring from character, this is as well conceived a play as I have seen in a while. Pearlman also knows how to give each character a distinctive voice. In the post-Pinter/Mamet tradition, there are pauses followed by explosions of overlapping dialogue, but these moments seemed totally convincing. Pearlman also directed his production with one simple set serving without any changes as a variety of locales. This simplicity, respecting the audience's imagination, is a welcome relief from recent productions that fill the stage with unnecessary scenery and lose their rhythm from elaborate set changes that are like commercial breaks one cannot fast forward through (we're among those who record tv shows and watch them later so we can speed through the commercials).
     The company of actors who performed this play, the Fault Line Theatre Company, are all, like Pearlman, products of Brown's graduate theatre program. I can't imagine a better cast. As members of a company who have worked together for a while, they bring to the play a sense of ensemble you can't create in a four to six week rehearsal period. I can't single out a particular performance. This is a team effort, so kudos and bravos to Craig Wesley Divino, Karl Gregory, Jimmy King and Aaron Rossini.
     FROM WHITE PLAINS is an intelligent, absorbing drama about the ways men deal with past traumas and the difficulty of real forgiveness. I'm sorry I saw the last performance in its limited run. I'd go back. Excellent!!  
FROM WHITE PLAINS. Written and directed by Michael Pearlman. Fault Line Theatre Company at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Saturday, 9 March 2013


      Though it still needs a bit of editing in the second act (I saw an early preview), KINKY BOOTS is a delightful musical entertainment with one knockout performance.
      The musical is based on a small British film about a young man who inherits a failing men's shoe company and decides to turn it around by making shoes for drag queens. His partner in this endeavor is a drag queen, Lola. Harvey Fierstein's adaptation emphasizes his usual themes of self-acceptance (remember "I Am What I Am" from LA CAGE AUX FOLLES) and celebration of diversity. We're in Fierstein territory and, like his early hit about a drag queen, TORCH SONG TRILOGY, KINKY BOOTS can get a little preachy. Nonetheless, KINKY BOOTS and NEWSIES show that Fierstein is the best book writer for musicals we have these days. He takes the story characters and telling seriously in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition. Cyndi Lauper's musical numbers are great fun and highly theatrical. As in earlier big musicals about drag queens (LA CAGE, PRISCILLA), the drag performers get the best numbers. Like most pop hit makers who turn to writing musicals, Lauper is better at "performance" numbers than songs that have to develop character or propel the narrative. This is a good score, though, literally toe tapping. Her lyrics are often very witty.
     The two leads, Stark Sands as Charlie, the owner of the shoe factory, and Billy Porter as Simon/Lola, the trained boxer turned drag queen, are good, but Porter's Lola steals the show. He has most of the funny lines and musical numbers and he's terrific. If Porter doesn't win the Tony, I will be very surprised. Sands has to carry the serious elements in the show and gets a couple of numbers including a powerful eleven o'clock power ballad. He's a charming actor, but not much of a singer. Charlie is the central character in the story, but there's no way Sands can compete with Porter's Lola, who gets all the best material and runs with it. A word has to be said about the six guys who play the "Angels," drag queens who are Lola's back up singers and dancers. Like the Cagelles of yore, they're an integral part of the show and they're fabulous -- the most convincing drag queens I have ever seen.
     Jerry Mitchell's production is simple and clever, putting the performers down front. I liked the way David Rockwell's factory set became, with a few changes, everything from a pub boxing ring to a Milan fashion runway. Lauper's score is well served by Michael Oremus's arrangements.
     I don't want to sound lie the P.C. Police here, but one thing did gnaw at me. Charlie, the straight guy, has all the love interest (boy loses uppity girlfriend, boy gains much cooler girlfriend), but, though he talks a lot about sex, drag queen Lola seems to be a eunuch with no sex life or love life. In his past shows, Fierstein wrote love stories about drag queens. I'd hate to see us go back to a time when in order to be "safe" for straight audiences, characters like Simon/Lola can talk about sex, but can't have any.
     I saw this early preview with a packed house that clearly loved every moment of KINKY BOOTS. What's not to like?
KINKY BOOTS. Al Hirschfeld Theatre. March 8, 2013.

Monday, 4 March 2013

ANGRY FAGS at 7 Stages Atlanta

     In Justin Anderson's production, Topher Payne's ANGRY FAGS can't quite decide what it is. The overlong (almost three hours) play is billed as a comedy, but in this production it is merely a slowly paced melodrama with a few funny lines thrown in.
     Bennett, a seemingly sweet, earnest aide to an openly lesbian Georgia State Senator,  has moved in with his best friend Cooper after the breakup of a three year relationship. As stridently played by Johnny Drago, Cooper is the old stereotype, a feckless, bitchy queen who's also a sociopath (during the intermission, one neighbor in the audience rightly noted that the play's gay characters reminded him of the two crypto-gay men in Hitchcock's 1947 film, ROPE). Since we have no back story to their relationship, it is not clear why these two men would be friends. When Bennett's ex is fatally gay bashed behind a gay bar, Cooper decides to become a gay avenger and quickly convinces Bennett to become his partner in crime. Cooper's idea is that gay people are still discriminated against and worse because no one is scared of them, so a bit of gay terrorism might even the odds. We watch them embark on a campaign of bombing right wing ministers, kidnapping the liberal senator who seems to have lost her moral compass, and murdering the good friend who has figured out what they're up to. There's also the political rivalry between the lesbian senator and the Christian conservative woman who is running against her and a romance between Bennett and another senatorial aide who turns out to be the most cynical character of all.
     There's a good, amusing ninety minute play hidden in ANGRY FAGS, but its current state desperately needs editing. Every scene seems a couple of minutes too long and the video clips of political speeches played during the many scene changes seem endless. Since the political and religious characters speeches are all stereotypical, we know what they're going to say within a sentence or two -- why stretch it out? Payne needs a good dramaturg to go through the script and show him what to cut. A great deal of the uncertainty of tone can be traced to the lack of forward momentum. Crucial scenes that should be horrifying, like the killing of, Kimberley, the one totally sympathetic character in the play, seem to go on forever. We know they're going to kill her, so get on with it. Payne also needs to look at what characters are important and worth fleshing out and what characters can be edited or cut entirely. The only character we really come to know is Bennett and that is greatly a result of Jacob York's fine, nuanced performance, yet even there one feels the inconsistency of tone. We never have a good, convincing scene in which Bennett is drawn into Cooper's crazy plan. Is Bennett just too weak-willed to stop him after the first murder? York's good acting can't cover up the problems with the writing of his character. Perhaps Bennett and Cooper's relationship would have made more sense if there were an erotic component. Like a disciple of Quentin Tarentino, playwright Payne is more interested in plot reversals than in action that springs from the motivation of well-written characters. He has a lot of justified outrage toward right wing bigots and cynical liberal politicians. So do most of his audience. When you're preaching to the choir, you can be economical. There are also big questions that spoil some key scenes. For instance, if nice Kimberley really thought that Bennett was a murderer, wouldn't she call the police instead of showing up at his house to discuss it with him? What happens to her is awful, but she must be profoundly stupid to put herself in that situation. The odd, and perhaps most interesting aspect of ANGRY FAGS is that other than nice, if dumb, friend Kimberley, the only sympathetic character is the right wing senatorial candidate. Shouldn't our sympathies be with Bennett and Cooper if the play is to be the black comedy the playwright intended? There's a policeman who is "on to" Bennett and Cooper, but his character couldn't be more cardboard. Topher Payne should reread Joe Orton's plays a dozen times or so -- or even a good old fashioned melodrama like Patrick Hamilton's ROPE (the basis for Hitchcock's movie).
     Director, Justin Anderson has fallen into the trap of worrying too much about elaborate, long scene changes instead of finding a way to keep the play moving. A lighter, swifter production would have helped. And nothing slowed this production down more than the videotapes of political speeches that were projected between scenes. This should be a funny, dangerous play. Instead it is slow, uncertain of tone and overlong. I don't mean to flog a dead horse here. As I said at the outset, there's a good, tight ninety-minute play buried in ANGRY FAGS. If Topher Payne could find it, he'd have a winner.
ANGRY FAGS by Topher Payne. Directed by Justin Anderson. 7 Stages Theatre, Atlanta. March 3, 2013.