Wednesday, 3 April 2013


     I looked around at the geriatric audience (as a septuagenarian, I can say that) at the performance of Richard Greenberg's THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES last night and thought about the fact that most audiences for non-musicals in New York, on or off-Broadway, are filled with senior citizens, the only group that still seems invested in live drama, no matter what the subject. When I said something about this to the charming lady sitting next to me, she blamed it on the lack of attention span of young people. I don't think it's that simple. At least part of the problem is that many playwrights -- young or middle-aged -- are writing small plays. Realism is very much in vogue, but not the realism of Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets or Arthur Miller. They used theatrical realism to explore larger-than-life characters or important social issues or big themes. There was something grand about their best work, as exemplified by Odets' GOLDEN BOY, which received a superb revival a few months ago. Even his more flawed THE BIG KNIFE, now on view, deals with the ways in which a person can betray himself as well as the people around him. For all its current imperfections, Douglas Carter Beane's THE NANCE uses theatricality to look at big issues. A big play doesn't have to be as massive a production as THE NANCE. I'd call Michael Perlman's FROM WHITE PLAINS and Jesse Eisenberg's THE REVISIONIST big plays in that they make one think about larger issues and questions. What is THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES trying to do? In Act I we see a Christmas celebration in an upper middle class secular Jewish household occupying a vast Central Park West apartment. Julie (Jessica Hecht), briefly a Hollywood actress, but now a housewife, is the cook and hostess. She's an odd soul, beaming with happiness and optimism. Yet there are signs that something is wrong. Her husband Ben has philandered, her younger son is sick in bed and the older son, Scotty, seems to be coming down with something and is also in some kind of crisis about what to do with his life. Also present are Ben's sister Faye (Judith Light), her husband (not a happy marriage) and their daughter Shelley who, as my British friends would say, is not the sharpest knife in the box. Faye survives on vodka and tranquilizers and is falling apart in the kitchen while her husband Mort tries to blackmail Ben. Not a happy Christmas at all. Then there's Scotty's best friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), who is in awe of and falling in love with this family, particularly with Julie. There's lots of literate, clever, funny dialogue, but little sense of where the play is going -- "no forwards" as a former colleague of mine would say. As in his earlier play, THREE DAYS OF RAIN, Greenberg is depending on us seeing Act I though the lens of Act II, which takes place twenty years later. For all the revolving the stage does to give us many of the rooms of Julie and Ben's apartment, the script barely moves.
     In Act II, it is 2000 and Julie and Faye are widows. The only men are Julie's younger son, Timmy and Jeff, now a wealthy, successful lawyer with nothing of a personal life, who has come back to New York and  is trying to help Julie through some deeply serious financial difficulties. Again, some entertaining dialogue, but even with a resolution of all the financial problems, the play doesn't amount to much. A pleasant two and a half hours, but in the ages of other forms of entertainment and at Broadway prices, drama should be more than that. Grand characters, big questions -- something!! And some erotic charge, please. Jeff, who is onstage a good deal of the time, is virtually sexless, but so are all the men in the play.
     I found Jessica Hecht's Julie to be irritating. Is anyone really that cloyingly sweet?? Thank heaven for Judith Light, who is the principal reason to see THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES. A real diva, she lights up the stage even when she is falling apart. The men were pretty bland, but the male characters are thin as tissue paper. Lynne Meadow directed a soft, slow production. The production needed a harder edge.
     As I rode the A train home, I thought about Odets. In some ways, THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES is like an Odets play, but in Odets there are larger issues at stake. For all the anti-Republican jokes here,  Greenberg's play is too self-contained. Too small.
THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES by Richard Greenberg. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. April 2, 2013.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

BUYER AND CELLAR by Jonathan Tolins

      In this very amusing, but a bit overlong solo play by Jonathan Tolins, a young gay actor in Los Angeles who, like many actors in LaLaLand, is trying to survive economically, gets a job as the curator of the shopping mall Barbra Streisand has created in the basement of her Malibu estate. Yes, the great diva really does have a simulacrum of an old-fashioned American main street in her basement. Otherwise the play, as we (and Streisand's lawyers) are assured at the outset, is fiction. Alex is hired to keep the shops in Streisand's main street clean and be salesperson if the mall's one customer ever arrives. Well, she does, and we revel in Alex's rather bizarre confrontations with the diva as Alex plays out his role as shopkeeper and she pretends not to own the things she is trying to buy. Both Alex and Barbra drive hard bargains, but we know who has to win. Meanwhile, Alex's boyfriend Barry becomes jealous of his infatuation with his legendary employer. Of course, given the Great Lady's reputation for firing people, we know Alex's days are numbered: the only question is when and how.
     Tolins has written a very funny 105 minute monologue. As I said, it could be shorter. People around me were looking at their watches after the first hour. No one can fault Michael Urie, who is delightful. Going at beakneck speed, he plays Alex, boyfriend Barry, Barbra, Mr. Streisand (James Brolin) among other characters. Most of the play is dialogue between Alex and another character, and Urie almost makes one believe there are two people on stage. BUYER AND CELLAR is a great display of Urie's range as a comic actor. One can only hope that a lot of playwrights, directors and producers see this and create better projects for him than that lame short-lived sitcom he appeared in last fall. Urie has been type cast on television as a flamboyant, feckless gay man. He plays that well, but gay people, like their straight counterparts, come in all sizes and shapes of personality. His acting of the scenes between him and boyfriend Barry give us two very different gay men. At any rate, it's a pleasure to watch Urie in such a demanding vehicle. And one that's great fun.
BUYER AND CELLAR by Jonathan Tolins. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. April 1, 2013.