Thursday, 18 July 2013

Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG in London

     Sondheim fans know the checkered history of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. It was given a disastrous production by Harold Prince in 1981 after which Sondheim and Prince parted ways until Prince created a pretty awful production of WISE GUYS two decades later. George Furth's book, like the George S. Kaufman play on which it is based, goes backward in time, taking the characters from forty to twenty. Prince's idea was to have young unknown performers play the characters with the action as a flashback from the central character, Franklin Shepard, speaking at a graduation of his high school over two decades after he graduated. The high school kids suddenly became the characters in Shepard's story. None of it worked. A few years later, Sondheim and James Lapine revised the show for a production at the La Jolla Playhouse. There and for most productions since, the characters have been played by actors closer to the age of the characters at the end of their story (the beginning of the show) and the opening scene at the high school graduation has been scrapped. Over the years Sondheim has made other revisions in the score and some changes have been made to the book by Furth, Lapine and others.
     The recent London production, first presented at the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory, but then transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, has a few new moments, one of which is misjudged. Maria Friedman has staged the show simply and deftly on a unit set. There's a good small band in the pit -- all brass and winds as in the original production. The cast is a mixed bag. Gavin Umbers is fine as Franklin Shepard. Like Bobby in COMPANY (same book writer, George Furth), Frank is a bit of a cipher. He exists mostly in his friends' definitions of him. We're told he's a great composer, though the few examples of songs he has written don't seem that good -- the rest of the score is better. We're told that by becoming a Hollywood producer he has totally sold out artistically and spiritually. Gavin Umbers made as much of his character as one can make. He didn't work the magic on the weakly written character that Rupert Young worked on COMPANY's Bobby a couple of years ago, but one could see Frank's sense of his own emptiness. The judgments of Frank are mostly made by his two best friends, lyricist Charlie Kringas (Damian Humbly) and lovelorn dipsomaniac, Mary Flynn (Jenna Russell). In previous productions, Charlie usually steals the show, but Humbly was merely dull in the part. He came to life for his big number, Franklin Shepard Inc., but mostly seemed to be a judgmental bore. Mary is a tricky part. Why is she part of this menage? Charlie marries her roommate, but Mary remains a  crucial part of the Franklin-Charlie-Mary threesome. Of course, one of the points of the musical is that friendship is greatly nostalgia for the youthful moment when these people became friends, but has little grounding in the present. Mary and Charlie love Frank, but they don't like him. On the night I saw the show, Russell overacted a bit. Over the years, the role of Frank's second wife, musical comedy star Gussie Carnegie, has grown. Now she has a big second act opening number, supposedly the Broadway hit Frank and Charlie have written for her. The song is almost a parody of a bad, generic 1950s musical production number, more Hollywood than Broadway. If this is the sort of thing Frank Shepard wrote, he was wise to become a producer.
     All of which is to say that there are some wonderful numbers in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, but the show still doesn't quite work and not all the many revisions made over the years are improvements. This production has been enthusiastically hailed by the London critics and was cheered by a full house the night I saw it. I was certainly glad to see it. The last scene which takes place as the young Frank, Charlie and Mary watch Sputnick soar over their New York City rooftop, is still one of them most moving moments in musical theatre. However, even the genius Sondheim can't fully bring these characters to life.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Harold Pinter Theatre. June 25, 2013.

Lucy Kirkwood's CHIMERICA at the Almeida Theatre, London

     In Beijing in 1989 Joe, a teenage freelance photographer, manages to snap a photo from a window above Tiananmen Square that becomes for the U.S. the iconic image of resistance -- a young man carrying two shopping bags defiantly stands in front of a tank. Here is an image of a classic American myth, the individual pitted heroically against the forces of oppression. But it that really what the picture depicts? Over twenty years later, the photographer, back in a now much-changed Beijing, hears that the "Tank Man" is still alive and becomes obsessed with finding him. In the process he rides roughshod over the lives of several innocent people. Joe is the Ugly American, ignorant of the very different mores of another culture -- China's. He is also a photographer who believes that pictures can change lives. However, the story behind "Tank Man" is very different from the one he wants to impose on it and the real hero may have been in the tank, not standing in front of it. Joe's Chinese friend who starts him on his obsessive hunt for tank man, turns out to have been a major character in the story behind the picture.
     Lucy Kirkwood's CHIMERICA is a fascinating, complex story about reading and misreading a picture that, by the end of the play, is nothing more than an investment for a young Chinese entrepreneur who was not yet born at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre of student protesters. It might be more effective if it were a bit shorter (it is over three hours long), but it is constantly absorbing. It's a big play -- over twenty characters in dozens of short scenes. At times I wondered if Kirkwood had originally written it as a screenplay. Nonetheless, it really comes alive on stage.
     I have reservations about Lyndsey Turner's production with its constantly revolving stage -- at least five minutes could be cut from the play by eliminating all the revolving from one scene to another. Like long blackouts in film, the revolve slowed down the pace of the narrative. More important, the production lacked a necessary sense of time and place. The play moves from 1989 to the present and across America during the 2012 presidential campaign, yet the production didn't specify where a scene was taking place. I would have preferred a speedier, simpler production. The large cast was excellent. Stephen Campbell Moore seems to specialize in playing nice looking men who are morally ambiguous. He has to carry much of this play and he does it effectively. Benedict Wong is touching as his heroic Chinese friend. Claudie Blakley, who is always good, brings out both the toughness and vulnerability of Tessa, a market researcher who learns hat there is such a thing as an individual and that Americans can't begin to understand China.
     Yes, we're back to the mysterious East, but Kirkwood wants to draw the parallels between two very different cultures. CHIMERICA was one of very few new plays running in London this summer. It does what a good play should do -- it challenges our perceptions of appearances and our stereotypes of human behavior.  
CHIMERICA by Lucy Kirkwood. Almeida Theatre, London. June 26, 2013.

Eugene O'Neill's STRANGE INTERLUDE at the National Theatre, London

     Alan Downer, my drama lit professor in college had a favorite aphorism for bloated, intellectual empty drama, "The elephant labored and brought forth a mouse." I could hear Downer saying this this while watching the National Theatre of Great Britain's expensive revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1924 drama, STRANGE INTERLUDE. Though the play was well staged, beautifully designed and well acted save for one awful casting mistake, my general reaction was "Why bother." To some extent that is often my response to O'Neill revivals.
     Historically Eugene O'Neill was of great importance to the history of American drama, which was for the most part frivolous and formulaic before he came on the scene. He imported European techniques such as expressionism and was a restless experimenter. Unfortunately, he also wrote terribly clunky dialogue and his characters are more often ideas than simulacra of complex human beings. For the most part, his work is so solemn that audience now find it funny. STRANGE INTERLUDE is a prime example of what is wrong with O'Neill's work. Over almost five hours we watch our central character Nina draw men to herself in an effort to find happiness, but happiness is always an impossibility in O'Neill's work. Devastated by the wartime death of her fiancĂ©, Gordon, who was an ideal of masculinity (smart, athletic, heroic, handsome), she moves back into her intellectual father's home until she realizes that she has to find some meaning for her life through service. She becomes a nurse to war veterans, but is impelled to offer them non-medical solace. She attracts two very different men: Charles Marsden, an older classic Mama's boy who is repulsed by sex, and Ned Darrell, a handsome medical researcher. Neither of them want marriage, so they push Nina into a marriage with Sam Evans, a nice guy who is anything but intellectual. Sam worshipped Gordon and is thrilled to catch his former girlfriend. From this point, the play descends into Freudian soap opera. Nina, pregnant with Sam's child discovers from Sam's mother that there is a strain of hereditary insanity in the family and that Nina should abort the child. Mrs. Evans also advises Nina to become impregnated by another man so she and Sam can have a happy child. I doubt if THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS ever came up with a scene as silly as this one. Nina, of course follows Mrs. Evans advice and has a child by the handsome scientist, Ned Darrell, who falls in love with her. Of course she and Sam name the child Gordon after that dead ideal of manhood. All this and we're only a third of the way into the play. For the rest of its Wagnerian length (cut by an hour in this production), we follow Nina's relationships with the many men in her life, all of whom are her satellites and acolytes.
     O'Neill's new technique in STRANGE INTERLUDE was to have the characters voice their thoughts as well as their dialogue. In other words, they speak their subtext. Since nothing very subtle is going on, the actors are constantly stating the obvious. More than anything else, this and the silly, portentous utterances ("Yes our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!") account for the laughter the play now elicits. There are no characters in STRANGE INTERLUDE. Like a medieval allegory we have cardboard personifications: Mama's boy, cold scientist, all-American boy. Since Nina only gains any identity through these cardboard men, she is not a very interesting character. And the whole thing is so humorless and repetitive that it is funny. O'Neill must have had a very low opinion of his audience to feel he had to restate the obvious. Nineteenth-century French hack playwright Auguste Scribe told his proteges that important ideas should be repeated three times to make sure the audience got them: O'Neill seemed to believe repeating them thirty times would be more effective.
     The National Theatre spend a lot of money on this hollow, pretentious play. The audience applauded the grand, revolving sets more than the actors. Nina's costumes were lovely. Director Simon Godwin took a grand opera approach that only made the play seem more hollow. The actors tried their best. The wonderful Anne-Marie Duff did all she could to make Nina a character. Charles Edwards and American actor Darren Pettie, actors I have admired in other roles (Pettie most recently in the superb DETROIT at Playwrights Horizons), seemed at sea here, but what can you do with that awful dialogue? Pettie acted like he thought his lines were as silly as we in the audience did. Jason Watkins, who can only play creepy, was woefully miscast as the supposedly normal (though carrying crazy genes) Sam Evans. Sam is supposedly to be a great success in advertising, but Watkins made him infantile.
     Critics who admire O'Neill more than I have explained the audience's laughter at this revival and a recent one at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington by claiming that contemporary audiences have found a rich, dark comedy in STRANGE INTERLUDE. I think we laugh because it is an overwrought play that has long passed its sell by date. We are laughing at the play, not with it.  
STRANGE INTERLUDE. Royal National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. July 4, 2013.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME - National Theatre production at the Apollo Theatre

     Mark Haddon's novel, THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME is a fascinating mix. Fifteen year old Christopher is writing a memoir in the form of an Arthur Conan Doyle detective novel. He becomes a young Sherlock Holmes trying to solve the murder of a neighbor's dog. In the process he uncovers the disintegration of his own family. Sherlock Holmes has his problems dealing with ordinary society, particularly in the contemporary versions with actors Benedict Cumberpatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Christopher has an extreme form of Asberger's syndrome. He can't be touched without screaming or hitting. He also can't tell a lie in a world in which he is surrounded by dishonesty. It's a lovely novel, both deeply sad and inspiring. But how do you adapt for the stage a novel narrating by an autistic teenager? Somehow Simon Stephens, director Marianne Elliott and their colleagues have turned Haddon's book into an even more surprising, exciting and moving theatre work.
     Bunny Christie's set at first seems simple -- a giant box, but by magic and the superb video projections created by Finn Ross, the box shows us the world as Christopher experiences it. The staging, more like choreography has a group of actors who alternately menace and liberate Christopher, at one point lifting him so that he literally walks the walls. Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly have created a kind of ballet as Christopher journeys to solve his mystery and to find a safe place for himself. It's all theatre magic of the highest order.
       I can't praise the cast highly enough. Johnny Gibbon (who alternates with Luke Treadaway) captures Christopher's vulnerability and his strength. Sean Gleeson shows how Christopher's father's awful mistakes are really expressions of his abiding love for his son.
       Read the book, but also see the play. I can only hope it comes to the US.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME adapted from Mark Haddon's novel by Simon Stephens. Apollo Theatre, London. July 2, 2013.

Tennessee Williams's SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH at the Old Vic and Daniel Radcliffe in Martin McDonagh's THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN

     I put my comments on these two revivals in the same entry in part because I saw them on the same day. Both are star vehicles -- for Kim Cattrall in the Williams play and Daniel Radcliffe in the McDonagh. SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH is always worth reviving with a cast worthy of its poetry. THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN is a mean spirited piece of fluff that is best forgotten.
     In SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, Williams has given us two of his most complex characters. Alexandra del Lago, the aging movie star who is also the Princess Kosmonopolis contains more than a touch of autobiography. After seeing her aging self on the silver screen, she is on the run from the inevitability of age and mortality. A hypochondriac with a treasure chest of drugs and an oxygen tank she, like many Williams characters, uses sex to forget her age. She has picked up twenty-nine year old Chance Wayne, who is obsessed with reviving his relationship with his teenage lover, Heavenly. Getting Heavenly back will restore his youth and innocence. Chance is persona non grata in his home town after infecting Heavenly with a venereal disease. Now branded as a "criminal degenerate" and threatened with castration by Heavenly's father, a version of the racist Mississippi governor Ross Barnett. Chance ruthlessly uses the Princess to try to get to Heavenly.
     Alexandra del Lago is a self-proclaimed "Monster" in a world of monsters. She is a grand character, worthy of a diva performance. Kim Cattrall gave it a game try, but she simply wasn't enough of a monster. There aren't enough notes in her voice, not enough desperation in her manner. She was too safe, too tame. It was a game try, but she's not a big enough actress to play this kind of role. Seth Numrich had more success with Chance. People think of plays like CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH as being vehicles for actresses, but in both plays the male character is the focal -- and longer -- role. Chance is onstage more than the Princess and the play is really his story. At the same time, he is far from a totally sympathetic character. He's is so single-minded in his totally unrealistic obsession with Heavenly that everyone else is treated with disdain. He wants to be in control, but isn't enough of a monster to win. Where Cattrall was playing it safe, Numrich was constantly taking risks. Chance is a typical character in modern American literature, the dreamer who is also a loser. Numrich managed to make us care about Chance while watching his insensitivity and inevitable defeat.
     Marianne Elliott's production broke no new ground, but was perfectly competent. After seeing her brilliant production of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME the previous evening, I was surprised at how traditional this production was. The large supporting cast was fine, but except for Numrich's performance, this BIRD never quite took flight.
     At least SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH is a play worth reviving. I can't say the same for THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN. If you like laughing at the antics of stupid, cruel people, you might like spending two and a half hours watching them. There's not much else you can say about this nasty piece of fluff. Daniel Radcliffe was touching as the cripple who is the butt of many of the cruel jokes -- when you could hear him. A the end, he gets to kiss the girl he has a crush on, but she's a sociopath so it's hardly a happy moment. I found the first act tedious and during the second act I just got increasingly infuriated at the characters and at having paid money to watch them. The play is a pointless exercise, which makes the nastiness all the more gratuitous.
SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. Old Vic Theatre. July 3, 2013
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN. Noel Coward Theatre. July 3, 2013.

Monday, 1 July 2013

James Baldwin's THE AMEN CORNER (National Theatre) and David Mamet's RACE (Hampstead Theatre) in London

     Theatre in London seems decidedly American this summer. There are major revivals of Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, Eugene O'Neill's STRANGE INTERLUDE, Tennessee Williams;s SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, James Baldwin's THE AMEN CORNER and David Mamet's RACE, plus productions of Amy Herzog's 4000 MILES and the Pulitzer Price winning DISGRACED. Opera lovers can see Philip Glass's mediocre new work about Walt Disney, THE PERFECT AMERICAN, dressed up in a lovely production by Phelam McDermott. Most of these productions have been highly praised by the British critics.
      Baldwin's AMEN CORNER is filling the large Olivier Theatre of the National Theatre of Great Britain. The night I went, it received an unusual (for Britain) thunderous standing ovation. A large, uniformly excellent cast under the loving direction of Rufus Norris, proved what a fine play this is, deserving of a position in the canon of classic American drama. The AMEN CORNER centers on Margaret, an evangelist who runs a small church in Harlem. Sister Margaret wants to save her congregation, mostly exiles from the rural South (it is the 1930s) from the temptations of the big city. Unbeknownst to her congregation, she knows those temptations well. She left her husband, a hard drinking, womanizing jazz musician, and took up religion not because he made her unhappy, but because she was too happy in a sensual life. Now she raises her eighteen year old son and shares a small apartment with him and her devoted sister. Margaret's career and life fall apart with her husband returns home, dying of tuberculosis. When the congregation realizes that she left her husband, that she isn't as pure as she claimed to be, they remove her from her position as their preacher. To the women she is a hypocrite, to the men, she becomes just another woman who should have let her man take charge of her life. Baldwin's play is more about gender than race. Yes, these people don't trust the whites they work for, particularly when those whites try to get chummy with them. However, the focus of the play is, as it is in Baldwin's great novel, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, on the relationship of the church, gender and sexuality. When she is placed on the receiving end of the merciless judgment of her parishioners, Margaret realizes too late "the quality of mercy", that God loves all his creation and that she should not have been as harsh and judgmental of the weaknesses of her flock.
      Rufus Norris's production is filled with magnificent singing from the London Gospel Choir. It is also distinguished by fine acting from Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Margaret. Jean-Baptiste is not a physically big woman, but she convinces you of the size of Margaret's authority. Cecilia Noble is both funny and hateful as the sanctimonious, virginal Sister Moore who wants to take over the church. Sharon D. Clarke plays Margaret's fiercely loving sister and the ubiquitous Lucian Msmati brings out the life and love affirming nature of Margaret's prodigal husband.
      This production of THE AMEN CORNER was a special occasion, one of the best evenings of theatre I have experienced in years.
        David Mamet's RACE is typical late Mamet. It's full of power plays but, as in OLEANNA, the most treacherous character turns out to be the woman who begins in a subservient position. The title tells you that the play will be about RACE, the one subject whites cannot discuss in front of Black people. A wealthy white man has been accused of raping a young Black woman in a hotel room. The play takes place in the office of the lawyers he has chosen to defend him. It's a small firm with a white and a Black senior partner and a young Black female clerk. Clearly the defendant has chosen the firm because of the Black partner. As the lawyers deal with the case in which the evidence mounts against their client, there are numerous provocative discussions of race. The message is that Blacks mistrust and hate whites and that they should.
        Equally important is the play's treatment of gender. The crime is rape, after all, the brutal exercise of power of a man over a woman (and, in this case, a white over a Black). We also watch a young woman assert her power over her bosses and their client.
         The play is a kind of machine, a platform for discussion. The narrative is carried forward by the creakiest of theatrical devices. Messengers arrive at all hours with key information on the case, letters are delivered at all hours. Arthur Wing Pinero couldn't have constructed a creakier scenario. This group of actors, under Terry Johnson's direction, manage to do all they can to humanize the characters. RACE  in this production offers a lively eighty minutes of theatre. Like all of Mamet's work, it is basically heartless but, in this case, fun and provocative.
THE AMEN CORNER. Royal National Theatre Olivier Theatre. June 28, 2013
RACE. Hampstead Theatre. June 29, 2013.