Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tarrell Alvin McCraney's CHOIR BOY at the Alliance Theatre

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

Saturday, 14 September 2013


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

Saturday, 7 September 2013


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

Friday, 6 September 2013


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

Thursday, 5 September 2013


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

Tuesday, 3 September 2013


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

Monday, 2 September 2013


     I am ashamed to say that until last night I had never seen a Horton Foote play. Some years ago I read his Pulitzer Prize winning work, THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA. Being ignorant of the complex backstories of the characters who had appeared in other Foote plays, I was disturbed by what seemed to be a defense of the provincial homophobia of the characters. I decided it is time to give his highly celebrated work another try. Foote, who died in 2009, had a career that spanned over 65 years. He wrote successfully for film, television and the stage. Most of his stage work takes place in a small, fictional Texas town. He is a master of domestic realism. His plays don't have the metaphysical element one finds in Edward Albee's work or the poetry of the outsider one finds in the plays of Tennessee Williams. Nonetheless, his dialogue is beautiful to hear, his narratives well crafted and his characters fully drawn. Like Chekhov, Foote is interested in characters trapped in a provincial society. Like Chekhov, his tactic of  getting his exposition out of the way at the outset is not totally convincing, but once past that. his plays are absorbing and wonderful vehicles for good acting.
     THE OLD FRIENDS, now having its premiere run at the wonderful Signature Theatre, has had a long history. First drafted in the mid-1960s as a sequel to a play he wrote in the mid-1940s, it received a staged reading in 1982 and a reading at the Signature in 2002 but for some reason was never given a full production. After the Signature reading, Foote embarked on revisions, but the play was never produced in his lifetime (he died in 2009). After seeing this brilliantly acted production, one wonders why the play took so long to get to the stage. THE OLD FRIENDS is a tense family melodrama. It might remind you of Lillian Hellman's THE LITTLE FOXES, though it is better written and less overtly melodramatic -- here, as in Chekhov, guns go off but no one is killed. Its brilliant characterizations of Southern women on the verge of nervous breakdowns might remind you of Tennessee Williams, but without the Gothic elements. The nastiness might recall Edward Albee's work (this was first written about the time of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF), but without the despair.
     THE OLD FRIENDS is an ironic title for a play about a group of small town folk who despise each other but can't seem to live apart. The play centers on three different but powerful women. Two of them, Julia (Veanne Cox) and Gertrude (Betty Buckley) see themselves as the wealthiest, most powerful women in their small town. Neither is happy. Julia and her husband Albert have a long, unhappy, childless marriage (the wealthy women in this town either aren't very fertile or didn't have much of a sexual relationship with their husbands). Albert won't speak to Julia's mother, who lives with them (did she engineer this unhappy marriage). Julia drinks to tolerate her husband, who spends most of the play drunk, her mother, and her supposed friends. Gertrude, an alcoholic, just lost her husband but hardly seems grief stricken. Most of her energy is spent clinging to her husband's younger brother, Howard (Cotter Smith), the real love of her life who has devoted himself to managing Gertrude's property holdings. In her relatively sober moments, Gertrude ruthlessly wields power to control the people around her:, particularly Howard: her alcoholic moments lead to violent, destructive tantrums. Enter Sybil (Hallie Foote), Julia's recently widowed sister-in-law, who has returned home after thirty years away. Sybil's husband, Julia's brother, was an oil speculator who lost everything. Sybil is dirt poor, but she has a quiet strength the other women lack. Sybil's re-entry into Harrison "society" is the catalyst for violent strains on the tenuous relationships of these unhappy characters.
     Foote is fascinated by the ways in which materialism has corrupted the lives of these people. Their wealth and possessions don't make them happy. Indeed their dependence on things and their use of other people have poisoned their lives. Only Sybil with her books and her sense of self, Howard (who like a Chekhov character just wants to get back to the land and the simple life) and matriarch Mamie (Lois Smith) seem content, but can they live in this town without desperate Gertrude and Julia invading and literally trashing their homes and their lives?
     THE OLD FRIENDS is a entertaining, troubling and totally absorbing play. Foote is not only a great craftsman; he writes dialogue that is a joy to hear. The play has been given a perfect production under the direction of Foote's longtime collaborator, Michael Wilson. What can one say about this starry cast? Betty Buckley gives a bravura performance as the monstrous Gertrude. Why has no one revived SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH for her? No one plays a poisonous grande dame better than Buckley. Hallie Foote provides a perfect contrast. Watch her quietly watching the excesses of the women she despises. She doesn't have to speak to dominate the stage. Veanne Cox captures Julia's battle against age and boredom and Lois Smith is delightful as the sweet but tough matriarch absorbing the cruelty of her daughter and son-in-law and finding joy in a simpler life. Only one male character is pivotal -- Howard, whom Gertrude fights to possess but who has always loved Sybil, who just wants to    farm on his own. Cotter Smith gives Howard a good deal of dignity, but enough tentativeness to make us wonder if he has the resolve to follow his dream.
     Brilliant acting of an excellent script. What more can one ask? And for $25!!
      By the way, if you haven't been to the Pershing Square Signature Center, you are missing the most pleasant theatrical experience in New York City. This impressive new center, designed by Frank Gehry, has four comfortable, intimate theaters and a commodious lobby area with a nice bookshop and an excellent bar cafe with good, reasonably priced food and drink. There's usually live music in the lobby area before the performances. The Signature produces old and new work by established American playwrights. Its fare is less experimental than Playwrights Horizons, a block east on 42nd Street, which focuses on new work. Like its neighbor, the Signature attracts the best actors, directors and designers. Both theatres have friendly, young front of house workers who help make the theatergoing experience pleasant. What a contrast to the overpriced, uncomfortable Broadway houses.
THE OLD FRIENDS. Signature Theatre. September 1, 2013.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Anne Washburn's MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY at Playwrights Horizons

     OK, here's a generalization -- there's a basic problem with plays built on concepts rather than characters and narrative. Given that there is no particular reason to care about the people on stage beyond their role as carriers of the play's idea or gimmick, the play can become tiresome once we "get" what's going on. Everything depends on the execution, which has to be constantly interesting and surprising. Regina Taylor's stop.reset., reviewed in my last entry, balanced a challenging, important question about the clash between past and present modes of transmission of information and memories with interesting characters. The same cannot be said of Anne Washburn's clever but only fitfully absorbing MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY, which went on far too long for its content.
      The play begins with five people sitting around a fire recounting at great length an episode of THE SIMPSONS. Now I have only watched THE SIMPSONS a few times in my life, so watching this scene go on and on reminded me of being at a party from hell where stoned people try to recount at great length a movie or tv episode you haven't seen or tell the same joke over and over. TIme seems to stop. About ten minutes into this, you realize that one guy is armed and guarding this small encampment. Another person enters and the drama comes to life. We discover that there has been a series of meltdowns of nuclear power plants that have caused massive radioactive poisoning and a total loss of electric power. Washburn wisely gives only sketchy exposition: this is, after all, familiar disaster movie territory. In this new wasteland, people try to discover who might still be alive. They also try to keep a semblance of culture going by piecing together their memories of episodes of THE SIMPSONS and movies like CAPE FEAR and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. The newcomer can only sing bits of Gilbert and Sullivan, but his impromptu recital is appreciated by the others. In a post-electric world, any form of entertainment is welcome.
     The second scene takes place seven years later. The group we met in the first scene seem to have become a sort of theatre troupe rehearsing bits of sitcoms (THE SIMPSONS, of course), medleys of past top 40 hits and "commercials" that offer a nostalgic picture of the past when there were hot baths and chilled chablis. In this new world, one has to pay (with what currency?) for others' memories of moments from sitcoms. There also seems to be a rivalry between performing troupes that can lead to violence. Of course, performances have to take place in the daytime when there is light. So the insatiable hunger for entertainment has survived in a bizarre form in post-electric America.
      In the final scene, we are seventy-five years farther into the future where a troupe is presenting a musical made up of bits of THE SIMPSONS episode that was previously recounted. Original music has been mixed with bits of Gilbert and Sullivan. By this time, this collage of memories of past entertainment have been remolded into a new work of art.\ with fairly elaborate scenery. This verse drama with songs turns THE SIMPSONS into a recounting of the past disaster and an artistic embodiment of the terror of living in this new radioactive world. Mr. Burns, the sometimes sinister SIMPSONS character becomes the embodiment of all the terrors of living in this new society. Yet at its finale, this musical becomes an unintentional parody of the traditional Broadway musical's expression of optimism and self-assertion and ends with a patriotic hymn to the music of Arthur Sullivan. Popular art survives, but hasn't changed much.
      The show only came to life in the musical moments, particularly the Top 40 medley in the second scene. The musical that filled the final scene went on too long and the music (Michael Friedman) was more awful than the worst Broadway score (well, maybe not as bad as the score for ONCE). Perhaps its eerie tunelessness was intentional, but if so the joke wore very thin over half and hour.
      Throughout the cast did what it had to do well enough, but since they had no characters to play, they seemed somewhat adrift. Steve Cosson's direction seems listless.
       MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY offers a celebration of the human need to make theatre even in a terrible world, yet the theatre that is created is still dependent on conventions of television and the commercial theatre. THE SIMPSONS moves from memory to nostalgia to the basis for a work of art that says something about the past and present of the people performing it and watching it. However, since the creators of MR. BURNS seem to feel superior to the conventions of the Broadway musical, they offer a dark vision of the future of human existence and of art in a post-electric world.
      Yes, MR BURNS is clever, but it is far too long. Maybe it will get more of a sense of pace (this was an early preview), but the script is in desperate need of editing. I can't help thinking it would be better if it were the length of a SIMPSONS episode. I kept wanting to scream, "I get it. Move on already!"
MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY. Playwrights Horizons. August 31, 2013.