Wednesday, 30 October 2013

TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY by Meghan Kennedy at the Roundabout Theatre

     I must say that I was at first a bit irritated at TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY. I have a pet peeve about plays written as if they were tv shows -- lots of short scenes with pauses between as if waiting for the commercials to be edited in. However, the scenes got longer, the pauses shorter as the play progressed and by half an hour into its seventy minutes, I was totally won over. Kennedy writes characters one comes to care about.
     I guess one could sum up the play in a simple-minded way by saying it is about love and loss. It is in the quasi-Gothic middle-American mode of a number of recent plays by young playwrights; for instance, Sam Hunter's THE WHALE and Stephen Karam's SONS OF THE PROPHET. The central character in TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY is Rose (Phyllis Somerville), a seventy-eight year old woman who hasn't left her bedroom since her husband James (James Rebhorn), in a fog of Alzheimer's, drowned in the lake by their home. Rose is cared for by her thirty-nine year old daughter Emma (Rebecca Henderson) who has also cut herself off from the world and who lives with vivid memories of her father. Every night Emma must recount to her mother how James's body was found. Enter the handsome, mysterious young preacher (Luke Kirby) who takes it upon himself to get Rose out of her room and Emma out of the house. In essence, Rose and Emma are dead to the world. Can they be brought back to life? Rose has lost the love that made her life worth living and Emma seems to live in fear of any loving connection except with her parents. The pastor, who has suffered his own tragic losses, can only be saved by saving someone else.
     I know this synopsis sounds trite -- it's a difficult play to describe without giving away too many of its surprises. Like many of her contemporaries, Kennedy writes in the classic American style of poetic realism. The writing is lovely, and it is heightened by the superb production the play has been given in the tiny Black Box Theatre under the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. Sheryl Kaller has staged and paced the play effectively and the actors couldn't be better. Somerville, Rebhorn and Kirby are familiar faces from film and television. They are also accomplished stage actors whose performances are totally honest. I liked Rebecca Henderson in THE WHALE and here she quietly and subtly brings out Emma's pain and fear. This is one of those cases where one can't separate play and production. I can't imagine it done otherwise or better.
     The play's epigraph is from Walt Whitman, Rose's favorite poet: "We were together. I forget the rest." There is no lovelier or more succinct testament of love. Without that kind of love, the characters in TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY aren't really alive even if love inevitably leads to loss. The romantic in me couldn't help but respond to this rich, touching play despite the stops and starts of the first half hour or so.
 TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY. A Roundabout Theatre Production. Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

WARRIOR CLASS by Kenneth Lin at the Alliance Theatre

     This thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking play falls into the category of what I call "con plays." David Mamet's plays tend to fall into this category as do those of Neil LaBute and a number of younger playwrights. The action of the play is built on one character scheming to outwit and foil another. Often the audience does not know until the end of the play who has been controlling the action. Unfortunately the lesser examples of this category seem mechanical because there is little more to them than the machinery.  The characters have little substance -- they are just pawns in the game. Ethan Coen's recent WOMEN OR NOTHING is an example of the pitfalls of this sort of play. The beauty of Kenneth Lin's WARRIOR CLASS is that action always seems to stem from character, yet the characters are too complex to be fully explained. We are left at the end with a number of questions.
     Julius Washington Lee is a thirty-nine year old aspiring New York politician on the way up. He's a military hero, selfless community leader, brilliant orator. He is now a state assemblyman with ambitions to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. He's also a first generation Chinese-American. There are very few Chinese-American politicians who have made it very far up the political ladder. This somewhat Faustian character has his own Mephistopheles, a political fixer, Nathan Berkshire, who lives to combine ambitious politicians with the big money necessary to run campaigns. The big money people, of course, have their own agenda. Lee really seems to be an ideal politician, eager to get ahead but also insistent on staying clean, of rising above the dirty aspects of politics. Is that possible, particularly when one puts oneself in the hands of a Nathan Berkshire (a made-up name if there ever was one, a WASP name for a Jewish political fixer).
     Being a clean politician means having a squeaky clean past, particularly in the age of the Wieners and Spitzers. Unfortunately, in doing due diligence on Lee, Berkshire has discovered an ex-college girlfriend, Holly Eames. When Julius and Holly broke up, Julius started stalking her, which frightened Holly so much that she had a nervous breakdown. Like Dennis in Michael Pearlman's fine FROM WHITE PLAINS, Holly has never been able to get over her twenty-year-old trauma. Now she can get even. The price of her silence will be a juicy government job for her unemployed, unfaithful husband who's also involved in a bank scandal. Holly is sure Julius has not changed, that he can't possibly be fit for public office.
     Our sympathies throughout this eighty minute play are with Julius, but there are gnawing questions. What's going on with his marriage? Has he really changed or is the scary kid still in there somewhere? If he really wants to be squeaky clean, why is he consorting with Nathan Berkshire?
     Everybody's home life seems to be a mess in WARRIOR CLASS. Holly's marriage is in trouble. Julius's seems to be breaking apart. Nathan's child is an addict. If people can't control their own lives, how can they govern?
     I won't give away the "surprise" ending of WARRIOR CLASS. Actually there are clear signposts along the way of what is really transpiring. The play is too rich to be totally wrapped up by its conclusion.
     I saw the first preview, so the rhythm isn't quite there yet, but the acting is excellent all around. Carrie Walrond Hood has a slightly irritating high-pitched voice, but she captures Holly's desperation. Moses Villarama looks and acts like the ideal politician who seems almost too controlled. Clayton Landey captures Nathan's bonhomie and his desperate need to control the action. Director Eric Ting has set up the black box Hertz Stage so that the audience sits on two sides of the stage. The action is played on a slow moving turntable (like those rooftop bars in old Holiday Inns) so that the audience can see all sides of the actors who are often sitting at tables. Unfortunately this mechanical movement is also distracting and robs the play of some of its intensity.
     Some readers were furious with me when I observed in my review of HARMONY that everything in Atlanta gets a standing ovation, which renders standing ovations meaningless. Oddly, last night's performance of WARIOR CLASS did not get a standing ovation. This may mean that the play left the audience cold. It also may mean that the play left the viewers with a lot to think about. If the rhythm picks up, which I'm sure it will, this will be a top-notch production of an absorbing play.
WARRIOR CLASS by Kenneth Lin. Alliance Theatre Hertz Stage, Atlanta, October 25, 2013.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Lynn Nottage's MEET VERA STARK at the Alliance Theatre

     I was a great admirer of Lynn Nottage's RUINED, a harrowing picture of women trying to survive in a war torn African country. I saw it in New York and in London and was happy to be on the jury that nominated it for the Pulitzer Prize. Her MEET VERA STARK is both a comedy and a serious exploration of how Black women have had to enact stereotypes in order to survive economically. The play is uneven, to put it mildly; funny in places, draggy and repetitive in others. In the Alliance Theatre production, slack direction and the lack of a sense of ensemble only underscores the play's weaknesses.
     In the first act, set in 1933, Vera Stark (Toni Trucks) is the maid to Gloria Mitchell (Courtney Patterson), "Hollywood's Sweetheart." Gloria is an undisciplined, gin-soaked mess kept on track by Vera's ministrations. The two have an odd relationship that should raise some red flags for the audience. How can Vera get away with being so sassy and bossy to her boss? The play doesn't answer that question until the final scene, but hints are certainly there. The smart, pretty and talented Vera shares an apartment with Lottie (Nikiya Mathis), a former Broadway showgirl who has eaten her way into Hollywood Mammy roles, and the light-skinned Anna Mae (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), who succeeds in masquerading as a "Brazilian bombshell" and bedding a major director. At a party in Gloria's swanky home, all these women perform various gender and racial stereotypes, hoping to get roles in a film epic about a consumptive octoroon in ante bellum New Orleans. There are moments in the first act that are hilarious and others that simply drag. The play desperately needs editing.
     The second act begins at a film conference in 2003 where Vera Stark's career is discussed by three caricatures of film critics including a lesbian feminist poet and performance artist sporting an Angela Davis Afro, a chic mixed-race cultural critic with the wonderful name Carmen Levy-Green and an over-stimulated Black male critic. While these academic caricatures natter on and on, they offer two superb Ć’ilm clips. The first is the final scene from "The Belle of New Orleans," the film the women in act I were shamelessly auditioning for. Here the women are flamboyantly parading stereotypes: the dying belle who announces the horrific fact that she is an octoroon; her devoted servant; the exotic woman with an accent (supposedly Creole) and the Mammy. The film saved Gloria Mitchell's career and made Vera Stark as much a star as a Black woman could be in 1933. The scene (a black and white film) is an hilarious parody. Oddly only a few in my audience caught on that it was supposed to be funny. There is also a devastating clip from a 1973 television talk show, sort of a Mike Douglas-Merv Griffin program (performed live) in which an sixty-something year old Vera, heavily made up, bizarrely clad and tipsy appears. After years of unemployment, Vera has a short stint in a Las Vegas show room. She has become a grotesque caricature of a Black (or Negro, as she calls herself) female performer. When Gloria Mitchell, now the wife of a famous British conductor, is brought on, Vera is at first affectionate, then furious at the different paths their lives have taken. The emcee keeps trying to bring the discussion back to "The Belle of New Orleans," but Vera can only note how the film has trapped her in the past and in a role she now hates. Vera made a conscious choice to play the only kind of role that was available to her in film, but it did not lead to a happy or fulfilling life.
     Nottage has a fascinating premise here, but MEET VERA STARK comes alive only fitfully. Act I is too long. The film scene and talk show scene are strong moments, but they are surrounded by the repetitive talk of the academic caricatures. The important flashback that should be a climactic moment seems tacked on. The problems in the script have been reinforced by the production. Director Leah C. Gardiner has allowed her actors to be too hammy when the play calls for discipline and a sense of ensemble. You are watching actors trying to be funny. Nothing is less funny than that, so the humor is fitful. The production also lacks pace -- tempo -- and that is deadly in comedy. I'm not sure the size and shape of the Alliance doesn't also work against the play. It's a strange space, much wider than it is deep. The play might do better in a more intimate venue. The actors seem to be working hard to fill the space. I enjoyed parts of MEET VERA STARK, but it needs both a tighter script and a tighter production.
MEET VERA STARK by Lynn Nottage. Alliance Theatre, Atlanta. October 22, 2013.  

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Elevator Repair Service's ARGUENDO at the Public Theatre

     I knew that ARGUENDO was a reenactment of the 1991 Supreme Court arguments over an Indiana statute forbidding nude dancing in nightclubs. I didn't know why the playful title sounded musical to me. "Arguendo" as in crescendo or diminuendo. Well, ARGUENDO does have a kind of musical structure, beginning with a very visually static press conference and building over its eighty minutes to a bizarre bacchanal and closing with quiet, static moments. It's not merely a re-enactment of a court case that had arguments that were like something out of an Ionesco play, though no playwright could invent the dialogue we hear. "Would the same law apply if there were nude dancing at an opera?" When is a dance expressive and when is it merely obscene? The justices sound foolish, but so do the lawyers on both sides of the case. This is not so much a play about freedom of expression and the right to dance naked as it is about the absurdity of a Supreme Court argument. And of the power games of the court. When the female judges decided on lace collars on their robes, Chief Justice Rehnquist had four thin gold strips put on the arms of his robes to show his authority. The idea came from a low budget production of Gilbert and Sullivan's IOLANTHE, and the daftness of the justice in that operetta comes to mind here. Of course Antonin Scalia comes off as chief clown, but how could he not?
     If I expected one of those parables of artistic freedom, I was pleasantly surprised to see something far richer and more disturbing. Funny, yes, but also scary. This is the highest level of our justice system sounding like lunatics. John Collins has staged the work to underscore the lunacy. Justices in wheeled chairs glide around as if in an odd ballet. Eventually the argument reaches a mad, musical conclusion with the help of the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Strauss's SALOME and the Bacchanale from "SAMSON ET DALILA." There is, as there must be, a bit of nude dancing, but not at all how one expected it. Even at eighty minutes, the work feels repetitive at times, but that is because the arguments are madly repetitive.
     The six member cast manages to do deadly caricatures of the justice's mannerisms. They have obviously listened to the recordings of the trial, but they don't merely mimic. Everything is raised to the level of cartoon. As the voices are amplified, so are the impersonations.
     I must say that at my performance a number of people didn't make it to the end. Despite the repetition, it's a work that must be seen whole. It is full of surprises.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Jack Canfora's JERICHO at 59E59

     I went to the first preview of JERICHO because two of my former students had featured roles. I hadn't see their work since they were undergraduates two decades ago. Thanks to TDF, I got a good, very cheap ticket -- another incentive. I also read the favorab;e TIMES review of the previous production at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.
      Essentially, JERICHO centers on the isolation of two people who are riddled with guilt. Because they don't like themselves, they cause damage to the people that love them. The moment of crisis for both of them was 9/11. The night before, Beth (Eleanor Handley), with a history of broken relationships, tells her husband Alec (Kevin Isola) that she wants a divorce. He goes to work in the World Trade Center the next morning and never comes back -- except in Beth's mind where he is a constant presence. She even sees him in her middle-aged female Korean therapist (the same actor plays Alec and the therapist). Beth is trying to have a relationship with Ethan (Andrew Rein) a nice Jewish bloke with his own history of multiple failed romances. Ethan's brother Josh (Noel Joseph Allain) is even more haunted by 9/11. His placing his own survival ahead of the needs of the people around him have led him to hate himself, his wife and his country. His refuge has become his Judaism. Feeling no part of any other community, he wants to go to Israel where he thinks he will find a sense of belonging. He identifies with Israel's condition of being constantly embattled. His wife Jessica (Carol Todd) is infuriated at Josh's bitterness and rejection. All this comes to a head at a Thanksgiving dinner from hell at the home of Ethan and Josh's mother (Jill Eikenberry as the stereotypical guilt-inducing Jewish mother).          
     JERICHO is a mixed bag -- one of those plays where you say there's a good play in there but it needs more work, more tightening the parallels between the two focal characters and cutting back on less essential, more stereotypical figures like the Jewish mother. Jack Canfora writes very well, but one problem is that his characters tend to alternate between inarticulacy -- speeches filled with hesitations and "You knows" -- and eloquent long speeches. There's too much of the bickering between Josh and Jessica. We get increasingly heated versions of the same argument that finally goes over the top at the Thanksgiving dinner (alcohol fueled, of course). The first long scene between Josh and Jessica cut be cut down-- one could feel the restless of the audience during that long scene.                
      With one exception, the cast is very strong. Eleanor Handley serves as a quasi-narrator, beginning and ending the play. She's a charming actress who understand's Beth's complexity. Carol Todd manages to make Jessica's rants sympathetic. Andrew Rein shows us that there's something going on under the surface of Ethan's pleasantness, an anger that could bubble up. Kevin Isola has to play Beth's imaginary Alec, more her fabrication than who he really was, but he makes Alec a totally winning figure. Jill Eikenberry wisely underplays the Linda Lavin role. This is a strong ensemble in an ensemble play. They are let down by the one note performance of Noel Joseph Allain who sulks and broods monotonously throughout the play. As a result, it is impossible to feel any sympathy for Ethan. With such winning colleagues, he stands out like a sore thumb.
     Director Evan Bergman and his designer Jessica Parks have filled the stage with stacks of old furniture. The actors have to take the furniture necessary for a scene from the stacks and replace it at the end of the scene. The set may be a metaphor for the crippling power of memory, but unfortunately the stage just looks like a bunch of miscellaneous old furniture and getting the pieces back on the stacks is sometimes a problem. Simpler would have been better. Within this detritus, the play is well staged and, with one exception, Bergman has built a solid, well-functioning ensemble.
     Despite Allain's performance and the weaknesses in the script, I enjoyed JERICHO. There's enough good stuff there to make an absorbing play. I do think it would play better as a one and three quarter hour intermissionless play. Like most contemporary playwrights, Canfora writes in episodes, not in the larger structure of an act (a lost art). The act break seems arbitrary, except as a reason to set up the big dinner scene. And we've heard those Jewish mother jokes before.
JERICHO by Jack Canfora. Directed by Evan Bergman. 59E59 Theatre B. October 4, 2013.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Norbert Leo Butz Works Magic in Susan Stroman's production of John August and Andrew Lippa's BIG FISH

     Tim Burton's film BIG FISH (screenplay John August from Daniel Wallace's novel) isn't as big and Gothic as Burton's films usually are. Its central character is Edward Bloom, an Alabama fabulist who cannot help creating and telling fantastic stories about his past involving mermaids, witches and giants. Bloom has turned his life into a myth. Is any of it true? That question plagues his much more literal minded son, eager to know who is dying father really is. Burton turned this story into a Fellini-ish spectacle, hurt by miscasting Albert Finney with a terrible accent as the older Bloom and Ewan MacGregor as his younger self. Some of the effects were interesting -- they always are in a Burton movie -- but, typical of Burton, the film is heartless
        The new musical BIG FISH (book by John August, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, direction Susan Stroman) is anything but heartless. The creators realize that essentially this is a family story, capturing a man's undying love for his wife and one of the central American dramatic themes (think DEATH OF A SALESMAN, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT), a growing understanding and love between a father and a son. Where the film is cold, the show is sweet. Where the film seems to sprawl, the show is tight, enacting only the tales Bloom weaves that are necessary for us to understand his life.
     Most of all, the show is a vehicle for a great star turn and a brilliant designer. Norbert Leo Butz plays both young and old Edward Bloom and has the majority of musical numbers. It's a tour de force and he gives a magnificent performance. He's such an immensely likable performer that the audience is with him from his first entrance. From then on he holds the stage effortlessly in what is an extremely demanding role. He totally inhabits his character. It reminded me how much better acting has gotten in musicals since I was a kid. We had star turns by good comics or singers getting through the lines passably. Directors like George Abbott weren't very concerned with the book scenes. Now we have a superb batch of singing actors who can do anything well. Even in this field, Butz's performance stands out. Bobby Steggert is excellent as Bloom's skeptical son. Like Butz, he seems to be able to do anything well. Kate Baldwin doesn't have as much to do, but plays the loving wife wwith warmth and charm and, as always, sings beautifully. The supportin cast couldn't be better.
      The second giant star of this production is British designer Julian Crouch. Visually, this is one of them most beautiful productions I have seen. Much of the work is done by video projections. I have watched this technology be used well (KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, many operatic productions) and used terribly (Trevor Nunn's production of Tom Stoppard's THE COAST OF UTOPIA, Andrew Lloyd Webber's disastrous THE WOMAN IN WHITE). Crouch and his team (59 Productions) have used projections to create both the fantasy scenes and the family saga. There are also some dazzling live effects. Everything works. And William Ivey Long's costumes, particularly in the fantasy sequences and stunning. Visually the show is sheer magic.
     Of course, one cannot credit the designer without giving ample praise to the director. Stroman has done her best work here, better as director than as choreographer. The dance routines are nothing to write home about, but she tells the story movingly and has used her actors well. I can't imagine a better production of this work. I saw a late preview that lost its rhythm in the last ten minutes -- that needs some tightening up--but otherwise looked ready to open.
     Last, but certainly not least, John August's book well constructed and deeply moving and Andrew Lippa's score is perfect for the story and even memorable. We found ourselves singing one of the songs are we walked down 8th Avenue after the show.
     Yes, I loved BIG FISH. An extremely well written and performed show with a lot of heart. It's not a well constructed machine like so many recent Broadway musicals. Much of the show's warmth comes from Norbert Leo Butz'. It's a performance no one who loves musical theatre should miss.
BIG FISH. Neil Simon Theatre. October 2, 2013.