Monday, 29 December 2014


It has been an extraordinary year for new American plays. I have had to cheat and add a long Honorable Mention list. In no particular order, here are my Ten (well, actually 11) Best New York productions of 2014:
APPROPRIATE and AN OCTOROON. These two very different plays demonstrate the unique talent of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. APPROPRIATE, produced at the Signature, focused on a white family in an old Southern plantation home discovering the shameful aspect of their inheritance. AN OCTOROON, produced at Soho Rep, was a dizzying revision of Dion Boucicault's nineteenth-century hit. Don't miss it when it comes to Brooklyn this Spring.
BOOTYCANDY (Playwrights Horizons). Robert O'Hara's hilarious series of sketches on growing up gay and Black.
OUR LADY OF KIBEHO (Signature). Katori Hall's absorbing play about a teenage girl who has a vision of the Virgin Mary in Rwanda shortly before the horrors that took place in that country. Michael Greif gave this captivating play a brilliant production.
FUN HOME (Public). The best new musical of 2014. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's adaptation of the classic graphic novel has three actresses playing the central character at three ages. Michael Cerveris is heartbreaking as her closeted gay father. Great score.
THE INVISIBLE HAND (New York Theatre Workshop). The mix of American capitalism and Islamic terrorism set off a powerful chain reaction in Ayed Akhtar's provocative, intelligent play.
THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE (Public). A great score by Michael Friedman, a good book by Itimar Moses, a vivid production by Daniel Aukin and a winning star turn from Adam Chanler-Berat made this story of the friendship of two boys in Brooklyn in the 1970s one of the best musicals of the year.
THE REALISTIC JONESES (Broadway). I'm not sure that Will Eno's oddball dark comedy about communication in marriage belonged in a big Broadway theatre, but it's a fascinating play. Great performances by Marisa Tomei, Tracey Letts and Michael C. Hall.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (Broadway). The most ravishingly beautiful Broadway score in years; a well-crafted book; simple, but effective staging and grand performances from Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME. I don't put this in this year's Top Ten because it is a British import and I included it last year. It's the one Broadway show that should be on everyone's must see list.
MOTHERS AND SONS (Broadway). Terrence McNally's most recent look at where gay men -- at least upper-middle-class urban gay men -- are now. The premise is a bit shaky, but the writing is beautiful.
ON THE TOWN and SIDE SHOW. Two great revivals. John Rando and Joshua Bergasse's production of the Leonard Bernstein classic ON THE TOWN is sheer magic from beginning to end. Even the dated comic scenes take on new life in this production. Bill Condon's rethinking of SIDE SHOW gives the show more coherence and emotional power than the original and Henry Krieger's score -- hardly Bernstein, but still one of the best of the past twenty years, is beautifully sung.
Conor McPherson's sad but riveting THE NIGHT ALIVE (Atlantic), Stephen Adley Guirgis's BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY (Atlantic) and Susan Lori Parks FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS (Public).
And the fabulous production of Ionesco's THE KILLERS at Theatre for a New Audience.

POCATELLO by Samuel D. Hunter at Playwrights Horizons

     As I look back on my theatergoing in 2014, two of the best performances I have seen were in plays by Samuel D. Hunter: Gideon Glick's kinetic performance in as a teenager looking for a home in THE FEW at Rattlestick and T.R. Knight's total immersion into the lonely, desperate central character in POCATELLO. Hunter is an actors' playwright. He's also a theatrical poet whose terrain is the loneliness, anger and despair people can feel in twenty-first century America. His plays are set in the area in which he grew up, the towns and highways of Idaho.
     The setting for POCATELLO, convincingly designed by Lauren Helpern, is one of those chain faux-Italian restaurants that offer large salads in plastic bowls and endless breadsticks. Within this restaurant, a group of people try to maintain a fantasy of family. Eddie (T.R. Knight), the manager, has invited his mother and his older brother and his wife who are visiting from St. Paul, to dinner. Eddie has been making a futile attempt to keep this failing restaurant afloat. His father owned a diner and killed himself when the business failed. Like everything else in this town, the restaurant Eddie manages is owned by a corporation, but Eddie cannot stand the idea of failing as his father did. He hasn't informed his workers that the restaurant is abut to shut down. Eddie wants and needs a sense of love and protection from his family, but they have moved on emotionally and geographically. His mother decided to distance herself from Eddie when she discovered he was gay. She feared that her closeness to him was a contributing factor. His brother can't stand being back in the town where his father killed himself. We see Eddie's panic mount as his behavior gets more and more erratic. A romantic would say that Eddie needs a boyfriend, a partner, but we don't see much sign that love and marriage make people happy in the land of chain restaurants and box stores. At a neighboring table we see the family of Troy (Danny Wolohan), one of Eddie's waiters. Troy's father is suffering from dementia and has been placed in the county home. He still suffers from losing the hardware store he once owned -- it has been replaced by a Home Depot. Troy's wife, who falls on and off the wagon, isn't quite ready to settle for a compromised life. Their seventeen-year-old daughter is obsessed with the poisons in everyone's food, water and air. Max (Cameron Scoggins), another waiter, has a drug problem.
     POCATELLO is a better written twenty-first century version of Eugene O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH, but here there are no pipe dreams to stave off bleak reality. Yet, unlike O'Neill's lumbering play, POCATELLO doesn't feel bleak -- and it's half as long!. Hunter clearly loves all of his characters and he has the gift, through his graceful language, of making us care for them. Here are people who lead lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation, but there is grace and sometimes humor in the way they deal with the grayness of their lives. Only poor Eddie can't find a way to move on. He keeps trying to go back to the past, but that is impossible.
     Under Davis McCallum's superb direction, the ten member cast are truly an ensemble, performing as if they have acted together for years and all totally convincing. At the center, T.R. Knight gives a beautifully nuanced performance, moving from sweetness and control to terror to heartbreak. His performance alone is reason to see POCATELLO, but it is only one of the play's many treasures.
     Don't miss it!
POCATELLO. Playwrights Horizons. December 28, 2014.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Marianne Elliott's production of Simon Stephen's dramatization of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME on Broadway

     I had seen this production in London last year and have reviewed it here (See under June, 2013). It is still a show everyone should see.
     Playwright Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott have produced a powerful stage realization of Mark Haddon's novel. The book itself, like Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, is a classic tale of a troubled adolescent boy surrounded by mendacious grownups. Fifteen-year-old Christopher is somewhere on the autism spectrum. He cannot be touched. He's also something of a math genius. When a neighbor's dog is killed, Christopher becomes obsessed with discovering the murderer. Solving the mystery leads Christopher, who cannot tell a lie, into a web of adult weakness and deceit. The people around Christopher have their flaws, but Christopher is not easy to live with. We can sympathize with Christopher's mother's boyfriend when he shouts "Do you ever think of anyone but yourself?" Christopher's parents love the boy, but such love isn't easy.
     Haddon's novel is narrated by Christopher. The challenge of any stage production is that it must objectify a very subjective narrative. Stephens builds on the conceit of the narrative Christopher has written, which his school has turned into a theater piece. Christopher may not like theater -- actors are liars -- but the conceit allows Stephens and Elliott to turn Christopher's experience into powerful drama. A small company of actors play multiple roles to create the frightening world Christopher inhabits. Bunny Christie's set, basically a box with a grid design, Finn Ross's videos and Paule Constable's lighting create theater magic.
     The New York cast is as good as the London cast I saw. Alex Sharp makes Christopher more prickly and less sweet than Joe Gibbons, his London counterpart at my performance. That's all to the better. Christopher is probably the most emotionally and physically demanding role in contemporary theater and Sharp's energy and focus are admirable. Everyone else in the ensemble matches their London counterparts.
     It was nice to see so many teenage boys with their families at my performance. Haddon's novel is required reading in England. Clearly it is also known here in the U.S. THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME is the best thing on Broadway right now. I'm glad to see that it is a success.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME. Ethel Barrymore Theatre. December 26, 2014.  

Bill Condon's revision of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's SIDE SHOW at the St. James

     The 1997 musical SIDE SHOW had a short run even though some critics praised it and many who saw it loved it. It quickly became a cult musical, beloved by musical theater aficionados. It is brave and a bit mad to bring it back to Broadway. This production of SIDE SHOW, which has travelled to New York from the La Jolla Playhouse and the Kennedy Center, is more of a revision than a revival. Director Bill Condon has rewritten and refocussed Bill Russell's book and Henry Krieger's score contains some new songs. This "new and improved" version of the show has suffered the same fate as the original. It's closing next week after a run of three months.
     It was clear at last night's performance that the extremely enthusiastic audience loved the show. Why is this critically praised production a commercial flop once again? The fate of SIDE SHOW says a lot about the current state of Broadway. Successful Broadway shows are now brands that are marketed worldwide. Like McDonalds, Disney's THE LION KING, which opened the same season as SIDE SHOW, is everywhere. It is the perfect example of the musical as a product. Universal's WICKED repeated the process. Tourists and folks who may see one Broadway show a year flock to these shows rather than try something new. Disney can pour infinite amounts of money into marketing their shows. One cannot blame Disney for the fate of SIDE SHOW and the other recent musical productions that are faltering at the box office (ON THE TOWN and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS are barely holding on and THE LAST SHIP has been saved from sinking by Sting's willingness to join the cast). Broadway audiences aren't willing to gamble when tickets are insanely expensive. I saw SIDE SHOW, ON THE TOWN, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS and THE LAST SHIP for $45 thanks to my tdf membership, but a show cannot survive when a sizeable percentage of the audience is paying half or  a quarter of the regular ticket price. Frankly, in the current climate, you'd have to be certifiably insane to invest in a Broadway musical. Last season the producers of the quirky, delightful GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER kept a losing venture alive for over six months in the hopes of help from the Tony Awards. In a season of mediocre musicals (except for the superb BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, another example of audiences avoiding a really fine musical), GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE swept the Tonys and has been a hit ever since. How many investors can afford to pour money into a losing venture for months in hopes of a win at the Tonys? Maybe you have to be equally insane to invest $150 or more in a ticket to a Broadway show -- and there is the major problem. No wonder people want to go to shows that offer them some social status -- "I saw THE BOOK OF MORMON on Broadway!"). There are a batch of new musicals and revivals (GIGI again -- why??) coming in this Spring, most notably AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Good luck to them all. We'll see which of them is still running at the end of 2015.
     Back to SIDE SHOW. Fans of the show know that it is the story of the conjoined twins the Violet and Daisy Hilton (Erin Davie and Emily Padgett). In this much improved version, we follow them from the moment they are discovered at a touring freak show by Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) an ambitious producer of vaudeville acts and his choreographer friend, Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), to their discovery by Hollywood director Tod Browning, who put them in his classic 1932 film FREAKS. The show also traces the sisters' discovery of love. Terry loves Daisy, put can only conceive of a relationship with her if she is surgically separated from her sister (possible, but one sister is likely to die in the process). Buddy is gay, but sees a relationship with Violet as a possible salvation from loneliness. The wedding is a giant publicity stunt that will catapult the sisters into even greater celebrity. There is more of the sisters' back story than there was in the original version and less focus on the potential kinkiness of any attempt at a sexual relationship. Moving Buddy's sexuality from subtext to text makes his behavior more coherent. The girls sing "I Want to Be Like Everyone Else." Of course, they can't be. Nor can the gay man or the African-American in 1932. This is a fascinating story well told. Henry Krieger's score is terrific, Bill Russell's lyrics less so. Yes, this is a fine musical that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
     Bill Condon's production is excellent. David Rockwell's sets are simple, but highly effective. Paul Tazewell's costumes move us from the tawdry world of the freak show to glitzy vaudeville numbers. The cast is uniformly fine. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett look like twins, but delineate their differences in personality, particularly in the second act where they are at odds -- How do you fight with a conjoined twin? How can you possibly have a moment to yourself, much less intimacy with a lover? More important, they sing together magnificently. Silverman and Hydzik make their character's dilemmas convincing. David St. Louis is superb as the devoted African-American protector of the twins, He deserves the ovations he gets for his three big numbers. Robert Joy is appropriately sleazy as the freak show producer.
     One observation. At the intermission there was no line at the ladies' room and a long line at the men's room. There were also a number of gay couples and groups of gay men in the lobby. Show queens are an aging breed, but we're not extinct yet.
     Our audience loved every moment of the show. Thanks to all involved in gambling on Broadway success for the show. If I offered stars, SIDE SHOW would get five out of five. *****
SIDE SHOW. St. James Theatre. December 27, 2014.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

ON THE TOWN at the Lyric Theatre

     This is the fifth revival of ON THE TOWN I have seen and the only one that totally works. There was one in the early 1970s directed and choreographed by Ron Field with Bernadette Peters as Hildy, the horny cab driver and Phyllis Newman as the equally horny anthropologist. That one suffered from the problem that besets many choreographers. ON THE TOWN is a dance show with a series of long dance numbers, one dream ballet after another. The original production was a vehicle for the young choreographic genius Jerome Robbins. Ron Field was no Jerome Robbins and the extended dance numbers kept repeating the same steps. Nor did he really have a take on the dated comic book scenes. The next revival in the 1990s, directed by George C. Wolfe was a general mess. About ten years ago the English National Opera mounted a revival in London. Stephen Mears' choreography was food and the principals were all fine, but the production looked cheap and the book scenes needed better pacing. About five years ago the Paper Mill Playhouse revived the show -- the best production I have seen until this one. The score to ON THE TOWN by the young Leonard Bernstein is brilliant. As everyone knows, the MGM film contains few of the original songs -- the powers that be at the studio thought the score too difficult.  the lyrics (Betty Comden andAdolph Green) better in the comic songs than in the ballads. The challenge of producing the show is that the humor is a bit dated and heavy-handed for audience who have lived through sixty plus years of television sitcoms. It takes a very good director and a cast of inventive comic performers to make the long comic scenes work. They can seem to go on forever, particularly when you've seen them a number of times before. It's also a little hard to believe that sailors, even in 1944, were as innocent and virginal as the three central characters of ON THE TOWN.
     ON THE TOWN began as a ballet, FANCY FREE, choreographed by Jerome Robbins to music by Leonard Bernstein. The ballet was such a success that the two, joined by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, decided to turn it into a musical. The story is simple. Three sailors are on twenty-four hour shore leave in New York CIty. Gaby (Tony Yazbeck) falls in love with the picture of Miss Turnstiles (Megan Fairchild) and decides to hunt for her. His friends Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (understudy Cory Lingner at my performance) decide to join in the search but get waylaid; Chip by an anthropologist (Elizabeth Stanley) and Ozzie by a cab driver (Alysha Umphress). A good time is had by all. On this simple story hangs a gorgeous score.
     This production of ON THE TOWN, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, is not only the best production of ON THE TOWN I have seen. It is also one of the best revivals of any musical I have seen. Through clever stylized movement, fine casting and excellent pacing, John Rando makes even the book scenes click. That's no easy feat with this show. I could say that even the book scenes seem to dance. The musical staging is constantly inventive and thrilling. The three sailors sing, dance and act brilliantly. From the second row Tony Yazbeck seems a bit too old for the role of Gaby, particularly when twenty-three year old Cory Lingner is playing Ozzie. Lingner has the right callow look for a young sailor. Yazbeck has a lovely singing voice. New York City Ballet prima ballerina Megan Fairchild dances beautifully (of course). Junoesque Alysha Umphress is a fine singer and comic as is Elizabeth Stanley. Jackie Hoffman is hilarious in four character parts. Beowulf Borritt's sets are beautiful as are Jess Goldstein's costumes. The ensemble dances up a storm and a thirty-plus piece orchestra plays the Bernstein score superbly.
     This ON THE TOWN deserves the critical raves it has received. The audience clearly loved it.
ON THE TOWN. Lyric Theatre. December 19, 2014.  

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Sam Shepard's A PARTICLE OF DREAM (OEDIPUS VARIATIONS) at the Signature Theatre

     Anyone who has followed Sam Shepard's career knows that much of his work has offered versions of the Oedipus story. There are many versions of conflicts between fathers and sons as well as many versions of sexy, powerful matriarchs. It's not surprising that at this stage of his career, Shepard would take on a more direct telling of Sophocles' tragedy. Well, not so direct really.
     As the subtitle suggests, the ninety-minute play is a series of short variations of the drama of Oedipus Rex. Some seem to be fairly direct translations of key moments in Sophocles' tragedy. Others, taking place in the contemporary Mojave Desert seem to place the tale in the world of contemporary television, as a forensics expert picks through the evidence left at the scene of Oedipus's murder of his father. Some of the imagery is familiar from other Shepard plays. The setting is a bloody slaughterhouse and our Oedipus (the great Stephen Rea) wears blood-spattered overalls. Jocasta (Brid Brennan) appears in a blood-colored velvet gown, as if she is part of Sophocles original. Tiresias (Lloyd Hutchinson) looks like a homeless man. Most of the variations are soliloquies, underscoring the fundamental isolation of these characters. As usual in a Shepard play, music (here a live cello and slide guitar), play an important role in creating the mood of each scene and bridging the scenes.
     The question Shepard asks here, is what good does tragedy do? Does it offer catharsis? Does it offer an apt metaphor for the human condition? Do we learn anything from watching it being reenacted? Shepard doesn't answer the question so much as poke and probe at his own fixation with this particular story.
     Shepard wrote this play for the Derry-based Field Day Theatre Company, run by Stephen Rea. Four of the actors in this eight-actor cast are from that company. Rea, Brennan and Hutchinson are familiar faces in British theatre, television and film. They and their American colleagues are excellent and the always-resourceful Nancy Meckler has staged the work effectively. Nonetheless, it all left me a bit cold. From the polite applause at the end, I would say that this was true of much of the audience. Perhaps it was a mistake to see this a few hours after seeing the powerful OUR LADY OF KIBEHO.
A PARTICLE OF DREAD contains some beautiful writing and is given an excellent production. Unfortunately, it doesn't engender much feeling.
 A PARTICLE OF DREAD (OEDIPUS VARIATIONS). Signature Theatre. November 29, 2014.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO by Katori Hall at the Signature Theatre

     I am fascinated with the number of plays now running in New York that touch on religious issues. GRAND CONCOURSE deals with issues of faith and mercy in a Catholic soup kitchen in the Bronx. THE OLDEST BOY centers on the reincarnation of a Tibetan Lama in a young Tibetan-American boy. OUR LADY OF KIBEHO dramatizes the documented and Vatican-approved visions of the Virgin Mary experienced by three adolescent schoolgirls in Rwanda in 1981. There's not a moment of cynicism in these plays about the possibility of the validity of Catholicism or Tibetan Buddhism.
     I can't praise OUR LADY OF KIBEHO highly enough. Katori Hall has created a riveting drama. Michael Grief has given it the production it deserves and the large cast couldn't be better. The play takes place in a small Catholic girls school in the remote Rwandan village of Kibeho. The school is run by a young Tutsi priest, Father Tuyishime ((Owiso Odera) and a stern Hutu nun, Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford). The power arrangement at the school is typical of Catholic gender hierarchy, but also typical of the power dynamics of Rwanda in 1981, when minority Tutsis held the positions of power. When the play begins, one girl, Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor) has already started having visions. Eventually two other girls begin experiencing similar visions. There's nothing particularly special about these girls. They don't even like each other. Why would they be chosen as the vessels of Mary's intercession? Sister Evangelique thinks these visions are either teenage pranks or signs of diabolical possession. However, the visions become more and more miraculous (and theatrically spectacular), so Father Tuyishime and his superior, Bishop Gahaminyi contact the Vatican. The bishop sees the possibility of Kibeho becoming another Lourdes, thus making Rwanda a tourist destination. Anyone who knows the history of Marian visions (the most famous ones involve prophesies of bloodshed) or the recent history of Rwanda, knows that the outcome is not likely to be so positive.
     I don't want to be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that OUR LADY OF KIBEHO is a taut dramatic thriller, but far more than that. It gives us a picture of the conflicts that were ingrained in Rwandan society at the time as well as a fascinating glimpse into Catholic doctrine. More important, it dramatizes the possibility of the miraculous in the most unlikely places. Michael Greif has given this rich, powerful script the production it deserves. He uses all of the Irene Diamond Theatre -- stage, side stages, crossovers, aisles, to surround the audience with this drama. The projections and special effects offer theatre magic. Rachel Hauck's set, full of moveable parts, allows the drama to move at a relentless pace. With some clever doubling, the cast of fifteen seems to be much larger. The music (Michael McElroy) and sound design (Matt Tierney) add to the other-worldy quality of this theatrical saga.
     It's almost impossible to single out individual performances. Everyone in this ensemble is superb. The highest compliment I can give is to say that the ensemble acts as if they have been working together for years.
      OUR LADY OF KIBEHO is simply one of the best productions of the year.
OUR LADY OF KIBEHO. Pershing Square Signature Center. November 29, 2014.

Friday, 28 November 2014

HONEYMOON IN VEGAS by Jason Robert Brown and Andrew Bergman

     HONEYMOON IN VEGAS is an old-fashioned Broadway musical comedy on steroids. Everything is too loud, and most of the cast is working too hard to "sell" this show. There's almost an air of desperation about it. In other words, it is too much like Las Vegas. There's an overture with the band front and center on stage amid a lot of colored lights. The overture is trying to be a version of the overture to GYPSY, the best Broadway overture ever written, but this overture is so loudly miked than even in the 6th row, I could not hear live sound from a fifteen piece band. The opening number, "I Love Betsy", is tuneful and clever, but there's so much scenery changing and bad choreography (in general, the choreography is one cliche after another), that it is difficult to pay attention to what is a good song. In general the ensemble is allowed to engage in a shameful amount of amateurish mugging and, far be it for me of all people to say it, but some of the gentlemen of the ensemble behave as if they are in a Howard Crabtree musical.
     I had never seen the film on which the show is based (I'm allergic to Nicholas Cage). The book Andrew Bergman has crafted from the movie is sporadically funny. We've seen the monster mother bit many times before (think BYE BYE BIRDIE, where it was much funnier), but this mom has been dead for years and still haunts our hero, Jack Singer (Rob McClure). Jack would like to marry his sweetheart Betsy (Brynn O'Malley), but thanks to Mom, he has panic attacks. When they go to Las Vegas to get married, ace gambler Tommy Korman (Tony Danza) thinks Betsy is the spitting image of his beloved late wife and hatches an elaborate scheme to steal her from Jack. The problem with Bergman's book is that it would be funnier, and Tommy a funnier character, if the audience were in on his plot. The show sticks to Jack and Betsy's point of view, so the big moments don't land the way they should. I was shocked to look at my watch at the end of Act I and see that it was less than 70 minutes long. It seemed much longer. The second act needs editing.
     On the whole, Jason Robert Brown's score is tuneful and masterful. He's best at the book numbers, weakest at his imitation of old time Vegas floor show numbers. It's great to have a show with virtually no reprises, but the best songs occur early in the show. We all know he's the best lyricist working now, except for someone with the initials S.S., who hasn't written a new show in ages.
    Rob McClure really carries the show. He's a charming stage presence, he sings effectively, he has excellent comic timing and he moves well. Most important, he has personality. In the old days, he would be a Broadway star. Alas, that doesn't mean anything now. Tony Danza does the laid back Dean Martinish schtick. He's not much of a singer and he fakes his way through a short tap routine. The problem is, he's not funny enough, not enough of a comic foil to McClure's Jack. Danza walks amiably through the show. That isn't totally Danza's part -- the book and the direction don't help him. Brynn O'Malley is OK -- there's no unique personality there, just a competent performer going through all the motions.
     There's lots of pretty, old-fashioned painted scenery (Anna Louizos). Gary Griffin certainly keeps everything moving, but it's all a bit frenetic. There's nothing original in his direction, no sign of a unique vision, just the old "faster, louder."
     After reading Ben Brantley's rave review of HONEYMOON IN VEGAS's Paper Mill Playhouse tryout, I thought I had to see this one. I didn't see the same funny, masterful show he did. Maybe the suburban air of Millburn, New Jersey weakened Brantley's critical faculties. Then again, I've recently liked two musicals he didn't like.
HONEYMOON IN VEGAS. Nederlander Theatre. November 28, 2014.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

THE INVISIBLE HAND by Ayad Akhtar at New York Theatre Workshop

     Pakistan seems the best setting these days for depictions of moral ambiguity. We see it played out brilliantly in this season's episodes of HOMELAND, where there is no side without both good guys and bad guys. Ayad Akhtar's engrossing THE INVISIBLE HAND, set in Pakistan, is a hostage drama with a twist. Nick Bright (Justin Kirk), a banker who is second in command at the Islamabad branch of Chase, has been kidnapped (By mistake, actually -- they wanted his boss). He now sits in a room somewhere in the hinterlands. Yet when we first see him Dar (Jameal Ali), his guard is cutting his fingernails while Nick asks him about his family. We get our first hint of what is to come when Dar tells Nick that instead of visiting his mother on Sunday, he took Nick's financial advice, invested in a truck and started selling potatoes. Nick may be a prisoner, but he's  brilliant, articulate man who converts his captors to capitalism. They may hate the idea of interest (against the teachings of Allah), but they fall in love with the concept of easy profit. Nick makes a deal with his captors, Imam Saleem (Dariush Kasani) and his young disciple Bashir (Usman Ally), that if Bashir will assist him, he will earn his ten million dollar ransom for them. Bashir is an angry young man from Hounslow, a suburb of London near Heathrow Airport that is filled with South Asian immigrant families (many work at the airport). Angry and wounded at the racism of England, he has come to Pakistan to work against the west and the vestiges of colonialism. Nick gives Bashir a crash course in the power of money, the invisible hand that rules everything, and in investment banking. Bashir becomes totally seduced by money. Where Nick is shrewd and cautious, Bashir is greedy. Where Nick still believes in rules, Bashir is ruthless. To say more would give away too much. Suffice it to say that the play becomes a commentary on the West's influence over the East (Though he would hate to admit it, Bashir, after all, is an Englishman, not a Pakistani), and money's influence over everything. What happens when capitalism is imported to a lawless society? What we see through the arguments with the Imam, who wants to use the money to do good in his region, is that money itself can become a religion.
      THE INVISIBLE HAND is a fascinating play of ideas couched in the conventions of a thriller. Director Ken Rus Schmoll has maintained the tension and tempo the play demands. There is an unnecessary bit of theatrical spectacle at the beginning of Act II (money spent for no reason); nor did the play really need a scene change. The cast was excellent. Justin Kirk is one of our best actors. He knows how to be totally natural on stage even in a role as talky as this one. He captures Nick's passion for his work, his basic decency, and his horror at cruelty. Usman Ally is appropriately intense as Bashir, a man fueled by anger. Ally is terrific in the scene in which he discovers the powerful rush of making big bucks in a few minutes. Dariush Kasani's Imam can seem a quiet man of God, but turn suddenly into a man who can exercise brutal power.
     Don't miss this one!
THE INVISIBLE HAND. New York Theatre Workshop. November 24, 2014.      

Sunday, 23 November 2014

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN by Young Jean Lee at the Public Theater

     STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is an homage to American domestic realism and in a tradition of plays about male angst such as Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON. The straight white men in Lee's play may be beer-guzzling, but they are not the ignorant bozos of much "guy" narrative on film, television or on stage. These guys are well educated, highly articulate and they understand the new rules of political correctness. They play a home-made revised version of monopoly called "Privilege"that both validates and mocks politically correct concepts of race and gender. It's Christmas time and three grown sons have come back home to celebrate with widowed Dad, who is a retired engineer. The youngest son is a tenured professor, the middle son a banker. Only Matt, the oldest son, is incapable of fitting in twenty-first century capitalistic society. He's not even particularly good at being counter-cultural. At the moment, he has a temp job for a charity and is living with his father. All three sons are now single (one s divorced). Some of what we see is the usual regression of adults who return home for the holidays. These men can bond through familiar rituals of horseplay and teasing. When words are added, arguments ensue.
     The major conflicts begin when Matt breaks down and cries at Christmas Eve supper (take-out Chinese). Jake, the middle son, praises Matt's heroic resistance to the system. Younger son Drew wants Matt to get help, to find out the cause of his malaise. Father referees until the climactic scene. The crux of these family conflicts is whether failure by the standards of American capitalism is tolerable. Along the way there are a lot of humorous barbs thrown at upper middle class assumptions. These guys see themselves as liberal, as right thinking politically. Are they on the most basic issues?
     STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a fascinating ninety minutes of theatre, a twenty-first century version of the kind of work Arthur Miller did after World War II -- there's a kinship between these brothers and the brothers Biff and Happy in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. As usual, Lee has directed her own work and done so beautifully. The brothers (Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson, James Stanley) seem so natural that one feels almost like a voyeur. Austin Pendleton is either trying for his idea of naturalistic acting (more likely) or is fumbling for lines -- the effect is the same and the play would be five minutes shorter and tighter without his dithering over lines. Just about every speech is preceded by some arm flailing then some "uh"s before he gets around to the line. I thought that kind of method acting had been thrown onto the dustheap of theater history.
     Well worth seeing.
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. The Public Theater. November 22, 2014.

Terrence McNally's LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART at Second Stage

      I have always thought that LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART was one of Terrence McNally's best plays. It's a unique combination of Chekhov and American domestic drama with some poetic touches added. The play is very definitely a product of that horrible decade when AIDS was killing so many young men. LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART in its strongest moments is a meditation on mortality. It focuses not on gay men -- they are an unseen, but heard presence surrounding the characters -- but on two straight couples sharing a house in the gayest section of Fire Island on July 4. Sally Truman, the central character, has lost her brother to AIDS. She was not able to deal with his gayness or the fact that he had a male lover who became more important to him than she was. Her brother left her this Fire Island house, which only intensifies her grief, her anger and her discomfort at his sexuality. She is sharing the house on this weekend with her husband Sam, his hyperactive sister, Chloe, and her husband John. Chloe and Sam are trying to deal gracefully with the fact that Sally and John have slept together. John has recently discovered that he has cancer of the esophagus. We watch the ways in which the fears and anger of these four people erupt. This is a Terrence McNally play, however, so there are lots of funny moments. Where a more realistic playwright would invent ways for characters to reveal their deepest thoughts to other characters, McNally believes that people, even spouses, hide their most powerful feelings. McNally's characters have soliloquies in which they tell express their fears and hostilities.  The play is very demanding of its cast. The original cast at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1990 had three of the best actors for this sort of serious comedy: Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski and Swoozie Kurtz. Anthony Heald played John, who is a kind of straight man. Unfortunately, the cast at Second Stage was not of this calibre and the play suffered as a result.
     Sally and John are the more outwardly serious characters. America Ferrara, as usual, was touching as this emotionally fragile woman who is grief stricken for her brother, guilty about her feelings about him and about cheating on her husband, and fearful of her pregnancy (she has had several miscarriages). Ferrara captured all the conflicting feelings of her character. Her explosion in the final act was totally convincing. Austin Lysy captured the eternal preppy in John and his misdirected rage, though he had some technical problems with his long soliloquies. The weak links were Michael Chernus and Tracee Chimo as Sam and his sister Chloe. Few actors are capable of the range of Nathan Lane -- capable of his ability to turn on a dime emotionally. I never felt the fear or vulnerability of Chernus's Sam. John says that he is the most emotionally exposed and vulnerable. I didn't see that at all. Where we should have seen the pain and fear under Chimo's constant talk and performing -- her need to be noticed and loved -- we just see an irritating person. Director Peter Dubois cast these people, so the buck stops there. The production was routine -- no new insights into the play, standard predictable blocking and uncertain tempo. The play deserves better than this production.
LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART. Second Stage Theatre. November 22, 2014.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

THE OLDEST BOY by Sarah Ruhl at the Lincoln Center Theater

     This is an interesting but somewhat unsatisfying play that never digs deeply enough into its subject matter, thus veering dangerously close to a Lifetime movie.
     "Mother" (Celia Keenan-Bolger) -- you're always in trouble when characters are listed this way in the program -- was a graduate student in English who never finished her dissertation after her adviser died. Her mentor's love of literature and skepticism of the fashionable theorists in the department (I know how this feels) was an inspiration to her. Right after he died, Mother went into a Tibetan restaurant and immediately fell in love with the owner (James Yaegashi). She was engaged and he was about to enter an arranged marriage to please his family, but "Mother" won out. When the play begins, they have a three-year-old son. Into their world come two Tibetan monks who tell Mother and Father that their son is the reincarnation of the older monk's Lama and teacher. The evidence is convincing enough to lead to a crisis for the parents -- do they allow their son to be taken to a monastery in India or to they fight to keep him? Mother says at one point that motherhood is a bigger idea than any religion. I won't spoil the play by recounting what happens. I will say that an absorbing first act is followed by a weak second act and a conclusion that isn't the least bit conclusive.
     I am delighted to see a play that takes religion seriously. Father was born Buddhist and Mother has been drawn to Buddhism, but beyond the idea of reincarnation, we are given little sense of the religion. Motherhood, which is placed in conflict with the claims of the monks, seems a vague concept to be placed against Buddhism. It's a feeling, not a theology, so no dramatic argument is possible beyond the claims of sentiment.
     Rebecca Taichman's production is so beautiful that it carries one along over the potholes in the script. The son is portrayed by a puppet and voiced by a grown man, as if we are hearing -- and seeing -- the voice and body of the Lama who has been reincarnated in the boy. Celia Keenan-Bolger gives a heartfelt performance. Handsome James Yaegashi doesn't plumb much emotional depth. Jon Norman Schneider and James Saito are charming as the monks, but I wish Ruhl has done more with these characters. Three "chorus" members help with the puppet and some splendid theatrical effects.
     I enjoyed THE OLDEST BOY, but will remember visual moments more than the substance of the play. Once again Sarah Ruhl skirts the intellectual and emotional potential of her material. The play is too nice.
THE OLDEST BOY. Lincoln Center Theater Mitzi Newhouse Theater. November 19, 2014.

Monday, 17 November 2014

THE BAND WAGON at City Center Encores.

     This stage version of the Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz musical THE BAND WAGON is different from past City Center Encores productions. THE BAND WAGON was a classic example of a lost theatrical form, the Broadway revue, which really was a sophisticated form of vaudeville, an evening of song, dance and satirical sketches. In 1953, the Arthur Freed musical wing of MGM took the songs Schwartz and Dietz had written for the revue, added some other Schwartz-Dietz songs including "That's Entertainment" written for the film and pasted them into a new Betty Comden-Adolph Green backstage story. The result is one of the most delightful film musicals ever made, greatly because of the wonderful score.
     City Center Encores has created a new stage musical out of the film with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane based on the Comden-Green screenplay. The numbers have been rearranged. For instance "When There's A Shine on Your Shoes" opens the film, but serves as the final big number in this version.
     The story is basically the same. Tony Hunter (Brian Stokes Mitchell in the Fred Astaire role), a Hollywood has been, looks to recharge his career by starring in a Broadway show. He goes to his old friends Lester and Lily Martin (Michael McKean and Tracey Ullman) to write a show for him. Lily still holds a candle for Tony and Lester knows it. Old friend, actor-director Jeffrey Cordova (Tony Sheldon), is brought in to direct. Unfortunately Jeffrey wants to create a serious musical that will make an artistic statement. He brings in an overly earnest choreographer (Michael Berresse) whose girlfriend Gabriele (Laura Osnes) will be the leading lady. The show is bound to be a disaster. The choreography is even more sombre than Martha Graham's work and Jeffrey's attempts to create a serious musical have the audience running for the aisles. Tony will save the day and get the ingenue and Broadway will get a fun musical. Beane's book is clever--Beane is always clever--but there's too much of it. Encores usually pares down the books of classic musicals to the minimum needed to tell the story and justify the songs. Here we have long book scenes that desperately need editing.
     As usual, Kathleen Marshall has staged with great flair. Her parody of the most hackneyed cliches of modern dance is hilarious and her big numbers are crowd pleasers. The cast couldn't be better. Brian Stokes Mitchell is totally winning and sings his big ballads beautifully. Laura Osnes sings prettily and does what she can with a cardboard ingenue role. The comic leads, McKean, Ullman and Sheldon couldn't be better. It's a delight to see Tracey Ullman in a musical. The orchestra is smaller than usual with Encores productions, but makes a good sound.
     The Times gave The Band Wagon a blah review, but I have found myself in disagreement with many of the recent Times reviews of musicals. Our audience loved it!  How could you not love that score?    
THE BAND WAGON. City Center Encores. November 16, 2014.

POWERHOUSE by Josh Luxenberg, Jon Levin and the Sinking Ship Ensemble at the New Ohio Theatre

     In my childhood memories, Raymond Scott was the bandleader for the radio and television show, YOUR HIT PARADE and husband of HIT PARADE cast member, Dorothy Collins, who was later the first Sally in Sondheim's masterpiece, FOLLIES. I didn't know back then that much of the music used in Warner Brothers cartoons was by Scott -- he had sold the rights to his music to Warners in 1943. Scott was half musical visionary, half mad genius. His style of composing must have been maddening for his instrumentalists. Later, he became obsessed with electronic music. In the 1980s, shortly before his death, Columbia records' release of some of Scott's early private recordings led to a rediscovery of his unique form of jazz.
      POWERHOUSE (the name of one of Scott's more famous compositions) is a devised theatre piece about Scott, taken from his life and many of his statements about music (at one point, his ideal was a silent concert where the musicians would communicate to the audience via extra sensory perception). Most of his money went to his electronic experiments. There's no question that he was eccentric, perhaps borderline autistic. His work was certainly more important than his relationships with his three wives. He was brilliant, but also exasperating. Much of POWERHOUSE is told through Scott's own words. This is any thing but a dry biographical drama. It is a whirlwind of action, a theatrical metaphor of Scott's hyperactive mind. In addition to Scott (Erik Lochtefeld), six performers play all the roles and, with the help of puppets, enact live cartoon sequences. After all, cartoons were how most people became familiar with Scott's music. The hard-working cast is highly versatile. and director Jon Levin has used them to create a totally absorbing theatrical experience. As Marian Elliott has with THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME, Levin has succeeded in finding a way to turn a unique human mind into a theatrical experience. This is a fascinating, highly inventive piece of theatre.
     This is my first Sinking Ship production. I am definitely going to be at their next production.
POWERHOUSE. New Ohio Theatre. November 16, 2014.          

Sunday, 9 November 2014

BROWNSVILLE SONG (B SIDE FOR TREY) by Kimber Lee at Lincoln Center Theater 3

     Perhaps it wasn't a good idea to see BROWNSVILLE SONG  a few hours after seeing FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS. Playwright Kimber Lee doesn't seem quite sure what story she is trying to tell in BROWNSVILLE SONG. The result seems formless, listless and much longer than its 90 minutes.
     On one hand, this is a lament for Trey (Sheldon Best), an eighteen-year-old boy who is shot for no reason by a young gangbanger looking for more status. We only hear about the death in a rather clunky piece of exposition, so really don't feel much about it. Trey is obviously a good kid, but the playwright doesn't make us feel much for his loss. She seems more interested in the women in his life. The tough grandmother who raised him, the kid sister he adores and the mother who abandoned him and his sister and his now trying to get her life back together (it's not clear how Trey could have an Asian mother). Trey tries to get over his anger and help his mother, reversing the parent-child role. I wish I could say that the play made me feel anything, but it seemed a collection of scenes with no narrative momentum. The play moves back and forth in time, which would be fine if there seemed any clear reason for the arrangement of scenes.
      Director Patricia McGregor has done what she could with the play. Sheldon Best, who was so good in THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER last season, gives another dynamic performance. Lizan Mitchell brings real substance to the role of the feisty grandmother who is beginning to feel her age. Sun Mee Chomet is bland in the blandly written role of the mother who is trying to reform.
     Blah. If only the play were as dynamic as the pre-show music.
BROWNSVILLE SONG (B SIDE FOR TREY). Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow. November 8, 2014.

FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS by Susan Lori Parks at the Public Theater

     I have to admit that up until now I haven't been an admirer of Susan Lori Parks' work. I remember watching almost the entire audience leave during a regional theatre production of one of her plays and thinking they were right to do so. I made it through TOPDOG/UNDERDOG but thought it was a rehash of an earlier play. Not Abe Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth again! 365 DAYS/365 PLAYS struck me as being akin to publishing the contents of Parks' wastebasket. Needless to say, I went to FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS, PARTS 1, 2, & 3 with some trepidation. I even got an aisle seat just in case I didn't want to stay until the end. By the end of the three hours of this play, I was converted.
     Much of Parks' work has to do with the aftermath of the Civil War. FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS, set in 1862-3 is a meditation on freedom and, as the title of the first play of this trilogy, "The Measure of a Man," suggests, about the value of a life. There are strong echoes of Homer's ODYSSEY, but our Ulysses (self-named), isn't much of a hero. There's even the chorus and elevated poetic language of classical Greek drama.
     We first meet Hero, a slave on a small estate, as he is trying to decide whether to accompany his master, a Confederate colonel, to war, wound himself so he can't go, or run away. Hero has been a good slave. He even betrayed his friend Homer, who tried to escape. The master cut off Homer's foot to make sure that doesn't happen again. Hero vacillates in the manner of a character in a neo-classical French drama, but he's too attached to his role as slave to follow either of the other alternatives. Hero will don the ragged imitation of a Confederate uniform and follow his master into battle, leaving his wife Penny behind. The "Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves" argue over the possible alternatives, even bet on them. For Hero, ultimately, there is only one right course of action, which is to live out the role that defines him -- there's a good bit of existentialism under the surface of Parks's play. There are only three characters in the second, strongest play of the three; Hero, the increasingly drunk master, and a Union soldier he has captured. Much of the discussion is about Hero's price. What would he bring on the auction block? Clearly the master sees Hero's material value as a measure of his own value, but Hero accept that valuation. In one of the most telling moments of the trilogy, the Union soldier who, it turns out, is mixed race, thus seen as Black, offers Hero the chance to run away after Hero has freed him. Hero responds that he knows his value with his master. What will his value be if he is free? This question has enormous resonance as one ponders the history of African-Americans since the Civil War. Here, as elsewhere, the question that hangs over the play is What does freedom mean, particularly for a Black man? The final play takes place after the Emancipation Proclamation, but Jenny, Homer and the runaway slaves they protect don't know this as they plan to escape the now masterless plantation. Homer returns with a copy of the proclamation but fails to tell his fellow slaves that they are free. It's a detail that doesn't seem important to him, or perhaps he knows that they are not truly free. He will stay on the plantation, which is home to him, and sire a new family. Penny, this version of Penelope, is not as faithful. The life Hero, now called Ulysses, has planned for her is one that shows how much he has in common with his now slain master.
     FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS is what one might call a discussion play, full of lively argument over weighty matters. Not much actually happens, but every action we see is momentous. It's one of those plays where you'd like to be able to stop it once in a while and think about what has just been said. The language is lively, often beautiful, sometimes funny, as in the third play when a dog takes on the role of the messenger in Greek drama, imparting key information. As Eugene O'Neill claimed in his trilogy MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA (Parks seems to have used this play as a model for her chorus), the Civil War defines so much of what followed and has to be the setting for our national tragedy as the Trojan War was the setting for Athenian dramatists. Parks forces us to hear what her characters say in the context of what has followed over the last century and a half. Like all great writers of history plays, Parks knows that such plays are as much commentaries on the present as on the past. This is particularly true in the middle play of this trilogy.
     Jo Bonney has given the play the production it deserves. The Anspacher Theater, which is like an ampitheater, is the perfect setting for this play modeled on Greek tragedy. The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Sterling K. Brown as Hero and Ken Marks as the master who defines himself through his power over others. Special praise to Jacob Ming Trent's dog, who has a large portion of the lines in the third play.
     The fact that Susan Lori Parks calls this Parts 1, 2, & 3 suggests that there will be more parts. I look forward to seeing them.
FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS PARTS 1, 2, &3. Public Theater. November 8, 2014

Thursday, 6 November 2014

THE LAST SHIP by Sting, John Logan and Brian Yorkey

     When I heard Sting sing the title song from THE LAST SHIP on the Tony Awards, in June, I thought this might be a show to avoid. Curiosity got the better of me, so when the musical showed up on tdf (a bad sign for the longevity of a new musical), I grabbed a ticket. I'm glad I did. Once one buys the rather incredible premise, THE LAST SHIP is a lovely show beautifully produced and superbly performed.
     THE LAST SHIP is an example of a genre we're familiar with from films like THE FULL MONTY or the fine recent film PRIDE -- sagas of folks in post-industrial Britain trying to regain some self-respect. The musical is set in what was a shipbuilding area of northeast England. Shipbuilding has moved to where there is cheap labor and the only job opportunities left for the men who come from generations of shipbuilders is salvage work dismantling the factories and docks. Enter Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper), who left home and girlfriend fifteen years ago to wander around the world as a merchant sailor and has returned home for his father's funeral. Gideon saw no future in being a shipbuilder. His principal motivation for returning is to see Meg (Rachel Tucker), the girl he left behind, but she is now in a relationship with solid, practical Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar) who helps in raising her son. Of course the fifteen year old boy knows that Gideon is his biological father. Yes, Meg has to choose between solid Arthur and wandering Gideon. Gideon has to decide whether he can really be a father to his son.
     The  crux of the show, and one that takes a bit of a leap of faith on the audience's part, is Gideon's conversion from someone who has no stake in his old community to a leader who helps the men decide to build one last ship in order to regain their pride. He has to replace the old priest (Fred Applegate) in fighting to make the building of this one last ship possible. One has to accept this saga on a mythical level rather than a realistic one, but it's a musical, right? Why not go with it?
     THE LAST SHIP is a gorgeous production. There may be one chanty too many, but Sting's score (much of it was written for a concept album a couple of years ago) is varied and often beautiful, particularly the ballads. The lyrics effectively define character and action. The book propels the story effectively and the musical numbers are seamlessly integrated with the dialogue. Joe Mantello has staged much of the show on a large open space with furniture moved on and off by the actors. It's high tech when it needs to be, but keeps the focus on the characters, both the leads and the important ensemble. This is a show about community, after all. Stephen Hoggett has once again created movement and dance that is stylized, but never out of character. David Zinn's sets are impressive but never steal focus from the actors, and one can't speak highly enough of Christopher Akerlind's lighting design.
     For this show to work, Gideon needs to be played by a charismatic actor who can sing. The role is dramatically and vocally challenging. Gideon is barely off stage. I would never have thought of Michael Esper for this kind of role. I've always seen him as troubled contemporary middle-class young men. He's terrific here. He has a natural singing voice that doesn't sound trained, though it obviously is, and he makes Gideon as three-dimensional a character as one can expect in a musical. The rest of the cast lives up to the standard Esper sets. Rachel Tucker plays a type -- the tough but conflicted leading lady -- but she plays it convincingly. Fred Applegate is excellent as the profane old priest and Collin Kelly-Sordelet is winning as young Gideon and Gideon's son Tom.
     I read that THE LAST SHIP isn't doing very well at the box office. I find it extremely sad that an excellent show like this has to struggle to find an audience.
THE LAST SHIP. Neil Simon Theatre. November 6, 2014.

GRAND CONCOURSE by Heidi Schreck at Playwrights Horizons

     GRAND CONCOURSE is another example of the sort of slice of life realism -- what used to be called "kitchen sink dramas" -- that seems to be in vogue again, particularly from young women playwrights (for instance, Annie Baker and Amy Herzog). This one literally takes place in a kitchen, a soup kitchen for a Catholic church in the South Bronx, and has a working sink and stove. Dishes are washed, vegetables are cut, eggs are fried. Shelley, who is in change, is a thirty-nine-year old nun, who is in a perpetual crisis of faith. Shelley became a nun in part to rebel against her parents with whom she still has a tenuous relationship. She has difficulty praying, which is certainly a problem for a nun. The real test of her faith and her ability to act out of compassion comes when nineteen-year-old Emma comes to volunteer in the kitchen. Emma knows that she is sick inside. Is that sickness best defined in medical or religious terms? She cries out for -- demands -- help from Shelley. As Shelley later says, Emma may not act out of malice but she still commits evil acts. She gains the sympathy of the workers and "guests" of the soup kitchen by claiming to have leukemia. She tells Oscar, the handsome, sweet young Dominican worker, that her cancer gives her the right to make demands, even sexual demands, on him. Emma wants to be a force for good -- she sometimes is -- but she also is destructive. To what extent should Emma be forgiven for her lies and her irresponsibility? The play shows that being good takes effort, a battle against one's baser impulses.
      GRAND CONCOURSE has the flaws I find in many of these new slice of life plays. It doesn't dig deeply enough into the ethical and spiritual questions is raises. Schreck's language defines characters, but is a bit flat. One can inject some theatrical poetry into this kind of play as earlier realists like Clifford Odets did masterfully. GRAND CONCOURSE is comprised of a lot of short scenes, which means that the play has no overall momentum. Moreover, it's not always clear how much time has elapsed between these short scenes.
      The cast is uniformly good. Quincy Tyler Bernstein convincingly shows the effort involved in Shelley's acts of compassion and the anger that simmers underneath. Ismenia Mendes captures the complexity of Emma who is both manipulative and out of control. Bobby Moreno radiates decency and good humor as Oscar and Lee Wilkof makes the most of his brief appearances as a homeless man trying to gain control of his life.  
      I found GRAND CONCOURSE to be thought provoking, but I did feel that it still needs some work.
GRAND CONCOURSE. Playwrights Horizons. November 5, 2014.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

FOUND at the Atlantic Theater Company

          The charming, tuneful but seriously flawed musical FOUND is based on Davy Rothbart's magazine, which publishes real messages that have been found in the trash, on car windshields, even on bills and receipts. Some of the messages are funny, others cries for help. When the show sticks to the messages it is delightful, but it gets bogged down in a formulaic romcom book that has been grafted on to give the show some continuity. The show would have been much better as a revue. The funniest moments are actually revue sketches, such as the fifth grade version of "Johnny Tremaine" that is sabotaged by unruly students.
           The central character is "Davy", a fictional version of FOUND Magazine's founder. In this version, the day Davy loses his job, he finds a strange note on his windshield (the writer put the note on the wrong Toyota). The note begins an obsession for collecting these sorts of messages. He shares this with his two best friends, a gay bear and Christina, who secretly loves him. The three of the start the magazine which becomes a runaway success. Enter the lovely posh girl eager for Hollywood fame and fortune. She steals Davy's heart and convinces him to go to Hollywood with her to sell the idea to television. You see where this is going, right? Fortunately this overly familiar story is laced with lots of very funny Found material, presented as a kind of Brechtian commentary on the action.
            Hunter Bell's score is tuneful, if not memorable. It's a challenge to write songs to prose (most of the songs are sung Found messages). Director Lee Overtree and choreographer Monica Bill Barnes have staged the show effectively on a simple set, though I think a stronger director would have pushed for major changes that could have made this an excellent ninety minute show (it clocks in at close to 2 1/2 hours). The cast is a mixed bag. Nick Blaemire, who plays Davy, is a winning performer. I found the two leading ladies blah. Christina Anthony, who plays the lovelorn Christina, was often inaudible and listless. Kate, the ambitious would be producer, is a one-note character, so it's not surprising that Betsy Morgan was a one note performer. The supporting ensemble was comprised of idiosyncratic individuals who kept the show buoyant.  
FOUND. Atlantic Theater Company. November 4, 2014.            

Monday, 3 November 2014

THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE at the Public Theatre

     THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE is a sweet, touching musical with an excellent score. I must admit I have no knowledge of the novel by Jonathan Lethem on which the musical is based, but Itamar Moses's book is, for the most part a clear well-written narrative, and Michael Friedman's lyrics delineate character effectively.
      The musical takes place over twenty years. Dylan (named after you-know-who) Ebdus (the marvelous Adam Chanler-Berat) is the child of countercultural parents who settle in Brooklyn. At least his father, who designs covers for books, settles. Mother soon departs for California, leaving behind her wedding ring and her lps. Dylan, a shy, nerdy 12 year old white boy in a predominantly Black neighborhood, is preyed on by the local bully. The show chronicles his close relationship with Mingus (named after the great jazz musician) Rude (Kyle Beltran -- also marvelous). Rude is the son of Barret Rude, who had a short but successful career as a pop artist. Mingus is also a motherless child. Mingus brings Dylan out of his shell. They share comic book fantasies, tagging subway cars and music. For a while he their life is joyful, but unequal opportunities separate them during their high school years. Twenty years later, Dylan, now a pop music critic, wants to rerelease Barrett Rude's recordings, an effort that reunites him briefly with Mingus. At heart I guess one could call this a bromance, though there are intimations that Mingus's feelings for Dylan run deeper than that. The most dramatically powerful moments are those in which we see vividly the hostility and separation that come when these young men are driven apart by social and economic circumstance.
     Above all, the show is a celebration of music, from doo wop to rap.
      I loved this show so much that I'm going back. The couple next to me were there for the third time. The music is infectious, the story absorbing, the production simply but beautifully staged and the performances uniformly excellent. Berat is more of an actor than a singer, though is singing is gets technically better in each of the musicals he has headlines. He has become a specialist in troubled young men. I'd love to see him cast in something different. He's perfect for Dylan, but he's getting type cast. I remember Kyle Beltran from IN THE HEIGHTS. He's grown into a formidable talent. Kevin Mambo is powerful as Barrett and Andre de Shields, as usual, wipes up the stage as Barrett's Bible toting father.
      Daniel Aukin's staging is simple but powerful and Camille A. Brown has managed to make her performers seem like people dancing rather than dancers. The band is great.
     THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE is a fabulous show that deserves a longer life. Once again the Public has struck gold.  
THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE. Public Theatre. November 2, 2014.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Blythe Danner in THE COUNTRY HOUSE by Donald Margulies at the Manhattan Theatre Club Friedman Theatre

     Donald Margulies' THE COUNTRY HOUSE, a mildly diverting piece of fluff, a hardback to "sophisticated comedies" of the 1940s and 1950s, is well crafted, but it has absolutely nothing to do with life in the twenty-first century. Margulies wants us to hear the echoes of Chekhov, but there is no substance here. The title is an echo of Chekhov titles (THE CHERRY ORCHARD, THE SEA GULL, THE THREE SISTERS). The setting is the Berkshires summer home of grande dame actress Anna Paterson (Blythe Danner -- think Madame Arkadina of THE SEA GULL). Anna is now "of an age" and has difficulty getting lead roles, so she has returned to the Williamstown Theatre Festival to play the mother in Shaw's MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION (she's actually too old for that role). Anna's daughter, a movie star, died of cancer a year ago. Anna's son Elliott (Eric Lange) is a self-pitying middle-aged loser who, like Konstantin in THE SEA GULL, has written a bad pretentious play that he shares with his family. Elliott's love of his own misery might be acceptable in a young man like Konstantin, but it is merely tedious in a middle-aged man. Can anyone have sympathy for him? Anna's son-in-law (David Rasche), a successful director of action movies, has arrived with Nell, his new wife-to-be (Kate Jennings Grant), a beautiful actress with whom all the men are smitten (think Elena in THE CHERRY ORCHARD). Also visiting is Michael Astor, a stunningly handsome tv star, played by stunningly handsome Daniel Sunjata, who has come back to Williamstown to show that he is still a serious actor, though he's playing in that old chestnut, Molnar's THE GUARSMAN (think Trigorin with a conscience). Michael, former lover of Anna's daughter, stirs up lustful feelings in all the females, particularly Anna, which is a bit unseemly (are we supposed to find her attempted seduction of a man half her age funny?) and Anna's college-age granddaughter Susie (the wonderful Sarah Steele). Of course Michael is tired of having loveless sex.
     There's a lot of family feuding, a lot of sexual frustration and a lot of self pity. There's also a lot of talk about "the theatah", as the film director mockingly calls it, and the current state of show business. We're supposed to find these people glamorous and noble in their artistic aspirations. Unfortunately they are not drawn from life, but from other plays and movies. Chekhov via Noel Coward and ALL ABOUT EVE. Sixty years ago or so, this sort of thing played Broadway with Claudette Colbert or some other aging Hollywood star.
     Daniel Sullivan has directed it well on a lovely set (John Lee Beatty). The cast is a classy ensemble.
     The Manhattan Theatre Club now specializes in the dramatic counterpart to "chick flicks" -- "chick plays." If only they really spoke to twenty-first century women.
THE COUNTRY HOUSE. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. September 17, 2014.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

ALMOST HOME by Walter Anderson produced by the Directors Company at the Acorn Theatre

     I'm not going to belabor this one. ALMOST HOME, written by former PARADE Magazine editor Walter Anderson, reminded me of a mediocre 1950s television drama. The style is old-fashioned kitchen sink realism (although the play is set in the 1960s, the kitchen looked like something out of the 1930s). The language is that ersatz urban realism one found in poor 1950s dramas -- none of the poetry of Odets, Miller or even Paddy Chayefsky. The story didn't make a lot of sense. It is 1965. Johnny (Jonny Orsini, who deserved better), comes home from Vietnam with dreams of going to college in California. He's got a battle-scarred psyche and thousands of dollars made from selling money on the black market. His father (Joe Lisi), is a drunk and gambler who has to do favors for a bent police captain (James McCaffrey). His mother (veteran musical star Karen Ziemba)  is sweet and long-suffering, a sort of Linda Loman. The nasty police captain wants Johnny to go to the police academy and work his way into internal affairs so he can allow bent cops to continue their nefarious activities. There's also Johnny's spunky but loving first grade teacher who just happens to live upstairs (Brenda Pressley). Johnny's motivation changes from scene to scene as do his father's loyalties. Plot coherence is not Anderson's strong suit (what is?).
     The cast labored bravely with this material, trying desperately to convince the audience that it was worthy of them. Jonny Orsini proved in THE NANCE that he is a fine actor. His credits state that he already is committed to a Broadway production in the Spring. He is as convincing as the material allows him to be -- actually he does all he can to give Johnny some substance. Everyone else labors on bravely and diligently. One only wonders why this play is being produced at all.
AMOST HOME> Acorn Theatre. September 14, 2014.

Neil LaBute's THE MONEY SHOT produced by the MCC Theater

     THE MONEY SHOT is one of the thinner plays Neil LaBute has written, basically a half hour one-act play stretched into one hundred minutes. We get the point about these characters early on.
     The setting is a multimillion dollar home in the Hollywood hills, owned by Karen, an aging Hollywood star, blogger and entrepreneur and shared with Karen's partner, Bev, a bright combative assistant editor. From what we see, this is not a relationship made in heaven. There may be physical attraction, but it is not clear what else holds them together. Karen is a model of Hollywood narcissism and self-absorption and Bev lives to poke holes into the stupidity and pomposity of Hollywood "talent."    Also present is Steve, another aging Hollywood star, a cartoon version of the ignorance, vanity and inflated ego of an action star and a more exaggerated version of LaBute's favorite villain, the clueless male. Steve is all things politically incorrect -- sexist, racist and homophobic -- and just plain dumb. It is typical of his limited thinking that he doesn't believe Belgium is in Europe. Steve has brought his young wife, a twenty-first century version of the bimbo. For two thirds of this play, we have the conversation of these characters, who basically reveal themselves in the first ten minutes. Steve makes stupid, offensive comments, Bev, herself a version of the stereotypical abrasive lesbian, angrily contradicts him, Karen tries to regain the spotlight and Steve's wife says something even more stupid. We in the audience sit there wondering when we are going to find out why these people have come together. When we finally get to the premise, it's a flimsy one, not even worthy of being called a McGuffin. Eventually the verbal sparring between Bev and Steve turns into a literal wrestling match, which leads to the usual LaBute revenge. The straight white male is brought down literally and figuratively.
     There are funny lines, but LaBute's Hollywood characters are cliches. Over half a century ago William Inge wrote a funny one-act called "A Social Event" about vain, self-absorbed Hollywood actors planning to crash the funeral of a leading producer. Since them, we have seen many versions of Steve and Karen over the years. What more can one say about them? Some of the dialogue is funny, but how often do we need Steve to say something profoundly stupid and for Bev to argue with him?  How often do we need Karen scream "No drama!" while being very dramatic? When the inevitable LaBute vengeful plot twist comes, it isn't much of a surprise.
     Terry Kinney has directed the play effectively and the cast does all it can with the repetitive material. Fred Weller is a veteran of many LaBute plays and makes a game try at fleshing out a cartoon character. Bev is the only character with a modicum of depth and Callie Thorne shows that she is more than a foil for the two "stars." Elizabeth Reaser and Gia Crovatin do all they can with all the repetitions of lines and gags.
     LaBute's premise is that Hollywood will eventually turn to pornography-- real sex instead of simulated sex -- to keep its audience. To make his point, he peppers the last third of his play with lots of sexually explicit language for shock value and easy laughs. Isn't he falling into the same trap as the people he is satirizing?
A disappointment.
THE MONEY SHOT, MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. September 13, 2014.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin in Kenneth Lonergan's THIS IS OUR YOUTH

     When I went into the Cort Theatre last night, I though for a moment I was going to a college production -- not because of the quality of what was onstage but because of the young audience, smartphones in hand, climbing over seats to get to their seats in the middle of a row. These twenty-somethings were far better dressed than the usual frumpy Broadway audience (whatever happened to dressing for the theatre?? Theatergoing should be a special occasion.), and far more excited to be there. The bars did booming business. What many of the young people in the audience were seeing was a play about them circa 1982 -- affluent, unmoored young New Yorkers.
     Kenneth Lonergan wrote THIS IS OUR YOUTH in the mid-1990s, but he was looking back at wealthy New York Jewish slackers in the early 1980s. The two young men at the heart of this play are losers. Fast-talking Dennis (Kieran Culkin) has his own apartment because his parents are wiling to pay rent to get him out of their unhappy home. Dennis is all bluster and bravado. He has visions of himself as a terrific entrepreneur. Enter Dennis's best (only?) friend Warren (Michael Cera), who has just left home with fifteen thousand dollars (probably $100K in 2014), of his father's ill-gained money (Dad is some kind of fixer with links to organized crime). Five minutes into his visit to Dennis's apartment, Warren has accidentally destroyed a bookshelf that holds, among other things, a sculpture by Dennis's girlfriend, a fragile remnant of a tenuous relationship. Warren, a college dropout, seems totally lost and seems to spread destruction wherever he goes. His relationship with Dennis, his only friend, verges on the abusive. Dennis is constantly reinforcing Warren's low self-esteem. Also in the picture is Jessica Goldman (Tavi Gevinson), with whom Warren strikes up a one-night romance. Jessica is as lost as the two young men. By the end, all these relationships have dissolved.
     Not much happens in THIS IS OUR YOUTH, but there's lots of brilliantly written talk. These characters are highly articulate, but what they articulate is confusion. The language at its best is hilariously funny, but always with a sad aftertaste. Lonergan is a master at dialogue that delineates individual characters. These are three distinct voices, though the characters have more in common than they would like to admit. For all the talk, they have great difficulty actually communicating. The last half hour peters out as suddenly the characters are explaining themselves too much in deadly O'Neill-like monologues, but the rest of the play sparkles. These are sad characters, but until the last half-hour Lonergan keeps us laughing.
     THIS IS OUR YOUTH could not have a better production. In Anna D. Shapiro's superb staging, the characters are defined as much by how they express themselves physically as by their words. Warren is all random movement; Jessica approaches, then withdraws; Dennis is fits and spurts of pointless action. The cast couldn't be better. Warren never leaves the stage and Michael Cera proves to the one case of a film actor who actually knows how to act on stage -- knows how to project his voice and act with his body. Kieran Culkin, who played Warren twelve years ago in London, is a bit long in the tooth for Dennis, but he is the perfect foil for Cera's Warren. Dennis is a total jerk, but Culkin keeps the audience with him. Gevinson is a fashion blogger turned actress. I was pleasantly surprised at how good she was, a tribute, I am sure, to Shapiro's gifts as a director as well as Gevinson's talent and discipline. Her scenes with Warren are deeply touching.  
     I have sat through a number of student productions of THIS IS OUR YOUTH and wasn't sure I wanted to see this revival. I was glad I went. The play is both a period piece -- no computers, no smart phones, only one phone with a long cord that seems to have a life of its own -- and a timeless picture of lost adolescents. Anna D. Shapiro's production and the fine acting of this super-talented cast, make it a must see for the young and for those of us who remember the horrors of our adolescence.
 THIS IS OUR YOUTH. Cort Theatre. September 12, 2014.  

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, Micah Stock et. al. in Terrence McNally's IT'S ONLY A PLAY

     Terrence McNally's IT'S ONLY A PLAY, a revision of a work from the mid-1980s, is a satire on the contemporary state of Broadway. The play takes place at the opening night party of Peter Austin's (Matthew Broderick) unfortunately named play "The Golden Egg," which is being held at the home of the play's sole producer (How long has it been since a play had less than a dozen so-called producers? There are 23 listed in the Playbill for this production.), Julia Budder (Megan Mullaley). The play, farcical in its best moments, sententious in its weakest, takes place in Julia's bedroom. There's a vicious dog in the adjoining bathroom, and a giant opening night party downstairs. The most constant presence in the bedroom (he never leaves the stage) is Austin's best friend, the sitcom star James Wicker (Nathan Lane). There's also Virginia Noyes, the drug-loving washed up Hollywood star looking for a stage comeback (Stockard Channing), the over-praised kleptomaniac British director (Rupert Grint), the critic who wants to be recognized as a playwright (F. Murray Abraham) , and Micah Stock as a young aspiring actor just off the bus who has been hired to take care of the coats (the coats of various celebrities provide running gags throughout the show).
     IT'S ONLY A PLAY takes off when there is an avalanche of funny in-jokes and when things stay on the level of farce. Unfortunately McNally also wants the play to be a lament on the current state of Broadway, which he equates with the state of American theatre as a whole. Yes, Broadway has become Las Vegas -- we've known that for years. Yes, few good American plays appear in the commercial theatre and when they do (like Will Eno's THE REALISTIC JONESES last year or Mr. Lane's star vehicle THE NANCE the year before), they don't fare very well. Broadway audiences are seldom serious theatre audiences, nor are they adventurous. However, there are lots of fine American plays being produced in New York -- I've seen four this past month. They're at the non-profits, not on Broadway. Until recently, most of McNally's work has been produced by non-profit theaters, particularly the Manhattan Theatre Club. I found the sermons about the state of the American theatre a bit dishonest -- and you could hear the audience losing interest.
     Some of the jokes are about current Broadway casting practices -- using stars of film and television whether or not they are suitable for the roles they play. Yes, people often come to Broadway to see celebrities rather than plays and yes, the casting is often cynical. However, I wonder if McNally and his producer husband Tom Kirdahy aren't guilty of the same practice. The cast of IT'S ONLY A PLAY is a mixed bag of fine comic actors and miscast "names." Nathan Lane holds the show together and is brilliant. The show is at its best when he is quipping and doing his famous "takes." He's the sine qua non for this revival. Stockard Channing is very funny as Virginia Noyes as is F. Murray Abraham as the bitchy critic and would-be playwright. The revelation is newcomer Micah Stock, who plays the coat boy and aspiring actor. The first scene between Stock and Lane is one of the funniest in the play. Stock, a born comedian holds his own against Lane and everyone else in the cast. He's a real find. That's the good news. Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame is OK but amateurish -- and why all the black makeup around his eyes? Megan Mullaley doesn't know how to project in a big theatre. You could barely understand what she was saying in the mezzanine and she didn't seem to have much of a handle on her role. A better comic actress would have helped. Then there's Matthew Broderick whose career is a mystery to me. Once a decent comic juvenile, Broderick is now a middle-aged cipher with zero charisma. He was a bore in NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT and he is the least interesting cast member here. Unfortunately Broderick has all of the long-winded sermons on the state of the theatre. The play shudders to a halt as he whines his way through them. Obviously the producers thought the Lane-Broderick combination was surefire at the box office. It may be -- the run is just about sold out -- but from an artistic standpoint, he is a mistake.
     Jack O'Brien is a master at staging comedy and at finding the right tempo and McNally is one of our best playwrights. Nonetheless, the play needs some tough editing. It could lose fifteen minutes or so and be better for it. When IT"S ONLY A PLAY sticks to farce, it's delightful. It would be better if it gave up the preaching and stuck to the laughs. It's worth seeing for Lane, Channing and for Micah Stock.
IT'S ONLY A PLAY. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. September 10, 2014.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

George Kelly's THE FATAL WEAKNESS at the Mint Theatre

     I got very interested in George Kelly while researching my book, THE DRAMA OF MARRIAGE. I wasn't crazy about his early hits, THE TORCH BEARERS and THE SHOW OFF, loved the film versions of CRAIG'S WIFE, but felt that his later, less appreciated work, was his best, particularly the quirky comedy, THE FATAL WEAKNESS, first produced in 1946. The Mint Theatre has given this forgotten play (119 performances in 1946 and barely seen since) a pitch-perfect production, thanks to director Jesse Marchese and a fine cast.
     THE FATAL WEAKNESS is a play about marriage form the point of view of three middle-class women. Mrs. Espinshade, the central character, loves to crash weddings and cry at their romance and idealism. Her daughter Penny has been listening to lectures by a Russian radical and believes marriages are "an arrestment of the spirit." Her husband has left her after too many of her pronouncement against the ideal of marriage. Mrs. Espinshade's divorced best friend Mabel doesn't see how two people can stay together for long periods of time. Meanwhile, Mr. Espinshade, has fallen in love with a woman doctor. The crux of the play is Mrs. Espinshade's varied, often bizarre responses to her husband's adultery.
     There are very funny moments in the play, but Kelly is also serious about his satire on affluent women who have nothing to do -- no careers, no real interests, no solid personalities. Mrs. Espinshade is constantly quoting other people, making a personal drama of things she has heard, the more sentimental the better.
     Jesse Marchese's excellent production is a strong argument for the many merits of THE FATAL WEAKNESS. The production is fast paced in the manner of 1930s screwball comedies. The characters talk at a fast clip and their inflections echo those of actors and actresses in classic film comedies of the black and white era. There's a real sense of an ensemble style. Marchese is a director to watch. The mirrored wall setting (Vicki R. Davis) and the costumes (Andrea Varga) are beautiful and elegant. The cast couldn't be better. At first I thought Kristin Griffith was too glamorous for Mrs. Espinshade (I imagined her more as a Zazu Pitts type), but the line readings and wonderful facial expressions were perfect for the role. There isn't a weak link in the cast. This production, like last season's LONDON WALL, was of as high a quality as you will find at any New York theatre.
     If you haven't discovered the Mint Theatre, tucked on the third floor of an office building on 43rd Street right next to Second Stage, do find it. Not everything they do is of this caliber, but they deserve the loyal patronage of anyone interested in theatre.
THE FATAL WEAKNESS. Mint Theatre. September 7, 2014.

Tom Stoppard's INDIAN INK at the Roundabout Laura Pels

     I remember seeing INDIAN INK in its first London production twenty or so years ago. Like his later and better play ARCADIA, it is to some extent about the ways in which people, particularly academics, misread the past. Like ARCADIA, it also focuses on a somewhat enigmatic heroine. The focal character is Flora Crewe (Romola Garai), a poet who has not yet found favor with audience or critics when she travels to India in 1930 for her health. India turns out to be better for her mental and spiritual health than it is for her physical health. She dies there after only a few months, but she has learned something about the spirituality of art -- even the spirituality of sex, the subject of many of her poems. Flora has been more sexually free than most British women of her class. She has also inspired artists like Mogdigliani to paint her in the nude (a priggish lover destroyed the painting). While in India Flora befriends (and perhaps beds as well) an Indian artist Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji), who paints her both clothed and in the nude. Flora's sister Eleanor (the radiant, matchless Rosemary Harris) has the picture of Flora clothed; Das's son (Bhavesh Patel), possesses the finer, more erotic picture. INDIAN INK moves back and forth between 1930 and the 1980s, when a devoted academic is trying to find material for a biography of Flora. In his discussions with Eleanor and even more in Eleanor's discussions with Das's son, and through the many flashbacks, we can assemble something of a picture of Flora, but an equally full picture of the less rebellious Eleanor and the devoted Das.
     Having spent some of his childhood in India while it was still a British colony, Stoppard writes from personal experience into the mindset of the upholders of the Raj. Of course, there are allusions to E.M. Forster's classic A PASSAGE TO INDIA. Any playwright writing about the imperial India has to acknowledge that masterpiece. However, Stoppard has written an original,  finely nuanced play.
     I was disappointed in INDIAN INK twenty years ago. I thought it was far from Stoppard's best work, one reason why it has taken so one to get to New York. The other reason is that it takes a large cast and a number of south Asian actors. However, in Carey Perloff's fine production, the play emerges like a painting that has been masterfully restored. It is far better than the original London production. Perloff obviously loves this play and she makes the audience share her love for its textures and characters. It's very British in its length and discursiveness, but it holds an audience's attention. Neil Patel has created a serviceable unit set, lit effectively by Robert Wierzel.
     Romola Garai plays Flora. With her blonde beauty, she looks the part of this upper-class young Englishwoman who seems to be a sexual magnet. She's fine in the part, though I find her shrill voice irritating. The men in the cast are all excellent, particularly Firdous Bamji, who makes Das a complex character. Flora keeps demanding that he be less Indian, and we see his inner conflicts about his race, his social position, his sensitivity about his art and his adoration of this English woman, who should be forbidden fruit. It's a really fine performance and I look forward to seeing more of Bamji. What can one say about Rosemary Harris, who made her Broadway debut in 1952 and still is the most charismatic, spiritual actress? It's always a joy to watch her work.
     This production of INDIAN INK is well worth seeing. Highly recommended.
INDIAN INK. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Robert O'Hara's BOOTYCANDY at Playwrights Horizons

     Hilarious, raunchy, thought provoking, Robert O'Hara's BOOTYCANDY, like Brandon Jacobs Jenkins terrific AN OCTOROON, is in part a comic extravaganza about the pressures of being a Black playwright and what is a Black play exactly. BOOTYCANDY is a series of sketches -- some comic, some serious, some both. Some of them are quasi-autobiographical (maybe), focusing on Sutter (Phillip James Brannon) from boyhood to manhood as a playwright. The strongest figures in his life are his mother and grandmother, both powerful personalities who love raw language. During his teenage years, Sutter has a sexual affair with the father of one of his white friends. This is not at all sensationalized, rather treated as a caring relationship on both sides. Between the scenes from the life of Sutter are hilarious moments like the preacher stripping off his robes to reveal a gold lame drag outfit (one of many hilarious turns by Lance Coadie Williams) and more serious scenes about Sutter's encountering a drunken white man who wants to have sex with him. There are also self-reflexive moments, like the panel of Black playwrights moderated by a particularly dense white man. It turns out that the scenes we have seen have been written by these playwrights. Another encounter between Sutter and a white man ends violently but also in a surprising, thought-provoking way. As the title would suggest, there's a lot of talk about sex and sex organs. Much to the amazement and consternation of her mothers friends, a baby was named Genitalia. I wouldn't say sex is celebrated -- it is often connected to fear or silence -- but it is a powerful presence.
     BOOTYCANDY is constantly surprising. The young audience loved it. I can't say enough about the superb ensemble that play multiple roles. Brannon's Sutter is curious, but there's anger under his stillness. Williams is a revelation. The two women (they play four roles in one scene), Jessica Frances Dukes and Benja Kay Thomas are different in every role they play. Jesse Pennington plays all the white men, most of them drunk, horny and lonely. If they all seem to be the same character, it's because O'Hara wants us to see them that way.
     O'Hara has effectively directed his own script. Perhaps the pace could be picked up at times -- it's still in previews -- but the audience clearly loved the play and the production. Hats off, too, to Clint Ramos for the fabulous costumes and fine sets.
BOOTYCANDY. Playwrights Horizons. September 5, 2014.

Friday, 15 August 2014


     In a season in which no new musical has thrived and most are biting the dust, the secret to success seems to be to place a big star in an old Off-Broadway musical with a cast of one or two, a simple set, if any, and a small band. Tickets are going for $300 or more to see Neil Patrick Harris in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, a show from the 1990s. Harris leaves this month -- will the show survive with the very talented, but not a big star, Andrew Rannells? Business is brisk for Audra McDonald in the 1986 show, LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL. McDonald is astounding, but I have some reservations about the show.
     LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL is a representative of a genre of show that troubles me -- I might call it the "Watch a Diva Crash and Burn" genre. A couple of seasons ago we had END OF THE RAINBOW in which we watched Tracie Bennett play Judy Garland at the end of her life, career and tether trying to get it together enough to perform in London. Terrence McNally's MASTER CLASS, recently revived, gave us Maria Callas without a voice and trapped by her memories of her former career and relationships and by her self-absorption. LADY DAY gives us one of the last public performances of Billie Holiday, now addled by heroin and copious amounts of booze. She begins the ninety-minute show more or less in control, but becomes increasingly inebriated and incoherent as her performance progresses. In between songs (fourteen of them), she talks about her past. Those reminiscences also get less coherent as the performance progresses.
     What we discover from Billy Holiday's memories is the sad history of a gifted Black woman who rose out of poverty, but couldn't rise from a poor self-image reinforced by America's racism. A 200 pound girl from a Baltimore ghetto, Holiday worked as a teenager as a maid in a brothel. When her mother moved her to New York, she became a prostitute in a Harlem "sportin' house." Too fat to become a dancer, she started singing. Her gifts were immediately recognized by great bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, but being a Black female band singer brought her up against various forms of racism. The man she loved made her prove her love by taking heroin with him. By the time we see her, arrests for drugs have led to a ban from singing in New York City and she is back in a small club in Philadelphia, the city where she was arrested. She's still gifted when she can pull herself together, but this is the end of the line. It's 1959 and in a few months Holiday will be dead.
     The Circle in the Square has been transformed into a nightclub with patrons at tables as well as in the seats in this 3/4 round auditorium. Holiday performs on a small platform at the far end, backed up by a superb jazz trio (get there early -- they play for fifteen minutes or so before the show). She also wanders around the tables as she reminisces, sometimes interacting with the patrons.
     Audra McDonald is absolutely brilliant as Billy Holiday. It's easy to parody Holiday's idiosyncratic singing style -- even humorist David Sedaris can do it. This isn't a parody -- it's a loving recreation of Holiday's singing. As one friend of mine put it, McDonald channels Holiday in the fourteen numbers she sings. It's an impressive feat. She also brilliantly captures Holiday's drug and alcohol-fueled meltdown. It's difficult to play drunk convincingly on stage, particularly over a period of ninety minutes. McDonald's transition from being slightly hazy to totally inebriated is gradual and subtle. The problem is, however well done the performance is, it's not pleasant to watch. The extent of one's sympathy with what one sees will be in proportion to one's attitude about addiction. This debate was played out recently after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. What we watch here is the waste of an extraordinary talent. As Phyllis Diller used to say, "There are reasons but no excuse." Our culture seems to lionize and romanticize self-destructive performers: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Judy Garland, Billy Holiday. I'm not sure that's a healthy sign.    
     Still, McDonald's performance, her greatest in a career of superb performances, deserves to be seen. I was a bit angry that she got the Tony for best actress in a play in place of Cherry Jones. Is a show with fourteen musical numbers a play or a musical?
LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL by Lanie Robertson. Circle in the Square. August 14, 2014.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

AND I AND SILENCE by Naomi Wallace at the Signature Theatre

     Naomi Wallace is one of our most poetic playwrights. She is fascinated by the intersections of race and gender politics and their relationship to America's class system. AND I AND SILENCE dramatizes the friendship, love, of two women in the South in the 1950s. Jamie (African-American) and Dee (white), meet and become good friends in prison. There they enact mistress-servant fantasies (Wallace must have been thinking of Jean Genet's THE MAIDS) as they plan to be domestic servants when they are released. NIne years later, now friends roommates and lovers, Jamie and Dee are starving in an anonymous city. They have lost their jobs as servants and have resorted to prostitution. There seems to be no way out of hunger and desperation.
     Wallace has two sets of actresses play Jamie and Dee at the two moments in their lives -- their friendship in prison and their doomed love in the city nine years later. They can't go out together as equals -- they will be perceived as mistress and servant, the roles they play out in their private fantasies.
     There's beauty and deep sadness in Wallace's play. It's a love story, but her characters are worn down by the realities of life for poor women, women of color, and lesbians. This is a tragedy of sorts, and fate is a set of social and economic circumstances. Wallace's language is both poetic and appropriate to these characters. They speak eloquently, but with diction that befits their circumstances. I kept thinking of opera as I watched AND I AND SILENCE. The play is a series of duets leading to a quartet. The language is musical, the ending heart-wrenching.
     Director Caitlin McLeod has placed the audience on two sides of an open stage as if we in the audience were surrounding the characters. She has made the most extremely effective use of the Linney black box that I have seen. Characters enter the playing are from a long flight of stairs that descends from the upper level of the space, as if they were descending into a nether world, a hell of sorts. When one set of actors leaves the playing area, they remain visible somewhere in the theatre, so that young Jamie and Dee and their older counterparts are never totally separate.
     Both sets of characters are fine, though Rachel Nicks (older Jamie) gives a particularly powerful performance.
     I know I sound like a broken record, but the Signature Theatre is the most important theatre in town for celebrating our most important playwrights. It is also the most enjoyable theatre space in town, the closest thing in New York to Britain's National Theatre.
AND I AND SILENCE. Signature Theatre Linney Theatre. August 13, 2014.