Sunday, 12 January 2014

Conor McPherson's THE NIGHT ALIVE at the Atlantic Theater Company

     At one point in Conor'McPherson's THE NIGHT ALIVE, the characters riff on the phrase, "What's going on?" Their lives seem chaotic, incomprehensible. Connections seem almost impossible.
     Tommy (Ciaran Hinds) lives in a messy Dublin flat, an objective correlative for his messy life. He has left his wife and children and lives from hand to mouth, using his van to help clear properties and move junk. Tommy seems to be a magnet for human detritus. Doc (Michael McElhatton), his sometime business partner, who keeps appearing after being thrown out of his sister's house, seems incapable of taking care of himself. When Tommy goes out for a bag of chips, he returns with Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne), who has just been beaten up by her boyfriend, Kenny (Brian Gleeson). Aimee also seems desperately needy. Kenny seems to be an agent of chaos, unable to keep his thoughts in order and lashing out against anyone who comes within his orbit. Maurice (Jim Norton), Tommy's uncle and landlord is one moment furious at the disorder in Tommy's flat and his life but at another moment a raging, disorderly drunk. In a series of scenes that take place over a few weeks, these characters intersect, separate, then intersect again. Tommy falls in love with Aimee, who sells hand jobs for forty Euros, but won't engage in any other form of sex. That's enough intimacy for Tommy, who can deal with the family he left via a bluetooth device, but can't deal with seeing them. Some connections are shockingly violent. McPherson has a bleak vision of the possibilities of human relationships. One can't help but be reminded of Eugene O'Neill, though McPherson is a far better writer. Unlike O'Neill, he lets his audience come to their own understanding of the world he creates. The play sounds bleak, but it's very funny at moments and deeply moving. At times we're reminded of Pinter, but the menace here is far more explicit. McPherson has a poet's sensibility. His metaphors are vivid, but also subtle. His plays are secular, but there's always a sense of something spiritual in the background. I couldn't help but think of the term "grace" while watching this. These characters are looking for something transcendent in a frightening world of planets spinning at the edge of a black hole. Why else end the play with preparations for Christmas? There's always a supernatural element to McPherson's plays, whether ghosts or the devil. Here the supernatural is hinted act. If there's any weakness to the play it is because McPherson is better at writing men than women. Aimee is much more what men project upon her than a three-dimensional character. Her violent boyfriend Kenneth seems to be more symbol and plot device than human being until he opens up in his final scene on stage and we see the pain of his madness.
     McPherson has directed the production himself (an import from London's Donmar Warehouse). It's a beautiful production, perfectly staged and paced. The cast is uniformly excellent. I have seen Ciaran Hinds a lot on stage and screen over the past twenty-plus years and often find him a mannered, one-not actor. He's anything but here, fully inhabiting the awkward, confused Tommy. Hinds and his colleagues comprise an ensemble cast that makes one fully believe in these characters. They're far from perfect, but they all have their dignity. This is a must see theatrical event.
THE NIGHT ALIVE. Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theatre. January 11, 2014.

Saturday, 11 January 2014


     I remember being extremely moved by Tony Richardson's film version of Alan Sillitoe's story, "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," when I saw it during my college years. It was one of the great British realistic "angry man" films of the early sixties. The soundtrack had that British imperial hymn, "Jerusalem" playing as the boys in this youth prison dismantled gas masks from World War II. This was a story of alienation of a working class youth in a class-bound society that was now in its postwar, post-Empire hangover. What could a young man of no position do but find a way to rebel? There's a good bit of existentialism in the story. If everything is meaningless, all one can do is assert oneself, even in an absurd, self-destructive way. The anti-hero of this story finds his only joy in running alone, revelling in his isolation. The same is true of the Black protagonist in British playwright Roy Williams's updating of Sillitoe's story. His Colin, like Sillitoe's, is above all a loner. He didn't participate in the recent riots in his area. He doesn't get along with his mother or her boyfriend, though he remembers his father, a bus driver and ardent socialist. He is allowed to run on his own at this youth prison because he is being groomed to win a cross-country race against a representative of a posh boy's school nearby. He will be the symbol of some kind of victory of the agencies of British society against the old class system. Though the victor, he refuses to cross the finish line. He has proved that he is the better runner, but he refuses to be used to validate a system he despises. Of course, his act of self assertion changes nothing and he will be treated like a pariah in the prison, but he has briefly thumbed his nose at the society he hates. Some of the language has been changed, but the story is basically the same. We don't get the same sense of the dreariness of the prison or the world from which Colin came that we had in Richardson's film. As it must be, the play is more about people than environment.
     I can't say whether the story translates to the experience of contemporary youth. The gap between rich and poor is enormous in the U.K. as it is here, and young people face bleak prospects. I'm not sure that the class system has anywhere near the same resonance now. Money is the measure of position in England as it is here and much of the richest people in London are from other countries. Sillitoe's story is so imbued with existentialism and a specific kind of postwar alienation that it still seemed of a different period than its current contemporary setting.
     The play has been given an excellent production at the subterranean Atlantic Theater Stage 2. Leah C. Gardiner's staging is deft, using moveable wire fences with backing so scenes can be projected on them. Her staging is fluid and the pacing seems just right for this story. Sheldon Best gives a virtuoso performance as Colin, the angry young man. Through most of the evening, he has to run in place while delivering long soliloquies. He's obviously in great shape, actually too great physical shape for this poor kid (who can forget the scrawny Tom Courtenay in the film?), but he capture's Colin's confused anger and his love of running as his only freedom. The rest of the cast is uniformly good.
     I was impressed by this production. It's my problem that I can't get the movie out of my head.
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER. Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2. January 10, 2014.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Pinter's NO MAN'S LAND

     I have fond memories of seeing Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson in NO MAN'S LAND back in 1975. The play seemed tailor-made to their talents. The long speeches Pinter has given his characters demand great technique and some charisma. Now we have two knights, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as the aging writers Spooner and Hirst. Hirst, obviously a successful writer and critic, has met Spooner, a shabby but genteel lesser literary figure, in a pub near Hampstead Heath and has brought Spooner home for some reason -- the need for someone to get drunk with? the need for companionship? Spooner seems irritatingly garrulous while Hirst quietly gets so drunk that he has to crawl out of the room. Spooner claims to live in the country wife his wife and daughters but given his later wish to stay in Hirst's home as his assistant, this isn't likely. Hirst is cared for by two somewhat sinister men (this is a Pinter play) and it is not clear who is in charge of whom. A lot isn't quite clear in the play. Is Spooner a gentleman farmer, as he claims, or does he work in a Chalk Farm pub?
      Memory and age are the primary subjects of this play. Hirst's short-term memory is failing him, but he lives in the past. At one point, he thinks Spooner is an old Oxford chum. "Did you have a good war?" he asks. Spooner, who has a gift for improvisation, manages to fit into whatever scenario from the past Hirst invents. His goal only seems to be to be able to find a place for himself in this odd all-male household. The younger men, the garrulous Foster (Billy Crudup) and and taciturn Briggs (Shuler Hensley) are suspicious of Spooner and don't want him invading their territory. Perhaps an all-male world is the only one these men can survive in. Spooner and Hirst talk about lost loves, cuckolding each other and both at some point admit that they have never experienced love. Their all male No Man's Land, is a place where the present and future don't seem to exist and the past is a mystery. Hirst's favorite object is a photo album of past friends, but he has no desire to match the faces with names. The images are enough. This is a kind of death in life. While this all sounds bleak, NO MAN'S LAND is a very funny play.
     It's not surprising that these four men are alternating NO MAN'S LAND with Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT both are about men adrift in a world in which present and past are oddly mixed together and the future seems uncertain.
     It's always a joy to see Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on stage. McKellen looks properly seedy as Spooner, but tries to maintain his dignity in odd and sometimes frightening circumstances. Stewart at first seems a picture of self-possession, but soon loses physical and mental control. The two veteran actors make a great double team. Billy Crudup, with his convincing working class accent, offers another kind of explosion of language. He and his counterpart also offer conflicting versions of their past together, though it is never clear what their relationship is. Hensley offers just the right contrast to Crubup's volatility. This is an evening of fine acting by both the British and American actors. Sean Mathias's production is paced and staged perfectly.
     I was delighted to see that this Broadway audience seemed to listening intently to this difficult play. It's a feast of beautiful, poetic language superbly acted. What more could one want??
NO MAN'S LAND. Cort Theatre. January 8, 2014

Friday, 3 January 2014

Sophie Treadwell's MACHINAL at the Roundabout Theatre

     Sophie Treadwell's MACHINAL is the best work to come out of American playwrights' fascination with German expressionism during the 1920s. Back in my day, everyone studied Elmer Rice's THE ADDING MACHINE and O'Neill's attempts at expressionism such as THE HAIRY APE. However, some of the most interesting playwrights of the period were women who were ignored for a long time: Rachel Crothers, Zona Gale, Sophie Treadwell. In MACHINAL, Treadwell places her heroine, only listed as "Young Woman" in the script (expressionists believed in giving characters universality through referring to them only generically) into a mechanized, male dominated world. Her heroine is too much a dreamer to survive in such unfeeling pragmatism, yet her dreams are only vague longings. Her workplace is filled with machines and machine-like people. Her mother has been so beaten down by the system that she can only nag. The Young Woman enters into a loveless, but practical marriage with the Vice-President of the company where she works as a stenographer, though she sees marriage and motherhood as traps. Her only moment of freedom comes during a one-night stand with a handsome, sexy drifter (originally played by the young Clark Gable!), which makes her hate her marriage all the more. After killing her husband, she is tried for murder and executed. The Young Woman has vague notions of a life outside of male-dominated discourse but only gets more trapped within that discourse, spoken by doctors, lawyers, priests, reporters. Her husband speaks in banal cliches. She sees the man she has sex with as a free spirit, but the freedom he experiences is only available to men. He is back in Mexico when she is tried for murder (in her days as a journalist, Treadwell interviewed Pancho Villa). The mechanistic, masculine discourse is balanced by constant erotic banter in the background of many scenes, but sex doesn't seem to offer more than momentary release and is presented as predatory. In a daring vignette for 1928, Treadwell shows us a middle-aged gay man trying to seduce an innocent boy in a speakeasy. When the Young Woman tries to utter her feelings, they come out in a stream-of-counsciouness interior monologue that is barely coherent. Treadwell's tragedy is as timely today as it was in 1928.
     MACHINAL is a tricky play to produce. It takes a director who respects Treadwell's style, but who also sees the contemporary relevance of the play. I don't know why the Roundabout chose British director Lyndsey Turner to direct this production. Certainly there are more gifted female American directors who deserved the opportunity to work at this prestigious theatre and who could have done a better job. The last time I saw a Turner production -- CHIMERICA at the Almeida Theatre in London this summer -- she botched the play by putting it on a revolving stage. The constant revolving between scenes slowed down the rhythm of the play. More important, one did not have any sense of when or where a scene was taking place, which was crucial to understanding the script. Her production also ignored the sight line problems of the Almeida. Surprise, surprise! Turner has placed MACHINAL on a revolving stage with lots of extraneous business between the play's nine scenes as the stage turns and turns. She seems to want to make the play cinematic when the best choice would be to make it theatrical -- a different matter altogether. Turner wants to "open out" the play, as film directors call it -- to throw in silent scenes not in the play between the scenes Treadwell wrote. Perhaps these are to cover costume changes, but they destroy the jagged rhythm of the play. So the scenes for which Treadwell wrote dialogue are interspersed with scenes Turner has invented. More important, once the stage stops turning, we are given scenes treated more realistically than the script calls for. This is particularly problematic in the trial scene, which in this production seems like a bad PERRY MASON episode. We have been inundated with courtroom dramas on television over the past sixty years, so this scene, played as it is in this production, seemed particularly stilted. Turner should have been willing to be more stylized.
     Still, this production is worth seeing because of the play and because of Rebecca Hall's performance. There's a tension here between the purposely flat style of the play and Hall's wish to present the Young Woman as a three-dimensional character, but Hall is one of those actresses who is so magnetic on stage (and screen) that she is able to justify her choices and rise above the heavy, uneven production that surrounds her. Michael Cumpsty, one of our best actors, tries to play the purposely banal, repetitive language within the realistic framework of the production, and Morgan Spector balances The Lover's attraction and his cynicism. Everyone would be better in a production that had a consistent point of view toward the play and its style and was less concerned with visual effects, but they and the script make this production of MACHINAL worth seeing.
     Es Devlin has created a massive, revolving set where simplicity would have been more effective, but that's more the director's fault than the designer's. The tendency in many British productions, particularly at the National Theatre of Great Britain, is to overdo the scenery as if spectacle were essential to any dramatic production. In her stage directions, Treadwell sets out exactly what she thinks each scene needs. One doesn't have to follow that religiously. Indeed, anything is possible if the director has a clear, consistent point of view toward the material. Once again, I felt that Lyndsey Turner was getting in the way of a full appreciation and understanding of this fascinating script.
     Still, I'm grateful to the Roundabout for presenting a seldom performed American classic. It was worth the trek out on  a snowy night.
MACHINAL by Sophie Treadwell, produced by the Roundabout Theatre at the American Airlines Theatre. January 2, 2014.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014


     One way or another, musicals these days are usually acts of nostalgia. Usually they stir memories of music of the past through "Greatest Hits" shows like WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, MAMMA MIA, BEAUTIFUL, JERSEY BOYS, etc., through revivals  of older shows or scores (CHICAGO, CINDERELLA) or through new music by composers associated with an earlier era (Cyndi Lauper, Elton John). Sometimes they recreate on stage movies that may have resonance for us (LION KING, NEWSIES). Even a great new musical like FUN HOME is a show about memories of the past. Is there a musical now that uses contemporary music to tell a contemporary story? The last one I recall was NEXT TO NORMAL.
     The delightful new show, A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, is another example of the musical as nostalgia. I enjoyed the show -- it is impossible not to -- but I couldn't help thinking about it as another act of love for past musicals. If this comic tale of a serial killer in Edwardian England had been written in the 1940s by someone like Frank Loesser, it would have had music that sounded 1940s (think of Loesser's score for WHERE'S CHARLEY, set in the same period). Steven Lutvak's tuneful, inventive score for GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE sounds like a much better version of a Noel Coward or Ivor Novello score. Filled with clever patter songs (Lutvak and his co-lyricist Robert L. Freedman are masterful librettists) and really lovely ballads and ensembles, the score is a joy to hear. It's pastiche, but very good pastiche. Freedman's book is economical and very funny and Darko Tresnjak's direction is swift and imaginative, farce with a light touch.
     A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AN MURDER is a vehicle for two terrific performers. Jefferson Mays plays nine male and female characters. It's a tour de force, one of the best comic performances I have seen on a stage. Mays wisely doesn't milk his material as a ham like Mark Rylance would. His touch is light, but deft. I have never seen Bryce Pinkham before. He also plays his role, Monty Navarro, a serial killer who loses control of this master plan (his victims sometimes die before he can do his dirty work), and of his simultaneous wooing of the vampy Sibella (Lisa O'Hare) and the chaste Phoebe (Lauren Worsham). One of the funniest scenes in the show is a classic farce sequence in which Monty tries to keep his two lady friends in separate rooms. Pinkham has perfect comic timing and a near elastic body. He is also blessed with good looks and a lovely singing voice. O'Hare and Worsham have the kind of lyric soprano voices common to musical leading ladies before personal microphones (think Doretta Morrow, Kathryn Grayson or the young Barbara Cook). This is a relatively small show -- a total cast of thirteen.
      The sets and projections are simple, but perfect for the tone of the show. Linda Cho's costumes for the women are beautiful to look at and the nine costumes for Mays' characters are part of the show's fun.
       The theatre was not full on the New Years Eve matinee despite the strong reviews. Perhaps the title isn't catchy enough or the marketing isn't aggressive enough. Comedy seems to be a hard sell on Broadway these days. I found A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER a joyous way to ring out the old year and ring in the new. What better way to celebrate the passage of time than to have a good laugh? If you want to see really fine comic performances, don't miss this gem of a show.
A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER. Walter Kerr Theatre. December 31. 2013.