Friday, 23 May 2014

Linda Lavin in Nicky Silver's TOO MUCH SUN at the Vineyard Theatre

     I'm a big fan of Nicky Silver's work and also a big fan of Linda Lavin who I first saw on Broadway half a century ago in IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S SUPERMAN. TOO MUCH SUN is another Lavin-Siver collaboration after their successful THE LYONS a couple of years ago. Silver loves writing about monster mothers and in THE LYONS Lavin played an uber-monster, waiting not so patiently for her husband to die. TOO MUCH SUN is a kinder, gentler play than Silver usually writes, a bit soft of focus, but rich and touching. There are few belly laughs here, which will disappoint some, but there is beauty of language and a varied emotional palette.
     Yes, we watch a dysfunctional family (two dysfunctional families, actually), and yes Lavin plays a self-absorbed mother, but TOO MUCH SUN is about a group of people at crucial junctures in their lives who don't see much meaning in their existence. The play begins at a rehearsal for the ultimate monster mother play, MEDEA. Veteran actress Audrey Langham (Lavin), is having trouble remembering her lines. As a matter of fact, nothing about the production seems right to her, from her costume to the staging to the lighting to the play itself. Audrey is having an existential crisis -- suddenly the whole idea of acting, "playing imaginary people in imaginary rooms," ceases to make sense. She walks off stage, leaves town and heads out to the summer home of her daughter Kitty (Jennifer Westfeldt), a schoolteacher who has lost her calling, and Kitty's husband Dennis (Ken Barnett), an advertising executive who would rather be writing a science fiction novel. Dennis also is torn between his conventional life and sex on the dunes with Lucas (Matt Dickson), the young man next door who has been supporting himself selling pot. Lucas plans to start college in the fall, though he doesn't really have any goals. Both Kitty and Lucas have been damaged by their parents. Kitty never met her father and resents the fact that Audrey has more or less neglected her -- Audrey even sent an understudy to Kitty's graduation! Lucas has never fully recovered from catching his father having sex with another woman and subsequently finding his mother's body after she committed suicide. Winston, his father  (Richard Bekins), doesn't know what to do with his son or with his own life. Into this mix comes Gil, Audrey's agent's assistant and nephew (Matt Dellapina). Gil hates being an agent and really wants to be a rabbi, though he isn't religious. What these characters share is a sense of lostness and of unhealed wounds. Their collisions are sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet, and occasionally tragic. In his earlier work, one felt at times that Silver went for the easy laugh. There are no easy laughs here. Everything stems from character.
     TOO MUCH SUN is a rich domestic drama. There are echoes of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Like Blanche, Audrey wants life to be like theatre and looks to a loveless marriage to save her. Love itself is a fraught word here. Without pressing the point, Silver ponders what the word means or whether love in any ideal form exists. If I have any reservation about the play it concerns the occasional breaking of the 4th wall. I'm not sure we need the characters' direct address to the audience and their final cataloguing of what happens to them after the action of the play is a tired convention.
     Of course, Lavin is superb in a part written for her. She even gets to sing, though she is now a baritone rather than the fantastic belter she was decades ago. She's funny -- no one has a better sense of comic timing -- but she doesn't rely on her stock takes. She's always in character. She has to show far more range here than she did in THE LYONS. Her serious moments are as powerful as her more comic ones.I have a feeling that director Mark Brokaw has told his actors to play down their characters' neuroses, to build to the climactic moment. In other words, don't make this a typical Nicky Silver play. He's right -- these characters are more adept at hiding their primal screams than many Silver characters. Almost everyone is convincing, funny and touching. I say almost, because there is one weak link. From the second row, handsome Matt Dickson looks a decade too old to play Lucas and works too hard to play young. Lucas is supposed to be considerably younger than Dennis, but from ten feet away they looked close to the same age. Dickson looks like a lifeguard, not the local dealer, and always seems to be "acting" I didn't believe his performance for one moment.
     TOO MUCH SUN is up there with the best plays I have seen this season and Lavin's performance is a must. Don't miss it.
TOO MUCH SUN. Vineyard Theatre. Mary 23, 2014.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

AFTER MIDNIGHT, the Tony-nominated musical

     There should be a Tony category for revues -- elaborate vaudevilles like AFTER MIDNIGHT. It's not a musical in the conventional sense. There's no story, no dialogue -- just under 90 minutes of musical numbers recreating a 1930s night club show at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem.
     You can't fault the quality of this show. The music -- the kind of songs that would be performed in a place like the Cotton Club back then -- is delightful, from standards like "I've Got the World on a String" and "Stormy Weather" to catchy but less familiar tunes of the period. All the singers are fine and the band, the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, is thrilling. The choreography is terrific and superbly danced. The costumes are gorgeous.
     In the revolving door of guest leading ladies (Vanessa Williams just left and Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight are coming up), we got Fantasia Barrino who is new to me but well known to most of the audience. She sings the standards well and moves gracefully, but her tattoos don't go with the beautiful, elegant costumes she is given to wear. Dule Hill isn't given a lot to do. The entire company is chock full of talent and charm.
      Nonetheless, the show feel a bit skimpy for Broadway prices. At our performance there were rows of empty seats in the mezzanine, which is too bad for such a stage full of singing and dancing talent. But it is vaudeville and $100+ is pricey for vaudeville.
     It's not fair that this show is nominated for a Tony for Best Musical when creative work like IF/THEN is ignored.
     Before the show, we joined the throng in Shubert Alley watching "Stars in the Alley." There the casts of a number of Broadway shows sang songs from their productions. The event was hosted by the talented, charismatic Norm Lewis. Listening to one song after another, I couldn't help noticing how monotonous so much current Broadway music is. The show opened with a dreary anthem from ROCKY that only gave me another reason not to see the show. When the current cast of CHICAGO came out and sang and danced "Roxy," the quality meter shot way up. Even songs from PHANTOM sounded like great music compared to the scores of the new shows. I must say that Norm Lewis made more of "Music in the Night" than anyone else I have heard. He sang it instead of crooning it. Fred Ebb and Andrew Lloyd Webber knew how to write melodies. It's sad that the only really fine original Broadway score this season -- Jason Robert Brown's score for THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY -- was not fully appreciated. Sadly, that show is closed. Off-Broadway, we had the brilliant FUN HOME and there's still David Byrne's and Fatboy Slim's HERE LIES LOVE. For the most part at "Stars in the Alley" a lot of really talented people sang some pretty mediocre music. The old standards performed in AFTER MIDNIGHT show how much better songwriting was eighty years ago. That may be the best reason to see the show.
AFTER MIDNIGHT. Brooks Atkinson Theatre. May 21, 2014.  

Bryan Cranston in ALL THE WAY

     When I looked at my ticket for all the way, I noticed that Bryan Cranston's name was in type over twice as large as that used for the title of the play. In the program, the name of the playwright, Robert Schenkkan, is printed in type less than half the size of that used for Cranston's name. A lover of drama would say that the playwright is a heck of a lot more important than the actor playing the leading role, but Broadway is now and has always been about show business. ALL THE WAY got to Broadway and is filling a 1300 seat theatre because of Bryan Cranston and the popularity he gained from his tv show BREAKING BAD. I must admit I have never seen BREAKING BAD and only know Cranston from his years playing the father on MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE. I went to ALL THE WAY because I am fascinated with Lyndon Johnson's presidency, the last gasp of New Deal politics.
     ALL THE WAY is an old-fashioned, large scale historical drama, the sort of play that was often found on Broadway in the Good Old Days -- over twenty actors in a dramatic chronicle of the year between John F. Kennedy's assassination and Johnson's election to the presidency. The focus in a relatively unfocused play, is Johnson's campaign for a civil rights bill and the subsequent loss of the South for the Democrats. This was a momentous change for the Democratic Party and for the country. Racism gave the South to the Republicans who continue to be the party of white straight male privilege.
Vietnam is barely mentioned, but that is the focus of the sequel to this play. At the center, of course, is Lyndon Johnson, a complex character who becomes less sympathetic as the three-hour play progresses. He's a total political animal who lives to wheedle, cajole and bully opponents into submission. He is also self-indulgent, self-pitying and a bit paranoid, sort of a more charming precursor to the more monstrous Richard Nixon.
     There are two major weaknesses in Schenkaan's play.
      First, there are too many discussions without much dramatic focus or momentum. ALL THE WAY is like a weak doctoral dissertation by a graduate student who just had to thrown in every piece of information he collected in his research. This is a play, not a history book -- we have Robert Caro's brilliant books on LBJ for that -- but Schenkaan has to give us repeated conversations between Martin Luther King and his cohort, Johnson and the congressman and senators he is pushing toward his bill, Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover, and Johnson and his devoted aide, Walter Jenkins. There isn't a lot of forward momentum or of dramatic focus. Schenkaan wants us to see how the events of 1964 have had lasting consequences, but more selection would have helped.
     Second, the play depicts the last era of congressional eloquence -- the last moment when congressmen had to be great orators. Who of us who were sentient back then can forget figures like Everett Dirksen or Robert Byrd? We may not agree at all with the politics of these men, but they were voices. Even Johnson had a unique folksy eloquence. ALL THE WAY does capture Johnson's style, but in general the play is anything but eloquent. It's prosaic. Great playwrights like Shakespeare and Schiller found poetry in history. Schenkaan's play is the dramatic equivalent of journalism. The language is flat and, other than Johnson and occasionally King, the characters all sound the same. This may work on television -- all Aaron Sorkin's characters sound the same -- but plays are about language. They depend on eloquence, rhetoric. ALL THE WAY is flat.
     Yes, Bryan Cranston does capture a version of Johnson, warts and all. It is a performance worth seeing. He's not as tall as LBJ, but he stoops over as if he was literally larger than anyone else around him. Bill Rauch has staged the play effectively on a simple unit set. The other actors are pretty faceless, but that's the play's fault more than the actors'.
     It's great to have something as big as ALL THE WAY on Broadway. I wish it had been better written.
ALL THE WAY. Neil Simon Theatre. May 20, 2014.  

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Harvey Fierstein's CASA VALENTINA at Manhattan Theatre Club

     Poor Harvey Fierstein! He only has three shows on Broadway (NEWSIES and KINKY BOOTS in addition to CASA VALENTINA). Maybe it's time to name a theatre after him. Unlike his hit musicals, CASA VALENTINA isn't an adaptation, though it was "inspired by" CASA SUSANNA by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope. Like most of Fierstein's work, it is about men in frocks. It demonstrates his gift for audience-pleasing storytelling but also, alas, his tendency toward tendentiousness.
     The play takes place in a small Catskills resort that is intended to be a safe haven for heterosexual transvestites. It is 1962, a time when any deviance from the rigidly policed conventional gender order could lead to severe punishment. Unfortunately for the owners, George (Patrick Page), and his wife Rita (Mare Winningham), there aren't enough brave straight transvestites to keep the place running and, as with all minority "communities", there is a tenuous sense of social coherence. This particular weekend, the failing venture will either sink or be saved by a wealthy, powerful activist Charlotte (Reed Birney) whose tasteful pink outfit hides a fascist bully. Most of the guests on this particular weekend are regulars, ranging in age from definitely senior (John Cullum and Larry Pine) to thirtyish. Among the half-dozen guests there's a judge (Pine), and overweight ex-military hero (Tom McGowan) and a terrified newbie (Gabriel Ebert). These men find liberation in dressing as women, in expressing the feminine aspect of their personality. Most of them have wives and families. The doyenne of the place is owner George's alter ego, Valentina. What we have here is a kind of straight transvestite BOYS IN THE BAND. Like those characters, these men have been conditioned to despise themselves for the thing that gives them most pleasure. Like their counterparts in Mart Crowley's play, they also drink a good deal, throw a bit of a show, but lose their sense of community by the end of a long evening.
     The catalyst for the crisis is ardent activist Charlotte, who is determined to establish a nationwide sorority for straight transsexuals and equally determined to ensure that no homosexuals are included in the group. For Charlotte, homosexuals are disgusting perverts (the common judgment then) and the main problem for people like him is that people immediately think transvestites are homosexual. For straight transvestites to be accepted and part of Charlotte's sorority, they must totally reject the gay community. When the other guests find Charlotte's attitude offensive -- after all, gay folk have been the only group to accept those transvestites -- Charlotte resorts to various forms of emotional and psychological bullying and, eventually to blackmail (she knows that there's a homosexual on the premises). The problem for the play is that Fierstein, who has a rather melodramatic sensibility, has made Charlotte such a villainess that she strains credulity. She becomes a male Joan Crawford. Villains only work in serious drama if the playwright has some sympathy with the character. Indeed, a basic rule of playwriting is that you have to like your characters. Fierstein obviously doesn't like Charlotte.
     In the final scene, Fierstein gives us the woman's point of view toward the characters. The daughter of one of the men arrives to take him home and tells George and Rita what the patriarch's cross-dressing has done to his wife and family who live in constant fear that he will be arrested or attacked and that they will suffer public ignominy. Rita comes to realize that George and Valentina are themselves the perfect couple and that she has always been something of a third wheel, there to support George's fragile sense of his heterosexuality.
      CASA VALENTINA is entertaining and absorbing at times. The play only clunks when Fierstein becomes too strident in making us take sides. He should read more George Bernard Shaw -- he knew how to make his villains seductive and almost convincing. Joe Mantello has given the play slick, well paced production and the ensemble is excellent. Octogenerian John Cullum was having trouble with a few of his lines, but he's such a lovable performer that no one cares. Gabriel Ebert was excellent as the timid debutante who has an all-too-brief moment of liberation of his feminine side. Mare Winningham is touching as the understanding Rita who loves George but is a bit scared of Valentina. All the other members of the ensemble are excellent. I was particularly drawn to Nick Westrate's Gloria. Westrate has been given a mere outline of a character, but manages to make one believe there's a lot going on behind the wig and sexy outfit.
CASA VALENTINA. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. May 14, 2014.

THE FEW by Samuel D. Hunter at Rattlestick Playwrights THeatre

     Idaho is to Samuel Hunter what Mississippi was to William Faulkner -- a place both geographically and culturally specific and a setting for a narrative with wider implications. Hunter's psychological and spiritual terrain is stasis and despair. When THE FEW opens in a trailer that serves as the office for a magazine catering to lonely truckers, two characters, a man and a woman look at each other silently for thirty seconds or so -- one of those long, inscrutable silences contemporary playwrights inherited from Harold Pinter by way of Sam Shepard. Bryan (Michael Laurence) has just returned from an unexplained ten month absence from the magazine he co-founded with his now dead friend Will and their female comrade, QZ (Tasha Lawrence). QZ is furious that Bryan abandoned the magazine and her. In the meantime, she has taken in Will's nephew Matthew (Gideon Glick) a profoundly needy gay teenager, as her assistant. Bryan seems to be in a state of emotional and spiritual paralysis. He has been in shock ever since Will purposely drove his truck across the median into the path of another car, killing himself, but also killing a young family. QZ just wants to keep the magazine afloat with Matthew's help.
     Matthew and Will's dream was the creation of a haven for lonely, isolated truckers -- a place where they could come for booze and fellowship. The magazine was to be an antidote to the trucker's sense of isolation. To keep it afloat in Bryan's absence, QZ has turned it into a forum for personal ads. Throughout the play we hear some of the ads on the answering machine, more cries for companionship than sex, or cries for sex to serve as a surrogate for companionship. When Bryan reenters the scene, Matthew sees the opportunity to restore the magazine to its original purpose, but Bryan is in too hopeless a state to do anything positive.The play shows us whether and how these three characters can at least save themselves if they can't help each other.
     As much as I have admired Hunter's previous work, THE FEW is too thin to sustain its ninety minutes. It would be better half an hour shorter. It's repetitive -- Bryan is asked about three times too often why he has come back and the real reason, when it is finally revealed, stretches credibility. Since we're told early on that Bryan actually owns the trailer and the magazine, there's no question who has the upper hand. Bryan and QZ are types we have encountered before and we know pretty much what will happen to them from the outset. The only interesting, unpredictable character is young Matthew, played brilliantly by Gideon Glick. Disowned by his family, Matthew needs love and acceptance. Bryan alternates between cruel rejection and attempts at avuncular connection. Above all, Matthew wants to be able to stay, but his position is threatened the minute Bryan enters the scene. All nerves and constant motion, Matthew tries desperately to assert his will and maintain his position. At the climactic moment, armed with a bb gun, Matthew tries to force Bryan to accept him and save the magazine. The armed assault is also reminiscent of Sam Shepard, but Glick here, as throughout the play, makes us believe in Matty's desperation and his strength.      
     The postage stamp size Rattlestick stage give us the sense of confinement necessary for the play. Davis McCallum has done all he can to keep the play credible and fast-paced, but he can't hide the play's narrative flaws. The cast is superb, particularly Glick.  
THE FEW, Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. May 12, 2014.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

IRMA LA DOUCE at City Center Encores

     The City Center Encores series has become one of the highlights of the New York theatre season. I really regret missing their last offering -- THE MOST HAPPY FELLA -- but catch their shows when I can. Their production of Rodgers and Hart's ON YOUR TOES last year was the best revival of that work I have seen. Ditto GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES the year before.
     I don't know what possessed Jack Viertel and his colleagues this time around. IRMA LA DOUCE is a small, forgettable British import of a French musical that had a respectable run of a year in New York in 1960. The score is slight -- a couple of pleasant ballads repeated endlessly and some mediocre patter songs -- tied to an even slighter book. The show was much more intimate than the typical Broadway musical in 1960. Back then I guess a musical about a whore who enjoyed her work was considered delightfully risqué. Today it's a bit creepy and the plot about a young man who plays two men to keep his beloved "poule" happy is definitely creaky. My sense is that the producers wanted a cheap show -- a cast of eleven, no chorus and a ten piece band. They only proved that IRMA LA DOUCE is too intimate for the massive City Center and not worth reviving.
     I wish I could say that the performances made the evening worthwhile. Jennifer Bowles as Irma and Rob McClure as her boyfriend exuded absolutely no sexual chemistry in a show that depends on a powerful sexual attraction. They were typical of so many musical theatre performers these days -- competent, but without distinct personalities. I didn't see the original IRMA LA DOUCE (Elizabeth Seal played the title role), but I could imagine a quirky star like Gwen Verdon making something of the role. The boyfriend has to be more than sweet -- he has also to be sexy. McClure worked hard, but he was miscast. Though John Doyle is credited with direction, I saw no sign of direction of the two leading actors. Staging, yes, but no direction. I know these Encores productions have very short rehearsal time, but Doyle could have spent a little time getting his leads to act like they were the least bit interested in each other. The other men playing various Parisian low-lifes gave the show its only spark. The small band sounded good as it always does in Encores productions.
     Not a great night for City Center Encores.
IRMA LA DOUCE. New York City Center. May 9, 2014.

THE OCTOROON by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Soho Rep

     Having admired Branden Jacobs-Jenkins recent play APPROPRIATE at the Signature, I was eager to see his new work, which is a very personal, sometimes surreal take on Dion Boucicault's 1859 hit play THE OCTOROON, OR LIFE IN LOUISIANA. THE OCTOROON contains the first published use of the word "mashup." In some ways, Jacobs-Jenkins' play is a dramatic mashup, layering two plays on top of each other. Jacobs-Jenkins begins with THE OCTOROON because it represents a 19th century view of race, albeit written by an Irishman for American consumption: slavery, miscegenation, even an Native-American. Jacobs-Jenkins, an African-American playwright writing at a time when live drama is no longer of interest to most people, is adapting the work of a playwright who was one of the most successful show business figures of his day. Boucicault wrote plays that were sensational -- the 19th century equivalent of blockbuster movies today. He also is important in the annals of history for developing the dramatic copyright that allowed playwrights to make a regular income from the production and publication of their plays. Because of that, serious writers could envision making a living from writing plays -- thus the renaissance of drama in the late 19th century. Jacobs-Jenkins is fascinated with THE OCTOROON as a past representation of race and slavery in America. He is also intrigued with Boucicault, the maker of thrilling, if now politically incorrect, theatre. In addition, Jacobs-Jenkins wants to look at how plays inspire strong emotions in their audiences: "We're just trying to make you feel something," his alter-ego says at one climactic moment.
     That alter-ego, BJJ (the playwright's initials), given a virtuoso performance by Chris Myers, is having trouble feeling. Standing in his underwear in front of a microphone like a stand-up comic, he tells the audience of a visit to his analyst. BJJ is emotionally numb, feeling nothing about his life or his work. When he tells his analyst that he is mildly interested in THE OCTOROON, the doctor suggests that he try to adapt that work as a kind of therapy. Is this story true or something BJJ has made up? His first line in the play is, "I am a Black playwright," a designation that puzzles and irritates him. His version of THE OCTOROON is also a working out of what it means to him to be a Black playwright. Unfortunately, during the rehearsal process of his OCTOROON, the white actors, uncomfortable with the politically incorrect play, quit, so the playwright must play all the white characters. As the play is prepared for production, Dion Boucicault appears to play the role of the Indian, one of his famous character roles. So we will have THE OCTOROON with a Black man in whiteface playing two white men (hero and villain), a white man in blackface playing the other Black men, another white man playing a Native-American with bright red make-up that looks more like severe sunburn, and five women playing the female roles. Oh, there's a rabbit, played by a Black man (actually the playwright, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins), partly out of Lewis Carroll, partly out of African-American folklore made famous by Joel Chandler Harris, who occasionally appears, reminding us that we have indeed gone down the rabbit hole. A song at the very end of the production, sung in the darkness, underscores this notion.  
     What we get from this point on is a mashup. Sometimes the dialogue is right out of the Boucicault and played relatively straight, sometimes it is played as farce. The slave women (hilarious) sound like something out of a Tyler Perry creation. Walls fall forward, revealing other walls. The floor is covered with cotton balls. The final fight between hero and villain (played by the same man) is pure slapstick. Jacobs-Jenkins is making fun of THE OCTOROON'S racial politics and old-fashioned melodrama, but there is also affection for this old-fashioned piece of theatrical hokum. Without that affection and the complexity of Jacobs-Jenkins' approach, AN OCTOROON would become tiring very soon. It's a little too long, but totally absorbing.
     The final scene gives us our comic slave women talking of their excitement at being sold to the captain of a ship. They're going to get out of the swamp and onto a ship. They don't know that the ship has blown up (one of Boucicault's spectacular stage effects -- he loved stage fires). There is no escape. Nor do they know why they feel emotionally numb -- BJJ couldn't avoid projecting his own feelings onto his characters.
     Jacobs-Jenkins may be a Black playwright -- he is also a post-modern playwright giving us work wildly mixed in tone. Its mixture of disparate elements reminded me of Tom Stoppard's plays, but there's more passion in Jacobs-Jenkins' work. He is one of the most interesting of the younger generation of American playwrights.
     Sarah Benson's production captures the kaleidoscopic nature of the work. It is effectively staged and perfectly paced. The eight actors couldn't be better. And the music (what's a melodrama without music?), mostly played by solo cello, is very effective.
     This was my first visit to Soho Rep, a small theatre near Canal Street. I was delighted to see something one seldom sees at the performance of a drama these days -- a predominantly young audience!
     This is another totally absorbing, important play from Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. Don't miss it!
AN OCTOROON. Soho Rep. May 8, 2014