Saturday, 21 June 2014

Ayad Akhtar's THE WHO AND THE WHAT at Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theatre

     After seeing  Ayed Akhtar's thrilling play DISGRACED, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize, I was really looking forward to THE WHO AND THE WHAT. Alas, I found it repeated familiar tropes: the Muslim father dealing with progressive children, outrage at a book that could be construed as anti-Islamic, Muslim women rebelling against the religious and cultural codes imposed on them. Moreover, where DISGRACED had high dramatic stakes, THE WHO AND THE WHAT plays down the fallout from the characters' actions.
     Afzal (Bernard White) is a Pakistani who has made a fortune in the taxicab business in car-dependent Atlanta. He is an example of the American dream, moving from taxi driver to entrepreneur. After his wife died of cancer, he had to take over the raising of his two daughters now in their twenties.    Afzal has the old world idea that he has the right to run his daughters' lives, particularly their love lives. Zarina (Nadine Malouf), is exceptionally bright, a Harvard graduate, but she now lives at home and waits on her father after he broke off her relationship with an Irish-Catholic man. There's anger underneath the surface, but she keeps it in check. Mahwish (Tala Ashe), will marry the man she is supposed to marry, but she has kept him interested by offering him a form of sex that still manages to keep her virginity but certainly isn't good Islamic practice. Concerned that Zarina doesn't have a man, Afzal creates a profile for her on a Muslin dating site and interviews the candidates himself. His ideal candidate for her is Eli (Greg Keller), a white man who has converted to Islam and is Imam of a small mosque outside of Atlanta. Zarina dutifully dates Eli and eventually marries him.
     The bombshell is that Zarina has spent the past four years writing a book about the Prophet Mohammed's love life that is certain to raise a scandal and perhaps violence. Eli who dotes on his wife wants to be supportive but knows the book will cause a violent backlash and that his own position as Iman will be endangered. Afzal pilfer's Eli's copy (Afzal knows no limits when it comes to searching other people's belongings), and goes ballistic.
     Up to here I'm with the play -- with some reservations -- but Akhtar pulls his punches in the last half hour. There would be a far more violent response to Zarina's book than he gives us and the resolution seems unearned.
     One problem with the play -- and I am surprised that some dramaturg hasn't pointed this out to the playwright -- is that he is focusing the play on Afzal, but Eli is the more interesting character. Why did he convert to Islam? How does his feminism fit in with his religion. There's a scene in which Afzal tells Eli to "break" his wife, essentially to bring her to heel in a traditionally Islamic way. Eli is shocked, but how does he connect his religion with his non-Islamic view of women? Why does he support his wife, when what she has written not only goes against his faith but will destroy his work? Is he really a sincere believer in Islam? We've seem versions of Afzal before -- perhaps not as charming, perhaps scarier -- but Eli could be an original, fully developed character.
     The production looks great and all four actors are excellent. I hoped that Akhtar would be as daring as he was in DISGRACED. He is trying too much to please here.
THE WHO AND THE WHAT. Lincoln Center Theater Clair Tow Theatre. June 21, 2014.

GERTRUDE STEIN'S SAINTS presented by Theatre Plastique at the Abrons Art Center

     Theatre Plastique, founded and directed by Michelle Sutherland, is a group of Carnegie Mellon students who are collectively creating a trilogy of theater pieces "exploring what it means to be American." The first in the trilogy is a setting of works by Gertrude Stein. Sutherland created the script from FOUR SAINS IN THREE ACTS, SAINTS, and "The Gradual Making of THE MAKING OF AMERICANS." Sutherland then gave the script to a group of thirteen young musicians and performers who collectively created and masterfully perform an a cappella musical work out of the Stein fragments.
      I have to admit that Stein isn't my favorite poet. I remember a two year period in which I was on dissertation committees for three Ph.D. students who were writing on Stein. It was harder work for me than it was for the students in question. Stein's operas, FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS and THE MOTHER OF US ALL were given arid music by Virgil Thompson, not one of America's best composers. His spareness matches Stein in some basic ways, but one wishes she had worked with a more imaginative composer. Theatre Plastique gives Stein's words very contemporary musical settings. There is virtually no instrumentation other than an occasional guitar or a few chords from a keyboard. Yet the ensemble has used a wide panoply of pop genres -- hiphop, boy band, folk, blues,  jazz, spiritual, Broadway anthem. It's hard to set free verse to fixed rhythms, but what these young composer-performers have created never seems to jar inappropriately with the language. The juxtaposition of Stein's cerebral poetry with pop musical forms is fascinating. The staging and choreography is equally inventive, and the pop arty scene design (Diego Montoya) constantly surprising and appropriate.
     There's a kind of narrative arc to SAINTS. Saints are constantly involved in this pop heaven, but never appear. America, too, is invoked with conventional symbols of flag and fireworks, but remains vague. We end in darkness. What is clearly in focus is a celebration of community represented by the exuberant, exciting creative community onstage. Bravo to Sutherland and her talented, young fellow artists. I had just had lunch with one of my former star pupils who said that the best of his cohort were not so interested in conventional drama as in what might be called "performance." I'm still enough of a traditionalist to cherish a good play, but, despite my less than full appreciation of Stein, I found SAINTS to be thrilling theatre.
     We had never been to the Abrons Art Center. It's a lovely traditional theatre on the Lower East Side. It was fun to walk back to the subway along bustling multi-cultural Grand Street. When we got to the subway platform, we had a conversation with two theatre folk who had just come from another production. We didn't know each other, but we knew each other by reputation. The evening was a reminder of how vibrant New York is and, within this metropolis, what a village the theatre community is.
GERTRUDE STEIN'S SAINTS, Abrons Arts Center, June 20, 2014.

Jules Romains' DONOGOO at the Mint Theatre

     Jules Romanins' DONOGOO began as a 1920 novel in the form of a film scenario, which Romains adapted into a play. One would think it would be timely in this era of rampant capitalism. After attempting suicide, a depressed artist, Lamendin, is sent by a friend to an anti-Freudian quack psychiatrist who gives him a peculiar therapy: he is to stand in front of a mosque at 5:15 p.m. and attach himself to a person who will blow his nose at exactly that hour. The nose-blowing man happens to be a geographer who is now in ill repute for writing about a Brazilian village, Donogoo, that doesn't really exist. Lamedin gets an inspiration -- he will restore the geographer's reputation and get him elected to the Society of Geographers while making a fortune for himself. In an era of rampant colonialism and expansion, Lamendin convinces banks and companies to invest in this non-existent jungle village where gold can be found. Donogoo becomes an industry even though it doesn't exist. Explorers searching for Donogoo, of course, can't find it so invent it. Lamedin comes in in good colonialist form and takes it over in the name of France. Suicidal artist becomes Governor General of Donogoo. There is no gold, by the way. The play is an absurdist farce and a satire on capitalism and colonialism. It could be very funny and even a bit timely. BUT…..
     For a non-English play to work on stage, it needs a lively translation. When major London theaters decide to produce a non-English play, they commission a major playwright to write a stageworthy adaptation based on a literal translation. The goal is to create a play that doesn't sound like a translation and that works for a contemporary audience. Gus Kaikkonen's translation of DONOGOO for the Min Theatre sounds like a translation. It is plodding and seldom comes to life. Kaikkonen has thrown in some contemporary references, but hasn't given his version an overall point of view. the play also could use some judicious pruning.
     DONOGOO needs a magnetic, charming Lamendin. James Riordan is charmless, monotonous and doesn't seem to have a clue as to how to modulate this long role. Riordan shouts a lot. We never see the moment of discovery  -- inspiration -- when he realizes that Donogoo can be a magnificent con. Lamendin is a version of one of the most traditional comic roles, the charming con man. He isn't in this production. It is really tiresome to watch a mediocre actor work too hard in a small theatre where less would be more. One can't totally blame the actor. If 85% of a director's job is casting, Kaikkonen has to take the blame for his choice.
     Riordan's is surrounded by a large company of fellow actors who have a much better sense of how to lay comedy in an intimate space. Veterans Mitch Greenberg, George Morfogen, Jay Patterson, Douglas Rees and Ross Bickell have the wisdom to bring the audience to them. They're all delightful to watch. And the younger actors Brian Thomas Vaughan, Scott Thomas and Dave Quay make the most of their scenes as the real inventors of Donogoo.
     Kaikonnen's production moves swiftly against very clever projected sets (Roger Hanna and Price Johnston). This could have been a worthy production with a better translation and a good leading man. We couldn't help but think about Michael Shannon's brilliant performance in Ionesco's THE KILLERS. The Mint probable couldn't afford him, but surely they could have found a better Lamendin. Anyone else in the cast would have done a better job.
DONOGOO. Mint Theatre. June 19, 2014.  

Monday, 16 June 2014


     One of the exciting things about the long, distinguished history of the Wooster Group is its questioning, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, of what is theatre. Of course one also admires their constant, courageous experimentation in an era of safe theatre.
     At the beginning of A RECORD ALBUM INTERPRETATION OF EARLY SHAKER SPIRITUALS, the young narrator tells us that the performers will be singing Side A of an lp album of Shaker spirituals performed by women of The United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Maine. Between songs, the narrator reads descriptions from the liner notes of the album. Four women dressed in Shaker costumes are on stage, three in seats by a small window, a fourth standing upstage. There's a harsh contrast between the plain outfits and the modern technological apparatus the women carry as accessories: transmitters, receivers, earphones and microphones, a collision between a performed past and contemporary technology that is common to many Wooster Group performances. An engineer puts the needle on the vinyl record and the women sing along with what they hear through their earphones. Like the women on the recording, the four performers, Cynthia Hedstrom, Elizabeth LeCompte, Frances McDormand and Suzzy Roche -- of the Roches, do not have trained voices, but sing the songs simply but fervently. They sing what they hear. If the engineer puts the needle on the last bars of the previous track, they sing those as well. Every once in a while the women change places, but they remain very still, even when singing songs about moving, dancing, turning. There's very little facial expression. Everything is in the music. In the last fifteen minutes of the hour-long performance, four young men join the middle-aged women and the ensemble dance as the women sing. What had been still now becomes a flurry of movement. Again, no one seems to be a trained dances. There is a spontaneous quality to the movement. Often the singing women are in the center with the men in an outside circle.
     What does one take away from this experience? I found it to be an irony-free, loving celebration of the music and, in its own way, deeply spiritual. Spirituality is not something I expect from the Wooster Group, but there it was, in their Spartan theatre on a very rainy night.
     A unique experience.
EARLY SHAKER SPIRITUALS. The Wooster Group at the Performing Garage. Friday June 13.

Michael Shannon in Ionesco's THE KILLER at Theatre for a New Audience

     When I was an undergraduate a bus or train ride from Manhattan, theatre seemed to be in a renaissance. Off-Broadway, one could find productions of the leading European playwrights, the Paris-based Irishman Samuel Beckett, the Paris-based Romanian Ionesco and the English Harold Pinter, while on Broadway David Merrick imported the best of contemporary British drama. Zero Mostel starred on Broadway in Ionesco's RHINOCEROS. Other than the young Edward Albee, American playwrights seemed behind the curve. Now there's lots of fine new American drama and less from Europe.
     I thought about Beckett and Ionesco last week as I watched -- twice -- Will Eno's THE REALISTIC JONESES, a play very much infused with the sense of language and the world view of Ionesco. In Eno's brilliant play, the most poetic I have encountered in a long time, characters are extremely self-conscious about language, but conversations still have little meaning and connections are rarely, if ever, made between people, even husbands and wives. There's a hunger for connection but the connection is tenuous at best. The words one remembers from the play are "terror," "abandonment' and "loneliness." Yet Eno's play is very funny. He has the mordant sense of humor of Beckett and Ionesco. Like Ionesco, he plays with aspects of theatrical realism.
     At their beautiful new Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre, around the corner from BAM in Brooklyn, Theatre for a New Audience is offering a revival of Ionesco's 1958 play THE KILLER as a vehicle for the always fascinating Michael Shannon. THE KILLER is longer than most Ionesco plays (the performance lasts three hours) and takes a large cast. Like much of his work, it could be categorized as a philosophical comedy. The basic world view is bleak but, like Beckett, Ionesco encourages his audience to laugh as we look at the abyss.
     Berenger (Shannon), Ionesco's usual Everyman, has been suffering from profound melancholy. He no longer can feel the occasional moment of transcendent joy and harmony with the universe that used to keep him going. When we first meet him, he is being given a tour of a new ideal urban community by the architect (Robert Stanton), who seems to hold a number of bureaucratic functions. At first Berenger is overwhelmed by the seeming perfection of this new planned community. Not only are the gardens and buildings beautiful, but the climate seems always ideal. Nothing is perfect, however. The residents of this ideal community are being killed off by a serial killer and their corpses are ending up in the lagoon. When a young woman on whom Berenger developed an instant crush is killed, Berenger sets out to find the killer. As the play moves on, we see a far-from-ideal world of violence, disease and encroaching fascism. A politician, Ma Piper (the fabulous Kristine Niesen in one of her two roles in the production) utters a doublespeak like something out of George Orwell. Rebels and police are brutal. When Berenger finally confronts the killer, he runs through every possible philosophical or logical argument to try to convince the man to stop killing. The killer responds to every proposition with laughter. By the end, Berenger has run out of words and is left exhausted physically, intellectually and spiritually.
     On the large thrust stage of the Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre director Darko Tresnjak has mounted a simple but highly effective production that is, as it must be, both funny and sinister. The cast couldn't be better. Berenger is a gigantic role that seems to have more lines than Hamlet and King Lear combined. Shannon, who has played the role before, gives a virtuous performance. He is constantly surprising vocally and physically. There's never a dull moment. Krstine Nielsen is hilarious as his concierge and scary as the fascist Ma Piper. In the first act, an hour long scene between Berenger and The Architect, Robert Stanton is an excellent foil for Berenger. As Berenger's very sick and oddly creepy friend Edward, Paul Sparks matches Shannon's energy and inventiveness. There's a large supporting cast to provide the necessary sinister mood. One also has to praise the soundscape Jane Shaw has created.
     It was daring for Theatre for a New Audience to mount this fine, demanding play. They have given it a superb production that should be seen by anyone interested in the best of twentieth century drama.
THE KILLER by Eugene Ionesco. Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre. June 15, 2014.      

Sunday, 15 June 2014

FLY BY NIGHT at Playwrights Horizons

     Charm is a difficult quality to pull off in the theatre, but FLY BY NIGHT, written by Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Kim Rosenstock, is a truly charming, irony free two and a half hours with a tuneful score -- I dare you not to be humming one tune at the intermission and on your way out of the theatre. it isn't an adaptation of something else (three cheers for that) and has its own quirky style. A narrator (Henry Stram), moves our story back and forth in time and plays some supporting roles. Despite its zigzag structure, the story is quite simple and takes place over a year, ending n the night of the 1965 East coast blackout.
     Harold, a sandwich maker, inherits his mother's guitar and tries, with limited success to become a songwriter. Along the way he meets and falls in love with two sisters from South Dakota; Daphne, an aspiring actress (Patti Murin) and Miriam (Allison Case), a waitress. Harold's widower father, who lives for his memories of his wife and her love for opera, won't go anywhere without his copy of LA TRAVIATA. An aspiring but inept playwright falls in love with Daphne and tries to write an epic musical, THE HUMAN CONDITION as a vehicle for her. All this sound like it could be too cute, but the writers and director, Carolyn Cantor, manage to keep the story afloat. The tuneful score and witty lyrics help, as do the delightful performances. It's worth the price of admission to watch Adam Chanler-Berat, who has one of the most expressive faces in contemporary theatre. He reacts precisely to everything that is happening. Patti Murin is a generic blond belter who seems to still be playing Glinda, but that's appropriate for Daphne. Allison Case brings out the attractiveness but basic sadness of Miriam. Peter Friedman and Michael McCormick make the most of their moments as Harold's father and his boss. I wish Bruce Ryness would stand up straight, but he's OK as the would-be playwright. Tone and style are everything in this type of wistful show and everyone here maintains the proper balance of honesty and sweetness. The simple physical production (Secne Design David Korins, lighting Jeff Croiter) is beautiful, eventually enveloping the entire theatre. There's an excellent four piece band on stage with the cast.
     Some people don't take to a sweet, irony-free show. The TIMES reviewer grumbled, of course, though he didn't fully dismiss it. We loved it, and so did most of our audience, who did't want to let the performers go.
FLY BY NIGHT. Playwrights Horizons. June 14, 2014.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Anthony Giardina's CITY OF CONVERSATION at Lincoln Center Theater

     As Washington goes into a melodramatic but depressing meltdown thanks to the talk-radio influenced intransigence of the right and ineptitude of the left-center, New York theatre has offered three nostalgic looks at a past D.C. THE COLUMNIST gave us a portrait of the power-broking journalist Joseph Alsop, ALL THE WAY depicted Lyndon Johnson's machinations to assure a victory for the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, and Anthony Giardina's CITY OF CONVERSATION, now at the Mitzi Newhouse, dramatizes the end of civilized political discourse that paralleled the rise of the right in American politics. The play begins in 1979, but the seeds of the destruction of civilized politics could be seen at the 1964 Republican National Convention. All three plays involve gay politics: Alsops's closeted homosexuality is a crucial element of THE COLUMNIST; the arrest of Johnson's close friend and trusted aide Sherman Adams plays an important role in ALL THE WAY, and an interracial gay marriage is seen by the leading character as the ultimate triumph of liberalism in CITY OF CONVERSATION. In the style of classic American drama, Giardina combines national and domestic politics. If the mixture doesn't always work, CITY OF CONVERSATION is still a lively, absorbing play, the best written of these three political dramas.  
     The central conflict in CITY OF CONVERSATION is between two women on different ends of the political spectrum. In 1979, when the play begins, Hester Ferris (the magnificent Jan Maxwell), is a Washington player in the only way a woman could be a player -- she is, as Irving Berlin's musical CALL ME MADAM about another such woman calls herself, "The Hostess with the Mostess." She throws dinner parties in which opposing politicians can find compromise. Things aren't what they used to be because this is Washington under the Carter presidency and the Carters are not part of Hester's world. It's also the end of liberal democratic ascendancy, the eve of Reagan's presidency. In Hester's Washington, political opponents drink and negotiate together at Georgetown parties. Everyone is convivial because everyone belongs to the same political class -- or pretends to. Hannah looks down on folks from benighted states like Kentucky, but sings the praises of the Bluegrass State in front of a Kentucky Republican so that her married boyfriend, Senator Chandler Harris (Kevin O'Rourke), can make a deal that will further his career. The issue at hand at this party is a bill mandating that federal judges give up membership in segregated country clubs. There's an old-fashioned decorum to these parties. The ladies charm at dinner, but afterwards, the men retire to brandy, cigars and wheeling and dealing apart from the women. The women have their own hierarchies. Some wives belong to a book club to try to fit into sophisticated living rooms like Hester's. Hester's constant companion is her widowed sister Jean (Beth Dixon) who never complains about being treated more as a servant than a sister.
     Enter Anna Fitzgerald (Kristen Bush), the fiancĂ© of Hester's son Colin (Michael Simpson). Anna first deals amicably with Hester's not-so-subtle disdain at her clothes, but the disdain is built out of an immediate mistrust. Hester senses rightly that Anna is a political Eve Harrington who will be briefly sycophantic but will soon show her claws. She's right. After dinner, Anna breaks protocol by joining the men for brandy and cigars. She has an agenda and is not about to follow social conventions she disdains. On the eve of Reagan's election, Anna is the new ruthless conservative who despises the old political elite but doesn't see that she wants to be in that exclusive group. Anna preaches the kind of right wing populism that will propel Reagan into office. The liberal elite -- folks like Hester -- are the foe to be vanquished. Colin, smitten with Anna but without her brilliance or her ruthlessness, sides with his fiancĂ©. By the end of the party, thanks to Anna, Hester and Chandler have lost a key vote in the Senate and Anna has a job of the staff of the Kentucky Republican. Political and family lines are drawn. Hester and Anna's loathing of each other is clear and Colin is in the middle.
     Act Two takes place in 1979 during the battle over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. The conservatives lost that one, but later gave us the ultra-reactionary Antonin Scalia who is almost as horrible as Bork. The Bork battle is one of the last crises in the eight year Reagan administration before less conservative voices briefly prevail. Of course Anna and Colin have staked their careers on Bork's appointment and Hester is campaigning against it. Anna is a total Reaganite who sees Oliver North as an American hero -- how intelligent is a person who actually believes the iconography manufactured by the Reagan administration? The political battle between Hester and her daughter-in-law and son leads to a permanent family split. The final scene takes place on the night of Obama's inauguration, which seemed briefly to be the triumph of liberalism (we now know better). For the first time in twenty years, Hester, now a frail old lady on the margins of Washington society, is reunited with her grandson, a brilliant inner city schoolteacher and political activist, a gay man with an African-American boyfriend.
      On the way out of the theatre, my husband said, "That was a real 'well-made' play." In a sense he was right. The "well-made play" was the template for great and not-so-great nineteenth century drama. It gave us hacks like Scribe and Pinero, but also great writers like Ibsen and Shaw. The well made play combined political and domestic drama and usually centered on the role of women. It used all the tools of realistic drama, particularly masterful use of props. The use of a letter in Act Two of CITY OF CONVERSATION is a perfect example of this kind of dramaturgy. I'm a fan of good examples of this kind of playwriting. Giardina knows how to write long scenes the crackle with excitement. Unlike George Bernard Shaw, he doesn't fully get inside the heads of his political villains. It's clear that he is on Hester's side, though she is far from flawless. Hester is a snob who is totally convinced of the rightness of her views and her way of life. Only a right wing monster like Anne Coulter could find anything sympathetic in Anna. In the age of feminism, how could a woman support Robert Bork? Colin's politics seems to be totally a response to the women around him. He's a conservative in reaction to his mother and because of Anna's influence.
     This well-written play has been given a thrilling production. Jan Maxwell is terrific throughout. It's the performance of her distinguished career. Kristen Bush is excellent in the Eve Harrington role. It's clear that her political views are built on resentment and a kind of reverse snobbery. The climactic conflict between these tough, ruthless women is great theatre. Michael Simpson plays both Hester's son Colin and her grown-up grandson. Son Colin is a tricky role. He knows he isn't as ruthless or ambitious as his mother or his wife and that he has to take sides. It's always difficult to play a weak character who stands between two powerful antagonists, but Simpson holds his own and makes us feel for Colin. At first, his "gay" mannerisms as the grandson are a bit over the top, but we soon see that part of that is nervousness at seeing his grandmother for the first time in twenty years. Much of what he goes through in the final scene is unspoken and Simpson masterfully shows us Ethan's mixed feelings. Kudos also to Beth Dixon as Hester's tireless, constantly supportive sister. Doug Hughes has staged the play well in that problematic space. We were way over on the side of that little amphitheater and never felt left out. He has also given the play the right tone and pace.
     It was interesting to see this play on the night after the announcement of Eric Cantor's defeat in Virginia. As we wonder just how far right the Republican party can go and how thoroughly they will stop the business of government, this play about the end of civilized political discourse seemed both timely and scary.
CITY OF CONVERSATION. Lincoln Center Theatre Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. June 12, 2014.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

MY 2014 TONY'S

      Given the bizarre nominations -- or non-nominations -- this year, it is difficult to predict who will win tomorrow night or care who wins. Herewith, out of sheer perversity, are my Tony Awards.

ALL THE WAY had interesting subject matter, but was clunky. Ditto CASA VALENTINA. Didn't see the quasi-Irish play. For me, it's a difficult choice between Will Eno's THE REALISTIC JONESES (not nominated), and Terrence McNally's MOTHERS AND SONS. MOTHERS AND SONS is the most recent chapter in McNally's half century chronicle of gay life in New York. It's an excellent piece of theatrical craftsmanship and a lovely, touching play. But I'd give McNally a Lifetime Achievement Award and offer the Best Play prize to THE REALISTIC JONESES, a truly beautiful play that questions whether we mortals ever do more than perform our lives. That sounds deep, but the play is funny and, ultimately, upbeat.

Here's another tossup. Can you give a show the Best Musical award if it isn't really an original show with an original score? Obviously the Tony folks think you can. I propose a category of Best Original Musical. That would eliminate most of this year's nominees. ALADDIN, another piece of Disney high-priced children's theatre, uses the music from the film, BEAUTIFUL is Carole King's greatest hits, and AFTER MIDNIGHT is a vaudeville with thirties music. BULLETS OVER BROADWAY also does not have an original score. That leaves me with A GENTLEMAN"S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, IF/THEN (not nominated) and THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. IF/THEN is a witty, thoughtful show about life and relationships in the city. It's a New York show. Unfortunately Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's score is a bit of a disappointment. Too many of the songs sound the same. It does boast a gorgeous production and terrific performances from Idina Menzel, LaChanze, Anthony Rapp and James Snyder. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY has far and away the best original Broadway score, it tells its simple story well and also boasts terrific performances from its leads Kelli O'Hara, Stephen Pasquale and Hunter Foster. A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE has a delightful book and a witty pastiche score. It also has excellent comic performances from Jefferson Mays, Bryce Pinkham and a zany supporting cast. It's the funniest musical comedy in eons. So that wins. I understand that a number of producers don't want it to win because they think audiences in the provinces will hate it and the tour will lose money. Maybe they underestimate the intelligence of the folks in Peoria.
I have to add that far and away the best musical of the year was FUN HOME, but that was not a Broadway show. HERE LIES LOVE (also not a Broadway show) was a solid runner-up.

The entire cast of THE GLASS MENAGERIE (Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Zachary Quinto, Brian J. Smith.
The entire cast of THE REALISTIC JONESES (Michael C. Hall, Toni Colette, Marisa Tomei, Tracy Letts)
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan for NO MAN's LAND and WAITING FOR GODOT
Bryan Cranston in ALL THE WAY

Idina Menzel (IF/THEN), Kelli O'Hara (BRIDGES), Stephen Pasquale (BRIDGES), Sutton Foster (VIOLET). Joshua Henry (VIOLET).


     What was the Tony committee thinking? They nominate four shows for the Best Musical Tony but ignore the two best Broadway (there were better Off-Broadway) book musicals, IF/THEN and THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Then they ignore Will Eno's THE REALISTIC JONESES for Best Play category when it is the best Broadway (none better Off-Broadway this year) play of the season, while nominating fluffy ACT ONE or the clunky CASA VALENTINA. They have recognized decent hackwork while ignoring a really fine piece of writing. Never have I felt more strongly that the Tony awards are not to be taken seriously.
     Like most really fine plays, THE REALISTIC JONESES is about language. When Jennifer Jones (Toni Colette) says to her husband Bob (Tracy Letts) that they need to talk to each other, Bob responds, "What are we doing? Throwing words at each other?" In a way, that's what all four Joneses are doing in this funny, touching, thought-provoking play.  The two Jones couples are, in a sense throwing words at each other.
     The characters in THE REALISTIC JONESES are like aliens from another planet who are trying to talk and act convincingly like earthlings, but aren't sure that what they say and do means anything they understand. They are aware of the literal meaning of words, but not sure the language adds up to any real human connection. There's a moment when John Jones (Michael C. Hall), holds Jennifer's arm during a chance meeting in a supermarket. The two act like they're not quite sure what such a gesture means, or if it means what it should mean. Bob is having sex with John's wife Pony (Marisa Tomei), but is it anything more than "an exchange of fluids? The four Joneses seem estranged from just about everything they say and do. Both Bob and John are suffering from a rare incurable disease, but find no commonality.
     This is a play about attempts to communicate that aren't meaningful or even always decipherable to the participants, yet it is not a bleak play at all. It is very funny and also  surprisingly upbeat. John says at one point that he can feel the life surging through his veins. Life, though puzzling and often lonely, is in itself occasionally joyful. The Joneses don't understand what they are feeling, but there is a closeness as they sit around a fire at the end of the play. Eno's play is also about the rifts and silences even in close marriages.
     Why the title? Well, everyone in the play is a Jones. In some sense the play is realistic, another Eno addition to the canon of American domestic realism, but I think Eno means that the characters are realistic in their point of view. For all their quirks they are clear-eyed about their own limitations and the limitations of loved ones. Their responses to what they see and know may be a bit off-kilter, but the Joneses understand the limits of language and of connection even to those closest to us.
     Like the best playwrights, Eno here turns everyday, often prosaic language into poetry. There's a delightful rhythm and lilt to the halting, very self-conscious language of his characters. The last play I saw of his, THE OPEN HOUSE, seemed terribly derivative. THE REALISTIC JONESES feels totally original and totally inspired.
     Sam Gold has give the play just the right pace and tone and the cast could not be better. If Tracy Letts and Michael C. Hall seem stronger than Colette and Tomei, it is because the men are better written, but the four work together as a fine ensemble.
      While I would prefer to see this play in a more intimate setting, it's almost a miracle something this good is on Broadway. Shame on the Tony nominating committee.
THE REALISTIC JONESES. Lyceum Theatre. June 7, 2014.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART on HBO and Terrence McNally's MOTHERS AND SONS on Broadway

     I couldn't help noticing the parallels when I went back to MOTHERS AND SONS a day after watching the superb production of Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART on HBO. Kramer's play was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic: McNally's play gives us a middle-aged gay man who is still haunted by memories of that epidemic. Kramer's play ends with a deathbed "marriage" ceremony between the central character and his dying lover at a time when same-sex marriage was unthinkable: McNally's play, set in the present, centers on a married gay couple with a child. At the heart of both plays is a character who is filled with rage. Both plays present gay couples who are almost too good to be true.
     I have always had profoundly mixed feelings about THE NORMAL HEART. I admire its power and its passion, but also find it irritatingly self-indulgent. Kramer cannot distance himself from his autobiographical central character, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo). The play presents Weeks as a courageous hero and also a martyr to his more cautious colleagues at the Gay Men's Health Crisis who eventually expel their founding member because he has no political sense at all. Kramer wants us to see Weeks's opponents as craven, lacking his courage, but one cannot help but sympathize with their difficult decision to rid themselves of a person who is so adept at making enemies. THE NORMAL HEART is an interesting picture of the problematic side of the radical leader who has the right cause but the wrong tactics. Of course, history tells us that it was the radical firebrands of ACT UP who ultimately had more effect than the more cautious, though admirable folks in GMHC. I'm not sure Kramer sees this, but Ned Weeks has no empathy, no ability to understand the other side. I am also puzzled by the loving relationship between Ned and his lover, Felix, brilliantly played by Matt Bomer. Beyond physical attraction (who isn't attracted to Matt Bomer?), what does Ned see in Felix. Does Ned ever listen to him? What does Felix see in hotheaded Ned? Kramer seems to be so in love with himself that he doesn't feel the need to explain anyone's love for his alter ego. There are a number of scenes in which Ned harangues his successful lawyer brother for not accepting him when the brother does his best to do just that. I know this is a very personal take on THE NORMAL HEART that will offend the play's many champions, but the play could be titled "Song of Myself." I whole-heartedly agree with the play's  political point of view, which is a critique of the priority of sexual liberation that caused gay men to resist the calls for caution.
     Much of the second half of the play is devoted to Ned's caring for Felix as he wastes away (Bomer lost 40 pounds to play his final scenes), and loses the ability to fight the inevitable. Ned, of course, can never stop fighting. I had just seen Michael Haneke's brilliant film AMOUR, about an elderly man trying to care for his wife who has become a total invalid. Love in that film is not romance, but steadfastly caring for a loved one when he or she can no longer care for herself. It is selflessness. For all his faults, Ned tries to do that for Felix.
     THE NORMAL HEART gives us a powerful picture of young men trying to take some control of an uncontrollable, tragic situation while trying to hold on to their new-found pride in being gay. We of Kramer's generation fought hard to overcome the shame we had been taught and AIDS was an excuse once again to blame the victim. The HBO version is another classic AIDS-era narrative, a worthy companion to the film LONGTIME COMPANION, the teleplay AND THE BAND PLAYED ON and classic AIDS-era plays like Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA and Terrence McNally's LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! Ryan Murphy has produced and directed it effectively and the cast couldn't be better. Mark Ruffalo may be too nice to play Ned, but who would play it better? In addition to Bomer, the supporting cast is excellent. Everyone gets what French dramatist call a"tirade", a big, long, hyper-emotional speech and all make them work on camera, which isn't easy. Joe Mantello gets one of the most emotional moments and plays it powerfully. Taylor Kitsch and Jim Parsons play the more reasonable characters, but hold their own with all the shouting going on around them. Kitsch is one of those honest, intense actors who can steal a scene without saying a word. Alfred Molina does all he can with the role of Ned's brother.
     For all my reservations, this is an unmissable film. Thanks to Ryan Murphy for fighting for the project and making it such a success.
     In MOTHERS AND SONS, Cal (Frederick Weller), did all he could to take care of his lover Andre during the epidemic, even though Andre wasn't faithful to him and could have put him to risk. Now over two decades later, he is a successful money manager with a handsome, charming young husband Will (Bobby Steggert), who is a stay-at-home Dad to their six-year-old son Bud. The family lives in a lovely Central Park West apartment and seems to have everything. Their life is a contrast to Cal's young love with Andre in a basement flat in lower Manhattan. Of course, marriage wasn't possible back then -- almost unthinkable really -- and parenting was out of the question. Into this calm, idyllic life comes turbulent Katherine (Tyne Daly), Andre's mother.  Will rightly asks her why she is there, but I'm not sure Katherine knows why. He also tells her that she's "prickly," which is an understatement. Katherine is angry at everything, most of all at the fact that unhappiness is her default mode. She never loved her husband and looked to her son to compensate for her own misery but he got away from the misery as soon as he could. What does Katherine want from her dead son's former lover? She is furious that he has moved on and she hasn't  and furious at her self for not moving on. She is furious at Andre for leaving her and predeceasing her. She is also deeply lonely. Katherine is a wonderful, rich character and Tyne Daly's performance is simply a knockout. Here's a gay man's Madame Rose from GYPSY (well of course Madame Rose was created by gay men and Tyne Daly was one of the legendary Roses), another monster mother who looked to her child for something he couldn't possibly provide and can't get over her anger at his failings as a son -- of course being gay was part of those failings -- and her failings as a wife and mother. Katherine at first hates what she sees in Cal and Will's home, but also finds it impossible to leave. In a way, she has nowhere else to go. The play's resolution may be a bit pat, but MOTHERS AND SONS is a powerful 95 minute drama from the man who has spent his career chronicling aspects of gay life.
     For some reason the gay critics at the TIMES are very snide about MOTHERS AND SONS. It's an old-fashioned play but a brilliantly crafted one. In an age in which playwrights seem to have difficulty writing scenes more than five minutes long, it's a treat to see a play that is one long scene played in real time. I hope it wins the Tony Sunday night. It certainly deserves it more than the pointless, overlong ACT ONE or the plodding ALL THE WAY.