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.


       Here's a textbook example of a "Why?" musical. Why turn this film into a Broadway musical. It's entertaining in parts, albeit a bit frantic. The leads are terrific, particularly Marin Mazzie and Nick Cordero. Zack Braff is charming and sings well, though I felt he was phoning in the performance I saw (Wednesday matinees tend to be the time when performers are most likely to phone in performances). William Ivey Long's costumes are absolutely gorgeous. There are some funny bits, though they seldom have anything to do with the musical numbers. It's a mindlessly entertaining way to spend a Wednesday afternoon, particularly at tdf prices -- I would be much more critical than I am about to be if I spent $137 to see it.
     The first problem is the score. Instead of an original score, Allen has compiled a bunch of 1920s pop songs. Now this kind of jukebox musical can work if: 1.) the show is a tribute to a composer or group (e.g..: JERSEY BOYS), or 2) the show uses a bunch of songs in a particularly witty way that either manages to fit into the narrative or manages to self-consciously mock the very idea of a particular song appearing at a particular moment (MAMMA MIA), or 3) the show is a revue with no narrative coherence (AFTER MIDNIGHT). BULLETS OVER BROADWAY doesn't do any of these well. Once in a while a song seems to be appropriate to a character or situation, but usually they just seem pasted on. Why, for instance, should this particular story end with "Yes, We Have No Bananas"? Moreover, most of the songs are the same kind of jazzy "Up" tune. It all gets monotonous after a while.
      This may not bother everybody, but why bother to have a live band if it's going to be invisible and be heard only through loud speakers? The arrangements (Doug Besterman) are, as far as I can tell, delightful, but why not let us hear it live? I love the sound of a good pit band and remember the thrill of hearing the overtures to great shows coming from the pit, not from speakers over the stage. I don't mind principals being miked, but why the orchestra? The sound designer has become unnecessarily important in the great scheme of things. This isn't a recording -- it's a live event. If it were a recording, I'd expect it to have better sound than the overloud, boomy sound I heard yesterday. Another peeve: Isn't it possible to make the sound more directional? Zack Braff may have been singing from way over on stage right, but I still heard his voice from overhead center. I thought the technology had improved some since the 1960s.
      Now to Susan Stroman. This is her second flop of the 2013-14 season, which must be reducing her marketability somewhat. BIG FISH didn't work because she isn't much interested in narrative and character. She's interested in splashy  effects. BULLETS OVER BROADWAY doesn't work because it's a case of overkill. The ensemble numbers are so loud and relentlessly energetic that they become exhausting to the audience. The audience loves Nick Cordero as Cheech, the gangster who turns out to be a born playwright, because he underplays. He draws the audience in. Marin Mazzie also knows the balance between the broadness of her libidinous diva character and drawing the audience to her. The old pros know how to play schtick properly, but in the many big numbers, the chorus just seems frantic.
     It's so easy to see why this show doesn't work that it is surprising the producers didm't see it at the first preview or before. Ah, yes, but that's another problem with these shows -- too many producers with no one really in charge. The great producers of the past -- David Merrick, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, Hal Prince and associates, Kermit Bloomgarden -- had their share of flops, but there was always someone in charge, someone who really understood theatre at the helm. It's hit and miss now. Woody Allen has made some good moves (and some lemons), but he knows absolutely nothing about making a Broadway musical.
     So, pretty to look at, some good performances, some laughs, but a bit of a mess.


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

THE WAYSIDE MOTOR INN by A.R. Gurney at the Signature Theatre

     A.R. Gurney has been one of our most prolific and celebrated playwrights for over half a century. He has never been a Broadway playwright (who is these days?), but his work has been a constant presence Off- and Off-off Broadway, most recently at the Flea Theatre. For the most part, Gurney writes about upper-class and uppper-middle-class people, the privileged, who feel lost in the new postwar America. His domestic dramas seldom have events that would seem momentous outside of the rooms in which they take place, but are momentous for the characters.
     THE WAYSIDE MOTOR INN, one of Gurney's most formally interesting plays, was first produced in 1977. The critics didn't like it. Looking at it in this fine, perfectly cast, lovingly directed production, one can see the plays strengths. The Wayside Motor Inn is a motel outside of Boston. Gurney gives us the occupants of five rooms in this hotel on one afternoon and evening. We see the all the characters and their interactions in the same room. Gurney has said that he was intrigued by writing something like a 19th century Italian opera. In opera, a number of characters can express themselves simultaneously. THE WAYSIDE MOTOR INN is a complex concertate of overlapping conversations. An older couple has come to see their new grandchild. The husband knows he is dying of heart disease while his wife is more focussed on seeing the new child that has come into the world. A father has brought his son for a Harvard interview. The father, a self-made man, has dreamed of his son taking the next step into the upper-middle class. The son has other ideas and finally stands up to his father. A separated couple try to negotiate the breakup of their fourteen year marriage. A couple of college kids negotiate their first sexual experience. A married businessman attempts to bed the hotels's countercultural waitress. None of these stories is particularly original, but the tapestry Gurney weaves out of them is. Most of these characters hate being in this impersonal space, a nowhere. They feel unmoored there, uncomfortable, claustrophobic. Yet the space frees them to say things to the person they are with that they might not say in their home environment. We see the rifts between people who should be close: husband and wife, father and son. At the end, we're given a poetic theatrical image. A naked young couple is having their first sexual experience as a grandmother shows her new grandchild to her dying husband. The life cycle enacted before our eyes.
     Gurney's language is appropriate to characters who aren't good at expressing their emotions. People talk to keep other people away as much as to bring them closer. Small symbolic gestures become important, like a father trying to mend his son's shirt after ripping it in an Oedipal spat.
     As is usually the case at the Signature, the production, directed by Lila Neugebauer, is pitch-perfect. Designer Andrew Liebermann has given us a photo-realistic motel room in all it's bad taste (oh, that wallpaper!) and efficiency. This is a difficult play to direct, with sometimes eight characters sharing the same space, but supposedly the only people in that space. Neugebauer's production is superbly choreographed. More important, there's not a false moment in the acting. This is ensemble theatre at its best.
     I look forward to the next two Gurney revivals at the Signature.
THE WAYSIDE MOTOR INN by A.R. Gurney. Signature Theatre Griffin Theatre. August 12, 2014.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Cherry Jones in WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID by Sarah Treem at Manhattan Theatre Club

     After seeing two very well written plays in two days, BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY and SEX WITH STRANGERS, this one on the third day is a bit of a letdown. Many of Sarah Treem's credits are for quality television series like HOMELAND. Unfortunately she writes like a television writer, not a playwright. The first act has too many short scenes rather that are more like blackout sketches than developed scenes. As a result the act has no narrative momentum, no rhythm. The second act demonstrates more playwriting skill, though no particular verbal felicity. Treem has a story to tell, but doesn't tell it particularly well.
     WHEN WE ARE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID attempts to depict the lack of possibilities for women on the eve of the Roe vs. Wade decision. The play takes place in 1972 in the private area of a bed and breakfast on an island off of the coast of Seattle. Agnes (Cherry Jones, wonderful as always in an underwritten role) is the manager of the establishment that serves as a hideout for battered women. Agnes is raising Penny (Morgan Saylor), a sixteen-year-old girl who is going through the crisis of choosing between exercising her intelligence or nabbing a boyfriend (did every girl have to make that choice in 1972?). Also on the premises are a battered wife who still loves her abusive husband and still believes that women should sacrifice everything to get a man (Zoe Kazan, inaudible at times), a male boarder whose wife has gone countercultural and left him (Patch Darragh), and a young, militant Black lesbian (Cherise Boothe). Treem has given us a group of stereotypes rather than individual characters. The militant lesbian spouts slogans and is, of course, handy with tools. The battered wife offers the teenage girl the old-fashioned advice on how to nab a prize man (captain of the football team). The teenage girl doesn't believe she can be smart and attractive. The only male character seems sweet and vulnerable until he is sexually spurned. Treem's view of men  -- manipulative, sentimental, sex-obsessed and violent  -- is equally stereotypical. The only character with any substance is Agnes, and I wasn't sure whether that was the writing or  Cherry Jones' particular brand of genius. Hilton Als, the NEW YORKER's drama critic and the best drama critic working today (not that he has much decent competition), calls her a "spiritual actress." She does have the ability to bring an inner life to even weakly drawn characters. Agnes is an independent woman. She can cook, nurse (she was a professional nurse), manage a business, and counsel the physically and emotionally damaged women who hide out in her establishment. She's more hungry for love than she will admit and knows enough to accept it when it comes.
     Pam McKinnon has done what she can with the script. The play and production are very kitchen sink realism (a lot of muffin baking). We enjoyed the performance, mainly because Jones and Cherise Boothe were able to add depth to their characters, but the play is cliched even for television writing.
     One other thing. The theater was absolutely freezing. It's a wonder we all don't have pneumonia!
 WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AN UNAFRAID. Manhattan Theatre Club. August 10, 2014.  

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Anna Gunn & Billy Magnussen in Laura Eason's SEX WITH STRANGERS at Second Stage

     SEX WITH STRANGERS, the title of Laura Eason's excellent serious comedy, has two meanings. It is, on one hand, the title of a best-selling quasi memoir by Ethan Crane, known to the blogosphere as Ethan Strange. Ethan's book, soon to be a movie, is based on his blog which chronicles his many one-night stands with women he has picked up the old-fashioned way -- in bars rather than online. To put it mildly, his blog and book aren't very respectful toward the women he has seduced. Ethan knows that "Ethan Strange" is "an asshole." But is that sexist creep who represents the worst sort of frat boy macho the real Ethan? Ethan isn't totally responsible for his notoriety. Women have filled the blogosphere with real and fictional accounts of their sexual encounters with Ethan -- he has given them their fifteen minutes of fame and that hasn't helped dispel his cynicism. SEX WITH STRANGERS has a deeper meaning. The play depicts a relationship that begins as just the sort of one-night stand Ethan is famous for, but this one sputters on beyond that encounter. Do twenty-eight year old Ethan and Olivia, a thirty-nine year old teacher and failed (commercially at least) novelist, ever really know or understand each other? Are they ever anything but strangers?
     The first act takes place in a bed and breakfast in rural Michigan that has a reputation as a writer's retreat -- there's nothing else to do there. Olivia, the only resident, has been proofreading a second novel. She has lost confidence in her writing after a mixed critical reception and no commercial success from her first book. Olivia is attractive, talented but also sensitive, neurotic. Enter Ethan, who has aspirations to being a serious novelist and has come to the B&B to work on the screenplay for SEX WITH STRANGERS. Has Ethan also come to this Michigan retreat because Olivia will be there? Ethan's mentor is a former lover of Olivia's and he has read and loved her first novel. He knows she will be at this B&B. This is one of many questions about Ethan, the more interesting, complex charter in Eason's play. Ethan keeps insisting that he is not caddish "Ethan Strange", that "Ethan Strange" is just a persona. He wants Olivia to take him seriously as Ethan Crane, a nice guy and a fellow artist. Because of the storm, there's no internet, which throws Ethan into a total panic. What do you do if your cell phone doesn't link you to the outside world? You have sex with the only other occupant of this isolated retreat. In this case, by the second day Ethan, the king of the one-night stand, is talking about an ongoing relationship with Olivia. What connects them is their kinship as writers as well as sexual attraction, but Ethan, who can charm anyone into anything, takes control of Olivia's career. He gets her an agent and gets her first novel, now out of print, out on the internet where it gains a lot of attention. When Ethan betrays Olivia, it is not a sexual betrayal, but an artistic one.
     Olivia never fully trusts Ethan and we never know for sure how much he can be trusted. Ethan loves Olivia, but also wants to be in control of her career, another form of sexism. Yet, above all, Ethan wants to be seen as a decent person. Actually he is more honest and open with Olivia than she is with him. Because Olivia is somewhat closed off, she is more a foil for Ethan than an equally fully formed character. Anna Gunn fills in the blanks effectively. We see that her feelings are all on the surface, that she is filled with fears and insecurities. A lot of the portrayal of Olivia has to be in silences, reactions. Gunn is a very physical actress and we get to know her character as much by how she physically reacts as by what she says. Billy Magnussen gives a brilliant, bravura performance as Ethan: charming, brash, physically dominating, irresistible, but also something of a question mark. Eventually we see that he is as sensitive as Olivia. Magnussen is a true stage animal. It's fascinating to watch his Ethan fill a room with his physical, sexual presence. But there's also an intellectual energy. David Schwimmer has staged the play effectively and helped his actors create fascinating, totally convincing characters.
     SEX WITH STRANGERS is a more intelligent version of the two character romances that used to be a Broadway staple. Eason's play, however, asks a lot of questions about sex and love in the twenty-first century. It also says a lot about what it means to be a writer in the age of blogs and tweets. It's entertaining and stimulating. Did I forget to say that it's also very sexy? What more can one ask?        

Saturday, 9 August 2014

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY by Stephen Adley Guirgis at the Atlantic Theatre Company

     The dwindling serious theatre audience goes to plays for something we can't get on television or from film -- a feast of language. Television is good for storytelling, but the dialogue is seldom interesting. American film once gave us crackling dialogue, but those days are long gone. Now we have plays for those who still care about articulacy, wit and poetry. Last night's audience for BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY was up on its feet cheering the verbal music of this fine play as much as the fine performances.
     BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY is a twenty-first century take on American domestic drama. As with many of our classic playwrights, Guirgis's family situation is not what it seems to be. The matriarch died at Christmastime six months ago. The Christmas tree sits forlornly in the corner of the living room, a hollow symbol of family warmth where there hasn't been much. We begin with a breakfast scene. Walter Washington, know to the young denizens of this house as Pops sits in his deceased wife's wheelchair imbibing an alcoholic breakfast. In this Riverside Drive rent controlled apartment with him are his son, Junior, an ex-convict; Junior's young girlfriend Lula; and Junior's ex-con friend Oswaldo, who is a recovering alcoholic and addict. Pops sits imperious and judgmental in his wife's wheelchair as if it were King Lear's throne. His son craves his love but has never experienced it. Oswaldo's father has written him off. But Pops doesn't known how to be the father everyone wants him to be. He hated his own father and, like many troubled men, has tried to be the opposite of the man who  never gave him love.
     Pops was a policeman who was accidentally shot by a white rookie. Pops was drunk on the job, but got early retirement by falsely claiming that the rookie called him a "Nigger." Now his chickens are coming home to roost. He is about to be evicted and the police want him to sign off on on the settlement he has been dickering over for eight years.
     Like the characters in Conor McPherson's brilliant play THE NIGHT ALIVE, which opened the Atlantic's season, BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY is a play about misfits -- alcoholics, addicts prostitutes, petty thieves. The characters try, fail, and try again to gain some control over their lives, to feel love for and from someone and to attain something close to grace in a fallen world. Pops' moment of grace comes from a church lady who tries to offer him communion, but Pops has spurned religion. The communion he finally receives from the church lady is more sexual that spiritual -- or maybe the spiritual can only come through the carnal. "You are free," the church lady who is really a former prostitute and a con artist, says as the old man has simultaneously an orgasm and a heart attack. The moment leads Pops to realize that he can be free. He can become a wandering man like his father and let his grown son find his own way. At the end, we're at breakfast again and the family configuration has both changed and stayed the same.
     Every character in this play has a distinctive voice and his or her own form of poetry. They all want to be understood. Guirgis is one of the best of an exciting crop of contemporary American playwrights -- we're in a kind of dramatic Renaissance even as the audiences age and dwindle. Despite the inherent sadness of his characters, we come to love them and feel hope even in moments of hopelessness. Even some of the most serious moments aren't without humor.
     BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY has received a pitch-perfect production. Stephen McKinley Henderson is a towering patriarch, sometimes physically vulnerable but always exerting power and judgment. Every one else in this ensemble is totally convincing, particularly Victor Almanzar as Oswaldo and Lisa Colon-Zayas as the church lady. Austin Pendleton has directed ably on an impressive revolving stage designed by Walt Spangler. The future of this apartment is at stake and we see all of it.
     If I gave stars, BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY would get at least five.