Thursday, 18 September 2014

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

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

Sunday, 14 September 2014

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 13 September 2014

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

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

Thursday, 11 September 2014

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

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

Sunday, 7 September 2014

George Kelly's THE FATAL WEAKNESS at the Mint Theatre

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

Tom Stoppard's INDIAN INK at the Roundabout Laura Pels

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

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Robert O'Hara's BOOTYCANDY at Playwrights Horizons

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