Sunday, 30 November 2014

Sam Shepard's A PARTICLE OF DREAM (OEDIPUS VARIATIONS) at the Signature Theatre

     Anyone who has followed Sam Shepard's career knows that much of his work has offered versions of the Oedipus story. There are many versions of conflicts between fathers and sons as well as many versions of sexy, powerful matriarchs. It's not surprising that at this stage of his career, Shepard would take on a more direct telling of Sophocles' tragedy. Well, not so direct really.
     As the subtitle suggests, the ninety-minute play is a series of short variations of the drama of Oedipus Rex. Some seem to be fairly direct translations of key moments in Sophocles' tragedy. Others, taking place in the contemporary Mojave Desert seem to place the tale in the world of contemporary television, as a forensics expert picks through the evidence left at the scene of Oedipus's murder of his father. Some of the imagery is familiar from other Shepard plays. The setting is a bloody slaughterhouse and our Oedipus (the great Stephen Rea) wears blood-spattered overalls. Jocasta (Brid Brennan) appears in a blood-colored velvet gown, as if she is part of Sophocles original. Tiresias (Lloyd Hutchinson) looks like a homeless man. Most of the variations are soliloquies, underscoring the fundamental isolation of these characters. As usual in a Shepard play, music (here a live cello and slide guitar), play an important role in creating the mood of each scene and bridging the scenes.
     The question Shepard asks here, is what good does tragedy do? Does it offer catharsis? Does it offer an apt metaphor for the human condition? Do we learn anything from watching it being reenacted? Shepard doesn't answer the question so much as poke and probe at his own fixation with this particular story.
     Shepard wrote this play for the Derry-based Field Day Theatre Company, run by Stephen Rea. Four of the actors in this eight-actor cast are from that company. Rea, Brennan and Hutchinson are familiar faces in British theatre, television and film. They and their American colleagues are excellent and the always-resourceful Nancy Meckler has staged the work effectively. Nonetheless, it all left me a bit cold. From the polite applause at the end, I would say that this was true of much of the audience. Perhaps it was a mistake to see this a few hours after seeing the powerful OUR LADY OF KIBEHO.
A PARTICLE OF DREAD contains some beautiful writing and is given an excellent production. Unfortunately, it doesn't engender much feeling.
 A PARTICLE OF DREAD (OEDIPUS VARIATIONS). Signature Theatre. November 29, 2014.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO by Katori Hall at the Signature Theatre

     I am fascinated with the number of plays now running in New York that touch on religious issues. GRAND CONCOURSE deals with issues of faith and mercy in a Catholic soup kitchen in the Bronx. THE OLDEST BOY centers on the reincarnation of a Tibetan Lama in a young Tibetan-American boy. OUR LADY OF KIBEHO dramatizes the documented and Vatican-approved visions of the Virgin Mary experienced by three adolescent schoolgirls in Rwanda in 1981. There's not a moment of cynicism in these plays about the possibility of the validity of Catholicism or Tibetan Buddhism.
     I can't praise OUR LADY OF KIBEHO highly enough. Katori Hall has created a riveting drama. Michael Grief has given it the production it deserves and the large cast couldn't be better. The play takes place in a small Catholic girls school in the remote Rwandan village of Kibeho. The school is run by a young Tutsi priest, Father Tuyishime ((Owiso Odera) and a stern Hutu nun, Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford). The power arrangement at the school is typical of Catholic gender hierarchy, but also typical of the power dynamics of Rwanda in 1981, when minority Tutsis held the positions of power. When the play begins, one girl, Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor) has already started having visions. Eventually two other girls begin experiencing similar visions. There's nothing particularly special about these girls. They don't even like each other. Why would they be chosen as the vessels of Mary's intercession? Sister Evangelique thinks these visions are either teenage pranks or signs of diabolical possession. However, the visions become more and more miraculous (and theatrically spectacular), so Father Tuyishime and his superior, Bishop Gahaminyi contact the Vatican. The bishop sees the possibility of Kibeho becoming another Lourdes, thus making Rwanda a tourist destination. Anyone who knows the history of Marian visions (the most famous ones involve prophesies of bloodshed) or the recent history of Rwanda, knows that the outcome is not likely to be so positive.
     I don't want to be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that OUR LADY OF KIBEHO is a taut dramatic thriller, but far more than that. It gives us a picture of the conflicts that were ingrained in Rwandan society at the time as well as a fascinating glimpse into Catholic doctrine. More important, it dramatizes the possibility of the miraculous in the most unlikely places. Michael Greif has given this rich, powerful script the production it deserves. He uses all of the Irene Diamond Theatre -- stage, side stages, crossovers, aisles, to surround the audience with this drama. The projections and special effects offer theatre magic. Rachel Hauck's set, full of moveable parts, allows the drama to move at a relentless pace. With some clever doubling, the cast of fifteen seems to be much larger. The music (Michael McElroy) and sound design (Matt Tierney) add to the other-worldy quality of this theatrical saga.
     It's almost impossible to single out individual performances. Everyone in this ensemble is superb. The highest compliment I can give is to say that the ensemble acts as if they have been working together for years.
      OUR LADY OF KIBEHO is simply one of the best productions of the year.
OUR LADY OF KIBEHO. Pershing Square Signature Center. November 29, 2014.

Friday, 28 November 2014

HONEYMOON IN VEGAS by Jason Robert Brown and Andrew Bergman

     HONEYMOON IN VEGAS is an old-fashioned Broadway musical comedy on steroids. Everything is too loud, and most of the cast is working too hard to "sell" this show. There's almost an air of desperation about it. In other words, it is too much like Las Vegas. There's an overture with the band front and center on stage amid a lot of colored lights. The overture is trying to be a version of the overture to GYPSY, the best Broadway overture ever written, but this overture is so loudly miked than even in the 6th row, I could not hear live sound from a fifteen piece band. The opening number, "I Love Betsy", is tuneful and clever, but there's so much scenery changing and bad choreography (in general, the choreography is one cliche after another), that it is difficult to pay attention to what is a good song. In general the ensemble is allowed to engage in a shameful amount of amateurish mugging and, far be it for me of all people to say it, but some of the gentlemen of the ensemble behave as if they are in a Howard Crabtree musical.
     I had never seen the film on which the show is based (I'm allergic to Nicholas Cage). The book Andrew Bergman has crafted from the movie is sporadically funny. We've seen the monster mother bit many times before (think BYE BYE BIRDIE, where it was much funnier), but this mom has been dead for years and still haunts our hero, Jack Singer (Rob McClure). Jack would like to marry his sweetheart Betsy (Brynn O'Malley), but thanks to Mom, he has panic attacks. When they go to Las Vegas to get married, ace gambler Tommy Korman (Tony Danza) thinks Betsy is the spitting image of his beloved late wife and hatches an elaborate scheme to steal her from Jack. The problem with Bergman's book is that it would be funnier, and Tommy a funnier character, if the audience were in on his plot. The show sticks to Jack and Betsy's point of view, so the big moments don't land the way they should. I was shocked to look at my watch at the end of Act I and see that it was less than 70 minutes long. It seemed much longer. The second act needs editing.
     On the whole, Jason Robert Brown's score is tuneful and masterful. He's best at the book numbers, weakest at his imitation of old time Vegas floor show numbers. It's great to have a show with virtually no reprises, but the best songs occur early in the show. We all know he's the best lyricist working now, except for someone with the initials S.S., who hasn't written a new show in ages.
    Rob McClure really carries the show. He's a charming stage presence, he sings effectively, he has excellent comic timing and he moves well. Most important, he has personality. In the old days, he would be a Broadway star. Alas, that doesn't mean anything now. Tony Danza does the laid back Dean Martinish schtick. He's not much of a singer and he fakes his way through a short tap routine. The problem is, he's not funny enough, not enough of a comic foil to McClure's Jack. Danza walks amiably through the show. That isn't totally Danza's part -- the book and the direction don't help him. Brynn O'Malley is OK -- there's no unique personality there, just a competent performer going through all the motions.
     There's lots of pretty, old-fashioned painted scenery (Anna Louizos). Gary Griffin certainly keeps everything moving, but it's all a bit frenetic. There's nothing original in his direction, no sign of a unique vision, just the old "faster, louder."
     After reading Ben Brantley's rave review of HONEYMOON IN VEGAS's Paper Mill Playhouse tryout, I thought I had to see this one. I didn't see the same funny, masterful show he did. Maybe the suburban air of Millburn, New Jersey weakened Brantley's critical faculties. Then again, I've recently liked two musicals he didn't like.
HONEYMOON IN VEGAS. Nederlander Theatre. November 28, 2014.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

THE INVISIBLE HAND by Ayad Akhtar at New York Theatre Workshop

     Pakistan seems the best setting these days for depictions of moral ambiguity. We see it played out brilliantly in this season's episodes of HOMELAND, where there is no side without both good guys and bad guys. Ayad Akhtar's engrossing THE INVISIBLE HAND, set in Pakistan, is a hostage drama with a twist. Nick Bright (Justin Kirk), a banker who is second in command at the Islamabad branch of Chase, has been kidnapped (By mistake, actually -- they wanted his boss). He now sits in a room somewhere in the hinterlands. Yet when we first see him Dar (Jameal Ali), his guard is cutting his fingernails while Nick asks him about his family. We get our first hint of what is to come when Dar tells Nick that instead of visiting his mother on Sunday, he took Nick's financial advice, invested in a truck and started selling potatoes. Nick may be a prisoner, but he's  brilliant, articulate man who converts his captors to capitalism. They may hate the idea of interest (against the teachings of Allah), but they fall in love with the concept of easy profit. Nick makes a deal with his captors, Imam Saleem (Dariush Kasani) and his young disciple Bashir (Usman Ally), that if Bashir will assist him, he will earn his ten million dollar ransom for them. Bashir is an angry young man from Hounslow, a suburb of London near Heathrow Airport that is filled with South Asian immigrant families (many work at the airport). Angry and wounded at the racism of England, he has come to Pakistan to work against the west and the vestiges of colonialism. Nick gives Bashir a crash course in the power of money, the invisible hand that rules everything, and in investment banking. Bashir becomes totally seduced by money. Where Nick is shrewd and cautious, Bashir is greedy. Where Nick still believes in rules, Bashir is ruthless. To say more would give away too much. Suffice it to say that the play becomes a commentary on the West's influence over the East (Though he would hate to admit it, Bashir, after all, is an Englishman, not a Pakistani), and money's influence over everything. What happens when capitalism is imported to a lawless society? What we see through the arguments with the Imam, who wants to use the money to do good in his region, is that money itself can become a religion.
      THE INVISIBLE HAND is a fascinating play of ideas couched in the conventions of a thriller. Director Ken Rus Schmoll has maintained the tension and tempo the play demands. There is an unnecessary bit of theatrical spectacle at the beginning of Act II (money spent for no reason); nor did the play really need a scene change. The cast was excellent. Justin Kirk is one of our best actors. He knows how to be totally natural on stage even in a role as talky as this one. He captures Nick's passion for his work, his basic decency, and his horror at cruelty. Usman Ally is appropriately intense as Bashir, a man fueled by anger. Ally is terrific in the scene in which he discovers the powerful rush of making big bucks in a few minutes. Dariush Kasani's Imam can seem a quiet man of God, but turn suddenly into a man who can exercise brutal power.
     Don't miss this one!
THE INVISIBLE HAND. New York Theatre Workshop. November 24, 2014.      

Sunday, 23 November 2014

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN by Young Jean Lee at the Public Theater

     STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is an homage to American domestic realism and in a tradition of plays about male angst such as Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON. The straight white men in Lee's play may be beer-guzzling, but they are not the ignorant bozos of much "guy" narrative on film, television or on stage. These guys are well educated, highly articulate and they understand the new rules of political correctness. They play a home-made revised version of monopoly called "Privilege"that both validates and mocks politically correct concepts of race and gender. It's Christmas time and three grown sons have come back home to celebrate with widowed Dad, who is a retired engineer. The youngest son is a tenured professor, the middle son a banker. Only Matt, the oldest son, is incapable of fitting in twenty-first century capitalistic society. He's not even particularly good at being counter-cultural. At the moment, he has a temp job for a charity and is living with his father. All three sons are now single (one s divorced). Some of what we see is the usual regression of adults who return home for the holidays. These men can bond through familiar rituals of horseplay and teasing. When words are added, arguments ensue.
     The major conflicts begin when Matt breaks down and cries at Christmas Eve supper (take-out Chinese). Jake, the middle son, praises Matt's heroic resistance to the system. Younger son Drew wants Matt to get help, to find out the cause of his malaise. Father referees until the climactic scene. The crux of these family conflicts is whether failure by the standards of American capitalism is tolerable. Along the way there are a lot of humorous barbs thrown at upper middle class assumptions. These guys see themselves as liberal, as right thinking politically. Are they on the most basic issues?
     STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a fascinating ninety minutes of theatre, a twenty-first century version of the kind of work Arthur Miller did after World War II -- there's a kinship between these brothers and the brothers Biff and Happy in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. As usual, Lee has directed her own work and done so beautifully. The brothers (Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson, James Stanley) seem so natural that one feels almost like a voyeur. Austin Pendleton is either trying for his idea of naturalistic acting (more likely) or is fumbling for lines -- the effect is the same and the play would be five minutes shorter and tighter without his dithering over lines. Just about every speech is preceded by some arm flailing then some "uh"s before he gets around to the line. I thought that kind of method acting had been thrown onto the dustheap of theater history.
     Well worth seeing.
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. The Public Theater. November 22, 2014.

Terrence McNally's LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART at Second Stage

      I have always thought that LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART was one of Terrence McNally's best plays. It's a unique combination of Chekhov and American domestic drama with some poetic touches added. The play is very definitely a product of that horrible decade when AIDS was killing so many young men. LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART in its strongest moments is a meditation on mortality. It focuses not on gay men -- they are an unseen, but heard presence surrounding the characters -- but on two straight couples sharing a house in the gayest section of Fire Island on July 4. Sally Truman, the central character, has lost her brother to AIDS. She was not able to deal with his gayness or the fact that he had a male lover who became more important to him than she was. Her brother left her this Fire Island house, which only intensifies her grief, her anger and her discomfort at his sexuality. She is sharing the house on this weekend with her husband Sam, his hyperactive sister, Chloe, and her husband John. Chloe and Sam are trying to deal gracefully with the fact that Sally and John have slept together. John has recently discovered that he has cancer of the esophagus. We watch the ways in which the fears and anger of these four people erupt. This is a Terrence McNally play, however, so there are lots of funny moments. Where a more realistic playwright would invent ways for characters to reveal their deepest thoughts to other characters, McNally believes that people, even spouses, hide their most powerful feelings. McNally's characters have soliloquies in which they tell express their fears and hostilities.  The play is very demanding of its cast. The original cast at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1990 had three of the best actors for this sort of serious comedy: Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski and Swoozie Kurtz. Anthony Heald played John, who is a kind of straight man. Unfortunately, the cast at Second Stage was not of this calibre and the play suffered as a result.
     Sally and John are the more outwardly serious characters. America Ferrara, as usual, was touching as this emotionally fragile woman who is grief stricken for her brother, guilty about her feelings about him and about cheating on her husband, and fearful of her pregnancy (she has had several miscarriages). Ferrara captured all the conflicting feelings of her character. Her explosion in the final act was totally convincing. Austin Lysy captured the eternal preppy in John and his misdirected rage, though he had some technical problems with his long soliloquies. The weak links were Michael Chernus and Tracee Chimo as Sam and his sister Chloe. Few actors are capable of the range of Nathan Lane -- capable of his ability to turn on a dime emotionally. I never felt the fear or vulnerability of Chernus's Sam. John says that he is the most emotionally exposed and vulnerable. I didn't see that at all. Where we should have seen the pain and fear under Chimo's constant talk and performing -- her need to be noticed and loved -- we just see an irritating person. Director Peter Dubois cast these people, so the buck stops there. The production was routine -- no new insights into the play, standard predictable blocking and uncertain tempo. The play deserves better than this production.
LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART. Second Stage Theatre. November 22, 2014.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

THE OLDEST BOY by Sarah Ruhl at the Lincoln Center Theater

     This is an interesting but somewhat unsatisfying play that never digs deeply enough into its subject matter, thus veering dangerously close to a Lifetime movie.
     "Mother" (Celia Keenan-Bolger) -- you're always in trouble when characters are listed this way in the program -- was a graduate student in English who never finished her dissertation after her adviser died. Her mentor's love of literature and skepticism of the fashionable theorists in the department (I know how this feels) was an inspiration to her. Right after he died, Mother went into a Tibetan restaurant and immediately fell in love with the owner (James Yaegashi). She was engaged and he was about to enter an arranged marriage to please his family, but "Mother" won out. When the play begins, they have a three-year-old son. Into their world come two Tibetan monks who tell Mother and Father that their son is the reincarnation of the older monk's Lama and teacher. The evidence is convincing enough to lead to a crisis for the parents -- do they allow their son to be taken to a monastery in India or to they fight to keep him? Mother says at one point that motherhood is a bigger idea than any religion. I won't spoil the play by recounting what happens. I will say that an absorbing first act is followed by a weak second act and a conclusion that isn't the least bit conclusive.
     I am delighted to see a play that takes religion seriously. Father was born Buddhist and Mother has been drawn to Buddhism, but beyond the idea of reincarnation, we are given little sense of the religion. Motherhood, which is placed in conflict with the claims of the monks, seems a vague concept to be placed against Buddhism. It's a feeling, not a theology, so no dramatic argument is possible beyond the claims of sentiment.
     Rebecca Taichman's production is so beautiful that it carries one along over the potholes in the script. The son is portrayed by a puppet and voiced by a grown man, as if we are hearing -- and seeing -- the voice and body of the Lama who has been reincarnated in the boy. Celia Keenan-Bolger gives a heartfelt performance. Handsome James Yaegashi doesn't plumb much emotional depth. Jon Norman Schneider and James Saito are charming as the monks, but I wish Ruhl has done more with these characters. Three "chorus" members help with the puppet and some splendid theatrical effects.
     I enjoyed THE OLDEST BOY, but will remember visual moments more than the substance of the play. Once again Sarah Ruhl skirts the intellectual and emotional potential of her material. The play is too nice.
THE OLDEST BOY. Lincoln Center Theater Mitzi Newhouse Theater. November 19, 2014.

Monday, 17 November 2014

THE BAND WAGON at City Center Encores.

     This stage version of the Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz musical THE BAND WAGON is different from past City Center Encores productions. THE BAND WAGON was a classic example of a lost theatrical form, the Broadway revue, which really was a sophisticated form of vaudeville, an evening of song, dance and satirical sketches. In 1953, the Arthur Freed musical wing of MGM took the songs Schwartz and Dietz had written for the revue, added some other Schwartz-Dietz songs including "That's Entertainment" written for the film and pasted them into a new Betty Comden-Adolph Green backstage story. The result is one of the most delightful film musicals ever made, greatly because of the wonderful score.
     City Center Encores has created a new stage musical out of the film with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane based on the Comden-Green screenplay. The numbers have been rearranged. For instance "When There's A Shine on Your Shoes" opens the film, but serves as the final big number in this version.
     The story is basically the same. Tony Hunter (Brian Stokes Mitchell in the Fred Astaire role), a Hollywood has been, looks to recharge his career by starring in a Broadway show. He goes to his old friends Lester and Lily Martin (Michael McKean and Tracey Ullman) to write a show for him. Lily still holds a candle for Tony and Lester knows it. Old friend, actor-director Jeffrey Cordova (Tony Sheldon), is brought in to direct. Unfortunately Jeffrey wants to create a serious musical that will make an artistic statement. He brings in an overly earnest choreographer (Michael Berresse) whose girlfriend Gabriele (Laura Osnes) will be the leading lady. The show is bound to be a disaster. The choreography is even more sombre than Martha Graham's work and Jeffrey's attempts to create a serious musical have the audience running for the aisles. Tony will save the day and get the ingenue and Broadway will get a fun musical. Beane's book is clever--Beane is always clever--but there's too much of it. Encores usually pares down the books of classic musicals to the minimum needed to tell the story and justify the songs. Here we have long book scenes that desperately need editing.
     As usual, Kathleen Marshall has staged with great flair. Her parody of the most hackneyed cliches of modern dance is hilarious and her big numbers are crowd pleasers. The cast couldn't be better. Brian Stokes Mitchell is totally winning and sings his big ballads beautifully. Laura Osnes sings prettily and does what she can with a cardboard ingenue role. The comic leads, McKean, Ullman and Sheldon couldn't be better. It's a delight to see Tracey Ullman in a musical. The orchestra is smaller than usual with Encores productions, but makes a good sound.
     The Times gave The Band Wagon a blah review, but I have found myself in disagreement with many of the recent Times reviews of musicals. Our audience loved it!  How could you not love that score?    
THE BAND WAGON. City Center Encores. November 16, 2014.

POWERHOUSE by Josh Luxenberg, Jon Levin and the Sinking Ship Ensemble at the New Ohio Theatre

     In my childhood memories, Raymond Scott was the bandleader for the radio and television show, YOUR HIT PARADE and husband of HIT PARADE cast member, Dorothy Collins, who was later the first Sally in Sondheim's masterpiece, FOLLIES. I didn't know back then that much of the music used in Warner Brothers cartoons was by Scott -- he had sold the rights to his music to Warners in 1943. Scott was half musical visionary, half mad genius. His style of composing must have been maddening for his instrumentalists. Later, he became obsessed with electronic music. In the 1980s, shortly before his death, Columbia records' release of some of Scott's early private recordings led to a rediscovery of his unique form of jazz.
      POWERHOUSE (the name of one of Scott's more famous compositions) is a devised theatre piece about Scott, taken from his life and many of his statements about music (at one point, his ideal was a silent concert where the musicians would communicate to the audience via extra sensory perception). Most of his money went to his electronic experiments. There's no question that he was eccentric, perhaps borderline autistic. His work was certainly more important than his relationships with his three wives. He was brilliant, but also exasperating. Much of POWERHOUSE is told through Scott's own words. This is any thing but a dry biographical drama. It is a whirlwind of action, a theatrical metaphor of Scott's hyperactive mind. In addition to Scott (Erik Lochtefeld), six performers play all the roles and, with the help of puppets, enact live cartoon sequences. After all, cartoons were how most people became familiar with Scott's music. The hard-working cast is highly versatile. and director Jon Levin has used them to create a totally absorbing theatrical experience. As Marian Elliott has with THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME, Levin has succeeded in finding a way to turn a unique human mind into a theatrical experience. This is a fascinating, highly inventive piece of theatre.
     This is my first Sinking Ship production. I am definitely going to be at their next production.
POWERHOUSE. New Ohio Theatre. November 16, 2014.          

Sunday, 9 November 2014

BROWNSVILLE SONG (B SIDE FOR TREY) by Kimber Lee at Lincoln Center Theater 3

     Perhaps it wasn't a good idea to see BROWNSVILLE SONG  a few hours after seeing FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS. Playwright Kimber Lee doesn't seem quite sure what story she is trying to tell in BROWNSVILLE SONG. The result seems formless, listless and much longer than its 90 minutes.
     On one hand, this is a lament for Trey (Sheldon Best), an eighteen-year-old boy who is shot for no reason by a young gangbanger looking for more status. We only hear about the death in a rather clunky piece of exposition, so really don't feel much about it. Trey is obviously a good kid, but the playwright doesn't make us feel much for his loss. She seems more interested in the women in his life. The tough grandmother who raised him, the kid sister he adores and the mother who abandoned him and his sister and his now trying to get her life back together (it's not clear how Trey could have an Asian mother). Trey tries to get over his anger and help his mother, reversing the parent-child role. I wish I could say that the play made me feel anything, but it seemed a collection of scenes with no narrative momentum. The play moves back and forth in time, which would be fine if there seemed any clear reason for the arrangement of scenes.
      Director Patricia McGregor has done what she could with the play. Sheldon Best, who was so good in THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER last season, gives another dynamic performance. Lizan Mitchell brings real substance to the role of the feisty grandmother who is beginning to feel her age. Sun Mee Chomet is bland in the blandly written role of the mother who is trying to reform.
     Blah. If only the play were as dynamic as the pre-show music.
BROWNSVILLE SONG (B SIDE FOR TREY). Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow. November 8, 2014.

FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS by Susan Lori Parks at the Public Theater

     I have to admit that up until now I haven't been an admirer of Susan Lori Parks' work. I remember watching almost the entire audience leave during a regional theatre production of one of her plays and thinking they were right to do so. I made it through TOPDOG/UNDERDOG but thought it was a rehash of an earlier play. Not Abe Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth again! 365 DAYS/365 PLAYS struck me as being akin to publishing the contents of Parks' wastebasket. Needless to say, I went to FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS, PARTS 1, 2, & 3 with some trepidation. I even got an aisle seat just in case I didn't want to stay until the end. By the end of the three hours of this play, I was converted.
     Much of Parks' work has to do with the aftermath of the Civil War. FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS, set in 1862-3 is a meditation on freedom and, as the title of the first play of this trilogy, "The Measure of a Man," suggests, about the value of a life. There are strong echoes of Homer's ODYSSEY, but our Ulysses (self-named), isn't much of a hero. There's even the chorus and elevated poetic language of classical Greek drama.
     We first meet Hero, a slave on a small estate, as he is trying to decide whether to accompany his master, a Confederate colonel, to war, wound himself so he can't go, or run away. Hero has been a good slave. He even betrayed his friend Homer, who tried to escape. The master cut off Homer's foot to make sure that doesn't happen again. Hero vacillates in the manner of a character in a neo-classical French drama, but he's too attached to his role as slave to follow either of the other alternatives. Hero will don the ragged imitation of a Confederate uniform and follow his master into battle, leaving his wife Penny behind. The "Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves" argue over the possible alternatives, even bet on them. For Hero, ultimately, there is only one right course of action, which is to live out the role that defines him -- there's a good bit of existentialism under the surface of Parks's play. There are only three characters in the second, strongest play of the three; Hero, the increasingly drunk master, and a Union soldier he has captured. Much of the discussion is about Hero's price. What would he bring on the auction block? Clearly the master sees Hero's material value as a measure of his own value, but Hero accept that valuation. In one of the most telling moments of the trilogy, the Union soldier who, it turns out, is mixed race, thus seen as Black, offers Hero the chance to run away after Hero has freed him. Hero responds that he knows his value with his master. What will his value be if he is free? This question has enormous resonance as one ponders the history of African-Americans since the Civil War. Here, as elsewhere, the question that hangs over the play is What does freedom mean, particularly for a Black man? The final play takes place after the Emancipation Proclamation, but Jenny, Homer and the runaway slaves they protect don't know this as they plan to escape the now masterless plantation. Homer returns with a copy of the proclamation but fails to tell his fellow slaves that they are free. It's a detail that doesn't seem important to him, or perhaps he knows that they are not truly free. He will stay on the plantation, which is home to him, and sire a new family. Penny, this version of Penelope, is not as faithful. The life Hero, now called Ulysses, has planned for her is one that shows how much he has in common with his now slain master.
     FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS is what one might call a discussion play, full of lively argument over weighty matters. Not much actually happens, but every action we see is momentous. It's one of those plays where you'd like to be able to stop it once in a while and think about what has just been said. The language is lively, often beautiful, sometimes funny, as in the third play when a dog takes on the role of the messenger in Greek drama, imparting key information. As Eugene O'Neill claimed in his trilogy MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA (Parks seems to have used this play as a model for her chorus), the Civil War defines so much of what followed and has to be the setting for our national tragedy as the Trojan War was the setting for Athenian dramatists. Parks forces us to hear what her characters say in the context of what has followed over the last century and a half. Like all great writers of history plays, Parks knows that such plays are as much commentaries on the present as on the past. This is particularly true in the middle play of this trilogy.
     Jo Bonney has given the play the production it deserves. The Anspacher Theater, which is like an ampitheater, is the perfect setting for this play modeled on Greek tragedy. The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Sterling K. Brown as Hero and Ken Marks as the master who defines himself through his power over others. Special praise to Jacob Ming Trent's dog, who has a large portion of the lines in the third play.
     The fact that Susan Lori Parks calls this Parts 1, 2, & 3 suggests that there will be more parts. I look forward to seeing them.
FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS PARTS 1, 2, &3. Public Theater. November 8, 2014

Thursday, 6 November 2014

THE LAST SHIP by Sting, John Logan and Brian Yorkey

     When I heard Sting sing the title song from THE LAST SHIP on the Tony Awards, in June, I thought this might be a show to avoid. Curiosity got the better of me, so when the musical showed up on tdf (a bad sign for the longevity of a new musical), I grabbed a ticket. I'm glad I did. Once one buys the rather incredible premise, THE LAST SHIP is a lovely show beautifully produced and superbly performed.
     THE LAST SHIP is an example of a genre we're familiar with from films like THE FULL MONTY or the fine recent film PRIDE -- sagas of folks in post-industrial Britain trying to regain some self-respect. The musical is set in what was a shipbuilding area of northeast England. Shipbuilding has moved to where there is cheap labor and the only job opportunities left for the men who come from generations of shipbuilders is salvage work dismantling the factories and docks. Enter Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper), who left home and girlfriend fifteen years ago to wander around the world as a merchant sailor and has returned home for his father's funeral. Gideon saw no future in being a shipbuilder. His principal motivation for returning is to see Meg (Rachel Tucker), the girl he left behind, but she is now in a relationship with solid, practical Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar) who helps in raising her son. Of course the fifteen year old boy knows that Gideon is his biological father. Yes, Meg has to choose between solid Arthur and wandering Gideon. Gideon has to decide whether he can really be a father to his son.
     The  crux of the show, and one that takes a bit of a leap of faith on the audience's part, is Gideon's conversion from someone who has no stake in his old community to a leader who helps the men decide to build one last ship in order to regain their pride. He has to replace the old priest (Fred Applegate) in fighting to make the building of this one last ship possible. One has to accept this saga on a mythical level rather than a realistic one, but it's a musical, right? Why not go with it?
     THE LAST SHIP is a gorgeous production. There may be one chanty too many, but Sting's score (much of it was written for a concept album a couple of years ago) is varied and often beautiful, particularly the ballads. The lyrics effectively define character and action. The book propels the story effectively and the musical numbers are seamlessly integrated with the dialogue. Joe Mantello has staged much of the show on a large open space with furniture moved on and off by the actors. It's high tech when it needs to be, but keeps the focus on the characters, both the leads and the important ensemble. This is a show about community, after all. Stephen Hoggett has once again created movement and dance that is stylized, but never out of character. David Zinn's sets are impressive but never steal focus from the actors, and one can't speak highly enough of Christopher Akerlind's lighting design.
     For this show to work, Gideon needs to be played by a charismatic actor who can sing. The role is dramatically and vocally challenging. Gideon is barely off stage. I would never have thought of Michael Esper for this kind of role. I've always seen him as troubled contemporary middle-class young men. He's terrific here. He has a natural singing voice that doesn't sound trained, though it obviously is, and he makes Gideon as three-dimensional a character as one can expect in a musical. The rest of the cast lives up to the standard Esper sets. Rachel Tucker plays a type -- the tough but conflicted leading lady -- but she plays it convincingly. Fred Applegate is excellent as the profane old priest and Collin Kelly-Sordelet is winning as young Gideon and Gideon's son Tom.
     I read that THE LAST SHIP isn't doing very well at the box office. I find it extremely sad that an excellent show like this has to struggle to find an audience.
THE LAST SHIP. Neil Simon Theatre. November 6, 2014.

GRAND CONCOURSE by Heidi Schreck at Playwrights Horizons

     GRAND CONCOURSE is another example of the sort of slice of life realism -- what used to be called "kitchen sink dramas" -- that seems to be in vogue again, particularly from young women playwrights (for instance, Annie Baker and Amy Herzog). This one literally takes place in a kitchen, a soup kitchen for a Catholic church in the South Bronx, and has a working sink and stove. Dishes are washed, vegetables are cut, eggs are fried. Shelley, who is in change, is a thirty-nine-year old nun, who is in a perpetual crisis of faith. Shelley became a nun in part to rebel against her parents with whom she still has a tenuous relationship. She has difficulty praying, which is certainly a problem for a nun. The real test of her faith and her ability to act out of compassion comes when nineteen-year-old Emma comes to volunteer in the kitchen. Emma knows that she is sick inside. Is that sickness best defined in medical or religious terms? She cries out for -- demands -- help from Shelley. As Shelley later says, Emma may not act out of malice but she still commits evil acts. She gains the sympathy of the workers and "guests" of the soup kitchen by claiming to have leukemia. She tells Oscar, the handsome, sweet young Dominican worker, that her cancer gives her the right to make demands, even sexual demands, on him. Emma wants to be a force for good -- she sometimes is -- but she also is destructive. To what extent should Emma be forgiven for her lies and her irresponsibility? The play shows that being good takes effort, a battle against one's baser impulses.
      GRAND CONCOURSE has the flaws I find in many of these new slice of life plays. It doesn't dig deeply enough into the ethical and spiritual questions is raises. Schreck's language defines characters, but is a bit flat. One can inject some theatrical poetry into this kind of play as earlier realists like Clifford Odets did masterfully. GRAND CONCOURSE is comprised of a lot of short scenes, which means that the play has no overall momentum. Moreover, it's not always clear how much time has elapsed between these short scenes.
      The cast is uniformly good. Quincy Tyler Bernstein convincingly shows the effort involved in Shelley's acts of compassion and the anger that simmers underneath. Ismenia Mendes captures the complexity of Emma who is both manipulative and out of control. Bobby Moreno radiates decency and good humor as Oscar and Lee Wilkof makes the most of his brief appearances as a homeless man trying to gain control of his life.  
      I found GRAND CONCOURSE to be thought provoking, but I did feel that it still needs some work.
GRAND CONCOURSE. Playwrights Horizons. November 5, 2014.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

FOUND at the Atlantic Theater Company

          The charming, tuneful but seriously flawed musical FOUND is based on Davy Rothbart's magazine, which publishes real messages that have been found in the trash, on car windshields, even on bills and receipts. Some of the messages are funny, others cries for help. When the show sticks to the messages it is delightful, but it gets bogged down in a formulaic romcom book that has been grafted on to give the show some continuity. The show would have been much better as a revue. The funniest moments are actually revue sketches, such as the fifth grade version of "Johnny Tremaine" that is sabotaged by unruly students.
           The central character is "Davy", a fictional version of FOUND Magazine's founder. In this version, the day Davy loses his job, he finds a strange note on his windshield (the writer put the note on the wrong Toyota). The note begins an obsession for collecting these sorts of messages. He shares this with his two best friends, a gay bear and Christina, who secretly loves him. The three of the start the magazine which becomes a runaway success. Enter the lovely posh girl eager for Hollywood fame and fortune. She steals Davy's heart and convinces him to go to Hollywood with her to sell the idea to television. You see where this is going, right? Fortunately this overly familiar story is laced with lots of very funny Found material, presented as a kind of Brechtian commentary on the action.
            Hunter Bell's score is tuneful, if not memorable. It's a challenge to write songs to prose (most of the songs are sung Found messages). Director Lee Overtree and choreographer Monica Bill Barnes have staged the show effectively on a simple set, though I think a stronger director would have pushed for major changes that could have made this an excellent ninety minute show (it clocks in at close to 2 1/2 hours). The cast is a mixed bag. Nick Blaemire, who plays Davy, is a winning performer. I found the two leading ladies blah. Christina Anthony, who plays the lovelorn Christina, was often inaudible and listless. Kate, the ambitious would be producer, is a one-note character, so it's not surprising that Betsy Morgan was a one note performer. The supporting ensemble was comprised of idiosyncratic individuals who kept the show buoyant.  
FOUND. Atlantic Theater Company. November 4, 2014.            

Monday, 3 November 2014

THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE at the Public Theatre

     THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE is a sweet, touching musical with an excellent score. I must admit I have no knowledge of the novel by Jonathan Lethem on which the musical is based, but Itamar Moses's book is, for the most part a clear well-written narrative, and Michael Friedman's lyrics delineate character effectively.
      The musical takes place over twenty years. Dylan (named after you-know-who) Ebdus (the marvelous Adam Chanler-Berat) is the child of countercultural parents who settle in Brooklyn. At least his father, who designs covers for books, settles. Mother soon departs for California, leaving behind her wedding ring and her lps. Dylan, a shy, nerdy 12 year old white boy in a predominantly Black neighborhood, is preyed on by the local bully. The show chronicles his close relationship with Mingus (named after the great jazz musician) Rude (Kyle Beltran -- also marvelous). Rude is the son of Barret Rude, who had a short but successful career as a pop artist. Mingus is also a motherless child. Mingus brings Dylan out of his shell. They share comic book fantasies, tagging subway cars and music. For a while he their life is joyful, but unequal opportunities separate them during their high school years. Twenty years later, Dylan, now a pop music critic, wants to rerelease Barrett Rude's recordings, an effort that reunites him briefly with Mingus. At heart I guess one could call this a bromance, though there are intimations that Mingus's feelings for Dylan run deeper than that. The most dramatically powerful moments are those in which we see vividly the hostility and separation that come when these young men are driven apart by social and economic circumstance.
     Above all, the show is a celebration of music, from doo wop to rap.
      I loved this show so much that I'm going back. The couple next to me were there for the third time. The music is infectious, the story absorbing, the production simply but beautifully staged and the performances uniformly excellent. Berat is more of an actor than a singer, though is singing is gets technically better in each of the musicals he has headlines. He has become a specialist in troubled young men. I'd love to see him cast in something different. He's perfect for Dylan, but he's getting type cast. I remember Kyle Beltran from IN THE HEIGHTS. He's grown into a formidable talent. Kevin Mambo is powerful as Barrett and Andre de Shields, as usual, wipes up the stage as Barrett's Bible toting father.
      Daniel Aukin's staging is simple but powerful and Camille A. Brown has managed to make her performers seem like people dancing rather than dancers. The band is great.
     THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE is a fabulous show that deserves a longer life. Once again the Public has struck gold.  
THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE. Public Theatre. November 2, 2014.