Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Peter Parnell's DADA WOOF PAPA HOT at the Lincoln Center Theater

        Hard on the heels of Mark Gerrard's delightful play about midlife crisis for a gay couple with a child, we have Peter Parnell's pleasant but not totally satisfying DADA WOOF PAPA HOT, beautifully acted, staged (Scott Ellis), and designed (John Lee Beatty),  at the Mitzi Newhouse.
         Rob, a psychiatrist (Patrick Breen), and Alan, a freelance writer (John Benjamin Hickey), seem to have it all -- a solid relationship, a lovely four year old daughter, and a gorgeous Greenwich Village apartment. This is not the Ideal Gay Family Terrence McNally gave us in his MOTHERS AND SONS a couple of years ago. Alan, a fifty-something gay man who can remember the liberated days and the AIDS epidemic, is jealous that their daughter seems to love Rob more and equally jealous that Rob pays so much attention to their daughter. He is also feeling the itch, the sense that he is missing sexual excitement. When he and Rob get together with their best straight friends or with the the gay couple with children they met at the gay dads dinner, they talk of child rearing, but in each couple, someone is cheating. Straight Michael is having an affair with a married actress and gay Jason is something of a sex addict. Alan has been writing an article for the New Yorker on the "fidelity gene,"  which only one member of each couple seems to possess. All three couples go through a crisis. Plays about marriage seem perforce to be plays about infidelity.
       DADA WOOF PAPA HOT would have worked as a witty comedy of manners but Parnell, who has been a successful writer-producer for television, keeps taking the play into the sort of domestic melodrama we know from television series. When Alan and Rob try to come to an understanding in the long penultimate scene, so many bits of psychology come out, some creepier than the playwright seems to understand, that the conversation ceases to make much sense and any reconciliation would seem unearned. Parnell never deals with what to me seemed to be a major problem for these couples -- one member had a conventional, demanding career and one was a freelance artist with a lot of free time. Everyone is financially comfortable, so money is never an issue. Parnell touches on the differences between the liberated gay world of the seventies and the new married world (the gay families vacation on Fire Island, the Mecca for gay sex and have to find ways to explain to their children what the men are doing in the bushes), but doesn't dig deeply into the problem of what it means to be gay in the twenty-first century -- what gay men have lost in gaining rights (in some states) and marriage
       The principle theme of the play is the commonality of gay and straight families. As Julia, an unhappily married actress says to Rob, "And I thought it was women who were supposed to have it all. Turns out it's you guys. Well, we'll see what comes from that." Unfortunately, what comes from that in DADA WOOF PAPA HOT is a mildly enjoyable play that travels over familiar ground.  

Monday, 28 December 2015

Rolin Jones' THESE PAPER BULLETS with songs by Billie Joe Armstrong at the Atlantic Theatre

     Rewriting Shakespeare is an act of courage and the results are seldom as good as the original, so Rolin Jones' rewriting of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, one of the Bard's best comedies, is an act of chutzpah. It's also a near complete success. The play now takes place in London in the age of the Beatles and Mary Quant. Bea (Shakespeare's Beatrice) is a Quant-like fashion designer and Ben (Benedick) is an aging member of a Beatles-like rock group, which also includes young Claude (Claudio). All this sounds rather far-fetched but it works. The greatest lines are still there as well as some clever new ones. Jones's play is raunchier than Shakespeare's but always enjoyable. Since Ben and Claude are in a rock group, The Quartos, contemporary rocker Billie Joe Armstrong has written a group of terrific homages to the Beatles performed by the actors who play The Quartos.
     On the whole, Jackson Gay's direction is deft, though there's a bit too much shouting and forced slapstick in the updated Dogberry scenes. Jessica Ford's costumes were delightful and Michael Yeargan's simple, revolving sets were effective, particularly with Nicholas Hussong's great projections.
     The cast couldn't be better. The always excellent Justin Kirk is a funny, slouching, half-stoned Ben, perfectly matched by Nicole Parker's feisty Bea. Brian Fenkart is an excellent singer and sweet as the not-too-articulate Claude. The rest of the ensemble (many actors playing multiple roles) couldn't be better.
      THOSE PAPER BULLETS is a total delight. My one slight cavil is that the show might have been even better if the dialogue had been miked. It is always a bit difficult to switch from hearing loudly amplified music to non-amplified language. The actors tended to shout to compensate. Many moments would have been better if they didn't work so hard. Amplification and more relaxed direction might help that.
      Nonetheless, catch this one if you can.  

David Bowie and Edna Walsh's LAZARUS at the New York Theatre Workshop

     I must admit that I spent most of LAZARUS in a state of bafflement. Was the lead character, Thomas Newton (Michael C. Hall), really from outer space or was he delusional? Were any of the other characters "real" or was Newton imagining them all? I guess Newton's female assistant and her abusive husband were supposed to fit into the "real category." This is not a show with a linear narrative or anything resembling conventional dramatic characters. The question is whether there is anything to relate to emotionally. David Bowie's music (some old songs, some new) isn't up to the standard of the better contemporary musicals and his lyrics, as much as one can understand them given the miking, are certainly below the level of most musicals. I guess you have to be a Bowie fan.
     This is the first time I have seen the work of Ivo van Hove, who is the director du jour on both sides of the Atlantic. I gave A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE a miss (can't stand the play). His staging here didn't look particularly original. There was a lot of crawling around the floor (no furniture--supposedly a van Hove trademark) and slouching against walls.
      Fortunately there were two charismatic performances. Michael C. Hall totally threw himself into the role of Newton. He sings very well -- even can sound eerily like Bowie in places -- and has always been an interesting actor. As his and everyone else's nemesis, Michael Esper is a riveting actor and singer. Esper is one of our greater theatrical talents. Cristin Milioti was fabulous on television's FARGO his season, but I have always found her drippy on stage. Lynn Craig sang beautifully as Newton's imaginary companion.
     I'm afraid I didn't warm to LAZARUS. My husband loved it, so I may be in the wrong here.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

My Ten Best of 2015

This has been an interesting theatre year, filled with excellent work from the younger generation of playwrights. Here's my list in no particular order:
HAMILTON. A rare show that is as good as its hype, and there has been a lot of hype. A brilliant show that parallels the life of Alexander Hamilton with the continuing immigrant experience in America, performed by a hyper-talented cast. I'm not a fan of hip hop or rap, but the show totally won me over. This is a classic.
The only other musical on this list, and the only revival on this list, is the Roundabout theatre revival of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Not as lavish as the original, but cleverly staged and given top-notch performances. I've always found Kristen Chenoweth a bit creepy, but I will no longer be able to imagine anyone else as Lili Garland. Peter Gallagher was superb as was the entire cast. And it was a joy to hear the brilliant Cy Coleman score (one of my favorites), so well performed.
THE HUMANS. Stephen Karam's funny, disturbing take on American domestic drama. This is another "holiday dinner gone awry" play, but one that is totally original.
This was a season of fine, very different, plays about gay men. Three stand out. Mark Gerrard's STEVE, was a bittersweet take on gay midlife crisis in the age of gay marriage and parenting. It helped to be a bit of a show queen as the text is peppered with references to show tunes. Joshua Harmon's SIGNIFICANT OTHER had Gideon Glick giving one of the best performances of the year as a twenty-nine year old man who is losing his best friends to marriage. Bathsheba Doran's THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX gave us a young African-American man going through the throes of coming out and what it does to his close friendship with his ex-girlfriend and her family.
Our two best young African-American playwrights had surprising, challenging new work. Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' GLORIA focused on an office tragedy and the way a group of people interpreted and personalized it. Robert O'Hara's BARBECUE, a satire of racial representation and hunger for fame, gave us a narrative acted out by a white and a Black cast.
Lucas Hnath's THE CHRISTIANS was a serious take on faith and orthodoxy.
Jesse Eisenberg has a gift for writing and acting, dysfunctional, destructive characters. THE SPOILS gave us a young man with a talent for destroying friendships and romances.
The worst show of the year. Easy. IOWA at Playwrights' Horizons. A real mess.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Deaf West Theatre's production of SPRING AWAKENING

     What do the young people who packed the Brooks Atkinson Theatre last night make of this musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's turn-of-the-twentieth-century classic, SPRING AWAKENING? Duncan Sheik's score is good pop-rock, Stephen Sater's alternation of Wedekind's text with very contemporary lyrics is effective, the young cast fabulous. But Wedekind's play is a tale of the high price of sexual ignorance and repression of adolescents. The society it shows is one in which the wages of sex can be death. I remember when guys who "knocked up" girls had to marry them. The alternative was a dangerous, illegal abortion. Homosexuality was taboo. And even sixty years after Wedekind wrote his play, sex education was a joke. The attitudes of the grown ups in SPRING AWAKENING weren't much different from the attitudes of adults when I grew up. Things are very different now for most urban Americans. My church offers sex education to first and second graders! Yes, teen suicide is still a reality and some kids feel they must run away to survive emotionally or physically, but the young people around me last night seemed to be happy campers. What the young people respond to is a show about young people performed by an immensely talented young cast with a solid score. The story must look a bit quaint to them.  SPRING AWAKENING bombed in London (as did RENT). It wasn't cynical enough for British audiences.
     Michael Arden's production for Deaf West Theater mixes deaf and non-deaf performers. Some leading performers sign while other performers speak their lines. What makes the production so special is how masterfully Arden has made this concept work and how brilliantly he and his choreographer Spencer Liff have staged this ensemble work. On a multi-level unit set adorned occasionally with projections, Arden and Liff have created a highly inventive, visually beautiful, emotionally powerful production. For the most part, the performers are the scenery. When there is need of a giant tree, ten performers group together to create the tree. The graveyard is created by performers sitting on chairs (echoes of OUR TOWN). The company functions visually as a kind of Greek chorus observing and visually reacting to intimate moments. The energy on stage was electric.
Where Michael Mayer's original production had the cast performing the musical numbers as if they were contemporary comments on a period piece, Arden and Liff have integrated the numbers more into the show. There was a hip, knowing quality about the original production where here one really felt the anguish of the characters.
     This was an ensemble production. Everyone was immensely talented and totally committed to their roles.
      My one reservation was with the tinny sound design. For some reason, lyrics did not come through very effectively.
       This is a must see production. Up to now it hasn't been doing very well at the box office. I was glad to see the theatre packer last night. Bravos to all.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Arthur Miller's INCIDENT AT VICHY at the Signature Theatre

     When Arthur Miller wrote INCIDENT AT VICHY half a century ago, the Holocaust was only twenty years in the past and seemed the most powerful example of the depths to which humanity could sink. Because it was an attempt at exterminating a specific category of person (though Roma, gays and communists were also rounded up), it seems more horrible than the millions Stalin killed. Since the play was written we have had other horrific examples of genocide and certainly seemingly countless examples of a group hatefully trying to destroy what they see as "the other." The world seems to be caught up in an epidemic of hate, stirred up in our own country by demagogues like Mr. Trump. INCIDENT AT VICHY now seems to be about more than one single historical moment.
     At a time when we are all in support of France after recent attacks in Paris, it is interesting that Miller's holocaust play does not take place in Germany, but in France, which seemed content for a while to allow Hitler to bring his anti-Semitic policies to their country. The setting is a waiting room where a group of men who have been brought in by French police wait to be interrogated by Nazi army officers and a Nazi racial anthropologist. The men soon realize that they are there because they are suspected of being Jews. The purpose of the interrogation is to determine if they are "not French" (i.e. Jews). If so they will be sent to a concentration camp. Also there for some reason (a not totally convincing dramatic contrivance), is an Austrian prince (the magnificent Richard Thomas) who left his native land because the thugs had taken over and refinement is gone. He hates the Nazis because they have no respect for beauty and culture, a claim that is somewhat inaccurate (Hitler loved Wagner) and less important than the fact that the Nazis were perpetrating mass murder. There's also an artist, a socialist, an old orthodox Jew, a fiery young man. There would be more variety and interest if there were also some women in this large, all-male cast.
     Arthur Miller should have read a lot of George Bernard Shaw before he set out to write this discussion play. Shaw could leaven serious discussion with wit. Miller never demonstrates much of a sense of humor--he's all moral earnestness. Shaw also knew that this sort of play is more interesting if the bad guys are as convincing and theatrically viable as the good guys. This may seem difficult to do with Nazis, whom we all see as evil personified, but perhaps an articulate, convincing voice for an argument of racial purity would make us understand the Nazi point of view, however horrible. However much we may deny it, a lot of people believe deep down that their own race is superior. A viable dramatic representation of our worst prejudices would have been interesting. Director Michael Wilson has made the Nazis, even the Professor of Racial Anthropology handsome young men, but even that is something of a stereotype. Miller's play is eloquent, often gripping, but too unwaveringly earnest.  
     Michael Wilson keeps the play moving and varies the tone as much as the script allows. The cast of seventeen is consistently strong. Richard Thomas is superb as the Austrian prince. He grabs one's attention even by sitting still. This is a seemingly meek man who also knows his authority. Jonny Orsini dominates the first third of the play as a young painter, the first character who understands why they are in this room. James Carpinello makes the most of his moment as a wounded Nazi officer who despises his job almost as much as he despises Jews.
     Arthur Miller is considered one of our best playwrights, yet his work has serious flaws. The very fact that there are no women in this discussion play is reflective of his very old-fashioned sexual politics. Does he find women incapable of the kind of serious discussion this play requires? Women in Miller's work tend to be dutiful wives or young temptresses. Men can violate their marriage vows and still be tragic heroes but women who act outside of the conventional sex/gender system are sluts. He has virtually no sense of humor. Yet his writing can be eloquent. God knows he's morally earnest.  Nonetheless INCIDENT AT VICHY is worth seeing. The arguments are timely and the performances are excellent.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

GIGANTIC the musical produced by the Vineyard Theatre at the Acorn Theatre

     In the day of "serious" musicals like FUN HOME and HAMILTON and the Disney and Disney-style kiddie shows, old fashioned fun adult musical comedies tend to get short shrift. GIGANTIC (book by Randy Blair and Tim Drucker, music by Matthew roi Berger, lyrics by Randy Blair) is just that, a fun adult musical, albeit an adult musical about teenagers--fat teenagers who are sent by their parents to a summer camp to lose weight. The narrative is somewhat predictable. There are two manic adults running the camp, a formerly fat, fat-hating counselor and three skinny, bitchy cheerleaders who invade the camp. Of course the fat kids don't get thin, but they get proud. Nothing deep or revelatory here, but an enjoyable experience nonetheless. The book is funny and fast-moving and the lyrics are very clever. The music is Broadway rock, not particularly original (how original can you be with rock), but enjoyable. One can't help but be impressed with the talented, energetic cast. Yes, they're big boys and girls, but they move as if they weren't. It's difficult to single anyone out--it's a cohesive ensemble. Scott Schwartz's direction and Chase Brock's choreography are dynamic/
     I saw a preview. The show could use some cutting.
     I'm not a good predicter of the commercial potential of shows like this. I found GIGANTIC to be delightful.
     Next to me in the third row were three twenty-something women who texted throughout the show. I prayed that Patti Lupone would appear and snatch their phones as she did at a recent performance I attended. Can't these people turn off their phones for an hour? Don't they know that texting is distracting to the people on stage and the people around them. When are we going to devise principles of common courtesy regarding cell phones?

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

NIGHT IS A ROOM by Naomi Wallace at the Signature Theatre

     One of the major decisions a playwright must make is what moments in her story to highlight, what moments to leave to exposition and what moments to leave out altogether. The power of Naomi Wallace's gripping NIGHT IS A ROOM is in the selection of scenes to present. Her model seems to be classical Athenian tragedy, where the scenes give the audience the aftermath of momentous events that have taken place offstage. There are also echoes of classical tragedy in the Oedipal relationship at the center of the play and the heightened emotions of the characters. Comparisons might also be made to Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE playing a few blocks uptown, but I find Miller's Eddie Carbone a totally unsympathetic character and thus find the play impossible to enjoy on any level. It's another example of Miller's limited, patriarchal world view. Wallace's play is abut the power of desire, the inability to verbalize overwhelming desire and the violent bonds that can tie people together.
     The play begins in the garden of Dore's flat in Leeds. Dore (Ann Dowd), is a middle-aged woman who has a job as a cleaner in a school. At first she seems not only socially awkward but perhaps mentally challenged. Her visitor, Liana (Dagmara Dominczyk), is a beautiful, powerful advertising executive. During the scene we discover that Dore is the biological mother of Liana's husband Marcus, whom he has never met. Liana wants to arrange a meeting as a 40th birthday present. There are little hints of trouble to come in the scene. Liana trips and breaks the heel of one of her expensive shoes. Dore breaks a balloon that Liana has given her. There's an air of condescension in Liana's behavior toward this working class woman and a sense of hidden power in Dore.
     A conventional playwright would give us the meeting of Dore and her long lost son. Wallace instead cuts to three weeks later. We're in Marcus (Bill Camp) and Liana's large Leeds house. Drop cloths are everywhere and the walls are about to be painted. Everything looks tentative. The scene moves from a sexual moment between husband and wife to the revelation that Marcus is leaving his wife to live with his mother who is now his lover. The scene is almost Euripidean in its intensity. Marcus can't effectively express the profound sexual attraction he feels for his mother, but Liana can certainly express her rage and disgust. The two women have another encounter after Marcus's untimely death.
      In NIGHT IS A ROOM Wallace is exploring what is "natural" and whether or when human impulses can be described as "unnatural." Dore describes how the feelings between her and the son she did not see for forty years moved from an almost primal passion to maternal-filial feelings, still close but no longer erotic. Were they going through in middle age a version of the intense bond a mother and infant son feel? Was the marriage of Liana and Marcus more "natural." They felt sexual desire for each other, but what kept them going? After Marcus leaves, Liana loses her personal and professional identity and literally becomes a homeless person. All she has is her anger. Marcus is the unwilling participant in this primal drama. He screams at his wife, "You didn't ask me." Once the meeting between mother and son was arranged by the wife, he lost his ability to control his destiny.
     Memories of dreams and images of nature abound in Wallace's play linking nature and the subconscious. Marcus is connected to trees. There are large flowers in a vase in Liana's and Marcus's house. Dore's garden has piles of rocks. Characters insist on recounting their dreams.
      As you can see NIGHT IS A ROOM is rich, poetic and highly erotic. It is, after all, about the power of sexual desire.
       Ann Dowd is mesmerizing as Dore. Anyone who has seen the HBO series THE LEFTOVERS knows that Dowd is a magnetic actress. She's the best thing on that show and she is the focus of this production. She only has to stand still on stage to hold the audience's focus. Unfortunately, Dagmar Dominczyk's shrill voice and bogus British accent are hard to bear. She makes Liana irritating rather than a woman fighting for control. She is less bothersome in the final scene. Bill Camp only has one scene but he makes the most of it. Other than making a major casting decision, Bill Rauch has directed ably.
      NIGHT IS A ROOM is another important rethinking of domestic drama and the family romance.  

Monday, 16 November 2015

Stephen Karam's THE HUMANS at the Roundabout and Taylor Mac's HIR at Playwrights Horizons

     I'm combining my comments on these plays for three reasons: we saw them on the same day, they are both riffs on classic American domestic drama and they both present versions of the death of patriarchal values.
     THE HUMANS takes place in a shabby, two-level apartment in Chinatown occupied by twenty-something Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele), a college graduate looking for an interesting job but supporting herself as a bartender, and her thirty-eight year old boyfriend Richard Saad (Arian Moayed), who is studying to be a social worker but also will at forty have a trust fund. Although the apartment is  almost bare, Brigid and Richard are hosting her family for Thanksgiving dinner. The family consists of father, mother, grandmother, who is in the throes of dementia and an older sister Aimee (Cassie Beck), who has severe colitis and has lost her job and her girlfriend. Brigid's family is suffering from the current heartless state of the American economy. Through a foolish decision, Erik, the father (Reed Birney), has lost his job at a parochial school and now works part-time at Walmart. Deidre, Brigid's mother (Jayne Houdyshell) has hit the glass ceiling in her office job. Erik and Brigid cannot afford proper care for his mother (Lauren Klein). Aimee's law firm is not at all sympathetic with her health problems. Brigid holds down two bartending jobs to make ends meet.
     The real problems are spiritual. Richard has suffered severe depression. Erik, who at first tries to maintain his authority as head of the family and his Scranton values is reduced to a state of terror by the end of the play. The terror comes from within and from without. Brigid and Richard's apartment seems to have a sinister life of its own. It is filled with mysterious loud noises. Kitchen utensils fall off the counter for no reason. Doors close on their own. Lights go out. THE HUMANS is a scary play about how little we really control our own lives. It begins as domestic comedy, but is  by the end really terrifying. The person who most experiences the menace is the patriarch, Erik, who is at first full of fatherly advice and judgment, but who ends up cowering in terror. Erik has lost his moral authority and has lost his way.
     What help is the family? There's much talk in the play of the importance of family, but each of the characters is really isolated, mired in his or her own crises. this all makes the play sound like a grim exercise, but THE HUMANS is also very funny. It's a warm, sympathetic play that shows sympathy for all the characters, even Erik, who causes the financial crisis that entraps his wife and mother.
     Joe Mantello has directed a pitch-perfect production. The cast is a brilliant ensemble. SPecial kudo's to Fitz Patton's scary sound design.
     THE HUMANS is scheduled to transfer to Broadway after it's Roundabout run. It will be a major contender for the Tony Award. See it at the Laura Pels rather than one of those user unfriendly Broadway theatres. Above all, see it.
     When the curtain opens on Taylor Mac's HIR, we see a house filled with stuff strewn everywhere. In one corner sits Arnold (Daniel Oreskes), the patriarch, who has recently suffered a stroke, wearing a dress, clown makeup and a clown wig. His wife Paige (the fabulous Kristine Nielsen), is running around like Lucy Ricardo on speed. Their son Isaac (Cameron Scoggins) has just been thrown out of his military job of picking up body parts because of drug problems and is about to return home. Isaac returns hoping that domestic order will save him from his addiction and the horrors he has seen on the battlefield. When he sees the chaos and his father's condition, he runs to the sink and vomits. Isaac's teenage sister is now his brother Max (Tom Phelan).
     During the course of the play we discover that Arnold was a tyrannical patriarch who violently abused his children and his wife. Now that he is physically and mentally weakened, Paige has replaced order with what she sees as creative chaos. She refuses to perform the domestic duties of a conventional wife and champions the radical gender politics of her transgender son. Even though he knows that his father was a monster, he wants the patriarchal order re-established leading to a battle between him and his mother.
     HIR veers from zany sitcom to horrifying domestic tragedy. I was reminded of the classic "son comes home from the war" plays, David Rabe's STICKS AND BONES and Arthur Miller's ALL MY SONS. Mac's play is funnier, more absurdist, than either of these plays. Everyone has a bit of monster inside, though Max, the transsexual is the only character who seems to feel both a need from liberation from traditional gender roles and compassion for those trapped within them. Arnold may have been a monster, but Paige is also monstrous.
     Niegel Smith has given the play the over-the-top production it needs and has cast the play perfectly. Kristine Nielsen gives another magnificent performance; first zany, then powerful and a bit terrifying. Cameron Scoggins matches her energy as her son and nemesis. Tom Phelan gives a sensitive performance as Max, who will need to escape his mother in order to survive. Phelan has an amazingly expressive face.
     Both these play are worth seeing, but if you can only see one, don't miss THE HUMANS.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

ALLEGIANCE, the new musical

       Can one make an upbeat musical about a very sad page in American history, our inhumane treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? These innocent people were treated like prisoners of war, robbed of their homes and trapped in what amounted to concentration camps. Not much to sing about there. ALLEGIANCE, with a book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thorne and music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, tries to do this with mixed success. The musical model was obviously the Boubil-Schoenberg score for LES MISERABLES. I don't dislike Boubil-Scoenberg's collaborations as much as some of the New York critic do, so I can't automatically fault Kuo for his choice of styles. The score is tuneful and energetic and never gets syrupy like the weakest moments in LES MIZ. The banal lyrics are the problem.
     The central character is Sam Kimura, played as an old man by George Takei and in flashback (the bulk of the show) by Telly Leung. Sam is a rebellious young man who lives with his traditional, authoritarian father (Christpher Nomura), his lovable old grandfather (Takei again) and his sister Kei (Lea Salonga), who has had to act like a mother to him (his mother died in childbirth). When the family is sent to an internment camp in Wyoming, Sammy falls in love with a white nurse (taboo back then), and idealistically decides that the one thing that will redeem his people is if young Japanese-Americans like him battle for America in the war. His nemesis is a young firebrand Frankie (Michael K. Lee) who starts an anti-draft movement in the camp. after all, why should these ill-treated prisoners die for the US, which is treating them so badly? Of course, Sammy's sister falls in love with Frankie. Sammy's father refuses to sign an oath of loyalty to the US and is imprisoned. Sammy cuts off all relations with his sister. My problem with ALLEGIANCE is that my sympathies were with Frankie and Sammy's father, not with Sammy, whom I thought was naive and intolerant of the anger felt by the internees. Sammy becomes a war hero, an image of the patriotic Japanese-American, but he seems blind to the nasty racism he and his fellow Japanese-Americans have suffered.
     Stafford Arima has directed a lovely, well paced production. Donyale Werle's sets are simple but effective, lit beautifully by Howard Binkley. The cast is uniformly excellent. Takei is charming, of course. Lea Salonga's voice is still a thing of beauty. Telly Leung makes on care about Sammy, even though he's a bit sanctimonious. The rest of the cast is fine.
     FUN HOME and HAMILTON have set an almost impossibly high standard for new musicals. ALLEGIANCE is not quite up to that standard, but it's well worth seeing for the performances, the music and the important, if shameful piece of American history it dramatizes.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Stan Richardson's VERITAS presented by The Representatives

     Some years ago I read THE CRIMSON LETTER, a somewhat plodding history of the homosexual scandals at Harvard in the early 1920s. Stan Richardson's VERITAS, co-directed by Richardson and Matt Steiner, is an absorbing docudrama based on the book. The play was presented in two large rooms in the crypt of an Episcopal Church east of Union Square. One enters a dimly lit room and is offered a glass of wine. After being divided into groups an actor escorts one's group into the large room where the first half of the play is set. At intermission the audience is moved into another room for the hearing scenes, then back to the first room, which has been reset for the epilogue. Basically the play is divided into three sections. Part one gives us a picture of a group of gay students and young faculty who gather at a dormitory room for parties with bootleg booze, dancing and sex. When one of the group commits suicide, the suicide's brother discovers a cache of letters and exposes the group to the Harvard administration leading to investigation and expulsion of most of the group. An epilogue gives us a sense of what happened to the men after Harvard.
     The book may have been dry, but the play is absorbing, not only because of Richardson's fast-moving script, but also because of the clever, fluid direction. The ensemble of ten actors create a vivid picture of what it meant to be a wealthy, privileged homosexual in a period when homosexuality was considered sick, sinful and, if possible, unspeakable. These entitled men simply think they are above the law until the light is shown on their activities. Even then, the more aristocratic feel superior to the investigation. Part of the fascination of the piece is that we don't see much of the anguish that gay people can feel in an age in which we were despised. We don't see much internalized homophobia -- except in the offstage suicides. These men were in some ways exceptional. We also see that, though they played together, they didn't necessarily like each other very much. 
      I admired the fact that Richardson didn't present these men as gay martyrs. This is not a sentimental play. Some of the men aren't particularly likable. Nonetheless watching this secret society is fascinating. 
     VERITAS had a very limited run. I hope it returns in an equally appropriate space.       

STEVE by Mark Gerrard presented by The New Group at the Signature

     STEVE is an intelligent, witty, heartfelt comedy of manners about gay midlife crisis, that point where having everything you thought you wanted doesn't seem to be enough, when you know you're not young anymore and, if you ever thought you were sexy, you don't feel sexy anymore. The play shows us how this midlife crisis affects two gay couples. The central character is Steven (Matt McGrath), an aging chorus boy in a longterm relationship with a successful lawyer, Stephen (Malcolm Gets). In the way of affluent gay couples, they have a lovely Manhattan apartment and an eight-year-old son, whose biological mother is Steven's best friend Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), a lesbian now terminally ill with cancer. The play begins on Steven's 47th birthday, when he discovers that Stephen has been engaged in a sexting relationship with half of the couple they spend most of their time with. The knowledge of this betrayal sends Steven into a tailspin and briefly into the arms of a cute young Argentinian waiter. Meanwhile Steven and Stephen's friends Matt and Brian (Mario Cantone and Jerry Dixon) have brought home their young physical trainer for an ongoing threesome in order to keep their relationship alive.
     This is the slightly dark side of the idealized picture of gay married life presented in Terrence McNally's MOTHERS AND SONS. Many a heterosexual has gone through what Steven and Stephen are experiencing, a seventeen year itch, but Mark Gerrard shows that with the acceptance of gay marriage, there will also be the bumps in the road any couple face.
     The play is filled with the argot of a certain gay age group who survived AIDS. Banter is laced with references to show tunes and bitchy quips about theater and theater people (Steven, Carrie and Matt were in the business). Yet it all seems natural to the characters. There's bickering, but also a good deal of love. The playwright and the superb director Cynthia Nixon have filled the play with music. The cast sings show tunes as the audience enters the theater and, as a wonderfully camp curtain call, performs "So Long, Goodbye" from THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
      Everyone is good, but special kudos to Ashlie Atkinson and Matt McGrath. We've seen the chubby lesbian gay man's best friend before, but the script makes her more than a stereotype. In the midst of the romantic-sexual turmoil of her gay male friends, Carrie is facing imminent death. Somehow losing herself in her friends' relatively trivial crises keeps her from thinking too much about hers. What can one say about Matt McGrath's performance? Steven could be irritatingly self-indulgent, but McGrath makes us care about him despite his faults. After all no one is as aware of his faults as he is. There's a wonderful ruefulness to his performance.
STEVE. The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center. November 5, 2015.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Caryl Churcill's CLOUD 9 at the Atlantic Theater Company

     Well, half of CLOUD 9.
      Five years ago, James Macdonald directed Mike Bartlett's terrific play COCK at the Royal Court Upstairs in London, then later recreated the production with a better American cast at the Duke on 42nd Street. For that production Macdonald turned the theaters into makeshift wooden ampitheatres, temporary theaters-in-the-round. The production was minimalist -- no furniture, no props, plain lighting. This worked for COCK. Now Macdonald has used the same approach for his revival of Caryl Churchill's 1979 play, CLOUD NINE. COCK was relatively short. CLOUD NINE isn't, and in an uncomfortable, cramped hot space, it seems even longer. The poor lady next to me took ill and there was no way for the poor dear to get out. This sadistic seating wasn't at all justified by a poorly directed production.
     CLOUD NINE is Churchill's satire on British sexual mores. It was written at the beginning of the Thatcher era. The first act is set in colonial Africa in the Victorian era. A man in drag plays Betty, the unhappy Victorian wife; a woman plays Betty's gay son. The native servant is played by a white man. The characters may spout Victorian values, but underneath the language there is sexual chaos. The imposition of conventional morality is particularly evident in the marriage of a gay man and a lesbian that ends the first act. The sex/gender order must be maintained at any cost. The second act is set in the present (1979) and shows the confusion beneath the new sexual revolution. Until now, I have always found the first act to be amusing; the second act to be tiresome.
     A revival of a play can demonstrate its flaws as well as its virtues. Despite an able cast, this revival had no tempo. The first act of CLOUD NINE has to move quickly. It is farce, after all. This sluggish production in an uncomfortable space made one aware how repetitive that first act is. It seemed to go on forever. There were long pauses that certainly aren't written into the script. I have never heard so few laughs during CLOUD NINE's first act. It isn't the cast's fault. Clearly this one is down to the director.
     I was not the only person to leave at the intermission.
CLOUD NINE. Atlantic Theater Company. October 4, 2015.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Robert O'Hara's BARBECUE at the Public Theater

     Robert O'Hara, one of the most interesting contemporary American, playwrights, is fascinated with cultural collisions. In BARBECUE, his latest play, fully of dizzying, surprising reversals, he turns the tables on a common trope of American theater, particularly musical theater, the appropriation of African-American culture by white cultural institutions and gives us a bizarre depiction of an African-American taking a piece of white popular culture and turning it into something that gains her the greatest award Hollywood has to offer. But what does one make of an African-American singing star-turned-film actress who claims that because she is now a big star, she can no longer be considered Black? She has risen above racial categories. This film star has obviously never heard Viola Davis's recent Emmy Award acceptance speech.
     It is difficult to discuss O'Hara's play without being a spoiler. We begin at a family barbecue at a state park somewhere in middle-America. The dysfunctional family is what can be called white trash. Drink and drugs seem to be a family problem, particularly for Barbara. The family outing is supposed to be an intervention to get her to go to a rehab clinic in Alaska to give up drugs and booze. After a blackout, the saga continues, but with a Black family. You'll have to see the play to understand.
      O'Hara's BARBECUE is both hilarious and thought provoking. Yes, it's about family dynamics. It's also about celebrity, American myths of success and racial and gender identity. It's about labels we impose on others and labels we impose on ourselves. Above all, it's great fun. O'Hara's theatrical world is always a bizarre cartoon-like distortion of reality.
      Director Kent Gash and the large cast has given the play an excellent, perfectly paced production. Clint Ramos's set is both convincingly realistic and artificial--perfect for the play. Paul Tazewell's costumes are funny when they need to be and totally appropriate.
       Highly Recommended.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Topher Payne's PERFECT ARRANGEMENT at Primary Stages

     I wasn't a fan of Topher Payne's ANGRY FAGS, an overlong mess of a play, which I saw in Atlanta, Payne's home town. I had higher hopes for PERFECT ARRANGEMENT. After all, it is being produced in New York by Casey Childs' Primary Stages, a classy outfit. As someone who has been writing on gay drama for a quarter of a century, I always try to muster high hopes for any play about gay history or  the experience of gay men. Alas, PERFECT ARRANGEMENT is another mess. It has moments and a few laughs but Payne hasn't decided what kind of play he is writing--sitcom, melodrama or preachy history. It is possible for situation comedy to deal with serious issues. Norman Lear proved that on television decades ago. My problem with PERFECT ARRANGEMENT is that when the play goes preachy toward the end, I found the message to be historically naive and a bit offensive. More on that anon.
     It is 1950 in Washington D.C. in the midst of the Joe McCarthy reign of terror. McCarthy and his cronies have just decided to expand their target from communists to "security risks" (read homosexuals). Bob Martindale (Robert Eli), is a State Department personnel officer assigned to root out the perverts with the help of his trusty secretary, Norma Baxter (Julia Coffey). Robert, a gay man, and Norma, a lesbian, have created a "perfect arrangement" for living with their lovers. Robert has married Norma's partner Millie (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann), and Norma has married Robert's partner Jim (Christopher J. Hanke). The couples live in adjoining apartments connected by a secret door inside the closet (got it?). This is a clever situation for situation comedy and when PERFECT ARRANGEMENT begins we are in sitcom land as the couples entertain Bob and Norma's boss and his ditzy socialite wife Kitty (Jennifer van Dyck). Costume designer Jennifer Caprio has clothed the women in extravagant fifties outfits -- a lot of money was well spent on the costumes. The talk at this little gathering sounds like the banter of women in television commercials of the period. When it is announced that Bob and Norma will be handling the "security risk" cases, the stakes rise for this little "family", as they call themselves. Enter Barbara Grant, Millie's ex, who is about to be investigated and fired, and the situation becomes even more difficult.
     Payne can't decide whether to stay in the realm of situation comedy or to write a melodrama. The play veers back and forth between genres. A masterful playwright like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins could have balanced the two masterfully as he has done in works like APPROPRIATE and AN OCTOROON. Of course, there is a very fine line between farce and melodrama. Payne's characters are cardboard thin. They are nothing more than their particular dilemma so there can't be much in the way of character development. This is why the character changes in the last fifteen minutes of the play seem to come out of nowhere. Yes, Bob has a serious ethical problem. In essence, he is asked to investigate and fire fellow homosexuals, but he is never developed as a character, so the audience can't quite be asked to judge him one way or another. His main objective is to protect his "family." A simpler answer than Payne provides is for Bob to quit. History shows, alas, that the nasty job would quickly be taken over by someone else.
     Payne inserts a lot of serious issues here, not only the dilemma of gay people in the McCarthy era when thousands were purged from government jobs (check out the documentary on Yahoo), but also the limited role of women in the 1950s. I believe he would serve these issues better through comedy than the preachiness that takes over in Act Two. Moreover, I was a bit put off by Payne's historically naive negative judgment of Bob at the end. This is 1950, Topher, and folks had little choice but to find a way to stay in the closet or lose everything. Payne thinks these folks can just take to the streets and change official homophobia overnight. History proves such a notion is plain stupid. On the way home, I couldn't help but compare Payne's naive sense of gay history and gay politics with Roland Emmerich and Jon Robin Baitz's clunky film, STONEWALL. The participants in the Stonewall riots, which took place nineteen years after the 1950 of PERFECT ARRANGEMENT, were basically folks with nothing to lose. As playwrights Doric Wilson and Terrence McNally have pointed out in their plays STREET THEATRE and SOME MEN, middle-class gays worried about the negative effect the riots might have on their closeted lives. Payne's characters would try to hold on to what they had and who can blame them? Well, a number of folk in the theatre last night clearly could as they applauded the sermonette that attacks Bob's family for playing it safe. Come on--what would those applauding audience members have done in those circumstances? You had to be there--or at least have an understanding of what it was like to be there--to judge these characters so simplistically.
     PERFECT ARRANGEMENT is an example of how mediocre drama can simplify issues in ways that can be infuriating.
      I saw an early preview. The cast clearly needs more time to settle in. Right now they all seem tentative. My general impression is that the director, Michael Barakiva, hasn't been much help in imposing a style on the play. The actors seem more comfortable with the melodrama than with the sitcom. They need to watch more 1950s television. Neil Patel's set looked suspiciously bare to me, more hotel room then home. Wouldn't Bob and Millie have some pictures of themselves as a couple around as set dressing? The costumes are fabulous.
PERFECT ARRANGEMENT. Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street. September 30, 2015.

Monday, 28 September 2015

THE CHRISTIANS by Lucas Hnath at Playwrights Horizons

     I doubt if religion is a key force in the lives of the sort of folk who regularly attend Playwrights Horizons. The somewhat uncomfortable titters that erupted from some audience members during the performance suggested that for many in the audience a play about evangelical Christians must be a comedy. Nobody could really believe that stuff, right? Kim Davis, the country clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses because of her evangelical faith must be a hypocrite or worse, right? To understand and appreciate THE CHRISTIANS, Lucas Hnath's brilliant, thought-provoking play, you must accept that such faith is literally a life and death matter for many people.
     THE CHRISTIANS begins at a celebratory service in a megachurch (location unspecified). Under Reverend Paul (Andrew Garman), its charismatic preacher, the church began in a storefront, then grew exponentially until now it is in its own massive building complete with escalators, gift shop and coffee shop and a congregation in the thousands. The play begins with a sermon in which Reverend Paul first announces that the church has just paid off its debt. He then goes on to tell his flock that God has spoken to him and he no longer believes in hell. God loves all his creation, believers and non-believers alike. The play then offers a series of confrontations as the church Reverend Paul slowly created is quickly destroyed. First, a horrified Joshua (Larry Powell), the Associate Pastor, announces that he cannot support Paul's new revelation. Joshua goes off and begins his own church. A member of the Board of Trustees is concerned about the economic fallout from Paul's sermon and the loss of Joshua. In the most powerful scene in the play, a poor single mother who feels she has been saved spiritually and materially by the church asks a series of increasingly difficult questions of Paul. If there's no hell, why be good? Would Hitler be in heaven? Finally, did Paul wait until the church's debt was paid off before voicing his new belief in universal salvation? During this exchange, Paul becomes less and less articulate. Paul's wife so disagrees with his new faith that she must either leave him or contradict his teachings within the walls of the church. Finally Joshua explains to Paul why he so fervently believes in hell. Paul is left quietly, almost inaudibly, whispering his doubts, "How do I know God is speaking to me?" Isn't God also speaking to the folks who so ardently disagree with him?
     THE CHRISTIANS raises a number of questions about religion. Can God really be speaking to so many people in so many different, contradictory ways? Why is Hell so important to so many people? Paul points out that it really isn't in the Bible, but that doesn't matter. Believers must believe in the horrible punishment that awaits them if they don't accept Christ. What is the responsibility of a pastor? Can a leader really force beliefs on a congregations. Paul makes the foolish mistake of believing one sermon can change everyone's minds and hearts. Essentially the losing battle that is waged is one that was argued in the American church in the 19th century between mainstream protestants and universalists. As a proud member of the Unitarian Universalist faith, I could say to myself that Paul is moving in my direction. Historically it's not an intellectual or spiritual path many Christians have wanted to take.
     The cast of THE CHRISTIANS couldn't be better. Andrew Garmon manages to capture many of the traits that many ministers I have experienced share. He loves to respond to contradiction with "I hear you," but he never understands that the other side is equally passionate. We're talking about faith, after all. There's a tyrannical side under the nice guy exterior. Faith, after all, is absolute for the believer. Yet even people of faith have dark moments of doubt. By the end, Paul is experiencing such a moment. Larry Powell expresses Joshua's shock, deep hurt and essential kindness even though his faith is quite scary. Emily Donahoe is moving in her initial tentativeness in confronting Paul, but in the power of her confusion and sense of betrayal.
     The play is staged as if it were all part of a worship service, complete with choir and organ. Les Waters has created a rich, deeply sincere and moving production. Dane Laffrey's set is convincing.
I don't know how folks who aren't interested in religion will take this production. I am always wrestling with questions of faith, so the play was manna to me. Whatever one thinks or believes, Lucas Hnath is real deal, a masterful playwright who creates rich characters and beautiful, theatrically exciting language. I'm going to be reading his other works in the coming week.
     I want to add that I'm delighted that Playwrights Horizons have moved from using Playbill to creating its own program with much better program notes. More non-profits should follow in their footsteps.

THE CHRISTIANS. Playwrights Horizons. September 28, 2015.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

ISOLDE by Richard Maxwell

     At the beginning of Richard Maxwell's ISOLDE, the title character, a celebrated actress, is trying to learn her lines for a dramatic version of Tristan and Isolde, the story most celebrated in Wagner's music drama. In that work of high romanticism, the erotic and the philosophical merge. Wagner's work is also greatly about memory. Maxwell's Isolde (Troy Vazquez), has memory problems. She has trouble memorizing lines and remembering what she has said. Isolde is married to Patrick (Jim Fletcher), a very practical building contractor who promises her freedom to make decisions, but is actually very controlling. When he tells her that she can control the building of a vacation house she wants, she hires Massimo (Gary Wilmes), a celebrated architect who talks a good game but never comes up with a design, perhaps because he has become romantically and sexually involved with Isolde. Like a character in a Pinter play, Isolde often stands around being enigmatic while Patrick plays dominance games with his wife's lover. He is aided at times by a mysterious, vaguely menacing man called Uncle Jerry (Brian Mendes).
     I've never seen a Richard Maxwell play before, but this one is filled with echoes of Pinter. There are long speeches separated by pauses and lots of subtext. High stakes rivalry is masked by a sinister courtesy. The characters are wealthy, educated and supposedly refined, but all that seems to be a veneer to cover primal needs. Pinter would never insist on cultural references the way Maxwell does here, but I'm not sure that the references to Tristan und Isolde operate in more than obvious ways. Yes, unlike Tristan, this is not high romantic tragedy. Practicality wins out over romance or art. There's a lot of talk about artistic creation here, but nothing is created.
     Maxwell has directed his own work on a spare setting with plywood walls, basic props, minimal furniture and plain bright light. The production only becomes conventionally theatrical when he presents a brief non-verbal version of Tristan und Isolde with the prelude to Wagner's work playing dimly in the background. The acting style is a strange combination of affectless delivery and naturalism. Vazquez's Isolde speaks in a flat, muted way as if she is living her life as a cold reading. Fletcher's Patrick and Wilmes's Massimo veer closer to naturalism--not quite naturalistic, but with more feeling than Vazquez expresses. The contrast underscored the old "woman as mystery" stereotype.
      I can't say that I found anything particularly original or engrossing in ISOLDE. The style of the play and production lead to expectations of complexity that isn't really there.
ISOLDE. Theatre for a New Audience Polonsky Shakespeare Center. September 26, 2015.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

LOVE AND MONEY by A. R. Gurney at the Signature

     Non-writers may not realize that ending a play is just about the hardest part of writing. Perhaps this is why people are so seldom satisfied with the ending of a favorite long-running television series. The ending never seems convincing. My favorite television finale is the last episode of THE SOPRANOS--it allowed for a number of possible scenarios. I mention this because I was with A.R. Gurney's enjoyable, very thin, short play LOVE AND MONEY until the last five minutes, which gave us a patently false ending.
     In LOVE AND MONEY wealthy society matron Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman), is selling off her possessions and assigning her large fortune before going into a retirement community. Cornelia, who seems to have almost limitless wealth, has decided that money is the root of all evil. She's going to atone by giving everything to charity. Her anxiety-prone attorney (Joe Paulik), is worried that her grandchildren (her children are dead) will contest the will. Everything seems fine until word comes of an illegitimate grandchild, offspring of a prodigal daughter, who would like a share of the money. Walker Williams, said grandchild, suddenly appears on the scene--there's a fairytale quality to this play. Walker (Gabriel Brown), is African-American. Is he truly Cornelia's grandson or a charming con man? The script mentions John Guare's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION in which a young Black man ingratiates himself into a wealthy New York household by claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son. Gurney's play is nowhere near as dark or complex as Guare's. It's the sort of play that used to be labeled "boulevard comedy" and was standard repertoire for summer theatres like the Westport Country Playhouse, which co-produced LOVE AND MONEY. Like a good desert, it was enjoyable without being at all nourishing. The play skimmed over the issues of race and class that should be crucial. I won't be too much of a spoiler, but at the end the white aristocrat who supposedly has become socially conscious blithely decides the fate of the Black man, which he happily accepts even though it is not what he wanted. The play seems to say that despite any moral enlightenment, once a WASP always a WASP and that we in the audience should be charmed by that assertion. The old white aristocrat and the young Black man dance to Cole Porter and all is well. What century is this?
     Still, as I said, enjoyable. Maureen Anderman is a joy, Joe Paulik and Pamela Dunlap are excellent as the worried lawyer and the ever-faithful, wry servant (another character out of mid-20th century stage and film comedy). Gabriel Brown didn't suggest any depths to the young Black visitor, but Gurney hadn't written any for him to play. Mark Lamos directed ably on Michael Yeargan's lovely set.
     With a starry cast, perhaps Claudette Colbert as Cornelia, LOVE AND MONEY could have been Broadway fare in the 1950s. Does it belong at the Signature now and at 70 minutes it's a bit of a cheat. Maybe next the Signature will revive THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE?
LOVE AND MONEY. Pershing Square Signature Center. September 23, 2015.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

THREESOME by Yussef El Guindi at 59E59 Theaters

     This is a difficult play to write about, in part because of my respect and fondness for the playwright, Egyptian-born Yussef El Guindi, who was a colleague at Duke a quarter of a century ago. After leaving Duke in the early 1990s, Yussef settled in Seattle, where he has had a successful career. Sex and Arab identity tend to be the major concerns of his work. If that sounds a bit solemn, Yussef has a wicked Rabelaisian sense of humor. All these elements intertwine in the best moments in THREESOME, a Portland Stage production that has landed on 59th Street. THREESOME is really two related one-act plays that would be stronger if they related more. Though they involve the same three characters, the two acts seem more distinct in tone and content than they need to be. El Guindi goes all solemn in the second act, unfortunately. He's at his best when he is outrageous.
     Leila (Alia Attallah), and Rashid (Karan Oberoi), are a handsome, seemingly troubled young Egyptian couple now living in America. She's a writer; he's a photographer. On the night depicted in Act I, Leila has invited Doug (Quinn Franzen) to join them for a menage a trois. Leila seems eager for this new adventure. So does Doug, who enters the scene naked and raring for action despite a decidedly unsexy bout of diarrhea. However, in the manner of recent sex comedies (Bruce Norris's THE QUALMS comes to mind), the sex never happens. What we do witness are various forms of male insecurity. Rashid become possessive and aggressive. Leila, for all her talk, never gets beyond a kiss. Doug is full of feelings of inadequacy. Since Quinn Franzen, who spends most of the first act nude, is handsome, well built and well endowed, it is difficult to see why he is so sensitive about his body. A number of self-absorbed characters in our universe manage to have sex: these three would rather talk about themselves. The men are more interested in putting each other down than in bedding the woman. The men are a cornucopia of masculine insecurities. El Guindi's writing is witty and literate, but one is left with a big question. Why does Leila want this threesome and, if she wants it, why doesn't she jump in?
     Act Two takes place in Doug's photography studio. He has been hired by the publisher to create the cover art for Leila's book. The book is supposedly an account of a brutal rape she endured in a Cairo police station and a commentary on the place of women in Islamic society. Doug has created a setting that represents all of the worst cliches of western Orientalia. It's textbook Edward Said. Oriental carpets, embroidered pillows, even a hookah. He wants Leila to be veiled from head to toe. When Leila balks at all the kitsch and the abaya, Doug convinces her that it will look ironic. Rashid comes in drunk and his horrified at the account of the rape in Leila's book, less for what she experienced than for the shame of it. He becomes a stereotypical middle-Eastern male and Doug becomes the ugly American, an aggressor in a sexual act than makes him as horrible as the men who attacked Leila. The second act would be better--even more thought provoking--with some of the humor of Act I.
     My frustration at THREESOME centers on Leila's character. She seems an intelligent, powerful woman who wants above all to have agency over her circumstances, yet at every crucial moment she is passive. Her acceptance of the role of victim seems totally out of character. The discovery of her horrific past in Act 2 only makes the attempt at a threesome in Act I more questionable. Does she really think two men having sex with her gives her more control over her body? Actually Doug is the best drawn, most coherent and interesting character. Rashid never becomes more than a stereotype.
     Chris Coleman has staged and paced the work effectively. All three actors are good, but Quinn Franzen stands out. He has the best material to work with, but he manages to make Doug both winning and deeply flawed.
      At the end, the audience didn't applaud until the lights came up for the curtain call, a sign that the ending of the play doesn't quite work. I don't think the audience believed the play was over. What does happen is too sudden and out of character.
      For all its flaws, THREESOME is worth seeing. Yussef El Guindi is always an ambitious, thought-provoking playwright who grapples with difficult questions in his work. I found the play frustrating, but I'm glad I saw it.
THREESOME. 59E59 Theaters. July 21, 2015.

Sunday, 19 July 2015


     I seem to start every review of solo performances with "I'm not a fan of solo performances." James Lecesne, who wrote this and performs it, is a writer-performer responsible for, among other things, the film TREVOR, about a 13 year old gay boy who attempts suicide. The film inspired the Trevor Project to help troubled gay teens. This solo show is about a fourteen year old gay boy who is murdered by a fellow teen for reasons unknown. Leonard Pelkey is a flamboyantly gay kid. Even the people who love him tell him to "tone it down" so he doesn't get bullied or worse. Leonard is fabulously himself and the concept of toning down doesn't compute for him. His story is told through the police detective responsible for investigating his case and the adults who become invested in this seemingly homeless boy. It's a sad, sweet story, competently written and acted. If I seem dissatisfied, it's because the show seems a bit formulaic. I would have liked more richness, more subtlety, better writing. In other words, I would have liked it to dig deeper. It's all a bit too nice. I'd like to find out more about Leonard's killer. Perhaps he's as interesting a character as Leonard, who also needs a voice. More about these characters would have given the show some dramatic conflict. There's too much about the grown ups and not enough about the kids.
     A noble effort and worth seeing.

Sutton Foster and Steven Pasquale in THE WILD PARTY at City Center Encores

     The most impressive aspect of last night's performance of THE WILD PARTY -- for me at least -- was the audience. The giant City Center was packed, mostly with young people. There were hundreds gay and straight young couples all excited about the revival of an unsuccessful Off-Broadway musical. The cheering for the big numbers was almost deafening. The same thing was true at ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY the night before. The musical is far from a dead art form for under 35 folk. It's very much alive if a diva they know from television is the star. I have never seen Sutton Foster's television sitcom, YOUNGER, but I am told by younger friends that it is very popular. Her entrance last night inspired a roar that could have lifted the Moorish roof off of the City Center.
      Andrew Lippa's THE WILD PARTY (there's another version of the same source material by Michael John LaChiusa that was produced the same year) isn't going to go down in the annals of great musicals. The score has some good moments but much of it is generic. The strongest music goes not to Queenie (Sutton Foster), but to her on and off boyfriend, Burns (Steven Pasquale). The central narrative line about the confused vamp and the two men who are smitten with her is not strong enough to carry a two hour show and the other characters are underdeveloped.
      THE WILD PARTY is an intimate musical played in a giant theatre. Leigh Silverman staged it effectively -- not easy with a relatively static script. Although the focus is on three characters, there are a lot of partygoers on stage who provided atmosphere and visual interest without stealing focus. Sonya Tayah's choreography was full of cliches. The powerful performances by the leads was the production's raison d'etre. Sutton Foster, usually the perky all-American girl, played the blond femme fatale convincingly. She made the most of her songs. Steven Pasquale, as usual, sang magnificently. His two big numbers earned the loudest ovations. Pasquale seems to be the go-to guy for playing troubled studs in big musicals. He's a fine singer and a good actor who makes the most out of these parts. The one thing that was missing here was a sense of his character as a clown. He needed more than the red nose to show how Burns uses clowning as a defense mechanism. Humor doesn't seem to be Pasquale's strong suit. Miriam Shor made the most of her "Lesbian Love Story." Brandon Victor Dixon has great stage charisma and a sweet singing voice. It's not his fault that his part is underwritten. Ditto Jaoquina Kalukango who is attracted to both the men who can't take their eyes off of Queenie.
     The main problem with THE WILD PARTY is that for the most part it offers a collection of stereotypes singing generic music.
THE WILD PARTY. New York City Center. July 18, 2015.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Kristen Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher in ON THE 20TH CENTURY at the Roundabout

     I had seen the original production of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, which was one of the most beautiful looking musicals I have ever seen, greatly thanks to Robin Wagner's black and silver sets. The score was clever mock-operetta, the lyrics witty and the performances (John Cullum, Judy Kaye who replaced Madeleine Kahn early in the run, an unknown Kevin Kline, Imogene Coca) fine, but there was something cold about the show. Was it the material, Hal Prince's production (comedy was never his strong suit), or the fast that it was in the St. James Theatre, not one of the more intimate or warm venues? It has never been revived in New York, though there was a clever, small-scale production at the tiny, dingy Union Theatre in London a few years ago. Some how in this production with this cast, in the relatively intimate (for Broadway) American Airlines Theatre, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY plays like a classic. It's certainly anything but cold now!
     The show is a farce with a score written by Cy Coleman, a man who knew music, classical, pop and jazz. This score seems to be the closest Broadway has come to the fizz of one of Rossini's greatest comic operas. It's as clever as Bernstein's score for CANDIDE, and not as heavy-handed. There are complex ensembles, mock arias, coloratura filigree. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's book and lyrics are their best work. The two leads have to be superb comic actors and fine singers. Coleman's score for ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY deserves to join Bernstein's ON THE TOWN and Rodgers' THE KING AND I, also currently playing on Broadway. Only Lin Manuel Miranda's score for HAMILTON deserves to be in the same neighborhood. It's a joy to hear it so well performed. The band could be bigger, but it is serviceable. The vocal ensemble is excellent.
      Chenoweth and Gallagher are terrific. He sings well and is a better comic performer than I thought he would be. I have never been a fan of Chenoweth, but she won me over, even though I couldn't understand everything she said or sang. She could sing the brutal part Coleman wrote for Lily Garland without faking and is a superb physical comic. Their supporting cast couldn't be better. Andy Karl makes the most out of an embodiment of Hollywood vanity. Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath are terrific as Gallagher's henchmen and Mary Louise Wilson makes a star turn out of the crazy lady who is trying to save souls on the train. All these folks are masters of musical comedy. It's a joy to watch them make the most out of really good material.
      Scott Ellis has paced and stage the show effectively and Warren Carlyle's tap choreography had the audience cheering. David Rockwell's sets aren't as elaborate as the original, but they did the job and William Ivey Long's period (1932), costumes -- as usual -- are gorgeous.
      There were well-deserved cheers throughout the production. ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY deserved a revival this good. I'm surprised that it is closing so soon. It has been a sellout hit. I'd go back.
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. American Airlines Theatre. July 17, 2015.    

Friday, 10 July 2015

210 Amlent Avenue at the New York Musical Theatre Festival

    One of the things I looked forward to when we switched our second residence from London to New York was the New York Music Theatre Festival. It sounded like a great idea -- bringing simple workshop productions of new musicals before an interested audience of aficionados. So, in 2012, I went to as many shows as I could. The best, about James Joyce and Nora Barnacle (now there's a commercial idea!), was OK, but a bit listless. The rest were mediocre to worse. It wasn't the music that killed these shows. The scores were pleasant, if unmemorable. The lyrics competent, if not on the Sondheim level. The weakness lay in the books. It was as if telling a coherent story and developing characters were afterthoughts. The lead-ins to the songs were formulaic at best. One also saw in these simple productions with short rehearsal times how important the director has become as a shaping force in musical theatre. The songs seemed rehearsed; the book scenes less so. There was little in the way of pacing. After seeing half a dozen of these depressing ventures, I gave up on the New York Music Theatre Festival. This year I went back and, from what I can tell from 210 AMLENT AVENUE, things haven't changed much.
     Karl Hinze's music is pleasant, though the major ballad in Act One sounded too much like "Send in the Clowns." The rhymes in his lyrics were unforced and the lyrics were witty at times. The guy has talent and skill. If only he had something interesting to write about. Becky Goldberg's book couldn't be more trite and cliche-ridden. Moreover it doesn't make a lot of sense. Judah, a poet, comes back to the Hamptons to visit an old friend of his parents. The widow he visits was once a Broadway star who married rich and left the theatre. She has now decided to return to the theatre as a producer. Judah's girlfriend is an aspiring actress. Judah is smitten with the poor young woman who works as a governess-amanuensis to the ex-diva. There's also a young lawyer who is smitten with her. The big reveal is that the ex-diva mothered a child with Judah's father. This sounded more like a story line from a soap opera than the makings of a musical. The characters are cliches at best. There's a couple from next door to sing about the Hamptons. The pleasant score couldn't save this from being a total bore.
      I don't know how much rehearsal time this production had, but Samantha Saltzman's direction was incompetent. There were times in the book scenes when the show seemed to grind to a halt, particularly in the dinner table scenes, which didn't have much reason for existence in the first place. For the most part, the performers did the best they could under the circumstances. Jen Brissman's dialogue was inaudible ("Sing out, Louise!!!"), but that may have been a blessing. Everyone else tried their best to make something out of the cliches they had to mouth.
     I left at the intermission. Life is too short......
     The writers of exercises like this should look at what is on a few blocks away. A strong book is as crucial to a good musical as a good score. Go see HAMILTON, FUN HOME, even THE KING AND I! Without interesting characters and situations, the lyricist doesn't have much to work with. Without a good story to tell, why write a musical?
210 AMLENT AVENUE. New YOrk Musical THeatre Festival at the Signature Theatre. July 9, 2015.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Patti Lupone and Michael Urie in Douglas Carter Beane's SHOWS FOR DAYS at LCT

     Last season Lincoln Center Theater offered an overlong and overblown adaptation of Moss Hart's memoir, ACT ONE. It was one of the major "why" productions of the season. Why turn this memoir into a play? Why not include what we know now of Hart's complex sexuality? In James Lapine's adaptation, we were given an older Hart (Tony Shaloub) reminiscing about his younger self (Santino Fontana). Now Lincoln Center Theater is offering Douglas Carter Beane's memoir of his youth in the theater with the wonderful Michael Urie playing the playwright as he is now and as he was at fourteen, wandering into a very low budget theatre in Reading, Pennsylvania, presided over by an impressaria whose life is only redeemed by her attempts to bring art to the masses in a town that is collapsing economically. The sound of the wrecking ball becomes an ominous presence.
      Irene's company is a composite of theatrical types: The butch lesbian techie who is the most essential element in the theatre's survival, the queeny leading actor (in this case Black as well), the insecure actress and the randy eighteen-year-old sleeping with men and women, and young Car, drawn to the theatre and honing his comic talent first by writing funny program notes, then writing a comedy about an Amish teenager. Irene seduces Car into the company where he learns that theatre is his calling and men are the objects of his desire. We watch his heart get broken after which Irene tells him that heartbreak is essential if he is ever to write Great Drama. Have we heard that before somewhere?
      The trouble is that Beane is not a Great Dramatist. He's not even the solid technician Moss Hart was. He writes amusing comedies that don't always work as they should because he doesn't have a good sense of structure or rhythm. While there are funny moments and some applause-worthy lines in SHOWS FOR DAYS, it's a sloppy play. Since the characters are types, they can't really develop. What we are told doesn't always make sense. Why would the Black queen be willing to live with a white politician who aggressively pursues homophobic policies? What was life like for a gay Black man in Reading in 1973? What is Car's home life like? Are these folks so desperate to be part of Irene's troupe (there are other theatre companies in town) that they will put up with her ruthless, sometimes vicious schemes? Most important, why should we be interested in this saga? The rhythm lags and the climax isn't very believable. Director Jerry Zaks used to be a specialist in "Faster, Louder" productions that were often too fast and loud. Here he seems lost.
     The only way to find any interest in SHOWS FOR DAYS is to see it as a companion piece to Beane's recent play, THE NANCE, about a gay burlesque comedian in the 1930s. The best scenes in that rambling, overlong play were those that dramatized what life was like for closeted gay men in the 1930s. In this play. we have a picture of what the gay world looked like to a teenage boy discovering his sexuality in a small city in the Nixon era. Most of Irene's schemes involve blackmailing her lesbian and gay colleagues into doing her bidding. Her power depends on the closet. If only that were the focus of the play, but SHOWS FOR DAYS doesn't have a focus.
      Patti Lupone and Michael Urie are terrific performers, but they seem to be repeating material they have done before. Urie delivers his narration with his usual goofy charm, but we have seen him do that with much better material in BUYER AND CELLAR. His younger self seems a cipher, a fault of the writing, not the actor. Irene is a more ruthless Madame Rose without the songs. Lupone can play that sort of character in her sleep. We see her scheming, but not much of the pain that draws her to theatre. Other than Dale Soules as the lesbian techie, the supporting cast is just OK. Jordan Dean is much older than the eighteen his character is supposed to be, which takes the danger and pathos out of his scenes with Lupone's Irene.
       It's always fun to watch Lupone and Urie at work, but I would have liked them to have material that stretched them more. Other than them and a few memorable lines, SHOWS FOR DAYS is a disappointment. I wasn't surprised to see a number of empty seats after the intermission. And, folks at Lincoln Center Theater, enough already with mediocre plays about life in the theatre.
SHOWS FOR DAYS, Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse. July 8, 2015.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

GLORIA by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the Vineyard Theatre

     Two of the most intriguing plays of 2014 were Branden Jacobs-Jenkins APPROPRIATE and AN OCTOROON. Both dealt with the relationship of past and present. In APPROPRIATE the descendants of an old Southern family discover photos of lynchings in the family homestead. How will the whites in the present deal with these skeletons in the family closet? AN OCTOROON takes a nineteenth century popular melodrama about miscegenation and gives it a decidedly post-modern interpretation. GLORIA touches on race only tangentially, but still focuses on how we deal with the past, in this case a past trauma. It's witty and fascinating, but it offers a dark picture of the solipsism of its characters.
     Warning: it is difficult to write about this play without dropping spoilers. Suffice it to say that Gloria, a deeply unhappy, workaholic editor, sets everything in motion.
      The first act of the play offers us a picture of petty politics in an editorial office of a large magazine. The unseen editors are sequestered behind bulletproof glass or are working from home. We see their assistants, intern and one very unhappy fact checker. The young assistants compete with each other for the slim chance of advancement. Of course, they all dream of being authors. The intern, on the last day of his internship, doesn't see a future in the magazine business. The fact checker is exhausted and work down by his job. At the end of the scene, a horrible event takes place. The real focus of the play is on the aftermath of that event. Three of the survivors write books about the event with varying degrees of first-hand knowledge. The one person who witnessed it and survived is so traumatized that he can't finish his book. A fiercely ambitious woman, who was out at Starbucks at the time writes her version, which gets published. The most successful version is written by an editor who didn't actually see what happened. Her book gets picked up by a film studio. "It's my story," she says, but is it really? The fact checker, appropriately, is the only person who has a clear picture of Gloria, who actually is the focus of the horrible tragedy. When asked which star should play Gloria, he responds that if she came into the room, no one would even notice her. Who can play a part like that?
     Jacobs-Jenkins is a masterful craftsman. The play begins with a good deal of humor. It is difficult to see where he is leading us at first, but it's the aftermath of the climax of the first of three scenes that is important. The horror is in how people who didn't know or care about Gloria make her tragedy their own. Perhaps all writers do this--rob other people's stories, other people's tragedies. It's interesting that the person who feels the event most deeply ultimately can't finish his book.
     I saw an early preview of GLORIA and, though it was fine, Evan Cabnet's production could stand a bit of tightening, a clearer sense of tempo. That will no doubt come in time. The cast, all but one of whom play multiple roles, are uniformly excellent, particularly Ryan Spahn as the gay assistant editor who is frightened for his job but given demeaning tasks, and Michael Crane as the fact checker. Spahn is truly moving in his emotional breakdown in the second act. Crane's Lorin is most in touch with the nasty reality of the business he is in and the tragedy that ensues there. His long explosion in Act I is beautifully modulated. Everyone else demonstrates considerable virtuosity.
     GLORIA is not as powerful as APPROPRIATE nor as brilliant as AN OCTOROON, but it is the work of an important contemporary playwright and well worth seeing.    
GLORIA. Vineyard Theatre. June 8, 2015.

Monday, 8 June 2015


     Could anyone endure three hours of the tiresome shenanigans of Cristin Chenowith and Alan Cumming on last night's Tony broadcast? We fortunately recorded it so we could skip the endless commercials. It also allowed us to speed through the co-hosts. And why all those numbers from shows that were't up for any awards? The number from FINDING NEVERLAND sounded like it was plagiarized from LES MISERABLES. The number from SOMETHING'S ROTTEN certainly was a case of overkill, but someone forgot to write a tune for it. And GIGI? Really? All that hackneyed cancan stuff after the masterful dancing in ON THE TOWN and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS?
     Of course I'm delighted that FUN HOME swept the major awards. It's not going to be a tourist attraction, at least not for families from Kansas or Mississippi, but it is far and away the best musical on Broadway. Much as I liked THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME, I'd have voted for the daring, inventive HAND TO GOD, partly because it's an excellent American play and American plays on Broadway are rare birds indeed.
     Which brings me to my major point. My ideal Tonys would be for American theatre artists on and off-Broadway, where most of the serious theatre is produced (FUN HOME was first at the Public Theatre, HAND TO GOD and DISGRACED, worthy contenders for Best Play, were first produced Off-Broadway and are both original plays, not adaptations like CURIOUS INCIDENT). Perhaps there could be a special category for British actors and plays. Richard McCabe? Really? I've seen the man act for a quarter of a century and have yet to be impressed. At least an award didn't go to Bill Nighy. Best play revival to David Hare's dreary, talky, dated SKYLIGHT? Really? What is with the American Anglophilia? Our actors are better and so our most of our new plays. I've seen just about everything on and off-Broadway this year and for twenty-five years saw just about everything in London, so I speak from experience, not blind prejudice. Let's have the one awards ceremony dedicated to New York theatre be a celebration of American theatre.

Bruce Norris's THE QUALMS at Playwrights Horizons

     Bruce Norris's THE QUALMS is an attempt at a serious comedy about sexual mores: serious since modern American society is both puritanical and sex-obsessed, comic because sex has always been a focus of comedy. When the play begins two couples are arguing the pros and cons of monogamy. Gary, an aging hippie (John Procaccino) and his not-too-bright, but sexy younger wife Teri (Kate Arrington), advocates of sexual freedom, are wooing their guests, uptight Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and his beautiful wife Kristy (Sarah Goldberg). This is the prelude to a meeting of a swingers club at which Chris and Kristy are debutantes. Kristy, the first to begin making out (with Teri) and shedding her clothes in favor of a bathrobe, seems to be raring to go. Chris is obviously frightened and reluctant.
     The members of this swingers club are a varied group--in addition to Gary and Teri, there is an ebullient fat widow who comes with a seemingly gay young Black man (her late husband's reflexologist), a tall, attractive Black woman with dominatrix tendencies and a brash, middle-aged party boy. The meetings are like any Saturday night adult gathering--drinks, a pot luck supper. All this is supposed to be foreplay for sexual escapades in the "party room." Instead, the party turns into an argument, then something of a free-for-all, thanks to Chris's progression from reluctance to downright terror to a need to assume control of the group. Chris won't stop talking, arguing his opposition to the group's sexual activities and finally personal attacks on many members of the group. He's the ultimate party pooper, but Chris and the play he is in go on too long repeating his position and the group's opposition to him. Of course, what keeps him from leaving is the fact that his wife is still there in her bathrobe. He doesn't want to play, but even more he doesn't want her to play. Kristy is the least talkative, the woman of mystery. It's clear that, except for Chris and Kristy, the members of this group have successful, loving relationships. Fat Deb adored her husband and clearly is very fond of her companion, Ken, though he may be more interested in men than women. Swingers Gary and Teri adore each other. The swingers group is a cohesive group of friends. Norris clearly has more sympathy with the swingers than with overbearing, conservative Chris.
     The problem with THE QUALMS is that it goes on too long. The characters are stereotypes that verge on being politically incorrect: the jolly fat lady, the bimbo, the enigmatic blonde, the Black queen, the lanky Black dominatrix. Once the conflict is established, it can only repeat itself and escalate. Chris, who won't shut up, becomes tiresome and the play gets tiresome with him. After seeing two excellent character-driven comic dramas this weekend,  WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER and SIGNIFICANT OTHER, THE QUALMS was a letdown. The cast is uniformly excellent and Pam McKinnon has directed effectively. The script is the weak link.      
THE QUALMS, Playwrights Horizons, June 7, 2015.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Gideon Glick in SIGNIFICANT OTHER by Joshua Harmon at the Roundabout

     In Joshua Harmon's brilliant, funny, touching SIGNIFICANT OTHER, we spend a year with 29 year old Jordan Berman. Jordan is a gay man whose circle of friends since his freshman year at college has been three straight women. The only other person in his life seems to be his grandmother. Jordan and his three girlfriends have partied together for a decade but, as the old song goes, "Wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine." Over the course of the year all three of the women in Jordan's life get married throwing him into panic and depression. "I'm twenty-nine years old," Jordan tells one of his friends, "And no one has over told me they love me." We also see why Jordan doesn't have a significant other. He is better with fantasy than reality. We see Jordan obsess over a handsome new colleague at work in a way that verges on creepy. His only other date is with a man who hasn't fully gotten over his ex. This is New York City, a gay Mecca, but Jordan doesn't seem to know how to make a new gay life for himself. So his year is comprised of his friends' showers, bachelorette parties, weddings and wedding receptions and he gets more and more depressed. What does one do at a wedding reception when the big dance comes along and one stands alone, when one;s friends have grown up and found mates and one hasn't yet? Can he deal with being the significant other, the single gay friend, in the lives of his now married girlfriends?
     Joshua is sweet, charming, deeply neurotic, and self-absorbed. He could be exasperating, but fortunately he's played by Gideon Glick, an actor who has specialized in playing needy young gay men. This role is a tour de force. Gideon is never offstage, always the focus even when other people are talking. He has some very long rants to his friends. Glick gives a virtuoso performance that deserves the cheers he receives at the end. He's another dynamic, physical actor whose contortions can be very funny, but who also knows the dramatic power of stillness. He alone is worth the price of admission, but the play wouldn't work if the women in his life weren't played by equally strong performers. Harmon has carefully differentiated his three sidekicks, and Sas Goldberg, Carra Paterson and, particularly Lindsay Mendez make them fully three-dimensional. The climactic scene of the play is a bitter feud between Jordan and Mendez'z Laura outside her bridal shower. Jordan spews out all his bitterness and self-pity and Mendez's Laura responds with anger but, ultimately, with friendly love, the only kind Jordan might ever get. It's a beautifully written scene, powerfully acted. Understudy Alice Cannon was totally believable as Jordan's grandmother, living with the photographs of her family in the past. Two excellent male actors, John Behlmann and Luke Smith each play three male characters so convincingly that one forgets that the same actor is playing them. As always, Trip Cullman has directed masterfully on Mark Wendland's clever, effective unit set.
     Joshua Harmon's last play, BAD JEWS, has been a big hit in New York and around the country. SIGNIFICANT OTHER (which could be subtitled "Sad Jew"), deserves the same success.
SIGNIFICANT OTHER. Roundabout Theatre Laura Pels Theatre. June 6, 2015.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

A.R. Gurney's WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER at the Signature Theatre

     Although I spent eons teaching and writing about American drama, A.R. Gurney was barely on my radar. I wrote about gay theatre and he was decidedly not a gay playwright. His world of upper class WASPS didn't interest me much in my youth. Now, thanks to the Signature's presentation of Gurney's work I am discovering a fascinating, inventive artist. Last season the Signature presented Gurney's THE WAYSIDE MOTOR INN, in which one motel room provides the setting for a number of different confrontations. In Gurney's play, these discreet nights at the motel are presented simultaneously. WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER, first produced in 1983, also calls attention to its theatricality. "This play is about me," fourteen-year-old Charlie (Noah Galvin), announces at the outset. He and his mother (Carolyn McCormick), and older sister (Izzie Steele), occasionally address the audience directly. The narrative is simple. It is 1945 and Charlie's father is still at war in the Pacific. Charlie is going through the throes of adolescence, including rebellion against his family's social world. With no father around, his rebellion is directed against his mother. Charlie finds the perfect playmate in Anna (the magnificent Kristine Nielsen), known in the community as The Pig Woman, an elderly artist-manque who nurtures his rebellious side and his desire to be an artist. Anna also knows all the community's secrets. She has long been a pariah because of her affair with a married doctor, but there are lots of secrets, sexual and otherwise, in this seemingly staid summer community on the shores of Lake Erie. Nothing momentous happens in the play, except that a rambunctious boy starts the painful process of growing up. The play is sweet, touching and often funny.
     Jim Simpson's production simplifies this play even more than Gurney intended. The stage is bare except for a simple bench and a couple of low stools. When the play begins, the backdrop is pure white, a tabula rasa, a mirror of the fourteen-year old's impressionable mind. During the play words and images, made out of letters and words, are projected on the drop (great projection design by John Narun). After all, young Charlie, a semi-autobiographical picture of Gurney, becomes an artist with words. A drummer sits on the side of the stage offering accompaniment and sound effects. I was reminded of Thornton Wilder's work in the 1930s.
     Noah Galvin is pitch perfect as Charlie. He's bratty, rebellious, horny, sometimes foul-mouthed, often guilty and constantly confused. Galvin is a physical actor and his Charlie does everything but bounce off the walls. He's also immensely likeable. Kristine Nielsen delivers another of her star turns. It's always a joy to be in her company. Carolyn McCormick captures all the mother's moods -- she too has a rebellious streak that she has tried to tame. Everyone else was fine. The play is another testament to the amazing pool of acting talent in New York, the best in the world.
     Sheer delight.
WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER. Signature Theatre. June 5, 2015.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Athol Fugard's THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK at the Signature

     What a joy it is to be in the hands of a master playwright who knows how to structure a long act rather than a series of short scenes! Athol Fugard is one of the world's greatest living playwrights, still going strong in his eighties. His topic is his native land, South Africa, but his plays speak to universal concerns. One can't watch THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK without thinking of all the subtle and not so subtle forms of racism at work in the US in the Age of Obama.
     The heart of this play is Nukain (Leon Addison Brown), an old man when we meet him in 1981. A servant on an Afrikaans homestead with no possessions of his own, Nukain spends his free time painting beautiful patterns on the rocks that crop up from this hostile land. On this Sunday, out with his beloved eleven-year-old grandson Bukkie (Caleb McLaughlin), he is about to tackle painting the largest rock. With Bukkie's help, he turns the face of the rock into his story, a portrait of a man with a vision. Unfortunately Elmarie (Bianca Amato), the farmer's wife orders him to expunge what she sees as an ugly painting and replace it with another floral pattern. It is Bukkie, who doesn't understand the racial politics of this place, who speaks up in defense of the painting. Nukain knows he is powerless. Twenty-two years later, Bukkie is now Jonathan (Yaegel T. Welch), the principal at the local high school. Times have changed for him and for his country and the Afrikaaners rightfully feel threatened by racial violence. Jonathan has come back to restore his grandfather's painting. To do so he must get permission from Elmarie. For this to happen, the two characters have to come to understand their positions, their claims to the land they stand on. THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK is a play about characters' connection to history and to the land. Being South Africa, it is also about race. It is also about religion and art. The first act gives us the creation of an intensely personal work of art, the second a vibrant discussion on the importance of that work of art to both the native and the settler. This may be a discussion play, but it is deeply rooted in beautifully wrought characters and lively theatrical language.
     Under Fugard's detailed direction, the four actors bring the characters and their passions to life. Yaegel T. Welch is a recent emergency replacement. He still carried a script with him at the performance I saw; nonetheless, he gave a rich interpretation of Jonathan's love for his grandfatherfather, his belief in his equality and his decency in dealing with Elmarie. In the first scene Brown and McLaughlin gave us characters that were beautifully wrought. Bianca Amato did too much sighing in the second act for a woman who is supposed to be frightened and angry but captured the complexity of her character. Christopher H. Barreca's set was a convincing picture of a land that is hard to tame.
THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK. Signature Theatre. June 3, 2015

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Rattlestick's production of Daniel Talbott's AFGHANISTAN, ZIMBABWE, AMERICA, KUWAIT at the Judson Gym

     One traipses through sand to get to one's seat at the Judson Gym for Daniel Talbott's hypnotic new play. The setting is the desert. There's a concrete bunker at the rear of the set and a changing skyscape on the screen at the rear. This outpost is manned by two young soldiers, Smith (Seth Numrich) and Leadem (Brian Miskell). Smith is all explosive energy, constantly on the move. There's also a bit of the playground bully in his character. Leadem is often silent, standing apart. Their behavior is in part a reaction to the fear they are experiencing. Their radio no longer works and they are running out of food and water. At first we assume that they are somewhere in the Middle East, but we discover that this is in the future and wars and climate change have turned most of the world into a desert. It seems that everyone is dead but Smith, Leadem and Miller (Chris Stack), who wanders in after his battalion has been massacred. Without food and water, there's no chance of survival for these three men. Smith and Leadem move in and out of memories/fantasies of experiences with women. Smith remembers, or perhaps imagines, a tender relationship, maternal and sexual, with the mother of a fellow soldier (Kathryn Erbe). Leadem imagines discussions with his kid brother (Jimi Stanton), who acts as his conscience, and a sweet romance with a Serbian girl (Jelena Stupliann). The reality of his dealings with her are not so sweet: he actually held her legs while fellow soldiers gang-raped her. There's a sweet side to these men that they are afraid to show to other men.
     Daniel Talbott seems to specialize in the ways in which young men mask their vulnerability when they are with other men. SLIPPING focused on a gay teenager who moves from an abusive relationship with another teenager to becoming the abuser with a boy who loves him to cutting himself, a form of self-abuse. Eli, the central character in SLIPPING, can't reach out meaningfully to another person. The men in AFGHANISTAN, ZIMBABWE, AMERICA, KUWAIT can't admit their fear, guilt, and longings to each other.
     Talbott has given his play a mesmerizing production. The acting couldn't be better. Seth Numrich, who also starred in SLIPPING, is an intensely physical actor who completely realizes Smith. I've seen Numrich in GOLDEN BOY on Broadway and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH in London and at first didn't recognize him here. Fear here is expressed in chaotic bursts of energy, but in his memory/fantasy with Brian's mother, he becomes sweet, reticent, still. Brian Miskell is equally brilliant. He looks like he expects to be whipped at any moment. He, too, is only relaxed and physically free in his fantasies with the Serbian girl. High praise also has to go to the sound design (John Zalewski) and the projections (David Tennent) that enhance the mood of this theatrically powerful experience.
     AFGHANISTAN, ZIMBABWE, AMERICA, KUWAIT deserves to be seen. As writer and director, Daniel Talbott is a true poet of the theater and Numrich and Miskell give extraordinary performances. There aren't a lot of seats in the Judson Gym and the play is not performed every night, so plan ahead.