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.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY WAY by Tom Jacobson at Rattlestick

     During the 100 minutes of THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY WAY, Tom Jacobson tries with limited success to juggle three themes. The play begins with two actors waiting to audition for the role of a con man in a film. Or are they? The program says that the play takes place in "A Theater" and these two actors may only be pretending -- improvising -- the audition. Mr. Jacobson obviously loves Pirandello and the actors occasionally acknowledge us in the audience. One theme in this play is that of "acting" -- performing roles without feeling them -- and living -- feeling -- which is improvising. In life, are we merely actors? The older and more forceful of the actors talks the younger man into a series of improvisations. The one who takes control of the improvisations will stay and audition. The other will leave. This plot device doesn't seem the least bit credible; nor does it seem credible that these two actors would improvise police entrapment of gay men in Los Angeles in 1914. The premisses of this play take a lot of willing suspension of disbelief. The men then improvise a series of entrapments of well-connected gay men. The entrapment, of course, is a form of acting -- Acting Gay, to coin the title of one of my books. The men are also using these improvisations as a kind of mutual seduction. Can these men really feel enough empathy to experience attraction and love? The men the police entrap are decent people looking for real human connection, as opposed to the playacting of the actors/policemen, but things only got worse for gay men when anti-sodomy laws were enacted in 1915.
     Jacobson has obviously done his research into gay history. According to his play, new levels of cleanliness and more circumcision led to more oral sex, "the twentieth-century way," which led the police to devise means of entrapment. The number of men caught led politicians to enact Draconian anti-sodomy laws. Those of us who study such things know that police entrapment of gay men still took place into the 1960s. When the men in Jacobson's play were arrested, they weren't breaking an existing law, so were charged with "social vagrancy."
     I can see how Jacobson got attracted to the acting metaphor as he looked for ways to dramatize police entrapment. However, there are just too many theatrical metaphors embedded in this piece of metatheatre. The two fine actors, Will Bradley and Robert Mammana, work hard to bring the play to life, but the only real characters they play that elicit any feeling are the victims of entrapment. The two actors they play throughout are devices, not characters. Michael Michetti has staged the play effectively.
     I have written a lot of plays that dramatize gay history and was looking forward to this one. A disappointment, I'm afraid.  
THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY WAY. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. June 1, 2015.