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.