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.