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.