Monday, 24 October 2016

Mikhail Baryshnikov in LETTER TO A MAN by Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson

     After reading some of the negative reviews, I dreaded seeing LETTER TO A MAN. The reviewers seemed to find it incoherent and dull. We (my husband and I) found it fascinating and quite clear in its intention. This is not a conventional play based on Nijinsky's mad memoir, but a dreamlike meditation on madness. The Nijinsky we see is not the great dancer-choreographer in one of his famous costumes, but a madman dressed like a mid-twentieth century cabaret performer (think of Joel Grey in CABARET). Reminiscences come into play here, but the work is more about obsessions--repeated words and phrases, stunning visual images, quirky movement to a soundscape filled with all sorts of musical fragments. There is no conventional chronology, no realistic sense of time or place. One accepts this work by its own rules or is alienated by it -- or both.
     At sixty-eight, Baryshnikov, one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth-century (I am glad I saw him in his prime with ABT and the City Ballet), is still a potent performer. Baryshnikov has always been open to new challenges. He moves gracefully and is blessed with an expressive face. He uses it more like a mime or clown than a serious actor, but that is what the part calls for.
     If you want a biographical piece on the subject, go to works like the 1980s film NIJINSKY. LETTER TO A MAN is far more abstract and poetic.

FALSETTOS by William Finn and James Lapine

     As I watched this superb revival of FALSETTOS yesterday afternoon, I realized that this show deserves to be considered a classic of American musical theater. Its detractors may say that it is dated, but that is because it is in the small group of musicals that speak directly to the time and place in which it was created. For us watching it in 2016, it is history, but history specifically and touchingly created through song. FALSETTOS (the joining of two one-act musicals, MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS and FALSETTOLAND, written a decade apart) chronicles two moments in the life of a gay man and his nuclear and intentional families. Marvin (Christian Borle), is an affluent, Jewish gay man who in the heyday of pre-AIDS gay liberation, has left Trina, his wife (Stephanie J. Block),  and Jason, his ten-year-old son (Anthony Rostenthal), to live in a turbulent relationship with a vain, beautiful younger man, Whizzer (Andrew Rannells). At the end of the first half, Marvin is without wife or lover and his trying to forge a solid relationship with his son. His wife has married Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), who has been shrink to both Marvin and Trina. In part two, a few years later, everyone has grown up a bit. Marvin has become close to the lesbian couple next door, a Doctor Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia, a caterer (Betsy Wolfe). Just when Marvin and Whizzer get back together and forge a less turbulent and more loving relationship, AIDS hits in a way that affects everyone in this small group.
     FALSETTOS is about different forms of love. These seven people are brought together in various ways to form a larger, devoted family. Sometimes bonds are surprising. Much to the dismay of his mother, father and stepfather, young Jason turns to Whizzer for advice and assistance even after Marvin and Whizzer have broken up. Trina realizes that she must include Whizzer in her family.
     I don't know of a funnier or more deeply touching musical than FALSETTOS. Finn has written a witty score in the post-Sondheim vein. His ballads couldn't be more beautiful or touching and his lyrics are simply brilliant in their quirky way. Like COMPANY and RENT, it is also a moving tribute to a page of New York history and of the history of gay men and the people who stood by them in the crisis of the eighties and early nineties. As I said, it's a classic.
     I wondered at first why James Lapine was again directing this show (he directed its original Off-Broadway and Broadway versions). Wouldn't it have been wiser, twenty years later, to let someone else give his or her vision of the show? Nonetheless, this is a winning production with an ideal cast. I thought the 1996 Broadway production was too cute, schtick-filled and a bit defensive about its subject matter. This ensemble treats the show as a sung drama. There isn't a false moment. You couldn't find a better cast of Broadway's most talented performers. It's difficult to single anyone out. Stephanie J. Block keeps Trina real even in her more comic songs. One can't help but feel the chemistry between the immensely talented Borle and Andrew Rannells. Uranowitz never lets Mendel sink into cliche and Anthony Rosenthal makes you realize how central young Jason is to the plot. This is a dream cast who don't have a dishonest moment. FALSETTOS is through sung, but you always feel as if you are watching a drama unfold.
     FALSETTOS is having a limited run at the Walter Kerr. Get your ticket now. This is a very special event.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A LIFE by Adam Bock at Playwrights Horizons

     Who would kill off his central, fascinating character halfway through a play, particularly when that character is played by David Hyde Pierce, and even more so when he hadn't really figured out what do do when said character dies? A LIFE has an excellent first forty minutes, but what follows is a mess.
     A LIFE begins with a half-hour monologue by Nate (Pierce) a middle-aged assistant editor who has been through a series of relationships with men that have ended badly. Nate has trouble with love. He tells us that when someone professor their love for him, he feels he no longer exists. He has an adoring best friend, Curtis (Brad Heberlee), but doesn't want to destroy the friendship by trying to turn it into love. He is filled with more philosophical doubts. When he realized that nothing he was taught was true, he sought truth in other ways, particularly through astrology.  In other words, Nate is a complex, fascinating, screwed-up character. Once he dies of a heart attack, the play has lost his focus. Nate has experienced what many of us fear, dying alone in one's apartment not to be found for days. Devoted Curtis panics when Nate doesn't answer his calls and goes to he apartment to check. We then get a series of post-death scenes: Curtis with the medical examiners, two funeral home workers engaging in small talk while preparing Nate's corpse for the funeral, Curtis and Nate's sister at the funeral. Life goes on but the life of the play has effectively stopped. None of these scenes hold much interest because Nate is the only developed character. Heberlee does what he can with Curtis, but he hasn't been given enough to do. We have been given to reason to care about the other characters. A lot of money has been spent on relatively elaborate scene changes, but so what?
     I am surprised Playwrights Horizons would accept such an unfinished play.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

HEISENBERG by Simon Stephens

     I'm sure essays will be written on the ways in which Heisenberg's uncertainty principle relates to Simon Stephens' sweet, oddball romantic comedy which, after a sellout run at one of Manhattan Theatre Club's intimate spaces, has moved into its Broadway space. Georgie (Mary-Louise Parker), a forty-something woman who accurately describes herself as "possibly winsome, maybe psychotic," observes, "If you watch something closely enough you realize you have no possible way of telling where it's going or how fast it's getting there." Voila--Heisenberg! In this play by Simon Stephens, one of the two best younger (under 70) British playwrights (Mike Bartlett is the other), we never fully understand Georgie's motivations.
     In eighty minutes HEISENBERG chronicles the beginning of a relationship between Georgie and Alex (Dennis Arndt), a seventy-five-year-old Irish born London butcher. They "meet cute," as Hollywood folks used to say. In a London train station, Georgie kisses the back of Alex's neck. Was this an impulsive act, or did she choose Alex as a mark. Since Georgie prevaricates on a Trumpian scale, we never know with any certainty why she did it or why she appears weeks later at Alex's shop. Yet staid Alex, who has been a lifelong bachelor and who presides over a failing business, is attracted to this chaotic individual. Where can a relationship between an unstable forty-year-old and a stolid, senior citizen go? Well, this one goes to Newark, New Jersey, of all places, but you'll have to see the play--or the movie someone is bound to make out of it (a juicy part for Redford, Nicholson or Eastwood),--to see how and why.
     Much like Mike Bartlett's brilliant COCK, HEISENBERG is presented on a bare stage with minimal props. There are two chairs and two tables that are moved around as needed. The audience surrounds the action (most of the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is take up by audience seating. The focus is on the words and the actors. I wish I had seen the play in a more intimate space. Mary-Louise Parker has had to turn up the volume on her "winsome" voice in this large space, making her performance seem calculated. Georgie is a perfect part for an actress who has specialized in vulnerable oddballs. I can't imagine anyone else playing it as well. Dennis Arndt seems the perfect foil for Parker. He's all stillness against her chaos.
     This sort of eccentric romantic comedy about the unlikely coming together of two lonely people was once a staple of the commercial theatre and film. Stephens, who, I am convinced, can do just about anything brilliantly, has mastered the genre. Clearly there's a hunger for this sort of charming play. The theatre, with an additional 120 seats on stage, was packed.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

THE HARVEST by Samuel D. Hunter at LCT3

     I saw an early preview of this rich, thought-provoking play. Some specifics may change but I'm sure its haunting quality can only improve.
     Samuel D. Hunter represents one important facet of American literature. He is, in one sense a regional writer, writing about a specific location, Idaho, and inhabitants who are in some form of spiritual crisis. What gives his work its rich flavor is his specificity. Like most regional writers, he is also drawn to vivid, detailed renderings of his characters' physical surroundings. Yet the crucial aspect of his characters is spiritual yearning. They usually come from a specific religious background that they have not found totally nourishing, yet they ask the ultimate questions. Many sophisticated New Yorkers, the sort who go to the theatre frequently, have given up on religion and, perhaps, even given up on the big questions religion is there to answer--or they won't discuss their spiritual hunger in polite society. Hunter takes these theatergoers into a somewhat alien world.
     THE HARVEST is set in the basement of an evangelical church in Idaho Falls. For the first few minutes of the play we watch a group of young people in ecstatic prayer. They speak in tongues as the roll on the floor or pin themselves against the wall. Hunter and his director, Davis McCallum, have emphasized the connection between such religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy (hardly a new connection--look at Renaissance religious art). It's a powerful opening. This small band of twenty-somethings are about to leave to do missionary work in the Middle East. We know from the news what happens to some Christian missionaries in these dangerous places. These folks have learned some basic Arabic and have improvised ways of conveying their message. This is hardly an ideal group of missionaries. Marcus's wife has discovered that she is pregnant. Without consulting her, he has played the role of traditional husband and seen to it that they will be working in an office and not in the field. This has created a rift between them that is not easily sealed back up. Josh, the central character, has been at odds since the death of his father, living in a tent outside his family home rather than venturing inside. When he is not in the tent, he is in the church basement. Unlike his comrades, who are going to the Middle East for a few months, Josh plans to stay there. Everyone tells him that this is courageous, but he knows that it is running away. Josh is desperate for his attempts at faith to be real, for his life to have meaning. His sister, who ran away as a teenager and left him in an unhappy, abusive home, has returned to try to stop him from leaving. Josh's closest friend, Tom, is as lost and unhappy as he. If these young men have not been physically involved, they certainly have a deep emotional connection, perhaps the only real love they have felt in their lives. The patriarchal figure, Pastor Chuck, unseen until almost the end of the play, offers lots of words, but no warmth. Fathers seem useless or worse in this world and mothers have long gone, victims of disappointment and loneliness. Nothing seems more false in this play than smiles.
     As usual, Hunter offers no easy conclusion. It seems clear that Josh and Tom are deeply ambivalent about going on this mission, but don't have the courage to escape together even when escape is offered to them. There's a moment when Josh and Tom are listening to Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" (both men share a love of music). Tom describes how this was written in a prison camp during World War II with the instruments available to the composer and played out in the rain. Beauty made out of misery. The prison these men are in is mental and spiritual. Perhaps love and/or art could be an escape.
     Hunter couldn't have a better ensemble of actors for his lovely play. Peter Mark Kendall makes us care deeply for his bruised, yearning character. Gideon Glick, who was so powerful in Hunter's THE FEW, captures Tom's deep anguish. At the preview I saw, Glick wasn't always audible. He's such a fine actor that I am sure that in the future he'll be loud and clear without losing any of the authenticity he brings to the part. Everyone else is equally honest. Dane Laffrey's setting for the church basement--not quite finished--with the unpainted stairway leading to the sanctuary and the outside world, is just right as is the harsh lighting. Thanks to sound designer Leah Gelpe, we hear the distant music of choir rehearsals.
     I continue to be amazed at how brilliantly Hunter creates big work out of seemingly small situations. Don't miss this.    

Monday, 10 October 2016


      This challenging, funny and at times creepy play written by and starring Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard begins in a West Virginia barn in the mid-9th century. A runaway slave meets a noble Quaker abolitionist who will escort her across the Mason-Dixon line. The acting in the scene moves from naturalistic to something so melodramatic that it is almost Brechtian. What we are actually seeing is a scene between enacted by two middle-school teachers in front of an assembly. The teachers are introducing the new unit on the Civil War. The audience becomes the group of middle school students who will be assigned to play the Underground Railway Game. We are also witness to the budding, then violently evolving, relationship of the two teachers, a white male and an African-American woman, sometimes played out in public, sometimes in private. The play is really a meditation on the ways in which race, gender and sex can clash. Can Americans, white and black, escape our country's racial history? Can well-meaning liberals ever understand their own racism? I don't want to give away too much of what happens during the seventy-five minutes of this work. Surprise is part of its pleasure and challenge. UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME is amusing at times, disturbing at others. It is definitely not for the prudish.
     Co-creators Kidwell and Sheppard are also excellent performers. Director Taibi Magar has given the piece the right look and excellent timing.
      I saw the play on the matinee after the infamous tape of Trump's sex talk was published. The play's many uses of "pussy" received particularly uncomfortable laughter from the audience.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

VIETGONE by Qui Nguyen at Manhattan Theatre Club

     First of all, what a pleasure it was to see a predominantly young audience at the Manhattan Theatre Club instead of a room filled with seniors like myself. VIETGONE deserves a large, diverse audience. It's a delightful, moving, even challenging evening of theatre. In it Nguyen creates a theatrical extravaganza out of the romance of his parents in an Arkansas refugee camp at the end of the Vietnam War. It's typical of Nguyen's playfulness that at the outset "the playwright" (an actor) greets the audience, reads the usual instructions and announces that the characters we will see are purely fictional. He also demonstrates, with the help of the actors, that the Vietnamese will speak good English while the Americans speak some ridiculous patois, the sort of awful English usually given to stick Asian characters from Charlie Chan on. Five virtuosic actors play all the roles. When the lead characters have to articulate their deepest feelings, they do so in rap numbers. There are comic strip projections and kung fu battles with ninjas. Throughout, Nguyen and his excellent director, May Adrales, and designers, particularly projection designer Jared Mezzocchi, give us a dynamic production that alternates between realism and comic book fantasy.
      All the elements of theater serve a simple love story between two young people suffering the psychic and spiritual wounds of an awful war. Quang (Raymond Lee), was a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese military who had to fly out the last refugees and leave his own wife and children behind. His principal desire is to get back to his family. In the Arkansas refugee camp, he meets Tong (Jennifer Ikeda), who wants companionship and sex but no attachment. It takes Quang a long physical and emotional journey to realize he can't go home again.  Throughout, the one thing that enrages Quang is the American point of view toward the Vietnam War -- that it either was criminal or a tragic mistake. Quang never falters in his hatred of the Vietcong and what they did to his people.
     One cannot speak highly enough of the superb cast. Lee and Ikeda demonstrate both the strength and sexiness of their characters, as well as their battle scars. Samantha Quan makes Tong's mother more than a comic stereotype. She also ably plays half a dozen other characters. Jon Hoche and Paco Tolson play all the other Vietnamese and American men, each a distinct character. Together these five artists comprise and excellent ensemble.
     This show deserves a life beyond the intimate Manhattan Theatre Club. Five stars.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016


     I don't know why I waited so long to see this delightful show. The music isn't memorable, but the whole package is great entertainment. Since I saw the show toward the end of the run, there have been lots of cast replacements. I can imagine Christian Borle having a less forced take on William Shakespeare, played in this production as an arrogant rock star type, but Will Chase was amusing, though the role didn't seem a natural fit for him. I can't imagine anyone better in the leading role of Nick Bottom (not the same character as in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM) than Rob McClure. McClure has the ability to play an exhausting role without looking like he's working too hard. Everything seemed natural and he acted as if he was having the time of his life--on a Wednesday matinee. Brad Oscar was hilarious (as usual) as the soothsayer Nostradamus, who has the prophesy that musicals are going to be the wave of the future.
     Why begin with the cast? SOMETHING'S ROTTEN is an old fashioned musical entertainment that depends on performers with both talent and personal charm, performers who bring something of their on stage personae to their roles (what was missing from the revival of FIORELLO). Without this, the show would fail. The show demands a cast of thirty, a fairly large band and lots of sets and costumes. The book lands all its gags, the lyrics are very witty. The weakness is the generic score. It's OK, but forgettable, hardly the match of Golden Age musical comedies. In its most energetic moments, the score sounded like something from the 1970s -- I kept being reminded of Charles Strouse's score for APPLAUSE, not one of the greatest in musical theatre history.
     Fortunately the zany book hold's one's interest. For those who don't know, the show centers on Elizabethan playwright Nigel Bottom (Rob McClure), who is constantly overshadowed by Shakespeare. He consults a soothsayer who tells him that the answer is musicals, so he writes an awful musical, Omelet, based on another inaccurate prophecy. The result is something like the zaniness of a Marx Brothers movie. Some of the musical numbers are hilarious, greatly thanks to brilliant director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw who has created an A musical out of some B material. And thanks to the excellent cast.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016


     The fact that we in the audience are more or less sworn to secrecy about what transpires in WHITE RABBIT, RED RABBIT, a one-person  (with help from the audience) show written by young Iranian writer, Nassim Soleimanpour, reflects the police state the playwright lives in. The play has echoes of Beckett, but one is always aware of a political subtext. The story that gives the play its title is about creatures turning on one another as they fight for a single carrot and suffer punishment if they don't get it. What happens to identity when you have to hide so much of yourself? Suicide can seem the best option. There are many, playful funny moments in the 75 minute show, but it has a bitter core.
     The gimmick of the play and this production is that at the outset of each performance the actor or actress is handed the script which he/she has never seen or read before. The cold reading is part of the experience of the play, the surprise of the performer as she/he experiences the script for the first time--as the audience experiences the play for the first time (though I am sure many folks come back to see how different performers deal with the script). The producers have amassed an amazing lineup of one-time-only performers beginning with Nathan Lane and including both men and women. I saw operatic diva Joyce DiDonato, who was delightful in the light passages and effective in the darker moments, which I think surprised her. Of course there were a lot of opera fans in the packed house who cheered her on. She got the sort of ovation at her entrance that most performers dream of getting.
     That's all I can tell you. See it for yourself. I'll be going back.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

FIORELLO produced by the Berkshire Theatre Group at the East 13th Street Theatre

     In many ways this production of FIORELLO, enjoyable as it was, reinforced one's sense of the artifice of musicals. Brecht would have loved the audience awareness of the gap between character and actor. First of all, there was the very young cast, too young for the roles they play. Most were just out of college making their professional debuts. The production couldn't help but remind me of all the student produced and performed musicals I saw during my years teaching theatre at Duke. There are a lot of well-trained young performers who better deserved a shot at an Off-Broadway debut than some of these kids. The leads were game but, with a few exceptions, didn't yet have enough personality of their own to  give color to their roles. In the original production, the cast was comprised of seasoned veteran character performers. Here we had youngsters with a wide range of talent or relative lack of same. Austin Scott Lombardi is going to be a good performer when he finds his persona and when he does something about a high speaking voice that gets irritating after a while in such a long role. He has presence but he's too good looking to play this role. FIORELLO was first played by Tom Bosley who went on to become a television sitcom actor (HAPPY DAYS). Lombardi is still in the "juvenile lead" category. Matt McLean is the strongest man in the cast, giving an honest portrayal of LaGuardia's loyal Jewish sidekick. In the original production, this was played by Broadway stalwart Nathaniel Frey, who specialized in goofy roles. Frey was a bit chubby, homely and had a deep, funny voice. He specialized in playing sweet men who weren't too bright. McLean had leading man good looks and a good singing voice, but found a way to make sense of the role. The constant phone calls from his unseen wife weren't played as gags as they were in the original production, but as a problem for a man who couldn't balance career and home life. Ryan Morsbach is a generation too young to play the cynical old political hack (veteran Howard da Silva was brilliant in the original production), but he made the most of his big moments. Rebecca Brudner has a lovely singing voice, but no one can make much of the underwritten character of LaGuardia's first wife. Katie Birinboim pushed too hard in the wonderful eleven o'clock song, "The Very Next Man."
      Then there was the musical staging. FIORELLO is an odd combination of musical and play (more on that anon). So much of it is comprised of well crafted book scenes that it is a shock when, for instance, old political hacks get up from the poker table to dance during numbers like "Politics and Poker" or "Little Tin Box." To do so breaks character and weakens the political satire. These satirical numbers are  among the strongest in the show and should be played in character. The movement seemed forced, particularly since Michael Callahan's choreography throughout the show was mediocre and the dancing not very good. Bob Moss's staging is fluid and effective though everyone needed more character work.
       FIORELLO is a battle between two narrative threads. The story of Fiorello LaGuardia's rise from lawyer-champion of the poor to congressman to war hero to mayor of New York is the strongest thread. The musical numbers that chart LaGuardia's rise are witty and winning. Then there's the inevitable love story of the faithful colleague who waits fifteen years to get her man and the less well written story of LaGuardia's romance of his first wife, who dies young. The love plot(s) generates two songs, both, oddly, in the second act; first wife Thea's ballad, "When Did I Fall in Love," and Marie's clever "The Very Next Man." However, one feels that the romance is there because it is a necessary convention, not because it is essential to the story. This is even more true of the relationship between Dora, a striking seamstress, and Floyd, the cop who arrests her, then marries her. Dora and Floyd are shoehorned into the musical because in 1959 the show needed a dance number and a leading dancer. Dora's song, "I Love a Cop," is delightful but tangential. Even more tangential is the dance break that follows it. In the original production, Dora was played by Pat Stanley, a good dancer who often got these novelty songs in 1950s musicals. The women get fine songs, but the romances seem more obligatory than essential. The same is true to a lesser extent of HAMILTON where the real interest is on the men, not the women; the rivalries and politics, not the romance. One of the odd aspects of the show, and one of its weaknesses, is that Fiorello doesn't sing much and what he does sing is weaker than the rest of the score (his forgettable second act soliloquy was not included in the original cast album--for good reason). It's a part written for a non-singer back when non-singers often carried musicals (Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison, Robert Preston). Mr. Lombardi can sing quite well, so one notices the absence of much for him to do. It's hard to carry a musical when your character isn't musical.
      This is the third Bock-Harnick musical to get a New York revival this year. There was Bartlett Sher's beautiful revival of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (still running) and Scott Ellis's perfect revival of SHE LOVES ME. This production is nowhere near on that level, but it reminds on how good FIORELLO's score is. The singing throughout is quite good. I did miss a decent sized band. Here there are two pianos and a violin.
      Worth seeing if you've never seen FIORELLO or if, like me, you love the score and were hungry for a revival.