Sunday, 30 April 2017

Harvey Fierstein and Gabriel Ebert at GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM at the Public Theatre

     One of the memories of Beau (Harvey Fierstein), a repository of memories of the bad old days of gay life, is of a night in a Manhattan YMCA, once a celebrated site of gay sex. One man was so happy that he had sex that he started singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Soon from all the rooms there was a chorus of the familiar round -- the voices of lonely, damaged gay men who had had a moment of sex and companionship. Beau has a lot of sadder memories--of a lover killed in a terrible fire, set by a homophobe, in a New Orleans gay bar and of a lover destroyed by AIDS. He also has tender memories of his relationship with James Baldwin and his piano playing for Mabel Mercer who sang songs written by men of desire for men but made "respectable" by being sung by a woman. Beau, now living in London and playing piano at a gay club, has obviously been damaged by what he has lived through. Enter Rufus (the wonderful Gabriel Ebert), a young bipolar lawyer and what was supposed to be a one-night stand turns into a relationship. Rufus is attracted to older men in general and Beau in particular and wants the relationship to be permanent but Beau is too damaged by his history to accept legal recognition of their life together. Martin Sherman's sweet, funny play traces a decade in their ever-changing relationship. Sherman's play alternates scenes with monologues in which Beau recounts the most important moments in his past. The gay world has changed since he was Rufus's age and Beau at least can give the new world his blessing.
      I've never been Harvey Fierstein's greatest fan but here he gives a beautifully modulated performance. There's some of the Fierstein schtick, but moments that are genuinely moving. Gabriel Ebert, as always, is charismatic onstage. What a talent! Christopher Sears gives substance to his underwritten role as the man Rufus marries.
      GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM isn't a masterpiece but well worth seeing, particularly for the teamwork of Fierstein and Ebert who obviously love performing together.
     A POSTSCRIPT....The night after I saw GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM I had the pleasure of seeing the fine new production of DER ROSENKAVALIER at the Met, the best of this season's new productions, most of which have had strong musical values but weak or misguided direction and/or design. In a way, GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM is a version of the ROSENKAVALIER story--a mature person can't trust his relationship with an ardent younger lover and nobly accepts that lovers new young love. This story in various forms has been a part of gay fiction and drama.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

VENUS by Susan-Lori Parks at the Signature Theatre

     There was once celebrated play about a nineteenth-century freak, Bernard Pomerance's THE ELEPHANT MAN. Susan-Lori Parks's VENUS tells the tale of a 19th century Black female "freak," Saartjie Baartman, The Venus Hottentot (Zainab Jah). Since this is a play by Susan-Lori Parks, the story will be told in a roundabout fashion (literally here), and include many authorial interventions. A narrator, The Negro Resurrectionist (Kevin Mambo), acts as interlocutor for the scenes that work in circular fashion from her death to her death. Parks's interest is in the ways a Black woman's body is violated. The Negro Resurrectionist reminds us that her story begins three years after England made slavery illegal, yet Baartman is always a slave. She moves from indentured servitude in South Africa to basically unpaid life in a touring freak show in England to the kept woman of  racist French professor of anatomy who loves her in his limited fashion (John Ellison Coulee). She is placed on display by the owner of the freak show and sexually abused by drunken men. Bought by the French doctor, she is his kept woman until he tires of her and his reputation is threatened. Ultimately she dies of exposure in Paris.
     This is a profoundly disturbing tale of injustice, but Parks always keeps us at a distance from the emotional power of the story. In Brechtian fashion she throws in various distancing devices--the narrator, the grotesque chorus who play a variety of characters, an occasional song, the reverse numbering of scenes and an occasional historical "footnote." As usual with her work, theatre/performance is a metaphor for human relations. At Parks worst, her work can be pretentious and off-putting. This 1996 work is best in the second act where there are less of her intrusions.
     Lear Debessonet gives the play the theatrical flair it needs. Zainab Jah and John Ellison Conlee, the only actors who have real characters to play, make the most of the material. As usual, Kevin Mambo is charismatic and the ensemble is effective.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2 by Lucas Hnath

     My first thought as I experienced this brilliant play is that it is too good for Broadway, which is sadder for Broadway than for the play. In the past couple of years, Lucas Hnath has given us a series of stimulating, challenging plays about big issues. Like Henrik Ibsen and the classical Athenian playwrights, Hnath's plays are consciously a series of intense dialogues on big subjects: faith (or the loss of same) and doctrine in THE CHRISTIANS, American moral corruption in RED SPEEDO. There's none of Ibsen's solemnity in Hnaths' fast, furious and often funny work. He's more like George Bernard Shaw at his best. Hnath's plays are certainly well-made and highly theatrical. He has a strong sense of narrative and draws rich characters. And his plays, models of dramatic economy,  are full of surprises.
     You don't have to know a lot about Henrik Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE to enjoy Hnath's sequel. Nora left home, marriage and family to find herself. In Norway in the1870s, this was a scandalous act. The sad fact is that there would be nowhere for such a rebellious woman to go. Perhaps she could find a menial job or become a prostitute. Hnath's Nora (Laurie Metcalf), was much cleverer. Under a pseudonym, she became a writer of best-selling feminist novels, the first of which is a fictional retelling of her stultifying marriage. Women love her novels; men in power want to destroy the woman who wrote them. Fifteen years after walking out the door of her home, Nora returns beautifully dressed and very self-possessed. She has come back because she has discovered that Torvald, her husband (Chris Cooper), never divorced her. This means that as a married woman she had no legal right to conduct business or have affairs. Nora needs a divorce or she could be ruined. However, if she has her way, everyone else could be ruined. In a series of witty, intense dialogues with Torvald, her old nurse (Jayne Houdyshell) and her daughter (Condola Rashad), Nora continues to argue for her freedom and her beliefs. Nora's feminism and anti-marriage stance have validity, of course, but like many radicals, Nora is not very strong on compassion or on arguments based on emotional need. Like many of Ibsen's heroes, she's both a creator and a destroyer. There's a lot at stake here for all the characters.
     One of the fascinating aspects of the play and the simple but effective production by the ubiquitous Sam Gold (obviously influenced by the work of Ivo van Hove), is the confluence of past and present. Rock music blasts from the speakers as the audience enters the theatre and a neon sign bearing the play's title hangs over the stage. The walls of Miriam Buether's thrust stage set could be of a large 19th century house, but the few chairs are contemporary. A box of Kleenex sits on a small table. The language is definitely a mix of period and contemporary. The audience laughs when Nora says that within thirty years her feminist ideas will take hold. We know there are still places in the world where women are in positions worse than Nora could ever imagine.
     What a cast! Laurie Metcalf stalks the stage like a person hungry for power. She's something of a bully but Metcalf brings out all the humor in the text. Jayne Houdyshell, Chris Cooper and Condola Rashad are worthy adversaries.
      Unlike SWEAT, which will probably win all the awards, A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2, is never preachy. It never falls into melodrama. It deserved the cheering it got at the performance I attended.
If I gave stars, Hnath's play would get five.  

Saturday, 22 April 2017

THE PROFANE by Zayd Dohrn at Playwrights Horizons

      We've seen some elements of THE PROFANE before--the parents' shock and disapproval at the seemingly inappropriate marriage of a child; the child's rebellion against doctrinaire parents; the battle of Western secularism against devout religion, particularly Islam; the identity crisis of a cosmopolitan Westerner when faced with reminders of his middle-Eastern religious background. However, Zayd Dohrn brings a different, fascinating focus to these materials. His central character, Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian), is a novelist living the good life in a book-lined Greenwich Village apartment. He has renounced his Islamic background and has embraced secular humanism. As his daughter tells him, his only community is fellow readers of The New Yorker. Raif is in a not-very-fulfilling relationship with his wife, Emina, a former ballet dancer (Heather Raffo). Their was an arranged marriage that has managed to survive, if not thrive. Their eldest daughter is a kind of free spirit, a lesbian bartender. Her eccentricities are OK with her parents. The conflict comes with younger daughter Emina (Tala Ashe), announces that she is going to marry Sam, the son of a devout Muslim family.
     Raif is a brilliantly drawn portrait of a type anyone unacademic as familiar with, the secular intellectual who is every bit as doctrinaire and intolerant as the most rigid fundamentalist. He ignores Sam (Babak Tafti), when he arrives at his home, then goes so far as to rip pages out of Sam's parents' Koran. He would be part of a very simplistic dramatic construction, except that Dorn has surrounded Raif with characters who are at moments of transition. Though she won't admit it, Emina is more drawn to Islam than to Sam. Sam loves Emina but has lost his faith. Their relationship faces problems they don't foresee. Sam doesn't fully understand that he is on the way to becoming a version of Raif. He has lost his faith and is an enormous admirer of Raif's novels of exile and rebellion. One of the most powerful moments in this play filled with voluble, hyper-articulate characters is a silent one, Emina's embrace with Sam's mother and the arranged wife that Sam spurned--a moment of solidarity of Muslim women without any men in sight. There's a sense of kinship there missing in Raif's secular family.      
     Sam's family is as prosperous as Emina's, but they're not educated, not intellectual and, worse, the only book in sight in their White Plains home, complete with swimming pool, is the Koran. They're Raif's worst nightmare--they're religious and materialistic. At the end, Raif's eldest daughter is reading him an excerpt from one of his own books, a reminder of Raif's solipsism.
      THE PROFANE is a stimulating play, effectively directed by Trip Cullman and performed by a consistently fine ensemble.

Friday, 21 April 2017


     A few years ago, Geoffrey Nauffts' play NEXT FALL chronicled the awful things that can happen to a gay couple who have no legal protections before the Supreme Court made gay marriage the law of the land.  Michael McKeever's well-written DANIEL'S HUSBAND covers much of the same ground. DANIEL'S HUSBAND is a textbook example of a finely crafted play, but, really, what is wrong with those people up there on stage?
     Daniel and Mitchell seem to have the perfect life. Daniel is a brilliant, successful architect who comes from a wealthy family and Mitchell makes a decent living writing gay fiction (does anybody still write gay fiction?? Whatever happened to Gordon Merrick??). They live in a gorgeous house that Daniel designed. Daniel is also a gourmet cook and the couple only drink vintage wines and well-aged whiskies. Mitchell's best friend is Barry, his agent, who is drawn to short-term trysts with men thirty years his junior. One of them, the adorable Trip, loves his job as a caregiver to invalids who can't take care of themselves. Trip is like the gun Chekhov commented on: "If you show a gun in Act I, it has to be used in Act III." The only other character is Daniel's totally self-absorbed mother, a very spoiled rich woman who is used to getting her way--another Chekhovian gun.
     When Trip asks Daniel and Mitchell why they aren't married, Mitchell goes off on a rant about what is wrong with marriage in general and gay marriage in particular. He drowns out Trip's arguments for marriage, though ultimately Barry has the best rejoinder, "Because we can." Not only are Daniel and Mitchell without the legal protections of marriage; they have never signed a health care power of attorney. What could possibly go wrong in their ideal lives? Well, something goes very, very wrong. McKeever has crafted his play brilliantly, moving from witty banter to argument to crisis. There were a lot of laughs in the first half and a lot of sniffling during the denouement. Yet I could not help thinking, as I did with NEXT FALL, how stupid the ocuple was not to get appropriate legal protection. Back before gay marriage when my place of employment recognized same-sex domestic partnerships, we had to bring in a set of documents to register--wills, legal power of attorney and health care power of attorney. In other words, Duke ensured that we were legally protected as domestic partnerships. Married or not, every couple needs these protections. The horrors than ensue for the couple in DANIEL'S HUSBAND hinge on unsigned documents.
     Joe Brancato has paced the play effectively (the production originated at Penguin Rep in Stony Point, NY) and the cast couldn't be better. Ryan Spahn and Matthew Montelongo made a convincing couple. Montelongo has the more emotionally demanding role and he managed to modulate Mitchell's grief and anger perfectly. From Row H, Anna Holbrook looked a decade or so too young to be Ryan Spahn's mother though Holbrook captured an intensely selfish woman who wants everyone to think well of her. Leland Wheeler managed to be sweet without being vapid and Lou Liberatore was the stalwart, adoring best friend. Bryan Prather's living room set looked too generic to be the work of a brilliant architect. When I walked into the theater and looked at the stage, I thought, "How many times have I seen this set?"
     DANIEL'S HUSBAND got a prolonged standing ovation. It's not a masterpiece--it's an old-fashioned drama built to please. I don't mean that at all in a condescending way. It was a pleasure to experience such a well-made play with such a fine cast.

Thursday, 20 April 2017


     If you haven't seen the GROUNDHOG DAY, the movie (yes, Virginia, another musical based on a movie--will it never end?), it tells the story of a cynical small-town weatherman who, for some reason, is cursed to relive incessantly Groundhog Day until he is cured of his cynicism. Danny Rubin has adapted his own screenplay. The book is clever but the show depends more on visual magic than dialogue. Tim Minchin's lyrics are always witty. His best tunes are in the second act (more on that later).
     The poor denizens of Paris in LES MISERABLES only got to spin incessantly on one revolving stage. In Matthew Warchus's constantly clever--some might say too clever by half--production, the citizens of the small town of Punxsutawney, Pa. whir around on five revolves. You wait for them to sing "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off." The scenery for GROUNDHOG DAY (Rob Howell designer), does all the dancing. The cast only has to stand still to move. After a while this incessant whirling gets to be too much, distracting us from caring about the show's central character, cynical weatherman Phil Connors (the excellent Andrew Call). What a role Phil Connors offers a singing actor! He's never off stage except during an unnecessary song in sung by a secondary character at the beginning of Act II (why take focus from your central character at the beginning of the second act?). I begin with Matthew Warchus's too clever by half, too busy by half, production because it is both the show's strength and its greatest weakness. The show should be about Phil, not the stage machinery. It takes a strong performer to steal focus from the moving real estate. I read that Broadway stalwart Andy Karl, who injured his knee last week, gave such a performance. For those who have tickets to a performance featuring Andrew Call (strange about the similarity in names), don't despair. Call doesn't try to imitate Karl -- he gives his own performance. He looks like the generic forever cute small market tv anchorperson or weatherman. He's the mediocre guy who thinks he deserves a better, more appreciative world. Call sings well and gets through all the many stage tricks as if he has been rehearsing them for years. His Phil is steely until he finally melts. It's a tour de force just to get through all an actor has to get through in that production and Call does much more than that. He makes Phil his own and doesn't get overwhelmed by all the whirring furniture. Barrett Doss is charming and sings well as Phil's love interest. The supporting cast is appropriately eccentric.
     Is there any other musical in which the second act is stronger than the first? At my performance, the audience seemed underwhelmed with the show at the intermission. In fact some people around me left. The barrage of visual cleverness didn't even stop for applause at the end of numbers. For all the work of Call and his fellow actors, the first act seemed frenetic and heartless. Call tried to establish a rapport with the audience but everything moved to fast. The second act slows down enough for characters to establish themselves in solid songs. Occasionally characters are even allowed to stand still. Finally the audience is given a chance to identify with the people on stage. The audience is given the opportunity to applaud songs. The second act did what first acts usually do--it allowed us to get to care about the characters and performers.
     I may be wrong but I don't think GROUNDHOG DAY is going to be the success in New York that it was in London. Until Act II it all seems as heartless as its central character. Clever, yes. Spectacular, yes. It's also a bit exhausting.