Sunday, December 10, 2017

Meteor Shower

"Well, now, that was a mess," my daughter mused during the curtain call at Meteor Shower, currently running at the Booth through late January. "Yeah," I agreed. "Didn't really hang together, huh?" "Maybe Steve Martin wants another de Kooning or something," my husband mused. And with that, we bundled up and walked out of the theater into the snow.

But don't let the comments above throw you: all three of us laughed our asses off through the whole show, and you should totally go see it so that you can laugh your ass off, too. Just don't expect to encounter an actual play at any point during the process. Because Meteor Shower is to drama what a can of Chef-Boyardee ravioli is to dining.

Matthew Murphy
Here's the thing, though: I loved that canned, viscous glop. At some points during my reasonably happy if occasionally depressive childhood, I'd venture that there was absolutely nothing better than an entire can, heated over the stove and dumped into a plastic bowl. Just like sometimes--especially at times when the world has become a hot, flaming pile of endless disappointment and despair--a whizzing series of not-especially-connected one-liners, short bits, and sight gags that only kind of resolve at the end of a fleetingly satisfying seventy-five minutes is about the best thing ever.

It's not worth recounting the plot, in part because there isn't much of one and in part because what does count as a throughline doesn't really make any sense. But whatever, in case you're curious, two married people (Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos) hang out with their alter egos (Laura Benanti and Keegan-Michael Key) at their place in Ojai during a meteor shower, and wackiness ensues. Said wackiness ranges from mysterious eggplant-sending and related attempts at gaslighting, some increasingly convoluted sexual couplings, the speaking of invented languages, the use of hard drugs and the lifting of silverware, a handful of nicely-timed sight gags, and a smattering of garden-variety dick jokes. Because the four actors cast in the roles are brilliant with comic timing and are clearly having a blast playing for every guffaw they can milk out of the script, the fact that there's no logical whole doesn't matter at all.

Meteor Shower has been likened to a Saturday Night Live sketch that goes on too long, I disagree with this. Instead, it reminds me of Martin's most hilariously bizarre standup work: his grandmother's song; his fondness for names like Gern Blanston and the one it's impossible to spell out accuratelythe cruel shoes. Martin quit doing standup years ago, but I suppose a brilliant comic doesn't ever stop coming up with random bits; Meteor Shower strikes me as a long list of gleefully strange gags he kept track of, gradually strung together, and finally tried to drape a practically nonexistent plot around. Not quite a straightforward standup routine, the show still functions less like a play and more like an excuse for four very broad comics to be collectively ridiculous for a little over an hour. Go if you can, take your mind off the world, guffaw a little. You'll be especially amused, I think, if you're a fan of any of the people involved: the goofily funny people who make up the cast; Jerry Zaks, who has been directing since Broadway was invented and does a typically fine job here; and Martin, whose flair for the absurd is on full display. Hell, even the costumes are amusing (Keegan-Michael Key's mandals nail the landing, Ann Roth).

Go. Enjoy. If possible, sneak a can of ravioli in with you; you'll thank me.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Miss Saigon and M Butterfly

What are the odds that I'd see two different takes on Madama Butterfly in rapid succession? Pretty high, it turns out: they're both running in revival here, I have a student writing an honors thesis about Asian stereotypes on Broadway, I'm teaching a seminar about musicals and American politics that we had money to spend on tickets for, I dig Julie Taymor. It happens that the Puccini original is in repertory at the Met this season; Wendy suggested I hit that, too, and make this writeup a trifecta. Beautiful though the opera is, I've officially hit my saturation point with this damn story line, so no, I'm not going to the Met and you can't make me.

Matthew Murphy
Miss Saigon is--and this is putting it very nicely--not one of my favorite musicals. I saw the original production the week I graduated from college, and it failed to grab me; I spent most of the show wondering distractedly what the hell I was going to do with my life, pausing occasionally to seethe over a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who couldn't keep his pants on for five minutes whenever I went anywhere without him. Sure, a few scenes yanked me to attention: the one with the helicopter, you bet, and that other one in which Jonathan Pryce, by that point refreshingly free of yellowface and eye prosthetics, humped a cadillac. Otherwise, though, the show didn't stay with me for long, and by "long" I mean "more than five minutes after I left the theater."

Seeing the revival 25 years later with a group of students roughly the age I was when I first saw it had its charms, for sure. Reception was mixed among them, but even the biggest critics remained awake during the show and did not sneak out at intermission, which translates as a raving success when it comes to class trips to venues of any kind. As an added bonus, most were genuinely thrilled when I suggested we take the empty seats in the front few rows to the right of the stage for the second act. It's no wonder: the very hugeness of the show is, without question, one of its major assets. Aside from the scenes involving large vehicles, there are enormous backdrops and huge musical numbers, some with acrobats and giant billowy flags, during which cast members gradually appear at tiered levels you didn't realize were there. And as a primer on the megamusical, Miss Saigon has just about every ingredient required: high emotion, universal themes, hummable songs, visual enormity, dazzling and often mechanized spectacle. I'd add, in this case, a nobly committed cast, a very talented Kim (Eva Noblezada), and a mesmerizingly good Engineer (Jon Jon Briones). Miss Saigon just isn't my bag--really, megamusicals in general just don't do it for me, but that's not to say that the production isn't done very, very well. If you like shiny romantic sappy bigness and don't mind two-dimensional characters that threaten to dip into outright stereotype, the show just might be yours.

Sara Krulwich

The original production of M Butterfly stayed with me a lot longer than Miss Saigon did, and I was eager to revisit the show with Taymor at the helm, but I was disappointed by the revival. So, apparently, are a lot of people: the show was originally supposed to run through February, but is closing six weeks early. It's curiously flat, especially for a Taymor production. Not especially pretty to look at (though damn if that woman can't work wonders with a few carefully angled rays of soft, white light), the revival feels sluggish, talky, and distant. I wasn't especially impressed with Clive Owen, who I usually like a lot, and the added material does little more than make the show...feel...longer. While I appreciate the attempt on Hwang's part to subvert the Madama Butterfly story--and to toy, especially, with the stereotype of the fragile, delicate, passive Asian naif whose life is consumed with longing for the white western man--there's little else that really takes hold: no depth or nuance of character, no one especially likable or ultimately very interesting.

At least in my case, the best thing about seeing both shows was the opportunity it gave me to learn from my students. A few Asian-American kids in my seminar love Miss Saigon because they thrill at seeing representations of themselves--but they are also fully aware of and willing to criticize its many problems, oversights, assumptions, and caricatures. My honors student has written extensively about M. Butterfly; I wish the revival was, in the end, as brilliant as her reading of the play is. So while the two productions didn't amount to the most thrilling experiences I've ever had at the theater, the conversations I had with my students about the shows after having seen them were well worth the price of countless admissions. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Meteor Shower

"Meteor Shower" by Steve Martin is perfectly cast and great fun, but it's not much of a play. The nonlinear plot makes little sense, the characters aren't compelling - except in their quirks, which are fascinating to watch: Laura's (Laura Benati) overt sexuality, Gerald's (Keegan-Michael Key of "Key and Peele") germaphobia and Corky (Amy Schumer of "Inside Amy Schumer") and Norm's (Jeremy Shamos) over-the-top marriage therapy relationship (where every slight ends with psycho-babble like, "I understand you probably didn't know you hurt me. I'm asking you to be more careful with my feelings.") "Meteor Shower," at the Booth Theater, is like a really good Saturday Night Live skit - one that meanders on longer than it should (even at 80 minutes) but, at least, it keeps you laughing. The surrealistic satire also played in California and Connecticut last year.

The thin storyline involves an evening of meteor watching between two couples at Norm and Corky's modern Ojai, California, home -- Beowulf Boritt designs a living room worthy of Architectural Digest. Several versions of the evening are presented, with each alternate reality leading closer to a conclusion -- although not necessarily an understanding of what exactly the resolution is ... something along the lines of "If you don't deal with your subconscious, it deals with you" as Martin dissects marriage -- with the two couples representing distinct aspects of Corky and Norm's personality. But Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," it is not.

There's a lot to enjoy, though. Schumer's deft skill in delivering crazy lines about "exploding head syndrome" and her cannibalistic past. Key's physical prowess - his expressive face, stance and body movement, which conveys more than Martin's play reveals. Tony Award-winner Benati's obvious delight sparring with her co-stars as she seduces everyone. Shamos' powerhouse performance of an everyman lost in absurdity -- not every actor can pull off a meteor wound with such casual aplomb. There is also Jerry Zaks' able direction, which you can see in the enormous black sky where the brilliant lights of the meteors burst (lighting design by Natasha Katz) and the production's pause that showcases it or the lovely flexibility of how the set is used, flipping easily from the home's interior to its backyard. Plus, no one does one liners better than Steve Martin: on why Corky's "exploding head syndrome" is not curable - "it's not funded." Such witticisms are aplenty in "Meteor Shower."

Biggest kudos here go to Caparelliotis Casting. Without this star-studded array of talent this show would languish. The cast makes "Meteor Shower" work ... at least well enough for a few laughs.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Disgraced (Toronto)

Disgraced was the play of the moment when it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. This month it returned to Toronto for its second run by The Hope and Hell Theatre Co. and David Mirvish at the Panasonic Theatre.

Though the play centers around a dinner party gone wrong, it mainly follows Amir (Raoul Bhaneja). He has done everything to fit in to the upper classes of white American society--switch from public defense law to corporate mergers and acquisitions, marry a white American woman (Emily, played by Birgitte Solem), and denounce his Islamic upbringing at every chance. When his efforts to reject the Islamic faith and hide this part of his identity backfire, his wife and the attendees of their celebratory dinner party get to watch him unravel.

The show is well-produced with a spotless set representing Amir and Emily's high-end loft. But unfortunately there's not much else I can say that I liked about the production. I will admit I was biased against Ayad Akhtar's play from the beginning. I read the script four years ago in an issue of American Theatre. It didn't impress me then. When a friend offered me a ticket last week, I decided to give it a second chance. After all, everyone here in Toronto was raving about it and this was a repeat, almost sold-out second engagement.

Unfortunately seeing it on stage, at least in this production, still did not win me over.

I did appreciate the play's commentary about white men being the next terrorists. It hit even harder now in the years after Sandy Hook, Orlando, Vegas and countless other shootings by mostly white men on American soil. I do also agree that cultural appropriation--a theme the play explores through the Islamic influences in Emily's art--is tricky and worth exploring. How do we honor the voices of minorities and their contributions to culture without appropriating or fetishizing their traditions? Then again, it is difficult to see Emily's abandonment of Islamic influences as an answer to this question, or because her husband uses his religious upbringing as an excuse for beating her.

My favorite character in the whole play, Jory (played by Karen Glave) had some fantastic one liners. In a room of different minorities all claiming "who has it worse?" Glave put everyone in their place without taking over the story. Besides the shock and awe of discovering an affair between her husband, Whitney art curator Isaac (Alex Poch-Goldin), and Emily, Jory's job still puts her in the position of the most power at the end of the play--a note that I did not miss.
Raoul Bhaneja as Amir

But in the end, Disgraced is another traditional dinner party, two act, ninety-minute play. The only difference is a man of Arab descent at the center of the action instead of a middle-aged white man. Electrifying acting and directing could have punched up the commentary and breathed more into the interpersonal relationships, but as my acting friend especially noted, that didn't happen either. Without the chemistry of a happily married couple, the love between blood relatives, or the playful trust of friendship, it did seem like the overarching institutions of religion and class were controlling the characters as they fought around the dinner table. To me, that's not a compelling story to watch. It's excuses.

To be fair, the play seemed like it landed well with the rest of the audience. The struggle of a privileged man of color in corporate culture did not speak to me, but perhaps it did to many older patrons who have worked in that world. Seeing the story of an Arab man might illuminate something new for them.

But for me, I think theatre can do so much more.

Free ticket as plus one with a friend, row Q.

Follies (National Theatre Broadcast)

You just never know how something is going to hit you. Last night I saw the National Theatre Broadcast of Follies with five friends. Among us, we have easily seen 80 live performances of Follies, including the original, the one in England in the 1980s with Diana Rigg, the concert version with Barbara Cook, Roundabout's, Encores!'s, the one with Bernadette Peters (in D.C. and in New York), Signature's (Arlington, VA), St. Bartholomew's, Paper Mills's, and a couple up in the Berkshires, many of them multiple times. We could probably perform the damn thing.

Photo: Johan Persson

We sat in a row. And the three of us sitting to the right liked it, and the three of us sitting to the left hated it. It was as though a line had been drawn in the middle, and we had completely different experiences on either side of it. (With one exception: we all loathed Tracie Bennett's version of "I'm Still Here.")

You never know.

The Oldish Woman and the Show (Art Times)

My latest essay is up at Art Times:
Many years ago, I had the magical experience of being there when my nephew Charlie, who was around six years old at the time, saw his first musical. It was Titanic, and he already knew the CD by heart. To say that he was rapt does not begin to describe his 100% concentration. We were in the last row, and at one point he leaned forward so far that he slipped off his seat. In contrast to the noisy high schoolers in front of us, he was a perfect audience member. In fact, he said only one thing: after a particular song, he leaned toward his mom and said, quietly and joyfully, “That was number 10.” Yes, he knew the numbers of all the songs on the CD.
(read more)

Monday, November 13, 2017

Nellie McKay: The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers

There are still some seats left for Nellie McKay: The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers at Joe's Pub on November 17 at 11:30. They're only $15, with a $12 cover (the fries are delish). Here's the link. If you like her, go. If you've never heard of her, go.

Seriously, go.

So now I suppose I should tell you who Nellie McKay is and describe the performance, but it's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll. When my nephew asked what kind of singer she was, all I could come up with is, "She's Nellie McKay." It's the only correct answer.

But, hey, I'll give it a try. Nellie McKay is sweet, lovely, talented, and funny, with an edge. She is innocent and experienced. She sings every sort of music, from 30's musicals to the Beatles and beyond, along with her own songs. (Her latest CD is My Weekly Reader. I highly recommend it. Song list here. The actual CD has two bonus songs.) She plays piano, ukulele, bells, clarinet, congas, cymbals, harmonica, keyboards, maracas, marimbas, organ, and tambourine.

In The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers, which is a solo show, McKay plays Joan Rivers, as well as many people in Rivers' life and people in movies Rivers watches (McKay does a great Dietrich). She inserts all sorts of songs, which she sings wonderfully. She also manages to include a lot of political commentary, as asides, which somehow fit right in and are incredibly funny while also pretty devastating. She accompanies herself on piano and uke. She is a little strange and quite talented.

During a McKay show, I tend to spend a fair amount of time thinking, "What is she doing?" and "How did she think of that?" I also laugh, a lot. And I adore her singing.

Anyway, I give up. I don't have the chops to describe the indescribable. Here's a link to some of her own work and a song from the 1920s. Check it out. And then go catch her at Joe's Pub. Really.

Wendy Caster
(paid for the ticket; sat the equivalent of 4th row, I guess?)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Introducing Maggie Sulc

I am excited to introduce Maggie Sulc as our new Canadian reviewer. As you can see from her bio below, she has a great deal of experience in both theatre and writing. Even better, at least in my opinion, is that she is also passionate and insightful, as you can see from the two posts she has already written: Marine Life and Cloud.

Based in Toronto, Maggie is a playwright and dramaturg. She moved to the Great White North from Texas to earn her MA in Theatre and Performance Studies from York University and has now become a permanent resident and Torontonian.

In her first year in Canada, Maggie saw over 90 theatre performances of many varieties and volunteered at 4 theatres and 2 festivals. Now she sees less theatre but makes a bit more of her own. Her theatre interests include immersive experiences, independent theatre, and new plays.

Her first reviewer gig was for the Rice Thresher at Rice University; she also writes for HowlRound on a semi-regular basis; and she's excited to bridge the gap between Toronto and the New York theatre scenes.

For more information about Maggie, check out her blog at or on Twitter @austinausten.