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Friday, July 21, 2017

Arcadia

Tom Stoppard always offers scrumptious meals for the head, but not always for the heart. Arcadia, his brilliant play about literature, history, math, science, gardening, and sex, features his best-ever balance between ideas and emotion. When well done, Arcadia is sheer pleasure start to finish (although audience members have been known to daydream during the math parts). PTP/NYC's current production (running through August 6th) is indeed well done, largely thanks to Cheryl Faraone's smart, clear, well-paced, and compassionate direction.


Arcadia exists in two time frames: the early 19th century and the late 20th. Both take place in the same room in an elegant house in Sidley Park, home to the Coverlys. The earlier period focuses on Thomasina Coverly, 13 years old and a genius, and her tutor Septimus Hodge, a smart and charming man who somehow juggles making a living, writing, and a healthy sex life. This time period features affairs, theorems, brilliance, and heartbreak.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"The World of Broadway Musicals"

I was recently interviewed by the Dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at Baruch College. Here's the resultant clip. Also, here is a nice picture, which I'd combine with the clip if I were even remotely more technically minded than I am.

 https://vimeo.com/225087846







Friday, July 14, 2017

New York Blackout: 1977

Forty years ago, on July 13, 1977, I was at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, watching Threepenny Opera starring Ellen Greene, Philip Bosco, Caroline Kava, and Tony Azito. I was standing on the side with some friends who were ushers, while my sister Holly and friend Roger were in the audience, bored out of their minds. B.O.R.E.D. (I loved the show but completely understood that Richard Foreman's direction was not for everyone.)

Ellen Greene, Raul Julie
in Threepenny Opera

Ellen Greene was singing "Pirate Jenny."

The lights went out. The amplification went out.

And Greene didn't miss a beat. She filled the large, roofless, dark Delacorte with her amazing voice, bringing shivers and goosebumps to the crowd. When Greene finished, we exploded with applause and cheers. (Years later, I discussed that night with someone who had been in the cast, and she said, "It sounded like World War II had ended.")

The show was stopped. The orchestra played for a while. Some of the performers danced on stage. And then the announcement came: This was a city-wide blackout. They sent us home.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Hello, Dolly!

Don't tell anyone, but until earlier this month, I'd never seen the stage or film version, or even listened to the score, of Hello, Dolly! This is kind of like a Vermeer specialist admitting she's never been to the Frick, a professional chef who's just never gotten around to cooking with rosemary, or a linguist who has a pretty good grasp of every Romance language except French. Oh, the shame! Aside from the titular song, which I've heard plenty because who the hell hasn't, I've never once crossed paths with the show. The current Broadway revival thus appealed to me less because of the allure of Bette Midler (though I'm sure she's swell) than because I could finally stop acting all nonchalant and informed whenever someone mentioned Dolly in conversation. Which, in my circles, happens way more often than you probably think.



Yippee! I've officially seen Hello, Dolly! and guess what? It was downright delightful. No offense to Midler, but I'm glad I got to see Murphy, who's shiny, bright-eyed, cheekbony, and goofy in the titular role. She's clearly enjoying playing to an adoringly receptive crowd (don't forget that she, too, has an ardent fan base and megatons of theatrical street cred). As Dolly, she's being over-the-top, stagy, playful Murphy--not super-serious, Passion-y, buried-deep-in-the-role Murphy. But that's exactly the right choice: the production, while perhaps not as glorious or storied as the long-running 1964 Merrick original, is great fun that no one in the cast takes too seriously, and that no one in the audience should, either. Especially since the plot kind of makes no sense and only gets stupider the more you think about it.

This revival of Hello, Dolly! strikes me as best received for the musical's flaws, not despite them. It's a bubbly, affectionate history lesson: a living reminder of the kind of sturdy, spectacular, joyfully imperfect show that dominated Broadway for decades during the so-called Golden Age, and that was already becoming kind of passe when Dolly first appeared. I say this as someone who favors contemporary musicals: seeing an old-school one, especially one done as well as this one is, can really be something special.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Cost of Living

What is a disability? Does it define a person? What does it mean to care about someone? To care for someone? What is trust? How is it earned?

Sullivan, Williams
Photo: Joan Marcus
These are just some of the questions addressed in Martyna Majok’s flawed but fascinating and touching new play, Cost of Living, playing at the Manhattan Theater Club.

Cost of Living follows two couples. In each case, one has a visible physical disability. And, in each case, the disability remains a focus of the play yet recedes to just one facet of an emotionally complex picture.

Cost of Living utilizes an almost competitive intersectionality. Who is more powerful? John (Gregg Mozgala), a white man who cannot dress or bathe himself but went to Harvard and has money and a well-developed sense of entitlement, or Jess (Jolly Abraham), his caregiver, a physically intact woman of color who went to Princeton but is broke and scared? Both have definite strengths (not always attractive) and both have definite weaknesses (not always visible). Their jousting grows amusing, and they seem to grow close, but can they ever really understand each other?

In the other couple, Ani (Katy Sullivan) is a double amputee who has turned coarse language into an art form. Eddie (Victor Williams), from whom she is separated, is terribly lonely and wants to get back into Ani's life. He offers care, and caring, but Ani is reluctant to trust him, particularly since he is still living with another woman.

Cost of Living is so involving that its flaws don't become apparent until later. The opening monologue is too long. The fact that what follows is a flashback is unclear. A major plot point--a misunderstanding--isn't totally convincing. And there's a coincidence that's hard to buy.

But it's Majok’s character studies that make Cost of Living a must-see, along with the casting of actual disabled people, one of whom is quite good (Mozgala) and one of whom is brilliant (Sullivan). In fact, the show is well worth seeing for Sullivan's performance alone.

The recent trend toward hiring disabled people to play disabled people is fabulous and important, and I hope it's not a passing fad. But real progress will be hiring disabled people to play characters not written as disabled.

And I would gladly see Katy Sullivan in pretty much anything!

Monday, July 03, 2017

Marvin's Room

Marvin's Room lost me quickly. Perhaps it's because I've been dealing with bunches of doctors recently and they've been wonderful, but I found Marvin's 
Room's jokey, stupid physician who can't remember his patient's name and uses his teeth to open a sterile package to be offensive and anything but funny. Even less amusing are jokes about roaches in doctor's offices.



In addition, director Anne Kauffman utilizes pacing appropriate to a funeral, and while Marvin's Room is about death and dying, it's still supposed to be funny. The lethargy hastens the play's death, if not the characters'. Also, she allows Lili Taylor and Janeane Garofalo quiet, internalized performances that are possibly effective from the fifth row but come across as distant and boring from the rear orchestra. Worst of all, Celia Weston's performance seems one-dimensional and artificial, and that's got to be Kauffman's fault; Weston doesn't do one-dimensional and artificial.

The set is distractingly ugly and fails to effectively distinguish indoors from outdoors.

It may be that in the second act, things improve. I don't know. I wasn't there.

Wendy Caster
(highly discounted ticket; rear orchestra, audience left)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Shelter

In spring of 1973, I saw a sweet new musical called Shelter written by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, who would later write I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road. I liked it so much that I gave up a ticket to see Alan Bates in Butley so that I could see its final performance, which was all too soon after its first. (It had 16 previews and 31 performances; for the New York Times review, click here.)



Decades later, I remembered only a few things from Shelter: the two songs on the 45 that was the only record released from the show; that Marcia Rodd was wonderful; and that the show presciently featured a man more emotionally involved with his computer than the real world.

Last night I was able to see Shelter again, in a concert version at 54 Below, starring Cryer's son Jon, of Two and a Half Men fame. And it was a delightful evening, full of wonderful songs and lots of laughs.

But oh, I wish Gretchen Cryer would rewrite the book, which wants us to believe that not one, not two, but three women are in love with Michael, the repressed man ultimately comfortable only with his computer, yet perfectly able to have sex with any female who passes by. It didn't help that Jon Cryer played Michael blandly, leaving a hole in the middle of the show, but even with a more charismatic lead, the show would still be about three women circling an idiot man, which is just not that interesting. It not only fails the famous Bechdel Test, but it also would probably disappoint Heather Jones, the lead character in the ur-feminist musical, Getting My Act Together. I would love to see what Gretchen Cryer would do with the story now.

Whatever Shelter's limitations, it was a gift to get to see it again, and I tip my hat to Steven Carl McCasland and James Horan, who produce the Second Act Series at 54 Below, giving neglected shows their moment in the spotlight. I also very much enjoyed Sally Ann Triplett as Maud, Jeff Kready as Arthur, the Computer, and Alyse Alan Louise as Wednesday November.

(I also enjoyed the Peeketoe crab fritters and plantain chips with guacamole.)

Wendy Caster
(tdf ticket; sat near stage by piano)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Art Times: Is Broadway Invulnerable?

My latest essay is up at Art Times:
The original title of this essay was “Is Broadway Committing Suicide? And Does It Matter?” But the more I thought about it, the more I came to admire Broadway’s dogged longevity. (read more)