Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Escaped Alone

Caryl Churchill's brilliant, bizarre, puzzling, horrifying, and strangely sweet Escaped Alone packs the punch of a major dystopia into its lean 55 minutes. It also allows us to meet, enjoy, and maybe understand four 70-something women sitting and chatting in a cozy, distinctly non-dystopian, backyard.

Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, June Watson
Photo: Richard Termine

Part of the play is easily comprehended. Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) peeks into a backyard through a slightly open door in the fence and ends up spending the afternoon (or perhaps multiple afternoons) with Sally (Deborah Findlay), who suffers from an extreme fear of cats; Lena (Kika Markham), depressed almost into paralysis; and Vi (June Watson), who spent six years behind bars for killing her husband, perhaps accidentally, perhaps in self-defense, perhaps neither. Their conversation is presented as unfinished sentences and half-expressed thoughts that somehow paint fully dimensional portraits. It's verbal pointillism. Each woman also gets a monologue, unheard by the others, in which she expresses some of her deepest emotions.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Love For Sale: The History of Sex in Musicals

Hey, have you wanted nothing other than to listen to me, director John Rando, and producer Jack Viertel talk about sex and musicals in a very nice performance space in lower Manhattan? Well, hell, now's your chance, for the low low price of $20!

Click here for the link to buy tickets.

Join us, won't you? The discussion happens on Monday, February 27 at 7.

Rando and Viertel are knowledgable, funny, and smart. I'm sure I'll think of something to say, too.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Art Times: What Is Good Acting?

My latest essay is up at Art Times:
Good acting is a matter of opinion. A performance that you perceive as brilliantly emotional, I might perceive as overacting. A performance that strikes me as subtle might strike you as dull. Many factors affect our opinions, including performers’ talents, looks, and charisma—and whether they resemble someone we used to date.       
Click here to read more. 

Colleen Dewhurst in A Moon for the Misbegotten

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Marian, or The True Tale of Robin Hood

The Sherwood Forest in the Flux Theatre Ensemble's delightful production of Adam Szymkowicz's Marian, or The True Tale of Robin Hood has its full complement of merry men--except most of them aren't actually men. They dress as men and pass as men, because that's the way things are done, but their sexual identities and orientations are considerably more complicated than back in Errol Flynn's day (or, at least, more complicated than people admitted back in Errol Flynn's day). You might think it would be difficult to find love when you don't even know each others' genders--and when you're busy robbing from the rich to give to the poor--but in fact it may be easier. In this Sherwood Forest, sexual ambiguity leads people to fall in love with each other's hearts and souls instead of the bodies they are packaged in.

Illustration: Kristy Caldwell

Love is the underpinning of Marian, but fighting for what's right is its substance. I don't know when Szymkowicz started writing the play, but the timing of this production is perfect. Amidst the madcap goings-on, wonderful duels, and grin-producing theatricality, there is always the serious business at hand: ridding the world of a self-centered, foolish, squeamish, idiot of a king whose life work is robbing from the poor to give to himself.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Yours Unfaithfully

So much depends on where you begin a play. Do you start when character A is behaving well? Or when character B is? Do you start at the foundation of their relationship or in media res? In Yours Faithfully, written in 1933 but currently getting its world premiere at the invaluable Mint Theater Company, playwright Miles Malleson starts a little too in media res for my taste.

Max von Essen; Elisabeth Gray
(photo: Richard Termine)

[spoilers follow] 

Anne and Stephen have been together for eight years. Many of their friends consider them an amazing couple. In fact, their compatibility has been rated at 80%, when most couples are rated at 20%. But there is trouble in the 80% paradise, or at least a sense of unease. Stephen has lost his joie de vivre and succumbed to writer's block. Anne is happily busy with the school she runs and their children (never seen), and she suspects that Stephen needs a new muse/lover. She chooses their friend Diana, who is just coming out of mourning her husband. Stephen and Diana eagerly accept Anne's generosity, and soon Stephen is happy and writing again--and perhaps more in love with Anne than ever, due to his new freedom. Just one problem: no matter how much Anne tells herself that jealousy is beneath her, she cannot help what she feels: terribly, terribly, terribly jealous.

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Due to some health issues, it has been two and a half months since I've seen a play--what a gift that the first one back was August Wilson's superb Jitney, beautifully directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

The story is simple, and painfully timely, even though it takes place in 1977: developers are taking over the neighborhood and ruining people's lives along the way. In Jitney, the location is a storefront car service in Pittsburgh. The people are, mostly, the cab drivers, each with his own story, needs, faults, and foibles. While simple descriptions of the characters (the drunk, the numbers runner, the young mother disappointed in her man) might sound like cliches or types, in Wilson's hands they are fully dimensional and heartbreakingly real. They are also great company.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen is an intimate, well-crafted, well-performed musical, the kind that tidily trashes the generalized dismissal of musical theater as an emotionally overwrought genre filled with forced cheeriness and an abundance of glitz. Performed by a small cast on a sleek, deceptively simple set of sliding panels designed to look like the glossy, liquid screens of laptops, tablets and cellphones, Dear Evan Hansen is, on one level, about the way teenagers relate to their peers and to adults (or don't) in the technological age. But it goes deeper to examine contemporary cultural phenomena, like technology's role in what is sometimes referred to as "inspiration porn" and the ways that the very existence of the Internet can magnify the sorts of awkward, unpleasant social shit adolescents struggle with and always have, even when it couldn't be magnified and instantly replicated across the world with the click of a button.

The musical is moving, layered, and very impressively performed. There's been a lot of buzz, which began when the show premiered off-Broadway at Second Stage last spring, about just how brilliant Ben Platt is in the title role, and it's entirely warranted. Only a handful of years older than Evan, a high-school senior, is supposed to be, Platt clearly remembers well the emotional roller-coaster of adolescence. His Evan is all coiled anxiety, crippling self-consciousness and monstrous self-doubt, and the character is as frustrating and as heartbreaking as your average teen can be. Evan's single mom, an equally memorable Rachel Bay Jones, works long hours, takes classes at night, and thus tends to worry about and dote on her son from a harried distance. It's a testament to the writing and the performances that their relationship, ultimately the heart of the musical, never feels hollow or strained.

Neither, really, does the slightly tidy ending, which is a little cleaner than it surely would have been had the proceedings depicted in Dear Evan Hansen taken place in real life instead of over the course of a two-hour musical. Still, and while it never tortures its characters, Dear Evan Hansen makes it clear that none of them make it through a tough, morally questionable stretch without consequences: some close relationships are ruined; others grow much stronger. Still, the show implies, everyone involved will move on, heal, eventually be all right. This is not a bad message to impart; I took it as a gift.

And for the record, my daughter, the friends I saw the show with, and I can't wait for the cast recording to be released later this winter.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Debbie Reynolds in Irene

It was late summer 1974 and Debbie Reynolds was returning to the musical Irene for a brief stint before taking it on the road. (Jane Powell had been her replacement.) My friend R and I decided that we had to see it again, and this time in good seats.

I think this was the very first time I paid full price for a good seat. We usually sat in the cheap seats or wherever the TKTS booth or twofers put us. While it seems laughable now, spending $9 was a big deal. After all, I was making less than $2/hour in my part-time job as a cashier at Mays Department Store.