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Monday, October 16, 2017

Mary Jane

The beautiful, incredibly nuanced Mary Jane, currently at New York Theatre Workshop, does what seems impossible: it burrows deep into a character who practically forces herself to be two-dimensional. Credit for one of the most finely-wrought productions I've seen in a long time seems evenly distributed across the entire company, from playwright Amy Herzog to director Anne Kauffman to a universally solid five-woman cast. This is one of those shows that grabs you quickly, and then only gets better the more you think about it. I'm still marveling over its depictions and its many smart choices, and expect I will continue to for quite some time.

Joan Marcus
Mary Jane is all the more remarkable considering the fact that as a play, it is quietly descriptive, but not at all big on Maximum Staginess or Dramatically Well-Paced Moments. More a succession of scenes depicting days in a small if very complicated life, Mary Jane doesn't go in for more exposition or subtext than it has to. Its refusal to slop into cheap sentiment is especially noteworthy considering the fact that the titular character is a divorced woman with a (never seen or heard) catastrophically ill special-needs child. If there's anything that invites melodrama, or what I have sometimes heard called "inspiration porn," a show about a single parent with a very special kid is probably gonna top the list.

But Mary Jane (an excellent Carrie Coon) has absolutely no time for pity. She's too busy putting one almost impossibly competent foot in front of the other, even as the treadmill she walks gets ever faster. She's almost exhausting in her unwillingness to budge from behind her chipper, ultra-positive facade: not when she's offered unsolicited, ludicrously alarmist (if well-meaning) advice, not when one of her son's nurses borders on dangerous incompetency, not when she's nearing termination from a job she frequently can't make it in for, and certainly not during the most terrifying of medical emergencies.

I know special-needs parents like Mary Jane. I probably even turn into her sometimes, even though I have a devoted partner and my kid has nowhere near the special needs hers does. She's built up the kind of coping mechanisms we happen to excel at developing in the face of umpteen forms, countless meetings, annual assessments, regularly scheduled tests, friendly advice from the totally uninformed, totally informed advice from the not always friendly, wellsprings of undesired and unsolicited pity, and endless judgments, less from above than from across: across the playground, the restaurant, the grocery store, the subway, the dinner party. We all cope differently; Mary Jane's unique cocktail of defense blends quick jokes, self-deprecation, displaced anxiety, a too-cool demeanor, and a stubborn refusal to think too deeply, ever, about how she feels, what she wants, how weary she is. To contemplate any of it would result in a headfirst fall into a bottomless abyss.

It is only in the second half of the play, set in the pediatric wing of a hospital during a particularly lengthy stay, when Mary Jane starts to show cracks in her veneer. Yet even these are barely perceptible: an extra beat between questions to her son's neurologist following an especially ominous response; conversations with hospital staff and fellow parents that veer into newly complicated spiritual territory; a particularly terse exchange with a hard-to-schedule music therapist. Still--no spoilers, here--the play doesn't tie up all its loose ends nicely and neatly. Lives--especially those devoted, even in part, to the very special and very sick--have a pesky way of not resolving perfectly at the well-timed end of a two-hour stretch.

Mary Jane  doesn't make a big dramatic splash, but it ripples out beautifully into ever wider circles nonetheless. It's an astonishingly good production of an astonishingly good play. If you get the chance, make this the one show you rush out to see before it closes.  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

AM I DEAD? The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave

Anyone who regularly reads Show Showdown knows that I am a huge fan of the Flux Theatre Ensemble. The Lesser Seductions of History, Dog Act, Hearts Like Fists, Jane the Plain, and Sans Merci were all tremendous and beautiful productions, full of love and talent and insight and compassion. They are among my favorite shows of the past 20 years.


But everyone has a bad day at work now and then, and unfortunately, AM I DEAD? The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave is Flux's.

AM I DEAD? takes place in a purgatory where people who have broken black men psychologically are sentenced to put them back together, literally, even if it takes forever. The purgatorians exist in a workroom full of rocks and tiny pieces of what look like wood or fiber and turn out to be the minute remains of the black men who have been broken. (The set, by Will Lowry, is wonderful, full of mystery and just the right amount of creepiness.) The people in purgatory--Mrs. John Gray, Isaac, and Tatiana--have to find the appropriate bits and pieces and re-form them into the men they have wronged. It is an impossible task. Mrs. John Gray has been at it since the mid-19th century and Isaac since 1991. Tatiana joins them early in the play.


The purgatorians' work is interspersed with scenes from their lives with the black men they have wronged. (They are all played by the truly amazing Corey Allen, who makes each one distinct and specific and switches from one to the other almost imperceptibly).


As AM I DEAD? unfolds, it becomes clear that this is a morality play about the mistreatment of black men in the US. Commentary on Rachel Dolezal (the infamous white woman who decided she was black), born-again Christians, and even the Egyptian Gods Isis, Osiris, and Horus is stirred in.


The ideas in AM I DEAD? are interesting, and there's no arguing with the politics. The mistreatment of black men is a national horror of which we all must be ashamed and against which we all must fight. But a play must work on its own terms, and unfortunately, AM I DEAD? is preachy, repetitive, and heavy-handed. It outlines its messages in bold and italic again and again, and good theatrical moments (the projections; the way the people hold their stomachs after seeing scenes from their lives) go from being hard-hitting and impressive to boring and even annoying.


Perhaps the biggest flaw in AM I DEAD? is that it lacks the compassion that I consider to be the hallmark of Flux Productions. It may sound strange to expect compassion for people in purgatory, but it's a theatrical necessity for the play to work. Presented without compassion, the main characters become flat. Anything valuable they have done in their lives is dismissed; they are judged only by their faults. In real life, I have zero compassion for the cops who shoot innocent black men, but if they were in a play, I'd want them to be fully dimensional characters. (In contrast, the black men are a little too good, which flattens them as well.)


If you want the audience to accept your message, you have to give us a way in. As it is, AM I DEAD? works against our identifying with the purgatorians, and allows us a simple out: we're not that bad. And when the show ends with the actors facing the audience and accusing us, it's offensive rather than powerful. Considering that the Flux audience is likely quite aware of the great shame of racism in our country, and also that many of us are anti-racism activists, and furthermore that some of us are black men ourselves, you have a case of not only preaching to the choir, but attacking the choir.


I am nevertheless excited to see the next Flux production, and the one after that.


Wendy Caster

(third row, press ticket)

Written by Kevin R. Free. Featuring Corey Allen, Lori E. Parquet, Anna Rahn, Alisha Spielmann, and Isaiah Tanenbaum. Directed by Heather Cohn. Scenic Design by Will Lowry, Lighting Design by Kia Rogers, Costume Design by Jerry L. Johnson, and Sound Design by Asa Wember. Dramaturg-Community Organizer, Nissy Aya; Fight Director, Brian Lee Huynh; Production Stage Manager, Jodi M. Witherell.Co-presented by the Theater at the 14th Street Y from  October 7-21. 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Time and the Conways

In J.B. Priestley's 1937 play, Time and the Conways, it's 1919 and the Conways are giving a party for daughter Kay's 21st birthday. While the guests enjoy themselves elsewhere, various Conways retreat to a side room to prepare for charades, rest themselves, chat, and freak out a bit. The Conways are well-off and happy in some ways, but the father has recently died and of course they've just been through the Great War.

Kay (Charlotte Parry, superb and unique) wants to be a writer, Hazel (Anna Camp, touching and beautiful) wants to marry well, Madge (Brooke Bloom, energetic and moving) is a socialist who wants to change the world, and Carol (excellent and tremendously likable) wants people to be nice, get along, and tell the truth. Their amiably ineffectual brother Alan (Gabriel Ebert, just right), loves their friend Joan (Cara Ricketts, quite good). The other brother, Robin (Matthew James Thomas, unconvincing), is a war hero full of promise.



And then there is their mother, Mrs. Conway (Elizabeth McGovern, not particularly impressive), an ostensibly charming woman who can--and does--devastate her children with the most seemingly innocuous of comments. Only Robin is safe from her acid tongue.

Throw in the passage of years, a little jumping around in time, a soup├žon of metaphysical philosophy, smart and insightful writing, wonderful design elements, smooth direction (Rebecca Taichman) and a largely first-class ensemble, and you have an excellent and surprisingly contemporary evening in the theater.

One thing: Elizabeth McGovern should not have gotten a solo bow. Not only is Time and the Conways an ensemble piece, but McGovern is far from the best thing in it. On the other hand, if her name and association with Downton Abbey helped get this production put on, then all I can say is, thank you.

Wendy Caster
(third row on the aisle; friend won the lottery so ticket was only $19.19)

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Show-Off

There is a unique satisfaction that comes from watching a solid revival of a well-made play from the early or middle 20th century. This is why I have long been a fan of The Mint Theater Company; it is also why I have just become a fan of The Peccadillo Theater Company.

O'Toole, Hudson
Photo: Jeremy Daniel
The Peccadillo's production of George Kelly's odd but effective comedy, The Show-Off, is more than solid. It is wry and real, and it manages to show the play's relevance to today while never betraying its place in the past. Written in 1924, The Show-Off tells the tale of a reasonably functional family that is thrown off-kilter when Amy, the younger daughter, falls in love with Aubrey Piper, a genial, hyper-friendly, lying, manipulative con man. He is not a con man in terms of scamming people in particular ways or using set methods of fraud. Instead, he improvises as he goes, relying heavily on cheerful lies and Amy's besotted gullibility. The rest of her family see right through him, plus they know that he is a clerk rather than the supervisor he claims to be. (He also has a laugh that would cause a hyena to put its paws in its ears.) Amy's mother, father, and sister refrain from criticizing Aubrey, when they can help it; they know that their censure only pushes Amy further into his arms.

The weakness of The Show-Off, at least in this production, is that you have to accept that Amy would be--could be--so blind as not to see Aubrey for who he is. Ian Gould's take on the role, while amusing, is so broad that it makes Amy seem flat-out stupid to love him. But if you're willing to accept the premise that she does, indeed, adore him, then the play works like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

Kelly's excellent writing is fabulously supported by Dan Wackerman's direction and the wonderful acting of, in particular, Annette O'Toole as Amy's humorously frustrated mother Mrs. Fisher and Elise Hudson as Amy's sister Clara, who cannot figure out why her husband doesn't quite love her. (The answer is clear to a modern audience and probably was pretty clear to one in the 1920s as well.)

The design elements are all attractive and effective: scenic and lighting design by Harry Feiner, costume design by Barbara A. Bell, sound design by Quentin Chiappetta, and properties design by Jessica C. Ayala. Particular kudos are due to Paul Huntley for his wonderful wigs, which do not call attention to themselves and completely support the sense that Amy, Clara, and their mother are indeed related to one another.

I had heard of the Peccadillo Theater Company, but since in New York City you can't see everything (hell, you can't even make a dent), I had never caught one of their productions. I will be sure to catch them in the future.

Wendy Caster
(front orchestra, taken by a friend)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Treasurer

There is a certain gravitas that automatically attaches to a play about dementia starring Deanna Dunagan and Peter Friedman and produced at Playwrights Horizons. Because of this gravitas, it can take a while to realize that there is very little there there.



Max Posner's play, as directed by David Cromer, has a certain power as any play about dementia must. Yet it distances itself from truly engaging the audience by having few face-to-face encounters (the play largely consists of phone calls), by using a cold and unattractive set, and by failing to establish the characters' personalities. The two main characters are difficult (her) and controlling and angry (him), and that's as far as it goes. Dunagan and Friedman do much to provide complexity and humanity, but the play limits their ability to draw truly human characters. The other characters barely exist.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Critical Companion to the American Stage Musical

Yes, I know, that does sound like the dryest name for the most boring play, ever, but I'm not discussing a show, here: this is the (admittedly fairly dry) title of my latest book, which was released by Bloomsbury/Methuen late last week, and which you can link to here and also here. For whatever reason, if you order from Bloomsbury directly (the first link), it's cheaper than if you order from Amazon (the second link).


Just so you don't confuse this particular Critical Companion to the American Stage Musical with any others that happen to be floating around out there, the cover, which I think is very nice, looks like this:



While the books title does sound very clinical and foreboding, I can assure you that this is a fairly breezy treatment, at least by academic standards, and that I wrote it with general audiences in mind. It intends to deliver a history of the Broadway musical that touches at various times on the development of the commercial theater industry, the growth of New York City, and various cultural shifts that take place across the country. I worked hard on it, and hope that the finished product is useful, reasonably entertaining, and that there aren't too many errors in it.

I'll be back to regularly scheduled commentary on theater--both musical and otherwise--once the fall season gets rolling and my semester starts chugging along without the fits and starts typical of the early stretch.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

As You Like It

I saw John Doyle's production of As You Like It at the CSC at an early preview, and this isn't a review per se. It's just some thoughts.



  • Yes, some of the performers do play instruments.
  • It's 90 minutes long, sans intermission, with chunks cut out. Doyle always thinks he knows better than geniuses how to present their work. If you don't know the show, you might want to read a synopsis before you go.
  • That being said, it is a pretty enjoyable production.
  • The poster is completely wrong for the production's mood.
  • I loved Doyle's scenic design, except for the parts that got in the performers' way and risked knocking them unconscious.
  • Doyle has Ellen Burstein sit for a really, really long time on an uncomfortable trunk (her feet don't even reach the ground) before she actually says anything, much as he had George Takei in Pacific Overtures sit on a uncomfortable chair (you could see him swaying) for a really, really long time before he said anything. In both cases, it was quite distracting.
  • Burstein has never worked for me in anything other than contemporary pieces. There is something about her voice that is thin, flat, and modern. Her "seven ages of man" speech is unimpressive. On the other hand, she  excels with one liners, dismissive hand gestures, and wry looks.
  • A few of the performers are so busy showing how fast they can speak Shakespeare's language that they forget to be intelligible. It's particularly a problem when their backs are to us, which happens with some regularity. It's not a speed contest, folks. Enunciate!
  • It's always a treat to see Bob Stillman do his thing at the piano.
  • Hannah Cabell should be a star. She is always excellent and quite likable. It turns out that she has a lovely singing voice as well. Cabell makes an amazing and entertaining Rosalind.
  • Yeah, do go see this.
Wendy Caster
(2nd row on the side, behind a couple who kept talking, the female of whom gave me the finger when I shushed her despite the fact she was likely annoying the performers as well as me. Tdf ticket.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Doll's House, Part 2

I'm late to the A Doll's House, Part 2 bandwagon, and I nearly missed it entirely. But a friend saw the show and raved, so I decided to finally check it out.



And, yes, it's as good as everyone says. The plot is simple: Nora returns to get Torvald to legally divorce her. Author Lucas Hnath tells his story with humor and compassion; Sam Gold directs smoothly and smartly. The cast is excellent: Julie White is snappy yet vulnerable as Nora; Stephen McKinley Henderson is a surprisingly human Torvald; Jayne Houdyshell is her usual wonderful self as the maid who brought up Nora (and is quick to point out that she brought up Nora's kids as well); and Erin Wilhelmi is close to perfect as Nora's sweetly passive-aggressive daughter. (My only real complaint is that White's and Wilhelmi's voices both get unpleasantly high-pitched at times.)

And the show gets extra points for multiculti casting.

A Doll's House, Part 2 only runs through Sunday. Catch it if you can!

Wendy Caster
(8th row, audience right, tdf ticket)