Saturday, October 18, 2014

Lips Together, Teeth Apart

Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and premiered Off-Broadway in 1991. The original production—which starred Nathan Lane, Swoosie Kurtz, Christine Baranski, and Anthony Heald—was an instant smash, running for over a year; an LA production, with Lane, Andrea Martin, and John Glover, was also very successful. The work of a gay author who would go on to write several plays about AIDS from a gay perspective, Lips Together is unique—both then and now—for portraying the experience of a disease so often linked with the gay community through a heterosexual lens. Some might even call the play a precursor to McNally’s enormously successful, similarly-themed Love! Valour! Compassion!.

Lips Together was set to make its Broadway debut in 2010, via the Roundabout Theatre Company, but that production was derailed just weeks before it was set to begin previews when its star, Megan Mullally, abruptly quit. (Rumors at the time swirled that Mullally had tried to get her co-star Patton Oswalt fired, in order to replace him with her husband, Nick Offerman). The piece is now receiving its first New York revival under the auspices of the Off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre. As with any once-current play that has aged into a period piece, there are more than a few creaky moments. And while this production is smoothly directed (by Peter DuBois) and features at least one stand-out performance, it does not make a convincing case for the play as an enduring masterpiece.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Oldest Boy

Tenzin is three years old. He lives in what is described as "an American city with a large Tibetan community." His Mother (Celia Keenan-Bolger) is a white American academic, whose literary specialty is the use of religious symbolism in the works of atheist authors. His Father (James Yaegashi) is a Buddhist exile who owns a Tibetan restaurants. In all respects, Tenzin appears to be a normal toddler. That is, until the day two monks arrive at the family's house and inform his parents that they believe him to be the reincarnation of a venerated Lama.

Sarah Ruhl's The Oldest Boy, currently in previews at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, looks at issues of faith, family, and sacrifice through cultural and religious lenses. The characters, particularly Mother and Father (with the exception of Tenzin--the title character--no other figures are given names), are forced to question the duties they owe to their past, their future, and their culture. When the monks ask permission to take Tenzin to India to be "enthroned," and educated so that he may achieve his full potential within the Buddhist tradition, the American notions of childhood and family are placed in contrast with the Tibetan monastic custom. The family must decide whether to keep their son at home, in America, or sacrifice his life for the well-being of a country he will likely never see.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

You Can't Take It With You

Sara Krulwich
You Can't Take It With You, currently running in star-studded revival at the Longacre, has been reviewed twice already on this blog. Wendy really enjoyed it (you can read her review here); Cameron really didn't (you can read his review here). I'd place my take on the production somewhere in-between theirs, though maybe a little closer to the Wendy side of things (sorry, Cameron): I enjoyed myself, in large part because I found the current Broadway production to be lively and well-performed and quite funny. But also, I dug the nostalgia trip: I played Penelope Sycamore in the Central Catholic High School of Pittsburgh's 1983 fall production, and seeing the show (with a friend who played Alice in a Denver high school production a few years later) brought back fond, if surprisingly fleeting, memories. Was the revival the best thing I've ever seen on Broadway, or even at the Longacre? No. Was it the worst? No. Did it seem like the all-star cast was having as much fun as I remember having when I was in the play? You betcha.

You'll likely have lots of fun, too, if you go to see it. Then again, the world probably won't end if you don't, and You Can't Take It With You is all about doing what you feel like doing, so you can decide and I won't judge you either way. That's about all I have to say about this particular production. I'd rather talk here, instead, about You Can't Take It With You from a more socio-historical perspective. Again, honest, I won't judge you if you stop reading right now.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

The only aspect of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time about which I am curious is what the appeal of this show is to so many people. Adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s prize-winning novel and transported from London, where it won seven Olivier Awards and continues to do brisk business, the current Broadway production opened over the weekend to rapturous reviews. (Example: Marilyn Stasio of Variety implores us to “believe the buzz” and describes it as “spectacular, like Cirque du Soleil for the brain.” Okay.) The box office numbers are through the roof, and major award nominations are a foregone conclusion. Then why did virtually every aspect of this endeavor leave me so cold?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Disgraced

photo: Joan Marcus
 
Disgraced, Ayad Ahktar’s Pulitzer-winning powder keg of a play, is finally making its Main Stem debut. Produced once again by Lincoln Center, it has arrived at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre without losing a smidge of its volcanic force. Smoothly directed by Kimberly Senior (who helmed the previous Off-Broadway production two seasons ago) and performed by a peerless cast, this is easily the most thought-provoking, entertaining, and frankly, chilling piece of theatre currently in New York.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Rock Bottom

Bridget Everett, creator and performer of Rock Bottom, has been described as challenging, gutsy, provocative, hard-rocking, raunchy, and raucous, and those adjectives don't even begin to describe her in-your-face persona. With songs like "Tell Me (Does This Dick Make My Ass Look Big)" and "Eat It," she holds no punches in her depiction of aggressive sexuality and human foibles. Much of her material sounds like it is out of a drag queen's show; the rest takes feminism to places it hasn't been before. Her language is, uh, straightforward. The only word she uses more than cunt is pussy, and the only word she uses more than pussy is dick. If her sort of work is your cup of tea, you'll have a great time. She's very good at what she does.
Photo: Kevin Yatarola

If, however, you're like me, you'll find the show long, boring, obnoxious, and unpleasant.

Since Rock Bottom is so much a matter of taste, there's not a lot for me to add in terms of a review. However, I do want to discuss the concept of "consenting adults" in theatre.

In the course of Rock Bottom, Everett has much to say against rape and molestation, and how they are the perpetrators' responsibility and not the victims'. Her song, "Put Your Dick Away," makes its points in vivid language. I admire her for taking on this important topic in a cabaret act. But...

The Last Ship

On one hand, The Last Ship, music and lyrics by Sting, book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, has already had a run in Chicago and should be in pretty good shape. On the other hand, it doesn't open for a few more weeks, and the show might still change. So take these comments with a larger grain of salt than usual.
The story is basic. A young Englishman doesn't want to do the difficult and dangerous manual labor--in this case, building ships--done by his father and the other men in his town. So he leaves. He promises his girlfriend he will return or send for her. Many years pass. The ship-building industry moves from Northeast England to Asia. The now-idle men feel angry and ashamed. They decide to become strippers. Oh, wait, wrong show. They decide to build one more ship. Their foul-mouthed priest helps them. 

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Lady Parts by Andrea Martin

It should come as no surprise that Lady Parts, the recently released memoir from Broadway favorite Andrea Martin, is often hysterically funny. Along with Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, and John Candy, among others, Martin is one of the original SCTV cast members, memorable for creating Edith Prickley and impersonating everyone from Indira Gandhi to Liza Minnelli. She has two Tonys on her mantel, winning her most recent one for last year’s gravity-defying turn as Berthe in Pippin (a role she’s currently recreating, for a short time, on the national tour). On screen, she’s known for scene-stealing turns in films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Yes, Martin’s comedy credits are legit.

Bootycandy

By intermission, I found Bootycandy to be an entertaining, occasionally insightful, and random collection of skits. By the end of the play, I realized that Bootycandy is a smart, brave, wily, and important exploration of race, sexuality, and humanity, and an entertaining, very insightful, not-so-random collection of skits.

Phillip James Brannon, Jessica Frances Dukes,
Benja Kay Thomas, Lance Coadie Williams
Photo: Joan Marcus

Written and directed by the impressive Robert O'Hara, Bootycandy mainly presents scenes from the life of Sutter, a gay African-American. There are also scenes without Sutter. One of them, a rather extraordinary sermon, is clearly part of Sutter's story. Another, an almost mugging, seems out of left field, but turns out to be a set-up for a later scene. Together, they add up to an amazingly complex whole that depicts and often satirizes black culture, white culture, theatre culture, black homophobia, white homophobia, human stupidity, and the ways that difficult childhoods can warp people's souls.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Next to Normal

Next to Normal is a superb musical. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's depiction of a woman derailed by mental illness and loss, and of the people around her, mixes compassion, humor, insight, and a wonderful score to explore the deepest parts of human lives. It's a staggering achievement in many ways. (The plot is discussed in mega-spoiler detail below.)

Benjamin Sheff, Carman Napier
Photo: Bella Muccari
The Gallery Players' production of Next to Normal (running through October 5) is an honorable, straightforward, and frequently successful attempt to grapple with this challenging show. Next to Normal needs, first and foremost, a top-notch actress and singer to play Diana, the lead character, as she struggles with bipolar disorder, disappointment, and grief. Carman Napier is up to the challenge. Her performance is smart and subtle; her singing is excellent and her enunciation is clear; and she looks and feels right in the part. She's too young, but she's so good that it doesn't matter.

Next to Normal also needs to be technically successful; the sound, in particular, is quite important. In this aspect, unfortunately, the production fails. At best, the balance between music and performer is barely okay; at worst, it is terrible. The night I saw the show, Lindsay Bayer, as Natalie, was frequently inaudible, through no fault of her own. It wasn't clear if her mike was broken or the sound cues were off, but her performance was lost. As was much else.

While I Yet Live

photo: James Leynse
 
Billy Porter, the talented, Tony-winning star of Kinky Boots, makes his playwriting debut with the autobiographical drama While I Yet Live. The production, directed by Sheryl Kaller and presented by Primary Stages, is handsomely staged and generally well-acted, but the play--like several of its central characters--suffers from an identity crisis. Porter doesn't seem to have known what he wanted to write: is it a kitchen-sink family drama, a coming-of-age (and coming out) story, a meditation on faith and its effect on black lives, a record of hard-won personal growth? In the end, he tries to incorporate all of these elements into one play, and the result is lopsided.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On the Town

A new Broadway revival of On the Town began previews over the weekend at the oft-renamed Lyric (nee Foxwoods, nee Hilton, nee Ford) Theatre. There were no survivors.

This is not going to be a complete review. I left at intermission, so I can only base my opinions on what I saw in the first act. Yet, what I saw truly appalled me. This is the kind of production where, if it was your introduction to the piece, you'd wonder what caused anyone to hold it in any regard. This staging is so bad that it calls the unquestionable genius of the piece--the gorgeous Leonard Bernstein score, the witty and wry Comden and Green lyrics, the delightful cast of characters--into question. From Joshua Bergasse's listless choreography, to John Rando's tone-deaf direction, to a principal company painfully short on charisma, there's nothing to be found that rates a big Navy E.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Waiting for Godot (Vartn af Godot)


Waiting for Godot is one of those masterpieces of modern drama that everyone has read or seen or, at the very least, picked up the basics of through cultural absorption. (If you have managed to make it to this point in your life without ever having heard a thing about the play, here you go: Two guys with memory issues wait around in a sort of dreamy, disconnected wasteland for someone named Godot. They meet two other memory-challenged guys who are locked in a real whopper of a power struggle, and the four of them all kill time together. Then there's an intermission, and pretty much the same things happen again in act II. At the end, the original two guys go back to waiting on their own. Godot never shows up.) Being the landmark that it is, Godot has been translated into many languages and gets staged an awful lot all around the world. Since it first showed up in New York City in 1956, Godot has been performed by Very Big Names. The Broadway premiere featured Burt Lahr and EG Marshall; a revival the following year starred Geoffrey Holder, Earle Hyman, and Mantan Moreland.

As if convinced that the show wouldn't click with....well, with anyone unless very famous men were in it (Becket wasn't cool with with the idea of women doing the show), producers seem to have made star-studded casts a requisite for any New York-based Godot revival. BAM staged it in the late 1970s with Sam Waterston, Austin Pendleton and Milo O'Shea. The Mike Nichols production at Lincoln Center in 1988 went simply balls out with megawatt famousness: it featured Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Bill Irwin, F. Murray Abraham, and Lukas Haas. In 2009, Nathan Lane, John Goodman, John Glover and Bill Irwin (again) took Godot on; just last fall, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley appeared in yet another starry revival.

It occurred to me the other night, after agreeing to attend a performance of Godot in Yiddish at the tiny Barrow Street Theater in the West Village, that the play has been revived so frequently, and so fancily, that I've just never bothered to see it. I've read it, sure, but I've never seen one of the star-studded casts perform this monster masterwork about the tragicomic nature of human existence. My bad; it's just one of those shows, like King Lear or Grease, which shows up so often that I always figure I'll easily be able catch it the next time around.

The other thing that occurred to me--after I'd committed to a date and secured a ticket to the Yiddish version--that maybe my first time seeing Waiting for Godot should have been in a language that I actually understand.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Valley of Astonishment

In Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne's charming new piece, The Valley of Astonishment, the titular valley is that uncharted, elusive area where brain metamorphoses into mind and the unexpected can occur: perfect memory, hearing colors, only being able to move one's body parts while looking at them. A theatricalization of, and riff on, the findings of such scientists as Oliver Sacks (well-know for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other books about neurological anomalies), The Valley of Astonishment is in some ways like the coolest Ted Talk ever, with skits.
Jared McNeill, Kathryn HunterPhoto: Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

The main-ish character is Samy Costas, an unassuming journalist who doesn't understand how astonishing her mind is until her editor sends her to, well, have her head examined. Samy remembers everything. Everything. Her brain is a compulsive producer of mnemonics, constantly churning out pictures and associations and locating them in a mental map of her neighborhood that she can "visit" whenever she wants to access her memory. But when she becomes a nightclub performer, astonishing people with her mental talents, she comes up against an unexpected question--can her brain become full? And then what?

Uncle Vanya

I have this theory about plays and movies. If the main character or another character learns something and grows, the piece can last hours. But if the characters remain stuck and learn nothing, the show can't be over two hours. Ninety minutes is ideal. Now, I understand that Uncle Vanya is a brilliant classic, but OMG the characters in it are annoying. No one learns a damn thing, and it's over two hours.

Does anyone ever learn anything in a Chekhov play? Chekhov was the patron saint of stuck people, people who can't read the writing on the wall, people who ignore good advice, people who sink into quicksand without even waving their arms and crying, "Help!" On one hand, I admire the heck out of Chekhov. His compassion and subtlety are impressive, and he juggles heartbreak and humor admirably. But if I never see another Chekhov play in my life, I will not mind at all.

The current production of Uncle Vanya at the Pearl is largely solid and well-acted. The scenery and costumes are effective. Hal Brooks' direction is good. The show's largest asset is Chris Mixon's performance as Vanya. Most Vanyas I've seen are pathetically kidding themselves during their "I coulda been a contender" speeches. They blame other people and the universe for making them the failures that they would have been anyway. In contrast, Mixon's Vanya has an undeniable spark and might really have accomplished something. His life is still his own fault and not anybody else's, but there is an extra level of meaning in his Vanya. Nevertheless, he still doesn't learn a damned thing.

(5th row center, press ticket)