Sunday, September 30, 2007

Iphigenia 2.0

Signature Theater Company
photo by Carol Rosegg

This up to the minute re-imagining of the Greek tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis was electrifying! Director Tina Landau and playwright Charles Mee have collaborated in creating a vibrant theatrical world exploding with rage, joy, tears and dance. Shockingly relevant and wholly accessible, this compact play was about a military leader who must sacrifice his daughter in order to gain the respect of his troops. I was reminded of Michael Moore in Farenheit 9/11 encouraging politicians to send their own children over to Iraq. The meticulously directed cast is pretty perfect featuring a scene-chomping growling Kate Mulgrew inhabiting the role of Clytemnestra, the pissed off matriarch. This production runs until October 15th. There is a discounted ticket waiting list you can sign up for one hour prior to curtain. I did this and got in. You can too. GO!! HGA!
Also blogged by: [Aaron] and [Patrick]

The Family Fiorelli

I didn't stay for the second act of this NYMF musical, but that isn't a thumbs-down on the show: I liked a lot of what I saw, especially because I honestly had no idea where the story (which begins with a marital breakup) was going to go. The performance started late, the first act ran long, and by the time intermission ended I only had half an hour to get uptown to the Passing Strange concert. A pity, because The Family Fiorelli had several things going for it: its Finn-like score was pleasing and the songs were well-placed in the story, the characters were vibrant and each at least a little offbeat (the hottie priest, the lesbian in-laws, the crippled teenage son, etc.), and the musical was clearly written for grown-ups, which was something of a relief after too many NYMF shows this year leaned toward the silly and adolescent.

True Genius

I don't mind that David Holstein's True Genius isn't a Mensa-level play, but I wish it were truer. There are some acting issues that suspend our belief of the imaginary people Scooter is dreaming up, but the plot is more disconnected than the actors. Holstein's problem may be easier to solve, however, than Jill Sierchio's challenge with her cast: his writing is already funny, and two of his characters leap off the page (Dr. Foyer, the alternative therapist, and Lila, the fantastic fabulist). But the play is stretched between father issues, psychotic breaks, absent mothers, shy first loves, and some question about who the true genius is, which seems included only as a nod to the title. There are great moments (most involving shaving cream), but they are brief spurts of energy in an otherwise dulling play.

[Read on]

Enter Laughing

This Musicals in Mufti version of the Broadway flop So Long 174th Street (retitled here for its straight play source material) turned out to be one of the happiest surprises I've had at the theatre in months. The simplicity of this on-book, one-piano "staged concert" production showed the material to advantage and was a pleasure from start to finish: I'm led to wonder if the show tanked on Broadway because of some deficiencies with that production, because there's nothing out of working order here with the book or the score. The Depression-era story follows an endearing daydreamer whose fantasies of stardom lead him to audition for a small part in a play; once he gets the job his problem is amusingly obvious: he hasn't a lick of talent. On his way to a hilariously inept performance on opening night, he gets goo-goo eyed over the glamour of acting (trying the patience of his parents, who want him to become a druggist) and over the glamourous leading lady (trying the patience of his girlfriend, who loves him whether he's a somebody or not). The role requires someone with an extraordinary amount of charisma, and luckily Josh Grisetti has it to spare. There isn't a weak link anywhere in the ensemble: Emily Shoolin is engaging and nails a nifty number called "Men", Kaitlin Hopkins is delicious as the stage actress, George S. Irving turns a fantasy number in the second act into the show's highlight, Robb Sapp makes some fun choices as our hero's confidante and best friend. In addition to all that, L.A. Law's Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker slip right into the goings-on with class and ease. I'm not a frequent Musicals In Mufti-goer, but this is easily the most entertaining one I've seen yet.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

American Sligo


photo: Sandra Coudert

With each new play, the young, prolific Adam Rapp continues to hone in on his caustic, cruelly funny, original voice as a playwright. His latest sick, mean comedy spends an evening with the Sligos, a violently dysfunctional American clan all sucking off the teat of the pro-wrestling father nicknamed "Crazy Train". This meditation on insult and aggression, two traits closely identified with American character as of late, speaks volumes on the ugly underbelly of the modern American fractured family. Many of Rapp's pet actors are back again and in top form with Paul Sparks expertly playing one of the most diabolical villains I have seen all year. Mary Louise Burke is priceless as the only polite one of the bunch hellbent on maintaining the smallest shred of decorum. Oh look! They have a Youtube clip! How post-millennium! I cannot wait to see Rapp's latest, Bingo With The Indians, at the Flea later this month.


By resetting the classic tragedy of Medea in the mode of pop lyrics, modern images, and simple English, Dood Paard (Dead Horse) is trying for the universal. Instead, they're just hitting the accessible, in an at first languorous, later vibrant way. They're removed all sense of the physical from their work--they speak out to the audience with their backs to a figurative wall--and that winds up giving medEia a ghostly quality, appropriately endowed to the chorus they speak as. But I wish the ephemeral slide-show that accompanied this work was more grounded in the words, because it all too often feels like dead air. While the cold and unflinching opening eventually gives way to sad and wistful mourning, and then to a revenge choked with rage, the simple mechanics of the performance keep the work at bay, even as the cast draws ever nearer to the audience.

[Read on]

Workshop: The Debate Society's The Untitled Auto Play

I loved my first introduction to The Debate Society with their The Eaten Heart, enough to check out their year-plus development process for their new work, The Untitled Auto Play. Presented by the Prelude festival (a chance to see what's coming in '08), I can only say that I wish that there were enough grants to enable more groups to make such bold and rewarding investments in time. Then again, even three weeks in, these short little vignettes are still highly refreshing, with some creepy use of darkness and branches to evoke the crackling woods. Perhaps we'll be so lucky as to see a spotlight on TDS when the Signature moves to its new space in 2011: their use of Americana calls out for more attention, as does their playfulness.

NYMF Weekend Jaunt

New York Musical Theater Festival

The three festival pieces I caught this weekend all fell into the same category of well-cast, earnest productions of young, imperfect but worthwhile chamber musicals. Love Kills has excellent subject matter full of high stakes as it's based on a boyfriend/girlfriend murdering spree in the late 50's. With all the references to 50's movies/icons and the pre-feminist nature of the piece, I found myself yearning not for the emo punk score offered and but for the old school, Presley-fried rock n' roll inherent to the time. Deirdre O'Connell, as a sheriff's wife attempting to ease a confession out of the girlfriend, with her beautifully untrained singing voice was the soul of this dark, little musical. The Boy In The Bathroom with its sweet, yearning melodies was definitely my favorite score of the festival entries I have caught so far. Unable to bring himself to face the world, the boy has locked himself in his bathroom and relies upon his mother and a hired care-giver for toilet paper and emotional support. Though I felt like one of the characters was ultimately villainized a little more than they should have been, the story had an honesty and wistfulness that wove in beautifully with its score. And Michael Zahler, as the bathroomed boy is probably the most charming person with OCD that I have ever come across. The Family Fiorelli, with it's perky, upbeat slightly kooky score, dysfunctional upper-middle class family politics, and decidedly modern sensibility, reminded me of Falsettos. Taking place on the family's Long Island vineyard, this musical followed the roller coaster ups and downs of the outwardly happy but inwardly troubled wine making Fiorellis. And though the stakes weren't as high as in Love Kills, and the score not as memorable as The Boy In The Bathroom this musical was ultimately charming and like the other two, with a little work, should be hopeful of a life beyond the festival.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Tully (In No Particular Order)

photo: Jaisen Crockett

Tully, the main character of this new NYMF musical, falls for a rich bitch socialite and then goes ballistic when she dumps him, stalking her around town when he's not burying his rage with a gay affair. It's like something you'd see in a glossy made for cable movie, so it's a surprise to learn that the character is meant to be based on Roman poet Catullus (1st century BCE): we're right on the line here between ambitious and pretentious. The book has lofty aims that are kept earth-bound by the melodramatic plot and (perhaps because it is trying to do too many things at once) it defines its main character less sufficiently than all its others. What Tully has going for it, besides a solid cast (I especially liked Kate Rockwell and Austin Miller), is its school-of-Sondheim score and that's a very substantial something: of the dozen NYMF shows I've seen so far this month, this one has the music I would most want to hear again.

Love Kills

photo: Sarah Sloboda

To be filed under "What Spring Awakening Has Wrought", this new (NYMF) musical has its characters stepping up to microphones to express themselves in emo songs. Since two of the characters are Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate, the two Nebraskan teenagers whose killing spree horrified the country in the mid 1950's (most memorably dramatized in the movie Badlands starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) the style seems bizarre - why are they singing emo rather than the rock and roll that defined their time? The other two characters in the musical are a sheriff and his wife (Deidre O'Connell, the show's standout performance) who aim to get confessions out of the kids before lawyers arrive - turns out that they express themselves into microphones with emo songs too. It took me a while to accept the style of the show, but I never did accept the substance: the kids are romanticized, without irony or much regard for fact, as victims suffering for their deep binding love. The actual victims - the eleven people who died at their hands, including Caril's two year old sister - are listed in the show's playbill but are not suitably acknowledged in the show; Love Kills is an insulting cheat.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Blind Mouth Singing

Photo/Zack Brown

Visually, director Ruben Polendo manages to focus the wide and sparse stage (classic yet industrial) onto a single metaphor, a strip of life (seen as a horizontal well). But textually, Jorge Ignacio Cortinas's script is narrowly focused on the metaphorical coming of age, and is cluttered with repetitious scenes. These two styles clash, and though Polendo fills the dead space with stylized movement (dashes set to drum beats, knife-sharpening jerks) and distracts us with a Foley artist, the play is neither jarringly magical nor beautifully mundane. The all Asian American cast is pretty good, but adds nothing to play, especially not what Blind Mouth Singing really needs: clarity about the mental-made-physical struggle of the second act between Reiderico (Jon Norman Schneider) and his well-dwelling "twin," Lucero (Alexis Camins). Polendo has the magic to conjure up a storm on stage (among many other interesting visuals), but the plot, slippery like water, eludes him.

Look What A Wonder Jesus Has Done

photo: Julian Rad

Walter Robinson wrote the book, music and lyrics for this new (NYMF) musical loosely based on the true story of Denmark Vesey, an African-American whose plan to lead a slave uprising was thwarted by his capture and execution in 1822. Robinson's score is heavy on gospel, with a handful of roof-raising ensemble numbers (a couple of which are thrillingly sung a capella) that soar to the heavens: apart from the ocassional rough patch of awkward recitative, Robinson's music is richly evocative. Robinson's book, however, is as flatfooted as his score is accomplished: partly because of the device of having Vesey narrate his story, it falls into the "too much tell not enough show" trap right at the start and takes too long to break free. Robinson gives us a glimpse in the opening scene of the story's triangle, when a plantation owner buys Vesey's wife and children inspired by what he claims is love for her, but Robinson doesn't sufficiently pick up on it again until the last (and best) twenty minutes of the show.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Iphigenia 2.0

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Charles Mee's physical and political reinterpretation of Iphigenia in Aulis doesn't provide as firm a foundation for director Tina Landau as Moliere's The Misanthrope does for Ivo Van Hove, but this Signature Theater production, cheaply ticketed ($20), is a great cross between downtown experiments and uptown sensibility. The plot, which focuses on the necessary self-sacrifice of a leader, is easily accessible, even if the staging (which involves dance breaks, symbolically sparse settings, and highly athletic transitions) is not. However, Mee's style is to collage his work, and the various threads he finds (many of which resemble alienating lists from a chorus of soldiers or pair of bridesmaids) don't help enforce an emotional connection. We get that from some of the actors, mainly in the innocence Louisa Krause gives to Iphigenia, or in the thoughtful grief Tom Nelis lends to Agamemnon, but on whole, the production dazzled me a lot more than it moved me.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]

I See London I See France

photo: Karen Wise/Vid Guerrerio

There's a fun and fun-lovin' couple putting some groove in the subplot of this new (NYMF) musical: both he and she are "knowing when to leave" types, not looking for anything more than quick hot hook-up sex. Their first duet spells it out: it's not meant to last more than "Two Weeks Max". It doesn't matter that it's easy to predict that they get stuck on each other: their material is breezy and clever and both performers (David Rossmer and Ronica Reddick) are game and amusing. But ironically (considering the characters' personalities) they overstay their welcome, as does the slight, rambling show. The main story - which concerns a recently-dumped uptight "smart girl" ad exec whose hormones go bonkers over a ripped but dimwitted underwear model - doesn't deliver on its seeming promise to send-up our sex-soaked culture, and it curiously forgets to give us a reason to care about our heroine. (We're set up for her lust to morph her into one of the lingerie-clad bimbos who follow her around like a hallucinated Greek chorus, but instead she goes from prudish to obnoxious and entitled: why should we care?) There are some very enjoyable, attractively catchy songs in the score (the title song is especially hard to get out of your head) and I liked the performers: Jordan Gelber (as an ad boss) ably and energetically carries a lot more of the show than a plot synopsis would lead you to expect, and Nicholas Ardell (who spends almost all of the show in nothing but boxer-briefs) manages a good deal of sweetness as the skin-deep underwear model. Is it wrong to be disappointed that the show isn't any deeper than his character?

Petite Rouge

photo: Stan Barouh

I don't see any reason why kids wouldn't be entertained and engaged by this clever, Cajun-flavored revision of Little Red Riding Hood, which transplants the fairy tale to the Louisiana bayou and reimagines Red as a duck and the Wolf as an alligator. Red sets off with a jar of gumbo in her basket now, and she's lured off the path to Grandmere's house by the promise of spicier hot sauce. Such changes are likely to tease the imaginations of pint-sized theatregoers, and young and old alike can easily enjoy the lively and flavorful musical numbers, all of which are soaked in the local color. I caught myself tapping my foot more than a few times. While it has to be said that the musical eliminates the darker subtext of the original tale, and that the story no longer has the neat tidiness of a life lesson learned, the show's desire to please and its witty revisions nonetheless make it pleasing bit of family entertainment.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Other Bodies

After seeing Riding the Bull at the Fringe, I took the opportunity to see August Schulenburg's latest play, Other Bodies, in a special black-box studio workshop produced by Katherine & Friends. I can't review a work-in-progress, but watching Gus, I kept thinking of Nicholas Cage, and actress Christina Shipp reminded me of a playful Katee Sackhoff. It'll be interesting to see how this gender-bending two-hander develops to explore the very relevant question of identity.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Girl Gang


This festival entry was a send up of those sassy-brassy bad girl 50's empowerment novels. Promising idea but quite oddly it featured a smooth jazz score complete with acoustic guitar and ever present bongo drums (at least for the Act that I stayed for). The musicians wore berets. Presumably the choice was inspired by the beatnik culture but I felt like I was at brunch.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Iphigenia 2.0

photo: Carol Rosegg

Charles Mee's radical, theatrically exhilarating reinvention of Iphigenia is jagged, rough-edged, beautiful: it's like he's reassembled the shattered pieces of the myth in the aftermath of an explosion. The resulting collage is thematically and narratively coherent but full of jolting juxtapositions and violent cracks in tone: this is theatre that puts us on high alert and keeps us there. Mee's version of the wartime tragedy takes place in the world we live in now and the gods have next to nothing to do with it: it's now the soldiers, in American fatigues, who demand that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter, reasoning that a leader should not ask his followers to risk sacrifices that he himself is unprepared to make. Many of Mee's other revisions are similarly systemic rather than cosmetic and fire missiles at our current-day culture. This bold, sensationally vivid production, currently in its final weeks at Signature Theatre, is both viscerally exciting and intellectually devastating. Don't miss it.

The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back (Week 2)

More of the same can be a good thing. Last week, The Production Company treated us to four off-kilter one acts, all of which were written by Australian playwrights who were thinking of America at the time. This week, it's another three one-acts, from the occasionally filth "967 Tuna" (Australian for excellent) to the beautiful "The Beekeeper" (no Australian translation needed there) and the hypnotically turbulent "Syphon." I fell in love with Emma Vuletic's "The Beekeeper," as it achieved what the other two plays didn't: a clear, simple, honest connection between American and Australian values (that unified rather than obscured), as well as an interesting parallel between colony collapse disorder and the Death of the Traditional Family. Also, always great to see Todd d'Amour perform: with his quizzically menacing stare, he's perfect for the Mamet-like stutters of "Syphon," a role that requires a range large enough to turn dismissive yeahs and dunnos into rich sentences of disaffection.

[Read on]


Minetta Lane Theatre

In one corner we have the sincere, heartfelt struggle of a mother and daughter futilely trying to make ends meet on their paltry Wal-Mart wages. In the other corner we have a wacky, fey scientist who has built a time machine and is and toting around the disembodied head of Sam Walton. When these two worlds collide it is jarring and stupefying as our proud, ballad-singing mother/daughter team are manhandled by goofy Wal-mart cronies and tossed into a time machine. It's Norma Rae meets Spaceballs. Wal-Mart is EVIL with a capital "E!!" seems to be the unsubtle point they are making here but with their poorly juxtaposed, puerile plot and generic ditties not much else is conveyed except for the ever increasing desperation to make the audience guffaw at this cloying mess. In the end it was condescending, insulting to our intelligence and reminiscent of poorly conceived children's theater.

The Misanthrope

New York Theater Workshop
Photo: Joan Marcus

BALLS OUT! Simply put, that is director Ivo Van Hove's M.O. as he reimagines Molière's The Misanthrope for the stage. Currently in previews at NYTW, Ivo does not offer us the traditional but instead heads straight to the emotional gut of this 1666 masterpiece and literally shines a fluorescent light on all the rage and jealousy exploding in this play. Check out the production photos. Does that look like a Molière to you?? Hell no, but I've never understood The Misanthrope more clearly than I did here. Bill Camp, pictured, is already giving an astounding performance as the people hating douchebag who can't keep his mouth shut and the rest of the top notch cast fits right into this ultra modern ketchup-splattered world. I am now upset with mystupidself for missing Ivo's reimaginings of A Streetcar Named Desire and Hedda Gabler. I will not be so foolish as to miss whatever play he fucks with next.

Also blogged by: [Aaron]

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Six Degrees of Separation

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais

The heart of this revival of Six Degrees of Separation still beats strong, but it's clogged by some odd directorial choices that add absurdism to the opening, and prolong the farce too far into the drama. Some uneven acting (in a cast of 17) doesn't really help, and the play winds up a tame, pleasant production, rather than a sharp glimpse at our anonymous lives. Tom Wojtunik's direction is just a little too overzealous at times: he clearly knows how to focus the action (as with the spotlit asides) and the actors are never so open as when discussing loves like Kandinsky or Catcher in the Rye, but he seems to get overwhelmed by all the things happening. As a result, many of the characters--the children, detectives, Dr. Fine, and friends of the family--are awash in generic choices, which for a show that in part is about the death of imagination, makes the play less affecting than it should be. The center, Laura Heidinger's Ouisa and Richard Rioleau's Paul, have great moments together, but the big breakdown at the end is kept at a seventh degree of separation because of Wojtunik's choice to place phone callers in a recessed black box. Break the box: we must be more than anecdotal jukeboxes, and must not lose the experience.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]

Ivo Van Hove's "The Misanthrope"

Photo/Joan Marcus

Now that The Misanthrope has opened, let me make perfectly clear that you must see this play. For all the surprises, excitement, and graphic imagery that Ivo Van Hove has managed to cram into this revival of a solid Moliere "comedy," it'd be a crime for me to really spoil the effects, so don't read my review unless you've seen the play first. Trust me: it's a raw experience, well worth your time. It's overwhelmingly visceral (you'll smell it), astonishingly animal (you'll recoil or lean into it), and flawlessly acted (the things actors will do for their craft). Pay close attention to Bill Camp and Jeanine Serralles (it won't be hard with Tal Yarden's video design, or Jan Versweyveld's self-reflective set), as they're really defining these roles . . . and rhyming couplets to boot (Tony Harrison's acerbic 1973 translation). This is a rare all-in-one theatrical work that more than revives: it resurrects.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: David]

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Boy In The Bathroom

This new, affecting three-person chamber musical (at NYMF) centers on an obsessive-compulsive disordered "boy" (played by Michael Zahler) who's locked himself in the bathroom for over a year. He won't come out of his safe, tiled womb even when his Mom (Mary Stout) breaks her hip in a fall, nor when Mom's hired helper (Ana Nogueira) flirts with him from the other side of the bathroom door. While the situation is ocassionally tickled for a laugh or two, for the most part the young man's problem is treated with seriousness and rendered with credible detail: one of the first songs lists the flat foods that Mom has learned will pass through the crack under the door to the bathroom. The musical score is purposefully restrained, sometimes deliberately atonal and has integrity: the musical is appropriately less like a show with musical numbers and more like one with dramatic musical passages. Some clunky lyrics here and there are forgiven, as the score is effective and accomplished: one piece in particular, in which each of the three characters introspects about the want for fresh air, best demonstrates the lyricism that this story gains through musicalization. The underlying causes of the young man's phobias are only lightly touched on, which is as it should be, allowing the boy's isolation to have a more universal resonance. All three characters are well-defined and exceedingly well portrayed: Stout is formidable as always, and squeezes all the dramatic juice out of an eleventh-hour musical monologue that makes plain her character's compulsions; Nogueira very clearly and very winningly articulates her character's relationship with the boy, which begins with curiousity and a little hostility but eventually grows into something deeper. But the show finally belongs to Zahler, who projects both an intense vulnerability and a strong willfullness as the fear-driven boy of the title. He's touching without being cloying. As is the show.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bernice Bobs Her Mullet

This musicalization (at NYMF) of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story resets the tale in current times and stamps out all nuance: Bernice isn't just small-town anymore, now she's a barefoot mullet-headed hillbilly, and her big city debutante cousin now comes off like a Legally Blonde-aged Glinda. The story (especially a fire and brimstone preacher who thinks that short hair on a female tempts eternal damnation) doesn't make much sense or have much distinction when set in the current-day, and nearly everything thrown in to otherwise modernize it feels been-there-done-that. However, the show isn't boring (thanks to the terrific, lively ensemble) and there is a stretch in the middle (thanks to a couple of songs that are a cut above the others in the score) when it's amiable and fun. (A hand-clappin' gospel number, led by Jeff Hiller, is the show's highlight) It's been cast flawlessly: everyone is perfectly matched to their roles, and if the romantic leads are less memorable than everyone else, I blame it on their material.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Have You Seen Steve Steven?

Photo/Jim Baldassare

America is at a place right now where our comedies are filled with nervous laughs and we use artificial farce (artifarcial?) to fit in beside neighbors, friends, and family who only serve to make us feel more alienated than ever. How else to explain affectingly disaffecting plays like God's Ear, The Thugs, and this new offering, from Ann Marie Healy, Have You Seen Steve Steven? Here, a sheltered Midwest McFamily grows up, going from charming comedy to frightening satire as Healy plays with memory to dismantle our notions of life. The plot might be a little repetitious, and foreign student Anlor never grows beyond a distracting joke, but the dynamic production is done with such aplomb--from Anne Kauffman's disconcertingly cheery direction to Sue Rees's eerily wide den to the cast's unsettlingly precise characters--that you don't mind going down the rabbit hole.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]

Have You Seen Steve Steven?

photo: Jim Baldassare

This latest offering from the collective known as 13P (the P stands for Playwrights) is broadly satirical and darkly creepy at the same time. We're somewhere in the Midwest on the blandly-decorated first floor of a suburban house, as the two-parent, one-daughter household entertains visitors: first another family who are "close friends" that no one remembers very well, and then mysterious, unsettlingly oddball strangers who seem to already know them. The tension in this smart, genuinely original play comes mostly from the vast gap between the broadly-played adults, who speak in maddening inanities, and the much more naturalistically-portrayed teens, who talk and behave common-sensically. The contrast gives the play an almost surreal edge. By the middle of the seventy-minute one-act, it's become so severe that the play feels like a jack-in-a-box, where even the adults bursting happily through a door could make you jump in your seat. That said, I felt a bit let down by the final thrusts of the play, which neatly further the theme but which are less than viscerally satisfying after all that terrific suspense. Nonetheless, this is a sharp production of a striking and memorable new play and if you're into quality off-beat, look no further.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Ritz

Roundabout at Studio 54

I spotted playwright Terrence McNally standing outside Studio 54 scoping out the audience prior to the very first preview of the second Broadway revival of his 1975 gay bathhouse farce, The Ritz. After the first Broadway revival in `83, which disastrously closed after 14 previews and 1 performance (according to, I'm sure there is at least a bit of apprehension as to whether or not this latest Roundabout incarnation will sink or swim. In light of the fact that AIDS hysteria has calmed down over the years, our post-millennium audiences are probably a little more able/willing to look upon a gay bathhouse as a whimsical relic and not a sick den of infestation. Happily, the spectre of AIDS was nowhere to be found in this bouncy flouncy production. Score one for director Mantello! However, would this thin, dated farce have ever been revived had McNally not evolved into the major playwriting phenomenon he has since become? Probably not. Granted it was interesting visiting McNally's youthful, giddy voice as a green playwright, but in terms of farces, this isn't quite a classic. Generally does the show work? The audience laughed and clapped quite a bit and for the first preview of a door-slammer on Broadway, that's a definitely a respectable victory. Three great things: 1. Scott Pask's tri-level panorama of red doors and steamy hallways is GORGEOUS. 2. Brooks Ashmanskas, as a flaming, silken-robed swisher, is fucking hysterical and steals the show. 3. Three Hot Guy Alerts!- which, for the Hot Guy Alert committee, was definitely worth the price of admission.

Also blogged by: [Patrick] [Aaron]

FRINGE: bombs in your mouth

Photo/John Scott

Here's to putting the fun back in dysfunction, be it through arm-wrestling, beer-chugging, side-splitting shit-spitting stories, or simple honest sibling rivalries. I'll drink to Corey Patrick's bombs in your mouth, a compact comic drama that really defines the struggles of half-siblings Lily (Cass Bugge) and Danny (Patrick) to find meaning in their adult lives. To get there, they revert to their childhood antics, yet never seem crude, over-the-top, or false. Instead, director Joseph Ward leads them to sincere moments of acknowledged uncertainty, at which point the two look to each other for comfort, which they ultimately find. The shared jokes over cold spaghetti with tomato and ketchup sauce are as warm as the shared rivalries over cold beers, and the entire play is endearingly entertaining. Fantastic work; hope they bring it back soon!

[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick | David]

Six Degrees Of Separation

photo: Jennifer Maufrais

It takes a couple of scenes for the ensemble to move at the needed clip (this is a play that hits the ground running) but once they do this smartly-staged off-off revival of John Guare's best-known play (at the Gallery Players, in Brooklyn) is absorbing and effective, approaching the expert balance of bite and wit that I remember from the original production. The compelling story - which begins as a college-aged black man ingratiates himself with a white upper class Manhattan art dealer and his wife by claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier - was inspired by Times-reported events of moneyed New Yorkers who were fooled by just such a con man. Guare's perceptive and compassionate play is both briskly entertaining and thematically rich, manipulating the story to riff on our connectedness to and our assumptions about each other. The two most important characters are Ouisa, the art dealer's wife, and Paul, the con man. Here, Richard Prioleau convincingly plays both sides of Paul - confident in the early scenes, desperate in the later ones; apart from the minor complaint that he needs more intensity for the Catcher In The Rye monologue, it's a solid performance. As Ouisa, Laura Heidinger is substantial and affecting, especially for the eleventh-hour "it was an experience" speech. The only let-down in the ensemble is that the three boys in the quartet of college kids aren't yet getting laughs out of their lines; I bet they will get there. Radiant standout supporting performance: Jacqueline van Biene, in the minor role of Elizabeth. After this and her performance in You Can't Take It With You a few months back at T. Schreiber, she's high on my To Watch For list.

Alfred Kinsey: A Love Story

photo: Sarah Lambert

Mark Folie's play about famed sex research pioneer Alfred Kinsey takes too long to make itself known: the first act is competent and reasonably entertaining but (despite a non-linear structure) it doesn't seem especially distinctive, covering material that we already know with the emphasis on the scientist's gay affair. Things get far more interesting sonewhere in the second act, as it starts to become apparent that one of the playwright's aims is to gently question what Kinsey may have missed by putting sexuality coldly under a microscope. There are a couple of thought-provoking speeches near the end of the play - one, delivered by a madam who functions in the play like Kinsey's counterpoint, leads us to wonder if shame may be an important component of sexual pleasure. (There's also, unfortunately, a completely misguided video presentation at the end of the play that seems to come out of nowhere and is besides the point) The play isn't entirely successful building to the ideas that it finally presents, but it is at least a play with some ideas. I liked the wit of staging all of the play's action around a bed - the production would have a lot more punch if nearly everything else on stage was thrown out - and all four actors in the ensemble (Jessica Dickey, Wayne Maugans, Carter Roy and Melinda Wade) are excellent.

FRINGE: Hillary Agonistes

Photo/Dixie Sheridan

To put it in the politically correct ambiguity of Nick Salomone's satirical writing, Hillary Agonistes is a seemingly relevant play. Emphasis on "seemingly." The alarmist plot (emphasized at every scene change by a blaring siren and sharp blackout) involves Hillary's first challenge as president (2009). Rather than face reality, Salomone turns to a full-blown Rapture: 65 million people vanish. The good parts are the slight observations as to how our government might deal: the military looks to cover up their ignorance with an alien scenario, Pat Robertson fakes his own Rapture so his followers won't think less of him, and Americans target Muslims as that legion of anti-Christs. The thought of Christ as a four-watt lightbulb of safety is nice, but the supporting dialogue is wildly uneven, prone to blustery sentiments and little faithfulness to real characters like Bloomberg (now in the Treasury), Chelsea (now a convert to Islam), and Hillary (played by Priscilla Barnes of Three's Company). Barnes is tightly drawn, yet always pandering to an invisible camera; there's evidence of a good performance, but she needs multiple takes to get it right. Most of her work is utterly unconvincing, and director Jon Lawrence Rivera (as with P. Diddy in Raisin) often has her emote with her back to the audience. (Talk about spin!) Salamone needs to tighten his grip on reality (the characters) before he tries to flush out a parable.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


photo: Doug Hamilton

Shallow and thoroughly unconvincing, Scarcity is set in the kind of lower middle class home where stinking drunk Dad and world weary chainsmoking Mom scream at each other when they're not going at it like rabbits in earshot of the kids. Dad's one beer away from giving the eleven year old daughter the bad touch, while Mom is yanking the chain of his best friend in order to stock the kitchen with groceries. We're told that the rageaholic teenaged son is exceptionally bright but we see no evidence of it, except that he's well aware that the interest a female teacher has taken in him has more to do with his crotch than his brains. All of this ugliness is meant to strike us as hard and truthful, but it's just ugly, a Jerry Springer Show for middlebrows. Since the playwright hasn't done it, it's up to the actors to provide any illusion of humanity, and for the most part they do although it's not enough to redeem the play: Kristen Johnson is especially vivid and finds a way to maintain a hint of maternal warmth underneath a coarse exterior; The Squid And The Whale's Jesse Eisenberg sometimes pushes too hard but is a compelling stage presence; Michael T. Weiss, in a woefully underwritten role, conveys the wounded pride under a broken spirit.


photo: Joan Marcus

By now, the property known as Grease has been reshaped and reformed so many times over that it is difficult to answer this question: was it ever a good musical? As it is in the current Broadway revival, which seems designed as a star vehicle for its two non-stars (cast by television contest) and which melds material from the play with the movie, its message seems to be that a girl can get a guy by dressing like a slut and hold on to one by not getting pregnant. I did in fact see the original Broadway production way back when as a tyke, and mostly remember that it looked like a high school yearbook come to life and that it had enough sexual innuendo to make my aunt second-guess taking me along. But on the surface, this revival is the most family-friendly Grease I could imagine and safe for the kindergarten set: now the chicks will scream for Greased Lightning rather than cream. Beyond the blanding sanitization and the casting of two leads who can not hold the stage, this revival fails to capture any feeling of nostalgia for the 1950's and repeats many of the mistakes of the movie (the "kids" look like 30 year olds) minus the compensatory charisma of the film's stars. If Grease ever had a soul it's long gone now. There is one, and exactly one, performance that pops off the stage: surprisingly, it's not Jenny Powers, who belts "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" with feeling but who otherwise is a bland Rizzo. No, it's one Robyn Hurder, who manages to do something with the nothing role of Marty. Robyn Hurder is to Grease what Leslie Kritzer was to Legally Blonde.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Kiss Of The Spider Woman

The Vortex Theatre's stark, in-your-face production of the Kander-Ebb musical is packed wall to wall with bold and inventive ideas, but only half of them work. Ambitiously stripping the musical of razzle-dazzle and playing it like a gritty drama with music, the production's greatest strength is its menacing proximity: with a single long bench for audience on either side of the theatre, we're immersed in the prison where Molina, a fey window-dresser jailed for propositioning a minor, is holed up with Valentin, a political prisoner. Excepting that Max Ferguson lacks the needed gravity as Valentin, this production does reasonably well conveying the harsh reality half of the material: there's imaginative, resourceful staging and muscular, aggressive movement-choreography. But in conveying the other half of the story it's wrongheaded, replacing the glamorous, significantly bourgeois movie star of Molina's escapist fantasies with three figures (two of whom are cross-dressed men) who prowl the stage with panther-like sexual energy, a nightmare version of Madonna's The Girlie Show. Whose fantasy is this anyway, I asked myself, as it certainly isn't fey, fatally romantic Molina's?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Australia Project II: Week 1

The Australia Project is a three-week festival of America, as seen from Down Under, that illustrates our penchant for self-convinced arrogance, our drive for (self-) destruction, and our self-centered egos. The four one-acts I saw demonstrated a wide range of style, but a pretty similar view of America as a nice place to escape from or through, either as a futuristic VR version of MySpace New York (Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart), a travel-free nation (The Port) or an emotionally stunted artist (Pinter's Explanation). The best of the bunch, Anthony Crowley's The Melancholy Keeper of the Deep, Deep Green, brings a determined American back to 1890's Australia, so that he can convince an otherwise loyal lighthouse keeper to keep the light out. Patrick (Andrew Lawton), is an innocent, wanting only to love his wife and crank out his daily routine, but the smooth, diplomatic Richard (Kevin O'Donnell) slyly changes Patrick's mind with friendship and technology. It's a clever reminder of America's imperial might, working from behind-the-scenes to affect change, regardless of the cost, but also a sad and personal story of one man, struggling to stay afloat in a sea of turbulent morality.

[Read on]

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

FRINGE: Jamaica, Farewell

Jamaica, Farewell is a first: the theatrically presented Hollywood autobiography. True or not, Debra Ehrhardt's escape from Jamaica is so over-the-top that it overwhelms the nuances she shows herself capable of, early on in the play. At times, the thrill of watching someone so pleasantly excitable overtakes the lack of a connection that she makes with the audience or her secondary characters. As for her writing, it's either a testament or detriment that she makes us laugh in the midst of an attempted rape; so much of her ordeal is comically portrayed that Jamaica, Farewell is more a lengthy dinner-party story than a staged work. (She paces, but hardly needs the stage or the lights.) So then, like a Hollywood movie, Jamaica, Farewell is entertaining, but only up to a point.

[Read on]

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


If you haven't seen Billy the Mime before: he's South Park come to life: an elegant mime who channels crudely erudite takes on historic moments gone horribly wrong. If you have (like me), you're wasting your time and money: his act hasn't changed from the 2006 Fringe. I didn't love it then, though I thought it was at least interesting (albeit obscure for the teen-to-20s crowd). Billy has a repertoire of forty 5-minute skits, but I saw almost the same fourteen, in the same order. Yes, he's cleaned them up and refined the moments and transitions between characters. But his act grows less and less topical: he performed a general Columbine in "High School" rather than the new "Virginia Tech 4-16-07" and rehashed "A Day Called 9/11" (admittedly, I saw it on 9/11), not "A Hurricane Called Katrina." Bone up your history so you know that he's talking about President Jefferson in "Thomas & Sally: A Night At Monticello," and be prepared to pick apart the images that Billy skims in wide pieces like "The Sixties" or "World War II." "A Romance" and "The Clown & The Beautiful Woman" appear to be staples of Billy's act, and that stale repetition (no matter how once lip-smackingly tasty) makes a quirky, smirky act into a chore, a labor, and a routine.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A New Television Arrives, Finally

* 1/2
Live From Planet Earth Productions
(photo courtesy of: DARR Publicity)

An engaged couple with little to say to each other looks to television to provide them with guidance, hope and food for thought. Kevin Mandel's absurdist play, where a new TV is played by live person, seeks to address how reliant we as a culture have become on something so unwieldy and tempestuous as the phenomenon of television. This point was clearly made about 30 minutes into this 85 minute play. If there were other points to be made they went in one ear and out the other as I begun to tune out the long, loud speeches delivered by our earnest cast. If director Kevin Kittle's goal was for the audience- stuffed into a very small room- to feel unequivocally bombarded and buffaloed by three relentlessly yelling, intense actors then mission accomplished. I wish I'd had a remote so that I could've pressed stop or at least turned the volume down.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

365 Days/365 Plays: Weeks 39-43

Even if the guys would allow me to count this as 38 plays (or even 5, for each week), I wouldn't. I'd sooner count Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind as 30 plays. In any case, what Suzan-Lori Parks has done is write in the stream-of-(un)consciousness format, and then given those futurist plays to any artist willing to take part in her pet project. Nothing I saw at the Public Theater's First Sundays Series was able to stand on its own, but it did highlight some innovative groups and showcase some talented performers. That, in itself, speaks to the importance of this project (or one like it). What I can tell you is that the TADA! Youth Theater has developed some versatile actors; that the Ma-Yi Theater Company, working in Filipino and English, understands how to translate a work, not just in language, but to the stage; and that I'm truly sorry I've never seen anything from The Classic Theater of Harlem before, as between Jaime Robert Carrillo and Lydia Fort, they managed everything from blacksploitation superheroes ("From The Absolutely True Adventures of Afrodite Jackson-Jones) to metafiction ("Bear") to their striking scene of a horde of actors crawling, with meticulous control, across a stage ("A Search for the Meaning of Life"). Like Finnegan's Wake, the entire idea is unruly and hard to encompass -- but individually, there's a pearl of something for everyone.

Don Giovanni

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Although Don Giovanni is part of the opera-for-all program at New York City Opera, I guess it will always be that opera just isn't for all. In Hal Prince's production the limp trees are well-met by the limpid supertitles, and Susan Stroman's choreography, deliberate and symmetrical, could've come from a school on formless etiquette. Opera is built on long stretches of exposition, and nothing is ever said or done easily, but the trade off is that these sometimes mundane things are at least beautiful in the undertaking. Well, the only thing beautiful is the undertaking of Don Giovanni's soul, by a fantastically costumed Statue (the makeup artist ought to be credited). There are voices that are phenomenal, like Julianna Di Giacomo's Donna Elvira -- but squinting across miles of rows to see her pained expression takes away from what you hear in her soul. And you can tell that Daniel Mobbs is properly hamming up Leporello--you even laugh here and there, yourself--but when he sings, the orchestra washes his low baritone away. The debut performances of Mardi Byers, Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, and JiYoung Li (Donna Anna, Don Giovanni, and Zerlina) are perfunctory, with moments of mellifluousness, but nothing that you would call a breakout. I don't claim to be an expert on opera, so take this sand-grained post as opinion more than review, but this traditional Don Giovanni seemed to lack soul from the start.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

La Boheme

photo: Carol Rosegg

City Opera's current La Boheme is set in Paris as usual but it's been time-shifted forward to the early months of World War I: the conceit makes for some fresh stage imagery and business but it's occasionally at odds with the narrative. (Why does Mimi fumble around with that unlit candle when there's electricity in this garret?) But once you look past the minor glitches that result from the directorial concept, this production of Boheme is heartfelt and intimate, with staging that more often than not plays the big emotional moments far downstage for the sake of immediacy. I prefer it for theatricality and for dramatic impact to the opulent Zefferelli production that is still in rotation next door at the Met. Inna Dukach and Dinya Vania, as Mimi and Rodolfo respectively, convinced as lovers in both joy and anguish and had their share of soaring musical moments together; their moonlit snowfall duet at the end of Act I was especially tender and well-articulated. So soon, but there were already handkerchiefs out in the audience. The best singing and the most vivid characterizations came, however, from this production's Musetta (Elizabeth Caballero) and Marcello (Brian Mulligan); they generated so much heat as the fiery often-fighting couple it's a wonder the snow didn't melt at the sight of them.

I saw La Boheme at City Opera's OPERA FOR ALL festival, a start-of-the-season tradition now in its third year that prices all seats opening weekend in the opera house at twenty five bucks. As always, it's a quick sell-out. This year, the company is going to carry that spirit into the whole season and offer at least fifty front orchestra seats for twenty five bucks each *at all performances*; details here. I predict a roaring success. New productions this coming season include Purcell's King Arthur, directed and choreographed by Mark Morris and costumed by Isaac Mizrahi, a fresh Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci directed by Stephen Lawless which will nod to the Italian neo-realist cinema of Rossellini and Visconti, and the American opera Vanessa by Samuel Barber starring Lauren Flanigan. Other highlights include major revivals of Verdi's Falstaff and Handel's Agrippina and familiar titles like Tosca, Don Giovanni, Carmen and, of course, La Boheme in rep. Opera for all indeed.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream

photo: Michal Daniel

Well worth lining up for this (final) weekend, the Daniel Sullivan-directed ...Midsummer's... is easily one of the most entertaining productions of Shakespeare to grace Central Park in recent years. There are plenty of reasons why the production shouldn't come off as well as it does - the play's darker ruminations are breezed over, the set (mostly, a single gnarled tree) and the costumes (which riff on Edwardian England) don't work well together, in a handful of instances the dialogue has been turned into lyrics to inadvertently alienating effect. But none of that matters so much while basking in the glow of this charming production, which emphasizes all that is screwball in the comedy and which boasts a better, more unified ensemble than has become the Shakespeare In The Park norm. Here, the gals among the four central lovers are more emphasized than the guys, with Mireille Enos a strong, substantial Hermia and Martha Plimpton a strikingly resilient and passionate Helena. Although she flubs part of her first scene by racing through it, Laila Robins is a delight once her Titania is bewitched by love's spell and dewey-eyed over an ass-faced actor (played with gusto by Jay O. Sanders).

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Photo/Michal Daniel

To quote Shakespeare, Helena makes a heaven of hell. Martha Plimpton usually delivers (see The Coast of Utopia), so yes, I'll follow her, to "die upon the hand I love so well." Of course, there is no hell to be found in Daniel Sullivan's direction of A Midsummer Night's Dream, only magic. The First Fairy (Chelsea Bacon) does acrobatic burlesque with her tongue and body as she swings from branch to branch, easily purring her text, and Laila Robin's Titania plays footsie both with her words and her stockinged legs. Puck (Jon Michael Hill) is a magician who does slight of hand as much with his own spry self as with his multicolored cloths, and the faeries, creepy children straight out of Tim Burton's "innocence," give way to bucolic ditties in Oberon's (Keith David) deep dulcet tones. One never thinks "poor Bottom" in the light of such theatrical antics, much less Jay O. Sanders, who "brays" that role to great effect, nor does Sullivan dwell on the wild, unspoken violence: when it boils over, it is in stylized and greatly comic choreography, as Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia all fly at one another in the name of love. The energy that Sullivan's achieved in this production is the true fairy dust that gives this Dream wings: reason and love, it's true, keep little company together.

[Also blogged by: Patrick]

Sunday, September 02, 2007


Atlantic Stage

Jesse Eisenberg, the young actor who so brilliantly held his own against the likes of Jeff Daniels and Lara Linney in the film The Squid And The Whale , proves yet again with his intense multi-dimensional performance in Lucy Thurber's absorbing new drama, Scarcity, that there is no question we have a very special and confident actor here. With an awkward, quavering tone, his character slyly feels his way through this play figuring out just what he can and can't get away with as he is pulled in all directions by his mother, father, sister and teacher. Taking place in rural Massachusetts this play was all about the smart poor kid trying to find a way out of the drunken destitute environment he has been raised in. Happily the play works very well and Kristen Johnston and Michael T. Weiss as drunk mommy and drunk daddy crank out a couple of very impressive performances of their own. This is a recommender.

100 Saints You Should Know

David's already captured the joy of seeing Lois Smith on stage (although I'll add, in something good, because Surface to Air was awful). And Patrick's already pinpointed the "elegant gracefulness" and "prickly humor." I've got a lengthy preview up if you click "Read On" below, so rather than rehash how much I enjoyed 100 Saints You Should Know, I'd like to highlight a moment: Matthew (Jeremy Shamos) has just been told by Abby (Zoe Kazan) that it's alright to say "I don't know" (which he then does), and now stands in a hospital waiting room with Theresa (Janel Moloney), a professional maid who seeks salvation--and perhaps something more--from him. The two, on diverging paths to and from faith, stand in the stark glow of an overhanging light, and Matthew confesses why he's been forced from the rectory--he was caught with male nude photographs--and speaks of his yearning to be touched. In the quietest, most fragilely beautiful moment on stage this year, Theresa reaches out to him, lightly brushing his head as Matthew stares out, at--well, that (like the play's meaning) is for the audience to decide.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick | David]

Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical

The Real Theatre Company

The electricity and vibe of a "be-in" was certainly conveyed in abundance by this posse of earnest young actors many of whom are "thrilled" to be making their New York debut. Unfortunately, due to karaoke-style singing, technical difficulties, and loose direction/choreography that gave our giant cast a little too much latitude thereby blurring focus, this was a little more footloose and fancy free than it probably should have been. But hey, it's Hair.... they're kids.... it's theater... I hope they had a blast. Congrats on your NYC debuts!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Lady In Question

photo: David Rodgers

It's been fifteen years since Charles Busch first donned wigs and heels to star in his delightful spoof of 1940's suspense melodrama: ever since, some of us poor suckers have been starving to death for another taste of this deliciously kitschy bon-bon. Busch is Gertrude Garnet, a world-famous concert pianist who agrees to Mata-Hari a smitten SS officer while touring Bavaria: there's a big laugh when she extends her man-sized hands and says they are insured by Lloyd's of London. Every move Busch makes, both as playwright and as performer, reveals a deep understanding and affection for the high-style dramatics of the silver screen heroines of a long-gone era. Every lift of an eyebrow has an impact. Think of it as the kind of send-up that The Carol Burnett Show used to do, but better and just a little bit warped by flashes of raunchy naughtiness and the gently subversive texture of drag. The ensemble in this production (which includes Richard Kind, Julie Halston, Matt McGrath and Candy Buckley) is pitch-perfect individually and in tandem: everyone gets the style of the material and achieves it. This may be the best play that Busch has in his drag closet, and this production (at Bay Street Theatre, in Sag Harbor) is every bit as fun as the original one.