Friday, November 30, 2007

Queens Boulevard

photo: Carol Rosegg

The second play in Signature's Charles Mee season is a fairy tale which begins with a joyous and colorful marriage ceremony. The play-with-music gently questions how romantic love can be balanced with social responsibility, as Mee contrives a series of events that keep the newlyweds apart for nearly their entire first day as marrieds. Contrives is the operative word, regretably: although Mee scores many thematic points over the course of the intermissionless 100 minute play, and his collage style of narrative keeps things lively and layered with meaning, the play's events begin to feel manufactured. There comes a point when you just want to yell at the continually detained groom to get on home to his wife already.

The Eight: Reindeer Monologues

Jeff Goode's The Eight: Reindeer Monologues have a lot of creativity poured into them, but not enough energy to keep that overladen bag of toys in the air. Each reindeer is tethered to the same stockpile of jokes (although they each have different attitudes about it), but without a belligerent Santa breathing whiskily down their necks, they only manage to go in similar circles. Dasher (Robert Brown) tells us, in his best Tom Arnold impression, how the Rudolph thing was a fluke; Donner (Jason Unfried) uses alcohol to forget the screams of his retarded son, Rudolph, upon meeting Santa's "jolly old elf"); Blitzen (Rachel Grundy) speaks rationally as to why the reindeer need to go on strike; and poor Vixen (Jennifer Gill) "accepts" that Santa's rape of her was something she had coming because of her frisky lifestyle. Some of the actors explode onto the stage with memorable impressions, like the openly gay Cupid's (Peter Schuyler) dance to Electric Six's "Gay Bar," or the flamboyant Hollywood's (Geoffrey Warren Barnes III) cooler-than-the-North-Pole attitude about movie-making. But ultimately, the show is just low comedy, strung together with some reindeer ears thrown on for good measure (which, admittedly, is good for a laugh).

[Read on]

Queens Boulevard (the musical)

photo: Carol Rosegg
(now in previews)

Though the writing is not as succinct and focused as the searing Iphegenia 2.0, the same uncontainable passion that explodes into music and dance also brings technicolor vitality to Charles Mee's latest production at Signature. As a newly married groom wanders the streets of Queens searching for a rare flower for his wife, he learns lessons about marriage, lust, life and love from the colorful characters who reside in the neighborhood. Many of the stories that our residents tell crackle with witty and keen observations and if perhaps one or two get bogged down in exposition or pat philosophy it isn't long before our play zooms along to the next pit stop on our hero's journey. Mimi Lien's scenic design, a cacophony of neon signs and cluttered shops, is spectacular- to the point that I audibly gasped when I walked into the theater. And as always when dealing with Signature, we have a perfectly cast production and a director (Davis McCallum) who honors the spirit of the playwright's work. I am very glad I got to see this production.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Christmas Carol

Tiny Tim is a deejay for the town's radio station, Scrooge is a nerdy entrepreneur, Crachett is a woman. This modern-day Christmas Carol musical (currently at the Vortex Theatre) makes systemic revisions to the story, mostly in pursuit of satiric social comment. Although just about everything has been done to disturb the conventions of holiday-time stories (it's even set during a heat wave: one of the show's funniest moments occurs when a character proposes that everyone think of global warming as a new kind of Christmas miracle) the tone of the show is not abrasive or condascending: there's real invention here rather than nose-thumbing. Risky and rule-breaking, with edgy hybrid musical sensibilities that (save for one brassy show-stopping piano number for the Ghost of Christmas Present) have not the faintest whiff of Broadway, the show is "downtown" in the best sense of the word. However, it's stuffed with so many distortions and revisions of the oft-told Dickens tale that it loses narrative focus: we lose the forest for the trees.

Local Story

The plot of Kristen Palmer's Local Story would either be buried deep in some small town's monthly newspaper or found running in The National Enquirer, but either way, it lacks drama and truth. How else to deal with the entropic, meandering plot, a series of disjointed ideas flung across space and time to eventually coalesce in the nameless town and faceless homes of this play? One moment, Betsy (Keira Keeley) is in Colorado; D'lady (Sarah Kate Jackson) is on the road, talking about fate; and Jimmy (Mark David Watson) is calling after his lover to come back, if not for him, then at least to return his car. The next, Betsy's suddenly living with Gloria (Marielle Heller), a solitary figure with a penchant for strays, and Jimmy's shacked up with Bubba (Travis York), a man who hasn't left his house since his heart went idle three years ago. D'lady's the girl who broke his heart (for Jimmy), and Betsy's the girl who stole Jimmy's: oh, and every so often, the sky opens to rain down Betsy's dreams upon her (car keys, for example). If that weren't enough, Bubba's sister, Amory (Havilah Brewster) keeps nudging her husband, Roy (Ben Scaccia) for a baby, so much so that he sees ghosts on the side of the road. Nobody seems to like anybody else, nor to have a clue as to why that's the case, and Palmer's writing keeps getting lost in a moody wistfulness that is too much past tense, and not enough of the present.

[Read on]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Doris To Darlene

photo: Joan Marcus

First, there's the mid-1960's story that recalls Phil and Ronnie Spector, in which an obsessive pop record producer cribs a Wagner melody to score a "wall of sound" hit for his discovery Darlene; second, there's the story of Wagner writing that melody, while financed and coddled by his most obsessive fan King Ludwig; third, there is the contemporary story of a gay teenager who obsesses over Darlene's song while nursing an attraction to his high school music teacher, a Wagner buff. This ambitious but only occasionally successful new drama, which rotates and mashes-up those three stories spanning over a century, may want to speak to the powerful mysteries of music that language can not summon, but it is anything but mysterious: it spells everything out and doesn't risk anything as chancey as subtext. The playwright (Jordan Harrison) has the characters authorally speaking their thoughts in the third person nearly as often as they simply speak dialogue to each other: that's distancing rather than involving. It takes a long time to get used to the continual juxtapositions of the stories: I suspect that the playwright's aim is to make a kind of verbal music out of the rotation, but the dialogue is not sufficiently heightened to achieve that. For most of the first act we may as well be watching stick figures go round in a revolving door. The second act is better - a couple of the performers (most notably Tom Nelis, as the music teacher) are able to flesh out their characters and register as human beings - and the big moment that the play has been leading to undoubtedly works. But it would work a lot better if the playwright had more trust in the audience.

Oh, The Humanity (and other exclamations)

Photo/Richard Termine

Will Eno's an excellent solipsist, and that helps him to be a great monologist, a writer of such specific dialog that he can trick the audience into soul-searching his every word. With Thom Pain, he found a droll enough actor in James Urbaniak that we wanted to drown in his reflexive thoughts and engage with his double-talk; but his new collection of short plays, Oh, The Humanity (and other exclamations) eschews specificity of thought for grasping meditations on mortality, and while Brian Hutchison and Marisa Tomei are able to tone themselves down, for them, it seems reductive. Worse still, the five short plays that make up the show are redundancies of each other, starting with the excellently fresh "Behold The Coach, In a Blazer, Uninsured," and ending with the dismal "Oh, The Humanity," in which the characters dismiss the artifice of the stage as a cruel reflection of life ("And these are chairs. And that's it. And I don't know who I am.") but offer nothing in return.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: David]

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Atomic Farmgirl

Teri Hein's memoir about growing up on a farm "accidentally" being irradiated by a nearby atomic plant in the '50s and '60s is a real American tragedy: the unwitting effects of our own ingenuity (and the more sinister implications of our knowledge) on a hearty family of six. This sprawling saga crams in the growing pains of four sisters, the hardships of farm life (especially in sickness), and the guilt of the living, and overreaches only when it taps Native American mythos to force through an unnecessary parallel. The multi-decade sweep of the narrative isn't what sells the show, however, nor the acting, which often seems half-assed (save for a few, like Maria McConville). Instead, it's the rich little details -- Mona sees herself as patriotic because there's a tumor in her head the size of a baseball -- and the homey, era-appropriate anecdotes (about milk-bottle-shaped buildings) that yield the most nutritious scenes. C. Denby Swanson's adaptation is well-intentioned, so even though the Native American apparitions don't do much for the show, the attempt to draw out a parallel theme is clear, and though there's not much drama in one character talking to a ghost, director Brooke Brod milks it for what it's worth. I'm convinced there's an excellent family drama in there, and the production has a lot of value, so I'm still recommending it, but I do hope The Drilling Company continues to work on this play. It'd be a shame for it to only have a half-life.

[Read on]

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Receptionist

photo: Joan Marcus

We're in what appears to be an ordinary office watching the Mom-faced receptionist (Jayne Houdyshell) direct incoming calls when she's not dispensing no-nonsense love advice to a co-worker or making light chit-chat with the Central Office suit who's dropped by unexpectedly to have a word with her boss. This is the mundane, seemingly benign first half of Adam Bock's tidy one-act which, with one bombshell, reveals itself as a cautionary modern-day allegory. (Think of the reveal in Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, and you'll get a rough idea of the impact, and the gravity, of Bock's sucker-punch.) It could be said that the play is built around a single gimmick - for that reason there will certainly be some theatregoers who will say the play is "slight" - but I wouldn't agree. Do you know that adage that says that the first act of a play is the performance, and the second act is what happens when the audience digests it afterwards? I suspect that this second act will be repeating on me for a long time.

Peter and Jerry

This is about as perfect a production of The Zoo Story as can be. Not only does it have the deft conversationalist, Dallas Roberts (who I last saw in A Number), but it has an elegant balance for him in the stuffily polite Bill Pullman, one of the best squirmers around. And Edward Albee loves to make his characters squirm through his sly eruptions of the animal hiding within our (hu)mundanity. However, this isn't just The Zoo Story; it's also the far more artificial Homelife, a prologue that, despite the giggly warmth of Johanna Day, only serves to show how much better The Zoo Story is. Homelife has been clearly written to fit the world already established so succinctly within The Zoo Story, in which Peter (Pullman) is pulled out of the safety of his textbooks and into the real world, forced to actually fight for something real, no matter how trivial. As a result, Albee limits himself in Act I to slight foreshadowing and obvious parallels (just as Jerry gains loss through his encounter with a vicious dog, Peter is shown to have the same safe indifference with his wife). Even the plot seems like it's recycled from Philip Roth's "The Breast," another tale in which a mental malady takes on a physical condition (Peter is concerned that his penis is retreating). Homelife is by no means a bad play, and if that's what it takes to deepen our connection to The Zoo Story, I'll gladly sit through it again. But I'd rather just watch the way Roberts humanizes Jerry, with slow caresses of English, a childishly high pitched voice, and a nervous quaver to his otherwise assertive probing. What a magnificent interpretation, with not an awkward moment of silence (Pam MacKinnon uses it all up in the first act) between two real animals.

[Also blogged by: Patrick | David]

dai (enough)

Before they were statistics, the victims of suicide bombings were people, and the power of Iris Bahr's multi-faceted performances in her solo show, dai (enough) is her ability to resurrect them, just moments before the explosion, in such a way that we can remember them as humans, first and foremost, and political statements later. Bahr's comic approach doesn't always work -- many of the characters still seem like figurative points -- but when it does, her work is explosive.

[Read on]

Friday, November 23, 2007

Rag And Bone

photo: Sandra Coudert

Near the top of Noah Haidle's absurdist play, a poet is begging in the street because he can no longer feel emotion since his heart was stolen. He means it literally: his heart was thieved right out of his chest, hence the bloodsoaked shirt. What he doesn't find out until well into the play, but we learn almost immediately, is that his sensitive poet's heart is a desirable commodity on the black market, where numb-hearted customers can buy a transplant. This is the third absurd comedy I've seen by this playwright and I'm turned on by the mix of whimsy and wisdom he gets by concretizing the metaphorical (in his play Vigils, for instance, he depicted a widow who had trouble dating again because her dead husband was still with her, literally, in a trunk in the bedroom) and I'm jazzed by the worlds he creates, which are ruled by a warped logic. But Rag And Bone grinds almost to a halt when it breaks with its own logic early in the second act - the poet's heart gives a millionaire profound empathy but it doesn't transform him into the poet, yet a son is changed into his mother when he installs her heart. While the play is nonetheless always engaging and scores high on the freshness scale, the actors in this production have been pushed (and costumed) too far to the extreme; that comes dangerously close to taking the heart out of the play.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I suppose in retrospect Sive is an all-too predictable tale of what happens when money clouds judgment, but John B. Keane's 1959 drama caught me entirely by surprise. I was so blinded by the overblown antics of the matchmaker Thomasheen Sean Rua (Patrick Fitzgerald) that I genuinely believed that the young lover, Liam (Mark Thornton) would rush in at the last moment to save Sive (Wrenn Schmidt) from her marriage to the old, rich Sean Dota (Christopher Joseph Jones). Or that Sive's Nanna (Terry Donnelly) would manage to convince Uncle Mike (Aidan Redmond) to follow his heart. Or that Mena (Fiana Toibin), Sive's step-aunt and Mike's wife, would get past her stubborn resentment of her ward's comparative freedom and not cruelly condemn her to a life without love. And I had every cause to believe: save for the one-dimensionally written Thomasheen, Keane's play is a long struggle of convictions, customs, and character, and there were many well-paced moments of hope. Ultimately, I was emotionally blindsided by Ciaran O'Reilly's steady direction, and then forced to linger in tears by some terrifically human performances out of Mr. Thornton and Mr. Redmond (and the two somewhat jokey musicians, played by Donie Carroll and James Barry).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Die Zauberflote

photo: Beatriz Schiller

Julie Taymor's spectacular production of Mozart's most popular opera leaves you almost giddy with happiness: it's a carnival of theatrical delights to captivate both young and old. The jaw-dropping puppets, the dazzling visual effects, the eye-popping sets: I've never seen a production of The Magic Flute as dynamic and as boundlessly inventive as this one which manages to make so much of the opera's potential for both grand spectacle and intimate fairy-tale charm. But I'm coming late to that bit of news: the production was such a success when it premiered a few years ago that the Met has promised to bring it back (albeit, sometimes as a heavily abbreviated English language one-act) every other season. This particular performance marked one of German soprano Diana Damrau's last-ever-anywhere appearances as The Queen Of The Night: she's chosen to retire the famously difficult role from her rep after triumphing with it all over the globe. If the demands of the arias ever lost her a night of sleep you would never have known it, as her ringing coloratura was precise and exciting, each note thrillingly delineated and shaded with feeling.

The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide

Photo/Heather Clark

South Park gets away with its fourth-grade antics because it's an animated comedy. Sean Graney's play, The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide, has a harder go of it, since the adult actors are so obviously not nine years old. The contrived introduction, in which the fourth graders introduce the play within the play they're about to perform (a suicide note of a drama left behind by their friend, Johnny), makes things worse, as the actors play characters who will soon be playing characters, but they're assisted by Graney's quaint kid-speak ("I am over with him" signifies a break up; an argument is a "shouting-at") and Devin Brain's confident, Lynch-like direction. Things start simply, with Johnny (Joseph Binder) crushing on Rachel (Jennifer Grace) and fretting about a warm juice box, but they slowly grow more adult (and therefore tragic): popular Sally (Stacy Stoltz) forces Johnny to date her, even though this enrages her ex, the bullying Mike Rice (Tim Simons), and it isn't long before there's a balletic death scene between two animal-masked children (industrial strength glue is toxic, go figure!), a suicide ala rat poison, and a magical moment with a gun that leaves a pool of ketchup in its wake. Given this ending, the awkward moments (like a singer who hovers ominously on stage) help the show more than hurt, but it's perhaps just a little too disaffecting.

[Read on]

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Medea

Is there anything new and fresh that a fledging theatre company can bring to the oft-told ancient story of Medea? Yes, as it happens. The inaugural show from Wide Eyed Productions doesn't fuss much with the popular Gilbert Murray translation of the play - the dialogue is as it has often been heard for about a hundred years - yet this production has an intimacy and a restraint that make it identifiably contemporary and emotionally immediate. As judiciously played by Amy Lee Pearsall, this Medea is a trapped and broken woman whose extreme actions are made to seem logical, inevitable: even in the wake of her horrific crime, it's possible to understand her psychology and to identify it as all too human. While the production doesn't quite pull off its anachronistic design concept (among the Chorus, there's a dagger on one man's belt loop while another man carries a briefcase) the ensemble, under Kristin Skye Hoffmann's sharp direction, more than compensates by ably mining modern characterizations from the text. I'll certainly be on the lookout for what Wide Eyed does next.

Sister Cities

Photo/Gili Getz

Sister Cities has all the right elements for a comic drama: four bickering half-sisters, each intellectually sharp and as different in attitude as in their namesake cities: out-of-control Baltimore (Jaime Neumann), warm and maternal Dallas (Emberli Edwards), liberally controlled Austin (Maeve York), and uptight Carolina (Ellen Reilly). And yes, Carolina isn't a city -- in fact, it isn't even a state -- but that's just one of the many lovable quirks that Colette Freedman has written into the show, in this case as an example of their mother's whimsical mannerisms (also up there, "Match your panties and knickers or the policemen will give you snickers"). From the small moments over a game of Scrabble (look up zooerastia if you ever want to impress and disgust your friends), to the big moments spent coping with their mother's suicide, Freedman's writing is always genuine and entertaining. My only complaint is that the excellent shock of Act One is squandered in a redundant flashback (and unnecessary intermission); aside from that, I enjoyed my time in Sister Cities.

[Read on]

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Young Frankenstein

Photo/Paul Kolnik

From the "there, wolf" visual pun that appears during a hay ride through a computer-generated forest to Igor's admission (after an oddly enunciated phrase) that he doesn't know why he's talking like that, it seems obvious that nobody really knows how any of the humor in the show actually got there. Sure, some was scavenged from the film version, by producers (Mel Brooks among them) operating like gravediggers in the night, and some came from a roulette wheel of sight gags spun by Susan Stroman, marching around like angry villagers, wielding torches, pitchforks, and whatever else they could get their hands on. But the score is incredibly weak, the talents of comic actresses (like Andrea Martin) and fabulous dancer/everythings (Sutton Foster) are put to waste, and few of the highly budgeted special effects offer anything that hasn't been seen on stage already (the trembling double-vision of a dream-sequence segue stands out as an exceptional visual moment). Even Roger Bart, as Frederick Frankenstein, brings little to the role beyond his wooden affability, shrill shrieks of astonishment, and quick little tongue (the patter of "The Brain" is one of the few songs that actually sticks, along with "Listen to Your Heart"). Diversions, like the Hermit and his "Please Send Me Someone," jut out of the framework because a suitable context hasn't been found for them, and too much of the stage version is disconnected from the plot itself. Musical theater needs to be more elegant than putting together Ikea furniture: it can't just be banged together by people too busy to follow the directions.

[Also blogged by: Patrick]

Bad Jazz

Photo/Carol Rosegg

To put it mildly, Adam Rapp just got fucked. Robert Farquhar's Bad Jazz is years ahead of Bingo with the Indians, both elegant and perverse. Trip Cullman's expertise as a director shows: the discordant theme runs out from the music, across an increasingly cluttered stage and through actors caught up in the catharsis of cursing. The play shifts from serious conversations about, say, the ethics of actually performing oral sex in a play into the farcical consequences of taking character too far in the rehearsal process, but only drops a beat with a small diversion into the director character's private life. The intensity is balanced by an exaggeratedly comic tone, and the thoughts are clearly delineated by the wonderful Marin Ireland (as free as I've ever seen her on stage) and gruffly garrulous Rob Campbell (think James Lipton + Sean Connery). There isn't a dull moment in the entire play (though the acoustics sometimes drop lines you're hanging onto the edge of your seat to hear), and though it's ultimately more mocking than meaningful, it's pretty visceral no matter how you parse it.

[Read on]

Friday, November 16, 2007

Bingo With The Indians

photo: Joan Marcus

The Flea Theater

I somewhat agree with Aaron that this play is a "series of stray dots that happen to closely approximate a dramatic thought", however, within this unfocused structure lies those Adam Rapp hallmarks that I have fallen in love with: the borderline insane and vibrant characters, the gratuitous, yet obligatory profanity, the violence, the obsession with sex and the ridiculously high stakes. As a struggling theater company is in the middle of a bingo hall heist, a poor outsider and his mother are exposed to just what a sick and twisted culture the theater can be. Fun! I have never seen a poorly cast Rapp play (I wouldn't be surprised if he had a collection of future drama desk nominees chained up in a basement somewhere) and the entire posse here, from Evan Enderele's lost stoner to Cooper Daniels' rabid thespian (both pictured), completely understands and seems quite at home in Rapp's gritty, angry, whack world. The worst sin is to be boring and at Bingo With The Indians, I was on the edge of my seat.

Bingo With The Indians

photo: Joan Marcus

In the world premiere of this Adam Rapp play, we're holed up in a downscale New Hampshire motel room with some violent extremists who are planning to stick up the local bingo that they can fund their edgy East Village theatre company. The military-fatigued artistic director, the sometimes hopped up and naked cokehead actor, the coldly manipulative stage manager - they come off like the cinema-terrorist band of outsiders in John Waters' Cecil B. Demented except that Rapp doesn't have the affection for his characters that Waters did, and since Rapp has directed this production, it's a fair assumption that the singular nastiness is exactly what he wanted. It wears thin quickly. Despite some interesting moments analogizing crime to theatre (when the artistic director is recalling the actor not following orders during the armed robbery, it sounds a lot like she's complaining about a fellow performer who's missed a cue) the black comedy in Bingo With The Indians doesn't build and it's never clear where Rapp is hoping his bullets will land: is he satirizing low-budget theatre, or political extremism? The play is like a long snarl, relieved (if that's the word for it) by a harrowing and graphic rough-sex scene. The six actors in the ensemble bring a high level of intensity, but their blood sweat and tears can't bring any real life into a script that is poison-hearted at its glib core.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sister Cities

photo: Gili Getz

It's no longer a surprise that the productions at T. Schreiber Studio are marked by intelligent staging, committed acting, and sharp direction; I think I've lost count of how many classic plays I've seen impressively staged in their intimate black box space. This is the first time I've seen them present a New York premiere, and although I found the play (by Colette Freedman) to be disappointingly plotted (there's at least one contrivance too many, the second act isn't nearly as tight as the first, and it too patly resolves the play's most interesting conflict) it's hard to imagine that it could have been given a more thoughtful and entertaining production than this one. The story - of four half-sisters who reunite at their childhood home on the ocassion of their mothers' apparent suicide - is most successful as a naturalistic slice-of-life sibling relationship drama; the playwright is on solid ground writing conversations that unfold naturally, believably. Director Cat Parker, set designer George Allison, and virtually everyone in the cast of five (especially Ellen Reilly, whose wound-tight character most drives the play's action) should be commended for very fine, detailed work.

Theft of Imagination

Theft of Imagination is quite possibly the perfect show to see during the Broadway strike: it's a play about two rival nations with only thirteen days left to broker an end to their protracted (and silly, given how similar they are) war and it's free (though you'll want to leave a donation). It's also an example of how far you can push the imagination when it isn't being overwhelmed by the strobe lights and chorus numbers of the Great White Way: Theft of Imagination is performed very modestly, which rightly keeps the focus on David Negrin's well-paced and nicely progressive text. The cast, led by the charismatic young Max Hambleton, acquits itself well (though the adults of the play have some hammy, mustache-twirling lines) and though the play is an exhaustive study of negotiation tactics, it largely gets through its two-and-half-hours with a minimum of repetition (though future revisions should certainly look to pare down), and a surprisingly rich use of character, despite names like Introverted Boy and Outgoing Boy's Handler.

[Read on]

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


photo: Joan Marcus

Director David Grindley seems to have brought the qualities to this revival of Shaw's Pygmalion that helped to distinguish his Journey's End last season: namely, a keen attention to detail, a pronounced avoidance of sentimentality, and a high level of integrity. The result is one of the smartest and sturdiest productions of any Shaw play I've seen in years and easily one of the best productions to play at the Roundabout's 42nd street stage. Grindley doesn't make the mistake of trying to mine My Fair Lady-like romance moments out of Shaw's play: his direction emphasizes Shaw's social ideas and his class commentary. (Although My Fair Lady is my all-time favorite musical, it is a different animal than this play, its source: lost in the adaptation were many of Shaw's snappy observations, such as the irony that once Cockney flower girl Eliza is transformed into a respectable lady, the only thing that society allows her to sell is herself). Further elevating this production are its performances, particularly its two leads. While Claire Danes makes a thoroughly excellent Broadway debut, emphasizing Eliza's determination and inner strength, the bigger surprise is Jefferson Mays' daring, out-there take on Henry Higgins as a bratty overgrown Mama's boy. His is exactly the kind of new interpretation of a classic role that I like to see: it's not how it's been done in the past, but it sure makes a lot of psychological sense and it illuminates, rather than distorts, the character.

Baby with the Bathwater

Photo/Randy Morrison

Just when you thought it was safe to have a baby, Christopher Durang's hilarious (yet hopeful) look at family values, parentage, and maturation (despite it all), is back on the stage. Baby with the Bathwater is no-holds-barred comedy, and under Kevin Connell's playful direction and the cast's exaggerated smiles, the play is as relevant now (if not more) as when it premiered in '84. The moral value of The Brothers Karamazov, as interpreted by the Mary Poppins-like nanny, Nanny (Anna Fitzwater) is that there is no right or wrong, only fun, and in that context, it's hilarious to watch John (Victor Verhaeghe) offer his depressed child, lying prone in a basket of laundry, some of his vodka -- in fact, it's almost heart-warming. John's wife, Helen (Karen Culp) is just as funny sitting on a swing at the park, encouraging other children to poke her "daughter" out of her comatose state. ("No, Billy! Don't poke her with that! Put that away!" calls another, yet no more active, mother.) When Daisy (Jeremy King) actually appears, late in the second act, he is exactly what you'd expect from such neglecting parents, but all hope is not lost. Between his seventh year as a sophomore, his 435th session with a therapist, and his 1,034th random girl, at least he, out of everyone else, may have actually grown up.

[Read on]

Peter And Jerry

photo: Joan Marcus

Zoo Story, the nearly fifty year old one-act which put Edward Albee on the map, is still ferocious, riveting theatre: its enduring theme (that what we human beings call "humanity" is barely more than a push and a shove away from our true animal natures) is communicated succinctly, powerfully, in Albee's tight and suspenseful dramatic masterpiece of two men who encounter and provoke each other on a park bench. The play has been re-set in the current day and paired with a newly penned one-act prologue called Homelife: not only does this new first act go a long way toward fleshing out the character of Peter, now seen at home with his wife before he ventures out to the fateful events with Jerry at that park bench, it also deepens Albee's theme by including the more commonplace acts of emotional savagery that can occur in a long-standing intimate relationship. While I have some quibbles with the first act (the dialogue sometimes doesn't flow smoothly, even allowing for Albee's heightened style) I can't argue with the overall effect and impact of this double bill: Peter And Jerry is one of the most exciting shows of the year - both intellectually involving and viscerally powerful. Superbly directed by Pam Mckinnon and expertly performed by Dallas Roberts, Johanna Day and especially Bill Pullman, the production is a don't miss.

Peter And Jerry

photo: Sara Krulwich

Second Stage

When the curtain rises on the Edward Albee's Homelife, Act One to The Zoo Story's Act Two, sitting there on the sofa is Peter and sitting on the table in front of him is a tiny cell phone. It is never used but it is a vital prop that zoomed us directly into the post-millennium. Albee was updating his 50 year old classic?? How he was going to go about it? Cut to Act 2. Wow. Aside from the name dropping of one modern author and a bit of welcome profanity, I detected no significant change. Zoo 49 years later still works in the now and is continues to be as shocking and relevant as ever. And Homelife, a husband/wife conversation that evolves far beyond typical afternoon banter, is loaded with that vintage Albee language- you know- where one person says something and then ponders what they've said and then re-phrases their thoughts? Love that. Homelife gently grabs us, picks us up, shakes us up and down a bit and then sets us down in Central Park to wander down a familiar path with a completely new perspective. And the director/cast? Pat MacKinnon/Bill Pullman, Johanna Day, and Dallas Roberts? Perfect. This is theater at its finest. Don't miss it.
The ACE train intermittently rumbled underneath the Second Stage theatre. Nice touch.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Secret Order

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Secret Order is an actor's play, full of barbed lines, wry deliveries, and so little substance that the play revolves around exaggeration and half-truths. That said, no matter how well Bob Clyman arms them with lines, or Charles Towers removes all other distractions from their work, the play fails if the actors aren't all on their game, and Larry Pine has a ways to go before he's comfortable enough to play the confident Dr. Brock. Right now, he's not a strong enough father figure to make William Schumway (Dan Colman) fudge his cancer research so as to make the old man proud. And his affected delivery, all bluster, takes the bite out of the snubbed Saul Roth (Kenneth Tigar) and lessens the influence and impact of the ambitious undergraduate, Alice Curiton (Jessi Campbell). Given that Charles Tower's direction is to minimize the surroundings (there's really just a rotating metal workbench) and spotlight the actors, the show has moments where it soars, and moments where it's just hot air.

[Read on]

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Make Me A Song

photo: Carol Rosegg

Many of William Finn's most memorable songs are included in this 90 minute revue, and an able cast of four has been assembled to sing them (I especially liked Adam Heller, who never sounds a false note all evening, and Sally Wilfert, who has a pleasing creamy-smooth voice), but somehow the show adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The ante has been upped on this genre of show after the most recent Putting It Together revue of Sondheim songs and last season's Jacques Brel... at the Zipper, both of which found ways to use their respective composers' songbooks to suggest a narrative spine and to chart an emotional arc. Apart from an extended section of Falsettos numbers, the songs in this revue aren't sequenced in any meaningful way: it's simply a parade of numbers, marched out one after another. While the best of them are moving and effective ("Unlikely Lovers", which builds to four-part harmonizing, is very beautifully sung here) the show (which uses just a single piano to accompany the singers) feels at its least good like some cabaret room in the Catskills.


Photo/Joanna Wilson Photography

In "The Way Down," one of the ten short one-act, one-man playlets that make up the isolating spine of Archipelago, a boy named Danny (Nick Lewis) has jumped to his death, only to find that time now passes remarkably slow, allowing him enough clarity of thought to regret the choice he made. But playwright Richard Strand doesn't give Danny any room to develop, nor does he waste much more than Danny's three seconds to consider anything broader than the cheaply developed gimmick of the short play, and he dies without any catharsis at all. The rest of the plays largely follow suit, giving largely unimaginative glimpses into the lives of characters whom we meet too briefly to care much for. This is especially true of an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates' "(A Diptych)" and for Davy Rothbart's "Scarface," which spends more time trying to convince us of its feelings through an anecdote about a bat than by giving us anything real to ground ourselves with. There are sparks of creativity in Shelia Callaghan's "Hold This," and in Brian Patrick Leahy's "Cranberry" (about a suicide artist who is literally going to leave her mark), and both the performances and the writing of Anton Dudley's "Up Here/In Here" and Erica Rosbe's "Orbit" are satisfying wholes. Along with the passably performed Beckett piece, "Act Without Words I," that makes the show about as even as you'd expect, a fifty-fifty mix of theater that demonstrates just how important it is for a show to eventually come together.

[Read on]

Crime and Punishment

Photo/Courtesy of Writers' Theatre

Dostoevsky's classic novel makes an excellent transition to the stage in this dramatically and psychologically focused retelling of Crime and Punishment. From Eugene Lee's cramped set to Keith Parham's floodlights of truth and repression to Michael Halberstam's tightly mirrored direction to the elegant and subtle acting, the Writers' Theatre isn't being cruel, nor unusual (but not easy either); just exactly the sort of ninety-minute sentence one hopes for. Trapped alone on stage as the very real ghosts of his lover/confessor Sonia (Susan Bennett) and genial pursuer Porfiry Petrovich (John Judd) spin in and out through doors, Raskolnikov (Scott Parkinson) turns to us (and an overwhelmingly large Jesus-on-the-cross) for forgiveness. In clearly extracted (yet contradictingly human) monologues, our soft-spoken murderer tries to talk himself out of sin, justifying his work as theoretical and extraordinary, but fails, at last coming to terms with his self-inflicted sickness as he tries to answer the simplest of questions: "Why?" For us, the answer is much easier: because this is a profound production, stretched a bit in the middle, sure, but a haunting tale all the same.

[Read on]

Saturday, November 10, 2007

All About My Mother

Old Vic


According to IMDB, the film All About My Mother is 101 minutes long. This newly staged version of the Almodovar classic was at least 30 minutes longer. The extra stuff added is just extra stuff. Much like many of the screen-t0-stage adaptations of recent years, this story suffered from the square-peg-in-the-round-hole syndrome. Even though there are theatrical elements inherent to the story (we're often backstage at A Streetcar Named Desire), All About My Mother is cinematic any way you look at it. Almodovar's eye is as potent as his voice and to have well intentioned theater artists attempt to recreate his magic live onstage is a virtually unattainable feat. New monologues delivered directly to the audience left me confused and the constant location hopping made the play seem too busy and ungrounded. Another rabble of amazingly talented Brtitish actors give it their best, including the dry as gin Diana Rigg and the passionate Lesley Manville (pictured), but unfortunately without Almodovar's obsessive close-ups they were doomed to be ersatz to their cinematic counterparts . I paid 25 pounds to be reminded that I need to revisit the film.

A Thought About Raya

Photo/Ericka Heidrick

Few people right now are happy about losing their Broadway tickets, but I was ecstatic, since it gave me the opportunity to catch the limited run of The Debate Society's first play, A Thought About Raya. This play, based on the work of Daniil Kharms, also provides insight (if The Eaten Heart and the upcoming Untitled Auto Play are any indication) into the largely vignette-based plays of TDS. Raya is their most nonlinear, an experimental predecessor, but the looseness of the evening allows for great stage magic. Anything can happen on Oliver Butler's stage: Kharms's unpredictability enables it, as do Butler's collaborators, the wonderfully frazzled and excitable Hannah Bos and her straight man, the deliberate yet modest Paul Thureen. The years spent as a tight-knit company have only solidified the chemistry between performers, and their dedication to Butler's staging is impeccable, allowing for realism to abruptly turn to fantasy, as when Daniel (or Daniil), who is trying to write, suddenly finds that his arms have become literal utensils. Once the plastic curtain that divides us from the performers is ripped down, the show is an exciting romp through the absurd ideas that Daniel has covered the floor with. Each piece is wildly different from the next, and they erratically jump, loop back, and reverse themselves, just as with Kharms's own writing. It's quite enabling, so long as you stop looking for meaning: a stick of butter, swallowed in one scene and regurgitated later on, is just a stick of butter, with inherent comic value, and nothing more. Absurdism is, by nature, better suited to comedy than drama, but the melange of ideas allow TDS to dip into a little of everything, as with a tragic, almost balletic, drowning. In one moment, Bos and Thureen recounting a series of increasingly gory murders, all while gleefully shuffling around a suitcase in a vaudevillian jaunt; later, the two stand before us, silently appraising the audience in their attempt to follow the voiced-over directions on humor: "Stand silently until someone laughs." Few performers can get away with such stunts, but based on my experiences with TDS, I suspect they can get away with just about anything, and I'm happy to let them do so.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Giant

photo by Ellie Kurttz


In spite of a wicked case of jet lag and ephedra poisoning, I was at least coherent enough to drag my strung-out self to the theatre on my first night in London. I knew nothing about this play or company but "This production contains strong language and nudity." was more than enough reason for me to risk nineteen pounds. Whether it was due to my altered state of consciousness or the fact that I was a flummoxed American overwhelmed by his first few hours in a foreign country or the fact that perhaps the play was a bit too wordy and overwritten (or perhaps all three!), playwright Antony Sher's gorgeous-sounding language floated in one ear and lilted out the other. It was a comedy about Michelangelo and da Vinci competing for the contract (and the model) for the statue of David. That's about all I absorbed from the script. What I did absorb in abundance was the glorious production value. The enormous amount of respect and attention to detail the director, actors and designers committed to this play left this seasoned New York theater-goer quite astonished. There was not a single weak link in the cast (the model for the statue, Stephen Hagan, was as talented as he was droolingly hot) and the scenic and costume design- a pastiche of Renaissance sensibilities- was some of the best I have ever seen. It just seemed like all parties involved had a PHD in the science of kick-ass theatre. Nineteen pounds well spent!


photo: Paul Kolnik

With Cheek By Jowl's different (and far more adventurous) production of Cymbeline still fresh in my mind, it took me a while to accept the straightforward, by-the-numbers approach to the characters in this handsome new production at Lincoln Center. Once I did, I could marvel at Martha Plimpton's dynamic and compelling portrayal of Imogen, the princess who goes into hiding as a boy after aspersions are cast on her, ahem, purity. This production, driven by Plimpton's accessible and exceedingly well-judged performance, gets Shakespeare's story told (and doesn't shy away from the scene with the gods that turns the mood of the play in the second act) but it only sporadically gets his dialogue to sing: there's a chasm that divides the ensemble between those who make it seem like natural speech (Plimpton, John Panko, and John Cullum for example) and those who do not (among them a miscast Phylicia Rashad and Jonathan Cake, who doesn't seem to have been encouraged to have any fun playing Iachimo. He seems to weep most of his line readings, as does Michael Cerveris). I saw an early preview, and it's likely that the ensemble will smooth out with some more time, but Martha Plimpton's performance is already one damned good reason to see this Cymbeline.

Note that Cymbeline is one of a small number of Broadway shows still running during the current stagehands' strike: the others are Xanadu, Pygmalion, Mary Poppins, The 25th Annual Spelling Bee, Maritius, Young Frankenstein, and The Ritz.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


The former Tony winner, the former Tony nominee, the tv actress: which one of the three would you expect to give the least assured performance in this new Broadway production of Cyrano de Bergerac? Bzzzt. The answer is Daniel Sunjata, formerly Tony-nommed for Take Me Out, whose too-contemporary turn as Christian makes it seem as if he hasn't been introduced to anyone else in the cast. Said TV actress, Jennifer Garner, turns out to be a radiant, spirited Roxanne. And Kevin Kline, in the title role, is wonderful: his performance is marked by fiercely intelligent choices, playing Cyrano with more quiet dignity than might be expected. The production is visually luscious, like a Rembrandt painting in motion, and although it sometimes feels long (the cuts that are usually made to the play have been restored; runtime: three hours) it does build to the needed emotionally affecting conclusion.

Bingo With the Indians

Photo/Joan Marcus

I'm convinced that Rapp is, beneath his blustery exterior, an extremely creative and talented playwright, but this latest piece, Bingo With the Indians, is half Cecil B. Demented, half Dead Man (a sort of hyperviolent raunchiness that somehow manages to remain quietly thoughtful), but fully awful. I want to turn Rapp's profanity back on him and let him tongue-fuck my ass: all that good acting, turned to shock value and an alienating study of the strange. And I really want to like this play, this concept of otherness at the heart of these twisted actors-cum-burglars. I enjoy the quiet moments between the subversive Wilson (Rob Yang) and the helpless Steve (Evan Enderle), and think Rapp's staging of a controversially graphic semi-rape is beautifully done. But I can't contend with this cool severance of emotion, this way in which Rapp just "smiles" and "unsmiles" and expects us all to be there right beside him. No, ultimately Bingo With the Indians is not a a play, nor even a Bingo; it is just a series of stray dots that happen to closely approximate a dramatic thought.

[Read on]

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Turn Of The Screw

photo: Wandrille Moussel

Henry James' novella has always been open to interpretation: are the ghosts in the story real, or figments of the overheated imagination of the governess? This adaptation (currently at the Bank Street Theatre) attempts to preserve this ambiguity by having a single actor play everyone (including the cook, the ghosts and the children) except the governess. While this conceit admirably succeeds at allowing the audience either interpretation one might take from the novella, it also unfortunately demands a lot of tell rather than show: some of the chill of the book, despite eerie lighting and a sparse set that subtly evokes a pine coffin box, is lost. However the acting is very good: Steve Cook delineates his variety of roles handily, and I especially liked the macabre touch he brought to the play's opening narration. My only complaint is that I wish Melissa Pinsly, who clearly understands the character of the governess and does an otherwise fine job of rendering her growing terror, would slow down a bit, so that we can get the full effect of the character's growing awareness of her situation.

A Hard Heart

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Even though it's Melissa Friedman's subtle performance that gets me in Epic Theater Company's excellent production of Howard Barker's masterful play, A Hard Heart (somehow only just now receiving a NY premiere), I'm so glad to have at last seen Kathleen Chalfant on stage. All the actors, not just these two, work wonders with Barker's difficult Catastrophism (an unwieldy form of language that ever challenges the audience and the actors with its constant shifts and outbursts), and the outcome is one of those rare moments of synergy on stage. Everything about this show works, from the political messages about the cost of war and the greater cost of winning it (if we sacrifice what we are to survive, have we really survived?), to the emotional parallels between keeping one's heart closed and keeping one's borders closed. Riddler, the cold-hearted genius of the play, is as close to Barker as we'll see on stage, a woman who is never short of an innovative idea or a metaphor with which to mask it, a megalomaniac who enjoys the opportunity for fame that war brings her, and Chalfant, though brusque in this role, remains utterly human for those moments when she ceases to be unnervingly calm. The final flourish is that of Will Pomerantz's direction, which constantly finds ways to merge the steely exterior with the fleshy interior: action takes place in the aisles of the audience, the set itself is an impenetrable box that folds lightly in on itself to expose an gaping emptiness, &c., &c., the list of things that are simply right about this play go on and on. A Hard Heart is not at all a hard play to highly recommend: its heroes may find only tragedy in triumph, but may this remarkable ensemble find only success in their nightly suffering.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Humans Anonymous

There's a famous quote that goes "Comedy is getting what you wish for, tragedy is getting what you deserve." Humans Anonymous is certainly a comedy along those lines, one that follows Ellen as she at last breaks her curse of continually depressing dates by finding the man of her dreams (SmartyPants17) over the Internet. Sadly for her, what she actually deserves is the woman of her dreams, Jenny (not Lenny), a lovable klutz who, despite being turned down once the mistake is realized, sets out to win Ellen's heart (or to at least make her happier) by an anonymous admirer. She's abetted in this by Ellen's employee, Peter (who is tellingly also her best friend), who agrees that the best thing for Ellen may be the last thing she wants. Of course, Kate Hewlett's play began as a one-act for the Toronto Fringe, and the seams where it's been expanded are showing, most tellingly in the side plot with Arden and Gema, two lovable characters who just happen to be as awkward for the script as they are for society. And while the jokes are mostly wildly successful at keeping the momentum going, there are still more than a few that seem forced, no matter how much the actors manage to put behind them. But don't let this minor nitpicking encourage you to remain anonymous to the theater: this play is a riot with a human heart, and it showcases a lot of upcoming talents.

[Read on]

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Speech And Debate

photo: Joan Marcus

Both enormously entertaining and thought-provokingly topical, this pithy dramedy is instantly one of my favorite shows of the year. The play (which depicts three misfit high schoolers who might or might not go public with a private sex scandal involving the school's drama teacher) is swift, smart and snappy: the playwright (Stephen Karam) has humorously and sensitively captured the ridiculous pathos of adolescence without condascending to the characters. He's set the teenagers (and two adult characters, both played by Susan Blackwell with zest and an eye for keen detail) in a dynamic story which emphasizes the peculiarity of our times, when the line between public and private information is indistinct. (He's also written, for the character played by an astonishing newcomer named Sarah Steele, the funniest monologue I've seen on stage since The Little Dog Laughed last season.) Each of the five pitch-perfect performances are marked by highly specific, quirky choices: everyone (under Jason Moore's direction) is taking bold chances with their characterizations that serve the play. Speech And Debate is the inaugural show at a new black box space under the Laura Pels Theatre, which the Roundabout intends to program exclusively with new plays by emerging writers. I've no idea how the plan will end up, but they've undoubtedly made a sensational start.

Also blogged by: [Aaron] and [David]

The Glorious Ones

photo: Joan Marcus

Seemingly intended as a valentine to the actors' life, the latest Ahrens-Flaherty musical (which concerns a 17th century commedia dell'arte troupe nearing the end of their run) is reasonably enjoyable entertainment with at least a handful of good songs (and at least two with overly generic lyrics that seem like cabaret-bait). But it's slight and ultimately unsatisfying for many reasons. For one thing, it lacks dramatic tension until almost halfway through its one hundred minutes, when we're made to understand that the public has lost its taste for the troupe's bawdy improvisational comedy and now demands more poetic entertainments. For another, we rarely get a sense of the troupe improvising anything, so we have to take that on faith: what we do see is the troupe's vulgarity, as if that's funny on its own. Although most of the members of the ensemble each get a chance to shine (the brightest among them is Julyana Soelistyo, who redeems her potentially precious character) the show is more than anything a sensational showcase for Marc Kudisch. As Flamino Scala, the troupe's charismatic and vainglorious leading man and leader, Kudisch is a complete joy to watch: everytime he throws open his arms and extolls the heaven of performing theatre for the people, we're swept up in Flamino's passion and romance. Kudisch is what's truly glorious about The Glorious Ones.

The Glorious Ones

Photo/Joan Marcus

I'm a sucker for commedia dell'arte: Lynn Ahrens could've written nothing more than the simple lazzis (sight gags) that John Kassir pantomimes as the flatulent Dottore or the deep-seated emotion of Natalie Venetia Belcon, as Columbina, and I would have cracked my way through this show. But with the addition of a subdued but rich score by Stephen Flaherty and the comic direction (and choreography) of Graciela Daniel, and thanks in no small part to the novel by Francine Prose from which this was adapted, The Glorious Ones is so much more than the crude "one hand on the crotch, one hand on the heart" that it sings about. Instead, it aspires to answer "What is life but the beauty of improvisation?" and seeks the heart of all artistic endeavors when the stubborn and narcissistic leader of the troupe, Flaminio Scala (Marc Kudisch), clashes with his surrogate son, the harlequin, Francesco Andreini (Jeremy Webb) over the presentation of their work. I couldn't say how historically accurate it all is, but the characters give a plausible rise and a real humanity to stock characters that generally just traipse around the stage with little thought or consequence to their pratfalls. Here, the falls are more serious, and they are well chronicled in the mournful "My Body Wasn't Why" or "I Was Here," just as they are earlier laughed about in the self-deprecating "The Comedy of Love" and foreboding "The Glorious Ones." Great art may love to fail, but it doesn't have to, and The Glorious Ones is a real hit.

August: Osage County

(now in previews)

I agree emphatically with Modern Fabulosity's rave of this "magnum opus". This intense, fiery, very funny, enormous play about an Oklahoma family falling apart is the best I have seen in years. Like seriously. The amazing Deanna Dugan, playing the drugged up matriarch, carefully stomps up and down the stairs in her pajamas and shreds all those who venture too close in this, the new great female role in American theatre. The three story house is loaded with sweaty relatives- each with baggage of their own- holding court on fold out couches and air-mattresses as they try and sort out the dilemma of "Where's Daddy?" and about 1000 other issues the clan is dealing with. This production was 3 hours and 20 minutes and there was not a single moment where I was watching the clock. This play needs to be seen and if Playwright Tracy Letts, Dugan and Amy Morton (the level headed drunk daughter) aren't at the very least nominated, then the Tonys are a lie.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Runner Stumbles

TACT's revival of Milan Stitt's 1976 play The Runner Stumbles has not aged well. It's no longer racy enough to tackle the real issues with the church (Doubt) or even to question the solitude of its priests (100 Saints You Should Know). The murder trial that frames this "illicit" affair between a nun and her priest is shakily conventional, and stilted, too, and the procession of ghost-like memories that haunt Father Rivard from his jail cell is far too orderly to shake things up. That's not all a terrible thing: Stitt's play is more suited toward contemplative soul searching, and his best moments are those that match Rivard's unstinting intellectualism against Sister Rita's practical interpretations of the Bible and Mrs. Shanding's deep-seated emotional beliefs. (No surprise, either, that these are the strongest actors of the bunch.) But proselytizing without passion can only go so far, and the reliance on rote and repetitive learning (we see the same scenes in the past that we hear confessed to in the present) never affords us the deep connection we see from theater.

[Read on]

Die Mommie Die!

New World Stages

Finally I have seen Charles Busch onstage in drag. I am an official New Yorker now. This old-school satire lampooning the cinematic melodramas of yesteryear features Busch as the sinister(?) matriarch of a dysfunctional Hollywood family. At times gut-bustingly hilarious and at others a bit tedious and wordy, the script sometimes gets bogged down in a little too much exposition and explanation. The magic of this production lies not only in the naughtiness (a Chad Hunt sized suppository. HA!) but in those campy comedic flourishes that come in the form of an evil backwards glance or a panicked breakdown after a well placed slap across the face. This production was most entertaining when Busch, decked out in gorgeous gown after gown, makes grand entrance after entrance and milks the sick glamour for all it's worth.

Also blogged by: [Patrick]

The Brothers Size

photo: Michal Daniel

The breakout hit from the most recent Under The Radar festival, written by a twenty-seven year old playwright named Tarell McCraney, The Brothers Size is in many ways an impressive piece of theatre and a promising piece of writing. The dialogue is often highly lyrical, the presentation (in the manner of African storytelling) highly stylized. Yet I found the play unsatisfying: the story, loosely adapted from West African mythology according to press notes, is pedestrian and predictable and lacks, well, the size that we associate with myth. Until an especially vivid monologue in which one of the two brothers of the title recounts his despair in prison, I didn't feel the slightest emotional engagement with the material. The play also has its baddie making a dramatically unnecessary, unwanted (homo)sexual advance on one of the brothers: that made me cringe, and not in the "challenge my world" way.


Photo/Evan Sung

Jason Grote's new play, 1001, reminds me of an ingenious string of computer code I once saw: filled with nested for loops, these endlessly sharp lines (specific and yet filled with broad generalizations that left room for hundreds of back and forth variations depending on the value) were a pleasure to browse, yet at the end did no more than perform a routine task on the PC. Grote's play has wider ambition than the routine, and he uses the conceit of storytelling -- and not just those of The Arabian Nights (though he riffs on it well, with one scene more melodramatically staged than a '50s Hollywood romance) but the stories of our history, from fabulists like Borges (and his ingeniously infinite stories) to the spooky narratives of people like bin Laden (now staged alongside a clip from Michael Jackson's Thriller). The plot parallels Scheherezade and Shahriyar with that of their modern equivalents, Dahna and Alan, and Ethan McSweeny's beautifully inventive staging unites the scenes, with an ancient tome appearing also as a suitcase nuke and a laptop and the sky blue theme popping up in both costumes or as the waves of Sinbad's voyage, giving way to the bed of two trapped lovers. These two leads, a bewitching Roxanna Hope and the serious and seriously talented Matthew Rauch bring life to the play, allowing the politics to exist around them, but Grote doesn't manage to contextualize the majority of his dreamlike characters (from one-dimensionally Arab-hating Jews to a grossly comic Flaubert, mystic Borges, and digital Dershowitz) and that turns the exotic postmodernism into little more than the present, filtered, gutted, and paraphrased through the haze of fiction. I was happy to lose myself in the story (Grote is a sort of Rumpelstiltskin, spinning yarns into golden prose), but disappointed that all this labyrinthine storytelling had such vague messages.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Turn of the Screw

Photo/Wandrille Moussel

One of the best things about a ghost story should be the lighting, and thankfully I have nothing but praise for Karl Chmielewski's thick-shadowed design in Jeffrey Hatcher's stage adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. But unfortunately, I have nothing else positive to say about this Wake Up, Marconi! production: Don K. Williams allows the actors to prance about the stage with broad strokes and as a result never gets anywhere near the specific tension that Henry James's novel tried to conjure up with symbolic ghosts and unreliable narration. It's not an easy adaptation to do, especially since "The Man" (Steve Cook) plays everything from an old maid to a precocious child, but it's made worse by adding verbalized sound effects (whispered footfalls and creaks). The script has some merits to it -- the dialogue it has added to James's rambling text is, at times, punchy -- but delivered as it is by a creepy Cook and his overdone counterpart, Melissa Pinsly, it's hard to see the ghost story as anything other than a comedy.

[Read on]

Things We Want

photo: Monique Carboni

I have nothing but praise for the ensemble of this current production from The New Group: all four actors, under Ethan Hawke's able direction, give natural and vibrant performances. (And Zoe Kazan, the lone female in the group, is by now enough of a reason to see anything she's in: she's easily one of the best and brightest young actors of today.) But the play, despite some snappy dialogue, too often smacks of contrivance: the first act concludes with an exchange between Kazan and Paul Dano that is meant to convincingly move their characters' relationship from strangers to something else, and the fact that it doesn't convince can only be blamed on the playwrighting.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


photo: Ken Howard

The Met Opera has been on such a roll with their most recent new productions that a bummer was bound to happen sooner or later, and here it is with Adrian Noble's staging of Verdi's Macbeth. The production means to set the story in post WW2 Europe, but the conceit never takes hold thanks to inconsistent visual design. Worse, Noble seems to follow every good idea with a bad one: the moments of simple and effective theatricality (for instance there's a neat effect with a banner during the banquet scene) are ultimately undone by the more common moments of counterproductive theatrical business (for instance, Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene happens here on chairs that her attendants keep rearranging so that she doesn't fall: while that may make some poetic sense, it dillutes the scene's dramatic impact). When the beleagured people congregate in the last act to rise up in rebellion, there's a minute of some Les Miserables-like scampering forward before everyone is lined up downstage in bland formation, way too common an occurence in this production. Of course, strong performances could overcome a mediocore presentation like this one, but despite James Levine's tight, tense conducting in the pit, this Macbeth was musically problematic. Cursed with the mismatch of a sometimes vocally underpowered and underplaying Zeljko Lucic in the lead role, and a histronic, screechy overacting Maria Guleghina as Lady Macbeth, the loudest applause at this performance was for Macduff (Dimitri Pittas).