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Monday, December 31, 2007

Aaron's End of Year Wrap-Up

Go ahead. Tell me what I missed. (I know, I know, August.)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Friday, December 28, 2007

Runt Of The Litter

photo: Joan Marcus

Bo Eason's career, as defensive back for the Oilers, was overshadowed by his brother Tony's more celebrated success as starting quarterback for the Patriots. Bo's solo show (now at 37 Arts following a successful run downtown a few years ago) changes their names and adds some fictional events, but it seems essentially to be a monologue written from the blood and sweat of his real-life struggles in his brother's shadow. The play's greatest strength is its inside-the-helmet view of the experience of playing pro football: the most fascinating segment has Eason suiting up for a game and changing before our eyes from a doggedly determined but physically improbable pro hopeful to a steel-edged NFL gladiator. He becames grandiose, elevating football to a mythic level and taking pleasure in the uniform's implicit permission to let him play out naked animal aggression. In other words, it's a sensationally honest moment. Eason is the narrator of this story more than he is an actor, and he's been directed to do a lot of business to sell it on stage. Once in a while that proves to be overly indicating, because his writing is strong enough and he's an inviting and confident enough personality to do the job with less.

New Jerusalem

I'm such a fan of David Ives that I rushed out to see the very first preview of his new play, New Jerusalem, and although there was some of that increasingly common line flubbing, I'm happy to report that this is a great new comic drama. Ives is a master of writing other people, and what he did for Twain's farce (or for the adaptations for the Encores! series) he's now doing for a great philosopher, Spinoza, communicating his thoughts with such clear strokes that it makes you want to rush out and buy a treatise or two. The play would be stronger to cut down on the gratingly comic half-sister, Rebekah (Jenn Harris) and the bland, shiftless friend cum traitor Simon (Michael Izquierdo), as their "revelations" at the end of the play aren't earned or justified, but it hardly matters so long as Jeremy Strong remains so breathlessly animated as Spinoza. The "interrogation" is casually directed by Walter Bobbie so as to make the audience the actual onlookers, and while this leads to some sloppy blocking, it actually works to help make the overacting seem more plausible -- this is, after all, one of the first trials that's a real circus, and it makes the proselytizing all the more engaging when it's spoken directly to you. Beneath the radical ideas about religion, faith, and humanity's place in the universe, there's also a neatly tragic tale of the father-figure forced to turn on his "son," and Richard Easton, who warms up to the role in the second act, is appropriately pained when he sadly announces "You've turned the stars into wandering dust." This show will get better by the time it actually opens in '08, and I urge you to check it out: Fyvush Finkel and David Garrison both also give solid, albeit stereotypical, performances as (respectively) a Jewish parnas and a Christian politician.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Cymbeline

Photo/Paul Kolnik

Ever wonder what a Shakespearean opera would look like? Well, Marc Lamos's cavernous production of Cymbeline has the visual feel of a modernist composition, all green-columned trees and ornate, clockwork landings, and it's tonally minimal at all, with very few actors rising above the general feeling of deja vu this play evokes (Iacomo could be Iago, Imogen's empotioned "death" could just as well be a more mature Juliet's). Short of the play's own failings -- the first act, for instance, is filled with familiar innuendos and comic twists whereas the second is all epic sword fights and visitations from spirits like Jupiter -- only Martha Plimpton, as Imogen, seems to be in complete control, channeling a little of playful Helena from Midsummer and a little of her tragic turn in Coast of Utopia, though she's well met by a very funny Adam Dannheisser as the incompetent Lord Cloten. However, much of the play feels like a waste of talent: Phylicia Rashad is talked about more than seen (as the Queen), and Richard Topol and Daniel Breaker, who introduce the play rather nicely, do little else.

[Also blogged by: Patrick]

Pumpgirl

Photo/Joan Marcus

Whether I was fatigued or not when I saw Pumpgirl, I found Hannah Cabell's performance as Pumpgirl, a butch-looking but inwardly feminine character caught up in the dismissive masculinity of Hammy (Paul Sparks) and his frigid wife, Sinead (Geraldine Hughes), to be the only good thing in this trio of interlinked monologues. With Pumpgirl herself, there's a human element, and that's lost on all of Hammy's reckless tics and Sinead's aimless affairs; worse still, the glass-over-desert-scrub set aims to be reflective and transparent, but accomplishes neither, a fogged over effect of Carolyn Cantor's work (whereas with LaBute's In A Dark, Dark House and Rapp's Essential Self-Defense, she was far more colorful, both in design and direction). There's also a brutality in Abbie Spallen's script that, while perhaps accurate, doesn't ever seem justified or linked to anything. The slightest mention of compassion makes the characters sneer about how they'd like to hit their wives or kick a child, and while this leads to some creative lines ("The bed with the invisible barbed wire down the center" or "it's like being spunked by an elephant"), for me, the show was best summarized by this subtle zinger: "I want him to go, but there's conversation to be made."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Christmas Carol: the new musical

Scrooge's new story, as written by Kris Thor and Joel Bravo, isn't so much about moral redemption as it is about environmental reform, and the lesson here, delivered by a Grim Beekeeper -- as haunting a Christmas Future as can be -- is that it may in fact be too late to "reschedule" our fate. Jason Trachtenburg, a quirky indie-folk singer, plays a Scrooge oblivious to the harm his corporate actions have had on the environment, and even his patented humbug comes at the behest of an exceedingly creepy Christmas Present (Julie LaMendola). The hollow Vortex Theater allows for an informal presentation that has the audience sprawled on opposite lengths of what becomes a narrow hallway, cluttered on both other sides by Christmas Past's archives and Tiny Tim's radio broadcast center. However, the conflict is hard to distinguish amidst all the overlapping tunes -- which is, oddly enough, fine. While the dialogue might not make sense, the songs at least build to a frenzy of conflicting parts, and Act I ends with an appropriately bleak suicide; that of gruff Jacob Marley (Joe Ornstein), who is married to Scrooge's old flame, Belle (Tracy Weller). The music takes as much getting used to as the story; ultimately, the show is more interested in lyrics which are keened than plot points to be gleaned, which makes it the first act of musical absurdism I've ever seen. Bravo?

[Also blogged by: Patrick]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

August: Osage County

photo: Joan Marcus

I'm not convinced that Tracy Letts' tragic/comic portrait of a dysfunctional family is ultimately a great play, but there's no doubt it's greatly entertaining melodrama and frequently very funny: it never lags, even at three and a half hours. (Its length is part of what's exciting about it: you don't expect the play to be able to sustain its juicy mix of comedy and soap opera over three acts but it does). As our attention is led around the rooms in the three-tiered house that is the play's set, the lurid subplots pile up one on top of the other - drugs, secret affairs, pedophilia, and so on - and although the inspirations may be some laughing-gassed mix of Sam Shepard and Chekhov, the result feels more like Robert Altman's film A Wedding: we laugh as we watch the colorful characters and their telenovella-level problems but we're halted at irregular intervals by something inescapably painful and sad. Letts' writing is textured and his dialogue lively and involving - he's given everyone in the ensemble some sensational material to play - and this is obviously a departure from earlier plays like Bug and Killer Joe. It restores the good name of melodrama, and that's more than enough to make it one of the year's best, but I suspect that August Osage County will turn out to be a warm-up for something with more depth and more thematic resonance from Letts in the future.

The Farnsworth Invention

Photo/Joan Marcus

The Farnsworth Invention is a clever, well-written, exciting piece of semi-fiction. Those expecting it to be more are clearly watching the wrong play: I mean, this is a show about how television -- the thing that brings you the latest dose of Kitchen Nightmares, but only after reruns of Cops -- was essentially stolen. It bends truth on purpose ("The ends justify the means; that's what the means are there for"), allowing each of the two central characters, Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) and David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) to narrate each other's story, a point which leads to them bickering about factual inaccuracies or to admissions of pure fabrication. The result is a play about the perversion of truth, with parallels drawn to how false perceptions led to the stock market crash and how hopeful dreams brought us into space. The play has to conflate a lot to do so, but Des McAnuff (who just did the compressed jukebox biopic of Jersey Boys) has no problem zipping from scene to scene; he's just dealing with a different type of song now, that of Sorkin's hypnotic banter. It probably helps him that the set is essentially the same two-tiered affair as in Jersey Boys (what a surprise to find that Klara Zieglerova did both), but the aesthetics here are the weakest part of the play. Then again, before television, it wasn't about looks, it was about sound, and Azaria and Simpson sound great. Best of all are their little indignant reactions to the ways in which they're sometimes portrayed or referred to, a nice bit of humanity to all that gloss and polish.

Is He Dead?

Photo/Joan Marcus

No, he's thankfully alive and kicking in drag! Not Mark Twain, silly -- his recently rediscovered play is but inspiration -- Norbert Leo Butz, who plays the role with such self-awareness (his bray of a laugh never gets old) that the show stays spry and full of "con"plications. The text is filled with puns (a chimney sweep leaves behind a "sootprint"; he's a real "impressionist") and a bright and likable cast. Aside from the bread and butzer of the show, Jean-Francois Millet faking his own death as his implausibly eccentric twin sister Daisy Tolou (that's "to you" to you), there's also his friends: "Chicago" (Michael McGrath, channeling Nathan Lane), "Dutchy" (Tom Alan Roberts, fittingly playing the Pumbaa of the bunch), and Phelim O'Shaughnessy (Jeremy Bobb); his adorers, the Leroux family (John McMartin, Jenn Gambatese, and Bridget Regan); and David Pittu, who fills in everything else. The weak link is the evil yet frequently lovestruck usurist, Bastien Andrew (Byron Jennings), who simply isn't inflated enough. The highlight is adapter David Ives -- having flipped through the original script during intermission, it's clear that Ives understands it's all in the timing (to be fair, so does Blakemore, a veteran of that venerable Noises Off), and he's compressed most of the jokes down so that they have a faster rhythm and a less confusing pace; without him, we'd be asleep long before all the doors start opening and closing in act two.

[Also blogged by: Patrick | David]

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The City That Cried Wolf

Photo/Oliver Jevremov

Even though the acting isn't nearly animated enough and the directing belabors sight gags over substance, The City That Cried Wolf will have you simultaneously groaning and laughing thanks to Brooks Reeve's hysterical puns. Whereas Jasper Fforde works the plot into a coherent strand, Reeve tweaks the story (whether it fits Jack B. Nimble's investigation of Mayor Dumpty's murder or not) to pack in anything that might get a laugh. His best moments are perversions of the classics: Little Bo Peep is a dancer at the Hey Diddle Diddle (best known for its "hickory dickory daiquiris"), and for a price, you can sample Miss Muffet's toffets. A pity the rest of the show isn't as clever.

[Read on]

Cut to the Chase


It takes Cut to the Chase little under five minutes to do exactly that: hyperactive Dilly (Laura Dillman), clad in a bellhop's costume and armed with an infectious laugh, introduces the cast: Dobson (Mike Dobson), the dour drummer; The Great Jeske (Joel Jeske), the director; Julietta Massina (Juliet Jeske), the singing diva; Kasper (Ryan Kasprzak), the lovable scamp; Little Angela (Andrea Kehler), the annoying tease; and Roland Derek (Derek Roland), the lanky illusionist. In of itself, that's not impressive; however, this talented ensemble then continues to entertain both the young and the young at heart for the next hour in a mash of silent comedy and parodies of old song standards like "Shine on Harvest Moon." Mark Lonergan's direction seamlessly uses three farcically placed doors and a few sliding curtains to break out (among many many other things) a tap-triggered light show and a balloon-drumming exhibition. Great fun, for all ages.

[Read on]

Monday, December 17, 2007

Scapin

What you're looking at above is the almost unbearably bright production of Scapin currently running at the Turtle's Shell Theater, and at Jay Painter (with guitar), the man who is running off with the show. You'll laugh hysterically at the over-the-top antics to be found in this production, but it's hardly Moliere's Scapin anymore (though even he couldn't write all that much clever into this straightforward farce), it's Scapin! with an exclamation point. The problem the show faces is that Painter makes all the other actors look sluggish, so unless he's on stage (a tricky challenge, since he mainly plays pre-show and mid-show entertainment along with being a porter), Shawn Rozsa's direction seems pretty flat. There are some nice moments, particularly from John Freimann's pitiable Geronte (one of the two misers Scapin tricks out of their money -- for the sake of their sons!), but the glass of this scatterbrained production seems half-empty all too often.

[Read on]

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is He Dead?

***1/2
Lyceum


It's all about Norbert Leo Butz in a dress. In this darling, recently discovered Mark Twain farce about an artist who fakes his own death to drive up his prices, the audience waits patiently for Butz to make his grand begowned entrance and once he does there were guffaws-a-plenty. Like Milton Berle or Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot we have the art of bad drag on display and Butz was milking it to hysterical effect. Adjusting one's package in an enormous post civil war gown? Come on, it's funny! No, there are no shattering revelations in this play- other than the fact that Mark Twain wrote a farce- but it turned out to be a lot of simple fun and it seems like something I can take my suburban Methodist parents to when they visit in February.

Edward the Second

Photo/Brian Dilg

Edward the Second is another notch in the belt for Jesse Berger and his Red Bull Theater company. Christopher Marlowe's text, as adapted by Garland Wright, now takes play in an anachronistic time of gay night clubs and gramophones, a world that stresses the characters rather than the themes, and places no judgment on the page, but simply gives it flesh -- erotic, teasing, half-shadowed flesh. Edward II (Marc Vietor) all but abandons his country for the love of his friend Galveston (Kenajuan Bentley), and pays the price for such reckless behavior, as his court, led by Mortimer (a frightening Matthew Rauch), rises up and seize control. The set, from John Arnone, comes across as a modeling runway (only missteps there will lead to more than humiliation), and Clint Ramos's lush costumes keep the play poised at the height of fashion, both of which give Berger's bits of lightly shadowed nudity or blood and grime more contrast. In all, this is a very moving production, and one which doesn't (as befits fashion) show its age.

[Read on]

The Puppetmaster of Lodz

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Admit it; if you'd been forced to burn your wife's body in a concentration camp then somehow managed to escape back to "civilization" and an apartment, to gather what money and resources you had around you -- you'd lock the world out too, wouldn't you? Well, that's what Finklebaum (a stunning Robert Zukerman) has done in The Puppetmaster of Lodz, and though his concierge (Suzanne Toren) might try to convince him to come out -- it's 1950 and the war is long gone -- bringing Russian, American, and Hebrew men off the street (Daniel Damiano) to help her argument, he knows too well the high cost of trust. Ironically, there are a few good twists in this play that suggest not only might he be right to remain suspicious, but others might do well to be suspicious of him. The play spends its time switching between the friendly wolves at his door and Finklebaum's attempts to wrap himself ever tighter in a web of imagination. But try as he might to rewrite the story, he is too logical, too intelligent to lose himself for good (though he may talk to a life-sized puppet, he's no dummy), and that's perhaps the greatest tragedy of all. I'm engaged by the clever arguments between the Outside and Finklebaum (which grow increasingly bleak as his imagination goes to work), but also by Zukerman's own performance -- although he's clearly not a talented puppetmaster, he shares his character's convictions, and believes so much that the audience cannot help but stare on in fascination and sorrow.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Beckett Shorts

Photo/Joan Marcus

After watching JoAnne Akalaitis's remarkably smooth, clear, and precise production of Beckett Shorts, you'll know if you like Samuel Beckett or not. In four broodingly comic meditations, the human condition is fully explored: whistled into life ("Act Without Words I"), goaded into action ("Act Without Words II"), thrown together in the wilderness ("Rough For Theater I"), and abandoned to one's imagination ("Eh Joe"). These pieces are largely physical ones (which plays to the strength of the centerpiece, Mikhail Baryshnikov), but that also makes them highly accessible, with clear-cut actions, needs, and failures. They're also well supported by Alexander Brodsky's set -- playful sandbox or apocalyptic desert -- and Philip Glass's haunting interludes. There are also great performances by the marvelous Bill Camp and Karen Kandel, serious actors who give Beckett's words the somber bounce that they need. For a showcase that's only seventy minutes long, this is a full-bodied (and fully recommended) performance, if for nothing other than the serious exposure to Beckett done well.

[Read on]

Love, Death and Vengeance: A Comedy

Adding "A Comedy" to the title of a play is always dangerous, for it adds the high expectation of laughter to that show. Luckily, Daniel Kelley, like most of his cast, does sketch comedy, and he knows how to conjure up a laugh: in this case, it's by cramming every Greek myth he could remember into the show. Some scenes still seem too hastily sketched: Al Gibbins (Ben Correale) loses his high school crush, Lily Droshpat (Leah Rudick) because of a ketchup stain, and is thereby cursed by the lightning-clapped Will of High School to be a loveless player for the rest of his life. But the delightfully precise chorus (Katie Hartman, Rachel Risen, and John Moreno) remind us that the humor's been well planned. Though there are many things that will remain unclear about this production -- for instance, why are all the women in Hades blond Southern belles? -- the comedy is crystal, especially when the cast's more-is-more approach (at one point, Al promises to push a boulder up a hill, while wearing wings burned by the son, then to chain himself to a rock to have his liver picked out, &c., &c., all after blinding himself) blocks out the lack of a set and the cheap flickers of the lights. Extra credit to the adaptable Henry Zebrowski, who channels a certain sloppy sort of cool, and to Kelley's modern poetry: "You break our trust as if it were an unlubed condom."

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Homecoming

photo: Scott Landis

Psst. I have a confession to make. I don't enjoy Harold Pinter's plays. I can see why lots of other people do, but even this one - widely considered his masterwork - drives me to immediate distraction. Am I the only one who sees it as passe, a relic from a time when it was considered intellectually fashionable to aggressively jolt an audience out of its passivity? It's the theatrical equivalent of films like Last Year At Marienbad or Antonioni's Blow-Up which leave the audience to puzzle out meaning in their seats. There's nothing wrong with forcing an engaged audience into deconstruction and analysis, but when the result is Pinter's blend of blatant artificiality and relentless nastiness I begin to wonder if he's getting at anything deeper about the human condition than "everyone is rotten". In this one, we are probably meant to think that the endless power games and pervasive air of sickness are somehow just us at our worst, the dark "truth" about how people truly are once you get past the socialization. I reject that; it rings as false to me today as it would if everyone ran around smiling ear to ear for two hours.

Vital Signs: New Works Festival Week Three

OK, put down the bell; stop tolling the death of the American playwright. In the last two weeks, I've seen at least nine promising writers, each with a distinct vision and voice, and different social woe to expose, on the Vital Theater stage. This isn't developmental theater either, but fully produced works that range from Shelia Callaghan's always welcome eccentricity (Ayravana Flies or A Pretty Dish) to Sharyn Rothstein's insightful humanity (Senor Jay's Tango Palace). Directors like Blake Lawrence (The Lock) and David A. Miller (Ayravana) make even the most sedentary blocking charming and alive, and actors like Nick Merrit, Carla Rzeszewski, and Lauren Walsh Singerman make these new voices positively sing. I'm fast becoming convinced that Vital is one of the best places to find fresh, young talents: head over there now so you can say you knew 'em when.

[Read on]

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol


The "very Nosedive" addition to the classic Christmas Carol title promises the usual festive story, along with bonus, over-the-top extras: and that's exactly what you'll get. Caroling monkeys and sock-puppet Tiny Tims, a Shakespearean Scrooge, and all the other fixings, only this time viewed from the perspective of four very frustrated ghosts, doomed to spend each Christmas doing the same old play. James Comtois knows how to pack in a bunch of hilarity, and the Nosedive Company (members like Brian Silliman and Patrick Shearer) know how to turn his phrases for the maximum of laughter. This is the show that got me out of a Scrooge-like funk of dreary productions, so it's very much recommended (but be advised: tonight's the last night).

[Read on]

The Santaland Diaries

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais Kelly

When I think of David Sedaris's icily hilarious The Santaland Diaries, I don't leap at the chance to put that up on stage: the audio book is already so cool and precise that such an adaptation seems pointless. And if I did yearn for one man to caustically belittle Macy's Santaland exhibit, it wouldn't be Joe Mantello's sensationalism that I turned to. (The guy turned even the natural drama of Blackbird into a Hollywood-lit play.) And yet, that's the production Jason Podplesky is directing for The Gallery Players, and the result is predictably commercial: it runs smoothly from joke to joke to joke, but when it suddenly ends, you're left craving so much more -- not because you enjoyed yourself, but because you're unsatisfied. B. Brian Argotsinger, who plays David, seems uncomfortable imitating Sedaris's light voice, and is therefore a good fit for the play, which constantly abandons the high-class disdain of the book in favor of the sort of boisterous vocal impersonations found in stand-up dive bars. The final product is all the worse off for being passably funny: it is the junk food of theater.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Kiki And Herb: The Second Coming

*****
Carnegie Hall


Making their second pit stop at Carnegie Hall, Kiki and Herb have successfully turned their screeching, drunken cabaret act into the hippest, most entertaining, must-see events of the year. Taking swigs off a bottle of Canadian Club, Kiki slurred her way through her catalogue of Christmas tunes that seamlessly segue into songs like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and in between numbers she hysterically rambled on about politics, religion, life, and Jon Benet Ramsey. Trusty Herb banged away at the piano and back-up shouted the harmony. Three hours of yelling. The nodes on her vocal chords must be the size of testicles. But who cares? Have another drink and let's sing one more song before we die. That's what Kiki is all about. Pre-show and at intermish the people watching was out of control (sighted: John Cameron Mitchell, Jeff Whitty, Rufus Wainwright, Neal Medlyn, Bridgett Everett). I saw drag, tattoos, fedoras, moustaches, piercings, zootsuits, feather boas- a cornucopia of the downtown fabulous and slutty. I was in heaven.

The Seafarer

Photo/Joan Marcus

A wonderful play about our struggles for redemption, Conor McPherson's narrative is only aided by the fact that the world of his play is submerged in one alcoholic vice and raised by a poker addiction. It's also helped by excellent casting, including the talented Conleth Hill, who plays Ivan as a slovenly yet lovable simp, the sort of man who puzzles things out by rolling around his tongue or nonchalantly offering a thumbs up and the splendid Jim Norton as Richard Harkin, the blind but hardly invalid elder brother of our adrift hero, Sharky (David Morse). Morse, a stocky guy, grounds the show with the polite distaste that he mastered on House, along with a more intimidating rage that is all his own (and all the more surprising for it). As these three friends carouse in their own unique blends of blindness, they are joined by the careless young Nicky (Sean Mahon), a man oblivious to the problems with his lifestyle, and the devilish (drop the -ish) Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds), who is comically portrayed here as an arrogant loser, save for those rare moments when he gets the object of his desire -- Sharky -- alone, at which point the lights start flickering and all hell seems liable to break loose. As the stakes are raised, we see the limitations of these men -- Sharky's real violence, Ivan's reckless past, Richard's stubborn boozing -- but more importantly, learn that together, they just might be able to steer this ship.

[Also blogged by: Patrick]

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Homecoming

Photo/Scott Landis

I confess to having a very negative reaction to Harold Pinter's The Homecoming -- not so much that I can't applaud the powerful alpha-dominating actors to be found in Ian McShane's Max, Raul Esparza's Lenny, or Eve Best's paradoxical Ruth (she blossoms into what many would consider a most withering profession), but enough that I can't recommend the show. Granted, Pinter works with the so-called "pregnant pauses" and writes in a cryptic, often symbolic style, but the characters here seem too much like nasty stand-ins that it's hard to connect enough with a relationship enough to pity its loss. We certainly don't get that from James Frain's Teddy, nor even enough goodness from the balancing figure of Uncle Sam (Michael McKean); instead, we quickly leap into the depravity of a family viewed -- unfiltered -- as animals, the sort of people who find boxing to be a gentleman's sport. Pity the hardworking women who cannot rise above Max's collapsed coinage: "slutbitch." Pity more the audience that has to sit through two hours of the most depressing theater in order to arrive at that very same conclusion.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Man is Man

The problem I have with The Elephant Brigade's production of Brecht's Man is Man is that the youth of the company stands in the way of them realizing "epic theater." All the elements of success are there -- the set is created by actors filming miniature sets, songs are delivered by an off-kilter Lauren Blumenfeld, the fourth wall is completely broken, and Dutch director Paul Binnerts is somewhat of an expert on Brecht. However, in this setting, the ideas are trivialized by the amateurish production brought about by these (intentionally) alienating college students, and more so by the technical difficulties that draw more attention to the aesthetic than the raw ideas. In other words, it's very clear that we're watching a play, but it often seems like we're watching a very bad play.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]

Reading: "Box Americana"

Obviously I'm not going to review a reading of Box Americana, but I certainly hope to see Jason Grote's little gem of an observation on class struggle and capitalist dreams make its way to the Playwrights stage in the '08-'09 season. I liked this play much more than the freewheeling 1001 (which, despite moments of beauty, still felt disconnected to me) because despite the contraptions of narrative in place, the characters are all too familiar, and the social dangers all too real. It just seems more specific, more relevant, and it's got me all excited.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Bronx Tale


Chazz Palminteri wrote and first performed this semi-autobiographical monologue about twenty years ago. His story, of growing up under the guidance of the friendly neighborhood Mob boss, has since lost some of its novelty thanks to many years of The Sopranos in our consciousness. But Palminteri himself has gained something (besides, of course, fame in the movies) in the meantime: he's a more confident actor now, more able to put this story over intimately with what seems like effortless skill. His play is conversational and no-nonsense: except for the silent, slow motion recreation of a major event near the play's climax, it isn't fanciful. The pleasure of it is in Palminteri's relaxed, just-folks delivery and in his connectedness to the material (which gains an extra poignance now that Palminteri is older): he may be a movie star, but he turns everyone in the audience into someone who's just happened by that neighborhood stoop of his past.

The Santaland Diaries

photo: Jennifer Maufrais Kelly

David Sedaris' sardonic 1992 essay The Santaland Diaries, which recounts his stint working as a Macy's elf, is to my mind a modern holiday-time classic: its dry, keenly observational humor is antithetical to the sugarplum schmaltz of the usual holiday-themed offerings. Among its many pleasures is its cold-eyed peek behind the curtain of Christmas, so to speak, as we're walked through the absurdity of a workplace that puts its employees in elf costumes and forces them to be relentlessly cheerful. The monologue stage version, which pops up all over the country this time of year, is as tight and as wryly funny as the essay but in order for it to be wholly satisfying (as opposed to merely enjoyable) it demands a comic actor who connects to Sedaris' style. Happily the Gallery Players production has, in B. Brian Argotsinger, a performer who gets the layers in the material. He knows that many of Sedaris' absurd, funny details are little microcosmic stinkbombs laced with social and cultural critique (one of my favorites tells of the parents who request a "traditional" Santa, meaning white, which prompts the deadpan Macy's-dictated scold: "There is only one Santa") and he knows, with a bit of Paul Lynde in his delivery, how to throw them at us with a light touch. Recommended, but note: the show's final performances are this weekend:

Vital Signs: New Works Festival (Series 2)

I'm generally a supporter of new works play festivals just because they get the writers writing, actors acting, directors directing, and everybody sort of just finding their way through the development of new works. It's also a great place to see what sort of topics are on everyone's minds. It pleases me to say that with Vital Signs, now in its twelfth year of production, I don't need to just blindly support a bunch of playwrights stumbling their way into greatness: there's already a lot of remarkable work on display here. Granted, much of the work still plays towards compressed, small ideas -- a lot of stand-ins for larger issues -- but what I saw featured some tender writing from Steve Yockey's Kiss and Tell, some political parallels about censorship in Catherine Allen's Class Behavior (beware, you may be doing it too!), the large way in which racism is still a part of our society, as shown by the twinned stories of Laura Eason's Lost in the Supermarket, the way in which we ultimately haunt ourselves in Sonya Sobieski and Jana Zielonka's one-act musical, Evict This, and the fantastic close to the evening, Jason Salmon's excellently written twist on the boy-meets-girl genre, a wistful and romantic Meeting that covers all the angles to love and all the exits away from it.

[Read on]

The Devil's Disciple

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Is it murder if you're gentlemanly about it? Are you good if you are narrowly religious, or is true good measured by action? George Bernard Shaw's wit is in exceptionally good form in The Devil's Disciple, as is Irish Rep's production, condensed and well-directed by Tony Walton. Overall, the play is a bit narrow in scope and spends most of the second act repeating itself, but the performances from Curzon Dobell in the first act and Lorenzo Pisoni in the second keep us interested.

[Read on]

Saturday, December 08, 2007

No Dice

Photo/Peter Nigrini

No Dice plays a high-stakes game of craps but without the dice, which is good because they're letting it all ride on the yo, doing epic storytelling about mundane things but without a story. That's where they distinguish themselves, for other companies or playwrights have either theatricality to back up their slices of life or some larger aim (like The Debate Society or Charles Mee), but here, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma has only their parody of dinner theater -- which is a community thing -- and a series of physical gestures put together by Pavol Liska from disco videos or books about magicians and other such random, yet collectively uplifting, sources. The performers work orally, without memorization (though hardly without practice, for they seem so effortless on stage), getting their lines from an iPod (similar to experimental work from Rotozaza) that plays carefully an audio track carefully culled by Kelly Copper from over 100 hours of casual conversations ranging from pudding cravings to filling out TARs (Time Adjustment Reports) to the nature of storytelling, creativity, art, or, simply put, life. They channel this "cosmic murmuring" perfectly, even as they distort it savagely through their ridiculous costumes, intentionally amateurish accents, and delightful reactions, to a point where by the end of this near-four-hour ride, we can almost hear it, too.

[Read on]

Trumpery

Despite playing God with the precise facts of Darwin's twenty-year delay in the publication of his theory of evolution, playwright Peter Parnell still can't manage to take the gloves off the science and get from the brain to the heart. Perhaps taking a cue from Santo Loquasto's forested set, Darwin (Michael Cristofer) spends much of his time rooted in place, being lectured to by his religious peers, the vicar (Timothy Deenihan) and God-fearing scientist Richard Owen (Peter Maloney), and then by his steadfast allies, the all-too-sensible Hooker (Michael Countryman) and his excitable ally, Tom Huxley (Neal Huff, far too tame to be "Darwin's bulldog"). When Darwin actually takes action, prodded by the unnervingly polite Alfred Wallace (an excellent Manoel Felciano) and internally questions the faith he needs to his marriage to Emma (Bianca Amato) and for his sick daughter, Anne (Paris Rose Yates), the play starts to get down into that godless mud; unfortunately, director David Esbjornson ups the melodrama of a sick child and a lightning-punctuated séance (not science) too often to stay there. The one flawless moment: Darwin's attempt to pray, a thrillingly quiet moment of reflection from Mr. Cristofer that goes a long way to sell the good idea that Trumpery surely must have started with.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Puppetmaster Of Lodz

photo: Jim Baldassare

This play's title character is a puppeteer who escaped the Birkenau concentration camp for refuge in the attic room of a boarding house; the landlady has been assuring him for five years that the war is over - she even brings people in from the street to corroborate - but he's convinced it's a trick and he won't open his door to anyone. The play is at its most involving when someone's at his door - there's not only the suspense of what it will finally take to persuade him, there's also the dramatic charge in the meanwhile of watching him cling to his fear-based beliefs despite all evidence. Unfortunately, the majority of the play involves only the main character alone in his room, interacting with his puppets: it's far too contrived that he's rehearsing a puppet show to tell the story of the trauma he experienced at the camp and how he got to the room in the first place. More regretably, there's a subtext missing here that would somewhat redeem the contrivance and tell us *why* he's driven to do this. Is he dramatizing his story in order to understand it? Is it his way of clinging to the truth? With these scenes played and directed just page-deep, the play's potential for credible psychological portraiture is limited. What is well-communicated is the character's sad isolation and his pervasive suspiciousness: the play's final scenes, which bring about a profound change, are powerful and affecting.

You People


In five short glimpses of people you've seen before but possibly never considered, The Shalimar have painted an impressive mosaic of American life -- through the eyes of the disaffected, the obese, the immigrants, and the religious. From comic parables like Josh Liveright's "Deseret Desire" to the bleak realism of Michael John Garces' "Tostitos," it's time to meet You People. While it's admittedly not as well put together as their last Phaedra-conflating epic, LA FEMME EST MORTE (or Why I Should Not F!%# My Son), it succeeds at being a melting pot of ideas. It's not a very hopeful glimpse, though: there are a lot of dissatisfied people in these plays, willing to compromise themselves (often for sex), and as if playwrights are simply reflecting the current attitudes of America, then I worry about where we're going.

[Read on]

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Man Is Man

photo: Jackie Munro

A group of ambitious, talented NYU/Tisch students, forming a new company with director Paul Binnerts called The Elephant Brigade, are presenting (through HERE's Supported Artist Program) this wartime Brecht play as "real-time theatre": the performers don't inhabit their roles as much as they purposefully serve as storytellers enacting the play. For this reason, the fact that everyone in the cast is young is not a hinderance; it helps to make Brecht's cautionary message (about the changeability of man during wartime) direct and clear. While the production's attempts to modernize Brechtian devices are hit and miss (the use of live cameras panning toy-sized military structures and projecting them onto a backdrop scrim is a big miss; it doesn't add anything more to the proceedings than decoration) the troupe's urgency and unquestionable passion to tell the story with contemporary relevance are what's most vital and memorable here. No one in the ensemble lets the show down, but especially strong impressions are made by Natalie Kuhn and Sarah Wood.

Queens Boulevard (the musical)

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Excited as I am to see William Jackson Harper make it to a larger stage, and thrilled as I am by the multiple characters he and other standouts like Debargo Sanyal and Demosthenes Chrysan perform, I don't see the point of Chuck Mee's latest interpretation (this time of a Katha-Kali play, The Flower of Good Fortune). Signature is fortunate to have found such a talented set designer in Mimi Lien, as she mirrors Mee's script: attention-grabbing billboards (in various neon, LCD, and plasma) that sharing only the location, Queens Boulevard (incidentally also the name of this play). And director Davis McCallum gets the energy off on the right foot with a DJ (Satya Bhabha) riling up the bride and groom's parties, letting the diversity of the show and cast mingle with the diversity of the audience. But this is not a musical -- what few songs there are are canned, and they have little to nothing to do with supporting the story -- and this is not really a play, simply an adventure narrative (somewhat like that of Forrest Gump, but on a far less epic scale) that lets Mee throw in the latest things he's read, be that about fertility doctors, tips for immigrant survival in New York, or more taxicab confessions . . . There's less cohesion or precision in this collaged material than in Iphigenia 2.0, and the result is a trivial play that at best is only mildly amusing and at worst painfully inaccurate about New York life.

[Also blogged by: Patrick | David]

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Yellow Face


Perhaps because I recently read The Accidental Asian, Eric Liu's thoughtful collection of autobiographical essays which explore his personal feelings about Asian-American identity, I ran quickly out of patience for David Henry Hwang's rambling but similarly-themed play. Hwang begins by recounting his real-life newsmaking protest of Jonathan Pryce's casting in Miss Saigon: although it's a bit insidery (including a spot-on impression of Cameron Mackintosh and a completely off-the-mark one of Lily Tomlin) it's a good place for Hwang to begin his theatrical conversation. (The play's format has Hwang - as played by Hoon Lee - in direct address mode with the rest of the ensemble called upon to each play a variety of roles.) But immediately after that intriguing start, Hwang presents a not-very-credible fiction in the same true-story confessional format. That quickly killed off my trust, and I spent the rest of the play sifting fact from fiction.

Chekhov's Chicks

Though the individual scenes that Elizabeth Rosengren has pulled from Chekhov aren't much more than exercises in Scene Study, the way in which she makes their ideas about love collide is a insightful (and hopeful) study in the bittersweet life. These pieces also culminate in a much richer interpretation of The Bear that is usually found in the light farce; it makes the evening into a delightful reintroduction to Chekhov's harsh hopefulness. Simply directed by Jewels Eubanks, the work twists between a study of acting and a study of love, marrying the two into a love of Chekhov that survives even the cryptic lighting (a forlorn moon beaming intermittently against the window) and occasionally melodramatic surface readings of scenes from Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya.

[Read on]

Is He Dead?

photo: Joan Marcus

The premise of this farce, which has the painter Millet faking his own death in order to drive up the value of his artworks, doesn't lead to anything substantive about art and commerce; it's just an excuse to have a guy run around in a dress. It's easy to smile watching the seasoned farceurs in the cast (David Pittu and Byron Jennings, for instance - both deliciously hammy) and there probably isn't a director alive who knows as well as Michael Blakemore how to guide a cast in and out of slamming doors and mistaken identities. Yet the star clown here - Norbert Leo Butz - is an odd choice for this kind of thing: he gets by on the naughty-boy likeability that served him so well in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but he's in a different play than everyone else. It's likely that the sore thumb casting is intentional to put some extra zip in the so-so slow-to-get-going first act, but I couldn't help but wonder what someone like Jefferson Mays could do with the part.

August: Osage County

Photo/Joan Marcus

If I only had a script, I'd be able to sit here and dissect the powerful final scene from the second act (of three), an 11-person family meal that goes from comic pratfalls (awkward Little Charles and his spilled casserole), to a graceless recitation of grace (steady, sterile old Uncle Charlie), to a comic aside about the dangers of eating meat (according to precocious granddaughter Jean, meat is just a container for chemically processed fear), to a series of scathing, loveless remarks (from the shaky, pill-popping matriarch, Violet), to a physically violent breaking point (the frayed, eldest daughter, Barbara), and the hilarious blocking for what should be terrifying. This scene, which incorporates every bit of character introduced in the first hundred minutes, should be a chaotic mess, but it's so naturally written that you'd never notice. Between the excellent craft of these Steppenwolf actors, the layers of deep dialogue and nuanced thought from playwright Tracy Letts, and the impressively orchestrated direction from Anna D. Shapiro, this scene is a boiling point that captures not only the generational gap, but the emotional gap, too, and the way in which dysfunction has become the new function. Whether you're taking uppers, downers, or both, this show is the all-around riot of a show that it's literally cracked up to be.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: David]

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Doris to Darlene, a cautionary valentine

Photo/Joan Marcus

Jordan Harrison's new play, Doris to Darlene, a cautionary valentine has well-earned the latter half of its name: the writing is exceedingly cautious, often delivered in a omniscient third-person that allows the characters to be in a perpetual state of introspection. Harrison handles the language very well, squeezing character into the rare lines of actual dialogue -- like the showmanship of producer Vic Watts ("I want tiny little children to hemorrhage their hearts out"), the weird music teacher, Mr. Campani ("If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it"), or the frustrated Richard Wagner, trying to overcome writer's block ("What would a dragon sing . . . if it could sing?") -- but this theatrical format is incapable of whipping our emotions into anything resembling the vomit-inducing power of The Ring Cycle. At times, Harrison speaks elegantly to the power of music, with Tom Nelis' Mr. Campani exciting us like the solipsistic conductor in Terrance McNally's Prelude and Liebestod. At others, as with Laura Heisler's overplayed sorrow as King Ludwig, the music is washed out by distant analysis. I admire what Harrison is reaching for in the three eras of storytelling (1865 Bavaria, 1960 doo-wop America, and present day), and even more so the way that director Les Waters spins the scenes in, like some DJ scratching on a rotating stage, remixing the actors into a variety of roles, and cutting them together with some nice orchestral cues. But I think that's showmanship more than a show: for instance, Doris (De'adre Aziza) is the least developed of the characters (Wagner and Ludwig already exist in our minds), and no sooner does she have a husband and career than she has lost both in a scene we can only imagine. The real story goes to The Young Man (Tobias Segal), who tries to come into his sexuality by pursuing his teacher, Mr. Campani; for him, at least, the music is seen as a promising, tantalizing hope of something better. Black notes on a white page; what does it bring anybody? asks Harrison, in a far too poetic, and all too unresolved ending. I couldn't say; but at least I was keyed up through the show by the cleverness of it all.

[Also blogged by: Patrick]

Monday, December 03, 2007

New Amsterdames

Photo/Kila Packett

For Flying Fig Theatre Company, which looks to produce theatrical stories about women's lives, it is perhaps inevitable that they at last do a show about beavers. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Sadly, despite some clog-stomping numbers from the dames in question, and some fine physical work from De Beaver Twee (Arlene Chico-Lugo) and a narcoleptic pet, Knickerbocker (Nathaniel P. Claridad), New Amsterdames stumbles around, clunky in such big wooden shoes. Ellen K. Anderson's script is a skitterish bit of farce -- characters run around either trying to recover the lost deed to Manahatta, circa 1660, or to stop a modern-day flood -- but the split narrative between historical mock-ups like the timid Judith Bayard Stuyvesant (Michaela Goldhaber) or conniving Margaret Hardenbroeck (Jeannie Dalton) and the contemporary would-be meteorologist, Sweetie Chin (Tina Lee) doesn't work, especially when the worlds collide, thanks to the magic of the Great Beaver, Kitchi Amik (a rather bland Lucille Duncan). Heather Ondersma's direction keeps the show nimbly moving along (save for when five characters are on stage, in which case the blocking becomes as woodenly apparent as the stage) and Mark D. Spain's teeth-jutting masks give the beavers enough humanity to allow for the fact that they're talking, but Mrs. Anderson's script is littered with historical non sequiturs ("We're far from the village." "Ah, if you're African, you can't be buried in the town."), and these impromptu factoids slow the show way down.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

West Bank UK

photo: David Gochfeld

Despite the premise that has a Palestinian refugee and an Israeli expat forced to share the same small London one-bedroom, this new musical comedy plays less like a Middle East Odd Couple and more like broad satire. By the time the two men have a brief and short-lived roll in the hay, we get the show's allegorical lay of the land: their negotiations concerning the space in the apartment, marked by initial suspiciousness, moments of seeming reconciliation, esclating hostilities, and finally violence, are meant to stand in for the ongoing battles in the Middle East. It's remarkable how much the playwright (Oren Safdie, who also directed) is able to get away with thanks to the comic-strip veneer of his material: the aim for the funny bone lets him drain the anger out of scenes (such as the one where the two men degrade each other's religions) while still making his point. If the material is not consistently sharp (a musical number in which a couple of tv newscasters lust for more Middle East carnage to boost their careers is the show's low-point) and the lyrics do not always flow as easily as the show's music (which is Middle Eastern-spiced and performed by an onstage, 4 piece combo) the show is at its best disarming, thoughtful comedy with the right amount of sting in its laughter.

West Bank, U.K.

Photo/David Gochfeld

So, imagine there's this apartment, right? And this Jewish guy, Assaf (Jeremy Cohen) who has been subletting the apartment for two years, suddenly returns home to find that there's a Palestinian man, Aziz (Mike Mosallam), living there. Assaf demands his home back, but Aziz refuses to go, and the landlord -- who happens to be a sex-starved American girl (Michelle Solomon) -- forces the two to share the apartment. At first, things are great: after all, according to the two of them, they share the same hook nose, the same taste in food, and similar songs, like "My Hometown"; the two even start sleeping together. But their relations quickly sour, and it isn't long until they've split the apartment down the middle; such a thing could never happen, right? But just in case that wasn't clear enough, Oren Safdie widens the scope in a nonsensical way to fit in songs about diplomacy (the American landlord finds out she has a Russian brother), the sensationalism of the media ("We like the action hot, hot, hot/when people get shot, shot, shot"), suicide bombers ("72 Virgins"), the dream of home (the country spoof, "Here's My Passport, Please Don't Turn Me Back"), the necessity of violence ("Nothing Works Better Than Force"), and an outsider's fear of it ("I'd like to cut you up/(beat) but it's tea time!"). Many of these segments are currently strained, but at least they make a point in an often comic tone, are well-sung (if sometimes drowned out), and have an excitingly ethnic orchestration by Ronnie Cohen (which includes the oud). What's not currently working for West Bank, U.K. is how these skits are all crammed together: the play becomes a musical sitcom. Additionally, songs that have no parallel, while clever, confuse the point of the play: too many are about slutty girls ("Addictive Personality" for one; in another, "Why can't a girl be nasty and love God?"). Still, the play ends on absolutely the right note: with all the comedy aside, and the two roommates circling each other, knives out, in a dance to the death that will have no end.

The Seafarer


Most drunks know that the bottle can lead to hell. In Conor McPherson's lively and briskly entertaining new play, transferred nearly intact from The National, it's literal: the mysterious Christmas Eve visitor to a house of hard-luck Irish drunks is The Devil personified, out to collect on a secret longstanding debt by way of a high-stakes poker game. While the play moves along engagingly at a comic clip, wringing laughs out of the whiskey-soaked logic and dysfunction of the drunkards (who, save one, are clueless that the Devil is among them), an undercurrent of dread snakes cunningly through the play once McPherson reveals the sobering gravity of the game. McPherson taps into a particular brand of alcoholic shame and self-loathing that give his supernatural story a haunting, lingering resonance beyond what might be expected of a typical ghost story: the play can be taken as an allegory or simply enjoyed as a good Faustian yarn. Either way, it's a richly evocative piece of work and this superbly performed, expertly directed production is highly recommended.

The Receptionist

Photo/Joan Marcus

So as to not give anything away about The Receptionist to those who have not seen it, this is a perfect modernization of a famous old poem by Martin Niemoller. I had the opportunity to hear Adam Bock speak out about this, his latest play, at the Prelude '07 festival earlier this year, and he explained that it was written for the City Stage audience, and so the main character is a 50-something receptionist, happily married to a man who shares her mania for teacup collecting (she turns her nose at coffee mugs). Jayne Houdyshell plays this woman, Beverly, with the grace of a fallen diva, the center of attention even in an administrative role, and she relishes in collecting and dispensing gossip. In case Beverly doesn't strike a chord with you, she's also joined in the office by Lorraine Taylor (a very funny Kendra Kassebaum), the ditz of a flirt, and by Mr. Raymond (a somewhat vague Robert Foxworth), the professional elder of the company. The point is, these people could just as well be us, which makes their actual job, revealed toward the end of the play, somewhat more chilling, as well as what happens to their Northeast office, as carried on tidings from the easygoing Mr. Dart (Josh Charles, a bit stiffer than on Sports Night). Bock's writing is superb, as it channels the interruptive nature of the front desk into some very staccato conversations and nails the provocative silence that forces smaller and smaller talk. Furthermore, Joe Mantello's direction (again with the sliding sets from Blackbird), is a better fit for Bock's writing; his comic timing and delight in patter help the actors seem effortless on stage, and his theatricality (looming file cabinets, an eerie video cameras) matches with the unspoken threat of the mood-setting opening monologue.

[Also blogged by: Patrick]

Saturday, December 01, 2007

OH, THE HUMANITY and other exclamations

***1/2
The Flea Theater

Like in his Thom Pain (based on nothing), here in Will Eno's hour of 5 short plays, we are again exposed to his very unique, hyper-philosophical voice and characters who are struggling to make sense of themselves and world around them. When a playwright's voice is so startlingly original (a marriage of deep, harrowing insight and a conversational, matter of fact tone), it takes a while for the audience (or at least me) to learn the language and I have found his work to alternate between thrilling and confusing, moving and boring. Enter The Spokeswoman, Gently about an inexperienced airline representative making a speech about a recent plane crash, and The Bully Composition about a photographer and his assistant taking a photograph of the audience shimmered with sadness and humor and were the best of the five. Unlike in her current film, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, Marisa Tomei's oozing sexuality is muted honing in on the very down to earth and naturalistic actress that has always been present underneath the eyeliner and the boobies. She is perfectly cast here as is Brian Hutchison who shoots out fear like laser beams through his blood-shot, watery eyes.

The Piano Teacher

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Like her contemporary, Adam Bock, Julia Cho's The Piano Teacher plays with judo-like grace and strength, against our expectations in order to better unnerve us, and to create an air of unease, even in the coziest of homes, and with the friendliest of narrators, former piano instructor, Mrs. K. (Elizabeth Franz). Kate Whoriskey does her best to tear down the boundaries between audience and actor, her most overly familiar (and therefore effective) act is to have Mrs. K. open the show by sharing some of her stockpiled cookies with the front row. Her suspense, she says, is now our suspense, and as the darkness creeps in on her, with the flickers of light drawing our eyes to something as innocuously menacing as a ringing phone, one can't help becoming fully involved. Is her former student, Mary Fields (Carmen M. Herlihy) as well-adjusted as she seems? Is Michael (John Boyd) even one of her former students? And was her husband, Mr. K., just doing crosswords with the children in the kitchen as they waited for their lessons? Save for one moment of unrestrained violence (that actually comes as a relief to an audience weighed upon by intense, sharply crafted pp suspense), The Piano Teacher will leave you on the edge of your seat, trusting nothing, fearing everything.

[Read on]

Becoming Tennessee

The new Artistic Director of The Emelin Theatre (in the Westchester town of Mamaroneck) has big and bold plans for the house, which include a major renovation to accomodate big musicals and the addition of a second small black box theatre for plays. His first season has included a series of concerts and new works; this one, a reading of a new musical which concerns Tennessee Williams' first week off the bus in New Orleans, has undergone some revision since it was workshopped last year at the O'Neill Center. As it was a reading and not open for review, I don't want to say too much about it, except that Brian Charles Rooney - without benefit of costume or makeup - ably captured something recognizable of Williams in his portrayal of the playwright as a green twenty-eight year old. (Everyone in the cast was well-suited to their respective roles, in fact: I especially also liked Jerry Dixon, whose character serves as something of a bad influence on Williams). The show's book is essentially solid, depicting several key relationships that shape the young man into an expressive artist, and the score is well-suited to the time and the place of the story: one section of music, which covers Williams picking up a soldier and spending the night with him, is transporting and lyrical: it's still lingering in my head days later.

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
***1/2
Signature
(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.