Friday, May 30, 2008
I usually like Neil LaBute's plays but he has, of course, had his share of bummers. None yet that I have either seen or read, however, to rival Reasons To Be Pretty, a woefully thin and unfocused effort in which LaBute aims to depict a main male character who matures emotionally past the playwright's typical testosterone-pumped overgrown adolescents. (The character gets a best bud who more than picks up that slack: the guy's misogyny and duplicity are so over the top that he plays like a failed parody of a LaBute man.) The main character's revelations near the end of the play, spelled out for us in a direct address monologue which unthinkably begins with "So what have I learned from all this?", aren't any more insightful than "beauty is subjective". The play manages to be banal, superficial and aggressively repellent all at once, and also features one of the weakest monologues I have heard in some time. (It's about the hardship of being physically beautiful, which turns out to be that guys might try to hit on you in the supermarket.) Committed performances by Alison Pill and Thomas Sadoski provide an occasional illusion of depth, but the material is skin-deep.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Reasons To Be Pretty is certainly the laziest of Neil LaBute's three body-image themed plays (also The Shape of Things and Fat Pig). Thomas Sadoski comes across genuinely as Greg, but the other three actors seem to just be working on him, with no regard or care for self. The fact that Alison Pill is forced to emote for cheap entertainment is a real waste of talent (that she still almost manages to pull off), though no surprise from Pablo Schreiber, whose dismissive veneer makes him a perfectly unflinching actor for LaBute's plays. Piper Perabo, on the other hand, comes as a real surprise, interjecting rocky subtext into the obvious and polished dialogue. Right now, the show needs its four exceptionally weak monologues, for they show us what the actors are capable of, but LaBute would do well to deepen his characters--then he might be able to trust them a little more. Don't get me wrong: artifice, made sharp enough, can still be highly entertaining--even blanks pop when they go off. I was just hoping for more.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Friday, May 23, 2008
The pace is especially relaxed at first: we're taking in the South Asian customs and household dynamics as much as we're following the often gently comic story of the newlyweds who, for one reason or another, can't seem to consummate their marriage. Aside from a couple of quick spikes of melodrama, the play is a warmly amusing, leisurely slice of Anglo-Indian life, rich with keen observational detail and humor that is rooted in the cultural values of the characters. It's very much an ensemble piece in which newlyweds, parents, relations and friends are coming and going, and no one in this uniformly excellent ensemble is out to steal undue focus. A genuine pleasure, and the best effort I've seen from The New Group in at least a couple of years.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
This door-slamming "Coffee Tea Or Me"-era farce, in which a fast-on-his-feet bachelor gives the revolving door treatment to three fiances who all happen to be estewardesses, shouldn't be as entertaining as it is: the script is short on laugh lines, and the premise smells of yesteryear's sexism. Yet it's lively ridiculous fun anyhow: thanks partly to the choice to emphasize the immaturity of the bachelor (Bradley Whitford, who even skips around the stage) and the over-the-top sexual ferocity of the stewardesses, the show plays like a cartoon and the punchline is squarely on the three-timer. The show wastes Christine Baranski - she does all she can, but her role as the household's French maid doesn't register as much more than double takes - and I'm in the minority to find the characterization choices by Mark Rylance, as the bachelor's sidekick, to be too oddball and out-there to mesh with the material. But the stewardesses are silly, delicious joy: Gina Gershon as the passionate Italian, Kathryn Hahn as the spoiled American, and most sensationally Mary McCormack as the dominating German. No one will mistake this play for top-drawer farce, but those gals make Boeing Boeing the funniest show on Broadway this season.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Richard F. Stockton's courtroom drama Prisoner of the Crown is filled with so many dubious distinctions about the defendant, Sir Roger Casement, that the play should be a knockout. For example, put to death in 1916, Sir Roger has the "honor" of being the last knight ever to be executed for treason. But the play suffers artistically from some dubious distinctions of its own, most notably how sloppy it looks and misdirected it feels. One of the most vague and anachronistic dramas I've ever seen (scene changes are set to sad jazz; actors even dance into their costume changes), Prisoner of the Crown would rather play than be a play. Some audiences will enjoy a history lesson that uses ammo like "No empire can survive the loss of its moral authority" to cast judgment on our current political mudslinging. But most will be bored and confused by this unimaginative and too comic "swift boat" of a play. Here's a political parallel for you: one cannot run a campaign (or a play) on cleverness: you need passion, too.
Despite flashes of nudity and some overtly sexual on-stage business (even the climactic swordfight is staged with some crotch-to-butt thrusting) there isn't much danger in this handsome but mostly unexciting production of Liaisons: Ben Daniels' performance as Valmont is more bad boy romantic hero than icy sexual predator. As his duplicitous, manipulative partner in crime, Laura Linney works tirelessly but the role seems way out of her comfort zone and you're always aware how hard she is laboring. The stakes are therefore not set high enough in the first act (when we're meant to take at least a little perverse pleasure watching the two plotting and seducing) but the material is so strong that the second act (when we're meant to see how pitiful they truly are) works anyway: it's a solidly constructed, highly entertaining play, and even this production's missteps can't completely ruin that.
Monday, May 19, 2008
I agree with Patrick that this new musical is perhaps a little too precious for its own good. A sharper satirical edge would give our colorful teenage characters another layer to play within and also would not make New Yorkers think that they're attending church. Still though, I was charmed by this perky, needy little musical that follows the exploits of a crowd of haywire teens at a Christian high school. The songs were bright, the sensibility was modern (everyone texts and facebooks) and the show zipped along at a chipper clip. The cast is pretty perfect with Celia Keenan-Bolger leading the pack as the worrisome devout Christian determined to fix her boyfriend. I kinda wanna see the movie now.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Christopher Durang's The Actor's Nightmare and Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound are two fantastic (and fantastically different) riffs on the theater. Durang, ever the manic comedian, goes for broad strokes as he thrusts a hapless accountant, George (Michael Black), into an olio of dramas (Coward, Beckett, Shakespeare), skewering the whole lot with his memories of nuns. Stoppard, always one step ahead, ridicules the murder mystery (Christie's long-running The Mousetrap) by having two critics, Moon and Birdboot, remark on (and indulge in) the proceedings (Julian Elfer and Rick Forstmann, playing Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier-like roles). It's a funny evening, but it's soured by thoughts of how sweet the production could have been, had Peter Jensen pushed the physical comedy further, and really sharpened the timing of both pieces. Some bits come very close, as when Spelvin haplessly grips a potted plant, or when Moon finds his own acting under the lens of the critics, but my funny bone ached for more.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
The Zipper Theater
With this, her second limited engagement in New York, Miss Richfield 1981 tries out her drag schtick that has made her a local celebrity in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Through musical numbers and mock therapy sessions, this colorful, sassy, loud mouthed, middle aged man in a dress attempts to solve the problems of people yanked onstage from the audience. Though intermittently funny, her improvisations are hit and miss partly due to the fact that they're kinda not improvs at all. She doesn't engage the poor bastards who get pulled up onstage more than she just labels them with fictional "problems" ("You're afraid of clowns!"..."You're afraid of germs!") and then proceeds on to her scripted monologues. This grows tedious after a while and without any sort of dramatic structure or arc, this seems like something that belongs in a bar rather than a theater. Still she does an impressive headstand and she looks very funny in her tacky/slutty dresses and 3 pound cha cha heels. I'd happily toast her at Stonewall.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
I laughed. I cried. I mostly laughed. Crafting a poetic rhythm out of repetition (think Seuss meets Churchill), Torben Betts's brute-force allegory, The Unconquered, is one of the most distinct and comically unsettling shows I've seen this season. It's far from subtle (imagine Edward Gorey making a life-sized pop-up book), but is all the more powerful by being completely, brutally true to form: a play following in the footsteps of many "righteous" nations before it. I'm probably reading too far into it, but given that Girl (the marvelous Nicola Harrison) becomes a symbol of her country's suffering when a Soldier (a creepily childish Neal Barry) rapes her, it's hard not to hear something beautifully vulgar in her cries to "Get out of my country!" Then again, you could just take it literally, too, and still leave the theater thinking this was one of the best things you'd seen all year, playing to the same crowds as last year's The Receipt and correcting all the grim missteps made by Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
Small, somber, and unsentimental, A Catered Affair is a chamber musicalization of a 1950's era kitchen sink drama with songs so artfully scaled to the downbeat mood of the story that they play more like dialogue than musical numbers. The recitative-heavy score (by John Bucchino) is likely to frustrate theatregoers who expect musicals to deliver bombast but I found it disciplined, accomplished and finally enthralling: the music has a plainness which expresses the restrained emotions of the hard-working tenement folk in the story, never betraying them to sentimentality. Bookwriter Harvey Fierstein has erred a bit in expanding the minor role of the, ahem, bachelor uncle - the character does provide some needed levity but brings a too-contemporary "what makes a family?" sensibility that is besides the point. Despite this, the intimate "drama with music", in which a daughter's wedding announcement compels her mother to measure her own marriage against what she had hoped it would be, has a cumulative emotional power thanks to its humanity and integrity (read: trust in the material) and is further distinguished by exceptional performances. Leslie Kriter, whose vivid expressiveness usually makes her stand out from any crowd on a stage, does a fully credible turn as the Plain Jane daughter who is accustomed to being overlooked and neglected. Tom Wopat is remarkable as her long-suffering father, giving a performance that is a study in artful economy and control. But most spectacular, in the show's central role of the bride-to-be's mother, is Faith Prince's astonishing, finely nuanced performance. It isn't only that it's an astoundingly subtle and detailed performance when judged against the other ones I've seen her give, it's that it's one of the most subtle and detailed performances I have ever seen *anyone* give in a musical. Once I picked my jaw off the floor I started imagining what other roles Faith Prince could take on....in dramatic plays.
Monday, May 12, 2008
Fuck it, I'll say it: it's no stretch when I say that Stretch (a fantasia) is unmissable, no stretch for me to say that Gypsy isn't the the only show with a Rose to watch this season. The Rose in question here is Rose Mary Woods, the ultra-loyal secretary (of 23 years) to Richard Nixon who may have intentionally deleted incriminating Watergate evidence. Her portrayer is Kristin Griffith, who grounds the three different manifestations of Rose: the bundle of hard-fought opinions who smiles, beams and struts through the spotlight of her memory as she says "Go fuck yourself"; the tragically diminished modern version, vivacity bound to a wheelchair in a nursing home; and the dream version who speaks to the clickety-clack rhythm of an IBM Selectric (not to mention two violins, a bass, and a trumpet). And while yes, there are some fantastic elements (and I mean that both ways), between Susan Bernfield's writing and Emma Griffin's seamless direction, the show is utterly believable -- almost too believable, as it takes us back to the shady 2004 election, following not just Rose, but The Orderly (Brian Gerard Murray), an apathetic member of Generation Y who yearns to actually dream of something other than SpongeBob's sexuality, and Bob (Evan Thompson), a former history teacher who latches onto the actual history -- the actual life -- that Rose represents to him. The result isn't a fantasia: it's pure magic.
The first half of John Lithgow's ninety minute solo show is a warm and nostalgic pleasantry in which the actor mostly recalls the power of storytelling in his childhood home, paying tribute to his father (who put on Shakespeare plays) and grandmother (who read from books). It's an amiable prelude to the show's second half, the altogether delightful main attraction in which Lithgow reads (or, more accurately, enacts) P.G. Wodehouse's short story "Uncle Fred Flits By" with artful comic timing and delivery. Lithgow's skills are obvious and plentiful as he delineates the story's handful of characters but the show isn't aimed to put us in awe of his acting so much as it's aimed to remind us of the life that can spring from the printed page and of the simple joys of storytelling. It may be the most humble and generous one-man show I have ever seen.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Saturday, May 10, 2008
A neo-Nazi skinhead, soon to stand trial for a brutal hate crime, is defended by a liberal Jewish legal aid lawyer in this two-hander written and directed by David Gow. Surprisingly, the play doesn't delve very deeply into questions of legal ethics, but it's otherwise by-the-numbers and easy to predict. What elevates it a bit above its disappointingly pat plotting is that Gow has written these two characters credibly and he's given them a lot of solid dialogue; he's also paced and directed the play sensibly so that the characters' confrontations are suitably taut and dynamic. He's fortunate that his two actors - Maximilian Osinski as the skinhead and Mark Zeisler as the lawyer - both give strong, emotionally intense performances that hold the attention even when the play is at its most formulaic.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
Kirk Wood Bromley's latest play, Me, doesn't really get to the heart of Mr. Bromley. (Unless we take his mash-up of placenta mythology, ecological warning, and fractious parents -- there's father, a hammerhead shark in a golden diaper, and a mother-as-sponge -- at face value. And that's not really the point of this comic play.) However, it does get to the heart of his style, with the entrance to the theater littered with the detritus of his past, from old props and clippings to epigraphs from his favorite influences. It's fair, then, to say that this is the sort of play I imagine John Ashbery might write if he were smoking peyote and unwinding on the guitar. It's a highly literate, linguistically comic, and utterly refracted, interrupted, and regurgitated work of theater. Well, just call me a baby bird then, 'cause I ate it all up, from the self-reference to the Joyce-worthy absurdism: "When someone's obliminal nodes excite your oceanic plasma, you are hookt." Job well done for director Alec Duffy, who somehow manages to keep the twelve actors playing Kirk fresh, interesting, and on point.
I usually resist writing about dress rehearsals for a variety of obvious reasons but I want to say that this latest Encores! show - a new version of the 1971 hit adaptation of the frothy 1925 musical comedy - is certain to be a crowd-pleaser. (It runs through Monday, at City Center.) I can say so purely on the sparkle of the blissfully delightful dance numbers (put together by Randy 42nd Street Skinner) which provide spectacular transportation back to the forget-your-troubles Broadway of yesteryear. And some of the songs ("Tea For Two", "I Want To Be Happy..") are so infectious that you might find yourself grinning like a fool and humming along. I'm not comfortable commenting on the performances, but I do want to say what a pleasure it is to have Sandy Duncan doing jaw-dropping fan kicks and lighting up a stage again. At 62, she's still the best kind of "bubbly".
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Sunday, May 04, 2008
In a role written for her, Jan Maxwell sounds notes of believable anguish and despair playing a suburban mom mourning her son, recently killed along with many of his classmates in a freak accident. As good as Maxwell is, as always, she can't rescue the play, which tries to quirk up its destination to the land of Hallmark by pairing the grieving mom with a kooky, full-of-life substitute teacher whose eccentricities (such as exercising in the classroom in his underwear upon their first meeting) are meant to be endearing but mostly register as incoherent and bizarre. (Not at all the blame of Kieran Campion, who does all that anyone could reasonably be expected to do with the part). The play is further dragged down by flashback scenes of two students who also died in the accident: their scenes don't flow into the narrative and quickly sink the show's pace.
92 Street Y
What a great year from which to glean some of the greatest showtunes in Broadway history. A snapshot of everything running on Broadway in 1959 -including Gypsy, West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, Fiorello, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, among others- this was a heartfelt tribute to the golden age of American theater. Starring the über-talented Broadway stars David Burnham, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Sally Mayes and Donna McKechnie (all of whom were spot on in the final dress rehearsal I attended), they all tore through many of the more popular showtunes and also numbers from lesser known scores like Jamaica and Bells Are Ringing. This is a very fun evening exclamation point! One quibble: In a presumable effort to fit in as much as they could, the production was very cut and paste medley heavy. It should be ILLEGAL to only sing one verse of "One Hand, One Heart"... especially when you have the glorious David Burham and the glorious Sarah Uriarte Berry on hand to sing it. The same goes for glorious Sally Mayes' one verse of"Rose's Turn". "Blasphemy!" cries the showtune junkie!
Saturday, May 03, 2008
Yukiko Motoya's Vengeance Can Wait didn't convince me that the wait was worth it. Paul H. Juhn has a marvelous deadpan, and his voice delivers not just one-liners, but one-worders. And his happy victim, Jennifer Lim, is talented enough to be verbally and physically self-effacing, an embodiment of the baggy clothes she wears. But beyond this stiflingly dry style -- a style that is absurd simply because of how laid-back the straight comedy is -- there's nowhere to go, and so the actors simply go there again, and again, and again. If you think that's funny, then this is the play you've been waiting for.
I'd rather see an original show struggle and fail, like Chuck Mee's cultural smörgåsbord Queens Boulevard, than to see something like Rafta, Rafta succeed at mediocrity. For me, Ayub Khan-Din's done little more than make an ethnic adaptation of Bill Naughton's All in Good Time, and much of the comedy, not to mention drama, feels forced. Scott Elliott does his best to dress things up with bright lights, cultural knickknacks, and his use of Derek McLane's two-story set, but the story isn't big enough to fill the house, nor is the acting firm enough to make it seem lively. What we want to see -- more of the rambling but chaotically lively wedding party, or more ruminations from the father-figure's proud and troubled past -- is covered up with cheap sexual distractions and farce: no wonder the main character is impotent.
Friday, May 02, 2008