Thursday, December 31, 2009
Photo: Joan Marcus
My last entry of the year (Happy New Year, everyone!) lists shows that received raves and/or were big hits, and I don't understand why.
Streetcar Named Desire: Full of itself, hammy, overblown, dumb. Cate Blanchett chewed the ugly scenery.
Our Town: While I didn't find it bad enough to make my "worst shows" list, it was, uh, boring.
God of Carnage: Not one of the four characters was remotely believable, and the show's reach for significance fell far short. (And if she was that nauseated, she would have gone into the bathroom, you know?)
Orphan's Home Cycle: I made it through 5/9ths of this before giving up. I found it wordy, slow, and (with a few exceptions) unexcitingly acted.
The Norman Conquests: Who cares? I sure didn't.
This list is easy--these five shows were squirmingly wretched:
(In reverse alphabetical order.)
- West Side Story: A breath-taking example of how to direct the life out of a show.
- Loaded: Completely lacking wit, drama, believability, or a reason to exist.
- Impressionism: Bafflingly bad on every level. Confusing plot, bad acting by good actors, dumb premise.
- Hedda Gabler (with Mary Louise Parker): What were they thinking?
- Desire Under the Elms: Not only the worst show I saw this year, but one of the very worst I've seen in 40 years of play-going. Stultifying, pompous, and excruciating.
I wasn't planning on publishing my worst list, but since Wendy posted hers, I see no harm in following suit. Again, a lot of easy decisions here.
1. Our Town
This year, the emperor's new clothes were an ill-fitting flannel, beat-up jeans and a cell phone. And while bacon was frying mere feet away from me, all I could smell was corn.
2. The Starry Messenger
Star Matthew Broderick didn't know his lines, first-time director Kenneth Lonergan had no idea how to present his own text, and the result was a three-plus hour trainwreck with no plot and no guidance.
3. Desire Under the Elms
What happens when you combine a Tony Award winning director (Robert Falls), arguably the best Eugene O'Neill interpreter alive (Brian Dennehy) and one of the strongest actresses of her generation (Carla Gugino)? Not much, as evidenced by this streamlined, anachronistic production that opened and closed quickly in May.
4. West Side Story
How do you say "misfire" in Spanish?
5. The Bacchae
Jonathan Groff is usually wonderful, but as the vicious and sexually voracious demi-god Dionysus? I think not.
photo: The cast of Our Town at The Barrow Street Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Once the Witch has been roasted, the family reunited, and the Witch's gingerbread victims restored to humanity, the opera concludes with a lovely chorale proclaiming "When in need or dark despair, God will surely hear our prayer." But the religious patina is purely a matter of faith; the children have survived their ordeal solely because of their own quick thinking, Gretel's in particular. It's a fairy story, after all, a crusty old folk tale gathered by the Grimms from ancient sources, and the Christian God is a latecomer to this musical feast; perhaps he'll be seated during intermission, but only at the discretion of the management. A joy for all ages, this production would make a fine introduction for any opera neophyte, child or adult. Hansel and Gretel runs in repertory through Jan. 2 at the Met. Read the full review.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Saturday, December 26, 2009
I finally caught up with Irish Rep's celebrated production of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, one of only two shows to be featured on both Brantley and Isherwood's year-end best lists at the Times. It's easy to see why the production, now enjoying a commercial run at SoHo Playhouse, has been almost universally praised - Ciaran O'Reilly's directorial vision and John Douglas Thompson's raw-nerve performance fully meet the challenge of the "problematic in this day and age" dialect (be prepared to hear the "N" word regularly amid a lot of "sho' nuff"-style speeches.) Most compellingly, the production mixes puppets with actors to create a theatrical landscape that brings fresh vitality to O'Neill's depiction of the dictator's decline into powerlessness and mental deterioration.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
In Bernard Shaw's riotous Misalliance, a dashing young man and an even more dashing young woman drop by the Tarleton estate (literally--their plane crashes into the greenhouse), upending the plans and assumptions of the aspiring-for-respectabilty Tarletons and providing a great deal of entertainment for the audience. Shaw's work manages to be both timeless and timely as the characters grapple with love, money, honor, socialism, feminism, and one another. In this handsome, well-directed (by Jeff Steitzer), and well-acted production, the ever-wonderful Pearl Theatre Company proves yet again that it is aptly named (pearl definition 4: something precious or choice). The wonderful cast includes Lee Stark, Dominic Cuskern, Dan Daily, Sean McNall, and the amazing Erika Rolfsrud.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Photo: Daniel Perez
One of the most delightful hours of all-ages entertainment I have ever seen on a stage, Company XIV's Snow White is the kind of magical enterprise that could make a person of any age fall in love with dance and with theatre. The Brooklyn-based multi-disciplinary troupe, who've been getting attention for bawdy, "mature audiences only" works (like Le Serpent Rouge), have made a foray into family-friendly dance theatre that is sure to mesmerize and transport all who attend. Miraculously, it holds the wee ones in rapt attention without condescending to them, surely exposing many of them for the first time to baroque-derived and classical ballet dance, to mask work, to shadow puppet theatre, to a variety of music from Louis Armstrong to Bellini's La Sonnambula. What holds them is the same thing that holds adults - the integrity of every element of the presentation conspiring to make striking stage pictures that delight the imagination while telling the oft-told story. I'm sorry I didn't have any chance to see this earlier than now; it would have made my list as one of the best shows of the year.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
The rest of the list is in reverse alphabetical order, just for a change of pace.
- Vieux Carre (The Pearl Theatre): Tennessee Williams’ autobiographical drama in a solid, moving production.
- Universal Robots (Manhattan Theatre Source): Mac Rogers examines the meaning of being—and not being—human.
- Twelfth Night (Shakespeare in the Park): I hope Shakespeare was able to watch this evening of pure delight from the great beyond.
- Streetcar Named Desire (Barrington Stage Company, Berkshires): A fresh look at Williams’ masterpiece without all the shtick of the BAM production.
- Next to
(Broadway): A grown-up rock-ish musical full of naked emotion and superb performances, particularly Alice Ripley’s. Normal
- Lizzie Borden (Off-Off Broadway):Kick-ass rock combined with a wry point of view; this show made bumping off one’s parents seem like a smart thing to do.
- Lesser Seductions of History (Flux Theatre Ensemble): August Schulenburg examines the 1960s with great compassion, insight, and humor.
- Joe Turner's Come and Gone (Lincoln Center Theatre): A beautiful production of August Wilson's magical and moving depiction of people searching for a place and a person to call home.
- Dollhouse (
’s Warehouse): What might sound like a gimmick in theory—casting unusually short men and unusually tall women—turned out in practice to be a stroke of brilliance, revitalizing Ibsen’s well-known play. Mabou Mines, St. Ann (Folger Shakespeare Library, Arcadia Washington, DC): An excellent production of one of my all-time favorite plays.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a transfer of an acclaimed London production of one of the greatest musicals ever written: it seemed like this first-ever Broadway revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music couldn't miss. But miss it does, and widely. It would be easy to blame the scaled-down production values and the huge reduction of the orchestra to a few players, but the production sinks like a stone less because it's been given the (of course not musically ideal) chamber treatment and more because said chamber treatment isn't the result of any evident artistic vision. In other words, the only reason for the paltry orchestra and the one-wall set is that the show played a teeny tiny theatre in London. On a big Broadway stage and without a justifying vision, the miniaturization looks and sounds on-the-cheap. As you watch the cast twirl about the stage during the opening waltz, the music performed with so little power that it competes with the sound of scuffing shoes (and loses), you're confronted with the production's depressing carelessness which makes itself especially known in the lack of cohesion of the performances. Everyone seems to be in a different show: Hunter Ryan Herdika, as Henrik, plays as if to the rafters while Aaron Lazar as Carl-Magnus works toward naturalism. Was the cast given bum direction (by Trevor Nunn) or no direction at all? Lansbury is enjoyable as expected and Zeta-Jones, entirely stageworthy and magnetic, does alright by "Send In The Clowns" and by the role in general despite it being wholly unbelievable that her vital Desiree would long for Alexander Hanson's far too smug Frederick.
2009 was, to put it mildly, not a good year for New York theatre. More than any other year in recent memory, I found myself watching my watch, thinking about my grocery list, or even fleeing at intermission rather often. However, the lack of quality productions has made one of my tasks rather easy: of the over 100 shows I attended this calendar year, exactly and only ten received a four star rating. My top ten list wrote itself. They are, in alphabetical order:
Brighton Beach Memoirs
David Cromer's mournful deconstruction of Neil Simon's classic 1983 roman a clef revealed the layers of tragedy behind the author's one-liners and comedic situations. Sadly, the production--anchored by strong performances from Laurie Metcalf, Jessica Hecht, and brilliant newcomer Noah Robbins--closed only a week after its premiere, and it's companion piece, Broadway Bound, never made it out of the rehearsal room. (Broadway - Nederlander Theatre)
The Cherry Orchard
Of the two productions presented during The Bridge Project's inaugural season at BAM, the lion's share of raves and publicity went to their stark, arresting staging of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. However, it was Sam Mendes' rendering of Chekhov's masterpiece that stayed with me for months afterward. Featuring a fluid translation by Tom Stoppard and benchmark performances from Simon Russell Beale (Lopakhin), Sinead Cusack (Ranevskaya), and Rebecca Hall (Varya), this was the best take on any Chekhov play that New York has seen in the last decade. (Off Broadway - BAM Harvey Theatre)
Joe Turner's Come and Gone
Bartlett Sher once again proved his genius with a magical statement of the late August Wilson's greatest play, set in Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century. As presented by Lincoln Center, it featured a strong cast that included Chad Coleman, Ernie Hudson and Roger Robinson, in a spellbinding, Tony Award winning performance. (Broadway - Belasco Theatre)
Over four months after it closed, I am still at a loss for words to describe this brilliant revival of Fredrich Schiller's 1800 classic, which centers around a fictional meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin, the deposed Queen of Scotland. All I can say is that Janet McTeer (as Mary) and Harriet Walter (as Elizabeth) gave two of the greatest performances I will ever see, and that I hope to once again find a theatrical production that moved me as much as this. I won't hold my breath, though. (Broadway - Broadhurst Theatre)
The Orphans' Home Cycle
This epic production, on which Horton Foote was working at the time of his death in March, began performances in November with the first three parts of a nine-play cycle. All nine parts will open within the next few weeks, culminating in marathon performances in February and March 2010. I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to one of the greatest American dramatists of all time (and the $20 price tag cannot be beaten). (Off Broadway - The Signature Theatre Company at the Peter Norton Space)
Marcia Milgrom Dodge's spare new production of this classic American musical permanently raised the bar for Broadway revivals. Featuring a near-flawless cast of twenty-eight, it made me often forget the majesty of the original production. High praise indeed. (Broadway - Neil Simon Theatre)
2009's Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama brilliantly recast Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children in a present-day Congolese brothel. Special praise goes out to Victoire Charles, who performed the conniving Mama Nadi--the Mother Courage stand-in--at the performance I attended. I cannot imagine seeing the role played any better. (Off Broadway - Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I)
A Streetcar Named Desire
Is there anything Cate Blanchett cannot do? The Oscar winning actress shed her Australian actress and all pretenses to convey Tennessee Williams' most tragic southern belle, Blanche DuBois. She was brilliant, and Liv Ullmann's Grand Guignol production complimented her performance perfectly. (Off Broadway - BAM Harvey Theatre)
Easily the best Shakespeare in the Park offering in over a decade, Daniel Sullivan's simple, beguiling production of this winning comedy announced Anne Hathaway's arrival as a serious stage presence. Add to that a cast of game stage veterans--including Audra McDonald, Jay O. Sanders, Hamish Linklater, and Julie White--and you had a perfect evening in the Central Park...that is, if you could score a ticket. (Off Broadway - Delacorte Theatre)
We all know that Carrie Fisher is funny and fucked up, but who would have thought that listening to her make light of her neurosis would be such an engrossing evening of theatre? What could have been simply a pleasant little show managed to become the most compelling one-person show in recent memory. (Broadway - Studio 54)
Here's hoping that 2010 and its offerings prove far more satisfying.
photo: Sinead Cusack and Simon Russell Beale in The Cherry Orchard at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Credit: Joan Marcus.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Photo: Daniel Perez
It's been a great privilege to be able to experience the arc of all three recent Company XIV dance-theater productions. Le Serpent Rouge and The Judgment of Paris are in revival through mid-January, alternating performances with Snow White. Indulge yourself and see them all, or if you're taking the kids, experience this Snow White – it's a fairy story to remember. Taking the tale straight from the Brothers Grimm, and borrowing a few costuming themes from Disney's classic animated version of the popular but creepy fairy tale, choreographer Austin McCormick and his multi-talented group conjure an extravagant feast for the eye and ear using baroque dance, ballet, and modern dance variously as the spirit calls. Read the full review.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Inspired by the true story of the Polly Klaas kidnapping, this play takes us to the Northern California home of Bethany, a 32-year-old mother of twins receiving a visit from two childhood friends. Though nervous and hyper, chatty Bethany is also a distinctly West Coast type: new-agey without being self-consciously fashionable about it. Over a compact and fast-paced hour, what seems at first an innocent get-together of old girlfriends is revealed, bit by bit, to be something far more significant. As girls, the three – along with a now-absent fourth – shared a trauma that has bonded them for life. Layers of story lurking beneath the obvious methodically come to light: Jessica's political activism has had an unwanted effect on Kat's family; Bethany, in a kind of religious fervor, has been seeing ghosts and consorting with the enemy. It all cascades towards a satisfying, thought-provoking finish. Read the full review.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
The proximity of the recent Oleanna revival just two blocks away makes David Mamet's new play feel just a smidgen formulaic. In both, an angry young woman betrays her mentor because of a grievance for which he is culpable only in an abstract, class-informed way. The thing is, Mamet is so good at provocative audience-baiting dialogue, and Race's major characters so acutely finessed by his cast (he also directed), that it doesn't much matter that we've pretty much heard this story before. Read the full review.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Conventional wisdom said that Finian's Rainbow, old-fashioned and with once progressive but now supposedly dated themes, wasn't supposed to work in this day and age. Conventional wisdom was dead wrong, and didn't count on the magic that happens when the material is respected and trusted unabashedly. I'd seen the Encores! production and swooned over it, and then saw half of this Broadway transfer a few weeks ago (damn that early 7 PM curtain). Seeing it now, with paying Broadway customers, confirmed how fully the production can captivate and the material can resonate with a contemporary (non-industry, non-aficionado) audience. The show's B-plot, in which a racist white governor is turned black, is the show's trickiest element - if it is not handled in the loving spirit in which it was written, it runs the risk of coming off preachy or worse. It's a testament to this production's resounding success that when the leprechaun Og (played winningly by Christopher Fitzgerald) tells the race-changed governor (Chuck Cooper) that the magic spell should have changed him inside rather than out, this audience applauded spontaneously mid-scene. Conventions that aren't supposed to work anymore - love at first sight, enchanted characters - work as they once dependably did because of the production's wholehearted embrace of them. The result is charming, transporting, even affecting: smart whimsy done miraculously right. The show is blessed with an ideal cast led by the radiant, gorgeous-voiced Kate Baldwin and Broadway's current leading leading man Cheyenne Jackson: their songs together could melt polar ice caps. Whoever thought of and lured Jim Norton into his role is a genius: Norton's performance is perfectly pitched to capture all the humor and a touch of sentimentality while always grounded in something truthful. Fitzgerald, the only major cast change since Encores, swiftly won me over, and I say that as someone who adored predecessor Jeremy Bobb. Terri White makes "Necessity" the best, most pure kind of showstopper - while staying within the confines of what is called for, she sings it with so much heart and musical skill that the audience can't wait to applaud her. The score is full of ageless but not overused gems - "How Are Things In Glocca Mora?", "Ol' Devil Moon", "If This Isn't Love", and so on - and the care has been taken to ensure that they sound warm, balanced and beautiful in the house. (I wish the same level of attention had been paid to the set, the one disappointment of this production, but if sets are a deal-breaker for you I'm sure you aren't here reading my blog anyhow). I'm a fierce proponent of new musicals with fresh, culturally relevant scores, but that doesn't mean I want to see yesteryear's gems left in the dustheap, not when they can shine as brightly as this revival. This is special.
One of the definitions of "delicious" for me is "vintage backstage comedy". This one, circa 1927 from Maurine Dallas Watkins (who wrote Roxie Hart, the basis for the musical Chicago), is short on spicy zingers (and a few door slams short of true farce) but it's plenty tasty anyhow. No surprises with the theme or the plot - the wicked stage and all that - so the fun is all in the playing. Comic delight Kristen Johnston, leading a thoroughly capable cast which also includes Anna Chlumsky and Catherine Curtin, plays a glamorous stage diva whose self-absorption knows no bounds as she manipulates everyone in sight, from green high-minded playwright to smitten leading man. She's a hoot and a half, especially in the second act which demands a bit of physical comedy of the "hung over from an all night bender" variety.
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Photo: Mirjam Evers
Straight from "the prison circuit" and the land of lutefisk, Vickie and Nickie, otherwise known as real-life sisters Lisa and Lori Brigantino, poke good-natured fun at middle-of-the-road American culture while revving up the crowd with perfectly executed vocal harmonies and musicianship (keyboards, guitar, uke, sax...). In this holiday show they got the balance between spoof and sincerity just right, heavy on the former, belting out Christmas favorites ranging from straight-up takes on "Feliz Navidad" and "Blue Christmas" to Springsteen and Streisand versions of classic carols, supplemented by a couple of punchy original Vickie and Nickie numbers. Amidst the holiday cheer they also worked in hilariously non-jokey versions of "Under Pressure" and that new camp classic, Beyonce's "Single Ladies," which got the audience shouting along in delight. They've discovered, and nailed, the big secret: playing things more or less straight can get more laughs than a lot of horsing around. Read the full review.
Monday, December 07, 2009
When her mom is rushed to the hospital while working as a housemaid, 8 year old Winnie (played credibly and with no trace of preciousness by 28 year old Ayesha Antoine) is left behind in the care of a house full of patronizing adults she doesn't know. As this is a play by (and directed by) Alan Aykbourn, you can be sure that the adults are comic gems - neurotics who are capable of behaving more like children than children and who reveal far more of themselves than they realize. It's especially delicious to see this particular collection of Aykbourn characters given the contrast of a wise-beyond-her years child who (hilariously) mostly takes in their foolishness without a word. There's just one week left of the run (at 59E59, as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival) and all performances are sold out, but it's worth your time to try your luck on the waitlist.
Sunday, December 06, 2009
Like any good kids' hero, the brave little tailor of Grimm's fairy tale is both bold and clever, defeating powerful enemies by outwitting them. (He also gets the girl.) In this play for children, the tailor is, reasonably enough, turned into an actual kid, and rather than killing the baddies, as in a traditional quest saga like the Twelve Labors of Hercules or The Wizard of Oz, this hero wins their respect and turns them into allies. It's a questionable plot change, as a) the real world does contain real baddies, and b) sometimes one does have to live by one's wits. But it's a nice excuse for songs, bright costumes, and amusing mugging. All in all this is a diverting show for kids up to about eight years old. (The nine-year-old I brought gave it the equivalent of one thumb up.) Read the full review.
photo: Robert J. Saferstein
A wealthy white man (Richard Thomas) stands accused of raping a black woman. Claiming that it was consensual, he has enlisted the services of a particular law firm for one chief reason: both its founding partner, Henry Brown (David Alan Grier), and young associate (Kerry Washington) are African American. Also on the scene is Jack Lawson (James Spader), Brown's white partner, who has conflicted feelings about the nature of the case but decides to focus on a specific factual aspect that, if true, would all but assure acquittal. David Mamet has sidestepped the issue of identity politics in previous plays, but Race is his first evening-long exploration of the topic. It is also his finest work in years. Spader and Grier are both brilliant as best friends and business partners who, try as they might, cannot escape the inbred associations of their races; the former shows not a trace of the legal-eagle showboating for which he became famous on television, and the latter taps into the conflicted nature of his character terrifically. Though his role is slightly underwritten, Thomas strongly conveys the duality of his character: your opinion of his guilt or innocence changes from moment to moment, as it should. And despite early preview reports claiming that she was out of her league, Washington (at the critics' performance I attended) more than held her own against her more-seasoned co-stars and delivered a richly layered performance in one of the most complex female roles Mamet has ever written. Very highly recommended.
Saturday, December 05, 2009
Photo: Julie Rossman
This smartly observed play about inner-city kids focuses on the sexual awakening of one in particular. Unlike some "ghetto kid" dramatizations, it avoids the sin of trying too hard. In language that's spicy and realistic, playwright Chisa Hutchinson crafts believable characters who are vividly realized by an excellent cast of mostly newbies. The one thing Ms. Hutchinson can't seem to do is think of an ending. But until that disconcerting, disappointing five seconds, the neatly plotted She Like Girls is an entertaining and affecting journey through one kid's troubled life and psyche. Read the full review.
Friday, December 04, 2009
Thursday, December 03, 2009
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Jane's husband Roy died a year ago, and she has been living life at a distance, just getting by. Alan drinks too much and feels lonely and lost. Tom and Marrell's marriage is in even worse shape than they fear. Marrell wants to introduce Jane to a sexy French physician despite Jane's declared lack of interest. From this basic, even somewhat familiar, set up, Melissa James Gibson has wrought a delicate, moving, and funny exploration of loss, memory, adultery, self-pity, and all the different forms of love. The structure of This is elegant, with ideas, pieces of information, and small moments tying together in unexpected and compelling ways. Gibson also allows the play--and the characters--to breathe with moments that just are, such as a remarkably fascinating phone call carried out entirely in French. Subtly directed by Daniel Audin and superbly acted by Louis Cancelmi, Elsa David, Glenn Fitzgerald, Julianne Nicholson, and Darren Pettie, This beautifully presents the quiet moments and everyday interactions that add up to life.
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
I found the much-lauded production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett and directed by Liv Ullman to be a major disappointment. Blanchett's Blanche is full of sound and fury, signifying little. Ullman's heavy-handed direction pairs skin-deep overwrought performances with arbitrary images, as when Blanche moves from the floor to the bed for no reason other than to allow the light from a passing train to illuminate her alabaster skin and long neck, then returns to the floor for no reason at all. Joel Edgerton as Stanley has a nice chest, but he looks like Conan O'Brien, which is fine for a talkshow host but not for a Stanley. His voice is wrong for the part, his performance is one note, and his eyes fail to participate in his acting. The set is too dingy, ugly, and bare; Stanley and Stella aren't rich, and they don't care much about appearances, but they'd own a bit of furniture. The all-important curtain between the two rooms isn't large enough, leading to awkward staging. Many moments are played for laughs that shouldn't be played for laughs. Even the poster (see above) seems wrong. [spoilers in the next paragraph]
Because this Streetcar is overdirected and overacted from the beginning, there is no place to go for the final scenes except way way too far. By Blanche and Stanley's big showdown, Blanche is so drunk and damaged that the rape loses any sense of revenge, reclaiming turf, and showing who's boss and is just plain icky. It also loses its sense of being the tipping point, the place from which Blanche cannot return--in this version, Blanche has passed that point long ago. And when the people from the asylum come to take Blanche away, she leaves the house in her slip, without shoes. I do not believe that Blanche would do that, nor do I believe that Stella would let her. At the very end, Blanche walks away from the "kind stranger" and wanders across the stage until she reaches her mark for another moment of illumination of her alabaster skin and long neck. And then the show is over, eliminating the resumption of the poker game with its sense of life cold-heartedly returning to normal.
A few months ago, I saw an excellent production of Streetcar at the Barrington Stage Company (review here). In that production, every acting and directing decision was made in service of the play. This production is more like a riff on Streetcar, one that does not do it justice.
For the record, the second the show ended, the audience, after guffawing raucously throughout, leapt to their feet and cheered.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Photo: Joan Marcus
By the time the magical snow-globe ending rolls around, the play has transformed from a mildly clever comedy of manners into an old-fashioned comic romance, with sad partings preceding something resembling a wedding (or a wedding night, anyway). In spite of the thoroughly charming performances, including a sprightly and touching turn from the always effervescent Laura Benanti, I found the plot turns, the character development, and (in the first act) the dialogue formulaic. Yet after a while as the play deepened it won me over, like a hit pop song with a predictable hook and a fancy arrangement, a song which proves, after several listens, to contain depth charges of honest feeling beneath its shiny surface. It wasn't merely the funny moments, the nifty set and the absolutely stunning costumes. Sexual content aside, there's a heartwarming fairy-tale sparkle to the story, and at the same time it provokes us to think about how malleable is the human nature that we tend to think is so fundamental. Read the full review.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Elliot Ramon Potts's Loaded is a throwback to the worst aspects of the early days of gay theater. Using a jaded older man and an idealistic young man as mouthpieces, the author presents a Gay 101 polemic in which gay marriage, safe sex, and sexism are debated--badly (whether the penetrator does or does not have an orgasm during unprotected anal sex is not the measure of safe sex; same-sex couples cannot attain the benefits of marriage by going to a lawyer and filling out some documents). Even worse, Loaded is one of those plays in which one of the characters would have left the situation ten minutes in and only remains because the author wants him to--not because there is any reason on earth for him to be there. There is little that is believable in Loaded, and its ninety minutes are the longest time I've ever spent in the company of gay men where not a single witty, smart, or funny thing was said.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
photo: Joan Marcus
I recently revisited Next to Normal for the first time since seeing an early preview Off-Broadway at Second Stage. At that time, I was one of the show's few detractors, finding the book nearly non-existent, the lyrics clumsy, and the overall message unenlightened and potentially harmful. In the nearly two years between that first visit and the second, my opinion about the tenor of the musical hasn't necessarily changed, but my feelings about the material and the performances have certainly deepened. Though her voice has unquestionably eroded from singing this rock score eight times a week, Alice Ripley's performance is still a marvel; her Diana is probably the most multi-layered musical theatre creation since Tonya Pinkins' Caroline Thibodeaux, and her Tony win was richly deserved. Jennifer Damiano, too, has grown immensely as Natalie: she has turned a character that I once viewed as nothing more than a petulant teen into a deeply emotional young woman. All of the changes to the score--which include replacing the laughable "Everything" with the arresting "Maybe (Next to Normal)" and inserting a duet for Natalie and Diana, "Wish I Were Here," at the top of Act Two--improve the flow of the show greatly. While I cannot fully say that I'm completely on board (the show still has some deeply disturbing tone issues), I left the Booth with a newfound respect for nearly everyone involved.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Two down-and-out middle-aged men beg for a living in the city along a wall called the Post No Bills, so named for its one painted sign, in Mando Alvarado's formulaic but absorbing play currently at Rattlestick. As soon the more shut-down of the two, a once moderately famous musician, begrudgingly takes a toughened teenage street girl under his wing we generally know where the relationship (and the story) will go. Despite this, the play is almost consistently compelling - the acting is nuanced and involving (Teddy Canez is especially excellent as the pained, gruff musician) and the playwright gets a lot of humor out of the characters. The play is punctuated with brief musical performances of the unpretty soul-baring kind that add welcome texture and mood. While there are some plot points in the second act that I didn't buy, and more than a few moments that seem underdeveloped (mostly with the play's two supporting characters) there is more often the ring of truth in the play's details.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Set in the 1880s, Sarah Ruhl's new play (her first on Broadway, thanks to Lincoln Center) centers on the then-accepted medical practice of using vibrators to cure hysteria. We can't help a chuckle or two as we watch Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) clinically administer the treatment to a new patient (Maria Dizzia) while his wife (Laura Benanti) eavesdrops outside the door, mystified: it may be the dawn of the electrical age, but everyone is still in the dark about sexuality. Once we've had a giggle or two the play quickly deepens, purposeful in its compassion for the innocence of its characters. A good deal of the play's poignancy comes from the friction between what we know as a modern audience and what the characters do not; if the play has a villain it's the limits of human knowledge. The thoughtful, gently provocative and delicately balanced play has been given a gorgeous production, with superb performances from virtually everyone in the cast. Highly recommended.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
The Encores! production of the Gershwins' Girl Crazy is a painless way to spend time. The score includes "Embraceable You" and "But Not for Me," and the performers largely acquit themselves well. The standout is Seinfield's Wayne Knight, funny and charming as a New York cab driver who finds himself the sheriff of Custerville, Arizona. But Girl Crazy is an old school musical, with a feeble boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl plot and one-dimensional characters. To those who say, "They don't make 'em like that anymore," I say, "That's okay with me."
Friday, November 20, 2009
In the sci-fi world of Ann Marie Healy's What Once We Felt, there are no men, procreation occurs via Internet-ordered pills, Tradepacks (the service class) are dying off, and the RSS (the government, I guess) is gradually curtailing the freedoms of the Keepers (the women of privilege). Macy, a Keeper, is desperate to get her novel published--but is she desperate enough? (Her potential publisher, a specialist in "Digi-Directs," refers to people who love books as "fetishizing . . . outdated packets of information.") Healy hints at her goals when Macy's book is described as a work of "biting satire and dystopian leanings." Unfortunately, the satire is not biting enough and the dystopia is not clearly enough etched to hit home, although the play does have many interesting moments and plenty of intriguing ideas. The current production, awkwardly directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, doesn't do the play any favors; much of the potential humor is lost, and it's hard to care about any of the characters.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
photo: Joan Marcus
I've never much understood the appeal of Sarah Ruhl's plays, and in many ways, I still don't. They are all, by and large, the kind of twee and cerebral attempts at meta-comedy over which pretentious New York theatergoers cream themselves. Her retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, produced by Second Stage in 2007, remains one of the most agonizing evenings I have ever spent in a theatre. So it was under some duress that I attended her latest work (and Broadway debut), In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, which was produced by Lincoln Center at The Lyceum Theatre. And while it's far from perfect, I am glad that I went, if for no other reason that the stellar performances. The ensemble, from top to bottom, is fantastic, with Laura Benanti revelatory in a rare non-musical outing. Her performance manages to be period-specific (the play is set in the 1880s) and forward looking all at once, and she is obviously having a ball delivering Ruhl's tongue-in-cheek double entendres. Michael Cerveris is terrific as her doctor husband, who plans to eradicate female hysteria with the help of the play's title instrument, and frequent Ruhl collaborator Maria Dizzia knocks it out of the park as his sexually repressed patient. The text itself is problematic--it's around a half-hour too long, with a failed coup-de-theatre at the end--but the caliber of acting makes it an extremely worthwhile experience.
It's the 1880s, and Dr. Givings has a thriving medical practice. His specialty? Curing hysterical women (and the occasional man). His method? Providing pelvic massage until the women experience "paroxysms." His equipment? An electric vibrator. Dr. Givings is a fictional creation, but his method of making a living is not. In her new play In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, Sarah Ruhl imagines how this treatment, perceived as nonsexual by (most?) practitioners and recipients, might affect the lives of the people involved. With a somewhat cartoony first act, a moving second act, and a too-long, odd, but not uninteresting final scene, In the Next Room doesn't completely gel. But it is thought-provoking, frequently funny, often touching, and nicely sex-positive, as well as largely well-acted. A particular nod to two supporting players: Wendy Rich Stetson as Dr. Givings' assistant manages to reveal her entire emotional life in one "oh," and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, as a wet nurse, acts with such dignity and restraint as to mitigate the cliche of the wise black woman who is stronger and more sexually aware than the white people she works for. (If you see In the Next Room, be sure to get a copy of the Lincoln Center Review issue dedicated to the play, available at the theatre for a one-dollar donation. Featuring articles on vibrators, orgasms, and women's attitudes about themselves and their sexuality, it provides fascinating context for the play.)
Uninspired and unmoving, the new Broadway revival of Ragtime arrives too soon after the original not to invite damning comparisons at nearly every turn. I've seen pared-down regional productions of this show that were effective in the interim - even a staged concert version with a single piano a couple of years ago got into my tear ducts - so I can't blame the scale-back for this production's remoteness (although Derek McLane's three-tiered "dawn of the industrial age" scaffolding set isn't conducive to dynamic, involving staging - everyone always seems to be filing this way or that). This production has a weak Coalhouse and an even weaker Sarah in Quentin Earl Darrington and Stephanie Umoh respectively - neither performance has nuance or detail. When Umoh sings "Your Daddy's Son" with cradled baby she may as well be holding a sack of potatoes - one quick cursory glance at the bundle and then she's in "sing out, Louise" mode. Their version of "Wheels of A Dream" is the least involving I've ever seen - the song's opportunities to succinctly explain Coalhouse and to transition Sarah from caution to whole-hearted belief in him are squandered. Even the actors who fare far better, such as Christiane Noll as Mother for example, don't seem to have been guided toward convincing detail: it's not hard to catch her behaving with too much modernity. (The production's one superb and meticulously detailed performance is by Bobby Steggert as Younger Brother; believable at every turn from star struck stage door Johnny to rageful son to political conspirator). The spin control to promote this production - that it's really not Coalhouse's story anyhow - can't supply what's missing when we don't invest in the events of the story emotionally. The show just becomes a series of songs and we've plenty of time to wonder why the 30 piece orchestra sounds so thin and listless. We can never go back to before indeed.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Photo: Joan Marcus
The story skeleton is pretty standard: four friends in their late 30s, three straight and one gay, deal with major life events, catalyzed by infidelity and an exotic new acquaintance. The glory is in the details. Jane's (Julianne Nicholson) husband died a year ago, leaving her with a school-age daughter. Her friend Marrell (Eisa Davis), a brand-new mom herself, has in mind to break Jane out of her widowy slump by introducing her to handsome Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi), a French "Doctor Without Borders." Meanwhile Marrell's marriage to Tom (Darren Pettie), already troubled, has grown shakier and sexless with the arrival of their new baby. After a party in which a parlor game goes hilariously, frightfully wrong, Tom reveals longstanding feelings for Jane in a brilliantly composed and delivered speech. The "real" game is afoot. Despite its broad canvas and huge set, Melissa James Gibson's new play is full of small telling moments: the lonely rattling sound emanating from a wooden bowl cum baptismal font after Marrell learns she's been cheated on; Tom placing their baby monitor on Marrell's piano and returning grimly to his cabinetmaking; Alan helping Jane on with the coat whose broken zipper she hasn't bothered to fix; Jane's sad, broken metaphor, "the wolf is never away from the door, the wolf is the door." Read the full review for more details and a discount code for tickets.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Daniel Wolfe's commanding performance in this Queens Players production – passionate, witty, antic, elastic, full-throated – is nearly enough all by itself to carry the weight of this very long (even though somewhat cut) production of Edmond Rostand's century-old classic. He gets some able support as well, and though the ensemble scenes are prone to weakness, the sharp realization of the central story, with an unforgettable performance in the title role, is more than enough to make this a very worthwhile evening of theater. Read the full review.
A few weeks ago David Bell called me in a state of show euphoria during the final intermission of Taylor Mac's five hour theatrical happening. I *had* to see this, he insisted. Thanks, David, because a few days later the word was out all over town and the sprawling, relentlessly pleasurable, possibly once-in-a-lifetime five-play fantasia was one of the toughest tickets in town. A satire of theatrical modes, a campfest high and low, a smart playful pause to consider the push for marriage equality - the show is all these things alternately and often simultaneously, a party in five distinct parts that ultimately feels like a heartful gay-fabulous celebration of theatre's ability to speak to a community. The first play begins with Time (Miss Bianca Leigh, wearing a cuckoo clock on her head) warning us to flee the theatre lest we get sucked in to the show's "institutional narrative" wedding tale. Meanwhile her son The Great Longing (a show curtain personified, played by James Tigger Ferguson) assures us of the show's upcoming age-old pleasures. Taylor Mac, "planted" in the audience as a personified lily, enters the dispute through the fourth wall, wanting to be the story's Groom only to be told that flowers can not marry and he must first become a man. Big ideas, such as the limiting effects on love and imagination that result from the institutionalization of marriage and theatre, are playfully put over with a mix of devices both lofty and cheap: that's the commonality of the evening, even as the ensuing plays differ greatly in style and presentation. The result is a miraculous downtown epic that will, I've no doubt, be the stuff of legend for decades to come.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
In Ragtime, Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Terrence McNally (book) give us a sprawling, robust, beautiful, and flawed look at the early 20th century as imagined by E.L. Doctorow in his novel of the same name. The politics are odd--for example, Coalhouse Walker Jr is too grateful for being "allowed" to own a car and have a family--and the scope of the story sometimes comes at the cost of depth and full characterizations. But the score is glorious, the lyrics are often wonderful, and the book manages to corral the three main story lines into a compelling and coherent whole. The orginal production had a magical cast led by Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Judy Kaye; this revival, having only a very very good cast, suffers in comparison. There are also fewer people in the current cast, which is unfortunate, and the show has been trimmed here and there, jarring those audience members who have memorized the CDs. The minimalist design mostly works, but the car should be a car and the piano should be a piano. Marcia Milgrom Dodge keeps the show moving like Henry Ford's assembly line (which is mostly a good thing) and nails the opening number, which is as thrilling as it should be. The ensemble members work their butts off, playing so many roles and having so many costume changes that the friend I saw it with said the dressers should get a bow. On a whole, the somewhat uneven production has many more strengths than weaknesses, and the 30-person orchestra sounds wonderful. And the point really is the score, that glorious, glorious score.
Friday, November 13, 2009
photo: Joan Marcus
Stark, beautiful and bone-chilling, Marcia Milgrom Dodge's production of Ragtime (at the Neil Simon Theatre, via The Kennedy Center) sets a new standard for musical revivals on Broadway. Dodge is hardly the first director to offer a stripped-down interpretation of Aherns & Flaherty's masterpiece--London and The Papermill Playhouse have both seen productions that feature no piano onstage and black chairs standing in for Coalhouse Walker's car and Evelyn Nesbit's swing--but she manages to strike the most copacetic balance to date. She gives the audience just enough grandeur to assuage any fears that the production might have been done on the cheap, but uses deconstruction wisely; the images of music emanating from Coalhouse's glass piano, or of him walking his beloved Model-T across the stage are striking. The cast, from top to bottom, is perfection and quite often made me forget their predecessors (high praise indeed), but three individuals deserve special mention: Robert Petkoff, an ideal Tateh; Bobby Steggert, who manages to capture Younger Brother's idealism without making him seem overly quixotic; and Christiane Noll, whose brilliant Mother emerges as a rational, highly intelligent woman stifled by the society in which she lives. To watch her transformation from idyllic homemaker to independent proto-feminist was nothing short of astonishing.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Monday, November 09, 2009
Succinctly moving multiple characters through concurrent storylines under a strong overarching socio-political theme, August Schulenburg's new play often recalls quintessential Robert Altman films in its dynamic narrative focus and cohering thematic purposefulness. Between stretches of pointed narration that is simultaneously seductive and dangerous in tone, we see ten characters move through the turbulence of the 1960's. Although some find themselves propelled to extraordinary action - one joins the Black Panthers, another joins a religious cult - the play conveys the feeling of ordinary people whose lives are re-shaped by the promise of the times. The characters, succinctly written and brought to vivid life by this ensemble under Heather Cohn's direction, are easy to relate to, making the play's message all the more unsettling. The ambitious, intellectually provocative and beautifully realized play does what theatre too rarely does - it leaves you thinking about your life, your times, your choices.
The premise of this new naturalistic comedy-drama by Melanie Angelina Maras seems like sitcom material - we follow two NYC gal pals as they embark on new relationships with guys - but the writing digs a bit deeper than you might assume and the play often strikes truthful chords of recognition about friendship. Initially, the characters seem more like comic types than people - when we meet Amy (Megan Hart) she's not-too-believably considering nunhood, and at first glance Christina (Aubyn Philabaum) seems as thin as any overprivileged urban rich girl - but the playwright peels back layers and gradually reveals the characters' vulnerabilities and contradictions. The four-person cast, under Stephen Adly Guirgis' direction, fit snugly together and put the play over with conviction and wit.
Why are we here? Can we make the world a better place? At what cost? Can we connect with one another? At what cost? Can we maintain our sense of hope? At what cost? In the excellent Flux Theatre Ensemble production of August Schulenburg's beautiful and ambitious play, The Lesser Seductions of History, ten people wrestle with these questions--enthusiastically, awkwardly, humbly, pompously, heartbreakingly--over the years 1960 to 1969.
Schulenberg, director Heather Cohn, and a superb cast present a believable, compelling version of the 60s with none of the judgment or condescension often pointed at that confusing, wonderful, and awful decade. Cohn balances the intertwining storylines with a sure hand and guides the actors to distinctive, emotionally clear performances. Of the top-notch performers, Christina Shipp, as a woman running from her pain, Jake Alexander, as a poet who doesn't necessarily deserve all the love he receives, IsaiahTanenbaum, as a brilliant nerd who mourns the life he'll never lead, and Jason Paradine, as a doctor determined to save lives to atone for a past misdeed, are particularly impressive.
If the theatre gods deserve their divinity, The Lesser Seductions of History will end up with a long run and multiple awards off or on Broadway. (Oh, and did I mention that it's funny and sexy too?)
Friday, November 06, 2009
photo: Carol Rosegg
Theresa Rebeck has authored some dogs in her day, but none compare to her latest play (at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre), a saccharinely sanitized attempt at a backstage farce. When a seasoned actor (Justin Kirk) is hired to understudy a movie star making his Broadway debut (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, a television star making his theatre debut)--who in turn is understudying the other (never-seen) bigger movie star in the show--he gets a lot more than he bargained for, when he discovers that his ex-fiancee (Julie White) is the production stage manager. That is the entire plot. Rebeck has managed to stretch this out into eighty humorless minutes, throwing in cheap jokes about Jeremy Piven and actorly platitudes about the grandness of life in the theatre. It doesn't help that two of the three actors are woefully miscast: the cerebral Kirk valiantly tries (and fails) to convey comic relief, while White's gifts as a natural comedienne are wasted in the straight woman role. Gosselaar is fine, but he's saddled with one of the most one-note characters in recent memory. Rebeck probably wanted to allow the audience to watch a slice of what goes on backstage, but what they'll really end up doing is that other great theatrical tradition: watching their watch.
Thursday, November 05, 2009
Although slight and weakly dependent on contrivances (you'll nearly use up fingers counting how many times the characters forget that their "private" conversations are being heard over the loudspeaker) this backstage comedy has the potential to be more diverting and fun than this production allows. The premise is tasty - we're at a put-in rehearsal where a legit actor has been hired to understudy a movie star - and there are fun if predictable barbs at how today's celeb-crazed culture has trickled down to the theatre biz. But the production is a non-starter with the actors steered toward choices that slow the show to a crawl. Justin Kirk seems the wrong variety of actor to play the understudy - he's busy mining it for the real when what is needed is a full-out ham, the kind of childish self-involved flibbertigibbet who could jilt a finance without a word with the explanation that he's "crazy". (Reg Rogers played the role at Williamstown.) Mark Paul Gosselaar (of "Saved By The Bell" fame) proves to be stageworthy and game, but some of his choices are contradictory, as if it was not firmly decided whether the movie star is a hot dumb fool or an intellectual trapped by his career. Julie White knows better than just about anyone else in the world how to throw a line in the air so that it flies but after a while you wish she had been given more to catch.
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Photo: Jim Baldassare
Heidi Schreck's first full-length New York production as a playwright peels the hardened hide of history off a corner of life in turn-of-the-century England – the turn of the 15th century, that is. It was a time when people with delusions and hallucinations were venerated as mystics and saints (rather like now), and when mobs, egged on by the priesthood, burned religious heretics at the stake – also pretty much just like some parts of the world today. Sofia Jean Gomez gives a suitably dangerous and sometimes screamingly funny performance as Margery Kempe, author of what is sometimes considered the first autobiography in English. Ms. Gomez simply plays the hell out of her, and with a terrifying Hell (along with Purgatory and Heaven) ever-present in the anxieties of the age, this feels like exactly the Margery we ought to have. One can read a proto-feminist strand into this lusty and freethinking depiction of the character, but any sense of anachronism is made palatable – fun, in fact – by the script's unabashed honesty. The comic dialogue and the flow from scene to scene feel effortless. Read the full review.
This two-person romantic dramedy by Victor L. Cahn gets off to a cute start as we watch Allison (Kiera Naughton) and her longtime friend/ex-lover and probable soulmate Edward (Scott Barrow) narrate contrasting recaps of their relationship. But despite the efforts of both actors we quickly lose faith in the premise: neither character is sufficiently developed nor are their relationship dynamics specific enough for us to root for them. The play's mix of drama and comedy is unsatisfying: the drama isn't heavy enough for us to relate and identify with the characters, and the comedy isn't buoyant enough for charm.
Sunday, November 01, 2009
Some forty years after its premiere, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues to amuse, perplex, and screw with the audience's mind. Sort of Hamlet-meets-Waiting for Godot, R&G ponders probability, reality, art, free will, and the meaning of life--or, at least, the meaning of the lives of two peripheral characters from Hamlet. Simpler and more streamlined than Stoppard's latest opuses (did Coast of Utopia really justify all those hours?), R&G nevertheless sets the tone for many later Stoppard plays with its brilliance, word play, and provoking of thoughts. The current production of R&G at the T. Shreiber Studio does full justice to the work, from Cat Parker's clear direction and clever use of the small theatre space to the top-notch cast led by Eric Percival as Rosencrantz and Julian Elfer as Guildenstern. Of particular note is the performance of the Player by Erik Jonsun, who brings a level of ruefulness, melancholy, and emotion that inflates a potentially one-dimensional character to full humanity. The show is nicely designed by George Allison (scenic designer), Karen Ledger (costumes), and Eric Cope (lighting). (However, using a ghost light through much of the first act, while effective symbolically, is distracting and actually painful to the audience.) Compliments too to whoever chose to include R&G-related trivia and quotes in the program. The T. Schreiber Studio was not previously on my radar, but from the quality of this production, I definitely plan to go back.
Friday, October 30, 2009
photo: Joan Marcus
Fluid, beautiful and incredibly acted, David Cromer's staging of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs is easily the best Broadway revival of an American play since 2006's Awake and Sing. Those who read this blog know that I was one of the few who despised Cromer's deconstruction of Thorton Wilder's Our Town (also currently playing, at The Barrow Street Theatre), but he managed to convert me to his stripped-down style within minutes of the curtain rising at The Nederlander Theatre. What he does is more than merely simplifying Simon's manic text--which is, at times, everything from schticky to starkly dramatic--but also universalizing; anyone who views this production will be able to see their own family in the faces of the Jeromes. There's nary a weak link in the entire cast, but two particularly exquisite performances do manage to stick out: Laurie Metcalf infuses the role of Kate with all of the passion you'd expect from an operatic heroine, while still keeping her grounded and sympathetic (Tony, please); and, in his Broadway debut, Noah Robbins is unforgettable as the narrator and Simon stand-in, Eugene. In less than two weeks, Broadway Bound will begin to play in repertory--I simply cannot wait.
ETA: I'm very sad to report that, as of 8:30PM tonight, Brighton Beach Memoirs will close this coming Sunday, and Broadway Bound will not open. I am proud that I saw it and will remember it forever.