Friday, October 30, 2009

Brighton Beach Memoirs

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.

Brighton Beach Memoirs

photo: Joan Marcus

Mining Neil "yukfest" Simon for depth might seems like folly, but David Cromer's production of the playwright's semi-autobiographical coming of age story is a revelation. Guiding the actors away from broad caricature, the director almost always scales the bittersweet memory play for emotional honesty rather than for sentimentality and easy laughs, giving the material added weight. You're likely to leave feeling that you've spent your time with flesh and blood characters rather than types. The kitchen sink approach is more successful in the play's first act than its second - the confrontation between the two sisters (played to Laurie Metcalfe and Jessica Hecht with nuance and fine detail) isn't big enough to trigger what follows - and some in the audience would have a valid point if they felt that the cast erred on the goy side. Nonetheless, the production's merits are substantial and many including a pitch-perfect supporting turn by Santino Fontana and a surprising and surprisingly effective out-there characterization from Jessica Hecht that reads like Sandy Dennis playing Edith Bunker.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Creating Illusion

Photo: Zack Brown

In this solo show Jeff Grow quickly establishes his warm, witty personality along with his sleight-of-hand skills. The tricks are old ones, but when done well they still work, no matter that Houdini was performing and improving upon the same types of illusions a century ago. In any case this act isn't about a succession of magic tricks; it's more of a meta-magic show. Between Mr. Grow's impressive demonstrations of manual dexterity and mental skill, we're treated to stories about classic street scams, peppered with topical references and swayed (and slowed) by plenty of audience participation. The ultimate payoff is a real showstopper. Along the way, though, things periodically bog down. I found it hard to tell how much of his seeming distraction and his rather scattershot presentation was shtick, intended to charm and distract the audience. Magicians' stock in trade, after all, is to make us focus on one thing and thus completely miss something else. But some of the hemming and hawing occurred not in the context of an illusion or trick, but of a story. With a show that requires so much audience involvement, there's always going to be some variation, and perhaps this was an unusually slow-paced night. But I couldn't help feeling that tautening the show up would have significantly improved it. In the end it all does go somewhere, though, and I'm glad I attended.


photo: Joan Marcus

A perfect litmus test for those who value sensation and production over substance in a Broadway musical, Memphis is an often thrillingly staged, excitingly choreographed gloss job on thin material. The 1950's-set story - of the interracial romance between a porkpie hat-wearing disc jockey (Chad Kimball) and a Beale Street blues singer (Montego Glover) - is strictly by-the-numbers on the page: it traffics in music theatre cliches so well-worn you've already seen them spoofed on The Simpsons. There's nothing surprising about the book, except for a surprisingly misjudged key moment in the second act that brings all belief in the story to a halt. All that said, the big production numbers in Memphis are dazzling thanks to choreography (by Sergio Trujillo) that has all the flavor, personality and inspiration that the show otherwise lacks.

After Miss Julie

Reviiewed for Theater News Online.

Bye Bye Birdie

photo: Jason Schmidt

Sadly, it's true: pretty much all of the criticisms you've heard about Roundabout's new production of Bye Bye Birdie are spot-on. I did enjoy Gina Gershon's performance more than most other critics--more than almost anyone else, she actually seemed invested in what was happening onstage--but she's not much of a singer, and her dancing is painfully labored. John Stamos is a full-on embarrassment, giving the kind of low-energy performance you forget about while he's still center-stage. Most notably, Bill Irwin is dreadfully miscast as Mr. MacAfee, mugging and clowning in an attempt to convince the audience that he's not completely clueless. I'm usually all for age-appropriate casting, but having the Sweet Apple kids played by actual thirteen-to-sixteen-year-olds adds a particularly uncomfortable subtext; watching twenty-three-year old Nolan Gerard Funk gyrate on fourteen-year-old Allie Trimm made me want to pull out my cell-phone and call Chris Hansen. However, one perfect performance does escape the carnage of Robert Longbottom's ugly pastiche staging: Matt Doyle's Hugo Peabody is natural, adorable and highly endearing. It was the first time in a while that I felt I was watching the birth of a true musical theatre star. Doyle was utterly wonderful to watch, but when Hugo Peabody is the most compelling character onstage, you know something has gone terribly wrong.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Nathan Louis Jackson's Broke-ology (directed by Thomas Kail) tells the story of an inner city African-American family--father, mother, and two sons--and how they navigate life, death, fatherhood, ambition, and being broke, with integrity and love. Broke-ology has its heart in the right place and it features compelling characters and some extremely moving moments, so I feel a bit crabby to, well, wish it were better. For example, the presentation of information is often clunky; the characters tell each other things they already know or they talk to themselves or objects for extended periods of time. The all-important relationship between the two brothers--the one who stayed home and the one who went away--never quite gels. People's moods seem to change randomly, and certain moments are just awkward (for example, when the father looks at T shirts the mother made, he looks at their backs so that the audience can see their fronts). Most annoying, there seems to be no reason for these problems other than, perhaps, lack of time for another rewrite. However, the play's emotional content and good-heartedness almost make up for its faults, and I'm glad I saw it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


photo: Sara Krulwich

The spark that should reverberate throughout David Mamet's Oleanna is gone, if it was ever truly there to begin with. Sure, the audience still gasps on cue when Carol (Julia Stiles), a pretty, manipulative co-ed accuses her married professor (Bill Pullman) of raping her. But never for one second of Doug Hughes' highly stylized production do you ever feel the necessary sense of prescient danger from either side. Even the now-legendary final scene--which has the potential to be thrilling--is as sterile as the modern office set (by Neil Patel) on which it's played. It doesn't help that both actors give overly calculated, almost rote performances; Stiles especially seems far too comely and collected to succeed in her part. Throughout the performance I attended, my mind often wandered to a more recent (and more successful) psycho-sexual two-hander: David Harrower's Blackbird. I couldn't help but fantasize about what that show's electrifying costars, Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels, could have done with these roles.

Ghost Light

Photo: Carla Bellisio

Desi Moreno-Penson's new thriller, well acted and flawlessly directed, shoulders its way into the world of Hollywood and the theater while trying to carry the weight of the occult as well (just in time for Halloween), thus tripping through our two most culturally potent lands of make-believe. Though it doesn't fully succeed as horror, Ghost Light accomplished something rare for me: it made me feel like a kid afterwards, thinking through the plot, trying to work out what really happened and what underlay it all. The story isn't just fantastical; it also fails to make complete sense. But in what matters most the play succeeds overall: it entertains and makes you think. It's a nice way to begin hacking your way into the Halloween season.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Susan Hodara's new one-act has a number of the elements of a good dramatic yarn. Unfortunately it also bears the marks of an incompletely integrated and realized vision. The story has promise as a semi-fantastical tale: Bernie, a small-time magician who is seemingly friendless except for an arthritic rabbit, befriends Jane, an even more lonely orphan; in time he adopts her and trains her as his assistant. But Georgie Caldwell's appealing performance as Jane can't debug the problematic, cliché-ridden script or overcome the significant structural problems.

Avenue Q (Off-Broadway)

Watching Avenue Q at the New World Stages brought to mind a line from another musical: "It's so nice to have you back where you belong." It's great that Avenue Q had a long Broadway run, made a pile of money, and won some Tonys, but it fits better Off-Broadway, both in the size of its cast and band and the sensibility of its material. The whole concept of the Off-Broadway musical is making a comeback at the New World Stages, where Altar Boyz and Toxic Avenger are also happily ensconced. Would [title of show] still be running if it had stayed Off-Broadway? Would Passing Strange? Perhaps so, and New York theatre would be better for having both of them around.

About this latest incarnation of Avenue Q: the cast is excellent (especially Anika Larsen as Kate Monster and Lucy the slut) and the show remains energetic, clever, and entertaining. Some small complaints: the schadenfreude song is too mean-spirited for my taste, Rod is presented as overly fey (100% fey is enough; 150% is too much), and I have mixed feelings about the (funny) anti-German comment (hey, everybody is a little bit racist). Mostly, however, Avenue Q is a great show, pure and simple. (And for those who have a dozen theories about how it "stole" Wicked's Tony, here's my theory about why it won: it's smarter, funnier, and better written, with a consistently successful score.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement

Hanna Cheek, one of the downtown scene's leading lights, is a remarkable performer whose work continues to grow richer. Here she carefully delineates three distinct characters: a mother going through a mother's worst nightmare; a bookish high school student; and a second mother who shares the nightmare but from a very different point of view. Clay McLeod Chapman's monologues rarely fail to grip in some way, but these taken together have a power greater than the sum of their parts. Not just a series of absorbing sketches, Commencement builds until it takes the form of a multi-character drama with a real plot, which concerns the aftermath of a horrific event in the life of an American town that's only technically fictional. While Clay McLeod Chapman's pieces can be read as short stories, the Pumpkin Pie shows are as far from literary readings as Greek drama is from NPR's "Selected Shorts." Presented on stage, these serious tales deliver old-fashioned catharsis in a big way.

The Last Smoker in America

Photo: Robert Saferstein

At a recent appearance, the creators of Next to Normal said that, between the good Off-Broadway version of their show and the excellent Broadway version, their producers had asked them what exactly they wanted the show to be about. The creators of Last Smoker in America (book and lyrics, Bill Russell; music, Peter Melnick) need to ask themselves that same question. The story of, well, the last smoker in America, the show wobbles between political satire and dysfunctional family comedy, with strengths--and weaknesses--in both arenas. In brief, as anti-smoking laws get more and more draconian, effigies of smokers are thrown into bonfires and a group called NAT-C is born; the very funny "If It Feels This Good" nicely summarizes a world--not that different from our own--where feeling good is perceived as a warning sign; and the line between virtual and real gunplay becomes blurred. Meanwhile, Pam (the last smoker) and Ernie sadly reminesce about their enjoyably vice-filled past ("Hangin' Out in a Smoky Bar") while failing to connect in the present, and their son Jimmy (the talented Alex Wyse) forgets to take his medication for ADHD, thrives on playing violent video games, and decides he is black ("Gangsta"). The fourth character, their neighbor Phyllis, is an aggressively smiling, holier-than-thou, anti-smoking crusader who barely keeps her inner monster in check. These characters all display the beginnings of three-dimensional people with aspirations and the ability to grow, but they are not there yet. I look forward to seeing the next incarnation of this show.

My Life in a Nutshell

A loves C.

loves C.

is tired of being involved with both A and B.

loves E.

Death loves D, who does not reciprocate.

A, B, C, D,
and E are lifesized, faceless marionettes made of burlap bags.

Death is two long poles.

This is My Life in a Nutshell in a nutshell. Created and performed (with assistance) by the multi-award-winning Hanne Tierney, the show also features charming projections by Hannah Wassileski and wonderful music written, sung, and played (bass fiddle and toy piano) by Jane Wang. A commentary on people's relationships with one another and with death, My Life in a Nutshell offers a combination of evocative, even magical, moments and impressive technical prowess (the mechanics of manipulating the marionettes and the music-making are in full view). The text/narration, nicely delivered by Tierney, is affectless and wryly amusing, with much of it as simple and straightforward as the first two lines of this review, which are direct quotations. While everything in this show is top-notch, and much of it is amazing--I particularly enjoyed the lovingly satirical performance art presentation of work by Gertrude Stein--the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The affectless narration, the facelessness of the marionettes, and the slowness of the presentation limit the transmission of emotion, and the overall impression is of watching from a distance.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wishful Drinking

photo: Joan Marcus

In her entertaining solo show, essentially a stand-up routine with theatrical elements (including an intermission), Carrie Fisher reveals a thing or two about her parents Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, her ex-husband Paul Simon, and her "Star Wars" director George Lucas. The material wouldn't be more than sarcastic navel-gazing were it not for Fisher's sharp wit and self-effacing personality: her one-liners sometimes recall vintage Fran Lebowitz, and she delivers them judiciously for maximum acidity. The show isn't intimate even on the occasions when intimate information is shared - there's never a point when the lights dim and we're told a "meaningful" life lesson. Nonetheless the clear message emerges that the most valuable thing to have in life is a sense of humor about it.

Seeing Stars

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Der Rosenkavalier

photo: Sara Krulwich

A touchstone of the Metropolitan Opera repertoire for over forty years, Nathaniel Merrill's staging of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier returned to the house last night after a five year absence. Conductor Edo de Waart--a last-minute replacement for the injured James Levine--led the orchestra in a brisk, intuitive reading of the score, drawing lush sounds from the string section during sustained passages. The evening featured star soprano Renee Fleming singing one of her signature roles, The Marschallin, at her home company for the first time in over a decade; she looked and sounded splendid, and invested much energy into forming a credible character. Susan Graham's Octavian hit on all cylinders: exceedingly well-sung; appropriately boyish and love-struck. The night's real find, however, was debutante Miah Persson, whose Sophie charmed the audience with beautiful singing and undeniable stage presence. Her voice is perfect for Mozart, and I wouldn't be surprised if, in the next few years, she was singing many of his major heroines (Pamina, Susanna, Fiordiligi) with the company. All in all, a most worthwhile evening for any music lover.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My Life in a Nutshell

theaterThe use of actual human figures, even in the form of puppets, is new in Hanne Tierney's work. This short production features very cool life-sized burlap marionettes, deftly quickened from the side of the stage by Ms. Tierney and two other string-pulling operators. While the human characters get puppet representation, they are granted only letters for names, one of many abstract and abstract-tending ideas threading through this story (the concept of the "love triangle" gets new meaning here). Unfortunately the story unfolds ponderously and fails to grip. It feels as though two opposing forces are pulling the piece into a confused state: partially abstract, partially human, it is not fully anything. The characters and ideas represented by abstractions seem to have more interesting personalities than the people played by puppets. They make us want to observe them more closely, to understand what they mean or at least sense something of what drives them. The vision that drives Ms. Tierney and her co-conspirators has numerous fascinating conceptual facets, but has here resulted in something only intermittently interesting, and ultimately unsatisfying.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


photo: Alastair Muir

Jude Law throws his whole body into his riveting, magnetic performance as Hamlet: the force of his physicality is dramatically intense, and matched to the ferocity with which he navigates the text. Despite this and the reliably top-notch production values by way of Donmar Warehouse (special nod to the gorgeous lighting design), the production is a long, dull slog. When this many fine supporting actors fail to register I tend to think the responsibility belongs at the director's door, but I can't say for sure why Peter Eyre plays the ghost of Hamlet's father like Eeyore on a blustery day, or why Geraldine James barely sounds any notes of maternal concern as Hamlet's mother, or why Gugu Mbatha-Raw fails to generate any sympathy whatsoever for Ophelia. Hamlet as played by a big-name movie star of ability could have made for a sensational event to turn new audiences on to classic theatre, but this is one of the least lucid productions of the play I've ever seen. If you don't already know the play you're likely to be at a loss about most of the essential relationships, and you won't get any help from the direction about what information is going to pay off later in the plot.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Homer's Odyssey

Handcart Ensemble should be congratulated for much about this production, and not least for seriously telling the story of the Odyssey – in most of its rough essentials anyway – in under three hours. The acting is very good and the production inventive and engaging, but playwright-poet Simon Armitage's text is the biggest star, simultaneously elevated and gutbucket, Homeric and homespun. Shadow puppets, glorious costumes, haunting songs, a chilling trip to Hades, and an old-fashioned, barrel-chested, egotistical hero just like they used to make 'em (David D'Agostini is Ulysses) – this show's got just about everything. The galumphing puppets are a trip, too. Closes Oct. 18.

Photo: Jonathan Slaff


photo: Craig Schwartz

Has time taken the sting out of David Mamet's two-hander between a male university professor and a female student who accuses him of sexual harassment? Not in the least. In fact I found this production, directed with psychological credibility by Doug Hughes and starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, to be more visceral and provocative than the original years ago (directed by the playwright) in which William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon seemed to be playing ideas rather than characters. Despite its advertising, the play is not really a "he said she said" Rashomon which divides the audience's sympathies between the two characters - it's too stacked against the female for that. But when you believe the characters, as you do here, it riles the audience and provokes a variety of interpretations. I haven't felt a Broadway audience as charged as this one since Albee's The Goat, which coincidentally played at the same theatre and also starred Bill Pullman.

The Royal Family

The revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 comedy, The Royal Family, demonstrates the many difficulties of performing a farce. Speaking quickly and throwing one's body around is not enough. Pacing is needed, as is a core of humanity and a sense of when to let the jokes breathe a bit. At the preview I saw (well over a week into previews), the pacing, humanity, and breathing space were all sorely lacking. Jan Maxwell gives her all to Julie Cavendish, the center of the madcap acting family (loosely based on the Barrymores), but she is so frenetic that her Julie never registers as a real human being. The rest of the cast is uneven, with the lovely Rosemary Harris turning in the best performance as the matriarch of the family. I imagine that, with more time, the actors will overcome their unsureness with props, and I certainly hope that someone fixes the hairdos/wigs, which seemed to distract the actors as much as they distracted the audience. (Having said all that, I suggest that this review be taken with a large grain of salt. I could not get the superb 1970s revival out of my head, and it would be hard even for an excellent production to live up to those memories.)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


Photo: Craig Schwartz

The particulars of the Mamet's sexual harassment plot might seem a little less realistic now than they did in 1992, before public policy on such cases had matured somewhat. But in my opinion, Oleanna was never meant to be entirely time-topical, despite its then straight-from-the-headlines theme. Its stychomythic, stream-of-consciousness dialogue, which at times reduces Bill Pullman's John to chirps and groans, gives it a slightly hallucinogenic feel, and the mysterious "group" – the uncertainty about what's really going on behind Carol's (Julia Stiles) complaints – reminds me more of a Margaret Atwood dystopia than a legal drama. And that's leaving aside the deep questions raised by the play about the purpose and value of academia. The sharp performances in this production bring out the Kafkaesque universality of the story. Whether in a democracy or a dictatorship, we're often at the mercy of forces we don't understand and over which we have no control. I imagined Oleanna might seem dated in 2009. Several hundred audience members last night proved otherwise. Some of them may have been drawn by the Hollywood star power of the cast, but they left with much to think about. The show is in previews; it opens Oct. 11.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Still Life

In Alexander Dinelaris's Still Life (directed by Will Frears), brilliant photographer Carrie Ann (Sarah Paulson) hasn't taken a picture in months. Jeffrey (Frederick Weller), a trends analyst/forecaster, doesn't know how to open himself to love with a grown-up, challenging woman, but wants to. They meet, they hit it off, they get involved. Stuff happens.

There was something in Still Life, an intelligence, a desire to communicate, a thoughtfulness, that I found intriguing. However, it's hard to know how to respond to the play as a whole. The main characters are largely unlikeable. The photographer's crabbiness and nastiness are, I suspect, supposed to be sympathetic and even endearing, but they aren't. Similarly, the behavior of Terry (Mattew Rauch), Jeffrey's boss and the play's id, is supposed to be amusing and thought-provoking, but it is actually ugly and nonsensical.

From Dinelaris's playwright's note in the program, and from many of the characters' speeches, it is clear that Still Life is a play of ideas as well as a play of relationships. Many of the ideas are interesting, but their presentation as conversation doesn't work. It doesn't help that the cast has been directed to use a slightly heightened way of speaking that is terribly distancing. Only the always classy Adriane Lenox manages to come across as a sympathetic, flesh-and-blood, interesting person.

I concede that it is completely possible that I just didn't get this play. I saw a preview, and I assume that Still Life was still a work in progress. Perhaps the relationships and ideas will have been clarified by the time this review is posted. It's also possible that the play was already in its final shape but just not my cup of tea.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Gay Bride of Frankenstein

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Max Understood

Reviewed for Theatermnia.


photo: T. Charles Erickson

The story behind Broke-Ology makes it the kind of play you want to love, or even enjoy: a young playwright (Nathan Louis Jackson) lands in New York without a dollar to his name, and within a year goes from homeless and sleeping on the subway to a position as a commissioned writer for one of the foremost non-profits in the country (Lincoln Center Theater). Unfortunately, the play itself holds no more drama than your average freshman television series; it's often so predictable that I could guess not only the situations in which the characters would find themselves, but even the words they would use to describe them. The production (somewhat lazily directly by Thomas Kail) does have one thing going for it: a strong central performance by Wendell Pierce, as a proud patriarch whose life and community are crumbling before him. Pierce--along with Francois Battiste and Alano Miller as his adult sons, and Crystal A. Dickinson as his beloved wife--works hard to infuse the play with a level of tension that simply isn't there in the writing. Hopefully Jackson's next work for Lincoln Center, set to premiere next year, will give his actors more to work with.

Wishful Drinking

Based on her book of the same name, Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking is 45% autobiography, 45% stand-up, and 10% twelve-step meeting. Much of the material is very funny; little of it is new. The show runs a good 15 to 20 minutes too long, and Carrie Fisher the performer is not in the same league as Carrie Fisher the writer. (A friend of mine commented that Meryl Streep played Carrie better than Carrie plays Carrie, but it's not a fair comment. After all, Meryl could probably play all of us better than we play ourselves.) Wishful Drinking is for the already converted. If you think you'll enjoy it, you probably will. If you think you won't enjoy it, you probably won't.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

My Scary Girl

He's a doofy 30-year-old virgin looking for a woman who reads and thinks. She's pretty, demure, and well-read, with one little, uh, quirk. Based on a movie, the campy and delightful My Scary Girl (at the New York Musical Theatre Festival) provides a highly entertaining 100 minutes or so in the theatre. Sung in Korean, with English supertitles, My Scary Girl shows that certain things are universal: love, shyness, and laughing at bloody body parts. With Broadway-style music by Will Aronson, book and lyrics by Kyoung Ae Kang, direction by Jung Joo Byun, and choreography by Sun Ho Shin, My Scary Girl has the makings of an Off-Broadway cult hit. Well performed by Jae Bum Kim, Jin Ui Bang, Jin Hee Kim, Jae Hong Jeon, Sang Hyun Jin, and Gi Ho Yu.

Mo Faya

Part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, Mo Faya, (book, music, and lyrics by Eric Wainaina, who also plays a lead character) gives us a slice of life in a ghetto in Kenya ("They call it a slum, we call it home.") The music is a lively mix of reggae and African rhythms, the choreography is energetic and entertaining, and many of the performers are excellent (in particular, Dan 'Chizi' Aceda, Valerie Kimani, and Eric Wainaina). Unfortunately, due to a combination of accents, hyper talking, and bad miking, the dialogue and lyrics are frequently unintelligible. However, I suspect that, with some trimming and focusing, there is a good show in there.

Next to Normal

Photo: Joan Marcus

The best seat in the house is a matter of opinion. Some people prefer first row mezzanine center so that they can view the entire stage picture. Other people like four or five rows back in the orchestra so that they are close, but still have some perspective. I prefer to sit as close as possible. On Thursday, I had the wonderful experience of seeing Next to Normal first row center orchestra. (Thanks to Susan and Andrea for getting to Shubert Alley at 7:30 in the morning to buy rush tickets!) Yes, there are things you miss sitting first row--in the case of Next to Normal, you can't see the entire top section of the set. But, oh, what you do get to see. And feel. For example, the first row reveals whole new levels to Alice Ripley's performance. Her lips move nervously while the others talk. Paranoia wafts off her skin. You experience her craziness as you might experience a friend's. And the most emotional scenes are right in your face, as though you are in Dan and Diana's house rather than in a theatre. On a more mundane level, first row allows you to hear the performers' actual voices a bit and not just the amplification and also to appreciate the mechanics of putting together a song that goes from person to person and scene to scene, as the actors go up and down stairs, move furniture, and clean up messes, all in character. The excellent Michael Berry was on for J. Robert Spencer. He plays Dan as a warmer, more loving person, which I liked a lot.

Wishful Drinking

photo: Kevin Berne

A word to the wise: don't eat before you see Wishful Drinking, the acerbic and utterly enjoyable one-woman show written and performed by Carrie Fisher, which opens tonight at Studio 54. No, there's nothing disgusting onstage--unless the sight of a slightly zaftig fifty-three year old woman trying to dry hump a young male audience member doesn't exactly do it for you. Rather, the reason that you should refrain from food prior to Fisher's two-hour confessional is that, if your reaction to the show is anything like mine, you'll be heaving so heartily in your seat that by the end of the evening you find yourself on the verge of nausea. Fisher--back on Broadway for the first time in nearly three decades--holds the audience in the palm of her hand for the show's entirety, skillfully wringing waves of comedy from some of the most unfunny moments of her life: the dissolution of her parents' marriage; her fraught relationship with ex-husband Paul Simon; having the father of her daughter leave her for another man, and then promptly announce that she'd "turned him gay by taking codeine"; and, above all, her almost lifelong battle with substance abuse. All of this material is inherently dramatic--most of these plot-points could easily make their way into a play by Martin McDonagh or Tracy Letts--which is all the more reason to praise Fisher and her comedic prowess. She throws up her hands and laughs at her pain, and you'd better believe we're laughing with her.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Kiss of The Spider Woman

It's well-known that productions at NYU's Steinhardt School tend to be very good if not excellent. While I intend to honor the policy that they're not open for review, I really see no harm in spreading the word that their current production, of Kander and Ebb's Kiss of The Spider Woman, demands you clear some time on your calendar. Remaining performances through Monday night.

Friday, October 02, 2009


photo: Tristam Kenton

A note to Michael Grandage, artistic director of The Donmar Warehouse and director of its production of Hamlet, currently playing a limited engagement at the Broadhurst Theatre: just because you have Jude Law in your cast doesn't mean that you can skimp on the rest of the ensemble. Though far from perfect, Law acquits himself nicely as the Danish prince, commanding the attention of the audience throughout the role's myriad soliloquies (his delivery of "What a piece of work is a man..." is particularly good). However, there's hardly anyone else in the cast that's up to his--or, for that matter, any professional--level. Especially horrific is Gugu Mbartha-Raw, who reads Ophelia's lines as if they were being fed to her through an earpiece. The great Geraldine James is no better as Gertrude--she announces Ophelia's death as casually as one would order a glass of wine at a bar--and Ron Cook's dual performance as Polonius and the 1st Gravedigger is hammier than an Oscar Mayer delivery truck. Grandage's overall production is overwhelmingly grey and dull, and adds no dimension to the hollow performances on stage. His intention was probably to spotlight the text through the absence of scenery, but the sight of the Broadhurst's brick stage wall simply made me miss Mary Stuart more than ever.

The Buddha Play

Evan Brenner's one-man play is a simple piece of theater, but not simple-minded. Mr. Brenner plainly and engagingly recites from the oldest Buddhist sutras, known as the Pali Canon, recounting the life of Siddhartha Gautama, who became forever known as the Buddha. He brings the characters alive, not histrionically, but through measured, focused, artful talk and movement. As the play begins it feels more like storytelling than "drama"; but it slowly becomes suspenseful in spite of itself. Gautama does not take lightly his decision to leave behind his rich inheritance and "go forth" as a seeker of salvation. And after he has achieved Nirvana he continues to live in a warlike world, with followers, family – and the Devil periodically prodding him away from his path. Read the full review.

A Steady Rain

photo: Joan Marcus

Where's the fun in a star performance that doesn't capitalize on the star's star qualities? That's what I wondered watching Hugh Jackman work his ass off during this one act in which he sits with legs wide apart and says "moherf@*ker" a lot to play a lower middle class Chicago beat cop. To borrow from Pauline Kael, it's like watching Julia Roberts not smiling. Jackman does a commendable job vocally - there's no trace of his Australian accent - and you see all the work he's done on his physicality. But that's just it - you're watching sweat. In the chair beside him all evening is Daniel Craig, whose disappearance into his more character-y character is so complete you'd barely recognize him even without the mustache. You forget almost immediately that he's the James Bond of our day, but you don't forget for an instant that Hugh Jackman is Hugh Jackman. This isn't to say that Craig is a better actor than Jackman, but instead that Craig isn't yet limited by stardom the way that Jackman is.

Superior Donuts

Photo: Michael Brosilow

I knew better than to expect that Tracy Letts's new play Superior Donuts would be as good as his Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, but I did dare to expect that it would be good at all. Instead, Superior Donuts is a badly-stitched-together series of cliches. In brief: a woebegone, isolated man in late middle age (Michael McKean, in a performance that doesn't read at all from the mezzanine) hires a young black man to work in his donut shop, and the young man gets him re-involved in life. This scenario could have worked, I suppose, if the young man didn't have way too much wisdom, confidence, knowledge, and achievement for a 20-year-old with serious problems. And if he didn't have a frame of reference suspiciously resembling that of a middle-aged white playwright. And if the older man were an interesting character. And if the people frequenting the donut shop--two cops, an alcoholic old woman, and the Russian shop owner from next door--didn't practically wear signs saying, "Aren't we quirky?" And if it weren't predictable from her first entrance that the alcoholic old woman would eventually say something brilliant and life-changing to the shop owner. And if the second act didn't feature one of the worst fight scenes in the history of bad theatrical fight scenes (a competitive category!) And if the whole thing didn't feel cobbled together. On the positive side: Jon Michael Hall, as the young man, acts with energy and charm; the set is very nice; and I guess parts were funny, since the audience laughed and laughed, though I was never quite sure why. There's no doubt that Tracy Letts is a first-class playwright, but everyone has a bad day at work. This is his.

(Note: I saw this at an early preview. However, since it came from a long run in Chicago, there was already plenty of opportunity for the creative team to iron out any problems.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Superior Donuts

photo: Robert J. Saferstein

From the moment that young, vital Franco (Jon Michael Hill) comes bounding in with hope and promise to the crumbling donut shop where Arthur (Michael McKean) has withdrawn into a fog, we know what's going to happen; it isn't the plot of Tracy Letts' latest play (which has followed his August: Osage County into The Music Box Theatre) that grabs the attention and holds it. The joy is in Lett's textured writing; it's in the humor he finds in his affection and compassion for his characters and the Chicago/America they inhabit. A compassionate drama with plenty of crowd-pleasing comedy, the play sounds notes of renewed hopefulness that seem right-on-time in this Obama age, and the unified ensemble put them over beautifully. At the center are the two extraordinary performances by McKean and newcomer Hill: their rapport helps to make the relationship between discouraged, world-weary middle-aged man and young, bright dreamer just about impossible to resist.