Toy Box Theatre's production provides sufficient proof that this work, which poet Alison Croggon has called the "ur-play of modern theatre," was a lot more than an experiment. The same company, with Jonathan Barsness at the helm then as now, also brought us last year's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, and clearly they're just as comfortable with modern material as they are with the 17th century, for Woyzeck, though it dates from the 1830's, is nothing if not modern. They've whittled down the character list, as they did with the previous production, but retained what's important and presented it feelingly, cuttingly, and in thoroughly Büchnerian spirit. This production is almost sure to leave you thinking—and nodding in appreciation at the talent Barsness has applied and gathered.
Seeing Next to Normal with the new cast is, at least at first, a reverse "invasion of the body snatchers" experience. These people are saying the same words, singing the same songs, and following the same blocking, but they are not the Goodmans we've known for years. Aiii! And then there's the challenge of seeing anyone other than Alice Ripley as Diana; Ripley owns that role. However, really good writing thrives on different interpretations, and Next to Normal is really good writing. Alice Ripley's Diana was crazy, a needle stuck in the manic groove. Marin Mazzie's Diana is depressed, slow-moving, sadly aware of what she's missing and what her illness has cost her family. With Ripley, Next to Normal was the story of a woman unhinged. With Mazzie, Next to Normal is the story of a family trying to survive ("what doesn't kill me doesn't kill me"). Both interpretations are legitimate, both are compelling, both are heart-breaking. I still think that no one can touch Ripley's performance--it's a perfect melding of actor and role. But Mazzie comes in a close second, with a mature, thoughtful performance. And while Ripley's ravaged voice fit her interpretation of the role, Mazzie's gorgeous voice is a pleasure and a gift.
Brian d'Arcy James remains far and away the best Dan, although Jason Daniely's performance has improved quite a bit over time. Meghann Fahy does an unconvincing imitation of the excellent Jennifer Damiano as Natalie; however, her understudy MacKenzie Mauzy provides a unique and interesting take on the role (though she needs to be careful about her tendency toward overacting). Kyle Dean Massey is good as the brother, although not great, and original cast members Adam Chanler-Berat and Louis Hobson remain fresh and excellent. Hobson's character is often interrupted by bits of song, and he needs to seem as though he's just pausing to think. It's a particular skill and one he does well, which is important since he almost never gets to say two sentences straight through. And I appreciate the book, lyrics, and music even more every time I see the show (12 or 13 times at this point).
After an award-winning stint at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2008 and a sold-out run at Queens Theatre in the Park last year, this good-natured celebration of Greek culture is back for a five-week run at the Hellenic Cultural Center in Astoria, Queens, which any New Yorker knows is a huge and thriving Greek-American neighborhood. The story is simple and old-fashioned and gets pretty silly, but that's all part of its lighthearted spirit. The Greek palace guard, arriving on a fictional Greek island looking for recruits, breaks up a love triangle; off goes manly Manos to the mainland, with shy, good-hearted Costa trailing along. When Sophia turns up in Athens only to be jilted by her hometown lover, she settles for second best. Big mistake? Act II will tell. The primary key to the show's success is the music, by the late Hollywood composer Nicholas Carras and musical director/pianist Elise Morris. A harmonious mix of light-modern staccato rhythms, big Broadway-style harmonies, and Mediterranean flavors, it is well matched by concise, clever lyrics.
If I had to review The Language Archive in one word, it would be lackluster. Julia Cho's story of a linguist who cannot communicate with the woman he loves also examines what it means--pragmatically, emotionally, metaphysically--when a language dies. While the ideas are interesting, the exploration is predictable, and the minimal plotline is on the boring side. There is little reason to care who ends up with whom, as the three main characters never gel, and the performers fail to inject them with dimensional humanity. The Language Archive is ostensibly a comedy, but much of the humor is as cheap as the curse words used by the older couple who are the last two speakers of their native tongue. ("Oh, isn't it cute--the old folk in the funny costumes are saying 'fuck.')
I believe that no topic is off-limits to the artist, yet I found myself uncomfortable watching Edward Anthony's play I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, which imagines the thoughts and images in Plath's mind in the moments before she died. I thought it presumptuous, even exploitive, to co-opt Plath's creations, life, and fame and tacky to use her suicide as a object of humor. That being said, on its own terms I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath (the title is from a Ryan Adams' song) is an intriguing exploration of Plath's life, relationships, and talent, and it certainly doesn't lack creativity. I particularly liked the "Better Tomes and Garden" TV show and the "51-liar lasagna" recipe that Plath "cooks." Elisabeth Gray is impressive as the sole live performer in the show, compelling both as Plath (here called Esther Greenwood, the name of the protagonist in Plath's largely autobiographical novel The Bell Jar) and as the voices of a number of family members.
The latest edition of The Pumpkin Pie Show, Clay McLeod Chapman's pugilistic monologue series, may be the best one yet. Writer-actor Chapman, his ever-brilliant co-conspirator Hannah Cheek, and a fantastic newcomer named Hannah Timmons alternate in bringing us five tales. This time around, all the stories in one way or another concern kids, often victimized kids. Ranging from grotesquely disturbing to magically disturbing, some are more substantial than others but all hit their marks—like perfectly aimed gut punches.
The most intense character is the penitent but unrehabilitated child molester Chapman plays in the number called "Diminishing Returns." This guy makes us practically jump out of our skins. And the most transportive piece is "Diary Debris," in which Timmons becomes the 11-year-old boy who finds, near his family's Texas home, among the debris of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the pages of a doomed Israeli astronaut's diary. It's in this nonviolent tale, where not much really happens and no one grows up and there are no shocking plot twists, that Chapman's genius shows its edge most brightly. And Timmons does a simply marvelous job bringing it out. A final key element in this show's success is the evocative musical score by Radiotheatre. Much more than incidental music, it works like a top-notch movie score, alternately cradling and illuminating the action. It's just perfect.
Some shows reveal their flaws on repeated viewings. Donald Margulies's Time Stands Still reveals its strengths. [spoilers follow] Some things that struck me on viewing #3:
Each of the main characters discusses a turning point in his or her time covering the war in Iraq. James (Brian d'Arcy James) tells of seeing people being blown up and of getting their blood (and brains) in his eyes. Sarah tells of being chastised by an injured woman and getting the woman's blood on the lens of her camera. It's a perfect parallel: Sarah's camera is her eyes, and both characters have the war literally thrown in their faces.
In a realistic turn of events, Sarah ends up arguing both sides of the ethics of photographing people--rather than helping them--in the midst of calamities. She energetically lectures the young Mandy that taking their pictures does help people, but later, with James, she says that maybe there is something cold, and wrong, about keeping that distance. Her ambivalence retroactively explains her vigor in defending herself--she is not quite sure she is right. Nevertheless, she goes back to Iraq, because that is who she is.
Time Stands Still is about a person who is unable to settle into "normal" life because of her drive to do important work. That the person is female is an interesting facet of the story, but not the point. Sarah is not held to a different standard as a woman.
The ostensibly air-headed Mandy, in many ways a comic figure, is allowed a savvy self-awareness that makes her a believable and complex.
Time Stands Still dares to present a largely unlikeable protagonist, and the brilliant Laura Linney dares to play her unapologetically. This honesty is refreshing, and sometimes heart-breaking.
I have seen Time Stands Still labeled an overrated play; however, I suspect that it is underrated.
Photo: Laura Marie Duncan When was the "Golden Age" of the American musical? When it comes to female leads, the Golden Age is now. Audra McDonald. Bernadette Peters. Kristin Chenoweth. Donna Murphy. Marin Mazzie. Patti LuPone. Victoria Clark. Alice Ripley. Christine Ebersole. And, yes, Kelli O'Hara. (Imagine a season with all of them on Broadway!)
Last night, O'Hara opened a two-week stand at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, explaining that its theme is "Beyond the Ingenue." But she goes further than that. She goes beyond genre, beyond gender, beyond expectations, and beyond wonderful. Her voice is beautiful, as is she, but more importantly she knows how to express the story and the deepest emotions in each song. Take her subtle, expressive version of "Finishing the Hat," in which she perfectly balances grief at what's being missed with satisfaction at what's being accomplished. Or "I Could Have Danced All Night," in which she actually does know "what made it so exciting." Or "You're Always Here," in which she nails the comic Tom Kitt-Brian Yorkey exploration of the ambivalent pain that may come from being left by someone you didn't necessarily want to stay. Or her version of "This Nearly Was Mine," which is every bit as textured, heart-breaking, and breath-taking as Paula Szot's (which is saying something!).
I imagine that there is something O'Hara can't do, but it must be quadratic equations or car repair. Whatever her flaws, they sure don't have anything to do with her singing.
Patti LuPone likes to whine. I have nothing against whining per se--it can be a great way to get things off one's chest. But when one has a fabulous career, a shelf full of awards, plenty of money, and a lovely family, the whining becomes, well, tacky--or worse. For example, LuPone refers to Paul Sorvino as "Howdy Doody in Auschwitz" because he is cheerful while the rest of the cast of The Baker's Wife is depressed. Can you say tasteless? The overall theme of the book is that LuPone is hard-done-to and that nothing comes easily to her. From some of her stories, you would think she was working in a coal mine. And to say that she deals with setbacks with class would be a bald-faced lie. She throws tantrums. She disappears for days when she has performances to do! (Yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber treated you badly during Sunset Boulevard, Patti, but no one died, you know?) The fact that most of the other people in the photos in Patti LuPone: A Memoir are not identified might just be a result of careless, or a bad editorial decision, but it comes across as supporting LuPone's seeming worldview: it's all about her.
Watching Ivo Van Hove's direction of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, I was reminded of the Forbidden Broadway take-off of the most recent revival of The King and I. The skit advised directors of classics that, if they run out of ideas, they can always have the performers play the subtext (as in replacing "Shall We Dance" with "Shall We Boink"). In Hellman's The Little Foxes,the story of three siblings vying for money and power, everyone is rotten. In Van Hove's version, everyone is really, really, really rotten. The family members yell and punch the walls and whale away on each other (necessitating fresh Bandaids during the performance I saw). Does this approach work? Absolutely! The tension builds beautifully, and there is no doubt that everyone is playing for keeps. Also, casting Birdie young and beautiful takes her role out of the usual stereotypes and assumptions, and the bare stage and purple-ish, velvet-ish walls work well. The cast is strong--as are their lungs!--and the direction is never less than compelling. However, an important question must be asked: does Van Hove's concept-heavy direction add more than it takes away? I think the answer must be no. Hellman's Little Foxes already provides the tension and fascinating relationships; it is a solid, well-written play. Most of Van Hove's contributions come across as noise--interesting noise, but noise nonetheless.
Laurie Anderson's Delusion is typical Laurie Anderson fare: smart, hypnotic, and wonderful. Combining rhythmic visuals, evocative music, and electronically enhanced singing and spoken word, Anderson makes the quotidian magical and the magical miraculous. Her generosity as a performer is breathtaking, and her thoughts and ideas--this time largely focused on mortality--provoke even more thoughts and ideas. Despite the many who have tried to be, there is no one else like her.
Edward Albee's irritating new play Me, Myself, and I focuses on a seriously dysfunctional family after son OTTO decides that his identical twin otto no longer exists. With its repetitious dialogue and anti-logic, Albee's absurdist investigation of identity relies heavily on language, humor, and symbolism. But the language isn't all that interesting, the humor is intermittent at best, and the symbolism is neither elucidating nor engaging. Emily Mann's flat direction only adds to the tedium, and Elizabeth Ashley directed to be annoying is even more annoying than Elizabeth Ashley not directed to be annoying.
Everyone has problems in Tigers Be Still, Kim Rosenstock's engaging new play (directed by Sam Gold) at the Roundabout Underground series. Sherry and Grace's mom is so depressed that she's gotten fat that she hasn't left her room in weeks. Grace (Natasha Lyonne) is so depressed that she lost her boyfriend that all she can do is watch Top Gun and drink Scotch. Sherry (Halley Feiffer) wants to break out of her family's paralysis and do well in her new job but has to deal with her mother and sister. Sherry's new boss (Reed Birney) recently lost his wife, and he and his son Zach (John Magaro) are not doing well. Despite the seriousness of the characters' situations, Rosenstock has written a very funny play. The dramedy approach works well, allowing Rosenstock to examine relationships, mourning, healing, and growing up with grace and compassion. Tigers Be Still is not earth-shattering, but it is excellent, and I look forward to Rosenstock's future work. The cast is top-notch.
The lovely Paula West sings with elegance, commitment, and understanding. She presents her music as someone might present a gift, and the songs, ranging from Rodgers and Hart to Bob Dylan, are indeed gifts, sometimes playful, sometimes serious, always sung with intelligence and style. Particular highlights include Irving Berlin's "Suppertime," sung with heart-breaking simplicity, Dylan's evocative "Shelter From the Storm," and the effervescent Arlen-Harburg "I Love to Singa." Perhaps the biggest strength of the evening is that the George Mesterhazy Quartet does not "back up" West; instead, each musician makes a superb individual contribution, whether playing ensemble or in solos. Jerome Jennings plays drums with a level of imagination, finesse, and attention to detail that adds up to magic, particularly during Hoagy Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster's "Baltimore Oriole." And if guitarist Ed Cherry ever chooses to headline an evening of his own, I will be the first one there. The clarity and emotion of his playing are what guitar playing should be. Paula West and the George Mesterhazy Quartet are at Feinstein's at Loews Regency through October 16 and then again November 22 to 27. Do yourself a favor--catch them.
Gatz is an emperor's new clothes production of an emperor's new clothes novel. The show starts with an interesting premise: unable to work due to computer problems, a man in an office in the 1980s starts reading The Great Gatsby out loud. And by the end of the 6-plus-hour show, he has read the entire book, out loud, while people from his office have turned into F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters. Unfortunately, the show lacks a consistent concept. It is not clear why certain people do or do not say lines (for example, one character is played partially by the narrator and partially by someone else, in the same scene), or why an actress playing a character who is injured in the novel is still wearing a bandage when she goes back to being the narrator's co-worker, or why the whole thing is set in a 1980's office in the first place. Yes, the office does provide contrast to the opulence of Gatsby's existence, but, so what? Other problems with the show include the fact that Jim Fletcher as Gatz is a singularly unseductive presence, totally lacking the warm smile that Fitzgerald mentions repeatedly. Is this a comment on The Great Gatsby? If so, what is it saying? The show does include some wonderful moments; the merging of noises in the office with noises in the novel works nicely; and Scott Shepherd is a fine narrator.
As for the novel, considered by many to be "the great American novel": somewhat based on Fitzgerald's own experiences, it depicts only a small part of America, and finding the moral decay in bootlegging isn't exactly earth-shattering. The book ignores the multi-ethicity of America, focusing 99% on white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and its depiction of the one Jewish character mentions his nose in virtually every sentence (I'm sorry, but eyes flash, noses don't).Fitzgerald presents cynicism as insight, and while his line-by-line writing is often superb, it's not enough. Fitzgerald is famous for saying "There are no second acts in American lives"; here again he shows tunnel vision, unable to see past his own experience. Fitzgerald's drinking precluded his personally ever having a second act, but the United States is a place full of second, third, fourth, and fifth acts. In fact, the country itself is founded on the second acts of the millions of people who have immigrated here.
If ever a show was not everyone's cup of tea, it's La Bête. The show is an odd mixture: dialogue in rhymed couplets, broad humor, and philosophical discussion. Set in 17th-century France, La Bête pits two playwrights in a fight between commerce and art: one is a slovenly, gross upstart (Mark Rylance), while the other is refined, elegant, and ossified (David Hyde Pierce). Their competition is instigated and refereed by a moody princess who must always get her way (Joanna Lumley). The show doesn't add up to much, but it's a fun ride, particularly when Mark Rylance is at the controls. His performance is indeed the tour de force that the advance press promised, and much of the joy of La Bête comes from watching him strut his stuff. David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley are also excellent in far less interesting roles, and Lumley's entrance may be the best I've ever seen. The lighting, scenery, and costumes all do their part, and the supporting cast is quite good (although I couldn't understand a single word said by the guy with the guitar).
When I saw Brief Encounter last year at St. Ann's, I wrote the following:
Just as a jazz musician interprets a song, Emma Rice has interpreted Noel Coward's classic play/movie Brief Encounter. Her riff is entertaining, funny, sexy, and quite creative. However, as sometimes also happens with jazz, she occasionally strays too far from the source material, with her additions not quite justifying her subtractions. I'm glad I saw Brief Encounter, and I'd give it a solid B, but I'm not quite sure what so many critics have been ravingabout.
On a second viewing, this time at Studio 54, I found Brief Encounter to be a sweet, wistful show when focused on the leads, and a funny, sometimes raucous show when focused on the supporting cast. I again enjoyed its creative touches, and I again thought that it occasionally strayed off-track. Interestingly, of the seven people I know who saw it the night I did, two adored it, two liked it, and three hated it.