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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hysteria

Photo: Joseph Alford

In a 1915 poem by TS Eliot called "Hysteria," the anxious narrator becomes disturbed by his date's raucous laughter. The show Hysteria, created and performed by the group Inspector Sands (Lucinka Eisler, Giulia Innocenti, and Ben Lewis), is a riff on Eliot's work. That it is an absurdist riff is made clear from the beginning, when the gender-ambiguous, obsessive-compulsive, paranoid wait-person, while preparing for work, discovers that one of his or her teeth has migrated to the back of his or her neck. The people on the date are a nervous young man who periodically breaks away from the date to lecture the audience about his research and an equally nervous young woman who keeps a red boa and a couple of bananas in her purse. There's little plot to speak of; instead, the show consists of moments that sometimes lay bare the differences between our inner and outer beings and sometimes are there because they are funny, because the physical humor meshes perfectly with the talented cast's abilities, or, well, just because. Hysteria's 55 minutes go quickly, and it is frequently entertaining. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but if you enjoy graceful physical humor and absurdist theatre, you'll find a lot here to like.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

No Exit

Photo: David Epstein

My knowledge of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit was limited to the line, "Hell is other people," so I grabbed the opportunity to see the Invisible City Theater Company's production of John Bowles's translation of Sartre's existentialist classic. Because their production of Arcadia years ago was excellent, I was optimistic about Invisible City's No Exit and I was mostly not disappointed. Granted, the production is not perfect. Cecelia Frontero doesn't nail the role of Inez, and her odd-fitting pants distract from her performance. There is little by the way of production values, and some of the light cues are arbitrary and annoying. But, on a whole, the cast and director David Epstein provide a vivid, emotional, hard-hitting production of Sartre's still timely play. The storyline is simple: three people are locked together in a room in hell for eternity, and they discover little by little that they are one another's punishment. Cradeau (Alex Cape) is a hard-hearted coward; Estelle (Jenna Doolittle) is an adulterous blonde who has murdered her own child; and Inez is a cruel lesbian who pushed her cousin aside to be with his wife, eventually leading to her cousin's death (interestingly, the play doesn't point to her lesbianism as the source of her evil, but rather to her behavior, an advanced point of view in 1944). The three jostle for power and allegiances and maybe redemption, all the while knowing that they are damned in the most horrible, permanent sense of the word. Invisible City's production is funny, unsettling, and satisfyingly claustrophobic.

Hapgood

Tom Stoppard is a brilliant playwright, but sometimes he can't tell the difference between a play and a lecture. Hapgood's ratio of physics versus theatre is unfortunately skewed toward the former, and while Stoppard's conceit of having the plot reflect the physics is strong, its execution is confusing. Hapgood is an iconoclastic spy for England. She uses the dedicated phone line to the prime minister to talk with her son; she has sex with other agents (English and otherwise); and she does what she wants when she wants. In Hapgood she is faced with a dilemma. A double (or is it triple, or is it quadruple?) agent has given secret information to the Russians. Has Kerner, the physicist and Russian agent turned English agent (and father of her son), been turned again? What has Ridley been up to? What about the twin Russian agents? And, also, will Hapgood find true love and settle down? Stoppard draws smart and interesting parallels between the behavior of light waves/particles and the behavior of secret agents, but the play ultimately comes across as dry, with too much stuff going on--too many twists and turns, too much physics, too many lectures--and not enough humanity. The Phoenix Ensemble does a valiant job presenting this challenging play, and succeeds intermittently. Joe Menino as Kerner is charming and presents scientific ideas clearly while sounding like an actual person. Jason O'Connell and Craig Smith also bring much to the production. Elise Stone, in the pivotal role of Hapgood, gives a surface-level performance, with little variety to line readings (speaking fast does not a character make) and too much "matter-of-fact-ness" to be real. As the other Hapgood, she denotes quirkiness by fluffing her hair, and fluffing her hair, and fluffing her hair. The direction by John Giampietro is good but he doesn't succeed in bringing a maximum level of clarity to the goings-on.

Haunted

Photo: Jonathan Keenan

Sometimes ambiguity adds suspense and atmosphere to a production. Sometimes it is just confusing. At the beginning of Edna O'Brien's Haunted, part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59e59, two women are barely visible behind a translucent wall. As an old man implores, "Stay, stay," the lighting changes and the women vanish. Add this opening to the title Haunted, and it is reasonable to expect a ghost story. However, the production never clarifies whether we are seeing ghosts, flashbacks, or a dramatization of the old man's probably unreliable memories. Rather than adding to the play's impact, this ambiguity diffuses it, pulling focus from the story at hand, which is somewhat interesting: the old man starts a platonic relationship with a young woman, allowing her to believe that his wife is dead. His wife, already unhappy with his sexual coldness and his past adultery, becomes suspicious and eventually incensed. But the relationships aren't quite convincing. For example, although the young woman is lonely, and the old man flatters her, it is still difficult to believe she would befriend him, as his urbanity and almost charm provide only a fragile veneer over his pathetic lechery. As played by Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy, the husband and wife come across as more compelling than the writing might warrant, though Beth Cooke fares less well as the young woman. The play's main strength is its use of language, which is often beautiful and frequently quotes great writers, particularly Shakespeare.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Short Takes

Nyack High School presented an excellent production of The Laramie Project for two performances this month. The pacing could have been quicker, but many of the performances were top-notch, and my devastation by the end was testimony to the quality of the work. I salute Nyack High and director Joe Egan for their ambition and for the consistently high level of their productions. (Full disclosure: my niece was the production stage manager and my nephew performed.)

I don't know why the folks at Encores! felt a need to produce Bells Are Ringing, since the show had a Broadway revival less than ten years ago. But I'm glad they did, since their production was head-and-shoulders above that revival, being a delight from start to finish. Bells Are Ringing is not a masterpiece. In fact, it is deeply silly. But it is vintage, brilliant silliness, courtesy of Comden and Green and Jule Styne, with such wonderful songs as "The Party's Over" and "Just in Time." Kelli O'Hara may have lacked a level of zaniness, but she was lovely, and Will Chase did nicely as the leading man. Katherine Marshall's choreography and the wonderful dancers brought energy and excitement to the stage, and David Pittu and Judy Kaye provided first-class support. It was a treat to see the charming Encores! stalwart J.D. Webster do a solo turn.

I saw Stephen Sondheim interviewed twice in a week--once by Frank Rich (part of the Times Talk series) and once by Tony Kushner (part of the Public Forum). The Rich interview covered familiar ground, but Rich's questions were smart and insightful. The Kushner interview went hither and yon, to the great delight of the audience. Sondheim, in addition to his other talents, is a great raconteur and a fair mimic. His stories in the interviews included an imitation of Elaine Stritch calling for her lines when she had a prompter in A Little Night Music ("in the villa of the Baron . . . MARY!"); a riff on how Ethel Merman might have "danced" in the finale to Gypsy if Jerome Robbins had stuck to his original plan to end the show with a summation ballet; a tale of being (literally!) hissed in England because he had criticized Noel Coward's and W.S. Gilbert's lyric writing; and a paean to the joys of collaboration and rewriting. With Rich, Sondheim was laid-back and comfortable, and their friendship was evident. With Kushner, he was more playful and bantering, even a little competitive in a friendly way. Both evenings were wonderful, but I wish I could have joined them for drinks or dinner afterward and heard the stories Sondheim doesn't tell in public.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Free Man of Color


photo: T. Charles Erickson

No one can fault John Guare for being ambitious. His play A Free Man of Color, which has been in gestation for over twenty years, represents not only two decades of work, but a sweeping amalgamation of 200 years of Euro-American history. In doing so, however--and especially in choosing to use restoration comedy as his framing device--Guare has offered his audience moments of beautiful clarity buried within an everest of pomp and circumstance. The main action is centered around the life of Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright, brilliant as usual), the titular emancipated mulatto; unfortunately, the playwright seems unclear as to how the other aspects of the drama--which includes Thomas Jefferson and Touissant L'Ouverture, Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte, and the melding of racial impropriety--fit into Cornet's journey towards self-discovery and a realization of the changing times. Wright gives a mammoth, herculean performance (I spent much of the performance imagining which Shakespearean heroes I'd love to see him play), and the supporting cast (featuring Mos Def, John McMartin, Paul Dano, and the wonderful newcomer Nicole Beharie) do uniformly fine work. Unfortunately, though, there is nothing that can be done to make Guare's divergent strands of plot coalesce. Like the world of opulence it portrays, the play is alluring but ultimately hollow.

(Seen at the matinee on November 26. TDF tickets; Orchestra Row F)

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice is a choleric, cynical play.

First, of course, there is the ugly anti-Semitism. Shylock, more frequently known as "The Jew," has spent his life being called "Jew cur" and other such lovely epithets. His anger has been simmering for years, and why shouldn't he require of Antonio a pound of flesh? Antonio has no problem taking a metaphysical, emotional pound or two from Shylock; even in the role of financial supplicant, Antonio harangues and criticizes Shylock. (If Antonio possessed even the most basic of good manners, the plot would not be set in motion.)

Then Shakespeare depicts Shylock as more upset at the loss of his ducats than of his daughter (though Shylock is arguably hiding the loss he cannot face by focusing on the loss he can). By the end of the play, Shakespeare has stripped Shylock of everything he loves and believes in. The bigoted, self-satisfied Antonio, on the other hand, gets a happy ending.

Continuing his choleric mood, Shakespeare has little use for love in this play. Portia, the brilliant, emotional Portia (who somehow manages to become a knowledgeable lawyer on the trip from Belmont to Venice), responds to her true love Bassanio by tricking him into betraying her. Even though she has seen him totally devastated, even though he has just almost lost his best friend Antonio to a gruesome death (for which he is at least somewhat responsible!), she uses her disguise to pressure and deceive him. Is she jealous of his love for his best friend? Possibly. Is she just upset and angry? Possibly. Is she merely manipulative by nature? Possibly. None of the options is anything but ugly.

And why would Nerissa then trick her great love as well? To show that true love is impossible? Or that men can't be trusted? Perhaps. And what of Jessica and Lorenzo? Did they ever love each other, really, for even a moment? The only true love in this play is that between the ne'er-do-well Bassanio and the arrogant Antonio.

The Merchant of Venice was initially termed a comedy, I guess because the romantic leads end up together and the non-Jews get to live happily ever after. At the performance I saw, the European gentleman standing next to me (three hours is a long time to stand, by the way), chortled uproariously as Shylock was forced to his knees to be baptized as a Christian. It was only self-control and theatre etiquette that stopped me from turning to him and demanding, "Just what exactly is funny?"

The current production, smoothly directed by Daniel Sullivan and extremely well-acted by Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, and the rest of the company, gives The Merchant of Venice as good a showing as I could imagine it receiving.

One last thing: as I looked at the orchestra section in front of me, I was astonished to realize that everyone there, every single person, had spend a minimum of $131.50 per ticket. Some probably spent over $200. Isn't that kind of . . . insane? And isn't it kind of disgusting that dinner and a Broadway show for a couple costs as much as the average yearly income in India? And who are the usurers when credit cards charge as much as 30% interest, legally? Who are the villains when banks push ridiculous mortgages and then take people's homes when the poor fools fall for the banks' dishonest sales pitches? What would Shakespeare think of today's attitudes toward money? What would Shylock?

Notes from Underground



Dostoevsky's grim novella is here blasted to unexpectedly brilliant life in a stage adaptation by Robert Woodruff and the amazing actor Bill Camp. The unnamed Man poses a test: "Is it possible to be perfectly candid with oneself?" Camp uses movement like a dancer, speaking chapter and verse with a raised arm or a tumble down the stairs. And he talks, and he talks, twistedly and unlikeably yet with massive force, for close to two hours. It's a stunning performance, fitted into a masterfully conceived staging enlivened by Peter Nigrini's projections. No, you don't need to have read the book. Yes, come prepared to be moved, even shaken. Like Büchner with the even-earlier Woyzeck, Dostoevsky thrusts a proto-modernist fist from the deep past into our modern-day world of freedom and relative plenty. Has the human condition fundamentally changed? Signs point to no.

Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): Notes from Underground on Blogcritics. Also be sure to see Wendy Caster's review below.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sondheim! The Birthday Concert (DVD Review)

Wow!

Last March a few thousand people were lucky enough to experience the truly staggering Sondheim birthday celebration at the New York Philharmonic. Many who saw it (most?) judged it one of the most thrilling evenings they had ever spent in a theatre (I was one of those fortunate people). And now, through the miracle of modern technology, that amazing event can be revisited, over and over again, forever.

I was a tad nervous putting the disc in the DVD player. Could the recording possibly live up to my memory of the event? No. But yes. No, because live is live, and there is nothing like it. But yes, because the pictures and sound are clear and vivid, because the beauty of the performances has been captured, and because I am so grateful that this wonderful record of this wonderful evening exists! I am old enough to remember life before DVDs, before video recordings, before cable. I remember setting my alarm clock for two in the morning to catch a show or movie that might never be on again. I remember trying to memorize live performances, knowing that there might not even be an album. I do not take this DVD for granted.

If forced at gunpoint to identify my favorite performances, I might be able to get it down to a handful:
  • Marin Mazzie: "Losing My Mind."
  • John McMartin: "The Road You Didn't Take."
  • Bernadette Peters: "Not a Day Goes By."
  • Mandy Patinkin: "Finishing the Hat."
  • Scores of Broadway performers: "Sunday."
But how could I leave out Donna Murphy singing "Could I Leave You?", or Audra McDonald singing "The Glamorous Life," or McDonald and Nathan Gunn singing "Too Many Mornings"? How could I exclude Patti LuPone's "Ladies Who Lunch" or Elaine Stritch jumping up and down while declaring that she is, indeed, still here? What about Peters and Patinkin recreating "Move On"? It was evening of highlight after highlight, or, as a friend of mine put it, an evening of 11:00 numbers.

Of course, the event wasn't, and the DVD isn't, perfect. Producer-director-writer Lonnie Price, as he always does, littered the show with juvenile, downright-painful gags and running "jokes." And some of his editing choices are flat-out annoying, as when he cuts to the orchestra during "Losing My Mind," a delicate song of subtle build during which Mazzie's nonsinging moments are as important as her singing ones. Or when he interrupts the flow of the dancing in "America" with odd and awkward and all-too-frequent cuts. But if Price's weaknesses are the price (pun unintended?) of getting to enjoy an event and a DVD this wonderful, they are a small enough price (hmm) to pay.

Thanks are owed to producers Ellen M. Krass Productions and Thirteen, in association with WNET.org, for giving us this precious DVD. It would be nice if there were some extras, but, really, it's a treasure.

Oh, and I did I mention that that Sondheim guy is brilliant?

One Night With Joan

Photo: Holly Caster

Joan Collins is a force to be reckoned with. She turned down Darryl Zanuck's (staggeringly coarse) sexual advances, even though she knew she might be risking her career. She responded to a Joan Crawford snub by mentioning that Collins' mother was such a Crawford fan that she named Joan after her. When her then-husband lost his job, she went back to performing to support the family (they had a total of six children), starring in such classics as The Stud and The Bitch. She wore her hair with bangs and did so many nude scenes that Oscar Levant commented that the only part of her he hadn't seen was her forehead. Oh, and her first husband tried to sell her to a sheik.

These are only some of the many stories that the effervescent Collins shares in her night of reminiscences at Feinstein's at the Regency. Still glamorous in her late 70s (and married to a man in his 40s), she is entertaining and in her own way a role model: she began fashioning her life to her own design in the days when women were supposed to force themselves into society's pre-assigned template, and she still lives life on her own terms.

On Tuesday Collins clearly had opening night jitters, and she would do well to tell her stories rather than act them. She also might get more laughs by underplaying rather than overplaying her punch lines. But, hey, she's Joan Collins. And if you're a fan, you'll have a great time.

All the Things You Are: Jerome Kern

The Broadway Close Up series at Merkin Hall presented a lovely evening of Jerome Kern songs last Monday. There was no patter--just luscious singing. Director Denis Jones set up some of the songs as entertaining or touching vignettes (never letting his ideas overshadow the lyricists' intent) and had the show moving like clockwork (fluid, graceful clockwork). Kate Baldwin, Heidi Blickenstaff, Colin Donnell, Rebecca Luker, Graham Rohat, and Matthew Scott presented over 30 of Kern's songs, from his biggest hits to some little-known wonders. And they sang unmiked! The evening wasn't perfect. There were some songs that could have been sung better--or louder--and some of the interpretations didn't quite work. The singers sometimes spent too much time looking at each other, rather than the audience, probably making it difficult for people in the rear of the theatre to hear. But the positives far, far, far outweighed the negatives, and the overall effect was magical. Kudos to director Jones, musical director David Loud, artistic director Sean Hartley, and particularly to pianist Jihwan Kim, who played nonstop--and beautifully--for 90 intermissionless minutes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Libertine


Photo: DfxDen

Stephen Jeffreys' comedy-drama is a delicious throwback to Restoration times. With Cromwellian Puritanism a thing of the past, the return of the monarchy was an optimal time for an omnisexual, charismatic, downright outrageous character like John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, to barrel into the history books. Eric Tucker fleetly directs a nimble cast of well-drawn characters, vividly evoking the scramble that goes on backstage at a theater, the clash of wits at the public house, and carefree rutting in a dark prostitutes' alley.

Patricia Duran is wonderful as a proto-feminist Mrs. Barry; Tom O'Keefe is superbly in-the-moment in the dual roles of Rochester's wry friend Charles Sackville and the smug star actor Harry Harris; and the fine Libby Arnold as the prostitute Jane has a lovely scene battling an annoying inclination to actually care about her client the Earl. The production's flaw arises from the Earl's complexity. Not having seen the play before—not even the movie version with Johnny Depp—I can't say how others have approached the lead role, but Joseph W. Rodriguez fails to entirely convince, because his Rochester lacks the charm the real Earl must have oozed.

The same cannot be said of the overall production. Rambunctious and clever, it has many virtues. Above all, the play transports us to a lofty realm of wit and ribaldry very few modern playwrights even attempt,

Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): The Libertine on Blogcritics.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ghosts in the Cottonwoods

Photo: Annie Parisse

As The Amoralists' production of Ghosts in the Cottonwoods begins, we see Bean Scully sucking venom out of her son Pointer's leech bites. He is 18 years old and nude, and author-director Adam Rapp has served us vivid notice that this is no ordinary mother-son relationship. Bean's treatment of Pointer occupies an uncomfortable area somewhere between seduction and abuse, and she disparages any chance of romance or improving himself that Pointer may aspire to.

Living in the backwoods, the Scullys have no TV set and no phone, and they supply their own electricity thru a hand-cranked generator. Their one-room house is rickety and cobbled together. It contains a large noose to anchor the building to a tree stump during mud slides.

Tonight Bean and Pointer are waiting for Bean's older son Jeff to come home; Jeff has broken out of prison after six years. But before he arrives, the Scullys receive two unexpected visitors: a repo man with a bullet wound and a young woman with a suitcase. While Ghosts in the Cottonwoods has some funny moments, it is generally a story of loss, violence, grudges, and revenge. The characters cannot communicate, although they try everything from attempting to learn how to read to rapping to clicking to book-writing to literally eating their words. The three Scullys are deeply damaged, and they share a willingness to kill if they feel it is necessary.

Ghosts in the Cottonwoods is deeply disturbing. However, it is extremely well-written, -directed, and -acted; consistently interesting; and sometimes fascinating. The always-brilliant Sarah Lemp shines as Bean, and the other actors (Nick Lawson, William Apps, Mandy Nicole Moore, James Kautz, and Matthew Pilieci) are also excellent. (Lawson, however, is frequently difficult to understand.)

Mistakes Were Made

Photo: Michael Brosilow

It is a theatre season of prodigious feats of memory. Mark Rylance in La Bete. Belle Caplis is Balm in Gilead. Bill Camp in Notes From Underground. And now Michael Shannon in Craig Wright's Mistakes Were Made (directed by Dexter Bullard). Shannon plays a theatrical producer who is juggling a moody movie star, a stubborn playwright, an unraveling business venture, and deep personal problems, all via an office phone that never stops ringing. Shannon is onstage alone for virtually the entire 90 minutes, yelling, cajoling, and pleading into the phone; chatting with his obese fish; and periodically melting down. Mistakes Were Made is generally lightweight, with occasional moments of extreme tone-deafness, as when a distant tragedy only matters to the extent that it affects the producer. However, there is much that is funny here, and Shannon's multifaceted, beautifully timed performance is well worth seeing. (Designer Tom Burch's set is a treat--make sure to check out the posters of the producer's previous shows, including one for Roseanne Barr and Erik Estrada in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.)

Notes From Underground

Photo: Joan Marcus

"I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts." With these classic opening lines of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, actor and co-adapter Bill Camp invites us into the rotting psyche of a character known only as "the man," who has decided to share with us his deepest thoughts and even the secrets he keeps from himself. The man has not always lived underground. In his twenties he was in the civil service, but already his paranoia, hunger for humiliation, hopelessness, and cynicism had set in. At his office, he would wonder, "Why does no one except me think that people look at him with loathing?"

The man explains that he isn't even good at being wicked; he is merely possessed by a compulsive desire to ruin anything that might be beautiful, lofty, or loving. It's not a disease, he thinks, but his "normal condition." It's interesting to spend time with Doestoevsky's man in an era of psychiatry and psychoactive medications. Would Prozac help him? Lithium? Or is he genuinely hateful and ugly just because he is genuinely hateful and ugly? The man is in some ways emblematic of torturers and rapists, yet in other ways, he is merely a pathetic--and dangerous--loser. Does he have free will? Does anyone?

Watching the play was a disjointed experience for this particular playgoer. On one hand, it was unpleasant and grueling, including scenes of almost unbearable violence. On the other, it was thrilling to watch Bill Camp's tour de force as the man, talking to the audience for close to two hours with few breaks. Even at the man's worst, Camp is never less than compelling. And, as a deeply unfortunate prostitute, Merritt Janson is excellent, heartbreaking, and brave/foolish. (I am not sure how she does her performance without needing medical care.) The adaptation by Camp and director Robert Woodruff ranges from fascinating to boring and back again; the direction is clear and imaginative. I deeply disliked this show while I was watching it, but my respect for it grows and grows the more I think about it. And I do think about it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Short Takes

Elling. Elling is a little play. A very little play. A teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy play. Brendan Fraser and Denis O'Hare play odd-couple roommates, both recently out of a psychiatric hospital. Every once in a while the play seems about to veer into being original or dramatic, but the moment passes. (For example, when the O'Hare character loses his most precious possession, he doesn't notice.) Elling would be a not-unpleasant evening in the theatre if tickets were $25 or less. They are not $25 or less. (Fraser is fine and O'Hare is wonderful--he can't seem to help it.) I saw Elling in an early preview, but I doubt that it will get any better; it is what it is.

In the Wake. I only saw the first act of In the Wake so I can't actually review it. However, I am astonished that a quite a few critics found the characters compelling and the storyline enthralling. I found the characters annoying and the storyline unconvincing. I guess this is a classic case of "to each her own."

Lucky to Be Me: The Music of Leonard Bernstein. This tribute to Leonard Bernstein was wildly uneven, with highlights provided by Donna Murphy, Victoria Clark, and Kelli O'Hara. The lowlight? The sound was terrible. Sitting first-row-center orchestra, I could barely hear many of the singers, even when they were miked.

Middletown. I saw this at an early preview and had a mixed response to it. Author Will Eno seems to be going for an Our Town sort of vibe, but more complex, and the play only works sometimes. However, while I never felt completely involved, the show has stayed with me.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown


I've read the reviews, and it's hard to argue with them. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is indeed sloppy, uneven, and unfocused. The score by David Yazbek is only amiable. The book by Jeffrey Lane is a pale copy of the movie. The production adds up to much ado about . . . not much.

Just I thing: I really enjoyed it.

Women on the Verge
zips from scene to scene and song to song, the wind in its metaphysical hair. Most of the songs entertain at least a little, and some quite a lot. Director Bartlett Sher, as always, brings every inch of the stage to life, and with the ever-changing projections, Women on the Verge feels like a unusual and invigorating amusement park ride. Patti LuPone shines in a supporting role, bringing humor and pathos to the poor, abandoned, crazy wife she plays, and she nails her solo, "Invisible." Laura Benanti is adorable, running on the balls of her feet from scene to scene, not too bright but completely good-hearted. Brian Stokes Mitchell is underutilized, but it's always a pleasure to hear his voice--and looking at him doesn't hurt either. Justin Guarini plays the befuddled son with the perfect amount of befuddlement. On the other hand, Sherie Rene Scott, in the lead role, doesn't register--rather than coming across as the calm eye of the storm, she seems disengaged, bringing little energy to her songs and less to her acting.

Overall, Women on the Verge is so uneven, and shows so much promise, that it's surprising opening night wasn't delayed a couple of weeks. There is a solid show in there, and I believe that Sher, Lane, and Yazbek would have found it. Instead, the Women on the Verge that did open is a mess.

I hope I get to see it again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Balm in Gilead

Photo Credit: Torso XXI by Colm McCarthy

The people at the T. Schreiber Theatre are doing something amazing over on 26th Street. In their production of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead, on the seventh floor of a nondescript office building, they are vividly recreating a dive diner from the 1960s, with its sad and striving denizens. The production is so intimate and accurate that being in the audience feels like sitting in a booth in the corner, watching the world go by. The direction by Peter Jenson is smart, and the ensemble acting is excellent. Among the standouts, Belle Caplis, full of sad astonishment at how her life has turned out, nails her long (15 minutes?) monologue. And Jill Bianchini, as the smart hooker with more of a heart than she wants to have, gives a master class in brilliant listening.

But the play is a bit of a problem. In providing this slice of life, Wilson opts for conversations that trail off, people wandering in and out, overlapping dialogue, and a minimal plot. There are times that the show works brilliantly, but it also has many frustrating and boring moments (kind of like life, huh?). Overall, however, it's an impressive, sometimes heartbreaking piece of work, and seeing it in a small theatre, with its cast of 30 or so performers, is a real treat.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Saint Joan


In the Queens Players' new production, Shelleen Kostabi approaches the role of the Maid of Orléans with an admirable balance of holy righteousness and teenage vulnerability. Surrounded by an excellent cast who, in some cases, have created outsize performances that would be more fitting for a larger theater, she gives a nuanced and generous performance. Despite that mismatch, it is a most rewarding production; it's rare in an Off Off Broadway house to see a cast this large with no major weak links, doing a play this strenuous, with perfect pacing and complete professionalism.



The great thing about art is that it stays with us long after its creators are gone. Through the great characters of Saint Joan—among them the Inquisitor, the warrior Dunois (the Bastard of Orléans), and above all the Maid herself—George Bernard Shaw, like a time-hopping Dr. Who, speaks through the centuries backwards and forwards about nationalism, church and state, the place of women, and so on, all issues that continue to galvanize cultures around the world.


Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): Saint Joan on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Short Takes

Estrogenius: The Manhattan Theatre Source’s yearly festival of plays by women, Estrogenius suffers from the weaknesses and benefits from the strengths familiar to anyone who watches evenings of short plays. Some of the shows turn out to really be skits, as in Not Me (written by Marguerite Louise Scott, directed by Sarah Jenkins), in which a young woman goes to Dr. Fraued (sic) because her best friend has lost her head. Some are well-written but need work, as in Spring Break (written by Annalisa Loeffler, directed by DeLisa White), in which a mother (the excellent Paula Hoza) and daughter share confidences that change their views of themselves and their family. Some are almost there, as in The God Particle (written by Christina Gorman, directed by Kathryn McConnell), which has excellent dialogue and an unusual and fascinating concept but awkward character development. And some are flat-out excellent, as in Who You Got to Believe, the story of two people who bond over their losses in post-Katrina New Orleans. Economically written by Charlene A. Donaghty, beautifully directed by Zoya Kachadurian, and movingly acted by Sheilagh Weymouth and L.B. Williams, Who You Got to Believe is the sort of play that reminds me why I go to evenings of one acts! (Full disclosure: I have had two plays done at Estrogenius festivals.)

Sing-along Sound of Music: There were about 20 of us in the movie theatre. Richard Rodgers’ music is a pleasure to sing. Oscar Hammerstein II lyrics are uneven and repetitive (didn’t Maria have any other favorite things?). Julie Andrews is lovely and can almost act. Christopher Plummer can definitely act, but doesn’t always bother to. The Baroness is given a bum deal, with even her own hairdo against her. I love this movie. A good time was had by all.

Off-Broadway Close Up: If you’re not aware of the wonderful theatre-oriented evenings at Merkin Hall, it’s time to check them out. (Coming up next is All The Things You Are, a tribute to Jerome Kern with Rebecca Luker and Kate Baldwin.) The most recent evening, Off-Broadway Close Up, included songs from Forbidden Broadway, performed by their originators; “Die, Vampire, Die,” from [tos], with the original cast; Carol Demas doing a sad and lovely version of “Best Friend” from Getting My Act Together; and the insanely energetic, generously talented Jason Robinson doing a medley of Off-Broadway songs.

Nothing Like a Dame: The yearly benefits for the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative always have much to offer, and this year—a tribute to Comden and Green—was no exception. For me the highlights were Polly Bergen singing “The Party’s Over,” Victoria Clark singing a song from A Doll’s Life, Nancy Opel’s manic “If You Haven't But You Did,” everything Marc Kudish did, Mario Cantone, and Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli. A major problem: the show was grossly overmiked in a small theatre in which the bulk of the performers didn’t need mikes at all.

The Fortune Teller

Photo: Adam Forgasch

Halloween may be over, but luckily Phantom Limb's spookily entertaining, creepily evocative piece of marionette theatre, The Fortune Teller, is running at HERE through December 4th. With horripilating music by Danny Elfman and Erik Sanko, elegant design by a large and talented team, and smart direction by Erik Sanko (who also made the wonderful marionettes) and Jessica Grindstaff, The Fortune Teller is the tale of seven strangers gathered on a dark night for the reading of a will. As it happens, each has a secret . . .

Friday, October 29, 2010

Woyzeck

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.

Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): Woyzeck on Blogcritics.
Photo by Teresa Olson.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Next to Normal

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).

OPA! The Musical

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.

Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): OPA! The Musical on Blogcritics.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Language Archive

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 Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath

Photo: Stephen Stoneberg

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.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Amber Alert


Photo: Chris Smith

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.

Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): The Pumpkin Pie Show: Amber Alert on Blogcritics.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Time Stands Still

Photo: Joan Marcus

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.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Kelli O'Hara

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.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Patti LuPone: A Memoir (Book Review)

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.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Little Foxes


Photo: Jan Versweyveld

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.

Delusion

Photo: Leland Brewster

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.

Me, Myself, and I

Photo: Joan Marcus

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.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Tigers Be Still

Photo: Joan Marcus

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.

Paula West and the George Mesterhazy Quartet

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.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Gatz

Photo: Joan Marcus

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.

La Bête

Photo: Manuel Harlan

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).

Brief Encounter

Photo: Steve Tanner

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 raving about.

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.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brief Encounter

Photo © 2010 Joan Marcus

There is something so wonderfully tragic about the current production of "Brief Encounter" that at the end of the show, I wanted to run down to the stage and give each actor a hug, and thank them for letting me be a part of their story.

The story tropes - love, loss, and how we cope - are nothing new. There are no groundbreaking life lessons in this show. Rather, the story told is one of quiet sadness, the agony of adults who know that they have to, and eventually will, do what is right instead of what makes them happy. "Brief Encounter" is full of angst in the true sense of the word. Alec (Tristan Sturrock) and Laura (Hannah Yelland) know that what they have is real and special, and that there is absolutely nothing they can do about it.

The supporting cast is just as magnificent. It is a perfect rendition of how our own small tragedies are simply that: our own. The epic love story unfolding center stage has no effect on the budding romance between Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson) and Stanley (Gabriel Ebert), nor is it of any importance to the tempestuous relationship between Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin) and Albert (Joseph Alessi). Each couple is encased in their own unfolding plot, and blissfully unaware of the foibles of their neighbors.

Many shows live or die by their realism; reality is boring. Playwrights and directors know this, and therefore give us drama instead. It is a true pleasure to see the skill and grace with which Emma Rice creates the utterly real and yet terribly poignant world of Alec and Laura; the resulting show is nothing short of a delight.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Orlando

Sarah Ruhl's smooth, respectful adaptation of Virginia Woolf's most playful work, Orlando (directed by Rebecca Taichman), is in some ways a play, in other ways a dramatic reading, and in still other ways a tone poem. Its split personality is apt for the story of a duke who wakes up one day to find that he--she--has become a duchess. Woolf wrote Orlando in honor of one of her great loves, Vita Sackville-West, and used the book to examine relationships, feminism, gender roles, and politics. She also made concrete (and romantic and sexy) Sackville-West's straddling of gender roles as a soft-butch lesbian (or "confirmed sapphist," as Woolf once described her).

Ruhl relies heavily on Woolf's own writing, which is a wise decision since Woolf's work is beautiful, evocative, and often funny. Much of the "dialogue" is actually narration, and Annie-B Parson has choreographed various series of moves that gracefully support the language. With the exception of one performer, the entire cast depicts both men and women, taking Woolf's gender play one step further. The expert performers are led by the subtle, sexy, extraordinary Francesca Faridany, who plays 16-year-old boy and middle-aged woman with equal elegance.

Bunked!

The new musical Bunked! (presented as part of the Fringe Encores) tells the story of five camp counselors who hope to have the "Best Summer Ever." There's the self-aware, snappy gay guy; his chirpy nonidentical twin (picture Kristin Chenoweth at 18); the handsome bisexual guy on whom they both have crushes; the straight guy with a secret; and the snotty girl with a bigger secret. Anyone with knowledge of musicals could write a plot based on that character list and do as good a job as Bunked! The book (by Alaina Kunin and Bradford Proctor) is an awkward combination of trivial and serious, and there is little opportunity to care about the characters. The score (lyrics by Kunin and Proctor; music by Proctor) is better, with a handful of strong moments. However, the songs tend to sound (and feel) alike, and there are too many 11:00-number wanna-be's.

Three other points: (1) the hyper-enthusiasm of part of the audience, who guffawed at the smallest joke, sometimes before the joke was told, did not help the performance I saw; (2) although Bunked! has many flaws, it gives reason to hope that Kunin and Proctor keep writing; and (3) this review should be taken with a grain of salt, as I have socks older than Bunked!'s target audience.

Getting Even With Shakespeare

What is the difference between a play and a skit? This question came to mind while watching Matt Saldarelli's amusing but slight piece, Getting Even With Shakespeare (presented as part of the Fringe Encores). A play, it seems to me, has a beginning, a middle, and an end; at least one character who changes and grows (or whose lack of growth is the point); and a coherent depiction of its world, realistic or not. A skit, on the other hand, consists of an idea or two developed for laughs, with unidimensional characters and a willingness to throw consistency to the winds for the sake of a laugh.

Getting Even With Shakespeare falls into the skit category, and as such it has much to offer. To start with, it has an amusing concept: a lawyer who is bored with his life wanders into the bar where Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet hang out when they are not being called upon to inhabit actors playing them anywhere in the world. It also boasts some funny supplementary ideas (an errant word or moment can send any of the characters off into one of their monologues) and a strong cast. However, it has a tendency toward "in" jokes and being too pleased with itself, and it definitely overstays its welcome. For Getting Even With Shakespeare to be a fully successful skit, it would need to be streamlined. For it to be a successful play, it would need to be more fully developed. In either case, it would need to be more focused on the audience's needs and less on the playwright's, director's, and actors'.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ritter, Dene, Voss


Photo: Dave Beckerman

Thomas Bernhard may be one of Europe's great postwar writers but his plays are rarely seen in the US. This is a shame. The production of his Ritter, Dene, Voss which opened last night at La Mama has percolated since 2006, and it is a thing of finished beauty. Two sisters, wealthy actresses who perform only what and when they choose, prepare for the return of their tubercular philosopher brother from a sanatarium. Painfully, like the turning of a screw, the sisters exercise the frictions of their lives. Bernhard's fluid yet joyfully abrupt language (translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott) is the river from which the true, sad, spiritually ugly faces of the repressed Dene (Maev Beaty) and the looser, spiteful Ritter (Shannon Perreault) swim into startling focus. When Ludwig finally arrives the tension has reached a high pitch. What will he be like? What will he do? Equally important, will he spoil the play, so brilliantly constructed so far? Bernhard's play first meets, then defies expectations, with enough linguistic flair and dramatic panache for two or three plays. Director Adam Seelig and his superb cast wear this wonderful work like a surgical glove.
Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): Ritter, Dene, Voss by Thomas Bernhard on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Chess

Photo: Chris Mueller

The production of Chess at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, directed by Eric Schaeffer, is the umpteenth version of a show that started as a concept album and still hasn't made it to solid musical theatre. The score, by Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, is energetic and frequently engaging, but many (most?) of the numbers lack the character revelation and dramatic arc that distinguish theatre songs from other sorts of music. The book's combination of love triangle, chess match, and geopolitics never gels, and many characters are given little, well, character. Euan Morton is wonderful as Anatoly, the Russian chess player, giving him a dimension and reality far past what's written. Jeremy Kushnier does pretty well with the obnoxious American chess player Freddie, although he is hampered by the character's sheer unlikeability. Jill Paice as Florence fails to take advantage of some of the best songs in the show to create a emotionally believable character. In singing the elegant "Someone Else's Story," she seems unaware of what the song means and too focused on showing off her (sometimes annoying) voice. Among the supporting cast, Christopher Bloch stands out as Anatoly's second, Molokov, and Eleasha Gamble sings beautifully as Anatoly's wife Svetlana, although her acting is marred by theatrical pauses that would put Elaine Stritch to shame. Chess is a reasonably entertaining evening in the theatre, but it would be no less entertaining simply to listen to one of the recorded versions, particularly the Original Broadway Cast CD with the amazing Judy Kuhn as Florence.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Exit/Entrance

The first act of Aidan Mathews' Exit/Entrance features a not particularly likeable old couple; the second act features a not particularly likeable young couple. They may or may not be the same couple. Much of the dialogue is elliptical. The wives want honest conversation; the husbands do not. Since both husbands are self-centered, manipulative, and condescending, it is unclear why their wives love them. Mathews seems to be attempting something along the Beckett-Albee line, but he lacks their wit, intelligence, and ability to be compelling. Linda Thorson rises above the material with a subtle performance that gives her character dimension; the other three performers fail to inflate their cardboard characters.