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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Yank!

Photo: Carol Rosegg

While cutting-edge musicals are wonderful (all hail Sondheim!), there's something particularly lovely about traditional musicals covering new ground. Take, for example, the excellent Yank! (finishing its run this weekend at the York Theatre Company), which tells the story of a Stu, a young soldier in World War II who falls in love with one of his squadmates. Using a traditional structure and sound, the brothers Zellnik (music, Joseph; book and lyrics, David) and director Igor Goldin skillfully combine an evocative 1940s-esque score, a romantic storyline, energetic tap numbers and a beautiful ballet, cheerfully stereotypical supporting characters (the soldier from Brooklyn, the Italian-American soldier, etc), life and death issues, and gay history 101 to create a musical that is moving, funny, entertaining, sad, sweet, and meaningful. Bobby Steggert gives a superb performance as Stu. The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Jeffrey Denman, who brings depth to what could have been a one-dimensional character (and also provides the excellent choreography). While I hope this show has the long future it deserves, I was sad to read in Bloomberg News that the producers are holding out for a Broadway run. I totally understand their thinking; they need to maximize their chances of making a profit. But Yank! works perfectly in an intimate theatre. It's a small, emotional story, and unmiked voices suit it well (of course, unmiked voices suit everything well, but that's another story). What a pity that Off-Broadway is no longer an option for most musicals.

[spoilers below]

Online there has been much discussion about Yank! While the buzz is generally extremely positive, there have been some complaints and questions. For example, some people ask if the show needs the dream ballet. I don't know that it needs it, but the choreography is lovely, and I really enjoyed the same-sex romance of it. Second: Is the frame needed? I think the frame is important for one main reason: without it, the show ends on a sad, lonely note. With it, there's a sense of things getting better over time. (On the other hand, that journal would have gotten Mitch in trouble along with Stu and Artie, so its use within the show needs work.) Third: Is the show too preachy? I didn't find it so. I think that people in those circumstances would indeed talk overtly about gay rights, and I found their conversations believable. Forth: Were the men in the steno pool too aggressively fey? I thought so. Yes, there were fey men around in those days, but these performances occasionally cross the line into caricatures.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ching Chong Chinaman

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Boys in the Band

[possible spoilers below]

Rather than a coherent whole, The Boys in the Band comes across as two somewhat-related one-act plays. In the first, a bunch of gay men get together for a party and are snotty, fey, and funny. In the second, things get mean as too much alcohol is consumed, until Michael, the lead character, cries, "Why must we [homosexuals] hate ourselves?" But there is no evidence that the men do hate themselves for being gay. Harold hates being ugly; Donald feels scarred by his parents; Hank wishes that Larry would be monogamous; Larry wishes that Hank would accept an open relationship; Emory wishes he could get laid more often; Bernard wishes that the love of his youth loved him. Given a choice, Hank might choose to be straight, but for most of these men being gay is simply not the issue. It's almost as though author Mart Crowley wrote non-self-hating homosexuals despite himself. (I also didn't buy that even copious amounts of alcohol could turn the people in the first act into the people in the second act.) The not-uninteresting Transport Group Theatre Company production takes place in someone's penthouse rather than in a theatre, offering the audience a nice you-are-there sense of being at the party. However, in order to maintain the illusion, the show is presented without intermission, making the disconnect between the first and second acts even more jarring. The cast is uneven; the strongest performances are given by Jonathan Hammond, Christopher Innvar, and Nick Westrate. Director Jack Cummings III has chosen to pace the show slowly, with frequent, long pauses, particularly in the second act. I imagine he wants the effect to be profound, but it is frequently ponderous.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When the Rain Stops Falling

Family dramas often comprise similar ingredients: multiple generations, estranged relatives, alcoholism and/or drug addiction, long-kept secrets, deep attachments and deeper disappointments, and, perhaps, a touch of adultery, murder, incest, molestation, or some other dramatic sin. The challenge then becomes to present these ingredients in new, surprising, and freshly engaging ways. In When the Rain Stops Falling, author Andrew Bovell, director David Cromer, the designers, and the cast combine their prodigious skills to turn a not-particularly-unusual story into a profoundly emotional, satisfyingly theatrical epic. Their tools include a fractured timeline and poetically repetitive language that heighten the story-telling; compassionate, precise acting that allows the characters a certain grandeur, even when they are far from grand; and design elements that bring the audience into the center of the (physical and emotional) storms on stage. Simply put, the production of When the Rain Stops Falling at Lincon Center does indeed manage to present the familiar ingredients of a family drama in a new, surprising, and freshly engaging way that makes for a thrilling evening in the theatre.

The Book of Grace


photo: Joan Marcus

Elizabeth Marvel is one of the few actors who I'll see in absolutely anything, and you always seems to rise above and deliver when saddled with poor material. Case in point: The Book of Grace, the new play by Pulitzer-winner Suzan-Lori Parks, which is currently receiving a premature world premiere at the Public Theater. Marvel is the titular heroine, a woman whose pursuit of knowledge stands in direct contrast with the wishes of her hard-driving husband (John Doman, appropriately terrifying), an officer in the Texas Border Patrol. When his long-estranged, bi-racial son from a previous marriage (Amari Cheatom) arrives to "forgive but not forget", the fraught atmosphere proves detrimental for Grace, her desire to better herself, and her burgeoning sexuality. Marvel is brilliant at capturing every facet of this complicated character, but Parks has done her a disservice by leaving entire chunks of exposition simply unexplored. It also doesn't help that Cheatom is grimly miscast as the family interloper; he's nowhere near as seething as he should be, and his attempts at anger feel more petulant than anything else. In the end, it's Marvel's show (as usual). Surrounded by text and fellow actors, she still manages to stand alone.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

When The Rain Stops Falling

photo: T. Charles Erickson

Andrew Bovell's dour, downbeat play, which flashes back and forward on several Anglo-Aussie family connections over four generations and eighty years, isn't for passive theatregoers; its ambitious structure demands patience and concentration just to connect who is who (despite the characters' family tree in the Playbill). While anything but formulaic, the structure is too clever by half: we're too often engaged with figuring out why the scenes are laid out as they are than with the emotional content. The reason for the challenging structure seems to be that it allows the playwright to delay the defining, key event that clarifies most of the play's characters, but to what end? Despite a sterling production (under David Cromer's direction) and many superb, detailed "kitchen sink" performances - particularly Mary Beth Hurt as an emotionally isolated alcoholic, and Victoria Clark as a wife slowly losing her sanity - the play is only involving as an intellectual puzzle.

+30NYC

The Red Fern Theatre Company describes +30NYC, its intriguing evening of one-acts, as "new plays imaging the next New York." Actually, New York is only important in a few of the plays; a more consistent theme is that the future is nothing to look forward to. In Tommy Smith's subtle tale, Thirty Story Masterpieces (directed by Jessi D. Hill), a young man (the excellent Brian Robert Burns) visits a middle-aged woman (Corinna May). Their conversation seems relatively innocuous (along the lines of, "Would you like a cigarette?" "Sure, why not?"), but a creepy, heartbreaking subtext gradually becomes apparent. In the confusing play in the Zone, a book becomes the center of a dangerous negotiation as well as a symbol of all that has been lost in playwright Michael John Garc├ęs' dystopia. I suspect this might be a good play, but some of the performers were unintelligible; however, Maria-Christina Oliveras was excellent as the outlaw with nothing to lose. The affectingly creepy Fish Bowl, written by Christine Evans and directed by Melanie Moyer Williams, repeats a set of virtually identical lines, over and over, to limn a world where your body is not your own and no one is to be trusted. My favorite of the one-acts, Remembrance Vessel, smartly written by Ashlin Halfnight and well-directed by Melanie Moyer Williams, provides (welcome!) comic relief as the excellent Jessica Cummings, Kathryn Kates, and, in particular, Jordan Kaplan play people discovering that scientific advances can have surprising consequences. The other three plays, Footprint, Dodo Solastalgia, and Rosa's Little Jar of Fear, are all good; they explore, among other things, modular living, the return of the dodo, and airport security, respectively. In all, +30NYC is a strong evening of theatre and far better written, directed, and acted than many other collections of one-acts I have seen.

Adding Machine: A Musical


Photo: Mark L. Saperstein

My sojourn in Boston has given me, not for the first time, the opportunity to see a show that was well-received in a major New York production that I missed. So, while I can't compare Speakeasy's production of Adding Machine: A Musical to the multi-award-winning New York version, I can say that it's a demanding, rewarding, complex, beautiful piece of work. This staging is graced with a marvelous cast and a rich depth of talent, from the musicians and costumes to the lighting and sound and everything in between. Somehow, through the magic of theater, the bleak and barren story of soul-numbing social repression becomes an astonishingly refreshing and rewarding experience. Beautifully acted and sung, and sensitively directed by Paul Melone, with music brilliantly performed by a band of three, it's a triumph. Don't miss it if you're in the Boston area. It runs through April 10 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Read the full review.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

All About Me

photo: Joan Marcus

Even if you are a fan of both Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna, as I am, you may feel that watching them take turns on, fight over, and share a stage in their duo show All About Me is a case where two equals less than one. The reason these unique, considerable talents have been put together probably has to do with the economic realities of today's Broadway, because nothing else about pairing Feinstein's elegantly phrased romantic crooning with Dame Edna's acerbic shtick seems to make potential sense. It's like chasing champagne with Scotch all night - one kills your taste for the other. Faced with the task of writing material that makes an evening out of two people who don't belong on stage together, Christopher Durang has basically tried to capitalize on the mismatch by underlining it - the show's conceit is that both stars think they are in a solo show but, accidentally double-booked into the same theatre, are forced to share the spotlight. It's the kind of blatantly artificial set-up that went out with yesteryear's TV specials - Judy answering the doorbell for daughter Liza, who's dropped by "unexpectedly" to delighted applause from the studio audience. It takes a certain know-how to sell that kind of pretend, and neither Dame Edna - whose humor is caustic with a smile - nor Feinstein - so earnest when he tells us between his first songs that his childhood was lonely - are that brand of player. The thin plot business is interminable (save for a stage manager, played by Jodi Capeless, who sends the bickering stars off stage to entertainingly steal the spotlight for herself) - you tolerate it waiting for each star to do what he does best. Despite Dame Edna's more outsize stage personality, and her hoot and a half rendition of Beyonce's "All The Single Ladies" that is the show's comic highlight, it's Feinstein who more regularly satisfies his fans. His polished, often sublime American songbook vocal stylings, whether accompanying himself on piano or working the stage backed by the 14 piece orchestra, are swank and swell. (My one complaint: it's 2010, but even this out gay performer changes the "he" in Oliver!'s "As Long As He Needs Me" to "she".)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy in the Poorhouse


Photo: Larry Cobra

Playwright/director Derek Ahonen and the Amoralists specialize in "going there" – that is, where other troupes usually dare not tread. The long opening scene is Ahonen at his best, and he has two fiery actors making it all shine. Now, "going there" is all very well. The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side went where it went with enough focus to sustain itself. Happy in the Poorhouse, though, goes too many places. It has a lot of fun getting there, with memorable characters, much humor, and the kind of elevated working-class writing, self-conscious yet honestly poetic, that marks this playwright as a writer of great talent, and an evident nostalgia for the unsubtle big style of writers of the 1930's. And the troupe is up to the challenge of living his words. What's missing – not throughout, but for significant stretches of both acts – is focus. More characters pile on, announcing themselves with overdone aria-like bombast, and some seem to be there just for local color. Rochelle Mikulich is delightful as Paulie's country-singer little sis, and Matthew Pilieci deserves notice as Mary's preening mailman brother. But the structure feels imposed, the flow uneven. Read the full review.

Sondheim: The Birthday Concert

Photo: New York Philharmonic, Richard Termine

So, is this the Sondheim celebration that Roundabout is doing? No. Is it the one at City Center? No. Is it overkill that so many Sondheim celebrations are being done? NO! The work of Stephen Sondheim is endlessly fascinating, complex, and surprising, and when some of the most talented people on earth perform it, the result is theatrical nirvana. This two-night celebration at the New York Philharmonic added the luxury (and nowadays it is a luxury, alas) of hearing Sondheim's music played by a full orchestra, allowing the expression of the full color, texture, and beauty of his work. In an evening of so many highlights that it was almost overwhelming, some of the super-highlights for me included Marin Mazzie's "Losing My Mind," simultaneously luscious and pointed; Audra McDonald and Nathan Gunn's "Too Many Mornings," gorgeously sung by both of them and gorgeously acted by her; Mandy Patinkin's "Finishing the Hat," hyperintense yet just right; John McMartin's "The Road You Didn't Take," a master class in song acting; and Patinkin and Bernadette Peters' recreation of "Move On," as heartfelt and touching as ever. The show ended with hundreds of performers singing "Sunday" on stage and in the aisles and balconies, which was nothing short of glorious. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, "when a person is tired of Sondheim, that person is tired of life."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Happy in the Poorhouse

Photo: Larry Cobra

What do you get when you mix camp, genuine emotion, and poetry? If you're lucky, you get Happy in the Poorhouse, the Amoralists' new play, beautifully written and directed by Derek Ahonen. Down-and-out fighter Paulie "the Pug"; his sexually frustrated wife Mary; their dumb and egotistical roommate Joey the mailman; Paulie's sister Penny the country-western singer; and Mary's ex-husband Petie the vet are just some of the people fighting for their dreams at the top of their lungs in Paulie and Mary's apartment in Coney Island. Anohen provides them with funny, vivid, and revealing dialogue. At one point Mary says, "So what's your point with all this waxing poetry, Paulie?," and Ahonen indeed "waxes poetry" with a unique combination of malapropisms, vulgarity, and bizarre-but-exact metaphors. Ahonen's breakneck pacing and almost-cartoonish characters provide an entertaining roller coaster ride, yet he and the cast never lose sight of the reality of the believably wounded characters and their deep needs. The superb ensemble--led by James Kautz, sweet and heartbreaking as Paulie, and Sarah Lemp, perfect as Mary--nail their Brooklyn accents and beautifully balance on that thin line between good over-the-top and bad over-the-top. Catch Happy in the Poorhouse now (only $40 for adults and $20 for students), and you'll be able to say that you knew Derek Ahonen and the Amoralists when.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Valley of the Dolls - Actors Fund

The decidedly ridiculous pleasures of Valley of the Dolls, still one of the crown jewels of camp movie trash, made their hilarious way onto the stage for this one-night-only reading to benefit Actors Fund. The casting was inspired, which says something considering the revolving door of talents announced, canceled and replaced along the way. Everybody brought comic skill and an infectious party spirit, most especially the 3 gals in the key roles as friends whose lives are melodramatically warped by show biz and pills. As Neely O'Hara, Heidi Blickenstaff uproariously cribbed and exaggerated Patty Duke's sometimes bizarre performance right down to the pitchfork line readings and herky-jerky dance moves. Her laugh out loud hysterical performance set the tone: this was Valley of the Dolls as might have been done by the Carol Burnett Show troupe. As "good girl" Anne Welles, Martha Plimpton went a different, riskier route than straightforward spoof and put an arch, knowing spin on her lines to sensational effect - in their scenes together, she and Craig Bierko (as Lyon Burke) seemed to be having a contest for Eyebrow Raised Highest. Nancy Anderson, as Jennifer North, hilariously lampooned Sharon Tate's amateurish acting - the blank stare, the flat affect - and yet managed to give the character a stealth poignancy. The evening was overstuffed with priceless one-time performances from ones you expected (Charles Busch, a hoot doing Susan Hayward's Helen Lawson) to one you didn't (Troy Britton Johnson, a riot as cheesy lounge singer Tony Polar). This kind of evening is hard to pull off - a couple of false moves, and you're stuck with miserable failed camp - but director Carl Andress, and all those who contributed, pulled this one off spectacularly.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Happy in the Poorhouse

Photo/Larry Cobra

In honor of Derek Ahonen appropriating the dime-novel romance and turning it into Odets and Williams Gone Wild, I'd like to coin a new word to describe Happy in the Poorhouse: melomedy. I'd then like to clarify that while I didn't think this latest piece from the Amoralists packed as deep a punch as their last show, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, it still absolutely knocked me out. This cast knows how to hit their marks without toppling into absurdity, and though the show gets too big for its own britches (too packed for a drama, too small for a farce), it does so in a confidently Hulking out sort of way. I wish more attention had been spent on the central conceit: Paulie (James Kautz) must work up the confidence to sleep with his wife, the love of his life Mary (Sarah Lemp), before his ex-best-friend (and her ex-husband), Petie (William Apps) returns from Iraq and steals her back. But at least many of the divergences are creative and interesting, and always charmingly played, particularly by people like Matthew Pilieci (and his sexual sight-gags) and Rochelle Mikulich (who brings new meaning to the word mousy). One of the wackier yet more heartfelt lines of the night goes something like this: "If you don't follow your dreams, you'll get eaten by a shark." Ahonen and company have left that shark far behind: they're living their dream, and this is a great start to what's looking like a terrific 2010 season for them.

[Read on]

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Lenin's Embalmers

Vern Thiessen's entertaining, thought-provoking new play, Lenin's Embalmers, tells the true story of former friends called upon to make Lenin's corpse last forever. If they succeed, they will be rich and lauded; if they fail, their lives are over. Vlad (Zach Grenier) is the scientific genius, a drunk who hates the necessary hypocrisies of dealing with the Soviet regime. Boris (Scott Sowers) is the consummate politician, a pragmatist who understands that playing the game is the only road to survival. Out of this dour tale, Thiessen and director William Carden have created a fluid, darkly funny piece about the insanities and horrors of Stalin's regime and how our saints are invented to meet the needs of their time and place. Interestingly, as the embalmers strive to create Stalin's version of Lenin, the playwright creates his own version of Lenin, a wry, sardonic, sad presence, horrified by his deification. This is a first-class production of an excellent play with a uniformly wonderful cast.

Friday, March 12, 2010

God of Carnage


photo: Walter McBride

The newish ensemble that just took over Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning smash--Janet McTeer (the original London Veronica), Jeff Daniels (the original Broadway Alan, now playing Michael), Lucy Liu and Dylan Baker--is easily the finest cast the show has seen yet. As a group they completely click, and each actor gives a near-perfect individual performance. The problem with this is that watching the play filtered through the energy and vitality of this updated group makes you realize how thin and unsatisfying an evening of theatre it is. The comedy only really gets good in the last half hour, once the sparks start to fly, and even then it's little more than the theatrical equivalent of junk food. Any attempt to read social commentary or deep meaning into the text is only wishful thinking. That said, watching McTeer violently pin Daniels onto their couch, or hearing Liu proclaim that she'll wipe her ass with the Bill of Rights in a moment of reckless abandon are worth the price of admission. It may be junk, but right now it's tasting pretty good.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Miracle Worker



There's much to admire in this first Broadway revival of the Anne Sullivan-Helen Keller story - above all else a riveting performance by Abigail Breslin - but, as you've likely already heard, the staging is a serious problem. (It pains me to say it, as I thought director Kate Whoriskey's staging of Ruined last year was flawless.) Presenting this story in the round has to rank as one of the worst ideas in recent Broadway seasons - you can't very well have your deaf and blind central character crossing the room mid-scene so that the other half of the audience can see her, especially when so much of her stage business is sitting and writing letters into the palm of her teacher's hand. With so much non-verbal business, it's especially imperative that the audience be visually connected to the players. My view was so frustrating for the first act that I debated skipping the second, and I could spy seats that were far more problematic than mine. (I'm glad I stayed - no major obstructions to my view after intermission, and the play's final scene is as touching and effective as one could possibly hope.) The ideal seats would appear to be numbered in the 100s and in the low to middle 200s on the even side of the theatre. Sit there.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

As You Like It


photo: Sara Krulwich

Last year, when everyone was raving about Sam Mendes' production of The Winter's Tale, I was imploring everyone and their mother to go see his staging of The Cherry Orchard. It was simply the best production of a Chekhov play that I'd seen in New York in over a decade. Once again, I find myself to be the contrarian voice: people are going crazy over his production of The Tempest, which I found interminable, while I am still in awe of his fresh, beautiful take on one of Shakespeare's most oft-performed comedies, As You Like It. Mendes manages to tap into the resources of subtext behind the playwright's comedic scenarios without sacrificing any of the wonderful, ebullient moments of hilarity. The cast is an embarrassment of riches: Juliet Rylance's perfect Rosalind, Christian Camargo's invigorating Orlando, Stephen Dillane's surly Jaques; even the tiniest roles are played with aplomb. Only one performance remains, this Saturday at 2. Don't miss it.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Glee Club

Some initial impulsive energy screeches to a halt once the implausible plot gets under way. The play devolves into a couple of modestly funny jokes stretched over much too long a time. There's lots of yelling and cursing, without the development of character that makes such moments anything but annoying. The only really appealing character is Paul (Steven Burns), an apparent serial killer whose chilling non sequiturs always draw a laugh. The actors do their best with the weak material, but little good results besides some isolated funny lines. The high point: the song, which after much hemming and hawing the all-male glee club of the title finally manages to sing at the end. It perfectly captures the spirited zaniness the rest of the production only hints at. Read the full review.

The Scottsboro Boys

photo: Carol Rosegg

Even by the vaunted standards of other Kander and Ebb musicals, The Scottsboro Boys is an especially potent mix of bitter social comment and rousing showbiz razzle-dazzle. The real-life story from the Deep South in the 30's - of the infamously unjust arrest and prolonged imprisonment of 9 innocent black men for raping 2 white women - is told as if in vignettes in a minstrel show, a bold and excitingly dangerous theatrical conceit that adds exponential layers of subtext. Unlike the duo's Chicago, also about a miscarriage of American justice and prsented as a vaudeville entertainment, The Scottsboro Boys is palpably discomforting by design - it often aims to make you squirm in your seat as it implicates not only societal racism but the racism of the minstrelry it presents. Except for a rarely intrusive framing story that leads to an unneeded, softening coda (that critics have been kindly asked not to reveal), the musical sustains both a remarkable level of stinging anger and a consistent visceral musical-theatre excitement. There's plenty of praise-worthy craft - director/choreographer Susan Stroman has brought her best game to the staging, the book is purposeful and dynamic, the score is accomplished and often sublime, and the performers (particularly John Cullum, Brandon Victor Dixon, Colman Domingo, and Forrest McClendon) are sensational. But you stagger out of the theatre as you should, somehow altered and thinking not about the parts but about the in-your-face sum. Jolting, serious, thrilling, and absolutely unmissable.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Last Life

Rod Kinter's athletic fight choreography for Last Life, one of the hits of The Brick's recent Fight Festival now enjoying a short encore run at The Ohio, is viscerally exciting and technically impressive (and it's far more convincingly executed than what I'm used to seeing on stage). There's also plenty of it - the show hasn't dubbed itself a "fightsical" for nothing. The rough, decidedly R-rated violent smackdowns are underscored with percussive bursts of music, the way they would be in a film: the sometimes edge-of-your-seat stage combat is the main reason for the play and sure to satisfy action-seekers. Tim Haskell's direction adds great additional vitality thanks to a striking meta-theatrical presentation: for much of the play, the actors are seated facing the audience while delivering their lines to each other. Even cooler is a conceit that regularly has the actors freeze mid-fight while an effects guy applies stage blood. Eric Sanders' script is not always entirely clear in laying out the backstory of the characters and the post-apocalyptic setting, but it does what it needs to do in setting up the combat scenes and it wisely does so with some mitigating humor. Special shout-out to lead actor Taimak Guarriello who, whether delivering deadly roundhouse kicks or spoofing an infomercial with tongue in cheek, capably handles his role's varied demands.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Temperamentals



I had hoped to like The Temperamentals, now transferred to one of the New World Stages, a lot more than I did in its earlier, off-off Broadway incarnation, but by the middle of its first act I was once again slumped in my seat with a case of the Gay History Lesson Blues. The playwright, Jon Morans, should get due socio-cultural credit for dramatizing the mostly overlooked gay rights pioneers who formed the Mattachine Society decades before Stonewall, but did he have to go about it with so heavy a hand? Although the show is not the joyless slog that most "good-for-you" theatre is - there's lively entertainment value in watching the unlikely love relationship unfold between social activist Harry Hay and young fashion designer Rudi Gernreich - it's still essentially the kind of theatre that makes you worry you'll be told to stay after to clap erasers. The playwright makes sure we know that the characters are fighting for something, but that's not as involving as giving them something playable to fight against: the play lacks actable conflict until a new character shows up out of nowhere very late in the first act. The lead performances, by Michael Uhrie and Thomas Jay Ryan, are at all times nuanced and credible, the main reasons to see the show, in fact. Arnie Burton is a clear standout among the otherwise far-from-subtle supporting cast.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Duchess of Malfi

The Red Bull theatre company specializes in "plays of heightened language." Its latest production, an adaptation of John Webster's gruesome tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, certainly fills the bill. Written in the early 17th century center, The Duchess of Malfi follows the misadventures of the titular duchess, a widow who marries the man she loves despite her brothers' having forbidden her to marry at all. The Red Bull production rushes along, even when taking its time would be a better choice. The cast is uneven; many of the performers are unable to navigate the "heightened language" in a way that is interesting, character-driven, and consistently intelligible. However, the production features enough compellingly theatrical moments to make it worth seeing. (I wonder, though, at what point a piece is so "adapted" as to no longer be the play the author wrote. Have I now actually seen Webster's The Duchess of Malfi?)

Romance Romance

Somehow, in all my years of theatergoing, I had never seen this musical. This small off-off production, performed with two keyboards and running through this weekend as part of the Active Theater Company's season, proved an enjoyable and often charming introduction. The show is comprised of two one-act musicals: the first, adapted from a short story and set in late 19th century Vienna, concerns the often whimsical affair between a well-off confirmed bachelor and a socialite who are each secretly slumming; the second, adapted from a French play to take place present-day in the Hamptons, centers on the temptation for romance between a man and a woman who are best friends but married to other people. As the Viennese lovers, Nick Dalton and Abby Mueller make a far more engaging pair than Nathaniel Shaw and Stephanie Youell Binetti, who lack comparative warmth as the modern-day friends. Despite this, and less than ideal design elements, the show is generally delightful and comes off with a good deal of charm. Even if you're familiar with the material, it's worth catching for Dalton and especially for Mueller, who is altogether wonderful.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Marilyn Maye: In Love Again

Let's cut to the chase: if you have any interest in jazz and can swing the ticket price, go see Marilyn Maye at Feinstein's. She's amazing. But, hey, you don't have to take my word for it. Ella Fitzgerald called her "the greatest white female singer in the world." And she's charming and funny too. Her show is called In Love Again, and she loves romance, the audience, and the universe. I wouldn't say she has the greatest voice in the world, but, man, can she deliver a song. In this show, she focuses mostly on old standards but sings songs by Sondheim and Manilow as well. Her Cole Porter medley is primo A1 great. And her band is excellent (Tedd Firth on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass, and Jim Eklof on drums). My only complaint is that she relies too much on medleys and mashups; I wanted to hear her finish "Being Alive" straightforwardly rather than dipping back into "By Myself." (Note: Feinstein's sometimes has $40 seats without a minimum.)

The Miracle Worker

[spoilers below, though I imagine the odds of anyone reading this website not knowing the whole story are slim]

William Gibson's 1959 play, The Miracle Worker, is a bit creaky. Many of the characters are one-dimensional, and the father-not-respecting-the-son-until-he-yells-at-him subplot is the theatrical equivalent of color-by-numbers. Also, the Circle in the Square theatre works against the play. The actors have to carefully contain the physical scenes. The all-important (both pragmatically and metaphorically) doors are only frames within frames, which negates their power yet doesn't stop them from blocking the view of much of the audience. I and dozens of other people missed a chunk of the climactic scene because Abigail Breslin's back was to us (not getting to see the "waa-waa" moment is ridiculous and unacceptable, really). Whatever the limits of this production, however, the play still packs a wallop, and Alison Pill excels at depicting a young woman who has invented herself out of intelligence, anger, strength of will, and compassion.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Legs and All

A girl (Summer Shapiro) attempts to outwit her unwieldy arms and legs by using only her head to eat crackers and winds up doing a hand-stand atop a box as she tries to reach a morsel that's fallen to the floor. A boy (Peter Musante) attempts to steal a misplaced ball without being noticed, unaware that his suspender is tangled up in a loud suitcase. Apart, they're endearingly comic; together, they're relentlessly charming. Legs and All is a terrifically inventive, perspective-shifting physical work, and it successfully lives up to its subtitle, "A magical look at the mundane." I couldn't possibly gush enough: go and see it.

[Read on]

The Wonder


Photo: Bob Pileggi

Farce is difficult to pull off. Farce on a low budget, with no actual doors to slam, is even more difficult to pull off. But the talented Queen's Company, an all-female troupe, do more than pull off The Wonder, an early 18th-century farce by Susanna Centlivre. They triumph. The Wonder pivots on young lovers, avaricious fathers, and mistaken identities. As adapted and directed by Rebecca Patterson, it includes pantomime, dancing, and rock music; I particularly enjoyed the use of Cat Stevens' song Father and Son. The entire cast is excellent, and the women playing the men's roles are amusing and convincing. In an interview on nytheatre.com, Patterson said, "if you just cast men in the male roles there is limited opportunity for female actors to act in classical productions—there is no reason why the wealth of talent of our female actors should be denied access to playing the male classical roles." It is sad to contemplate that some of the women in The Wonder will not have the careers they deserve because they don't match some template of gender, looks,weight, and race. May the Queen's Company live long and continue to gift us with their talent.

The Jackie Look

In The Jackie Look, famed performance artist Karen Finley plays an angry, bitter version of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, back from the dead. (Jackie doesn't overtly mention that she knows she's dead, but it's clear she does.) Using projected photographs and visits to relevant websites, this Jackie offers a presentation on how the media--and the public--fed on her fame and the frequent tragedies she suffered, while ignoring her actual accomplishments. Finley's point is legitimate, but not new or remarkable, and while she provides some deeply emotional moments, the piece is overlong and disjointed. The most interesting parts of the evening, for me, were the sections that she read from pages on music stands, but she zipped through them so quickly and awkwardly that it was hard to digest her words. Fewer words, more accessibly presented, would have been more powerful. I also think that Finley is arguably guilty of the exact sin she's finding in others--using Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for her own ends.