Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side

Photo: Larry Cobra

David Ahonen's amazing play, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side (directed by the author), deals in contrasts. Its characters are cartoons, yet three-dimensional. The performances are full-bore, with much yelling, yet often subtle. The good guys do bad things and the bad guys do good things (and who is good and who is bad is up for debate). Anarchy is glorified and skewered, and free love is shown to be not all that free. The plot follows a tradition going back to You Can't Take It With You and Arsenic and Old Lace (and probably further back than that): a quirky, nonconformist family is visited by an ostensibly normal person. In this case, the family is composed of two men and two women leading lives of political, financial, and sexual anarchy, and the normal person is a relative who comes for a visit. With Ahonen's constant puncturing of assumptions, anarchy and normal are revealed to be empty terms, and we see how people are the sum of their desires and their deeds, labels be damned. The show is rowdy, silly, funny, and deeply moving. It also includes the funniest nude scene I've ever seen. And the performers, led by the amazing Sarah Lemp and James Kautz, provide everything you could ask for in a meaningful farce.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Barker Poems

Photo: Stan Barouh

Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): The Barker Poems: "Gary the Thief" and "Plevna" on Blogcritics.

Primarily a playwright, Howard Barker proves a really fine dramatic poet as well. The wondrous Robert Emmet Lunney performs "Gary the Thief," which follows said thief through an epic series of existential adventures as he's arrested and imprisoned. "I live among you/Hating you," he addresses us; "I charm you/With the ease of one who holds/All effort in contempt." Mr. Lunney's performance does indeed seem effortless. Breezed from mood to mood by subtle, perfect lighting (Hallie Zieselman) and directed deftly by Richard Romagnoli, Lunney makes Gary a delightful, philosophical, and slightly dangerous rascal.

The second poem, "Plevna," comes to us through the rapid-fire delivery of Alex Draper, who was so fine as Alan Turing in Lovesong of the Electric Bear. Subtitled "Meditations on Hatred," the work is named for a Bulgarian city that was the site of a long siege in the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, but Plevna stands in for all sites where the horrors of war rear up. It's a disturbing, at times bewildering ride, and in the end less successful as a piece of drama than "Gary," perhaps because we simply don't need to be reminded of the endless human cycle of war and atrocities, even from as great a writer as Barker, as much as we need the individual and irreproducible meta-yarns of Everyman-oddities like Gary the Thief, which can challenge our stodgy ways of looking at our violent and beautiful world.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lovesong of the Electric Bear

Photo: Stan Barouh

Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): Lovesong of the Electric Bear on Blogcritics.

Alan Turing—mathematician, code-breaker, war hero, homosexual, victim of state-sponsored chemical castration, suicide—comes across as a tragic figure in just about any telling. But the English playwright Snoo Wilson has done what students of 20th century history might have considered impossible: turned the life of this visionary, who died by cyanide in 1954 just shy of his 42nd birthday, into an epic celebration. He does it through an episodic, half-fantastical trip through the stations of Turing's life, guided by the stuffed bear, Porgy. Turing really did have a Porgy Bear, but here Porgy comes to life as an antic, touchy jester who speaks with a quasi-Shakespearean flair. The script refers to Turing as a genius, but Porgy, played with unflagging energy and broad humor by Tara Giordano, is the genius (in the original sense) of this tale, the representative spirit who draws Alan, Scrooge-like, through scenes of boyhood, the cruelty of public school, hesitant then confident sexuality, cloak-and-dagger war action, and, of course, his work. The fundamental question remains: what was Turing really like? We're asked to take it on faith that he was a socially isolated weirdo, not "comfortable with existence." The Turing we actually get to know here is, with the exception of a scene or two, merely a bit eccentric, and sweet as can be. It would be wrong, however, to ask the play to be something it doesn't set out to be. It's meant, I think, to be a corrective to the tragic aura that suffuses our awareness of Turing.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Father of Lies

Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): Father of Lies on Blogcritics.

Director Jose Zayas's adaptation of Brian Evenson's thriller/exposé is not for the faint of heart. A slowly curdling psychological horror story of sexual abuse, murder, and mutilation, it plunges past merely common evil into that region of nothingness described in the play as making hell seem like "a picnic." Fate closes in around a young Mormon churchman and new father named Fochs, played acutely by the excellent Evan Enderle who clearly conveys the impression the clergyman makes upon his wife and superiors as a mere man, if a serious and vaguely troubled one. His demonic side is so distinct it appears separately, played with delicious, subtle creepiness by Richard Toth. Zayas's nuanced script comes alive through the mouths—and bodies—of his well-chosen cast, including the superb Jocelyn Kuritsky who thoroughly convinces as the trusting wife gradually realizing that the accusations of child abuse brought against her husband by two pious mothers may not be lies—and that Fochs may have even worse within him.

Falling for Eve

Photo: Carol Rosegg

In Falling for Eve, currently playing at the York Theatre Company, Eve (Krystal Joy Brown) eats the apple and wanders the world while Adam (Jose Llana) remains obediently in Eden. God is both an egotistical male (Adam Kantor) and a gospel-singing female (Sasha Sloan), and no snake appears to tempt the first humans. While there's very little there there, the show promises a sweet, non-taxing 90 minutes, and it delivers. The book by Joe DiPietro is light and often funny, and the songs by Bret Simmons (music) and David Howard (lyrics) are accessible at worst and quite good at best. The joy of the current production is the delightful Llana, whose lovely performance is made up of equal parts charm, talent, humor, and sculpted chest (some audience members gasped when his muscular buttocks were briefly on display). I suspect that the often charming, mostly inconsequential Falling for Eve will have a long life in summer stock, regional, and high school productions.

A Little Night Music

If director Trevor Nunn had set out to deliberately produce the worst version of A Little Night Music he possibly could, it would not look significantly different than the lugubrious, heavy-handed, coarse, miscast, and unattractive version currently running at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The set is ugly; much of the cast is too young; the orchestra is way too small; the pacing is off; and it's lit like a tragedy. Stephen Sondheim's and Hugh Wheeler's Night Music is an elegant romantic comedy with an undertone of darkness; Trevor Nunn turns it upside down, with the darkness ascendant and the elegance replaced by in-your-face buffoonery. Poor Ramona Mallory is directed as though Anne is brain-damaged; Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra is charming but reads as though she is in New York in 2010 rather than Sweden 100 years ago; Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is only okay as Henrik; and Aaron Lazar as Count Malcolm has been directed to hold back his glorious voice (why?!). On the other hand, Erin Davie as the Countess does remarkably well with a part she will be ready for in 15 or 20 years, and Alexander Hanson as Fredrik and Keaton Whittaker as Fredrika are both excellent.

Which brings us to Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. Peters is a star, and she brings all of her star power to the table. In her fourth performance she was already quite comfortable in the role, and her "Send in the Clowns" is wonderful. Her acting, never her strong point, is passable, although it does hurt to see some lovely moments go by untapped. For example, at one point Desiree answers a question about whether she still enjoys her life on tour with "Yes. No. No. Yes." For many actresses, this is a chance to encapsulate Desiree's life and reveal her ambivalence and self-deprecating humor. For Peters it is a chance to say "Yes. No. No. Yes." But, overall, her performance is fun.

To the inevitable question as to whether it is fair to review Elaine Stritch at her fourth performance, I can only ask in return, "Is it fair to charge the audience to see her fourth performance?" Since I paid for my own ticket, I feel I have the right to discuss Stritch's work. Well, here goes: she was terrible. Flat-out terrible. First, she didn't know her lines. The conductor had to yell cues to her. Since she is fond of long pauses, there is constant tension as to whether, at any given moment, she is forgetting a line. However, there is a bigger problem than lack of memory in her performance: she isn't giving one. She's doing her "aren't I cute? I'm Stritch!" thing, and while it may work in some roles, it does not work here--her schtick is an embarrassment. However, the audience ate up everything she did. I get it that people are honoring her whole career, but I still find it galling that she is being rewarded for helping to ruin one of my favorite shows. But, hey, Nunn set the path, so why shouldn't Stritch follow it?

Next to Normal

Photo: Joan Marcus

This week I saw Alice Ripley in Next to Normal for the last time. Her performance has deepened and grown in the years since she first appeared in the significantly different earlier incarnation of Next to Normal at the Second Stage--and it was excellent to begin with. What hasn't changed is Ripley's 100% commitment to the part, every single performance. I've seen the show at least 11 times, and each time she has turned herself inside out to give us the full Diana Goodman, psyche, heart, blood, and guts. I don't anticipate seeing a performance like it ever again.

Three other comments: (1) The last few times I have seen Next to Normal, I have been struck by how this unusual and intense story is so well-anchored in the quotidian details of an average family's life: ties get tied, shoes get put on, meals get made, homework gets done. (2) The more I hear the lyrics, the more impressed I am by Brian Yorkey's work: "living on a latte and a prayer," "what doesn't kill me, doesn't kill me" (which was the more usual "what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger" in earlier versions of the show), and "you know I love you--I love you as much as I can" are just some of the excellent snippets, but to do his work justice would require quoting the whole show. (3) Brian d'Arcy James is Dan; J. Robert Spencer was just a thin, uninteresting placeholder. D'Arcy James' Dan is a caring complex man whose behaviors make sense. And d'Arcy James' vibrant and thrilling voice expresses Dan's deepest feelings in a way that Spencer's never even approached.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The Zero Hour

I'm not a hundred percent sure I understand everything that Madeleine George is trying to do in her compelling new play, The Zero Hour, but I am a hundred percent sure that George is an exceptional playwright with a distinctive voice. The Zero Hour focuses on the uneasy couple O and Rebecca. The happily unemployed O, whose name might stand for out, prides herself on being openly gay wherever she goes. She often feels superior to the closeted Rebecca--when she's not prostrating herself at Rebecca's feet. Rebecca loves O and is both embarrassed by and attracted to her torn-jeans butchness. At her publishing job, Rebecca is writing an introduction to the Holocaust for middle-school students--and becoming haunted by Nazis. Playwright George's goals are many: she wants to show how people lie to themselves and each other, how difficult love can be, and how homophobia can shape lesbians' lives, all without being preachy or obvious. She succeeds beautifully. Even more impressive, she discusses the Holocaust in a manner that is respectful but not rigid and even gently suggests that the usual conversations about the Holocaust may not be the right ones. She never resorts to Holocaust cliches.

The protean Hannah Cabell (O and four other characters) and Angela Goethals (Rebecca and both women's mothers) are nothing short of amazing. Each has the ability to change clothing and turn into a different person. It's not just a matter of a mannerism here or a change of voice there (though those are important); Cabell and Goethals inhabit each character to the core. Adam Greenfield directs with a sure hand; I was particularly impressed by his ability to maintain momentum despite multiple scene and costume changes. And kudos to the design team (Mimi Lien, sets; Ben Kato, lights; and Asa Wember, sound) for creating evocative environments, including a convincing effect of a train passing by.