Wednesday, June 29, 2011


The magic of Zarkana begins as soon as you enter the gorgeous lobby at Radio City Music Hall. It may take a moment to notice amid the hubbub of the crowd, but there's a white-faced muscular man almost floating above you, singing a mysteriously alluring song. And then there's the Rag Doll woman with her liquid black eyes and impressively creepy rag doll. And . . . well, I don't want to say too much.

Once you're inside and the show begins, your eyes and mind are fed almost to bursting with staggering acrobatic acts, stunning 3D projections (designed by Raymond St-Jean) that seem like full-bodied holograms, and other-worldly costumes (designed by Alan Hranitelj). The stark, dramatic lighting (by Alain Lortie) throws huge shadows on the walls, so that watching the acrobats' shadows is almost as compelling as watching the acrobats.

And, oh, the performers! Carole Demers' jumps and flips on the Russian Bar make Olympic gymnasts seem like wimps. Maria Choodu's juggling is impressive and also beautiful. The trapeze artists utilize four platforms instead of two to allow frighteningly intricate flips and catches. Erika Chen's sand painting is an elegant and welcome respite from the intensity of the acrobatics. Ray Navas Velez and Rudy Navas Velez make you believe that the Wheel of Death is well-named--especially when one of them jumps rope in midair for 10 seconds or so. And Anatoly Zalevskiy uses every one of his perfect muscles in his hand-balancing act, which combines the athleticism of a sport with the beauty of a ballet.

One complaint: there is too much music and it is too loud. Much of it is beautiful, and the singers are excellent, but I would have preferred it to fade into the background during the acts, particularly during the subtlety of the sand painting and hand balancing. There are times the music almost feels assaultive.

Overall, however, Zarkana is glorious.

(press ticket, 31st row, center)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Two Days 'Til Dawn

[spoilers below]

Sol is in trouble. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot write anymore. He can drink. He can make a mess. He can whine. He can speak with great eloquence. He can have a nervous breakdown and chat with  literary figures of the past. But he cannot write. He didn't even win the poetry contest he entered. His wife did.

And here's where Two Days 'Til Dawn, by Tyler Ham Pong, starts to fall apart. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that it splits into two.

On one hand, we have Sol's fantasy world. Pong shows some originality here, and while the visits from the literary figures are a little mannered and predictable, they are intriguing. The play that takes place in Sol's head has the potential to be an interesting one.

The play that takes place in Sol's life, however, is overloaded and unrealistic. Sol's a novelist, so his wife keeps asking him why he writes poetry at all--but he came in second in the contest, which surely shows some talent. And while his wife is worried that Sol will find out that she won the contest--she entered anonymously--it turns out that he has known all along. But there is no explanation of how he knows, which makes it sound as though there are maybe five poets in the entire world entering contests.

Also, while the prize for the contest is never specified, it sounds like much more money than any poet ever gets for anything. Sol also seems to have made an unusually large amount of money for his fiction. And all this matters, because it turns out that Sol's brother Charlie has been stealing from him due to jealousy, resentment that Sol never told Charlie that Charlie was adopted, and greed. This ostensibly major revelation has little emotional punch because the audience hasn't had the opportunity to get involved with Sol and Charlie as people, and because the combination of the writer's block, the writing competition between the spouses, Sol's nervous breakdown, and Charlie's betrayal is too much for a one-hour play. Oh, and there's maybe a baby who died and maybe a pregnancy now.

The play might have come across better if director Laura Sisskin-Fernández had insisted that her actors consistently enunciate and project, and if she had enticed better performances out of the three supporting cast members. On the other hand, Geoffrey Pomeroy as Sol is nothing short of amazing. He inhabits Sol fully and bravely, and he makes sense of the character's ups and downs and ins and outs, even bringing a bit of charm to his despair.

While there is much wrong with Two Days 'Til Dawn, Pong is a writer to keep an eye on. He aimed high with this show, which is admirable, and there were definite moments of wit, lyricism, and intelligence.

(press ticket, fourth row on the aisle)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Finding Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor
as Elizabeth Taylor

The one-woman show Finding Elizabeth Taylor started late today because of technical difficulties. At one point, the star and playwright, Elizabeth Taylor, came out and chatted with the audience. She took questions, and she was charming and funny. Unfortunately, she was less interesting during the actual show.

Finding Elizabeth Taylor is a series of scenes about this Elizabeth Taylor's life. Sometimes Taylor plays herself, sometimes other people, and sometimes the world-famous Elizabeth Taylor. The scenes are separated by screens moving across stage, leaving various props and furniture as they go. The screens soon become annoying and give a staccato feel to the show.

Taylor is a good actress and a good writer, but the show doesn't coalesce. The charming person who took questions isn't there, and the show wanders from theme to theme (individuality, dealing with ridicule, weight issues, activism) without adding up to a cohesive whole. I admire Taylor's energy and skills, and I appreciate that she works so hard to show rather than tell. However, some narration might give the show a much-needed spine. As it is, Finding Elizabeth Taylor is too scattershot to be the show that it might be.

(press ticket, fourth row)

The Eyes of Babylon

By coincidence, I saw three plays about soldiers in Iraq this weekend (in order of viewing): Ajax in Iraq (not reviewed), Goliath, and The Eyes of Babylon. The Eyes of Babylon is the only one that was written and acted by a Iraq war veteran. How odd, then, that it turned out to be anticlimactic.

Jeff Key joined the marines in his thirties, eager to defend the constitution, protect defenseless people, and promote peace on earth. Once in Iraq, he had to deal with the fact that he was doing none of those things. In addition, as a gay man he was forced to stay in the closet, which is a galling location for someone whose dream is to fight for freedom for all.

The Eyes of Babylon is structured as a series of vignettes based on Key's journal entries, some of which are considerably more compelling than others. The best is the story of flirting with an Iraqi man in a code that they invent as they speak. Key is also good with the particulars of daily noncombat life as a marine in Iraq, from the sort of food eaten to the interactions with other marines to the graffiti on the walls of the port-o-potty. But the show meanders and runs too long, and Key is not a good enough performer to bring to full life the other people he wants us to meet. By the time Key is sent home for hernia surgery, The Eyes of Babylon has lost its focus.

Key has a lot to say, and his writing is often strong. However, I would have been more affected by The Eyes of Babylon as a series of essays.

(press ticket, third row on the aisle)

Goliath: A Choreopoem

M. Scott Frank

When I tell you the plot of the choreopoem Goliath, written by Takeo Rivera and directed by Alex Mallory, you may find it cliche: David, a smart and sensitive teenager, joins the military to prove to his hypercritical father that he is a man. However, as beautifully rendered by Rivera, Mallory, and an excellent cast, there is nothing here that is anything less than fresh, honestly emotional, heartbreaking, and true. Rivera and Mallory use scenes and monologues, choral testimony and hard-hitting visuals to find new ways to say something simple but profound: war is a perversion of humanity. It has its own momentum and twisted logic and it can anti-alchemize good into evil.

Rivera explains why he needs to say that which has been said before:

Ladies and gentlemen,
this is the poem written and rewritten
because our memories last only as long as our consciences
and our consciences last as long as they're convenient
this is the poem written in Troy, in China, in Bangladesh,
in Germany, in Zaire, in America, in the Holy Land
mathematical, universal
so it can be read by all

And Rivera knows that the road to universality is careful details. David is this particular teen, with this particular dominating father, in this particular culture. Every character is multidimensional despite the brevity of the piece (forty-five minutes), and Rivera's rich, robust language says more in five minutes than many plays manage in fifty.

M. Scott Frank, as David, gives a vivid, subtle, brilliant performance as good as any I've seen in years. Although David works hard to be guarded, Frank allows his emotions and true soul to come through, and it is because we know David so well that the ultimate horror of the piece is so very very horrible. The rest of the cast is also top-notch: Samantha Cooper, Dontonio Demarco, Natalia Duong, Edgar Eguia, Elmer King, and Monique Paige.

My sole complaint about this production is that an audience discussion was started too quickly after the show ended. I, for one, needed to just sit with my feelings.

My thanks to Poetic Theater Productions Co-Artistic Director Jeremy Karafin for gently nudging me into seeing Goliath.

(press tix, good seats)

The Importance of Being Earnest

Having actors direct is always a tricky prospect. It's complicated even further when the actor who is directing is also playing a leading role in the same production. That's the main problem with Brian Bedford's oddly static production of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, currently entering its last week of performances at The American Airlines Theatre. As played out on Desmond Heeley's gorgeous set, the actors move around awkwardly and deliver Wilde's brilliant bon mots with very little commitment. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that its six months into a long Broadway run, but it's hard to imagine Charlotte Parry's almost indescribably cloying Cecily or David Furr's deadly stiff Jack Worthy ever seeming fresh. Bedford's Lady Bracknell is at least entertaining, but that has more to do with camp than the shaping of an actual performance. As the playwright himself once wrote: "The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

($20 tickets, Row E of the mezzanine)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Company: The Movie

When you have a chance to hear the New York Philharmonic play a Stephen Sondheim score, you just go. Whatever else happens, you will hear the songs differently, more fully, willingly drown as the music washes over you, and you will not regret a note. When the Philharmonic is performing under the direction of Paul Gemignani, Poseidon himself is commanding the waves. Get wet, even if you have to occasionally hold your nose and even if the production is Company.

Company is a mess of a show. I've never particularly cared for it. Few of Sondheim's songs, brilliant as some might be, move the story along; and it's a story that needs to be moved along already. Of course, George Furth's scenes are hard to move. They're all spokes and no wheel. So, the benefits of a staging are obvious--focus on the essentials, make it an event instead of a production, and secure a cast that will blow your mind. Unfortunately, Bobby's birthday candles got a better blowing than my mind, and he couldn't even earn a wish.

This staging has a lot going for it, much to enjoy; but it isn't a satisfying feast overall. It is more of a tasting menu of marshmallows, each a delicious treat on its own but as a meal, not easy to get through, not a particularly good idea, and you won't be able to take another bite but you'll still be hungry. And, ultimately, it's all just fluff.

Now, some of that fluff is absolutely delicious. Christina Hendricks is perfection as a not-so-bright lay-over. She alone could drive a person crazy (were that she had--I've never heard that song sung worse). Usually, baby-doll voiced singing makes my ears bleed, but Hendricks not only makes a beautiful sound, she makes sense. Martha Plimpton proves again to be a reliable pinch hitter--hitting all the right notes, the right jokes, and the right balance. Katie Finneran does what she always does, no surprises, but she does it so well, you don't even care that you've seen the same performance every time she's taken the stage.

Neil Patrick Harris, as Bobby, has the difficult task of playing host and narrator for two and a half hours. He had thrilled me just three nights earlier on the Tonys--hosting, narrating, singing, entertaining, dancing, and delighting for over 3 hours. He's good at the joke, the snark, and the charm. He's less interesting playing angst, conflict, and insobriety. He sang nicely, though occasionally flat. He did everything nicely, though occasionally flat.

The women, in general, fared better than the men. Stephen Colbert deserves a really big, thanks-for-coming, participant ribbon (he shows the signs of someone who could really tear loose were he a bit more comfortable which may say more about the reheasal schedule than his abilities, and I am certainly ready to see him in whatever he attempts next); Jon Cryer did little with the little he had to do; and Aaron Lazar brought the yin of boredom to the yang of Craig Bierko's weirdom. Jim Walton was a pleasure.

In addition to the women above, Jennifer Laura Thompson stood out as a charmingly controlled wife enjoying a few uncontrolled moments. Jill Paice was an insconsistently southern belle, but she sopranoed the hell out of the thankless parts of Not Getting Married Today. Anika Noni Rose was surprisingly average. Chryssie Whitehead has very interesting feet. Patti LuPone can be amazing. I saw her sing The Ladies Who Lunch live at Sondheim's birthday celebration, right in front of Elaine Stritch. That takes balls. No problem, Patti has balls. I think they're Andrew Lloyd Webber's. It was a powerful performance. In this staging, she once again delivered a powerful performance of the song, but she lost the character, why she sings it, to whom she sings it, the death of it. And when did she start singing like Popeye? I couldn't tell if she was trying to give a blow job to a right angle or having a stroke.

The costumes were the perfect hint of the period without becoming silly. The singing set movers managed both without hiccup.

If Lonny Price, the reigning King of stagings, were directing a lab rat through a maze, history tells me they'd both get lost, which is pretty surprising for two such connoisseurs of cheese. He is a graduate of the revolving door school of directing--all entrances and exits and going round in circles. This time he's added more furniture than usual but little else. If Sondheim ever writes a musical that takes place in Raymour and Flanigan, Lonny Price should be his first call.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Elegant Songs from a Handsome Woman: Ana Gasteyer at Feinstein's

A good cabaret act often includes a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Ballads. Anthems. Standards. Novelties. Anecdotes. Audience participation. Shtick. Piano player-performer repartee. Reminiscing. And so on. With the proper recipe, these bits add up to brilliance. Without the proper recipe, they can seem scattered and random and even dull.

Ana Gasteyer's recipe needs work.

This is not to say that she doesn't have her moments. Some of her stories are quite funny, and her tale of how she met her husband is sweet. She's strong with novelty songs such as "Proper Cup of Coffee," and her choice of songs is interesting and unusual, including "Titwillow," an updated version of "I'm Hip" (with lyrics such as "James Franco is my Facebook Friend"), "The Book of Love," Chuck E's in Love," "Slap That Bass," and "Valley of the Dolls." She uses the mike well (a rarity in younger performers) and makes sure to play to everyone in the room. She is extremely likeable.

But . . .

Her voice is surprisingly thin for someone who played Elphaba in Wicked. Her interpretations have a sameness to them. Some of her stories drag on too long. Most importantly, despite hard preparation, good will, and the expenditure of a great deal of energy, she lacks that spark that makes an evening shine. Rather than a glorious meal, she presents a few good dishes.

(press ticket, nice seats to audience left)

Friday, June 10, 2011

War Horse

Okay, I am late to the rodeo. Nevertheless. . .

Imagine how much more brilliant Lion King could have been if Julie Taymor had spent even a fraction of her time during the development period focusing on what the actors behind the masks were doing. War Horse offers a powerful argument for equal time on both sides of the mask, all credit to directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris and the designers at the Handspring Puppet Company. Both represent thrilling concepts that enliven otherwise scant scripts, masking the deficiencies therein literally. Only War Horse forces the actors to inhabit the masks and not just relying on the masks to inhabit the stage.

The actors inhabiting the horses at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont are working as hard and providing performances as good as any I have seen on Broadway this season, and they end up not humanizing the horses but humanizing the humans who share the stage. I grew up around horses, was nearly thrown from one at a young age, and haven't had a lot of use for them since. My sister, however, speaks a language with her horses I will never understand and shares a bond, a deep connection and compassion she does not share with most strangers and reserves for relatively few whose names she knows. (If I and her horse had a broken leg and she were left with one bullet and a choice, the only thing I am certain about is she'll shed more tears over the horse's pain and whichever one she doesn't put out of its misery gets a visit from the vet.) I haven't seen a lot of that loyalty since I left the farm, but this production captures the flinches and whinnies and shadowing I've observed from a cantered distance in real life. The relationships created on stage were simultaneously true and real and theatrical.

But War Horse is as much about war as it is about horses--pro the latter and anti the former. It makes tangible that the damage of war is not collateral but brutal and personal. Without preaching, War Horse demonstrates that we are all beasts, discardable and dangerous in the eyes of an enemy. War is in some ways about blind allegiance, to country, to cause, and to comrades. Joey, the title horse, serves loyally, with the immediacy battle demands and, just like any soldier, may walk away from war wounded wanting no more reward than home and security with loved ones. War Horse is not anti warrior, just anti war.

The production transcends personal beliefs. It isn't trying to change your mind about war. Like all great theatre, it is most invested in taking you on a journey. And what a splendid journey it is. From the set and lighting design to the best use of a turntable I've seen in ages, if ever, to the haunting music and stellar cast, especially Peter Hermann, Alyssa Bresnahan, and Boris McGiver as humans and all of the actors who horsed around on stage (at the performance I attended: Stephen James Anthony, David Pegram, Leenya Rideout, Joby Earle, Ariel Heller, Enrico D. Wey, Joel Reuben ganz, Tom Lee, and Jude Sandy who did double duty as the best Goose since Top Gun).

I am now officially on board to see anything the Handspring Puppet Company mounts.

(Loge, audience right, full price ticket )

Thursday, June 09, 2011

One Arm

Claybourne Elder, Todd Lawson
(photo: Monique Carboni)
The New Group & Tectonic Theater Project's ponderous production of Tennessee Williams' One Arm, adapted from his unproduced screenplay and directed for the stage by Moisés Kaufman, does little to demonstrate Williams' genius, compassion, and humor. Granted, this is far from Williams' best work, and the genius and humor are in fairly short supply. But the story does feature compassion, along with some interesting characters and a reasonably interesting story--theoretically, anyway. Here they are hidden by an uninteresting, unnecessarily one-dimensional darkness.

Ollie Olsen (Claybourne Elder) is a boxer. It fact, he is light-heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet, as he mentions frequently. Ollie loses his arm in a gallingly stupid accident and finds himself without both his trade and his sense of self. Having few options, Ollie becomes a street corner hustler. He believes that some of his Johns are turned on by his injury, which infuriates him. Whether he is homosexual or not is left unspecified and is probably unimportant. What is important is that he is a ticking time bomb, detached from his kinder feelings and seething with anger.

In directing One Arm, Kaufman has chosen to retain the film structure. A narrator (Noah Bean) reads scenery descriptions and stage directions, and hanging lamps play the role of Klieg lights on a set. The narrator and the rest of the cast share a flat, affect-less tone, which keeps the audience at arm's length. Few scenes are emotionally compelling. Ollie is so cold and whiny that one can't help but occasionally think, "Okay, you've had a tough time--get over it!" As for the other characters, most do not come across as distinct, believable people, and the prison guard and the porn director are both out of a bad B movie. Only the Johns have genuine humanity, revealed in their fear of approaching the beautiful Ollie and their heartbreaking gratitude at being able to touch him.

Overall, One Arm doesn't work as anything other than an uncompelling museum piece. Kaufman's odd direction is clearly an artistic decision, but not, I think, an effective one. Stylization is one thing; freezing out the audience is another.

(press ticket, 6th row on the aisle)


As a playwright, Jez Butterworth seems to be keenly interested in the implied. The words that he puts in his characters' mouths are often meant to signify something that's three steps removed from what was actually said. This worked to varying degrees in Butterworth's 2007 play Parlour Song, in which a man tries to understand why his wife begins stealing everyday items from their home and storing them in their shed. It works less well in his newest play, Jerusalem, which is currently bowing on Broadway after a successful London run in 2009. The difference here is that the former play was a Pinteresque chamber drama; this new work is an overstuffed epic in the vein of O'Neill or August Wilson. The extreme ambiguity of much of the language and the banality of the actual work itself leave the audience wondering what they've spent three hours watching was supposed to mean.

On the morning of St. George's Day, "Rooster" Johnny Byron (Mark Rylance) is being evicted from his home. The term "home," in the literal sense, could be an exaggeration--he has been squatting in the forest that surrounds the village of Flintock for twenty-nine years, surviving on a steady diet of drugs, booze and debauchery. Now that a new development of mini-mansions has been erected in spitting distance from Rooster's lean-to, the borough has finally taken action to remove him from his bacchanalian post. The actual play revolves around the hours leading up to the eviction, where he and his cohorts (performed by acclaimed British actor Mackenzie Crook and Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr, among others) continue to live life their own way, with the prospect of dire consequences always looming.

The play's title is taken from William Blake's 1804 poem "And did those feet in ancient time," which was set to music during World War I and is colloquially known as "The Jerusalem Hymn." According to a program note from director Ian Rickson, this hymn holds strong significance to the English people, and "has been claimed both by workers' groups and The Conservative Party." Therefore, it holds meaning to every English citizen, no matter how they identify themselves. Butterworth's play seems to represent this--the McMansions that force Rooster's eviction obviously stand in for the "dark Satanic mills" that Blake used to represent the Industrial Revolution, while the conservative village people who want to cut Rooster loose believe that they are doing so in order to "build Jerusalem / In England's green and pleasant land." Unfortunately, neither makes a particularly compelling case.

It doesn't help that Rooster is one of the most unsympathetic characters in recent memory. Much like another "lovable" character in an acclaimed British play--Hector, the handsy schoolmaster in Alan Bennett's worthless History Boys--the audience is supposed to be transfixed and beguiled by a waster who benefits from manipulation and the lowered expectations of others. Rooster provides drugs and has sex with teenagers, while neglecting his own six-year-old son (who appears briefly, accompanied by his mother, played by the fine Irish actress Geraldine Hughes). It doesn't help that Rylance's performance is Master Thespian to the hilt--which seems to be what we've come to expect from this particular actor. The halting speech, the kinetic movements, the constantly shifting voice's all there. The audience I attended with leapt to their feet at curtain; I simply groaned.

I am not the ideal customer for this play. As noted, I'm not the hugest fan of Rylance's bag of tricks, nor am I an Anglophile. I'd never heard of St. George's Day, and despite holding a master's degree in poetry, my only experience with William Blake was in a poetry survey my freshman year of college. Still, I cannot imagine why so many people have fallen over themselves to rave about a play that is both overstuffed and undercooked.

I also want to note the trouble I had hearing most of the cast throughout the performance. Rylance has stated in interviews that he is passionate performing without amplification; this is a noble goal, but it only works if every member of the cast is able to achieve sustained projection that feels natural. When I saw Rylance in La Bete six months ago--in the same theatre, from roughly the same seat--I had no problem hearing him or any of the cast. Yesterday, the company ranged from consistently audible (Rylance, Hughes, Alan David) to patchy (Gallagher, Max Baker) to completely inaudible throughout (Crook, Molly Ranson, Aimee-Ffion Edwards). Projection is a hallmark of the theatre, where the use of body microphones has only been standard for roughly twenty years. If you cannot project, you shouldn't be on stage.

(Seen at the matinee performance on June 8. TDF tickets; Orchestra M4).

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

You Make Me Feel So Young: Barbara Cook at Feinstein's

Photo: Mike Martin

Barbara Cook. What do you think of when you hear that name? A pure soprano? Glitter and Be Gay? The queen of cabaret singers? The Music Man? Sondheim? An unparalleled interpreter of the American Songbook? Delightful raconteur? All of the above?

One phrase I never would have thought of is jazz singer! Until last night.

Cook's new show, You Make Me Feel So Young, at Feinstein's through June 18, includes 13 songs she has never sung before, along with some familiar favorites. Cook pointed out that 13 songs are a lot to learn and asked that we "be kind." But no kindness was necessary. Aside from a couple of messed-up lyrics, which she made charming, Cook was comfortable, assured, and, oh yeah, brilliant. She went new places (new to me at least), including extended scatting and surprising jazz phrasing.

Her set ranged from the slow, thoughtful, and heartfelt to swinging. In the first category were "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face," sung with piano only, and a yearning "I've Got You Under My Skin" with a gorgeous clarinet-centered arrangement by Cook and her music director, Lee Musiker. On the other end of the spectrum was a delightful, jazzy "The Frim Fram Sauce" and a wry "Wait 'Til You're Sixty-Five," sung with amused recognition that, for Cook, 65 was some time ago. Other highlights included "You Make Me Feel So Young," "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?", and "Live Alone and Like It."

As an added bonus, Cook's patter is great fun. She knows how to tell a story, and she has  funny stories to tell. I particularly enjoyed her tale of how she discovered the song "Love Is Good For Anything That Ails You." I'll only say that it includes the phrase "cat house."

And Cook's band--Lee Musiker on piano, Warren Odze on percussion, Jay Leonhart on bass, and Steve Kenyon on woodwinds--is fabulous.

Were there some missteps? One or two. "When I Look Into Your Eyes" was less than compelling, and I flat out dislike the song, "I'm a Fool to Want You."

But, who cares? It's Barbara Cook, still challenging herself, still surprising, always wonderful.

(press tix, nice seats behind the piano)

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Addams Family

Okay, the critics were right, The Addams Family is a total mess. Its creators were clearly so caught up in devising their own unique blend of extra-schticky vaudeville, self-referential pomo show, ‘80s mega-musical and Golden Age-throwback that they forgot to write a coherent book, develop much in the way of approachable characters, bother composing memorable songs, or devising lyrics that made even a little bit of sense. The show trades in groan-inducing jokes and double-entendres, not-especially-dazzling choreography, a few vaguely impressive belters, and the familiarity of the characters, who are drawn less from the classic comic strip than from the somewhat less-classic TV show. So, you know, not the greatest musical in the world, even as lowbrow standards go.

But you know what? A few hours of especially dumb humor can be awesome if you’re in the right mood for it. And in this case, I was, for a whole number of reasons, none of which involved taking drugs or drinking copious amounts of booze before curtain-time. Having read all the terrible reviews over a year ago, I had particularly low expectations. I paid less than forty bucks per ticket (thanks, as always, TDF!), and went on a pleasant Sunday afternoon with two very good friends and our three very good, delightfully enthusiastic eight-year-old kids, at least one of whom has been asking repeatedly to see the show since it opened. Labor of love, I figured. Plus, I like Bebe Neuwirth, who I suspect is bionic, and Roger Rees, who seems here to be having an absolute blast playing Nathan Lane as Gomez Addams. Plus, the very sight of the brilliantly weird Jackie Hoffman always makes me guffaw like an idiot.

But wait! I’ll admit to even more: Sometimes, I like to put my avowed snobbishness aside long enough to revel in a few astoundingly stupid dick-jokes or, it turns out, to giggle uncontrollably at songs about sexing up a giant squid. Back in the 1990s, I got sick to death of all the stage gimmickry that was in vogue then, but I nevertheless still rather enjoy the occasional trick involving puppets, black lights, hydraulic lifts and trap-doors. The Addams Family, of course, offers up all this stuff, and then some: The stage of the Lunt-Fontanne is swathed by a huge, red velvet curtain that has its own choreography, and that might well be worth the price of admission all by itself.

The upshot? Our kids were mesmerized, and as tickled by the puerile humor as I was (well, they totally dug all the poop jokes; the bluer ones soared mercifully over their heads). And I enjoyed myself, too. Would I have felt the same way had I paid top-dollar for this show, or seen it with comparatively humorless grownups, or less scatology-obsessed children? Hells no. Was it Great—or even Remotely Good—Art? Double hells no. But as it was, I have no regrets—nor am I as embarrassed as I thought I’d be to admit that I came away rather charmed by this stone-soup mess of a musical.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Orpheus & Euridice

Ricky Ian Gordon's gorgeous chamber piece, Orpheus & Euridice, is being given an excellent production by The Orpheus Project and Collaborative Stages through June 12th. If luscious song cycles with a glorious sound somewhere between musical theatre and opera are your cup of tea, don't miss this!

Gordon's 55-minute Orpheus & Euridice features three performers: a clarinet player as Orpheus, a soprano as Euridice, and a pianist. In this production, husband and wife Ryan Dudenbostel and Heather Dudenbostel play the leads. While not every real couple has onstage chemistry, the Dudenbostels do, much to the benefit of the piece. Heather D. sings Euridice beautifully (though she is occasionally shrill), and her acting is simple and effective. Ryan D. dances through his role, first as a charming sprite and later as a mournful force of nature. His sheer likeability adds a great deal to his performance, and his ability to act while playing the clarinet is impressive. Pianist Jad Bernardo provides top-notch support with his wonderful, sensitive playing. The three performers have melded into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are damned good to start with!

Stephen Sondheim is on record as saying that too many reviewers write about music without really knowing much about music. I have to plead guilty to this charge. I am sure there is more to be said about Orpheus & Euridice by people who have the knowledge and vocabulary. Nevertheless, I remain confident that this is an outstanding production of an outstanding piece.

(I do wish I knew whether the lack of clarity of the lyrics is Heather D.'s fault or just the inevitable result of her needing to hit those operatic notes. Either way, I recommend that you read the lyrics provided in the program before the show starts.)

The piece is smartly directed by Brian Letchworth. Zhuojie Chen's projections add an extra dimension both visually and emotionally. And compliments also to graphic designer Patrick Sullivan for his attractive and wry graphic (shown here).

(Press ticket, third row on the aisle.)

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Panel June 9 at 4:30: The Benefit of Bloggers

I'm very pleased to announce that June 9th I will be part of a panel on theatre blogging. I hope you can come! (It's free. More info below.)

The panel is part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, "New York’s premiere eco-friendly/socially-conscious theatre festival." The Festivity brings together "like-minded individuals striving to create professional, meaningful theatre, while supporting organizations that give back to the community at large."

The panel will discuss such topics as
  • The role of the theatre blogger/reviewer
  • The importance of independent blogs/voices in the theatre review scene today
  • Why theatre bloggers do what they do
  • Why theatre bloggers matter for indie theatre
  • The difference between a theatre blog review and a traditional newspaper/magazine review
  • The future of the theatre blog
Other participants will include Jody Christopherson, New York Theatre Review; Byrne Harrison, Stage Buzz; and Adam Rothenberg,  adaumbellesquest. The panel will be moderated by Molly Marinik, Theatre Is Easy.
    Thursday, June 9th, 4:30 pm
    The Robert Moss Theatre, 440 Studios
    440 Lafayette Street
    New York, NY 10003-6919

    For further information, go to

    I hope you can make it!

    By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

    I saw Lynn Nottage's new play this afternoon--ironically, two years to the day after I first saw her Pulitzer-Prize winning Ruined. In those two years, rarely a day has passed when I haven't considered the power of that play. Nottage is a writer of rare talent and clarity; her language is often simple and restrained, and the audience member is keenly aware that each word she puts in her character's mouth has been carefully considered. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is easily the best American play I've seen in over a year, and Jo Bonney's fast-paced, attractive production is its perfect compliment. It also benefits from an unforgettable, beautifully realized performance from Sanaa Lathan in the title role; were this production in a Broadway house, the Tony would be hers in a walk. (This fine actress only appears in New York about once a decade; Ms. Lathan, please make your appearances more regular!) The entire cast is wonderful, but special mention goes to Kimberly Hebert Gregory, at once hilarious (a sample line: "He won't send you out unless you give him a blow job and twenty-five dollars...and I'm not about to give him twenty-five dollars!") and keenly aware that 1930s Hollywood only sees her as a representative of the mammy archetype.

    ($34 youth tickets; E104. Seen at the matinee on 6/4/11)

    Friday, June 03, 2011

    By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

    If you wanted to explain the concept of "range," you could do worse than to compare Lynn Nottage's current comedy, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, to her recent devastating drama, Ruined. Few playwrights, if any, can write so effectively, so honestly, and so beautifully at both ends of the theatre spectrum. Certainly not O'Neill or Miller, both of whom veered toward the ponderous. Not Williams (though he considered Streetcar funny). Albee has played with humor, but has written no flat-out comedies. Ditto Kushner. Only Michael Frayn comes to mind, with his Noises Off and Copenhagen, but while that's quite a range, it still isn't as impressive as the distance from Vera Stark to Ruined. (Of course, there is that Shakespeare guy.)

    It's the early 1930s, and Vera Stark (the amazing and beautiful Sanaa Lathan) works as a maid for the ravingly self-centered, mediocre actress Gloria Mitchell (played with great elan by Stephanie J. Block). Vera also wants to act, but there is little opportunity for African-American performers. Over time, both Vera and Gloria find out just what they are willing to do to be on the silver screen. Rounding out the story are a 1973 talk show appearance by Vera and a 2003 symposium on her career.

    Nottage mixes satire, compassion, and serious commentary on racism into a hysterically funny, ultimately touching stew. While her satire can be quite pointed (the people speaking at the symposium are etched in acid), her writing is anchored in compassion and a sweet sense of the ridiculousness of being human. The show is well-directed by Jo Bonney, and among the other performers Daniel Breaker and Karen Olivo deserve particular kudos.

    The brilliant Ruined was arguably the most upsetting show I've ever seen; Nottage calibrated the emotional trajectory of the show perfectly. Vera Stark is often delightfully silly, with dips into high-stakes reality, and Nottage's calibration is again perfect. It's as though an elegant ballet dancer turned out to be a great football receiver. It's that range thing, and it's amazing.

    ($56 seats, side front orchestra)

    The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures

    Michael Cristofer and Linda Emond
    (photo: Joan Marcus)

    To those who point to previous generations of theatre as being better than this one, I have two words for you: Tony Kushner. (I have two others as well--Lynn Nottage--but that's a different review.) If he had only written Angels in America, Kushner would still be a major American playwright, up there with Williams and Albee and O'Neill. But he didn't only write Angels in America. He also wrote the amazing, heart-breaking Caroline, or Change. And he also wrote the feast that is The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.

    Intelligent Homo tells the story of the Marcantonio family, a tribe of smart, intense, damaged, searching people, loosely led by paterfamilias Gus, a retired longshoreman and union organizer in his 70s. Daughter Empty is a labor lawyer, which would seem to be a way to earn Gus's approbation, but it's not--her work is the wrong sort of activism for him. Older son Pill, a high school history teacher, has been with the same man for 24 years but is in love with the hustler on whom he has spent ten of thousands of dollars. Younger son V is the nonintellectual of the family, a role that was foisted on him and that he wears uncomfortably. All of them want love and acceptance and to understand their place in the world. That's the family drama side of the play.

    Then there's the ideas side. As the title states, those ideas include capitalism and socialism, but they also include questions such as, What is a worthwhile life? What is love? And, in particular, What is a good man? The Marcantonios are a family of arguers, and their arguments (depicted in wonderfully hectic scenes) veer from the personal to the political and back again. For this family, the personal genuinely is political.

    To get my cavils out of the way: the title is cutesy and misleading;the odd character names come across as mispronunciations of real names; Kushner unfortunately succumbs to lesbians-sleeping-with-men-osis, a disease that is sadly prevalent in movies and shows; and the family's house is perhaps inappropriately impressive.

    On the plus side? Intelligence, three-dimensional characters, even-handed discussion of issues, surprising plot points, wonderful dialogue, smart humor, compassion, warmth, and a deep engagement with the world.

    The production currently at the Public (coproduced by Signature Theatre) does Kushner full justice. The cast comprises brilliant, subtle performers, led by Michael Cristofer, Stephen Spinella, Linda Emond, and Steven Paquale. Mark Wendland's gorgeous set is a distinct character in the play, full of detail and history and beauty. The costumes by Clint Ramos, the lighting by Kevin Adams, and the sound design by Ken Travis are excellent, and Michael Friedman's music nicely maintains the play's mood during set changes. Michael Greif's superb direction brings all of the elements together into a compelling, impressive, vibrant whole.

    (member tickets, 2nd row center)

    Wednesday, June 01, 2011

    Catch Me If You Can

    If you ever have to choose between catching an STD or Catch Me If You Can, you should know that in either case, you’re screwed—and in only one is there a chance of having a good time. And once you’ve caught either, you’ll just be itching for it to be over.

    Yeah, it’s a little late in the game to be reviewing a show that opened in March, but I could, so I caught it.

    The show wasn’t engaging enough to hate, wasn’t awful enough to love guiltily. It was just so relentlessly mediocre that I resented every second of it. On top of that, it was overly produced, presumably to compensate for the core deficiencies, which made it look all the more mediocre. All the great choreography by Jerry Mitchell, the perfectly lovely costumes by William Ivey Long, the wonderful (and Tony nominated) orchestrations by Marc Shaiman and Larry Blank, and the bigness of the lights and sets all amounted to Bedazzling a turd. The show sparkled but it stunk.

    Aaron Tveit, who was so brilliant in Next to Normal, sings this leading role equally beautifully; but he lacks the charm to turn 2 hours of narration and his 14 songs (each a different flavor of vanilla) into a show. It isn’t his fault. Terrence McNally only bothered to write eleven minutes of drama. The rest is just telling. All the things that might be interesting about a young man who is wanted on 5 continents are left off the page and off the stage. The book was so lazy and heartless, it didn’t even have autonomic reflexes.

    Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman, whose book and lyrics for Hairspray were thrilling, have written some decent novelty songs but they have nothing to do with advancing the story. Sometimes they don’t even have anything to do with the story. Of course when the story is based on telling you what happened and not making anything actually happen, there isn’t much to musicalize that would advance the plot.

    Norbert Leo Butz is one of my favorite musical actors, but watching his performance was like getting lice at a traffic accident—I was scratching my head but couldn’t look away. His characterization was not original. It was a bizarre combination of Jeffrey Skilling from Enron and Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—cheese schtick wrapped in smarm. And he was saddled with the worst songs in the show. To be fair, the audience went crazy for him, and I am still crazy about him and can’t wait to see what he does next—please God, let it be soon.

    The supporting cast is too good for what they are given to do. Kerry Butler has the most sweeping song in the show and delivers it well if occasionally weird, and I am not convinced that her pigeon-toed rag doll routine is really enough to make a man leave a life of crime. Linda Hart and Nick Wyman are underutilized but are a treat and welcomed relief. Rachelle Rak’s performance in the documentary Every Little Step proved that she’s a class act who was robbed. She is in a toss-off role here that demands better writing, and she deserves better writing. Someone, please write something better for this woman. Probably the most truthful and most powerful moment of the show belonged to Tom Wopat. He was a real person with real dreams but real torments. His disappearance into a consuming blackness, dying in the shadow of his son's success, is heartbreaking.

    Jack O’Brien is keeping a lot of parts moving, but this is hardly his best work. If he could have elevated the drama with the same consistency as the props, it would have been an entirely different experience. As a matter of fact, props and people entered and exited through the floor constantly. I’ve seen fewer ups and downs in a backseat on prom night. The set design could have used more design. It was a Carol Burnett skit on steroids.

    The roar of the crowd and a Tony nomination for Best Musical notwithstanding, my advice—avoid it if you can.