Monday, March 28, 2011
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which has been running at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway since mid-December, adds weight to the saying that it’s a lot easier to trash something in writing than it is to praise it. I thus have little to add to the many glowing reviews of this production, except more ecstatic superlatives. With the exception of some of the backdrops, which might have been painted a bit more richly, or made to look somewhat less fake—and ultimately, really, who cares about the damned backdrops?—this is about as close to a perfect production as I have ever seen. Even the woman playing the maid who walks on to serve tea in the second act and then walks right back off again is perfectly cast. The show, which I saw last week and which has only grown in my estimation since, serves as a humbling reminder that while there is a whole lot of very good theater out there, it is the rare production that comes as close as this one does to being absolutely superb.
I was told once by an old colleague that the infamous flop Carrie was so terrifically bad that it regularly earned wild standing ovations after many performances during its doomed New York run. In contrast, this production of The Importance of Being Earnest was so good that I was unable to bring myself to stand at the end of it. Standing ovations have become such a marker of mediocrity on Broadway at this point that to have stood for this production would, I think, have somehow cheapened the experience. This was an excellent show. Please don’t miss it.
Monday, March 21, 2011
As directed by Jack Cummings III in a large, feature-less loft, Hello Again happens in and around the audience, providing an intimacy that is simultaneously wonderful (having those singers right next to you, unmiked, is heaven) and, well, icky. Facing those naked pumping butts, so close at hand (literally), is weird. The first time I saw the show I found them funny, but the second time I felt I had been forced into an unwilling, unfulfilling voyeurism. Since lack of fulfillment is a theme of the show, I guess Cummings made an artistically legitimate choice--but still weird.
However, Hello Again is about the music, and the score is beautifully sung. The cast ranges from quite good to excellent to amazing. Particularly impressive are Bill Stillman, Alexandra Silber, and Elizabeth Stanley, who bring full dimensionality to their characters and definitively nail their songs.
The costumes by Kathryn Rohe and lighting by R. Lee Kennedy are everything they need to be and much more, and the seven-piece band fills the loft space splendidly.
(Tdf tickets, twice, impossible to describe my seats in any useful way.)
(Press ticket, fourth row on the aisle.)
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
(Press tickets, table to the side, audience left.)
Sunday, March 13, 2011
TheChanging Room, by David Storey, is not big on plot. A bunch of Englishmen enter a locker room, kid around, change, and go out to play rugby--Act One. The owner of the team comes into the locker room and talks with the attendant until the rugby players, now bruised and bleeding, return, banter, attend to their bruises, then go back out to play; soon one of them is brought back in, blood streaming from his nose, unable to see--Act Two. After the game, the players banter some more, pick on a (possibly gay?) team member, talk with the owner, worry about the injured player, and leave--Act Three. There's no main character, no conflict of the traditionally theatrical sort, no recognizable arc. There is, however, meaning. The players are mostly working men, putting their bodies on the line. The owner, Sir Frederick, attempts to be one of the guys, but he is too falsely avuncular, too patronizing, and too damned clean to fit in. More importantly, he is the boss, the owner, and as such, he is the other--the lucky, wealthy, aristocratic other. In this microcosm of class in England, it's not just boss versus worker: when one of the players is revealed to be dating a teacher, the rest of the team is incredulous, wanting to know what on earth the couple would talk about. The play also examines how men do and don't bond, how they present themselves to each other, and how they find significance in their lives.
While all of this is theoretically interesting, it is not theatrically interesting--a big difference. However, the T. Schreiber production, directed by Terry Schreiber himself, is excellent, as T. Schreiber productions generally are. The performers, many of them T. Schreiber students, are uniformally effective; the set is evocative and impressive; the costuming and lighting and sound are all first-class. The nudity is a little awkwardly handled--full frontal would have been more realistic, and less distracting, then the careful turning away and hiding of genitalia, accompanied by the nervous checking that towels are secure. All in all, however, this production of The Changing Room is a very strong production of a not-so-strong play.
(Press ticket, third-row-center.)
Thursday, March 10, 2011
The level of humor in Cactus Flower is exemplified by this exchange (from memory):
Toni: What's your name.The acting and directing don't help much. Maxwell Caulfield gives Daffy Duck a run for his money in the "cartoon performance" category, and his main facial expression is "I lost my glasses." Jeremy Bobb as Igor needs to be charming and attractive, but cannot rise above the writing or his costumes and haircut to achieve either. Lois Robbins as the nurse gives an actual performance, and Jenni Barber is likable as Toni. The supporting cast overacts in an overwrought frenzy that suggests that Michael Bush should not be directing comedies.
Next-door neighbor: Igor Sullivan
Toni: Igor Sullivan. That's wild.
Igor: I made it up.
Toni: How come you chose Igor?
Igor: That's my real name. I made up Sullivan.
(Press ticket, eighth row center).
Wednesday, March 09, 2011
Well-done story theatre uses its combination of telling and showing to invite the audience into the creative process. We help the performers invent entire worlds out of minimal props and scenery; we accept the smallest of costume adjustments as signaling a different character; we suspend our disbelief and embrace our sense of wonder. Peter and the Starcatcher, at the New York Theatre Workshop, is story theatre of the highest order, taking us on pirate ships and to tropical islands, introducing us to rotten rogues and surprising heroes, and doing a fabulous job of accessing and entertaining our inner children. Written by Rick Elice (based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) and directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, with music by Wayne Barker, Peter and the Starcatcher tells the story of how an orphan--so completely abandoned that he lacks even a name--turns into the legendary Peter Pan. The cast is consistently wonderful, but special attention must be paid to Christian Borle, who gives a slapstick comic performance that is simultaneously brilliant, deeply silly, and elegant.
My one complaint is that there is only one woman in the cast (the delightful Celia Keenan-Bolger). If a man can play a woman in the show (the very funny Arnie Burton), why can't some women play men? I understand that Rees and Timbers are working out of a British tradition of male-as-female drag, but why not expand it? A quick look at the history of animated movies shows a serious dearth of female roles (Pixar is particularly bad at noticing that there are two sexes), yet girls/women want to identify with heroes of our gender as much as boys/men do. Keenan-Bolger's character is strong and important, and that's great, but thirteen men and only one woman just doesn't seem fair.
($20, second row to the right)
(Press ticket, table audience left.)
Thursday, March 03, 2011
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which has been in previews since late November, has blown through at least $65 million dollars and three lead producers. Four actors have been injured. The opening has been delayed five times, and there is talk that the latest planned opening night, March 15, will be put off yet again.
The creative team has shrugged off these setbacks with fatuous excuses. Director Julie Taymor has explained that Spider-Man is less a mere “musical” than a “circus rock-‘n’-roll drama” that celebrates one of the most important myths of our time. Bono, who composed the music with U2 bandmate the Edge, told the Times that Spider-Man has been delayed as much as it has been because They Will Sell No Wine Before Its Time: “We’re wrestling with the same stuff as Rilke, Blake, ‘Wings of Desire,’ Roy Lichtenstein, the Ramones—the cost of feeling feelings, the desire for connections when you’re separate from others.” The producers are more candid, saying the delays are necessary to let the creative team focus in on the more deficient aspects of the show: the plot and score. Details, details.
The mere presence of a pricey musical that barely functions properly or makes any sense while patrons are asked to fork over more than $200 for some seats has prompted debates about consumer rights, worker safety and the ethics of reviewing a show before it officially opens. Does Broadway need a $65 million show to begin with?
Not this one.
Even the worst Broadway flops can have bright spots. Lost in the drab muddle of Paul Simon's The Capeman, for example, were a couple of great doo-wop numbers and a near-perfect starry rooftop scene. In Spider-Man, these shining moments come at the beginning of the show, which starts in the middle of the action: Mary Jane (a hard-working Jennifer Damiano) is dangling from a bridge! Will Spidey (a dazed Reeve Carney) leap from the Chrysler Building to save her in time?
Nothing after that is nearly as good. In her exploration of legend, Greek drama, aerial stunts, and how one actually Turns Off the aforementioned Dark, Taymor forgets that the Marvel Comics Spider-Man was an awkward, working-class kid from Queens whose peculiar physical gifts enabled him to kick ass and save lives, but not make many friends. For all the visual set-pieces and lengthy exposition, not a single character in this production—including, heartbreakingly, Peter Parker and Mary Jane—has any development, trajectory or motivation. Taymor’s contribution to the story, the spider-goddess-nemesis-whatever Arachne, contributes nothing save more confusion and one truly bizarre number involving a kickline of chorines dressed as spiders in tawdry underwear, singing something about sex and shoes.
In Spider-Man, Taymor can't tell a story (her greatest successes are adaptations of a Disney movie and Shakespeare plays) and she can't stage a scene unless her actors are swaddled in elaborate costumes, draped in scenery or hiding behind enormous masks. Even more distracting than some of the cheap-looking sets are the abrupt transitions between scenes in which monsters, villains and multiple Spider-Men bring the show to something approaching life, and those in which plain old people, devoid of camouflage, stand around spouting wooden exposition and sounding alternately like they are trapped in a bad screwball comedy, a John Hughes film, a grindhouse horror flick, or a cheesy sex-ed filmstrip about how, as Peter’s uncle puts it, “Puberty can be hard.”
The "Geek Chorus" (get it?) of four comic-book readers may be writing the story. Or maybe they are part of the story. Either way, they are neither interesting nor amusing enough for us to care about them. Same goes for all the villains save Patrick Page's gleeful Green Goblin, who seems like he’s in another show entirely. All the other villains are introduced early in act II. As they strut down a catwalk, a guy in dreadlocks sings about them in an insultingly thick Jamaican accent while accompanying himself on an empty pickle tub. After the number, the drummer disappears, and eventually, so do all the villains. Who were they, where did they come from, and where did they go?
The sound design is good and the orchestra is excellent. Too bad about the songs. At root, U2 is a post-punk band that made itself into an arena darling by matching swagger with introspection. U2 works with layers of sound that repeat, slowly entwine and build gradually in volume and density into petulant, anthemic proclamations. But what works well in front of 40,000 screaming fans at a stadium quickly becomes tedious in a theater. Each song develops in the same way, robbing the show of energy and surprise. The only time the music serves the drama is during the wordless chase scenes—such as a black-and-white sequence with bad guys in giant masks hauling bags of money—when the repetition and layering convey a sense of urgency.
Near the end of Act I the night I went, a stuntman playing Spider-Man (Stunter-Man? Stuntey?) got trapped on the balcony and the show stopped—to raucous applause. Was the audience, deprived thus far of much that could be called entertainment, hoping for a clever ad lib or a fatal plunge into the orchestra seats? Both?
Theater is theater until it ceases to be live, and the second act of Spider-Man is as dead as dead can be. At one point, Taymor puts Spidey alone on stage to pantomime a fight with cartoon images projected on the screen behind him. Wii Broadway.
Even at its prettiest and most interesting moments, and there were a few, this show got no emotional response from me except the fear that it would never end, trapping me forever in front of a huge projection of cartoon bad guys. This is not what Aristotle had in mind when he discussed catharsis. Nor is the pity I felt for the artists and theater-goers whose time this musical has wasted. There is no saving Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, no matter how many more times opening night is put off. This broken project needs to open and close, so that all involved can lick their wounds and get back to putting on shows worth watching.
(seen Wednesday evening, March 2; BroadwayBox special offer; row W on the aisle.)