Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fun Home

Joan Marcus
The composer Jeanine Tesori has a knack for capturing, in her scores, the ebbs and flows of complex, imbalanced relationships. Through recurring motifs, overlapping melodic lines, and a flow of orchestral support that frequently allows characters to segue imperceptibly between aria and recitative, she deftly mimics the voices of people who love one another deeply, fight with one another viciously, try desperately to understand one another, erupt in frustration when they fail. Her ensemble harmonies clash with heartbreaking dissonance when crises occur, and melt luxuriously when there is consolation. Her particular talent for capturing the endless nuances of complicated families--which means all families, I guess--struck me during the first few minutes of Fun Home. Like the brilliant Caroline, or Change, Fun Home focuses largely on the strained domestic life of a child. As far as I'm concerned, Caroline was a landmark work--one that took the musical theater genre in new directions and raised its aesthetic stakes. And damn if Fun Home isn't just as beautiful, moving, and nuanced. Since seeing it, I have come to believe that Tesori is not just a wonderful composer, but one of monumental importance. People who dismiss the musical theater outright with a roll of the eyes and a terse "I HATE musicals"--as if the entire genre can be easily boiled down to a late-run performance by a second-rate touring company of Cats--have clearly never encountered the work of Jeanine Tesori.

Yet in raving as blatheringly as I do about Tesori, I hope not to imply that she is on some kind of creative pedestal, towering above the people with whom she has collaborated. Part of brilliance is knowing how to listen to and work with other brilliant people. Tony Kushner's no slouch, after all, and neither is George Wolfe. And like Caroline, or Change, Fun Home doesn't really have any weak links. I've read a few reviews arguing that Michael Cerveris was miscast, which I think is bullshit. And I've read others that place Judy Kuhn in the "thankless" role of the mother, which I think is a slightly smaller bunch of bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. Sure, the musical explores, even more intensely than the graphic novel does, the relationship between a father and a daughter, and this kind of gives the mother figure short shrift in some respects--and this is the case even more in the musical than it was in the book. That being said, Kuhn's final number brings the whole show home; it (and, in the role, she) is a carefully controlled masterpiece of sorrow, fury, and frustration.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 in Review (The Disappointments)

Disappointing shows, in alphabetical order:
  • The Big Knife: A waste of an excellent cast. And while Richard Kind was fine, I don't know why everyone made such a big deal of his being able to play a mean character. He is an actor, after all.
  • Orphans: I have no idea why anyone would want to revive this show. It was fun, however, to watch Tom Sturridge leap around the stage.
  • Collapse: Ick. I mean, ICK.
  • Macbeth: The Alan Cumming one-man show: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (For a different opinion from Liz Wollman, click here.)
  • Far From Heaven: A musical that needs the same advice that Jerome Robbins gave about Forum: define it from the opening song. A serious, heart-felt, traditional "I want" song from the female lead would focus it usefully. And then, I think, they should keep the focus on her. As it was, the show was diffuse and hard to care about.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013 in Review (The Best)

Whew! Another year has jetted by with astonishing speed, leaving me some 80 shows in its wake. While reviewing the year as a whole, it strikes me that the lesson of 2013, as of the past few years, is that Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway are the future of New York theatre, while Broadway is largely its past.
The Three Alisons of Fun Home

I saw 15 Broadway shows, all at deeply discounted prices (except for Pippin, for which I paid $69 for the second-to-last row balcony). Once upon a time, I saw nearly everything that opened on Broadway; now I see only a fraction. And yet my theatre life is still full, if not fuller. And that's due to Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway.

I saw 54 Off-Broadway shows. (I'm including Encores! here, and shows at St. Ann's. Sometimes I find the definition of Off-Broadway inexact.) People often write that Off-Broadway is dead, and I suppose that, in the sense of original new commercial productions, it's at least seriously ill. But in terms of nonprofit theatres, it is as vibrant as can be. Playwrights Horizons. New York Theatre Workshop. The Mint. The New Group. The Public. 59e59. The CSC. The low-price small theatres at Roundabout (Roundabout Underground) and Lincoln Center (the Clair Tow). The Pearl. The Signature. Each of these produces work that is sometimes exciting, sometimes challenging, sometimes fascinating, often excellent, and rarely a waste of time. That sounds like good health to me.

The rest of the shows I saw were Off-Off-Broadway. OOB can be a crapshoot, of course, particularly when you stumble onto a vanity production that should only be forced upon loved ones. But that's true of Broadway and Off-Broadway as well. And the best OOB theatre is as good as the best anywhere, with intimate spaces, low prices, and that wonderful sense of discovery that gets harder and harder to experience when you've been going to the theatre for decades. But Flux, Gideon, and HERE surprise and delight me with some regularity, and I love them for it.


Intimate Apparel. I missed this show's run a few years back, but I was lucky enough to catch a benefit reading starring the amazing Quincy Tyler Bernstine. The show is everything the reviews had said, and Bernstine gave the sort of performance that touches your heart and causes your head to start muttering, "Why isn't she being given the lead in, well, everything?"

Monday, December 16, 2013

Big Fish

Though Big Fish will be closing on December 29, I figured that it was worth a review because its feel-good quality may be the sort of diversion people are looking for during the holiday season.  

Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace (though people may be more familiar with Tim Burton’s screen adaptation), Big Fish tells the story of Edward and Will Bloom, an estranged father and son.  Edward, played by Norbert Leo Butz, has a penchant for telling autobiographical tall tales - full of mermaids, witches, and giants - that constantly aggravate his more practically minded son Will, played by Bobby Steggert.  The musical follows the grown Will as he tries to figure out the truth behind his father’s fantastical stories, while he himself is expecting his own son and Edward’s health is failing.  Despite my issues with some  aspects of the production, I shed some tears at its heartwarming conclusion.  

Norbert Leo Butz is a formidable star and his performance alone makes this production worth seeing.  His changes in physicality for Edward’s life stages and well as his magnetic stage presence carry most of Act I, though perhaps to the detriment of his costars.  Kate Baldwin, who played his wife, was overshadowed quite a bit.  At the particular performance that I attended, it also took Steggert a while to settle into character. 

The show lacked focus at its start, but tightened up towards the end of Act I and moving into Act II.  I felt that some of the production elements, namely the visual projections, hindered the show rather than helped it.  They were particularly distracting and unnecessary in the Witch’s number; Stroman’s choreography alone would have created the desired visual effect.  The story is ultimately about fathers and sons, and I felt that Big Fish fell into a common Broadway trap - just because you can do [fill-in-the-blank-with-a-fancy-expensive-stage-trick] doesn’t mean you ought to.  

It’ll be interesting to track the life of Big Fish past its Broadway closing date.  A cast album is slated for release in February, but I’m not sure how much it will help the brand as Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics are pop/rock-y cute but not particularly memorable.  If taken on the road, Big Fish will need to tighten its first act so that it doesn’t rely so much on its lead actor.  National tours do not usually feature stars that can draw crowds like Butz,.  Also, the show needs a bit of pruning to make the musical’s narrative theme - that of familial reconciliation - stand out more.  

In spite of my nitpickings, Big Fish is a sweet musical with a lot of heart.  If you're looking for non-holiday themed, but heartwarming entertainment for this time of year, I recommend it.  

Playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, Friend-of-a-Friend Comp Ticket, Center Orchestra Row R

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Blessed Unrest's A Christmas Carol

The cast of Blessed Unrest's A Christmas Carol. Photo by Alan Roche 
‘Tis the season when perennial favorites, such as A Christmas Carol, come to visit. Just as Scrooge’s three spirits seek to alter the miser’s view of Christmas, Blessed Unrest hopes to leave their own imprint on the Charles Dickens’ classic—one that matches the author’s original intent: to examine an uneven socioeconomic system, which only benefits the wealthy. The nonprofit theatre company only partly succeeds with this light-hearted, but often heavy-handed production.

The show begins with a lovely enchantment—the six actors who will play 37 characters in the 95 minute running time gambol in bare feet as a disco light mimics snowfall and a Dickensian village comes to life: Tiny Tim (Jessi Blue Gormezano) limps across, toes twisted uncomfortably; a couple steals a kiss on tiptoe; and Ebenezer Scrooge (Damen Scranton) stomps sourly into his workplace. All infuriated twitch and baleful glare when discussing topics such as Christmas and charity, this Scrooge softens whenever his dead sister is mentioned. Scranton infuses this underlying sorrow into his version, making the  miser more sympathetic and relatable than other portrayals. Unfortunately, the remainder of the cast is uneven, with the men faring better than the women, who often use off-putting and inconsistent accents.

The creative team’s artistic choices make the production both whimsical and puzzling (Director-Choreographer: Jessica Burr and Production Stage Manager: Jamie Van Dyke).  Making Scrooge climb five flights of stairs—complete with a Bill Irwin-like ascension—allows for delightful laughter at the miser’s expense. The actors also engage in a fascinating choreography of costume changes with lace collars and vests appearing from underneath stacked doors and one woman nonchalantly tying another’s sash in a corner. However, the breakout Lady GaGa dancing session is more anachronistic than humorous, and putting Jacob Marley (Joshua Wynter) on stilts works better as an idea—it intensifies the horror of walking the earth without rest—but the actor sweats so from the exertion you want to dab him off with a towel.  

A Christmas Carol runs through December 22 at The Interart Theatre (500 W. 52nd Street in New York City). Tickets are $18. For more information:

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Beautiful, the Carole King biomusical, is stuffed with one incredible song after another. The result is an entertaining and enjoyable evening. Would it be too much to wish it were also good?

Jeb Brown, Jake Epstein, Jessie Mueller,
Jarrod Spector, Anika Larsen
Photo: Joan Marcus
The usual problem with biomusicals is that most people's lives don't provide a satisfying dramatic arc; however, Carole King's life does. The show starts with King (the superb Jessie Mueller) triumphantly performing at Carnegie Hall. We then go into a flashback, of course, and over the next two and a half hours or so, we see King grow from a preternaturally gifted 16-year-old to a harried and still preternaturally gifted mother and wife to an independent and, yes, preternaturally gifted singer-songwriter. The potential drama occurs in her challenging relationship with her writing partner and husband, Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), whose demons destroy their marriage and take a bite out of his sanity as well. Unfortunately, Douglas McGrath's disappointing book fails to capitalize on these dramatic opportunities and instead gives us thinly drawn characters and undeveloped relationships. Beautiful aims to be musical comedy rather than musical drama.

The show's humor comes in two flavors. The first is setup, setup, lame punchline; setup, setup, lame punchline; and so on. Most of the punchlines rely on the audience's knowledge of the songs, and they are obvious from a mile away. With your eyes closed. And ear plugs in.

The other flavor of humor, people bantering with one another, is much more successful. The relationship between King's good friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (whose musical output is almost as impressive as King's) includes much warm teasing that is genuinely funny. It helps a great deal that Jarrod Spector is playing Mann and the amazing Anika Larsen is playing Weil. (Larsen shares Eve Arden's ease, presence, and comfort with a laugh line. And if you don't know Eve Arden's work, let me assure you that that is a serious compliment.)

Of course the show is largely about the wonderful, wonderful songs, one right after another. Take Good Care of my Baby. Will You Love Me Tomorrow. Up on the Roof. On Broadway. You've Lost That Loving Feeling. Pleasant Valley Sunday. We Gotta Get out of This Place. (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman. Treat after treat after treat. And each and every one is well-sung.

Director Marc Bruni, Music Supervisor and Arranger Jason Howland, and Orchestrator/Arranger Steve Sidwell, along with the performers, have found a sweet spot where the songs are not slavish recreations of the hit versions but also are not overly changed. Instead, the songs are just different enough to make them distinct and new while retaining the flavor of the period and the originals. It's a nice job.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Pigeoning

The Pigeoning is 70 minutes of pure delight. This brilliant piece of puppet theatre is the story of Frank, an office worker who cannot function unless everything on his desk is aligned perfectly (I relate). When a pigeon starts tapping on his office window, Frank begins a hilarious descent into paranoia. And, no, hilarious paranoia is not an oxymoron in this cartoon-like yet heartfelt and even touching kaleidoscope of creativity, where a tattered umbrella can simultaneously be funny and menacing, with a bit of social commentary thrown in.

Photo: Richard Termine

Frank is brought to life by a team of black-clad puppeteers who work with the collaborative grace of the best of dancers. Moments when you forget the puppeteers are there and moments when you are mesmerized by them are equally beautiful. Frank's wide-eyed expression somehow manages to be quizzical, annoyed, heartbroken, angry, and amazed in turn. (I could not help but compare his performance to Carrie Underwood's in the TV version of The Sound of Music. She has been criticized by many people as being "wooden," but Frank shows that ostensibly inanimate materials can morph into vivid emotional life in the right hands. Underwood could learn something from him!)

The Pigeoning was created and directed by Robin Frohardt, who also designed the puppets, props, and set with Jesse "Roadkill" Wilson. The show features live music composed and performed by Freddi Price and lighting design by Heather Sparling.  The puppeteers are Daniel Burnam, Lillie Jayne, Nick Lehane, Rowan Magee, and Andy Manjuck. Clearly, puppet theatre takes a village, and this village is populated by amazingly talented people.

The Pigeoning runs at HERE through December 22nd. Do yourself a favor and go.

(second row center, press ticket)

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Sound of Music....LIVE!

Hi, all. It's been a very long semester and I've seen very little theater, and I've missed blogging a bunch. I plan to rectify that

Last night, along with, um, everyone, I got to watch the live broadcast of The Sound of Music, starring Carrie Underwood and a lot of other people. It wasn't great--just ask the entire population of the planet, which was busily hate-tweeting the broadcast at about forty million tweets per nanosecond. Then again, there were some sublime moments: Laura Benanti making dramatic entrances or exits; Carrie Underwood dropping her wooden facade as an actor to snuggle into her happy place as a singer; that shrieking Nazi who kept wandering in and out and giving orders to everyone near the end. And regardless of what you thought of the show as a whole, I think we have, all of us, to a musical-theater-loving (wo)man, concluded that we can now all die happily having heard a habit-draped Audra McDonald sing this to a clearly moved Carrie Underwood:

The Sound of Music (TV Review)

Kudos to Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for producing a live TV version of The Sound of Music. There's something incomparably sparkling, vivid, and delightful about live performances.

In the actual event, however, this Sound of Music was notably sparkle-free, absent, and kind of dreary.

Carrie Underwood was in over her head much of the time. She spoke every line in the same monotone, whether talking about God, love, lightning, or Nazis. Her comic timing was nonexistent; potentially funny moments just slipped by, totally wasted. Her singing was fine, but far from thrilling. As the evening wore on, she did occasionally show a spark of personality or actual acting. She may have some potential, but probably not more than your above-average high-school Maria. (And are we really supposed to believe that someone would choose this Maria over Laura Benanti's Elsa?) It seems likely, however, that Underwood's fame was one of the reasons that this production was green-lighted, so good for her for trying.

The acting in general was not impressive. Stephen Moyer was beyond wooden as the Captain, Christian Borle pushed too much as Max, and Laura Benanti, while lovely as always, never quite inhabited her character.

Audra MacDonald was in gorgeous voice as the Reverend Mother (though I didn't love her acting), and it was fun to see Jessica Molasky and Christiane Noll as two other nuns. (Is it rude to point out that any of them would have been a million times better than Carrie Underwood as Maria, even though decades too old for the role?) The kids were reasonably good but not distinctive, and Michael Campayno as Rolf came across as a 27-going-on-28 child molester.

I enjoyed the music; I enjoyed that the singing was live; I enjoyed the use of multiple stages so that they could open a door and walk into a totally new location. I enjoyed that this production existed, so I watched the whole damned thing.

I watch little commercial television, so I rarely have to deal with commercials, for which I am quite grateful. The commercial breaks were annoying and frequent, eliminating any chance the show had of gaining momentum and audience involvement. And the incessant hawking of the sing-along CD was downright funny, since it was a reminder that while the singing was live, the music wasn't. They should have been honest and said, "Sing along to the same exact track used by Carrie Underwood!"

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Romeo and Juliet

I’m always late to the party—so it is predictable for me to see a show days before it's closing. But Romeo and Juliet, which ends on Sunday, deserves an audience. The first Broadway revival of Shakespeare’s tragedy in 36 years features Orlando Bloom (of The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean fame) and Condola Rashad (Tony nominations for A Trip to Bountiful and Stick Fly) as the star-crossed lovers. While the costumes and scenery often mimic a modern-day West Side Story theme—with Romeo and his cohorts clad in ripped dungarees and high-tops, and Roman heads as part of the graffiti scrawled on cement walls—the classic words continue to haunt in a edited version that lasts two hours and 20 minutes.

Rashad sparkles as Juliet and aptly depicts the luminescence of the young in love, while Bloom underlines Romeo’s idealistic romanticism with the very real awkwardness and uncertainty first meetings and the initial flickers of love face. Rashad is especially enchanting and plays Juliet not as a simple girl but one who is frank and honest—and full of courage in the pursuit of something of her own. The casting of an African American Juliet with a Caucasian Romeo helps explain the animosity between the families, but doesn’t register as part of their romance. Supporting characters offer spirited turns—with Christian Camargo infusing Mercutio with the badassnes of Johnny Rotten and Justin Guarini (who survived his American Idol notoriety) a well-mannered but boring Paris, the epitome of a parent’s idea of the perfect fiancé.

David Leveaux’s production is full of rich details—the release of a bird, like an uneasy premonition, that flies out over an abandoned beach, where chairs lie discarded on their sides; a dispirited Romeo who recklessly drives his motorcycle on the stage; a lavish masked bacchanal of fire and spirited dancing where Romeo and Juliet catch each other’s eye with half-smiles. Despite a second act that seems to yield into tragedy too quickly, this Romeo and Juliet is parting too soon.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

One Night

Charles Fuller's drama One Night, the story of a veteran suffering from PTSD, presents the audience with a bizarrely conflicted experience. The inarguable horrors of rape, war, and institutionalized sexism, combined with Fuller's event-heavy, overwrought writing, leave the audience feeling devastated while trying to stifle giggles. Less definitely would have been more. With fewer plot points and themes, less acting, and a simpler, streamlined approach, One Night might have given us its heart and caring without becoming a satire of itself.

(sixth row, press ticket)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hello! My name is...

Hello, gentle readers,

My name is Aya, and I am honored to be joining Show Showdown as a contributor/reviewer.  Thought I would write a few introductory words...

Who am I? (24601)  I am a recently minted Ph.D. candidate in Musicology at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and hoping to successfully navigate the edges of the black hole called the dissertation within three years or so.  My main area of research involves musics created by participatory science fiction fans.  My secondary research area is musical theatre.  Strangely enough, these two areas have a surprising amount of overlap.

I have always been a huge musical nerd.  Often, I break out into song and dance in public places, to the chagrin of my friends.  You remember when Facebook used to have that bumper sticker app?  I think I received the "I wish life were a musical" sticker eight different times from FB friends who did not know each other.

For a long time though, I did not know that musical theatre studies was a legit area of research inquiry until I took a grad seminar on the rock musical by my now mentor and Show Showdown writer Liz Wollman.  It opened up a whole new world.  I'm particularly fascinated by how musicals function as vehicles for the performance of personal identity.  My main work-in-progress is an article on Bill T. Jones' FELA!; I'm also interested in recent new media musicals like Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Smash, and Nashville.  (Sorry, Glee jumped the shark for me midway through season three.)

While I mainly channel my nerdy energy into academic pursuits, I am lucky enough to live, work, and hang out with several people who are involved in the theatre industry.  My two roommates - one of whom is a professional stage manager and the other an actress, general manager, and producer - keep my head from getting too inflated with academic pondering.  I also volunteer with a community theatre on Roosevelt Island and have had the opportunity to work with some crazily talented teens and children, some of whom are currently starring in film, Broadway, off-Broadway, and web serial productions.

I am so looking forward to writing for you all.  Bonus points if you caught all my musical references...Till next time!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Jacksonian

After Beth Henley's interminable and unpleasant new play, The Jacksonian, finally ended, an audience member turned to me and said, "What was that?"

Excellent question.

The story of a divorcing couple, a neglected child, a lonely waitress, and a bartender with a past brushing up against one another at the titular rundown motel, The Jacksonian fails to evoke sympathy, laughs, or interest. Robert Falls' direction doesn't help; he has led his superb cast (Ed Harris! Amy Madigan! Bill Pullman! Glenne Headly!) to puzzling, unconvincing, awkward performances. The supposedly humorous parts are embarrassing; the supposedly poignant parts are embarrassing; the whole thing is embarrassing.

Ben Brantley gave the show a good review, which baffles me. I was far from alone in disliking the show the night I saw it. The applause was perfunctory, and the after-show mood was glum. Perhaps Brantley saw a much better performance? It's hard to imagine.

(aisle, fifth row, press ticket)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Frances Tannehill, 90, Broadway Actress

Frances Tannehill, actress and lifelong Manhattan resident, died after a brief illness in Upper Manhattan on August 5th.

Known for her stunning looks in addition to her talents as a dramatic and comedic actress, Ms. Tannehill started her Broadway career at the age of eight in the play “Purity,” produced by Lee Shubert and starring Florence Reed. She attended Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, which enabled her to keep up with her studies as she worked on Broadway and toured nationally.

In 1938, Ms. Tannehill was cast in Cole Porter’s musical “Leave it to Me”, starring Mary Martin, Sophie Tucker and Gene Kelly in his first Broadway show. In 1940, she appeared on Broadway in “Keep off the Grass.” Although short-lived, the musical was choreographed by George Balanchine and starred Jimmy Durante, Ray Bolger, Jane Froman and Jackie Gleason. Jerome Robbins and José Limon were featured dancers. Ms. Tannehill joined the Broadway cast of “Othello” starring Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen and José Ferrer, in 1943 for the last six months of the run.

At the age of 19, appearing in a Broadway revival of “Counsellor-at-Law “starring Paul Muni, Ms. Tannehill met her future husband, actor Alexander Clark. They were married in 1945 and spenttheir honeymoon in France and Germany on a six-month tour with the USO. The play was “The Night of January 16th” by Ayn Rand; it was a courtroom drama that used the GIs as jurors.  The company was the first to play for the U.S. troops in Berlin after VE Day. The couple remained married for fifty years until Alec Clark’s death in 1995.

  In the early 1950’s, Alexander Clark and Frances Tannehill went on a year-long national tour of “Call Me Madam” starring Elaine Stritch. On a tour stop in Washington, D.C., Ms. Tannehill, as Frances Clark, testified in Congress with Oscar Hammerstein II and Howard Lindsay to help pass a bill making it legal for child actors under the age of 14, but not below age 7,  to perform in Washington as they did elsewhere in the nation. The bill was signed by President Truman in 1952.  

Other national tours included “Ladies in Retirement” with Dame Flora Robson, and “The Philadelphia Story” with Sarah Churchill. Ms. Tannehill also performed featured and supporting roles with Helen Hayes, Dorothy Loudon, Jessica Tandy, Cyril Ritchard, Lillian Gish and Michael Redgrave. Television and radio performances included episodes on The Alcoa Hour, Philco Goodyear Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre and Theatre Guild on the Air.
Ms. Tannehill was the third generation performer from an American theatrical family dating back to the 1850’s. Her father, Frank Tannehill Jr. was an actor, playwright and lyricist. Her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Tannehill, worked in theatres throughout the U.S. in plays ranging from drama to farce.  In 1857, they were part of the ensemble company at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia. John Wilkes Booth, using the pseudonym J.B. Wilkes, joined the company that year.
Nicole Clark, Helen Hayes,
Frances Tannehill

Ms. Tannehill created and performed one-woman shows for the past 20 years recounting her own theatrical experiences and those of other notable people in the arts. From 1995 until her death, she was President of Twelfth Night Club, Inc. which is the oldest extant club for women of the theatre in the U.S.

She will be remembered with love and admiration for her bright mind, her vibrant charm, her beautiful voice, and her wonderful recollections about the theatre that shaped her life.

Frances Tannehill is survived by her daughter Nicole Clark, of Manhattan.

Memorial contributions may be made to The Actor’s Fund.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Bottom line: If you love to laugh and have silly fun; if you enjoy being entertained by top-notch performers with excellent timing and beautiful voices; if you've even heard of such movies as The Poseidon Adventure and such songs as "Alone Again, Naturally," you have to go see Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick's Disaster!

Jennifer Simard, Mary Testa
Photo: Jeremy Daniel
In my review of an earlier incarnation of Disaster! I wrote,
The premise is simple: Disaster! is a musical spoof of disaster films, using songs from the 1970s. It features a lot of the jokes you might predict, but with twists that make them funnier, plus jokes and situations and visuals that are surprising and wonderful. Under Denis Jones's insanely creative direction, the small space bursts with action and fun and inspired silliness. And the helicopter rescue is a delight.

Impressively, the songs aren't shoehorned in. As a matter of fact, one or two are weaved in so well that they seem written for the show. As just one example, Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" becomes an effective opening number with a surprising range of interpretations.
Some things have changed in this new production. The director is now Plotnick (though the choreography is still by Denis Jones), and Rudetsky is the only performer remaining from the earlier cast. But more important is what stayed the same: Disaster! is still surprising and wonderful; it's still insanely creative; it still has an amazingly talented, energetic, somewhat insane cast, including Mary Testa, Matt Farcher, Haven Burton, and Jennifer Simard.

Seeing Disaster! a second time allowed me to examine the structure and writing more closely. This is a smart piece of silliness. Rudetsky and Plotnick set up the plot and characters with great economy, use the songs brilliantly, gracefully combine complete silliness with higher-level silliness, and, perhaps most importantly, know when to pull back. Every time it feels like the show is losing steam or going on too long, Rudetsky and Plotnick throw in a surprise or go in a different direction or come up with just the right mash-up of song, satire, and panache. And even when the show seems to be reaching too low, it isn't. (I wish I could give examples, but you really don't want me to spoil anything.)

It takes a certain meticulousness to make a show seem this crazed, this spontaneous, this gorgeously giddy. I tip my hat to everyone who worked on Disaster! and I urge you to go see it.

(row G, press ticket)

Sunday, November 03, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Julie Taymor's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is full of wonders, yet it is not quite wonderful. Actually, there are two shows here. The first, the one by Taymor and her creative colleagues, is a glorious pageant, full of color and light, undulating shapes, magical appearances (and disappearances), fascinating costumes, and kaleidoscopic orgasms. This show offers a candy store's worth of eye candy, and proves once again--not that it needs proving--that Taymor has one of the most fecund imaginations around today, or possibly ever. This show is a thrilling treat. (The scenic designer is Es Devlin; the costume designer is Constance Hoffman; the lighting designer is Donald Holder; the sound designer is Matt Tierney; the projection designer is Sven Ortel; the choreographer is Brian Brooks. All contribute brilliantly.)

Tina Benko, David Harewood
Photo: Es Devlin
And then there's that other show, the one that Shakespeare wrote, the one that Taymor treats as an afterthought. It's the least interesting Midsummer I've ever seen. The cast is uneven and the book scenes are directed haphazardly. Of the four young lovers, only Mandi Masden as Helena provides a full performance with real emotion. It's easy to see why Taymor cast the others, since they are beautiful and look good in their underwear, but their performances lack dimension and emotion. In this show, it rarely feels like anything matters.

And sometimes the design elements get in the way. For example, when the Rude Mechanicals perform Pyramus and Thisbe, the excellent Max Casella is overwhelmed by his wig, makeup, and costume. It doesn't make sense that he seems more real as an ass than as a human. (I also wish that Taymor had used her prodigious imagination to come up with something better--and less annoying--than the gay and fat stereotypes among the Rude Mechanicals.)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fun Home

Based on Alison Bechdel's brilliant graphic memoir, the equally brilliant musical Fun Home tells the story of Alison (depicted at three ages by three different performers); her father, a not-quite-closeted closet case; and her mother, a talented woman trying to make the best of a disappointing life.
Roberta Colindre, Alexandra Socha
Photo: Joan Marcus

The show is structured loosely around the memories of the adult Alison (Beth Malone), who is trying to comprehend her past and, in particular, her complicated father, with his charm, fits of anger, manic redecorating schemes, and frightening coldness. How is she supposed to process the fact that this cultured sensitive man, whom she loved deeply, seduced young--sometimes very young--males? On this level, the show is heartbreaking.

Fun Home is also the story of the writer as a young dyke, tracing Alison's coming of age, from her first butch stirrings to her first girlfriend. On this level, the show is sweet and funny.

Jeanine Tesori's music is as wonderful as Tesori's music always is: melodic, touching, beautiful, funny, revealing, and true to character. Lisa Kron's book and lyrics are excellent; she is equally comfortable with the vicissitudes of Alison's childhood and the clumsy joys of coming out. I would love to quote some of her lyrics here, but they would be spoiler-ish, and I don't want to hurt a second of this amazing show. The direction by Sam Gold is sensitive and smart. David Zinn's scenic and costume design are both apt and attractive.

The cast is nothing short of amazing, in particular Small Alison (the astounding Sydney Lucas) and Medium Alison (the staggeringly talented Alexandra Socha). Judy Kuhn invests the role of Alison's mother with quiet dignity and pain, and when she finally reveals herself through song, it's beautifully devastating. Michael Cerveris is hampered by a wig, glasses, and clothing that practically yell "child molester," and I think he is miscast in general. (In the workshop, Martin Moran brought so much more to the part in many ways, not least by being right for it.) Roberta Colindrez as Joan, Alison's first love, is exactly who she should be.

If you had told my 20-something self that in 2013 there would be a superb musical that included authentic lesbian characters having full, not-just-lesbian lives, I would have said, "I have to wait until 2013? Are you fucking kidding me?" But better late than never, and Fun Home would be a gift in any decade, in any century.

The whole idea of seeing yourself on stage is an interesting one. I have spent my life identifying with people of different sexes, races, ages, nationalities, and centuries. But to see people on stage who are genuinely like me is a rare thrill. And to see them in the best musical in years, a show that successfully mixes love and fear and disappointment and creepiness and reality, a show with a gorgeous score and excellent book and lyrics is well . . .  wow. Simply that: wow.

(first row; friend-of-a-member discounted ticket.)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Marie Antoinette

David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, directed by Rebecca Taichman, finds itself hip, snarky, insightful, and significant, but it's merely an olio of unoriginal ideas tossed together with a dash of attitude, a talking sheep, and cartoon characters. The main weakness of the play is Marie herself, who is presented variously as a victim but powerful, stupid but smart, and unloving yet loving--and whose evolution from two-dimensional mean girl to tragic figure is wholly unconvincing.  
Marin Ireland
Photo: Pavel Antonov
Just as Marie doesn't quite gel, neither does the play itself. There are some genuinely moving moments and some funny ones, but they don't add up. The play is by turns fey, overly dramatic, cutesy, and serious. When it tries at the end to elicit our sympathy, neither the play nor Marie has earned it.  

Perhaps Marie Antoinette is better understood as a riff than a play: "Here is what David Adjmi thinks about Marie Antoinette," it seems to say, "plus a few cheap jokes." (E.g., when someone tells Marie that she doesn't feed her children sweets, Marie answers, "O let them eat cake.")

Marin Ireland's fascinating portrayal of Marie does much to cover the play's weaknesses and maintain audience interest. She has a contemporary edge that makes her a seemingly odd choice for the role, but her determination, humor, and intelligence give life and occasional depth to each of the versions of Marie on display.

The stage at the Soho Rep is backed by a long white wall with the words Marie Antoinette, also in white, running its length. Perhaps this tabula rasa is an invitation to the audience to write its own version of Marie, which is ultimately all any of us can do.

(first row center; press ticket)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Landing

The Landing, John Kander and Greg Pierce's musical triptych at the Vineyard, is theoretically about love, loss, betrayal, fantasy, and death. And yet it is not about much of anything, really; all three mini-musicals lack conflict, tension, suspense, and compelling characterizations.

In Andra, a friendless boy bonds with a carpenter renovating the kitchen. When something finally actually happens, it's a feeble bad-news moment that carries no weight because, really, who cares?

In The Brick, a woman falls in love with, yes, a brick. Granted, it's a charming brick, played by the wry and always appealing David Hyde Pierce in 1920's gangster regalia, but The Brick is silly and pointless.

The Landing, in which a gay male couple adopt what seems to be the perfect son, has potential, but its sloppiness and lack of focus water down the impact it might have.

The 90-minute evening has one redeeming feature: in the last 10 or 15 minutes, David Hyde Pierce gives us a level of emotion, meaning, and complexity that the rest of the show completely lacks.

John Kander's music is often lovely, and the four-person band does well by it. Greg Pierce's lyrics are better than his book writing, but that's not saying much. Julia Murney and Paul Anthony Stewart are okay, and Frankie Seratch is not quite okay. Only David Hyde Pierce rises about the overall mediocrity.

(sixth row center; tdf ticket)

Julius Caesar

What does an all-female Julius Caesar teach us that we don't already know about Shakespeare's tale of betrayal, ambition, and male stupidity? Not that much, really--but it does make the things we know fresh and vivid. And, anyway, the Donmar production currently at St. Ann's Warehouse is so thrilling and intensely hard-hitting that it doesn't matter what gender the actors are; it just matters that they're so damn good.

On the other hand, how wonderful that the cast is all female. How wonderful that they get to strut their stuff and be tough and play complex challenging roles. I can't help but imagine that, after stays and corsets and bustles, acting in trousers is liberating, and the performances certainly feel liberated: vibrant, fervent, and deeply heartfelt.

So, it's the usual story: Cassius convinces Brutus that Julius Caesar is too ambitious and too weak and therefore bad for Rome. Brutus has misgivings but persuades himself that murder is the only solution, despite his love for Caesar. The assassination is carried out, and no good comes of it.

In this production, the show is being performed in a women's prison. This accounts for the women playing men, and it also provides a nice edginess; some of these performers may actually be murderers. And the taut direction by Phyllida Lloyd--with electrifying support from Bunny Christie (design), Neil Austin (lighting), Tom Gibbons (sound),  Gary Yershon (music), Ann Yee (movement), and Kate Waters (fights)--maintains a breathless level of tension and conflict throughout.

And the cast, oh, the cast! Everyone is outstanding, though Harriet Walter (Brutus), Frances Barber (Caesar), Cush Jumbo (Mark Antony), and Jenny Jules (Cassius) get the most opportunity to strut their stuff--and strut they do! But there are no weak links here--everyone contributes to the beauty and glory of this excellent production.

Men playing women's roles is so commonplace as to be a bit tiresome, and there is often a level of cartoon to the performances. Women playing men's roles occurs less often, and, I think, has more to offer. Here's to an all-female, oh, Lear, or Henry V, or Much Ado About Nothing! I'm ready.

(very audience right; six row; tdf ticket)

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Film Society

Jon Robin Baitz's 1988 play The Film Society, which takes place in South Africa in the 1970s, explores racism, compromise, the closet, friendship, and many other interesting themes. Unfortunately, the Keen Company's current tepid production of the play, directed by Jonathan Silverstein to be both monotone and monochromatic, fails to tease out the themes, develop the relationships, or land the jokes. Only the stalwart, reliable Roberta Maxwell manages to bring dimension to her character; under Silverstein's uninspired direction, the rest of the cast ranges from wooden to okay.

(6th row on the aisle; press ticket)

Tamar of the River

The glorious Tamar of the River, running through October 20 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, is a must-see for anyone interested in nontraditional, engaging, and accessible musical theatre. Based on the biblical story of Tamar and Judah and his sons, Tamar of the River presents an active Tamar who is a prophet and pacifist and who exists on her own, not just as wife/mother/sex object. After the river tells her she is a prophet and gives her an assignment, she sneaks into enemy territory. There she ends up more or less involved with Judah and each of his sons as she tries to convince them of the importance of peace. The show is compelling, sexy, sometimes funny, and deeply emotional.

Composer/libretist Marisa Michelson, lyricist/librettist Joshua H. Cohen, director Daniel Goldstein, and choreographer Chase Brock create a vivid and magical world. Michelson's contribution is particularly vivid; using only voice, piano, violin/viola, dulcimer, percussion, and cello, she presents people, nature, love, mistrust, unity, hope, and great, great beauty.

The books and lyrics, as well as scenery by Brett J. Banakis, costumes by Candida K. Nichols, lighting by Brian Tovar, and sound by Jeremy J. Lee, are simple, clear, and strong, and the movement and dance work hand-in-hand with the music to bring wonder to this story and this show.

Tamar is played by Margot Seibert, soon to be playing Adrian in the musical Rocky on Broadway. She is a bit contemporary for the role of Tamar, but excellent nonetheless. The whole cast is wonderful, with magnificent voices; they are Ako, Jeremy Greenbaum, Erik Lochtefeld, Mike Longo, Vince B. Vincent, Jen Anaya, Adam Bashian, Margo Bassett, Troy Burton, Tamrin Goldberg, Aaron Komo,and Mary Kate Morrissey.

I might not have seen this if a friend hadn't invited me. I owe her a great vote of thanks.

(fifth row; discount ticket)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is not warm or fuzzy or uplifting or heartbreaking.  Its characters are not especially finely wrought or deeply nuanced, and do not Learn Something Important About Themselves Or Others by the curtain call. It is not propulsively plot-driven. Tidy exposition is never once slipped conveniently into the dialogue. The show is not really even about The Simpsons in the end--at least no more than, say, Gogol's "The Nose" is really about a nose.

Mr. Burns is mostly about how popular culture works, and the ways it flows, changes, and conforms--both immediately and in the long-term--to the changing needs of a changing populace. It is one of those dense, endlessly layered, brilliantly written pieces that commands your full attention and quietly blows your mind, even during passages when you don't fully understand what the hell is going on. And trust me, you won't always know what the hell is going on, because Washburn captures the way people talk--about pop culture, about themselves, about each other, about their world, about trauma and disaster--so exceptionally well that easy conveniences like exposition are sent packing. Which is as it should be, because when it comes to constructing and reconstructing cultural memory, being unable to fill in all of the gaps--or, sometimes, electing to fill the gaps with material that satisfies a collective need, even if it isn't as graceful or clear or accurate as it might be--is an enormous part of, if not the whole point.

What we do learn in the first act of the play, which is set "Near. Soon.": A random group of people have found one another after a series of nuclear disasters has wiped out most of the population of the country. As one would expect--since post-apocalyptic scenarios themselves are, after all, so deeply-rooted in American pop culture--supplies are dwindling; the power has failed; everyone carries guns and assumes the worst of strangers until convinced otherwise. The survivors don't have much to do but wait out the immediate future in the hopes that they will not die. Fighting off sorrow, dread and panic, they sit around a campfire and set about reconstructing as much of the "Cape Feare" episode from the fifth season of The Simpsons as they can. The act of linking themselves to a shared past, and thus to one another, is powerful balm for these mournful souls. Reconstructing a particularly beloved episode from an enormously popular show is certainly more pleasurable for them than the other activity they collectively engage in later in the scene, when a (friendly) stranger joins their group: taking turns listing the names and ages of their loved ones in hopes that the newcomer has seen or heard of them during his lonely, extensive wanderings. He hasn't. But he does have a really good memory, he performed in an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan troupe before disaster struck, and he knows some of the choicest lines from The Simpsons episode in question. And so, just like that, he becomes a member of the group.

This first scene is talky in the best sense of the term. Washburn's talent for dialogue is immediate and seductive. The scene also relies on spare, effective use of subtle movement: a furtive glance or the touch of a shoulder keys the audience in to the fact that two of the women in the group are deeply concerned about a sadder, more distant third. We learn little about these characters' bigger pictures--their pasts, their identities. One was married; one was from a very small town; one lived in the house the group is camping outside of. The gaps in their stories are--and remain--tantalizingly absent, but then, we don't share our lives with one another in times of crisis, now, do we? We worry after relative strangers, we dedicate ourselves to the issues at hand, we take care of what needs to be done, we help one another survive. And part of helping lies in working together toward the kind of comfort that camaraderie and shared memories provide.

The second act, set seven years later, has the same group--plus one new wanderer--frantically rehearsing what they've managed to reconstruct from the "Cape Feare" episode, complete with commercials. Again, we get only just enough backstory: the country is still a dangerous, semi-anarchical place; radiation sickness is still a cripplingly terrifying concern; a few of the characters seem to have paired off romantically; a few are less obviously traumatized than they were in act I. Accurate memories of popular culture before the disaster have become precious commodities that competing  troupes will pay for and jealously guard. Clearly, it is not just this group of survivors that prioritizes collective memory; the greater community does, too. As it rebuilds itself, then, this futuristic society gamely looks to the future while burying itself in the cozy, fleeting comforts of the increasingly-distant past.

Yet as preciously guarded as they are, the carefully amassed cultural indicators of the past have nevertheless begun to transform, to fuse into one another, to start to mean different things. Little details that no longer matter have begun to get lost as the past grows more distant (does it really matter, anymore, to this group of survivors that The Simpsons premiered in the 1990s, and not the 1970s?). Other details not only refuse to die, but have become larger, more relevant, more precious. The commercial the troupe rehearses in this act neatly demonstrates all of this, especially as it becomes clear it is not being used to sell anything. The commercial, which features a woman eager to take a long, hot bath after a hard day in the office, initially seems to be for a Calgon-like product. But as it plays out, it not only goes on for much longer than any contemporary commercial does, it also devolves into a long, chatty list of creature comforts that Americans once held dear, and that are slowly trickling away: hot baths, chilled wine, cans of soda, ice cubes . . . and the whole complicated structure of commerce that came along with it all. Commodity fetishism has become a weirdly longed-for phantom limb.

The final act, set 75 years later, is a full performance of "Cape Feare," which has changed slowly, if dramatically, over the many years that have passed. Like most aging popular culture references, it has been subject to a generations-long game of telephone, and now resembles a Kabuki-tinged operetta-cum-morality play, shot through with a dizzying number of pop culture references that have been drawn liberally (and not always accurately) from the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries. Washburn's packed, referential "script" has departed from the original episode in telling ways: Sideshow Bob has slowly morphed into Mr. Burns. Bart is the sole survivor in his family's struggle against this personification of evil "nucular" power. The show is still enormously layered and referential, but it is no longer funny. As an added plus, it features musical numbers by Michael Friedman, who is easily the most meta theater composer working today. References to songs, expressions, and actions that just will not die--lines from HMS Pinafore, sports chants, the macarena, that damned Des'ree song--float through the air and, just as you place them in their original time and setting, pop like soap bubbles.

What makes this play, and its show-within-a-show (within a show), so satisfying, intelligent, and effective is how brilliantly it demonstrates the symbiotic and sometimes directly contradictory relationship a culture has--and, Washburn implies, always will have--to its popular entertainments. We change them, they change us. They comfort us, they challenge us. They isolate us, they bring us closer together. They generate nostalgia, they propel us forward. They take us out of our lives, they become central to our lives. In short, to quote what I think I remember Homer saying once, in an episode I saw a long time ago, Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play is funny because it's true.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Metamorphosis

Kafka's The Metamorphosis is, for all its terse language, sparse emotional display, and brevity, a tale with some pretty huge themes about family dynamics, the personal and professional world, the nature of routine, and the mind-soul-body connection. Its simple, even flat, prose and its curiously passive main character work to contradict the horror of its central plotline: a profoundly ordinary man who lives a life of deadening routine goes to sleep one night, has some bad dreams, and wakes up a huge bug who can understand but can no longer communicate with the people he comes into contact with. His horrified family locks him into his room, where he remains for most of his slow, sad demise. His sister and mother initially attempt to connect with him in their own ways, while his father, never close to him, spurns him, sometimes violently, and always with rage. Eventually, the entire family tires of him, and his only visitor becomes the family's new charwoman, who suffers no nonsense and barely cleans his increasingly filthy room. Aware of what a burden he has become, he dies, mournfully and alone.

When I read The Metamorphosis in college, I don't remember being able to get past the basic outrageousness of the tale: "Oo, dude's a bug. Gross. His family rejects him. Lame. He dies. Bummer." But now, having re-read it in middle age, I can only see it as a metaphor for serious, incapacitating illness, and its impact not only on the individual but on the extended family and the community. To say, then, that the tale feels realer, scarier, more haunting to me now than it did then is a vast understatement.

A stunning interpretation of The Metamorphosis is being performed at the Joyce through September 29, and if you get the chance--even if, like me, you're typically more confused than you are thrilled by dance--you should rush out to see it. The big picture is worth the price of admission, really: Edward Watson, who plays Gregor, is an astoundingly limber, flexible, intuitive dancer who was clearly born to perform this piece; the supporting cast is excellent, too. The choices the production has made--to update the piece to the 1950s; to imply more overtly than the book does that Gregor's transformation is, indeed, symbolic of some kind of grave illness; to make Grete a dancer instead of a violinist; to gradually cover the stage with oozing, brown muck; to suggest a slightly different (if still devastatingly sad) ending--are daring, but they all worked for me. So too did the strange and appropriate score, played entirely by the multi-instrumentalist Frank Moon, and the bits of humor that frequently lightened the piece (the three boarders were awesome, and the charwoman, hilarious in the book, transferred perfectly to the stage).

But for all the astoundingly limber bodies, the big sounds that emanated from Moon's one-man-band (set up off stage right, and often as fascinating as what was happening on stage), and the jerky movements Watson--an enormous man with a strange, believably insect-like physique--executed throughout the piece, I was moved most frequently by the subtlest of moments. Throughout the piece, various characters haltingly reach out to touch Gregor as a means to connect with him despite his transformation, or look sorrowfully at one another, or stare blankly at the television, the wall, one another. The sorrowful looks only intensify; the attempts to connect with Gregor dissolve into frustration, exhaustion, disgust. It is the touching of hands, and then the absence of such touching, that lingers with me, as does the haunted, sorrowful way that Gregor--bathed in muck, fully isolated, and tucked pitifully into an almost improbably tight fetal position--looks dully up at the light when the charwoman opens his window for him and lets in a little light just prior to his death. Such tiny moments serve as important, if endlessly haunting, reminder of how fragile human connections are, and how devastating their absence can be.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Shakespeare's Sister

In her sweet mash-up Shakespeare's Sister, director/adaptor Irina Brook serves the audience Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, and actual soup.

As the audience enters, five women are already onstage, which is an attractive, fully equipped kitchen. They chop, they stir, they cook, they sing, they dance. And they talk and talk. The words are those of Woolf and Duras, and many are familiar.

In fact, there is a dated-ness to the piece, as though it were the 1970s instead of the 2010s. On the other hand, the content is unfortunately still timely, particularly to Brook, who herself balances the many quotidian and extraordinary responsibilities that are the lot of the female artist. And it is certainly true that most woman still lack a "room of one's own" (as do most men, really).

Beyond reminding us of the intricate pressures of being a woman--and the joys of being women together--it is hard to understand totally what Brook is trying to do here. The dances are fun, but it's not clear why they are there or what they signify. The sexual interlude is downright confusing: is it satire, is it self-expression, is it something else altogether? It feels as though Brook is trying for something deep and expressive, yet the results are more pleasant than hard-hitting.

The quintet of performers are Winsome Brown, Joan Juliet Buck, Nicole Ansari, Yibin Li (who also plays violin), and Sadie Jemmett (who also plays guitar and sings). In many ways, they don't coalesce as a whole--not in tone, talent, personalities, or technique. However, the heterogeneity is part of the charm of the piece. The inviting set design is by Noelle Ginefri.

It is possible that the constant pairing of Brook's name with that of her legendary father, director Peter Brook, does her a disservice, setting inappropriate expectations. I understand the publicity value of this connection, but it's an odd way to sell a piece that is so strongly about women.

(press ticket; 8th row on the aisle)

Philip Goes Forth

George Kelly's Philip Goes Forth at the Mint is an uneven production of an uneven play that nevertheless entertains and satisfies. Written in 1931, Philip Goes Forth treads familiar ground with its story of a young man, the titular Philip, who chooses to become a playwright rather than go into his father's business, much to his father's dismay and anger. Philip ends up at a boardinghouse with the customary artists and eccentrics, each of whom represents a way of going for your dream: living it, faking it, failing at it, letting it go. Philip becomes friends with them, gets a day job, and works on his plays at night.

Rachel Moulton
Photo: Rahav Segev
In some ways, Philip Goes Forth seems to be in the tradition of Holiday (1928), the movie version of  Stage Door (1936), and You Can't Take It With You (1936), but it has a pragmatic underpinning that those lack. It is a tribute to working toward one's dreams, but only as long as one has the drive and the talent to achieve them.  Where Holiday has the famous, "If he wants to come back and sell peanuts, Lord how I'll believe in those peanuts," Philip Goes Forth would have, "If he wants to come back and sell peanuts, we'll have to see if he's any good at selecting the best peanuts, setting up a stand, and making it work."
Or, as the landlady says,
You know, there are millions of people all over the world that are spoiling their lives regretting that they didn't do something, or take up something, or keep on with something; when it's the blessing of God that the majority of them did just what they did; for they'd have only found out what you are finding out—that liking a thing, or talking a lot about it, is not an ability to do it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Women or Nothing

I went to see Ethan Coen's Women or Nothing with some misgivings due to its tagline: "Women or Nothing is a play about two women so desperate to have a child that one of them will even sleep with a man." Stories written by men about lesbians sleeping with men tend to be tedious and/or annoying and very much about the men, with the lesbians almost as props rather than people.

As it turns out, Women or Nothing is so bad and so pointless that for it to be annoying in that way would have been a step up.

Here are some of the problems with Women or Nothing--with spoilers, I suppose, but how can you spoil something that is no good to begin with?
  • The title makes no sense.
  • The premise--that a woman, Gretchen, would push her partner, Laura, to sleep with her coworker Chuck because she mistrusts the genes that might come with anonymous sperm--is dumb.
  • The many reasons that Gretchen gives Laura to get her to sleep with Chuck are unconvincing, pointless, and stupid.
  • That Laura would succumb, when she doesn't want to sleep with Chuck and has never slept with a man, is ridiculous.
  • Although we are supposed to believe that Gretchen and Laura are a much-in-love couple, there is nothing in the writing or acting to support this.
  • The couple--Halley Feiffer as Gretchen and Susan Pourfar as Laura--have no chemistry, which further makes their relationship unconvincing.
  • Chuck does not know that Laura is Gretchen's significant other or that Gretchen is gay. It seems unlikely to me that Gretchen would be closeted at work, but, okay, I'll accept that one.
  • Laura does indeed have sex with Chuck, after telling him that she is a "gold star lesbian" (i.e., that she has never slept with a man).
  • The all-important discussion between her telling them that and their ending up in bed is missing. Wouldn't he find it weird that she wanted to go to bed with him after knowing him 45 minutes or so? Wouldn't he find it strange to have sex with her in what he has been led to believe is Gretchen's apartment and bed? Wouldn't he put on a condom????
  • If they did have unsafe sex, wouldn't he wonder what's going on, since it's unlikely that a gold star lesbian would be on the pill or have a diaphragm?
  • Doesn't it occur to Laura--and Gretchen--that although that Chuck is a nice guy, he still might unknowingly have one of the many sexually transmitted diseases that can be symptom-less in men?
  • Why are Gretchen and Laura so sure that Laura will become pregnant? Laura is 40, an age at which many women do not easily conceive.
  • Why is Dorene, Laura's mother, even in the play? And how could Coen, a person at least partially responsible for the brilliant Fargo, write such a one-dimensional, sitcom version of a human being? Dorene comes across as a Neil Simon character trying to be edgy. It is not a pretty picture.
  • And why would Chuck have decided not to father a child with his (now ex-) wife because there's depression in his family? Choosing to have your wife use anonymous sperm instead of your own is a great big deal. Depression can be awful and devastating, but enough to have a stranger father your child? In order for me personally to buy this reasoning, there would have to have been depression and the breast cancer gene and serial murderers in Chuck's family. (Obviously, Coen is seeking irony, since we know that Gretchen has chosen Chuck because she thinks his daughter is wonderful and wants Laura's child to have those genes. But, really!)
  • And why would Chuck put Dorene's wet umbrella in the closet of what he believes to be Gretchen's home? (Other than Coen wanting him to see some photos that are stashed there?) Who even opens the closet door of an apartment they've never been in?
  • And, once Chuck has seen the photos, which presumably reveal that Getchen and Laura are a couple, why does he not react? Here's a man who doesn't want to father his own child; wouldn't he be pissed that he possibly just fathered someone else's?
  • And wouldn't Gretchen show the teeniest-tiniest bit of jealousy when she learns that Chuck and Laura had sex more than once?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

You Never Can Tell

Watching the delightful production of George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell being presented by the Pearl Theatre Company and the Gingold Theatrical Group, I had to periodically remind myself that I was not watching a play by Oscar Wilde. Following The Importance of Being Earnest by two years, You Never Can Tell shares its cheerful skewering of societal mores, its witty dialogue, and even a character declaiming fervently, "On my honor I am in earnest." The Importance of Being Earnest is probably the better play; You Never Can Tell has occasional languors, and Shaw's laugh/minute ratio doesn't quite equal Wilde's (whose does?). On the other hand, Shaw's politics are more interesting; for example, written in 1897, You Never Can Tell both teases and respects feminism.

What's most important is that You Never Can Tell is great fun. It includes romance, a family reunion, a costume ball, dentistry, and an entirely satisfying denouement, courtesy of an attorney-ex-machina. As directed (and lightly adapted) by David Staller, it moves along at a good clip (except for those languors) and lands its laughs with joyful precision. Some parts are a little overdirected and cutesy, but it's a small fault, and Staller's use of music and dance to sail through scenery changes is charming. (The scenery itself is a fabulous example of the wonders that a smart and tasteful designer, Harry Feiner in this case, can create on a limited budget.)

A show like this relies heavily on its cast to navigate that thin line between heightened acting and overacting. Under Staller's leadership, the Pearl stalwarts and non-Pearl-ians all acquit themselves energetically, earnestly (!), and with excellent timing. Particularly impressive are Sean McNail (who is always particularly impressive), Amelia Pedlow (who brings a sincerity to her role of reluctant lover that adds poignancy to the humor), and Zachary Spicer (who is perfect in a small but pivotal role).

I've said this before, and I hope I get the opportunity to say this again: The aptly named Pearl is a shining jewel in the New York theatre scene.

(2nd row center; press ticket)

Friday, September 13, 2013

A User's Guide to Hell Featuring Bernard Madoff

While watching Lee Blessing's mediocre A User's Guide to Hell Featuring Bernard Madoff, I found myself writing Caster's Rules of Satire.

General Rules

Rule 1: A satire should be entertaining.

Rule 2: A satire should reveal new truths or present old truths in such a way that they feel new.

Rule 3: A satire should have the courage of its convictions and not cop out at the end.


Tenet 1: If a satire uses a character such as Mengele or Mohammed Atta for humor, the depiction had damned well better be funny.

Tenet 2: Arguments about God and religion must actually be interesting

Tenet 3: Blue-collar men with New York accents are not automatically entertaining

Tenet 4: Anal rape is not by definition a laugh riot and treating it as such is lazy writing.

So, anyway, Bernie Madoff (the serviceable Edward James Hyland) is in hell. His guide is Verge, a blue-collar New Yorker, played with little personality by David Deblinger. All the other characters are played by the excellent Eric Sutton and even better Erika Rose, the show's two redeeming features. The direction, by Michole Biancosino is uninteresting.

The program features a note from the playwright that begins, "Hell is funny." I don't know if that's true, but I do know that the version of hell depicted in  A User's Guide to Hell Featuring Bernard Madoff is tedious.

(press ticket; 5th row)

Fetch Clay, Make Man

What does a playwright owe a living person on whom he or she bases a character? What does a playwright owe the audience who comes to see a play "based on actual events"? Some people argue that the playwright owes nothing to either the person or the audience; the playwright needs to be true to his or her personal vision. And I understand their point; I think I may even agree with it, intellectually.
Ray Fisher, K. Todd Freeman
Photo: Joan Marcus
Emotionally, however, I find bioplays--e.g., Buyer and Cellar, The Audience, and Fetch Clay, Make Man, the focus of this review--distasteful. The playwrights piggyback on the fame and accomplishments of another person and present their fantasies of the person's life as art.

Another problem with bioplays is that wondering what is true and what isn't takes me out of the play. In Fetch Clay, Make Man, Muhammad Ali invites Stepin Fetchit to his training camp before his repeat bout with Sonny Liston. Ali attacks Fetchit, calling him a coon and threatening to beat him. This turns out to be a joking hazing, mostly. Did it happen? If so, Ali is pretty creepy. If not, playwright Will Power is possibly doing Ali a great injustice; the scene is ugly.

Later, Fetchit tells Ali's wife that she should discard her all-white, body-and-hair covering abaya and dress as the vibrant woman Fetchit knows her to be. And she does! We next see her looking impressively hot in heels, make-up, and a short, form-fitting dress. Did this actually happen? If so, did Ali really respond in such a low-key manner?

There are dozens of other questions of this sort, and even the trivial ones are distracting.

Putting these complaints aside, Fetch Clay, Make Man has the assets of energy and creative staging, along with some vibrant acting. Ray Fisher is a completely convincing Muhammad Ali. K. Todd Freeman as Stepin Fetchit effectively depicts a man trying to hold on to a dignity he is not 100% sure he deserves. And Power's exploration of what it has meant to be a black man in America is intermittently stirring.

The direction is by Des McAnuff. The projection design, which adds a great deal of energy but subtracts some clarity, is by Peter Nigrini.

Fetch Clay, Make Man ultimately left me with this question: I know what Power got by co-opting Ali's and Fetchit's lives, but what did he give in return?

(second row, press ticket)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Soul Doctor

Soul Doctor is not the greatest show on the planet, for sure, but it's certainly not the worst, either--and while there are problems with the show that have been cited repeatedly by critics and other bloggers, I found myself enjoying it immensely nonetheless.

Shlomo Carlebach might not be a household name (at least not in non-Orthodox Jewish households, or in households that are even a few miles from the Carlebach Shul on West 79th Street), but his approach to synagogue worship was both revolutionary and enormously influential. An early Schneerson follower, he was prominent in the baal teshuvah movement (in which a comparatively secular Jew "turns" toward Orthodoxy), and instrumental (pun intended) in infusing the contemporary worship service with music. If you've ever been to a synagogue service--whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform--in which congregants sing ecstatically, dance in the aisles, and intone extensive niggunim (Hasidic chants), you've likely witnessed Carlebach's influence whether you knew it or not. A devout Jew who devoted his life to outreach through music, Carlebach would seem to serve naturally as a central character in a musical.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Old Familiar Faces

The real-life siblings Mary and Charles Lamb lived in the 1800s in London and wrote together. The fictional (but-somewhat-based-on-Vivien-Leigh-and-Laurence-Olivier) Lee and Oliver are former lovers in present-day New York. The four personae share an intense love of Shakespeare. Perhaps more importantly, the four share the play Old Familiar Faces, written and directed by Nat Cassidy and late of the Fringe Festival.

Tandy Cronyn, Sam Sam Tsoutsouvas
Old Familiar Faces cannot help but bring to mind Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, as the characters overlap in scenes and interests from century to century. But the comparison isn't quite apt; where Stoppard connects his characters in location and history, Cassidy connects his in language and sensibilities.

Language is the play's raison d'etre. Combining quotations from Shakespeare and his own blank verse, Cassidy presents us with much that is beautiful and moving. To combine his own writing with Shakespeare's takes, what?, daring, courage, ego, balls? But Cassidy pulls it off, and the play is an aural pleasure.

Cassidy also presents us with three fascinating characters. Mary Lamb is seriously mentally ill; in a past attack of insanity, she stabbed her mother to death (true story!). Her brother cares for her and tries to make her life bearable, at obvious cost to his own. But while their lives as people are painful, their lives as writers challenge and fulfill them. They seem truly happy only when discussing their Tales From Shakespeare and what might go into the next volume. It is an odd, sad, emotional sibling love story.

Oliver is snarky, self-pitying, difficult, immature, mean, smart, and funny. He definitely gets some of the best lines in the play, as in:
You are insanely beautiful, you know that? Like, literally, Nietzsche-stare-into-the-abyss insane. You have the single most perfect ears. These little spirals that would make Fibonacci cry. Even this little thing here, what is it, a scar? It’s so perfect it’s unfair to the rest of the world, it’s almost treason. You should be beaten to death in the square for how beautiful you are. Where’d you get this little scar?