Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Revisionist

Jesse Eisenberg's new play, The Revisionist, seems to be a predictable exploration of familiar territory: Uneasy young man, complete with cache of weed, visits much older female relative. Add WWII memories, stir.

It is much to Eisenberg's credit, however, that The Revisionist has its surprises. Even better, it isn't an entry in the increasingly-tasteless worst-Holocaust-story-ever sweepstakes that stretches from Sophie's Choice to Red Dog Howls. (Even better than that, Eisenberg spares us a cutesy "old woman gets stoned" scene.) Instead, it is a thoughtful, sometimes funny, often moving, examination of the interactions and frictions between someone who doesn't know what he has and someone who knows exactly what she has lost.
Vanessa Redgrave, Jesse Eisenberg
Photo: Sandra Coudert

Nicely directed by Kip Fagan, and well-designed by John McDermott (set) and Jessica Pabst (costume), The Revisionist's strongest asset is its cast. Vanessa Redgrave as the old woman is excellent (duh--although her bangs and glasses make it frustratingly difficult to see her face). Eisenberg is even better as the young man. His discomfort in his own skin is vivid, as are his reluctance to give in to his better side and his ongoing sense of entitlement. (Dan Oreskes does well by a small supporting role).

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give The Revisionist is that I keep wondering if the old woman should have done this or the young man should have done this--not if Eisenberg should have written them differently. And I'd love to know what happens next.

(press ticket, 7th row)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Things I Learned While Watching the 2013 Academy Awards

1) I have not set foot in a movie theater in a full calendar year, at least.

2) Nonetheless, missing the awards telecast was simply not a possibility.

3) Seth McFarlane is cute, charming, and all too often a walking justification for other peoples' casual racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and/or homophobia.

4) Shirley Bassey is still alive.

5) Jack Nicholson no longer is, but his spirit roams the Earth in a deranged Merry Prankster sort of way, and he is only visible to living human beings once a year, on Oscar night.

6) Marvin Hamlisch is, apparently, the most important and revered dead person in Hollywood this year.

7) Men who work behind the scenes in Hollywood all have long, silky, Fabio-like hair.

8) The film version of Chicago is the most important, earth-shattering, significant movie musical ever made in the history of Hollywood.

9) Catherine Zeta-Jones lip syncs much better than she actually sings.

10) Catherine Zeta-Jones blinks her eyes on cue very well.

11) The Best Documentary award went to the most edgy, risky, political choice there was. Oh. Never mind.

12) Camera lenses are very interesting.

13) Dreams do come true, but they come true more often if  you are white, pretty, and raised by people with enormous wealth.

14) Channing Tatum and Jennifer Aniston are not going to appear in a movie that relies on romantic chemistry anytime soon.

15) A few people actually did see Life of Pi and, apparently, liked it very much.

16) Costume designers are the frumpiest, most poorly dressed people on the planet. I totally should have been a costume designer.

17) Quentin Tarantino is the reason the Earth spins on its axis, and everything he says is important, interesting, and not remotely irritating, ever.

18) Jew-baiting is cool if a dog puppet is the one doing it.

19) Russell Crowe really, truly cannot sing.

20) Anne Hathaway can, and also can do so with a smudged face and the presence of boogers, which is probably why she took home the award and had all her dreams come true.

21) I really do like Sally Field, and always will.

22) I can't WAIT for the Tony Awards.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Old Hats

If you like Bill Irwin and David Shiner, you will like Old Hats. It has everything you could ask for: baggy pants, brilliant physical humor, sublime silliness, and the magical ability to walk down nonexistent stairs.

And if you like Nelly McKay, you will like Old Hats even more. Playing with the wonderful Alexi David on bass, Mike Dobson on percussion, Tivon Pennicott on sax and flute, and Kenneth Salters on drums, McKay makes the intervals between Irwin's and Shiner's routines into a bonus show--and a delightful one.

(full price ticket--$25 plus fees--first row)


John Doyle is where Sondheim musicals go to die. His Sweeney Todd, with its instrument-playing cast, fractured staging, and missing throat-slittings, wasn't Sweeney Todd, and his Company, with its instrument-playing cast, was cold, awkward and altogether too fond of characters marching around and around like target ducks in a shooting gallery. Now he has been given the opportunity to ruin Passion, and he has run with it.

[plot spoilers] Start with the cast. Judy Kuhn was theoretically an excellent choice--she was a brilliant Fosca in Washington, DC, in 2002 during the magical Sondheim celebration at the Kennedy Center. However, Doyle has directed her to a strong, sane, robust performance--three adjectives that absolutely do not describe Fosca. Ryan Silverman is a bland Georgio with a bland soap-opera-handsome face and a nice but bland voice. I can't imagine anyone waiting for him half an hour, let alone sacrificing her life for him. Melissa Errico is an equally bland Carla. (The one good thing about the miscasting and misdirection is that they ironically clarify Georgio's often puzzling choice of Fosca over Clara. This Fosca is more interesting and attractive in every way.)

Doyle's physical staging of Passion is flat-out annoying. For example, in perhaps the most significant scene in the show, when Fosca realizes that Georgio actually loves her, Fosca is placed so that an appreciable chunk of the audience cannot see her face. Granted, the CSC stage is a difficult one, but Doyle emphasizes the problematic sight lines as though he is taking the word "blocking" literally.

Another weird choice is to have men play two female roles ("Mother" and "Mistress"), denying the audience a variety of voice types and giving an important scene an unhelpful air of burlesque (and cheating an actress or two of a chance to work). If indeed it is necessary to keep the cast lean, why not have a woman/women play a man/men?

Oh, also: the costumes were unattractive and badly cut; the scenery was ugly and noisy.

I believe that, just as you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, you shouldn't judge a show by its poster. Now that I have seen Passion, however, I wish I had taken its tone-deaf, inappropriate poster as a warning. 

(CSC membership, seat B3, where I really should have been able to see more of what was going on! Preview.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My Name Is Asher Lev

Photo Credit:
"My name is Asher Lev!"

The title of the 1972 Chaim Potok novel, and the Aaron Posner play based upon it is, when uttered by the title character, no mere how-do-you-do. It is a near-desperate plea for respect, acceptance and, perhaps, permission to live comfortably in one's own skin. This last is not easy for anyone, really, but it's particularly difficult when one actively chooses, as Asher Lev has, to straddle two conflicting worlds.

Asher Lev is a Hasidic boy from Brooklyn, being raised in the 1950s by a loving if rigid father who has devoted his life to spreading the word of his Rebbe, and a loving if fragile mother who dreams of more than her Hasidic surroundings permit. Asher has inherited his father's obsessive dedication to his work, and his mother's wild inner spirit. His prodigious talent as a visual artist, however, comes from somewhere else. Depending on whom you ask, Lev's gift is either divine, or has been given to him by a darker force, referred to here (and in Kabbalist tradition) as the sitra acha, or "other side." Lev doesn't know where his talent comes from--maybe both places at once?--and at least as a little boy, he doesn't much care. He just knows that he has to sketch. Obsessively. All the time. With anything he can get his hands on. Everything he sees. Even if what he sees doesn't fit into his community's view of the world.

Asher's parents are concerned that their boy spends more time drawing than he does studying Talmud, making friends at his Yeshiva, learning to live a Hasidic life. But at the same time, they recognize that he is gifted. Like many parents, from many backgrounds, and in many settings, they push and pull at Asher with equal strength: alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, they encourage and denigrate, punish and enable, warm to and insult his talents. Hasidic or not, they are arguably, in this way, fairly typical as parents.

That might sound flip, but I don't mean it to be. Asher Lev is, at least to me, at its strongest when it explores the ways that one is shaped by the positive and negative forces of one's surroundings, as well as when it touches on the gray and ever-shifting ways that families struggle when the apple falls unexpectedly far from the tree. The three-person cast--Ari Brand as Asher, Jenny Bacon as his mother (and a number of other roles), and Mark Nelson as his father (and a number of other roles)--does a fine job of striking its own delicate balance. The three actors do well to express the profound concern that Asher's talents cause within the household and, at the same time, the unwavering love and respect that the family members have for one another. In playing a number of different kinds of characters that are frequently subjected to broad caricature--the wise old Rebbe, the Yiddishe mamma, the blunt and rumpled artist, and any number of Hasids--the cast could easily have slid, even unconsciously, into cheap stereotype, but never once does. These are finely-wrought characters, honed by three able actors who breathe life into what, in less capable hands, could easily come off as cardboard cutouts.

My one quibble with Asher Lev is that its central argument--that you can't be a Hasid and an artist at the same time--doesn't exactly ring true to me. I say this as a secular Jew, and one living a half-century later than Asher Lev is set. Not only have I never been devout, but I come from the generation of both the Chassidic Art Institute and, later, Matisyahu. I freely admit, then, that I just might not quite understand all the nuances of the conflict as it would have played out in 1950s Borough Park.

But while I had no problems accepting the fact that Lev's parents are unhappy with their son's passion for drawing, and especially for drawing things that don't jibe with the Hasidic world view (portraiture; the human body; Christian imagery), some of the conflict that Asher Lev creates seems more forced, especially once it introduces Jacob Kahn as Asher's secular-Jewish art teacher and mentor. Kahn, also played by Mark Nelson, serves as the Yin to Asher's father's Yang; an equally passionate, similarly rigid paternal presence who bluntly and repeatedly informs Asher that one cannot be both an artist and an observant Jew. Whenever Asher balks at an assignment Kahn gives him--whether it is to paint a nude or to copy a Pietà--Kahn's retort is more or less that Asher should just go back to Brooklyn and spend his life making trite little Rosh Hashannah greeting cards and painting Hanukkah decorations for children.

Such discussions add to the dramatic conflicts Asher carries perpetually on his shoulders as he skyrockets to fame and continues to struggle with his family and faith. But I am not convinced of them as realistic. Whether they are or not, they are not nearly as well-honed or as nuanced as the heated debates that take place between Asher and his parents. I would have liked to have learned more about Kahn, who is not religious but who describes himself as "admirer of the Rebbe," and who thus might just have a relationship with Judaism that is far more complicated than his frequent black-and-white pronouncements imply.

The constant back-and-forth was, I suppose, deemed dramaturgically necessary, and anyway, it does quite a number on Asher, who grows to be a deeply conflicted, deeply complicated man clinging so desperately to both his faith and his art that one becomes hard to discern from the other.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Bethany begins with Charlie (Ken Marks), a third-rate motivational speaker, practicing his spiel in the mirror. "And I'll tell you one thing about [your] higher power," he says. "He wants you to be rich. Rich beyond your wildest dreams."  In the next scene, Crystal (America Ferrera), a young woman in a suit and red spike heels, lets herself into an empty (she thinks) house. A single mother who lost custody of her daughter after losing her job and home, Crystal wouldn't agree with Charlie. Not at all.

When Crystal discovers that the house is occupied by Gary, a sort-of-crazy, sort-of-savvy, sort-of-likeable sort-of-vagrant, she enters into an uneasy alliance with him. He takes the upstairs, she takes the downstairs, and they agree not to bother each other. Next we find out that Crystal is now working at a Saturn dealership, where she is desperate to close a sale. Who should walk in but Charlie, showing great interest in the various cars, and even more interest in Crystal?

Tobias Segal, America Ferrera
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Bethany, written by Laura Marks and directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, is a study of various sorts of neediness, and its examination of the clash between individual responsibility and an uncaring society has strong moments. But the show frequently gets in its own way. The biggest problems are these: 1. The way Charlie is written and played, Crystal would see through him quickly, no matter how desperate she is. 2. Crystal would never stay with Gary when she knows there are dozens of empty houses in the neighborhood from which to choose.

There is also a lack of attention to detail that seriously messes with suspension of disbelief. For example: In this deserted house, shortly after meeting Gary, who could be a murderer for all she knows, Crystal turns her back on him. And: After specifically saying that she cannot afford dry cleaning for her suit, she proceeds to sit on the floor and eat a hamburger, unwrapped, without changing her clothing or using a napkin or showing any concern for how greasy and drippy hamburgers can be. And: She would never tell Charlie that the car he's considering could get him laid under the circumstances in which she tells him just that. And: Early on, Gary mentions that the electricity could go out in the house at any time; this should be a major source of tension but it is completely forgotten.

Ultimately, with the help of a smart performance by the likeable America Ferrera, Bethany manages to do an effective job of showing how the lack of money and power can strip someone bare emotionally, psychologically, and morally. But I think it could have been devastating.

(press ticket, second row center)

Friday, February 08, 2013


Clive, written by Jonathan Marc based on Baal by Bertolt Brecht, and directed and starring Ethan Hawke, is yet another tale of a male artist so charismatic and tortured that people line up to be fucked or fucked over by him. As is true of most stories of this sort, it is unpleasant, frustrating, annoying, and boring. It also depicts all women as weak idiots (some of the men at least get to be strong idiots). Clive sleeps with his producer's wife, seduces a friend's girlfriend out of her virginity, and says things like, "My insides are on the outside. My intestines are stuck to my chest and my veins are on my skin."

It may be that Clive is supposed to limn the dog-eat-dog mundanity of human society or reveal artistic self-destructiveness or something else equally meaningful, but it comes across as a lot of posturing and blah, blah, blah. Clive is reasonably well-directed and well-acted, but, really, who cares?
Mahira Kakkar, Stephanie Janssen, Ethan Hawke
Photo: Monique Carboni

(press ticket; 7th row center)

Sunday, February 03, 2013


Kate Baldwin
Fiorello!, the 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, requires a lead actor full of energy and charisma. In the current revival at Encores!, Danny Rutigliano, while likeable and physically appropriate for the role, is only Fiorello and not Fiorello! 

In fact, most of the evening lacks its exclamation mark. Emily Skinner and Erin Dilly surprisingly don't quite land their songs, and Jenn Gambatese's annoyingly hard work adds up to little. The choreography is okay at best. Perhaps most significantly, the edits to the book remove any chance of real emotional investment.

Luckily for the audience, however, the evening includes an excellent male chorus singing "Politics and Poker" and "Little Tin Box" plus Kate Baldwin's ravishing "When Did I Fall in Love."

(orchestra side section, first row; ticket was a gift)