Friday, January 31, 2014

The Bridges of Madison County

It's the moment. The lonely Italian-born Iowan housewife and the dashing photographer dance. And the audience's focus is pulled onto a neighbor, singing.

It's another moment. Their love is growing. And focus is pulled onto a skeletal faux bridge being lowered.

Still another moment. And focus is pulled onto the four store fronts being rolled onstage. Or the kitchen coming in. Or the fake car being put in place. Or the people at the country fair. Etc, etc, etc.

The Bridges of Madison County in its various incarnations is a testament to mush. It's cliched, silly, predictable, corny, and trite. Well-done, it can also be ridiculously affecting, a major tear-jerker. But you have to embrace the mush, focus on the mush, honor the mush, trust the mush.

The often-brilliant Bartlett Sher, director of the musical version of The Bridges of Madison County, does everything he can to distract from the mush. His direction is busy, overthought, and overdone. It takes the slight but sweet story at the center of the show and buries it under motion and scenery and tangents. Composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman are guilty as well; they have stuffed this souffle of a show with so many ingredients that it has no chance of rising. But Sher makes it even worse, never letting the story settle for even a minute or two.

Monday, January 27, 2014


Hannah Cabell
Photo: Rob Strong
The Pilot's name doesn't matter because being a pilot is absolutely what she is, over all other forms of identification. She lives to fly "My Tiger/My gal who cradles me lifts me up." She also rains destruction
on the minarets and concrete below me
The structures that break up the sand
I break them back down
Return them to desert
To particles
At least I think I do
I'm long gone by the time the boom happens
Tiger and I are on to another piece of sky
She doesn't date much: "Most guys don't like what I do/Feel they're less of a guy around me/I take the guy spot and they don't know where they belong." But then she meets Eric:
This one’s eyes light up
This one thinks it's cool
This one kisses me in the parking lot like I'm the rock
star I am

My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer

Katherine Folk-Sullivan (left) and Layla Khoshnoudi (right)
Photo credit: Hunter Canning

With a 65 minute run time, Brian Watkins' My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer is a short and provocative one act play.  It is well worth your time.

The premise is one that the typical New Yorker or urbanite will find foreign.  Two sisters, both college uneducated, living in the middle of a prairie out West.  The elder sister Sarah is burdened with maintaining the family home/land and caring for her ailing mother and a lone sheep named Vicky, while the younger sister Hannah works every day at a roadside diner wrestling with a mild wanderlust and an Isuzu that won't take her anywhere.  Yet its very foreignness is what makes the play all the more poignant when you start to relate to these characters.

The story is told through a series of monologues by the two sisters.  As they state at the beginning, they don't talk much to each other, even as they recall the same events.  Estranged by bitterness, jealousy, and the memories of happier times, Sarah and Hannah's relationship is simultaneously archetypal and personal.  The raw honesty and frequently irreverent humor of their stories highlight the deeper, darker things that often motivate actions.  The strength of this work lies in the characters' step-by-step decisions and tiny explosions of violence, which have the power to transform us from humans with delusions of moral decency to stumbling unrecognizable creatures.  (I once heard a variant of that phrase used with regards to Breaking seemed applicable here.)

I'll leave my description at that because I don't want to give too much away.  Production-wise, the choreography of light was quite brilliant (Was that too punny?) - from flashlight to overhead lamp to flame.  The performance by Katherine Folk-Sullivan (Sarah) was top notch.  She especially shone in the moments when Hannah was speaking and you could see the play of emotions across her face.  Layla Khoshnoudi was delightfully funny and insightful as Hannah.

This was my first Off-Off-Broadway play.  I loved the intimacy of the theatre (only two rows of seats), but it was a very wide stage which made views slightly uncomfortable.  Granted, I was sitting at the end of a row.  I kind of wonder if this play might work in the round...but, random musings.   Final verdict: I highly recommend it.  This is a journey worth going on with Sarah and Hannah.

My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer is playing at The Flea Theater (41 White Street) through February 15.

(press ticket, second row, far left)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Russian theater parody

Good people, have you seen this? Because if you haven't, you must. Go. Go now. Watch. It's as good and as brilliant and as effective as this--if not more so.

You're welcome.

Outside Mullingar

A slight, but emotional play by John Patrick Shanley (Doubt--Tony Award/Pulitzer Prize), Outside Mullingar excels at beautifying life's minutiae without delving deeply into its complexities. Like his Academy Award-winning screenplay, Moonstruck, this Manhattan Theatre Club production, which opened last night, depicts quirky characters that fall in love despite themselves.

Although predictable (girl meets boy, boy pushes down girl, decades pass, boy gets girl), the play enchants by the strength of its cast, who often infuses their simple parts with a vulnerability not always apparent in the playwright's words. Especially moving is a tender bedside scene that Brian F. O'Byrne (Anthony Reilly) and his disapproving father, Peter Maloney (Tony Reilly) share in the middle of the night where two men reluctant to talk about feelings heart-achingly appreciate one another--perhaps for the very first time--as the regret that etches their words sits helplessly on their faces. Dearbhla Molloy, as the mother of Rosemary Muldoon (Debra Messing) offers a certain Irish feistiness as she chats about her own demise and admonishes the O'Reilly's on the state of their home: "Your mother would die again if she could see this house."Messing, making her Broadway debut, sounds authentically Irish and holds her own with the stellar cast. You never quite believe, though, with her delicate frame and innate grace, that she could perform the chores required of the farm woman she plays.

Lovely, too, are the endearing details embedded into the set. From the soft patter of the rain on the Reilly's window--a tiny tap tap that intimates something is about to change--to the plain crosses that hang on the kitchen walls, these small things infuse the play with intimacy. Indeed, Shanley knows this world. In fact, so does designer John Lee Beatty and director Doug Hughes, who visited Shanley's ancestral home in Ireland, according to a January 9th essay the playwright wrote in the New York Times. Outside Mullingar touches audiences with this authenticity. Most moving of all is the play's sense of longing and recrimination--for, in the span of 100 minutes, forgiveness is found and the loneliness all humans grapple with ends happily. If only real life could offer the same guarantees

Outside Mullingar

In John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar, Brían F. O'Byrne plays a pathologically shy, quietly quirky farmer named Anthony, whose family farm abuts the one owned by Rosemary's family. Rosemary (Debra Messing) is also quirky, if somewhat more extroverted, and she smokes heavily. There is a long history of tension between the families, and both Rosemary and Anthony have their own misgivings about inheriting their respective farms when their parents die off. Despite all the baggage, will these two solitary misfits find one another--and love--as they enter middle age?

Of course they will, you dumbass. Otherwise, there'd be no play.

Seriously, and with all due respect to the cast and company, that's all I've got on this one. Outside Mullingar is a light, pleasant show that is nonetheless rather thin for its attempts at mining the strained relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children....and Neighbors with Family History. The play is about as deep--if also about as sweet--as one of those snack-packs of chocolate pudding. O'Byrne is typically committed and engaging as a performer. Messing, making her Broadway debut, holds her own, can do a pretty convincing and consistent Irish accent, and is dressed way better than she ever was in "Smash." Peter Maloney and Dearbhla Molloy are solid and convincing as Anthony's dad and Rosemary's mom. The set is nice, and so is the direction. John Patrick Shanley, celebrated playwright that he is, has written a pleasant enough little love story about his ancestral home. The audience I saw it with was appreciative. But for all that, I left the theater feeling that when it comes to Mullingar, there is in fact no there there.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


One of the risks of writing cutting-edge theatre is that time can wear down sharp edges into blunt instruments. It is the classics that rise above their time and place. Joe Orton's farce Loot is a classic, and even though police corruption, bisexuality, and disrespect for religion are no longer shocking, the play remains fresh and remarkably funny.

Ryan Garbayo and Nick Westrate
Photo: Rahav Segev
The current Red Bull Theater production of this tale of robbery, death, and cheerful sleaziness, complete with ill-gotten gains hidden in a coffin with the corpse in the wardrobe, manages to harvest about 85% of Orton's brilliance. The set (Narelle Sissons) and lighting (Scott Zielinski) provide the perfect ambience, the pacing is good, and much of the acting is excellent. Rebecca Brooksher is an enticing manipulator, Nick Westrate and Ryan Garbayo provide just the right combination of reality and insanity, and Jarlath Conroy's trajectory from mournful to hysterical is perfectly calibrated. The weak link, unfortunately, is Rocco Sisto, who is well-cast physically and a generally reliable performer but who is ultimately defeated by his dialogue. Particularly in the second act, he messed up many lines, and while some sorts of plays can handle such stumbling, farces can't. His mistakes lost laughs and damaged the momentum, and it's really too bad because he was otherwise quite good.

Overall I'd give this production a B. Interestingly enough, my nephew, previously unfamiliar with Orton, gave it an A-. Even at a B, it's well worth seeing, and I continue to be grateful to Red Bull for their always interesting seasons.

(press ticket, second row, right aisle)

Outside Mullingar

Inside John Patrick Shanley's 105-minute Outside Mullingar is a potentially wonderful 85-minute play. As it stands (or stood at the preview I saw), it meanders too much and takes too long to get to the romance promised by the label "romantic comedy." Much of the meandering is charming, but some wanders too far afield or is too repetitious. Outside Mullingar presents too slight a story to justify 1:45, and although I love talky plays, sometimes I wished they would just can it.

The story: boy meets girl, boy knocks girl down, girl gets a crush on boy, boy is rejected by a different girl and becomes withdrawn, girl turns into woman and retains crush for decades, boy-now-man is oblivious. And meanwhile their parents get old and die.

The four-person cast provides three excellent performances (Brian F. O'Byrne, Peter Maloney, and Dearbhla Molloy) and one okay one (Debra Messing).

There are lovely moments in this play, particularly when boy-man and girl-woman finally have a long scene together. I hope Shanley trims down the excess and leaves the sweet core.

(free ticket, 2nd row mezz)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Criticism and its critics

Hi, all:

I thought I'd tip you off, if you are interested, to a lively, interesting, and occasionally maddening discussion that was sparked a few weeks ago by an essay titled "Critical Generosity" that the scholar Jill Dolan wrote for the premier issue of Public: A Journal of Imagining America. The essay, which is fairly clearly positioned as Dolan's individual take on contemporary theater criticism, was in turn cited in scholar Polly Carl's essay, "A New Year's Diet for the Theater" on the blog HowlRound. This essay is a bit broader and more general than Dolan's in its suggestions, but basically, it, too, suggests that harsh criticism might be fun and easy and good for a belly laugh, but that it's not helping theater.

Carl's essay inspired a response by George Hunka, whose "We Are All Victims Now" was posted on his blog on 7 January. He focuses--perhaps overmuch, perhaps not, depending on your interpretation--on "niceness," which is a term Carl uses, but that Dolan does not, and that is, I think, not the real point of either Dolan's nor Carl's posts.

Dolan responds with as much on Feminist Spectator with "Criticism Redux Redux Redux"; Hunka responds in turn with "Jill Dolan Responds." The back-and-forth results in some twitter discussion by critics including Peter Marks, Jonathan Mandell and Jason Zinoman, as well as Hunka and Dolan, the last of whom ends the discussion with an explanation that she doesn't find twitter an appropriate medium for productive debate. I tend to agree with her, at least in this case, since the debate now strikes me as a lot of people arguing slightly different if interconnected points from a number of angles and ideologies.

At any rate, the debate will culminate (or not) with  HowlRound's weekly howl, "Critical Generosity and the Spectre of Niceness," the title of which seems to cut to the very heart of the shades of discrepancy surrounding the argument. It starts at 2pm est, and I suspect it will be--much like the essays that have prompted it, and I guess much like theater criticism itself--lively, interesting, and (maybe not so) occasionally maddening.

Check it out, why don't you? Unless, of course, this sort of thing makes rolling around naked in ground glass seem more appealing, in which case I'd strongly encourage you to skip it and, instead, take to bed. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014


The brilliant revival of Machinal, Sophie Treadwell's expressionistic 1928 dissection of a woman's life, climbs off the stage and under your skin. This nerve-rattling production is directed by Lyndsey Turner, who has worked closely with a superb team of designers and a strong cast to bring the plight of the Young Woman (she and the other characters are never named) to vivid, multidimensional, heartbreaking, claustrophobic life.

The strength of the production is apparent from its first seconds, as the Young Woman travels on a crowded train, which somehow is convincingly right there, on stage, as noisy and overwhelming as the actual subways that run far below the theatre. The show continues to present an almost miraculous amount of realistic emotion through its expressionistic means.

The story, inspired by the tale of the real-life husband-murderer Ruth Snyder, is simple, and unfortunately still relevant in many women's lives. The Young Woman is expected always to put herself last, and she mostly does, as each of the people and situations in her life fail her, from her mother to her husband to her lover to being a mother herself. Even women who have had many more options--myself included--can feel her plight in our bones, particularly as presented in this superb production. I imagine many men can, too.

In all fairness, I should mention that I found this show painful and unpleasant to sit through, although I admired it from the first. As time has passed, my respect for it has grown, leading to this rave review. Despite the show's unpleasantness, I am grateful to have seen it for the brilliance of the work.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Theater with Children: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Photo: Gerry Goodstein

When I was a kid, my parents took my sister and me to a lot of theater in our hometown of Pittsburgh, which has a much stronger arts scene than I think most people assume. My folks subscribed (and still do) to Pittsburgh Public Theater, and sometimes took us to summer stock productions under a huge tent at Hartwood Acres. They frequently took us to shows at Carnegie-Mellon University, which had consistently excellent offerings (and has sent about a gazillion starry-eyed graduates to New York over the years). They also took us, for a couple of years, to a great Shakespeare festival. Now sadly defunct, the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival operated, at least through the late 1980s, out of the lovely little Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

A few days before we'd attend a particular Shakespeare play, my mother would haul the dark gray, heavily inked copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that she had purchased as a college student out from the study and read through it. Then, over dinner or in the car en route to the show, she'd tell us a chatty, child-friendly synopsis of what we were about to see: "Lear was a king, and he had three daughters. Can you guess, just by hearing their names, which one we are supposed to like best?" or, "Wait until you see what an awful man Iago is. Just a terrible guy. Here's what he does to Othello." Her synopses were typically bookended with impassioned reminders that we were not going to be able to understand everything the characters said because they spoke in an older form of English, but that we shouldn't worry about that. Her approach didn't always work (I clearly remember my dad shushing me with growing irritation while I squirmed my way through Richard III, a play I have grown to appreciate but still really don't love), but it helped more often than it didn't. At the very least, whether we connected with the play or not, my sister and I always had some inkling of what the hell was going on at any given time.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Simple Dreams (Book Review)

Simple Dreams is Linda Ronstadt's "musical memoir," and in it, she discusses her forays into light opera (The Pirates of Penzance) and opera (La Boheme). Ronstadt is remarkably modest for someone with her many successes, and she is clear as to her limitations. When she is offered Pirates, she insists on auditioning. When she does Boheme, she writes, "I realized that I should have insisted on auditioning for this production, too, as it was beginning to dawn on me how difficult the singing was going to be." She later quotes Frank Rich's criticism of her performance and agrees with him!

I was an usher at the Public Theatre in the 1970s and still had many friends there when Pirates was done in the early 1980s. By all accounts, Ronstadt was a lovely, unassuming woman. That comes through in Simple Dreams, as does her sheer love of music. It's far from a great book, but its 200 or so pages include enough interesting stories to make it worth the while of anyone interested in Rondstadt or in music in general.

(library book)

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence

Madeleine George's latest play, The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence is by turns breathtaking, annoying, beautiful, overwritten, and gorgeous. A mash-up riff on three Watsons--the Jeopardy-winning computer, Alexander Bell's assistant, and Sherlock Holmes' buddy--The Watson Intelligence wanders hither and yon, taking on romantic relationships, deep friendships, sanity, emotional bravery, and the meaning of being human. In some ways, it's a mess. But, oh, the writing.

David Costabile, John Ellison Conlee
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Watson Intelligence is stuffed full (overfull?) with glorious monologues, each of which could stand alone as a short play. A case in point is Bell's Watson explaining why he feels neither humiliated nor put-upon to always stand in the great man's shadow. This monologue handily tells a story, reveals character, and provides insight into the human condition--all in luxuriously rich language.

Ultimately, the show fails to coalesce, and its sheer wordiness becomes overwhelming. It was also weakened in its recent Playwright Horizon's production by Amanda Quaid's unimpressive performance, which paled beside the strength of her costars, David Costabile and the protean John Ellison Conlee, leaving the triangle unbalanced.

But, never mind. The strengths of The Watson Intelligence far outweigh its weaknesses. And Madeleine George deserves the nurture and support given to her by Playwrights, which makes a habit of presenting the future of dramatic writing. (Playwrights also presents many female playwrights and hires many female directors, without making a big deal out of it. Like women are people, or something weird like that! Bravo!)

I can't wait to see George's next play.

(second row, membership ticket)