Saturday, September 26, 2015

The New Morality

Harold Chapin's The New Morality, the slight but delightful piece from 1915 currently on view at The Mint, resembles an Oscar Wilde play if Wilde wrote about (almost) real people.

Brenda Meaney
Photo: Richard Termine
Betty Jones has taken to her bed and refused a meal to perform a level of repentance she doesn't feel. Her crime? She unloaded on Muriel, the woman with whom her husband has been flirting all summer. She acknowledges to her good friend Alice that some of her language would be better left to dog shows, and she admits that she was probably pretty loud. She thanks Alice for visiting at risk to her own reputation.

And then Muriel's husband Wallace shows up, demanding that Betty apologize.

Chapin uses this thin plot as a skeleton for discussions of sexual politics, society, and the meaning of fidelity. He fleshes it out with scores of very funny lines. His take on sexual politics is fascinating, since it exists in a world that probably never was: the gorgeous homes of independently wealthy people, taken care of by servants, where women rule the roost and men fecklessly try to figure them out. Chapin ignores the true power that men have and had, particularly 100 years ago, yet there is a level on which his sense of sexual politics is advanced and even vaguely feminist. (Chapin was killed in World War I, one of the millions of tragic casualties of that stupid and useless war, so there's no way of knowing how his work would have developed.)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Show Showdown Theatre Links Updated

In a long-needed piece of housekeeping, we have updated our list of Theatre Links in the right-hand column of this blog (scroll down). If you'd like us to add your theatre blog/website to our list, please put the info in the comment section of this post. Thanks.--Wendy Caster

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Cameron Kelsall Joining Talkin' Broadway

I am pleased to announce that I will be joining Talkin' Broadway as a contributing critic. I will be covering theatrical productions in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Although I can't provide a firm date at this time, I expect to begin filing reviews sometime in the very near future. I will continue to serve in my capacity as a contributor for Show Showdown. -- Cameron Kelsall

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Hollywood Arms

There are two ways of looking at the anniversary reading of Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett's Hollywood Arms at Merkin Hall last night. As an event, it was a huge success. Just getting to see Burnett on stage and express our love for her was a major treat. She received a wonderful, slowly-evolving ovation. People clapped and cheered, and one by one, began to stand as we realized that the applause and cheers weren't enough. It took a long standing O to acknowledge the tremendous joy that Burnett has brought into our lives.

Emily Skeggs, William Jackson Harper, Cotter Smith, Michele Pawk, Tyne Daly,
Sydney Lucas, Caleb McLaughlin, Anthony Edwards, Jenny Jules, Will Pullen
Photo: Paul Zimmerman/WireImage
And just seeing the cast--Tyne Daly, Michele Pawk, Emily Skeggs and Sydney Lucas of Fun Home (once again playing the same character), Cotter Smith, and Anthony Edwards--walk on stage was exciting.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The desnudas in Times Square

I wrote a thing for OUP blog, and figured I'd share it here. It's about the "painted ladies" in Times Square, the history of that particularly raunchy neighborhood, and how silly this news story is.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Spring Awakening

Two young women reflect each other through a mirror. One is dark-haired and slight, with a deeply expressive face. The other is blond and fuller-bodied, with a guitar strapped to her back. They both sing: one uses her voice; the other, her hands. Despite their differences, there is no question that they reflect the same person. This is how Deaf West's extraordinary production of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening announces itself.

photo: Kevin Parry
Directed by the actor Michael Arden, this revival of the 2006 musical -- currently playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, after a successful run in Los Angeles -- puts the action in the context of the 1880 Second International Conference on Education of the Deaf, which occurred a decade prior to the publication of Franz Wedekind's Spring's Awakening, on which the musical is based. Known colloquially as the Milan Conference, it banned the teaching of sign language in favor of lip reading and oralism. Assimilation was prescribed as the only answer to the "deaf question;" those who could not essentially pass for hearing had no place in society.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Wendy Caster Now Theatre Writer for Art Times

I'm pleased to announce that I now have the honor of being the theatre writer for Art Times, where I will write essays most months. Here's a link to the latest issue. And here's a link to the Art Times website.

And here is a taste of my first essay, "The New Audience: How a Culture Evolves."
In Shakespeare’s day, heckling was common. The groundlings (people who bought cheap tickets and stood right in front of the stage) flirted, argued, got drunk, and even urinated right there, while the show was going on. The wealthier people carried on their own intrigues in the more expensive seats, including the hiring of prostitutes.  
I would have hated it. Patti LuPone would have hated it more! But it was the accepted theatre-going culture of its time. 
(read more--on page 11 of the pdf)
I will of course continue to review shows here.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


At first glance, The Acting Company's production of Desire would seem to be an evening of works by Tennessee Williams. After all, the six one-acts are ostensibly based on his short stories, and they burst with Williams-isms: the explosive horror of thwarted desire, needy heartbroken women, scared homosexual men, people unable to defy the world's expectations, glass figurines, even cannibalism. But the one acts offer us Williams' sensibility by way of Beth Henley, Elizabeth Egloff, John Guare, Marcus Gardley, David Grimm, and Rebecca Gilman. These playwrights bring much of themselves to the plays, and many of the results are vibrant, vigorous hybrids.

Mickey Theis, Juliet Brett
“The Resemblance Between a Violin
 Case and a Coffin”
Photo: Carol Rosegg
The evening begins with Beth Henley's "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin." Williams' short story is narrated by Tom, a young man uncomfortable with his homosexual urges and crushed by the loss of his older sister Roe--his one friend--to womanhood. Henley moves the focus to Roe, with Tom more of a supporting character, even giving Roe some of Tom's words. She retains, however, the focus on the high price of sexual desire.

When Richard Miles comes into their lives, his beauty and light throws both siblings for a loop. In the play, Tom's discomfort with his attraction to Richard is played somewhat for laughs, while in the short story Tom feels himself to be a monster. Roe's challenges remain the same. Simply put, her attraction to Richard takes away her power as surely as Samson's haircut removed his.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Legend of Georgia McBride

The Legend of Georgia McBride is maybe not the deepest show out there, but it's great fun, nonetheless. Performed by a committed cast whose kind, well-meaning characters are impossible not to root for, McBride relies on a few unexpected plot turns and character motivations to steer clear of the cliches it regularly threatens to sink into. I expected to be indifferent about the show at best, but I left hoping everyone else who sees it has as much fun with it as I did. It's a sweet, charming hoot.

The Legend of Georgia McBride

The MCC Theater’s latest offering, The Legend of Georgia McBride, shows drag queens at work: those who dress up as a sparkly symbol of protest against discrimination; those who are just born for a life of high heels and sequined evening gowns; and those who find that their best male selves lie in the lip-synced songs of a woman.

Matt McGrath, Keith Nobbs and Dave Thomas Brown. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

When Casey (Dave Thomas Brown) discovers his Elvis impersonator act at Cleo’s, a backwater bar in Florida, will be replaced by a drag queen show he only agrees to stay on as bartender because there is a baby on the way for him and his wife, Jo (Afton Williamson). It’s the same reason he dresses up in drag to do an Edith Piaf number when a regular cast member, Rexy Nervosa (Keith Nobbs), goes on a bender. He awkwardly moves through the song, coached by drag queen extraordinaire Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath, who also appeared in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts premiere). By the third night, though, Casey is something of an expert impersonator and he find he enjoys performing as much as the money, a fact he cannot confess to his wife.

This gem of a show pleasantly explores the nature of self and the transformative power of fantasy, and while no surprising insight is revealed, the characters seem real and likeable. As their personal epiphanies are slowly unveiled, an unexpected emotional punch underlines the simplicity of playwright Matthew Lopez’s plot. Plus, the performances, directed by Mike Donahue (who also directed the show’s 2014 Denver premiere) are just oh-so much fun to watch.

Seeing Casey transform from bad Elvis to country vixen, mouthing tunes by hit makers such as Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, is pure entertainment. If Thomas Brown wasn’t slated to play Michael on the first national tour of The Bridges of Madison County this fall, he could give up conventional acting and become a full-time drag queen … if he wanted.  Equally terrific is the supporting cast, especially McGrath, whose exuberant sweetness always hints at the steel that lies beneath the middle-aged queen.

The production staff utilizes all the assets of the Lucille Lortel Theatre’s small space—transforming it seamlessly from Casey’s apartment to Cleo’s dressing room and stage, with all the glittery upgrades as the drag show gains momentum. There’s no curtain; even as the audience enters the theatre, the show begins with the staff in headsets, moving on and off  the stage as they roll in dressing racks and check the goods in the refrigerator.  

The scenic design by Donyale Werle exposes a tired watering hole with simple details, such as the shining, mismatched holiday lights that add a bit of sparkle, despite the insinuation that this establishment is the type that leaves their decorations out all year. Adding to the glitz and fantasy of the drag show are costumes by Anita Yavich and makeup/wig design by Jason Hayes, which transform Dave Thomas Brown into a true star and, as his pregnant wife eventually laments, a woman prettier than her.

Its New York premiere may be short-lived (August 20-October 4) but hopefully, this sweet show with sharp dialogue will come back again.

(Press tickets, orchestra).

Monday, September 07, 2015

Mercury Fur

I find it hard to believe that Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur -- written in 2005, but just now receiving its New York premiere, under the auspices of The New Group -- caused such ire upon its original London bow that the critic Charles Spencer to basically call Ridley a pervert and the author's regular publisher, Faber and Faber, refused to issue the text in print. After all, the play premiered a decade after Sarah Kane's Blasted, a truly unsettling piece that actually simulated rape, mutilation and cannibalism in full view. Horrible things are the purview of this dystopian drama, but the vehicle is almost entirely talk. The talk is laced with fucks and cunts, but it's hardly shocking on the language or the content level. The play portrays a post-apocalyptic world in which any fantasy can be bought for the right price; brothers Elliot (Zane Pais) and Darren (Jack DiFalco) facilitate these encounters and act as purveyors of the drug-du-jour, taken in the form of butterflies.

photo: Michelle V. Agins
I won't reveal the particular fantasy being bought in Mercury Fur, though other critics have. But I will say that by the time it becomes clear -- after nearly two intermissionless hours -- it's hard not to feel that the playwright hasn't earned the shock he's trying to sell. Ridley is obsessed with the minutiae of life in a dystopia -- surviving in a nightmarish landscape becomes just as boring as trying to climb the corporate ladder. But does his writing and the action that surrounds it (Pais and DiFalco spend much of the play's first half-hour cleaning an apartment, doing little else) have to actually be so boring in order to portray banality?

Although the acting is largely good -- Tony Revolori (late of The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Paul Iacono (apparently playing a cisgender woman, for reasons never fully understandable) are particular standouts -- the play never catches fire. And it never feels disquieting. The best works of art in this genre should make you question the darker aspects of your own society. That is something Mercury Fur simply doesn't achieve.

[discounted ticket, almost impossible to accurately describe my seat given the theater's current configuration]

Sunday, September 06, 2015

The Flick

Not much happens in The Flick, but you probably know that already. The play's languid running time -- three-and-a-half hours, with the fist act clocking in at almost two -- and liberal use of silence caused a minor stir when it premiered at Playwrights Horizons, in 2013. The controversy was such at PH's artistic director, Tim Sanford, took the somewhat unprecedented step of actually writing an open letter to the company's subscribers to explain why he programmed the play. When Annie Baker's play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year, the award was met by cheers from some and eye-rolls from others. That award -- and the growing interest in Baker's works, with include the currently-running John (Wendy's and my reviews here) -- prompted a commercial return of The Flick, which is currently playing at Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village until January 2016.

photo: Joan Marcus
Like most of Baker's plays, The Flick is set in a somewhat crumbling corner of New England -- in this case, a run-down single-screen movie theater in Worcester, Massachusetts. The theater's claim to fame, if it can be described as such, is the presence of one of the last 35mm projectors in the state. This is the express reason why Avery (Kyle Beltran), a 20 year old cinephile on leave from college, decides to work there. His colleagues include Sam (Matthew Maher), a 35-year-old lifer who seems to hide a wellspring of sadness under his Red Sox cap, and Rose (Nicole Rodenburg), a mysterious, sexually vivacious projectionist. Over the course of the play, we watch these three enact the mundane indignities of daily life, from sweeping popcorn to threading projectors, punctuated by a healthy amount of movie trivia and hard-won personal revelations.

The Flick is not as grand and philosophically concerned as John; nor is it as precise as Baker's 2009 breakthrough play, Circle Mirror Transformation. It does, however, feature her most astute characterizations of human life. The trio of movie theater works -- a fourth actor, Brian Miskell -- plays two small parts -- regularly find profundity in minutiae, whether or not they realize it. The acting is unbelievably good, especially considering that Beltran, Rodenburg, and Miskell are only in their first week of performances. (The peerless Maher has been involved since the Playwrights Horizons run). Beltran especially puts a quivering voice and tender, expressive face to good use in projecting both Avery's savant-like cinema knowledge and deep-seeded self-doubt.

The Flick won't be for everyone. Large swaths of the audience at the performance I attended fled at intermission; many of the audience members who stayed allowed their boredom to give way to boorish behavior. (I also witnessed this behavior at John, which is similarly lengthy). I question whether these attitudes towards Baker's plays have less to do with her content -- even though the plays are long, and slow, they are fairly conventional -- and more to do with her style. My suggestion is that if you go to see an Annie Baker play, give yourself over to the experience. You might end up beguiled.

[Rear orchestra]

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Sound of Murder (book review)

Ivy Meadows (nee Olive Ziegwart) is an actress by night and a P.I. in training by day. Her current evening gig is The Sound of Murder, a Cabaret-Sound of Music mashup that I'd definitely go to see. In Ivy's day job, her Uncle Bob, who is also her boss, has her filing old paperwork while he does the actual detecting. But then recent widower Charlie Small commits suicide, and Ivy becomes convinced he was murdered. She decides to do some detecting of her own. Let's just say it goes less than smoothly.

Ivy Meadows is a likable, funny, hapless narrator. She goes too far, says too much, sticks her nose in where it doesn't belong, suffers from camel toe in her costumes, and kinda burns down her house. And, like any good narrator in a mystery series, she knows a lot of people who get murdered. But the mysteries are only part of the fun in Cindy Brown's Ivy Meadows Mystery series. (The first book in the series is Macdeath.)

Brown worked in theatre for years, and she gets the charm, craziness, ego, fear, silliness, and bravery of the people who make shows happen. She gives us the has-been star, the sometime porn actress, the diva with memory problems, the creepy womanizer, 60-year-old cheerleaders, and people who just can't help saying "Macbeth" out loud in a theatre. They're entertaining company.

Brown's books are well-designed cotton candy, page turners sprinkled with genuine character-based humor and delightfully bad jokes. I greatly enjoyed both Macdeath and The Sound of Murder, and I look forward to the next one.

(By the way, the Kindle pre-order price for The Sound of Murder is only $2.99. It's also available in paperback for $15.95.)

(reviewer copies)