Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Lortel Award Nominations


Outstanding Play
The Christians
Produced by Playwrights Horizons and Center Theatre Group
Written by Lucas Hnath

Produced by The Public Theater
Written by Danai Gurira

Produced by Vineyard Theatre
Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Guards at the Taj
Produced by Atlantic Theater Company
Written by Rajiv Joseph

Produced by Signature Theatre
Written by Annie Baker

Outstanding Musical
Produced by Soho Rep. and Ars Nova in association with Carole Shorenstein Hays
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps, Lyrics and Book by César Alvarez

Produced by Playwrights Horizons
Written by Jenny Schwartz, Music by Todd Almond, Lyrics by Todd Almond and Jenny Schwartz

Southern Comfort
Produced by The Public Theater
Book and Lyrics by Dan Collins, Music by Julianne Wick Davis, Based on the Film by Kate Davis, Conceived for the Stage by Robert DuSold and Thomas Caruso

Tappin' Thru Life
Produced by Leonard Soloway, Bud Martin, Riki Kane Larimer, Jeff Wolk, Phyllis and Buddy Aerenson, Darren P. DeVerna/Jeremiah J. Harris and the Shubert Organization Written by Maurice Hines

The Wildness: Sky-Pony's Rock Fairy Tale
Produced by Ars Nova in collaboration with The Play Company
Text by Kyle Jarrow & Lauren Worsham, Songs by Kyle Jarrow

Outstanding Revival
'Tis Pity She's a Whore Produced by Red Bull Theater
Written by John Ford

Cloud Nine
Produced by Atlantic Theater Company
Written by Caryl Churchill

Mother Courage And Her Children
Produced by Classic Stage Company
Written by Bertolt Brecht, translated by John Willett

The Robber Bridegroom
Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Daryl Roth
Book and Lyrics by Alfred Uhry, Music by Robert Waldman

Women Without Men
Produced by Mint Theater
Company Written by Hazel Ellis

Outstanding Solo Show
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Produced by Darren Bagert, Daryl Roth, Co-Produced by Jane Dubin, Curtis Forsythe, Michael Mayer, Diane Procter, Seaview Productions and Minerva Productions/Joshua Goodman
Written and Performed by James Lecesne

Produced by New York Theatre Workshop
Created and Performed by Dael Orlandersmith

Produced by The Public Theater
Written by George Brant
Performed by Anne Hathaway

Mike Birbiglia: Thank God For Jokes
Produced by Mike Berkowitz, Joseph Birbiglia, Ron Delsener and Mike Lavoie
Written and Performed by Mike Birbiglia

Outstanding Director
Rachel Chavkin, The Royale
Anne Kauffman, Marjorie Prime
Amy Morton, Guards at the Taj
Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed
Eric Tucker, Bedlam's SENSE & SENSIBILITY

Outstanding Choreographer
Alexandra Beller, Bedlam's SENSE & SENSIBILITY
Martha Clarke, Angel Reapers
Maurice Hines, Tappin' Thru Life
Paul McGill, The Legend of Georgia McBride
David Neumann, FUTURITY

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play
Denis Arndt, Heisenberg
Reed Birney, The Humans
Timothée Chalamet, Prodigal Son
Andrew Garman, The Christians
Ed Harris, Buried Child

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play
Ito Aghayere, Familiar
Georgia Engel, John
Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans
Chinasa Ogbuagu, Sojourners
Phylicia Rashad, Head of Passes

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical
Gabriel Ebert, Preludes
Michael C. Hall, Lazarus
Maurice Hines, Tappin' Thru Life
Michael Luwoye, Invisible Thread
Steven Pasquale, The Robber Bridegroom

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical
Sophia Anne Caruso, Lazarus
Alison Fraser, First Daughter Suite
Annette O'Toole, Southern Comfort
Mary Testa, First Daughter Suite
Sammy Tunis, FUTURITY

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Sanjit De Silva, Dry Powder
Jonathan Hogan, Hold On To Me Darling
Matt McGrath, The Legend of Georgia McBride
Paul Sparks, Buried Child
C.J. Wilson, Hold On To Me Darling

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Alana Arenas, Head of Passes
Lauren Klein, The Humans 
Jeanine Serralles, Gloria
Lois Smith, John
Myra Lucretia Taylor, Familiar

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
Greg Hildreth, The Robber Bridegroom 
Jeffrey Kuhn, Southern Comfort
Or Matias, Preludes
Chris Sarandon, Preludes
Kevin Zak, Clinton the Musical

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Eisa Davis, Preludes
Karen Kandel, FUTURITY 
Leslie Kritzer, Gigantic
Leslie Kritzer, The Robber Bridegroom
Annie McNamara, Iowa

Outstanding Scenic Design
Mimi Lien, John
Timothy R. Mackabee, Guards at the Taj
G.W. Mercier, Head of Passes
Emily Orling and Matt Saunders, FUTURITY 
David Zinn, The Humans

Outstanding Costume Design 
Martha Hally, Women Without Men
Toni-Leslie James, First Daughter Suite
Clint Ramos, Eclipsed
Anita Yavich, The Legend of Georgia McBride
Donna Zakowska, Angel Reapers

Outstanding Lighting Design
Christopher Akerlind, Grounded
Mark Barton, John 
Ben Stanton, The Legend of Georgia McBride 
Justin Townsend, The Humans
David Weiner, Guards at the Taj

Outstanding Sound Design
Matt Hubbs, The Royale
Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, Guards at the Taj
Fitz Patton, The Humans 
Will Pickens, Grounded 
Bray Poor, Buzzer

Outstanding Alternative Theatrical Experience
Angel Reapers
By Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry
Produced by Signature Theatre

Peter Nigrini, Projection Design, Grounded

Lifetime Achievement Award
James Houghton

Playwrights’ Sidewalk Inductee
Suzan-Lori Parks

Monday, March 28, 2016

Stupid Fucking Bird

The Pearl Theater's production of Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner's 21st-century riff/recreation of The Seagull, is well-directed, well-acted, well-designed, and a great deal of fun. Its meta approach, with actors speaking directly to the audience, silly songs, and a fresh point of view, brings energy to the familiar story. However, it does not add up to much, nor does it teach us something new about Chekhov's original play.

[spoilers below]
While Stupid Fucking Bird sticks loosely to Chekhov's plot, its cheerfulness does much to undercut the emotions of the story. Yes, Con's mother, the great actress Emma, will never give him the attention and support he needs, but Con is cut from very different cloth than the Konstantin of the original. Konstantin is a whiny loser. His play in the first act is the artistic equivalent of his yelling at his mother, "I hate you," and throwing a tantrum. (Not that he wouldn't be justified. That Arkadina is one lousy mother, as is Emma in Posner's play.) Con's play in the first act is similar, but Con himself is loquacious and outgoing. His constant interaction with the audience is the charming heart of the play. Similarly, the eventual happiness of Mash/Masha and Dev/Medvedenko undoes Chekhov's presentation of the traps we set for ourselves when we can't get what we want. Add to that Con's being alive at the end of the play, and Stupid Fucking Bird becomes considerably less tragic than its forebear.[end of spoilers]

So, what does Stupid Fucking Bird offer us? Well, it's a lot more fun than The Seagull, and as someone who has seen the original perhaps one time too often, it's a relief. There's something frustrating about Chekhov's characters and their stubborn unwillingness to grow, change, or simply get a clue. But beside entertainment--which is, of course, nothing to sneeze at--Stupid Fucking Bird offers little. There are no new insights, no great emotion, nothing in the way of catharsis. It's a light and amiable romp, which is also nothing the sneeze at. It just seems to want to be more.

Stupid Fucking Bird is directed by Davis McCallum. The cast  features Bianca Amato (Emma), Dan Daily (Sorn), Erik Lochtefeld (Trig), Marianna McClellan (Nina), Joey Parsons (Mash), Joe Paulik (Dev), and Christopher Sears (Con).

The creative team is Sandra Goldmark (set), Amy Clark (costumes), Mike Inwood (lights), Mikhail Fiksel (sound), and Katie Young (production stage manager).

Wendy Caster
(6th row center; press ticket)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Dry Powder

Here's what I liked about Dry Power, Sarah Burgess's predictable, unimaginative, and lame incitement of high finance, currently playing at the Public Theater: the women in the crew wore black cocktail dresses when they moved the (unimpressive, ugly) scenery.

Azaria, Danes, Krasinski
Photo: Joan Marcus
To call Dry Powder one-dimensional would be to compliment it. Jenny (Claire Danes) and Seth (John Krasinski) each want their boss Rick (Hank Azaria) to choose their ideas; they compete, nastily, on both a professional and personal level. They are all three bottom-line people, except that Seth has a conscience and wants to do something good. It's not clear if Seth always had a conscience (in which case how did he get where he is?) or just grew one (in which case it would be nice to know how and why). But ultimately it doesn't matter; little he says sounds like a real person speaking. Jenny has no conscience, no heart, no morals; she is a human made of numbers and dollar signs. Nothing she says sounds like a real person speaking.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


The Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York, has just finished scattering the ashes of Thomas, one of its men, on the shores of the Hudson. Now that the simple ceremony has ended, they have retreated to the house Thomas shared with his third wife, Mary. Together, they gather around Mary's large wooden table to reminisce, mourn, catch up, listen to music, and set about preparing a nice dinner for themselves. Bread dough is kneaded and popped into the oven; vegetables for ratatouille are peeled, chopped, tossed in olive oil, and set on a burner; apples are peeled, chopped, and tossed in lemon juice for a crumble; bottles of red and white wine are poured. The family members chat in the sort of wide-ranging and amiable, ambling way people who are comfortable with one another tend to: one topic segues easily into another, doubles back, segues again. There are things someone wants to push further and things someone doesn't want to talk about; there are digressions and thoughtful pauses and reiterations. No topic is especially revelatory or unique; there are no Big Dramatic Moments or Deep Secrets That Get Revealed. Instead, topics include exactly the sort you'd expect people to discuss while they're sitting around shooting the shit for a while at a gathering: interfamily dynamics, work, local and national politics, Hillary and Donald and feeling the Bern, what old friends and acquaintances have been up to, how to properly chop the vegetables, the good old days, the way things have been changing around these parts. When dinner is ready, the family retreats from the kitchen into the dining room to eat, and that's when the play ends; only the faint smell of freshly baked bread remains.

Joan Marcus
"Yeah, but how is that a play?" my husband asked when I arrived home to tell him about Hungry, Richard Nelson's beautifully acted first installment in a planned trilogy--collectively titled "Election Year in the Life of One Family"--about the Gabriels. If you agree with his reaction, I'd strongly recommend that you skip this one--and the two Gabriel family plays to follow at the Public this September and November. But if the chance to be a fly on the wall in the kitchen of a fairly typical white, middle-class, contemporary American family appeals to you, Hungry will satisfy your soul.

I'd never before seen a Richard Nelson play, but his reputation preceeds him. I knew that he'd done a series of plays like this before--his four so-called Apple family plays, written between 2010 and 1013, focused on the fictional Apple family, also from Rhinebeck, during important moments in contemporary American politics. And I knew that many of my friends and colleagues, all avid theatergoers whose wide-ranging tastes I trust and respect, find Nelson's plays to be indulgent, pointless, boring wastes of time. I was fully prepared to feel much the same way, and am, frankly, still a little surprised that I didn't.

Hungry is slow and ruminative, for sure--it's not paced like most plays are, which is to say that nothing really happens except chat and chopping and kitchen work. But I found myself mesmerized by this small, quiet play, which was so expertly, realistically and convincingly directed by the playwright and performed by an almost all-female, universally strong, cast of six: Mary Ann Plunkett, Roberta Maxwell, Jay O. Sanders, Lynn Hawley, Amy Warren, and Meg Gibson. There is something beautiful about a quiet, unspoken celebration of so-called "women's work," and the peaceful synchronicity that results from it.

Watching people sitting around and chatting for almost two hours is most certainly not for everyone, and I came away from Hungry keenly aware of the reasons why Nelson's plays tend to be very mixed, reception-wise. If, and only if, what I've described above appeals to you, I'd recommend this one; if it doesn't, you'll likely be bored to tears. Me? I came away feeling real affection for the Gabriel family. I am looking forward to visiting with them again when the next two plays open, and the 2016 presidential election looms ever larger.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a curious craving for ratatouille and fresh bread.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Royale

A few seats were empty in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater the evening I saw Marco Ramirez's The Royale, and that struck me as kind of a bummer, because man, oh man, The Royale is a play worth seeing--especially in a production as tightly realized and inventively directed (by Rachel Chavkin), and as beautifully performed (by an iron-strong five-member ensemble) as this one is.

I suppose the idea of a one-set play about an early-20th century African American boxer is not exactly going to make a lot of the typical patrons of Lincoln Center froth at the mouth in a rabid rush to the box office. I get it: I'm about as big a fan of boxing as I am of rolling around naked in ground glass. But The Royale grabbed me almost as soon as it began, and I am most grateful that it did.

T. Charles Erickson
 Inspired by, if not closely based on, the life of the heavyweight fighter Jack Johnson (1878-1946), The Royale focuses on Jay Johnson (Khris Davis), a brilliantly talented and ambitious black heavyweight boxer who wants to break the color barrier by fighting--and beating--Bixby, the undefeated and now-retired heavyweight world champion. When Bixby accepts the challenge, Jay starts training with the help of his coach, Wynton (Clarke Peters), his sparring partner, Fish (McKinley Belcher III), and his white promoter, Max (John Lavelle).

But as the big fight nears, the physical training Jay puts himself through turns out to be the easy part of his preparations. Far harder is grappling with the fact that earning the title is no simple path to glory, but a double-edged sword that threatens to drive race relations backward even as they are also driven forward. And after a visit from his beloved sister, Nina (Montego Glover), who reminds him why he wants the title in the first place, but also of the fallout that might result from his win, the mind games only get worse. Will Jay manage to block out the doubts, the threats, the endless racism, while he's in the ring? Or will he lose (or throw) the fight for fear that his win will result in white anger and countless acts of brutal racial violence?

Weighty, looming questions like these do not, of course, result in easy answers, and The Royale doesn't tie up the loose ends in a tidy bow. That is, of course, to its credit: things have certainly gotten better in America since the turn of the century, but the present remains a veritable forest of double-edged swords when it comes to black lives, nonetheless. The Royale is so consistently engrossing, Jay's inner game so engagingly depicted, and the cast and direction so flawless and fine, that the ending is not the point so much as the getting there is.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Madama Butterfly

The extraordinary American soprano Latonia Moore sang only her second complete operatic performance at the Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday night. Like her company debut -- as Aida, in 2012 -- this appearance, as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, was a last-minute substitution. Although she was announced for a handful of Aidas during the 2014-15 season, which she had to cancel due to pregnancy, and is on the roster for the 2016-17 season (as Aida once again), the fact that she has been largely absent from the premiere opera company in the U.S. is curious and problematic -- especially considering that her performance Wednesday evening may be the best performance of the demanding role I've seen and heard in the past decade.

Photo: Marty Sohl for the Metropolitan Opera