Sunday, December 31, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: The Broadway Musical (Toronto)

For this last day in 2017 I treated myself to a Young People's Theatre (YPT) Production of Beauty and the Beast: The Broadway Musical. Watching this well-known story amongst the chattering of young people (otherwise known as children) did give me a new perspective on this "tale as old as time"--which is exactly what YPT's production aimed to do.

This production cut Disney Theatrical's Beauty and the Beast down to 85 minutes and transferred it to a much smaller stage. I usually do not read any program notes until after I see a show, but in this case I am glad I read Artistic Director Allen MacInnis's preface to this "chamber sized" production. It allowed me to focus on the story underneath all the spectacle: love and true acceptance between two outcasts, Beauty and the Beast.

Beast and Beauty dancing in YPT 2017 production of the Broadway Musical

I have been dreaming of the live staging of Beauty and the Beast since I was four years old. And in the past year, I have watched both the animated 90's version and live action 2017 movie many times--so switching that off to focus on a smaller retelling of the story did not come naturally. Then again, it didn't for the other young audience members either. I counted three different little girls wearing tiaras and the yellow Belle ballgown from the Disney movies. In the post show Q&A, the cast was quick to remind the children--and me--that they made Belle's dress pink instead of yellow on purpose. Without quite as much spectacle, MacInnis's production asked the audience to instead look at the characters and how they decided to change.

Sandra's Faves of 2017

Here's seven of my 2017 favorites. Why seven? Well, in many cultures seven is considered sacred, both beneficial and protective for its bearer.

Honestly? Seven is all I got. I probably saw about two dozen shows this year, but these are the ones that stayed with me.
Christine Lahti
1.Signature Theater's Fucking A by Suzan-Lori Parks takes Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and goes all The Handmaiden's Tale on it. This play was produced in tandem with Parks' In the Blood as part of The Red Letter Plays, where the playwright presented two works under a common theme. I never saw the other play; I only saw Fucking A after a friend offered me an extra ticket -- and I'm glad she did. Maybe it's the time we live in, but this piece with no real heroes, and rampant with class conflict, sexism, corruption and greed resonated with me, offering pleasure in the discomfort of it all. Yet, still humanity is evident: in the loyalty of friendships; in the unwavering love of a parent; of the surprise that in a terrible, dark world, there is goodness. A contemporary Hester Smith (Christine Lahti) seeks to buy her jailed son’s freedom — by becoming the reviled, but needed, local abortionist in a story that blends dialogue and song, directed by Obie Award-winner Jo Bonney (Father Comes Home From the Wars). The entire cast is outstanding, with Lahti making her character sympathetic despite her myopic focus on vengeance and Marc Kudisch, evoking the brutish charm from his long-ago role as Gaston and notching it a bit higher as a corrupt mayor. 

2. Hello, Dolly! provided delightful escapism wrapped in spectacular technicolor sets and costumes (Santo Loquasto). Tony Award-winner Bette Midler deserves her accolades - she makes the most of every moment on stage, whether she's eating a meal or walking regally through a calvacade of singing waiters wearing a sequined red dress. While her dancing is more like well-choreographed placement than spirited, she always is riveting, the center of attention. Another outstanding cast is here, headed by David Hyde Pierce playing the cranky Horace Vandergelder, Gavin Creel as Cornelius Hackl and Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy. I also love Jennifer Simard as Ernestina - I've been a fangirl of hers since she played a gambling-addict nun in Disaster! Add all this to Jerry Herman's music and lyrics, with standards such as "Hello, Dolly!" and "Before the Parade Passes By," and I almost forgot how uncomfortable the upper-level seats in the Shubert Theatre were.

3. The Band's Visit -- in a world where Mean Girls and Cruel Intentions are future options, here's a movie adaption I can truly endorse. Based on a 2007 Israeli film directed by Eran Kolirin, David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’s soft-spoken story of Egyptian musicians stranded in a beleagured Israeli desert town, shows the beauty of brief, unexpected connections. The plot is slight - no one falls in love, no dilemas solved - yet, for a moment, loneliness meets kinship; the quiet is filled with music; and strangers offer kindness, food and shelter rather than disdain and hatred. Director David Cromer links in lovely moments of hope fulfilled - from a lover who waits by a pay phone for hours each night, waiting to be remembered by his girl to a shy boy learning to flirt from a foreigner who tags along on his blind date. For 24 hours, everyone is exposed to "Something Different" (beautifully sung by Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub) and that becomes a lasting memory for all.

Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk 
4. Arcadia -- when I saw Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in 1995 I loved it so much I bought the script during intermission. The revival by PTP/NYC at Atlantic Stage 2 this summer allowed me to revisit that moment. Their delightful production features a stripped down set by Mark Evancho that the audience can walk through parts during the intermission. It's this intimacy that makes this production so special. As the play switches between time periods, the set and props remain the same -- even as different characters inhabit the space. These details seem more noticeable in a 98-seat theater. Andrew William Smith is also terrific as Septimus Hodge.

5. A Doll's House, Part 2. The audacity Lucas Hnath showed writing a sequel to Ibsen's play impressed me. His middle-aged Nora Helmer feels authentic and feisty. The show is funny, even as it questions serious, complex topics such as the role of women in society and the institution of marriage (Does love last forever? Does marriage imprison its participants?) Tony Award winner Laurie Metcalf offers us an imperfect, sympathetic Nora: selfish, brave, risk-taker. Anne Marie, the maid, is played by Jayne Houdyshell, who provides an excellent foil for the jokes and a voice of reason when things become more complicated.

6. Cost of Living -- A flawed show with a too-pat, coincidental plot, where no one is readily likable -- my favorite Ani (Katy Sullivan), a red-headed double amputee from New Jersey, is foul-mouthed and petulant. But most grow on you. Martyna Majok's play offers a compelling look at two disabled characters and the people who care for them: Ani and her ex-husband Eddie (Victor Williams) and John (Gregg Mozgala), a rich, arrogant grad student who has cerebral palsy, and Jess (Jolly Abraham), who works several jobs and still can't make ends meet. The intimate look at what such care taking requires sometimes shocks the audience. When Ani slips in the bath after Eddie leaves her momentarily alone, audible gasps are heard. Ultimately, though, this is a play about relationships, not disabilities -- and how people fail, and support, each other.

7. The short-lived Bandstand offered a compelling view of the price the survivors of war pay, packaged in the bright days of the Bandstand era. Director Andy Blakenbuehler's choreography suggests that patina of darkness when his characters move in sudden moments of anguish, with one number, "Right This Way," showing the war's burden as individuals are dragged down even as they try to move forward. The story centers around Donny (Corey Cott), who struggles through his homecoming, finally finding some satisfaction by forming a band to compete in a "Tribute to the Troops" contest. All the members saw active service and suffer from their war memories. I can see why Bandstand had trouble finding an audience - this darkness mixed with so many upbeat scenes is discomforting. This is not the typical, linear upbeat musical. Plus, the musical has flaws - many of the band members aren't fully fleshed out nor do all the plot lines feel authentic. Still, the upbeat numbers such as "First Steps First" and "You Deserve It" are fun ... as is watching the dancers perform the period's signature shrugs and swiveling hips. Laura Osnes sings the heck out of the score, too.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Robert O'Hara's new comedy Mankind, which he also directs, doesn't officially open at Playwright's Horizon until January 8, so it's way too early to review it. But I do have a comment or two.

The show takes place in a future in which only men exist. O'Hara takes this premise to some surprising and some unsurprising places.

Audience response was extremely mixed, with some people walking out during intermission and others laughing their butts off.

One problem is that the pacing is waaay, waaaay, waaaaay too slow. Between actors drawing out their dialogue with more pauses than words, much repetition, and tedious, too-frequent scene changes, the show runs easily 15 minutes longer than it needs to. I wonder if O'Hara would be better served by a different director than himself.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Liz Wollman's Top Ten of 2017

Good golly, Miss Molly, a top-ten list is a hard list to come up with, especially during a year when I found myself escaping to the theater as often as I possibly could. So many choices! So much talent! So much horrible, soul-sucking news to run away from every damn day!

Still, I'm copying Wendy (and nearly every other writer, critic, editorial board, website, and borglike crystalline entity that generates year-end lists) by keeping my list to ten (though there is an honorable mention list. So sue me). Here they are, then, in alphabetical order, because coming up with a tippy-top of the top ten is just too hard in my tail-end-of-an-exhausting-year state of mind.

1) Bandstand. 
This short-lived musical had trouble finding an audience or selling itself in any plausible way. Who can blame it? "Hey! Come see our really dark, depressing musical about broken, shattered, completely fucked-up GIs home from World War II! There's really groovy period dancing!" I was surprised by how much I loved it, my kid loved it, and the friends we saw it with loved it. Groovy period dancing notwithstanding, this portrait of people coping with PTSD ("shell shock") by forming a band was deeply engaging. I wish very much that it had caught on.

2) Cost of Living. 
I am so grateful for the small explosion of plays by, about, and for people with disabilities that has been happening on local stages in the past few years. Martina Majok's four-character piece about disability, intersectionality, and human connections leaned a little hard at times on conventional plot turns, but the characters were real, their situations fleshed out and appropriately complicated, their lives never presented as feel-good disability porn. And gee, wow, what a concept: actors with actual disabilities were cast as the disabled characters!

3) Dear Evan Hansen
Is Evan a sweet, well-meaning if cripplingly neurotic teenager, or a manipulative, lying little shitbag who should burn in hell for all of eternity? Either way, whatever, the musical totally worked for me. Ben Platt was as incredible as everyone said he was, and the rest of the cast was pretty amazing, too. Also, "So Big/So Small" is possibly the best song about being a mom I've ever heard, and Rachel Bay Jones' rendition of it levels me every single time I hear it.

4) The Glass Menagerie.
A production that was hotly polarizing in local theater circles, Sam Gold's stripped-down Menagerie was hated as much as--if not (alas) more than--it was loved. But it resonated with me like little else did this year. See #2 above for at least a few of the reasons I appreciated it as much as I did. Thanks to everyone involved for taking the risks you did with this. You can't win 'em all, but for what it's worth, you won me over in a big way.

5) Jesus Hopped the A Train.
Stephen Adly Guirgis has been around for a long while now, but for whatever reason, I never got around to seeing The Motherfucker with the Hat or Between Riverside and Crazy, or any of his other many plays that are staged frequently in New York. Big ups to the wonderful Signature Theater for beginning a retrospective of his older plays this fall;  I can't wait to see more.

6) Jitney.
A gorgeous revival of one of Wilson's most accessible plays. I grew up in a very different (read: white, affluent) Pittsburgh, which remains as stubbornly segregated as it was when I was a kid (feh, name an American city that isn't.). Still, I love the complicated, endearing, real characters in this show, I love the town the characters live in, and I have always thrilled at Wilson's references to various neighborhoods and local institutions (Damn it, Turnbo, Monroeville's houses are no nicer than the ones in Penn Hills!).

7) Mary Jane
OK, so I maybe lied when I said above that coming up with a tippy-top favorite of the year was impossible. I loved absolutely everything about this show--every finely-wrought character, every honest if difficult depiction, every directorial choice, every nuanced performance. An added, if random bonus: Jake Gyllenhaal sat a few rows behind us in the small New York Theater Workshop, and it was fun watching other audience members devise increasingly inventive ways of casually checking him out before and after the show.

8) People, Places and Things.
An import from London, this harrowing piece about an actress trying to get and remain sober was not nearly as conventional as I feared it would be. Denise Gough's tour-de-force performance was certainly worth the price of admission, but then, the rest of the cast was pretty brilliant, too. No trite, feel-good play about beautiful, fragile addicts triumphing over adversity, People, Places and Things instead emphasizes just how incredibly hard sobriety is, how much emotional work goes into it, and how very easy it is to get sidetracked by everything the play's title suggests.

Zbigniew Bzymek
9) The Town Hall Affair.
The Wooster Group's multimedia re-enactment of Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker's 1971 documentary Town Bloody Hall says a lot about second-wave feminism and its discontents in the course of one fleeting hour. I recognize that we're living through an extraordinarily tumultuous, challenging and important period in American feminist history right now; this production made me appreciate the fact that even though we've clearly got miles to go, we've nevertheless come a very long way, too. To that end, the decision to have Norman Mailer played by two guys at the same time was a stroke of fucking genius.

10) The Wolves
How often do you see a play--or any kind of mass entertainment--that perfectly captures the social lives of average American teenage girls? And when you do, how often is what you see ultimately played for condescending laughs, or cheap sexualized thrills or both? Teen girls are almost never taken seriously as three-dimensional human beings, and it's only with brilliant, nuanced shows like this that one becomes fully aware of how very often their conversations, vocal inflections, slang, and cultural tastes are used for cheap comic effect: oh, those dumb little geese! How trivial they are! How shrill! How silly their music, style and social codes are! Like, ohmigoooood, squeeeee, riiiiight? Still, they're so young and perky, let's objectify them! The Wolves, an absolutely dead-on portrait of teenage girls who play together on a suburban soccer team, slides a little too close to conventional theatrical devices near the very end, but who the hell cares? It's funny, affecting, fascinating, and not even the teeniest bit nasty, condescending, or objectifying. More, please.

Honorable mention:
1984 (Broadway), 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (St. Ann's Warehouse), A Doll's House Part 2 (Broadway), Everybody (Signature), The Golden Apple (Encores), Hamlet (the Public), Hello, Dolly! (Broadway, with Donna Murphy), Meteor Shower (Broadway), Say Something Bunny (UNDO Project Space)

Monday, December 18, 2017

Wendy Caster's Best of 2017

It's that time of the year again. I've limited myself to 10 best shows, since that's the number everyone likes, and I've included "honorable mentions" as well. Shows that I reviewed are linked to the reviews. (Note that some of the links are blue and some aren't. I have no idea why.)
  • A Doll's House, Part 2--a lovely surprise, fascinating as a comment on the original and compelling in its own right.
  • Arcadia--I've always enjoyed PTP/NYC, but they really won me over with their excellent production of Arcadia, a show I would gladly see once a year for the rest of my life.
    PTP/NYC's Arcadia
    Photo: Stan Barouh
  • Cost of Living--a solid show made even better by wonderful acting.
  • Dear World--The show was good and Tyne Daly was magical.
  • Escaped Alone--Caryl Churchill at her best: compelling, puzzling, subtle, political, funny, surreal yet realer than real.
    Escaped Alone
    Photo: Richard Termine
  • If I Forget--wonderful proof that really good writers can take the familiar--family squabbles, political differences--and make it new, engaging, and funny.
  • Jitney--an almost perfect production of a superb play.
  • Mary Jane--another case where excellent writing rises above the familiar--in this case, taking care of a family member with serious health problems. And that cast!
    Mary Jane

  • Nellie McKay: The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers--sui generis.
  • The Tempest--this all-female production, ostensibly performed in a women's prison, was amazing. Harriet Walter presided brilliantly over both the prison block and the magical island.

    Image result for harriet walter the tempest
    Harriet Walter in The Tempest
    Photo: Helen Maybanks

Honorable Mention: Marian, or The True Tale of Robin Hood (Flux), As You Like It (CSC), All the Fine Boys (New Group), Everybody (Signature), Hello Dolly (Broadway), Pacific Overtures (CSC), The Suitcase Under the Bed (The Mint), The Winter's Tale (Public Mobile Unit), The Show-Off (The Mint), Yours Unfaithfully (The Mint), After the Blast (Clare Tows), How to Transcend a Happy Marriage (LCT).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Winter's Tale

The Public Theater's Mobile Unit is presenting a highly entertaining, streamlined version of The Winter's Tale through December 17. It's a lovely evening in the theater, if not quite Shakespeare's version of the play; I suspect Shakespeare would enjoy it. And it's free! (For more info, click here.)

The Winter's Tale is considered a "problem play" due to its sometimes bizarre combination of fevered jealousy, dead family members, merry shepherds, low comedy, and romance. The Mobile Unit chooses to focus mostly on the fun, although Justin Cunningham's depiction of Leontes, a man gone crazy with jealousy, is deeply upsetting, as it must be. The rest of cast is also impressive, full of energy, acting talent, and beautiful singing voices. They are Christopher Ryan Grant (wonderfully silly as the old shephard), Nina Grollman, Nicholas Hoge, Patrena Murray, Chris Myers, Sathya Sridharan, Ayana Workman, and Stacey Yen.

The Winter's Tale is smoothly directed by Lee Sunday Evans, with great imagination and humor.

Catch it if you can--free Shakespeare, well-done, is a beautiful thing.

Wendy Caster
(free ticket; first row)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Meteor Shower

"Well, now, that was a mess," my daughter mused during the curtain call at Meteor Shower, currently running at the Booth through late January. "Yeah," I agreed. "Didn't really hang together, huh?" "Maybe Steve Martin wants another de Kooning or something," my husband mused. And with that, we bundled up and walked out of the theater into the snow.

But don't let the comments above throw you: all three of us laughed our asses off through the whole show, and you should totally go see it so that you can laugh your ass off, too. Just don't expect to encounter an actual play at any point during the process. Because Meteor Shower is to drama what a can of Chef-Boyardee ravioli is to dining.

Matthew Murphy
Here's the thing, though: I loved that canned, viscous glop. At some points during my reasonably happy if occasionally depressive childhood, I'd venture that there was absolutely nothing better than an entire can, heated over the stove and dumped into a plastic bowl. Just like sometimes--especially at times when the world has become a hot, flaming pile of endless disappointment and despair--a whizzing series of not-especially-connected one-liners, short bits, and sight gags that only kind of resolve at the end of a fleetingly satisfying seventy-five minutes is absolutely heavenly.

It's not worth recounting the plot, in part because there isn't much of one and in part because what does count as a throughline doesn't really make any sense. But whatever, in case you're curious, two married people (Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos) hang out with their alter egos (Laura Benanti and Keegan-Michael Key) at their place in Ojai during a meteor shower, and wackiness ensues. Said wackiness ranges from mysterious eggplant-sending and related attempts at gaslighting, some increasingly convoluted sexual couplings, the speaking of invented languages, the use of hard drugs and the lifting of silverware, a handful of nicely-timed sight gags, and a smattering of garden-variety dick jokes. Because the four actors cast in the roles are brilliant with comic timing and are clearly having a blast playing for every guffaw they can milk out of the script, the fact that there's no logical whole doesn't matter at all.

Meteor Shower has been likened to a Saturday Night Live sketch that goes on too long, I disagree with this. Instead, it reminds me of Martin's most hilariously bizarre standup work: his grandmother's song; his fondness for names like Gern Blanston and the one it's impossible to spell out accuratelythe cruel shoes. Martin quit doing standup years ago, but I suppose a brilliant comic doesn't ever stop coming up with random bits; Meteor Shower strikes me as a long list of gleefully strange gags he kept track of, gradually strung together, and finally tried to drape a practically nonexistent plot around. Not quite a straightforward standup routine, the show still functions less like a play and more like an excuse for four very broad comics to be collectively ridiculous for a little over an hour. Go if you can, take your mind off the world, guffaw a little. You'll be especially amused, I think, if you're a fan of any of the people involved: the goofily funny people who make up the cast; Jerry Zaks, who has been directing since Broadway was invented and does a typically fine job here; and Martin, whose flair for the absurd is on full display. Hell, even the costumes are amusing (Keegan-Michael Key's mandals nail the landing, Ann Roth).

Go. Enjoy. If possible, sneak a can of ravioli in with you; you'll thank me.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Miss Saigon and M Butterfly

What are the odds that I'd see two different takes on Madama Butterfly in rapid succession? Pretty high, it turns out: they're both running in revival here, I have a student writing an honors thesis about Asian stereotypes on Broadway, I'm teaching a seminar about musicals and American politics that we had money to spend on tickets for, I dig Julie Taymor. It happens that the Puccini original is in repertory at the Met this season; Wendy suggested I hit that, too, and make this writeup a trifecta. Beautiful though the opera is, I've officially hit my saturation point with this damn story line, so no, I'm not going to the Met and you can't make me.

Matthew Murphy
Miss Saigon is--and this is putting it very nicely--not one of my favorite musicals. I saw the original production the week I graduated from college, and it failed to grab me; I spent most of the show wondering distractedly what the hell I was going to do with my life, pausing occasionally to seethe over a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who couldn't keep his pants on for five minutes whenever I went anywhere without him. Sure, a few scenes yanked me to attention: the one with the helicopter, you bet, and that other one in which Jonathan Pryce, by that point refreshingly free of yellowface and eye prosthetics, humped a cadillac. Otherwise, though, the show didn't stay with me for long, and by "long" I mean "more than five minutes after I left the theater."

Seeing the revival 25 years later with a group of students roughly the age I was when I first saw it had its charms, for sure. Reception was mixed among them, but even the biggest critics remained awake during the show and did not sneak out at intermission, which translates as a raving success when it comes to class trips to venues of any kind. As an added bonus, most were genuinely thrilled when I suggested we take the empty seats in the front few rows to the right of the stage for the second act. It's no wonder: the very hugeness of the show is, without question, one of its major assets. Aside from the scenes involving large vehicles, there are enormous backdrops and huge musical numbers, some with acrobats and giant billowy flags, during which cast members gradually appear at tiered levels you didn't realize were there. And as a primer on the megamusical, Miss Saigon has just about every ingredient required: high emotion, universal themes, hummable songs, visual enormity, dazzling and often mechanized spectacle. I'd add, in this case, a nobly committed cast, a very talented Kim (Eva Noblezada), and a mesmerizingly good Engineer (Jon Jon Briones). Miss Saigon just isn't my bag--really, megamusicals in general just don't do it for me, but that's not to say that the production isn't done very, very well. If you like shiny romantic sappy bigness and don't mind two-dimensional characters that threaten to dip into outright stereotype, the show just might be yours.

Sara Krulwich

The original production of M Butterfly stayed with me a lot longer than Miss Saigon did, and I was eager to revisit the show with Taymor at the helm, but I was disappointed by the revival. So, apparently, are a lot of people: the show was originally supposed to run through February, but is closing six weeks early. It's curiously flat, especially for a Taymor production. Not especially pretty to look at (though damn if that woman can't work wonders with a few carefully angled rays of soft, white light), the revival feels sluggish, talky, and distant. I wasn't especially impressed with Clive Owen, who I usually like a lot, and the added material does little more than make the show...feel...longer. While I appreciate the attempt on Hwang's part to subvert the Madama Butterfly story--and to toy, especially, with the stereotype of the fragile, delicate, passive Asian naif whose life is consumed with longing for the white western man--there's little else that really takes hold: no depth or nuance of character, no one especially likable or ultimately very interesting.

At least in my case, the best thing about seeing both shows was the opportunity it gave me to learn from my students. A few Asian-American kids in my seminar love Miss Saigon because they thrill at seeing representations of themselves--but they are also fully aware of and willing to criticize its many problems, oversights, assumptions, and caricatures. My honors student has written extensively about M. Butterfly; I wish the revival was, in the end, as brilliant as her reading of the play is. So while the two productions didn't amount to the most thrilling experiences I've ever had at the theater, the conversations I had with my students about the shows after having seen them were well worth the price of countless admissions. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Meteor Shower

"Meteor Shower" by Steve Martin is perfectly cast and great fun, but it's not much of a play. The nonlinear plot makes little sense, the characters aren't compelling - except in their quirks, which are fascinating to watch: Laura's (Laura Benati) overt sexuality, Gerald's (Keegan-Michael Key of "Key and Peele") germaphobia and Corky (Amy Schumer of "Inside Amy Schumer") and Norm's (Jeremy Shamos) over-the-top marriage therapy relationship (where every slight ends with psycho-babble like, "I understand you probably didn't know you hurt me. I'm asking you to be more careful with my feelings.") "Meteor Shower," at the Booth Theater, is like a really good Saturday Night Live skit - one that meanders on longer than it should (even at 80 minutes) but, at least, it keeps you laughing. The surrealistic satire also played in California and Connecticut last year.

The thin storyline involves an evening of meteor watching between two couples at Norm and Corky's modern Ojai, California, home -- Beowulf Boritt designs a living room worthy of Architectural Digest. Several versions of the evening are presented, with each alternate reality leading closer to a conclusion -- although not necessarily an understanding of what exactly the resolution is ... something along the lines of "If you don't deal with your subconscious, it deals with you" as Martin dissects marriage -- with the two couples representing distinct aspects of Corky and Norm's personality. But Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," it is not.

There's a lot to enjoy, though. Schumer's deft skill in delivering crazy lines about "exploding head syndrome" and her cannibalistic past. Key's physical prowess - his expressive face, stance and body movement, which conveys more than Martin's play reveals. Tony Award-winner Benati's obvious delight sparring with her co-stars as she seduces everyone. Shamos' powerhouse performance of an everyman lost in absurdity -- not every actor can pull off a meteor wound with such casual aplomb. There is also Jerry Zaks' able direction, which you can see in the enormous black sky where the brilliant lights of the meteors burst (lighting design by Natasha Katz) and the production's pause that showcases it or the lovely flexibility of how the set is used, flipping easily from the home's interior to its backyard. Plus, no one does one liners better than Steve Martin: on why Corky's "exploding head syndrome" is not curable - "it's not funded." Such witticisms are aplenty in "Meteor Shower."

Biggest kudos here go to Caparelliotis Casting. Without this star-studded array of talent this show would languish. The cast makes "Meteor Shower" work ... at least well enough for a few laughs.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Disgraced (Toronto)

Disgraced was the play of the moment when it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. This month it returned to Toronto for its second run by The Hope and Hell Theatre Co. and David Mirvish at the Panasonic Theatre.

Though the play centers around a dinner party gone wrong, it mainly follows Amir (Raoul Bhaneja). He has done everything to fit in to the upper classes of white American society--switch from public defense law to corporate mergers and acquisitions, marry a white American woman (Emily, played by Birgitte Solem), and denounce his Islamic upbringing at every chance. When his efforts to reject the Islamic faith and hide this part of his identity backfire, his wife and the attendees of their celebratory dinner party get to watch him unravel.

The show is well-produced with a spotless set representing Amir and Emily's high-end loft. But unfortunately there's not much else I can say that I liked about the production. I will admit I was biased against Ayad Akhtar's play from the beginning. I read the script four years ago in an issue of American Theatre. It didn't impress me then. When a friend offered me a ticket last week, I decided to give it a second chance. After all, everyone here in Toronto was raving about it and this was a repeat, almost sold-out second engagement.

Unfortunately seeing it on stage, at least in this production, still did not win me over.

I did appreciate the play's commentary about white men being the next terrorists. It hit even harder now in the years after Sandy Hook, Orlando, Vegas and countless other shootings by mostly white men on American soil. I do also agree that cultural appropriation--a theme the play explores through the Islamic influences in Emily's art--is tricky and worth exploring. How do we honor the voices of minorities and their contributions to culture without appropriating or fetishizing their traditions? Then again, it is difficult to see Emily's abandonment of Islamic influences as an answer to this question, or because her husband uses his religious upbringing as an excuse for beating her.

My favorite character in the whole play, Jory (played by Karen Glave) had some fantastic one liners. In a room of different minorities all claiming "who has it worse?" Glave put everyone in their place without taking over the story. Besides the shock and awe of discovering an affair between her husband, Whitney art curator Isaac (Alex Poch-Goldin), and Emily, Jory's job still puts her in the position of the most power at the end of the play--a note that I did not miss.
Raoul Bhaneja as Amir

But in the end, Disgraced is another traditional dinner party, two act, ninety-minute play. The only difference is a man of Arab descent at the center of the action instead of a middle-aged white man. Electrifying acting and directing could have punched up the commentary and breathed more into the interpersonal relationships, but as my acting friend especially noted, that didn't happen either. Without the chemistry of a happily married couple, the love between blood relatives, or the playful trust of friendship, it did seem like the overarching institutions of religion and class were controlling the characters as they fought around the dinner table. To me, that's not a compelling story to watch. It's excuses.

To be fair, the play seemed like it landed well with the rest of the audience. The struggle of a privileged man of color in corporate culture did not speak to me, but perhaps it did to many older patrons who have worked in that world. Seeing the story of an Arab man might illuminate something new for them.

But for me, I think theatre can do so much more.

Free ticket as plus one with a friend, row Q.

Follies (National Theatre Broadcast)

You just never know how something is going to hit you. Last night I saw the National Theatre Broadcast of Follies with five friends. Among us, we have easily seen 80 live performances of Follies, including the original, the one in England in the 1980s with Diana Rigg, the concert version with Barbara Cook, Roundabout's, Encores!'s, the one with Bernadette Peters (in D.C. and in New York), Signature's (Arlington, VA), St. Bartholomew's, Paper Mills's, and a couple up in the Berkshires, many of them multiple times. We could probably perform the damn thing.

Photo: Johan Persson

We sat in a row. And the three of us sitting to the right liked it, and the three of us sitting to the left hated it. It was as though a line had been drawn in the middle, and we had completely different experiences on either side of it. (With one exception: we all loathed Tracie Bennett's version of "I'm Still Here.")

You never know.

The Oldish Woman and the Show (Art Times)

My latest essay is up at Art Times:
Many years ago, I had the magical experience of being there when my nephew Charlie, who was around six years old at the time, saw his first musical. It was Titanic, and he already knew the CD by heart. To say that he was rapt does not begin to describe his 100% concentration. We were in the last row, and at one point he leaned forward so far that he slipped off his seat. In contrast to the noisy high schoolers in front of us, he was a perfect audience member. In fact, he said only one thing: after a particular song, he leaned toward his mom and said, quietly and joyfully, “That was number 10.” Yes, he knew the numbers of all the songs on the CD.
(read more)

Monday, November 13, 2017

Nellie McKay: The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers

There are still some seats left for Nellie McKay: The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers at Joe's Pub on November 17 at 11:30. They're only $15, with a $12 cover (the fries are delish). Here's the link. If you like her, go. If you've never heard of her, go.

Seriously, go.

So now I suppose I should tell you who Nellie McKay is and describe the performance, but it's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll. When my nephew asked what kind of singer she was, all I could come up with is, "She's Nellie McKay." It's the only correct answer.

But, hey, I'll give it a try. Nellie McKay is sweet, lovely, talented, and funny, with an edge. She is innocent and experienced. She sings every sort of music, from 30's musicals to the Beatles and beyond, along with her own songs. (Her latest CD is My Weekly Reader. I highly recommend it. Song list here. The actual CD has two bonus songs.) She plays piano, ukulele, bells, clarinet, congas, cymbals, harmonica, keyboards, maracas, marimbas, organ, and tambourine.

In The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers, which is a solo show, McKay plays Joan Rivers, as well as many people in Rivers' life and people in movies Rivers watches (McKay does a great Dietrich). She inserts all sorts of songs, which she sings wonderfully. She also manages to include a lot of political commentary, as asides, which somehow fit right in and are incredibly funny while also pretty devastating. She accompanies herself on piano and uke. She is a little strange and quite talented.

During a McKay show, I tend to spend a fair amount of time thinking, "What is she doing?" and "How did she think of that?" I also laugh, a lot. And I adore her singing.

Anyway, I give up. I don't have the chops to describe the indescribable. Here's a link to some of her own work and a song from the 1920s. Check it out. And then go catch her at Joe's Pub. Really.

Wendy Caster
(paid for the ticket; sat the equivalent of 4th row, I guess?)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Introducing Maggie Sulc

I am excited to introduce Maggie Sulc as our new Canadian reviewer. As you can see from her bio below, she has a great deal of experience in both theatre and writing. Even better, at least in my opinion, is that she is also passionate and insightful, as you can see from the two posts she has already written: Marine Life and Cloud.

Based in Toronto, Maggie is a playwright and dramaturg. She moved to the Great White North from Texas to earn her MA in Theatre and Performance Studies from York University and has now become a permanent resident and Torontonian.

In her first year in Canada, Maggie saw over 90 theatre performances of many varieties and volunteered at 4 theatres and 2 festivals. Now she sees less theatre but makes a bit more of her own. Her theatre interests include immersive experiences, independent theatre, and new plays.

Her first reviewer gig was for the Rice Thresher at Rice University; she also writes for HowlRound on a semi-regular basis; and she's excited to bridge the gap between Toronto and the New York theatre scenes.

For more information about Maggie, check out her blog at or on Twitter @austinausten.

Shame of Thrones: The Rock Musical: An Unauthorized Parody

There's good news and there's bad news.

Good news: Shame of Thrones: The Rock Musical: An Unauthorized Parody (what would be the point of an authorized parody?) largely succeeds in getting laughs--some big laughs--lampooning the oh-so-lampoonable TV hit Game of Thrones. 

Bad news: it's often difficult to impossible to hear what's going on. Only some performers have the voices to be heard unmiked; of the others, only a few performers are miked; the prerecorded music frequently drowns out the singers; and many of the cast could use lessons in enunciation.

In other words, get out of your own way, Shame of Thrones! Why take all that time to write good jokes and funny lyrics if we often can't hear them? (The music is by Erin Stegeman and Peter Frintrup; book and lyrics by Steven Christopher Parker and Steven Brandon; additional lyrics by Erin Stegeman.) I understand that budget is probably an issue. However, it would help a lot if the prerecorded music was piped from the back of the stage instead from four speakers in the auditorium, where it drowns out much of what goes on on stage.

Shame of Thrones is a pretty fun couple of hours and I suspect it could be a very fun couple of hours if all the jokes and singing could be heard.

The cast ranges from D+ to B+; happily, there are more of the latter than the former. The cast includes Ariel Barber, Peter Berube, Drew Boudreau, Jeff Bratz, Konrad Jeffrey Custer, Billy Finn, Mandie Hittleman, Zachary Evan Kanner, Randy Wade Kelley, Delilah Kujala, Allison Lobel, Ace Marrero, Meghan Modrovsky, Ryan Pifher, Milo Shearer, Kacey Spivey, Erin Stegeman, and Jay Stephenson.

The costumes (Katie Stegeman) are silly and imaginative, as they should be; the choreography (Jessica Anne Peavy & Brittny Sugarman) is, hey, silly and imaginative, as it should be. The set has little to do with the show, which doesn't matter.

I laughed a lot. I would recommend the show to anyone who knows and loves Game of Thrones. I would recommend it even more highly if the sound was improved.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, third row)

Marine Life (Toronto)

After being stuck in bed with a cold, I could not wait to attend the next Extraspace production at my main mid-sized theater in Toronto, the Tarragon: Marine Life by Rosa Labordé.

Marine Life is a romantic comedy with a touch of magical realism that sticks an environmental activist in a love quadrangle--does she pick the planet, her brother, or her lover? Sylvia (Niccola Correia-Damude) is is literally caught by lawyer Rupert (Matthew Edison) in the first scene's meet cute--when his fishing line hooks into her neck instead of a fish's. As the two fall for each other, Sylvia's mentally unstable brother and one-man mariachi band John/Juan (Justin Rutledge) fights to maintain her full attention.

Nicola-Correia-Damude in show poster for Marine Life

I knew this would be an environmental show from the moment I entered the Tarragon Extraspace. Opaque styrofoam lunch boxes were clumped around the stage and growing out of the audience, almost like clouds or growths of unnatural coral. And if that weren't enough, the projection screen stage and backdrop started with a projection of the globe at the top of the show.

Usually a show so obviously about a political issue would have my "preachy show" sirens blaring, but Marine Life depicted flooding, protests, the effects of human activity on the world's ecosystems, and even directly call out our role in global warming without preaching.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Don't Feed the Indians - A Divine Comedy Pageant

Don't Feed the Indians - A Divine Comedy Pageant has inflated its title a bit. The La MaMa world premiere of Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective Projects was created and features an all Native American cast that proudly showcases each members' heritage on the bios displayed in the lobby.

Conceived, written and directed by Murielle Borat-Tarrant (Kuna/Rappahannock) with musical direction by Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk), the show attempts to tackle Native cliches, from the alcoholic Indian to the bare-chested, feather-garbed performer by using vaudeville, dance, music and cultural rituals to show the stereotypes that were formed and are still perpetuated by the entertainment industry as well as the difficulties of being an Indian performer.

Don't Feed the Indians relies on its actors, posed as a group of traveling performers, to mix a loose tale of their showbiz experience with video montages and asides to both entertain and educate the audience. Unfortunately, the show merely brushes the surface of the many complex topics threaded through the dialogue. Names and phrases such as Leonard Peltier, Standing Rock, Wounded Knee Massacre, Indian Removal Act, Indian Boarding Schools become more a litany than a lesson since, often, no context is offered to connect the audience. Lines such as "Tribal members on reservations were not allowed to vote until 1970" give better resonance because they provide understanding -- and the show needs to do more of that. Lampooning the inequities of Native Americans without trying to explain the history more thoroughly is a missed opportunity.

Even the videos have no captions so the audience does not recognize what they're seeing. Yet, the script includes some commentary: for instance, "Hey Ya on Grammys, Rock Hudson in Winchester '73, Burt Lancaster in Apache, Iron Eyes Cody, Natalie Wood in The Searchers, Alana Sanders from 'Peter Pan Live,' Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. All while the Peter Pan 'Ugg a Wugg' song plays." Some of the delicious irony is lost here when the audience doesn't get the references.

Borst-Tarrant, who comes from a five-decade family business that did Wild West shows and pageants, shines as the drily humorous centerpiece of the play's show, Bea. Under her delivery, the rather tepid jokes find more fodder than they should and her rapport with her drum-playing husband is acerbic and delightful. Many of the skits in Don't Feed the Indians simply don't work, though. A bit called "Keeping Up With Pocahontas," where the family confesses to eating her pet raccoon one Thanksgiving is humorless and features screeching participants. It's unfortunate because Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective has a noble goal of creating a "new paradigm for the presentation of Indigenous arts and culture within the broader American theatre to combat stereotypes and support vibrant Native American communities." I hope their next effort is more successful.

John Scott-Richardson (Haliwa-Saponi Nation), Danielle Soames (Mohawk/Kahnawake Nations), Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk Nations), Nicholson Billey (Delaware/Choctaw/Creek Nations), George Stonefish (Delaware/Chippewa Nations). Photo by: Maya Bitan. 


The show runs from Nov. 2-19 at La MaMa's Downstairs Theatre (66 East 4th St.). For more information, visit

Wednesday, November 08, 2017


Last season, Richard Nelson's Gabriel Family trilogy was a comforting beacon in a traumatic time. Watching the tight-knit Rhinebeck family mourn their dead, contemplate their future, prepare homey meals around a beaten wooden table, and talk--wearily, anxiously--about American politics in the months leading up to the presidential election felt weirdly, sadly comforting: these fictive people, like the real ones I sit amongst, have had the rug ripped out from them, but here we all are, strong and clear-eyed, together. I'm forever grateful to Nelson for that cycle, which made me a fan. So when the Public announced that it had commissioned Illyria, a Nelson play about the Public Theater in its very earliest days, I snapped up tickets as soon as they became available.

Joan Marcus
I suppose I needn't have been so hasty. Even though the Public is giving some of the tickets to Illyria away free in the lobby 90 minutes prior to every performance, the house during the performance I saw was about 3/4 full. I guess this is why I feel compelled to mention the obvious every time I write about him: Richard Nelson's plays are really, really, really just not for everyone.

They work for me, though. Illyria might not feel like quite the lifeline the Gabriel plays were a year ago, but I found it to be similarly comforting and moving just the same. Maybe it's the presence of more beaten wooden tables, or the food that inevitably appears atop them. Or maybe it's that the pretty ordinary-seeming men and women who debate, fight, plan, and kibbitz while sitting around those tables are all at least partly responsible for the beloved institution Nelson often writes (and directs) for in the first place.

Set in 1958, well before the Public was ensconced in its current home at 425 Lafayette Street and only shortly after its mobile stage unit broke down on the lawn beneath Belvedere Castle, Illyria depicts the organization's very early history without ever coming off too much like a Wikipedia page. Conversation, typically ultra-natural, steers clear of obvious exposition (one or two exceptions--"remember how we met? With that show at that time in that place? My, that was swell"--clash pretty clearly with the rest of the dialogue). Still, the play manages enough detail for audience members who know very little about Papp or the Public to make sense of what's going on. We learn, for example, that Papp (John Magaro) is stubborn, controlling and not an especially effusive or attentive family man (Kristen Connolly plays Peggy, the second of his four wives). We learn that he has recently been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and fired from his day job at CBS (not mentioned in the play: he entered arbitration to get the job back just so he could quit, because he was hilariously oppositional and thus a total badass). And we learn how singularly obsessed he is with realizing his vision of bringing free theater to the people of New York City.

Of course, we also learn about the Public in the process: its scrappy origins and its near-desperate reliance on up-and-coming white-hot talent like Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton) and George C. Scott (never depicted, but drunk as a lord nonetheless). We meet some of its earliest champions; Emma Duncan and John Sanders are Gladys and Stuart Vaughan, Papp's first assistant and go-to director, respectively; their marriage is even more obviously doomed than Papp's is to Peggy. And we get plenty about just how rootless the organization is, and how shaky it is financially.

It's no spoiler to note that it all works out okay in the end, if not for any of the couples then most certainly for the Public. Nelson leaves Illyria's characters, tipsy and taking a moment to celebrate the closing of Twelfth Night, sitting together  and passing a flask on a rainy lawn in Central Park--strong and clear-eyed, together--at the site of what will eventually become the Delacorte Theater. Fifty years later, the story of the Public is still unfolding

Friday, November 03, 2017

Big Apple Circus

There are certain humans who seem to be their own species. In the case of circus performers, it would be homo sapiens amazingus. The Big Apple Circus is full of these wondrous folk, flying through the air, bending in ways the body seemingly cannot bend, juggling more balls than seemingly can be juggled, balancing in the air on a thin rope in a seven-person pyramid, zipping around on roller skates on a space barely bigger than a dining room table, and generally defying gravity, the limitations of the human body, and good sense.

Elayne Kramer

The Big Apple's claim to fame is its intimacy, with no seat further than 50 feet from the stage. It's a great way to watch circus acts, although occasionally a little intimidating, as when a contortionist operates a bow and arrow with her feet and you think, what if she slips? (At least your death would make all the websites, papers, and TV news shows.)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Cloud (Toronto)

As an indie theater supporter and huge fan of plays that stage science fiction, fantasy, and other genre work, I bought my ticket to Scapegoat Collective's Cloud as soon as I could.

Cloud imagines a world where technology--also named Cloud--can connect us to a new level of internet. Our individual consciousness becomes directly connected to the collective so we think and feel the same as everyone else who is connecting. Would the collective consciousness bring about world peace? Or would it strip the meaning out of the relationships that define us: friendship and love?

Cloud explores these hypotheses through three main groups of characters. The first group includes the first beta testers for Cloud: the creator Edward (Tim Fitzgerald Walker), his best friend Geoff (Jonas Widdifield), and Edward’s girlfriend Jessica (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah). After Edward convinces them test the technology and save its funding, the experience does lead to one awkward night of sexual reconnection, but then splits the three individuals onto separate paths as they try to cope with reality after they’ve been in the collective.

Roberts-Abdullah was my favorite part of the play. I enjoyed the way her constant cursing and presence threatened and challenged the two men. And I was not the only one cheering when she finally chastised Walker for casting himself as the savior in this dystopian epic instead of the Dr. Frankenstein he really is.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train

What makes a person good or bad, and what's the dividing line between the two? Is religious devotion helpful or harmful in the search for redemption, and can it be both at the same time? How much bad can a good person have before tipping the balance, and vice versa? And is anyone even listening to the prisoners who wrestle with these questions while biding their time in the solitary confinement wing of a maximum security prison? Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, Stephen Adly Guirgis's edgily compelling prison drama, can't answer any of these questions--seriously, now, what the hell can? Still, it does an engaging, unnerving job of trying.

The revival of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train now at Signature Theater has experienced its fair share of disruption: two of its five actors left the show unexpectedly, one for scheduling reasons during rehearsals and one early in previews for what is being described as a "medical issue." When I saw it, the production had only just started up again after a halt for some emergency rehearsals. No shock, I guess, that the cast seemed a little off at first, though the actors all found their groove well before intermission. Sean Carvajal, the newest member of the company, was still on script for a few of the later (and most intense) scenes; nevertheless, his Angel is already quite good, and I assume will only get better as he sinks into the role. This goes for the whole production, really: it's a credit to all involved that the revival is already as strong as it is, considering the circumstances.

The play, one of Guirgis's earlier works, can be clunky in parts. Some of the expositionary monologues feel a little forced, and some of the plot points that propel the moral haze driving the show feel a little too easy. I had trouble buying the motives of Angel's overzealous lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan (ably played by Stephanie DiMaggio). And Valdez, the unambiguously self-righteous sadist of a prison guard (a game Ricardo Chavira), is ultimately all bark and no bite--both as a sadist and, alas, as a character.

But at least for me, these quibbles didn't get in the way of the production, which builds to a mesmerizing, unsettling climax. This is due in large part to scenes carried by Angel and an ostensibly eviler prisoner named Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi, in a genuinely riveting Off Broadway debut), who is awaiting extradition to--and execution in--Florida. Angel, arrested for shooting a Reverend Moon-type in the ass, finds himself up on murder charges once the cult leader dies on the operating table. Moved to protective custody after a vicious beatdown by other prisoners, Angel sees Lucius daily during their allotted hour of outdoor time in cages on the prison roof. Convinced that his actions were justified because the cult has his best friend in its grip, Angel is gradually challenged by the disarmingly likable Lucius, a recovering polysubstance addict and serial killer who has become born again. The many questions the play wrestles with--who deserves to be forgiven and why, what faith means and whether it helps, whether seeing the light (both literally and figuratively, a recurring theme in the play) truly matters--converge in the second act and alter the characters' lives in ways that never feel cliched.

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train may be a flawed play, but it delivers. And the production--which, like its characters, seems to have taken some pretty hard punches along the way--is well worth your time and consideration. Kudos to the company for turning a bad situation good.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lonely Planet

In Steven Dietz's two-character play Lonely Planet, Jody (the subtle and smart Arnie Burton) owns a map store. He loves and is comforted by the factual information contained by maps. On an array of shelves, he moves a map over a hair; quiet exactness is his thing. Jody wears simple, nondescript clothing. Carl (the not-quite-right Matt McGrath) is anything but quiet, and what he does for a living is not clear. The jobs he sometimes claims include fixing car windows, restoring art, and dusting for fingerprints. He tells Jody that he does not make things up; he lies. Carl wears a different odd, stylish, and/or flamboyant outfit each time we see him.

Burton, McGrath
Photo: Carol Rosegg

As the play begins, Jody is alone on stage. He tells us that one day a chair appeared in his shop. He looked at it; he sat on it. We soon find out that Carl brought the chair, although it will take a while to find out why.

Friday, October 20, 2017

War Paint

I didn't stay for the second act of War Paint, and it's closing in early November, so I'll make this brief.
  • My response to Patti LuPone's first solo: "I wish they had closed captioning."
  • My sister's response to Patti LuPone's first solo: "Was she singing in English?"
Patti LuPone
Photo: Joan Marcus
Lyric interpretation: Wendy Caster

  • The dancing was lame. 
  • They have a lot of nerve having a scene at The Cotton Club with zero black performers.
  • LuPone and Christine Ebersole sounded fabulous musically--and Ebersole was frequently even intelligible. 
  • A show so completely lacking in plot really needs something else to make it worthwhile. They went for two amazing stars, having all sorts of scenery and costumes, and generally trying to be stylish. It is not enough. 
  • I am a big fan of Grey Gardens, also by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, but this show has little of that show's individuality, character, and humor. 
  • I suppose that War Paint's lyrics may be as good as Grey Gardens', but, really, who could tell? (By the way, the chorus was also pretty difficult to understand. And we were in the 7th row, so that wasn't the issue.)
  • The show curtain is ugly. It's a huge painting of a woman putting on lipstick. Only her face from the nose down, her neck, and her hands are visible. It's completely out of proportion and the color choices are awful. 
  • After I got home, I texted my sister, "Did it get any better?" She texted back, "No!!! But great fun and BAAAAAAAAD." I guess that's something...
Oh, and:

  • This isn't the show's fault, but it is part of my experience: Before the show started, the guy behind me was crinkling something. I figured he'd stop when the show started. He didn't. I gave him a look. He said, "I'm trying to make less noise." The crinkling got fainter. I figured he was getting something he needed, and he'd be done. But it kept on. So I turned again and saw that he was taking pieces of candy, one at a time, out of a crinkly bag. I hissed, "Seriously?" He did stop after that. Except...
  • After I was gone, the guy started crinkling again during the second act, until my friend turned and mouthed "Stop!" at him. Considerate fella.

Wendy Caster
(7th row, audience left; tdf ticket, around $47)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Mary Jane

The beautiful, incredibly nuanced Mary Jane, currently at New York Theatre Workshop, does what seems impossible: it burrows deep into a character who practically forces herself to be two-dimensional. Credit for one of the most finely-wrought productions I've seen in a long time seems evenly distributed across the entire company, from playwright Amy Herzog to director Anne Kauffman to a universally solid five-woman cast. This is one of those shows that grabs you quickly, and then only gets better the more you think about it. I'm still marveling over its depictions and its many smart choices, and expect I will continue to for quite some time.

Joan Marcus
Mary Jane is all the more remarkable considering the fact that as a play, it is quietly descriptive, but not at all big on Maximum Staginess or Dramatically Well-Paced Moments. More a succession of scenes depicting days in a small if very complicated life, Mary Jane doesn't go in for more exposition or subtext than it has to. Its refusal to slop into cheap sentiment is especially noteworthy considering the fact that the titular character is a divorced woman with a (never seen or heard) catastrophically ill special-needs child. If there's anything that invites melodrama, or what I have sometimes heard called "inspiration porn," a show about a single parent with a very special kid is probably gonna top the list.

But Mary Jane (an excellent Carrie Coon) has absolutely no time for pity. She's too busy putting one almost impossibly competent foot in front of the other, even as the treadmill she walks gets ever faster. She's almost exhausting in her unwillingness to budge from behind her chipper, ultra-positive facade: not when she's offered unsolicited, ludicrously alarmist (if well-meaning) advice, not when one of her son's nurses borders on dangerous incompetency, not when she's nearing termination from a job she frequently can't make it in for, and certainly not during the most terrifying of medical emergencies.

I know special-needs parents like Mary Jane. I probably even turn into her sometimes, even though I have a devoted partner and my kid has nowhere near the special needs hers does. She's built up the kind of coping mechanisms we happen to excel at developing in the face of umpteen forms, countless meetings, annual assessments, regularly scheduled tests, friendly advice from the totally uninformed, totally informed advice from the not always friendly, wellsprings of undesired and unsolicited pity, and endless judgments, less from above than from across: across the playground, the restaurant, the grocery store, the subway, the dinner party. We all cope differently; Mary Jane's unique cocktail of defense blends quick jokes, self-deprecation, displaced anxiety, a too-cool demeanor, and a stubborn refusal to think too deeply, ever, about how she feels, what she wants, how weary she is. To contemplate any of it would result in a headfirst fall into a bottomless abyss.

It is only in the second half of the play, set in the pediatric wing of a hospital during a particularly lengthy stay, when Mary Jane starts to show cracks in her veneer. Yet even these are barely perceptible: an extra beat between questions to her son's neurologist following an especially ominous response; conversations with hospital staff and fellow parents that veer into newly complicated spiritual territory; a particularly terse exchange with a hard-to-schedule music therapist. Still--no spoilers, here--the play doesn't tie up all its loose ends nicely and neatly. Lives--especially those devoted, even in part, to the very special and very sick--have a pesky way of not resolving perfectly at the well-timed end of a two-hour stretch.

Mary Jane  doesn't make a big dramatic splash, but it ripples out beautifully into ever wider circles nonetheless. It's an astonishingly good production of an astonishingly good play. If you get the chance, make this the one show you rush out to see before it closes.