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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Blue Room

When David Hare's The Blue Room with Nicole Kidman was on Broadway in 1998, it seemed a thin and cliched story about sexual encounters. The Bridge Production Group at The WhiteBox Art Gallery tries to reinvent this loose adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Reigen (also a 1950s French movie, La Ronde) by performing it a small, basement art gallery, where costumes hang in the universal restroom and on a rack within the audience's view. The action unfolds inches from the audience making the piece more voyeuristic and disquieting. 

The 10 vignettes tell a circular story that attempts to show how class and power impact sexual encounters - we have a prostitute and her client; an au pair with the boss's son, the politician with his young paramour. Most of the tales focus on the unequal power between men and women - especially rich, influential men and their lovers. But the stories fall into shallow cliches - and the play's discussion about sex never amounts to more than a casual conversation. It's too bad Hare's adaptation resisted  including a few more strong women - it might have created a more vivid, original play.

The Bridge Production Group's Artistic Director Max Hunter directs Christina Toth (Annalisa in "Orange is the New Black") and himself in a multitude of hook-up scenarios. While both ably communicate a variety of characters, only Toth finds the visceral core of each. Hunter shows disdain, swagger and callousness but he never touches the vulnerability that Toth discovers, especially in the more damaged individuals.

Costumes challenge the smoothness of the production since, like the original, changes are mostly done in front of the audience. Sometimes the dresses fall off Toth or something is turned around with the tag showing. Rather than offering insight into the individuals portrayed, such moments just seem sloppy (costume design by Nicolle Allen). Bulky, too, are set changes - as a folding couch is made into a bed or a coffee table is added. The slight set design could be pared down even more.

The projection of countdowns and imagery aids the storytelling - with the light, sound and movement amplifying the sudden ending of scenes and relationships (lighting and projection design by Cheyenne Sykes). Like the Broadway version neon often lights the set adding a seediness to the encounters. A sign detailing the time each tryst takes makes the audience laugh, but becomes monotonous after the fourth or fifth pairing.


Blue Room, David Hare
Max Hunter and Christina Toth.
Photo credit: Callum Adam
The Blue Room plays at The WhiteBox Art Gallery (329 Broome Street between Bowery and Chrystie Streets) until July 29. Shows are Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. and Saturday, July 21 and 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 at www.bridgeproductiongroup.org.

The performance is approximately 90 minutes.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Mary Page Marlowe

Six women play Mary Page Marlowe, the titular protagonist of Tracy Letts's 90-minute one act at Second Stage Theater. I imagine that developing the show was a fascinating experience for the actors, who went to each others' rehearsals and developed the character together. (They discuss their process in an interview in the New York Times.) The experience must have been particularly amazing for Tatiana Maslany, who has gone from playing some dozen women in Orphan Black to playing one sixth of a woman here. Unfortunately, the process doesn't translate into anything wonderful or distinct for the audience. In fact, under the damped-down direction of Lila Neugebauer, the entire show comes across as monotone. It's as though she thought that the only way to get six women to meld was to eliminate their personalities and individual quirks. (The set is monotone as well, and a bit off-putting.)

Marcia DeBonis, Tatiana Maslany
Photo: Joan Marcus

In addition to the unique casting, Mary Page Marlowe is steadfastly non-chronological. Breaking chronology can be an excellent device if the thru line of the play has its own growth and development. But Mary Page Marlowe doesn't. Instead, the mixing up of time periods seems only a way to add spice and suspense to a garden-variety story.

The combination of multi-casting, monotone, and non-chronology keeps the audience at arm's length. It doesn't help that sometimes we see only a performer's profile for an entire scene. Was Maslany good in the therapy scene? I don't know. I never saw her face.

Mary Page Marlowe feels like a terribly missed opportunity. It hurts to see such a large and wonderful cast (18 people in a one-act play!) given so little to do.

Wendy Caster
(tdf ticket; row L)
Show-Score: 50

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

My Fair Lady

The revival of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center is much like other Bartlett Sher revivals of musical theater chestnuts at Lincoln Center: it is colorful (if, this time around, more dimly lit); it is respectful to the text without insisting on remaining totally rooted to the past; and it is, for the most part, lovely, enjoyable, and satisfying.

Joan Marcus
A few things about it that stay with me and that I figure I'd mention:

1) Much handwringing over (a) this particular musical being revived at this particular time and (b) the subtle changes made to its finale took place during the preview period, but I think both were ultimately for naught. You either like My Fair Lady or you don't. You can either overlook its sexist implications enough to enjoy the piece, or you can't. If you can, and you enjoy the musical, my guess is that you'll enjoy this production of it.

Further, you'll either appreciate the subtle nods the production makes to cultural shifts that took place during the Edwardian era (the tweak made to the conclusion; the brief appearances of marching suffragettes or crossdressing choristers), or you won't. But nothing the production does makes much of a difference, ultimately: Higgins is still a pompous twit and pretty much everyone knows it; Eliza is still smart and driven and pretty much everyone knows that, too. They'll end up together or not, but then, that was always the case. 

2) The idea to have a younger Higgins and an older Pickering was, at least as I see it, a far more ingenious and daring move, since it shifts the power dynamic so totally. Alan Corduner's Pickering is a devoted scholar who is kindly, paternal, and patient with both Higgins and Eliza. Harry Hadden-Paton's Higgins is by equal measures arrogant, entitled, and deeply insecure about his own intelligence, while still managing to remain far more appealing than he deserves. I've known plenty of both types of academic dudes, and the pairing here makes absolutely perfect sense to me--as does Eliza's desire to knock Higgins down a few pegs as often as possible, even as she benefits from him. He deserves it; she needs to do it to retain her sanity while achieving the goals she's set for herself.

3) An added bonus: Hadden-Paton can sing, unlike Rex Harrison, who defined the role despite the fact that he not only couldn't, but was incredibly cowed by that fact. If, like me, you've listened--and even pattered along--to Harrison's "Why Can't the English?" thousands of times through your life without ever once realizing that the damn song actually has a melody, you're in for a real treat.

4) Discussion of this show usually gravitates so quickly and so overwhelmingly toward the gender aspects that it's easy to forget how very much the musical says about class distinctions and their discontents. Of course, gender and class are intertwined--in the world as in this musical--but still, I appreciated being reminded here that there's so much more at play than the basic "two old bromancy white dudes remake a young woman to their exacting standards, take all the credit, and eventually she falls for one of them" plotline everyone always fixates on.  

5) Norbert Leo Butz long ago won my heart, so it's not like he had to work terribly hard here, but damn if he's not typically awesome in this. Also, kudos to the costume department for the truly bizarre aviator cap he shows up in early in act I, which to me was kind of worth the price of admission.   


Saturday, July 07, 2018

Log Cabin

Jordan Harrison's annoyingly didactic Log Cabin presents characters who come across as op-ed essays rather than humans. There's a gay couple and a lesbian couple who have done well in the world and are enjoying the benefits of legal marriage. There's the trans man who argues that he is more oppressed than the others are and offends the gay couple by calling them cis males. There's the trans man's girlfriend, a young woman who is somewhat pansexual but has a thing for trans men. And there's the lesbian couple's infant, who doesn't speak in real life but is amazingly articulate in the minds of his moms. (He speaks at one point without either mom there, which takes his speech out of imagination and into magical realism, but, whatever). A good 95% of what these people say is pedantic, and even intra-couple squabbling is forced to represent some point or other rather than being specific and personal. The scene changes are excruciatingly slow, and the sex scene is unpleasant. There are some funny lines; some of the performers are quite good; the show is rarely boring. But it is mediocre at best.



Wendy Caster
(member ticket; second row)
Show-Score: 55

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf

The Elevator Repair Service's production of Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf, written by Kate Scelsa and directed by John Collins, is a rollicking feminist take down of/tribute to Edward Albee's masterpiece. Making the original show's subtext in-your-face overt, with a thick overlay of queer interpretation and joyous camp, the show veers from insanely wonderful Tennessee Williams' monologues (by the brilliant Vin Knight as George) to a visit to hell with a PhD student. The main section, the parody itself, bursts with zip, sexuality, and fabulous bad jokes. The hell section suffers from a drop-off of energy, but features an amazing version of "The Second Time Around," presented by Knight as a combination of satirical cabaret and legitimate singing. I'm not totally sure that all the critical parts of the show are fair to what Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf actually is, but the Elevator Repair Service's version bursts with humor and brilliance. The rest of the amazing cast includes Annie McNamara as Martha, April Matthis as Honey, and Mike Iveson as Nick.

Annie McNamara, Vin Knight
Photo: Joan Marcus
Wendy Caster
(press ticket, first row)

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Conflict

The wonderful people at The Mint have done it yet again. They have gifted us with a beautiful production of a lost gem of a play, complete with smart and clear direction, wonderful performances, and impeccable design elements. The Mint's batting average is extraordinary.

Jeremy Beck and Jessie Shelton 
Photo: Todd Cerveris

Specifically, the play is Conflict, written in the 1920s by Miles Malleson, author of Unfaithfully Yours (presented by The Mint in 2017). In both plays, Malleson uses characters as mouthpieces for particular points of view; however, the ratio of ideas to emotions is more effective in Conflict. Here's a description of the play from the press release:
Conflict is a love story set against the backdrop of a hotly contested election. It's the Roaring '20s in London. Lady Dare Bellingdon has everything she could want, yet she craves something more. Dare's man, Sir Major Ronald Clive, is standing for Parliament with the backing of Dare's father. Clive is a Conservative, of course, but he's liberal enough to be sleeping with Dare, who's daring enough to take Clive as a lover, but too restless to marry him. Clive's opponent, Tom Smith is passionate about social justice and understands the joy of having something to believe in. Dare is "the woman between" two candidates who both want to make a better world — until politics become personal, and mudslinging threatens to soil them all.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lonesome Blues

Akin Babatundé, with the outstanding support of guitarist David Weiss, is giving a heck of a concert in Lonesome Blues at the York Theatre Company. Babatundé's voice travels from pure falsetto to rumbly bass and back again, and it can thrill every step of the way. Babatundé's interpretation of the blues offers a wide palette of emotions, and he's charming.

Akin Babatundé, David  Weiss
Photo: Carol Rosegg

However, Lonesome Blues is billed as a musical rather than a concert, and on that level it is less successful. Based on the life of Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929), it takes place on the day of his death as he reminisces about his life and his music. Unfortunately, his story is not clear as written (by Alan Govenar and Babatundé), performed, and directed (by Katherine Owens), and it can be hard to tell who he's talking to and what he's saying. As a  result, the show is never really engaging.

The authors write in the program that "Lonesome Blues is not a literal bio-musical, but instead a poetic rendering of Blind Lemon's memories." Unfortunately, the poetic renderings just don't track. It's also unfortunate that Babatundé wears dark glasses, because it puts a barrier between the actor and the audience, a barrier that is particularly damaging in a one-man show. (Yes, I do understand that Jefferson's blindness necessitates those dark glasses, but they still come at a cost.)

Here's the thing, though: Akin Babatundé really is giving a heck of a concert in Lonesome Blues. For all its flaws, the show offers a dynamic and rewarding evening in the theatre.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, sixth row)
Show-Score: 80

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Secret Life of Humans

Presented as either a lecture nestled in a drama or a drama nestled in a lecture, Secret Life of Humans focuses on whether evolution is an unbroken line of progress, with each living iteration superior to the one before, or considerably more messy. It also provides some tricky conundrums about the meaning of superior and of good. The first topic--evolution--is discussed in the lecture parts and in conversation. All of the arguments are laid out neatly and clearly. The second topic--what it means to be superior/good--unfolds in compelling, if contrived action. (Basic story: Female lecturer with contemporary ideas about evolution meets someone via dating app. She finds out that he just happens to be the grandson of the person most famous for older ideas about evolution.)

Richard Delaney, Olivia Hirst
Photo: David Monteith Hodge

The theoretical parts of Secret Life of Humans are smooth and well-done, but they tell us nothing new, nor do they ask new questions. (I say this as a 63-year-old with a strong interest in evolution. When I was younger and knew less, I would have found the show considerably more impressive.) The show was worth 90 minutes of my time for the acting and some truly charming stagecraft. I would not be happy to have spent $70 on a ticket.

Secret Life of Humans is written by David Byrne [not the Talking Heads David Byrne, BTW] and directed by David Byrne and Kate Stanley. Starring Richard Delaney, Olivia Hirst, Andy McLeod, Andrew Strafford-Baker, and Stella Blue Taylor.

Wendy Caster
(press tickets, 5th row)
Show-Score: 75

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

2018 Tonys: How'd We Do?

Well, we didn't do too badly this year, although we're not going to win any prizes for theatrical prescience. It was very nice to be wrong about Ari’el Stachel and Lindsay Mendez! They both truly deserve their prizes. And as for my own two seemingly smartest predictions (Once on This Island and Tony Shalhoub), both were complete guesses. Wendy


Liz Wollman
Sandra Mardenfeld
Wendy Caster
Musical The Band’s Visit
X
X
X
Leading Actress in a Musical Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
X
X
X
Leading Actor in a Musical Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit


X
Revival of a Musical Once on This Island


X
Revival of a Play Angels in America
X
X
X
Play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

X
X
Original Score The Band’s Visit, Music and Lyrics: David Yazbek
X
X
X
Direction of a Play John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
X

X
Direction of a Musical David Cromer, The Band’s Visit

X

Sound Design in a Play Gareth Fry, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
X
X
X
Sound Design in a Musical Kai Harada, The Band’s Visit

X
X
Leading Actress in a Play: Glenda Jackson, Three Tall Women
X
X
X
Scenic Design for a Musical: David Zinn, SpongeBob SquarePants
X

X
Scenic Design for a Play: Christine Jones, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
X
X
X
Featured Actor in a Musical Ari’el Stachel, The Band’s Visit



Featured Actor in a Play Nathan Lane, Angels in America
X
X
X
Book of a Musical The Band’s Visit, Itamar Moses



Featured Actress in a Musical Lindsay Mendez, Carousel



Choreography Justin Peck, Carousel
X
X
X
Featured Actress in a Play Laurie Metcalf, Three Tall Women

X
X
Orchestrations Jamshied Sharifi, The Band’s Visit
X
X

Performance by a Lead Actor in a Play Andrew Garfield, Angels in America
X
X
X
Costume Design of a Play Katrina Lindsay, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
X
X
X
Costume Design of a Musical Catherine Zuber, My Fair Lady

X

Lighting Design of a Play Neil Austin, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
X
X
X
Lighting Design of a Musical Tyler Micoleau, The Band’s Visit



TOTALS
15
18
19



Friday, June 08, 2018

Spring roundup: Mean Girls, Our Lady of 121st Street, Paradise Blue, Dance Nation

Mean Girls
Mean Girls is cute and funny, well-staged, a little too long for what it is, occasionally miked too loud, and ultimately better than getting a cavity filled. I wish I'd been thrilled by it, but again, it was hardly an ordeal. Some of my tepid reaction has to do with my own preferences, one of which is not to shell out serious buckage to see something from the rear balcony that I saw from a better seat in a movie theater fifteen years ago. I also didn't dig the score, which struck me weirdly as a thin interpretation of Broadway musicals in some vague generic sense but without a real grasp of the blood and guts that make some representations of the genre work way better than others do. And honestly, some of it was just that I was knee-deep in the end of my semester when I saw it, and thus even more overwhelmed and grumpy than I usually am, especially when it comes to encountering such sweet, well-meaning baubles.


The performers were game and some of them were really terrific. The audience I saw it with seemed to love it. It's apparently selling very, very well. And truly, whatever, it was fine, I've never written a film or adapted one into a Broadway show, so what the hell do I know? I can't help but wonder how it would have fared had Fey and her husband not been behind it, but we'll never know, and anyway, that's just not how show biz works.


Our Lady of 121st Street
Stephen Adly Guirgis's Our Lady of 121st Street, in colorful revival at Signature Theater, is an imbalanced work, but ultimately its strengths win out over its weaknesses. I wish like hell I'd known before I'd seen it that it's wonderful when it comes to affectionate, deft character analysis, but that it doesn't tie up all its loose plot threads in nice little bows by the end of the swift two hours. Or maybe I'm just a moron for having expected such a sprawling piece to resolve so completely in the final minutes. Either way, I felt momentarily disoriented when the play just kind of ended.

So I'm doing you the favor I wish someone had done me, whether you want it or not: Go. See it. Enjoy the very fine production and the numerous three-dimensional characters (as well as a few two- and one-dimensional ones who are still worthy of your time and consideration). This is a very good episodic, day-in-the-life play. It is well acted, insightful, and often genuinely hilarious. Enjoy the ride, don't expect resolution, and you'll have a wonderful time.