Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Art Times: Theatre Vs. Theater: Does It Matter?

My latest essay is up at Art Times:
When I was in college, one of my fellow students was Broadway producer David Merrick’s assistant/gofer, which made him a big deal in the Queens College Drama Department. He and I were once discussing whether to use theater or theatre, and he said that we have to use the re version because it’s more special than er and we have to honor that theatre is more special than anything. I was 18 and I agreed with all my heart and I’ve been using theatre ever since.
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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

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