Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Aaron's Year-End Review

Best Plays of 2008
As a bias alert, I direct you to the breakdown of the 251 shows seen in 2008. Not surprisingly, this list reflects my off-off-Broadway habits, as well as my attraction to magical realism, aesthetic direction, and refreshingly new directions. Don't be fooled by the presence of two revivals, two musicals, and a monologue: each play on this list had a unique voice, a striking presentation, and a hypodermic of adrenaline-laced honesty.

Women Beware Women - Red Bull doesn't just revive plays, it resurrects them, mounting top-notch productions that highlight the language and showcase the style, not just reminding us that it's cool to kick it old-school, but that it's where we learned to kick it in the first place.

9. Bride - Lone Wolf Tribe embraced their otherworldly vision so fully that they were able to embed social commentary in a comic nightmare, get away with straightfaced puppetry, and keep the audience perpetually surprised and delighted.

8. crooked - Catherine Treishmann captured the excited magic of storytelling in this original exploration of teen angst; by refusing to conform to stereotypes, her work fleshed out characters in the most heartwrenching ways, for the deeper they are, they harder they fall.

Rainbow Kiss - Simon Farquhar's debut play was shockingly realistic, from the visceral axe-through-a-door staging to the desperate, craving dialogue, and the unflinching tragedy of depression, shown here without tricks or metaphors: just a raw and bloody mess of a life.

6. Aliens With Extraordinary Skills - Saviana Stanescu uses a light-hearted fantasy as a means of creating empathy for the awfully dark reality illegal immigrants work in--but never comes across as preachy; the ability to be charming and convincing is no easy feat.

5. How Theater Failed America - Mike Daisey is a wonderfully talented monologist, one of those richly voiced and charismatic people who fill the nuance of each syllable with a passion so palpable that what they say hardly matters--except that in this case, the words were every bit as important as the performance, and Daisey's usual collection of anecdotal humor was flooded with a hard-earned honesty well worth listening to.

4. Passing Strange - Though there are some gimmicky moments and a few flat pieces in the second act, those things are all part of "The Real" that Stew found so hard to communicate--breaking the standard conventions of theater, particularly Broadway, as he did so; what stands out is the way the hairs on my arm stood up as his music crackled through the theater, and the way he reclaimed "Art" as something well-worth striving for.

3. Blasted - Sarah Kane's play has never been about the eye-gouging, baby-cannibalism, anal rape, and other horrifying shocks of this Beckett-busting work; by realistically, unflinchingly directing this work, Sarah Benson has succeeded in jarring the text far enough off the page that it can be seen as the painfully alive, utterly human, and angrily demanding work that it is, shocking, ultimately, only in that it is no longer as shocking on the surface as in 1995 (although it is just as emotionally scarring as ever).

Fabrik - All of the characters in Wakka Wakka's production are puppets, but like Maus and Cabaret, this only allows the ensemble to shed the pretense and melodrama that often accompanies plays about the Holocaust; puppetry, when it is as specific and deliberate as used here, can show us facets of our own humanity that we are too blind (or stubborn) to notice--we get so caught up in the magic of these miniatures that their deaths are somehow more affecting: we were no longer prepared for or protected from it.

1. Hostage Song - This aptly-described "downtown supergroup" (Clay MacLeod Chapman, Kyle Jarrow, and Oliver Butler) earned that name with this transcendental indie rock musical about a pair of two doomed hostages, their loved ones, and the beautiful dreams they once had--and still cling to, Everymen for the current human condition. In an intimate black-box theater, blindfolds freed them (and us) to think outside the box, reminding us of life's horrors while at the same time meshing them with the simplest, most fragile pleasures. Not only did I go back to see this show, but if they should ever need an investor for an encore, I'm there.

[Read on]

Liza's At The Palace

photo: Lucas Jackson

They stood at the sight of her silhouette before she sang a single note, they stood after three numbers in the first act and three more in the second, they screamed "I love you!" and "You're the best!" between songs. To see Liza Minnelli's much-acclaimed engagement at The Palace is to find yourself at a temple where the crowds, who've come ready to worship, are whipped up into a frenzy of adoration. I'm not a fan, apart from Cabaret and Liza With A Z which were both directed by Bob Fosse, and this show - one of the hottest tickets in town - unfortunately didn't convert me. However I can well understand why so many are thrilled by it. For one thing, it's yet another seemingly miraculous resurrection after a decade that included much-publicized personal turmoil and two disastrous engagements in New York. For another, Liza's style by now summons a nostalgia not only for her own artistic history but also for a brand of entertaining that we will never see the likes of again.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Photo/Richard Termine

I suspect part of the reason I see so much theater is that I dislike being at home; both of these things end up working against the all-too-ordinary production of Home being done by the Negro Ensemble Company as part of Signature's 2009-2010 season. I don't like Samm-Art Williams's artificial narrative anymore than I liked Albee's interrogatory facade in Occupant: both focus more on the telling of history than on his story. In 1979, that may have been a crucial factor: the end of providing an outlet for all-too-often glossed over story justifies the means. But this revival substitutes chaos for urgency, turning January LaVoy and Tracey Bonner into whirling dervishes that spin their 25 characters around a sedentary Cephus Miles (Kevin T. Carroll). In the quietest moments, those that tell the love story of Miles and Pattie Mae Wells (LaVoy), the play is dizzying. However, these moments are undermined by those loud ones that follow, ones where Miles is suddenly a slick factory worker pretending that he's from Philidelphia instead of North Carolina, or where Miles shouts at a God who he believes to be vacationing in Florida. There's so much going on that this sort of broad emoting is a necessary shortcut, but it's also a mistake. Just because Miles gets back to where he started doesn't make Home any less empty.

Patrick's Year-End Review

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Light Lunch

Photo/Richard Termine

(Once again, it's time for a "the difference between a blog and a review" post! Happy holidays.)

Dear A. R. Gurney:

Please stop writing plays. It is hard enough to write a political play, let alone a comedic one, let alone one that also aims to question the morality of Bush bashing, and to do this all while being smug enough to reference "anagnorisis" and talk about your own WASP-centered past, or to attempt to sculpt something out of your shallow expectations of agents and lawyers. Do not assume that because you have people on stage talking that you have created characters. It may be easy for you to be produced at The Flea, especially when you name-check Jim Simpson in the script, but do not therefore take action for granted: you must still do something in your play. Just because you have pointed out all the exposition in your script does not mean that you have the right to use it, and do not assume that we are laughing with you, and not at you. Paul Auster can talk about Truffaut-type endings, and he can quote from The Bridge Over the River Kwai: get him to write your next metadramatic play. (No, scratch that: see the first line.) Finally, if you are going to preach about theater, please take your own advice: an "interesting" idea is "the kiss of death."

- Aaron Riccio

PS. Next time, offer fries so that I can die a little faster.

[Don't read on]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


It was snowing understudy slips from playbills as we settled in to see Hairspray one last time before it closes on January 4th: Matthew Morgan on as Seaweed, Curt Hansen as Link, Daniel Robinson as Corny Collins. (All were seamless, and I especially liked Robinson's subdued snarled-lip take on Corny; I'd never have guessed these three weren't doing these roles daily.) The show is in remarkably great shape for its final weeks, with both Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur back to reprise their Tony winning performances, and I spent the first act with the wildly enthusiastic audience marveling at how feelgood a well-directed, delightfully choreographed and terrificly scored big Broadway musical can be when everyone is on their game. Winokur didn't make it to the second act - Annie Funke took over after intermission, and we later heard whispers of a sprained ankle - but the highly rare mid-show switch in the already understudy-heavy perf just seemed to galvanize the performers anew to bring the goods. Hairspray's had a sensational seven year run; nonetheless, I'm sorry to see it go.

The Cripple of Inishmaan

photo: Keith Pattison

With only half a month left in the year I thought it was safe last week to finalize a list of the best shows I saw in 2008. Then came this superbly realized, thrillingly acted Druid Theatre production of one of Martin McDonagh's earlier plays and said list is obsolete. To those who saw this play a decade ago at the Public, with a mostly American cast misdirected by Jerry Zaks: expect a revelation. Here, as helmed by Gary Hynes, McDonagh's ironic, often bitter comedy plays out with an ensemble whose flawless performances succeed at credibly depicting a community. It's 1934, on the Irish isle of Inishmaan where Billy, a young adult cripple, yearns to escape to the neighboring isle where a Hollywood film is being shot and locals are being cast as extras. The narrative is solid but it's less important than what McDonagh uses it for - the play is a dark comedy about Irish values that finds perverse humor in the everyday cruelties of its characters. The play's funniest line may be one delivered by the town gossip, who lives with his mother and makes no secret of his plan to get her to drink herself to death: "We Irish are the friendliest people in the world".

Monday, December 15, 2008

TOMMY 15th Anniversary Reunion Concert

The 2-LP set by The Who, the hypervisual film version, the 2-LP soundtrack album starring Ann-Margret: in my flood of fond childhood Tommy memories I'd forgotten one thing: I didn't like it as a Broadway musical. I only remembered this during the first minutes of the Original Broadway Cast reunion concert, fearing a long night of chair-bound performers and weakened classic rock. I needn't have feared: the concert (a one night only benefit for Rockers On Broadway) quickly took on its own resonance. So many performers well known to us now - Sherie Rene Scott, Norm Lewis, Alice Ripley, Christian Hoff - laboring away in the chorus again, just as they had when Tommy was first on the boards. Others we haven't seen enough of since - like Cheryl Freeman, the Acid Queen - blowing the roof off the place one more time as if not a day had passed. And at the center Michael Cerveris, now a full-out Tony-winning Broadway star, bringing credible rock vocal chops to the title role. The concert, which included video projections which on numerous occasions displayed scenes of the original Broadway production, became less about the material and more about watching virtually everyone involved step up and hit the mark, turning a decade and a half into the blink of an eye.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Women Beware Women

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Women Beware Women is an explosively clear rendition of a classic Jacobean love story. No wonder the company is called Red Bull--like the drink, you can mix Jesse Berger with any drama and the results will be eye-opening, dizzying, and thrilling. In Thomas Middleton's play, the drama is a deftly staged game of love in which "vengeance [meets] vengeance like a chess match," and the Queen is Kathryn Meisle. As Livia, she hooks her niece up with her brother, breaks up a marriage between newlyweds, and buys the love of a younger man, all because she can . . . and, in this powerful production, because she has to, for she is driven by desires as well. There are big banquet scenes and bigger masques, and the whole width, depth, and height of the appropriately classic church theater is used, too. The whole production comes together so well that even fans of modern musicals will feel at home with this straight 1700s tragedy: each line sings, and the themes of empowerment and jealousy are crystal clear.

[Read on]

Improbable Frequency

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Improbable indeed, that strained puns and cloying songs should be this fun, yet Improbable Frequency manages to cross the right signals, sending up the retro-kitsch of the '40s in everything from Alan Farquaharson's noirish set to Arthur Riordan's "everyone's a spy" plot, and from Bell Helicopter's jaunty jigs to Lynne Parker's hammy direction. Even the hero, Tristram Faraday (Peter Hanly) is a joke: he's a cruciverbalist, not a spy, as is his surprise rival, his former flame and now dancing double-agent, Agent Green (Cathy White). The romance is sweet, but also comedic, with sweet Philomena O'Shea (Sarah-Jane Drummey) looking to share "The Inner Specialness of Me" in what amounts to a very tuneful sex duet, "The Bedtime Jig." Once you accept that the world is being rewritten for laughs, it's easier to get behind songs like "Ready for the Wurst" or "Don't You Wave Your Particles at Me" (in which a lecherous Schrodinger is told off). The whole thing is still thirty minutes too long and the white-faced actors are distractingly surreal, but any show that makes a character eat feathers out of a newspaper (to illustrate that the chips are down) is at least novel enough to warrant a look and merit a listen.

Women Beware Wome

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Photo/Alex Koch

If you buy the meta-shtick of Joe Iconis’s ReWrite (he is writing a musical to deadline, and so writes about himself, and the one who got away) then you have to accept that Joe is writing music for selfish reasons: for his friends and for the warm glow of the afterparty. If you don’t buy the three one-acts structure, loosely connected by a melody and a character, then the show is an after-school special about confidence (“Nelson Rocks!”), a musical twist on Durang-style loneliness (“Miss Marzipan”), and a self-aware but fatuous look at musicals—[title of show] without the honesty (“The Process”). The end result is charmingly underwhelming: only as a character in his own play, The Writer (Jason Williams), does Iconis succeeds at having an emotional breakthrough.

[Read on]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Truth About Santa

***1/2 (out of five stars)

Christmas annoy the fuck out of you? Yeah, me too. Which is why I so wholly connected with this slappy, mean-spirited, Santa-bashing stocking-stuffer of a musical downtown at the Kraine. This Greg Kotis joint features him and his real wife and two lovely real children (the von Kotis family singers!.........the family von Kotis!...). The story is simple and dumb and fun. The wife and kids run off to the North Pole with Santa who is basically a big, old, fat slut. Ms. Claus wants to destroy the world and the elves well.... they're not right. Revenge. Booze. Sex. It's what Christmas ought to be (and often is). Production-wise this is a pretty tight package. The pace is speedy, the sets/costumes are thrown together and fabulously crappy and the cast is hilarious. Note to Luisa Struss (aka Ms. Claus): With your gravely voice you sound exactly like Eileen Heckart. You should play her sometime.


Reviewed for Theatermania.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Prayer For My Enemy

photo: Joan Marcus

The acting in this production of the new Craig Lucas play is of consistent high quality, but Victoria Clark, whose contribution to the first half of the one-act essentially consists of delivering monologues, is especially outstanding. When the character she's playing eventually interacts meaningfully with the other characters - an extended family whose eldest son (Jonathan Groff) is about to return to duty in Iraq - it's clear that the play is at its core about grace and forgiveness. Unfortunately, the playwright has put a lot of other distracting business in our way and dulled the power of his message.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Improbable Frequency

This much-acclaimed musical, from Dublin's Rough Magic Theater Company, is the kind of unique and wacky that inspires cults, but I'm still scratching my head as to why it didn't do much for me. On paper, I ought to love it - it's like nothing else out there, it marches with integrity to its own drum, and it certainly isn't stupid. (In fact the script is on fire with clever wordplay; it's what held my interest through the first act.) The patter-rich music is entertaining and flavorful (one group anthem, "We Are All Of Us In The Gutter", is still with me) and there's nothing to complain loudly about as far as the ensemble goes. (In fact I found two of the performances - Peter Hanly as a crossword puzzle fanatic who is pressed into service as a code-cracking spy, and Sarah-Jane Drummey as a mysterios lass who may or may not be on his side - to be entirely delightful.) And yet after about an hour I had had quite enough: the setting of the story - namely, politically neutral Ireland during WW2 - seems irrelevant by the second act, and the zany silliness that ensues exhausted rather than charmed me.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Reviewed for Theatermania.

3 Sisters 6 Actors 12 Dollars

To clarify, while Jesse Edward Rosbrow has "adapted" Chekhov's Three Sisters for Theatre of the Expendable, this review will refer to it by its gimmicky slogan--3 Sisters 6 Actors 12 Dollars. With the naturalism destroyed, the subtext discarded, and (at best) two passable actors cobbled out of the mass, it would be criminal to link this to Chekhov. One problem is most obvious in the crowded first act, in which actor Clinton Lowe mentions "There are thirteen of us at the table!" and the casual observer has no way of telling if Lowe is speaking as Kulygin, Masha's husband, or Solyony, rival to Irina's loveless dalliance with Tusenbach. (I won't bore you with the plot any more than the show does, which is to say, you'd better be familiar with these characters before seeing the show.) To cut things short: this is more of an abomination than an adaptation, and whatever credit Rosbrow earned with Mare Cognitum has just been bankrupted.

[Don't read on]

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Truth About Santa

Photo/Colin D. Young

O, have no worries dear singing elves Jim-Jim (Jeff Gurner) and Jo-Jo (Clay Adams), and by extension, writer/actor Greg Kotis of Urinetown fame: we most certainly do not find this "apocalyptic" Christmas tale to be boring, stale, or slow. The lump of coal in my heart-stocking thinks that there are problems with this script, the hammiest and most aimless of Kotis's works, and that's something that not even John Clancy's positively berserk direction can fix. However, by casting himself and his family and friends, Kotis manages to justify everything with a piping hot helping of sincerity. After all, it's a Christmas tale meant in heart for children but graphically for adults, and by melting our hearts, he makes it a lot easier to enjoy The Truth About Santa for exactly what it is.

[Read on]

Pal Joey

photo: Joan Marcus

Bothered and bewildered but not a bit bewitched am I by Roundabout's botched revival of this Rodgers-Hart musical (in its last days of previews). Stockard Channing can not sing, and her otherwise sharp performance sags everytime she shifts from snappy dialogue delivery to meek emote-on-pitch mode. The production has far more pressing problems, such as the revised book that creates as many problems as it solves, and depressing on-the-cheap production values. (The set is horrendous - you'll get the idea if you imagine the roller coaster track from Assassins and the staircase from Nine competing with a mirrored crescent-shaped pylon - and the costumes are worse.) The musical, edgy in its day, is problematic even now to put on - it centers on an ambitious, scumbag ladykiller who behaves badly but who we, like the women in the story, are meant to find magnetic. Jersey Boys' Christian Hoff departed the role after about a week of previews under his belt, defaulting the role to his understudy Matthew Risch. (Under the circumstances, I'll say only that Risch, at this late point in previews, is at least headed in the right direction and, although only a serviceable singer, seems in striking distance of nailing the role before opening night.) The production is fatally short on both pizazz and sex appeal: everyone is so busy over-emphasizing the darkness in the material and mining it for contemporary psychological truth that concerns about entertainment value seems to have been forgotten. There are two mitigating factors though: Martha Plimpton proves a delightful musical performer, and easily steals the evening with her rendition of "Zip". Also, the females in the chorus are spot-on: in general, each looks appropriate to the period and each is deliciously individuated in the dance numbers.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Photo/Joan Marcus

Well, at least they didn't use any Smash Mouth for the curtain call in Shrek. However, just as David Lindsay-Abaire seems to have written the book by watching the film over and over again, Jeanine Tesori must have been listening to those songs as she wrote the music, for it's largely redundant pop. In fact, sometimes it seems like watching a Disney week on American Idol--the jokes are certainly dumbed down for that crowd. (Cleverest lyric: "This ass o' mine is asinine.") But while it seems derivative (a parody of a parody that uses parody as a device), there are some great moments in Act I, and both Christopher Sieber and Daniel Breaker are outstanding as Lord Farquaad and Donkey. Sutton Foster, as Fiona, isn't bad either, especially when going slightly crazy as she sings "I Know It's Today" from her tower prison--but the tap-dancing "Morning Person" is too Millie for my tastes: the play is better when it gets a little gross, as in the farting duet "I Think I Got You Beat" (Shrek and Fiona) or midget Farquaad's "dance" number in "What's Up, Duloc?" Or, say, any time Donkey gets to sing, as in the excellent "Travel Song" (in which director Jason Moore is able to bust out Avenue Q-level sight gags that mock, among other things, The Lion King On Broadway) or his Stevie Wonder R&B number with the Three Blind Mice, "Make a Move." As we all learn in the movie and now the musical, beauty ain't always pretty--but what the creators of Shrek have forgotten is that pretty ain't always beautiful.

Opening Night

photo: Jan Versweyweld

The script is by way of John Cassavettes' screenplay of his same-named 1977 film which centers on a stage actress who has what seems like a nervous breakdown while in search of the character she's rehearsing. This multi-media stage adaptation, directed by the brilliant Ivo van Hove, is miraculously even more compelling than the film: the near-constant use of video screens retains the intensely intimate Cassavettes close-up style. while theatrical devices depict the actress' forays into the hallucinatory more effectively than the original film, where they seemed stilted. The playing space may seem at first like a mad meta playground - we're backstage, on the stage, and in the wings, with live cameras ever hunting and gathering as Neil Young songs are cued in and out as if supplying a film soundtrack - but it's all disciplined, effective and involving rather than distancing and pretentious. The director has zeroed in on Cassavettes' love of the danger of theatre, and more specifically his insight into the actor's process, and has transformed the screenplay into a riveting theatrical triumph which explores the paradox that performance is both real and unreal. The cast is uniformly superb but special mention must be made of Elsie de Brauw, whose central performance is so fully realized and engrossing that she did what I would have thought impossible and chased all memory away of Gena Rowlands in the original film. In Dutch with English subtitles and, fair warning, two hours and twenty minutes with no intermission. Don't let that stop you from making the trip to BAM this weekend for this; it's one of the best shows of the year.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Brad Krumholz’s play, The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes, wonders what would happen to the world's greatest sleuth if the signs he relies upon turned out to be false. He does so by introducing Jacquline Derrida (Sarah Dey Hirshan) as a rival for Holmes (Brett Keyser), and by murdering Nietzsche and Freud. However, Krumholz, in adapting his own short story, relies so much upon theatrical trickery that the show never reaches the "deep, inner complexity" promised at the play's opening by a sexually ambiguous Dr. John Watson (played by Tannis Kowalchuk).

[Read on]

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Only Tribe

Photo/Sheree Hovsepian

How does such a simple concept get so conceited? There hardly seems the room for so much stuffiness given the plain stage, gray one-piece outfits, and white minimalist masks (each with a pixilated Katamari Damacy-like cut-out that gives it a “personality”). But sure enough, there’s a trademark in The Only Tribe’s logo. The “simple” stage actually houses 3LD’s Eyeliner technology, which lets Reid Farrington clutter it with commercial images and dancing holograms. Roland Gebhardt’s masked modernity is well-matched by Peter Kyle’s geometric choreography, and they move nicely to Stephen Barber’s chic electronica, but all this conjures is a high-brow Alexander movement class. Perhaps most damning is that Rebecca Bannor-Addae is credited as a writer for this silent piece: you can read her “story” at, but why bother? A few pretty moments and a solid back-beat can’t mask The Only Tribe’s flaw: after all, what is pretension but the meaningless grasp for importance?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Out Cry

Photo/Czerton Lim

While performing Two-Person Play, the play within Tennessee William's metadramatic cry for help, Out Cry, the "audience" walks out, leaving Felice (Eduardo Machado) and his sister, Clare (Mia Katigbak) alone, lost in their own world. That’s no surprise: after all, Felice reveals early on that their company has left them: “Your sister and you are—insane!” reads the charming letter. What is surprising is that nobody walks out on NAATCO’s revival of this troubled play. As it happens, the second act is much better: having dispensed with the circumstances, it brushes the madness of “artists [who] put so much into their work that they’ve got little left over for acting like other people.” It is not enough, however, to excuse Machado’s atonal line readings, Thom Semsa’s listless, restless, and senseless blocking, or the constant textual stumbling.

[Read on]

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Road Show

photo: Joan Marcus

Now scarcely longer than 95 minutes, Sondheim's oft-reworked musical about the fortunes of the Mizner brothers remains maddeningly unfocused: even the score's most accomplished songs don't resonate without a strong narrative theme to organize them. We watch one brother rise to fame and fortune as the other falls from it, but none of it means anything to us since neither character stands for anything. This conceit of this John Doyle-directed production, which keeps the ensemble on stage to tell or stand witness to the story, may be close in spirit to show's early incarnation at NYTW years ago, but it keeps the characters at an emotional distance from us and emphasizes just how thin the story is. Michael Cerveris makes some interesting choices as Wilson, the more baldly manipulative brother - I would rather have seen the show told from his perspective, even though his huckster character generally seems like something out of Kander & Ebb - but all else on stage is a dull, beige blur.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Geometry Of Fire

photo: Sandra Coudert

There hasn't yet been a high number of plays to prominently include an Iraqi War serviceman returning to civilian life, so it's especially disappointing that this one, by Stephen Belber, is more pedantic than enlightening. It's also far too tidy and predictable: the subplot, in which the Saudi-American comes to believe that his dying father's blood cancer was caused by U.S. chemical testing in his Virginia backyard, is an instantly transparent device to bring him into inevitable angry opposition to the ex-soldier. Belber's dialogue is natural and believable, but the play lacks a suitable amount of escalating tension, which dulls the power of the characters' confrontation.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Cape Disappointment

Photo/Ryan Jensen

The latest work by The Debate Society, Cape Disappointment, is slightly disappointing, but only in comparison to their previous plays. More is not always better: the two new actors joining writer/performers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen pick up the uneasy rhythms of casual conversation, but the awkward transitions create a lot of dead space. When it's moving though, you'll find that director Oliver Butler still has a wide variety of tricks up his sleeve, and that TDS still leaves most companies in their creative dust.

The Grand Inquisitor

It's rarely more austere than this: one thin, white raised platform, two black chairs, one actor talking while another listens. And yet for its full 55 minutes the simplicity here makes for an electrifying theatricality, forcing a focus where one actor raising his palms in the air becomes a cataclysmic event. The intensity is not a surprise, considering that Peter Brook has directed and that the text is an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's intellectually staggering tale in which Christ returns to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Bruce Myers, as both narrator and Inquisitor who (in a manner of speaking) puts the silent Christ on trial, is spellbinding, anchoring his performance with a gravity so core-shaking that the stage can barely contain it. Is man's free will incompatible with happiness? Are the edicts of Christianity impossible for its followers to ever achieve? How does evil masquerade as good? These are the kinds of questions I was left with after seeing Dostoyevsky's arguments put on stage and made newly vibrant and disturbing here. In a word, it's devastating.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending

Photo/Jim Baldassare

If you think about it--not a lot, but a little--Hillary Rodham Clinton's life somewhat resembles a Greek tragedy. She's undone by the very things she required to get where she was, almost as if she were caught in a battle between the unyielding warrior, Athena, and the free-love queen, Aphrodite. Such is the thought behind Wendy Weiner's Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending, which leaps to its own conclusions, knowing full well that the task itself isn't as important as the lesson learned (or the laughs earned). Director Julie Kramer dodges the double-edged sword of the gimmicky premise by indulging in camp, and the mock history lesson gets by on clever usurpations of classic myths. Which part of Bill Clinton do you think his mother forgot to dip into the sacred spring? Where else would the gate to the underworld be but Newt Gingrich's cellar? What's striking is that while Darren Pettie's Bill and the four-person Chorus all go for laughs, we can watch Mia Barron (Hillary) struggle, time and time again, between ambition and humanity, emotion and success. That she fails and may still succeed is a heartfelt gift from the gods.

[Read on]

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Photo/Richard Termine

It's no surprise to find a company trying to adapt Catch-22 for the stage: the Iraq War--for all its paradoxes (e.g., fighting for peace), selfish capitalism, and military glory over individual rights--might as well be a sequel to Joseph Heller's brilliant novel. But it's not easy to adapt a jerky book like Catch-22, so it is a pleasant to surprise to find that Aquila Theatre Company is more than crazy enough--director Peter Meinecke might as well be wearing a straightjacket--to make the necessary cuts while still capturing the essence of the conflict. Theatrical paradoxes establish the mood--with projected backdrops of pure propaganda and low-budget illusions for sets--while the manic, triple-cast ensemble gives life to a wide variety of stock characters that flavor the central character, Yossarian, and his plight. In this role, John Lavelle manages to play both sane and insane, and this enables the show to do more than simply satirize warfare.

[Read on]

Friday, November 21, 2008

On The Town

photo: Joan Marcus

Guys in crisp white sailor suits are leaping through the air once more and New York New York is once again a helluva town. This Encores! production is an effervescent shot of music-theatre bliss, thanks to its full lush orchestra playing that flawless score, and a just-about-perfect cast having a ball with that sparkling book and dancing those tremendously expressive Robbins dances (supplemented here by Warren Carlyle). Is it possible to love old-school musical comedy and not be smitten with this production of On The Town? I doubt it. I don't know of a performer right now who is more suited to play lovesick romantic leading man Gabey than Tony Yazbeck, who sings and dances like a dream and whose "Lonely Town" is as heartfelt and evocative as I have ever heard. Also standing out, in a thoroughly outstanding cast, are Christian Borle and Jennifer Laura Thompson, whose comic chemistry together is the kind that slaps a smile on your face just to look at them, and Andrea Martin, who mugs and hams with such delicious shamelessness as a boozing voice teacher that she has an aerial view of over-the-top. Now for the bad news: the unusual staging, which puts the orchestra dead center dividing the playing area between the book scenes downstage and the dance scenes upstage on an elevation, is a smashing success downstairs but apparently a huge sightline nightmare from the Gallery, where even in the best of circumstances one longs for a seatbelt for fear of tumbling to one's death.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Love Dr. Mueller

Baltimore bad girl, Haight-Ashbury hippie, punk-era downtown scene-maker: the chapters in Cookie Mueller's life may be varied and colorful but they're all evidence of an adventurer who lived by her own rules. One of the shrewdest ideas in this new play, directed and co-adapted from Mueller's writings by Kareem Fahmy, is to break the rules and have the three actresses in the cast of six take turns playing her in successive scenes. Each brings a distinct characterization, and yet each is valid: the conceit makes the show less about who Cookie Mueller was, and more about what her life was about. Most of the episodes are both era-evoking and funny - the snappiest one freezes the goings-on in a seedy Jersey strip club while Mueller deadpans her mixed feelings to us about doing "floor work" - and even the weaker ones - such as the too-brief peek behind the scenes of John Waters' underground cult classic Pink Flamingos - are entertaining.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


photo: Joan Marcus

David Rabe's excellent 1976 play, in which Vietnam-era soldiers just out of Basic Training are thrown into intense, escalating social conflict with each other while holed up in their barracks, seems to have been revived for, and directed with a focus on, its gays-in-the-military content. On that score, the production is engaging as a time-capsule that invites contemplation about what has and has not changed. Unfortunately the play's other themes are shortchanged, which drains the production of dramatic tension. Two of the actors seem to have been misdirected: Ato Essandoh disastrously so as Carlyle - the character comes off as a psycho the minute he bounds through the door, so the audience isn't forced to sit with the discomforting suspicion that racial stereotyping is behind the hostility he gets from most of the other guys. Brad Fleischer, as Billy, is asked to play so unimpeachably straight that there's no sexual tension with Richie, whose longing for him now looks masochistic. Still, it's great to hear Rabe's dialogue again, and two of the performances - by Hale Appelman and J.D. Williams - are exactly right.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Farragut North

Photo/Jacqueline Mia Foster

From the moment Stephen (John Gallagher, Jr.) appears onstage as a successful, 25-year-old press secretary who somehow still has morals, it's obvious that Beau Willimon can't wait to knock him down in Farragut North. Willimon plays politics in the same backrooms as Aaron Sorkin, but rather than pace around, he internalizes the gears, taking the focus off the Democratic primary in Iowa and putting the emphasis on what's underneath all off Stephen's gloss and spin. The result is rather Machiavellian: his enemy, Tom (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) undoes him with kindness; his friend, Paul (Chris Noth) undoes him with contempt; his lover, Molly (Oliva Thirlby) undoes him with compassion; and he completes the destruction with his own arrogance. Director Doug Hughes is accustomed to dealing with characters having a crisis of faith, as well as with addressing monsters who come clad in good deeds, which results in a well-oiled production that also manages to dip below the surface of politics.

[Read on]

Friday, November 14, 2008


Photo/Joan Marcus

Thomas Bradshaw's latest play, Dawn, is a challenging play. It's not subtle--his dialogue bashes us over the head with its gross exaggerations, and director Jim Simpson works with an empty stage so as to keep things transparent and obvious. However, by setting up his characters to fall--likeable alcoholics, intolerable saviors, abused annoyers--the play challenges our expectations, and aims to make our morals a little more fluid. The lead, Gerry Bamman, really helps on account of his sitcom-level likability, and the disgusting comedy of it all will unsettle you (especially on accounts of the double whammy of pedophilia and incest), whether you like it or not.

The Footage

Photo/Joan Marcus

There are a lot of nice surprises in Joshua Scher's dark drama, The Footage. By using existing media and making it dark (LonelyGirl15, porn, machinima), Scher gives his plot credibility, which is the whole point in a play that focuses on the narrow line between what's real and not. That he manages to work in comic romances (like the flirting of two online avatars in World of WarCraft) is downright astonishing, especially given the way they enhance other aspects of the theme. Semiotics is often boring: here, it's fascinating, or perhaps that's just Scher's ear for the way people talk. The one unfortunate thing is that the ending compromises the theme: a play like this is ruined by a tidy ending, no matter how stylistically done (director Claudia Zelevansky does nice work).

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My Vaudeville Man

photo: Carol Rosegg

The book of this two-character musical, which charts the relationship between a born-to-dance Irish-American vaudevillian and his disapproving mother who's ashamed of his profession, is disappointingly shallow: the first act doesn't do much more than contrast his wide-eyed naivete with her cold-eyed suspicion, before closing with a stakes-raising conflict that is soon glossed over and made irrelevant in the second act. However, there are at least a few good songs in the score (the title song is especially infectious) and both Karen Murphy and Shonn Wiley are terrific. The show's chief pleasure - for me, a big one - is Wiley's tap-dancing: his extended second act dance number, which has the added twist of also being a drinking contest besides a tap challenge, is breathtaking.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


There's magic blowing through the air. It might only look like flimsy pieces of paper "snow," and you can see the high-powered vent sending them through the theater in a Slava's Snowshow burst, can see the Sunday in the Park With George-level digital backdrop. But from the moment the first Cirque du Soleil performer slaloms down a hill, across an angled path center stage, and then back up a hill on the other side, you're a kid again, being utterly swept away. Wintuk is an aesthetic, intimate circus: there are no animals, and no high-flying acts. Instead, the focus is on the capacity of the human body to astound, whether through the first act's crazy gymnastic flips and acrobatic balancing acts or the second act's more subdued contemporary dances, the sort that make your single hula hoop seem lame, or shame you for not being able to climb a rope, let alone spin through the air and gyrate on one. It's also on the capacity of the human mind to imagine things: hence actors on stilts bring giant bird creatures to life, and bunraku artists lurk in the backdrop of giant ice golems that march across the stage as the actors sing foreign choral music. It is, admittedly, both an exciting and alien experience, and, as always, it is utterly spellbinding. Of particular note: a clever contortionist routine that gives new meaning to the word "rag doll" and an ever more precarious balancing act atop a tower of rolling pins. Of no importance: the plot, which introduces five breakdancing actors in dog costumes and a clown trapped in a garbage can. It's a whimsical breath of fresh air; go.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Most Damaging Wound

Talk about range: Blair Singer's The Most Damaging Wound opens with a stream of curses and a flood of alcohol, builds from frenzy of casual crudeness into a series of subtle emotions and then--while still propelling itself through some wild antics--puts its hand on the pulse of Male Maturity, and keeps it there for ninety of the best minutes you'll spend in a theater. Chris Thorn delivers an impressive performance as he uses liquid courage to swing his character from comedy to drama and back again, and his energy helps to pull the entire play along, not that the rest of the cast, with their ease and real camaraderie, really needs much needling. Much of that credit must be laid at Mark Armstrong's feet: the best directors are the ones whose touch is invisible, and even with the actors just feet away in this intimate space, I didn't notice a bit of blocking. The theater needs more of this honest naturalism, and less of the bullshit machismo you'll find in a Neil LaBute play.

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The Most Damaging Wound

photo: Deanna R. Frieman

Here's a rarity: a bunch of guys (all hetero, save one) dealing with their issues of "masculine intimacy" in a play that isn't out to damn them or to damn testosterone in general. In this sometimes poignant and largely cliche-free dramedy (by Blair Singer) the buddies who reunite some years after college over drinks and pizza are believable regular guys whose bonds with each other, formed in post-adolescence, have been revised in the transition to adulthood. Some of their conflicts, such as the strain between the now-sober musician and the eternal drunk who used to be his best friend, seem like they're going to be been-there done-that but the resolves are not what you expect; others, such as the realization that a long-standing friendship had been based on idolatry, are things that guys are too seldom depicted talking credibly about. The actors give finely detailed performances that make it very clear that each of the characters' relationships to the others has been thought out: five guys, and one gal who shows up unexpectedly, add up to a high number of interpersonal dynamics and yet my bullshit detector almost never went off. Mark Armstrong's direction allows the drama and humor of the piece while keeping it all grounded in so believable and clear a reality that you could chart the rise of the liquor buzz just by how the actors move around the room. The level of acting is generally impressive in its detail but I must make special mention of Chris Thorn, who plays the kind of sometimes inappropriate, sometimes juvenille goofball you can't help but like no matter how hard you try. He not only puts over most of the play's funny business, he also precisely nails a dead-honest drunk dramatic monologue that is one of the play's most memorable highlights.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


There were about a hundred people bravely chancing the waitlist to get into one of the instantly sold-out "developmental" readings of Yank! at the York. With luck, the show will soon get a full-scale production in New York and all those who were turned away this time will get to discover one of the best new musicals of this decade. Yank! is one-of-a-kind: crafted as if it is a musical from the 1940's, but telling a love story between two WW2 military men that couldn't have been told then. (The Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven is the only pop culture antecedent I can think of.) The cast for this on-book, chairs-in-a-semicircle reading included Ivan Hernandez, last seen in the show during its initial development at NYMF a couple of years ago, along with Bobby Steggert, Nancy Anderson and Jeffry Denman, seen last year when the show played a critically acclaimed limited engagement in Brooklyn at Gallery Players. The show has always been deeply moving, and each revision makes it more so, but I can't deny that recent setbacks to gay marriage rights also helped to make this reading nothing short of heartbreaking. A wise person once said to me that the first two questions that should be asked about theatre are "why?" and "why now?". The answers here are that we need Yank! and we need it immediately.

Monday, November 10, 2008

As We Speak

Photo/Leigh Celentano

Let me be clear; I left As We Speak in a rage triggered not at all by a single word in this (re:) Direction performance, but rather by the feeling of wasting two hours of my life. I am not proud of bashing plays, I still find it to be reductive, but after sitting on this review for two days, I feel obligated to express what I truly felt about this empty play, from the simply bad aesthetics (an unlit stage, missed cues, a bland set) to the terrible acting (mumbled, hard to hear, recited), and on a larger scale, the overall problems with Tom Berger's static direction and John Patrick Bray's thoughtless script. Do I think it is easy to write a play, let alone to act or direct one? No. Does that give this group the right to lower off-off-Broadway's reputation? No.

[Don't read on]

All About Eve

There's a limit to how critical I want to be of this on-stage reading: plenty of people donated their time and talent to raise money for the worthy Actors Fund cause, and I can trust on that score that it was a great success. I'll only say that too many roles were miscast and that it took three hours for the actors to read this adaptation of the screenplay: snappy quips don't fly in slow motion. Here's who was good: Brian Bedford as Addsion DeWitt - his characterization was spot-on and his line readings assured, you'd have thought he'd been playing it for years; Keri Russell as Eve Harrington - you could feel an edge in the character's strategic false modesty; and Jennifer Tilly who, in the "Marilyn Monroe" role of Miss Caswell, handily stole the evening with only a handful of deliciously delivered lines.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents

Photo/Thomas Hand Keefe

The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents throws around the word "fuck" a lot, especially from the mouth of its protagonist, Dora (Grace Gummer), an emotionally challenged girl who is, for the first time in ten years, "pulling down the pharmaceutical curtain." But the show's about sexual awakening just as fucking's the same as making love: and this is where Kristjan Thor's direction (every bit as closed off as Dora) works small miracles. For instance, the Fine Gentleman (Max Lodge)--who is actually a sleazy door-to-door salesman--seduces Dora by talking about how perfume is made from ox shit, and soap from pig fat: the underlying lies are given up by their surfaces, and that's what makes Dora's slow awakening so tragic. This is Gummer's play, and she commands the play despite a necessarily restrained performance. Beyond the dull surface of "I dunno"s and her energetic parroting, this girl, described as "almost not being involved," actually has feelings. "No big deal," she says, after revealing that she hates wearing pants, but also when describing what it felt like to have her baby sucked out of her. It's the cold, casual tragedy of the everyday, and it's the bitterest sort of love story.

[Read on]

Friday, November 07, 2008

8 Little Antichrists

Photo/Johnna Adams

If 8 Little Antichrists is supposed to be taken seriously--which it might seem, if you've seen the first two parts of the trilogy--then it has some very hefty problems. Thankfully, Flux takes it only as seriously as it needs to--and the thought of black-winged angels facing off bloody-horned heroes in California, 2028, is already sort of ridiculous--and takes a tongue-in-cheek approach that lets us suspend our disbelief in a cheesy Max Headroom sort of future. For all the creative satire that goes into fashioning a Philip K. Dick plot for Claudia (Candice Holdorf), a detective investigating the death of her clone sister, or to Melanie's (Rebecca McHugh) attempt to get the vessel of God back from Clockwork Orange-style drizz-heads Thump and Fibber (Jake Alexander and Joe Mathers), it's really just an excuse for over-the-top action that Vampire Cowboy Theater fans will be proud of. So long as you don't think about it for too long.

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Photo/Justin Hoch

The second part of the Angel Eaters trilogy finds Johnna Adams at the top of her game, starting with a box full of rattlesnakes and a madcap kidnapping, jumping to a creepy encounter between a local undertaker and a drunk husband who share the same love, and flipping with a Southern Gothic romance between a young boy and a grieving mother. Jerry Ruiz jumps neatly between the three disparate parts of this play--a trilogy on the micro level--but what really makes this play is that for all the plot, the emphasis is on the characters first. (The cast is outstanding, too.) When she's not rushing, Adams has a terrific voice, and her stories work on multiple levels: as her characters grow more and more desperate, we see clearly that there's no price we won't pay to get back the ones we love.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Made in Poland

Photo/Carol Rosegg

There's a Holden Caulfield anger brewing inside Bogus (Kit Williamson), and if you can't tell from the way he slams his iron pipe against the metal scaffolding that metaphorically represents his life as an unfinished construction site, he's got the words "Fuck Off" tattooed across his forehead. Was something lost in Alissa Valles's transition? It's possible: there's no American parallel for the strange devotion and peace these characters all find in Krzysztof Krawczyk, a real pop singer. But even the universal pursuit of love doesn't come across; Jackson Gay's direction is turned up so loud (and yet the action is still clearly faked) that it's all drowned out. The anarchist impulses of Fight Club were at least directed by broader statements about society, but Przemyslaw Wojcieszek's writing is focused so narrowly on a punk/sharpskin aesthetic that it's impossible to get inside Bogus's head, or to extract something resonant from him. "How does one live?" is a question well worth exploring; unfortunately, that tattoo on Bogus's head seems to be the answer--at the least, those big, black, gothic letters prevent us from seeing anything else.

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The first production from LCT3, Lincoln Center's initiative to offer new works from emerging artists at commonly affordable prices ($20), is a solo hip-hop musical by and performed by 24 year-old Matt Sax. I wish I liked it more. Or, frankly, at all. While LCT should be commended for stepping outside the cultural box, and Sax clearly has a talent for bustin' rhymes, Clay is deficient as a piece of theatrical writing, lacking discernible conflict until halfway through the show. Sax isn't especially accomplished at delineating character either, and the story he means to tell here of a dysfunctional suburban home life comes off rather whiny when set to a music form that grew out of urban marginalization. While the piece has been given the best staging that could be hoped for (under Eric Rosen's direction) the show's only urgency comes from the hope that its hip-hop music is potential bait for new audiences. But it'd been far better if said new audiences had seen BASH'd earlier this year, a show which ably put rap and hip-hop to stageworthy use in service of legitimate, well-crafted musical theatre.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Angel Eaters

Photo/Justin Hoch

Though it's the first part of a trilogy, Angel Eaters stands pretty well on its own, a Carnivale-like play set in 1937 that mixes mysticism with the family drama of the cursed Hollister family. There isn't much development, but there's a lot of action, as two con men (Gregory Waller and Isaiah Tanenbaum) get more than they bargain for when they promise to resurrect Myrtle's (Catherine Michele Porter) husband, wholly unaware that one of her daughters, Joanne (the marvelous Marnie Schulenberg), really can. Jessi D. Hill uses space and Jennifer Rathbone's lighting to evoke a plausible atmosphere, but when characters start flipping their motivations simply to keep the plot moving, things get a little out of hand. It's still an intriguing play, but it's really the mark of good direction (and better pacing) that we enjoy spending time being entertained by largely soulless characters.

[Read on]

Sunday, November 02, 2008


What are we to make of Mindgame, Anthony Horowitz's new play? Taken as a farce, it can, at times, be delightful, with a particularly hammy Keith Carradine working us up as Doctor Farquar, head of a notorious mental institution, and Kathleen McNenny as a belabored nurse. ("I'm sorry," she intones, "I was a bit tied up," and we know the cut of that jib.) But I'm told Horowitz's novel was a thriller, and taken in that vein, Ken Russell has directed a limp, dead thing, with plot twists obvious from a mile away simply because we know something must happen. This is the play Lee Godart thinks he's in, at least, playing the straight reporter, Mark Styler, without a shred of humor or self-awareness. The result is Poe's The Mansion of Madness desperately trying to be Ira Levin's fantastic Deathtrap, a play which valued motivation over the convenience of plot. Farces about serial killers may not work, but there are a few cuts that at least stand out: "He does not think that anything is the matter with him because one of the problems with him is that he does not believe there is anything wrong with him." The playwright is suffering from this delusion, and he has created this bit of psychotherapy at our expense: try the shock treatment instead, it doesn't last as long.

Arias With A Twist

Except for when he's vocally channeling Billie Holiday with dead-on accuracy, cross-dressed chanteuse Joey Arias can look and sound like the gender-bent answer to Yma Sumac who came from outer space. He's a distinct one-of-a-kind creation whose sounds are often fascinating. In puppetmaster Basil Twist he's found a collaborator whose sensibilities are as distinct as his own, and their creative union has produced a little gem of an evening filled with modestly-scaled theatrical pleasures that delight and tickle the imagination. From Arias' dramatic entrance - bound upright on a metal circle and performing Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" while puppets of aliens gather around him - you're transported to a place you haven't been before, except maybe in the late '70's with Klaus Nomi (who Arias backed way back then). There's a thin narrative thread that I'd prefer wasn't there at all - the show's infrequent spoken segments diminish the oddly magical world of the songs with what feels like old school gay-bar diversion - but essentially the show is an artfully presented, visually entrancing concert as imaginative as it is entertaining.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Glass Cage

Photo/Richard Termine

Revivals are tricky business: do them badly, and no matter how relevant the message, it still seems like a waste of time. Thankfully, The Mint's latest production, The Glass Cage is no bitter pill: instead, this revival of J. B. Priestley's 1956 play about vengeful family members executing an odd turn of class warfare in 1900s' Canada, is a sweet sell. Jean, Angus, and Douglas are estranged members of the wealthy McBane family, and they've been called back by the religious patriarch, David (a fine Gerry Bamman), to settle an inheritance issue left behind by their reckless father. However, they're not as dumb or shy--in fact, argues Douglas (understudy Aaron Krohn), they're more real than the whole family, from womanizing Malcom (Jack Wetherall) to the scowling prude, Mildred (Robin Moseley). This puts Elspie and John (Sandra Struthers-Clerc and Chad Hoeppner), young adults themselves, in the middle of two worlds--republican and libertarian--and they are seduced by both sides. To Priestley's credit, both sides have merits and flaws, and director Lou Jacobs exposes some of the parallels by showing the different uses for a religious altar, and--through the vivacious energies of Jean and Angus (Jeanine Serralles and Saxon Palmer, both at the top of their game as moral rascals)--revealing the similarities that we all share, deep down, in our heart. The only blemish is Roger Hanna's oblique set, a steampunk collection of pipes that lead nowhere and add nothing: the cage is a metaphor, not a gilded maze.

Friday, October 31, 2008

If You See Something Say Something

Photo/Kenneth Aaron

If You See Something Say Something is a political play in the first-person, a unique trait that allows it to be socially responsible on a collective scale. It is first-rate theater, too--a direct story, with no mixed messages, that reminds us all of the very power we have to say something. It's a power that Mike Daisey seems to grow more and more comfortable wielding with each new monologue, too: whereas How Theater Failed America stemmed from personal experience, this play was generated first by Daisey's research into the morality of the atomic bomb (Cohen and Kahn), with his own anecdotes created later, by his trip to the Trinity site. Despite the means of production, the tone of this piece--which is very heavy on Homeland Security--is much needed. We need someone to be angry about the things we see and don't say anything about, those deaths we sweep under the table in the quest to be "the good guys."

[Read on]

La Traviata

The first act didn't bode well - German soprano Anja Harteros had an effortful time getting through the coloratura passages in Violetta's "Sempre libera" and Italian tenor Massimo Giordano's acting as Alfredo was of the silent movie pantomime variety - big showy gestures, but no convincing passion. He improved only incrementally, but she sprang to vivid life in the second act once the most challenging coloratura runs and trills were behind her. She's of the new generation of opera performers who are cognizant of opera as theatre and, based on the rich, expressive colors in her voice and the her well-judged acting opposite Zeljko Lucic (who made a top-notch Germont on all levels) she's worth watching out for. It's also worth watching out for when the new Peter Gelb helmed Met retires this Zeffirelli production - the ornately overdecorated sets are like one gaudy jewel box after another designed for pageant rather than theatricality.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

American Buffalo

Given that I sneaked into the dress rehearsal for American Buffalo, take this with a grain of salt (which I can only help has better cured the rotting meat...), but all of the glib energy has been drained from Mamet's so-so play about American ennui, a show in which three deadbeats talk a plan to death, for no reason other than it being embedded in their genetic capitalist zeitgeist to make money, and not be cheated. It's not that far from Israel Horovitz's Line, and it has the advantage of being a lot more subtle . . . but subtlety isn't something John Leguizamo and Cedric the Entertainer are known for. (And Hailey Joel Osment isn't actually known for anything, which is about what he presents in this minimalist role of a mentally challenged kid.) I'm sure the staging will grow to feel more natural over the next few weeks of previews, but unless the actors actually find some motivation behind their bullshit, that is, unless they manage to talk themselves up, it's going to be a long, miserable two hours.

Black Watch

I expected to be riveted by this piece from National Theatre Of Scotland, which has traveled the world to great acclaim and has just extended its sold out run at St. Anne's Warehouse. Instead I find myself in the minority, thinking that its often striking theatricality is a case of style over substance. The playwright interviewed young Scottish soldiers who served in Iraq - some of their insights are interesting, particularly because their subculture is aggressive and they nonetheless came to think of the U.S. as bullies - but the playwright does next to nothing to distinguish the boys from one another, which becomes exhausting. This documentary-interview material alternates with highly theatrical, visceral sequences which miss as often as they hit. The best is a hypnotic wordless segment with faux-Glass musical underscoring in which the boys read letters to themselves while slowly adopting individuated, specific hand signals and body language: the segment evokes feeling and has a compelling strangeness. The worst is a gimmicky segment in which one of the boys narrates the history of the Scot fighting force while the other soldiers re-outfit him: it's theatricality for its own sake, nothing more than a way to enliven dry information.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Billy Elliot

photo: David Scheinmann

At least half a dozen tearjerking moments in the thrilling, superbly staged musical of Billy Elliot set the audience around me bawling. The moment that finally did me in me was a quiet, understated one which subtly put forth the idea that community may be larger than family and family larger than the individual, but artistic expression is larger than all. The show, adapted from the smash hit indie film of the same name about a Thatcher-era working class boy who yearns to dance ballet, instantly joins the very highest ranks of British musicals a la Oliver! and has thankfully arrived on Broadway without being Americanized or dumbed-down. It's the kind of stirring entertainment that has something for everyone whether one absorbs its overarching thematic message or not and that nearly everyone will be interested in seeing once the word is out: in other words, get your tickets now while the show is still in previews because by Christmastime it will be impossible. The show employs three boys to play the central role of Billy and doesn't pre-announce who will play the role at a given performance, but given the level of care that has been clearly put into every aspect of the production I can trust that the other two Billys are in the same high strata of ability as Kiril Kulish, who I saw and who was captivating. There isn't a weak link anywhere in the large cast - Haydn Gwynne, reprising her role from the London production as Billy's unsentimental small-town dance teacher, has honed her every line reading for its maximum bite; Gregory Jbara and Carole Shelley, both familiar to Broadway audiences, skillfully disappear into their unglamorous, downtrodden characters; Frank Dolce, as Billy's cross-dressing school friend, is the kind of young ham who immediately endears himself to the audience and leaves everyone charmed. New musical theatre classic, thy name is Billy Elliot.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Romantic Poetry

photo: Joan Marcus

"There's a nightclub in my shoe/And I go there when I'm blue": John Patrick Shanley doesn't only write lyrics like someone who has never written them before. He also writes them like someone who has never heard them before. At first, with mouth likely agape, you think that the schmaltzy Lawrence Welk ambiance and the generic melodies and clunky, unmusical lyrics in Romantic Poetry are meant to be purposefully bad, a satire on our cultural mythology around romantic love. But before long the songs in this would be absurdist fable more likely seem to be an attempt to make inelegant "real" poetry out of what ordinary schlubs say - I haven't cringed so much since Paul Sorvino was waxing lyrical about how love makes the garbage on the streets smell like roses in Slow Dancing In The Big City. It's no shock that artists must sometimes fail, even ones as gifted as Shanley; the shock is that this survived all the check points and is actually up on stage for MTC's audiences. The show is too cringe-inducing to be boring, and it counts for something that all six performers commit to it bravely. My vote for the unluckiest would be Mark Linn-Baker who gets the bum end of the rhyme of "heinous" with "penis" and who inexplicably spends most of the second act dressed as if he's about to play Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Twelfth Night

I couldn't fail to notice Jacqueline van Biene's standout work last year so I can't say I'm too surprised that she's outstanding again. The surprise is that she's at ease in Shakespeare, and that her delightful, layered and always emotionally accessible performance as Viola is this Twelfth Night at T. Schreiber Studios is the kind that will captivate both those who have analyzed every Shakespeare line and those who need help comprehending Bardspeak. The rest of the performers include those who don't seem to understand what they are saying, those who do but don't give the illusion that it is speech, and those who are comfortable with Shakespeare's language and rhythms (with Julian Elfer, as Malvolio, most notably in the last camp despite the lack of other Shakespeare credits in his bio). With the variable degrees of ease among the performers, the directorial concept (which emphasizes whimsy and pulls from both the antique and the modern) doesn't have much chance of taking hold. As is becoming the norm at T. Schreiber Studios, the sets and costumes are astonishingly well-done by off-off standards.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Like You Like It

Photo/Jennifer Maurfrais Kelly

Despite a few bum shops in this "All-the-world's-a" mall, Like You Like It, an '80s light rock riff on Shakespeare, is quite likeable. Alison Luff, Hollis Scarbourgh, and Trey Compton are such charming A+ actors that, when they're in the midst of a well-executed number from choreographer Keith Andrews, and wearing Hunter Kaczorowski's slammin' clothes, all you see is a blur of comic cheer--and that's something we can all like.

[Read on]