Friday, February 29, 2008
Arriving off-Broadway after great acclaim in Chicago, this production of a new musical adaptation of the 1923 Elmer Rice play adheres uncompromisingly to its strong visual style: from the dark drudgery of the accounting office where Mister Zero spends twenty five years before an adding machine makes him obsolete, to the show's final setting in which the human characters are dwarfed by machinery, every design detail is purposeful and effective. The cast, forming a cohesive ensemble with well-judged period-accurate performances, are also one with the show's bleak and Expressionistic vision, and the musical's insistent, often atonal score (by Joshua Schmidt) is focused on telling this serious, cautonary story with steadfast determination. The show's accomplishments are obvious and numerous, and yet - after my initial excitement over the first half hour or so (which is mostly focused on Mister Zero's monotonous job and unpleasant home life) and its Pennies From Heaven vibe- I sank into a state of boredom in my seat. The music does phenomenally well when depicting the soul-crushing dullness of Zero's home and workplace, but after that it's too much of the same. And while the show is faithful to the events of the original play, it misses or misjudges most of the dark wit because of its singular determination to be "serious". It doesn't start out that way, but by the end The Adding Machine becomes a museum piece to be admired more than enjoyed.
Also blogged by: [Aaron]
RUS(H) spends a lot of time slowly drifting through the memories that trap its three characters in the throes of lost passion, but James Scrugg's text -- and video -- finds legs in Kristin Marting's physical direction, Anabella Lenzu's passionate Latin choreography, and Qui Nguyen's dark homoerotic fight choreography. On those legs, it manages to walk the jagged line between passion and violence better than anything I've seen on stage recently, although it gets tripped up overdosing on certain technologies that add pretension, not tension. Sonny (frighteningly played by Lathrop Walker) steals the show as the anhedonistic meth addict willing to do anything -- no matter how debased -- for more "Tina," and though he brings out the worst in Rus -- who leaves his wife, Sireene (chandra thomas), to explore his own inner sadism -- he brings out the best in Luis Vega, who plays Rus. RUS(H) isn't much of a rush, but it's one hell of a bender.
Since the plot isn't anything new (sisters reunite on the ocassion of their mother's death to settle their differences and divvy up the property) and the characters are dangerously close to stock (the uptight "good" sister who stayed behind to nurse Mom and the sexual "bad" sister who didn't, for the most prominent examples) a whole lot depends on the actors to bring Sarah Hollister's amiable but derivative play to naturalistic life. But unfortunately the actors seem to have been steered in the wrong direction toward exaggeration: when the bad sister's no-good stud shows up drunk in the middle of the night, for instance, he's only a couple of pelvic thrusts away from turning into a Beetlejuice-like lech. "Good" sister walks around in what looks like a granny dress with her hair in a bun (the play's most wince-worthy cliche is the moment when she lets it down): this kind of obviousness is at odds with the play's tender slice-of-life moments.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
The young super-privileged scenesters who are this play's characters (and I use that word loosely) are all relentlessly selfish, self-absorbed a-holes. Typically their brand of willfull narcissism is cause for satiric ridicule but here the insufferable brats are meant to be taken seriously as they talk through their dramas (unconvincingly, and usually in direct address mode) and whine about this or that speed bump toward their own fabulousness. Almost none of it smells of real life: the play is as shallow and unsympathetic as its characters. As a writhingly insecure artiste who suffers suicidally over a bad review in Artforum, Will Janowitz fares best of all the actors; as for the rest of the cast I look forward to seeing them all in something else.
If, as Tom Stoppard mentions in his notes for Rock 'n' Roll, "Dramatists become essayists at their peril," then the good Sir is playing things incredibly safe with his latest play. Or maybe the music that drives his play (and his his semi-autobiographical lead, Jan) has put him in an altered state. You see, there isn't an essay in Rock 'n' Roll, not a single wrong note. What wordy sections remain -- largely lectures between teacher and student in the home of the scholarly (and, given Brian Cox's performance, far too stuffy) Max -- are shaken up, as in The Coast of Utopia, only with less melodrama, and more of a pressing moodiness. We can thank the undercurrent of political repression for that, a dark and shattering presence that Jan (the remarkable, hopefully Tony-winning Rufus Sewell) tries to block out from his bloc of Prague. What the play lacks -- and this is Trevor Nunn's fault as director -- is the theatricality of rock. The fragments of song that play during the blackouts are cheapened by the flimsy typocraphic (putting the crap in typographic) projections of liner notes (unnecessary -- in these moments without words, it's the music that's important), and Robert Jones's revolving set only heightens the text toward the end of Act I, when Jan stands in a sea of shattered records. Only then does the fragile, necessary escapism (turned to revolution) feel complete; the rest of the time, we must rely on Sewell's reedy squeals and fastidious fidgeting to excite us, or on Alice Eve's restless rebellion (first as the young Esme, then as Esme's daughter, Alice) to help us connect with the exceptionally natural text.
A self-made millionaire whose American Dream went horribly wrong thanks to "a saga of litigation", Mark Whitney would have good reason to be bitter. Instead he's become an ironist, and his sixty minute fact-based monologue (currently part of The New York Frigid Festival) is rich with darkly funny, often cautionary, observational humor. There are so many sharp and succinct one-liners that I stopped trying to retain them all and just let them come and go. Most are derived from Whitney's bullseye-aim at some of the injustices and flat-out absurdities of our legal system, but Whitney's eventual target is larger. It's a well-written piece, absorbing from start to finish, in which warm and conversational Whitney mines his real-life personal nightmare to warn against (among other things) blind faith in authority. That's a message that never gets old.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
There is a compelling chill-to-the-bone nastiness to director Rupert Goold's production of The Scottish Play (previously in London, now at Brooklyn Academy of Music and soon on Broadway) that makes up in visual interest and visceral excitement what is lacked in clarity. (The unacquainted would likely find this a confusing introduction to Macbeth). Thanks to rear projections (often stretching the entire width of the creepy tile and steel fit-for-a-horror-movie set) the mid twentieth-century dress production is big on sound and fury, although it isn't always clear what's meant to be signified, and there are many brilliant and effective staging choices (including a stunning directorial conceit for the pivotal banquet scene) that keep the show engaging and visually fascinating for nearly all of its three hours. Although the production is not without some missteps (the characterization choices for The Porter are so over the top that they cross the line from creepy to silly) and there are some weak performances in the ensemble, the three performances that matter most are all sensational and help to make this don't-miss, "event" Shakespeare. Patrick Stewart is masterful as Macbeth from start to finish, traveling credibly from morally conflicted sabateur to power-mad paranoid. As Lady Macbeth, Kate Fleetwood is suitably intense and driven initially, and gives the character a touch of emasculating cruelty. And finally, as Macduff, Michael Feast economically renders anguish and anger in what is the production's most lingering emotional scene.
Beau Willimon's uneven new play, Lower Ninth, suffers from a refusal to confront its circumstance -- an estranged father and son, trapped on a rooftop after Hurricane Katrina. The design, direction, and acting reduce the high stakes to jokes and melodrama; the play itself is a good look at two characters struggling to stay afloat in a sea of anger. James McDaniel, when he's not proselytizing, is utterly engaging as Malcolm, a reformed street tough who -- though he now uses his knife to cut oranges -- still has a knife, and an edge. Gaius Charles, who plays his son, Ezekiel (aka E-Z), suffers from television-actor-syndrome, and often plays to the audience rather than Mr. McDaniel, but seems otherwise legit as a troubled teen who doesn't fit in with the good or bad kids. But the real trouble comes from Lowboy: not the actor, Gbenga Akinnagbe, basically playing a softer side of his character on The Wire, but the character, who is admittedly worm-food, and whose revival is just a redundancy for what we already know about Malcolm and E-Z. There's humor and truth, but very little drama, and that's because nobody acknowledges -- in a serious way -- that these two men have been left for dead in an river of oil and corpses. I watched Lower Ninth, but at no point did I ever feel as if I -- or they -- were really in New Orleans; it was like being a tourist who keeps his head buried in the guidebook the whole time.
You people! Dina Martina is in town! Rejoice! I have caught her thrice before and am quite obsessed with her. Who is she? What does she do? I usually just say "She's really funny and brilliant and it's hard to describe what she does because it's just so OUT THERE" but Patrick has done a great job of at least coming close to nailing down exactly what is so special about her. Really you guys, this is probably the funniest show in town right now. Doug Wright was in the house the night I went and was quite literally guffawing. At different points during the show Dina passes out gifts to the audience. My dear friend got a rubber pizza and I got Cheetos flavored lip balm. It's now hanging on my wall.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Sunday, February 24, 2008
How to explain one of the freshest and funniest acts I have ever seen? Part stand up, part performance art, part drunken hallucination, new millenium drag creation Dina Martina is a little bit Phyllis Diller and a little bit Divine and maybe even a little bit Leigh Bowery but in the end a one-a-kind mold-breaking comedic genius. Her current act, Off The Charts, can be seen at The Cutting Room for the next few weekends and it's a guaranteed fun night out as Dina performs/destroys songs by Duran Duran, The Smiths, Melissa Manchester, and so on, in between her hilariously malaprop-laden banter. If you can imagine a fearlessly brave blazingly funny comic assuming the guise of a cluelessly tacky entertainer who wallows in pathos and pop culture you might be able to wrap your mind around Dina Martina in advance, but even that is more than you need to know. Dina Martina is from Seattle, but she's more downtown New York nightclub than any of us.
Just as making a cat's cradle is deceptively deeper than it looks, so it goes with adapting Kurt Vonnegut's less-than-sunny novel, Cat's Cradle. Edward Einhorn takes a pretty good crack at it, but his condensations of plot come at the expense of the characters, and his definitions of Bokononism's terms come across as anti-foma, that is, truth that hurts the narrative of the play. Worse still, while the calypso lyrics are mostly ripped from the pages, they're roughly delivered by a chorus of musicians who, quite frankly, aren't very good. And worst of all, the direction often forces the play -- most particularly the explanation of ice-9, a central conceit -- to compete with the music: to accurately quote a Bokononist, it's all busy, busy, busy. Our hero, John (Timothy McCown Reynolds) is rational enough to be engaging, and he holds our attention even as he grows more and more tangled in a web of hastily drawn characters. Kudos to Evolve Company's model set, a projection of which is the only colorful thing on stage: that sort of crisp, clean translation of a key stylistic point is what this adaptation needs more of, and that means more cutting, better casting, and some sort of message. If science is magic that works, then it's time for this company to look toward science, for the random hocus-pocus they've got right now isn't working.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
It's interesting to note that Kenneth Collins doesn't call Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road) a play -- he opts for "performance" instead. Well, that's true, what with the tightly framed "stage" (a pair of transparent changing-room mirrors), the languid language (mostly delivered in breathy whispers), and William Cusick's Lynchian dream projecting onto a widescreen banner above the set. I'd go with the word "experience" instead, as the whole production is so uniquely compelling -- controlled to the point of ultimate enthrallment -- that you won't soon forget this show. The film is shot like a photo-realistic noir that splices flesh-and-blood actors with static backgrounds; the play is a minimalist grounding for the memories projected above. The pace is a slow and sustained necessity, one that mirrors the endless drifting of its twinned protagonists, Hunter (Ben Beckley) and Wyatt (Brian Greer) as they slowly merge on the highway of life. Don't try to unpack the bags of plot; just hop in the passenger seat and let Collins take you for a ride.
[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]
Friday, February 22, 2008
Thursday, February 21, 2008
No man should go through life without loving another man. So says F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway in Allan Knee’s frustratingly superficial biodrama which traces the friendship between the two iconic literary legends from their first encounter to their last. Too often, the play feels like nothing more than star-gawking in Roaring ‘20’s dress: both men are written one-dimensionally as if to keep them safe within their respective mythologies. The superficiality is especially noticeable when the playwright has the men quoting themselves: the gap between what these men wrote and how they are depicted here is vast. There is a third character in the play (F. Scott's wife Zelda) who often seems outside of the play's main interest, since the play offers few insights into, and doesn't adequately chart, her mental deterioration and its effect on the men's relationship. The production visually achieves a pleasurable elegance, thanks in large part to good design work (particularly the lighting and the excellent costuming) and there is also a small musical combo (on stage on the two-tiered set’s upper level) underscoring the play with songbook standards of the era. The music is meant to be decorative, adding an air of sophistication to the proceedings. It isn’t the band’s fault that they often pull focus.
Plays that trade on shock value generally aren't very good, and even in this town a racy publicity shot and a name like "Artfuckers" scrawled in some sort of blood-red is shock value. I'm happy to say that Artfuckers isn't as bad as I've just made it sound -- there's some merit to the artistic struggle that's got Owen (Will Janowtiz) trying to kill himself after a bad review in Artforum. But I'm sad to say that not only does Michael Domitrovich's script come across as forced, but so does the sex: Bella (Nicole LaLiberte) is the only character who ought to be methodical about sex, using it to create the illusion of happiness. But Maggie (Jessica Kaye), her sister, comes across as hollow when she goes after Owen, and Trevor (Asher Grodman), a DJ who claims to hear sex in his pulse, is so sluggish that he must be suffering from bradycardia (a slow heartbeat). The most entertaining scene is the most shallow: Max (Tuomas Hiltunen), a gay fashion designer, speaks with his agent, Maggie, about the upcoming show for which Trevor is recording music, Owen is sculpting for, and Bella is modeling in. That's no surprise: Eduardo Machado directs Artfuckers like a rave, so it's only the most heartless and over-the-top acting that catches our attention.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
The actors, playing archetypal road movie characters, generally face out while standing in a physically limiting box-like enclosure. The subconscious visual associations of this are multiple: fortune tellers in a penny arcade, ticket takers at a tollbooth, criminals behind security glass at a prison, and so on. They mostly whisper their lines into microphones, while above them a letterbox-shaped screen plays (superbly realized) video that has been made to look like iconic road movie footage. This is Temporary Distortion's fascinating hybrid of theatre, cinema and art installation, a consistently mesmerizing experience that summons - just as American road movies do - an often dream-like mood comprised of both vague menace and strange melancholy. The show not only summons that mood, it sustains it with disciplined integrity for its full length without ever having to bow to conventional narrative storytelling and without disturbing the spellbinding stillness that initially draws us in. This is something entirely new and rule-breaking that quietly explodes some of the conventional ideas of what theatre is, and it's staggering.
After the last Broadway revival I didn't think I would ever need to see this old Tennessee Williams three-acter again - how many times can one watch Big Daddy work himself up over mendacity or hear Maggie seethe over those little no-neck monsters? - but this new all-black production is, a couple of weeks into previews, immensely entertaining and in some small ways revelatory. Let's get the minor complaints out of the way first: director Debbie Allen overdoes the effect of isolating some of the monologues with a spotlight - it's fine the first two times but distracting after that - and there is still some fine-tuning to be done with a couple of the lead performances and with balancing the comedic with the dramatic. Yet at this stage of the game there's every reason to believe that this Cat will be a big crowd-pleasing hit, not least of all because (unlike the other ten productions I've seen over the years) the center of its focus is where it makes the most sense: more on Brick than on Maggie. (Brick takes the last bow, for those keeping score at home, and Maggie fourth to last) The startling thing about this production is not that race recontextualizes the story - it doesn't - but that these actors deliver the lines in ways that are different than I've heard before. That's something of a small shock, since the conventional wisdom is that Williams' heightened language demands a highly specific rhythm. Thanks partly to that, and also in small part to the production's rare use of Williams' revisions which put the F word liberally in Big Daddy's mouth, the production has vitality and excitement. I don't want to be too specific about the performances, as this was an early preview, but I will say this: Anika Noni Rose, Terrence Howard, James Earl Jones, and Phylicia Rashad are all going to be Tony-nominated. I'd put cash down on that.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Nothing if not ambitious and genre-defying, this off-beat musical (previously presented at the New York Musicals Festival in 2004) attempts a Dada-ist approach to both storytelling and presentation: it's a highly theatricalized collage of often musicalized bits and pieces that sketch in the changing dynamics of four friends in the first half of the twentieth century. (One of the four is a Dada artist.) Perhaps in keeping with turn-things-upside-down Dada principles, the (often fascinating, eclectically-inspired) music rarely moves the story or defines the characters - rather, the lyrics usually strive for poetic imagery - but that proves to become tiring when you realize that the book scenes that connect the songs don't pick up the slack to clearly define the characters either. Despite the bold breaking of form and a nearly ceaseless parade of interesting stage pictures (which sometimes include projected movies and stills) the moments that work best in the show are the most conventional ones: the always wonderful Nancy Anderson does beautifully by the number that comes closest to functioning as a typical character song, and Marcus Neville and Jamie LaVerdiere break through the show's veneer of emotional remoteness in a simple scene of conversation near the end. Otherwise the show is so determined to break the rules that it fails to make new ones that meet us halfway.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
I can't with conscience talk about the theatrical merits of this revised version of Feeling Electric - the lively rock-tinged music, a couple of sensationally good performances (Alice Ripley and Brian D'Arcy James) and some dynamic staging - because I found the show's negative attitude toward drug therapy to be so silly. The show's message seems almost like something out of the Scientology mindset: throw away those pills and ditch that psychiatrist because all you really need to manage a physiologically-based mental illness (bi-polar depression, in this case) is to talk things out. The nice word for this is "naive". Besides that, the show traffics in the cheapest kind of sentimental cliches to get a reaction out of the audience: the nadir comes near the finale, when both leads get back to back tear-jerker moments that result from one of them doing something that seems otherwise wholly unmotivated. The lyrics to the final song are so vague and fuzzy, about the need to "step into the light out of the dark" or somesuch, that they instantly sound like a parody of themselves. Yet I looked around, and most of the audience was on their feet and wiping away tears. The show probably taps into some seldom expressed collective dread about our over-medicated culture, while pushing the old square buttons about family and the healing power of accepting oneself, and that seems to be enough for most people to connect to. But most people ain't me.
The Sanford Meisner Theater, as with many off-off-Broadway houses, is a little run-down, and not all that much to look at. But as avid theatergoers should know, it's not so much the look of the place so much as the art that happens within it. That said, Cherubina is the perfect show to run there: based on the true story of the fictional Cherubina de Gabriak, the play skewers the hollow shell of artistic integrity when Elisa (Amanda Fulks), a frustrated would-be poet, collides with her friend, Max (Jimmy Owens), to create the sort of beautiful, mysterious woman capable of getting published by Max's boss, Nikolai (Teddy Bergman). After some suspenseful stakes-raising (the play opens with Nikolai preparing to duel with Max), the play spends its first half giving truth to the lie, showing poetry to be a sort of existential shell game in which your words aren't nearly as consequential as your voice. Witty and light, Paul Cohen's script allows us to feel for all three of the characters: even the snobbish Nikolai, who falls for Cherubina, is adorable, especially given Bergman's whole-hearted portrayal. These early moments also do well to establish the pace of the second half, in which Fulks, playing a fiercely vulnerable needs, falls for Nikolai, convincing herself that he will love her -- deformed leg and all -- because he loves her words. Ultimately, the body -- a very physical consideration of Alexis Poledouris's energetic direction -- trumps the text, and the play drops its excitable pace long enough for us to feel the cold that seeps in once the vodka's gone.
Friday, February 15, 2008
Never underestimate the importance of a good title. I ran to this. Written by actor Ian McWethy, this is his scathing one act rant against the soul-crushing machine of the audition process. Pretty much every character inhabiting the audition room and the adjacent waiting room is diabolical and self-absorbed. Everyone craves money, fame, and sex and if you're not offering then fuck you. This is guerilla theater at its most acidic and if sometimes it goes a little overboard with the profanity (I appreciate a good "fuck" as much as the next guy but less is more) and the yelling (the director character is going to lose is voice!), there is an edgy, raw, underground vibe made this a very fun and snarky night at the theater. HGA!
Personal Bias? Meet Door. I leave you there time and time again as policy. Not this time: I'm too pleased for my friend and fellow ShowShowdowner David Bell to have anything remotely objective to write about his fun and farcical, often theatre-insiderish comedy. Instead, I'll point you toward this thumbs-up in Variety and this "critic's pick" take in Backstage. And I'll tell you that "My safe word is Sutton Foster!" is the funniest line I have heard in months. Forgive me for spoiling it, but it's just too delicious. Congratulations, David!
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Who could say how many thousands of young girls have sprung up from their seats to shout "I saw Goody Proctor with the Devil!" since Arthur Miller's classic Salem witch hunt drama premiered? Oft-performed all over the country at all levels of proficiency, the play has endured beyond its shelf life as an indictment of the McCarthy trials of the 1950's and surely stands as the most popular, widely-read American play to caution against theocracy. (Really, is there anything else that comes close that is assigned reading year after year for the average public high schooler?) It's partly because the play is so familiar and so often seen that this production's most distinguishing directorial touch is so effective: all of the actors in the ensemble sit on either side of the stage when not needed in a scene, as if they form a community that has come together in ritual to tell us this story. This conceit also suggests, as echoed by the set design, that all the settings of the play from bedroom to courtroom are public spaces when Church and State are enmeshed. The production, transferred from Westchester's Schoolhouse Theater and currently enjoying a limited run on the Upper West Side, is effective and finally wrenching as it should be, thanks in part to the play's especial revelance in this election season (Mike Huckabee, anyone?) and in part of course to some very good performances from key members of the ensemble.
I don't buy the shift between the first act and the second, either in tone or in music, but I'll take everything else about this masterful revival of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, especially the integral projection design of Timothy Bird & The Knifedge Creative Network, a seamless effect that allows us to see what the music makes us feel for George Seurat's passion. Jenna Russell deserves to steal the spotlight as Dot, the model-turned-lover that Seurat abandons for his drawings, and then again as her granddaughter, the aged but saucy old Marie: she nails the patter of "Sunday in the Park with George," slides resignation into the yawning notes of "Everybody Loves Lewis," and puts the pain in painting for the tragic, "We Do Not Belong Together." She's also one of the few people aside from Patti LuPone who can sing a groan. But credit where credit is due to Daniel Evans, who dabs his notes in "Color and Light" as if he were painting rather than singing, and finds the high playfulness and low seriousness as he explores his subjects -- two dogs -- in "The Day Off." I say little about the songs in the second act because the first act's already done them right, although "Putting It Together" does well to show the fixed smiles and strains associated with modern art. If "pretty isn't beautiful/beautiful is what changes before the eye" then it's no wonder that the first act, with a set scribbled in and out of existence, is so marvelous.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
This deadpan-hip sung-through musical is visually strange and strangely hypnotic: the actors move about a stage full of flat projections of colorful drawings and animations, an alternate reality in which the characters live in cartoon apartments in a cartoon Manhattan. The visuals, along with the melodically simple music, give the sensation that we're watching a modern-day urban fable: when the bored-with-life daughter of a moneyed philanthropist is suddenly compelled to right one of the world's wrongs (specifically, she travels to an island where exploited workers toil for the metal slugs that wind up, for no good reason except to give the illusion of heft and value, in modern appliances) we're prepped for a gentle condemnation of misguided liberal do-gooders. (The fact that the new beau on her arm adores and collects instruction manuals, and expects the workers to embrace such "poetry", seals the deal). But this message is confused with another cross-purposed one early in the second act and thereby doesn't land as it should; I'll simply say, in the interest of not giving anything away, that the workers' exploitation is not what it seems. And although I wouldn't call it monotonous, the show's music becomes fatiguing in its sameness after about an hour: you want to say "get on with it already!" during most of the recicative, when the music does little except protract simple conversation. The material cries out to be cropped down to a one-act. All this said, I wouldn't warn anyone who values the offbeat away from this show. There's thought and invention here, and more than a little bit of visual magic.
I found Ben Katchor's The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island to be about as satisfying as I imagine the codeine-laced Kayrol Cola used to drug the stevedore population of slug bearers would be: stuporterrific in the theater, while under constant dosage, and bemusedly benign afterward. The direction, performances, and music are all strong enough to even out the intentionally broad strokes, and the play is decidedly jubilant in mood and satire, but there's no development, simply a roughly hewn plot. There's also a slight design issue: Katchor's art, animated and projected onto both a foreground and background scrim, so as to perpetually sandwich the actors in the midst of wacky colors, looks good, but not up in the first few rows of seating (the illusion doesn't work). Ultimately, the actors in the play are like the metal slugs from the title: they weigh down flimsy thoughts with their presence, from the maniacal rictus found on Stephen Lee Anderson's face to the determined naivety of Bobby Steggert or the contrasts between Peter Friedman's strong paternal presence and Tom Riis Farrell's comically maternal characters. I'm detecting a linguistic theme in the Vineyard's programming this season, but whereas the upcoming God's Ear has a extreme focus, The Slug Bearers comes across as entertaining largely for being defiantly different, not for being extraordinarily engaging.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Save for the fierce power of the play within a play in Catherine Filloux's new play Killing the Boss, I feel that this show is killing time more than anything else. The autobiographical parts of this play are buried in the nightmare-like presentation (both figurative and literal), and the play suffers from refusing to commit enough to any idea long enough for us to feel for it. I understand that the setting is unnamed, but since it's most likely Cambodia, the choice to embody the show with so little atmosphere or culture just leaves it floating in a void (much like the cryptic goldfish bags of water that make up the "set"). Worse still, the majority of the script shies away from the clever observations Filloux made in her last collaboration with director Jean Randich (Lemkin's House) and toward flippant dark humor (when an MS-riddled character, is told that he's "on the ground" of the embassy's attempts to locate his missing wife, he promptly falls out of his chair and says, "I guess so"). The play does not achieve the "strange existential kind of hilarity" with jokes like those, and the lack of substance drowns even the better actors in the shallows of empty talk.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
As the title character, a staunch "naturalist" who has long held firm that religion is ignorant superstition that is largely to blame for the world's horrors, Lynn Redgrave is riveting, electrifying. She gives Grace both crusty arrogance and near-consuming passion . As the sometimes provocative one-act drama unfolds, out of chronological order but always with clarity, we see Grace's belief system shaken to the core when her son (Oscar Isaac) decides to become an Episcopal minister. Their dynamic, lucid arguments are the meat of the play, each unwavering (until tragedy intervenes) at what seems to be an impossible emotionally charged impasse. Engrossing as the arguments are, and effective and memorable the performances, the dialogue often makes the two sound like walking mouthpieces rather than characters engaged in real-life debate. But if you can look past that, as I did, Grace is thoughtful and absorbing and scores high on the Talk About It After Over Drinks punchcard.
Applause, which re-sets the All About Eve Broadway backstage story in the polyester early '70's, was never a good musical. But with a campy sense of humor and a larger than life star as Margo Channing it can be a fun and tacky-fabulous gassss, baby! This Encores! edition was about as groovy as a funeral, weighted down by joyless earnestness (thanks to Kathleen Marshall's humor-free direction) and the barely-committed, far less than fun star performance by a pitilessly miscast still on-book even for the songs Christine Ebersole. With all the cheap fun drained away to expose the mediocrity of the score and the book (strike that - the score is sometimes less than even medicore, with bummers like "Fasten Your Seat Belts" worthy of serious consideration as the worst musical number of modern times) the show is a disaster - straightfaced rather than camp - and you start to resent that talented people like Kate Burton and Chip Zien have been rounded up to lend support to such a woefully misguided enterprise. (Mario Cantone, subdued and acid-funny as Duane The Hairdresser, is the only performer who makes a favorable impression) Would Patti Lupone and Leslie Kritzer have been too much to ask the theatre gods for?
Saturday, February 09, 2008
Watching Trista Baldwin's play Sand, which in turn features actors staring, Godot-like, at more sand, brings to mind the words of everysoldier Justin (Alec Beard): "It's like I'm thirteen, at summer camp." Aside from Anita Fuchs's blasted clay set and Traci Klainer's mirage-like transitions in light, the plight of these three US soldiers, guarding a gas station, seems like nothing so much as a camping trip in hostile territory. The so-young veteran, Armando (Pedro Pascal), watches his warnings scatter into the wind, especially off the backs of Justin, a breezy kid from Springfield, and Keisha (Angela Lewis), a quiet girl born of the Wal-Mart generation. The strength of Baldwin's play comes from their casual conversations, utterly natural and unassuming bits of grit that seem both dirty and new, all at once. The show also benefits from the expert direction of Daniella Topol, who has made the dusty desert into a dreamscape that dances through gauzy backdrops and spins in and out of time to create an echoing effect -- like that of an hourglass -- in which minute scenes each fall, into a meticulous pile, until suddenly, there's an explosive result. But Baldwin's finale, which doubles Pascal as a fleshed-out Iraqi named Ahmed (who gives lines to the invisible border and voices to the unspoken truth), is so stuck in this halfway world that neither it nor the Glass-like music of Broken Chord Collective are half as effective as the quiet before the storm.
[Also blogged by: Patrick]
Friday, February 08, 2008
If you've been reading this blog for more than a few weeks you already know that I was high last year on Passing Strange when it played downtown at The Public. I couldn't resist the show's first Broadway preview, hoping for the best but secretly worried that the show might get lost in a big house on a proscenium stage. I needn't have worried about that - the show fits easily into its new midtown home - but at first preview the show had a fresh round of issues thanks to revisions in the second act. By the time you read this, I've no doubt that at least some of them will have been fixed, so there's no good reason for me to say anything more about them than that. Instead, I'm going to reiterate that I'm rooting for this very special show to come together by the time it opens and I'm going to see it again in a couple of weeks when the show is frozen. More then.
I've always prided myself on my ability to speak honestly and without bias, so I hope you'll trust me when I tell you that if fellow Show Showdowner David's play, The Play About the Naked Guy, had sucked, I'd have let you all know with a quiet demurral. Luckily, I can instead praise, full-bore, this insider satire (I want to say insitire) about the lengths -- pun intended -- art has to go if it wants to be commercially viable. For all the depressing observations about what succeeds Off-Broadway, I didn't shed a single tear as I was too busy laughing at the exaggerations: think the style of Ugly Betty, but applied to theater, rather than fashion. And director Tom Wojtunik, who I thought was trapped by the conventions of Six Degrees of Separation, is thankfully free to crank things up to 11 here, a level of volume that the cast is all too eager to indulge in.
Kevin Brofsky's Claymont is one hell of a plausible play, and it steps so quietly that it defies of the cliches of a much-traveled road. As directed by Derek Jamison, it even manages to make the most of necessarily comic devices (like Wynne Anders, who finds real heart in the human concern of Dolores) or to play enough against type that it can joke about Sharon Letts (Aimee Howard) seeming to come straight out of Valley of the Dolls. But, like the town in question, the play is unconscionably flat: talented as Jason Hare is -- playing the lead, Neil, as an excitable boy whose repressed sexuality makes him vibrate out of his own skin -- Claymont aches for something as conversation-starting as a pool of blood. Despite having high stakes, like rebellious Dallas's impending draft notice (the play is set in 1969), the play refuses to have a cow about any of it. Sweet's fine for Neil's climax in Act I, but everyone's just a little too easy-going (or lifeless) throughout for the play to leave a lasting impression.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
Two couples (one platonic, one married) have a brief chance meeting in an airport terminal: the men are seeing the ladies off to a flight that goes horribly wrong and takes their lives. In the aftermath, the men form an uneasy connection with each other rooted in loss and grieving. The play skillfully follows their increasingly meaningful friendship while simultaneously depicting the ladies on board the doomed airplane and, as if that wasn't enough for a playwright (Cody Daigle) and a director (Ian Crawford) to have on the plate, then alternates these scenes with flashbacks of both couples leading up to the fateful flight. It's evidence of Daigle's ability with structure and Crawford's talent for concise staging that the play's events seem to flow naturally and easily with complete clarity, and it's always a pleasure to encounter a new writer who has come up with a real dyed in the wool play that makes use of possibilities unique to the stage. (The payoff here is a quartet where the two couples' scenes play out simultaenously). However, the flashback business that Daigle has written for the platonic couple rings false and overdramatic, a minor disappointment in a play with so many otherwise true and lovely moments about grief. (Not to mention welcome moments of mitigating humor particularly from Aly Wirth, an actress who can get a knowing laugh out of a single withering look at a stewardess).
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Although the presentation is sometimes heavy-handed, and the play doesn't offer (or aim for) the neatness of a tidy narrative, there is plenty to admire about Trista Baldwin's serious and often spellbinding new play in which three U.S. soldiers find themselves at a gas pump in the Iraqi desert. The drama begins simply enough in straightforward fashion - the three seem to form a microcosmic sample of current-day American soldiers, encountering varying degrees of moral struggle with their mission - but the play soon begins toying with continuity and destroying our sense of security with what we are seeing. By the time one of three (the always excellent Pedro Pascal) enters as a fourth character - a boombox-toting Iraqi - the play has so effectively meshed reality and the hallucinatory that we are on high alert to tease the two apart. Yet, part of what is distinctive and interesting here is that figuring out what's real and what's not is not really the point of this war play. The confusion and the disorientation is. Sand isn't agressively abrasive but neither is it comfort theatre offering easy answers. Recommended.
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble puts on a beautiful work of political intrigue and dark drama that manages to be subtle and broad, funny and tragic, and well-staged throughout. I'm a particular fan of the heady physical rage that Craig Smith channels through his menacing Spymaster Francis Walsingham in contrast to the graceful but sharp tongue of imprisoned Queen Mary (Elise Stone, whose performance took a while to grow on me). Robert Hupp does well to keep things bleak yet hopeful in his staging of this historically entertaining play: only the final act of Glyn Maxwell's The Lifeblood is disappointing. Otherwise, this play is filled with rich villainy, scathing wits, and desperate souls.
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Sunday, February 03, 2008
The Gallery Players' production of Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party isn't dark and dirty enough; without carnal excitement and a measure of danger in the air, the show becomes a long evening. There is good choreography, and some of the performers make a strong impression (Julie Cardia brings a touch of world-weary to Kate, and Tauren Hagans knocks the "Lesbian Love Affair" number out of the park) but the leads - appealing performers both who do well with the songs - don't convince as knocked-about rough-sex boozers and they don't have chemistry together. Without that, the party never gets started.
Saturday, February 02, 2008
That George Packer succeeds so well as a journalist-turned-first-time-playwright is a tribute to how rich and powerful the source material for Betrayed is. The number of Iraqi dead is always glossed over, especially as we try to avoid mentioning how many US troops have actually died, but that's not even considering how badly we've screwed some of the Iraqis who would help us. What Packer's play manages to do is show the ridiculous dichotomy of the Red Zone/Green Zone division of Iraq and the lack of real information that brings the government, and it does so through the idealism of Bill Prescott (Mike Doyle), a young US agent, and his three Iraqi co-workers: polite, Metallica-loving Laith (Sevan Greene); pessimistic, necessity-driven Adnan (Waleed F. Zuaiter); and the liberal, intelligent woman, Intisar (Aadya Bedi). The tragedies in this play are true, and therefore even harsher, and given the excellent acting, these human faces are even harder to ignore than when they were inked in The New Yorker. Pippin Parker's direction for the Culture Project is clear and crisp -- if it is a little too methodical, that's forgiven, along with Packer's lazy exposition, in the attempt to bring a powerful message back home.
***1/2 (...out of five stars)
Would someone who is obsessed with Kiki and Herb and who listed Xanadu as his favorite musical of 2007 be able to connect to a one man play about growing up around gangsters in the Bronx? Well it IS Chazz Palminteri and he was in Bullets Over Broadway- which means he can do no wrong- so I was open to giving it a shot. About a boy dipping his toe in the water of organized crime and the father who intervenes, Chazz presented this mostly fictional story as though it were an intensely personal memoir. Though the synopsis touts that Mr. Palminteri plays eighteen people, it was really eighteen variations on one streetwise tough guy who says "whasssamaddawitchyou?!" a lot. It would have been fun to see him play the black teen girlfriend but I don't assume tough guys from the Bronx do that sort of thing. What I really connected to was the local color of the piece. Chazz is a Bronx native and his script and performance were loaded with nuance that gave us a three-dimensional tour of a specific place and time. I feel like a more seasoned New Yorker having seen this production. Any one person plays about Staten Island out there? Bring it.
Also blogged by: [Patrick]
Friday, February 01, 2008
Of all the philosophical, anti-theatrical contradictions in Peter Handke's forty-year-old play Offending the Audience, director Jim Simpson may have achieved the best one by casting The Flea's young theater company (The Bats): they bring the talk of inaction to life in a wonderfully active way, trilling their lines, merging powerfully together as a Greek chorus, and looking extremely attractive in the process. I wasn't offended at all by the production; though some people may be unsettled by the eye-contact that most of the actors threaten to make, or by the stretches of silence and repetitious lines of questioning, I think that most audiences who "stumble" into this hip underground theater, to see a play that explains what it aims to do, are going to enjoy it no matter how hard anybody tries (not very hard) to make it otherwise. Extra credit to Annie Scott, who I found to be the most engaging (and no, not just because she's gorgeous, though sure, extra credit for that, too).