Saturday, February 28, 2009

Kaspar Hauser

photo: Ryan Jensen

Composer/director Elizabeth Swados' latest, at the Flea, is a sung-through adaptation of the story of Kaspar Hauser, the mysterious, wild child orphan who became a cause celebre in Germany in the 1830's. The show's book, a collaboration between Swados and Erin Courtney, shapes the story of the cruelly mistreated lad as both a tale about the fickleness of celebrity and as a metaphor for the plight of the artist, wholly succeeding at neither. Nonetheless, the 90 minute one-act never lags, and bears Swados' unmistakable artistic stamp. Despite the often melodramatic events in the story, Swados eschews the sentimental in her score: the often unrhymed lyrics, the occasional dissonance, and the persistent dark chords bring color and texture to her melodies without disabling them. Several in the cast, featuring the Flea's resident Bats, are excellent singers whose raised voices literally vibrate the seats in the small black box theatre. Although the emotional impact of the show's finale is curiously muted, and the show's heightened, stylized presentation is not for all tastes even among musical theatre fans, the show is absorbing and accomplished, also boasting a captivating lead performance by Preston Martin.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Hefner Monologues


The Hefner Monologues both is and isn't what you might guess from the title. Yes, it's monologues; no, they're not separate or independent. Yes, it's a guy named Hefner talking about his own life; no, his stories are neither fictionalized nor gaudily embellished (at least, he is able to convince us as much). As personal tales are wont to, these include embarrassing moments, funny situations, life-changing experiences, revelations. We see Mr. Hefner in childhood, adolescence, and college years. One lesson learned: it's often the "silly little things" that make all the difference, things like finding you have a clean tissue to offer a pretty girl who's crying. Another lesson: being related to a famously unique celebrity (Mr. Hefner is a relation of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner) can be a curse, but the curse can also be lifted. Mr. Hefner is a talented actor with a big personality. While the stories may be true and unembellished, the delivery is bigger than life, often nearing (but never going over) the top. Part of the Frigid Festival, The Hefner Monologues is a modest-sized piece with a very big heart, and well worth your modest investment.

Read the full review.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Winter's Tale

photo: Joan Marcus

I wasn't impressed with what he did with the same mix of British and American actors in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, also currently at BAM, but Sam Mendes' production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is a wondrous, gorgeous gem. One of The Bard's late dramas, the play is challenging to stage (partly because of its fluctuations in tone) but Mendes has scaled all the action cohesively and guided the actors to emotionally accessible, beautifully judged and articulated performances. Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Rebecca Hall, Ethan Hawke and Richard Easton are all outstanding; it's too rare a pleasure to see an ensemble so thoroughly comfortable with Shakespeare's language and rhythms. In previous productions I've seen, the play's finale has never worked; here, I was moved to tears.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


photo: Pavel Antonov

A triptych of short, strange, highly stylized scenes, slightly unified by the theme of the limits of verbal communication, comprise this hypnotic ninety minute poem-play by Ariana Reines which The Foundry Theatre has produced with painstaking care. Every sonic and visual detail seems deeply considered and correct, working the play - which is an experience rather than a narrative - immediately into the subconscious. The first scene, and the only one of the three that could be said to be quirky, takes the first telephone conversation, between Alexander Graham Bell and Watson, as a starting point before peeling back layers of their consciousness about communication. The second scene, in which Jung's turn-of-the-century mental patient Miss St unleashes a frenzied torrent of words seemingly unfiltered from her schizophrenic mind, is overlong and exhausting to watch - it lacks the openness for interpretation of the other scenes, and once we get the point, there's not enough music in the words to hold our attention. Nonetheless its effect is essential for the success of the final scene, a spellbinding, meditative performance piece for all three actors in the cast (Matthew Dellapina, Gibson Frazier, and Birgit Huppuch) in which we wade in a sound stream of lines from intimate telephone conversations. I've rarely seen theatre that so effectively does what this scene accomplishes: it taps directly into the interior life of the audience.

Soul Samurai

Photo/Theresa Squire

Shut yo' mouth--Soul Samurai's only talkin' 'bout theater! Vampire Cowboys Theater, that is, which means there are sexy girls fighting and biting one another, not to mention exaggerated riffs on action-packed film genres: creator Qui Nguyen isn't far off when he says it's Kill Bill meets Shaft. Despite sounding like a B-movie, the cast is A-rated, as is the creative direction (puppets south of Avenue Q; stop-motion animated fruit) and overall fun. Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker have learned from their previous shows and made mistakes into strengths, from the action-figure intro through the training montages, all the way into the wide variety of actual fight choreography. Now, baby's got bite!

[Read on]

Soul Samurai


Need a shot of urban adrenaline? Soul Samurai is one long, sustained blast of the stuff. With unflagging energy and nary an ounce of dramatic flab, playwright/fight director Qui Nguyen riffs on post-apocalyptic science fiction, Fangoria horror (specifically vampire lore), blaxploitation films, karate movies, samurai/ninja subcultures, and gangsta rap bravado. His take on popular culture leans heavily towards fan-geekdom, and so of course it's also sexy, and full of noisy joy. The show has a lot of swearing, and a bit of graphic sex talk, so it's not appropriate for wee ones, but aside from that, audiences of any age should have a grand time at this supercharged piece of underworld hotness. At the HERE Arts Center through March 15. Photo by Jim Baldassare.

Read the full review.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Love/Stories (or, But You Will Get Used To It)

Photo/Joan Marcus

How do you stop your post-modern comedy from spinning out of control? Get post-post-modern on it. In his latest work, thirty-something Itamar Moses evolves, David Foster Wallace-like, from a cute couple of modern love stories, into a series of self-referential plays that send up his own act while at the same time validating and enhancing it. It's exceptionally handled by the five-Bats ensemble of the Flea, actors who are young enough to grasp the circuitous and broken logic of Moses's characters, and also by Michelle Tattenbaum, who, having directed Moses before, knows well enough to let the words carry the brunt of the work. Moses's stand-in, Reader (John Russo) asks, in the climax of the fifth and final play, " on earth could some lame scene where two people just talk to each other get more than thimble-deep into anything that remotely resembles anything that even comes within a country mile of an approximation of the barest outline of the feelings that gave rise to the need to write this..." If this were ever really a question, it has been answered by Love/Stories. (Or, But You Will Regret Not Seeing This If You Don't Go Now.)

[Read on]

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment

photo: James Leynse

As a Victorian gentleman (charmingly played by Michael Countryman) narrates the story of his incredible shipwrecked adventures, two supporting players (Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Jeremy Bobb) rush about at whirlwind speed to play every one else in the epic story. They might step up and make whooshing sounds into an on stage microphone when the sound of a strong wind needs to be conjured, or they might hoist a bedsheet in the air to illustrate the sail of a ship. The conceit, which has the feeling of childrens' theatre, is not without purpose - the story-theatre approach speaks to the resourcefulness of human imagination, a unifying theme in the show's final half hour. Despite this and despite the efforts of the able cast, the play evaporates into thin air - there's barely any tension in the story until it's nearly over, and there isn't enough variety in the presentation to otherwise hold our interest.

33 Variations

Photo: Joan Marcus

Toward the end of his life, ill and losing his hearing, Beethoven wrote 33 variations on a seemingly innocuous waltz by music publisher Anton Diabelli, and scholar Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda) wants to know why. A woman who finds the past much more rewarding than the present, Dr. Brandt specializes in keeping those who love her at arm’s length. Beethoven too was a difficult person, and their stories are just two of the variations on display in Mois├ęs Kaufman’s 33 Variations.

Like Tom Stoppard’s wonderful Arcadia, 33 Variations takes place simultaneously in the past and the present. In contrast to Arcadia, however, the characters and their desires just aren’t that compelling. In all fairness, however, I saw an early preview, and it is possible that the play will be focused and trimmed—and certainly the performances will grown and deepen. How involving 33 Variations will turn out to be, time will tell.

Uncle Vanya

photo: Joan Marcus

It's no secret that good productions of Chekhov are hard to come by in New York, while bad ones are a dime a dozen. The last decade has seen everything from Derek Jacobi crashing and burning in a Roundabout-helmed Uncle Vanya to last winter's terminally overpraised, melodramatic incarnation of The Seagull. Austin Pendleton's new production of the former play, which recently opened at Classic Stage Company in the East Village, falls somewhere between the two poles; the production itself is attractive and fluid, but suffers from crucial casting errors in several key roles. Both Denis O'Hare and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Vanya and Yelena Andreevna respectively, are far too contemporary for such a traditional staging; he runs around dispatching his trademark hysterics, while she brings her hipster inflections to her bored character's languid dialogue. Peter Sarsgaard, the weakest link of the aforementioned Seagull, fares slightly better here as the frustrated Dr. Astrov, but I believed neither his passion for Yelena nor his neutrality towards the plain Sonya (Mamie Gummer, in the first winning performance I've seen her deliver). In the end, it's a shame that Pendleton (a former CSC Vanya himself, in the late eighties) has to waste a generally winning mise-en-scene on such a disparate and defective group of actors.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Plays


Conversations on Russian Literature is the second and more substantial half of an evening of plays by David Johnston, courtesy of the Blue Coyote Theater Group. Sitting on park benches -- not even taking a walk in the woods -- an American negotiator (Jonna McElrath) and an old Russian general (Frank Anderson) toss hot potatoes back and forth: their intellectual pursuits (hence the title), their personal histories, their own place in history, their practical and inner motivations for meeting. Skilfully, with music-perfect pacing, and with huge help from two superb performances and Gary Shrader's subtle, unobtrusive direction, the playwright reveals who these players really are and what brings them to this strange crossroads. By itself, this one-act is worth more than the price of admission.

Read the full review.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Uncle Vanya

photo: Joan Marcus

Radiant, captivating, and in full command of the stage, Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a vibrant and beguiling Yelena in the current production (at CSC) of this Chekhov classic. Unfortunately, hers is the only performance of the leading four that satisfies, a pity considering the production is judiciously paced (under Austin Pendleton's direction) and - except for a scenic design that makes sightlines problematic from the theatre's side seats - well considered. Denis O'Hare's jangly, excitable take on Vanya isn't invalid, but it finally lacks gravity: we aren't made to deeply feel the character's sense of futility or loss. Peter Sarsgaard's character choices render Astrov overly neurotic and off-putting. I rarely saw more than the machinations of technique in Mamie Gummer's performance as Sonya: she does much to convey the character's anguish - the red eyes, the tears, the catch in the voice - but I didn't believe any of it.

Astronome: A Night at the Opera

Photo/Paula Court

I actually did actually see a Richard Foreman work--Pearls for Pigs, at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in 1997. As it turns out, my 14-year-old self was correct to be confused, and there's a reason why his latest play, Astronome: A Night at the Opera, is subtitled (A Disturbing Initiation). But experiencing a play is far more important than understanding it--our mind will find a way to explain anything, given enough time--so it was with a gradually relaxing tension that I found myself enjoying this. The collaboration blends well, with John Zorn's Astronome (the Tazmanian Devil singing at a garage punk show) colliding with Foreman's visual flair, from a green-faced Tony Cliftonesque presence to the spider-webbed Hebrew and English letters on the set. If the former provides catharsis, the latter takes it on, turning the whispered mantra "Stage fright" into a way of coping with "the forces that invade human life."

[Read on]


Question: What is the line dividing a young boy’s healthy, energetic behavior from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Answer: That’s what the mother (Cynthia Nixon) and father (Josh Stamberg) in Lisa Loomer’s entertaining new play Distracted would like to know. Jesse is an enthusiastic, recalcitrant nine-year-old with a great love of the word “fuck” and all its related permutations. His teacher complains about his behavior, but is she just too overwhelmed with her 28 other students to allow him to be himself? His psychiatrist is ready to medicate him. His father thinks he’s just a normal boy, with a normal boy’s wildness. His mother doesn’t know what to think, but she suspects everything is her fault.

Loomer takes this family’s particular situation and then pulls back to examine how it fits into today’s overmedicated world of endless media stimulation. Her approach, combining family comedy-drama with meta commentary, is largely effective; Distracted is funny and moving. The cast is solid, with standout work from Peter Benson as a series of well-meaning doctors. At the early preview I saw, the show was in very good shape, albeit some twenty minutes too long. With some trimming, and more time for the actors to grow into their roles, it might well become excellent. Distracted opens on March 4.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Photo/JJ Lind

The title of Immediate Medium's latest work, Chuck.Chuck.Chuck. is apt, for they have captured the text and the sound of William Falkner's As I Lay Dying, in which the Bundren family self-destructs while attempting to bury the matriarch of their family. JJ Lind's aesthetics are as playfully fluid as the various narrative styles of the novel, as is his cast, a bunch of stone-cold-serious jokers. If such outside-the-box theatrics (despite being performed in what is, essentially, a dirt-filled sandbox) must be called "experimental," then consider this experiment a success.

[Read on]

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Wendigo

The killer first line of Eric Sander's adaptation of The Wendigo establishes that it will be more streamlined than Algernon Blackwood's original 1910 short: "Our hunting party brought back no moose that year." Matthew Hancock's direction ensures that it will be smoother, for while his cast has accents, they're not exaggerated (saving us from accidental comedy). But despite all the slashing, the production isn't a killer, mainly because despite a terrific cast (led by Nick Merritt's smooth transitions from "ominous narrator" to "excited novice hunter"), the aesthetics fail to capture the mood. Based on M. L. Dogg's music and Erik Gratton's deep voice, this sort of Blair Wendigo Project, in which the evil is never really seen, might have been better suited for radio. Still, Brian Tovar's lighting does the best it can--pinpoints piercing the blackness--and for all that Nicholas Vaughan's set is a minimalist rendering of black poles as dead trees, there's plenty of lively worrying done on stage. More action would've gone a long way, but I won't penalize the Vagabond Theater Company for being true to the adaptation; in fact, I look forward to seeing what they'll do next.

[Read on]

The Wendigo

Tales like Algernon Blackwood's classic "The Wendigo" electrify our fur by pricking at our most primitive, arboreal fear: that of becoming prey. "The Wendigo"'s direct descendant, The Blair Witch Project, took a modern approach, made possible by the medium of film: it placed the audience behind the eyes of the characters. One can't do that in the theater, of course. But one might imagine staging a wordy story like "The Wendigo" by turning it inside out, snaking deep into the minds of the characters in some other way. Playwright Eric Sanders has chosen to tell the story straight, though. Essentially true to the action of the original, his 45-minute version relies heavily, as did the original story, on atmosphere. Here it's created by the trusty trappings of B-movie horrordom: insistent sound effects, spooky music, sudden and extreme lighting changes, a murky forest set - along with that modern theatrical staple, projection. But this is "The Wendigo" minus the rich texture of Blackwood's prose, and the special effects don't fully make up for that.

Read the full review.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Leah's Train

Photo/Michael Ou

As will surprise absolutely no-one, the train in Karen Hartman's play Leah's Train is a metaphor: "Time seems to stop on a train." This may clarify some of the delusional theater that follows, but it in no way justifies the tale of a mother, Hannah (Mia Katigbak), and daughter, Ruth (Jennifer Ikeda), caught in the shadow of their migratory ancestor, Leah (Kristine Haruna Lee). Saying that it does is akin to saying that anyone who prizes a kaddish cup, that apparently most synechdocal of objects, is Jewish. (Which is what this play does.) Nobody wants to see last-resort theater, but that's what Jean Randich's direction feels like: "We didn't connect with this play, but here's our best shot."

[Read on]

Music in the Air

Photo: Joan Marcus

Watching the weak and silly Music in the Air, the 1930s Kern-Hammerstein operetta at Encores!, affords a great opportunity to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the modern musical. On one hand, we have the joy of the grown-up musical. Just the past few years have brought us Caroline, or Change, Light in the Piazza, Spring Awakening, See What I Wanna See, Next to Normal, and Grey Gardens. How amazing and thrilling that these works of art have grown out of a lineage that includes Music in the Air, with its dumb plot, pointless conflicts, boring ingenue and juvenile, and long stretches of nothing happening. (Yes, Kern and Hammerstein also brought us Showboat, probably the more direct progenitor of the musicals just listed, but Music in the Air is no Showboat, even though, strangely enough, it was written afterward.)

On the other hand, we have an amazing array of profoundly talented performers who are being terribly, terribly underutilized. Kristin Chenoweth and Douglas Sills are the best of the best. They have charisma, endless creativity, impeccable comic timing, and singing voices that range from excellent (his) to gorgeous (hers). Why don’t they work more???? For that matter, why doesn’t Donna Murphy work more? Victoria Clark? Christine Ebersole? Marc Kudisch? Brian Stokes Mitchell? I know the answer, of course: musicals are expensive. But just imagine a theatre world where we could see these amazing performers in a never-ending flow of new works by Sondheim, La Chuisa, Finn, Tesori, Guettel, and others we haven't even heard from yet.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The American Plan

photo: Carol Rosegg

The character that Lily Rabe portrays in this revival of Richard Greenberg's play is "special", the kind of fragile wallflower who says whatever pops into her head and who we're meant to find beguiling. Rabe is miscast and doesn't convince as a hypersensitive girl-woman, which makes for a slow-going first act, but the role itself is more than a little precious, a combination of The Heiress and Laura from The Glass Menagerie. The play itself, one of Greenberg's earliest, is far from his best, and except for some business in the second act that I won't reveal here, it's baffling why the care has been taken to give it a Broadway revival. But care has clearly been taken: the production is handsome, the production values high, and most of the performances quite good.

Becky Shaw

Photo: Joan Marcus

All hail Annie Parisse. As the title character in Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, who doesn’t appear until well into the first act, she manages to accomplish something that the others couldn’t do: make it seem as though something of note is going on. By the time she appears, there’s been much ado about a lot: a lost fortune, a semi-incestuous one-night stand, a Vegas marriage, and dozens of one liners, many quite funny. But somehow the much ado doesn’t add up to anything—other than whining and squabbling—until Parisse appears as the female half of an ill-advised blind date. She’s one of those performers who seem to bring their own spotlight with them, and her every word and movement as the surprising (inconsistent?) Becky fascinate and intrigue. However, even she cannot make Becky Shaw really work. While the play has much to say about love and deceit and how people interact, its point of view seems random since Gionfriddo consistently sacrifices clarity and character to get a laugh. The first act in particular wanders hither and yon without getting anywhere; the second act is entertaining enough that its lack of meaning is less apparent. But, on leaving, I had the same question I had with Prayer for My Enemy and The American Plan: What was this play really about?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Great Hymn of Thanskgiving/Conversation Storm

Although the ability to ignore reality over a luxurious dinner and the knack for using torture are unfortunately unoriginal things in this country, the Nonsense Company's duet of one-acts is still terrifyingly original. They put the "fun" back in "fungible," first with "Great Hymn of Thanksgiving," a work for "three speaking percussionists" and then, without pause--for when are there breaks in life--with "Conversation Storm," a lightning-quick extrapolation--using theatrical techniques--of what torture inevitably leads to. It's political theater, but at times it is unrecognizably so, which is to its credit.

[Read on]

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


photo: Carol Rosegg

The dialogue in Jeffrey Sweet's play, set following a high school reunion, tells us why the successful celebrity film critic (Richard Kind) elects to spend an evening with the blue collar bum (Kevin Greer) who bullied him all through high school, but after a certain point the situation strains credibility. The bully isn't especially contrite, and his antisemitism and bitter hostility toward the liberal elite are so obvious that the critic seems like he's asking for trouble by hanging around. Trouble comes, on cue, when fellow ex-classmate Iris (Michelle Pawk) drops in and rekindles the critic's long-held torch. The ensuing business comes as no surprise, since the playwright has oversold the veiled menace in the bully's dialogue right from the start. Still, Kind and Pawk give terrific, well-judged naturalistic performances, expertly scaled for the intimacy of the tiny 78th Street Theater Lab.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Third Story

photo: Joan Marcus

Kathleen Turner has rarely seemed above sending herself up. Her casting opposite Charles Busch in his new play would seem to promise a lip-smacking treat - a match made in camp heaven between a drag icon who adores Hollywood screen women and a game, one-time real-life Hollywood siren. One of The Third Story's many disappointments is that it confines Turner almost entirely to a (relatively straight) framing story where her grand theatricality is a liability rather than an asset: her throaty voice and broad delivery are at odds with what's needed to put over her material. The play is almost entirely divided between scenes where Turner plays a screenwriter collaborating on a script with her son (Jonathan Walker), and scenes from the movie the two are writing, circa 1949, which often feature Busch in lady mob boss drag. The Busch scenes are more lively than the Turner ones, and the supporting cast has the right arched eyebrow style for them, but the play's structure forbids comic momentum.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sixty Miles To Silver Lake

photo: Monique Carboni

It takes just a short while to realize that we're watching a father and his son not on one car ride but on several, in short scenes spanning at least a handful of years. Rather than arranging the scenes chronologically, the playwright (Dan Lefranc) repeatedly jump-cuts forward and backward to heighten the recurring motifs in their conversations: on one trip, Dad is supportive of his son's soccer playing, but a moment later during a different car ride he's cruelly dismissive, reducing his son's extracurricular soccer to "day care with cleats". What emerges from the playwright's structure is initially fascinating - the juxtapositions of the scenes struck me as a means to illustrate the cumulative damage caused by the careless things that parents say to children - but the ninety-minute one-act, despite Anne Kauffman's fluid direction and fully convincing performances by Joseph Adams and Dane Dehaan, nonetheless runs out of gas around the hour mark. While the playwright succeeds at mining the grotesque from the ordinary in the dynamic between the father and son, their story is finally too ordinary to sustain our full engagement all the way to the play's end. Despite that, this is a playwright well worth watching out for, and a play well worth seeing.

The Fantasticks


I took advantage of the 20at20 off-Broadway promotion (in effect through Feb. 8) to catch The Fantasticks for $20. (Actually $21.50.) What better way to spend Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, after all, than attending a classic piece of musical theater? There wasn't very much to note; it's The Fantasticks, after all. Subbing for Lewis Cleale was Scott Willis, who made a formidable El Gallo. I teared up at "They Were You." A basic good time was had by all. There was something a tiny bit odd about the venue, though. It's in the Jerry Orbach Theater, in the Snapple Theater Center. Hence the lobby has a dual Snapple-and-Jerry-Orbach theme. Wonder what Orbach - who was in The Fantasticks when it first opened off-Broadway, in 1960, long before Snapple was a gleam in some marketer's eye - would have thought. The Fantasticks: maybe not the best stuff on Earth, but for a Jackson plus a buck-fifty, how can you go wrong? Bonus lobby feature: read all about Jerry Orbach during intermission.