Thursday, April 30, 2009

Desire Under The Elms

photo: Liz Lauren

Desire under *what* elms, you might ask: there isn't a one anywhere in sight in this overheated tricked-out O'Neill revival, directed with a heavy-handedness (by Robert Falls) that brings the play's tragedy dangerously close to melodramatic camp. It doesn't quite get there but there are plenty of moments you'd be excused a hoot or two. O'Neill's play, like his Mourning Becomes Electra, re-sets Greek tragedy in twentieth century New England - in this case Dad takes a young new bride who falls in immediate mutual love-hate lust with her new stepson, her one rival for the old man's farmland. Falls seems to play the characters as archetypes in a grand operatic tragedy, but he revels in the young ones' lust so salaciously that it's hard to take it any more seriously than As The World Turns. Brian Dennehy does fine, commanding work as the old contemptuous farmlord, but Falls pulls focus from one of his most dramatic monologues by simultaneously staging a hot and heavy pantomime for the lovers. Carla Gugino, sounding more and more like Judy Davis, couldn't be better but Pablo Schreiber, who strips naked in the one of the play's too-stylish wordless interludes, could find more layers as the hotheaded son.

Pretty Theft

photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

In this new play (from Flux Theatre Ensemble) by Adam Szymkowicz, the two lead male characters have markedly different impulses toward beauty - one, a traumatized group-home shut-in, wants to worship it while the other, a smooth-talking millionaire art dealer, seeks it for a darker purpose. Our likable but not especially judicious young heroine (played with sensitivity by Marnie Schulenburg) encounters both in the occasionally quirky-funny but generally unsettling play which is distinguished by a playful Mee-like collage surface and unifying undercurrents of sadness and of danger. I mean no disrespect to the theatrical economy of Angela Astle's clarifying direction nor to the playwright when I say that the material could be easily shaped into a screenplay: it has indie-movie sensibilities and attitude. Stand-out performers in the generally strong cast also include Zack Robidas, who provides howling comic relief as the heroine's appallingly selfish boyfriend, and Todd D'Amour who (as in What To Do When You Hate Your Friends last year) is excellent at conveying subtext.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Singing Forest

photo: Carol Rosegg

Never let it be said that playwright Craig Lucas sets easy tasks for himself: this three-act, nearly three-hour effort (at The Public) moves from Holocaust drama to door-slamming farce and back again while intertwining events in modern day Manhattan with flashbacks from Nazi-occupied Austria. The result, as directed by Mark Wing-Davey, is an occasionally fascinating mess that doesn't cohere or resonate emotionally despite a game cast (headed up by Olympia Dukakis). You sense that the dizzying swirl of interconnected characters and the overarching theme of identity are aiming for something larger, even epic, but the play's moments remain small and isolated from one another: this is a play that adds up to less than the sum of even its best parts.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Desire Under the Elms

Photo: Liz Lauren

It's usually exciting to see a show that makes my top ten list, but not when it's "top ten worst things I've ever seen." This production of Desire Under the Elms is pompous, heavy-handed, and slow. One performance is valiant and interesting (Carla Gugino); the rest range from dull to embarrassing. Robert Falls directed this mess, and he really should know better. In the beginning of the show, two men move rocks. They are heavy rocks--or, rather, they are supposed to be heavy, but despite full-throttle indicating and grunting by the two actors, the rocks never actually seem heavy. So, anyway, these guys move some heavy rocks. Boy, is their life tough and oppressive. And then they move some heavy rocks. Tough and oppressive life, huh? And then they move some heavy rocks. OKAY! Enough already, I get it--their life is tough and oppressive. But, no, they move some more rocks. Parts of the rest of the show are somewhat less boring, but not many. The play itself is far from a masterpiece, but it's better than this production, which lacks subtlety, pacing, drama, chemistry, and tension. Mostly, people yell and emote and fail to connect with each other and the audience. The direction is stilted and off-putting and overdone. If you wanted to do a takeoff of this show, well, you couldn't. It's its own takeoff.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pretty Theft


Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

To go with its jigsaw-puzzle structure and precision dialogue, Adam Szymkowicz's fine psychological comedy-drama Pretty Theft has pathos, sharp humor, a dash of horror, dancing, and many scene changes. It's the kind of play that demands an exceptional production, and that's just what it gets at the Access Theatre on lower Broadway. In her first full-fledged directing job for the Flux Theatre Ensemble, Angela Astle maneuvers Szymkowicz's expertly drawn characters and their incisive, insightful scenes with the finesse of a chess grandmaster... Read the full review.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pretty Theft

Photo/Isaiah Tanenbaum

In the broad scheme of things, everything is stolen from us: our beauty, our senses, our minds. The far more specific now of Adam Szymkowicz's latest play, Pretty Theft, dares to show us--elegantly--what's left behind after such robberies. It tempts and taunts us by dangling Allegra (Marnie Schulenburg) before us: a truly innocent young girl, who will surely be the victim of this show. The question, then, is what will be left of her, especially after her insensitive boyfriend (Zack Robidas), autistic charge (Brian Pracht), manipulative friend (Maria Portman Kelly), and rougish stranger (Todd D'Amour) get through with her. Angela Astle's dream-sequenced direction is "pretty" enough, but if there's a theft here, it's from the great performances. Given the range of unique voices in Szymkowicz's serious (but comically colored) script, at least one of them will steal your heart.

[Read on]

Friday, April 24, 2009

Every Little Step (Movie)

Photo: Paul Kolnik

What a pleasure: a theatre documentary that is actually good! After a number of recent docs, I left the theatre thinking, wow, how could they take such great footage and make such a mediocre movie? After Every Little Step, I left the theatre thinking, wow, performing is a tough field, wow, Donna McKechnie was an even better dancer than I remembered, wow, A Chorus Line is an amazing creation, and, wow, this was a good movie!

To get my complaints out of the way: waaaaay too little attention is given to Edward Kliban (lyrics) and James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante (book). I understand that film-makers Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern didn't have interview footage with them and that they are all long gone, but the film-makers could have asked Donna McKechnie, Marvin Hamlisch, and Baayork Lee about them. They could have spent a few minutes giving a little background. To barely mention the contribution of those three men is a real weakness of the movie and an insult to their memories.

Now, for the strengths: most importantly, the film-makers had amazing access to the auditions for the recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. It must have been strange for the actors to know that their auditions might end up being seen by thousands of people--but probably no stranger than auditioning in front of casting director Jay Binder, who scowls even when he's pleased. (As far as I noticed, only one person's face was masked electronically. I wonder why she objected to being in the film, and I wonder who she is!) The film-makers also managed to lay their hands on a wonderful array of historical items, including reel-to-reel tapes from the original workshop that grew into A Chorus Line (how wonderful and eerie to hear so many familiar lines said for the first time as one gypsy or another reminisced about life as a dancer) and grainy but magical footage of Donna McKechnie dancing to "The Music and the Mirror." Perhaps the ultimate success of the movie is this: even though I saw the revival of A Chorus Line and therefore knew which performers were eventually cast, I still found the movie almost excruciatingly suspenseful and very very moving.

Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them

Photo: Joan Marcus

(Some spoilers) This show is vintage Christopher Durang: weird, funny, disconcerting, occasionally arbritrary, occasionally meaningful, edgy, and, well, uneven. I personally had trouble getting into it because much of the first act focuses on a woman being seriously threatened, at length, by a dangerous and crazy man, which is not my idea of a comedy. I understand why Durang set up the play the way he did, but I wish he hadn't. He could have written just as strong a piece--possibly even stronger--without treating as humorous the possibility that the man had drugged the woman and then had sex with her without her consent. This is not a political or theoretical objection--it's pragmatic. First, the set-up kept me and at least some other people at arm's length from the play. Second, the overall story would have been more effective if the man was nice or at least nice-ish. By the time the show ended, however, Durang had won me over, and I ultimately enjoyed the mix of insanity, political commentary, and wistfulness. The cast and direction were effective, and special mention must be made of David Korins' multifaceted, attractive carousel of a set.

Table Manners

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Many--most--of the audience members at Table Manners laughed and laughed. I chuckled a couple of times. The humor was dated and predictable, and the performances were only okay (which for an original English cast is like Fred Astaire dancing a waltz and being only okay). Doing the show in the round didn't help; at any given moment, a significant percentage of the audience was missing something important. Also, a lot of things are thrown in this show, and there's no upstage to aim at. A piece of broken plate flew into the audience. A handful of people got splashed with soup. And a fairly large tin can came close to hitting someone. On top of a mediocre show, this is not my idea of a good time.


photo: Liz Lauren

I went back to Ruined a second time, just a few days after the play won this year's Pulitzer for Drama. I don't have anything more to say that I haven't already when I rave reviewed it for Theatermania a couple of months ago except that a) it was no less riveting and devastating this second time, b) it is an essential must-see for any serious playgoer but especially those who know the rare value of theatre that both engrosses and enlightens and c) the production is set to close on May 17th. Please don't miss it.

Exit Cuckoo

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why Torture Is Wrong (And The People Who Love Them)

photo: Joan Marcus

Christopher Durang's latest absurd comedy (at The Public) gets off to a bang-up start as middle-class Felicity (Laura Benanti) wakes up next to a volatile stranger (Amir Arison) who she definitely married the night before and who may or may not be a Middle Eastern terrorist. Felicity's parents are no use when she takes her husband home hoping they'll help shake him off: Mom (Kristine Nielsen) prattles on continually about the theatre (mostly Wicked; Durang uses that show the way that playwrights used to use Cats, as evidence of theatre's cultural bankruptcy) and far-right-wing Dad (Richard Poe) has his new son-in-law bound and gagged for interrogation almost as quickly as you can say The Patriot Act. The play is snarky and funny for a good while, well-served by Nicholas Martin's direction which keeps a brisk pace and a unifying cartoon tone, and the principal cast is excellent. (Benanti, familiar from musicals, slips into her straight role amid trademark Durang lunacy with ease and skill, and Nielsen's schtick is perfect for this material, a real scream) But eventually the stones that Durang throws at American paranoia and extremism turn to softballs: Dad's right wing conspirators, a man who speaks in Looney Tunes impersonations and a woman whose panties keep falling to her ankles, aren't especially inspired creations and lack satiric sting.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mary Stuart

photo: Joan Marcus

Peter Oswald's adaptation of Shiller's semi-fictionalized history play concerning Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots is snappy and sharp, as is this thoroughly engrossing production (imported from Donmar Warehouse) in which the two rival Queens wear period dress while the men of the court are costumed in modern suits. The theatrically striking anachronism serves to emphasize the commonality between the women, one imprisoned and awaiting death while the other rules and sits in indecisive judgment, while it also underlines the continued relevancy of the play's political intrigue. Except for an on-stage rainstorm the settings are simple and spartan - not much more than a bench, a bed and a desk - but the artful spareness is purposeful and effective, scaling the action on stage as larger than life. The supporting players are each excellent - could one even hope for a stronger Earl of Shrewsbury than Brian Murray, or a more believably slippery Earl of Leicester than John Benjamin Hickey? - but as in any production of this play it's the two lead actresses who most matter. Harriet Walter is astonishing as Elizabeth, able to play layers under layers beneath an often strategic exterior, while Janet McTeer, who as Mary must move over the course of the play from desperation to deep spiritual serenity, is nothing short of spellbinding. It's a thrilling, captivating performance.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Blithe Spirit

photo: Robert J. Saferstein

Apart from Jayne Atkinson, whose crisp line readings drive the production, and Susan Louise O'Connor, whose clowning as The Maid just about steals the show, this star-powered revival's principal cast is less than ideal. Generally bland Rupert Everett often lapses into sourness, Christine Ebersole oversells youthful playfulness to the point of making her character seem dangerously close to mentally ill, and Angela Lansbury, despite the audience's enormous good will and delight at seeing her on stage again, is more cutesy than eccentric. Yet the revival (directed by Michael Blakemore) is reasonably entertaining anyhow, mostly because the play can still charm and amuse even in a less than buoyant production.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Caitlin and the Swan


The Management has become known for dark comedies with an element of magic realism, and Dorothy Fortenberry's Caitlin and the Swan (at UNDER St. Marks through May 2) is no exception. Director Joshua Conkel illuminates the curious psychological world of Fortenberry's imagination, in which the animalistic metaphors of women's sex lives become flesh and blood. Led by her worldly friends and her own exploratory spirit, naïve Caitlin (the excellent Marguerite French) plumbs the mysteries of fulfillment with charm, if little subtlety. (This isn't a subtle play.) Dancer Elliott T. Reiland scores as the fantastical animals, both graceful and gruff, and Jake Aron strikes a delicate balance between innocence and abandon as Bastian, a cerebral high schooler who becomes Caitlin's confidante. Rigid questionnaires and tests play the foil to the forces of imagination -- Bastian prepares for the SATs, while the women mock a sociology survey about "work-life balance." Uneven acting and visible opening-night jitters made Thursday's show less than all it could have been, but the performances in this enjoyable one-act should cohere to match the pointed fun of its conceits.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

In light of August Wilson’s preference for African-American directors, it’s interesting to consider what he might have thought about a white man directing the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone currently playing at the Belasco Theatre. I imagine that, if Wilson were alive to make an exception to his preference, director Bartlett Sher would be that exception. (Wilson knew Sher in Seattle, and Wilson’s widow gave her permission for Sher to direct.) Sher is a brilliant, sensitive director, with an exceptional ability to use theatre space multi-dimensionally. While I frequently feel that I am watching plays from outside, when Sher directs I often feel that I am there--still watching, yes, but there. (With Light in the Piazza, he even managed to make the Vivian Beaumont Theatre feel intimate.) Sher regularly succeeds in bringing a sense of the entire world of a play to life—the surroundings, the culture, the atmosphere, the history. He is a masterful director. (Full disclosure: I briefly knew Sher many years ago in San Diego.)

Nevertheless, I have questions: Would a black director have brought a deeper level of understanding? How would that have changed the production? What would the superb cast have gained by working with a black director--if anything? Would I have a problem with, say, a Chinese woman directing Fiddler on the Roof—or this show? No, but I’m not sure that my opinion is relevant. After all, Wilson also didn’t like “color-blind” casting, and I love it--I even have a dream cast for an all-black A Little Night Music. But would I think an all-white version of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was a good idea? Hell, no. What’s the difference? Oh, just hundreds of years of history. (I wonder what the cast thought of working with Sher. I wonder if any of them would have preferred an African-American director.)

I am inclined to think that the vibrant brilliance of this production answers all questions and doubts, but I’m not 100% sure.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Broadway for a New America

Photo: Peter James Zielinski

The recent Broadway for a New America benefit at Symphony Space felt like a classic case of bait and switch. I was there to see Judy Kaye and Ann Hampton Callaway, both of whom were mentioned in all the press releases and both of whom did not show up. Oh well, that's the nature of benefits. And this was for a good cause: in support of same-sex marriage. So I settled in to enjoy those performers who did show up.

Unfortunately, Broadway for a New America managed to be a case study of how not to do a benefit. First of all, don't run three and a half hours. It's just too long. Second, don't feature people who aren't any good or are inappropriate or both (eg, the terrible Jolson imitator singing Swanee at a benefit for equal rights--fortunately he spared us the blackface). Third, keep things moving. There should be very very little time between acts. Fourth, don't leave six non-celebs to make speeches late in the evening, one right after the other. God bless 'em for the excellent political work they've done, but six political speeches when the evening is already three hours old is not a good idea! And fifth, don't injure the audience's ears. I understand that yelling is a popular contemporary form of singing, and I often enjoy it, but having to put my fingers in my ears (I wasn't the only one!) did not add to my enjoyment.

The evening did have moments: Robert Klein being quite funny, Christine Pedi purring as Eartha Kitt, Seth Rudetsky's deconstruction of the Brady Bunch Hour, Nellie McKay singing, Alice Playten (pictured above) nailing "The Boy From," and a handful of others. It would have made a kickass 90-minute benefit.

Friday, April 10, 2009

reasons to be pretty

photo: Robert J. Saferstein

Downtown a few months ago, this latest Neil LaBute seemed to be the playwright's attempt to break his mold and write about a more emotionally mature male. Now that the play has transferred uptown, minus a quartet of its monologues, it's more than an attempt - it's an unqualified success. Two of the play's four roles have been recast, and the new performers (Stephen Pasquale and Marin Ireland) are more in scale with the other actors than their predecessors were: everyone now seems to be in the same play, and the result is far more convincing and emotionally powerful than it was downtown. The play's focus is more securely now on the role played by Thomas Sadowski, an average Joe whose careless remark about his girlfriend's face instantly destroys the four year relationship and forces him to man up in the aftermath. Sadowski's performance seems entirely effortless and yet it's rich and finely nuanced; he's almost always on stage and yet you never catch him working.

Chasing Manet

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Rock of Ages


Photo by Joan Marcus

After successful runs in Los Angeles and off-Broadway, Rock of Ages has crash-landed at the Brooks Atkinson -- noisy, flashy, and most of all, funny. '80s rock, with its hair bands, codpieced lead singers, and rainbow-bright guitar heroes, was all about excess and pomp. The creators of the show smartly decided to play it entirely for laughs, and the result is an evening of pure escapist fun. The book, by Chris D'Arienzo, tells a story so self-consciously cliched it can't help bursting out of its boy-meets-girl envelope and turning on itself with in-jokes and outrageous mugging. There's nothing substantial going on beneath the music and dancing and horsing around, but the action and the fun never stop, and they're all we need. This show is pure visceral experience. What it's about is the music. The cast sings extremely well, and the band is kickass. This was undoubtedly the first and only time I'll ever actually enjoy hearing Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," and never has REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" been so perfectly apropos as here, dramatizing a new-found gay love.
Read the full review.

Rock Of Ages

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Next To Normal

**** (out of 5 stars)

This show fucking rocks. This ultra-modern pop/rock musical about a family dealing with mental illness is funny, moving, engaging, happy, sad,.... i could go on... edgy, cool, heartbreaking, uplifting. Tom Kitt's score is so fresh and straight-up listenable. It's dead on when having to musicalize an emotional breakdown or an argument or a memory. The cast is uniformly ideal. Beyond the obligatory kick-ass voices, they're all acting the hell out of the material. Alice Ripley just may snag her first Best Actress Tony (registered trademark!) for her beautiful work as sick mommy. I kept thinking about Falsettos as I was watching this production. Though their respective core issues are somewhat specific (homosexuality and AIDS/mental illness) both productions, through the depth of the characters and relationships, and the bright, succinct personality of their scores, transcend into that layer of universality where any audience member can find a great deal to relate to. If you haven't noticed, I've got lots of good things to say about Next To Normal. GO.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Rock of Ages

Photo/Sara Krulwich

There's more at the heart of Rock of Ages than just the tried-and-true love story of a would-be rocker, Drew aka Wolfgang Von Colt (Constantine Maroulis), and the aspiring actress from the Midwest, Sherrie (Amy Spanger, who despite playing innocent, is still sultrifying). Or rather, what makes the blood pump is its homage both to the soul of rock 'n' roll on the Sunset Strip and to the Broadway house it now occupies ("We Built This City" indeed). Far more accessible than Xanadu (though still campy, thanks to Mitchell Jarvis's turn as the delightfully unhumble Narrator), Rock of Ages samples liberally from its 30+ songs to draw its crowds, while Chris D'Arienzo's book makes fun of the artificiality required to pull it all together. Director Kristin Hanggi forcefully embraces the good and bad of such a production, coming up with such creative staging (or comic sight gags) that we can forgive the few awkwardly placed numbers. Rock of Ages certainly isn't a show for the ages, but it is one for all ages, and it's certainly the right show for now: after all, we wanna rock (and laugh).

The Toxic Avenger Musical

photo: Carol Rosegg

When a nerd gets dunked in a vat of toxic waste he's transformed into a fugly superhuman vigilante out to rid New Jersey of pollution. Like the Evil Dead movie, the Toxic Avenger flick quickly attained cult status for its mix of gross-out gore and jokey cheesiness, but the Evil Dead stage musical, seen a couple of seasons ago, doesn't come anywhere near the zany, boundlessly enjoyable thrill of The Toxic Avenger Musical. The show, which sends itself up with (often irreverent) jokes and gags that fly at Family Guy speed, is moved from the mere over-the-top to the camp stratosphere thanks to never-a-dull-moment direction and the outrageous comic talents of its cast (of five, each ridiculously spot-on funny). Nancy Opel is especially wild as both a corrupt, toxic sewage dumping politician and the Toxic Avenger's long-suffering mom: the show's most deliciously wacky moment comes when she has to play both at the same time. The songs are fun and witty and never put a drag on the show's locomotive momentum: this is the kind of high-quality camp delight that you round up all your Adult Swim-watching friends to see, a guaranteed laugh-packed party.

Saturday, April 04, 2009



Photo courtesy of David Gibbs/DARR Publicity

Patrick Stewart is a tough act to follow, but Hipgnosis isn't afraid: they've plunged into the roughened seas of the Lower East Side with one of New York's first Macbeths since Rupert Goold brought Mr. Stewart and Kate Fleetwood to our fair city for a brief reign of terror. This is also probably the first Manhattan Macbeth since another foul, bloody reign ended and a new, unusually dark-skinned thane became the hopeful leader of a violent nation. Color-neutral, with the great Julian Rozzell in the title role, it seems especially appropriate today. We tend to think of the play as being about lust for and corruption of power, about tyranny, cruelty and comeuppance, but this production seems to stress the fate of Scotland as much as it does those of its individual characters. The Hipgnosis team has tapped Mr. Rozzell, a founding member and an actor of great range, magnetism, and subtlety, as Macbeth. Lanky and sinewy, he prowls and arches over the stage, which is actually a brightly lit pit like a wrestling ring. Under John Castro's straightforward direction the characters march simply from scene to scene, stolidly pushing Shakespeare's inexorable story towards its fated conclusion. Avoiding any temptation to bend Shakespeare out of shape for the sake of originality, the Hipgnosis group has realized a stirring, straight-up Macbeth.

Read the full review.


photo: Joan Marcus

It's been more than four decades since the self-described "American tribal love rock musical" Hair became an instant cultural sensation, so it's astounding that this new production (transferred from its run last Summer in Central Park and staged more like a happening than a traditional musical) feels so urgent and newly powerful. Director Diane Paulus doesn't condescend to the material and treat it as cute mostalgia; instead, the production seems guided by a deep respect for briefly-mainstreamed hippie sensibilities and tinged with an underlying sadness that the intervening years have so drastically changed our cultural values. The members of the talented cast (now including Gavin Creel, whose goofy-sweet charm and vulnerability make him an ideal Claude) effectively create a microcosm of a community rather than compete with one another for attention. This isn't a production where you are left to note how well this one sings "Easy To Be Hard" or "Aquarius", it's one where the larger purpose of the whole piece informs each song and vignette, and in which the final cumulative effect is as exhilarating as it is emotionally devastating. Vital, thrilling, unmissable.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them

Photo/Joan Marcus

The panties of one of Christopher Durang's characters best describe his new play, Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them: all that stretched-out elastic causes her underwear to keep dropping. When she’s called on it (“They’re down about your ankles like some insane shoe accessory”), she replies, “I’m not doing it on purpose. Just ignore it. You should be looking at my face anyway.” Well, Durang’s not going off on all these riffs on purpose either—it’s just the manic way he writes. And this is the problem: his lack of focus undercuts his attempts to use political absurdity. We don't care enough for Felicity (Laura Benanti) or Zamir (Amir Arison) to care about them (flat actors in addition to flat characters), and though we'll always laugh in the hands of experts like Kristine Nielsen, who plays Felicity’s ditzy, theater-obsessed mother, there's not enough bite out of her counterpart, Richard Poe, the Felicity's opinion-crazed conservative father, to help project out of the one-dimensional box everyone's locked in. The result comes across like David Mamet's November (which will be good news to some), but at least David Korins's spinning set gives it a pretty face!

[Read on]


Photo: Gregory Costanzo

What a pleasure it is to go to the Pearl Theatre and see a solid production of a classic, well-acted by a regular company, in a small theatre at a reasonable price. The current production, Moliere's Tartuffe, is a case in point. It features none of the sort of bogus reinterpretation seen in, for example, Simon McBurney's All My Sons. Director Gus Kaikkonen and the reliable Pearl company (in particular, Rachel Botchan, Sean McNall, and Robin Leslie Brown) give us, well, Tartuffe. It's not an insanely brilliant production, and that's okay. With very few missteps (one of them, unfortunately, being a Tartuffe who is so transparently a con artist that no one could fall for his tricks), it honors the play and trusts the playwright.

Mrs. Warren's Profession


Director Kathleen O'Neill, founder and director of BOO-Arts, creates a pleasing, almost earthy sense of intimacy in her new production of this classic by placing the audience on two sides of the action. Shaw's dialogue is supremely fluent and expertly whittled, but also somewhat heightened; staging the play so that we're practically embracing the cast pulls a modern American audience into the action and helps make everything seem quite natural. Ms. O'Neill has grasped both the essential characteristics and the depths of Shaw's characters: not only the pivots of the story -- the middle-aged madam of the title and her independent-minded daughter Vivie -- but the four class-conscious men orbiting the women. Caralyn Kozlowski is a wonder as Vivie, completely disappearing into her complex character, biting down on emotions, then opening up just enough for us to read her precisely, controlling herself and controlling the men with the only real power she has: her determination. She makes us laugh even as she faces the serious conundrum of woman's lot. Including intermission, the play runs two and a half hours, but it zips by. It's actually one of Shaw's shorter plays, and as such it's done more often than some; still, this is a fairly unusual opportunity to see a top-notch staging with an excellent cast in an intimate setting.

Read the full review.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

Photo/Jessica Palopoli

Though Grendel appears in Banana Bag & Bodice/Shotgun Player's Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, Dave Malloy and Jason Craig’s songplay is a beast of a different sort, focusing not on the point of view of the heroes (or villains) but rather on the subjective interpretations of three damnable academics. The result is a clash between the physical reality of Beowulf (Craig) and the gleeful spin of the academics, who justly double as the villains of the epic poem: Grendel (Christopher Kuckenbaker), Grendel’s Mother (Jessica Jelliffe), and the Dragon (Beth Wilmurt). Oh, and the whole thing’s set to Malloy’s nicely hodge-podged music, be it feedback (“Overture”), jungle-like techno (“Beowulf Arrives”), punk (“Body”), a dirge (“Grendel’s Death”), or even Broadway (“Ripped Him Up Good”). Rod Hipskind's fluid directing nails the emotional, even as the company's set design lights upon--at times absurdly so--the physical, and while the energy sometimes lags, the creativity never falters, and see if you don't cower when Grendel's mother keens, in Craig's childishly direct language, “I don’t fucking care how fucking men my fucking son murdered/they all fucking deserved what fucking ass pushers in fancy dress.”

[Read on]

Next to Normal

Photo: Joan Marcus

A the beginning of Next to Normal, Diana, a cheery, energetic woman, banters with her son, chats with her daughter, and seduces her husband. Later, making their lunch, she starts laying bread on the table. And the chair. And the floor. More and more frantically, she throws together haphazard sandwiches and thrusts them at her family. And they know what they are seeing: her mania is back. Brian Yorkey's and Tom Kitt's beautiful, often propulsive score, clever and moving lyrics, and strong, intense storyline take the audience along on the always rocky, frequently painful, sometimes funny journey as Diana tries to find a treatment that will relieve her pain without taking away her personality. The changes that have been made since the Off-Broadway production are smart and successful, tightening the show's focus and digging deeper into its story. The cast, led by Alice Ripley giving the performance of a lifetime in the role of a lifetime, is uniformly excellent (though I miss Brian D'Arcy James from the Off-Broadway production). The show might benefit from being trimmed a bit, particularly toward the end of the first act, but overall I think this is a superb new musical, and I hope that many Tony Awards and a long run are in its future. (Spoilers in the next paragraphs.)

In the course of Next to Normal's various incantations, there has been some discussion about it having an "unrealistic happy ending." I found the ending neither unrealistic nor happy. Many people with bipolar disorder choose to go off their meds, since the side effects can be awful and the disorder can mess with the ability to make good decisions. It is likely that Diana has suicide attempts, electroconvulsive therapy, and institutionalization in her future--hardly a happy ending. In addition, at the close of the show, the daughter Natalie and her boyfriend Henry are busy re-creating all that is unhealthy in Diana and Dan's marriage.

What gives the show that sense of a happy ending is the final song, "We Need Some Light," a positive-sounding anthem that allows the entire cast to harmonize beautifully together . It reminded me of "The Song of Purple Summer" from Spring Awakening. In both cases, faux cheery music is used to (1) allow a big finish and (2) keep the audience from going home and slitting their wrists. These seem to me to be legitimate reasons to use these songs.