Sunday, November 29, 2009

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play

Photo: Joan Marcus

By the time the magical snow-globe ending rolls around, the play has transformed from a mildly clever comedy of manners into an old-fashioned comic romance, with sad partings preceding something resembling a wedding (or a wedding night, anyway). In spite of the thoroughly charming performances, including a sprightly and touching turn from the always effervescent Laura Benanti, I found the plot turns, the character development, and (in the first act) the dialogue formulaic. Yet after a while as the play deepened it won me over, like a hit pop song with a predictable hook and a fancy arrangement, a song which proves, after several listens, to contain depth charges of honest feeling beneath its shiny surface. It wasn't merely the funny moments, the nifty set and the absolutely stunning costumes. Sexual content aside, there's a heartwarming fairy-tale sparkle to the story, and at the same time it provokes us to think about how malleable is the human nature that we tend to think is so fundamental. Read the full review.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Photo: David Morgan

Elliot Ramon Potts's Loaded is a throwback to the worst aspects of the early days of gay theater. Using a jaded older man and an idealistic young man as mouthpieces, the author presents a Gay 101 polemic in which gay marriage, safe sex, and sexism are debated--badly (whether the penetrator does or does not have an orgasm during unprotected anal sex is not the measure of safe sex; same-sex couples cannot attain the benefits of marriage by going to a lawyer and filling out some documents). Even worse, Loaded is one of those plays in which one of the characters would have left the situation ten minutes in and only remains because the author wants him to--not because there is any reason on earth for him to be there. There is little that is believable in Loaded, and its ninety minutes are the longest time I've ever spent in the company of gay men where not a single witty, smart, or funny thing was said.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Next to Normal

photo: Joan Marcus

I recently revisited Next to Normal for the first time since seeing an early preview Off-Broadway at Second Stage. At that time, I was one of the show's few detractors, finding the book nearly non-existent, the lyrics clumsy, and the overall message unenlightened and potentially harmful. In the nearly two years between that first visit and the second, my opinion about the tenor of the musical hasn't necessarily changed, but my feelings about the material and the performances have certainly deepened. Though her voice has unquestionably eroded from singing this rock score eight times a week, Alice Ripley's performance is still a marvel; her Diana is probably the most multi-layered musical theatre creation since Tonya Pinkins' Caroline Thibodeaux, and her Tony win was richly deserved. Jennifer Damiano, too, has grown immensely as Natalie: she has turned a character that I once viewed as nothing more than a petulant teen into a deeply emotional young woman. All of the changes to the score--which include replacing the laughable "Everything" with the arresting "Maybe (Next to Normal)" and inserting a duet for Natalie and Diana, "Wish I Were Here," at the top of Act Two--improve the flow of the show greatly. While I cannot fully say that I'm completely on board (the show still has some deeply disturbing tone issues), I left the Booth with a newfound respect for nearly everyone involved.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Post No Bills

photo: Sandra Coudert

Two down-and-out middle-aged men beg for a living in the city along a wall called the Post No Bills, so named for its one painted sign, in Mando Alvarado's formulaic but absorbing play currently at Rattlestick. As soon the more shut-down of the two, a once moderately famous musician, begrudgingly takes a toughened teenage street girl under his wing we generally know where the relationship (and the story) will go. Despite this, the play is almost consistently compelling - the acting is nuanced and involving (Teddy Canez is especially excellent as the pained, gruff musician) and the playwright gets a lot of humor out of the characters. The play is punctuated with brief musical performances of the unpretty soul-baring kind that add welcome texture and mood. While there are some plot points in the second act that I didn't buy, and more than a few moments that seem underdeveloped (mostly with the play's two supporting characters) there is more often the ring of truth in the play's details.

Monday, November 23, 2009

In The Next Room, or the vibrator play

photo: Joan Marcus

Set in the 1880s, Sarah Ruhl's new play (her first on Broadway, thanks to Lincoln Center) centers on the then-accepted medical practice of using vibrators to cure hysteria. We can't help a chuckle or two as we watch Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) clinically administer the treatment to a new patient (Maria Dizzia) while his wife (Laura Benanti) eavesdrops outside the door, mystified: it may be the dawn of the electrical age, but everyone is still in the dark about sexuality. Once we've had a giggle or two the play quickly deepens, purposeful in its compassion for the innocence of its characters. A good deal of the play's poignancy comes from the friction between what we know as a modern audience and what the characters do not; if the play has a villain it's the limits of human knowledge. The thoughtful, gently provocative and delicately balanced play has been given a gorgeous production, with superb performances from virtually everyone in the cast. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Girl Crazy

Photo: Joan Marcus

The Encores! production of the Gershwins' Girl Crazy is a painless way to spend time. The score includes "Embraceable You" and "But Not for Me," and the performers largely acquit themselves well. The standout is Seinfield's Wayne Knight, funny and charming as a New York cab driver who finds himself the sheriff of Custerville, Arizona. But Girl Crazy is an old school musical, with a feeble boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl plot and one-dimensional characters. To those who say, "They don't make 'em like that anymore," I say, "That's okay with me."

Friday, November 20, 2009

What Once We Felt

Photo: Gregory Costanzo

In the sci-fi world of Ann Marie Healy's What Once We Felt, there are no men, procreation occurs via Internet-ordered pills, Tradepacks (the service class) are dying off, and the RSS (the government, I guess) is gradually curtailing the freedoms of the Keepers (the women of privilege). Macy, a Keeper, is desperate to get her novel published--but is she desperate enough? (Her potential publisher, a specialist in "Digi-Directs," refers to people who love books as "fetishizing . . . outdated packets of information.") Healy hints at her goals when Macy's book is described as a work of "biting satire and dystopian leanings." Unfortunately, the satire is not biting enough and the dystopia is not clearly enough etched to hit home, although the play does have many interesting moments and plenty of intriguing ideas. The current production, awkwardly directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, doesn't do the play any favors; much of the potential humor is lost, and it's hard to care about any of the characters.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play

photo: Joan Marcus

I've never much understood the appeal of Sarah Ruhl's plays, and in many ways, I still don't. They are all, by and large, the kind of twee and cerebral attempts at meta-comedy over which pretentious New York theatergoers cream themselves. Her retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, produced by Second Stage in 2007, remains one of the most agonizing evenings I have ever spent in a theatre. So it was under some duress that I attended her latest work (and Broadway debut), In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, which was produced by Lincoln Center at The Lyceum Theatre. And while it's far from perfect, I am glad that I went, if for no other reason that the stellar performances. The ensemble, from top to bottom, is fantastic, with Laura Benanti revelatory in a rare non-musical outing. Her performance manages to be period-specific (the play is set in the 1880s) and forward looking all at once, and she is obviously having a ball delivering Ruhl's tongue-in-cheek double entendres. Michael Cerveris is terrific as her doctor husband, who plans to eradicate female hysteria with the help of the play's title instrument, and frequent Ruhl collaborator Maria Dizzia knocks it out of the park as his sexually repressed patient. The text itself is problematic--it's around a half-hour too long, with a failed coup-de-theatre at the end--but the caliber of acting makes it an extremely worthwhile experience.

The Orphans' Home Cycle: Part One--The Story of a Childhood

The late Horton Foote's nine-play epic, the Orphans' Home Cycle (presented as three one-acts per evening or all nine one-acts in a marathon), depicts the coming of age of Horace Robedaux, based on Foote's father. Part One--The Story of a Childhood takes Robedaux from age 12 in 1902 to his early 20s. As the cycle begins, Robedaux's parents are separated and his father is dying. When his father dies, his mother remarries, and it is soon clear that he is not welcome in the new family. Friends of his father and some relatives try to help Robedaux, but their large promises diminish in the keeping or vanish all together, and he has to fend for himself, financially and emotionally. The plays of the Orphans' Home Cycle have varied histories; some were stand-alone plays, some were TV plays, and some are new. Foote trimmed the full-length works to one acts. When a show runs nine hours, the question has to be asked: Does it justify the length? It feels weird to second-guess the much-beloved, much-respected Foote, and who knows what he might have done had he lived, but in Part One, more trimming would have been welcome. Characters come and go who add little to the evening (my guess is that they are based on real people in Foote's father's life), and some scenes overstay their welcome, in particular the repetitive drunken ramblings of one of Robedaux's employers. Bill Heck as the grown Robedaux is excellent, as are Annalee Jefferies and Jenny Dare Paulin in various roles, but many in the ensemble are disappointing. I am nevertheless optimistic about Parts Two and Three since they will provide opportunities for the exposition and character development from Part One to pay off.

In the Next Room

Photo: Joan Marcus

It's the 1880s, and Dr. Givings has a thriving medical practice. His specialty? Curing hysterical women (and the occasional man). His method? Providing pelvic massage until the women experience "paroxysms." His equipment? An electric vibrator. Dr. Givings is a fictional creation, but his method of making a living is not. In her new play In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, Sarah Ruhl imagines how this treatment, perceived as nonsexual by (most?) practitioners and recipients, might affect the lives of the people involved. With a somewhat cartoony first act, a moving second act, and a too-long, odd, but not uninteresting final scene, In the Next Room doesn't completely gel. But it is thought-provoking, frequently funny, often touching, and nicely sex-positive, as well as largely well-acted. A particular nod to two supporting players: Wendy Rich Stetson as Dr. Givings' assistant manages to reveal her entire emotional life in one "oh," and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, as a wet nurse, acts with such dignity and restraint as to mitigate the cliche of the wise black woman who is stronger and more sexually aware than the white people she works for. (If you see In the Next Room, be sure to get a copy of the Lincoln Center Review issue dedicated to the play, available at the theatre for a one-dollar donation. Featuring articles on vibrators, orgasms, and women's attitudes about themselves and their sexuality, it provides fascinating context for the play.)


photo: Joan Marcus

Uninspired and unmoving, the new Broadway revival of Ragtime arrives too soon after the original not to invite damning comparisons at nearly every turn. I've seen pared-down regional productions of this show that were effective in the interim - even a staged concert version with a single piano a couple of years ago got into my tear ducts - so I can't blame the scale-back for this production's remoteness (although Derek McLane's three-tiered "dawn of the industrial age" scaffolding set isn't conducive to dynamic, involving staging - everyone always seems to be filing this way or that). This production has a weak Coalhouse and an even weaker Sarah in Quentin Earl Darrington and Stephanie Umoh respectively - neither performance has nuance or detail. When Umoh sings "Your Daddy's Son" with cradled baby she may as well be holding a sack of potatoes - one quick cursory glance at the bundle and then she's in "sing out, Louise" mode. Their version of "Wheels of A Dream" is the least involving I've ever seen - the song's opportunities to succinctly explain Coalhouse and to transition Sarah from caution to whole-hearted belief in him are squandered. Even the actors who fare far better, such as Christiane Noll as Mother for example, don't seem to have been guided toward convincing detail: it's not hard to catch her behaving with too much modernity. (The production's one superb and meticulously detailed performance is by Bobby Steggert as Younger Brother; believable at every turn from star struck stage door Johnny to rageful son to political conspirator). The spin control to promote this production - that it's really not Coalhouse's story anyhow - can't supply what's missing when we don't invest in the events of the story emotionally. The show just becomes a series of songs and we've plenty of time to wonder why the 30 piece orchestra sounds so thin and listless. We can never go back to before indeed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Photo: Joan Marcus

The story skeleton is pretty standard: four friends in their late 30s, three straight and one gay, deal with major life events, catalyzed by infidelity and an exotic new acquaintance. The glory is in the details. Jane's (Julianne Nicholson) husband died a year ago, leaving her with a school-age daughter. Her friend Marrell (Eisa Davis), a brand-new mom herself, has in mind to break Jane out of her widowy slump by introducing her to handsome Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi), a French "Doctor Without Borders." Meanwhile Marrell's marriage to Tom (Darren Pettie), already troubled, has grown shakier and sexless with the arrival of their new baby. After a party in which a parlor game goes hilariously, frightfully wrong, Tom reveals longstanding feelings for Jane in a brilliantly composed and delivered speech. The "real" game is afoot. Despite its broad canvas and huge set, Melissa James Gibson's new play is full of small telling moments: the lonely rattling sound emanating from a wooden bowl cum baptismal font after Marrell learns she's been cheated on; Tom placing their baby monitor on Marrell's piano and returning grimly to his cabinetmaking; Alan helping Jane on with the coat whose broken zipper she hasn't bothered to fix; Jane's sad, broken metaphor, "the wolf is never away from the door, the wolf is the door." Read the full review for more details and a discount code for tickets.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cyrano de Bergerac

Photo: Cameron Hughes

Daniel Wolfe's commanding performance in this Queens Players production – passionate, witty, antic, elastic, full-throated – is nearly enough all by itself to carry the weight of this very long (even though somewhat cut) production of Edmond Rostand's century-old classic. He gets some able support as well, and though the ensemble scenes are prone to weakness, the sharp realization of the central story, with an unforgettable performance in the title role, is more than enough to make this a very worthwhile evening of theater. Read the full review.

The Lily's Revenge

photo: Ves Pitts

A few weeks ago David Bell called me in a state of show euphoria during the final intermission of Taylor Mac's five hour theatrical happening. I *had* to see this, he insisted. Thanks, David, because a few days later the word was out all over town and the sprawling, relentlessly pleasurable, possibly once-in-a-lifetime five-play fantasia was one of the toughest tickets in town. A satire of theatrical modes, a campfest high and low, a smart playful pause to consider the push for marriage equality - the show is all these things alternately and often simultaneously, a party in five distinct parts that ultimately feels like a heartful gay-fabulous celebration of theatre's ability to speak to a community. The first play begins with Time (Miss Bianca Leigh, wearing a cuckoo clock on her head) warning us to flee the theatre lest we get sucked in to the show's "institutional narrative" wedding tale. Meanwhile her son The Great Longing (a show curtain personified, played by James Tigger Ferguson) assures us of the show's upcoming age-old pleasures. Taylor Mac, "planted" in the audience as a personified lily, enters the dispute through the fourth wall, wanting to be the story's Groom only to be told that flowers can not marry and he must first become a man. Big ideas, such as the limiting effects on love and imagination that result from the institutionalization of marriage and theatre, are playfully put over with a mix of devices both lofty and cheap: that's the commonality of the evening, even as the ensuing plays differ greatly in style and presentation. The result is a miraculous downtown epic that will, I've no doubt, be the stuff of legend for decades to come.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Photo: Joan Marcus

In Ragtime, Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Terrence McNally (book) give us a sprawling, robust, beautiful, and flawed look at the early 20th century as imagined by E.L. Doctorow in his novel of the same name. The politics are odd--for example, Coalhouse Walker Jr is too grateful for being "allowed" to own a car and have a family--and the scope of the story sometimes comes at the cost of depth and full characterizations. But the score is glorious, the lyrics are often wonderful, and the book manages to corral the three main story lines into a compelling and coherent whole. The orginal production had a magical cast led by Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Judy Kaye; this revival, having only a very very good cast, suffers in comparison. There are also fewer people in the current cast, which is unfortunate, and the show has been trimmed here and there, jarring those audience members who have memorized the CDs. The minimalist design mostly works, but the car should be a car and the piano should be a piano. Marcia Milgrom Dodge keeps the show moving like Henry Ford's assembly line (which is mostly a good thing) and nails the opening number, which is as thrilling as it should be. The ensemble members work their butts off, playing so many roles and having so many costume changes that the friend I saw it with said the dressers should get a bow. On a whole, the somewhat uneven production has many more strengths than weaknesses, and the 30-person orchestra sounds wonderful. And the point really is the score, that glorious, glorious score.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wolves at the Window

Cleverly constructed and gracefully directed, this devilish evening of theater is as enchanting as it is eerie, with many laughs, brilliant acting, and a number of effective goosebump moments. It, just like its source material – ten stories by H. H. Munro, better known as Saki – could have come from nowhere but Britain. "I suppose," says the con artist in the opening skit, "you think I've spun you quite the impossible yarn." But Saki isn't pulling the wool over our eyes. He's exposing bloody nature. "I've heard it said," declares a city gentleman, "that the Wood Gods are rather horrible to those who molest them." Indeed. A malevolent core hums at the center of everything, taking on various guises: petty human deceit, real wild animals – or a vengeful Pan, jealously guarding the tribute left for him. Pan's appeaser is a gentleman who has taken a holiday in the country reluctantly, but adjusted rather more successfully to pagan ways than his jittery wife. And always there are the wolves of the title, baying and howling in the background, advancing in literal fashion into more than one story, turning the haughty, hunting homo sapiens into the hunted. Saki meant to skewer Edwardian manners and mores. But when it comes to the human animal, things change very little, whatever century you're in or continent you're on. Part of the "Brits Off Broadway" series at 59E59 Theaters. Read the full review.


photo: Joan Marcus

Stark, beautiful and bone-chilling, Marcia Milgrom Dodge's production of Ragtime (at the Neil Simon Theatre, via The Kennedy Center) sets a new standard for musical revivals on Broadway. Dodge is hardly the first director to offer a stripped-down interpretation of Aherns & Flaherty's masterpiece--London and The Papermill Playhouse have both seen productions that feature no piano onstage and black chairs standing in for Coalhouse Walker's car and Evelyn Nesbit's swing--but she manages to strike the most copacetic balance to date. She gives the audience just enough grandeur to assuage any fears that the production might have been done on the cheap, but uses deconstruction wisely; the images of music emanating from Coalhouse's glass piano, or of him walking his beloved Model-T across the stage are striking. The cast, from top to bottom, is perfection and quite often made me forget their predecessors (high praise indeed), but three individuals deserve special mention: Robert Petkoff, an ideal Tateh; Bobby Steggert, who manages to capture Younger Brother's idealism without making him seem overly quixotic; and Christiane Noll, whose brilliant Mother emerges as a rational, highly intelligent woman stifled by the society in which she lives. To watch her transformation from idyllic homemaker to independent proto-feminist was nothing short of astonishing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Aphra Behn

A beautiful woman sits writing in a debtor's prison in 1660. A masked man enters. Rather than being frightened, the beautiful woman is intrigued. And why not? This particular beautiful woman is Aphra Behn, who, as depicted in Liz Duffy Adams's energetic sex farce Or, (no, it's not a typo, the title really is Or,), is completely unflappable. Indeed, what other sort of woman could have achieved success as both a spy and a playwright in the seventeenth century, as the real Aphra Behn did? While Or, is funny, fast, and well-written, and the three actors (Kelly Hutchinson, Andy Paris, and Maggie Siff) are skilled and entertaining, I wanted more for--and about--Aphra Behn. Adams said in an interview with Adam Szymkowicz that she didn't want "to write a straightforward bio-play/period piece," but I think she went too far in the other direction. Aphra Behn pretty much invented the idea of a woman making her living as a writer, and while it's a fun concept to have her involved with both royalty and a famous performer, focusing on her sex life doesn't do her justice. Also, the supposed parallels to the 1960s didn't add much for me, and having tried fruitlessly to Google the play, I think the title Or, is not a great idea. Overall, the period dialogue convinces, the plot amuses, and the characters engage, and the doors slam frequently and farcically, just as they should. I just wanted more.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Lesser Seductions of History

photo: Tyler Griffin Hicks-Wright

Succinctly moving multiple characters through concurrent storylines under a strong overarching socio-political theme, August Schulenburg's new play often recalls quintessential Robert Altman films in its dynamic narrative focus and cohering thematic purposefulness. Between stretches of pointed narration that is simultaneously seductive and dangerous in tone, we see ten characters move through the turbulence of the 1960's. Although some find themselves propelled to extraordinary action - one joins the Black Panthers, another joins a religious cult - the play conveys the feeling of ordinary people whose lives are re-shaped by the promise of the times. The characters, succinctly written and brought to vivid life by this ensemble under Heather Cohn's direction, are easy to relate to, making the play's message all the more unsettling. The ambitious, intellectually provocative and beautifully realized play does what theatre too rarely does - it leaves you thinking about your life, your times, your choices.

The Lesser Seductions of History

In August Schulenburg's ambitious, scintillating new play, eleven precisely drawn characters swirl year by year through the 1960s, illustrating through a quick succession of mostly short scenes their own messy dreams and devastations, while shouldering the zeitgeist they are also asked to embody. Camelot, the counterculture, drugs, the sexual revolution, Apollo, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement (nonviolent and otherwise) – it's all here in one evening of theater. And damned if Schulenburg, director Heather Cohn, and their excellent cast don't pull it off. The characters become real to us while representing movements and ideas at the same time. It's a heavy load but Schulenburg's writing is pointed enough, and the players deft enough, to carry it with seeming ease, and they rivet our attention for two-plus hours. As precisely as the play is structured, the lives it depicts are anything but neat. Therein lies the real accomplishment. Read the full review.

Kiss Me On The Mouth

photo: Michael Millard

The premise of this new naturalistic comedy-drama by Melanie Angelina Maras seems like sitcom material - we follow two NYC gal pals as they embark on new relationships with guys - but the writing digs a bit deeper than you might assume and the play often strikes truthful chords of recognition about friendship. Initially, the characters seem more like comic types than people - when we meet Amy (Megan Hart) she's not-too-believably considering nunhood, and at first glance Christina (Aubyn Philabaum) seems as thin as any overprivileged urban rich girl - but the playwright peels back layers and gradually reveals the characters' vulnerabilities and contradictions. The four-person cast, under Stephen Adly Guirgis' direction, fit snugly together and put the play over with conviction and wit.

The Lesser Seductions of History

Photo: Tyler Griffin Hicks-Wright

Why are we here? Can we make the world a better place? At what cost? Can we connect with one another? At what cost? Can we maintain our sense of hope? At what cost? In the excellent Flux Theatre Ensemble production of August Schulenburg's beautiful and ambitious play, The Lesser Seductions of History, ten people wrestle with these questions--enthusiastically, awkwardly, humbly, pompously, heartbreakingly--over the years 1960 to 1969.

Schulenberg, director Heather Cohn, and a superb cast present a believable, compelling version of the 60s with none of the judgment or condescension often pointed at that confusing, wonderful, and awful decade. Cohn balances the intertwining storylines with a sure hand and guides the actors to distinctive, emotionally clear performances. Of the top-notch performers, Christina Shipp, as a woman running from her pain, Jake Alexander, as a poet who doesn't necessarily deserve all the love he receives, IsaiahTanenbaum, as a brilliant nerd who mourns the life he'll never lead, and Jason Paradine, as a doctor determined to save lives to atone for a past misdeed, are particularly impressive.

If the theatre gods deserve their divinity, The Lesser Seductions of History will end up with a long run and multiple awards off or on Broadway. (Oh, and did I mention that it's funny and sexy too?)

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Understudy

photo: Carol Rosegg

Theresa Rebeck has authored some dogs in her day, but none compare to her latest play (at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre), a saccharinely sanitized attempt at a backstage farce. When a seasoned actor (Justin Kirk) is hired to understudy a movie star making his Broadway debut (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, a television star making his theatre debut)--who in turn is understudying the other (never-seen) bigger movie star in the show--he gets a lot more than he bargained for, when he discovers that his ex-fiancee (Julie White) is the production stage manager. That is the entire plot. Rebeck has managed to stretch this out into eighty humorless minutes, throwing in cheap jokes about Jeremy Piven and actorly platitudes about the grandness of life in the theatre. It doesn't help that two of the three actors are woefully miscast: the cerebral Kirk valiantly tries (and fails) to convey comic relief, while White's gifts as a natural comedienne are wasted in the straight woman role. Gosselaar is fine, but he's saddled with one of the most one-note characters in recent memory. Rebeck probably wanted to allow the audience to watch a slice of what goes on backstage, but what they'll really end up doing is that other great theatrical tradition: watching their watch.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Understudy

photo: Carol Rosegg

Although slight and weakly dependent on contrivances (you'll nearly use up fingers counting how many times the characters forget that their "private" conversations are being heard over the loudspeaker) this backstage comedy has the potential to be more diverting and fun than this production allows. The premise is tasty - we're at a put-in rehearsal where a legit actor has been hired to understudy a movie star - and there are fun if predictable barbs at how today's celeb-crazed culture has trickled down to the theatre biz. But the production is a non-starter with the actors steered toward choices that slow the show to a crawl. Justin Kirk seems the wrong variety of actor to play the understudy - he's busy mining it for the real when what is needed is a full-out ham, the kind of childish self-involved flibbertigibbet who could jilt a finance without a word with the explanation that he's "crazy". (Reg Rogers played the role at Williamstown.) Mark Paul Gosselaar (of "Saved By The Bell" fame) proves to be stageworthy and game, but some of his choices are contradictory, as if it was not firmly decided whether the movie star is a hot dumb fool or an intellectual trapped by his career. Julie White knows better than just about anyone else in the world how to throw a line in the air so that it flies but after a while you wish she had been given more to catch.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The 39 Steps

Scheduled to close January 10 after a two-year run on Broadway, this lark of a production remains funny and fresh. Maria Aitken directs a versatile, bustling cast of four who play dozens of characters in a frequently hilarious yet loving sendup of Hitchcock's famous 1935 thriller, paced like an extended Monty Python skit and delivered in a series of not very serious accents and silly walks. The cast is small but the business is booming; the quick character and setting changes are a nonstop delight, the Tony Awards for lighting and sound well deserved. Jolly good show.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


Photo: Jim Baldassare

Heidi Schreck's first full-length New York production as a playwright peels the hardened hide of history off a corner of life in turn-of-the-century England – the turn of the 15th century, that is. It was a time when people with delusions and hallucinations were venerated as mystics and saints (rather like now), and when mobs, egged on by the priesthood, burned religious heretics at the stake – also pretty much just like some parts of the world today. Sofia Jean Gomez gives a suitably dangerous and sometimes screamingly funny performance as Margery Kempe, author of what is sometimes considered the first autobiography in English. Ms. Gomez simply plays the hell out of her, and with a terrifying Hell (along with Purgatory and Heaven) ever-present in the anxieties of the age, this feels like exactly the Margery we ought to have. One can read a proto-feminist strand into this lusty and freethinking depiction of the character, but any sense of anachronism is made palatable – fun, in fact – by the script's unabashed honesty. The comic dialogue and the flow from scene to scene feel effortless. Read the full review.

Embraceable Me

photo: Jon Kandel

This two-person romantic dramedy by Victor L. Cahn gets off to a cute start as we watch Allison (Kiera Naughton) and her longtime friend/ex-lover and probable soulmate Edward (Scott Barrow) narrate contrasting recaps of their relationship. But despite the efforts of both actors we quickly lose faith in the premise: neither character is sufficiently developed nor are their relationship dynamics specific enough for us to root for them. The play's mix of drama and comedy is unsatisfying: the drama isn't heavy enough for us to relate and identify with the characters, and the comedy isn't buoyant enough for charm.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Photo: Gili Getz

Some forty years after its premiere, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues to amuse, perplex, and screw with the audience's mind. Sort of Hamlet-meets-Waiting for Godot, R&G ponders probability, reality, art, free will, and the meaning of life--or, at least, the meaning of the lives of two peripheral characters from Hamlet. Simpler and more streamlined than Stoppard's latest opuses (did Coast of Utopia really justify all those hours?), R&G nevertheless sets the tone for many later Stoppard plays with its brilliance, word play, and provoking of thoughts. The current production of R&G at the T. Shreiber Studio does full justice to the work, from Cat Parker's clear direction and clever use of the small theatre space to the top-notch cast led by Eric Percival as Rosencrantz and Julian Elfer as Guildenstern. Of particular note is the performance of the Player by Erik Jonsun, who brings a level of ruefulness, melancholy, and emotion that inflates a potentially one-dimensional character to full humanity. The show is nicely designed by George Allison (scenic designer), Karen Ledger (costumes), and Eric Cope (lighting). (However, using a ghost light through much of the first act, while effective symbolically, is distracting and actually painful to the audience.) Compliments too to whoever chose to include R&G-related trivia and quotes in the program. The T. Schreiber Studio was not previously on my radar, but from the quality of this production, I definitely plan to go back.

Broadway Close Up: John Kander

If you are interested in musical theatre and you are unaware of the yearly Broadway Close Up series at Merken Concert Hall at the Kaufman Center, I strongly urge you to check it out. The series honors the past, present, and future of musical theatre, including evenings devoted to particular lyricists and/or composers. The structure of these evenings combines interviews with the honoree(s), who remain(s) on stage throughout, and performances of his, her, or their songs. Last Monday's show honoring John Kander (and by definition Fred Ebb) featured David Hyde Pierce, Marin Mazzie, Chita Rivera, Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jason Daniely, and David Margulies. Nearly all of Kander & Ebb's musicals were represented, including the upcoming The Scottsboro Boys and the I-hope-someday-upcoming The Visit. Highlights included Rivera (may she live and perform forever!) singing "All That Jazz" and a song from The Visit, Mazzie singing "Ring Them Bells" (with her husband Daniely ringing them bells), Rivera and Monk singing "Class," and Debra Monk singing "Everybody's Girl." Gerard Alessandrini of Forbidden Broadway will be honored December 7. Broadway Up Close also features a yearly Bound for Broadway evening, which introduces upcoming musicals and works in progress. The evening is emceed by the charming and funny Liz Callaway; past years have included Next to Normal, Avenue Q, and Musical of Musicals: The Musical. This year's event is November 16.