Thursday, December 31, 2009

I Just Didn't Get It

God of Carnage
Photo: Joan Marcus

My last entry of the year (Happy New Year, everyone!) lists shows that received raves and/or were big hits, and I don't understand why.

Streetcar Named Desire: Full of itself, hammy, overblown, dumb. Cate Blanchett chewed the ugly scenery.

Our Town: While I didn't find it bad enough to make my "worst shows" list, it was, uh, boring.

God of Carnage: Not one of the four characters was remotely believable, and the show's reach for significance fell far short. (And if she was that nauseated, she would have gone into the bathroom, you know?)

Orphan's Home Cycle: I made it through 5/9ths of this before giving up. I found it wordy, slow, and (with a few exceptions) unexcitingly acted.

The Norman Conquests: Who cares? I sure didn't.

Five Worst Shows of 2009

Desire Under the Elms
Photo: Liz Lauren

This list is easy--these five shows were squirmingly wretched:

(In reverse alphabetical order.)
  • West Side Story: A breath-taking example of how to direct the life out of a show.
  • Loaded: Completely lacking wit, drama, believability, or a reason to exist.
  • Impressionism: Bafflingly bad on every level. Confusing plot, bad acting by good actors, dumb premise.
  • Hedda Gabler (with Mary Louise Parker): What were they thinking?
  • Desire Under the Elms: Not only the worst show I saw this year, but one of the very worst I've seen in 40 years of play-going. Stultifying, pompous, and excruciating.

2009's 5 Worst

I wasn't planning on publishing my worst list, but since Wendy posted hers, I see no harm in following suit. Again, a lot of easy decisions here.

1. Our Town
This year, the emperor's new clothes were an ill-fitting flannel, beat-up jeans and a cell phone. And while bacon was frying mere feet away from me, all I could smell was corn.

2. The Starry Messenger
Star Matthew Broderick didn't know his lines, first-time director Kenneth Lonergan had no idea how to present his own text, and the result was a three-plus hour trainwreck with no plot and no guidance.

3. Desire Under the Elms
What happens when you combine a Tony Award winning director (Robert Falls), arguably the best Eugene O'Neill interpreter alive (Brian Dennehy) and one of the strongest actresses of her generation (Carla Gugino)? Not much, as evidenced by this streamlined, anachronistic production that opened and closed quickly in May.

4. West Side Story
How do you say "misfire" in Spanish?

5. The Bacchae
Jonathan Groff is usually wonderful, but as the vicious and sexually voracious demi-god Dionysus? I think not.

photo: The cast of Our Town at The Barrow Street Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Hansel and Gretel

Once the Witch has been roasted, the family reunited, and the Witch's gingerbread victims restored to humanity, the opera concludes with a lovely chorale proclaiming "When in need or dark despair, God will surely hear our prayer." But the religious patina is purely a matter of faith; the children have survived their ordeal solely because of their own quick thinking, Gretel's in particular. It's a fairy story, after all, a crusty old folk tale gathered by the Grimms from ancient sources, and the Christian God is a latecomer to this musical feast; perhaps he'll be seated during intermission, but only at the discretion of the management. A joy for all ages, this production would make a fine introduction for any opera neophyte, child or adult. Hansel and Gretel runs in repertory through Jan. 2 at the Met. Read the full review.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Marvelous Wonderettes

When a friend had an extra ticket I realized that somehow I had never gotten to this revue show, roughly described as a female Forever Plaid. I'm not too fond of the genre - revues typically sit in some awkward space between concert and authentic musical theatre - but I did enjoy the first act of this one, set at a high school prom in 1958, for the enormously likable performers and for the string of hit parade gems such as "Lollipop" and "All I Have To Do Is Dream". But after the intermission the ole Revue Show Impatience set in when the action jumped to the gals' tenth year high school reunion performance - instead of deepening the characters or giving us the chance to enjoy seeing how the ladies have survived most of the socially turbulent 60's, the script is more of the same with diminishing results: thin, transparent set-ups for songs for each of the written-in-stone "types" in the quartet. It's a long way sociologically from "Mr. Sandman" in the first act to "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" ten years later in the second, but save for a pregnant belly here and a cursory mention of a divorce there, the gals are written to be inhumanly unchanged. Even given the feel-good, nostalgia-stirring limits of the genre, couldn't the second act have tried for some feeling of the late '60's the way the first tried for the '50's?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Emperor Jones

photo: Carol Rosegg

I finally caught up with Irish Rep's celebrated production of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, one of only two shows to be featured on both Brantley and Isherwood's year-end best lists at the Times. It's easy to see why the production, now enjoying a commercial run at SoHo Playhouse, has been almost universally praised - Ciaran O'Reilly's directorial vision and John Douglas Thompson's raw-nerve performance fully meet the challenge of the "problematic in this day and age" dialect (be prepared to hear the "N" word regularly amid a lot of "sho' nuff"-style speeches.) Most compellingly, the production mixes puppets with actors to create a theatrical landscape that brings fresh vitality to O'Neill's depiction of the dictator's decline into powerlessness and mental deterioration.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


George Bernard Shaw

In Bernard Shaw's riotous Misalliance, a dashing young man and an even more dashing young woman drop by the Tarleton estate (literally--their plane crashes into the greenhouse), upending the plans and assumptions of the aspiring-for-respectabilty Tarletons and providing a great deal of entertainment for the audience. Shaw's work manages to be both timeless and timely as the characters grapple with love, money, honor, socialism, feminism, and one another. In this handsome, well-directed (by Jeff Steitzer), and well-acted production, the ever-wonderful Pearl Theatre Company proves yet again that it is aptly named (pearl definition 4: something precious or choice). The wonderful cast includes Lee Stark, Dominic Cuskern, Dan Daily, Sean McNall, and the amazing Erika Rolfsrud.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Snow White

Photo: Daniel Perez

One of the most delightful hours of all-ages entertainment I have ever seen on a stage, Company XIV's Snow White is the kind of magical enterprise that could make a person of any age fall in love with dance and with theatre. The Brooklyn-based multi-disciplinary troupe, who've been getting attention for bawdy, "mature audiences only" works (like Le Serpent Rouge), have made a foray into family-friendly dance theatre that is sure to mesmerize and transport all who attend. Miraculously, it holds the wee ones in rapt attention without condescending to them, surely exposing many of them for the first time to baroque-derived and classical ballet dance, to mask work, to shadow puppet theatre, to a variety of music from Louis Armstrong to Bellini's La Sonnambula. What holds them is the same thing that holds adults - the integrity of every element of the presentation conspiring to make striking stage pictures that delight the imagination while telling the oft-told story. I'm sorry I didn't have any chance to see this earlier than now; it would have made my list as one of the best shows of the year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Top Ten-ish

Lynn Nottage photographed
by Joan Marcus

In contrast to my fellow blogger Cameron Kelsall, I found this to be an exciting year in New York Theatre, anchored by a number of excellent shows by contemporary playwrights. I saw just over 100 shows and rated 25 of them A-, A, or A+. I managed to get my list down to 11 shows, but it wasn’t easy (I've linked each show to my original review).

The best show of the year, for me, was Ruined at the
Manhattan Theatre Club. I have rarely been as affected by a work of art. Written by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kate Whoriskey, and performed brilliantly, Ruined was heartbreaking and important.

The rest of the list is in reverse alphabetical order, just for a change of pace.
  • Vieux Carre (The Pearl Theatre): Tennessee Williams’ autobiographical drama in a solid, moving production.
  • Universal Robots (Manhattan Theatre Source): Mac Rogers examines the meaning of being—and not being—human.
  • Twelfth Night (Shakespeare in the Park): I hope Shakespeare was able to watch this evening of pure delight from the great beyond.
  • Streetcar Named Desire (Barrington Stage Company, Berkshires): A fresh look at Williams’ masterpiece without all the shtick of the BAM production.
  • Next to Normal (Broadway): A grown-up rock-ish musical full of naked emotion and superb performances, particularly Alice Ripley’s.
  • Lizzie Borden (Off-Off Broadway):Kick-ass rock combined with a wry point of view; this show made bumping off one’s parents seem like a smart thing to do.
  • Lesser Seductions of History (Flux Theatre Ensemble): August Schulenburg examines the 1960s with great compassion, insight, and humor.
  • Joe Turner's Come and Gone (Lincoln Center Theatre): A beautiful production of August Wilson's magical and moving depiction of people searching for a place and a person to call home.
  • Dollhouse (Mabou Mines, St. Ann’s Warehouse): What might sound like a gimmick in theory—casting unusually short men and unusually tall women—turned out in practice to be a stroke of brilliance, revitalizing Ibsen’s well-known play.
  • Arcadia (Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC): An excellent production of one of my all-time favorite plays.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Little Night Music

photo: Joan Marcus

Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a transfer of an acclaimed London production of one of the greatest musicals ever written: it seemed like this first-ever Broadway revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music couldn't miss. But miss it does, and widely. It would be easy to blame the scaled-down production values and the huge reduction of the orchestra to a few players, but the production sinks like a stone less because it's been given the (of course not musically ideal) chamber treatment and more because said chamber treatment isn't the result of any evident artistic vision. In other words, the only reason for the paltry orchestra and the one-wall set is that the show played a teeny tiny theatre in London. On a big Broadway stage and without a justifying vision, the miniaturization looks and sounds on-the-cheap. As you watch the cast twirl about the stage during the opening waltz, the music performed with so little power that it competes with the sound of scuffing shoes (and loses), you're confronted with the production's depressing carelessness which makes itself especially known in the lack of cohesion of the performances. Everyone seems to be in a different show: Hunter Ryan Herdika, as Henrik, plays as if to the rafters while Aaron Lazar as Carl-Magnus works toward naturalism. Was the cast given bum direction (by Trevor Nunn) or no direction at all? Lansbury is enjoyable as expected and Zeta-Jones, entirely stageworthy and magnetic, does alright by "Send In The Clowns" and by the role in general despite it being wholly unbelievable that her vital Desiree would long for Alexander Hanson's far too smug Frederick.

2009's Top 10

2009 was, to put it mildly, not a good year for New York theatre. More than any other year in recent memory, I found myself watching my watch, thinking about my grocery list, or even fleeing at intermission rather often. However, the lack of quality productions has made one of my tasks rather easy: of the over 100 shows I attended this calendar year, exactly and only ten received a four star rating. My top ten list wrote itself. They are, in alphabetical order:

Brighton Beach Memoirs
David Cromer's mournful deconstruction of Neil Simon's classic 1983 roman a clef revealed the layers of tragedy behind the author's one-liners and comedic situations. Sadly, the production--anchored by strong performances from Laurie Metcalf, Jessica Hecht, and brilliant newcomer Noah Robbins--closed only a week after its premiere, and it's companion piece, Broadway Bound, never made it out of the rehearsal room. (Broadway - Nederlander Theatre)

The Cherry Orchard
Of the two productions presented during The Bridge Project's inaugural season at BAM, the lion's share of raves and publicity went to their stark, arresting staging of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. However, it was Sam Mendes' rendering of Chekhov's masterpiece that stayed with me for months afterward. Featuring a fluid translation by Tom Stoppard and benchmark performances from Simon Russell Beale (Lopakhin), Sinead Cusack (Ranevskaya), and Rebecca Hall (Varya), this was the best take on any Chekhov play that New York has seen in the last decade. (Off Broadway - BAM Harvey Theatre)

Joe Turner's Come and Gone
Bartlett Sher once again proved his genius with a magical statement of the late August Wilson's greatest play, set in Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century. As presented by Lincoln Center, it featured a strong cast that included Chad Coleman, Ernie Hudson and Roger Robinson, in a spellbinding, Tony Award winning performance. (Broadway - Belasco Theatre)

Mary Stuart
Over four months after it closed, I am still at a loss for words to describe this brilliant revival of Fredrich Schiller's 1800 classic, which centers around a fictional meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin, the deposed Queen of Scotland. All I can say is that Janet McTeer (as Mary) and Harriet Walter (as Elizabeth) gave two of the greatest performances I will ever see, and that I hope to once again find a theatrical production that moved me as much as this. I won't hold my breath, though. (Broadway - Broadhurst Theatre)

The Orphans' Home Cycle
This epic production, on which Horton Foote was working at the time of his death in March, began performances in November with the first three parts of a nine-play cycle. All nine parts will open within the next few weeks, culminating in marathon performances in February and March 2010. I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to one of the greatest American dramatists of all time (and the $20 price tag cannot be beaten). (Off Broadway - The Signature Theatre Company at the Peter Norton Space)

Marcia Milgrom Dodge's spare new production of this classic American musical permanently raised the bar for Broadway revivals. Featuring a near-flawless cast of twenty-eight, it made me often forget the majesty of the original production. High praise indeed. (Broadway - Neil Simon Theatre)

2009's Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama brilliantly recast Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children in a present-day Congolese brothel. Special praise goes out to Victoire Charles, who performed the conniving Mama Nadi--the Mother Courage stand-in--at the performance I attended. I cannot imagine seeing the role played any better. (Off Broadway - Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I)

A Streetcar Named Desire
Is there anything Cate Blanchett cannot do? The Oscar winning actress shed her Australian actress and all pretenses to convey Tennessee Williams' most tragic southern belle, Blanche DuBois. She was brilliant, and Liv Ullmann's Grand Guignol production complimented her performance perfectly. (Off Broadway - BAM Harvey Theatre)

Twelfth Night
Easily the best Shakespeare in the Park offering in over a decade, Daniel Sullivan's simple, beguiling production of this winning comedy announced Anne Hathaway's arrival as a serious stage presence. Add to that a cast of game stage veterans--including Audra McDonald, Jay O. Sanders, Hamish Linklater, and Julie White--and you had a perfect evening in the Central Park...that is, if you could score a ticket. (Off Broadway - Delacorte Theatre)

Wishful Drinking
We all know that Carrie Fisher is funny and fucked up, but who would have thought that listening to her make light of her neurosis would be such an engrossing evening of theatre? What could have been simply a pleasant little show managed to become the most compelling one-person show in recent memory. (Broadway - Studio 54)

Here's hoping that 2010 and its offerings prove far more satisfying.

photo: Sinead Cusack and Simon Russell Beale in The Cherry Orchard at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Credit: Joan Marcus.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Snow White

Photo: Daniel Perez

It's been a great privilege to be able to experience the arc of all three recent Company XIV dance-theater productions. Le Serpent Rouge and The Judgment of Paris are in revival through mid-January, alternating performances with Snow White. Indulge yourself and see them all, or if you're taking the kids, experience this Snow White – it's a fairy story to remember. Taking the tale straight from the Brothers Grimm, and borrowing a few costuming themes from Disney's classic animated version of the popular but creepy fairy tale, choreographer Austin McCormick and his multi-talented group conjure an extravagant feast for the eye and ear using baroque dance, ballet, and modern dance variously as the spirit calls. Read the full review.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

2009: The Year In Review

Sixteen Most Outstanding Shows

Thirty Outstanding Performances

Four Outstanding Ensembles

Twelve Freshest Faces

Fault Lines

Inspired by the true story of the Polly Klaas kidnapping, this play takes us to the Northern California home of Bethany, a 32-year-old mother of twins receiving a visit from two childhood friends. Though nervous and hyper, chatty Bethany is also a distinctly West Coast type: new-agey without being self-consciously fashionable about it. Over a compact and fast-paced hour, what seems at first an innocent get-together of old girlfriends is revealed, bit by bit, to be something far more significant. As girls, the three – along with a now-absent fourth – shared a trauma that has bonded them for life. Layers of story lurking beneath the obvious methodically come to light: Jessica's political activism has had an unwanted effect on Kat's family; Bethany, in a kind of religious fervor, has been seeing ghosts and consorting with the enemy. It all cascades towards a satisfying, thought-provoking finish. Read the full review.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


The proximity of the recent Oleanna revival just two blocks away makes David Mamet's new play feel just a smidgen formulaic. In both, an angry young woman betrays her mentor because of a grievance for which he is culpable only in an abstract, class-informed way. The thing is, Mamet is so good at provocative audience-baiting dialogue, and Race's major characters so acutely finessed by his cast (he also directed), that it doesn't much matter that we've pretty much heard this story before. Read the full review.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Finian's Rainbow

Conventional wisdom said that Finian's Rainbow, old-fashioned and with once progressive but now supposedly dated themes, wasn't supposed to work in this day and age. Conventional wisdom was dead wrong, and didn't count on the magic that happens when the material is respected and trusted unabashedly. I'd seen the Encores! production and swooned over it, and then saw half of this Broadway transfer a few weeks ago (damn that early 7 PM curtain). Seeing it now, with paying Broadway customers, confirmed how fully the production can captivate and the material can resonate with a contemporary (non-industry, non-aficionado) audience. The show's B-plot, in which a racist white governor is turned black, is the show's trickiest element - if it is not handled in the loving spirit in which it was written, it runs the risk of coming off preachy or worse. It's a testament to this production's resounding success that when the leprechaun Og (played winningly by Christopher Fitzgerald) tells the race-changed governor (Chuck Cooper) that the magic spell should have changed him inside rather than out, this audience applauded spontaneously mid-scene. Conventions that aren't supposed to work anymore - love at first sight, enchanted characters - work as they once dependably did because of the production's wholehearted embrace of them. The result is charming, transporting, even affecting: smart whimsy done miraculously right. The show is blessed with an ideal cast led by the radiant, gorgeous-voiced Kate Baldwin and Broadway's current leading leading man Cheyenne Jackson: their songs together could melt polar ice caps. Whoever thought of and lured Jim Norton into his role is a genius: Norton's performance is perfectly pitched to capture all the humor and a touch of sentimentality while always grounded in something truthful. Fitzgerald, the only major cast change since Encores, swiftly won me over, and I say that as someone who adored predecessor Jeremy Bobb. Terri White makes "Necessity" the best, most pure kind of showstopper - while staying within the confines of what is called for, she sings it with so much heart and musical skill that the audience can't wait to applaud her. The score is full of ageless but not overused gems - "How Are Things In Glocca Mora?", "Ol' Devil Moon", "If This Isn't Love", and so on - and the care has been taken to ensure that they sound warm, balanced and beautiful in the house. (I wish the same level of attention had been paid to the set, the one disappointment of this production, but if sets are a deal-breaker for you I'm sure you aren't here reading my blog anyhow). I'm a fierce proponent of new musicals with fresh, culturally relevant scores, but that doesn't mean I want to see yesteryear's gems left in the dustheap, not when they can shine as brightly as this revival. This is special.

The Great Recession

Reviewed for Theatermania.

So Help Me God!

photo: Richard Termine

One of the definitions of "delicious" for me is "vintage backstage comedy". This one, circa 1927 from Maurine Dallas Watkins (who wrote Roxie Hart, the basis for the musical Chicago), is short on spicy zingers (and a few door slams short of true farce) but it's plenty tasty anyhow. No surprises with the theme or the plot - the wicked stage and all that - so the fun is all in the playing. Comic delight Kristen Johnston, leading a thoroughly capable cast which also includes Anna Chlumsky and Catherine Curtin, plays a glamorous stage diva whose self-absorption knows no bounds as she manipulates everyone in sight, from green high-minded playwright to smitten leading man. She's a hoot and a half, especially in the second act which demands a bit of physical comedy of the "hung over from an all night bender" variety.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

'Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie

Photo: Mirjam Evers

Straight from "the prison circuit" and the land of lutefisk, Vickie and Nickie, otherwise known as real-life sisters Lisa and Lori Brigantino, poke good-natured fun at middle-of-the-road American culture while revving up the crowd with perfectly executed vocal harmonies and musicianship (keyboards, guitar, uke, sax...). In this holiday show they got the balance between spoof and sincerity just right, heavy on the former, belting out Christmas favorites ranging from straight-up takes on "Feliz Navidad" and "Blue Christmas" to Springsteen and Streisand versions of classic carols, supplemented by a couple of punchy original Vickie and Nickie numbers. Amidst the holiday cheer they also worked in hilariously non-jokey versions of "Under Pressure" and that new camp classic, Beyonce's "Single Ladies," which got the audience shouting along in delight. They've discovered, and nailed, the big secret: playing things more or less straight can get more laughs than a lot of horsing around. Read the full review.

Monday, December 07, 2009

My Wonderful Day

photo: Robert Day

When her mom is rushed to the hospital while working as a housemaid, 8 year old Winnie (played credibly and with no trace of preciousness by 28 year old Ayesha Antoine) is left behind in the care of a house full of patronizing adults she doesn't know. As this is a play by (and directed by) Alan Aykbourn, you can be sure that the adults are comic gems - neurotics who are capable of behaving more like children than children and who reveal far more of themselves than they realize. It's especially delicious to see this particular collection of Aykbourn characters given the contrast of a wise-beyond-her years child who (hilariously) mostly takes in their foolishness without a word. There's just one week left of the run (at 59E59, as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival) and all performances are sold out, but it's worth your time to try your luck on the waitlist.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Seven in One Blow, or The Brave Little Kid

Like any good kids' hero, the brave little tailor of Grimm's fairy tale is both bold and clever, defeating powerful enemies by outwitting them. (He also gets the girl.) In this play for children, the tailor is, reasonably enough, turned into an actual kid, and rather than killing the baddies, as in a traditional quest saga like the Twelve Labors of Hercules or The Wizard of Oz, this hero wins their respect and turns them into allies. It's a questionable plot change, as a) the real world does contain real baddies, and b) sometimes one does have to live by one's wits. But it's a nice excuse for songs, bright costumes, and amusing mugging. All in all this is a diverting show for kids up to about eight years old. (The nine-year-old I brought gave it the equivalent of one thumb up.) Read the full review.


photo: Robert J. Saferstein

A wealthy white man (Richard Thomas) stands accused of raping a black woman. Claiming that it was consensual, he has enlisted the services of a particular law firm for one chief reason: both its founding partner, Henry Brown (David Alan Grier), and young associate (Kerry Washington) are African American. Also on the scene is Jack Lawson (James Spader), Brown's white partner, who has conflicted feelings about the nature of the case but decides to focus on a specific factual aspect that, if true, would all but assure acquittal. David Mamet has sidestepped the issue of identity politics in previous plays, but Race is his first evening-long exploration of the topic. It is also his finest work in years. Spader and Grier are both brilliant as best friends and business partners who, try as they might, cannot escape the inbred associations of their races; the former shows not a trace of the legal-eagle showboating for which he became famous on television, and the latter taps into the conflicted nature of his character terrifically. Though his role is slightly underwritten, Thomas strongly conveys the duality of his character: your opinion of his guilt or innocence changes from moment to moment, as it should. And despite early preview reports claiming that she was out of her league, Washington (at the critics' performance I attended) more than held her own against her more-seasoned co-stars and delivered a richly layered performance in one of the most complex female roles Mamet has ever written. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

She Like Girls

Photo: Julie Rossman

This smartly observed play about inner-city kids focuses on the sexual awakening of one in particular. Unlike some "ghetto kid" dramatizations, it avoids the sin of trying too hard. In language that's spicy and realistic, playwright Chisa Hutchinson crafts believable characters who are vividly realized by an excellent cast of mostly newbies. The one thing Ms. Hutchinson can't seem to do is think of an ending. But until that disconcerting, disappointing five seconds, the neatly plotted She Like Girls is an entertaining and affecting journey through one kid's troubled life and psyche. Read the full review.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire

Is Cate Blanchett's Blanche DuBois a Blanche for the ages? Hard to say, this soon, but it's powerful and memorable, and this triumphant production is a highlight of the season. From all the way on the other side of the world, the Sydney Theatre Company, run by Ms. Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton, bravely brings this most American of plays back to America in its full faded glory. The New Orleans accents may be a touch touch-and-go, with lines occasionally hard to make out and Ms. Blanchett's southern drawl marked by a curious semi-lisp (not that these accents are much easier for American actors to master). But the three-plus hours of this nearly flawless production – helmed in inspired, fluid fashion by Liv Ullman (firmly established in a second career as a director) – dash by, leaving us both shaken and stirred. Read the full review.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Everyone wants someone to connect with. Everyone wants to be understood. Everyone wants to be heard. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a group of people, each seeking to be connected, understood, and heard, share their deepest longings with a deaf man, John Singer, who can read lips but can barely keep up with the tsunami of words pouring out of their needy souls. And who will hear him? Rebecca Gilman's adaptation of Carson McCullers' novel efficiently sets up and manages the interlocking storylines and gracefully introduces us to the union organizer, the young music lover, the African-American physician and his family, and the others whose hearts are lonely hunters. Nicely directed by Doug Hughes and well-acted by a strong ensemble cast (standouts include Henry Stram as John Singer and the always excellent Roslyn Ruff), the production is solid but lacks a certain spark.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Photo: Aaron Epstein

Jane's husband Roy died a year ago, and she has been living life at a distance, just getting by. Alan drinks too much and feels lonely and lost. Tom and Marrell's marriage is in even worse shape than they fear. Marrell wants to introduce Jane to a sexy French physician despite Jane's declared lack of interest. From this basic, even somewhat familiar, set up, Melissa James Gibson has wrought a delicate, moving, and funny exploration of loss, memory, adultery, self-pity, and all the different forms of love. The structure of This is elegant, with ideas, pieces of information, and small moments tying together in unexpected and compelling ways. Gibson also allows the play--and the characters--to breathe with moments that just are, such as a remarkably fascinating phone call carried out entirely in French. Subtly directed by Daniel Audin and superbly acted by Louis Cancelmi, Elsa David, Glenn Fitzgerald, Julianne Nicholson, and Darren Pettie, This beautifully presents the quiet moments and everyday interactions that add up to life.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire

I found the much-lauded production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett and directed by Liv Ullman to be a major disappointment. Blanchett's Blanche is full of sound and fury, signifying little. Ullman's heavy-handed direction pairs skin-deep overwrought performances with arbitrary images, as when Blanche moves from the floor to the bed for no reason other than to allow the light from a passing train to illuminate her alabaster skin and long neck, then returns to the floor for no reason at all. Joel Edgerton as Stanley has a nice chest, but he looks like Conan O'Brien, which is fine for a talkshow host but not for a Stanley. His voice is wrong for the part, his performance is one note, and his eyes fail to participate in his acting. The set is too dingy, ugly, and bare; Stanley and Stella aren't rich, and they don't care much about appearances, but they'd own a bit of furniture. The all-important curtain between the two rooms isn't large enough, leading to awkward staging. Many moments are played for laughs that shouldn't be played for laughs. Even the poster (see above) seems wrong. [spoilers in the next paragraph]

Because this Streetcar is overdirected and overacted from the beginning, there is no place to go for the final scenes except way way too far. By Blanche and Stanley's big showdown, Blanche is so drunk and damaged that the rape loses any sense of revenge, reclaiming turf, and showing who's boss and is just plain icky. It also loses its sense of being the tipping point, the place from which Blanche cannot return--in this version, Blanche has passed that point long ago. And when the people from the asylum come to take Blanche away, she leaves the house in her slip, without shoes. I do not believe that Blanche would do that, nor do I believe that Stella would let her. At the very end, Blanche walks away from the "kind stranger" and wanders across the stage until she reaches her mark for another moment of illumination of her alabaster skin and long neck. And then the show is over, eliminating the resumption of the poker game with its sense of life cold-heartedly returning to normal.

A few months ago, I saw an excellent production of Streetcar at the Barrington Stage Company (review here). In that production, every acting and directing decision was made in service of the play. This production is more like a riff on Streetcar, one that does not do it justice.

For the record, the second the show ended, the audience, after guffawing raucously throughout, leapt to their feet and cheered.