Sunday, January 31, 2010

Goodbye Cruel World

photo: Jim Baldassare

Poor unemployed Semyon (Paco Tolson) has never been so popular as when he decides to shoot himself. Suddenly several strata of Russian society are beating down his door to lay claim as the inspiration for his upcoming suicide. That's about the gist of this slice of dark (often existential) humor adapted from Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide by director Robert Ross Parker. The original play had enough political criticism to get its playwright banished to Siberia during Stalin's reign and you can certainly still see why, but as presented here the tone is more zany than heavy - one can greatly enjoy the production either for the intelligent sting of its text, for the contagious joy with which this distinct brand of comedy is put over by a game cast of 6, or (preferably) for both at the same time. Cast standout: William Jackson Harper, an actor I've admired in several dramas who here displays dead-on comic timing.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Present Laughter

photo: T. Charles Erickson

In The Roundabout's ill-judged revival you see plenty of what you never should in Noel Coward: sweat and effort. As the vainglorious stage actor at the center of the comedy, Victor Garber looks every inch the distinguished part from opera slippers to plush smoking jacket but he surprisingly seems to lack the larger-than-life size that's needed to drive the show. To compensate he pushes hard, often with fatal flop-sweat results. The production doesn't do him many favors, thanks to direction that doesn't find the needed rhythm and a supporting cast that misses the mark. Brooks Ashmanskas, usually a dependably spot-on performer, gives a hyperactive performance that people are talking about for the wrong reasons: he's so far out of the style of the piece that the laughs he mugs for work actively against the play. I watched most of his performance through two fingers. A couple of solid performances, from Harriet Harris (delicious as the actor's cynical secretary) and Lisa Banes (exactly in the style of the piece as the wise, sharp-witted ex-wife) are the evening's mitigating pleasures.

Time Stands Still

photo: Joan Marcus

In Time Stands Still, an expertly crafted drama of issues by Donald Margulies, Laura Linney gives the kind of performance about which theatre lovers dream: slow-boiling, committed, and exactingly realized. She is Sarah, a passionate photojournalist whose last assignment (covering the war) left her maimed but still invigorated. This dismays her longtime lover James (Brian d'Arcy James, excellent), a writer who is ready to get out of the combat zone and settle down in Brooklyn. Margulies wisely allows this conflict to play out leisurely through the first act, with the characters able to put all their feelings on the proverbial table. It makes for arresting theatre, and Linney and James more than convince as a couple whose love for each other might not be as strong as their professional drive. Their experience is mirrored in the play's second couple: Richard (Eric Bogosian, terrific in his long-awaited Broadway debut), Sarah's editor and former lover; and Mandy (a phenomenal Alicia Silverstone), his somewhat mindless young wife. Despite Sarah's manufactured contempt for them, you cannot help but notice James longing for a relationship like theirs. This well-crafted realization, along with many other factors, make this the first must-see new play of 2010.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Time Stands Still

Donald Margulies' intriguing Time Stands Still (nicely directed by Daniel Sullivan) focuses on Sarah, a photographer who was almost killed by a roadside bomb; Laura Linney plays Sarah with her usual intelligence, sensitivity, and subtlety. While taking care of Sarah, James, her long-time partner in life and work (well-played by Brian d'Arcy James), continues to navigate his own recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder. To James, the universe has given the couple a sign that it's time to retire from covering wars. To Sarah, being injured is an interruption, not an end. Is James too ready to compromise or is Sarah an adrenaline junky? Or both? Their close friend and editor, Richard (Eric Bogosian), joyously involved with a much younger woman (the wry Alicia Silverstone), just wants his friends to be safe and as happy as he is--but not at the price of compromising his own values. Touching on themes of loyalty, leading a meaningful life, and what people owe each other, both across countries and in intimate relationships, Time Stands Still nicely contrasts big-picture ideas with the quotidian details in the life of a troubled couple.

A View From The Bridge

photo: Joan Marcus

In Arthur Miller's oft-revived drama, which puts a Greek tragedy in an Italian-American household in Red Hook circa 1955, we watch a longshoreman (Liev Schreiber) tortured by unfulfilled desire when the niece (Scarlett Johannson) he raised as a daughter prepares to leave the nest. This production isn't likely to make anyone initially confuse him with a loving, overprotective surrogate parent - Schreiber plays the character like he has something to be ashamed of from the get-go. His clenched-fist performance goes too far in that direction to permit much identification with him - that mutes the tragedy somewhat, but compensates with a distinct ferocity. Johansson is terrific - she disappears into the character so easily and achieves her effects so simply that she seems effortless. Jessica Hecht, as the longshoreman's long-suffering wife, is best of all. She renders the character's no-nonsense clarity and inner strength without putting her on a cross.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray

photo: Ofer Zimdni

Oscar Wilde's story, of a beautiful young man who trades his soul for eternal youth and the hedonistic pleasures it offers, has too much wit to ever get old. Still, it's a disappointment that this slow-going production, adapted by Daniel Mitura, drains the source material of its vicarious fun and its sexual kick. It plays like a synopsis, with the events of the book lined up in order without the passion that would shape them into a compelling narrative. As Dorian Gray, the young innocent whose portrait ages while he remains young and grows increasingly soulless, Will Petre has some terrific moments (especially later in the play) despite being physically wrong for the role. He's a grown-up hunk, taller than the rest of the cast - not ideal for a character who needs to appear far more youthful than the men who are enthralled by him. The director (Henning Hegland) makes a couple of striking choices - there's an effective and creative scene transition which ages a couple of the characters - but too many moments between the actors have been left thin and underexplored. The show's most successful performance is by Vayu O'Donnell as cynical affected Henry; the actor keeps you aware that even the character's most inhumanly cold cruelties are rooted in very human jealousy. Kaolin Bass registers vividly in one of the show's smallest roles.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Venus In Fur

photo: Joan Marcus

David Ives' absorbing, consistently entertaining one-act isn't an adaptation of the infamous novel of erotic masochism "Venus In Furs". Instead, it centers on the power dynamic between a playwright/director (Wes Bentley) who's adapted the novel and the mysterious actress (Nina Arianda) he auditions to star in it. The framing conceit is a brilliant stroke - it allows the contemporary characters to both play out an S&M relationship that echoes the one in the book, while also challenging and commenting on it. The first third of the play is disarmingly funny: the actress storms in late to the audition seeming a clueless jumble of neurotic trivialities, just the kind of dime-a-dozen girl the playwright/director has been seeing and complaining about all day. When it's time to get to work she's a different person: intense, sensuous, unflinchingly present. The contrast results in a lot of laughs until we learn enough about the character to be actively suspicious and on alert. Bentley has the less showy role and does well with it - he wisely underplays and lets the character's hidden pathology rise to the surface incrementally, believably. Arianda's rich, many-layered performance is the kind of debut that makes your jaw drop. You watch her, marveling at her navigation of the role's changing moods and deepening colors, and think of dozens upon dozens of roles you want to see her play, everything from The Owl And The Pussycat to The Sea Gull. She's nothing short of astonishing.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A View From the Bridge

photo: Joan Marcus

It takes less than five minutes of watching Gregory Mosher's superb production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge to realize why this particular drama is revived so often: aside from being tautly written and briskly paced, it is an ideal showcase into which a group of talented actors can sink their teeth. And in that respect, we seem to have hit the motherload. Playing brilliantly against type, Liev Schreiber gives his best performance to date (in any medium) as Eddie Carbone, the paranoid longshoreman who cannot shake a sexual attraction to his beloved niece, Catherine (Scarlett Johansson, in an electric Broadway debut). Schreiber burrows under Eddie's skin and manages to convey the wide array of Eddie's emotions, along with the guilt that they proffer. Fresh off her turn in the much-too-short-lived Brighton Beach Memoirs, Jessica Hecht steps into the role of another long-suffering Brooklyn matron--Eddie's neglected wife, Beatrice--with aplomb. A consistently solid stage actress, Hecht also scores a personal triumph here, genuinely reflecting Eddie's conscience. The rest of the cast, which also includes the usually cloying Michael Cristofer as a surprisingly effective Alfieri, is top-to-bottom terrific, and Mosher's fluid staging is refreshingly unimposing, allowing the actors to work their magic on the text. The entire evening is a testament to the power of American drama.

A View From the Bridge

Photo: Joan Marcus

Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, a story of love, obsession, and betrayal, has many flaws. Miller hammers in his themes again and again and neglects to convince us that protagonist Eddie Carbone is a good man, worth caring about in the first place. Also, the device of the lawyer telling us the story is clunky. But the current production, directed by Gregory Mosher, is so gripping that the flaws fade into the background. Liev Shreiber's Eddie Carbone is willfully blind to his own behavior and petulant and hurt when others judge him. His wife can see what is going on all too well, and the depth and searing reality of Jessica Hecht's performance does much to make this production the success it is. Scarlett Johansson, unfortunately, is not in a league with the other two, and while she doesn't hurt the show much, she doesn't contribute much either.

Friday, January 22, 2010

[title of show] (Boston)

Photo: Todd H. Page

Happily, the New England premiere of this 2008 Broadway musical comedy has two gifted performers at its center. Jordan Ahnquist and Joe Lanza furrow and shimmy their way through a lighthearted yet soulful dramatization of friendship and the creative process, with agility, panache, and musicality. Both have the ability to command the stage without hamming (though Mr. Lanza is a more than credible ham when he wants to be). The show itself feels a little pudgy around the middle, and there are a few vocal issues, but overall this production is a delightful evening of theater, with loads of energy, sprightly staging by director Paul Daigneault, and smart and boisterous choreography by David Connolly. Read the full review.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Present Laughter

photo: Joan Marcus

More than any other playwright save perhaps Shakespeare, the works of Noel Coward need to be executed precisely in order to be fully enjoyed. Largely plotless and populated with characters so preening and entitled that they're liable to make your skin crawl, productions of his comedies of manners rely heavily on actors who understand the cadences of his language and directors skilled enough to let the humor come from a solid reading of the text, rather than a pure reliance on pratfalls and slamming doors. Unfortunately, Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of Present Laughter (first seen at Boston's Huntington Theatre in 2007) is a misfire in nearly every conceivable way. Victor Garber, who is usually drier than Bombay Sapphire, is oddly frenetic as Garry Essendine, a stage actor and London playboy on the cusp of realizing that his youth is behind him. He intones his lines as if performing in a Shakespearean tragedy, while offering no feeling for either the wit or the remorse in the text. This approach feels out of place in Nicholas Martin's slick physical production, which would appear to call for a most straightforward rending of Essendine's post-midlife crisis. The supporting cast offers Garber no real support: From Brooks Ashmankas' embarrassing and anachronistic young playwright to the ingratiating Lisa Banes and Pamela Jane Gray as the women in Essendine's life, each performer seems to be overacting in their own terrible play. Only Harriet Harris' loyal secretary manages to delight, but it isn't enough. Present Laughter is an arduous evening with nary a laugh to be had.

The Man In Room 306

photo: Pier Baccaro

In this pedestrian solo one-act, Craig Allen Edwards plays Martin Luther King Jr. om the eve of the civil rights leader's assassination, holed up in his Memphis motel room and plagued by doubts. The portrait of King as written is not especially convincing - there's no trace of the talented strategist we know from movies like Boycott and the play The Conscientious Objector - and the playwrighting is labored: there's a limit to how often we want to sit still for passages that begin with a variation of "I remember when such and such happened". If King's remembrances have been shaped toward a purpose, it's one that attempts to remove the hero's halo and humanize him. But apart from a few stretches about King's relationship with his father, the material isn't intimate enough for the task. Edwards delivers most of the play's lines as if he's playing to a balcony that doesn't exist.

The Second Time Around

The amazing Tyne Daly is appearing through January 30th at Feinstein's at Loews Regency in a cabaret act she has named The Second Time Around (although, interestingly, she does not sing the song of that name). She opens the evening with a cleverly self-referential rewrite of "The Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball," then presents an unusual and satisfying array of songs, including a lovely a capella mid-13th-century air called "O Waly, Waly"; a poignant medley combining "Sonny Boy" and "Ain't No Sunshine"; a sweet and funny "Adelaide's Lament"; and a wonderful version of "Stardust" in French. Her voice is not the best in the world, but it is pleasing, and her acting, if not the best in the world, is in the top 1% of the top 1% of the top 1%. She seems incapable of doing anything false or phony; even her most potentially cliche moments--a joke about singing flat, a dramatic long pause--lose their "used" feeling because of her honesty, subtlety, and commitment. And her diction is perfect. Daly's soft-spoken patter is charming, and she has the wisdom to surround herself with a top-notch quintet (piano, cello, bass, winds, and drums). My favorite moments were her kick-ass bluesy rendition of "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair" (lyrics by Bessie Smith), with wonderful work by the band, and her medley of three songs from the Jerry Herman musical Dear World. The latter had the feeling almost of an audition, and I hope that some producer or other or the people at Encores! make sure she gets to star in that show--she'd nail it and then some. (By the way, the generally expensive Feinstein's has instituted a limited-availability $40 ticket with no minimum, putting it in reach of a larger audience.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Beautiful Girls

Marin Mazzie

A revue of songs about women, written by Stephen Sondheim and sung by Marin Mazzie, Donna McKechnie, Jenn Colella, and Zoe Caldwell--what could possibly go wrong? Here's what: Lonnie Price could direct and write the "continuity." Price is a master of schlock, and he did not miss an opportunity to insert a stupid joke or an annoying bit of business. His decision to interrupt a lovely overture of songs from Follies (beautifully played by the Manhattan School of Music Chamber Sinfonia) with a truly embarrassing bit about three of the performers not knowing when the show started revealed immediately that he was more interested in displaying his (far-from-prodigious) imagination than the genius of Sondheim and the great talent of the performers. His two running gags--age jokes and bitchy competition between women--were not only dated and puerile, but they also were insulting to the intelligence and professionalism of the performers and really tiresome to the audience (not to mention arguably sexist). For the time he devoted to his directorial/writing schtick, there could have been three or four more songs--and we were there for the songs. Luckily, Price's tastelessness was not enough to completely ruin the evening. Any occasion to hear Sondheim's work with a full orchestra is a special occasion--after all, if you pay $135 to see A Little Night Music on Broadway you only get to hear a small band. Many of the performances were wonderful--for example, Donna McKechnie's "I'm Still Here," Jenn Colella's "Anyone Can Whistle," and Zoe Caldwell's "Liaisons." The highlight of the show was anything and everything by Marin Mazzie, from her angry "Not a Day Goes By" to her heartfelt "Every Day a Little Death" to her best-I've-ever-heard "Miller's Son." (An unexpected treat occurred when Mazzie's mike died and her voice rang out, unamplified, clear as a bell, gorgeous. I was sad when they fixed it.) Someone needs to write that woman a show!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Good Negro (Boston Premiere)

I can't think of too many better ways to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we observe this weekend, than to attend a performance of Tracey Scott Wilson's critically acclaimed The Good Negro. This also happens to be the opening weekend of the play's Boston premiere. It's the first play I've seen in Boston since my time here in the dimly remembered 1980s, but if it's characteristic of the quality of the city's homegrown theater, I have a lot to look forward to during my stay here in 2010. This is a solid production of a very good play, brought to life by an excellent cast. It succeeds in humanizing the civil rights leaders who too often appear in history books as pure angels of perseverance and moral clarity. Read the full review.

Ernest In Love

photo: Carol Rosegg

I wouldn't go so far as to say that this musicalization of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is a lost gem found, but it certainly has its charms. To its credit it's true to the spirit of Wilde's delicious comedy of manners, and its songs are well-placed and musically pleasing. This revival (at Irish Rep) is not ideal - for one thing it's cheap-looking to a distracting degree - but most of the cast is terrific and make the most of the lively, amusing material. I especially liked male leads Noah Racey and Ian Holcomb - the former gets a moment to give his tap shoe leather a workout, and the latter rides a fun line between carnal and dandy. The always-great Beth Fowler has still-lipped fun with the patter song "A Handbag Is Not A Proper Mother".

Saturday, January 16, 2010

10. Teaser Cow

Using a teaser cow's artificial vagina to capture prime bull semen may seem like a good idea at the time (well, an efficient idea), but in actuality, it's just a way for everyone to get fucked faster. Clay MacLeod Chapman's collaboration with the Greek-centric company One Year Lease rushes to mash-up Crete and Fast Food Nation, and the result compromises much of what made them good in the first place. When focused on the Minos family--Minos (Gregory Waller), bull-fucking wife Pasiphae (Sarah-Jane Casey), and outcast teenage daughter Ariadne (Christina Bennett Lind)--his monologues work, particularly in relation to the tragic theme: "We treat our meat like family!" (Yes, but how do you treat your family?) But the corporate bits fall flat: though Daedalus (Nick Flint) has mad cow, he shouldn't be singing an explanation of steroidal farming, and Theseus (Danny Bernardy) abruptly shifts from Ariadne's beau to a minotaur "slaying" wage-slave. To get corporate for a moment, what's missing is the synergy: you can't just herd a bunch of talent together and expect something fresh.

[Read on]

Little Gem

The lovely and well-named Little Gem introduces us to three generations of women in an Irish family: Kay (Anita Reeves), on the "far side of sixty" and caring for her beloved husband, who has had a stroke; Lorraine (Hilda Fay), her daughter, who tries to keep her anxiety and unhappiness in check by keeping things very neat and clean; and Amber (Sarah Greene), Lorraine's teenaged daughter, in love with a young man who is not quite in love with her. Through alternating monologues, they tell us of their lives, loves, fears, and adventures, including Kay's foray into the land of sex toys, Lorraine's quest to do "one nice thing for herself," and Amber's unexpected but not necessarily unwanted pregnancy. Seeing Little Gem is like spending an hour and a half with three wonderful women who you wish didn't talk quite so much. (Personally, I would have much preferred a series of scenes with the women interacting--perhaps supplemented with monologues--rather than the turn-taking, straight-to-the-audience, no-variety approach.) The cast is top-notch: Sarah Greene completely captures Amber's unsureness and growing maturity (although her accent was more than occasionally indecipherable), Anita Reeves beautifully combines the heartbreak of having a seriously ill husband with deep gratitude for every day she has had with him, and Hilda Fay depicts Lorraine's love-inspired transition with a performance so total and so genuine that by the end of the play she looks like a completely different--happy!--person.


Photo: Carol Rosegg

The ultrasound showed only a smudge, and now the real baby is no better defined--a large head, one eye, one leg, probably a girl. Her mother cannot even look at her; her father dotes on her or perhaps on an image of her in his mind. Written by Emmy-winner Rachel Axler and directed by Pam MacKinnon, Smudge attempts to combine comedy and tragedy, surrealism and realism, but it lacks the delicate touch necessary to make that combination work. The audience I saw it with fell silent after the first 10 minutes or so following some awkward guffawing from a handful of people. If Axler wants to examine women's fear of not bonding with their child and/or of having an unhealthy child, it might have been more effective to write a baby with at least a few human attributes to anchor the story to reality. And the pseudo-Exorcist touches add little but confusion. The cast, particularly Cassie Beck, is excellent and gets as much out of the uneven script as is there to be gotten.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Safe Home

photo: Alex Koch

This 90 minute one-act by Sean Cullen convincingly depicts a working class family in 1950's Buffalo whose eldest son Lucky (Eric Miller) dies in the Korean War. The otherwise straightforward play is arranged so that its scenes play out of order - we learn in the first that Lucky has died, and in the subsequent scenes watch the family either coping with the loss or interacting with him before he goes off to war. The structure isn't pretentious - it purposefully puts our focus directly on the family dynamics (more tough than affectionate) and allows the play's most affecting, emotionally loaded scene to catch us by surprise. The playwright does well with kitchen-sink realism - he judiciously scales the conflicts and the dialogue consistently rings true - but some of the characters have been left a bit sketchy on the page. The production uses projections at either end of the stage, partly to orient us about the flashbacks - I feared initially that the visuals would work against the play's quiet naturalism, but in fact they were restrained and sometimes used to evocative effect. The production also boasts a few very fine performances - Michael Cullen is at every moment convincing as the father, and Katy Wright Mead (in a supporting role) is absolutely spot-on in the play's most heartbreaking scene.


Reviewed for Theatermania.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

9. Smudge

Smudge is the first Women's Project show I haven't enjoyed in quite a while, and that's because I just don't believe it. I've no problem with Rachel Axler creating a one-eyed, one-tailed "baby" to stand in as a metaphor that's as equally abstracted as the modern marriage, nor in her using this nightmare scenario to explore the deep-seated parental fears of everyman Nick (Greg Keller) and everywoman Colby (Cassie Beck). But I do have a problem with Axler deciding to keep things smudged--primarily, choosing to ignore whether or not the baby is real (Pam MacKinnon's grounded direction doesn't help with this--it needs far more whimsy and terror), but also blandly mixing in a supertheme (the nature of probability--Nick's job at the census bureau--and how it factors into "love"), and taking the cheap road of throwing in a potential affair between Colby and Nick's sitcom brother, Pete (Brian Sgambati). The writing's also inconsistent and lazily comic: a drama that knows it isn't emotionally truthful enough to be a drama, and so attempts to pass itself off as a comedy instead. The smudge that's born in Smudge ends up being the play itself, not the baby within it.

[Read on]

The Truth About Love...and the Usual Lies

Soprano Jessica Medoff, the fabulous Sorceress in Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas a year ago, showcased another side of her ability, weaving art songs and show tunes together, as she and her husband, the very talented pianist Michael Bunchman, presented a song cycle of their own on the inexhaustible subject of love. A highlight for me was Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny," a hyper-passionate wail that can really take the measure of a singer; Ms. Medoff was all over that thing like a hungry lioness. "I Don't Care Much" from Cabaret was equally intense in a quieter way. To lighten the mood we had the very funny "Taylor the Latte Boy" together with its answer, "Taylor's Response" (sung artfully by Mr. Bunchman from the piano); the plaintively sweet "There's a Fine, Fine Line" from Avenue Q came across with understated sensitivity. The show also introduced audiences (at least semi-ignorant ones like me) to art songs by the likes of Aaron Copland and William Bolcom. One remarkable thing was the two performers' seamless connection; it's as if they can read each others' minds, piano and voice flowing together in perfect sympathy, and Ms. Medoff has a finely calibrated control, equally steady from pianissimo to fortissimo. The edifying and enjoyable program showed off her range without going overboard.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

8. Hostage Song

I would assume that everyone who writes seriously about theater has at least one show they're extra passionate about. For me, that's Hostage Song, the indie rock musical from the "downtown supergroup" of Clay MacLeod Chapman, Kyle Jarrow, and Oliver Butler, which just happens to also star Hannah Cheek and Paul Thureen. I hope this limited revival for visiting APAP members will help it to return on a more permanent basis, and that they understand that audiences need to see roughness and grit on the stage, too, and not just the meaningless artifice of emotionless polish. Hostage Song may not be pretty--especially once you learn that at least one of the two hostages has already died, and that much of this play is a tragic memory--but it is beautiful, and its moments are hard-earned.

7. Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen

The first time the thirteen teenagers of Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen come on stage, it's a spontaneous burst of energy. Two boys flick each other with balloons; two girls splash, spit, and pour water on one another; a boy and a girl get a little romantic while tangled up in a garbage bag; a skateboard flies by--also, a scooter; a tower of cups is stacked and smashed; chairs go flying--kids do, too. The sheer volume of things happening--to say nothing of the actual volume, particularly when there's mood-setting music playing--perfectly represents the overwhelming task Alexander Devriendt has given to his cast: to express the inexpressible: the intense feeling, spontaneity, and freedom of youth.  The exuberant joy--and, to be fair, awkward frustrations--of the following "scenes" stems from attempting to recapture those anarchic moments when other conditions--the world's perceptions/requirements--are layered atop them, yet the cast succeeds, time and time again, at retaining the originality they feel necessary to remain relevant.

[Read on]

Once And For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen

photo: Phile Deprez

About halfway through this wildly energetic hour of astutely organized chaos I knew I'd never seen anything on stage before that so succinctly captured the fleeting impulsive abandon of adolescence. Even the impossibly long in-your-face title is authentically teenage. There are a few monologues, and perhaps one segment that could be called a traditional scene, but otherwise the show has the vibrantly messy thrill of a free-for-all, as if the 13 teenagers we see on stage have just wandered there to make it their playground. While Velvet Underground blares from the loudspeakers, the kids break off within the group to snap elastic bands at each other, or grope each other clumsily in make-out sessions, or stand on chairs as if they are airplanes. There's something deeply truthful in these exhibitions of playful discovery - it's impossible to watch and not remember the boundless energy, curiosity and hunger of being a teenager. The hour is divided into distinct segments and has clearly been shaped and choreographed, if that's the word, but the behavior on stage typically feels organic, as if the kids are just being rather than performing for our benefit. It's completely captivating and like nothing I have ever seen before. At the Duke as part of this year's Under The Radar festival, a stop on its world tour following a huge splash 2 years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Friday, January 08, 2010

6. The Word Begins

I'm tired of plays like this, in which two actors regurgitate a stand-up routine into a one-act. In which a show boasts of the importance of independent thought and speech, but doesn't want us to actually think for ourselves. Where self-congratulatory nuggets pose as wisdom: "The only way to end war is to end war," and we can end racism if we "fuck ourselves beige." In The Word Begins, Steven Connell and Sekou (tha misfit) Andrews stress the importance of being specific, only to produce one of the most general bits of spoken-word I've ever seen. The result is straw-man theater, which offers up a sacrifice of unassailable facts in the hopes that we will accept it as wit and wisdom, ignoring the lack of reasons, emotions, or truth. What good is a spoken-word play that is all talk? Why are we content to just write a beginning?

[Read on]

5. Space Panorama

Photo/Nitin Vadukul

Given how easily Andrew Dawson's Space Panorama conjures up the famous 1969 moon landing, using nothing other than his dexterous fingers and a flat black table, I can at last understand why some people still insist that the whole thing was a hoax. Then again, while Dawson's pulling off a sort of theatrical prestidigitation--epic mime, if you will--his act is no simple trick. Instead, it's a sublime ode to human accomplishment, aided by Gavin Robertson's jovially recorded narration and Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. It puts the "special" in "special effect"; no matter how much money James Cameron throws at a project, it will never be as genuine. That's because Dawson's Space Panorama forces the audience to be just as imaginative as he is.

[Read on]

Thursday, January 07, 2010

4. L'Effet De Serge

GaĆ«tan Vourc’h's performance may be minimal, but the effect of Philippe Quesne's show is maximal. L'Effet De Serge is a reminder of the possibility of theater, and by putting the utmost of confidence and sincerity into the smallest of moments, it rekindles the forgranted beauty of the everyday. Even his basic apartment brims with possibility, stretched wide with a variety of toys and electronics clustered on one end, and nothing but empty space (and carpeting) on the other. The play itself consists of Serge (Vourc'h) inviting friends over, generally one by one, and then performing a small visual effect for them, so intimately absurd (like playing with a smoke machine and the headlights of a car to the music of Wagner) that his guests are left unable to express their reaction ("I didn't know you could do that with a car"). "Time passes, time passes," explains a Beckett-like recording, allowing Serge to smoothly segue from performance to performance, and the climax comes so quickly, so quietly, that it leaves its audience smiling, nodding, and dizzily returning to the real world.

[Read on]

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

3. Versus

Photo/Teatr Nowy

Take a Brecht play--In the Jungle of Cities--and then reduce it to four characters. Maintain the alienation effect, doubly so by performing it in Polish, with English supertitles. Emphasize the vulnerability of the characters by having them do increasingly physical acts, and by only half clothing them. Make sure they embody the art of wrestling, with its "performative exaggerations." Remember that the audience wants not to see actual suffering, but an honest simulacrum of it. Sum all of that up with a big old "meh": we beat ourselves up enough already, that's the point, so why subject us to a show that does the same? The best moments, acutely physical, use the illusion of performance to show things that are not illusions. But in the end, because this battle means nothing, it can only be a let-down.

[Read on]

2. GuruGuru

Interactive theater can be somewhat limiting, especially if you're so involved in hitting your own cues that you forget to look up and catch what the other "audience-actors" are sending your way. Rotozaza's latest, GuruGuru, neatly avoids that trap by making that the very point. Without giving too much away, upon your arrival, you will receive a nametag that identifies your "character," and upon entering the "set," you'll follow directions via television and headphones. Your character's problem involves the inability to think independently, which makes your own portrayal--reliant as you are on cues to figure out what's going on--all the more fitting, if not prescient. It's a trippy experience, a valid meditation on
our current cultural abyss and our worship of drone-life. The show ends in either a truly liberating or truly frightening way: with you back in the real world, more aware than ever of your own thoughts, and their importance.

[Read on]

The Devil You Know

photo: Richard Termine

A collaboration between Ping Chong and Phantom Limb that uses (mostly marionette) puppets to retell the Faustian The Devil and Daniel Webster story, The Devil You Know is a strangely compelling piece of theatre. The visually striking designs, from the blank-faced puppets to the dark rustic rooms, are more haunting than comforting and the thematic implication of marionettes, every move controlled from on high, is in fascinating opposition to a text that warns against the human choice of selfishness. The show, at LaMama and part of this year's Under The Radar festival, satisfies at the most basic level of simple storytelling if taken at face value, but its strange special power comes from what's beneath the surface.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Two guys, involved in an ongoing intergenerational hook-up, face off on gay hot button issues during an apparently rare hour on rather than under the sheets. Given the very real generational chasm in gay urban culture, there should be more interesting material in this premise than the first-time playwright finds: he's more written (half-naked) mouthpieces than people. Worse, he hasn't written a fair fight: everytime the older guy makes a point or two the playwright is quick to put the character in his place by giving him some repellent bit of business. (Sometimes not only repellent but irresponsible: as the character made a display of his prejudice against lesbians, generally depicting them as troublemakers who hindered rather than helped AIDS efforts, I was horrified to realize that an otherwise uninformed person could take this for fact.) The characters are so strategically, unsurprisingly opposed on every talking point that there is no credible reason why they wouldn't stop talking and either end the evening or take it back to bed. The actors (I saw able understudies Rik Walter and Joel T. Bauer) do quite a lot to fix this huge credibility lapse by signaling attraction and by trying for levels, but they've been asked to breathe life into cardboard.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The Barber of Seville

The staff at the new Bleecker Street Opera seemed unprepared for the full house. Everything was a little disorganized, and the show started late. The Rosina (Malena Dayen) was recovering from bronchitis. The Bartolo was a last-minute substitute who needed line cues from conductor/music director David Rosenmeyer. Mr. Rosenmeyer himself had been a late addition to the team after the unexpected departure of Paul Haas. And with all that, what did we get? Not technical perfection, it's true, but a thoroughly enjoyable and in some respects exceptional production, thanks to the cast of superb singers, the hardworking Mr. Rosenmeyer and his mini-orchestra, and a talented production team led by stage director Teresa K. Pond. William Browning was a simply glorious Figaro. Read the full review.

1. The Understudy

Photo/Sara Krulwich

Underwhelming. Theresa Rebeck satirizes the profound "art" of theater by creating something that is far from profound, and in which her actors--Justin Kirk, Julie White, and Mark-Paul Gosselar--can basically play themselves. It's tongue-in-cheek because it uses a rehearsal for an "undiscovered" Kafka play to represents the Kafkaesque nature of being the understudy of an understudy in a world in which audiences won't see shows unless there are stars in it. And though it's hard to resist Kirk's passionate appeal for just doing the work, or Gosselar's discovery that performance can be deeper than a line reading, the readiness is not all. Unless you're trying to be artificial, and White's about the only person who makes that whip-snappingly worthwhile.