Monday, May 31, 2010

The Metal Children

Photo: Carol Rosegg

How much responsibility for a reader's behavior resides with the author? When, if ever, is it okay for a school board to pull books from a school's library and/or curriculum? These are the two main questions addressed in Adam Rapp's fascinating new play The Metal Children. When Tobin Falmouth (played by Billy Crudup with quiet brilliance) hears that his young adult novel has become the center of a huge controversy in small town, he doesn't care much. Actually, he doesn't care much about anything other than smoking weed and wallowing in the fact that his wife has left him. But when his agent (David Greenspan, in his usual performance) bribes him to make an appearance in the small town, he finds himself surrounded by people who care very much indeed, some going so far as to treat his novel as a sort of bible/blueprint for a new life, others resorting to violence. Rapp locates the play somewhere between reality and not, and leaves many questions--both theoretical and plotwise--unanswered, which is effective. The tone is sometimes uneven, but the play is smart and often funny; supporting cast members Guy Boyd, Betsy Aidem, Susan Blommaert, and Connor Barrett invest their excellent performances with compassion and intelligence; and thoughts get provoked. Most importantly, Rapp lets all sides have their say and labels no one a hero or a villain. The Metal Children is what a play should be: full of life and ideas. (Two other things: The young woman is too too articulate. I know brilliant 16-year-olds; they're still 16-year-olds. And no one sits casually with a knife, point down, in his back pocket .)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Glass Menagerie

photo: Joan Marcus

No matter how many times you've seen tragedy unfold for the Wingfield family - Amanda desperately selling those magazine subscriptions by phone, Tom taking those codified night time trips to the movies, Laura blowing out her candles - you're likely to be astonished by this current off-Broadway revival. This "new interpretation" of the Williams classic (from Roundabout by way of Long Wharf) may not quite qualify as a reinvention, but it's nonetheless fresh and surprising. The most defining of director Gordon Edelstein's contributions is his decision to have the memory play spring to life as Tom tortures it out of himself on a typewriter, anesthetized by booze. This may seem a minor distinction, but in the playing it's remarkably powerful. The conceit allows Patch Darragh, brilliant as Tom, to bring a booze-soaked toxicity to some of his line readings, and it allows some of the more charged exchanges between Tom and Amanda (Judith Ivey, superb) to play like black comedy. Bold choices also distinguish the play's other 2 performances - Keira Keely may over-emphasize the handicap, but she otherwise doesn't play Laura as a physical weakling: you can feel Laura's strength every time she walks across the stage in a broken but determined stride. Even Jim, Laura's "Gentleman Caller", feels freshly imagined thanks to a surprising, underplayed aloofness in Josh Charles' characterization.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

New Islands Archipelago

photo: Darien Bates

Talking Band's latest experimental piece, currently at 3LD Art & Technology Center, is that rare example of multimedia theatre in which video projections are used judiciously, presented artfully, and kept in disciplined service of the story. Set on a cruise ship, with just enough visual theming to qualify as environmental but not so much as to become kitsch, the unpretentious, often whimsical collage-like play drifts from vignette to vignette as it tracks an increasingly strange trip at sea. We meet specific, vivid characters, and we learn some backstories, but there's an engaging ambiguity to the piece as it builds: its meaning is more meant to be intuited than explicitly spelled out by narrative. Gradually, the show's mix of music (by Ellen Maddow), scenes (writer-director Paul Zimet), movement pieces (Tigger!), and multimedia (Simon Tarr) combine to evoke the feeling of a gentle, waking dream. This has to be one of the most theatrically sound and memorable pieces I have yet to see at 3LD.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Promises, Promises with Sarah Jane Everman

The sweet-voiced and comically gifted Sarah Jane Everman filled in quite ably for Kristin Chenoweth at last night's performance. But really the show belongs to its main character, Chuck, played with elastic vivacity by the brilliant Sean Hayes, who though best known for TV's Will and Grace turns out to have boundless stage energy and a very nice singing voice to boot. And a big chunk of the second act is blown up to bursting by the hilarious Katie Finneran as Marge MacDougall, the inebriated sexpot Chuck meets in a bar after things have really spiraled down for him. Overall, the revival manages to be both supremely cynical and humorously high-stepping, with a happy ending that only slightly relieves the story's sour attitude towards love and especially marriage. Read the full review, first published as Theater Review (NYC): Promises, Promises with Sean Hayes and Sarah Jane Everman on Blogcritics.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Banana Shpeel

photo: Kristie Kahns

Most of the acts in the latest Cirque du Soleil show are of the same variety and of the same jaw-dropping, viscerally exciting quality you expect from the brand: a trio of Asian contortionists, a hold-your-breath thrilling Russian male acrobat who seems to walk sideways around a pole, a juggler who spins carpets on her legs, hands and head simultaneously. But the show's unfortunate, vaudeville-themed framing story adds a lot of head-scratchingly unfunny business to the mix and keeps grinding the show to a full halt. The conceit - that our Master of Ceremonies holds a talent contest using three talentless audience members (read: obvious plants) who infiltrate the show rather than return to their seats as they're told - isn't at all developed: it's all set-up and no punchline. The only practical use of the vaudeville setting is that it allows an excuse for tap dancing but those numbers, which haven't been choreographed to build, are among the show's weakest. There is some Cirque du Soleil magic here, but it's diminished by way too much that's beside the point.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Banana Shpeel

Banana Shpeel is not the best thing Cirque Du Soleil has ever done. Its focus on Schmelky, the master of ceremonies, is completely uninvolving, and some of the clown bits go on way too long. However, it's still Cirque du Soleil. Gorgeous people still do amazing things with their stunning bodies. Foot juggler Vanessa Alvarez shows breathtaking skill and style, Dmitry Bulkin uses his strength to make beautifully impossible (impossibly beautiful?) tableau, and contortionists Tsybenova Ayagma, Zhambalova Lilia, and Tsydendambaeva Imin make you believe Schmelky when he says that he flew them over first class, two in the overhead compartment and one under the seat in front of him. Banana Shpeel also features some wonderful dancing, particularly the tap numbers, as well as some gorgeous scenery. The costumes are insanely colorful, sometimes to great effect, sometimes not. The clowns are not what many people would imagine when hearing the word clown; for example, the wry, slinky, wonderful Patrick De Valette has a persona very close to a creep exposing himself on the subway. The live band rocks but is way too loud--I believe that the acts would get more applause at certain moments if people could hear each other starting to applaud. Discounts are available on the Cirque Du Soleil website.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Razzle Dazzle! My Life Behind the Sequins

While I was watching Mitzi Gaynor at Feinstein's at Loews Regency last night, it occurred to me that some cabaret acts are about hanging out with someone you really like. At this point in her life (pushing 80), Gaynor can only kinda sing and kinda dance, but that's not the point. She's Mitzi Gaynor! And she tells wonderful, self-deprecating anecdotes about herself and her career: She knew she was interested in the man who would become her husband when, the night they met, he told her she was full of shit. Ethel Merman told her the dirtiest joke she ever heard. She really enjoyed acting with Frank and Donald. And so on. Gaynor wears a range of lovely outfits, all extremely low cut, and entertaining clips of her film and TV work are shown during her costume changes. For me, the clips proved two things: (1) dance should be filmed without cutting, with the dancers' entire bodies visible, as it was in her movies, and (2) the styles of the 70s were a blot on the universe. Gaynor's song choices range from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Stevie Wonder. More importantly, she is completely charming, and it was great fun to hang out with her.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

That Face

At the beginning of Polly Stenham's That Face, a strangely passive teenage girl is tied to a chair and hooded. Two other teenage girls bicker about how her boarding-school hazing should go. The next scene takes place in a bedroom. An attractive middle-aged woman radiating "morning after" awakens in a messy bed in a messier room. We soon realize that there is also an attractive young man in the bed. The attractive middle-aged woman turns out to be a hard-core drunk, and the attractive young man turns out to be her son. One of the hazers from the first scene is her daughter. This unappetizing little family squabbles and yells and begs for forgiveness and acts out, and it's all deeply unpleasant. Of course, the measure of a play is not its pleasantness--artful writing, skillful acting, and catharsis can make even the ickiest show into a satisfying work of art. However, while That Face is reasonably well-written and well-acted, its limited strengths are not enough to mitigate the ugliness of the proceedings.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Oliver Parker!

Photo: The Shaltzes/Photographers

Elizabeth Meriwether's Oliver Parker! tries to be both funny and significant but its contrived situations and unconvincing characters work against both goals. Seventeen-year-old Oliver (Michael Zegen) and sixty-year-old Jasper (John Laroquette) have a bizarre relationship that turns out to be built on a deep secret. However, the play fails to explain sufficiently why they are friends--or why they have anything to do with each other at all. Oliver's aim in life is to get laid; Jasper's aim in life is to die. Both of these are treated as humorous but neither is particularly funny. Enter (separately) a grief-stricken senator with a drug problem and her aide, neither of whom would have stayed in that apartment five minutes, let alone become involved in the ways they become involved. John Larroquette does what he can with a strange role, Johanna Day is convincingly heart-broken, and Monica Raymund lights up the stage with energy and humor. Michael Zegen is annoying as Oliver, but that may just mean that he's playing the part well. Awkwardly directed by Evan Cabnet.

Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson

Photo: Joan Marcus

The explosive and funny rock musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson deconstructs the story of the seventh president of the United States and reveals the emotional and moral rot underneath. Michael Friedman's outstanding music and lyrics range from poignant ballads to kick-ass anthems, and he is pitch perfect at finding the right sound for every occasion. As Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Walker owns the stage, and the other performers are all excellent. The design elements (particularly the scenic design by Donyale Werle and the lighting by Justin Townsend) are amazing. However, the whole of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, mostly because director and book writer Alex Timbers, while extremely creative, sometimes seems more interested in clever theatrics and cheap (albeit funny!) jokes than in the painful history he is exploring. Nevertheless, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson rocks.

Killing Women

Photo: Ry Pepper

What happens when a paid assassin can't make the hit because she has to drop her daughter off at pre-school? The women in Killing Women, by Marisa Wegrzyn, have unusual careers but the usual work pressures: being passed over for promotions, trying to maintain work/life balance, being treated with condescension by co-workers. Oh, and ostensibly hard-boiled Abby has an extra problem: she just doesn't like killing women. The play is a little thin, but well-acted, entertaining, and occasionally quite funny. It would be even more entertaining with quicker scene changes and no intermission; every time it gets up a head of steam it interrupts itself.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Kid

The New Group's latest production, The Kid, begins with gigantic projected heads speaking, and then singing, about their sexual, uh, challenges. We are in the living room--and mind--of Dan Savage, sex writer extraordinaire. The Kid follows Dan and boyfriend Terry's quest to adopt a child. As played by the charming Christopher Sieber, Dan is an amiable bear of a man with a wicked sense of humor, a tendency toward paranoia, and a big heart. Terry (touchingly played by Lucas Steele) is lithe, slim-hipped, long-haired, and much younger, and at first their partnership is a little jarring. But it soon becomes clear that they adore each other and that they both want very much to share their love with a little one. The Kid takes us through an orientation with other (straight) couples (where Dan and Terry jump to the conclusion, "They Hate Us"), a home inspection (featuring the wonderful Susan Blackwell), and Dan and Terry's hopes and fears as they deal with a homeless birth mother who may--or may not--give them her baby. The music is accessible and likeable, the lyrics are funny and smart, the book is efficient and entertaining, the direction is appropriately energetic, and the impressive cast includes Ann Harada, Brooke Sunny Moriber, and Tyler Maynard. If The Kid had opened on Broadway in the season that just ended, it would be a shoo-in for a bouquet of Tonys. Still, I hope it has a nice long run Off-Broadway, as it is an intimate, small, lovely musical.

City of Angels

Photo: Bella Muccari

City of Angels, a delightful musical by Cy Coleman (the enjoyable music), David Zippel (the mixed-quality lyrics), and Larry Gelbart (the hysterical book), combines the real world (the story of a novelist struggling to write a screenplay) and the reel world (the screenplay come to life). With multiple sets, a large cast, frequent costume changes, and the need for over-the-top performances that don't go too far over the top, City of Angels is an ambitious choice for an Off-Off-Broadway theatre company. However, the folks at the Gallery Players, located in Brooklyn, are more than up to the challenge. The five-piece band is excellent, and the cast handles the humor, singing, and costume changes with aplomb. Particularly outstanding were Blair Alexis Brown, playing secretaries in both worlds; Danny Rothman as the fictional private eye; and John Weigand, who knows how to make the most out of performing in an iron lung. The weaknesses in the Gallery Players' production can mostly, I suspect, be chalked up to lack of funds. The scene changes take too long, and the differentiation between the real and reel worlds is accomplished with a lighting scheme that makes the actors look a little green around the gills (in the Broadway version, the real world was in color and the reel world--scenery, costumes--in black and white). The voiceovers could also be a little clearer. But the strengths of this production far outweigh the weaknesses, and it's not too late for you to see it (it runs through May 23rd).

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Forest

A contemporary of Tolstoy's, Alexander Ostrovsky has been described as "the king of 19th Century Russian theatre" (CSC Newsletter) and "the bridge" between Gogol and Chekhov (Pearl Playgoer's Supplement). In The Forest, Ostrovsky assembles a selfish widow, a slow-moving sardonic servant, poor relatives, star-crossed lovers, a wily merchant, and the widow's charismatic actor nephew and his comic friend. Hearts are broken and mended, a gun is brandished, parts of the forest are sold, promises go unkept, and the two itinerate performers provide high-falutin' speeches and low-falutin' humor. The characters and the story would seem to be rooted in Chekhov; however, chronologically speaking, Chekhov's work is actually rooted in Ostrovsky's. The first act drags; some of the plot devices creak; but overall The Forest is worthwhile both as a historical piece and in and of itself. John Douglas Thompson dazzles as the dramatic actor, and Tony Torn sharpens his excellent comic turn with a nice edge of anger. The usually wonderful Dianne Wiest isn't quite; her very contemporary voice works against her. Santo Loquasto's set design, while handsome and effective, includes stairs so steep that the performers seemed in danger. (Is this a theme this year? Sondheim on Sondheim also features stairs that justify hazard pay for the actors.)

Bass for Picasso

Photo: Carol Rosegg

The Theater Breaking Through Barriers production of Bass for Picasso makes surprising mistakes for a play written, directed, and performed by theatre professionals with extensive credits. Described in the press release as "an insanely funny, irreverent 90-minute look at gay and lesbian life in the new millennium," it is in reality a random and arbitrary array of extreme situations and rarely funny one-liners. Each character is assigned a grab bag of traits that don't quite cohere, and their actions reflect the author's attempts to be funny rather than human behavior. Similarly, the cast members play the jokes instead of the situations, italicizing every supposedly funny line (and killing the few that are genuinely funny). Bass for Picasso also strives for significance, touching on drug and alcohol addiction, child custody, and the perils of giving birth at 13--the last in a monologue that seems dropped in from another show. Finally, if you're going to play child abuse for laughs, it would help if the depiction were remotely funny.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Really Big Once

There is a tremendous amount of talent and imagination on stage at The Really Big Once, but the whole may be somewhat less than the sum of its parts. A company-created piece from the Target Margin Theatre, The Really Big Once riffs on Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan, and their experiences working together on Williams' magical but badly received experimental piece Camino Real. To the extent that the show focuses on what actually happened, utilizing letters, interviews, and other documentary material, The Really Big Once tells a fascinating story and provides interesting insights into both Williams and Kazan. But the members of the Target Margin Theatre are aiming at much more than passing on information; speaking simultaneously, taking turns playing Williams, dancing, using odd voices and repetitive phrases, they strive to create a fantasia of emotion and passion. The Really Big Once struck me as a jazz piece, with a bunch of talented people expressing their responses to a pre-existing piece of art. But, as can also happen with jazz, it doesn't work for everyone, and the people doing it may end up having more fun than the audience. The talented cast includes McKenna Kerrigan, John Kurzynowski, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Steven Rattazzi. Directed by David Herskovits.

De Novo

photo: Alyssa Ringler

The message is blunt and the conclusion is forgone, but the 70-minute documentary drama De Novo is nonetheless absorbing and effective. The show, part of the Americas Off Broadway festival at 59e59, is scripted entirely from court transcripts, letters and interviews concerning the judicial treatment of a Guatemalan teenager who fled his country once marked for death (at the age of 14) by street gangs. Both a bracing glimpse into the life of an undocumented immigrant minor, and a maddening look at the tragic consequences of our immigration laws, the play is purposeful and unblinking. Despite its exclusive use of found texts, it's brought to life with just enough theatricality to involve as drama rather than simply as an informative, well-meaning lesson. The budget is modest but the choices are rich - boxes of government files upstage, and clotheslines clipped with court papers on each side of space, make us always aware that this story is, unfortunately, not unique. Even more effective is the use of Donna DeCesare's graphic images of gang culture, which vividly remind us what is at stake.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Jacob's House

Photo: J. Hoch.

In Jacob's House, the impressively talented and prolific August Schulenburg uses the biblical story of Jacob wrestling an angel as a springboard for a realistic yet mythical drama that plumbs the meaning of faith, destiny, and family. Schulenburg writes with intelligence and humor (even throwing in a bit of slapstick), and the result is an unusual drama that is both thought-provoking and entertaining. The show begins right after Jacob's funeral, as his children Dinah and Joe and daughter-in-law Tamar argue about exactly who Jacob was and which one of them gets to keep the house. As they discuss the past, it comes to life before us, and our first clue that this is not an ordinary family drama occurs when we realize that the father of these contemporary adults was alive during the American Revolution. The characters are complex, the story is compelling, and the language ranges from good to gorgeous. The play is a remarkable achievement, made more so by the fact that Schulenburg wrote the first draft in a weekend and quickly wrote only two more drafts, keeping much material from the first. The excellent cast comprises Johnna Adams, Jessica Angleskhan, Matthew Archambault, Zack Calhoon, Tiffany Clementi, Kelli Dawn Holsopple, Biana LaVerne Jones, Isaiah Tanenbaum, Jane Lincoln Taylor, and Anthony Wills, Jr. The assured direction is by Kelly O'Donnell and the evocative and attractive set design is by Jason Paradine.