Monday, March 28, 2011

The Dream of the Burning Boy

David West Read's new play, The Dream of the Burning Boy, presented at the Roundabout Underground, explores the repercussions when a star high school student dies. As often happens in dramas, secrets are revealed, emotions are stripped raw, and people grow and change--or don't. However, while the précis may be familiar and even cliché, the specifics are not. Read presents compelling, fully realized characters, and their secrets are both surprising and believable. He also deals with the realities of theatre in interesting ways. For example, having the bulk of the students take advantage of the school's bereavement leave, while the people who are genuinely grief-stricken show up, is a wry way of accounting for the sparsely populated schoolroom. Most strongly affected by the boy's death are his sister, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, a well-meaning, not-quite-as-ineffectual-as-he-looks guidance counselor, and, most importantly, the boy's English teacher, who is the dreamer of the burning boy. After a slightly rocky start, the cast is uniformly strong. Special attention must be paid to the subtle, smart Reed Birney whose complex portrayal makes his character sympathetic without ever downplaying his significant flaws. Well-directed by Evan Cabnet.

(Paid for my ticket--all seats are $20--sat second row behind a man with a big head.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which has been running at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway since mid-December, adds weight to the saying that it’s a lot easier to trash something in writing than it is to praise it. I thus have little to add to the many glowing reviews of this production, except more ecstatic superlatives. With the exception of some of the backdrops, which might have been painted a bit more richly, or made to look somewhat less fake—and ultimately, really, who cares about the damned backdrops?—this is about as close to a perfect production as I have ever seen. Even the woman playing the maid who walks on to serve tea in the second act and then walks right back off again is perfectly cast. The show, which I saw last week and which has only grown in my estimation since, serves as a humbling reminder that while there is a whole lot of very good theater out there, it is the rare production that comes as close as this one does to being absolutely superb.

I was told once by an old colleague that the infamous flop Carrie was so terrifically bad that it regularly earned wild standing ovations after many performances during its doomed New York run. In contrast, this production of The Importance of Being Earnest was so good that I was unable to bring myself to stand at the end of it. Standing ovations have become such a marker of mediocrity on Broadway at this point that to have stood for this production would, I think, have somehow cheapened the experience. This was an excellent show. Please don’t miss it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hello Again

Ten people. Ten couplings. A has sex with B who has sex with C, and so on, until H meets up with A, completing the circle across the 20th century. The hookups tend toward the cold, with affection, love, and foreplay in short supply. The characters range from lost to needy to manipulative, with unhealthy, unattractive self-involvement a frequent trait. Yet Hello Again, Michael John LaChuisa's musicalization of Arthur Schnitzle's 1900 play La Ronde, is often glorious. LaChuisa's music soars, and each section is an elegant theatrical creation. His paeans to neediness are heart-rending, and he combines humor with heartbreak perfectly.

As directed by Jack Cummings III in a large, feature-less loft, Hello Again happens in and around the audience, providing an intimacy that is simultaneously wonderful (having those singers right next to you, unmiked, is heaven) and, well, icky. Facing those naked pumping butts, so close at hand (literally), is weird. The first time I saw the show I found them funny, but the second time I felt I had been forced into an unwilling, unfulfilling voyeurism. Since lack of fulfillment is a theme of the show, I guess Cummings made an artistically legitimate choice--but still weird.

However, Hello Again is about the music, and the score is beautifully sung. The cast ranges from quite good to excellent to amazing. Particularly impressive are Bill Stillman, Alexandra Silber, and Elizabeth Stanley, who bring full dimensionality to their characters and definitively nail their songs. 

The costumes by Kathryn Rohe and lighting by R. Lee Kennedy are everything they need to be and much more, and the seven-piece band fills the loft space splendidly.

(Tdf tickets, twice, impossible to describe my seats in any useful way.)



Ellen Lauren seems at first an odd choice to play Virginia Woolf. She is tall and strong, with large hands and a deep, impressive voice quite different from Woolf's flutey, fruity tones. It is hard to imagine her with Woolf's vulnerability. But Room, directed by Anne Bogart, does not aim to present a biographical depiction of Woolf. Instead, through movement (not quite dance, yet not quite not dance) and Woolf's own words (adapted by Jocelyn Clarke), it presents an emotional portrait of a writer in desperate need of, in Bogart's words, "the room to move, the room to breathe, the room to imagine; emotional room, creative room." Presented as a speech to a female audience, the show also spends time in the intense maelstrom of Woolf's mind, focusing on the act of creation and on being a writer who is a woman . Ellen Lauren's performance is both an acting triumph and an athletic triumph--she does entire speeches in positions that might challenge a yoga expert, never losing sight of the meanings and feelings of the words. Bogart's direction and the design aspects are simple yet evocative. The stage is lined on three sides by large panels of linen, with a single chair as the only furniture. A small window floats high above the stage, sometimes looking like the window of a jail cell, sometimes appearing warmer and more inviting. Where design elements often supplement or support performance, the excellent soundscape by Darron L. West and lighting by Christopher Akerlind are part of the performance.

(Press ticket, fourth row on the aisle.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Evening of Story and Song (Shirley Jones at Feinstein's)

Shirley Jones's act at Feinstein's last night was a treat for her biggest fans, who laughed, cheered, stood, and even cried. For the rest of us, however, the news was not as good. Jones starts the evening with a video recapping her career. It's way too long, and the sound is often painfully bad. Worse, it diminishes rather than enhances her stature with too many mediocre songs, movies, and TV appearances. (Also included is a shot of her singing the national anthem at a republican convention, a jarring note for this particular liberal.) When finally she appears, Jones looks great. Then she starts singing. Her voice is shot, gone, ravaged. Her range has shrunk considerably, and many of the remaining notes are unpleasant. Of course, a great singing voice is not required for a successful nightclub act; many people mitigate their voice's limitations by developing their interpretive skills. Jones, unfortunately, is not one of them.  She does okay on the songs she is famous for--the nostalgia aspect improves her renditions of, for example, "Goodnight, My Someone" and "People Will Say We're in Love." However, her forays into jazz are unconvincing, and her "Send in the Clowns" is easily the worst I've ever heard. (Her piano player/musical director Ron Abel and bassist Mark Vanderpoel almost redeem a few numbers.) Jones does somewhat better with her patter, including some cute and interesting stories. However, she is a second-rate story teller. I want to reiterate that her major fans had a great time. For me, however, the evening felt like watching someone's aunt grab the mike at a bar mitzvah.

(Press tickets, table to the side, audience left.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Changing Room

Photo: Daniel Terna

TheChanging Room, by David Storey, is not big on plot. A bunch of Englishmen enter a locker room, kid around, change, and go out to play rugby--Act One.  The owner of the team comes into the locker room and talks with the attendant until the rugby players, now bruised and bleeding, return, banter, attend to their bruises, then go back out to play; soon one of them is brought back in, blood streaming from his nose, unable to see--Act Two. After the game, the players banter some more, pick on a (possibly gay?) team member, talk with the owner, worry about the injured player, and leave--Act Three. There's no main character, no conflict of the traditionally theatrical sort, no recognizable arc. There is, however, meaning. The players are mostly working men, putting their bodies on the line. The owner, Sir Frederick, attempts to be one of the guys, but he is too falsely avuncular, too patronizing, and too damned clean to fit in. More importantly, he is the boss, the owner, and as such, he is the other--the lucky, wealthy, aristocratic other. In this microcosm of class in England, it's not just boss versus worker: when one of the players is revealed to be dating a teacher, the rest of the team is incredulous, wanting to know what on earth the couple would talk about. The play also examines how men do and don't bond, how they present themselves to each other, and how they find significance in their lives.

While all of this is theoretically interesting, it is not theatrically interesting--a big difference. However, the T. Schreiber production, directed by Terry Schreiber himself, is excellent, as T. Schreiber productions generally are. The performers, many of them T. Schreiber students, are uniformally effective; the set is evocative and impressive; the costuming and lighting and sound are all first-class. The nudity is a little awkwardly handled--full frontal would have been more realistic, and less distracting, then the careful turning away and hiding of genitalia, accompanied by the nervous checking that towels are secure. All in all, however, this production of The Changing Room is a very strong production of a not-so-strong play.

(Press ticket, third-row-center.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cactus Flower

Until this production, Abe Burrows' Cactus Flower had not had a major New York revival. That was a good thing. It is hard to understand why anyone would want to revive this flat, unbelievable, ugly comedy. The plot is based on lies: A dentist claims to be married so that his girlfriend Toni won't expect too much of him. When he needs to present his imaginary wife, he asks his long-suffering nurse at the dentist office to make believe they are married, oblivious of course to the fact that she loves him. The dentist is a liar and a creep, and it is highly unlikely that two women would care so much for him--or else deeply depressing. The show begins with Toni almost dead from a suicide attempt, which is played for laughs. Was there ever a time that suicide was actually funny? If so, I'm glad it's over.

The level of humor in Cactus Flower is exemplified by this exchange (from memory):
Toni: What's your name.
Next-door neighbor: Igor Sullivan
Toni: Igor Sullivan. That's wild.
Igor: I made it up.
Toni: How come you chose Igor?
Igor: That's my real name. I made up Sullivan.
The acting and directing don't help much. Maxwell Caulfield gives Daffy Duck a run for his money in the "cartoon performance" category, and his main facial expression is "I lost my glasses." Jeremy Bobb as Igor needs to be charming and attractive, but cannot rise above the writing or his costumes and haircut to achieve either. Lois Robbins as the nurse gives an actual performance, and Jenni Barber is likable as Toni. The supporting cast overacts in an overwrought frenzy that suggests that Michael Bush should not be directing comedies.

(Press ticket, eighth row center).

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Peter and the Starcatcher

Photo: Joan Marcus.

Well-done story theatre uses its combination of telling and showing to invite the audience into the creative process. We help the performers invent entire worlds out of  minimal props and scenery; we accept the smallest of costume adjustments as signaling a different character; we suspend our disbelief and embrace our sense of wonder. Peter and the Starcatcher, at the New York Theatre Workshop, is story theatre of the highest order, taking us on pirate ships and to tropical islands, introducing us to rotten rogues and surprising heroes, and doing a fabulous job of accessing and entertaining our inner children. Written by Rick Elice (based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) and directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, with music by Wayne Barker Peter and the Starcatcher tells the story of how an orphan--so completely abandoned that he lacks even a name--turns into the legendary Peter Pan. The cast is consistently wonderful, but special attention must be paid to Christian Borle, who gives a slapstick comic performance that is simultaneously brilliant, deeply silly, and elegant.

My one complaint is that there is only one woman in the cast (the delightful Celia Keenan-Bolger). If a man can play a woman in the show (the very funny Arnie Burton), why can't some women play men? I understand that Rees and Timbers are working out of a British tradition of male-as-female drag, but why not expand it? A quick look at the history of animated movies shows a serious dearth of female roles (Pixar is particularly bad at noticing that there are two sexes), yet girls/women want to identify with heroes of our gender as much as boys/men do. Keenan-Bolger's character is strong and important, and that's great, but thirteen men and only one woman just doesn't seem fair.

($20, second row to the right)

She Loves Him (Kate Baldwin at Feinstein's)

If you look up the word lovely in the dictionary, there she is: Kate Baldwin, with her sweet, pure voice, beautiful smile, and great charm. In her current show at Feinstein's, She Loves Him, Baldwin devotes her copious gifts to the songs of the great Sheldon Harnick, who sings a few duets with her (and one solo). The whole show is a treat as they wander through Harnick's early novelty songs, Fiorello, She Loves Me, Fiddler, and the Rothschilds. The evening has many highlights, including Baldwin's gorgeous "When Did I Fall in Love?," excellent "A Trip to the Library," and superb "Gorgeous." Harnick's voice is strong and gravelly and contrasts perfectly with Baldwin's. I particularly enjoyed their duets on "In My Own Lifetime" and "Sunrise, Sunset." Harnick sat on stage for a couple of Baldwin's solos, and if I had to pick one best moment of the evening, it would be watching him kvell while Baldwin sings his songs. Baldwin's patter is often funny, and her backup band is superb (Scott Cady, piano/musical director; John Beale, bass; and Andrew Sterman on a truly impressive range of wind instruments).

(Press ticket, table audience left.)

Thursday, March 03, 2011


Photo: Annie Leibovitz

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which has been in previews since late November, has blown through at least $65 million dollars and three lead producers. Four actors have been injured. The opening has been delayed five times, and there is talk that the latest planned opening night, March 15, will be put off yet again.

The creative team has shrugged off these setbacks with fatuous excuses. Director Julie Taymor has explained that Spider-Man is less a mere “musical” than a “circus rock-‘n’-roll drama” that celebrates one of the most important myths of our time. Bono, who composed the music with U2 bandmate the Edge, told the Times that Spider-Man has been delayed as much as it has been because They Will Sell No Wine Before Its Time: “We’re wrestling with the same stuff as Rilke, Blake, ‘Wings of Desire,’ Roy Lichtenstein, the Ramones—the cost of feeling feelings, the desire for connections when you’re separate from others.” The producers are more candid, saying the delays are necessary to let the creative team focus in on the more deficient aspects of the show: the plot and score. Details, details.

The mere presence of a pricey musical that barely functions properly or makes any sense while patrons are asked to fork over more than $200 for some seats has prompted debates about consumer rights, worker safety and the ethics of reviewing a show before it officially opens. Does Broadway need a $65 million show to begin with?

Not this one.

Even the worst Broadway flops can have bright spots. Lost in the drab muddle of Paul Simon's The Capeman, for example, were a couple of great doo-wop numbers and a near-perfect starry rooftop scene. In Spider-Man, these shining moments come at the beginning of the show, which starts in the middle of the action: Mary Jane (a hard-working Jennifer Damiano) is dangling from a bridge! Will Spidey (a dazed Reeve Carney) leap from the Chrysler Building to save her in time?

Nothing after that is nearly as good. In her exploration of legend, Greek drama, aerial stunts, and how one actually Turns Off the aforementioned Dark, Taymor forgets that the Marvel Comics Spider-Man was an awkward, working-class kid from Queens whose peculiar physical gifts enabled him to kick ass and save lives, but not make many friends. For all the visual set-pieces and lengthy exposition, not a single character in this production—including, heartbreakingly, Peter Parker and Mary Jane—has any development, trajectory or motivation. Taymor’s contribution to the story, the spider-goddess-nemesis-whatever Arachne, contributes nothing save more confusion and one truly bizarre number involving a kickline of chorines dressed as spiders in tawdry underwear, singing something about sex and shoes.

In Spider-Man, Taymor can't tell a story (her greatest successes are adaptations of a Disney movie and Shakespeare plays) and she can't stage a scene unless her actors are swaddled in elaborate costumes, draped in scenery or hiding behind enormous masks. Even more distracting than some of the cheap-looking sets are the abrupt transitions between scenes in which monsters, villains and multiple Spider-Men bring the show to something approaching life, and those in which plain old people, devoid of camouflage, stand around spouting wooden exposition and sounding alternately like they are trapped in a bad screwball comedy, a John Hughes film, a grindhouse horror flick, or a cheesy sex-ed filmstrip about how, as Peter’s uncle puts it, “Puberty can be hard.”

The "Geek Chorus" (get it?) of four comic-book readers may be writing the story. Or maybe they are part of the story. Either way, they are neither interesting nor amusing enough for us to care about them. Same goes for all the villains save Patrick Page's gleeful Green Goblin, who seems like he’s in another show entirely. All the other villains are introduced early in act II. As they strut down a catwalk, a guy in dreadlocks sings about them in an insultingly thick Jamaican accent while accompanying himself on an empty pickle tub. After the number, the drummer disappears, and eventually, so do all the villains. Who were they, where did they come from, and where did they go?

The sound design is good and the orchestra is excellent. Too bad about the songs. At root, U2 is a post-punk band that made itself into an arena darling by matching swagger with introspection. U2 works with layers of sound that repeat, slowly entwine and build gradually in volume and density into petulant, anthemic proclamations. But what works well in front of 40,000 screaming fans at a stadium quickly becomes tedious in a theater. Each song develops in the same way, robbing the show of energy and surprise. The only time the music serves the drama is during the wordless chase scenes—such as a black-and-white sequence with bad guys in giant masks hauling bags of money—when the repetition and layering convey a sense of urgency.

Near the end of Act I the night I went, a stuntman playing Spider-Man (Stunter-Man? Stuntey?) got trapped on the balcony and the show stopped—to raucous applause. Was the audience, deprived thus far of much that could be called entertainment, hoping for a clever ad lib or a fatal plunge into the orchestra seats? Both?

Theater is theater until it ceases to be live, and the second act of Spider-Man is as dead as dead can be. At one point, Taymor puts Spidey alone on stage to pantomime a fight with cartoon images projected on the screen behind him. Wii Broadway.

Even at its prettiest and most interesting moments, and there were a few, this show got no emotional response from me except the fear that it would never end, trapping me forever in front of a huge projection of cartoon bad guys. This is not what Aristotle had in mind when he discussed catharsis. Nor is the pity I felt for the artists and theater-goers whose time this musical has wasted. There is no saving Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, no matter how many more times opening night is put off. This broken project needs to open and close, so that all involved can lick their wounds and get back to putting on shows worth watching.

(seen Wednesday evening, March 2; BroadwayBox special offer; row W on the aisle.)