Sunday, May 29, 2011


In 2003, in the Signature (Arlington, VA) production, Eric Schaeffer demonstrated that he is capable of directing a sensitive, textured, multidimensional, heart-breaking Follies. Has he forgotten everything he knew back then? Did he feel that the much larger Eisenhower Theatre (Kennedy Center, Washington, DC) required much larger acting? Was he afraid that the subscription audience at the Kennedy Center wouldn't be able to appreciate the nuances enjoyed by the Signature audience? Whatever the reason(s), while his 2003 Follies was one of the best I've seen, this current version is definitely the worst. (For the record, many people in the audience clearly enjoyed it a great deal.)

Schaeffer's first mistake is using a pared-down version of the book, in which character development and atmosphere are given short-shrift and relationships are insufficiently delineated. This wouldn't matter as much if Schaeffer had directed the actors to take up the slack. Instead, he has led them into one-dimensional, ham-handed performances that telegraph the obvious points while completely ignoring the subtle ones.

Here's the rundown: Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) is angry. Ben (Ron Raines) is angry. Buddy (Danny Burstein) is angry. Sally (Bernadette Peters) is losing her mind. Period.

There is no sign of the spark between Phyllis and Ben that makes their somewhat happy ending effective. Maxwell shows no build or development in "Could I Leave You?" and Raines sings every note in every song the same exact way. Burstein's Buddy has a bit of a trajectory, going from vaguely hopeful to angry and resigned, but his version of "The Right Girl" is all grimaces and grunts.

Bernadette Peters, very much the star of this production, is not up to the task. She gives a whiny, teary, baby-voiced performance that is occasionally flat-out embarrassing. In fact, to find a line reading as bad as her "If you don't kiss me, Ben, I think I'm going to die," I have to go all the way back to Linda Ronstadt in The Pirates of Penzance in the 1970s. And Peters' "Losing My Mind" is dreadful, featuring every obvious depiction of losing one's mind short of eye-rolling.

The supporting cast is no better. Elaine Paige's "I'm Still Here" is about her ego and not about the song. Linda Lavin's "Broadway Baby" is about her ego and not about the song. God only knows what Regine's "Ah Paris" is about, but it's certainly not the song. Terri White's rendition of "Who's That Woman?" is good, but the direction removes the bittersweetness, leaving it as one-dimensional as the rest of the show.

The good points: Rosalind Ellis and Leah Horowitz did a lovely job on "One More Kiss," providing more subtlety than the rest of the show combined. Bernadette Peters' dresses were both beautiful, though the first one was wrong for the character. My friends and I had a lovely trip to DC. The crab cake at lunch on the way home was amazing.

($115 seats, 4th row center)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Shakespeare's Slave

If you are going to create a play about Shakespeare, it better be about the writing. The Resonance Ensemble’s production of Shakespeare’s Slave is all about the writing; and in this production, the costumes, designed with genius and ingenuity by Mark Richard Caswell. This is not to say the actors, especially David L. Townsend as the Bard himself, and director, Eric Parness, aren’t providing powerful support. They navigate some jolts in the script, some limitations of the space, and some inherent challenges in a contemporary telling of a period tale with nimble focus.

Along with Mr. Townsend, actors Chris Ceraso and Romy Nordlinger are standouts. Shaun Bennet Wilson, in a central role, has struggles that are not entirely of her creation. She is playing a theatrical device that has been written for function more than character, which brings me back to the writing.

For good and bad, this new script by Steven Fechter, is the star of the show. The best part of the script is merely that it exists, that the company commissioned it, and that this production could lead to revisions that can only make future productions stronger. Seeing a play of this quality and this potential in its infancy is a gift. It isn’t perfect, but to discover it is reason enough to see it. And to discover the Resonance Ensemble and their commitment to producing a classical play and a modern play with a common theme in rep was a treat for me.

In its current stage the play resembles a graduate school honors thesis, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. It is well thought out, well written for the most part, and well conceived. The idea of deconstructing characters from Shakespeare’s writings and casting them as acquaintances and intimates from his life isn’t a revolutionary concept, but it makes sense and provides dramatic fodder. It worked effectively for Shakespeare in Love, and works here, or is beginning to work. The dark lady of the sonnets is brought to life, into Shakespeare’s life, and changes it to the benefit of his writing and generations who might have missed out on his brilliance had these two lives and hearts not crossed.

Casting the dark lady as an African slave actually creates more problems than it solves, not the least of which is that it isn’t believable and borders on offensive. By making this slave feisty and defiant with the ability to sneak around freely, glosses over the reality and humiliation of being owned. The play is left to tell you how bad slavery is and relegates all that badness to an intellectual exercise rather than forcing the audience to confront it or feel it. The script simply tells us that many things are bad: slavery, rape, grief. All three are subjects with the power to move and compel, but there isn’t much compelling and absolutely nothing moving about the treatment of these particular subjects here. They are devices, nothing more.

With tweaks and tightening (too many short scenes, many dramatically unnecessary, too much homage, too much focus on Shakespearean references, too little focus on Mr. Fechter telling his story, and trying too hard to be significant), Shakespeare’s Slave could be liberated and soar. I personally hope the first tweak is to change that dreadful title—perhaps if the creators took slavery seriously, understood the effect of being owned, they wouldn’t apostrophize and could transform a pivotal device into an affecting character. Shakespeare’s Slave is good enough that it (and she) deserves it.

Shakespeare’s Slave is running in rep with H4, a modern, multi-media telling of Henry IV that I did not see but wish I had.

(Press seats, 5th row, aisle in a small house with no bad seat)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Photo: Carol Rosegg

No one is happy in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, regardless of whether they are Iraqi or American, soldier or civilian, human or animal, alive or dead. The living are tormented by guilt, and ghosts, and their own morally questionable actions; the dead can’t figure out what they’re supposed to be doing other than roaming around town, pondering morality, and driving the living insane. Whether specter or living being, everyone wandering around Baghdad is a half-mad, restless soul.

Of course, the fact that no one is happy in Baghdad in 2003 makes sense, since, as we all know, war is hell. But then, in Rajiv Joseph’s interesting, engaging, and flawed play about Operation Iraqi Freedom, so is everything else: loss, acquisition; bondage, freedom; Western culture, Iraqi culture; life, death; religion, atheism; and—still with me?—heaven. Does heaven even exist, come to think of it? Is it so bound up with the notion of hell that one becomes the other? Is it possible that God—if there even is a God—is less a benevolent force than a vicious, uncaring, neglectful punk? If so, why do we attempt to understand ourselves and others? To be kind? To even pretend that we are anything but brutes?

This is meaty, compelling, absolutely enormous stuff to ponder, and the play demands a lot of its audience in asking it. The problem is not that Joseph offers no resolutions; it’s that his play doesn’t tangle deeply enough with any one of them, which leaves the spectator hanging, and curiously detached about it, to boot.
That’s not necessarily an excuse not to see Baghdad. For its shortcomings, I was impressed by many aspects of it: it is exceptionally well-acted, beautifully lit, gracefully directed and as deserving of an award for sound design as anything I’ve seen all year. Also, how many shows get to boast about the fact that audiences may come for Robin Williams, but end up staying for Uday Hussein?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It's Maye in May: Marilyn Maye at Feinstein's

I love Marilyn Maye.

Really, what's not to love? Maye is an American Classic, a jazz-cabaret singer who started singing professionally in the Great Depression, an 83-year-old who swings with the energy of someone half her age, a lady who is also a broad (or vice versa?), a woman who has seen and done it all with her sense of humor intact. When she sings "I'm Still Here," she ain't kidding!

In her current show at Feinstein's, It's Maye in May, Maye stays largely on the sunny side of the street. She starts with "Young at Heart" and "You Make Me Feel So Young" (which, coincidentally, is the name of the show her sister octogenarian Barbara Cook is bringing to Feinstein's on June 7). Her emphasis on youth makes sense; she is absolutely young at heart. Her other songs include a charmingly bawdy "Honeysuckle Rose," a rollicking "Get Me to the Church on Time," and a poignant "Wouldn't it Be Loverly?" She includes some medleys, and while medleys usually annoy me (they're series of teases), hers flow beautifully (kudos to musical director Tedd Firth for that!). She kicks butt with her Fats Waller medley, and her rainbow medley is thoroughly delightful.  The band--Firth on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass, and Jim Eklof on drums--is outstanding.

So here is Maye, in a sparkly black top, 83 years old, doing an amazing set, even dancing a bit (in high heels!), and giving a show that is, simply, as good as it gets. If you have any interest in cabaret or jazz, do yourself a favor: check her out.

(Press ticket, to the side, nice seats.)

The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman

In his director's note for The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman, David Zippel aptly refers to "the dazzling depth and breadth" of Coleman's work. Dazzling depth and breadth indeed--in fact, you might believe that the wonderful songs in this 90-minute show were the work of half a dozen composers.

The band is small (eight men) but robust, and the orchestrations by Don Sebesky and musical direction by Billy Stritch (who also sings) are excellent. Lillias White raises the roof, as always, and Sally Mayes turns each number into a well-told story. These are the pluses, which are major.

The minuses, unfortunately, are also major. Zippel's direction is so cutesy-smarmy that I wondered if Lonny Price had directed the show. To both men, I say the same thing: Trust the songs! They can stand on their own! That's why you're honoring this composer with an entire show! Also, Rachel York is so on that she seems to be doing a take-off on herself. And Howard McGillan and David Burnham give imitations of lounge lizards worthy of a Saturday Night Live skit.

Still, it's hard to fault a show that includes "The Best Is Yet to Come." And "Nobody Does It Like Me." And "Witchcraft." And "If My Friends Could See Me Now." And "Hey, Look Me Over." And "Little Me." And "Big Spender." And "Hey There, Good Times." If only all the songs had been performed as well as they were written!

(Reviewer ticket, eighth row on the aisle.)

The Normal Heart

The most poignant character of Larry Kramer’s incendiary The Normal Heart appears silently throughout the action: the growing count of AIDS victims. Character, perhaps, provides an insufficient descriptor, but the presence of this trail of death (41 as of 1981 to today’s count of 35 million) projected on the darkened set at intervals, permeates the play with the resonance of those lost. By the end of the show, the relentless of the disease takes over the front of the theater as the magnitude of the names overwhelms the audience.

Death may saturate this show, but it is the vividness of love and friendship, in all of its foibles, that provides the heart of the play. The story, based on the playwright’s early days as an AIDS activist, follows Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello) as he tries to grapple with a disease few want to address and no one understands. Although charismatic and intelligent, Week’s no-holds-barred passion for the cause alienates those unwilling to match his fervor. Mantello shows us this duality beautifully, overtaking the stage with magnetic earnestness as he first organizes his AIDS awareness group; later turning strident and angry, a performance full of frenetic gesticulations, as ideologies clash. “Of course, we have to tell people how to live,” he insists to his friends. Ned wants AIDS stopped at whatever expense. Others, more afraid of losing their jobs, their status, and other things, want to remain under the radar. For instance, Bruce Niles (Lee Pace), who sports the good looks of a Marlboro man, won’t go on Dan Rather to represent the group—an opportunity Ned can’t understand missing. Moments like this send Ned into hair-pulling diatribes as he continually attempts to seize every possible moment to publicize the viciousness of this worldwide plague. For him, there is only black and white.

The polemic script has the potential to seem more lecture than story but it is the relationships that elevate this play into a visceral expose that leaves audience members crying at the end. There’s a real poignancy in the coupling of Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey) and Ned, from the awkward initial embraces to the fear of losing one another as the disease progresses. Ned’s brother, Ben (Mark Harelik), struggles with Ned’s homosexuality and as a consequence words never spoken aloud cloud their camaraderie—something that hurts both of them. Directed by George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey, who played Ned Weeks in the original version, the show contains the Broadway debuts of Jim Parsons (Sheldon on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”) and movie actress Ellen Barkin, who plays the no-nonsense wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner with tart preciseness. Parson excels as well, bringing top-notch comic timing and an impish grin to Tommy Boatwright. The amazing set by David Rockwell offers a flexible landscape, moving from the bricklike texture of a hospital to the Venetian blinds of Ben Week’s law firm with a mere readjustment of light (designed by David Weiner). Near the end of the play, an audience of spectators join the main cast onstage, with characters such as Emma and Ben, sitting in shadow observing the action, a symbol of all those, perhaps, who merely watched themselves. The 12-week run ends July 10.

(Purchased ticket, ORCH, row L, seat 101)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book of Mormon and Sister Act: A Second Glance

With friends in town wanting to see the two best musicals of the season, I got a chance to revisit Book of Mormon and Sister Act. I also got a chance to see both from a different vantage point--the last row of the theater. (I had seen Sister Act from the first row center with rush tickets and BOM from fourth row right back when they offered discounts.) After a couple of attempts at the Mormon lottery, my friends finally won, so I not only got to watch the show from the back of the theater, I also got to watch the back of my friends' heads.

My first viewing of Book of Mormon was thrilling, a complete religious experience--I was enriched, enlivened, shared a connection with souls searching for a common gladness. But the show was an avalanche of anticipation, each moment building on the next, no time to luxuriate because something new and surprising and hiliarious was about happen. It would have been like watching one domino as the rest fell. I saw the show before it opened so I didn't write about it at the time. Thereafter, when I tried, all I could muster was a vomit of superlatives because the moments had blurred into one collective memory. A wonderful blur, but I needed to see it again to sort it out, reinspect each golden plate.

On second viewing, the show not only held up to my internalized hype, not only hit the ball as far out of the park, it was exponentially more entertaining overall. Because I knew what lay ahead, I wasn't suffocated by my own held breath. I simply savored each moment, wallowed hog hungry in its brilliance, laughed until I hurt, and then laughed myself out of pain. Despite whatever controversy the content might spark--and it certainly doesn't seem to have sparked much--and in spite of its contemporary themes, the creative team (Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez) have created a very traditional musical, and a finely crafted one at that. The songs are beautifully and thought-provokingly constructed: memorable, singable, both telling a story and supporting the bigger story. Minus the acid on the tongue-in-cheek, the musical could stand alongside the standards of the 50s and 60s.

The actors are universally excellent and perfectly cast. I wouldn't want to be the deciding vote for the Tony Awards, choosing between Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad (a point, not a prediction). They are so different but equally effective. Rannells is a more complete performer, but Gad's performance is no less affecting because he doesn't tap dance. I suspect Mr. Gad is a latent schtick milker, but he was disciplined at my viewing. Nikki M. James has the unenviable task of sustaining innocence and keeping it interesting. There is no hint of caricature or stupidity. She is all heart, hope, and honesty.

That the show gets a bit preachy for a moment as it makes its point about the absurdity of faith in all its forms is forgivable. Most South Park episodes that I have seen dissolve into a similar, momentary sentiplicity right before they yank the rug out from under you just for emphasis. You are the pratfall, collapsing into laughter one last time.

Enough of the Mormons, now for the Catholics. Sister Act was a solid, fun show the first time around. It, too, was better on second chance. The last row of the Broadway did me no favors, nor did the two idiots texting toward the end of Act 1. The sound was better in the balcony. All of the men were vastly improved, especially Chester Gregory who was flat out good (whereas before he was just flat.) Victoria Clark, who seemed to be doing the best she could with some lousy melodies the first time, had perhaps been having a bad night. During Friday night's performance, she sang beautifully. Her songs were still the weakest in the show; but the numbers, taken as a whole, were poignant and textured and great counter-point to the energy and intensity of the rest of the show. Patina Miller was a joyous treat both times, but she is settling into the role and is now owning the full stage, hell, the entire house, instead of just the lit portion beneath her feet. She was infectious to the back row. She is giving the best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical this season, bar none (a fact, not a prediction.)

I suspect I will see Sister Act again. It is well-suited for out-of-town guests with a low tolerance for offense. I will, without a doubt, see Book of Mormon again and again. I am not a Catholic or a Mormon, but I am a fully-converted fan of both shows.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

2010-2011 Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Award Winners

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Anything Goes
The Normal Heart
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
The Kid
Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches
Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made
Feeder: A Love Story
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Belarus Free Theater's Discover Love
Black Watch
Sleep No More
The Scottsboro Boys
Nina Arianda, Born Yesterday
Laura Benanti, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Reed Birney, A Small Fire
Christian Borle, Peter and the Starcatcher
Norbert Leo Butz, Catch Me If You Can
Bobby Cannavale, The Motherfucker with the Hat
Colman Domingo, The Scottsboro Boys
Sutton Foster, Anything Goes
Josh Gad, The Book of Mormon
Hamish Linklater, School for Lies
Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart
Arian Moayed, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Lily Rabe, The Merchant of Venice
Mark Rylance, Jerusalem
Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made
Benjamin Walker, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
La Mama

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lucky Guy

Lucky Guy isn't everyone's cup of tea. As a matter of fact, only those with a real taste for tea will leave quenched. If the idea of an overgrown drag queen, a funny-looking little troll, and the worst camp since Dachau doesn't sound like a winning formula (and God knows the formula failed in All About Me with such resounding proof that to even consider mounting this production required balls too big to gaff), you may need to look for other reasons to see the show. The good news is, those reasons exist.

For the Varla Jean fans, Merman is in full tuck. The script utilizes her schtick to comedic effect but doesn't come close to matching the on-your-guard laughs from her solo shows. The score gives her ample opportunity to sing but doesn't fully showcase her vocal talents.

For the Leslie Jordan fans, and I count myself among those who walked in believing he could make anything funny, the writing proves me wrong. The story is so thin it loses sight of itself. The songs are neither memorable nor remarkable and are so formulaic they stole from themselves; but they are fun and occasionally funny. Willard Becham--the book, music, and lyric writer--might have done himself and the production a favor to let someone else direct.

The real reasons to see this show are the delightful performances of the most stunning quartet of male, triple threats since Jersey Boys. Callan Bergmann, Xavier Cano, Wes Hart, and Joshua Woodie sing harmonies so tight they are almost waterproof. Their dancing, taken as a group and choreographed to showcase individual abilities, fully entertains. They don't have enough collective body fat to fry a chicken. I realize that isn't a talent; but they didn't really do any acting and, when they took their shirts off (repeatedly), it was a threat to my self-esteem.

Kyle Dean Massey, so haunting and powerful in Next to Normal, was charming and vocally stunning. He was so good, he made the hokey Okie character seem genuine and sanguine instead of genuinely stupid. Massey was billed as the Lucky Guy, but I enjoyed his performance and those of the four Buckaroos so much that I considered demanding shared billing


Joy Yandell, Karson St. John
(photo: Daren Scott)
Spoilers Throughout. 

San Diego's excellent Cygnet theatre is presenting a problematic production of Kander and Ebb's classic musical Cabaret.

The show is preceded by a German-language sing-a-long that the director presents (I think) as playful but that made me uncomfortable. This was my first Cabaret with a largely non-Jewish audience, and being surrounded by people cheerfully singing in German in the context of a show about Nazis made the hair stand up on the back of my Jewish neck. Was I reacting reasonably or overreacting? I could make a case for either one. (The non-Jewish friend I went with sang along innocently and happily.)

The choice of a female emcee is intriguing, and Karson St. John is good (though not great) in the role, but the gender switch is undercut in a number of ways. For one example, having men in drag playing the "Two Ladies" feels like a cop-out. In addition, the Emcee's representation of evil oozing into society is played inconsistently, and having Nazi soldiers rather than the Emcee throw the brick that breaks Herr Schultz's window strikes me as a flat-out mistake.

Another problematic directorial decision was to have the "her" of "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" be a pig rather than a gorilla, particularly since the pig is directed to behave as grossly as possible. This heavy-handed, arguably insensitive change took the song from wistfully and ironically satirical to obvious and icky. And having the Emcee put a black bag with a star of David over the pig's head completely ruins the timing and effect of "she wouldn't look Jewish at all."

And why was the Emcee dressed as Charlie Chaplin for that song? As an excuse to wear a Hitler-esque mustache? Why would Hitler be singing that song? Why would Chaplin? Why change the "her" from a gorilla to a pig? The friend I went with suggested that the director was trying to emphasize the insult to Jews, and she may be right, but it seems to me a misreading of the song.

Another problem is presenting Frauline Schneider and Herr Schultz as an almost cartoon couple in the first act; they need to be sympathetic humans. And having Frauline Schneider sing directly to the audience is wrong. She's not at the KitKat club performing; she's at home, singing non-diegetically. (That is, the character does not perceive herself as singing and has no reason to face an audience.)

I am a big fan of director Sean Murray. His Arcadia and A Little Night Music were wonderful, subtle, and sensitive. Because I know his work, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt here. Many people have been blown away by the show, including a friend of mine who is Jewish. But the show left me feeling creeped out in the wrong way.

(First row, slightly to the side, full-price tix, $36 or so.)

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Normal Heart

Photo: Joan Marcus
Larry Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart, currently in revival at the Golden Theater, is about as subtle and gentle as an angry camel. The characters are all spitting mad, ready to stop dead in their tracks and commence screaming into the void at the drop of a hat. The fact that what they often scream about are statistics—how much money is being spent, how much research is being done, how many men are dying painful, horrifically undignified deaths—is one of the reasons that this play is so important, but also so potentially anesthetizing. In less skilled hands, the characters could have easily become flat, and the talky, polemical dialogue less powerful than merely preachy. Yet the characters in The Normal Heart were all real people who struggled and died during the earliest years of the AIDS crisis, and whom Kramer organized with, argued with, alienated, but also loved deeply. The real grace of his play lies, then, in the careful balance he strikes between facts and feelings: this is a man who is chronicling an important history, but who experienced that history first-hand by watching his friends and lovers die terrifying, inexplicable deaths while doctors wrung their hands, politicians turned their backs, and the media focused their concerns elsewhere. The personal is never not political for Kramer, and vice-versa, and one never gets to take precedent over the other. 

The brilliance of this stellar revival lies in the sum of its parts. The set, which initially looks almost offensively nondescript—the most boring staffroom in the most maddeningly drab, bureaucratic institution you can think of—takes on a touching, increasingly meaningful life of its own. The ever-growing list of AIDS victims’ names, projected between scenes, begins with a list, in large letters, of 41 names on the backdrop at the first blackout. The lettering gets smaller and the list gets longer, and when it takes over the entire theater by the end, you know well that it’s coming, but it delivers like a two-by-four square in the face nonetheless. The direction has actors sitting in darkness watching the action taking place center-stage: ghostly memories and departed souls never stop haunting the living.

The cast has clearly worked hard to follow Kramer’s lead, and thus the actors—all of whom are terrific—strike a careful, respectful balance between the play’s politics and the people who have found themselves mired in it. Individual actors spout exposition or lurch suddenly into lengthy diatribe with regularity in this production, but never at the expense of their characters’ complexity. These people are angry, desperate and real, and the actors never forget that. While I admire Joe Mantello as a director, his interpretation of Ned Weeks makes me realize how much I’ve missed him as an actor: no one can play irritable, irritating, and endearing in quite the way that Mantello can. His habit, here, of keeping one hand jammed in his army-jacket pocket—as if he were afraid of what might happen were he to suddenly release all of the anger he holds so tightly in his fist—was a particularly effective touch. The rest of the cast is equally as strong, but the real revelation for me was John Benjamin Hickey, who, as Ned’s partner, Felix, exhibits a sexy swagger that fades slowly and excruciatingly as time passes, and eventually runs out.


Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, currently playing at the Music Box Theater, takes its name from a hymn that, according to director Ian Rickson, is held dear by the English people. “Its words,” Rickson writes in the director’s notes, “have helped form an idyllic sense of aspired Englishness.” It is quite fitting that none of the characters can remember the song, which is on the tips of their tongues until near the very end of this sweeping, insidious play. Jerusalem is about English people, yes, but it is also about a whole mess of cultural ambiguities that relate not just to England but, really, to the human condition.

Themes that run through Jerusalem are not neat or tidy; they frequently clash and sometimes directly contradict one another: The state of the nation is strong; the nation is in decline. You can’t go home again; you can’t run from your past. Same shit, different day; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We are a highly sophisticated species; we are, in the end, animals. Technology helps us; technology has made us emotionally disconnected idiots. See the world; there is no place like home. Cultural messages are messy, and so is Jerusalem, but in increasingly profound ways.

The central character is, like the themes of the play itself, a tangled mess of contradictions. A middle-aged, black-out drunk who has long lived illegally in a trailer on a small clearing in the woods in Wiltshire, England, Johnny “Rooster” Byron (played with scenery-chewing awesomeness by Mark Rylance) is the kind of perpetual adolescent that both English and American culture has long been fascinated with: he is equal parts Peter Pan, Stanley Kowalski, that self-destructive, brilliant guy that Kevin Bacon played in the 1982 film Diner, and that self-destructive, benignly predatory guy that Matthew McConaughey played in the 1993 film Dazed and Confused (“That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”).

Rooster spends his days drinking, partying, and creating a nuisance. As the town around him becomes more and more upscale, a growing number of locals voice their desire for Rooster to simply go away; the local government would prefer this, too, since there are plans to develop his patch of woods into a housing development. All this doesn’t stop many of the locals from buying drugs from Rooster, whose trailer has for decades been a place where local teens hang out, get high, and listen to Rooster’s tall-tales. The fact that most of the kids who kill time gobbling drugs and guzzling booze with Rooster are safer with him than they are in their own homes is just one more of the many contradictions this play toys with.

Another is the characters’ tortured relationships with both the past and the future. Rooster’s tall-tales are the only things that make the past interesting for many of these characters, whose lives all exhibit a deadening sameness that is clearly never going to change. Rooster has done nothing but swagger around his trailer since the early 1980s; his behavior is beginning to catch up with him, but he’s utterly incapable of changing into anyone else, except perhaps, eventually, The Professor (Alan David, hilarious and terrifying), a senile, alcoholic professor emeritus who wanders frequently through Rooster’s woods in a blithely befuddled search for Mary, who might be a dog, or his long-dead wife. Ginger (Mackenzie Crook, also hilarious and terrifying), a man in his early 20s, is as close as one can be to Rooster, which is not very close at all; Ginger is clearly a Rooster-in-training, and while Rooster is well aware of this fact, Ginger is not.

The rest of Rooster’s entourage consists of a group of stubbornly provincial teenagers, who don’t hesitate to mock him behind his back. Like Ginger, they have no intention of admitting to themselves that they, too, will be Rooster one day, and ridiculing him helps them keep such realizations at a distance. While many of the kids, like Davey (Danny Kirrane, very good), never question their humdrum, lackluster lives, a few, like Lee (John Gallagher, Jr., fine, but could use a few more sessions with his dialect coach), dream of leaving home to seek adventure on their own. There are plenty of girls around to party with and, occasionally, to fuck; alas, I would have liked to have heard more from at least one of them.

Butterworth never dashes his characters’ chances of making changes, but always makes absolutely clear just how hard real change can be. This is especially the case when complacency is, if boring, also so comfortable, and the past—at least as reinvented by Rooster—so awesome and powerful. Rooster’s actual past—which has resulted in a young son that he’s utterly incapable of caring for or even relating to, and at least one ex-lover, the boy’s mother (Geraldine Hughes, heartbreaking), who views Rooster with contemptuous disappointment—is pathetic, and very much his fault. So he takes refuge in tall-tales, which take on a growing desperation as the future closes in on him.

Butterworth doesn’t tie up all the loose ends at the end of Jerusalem. Which is as it should be: how can one solve a nation’s identity crisis, resolve the human condition, untangle the mess of cultural baggage, and explain the appeal of suspended adolescence in a mere three-plus hours?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


The Patrick Lee Internet Theater Bloggers Association award nominations have been announced. Here they are:

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Catch Me If You Can
The Book of Mormon
The Scottsboro Boys
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Brief Encounter
Good People
War Horse


Anything Goes
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying


Born Yesterday
The Importance of Being Earnest
The Merchant of Venice
The Normal Heart

Other Desert Cities
Peter and the Starcatcher
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
The Metal Children

Freckleface Strawberry
In Transit
The Burnt Part Boys
The Kid
We the People: America Rocks!

Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches
Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika
Hello Again
The Little Foxes
Three Sisters


Kimberly Faye Greenberg, One Night with Fanny Brice
John Leguizamo, Ghetto Klown
Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made
Mike Birbiglia, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend
Tim Watts, Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer

Belarus Free Theater's Discover Love
Black Watch
Dog Act
Feeder: A Love Story
Reefer Madness, The Gallery Players
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Treasure Island

Monday, May 09, 2011

Follies: Kennedy Center

What haunts most about any production of Follies is not the chorus of ghosts that infiltrate the stage, the unfulfilled dreams or festered regrets infecting the wings, or even the bookends of youth and truth slammed into wrinkled reflection. What haunts, what thrills in a full-blown production are far more personal demons that tickle and torture when stirred and sickened by its score-borne virus. Follies is arguably the most likely musical to shame your dreams as it shipwrecks them upon the rocks and swells and troughs of its nearly three-hour tour. (Running time is actually 2 hours and 30 minutes--Gilligan be damned!)

For any demon-plagued theatre lover, particularly one particular to this score, there is no greater gift than sitting in a grand house (like the Kennedy Center), first row (audience right on the first night and left the following), feet away from legends and a 28-piece orchestra, connected by soaring moments and flashes of brilliance to a sea of strangers, collectively awash with Sondheim. The experience cannot be captured or replicated by media. It exists only for those who are there. It almost doesn't matter how perfect, im or otherwise, the production (Follies is terminally shelved between impossible and impractical), it dies by breaths; and if you don't show up for its life, yours may accumulate another regret.

Taken as a whole, this is the most beautifully sung production I have ever heard, even if it is not the best acted and is possibly the worst directed. Eric Schaeffer neglects a few fundamentals: most notably tempo, timing, and traffic management. Follies, on the page, is a collection of zigs and zags in need of a zip, something to bring and hold it together. He seems to have treed every scripted dictate without much consideration for the forest. But Follies, to further abuse metaphors, is a buffet, not completely dependant on chef-directed courses--many tastes, a hyper-sensory feast, well-seasoned. And this cast is, by and large, well-seasoned, some aged beyond perfection for their assigned roles, yet uniquely savory and luscious.

Bernadette Peters, as the weakly-hinged, Sally, sings the role beautifully. Flat out beautifully. The first night, though, I left the theater wondering if she could act a single unscored phrase. Her journey was the equivalent of standing still. Fortunately, one can stand still in the middle of oncoming traffic and create quite a commotion. She hit the major emotions but missed many of the feelings. The touch of her life's unrequited love registered no response. Sally refers to herself as fat (Ms. Peters is most assuredly not, and her clingy red dress didn't betray a single calorie), but there was no hint of insecurity. And when she delivered the momentous directive for Ben to kiss her lest she die, sounding like she was requesting the fifth ingredient to be retrieved from the woods, it was a bit ridiculous (What is she doing up there? She's in the wrong story!) Her "Losing My Mind" was the evening's greatest disappointment. I've seen her perform that song to devastating effect on a half-dozen concert occasions. Curious that context drained the life from it. Regardless, she was ultimately greatly satisfying and significantly better on Sunday evening.

Jan Maxwell, as Phyllis, was the most successful of the four leads. Her performance was textured and acheful. She has a powerful voice, less lush than the singers she sparred, but her dancing was like a terrorist--lethal arms and passion, not well controlled. She was saddled with an ill-fitting, too-long dress that she had to lift up at every turn to keep from falling; but she navigated with a sequined death grip. Her reward was a second, ill-fitting dress for "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." (Overall, the designer created stunning costumes. . . for the ghosts. The living fared less well.) And the porn hair, while beautiful, felt inappropriately tousled for the period and the character. Ms. Maxwell could have been more hostile, but Ron Raines had taken that emotion hostage. As a matter of fact, he had such a hold on hostility he seemed to forget that Ben is a man successful in both women and politics and requires a charm not obvious on the page. He, too, sang his role beautifully; but he never scratched beneath the surface of this thin-skinned character so Ben's inherent, emotional wavering and subsequent collateral damage came across more as affect than effect, just angry salt on a bitter wound. His end-of-show breakdown was powerful but could have been devastating had he expressed even fleeting likeability.

Danny Burstein, as Buddy, was too young in every way. While realistic for the part with younger co-stars or in a concert version, his energy, form, and salesmanship lacked, well, seasoning. His singing was lovely, and he played the emotions by the book. Perhaps he needs to stew in his own juices for a while or siphon off a little bitterness from Mr. Raines, something to marinate or wry-age those emotions a bit.

It pains me to say that Elaine Paige, my favorite performer of musicals, was an uninspired Carlotta. Oddly enough, it may have been her success and talent that undermined her most. As the "First Lady of British Musical Theater" (said so right there in her bio), she seems a long way from alternating good times and bum times. Sure, everyone has them, but Carlotta's life and livelihood rode astride those highs and lows. It is hard to believe that Ms. Paige has dined on pretzels and beer by necessity in recent memory. Not that she is thereby disqualified from playing the role, but every actor takes stage draped in perceptual assets and liabilities (as in life, as do we all). Her success proves both here. That said, I've never heard "I'm Still Here" sung better. She finishes the song with such full-throttled power that you can't help but celebrate the accomplishment. But it isn't a song that requires much singing, and the celebration should be for her endurance not her diaphragm. She is further undone by staging that is stupid and inconsiderate. On the first night, one of the actors blocked her face for the first half of the song. The woman is 4'11" at full stretch, and she was sitting down. For Heaven's sake, the conducter was at eye level at that point, so you don't stick an obstacle, in this case a completely superfluous actor with big hair, down stage. While Bernadette Peters was all emotional generalities, Elaine Paige was all specifics, almost to the point of pantomiming the words. The easiest and possibly worst sin in Sondheim is to not trust the song and simply tell the story. I would suggest she get on her knees and beg forgiveness, but we might lose sight of her entirely. Ms. Paige has everything it takes to blow the rafters off, but all she really needed to do was pull back the curtains.

One of the greatest joys of this show is the cameos, jewel-encrusted cameos--great numbers not bound by plot or concept. Linda Lavin as Hattie is dynamic and dynamite. She is not the smoky-throated broad of Ethel Shutta or Elaine Stritch, nor the fiesty but frail flower of Betty Garrett (from the 2001 Broadway revival). All were delightful as have been a parade of others. Ms. Lavin was like none of them. She is not playing to the jokes, she's in on the joke; but neither is she the joke. No old lady absurdly reliving the birth of a Broadway Baby, she is a Broadway Baby who's still got it, baby.

Terri White is outstanding as Stella. Mirror, Mirror is one of my favorite numbers ever. It is a powerhouse song made even more thrilling by all the ladies joining in, only muscle memory and menopause to get them through. Then, their younger selves appear, dancing perfectly; and we see what they all once were, the bookends to what could have been. Well, that's how the number usually is. This version was choreographed by Boggle--a fluster cluck of old hens about to be taken out by their own shadows. It is a testament to how good the song is and how amazing Terri White is that the number deservedly received the greatest ovation of the evening. Knowing Ms. White's history, while not necessary, only adds to the thrill.

The remaining performances were functional--although Regine's Solange was messier than the ruins of Rome. It was also interesting to see that a cast of universally unspectacular youngers, mere shadowns of their later selves, literally and figuratively, made the main action even more compelling.

This is not the definitive Follies, but it was definitely worth seeing--twice.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Be a Good Little Widow

Jill Eikenberry, Wrenn Schmidt (photo: Ben Arons)
There are no new stories. This fact challenges every playwright (and novelist and screenwriter). Take, for example, the following three scenarios: a newly married couple learns to make their day-to-day relationship work; a wife realizes she will never be able to please her mother-in-law; people who don't get along have to interact when a mutual loved one dies. Faced with any of these scenarios, one could easily guess how the rest of a play would unfold--that is, unless it were written by a top-notch playwright with an original imagination and deep empathy for human foibles. Bekah Brunstetter is such a playwright.

Brunstetter's play, Be a Good Little Widow, combines the three scenarios described above, yet it is surprising, multidimensional, and moving. The new wife and the judgmental mother-in-law--and the other two characters--are specific, living people. The play mixes humor and heartbreak, all richly earned. It is a deeply satisfying show.

Director Stephen Brackett supports Brunstetter's writing with clean, clear direction. The four-person cast shines. The two men, in smaller roles, are solid and believable. Jill Eikenberry is perfectly cast as the mother-in-law, and she gives a performance that is uncompromising yet compassionate, dignified yet nakedly vulnerable. As the not-so-good little widow Melody, Wrenn Schmidt combines staggering depth, truthfulness, and physicality. During the show's 90 or so minutes, there is not a molecule of her body that is not Melody.

Many of the people involved in this show--in particular, Brunstetter and Schmidt--are quite young. I am looking forward to their work over the next decades.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Lisa Howard: Songs of Innocence and Experience (CD Review)

There are wonderful moments in theatre when you suddenly realize that you are in the presence of someone special. The first time I heard Lisa Howard sing was one of those moments. It was an evening of William Finn songs at Merkin Hall in 2004. Betty Buckley performed, as did Stephen DeRosa, Jerry Dixon, Raul Esparza, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Janet Metz. Howard was a student of Finn's, if I remember correctly, and she spent a lot of time in the background. And then came time for her solo. The second she started singing, I sat up a little straighter and listened a little harder. Her voice was strong and clear and beautiful, and she knew what to do with it. Although the other performers were better known and had more experience, she was among peers. (In his brief essay in the CD booklet, Finn refers to that evening as well, saying, "When Lisa finished singing. . . , the great Betty Buckley, who was sitting next to her, rose and bowed deeply.")

I've since seen Howard's wonderful performance in Spelling Bee (and also saw her be terribly underutilized in 9 to 5 and South Pacific). And now she has released a solo CD called Songs of Innocence and Experience (Ghostlight Records), which is a collection of songs by William Finn. Although I don't think the CD is a home run, there is much to like about it. Howard's voice remains beautiful, and her interpretations are well worth many listens. Particular highlights include "When the Earth Stopped Turning" from Elegies and "Bad Boy," "Listen to the Beat," and "I Don't Know Why I Love You" (a duet with Derrick Baskin) from The Royal Family of Broadway.

But, and this is a fairly large but, Finn's songs don't offer enough variety for a solo CD. Mind you, I love Finn's work. March of the Falsettos changed my life. Spelling Bee is amazing. I hope that The Royal Family makes it to New York. But (1) his songs are mostly character-driven and can be awkward when taken out of context, (2) some of his music has a sameness to it, and (3) his awkward and odd rhymes, while charming and funny in his shows, can become annoying on the multiple listens that a good CD deserves.

However, the CD's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The 14-person band is a treat, and the orchestrations by Carmel Dean, Eugene Gwozdz, and Michael Starobin, among others, are excellent. And while there is a sameness to some of the songs, there is great texture and variety to Howard's singing.

When I like a CD, I listen to it over and over without interruption. This CD won't get that treatment. However, I am sure that I will pull it out again and again over the years and always be pleased.

(Reviewer CD)

Let Me Entertain You: Laura Benanti at Feinstein's at Loews Regency

Before I get to her voice, and what she sang, and all those necessary details about someone performing a solo cabaret show, I need to get one thing out of the way: Laura Benanti is a hoot. No, she's a hoot and a half. The woman knows how to tell a story, work a room, and turn unexpected moments into comic gold. Her tales of choosing an unusual Halloween costume, of being mistaken for a certain celebrity, and of being "a 45-year-old gay man in a little girl's body" are funny enough to be the foundation of an excellent evening of stand-up comedy.

And, oh, yeah, she can sing.

With the excellent Mary Mitchell Campbell playing both piano and straight man, Benanti offers a surprising and entertaining 75 minutes of songs, including "Skylark" (which she sang in Swing), "The Sound of Music" (which she sang in, well, guess), a Gypsy medley, "I Want to Be Loved by You," "Honey Pie," "Unusual Way" (which she sang in Nine), a Sondheim medley, and Harry Chapin's poignant "Mr. Tanner." The pièce de résistance is an amazing bits-and-pieces medley that she introduces as being "heartfelt," but that isn't the only part of her that feels those songs!

While I would give Benanti's patter an A+, some of her songs don't land quite as well. They are still excellent, but Benanti's incredible presence dissipates a little when she sings serious pieces. It's as though an attack of formality causes her to close herself off a bit. I feel churlish to even mention this, since the evening is so entertaining, but you know what? She could be even better!

One other point. Benanti should take a mike-wielding lesson from Barbara Cook (as should many performers of today's generation, actually). Benanti holds the mike too close to her mouth, which blocks part of her face and sometimes exaggerates her breathing and her "P"s. (I never understand why people use mikes at Feinstein's anyway. It's not a large room, and the unmiked voice is a beautiful thing.) On the other hand, Benanti is excellent at playing to the entire room, left, right, and center, and as I hope I have gotten across, she's amazing overall.

Benanti is appearing again on May 22. Catch her if you can.

(Press ticket, far audience right.)

The School for Lies

Mamie Gummer and Jenn Gambatese.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

I have to begin this review with a caveat: At the performance of The School for Lies I attended, an electrical outage down the block caused a loss of some of the lighting and set off a warning alarm on the (sound?) equipment, which happened to be quite close to me. During the last five or ten minutes of the first act, a series of four high-pitched beeps repeated at changing intervals, over and over, right in my ear. It severely messed with my concentration (although the actors, impressively, didn't bat an eye). This may well be why I had a less ecstatic response to this show than many other critics did. I did, however, like much of it, and I did laugh a lot.

The School for Lies is David Ives' riff on Molière's classic comedy, The Misanthrope. It combines poetry and period dress with contemporary language and sometimes attitudes. The plot focuses on the romantic quadrangle of Celimene, who either loves Frank or wants to use him; Elainte, whose hots for Frank cause her to, uh, lose all sense of decorum; Philante, who loves Elainte; and of course Frank himself, the outspoken, frank (duh) misanthrope whose churlishness is subdued by the possibility that Celimene loves him. Add to the mix Celimene's three other suitors (ridiculous men all), Celimene's frenemy Arisinoé, Frank's odoriferous cohort Basque, and Celimene's much put-upon servant Dubois, and you have the confusion, egos, slapstick, and silliness that make up a good farce.

I enjoyed the high wit more than the low humor, and I found the major running joke annoying (many reviewers found it hysterical). I also thought the show was ten, perhaps fifteen minutes too long. Of course, a show like this lives or dies on the strengths of its performers. Hamish Linklater, as Frank, is flawless, whether serious or silly, scowling or lovelorn--and his diction is clear as a bell.

Mamie Gummer's performance is less compelling. For one thing, she needs to project better. It isn't that she can't be heard so much as her voice lacks a certain presence. Also, although this is not her fault, Gummer's resemblance to her mother Meryl Streep at her age can be distracting--and it is during Gummer's best moments that the resemblance is strongest. I don't like judging people by their relatives, and I thought Gummer was excellent in TV's "The Good Wife," where she was her own person. But here I occasionally felt as though I had slipped back to the 1970s and was watching Streep perform.

Of the rest of the cast, Hoon Lee as Philante is a particular stand-out. Walter Bobbie's direction largely keeps the festivities moving right along, with the occasional drag. The costumes by William Ivey Long are wonderful.

(Press ticket, fifth row center.)

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (CD Review)

According to the invaluable StageGrade, the Broadway musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown received an average grade of C- from a total of 31 critics. While it's clear that Women on the Verge has no Tony Award for Best Musical in its future, it's a shoo-in for most underrated show of the decade. It's hard to suss out why a show doesn't land, though I have seen a number of theories posited about this one, including that it was overdirected and unfocused. My personal theory is that the show took too long to get to the women and lost the audience along the way. Also, it had an awfully non-Hispanic cast for a show that took place in Spain, and Danny Burstein's performance as the cab driver veered perilously close to racial insensitivity. (My review of the show is here.)

However, Monday morning quarterbacking is no less frequent--and no more useful--in theatre than in football, and whatever its faults, Women on the Verge had and has many strengths. To start with, as this welcome original cast recording from the excellent Ghostlight Records demonstrates, the score is top-drawer, with composer/lyricist David Yazbek once again combining wit and energy to write an audience-friendly, completely enjoyable score. From the overture on, this is a score that moves. It completely sells the group nervous breakdown of the title, while also being melodic, wry, and entertaining. The lyrics are flat-out fun and quite clever. My favorite song is "Lovesick," which perfectly expresses the feeling of insanity that can accompany unrequited love. For example:
You're sick of what you're saying.
You're sick of what you're thinking.
You'd have another drink
Except you're sick of what you're drinking.
You shudder, you tingle
The paramedic comes--
You wonder if he's single.
These lyrics--all of David Yazbek's lyrics--sit perfectly on his melodies, giving the emotion a compelling propulsion and totally pleasing the ear. And Sherie Rene Scott nails the vocal.

"Invisible," Yazbek's ballad of the disappearance of love, goes for poignancy instead of humor, and Patti LuPone does it full justice. Again, the lyrics are excellent. For instance:
You eat your lunch,
A year is gone.
You go to bed, ten years are gone
Then you wake up and wonder
Where is it hiding?
Where did it go?
I don't understand
The life I had wanted.
The life I was promised
The life I had planned?

Then I realized it--
It was invisible.
Then there is the wonderful, insane "Model Behavior," in which the wonderful, insane Laura Benanti plays the wonderful, insane Candela leaving a series of phone messages on her friend Pepa's answering machine. For example:
I'm feeling kind of woozy.
I've been crying for an hour.
And my boyfriend has an Uzi
And he doesn't clean the shower.
It's interesting to compare the performances on the CD with the live performances. Sherie Rene Scott comes across much better on the CD. She seemed almost lost in the show, but here she provides a full, textured character, and her singing is glorious (though her accent is still weak). Patti LuPone and Laura Benani were/are equally superb in both mediums. Brian Stokes Mitchell comes across less effectively on the CD, perhaps because his wry, self-mocking smile is not there to undercut the smarminess of the character.  Justin Guarini is equally likeable in both mediums. The 16-person orchestra, conducted by Jim Abbott, is a delight.

The physical presentation of the CD is absolutely top of the line. The 42-page, full-color booklet includes essays by Pedro Almodóvar, director of the movie on which the musical is based, and Frank Rich. There is a detailed synopsis, complete lyrics, and a slew of wonderful pictures. Original cast recordings are never a given--my heart still breaks that James Joyce's The Dead was never recorded--and many thanks are owed to Ghostlight Records and Sh-K-Boom for their commitment to the fabulous American art form of the musical and to its incredibly talented practitioners.

(Reviewer's copy.)