Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lemon Sky

As I traveled to the Clurman Theatre to see the Keen Company's revival of Lanford Wilson's Lemon Sky, I took a mental tour through other Wilson plays I've seen: Hot L Baltimore, Balm in Gilead, Fifth of July, The Rimers of Eldritch, Talley's Folly, Book of Days. And it struck me just how strong a playwright Wilson is, how compassionate and insightful. I was delighted to be on my way to a Wilson play I had never seen before.

Keith Nobbs, Kevin Kilner
Photo: Richard Termine
Unfortunately, I found Lemon Sky to be weak and flat. The autobiographical tale of the six months that Wilson lived with his father when he was 17, it relies far too much on telling and far too little on showing. Wilson's stand-in, Alan, narrates the story in great swaths of not-that-interesting monologue. The other characters occasionally address the audience as well, mostly in asides. Sometimes two characters address the audience together, as though they are reminiscing to us.

This structure is not the problem per se. Many compelling plays use a combination of addressing the audience and scenes, but Lemon Sky is (1) not compelling and (2) so short of interactions that Alan takes time to assure us, "There'll be a scene. Those who are confused will say thank God, something to watch, maybe everyone will stop flying around." But the show isn't confusing; it's boring. My main thought during intermission was, "I wonder if this ever turns into a play." (It doesn't.)

(possible spoilers below)

Another problem with Lemon Sky is the plot, such as it is. Is anyone surprised that Alan is probably gay? Is anyone surprised that his father probably made a pass at one of the teenage girls to whom he and his wife are foster parents? Does it matter that the other girl dies in a car accident? Is anyone surprised that the father turns out not to be charming or loving?

Most importantly: Does anyone care about the characters? I certainly didn't.

This is not all Wilson's fault. Jonathan Silverstein's direction is lackluster, and the performers are mostly ineffectual. Keith Nobbs as Alan lacks the charm and/or intensity to carry the audience through his travails. Kevin Kilner as the father has dynamic moments but his performance is ultimately one note. Kellie Overbey as the father's second wife barely registers. Amie Tedesco and Alyssa May Gold bring little to the table as the teen foster children. Zachary Mackiewicz as the younger of Alan's step-brothers is more interested in the audience than the play; he actually stared a few times at a man in the first row. Only Logan Riley Bruner as the older of Alan's step-brothers comes across as a three-dimensional person worth caring about.

(Press ticket, 2nd row on the aisle)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Career in the Theatre: A Profile of Tom Dudzick

Tom Dudzick may be the most successful playwright whose work you've never seen. His first play, Greetings, opened off-Broadway in 1994 during a blizzard. Even though Clive Barnes called the play, "a comic jewel," the blizzard won. The play has become a Christmas staple in regional theatres, and his subsequent plays (including the Over the Tavern triology, Hail Mary, and Don't Talk to the Actors) have had long and frequent runs across the country. Dudzick went global in 2009 when Over the Tavern was adaped for a production in Ireland (called Over the Pub). His backstage comedy Don't Talk to the Actors is currently running in Bucharest, Romania. Many of his plays are set in his hometown of Buffalo, New York and feature characters inspired by relatives or locals from his youth. His latest work, Miracle on South Division Street, has been mounted in readings and a production in upstate New York. It could be your next opportunity to discover Tom Dudzick, who is hoping for an off-Broadway production of that play in the near future.

Seeing the sublimely hysterical production of King of the Moon at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield, Massachusetts, I became an instant fan. So, when the Showshowdown gan started talking about people to watch, I thought of Tom and took the opportunity to ask him a few questions, so you could be introduced to the man in advance of being introduced to his work. 

RS: What has been the difference for you between pursuing a career in the theatre and really making a living in the theatre? 

TD: The pursuit of a career in the theatre was filled with angst, worry, sweat, non-stop writing, meditation with creative visualization and the constant striving to “make it!” Don’t get me wrong, I loved the entire trip. Now that I’ve “made it,” I’m more relaxed and I can channel most of my creative energies into just the writing, because I’ve now made the connections, I have a network of producers who will read what I send them. So much energy in the beginning went into making it over that hump.

The fact that I’m a success with the regional theatres tells me something about myself – these are my people! I think I will have a play in New York (and it will probably be “Miracle on South Division Street”) but the people in that play, and all my plays, are so middle-America. Just regular uncomplicated people trying to make a living and eke out some happiness. And it’s so exciting when I stop and think that, on any given day, one of my plays is going on somewhere in the country. It’s a real kick for me. 

When did the transition start to happen for you, and how did it change your approach to writing? 

The transition from struggling to making it started with “Greetings!” The right person showed up at the right reading (a sit-down reading of “Greetings! with open scripts”) and said, “I’d like to produce your play at my theatre.” That was Greg Houston at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. That led to off-Broadway. And that started the whole ball rolling. I don’t know that it changed my approach to writing. But it gave me confidence and encouragement to continue. Back then I was still trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to say. Which I’m still doing, come to think of it. 

What is your theatrical point of view, and how has it changed over time? 

My theatrical point of view is – tell a compelling story, clearly. It’s really that simple. Make sure the audience knows quickly who they should care about, what are the stakes, who wants what and why, and who doesn’t want him to have it, and what happens if he doesn’t get it. And make sure the hero’s quest is “playworthy,” as they say. It should be worth the trouble of getting all these people up on stage to tell the story, worth an audience paying $45 to come see it. How has it changed over time? It hasn’t. That will always be my rule – get their attention quickly and be clear. 

What are the influences that have shaped your point of view most? 

Watching TV since I was old enough to sit in front of it influenced me. Watching old movies and then eventually seeing plays. Then reading lots and lots of plays. Writing plays coincided with me being in plays – because I wrote plays to appear in. So I became very mindful of what makes people laugh, because I was experiencing it directly. That “being mindful” part is very important. I paid attention and used what worked. Then I just fell into a natural niche. I started emulating the playwrights who impressed and entertained me. Plus I read a million “how to write a play” books, which I still get out and refer to each time I start a new project. 

Your plays are often about family, faith, and mysticism. Is that coincidental? Just common context? Or intentional? If intentional, what's the larger message? 

My plays are about family because it’s what I know best. I can write about it with some authority. And the mysticism you mention – that’s another biggie with me. I love the idea that there is more to life than what we experience with our five senses. And the stage is a fun, exciting place to develop that idea. I can make the “magic” happen in real time, right before our eyes. Everyone loves to spook people out by telling them a ghost story. It’s the same kind of thing with me and the plays. Do I have a larger message? I guess that message would be, “I think there is more to life than what we’ve been led to believe, and I offer you this two-hour glimpse of how I see things. Do with it what you will.” 

What are the theatrical trends that drive you crazy? 

Things within the art form itself don’t really drive me crazy. It’s the show “business” that does it. The idea that we must have a STAR in the play or the audience won’t come, is an example. I don’t see that one going away soon, I’m afraid. Theatrical trends? I used to dislike this trend of 90 minute plays with no intermission. Because it was different. Now I’m writing 90 minute plays with no intermission. Because it still works. I don’t know how the theatres put up with it, though. Aren’t they losing a lot of candy and booze sales during intermission? 

What is your next project? Where could people see your work next? 

My next play is called “Miracle on South Division Street” and I’m hoping for an off-Broadway production soon. It’s a comedy based on a local legend in my old neighborhood in Buffalo. When I was a kid there was this barber who claimed that the Blessed Mother appeared to him. He built a shrine and had a life-size statue of Mary put inside and the whole thing stood next to his barber shop. It was a mini-Lourdes, except the Catholic Church never sanctioned the “miracle.” But the ironic thing is, my old neighborhood is pretty much in ruins now. The church has been torn down. The barber shop is gone – but the shrine is still there! The denizens of the neighborhood keep it in repair. And that’s what my play is about, this family who holds on to this old family “miracle” legend. 

You've had works commissioned. How is the process/approach different for you when you are writing a commissioned piece versus an idea of your own? 

A commission is lovely and extremely encouraging. Someone is paying you to write a play. But with it comes the pressure of having to perform. There’s the time pressure, there’s the idea that it had better be as good as they expect. But I’d never turn one down because of that. “Yes” is always the more interesting answer. 

You are possibly the most disciplined writer I have ever met. Can you talk a little about the balance of discipline, talent, luck, and whatever else you think is key to creating a career in the theatre? 

If I did 100 push-ups every morning, then I would accept the “disciplined” compliment. But as far as writing goes it doesn’t apply because I love to write. I don’t have to force myself into a schedule or any of that. I just wake up in the morning and I want to do it. So I’m very fortunate in that way. Now, you asked about discipline, talent and luck. I don’t believe in luck, so we can cross that one out. To me luck implies “random-ness,” and I don’t believe the Universe does anything in a random fashion. But that’s another discussion. For me, discipline comes into play when I market my work. Because it’s not as much fun as writing. Compiling lists of theatres, submitting, updating, cross-checking, keeping in touch with Artistic Directors, all that good stuff. What motivates me there is common sense, i.e. theatres aren’t going to come to me; I have to reach out to them.

Friday, September 23, 2011

If I Had A Time Machine ..

.. I'd probably be fired from my day job because I'd constantly be seeing shows that were before my time. Whoops, I guess that's not really an answer, though.

Oddly enough, I think one of the first shows I'd see would be CATS, mostly because I've never understood the fascination with it. I just don't get it, and I'd like to.

Actually, I'd love to see the original cast of Phantom of the Opera. It was the first show I ever saw, when I was eight. I don't know who the leads were, but I do know that I adore the original cast album, and I'd love to see it in all its original glory.

I wish I had seen Spring Awakening. My sister and my best friend, two people whose theater opinion I trust very much, each saw it multiple times and loved it. I actually met Jonathan Groff outside the revival of Promises, Promises (about halfway through his "Glee" run). He was so, so nice, and so willing to chat; I wish I had seen the show so I would have had a little more to talk about with him. There are tons of classic shows I wish I could have seen, that were just around before my time or before I was really into theater. I'd love to see A Chorus Line or The Producers. Any incarnation of HAIR, since I missed it again this summer. Every five minutes I think of another show to add to the list!

Shows I Wish I Could See? Continuing the Conversation.

I never understand the fascination with Ethel Mermen. Her brassy voice on recordings never really impresses me and, yet, she is one of Broadway's most treasured icons(I know. I know. It's heresy, right?). So I'd like to see anything with her in it, but especially Gypsy since she, herself, considered it her best performance. I'd also love to see Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! She's another actress that never appealed to me. I would love to explore the allure of these two more and I can't think of a better way than to revisit those shows.

I love the story of Peter Pan so imagine the fun of seeing a triple feature of Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby in the title role. I'd start with the 1954 original version, see Sandy from 1979 and then watch one of the 90s versions with Cathy Rigby.


Add Follies to my list of shows that I wish I'd seen in their original productions.

Mind you, I very much enjoyed the revival, which is currently running at the enormous Marquis theater. It made me realize why, exactly, so many people rave about Follies, and flock to multiple revivals of it. I've never seen a production of the show, you see--I have a much closer relationship with Sweeney Todd and with Company. But now, having seen Follies, I totally get it: this is one hell of an important, layered, well-constructed, compelling musical.

It is also possibly, in some respects, an unworkable one, especially nowadays, and that is where this production suffers. How to contrast a dilapidated, sad, musty present with a glorious, dazzling, jaw-dropping past, without breaking the bank on scenery, costumes, and a cast of thousands? The original production suffered under the weight of its own expenses; this one doesn't even try on that front, and it's all too clear: the set never stops looking cheap, even when it's clearly trying to dazzle. That said, the cast is good to excellent. (Although Elaine Paige, saddled with "I'm Still Here"--perhaps the most anticipated song in the show--chokes the number out most unsatisfyingly. I was disappointed, but then again, oddly, still somehow moved.) While I did not see the DC production, the four central cast-members seem to have found their stride, and then some--Peters was in fine voice and seems to have found the weight of overwhelming defeat and sorrow that embodies her character; Ron Raines was appropriately imposing and flawed; and Jane Maxwell and Danny Burstein were, to me, revelations. Their younger counterparts, all, were good, too.

Yet the staging was occasionally notably weird--Sandra, with whom I saw the show, and who will surely go to greater length about this in her review on this blog, was particularly bothered by the prevalence of what she called "the Zombie chorus girls"--the ghosts of the past--walking trancelike through the proceedings, waving their arms in graceful, gently swaying, ultimately tiresome arcs, like so many bored trees. And some of the numbers seemed somehow devoid of real grace--interesting, but hardly thrilling.

The aforementioned issues that I had with this production, however, in no way negate the pleasure I had in getting to know the musical itself. The score--one of the most challenging, eclectic and surprising scores, ever--gives us a neat history of the Broadway musical, and jerks back and forth between old forms and new, increasingly weird varations on them. The past, in this musical, constantly teases and competes with, and ultimately collapses into the present; the music never, not even for a second, forgets how to reflect that. In Sondheim's socre, there are direct references to the old masters who helped shape Broadway during its so-called golden age, and who helped shape Sondheim in his youth: there's a Leonard Bernstein quote here, a nod to Rodgers and Hammerstein there. Here's the entire history of American stage music; here's something completely new.

Characters sing diffuse, unformed fragments of songs that they later deliver in full as their memories flood back and overwhelm them; characters tell us how they've been for all these years in song, alternately by being heartbreakingly straightforward and by lying, even more heartbreakingly, through their teeth. I have never connected so strongly to characters who reveal themselves almost entirely through song and dance, but by the end of the show I felt not only that I had gotten to know them, but that I wanted--desperately--to know what was going to happen to them. Probably nothing all that different, or all that good, alas, but the characters became real to me nonetheless, and I was sad for them.

The structure of the musical drives home its many interrelated themes. Follies is all about death --the death of the road not traveled, the death of potential and of opportunity, the death of love and of marriage, the death of the past, the inevitable death of the present. The musical frames this with a structure modeled after entertainment forms that, by 1971 were, if not completely dead, then actively, rapidly dying: burlesque, operetta, vaudeville and, of course, the Ziegfeldian extravaganza. These forms were so enormously important once, to our country when it was younger, and they're all...just....gone.

This revival, too, strikes me as the inadvertent lament for a Broadway that has, as well, died. I know, I know, if we had a dime for every time someone announced that Broadway was dead, we'd all be as rich as Benjamin Stone. But I was struck by the fact that this musical is rooted in the past in more ways than one: it's very much an early 1970s musical in a lot of ways. Not only is it about crushing disappointment, in keeping with that downer of a decade, but it's also experimental, and hallucinogenic, and weird, and sad, and both emotionally and intellectually challenging. It's also risky as hell, and entirely original, and it was first launched at enormous expense. On Broadway. Which, nowadays, revives, revives, revives, or puts its biggest money on shows that have functional scores and that were once movies or tv shows, or...well, you get my drift: Follies is dead. Long live the Follies.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Traces versus Zarkana

There’s something in the water in Montreal. They pump out body-defying acrobatics wrapped in tongue-in-cheek excess like a virus. Despite the shared core, two Canadian exports leaped into town, and they couldn’t be more different. Traces, at the Union Square Theatre, makes Zarkana, at Radio City Music Hall, look like Cirque du So What?
Zarkana is like a bad online date. The poster is attractive, but what meets you at the door is bloated, obnoxious, and several inches short of promise. There’s a lot of heavy breathing, but I just sat there wishing they’d finish already so I could go home.

Traces is a cigarette short of a seal-the-deal first date. It is intimate, sexy, breathtaking, and sweaty. And the hotties on the poster actually showed up. There wasn’t enough body fat on the stage to cook up a 2 piece and a biscuit.

Traces isn’t an evening of never-before-seen tricks. As a matter of fact, there is very little that’s unexpected. What makes the show special is that each performer participates in every act. Many body circus acts show up for 10 minutes, flip physics the bird, and disappear into the wings. The seven artists in Traces weave in and out of the spotlight for 90 minutes, mastering multiple acrobatic styles (poles, chairs, skateboards, tumbling, and jumping) and multiple artistic styles (everyone plays the piano, several sing, and all display comedic charm).

The second, special treat of the evening is that you get to meet the people behind the tricks. They introduce themselves, give you peeks at their individual personalities, and we even get to see baby pictures. That may sound a bit saccharine, but Traces is a full-octane adult beverage. The whole affair gets a little loud occasionally, but it is completely appropriate and expected.

Finally, the show delivers on its promise. The performers execute 100% of the tricks planned. That is not to say they get it right the first time, every time; but you get to see every trick, no cheats. Zarkana, with all its gaudy excesses and endless, overproduced caterwauling, was a disappointment start to finish. At the Union Square Theater, there wasn’t a Trace of disappointment.

If I Had a Time Machine, What Shows Would I See?

Where do I start? Okay, here's where I start:

The record-breaking performance of A Chorus Line. This review/description by Frank Rich will tell you why. I get goosebumps just reading about it.

Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie. Because when I was in my teens, I'd always ask older people what was the best performance they'd ever seen. And all but one said, "Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie."

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. Because the one person who didn't say "Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie" said "Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet." I was 19; he was in his 90s; I felt connected to history.

Ethel Merman in Gypsy. Because, uh, it's Ethel Merman in Gypsy!

The original Follies. Could it possibly live up to the hype?

Arcadia at Lincoln Center with the original cast.  Because I love Arcadia.

Arcadia in London with the original cast. Because I love Arcadia.

A Streetcar Named Desire in London with Rachel Weisz. Because I'm sure she was wonderful.

Penny Arcade with James Cagney and Joan Blondell in 1930. Because they're James Cagney and Joan Blondell.

Fred and Adele Astaire in anything! Was she really the better dancer?

Bill Bojangles Robinson in anything! Was he really the better dancer?

Edwin Booth as Hamlet. Would he seem hammy or wonderful or both?

Christine Sarry in Rodeo. Okay, it's ballet, not theatre, but I'd still love to go.

And then there are the shows I would see again (and again!):

Colleen Dewhurst in Moon for the Misbegotten. Because if I had to pick one single best performance I've ever seen, this would be it.

Cloud Nine, first with the original cast and then when Michael Jeter was in it. I saw this show three times and would gladly see it once a year for the rest of my life.

A Little Night Music with the original cast. Another show I would gladly see once a year for the rest of my life (if not more often).

A Streetcar Named Desire with Rosemary Harris. Because she broke my heart.

Happy End with Meryl Streep and Christopher Lloyd. Because it was so much fun.

And I could go on and on and on.

(Do you suppose the time machine would have a TKTS booth?)

Shows I Wish I'd Seen

There are so many shows I wish I'd seen, either because I missed brilliant performances by actors I admire (thus, just last season, The Merchant of Venice) or shows I've been told I would have adored (thus, from many years ago, A Delicate Balance). As a historian, I wish like hell, all the time, that I had had the chance to see just about every musical that I have researched, reconstructed, and written about, but that ran before I was born, or before I was old enough to see them: every single rock musical to run in New York before, say, the late 80s; every adult musical to open in New York through the 1970s.

But really, on a personal level, the show I most regret not having had the chance to see was Carrie, which remains so near and dear to so many who got the chance to see it. By all accounts, Carrie was an absolute trainwreck that nevertheless had some moments of absolute brilliance; if you don't believe me, please read Ken Mandelbaum's wonderful description of the show in the intro to his aptly titled 1991 book Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops. I've sat through many a disastrous production in the past few decades of regular theatergoing (for example, see my review of the first incarnation of Spider-Man on this very blog), but something tells me that Carrie still remains the megaflop that has yet to be beat.

Someone I know who saw Carrie once made a quip about it that I will always remember, and that remains one of my favorite theater stories of all time. She said that she saw the show in previews, and that it was, indeed, truly, astoundingly, wonderfully awful. "Really?" I asked. "So, when the curtain call came, was the cast booed off the stage?" "Oh, no," my friend replied, with a beatific smile and a glaze in her eyes that still haunts me. "The show got a standing ovation the night I saw it. It was JUST THAT BAD."

Seriously, how could anything top that?

Question: If You Had a Time Machine, What Show(s) Would You See?

Some of the Show Showdowners, myself included, are going to answer this question. We'd love to hear your answers too. Just click on "comments" below. Thanks!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Arias With a Twist

Photo: Steven Menendez

The four musicians are elegant and graceful. The bass player is cool and contained. The piano and drum players banter with the singer. The trumpet player may be her lover.

The four musicians are puppets, just a few of the dozens of magical Basil Twist creations playing, floating, threatening, dancing, slithering, and screwing their way through Arias With a Twist (developed by Twist and Joey Arias). Twist's puppets include aliens, Busby Berkley showgirls, hyper-well-hung devils, an octopus, and versions of Joey Arias ranging from minute to gigantic. Twist also designed the scenery, giving us a jungle, hell, outer space, and the New York City Skyline, each a cornucopia of detailed delights. You could examine the jungle backdrop for an hour and not see everything. In Arias With a Twist, the sets and puppets--and puppeteers Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith, Chris DeVille, Kirsten Kammermeyer, Matt Leabo, Jamie Moore, and Amanda Villalobos--rate five gold lamé stars.

The sole non-puppet performer, Joey Arias, sings like Billy Holiday and does physical humor like the "demented diva" he is famous for being. His faux tap dancing is great fun. I found him cold, however, and often unengaging (however, I'm not his target audience).

A bigger problem I had with the show is that too much of the humor is the same tired and predictable sex jokes that drag queens have been beating to death for decades. Granted, the audience, mostly gay men, loved the humor. They started whooping and cheering and howling before the jokes were even told, which makes sense--in many ways, the show is a huge in-joke gay party. But I'm not a gay man, and I am disappointed that Twist and Arias did not use their prodigious imaginations to come up with writing more original than the usual bitchy humor and penis and penetration jokes. (I'm also not clear why the sound had to be eardrum-destroyingly loud.)

I feel as though I saw two shows. One was tiresome. One I loved.

(press ticket, eighth row on the aisle)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Man and Boy

DISCLAIMER:Man and Boy is in previews and opens officially on October 9.

One of my favorite things about attending Roundabout theater productions is that I never have any idea what the shows are about, so I go in with no expectations or prejudices. Sometimes, as with last year's production of Brief Encounter, this works well, and I end up seeing a fantastic show that hits every emotional note perfectly and leaves me wishing I could see a show every night. Other times, it means that I end up sitting through a show that I have no interest in and can't connect to, and leaves me wishing I had known what it was about so I could avoid it.

Which brings me to last night. Terence Rattigan's play should have resonated, at least a little, since the cultural environment is similar to our own; it's the story of a father and son, meeting for the first time in five years on the eve of a global financial collapse. The father, Gregor Antonescu (Frank Langella), is being hounded by the press. He seeks refuge in his son Basil's (Adam Driver) Greenwich Village apartment. Heated words are exchanged, secrets are revealed, and lives are forever changed.

The problem with this play lies not in the individual performances, but in the source material. The first act drags on and on, with no real direction or any hint of the urgency of the situation. It ends with a series of misunderstandings that might be played for laughs in a different show, but here just makes everyone uncomfortable. The repercussions of these misunderstandings are promptly forgotten in the second act, leaving the viewer wondering why they were brought up at all.

The second act is no better. Emotional bombs are dropped left and right, but the emotional climax feels unearned. By the final scene, I didn't care whether or not Basil and his father made amends. I did wonder where his girlfriend had gone, though; she disappears sometime in the first act and is never mentioned again.

The small cast does the best they can with dreary material. Frank Langella bounces between genteel world financier and kindly if clueless father so smoothly that I believed Basil's deep angst at how to deal with him. Similarly, Driver's Basil was so shaken by his father's reappearance that I wanted to give him a hug. Still, this entire story could have been told in one 90-minute act instead of two acts and over two hours. Unless the show is considerably streamlined in the three weeks between now and the official open, this is probably a show you can skip.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Photo credit: Sal Cacciato Caption: Don DiPaolo and Therese Plaehn

It seems we never leave high school. In the revival of Stephen Belber’s Tape, the indelible mark of former school days permeates the adult perimeters of its character’s lives—a sentiment established from the onset by scenic designer Laura Jellinek’s placement of a string of lockers and gym wall markings that surround the main set. Although, the action strays into that area just once, this second set serves as a physical reminder of the past’s lasting resonance.

Tape depicts the story of two best friends, Vince (Don DiPaolo) and Jon (Neil Holland) and their reunion in a Motel 6 room when the latter’s movie is showcased at the Lansing, Michigan, film festival. Vince, a good-natured 28-year-old dope dealer and volunteer fire fighter, greets his more-successful buddy warmly, but secretly plans a confrontation involving his former girlfriend (Therese Plaehn as Amy). As the two fall into a patter of one upmanship—a verbal volleyball that soon becomes terse and heated-Jon’s modern-day rationalizations of himself are re-examined.

Besides a drama of John Knowles-like themes, Belber showcases the vagaries of perception and how humans manipulate images, often abdicating responsibility for their actions. All three characters offer false versions of themselves, from Vince putting stray cheetos on his dresser to create an unkempt look, to Amy’s tightly contained, professionally suited assistant D.A. dress. All construct a version of what they want others to see. The truth depends on the storyteller.

DiPaolo (The Seagull with Curan Rep) imbues Vince with a humanity that makes his character seem vulnerable and appealing despite glaring flaws. His presence anchors the sometimes slow unfolding of this revenge-laced intrique. The play, which premiered at the 2000 Humana Festival of New American Plays, remains relevant and offers a provocative look at how who we are and what we did in the past infiltrates our future. Sam Helfrich, who directed Belber’s Transparency of Val, helms this limited run (through Sept. 24) at the June Havoc Theatre in the Abingdon Theater Arts Complex.

(press ticket, general seating)

The Off Broadway Musical

While I am always happy to see original, innovative musicals succeed Off Broadway, I’ve been a lot less happy in the past few seasons to see how such shows fare once they’ve been moved to Broadway. For a long time, now, Off Broadway has been a formidable presence on the scene (Hair, anyone? A Chorus Line? Rent?), but lately, I’ve been concerned about the growing pressure being put on smaller shows to strike it big on Broadway. Last year, two shows that did well Off Broadway, only to fail to click with Broadway audiences, were the weird and wonderful Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the misunderstood Scottsboro Boys; the sublime Passing Strange suffered a similar fate a few seasons back.

Whether these shows actually belonged on Broadway is certainly a matter of debate, but I like the fact that smaller-scale producers keep on trying with smaller-scale, innovative productions. If Off Broadway stops exerting pressure on Broadway, then Broadway will be a far less interesting place for it. So I am rooting for the tiny
Lysistrata Jones not only to make it uptown, but to do so with at least some of its wild and wonderful Judson spirit intact. If it does, it’ll be one more small step for Off Broadway, and one more giant step for the future of the original musical.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stars in the Making (I Hope!)

There’s no way I could limit myself to one “star in the making.” New York theatre is just too full of riches. I did however manage to limit myself to seven. 
Lemp and Kautz
Sarah Lemp and James Kautz are, I think, starting to get the attention they deserve, and they might one day actually be well-known. They’re both in The Amoralists Theatre Company, and each has an extraordinarily varied palate. Lemp’s palate runs from icy blue to deep purple, from cold-hearted to too-caring, from not-too-bright to sharply intelligent. Kautz’s range runs more to warm tones, with his emotions always vivid (yet subtle); his happiness becomes our happiness; his heartbreak becomes our heartbreak. And they both do farce really well. (Their shows include Happy in the Poorhouse, The Pied Piper of the Lower East Side, and Hotel/Motel.)

The next five performers aren’t, I think, getting the attention they deserve, and who knows if they ever will. But they are exquisite actors. 

Becky Byers is a sweet-faced redhead with blue eyes. She could easily be cast as Marian the Librarian or Amelia from She Loves Me--which makes her brilliantly controlled lunacy as the storyteller in Dog Act all the more impressive. In bursts of anger, annoyance, and angst, she spewed out her stories with venom, speed, and perfect clarity. She was chilling yet really, really funny. 

In Universal Robots, Jason Howard morphed, cell by cell, from robot to feeling, sentient creature. The transition was heartbreaking and breathtaking, a true tour de force. 

Lori Parquet’s silences are exquisite, yet evocative. Her audible acting is brilliant too, particularly as Dog Act’s vagabond vaudevillian, but there is something in her silences, in her listening, that reveals the depth of her talent.

As a member of the Asmat tribe in The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller, Daniel Morgan Shelley managed simultaneously to give a subtle, detailed, specific performance and to represent a whole people being changed by outside influences.

The very first time I heard dialogue from one of my plays spoken by an actor, that actor was Nancy Sirianni, which makes me a very lucky playwright. She happened to be the first person to audition; she introduced herself, and she was Nancy. Then she started reading from the play (You Look Just Like Him) and she was Sally, hanging on by a thread, with a history of loss, yet quiet, contained. A thrill ran up my spine. I have since seen her in a number of shows, and she is the real thing, with an astonishing ability to be rather than act.

The Next Big Star: Marla Mindelle


The criminally underrated musical adaptation of Sister Act (by Alan Menken and Douglas Carter Beane, at the Broadway Theatre) is notable for many reasons, including a breakout performance by newcomer Patina Miller and the always-appreciated presence of Tony winner Victoria Clark. The show's real star turn, however, belongs to Marla Mindelle, as the shy novice nun who, with the help of Deloris Van Cartier (Miller), finds her voice and proceeds to raise it to the rafters. The role of Sister Mary Robert could easily be lost among the shuffle of plot twists and group numbers, but in Mindelle's exceedingly capable hands her journey became the focal point whenever she graced the stage. Mindelle's superb second-act solo, "The Life I Never Led," stopped the show cold when I saw it and left me mentally compiling a list of roles she needs to play (Fanny Brice, anyone?). All in all, don't be surprised when this insanely talented singing actress joins the ranks of Broadway's upper echelon.

ShowShowdown Q&A

Over the next few weeks, the ShowShowdown team will be providing our opinions on a variety of theatre-related questions that often come up. These are questions that interest us, fascinate us, and come up in conversation often. This blog has always been primarily concerned with reviewing live theatre in and around New York City, and that will not change; however, we thought it might be fun if we addressed our opinions about what we're most excited to see in the coming season, or who we find to be the most interesting stage performer around, or who we think would be great replacements for Bernadette and Jan in Follies. Our readers should also feel free to submit any questions or suggestions for this feature; simply click on one of our profiles and send us an e-mail with your proposed question, or post below in the comments section.

Our first Q&A topic will be: "Who do you think is the next big thing or star in the making?" Our contributors will be posting our responses here throughout the week, so be sure to check back regularly and see who we think has a promising career ahead of them on the boards!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sweet and Sad

Laila Robins, J. Smith-Cameron
and Maryann Plunkett

Photo by Joan Marcus

While watching Richard Nelson's Sweet and Sad at the Public Theatre, I found myself thinking of how much I admire Tony Kushner and wondering why I found Kushner's political plays so compelling and Nelson's political play so dull. And here is the conclusion I reached: Nelson's characters care about politics, but Kushner's characters have skin in the game.

Yes, the people in Nelson's drama--an extended family gathering on the tenth anniversary of 9/11--are nicely drawn and beautifully acted. Yes, their little time-honed jabs and ancient assumptions are convincing. Yes, their miscommunications and sorrow are real. But there is no real conflict and no real resolution, and while that doesn't always matter, it matters here. (On the other hand, little happened in Nelson's gorgeous version of James Joyce's The Dead, yet everything happened).

In a note in the program, Artistic Director Oscar Eustis writes of asking Nelson to write a political work, and Sweet and Sad feels like it was indeed written theme-first rather than character- or plot-first. There's almost a sense of, now it's time to have someone express point of view A, now it's time to have someone express point of view B, and so on. Compare this with Kushner's plays, in which political arguments are also arguments for connection, for approval, for love, for life itself, in which politics is a blood sport that matters.

(membership tickets, audience right, a few rows back)

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

She Loves Him: Kate Baldwin Live at Feinstein's

The "him" that Kate Baldwin loves is the amazing Sheldon Harnick, lyricist of such classic shows as She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Apple Tree, and honored guest on this CD. And what's not to love? His range is broad, from romance to satire to history to heartbreak, and his lyrics are smart, funny, and sometimes breathtaking. I'm particularly fond of this section of "He Tossed a Coin" (not on this CD) from the Rothschilds:
Old coins, rare coins, treasures of an ancient kingdom
Numismatic wonders from days of old
Curios of silver, rarities of gold
You've got to like a guy who can use "numismatic" in a lyric, yet write something as simple and perfect as this ("Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler):
Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play?
I don't remember growing older, when did they?

Baldwin sings Harnick's "When Did I Fall in Love?," "A Trip to the Library," "Will He Like Me," a Fiddler medley, "Gorgeous," and more. Her soprano is clear and sweet, and she serves the songs and their stories superbly. But you know what? Harnick steals the CD with his heartfelt, full-throated rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man." And their duets on "To Life," "Dear Sweet Sewing Machine," "In My Own Lifetime," and "Sunrise, Sunset" are a sheer joy. The extraordinary band consists of music director Scott Cady at the piano, Andrew Sterman on an amazing array of woodwinds, and John Beale on bass.

The CD's one weakness is that Baldwin's patter doesn't hold up to repeated listenings. However, the invaluable PS Classics made the smart decision to put the patter interludes on their own tracks, so that they can be skipped when listening or transferring the CD to your iPod.

Do you suppose that in four or five decades, a young person will arrange a tribute evening to Kate Baldwin? I hope so. And I hope that PS Classics is around to record it.

(press copy)