Monday, December 31, 2012

Wendy Caster's 2012 Top Ten

One of the luxuries of being a blogger rather than writing for a publication is being able to pick and choose what shows to see. Because I get to focus on plays that interest me or are written by playwrights I admire or feature actors I like, I enjoy/am impressed by a high percentage of pieces that I see.

Becky Byers, August Schulenburg
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum
Which is why I have a top 15 this year (which actually includes 18 shows total). For me, 2012 was another rewarding year in New York theater.

And, once again, most of these wonderful shows are not Broadway shows. Even in 2012, people still write about what's wrong with theatre when they're actually discussing what's wrong with Broadway. High ticket prices, stunt casting, endless revivals, safe choices: these are all Broadway issues.

Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway are fairly exploding with innovation and talent. And tickets are inexpensive to downright cheap. At $18, which is a common cost for an OOB show, you could see seven productions, in excellent seats, for the price of one ticket to Mary Poppins--and still have money left over for a movie.  

The list is in alphabetical order.
  1. Antigone: Extant Arts Company's shattering production.

  2. Court-Martial at Fort Devens: A clear, efficient, and devastating courtroom drama.

  3. Disaster!: The laugh per minute ratio at Seth Rudetsky's musical take-off of disaster films was off the charts.

  4. Flux Theatre Ensemble: Hearts Like Fists; Deinde: I imagine that at some point Flux will produce a dud, but it hasn't happened yet!

  5. The Great God Pan: Amy Herzog covers familiar territory and makes it fresh and heartbreaking.

  6. Honeycomb Trilogy II and III: Blast Radius and SovereignMac Rogers gives us meaning, feeling, compassion, humor, and giant bugs. What more could one ask for?

  7. An Iliad: A one-man tour de force that shows how little the human race has learned over the centuries.

  8. The Mikado: With Kelli O'Hara, Victoria Clark, and Christopher Fitzgerald, this Mikado was one of those evenings that makes a person feel unbelievably grateful to be alive and in New York.

  9. Once: Sweet, delicate, and lovely--and rollicking!

  10.  Slowgirl: Subtly acted, beautifully written--I hope someone brings this back for a longer run.

  11. This Is Fiction: Can a family survive the truth? It's a question that was asked in many plays this year, but This Is Fiction provided a unique, quietly realistic, and convincing exploration of the answer.

  12. Tribes: Playwright Nina Raine brought us right into the life of a deaf young man in a clueless family.

  13. Triumphant Baby: In a just world, Lorinda Lisitza would be a huge star.

  14. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike: Christopher Durang channels Anton Chekhov and, well, Christopher Durang in this hysterical satire with a heart. Kristine Nielsen’s Maggie Smith imitation is itself worth the price of admission.

  15. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Who knew that there was yet more to get out of this classic play?

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Four hundred years after it was written, Volpone remains a delight. Volpone is a con artist, and his con is simple. He lets it be widely know that he is dying--and choosing an heir--and the pigeons line up eagerly with expensive gifts in hopes of being his chosen one. Although playwright Ben Jonson saw Volpone's victims not as pigeons but as carrion birds, naming them Voltore (the vulture), Corbaccio (the raven), and Corvino (the crow), pigeons they are, letting their greed blind them to their own idiocy.

Stephen Spinella, Tovah Feldshuh
What could be more timely? From 1606 to 2012, the goal of the grifter continues to be getting the pigeon to want to give away her money. Bernie Madoff didn't recruit his victims. Instead, they practically begged him to be included.

But where Madoff and his victims are just depressing, Jonson's characters are deliciously larger-than-life in both their cupidity and their stupidity, and their machinations are silly and entertaining. In Red Bull's rollicking production, the reliable Stephen Spinella gives us a cheerful Volpone, happily reveling in his tongue-lolling rottenness. And among the excellent supporting case, Rocco Sisto and Alvin Epstein stand out for the vividness of their creations. The efficient direction is by Jesse Berger, with set design by John Arnone, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Peter West, choreography by Tracy Bersley, and original music by Scott Killian.

It's difficult to say whether it is wonderful or depressing that a play from 1606 remains so apropos, but it is easy to say that this is a Volpone worth seeing.

(press ticket; fifth row on the aisle)

Sunday, December 09, 2012


The ambitious Extant Arts Company recently presented two shows in rep: Sophocles' Antigone (translated by Sarah Sharp with Extant Artistic Director Greg Taubman) and Taubman's Progeny, a present-day take on Antigone focusing on a law that would require women to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds before having abortions. Both plays were directed by Taubman and performed by the same group of actors.

Russell Jordan
Extant's Antigone was top-notch, hard-hitting, and smart. In addition, its sung, choreographed chorus interludes provided a taste of what Antigone might have been like in Ancient Greece and were considerably more entertaining than the usual chanting. Allison Brzezinski's choreography managed to seem both ancient and new, and Shane Parks' music (nicely played by violinist Teresa Lotz and guitarist Aden Ramsey and sung by the chorus) was attractive and accessible. (On the downside, it was sometimes hard to discern what the chorus was saying.)

Antigone's main strengths were Taubman's direction and the superb performances of Pëtra Denison as Antigone and Russell Jordan as Creon. They came across as fire and ice, with Denison's Antigone passionate and intense and Jordan's Creon so calmly sure of himself that he rarely bothered to raise his voice. Brandon Tyler Harris was touching as Haemon but less so as Ismene and Eurydice. I understand that having the main actors perform multiple roles reflects the ancient tradition, but I wish that women had played those roles.

Pëtra Denison
This Antigone built relentlessly to its shattering conclusion. I have never been so emotionally involved in a Greek tragedy, including various big-deal Broadway versions with big-deal Broadway and West End stars.

Progeny was considerably less successful, although not uninteresting. Taubman would have been better served by a director other than himself to help trim the script and fix the play's rhythms.

Progeny's performances were good but not great. Quinn Warren as the Antigone figure and Tony Neil as the Creon character both lacked the gravitas necessary for a tragedy. Russell Jordan, Pëtra Denison, and Brandon Tyler Harris were effective as the media chorus.

Antigone and Progeny together displayed Extant's many strengths and fewer weaknesses; I look forward to seeing more work by this company.

(press tix, second row on the aisle)

Show Biz (Book Review)

In Ruby Preston's likeable but awkwardly written novel Show Biz, theatre critic Ken Kantor's suicide sets off shock waves that eventually change the lives of nasty producer Margolies, his ambitious assistant Scarlett, her rich friend-with-benefits Lawrence, arts editor Candace Gold, and gossip columnist Reilly Mitchell. With frequent hat-tips to current Broadway shows and people--Reilly Mitchell sort of equals Michael Reidel, Margolies' newest spectacle features as many flying effects as Spider Man, and so on--Show Biz offers some of the fun of gossiping about theatre with a new friend. And Preston knows how to keep the plot moving along.

However, the book reads like a rough draft. Moods change too quickly; there are inconsistencies in characterizations; and the obstacles that keep boy and girl apart are contrived. Sometimes the writing is simply illogical--for example, we are supposed to believe that "no one remembers" that Candace Gold and Margolies were married, even though both are famous and it's interesting gossip. And Scarlett doesn't own a computer.

Even worse, Preston's writing is sloppy on a line-by-line basis--and drowning in cliches. For example:
  • "Writing a musical was deceptively easy."
  • ". . . his words cut her to the bone."
  • "He didn't want to face his marquee just then, though he could feel the glow of it beating down on the back of his neck."
  • "Margolies saw red."
  • "The intern craned his head . . ."
  • "He said with a twinkle in his eye." (This character's eyes twinkle and twinkle and twinkle.)
  • "Here, here!" (When "hear, hear" is meant.)
  • ". . . overlooking street and sky . . ." 
The infelicities are not infrequent; in fact, they appear on pretty much every page. As a result, Show Biz  is only a somewhat fun read. If Preston had done a few rewrites, with a strong editor, it might actually have been a good book.

(press copy)

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Civil War Christmas

I wanted to like A Civil War Christmas almost as much as it wanted to be liked. Playwright Paula Vogel's sincerity is quite apparent, as is director Tina Landau's creativity. But this tale of Christmas Eve, 1864, tries to accomplish so much that it ends up accomplishing too little.

Alice Ripley
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Its very concept works against it: presenting the Civil War in story theatre form with frequent singing of Christmas carols, and including a huge swath of the people of the time, from slaves to free blacks, poor people to wealthy, illiterate to well-educated, soldiers to generals to the president of the United States and his wife Mary. Its an ambitious concept, but also a scattered one.

While many of the characters would seem to demand our interest (a lost girl, a Quaker soldier, a dying soldier, Walt Whitman, the Lincolns, etc, etc), they come and go so quickly that it's hard to care about them. Everyone plays multiple roles, and it occasionally takes a moment or two to figure out which character is being depicted in a particular scene--and then the scene is gone (there are over 60 scenes!).

And while it's a sweet and playful conceit to have men play women and vice versa, it adds to the general sense of confusion and lack of focus. Add to this the singing and the tropes of story theatre (people talking about themselves in the third person; people narrating what other people are doing; a man playing a cutesy horse; the aforementioned multiple casting), and the stories are diluted and interrupted further. (On the other hand, much of the singing is lovely.)

The cast is largely strong, although not all of them are easy to understand, and some are more effective as some of their characters than as others. They include Sumaya Bouhbal, K. Todd Freeman, Chris Henry, Rachel Spencer Hewitt, Antwayn Hopper, Amber Iman, Jonathan-David, Karen Kandel, Sean Allan Krill, Alice Ripley, and Bob Stillman. (If you'd like to see a trailer for the show, click here.)

(press ticket; 6th row center)

Monday, December 03, 2012

Hearts Like Fists

The Flux Theatre Ensemble continues their hot streak with the delightful Hearts Like Fists, currently at the Secret Theatre one subway stop into Queens. Three masked crime fighters, all women, have rid the city of all of its murderous miscreants save Dr. X, who expresses his hurt and anger at being rejected by killing cuddling lovers in their sleep.
Becky Byers, August Schulenburg
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Author Adam Szymkowicz has written an extremely funny script that alternates long lyrical monologues with staccato noir-ish one-liners. It's both poignant and hysterical when Dr. X, speaking of his long-lost love, explains, "And we drank and we drank and we went to my place and we made love like normal people." And then there's this exchange, between a cardiologist with a (literally) broken heart and a cheery femme fatale:
PETER: When they saw you, I felt all their hearts stop for a second. They all skipped a beat. Something about your eyes or your lips or the way you walk. Something about your shoulder or your hair or the color of your skin. Something inside you, just below the surface: a musical, a roller coaster, a sledgehammer.

LISA: I used to work in construction, but too many men fell to their deaths.

PETER: What do you do now?

LISA: They pay me to stay away from all the construction sites in the city.

PETER: They pay you not to work?

LISA: It‘s not fulfilling.
This is dialogue that could easily be overdone, hyper-camped-up, but director Kelly O'Donnell keeps the goings-on at exactly the right level of restrained insanity. The physical comedy is brilliant, thanks to O'Donnell and fight director Adam Swiderski. I won't give any examples--they would all be spoilers--but I will tell you that the audience laughed pretty much continuously throughout the fight scenes.

And then there is the amazing cast. The wonderful playwright August Schulenburg gives a perfect performance as Dr. X, making him both creepy and perversely likeable. His sister Marnie Schulenburg is also excellent as the femme fatale, a woman who wants to be appreciated for how she looks and for what she accomplishes. Susan Louise O'Connor's open-mouthed crying is brilliant;  Becky Byers, Rachael Hip-Flores, and Aja Houston kick ass as the crime fighters; and Chinaza Uche is sweet at the doctor who wants to save the world.

A couple of teeny-tiny complaints: the music before the show is annoying and doesn't set the right tone, at least to my middle-aged ears, and it's close to impossible to understand what the DJ says. And maybe the show could be tightened a bit. But, again, these are just details. All in all Hearts Like Fists is fabulous and smart fun.

(press ticket; second row center)

The Great God Pan

There is nothing new under the sun, yet a truly excellent playwright can make a familiar story new and vivid and surprising and heartbreaking. And Amy Herzog is a truly excellent playwright, as shown by her new and vivid and surprising and heartbreaking play, The Great God Pan. Focusing on such well-worn themes/topics as childhood abuse, the fragility of relationships, whether to have children, and the power of denial, Herzog compassionately depicts the  cost of being human and how a seemingly happy life may turn out to be built on shaky foundations. She also shows how easily we can all misunderstand one another. And how being honest is not an easy goal. And she does this all amazingly economically--it's a short play.
(Note: although I saw an early-ish preview, I am reviewing this now because I paid for my ticket and because I want to give you as much opportunity as possible to get tickets!)

Jamie's career as a writer is moving along. He has a wonderful girlfriend, Paige, and odd but loving parents. His life is not perfect, but it is good. And then his girlfriend gets pregnant, and he is faced with his ambivalence about the future.  Also, he has coffee with an old friend--and suddenly he has to reevaluate his entire life. Paige too has to deal with life-changing decisions and realizations, and must also face the limits of her ability to help people as a social worker.

The Great God Pan has seven characters, which is not a small cast in these financially tight days. The story could have been told with fewer people, but much would have been lost. The play has an airiness, an ability to breathe, that gives it more humanity than a tightly measured three-person play might have had. It's a sad and beautiful play, with no heroes or villains--just painfully human humans.

Herzog has been gifted with an excellent director, Carolyn Cantor, and a superb cast. In particular, Jeremy Strong depicts Jamie's unraveling subtlety yet vividly; you can almost see him age in the short time period of the play. The rest of the wonderful cast comprises Keith Nobbs, Sarah Goldberg, Becky Ann Baker, Peter Friedman, Erin Wilmhelmi, and Joyce Van Patten.

As I write this, it has been announced that Herzog won the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award for her play, After the Revolution. I wish I could go back in time and see it.

(member ticket; first row audience left)

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Estrogenius Short Plays: Program C

A woman giving up on her marriage; the last lesbian on earth; breasts whose feelings are hurt because their owner finds them too small; a mega-multi-tasking woman with a mysterious past; and an 86-year-old former Rockette who lives happily in the past. These characters reflect the intriguing range of the most recent Estrogenius Festival, Program C. 

Books Not Now: written by Kira Lauren, directed by Sharon Hunter, featuring Kate Dulcich and John Say. This break-up tale covered familiar ground, but it succeeded at showing the sadness of missed chances. 

Life on Mars: written by Trish Cole, directed by Sara Lyons, featuring Libby Collins, Marcie Henderson, and Patrick Walsh. All lesbians, save one, have been sent to Mars--and now the last one, hand-cuffed and guarded, is about to be put on a transport out. Played mostly for laughs, the play was also touching in its own way, and it was nicely directed and acted. 

Bazookas: written by Sharon Goldner, directed by Olivia Kinter, featuring Sabrina Blackburn, Yvonne Gougelet, and MaryLynn Suchan. This tale of a woman's complaints about her breasts--and their complaints back--was very much not my cup of tea and it went on too long; however, it was effective, the rest of audience was clearly amused, and the breasts managed to be more than boobs. 

Jennifer Bourne Identity, written by Hilary King, directed by Kathryn McConnell, featuring Jeff Johnson and Annalisa Loeffler. This well-directed and well-acted satire of both the Bourne Identity and modern overbusy women earned all of its many laughs through nice writing, excellent pacing, and perfectly calibrated performances. A well-oiled machine, indeed. 

Rosie the Retired Rockette, written by Daniel Guyton, directed by Heather Cohn, featuring Monica Furman, Vivian Meisner, Marianne Miller, and Kristen Vaughan, choreographed by Stephanie Willing. When Dawn and her two daughters visit Dawn's mother, Rosie, in a nursing home, Rosie believes that she is in her dressing room at Radio City and that her granddaughters are two new Rockettes. While the granddaughters enjoy Rosie's scandalous stories--Rosie was a wild one--Dawn needs her mother to see and recognize her. The acting was lovely, the direction was quite good, and the story was moving, but something kept this show from achieving its full potential--perhaps the lack of a real ending, perhaps the sentimentality and abruptness of the music at the end, or perhaps simply that this play wants to be longer.

($18 full-priced seat; second row)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Performers

If you blinked, then you missed The Peformers, which ran for all of four performances on Broadway and closed last Sunday. It's sort of a shame, because the show was very funny, and, as my favorite review of it pointed out, was a lot stronger than some of the stuff producers manage to keep open for a lot longer. There was a monologue in the middle of it by Henry Winkler that made me laugh so hard I teared up. How often can you say that about a Broadway show?

Anyway, I saw the show and wrote about it as a tie-in to Hard Times. The essay is posted on the OUP blog, but I thought I'd call attention to it here since, really, I'm shameless.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Mies Julie

Circles loom large in Mies Julie, Yael Farber's adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie currently running at St. Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo. A slow fan circles endlessly above the stage. As they pass the birdcage that hangs upstage right, the four actors have the habit of sending it spinning in ever-slowing circles. The musical underscoring is less linear than it is circular: various timbres repeatedly wax and wane in intensity during the show, often in imitation of lazy mosquitoes, or rainstorms that promise to arrive but rarely do. The actors don't so much as enter as slink onto the stage, and they have been directed, often, to circle the stage slowly before joining the combative action taking place at its center. Once there, they tend to pace around one another, stalking like restless, hungry animals. The circles here don't represent the life-cycle, or power, or renewal. These circles are destructive ones: snakes viciously attacking their own tails; time that passes but changes nothing; repetitive redundancies that make up stagnant, empty, desperate lives. How I wish that the show worked for me as well as its circle imagery did.

The adaptation reimagines Strindberg's play in an isolated, rural, and very poor region of South Africa almost two decades after the end of apartheid. Julie is the daughter of the master of the homestead; John is the master's favorite servant. Christine here is John's mother, not his fiancee. John's ancestors haunt the production in the form of a walking, singing, native instrument-playing woman who wanders the stage; Julie's ancestors are ever-present in the rows of boots that John spends much of his life shining, reshining, and reshining again. Julie and John desire, envy, love, and despise one another. There is furious, frantic sex that they have near the start of the show; there are horrific consequences that play out through the rest of it. Their complicated feelings for one another--which carry with them centuries of collectively imagined and yet deeply rooted baggage about class, race, and social propriety--unravel, with increasingly manic intensity, as the 90-minute play careens toward its conclusion. There is no way out; no way to break through the endless, exhausting circles, whether through death or escape.

Yet, to paraphrase--and, at the same time, directly contradict--Gertrude Stein, Mies Julie feels like there's just too much there there. While the idea for adaptation makes good sense, at least on paper, it somehow failed to work for me onstage. The South Africa setting seems like a foregone conclusion, and yet it felt a little forced in some ways, especially when dialogue from the original play got in the way of the re-imagined setting. The ancestral Xhosa music was pretty, and interesting, but didn't connect to the action on stage as it somehow should have. The underscoring--all the building and fading, the tones that become noise that become tones again--got irritating after a while, and not, I think, in the way the production intended. Most importantly, the central relationship didn't ever become, for me, more than a serious of abstractions. Thus, while the entire exercise made perfect intellectual sense to me, I never got a true grasp of where the passion was, or what was driving it.  

Some of this--maybe an awful lot of it, in fact--is my fault. I am simply not a fan of films, shows, or books in which characters are so driven by desire or love for one another that they end up saying things like, "I love you so much that I hate you," or, "I hate you so much that I love you." Sondheim's Passion was isn't a show I will be rushing back to see anytime soon, regardless of how brilliant future interpretations may be. And please, don't get me started on Jules et Jim. Perhaps I'm just not enough of a romantic, or I'm too pragmatic, or I'm just too impatient with most dramatizations of intensely mixed emotions. Or maybe I'm just an uncultured boob. For whatever reason, these sorts of entertainments are utterly lost on me. Alas, add Mies Julie to the list.

Yet a few words in my defense: When it comes to watching people self-destruct and destroy one another in the process, I want to be in on why it matters so much, and I couldn't find the connection between Julie and John, here. Clearly, many others have: Mies Julie won critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; got rave reviews in the press here; has been extended past its original closing date. And when I saw it, there were plenty of intense audience reactions, indicating that many of my fellow spectators were riveted to the show. There was, to be fair, also a partial standing ovation at the end. On the other hand--and St. Ann's attracts a fairly die-hard, serious theatergoing crowd--there were plenty of moments when audience members tittered at dialogue that fell flat, or that shifted too abruptly from one mood to another. A mixed reaction, to be sure.

The show didn't cause me to titter, certainly, but then again, I was hardly moved to stand at the end, either, despite the notable intensity of the drama that had just played out before me--and the clear physical and emotional exhaustion of the hard-working actors. I was not moved, in the end, to feel anything at all, despite the hope that I, too, would at the very least be able to share in the sense of emotional exhaustion. This was a problem. But again, perhaps the problem was mine.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


How do you like your classics acted? Do you like naturalism with a touch of formality? Somewhat stagey orating? A colloquial, contemporary attitude? Monotones? Performances totally in the service of the play? Performances totally in the service of the actor's ego?
Juliet Rylance, Ethan Hawke, Joely Richardson
Photo: Josh Lehrer
Whatever your preference, it's on display in the sporadically interesting Classic Stage Company production of Chekhov's Ivanov, directed by Austin Pendleton with little interest in consistency. It's a lovely thing when actors get to express themselves, but it's even lovelier when they are all in the same play--or even in the same century.

Ivanov (Ethan Hawke), who has either depression or manic-depression, has gotten himself into a corner, with tremendous debts, a dying wife, and a heart and a brain that switch from being empty to being filled with hurricanes of guilt and self-hatred. Borkin (the unnecessarily noisy Glenn Fitzgerald), the manager of Ivanov's estate, has many plans to save it. However, Ivanov, with the "we-don't-do-those-sorts-of-things" principles that often ruin the lives of Chekhov's landowners, vetoes them all. (If this were the Cherry Orchard, Borkin would end up owning Ivanov's land.) Ivanov is offered a chance of rescue by Sasha (Juliet Rylance), the much-younger daughter of an old friend and a prototypical woman-who-loves-too-much.

The biggest problem with this production is Ethan Hawke, who tears his hair and his vocal cords in an unconvincing, frequently annoying performance that in no way acknowledges that he's supposed to be in Russia in the 1880s. Its biggest asset is the amazing Juliet Rylance, who gives an honest, textured, subtle, and moving performance that stands out amid the general messiness like a classic fountain pen in a pile of discount multicolored metallic gels. The best scenes are those between her and Austin Pendleton, who is wonderful as her father. When the two of them are together, there are hints of how interesting a play Ivanov could actually be.

(first row center; CSC subscription)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Murder Ballad

With viewers on two sides and at tables on stage, the sung-through Murder Ballad happens in the audience's collective face, offering immediacy, excitement, and the chance to be close to extremely attractive actors. The storyline is flimsy (love triangle), and the characters (wild woman, nice guy, not nice guy, vaguely defined woman) are two-dimensional, but it doesn't matter. Murder Ballad is about the rolicking sexy music by Juliana Nash and Julia Jordan; the electric direction-staging-choreography by Trip Cullman and Doug Varone; and the compelling and occasionally thrilling performances by Karen Olivo, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Will Swenson, and John Ellison Conlee.

Karen Olivo, Will Swenson
Photo: Joan Marcus
Kudos are also due to Mark Wendland for scenic design, Jessica Pabst for costume design, and especially lighting designer Ben Stanton, who managed to provide 360 degrees of sharp and evocative lighting throughout the extensive performance area.

On the Manhattan Theatre Club website, it says, "A love triangle gone wrong, Murder Ballad centers on Sara, an Upper West Sider, who seems to have it all, but whose downtown past lingers enticingly and dangerously in front of her. This sexy, explosive, new rock musical explores the complications of love, the compromises we make, and the betrayals that can ultimately undo us." Well, yes, that's true, but what it really explores is how to revel in the sheer talent and energy of the show's performers and creators.

I'm not sure how Murder Ballad would come across in a less fully realized production. Its flaws might well outweigh its strengths. But in this production, it kicks ass.

(Sat at table on stage; tdf tickets)

The Whale

I didn't believe a word of Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale, directed by Davis McCallum. I didn't believe that the characters were real people. I didn't think that the references to Moby-Dick and Jonah and the whale had any relevance other than that the main character, Charlie (well-played by Shuler Hensley) is huge and whales are huge. I didn't find the conversations about religion compelling or even vaguely interesting. I didn't believe that anyone could spend five seconds with Charlie's daughter Ellie without having her locked up as a psychopath. I didn't believe that Liz didn't have any other friends. I didn't believe that anyone would sit on Charlie's couch, which had been presented as sweaty and smelly. I didn't believe that Charlie's ex-wife would lay her head on his chest, which had also been presented as sweaty and smelly. I didn't believe that Charlie is fat; he's a man in a fat suit who sits, rather than falls, and gets up without moaning in pain. I didn't think there was anything at all behind the sound and fury of The Whale. I didn't like this play.

(first row, Playwrights Horizons membership)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Roman Tragedies

Truly brilliant, innovative theater is also deeply humbling, and thus I doubt that I will be able to adequately describe Ivo van Hove's Roman Tragedies, which was performed over the course of six stunning hours by the Toneelgroep Amsterdam at BAM yesterday. I am going to try, nevertheless, if only because I just can't stop thinking about the production, its extraordinary innovations, and its many dense, chewy, interconnected themes. Nonetheless, I don't think there are enough superlatives to apply to this piece. Not in English, maybe. Perhaps in Dutch, the language of the production, which is also currently striking me as the language of the gods. Goeie genade, I'm awed, inspired, amazed, impressed.

Roman Tragedies is a staging of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra, which are conceived, the program notes explain, as a continuous performance about the contemporary world of politics. None of the tragedies is presented traditionally--rather, the language has been contemporized (and translations are presented above the stage, as well as on the many, many televisions that are used onstage during the show), as has the setting. Televised news reports break in on the action throughout; death scenes are clean and bloodless and highly stylized. The stage looks very like a particularly generic television newsroom, and, at the same time, very like the waiting room at one of your larger airport terminals. The cast dresses, for the most part, in businesswear: tidy, solid-colored button-down shirts and suits. Makeup is minimal, and the cast gets frequent touchups at a makeup station at stage left. On the stage, there are rows of squarely arranged couches and chairs in neutral tones, tv screens everywhere you look, and, in the center of the stage, two glass panels that face one another, creating between them one of the few spaces in the theater where the audience is not permitted to enter. They are barred from this space for practical reasons: this is where the actors go when their characters die. But then, the spectators are barred from this space for symbolic reasons, too: this is where the actors go when their characters die.

The airport-lounge theme extends to the far sides of the stage, where prepackaged snacks, salads, and sandwiches are available for purchase, alongside a variety of beverages, served up in disposable plastic cups. The audience is invited--encouraged, in fact--to move around frequently during the show: from seat to seat and tier to tier in the enormous opera house; up into the cafe and out into the lobby, where more televisions await; and up onto the stage, where spectators eventually mingled so closely with the actors that it was occasionally difficult to tell which was which and who was where. Spectators are also encouraged to photograph the show, to tweet, and to type their impressions into computer terminals set up to the rear of stage right, behind one of the two bars.

Boiled-down Shakespeare set in the modern world, featuring lots of televisions that are watched by spectators as they use phones and eat food would be merely cool and gimmicky at worst, but the triumph of Roman Tragedies is just how very much it says, and how well it says it. The political arena theme comes through well, of course, but then, there are just so many interrelated threads that emerge over the course of the performance. Among them: what becomes history and what mere pop-culture ephemera, and where lies the divide? What is real, and what is mediated, and where is the divide, there? And do the divides matter? What is the relationship between audience and performer, and how do they merge? Are we truly saturated by the media, and if so, how has that influenced the way we process war, conflict, emergency, death? Have even the most immediate, urgent, serious events become ones that we have distanced ourselves from, or does media work to unite us? Or can it do both at once? Does popular culture give us what we want, or do we merely react to the triggers it has constructed for us? Has contemporary reality been compromised by just how scopic we have become, or have we humans really not changed at all over the course of so many bloody, violent, brutish centuries?

Some of the questions I ask above are ones I came up with my own answers for during the course of the performance. And then changed my mind, and changed it again. Just when I became convinced that watching performers up close, on stage, surrounded by hundreds of strangers (and a few friends, and my spouse) was the most beautiful, ecstatic, communal thing, ever, I realized just how many of us were essentially slumped on couches, sipping beer and watching tv or taking pictures with our cell phones, and I grew uneasy. And even lonely. And then, I reminded myself that just because something is mediated--wars, attacks, disasters natural or not--doesn't mean that it cannot unite us in some ways, just as it can divide us in others. One suffers, mourns, and dies alone, just as one tweets alone; common cultural practices unite us, though. As, sometimes, do hashtags.

I found myself fighting the urge to focus entirely on the projections myself, even though watching the live performers was problematic too, since I speak no Dutch. I needed both; I think we all did. To rely entirely on the actors as they performed live, or to focus entirely on the screens that broadcast their actions, would both have yielded far less of the whole. I rejoiced in the freedom being on the stage allowed me; I just as suddenly needed to head up to the balcony, and sit as far as I could from anyone else for a while. Whereupon I really missed being up on stage. I was relieved, during the last hour, to take a seat in the orchestra and to remain there (as per the instructions to clear the stage and sit for the duration), but then I missed how the stage looked when it was at its most crowded, and felt curiously more self-conscious as a traditional spectator than I had as a wandering, wine-sipping, sandwich nibbling spectator. And whereas I had felt ready to shift back into a traditional audience/performer relationship as Antony and Cleopatra came to its increasingly stagey, campy end, I noticed, once back in it, how newly distracted I felt by the noise of spectators around me. After four hours of watching others watch the action in front of, behind, and around me; after tweeting and watching others tweet; after accepting the movement, actions, and transactions of fellow spectators for the past five hours, I suddenly grew exasperated by the frequent, involuntary grunts and throat-clearings of an older man who chose to sit directly behind me.

The fact that the show ended with a traditional curtain call struck me as positively bizarre--not because the cast did not deserve the roaring adulation it got, but because I felt that we'd all been through far too much to conclude simply by going through the traditional motions. So I came home, sat on the couch, and spent the rest of the evening reading tweets about the production I'd just seen. Does that cheapen the experience somehow? Does that make the experience less real? I sure as hell hope not. Because the last performance of Roman Tragedies is taking place at BAM right now, and as soon as I post this, I'm going right back to the twitter feed to read what today's audience is experiencing. It won't be the same as being there, but weirdly, it'll be as close as I can get.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


A few weeks back, I was invited to participate in the Gallery Players' first talk-back, appropriately titled GalleryTalk, which took place this weekend after one of the performances of the Gallery Players' production of Company.  I accepted the invitation for a number of reasons: The Gallery Players, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, was one of those local theater collectives I'd always wondered about, driven past, heard positive things about. Plus, I was flattered to be asked, I am trying to sell my book, I am always happy to support a local theater company, and Company is one of my all-time favorite musicals. My only concern was that I've seen Company a lot, in some very shiny, expensive, highly publicized, star-studded productions...and, snob that I am, I expected that this production would be, at best, sweet and endearing in its amateurish inconsistencies, and, at worst--well, a lot worse than that.

I was dead wrong. Wronger than wrong. Stupidly, wonderfully, blessedly wrong. The Gallery Players put together an absolutely dynamite production of Company that rivaled--and, in some spots, transcended--those fancier ones I've seen. The show was a reminder not only of just how much white-hot talent there is in this city, but of how good theater--really, really good theater--trumps marketing, expensive stage gimmicks, shrewd publicists, and regular writeups in far-reaching newspapers.

The talkback? I think it went well, but frankly, the show was a tough act to follow, and that's as it should be. And alas, Company closed today; I could discuss the smart directorial choices, uniformly strong (and refreshingly, wonderfully unmiked) cast, great music direction, deft choreography, and terrific pit band, but you'd not be able to act on my demand that you go see Company at Brooklyn's Gallery Players RIGHT NOW, so I won't.

Instead, I'll encourage you to check out their website, which is here:, and to consider seeing a a future production. Company was only the first show of what looks to be an interesting, eclectic season. Check them out--they're worth it. Maybe I'll run into you at the concession stand during intermission.

Monday, November 05, 2012


Please note: This is not a traditional review. I saw Annie this past weekend, but shortly enough after the hurricane that I don't feel I can discuss it without my downbeat mood, compiled with my memories of the original production, coloring my opinions. So I offer this more personal essay about New York, the first production, and my experiences seeing the revival post-Sandy instead.

The original Broadway production of Annie opened in late April, 1977, at the tail end of a season that featured a lot of very heavy, if also well-received, straight plays (including Mamet's American Buffalo and Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box), a lot of quickly forgotten, disappointing musicals (Ipi-Tombi, anyone?) and a few unspectacular revivals (Porgy and Bess and Fiddler, neither of which lasted terribly long). By the time Annie opened, critics had more or less given up on the season. As they did with Cy Coleman's I Love My Wife, which opened four days prior to Annie, a lot of the city's critics fell all over themselves with excitement upon encountering an original musical that was engaging, well-performed, upbeat, and reasonably entertaining. While I Love My Wife and Annie were vastly different shows--one was about partner swapping in Trenton, and the other focused on a redheaded orphan girl who finds a dog and gets adopted by a rich guy--they both quickly became big hits. Of the two, though, Annie easily took the cake: it ran for 2377 performances, and "Tomorrow," Annie's plaintive act-I paean to optimism, was positively ubiquitous through the rest of the decade.  

What's funny is that really, if you think about it, Annie is hardly the greatest show in the world--it's got a comic book-thin plot, strange pacing, a lot of really corny jokes, and a strong but perhaps not iconic score. In retrospect, what helped nudge Annie into the Broadway canon was its timing: not only did it come along at the tail end of a disappointing theater season, but also at a time when New York City was slowly but surely recovering from a genuinely terrifying financial crisis that cast a years-long pall over the city and negatively affected just about every aspect of city living. When Annie opened, just on the brighter side of near-bankruptcy, New York was in the process of reinventing itself into a stronger, cleaner, more tourist-friendly city. Annie captures some of that. The musical is all about New York, after all--and not just any New York, but one that sparkles and dazzles, rejuvinates and inspires; one whose inhabitants' dreams come true, one whose resources and riches flow directly to those who deserve it. Annie's New York is a Christmastime fairly land; those of its characters who keep a positive attitude and don't try to swindle one another are justly--and, quite literally, richly--rewarded.

Clearly, audiences loved the shiny, happy version of New York that Annie presented them. One of my earliest theater memories was seeing the original production of Annie, probably in 1978, when I would have been around nine, with my parents and younger sister. I can't remember the entire show clearly, of course, but the number "NYC"--and, even more so, the audience response to it--was a real high point. The number was big and energetic, and it filled the stage, and when it was over, the audience wouldn't stop applauding. And applauding. And applauding. And applauding. I don't think I've ever since seen a musical number stop a show like "NYC" stopped Annie. Finally, I nudged my dad, who sat to my right, and asked him what exactly was going on. "It's been a really rough time for New York, honey," he whispered back. "People are applauding the song, but they're also applauding the city."
If timing is everything, then Annie has it all, because it's about to open in revival during another really rough time for the city it depicts so optimistically. The past week has been particularly hard on New York and its people, in a number of ways. Sandy--the hurricane, not the dog--has destroyed property, houses, and in some cases entire neighborhoods. People have died. Systems we take for granted have slowed or stopped in ways ranging from inconvenient to deeply unsettling. I recognize that a natural disaster is not the same as a financial one, but sorrow is sorrow, and my city is, at the moment, as it was in the 1970s, a little bit broken, a little bit tentative, and very, very sad.

Five long, mood-swingy, restless days after the hurricane, 38 of us--neighbors, friends, family members, and many, many children ranging in age from 4 to 13--took a trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan to see a matinee of Annie, which is currently in previews at the Palace, and due to open this coming Thursday, November 8. We are all safe and sound, and thus we are a lucky bunch, but getting from one place to the other was not quite as easy as it usually is: there's a gas shortage here, now, so driving was more complicated than it might have been. The subways are rapidly coming back into service, but were, on Saturday, running through Brooklyn and then again above 34th street in Manhattan, and connected by shuttle buses that were either really great or utterly disastrous depending on your timing and your destination. Small inconveniences compared with those who lost their homes, I know. I didn't stop thinking about this as I sat with my friends and my neighbors and my daughter, all of us watching the show together, up in the balcony of the Palace Theater on Saturday afternoon.

While the grownup consensus was mixed, I think our children loved the show. Midway through act I, I looked behind me where, two rows up, my nine-year-old daughter sat in the middle of a row of ten or more of her buddies; they were as rapt through "Hard-Knock Life" as I am sure my sister and I were back in 1978. Even our group's toughest critic--a very serious four-year-old boy in a tie and a suit jacket who gave Annie a resolute 'thumbs-down' at the curtain call--was, according to his mother, overheard singing "Tomorrow" softly to himself later that evening.

The show itself? It was fine. Maybe a little flat. Maybe occasionally miscast. Maybe less relevant than I was hoping it would be for its time. And I admit to some disappointment over the fact that "NYC" did not prove to be the same showstopper that was back when I saw Annie in the 70s. But then again, my memories of seeing Annie as a child were so enormous, and so weirdly formulative--how could any revival, ever, compete? I am no longer nine. And, at least at the moment, I am many shades of sad. No show-stopper, however extended and ecstatic, could make this past week go away.

My own nine-year-old will preserve her own memories of Annie, if she chooses to. And whether or not the kids we took to the theater on Saturday remember seeing the show at all, I am quite certain that they will all always remember the week that a hurricane completely shut down New York. Really, then, who cares that the revival of Annie didn't strike me as quite the same kind of balm that its predecessor did? Crisis or not, New York isn't what it was in the late 1970s. And crisis or not, perhaps our children don't need a highly optimistic, glitzily staged reminder of just how wonderful, strong, and resilient their city is.  

Monday, October 29, 2012

You Will Make a Difference

Photo by Charlie Winter

This Halloween, AliveWire Theatrics provides a sepulchral journey to self-discovery with You Will Make a Difference, a collaboratively created show more experiential than story oriented. This relentless string of unrelated scenarios offers the most chilling seasonal horror: truly bad theater.

Still, the opportunity to wander through the landmark West Park Presbyterian Church, built in 1889, makes this hodge-podge collection of material somewhat bearable. Conceived and directed by Jeremy Goren, the inaugural A/M/P Resident at AliveWire, the audience embarks on a theatrical adventure, following the performers through several floors of the darkened Romanesque Revival church—from its balcony to the musty basement—in a quest to understand exactly what is happening.

Taking inspiration from medieval pageant plays, the TV show “My So-Called Life,” Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the performer’s own stories, and other diverse sources, You Will Make a Difference, begins when the audience enters the sanctuary: a grandiose set itself. Rather than using the building to the show’s benefit, set designer Sandy Yaklin constructs an amateurish set, more appropriate for an elementary school play. The cast assembles in front of this Tree of Life facsimile and random scenes unfold: a tribal chant penetrates the silence, arms rise, bodies move, and lights flicker revealing silhouetted figures. More posing occurs than acting. Between the cloudy accents and the lack of a viable sound system, dialogue fades into a guttural verbalize. Lighting by Jess Greenberg fares better: Especially fun is the disco-like black lighting of the staircases near the show’s end, which allow the masking tape placed as a trail to reflect garishly.

As the performers finish this first vignette, disappearing in a swirl of song and dance, the audience, led by ushers’ flashlights, moves into a modern kitchen area. Again, performers arbitrarily come and go: a girl lies on the counter, another fiddles with the refrigerator door, someone else looks introspectively at the coffee pot. The silence becomes a long-winded burden, punctuated only by thumping footsteps, or the slam of a pot’s lid. Welcome to the most depressed collection of people in the world. Finally, the actors speak and, for a moment, the glorious voyeuristic pleasure of overhearing conversations sharpens the experience as a variety of characters (husband/wife, high schoolers, lovers) talk about pimples, the expendability of women, weekends, and other sundries. This feeling fades when the banality offers no resonance, no story, and no apparent reason for its utterance.

The remainder of the show takes the audience to the pits of the basement to see performers squirm their way around the peeling paint and the discarded furniture. Next, the gathering passes under a bridge of raised arms to spookily lit staircases to a ballroom area by the kitchen set where performers act like Hyde Park’s soapbox speakers, asking questions such as, “What is the American Dream?” and offering the thoughts of whatever persona captures their fancy. The show ends with a communal meal prepared by Artist/Chef Anne Apparu. After the marzipan candy, a fiddler plays hoedown and waltz music so audience and actors can dance with one another. Afterward, when the usher leading people out was asked: “How long does this go on?” She answered: “Until we drop of exhaustion.” Her line sums up best the You Will Make a Difference experience.
 (Press Ticket)

Stephanie Eiss, Tara Elliott, Nicki Kontolefa, Jeff Kitrosser,  Laura Riveros, Derek Spaldo, & Martha Frances Liv Williams, Samantha Rivers Cole, Ben Lambert, Claire Lebowitz, Rishika Mehrishi, Courtney Ross, and a rotating group of guest performers

Performances from October 19th - November 11th, 2012
Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8pm

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

It's 1956, and we're all at the annual quiche breakfast of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein, and the members of the society, widows all, are salivating with anticipation. That is ostensibly the premise of the highly entertaining 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, written by Andrew Hobgood and Evan Linder and directed by Sarah Gitenstein. There is more here than meets the eye, however, and 5 Lesbians is better seen than explained. Try this: add the Five Lesbian Brothers (hmm, what is it about lesbians and the number 5?) to Steel Magnolias and Charles Busch, then subtract drag, and maybe you have a sense of 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Maybe.

Thea Lux, Caitlin Chuckta, Rachel Farmer, Megan Johns, Maari Suorsa
Photo: Dixie Sheridan
The show starts a little slow, treading familiar ground: food = sexual sublimation is not a new idea, nor is the concept of camp 1950's women. While the beginning is funny, it's nothing special. But then the atomic bomb explodes, and 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche goes someplace altogether different and does so with stylish insanity (insane style?).

[spoilers below]

Among its many strengths, 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche uses audience participation remarkably well. The audience is never badgered, and when the characters start asking people in the audience to announce that they are lesbians, they stick to men, where the announcement is automatically funny. And soon they have the whole audience announcing that they are lesbians, whether they are straight, bi, trans, gay, or, yes, lesbian. It is delightful, and for someone who came out in the 1977, it is also extremely moving. 

Oh, and the show has one of the funniest death scenes I have ever seen.

[end of spoilers]

So here's the bottom line: The writing varies from funny to hysterically funny (though I would cut five to ten minutes of the beginning), the direction is smart, and the acting is exactly what it should be, which I suppose is another way of saying perfect. (The performers are Caitlin Chuckta, Rachel Farmer, Megan Johns, Thea Lux, and Maari Suorsa.) No matter your gender or sexual orientation, if you're looking to spend 75 minutes laughing, 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche is for you. It's at the Soho Playhouse through late November.

(press ticket, 7th row center)

Friday, October 19, 2012


 Full disclosure: Shawn Davis, who plays the titular--if very briefly seen--character, is a good friend of mine.

Ostensibly, however, Spaceman (playing through Sunday, October 21 at St. Marks Theater and produced by Incubator Arts Project) is a one-woman show that focuses on Molly Jenkins, an astronaut on a mission to Mars. Molly's husband, Harry, disappeared some years earlier on a similar mission, and as much as she misses him, longs for him, mourns for him, Molly remains furious with him for taking that fatal spacewalk without remembering to attach his tether. That she would literally die to touch him again, despite her wrenching anger, is just one of the many dichotomies explored in this complicated, interesting play.

Ably played by Erin Treadway, Molly is a remarkably accomplished woman, once described by her chief competition for the chance to fly alone to Mars as "a machine" that he just couldn't beat. Yet, of course, she is not a machine; she is body, mind, and soul, and she's having increasing difficulty with all three as she hurdles through space. The spaceship, her home for months now, is increasingly confining, especially now that something is wrong with the air circulation and her space suit has begun to smell as horribly as she knows she does. The people she can communicate with back on Earth have begun to exhaust and irritate her; the further she gets from our planet, the more futile and stupid and doomed it  and everything on it seems. Her daily tasks are mind-numbingly dull. And while space is empty and perfectly silent, her capsule is almost unceasingly, irritatingly loud: there are beeps and pings and sirens and robotic voices and tinny human ones and, sometimes, almost unbearable feedback that shrieks forth from the many computers, radios, and consoles with no warning. Molly longs for silence and solitude, but at the same time desperately craves companionship, connections, and intimacy. The desires for both, conflicting though they may be, eventually begin to eat away at her in increasingly dangerous ways. So too do the connections between commerce and individual freedoms; love, loss, and death; ration and emotion; sanity and insanity; and, most compellingly, spirituality and science. This is a very small play that takes on and wrestles with absolutely huge dichotomies.

I am not convinced that it succeeds as well with some of them as it does with others--as noted above, the most carefully, satisfyingly explored topics relate to the (dis)connections between space-as-science and space-as-spirit-world, as well as to the drive to make meaning out of a human existence that can seem stupid at best, and pointless at worst. "False hope can be unbearable, but it's pointless to have no hope," Molly muses near the end of the show. Yes, and yes.

I've decided that I don't care, though, that some of the themes fall somewhat shorter than others; I'm too impressed with the attempt that the whole company makes to tackle such big subjects so creatively in the first place. And anyway, it's entirely possible that some of the musings simply went over my head. As my friend Jamie (also a friend of Shawn's, and my theatergoing companion) pointed out when I noted that I found the central love story--and the depiction of gender, really--to be ultimately too conventional, it's entirely possible that Molly's love and anger for her husband was more intricately, inversely related to her sanity than I'd considered. So seriously, what do I know? The fact that I'm asking that question is, to me, the mark that I've seen something challenging and worthwhile.

Indeed, Spaceman is very well done: Erin Treadway manages to portray a woman suffering from mind-altering solitude, loneliness, and claustrophobia without dragging the audience into the maddening boredom she experiences. The sharp direction, by Spaceman playwright Leegrid Stevens, works as well to keep the audience fully engaged in--and even fascinated by--Molly's numbingly mundane tasks, despite the fact that Treadway remains seated in her tiny (beautifully designed) spaceship for most of the 100-minute show. The sound design does exactly what it should, and the weightlessness and enormity of space are depicted ingeniously.

Spaceman closes this Sunday, which is too bad; it deserves to be taken seriously. I hope, too, that the people who put it together, all of them, get taken seriously, too.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Hard Times" Available Now!

Hi, all. Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but the book I wrote, which is pictured above and which I blogged about in much more detail a few weeks back, is now available for purchase on Amazon, the Oxford University Press website, Barnes and Noble's website, and (maybe, if I'm really lucky) in the shrinking "theater" section of your finer, if also shrinking, local bookstores. Snag a copy, if you like, or, at the very least, page through the book online and seek out the occasional picture of nekkid actors!

Also, while I've got you: I've been on a theatergoing hiatus of late, because the start of a new semester manages to blindside me every time. But I've missed the theater, I've missed writing about what I've gone to see, and I've missed you! So I promise: I'll be back soon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


There is a tremendous amount of talent on display at Craig Wright's play Grace at the Cort Theatre.  Michael Shannon continues his run of brilliant performances, subtly yet vividly limning the pain and tentative hope of a physically and emotionally damaged man. Paul Rudd brings energy and compassion to a man who wields his God like sledgehammer, ever trying to beat belief into nonbelievers. Director Dexter Bullard provides clear direction and good pacing. Beowulf Boritt (scenic design), David Weiner (lighting design), and Darron L. West (sound design) provide an impressive (and attractive) atmosphere of tension.

Unfortunately, the best that all of these talented people can do is build a handsome carapace around an empty, unaffecting play.

Photo: Charles Caster-Dudzick
Steve (Rudd) and Sara (the likeable Kate Arrington), religious Christians, have moved to Florida to start of chain of religious motels (Steve likes the name Crossroads Inns; Sara doesn't). Their next-door neighbor Sam (Shannon) wants to be left alone with his pain and loss, but Sara needs a friend and won't take no for an answer. Steve waits for the money that an investor has promised him (and that he perceives as proof of God's love and power). Sam and Sara hang out together. Karl-the-exterminator (Ed Asner) tells some stories. Some predictable things happen. People's beliefs in God shrink or grow. And none of it is particularly convincing or compelling.

A major problem is that it is difficult to care about Steve. If he were kind, if he really cared about other people's souls, rather than just about being right, the show would gain some much-needed complexity and balance.

[spoilers a-comin']

The decision to have the play begin at the end removes what little suspense it might have had. Not that an ending has to be a surprise--beginning at the end certainly doesn't hurt the movie Sunset Boulevard. But Grace has so little in the way of surprise or tension that the show can't afford to tip its (weak) hand.

In addition, playwright Wright can be lazy. For example, even though we know that Sara and Sam will fall in love, he doesn't bother to show it happening. Nor does he show Steve's growing frustration and fear as days and weeks pass and the money he has been promised doesn't appear

Perhaps most importantly, the presentation of questions of faith is simplistic and the characters' back stories rise little above cliché.

[end of spoilers]

All in all, Grace is a disappointment. I wanted--and want--to see Shannon and Rudd in a piece that is up to their talents. This isn't it.

(press ticket; 12th row, audience left)

Monday, October 08, 2012

God of Vengeance

The father and mother have made their fortune in less-than-legal ways, but the father yearns to be respectable. He sees their innocent daughter as their ticket into acceptance from both their neighbors and God. But the daughter has her own dreams. For one thing, she's in love, and the person with whom she's besotted is female and not exactly of the upper echelons. In fact, she's a prostitute who works in the parents' brothel.

Joy Franz, Leanne Agmon, Molly Stoller
Photo:  Jill Usdan
Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance (translated by Joseph C. Landis) judges only the manipulative and hypocritical father. The prostitutes and the lesbians, in contrast, are treated with sympathy and understanding. This is particularly notable because God of Vengeance premiered, in its original Yiddish, in the early 1900s. A production in New York in 1923 was deemed "obscene, indecent, disgusting, and tending toward the corruption of the morals of youth" by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the entire cast was arrested. Unfortunately, that response would not be surprising in many locations in 2012.

God of Vengeance is not a great play, but it is a compelling and compassionate one. Director Lenny Leibowitz and the able cast, led by the excellent Sam Tsoutsouvas as the father, tell the story clearly and efficiently, overcoming some of the play's lagging, repetitive moments. The scenery by Tijana Bjelajac is effective, although the scene changes could have been much faster.

The Marvell Rep has provided a great service by reviving this fascinating and surprising play, over 100 years after its premiere.

(press ticket, sixth row on the aisle)