Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rodger + Hammerstein's Cinderella

What does a girl need to do for a little attention? In the new version of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, it takes dazzling stage effects, the possibility of revolution, and a costume change worthy of Penn & Teller to retell this frothy fairytale. All that hoopla often relegates the future princess and peasant-with-a-heart-of-gold to a co-star in her own show.

Laura Osnes proves that reality television (“Grease: You're the One that I Want”) can occasionally produce star material as she tackles her fifth Broadway lead (most recently in the short-lived Bonnie and Clyde). With a sweet, clear soprano she finds the delight in songs such as “A Lovely Night.” While Cinderella or “Ella,” as she’s called in the new book by Douglas Carter Beane (Xanadu), maintains some similarities with versions of princesses past, this girl embraces more integrity and self-possession: She hands the prince her glass-spun shoe before the midnight departure. She lectures him on creating laws that hurt his people. But empowerment only goes so far—Ella still needs that fairy god mother to jumpstart her pauper to princess makeover—and she still remains an indentured servant to her step-family until royal marriage frees her.

Cinderella (Laura Osnes) and her Prince (Santino Fontana) dance at the ball.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
A confused Prince Topher (Santino Fontana) often upstages our heroine, with the musical’s beginning focusing more on his life crisis than Ella’s woes. It seems that he’s just not happy doing prince things, such as battling dragons, or in this case a giant tree creature that looks like an escapee from The Lord of the Rings, and questions his identity in a new song by Beane and David Chase (music supervisor/arranger), “Me, Who Am I.” The fledgling prince looks for reassurance from his adviser, the Rasputin wannabe Sebastian (Peter Bartlett), who tells him a royal romance solves all problems. What Sebastian really wants, though, is a distracted populace that won’t question the unfair taxes he’s administered.  Ella, coached by her stepsister’s revolutionist boyfriend Jean-Michel (Greg Hildreth) about the realms’ evil ways, convinces the prince to take responsibility for his own kingdom (shades of the 1998 Cinderella-inspired movie Ever After) while waltzing flawlessly around the ballroom. Faced with beauty and conviction, Prince Topher falls in love.

Rodgers and Hammerstein created Cinderella as a vehicle for television, and the musical aired in 1957 starring Julie Andrews as the title character. Another version aired in 1965, featuring Lesley Ann Warren, and Brandy and Whitney Houston played Cinderella and the fairy godmother in the 1997 remake. All versions tried to make the story their own and the show has a history of changing songs. So the revisions in the current production, such as removing the King and Queen characters and replacing them with Sebastian, aren’t unusual; I’m just not sure it makes the show any stronger. The best songs still are the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, such as  “In My Own Little Corner,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” “Impossible; It’s Possible,” and “When You’re Driving Through the Moonlight.”

While this politically correct/self-empowerment version embraces contemporary ideology, it often seems forced and unnecessary, and the songs championing the new perspective (Jean-Michel’s “Now Is the Time,” sung as a solo and then as a duet with Gabrielle) may evolve the revolutionary plotline but not the charm of the musical.  With recent movies like Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror also presenting fairytale heroines as confident, self-realized individuals, albeit actresses Kristen Stewart and Lily Collins inhabit new-improved Snow Whites rather than Cinderella, the concept feels redundant.

The show, as directed by Mark Brokaw, often offers a Barnum & Bailey mentally: here’s the best show on earth. Look, in a dress twirl, Ella transforms her peasant outfit into a sparkly white ball gown, exchanging her kerchief for a crown. It’s thrilling … and Cinderella does the magic costume switch twice. The fairy godmother (a vocally impressive Victoria Clark) also transforms from crazy bag lady Marie into an enchanted creature in a lavender ball gown that not only makes Cinderella over, but also changes her friendly hand puppet fox and raccoon friends into human attendants. Also, a wow factor. If this isn't enough, she flies as well, dramatically soaring over the stage like Mary Poppins, only without the umbrella. All of William Ivey Long’s costumes support the fantasy and the finale-wedding gown offers the confectionery sumptuousness that a princess should expect. Choreographer Josh Rhodes’ gavottes and waltzes keep the ball active and elegant--yup, it's a three-ring extravaganza.

Some of the secondary even characters offer sideline entertainment: Stepsister Gabrielle (Marla Mindelle) makes a sympathetic stepsister who comes to Ella’s aid. Ann Harada as stepsister Charlotte is so self-absorbed she doesn’t even recognize the Prince at the ball, and she literally throws a fun-to-watch tantrum of disappointment in “Stepsister’s Lament.”  The shrewd, social-climbing Stepmother, played by Harriet Harris, who continually reminds Ella she is not her daughter, provides several chuckles. Ultimately, though, for a show about magic and romance, this Cinderella offers lots of spectacle but little enchantment. 

(purchased ticket, rear mezzanine right)

Kinky Boots

Photo Credit: Bruce Glikas
Young Charlie Price (Stark Sands) of Northampton, England, has just unwillingly inherited his family's struggling shoe factory. His girlfriend wants him to sell it to a condominium developer and move to London, where they can live a properly upwardly mobile life. Torn between his family obligations and his desire to do something other than run a shoe factory, Charlie meets a drag queen named Lola (born Simon; played by Billy Porter), who happens to break a heel and mention that he would do anything for a better-made pair of fabulous boots to wear during drag performances. Will the two team up and save Charlie's struggling shoe factory by serving a small but loyal drag-queen niche market? Will Charlie realize that his girlfriend Nic (Celina Carvajal) is a materialistic jerk who doesn't truly appreciate him for who he is? Will he end up meeting a much nicer girl with better values? Will Lola/Simon teach lots of people about what it means to be a real man in the process? Will these two very different men become the best of best buddies? Will everyone learn something valuable about themselves and others by the curtain call?

Bitch, please. You have to ask?

There are all sorts of reasons to dislike Kinky Boots. It has a totally predictable plot. Its messages about love and acceptance are well-meaning, if heavy handed and sort of trite. For all its gender commentary, it's ultimately a very traditional bromance that relegates even the most talented women to the sidelines. It has some seriously wooden scenes, forced lines, and dumb lyrics. It is one more damned musical based on a damned movie. It's pretty fluffy and forgettable, all told.

All of these reasons help explain why I was so genuinely stunned by how much I enjoyed Kinky Boots. It's flawed, sure, whatever. It's also charming, cute, and just so, so, so enjoyable. I saw an early preview and found that the cast was already quite strong. I hope the show brings Porter (who is--full disclosure--not someone I've met, but who is my age, from my hometown, and someone with whom I have friends in common) the attention he deserves. What's more, though, is how completely representative Kinky Boots is of its fabulous, lovable, wonderful creators (Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper). You never catch a glimpse of either of them during the show, and yet they--and especially Lauper--steal every single scene.

I set out to hate the musical because, let's face it, I am a cynical, oppositional bitch, especially when it comes to rock musicals, which this sort of, kind of is. And yet, by intermission, Kinky Boots had turned my sour mood around. And by the curtain call, I was surreptitiously wiping tears from my eyes.

This is not to say that I don't stand by my criticisms of the show, and especially my concerns about what it--and Broadway in general--says of late about gender dynamics. For the stage musical's traditional embrace of difference, and its advocacy of social acceptance--always a good thing--I find myself increasingly concerned that such overarching messages are compensating for a serious shift in focus toward heteronormative male characters. Lola may be in drag, and Charlie may be a guileless guy from the sticks, but the show is almost entirely about the ways they assert their normative masculinity. Of the two women prominently featured in the show, one is the abovementioned materialistic social climber--the stereotypical evil witch, as gentle is her treatment, here. The other is a truly goofy, unbelievably fantastic factory worker named Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford), who has  eyes for Charlie, impeccable comic timing, and some of the best stage presence I've seen in a long time. I wanted more of her, but alas, both Lauren and Nic serve primarily to help the male leads learn valuable lessons about themselves and others. I'd let this go, but there are so many other shows on Broadway about male bonding at the expense of female characters that I can only imagine Ethel Merman and Mary Martin spinning in their graves.

Yet all my concerns about on-stage erasure are matched by an equally strong tug of proto-feminist nostalgia. I love Harvey Fierstein, sure, and could hear his gravelly, reassuring voice behind many of the best lines in the show. But the even louder voice was that of Cyndi Lauper, whose squinty eyes, wacky outfits, and squeaky, nasal, Queens-bred voice insinuated itself into just about every song her characters sang.

The airwaves of my childhood were dominated by Michael Jackson, and Prince, and Madonna--and the Thompson Twins and Howard Jones and INXS and the Human League and...well, you get the idea. But really, in a lot of ways, the weirdest and most wonderfully reassuring presence was that of Lauper. Sure, she dressed in unbelievably bizarre fashions and her hair was dazzlingly strange. Yeah, her sharp, nasal Queens accent could cut glass. Sure, she hung out with wrestlers who put their beards in lots of small ponytails. Lauper was, even at a time when being unusual was the key to celebrity. Her star paled in comparison with Madonna's, with whom she was in most direct competition. And yet in a lot of ways, Lauper's messages about gender acceptance and remaining true to oneself regardless of the consequences resonated in ways that Madonna's did not. Madonna was the brilliant marketing machine; she was a force of nature, but she was dead serious about it. Lauper--like most teenagers--was funnier, more impulsive, less carefully crafted. After all, she just wanted to have fun--and not get bullied or beat up or grounded in the process. I loved her. I never shaved my head or liked wrestlers or wore a garbage dress, but damn it, I understood her, liked her, accepted her. And on some level, even as a kid, I appreciated that, were we to meet, she would have accepted me, too.

And therein lies the rub. I enjoyed Kinky Boots because I could hear Lauper throughout it. And for all my concerns about the erasure of women on the musical stage, Lauper's voice came through loud and clear. It always has, I guess. I was awfully glad to hear it again, after all these years, and I suspect that the show will do well for a number of reasons: It's fun, it's endearing, it's moving, and it has a strong, independent, thoroughly bizarre woman behind it. Take that, heteronormative bromance! Go forth, Kinky Boots! Charm the masses, and in the process, please let your composer and lyricist conquer.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hands on a Hardbody

(I saw an early preview of Hands on a Hardbody, so take this review with the proverbial grain of salt.)

A bunch of people stand around a pickup truck, each trying to win the vehicle by being the last one with a hand on it. They get only a 15-minute break every 6 hours, and the contest lasts for days. Meanwhile, the characters sing about why the truck is important to them: money, mostly, but also pride, competitiveness, a desire to accomplish something.

Clearly not everyone's cup of tea, Hands on a Hardbody,succeeds--or fails--based on how much you like the music and how much you care about the people. I did like the music and I did care the people, and I found the show largely engaging, although also frustrating.

The main problem is that the lyrics (by Amanda Green) are not always clear, and since they are unusually integral to this show--perhaps the most important component--this is a serious flaw. In addition, the book, by Doug Wright, relies too much on cliches. (I understand that his choices may represent the actual people from the documentary, but he still could have mixed it up a bit.) And the eventual winner is a disappointment. (Again, this might reflect reality, but, well, ho-hum.)


In this nicely multicultural show, the winner is a white man, which seems to me a boring choice. Also, if you are going to make him the winner, take time to actually develop his character! We learn early on that he has a badly injured leg. And then his leg is never mentioned again (unless it came up in one of the unintelligible parts). He stands around, and after five or six days, he wins. He gets bonky, yes, but he never really has to face an obstacle.

[end of spoiler]

Hands on a Hardbody has been knocking around for a while; it had a successful run in La Jolla, Calif, last year. I don't know if this means that the show is largely frozen or if they are still working on it. Overall, it's in pretty good shape--if you could just understand the lyrics!

(tdf ticket, rear orchestra, audience left)

The Lying Lesson

Whether you are a guest, a speaker, or a show, it's important not to overstay your welcome. As a 90-minute one act, The Lying Lesson might have come across as an entertaining little show. As a leisurely paced two-act play, however, The Lying Lesson offers plenty of time for the audience to ponder its slightness and flaws.

Mickey Sumner, Carol Kane
Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia
Written by Craig Lucas and directed by Pam MacKinnon, The Lying Lesson imagines Bette Davis moving back to Maine, into a home that comes fully equipped with an assistant-handy person-errand runner, a young woman who has never heard of the world-famous movie star. Davis finds not being known to be a nice change of pace and gradually grows fond of the young woman. What transpires is mildly engaging.

Carol Kane's Bette Davis is surprisingly convincing. With only a hint of Davis' distinctive speaking pattern, Kane evokes Davis without imitating her. Mickey Sumner fares less well, though it is not clear if that is her fault; the role is all over the place, and Sumner seems miscast.

Lucas' writing is occasionally funny but too frequently flabby--it feels like forever until the play actually starts. MacKinnon's sedate pacing underlines rather than mitigates the show's flaws.

The sets by Neil Patel, costumes by Ilona Somogyi, lighting by Russell H. Champa, sound by Broken Chord, and hair and wig design by Charles LaPointe are all effective.

(free ticket; 8th row)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why "Smash" Matters

Hey, fellow theater geeks. Do you remember a time, not so long ago, when "Smash" was a brilliant, highly anticipated idea? OMG, a show that finally shows the whole world how cool and edgy and fascinating contemporary Broadway is! Stephen Spielberg conceived it! Theresa Rebeck is the show runner! Marc effing Shaiman is composing all the music! And it has tons of seasoned, super famous (for Broadway, anyway) people in it! It's gonna be like "Glee," but not even a third as horrible!

All that excitement dissipated when, several episodes into the first season, hopeful spectators began to realize that "Smash" was something of a big, hairy, idiotic mess--albeit one with jazz hands. News began to emerge of significant behind-the-scenes problems that seemed, at least at first, easily blamed on Rebeck, who was fired. Blogs about the awesome awfulness (or awful awesomeness) of the show popped up on line. Critics and spectators alike began to bitch about some of the stupider plot-lines: the evil, sexually nebulous Ellis, whom no one trusted, but who nonetheless just kind of got to hang around, getting up in everyone's business and messing shit up all the time anyway; Tom's taste for the most socially and/or politically conservative gay men in New York City, if not the world; the curious inability of a single member of a seasoned Broadway creative team to figure out how to cast the lead role in a big-budget musical; Julia's stupid romantic issues, her bizarrely grating teenage son, and her dizzyingly stupid wardrobe.The attempt to force musical numbers into situations that didn't always justify them quickly became an issue; it didn't help that the show seemed hellbent on appealing to Broadway aficionados and middle-Americans as if they were in completely different, rigidly polarized camps. You got your big production number here; you got your middle-of-the-road country tune in a spruced-up cowboy-themed bar there. Ivy changed personalities weekly; Katharine rolled her eyes back while singing to express emotion just about every time she opened her damn mouth. Don't get me started about the Bollywood-themed dream sequence. Or about the whole casting-couch vibe that seemed to drive Derek through the first season. Hopes for a really great series about Broadway dissipated; "Smash" was a brilliant idea that, in execution, became a sub-par soap opera.

And thus, like just about everyone I know who watches it, I resolved to keep up with the show, but with an enormous grain of salt sitting, boulder-like, on my shoulders. I admit it: I have a vaguely disgruntled, comfortably resigned love-hate relationship with "Smash."

What frustrates me most about the series is that buried under its poorly-paced, soap-inspired shenanigans, its disappointing reliance on sexual stereotypes, and the condescending way it courts most contemporary music tastes are occasional glimmers of brilliance, or, at the very least, of spot-on moments that absolutely nail the way that the commercial theater industry functions--socially, economically, aesthetically--in the slyest, smartest, subtlest of ways. These are, for the most part, the reasons that I can't stop watching. They give me too much hope.

Hence: while approximately four out of five of the musical numbers broadcast last season were less interesting than the Scrabble game I typically have going on my iPad while I'm watching, the fifth was not only engaging, but even memorable. This is, after all, Marc Shaiman we're talking about. "Smash" might be struggling, but Shaiman knows his shit. Some of the story arcs were promising; some even delivered. Take all the Ellis shit out of the mix and Uma Thurman's stint on the show was pretty enjoyable. She, too, after all, knows what she's doing. Sean Hayes is holding his own this season. And the scenes in the rehearsal studio are often engaging, especially when the company is actually rehearsing and staying relatively free of melodramatic bullshit.

My favorite moment of the entire first season was the scene in which Ivy fell apart on stage during a big production number in the middle of the fictional hit musical Heaven on Earth. Not because I believed, even for a second, that this professional, driven chorine had suddenly become a pill-popping disaster who would willingly or unwillingly sabotage a show she was performing in. Because that part, like so much of "Smash," was stupid and made no sense. No. What I loved about the scene was the fact that it featured Norbert Leo Butz, basically doing what he did in Catch Me If You Can while dressed in white and shimmying manically up and down a silvery staircase. Everything about that cameo--like everything about Butz in the flesh--was inspired, brilliant, extraordinary. If you don't know why, I can't begin to explain it to you, except to assure you that while "Smash" is a mess, someone who works on it knows the Broadway landscape well enough to lampoon it very, very well.

"Smash" was spared the indignity of being canceled after its first season, likely because of the fancy people behind it. The hope remained during the hiatus...and then quickly plummeted again, as season two started out even worse than the first one. New characters who make less sense than the ones who got canned did! Astoundingly wooden exposition, and dialogue that sounds like it was written by stoned monkeys! Plotlines that continue to lead nowhere before simply going away! Serious confusion among all involved about how a dramaturg differs from a script doctor! A completely random cameo by Jon Robin Baitz!

And yet I can't stop watching. I continue to see glimmers of real potential in the strangest and subtlest of ways. And lo and behold, the show is starting, somehow, to feel like it's getting better.

Sure, the whole Jennifer Hudson sequence kind of led to nothing, and sure, no one seemed clear on how to highlight her voice in ways that didn't make her sound like she was strangling. But the musicals she was connected with? The gospel-driven, all-black musical that she was starring in when her story arc began? Her desire to appear in The Wiz? Breezy commentary, perhaps, but that arc pointed directly to how segregated Broadway musicals continue to be in 21st-century New York.  And while I have yet to figure out why Jimmy is such a huge bag of dicks, why Kyle is still around now that it's been revealed that he's a talentless schmuck, and why Katharine and her new BFF can stand to even be around these dudes, I kind of like their story arc anyway--I have a soft spot for rock musicals, and let's face it, these guys are making music that sounds like something the offspring of Tom Kitt and Jonathan Larson would compose. And while no one on the series seems clear on what, exactly, a dramaturg does, and even though you know Peter and Julia are totally going to do it and then have a doomed romance (yawn), I nevertheless think that the very idea of an evil dramaturg is, however inadvertently, one of the funniest goddamn things I've pondered in a long time.

The fact that the series is no longer focusing entirely on the development of one show is only a good thing, as is the use of music, which seems wholly less forced this season. Some of the characters seem more grounded, or more compelling, than they were when they were playing to stereotype. Jack is worlds more interesting when he is on the defensive than he ever was when he was in control. And his less-rocky, newly tentative relationship with Ivy is suddenly sort of believable.

In short: There's ample hope that this series is on its way to clicking into gear. For once. Finally. Maybe.

A love-hate relationship is nothing to scoff at, if you think about it. Especially since, at least in this case, so many spectators share it. I'm hardly alone in wrestling with "Smash." The frustrations that arise as a result of watching it imply that for all its flaws--and there are so very, very many of them--"Smash" nevertheless matters. It resonates. It could improve, and we want it to, and we would be thrilled if it did.

Some years ago, before record stores died en masse, a fellow musical theater fan joked that buying a show-tune CD is a little bit like buying pornography: "you go ahead and grab, like, a Prince CD, so you can say 'I'm kind of cool--and that's for my mother.'" That's changing--even rapidly--as Broadway becomes more sophisticated, more tech- and marketing-savvy, more committed to reshaping the old-fashioned, stereotypically corny American musical into an entertainment form more befitting the 21st century. But still, the tang of awkward outdatedness haunts the form. This residue is precisely what still makes it somehow socially acceptable to claim acceptance of all music styles except the musical theater; it is why even people who should know better blithely respond to explanations I offer about my scholarly pursuits with "Oh, my God, I hate musicals. They're all just so stupid." The stereotype of musicals as corny, stupid, outdated and lame is why "Glee," however disappointing that show has become, exists at all.

I mention this because in the end, it's why I am rooting for "Smash." Broadway took decades to figure out how to reintegrate itself into the web of contemporary popular culture after Tin Pan Alley went the way of the dinosaur and rock became the coolest kid on the block. That was over half a century ago. Musicals have been catching up ever since; nowadays, Broadway bends over backward to offer international audiences the shit they want: glitzy musicals based on comic books, tv shows, pop songs, and movies. There's more, of course--believe me, there is so much more--but the Broadway musical is still trying, sometimes pathetically,  desperately, to find its own place at the pop-culture table. "Smash" may backfire--it already has, in some ways, and it could well continue to do so--but it remains another potential means of keeping the American musical alive, and of showing people why it's interesting, and important, and beautiful.

Or--and I admit that this is more likely--"Smash" could wheeze along for another season or two and then go away. Which maybe wouldn't be so terrible either. After all, there are tv shows about cops, and lawyers, and spies, and aliens, and British nobles, and mathematicians, and doctors, and haunted houses, and country music stars. Why not a show about Broadway? Why not seven or eight? Maybe "Smash," whether it lasts or not, is important merely because it is a show about people working on Broadway. And maybe, however flawed they may be, tv shows about Broadway matter because they help the Broadway musical, along with the people who love it, sit just a little taller at the table.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kinky Boots

(I saw an early preview of Kinky Boots, so take everything I write with the proverbial grain of salt.)

Kinky Boots is not a great show. I'm not even sure it's a good show. But it is an entertaining show.

Annaleigh Ashford
The plot, as described on the Kinky Boots website:
Charlie Price (Tony nominee Stark Sands) has suddenly inherited his father’s shoe factory, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Trying to live up to his father’s legacy and save his family business, Charlie finds inspiration in the form of Lola (Billy Porter). A fabulous entertainer in need of some sturdy stilettos, Lola turns out to be the one person who can help Charlie become the man he’s meant to be. As they work to turn the factory around, this unlikely pair finds that they have more in common than they ever dreamed possible… and discovers that when you change your mind about someone, you can change your whole world.

First, the negatives: Kinky Boots' book (by Harvey Fierstein) is predictable and often relies on cliches rather than being real for these particular people at this particular time. For example, Charlie's outburst in the second act feels insufficiently motivated and many degrees too harsh. And the It's a Wonderful Life moment is completely unearned.

Kinky Boots tries, unsuccessfully, to be fabulous and meaningful at the same time. When Lola performs at a nursing home, the interaction with her father falls completely flat as it is tossed away. Also, since performing at a nursing home is presented as something sad, it's a weird number to turn into a super-glam star turn, if you're going for meaningfulness. If you're going for fabulousness, however, it is pretty fabulous.

Kinky Boots also suffers from Stark Sands' lackluster performance as Charlie. He just isn't likeable enough to care about. (And they should really, really, really, give Billy Porter the final bow. He's the star of the show, and it's going to be depressing for Sands to hear the applause and cheering die down for him every night after the loud acclaim received by Porter.)

The final negative is not actually Kinky Boots' fault, but it's annoying nevertheless. There is something about drag that brings out a hooting-hollering obliviousness in many audience members, and their yelling and screaming and talking and wooooo-ing get very old very fast.

Now, the positives: Billy Porter makes Lola three-dimensional, on top of nailing all of his big numbers. Annaleigh Ashford's every line, movement, and sung moment are perfect; she is likeable, funny, and talented and nearly stole the show despite her small part. Cyndi Lauper's score is energetic and largely effective, although I wish she had used Broadway lyric conventions (true rhymes, repetition only for a reason, more character/plot development) rather than rock and roll conventions. Director Jerry Mitchell keeps the show moving along at an impressive clip, and his choreography brought a smile to my face again and again.

Despite these good points, the more I think about Kinky Boots, the less impressed I am. But I cannot deny the great fun I had watching it.

(N13, orchestra, tdf ticket)

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Here are the main reasons to see this lovely production of Much Ado About Nothing: Jonathan Cake as Benedick. Clear and smart direction by Arin Arbus. Jonathan Cake. Delightful scenery (Riccardo Hernandez) and beautifully moody lighting (Donald Holder). Jonathan Cake. A solid cast. Jonathan Cake.

Maggie Siff, Jonathan Cake
Photo: Gerry Goodstein
Without Jonathan Cake, this Ur rom-com would still be worth seeing, but with Jonathan Cake, it is a must-see. First, Cake has myriad physical gifts: a rich voice, a lovely accent, craggy good looks, and gawky grace. Second, he speaks Shakespearean English with an ease and clarity that allows the audience to fully experience the meaning and subtext. Third, he has impeccable comic timing. Fourth, he is enormously charismatic and can flirt with an entire audience with ease. In sum, he is delightful.

Unfortunately, Maggie Siff is not in his league. While there is much to admire in her performance, her voice comes across as thin and too contemporary. Also, her costumes and wig work against her. In terms of comic physicality and silent yearning, her Beatrice is Benedick's equal; in other terms, however, they are mismatched, somewhat throwing off the balance of the play (but not fatally).

Of course, there is more to Much Ado than Beatrice and Benedick, and Arbus does a good job minimizing the annoying subplot in which Benedick's friend Claudio is led to believe that his betrothed has been untrue. (As much as I try to put myself into the values of the time periods of the plays I see, and often succeed, I could not do it here. Claudio is a big baby, and all I could think was, "Get over your damn self.")

Much Ado provides the template of the romantic comedy genre with its squabbling lovers and silly obstacles. How impressive that it remains romantic and funny over 400 years after it was written (and how depressing to consider how far the genre has fallen).

(press ticket; 6th row center)


A woman carrying a yoga mat comes home, drops her coat on the floor, starts stretching. She is startled to hear a noise in the bedroom when she is ostensibly alone. Her fear turns to annoyance when she discovers her husband--who is supposed to be at work--jerking off to a porn video.

This is our introduction to the couple at the center of Amy Herzog's odd, unsatisfying, but never uninteresting play Belleville, currently at the New York Theatre Workshop. We will soon see that they are Americans living in Paris, where the husband has an important position at Médecins Sans Frontières.  More importantly, we will learn that they are unraveling both as a couple and as individuals.

Abby (Maria Dizzia) has decided to go off her meds, leaving her particularly vulnerable to anxiety when her sister in the United States experiences a complication in her pregnancy. Abby would like nothing better than to fly to her sister--and to be able to celebrate Christmas at home--but she daren't leave. Zack (Greg Keller) made a mistake with their visas, and she might not be allowed back into France. Zack is concerned about Abby's decision not to take her meds and struggles with demons of his own.

The other two characters are their landlord Alioune (Phillip James Brannon), a French-Sengalese man with a matter-of-fact view of the world, and his wife Amina (Pascale Armand), who is even more matter of fact. They work hard. They take care of business, which is exactly what Abby and Zach cannot do.

Belleville is largely successful as a light thriller. Herzog metes out information carefully, keeping the audience in creepy semi-darkness for much of the show and utilizing French dialogue to add to the mystery/confusion (for those who do not speak French, anyway). It is an effectively disturbing piece.

Herzog also seems to be dissecting the self-focused triviality of entitled Americans abroad. But Amy and Zach are hardly representative Americans--they are specifically damaged people at a specifically difficult point in their lives.

As a thriller, Belleville is entertaining, but no big deal. As a piece of social commentary, it is unfair and unconvincing. And as an examination of the unraveling of a particular couple, it suffers from us never seeing them in a genuinely loving moment. Either we have to take it on faith that they were once a good couple, which is hard to do, or we have to accept them as having always had major problems that are now coming to a head, in which case it's hard to care. Perhaps if Dizzia and Keller had more chemistry together, they could overcome this deficit, but they don't. Ultimately Belleville is about an icky couple who spend 100 minutes getting ickier.

Herzog's recent play, The Great God Pan, is a superb piece. Belleville, although disappointing, is still the work of a first-rate playwright. I look forward to Herzog's next play.

(press ticket, seventh row, center)

Friday, March 01, 2013

Katie Roche

Watching Teresa Deevy's engrossing 1936 drama Katie Roche made this contemporary woman extremely grateful to be a contemporary woman. Katie is a servant in a small town in Ireland in the 1930s. She works for a nice woman; she is not abused; but as an uneducated woman of indeterminate heritage, she has few options.

Patrick Fitzgerald, Wrenn Schmidt
Photo: Richard Termine

Then life unexpectedly presents her with a choice, between two men, each with definite pluses and even more definite minuses. Can she make the right decision? Is there a right decision? As a young woman, does she have the experience and perspective to choose correctly? As a strong, sometime impetuous woman, who wants to be good, even saintly, can she force herself to be the person she needs to be to survive? Is it fair that she must live with the fallout of her youthful (often trivial) mistakes for the rest of her life? (Absolutely not. And yet she must.)

When Katie marries Stanislaus, a much older man, she briefly thinks that she has freed herself from her life in service, but then she realizes that her husband expects her to have much the same role in their marriage. She banishes her sad astonishment, though, and tries to make the most of her situation.  Over the next few years, Katie bounces between angry rebellion and humbled regret. All she can do is react and respond and act out; what she cannot do is shape her life to her own needs and desires (in particular, her desire to do something or be someone wonderful). Stanislaus, meanwhile, has no trouble reconciling his image of himself as a nice man with his willingness to run Katie's life as though she were his puppet. He's not physically abusive, but he's sure that his choices for her are correct and that her opinions about her own life simply don't matter.

Deevy vividly depicts the hopes, dreams, and limits of each of her characters, with a sense of a time and place that makes you feel that you've visited their world. She is much helped in this achievement by Jonathan Bank's smooth direction, Vicki R. Davis' attractive sets, Nicole Pearce's evocative lighting, and Martha Hally's character-defining costumes.

Wrenn Schmidt is superb as Katie, all nerves and resolution, sure and confused, restrained and (mildly) wild, trying desperately to be a good girl--or at least to understand what that would entail. In a role full of big moments, she gives a marvelously subtle performance. Patrick Fitzgerald as Stanislaus makes some odd choices, and it takes about two and a half acts to figure out what he is trying to do. I think he means to present Stan as someone who feels that he must always be "nice," no matter his actual emotions, and I think he ultimately pulls it off. John O'Creagh stands out in his comfortable and instantly real performance in a small but important role.

The people at The Mint have made a commitment to rediscovering Teresa Deevy and sharing her with the rest of us, and we have much to thank them for.

(press ticket; third row on the aisle)