Friday, April 26, 2013

The Drawer Boy

At the beginning of Michael Healey’s play, The Drawer Boy, a young actor/director named Miles (Alex Fast) shows up uninvited at the door of a farmhouse, hoping to carry out research on farming for a play he wants to write. The farmhouse is inhabited by two middle-aged men, the slow and halting Angus (the superb William Laney) and the bright and articulate Morgan (Brad Fryman).

Alex Fast, William Laney, Brad Fryman
Photo: Alexander Dinelaris
Little by little we learn that Morgan has been caring for Angus since the latter suffered a brain injury in World War II. Angus is not able to create new memories, so he lives in an eternal present. When the play begins, in 1972, the two men have lived on this farm in the middle of nowhere for three decades. It seems likely that each of the thousands of days they have spent together was much like the others.

Miles is fascinated by Angus, and starts questioning and even challenging him, soon throwing off the largely serene and changeless cycle of days that has constituted Angus and Miles' lives and causing the layers of their assumptions and stories to rupture and peel away.

This three-hander is well-written and entertaining. It doesn't reach brilliance, but solid, involving, insightful excellence is nothing to sneeze at; I certainly found it superior to Orphans (also a three-hander), which is currently running on Broadway. What keeps The Drawer Boy from reaching its potential is the unevenness of the acting. Brad Fryman is quite good, and Alex Fast is not bad, but neither equals William Laney in subtlety, complexity, and that extra undefinable something that raises a performance to the highest levels. Director Alexander Dinelaris keeps the evening moving along nicely, but it's hard not to wonder what might have been.

Ultimately, however, it seems churlish to complain about an evening in the theatre this satisfying.  The Drawer Boy has much to offer, and its B-plus level puts it well above many other dramas of this past season.

(third row center; press ticket)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Photo: Michael J. Lutch

Allow me to cut right to the chase: Diane Paulus's revival of Pippin, which opens Thursday, is sublime. At the risk of sounding cliched, there are just not enough superlatives to describe how excellent, brilliant, wonderful, warm, engaging, astonishing, entertaining and just plain delicious it is. I might need to start making adjectives up for this one. It's been a long time since I saw a show that was so tightly directed, so gleefully and brilliantly performed, so genuinely and ecstatically received by its audience--so very, very good.

Some of this is, of course, the source material. Pippin is a great show, if also a quirky one. It has a consistently strong, memorable score that was released on Motown Records, and that most people of my generation thus grew up listening to and loving, even if most of us never saw the show or knew what it was about. It had an innovative, fringe-influenced book that reflects the darkening moods and growing inwardness of the 1970s and yet refuses to relinquish the dogged optimism and communal spirit of the 1960s. It has been indelibly marked by the brilliant and complicated Bob Fosse, whose trademark jazz hands, bowler hats, swiveling pelvises, and skin-tight costumes helped make the original Broadway production a huge hit that practically bellowed his name at every turn. Fosse's shadow looms so large, in fact, that it's no wonder the show hasn't been revived on Broadway before. I can imagine that the task was daunting, but Diane Paulus's production manages to keep the show squarely in Fosse territory, and yet to radically reinvent it at the same time.

I've long admired Diane Paulus's productions. She strikes me as the best kind of postmodernist: she regularly tries to to simultaneously reinvent and pay homage, to wildly different ends. The Donkey Show was not only hilarious and weird and unlike anything I'd ever seen, but it also tapped directly into the Off Off Broadway experimentalism that was hot during the 1960s, and that she has long been influenced by: theater as communal celebration and ritual, theater as sociopolitical commentary, theater as a bonding force between performer and spectator. I loved it, and remember it fondly as another high point in my life as a theatergoer. Yet some of her more recent productions haven't quite managed the same kind of delicate balance. Don't get me wrong: I saw her revival of Hair twice. But I've studied the original production a great deal, and aside from a slight shift away from its more aggressively masculine tone, I was never convinced that her revival was so terribly radical a departure. Similarly, for all the hype around her Porgy and Bess, I wasn't convinced that the changes Stephen Sondheim got all pissy about were all that big a deal in performance, either.

But her Pippin nails the landing, and then some. As noted, purists need not fret: The show remains strongly committed to Fosse, to whom it pays homage in multiple ways: the costumes, the postures, the dances, the splayed fingers, the leering faces, the bobbling pelvises, even much of the casting.

Yet at the same time, Paulus modernizes the production with a number of choices that threaten to come off as gimmicky or superficial, but never, ever do. Set in a circus bigtop, and featuring players drawn from the Montreal-based troupe, Les 7 Doigts de la Main, this Pippin has a strongman, trapeze artists, contortionists, jugglers, acrobats, and guys who balance on impossibly precarious contraptions for our viewing pleasure. On the surface, this all sounds perfectly nice, but what it does in performance is drive home Fosse's fascination with powerful, twisting, sensual bodies, while dazzling audiences in brand new ways.

Casting Patina Miller in the role of the Leading Player--a character that Ben Vereen has pretty much trademarked--also sounds a little gimmicky: "Oh, a female Leading Player? Cool, whatever." But again, in performance, the choice shifts the dynamic dramatically: the supportive, headstrong, ultimately petulant Leading Player is as sharp and sexy and sneering as Vereen was, but now also touches, in the most subtle and fleeting of ways, on just about every aspect of contemporary feminist philosophy. And she totally rocks her jaunty, frighteningly angular bowler hat.

Then there's the rest of the company. Terrence Mann is perfectly cast, and perfectly pitched, as Charles, Pippin's goofily distracted, blithely bloodthirsty father. Mann's rendition of "War Is a Science," with its slipping, speeding tempos, made sense to me for the first time, ever; it and "Glory" do well, also, to carefully reflect what is eerily seductive--beautiful, even--about blood and gore and violent death. Mann can ride a unicycle, to boot--who knew? Charlotte D'Amboise plays up the ridiculous stereotype that is Fastrada, while dancing up a storm. Rachel Bay Jones adds nuance, dimension, and a touch of pain to the bubbly Catherine in the show's quieter and yet endlessly compelling second act. And Matthew James Thomas is a winning, scruffy Pippin, whose desperate search for meaning sets him off from the rest of the ensemble. Thomas is not as intensely physical as the rest of the cast, which works, surprisingly, to the show's advantage: as a lost everyman, his Pippin is just as blown away as we are by the taut, beautiful, powerful bodies surrounding him.

And then there's Andrea Martin, whose Berthe brings the house down with an absolutely brilliant blend of grandmotherly warmth and matronly bite. It's a rare, beautiful thing to see a single performer so thoroughly charm an enormous audience as quickly as she does here. I remember once seeing Neil Young address a screaming arena of thousands by grunting "hey," at them, as if they were all hanging out in his living room with him, languidly sipping cheap, lukewarm beer. Martin can do this too, and it's awesome. Within moments of "No Time at All," she had the entire house singing along with her--loudly and happily--as the lyrics were projected onto the backdrop. The communal spirit she musters in this scene is, again, a nod to Paulus' admiration of the 1960s Off Off Broadway scene: I suspect that if Martin had asked us to run out into the street and take our clothes off, we totally might've. But then, the stunts Martin accomplishes on the trapeze later in the scene--and no, I'm not joking--are something fresh, new, and unbelievably wonderful.

Which makes sense, really, since all the superlatives I've ended up using in this writeup apply to every single minute of this fresh, new, unbelievably wonderful revival.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Richard III: Born With Teeth

The Epic Theatre's version of Shakespeare's Richard III (here called Richard III: Born With Teeth) aims for immediacy, edge, and individuality, and it largely succeeds. With a strong cast led by the able James Wallert as an occasionally charming, always scheming Richard, and cleanly directed by Ron Russell, this is a solid production.

It can be a bit gimmicky, however. The audience is treated to white rose punch; cast members chat with the audience, one on one, in character; the setting is contemporary for no particular reason. This is all entertaining but adds little to the play.

[spoiler below]

There is one conceptual gambit that is not a gimmick, however: the treatment of Richard's body. This Richard seemingly suffers from relatively minor handicaps--a useless hand, a slight limp. He is physically imperfect, but not hideous. Then, late in the play, when he is readying himself for battle, he takes off his civilian clothing and reveals the metal and leather corset that keeps his misshapen body erect and helps him to hide his weakness from his enemies; it is unseen armor. His servant removes the corset, and Richard's body folds up. We see a man who is in constant pain, and for a brief moment, this villain becomes a sympathetic human being. Putting the corset back on, along with military armor, is excruciating to him, but also rebuilds the Richard he chooses to present to the world. This is so much more interesting--and psychologically complex--than the usual heavy-handed conflation of twisted body and twisted mind. And in becoming more human, this Richard also becomes more villainous. It's a brilliant idea, beautifully carried out, and it raises this production from just another Richard III to one with something new to say.

(fifth row center; press ticket)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dance of Death

Thrilled to have an audience, George and Martha--no, woops, Edgar and Alice--strut their hated and acid barbs with the eagerness of a three-year-old saying, "Mommy, did you see that? Mommy, did you see that?" It's August Strindberg's Dance of Death, and the audience, Alice's cousin Gustav, is no happier watching them than are Nick and Honey watching George and Martha in Edward Albee's similar but much superior Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Daniel David, Laila Robins
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Edgar and Alice have been married 25 dreadful years. They live on an isolated island where Edgar is a captain in the military and has alienated their few neighbors. They're broke, their children avoid them, and Edgar is probably dying. Their sole recreational activity is sniping at one another. It gets boring for Gustave and it gets boring for us, but it never gets boring for them.

Albee's brilliance in Virginia Woolf is to force Nick and Honey, particularly Nick, to become part of George and Martha's game, requiring George and Martha to make some different moves and try some different strategies. Edgar and Alice, in contrast, are stuck on "repeat," and their ostensible rapprochement at the end is completely unconvincing, in contrast to George and Martha's heartbreaking detente.

The Red Bull Theater's current production of Dance at Death at the Lucille Lortel theater is anchored by a moving performance by Daniel Davis, who vividly depicts the headstrong life force of a dying man who will leave behind nothing he cherishes but nevertheless refuses to go. Laila Robins is not the equal sparring partner the play requires; her voice and presence are too small. (I kept wishing I was watching Colleen Dewhurst.) Derek Smith is unable to do anything interesting with the supporting role of Gustave, but that is probably the role's fault.

The adaptation, by Mike Poulton, shortens the play without successfully streamlining it but provides energetic and evocative language. The direction, by Joseph Hardy, moves the play along efficiently. The set (Beowulf Boritt), costumes (Alejo Vietti), and lighting (Clifton Taylor) are effective. 

(third row on the aisle, press ticket)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


A woman is bent over the back of a couch; a man stands behind her; a sex act is about to take place. The man seems reluctant; the woman encourages him; their discussion is clearly meant to be funny. It's not; nor is this scene about sex at all. Rather, the man is getting ready to--very nervously--inject the woman, his wife, with hormones to increase her fertility.

This opening is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with Allison Moore's Collapse, directed by Jackson Gay at the Women's Project: a potentially affecting and meaningful play is buried under cutesy, even puerile, humor.  David, the husband, is suffering from PTSD following a near-death experience; Hannah, the wife, fears that she is about to lose her job; both worry about the future of their marriage. There are real themes here about economic, emotional, and physical collapse; about the bizarre ways humans relate to one another; about whether it's possible to ever really recover from pain and loss.

However, Moore seems unwilling to trust her material and keeps getting in her own way. She gives us an unconvincing plot with two-dimensional supporting characters (a cliche sister-who-always-fucks-up, a smooth-talking sex addict) and a lot of noisy dialogue that adds up to little. But then she ends the show with a genuine conversation that hints at what Collapse could have been: smart, heartfelt, moving, real.

Director Gay helps little, with a slightly cartoon-y approach that emphasizes the silliness at the cost of the underlying reality. Hannah Cabell as Hannah leads the cast with her usual intelligence and sensitivity, but even she is hampered by the writing and direction--until that final scene. The others do the best that they can with what they have to work with.

(4th row on the aisle; press ticket)

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Matilda, both the musical that opens tonight, and its source material—the beloved 1988 Roald Dahl children’s novel—challenges the typical mythology of childhood, where angelic preschoolers grow up idyllic and innocent. For Matilda Wormwood (played by four rotating young actors, with Oona Laurence playing the role for the performance this review is based on), these carefree years feature daily cruelty administered by uncaring parents and a society that largely ignores their negligence.

Both the book by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s songs expands Dahl’s work, appropriating his sinister sense that the monsters-under-the-bed visit often, coupling it with a whimsy and tenderness that makes the characters and their plights irresistible. Even the bad guys become surprisingly palatable, and (somewhat) endearing here. Matilda’s father, for instance, (Taylor Trensch) comes across with a Vaudevillian playfulness, with his checkered suit and a bouncy agility that makes him gamble rather than move across the stage, even as he taunts his five-year-old, calling her a “lousy little worm” who should “watch more TV.”

Like the book and the 1996 film, starring Danny De Vito, Rhea Perlman and Mara Wilson, this version of Matilda tells the story of how a little girl, with the help of special powers (telekinesis) overcomes her plight with imagination and a dash of derring-do. The musical, first performed in Stratford-upon-Avon in late 2010 (produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company), later opened on the West End to awards and great acclaim in 2011. Director Matthew Warchus and Set Designer Rob Howell  (who also does the costumes) also channel Dahl’s tone, with playful staging that uses alphabet letter blocks as a main decoration: they precariously stack unevenly on stage, act as a wallpaper, and hang from the rafters and the proscenium at times like Spanish moss.

The show often plays with the ironic, and opens with a song that embraces the overhyped attitude toward childhood where pampered youngsters celebrate themselves with a birthday party, singing, “My mommy says I’m a miracle” while embodying every dress-up desire of the pre-school set: Super Girl, a soldier, a king, Spiderman, and others. Their parents dance joyously alongside them. Matilda, in comparison, arrives unwanted, interrupting her self-involved mother’s (Lesli Margherita) ballroom dancing career.

The loneliness that permeates Matilda gives the show its warmth. A slight figure on stage, Laurence emits vulnerability even as she sings of how a little bit of naughtiness goes a long way as she sabotages her father’s hair tonic, knowing that his motto of “good hair means a good brain” will be lost with lackluster locks. Despite, her pluckiness she covets connections and looks for them in the library. Bolstered by her love of books—a trait her parents find appalling—and her love of stories, Matilda uses her imagination to escape her surroundings. Magic happens as she creates a circus tale about a father and a daughter who waits for “the biggest hug in the world,” that will in reality, ultimately, involve her favorite teacher who also is a victim of bullying.

Like two other children-friendly shows on Broadway this season (Annie, which opened in the fall and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella that began in January), Matilda battles against a main adult nemesis (Annie grapples with Miss Hannigan and Cinderella with her step-mother) that comes in the form of the spirit-crushing, child-hating, former hammer-throwing Olympian, Miss Trunchbull (an uncannily good Bertie Carvel) who is part school mistress, part S.S. officer. The ruler of the aptly named Crunchem Hall uses Physical Education as a punishment for children AKA “maggots,” and swings little girls from their pigtails at whim. 

From the moment, Trunchbull and Matilda engage as adversaries the show sparkles and the musical numbers become romps of entertainment even in Matilda’s darkest hours. The laughter makes the show tons of fun, but its Matilda and her heart-breaking, jaded and wise understanding of the world and all its failings that tickles your heart.

(Purchased tickets, balcony)

Sunday, April 07, 2013


Playwright Joe Gilford's parents were Jack and Madeline Gilford, and Finks is his fictionalized account of how the "Red Scare" of the 1950s affected their lives and careers. Finks has all the makings of a devastating drama: fascinating characters, genuine conflict, cowardice and heroism, life-and-death decisions. And yet it doesn't surpass so-so.

Aaron Serotsky, Miriam Silverman
Perhaps it is the lead performance by Aaron Serotsky as Mickey Dobbs, the Jack Gilford character. He replaces Gilford's easy charm with labored smarm. Another problem is Joe Gilford's decision to use some people's real names but not other people's. Is this supposed to clue us in that certain characters are more fictionalized that others? (This is particularly odd when Jack and Madeline Gilford's names are mentioned as though they are separate people from the Dobbses.) And does this mean the Mickey's big speech is completely fictional? Somewhat fictional? I assume it is completely fictional, but who knows? A lot of other parts seem to be verbatim from historical transcripts.

Still another problem is that the show detours into dance numbers that are fun but hurt the its pacing (I think the story would have been more effective as a trimmed-down one act of 90 or 100 minutes). And the cross-cutting between a nightclub and a senate hearing is awkward, taking away much more than it adds (though that may be director Giovanna Sardelli's fault rather than Joe Gilford's).

These faults don't quite sink Finks. The story remains reasonably compelling, and Miriam Silverman is dynamic and likeable as Natalie, the actress and activist who becomes Mrs. Dobbs. The supporting cast is strong, and Kenney M. Green adds period flavor with his piano playing. The scenery by Jason Simms is attractive and efficient.

Finks' biggest strength is this: Mickey himself is neither a hero or a villain. He's not political; he ends up peripherally involved because he is attracted to Natalie and she asks him to perform at her events. Some of their friends end up furious at him, feeling that he is not committed to their cause--and he isn't! But he just can't accept the House on Un-American Activities Committee's stance that there is something wrong with organizing for, oh, civil rights, equal pay, and helping one's fellow human. He would prefer not to care at all; he just wants to be a comedian. But life and HUAC have other plans for him.

(4th row center, press ticket)