Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Love and Information

Part sketch comedy, part minimalist drama(s), Caryl Churchill's Love and Information is unlike any show I've seen. Consisting of dozens of playlets, some barely a minute long, Love and Information amasses emotion, insight, and yearning bit by bit, line by line.

Top row: Irene Sofia Lucio, Noah Galvin
Bottom row: Karen Kandel, Adante Power, Zoƫ Winters,
James Waterston, Lucas Caleb Rooney
Photo: Joan Marcus

Take, for example, this section, called "Grief."
Are you sleeping?

I wake up early but that’s all right in the summer.


Oh enough. Dont fuss.

I’ve never had someone die.

I’m sorry, I’ve nothing to say. Nothing seems very interesting.

He must have meant everything to you.

Maybe. We’ll see.

That's it. That's the whole thing, verbatim. In the New York Theatre Workshop production (at the Minetta Lane), which is beautifully directed by James MacDonald, it's performed by a young woman sitting in a chair and an older women on the floor, folding and putting away sweaters. It is a masterpiece of concision--one of many!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Correspondent

A door opens and closes, and two people walk into an expensive but messy apartment. The man, Philip (Thomas Jay Ryan), is in his 50s, white, well-off--the owner of the apartment. The woman, Mirabel (Heather Alicia Simms), is African-American, much younger, wearing an old jacket and carrying a backpack. They clearly do not know each other well. It is hard to guess what their relationship might be. And it's even harder to accept what it is.

Thomas Jay Ryan
Photo: Joan Marcus
Mirable is dying, and she has agreed to take a message from Philip to his late wife, Charlotte, killed just a couple of weeks ago in an accident. Philip has unfinished business with Charlotte: he's desperate to know if she forgives him for the awful fight they had just before she died.

Philip pays Mirable. She leaves. And the next night a letter appears in his hallway. A letter from Charlotte, full of things only she could know.

The Correspondent, slyly written by Ken Urban and smartly directed by Stephen Brackett, proceeds to take Philip and the audience on an intriguing and twisted journey, full of unanswerable questions. For the audience, the questions come in two categories. First, what are the characters up to? Who, if anyone, is telling the truth? Second, what is Urban up to? Is he trying to be thought-provoking or to thrill--or both? Do these goals get in each other's way?

I suspect that the answers to these questions will differ from viewer to viewer.

For this viewer, The Correspondent, at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, doesn't hold up to much next-day analysis, but that's okay. It's a well-constructed, largely entertaining, and mostly satisfying 90 minutes, and I enjoyed taking the twisted journey.

(third row, press ticket)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book review: Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.

No Broadway show in recent memory elicited a more potent blend of scapegoating and Schadenfreude than Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which was conceived in 2002 by producer Tony Adams, scored by U2's Bono and The Edge, written by Glen Berger and Julie Taymor (and, later, sort of, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), directed by Taymor (and, later, sort of, William Philip McKinley), and which opened at the Foxwoods Theater on 14 June 2011. Between its conception and its opening night, the show went through enough trials and tribulations to make Job look like a dude who just hit a brief bad patch.

The efforts it took to get Spider-Man to the stage are the stuff of Broadway legend. It took three years to work out the creative team's contracts, and just as they were finally all being signed in The Edge's New York apartment, Tony Adams suffered a massive stroke and died. No joke. While Edge was looking around for a pen. Seriously. Rather than reading this as an omen and running, screaming, from the project, Adams' producing partner, Alan Garfinkle, took over as lead producer, but he had no Broadway experience, and the production soon ran out of money. Bono's friend, the rock impresario Michael Cohl, also chose not to run screaming from the project; instead, he came in as lead producer in 2009, just in time for the economy to tank. More money for Spider-Man was nevertheless eventually raised, and rehearsals started up again.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Not Your Mama’s Fairytales or: In Real Life Everything Sucks

Last week, I went to the TRUF at the Chain Theater in Long Island City to see a series of three, one-act plays which were all postmodern-ish retellings/adaptations of fairy tales.  At the heart of all three plays were major existential themes: what things drive us to self-destruction?  Is death a form of freedom...from endless wants, trauma, duty, or circumstances beyond our control?  While admirable and relevant, the plays varied greatly in terms of their execution and quality.

Little Red - written by Billy Aronson, directed by Paul Urcioli, choreographed by Stacey Abeles

This play was the first out of the gate and definitely the weakest of the bunch.  It attempts to put a more adult twist on the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood.”  The story follows the trajectory of the fairytale, but the familiar characters are fleshed out in less innocent ways.  For example, Red’s mother is overbearing and harbors murderous fantasies toward her own mother.  The Hunter is turned into Red’s incompetent father.  Red and the Wolf’s encounter in the woods is sexually charged, and both Red and her grandmother desire to be eaten by him.  Red, in the end, is forced to live “happily ever after” despite wanting to die.

The thought that kept occurring to me as I watched Little Red was that the budget was used in all the wrong ways.  Sets were changed through these moving projection screens that seemed to eat up the production costs.  Actors had to mime props like the table, food, flowers, and Red’s basket.  Because of this, the production came across as quite amateur and high school-ish, despite the actors’ valiant efforts to lift it.  The dance at the start to Sam the Sham and the Pharoah’s “Little Red Riding Hood” was unnecessary and not very well executed on the small stage.  Rick Cekovsky, who portrayed the Wolf, had on these terrible ears.  They were quite a shame as he was quite handsome and could have sold the performance well sans ears.  Overall, it seemed like Urcioli had good ambitions but didn’t really consider the realities of the space.  And the production suffered because of that.

Forever Neverland - written by Mike Swift, directed by P. Adam Walsh

I fear my reception of this play was colored by my dismay at the first piece.  Finding Neverland takes place in a carriage on the ferris wheel at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch...though it took me reading the synopsis to fully figure that out.  The carriage lifts off with two Lost Boys named Billy and Gene (ba-dump chink), the Prince, and the Prince’s pet chimpanzee.  They are joined at the last minute by a girl named Mary Martin (Clever?  I’m ambivalent...) who is disguised as a boy.  She has cancer and believes that the King of Neverland will heal her.  However, they only treat little boys in Neverland, so when her gender is discovered, she escapes by jumping into the same Ferris wheel carriage.  All sorts of hijinks and death ensue because of the Prince’s sadistic tendencies and the randomly violent chimpanzee.  Towards the end, the only two characters left are Mary and and Billy.  Their conversation reveals that the King has prevented Neverland’s Lost Boys from growing up by sexually assaulting them.  Their only escape is to “fly away” (i.e. leaping to their deaths).

Forever Neverland, again, had good thematic intentions but wasn’t executed well.  The first two thirds or so had some serious pacing issues and had me looking at my watch several times even though it was only thirty minutes long.  I was very confused for much of the play.  It improved, though, as characters left the set.  The ending was poignant, but it was hard work getting there. 

Swift’s writing needs some work, especially at the beginning, because the premise isn’t immediately clear.  You don’t know who the characters are and why you should even care.  Production elements like the fake blood are unnecessary, especially in a small space.  Part of me wonders if it was imagined far more cinematically in the playwright’s mind.  Structurally, it seems like certain plot points would be difficult for any director to bring to life on a stage, especially one as intimate as the TRUF.

The Weight of Wishing - written by Sarah Gallina, directed by Sharone Halevy

This play made the other two worth sitting through.  The Weight of Wishing tells the story of Daisy, who lives life as it were a fairy tale.  Her world comes crashing down around her as the realities of every day life show her that happy endings may, in fact, only exist in stories.  

The Weight of Wishing sparkled in a way that the other two didn’t.  The dialogue was beautiful and the direction was nuanced.  For once, it didn’t feel like the actors (who were good in all three plays) were trying to make up for deficiencies in staging or production.  Michaela Morton (Daisy) and Nick Masson (Mark) had brilliant on stage chemistry as sister and brother.  Halevy, unlike Urcioli and Walsh, seemed to understand the limits of performing in a black box theatre and made it work.  The only thing I didn't love was the cardboard flower shop.  It just didn't look good.

If anything, I think some of the opening conversation between Daisy and Mark could be made clearer.  Her initial “real-life” state could be better established in that conversation, so that her journey becomes all the more poignant.  This play has the most potential of the three presented, and I hope to see it in another incarnation.  

(press ticket, fourth row center)

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Little Night Music

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music is perfect. Its romance, cynicism, earnestness, silliness, wry humor, brilliant lyrics, and scrumptious music add up to two and a half hours of sheer pleasure. In telling the story of mismatched lovers at a country chateau, Night Music gently unveils the foolishness of life and love and people, while also saluting all three. It is light as air, but moving and insightful. The first time I saw the original production, in the early 1970s, I thought, "Wow, musicals can do this? Musicals can do this?" (Little did I know the treats that Sondheim and his collaborators had in store.)

Rita Rehn, Richard Rowan
Photo: Bella Muccari
The Gallery Players' production of A Little Night Music is not perfect, but it is largely successful and gets the substance of the show right. Tom Rowan directs with great clarity, and the cast, while uneven, makes intelligible virtually every precious word and lyric (no small feat in this occasionally tongue-twisting score). Rob Langeder and Barrie Kreinik as the Count and Countess are excellent, and Rita Rehn makes a charming Desiree. The scenery and costumes are inexpensive but serviceable; the five-person band, while about dozen people short of ideal, is quite good. And the singers are unmiked! Bravi!

Some laughs are missed; there could be more chemistry between the romantic leads; some notes are wobbly at best. But, by and large, this is a respectable and highly enjoyable production, and at $18/ticket, it's a genuine bargain.

It runs through February 16th only, so move quickly!

(press ticket; fifth row center)

Nothing Like a Dame (Book Review)

If you are a fan of musical theatre, you will greatly enjoy Nothing Like a Dame, Eddie Shapiro's collection of long, thoughtful interviews with many of the most brilliant women doing musicals today.

Using a simple question-and-answer structure, Shapiro lets us vicariously hang out with Elaine Stritch, Carol Channing, Chita Rivera, Donna McKechnie, Angela Lansbury, Leslie Uggams, Judy Kaye, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Bebe Neuwirth, Donna Murphy, Lillias White, Karen Ziemba, Debra Monk, Victoria Clark, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster, Laura Benanti, and Tonya Pinkins.

The interviews are long enough to give a sense of each woman's personality and attitudes. Each women talks about her career, her hopes and dreams, and her triumphs and disappointments. While more than one interviewee feels hard-done-to by the world of theatre, others wake up grateful each day for all that theatre has given them. Many evince a surprisingly large amount of insecurity and others a breathtaking amount of ego. There is general agreement that awards are overrated (though welcome!), that Stephen Sondheim is a nice genius, and that Jerome Robbins was a nasty genius. Many talk about how hard it was to learn to advocate for themselves, and more than one talks about the difficulties of mixing motherhood and eight shows a week. There is much discussion about reviews, professionalism, missing performances, and the living mass that is the audience. They have a great deal of praise for each other--and for Ethel Merman. And, yes, there is a fair amount of dirt.

The book includes about a million interesting quotes. Here are a few:

Elaine Stritch
I had no idea what I was talking about, singing "The Ladies Who Lunch," but I just grew into it. I grew into that song. And I looked like I knew what I was talking about. I think that meant that I did know what I was talking about, but I just couldn’t explain how it was hitting me. I just could do it.

I don’t like the way you said that. I had a couple of drinks before I went out onstage, but "your first show sober?" I don’t think you’re not sober with a drink or two in you. It’s an unfortunate way of putting that.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014


As the lights come up on the first scene, a young man with a bum leg and his stronger, abler friend awaken to greet another gray, dirty summer morning on the Bowery. From the rooftop they've been spending warm, rain-free nights on, they contemplate their dismal future, soon bursting into a song about how wonderful it would be to leave New York City for a cleaner, greener, less complicated place. Once the song ends and they return to their grim reality, they climb down from the roof and force themselves to face another tough day in the urban jungle.

Before I continue, I feel compelled to tell you that I am not describing a musical adaptation of Midnight Cowboy (although why no one has yet attempted a musical adaptation of Midnight Cowboy is beyond me.). Rather, I'm recounting the opening scene from the Broadway production of Newsies, which is sort of like Midnight Cowboy, at least in its vaguely homoerotic treatment of the gritty, male urban underclass. But lest you are thinking of cancelling your plans to bring some kids to see the show next time you're in town, please know that all comparisons end there: Newsies features no disturbing scenes of male hustling, no death by tuberculosis, and not a single weird woman rubbing a plastic rat all over her face in a Times Square automat at 3am. Also, it's not set in New York City in the late 1960s, but in 1899 (an equally grimy, if perhaps not quite as sleazy, time in the city's history). Unlike Midnight Cowboy, Newsies is good, clean fun--a sweet, upbeat story filled with likable, hard-working, earnest young idealists who support each other through thick and thin, join together to fight (usually peacefully) for what's right, and end up making the world a better place as a result of their pluck, ingenuity, and old-fashioned hard work. In short, Newsies is your typical Alger myth, tied up in shiny, cheerful Disney wrapping.

Monday, February 03, 2014


I guess Thomas Bradshaw was aiming for satire when he wrote the dreadful and stupid Intimacy, but satire requires a point of view, intelligence, and more discernment than shown by, say, a bunch of 11-year-olds telling dirty jokes. Scott Elliot's heavy-handed direction helps not at all. 

Intimacy is about sex, and a great deal of sex occurs during its long two hours. The sex involves various organs, positions, and people, including family members, and is performed on stage, on film, and with various prostheses. I guess it's supposed to be funny; it isn't. I guess it's supposed to be shocking; it isn't. I guess it's supposed to mean something; nope.

I like one idea that manages to poke through, that sex can be healing. And I thought the ejaculation mechanism was far superior to the vomiting mechanism in Gods of Carnage. That's it for positives.

Intimacy is puerile, pointless, empty, and stupid. My tickets were free, but I'd sure like the two hours of my life back.

(press ticket; in the theatre, unfortunately)

Row After Row

Jessica Dickey's Row After Row sneaks up on you. The story seems simple: three Civil War re-enactors share a table in a bar following a re-creation of the battle of Gettysburg. Tom and Cal are old friends and experienced re-enactors. Leah is new in town and has joined the re-enactors in a bid to meet people. Cal is horrified both at her having played a soldier and at her having done so in non-period-appropriate clothing. Leah explains, "I didn’t feel like playing the serving wench or a widowed bride or whatever." Cal is derisive and downright rude, calling the new rules that allow women to dress as men, "mamby pamby bullshit." He also explains that it can cost thousands of dollars to get all of the necessary garb and equipment to be an authentic re-enactor. Tom adds, "Most people don’t realize the commitment goes beyond sleeping in a tent and wearing wool in July." Leah and Cal spar, with Tom trying to play peacemaker.

Rosie Benton, Erik Lochtefeld. P.J. Sosko
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Cal is recovering from a brutal breakup and isn't quite the jerk he seems. For all of his belligerence, he listens when Leah speaks.  Leah, who chose to move to Gettysburg by putting her finger "on the map one drunken night about three weeks ago," is mourning her vanished career as a dancer. Tom, a teacher with a son about to be born, and barely scraping by, is deciding whether to go on strike with his union, torn between loyalty to his family and to his coworkers, between principles and fear.

Although the play initially seems to be an entertaining battle of the sexes, with feminist flavoring and even a touch of "meet cute," Dickey has more on her mind. By its end, Row After Row has revealed itself as a serious, thought-provoking, and occasionally chilling examination of bravery, integrity, manhood, and womanhood that is also very funny.