Saturday, September 27, 2014

Next to Normal

Next to Normal is a superb musical. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's depiction of a woman derailed by mental illness and loss, and of the people around her, mixes compassion, humor, insight, and a wonderful score to explore the deepest parts of human lives. It's a staggering achievement in many ways. (The plot is discussed in mega-spoiler detail below.)

Benjamin Sheff, Carman Napier
Photo: Bella Muccari
The Gallery Players' production of Next to Normal (running through October 5) is an honorable, straightforward, and frequently successful attempt to grapple with this challenging show. Next to Normal needs, first and foremost, a top-notch actress and singer to play Diana, the lead character, as she struggles with bipolar disorder, disappointment, and grief. Carman Napier is up to the challenge. Her performance is smart and subtle; her singing is excellent and her enunciation is clear; and she looks and feels right in the part. She's too young, but she's so good that it doesn't matter.

Next to Normal also needs to be technically successful; the sound, in particular, is quite important. In this aspect, unfortunately, the production fails. At best, the balance between music and performer is barely okay; at worst, it is terrible. The night I saw the show, Lindsay Bayer, as Natalie, was frequently inaudible, through no fault of her own. It wasn't clear if her mike was broken or the sound cues were off, but her performance was lost. As was much else.

While I Yet Live

photo: James Leynse
Billy Porter, the talented, Tony-winning star of Kinky Boots, makes his playwriting debut with the autobiographical drama While I Yet Live. The production, directed by Sheryl Kaller and presented by Primary Stages, is handsomely staged and generally well-acted, but the play--like several of its central characters--suffers from an identity crisis. Porter doesn't seem to have known what he wanted to write: is it a kitchen-sink family drama, a coming-of-age (and coming out) story, a meditation on faith and its effect on black lives, a record of hard-won personal growth? In the end, he tries to incorporate all of these elements into one play, and the result is lopsided.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On the Town

A new Broadway revival of On the Town began previews over the weekend at the oft-renamed Lyric (nee Foxwoods, nee Hilton, nee Ford) Theatre. There were no survivors.

This is not going to be a complete review. I left at intermission, so I can only base my opinions on what I saw in the first act. Yet, what I saw truly appalled me. This is the kind of production where, if it was your introduction to the piece, you'd wonder what caused anyone to hold it in any regard. This staging is so bad that it calls the unquestionable genius of the piece--the gorgeous Leonard Bernstein score, the witty and wry Comden and Green lyrics, the delightful cast of characters--into question. From Joshua Bergasse's listless choreography, to John Rando's tone-deaf direction, to a principal company painfully short on charisma, there's nothing to be found that rates a big Navy E.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Waiting for Godot (Vartn af Godot)

Waiting for Godot is one of those masterpieces of modern drama that everyone has read or seen or, at the very least, picked up the basics of through cultural absorption. (If you have managed to make it to this point in your life without ever having heard a thing about the play, here you go: Two guys with memory issues wait around in a sort of dreamy, disconnected wasteland for someone named Godot. They meet two other memory-challenged guys who are locked in a real whopper of a power struggle, and the four of them all kill time together. Then there's an intermission, and pretty much the same things happen again in act II. At the end, the original two guys go back to waiting on their own. Godot never shows up.) Being the landmark that it is, Godot has been translated into many languages and gets staged an awful lot all around the world. Since it first showed up in New York City in 1956, Godot has been performed by Very Big Names. The Broadway premiere featured Burt Lahr and EG Marshall; a revival the following year starred Geoffrey Holder, Earle Hyman, and Mantan Moreland.

As if convinced that the show wouldn't click with....well, with anyone unless very famous men were in it (Becket wasn't cool with with the idea of women doing the show), producers seem to have made star-studded casts a requisite for any New York-based Godot revival. BAM staged it in the late 1970s with Sam Waterston, Austin Pendleton and Milo O'Shea. The Mike Nichols production at Lincoln Center in 1988 went simply balls out with megawatt famousness: it featured Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Bill Irwin, F. Murray Abraham, and Lukas Haas. In 2009, Nathan Lane, John Goodman, John Glover and Bill Irwin (again) took Godot on; just last fall, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley appeared in yet another starry revival.

It occurred to me the other night, after agreeing to attend a performance of Godot in Yiddish at the tiny Barrow Street Theater in the West Village, that the play has been revived so frequently, and so fancily, that I've just never bothered to see it. I've read it, sure, but I've never seen one of the star-studded casts perform this monster masterwork about the tragicomic nature of human existence. My bad; it's just one of those shows, like King Lear or Grease, which shows up so often that I always figure I'll easily be able catch it the next time around.

The other thing that occurred to me--after I'd committed to a date and secured a ticket to the Yiddish version--that maybe my first time seeing Waiting for Godot should have been in a language that I actually understand.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Valley of Astonishment

In Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne's charming new piece, The Valley of Astonishment, the titular valley is that uncharted, elusive area where brain metamorphoses into mind and the unexpected can occur: perfect memory, hearing colors, only being able to move one's body parts while looking at them. A theatricalization of, and riff on, the findings of such scientists as Oliver Sacks (well-know for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other books about neurological anomalies), The Valley of Astonishment is in some ways like the coolest Ted Talk ever, with skits.
Jared McNeill, Kathryn HunterPhoto: Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

The main-ish character is Samy Costas, an unassuming journalist who doesn't understand how astonishing her mind is until her editor sends her to, well, have her head examined. Samy remembers everything. Everything. Her brain is a compulsive producer of mnemonics, constantly churning out pictures and associations and locating them in a mental map of her neighborhood that she can "visit" whenever she wants to access her memory. But when she becomes a nightclub performer, astonishing people with her mental talents, she comes up against an unexpected question--can her brain become full? And then what?

Uncle Vanya

I have this theory about plays and movies. If the main character or another character learns something and grows, the piece can last hours. But if the characters remain stuck and learn nothing, the show can't be over two hours. Ninety minutes is ideal. Now, I understand that Uncle Vanya is a brilliant classic, but OMG the characters in it are annoying. No one learns a damn thing, and it's over two hours.

Does anyone ever learn anything in a Chekhov play? Chekhov was the patron saint of stuck people, people who can't read the writing on the wall, people who ignore good advice, people who sink into quicksand without even waving their arms and crying, "Help!" On one hand, I admire the heck out of Chekhov. His compassion and subtlety are impressive, and he juggles heartbreak and humor admirably. But if I never see another Chekhov play in my life, I will not mind at all.

The current production of Uncle Vanya at the Pearl is largely solid and well-acted. The scenery and costumes are effective. Hal Brooks' direction is good. The show's largest asset is Chris Mixon's performance as Vanya. Most Vanyas I've seen are pathetically kidding themselves during their "I coulda been a contender" speeches. They blame other people and the universe for making them the failures that they would have been anyway. In contrast, Mixon's Vanya has an undeniable spark and might really have accomplished something. His life is still his own fault and not anybody else's, but there is an extra level of meaning in his Vanya. Nevertheless, he still doesn't learn a damned thing.

(5th row center, press ticket)

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Country House

[As with my review of Indian Ink, this post contains what may be considered spoilers to some. Read ahead at your own risk. -CK]

Photo: Joan Marcus

The Country House is a rare--and a rather wide--miss for Donald Margulies. At first I wondered if this was due to the playwright stepping out of his comfort zone. Then I realized that he doesn't really have one. He's written everything from standard domestic dramas (his Pulitzer-winning Dinner With Friends to searing accounts of the effects of war (2010's Time Stands Still) to chamber plays like his famous two-hander, Collected Stories. His plays usually feature strong female characters, and this one--ostensibly, at least--is no different. In the end, I've come to believe that Margulies is weighed down by the anxiety of influence.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Fatal Weakness

If there is a theatrical heaven whence long-deceased playwrights can watch their work, then I'm certain that George Kelly is thrilled with The Mint's new production of his fascinating play, The Fatal Weakness, elegantly directed by Jesse Marchese. And I imagine he is particularly delighted with Kristin Griffith's wryly subtle performance as Mrs. Ollie Espenshade, a woman who discovers that she has been taking her marriage, her husband, and herself for granted. Griffith has an astonishing ability to simultaneously hide and reveal her emotions, just as she can be simultaneously heartbreaking and funny. Add to that her crack timing and superb listening skills, and the result is one heck of a performance.

Kristin Griffith, Cynthia Darlow
Photo: Richard Termine

Monday, September 15, 2014

Love Letters

Portrait by Ken Fallin

A.R. Gurney's Love Letters has long been a favorite of regional theatres and one-night-only benefits. Its conceit is simple: two performers--a man and a woman--sit side by side at an oak table and read the titular epistles, which amount to over fifty years' worth of correspondence. It's easy to produce, with a simple set and no props, and easy to entice well-known actors to participate, given the lack of necessary rehearsal and optional memorization. It's also, often, heavy on the schmaltz. I did not go into the current Broadway revival of the play, currently in previews at the Brooks Atkinson, expecting to be moved. Yet as the lights came up, I found tears in my eyes.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Indian Ink

[Note: This review contains potential plot spoilers. You have been warned. -CK]

Photo: Joan Marcus

Roundabout is starting its Broadway season with an all-star revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Beginning October 4, that production will shepherd the Broadway debuts of Ewan MacGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and feature the talents of Cynthia Nixon (who appeared, at eighteen, in the original New York production of the play) and Josh Hamilton. By all accounts, it will be an event. But Roundabout was not content to mount only one Stoppard offering this fall. The English master’s 1995 saga Indian Ink, featuring the indomitable Rosemary Harris, is currently in previews at the company’s Off-Broadway space, The Laura Pels Theatre. Helmed by American Conservatory Theatre’s artistic director Carey Perloff and featuring a smashing performance by the British actress Romola Garai, it’s a lush and luxurious staging of one of Stoppard’s most gratifying works.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

The acclaimed, awarded Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is currently benefitting from addition by subtraction. Neil Patrick Harris is gone, and he's understandably taken some star quality with him, but that's not necessarily a bad development. Currently filling out the wig and heels is Andrew Rannells, who, despite being the original star of the most successful musical in recent memory (The Book of Mormon), is not a huge name--or persona--in his own right. Whereas the awareness that you were watching a star playing a role was inescapable in Harris' interpretation of the "internationally ignored song stylist" who escaped communism and repression with a botched sex change, Rannells burrows deep into the character, wringing layer upon broken layer of meaning from John Cameron Mitchell's still-brilliant score. His voice is perfect--equal parts rock-tinged, poppy, and Broadway-beautiful--and his manner conveys an earthy sexuality that just feels so right for the role. It's a virtuoso performance that captivates the audience (now smaller, but no less fervent in its adoration) for the entire intermissionless performance. Michael Mayer's production and Spencer Liff's choreography remain boring and uninspired, and while Lena Hall is unquestionably excellent as Hedwig's husband/back-up singer Yitzhak, I still don't see it as a Tony-worthy role. Rannells continues as Hedwig through October 12; catch him while he's there.
[Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, without intermission. Rear balcony seats, $37.]

Thursday, September 04, 2014

You Can't Take It With You

photo: Joan Marcus

The new Broadway revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You is spectacularly bad. This, perhaps, shouldn’t be surprising. New York theatre no longer specializes in top-drawer revivals of the classic comedies of the twenties, thirties, and forties. Once in an ever-growing while, you’ll get a production like Doug Hughes’ The Royal Family, done for Manhattan Theatre Club in 2009, where a talented cast creates the kind of magic that makes you feel like the golden age never ended. More often, though, you end up with subpar stagings that might even make you question the integrity of the original work: the Kim Cattrall Private Lives; the Victor Garber Present Laughter; Roundabout’s ghastly Old Acquaintance. There are even more such productions of which I don’t care to be reminded.
This new take on the Pulitzer-winning classic, staged by Scott Ellis in a Roundabout co-production, seemed so promising. On paper, the cast is divine. The set takes your breath away as soon as the house lights dim. The incidental music by three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown had my toes tapping. Yet as soon as the gums started flapping, I knew something was terribly wrong.