Sunday, November 30, 2014

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Beautiful is one of those shows I meant to see when it first opened, and then right before Tony time, and then right after Tony time, and then over the summer. . .  and then I just sort of moved on once I realized that (a) getting cheap tickets to the show wouldn't be easy as long as the Tony Award-winning Jessie Mueller was heading up the cast as Carole King, and that (b) I did not want to cough up a lot of cash to see a musical that was roundly received as sweet and diverting, if hardly brilliant.

But then, fellow-blogger and longtime friend Sandra got a special offer, and we leapt upon discount tickets to Beautiful like--well, honestly, like two middle-aged women who grew up listening to Tapestry and who are exactly the target audience for this particular musical would. The upshot? Beautiful is indeed sweet and diverting, if hardly brilliant. That doesn't mean I didn't tear up a couple of times, and chuckle genuinely at other times. An added bonus: Jessie Mueller remains in the show, as does a vast majority of the original cast. They remain fresh and committed and sharp, and I was glad to see them. Mueller is as strong in the title role as everyone in the universe has already said she is; I'd like to add that Anika Larsen, as Cynthia Weil, and Jarrod Spector (no relation) as Barry Mann, are particularly appealing and well-suited, too.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Is all really fair in love and war? Not according to the thriller-comedy-love-story-political-commentary Asymmetric, written by the wonderful Mac Rogers, directed by the also wonderful Jordana Williams, and produced by Group UP and Gideon Productions at 59E59

Sean Williams, Kate Middleton, Seth Shelden
Photo: Deborah Alexander
As political commentary, Asymmetric offers a fascinating and important debate about the idea of "us" versus "them," with one character viewing "us" as the United States, our people, our guys, and the other viewing "us" as the human race, with no "them." I am struck by the fact that Rogers uses a woman character to embrace humanity and turn against drones and killing, despite (because of?) her previous close relationship with human destruction. Rogers is the second playwright this year to have a tough woman fight the idea of raining death down from the sky, and I have the same questions I discussed in that review (Grounded by George Brant):
... I wonder, does Brant believe that women, ... feel sympathy/compassion differently/more than men do? Is [the main character] supposed to be unique or representative? Or both? Would Grounded be the same if it were about a father rather than a mother? Men and women can be so different and yet so similar....

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sticks and Bones

The 1950s and early 1960s masqueraded as an innocent time in the United States, and nowhere was the masquerade more vivid than on television, with its faux perfect white families with their faux problems and their faux reality. In his deeply disturbing play, Sticks and Bones, David Rabe uses one of those families--Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky Nelson--as his canvas to show how America's war in Vietnam stripped the United States of its masks and revealed the confusion, hatred, and violence underneath. What raises this angry comedy to brilliance is Rabe's compassion for the faux perfect family as their willful blindness is destroyed when David, the older son, returns from Vietnam suffering from actual blindness.

Raviv Ullman, Bill Pullman, Holly Hunter,
Ben Schnetzer, and Morocco Omari
Photo: Monique Carboni
In a way, the main conflict in Sticks and Bones is between reality and denial: David can only survive with reality, and the others can only survive in denial. [spoiler] This is why the family is so eager to aid David by helping him to kill himself. It is not his pain that are seeking to end, it is their own, and they are all willing to have him die for their sins. [end of spoiler]

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On the Town

As Carol Oja points out in her new, excellent book Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War, the 1944 musical On the Town is not nearly as well-known or celebrated as Jerome Robbin's and Leonard Bernstein's 1957 collaboration, West Side Story. It's also not as cohesive or as deep, which is not to imply, at all, that it's bad. It isn't--especially in joyful revival at the historically cursed Ford/Hilton/Foxwood/Lyric Theater. 

A landmark work that is perhaps celebrated less for its aesthetic achievements than for its introduction to Broadway of a young, superlatively talented, and enormously influential creative team (Bernstein! Robbins! Betty Comden! Adolph Green!), On the Town was the result of disparate elements that were blended together in a hurry. Based in part on the short ballet Fancy Free, which premiered to enormous acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera House in April 1944 (and which you can see in its entirety here), On the Town was expanded into a full-length musical that opened on Broadway in December of the same year. Still deeply rooted in dance and, like Fancy Free, primarily about three sailors on shore leave, On the Town's book and lyrics were added by Comden and Green, who drew largely from material they'd been using in their nightclub comedy troupe, the Revuers (which also featured Judy Holliday, and for which Bernstein sometimes served as pianist).

The resultant musical is as dense a mix of highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow elements as the disparate influences imply: moody classical dance sequences are accompanied by Bernstein's symphonic scoring, while hips grind suggestively to his jazzier, bluesier numbers. Other numbers are all about wide-open, smiling faces and optimistic Broadway brass. Through the show, erudite, elitist characters mix easily with crasser, coarser ones. There are ridiculous plot-lines and moving ones (sometimes, these are one and the same). There are subtle jokes, corny jokes, recurring jokes, cheap jokes, dirty jokes.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lost Lake

Lost Lake is a brief, largely unsatisfying two-hander that only catches fire in its final moments. As the title suggests, both Hogan (John Hawkes) and Veronica (Tracie Thoms) are lost: she's a widowed mother whose professional life quickly unravels in light of a stupid mistake, and he's the wayward caretaker of a dilapidated, largely unrentable lake house in Upstate New York. Longing for idyll and escape for herself and two children, and suffering from a shortage of cash, Veronica agrees to take Hogan's place for a week; she's his only renter for the season. The first seventy-five minutes of this ninety-minute one act unfold banally, with Hogan and Veronica alternatingly arguing over repairs he promised but failed to deliver and disclosing their personal troubles. We learn why Veronica lost her job; why Hogan is estranged from his daughter and essentially homeless; we learn the ways in which they're more alike than might seem at first. Unfortunately, Auburn's writing hardly strikes sparks, and while Thoms and especially Hawkes (under Daniel Sullivan's direction) do fine work, a majority of the play remains uninvolving.

The play's final scene, however, is another story. In fifteen minutes, Auburn is able to capture the depths to which these two people have fallen, and how painfully alone they feel. It's striking in its profound darkness; the playwright rejects the redemptive sluice so fully, and that in itself feels gratifying. I cannot say that it's enough to recommend the play overall, though. Would that Auburn had written an entire work worthy of those fifteen minutes.
[Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. Last row, extreme side. TDF.]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Elephant Man

photo: Joan Marcus
Unique questions arise when presenting differently-bodied characters in theatrical productions. Should one be painstakingly literal--either out of respect, or to offer the audience a chance to fully wrestle with its collective prejudices and preconceived notions--or should the artists let the mind's eye do at least some of the work? Recently, Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale (presented by Playwrights Horizons in 2012) and Donald Margulies' The Model Apartment (first produced in 1995, and revived to acclaim last fall; both by Primary Stages) used extraordinarily convincing body suits to present morbidly obese characters, played by Shuler Hensley and Diane Davis, respectively. The effect was primal and immediate: there was no hiding from plain fact of two people succumbing to their size. Oppositely, the recent Broadway premiere production of Violet, in which the title character has a disfiguring facial scar, used no make-up at all. The physical deformity was evoked solely through the actions of the actor (Sutton Foster) playing the role, and the reactions of those around her. Cases can be made for both the strongly literal and the evocatively figurative characterizations.

Bernard Pomerance's ever-popular The Elephant Man has always stringently shied away from using anything other than vocal or physical mannerisms in portraying John (real name: Joseph) Merrick, a real-life Victorian man whose horrible deformities gained him notoriety and a certain amount of celebrity in his own time. In fact, most productions have taken pains to cast conventionally attractive men in the role. The original production starred Philip Anglim, who had worked as a model prior to becoming an actor; Mark Hamill (at the height of his Star Wars fame) and David Bowie acted as replacements. A 2002 Broadway revival featured the dashing Billy Crudup. The current revival, in previews at the Booth Theatre after a successful Williamstown Theatre Festival engagement two summers ago, outdoes them all, with box office megastar and former People Sexiest Man Alive Bradley Cooper assuming the title role. And while this handsome but lifeless production does not make a case for the play as an enduring stage classic, Cooper's anchoring central performance is imbued with both skill and passion.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Love Letters

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

Alan Alda and Candice Bergen replaced Carol Burnett and Brian Dennehy as the two life-long pen pals that rarely physically connect in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on November 9. This third Broadway rotation of famous pairs follows the play’s usual bare-basics format, with no real set– just two chairs, a table, two scripts, two beverages and two actors that remain on stage reading letters placed in a binder. Alda and Bergen enter with no pomp, merely suddenly appearing on stage: She in a soft, dark sweater and pants; He in a blue button-down topped with a gray blazer.

Without changing sets or elaborate costumes, the play relies on the actor’s physical interactions and pacing to add intimacy during the letter reading of the 50-year correspondence between Connecticut elites Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Alda) and Melissa Gardner (Bergen). Despite a slow start, where seven-year-old versions converse at length about drawing pictures for one another and other childhood sundries, Gurney’s tale, ultimately, becomes moving as the letters’ simplicity convey the humor and tragedy of life in a compact 90 minutes.

While such a scaled-down concept allows for poignant sentimentality, it offers little context. While, the play touches on serious issues like sexual abuse and fractured families, it does so without ever delving deeply into these situations—allowing time between confessions to flash forward without much commentary from the other party. Even when Melissa tells Andy she’s going to see her father with his new family in California and he prods her persistently, “Write me about California. How’s your second family?,” she only eventually replies that she doesn’t have any such thing. This happens often: a character reveals some horror without any follow-up.

It is not the clich├ęd story that grabs the audience here—where the man becomes a senator with the perfect wife, who works part-time sales in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop, and three strapping sons and the free-spirited Melissa travels the world but ends up depressed, divorced and spending $155 a day drying out in rehab—rather the reassuring idea that even unfulfilled promise can elevate the importance of human existence.

Gurney’s play initially opened at New York’s Promenade Theater in 1989 and has become a regular staple of regional theater since, probably because it is easily mounted and allows actors a platform that requires no dancing, accents or pages of memorization. In this version, Alda often relies on his script, and goes for handfuls of minutes without making eye contact with the audience. Still, he imbues Andy with the proper New England remoteness and pomposity that hints of an underlining sensitivity of a more thoughtful man. Bergin is the opposite; she animates Gurney’s words with eye rolls, grimaces and gesticulations. Sometimes, all the activity feels over-the-top but she makes Melissa likable and fun, even as the character’s life darkens.  It’s nice to see Bergen back on Broadway in a bigger role than in her last venture as another suffering wife in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.

Alda and Bergen appear in Love Letters until December 18th. Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg star in the show from December 19th-January 9 and Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen from January 10-February 15.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Real Thing

Many people consider The Real Thing to be Tom Stoppard's most accessible play, and I suppose that's true--but at what cost? Instead of Stoppard's usual verbal and mental fireworks, and frequently big heart, we get a bunch of whiny, unlikable people who couple and uncouple and talk and talk and talk. The biggest talker bears more than a passing resemblance to Stoppard himself: playwright, discerning, exact, witty, etc. However, Stoppard is no kinder to his stand-in than he is to the other characters. All of them are painfully self-involved and deeply annoying. It might be more possible to sympathize/empathize with these people if we saw more of their good sides (assuming they have them), or even if their bad sides were more interesting (see George and Martha, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf).

The current Roundable production--directed by Sam Gold and starring Ewan MacGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, and Cynthia Nixon--does the show no favors. The performances range from competent to wooden, and none of the four manages to truly inhabit his/her character. (Then again, why would any of them want to?) The last production, with Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane, was better, but the play still came across as thin. Eloquent, of course, but thin.

I will match my love of Stoppard's work (see reviews here and here) to anyone's, but the popularity of The Real Thing  baffles me.

(full-priced ticket; last row balcony)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Indian Ink

The show is by Tom Stoppard. It takes place in two time periods. In the more recent period, a scholar is trying, with mixed success, to understand what happened in the earlier one. The play's themes include memory, love, class, and social mores.
Rosemary Harris, Romola Garai, Bhavesh Patel
Photo: Joan Marcus

No, this is not Stoppard's magnificent Arcadia. It is instead his not-quite-as-magnificent but-still-amazing Indian Ink. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Delicate Balance

photo: Brigette Lacombe
A classic boulevard comedy is back on Broadway. The side-splitting laughter that rings through the auditorium is fairly deafening. No, I’m not talking about the acclaimed revival of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, which I reviewed a few weeks back. Nor am I discussing Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, which is minting money over at the Schoenfeld Theatre thanks to its starry cast. And no one has snuck a Neil Simon favorite into the season’s line-up. The play in question is Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, and it’s a scream.

Apparently, A Delicate Balance is uproariously funny. A real knee-slapping laugh riot. At least, that’s the impression being given by the current, woefully misguided revival of this Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece, which is several weeks into previews at the John Golden Theatre. Directed by the usually reliable Pam MacKinnon and featuring an ensemble cast with boldface names to spare, this production projects a tone-deaf unsteadiness from the moment the curtain rises.