Monday, December 29, 2014

A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Sam Shepard came to prominence chronicling the battered and bruised families of the American West, so it should come as no surprise that he would set his sights on the most dysfunctional family in the history of theatre. His latest play, A Particle of Dread, is, as its subtitle suggests, a duel reimaging of Sophocles' trilogy, transported to two of Shepard's favorite locales: Ireland (by way of Thebes) and the contemporary Southwest. The former is a fairly straightforward retelling of Oedipus the King, albeit with strong brogues; the latter, a bloody true crime mini-epic that could be the love child of Breaking Bad and True Detective. The two narrative strands unspool through interlocking scenes, sometimes with accentual erasure, in order to keep the audience sharp to the dramatic parallels. And while the elements don't always come together harmoniously, the high-octane proceedings are never boring. Shepard's gift for tight, menacing language is sharp as ever, and the crack cast (which includes Tony winner Brid Brennan and, as the Oedipus figure, the great Stephen Rea) is, to a person, superb. A Particle of Dread concludes its run at the Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street this Sunday; it is brief, engrossing, and well-worth the effort.

[Sixth row center, TDF]

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Film Review: Into the Woods

It's not good. It's not bad. It's just nice. And perhaps that's why the long-awaited film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, which opened Christmas Day, is largely a disappointment. Directed by Rob Marshall, it is slick, stylized, and without much spark, not unlike Marshall's other two high-profile forays into movie musicals, Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009). The sets and costumes are beautiful. The performances are all professional and proficient, some are even great. The pace is spry. Yet the endeavor stops short of being wholly satisfying. It feels strangely empty in a way that even the less-than-perfect stage productions of this musical I've seen over the years never have.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014: A Year in Review

Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in Machinal.
Photo: Joan Marcus
2014 was, like most theatre-going years, a grab bag of exquisite highs, painful lows, and a wide, bland middle. But as Wendy and Liz have both so rightly noted in their end-of-year essays, one of the beauties of being an unpaid blogger is that we have the luxury to focus on that which we enjoyed the most. Those who read my reviews regularly probably wish I would heed that advice more often--since rejoining this site over the summer, I've noticed that my negative columns seem to outweigh the positive--but I believe that one of the functions of this site, other than highlights and promoting the productions I absolutely love, is to advise readers to steer away from (or, at least, proceed with caution towards) that which I feel isn't worth the time and expense. Before I shower with praise the productions that lifted my spirits and transported me in the way that only good theatre can, I'll briefly highlight the hours of 2014 I spent in theatres, wishing I was somewhere else.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Year-End Roundup

Every year, I rack up regrets over shows I never got the chance to see. I missed Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 &3) this year, for example, and also Sticks and Bones and Bootycandy. That being said, I got to see some great productions, among them 18 I blogged about for Showdown. While a few of them--Bread and Puppet Theater's summer circus and New Hazlett Theater's production of Parade--were so far off Broadway as to be in different states entirely, most of them were right here in New York, a city that I love mightily and want the very best for.

Sure, this year, I experienced some theatrical lows. I made no secret of really, really disliking If/Then. And I really have no idea what the fuck was going on with Outside Mullingar, despite some good performances and a nice set. There were a few shows I chose not to blog about at all because I had nothing terribly insightful to say about them (and, in the case of The Death of Klinghoffer, because I just didn't want to wade into the controversies that drew away from what was, in the end, a beautiful if flawed opera in a beautiful if flawed production).

But as Wendy notes in her end-of-year post, one of the joys of being a theater blogger is that we don't have to see stuff that we know will suck. We might pay for all our tickets, sit in crappy seats, and waste far more time on this blog than we should, especially when we have books to work on and classes to prepare for. But on the other hand, we are predisposed to like the things we choose to see, and we get to share our impressions with people who read our blog posts and almost never feel compelled to leave abusive comments or spam us with porn. Really, as I see it, it's a win-win situation.


Marianne and Roland first meet at a barbecue. No, wait. It was a wedding. She's interested in him, but he has a girlfriend. Or was it that he was just out of a relationship, not ready to date? The answer, actually, is all of the above. Constellations, Nick Payne's 2011 play, which is currently receiving its American premiere at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, espouses the wormhole theory that the world is made up of millions of parallel universes existing side by side. On each wavelength, we might live an identical experience, altered only by a minor variation. It affects how we live our lives, and, more to the point here, how we fall in love.

It's almost impossible to speak more specifically about the plot of this brief, beguiling play without ruining the eventual experience you'll have when you see it. And you should see it. Payne has managed to squeeze more meaningful interaction and thought-provoking questions into sixty unbroken minutes than any other play I've seen thus far this season. And despite what you might expect from the highly-stylized text and dramatic devices, Constellations is, at its core, a portrait of romance and connection. It's funny, moving, occasionally frustrating, and deeply human; in short, everything you could want from a play.

Constellations marks not only the Broadway debut of playwright Payne, but of the production's marquee names: Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson. Gyllenhaal previously starred in Payne's If There Is, I Haven't Found It Yet Off-Broadway; Wilson, a two-time Olivier Award winner in London, is best known for her current starring role on Showtime's The Affair. Both are extraordinarily good here. Never leaving the stage, they manage to map the complicated trajectory of an entire relationship in several dozen mini-scenes, some non-verbal, some lasting mere seconds. Rarely have I seen such an intense connection between two performers, and I imagine their bond will only grow stronger as this production moves towards its official opening on January 13. It's almost certainly guaranteed to be 2015's first must-have ticket.

[Last row mezzanine, deeply discounted ticket]

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Best of 2014

Rebekah Brockman, Tom Pecinka
in Arcadia
Photo: Joan Marcus
Aaah, the joys of being an online reviewer. I don't get paid, and I often have to buy my own tickets, but I don't have to see shows that don't interest me. This may be why I always have robust "best of" lists--I'm choosing among shows I was predisposed to like. This doesn't mean I love everything. I saw some serious stinkers this year (Your Mother's Version of the Kama Sutra, Architecture of Becoming, Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini), Bullets Over Broadway, Intimacy). But on a whole, I had a very exciting year in the theatre.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy)

He's not really the messiah. His mom is Mandy, not Mary. She's certainly not a virgin. For that matter, neither is he. Well, you know the story.

It's Monty Python's Life of Brian, only now it's an oratorio, called Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy). It's written by Eric Idle with Pythonian flair and composed by John Du Prez in a variety of styles (e.g., pop, Broadway, folk, etc.), all delightfully ear-friendly. Ted Sperling does a fabulous job conducting and directing, using the Collegiate Chorale and Orchestra of St. Luke's to their fullest, as they don hard hats, comment on the action, argue really well, and make a truly joyful noise.

Eric Idle, Victoria Clark, William Ferguson, Laura Worsham
with the Orchestra of St Luke's and the Collegiate Chorale,
conducted by Ted Sperling
Photo: Erin Baiano

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest

In the first scene of Kristen Palmer's Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest, Josie (Rachael Hip-Flores) tells her boyfriend Warren (Chinaza Uche) that she will finally marry him but first she has to search for her father. Warren doesn't want Josie to go off on her own, but she promises to call every night and to be back in a fortnight. Off she goes. Soon her car breaks down. There's this big house...

Rachael Hip-Flores, Kristen Vaughan
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

And now....the audience

Have you seen the Broadway League's recent report on the demographics of the 2013-14 Broadway audience? If you haven't, and you're interested, you can check it out here.

I recognize that demographic surveys strike a lot of people as about as interesting as watching a boring person eat a sandwich. But I look forward to the ones the League release, because they give us as clear a picture of the commercial theater audience as anyone can get. Believe me when I tell you that there is nothing more maddening, when it comes to writing about popular entertainment, than not being able to truly assess the audience. Until we develop some sort of magical device that allows us to read, with incredible accuracy and clarity, the Borg-like hive-mind that makes up any group of spectators, the Broadway League's demographic reports mean a lot, and I'm grateful for them.

That being said, the findings in this particular study don't strike me as especially celebratory.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Side Show

Call me Joanne Kaufman. I knew from the downbeat of the horrifically misguided new production of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's Side Show, currently in its final weeks at the St. James Theatre, that when intermission came, it would be time for me to go. The original production--which made Broadway stars of Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, despite a similarly short run--is beloved by many, myself included. Coming of age musical-theatre obsessed in the late nineties, I don't think there was a cast album I subjected my parents to more. (Love ya, mom and dad!) The compelling story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, the unabashedly melodramatic score, and the harmonious blending of those two leading voices--what more could you want? Maybe my personal bar was set too high, but the heavily revised book and lyrics pale in comparison to the original, and Act One (which is all I can fairly judge) crawls along at a snail's pace. The staging, by Academy Award winning film director Bill Condon, has no spark; attempts at freak show hyper-reality bring to mind Spencer's Gifts more than Tod Browning.

It also doesn't help that Emily Padgett and Erin Davie, playing Daisy and Violet, respectively, are as charisma-free a pair of headliners as I've ever seen in a major musical production. In the original production, Skinner was a strong alto capable of riffing her face off, while Ripley employed both an angelic soprano and a fearlessly high belt. Padgett and Davie both sing like church sopranos, dull as dishwater. It's smart singing, perhaps, but never exciting. Their voices and physical presentation (both done up in mousy brown wigs) are so similar that it's often hard to tell them apart, much less care about their hopes and dreams, which they enumerate in "Like Everyone Else," a merciful holdover from the original production. The rest of the cast--which includes Ryan Silverman, Matthew Hydzik, David St. Louis, and Robert Joy in principal roles--is serviceable, if hardly captivating.

photo: Drew Angerer

Side Show will shutter on January 4, 2015, seventeen years and one day from the original production's closing date. It will have played even fewer performances than its predecessor. Perhaps, as was the case then, the closing notice will bring renewed interest to this struggling revisal. I'd say that you'd do just as well to stay home and listen to the vastly superior original cast recording.

[Last row orchestra, all the way to the side, TDF]

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


photo: Jeremy Daniel
Since his brilliant debut play, A Bright New Boise, had its New York premiere in 2010, Samuel D. Hunter's output has been both prodigious and prolific. At 32, he's already picked up an Obie, a Lucille Lortel Award, and a MacArthur "Genius" Grant. He's been averaging 2-3 new plays a year, including The Whale, a problematic, fascinating look at obesity and isolation, and The Few, a strange and satisfying little play that recalled early Sam Shepard. Time and again, Hunter has chronicled life in his home state of Idaho with the same gimlet eye that August Wilson once brought to Pittsburgh. All of which makes the spectacular failure of his latest work, Pocatello, so nakedly glaring. Set in a failing Italian chain restaurant (you know the one, even though it's never named), this boring and formless attempt at dark comedy is staler than a day-old breadstick.