Friday, August 28, 2015

Looking Forward: The 2015/2016 Season

The 2015/2016 theater season has already begun, with the much lauded Broadway premiere of Hamilton (and the less-lauded debut of Amazing Grace) and the first new shows of the Off-Broadway season -- Annie Baker's highly acclaimed John, which Wendy and I both greatly admired, for instance -- cropping up. However, like kids going back to school, we often associate a theater season with a calendar that starts in September and ends in June, with the Tony Awards. And looking ahead, this promises to be a busy and interesting year on the Great White Way and beyond. A particularly busy fall season -- by my count, nineteen plays and revivals opening or beginning previews on Broadway between September 1 and December 31 -- gives way to a spring that will host the likes of Audra McDonald, Jessica Lange, Ben Whishaw, Frank Langella, Sophie Okonedo, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Saorsie Ronan, to name just a few. Off-Broadway remains as vibrant as ever, with world premieres from David Lindsay Abaire, Michael John Lachiusa, Naomi Wallace, Danai Gurira, and Nick Payne on the docket, and appearances by Lupita N'yongo, Kristine Nielson, Mario Cantone, Mamie Gummer, Sherie Rene Scott, Dame Harriet Walter, and Holland Taylor.

To the folks at Show Showdown, the impending arrival of a new theater season makes us giddy as kids at Christmas. We're happy to each offer a brief overview of what excites us the most from the crop of upcoming shows.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cymbeline--Words for Its Final Four Days

Three Reasons to Go See One of Shakespeare's Least Liked Plays

There are four days left to see Cymbeline, the second offering of The Public's annual Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater. This flawed production (see Cameron Kelsall's excellent July review here) is worth seeing if you can get tickets (learn how to get tickets here).

In the mid-August production I saw Lily Rabe (Imogen) was radiant, a fact I mention because some reviews dismissed her performance, calling her too "bitter" or that she "doesn't quite find access to the character’s radiant innocence and the pathos of her long suffering." Perhaps she grew into the role, but that night she gave a nuanced, rich interpretation of a character who changes drastically through the play, from a sweet innocent to a betrayed lover to an anguished mourner. Plus, her resonant, opulent voice is perfect for Shakespeare. Heck, it's fantastic for reading the phone book, too.

The other highlight of the show is Kate Burton as the Queen and the evil stepmother to Imogen. She brings the snarky out in a dark character who likes to play with poisons. Plus, she wears the show's only decent costume, a big, pitch-black hoop-skirted confection that makes you understand what Cymbeline, the King of Britain (Patrick Page, who also is solid in his role) sees in her. Like many of the actors, she plays a second character. Her Belarius, a banished lord from court, is not as compelling as the queen, but she does bring an emotional center to this rough-hewn back hills poser who, on one hand, fiercely loves the two boys she stole from the king and raised, and yet is someone who seethes with an underlying bitterness.

The original music by Tony Award-winner, Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then) strengthens the potency of some of the passages, allowing sweet or sorrowful notes to linger in the night air.

The final show in the Shakespeare in the Park series, The Odyssey, runs September 4-7 and will unite onstage professional actors with regular New Yorkers.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg 


In her absorbing new play, John (directed by frequent collaborator Sam Gold)Annie Baker shows that there are many ways to be haunted and many ways to be in touch with the universe--but perhaps fewer ways to love.

Engel, Abbott, Smith
Photo: Matthew Murphy
It's the present. Jenny and Elias are staying at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, where Elias wants to see the historical sights and both want to work on their damaged relationship. They are haunted by one partner's past indiscretion, their childhoods, and even an American Girl doll. Mertis, known as Kitty, is the owner of the bed and breakfast. At first glance she seems to be kind of simple, even silly, but she isn't, and her relationship with the universe is unusually close. Genevieve, Kitty's blind best friend, speaks frankly of "the time I went crazy," explaining how her ex-husband took over her brain after their split, in the most intimate form of haunting. Genevieve's craziness was the literalization of heartbreak.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Mercury Fur

Two brothers come into a deserted room strewn with debris. Elliot is clearly the leader, smart and full of authority. Darren is the ne'er-do-well, slow-witted and stoned. They are preparing for some sort of party. Elliot starts cleaning up and badgers Darren to clean up as well. They argue. They bicker. They say "fuck" and "fucking" about a million times. Elliot in particular uses a form of English I would label as "faux-lyrical ugly." Little by little we learn that ugliness is the state of their apocalyptic world. And the party will not be a joyous occasion.

Jack DiFalco, Zane Pais
Photo: Monique Carboni 
Philip Ridley's play Mercury Fur (directed by Scott Elliott) explores the struggle for humanity in an inhumane world, and parts of it are hard-hitting and thought-provoking. It runs over 2 hours without an intermission and would be well-served by some judicious trimming, particularly in the first half hour. The dialogue is not always intelligible, which is a tremendous weakness in such a verbal work. Many stories are told, and while they are well-written, they eventually hurt the play's momentum. The cast is uniformly strong: they are Jack DiFalco, Bradley Fong, Paul Iacono, Peter Mark Kendall, Emily Cass McDonnell, Sea McHale, Zane Pais, and Tony Revolori.


I cannot predict that Schooled will be the breakout hit of this year's Fringe, the vagaries of theatre being what they are. However, I can say that it should be. Schooled is just this side of superb.

Stein, Maré
Photo: Andrea Reese
Smartly written by Lisa Lewis and smoothly directed by James Kautz, Schooled focuses on the triangle of Claire, an ambitious screenwriting student at a ritzy film school; her professor Andrew, a semi-successful screenwriter who mentors her, or perhaps "mentors" her; and her rich boyfriend Jake, also a student and also ambitious, with whom she is competing for an important grant. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

An Inconvenient Poop: Fringe Festival

On hearing the phrase "political theatre," most of us think of painful shows discussing life-or-death issues, often with unhappy endings. (Anyway, that's what I think of, and not without reason.) Shawn Shafner's one-man show, An Inconvenient Poop, is political theatre as stand-up comedy meets crazy professor. Shafner's humor is the proverbial spoonful of sugar, and An Inconvenient Poop--which, yes, considers life-or-death issues--is often delightful. And Shafner makes it clear (without guilt-tripping) that whether the ending is happy or unhappy is up to us all.

An Inconvenient Poop is not coyly or symbolically named. It is truly about poop, including taboos about poop, the history of humans' relationship to poop, and how composting toilets might (literally!) save the world. Shafner knows that many people in the audience will have objections to hearing about excrement for 70 minutes, so he (with his co-writer Julia Young) has a Dr. Oscar von Shtein stand in for us. Dr. von Shtein initially believes he is about to give a "Fred talk" on Proust, so he is astonished and horrified when faced with "The Puru." As The Puru insists on discussing mores about pooping--and farting--from ancient times to the present, Dr. von Shtein tries to get him to be less blatant and less crude. The von Shtein-Puru debate takes what might be a lecture and makes it a play.

An Intervention

photo: Paul Fox
Mike Bartlett --whose Oliver-winning satire King Charles III will premiere on Broadway in the fall -- wrote his taut, often funny, surprisingly moving An Intervention for a man and a woman. However, there is nothing in the text which specifically genders the characters, called only "A" and "B". (I know, I know: that does ping pretty high on the pretension meter). Williamstown Theatre Festival -- which is producing the American premiere of the play, in a production by the talented Lila Neugebaer -- is presenting the play with two rotating casts: a male/female pairing (Debargo Sanyal and Betty Gilpin) and a male/male pairing (Justin Long and Josh Hamilton). And on four occasions, including yesterday afternoon, both casts will take the stage.

It's certainly taking a big leap of faith to assume that your play is good enough that an audience will want to watch a play, take a ten-minute break, then immediately watch it again, albeit with different actors. And there were a handful of walkouts after the first cast performance yesterday. However, after watching Sanyal and Gilpin, I couldn't wait to see it again with Long and Hamilton.

In brief, the action centers around a friendship between A (Gilpin/Hamilton), a socially conscious teacher, and B (Sanyal/Long), his so-called best friend. Their relationship becomes strained when their government initiates the intervention of the title, which B supports and A vehemently opposes. Further, A is openly hostile towards B's new girlfriend, who views him/her as an incorrigible alcoholic and bad influence.

Although both pairs have their strong selling points, I felt it worked better with Gilpin and Sanyal. There was something kinetic about the male/female dynamic that was missing from Hamilton and Long's interpretation of a platonic heterosexual male friendship. Also, Betty Gilpin -- of whom I've heard but I don't think seen in anything before yesterday -- is a star in the making. What a committed, daring, and heartbreaking performance she is turning in.

Neugebauer's staging is bare bones, yet effective, with subtle differences in pacing and blocking to accommodate the variances in style between the two acting partners. An Intervention runs through Sunday, with Gilpin and Sanyal performing tomorrow night and both performances on Saturday, Long and Hamilton performing at the Thursday and Sunday matinees, and both casts performing on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights. See one or both casts, but see the play if you can. Bartlett is an undeniable talent.

[Rush tickets, house left box seat]

A Moon For the Misbegotten

photo: T. Charles Erickson
Audra McDonald cemented her living legend status in 2014, when she won her sixth competitive Tony, becoming not only the first actor to achieve that feat but also the first to win an award in each of the four major acting categories. She's excelled in musicals and opera, in Shakespeare and contemporary drama, in concert and on television -- to put it simply, she has nothing to prove. And yet, she continues to dazzle with her seemingly limitless range, which is currently on view in Gordon Edelstein's somewhat lopsided production of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon For the Misbegotten, playing through Sunday at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.

Anyone familiar with the play will know that the character of Josie Hogan is written as Irish American. McDonald, of course, is black, as are the excellent Glynn Turman and Howard W. Overshown, who play her father and brother. Having the Hogans played by actors of color offers two benefits: it strips the roles -- particularly that of Phil, the patriarch -- of their blarney, and dissuades the actors from playing them as drunken shanty stereotypes; further, it accentuates the class distinction between Josie and Jim Tyrone (played here by Will Swenson, who is white), the landlord of the farm the Hogans tend, for whom Josie secretly pines.

Friday, August 14, 2015


The character of Rose in Gypsy, the masterpiece by Jule Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Arthur Laurents (book), is the quintessence of larger-than-life. She's a force of nature, implacable, unstoppable. She is scary.

Sally Mayes, currently playing Rose in the Harbor Lights production on Staten Island, is life-sized. In the scenes in which she and the director acknowledge that fact, her performance is moving and meaningful. In the scenes in which she and the director try to make her seem more forceful through fast talking and frenetic gesticulating, not so much. I would bet that Mayes is capable of a thoroughly credible and satisfying Rose, but here we get an uneven performance that, fortunately, is still worth seeing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


photo: Matthew Murphy
No one path leads to an indelible, unforgettable performance. Sometimes an actor takes a classic, timeless role and makes it truly their own, to the point where anyone else repeating it seems pointless. For me, Vanessa Redgrave's fearless Mary Tyrone (in 2003's Long Day's Journey Into Night) and Simon Russell Beale's intense, broken Lophakin (in Sam Mendes' underrated production of The Cherry Orchard, at BAM) fill out this category. Sometimes, an actor plays a real person more clearly than the person herself: think Christine Ebersole' Little Edie in Grey Gardens, or Audra McDonald's Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, both instantly legendary. Occasionally, a writer creates a role for an actor that fits them like a glove, and the synergistic effect is immediately evident inside the theater: I felt it watching Tonya Pinkins at the first performance of Caroline, or Change, and I felt it again more recently, at two performances of Annie Baker's John at Signature Center.

The actor, in this case, is Georgia Engel, probably best known as the daffy Georgette Franklin on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That instantly-recognizable voice -- something between a squeak and a wheeze, though carrying layers of possibility underneath -- is still there, but Engel's current creation couldn't be any further from her sitcom past. She plays Mertis Katherine Garven, the amiable proprietress of a tchotchke-stuffed bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where she's as likely to discuss the transmigration of birds or theories of love as she is to serve Vienna fingers and chocolate tea to the young couple (Hong Chau and Christopher Abbott) who serve as her only guests.