Sunday, November 29, 2015


Steven (Matt McGrath) and Stephen (Malcolm Gets) have been together 16 years. They have an amazing relationship and a fabulous son named Zack. But there are cracks in the plaster. The relationship isn't actually that amazing. Zack is a bit of a klepto. At the start of the play, the two Steves and their best friends--Matt (Mario Cantone) and Brian (Jerry Dixon), a long-time couple in an open relationship, and Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), a lesbian with terminal cancer--are celebrating Steven’s birthday. Steven mentions his class in optical art. He orders a vodka stinger. He's snotty to everyone. No one can figure out why he’s acting even more pissy than usual. The thing is, Zack took Stephen’s iPhone, and when Steven retrieved it, he got a glance at some of Stephen’s texts. Add young and attractive waiter-dancer Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat), who I'm sure can fox trot, and a trainer we never see (named, wait for it, Steve), mix thoroughly, season with many Sondheim references, cook for 90 minutes, and you have Steve, Mark Gerrard's entertaining but unsatisfying play at The New Group, directed by Cynthia Nixon.

Cantone, Gets, McGrath,
Dixon, Atkinson
First, the entertaining parts: The show is frequently funny; the theatre refs are great fun if you tend to find theatre refs great fun; and there is some fine acting. The play is framed by nice bits that I won't spoil here. And the play has ambition. It explores, or at least dips into, aging, death, monogamy, what it means to lead a good life.

Here be spoilers

Then, the unsatisfying parts: Steven is an obnoxious, self-centered man whose redeeming characteristics are so well-hidden as to be invisible. He's tedious, always brooding on the wrongs that happened heaven knows how many years ago. He makes no effort to deal with Carrie's reality, refusing to admit that she's dying and always changing the subject to himself. (In one case, he segues to "Every Day a Little Death" and his relationship when Carrie is trying to have an honest conversation with him about her impending demise.) That's a legitimate, if unattractive characterization. But by the end of the play, author Gerrard himself has treated Carrie less as Steven's best friend and more as a token lesbian whose death is only significant as a growth experience for Steven. It's been annoying for decades to have gay men treated in this way in mainstream works; it's even more annoying to have a gay woman treated this way in a gay play.

End of spoilers

Overall, this is a perfectly competent, by-the-numbers play. If you are part of its main demographic--middle-class gay guys, mostly white--chances are that you will get more out of it than I did.

On the other hand, although I was ultimately unimpressed by Steve, I did laugh a lot.

Wendy Caster
(5th row, press ticket)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Allegiance, the Broadway musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, is not the most flawlessly rendered musical you will ever see. Some of its lyrics are a little clunky, some of its character motivations don't quite resonate, and some of its scenes feel a little heavy handed. I agree, for the most part, with the criticisms my fellow blogger Sandra listed in her review of the show, which she posted on Show Showdown a few weeks back. But like Sandra, I ultimately fell for Allegiance nonetheless: It's honest, earnest, and charming, and it manages to shed light on an ugly chapter in American history without being too pedantic on the one hand, or too flip on the other. It has some rough spots, sure, but they were hardly disruptive enough to keep me from rooting for its (wholly well-performed) characters, connecting with its swiftly-paced plot, or surreptitiously swiping big fat tears from my eyes in the final moments. In short, for its flaws, Allegiance does exactly what a Broadway musical is supposed to do: entertain its audiences, perhaps teach them a thing or two about inclusion (an endlessly reiterated tenet in American musicals), and move them emotionally with song, dance, and plot.

Matthew Murphy
With all this in mind, I suppose I agree, as well, with Charles Isherwood's assessment of the aesthetic shortcomings noted his review in the New York Times. Yet his final comment, which he seems to have intended as something of a sting, has been stuck in my head for days: "If anything, the authors, feeling the responsibility of illuminating this shameful chapter in American history, pack the show with so much incident and information that 'Allegiance' often feels more like a history lesson than a musical. A singing history lesson, yes, but a history lesson nonetheless." This comment has stuck with me not because I agree with it--rather, I can't shake it because it really, really pisses me off.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Sometimes seeing a mediocre production of a play can be surprisingly elucidating. For example, the Onomatopoeia Theatre Company's version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is (definitely and unfortunately) mediocre, still manages to provide a fair amount of the humor and mystery of Tom Stoppard's classic work. The amazing, unbreakable spine of the piece shows through. On the other hand, this R&G lacks most of the piece's emotion, rarely going below the surface of this complex work.

The responsibility lies squarely in the lap of director and actor Thomas R. Gordon (who is also Onomatopoeia's artistic director). As a director, he relies too much on shtick and busyness with frenetic blocking, distracting bits for background characters, and awkward pacing. He allows his actors (or asks them for) amateurish arm-waving and face-making. His direction lacks depth. He also plays the pivotal role of The Player, but he lacks the style and charisma necessary to make the part work, leaving a large hole in the play's potential gestalt.

Jean Larson as Rosencrantz and Jocelyn Vammer as Guildenstern manage to give effective performances (although Vammer is a bit too fond of arm-waving and face-making). This is the third production of R&G I've seen with women in the lead roles (the other two productions had all-female casts), and the cross-gender casting works. I'm glad whenever women get good roles. Of the rest of the cast, Gregory Pike stands out as a Hamlet I'd like to see do Hamlet. He makes a surprisingly strong impression in a small role.

Wendy Caster
(first row, audience left, press ticket)

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Incredible Fox Sisters

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus is clearly fascinated with the past, factual and fictional, and how it reflects on the present. In You On The Moors Now, she examines romantic tropes as handed down to us by the Brontes, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott. In the amazing, funny, and captivating Men on Boats, she deconstructs depictions of the heroic male with an all-female cast. Now, in The Incredible Fox Sisters (directed by Tyler Mercer), her topic is 19th-century Spiritualism.

Katrina Day, Hannah Vaughn
Photo: Jonno Rattman
Somewhat based on a true story, The Incredible Fox Sisters takes off when the not-exactly-reputable Dr. Amphitheater meets Kate and Maggie Fox and decides to turn their psychic powers into money. The Foxes go on tour and experience all the levels of celebrity, good and bad. They also genuinely help some people. The Fox sisters' time away from home and their fame affect the sisters in different ways, as Maggie's powers seem to grow as Kate's seem to shrink. Their much older sister Leah tours with them, aware of the pressures on the younger girls, but also aware that their financial success allows their desperately ill mother to receive medical attention. Meanwhile, Dr. Amphitheater just wants to keep the money rolling in.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Last night, the cast of Ripcord, David Lindsay-Abaire's play at MTC, seemed a little off. Maybe it had been a rough weekend, or someone got accidentally plastered during the half-hour call, or was working with a fever or an injury or something. For whatever reason, lines were flubbed and focus occasionally seemed to wane. But while I would have loved to see the cast at their very best, the occasional missteps didn't matter in the long run: Ripcord is hi-freaking-larious. 

Off night or not, the cast is filled with pros, who are briskly directed by David Hyde-Pierce (yeah, the actor, proving here that he is as droll and funny behind the scenes as he is in front of the camera). And while the show is predictable in some ways, it's genuinely surprising and inventive in others.

Monday, November 02, 2015


I saw something I've never seen when I went to an October evening preview of Allegiance: a 69-question survey taped to my seat. From queries about story lines and characters to why you chose the show, every possible topic seemed covered, including a song-by-song list where you evaluated each musical number using a Likert scale. My hope is that the production does some tinkering, but mostly stays intact after it opens on November 8th. For Allegiance tackles a moment in American history that deserves more discussion. Impressively, rather than sanitizing the time's brutality, the show shines a harsh light on the oppression Japanese-Americans suffered while offering humor, love and hope.

The story, inspired by George Takei's (Mr. Sulu from "Star Trek," "Heroes") own internment in his childhood starts in present time when an embittered World War II veteran, Sam Kimura (Takei, in his Broadway debut), goes to his sister's funeral and remembers all that his family suffered in the early 1940s. The show flashes backwards, opening to a lovely scene where young Sam's family is celebrating an annual Japanese ritual, where individuals tie wishes on trees, a ceremony explained in the lilting number "Wishes on the Wind." Especially potent is the presence of friends and neighbors -- the same people who turn on the family in the next scene, offering them a mere pittance for the farmlands the Kimuras must sell prior to going to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.

       Michael K. Lee, George Takei and Lea Salonga

Allegiance tries to show the many sides to this story: why some Japanese-Americans moved to the internment camps without complaint; why some rebelled against their treatment while others accepted it; and why some tried to prove their patriotism by joining an unwelcoming Army. Young Sam or "Sammy" (Telly Leung of "Glee" fame) tries to make the best of the situation, planning baseball games and dances, and then becoming a military hero. Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee) characterizes the side of the resistance and clashes with Sammy frequently. Meanwhile, Sammy's dutiful sister, Kei (Lea Salonga), begins questioning her own loyalties -- to her family and her country -- as her father (Grammy-nominated baritone Christópheren Nomura) is jailed for refusing to sign a fealty oath.

When Variety reviewed the Old Globe version of Allegiance  in 2012, Bob Verini praised the cast of the production, but said that "the writing would need considerable toughening up to withstand Broadway's harsh glare," and the Los Angeles Times offered that "Allegiance presents a surprisingly mild story of family fractures, not an indictment of American failures. … Though peppered with promising scenes and powerfully sung by the largely Asian American cast, Allegiance retreats from the challenge of its own material and hasn’t found a consistent focus, tone or musical idiom." Since those reviews, the show has evolved: some roles, such as Tatsuo Kimura, Mike Masaoka and Hannah Campell are cast differently; and songs like "Better Americans," which Verini called a flop, is gone, as are a few others. Generally, the current score by Jay Kuo pleases, with a nice blend of upbeat numbers and sweet ballads -- which  infuse aspects of Japanese culture and the Big Band sound of the time period into a few numbers.

(SPOILER ALERT AHEAD) Still, some material continues weighing down the production. For instance, Greg Watanabe's scenes as Japanese-American advocate/figurehead Mike Masaoka (the only actual historical figure of the show and a character that has undergone revisions) still never really reveal the complexities of the situation, or of the man who accepted such compromises for his people. The show continues to vilify him too much rather than, oh, say, the American government, which imprisoned 120,000 of its citizens. Some of the plot goes outside the perimeter of believability as well -- for instance, Sammy's sudden and surprising transformation to a more jaded and opinionated self, someone capable of family estrangement, and the final scene, where forgiveness is abruptly found. (SPOILER ALERT ENDED) During the internment camp scene, the song list need a little whittling, too, since "I Oughta Go" and "Should I," where Hannah and Sammy begin their relationship, seem too similar (IMHO, I'd eliminate the first song.).

Despite that, the book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione creates vivid and compelling characters, and it's a delight to see such a superb cast embody them. Takei is both whimsical and sagacious as Ojii-chan, the Kimuras' eldest family member, who talk-sings adorably in just one musical number. In this sweet moment, the always-sublime Salonga (Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, Flower Drum Song) winningly sings "Ishi Kara Ishi," with him, interweaving some quiet Japanese traditionalism amid the more buoyant songs, such as the fun "Get in the Game" and "Paradise," two pieces that showcase Sammy's and Frankie's polarized positions. Later, Salonga shows off her pipes by belting "Higher," her character's self-discovery number, where she leaves her mousy presence behind to embrace a more fighting spirit. Leung transforms easily from an earnest farm boy to an angry survivor sure of his own allegiances. Lee and Katie Rose Clarke (as Nurse Campbell) offer feisty and likable love interests. Even the supporting characters deliver -- from Christópheren Nomura's dignified metamorphosis from pacifist to protester, to the delight of seeing ensemble member Scott Wise (Tony for Jerome Robbins' Broadway) again on the Great White Way. Also adding to the production is the clever set by Donyale Werle, which uses shifting panels to convey the internment camp, and the projection design by Darrel Maloney. Both depict the bleakness of the camp and the lives of the people in it.

Sandra Mardenfeld
( Orchestra, Purchased Ticket)

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Hot L Baltimore

The T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre is one of the undersung jewels of New York City theatre. Year after year, T. Schreiber presents solid productions, often featuring long-time director-teacher Terry Schreiber's students in some of the roles. For a tiny sliver of the price of a Broadway ticket, you can see top-notch productions of important plays with excellent casts.

In front: Stephanie Seward, Anna Holbrook, Alexandra Hellquist
 In back: Philip Rosen, Peter Judd
Photo: Bob Degus
Even more underappreciated is playwright Lanford Wilson. He tends to be ignored when people assemble lists of "great American playwrights," yet his body of work is superb. His four-decade career includes Balm in Gilead, The Rimers of Eldritch, Fifth of July, Talley's Folly, and Book of Days. He was recognized during his lifetime, with three Tony Award nominations, the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award, a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, an Obie Award, the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Master American Dramatist, and the Artistic Achievement Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. So why doesn't he make top 10 or even top 50 lists? I've been trying to come up with a theory, and I've had no luck. But I do know this: it is an unacceptable oversight to leave him out. He is a major American playwright, and indeed one of the greats.