Monday, October 31, 2016

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Okay, so here's an awkward thing: what happens when you're a reviewer, and you're not feeling well, and you fall asleep during a show? That happened to me the other night at The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. (I woke up the next morning with a full-blown cold.)

I could have just skipped writing about the show at all, but small theatres need press, and the folks at Phoenix Theatre Ensemble deserve attention. I finally decided that the fairest thing I could do is link to other reviews of Arturo Ui. An ideal solution? No. But a solution. So, here goes:

Talkin' Broadway

Theatre Is Easy

New York Theatre Review

Curtain Up

Theater Scene

NY Theatre Guide

Arturo Ui runs through November 13th.

Wendy Caster
(5th row, press ticket)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Love, Love, Love

Every so often, especially when you don't get too close or take them too seriously, selfish people can be enormously entertaining company. In Love, Love, Love, Mike Bartlett's short, lacerating play currently running at the Roundabout, Kenneth (Richard Armitage) and Sandra (Amy Ryan) are some of the most endearing and amusing awful people you're likely to hang with anytime soon. And as my co-blogger Wendy points out in her non-review review of the first preview, even when this utterly self-involved couple is being particularly awful, they're still pretty damned hard to hate. Unless, of course, you are related to them, which is at least occasionally a very different story altogether.

Wendy describes the basic plot in her writeup of the show, which follows Kenneth and Sandra's relationship over what seems to be about fifty years, so I won't rehash it here. But I will reiterate her rave of Amy Ryan's performance, which I agree is superb. Don't get me wrong--the rest of the cast is terrific, too. But Ryan's character is the glue that holds the ensemble together, and this is all the more challenging since her Sandra needs to be loopy and endearing enough not to alienate, while still being inconsiderate and unthinking enough to believably inflict lasting pain on the people who love her. It's a razor-thin line Ryan walks, and she makes it look easy and natural.

The play itself may not be a masterpiece, but it's solid and compelling. It's a tough sell, in some respects: the characters' sadness builds over the course of the three short acts, so the broadest, easiest belly laughs diminish over time. The last act is the saddest, and focuses almost entirely on Kenneth and Sandra's two grown and clearly damaged children: the disillusioned, tightly-coiled Rose (Zoe Kazan) and the vacant, alcoholic Jamie (Ben Rosenfeld). And while I appreciated (and very much agree with) the play's implication that humans are shaped by both nature and nurture, I nevertheless wouldn't argue that this is a terribly startling or profound message, or one that offers much in the way of insight into the fate of the characters. Nor is it terribly new news that the middle class is declining steadily: it is, and it's become regular fodder for playwrights these days. Then again, as far as characters go, the ones in Love, Love, Love are memorable, curiously endearing, and beautifully rendered.

I saw Love, Love, Love with my parents--who are Kenneth and Sandra's contemporaries and who spent the two short intermissions reminiscing about old friends and acquaintances the characters reminded them of--and my teenage daughter, who was highly entertained and, while keenly aware of Kenneth and Sandra's faults, not convinced that their lousy parenting was entirely to blame for their children's shortcomings. Me? I came away from Love, Love, Love feeling twice relieved: on the one hand, I'm grateful that my parents, while of course not perfect, were nevertheless way more insightful and giving than Kenneth and Sandra are. And on the other hand, my daughter's reaction to the show gives me hope that someday, just maybe, no matter how much her dad and I screw her and her brother up, she'll be grudingly willing to let us off the hook for some of our very worst behaviors.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Sunday in the Park With George

I wasn't even planning to see this brief production of Sunday in the Park With George, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and benefiting City Center. It's not my favorite Sondheim show, and my life has been a bit topsy-turvy recently, etc, etc. But a truly fabulous friend got us tickets, and, oh boy, am I grateful. I still find the show to be uneven and awkward as a whole, but this Sunday swept my reservations aside and replaced them with tears, laughter, and awe.

Gyllenhaal's voice didn't particularly impress me in Little Shop of Horrors, but he has clearly worked very hard since then to make it the best instrument it could be. He was wonderful. Sunday is odd in that George doesn't have a big number until seven songs in. We do get to see and hear what he wants--Dot to stay still, order, design, composition, tone, form, symmetry, balance, a new way of seeing and showing the world--but he isn't really fully dimensional until "Finishing the Hat." There was a little bit of suspense--how would Gyllenhaal do? Gyllenhaal did good! He gave us a gorgeous, emotional, character-defining version that made the song sound yet again new.

Annaleigh Ashford as Dot gave a full-blooded, human, funny-touching, beautifully sung performance. She was an excellent match for Gyllenhaal, the ideal bright yang to his dark yin. And their "Move On" was glorious, glorious, glorious.

But Gyllenhaal and Ashford were far from the whole story. Any show that has the brilliant Ruthie Ann Miles in a small supporting role and the insanely talented Michael McElroy in the ensemble is clearly presenting an embarrassment of riches. (Here's the rest of the amazing cast: Brooks Ashmanskas, Phillip Boykin, Max Chernin, Carmen Cusack, Gabriel Ebert, Claybourne Elder, Lisa Howard, Zachary Levi, Liz McCartney, Stephanie Jae Park, Solea Pfeiffer, Gabriella Pizzolo, Phylicia Rashad, Jaime Rosenstein and Lauren Worsham. I mean, really!)

Ben Brantley wrote in the Times, "this is one of those shows that seems destined to be forever spoken of with misty-eyed bragging rights by anyone who sees it." Forget bragging rights--someone has to video this production! It was too wonderful to be limited to the relatively few people who were able to see it at City Center.

(4th row balcony; ticket was a gift from amazing friend)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Day By the Sea

Perhaps it's time for me to make a template for my reviews of Mint Theater Company productions:
Thanks once again to the invaluable Mint for reintroducing the world to yet another fabulous play, __________, which was beautifully directed by __________, with excellent acting by the whole cast (particularly _________, _________, and _________), and gorgeous scenery (by _________) and costumes (by ___________). 
But, no, each of the Mint's gems deserves its own accolades, and anyway, it's a pleasure to write a glowing review. (I know that some reviewers have more fun writing pans; I don't.)

Julian Elfer, Katie Firth
Photo: Richard Termine
N.C. Hunter's rich and moving play, A Day by the Sea, is a Chekovian exploration of people dealing with stormy emotional crossroads on a mild summer day. It starts slowly and quietly, and it took a while for my 21st century brain to gear down to mid-20th century pacing.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Real Actors of NYC

Who are the real actors of NYC? After watching the lightly entertaining, largely painless new musical, The Real Actors of NYC, I'd have to say that the answer is: Klea Blackhurst and Lorinda Lisitza. Composer/lyricist/book writer Karlan Judd has given his cast little to work with, but these two women bring their characters to vivid life. It's not that they make them three-dimensional and real: it's not that sort of show. But they make them hilarious and full-blooded and a hell of a lot of fun to be with. They're terrific.

But let me backtrack. What is The Real Actors of NYC? It is the story of young performers, walking off their tired feet, pounding Forty-Second Street, to be in a show. Along the way, they get their hearts broken and their hopes dashed while auditioning for such horrors as Valley Girls The Musical and The One-Armed Surfer Girl. Finally, it seems that they have their big break within reach, when.... well, that's the play, and Judd wouldn't want me to give it away. Suffice to say that The Real Actors of NYC is a tongue-in-cheek satire of/salute to musical theatre and show business.

However, the satire isn't clever, and the characters are generic. The shows aims for madcap, but doesn't get there, and odd mistakes are made. For example, the song "Actor Combat," a big number, is sloppy, with the title phrase, repeated over and over, not sitting quite right on the music. Another big number, "Keep on Going Along," is shockingly bad; was there no one to advise Judd that it was time to go back to the drawing board? A third big number, "Goodnight My Pretties," adds nothing to the overlong show (however, Blackhurst gives it the same respect and power she might give "Rose's Turn," so at least it's a pleasure to sit through). The scenery is underutilized, with little effort to distinguish locations. A few members of the cast lack the vocal presence and personality to shine in a musical, and director Max Friedman seems to have provided little help. The show pummels itself with ineffective shtick.

A good pruning could improve it significantly.

Part of me feels that I'm being harsh. A lot of hard work went into this show, and parts were fun. On the other hand, at least 20 people walked out during intermission. On the other other hand, I loathed Something Rotten, so perhaps I'm not the right audience here. On the fourth hand, I adore Forbidden Broadway in all of its brilliant incarnations.

If you think this might be your cup of tea, please don't let me stop you from giving it a try. Even if you end up hating the show, you still get to see Blackhurst and Lisitza, which is certainly a good thing.

Wendy Caster
(7th row, press ticket)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

What Did You Expect?

In Richard Nelson's Hungry, which ran at the Public last spring, the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York, had just finished scattering the ashes of their brother / husband / ex-husband / son / brother-in-law Thomas on the shores of the Hudson River. Six months have passed between then and now, and here the Gabriels are, again sprawled around the same table in the family homestead where Thomas lived until his death with his third wife, Mary, who continues to hold down the fort. This time preoccupied with prepping both dinner and a picnic planned for tomorrow, the Gabriels chop and mix and stir while chatting about a wide range of subjects, ranging from old family stories to whether the potato salad needs more mustard to national politics to financial concerns to whether or not they should open another bottle of wine. In short, What Did You Expect? finds the Gabriels more or less the same as we left them at the end of Hungry, if perhaps more tired, more anxious, a little sadder.

Can you blame them, really, given the state of the world right now? What did you expect, indeed?

Joan Marcus
I'll admit it: As moved and impressed as I was by Hungry, and as eager as I was to get tickets to the second and third installments of Nelson's sold-out cycle about the Gabriel family, I found that I wasn't particularly eager to see What Did You Expect? once showtime came around. Lord knows we've all had a long, unpleasant, exceedingly rocky six months of news that's ranged from bad to worse to hide-under-the-bed-and-hyperventilate awful; by showtime, the prospect of sitting and watching a middle-class American family sitting and talking--about politics, no less!--came to seem more psychically exhausting than I felt I could handle. I was wrong, of course, just as I was wrong in assuming, prior to seeing Hungry, that watching people talk and make dinner would put me to sleep.

Nelson's process, which you can learn more about here, makes for remarkably up-to-date theater; in rehearsals and being frantically rewritten up until opening night, What Did You Expect? was frozen on September 16th, and takes place just prior to the first presidential debate. But the Gabriels' conversation goes no deeper into politics than your average American family's does, and this turns out to be both curiously reassuring and precisely the point. The Gabriels are certainly concerned about the upcoming election, but they're also preoccupied by a multitude of other matters, all of which are discussed at length, if never neatly, stagily, artificially resolved.