Friday, December 30, 2016

Debbie Reynolds in Irene

It was late summer 1974 and Debbie Reynolds was returning to the musical Irene for a brief stint before taking it on the road. (Jane Powell had been her replacement.) My friend R and I decided that we had to see it again, and this time in good seats.

I think this was the very first time I paid full price for a good seat. We usually sat in the cheap seats or wherever the TKTS booth or twofers put us. While it seems laughable now, spending $9 was a big deal. After all, I was making less than $2/hour in my part-time job as a cashier at Mays Department Store.

Friday, December 23, 2016

2016 Top Five: Sandra Mardenfeld

Jay and his mentor--from The Royale.
Photo by Charles Erickson

 I marvel at how many shows Wendy and Liz saw last year. I come in under two dozen--and, even then, I am still playing catch up with 2015 openings (which I'm including in my list since I saw a few of these in 2016). I want to recognize shows that boast long runs without losing their richness, as well as new entries from 2016. I've seen too many musicals/plays that stayed open too long (Guys & Dolls with Jamie Farr, anyone?).

1. The Royale--Liz had an extra ticket to see this so I went grudgingly. Why would I want to watch a show about boxing? I couldn't have been more wrong. What most impressed me was the rhythmic nature to the boxing matches. How director Rachel Chavkin conveyed so much of the grace and music of the sport without anyone throwing real punches. The hard, syncopated claps stood in for the fighting so beautifully. Add to that the richness of the three impressive performances by Khris Davis as Jay, the boxer who wants to be the best in the world, Clarke Peters as his mentor, and McKinley Belcher III, the protege. Marco Ramirez's story shows the difficulty of progress and the reality of its unintended victims.

2. Head of Passes--Phylicia Rashad as a female, modern-day Job struggles between faith and grief as she loses everything yet still maintains her dignity. A bravura performance that moved me tremendously. Kudos to scenic designer G.W. Mercier (Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass) whose set literally falls apart, setting off a chain of events that tests Shelah's (Rashad) belief system. Beautifully directed by Tina Landau.

3. The Color Purple (closing on January 8). This actually opened in December of last year, but won best revival at the 2016 Tony Awards. Cynthia Erivo (as Celie) sings the best "I'm Here" I've ever heard. Perhaps it's because her evolution from trembling child victim to a home-owning, confident business woman is so hard-won and believable in this production. Ervio, who won Best Actress, had two standing ovations after numbers the night I saw this in December.

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time--I saw this in July. It is a testament to the strength of the production that even near the end of its run, the show resonated with its beautiful story, told in a unique way. With scenic and costume design by Bunny Christie (Tony Award), lighting design by Paule Constable, video design by Finn Ross (Tony Award) and sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph. What an amazing production team. I saw Tyler Lea, making his Broadway debut in the role of Christopher.  Alex Sharp won the Tony for his portrayal of the same part in 2015, and Lea was so moving in the role I wish he could get the same recognition. Two more Tony Awards went to author Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott.

5. The Waitress/Fiddler on the Roof--The Waitress wasn't my favorite show but it did contain Jessie Mueller who might just usurp Kelli O'Hara as my top Broadway actress. The show itself is energetic and entertaining. Lots of laughs and songs that fill in the story nicely but nothing you'll remember afterward EXCEPT for Mueller's rendition of "She Used to Be Mine." Watch this: You'll see what I mean.

Fiddler--I loved this version and Danny Burstein's sweet Tevye. How nice it was to see Alix Korey on Broadway as Yente, too. What a great musical this is, with its score by Jerry Bock and lyrics from Sheldon Harnick, with songs of love and loss that still are relevant 52 years after it first was staged! The emotional impact of the show is increased by its references to the future: the show opens, for instance, with a glimpse of Anatevka's future, with Burstein standing on a lonely, bare stage looking at an old battered sign with the village's name before swirling into Tevye moments later. It closes Dec. 31.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

2016 Top Ten: Liz Wollman

In years as rough and depressing as 2016 has been, I am extra-super-duper thankful for the theater. I have no desire, after a year as harsh as this one was, to come up with a "worst" list--enough with the snark! Anyway, I've found that even productions that disagreed with me most were automatically more enjoyable than the news of the world, so I won't be dissing anything here.

I do, however, want to celebrate the shows that brought me particular joy during these dark times, so here's my top ten "best" in chronological order.

2016 Top Ten: Wendy Caster

Due to some health challenges, I only saw 42 shows in 2016--my lowest total in decades. Yet it was still difficult to carve my best list down to 10 entries.

I remain in awe of the breadth of theatre available in New York--and I remain dedicated to the idea that New York theatre is much more than Broadway. In fact, only one of my top ten entries is a Broadway show; four were Off-Broadway; three were at City Center or St. Ann's; and the remainder were Off-Off-Broadway. In other words, New York continues to offer superb theatre options for less than the cost of a movie and popcorn.

Here's my list, mostly in alphabetical order, followed by some random "bests." (Where possible, I've provided a link to my review.)

Blossom: Puppet theatre at its most emotional best.

Cabin in the Sky: Not a great show, but, oh, those performances!

Sunday, December 04, 2016

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and Women of a Certain Age

Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus
In very dark times, I'm always telling my students, people crave the comfort-food version of mass entertainment: breezy movies, bubbly Broadway shows, silly TV sit-coms, trashy romance novels. But lately, I've been disproving my own axiom. For the first time I can think of, at least in my life, the news has been so relentlessly, sloggingly bad, and the state of the country so brutally disillusioning, that somehow, easy escapism just isn't doing it for me. A very large portion of the country is going through in a period of collective mourning that I somehow feel the need to remain ever alert and connected to. Tuning out completely, while certainly tempting, feels cheap, at least for right now. I'm envious of those who can do it, but I haven't felt completely safe in totally blotting the world out. Somehow, remaining connected to the problems plaguing the country, while at the same time seeking solace in diversions that allow me to sort of tune out halfway, is where it's at for me these days. So I thought I'd weigh in about two shows that recently worked for me, despite--or perhaps because--of their heavy themes and underlying sadness.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a puzzle to me because the show is invigorating, original and evocative and, yet, also overbearing in its intensity. Based on 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy's second volume of War and Peace, the Off-Broadway transfer, which features the Broadway debuts of singer Josh Groban (Pierre) and Denée Benton (Natasha), offers a sometimes annoyingly frenetic, immersive experience that both irritates and captivates.

Audience members enter an opulent nightclub, dubbed Kazino, where the stage overtakes the Imperial Theatre, transforming it into a Slavic Studio 54, all red velvet and gilt. Two hundred individuals sit among the actors and orchestra on banquettes, armchairs and stools. The fourth wall disappears as characters occasionally involve the audience in the action. The astounding set (by Mimi Lien), which actually reduced the amount of available seating in the theater, brings even the last seats in the mezzanine into 19th century Russia, with a small square stage built amid the uppermost seats and cafe tables scattered throughout the area. Dozens of old-fashioned lightbulbs suspend from the ceiling, mixed among several chandeliers that look like clusters of stars (lighting design by Bradley King). Actors run up and down the aisles, playing music, dancing -- even handing out potato dumplings to the most enthusiastic applauders. With 22 ensemble members, the company numbers are colorful and exuberant but can over-stimulate (you'll see strobe warnings in the lobby); it's like a gypsy circus (with more leather, halters and tattoos) in constant motion--imagine Diane Paulus' Pippin on acid.

Comet tells the story of Natasha, an innocent girl engaged to Andrey, a prince who leaves to fight the war. When Natasha journeys to Moscow she meets Anatole (a sexy Lucas Steele), a married rogue, who convinces her to forsake her betrothed for him. Her elopement is stopped by her best friend, Sonya (Brittain Ashford), and Natasha, in her distress over her lover's betrayal and her reputation's ruin, tries to poison herself. Pierre (played capably by Groban) drinks his way through an identity crisis and a loveless marriage with Anatole's sister, who like her brother enjoys sleeping in many beds. A handful of other characters populates the melodrama; they ponder loneliness, old age and the loss of friendship. By the time the comet swoops in, all the lingering plot lines are coiled together and magically solved with one act of mercy and a song.

The electro pop opera-styled music and lyrics by Dave Malloy (who also did the book and orchestrations) are often clever and entertaining, but sometimes feature too much oversimplification and not enough emotion. The opening song, for instance, serves as a character primer detailing all the parts with one word monikers--Sonya is good, Natasha is young and Helene is a slut--because, after all, as the cast sings: "It's a complicated Russian novel. Everyone's got nine different names." If you missed the beginning, no worries: there's also a synopsis and a family tree in the program. Still, other numbers ("Sonya Alone," "Pierre & Natasha") provide heart-warming flashes. When Natasha sings "No One Else," the sweetness of Benton's voice glides through the song as twinkling bulbs overhead lower downward like slow-moving shooting stars, and a fluff of snow swirls around a faraway Andrey. The joy of Natasha compounded by the settings' stillness connects the audience to the character in a profound way.

Compressing the source material into such a small section takes much of the luminescence of the original work away -- even though Comet intends to take inspiration from War and Peace and not be it, the musical feels more Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Russian style than Tolstoy's war classic, with the only battles depicted on stage of love and betrayal. Groban, though, fares well in his debut with solid songs like "Dust and Ashes" and "The Great Comet of 1812" that suit his famous baritone. He's sympathetic as a man who's frozen inside, who wants to be more than he is--and his musicianship is obvious as he switches from accordion and piano player to singer. Ultimately, despite the show's flaws, director Rachel Chavkin deserves much credit for creating an experience that allows the audience to feel a show rather than just see it.

Sunday, November 06, 2016


I can't be 100% certain what William Shakespeare would think of the current election season, but, as Director Michael Sexton and the good people of the Red Bull Theater show in their dynamic and impressive production of Coriolanus, he might well think, "Same as it ever was, same as it ever was."

Aaron Krohn, Patrick Page
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Coriolanus is a war hero, running for consul, who just can't and won't play the political game. It's not that he has superior ethics; instead, he is so sure of his own worth that he thinks power should be handed to him. He's an emotionally blind narcissus; he changes his allegiances to suit his needs; he sees "the people" as useful or not-so-useful tools. Sound like anyone who's been in the news lately?

School of Rock

School of Rock is charming and engaging and the kind of big, shiny Broadway musical you could totally bring your kids or your friends from out of town to. It's basically a stage rendition of the movie, with a few catchy (if too frequently reprised and thus eventually a little tiresome) songs by Andrew Lloyd-Webber tossed in for good measure. (I say this, by the way, as someone who has absolutely no problem with Lloyd-Webber or his compositional style; in fact, I found some of his signature modal flourishes weirdly comforting, here.) Alex Brightman, as Dewey, is as committed, adorable and talented as everyone says he is. The kids are, too--even those who don't totally fucking wail on the guitar, bass, keyboards or drums. The whole cast, really, is energetic and hard-working. They all did their damnedest to win me over. They came pretty close.

Matthew Murphy
Full disclosure: I am a cynical theatergoer and I'm especially critical of staged rock musicals, which I've noted in previous posts is a very rare occupational hazard but one I can claim nonetheless. Also, this election has totally fucked with my head and put me in an even darker place than I typically am. So take this review with a grain of salt. I realize that for many people, a light, funny evening at the theater with winning characters, reasonably catchy songs and some jokes that even I laughed out loud at would be plenty. But here's the thing that bugged me: School of Rock plays on a bunch of racial and cultural stereotypes that I'm really, really tired of seeing on Broadway all the damn time.

A couple of years ago, I dug into some of the ones that bug me most in my review of Rock of Ages, which School of Rock reminded me of in a number of ways. Both are breezy, funny, high-energy rock musicals that don't take themselves too seriously, and that poke fun at while simultaneously reinforcing rock's cultural conventions. Rock culture is certainly worth taking potshots at, lordy knows. It's the reinforcement of some of its more stubborn assumptions that wear me down.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

The great comet in question was actually in 1811. Just sayin'. Not like it matters: Broadway musicals are hardly the medium through which accurate historical information gets passed along to the masses, and if you don't believe me, you'll be surprised to learn that in reality, this country's founding generation was built overwhemingly of white dudes who didn't know shit from shinola about rap. But the fact that the real comet was in 1811 and the one in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet shows up in 1812 (in truth, it was still visible early that year) bugs me a little because someone clearly thought long and hard about changing the date, in the same way that someone--hell, maybe the same someone--thought long and hard about how it might be cool to throw little boxes of potato pelmeni at the audience before the show and also about how it might be cool to have chandeliers that constantly rise and fall over the hyped-up action, and also animal masks and day-glo clothing and strobe lights, but did not put the same amount of thought into plotting, pacing, or character development.

And yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, I know I sound old and fussy about this, call me an old biddy. But hear me out: I know full well that some shows are about things other than that old-fashioned Golden Age of Musicals shit. But I saw Blue Man Group before you were born, probably. I saw The Donkey Show before knowing anything about it or what the hell it was, and it blew me away. Last summer, I saw Hadestown, which was also more about mood and space and multisensory immersion than it was about plot and character, and I haven't been able to stop listening to the concept album on which it was based, or thinking about aspects of the production since.

I had high hopes for Natasha precisely because of my experiences at these aforementioned shows, as well as because Rachel Chavkin impressed me immensely last season with her moodily gorgeous production of The Royale at Lincoln Center. Also, I've long regretted the fact that I never saw Natasha during its original run, first at the teeny Ars Nova and then in a huge pop-up tent in the meatpacking district, where I bet it was really cool.

Aspects of it are really cool on Broadway, too. Chavkin is ingenious when it comes to utilizing space, and I can't think of a show on Broadway that manages to immerse its audience--even those of us who saw it up in the cheap rear balcony seats--any better than this one does. The stage has room for something like 200 audience members, who sit amid the action, and the entire house is covered in red velvet and photographs and outfitted with tiny little table lamps. The cast makes frequent visits up to the mezzanine and balcony to dance, engage with spectators, toss dumplings around, and harmonize in venue-shaking sonorities that I very much appreciated. There are, as my fellow blogger Sandra noted in her slightly more positive review of the show, a few truly moving numbers that bring the house down. I was especially taken by "Dust and Ashes," Groban-as-Pierre's big solo number that muses moodily about the difficulty and miracle of finding love; "Sonya Alone," too, digs deep into the nature and demands of real friendship, and stayed with me long after the show. But the rest of the score, with a few motifs here and there as the exceptions, struck me as a weird combination of very complicated (lots of chromaticism, lots of tricky meters, lots of unexpected melodic directions) and simultaneously repetitive and uninteresting.

The production tries hard to make up for the lack of character depth or clear plot with a lot of energy and pep. There is lots of winding through aisles, lots of fast-paced dance numbers, lots of constant motion. But it signifies nothing; at one point, right before intermission, a friend I saw it with erupted in near-manic giggles at the masked ball scene, which sent many members of the enormous cast up into the balcony in various animal masks and typically amped choreography. "Of course there are animal masks!" she cackled. Why not, really? There is just about everything else.

I suspect the correct way to see a show like this would be to sit right in the middle of it--either on the stage or, if one could go back in time, under a huge tent, where Russian food (and lots of vodka) was apparently served and where the cast wound tightly around the spectators, who were thus both plunged into and made part of the action. Chavkin does wonders to create intimacy here, too--my respect for her has hardly been shaken by this. But I came away feeling that the nearly-1500 seat Imperial (late the home of Les Miz) couldn't quite handle the show it's housing. The result was emotional distance from characters who aren't terribly developed in the first place, in exchange for sensory overload that felt forced and exhausting.

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.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

IT Award Nominees and Winners 2016

On Monday, September 26, 2016, The New York Innovative Theatre Foundation presented their IT Awards. Winners are marked with asterisks.

** The Golfer, Gemini CollisionWorks: Fred Backus, Broderick Ballantyne, Rebecca Gray Davis, Lex Friedman, Ian W. Hill, Bob Laine, Matthew Napoli, Timothy McCown Reynolds, Alyssa Simon, Anna Stefanic
Connected, Project Y Theatre Company: Gus Birney, Joachim Boyle, Robby Clater, Ella Dershowitz, Midori Francis, Dana Jacks, Thomas Muccioli, Aria Shahghasemi
Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey, Life Jacket Theatre Company: Andrew Dawson, Phil Gillen, Aidan Sank
Street Theater, TOSOS: Tim Abrams, Chris Andersson, Christopher Borg, Éilis Cahill, Jonathan Cedano, Desmond Dutcher, Russell Jordan, Josh Kenney, Jeremy Lawrence, Michael Lynch, Joe MacDougall, Rebecca Nyahay, Patrick Porter, & Ben Strothmann
The Further Adventures Of..., TOSOS: Tim Burke, Mark Finley, & Jamie Heinlein
Unity (1918), Project: Theater: Wendy Bagger, Alicia Dawn Bullen, Jessi Blue Gormezano, Doug Harris, Beth Ann Hopkins, Joshua Everett Johnson, Joe Jung, Alexandra Perlwitz, Melanie Rey

**Siobhan O'Loughlin: Broken Bone Bathtub, Elephant Run District
David Carl: David Carl's Celebrity One Man Hamlet, Project Y Theatre, PM2 Entertainment and Richard Jordan Productions in associate with Underbelly
Laura Hooper: Crumble, MORA Theater
Peter Michael Marino: Late With Lance!, PM2 Entertainment
Colin Summers: Steve: A Docu-Musical, New York Neo-Futurists
Yolanda K. Wilkinson: Bible Study for Heathens, New York Neo-Futurists

Friday, September 23, 2016

Love, Love, Love

This is not a review. I saw the first preview of Love, Love, Love, and a review wouldn't be appropriate. However, the show is already in excellent shape, and quite interesting, and completely worth writing about. Take my random natterings with a extra-large grain of salt, and beware: there will be spoilers.

Love, Love, Love is by Mike Bartlett, whose King Charles III was downright thrilling. It follows a couple of remarkably self-centered people from their meet-not-so-cute in the 1960s  (Act I) through their marriage and life with teenaged children (Act II) to their retirement years (Act III). If drama is about people learning or growing or changing, this is not a drama, although parts are quite moving. If comedy is about laughing at people who neither learn nor grow nor change, it's definitely a comedy. And parts are quite funny.

Monday, September 12, 2016


James Blossom is a hero--over and over again. He defuses a Nazi nuke miles under the sea and "is given a ticker tape parade and his face on the five dollar bill." He saves the life of the Secretary of Agriculture by performing emergency surgery. He escapes from a "prison above the sea."

James Blossom has Alzheimer's disease. He is growing unable to tell fantasy from reality. He regularly thinks his daughter is his wife. And he has become potentially dangerous to himself and others, so his daughter moves him into a nursing home--a nice nursing home, but a nursing home. He is not happy, but he is also not ready to roll over and die. Little by little, he adapts. Blossom is an engaging character, and as we get to know him better, we like him all the more.

This is James Blossom:

James Blossom
Designed by Spencer Lott
Photo: Maria Baranova

Blossom, running at Dixon Place through September 24, was written and directed by Spencer Lott, who has an extra creativity gene (or 12!), a big heart, a huge desire to entertain, and a similarly huge desire to tell a real, believable, and heart-breaking story. He mostly succeeds--and succeeds big--but the show's flaws keep Lott from hitting the grand slam that he surely can.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Small Mouth Sounds

Six people assemble for a spiritual retreat with varying levels of comfort and enthusiasm: an ultra-limber, ultra-sexy yoga instructor; a lesbian couple, affectionate but annoyed with each other; a quietly friendly older man; a sad-sack white guy whose multi-colored skullcap seems to be covering a secret; and a blonde who is far more interested in texting her recently ex-boyfriend than achieving spiritual growth. They are spoken to by a loopy, self-important, unseen guru, who explains the rules of the retreat (many of which will be broken), talks about the philosophy of their time together, and announces that there will be no talking.

Zoë Winters, Max Baker, Quincy Tyler Bernstine,
Babak Tafti, Brad Heberlee, and Marcia DeBonis
Photo: Ben Arons Photography

By largely eliminating dialogue from the play, author Bess Wohl and director Rachel Chavkin have set themselves a fascinating challenge, one that they meet with intelligence, compassion, and humor. They give us three-dimensional people full of foibles and strengths and a gentle sorta-plot that fills the two hours beautifully. The cast is strong--Marcia DeBonis, Brad Heberlee, Babak Tafti, Max Baker, Quincy Tyler Bernstine--and the projections (Andrew Schneider) and soundscape (Stowe Nelson) effectively and attractively conjure up the idea of being in the woods.

I don't want to say more, since the delight of the play is watching it unfold in small, wonderful moments. It's running until October 9. I highly recommend it. (My colleague Elizabeth Wollman was somewhat less enthused.)

PS. It has the funniest nude scene I've ever witnessed.

Wendy Caster
(second row, tdf tickets)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Same RIver Twice: Art Times Essay

My latest Art Times essay is up:
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that you can never step into the same river twice because the water is ever-flowing—and also you have changed. Nor can great plays be held in place. The recent Young Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn underlined this fascinating fact. (By the way, this essay assumes a familiarity with Streetcar and therefore contains spoilers.)
read more 
Rosemary Harris as Blanche


Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Tony Awards: 1970 to 1974

Some friends and I are working our way through past Tony Award shows, and it's been a surprising journey in many ways. This past week, we watched 1970 through 1974. The Tony gestalt has changed a lot over the years. (If you want to watch some shows yourself, here's a place to start; also, the Tony website is starting to put up some telecasts).

Glynis Johns in A Little Night Music

The most striking difference is that the telecast was not treated as an extended advertisement for then-current Broadway musicals. In fact, many nominees were not represented by scenes at all: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, The Rothschilds, The Me Nobody Knows, Two Gentlement of Verona, Grease, Irene, and Shelter. Yes, some of them had already closed, but many were still running.

In contrast, Applause had numbers on not one, but two Tonys. And the scene from Coco in 1970 included an extensive dialogue scene (with some breathtakingly bad acting by Gale Dixon) and a fashion show and Katharine Hepburn giving her impressive all to singing/massacring "Always Mademoiselle" in a truly unparalleled performance.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Small Mouth Sounds and Men on Boats

Small Mouth Sounds, a play by Bess Wohl currently being restaged at the Signature Theater after an initial run at Ars Nova last year, is sweet and diverting, if not as deft or probing as it seems to want to be. Still, it's fun, and very well-performed. The general thrust: six people, only two of whom know one another, attend a weeklong silent yoga retreat (a seventh cast member, not seen until the curtain call, is the group's instructor, who frequently addresses the retreaters over a particularly unyogic PA system). Despite their silence, which is only occasionally broken over the course of the week, the various participants nevertheless get to know one another (or think they do), make meaningful connections (or fail to), and do their level best to get away from what ails them.

Small Mouth Sounds has been getting raves, and I hate to poison the well, even a little--especially since the cast is so winning and the production so warm. Still, I didn't fall completely in love with the play, the overarching narrative of which sometimes felt a little too easy in some places, and a little forced in others. Don't get me wrong--this isn't a pan, it's more like a 7 out of 10. The play does fine with its depictions: humans are messy and interesting and quirky, and the characters all deliver the goods on that front. Also, one of the play's greatest strengths is how brilliantly it nails contemporary American yoga culture. As a longtime practitioner of yoga (if not of silence), I was frequently tickled by everything from the instructor's softly-intoned, inspirational fables to the outfits Rodney (Babak Tafti) wore--and by his name, even, which was surely a reference to Rodney Yee.

And yet I was a little underwhelmed by some of the play's plot points and thematic conceits. Yes, right, sometimes the most devoted and seemingly spiritually connected people end up having major flaws, and can even turn out to be less enlightened or enlightenable than those who initially seem ridiculously out of place at a spiritual retreat. Yes, sometimes, whether we talk too much or not at all, we can fail to truly hear or understand one another. And yes, conversely, sometimes connections between two people happen instantly and deeply, as if by magic, also regardless of whether words are exchanged at all. Is that all there is?

As an extended acting exercise that has been placed in the hands of a very, very good ensemble, Small Mouth Sounds is better than good. I'm just not sure that the characters' stories, whether spoken or not, fully add up to the sum of their parts.

Sara Krulwich

Monday, July 18, 2016

When Less is More: The 90-Minute Play

My latest essay is up at Art Times:
What accounts for the rise of the intermissionless 90-minute play? A prevalent theory points to the shrinking attention spans of a population inundated 24/7 with news, information, entertainment, and gossip. 

I think this theory relies on knee-jerk conventional wisdom and ignores the huge success of, oh, Hamilton, which runs 2:45; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which also runs 2:45; and 2014’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, The Flick, which runs a quiet and plotless three hours; all three have intermissions.
[read more

Wendy Caster

Sunday, July 17, 2016


It's almost impossible to discuss James Graham's new play Privacy without saying too much. So here's what I will say:

  • Privacy is a frequently entertaining, sometimes horrifying examination of (the lack of) privacy in today's world, as seen from the point of view of someone new to the world of online dating.
  • Daniel Radcliffe's charm and sheer likability carry the play through some dull parts.
  • Privacy would be much improved with 20 minutes or so carved away.
  • The rest of the cast is also pretty wonderful: De'Adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian, Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch, and Reg Rogers.
  • Josie Rourke's direction is well-paced and creative.
All in all, Privacy is a well-disguised lecture that I'm glad I saw.

Wendy Caster
member ticket; 10th row

Sunday, July 10, 2016


Have you ever not completely connected with a show when you first sat through it, only to fall head over heels in love with it in retrospect? It's happened to me on only a few occasions that I can recall. I was amused and entertained by Passing Strange, for example, but not so passionately that I was even remotely prepared to wake up the following morning with the almost physical urge to listen to the cast recording over and over again, thereby cementing my embrace of a show I'd been unsure about in the first place.

I'm back there with Hadestown, a gorgeous, strange theatrical rendering of the 2010 concept album of the same name by Anais Mitchell. The production, running through the end of the month at New York Theatre Workshop, boasts a terrific cast, whose voices are haunting and appropriately weird. The visual aspects of the production are gorgeously rendered, thanks in part to Rachel Chavkin, an innovative director whose current hot status is well-deserved. The backing band is jumping, the music is catchy, and the set and lighting deceptively simple. The numbers alternate between deeply affecting ("Flowers"), amusingly jaunty ("Our Lady of the Underground"), and bone-chillingly prescient ("Why We Built the Wall", which is one of the catchiest songs on the album, and also the ickiest given the current political climate). Still, while I found myself loving the show's many parts, the finished product initially left me cold, since it doesn't try too hard to fill in all the narrative gaps left by the original album.

Joan Marcus

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why Do Spoilers Suck? Because Art Is Always New

My latest essay is up at Art Times. Here's a taste.
A recent cover of Entertainment Weekly achieved a new low in spoilers. It blared out a big, juicy piece of information about a popular TV show. Yes, the episode had already aired, but nowadays, many people watch shows days, weeks, or months later. By waiting, do they waive the right to experience surprise and astonishment?

I get it that EW likes splashy covers; I get it that TV shows like free publicity. But couldn’t EW have announced, “Big, juicy spoilers inside,” instead? Yes, they could have. But, no, they didn’t care to, showing disrespect to the viewers, writers, and performers of this show.  READ MORE

Aladdin and Long Day's Journey Into Night: A Comparison

It's not atypical for me to see more than one play or musical over the course of the week, but it is rare that I see two shows back-to-back that are as different as Long Day's Journey Into Night and Aladdin, both of which I caught two weeks ago.

Or......ARE they so different after all?

Maybe I have too much time on my hands. Maybe I'm procrastinating, just a little, in the week leading up to a much-needed family vacation. Or maybe I've just got too much time on my hands and no real desire to fill it up by thinking about the news of the world. But for whatever reason, the more I think about these productions, the more they end up having more in common than one might assume. Both, for example, have actors and are performed before an audience on a stage in a theater. But wait! There's more!

Long Day has closed, so in lieu of a formal review, I offer you instead a brief comparison of these two Broadway gems:

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

1) Both shows are incredibly strenuous.
I read an interview with Jessica Lange recently during which she noted that she needed an exceptional amount of rest in order to perform the role of Mary Tyrone. No surprise, there: Mary is a meaty, challenging character who is onstage for most of a meaty, challenging (and very long) play, and Broadway shows typically run eight times a week.

The production of Aladdin is half as long, if that, but that doesn't mean it's a walk in the fucking park. Sure, Lange worked hard, but did she even once have to spin up from beneath the stage in a magical, whimsical poof of Disney smoke? Did she have to do cartwheels? No, she did not. You know who does, all the damn time? Tony Award© winner James Monroe Iglehart, who, as the Genie, has been doing that shit nearly every damn day, sometimes twice in a row, for the last two-plus yearsDon't get me started on the wacky dancing he does, or the way he whips up the crowd. Lange is luminous and wonderful and knows how to work a crowd, too, but she would never have been able to pull off what Iglehart does--especially after her second or third trip up to the Tyrones' infamous spare bedroom.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

How'd We Do? Show Showdown Tony Predictions Wrap-Up 2016

Our correct predictions are highlighted.

Best play: The Humans
The Humans
The Humans
The Humans
King Charles III
Best musical: Hamilton
Best revival of a play: A View From the Bridge
A View from the Bridge
A View from the Bridge
A View from the Bridge
The Crucible
Best revival of a musical: The Color Purple
The Color Purple
Fiddler on the Roof
The Color Purple
The Color Purple
Best book of a musical:  Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Best original score: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Leading actor in a play: Frank Langella, The Father
Mark Strong, A View from the Bridge
Mark Strong, A View from the Bridge
Frank Langella, The Father
Mark Strong or Frank Langella
(Liz gets ½ point here, since she guessed two.)
Leading actress in a play: Jessica Lange, Long Day’s Journey into Night
Jessica Lange, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Jessica Lange, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Jessica Lange, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Sophie Okonedo,   
The Crucible
Leading actor in a musical: Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton
Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton
Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton
Leading actress in a musical: Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple
Cynthia Errivo, The Color Purple
Philippa Soo,
Cynthia Errivo, The Color Purple
Cynthia Errivo, The Color Purple
Featured actor in a play: Reed Birney, The Humans
Reed Birney, The Humans
Reed Birney, The Humans
Reed Birney, The Humans
Reed Birney, The Humans
Featured actress in a play: Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans
Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans
Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans
Megan Hilty, Noises Off
Megan Hilty, Noises Off
Featured actor in a musical: Daveed Diggs, Hamilton
Daveed Diggs,        Hamilton
Daveed Diggs,   Hamilton
Christopher Jackson, Hamilton
Daveed Diggs, or Christopher Jackson (Liz gets ½ point here, since she guessed two.)
Featured actress in a musical: Renee Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
Scenic design, play: David Zinn, The Humans
Jan Versweyveld A View from the Bridge
Jan Versweyveld A View from the Bridge
Christopher Oram,
David Zinn, The Humans
Scenic design, musical: David Rockwell, She Loves Me
David Korins,
David Korins,
David Korins,
David Korins,
Costume design, play: Clint Ramos, Eclipsed
Michael Krass, Noises Off
Jane Greenwood, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Jane Greenwood, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Clint Ramos, Eclipsed
Costume design, musical: Paul Tazewell, Hamiltom
Paul Tazewell, Hamilton
Paul Tazewell, Hamilton
Paul Tazewell, Hamilton
Paul Tazewell, Hamilton
Lighting, play: Natasha Katz, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Natasha Katz, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Jan Versweyveld, The Crucible
Jan Versweyveld, A View From the Bridge
Jan Versweyveld, The Crucible
Lighting, musical: Howell Binkley, Hamilton
Howell Binkley, Hamilton
Howell Binkley, Hamilton
Howell Binkley, Hamilton
Howell Binkley, Hamilton
Direction, play: Ivo Van Hove, A View From the Bridge
Ivo Van Hove, A View From the Bridge
Ivo Van Hove, A View From the Bridge
Ivo Van Hove, A View From the Bridge
Ivo Van Hove, A View From the Bridge
Direction, musical: Thomas Kail, Hamilton
Thomas Kail, Hamilton
Thomas Kail, Hamilton
Thomas Kail, Hamilton
Thomas Kail, Hamilton
Choreograpy: Andy Blanken-buehler, Hamilton
Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton
Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton
Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton
Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton
Orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton
Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton
Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton
Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton
Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton
Total correct
20/24 (83%)
16/24 (67%)
18/24 (75%)
17/24 (71%)