Sunday, July 30, 2017

Trust the Author!

My latest essay is up at Art Times:
I walked out on a production of the brilliant comedy Cloud Nine the other night. The problem? The performers were trying too hard to be funny.
I recognize that my last sentence may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn’t the actor’s job in a comedy to be funny? Not always. Not even most of the time.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Pity in History

It is telling that the line from which this play's title comes is "No pity in history." It's the 17th Century, during a civil war in Britain, and of course the war is not remotely civil. A cook has been shot--possibly by "friendly fire"--and is dying noisily, full of kvetching and insight. A mason tries to stay outside the fray, working on tombs in a church, but the fray finds him. The army believes that they are the strongest and will win because God is on their side. The opposing army would describe itself in much the same way.

Jonathan Tindle, Christopher Marshall
Photo: Stan Barough
Pity in History runs a packed 65 minutes, and its depth and breadth are remarkable. It has much to say about war, religion, human nature, and art, and it is wise and frequently funny. The production at PTP/NYC, running through August 5, unfortunately does not do it justice. While there is some excellent acting (in particular, Steven Dykes as the mason and Jonathan Tindle as the cook), and some of the direction (Richard Romagnoli) and design is effective, the dialogue is too frequently unintelligible, particularly when the soldiers speak in unison. Pity in History was initially a radio play, with impressively economical writing, and every word counts. Or would count if we could hear them. I read the script this morning and would say that the PTP/NYC production loses at least 20% of the plot, meaning, and wit. (A friend said that, because there was so much she could not understand, she ended up checking out and barely watching the show.)

Steven Dykes, Matt Ball
Photo: Stan Barouh
I regret that this review is ending up to be so harsh, because the play is truly impressive and parts of the production are excellent, but unintelligibility is the fault that can perhaps most completely derail a play.

Wendy Caster
(4th row, press ticket)

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Just twice in four decades of theatre have I bought the show's script during
intermission, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in 1995 was one of them (Shadowlands by
William Nicholson was the other). The most emotional play in Stoppard's cannon, it
offers a mystery told through two intertwining stories that touch on many topics
before its solution, including academic jockeying, the making of history, landscape
gardening, Byron, Newtonian physics and nonlinear mathematics.


Andrew William Smith (Septimus Hodge), Caitlin Duffy (Thomasina Coverly)

Photo credit: Stan Barouh

PTP/NYC's (Potomac Theatre Project) flawed, but enjoyable, revival of Arcadia captures its comedic intellectualism but not its visceral core. The play's two time frames -1809 and the present - both take place in the same country estate, Sidley Park, inhabited by two sets of characters and occasionally the same props, including a tortoise named Plautus or Lightning, depending on the century. The beginning scenes alternate the two periods until the second act where the separate sections unfold simultaneously on stage. The historical part focuses on Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Duffy), a young aristocratic genius, and her clever and randy tutor, Septimus Hodge (Andrew William Smith), with the modern-day segment featuring two combative researchers, historical book author Hannah Jarvis (Stephanie Janssen) and Bernard Nightingale (Alex Draper), a grandstanding academic seeking scholastic fame.

Between those plot lines, Thomasina's mother, also is transforming her garden from classical to gothic; Ezra Chater (Jonathan Tindle) tries to make a name as a poet while many bed his wife ... including a never-seen but oft-spoken about Lord Byron; and a postgrad researcher, Valentine Coverly, (Jackson Prince) unearths Thomasina's surprisingly modern mathematical scribblings. Describing Arcadia's plot is as difficult as deciphering the play, which twists and turns through time and topics, with each reading and viewing bringing some new understanding. In this production, the scene between Thomasina and her tutor discussing the loss of the great library of Alexandria, for instance, resonated brightly as Septimus matter-of-factly tells his student, who mourns the disappearance of Aeschylus and Sophocles' plays:

"We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language...Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again."

For, ultimately, the unfairness of life's limitations insert a melancholy into Arcadia that characters face mostly with pragmatism and humor.

Stephanie Janssen (Hannah Jarvis), Alex Draper (Bernard Nightingale).

Photo credit: Stan Barouh

Cheryl Faraone's (co-artistic director) direction emphasizes this stoicism and that works well during the 20th century scenes, making the even-tempered Hannah a terrific foil for Bernard. But, in the earlier time, there is a warmth missing between Thomasina and Septimus, and it makes their relationship less intimate and engaging. While Duffy and Smith are capable, neither convey the charisma necessary to enchant. Duffy's Thomasina is also too silly as a girl and her portrayal doesn't change even as the character ages. The simple set (scenic design: Mark Evancho) with its hanging panels looks appropriate for both time periods and the video footage of Thomasina's realized formula showcases the wonder of her genius.

PTP/NYC's 31st repertory season (its 11th consecutive in NYC), runs from July 11 - August 6 in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at The Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16 St.). For more info visit

Friday, July 21, 2017


Tom Stoppard always offers scrumptious meals for the head, but not always for the heart. Arcadia, his brilliant play about literature, history, math, science, gardening, and sex, features his best-ever balance between ideas and emotion. When well done, Arcadia is sheer pleasure start to finish (although audience members have been known to daydream during the math parts). PTP/NYC's current production (running through August 6th) is indeed well done, largely thanks to Cheryl Faraone's smart, clear, well-paced, and compassionate direction.

Arcadia exists in two time frames: the early 19th century and the late 20th. Both take place in the same room in an elegant house in Sidley Park, home to the Coverlys. The earlier period focuses on Thomasina Coverly, 13 years old and a genius, and her tutor Septimus Hodge, a smart and charming man who somehow juggles making a living, writing, and a healthy sex life. This time period features affairs, theorems, brilliance, and heartbreak.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"The World of Broadway Musicals"

I was recently interviewed by the Dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at Baruch College. Here's the resultant clip. Also, here is a nice picture, which I'd combine with the clip if I were even remotely more technically minded than I am.

Friday, July 14, 2017

New York Blackout: 1977

Forty years ago, on July 13, 1977, I was at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, watching Threepenny Opera starring Ellen Greene, Philip Bosco, Caroline Kava, and Tony Azito. I was standing on the side with some friends who were ushers, while my sister Holly and friend Roger were in the audience, bored out of their minds. B.O.R.E.D. (I loved the show but completely understood that Richard Foreman's direction was not for everyone.)

Ellen Greene, Raul Julie
in Threepenny Opera

Ellen Greene was singing "Pirate Jenny."

The lights went out. The amplification went out.

And Greene didn't miss a beat. She filled the large, roofless, dark Delacorte with her amazing voice, bringing shivers and goosebumps to the crowd. When Greene finished, we exploded with applause and cheers. (Years later, I discussed that night with someone who had been in the cast, and she said, "It sounded like World War II had ended.")

The show was stopped. The orchestra played for a while. Some of the performers danced on stage. And then the announcement came: This was a city-wide blackout. They sent us home.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Hello, Dolly!

Don't tell anyone, but until earlier this month, I'd never seen the stage or film version, or even listened to the score, of Hello, Dolly! This is kind of like a Vermeer specialist admitting she's never been to the Frick, a professional chef who's just never gotten around to cooking with rosemary, or a linguist who has a pretty good grasp of every Romance language except French. Oh, the shame! Aside from the titular song, which I've heard plenty because who the hell hasn't, I've never once crossed paths with the show. The current Broadway revival thus appealed to me less because of the allure of Bette Midler (though I'm sure she's swell) than because I could finally stop acting all nonchalant and informed whenever someone mentioned Dolly in conversation. Which, in my circles, happens way more often than you probably think.

Yippee! I've officially seen Hello, Dolly! and guess what? It was downright delightful. No offense to Midler, but I'm glad I got to see Murphy, who's shiny, bright-eyed, cheekbony, and goofy in the titular role. She's clearly enjoying playing to an adoringly receptive crowd (don't forget that she, too, has an ardent fan base and megatons of theatrical street cred). As Dolly, she's being over-the-top, stagy, playful Murphy--not super-serious, Passion-y, buried-deep-in-the-role Murphy. But that's exactly the right choice: the production, while perhaps not as glorious or storied as the long-running 1964 Merrick original, is great fun that no one in the cast takes too seriously, and that no one in the audience should, either. Especially since the plot kind of makes no sense and only gets stupider the more you think about it.

This revival of Hello, Dolly! strikes me as best received for the musical's flaws, not despite them. It's a bubbly, affectionate history lesson: a living reminder of the kind of sturdy, spectacular, joyfully imperfect show that dominated Broadway for decades during the so-called Golden Age, and that was already becoming kind of passe when Dolly first appeared. I say this as someone who favors contemporary musicals: seeing an old-school one, especially one done as well as this one is, can really be something special.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Cost of Living

What is a disability? Does it define a person? What does it mean to care about someone? To care for someone? What is trust? How is it earned?

Sullivan, Williams
Photo: Joan Marcus
These are just some of the questions addressed in Martyna Majok’s flawed but fascinating and touching new play, Cost of Living, playing at the Manhattan Theater Club.

Cost of Living follows two couples. In each case, one has a visible physical disability. And, in each case, the disability remains a focus of the play yet recedes to just one facet of an emotionally complex picture.

Cost of Living utilizes an almost competitive intersectionality. Who is more powerful? John (Gregg Mozgala), a white man who cannot dress or bathe himself but went to Harvard and has money and a well-developed sense of entitlement, or Jess (Jolly Abraham), his caregiver, a physically intact woman of color who went to Princeton but is broke and scared? Both have definite strengths (not always attractive) and both have definite weaknesses (not always visible). Their jousting grows amusing, and they seem to grow close, but can they ever really understand each other?

In the other couple, Ani (Katy Sullivan) is a double amputee who has turned coarse language into an art form. Eddie (Victor Williams), from whom she is separated, is terribly lonely and wants to get back into Ani's life. He offers care, and caring, but Ani is reluctant to trust him, particularly since he is still living with another woman.

Cost of Living is so involving that its flaws don't become apparent until later. The opening monologue is too long. The fact that what follows is a flashback is unclear. A major plot point--a misunderstanding--isn't totally convincing. And there's a coincidence that's hard to buy.

But it's Majok’s character studies that make Cost of Living a must-see, along with the casting of actual disabled people, one of whom is quite good (Mozgala) and one of whom is brilliant (Sullivan). In fact, the show is well worth seeing for Sullivan's performance alone.

The recent trend toward hiring disabled people to play disabled people is fabulous and important, and I hope it's not a passing fad. But real progress will be hiring disabled people to play characters not written as disabled.

And I would gladly see Katy Sullivan in pretty much anything!

Monday, July 03, 2017

Marvin's Room

Marvin's Room lost me quickly. Perhaps it's because I've been dealing with bunches of doctors recently and they've been wonderful, but I found Marvin's 
Room's jokey, stupid physician who can't remember his patient's name and uses his teeth to open a sterile package to be offensive and anything but funny. Even less amusing are jokes about roaches in doctor's offices.

In addition, director Anne Kauffman utilizes pacing appropriate to a funeral, and while Marvin's Room is about death and dying, it's still supposed to be funny. The lethargy hastens the play's death, if not the characters'. Also, she allows Lili Taylor and Janeane Garofalo quiet, internalized performances that are possibly effective from the fifth row but come across as distant and boring from the rear orchestra. Worst of all, Celia Weston's performance seems one-dimensional and artificial, and that's got to be Kauffman's fault; Weston doesn't do one-dimensional and artificial.

The set is distractingly ugly and fails to effectively distinguish indoors from outdoors.

It may be that in the second act, things improve. I don't know. I wasn't there.

Wendy Caster
(highly discounted ticket; rear orchestra, audience left)