Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Show-Off

There is a unique satisfaction that comes from watching a solid revival of a well-made play from the early or middle 20th century. This is why I have long been a fan of The Mint Theater Company; it is also why I have just become a fan of The Peccadillo Theater Company.

O'Toole, Hudson
Photo: Jeremy Daniel
The Peccadillo's production of George Kelly's odd but effective comedy, The Show-Off, is more than solid. It is wry and real, and it manages to show the play's relevance to today while never betraying its place in the past. Written in 1924, The Show-Off tells the tale of a reasonably functional family that is thrown off-kilter when Amy, the younger daughter, falls in love with Aubrey Piper, a genial, hyper-friendly, lying, manipulative con man. He is not a con man in terms of scamming people in particular ways or using set methods of fraud. Instead, he improvises as he goes, relying heavily on cheerful lies and Amy's besotted gullibility. The rest of her family see right through him, plus they know that he is a clerk rather than the supervisor he claims to be. (He also has a laugh that would cause a hyena to put its paws in its ears.) Amy's mother, father, and sister refrain from criticizing Aubrey, when they can help it; they know that their censure only pushes Amy further into his arms.

The weakness of The Show-Off, at least in this production, is that you have to accept that Amy would be--could be--so blind as not to see Aubrey for who he is. Ian Gould's take on the role, while amusing, is so broad that it makes Amy seem flat-out stupid to love him. But if you're willing to accept the premise that she does, indeed, adore him, then the play works like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

Kelly's excellent writing is fabulously supported by Dan Wackerman's direction and the wonderful acting of, in particular, Annette O'Toole as Amy's humorously frustrated mother Mrs. Fisher and Elise Hudson as Amy's sister Clara, who cannot figure out why her husband doesn't quite love her. (The answer is clear to a modern audience and probably was pretty clear to one in the 1920s as well.)

The design elements are all attractive and effective: scenic and lighting design by Harry Feiner, costume design by Barbara A. Bell, sound design by Quentin Chiappetta, and properties design by Jessica C. Ayala. Particular kudos are due to Paul Huntley for his wonderful wigs, which do not call attention to themselves and completely support the sense that Amy, Clara, and their mother are indeed related to one another.

I had heard of the Peccadillo Theater Company, but since in New York City you can't see everything (hell, you can't even make a dent), I had never caught one of their productions. I will be sure to catch them in the future.

Wendy Caster
(front orchestra, taken by a friend)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Treasurer

There is a certain gravitas that automatically attaches to a play about dementia starring Deanna Dunagan and Peter Friedman and produced at Playwrights Horizons. Because of this gravitas, it can take a while to realize that there is very little there there.

Max Posner's play, as directed by David Cromer, has a certain power as any play about dementia must. Yet it distances itself from truly engaging the audience by having few face-to-face encounters (the play largely consists of phone calls), by using a cold and unattractive set, and by failing to establish the characters' personalities. The two main characters are difficult (her) and controlling and angry (him), and that's as far as it goes. Dunagan and Friedman do much to provide complexity and humanity, but the play limits their ability to draw truly human characters. The other characters barely exist.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Critical Companion to the American Stage Musical

Yes, I know, that does sound like the dryest name for the most boring play, ever, but I'm not discussing a show, here: this is the (admittedly fairly dry) title of my latest book, which was released by Bloomsbury/Methuen late last week, and which you can link to here and also here. For whatever reason, if you order from Bloomsbury directly (the first link), it's cheaper than if you order from Amazon (the second link).

Just so you don't confuse this particular Critical Companion to the American Stage Musical with any others that happen to be floating around out there, the cover, which I think is very nice, looks like this:

While the books title does sound very clinical and foreboding, I can assure you that this is a fairly breezy treatment, at least by academic standards, and that I wrote it with general audiences in mind. It intends to deliver a history of the Broadway musical that touches at various times on the development of the commercial theater industry, the growth of New York City, and various cultural shifts that take place across the country. I worked hard on it, and hope that the finished product is useful, reasonably entertaining, and that there aren't too many errors in it.

I'll be back to regularly scheduled commentary on theater--both musical and otherwise--once the fall season gets rolling and my semester starts chugging along without the fits and starts typical of the early stretch.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

As You Like It

I saw John Doyle's production of As You Like It at the CSC at an early preview, and this isn't a review per se. It's just some thoughts.

  • Yes, some of the performers do play instruments.
  • It's 90 minutes long, sans intermission, with chunks cut out. Doyle always thinks he knows better than geniuses how to present their work. If you don't know the show, you might want to read a synopsis before you go.
  • That being said, it is a pretty enjoyable production.
  • The poster is completely wrong for the production's mood.
  • I loved Doyle's scenic design, except for the parts that got in the performers' way and risked knocking them unconscious.
  • Doyle has Ellen Burstein sit for a really, really long time on an uncomfortable trunk (her feet don't even reach the ground) before she actually says anything, much as he had George Takei in Pacific Overtures sit on a uncomfortable chair (you could see him swaying) for a really, really long time before he said anything. In both cases, it was quite distracting.
  • Burstein has never worked for me in anything other than contemporary pieces. There is something about her voice that is thin, flat, and modern. Her "seven ages of man" speech is unimpressive. On the other hand, she  excels with one liners, dismissive hand gestures, and wry looks.
  • A few of the performers are so busy showing how fast they can speak Shakespeare's language that they forget to be intelligible. It's particularly a problem when their backs are to us, which happens with some regularity. It's not a speed contest, folks. Enunciate!
  • It's always a treat to see Bob Stillman do his thing at the piano.
  • Hannah Cabell should be a star. She is always excellent and quite likable. It turns out that she has a lovely singing voice as well. Cabell makes an amazing and entertaining Rosalind.
  • Yeah, do go see this.
Wendy Caster
(2nd row on the side, behind a couple who kept talking, the female of whom gave me the finger when I shushed her despite the fact she was likely annoying the performers as well as me. Tdf ticket.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Doll's House, Part 2

I'm late to the A Doll's House, Part 2 bandwagon, and I nearly missed it entirely. But a friend saw the show and raved, so I decided to finally check it out.

And, yes, it's as good as everyone says. The plot is simple: Nora returns to get Torvald to legally divorce her. Author Lucas Hnath tells his story with humor and compassion; Sam Gold directs smoothly and smartly. The cast is excellent: Julie White is snappy yet vulnerable as Nora; Stephen McKinley Henderson is a surprisingly human Torvald; Jayne Houdyshell is her usual wonderful self as the maid who brought up Nora (and is quick to point out that she brought up Nora's kids as well); and Erin Wilhelmi is close to perfect as Nora's sweetly passive-aggressive daughter. (My only real complaint is that White's and Wilhelmi's voices both get unpleasantly high-pitched at times.)

And the show gets extra points for multiculti casting.

A Doll's House, Part 2 only runs through Sunday. Catch it if you can!

Wendy Caster
(8th row, audience right, tdf ticket)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

I Am Antigone

At the very start of I Am Antigone, Antigone says to us,
I know what you’re thinking. Not her again. We’ve heard enough out of her. The fact is you’ve heard nothing from me at all. It’s not Antigone again. It’s me, Antigone, for the first time. 
She's got a point!

Nicole Ansari, Logan Pitt
Photo: Wai Wing Lau

In I Am Antigone, playwright Saudamini Siegrist calls on her deep experience as an activist, which includes working for UNICEF for over 20 years. She gives us an Antigone who is rooted both in ancient writing and modern times, painfully aware of the progress that hasn't happened.

There is much talent and intelligence in this production of I Am Antigone. Some of the writing is beautiful, and Nicole Ansari is a strong and convincing Antigone (and she has a truly prodigious memory; the play is largely 90 minutes of her talking). The supporting cast acquits itself well. I particularly look forward to following the work of Logan Pitt, a tall, striking, mesmerizing young man with a beautiful voice.

But this Antigone has a few serious problems. First, it is uneven in tone, to the point of fighting against itself. Director Myriam Cyr often makes inappropriately playful use of the chorus, with cutesy posing and face-making. Her direction of Shahrokh Moshkin Ghalam as Creon, which I assume was okayed by Siegrist, reduces him to an idiotic cartoon, which also reduces him as an antagonist for Antigone. Second, it gets preachy toward the end. All the parallels to current times are clear. We don't need to have them blatantly explained to us. And last, it is just too long, with too much repetition.

I suspect that a pared-down and more subtle version of I Am Antigone could be the hard-hitting, heartfelt piece it aims to be. But it's not there yet.

Wendy Caster
(third row; press ticket)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Mary Jane

The New York Theater Workshop's Mary Jane doesn't open officially until September 25, but I suggest you get your tickets now, before they become unavailable or you have to pay way more when it moves to Broadway. (No, a Broadway transfer has not been announced, but I can't imagine the show won't move.)

Yes, I was quite impressed with Mary Jane. Subtly and smartly written by Amy Herzog, subtly and smartly directed by Anne Kauffman, and subtly and smartly acted by Carrie Coon, Liza Colon-Zayas, Danaya Esperanza (who has an astonishingly beautiful singing voice), Susan Pourfar, and Brenda Wehle, Mary Jane is one of those great evenings in the theater when the whole is larger than the sum of its parts, and its parts are damn good.