Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Waverly Gallery

A friend of mine often uses the expression "pretty little play" to describe a show that's easy to digest, not especially profound or layered, and pretty satisfying nonetheless. The Waverly Gallery is very much a pretty little play--one I confess I probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to see, had my parents not been big enough fans of Nichols and May to have followed both their careers for decades. After they read about Elaine May's depiction of Gladys Green, an elderly gallery owner nearing the end of her life, they asked if I might like to se it with them. I'm a sucker for free theater and, ultimately, for hanging out with my folks. I'm so glad I didn't miss this one--and especially May's performance, which kicks brilliant, glorious, 86-year-old-woman ass up Waverly Place and back down again.

Marc J. Franklin

Directed by Lila Neugebauer and performed by a strong and likeable cast, the Broadway production accepts Lonergan's early piece (it was written in 1999) for what it is: a gentle, unfussy memory play about somebody's gradual loss of it. This production is as straightforward as the play itself: scenes unfold in chronological order; set changes take place behind a scrim on which projections of the city--grainy, black and white, and generic enough to be timeless--drift slowly from one side to the other before dissipating like smoke, accompanied by fittingly melancholy music by Gabriel Kahane. At times, the play is basic enough to feel almost pageant-like: Gladys's grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges) steps forward during a few scene changes to address the audience with direct-address prose about his family, their relationships to one another and to his grandmother, and various other expository points that aren't spelled out in the dialogue.

Still: basic and straightforward are not necessarily bad or amateur, and in this case both work exceptionally well. Lonergan's play doesn't need to dig all that deep to resonate, after all: dementia affects a lot of people, which is why plays, films, tv shows and books about it prevail in popular culture. An awful lot of such stories, in fact, aren't nearly as effective as this comparatively low-key one. The strong acting, of course, helps a lot: Hedges is blunt but never stiff or self-conscious, whether interacting with other characters or during his confessional curtain-speeches, wherein he admits how difficult it is for him to spend time with Gladys, even as he clearly adores her. The same goes for the rest of the cast: Joan Allen and David Cromer play Gladys's daughter and son-in-law; both are believably caring, kind, boneheaded, and impatient with Gladys in equal doses. Michael Cera rounds out the cast as Don, the last artist to display his works at Gladys's small gallery. A kind and well-meaning drifter whose life hasn't worked out especially well, Don is the sole denialist of the bunch in insisting that Gladys's memory lapses are entirely the fault of what he assumes are sub-par hearing aids. His opinions, however, don't get in the way of his loyalty to Gladys or his willingness to help her and her family as she declines.

At the center is Gladys, played downright majestically by May who, much like the production she anchors, never forces anything, even though it would be incredibly easy to. It's so much more typical to play aging, addled characters in bellowing, raging, do-not-go-gentle fashion--or as one-dimensional punchlines. But May's portrayal is solidly dignified, and all the more remarkable since Gladys is a fairly big personality to begin with: she's as endlessly chatty, headstrong, opinionated and irritating as she is bighearted and smart and endearing. Aided with small, gradual changes to her appearance--a graying wig here, an alarmingly roomy dress there--her Gladys starts to diminish in ways that feel no less sad or unfair, but are a whole lot more convincing for the actor's excellent choices: favorite expressions start getting repeated ad-nauseum like so many tics; remembering the right words or finding the house keys becomes harder; recognizing dear friends and close relatives grows frustratingly challenging. May never lets Gladys become a caricature or cruel joke, even as she becomes less coherent or independent.

There may be nothing remarkable about aging, or even about losing your memory as you do. But of course, something as commonplace as decline can still pack a punch. This quiet, lovely production of The Waverly Gallery is all the stronger and more resonant for never once forgetting that. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Art Times: What We Can Do When We Work Together

My latest essay is up at Art Times
I just voted, and I’m a nervous wreck. The sad truth is that no matter who wins, it’s not going to be pretty. We seem to have lost the ability as a country to work together toward a common goal, if indeed we ever had it. 
And that’s one of the many reasons I adore theatre.
[keep reading]

Katharine Hepburn and Constance Collier
in Stage Door

Monday, November 05, 2018

The Thanksgiving Play

I see political correctness as largely a good thing. For me, it connotes trying to honor other people and their needs; calling people by their chosen names; respecting that people with different backgrounds have different experiences; and so on. On the other hand, political correctness can be taken waaay too far. Larissa FastHorse's wonderful new comedy, The Thanksgiving Play, takes place on the other hand.

Greg  Keller,  Jennifer  Bareilles, 
Jeffrey  Bean,  Margo  Seibert
Photo: Joan Marcus
Four people assemble to develop a thanksgiving play for an elementary school. They are to be the writers and the performers. Logan (Jennifer Bareilles) is the director. She works at the school, and the posters on the walls (the witty scenic design is by Wilson Chin) attest to her theatre tastes and values. Her boyfriend, Jaxton, self-righteously humble, is so thrilled to be involved that he is performing without pay. Caden (Jeffrey Bean), a history teacher and playwright wannabe, knows all about the truth of the "real Thanksgiving," which of course was not exactly full of turkeys, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and good will. The fourth writer/performer is Alicia (Margo Seibert), a well-known actress who has been promised a big paycheck. Logan and the others defer to her since she is Native American and therefore her opinions must come first.

Inner Voices 2018

Every couple of years, the theatre company Premieres commissions three sung monologues. The writers are given no limitations in terms of content or theme. The latest three monologues, Inner Voices 2018, display a remarkable range of styles, voices, and content. Two are terrific; the third less so. But all are worth seeing, and it's a unique evening in the theatre.

The first show of the evening, Window Treatment, was my favorite. Farah Alvin plays a kind of sweet stalker who is in love with a man who lives across the way. He doesn't have curtains, and she watches him, lovingly and creepily, with binoculars. She has also followed him in the real world, but has never spoken to him. Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer (words) and Daniel Green (music), the show is stuffed full of psychological insight and humor. Alvin's performance makes the most of her amazing voice, excellent acting, and heartfelt clowning. It's a real treat.

Waiting for Godot

The superb Druid production of Waiting for Godot, which is part of the Lincoln Center White Light festival, is damn close to perfect. Garry Hynes's meticulous direction exquisitely balances the pain and humor of Beckett's heartbreakingly funny play. While the famous review of Godot, saying that "nothing happens...twice," is not untrue, the show is full of emotion and meaning. What exactly it means has been debated, but certain themes seem clear: Life is meaningless and absurd. Most of us nevertheless choose to go on living. Human connection helps.

Aaron Monaghan, Marty Rea
Photo: Richard Termine

Godot hits particularly hard this time around, with the rich bully Pozzo, full of bluster and in desperate need of constant flattery, being a scarily effective stand-in for our 45th president.

Aaron Monaghan as Estragon and Marty Rea as Vladimir combine their wonderful sometimes-subtle, sometimes-broad acting with a physical grace that is a sheer joy to watch. Another gift for the eyes is the gorgeous set (designed by Francis O'Connor), which turns Beckett's tree, stone, and road into a Van Gogh-esque landscape of barren beauty.

Photo: Wendy Caster

Everyone affiliated with the production provides top-notch work, including Rory Nolan as Pozzo, Garrett Lombard as Lucky, and designers James F. Ingalls (lighting) and Gregory Clarke (sound). A special tip of the hat to movement director Nick Winston, whose work deliciously blends clowning and grace.

This production only runs through November 13, which is a pity.

(Aside: in an article in the program, designer O'Connor says that Beckett's specific scenery descriptions turned out to be liberating. He adds, "They made us ask fundamental questions, to investigate those few things he allows and how they interact. We asked, What is 'tree"? What is 'stone'? What is 'road'?" Really? Really?? It seems like laughable nonsense to me, and yet O'Connor's set is a work of art. So, what do I know?)

Wendy Caster
(8th row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 97

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Big Apple Circus

If you have any interest in circuses; if you love the daring young people on the flying trapeze; if you are entertained by amazing juggling or impressed by feats of strength or fascinated by people who can bend their bodies like proverbial pretzels or balance way high in the air, go see the Big Apple Circus!

Photo: Amy Schachter

The Big Apple Circus provides the chills, thrills, laughs, and ooohs and aaaahs of a three-ring circus in one small ring, with a level of intimacy that adds to the fun. The ringmaster, who doesn't actually do much, is the fabulous Stephanie Monseu, with a haircut like Annie Lennox's, a huge smile, and a ton of presence. The clowns (new style clowns, without painted faces) are genuinely funny. The performers are completely amazing. And there's a new act, called Wall Trampoline, which is unlike anything I've ever seen before. No description could do it justice. Just go see it!

I can't guarantee that "a good time will be had by all," but I'd bet on "a good time will be had by at least 99%."

Wendy Caster
(2nd row, press ticket)