Thursday, October 31, 2019

Molly Sweeney

What is a play? There are many definitions, of which this one (from the Merriam-Webster website) is a representative example:
A composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance [emphasis mine]
This is clearly a simple and perhaps simplistic definition; it ignores the many ways that great playwrights have broken the boundaries of theatre. But it's also a good starting place.

I was pondering this definition while watching the Keen Company's revival of Brian Friel's 1994 two-act play, Molly Sweeney. The story of a blind woman who undergoes surgery to partially restore her sight, it consists of alternating monologues by Molly, her husband Frank, and her surgeon Mr. Rice. As the play went on, I just kept wishing they would talk to each other!

The device of alternating monologues can provide conflict by having the characters give differing accounts of what happens; however, Molly, Frank, and Mr. Rice are largely in agreement. It can add dimensions to characters by allowing us to see them through varied points of view; again, there is little disagreement among the three characters. Monologues could also, theoretically, provide suspense by carefully doling out information, but Molly Sweeney telegraphs its aims, meaning, and ending early on.

So we're left with the language and the performances. The language is often lovely, as Friel's language generally is, but there's just too damned much of it. On and on the characters drone, well past the point of having anything to add.

And, in the Keen Company's production, directed by Jonathan Silverstein, the performances are disappointing. Molly (Pamela Sabaugh), Frank (Tommy Schrider), and Mr. Rice (Paul O’Brien) never bloom into characters. In addition, the actors fail to vivify the anecdotes they tell and the people they describe.

Molly Sweeney is not one of Friel's best works but I'm sure it has more to offer than evidenced by this sadly flat production.

Wendy Caster
(third row, press ticket)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Panama Hattie

Panama Hattie, the third show in the York Theatre Company's Cole Porter-a-thon, is a mixed bag that is ultimately great fun.

Simon Jones, Kylie Kuioka, Stephen Bogardus,
Klea Blackhurst, Anita Welch
Photo: Russ Rowland

The positives:

  • Oh, those unmiked voices! I could listen to them forever. Panama Hattie starts with the chorus singing, and those combined, natural, beautiful voices are amazing.
  • Klea Blackhurst is charming and funny in the role that Ethel Merman originated. As soon as she comes on stage, the audience is on her side; she radiates likability. And her voice is wonderful.
  • Kylie Kuioka, who plays the young daughter of the male lead, is having a great time up there. She loves that we love her--eats it right up, in fact. She can deliver a line, her acting is fine, and she's so damn cute. And she knows she's so damn cute, which somehow makes her cuter. And then she sings, and her voice is the icing on the cute cake--lovely!
  • The rest of the cast--Stephen Bogardus, Simon Jones, David Green, Jay Aubrey Jones, Lael Van Keuren, Garen McRoberts, Casey Shuler, Gordon Stanley, Joe Veale, Zuri Washington, and Anita Welch--acquit themselves nicely to wonderfully.
  • There are some cute jokes and a few good songs. 
Gordon Stanley, Casey Shuler, Joe Veale, Zuri
Washington, Jay Aubrey Jones, Lael Van
Keuren, Garen McRoberts, David Green
Photo: Russ Rowland

The negatives:
  • Even in a time period where musical books were silly and thin, Panama Hattie's stands out for its total lack of sense, logic, character building, etc.(which is why I haven't bothered to explain it here).
  • Many of the songs are far from Cole Porter's best (although still worth hearing).
The take-aways:
  • Panama Hattie is a great example of the importance of what the York does in its Mufti series.* First of all, it allows us to see works that wouldn't be done otherwise. 
  • It also reminds us that even the "Golden Age" had its own share of mediocre theatre and that only the best shows have made their way down to us. 
  • Whatever its weaknesses, Panama Hattie is make worth seeing by the top-notch work of the cast, musicians, and director Michael Montel.
  • And, oh, those unmiked voices!
Wendy Caster
(5th row, press ticket)

*Muftis are staged readings, but so much more than that. While the actors are more or less on book, it never gets in the way of the performances. The orchestra is one piano or a piano and one other instrument. Panama Hattie was beautifully accompanied by piano and bass fiddle. Muftis may also have costumes and choreography. Panama Hattie had both. 

Monday, October 28, 2019

Big Apple Circus

Tired of the news? Depressed by the weird meanness of humans? Maybe you need a mini-vacation. Maybe you need to bask in the weird wonder of humans.

Jayson Dominguez and the Wheel of Death
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Big Apple Circus is a cure for what ails us. Over the course of a couple of hours gorgeous humans challenge their gorgeous bodies to do dangerous, bizarre, scary, lovely, and gorgeous things. Such as juggling umbrellas--seriously, gorgeous. Or balancing on one another's bodies in amazingly challenging positions. Or riding a bike across a high wire. Or skipping rope 30 feet in the air. Or taking trapeze to a whole 'nother level--as though regular ole trapeze was not sufficiently thrilling. You get the idea.

Rafael Ferreira and Alan Pagnota
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Big Apple promises that no seats are further than 50 feet from the stage, and we in the audience get to watch each other as well as the performers. It's great fun to glance across a few rows of the audience and see wide-eyed, open-mouthed looks of astonishment--and those are the adults! The kids pretty much radiate joy.

Ringmaster Storm Marrero
Photo: Matthew Murphy

I have to take a moment for my yearly complaint: Big Apple and all circuses need to stop animal acts. Horses were not made to ride in tight circles while someone jumps on them. Period.

Kyle Driggs
Photo: Matthew Murphy

This year, however, I have to add an exception: the Savitsky Cats! They're not lions or tigers, but little ole house cats. With most animal acts, many of us in the audience spend all of our time worrying about the poor creatures and wishing their "trainers" would leave them the heck alone. But anyone who has ever had house cats knows a simple fact: they only do what they want to do. In fact, the best part of the cat act is when the cats refuse to cooperate and give the trainers the well-known feline "eff you" look. It's a hoot. (But, seriously, leave the horses alone!)

A Savitsky cat from America's Got Talent

Big Apple Circus is committed to inclusivity, as reflected in some special performances. The following is from their press release:
  • For one night only (December 5 at 5:30PM) there will be a completely empathetic and immersive experience where audiences will enjoy a three-course dinner and the show--all while wearing a blindfold. The performance is fully guided and audio described, and it will provide the audience with the incredible perspectives afforded only to the blind.
  • Sensory-friendly Autism performances (October 26 and November 1st at 11 am) feature lowered light and sound levels, a complete social story available for download with a descriptive picture book showing the different areas and acts involved with the circus, a professionally staffed “calming center,” and additional support that can be accessed at any point during the show.
  • As part of the Circus for All initiative, eighteen performances throughout the fifteen-week run will offer $10 tickets for every seat in the house to underserved schools and community groups. In addition to the tickets, Big Apple Circus offers a complete study guide highlighting both CORE and STEAM curriculums for the students to learn about science, history, geography, and more first-hand as they experience the Big Apple Circus.
  • Tickets are now on sale at The regular performance schedule is Wednesdays at 11 am and 7 pm; Thursdays at 11 am and 7 pm; Fridays at 11 am 7 pm; Saturdays at 11 am, 3 pm, and 7 pm; and Sundays at 12 pm and 4 pm. As there are schedule variances, please refer to the most up-to-date calendar on the website. 
I hope you get a chance to go.

Wendy Caster
(first row, center, press ticket)

Yes, the circus does bring out the kid in everyone!

Sunday, October 27, 2019


The production of Macbeth at the Classic Stage Company (CSC), directed and designed by John Doyle, is a streamlined affair. It runs 1:40 without an intermission; it has a cast of only nine people; it makes do with a bare wooden thrust stage with movable benches and a plain wooden throne; and the costumes are simple, in dark colors and topped by overlong blankets.

Corey Stoll
Photo: Joan Marcus
I'm not sure who the audience is supposed to be. The production is pretty straightforward, so it would seem to be appropriate for a wide range of audiences, including newbies. However, many of the performers play multiple roles, and it can be difficult to tell who they are, particularly since women sometimes play men, the costumes give little clue as to class or position, and characters who are family members are cast from different races. I don't mean to criticize these decisions per se. I enjoy multicultural casting, and I would gladly live in a world where Mary Beth Peil is king. But the decisions detract rather than add to the play's intelligibility.

Mary Beth Peil
Photo: Joan Marcus
The audience at the performance I attended was full of young people, in their teens and even younger. Some watched attentively; a few fell asleep; some seemed to be daydreaming; and most laughed at any moment that was funny in a familiar and recognizable way. They particularly enjoyed Nadia Bowers as Lady Macbeth (as did I), and I suspect that's because she has the gift of making Shakespearean English sound clear and even contemporary. Bowers also does the evil thing rather deliciously. Overall, however, the show does a disservice to young audiences by obfuscating rather than elucidating the goings-on.

Nadia Bowers
Photo: Joan Marcus
(A strange and distracting problem with this production is the cumbersome blankets that the cast members must schlepp around. They frequently threaten to trip up the performers--and sometimes actually do. At one point, Lady M rises in a pointed and sinuous manner from lying atop Macbeth. It's a fabulous piece of character work, except that the night I saw it, Bowers had to keep kicking away part of a blanket that had caught her foot.)

Of course, Macbeth ultimately relies on the quality of the actor essaying the lead role. Corey Stoll is uneven. Sometimes he is compelling, clear, and even fascinating. Other times, he seems curiously uninvolved. His version of the famous speech after Lady M's death is so off-hand as to be little more than a bunch of words.

Overall, this is not a must-see Macbeth. It's not bad, but it's also not distinct or distinguished. It just kinda is.

Wendy Caster
(third row, audience right, press ticket)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation

Once upon a time, Broadway was full of larger-than-life stars (often women) easily identified by their distinctive voices and mannerisms. Gwen Verdon. Carol Channing. Ethel Merman. Elaine Stritch. Patti Lupone. Mandy Patinkin. Bernadette Peters. They were the stuff of impersonators' and satirists' dreams. In addition, Broadway was more significant to US culture than it is now.

Today's stars are often as talented in their own ways, or even more so, but not larger than life. Kelli O'Hara. Sutton Foster. Ben Platt. Santino Fontana. Katrina Lenk. And they don't have the level of fame the old-timers do/did.

For Gerard Alessandrini, creator of the hilarious Forbidden Broadway series, these changes must have presented a major challenge. In Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation, Alessandrini meets the challenge by taking on Broadway as a living idea, rooted in old ways and growing toward new ones. Yes, he and his excellent cast provide us with fabulous over-the-top versions of Bob Fosse, Gwen Verdon, Bette Midler, Jennifer Holliday, and Bernadette Peters, but they also take on the musicalization of every damn movie ever made, juke box musicals, Irish drama, inclusivity, and "woke-ness." This Forbidden Broadway is, as always, hysterically funny, but it's also surprisingly moving. Alessandrini adores the theatre, and his love is always present, even at his skewering best.

Jenny Lee Stern, Chris Collins-Pisano
Photo: Carol Rosegg

The star of Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation is Jenny Lee Stern. Alessandrini smartly makes sure that all the roles are identified by name ("I'm Amber Gray," "I'm André De Shields"), but this safety net is not needed when Stern is on stage. I particularly loved her Gwen Verdon and Judy Garland, but she was also great playing an old lady in a coma.

The rest of the performers--Immanuel Houston, Chris Collins-Pisano, Aline Mayagoitia, and Joshua Turchin--are solid and funny, and musical director Fred Barton provides verve, pacing, and a structure for the insanity. Also contributing brilliantly are Gerry McIntyre (choreography), Dustin Cross (costumes), and Conor Donnelly (wigs).

Houston, Mayagoitia, Stern (back row)
Collins-Pisano, Turchin (front row)
Photo: Carol Rosegg

I laughed for about 78 minutes of Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation's 80-minute run time. The other two minutes, I actually got a tad ferklempt. Gerard Alessandrini is a gift to the New York stage, and I am so glad to welcome back my old friend Forbidden Broadway.

Wendy Caster
(front "orchestra," press ticket)

Monday, October 21, 2019

All Hallow's Eve

When a set of twins (Eve and Evan) press the wrong doorbell on Halloween, they are forced to fight for their lives against a manipulative, mean, and hungry witch. Can they save themselves? Can they help the creatures whose souls the witch holds captive?

All Hallow's Eve is silly. It should be shorter. The sound is murky. The musical numbers aren't great. But, the puppets! Oh, the puppets! They charm. They frighten. They amuse. They break your heart. Ranging in size from around a foot to maybe 15 feet high, they are all larger than life, yet all somehow real. (To say that a show is jaw-dropping is a cliché, obviously, but my jaw did drop, again and again.)

Tyler Bunch (Pumpkin Man);
Haley Jenkins (Eve);
Jennifer Barnhart (Witch)
Photo: Richard Termine
The bios of the creators, cast, and crew of All Hallow's Eve are, unsurprisingly, full of Avenue Q and Sesame Street credits. It takes the highest levels of skill to produce puppets that are this evocative, convincing, and fascinating. What is more surprising is that the show is Off-Off-Broadway--and inexpensive!. What a great opportunity to see the best of the best without paying an arm and a leg. (It's only running through November 2, so don't delay. For more information, click here.)


FYI, the producers write, "Please know that this production invites the audience to follow our cast on a somewhat immersive experience.  The audience will be required to move throughout our beautiful space.  There will moments where chairs will be available to those who need them.  Please wear comfy clothes and leave your luggage at home." 


  • Book, lyrics, puppet design, and direction: Martin P. Robinson 
  • Music: Paul Rudolph 
  • Choreography: Kaitee Yaeko Tredway
  • Cast: Jennifer Barnhart, Tyler Bunch, Aubrey Clinedinst, Austin Michael Costello, Cedwan Hooks, Haley Jenkins, Kathleen Kim, Marca Leigh, Spencer Lott, Kaitee Yaeko Tredway
  • Scenic design: Christopher Swader and Justin Swader
  • Lighting design: Alex Jainchill


Wendy Caster
(press ticket)

Friday, October 18, 2019


On the surface, Betrayal is about entitled Londoners who meet for fancy lunches, during which they chat about art and literature and the best way to get to Torcello from Venice during summer holidays. They schedule games of squash, exchange niceties about their children and their loveless marriages, and engage in long-term affairs that they eventually throw over for other long-term affairs. On the surface, I do not give much of a rat's ass about people like this, who are hardly unique to London and who have always struck me as occupying a world utterly foreign to me in its material comforts, privileges, and casual amorality. But damn if the current Broadway revival, directed with devastating understatement by Jamie Lloyd, didn't burrow deep into my head. Spare, sparse, and exceedingly restrained in execution, the production gives us characters who have mastered the art of lying to themselves and one another, even as they fail to escape their stasis, disappointment, and sorrow.

Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox.
Photo by Marc Brenner.

Loosely inspired by the seven-year affair Pinter had with the journalist Joan Bakewell during his unhappy marriage to the actress Vivien Merchant, Betrayal follows three characters backward in time, beginning two years after the dissolution of a seven-year tryst between gallerist Emma (Zawe Ashton) and literary agent Jerry (Charlie Cox), and ending just at the very beginning of it. Emma's husband, book publisher Robert (Tom Hiddleston), is Jerry's best friend and a frequent business associate. In a series of scenes that I suspect could easily feel like so many actors' exercises in the wrong hands, Pinter's characters betray one another in myriad ways as they keep up appearances year after year after year.

Pinter's style is pronounced and influential enough to have earned its own adjective; Pinteresque plays reflect the playwright's penchant for, among other things, terse dialogue sliced through with long pauses, lots of repetition, and vague, benign chatter that belies deeper, sometimes menacing subtext--hence, in Betrayal, so much more than lunch and squash and Torcello, even though these are the topics mentioned over and over and over again. On the page, Pinter doesn't offer much more to go on--his stage directions are as sparse as his dialogue--so I can imagine the temptation to fill in all his gaps with lots of actorly business and overwrought delivery in search of the subtext. Segments of dialogue certainly would seem to court some seriously explosive bluster, as when Robert informs Jerry (over lunch, natch) that he occasionally gives Emma "a good bashing" simply because he feels like it,  or when Emma confesses her affair to Robert, or when Jerry learns that Robert has known of the tryst for years, even as he's continued to schedule lunch dates and invite Jerry for games of squash.

But this production holds back in just about every way: the actors all lean into their restraint, even when you'd expect them not to. The stage, outfitted with a huge turntable that moves the company around in space, remains nearly bare, even as the walls close in and then open out again on the characters. And while every scene is a two-hander, the odd actor always remains onstage nonetheless, lurking in partial shadow: memory is selective, after all, and sometimes time and distance can numb the intensity of even the most intense passion, pleasure, or pain; nevertheless, the characters are, even despite physical absences, always deep in one another's heads.

Rather than making the three characters seem even more obtuse and distant, the silence and minimalism work to reveal layers of meaning in the text. The three characters depicted may be as well-practiced in how not to make a scene as they are in knowing how best to travel to a highly exclusive island resort, but they feel a whole lot realer and more nuanced for the choice. They may be worn amoral from lives of privilege, but this production does a beautiful job of demonstrating how they are also world-weary and searching and sad, no matter how sumptuous the lunches or beautiful the views from their exclusive holiday retreats.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter

I bought my first Ben Bagley record, Irving Berlin Revisited, for 69 cents at a flea market in New Jersey a million years ago. Albums those days cost around four dollars, so it was quite a bargain, and it introduced me to Blossom Dearie, Bobby Short, and Bagley's unusual world view (world equaling the American songbook in this case). During his career, Bagley also revisited Oscar Hammerstein, Alan Jay Lerner, Arthur Schwartz, Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill, Rodgers and Hart, and many others. And he featured performers similarly fabulous: Dearie, Short, Ann Hampton Callaway, Margaret Whiting, Barbara Cook, Nell Carter, Chita Rivera, Kaye Ballard, Karen Morrow, and, again, many others. 

Lee Roy Reams, Diane Phelan, Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina
Photo: Ben Strothmann
Bagley also produced revues. One of them, The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter, was perhaps the first to focus on one writer. (According to Wikipedia, Variety wrote that the show "helped pave the way for later Broadway revues like Ain't Misbehavin' and Sophisticated Ladies which surveyed the work of a single composer.")

The wonderful York Theatre Company has revived The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter as part of its Mufti series, and it's a treat. 

Lauren Molina
Photo: Ben Strothmann
I have mixed feelings about revues. They can be overdirected, chirpy, and annoying. Each performer gets many songs to sing, so a mediocre singer can really hurt the evening. Some songwriters' songs start to sound repetitious when surveyed in this way.

The Decline and Fall ... Cole Porter has none of these problems. Pamela Hunt's direction is imaginative and spirited. Eric Svejcar's music direction is similarly lovely, and his piano playing is wonderful. Choreographer Trent Kidd's work, which shows a strong familiarity with old movie musicals, is witty and great fun. And the cast is strong: Lauren Molina (someone cast her in Funny Girl ASAP), charming song-and-dance man Danny Gardner, Diane Phelan, and long-time theatre veteran Lee Roy Reams.

Danny Gardner
Photo: Ben Strothmann
As for experiencing an evening of Cole Porter's work (mostly lesser known songs), I actually came out respecting Porter more than I did going in. In general, I find much of his work one-note. He establishes a joke structure and then works it to death, with no development. But the songs in The Decline and Fall ... Cole Porter cover a wide range of styles, and I liked a lot of them much more than his better known work.

A word about the Muftis: they are staged readings, but so much more than that. While the actors are more or less on book, it never gets in the way of the performances. The orchestra is one piano; I didn't put orchestra in quotes because the amazing pianists provide full-bodied musical accompaniment. 

Diane Phelan
Photo: Ben Strothmann
And the performers are not miked! Listening to superb singers unplugged is a delight and a luxury. (It's also nice that the singers don't have mikes hanging out of their hairlines.)

Lee Roy Reams
Photo: Ben Strothmann
On top of all of this, the shows are inexpensive, and matinees are followed by talkbacks that are unusually entertaining. In brief, sometimes the talkers-back dish. At one talkback years ago, the widow of the composer spoke of how glad she was when the original producer died. At this past Sunday's talkback, Reams told a story about Bagley that was, shall we say, risqué, and damned funny. Reams said that the tale was "not to leave this room," and I will honor his request. (Anyway, I couldn't do it justice.) But you do wish you were there.

The Decline and Fall ... Cole Porter runs through October 20th. Catch it if you can.

Wendy Caster
(fifth row, press ticket)

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Tonya Pinkins' Truth and Reconciliation: Womyn Working it Out!

The cast; Photo by Katie Walenta

While much of Tonya Pinkins' Truth and Reconciliation: Womyn Working it Out, a collective of nine 10-minute plays and songs about women and oppression performed at The Tank (West 36th Street in Manhattan), from Oct. 3 to 6, was overwrought and simplistic, there are searing moments that showcase the cruelty women have faced and the strength required to find healing. 

The best vignettes, "Tierra de las Flores," written by Glory Kadigan and "Law 136" by Carmen Rivera recount historical tales of discrimination. "Tierra" tells the story of two women in Florida, set in the 1800's about 50 years after slaves were freed, and explores their uneasy navigation of class, abuse and vigilantism. 

"Law 136" recalls the covert Puerto Rican "voluntary" sterilization campaign, started in 1937 and funded by the U.S. Government, that by 1968 had operated on one-third of the female population. "The Operation" was marketed as a means of birth control and many underwent the tubal ligation procedure without knowing the irreversible consequences. "Law 136" frames the story around a first-time nurse who struggles between keeping her job and being ethical.

Pinkins--a Tony-Award winning actress (Jelly's Last Jam) and author--produced, directed and appeared in the production, as well as wrote the segment "Till Hell Freezes Over." Examining oppression--how women are both impacted by it and also hurt one another through it--is a worthy topic and Pinkins' take offers a variety of perspectives--from contemporary to historical that look at class, culture, prejudice and more--in one show. And that's admirable, but some of the stories need tightening to truly add to the discussion started by the #MeToo and #TimesUpNow movements. 

Traditional native chant sets an appropriate tone at the production's opening, reminiscent on how traditional history is often told again and again through music, but the subsequent musical interludes that connect the short works often feel amateurish with uneven dancing. The last song about the infamous "C" word, which provokes smiles as the women on stage take back the taboo with a punchy take, ultimately fails because the language is not nimble or provocative enough. This flaw permeates through the piece and removing the mawkishness and periodic overwriting would elevate the entire show as well as its songs. Perhaps in the show's next incarnation, the execution will be more taut and effective.