Tuesday, February 28, 2023

She's Got Harlem on Her Mind

When Eulalie Spence died in 1981 at age 86, her obituary noted that she was a retired school teacher but didn't mention that she was also an award-winning playwright of the Harlem Renaissance. Unfortunately, Spence only received money for her writing once, when she optioned a screenplay to Paramount Pictures in the early 1930s. Eventually, she gave up on her playwriting. (Spence taught high school elocution, English, and dramatics in New York City from 1927 to 1958; one of her students was Joseph Papp, who cited her as a major influence.)

Déja Denise Green and SJ Hannah in "The Starter"
Photo: Kat duPont Vecchio

Spence wrote comic plays depicting Black people as they were, despite pressure from W.E.B. DuBois to write serious propaganda pieces. She also insisted on writing in dialect, not a popular choice at the time. (For more on Spence, check out "From DuBois To Lupino To Papp, Harlem’s Legendary Eulalie Spence 1894–1981" on the site Harlem World here. My thanks to Harlem World for much of the information above.)

Jazmyn D Boone and Raven Jeannette in "Hot Stuff"
Photo: Kat duPont Vecchio

The Metropolitan Playhouse is presenting a wonderful evening of three of Spence's one-acts through March 12. The plays depict slices of Harlem life, with themes of trust, love, and getting by. They also underline the effect of money, and the lack thereof, in people's lives and relationships. In "The Starter," TJ proposes to Georgia, who immediately asks, "Has yuh got any money, T.J.?" "Hot Stuff" focuses on Fanny, who tirelessly hustles for money by working hard, selling sex, and cheating numbers players out of their winnings. And in "The Hunch," a major numbers win changes two people's lives.

Jazmyn D Boone and Terrell Wheeler in "The Hunch"
Photo: Kat duPont Vecchio

All three plays are funny, energetic, insightful, and well-acted. The solid cast includes Eric Berger, Jazmyn D Boone, Dontonio Demarco, Déja Denise Green, SJ Hannah, Raven Jeannette, Monique Paige, and Terrell Wheeler. The smooth, thoughtful, and smart direction is by Timothy Johnson. Musical numbers--music by Johnson--surround the plays, providing energy, atmosphere, and delight.

She's Got Harlem on Her Mind starts with a bare stage and Vincent Gunn's lovely backdrop. Appropriate and attractive scenery is brought on and off by cast members. Jevyn Nelms's costumes, with an assist from the tdf Costumes Collection, are fabulous. (Would it be churlish of me to suggest that some of the costumes were perhaps inappropriately fabulous/pricy for some of those characters?) The lighting, by Leslie Gray, is particularly good, providing both the appropriate atmosphere and some gorgeous stage pictures.

Photo: Wendy Caster

In a world where theatre has developed the reputation of being too expensive (as, indeed, Broadway is), Metropolitan Playhouse tickets max out at under $32. Three fascinating one-acts, solid acting, beautiful design, intimate seating, reasonably priced tickets--go, already!

Wendy Caster

Becomes a Woman

While Betty Smith is famous today for her novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, her great love was playwrighting; she wrote over 70 one-act and full-length dramas, some of which were performed in various venues and/or published. She only reached Broadway once, co-writing, with George Abbott, the libretto to the musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Pearl Rhein, Emma Pfitzer Price, Gina Daniels
Photo: Todd Cerveris

Smith's fascinating play, Becomes a Woman, is currently receiving its world premiere production at the inestimable Mint Theater Company, downstairs at City Center. In 1931, the play won the $1,000 Avery Hopwood Award from the University of Michigan, where Smith had audited classes and achieved great success as a playwright. She was then invited to study at the Yale Department of Drama. (She was denied degrees from both universities because she had never completed high school.) Scholar Maya Cantu suggests that Becomes a Woman was never produced due to its exploration of "socially transgressive themes." 

Today the play's themes are less socially transgressive but still hard-hitting. Francie Nolan (yes, the same name as the main character in a Tree Grows in Woman, but 19 and not, I think, the same person) works as a song plugger in Kress's Dime Store. Her job has her singing most of the day among the customers. Men hit on her constantly. The come-on of choice is, "By the way, are you doing anything tonight, baby?" She tells them, "Yes I am. And I'm busy every other night this week too. And next week." 

Peterson Townsend, Emma Pfitzer Price
Photo: Todd Cerveris

Francie is afraid of men, a stance that Becomes a Woman sees as reasonable. The root of Francie's fear is her horror at how her father treats her mother. Florry, Francie's more experienced co-worker, is annoyed that Francie keeps turning down dates and makes fun of her whenever possible. 

FRANCIE NOLAN: I'm afraid. 

FLORRY: Afraid of what? You can't be killed secretly in an elevated train or strangled on the sly in the subway. Go places where there's a crowd. Then you won't have to be afraid. But keep out of places like the movies or taxis. 

FRANCIE NOLAN: But they get so nasty if you don't go off alone somewhere with them on a petting party. 

FLORRY: That's right. I once heard of a girl in Jersey who dropped dead because a man spoke two cross words to her. 

FRANCIE NOLAN: You know what I mean. If I ever got into any trouble by going out with a man, my father would kill me. 

FLORRY: I guess you'll live forever then. 

Florry also explains "A girl has to really like a man before she gets intimate with him but a man has to get really intimate with a girl before he likes her. Anybody will tell you that." (In the 21st century, many people still will, but in more vernacular language). Florry and Francie's other coworker, Tessie, recognize that Francie's fear, rather than keeping her safe, actually makes her more vulnerable.

And then, along comes the boss's son, smooth, well-dressed, and charming. He flirts with Francie and doesn't immediately ask her out, which pleases her. But then he comes back and says, "Are you doing anything, tonight, baby?" She's briefly crushed, but then she decides to go out with him that very night. She thinks that because he is suave, cool, and upper class, he is different from other men. He isn't.

In the next two acts, Becomes a Woman goes some predictable places and some surprising ones. It manages to be both old-fashioned and melodramatic and forward-thinking and feminist. As with many of the plays that the Mint presents, Becomes a Woman reminds us that the past was not homogeneous. Nowadays, you will often hear people say, "Well, we didn't know better then," or "People didn't realize that then." But many did, and Becomes a Woman proves it.

The Mint's production is a bit uneven. Director Britt Berke works against the play's naturalism, particularly in the first act which is directed almost as a musical comedy. In the lead role, Emma Pfitzer Price is tentative at first but gets stronger act by act. Gina Daniels, as Tessie, gives the best performance in the show, full of nuance and humanity. Jason O’Connell is lovely as Max, Tessie's boyfriend and the rare decent man in the show. Phillip Taratula, as an agent who offers Francie cabaret work with many strings attached, manages to be both larger-than-life and absolutely real. Duane Boutté, as Kress, Sr, makes some odd character decisions and pulls them all off beautifully. Many of the other performances are mediocre, unfortunately.

Physically, Becomes a Woman is a treat from the second you enter the theatre and see the song-plugging and fake-flower departments of the Kress Store. The set is well-detailed, convincing, and attractive. The other sets, Francie's parents' home and the apartment Francie later occupies, are effective as well. And the set changes are entertaining in themselves, as is often true at the Mint, as you get to see the clever use of space through carousels and folding walls. Vicki R. Davis is the set designer.

Also top-notch are the costumes by Emilee McVey-Lee, the lighting design by M.L. Geiger, the sound and original music by M. Florian Staab, and the props by Chris Fields.

I can't help but think that Betty Smith would have been quite pleased to have a production of this quality done during her lifetime.

Wendy Caster 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Sunday in the Park With George

As made clear in James Lapine's must-read Putting It Together (review here), the development of his and Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George was hectic, odd, and messy. In many ways, the show is too.

Sunday grew out of Lapine's and Sondheim's imaginative responses to Georges Serault's masterpiece, "A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte," and their ideas on the creation of art (spoiler alert: it isn't easy). While most musicals might be seen as equivalent to novels, Sunday is an anthology. The result is sporadically brilliant, often gorgeous, occasionally boring, and sometimes off-putting. Many people love it; many hate it. I'm somewhere in between: I love parts of the show ("Finishing the Hat," "Sunday," "Move On," etc.) and could definitely live without the rest of it.

Photo by David Fuller

I've previously seen different versions of Sunday on Broadway, with full(-ish) orchestras and star casting. Theatre 2020's current uneven production is my first little Sunday. Having loved little versions of Follies and Night Music, I was intrigued to see how little Sunday would work.

First to be considered is the lack of an orchestra. While musical director Michael O'Dell is truly heroic on the sole piano, the other instruments are missed--that's just a given. On the other hand, the actors are unmiked, and that is a complete pleasure.

The show is performed without a conductor. While many piano-only shows are conducted from the bench, O'Dell is more than fully occupied playing the two or three million notes in the score. Considering that Sondheim is famous for producing difficult songs with odd timing, the cast's singing without being conducted is truly impressive. 

Josh Powell, Rae Hillman  
Photo: John Hoffman

Then there are the physical aspects of the show. The Theatre 2020 production is done on a bare stage with the occasional bench brought on and off and projections/video upstage. Projection/video designer Alex Kopnick's work is imaginative and attractive.

The costumes are less successful. While limitations are acceptable in a small production, sloppiness isn't. Dot's bustle is distractingly misshapen; Jules' clothing fits badly, undercutting a character who would likely be immaculate; some items referred to in the score--a hat, a parasol, etc--are simply missing; some costumes are remarkably unbecoming to their wearers. 

The cast and the direction are uneven. Rae Hillman, who plays Dot/Marie, took over the part after the first performance when the original performer fell ill. While she would profit from more prep time and direction (duh), she gives a solid, confident performance. George/George is, unfortunately, out of his depth here. Rather than being intense and art-centered, with an underlying sexiness and tenderness, this George is  petulant and whiny.

Standouts in the rest of the cast include Caryn Hartglass as the Old Lady/Blair Daniels. She makes "Beautiful" a highlight of the show. (She also gets the two of the best costumes.) Albert Neithropp impresses as Soldier/Alex; he is the George understudy, and I would love to see him in the role. And Raffaela Cicchetti (Louise/Photographer and Museum Assistant) is the rare adult who can totally pull off a kid's role without looking like an adult pulling off a kid's role. 

Director David Fuller pushes for too much theatricality in the acting for a small space and the movement lacks a certain polish. 

Sunday in the Park With George is an ambitious choice for a small theatre, and Fuller and O'Dell ultimately give us a decent, occasionally quite-good production.

Wendy Caster

Tuesday, February 07, 2023


Among Václav Havel's extraordinary traits--talent, bravery, more bravery--his compassion is in some ways the most impressive. In his one-act play Audience, Havel's stand-in, Ferdinand Vaněk, works in a brewery, often relegated to tedious, punitive tasks, because he has been forbidden in communist Czechoslovakia to be a playwright, and because he comes from wealth. Vaněk fascinates the Brewmaster, who holds him in endless conversations in which he tries to get Vaněk to drink and questions Vaněk about his previously glamorous life. 

Photo: Jonathan Slaff

BREWMASTER: You must've known all them actresses since you wrote for the theater.  
VANĚK: Of course…  
BREWMASTER: Like that cutie-pie, Bohdalová? 
VANĚK: Yes... 
BREWMASTER: Personally, I mean... Did you know her personally?  
VANĚK: Yes…  
BREWMASTER: Tell you what, why don't you ask her down here for a beer one of these days... Have some fun like... Whadya say? 
VANĚK: Hmmm. 

That "Hmmm" is one of Vaněk's main responses, as he is powerless to just excuse himself and leave. He manages to mostly avoid drinking, but the Brewmaster gets drunker and drunker, repeating himself and becoming increasingly volatile. He asks Vaněk if they are friends and Vaněk of course says they are. Vaněk deals with the Brewmaster as though he himself is a fly and the Brewmaster is a stupid but deadly spider.

Then Brewmaster dangles a carrot, offering Vaněk a job in the warm warehouse rather than the cold cellar where he currently works. Vaněk's actually wanting something from the Brewmaster (other than just getting away from him) changes the balance of the conversation. And still the Brewmaster drinks, becoming more and more dangerous.

Photo: Jonathan Slaff

And here's the thing: Havel lets us see that the Brewmaster is himself a victim--of mediocrity, of ignorance, of lack of opportunity. He holds Vaněk's/Havel's life in his hands, but Havel can still see things from his side and recognize his humanity. That's particularly impressive in a play written so secretly that Havel didn't get to see it performed for 16 years. To me, that's the best sort of writing, not to mention the best kind of being. 

In the La MaMa presentation of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre's version of Audience, translated, directed, and featuring Vít Horejš, and also starring Theresa Linnihan, the two main characters are active puppets and the other people mentioned in the play are seen in small, slightly motorized dioramas. Cameras provide a sense of surveillance and also make it possible to see the small dioramas.

What do the puppets bring to the show? First of all, the puppets are works of art in and of themselves. Also, they open up the play by showing other people and locations. Most importantly, they allow the physicalization of the power differential between the main characters. 

While largely successful, this production ultimately lacks the overwhelming sense of claustrophobic danger inherent in the play. The version I saw at PTP/NYC, for some reason called "Interview" there (click here for review), was terrifying to watch. 

On the other hand, this production does quite well with the absurdity and humor of the play. And the short opening documentary film provides excellent context.

Wendy Caster