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Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Broadway Revival (book review)

I remember learning in my teens that George Gershwin was only 38 when he died. I felt so sorry for him, but also for me. What music died with him? Gershwin had mentioned to a friend that he had a string quartet in his head, but hadn't had time to write it down. Heart-breaking!


Author Laura Frankos shares my sense of loss, as does the lead character of her entertaining novel, Broadway Revival. It is 2070, and David Greenbaum, in mourning for his late husband, starts obsessing about Gershwin. In David's world, the brain tumor that killed Gershwin could  be cured. And, as it happens, David's brother has access to a time machine. What if ... ?

Frankos's alternate history builds on her comprehensive understanding of the time period. The book is a great read, combining wish-fulfillment with smooth story-telling. If you care about Gershwin, or the American songbook, or musical theatre, or time travel, or alternate history, this book has much to offer you.

Wendy Caster

Friday, July 29, 2022

Into the Woods

Sometime right after the 9/11 bombings, I had a nightmare: I was doubled over with laughter in a comedy club, when a plane crashed through the roof. It was a pretty straightforward dream, borne of the sorrow, trauma and anxiety of the moment, but it also drove home how wracked with guilt I felt about missing joy as keenly as I did in the weeks following the attacks. Laughing didn't come easy in a stretch when the whole city was crazy with grief, and displays of mourning became briefly, unsettlingly common. I'd never seen as much public weeping before; I'd never been more aware of how inappropriate joy felt, or how deeply I craved it.  

I'm grateful that no one involved in the giddy, bubbly revival of Into the Woods gave in to guilt, trauma, grief or anxiety, or even the urge to refer in any way to the current state of things. I'm sure the temptation was there: fairytales perpetuate precisely because their broad strokes fit just about any cultural moment with ease, and we're mired in a pretty dark one to which most live productions have chosen at least a passing nod. Also, any musical that deigns to reflect the entirety of human existence, including the whole spectrum of emotions, practically demands at least a few moments of weight. Especially if said musical happens to be by an intensely loved and only recently deceased artist whose genius has been loudly reinforced for over a half-century. If there was ever a time during which Woods might lean into its characters' angsty disappointments, anxieties and heartbreaks, it'd be now. 

Then again, things were pretty bad during the Great Depression, but that didn't stop Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers from having the most delightful time gliding across some tastefully decorated ballroom. What makes this production similarly sublime is that it opts to be loose, broad, frothy and fun without ever cheapening the material. Audiences don't always need to reminded that they're traumatized, disillusioned, and sad. The characters in this production surely are too--they're us, after all--but they're also tough, adaptable, funny and thoroughly unwilling to let life's disappointments, crises, or even unspeakable tragedies get in their way. 

Swiftly, playfully directed by Lear DeBessonet, Into the Woods features a stellar cast of Broadway veterans, relative newcomers and some very endearing puppets. The actors lean almost consistently into life's pleasures: Julia Lester's voracious Little Red Ridinghood is most obvious (and hilarious) in this respect, but Patina Miller's Witch, for all her tsuris, does a bodily undulating dance whenever she hears Rapunzel's voice, and Sara Bareilles' headstrong and breezily independent Baker's Wife makes a lot more sense than she ever did: sure she loves her husband, but why not take a quick roll in the hay with a fatuous Prince (Gavin Creel) while your heart's still beating? 

The whole cast exudes joy and  makes Sondheim's complicated score sound as easy and as miraculous as breathing. I'm sure it helps to have an audience as adoring and as eager to be delighted as the one I saw the show with: just about every number threatened to bring the house down; a couple of entrances and exits did, too. A little girl danced energetically (and impressively quietly) up and down the far aisle through much of act II. I knew how she felt. 

So what if all the puppeteering, joking and lightheartedness results in a breezier, less emotionally impactful--or even clear--second act? I'm not sure exactly what was going on with the Witch's departure, and none of the characters grieve for more than a split second upon learning of the deaths of loved ones. No matter: We all know pretty damned well by this point that people don't always make it out of the woods. I'm certainly willing to trade a few muted moments for a consistent reminder that joy is like oxygen, that it's futile to feel guilt about seeking it out, and that a light touch can be a magical elixir for the weary, traumatized masses. That there can be moments of such unadulterated joy in the midst of so much awful is about as profound a reminder of why we soldier on in the first place. 

Go. Have fun; I hope you leave feeling a little lighter than you did when you walked in.  


Sunday, July 17, 2022

Sex, Grift, and Death

Caryl Churchill is a remarkable playwright. She's smart and funny and political and personal and humane and moving and very very entertaining. Reading her scripts reveals that she is also a great collaborator: for example, for a funeral scene in Here We Go, part of the excellent Sex, Grift, and Death at PTP/NYC, she wrote a bunch of little speeches, unattributed, allowing the director to choose who says them and in what order. (In the fabulous Love and Information, done by NYTW some years ago, Churchill provided only the dialogue--no characters, ages, genders, locations, or situations--for dozens of short pieces.) 

David Barlow, Tara Giordano
Hot Fudge
Photo: Stan Barouh

In another section of the exceptional Here We Go, Churchill provides the mere scaffolding of a play in a way that invites audience members to provide their own storylines and details. The resulting experience becomes extremely personal to each viewer. It is a tour de force of writing that consists of almost no writing. 

Churchill is fortunate to have director Cheryl Faraone as one of the major interpreters of her work in the United States. We in the audience are fortunate as well. Faraone meets Churchill full on, mining her humor and emotion and giving us productions full of texture and clarity, perfectly timed, beautifully acted. 

Danielle Skraastad
Photo: Stan Barouh

There are two Churchill works in Sex, Grift, and Death. The first, Hot Fudge, is a complete pleasure as it depicts a family of grifters whose daughter is discovering that honesty just might be a worthwhile option. Faraone has guided the excellent cast to perfectly calibrated, extremely funny performances. Particularly noteworthy are the fabulous Danielle Skraastad, whose every utterance has the audience hysterical, and Tara Giordano, who anchors the fun in reality. 

The other play, Here We Go, is about illness, dying, and death. It is in three parts; the first and third are discussed above. In the second part, the versatile David Barlow plays a dead man trying to suss out just what death is. It's funny and thought-provoking and amazingly imaginative. It genuinely makes a person think about the meaning of life.

Jackie Sanders, Bill Army
Lunch
Photo: Stan Barouh

There's a third play in Sex, Grift, and Death, called Lunch. Written by Steven Berkoff, it deals with the sex part of the evening's title. A woman sits on a bench near the ocean, seemingly waiting for something/someone. A man appears--is he the one she is waiting for? The rest of the play deals with the answer to that question as they chat and spar and flirt and jockey for position. Their interaction turns sexy, thoughtful, and ugly in turn, and then back again. They are not named in the written script--just Man and Woman--though they are named in the play itself. Are they supposed to represent all men and women? Is the play about the striving of humanity for connection--or just for something to happen? With its occasional references to TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the play clearly has something to say, but it is too wordy for a brief one-act; one would have to read it multiple times to digest what is going on.

Ultimately, Lunch is an interesting and often entertaining show, and it features some impressive writing. But to watch rather than read, it might benefit from some serious pruning. Bill Army and Jackie Sanders are both quite good (although Army could be slower and clearer in his long speeches). 

Overall, Sex, Grift, and Death is a real treat. Welcome back to in-person theatre PTP/NYC. You were missed! 

Wendy Caster

Reverse Transcription

It is difficult to review Reverse Transcription, an evening of plays covering AIDS and covid, as theatre. The first piece, Robert Chesley's Dog Plays, is a story of despair and death written by a despairing and dying playwright. The second, A Variant Strain, written by Johnathan Adler and Jim Petosa as a continuation of the first, brings the AIDS-stricken main character into the days of covid. These plays depict deep pain, grief, and loss, and they are vivid reminders, if any are needed, of the tragedy of AIDS-related and covid-related deaths. I honor the emotions of these plays and I am sorry for everyone's losses.

Johnathan Tindle, James Patrick Nelson
Photo: Stan Barouh

However, and this is the dicey part, watching these plays was a deeply unpleasant, abrasive experience unmitigated by art or insight. The playwrights' anger lashed out at the audience, and I kept thinking, "What the fuck did we ever do to you?" Rather than inviting the audience in, the pieces put up blockades of blame and manipulation. 

Attacking your audience with loud, endless speeches and unremitting rage is not good writing, at least in my opinion. (Though some of the speeches were truly excellent.) How about a little humor? Warmth? Likeability? Look at Angels in America, The Normal Heart, even Boys in the Band. There are genuine people in those plays, not just spewing mouthpieces. It was pretty much impossible to feel involved and sympathetic at Reverse Transcription, except for the brief scene shown above, where the admirable Johnathan Tindle brought a depth and sensitivity otherwise missing in the evening. 

I agree that the shows' creators have the right to produce exactly what they want to produce. I agree that anger is a legitimate topic for theatre. I agree that AIDS was an unimaginably horrible agent of destruction. I think every day of my friends who have been dead half my life and all they have missed. But those plays being in the audience's faces for two hours added nothing to our existence or understanding and, well, cost us those two hours.

I realize as I write this that I was angry watching the plays and am angrier now. Maybe this means that Reverse Transcription was actually successful. I don't know. But I sure don't recommend that you go and see it.

Wendy Caster

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Chains

In Elizabeth Baker's play Chains, currently in a strong production at the admirable Mint Theatre Company, Charley recognizes that he has much to be grateful for. He loves his wife Lily. He has a secure job in a terrible economy. He has a garden and a small but nice home. But his job is tedious and ill-paid; his garden is small with "filthy soil"; and he and Lily have had to take in a border to make ends meet. Still, Charley accepts his situation--albeit crabbily--until the border, Tennant, announces that he is moving to Australia. Friends and neighbors agree that Tennant is a "stupid ass" for giving up a steady job to try his luck on the other side of the world. But Charley too wants to break the invisible but oh-so-real chains that strangle his dreams and the dreams of many working class people.

Laakan McHardy, Jeremy Beck
Photo: Todd Cerveris

Chains was written in 1910, but the story is sadly resonant today. When a character says, "Last week our firm wanted a man to do overtime work, and they don't pay too high a rate—I can tell you. They had five hundred and fifteen applications—five hundred and fifteen! Think of that!" he sounds like many job hunters today. Similarly, the whole idea that workers should be grateful merely to have work, however unfulfilling or awful, remains alive and well. And Charley being called a socialist because he thinks there should be another way to live--that's very 2022 as well. 

Brian Owen, Olivia Gilliatt,  Peterson Townsend 
Photo: Todd Cerveris

As always, the Mint production is first-class all the way. The performers are excellent: Jeremy Beck, Anthony Cochrane, Christopher Gerson, Olivia Gilliatt, Laakan McHardy, Ned Noyes, Brian Owen, Claire Saunders, Peterson Townsend, Amelia White, and Avery Whitted. While I love multicultural casts in general, in this show, I wish the performers had been of one ethnic group/race (not necessarily white). In most Shakespeare plays and many musicals, for example, race is incidental. But in a play about class in 1910, race is not incidental. 

The production values are also, as always, superb: sets, John McDermott (the set changes are great fun); costumes, David Toser; lights, Paul Miller; sound, M. Florian Staab; props, Chris Fields. 

Overall, Chains does well in making vivid the invisible chains of being poor; however, the play takes too long to make its points and could easily have been a more powerful one-act (it was originally a one-act, as it happens, but Baker was convinced to expand it). Baker's The Price of Thomas Scott, done by the Mint a few years ago, was also a bit flabby, but it hit harder and said more. (Review here.) I am intrigued to see Partnership, the third play in the Mints' Meet Miss Baker.

Wendy Caster 

Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber

You have only a couple of days to catch the delightful and odd musical The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber, running at Dixon Place through Sunday May 29th. It's worth the trip.

Eunji Lim, Yura Noh, NamPyo Kim, Kyongsik Won, Ju Yeon Choi .
Photo: Stefan Hagen

Presented by Concrete Temple Theatre, Playfactory Mabangzen, and Yellow Bomb Inc., The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber is a bicultural mash-up of Friedrich Schiller’s play The Robbers and the Korean novel The Story of Hong Gildong. With a cast of actors from both the US and Korea, the show is performed in Korean and English, each supplemented by supertitles in the other language. It takes place in a dystopian setting where two people--the robber and the waitress, natch--choose to break away from the rules and restrictions and act from the heart. For the robber, that takes the form of separating people from their cell phones. For the waitress, it's "kidnapping" senior citizens who are being abused or neglected by their families and providing them with a friendly home. Unsurprisingly, (entertaining) chaos ensues.

While the storyline is a bit wobbly and unfocused, the songs, directions, and performances are good, and the show has a beguiling madcap sweetness. 

One of the show's main strengths is the scenery, designed by Carlo Adinolfi. Made up mostly of cardboard and plywood (I think), it lends the show a sense of fairy tale or cartoon. "Props" are charming drawings of the items on cardboard. Doors resemble the frames of cartoon panels. Combining simplicity, utility, and wit, the scenery gently anchors the show in its own reality.

The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber was written by Renee Philippi, with a score by Lewis Flinn. Philippi directed with Eric Nightengale. The cast includes Carlo Adinolfi, Rolls Andre, Ju Yeon Choi, Hye Young Chyun, Lisa Kitchens, Nam Pyo Kim, Won Kyongsik, Eunji Lim, James A. Pierce III, and Noh Yura. Costumes were designed by Laura Anderson Barbata; the musical directors are Jacob Kerzner and Hee Eun Kim; Quentin Madia is the Production Stage Manager.

Overall, the show is unique and lovely.

Wendy Caster

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

2021-2022 Outer Critics Circle Award Nominations

The 2021-2022 Outer Critics Circle Award Nominations

Outstanding New Broadway Musical
MJ the Musical
Mr. Saturday Night
Mrs. Doubtfire
Paradise Square
Six

Outstanding New Broadway Play
Birthday Candles
Clyde's
Skeleton Crew
The Lehman Trilogy
The Minutes

Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical
Black No More
Harmony
Intimate Apparel
Kimberly Akimbo
Little Girl Blue

Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play
Morning Sun
On Sugarland
Prayer for the French Republic
Sanctuary City
The Chinese Lady

John Gassner Award (presented to a new American play, preferably by a new playwright)
Cullud Wattah by Erika Dickerson-Despenza
English by Sanaz Toossi
Selling Kabul by Sylvia Khoury
Tambo and Bones by Dave Harris
Thoughts of a Colored Man by Keenan Scott II

Outstanding Revival of a Musical (Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Assassins
Caroline, or Change
Company
The Music Man
The Streets of New York

Outstanding Revival of a Play (Broadway or Off-Broadway)
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf
How I Learned to Drive
Take Me Out
A Touch of the Poet
Trouble in Mind

Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Justin Cooley, Kimberly Akimbo
Myles Frost, MJ the Musical
Rob McClure, Mrs. Doubtfire
Jaquel Spivey, A Strange Loop
Chip Zien, Harmony

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Kearstin Piper Brown, Intimate Apparel
Victoria Clark, Kimberly Akimbo
Sharon D Clarke, Caroline, or Change
Carmen Cusack, Flying Over Sunset
Joaquina Kalukango, Paradise Square

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
Quentin Earl Darrington, MJ the Musical
Matt Doyle, Company
Steven Pasquale, Assassins
A.J. Shively, Paradise Square
Will Swenson, Assassins

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Shoshana Bean, Mr. Saturday Night
Jenn Colella, Suffs
Judy Kuhn, Assassins
Patti LuPone, Company
Bonnie Milligan, Kimberly Akimbo

Outstanding Actor in a Play
Patrick J. Adams, Take Me Out
Simon Russell Beale, The Lehman Trilogy
Adam Godley, The Lehman Trilogy
Adrian Lester, The Lehman Trilogy
Sam Rockwell, American Buffalo

Outstanding Actress in a Play
Betsy Aidem, Prayer for the French Republic
Stephanie Berry, On Sugarland
Edie Falco, Morning Sun
LaChanze, Trouble in Mind
Debra Messing, Birthday Candles

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Chuck Cooper, Trouble in Mind
Brandon J. Dirden, Skeleton Crew
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Take Me Out
Michael Oberholtzer, Take Me Out
Austin Pendleton, The Minutes

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Chanté Adams, Skeleton Crew
Uzo Aduba, Clyde's
Francis Benhamou, Prayer for the French Republic
Phylicia Rashad, Skeleton Crew
Nancy Robinette, Prayer for the French Republic

Outstanding Solo Performance
Alex Edelman, Just For Us
Jenn Murray, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing
Arturo Luís Soria, Ni Mi Madre
Kristina Wong, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord

Outstanding Director of a Play
Camille A. Brown, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf
Scott Ellis, Take Me Out
Sam Mendes, The Lehman Trilogy
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Skeleton Crew
Anna D. Shapiro, The Minutes

Outstanding Director of a Musical
Warren Carlyle, Harmony
Moisés Kaufman, Paradise Square
Jessica Stone, Kimberly Akimbo
Christopher Wheeldon, MJ the Musical
Jerry Zaks, Mrs. Doubtfire

Outstanding Choreography
Camille A. Brown, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf
Warren Carlyle, Harmony
Warren Carlyle, The Music Man
Bill T. Jones, Alex Sanchez, Garrett Coleman, and Jason Oremus, Paradise Square
Christopher Wheeldon and Rich + Tone Talauega, MJ the Musical

Outstanding Book of a Musical
Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel, Mr. Saturday Night
Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell, Mrs. Doubtfire
David Lindsay-Abaire, Kimberly Akimbo
Lynn Nottage, Intimate Apparel
Bruce Sussman, Harmony

Outstanding Score
Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen, and Masi Asare, Paradise Square
Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, Mrs. Doubtfire
Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman, Harmony
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, Six
Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire, Kimberly Akimbo

Outstanding Orchestrations
John Clancy, Kimberly Akimbo
David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb, MJ the Musical
Greg Jarrett, Assassins
Jason Howland, Paradise Square
Doug Walter, Harmony

Outstanding Scenic Design (Play or Musical)
Beowulf Boritt, Flying Over Sunset
Es Devlin, The Lehman Trilogy
Scott Pask, American Buffalo
Adam Rigg, The Skin of Our Teeth
David Zinn, The Minutes

Outstanding Costume Design (Play or Musical)
Jane Greenwood, Plaza Suite
Santo Loquasto, The Music Man
Gabriella Slade, Six
Emilio Sosa, Trouble in Mind
Catherine Zuber, Mrs. Doubtfire

Outstanding Lighting Design (Play or Musical)
Jon Clark, The Lehman Trilogy
Natasha Katz, MJ the Musical
Bradley King, Flying Over Sunset
Brian MacDevitt, The Minutes
Jen Schreiver, Lackawanna Blues

Outstanding Sound Design (Play or Musical)
Nick Powell and Dominic Bilkey, The Lehman Trilogy
André Pluess, The Minutes
Ben and Max Ringham, Blindness
Dan Moses Schreier, Harmony
Matt Stine, Assassins

Outstanding Video/Projection Design (Play or Musical)
59 Productions and Benjamin Pearcy, Flying Over Sunset
Stefania Bulbarella and Alex Basco Koch, Space Dogs
Shawn Duan, Letters of Suresh
Luke Halls, The Lehman Trilogy
Jeff Sugg, Mr. Saturday Night

Special Achievement Awards 
Johanna Day, David Morse, Mary-Louise Parker, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson for reprising their outstanding performances in How I Learned to Drive and Lackawanna Blues two decades later. All were eligible in previous seasons.

The Skin of Our Teeth

My review of The Skin of Our Teeth is up at Talkin' Broadway: 


Thornton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize three times: for the novel "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" and for the plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. In distinctly different ways, all three focus on the meaning of life for individuals and for humanity in general. While "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" and Our Town are quiet and subtle creations, The Skin of Our Teeth throbs with energy and noise, bursting out of theatrical conventions, time, and reality.

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