Arts In LA
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Holler If Ya Hear Me
Palace Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Tonya Pinkins and Christopher Jackson
Photo by Joan Marcus

The advertising copy for Holler If Ya Hear Me proclaims the show as a groundbreaking new musical in the tradition of Show Boat, West Side Story, Hair, and Rent. There is some truth in this hype. This is the first Broadway show to fully employ the rap sound that has been dominating the music industry for two decades. ( In the Heights contains rap elements, but its score is mostly in the conventional Main Stem vein.) Holler uses the music and lyrics of the late Tupac Shakur with very little traditional singing. Almost all of the songs are delivered in the talk-rap style; and Daryl Waters, credited with music supervision, orchestration and arrangements, has done an exemplary job of molding Shakur’s dynamic, gritty anthems of love, rage, and frustration to a theatrical setting.
   Though the form is indeed new—for Broadway that is—Todd Kriedler’s book is as clichéd as a 1930s Warner Bros. flick. The central story of an ex-con attempting to go straight but being drawn back into his criminal past is as old as James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and the Dead End Kids. Instead of a biographical approach, à la Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Kriedler uses Shakur’s oeuvre to tell a fictional, familiar story. John, an aspiring poet and artist, has just been released from prison and wants only to earn enough at the local garage to pay his rent and be left in peace. But his friend Benny has been killed in a drive-by shooting, and Benny’s brother Vertus, an enterprising drug dealer, is being shaken down by a rival gang of young upstarts. (Just like Tony being dragged back into the Jets in West Side Story.) Will John scrap his future and go back to those mean streets? Three guesses as to make happens. It’s hard to care about these characters because the structure is so shopworn and undeveloped. Even the time and setting are vague. The program proclaims them as “Now” and “on My Block, a Midwestern industrial city.”
   Fortunately, director Kenny Leon (who won a Tony for his revival of A Raisin in the Sun) infuses the staging with vitality, and Wayne Cilento provides fresh, explosive choreography. Mike Baldassari’s lighting and Zachary Borovay’s projections provide exciting, concert-like effects and shift the scenes from realism to the fantasy world of John’s lyrics and drawings. John Shivers and David Patridge’s sound design is high in volume but too often gets blurry so the words are incomprehensible, a major drawback in a show celebrating words as a means of expression.
   The cast also adds dimension to Kreidler’s thin creations. Rap artist Saul Williams captures John’s edgy fury, and his musical performances of Shakur’s bombastic lyrics are like volcanic eruptions. Tonya Pinkins gives a new variation on the supportive mother role, and John Earl Jelks is infinitely moving as a brain-damaged street preacher. Saycon Sengbloh finds depth in the long-suffering girlfriend role and gives a lovely rendition of Shakur’s hit “Unconditional Love” with Williams.
   Shakur was a victim of the senseless violence depicted here, and it’s refreshing to see that reality and a segment of America not usually reflected on Broadway. Too bad this Holler is more like a shout we’ve heard before.

June 30, 2014
 
Opened June 19 for an open run. Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, NYC. Mon-Tue 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $59-139. (877) 250-2929.

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Arrivals and Departures
Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

F
or anyone who has ever sat in a theater and been transported to a place where words cannot express his or her feelings, the spell Alan Ayckbourn has woven here will be quite recognizable. At age 75, after nearly four decades of writing plays, with 78 now having been produced, he has managed to create yet another masterpiece.
   An elaborate scheme to trap a supposed terrorist at a railway station is being rehearsed, as two unexpected parties to the event arrive. One is Esme, an expelled army officer (a brilliant Elizabeth Boag), who is there to guard the soon-to-arrive witness Barry (an equally brilliant Kim Wall) who, because of a prior unseen event, is in the best position to identify the suspect. Esme is clearly bearing heavy emotional baggage and does not want to be here; Barry is a wildly idiosyncratic blend of pixie, eccentric, child, and the person at any social gathering from whom everyone will do anything to get away. As Barry continually and unsuccessfully tries to make contact with her, scenes from Esme’s past keep appearing, so we gradually learn what has brought her to her current state. By the close of the first act, she reveals the life-changing secret she has been carrying.
   Then Act 2 begins, and the remarkable Ayckbourn pulls another rabbit out of his seemingly bottomless hat. At first, it appears we’re going to watch Act 1 all over again, word for word, except for one change: Barry and Esme are on opposite sides of the stage from where we last saw them. And then we see why: Just as Esme’s past life seems ready to unfold once again, this time it isn’t Esme’s past but Barry’s that comes out, shifting the entire tenor of the action. The show becomes a balancing act between two hurt and searching souls. And as we move toward a climax, trying to imagine how all this will end, Ayckbourn once again removes the rug from under us, leaving a measure of shatter and uplift at the same time.
   Supporting the two dazzling principals is a peerless Ayckbourn ensemble, seven of whom are also in The Time of My Life, in repertory here with a third evening of two shorter pieces. The author again directs, abetted by flawless set, lighting, and costume design. For those of us who can’t survive without another Ayckbourn to see, A Small Family Business is currently at London’s National Theatre, and a film of Life of Riley recently won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. What more can this man do?

June 18, 2014

Just Jim Dale
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Jim Dale and Jim Dale
Photo by Joan Marcus

At the end of his sleek and entertaining one-man show at Roundabout Theatre Company’s intimate Laura Pels space, Jim Dale sings “I’ve done it all,” and indeed he has. In 90 dazzling minutes, the Tony-winning British performer recounts his unique career from music-hall comic to teen pop crooner to Oscar-nominated songwriter (the lyrics for “Georgy Girl”) to stage star of Broadway and the West End to the voice of the Harry Potter audio books. Directed with verve by Richard Maltby Jr. and accompanied with style by Mark York, Just Jim Dale is a fizzy, funny, and fine recap of a versatile life in this business we call show.
   Still spry at 78, Dale articulates his limbs like rubber bands and manipulates his features into any number of comic masks. He can convincingly transform into a younger version of himself delivering the pratfall that got him cast in a touring revue featuring kid comedians, as well as merrily leading the audience in a nonsensical hit tune he wrote called “Dick-A-Dum-Dum.” There are the expected excerpts from his Broadway shows, including numbers from Me and My Girl (he was taken to see the original version when he was a child and the show convinced him to become a performer) and Barnum. In the latter, after delivering them at full speed, he slows down the rapid-fire patter songs so that Mike Stewart’s intricate lyrics can be understood.
   Dale also displays his nonmusical talents with a fiery performance of the climactic monologue from Noël Coward’s Fumed Oak in which the henpecked hero raises up against the tyrannous, respectable females in his family to declare his independence. We also get the opening speech from Peter Nichols’s Joe Egg, featuring Dale as a besieged high-school teacher, the audience cast as his unruly class.
   But the real highlights of the show take place between the numbers. These are Dale’s sparkling backstage anecdotes, ancient but still-funny music-hall gags, and stories from friends in the biz. My favorites include a re-creation of his first day recording the Harry Potter books, the saga of getting the title song for “Georgy Girl” approved by two mysterious gangster-types associated with the film’s director, and a joke set in a hospital provided by Dale’s pal, actor Frank Langella. Oh, and did I mention the star is magnificent at impressions? He slips into Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier with ease. There’s also an unexpected set piece listing all the words and phrases Shakespeare invented, which is almost as long and varied as Dale’s life on the stage. We’re so lucky he’s sharing it with us.

June 8, 2014
 
June 3–Aug. 10. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $79.

www.roundabouttheatre.org
 

 
2014 Tony Predictions and Preferences
Who will win and who should win (and why should you care)?

by David Sheward

For this year’s Tonys, many of my preferences match my predictions. The biggest possible major upset could be Beautiful: The Carole King Musical snatching the Best Musical prize from A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The awards for Broadway’s best will be handed out on Sunday, June 8, in a star-studded ceremony at Radio City Music Hall. Here are my choices for who will win and who should.

Best Play
Prediction: All the Way

Preference: All the Way
  
Robert Schenkkan’s epic historical drama detailing the first year of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency has already won the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, and New York Drama Critics Circle awards. There really is no competition. Act One and Casa Valentina are non-profit productions at Lincoln Center Theater and Manhattan Theatre Club, so All the Way will go all the way.

Best Musical
Prediction: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Preference: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
   Gentleman’s Guide has won the Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle awards. But there is strong support for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which is a favorite of the road producers, a powerful block of Tony voters. Beautiful has a score of familiar songs from a pop-music icon and tells an uplifting story of female empowerment. Gentleman’s Guide is a dark comedy about death and features intricate Gilbert-and-Sullivan lyrics. Which is more appealing to Mr. and Mrs. Middle-of-the-Road Theatergoer? The voters may award Guide Best Book and Score and even Director, and still give Best Musical to Beautiful. A similar split occurred with Urinetown and Thoroughly Modern Millie, and years later with Jersey Boys and The Drowsy Chaperone. I’m hoping Guide, the far superior show, wins over the feel-good pop fest of Beautiful.

Best Revival of a Play
Prediction: Twelfth Night
Preference: Twelfth Night
   Even though it’s no longer running, the Shakespeare’s Globe production captivated audiences, and there are promises of a return engagement.

Best Revival of a Musical
Prediction: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Preference: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
   There are only two other nominees: Les Misérables and Violet. Neil Patrick Harris’s dynamite performance and Michael Mayer’s spectacular production will push Hedwig over the top.

Best Actor in a Play
Prediction: Bryan Cranston, All the Way
Preference: Bryan Cranston, All the Way
   The Emmy-winning lead of Breaking Bad is so much more than a TV star making his Broadway debut here. It’s a brilliant physical transformation, as well as a stunning portrayal of the larger-than-life LBJ.

Best Actress in a Play
Prediction: Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill Preference: Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
   There are those who quibble that McDonald should be in the musical category because her performance as Billie Holiday features 15 renditions of classic tunes. But that will not prevent voters from honoring her with a record-shattering sixth Tony.

Best Actor in a Musical
Prediction: Neil Patrick Harris, Hedwig and the Angry Inch Preference: Jefferson Mays, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
   These two tied for the Drama Desk Award and it could happen at the Tonys, but the voting body for the DDs is much smaller than that of the Tonys, so a tie is not very likely. NPH will likely triumph: He is onstage constantly and is a big TV star. Mays already has a Tony (for I Am My Own Wife), and no one’s ever heard of him outside of NYC. But his incredibly versatile turn as all eight members of an aristocratic family was truly dazzling.


Best Actress in a Musical
Prediction: Jessie Mueller, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical Preference: Sutton Foster, Violet
   Audra McDonald is in the play category, so the musical leading-lady race is truly wide open. Mueller won the Drama Desk and will probably grab the Tony because road producers will want to give the show as much love as possible. But I preferred Foster’s intense disfigured girl even though Foster already has two Tonys.

Best Featured Actor in a Play
Prediction: Brian J. Smith, The Glass Menagerie
Preference: Mark Rylance, Twelfth Night
   Mark Rylance is a two-time Tony winner, so the voters will probably go for newcomer Brian J. Smith’s endearing Gentleman Caller. But Rylance’s Olivia was convincingly womanly. Possible spoiler: Drama Desk winner Reed Birney as the devious cross-dresser Charlotte in Casa Valentina.

Best Featured Actress in a Play
Prediction: Celia Keenan-Bolger, The Glass Menagerie
Preference: Sophie Okonedo, A Raisin in the Sun
   Both are worthy, but I preferred Okonedo’s searing Ruth in Raisin.

Best Featured Actor in a Musical
Prediction: James Monroe Inglehart, Aladdin
Preference: Nick Cordero, Bullets Over Broadway
   Inglehart’s tour-de-force turn as the Genie in Aladdin will overwhelm Cordero’s deliciously vicious gangster with the soul of a playwright.

Best Featured Actress in a Musical
Prediction: Laura Worsham, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Preference: Linda Emond, Cabaret
   Worsham has a lovely soprano voice, but I preferred her co-star Lisa O’Hare as the waspish temptress in Gentleman’s Guide, but the latter did not even receive a nomination. Of those in the running, Emond was the beating heart of her production. Her Fräulein Schneider was a real woman dealing with impossible choices.

Best Director of a Play
Prediction/Preference: Tim Carroll, Twelfth Night

Best Director of a Musical
Prediction/Preference: Darko Tresnjak, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Best Book and Score of a Musical
Prediction/Preference: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Best Choreography
Prediction/Preference: Warren Carlyle, After Midnight

For the remaining categories, my predictions and preferences are the same.

Best Orchestrations: The Bridges of Madison County

Best Scenic Design:

Play: Act One
Musical: Rocky

Best Costume Design:

Play: Twelfth Night
Musical: Bullets Over Broadway

Best Lighting Design:

Play: Machinal
Musical: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Best Sound Design:

Play: Machinal
Musical: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical


Check back after the ceremony and see how we did.

June 6, 2014
 

 
Cabaret
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54

Reviewed by David Sheward


Michelle Williams, Alan Cumming, and ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus

During “Wilkommen,” the opening number of Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of its 1998 revival of Cabaret at Studio 54, Alan Cumming as the lascivious Emcee points to one of the sluttish chorus girls and tells the audience they danced together in the show in “the last century.” This reference to Cumming’s appearance in the previous production gets a laugh, but it yanks us out of the show’s setting, a sleazy nightclub in pre-Hitler Berlin, and into the realm of commerce and showbiz. Instead being drawn into the world of the show, we’re celebrating Cumming’s ascension to American stardom and the status of this return engagement as a cash cow for Roundabout.
   It takes awhile, but we’re gradually pulled back into a Germany on a giddy, amoral spree just before the thugs take over. The 1998 staging by Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes rethought Harold Prince’s 1966 original, which slowly seduced us into loving the fun and grime of the Kit Kat Klub, a microcosm for the country, and then bringing us up short with Nazi imagery. Marshall and Mendes brought the Third Reich front and center and made us confront it while enjoying the raucousness of the cabaret. This remounting is essentially that same show, which ran for almost six years.

Cumming is as deliciously decadent as ever, but there’s a bit too much of the celebrity winking at the audience here. We can see the actor peeking at us underneath the makeup of white foundation and heavy eye shadow. Michelle Williams makes a delightfully gamine but ultimately narcissistic Sally Bowles. She received a slamming bya a majority of the press for a weak interpretation and less than stellar musical skills. Perhaps she settled into the role by the time I saw it, but she captures Sally’s glittering attraction and insecurity. Also, her lack of song-and-dance polish works for the character, who is supposed to be a rank amateur, unlike Liza Minnelli whose performance in the film version was bafflingly razzle-dazzle. Why would this star be stuck in such a rinky-dink dive? Williams’s Sally belongs there.
   The supporting performances add depth as well. Linda Emond’s Fräulein Schneider is a sage and weary survivor. Her “What Would You Do?” becomes a Brechtian accusation, as her character rationalizes her choice to abandon a marriage to the Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz (an equally sensitive Danny Burstein). She seems to be directly asking the audience if it could possibly follow another path? Gayle Rankin transforms the usually throwaway role of prostitute Fräulein Kost, from a punch line to a complex woman desperately eking out a living with the only means she has. Bill Heck does much with the thankless role of Cliff Bradshaw, the American writer at the center of the narrative. His is the least flashy role; this version eliminates his solo number “Why Should I Wake Up?” but adds the character’s bisexuality, inspired by the original Christopher Isherwood stories, and Heck gives full force to the inherent conflict.
   So, yes, this production inspires déjà vu, but there’s enough new blood to make this Cabaret a “wilkommen” choice.
May 26, 2014

 

April 24–Jan. 4, 2015. Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. 254 W. 54th St., NYC. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 and a half hours, including intermission. $47–162. (212) 719-1300.

www.roundabouttheatre.org
 

 
The Cripple of Inishmaan
Michael Grandage Company at the Cort Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Daniel Radcliffe and Sarah Greene
Photo by Johan Persson

Three is a lucky number for The Cripple of Inishmaan. Not only is this the third production of Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy in New York (seen here in 1998 and 2008) and the first on Broadway, but it’s also Daniel Radcliffe’s third Main Stem appearance following Equus and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Radcliffe has been impressively growing as an actor since his Harry Potter film days, and McDonagh’s farcical tragedy provides the perfect means for Radcliffe’s most intensely felt performance yet.
   He plays Billy, the titular fellow, a deformed outcast stuck on a lonely Irish island whose only means of escaping the cruelty of his fellow citizens—oddballs themselves—is to get to a nearby isle where a Hollywood film crew is shooting a documentary (the plot is inspired by the real-life making of Man of Aran in 1934). As McDonagh slowly reveals, all the residents are a strange combination of vulgarity and kindness. Radcliffe gives Billy a detailed physical and psychological life by contorting his body to convey infirmities and subtly limning the lad’s hidden yearnings beneath a deceptively simple exterior. As it turns out, Billy is just as much a mixture of savagery and compassion as his tormentors are.
   Even more impressive, Billy is not really the star of the play but just one member of McDonagh’s crazy Gaelic crew. The other residents of Inishmaan have equal time and prominence, and the cast, imported from Michael Grandage’s London production, paints in all their varying shades of grey. Sarah Greene is fiery and fierce as the egg-tossing Helen, the red-headed object of Billy’s desire; and Conor MacNeill gets maximum comic mileage out of Helen’s simplistic, telescope-obsessed brother. Pat Shortt hilariously embodies the town gossip. Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie are endearingly daffy as the aunts who care for Billy.
   With the aid of his designers Christopher Oram (sets and costumes) and Paule Constable (lighting), Grandage creates a small, craggy, harsh, but wildly funny world for the Inishmaaners to inhabit.

May 18, 2014
 
April 20–July 20. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48t St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $27–142. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Belasco Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Neil Patrick Harris
Photo by Joan Marcus

Neil Patrick Harris is the new king, queen, or whatever royal personage you choose, of Broadway thanks to his electrifying performance in the title role of this revival of the 1998 cult rock musical. Descending from the upper reaches of the Belasco Theatre, looking resplendently decadent in Arianne Phillips’s trashy-chic duds, Harris starts the evening off with a sleazy bang. As the 95-minute evening progresses, he banishes all thoughts of Doogie and Barney from How I Met Your Mother, the TV roles that made him famous, as he takes on the flamboyant Hedwig, a German transgender wannabe rock star. Combining standup comedy, dramatic intensity, and a hard-rock voice, Harris alternately dazzles and convulses us.
   As in the original staging of this mock concert, the title character is performing a one-night stand while her ex-lover Tommy Gnosis is blasting out a sold-out gig next door. Only now instead of a little club, Hedwig is in a Broadway theater, conveniently available after a musical version of The Hurt Locker closed during intermission—Julian Crouch’s brilliantly funny set incorporates elements of the fictional flop—while Tommy has taken over Times Square. In between Stephen Trask’s blistering songs, Hedwig delivers her bizarre life story of enduring political upheaval in her native country as a “girly boy,” falling in love with an African-American GI, and being mutilated in a botched sex change operation. The second half of the title refers to what is left of Hedwig’s genitals and is the name of her band, lead by her Estonian-Jewish husband Yitzhak (a powerful Lena Hall in another example of cross-gender casting.) The book, by John Cameron Mitchell, who also originated the title role, still stings and has been tweaked with contemporary theater references.

The only problem here is the sheer wattage of Harris’s luminosity and director Michael Mayer’s colossal production. Filling the demands of a Broadway house and the expectations of a Broadway audience, Mayer has transformed the intimate original into a spectacle with explosive lighting effects by Kevin Adams and imaginative projections by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions. Likewise, Harris is giving a magnificent star turn. But Hedwig is not a star, and her one-night concert is not a triumph. She is degraded by her former lover’s abandonment, but she pulls herself together after stripping off her wig and feathers and staggers into the street almost naked. In the original production, Mitchell was heartbreakingly shattered at his final exit. But Harris’s unstoppable Hedwig will no doubt go on to a magnificent career and the cover of Rolling Stone. Though this Hedwig is a rocking good time, it’s as not as effective nor moving as the original.

May 5, 2014
 
April 22–Aug. 17. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., NYC. Wed-Fri 8pm.; Sat 7pm & 10pm, Sun 3pm & 7pm. Running time 95 minutes, no intermission. $47–142. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 
 
Of Mice and Men
Longacre Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


James Franco and Chris O’Dowd
Photo by Richard Phibbs

Okay, we all know that James Franco can do just about anything well—star and direct movies, write novels, act on a soap opera, study Romantic literature in grad school, host the Oscars (well, maybe not that last one so well). Franco can now add Broadway debut to this eclectic list of accomplishments, and he wisely chose not to make it in a flashy star vehicle like, say, Hamlet. Instead, he’s a part of a nearly seamless ensemble in a sterling production of Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s American classic of loneliness during the Great Depression.
   Derived from Steinbeck’s novella, Mice premiered on Broadway in 1937 and its misfit migrant-worker heroes—the clever and compassionate George and his mentally challenged but colossally strong companion Lennie—entered the mythos of popular culture. Not only is the book a staple of middle-school English classes, but the images of the mismatched pair spinning tales of owning their own place and tending to the soft rabbits Lennie loves has permeated into our mindhive thanks to innumerable parodies in comedy sketches and Warner Bros. cartoons. Director Anna D. Shapiro returns this tale of friendship amid economic deprivation to its roots, emphasizing that this is a story of disconnected people seeking a home.

George and Lennie have been cast adrift by the country’s financial ruin but seek to save up enough to buy their own place together. As they settle into a new ranch, it appears they may realize their dream with the cooperation of the elderly Candy, who has saved up a few hundred dollars of compensation money thanks to a disfiguring accident. But when the foreman Curley’s flirtatious wife, who isn’t even named, starts making trouble, their ambitions are dashed.
   All of the other characters are mystified by George and Lennie’s connection—the nasty Curley even hints it may be a gay relationship. What they are is envious of the unlikely pair’s bond. Each of the others is alone. Candy’s only friend is his old dog, who is put down by the other workers for smelling bad. The black stable hand Crooks is ostracized because of his race. Even Curley’s desperate spouse longs for company and is accused of being a tramp because the only people she can talk to at the ranch are men. As Shapiro did with August: Osage County, she mines the misunderstood striving for connection between volatile characters to create theatrical fireworks. She is aided by Todd Rosenthal’s poetic set, which blends specific details with a vast depiction of the empty spaces of California farmland.

Franco gives an understated but convincing account of George and allows the spotlight to shine on his fellow players. Irish actor Chris O’Dowd captures Lennie’s sweet, childlike nature and the savage rage that occasionally emerges; he’s sort of like a cute baby with the strength of the Incredible Hulk. Jim Norton is tragically intense as the forlorn Candy. The blank look on his face as his dog is being executed is shattering. As the resentful Crooks, Ron Cephas Jones is equally adept at conveying his character’s isolation. Leighton Meester of TV’s Gossip Girl as Curley’s wife gives the only shallow performance in this otherwise top-notch cast.

April 20, 2014

April 16–July 27. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 35 minutes, including intermission. $37–137. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
Bullets Over Broadway
St. James Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Photo by Paul Kolnik

It seemed like such a terrific idea: a musical version of Woody Allen’s hilarious 1994 Jazz Age film comedy Bullets Over Broadway, directed and choreographed by the ever-imaginative Susan Stroman, with flavorful songs from the period for the score. But there have been a couple of slips between conception and execution. Rather than an enjoyably zany cartoon along the lines of the original movie or Stroman’s delightfully oofy theatricalization of Mel Brooks’s The Producers—another cinematic gem with a showbiz story—the stage
Bullets is closer to Allen’s disappointing 1996 patchwork musical movie Everyone Says I Love You. In both Woody misfires, individual pieces succeed in tickling the funny bone but fail to fit together into an integrated whole.
   The basic plot, derived from the screenplay by Allen and Douglas McGrath, is still ingenious: the only way struggling dramatist David Shayne can get his play on Broadway is to cast Olive Neal, the talent-free moll of Nick Valenti, the show’s mobster backer, as a brainy psychiatrist. During rehearsals, David discovers Olive’s brutish bodyguard Cheech is a masterful instinctive playwright and allows him to surreptitiously improve the script.

The big problem with this musical is that score of standards from the 1920s. Rather than commission original songs that would have flowed into Allen’s libretto, melodies such as “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” and “A New Day Dawning” are shoehorned in, stopping the action cold and offering generic expressions of character such as “I’m happy now” or “Things seem to be improving.” There are a few additional new, situation-specific lyrics by music supervisor Glen Kelly, but they go don’t far enough to redress this near-fatal flaw.
   To compound the musical oddness, the song choices don’t always fit the characters. It just sounds weird rather than funny to have the upper-crust leading lady Helen Sinclair break into a Bessie Smith number, “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle,” or Nick the gangster-moneyman wrap up the whole crazy proceedings with the novelty number “Yes We Have No Bananas.” (Strangely, even Allen’s way with a one-liner fails him, and half the spoken gags fall flat.) One of the few numbers that works is Cole Porter’s deliciously risqué “Let’s Misbehave,” delivered by the screechy-voiced Olive and the play’s overweight leading man Warner Purcell, thanks to Stroman’s clever choreography and performer Brooks Ashmanskas who manages to make a three-dimensional person out of a walking sight joke with his droll performance.

Another spot-on sequence is a dynamite tap number danced by a blistering Nick Cordero as Cheech and a chorus of pinstriped thugs. Like Ashmanskas, Cordero is solid in his characterization, as is Zach Braff as the put-upon playwright, exhibiting an attractive singing voice (which he sometimes demonstrated on his TV series Scrubs) and a light comic touch. He wisely avoids imitating Allen in this obvious Woody-surrogate role.
   The rest of the ensemble is wildly uneven. Marin Mazzie’s Helen is over-the-top even for this outrageous alcoholic and sex addict. Helene York’s Olive is one-note. As David’s fiancée Ellen, Betsy Wolfe puts over her two big numbers with punch, but the character is lifeless when she isn’t singing. Likewise, the sparkling Karen Ziemba is wasted in the throwaway role of the dog-loving ingénue. Vincent Pastore is asked only to repeat Sopranos shtick as Nick, and Lenny Wolpe does what he can with the stereotypic producer.
   At least we have William Ivey Long’s dazzling costumes and Santo Loquasto’s intricate sets to distract us from the jumbled script, which even the inventive Stroman can’t salvage.

April 18, 2014

Opened April 10 for an open run. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 35 minutes, including intermission. $52–147. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
A Raisin in the Sun
Ethel Barrymore Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

When it was first announced that Denzel Washington would be headlining a revival of A Raisin in the Sun, I was skeptical. The classic 1959 Lorraine Hansberry drama of a Chicago family fighting poverty and racism had been revived not too long ago with rap musician-actor Sean Combs in the lead under the same director, Kenny Leon. In addition, Washington, at 59, was 20 years older than the role of Walter Lee Younger as written, and the glamorous Diahann Carroll was set to play Lena, Walter’s no-nonsense mother. It appeared the producers were more interested in star casting than in finding the most appropriate actors for the leads. Then Carroll dropped out to be replaced by the lesser-known but more down-to-earth LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
   Not only does Jackson deliver a warm, glowing performance as the loving, sometimes domineering matriarch of the Younger family, and Washington prove that he can surmount the age gap between himself and his character, but Leon conveys startling new insights more than justifying another look at Raisin. In Leon’s previous production, Combs was not equal to his co-stars Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald; here all the performers are at the same high level.
   It’s clear this a new, vital take on a classic even before the show starts. We hear the voice of Hansberry in a radio interview with Studs Terkel, stating that the American stage shouldn’t be confined to six blocks in Manhattan and calling for a national theater. (Fifty-five years later, her plea is still largely unheeded.) The lights come up on Sophie Okonedo as Ruth, Walter’s exhausted wife, standing behind a scrim center stage in designer Mark Thompson’s enclosed box of a set. An alarm clock pierces the silence, the scrim rises, and another day of drudgery has begun. The household slowly wakes, and Hansberry brilliantly depicts the tension among them through gritty monetary details. The couple’s young son needs 50 cents for school. Walter Lee needs a dollar for carfare. By emphasizing these details and placing the Youngers in such a small, dark space as their home, Leon creates a heartbreaking picture of the family trapped by economic pressure and driven to despair, a condition not unfamiliar to Americans of all races in 2014.
   At the performance attended, Washington’s entrance was greeted with whoops of approval, but this is no movie star turn. Thwarted by prejudice, Walter longs to escape his menial job as a chauffeur and invest the family’s anticipated insurance funds in a liquor store. When he starred in August Wilson’s Fences, Washington lacked the dramatic weight to convince as the bitter ex-baseball player Troy Maxson, and his charm worked against him. Here his boyish energy is used to convey Walter’s gnawing frustration and immaturity. He paces the cramped apartment like a young tiger trapped in a cage. The character’s age has been raised to 40, and he is totally convincing as a man forced to play a boy’s role not only by white society but also by his steel-willed mother.
   As mentioned, Jackson is perfect as the iron-fisted-velvet-gloved Lena, sweetly maternal, yet authoritative. You can see it’s hard for her to relinquish control of the family. In the play’s final moments, she cedes power to her son and lets him confront the bigoted representative of the white community the Youngers plan to move to, and a mix of emotions and memories plays across her face.
   The rest of the ensemble is expertly balanced so that Washington and Jackson do not dominate. Okonedo captures Ruth’s weary striving and yearning for a home where she doesn’t have to brave roaches or share the bathroom with the rest of the building. Anika Noni Rose is an electric wire as the impulsive, idealistic, college-age sister Beneatha. Sean Patrick Thomas and Jason Dirden are equally intense are her two very different suitors, a Nigerian exchange student and a nouveau riche snob. Stephen McKinley Henderson has a blazing cameo as Walter’s business partner, eloquently recounting how both have been scammed. David Cromer handily avoids stereotype as the white visitor, creating a frightening real, dangerously banal portrait of American racism. But Hansberry’s play goes far beyond this one issue and is not a simple political tract. Leon’s new production illuminates all the aspects of this complex work, giving us a blazing Sun.

April 12, 2014

I Remember Mama
Transport Group Theatre Company at the Gym at Judson [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Entering the Gym at Judson for Transport Group’s revival of I Remember Mama, John Van Druten’s nostalgic 1944 play about a Norwegian immigrant family in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, feels like walking into a church rummage sale. Set designer Dane Laffrey has arranged 10 antique tables, each covered with separate collections of items from a bygone era—such as paperback classics, typewriters, handkerchiefs, silverware, and black-and-white photographs. Then Barbara Barrie, a veteran actor in her 80s, enters, sits down at the table full of typewriters, and, as the narrator Katrin, summons up the figures from the play, enacted by nine other women, each with decades of experience on the stage.
   Previous Transport Group productions have made equally ingenious uses of space. The Boys in the Band placed the audience in an actual apartment for a raucous birthday party. Hello Again was set in a mysterious nightclub. See Rock City had everyone in folding beach chairs in a vast open environment for its examination of tourist spots. Here, director Jack Cummings III’s concept is just as imaginative and stunning in its simplicity. The setting is like an attic full of memory-evoking curios where the actors seemingly conjure up the fragments of the Andersons’s past.
   The episodic nature of Van Druten’s script, based on Kathryn Forbes’s fictionalized memoir and later made into a hit movie and TV series and a short-lived musical, lends itself to this scrapbook-style approach. Starting with the family’s Saturday night ritual of counting out Papa’s meager wages, we go from incident to incident, led by Barrie, a writer composing a story not unlike Forbes’s. Barrie delivers her monologues as if she were searching her character’s mind to find the threads of the past and weave them into her novel.

The all-female cast effortlessly shrugs off its years and becomes teenagers, children, boys, men, and meddling aunts. Barrie miraculously shifts between the mature writer and the self-dramatizing adolescent version of Katrin. Barbara Andres exudes maternal warmth and wisdom as the resourceful and loving Mama of the title. Despite her diminutive stature, Lynn Cohen convincingly transforms herself into the domineering Uncle Chris of whom the entire family is frightened. She also makes for an elegantly shabby Mr. Hyde, a grandiose but lovable con-man boarder.
   I also loved Phyllis Somerville’s cuddly little sister, Rita Gardner’s jittery Aunt Trina, Heather MacRae’s placid Mr. Thorkelson, and Dale Soules’s steady Papa. Along with Susan Lehman, Louise Sorel, and Alice Canon, they create a memorable memory play.

April 9, 2014
 
Tales From Red Vienna

Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of David Grimm’s Tales From Red Vienna, a so-so drama set in the early 20th century with heavy references to previous plays, gave me a touch of déjà vu. Earlier this season, MTC presented Sharr White’s The Snow Geese, a so-so drama set in the early 20th century with heavy references to previous plays. Snow Geese took place in upstate New York during World War I and contained echoes of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Ibsen’s The Wild Duck—with some of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard thrown in. Tales takes place in Vienna not long after World War I and contains echoes of O’Neill’s Anna Christie and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Fortunately, Tales contains three stellar performances by the leading actresses; rhythmic, dance-like direction by Kate Whoriskey; and gorgeous period sets by John Lee Beatty and costumes by Anita Yavich.
   In addition to the previously mentioned references are influences of Arthur Schnitzler’s sly sexual comedies such as La Ronde. Helena Altman, a war widow, is forced to sell her body to pay the rent. One of her clients, Hungarian journalist Bela Hoyos, is also the lover of her best friend, the ditzy, deposed countess Mutzi von Fessendorf. When Mutzi asks Helena to pretend to court Bela to cover up her own affair with him, naturally the fake tryst becomes a real one. The political climate of post-Empire Austria is evoked through the crumbling status of these former elites, as well as through acidic commentary by Helena’s sage housekeeper Edda and the anti-Semitic taunts suffered by Jewish delivery boy Rudy. Through a bizarre plot twist, Helena’s secret is exposed and she must defend her scandalous life choices, not unlike Ibsen’s Nora or O’Neill’s Anna. But these heavily imposed incidents seem like the playwright talking to us rather than the characters living their lives.
   Nina Arianda, whose sexual intensity in Venus in Fur won her a Tony Award, is equally blazing here. But now she is a real woman rather than the embodiment of sensuality in the former play, which also had an MTC production. The reliable Kathleen Chalfant offers a sharp Edda, and Tina Benko is delightfully featherheaded as the shallow Mutzi. These ladies go far to make this Viennese waltz passably entertaining, but they do not make up for the familiarity of the tune.

April 4, 2014

Les Misérables
Imperial Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Ramin Karimloo
Photo by Matthew Murphy

When I mentioned to my partner I was reviewing Les Misérables, he asked, “Why? Did it ever close?” He was under the impression the popular blockbuster based on Victor Hugo’s gargantuan novel of redemption in 19th-century France had been on Broadway continuously since it first opened there in 1987. That’s easy to understand. Only three years after that initial production closed down in 2003, another opened and ran for more than a year. Then Tim Hooper’s 2012 movie version was released and, thanks to endless renditions of several of the songs on such TV shows as Glee, The Voice, and American Idol, the show has never long been out of public consciousness.
   Now yet another version, a touring one originating in 2010, has found its way onto Broadway, and the undeniable strength of Hugo’s story and the rich score by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, and Herbert Kretzmer still have the power to hold and move an audience for three hours. Recast with Broadway and London A-listers, this Les Miz is definitely worth a look, whether you’re a newcomer to the show or a veteran. Directed like a locomotive by Laurence Connor and James Powell, it lacks the massive feel of the original with its huge turntable, but it achieves a grittier intimacy via Matt Kinley’s lived-in set and atmospheric projection design (the latter “realized” by Fifty-Nine Productions), inspired by Hugo’s paintings. Paule Constable’s lighting manages to convey the gloom of the downtrodden denizens without becoming too shadowy.

The two male leads provide the emotional and vocal engine to this enterprise, giving the familiar cat-and-mouse conflict between the virtuous ex-convict Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert a fresh supply of adrenaline and testosterone. Ramin Karimloo, an Iranian-born Canadian who has played the Phantom of the Opera and several Les Miz roles in London, endows Valjean with blood, sweat, tears, and a soaring voice. He starts off strong with his wronged hero snarling and biting like a feral dog and then, after the character is shown kindness by a priest, transforming into an angelic savior in movement and tone. Will Swenson as Javert reveals a steely spine unseen in his previous Broadway outings as the feckless heroes of Hair and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
   Caissie Levy and Nikki M. James are heartbreaking as the equally tragic Fantine and Eponine, while Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle provide much-needed comic relief as the avaricious Thenardiers. (Settle’s stunned reaction to a luscious wedding cake is one of the highlights of the show.) Andy Mientus and Samantha Hill are somewhat colorless as the lovers Marius and Cosette, as is Kyle Scatliffe as the student revolutionary Enjorlas. But Gaten Matarazzo makes the street urchin Gavroche a believable rascally kid as opposed to the obnoxious showoff we usually get.

The only major problem with this tough, intense revival is the tendency to American Idol-ize the solos with loud, prolonged “money notes.” The classic tale of faith triumphing over injustice does not require this pandering to the crowd. It’s not a competition.

March 24, 2014

Opened March 23 for an open run. Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. $57–139. (800) 432-7250.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
A Doll’s House
Brooklyn Academy of Music [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal


Hattie Morahan and Dominic Rowan
Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Before a German duke from the small town of Saxe Meiningen established his own acting company in the mid-19th century, the importance of the role of the director was barely recognized. But with the current New York theater season graced by the dazzling rethinking of The Glass Menagerie and Twelfth Night, and now by the arrival of the London Young Vic’s gift of A Doll’s House, even a theater neophyte can appreciate how a directorial imagination—in this case that of Carrie Cracknell—can thoroughly transform a classic into something fresh, invigorating, and altogether new.
   The moment one enters the Harvey Theater at Brooklyn Academy of Music, it is clear we are about to experience that Doll’s House in a different light. A living room sits diagonally across the front of the stage, leaving space behind and on either side. As the lights dim, a mix of classical and melodramatic music accompanies the revolving of the set to reveal, first, husband Torvald (Dominic Rowan) working in his office, then wife Nora (Hattie Morahan) and her two children and a deliveryman carrying a selection of Christmas presents.
   In a pantomimed sequence, Nora tips the man and instructs the children to hide any indication of the booty from their father. Thus, before an audible word has been spoken, we have seen Nora’s childlike and spendthrift ways, and the sense of isolation and secretiveness that will play a major role in the unfolding of the play’s central relationship. The other two areas of the set reveal the parents’ bedroom, usually never seen, where two key scenes later occur, and the living room, which is usually the only room we do see. The revolving stage is a steady motif of the production, which not only puts us on edge from beginning to end, but also keeps reinforcing the tension and loneliness that have permeated the house for the eight years of the marriage, unrealized by either Nora or Torvald.

What adds to the sense of watching the play as if for the first time is that the cast is English. While we have certainly heard and experienced rough-hewn Britishers, the sound and feel here are not that. The biggest effect of this element is on our perception of Krogstad, traditionally the villain of the piece. As played by Nick Fletcher, he is articulate, clear, and almost upper-class in physical and vocal manner, which humanizes him and makes him a much more sympathetic character than is customary. Especially next to Rowan’s patronizing and aggressive Torvald, Fletcher’s Krogstad is a man whose plight becomes quite understandable.
   The production is filled with images, silences, and genuine pain. Even within the naturalistic confines that Ibsen brought to the theater, this version recalls Harold Pinter. Indeed, at times it feels like a stage production of his screenplay for The Servant. The work also feels noir, with Torvald as the femme fatale predator and Nora as the victim.
   Morahan’s turn here is star-making. From her first appearance, we see the strength and determination that allowed Nora to forge her father’s signature years ago to get the money to save Torvald’s life. Her Nora may have been treated and been behaving like a child throughout her marriage, but this woman has a core and power beyond what we are accustomed to seeing. Together with a stellar group of actors, and that haunting combination of music, set design, and staging, this House, while definitely not a home, is worth a visit.

March 17, 2014


 
Interview

The Queen’s Company Is No Drag
Artistic director Rebecca Patterson helms distaff production of Aphra Behn’s ‘Sir Patient Fancy.’  

by Simi Horwitz


Virginia Baeta and Elisabeth Preston of The Queen’s Company, in costume for Sir Patient Fancy
Photo by Bob Pileggi


NEW YORK—
Rebecca Patterson is not saying her all-female productions shed new light on classical texts, but rather that they reveal what’s already there in a way that most current co-ed productions do not. Patterson is the founder and artistic director of The Queen’s Company, the 14-year-old New York based distaff operation that has mounted such classics as The Taming of the Shrew, School for Scandal, The Duchess of Malfi, and now Aphra Behn’s Restoration comedy Sir Patient Fancy, which will bow March 15, Off-Broadway at the Wild Project.
   “Theatergoers have told me that after seeing one of our plays, they understood it for the first time,” she says. “That’s the best compliment I can get.”
   Exquisite male actors are alive and well—most notably Ian McKellen—she says, but generally, “A female actor has the added edge in evoking the humanity of the classical male character who has a strong and accessible inner life.
   Contemporary women have a lot more in common with the renaissance man than does the contemporary man, who is discouraged from expressing an inner life,” she adds.

Passing and Tackling
   Patterson directs her female actors to “pass” as men if, indeed, they’re tackling male characters. Camp is usually discouraged. The women spend time mastering a man’s body language—posture, gait, and stride—while liberating themselves from a woman’s fear of taking up too much space.
   “Instead of bouncing on their toes and tucking in their elbows, the women allow their arms to swing freely and they learn to walk heel down, heel down,” she explains. “Vocally, there isn’t that much for the women to do in terms of preparation. If they’re playing their characters truthfully and know how to project, they will suggest men vocally as well.”
   Patterson is every bit the feminist—“unapologetically so,” she insists—and happy to give female actors the chance to play more roles, suggesting that relatively few major parts exist for women in the classics. She also acknowledges the impact drag performers have had in stretching gender boundaries and helping to inform her esthetic. Dubbing the troupe “The Queen’s Company” is at least in part a nod to the female impersonator, she admits.

Motherly Reinvention
   Patterson didn’t always have her sights set on a theater career. Indeed, the Vancouver-bred director thought she’d be a marine biologist, before launching a short-lived acting and finally directing career, earning her MFA in directing from UCLA. From the outset, she was drawn to the classics, thanks to the scale and range of the characters’ emotions revealed through intelligent and beautiful language. Not that she planned to forge a classical—let alone all-female classical—theater. But following her distaff production of Macbeth, conceived as an experiment and very well-received, creating The Queen’s Company was the logical next step. It has shared national attention with New York’s The Judith Shakespeare Company, as well as the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company.



   With the help of local and state grant money, Patterson workshops two productions per year and stages one production every two years, featuring a racially and ethnically diverse cast of approximately 10 actors, who play multiple roles. She picks works that speak to her artistic sensibilities and subtly resonate with contemporary concerns. Sir Patient Fancy, for example, explores, among other issues, how money—or the lack thereof—defines family and romantic relationships. That’s a theme that never goes out of date, she points out. “It’s raw, vital, and it’s about people following their hearts, surrounded by people attempting to control them,” she of the play. “I feel that I’m almost stepping into the world of the 1960s when people were reinventing themselves.”

Fancy Pants
   Sir Patient Fancy marks Patterson’s sixth Restoration and fourth Behn play and, like the others, it has added appeal in light of Behn’s striking biography. She was a spy, ended up in debtors prison where she started to write plays, and is acknowledged as the first woman playwright to make her living at it. She was a 17th-century high-powered career gal and, on top of that, her plays are a lot of fun to do. Still, the multiple storylines and, at times, daunting language are challenging. “Unlike Shakespeare that has a definite rhythm and structure, this does not,” Patterson says. “It’s harder for actors to memorize.”
   Down the road, she hopes to revisit The Taming of the Shrew, this time focusing on how Petruchio has evolved and, in the process, made his relationship with Kate more egalitarian. “Nobody should control anybody,” Patterson insists. “They love each other as equals as opposed to swapping roles.”
   Without changing a word of dialogue, Patterson knows she has her work cut out for her. But she welcomes the challenge. She also looks forward to the time when a distaff theater is no longer necessary because gender-blind casting will exist across the board. But that won’t happen anytime soon, she notes with regret.

March 9, 2014

All photographs by Bob Pileggi

Rebecca Patterson

Tiffany Abercrombie and Elisabeth Preston in Sir Patient Fancy

Amy Dreisler and Julia Campanelli in Sir Patient Fancy
 

 
The Bridges of Madison County
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Robert James Waller’s novella The Bridges of Madison County is an icon of low culture, a trashy romance, and a smashing popular success. A bestseller in 1994 and a hit movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in 1996, the property was reviled by most critics as sentimental claptrap but gobbled up by the masses. The story is thin and trite, but does it work as a Broadway musical? Book-writer Marsha Norman has fleshed out what is essentially a two-character piece, and songwriter Jason Robert Brown has composed a lush and memorable score, yet, as written, this is still a Bridge too far. Fortunately, director Barlett Sher has created a fluid and moving production, and Kelli O’Hara brings quivering life and a soaring voice to the cliché-ridden leading role.
   Italian-born Iowa housewife Francesca is bored with her decent but dreary husband, Bud, who rescued her from poverty-stricken Palermo during World War II. While Bud and their two teenagers are off to the state fair for four days, Francesca meets and falls in love with National Geographic photographer Robert not long after he asks her for directions to one of the bridges of the title. After a candlelit dinner, dancing to the radio, jumping in bed, and a clandestine daytrip to Des Moines, they vow to run away together. But Francesca forgoes happiness and sexual ecstasy to stay on the farm and keep her kids on the right path. Isn’t she noble and tragic? Robert keeps a torch for her for decades until his death and he sends her a teary final letter, which she reads as the curtain falls. Isn’t he just as noble and tragic?

To alleviate the ridiculousness of Waller’s story, Norman has created an extended community for Francesca to inhabit. Now instead of just the two lovers canoodling in the kitchen, the entire town and figures from their pasts are hanging around amid the vegetables and silverware. With the aid of Michael Yeargan’s breakaway set and Donald Holder’s shifting lighting, Sher places figures from the couple’s imagination to horn in on their liaison. The effect varies the action but doesn’t contribute much otherwise. We learn that Francesca’s neighbors are a helpful lot when the crops fail, but not much else. Same for Robert’s ex-wife, who shows up to sing a Joni Mitchell–style ballad (beautifully delivered by Whitney Bashor), which doesn’t reveal much information about their relationship.
   O’Hara, a Broadway headliner who has reinvented established roles in South Pacific and The Pajama Game, pours passion, regret, and intensity into Francesca. Her opening number “To Build a Home,” in which she describes the character’s odyssey from war-torn Italy to safe but flat Iowa, becomes a complex and moving aria, supported by Brown’s beautiful violin-rich orchestrations. Steven Pasquale has the necessary silver tenor and hunky physique to portray Richard as her love-object, but he lacks dramatic weight and comes across as a boyish drifter rather than the serious lover for whom Francesca would abandon everything. Cass Morgan does quite a bit with the nosy but caring neighbor Marge, giving a whole life to a throwaway role. She, O’Hara, and Brown make this a Bridge worth crossing, but there’s a toll of excess sentiment you’ll have to pay.

February 28, 2014
 
Dinner With Friends
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

How ironic that this revival of Donald Margulies’s Dinner With Friends opened the day before Valentine’s Day, since it pulls back the veneer of romantic love to reveal the sometimes twisted true nature of marriage. Friendship comes in for a harsh examination, as well, when two couples are forced to re-evaluate their unions and their relationships with each other. Director Pam McKinnon has gone down this path in somewhat more explicit terms with her staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There, Edward Albee’s George and Martha conducted their living-room war with live ammunition. The two pairs in Margulies’s play are subtler in their exchanges—less explosive combat but just as moving.
   While visiting with her best friends Gabe and Karen, Beth reveals that her husband Tom is leaving her for another woman. The hosts automatically side with Karen as the victim, but all is not as it seems. Tom makes his case that Karen has been cold and withholding and their marriage was suffocating him. Then, in a flashback to their first meeting when Gabe and Karen introduced them during a weekend on Martha’s Vineyard, we learn Tom and Beth were incompatible from the beginning. As Beth and Tom seem to be blossoming after their divorce, Gabe and Karen question their own marriage and slowly drift apart from their formerly close friends.
   Nothing as dramatic as the deadly one-upmanship games of Virginia Woolf occurs here. Dinner With Friends chronicles the everyday changes people go through and the disappointments and compromises entailed in most friendships and marriages. McKinnon keeps the temperature low, making the small cracks in the unions all the more heartbreaking.
   The four-person cast perfectly balances Margulies’s funnier and heavier moments. Heather Burns captures Beth’s neediness, and Darren Pettie has Tom’s frustration down pat. Marin Hinkle comically limns Karen’s self-righteousness without turning her into a shrew. As Gabe, Jeremy Shamos has the most difficult assignment. This suppressed guy is able to articulate his emotions about food and cooking, but when it comes to feelings about his wife, he clams up. So the actor has to convey a lot between the lines. Shamos delivers Gabe’s repressed reactions to the chaos around him with underplayed skill and spot-on comic timing.
   With Allen Moyer’s tasteful, suggestive sets, Jane Cox’s evocative lighting, and Ilona Somogyi’s character-defining costumes, this Dinner is a complex meal worth sampling.

February 17, 2014

Billy Budd
Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Too many opera productions emphasize the beauty of the music and the voices, not the truth of the story that contains them. Michael Grandage’s magnificent staging of Benjamin Britten’s 1951 Billy Budd for the Glyndebourne Festival, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a too brief stay, certainly delivers a lush performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the sensitive hand of Sir Mark Elder. But it also places the audience right in the belly of Herman Melville’s heartrending drama of men at sea torn between duty and justice.
   The opera opens with the brilliant Mark Padmore standing in a single spotlight amid darkness, as the tormented Captain Vere recalling the events of 1797 aboard his ship the Indomitable. Then Paule Constable’s painterly lighting reveals Christopher Oram’s massive set re-creating the oppressive atmosphere of the vessel. There is no sky or sea visible, and an ominous wooden ceiling is lowered during the scenes taking place below decks, creating an even more claustrophobic atmosphere. Oram’s prison-like design and Grandage’s muscular direction perfectly convey the hothouse setting, which produces the opera’s tragic events.   Handsome, kindhearted new recruit Billy Budd is beloved by all his shipmates and the officers, but not by the sadistic Master-at-Arms Claggart, who makes it his mission to destroy the angelic Billy. Many scholars have found a homoerotic subtext in Claggart’s fixation on Billy. Grandage wisely hints at it, but does not overplay this explosive connection. When Billy accidentally kills the twisted Claggart, Capt. Vere must chose between his strict maritime code and compassion.
   Grandage’s thrilling staging puts us right in the hold with the struggling sailors and above decks with their conflicted officers. The exciting battle sequence featuring the entire crew, a huge cast including several small boys playing “powder monkeys” bringing up the fuel for a brace of canons, is as blood-quickening as any shoot-’em-up Hollywood action movie.
   Jacques Imbrailo delivers an intense, layered performance as the title character, dramatically and vocally. His light, soaring baritone channels Billy’s innate sweetness and joy for life in his earlier arias as well as the soft, sad acceptance of the young sailor’s execution for murdering Claggart. Brindley Sherratt’s dark-as-Darth-Vader bass is the ideal instrument to give life to the obsessive Master-at-Arms. His delivery of Claggart’s solo explaining why Claggart hates Billy is truly frightening. But the real heart of the production is Padmore’s Vere. The tenor pours the warring emotions of the tormented commander into the demanding role. What could easily have been melodrama becomes a painful journey of an intelligent, moral man seeking the correct path in a dangerous, cruel world (the libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier often describes the ship as a microcosm of the entire universe).
   There is also admirable work by Jeremy White as the wise old salt Dansker, Peter Gijsbertsen as the spineless Novice, and Stephen Gad and Darren Jeffrey as two of Vere’s gung-ho officers.
   This stunning production is an example of the power of opera, but unfortunately it is playing BAM for only a few more performances. So, hurry before this ship sails.

February 9, 2014
 
Little Me
City Center [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Neil Simon. Cy Coleman. Carolyn Leigh. Bob Fosse. Sid Caesar. Put them all together and the result is this 1962 piece of musical theater insanity, which, 52 years later, with a glorious cast working under John Rando’s inspired direction, still produces nearly three hours of audience hysteria.
   The faux memoir by Patrick Dennis (Auntie Mame) on which this show is based consists of the retelling of the life and loves of Belle Poitrine (dust off your French dictionary). From a shack in Venezuela, Ill., to fame in vaudeville after the shooting of her 88-year-old paramour (Chicago, anyone?), to a transatlantic voyage on which her amnesiac French husband drowns while forgetting how to swim, to Hollywood stardom as an actress then director when her washed-up German director–turned–delicatessen delivery man inadvertently stabs himself with a real knife because the prop man couldn’t find a fake one anywhere in Hollywood, Belle manages to survive and prosper. And within all of this breathless craziness is a sharp satire of fame and tell-all confessional writing, abetted by a score that matches the tone with an exquisite array of jazz-inflected numbers.
   Book-writer Simon and his fellow creators had little doubt that the incomparable actor-comedian Caesar was the only choice for the seven lovers. But while there may never again be anyone who can match the energy, rhythms, versatility, and just plain brilliance of Caesar, Christian Borle brings his own vast array of skills to the roles. The burlesque humor that defines the show may have a very Jewish feel, but Borle, with occasional lapses while essaying two much older characters, is more than up to the task. Without having to fill shoes nearly as large, Rachel York as Young Belle is a wonder. Her singling, timing, and stage presence make the show about Belle. Judy Kaye brings her shine to Older Belle, and the support of Broadway stalwarts Tony Yazbeck (“I’ve Got Your Number”), Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof (“Be a Performer”), Harriet Harris, David Garrison, and a remarkable group of dancers makes this an ensemble of the first order.
   Little Me came as the oft-named Golden Age of Musicals was coming to a close; it lost steam from arriving in the midst of a newspaper strike, and its competition was another of the great farces, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As Encores artistic director Jack Viertel, in addressing an audience filled with school groups, said, “I have no idea what educational value you’ll get from this show. But it will show you the value of laughter at any time.”

February 6, 2014

King Lear
Chichester Festival Theatre at BAM Harvey Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The final scene in the Chichester Festival Theater’s production of King Lear is a bold variation on one of the most familiar endings in all of Shakespeare. Instead of carrying on his dead daughter Cordelia as most Lears do, Frank Langella drags her lifeless body in from the wings. The first sight of them together is shocking, sad, and perfectly logical. The formerly mad monarch is in his 80s and has just slain his daughter’s assassin, so it makes sense that he would not have the strength to pick her up. Most Lears take this climactic moment to draw attention to themselves with a curtain-falling histrionic display, but Langella focuses on the character’s weakness as he futilely shakes Cordelia’s nonresponsive form, desperately attempting to bring her back to life. It’s a truly heartbreaking finale.
   But, this innovative climax is the one of the few startlingly intense sequences in an otherwise by-the-numbers production from director Angus Jackson. The American Langella is supported by a competent British cast, but they fail to elicit the passion and purpose to make an oft-produced classic come to new life. There is a spark of bad-boy humor in Max Bennett’s evil Edmund and a nasty, oft-center quirk to Lauren O’Neil’s crafty Regan, but these are not enough to lift the production to above-average status.
     Luckily, Langella is fascinating to watch in the aforementioned ending and in a frightening mad scene. After having been driven insane by his thankless daughters Goneril and Regan, Lear encounters the blind Gloucester on a desolate beach. The two men, abandoned by their offspring, counsel each other with seeming gibberish that is strangely wise. Langella effortlessly switches from pitiful old fool to psychotic madman. One minute he is tenderly cradling the pathetic Gloucester, and the next he is strangling him while laughing maniacally. Langella also conveys the king’s strength hobbled by the infirmities of age as he stoops and shuffles slowly.
   Jackson’s is a perfectly valid production, it’s just not very exciting or involving. Robert Innes Hopkins’s wooden set resembles a lodge in a mountain resort. Late in the action, a series of dark beams lowers a few inches to convey the desolation of the realm. Oooo, scary! There is also full-blown storm with tons of real water as Lear rages at his fate, but all that rain doesn’t make a convincing tragedy blossom.

January 23, 2014

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Stephen Sondheim Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Jessie Mueller
Joan Marcus

“Who wants to hear a normal person sing?” asks Jessie Mueller as Carole King in the new musical based on the performer-songwriter’s life and works. The answer is every lonely girl dreaming in her bedroom, every woman looking to fulfill herself, or anyone who longs to hear their own fantasies in the form of melody and words. That was the appeal of King, who emerged as the voice of a questing generation with her album Tapestry. The musical captures a pinch of that sweet, smooth, painfully real sound and the churning emotions it evoked, but, in the end it’s too much like a dozen other jukebox shows. Like Motown, Jersey Boys, A Night with Janis Joplin, and Baby, It’s You, Beautiful is ultimately another “And-then-I-wrote” attraction.
   That’s a shame because King’s biography is tailor made for more than a “Behind-the-Scenes” bio-tuner. While still in high school in Queens, Carole Klein was selling teenage crush songs under the name Carole King to record mogul Don Kirshner. While still in her teens, she meets and marries fellow Queens College student and aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (a sexy, tortured Jake Epstein), and the two pen more than 50 hits. Their professional and personal union dissolves when Goffin begins taking drugs and sleeping with the singers who warble the couple’s tunes. With her collaborator and husband gone, Carole overcomes her fear of performing and writing solo to create such soulful, heart-stopping anthems to life and love as “You’ve Got a Friend,” “So Far Away,” and the shattering “It’s Too Late.”

Unfortunately, Douglas McGrath’s slick book reduces the storyline to a predictable soaper, and too much of the dialogue is used as intros to songs from the King canon in the manner of Mamma Mia. (“Carole, we need a new song for The Drifters.”) McGrath also works in a parallel plotline with Carole and Gerry’s best friends, the songwriting couple Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (game and likable Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector), which allows for even more awkward melody-shoehorning. Barry Mann serves as a convenient Woody Allen type so McGrath can get off a set of neurotic, hypochondriac gags.
   Mueller manages to rise above these shortcomings and emerges as Broadway’s newest star after promising cabaret work and supporting turns in revivals of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She captures the throbbing ache in King’s voice and charts her journey from shy girl to feminist icon with loving detail.   Marc Bruni’s staging is just a bit too smooth, as are the ensemble’s re-creations of the King-Goffin-Weil-Mann songbook. For the first time, I understood Simon Cowell’s criticisms of American Idol contestants being “too Broadway.” The Beautiful cast members standing in for the Drifters, Shirelles, etc., lack the rough, raw edge of the originals. Fortunately, the star delivers a warm and wonderful rendition of Carole King’s sound and soul.

January 13, 2014
 
Opened Jan. 12 for an open run. Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $75–162. (212) 239-6200.

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David Sheward’s Best of 2013
Our critic names his top ten New York productions

Twelfth Night/Richard III
Shakespeare’s Globe at the Belasco Theatre
   Mark Rylance tackled a pair of diverse roles in repertory at the Belasco Theater after a smash hit run at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. In keeping with Elizabethan tradition, all the female roles are played by men, and Rylance makes a convincingly icy Olivia who melts into a giddy lovestruck gal in Twelfth Night and a tyrannical usurper with an evil sense of humor in Richard III. In both roles, Rylance creates the illusion that these immortal lines are being spoken for the first time, a feat worth the price of two admissions.



Here Lies Love
Public Theater
   Pop, rock, disco, politics, and stunning theatrical imagination combine in this innovative bracingly original event—one hesitates to call it something as ordinary as a show—which stretches the musical genre in form and content. Conceived by David Bryne of Talking Heads fame and employing a richly evocative score by Byrne, Fatboy Slim, Tom Gandey, and J Pardo, Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos’s relentless rise to power as First Lady of the Philippines. The audience mixed and mingled with the actors, becoming part of the story.

Fun Home
Public Theater
   We’ve had many musicals about gay men finding their identities, but this moving and insightful tuner puts the spotlight on a lesbian’s coming-out story. The score features warm, sweet music by Jeanine Tesori and clever, character-defining lyrics by Lisa Kron. Michael Ceveris, Judy Kuhn, Beth Malone, Alexandra Socha, and Sydney Lucas give powerful performances in one of the best musicals on or Off-Broadway in recent years.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
Kazino
   An electro-pop musical based on a section of War and Peace? Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Dave Malloy’s eclectic score strikingly tells the 19th-century story in 21st-century terms. The action, staged with dexterity by Rachel Chavkin, unfolds all around you in a dinner-theater setting. Passion, Napoleonic battles, and vodka shots, what more could you want?


Photo by Chad Batka

Matilda

Shubert Theater
   Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, this hit from London offers a nasty, twisted, and totally joyful view of youngsters and the adjustments they face on the path to adulthood. Bertie Carvel in drag as the hideous Miss Trunchbull nearly stole the show. Resembling the living gargoyle from a famous episode of Jonny Quest, Carvel created a grotesque monster who still retains a touch of femininity. It’s a brilliantly funny performance in a brilliant family musical that doesn’t talk down to kids.

The Glass Menagerie
Booth Theater
   This beloved Tennessee Williams classic has been produced so many times, it’s hard to imagine anyone breathing new life into it. But director John Tiffany has stripped the play of its externals and delivered it to us, fresh, alive, and powerful. Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith offer career-defining performances.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Playwrights Horizons
   In this bizarre, brilliant play, playwright Anne Washburn shows that by telling and retelling the same stories—in this case, episodes of The Simpsons in a post-apocalyptic future—art in general and theater in particular rejuvenates the human spirit. That’s a bit weighty and belies the seemingly trivial nature of much of the action. Yet, thanks to Steve Cosson’s simultaneously dark and hilarious staging and the unself-conscious performances of a tight ensemble, it somehow works.



A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Walter Kerr Theatre
   The dazzling Jefferson Mays playing eight murder victims is not the only highlight of this witty musical derived from the novel that also inspired the classic film comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. There’s also the dashing and charismatic Bryce Pinkham, the gorgeous and razor-sharp Lisa O’Hare, the sweet and charming Lauren Worsham, the delightfully droll Jane Carr, a hardworking and fun-loving six-person ensemble, plus the cleverest staging and the most enjoyable score in quite some time.

The Night Alive
Donmar Warehouse at Atlantic Theater Company
   Many of his previous plays have supernatural elements, but there are no ghosts, vampires, or devils in Conor McPherson’s new play about downtrodden Dublin folk. But this tale of a lonely drifter and a pathetic prostitute is haunting nonetheless.

Macbeth (Alan Cumming version)
Barrymore Theatre
   Not to be confused with the middling Ethan Hawke production now at Lincoln Center. Set in a bleak isolation ward of a mental facility, this bold staging casts Cumming as a patient acting out Shakespeare’s tale under the watchful eyes of several surveillance cameras and two attendants. Through the harrowing tales of both the driven Thane and the tormented mental case enacting the story, Cummings unsparingly leads us into dark and frightening corridors of the human mind.
December 31, 2013



Macbeth
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

T
he real balance of power in Jack O’Brien’s gimmicky but flabby staging of Macbeth at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre is revealed during the famous Act IV confrontation between the thane and the weird sisters. Macbeth demands to know his complete future; and, when the witches demur, he threatens them with an eternal curse. In most productions, the ghastly women are frightened of this powerful mortal and give in to him. Here, they scornfully laugh at the Scottish tyrant as if to say, “Back off, bitch, we’re in charge here!” Similarly, Ethan Hawke’s puny Macbeth is no match for seasoned pros Byron Jennings, John Glover, and Malcolm Gets cross-dressing and camping it up as the three witches. In addition, these hags are backed by Hecate, their satanic leader, a character who is usually cut, and a coterie of acrobatic demons crawling all over Scott Pask’s elaborate set.
   O’Brien, who has given us a magnificent combination of the two parts of
Henry IV, also at the Beaumont, stumbles here. He piles on numerous pieces of spooky stage business as if the Shakespearean classic were a Steven King novel, diminishing the impact of the Bard’s theme of hubris and human destiny. For example, as Macbeth is offstage dispatching King Duncan, a bouquet of roses artfully sheds scarlet petals (blood, get it?). The rain of petals continues as the thane and his fiend-like spouse deliberate on their gruesome actions, totally distracting us from their conflict.
  But even the most overblown production can be saved by a strong leading man. Unfortunately, Hawke is not that savior. Though impressive physically and still strikingly handsome, the film star has a limited vocal and emotional range. He has only two levels on his actor’s barometer: mumbling incoherence and child-like temper tantrums. So we don’t get Macbeth’s slow transformation from decent, loyal solider to conniving plotter to doomed madman. British actor Anne-Marie Duff, making her American debut as Lady Macduff, has strong moments, but she’s mostly overwhelmed by O’Brien’s devices. In the sleepwalking scene, he has Hecate double as the handmaiden, and Francesca Faridany as the wicked spirit steals it.
   Likewise, Jennings, Glover, and Gets as the witches appear in many other guises—including the bloody soldier, the porter, and various messengers. This is a perfectly valid choice, displaying the otherworldly influences on the action. But these stage vets have such a ball whooping it up and acting all “witchy,” they and Faridany take over the whole show. In the large supporting cast, only Brian d’Arcy James emerges with an intense, believable characterization for his Banquo, but then O’Brien overdoes that too by having about a dozen knives sticking into his ghost’s throat.
   This
Macbeth is a fun Halloween scarefest, but for a searing insight into the complex mind of a man ruined by ambition, I’ll take Alan Cumming’s near-solo version from last season or wait for Kenneth Branagh’s production due next spring.
December 20, 2013
  
And Away We Go
The Pearl Theatre Company [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Terrence McNally has written about his love of opera in such valentines to the genre as The Golden Age, Master Class, and The Lisbon Traviata. Now he waxes rhapsodic on his native form, the theater, in a pastiche history lesson called And Away We Go, written especially for the Pearl Theatre Company, one of the few Off-Broadway companies to employ a roster of resident actors. The play opens with the six-member ensemble kissing the stage, revealing their favorite and least favorite roles and a cute anecdote about themselves. Then we launch into a zigzag History of Performance from ancient Greece to a modern financially strapped regional company with both groups staging the Oresteia. There are stops along the way in Elizabethan England, pre-Revolutionary France and Russia, and at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Coral Gables, Fla., for the pre-Broadway tryout of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
   The set, by Sandra Goldmark, is a gigantic backstage workshop–rehearsal area–green room where the lives of the theater folk overlap and intersect. The concept is cute, sweet, and charming, but Away fails to convey the passion of the plays it references. McNally’s figures are pale shadows of the House of Atreus, King Lear, Treplev and Arkadina, and Estragon and Vladimir. Perhaps that was McNally’s intention: a light, loving tribute to the great theater practitioners without taxing the audience’s emotional muscles.
   Despite the zippy direction of Jack Cummings III, even at an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes, the play feels stretched out with the sketchy vignettes of behind-the-scenes drama unable to bear the heavy weight McNally imposes on them. The cast, most of whom are members of the Pearl Resident Acting Company, have great fun playing multiple roles and occasionally achieve a tangible reality beyond the amusing accents. Carol Schultz imparts the devastation of dashed dreams as the head of the contemporary company facing bankruptcy. Rachel Botchan is fiery and fierce as a female enthusiast forbidden from participating onstage during the Greek drama festival. Donna Lynne Champlin is tough as nails as the protective wife of an offstage Bert Lahr, hiding in his dressing room after the disastrous Godot.
   Sean McNall has a sleek elegance as a French actor as concerned with court and bedroom intrigue as his performance. Dominic Cuskern lends austere dignity to several roles, including an officious messenger of Louis XIV and the imposing patriarch of an Elizabethan acting clan. Micah Stock is a riot as a fussy playwright and a revolutionary delivery boy. They are clearly enamored of the theater, as is McNally, but the script is a paper-thin valentine rather than a searing love letter.

December 3, 2013
 
No Man’s Land and
Waiting for Godot

Cort Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

At the curtain call for Sean Mathias’s production of Waiting for Godot, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen perform a soft-shoe in which the headliners seem to be saying “Isn’t it wonderful that we two stars are here on Broadway, entertaining you lovely people with this cute and funny play?” The same crowd-pandering antics infuse the entire preceding production of Samuel Beckett’s bleak, existentialist classic. Yes, there is comedy in Godot, and the author envisaged clowns like Laurel and Hardy to play his woebegone tramps Estragon and Vladimir who are eternally waiting for the never-arriving title character. But the harrowing despair they experience is totally missing here. The greatness of Godot comes from its ambiguous view of life as shatteringly sad and screamingly funny. Mathias and company give us plenty of funny, but no sorrow.
   There are brief moments when we see the two viewpoints. At the opening of the second act, Stewart as Vladimir executes a brief, desperate vaudeville song and dance, but keeps breaking down as his character struggles to maintain a jolly façade masking his recognition of the futility of existence. Stewart and McKellen deliver impressive vaudevillian turns as the drifters wrestling entertainment from nothing to fill the endless void left by the mysterious Godot, who represents the purpose they are seeking. But their underlying terror of the emptiness symbolized by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s post-apocalyptic set is missing.
   The choices made by Shuler Hensley as the pompous traveler, Pozzo, compound the comic emphasis. Hensley gives Pozzo a Foghorn Leghorn–like Southern accent and plays him as broadly as that cartoon rooster. Billy Crudup as Pozzo’s animal-like servant, Lucky, achieves a despairing intensity in a rambling monologue; but without an overall tragic subtext, Godot becomes a divertissement rather than an achingly profound statement of the human condition.
   Mathias may have chosen to lighten up this Godot because it’s playing in repertory with another dark tragicomedy featuring the same four-man cast: Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, and he and the producers may not have wanted audiences who are seeing both to get too gloomy. Unlike the Beckett, the Pinter piece comes off as a proper balance between hilarity and horror.
   Like Vladimir and Estragon, elderly poets Spooner (McKellen) and Hirst (Stewart) are trapped in an existential wasteland where identity and memory are fluid and unreliable. Hirst appears to be a prosperous literary figure attended by two young thuggish handlers, Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley). Spooner is a down-at-heels has-been who may or may not have known Hirst during their college days at Oxford. As Hirst drowns in an ocean of booze, Spooner strives to hold on to his dignity despite bullying attempts by the two attendants to push him out of the house.
   Here the four cast members are equally uproarious and heartbreaking. You can see Hirst’s brilliant mind underneath the alcoholic wreckage in Stewart’s sensitive performance. McKellen is shatteringly pathetic in depicting Spooner’s guarded attempts to get out of this baffling situation intact. He seems like a whipped dog, wincing at every movement of those around him. Crudup and Hensley keep Foster and Briggs from being mere menacing brutes, endowing them with goals and aspirations beyond frightening the two older characters. All render Pinter’s potent dialogue with devastating humor and scary power when appropriate.
   Final score: full marks for No Man’s Land, half for Waiting for Godot.

November 24, 2013
 
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Walter Kerr Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


The cast, with Bryce Pinkham (standing center), Jefferson Mays (in red), and Jane Carr (seated)
Photo by Joan Marcus

You would think one actor playing eight roles would be the highlight of any musical production, especially when the actor is Jefferson Mays, who took on 40 personages in the one-person I Am My Own Wife. Though Mays is amazingly dexterous as an entire eccentric upper-crust British family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, now on Broadway after runs at Hartford Stage and San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, he’s not the only reason to rush to see this highly polished comic gem. There’s also the dashing and charismatic Bryce Pinkham, the gorgeous and razor-sharp Lisa O’Hare, the sweet and charming Lauren Worsham, the delightfully droll Jane Carr, a hardworking and fun-loving six-person ensemble, plus the cleverest staging and the most enjoyable score in quite some time.
   All of these elegant elements are in service of an equally elegant and somewhat familiar story, derived from an obscure 1907 novel, Israel Rank, which also serves as the basis of the classic 1949 British film comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. Impoverished artist Monty Navarro discovers he is ninth in line to the fabulous D’Ysquith fortune and earldom. To obtain the glittering prize, he murders all eight distant relations standing in his way. In the movie, this octet was played by Alec Guinness; here, Mays takes on the daunting task.
   Woven throughout the witty and well-structured book by Robert L. Freedman are the sparkling songs featuring Steven Lutvak’s wide-ranging music and intricate lyrics by Lutvak and Freedman that recall the driest and funniest of Gilbert and Sullivan and Noël Coward.
   Employing Alexander Dodge’s toy-theater set that resembles an Edwardian-era music hall, director Darko Tresnjak devises endlessly inventive stage business to accomplish each of the murders, involving rapid-fire changes of Linda Cho’s exquisite period costumes and mad backstage dashing by Mays. It’s a breathtaking tour de force for star and stager. Mays manages to draw laughs with raised eyebrow or an upward inflection, creating a gallery of hilarious grotesques.
   But, as stated above, this is far from a one-man show. As Monty, Pinkham never leaves the stage and carries the narrative along with unflappable style and virile charm. Though his role is considerably less flashy than Mays’s, Pinkham creates a believable and sympathetic serial killer, which is no mean feat. Complicating Monty’s schemes are the seductive Sibella Hallward, married but on the make, and the innocent Phoebe D’Ysquith, a distant cousin. Both are madly in love with the would-be earl. O’Hare makes a sinfully delicious Sibella and Worsham an irresistibly adorable naïf. The high-voiced Carr is the scene-stealing Miss Shingle, a sly and secretive family retainer out to aid Monty. The small, versatile chorus shines in multiple roles; Joanna Glushak gets a stand-out cameo as the shrewish wife of the last relative Monty knocks off. She delivers as full and wacky a performance as Mays. When a supporting player, and the entire cast, is on a par with your showstopping star, you know you’ve got a hit.
November 23, 2013

Opened Nov. 17 for an open run. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $50–147. (212) 239-6200.

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Twelfth Night/Richard III
Shakespeare’s Globe at the Belasco Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

In a dazzling tour de force, two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance tackles a pair of diverse roles in repertory at the Belasco Theater after a smash-hit run at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. In keeping with Elizabethan tradition, all the female roles are played by men, and Rylance makes a convincing Olivia in Twelfth Night. She’s an icy lady whose mournful exterior melts when she encounters a beautiful youth who happens to be a maiden in disguise. Rylance brilliantly conveys Olivia’s haughty reserve melting into schoolgirl giddiness worthy of a Justin Bieber fan as she falls in love. In Richard III, the actor endows the tyrannical usurper with a devilish sense of humor, all the more horrifying when contrasted with his evil machinations, including murdering half his family to get to the throne. In both roles, Rylance creates the illusion that these immortal lines are being spoken for the first time, a feat worth the price of two admissions.
   The star is delivering a pair of the most naturalistic performances I’ve ever witnessed, yet the impeccable staging by Tim Carroll, the faithful period set and costumes by Jenny Tiramani, the imperceptible lighting by Stan Pressner, and the gorgeous music by Claire van Kampen played on 16th-century-style instruments place us in a highly artificial world. The audience, many of whom are seated onstage, is even treated to a preshow ritual of watching the cast don their elaborate duds and makeup, reinforcing the theatrical construct. Yet somehow this oft-kilter combination of substance and make-believe works. Carroll has created a magnificent Elizabethean playground, and his intuitive headliner plays in it like a child totally convinced it’s the real world rather than a wooden O.
   Though the rest of the cast doesn’t even approach Rylance for daring and spontaneity, it is a solid, inventive ensemble. Samuel Barnett makes a lovely Viola, the gender-bending page, and a formidable Queen Elizabeth who is one of the few royals able to stand up to the ravenous Richard. Paul Chahidi nearly steals Twelfth Night as the saucy serving maid Maria and lends dignity to the double-crossed Hastings and sliminess to the murderer Tyrell. The leonine Angus Wright uses his height and noble bearing for comic effect as the buffoonish Sir Andrew Aguecheek and, for stark contrast, to the handsome but treacherous Buckingham. Colin Hurley is a riotously raucous Sir Toby Belch, and Stephen Fry is a dry and foppish Malvolio. But the center of both shows is Rylance, who is sure to win a third Tony Award; the only difficulty voters will have is to decide for which performance.

November 14, 2013
 
The Jacksonian
The New Group at the Acorn Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Beth Henley has always had a dark side. Even her sunniest comedy, the breakthrough Pulitzer Prize winner Crimes of the Heart, is shadowed by death and destruction. Thirty years after the Broadway premiere of that kooky tale of three eccentric Southern sisters, Henley has a much gorier tale of a bipolar dentist and his equally wacko wife. Set in 1964 Mississippi, The Jacksonian, playing Off-Broadway in a New Group production after an earlier staging at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse, has plenty of killing, pedophilia, racism, and blood to go around, but it all seems gratuitous.
   Tooth doctor Bill Perch resides at the titular motel during a trial separation from his depressed spouse, Susan, who blames him for consenting to a hysterectomy for her while she was under the ether. Their acne-scarred, teenage daughter Rosy is just as gloomy during her visits. The motel staff doesn’t prove any more cheerful. Fred, the bizarre barman, is attempting to escape a murder rap and the clutches of the bubble-headed, bigoted chambermaid Eva.
   The play opens with Rosy, wrapped in a blanket and sobbing to the audience about surviving a Christmastime accident. From there, we flashback to May when this dysfunctional family’s downhill slide started. As if we are in Rosy’s confused head, we move back and forth in time as Bill loses his practice, Susan loses her mind, and Rosy loses her innocence. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t end well.

Henley has gripping themes going concerning her Southern roots: The dentist’s offstage father appears to be a klansman, and there are many references to lynchings and African-American churches being fire-bombed. There are also heaping helpings of the playwright’s trademark black humor, but the characters aren’t sufficiently developed beyond their surface quirks.
   Director Robert Falls keeps the grotesqueries from overwhelming the story while the powerhouse five-person cast largely tries for a similar balance. Ed Harris is truly dangerous as the deranged dentist, particularly in a blowup scene where the doctor is down on himself while high on nitrous oxide. Bill Pullman takes a fascinating flight from his usual nice-guy roles as the tightly wound, perverted Fred. Even his hair is scary. Amy Madigan tries her best to make more of Susan than a shrill shrew, but she isn’t given enough with which to work. Glenne Headley has a few striking, off-kilter moments as the daffy Eva. Juliet Brett plays every Southern stereotype as the misfit Rosy, as if she were enacting literary images from Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, rather than being a real person. Unfortunately, that’s only as deep the play goes.

November 7, 2013

Betrayal
Ethel Barrymore Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Trust Mike Nichols to find the laughs in adultery. After all, in collaboration with Elaine May, he created and performed one of the most hilarious sketches on the subject during the legendary comedy duo’s nightclub days. They played three different cheating couples—American, British, and French—exposing the national character of each as they negotiated their way to a hotel room. Now, Nichols, who became the most successful stage and film director of his generation after his standup stints, makes this painful subject painfully funny in a brilliant revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. A previous Broadway production (the 2000 Roundabout staging, I didn’t see the first American production in 1980) was dark and sinister, full of the predictable Pinteresque pauses. Nichols’s staging is just as evocative of the menace the Nobel Prize–winning playwright found in everyday situations like meeting for lunch or visiting friends, but Nichols also mines the hilarity inherent in these occurrences. It doesn’t hurt that he has three sexy headliners—Daniel Craig, the current James Bond; Craig’s real-life wife, Rachel Weisz; and, best of all, Rafe Spall, making his Broadway debut—as the devious and conflicted sides of Pinter’s romantic triangle.
   The play opens with the melancholy meeting between Emma (Weisz) and Jerry (Spall), clandestine lovers whose adulterous affair ended two years earlier. With a few sideways detours, we then move backward in time to the beginning of the liaison. During the journey, we see how Emma, Jerry, and Robert (Craig), Emma’s husband, have betrayed each other in numerous ways, yet they almost never speak directly about this treachery. Seemingly insignificant incidents like Jerry’s tossing of Emma’s little daughter in the air and small props such as a lace tablecloth, take on deeper resonance as we find their original meaning in chronologically earlier, but later played, scenes.
   Each of these smart people is articulate about books, art, and society, but, as in many other Pinter works, they mask their feelings behind small talk. Here’s where Nichols cleverly uses comedy to display the difference between the surface calm and the inner turmoil. The characters’ passionate actions belie their dry dialogue. Watch the way Jerry nervously eats a melon as Robert sadistically hints he may know about the affair. The audience uproariously guffaws and then is startled into silence when Robert nearly screams in anguish.
   Craig and Weisz sharply play the contrast between their characters’ calculating manipulations and their civilized exteriors. Both these film stars show they have serious stage chops, but the real find here is Spall, a British actor new to the American stage. Though it initially appears his Jerry is the biggest deceiver of all, it turns out he’s the victim of Emma and Robert. Spall feelingly displays all of Jerry’s complex motivations—genuine love as well as lust for Emma, affection for Robert—and the agonizing ache when all is taken away from him and his emotions were spent on a pair even trickier than himself. Add the malicious wit Nichols provides, and this is a perfect Pinter.

October 30, 2013
 

 
Marie Antoinette
Soho Rep [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

At first, it seems as if David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette will run out of steam after about 20 minutes. The basic premise is to have the 18th-century Queen of France and her court speak and act like contemporary Kardashians, entitled bubbleheads complaining about the burdens of wealth and fame and totally clueless as to why the peasants are revolting. (“They’re always angry,” whines Marie.)
   But as the distant cries of discontent turn into the screams of terror and Marie is gradually stripped of her luxuries, the downtrodden monarch becomes a pitiful lost figure, an uncomprehending victim of history. As she is about to be beheaded, she engages in a dream-like debate with a sheep on the topics of democracy, class, and politics, which is eerie and frightening in its unsparing depiction of the forces of destiny. Marie explains she had no choice but to become a thoughtless figurehead, that’s how she was brought up. The sheep rails back that she can’t even take care of herself so how can she take care of an entire country? The dizzy, obvious comedy of the early scenes gives way to dispassionate reality, revealed in a hallucination.
    Director Rebecca Taichman masterfully balances the disparate styles of satire, fantasy, and verisimilitude, as does a skillful cast. But the chief burden is placed on Marin Ireland in the title role, and she carries it off as magnificently as she wears costumer Anka Lupes’s lush ballgown and wig designer Amanda Miller’s towering headdress. From the moment Ireland’s Marie rushes onstage at the opening, whispering an apology for being late (totally in character), to Marie’s final epiphany just before she loses her head, Ireland finds seemingly infinite variations on narcissism. She becomes a screaming, spoiled child when thwarted, a charming coquette to achieve her aims, an imprisoned lioness when her son is taken from her, and a dozen other versions of the same fascinating woman.
   Steve Rattazzi is equally complex as her ineffectual, infantile husband, King Louis XVI, and David Greenspan manages to make the sheep an intriguing symbol of the forces uprooting Marie’s world.
   The play was previously presented in more elaborate productions at Yale Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theatre. It’s now at the intimate Off-Broadway Soho Rep, where set designer Riccardo Hernandez has reconfigured the space as a long, shallow strip with a stark white backdrop featuring the title royal’s name in raised white letters. With the aide of Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, the confining environment transforms from a gilded cage to a stark prison with ominous shadows stretching across the blank wall. Matt Hubbs’s sound design frighteningly re-creates the sounds of the bloodthirsty mob.

October 24, 2013

The Winslow Boy
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The Roundabout Theatre Company has a winner with this finely tuned revival of Terrence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy in a production by Lindsay Posner previously presented by London’s Old Vic company and recast for New York. Premiered in 1946, the play is set in the veddy proper Kensington drawing room of the upper-middle-class Winslow family on the eve of World War I (the properly understated set and costumes are by Peter McKintosh). Youngest son Ronnie has been expelled from a prestigious naval academy for allegedly stealing a postal order worth a few shillings. His stubborn father, Arthur, risks the family’s financial stability and reputation to clear the boy’s name.
   The effects of the case are catastrophic: Placid mother Grace is driven to distraction, elder brother Dickie is forced to quit college and get a banking job, and sister Catherine’s engagement to a promising military officer is endangered. Even the beloved, slightly dizzy maid Violet may lose her position. All seems lost until the celebrated, icy advocate Sir Robert Morton swoops in just before the intermission and, after a brilliantly theatrical cross-examination of Ronnie, agrees to take the case. Guess which side wins?
    It may sound a bit like an old episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, but the battle of a wronged citizen fighting an oppressive bureaucracy has contemporary resonance. Posner does somewhat indulge in stiff-upper-lip clichés with some broad comic staging, but, for the most part, he has steered his sterling cast to taking the proceedings with the utmost seriousness. Though the crime Ronnie is charged with may seem petty, the principle of having his day in court is passionately defended as vital to a free society.
   Roger Rees displays the tender heart beneath Arthur’s blustering exterior and skillfully documents the stubborn father’s physical decline as the character’s infirmity increases with each act. Alessandro Nivola effectively captures Sir Robert’s cool demeanor and biting wit. Charlotte Parry as the politically radical sister is the anchor of the play, providing much of the motivation for action, and she does a splendid job steering the plot’s course. Michael Cumpsty is endearingly oafish as her clumsy suitor and Chandler Williams is dashing and determined as his rival, the military officer.
   Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio gets more than her fair share of comic and emotive moments as the mother. Spencer David Milford conveys Ronnie’s desperate protestations of innocence as well as his vignettes of being a typical youngster more interest in going to the pictures than in his trial. Zachary Booth has the difficult assignment of playing the feckless Dickie who is mostly inserted for comic relief, but the actor handles this task with aplomb. Henny Russell steals many of her scenes as the eccentric maid. Even the tiny walk-on roles such as superficial reporter (Meredith Forlenza) and her photographer (Stephen Pilkington) are perfectly cast in this top-drawer revival.

October 19, 2013
 
Bad Jews
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre Company at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Religion and relatives clash in Joshua Harmon’s blistering comedy Bad Jews, now at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theater after a limited run at the company’s Underground space last season. Set in a crowded but expensive Manhattan apartment, this politically incorrect power play pits ultra-observant Daphna Feygenbaum against her spoiled secular cousin Liam Haber. Even their names are at opposite poles—Daphna was born Diana but rechristened herself after a visit to Israel, while Liam bears an Irish moniker though his Hebrew name is Schlomo. These diametrically opposed antagonists are in a death match over their just-deceased grandfather’s chai necklace, which was carried through the Holocaust.
   Daphna feels she should have it because she’s unquestionably the most religious of the grandchildren, while Liam stakes his claim as the eldest male and he wants the keepsake to propose to his Gentile girlfriend, Melody. Liam’s quieter brother Jonah seems to only desire a good night’s sleep as all four including Melody must share quarters the night before shiva for grandpa.
   Harmon asks difficult questions about cultural conflicts, including how important it is to preserve Jewish tradition in an increasingly nondenominational, melting-pot world. He doesn’t provide answers, and the characters, endowed with Harmon’s pungent and pithy dialogue, are an intensely realistic mix of petty and pure. Daphna is insufferably self-righteous but fiercely intelligent and sincere in her push for preservation. Liam may be entitled and nasty, but he’s also open and loving toward Melody, who is more than a bit shallow yet kind toward Daphna—at first. Only Jonah’s emotions remain hidden, until a startlingly climactic revelation.
   Director Daniel Aukin uses Lauren Helpern’s elegantly confined space to its best advantage. The battling four must crawl over sofa beds and inflatable mattresses, constantly butting up against each other literally and figuratively.
   Tracee Chimo miraculously keeps the obnoxious Daphna from descending into caricature. She puts across the young woman’s anger and narcissism, but also her deep insecurities. Her physical choices are also fascinating. Watch as she channels Daphna’s rage through combing out her tangled hair, venting years of indignation at Liam and his side of the family with every brutal brushstroke. Michael Zegen skillfully displays Liam’s fiery temper but also presents the young man’s side of the struggle passionately. Molly Ranson gives us an interesting mix of ditziness and determination. Philip Ettinger has probably the most challenging assignment, since Jonah is mostly reactive throughout the play and his final statement of allegiance is a silent one, yet he conveys this internal struggle with mute eloquence. They’re a brilliant quartet of Bad Jews.

October 14, 2013
 

The Glass Menagerie
Booth Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The Glass Menagerie is one of those American classics that has been staged so many times, it’s difficult to imagine a production breathing new life into it. But just as he did with Once, director John Tiffany has stripped Tennessee Williams’s 1944 career-maker of any extraneous elements and delivered it to us, fresh, alive, and powerful. This bracing production is now at the Booth Theatre after a run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
   Tiffany takes his central concept from the opening moments of the play. The narrator Tom, a stand-in for the young Williams, explains he has “tricks in his pockets.” Through the magic of theater he then re-creates the miserable St. Louis flat where he lived with his overbearing mother, Amanda, and pathetic, crippled sister, Laura. Tiffany emphasizes the magical and illusionary nature of Williams’s script. Laura emerges like a phantom from the sofa. Amanda suddenly appears from behind a screen. As in a dream or memory, there is barely any furnishing and no props except for a single tiny unicorn as a representative of Laura’s titular collection. The characters move with unrealistic, ballet-like gestures as if dancing in a fantasy.
   In addition, Tiffany imagines Tom is recalling his painful past while standing on a dock gazing at a dark body of water. After all, Williams explains, the narrator has left his family to roam the world as a merchant seaman. Thus set designer Bob Crowley, with the immeasurable aide of Natasha Katz’s poetic lighting, creates a bare series of platforms surrounded by a moat of black liquid. This is the only exit route, apart from an M.C. Escher-esque fire escape leading nowhere. When Laura retreats into her imaginary world, she staggers downstage and almost plunges into the inky depths. That water is the unreal realm she and Tom long to inhabit, away from the harsh sphere of typing classes and shoe factories.

In this production, Amanda, usually portrayed as an unreasonable if comical harridan, is the realistic one. In a career-defining performance, Cherry Jones tempers Amanda’s every movement with love for her children and knowledge of what it takes to survive. This is no dreamer lost in revelry of her genteel Southern girlhood. Although those monologues of Amanda’s past are delivered with vivifying detail, taking up the dance theme she moves as if she were still leading a cotillion. When Amanda learns the long-awaited gentleman caller, intended as a beau for the pitiful Laura, is already engaged, Jones’s face is frozen in a mask of civility. But the emotional turmoil underneath is clearly visible in the way she straightens the caller’s lapel and holds onto it for a few extra seconds, as if grasping her last hope for her daughter’s happiness before it vanishes.
   As Tom, Zachary Quinto is wonderfully funny when exasperated with Amanda’s fussing. He also inhabits the character both in the moment and the future as he looks back and regrets deserting her and Laura. It’s a brilliant feat of acting. Celia Keenan-Bolger is equally dazzling as his forlorn sister, making her world of glass animals and sweet music a very real place. Brian J. Smith is compassionate and endearing as Jim, the gentleman caller.

September 29, 2013
 
Carcass
New Worlds Theatre Project at HERE [show closed]

Reviewed by Simi Horwitz

Even a groundbreaking play may die with good reason, and resurrecting it serves no purpose short of reminding the viewer why it died in the first place. Regrettably, that’s the problem with Peretz Hirshbein’s 1906 Carcass, produced by the 7-year-old New Worlds Theatre Project, whose laudable mission is to present lesser-known or rarely produced Yiddish dramas that have stood the test of time and can appeal to a diverse audience through an accessible English-language translation and contemporary staging.
   In this instance that includes a lack of specificity as to when and where the play is taking place; current vernacular scattered throughout the dialogue; and a racially mixed cast of actors playing members of the same family. None of that is bothersome. The objection is to the play itself: a relentlessly overwrought—at moments, violent—family drama heavy on symbolism. All the characters in this brutal and brutalized family are the walking dead. They are all carcasses.
   Born in Russia in 1880, Hirshbein was dubbed “the Yiddish Maeterlinck” because many of Hirshbein’s plays centered on mood rather than narrative, and he was a seminal figure in paving the way for the Yiddish theater art movement that began after the end of World War I. He made a name for himself in New York with Hidden Corner and later Green Fields, thanks to their low-keyed simplicity in an era that favored melodrama on stage. Clearly, Carcass is of the Sturm und Drang esthetic.

Directed by Paul Tackas and translated by Ellen Perecman, the story centers on the evolving relationships among Avrush, a drunken, tormented shell of a man (David Greenspan); his wretchedly disappointed son, Mend’l (Alvin Keith); his abusive, shrewish wife (Kathryn Rossetter), who beats her adult daughter Reyz’l (Rebekah Levin); Reyz’l’s hapless boyfriend (Thomas Preece); and Avrush’s dying ex-wife (also played by Rossetter).
   The acting is uneven. Though the three actors and Preece attempt to be believable, Greenspan and Keith emerge from another universe altogether. They rage and wail and howl but, oddly enough, may well be a whole lot closer to the true spirit of the play than the women struggling at plausibility.   The best moments center on Mend’l channeling Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, plaintively recalling the major regret in his life, “I couldha been a tailor,” and later Nina in The Seagull, comparing himself to animal remains, “I am a carcass.”
   The unintentional comedy does not lighten the proceedings. The play is leaden and the production feels endless though it only runs 75 minutes. Still, it’s undoubtedly of cultural interest to Yiddish theater aficionados, and unlike so many productions this one is memorable.

September 18, 2013
 
The Old Friends
Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The plays of the late Horton Foote (The Trip to Bountiful, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, dozens of others) are marked by the quiet desperation of small-town life, usually set in his fictional Harrison, Texas. But two of the leading females in The Old Friends, a posthumously premiered work now at Signature Theatre, are anything but quiet. (The play was first written in 1965, and Foote was revising it off and on until the time of death, in 2009.) Best frenemies Gertrude and Julia are rich, destructive, and loud. Gertrude throws her money around and manipulates her social circle to accommodate her whims, while Julia constantly quarrels with her crass husband, Albert, and her mother, the long-suffering Miss Mamie. Both these nasty ladies drink like fishes, drunkenly falling out with each other, usually over men, only to kiss and make up once they sober up.
   Into this den of vipers walks Sybil, who must piece her life back together after the death of her husband, Hugo, Miss Mamie’s wastrel son. The main conflict is between Sybil and Gertrude over the attractive Howard, the manager of the widowed Gertrude’s vast farming empire who wants to strike out on his own. But there are numerous other storylines involving property, jewelry, and multigenerational family squabbles. Though the action can sometimes resemble an episode of Dallas, Foote’s poetry of the everyday still shines through. It’s there in the small details—Sybil leafing through her beloved books shipped from South America where she followed Hugo as he sought his fortune in the oil business; Miss Mamie recalling the tragedies and joys of her long life in Harrison; Howard describing the liberating feeling of flying his own plane, sold long ago to pay off mounting debts.
   The histrionics of Gertrude and Julia verge on Tennessee Williams–esque excess. Like Blanche DuBois, Gertrude cannot keep her hands off younger men, is sensitive to bared lightbulbs, and is eventually forced to confront her wasted and drunken self in a mirror. Albert threatens to shoot the flirtatious Julia more than once and almost carries out his threat. Fortunately, longtime Foote director Michael Wilson keeps the proceedings on an honest footing—forgive the pun—and even the most melodramatic moments, such as Gertrude’s volcanic trashing of Sybil’s home, have a grounded reality.
   Though Gerturde and Julia are the flashier roles, the center of the play is Sybil and, as with most New York productions of Foote’s work, that core is beautifully enacted by the playwright’s daughter Hallie. Though we have seen variations on this performance in her work in her father’s other plays, she sensitively portrays Sybil’s journey from the sudden shock of losing her spouse to pulling herself together to reluctantly rekindling her romance with her former beau Howard. The quaver in her voice as she quotes a line from Sybil’s favorite poet, Pablo Neruda, fills volumes of subtext. Betty Buckley makes exquisite use of her golden voice as the narcissistic Gertrude, shifting from seductive would-be temptress to spoiled, screaming brat when thwarted. Veanne Cox is also deliciously vile as the mean-spirited Julia. Cotter Smith is valiantly virile as Howard, struggling to escape Gertrude’s clutches.
   The remaining roles are not as well developed. Miss Mamie is bit too much like Miss Carrie of The Trip to Bountiful. She even has a valise all packed to flee from rude in-laws, just like that homespun heroine. Even so, Lois Smith manages to suggest decades of Harrison history with her slightest inflection, while the reliable Adam LeFevre rescues the shadowy Albert from one-dimensionality. Likewise, the violent clashes of these characters could have been staged as faux Williams, Albee, or Inge, but in the capable hands of this Signature company, they are pure Foote.

September 13, 2013
 
Anna Christie
Berkshire Theatre Group at the Fitzgerald Main Stage [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The massive dramatic works of Eugene O’Neill can be a challenge for modern theatermakers and audiences. While the undeniable tragic force of powerhouses like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and A Moon for the Misbegotten compensates for somewhat creaky structure and dialogue, some of the more rarely performed plays can succumb to their melodramatic limitations if not handled properly. One such piece is Anna Christie, O’Neill’s 1922 Pulitzer Prize winner detailing the emotional triangle among the title character, a reformed prostitute; her Swedish seafaring father, Chris; and Matt, the brawling Irish stoker who, ignorant of her shady past, falls in love with her. Anna is probably best known from the 1931 MGM film version that provided Greta Garbo with her first speaking role. More-recent Broadway revivals starring Liv Ullman and Natasha Richardson have emphasized Anna’s proto-feminism. When she is forced to reveal her former profession, she defiantly castigates her father and suitor for their moral outrage. Haven’t they been guilty of the same “sin” by patronizing the type of establishments she was forced to work in?
   Unfortunately, the play is loaded with hokey stage devices, long talky scenes, and Chris’s repetitious ruminations on the evil influence of “dat ole devil sea,” which he believes has ruined the lives of all involved. In Berkshire Theatre Group’s production in Stockbridge, Mass., director David Auburn (playwright of Proof) nearly succeeds in overcoming these flaws to deliver a passionate, believable tale of three people struggling to make the best of the bad hand fate has dealt them. Auburn and the solid cast can’t quite compensate for cobwebbed plot machinations—Chris gets a delayed letter from Anna on the same day he is to meet her after 15 years apart, Matt declares his intention to marry Anna just minutes after he first lays eyes on her, etc. Yet the staging and limning are so simple and direct, we almost forget these old-fashioned tricks.

Rebecca Brooksher carries Anna’s damaged past around like a sack of dirty laundry. She wants to hide it but is clearly ready to swing it at anyone who challenges her. The weight and anguish of her father’s abandonment can be seen in her every gesture and inflection. Yet she forcefully conveys Anna’s objective: to discard that laundry bag and get on with her life despite her dad’s obsession with the sea. Jonathan Hogan makes for a lovable, rascally Chris; he even manages to make the character’s endless declamations against the ocean bearable. Derek Wilson finds the vulnerability beneath Matt’s muscular bluster, keeping him from turning into a bragging bully. Alison Fraser (The Secret Garden, Romance/Romance) is especially moving as Marthy, the veteran waterfront dame sharing digs with Chris. Beneath the tattered rags and whisky-soaked growl, you can see the enchanting young girl she once was.
   One quibble about the casting: Brooksher and Wilson are so good-looking and well-scrubbed even when they’re supposed to be covered with grime, it’s a little hard to believe them as working-class stiffs. Yet they illuminate the emotional truth of O’Neill’s downtrodden lovers.

August 28, 2013
  
First Date
Longacre Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

My blind date with the first new musical of the 2013–14 Broadway season did not sound promising: a 90-minute comedy about the pitfalls of romantic fix-ups, written by a TV scribe and a songwriting team whose major credits included Disney animated films and a Folgers commercial. From the press release and reports on an earlier production at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, I was dreading stale jokes about mismatches, swishy gay best friends, pushy Jewish mothers, and this newfangled web-thing called Google. But I was pleasantly surprised and actually enjoyed most of First Date.
   While the show is guilty of trotting out tired comic tropes, a game cast led by an assured Zachary Levi of TV’s Chuck in his Broadway debut, and the always delightful Krysta Rodriguez, who managed to outshine Katharine McPhee on Smash, gives the material a fresh bounce. Bill Berry, producing director of the 5th Avenue Theatre, stages the show with economy and wit, and, apart from a lapse or two, this short summer fling passes agreeably, if not memorably.
   The premise is simplicity itself: Nebbishy, conventional Aaron (Levi) is set up by a co-worker with edgy, artistic Casey (Rodriguez). Both have been burned in the dating wars and are wary of this new encounter. They meet in a restaurant-bar, and their waiter (of course he’s gay and has show-business aspirations) and four fellow diners play all the roles in Aaron’s and Casey’s heads. The book, by Austin Winsberg (Gossip Girl), is fairly predictable—awkward initial chit-chat, inevitable conflict, final lip lock—and the songs, by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, have more than a bit of pastiche to them. Almost all of the secondary characters are straight from Stereotype Central. In his mind, Aaron’s grandma rises from the grave like Fruma-Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof and threatens to break her grandson’s “matzo balls” if he marries the gentile Casey. Meanwhile, Casey’s extremely nelly BFF repeatedly and annoyingly calls her cellphone as a bail-out option.
   But Levi and Rodriguez are so refreshingly honest in their interplay, we wind up rooting for them to get together despite the hokey world they inhabit. Levi displays a self-deprecating charm, which he wisely underplays, and shows off a decent set of singing and dancing chops. He avoids treacle in a syrupy ballad about Aaron’s dead mother and really goes to town in a funny revenge number sung to his haughty ex. Rodriguez has the harder task of making the brittle and defensive Casey likable. She pulls it off brilliantly, slowly exposing Casey’s vulnerability while peeling off cynical wisecracks. This works especially well in her solo “Safer,” an interior monologue on the emotional walls her character builds.
   The versatile supporting company goes far to flesh out the comedy-sketch roles. Blake Hammond sparkles as the perky waiter, particularly in “I’d Order Love,” a kinda corny but sweet piano-bar tune. Only Sara Chase as Casey’s nagging sister leans too heavily on the kind of sitcom delivery that First Date mostly manages to sidestep.

August 13, 2013

The Flying Dutchman
Glimmerglass Festival at the Alice Busch Opera Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

If you think opera is dry and boring, check out the opening production of the 2013 summer season of the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. In an intense staging by artistic and general director Francesca Zambello, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman has probably never been so sexy. During a fierce duet in the second act, the leads could barely keep their hands to themselves, and I marveled at how they were able to hit their high notes while practically ravaging each other. That kind of sensuality percolates beneath the action and finally explodes as the maiden Senta gives in to her obsession for the titular character, a ghostly sea captain doomed to roam the ocean until he can find a woman brave or crazy enough—depending on your point of view—to spend eternity with him.
   After a passionate performance of the surging overture from conductor John Keenan and a magnificent orchestra, Zambello starts off with libidinal Freudian imagery. As the curtain rises, we see Senta thrashing about, entwined with ropes on a barren bed in the midst of a sexual dream. The ropes are repeated in James Noone’s stark set as the scene seamlessly shifts to the ship of Daland, Senta’s father, bound for home after a long voyage. The crew continually pulls on the rigging and this barely concealed erotic action is repeated with less subtlety among the sailors’ sweethearts as they weave similar ropes dangling from the flies and sing of their long-awaited reunions. Zambello has them practically whip themselves into an orgiastic frenzy.
   But the main friction is between Senta and the Dutchman who strikes a bargain with the greedy Daland for his daughter’s hand in return for the rich cargo the Dutchman has amassed during his endless travels. But Daland is unaware that his prospective son-in-law is a damned spirit seeking redemption in the form of a girl’s mortal love. By lucky coincidence, Senta is enchanted by the Dutchman’s legend and falls eagerly into his arms. Zambello endows this ethereal alliance with musky earthiness by having bass-baritone Ryan McKinny got up by costume designer Erik Teague as if the wandering captain were ready to hit an S&M leather bar. It doesn’t hurt that McKinny’s rich and resonant voice is matched by a powerful physique and his bare chest is covered with a huge tattoo of the Dutchman’s mystical vessel. This is one earthy ghost.
   Soprano Melody Moore is equally riveting as the addictive Senta. Her soaring, clear tone conveys idealistic romanticism and physical yearning. When McKinny and Moore clash, vocal and sexual sparks fly. Jay Hunter Morris, who made a striking impact in the Met’s recent Ring Cycle, keeps Erik, Senta’s discarded fiancé, from paling beside the dark and rugged Dutchman. Peter Volpe makes for a sturdy and somewhat comical Daland; Deborah Nansteel lends strength to Mary, the village matriarch and weaving mistress; and Adam Bielamowicz makes the most of the small role of the steersman.

July 9, 2013
 
The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin
Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The program describes the setting as “The American exurbs. Sam’s Clubs and SUVs and Caribou Coffee and the eerie, shuttered windows of foreclosed strip malls.” That’s a bit pretentious, but, fortunately, this Steven Levenson play avoids similar writerly clichés in its depiction of an America and a family ravaged by economic blight and emotional dishonesty. The titular character is a white-collar criminal, recently released from prison after a five-year sentence for a multimillion-dollar fraud. Through a series of deceptions that parallel his Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, Tom attempts to reconnect with his alienated family. “I just want my life back!” he roars in frustration as his family and colleagues reject his advances and ultimately tell him to just disappear again.
   That cry of pain is delivered by David Morse in the most intense moment of a searing performance. Equally piercing is the long-suppressed rage of Tom’s son James, given equal smoldering fire by Christopher Denham who takes on the difficult task of playing a burnt-out character barely able to express his buried desires and passions. James is the protagonist; he is the one who goes through a change. Stuck in a dead-end job selling medical equipment, scarcely keeping his head above water financially, and recovering from an ugly divorce, James seeks escape by enrolling in a writing class and creating an elaborate fiction about two men driving endlessly through Ukrainian mountains. Levenson’s craft is so subtle, we don’t realize until the play is almost over that this seemingly unrelated novel-in-progress is James’s idealized version of reuniting with his father. After Tom moves in with his son and basically wrecks James’s already fragile living situation, the young man seeks to reconcile his damaged past with his uncertain future and his father regretfully disappears again.
   Besides the heartbreaking father-son thread, several other relationships work their way through the script. Levenson fleshes out each with fascinating and convincing detail, executed with compassion and dimension by director Scott Ellis and a finely tuned cast. Sarah Goldberg gives Katie, James’s equally woebegone short-story writing classmate and potential new girlfriend, a dithery manner and a little-girl voice. She could have easily become a comedic, Goldie Hawn–like stereotype, but Goldberg plays her with honesty and warmth, avoiding the sitcom extremes.
   Likewise, Rich Sommer as Chris, Tom’s sad-sack son-in-law and former subordinate, is buffoonish and moving. In one hysterical scene, Chris explodes at Tom’s manipulative behavior and, a split scene later, complains about having to attend his tiny daughter’s ballet recital. It’s a brilliantly specific moment in which a seeming petty incident clashes with outsize emotion, and Sommer is achingly real in depicting it. Lisa Emery has only two scenes as Karen, Tom’s estranged wife, now married to a successful dentist, but Emery brings all of Karen’s rage, love, and sorrow to blazing life.
    Designer Beowulf Borritt’s set of disheveled living rooms and broken-down billboards completes the picture of a wrecked family desperately attempting to heal itself, but the members’ remedies push them further apart.

July 3, 2013
 
3 Kinds of Exile
Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The concept of 3 Kinds of Exile sounds intriguing, on paper anyway. Quirky and insightful playwright John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) employs three different examples—two based on reality and one totally fictional—to examine the effects of being forced to leave your homeland and reside permanently abroad. Each of these short vignettes contains fascinating ideas, but, onstage in this Atlantic Theatre Company production, they come across as untheatrical.
   The relatively brief evening begins with a monologue titled “Karel” in which Martin Moran relates the story of a man covered with a seemingly incurable Kafka-esque rash. After visiting a psychiatrist, he realizes the skin condition is a manifestation of his childhood fear when he left an unnamed Eastern European country for England during World War II. This curtain-raiser is short, direct, and simply delivered by an understated Moran.
   In “Elzbieta Erased,” the centerpiece of the program, the playwright Guare and Polish actor Omar Sangare narrate the volatile expatriate experience of real-life Polish actor Elzbieta Czyzewska, who came to New York after marrying American journalist David Halberstam, the Warsaw bureau chief for the New York Times during the 1960s. A star in her own land, Czyzewska (“My name is like a bad hand in Scrabble,” she once joked) struggled to find roles in American theater and films. She found work and acclaim at Yale Repertory Theater and even won an Obie for Mac Wellman’s Crowbar in an Off-Broadway production. But, ultimately, her attempts to achieve the kind of recognition she had in Poland were frustrated. Guare and Sangare knew and worked with the subject, yet the events are still told in the third person. The saga is full of conflict—political, personal, and artistic—but Neil Pepe’s flat direction and the second-hand nature of the piece render it static. Sangare’s thick accent and Guare’s unpolished performance add to the distancing.
   The program concludes with “Funiage,” inspired by the satiric autobiographical works of Witold Gombrowicz, who traveled from Poland to Argentina for a cultural exchange program in 1939 and decided to stay when Hitler invaded his homeland. This dark fantasy employs Brecht-Weill-like musical numbers and fantasy elements to convey Gombrowicz’s broiling dissatisfaction with his oppressive native country and the seductive allure of South America. The title refers to a combination funeral and marriage ceremony threatening to encase the protagonist in a symbolic union with Poland. He breaks free and joins in a joyous dance with the free-spirited Argentineans led by a Mephistopheles figure played by Sangare. There is vitality and wit here, especially in David Pittu’s snappy rendering of Witold, but the point of the piece is made early on—Poland is stuffy and mired in the past, Witold wants to get out—and much of the action is repetitive.
   The basic material and themes of these three pieces have potential, but they are not sufficiently developed to be compelling stage works. Perhaps a series of essays would have been more effective.

June 15, 2013

Tonys Predictions 2013
Our popular prognosticator prophesizes the prizes.

by David Sheward


Pippin

This year’s Tony Awards, scheduled for Sunday, June 9, at Radio City Music Hall and broadcast by CBS, appears to be a horse race, unlike most years when the winners are fairly predictable. Here are my choices for who is likely to triumph and who I believe deserves to.


Best Play
Prediction: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Preference: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
   For a while, I thought Lucky Guy would be the frontrunner because of double-Oscar winner Tom Hanks’s name on the marquee and the desire to pay tribute to its late author, Nora Ephron. But Vanya has won all the other awards (Drama Desk, Outer Critics, NY Drama Critics Circle, Drama League) and is the likely winner here.

Best Musical
Prediction: Kinky Boots
Preference: Matilda
   This category is a battle between Kinky Boots and Matilda. The other two nominees Bring It On and A Christmas Story had limited runs earlier in the season and have long since closed. There is an anti-Matilda backlash for some reason. I hear some Tony voters are complaining they can’t understand the thick British accents of the cast. Maybe the accents in Kinky Boots, which won the Outer Critics and Drama League awards, aren’t as heavy. But the tone of Boots is sentimental and conventional while Matilda celebrates edginess. When offered a choice, Tony voters go for the former over the latter.

Best Revival (Play)
Prediction: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Preference: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

   The recent brouhaha over the brochure sent to voters by Woolf producers is a tempest in a teacup. If anything, it will gain sympathy for the Albee play because the Tony Administration Committee’s regulations over promotional material are so silly. It also makes producer Nelle Nugent (The Trip to Bountiful), who called for a special committee meeting on the matter, seem petty.

Best Revival (Musical)
Prediction: Pippin
Preference: Pippin
   A foregone conclusion.

Director (Play)
Prediction: George C. Wolfe, Lucky Guy
Preference: Pam MacKinnon, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
   Wolfe manages to turn Nora Ephron’s episodic, screenplay-like script into a theatrical event, but MacKinnon had the subtler task of staging Edward Albee’s classic in a whole new way.

Director (Musical)
Prediction: Diane Paulus, Pippin
Preference: Diane Paulus, Pippin

Choreography
Prediction: Chet Walker, Pippin
Preference: Chet Walker, Pippin

Actor (Play)
Prediction:
Tom Hanks, Lucky Guy
Preference: Tracy Letts, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
   Letts won the Drama Desk and Nathan Lane the Outer Critics Circle, but I still think the majority of Tony voters who are producers want to see more big-name movie stars on Broadway, and a Tony for Hanks will encourage that trend.  

Actress (Play)
Prediction:
Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful
Preference: Laurie Metcalf, The Other Place
   Tyson was wonderful, but Metcalf had the more difficult role as the scientist suffering from brain disease. Unfortunately, The Other Place had a relatively short run as part of Manhattan Theater Club’s season. Kristine Nielsen miraculously combined satire with pathos as the lonely Sonia in Vanya and Sonia, but Tyson, already the winner of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics awards, will triumph.

Actor (Musical)
Prediction: Billy Porter, Kinky Boots
Preference: Bertie Carvel, Matilda

   Carvel should be in the featured category where he was placed by the Drama Desk and won. He would win a featured Tony in a walk for his hilariously menacing Miss Trunchbull.


Bertie Carvel in Matilda
Actress (Musical)
Prediction:
Patina Miller, Pippin
Preference: Patina Miller, Pippin
   Many of the best performances in this category weren’t eligible because they were Off-Broadway—Lindsay Mendez in Dogfight, Ruthie Ann Miles in Here Lies Love, Phillipa Soo in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812—which only goes to show that the Tonys are not truly representative of all New York theater.

Featured Actor (Play)
Prediction: Richard Kind, The Big Knife
Preference: Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy
   Courtney B. Vance is also a possibility to win just because he’s in Lucky Guy and industry Tony voters may want to give that show something extra. But I think it will be Kind, whose malevolent movie studio boss gets to rampage with gusto in The Big Knife. Tony Shalhoub’s more heartrending Italian-immigrant father was in Golden Boy, which closed months ago, and not all the voters may have seen it. If Tom Sturridge of Orphans were in this category instead of leading, he’d probably win as he did at the Outer Critics.

Featured Actress (Play)
Prediction: Judith Light, The Assembled Parties
Preference: Judith Ivey, The Heiress
   Light who won last year in the same category for Other Desert Cities, will win her second Tony thanks to the Richard Greenberg wisecracks she so skillfully delivers in The Assembled Parties. Judith Ivey showed more shading and complexity in what could have been a minor role: the interfering aunt in The Heiress. Ivey showed all the conflicting motivations behind the aunt’s questionable actions. If Kristine Nielsen of Vanya were in this category, she would have won it as she did at the Outer Critics, but she truly is a leading lady.

Featured Actor (Musical)
Prediction: Terrence Mann, Pippin
Preference: Will Chase, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
   Mann will probably win in recognition of his longevity, having been on Broadway for such a long time (Cats, the original Les Misérables, Beauty and the Beast) without a Tony, but I was more impressed by Chase’s devilishly funny turn in Drood.

Featured Actress (Musical)
Prediction: Andrea Martin, Pippin
Preference: Andrea Martin, Pippin
   Lesson No. 1: If you’re over 60, learn a trapeze act and the Tony is yours.

Book of a Musical
Prediction: Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots
Preference: Dennis Kelly, Matilda
  
I really want Dennis Kelly’s clever and sharp adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story to win, and it might be the consolation prize Boots voters are willing to concede it. But I have a feeling Boots will kick Matilda to the curb and sweep the major awards.

Best Score
Prediction: Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots
Preference: Tim Minchin, Matilda
   Just as Tony industry voters want more movie stars like Tom Hanks to come to the New York stage, they also want more pop stars like Lauper to write Broadway scores so Top 40 fans who would never otherwise attend the theater will plunk down their $100 to hear the songs penned by their favorite rock icons.

The design categories just include predictions since they pretty much match my preferences:

Set Design
(Play): The Nance
(Musical): Matilda

Costume Design
(Play): The Nance
(Musical): Cinderella

Lighting Design
(Play): Lucky Guy
(Musical): Pippin  

Sound Design
(Play): The Nance
(Musical): Motown, the Musical

Orchestrations
Cinderella

June 5, 2013

Check back after the ceremony and see how we did....
 

 
Nikolai and the Others
Lincoln Center Theatre at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Russians are dominating the New York stage these days. First we had Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s wild takeoff on Chekhov, which is the frontrunner for the Best Play Tony. Then Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s inventive, immersive pop-opera based on a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Now with Nikolai and the Others, Richard Nelson, one of our finest playwrights, focuses on a group of artistic émigrés adjusting to life in post–World War II America. Nelson, whose work includes fresh takes on historic figures (The General From America, Two Shakespearean Actors), also echoes Chekhov in this thought-provoking examination of art, politics, sex, and the meaning of home.
   Like many of Chekhov’s theatrical works, Nikolai takes places at a country home during a gathering of friends and relations whose amorous and artistic ambitions come into conflict. It’s 1948, and Lucia Davidova is hosting a weekend at her Westport, Conn., home, just for her fellow Russian exiles. The most prominent of these are the choreographer George Balanchine and the composer Igor Stravinsky, who are collaborating on a new ballet based on the Orpheus myth. There’s also Stravinsky’s wife, Vera; her ex-husband Sudeikin, once a prominent artist, now a broken old man; Vladimir Sokoloff, an actor consigned to “exotic” roles; and the protagonist, Nikolai Nabokov, a composer working for the American government in its cultural Cold War against the former homeland of the guests. There are many other characters and dozens of plots and subplots, but the main one is provided by Nicky’s efforts to aide his fellow Russians in their various problems with passports and finding work, and Nicky’s passionate desire to return to his music and drop his diplomatic chores.
   These wishes are stymied by a surprise visitor, Charles “Chip” Bohlen, a state department official determined to keep Nicky in the employ of Uncle Sam. Nelson subtly weaves these threads together in a fascinating tapestry depicting the complex juxtaposition of the joy of art and the nitty-gritty of everyday life. All of these geniuses need the somewhat vulgar Chip to survive in their new home, and the push-pull of passion versus necessity is exemplified in Nicky’s dilemma. So they knuckle under to Chip’s pressures to become patriotic, anti-Communist Americans while creating beautiful dances, pictures, and music. Orpheus’s lyre becomes a symbol of their undying need to create art, but Nelson doesn’t hit us over the head with it.
   There are an astonishing 18 actors on the intimate Newhouse stage, and director David Cromer moves them around Marsha Ginsberg’s cozy farmhouse set with the choreographic skill worthy of Balanchine. It’s exciting to see so many fine performers in a nonmusical play in these budget-strapped days. Each delivers a colorful and vital piece to this masterful mosaic. But special mention should be made of Stephen Kunken’s torn-up Nicky, Alvin Epstein’s feisty Sudeikin, John Glover’s egotistical Stravinsky, John Procaccino’s comic Vladimir, and Michael Rosen and Natalia Alonso as the graceful principal dancers in the ballet in development.

May 27, 2013
    
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
Kazino [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

It sounds like a recipe for disaster: a sung-through musical adaptation of a section of War and Peace employing a contemporary pop-rock vocabulary and preceded by a dinner service in a nightclub atmosphere. But this challenging immersive experience manages to capture the raw universal emotions of Tolstoy’s sweeping classic in an intimate setting. It’s as if each audience member is in the opera box next to naïve Natasha Rostov when she first catches a glimpse of the devastatingly handsome Anatole Kuragin or in the sweaty, vibrant club where cerebral Pierre Bezukhov challenges the arrogant Dolokhov to a duel.
   After a limited run at Ars Nova, the production has transferred to a specially constructed tent site near the West Side Highway. Patrons are squeezed together at tables and receive a preshow traditional Russian meal complete with borscht and vodka shots. The action, staged with dexterity by Rachel Chavkin, unfolds all around the audience and focuses on a few chapters in the massive novel—specifically, those concerning Natasha’s aborted romance to the already-married scoundrel Anatole and the efforts of Pierre, Anatole’s brother-in-law, to save the young girl from ruin. Mimi Lein’s colorful set, Paloma Young’s period costumes, and especially Bradley King’s poetic lighting contribute to the authentic atmosphere.
   Dave Malloy’s score and orchestrations run the gamut from pop to rock to country and western, all in the modern vein. One might not think 21st century sounds would be effective in telling a 19th century story, but they succeed in delineating the passions and urges of Tolstoy’s characters, making them as real and immediate as any found in a hit HBO series or current box-office blockbuster. The harsh backbeat behind the tense first meeting of Natasha and Mary, her fiancé Andrey’s sister, perfectly conveys their animosity. Helene, Pierre’s sluttish wife, is given a Beyoncé-like anthem to the joys of Moscow nightlife; while Sonya, Natasha’s devoted cousin, delivers a soulful, country ballad that one can imagine Taylor Swift crooning.
   Malloy also plays Pierre; his sandpaper baritone and bearish demeanor are ideal for the awkward yet tenderhearted would-be philosopher. The magnificent Phillipa Soo passionately depicts Natasha’s conflicting desires, first sentimental attachment for Andrey who is off fighting Napoleon, then intoxication for the devilish Anatole, and finally crushing despair when both desert her. The final scene between Natasha and Pierre where the latter confesses his love for the former, is accompanied by a simple piano progression. Malloy and Soo give it an equally direct rendition and it left me sobbing. Kudos as well to Brittain Ashford’s moving Sonya, Amber Gray’s sassy Helene, Lucas Steele’s charismatic Anatole, Gelsey Bell’s appealing Mary, Blake Delong’s sensitive Andrey, and Grace McLean’s haughty Marya D., Natasha’s godmother.
   Along with Here Lies Love and Murder Ballad, Natasha and Pierre is charting new territory in musical staging, and adventurous theatergoers will want to make the journey.

May 19, 2013

Here Lies Love
The Public Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Pop, rock, disco, politics, and stunning theatrical imagination combine in this innovative musical now at the Public Theater. This bracingly original event—one hesitates to call it something as ordinary as a show—stretches the musical genre in form and content. Conceived by David Bryne of Talking Heads and employing a richly evocative score by Byrne, Fatboy Slim, Tom Gandey, and J Pardo, Here Lies Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos’s relentless rise to power as first lady of the Philippines. It’s significant that Byrne does not indulge in an obvious comedy number about his subject’s famous shoe collection. Neither he, his musical collaborators, nor the ingenious staging of Alex Timbers stoops to such clichés.
   Timbers, who has done similarly creative work with such productions as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher, and set designer David Korins have reconfigured the Public’s LuEsther Hall into a disco floor. Moving platforms are taken apart and fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces to provide multiple playing areas for the story of Imelda’s progression from small-town beauty queen to ruthless queen bee of her husband’s brutal administration. Peter Nigrini’s graphic projections and Justin Townsend’s flashy lighting augment Timbers’s ingenious staging and Annie-B Parson’s 1980s-flavored choreography. The small audience—the space only holds 160—remains standing throughout the piece’s 90 minutes and becomes a part of the action as the actors move through the crowd, involving them in dance patterns, political rallies, and finally, an unspeakably passionate and simple tribute to the slain opposition leader Aquino and a celebration of the eventual overthrow of the Marcos regime.
   The lead role is given complexity and depth by Ruthie Ann Miles, who manages to make this monster of privilege somewhat sympathetic. Her Imelda is not the usual Cruella De Vil stereotype with a shoe fetish but an entitled, attractive brat who believes what’s best for her is best for her country. The score’s catchy Top 40 sound makes ironic commentary on Imelda’s narcissistic relationship with her adoring public. Like a softer, gentler Evita, she seduces the population with tender, soothing melodies and caressing lyrics, while Ferdinand Marcos, her ruthless spouse, is made into an equally charismatic, deceptively romantic figure by the glitteringly handsome Jose Llana. Aquino (a dynamic Conrad Ricamora) is given more intense, forceful rallying cries, and Imelda’s childhood friend Estrella (a soulful Melody Butiu) delivers yearning ballads imploring her former pal to return to her modest roots.
   Along with a vibrant ensemble playing multiple roles, these principals create a shattering, highly stylized history of a national tragedy, which somehow leaves you singing and dancing as you exit the theater. That’s a rare feat and one that deserves to be experienced by as large as an audience as possible. Hopefully, Here Lies Love will rise and have a life beyond its limited run.

May 12, 2013

Orphans
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


It’s easy to see why the 1985 Off-Broadway production of this Lyle Kessler play launched the reputation of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, had such a long run, and inspired so many productions across the US and around the world. It has both economy and excitement: three characters, one set, a running time of less than two hours, and lots of opportunities for the kind of pyrotechnic dramatic violence that Mamet and Pinter have made famous. In its Broadway premiere, we get to see some of those thespian fireworks, but the full impact of Kessler’s shattering tale of little boys lost is lost amid the craving for audience affection.
   The simple plot entails the kind of power plays and sketchy relationships seen in Mamet’s American Buffalo and Pinter’s The Homecoming. Siblings Treat and Philip, abandoned by their parents and having fallen through the cracks of the system, live a feral existence in a rundown North Philadelphia row house. Overprotective and sociopathic Treat steals to supply his animal-like kid brother with tuna fish and mayonnaise. Gentle Philip is terrified of leaving this hovel (designed with ramshackle artistry by John Lee Beatty) because Treat has convinced him he’s allergic to everything outside.
   The dynamics in this dysfunctional, makeshift family change when Treat kidnaps blustering businessman Harold, who turns out to be a gangster. The seemingly benevolent Harold is a cold, calculating killer who could eat these boys for breakfast. But, being an orphan himself, he longs to become a father figure to them and moves in. Gradually, Treat becomes jealous of Harold’s role as Philip’s mentor and protector and he rebels with catastrophic results.
   For this new production, director Daniel Sullivan strives to balance the potentially hilarious Tarantino-like antics of the characters with their heartbreaking yearning to connect with each other. But he’s thwarted by the real muscle of the venture, Alec Baldwin. As Harold, the popular sitcom star and Capitol One pitchman cravenly plays for our laughs and love. Baldwin seems to saying, “Look at this guy, isn’t he a kook?” with his obvious performance.
   Fortunately, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge sink into their roles of Treat and Philip rather than standing aloofly outside of them as Baldwin does. Foster is truly frightening as the powder-keg elder brother, ready to go off at the slightest provocation. But he’ll rip your heart out when Treat’s fragile support system is pulled away and he has nothing to hold on to. Sturridge is equally moving, and he gives Philip a fascinating physical life, a combination of monkey and cat as he leaps from couch to chair to stairway. These two actors give rich life to Kessler’s work and almost make up for Baldwin’s mugging.

April 30, 2013
 
The Trip to Bountiful
Stephen Sondheim Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

“How did we get to this place?” Carrie Watts asks her son Ludie as they stand before the ruined house they used to live in. It’s a shattering question, as both have arrived at miserable stations in life through unlucky circumstances. Since her farming land played out, the elderly Carrie has turned into a quarrelsome crone, confined in a stuffy city, while Ludie is just now getting back on his feet after a long-term illness cost him his job. In the new revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, the question has added resonance because the Watts family is cast with African-American actors. The weight of racism is subtly suggested in Michael Wilson’s moving staging of this 1953 drama, yet it’s definitely there. But the nontraditional casting is just one element in a splendid revival that provides a triumphant return to Broadway for Cicely Tyson, whose age has been reported as anywhere from 79 to 88. No matter what her true age is, Tyson gradually sheds years as Carrie rediscovers her dignity on her journey.
   The role has proved a showcase for such luminous stars as Lillian Gish (the 1953 original TV version and Broadway adaptation the same year), Geraldine Page (an Oscar winner for the 1985 film), and Lois Smith (an Obie and Drama Desk winner for the 2005 Signature Theatre revival, also helmed by Wilson). It’s no wonder. Carrie gets to comically spar with her disagreeable daughter-in-law, reveal her tragic girlhood romance in a long monologue, physically confront a sheriff, and undergo an epiphany of understanding as she accepts her situation and makes the best of it.
   Not much happens in Foote’s poetic evocation of ordinary lives. Carrie cannot stand sharing a two-room Houston apartment with Ludie and his self-absorbed wife, Jessie Mae. With her pension check safely secured in her bra, Carrie takes a bus ride to Bountiful, the now-deserted town of her youth on the Gulf of Mexico. Along the journey, she meets a lonely Army bride and that sheriff who turns out to be sympathetic, and finally confronts her past dreams. At the bus station, we encounter the signs of the segregated South where Carrie must wait in the “colored only” area and purchase her ticket from a separate counter from white passengers. Wilson and his set designer, Jeff Cowie, wisely downplay these elements and let them just be a natural part of the Watts’s world.
   Tyson overplays the comic aspects of Carrie early on—hiding her pension check with an elaborate flourish, for example. But she gradually abandons this tact (as Wilson does in his staging) and allows Foote’s simple eloquence to seep into her performance. When she directly delivers the soliloquy explaining why Carrie never married the man she really loved, you can feel her heart breaking, and yours will too. By the end of the trip, Tyson is truly luminous, radiating Carrie’s joy after redeeming her self-worth. Cuba Gooding Jr., in his Broadway debut, fully exposes Ludie’s sorrow at his perceived failures, but he also remembers this man really loves both his burdensome mother and his selfish wife. Vanessa Williams keeps the contentious Jessie Mae from becoming a villain. This is a woman in middle age who was a beauty queen and is still used to be treated like a princess because of her looks.
   Condola Rashad has many sweet and understated moments as Thelma, Carrie’s traveling companion, as does Tom Wopat as the sheriff with an unexpected love of birds. Veteran Arthur French makes the small role of a train station attendant memorable. Along with Cowie’s evocative setting and Rui Rita’s romantic lighting, the cast and director weave a tapestry of ordinary Americans, seeking home and making due when dreams are no longer sustainable.

April 24, 2013

The Assembled Parties
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


“It’s like the sets of those plays you love with the breezy dialogue,” says Jeff, an earnest young man describing the elegant and cavernous Upper West Side apartment belonging to the parents of his school friend Scotty, in The Assembled Parties, Richard Greenberg’s sweet but ultimately uneven new play on the yearning for familial connection. Jeff, who is visiting for Christmas in 1980 and on the phone to his mother, is attempting to capture the enchantment the apartment and its inhabitants, the Boscovs, have for him. The playwright is also self-consciously referencing a style of theater—long gone even in 1980—where patrician characters exchange scintillating quips over martinis. Greenberg, like Jeff, longs for that kind of world and mourns its passing in this play, as he has in others such as The American Plan and The Violet Hour, which were also presented by Manhattan Theatre Club.
   The main source of Jeff’s idolization is Scotty’s graceful mother Julie, a former film star who seems to effortlessly glide through life, thanks in part to her wealthy husband, Ben. Her biggest disappointment is charismatic Scotty’s noncommittal attitude toward his future, but even that doesn’t upset her too much. Not so lucky is Ben’s sister Faye, saddled with an unhappy marriage to the brutish Mort and a terrible relationship with her intellectually challenged daughter Shelley. As the clan gathers for the yuletide feast while Scotty’s little brother Timmy is in bed with the flu, additional strands of plot involving blackmail, prostitution, and intrigue between Ben and Mort are revealed. After intermission, we jump ahead 20 years to Christmas 2000, and seeds planted in the first act bear fruit. Jeff, now a corporate lawyer, has assumed the role of family caretaker, Julie and Faye are widows, Scotty has died (apparently of AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion), and the grown-up Timmy has a pregnant girlfriend. Despite financial troubles, the survivors resolve to live together in the huge apartment as ends are tied up a bit too neatly.
   Greenberg delivers numerous dazzlingly funny bits of dialogue (“Republican Jews? What is that—It’s like skinny fat people,” complains Faye), but there are an equal number of stilted lines. The multiple plots, especially one involving a mysterious piece of jewelry, and the arched references come across as pretentious and contrived. The author touches on the characters’ conflicted sense of identity and their attitudes toward their Jewishness but fails to develop this theme. The question of their celebrating Christmas rather than Hanukah is never quite addressed. Jeff, the emotional core of the play, is underdeveloped. Other than the one phone call to his mother, we find out very little about him. Does he really have nothing else going on in his life other than the tribulations of a school chum’s family?
   Greenberg is primarily interested in his leading ladies, Julie and Faye, and fortunately, they are brought to warm, vital life by reliable veterans Jessica Hecht and Judith Light respectively. Hecht manages to make Julie’s obliviousness endearing, and Light expertly delivers Faye’s numerous wisecracks. Jeremy Shamos endows Jeff with reams of subtext the playwright fails to provide and almost succeeds in getting us to care about him. Lauren Blumenfeld gives the dim Shelley a welcome nasty bite. Jonathan Walker and the excellent Mark Blum are largely wasted in the roles of Ben and Mort. Jake Silberman does differentiate his dual roles of Scotty and Tim, and strongly peruses the latter’s objective—hiding his girlfriend from his family.
   The production, directed with a sure and loving hand by MTC’s artistic director Lynne Meadow, is gorgeously realized by set designer Santo Loquasto and costume designer Jane Greenwood. Meadow skillfully paces and blocks the family on Loquasto’s set, which revolves in Act 1 and remains stationary in Act 2. Sensitively lit by Peter Kaczorowski, the world of the play is indeed seductively beautiful, suggesting a society based on faded but alluring chic. But when a stage apartment is more interesting than the people in it, that’s a problem.

April 18, 2013
 
Motown the Musical
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Brandon Victor Dixon and Bryan Terrell Clark
Photo by Joan Marcus

The song list alone is staggering. More than 50 titles are crammed into Motown the Musical, the new retrospective jukebox musical celebrating the legendary R&B entertainment giant. If this were a revue, there would be no problem with the embarrassment of riches. But it’s a book musical purporting to tell the story of Motown’s founder Berry Gordy Jr., from his early days as a struggling songwriter to his final triumph as head of a multimillion-dollar brand. Gordy is not only the main character, he’s also the author of the book, which is based on his memoir To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown. His libretto, dotted with dozens of hits from the label’s stunning history, comes across as an antidote to Dreamgirls, the fictional version of the label’s rise and that of its biggest stars Diana Ross and the Supremes. In that fabulous show, the Gordy character is conniving and manipulative. Here he’s a saint whose worst flaw is his tremendous work ethic.
   The story starts with the conventional choice of a TV special commemorating Motown’s 25th anniversary. An embattled Gordy, fighting to keep his company from being swallowed up by conglomerates, refuses to attend. As his numerous co-workers and artists including Smokey Robinson attempt to persuade Gordy to make an appearance, he naturally flashes back to his Detroit childhood in 1938 and we’re off on a memory tour. We race through the beginnings of Motown, tours through the segregated South, guest shots on The Ed Sullivan Show, Gordy’s stormy romance with Diana Ross, the turbulent ’60s, race riots, the discovery of the Jackson Five, movie production with Lady Sings the Blues, reinvention with funk, and on and dizzingly on.
   So much music and incident is stuffed into the show’s two hours and 45 minutes, it’s like one of those PBS fundraisers on which hot groups from the past alternate with testimonials on how wonderful the producing entity is. But Motown’s main audience probably will not be musical theater purists but fans of the catalogue who will want to relive their youth. That’s the appeal of still-running smashes that include Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, and Motown will probably be joining them on the hit list.
   Thanks to a spectacularly talented cast, efficient direction by Charles Randolph-Wright, Peter Hylenski’s superb sound design, and the flashy choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, even though the book falls short, Motown does not disappoint musically. The re-creation of gold-plated standards “Stop in the Name of Love,” “My Momma Told Me,” and “Do You Love Me” at least evoke the originals.   There are a few moments that are more than just “Greatest Hits” retreads, though. Bryan Terrell Clark channels the aching despair of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” while young Raymond Luke Jr. (who alternates with Jibreel Mawry) delivers an amazing Michael Jackson on “I’ll Be There.” Marva Hicks, Saycon Sengbloh, and Ariana DeBose also display impressive voices. The sequence depicting the Motortown Revue’s 1962 performance in a hostile Birmingham, Ala., imparts simmering racial tension and breaks out of the show’s breakneck, “Let’s hit all the high points” pattern.
   Valisia LeKae has Diana Ross’s vocals down pat, but in her extensive book scenes, LeKae is imitating Ross rather than playing her. As Gordy, Brandon Victor Dixon has the onerous task of carrying the heavy storyline while the rest of the company gets to cut loose and just sing their lungs out. An experienced professional, Dixon pulls his difficult assignment off with flair, endowing this cardboard version of a real-life showbiz icon with grit, passion, and some of the complexities Gordy left out of his book.

April 14, 2013

Opened April 14 for an open run. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $57–142. (877) 250-2929.

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Tackling the Assassination of an International Icon

Anna Khaja tells the story of Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistani people’s complex struggles while exploring her own roots and culture ambivalence.

By Simi Horwitz




Anna Khaja moves seamlessly from character to character in her solo show, Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto. It’s set on Dec. 27, 2007 when the two-time prime minister of Pakistan was assassinated. Khaja evokes eight discrete figures—some fictional, others historical, including Bhutto—bringing to life a complex, contradictory, and corrupt society. Depending on viewpoint, Bhutto was a democratic savior, the victim of Muslim fundamentalism, an American puppet or, perhaps, a combination thereof.
   Shaheed, meaning martyr in Arabic, had a sold out run in Los Angeles in 2010 at the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre and is now enjoying an extension at Off-Broadway’s Culture Project, a theater dedicated to addressing social and political issues. The intense and thoughtful Khaja acknowledges that Bhutto and, indeed, the evolution of Pakistan are open to interpretation. If nothing else, she hopes theatergoers want to explore the topic more fully. “I love it when people say to me after seeing the show, ‘I’m going home to Google Bhutto,’” Khaja says.
   Allan Buchman, founder and artistic director of the Culture Project, explains what drew him to Shaheed: "In the psyche of the American global awareness, Pakistan is perhaps the least understood of all the major powers. The more we become familiar with a culture other than our own, the greater the likelihood of our ability to build bridges of understanding.
   He notes Khaja, though half Pakistani, had no fundamental understanding of her culture as she grew up without the benefit of the presence of her Pakistani father. “Therefore,” he says, “the intensity and urgency of her quest to grasp her roots bring a unique and compelling insight to the subject."  

A League of Her Own
   The genesis of the piece was long in the making. A Castro Valley, Calif., native, Khaja was raised without any religion, despite her father’s Muslim background and her American mother’s Catholicism. Indeed, her parents were children of the ’70s and far more interested in native cultures than in their own traditions.
   “My dad was not forthcoming about his family or culture,” Khaja recalls. “He really embraced Western culture and raised me with little exposure to his culture. I was brought up with zero attention to gender identity and that was a good thing.”
   At the same time something was missing. Khaja recalls experiencing cultural ambivalence throughout much of her life, feeling connected to her Pakistani origins and simultaneously cut off. “I was the ‘other,’” she says. “I felt foreign to myself. I had a cousin who said I had the mind of a Westerner and the soul of an Easterner. The day after Bhutto’s assignation, I felt compelled to tell her story.”
   Initially, Khaja planned to play only Bhutto. But as her research and writing evolved, the other characters simply materialized and took on a life of their own. “It just felt right to include them,” she notes. “They emboldened the story I wanted to tell about the soul of the Pakistani people’s struggle for freedom and democracy. But, of course Bhutto, who was an iconic figure, was certainly the center of the struggle.”
   Taking on multiple characters in a solo show is daunting, most pointedly the internationally recognizable Condoleezza Rice who makes a none-too-attractive appearance. With a pleasant veneer, she is nonetheless brittle and conniving. Khaja says she hopes to capture the former secretary of State’s essence without impersonating her.
   “She’s friendly, but we have to sense her manipulation of Bhutto,” Khaja notes. “Part of my problem is that Rice is nebulous. I’ve tried to find her essence, her energy, and I still keep hitting walls.”
   Also doing a one-person piece “is incredibly lonely,” Khaja says. “What most prepared me was David Hare’s advice that when you’re doing a solo show, it’s all about the audience, and it’s my job to envelop that audience even if I’m not addressing the audience directly. It’s very different from the traditional actor’s approach.”
   Make no mistake, Khaja is well-versed in traditional acting, having appeared in a host of plays, including Hare’s Stuff Happens and an array of TV and film roles—including appearances on House M.D., Private Practice, Criminal Minds, The Closer, Weeds, and a recurring role last season on True Blood, among others. Khaja still defines herself mostly as an actor and dreams about playing Hedda Gabler on Broadway. But she also has her sights set on a screenwriting career and is currently working on a script about a female Arab-American drone pilot who is surveying a militant combatant in Pakistan and then ordered to assassinate him, eliciting  complicated emotions. Khaja dreams of playing the lead, she says.

Claiming Her Power
   Like most actors, Khaja’s journey has not been smooth sailing. After earning her B.A. in theater at UCLA, Khaja worked as a schoolteacher for a number of years—saving money and fortifying herself emotionally—before launching her acting career at age 27. The late start didn’t help, she admits.
   Despite limited opportunities, Khaja was not open to every role that came her way. Frequently cast as a Latina or Middle Eastern woman—“never a regular unidentified Caucasian”—she was keenly sensitive to ethnic typecasting and turned down roles she found stereotypically offensive.
   “I was cast as a Palestinian mother who sent her children off to be martyrs,” Khaja recalls. “Because she lacked depth and the explanations for her behavior were black-and-white and racist, I refused to play that part. I believe a character like that could be depicted in an interesting way, and I might play it if the message was acceptable.”
   An artistic turning point was learning to trust her own instincts and to “stop giving my power away to those who ‘knew better,’” she says. “I had to stop allowing teachers and directors to dictate how to play a role or what was valuable or not valuable in acting. I made a conscious decision to let my excitement and journey guide me.”
   Equally important, she says, was perceiving of herself as a business entity who makes contacts and creates work for herself. Recognizing the element of luck, Khaja nonetheless believes determination plays a role in one’s success. Either way, “I think about being on my deathbed and wondering, ‘Did I do everything I could? Did I give it my all or did I let fear stop me?’”
   At the moment her thoughts are centered on Shaheed and her hope that audiences “have their hearts opened up to the struggle of the Pakistani people and not just see them as ‘the other,’” she asserts. “That’s what I love about theater and story telling [as opposed to essays and works of non-fiction]. It travels through the brain, but its aim is the heart and triggers compassion.”

March 31, 2013

First photo by Maia Rosenfeld

Second and third photos by Hunter Canning



 
Ann
Vivian Beaumont Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Texas governor Ann Richards is probably best-remembered for her powerhouse speech at the 1992 Democratic convention in which she attacked then-President George H.W. Bush for being “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Her no-nonsense demeanor and down-home delivery helped fire up the Democratic base for Clinton, defeating the incumbent and earning the wrath of the Bush family. The son George W. trounced Richards in her bid for re-election and was in a prime position to reclaim his father’s position as chief executive. But Ann, the snappy, crackling solo play written by and starring Holland Taylor, does not even mention the Bushes or that famous speech. It’s as if that episode and her defeat were mere interludes in a life of public service and political excitement.
   Taylor, best-known as the sharp-tongued mother on Two and Half Men and the sexually aggressive judge on The Practice, is letter-perfect as Richards right down to the Texas twang and the jiffy-pop coiffure (designed by Paul Huntley) referred to as “her Republican hair.” The play begins rather conventionally with the former governor addressing graduates at an imaginary college. After a few wisecracks and anecdotes, she launches into a biography tracing the subject’s journey from Depression-era small town to the executive mansion in a state the size of France.
   Then the play breaks the mold and ventures into imaginative territory. The bulk of the evening is now given over to a typical day in Richards’s life. With the marvelously tart Julie White providing the offstage voice of a secretary, Taylor’s Richards deftly juggles a dozen phone lines. She switches from discussing the sentence of a death row convict for murdering and raping a nun to joking with President Clinton to corralling her difficult children for a weekend fishing trip and choosing up sides for charades, all without missing a beat.
    This whole sequence is directed with precision and attention to detail by Benjamin Endsley Klein and flawlessly executed by Taylor both as author and performer. The play could have ended right there and I would have been happy, but she adds an unnecessary epilogue on Richards’s post-political life and even throws in a memorial service wrap-up, delivered from beyond the grave presumably. That’s the only bit of fat on the otherwise lean and mean Ann.

March 26, 2013
 
Hands on a Hardbody
Brooks Atkinson Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward



What a challenge for director Neil Pepe and choreographer Sergio Trujillo! The central action of Hands on a Hardbody—the twangy, gritty, and just-plain-wonderful new musical—consists of 10 people standing around. Originally produced at the La Jolla Playhouse, the show is based on a 1997 documentary focusing on an endurance competition at a Texas Nissan dealership to win a new pickup truck. The contestants must keep their hands on the prize with only brief bathroom breaks every six hours. The last one left standing wins the truck. How are you going make a Broadway musical with singing and dancing out of a static event like that?
   The great news is Pepe and Trujillo, who is credited with musical staging rather than choreography, pull it off, as do book-writer Doug Wright (Grey Gardens) and Amanda Green and Phish front man Trey Anastasio who are responsible for the eclectic and vibrant score. The stagers solve the problem by moving the truck all around Christine Jones’s spare but versatile set, as Trujilo invents infinitely variable movements around the four-wheeled focus of attention. Kevin Adams’s lighting also aides in creating multiple moods and states of mind from blazing noon to dreamy twilight to exotic fantasies. The writers address the problem by giving us three-dimensional, identifiable characters for whom to root. There’s nary a redneck stereotype in the bunch.
   Each has a believable stake in the contest, mostly motivated by the harsh realities of a souring economy. Hispanic veterinary student Jesus plans to sell the vehicle in order to pay his tuition. Churchgoing Norma needs transportation for her husband and kids. Scrappy seniors Janis and Don are barely scraping by. Even the dealers Mike and Cindy desperately require the publicity to generate sales for their failing lot or they’ll be out of work.
   Wright’s compassionate book and the lively score (lyrics by Green who collaborates on the music with Anastasio) paint a canvas of achingly real middle-class, everyday Americans, people rarely seen on Broadway. The score’s sounds of country, rock, and gospel are also welcome visitors to the Main Stem, tangily orchestrated by Anastasio and Don Hart.  

Almost every number is a show stopper, but particularly good is Norma’s a cappella “Joy of the Lord,” accompanied by the cast beating out rhythms on the cherry-red truck; “I’m Gone,” a sweetly yearning ballad of longing to escape the confines of a UPS job; and “Used to Be,” an ode to the long-gone uniqueness of small towns, now swallowed up by the national uniformity of Starbucks and Wal-Mart.
   The 15-member cast couldn’t be better. It’s difficult to single out any one of them, but Keala Settle (a gospel-shouting Norma), Hunter Foster (the obnoxious and rowdy past winner Benny Perkins), and Jacob Ming-Trent (a candy-loving contestant whose sweet tooth does him in) should be remembered at Tony time.

March 23, 2013
 
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Broadway Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Laura Osnes

You would think Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway would be a slam-dunk. One of the most beloved television programs of all time with the iconic team’s loveliest score—in my humble opinion, anyway—on the Great White Way for the first time, what could possibly go wrong? Overthinking, that’s what. The creative team behind this elaborate fairy-tale couldn’t make up its collective mind as to how to treat the material, and the result is a beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding mess.
   Rodgers and Hammerstein first adapted the traditional folk tale as a 1957 TV vehicle for Julie Andrews, then the hottest thing since sliced bread thanks to My Fair Lady. It was restaged for the small screen in full color in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren and again in 1997 with teen idol Brandy. New York City Opera mounted stage versions in 1993, 1995, and 2004 with a script that hewed to the TV version.
   For this Broadway mounting, witty playwright Douglas Carter Beane has come up with a whole new book. Carter has proven himself adept at giving a campy fresh spin to overly familiar or unpromising material such as the grade-Z movie musical Xanadu and an updating of the Greek comedy Lysistrata. But he seems to have lost his way here. While there are some witty lines, the book erratically shifts gears among the satiric, the sentimental, and the political.

To flesh out the story, a pair of secondary lovers has been added. Cinderella’s gawky but basically good-hearted stepsister now has a suitor, the bumbling but lovable social activist named Jean-Michel. There’s also a silly plot thread involving the Prince’s chief advisor, the flamboyant Sebastian, acting like a Republican and stealing the peasants’ land, which clumsily introduces a sort of Afterschool Special lesson on democracy. Cute woodland creatures and a cartoon-ish chase scene are thrown in for good measure. Beane and the usually adept director Mark Brokaw fail to balance these kiddie-friendly Disney elements with the more adult Into the Woods themes and the satiric edge that keeps cutting in. We’re supposed to think these characters are cute caricatures; and then, all of a sudden, they get all real-world on us. For example, Harriet Harris is as campy as hell as the wicked stepmother (referred to here as “Madame”) for most of the evening. But, after the disappointment of both of her daughters losing the Prince’s hand, she instantly transforms into Joan Crawford from Mildred Pierce, without the irony.
   The humor doesn’t quite work either. Though in Brothers Grimm territory, the characters often spout contemporary jargon (“Thanks for the heads-up,” “Quit that, you!”). This is perfectly acceptable in small doses, but the gag soon wears thin after multiple uses. Beane and Carter should have chosen one tone and stuck with it.

On the plus side, Laura Osnes manages to be sturdy yet winsome as the plucky heroine, and Santino Fontana gives us a quirky, unconventional prince who is not a cardboard cut-out. Victoria Clark doubles as a daffy beggar and a glamorous fairy godmother with professionalism and sweetness. Peter Bartlett as Sebastian and Harriet Harris give it their best comic shtick but the mixed messages from the book and direction work against them. As the nicer stepsister, Marla Mindelle reprises her awkward nun bit from Sister Act, which Beane also worked on, and Greg Hildreth does a nice job with the schlubby but earnest Jean-Michel. Best of all is Ann Harada as the nastier of Cinderella’s siblings (not the one with the boyfriend). She steals the show with a hilarious delivery of the “Stepsister’s Lament,” which is now a solo number with chorus rather than a duet.
   So this is definitely a mixed bag, but man does the show look gorgeous. Tony-winning costume designer William Ivey Long would win hands down if this were a Project Runway challenge to create dresses that could switch from rags to riches in a blink of an eye. Plus, Cinderella’s wedding gown would fly off the racks at Vera Wang or David’s Bridal. Anna Louizos’s woodland set is charming and versatile, lit like a dream by Kenneth Posner. Kids will probably not have a problem with the confusing libretto, and all will love hearing these marvelous R&H songs again, but don’t expect a perfect Cinderella.

March 3, 2013
 
Opened Mar. 3 for an open run. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. $45–137. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
The Revisionist
Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre at the Cherry Lane Theatre  [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

In her Playbill bio for The Revisionist, Vanessa Redgrave states she is “immensely excited by the script…which she accepted as soon as she read the play.” That’s perfectly understandable. Her role of Maria, a Polish Holocaust survivor, affords plenty of juicy theatrical opportunities. She gets to tells her harrowing story, crack jokes, mangle English a bit in a heavy accent, fuss over and then yell at her visiting young American cousin. But the play containing Maria is a predictable sketch that comes across as an exercise for a college playwriting course.
   This is actor-writer Jesse Eisenberg’s second play for Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in which he is also starring. He’s essentially playing the same character as in his first effort Asuncion: an intelligent, condescending young man, who harms a female relative through his insecurity. In that play, Eisenberg was a jittery college student assuming his new Filipino sister-in-law is a prostitute. This time he’s David, a blocked writer staying with his elderly cousin Maria in Poland. In a credulity-stretching plot point, he’s there in order to finish revising his science-fiction novel, a follow-up to his debut work that was published when he was in his early 20s. David fears he will never be able to repeat his previous success and ignores the doting Maria who idolizes her American relations. It’s as if the playwriting class assignment were to put two opposite characters in the same small space and see what happens (John McDemott designed the cramped, lived-in apartment set). Naturally, they come into conflict, get drunk on vodka, and reveal deep, dark secrets. At first, it appears the title refers to David, but during the drunk scene, we discover it really describes Maria. Without revealing too much, she has altered her history as a result of her harrowing childhood experiences.
   To mix things up a bit, Eisenberg brings in Zenon, a gruff taxi driver who likes to shave Maria’s legs. Yes, this stage business is as ridiculous as it sounds and feels like Eisenberg jammed it in to provide some comic relief.
   Eisenberg is a talented playwright and actor. He has a sharp sense of dialogue and basic structure. Plus he provides some fascinating, life-like details such as an endless series of phone calls from a charity for the blind. But there are too many plot holes to ignore. (Would David really not know the names and connections of his distant relations so that Maria has to explain them?) As a performer, he plays David as such a whining brat (“Poor me” is his whole subtext), it’s difficult to sympathize with him.
   Fortunately, Redgrave creates a living, breathing woman out of melodramatic clichés. As Maria retells her tragic story, Redgrave doesn’t go for the obvious weepy histrionics. Like a wound that has never healed, Maria’s past is painful to touch, and Redgrave skirts around the sore, coughing and pausing, then after knocking back several shots of vodka, she rips the scab off and relives the agony. Then she quickly covers it back up by asking David to recite a comedy routine. You can almost see Maria’s thoughts forming on Redgrave’s eloquent features as she caresses family photos, fights with David, scowls at a plate of tofu, or just watches CNN. Dan Oreskes creates a zesty and swaggering Zenon, though the role is small and almost entirely in Polish. Kudos also to Kip Fagan for staging the contrived action at a steady clip.
   The main fault here is Eisenberg’s underdeveloped and unbelievable script. Ironically, this Revisionist is in need of revising.

March 1, 2013

Luck of the Irish
LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Kirsten Greenidge examines racial and class divisions across the decades in her intelligent but slightly flawed play Luck of the Irish, now at Lincoln Center’s intimate rooftop space, the Claire Tow Theater, after a run at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Shifting back and forth from the 1950s to the early 2000s, the story centers on a familiar theme in theatrical literature: possession of a house and what it symbolizes. In the present, an African-American family has moved back to a home in a predominantly white suburb after the death of both grandparents. But as the family soon discovers, the house was “ghost” purchased by an Irish-American couple to avoid discrimination. The “real” buyers, now in their 70s, are claiming the property. The current tenants cannot find the deed and the ambiguous circumstances of the sale are played out in flashbacks.
   As the play switches time settings—smoothly handled by director Rebecca Taichman—we discover that despite all the apparent progress in race relations, there is still a lot of prejudice in America. Hannah, the owner in 2000, hates feeling like a token and anxiously worries about her young son who is constantly misbehaving at school. The uncertainty about the house parallels her feelings of not belonging as she deals with subtle forms of racism. Meanwhile, back in the ’50s, her grandparents the Taylors—Rex, a prosperous doctor, and the refined Lucy—are struggling with more blatant discrimination. They reach out to the working-class Donovans to act as a front for the purchase of their dream house in return for $1,500. Joe Donovan is content with the sum and sees the deception as a means of striking a blow for equality, but the angry wife, Patty Ann, refuses to give the Taylors the deed until the Donovans get more compensation.
   Much of the play is strong, particularly the scenes in the past in which the Donovans and Taylors clash over the ownership of the house. The most powerful vignette takes place in a restaurant where Patty Ann lets her economic resentment pour out in a barely contained explosion, which Lucy meets with icy disdain. There are some lapses in writing, mostly in the modern segments. Hannah’s husband, Rich, and her sister, Nessa, are barely developed and seem to be onstage mostly to feed Hannah cue lines. In addition, some of the sentiments come across as those of the author rather the characters.
   Despite these flaws, Irish is an insightful portrait of the changing American landscape through the experiences of one group of people who must work around the barriers of racism. There are many solid performances in the expert ensemble, particularly Marsha Stephanie Blake’s confused and conflicted Hannah and Amanda Quaid’s bitter and exhausted Patty Ann.

February 13, 2013
  
The Other Place
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

When I saw Laurie Metcalf’s searing performance in Sharr White’s The Other Place presented Off-Broadway by MCC Theatre in 2011, I didn’t see how it could have been better. But in a Broadway transfer from Manhattan Theatre Club, Metcalfe has done the difficult feat of improving upon perfection. As Juliana, a brilliant, sharp-edged research scientist, she goes even deeper into the dark realm of dementia and loss. Although the MTC's Samuel Friedman Theatre is larger than the Lucille Lortel where it played two years ago for the MCC production, Joe Mantello’s staging is more intimate and immediate, allowing us to get closer to Juliana’s desperate plight.
   As you enter the Friedman, Metcalf is onstage, seated in the center of Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s jungle-gym set depicting the spooky labyrinth of the human mind, while Fitz Patton’s ominous music plays. Once the lights dim, she stands and takes us on Juliana’s torturous journey through darkness and confusion. It begins with a sales pitch for a drug to treat senility at an island resort. She sees a mysterious girl in a yellow bikini in the audience of doctors and then slips into a jangled world where nothing is as it seems. She recalls her daughter who ran away 10 years ago and now seems to be reappearing. She has paranoid visions of her loyal husband, Ian, cheating on her. And who is the woman in the bikini? What’s real and what’s a product of Juliana’s degenerative mental condition, which ironically could be treated with the very drug she has developed and is selling?
   Perhaps it’s because Metcalf’s real-life daughter Zoe Perry is now playing all the other female roles, but Metcalf now makes a makes a stronger connection with the material. She vividly portrays Juliana’s devastating wit, white-hot rage, formidable intellect, and dumbstruck confusion over what’s happening to her. In the space of 80 minutes when she never leaves the stage, she goes from a self-assured, take-no-prisoners captain of the pharmaceutical industry striding the stage in high heels to a shattered, blubbering child huddled on the floor.
   The rest of the cast is new to the play. Daniel Stern feelingly taps into Ian’s frustration, sensitively portraying his deep love for his wife and his overwhelming sense of powerlessness to help her. John Schiappa makes the most of his multiple male roles. Perry lends distinction and flavor to three separate roles, including a bitter divorcée. In a wrenching scene with Metcalf near the play’s end, Perry delivers a true supporting performance, giving full life and subtext to a seemingly minor character yet ceding the stage to the star. It’s a dazzling and moving mother-daughter act.

January 17, 2013
 

Golden Boy
Lincoln Center Theater at the Belasco Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

It’s a knockout, a kayo, a roundhouse right, an upper cut. Pick your ringside cliché. The Lincoln Center Theater revival of Clifford Odets’s 1937 boxing drama Golden Boy fits them all.
   There is a danger with this play and all of Odets’s work to lean on the stereotypes of noble progressive proletariat oppressed by Depression-era economics. As he did with his LCT production of Odets’s Awake and Sing, director Barlett Sher handily slugs these tired tropes to the mat in the first round. His production is a powerful portrait of three-dimensional citizens struggling against the temptations of gilt-edged success and its accompanying brutality.
   The story is a familiar one, popularized in the 1939 Hollywood version starring William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck, and dozens of ringside films since. Scrappy Joe Bonaparte is a rising young fighter, but he also has a magnificent gift for the violin. In the desperate 1930s, he must choose between making millions with his fists and starving for his art. If he pursues a fighting career, Joe will most likely damage his hands and never play his beloved fiddle again. Odets’s symbolism is more than a bit heavy handed (mob-fueled sports versus long-haired music), but Sher acknowledges it, staging the play as a Shakespearean epic. Played against set designer Michael Yeargan’s imposing backdrop of grim tenement edifices and poetically lit by Donald Holder, the play becomes a titanic battle for one man’s soul rather than a naturalistic kitchen-sink melodrama.

The cast couldn’t be better. From Seth Numirch’s white-hot comet of a Joe to Vayu O’Donnell’s no-nonsense fight official who only appears for a few minutes, each performer is at the top of his game, rattling off Odets’s somewhat dated but still-tough vernacular like a crack squadron of sharpshooters. Numrich is a ball of energy as the conflicted fighter, adeptly conveying Joe’s interior war while convincing he can knock out any opponent. Yvonne Strahovski is a perfect sparring partner as Lorna Moon, the girl who is just as impossible to possess as the satellite that bears her name. The actor endows Lorna with a keen set of street smarts and an even sharper sense of self-preservation. Strahovski also makes it clear that Lorna is truly in love with Joe and with his much older manager Tom Moody (a blunt and yet sympathetic Danny Mastrogiorgio), making her dilemma that much more intense.
   Tony Shalhoub is passionate and loving as Joe’s immigrant father, and Dan Burstein is flinty and feisty as a trainer. Ned Eisenberg is explosive as a club owner, while Anthony Crivello is full of dark menace as a gangster with more than a financial interest in the young fighter.
   Early in the play, Lorna describes Joe as being “full of fireworks.” She could be talking about this spectacular Golden Boy.

December 22, 2012
 
Glengarry Glen Ross
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

It’s the Al Pacino Show at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The attraction may be advertised as a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize–winning ensemble piece about ruthless real estate salesmen, but the star and his director Daniel Sullivan have shifted the balance to Pacino and his character, Shelley Levine, a broken-down hustler desperate to remain on top of the sales board. The original Broadway production and a 2005 restaging evenly disturbed the playwright’s profanity-laced opportunities for dramatic pyrotechnics. Here, Sullivan has placed Pacino squarely center stage, figuratively and literally, and given the actor a free pass for his excesses—lengthy pauses, mugging, overreacting , etc.
   It’s a very uneven performance. Despite these self-indulgent stretches, there are also moments of shattering honesty. When Levine realizes his career is over, Pacino visibly deflates like a tire with a slow leak. You can see the light vanish from his eyes as he stumbles off.  Yet in the first act, Pacino throws away his opening scene, never making eye contact with office manager John Williamson, played with just the right amount of desperate jitteriness by David Harbour (Williamson is usually portrayed as a blank-slate idiot, so it’s refreshing to see him given some dramatic life).
   In previous incarnations, Joe Mantegna, Liev Schreiber, and Pacino in the film version stole the show as the shark-like Ricky Roma. Here Bobby Canavale opts for a smoother Roma, pouring on the charm in his Act 1 sales pitch to pigeon James Lingk (a suitably wimpish Jeremy Shamos). It’s an interesting choice but fails to reveal Roma’s gargantuan hunger for dominance and closing the sale. Canavale kicks up the volume in the second act, but he still cedes the spotlight to Pacino. Thus, Act 1 is taken over by John C. McGinley’s explosive Dave Moss, a nasty nefarious colleague of Levine and Roma. His scene with the Richard Schiff’s dyspeptic and frustrated George Aaronow is the only one to full capture the complexities of Mamet’s labyrinth of double talk and macho bravado.
   The second act captures some of the testosterone-fueled conflict, but too much focus is given over to Pacino’s mannerisms. With the author’s below-par The Anarchist shuttering just a few doors down at the Golden, it’s not been a merry holiday season for Mamet fans.

December 8, 2012
 
The Anarchist
John Golden Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


“I thought this meeting would go differently,” says Patti LuPone as Cathy, a former radical confronting Debra Winger’s Ann, a rigid prison official, in David Mamet’s The Anarchist. Audience members may have a similar reaction to this brief new play at the Golden Theatre. From American Buffalo to Glengarry Glen Ross to Oleanna to Race, Mamet’s previous works have always given off intense heat. It wasn’t just the profanity-laced dialogue; there was always a vital connection and conflict. You may not have liked the characters or agreed with the playwright’s point of view, but the plays were always engaging. While almost all the earlier Mamet plays are hot and juicy, The Anarchist is icy and dry. The author stages it with all the excitement of an Ethical Cultural Society lecture, and it feels far longer than its intermissionless 70 minutes.
   The basic premise has potential for dramatic fireworks. Cathy has been in prison for 35 years for shooting two guards when she was a young counterculture warrior and is now asking for parole based on her professed conversion to devout Christianity. Ann, her warden, has the power to grant Cathy’s freedom, but she remains unconvinced of the ex-anarchist’s sincerity unless the prisoner is willing to inform on a former conspirator who was also her lover. That’s the crux of the play, and it could have been a fiery mash-up between authority and nonconformism.
   But Mamet’s script is so stilted and heady, it’s totally passionless. Cathy and Ann could be chatting about the weather instead of a life-or-death decision. Religion, politics, homosexuality, philosophy, and redemption are all touched on, but since there is no personal connection made to any of these topics, the weighty words fall flat. In addition, the abrupt ending, which will not be revealed here, doesn’t make any sense given the characters’ behavior.

LuPone in a rare nonmusical role at least supplies a measure of devious guile to Cathy. You can see the wheels turning in this crafty woman’s head beneath her calm and well-coiffed exterior. But Cathy’s burning need is buried so far beneath the surface, it fails to light a spark under the play’s dry wood. Winger, making her Broadway debut after a long hiatus from her film career, is stiff and uncomfortable as the upright Ann. She occasionally stumbles over Mamet’s intricate sentences. In this play they sound as unnatural as those in his other works sound remarkable realistic, so the actor is not entirely to blame. Winger also fails to convincingly pursue Ann’s objective: to find out the truth behind Cathy’s motives. It seems like Ann doesn’t care what happens to Cathy, and therefore it’s not important to us.
   Mamet appears to be expressing rage here at the excesses of 1960s radicalism and killers who use religion to escape justice, just as he railed against political correctness in Race. That’s a worthy subject, but his arguments are dully expressed and unfeelingly played. He’s an important enough figure in the theater to merit a Broadway production for even a weak play, but don’t expect to see The Anarchist in many venues outside of acting classes.

December 2, 2012
   
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

In a program essay, Christopher Durang describes his new play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now at the intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center, as Chekhov in a blender. That makes it sound as though this wacky yet touching work is a parody, but as the playwright goes on to explain in the essay, it’s not. The inventive author of such wildly funny pieces as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Betty’s Summer Vacation employs numerous references to all four of Chekhov’s major plays, but these are only a starting point for an insightful and compassionate profile of a family coping with loss and confusion in the digital age. But, don’t worry, it’s hilarious too.
   Just like their Chekhovian namesakes, depressed siblings Vanya and Sonia may have their Bucks County home sold out from under them by an unfeeling well-off relative: their sister Masha, a glamorous movie star who has just arrived with her boy toy, Spike. Meanwhile, the cleaning lady Cassandra lives up to her moniker by foretelling disaster every five minutes, and a lovely visiting neighbor, Nina, much like the ingénue in The Seagull, forms an attachment with this troubled clan.
   There are wild and woolly take-offs on the Russian master’s tendency to feature sad protagonists, but Durang’s mixed-up characters are far from caricatures. The performances by a splendid cast and even-handed direction by Nicholas Martin wisely avoid overplaying the funhouse-mirror aspects of the script and keep the emotions honest.
   In two heartrending monologues, Vanya and Sonia expose their aching, unfulfilled souls. Set off by Spike texting during a reading of Vanya’s play (based on the abstract piece written by Treplev in The Seagull), the unhappy brother launches into a tour-de-force diatribe on the shallowness of the Facebook age and his longing for the simpler pleasures of his 1950s childhood. Middle-aged Sonia’s aria of despair comes during a one-sided phone conversation with her first potential boyfriend as she takes frightened, tentative steps out of her shell.

Both these shattering vignettes are delivered with just the right combination of subtlety and flash by David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen, respectively. Both create real people with wants and desires existing in a bizarre literary-reference universe. Nielsen, a frequent Durang collaborator, is especially proficient at conjuring up these dual realities, knowing just when to drop her voice an octave or raise an eyebrow for maximum effect. She makes Sonia both a giggle-inducing Debbie Downer and a complex, lonely woman.
   Sigourney Weaver, another Durang favorite, does a screamingly funny portrait of an exaggerated version of herself—a narcissistic film star battling aging and self-doubt as she clings to Spike and pushes away the admiring and much younger Nina. Billy Magnussen’s Spike is a gloriously clueless stud, intoxicated with his own beauty, and Genevieve Angelson makes for a charming and sweet Nina. Squeaky-voiced Shalita Grant cleverly keeps Cassandra from being a one-joke pony. Similarly, this show could have been an extended skit, skewering vodka-drenched depressives, but the inventive Durang hasn’t settled for easy comedy. Instead he has written a winking tribute to Chekhov and a piercingly moving family play.

November 25, 2012
  

 
Live and Learned
How Michael Learned rode the wave from The Waltons to The Outgoing Tide

By Simi Horwitz

NEW YORK—Michael Learned admits it took her time to find the complexity in the role of Peg, the wife of feisty Gunner (Peter Strauss), who is suffering from dementia and declining rapidly. Peg is seemingly unkind, but she’s also deeply in love with her husband, explains Learned. The actor initially wasn’t even sure she wanted to tackle Bruce Graham’s The Outgoing Tide, now playing Off-Broadway at 59E59. Ultimately the play’s power and resonance trumped any reservations she might have had.
   The three-character family drama (also starring Ian Lithgow as the son) centers on the crisis that emerges when mom can no longer care for dad and is determined to move with him to an assisted living facility, knowing the next step for him will be its nursing home. He makes it clear he’d rather be dead.
   Like many in the audience, Learned has been a caregiver and has thought about quality of life issues and the pain entailed in letting go of someone you love. “I relate to her anger, frustration, and what it’s like to dedicate your life to someone,” says Learned.” “I was a ’50s housewife, and, even after I was a working actress, I had ‘housewife’ on my passport. I modeled myself after Mrs. Cleaver.”
   Learned hasn’t been Mrs. Cleaver for a long time. Best known for her long-running stint as Olivia Walton on The Waltons, Learned boasts impressive credits—from starring in her own TV show, Nurse, to appearing in such Broadway productions as Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, The Sisters Rosensweig, and The Three Sisters, among many others. Learned has starred in national tours and guest-starred in a host of major television programs.

Listen and Learned

   Still, playing Peg is awash in acting challenges even for a veteran actor like Learned. “Peg is never explained, and, like many female characters, she’s there as a device for the male lead,” says Learned. “She’s a reactor and an active listener, which is what acting is all about. But I’ve had to struggle to flesh her out. I’ve thought about what I identify with in her and who she reminds me of. But I’m mostly tabula rasa and figure it out on stage in the moment. Also, I never did a play with flashbacks. It’s a challenge to step out of time and place.”
   Learned’s method has evolved with no one epiphany, though she speculates, “As I’ve become freer as a woman, I’ve become freer as an actress and more willing to take chances on stage. I was well-trained early on, but I was also very self-conscious. I guess a turning point was playing Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy. For the first time, I didn’t need to be liked on stage.”
   A native of Washington, D.C., Learned grew up in Connecticut and later moved abroad. Her father, who worked with the State Department, was a spy, she admits matter-of-factly. Learned had her sights set on a dancing career, and her parents sent her to a performing arts boarding school in Hertfordshire, England, where she decided to focus on acting instead.
   Learned has worked steadily without the benefit of career strategies, she says. “I think my life was pre-ordained, but then I see that more and more in so many people’s lives. They end up doing what they were supposed to do.”

Learned the Hard Way

   Part of her life’s trajectory was her early marriage to actor Peter Donat at the age of 17 and setting up a home in Canada, where the young couple focused on his acting career, though Learned worked as well, occasionally on Canadian television, but mostly at the Stratford Festival in Ontario with such theater luminaries as Paul Scofield and Christopher Plummer. She and Donat spent a number of years performing in repertory with American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which also served as a wonderful training ground, she says.
   Not long thereafter, Learned was divorced and a single mom with three young sons. As she tells it she was in dire straits—“living in a motel and crying myself to sleep each night”—when the extraordinary occurred. Her agent sent her to audition for a new TV show, The Waltons. Television was never her ambition, but she reluctantly showed up, thinking even if she landed the part, the series wouldn’t last long anyway. The big virtue would be having an LA-based TV credit on her résumé, she recalls.
   Olivia Walton entered the public imagination and brought Learned high-profile recognition, ample income, as well as six Emmy nominations (three wins). It was also a learning experience. “TV teaches you how to be still and how to listen as an actor,” Learned says. “You cannot lie in front of the camera. After you get over the ego-deflating experience of seeing yourself on screen, you do learn.”
   She likens acting on television to “plowing a field,” as opposed to the experience of “running the race” in theater. A major regret is that at the height of her TV career, she didn’t have the opportunity to do more theater. “When I started out, you were either a film, television, or theater actor,” she notes. “You didn’t do all three. I think it’s great today for actors to move back and forth.”

Time and Tide

   Like many actors who’ve been on a long-running hit series, the experience was life-altering in the most wonderful ways. Yet, following the long run, Learned suffered from typecasting and did not work steadily, at least not on television. But happily, there was never any shortage of opportunities in theater for her and she has not found a diminishing of acting opportunities with age.
   Still, Learned wishes mature female characters were written with a little more complexity. “I dread the day I’m cast to play Anfisa in The Three Sisters,” she says, laughing. Plays she’d love to tackle include The Visit, Come Back Little Sheba, and anything by Edward Albee.
   Asked what she’d do differently if she could redo her career, she pauses a moment before commenting, “I was naive and success was thrust upon me. I was not into the ‘business’ aspect, the publicity, the diplomacy, or even knowing how to network. I think if I had been more responsible in those areas I’d be doing a lot more TV work now.”
   Learned is not complaining. After all, she’s performing in a three-dimensional play in New York as the city gears up for the holidays. “I love being here, especially at Christmas time,” she says. It can’t get better than that.

November 14, 2012

Top photo: Peter Strauss and Michael Learned in The Outgoing Tide, photo by Matt Urban

Middle photo: Ian LIthgow and Learned in The Outgoing Tide, photo by Matt Urban
 


 
The Heiress
Walter Kerr Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Jessica Chastain is one of the most powerful and talented young actors in movies. In 2011, she appeared in an astonishing six films, playing vastly different women—from the tough-as-nails Israeli intelligence agent in Debt to the child-like mother in Tree of Life to the flighty and slightly trashy young bride in The Help. Her Broadway debut in a revival of The Heiress, a 1947 vehicle that brought a Tony Award to the magnificent Cherry Jones in a 1995 production, was anticipated as a major event of the season. Unfortunately, Chastain is not as polished a stage performer as she is a screen thespian, and Moisés Kaufman’s elegant production (gorgeous set by Derek McLane and costumes by Albert Wolsky) is a disappointment.
   Based on Henry James’s novel Washington Square and set in that fashionable NYC neighborhood in the 1850s, the plot focuses on painfully shy and physically plain Catherine Sloper, the heiress of the title. Dominated by her cruel father, an eminent doctor who has never forgiven her for causing his beloved wife to die in childbirth, Catherine believes she is unworthy of romantic love and hides behind her embroidery. That is until the dashing and penniless Morris Townsend sweeps her off her feet. But is he only after her money? When the couple’s whirlwind courtship ends in tragedy, Catherine transforms into a dignified and controlling woman unafraid of going after what she wants.
   The story is more than a tad melodramatic, but, with the right cast, Catherine’s crushing disappointment and subsequent devastating revenge can be rousingly theatrical. Kaufman fails to strike the right balance between Catherine and the forces assembled against her. Chastain, while luminous on screen, is as stilted as her character. It’s a difficult assignment to convey awkwardness without succumbing to it and then transitioning to a powerful self-possession. The star only manages to get across an indication of emotions by putting on exaggerated expressions of fear, passion, and anger, as if she were in her first acting class.

To further upset the play’s balance, the subtle David Strathairn is so multidimensional as Catherine’s unbending father that he winds up being the sympathetic one. Instead of the harsh brute as embodied by Ralph Richardson in the Hollywood film version, Strathairn delivers a complicated and imperious man torn by his love of his late wife and concern for his daughter. For the play to work, we have to believe Dr. Sloper does not care about Catherine, but Strathairn’s father obviously does.
   In addition, the luminous Judith Ivey takes the supporting role of Catherine’s silly aunt and makes her in a fascinating and rich conspirator with motives of vicarious romanticism. Dan Stevens, best known for his recurring role on Downton Abbey, adds to the off-kilter quality of this production by giving a so-so rendition of Morris. When the villain and the character woman are the most interesting people on stage, you know you’re in trouble.
   Despite the shortcomings, it’s refreshing to see a Broadway nonmusical show with a relatively large cast; and Virginia Kull, Dee Nelson, and Caitlin O’Connell lend shaded performances in smaller roles. Too bad the leads did not go as deep.

November 9, 2012
  
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Steppenwolf Theatre Company at the Booth Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

It’s hard to believe that Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exactly 50 years old. In Pam MacKinnon’s bracingly fresh production, now on Broadway after acclaimed runs at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Washington, D.C.,’s Arena Stage, the vicious battle between middle-aged marrieds George and Martha is as scary, intimate, and real as ever. Apart from a few references to the Cold War and the couple’s past from Prohibition to the 1940s, this cauldron of love, hate, alcohol, and recrimination could have been brewed this morning.
   Contemporary actors taking on this titanic pair inevitably come up against the memory of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Mike Nichols’ jittery and intense 1966 film. (Arthur Hill’s and Uta Hagen’s original Broadway performances are preserved in an audio recording, but they haven’t seeped into the public consciousness the way Burton’s and Taylor’s have—thanks to cable TV, DVDs, and streaming video.)
   Fortunately, Tracy Letts and Amy Morton banish all thoughts of the Burtons as the current performers slash and tear at each other in a new way. In the film and most stage productions, the balance of power shifts to Martha for much of the late-night marathon booze-up with a younger couple. Martha gets to be obviously predatory as she strikes out at anything in her path and uses the two guests Nick and Honey as weapons to get at her husband, while George’s strategy is more subtle and therefore not as flashy. But here it’s an equal battle, Letts’s cunning George proving just as primed for the jugular as Morton’s sexy Martha.

Letts, best known as a playwright (August: Osage County), creates a deep and complex subtext for George’s sadomasochistic behavior. You can read the history of the characters’ crushing and codependent marriage on his features as every sting and barb hurled at George registers. Both actors remember that these two combatants need each other and hate themselves for this need. Morton stays away from the strident bossiness that marks most Marthas, retaining a hint of the girlish charm that must have attracted George in the first place. This Martha is can be a charmer and clearly is a hit at all those faculty parties. She’s fun and flirty, but there’s a soft center of self-pity and depression beneath her hard, bright shell.
   Madison Dirks gives the smirky Nick a relaxed charisma with only the slightest edge of the necessary arrogance, while Carrie Coon is hilarious as the simpering Honey, playing up how easily she gets drunk and how vulnerable she is to attack.
   Todd Rosenthal’s cluttered, book-crammed set, Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s understated costumes, and Allen Lee Hughes’s unobtrusive lighting provide the right slightly shabby, lived-in environment for this deathless deathmatch.
  This Virginia Woolf is indeed frightening as all great drama is, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.

October 19, 2012
 
Cyrano de Bergerac
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

When Douglas Hodge in the title role of Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Cyrano de Bergerac bursts into the American Airlines Theatre from the street entrance, it’s a surprising and refreshing coup de theatre. However, instead moving his leading man right down the aisle and into battle with a pompous popinjay, director Jamie Lloyd has Hodge travel all around the back of the theatre and apparently into the balcony (it was difficult to tell from the audience), where we can hardly hear his lines, before charging onto the stage. It’s a missed opportunity, lessening the impact of a first appearance, and emblematic of Lloyd’s energetic but muddled production.
   Lloyd injects this beloved warhorse about the dazzling romantic hero encumbered by an enormous nose with a healthy dose of earthiness. In this version, Cyrano’s fellow guardsmen and poets would be more at home at a NASCAR rally than in 17th century Paris. Soutra Gilmour’s costumes are ragged and wearable, and her set resembles a deserted warehouse. Ranjit Bolt’s profanity-laced verse adaptation of the Edmond Rostand original is equally gritty. Gone are the stylized, staid poses of most Cyrano remountings. But also missing are vital elements: clarity of diction and intent. The actors rush through Bolt’s streetwise dialogue, and Lloyd’s helter-skelter staging often confuses the action. This kitchen-sink Cyrano is more naturalistic and rough than the usual, but it obscures Rostand’s glorious poetry and damps down the protagonist’s heroic stature.
   It’s clear that was partially the objective of star and director—to make the brilliant Cyrano a bit more human. Just as he did in his turn as the divine drag queen Alban in the 2010 revival of La Cage Aux Folles, Dodge brings a potential stereotypical stage icon down to earth. He makes Cyrano into a high-velocity standup comic, tossing quips and anecdotes as fast as he lunges with his epee. Dodge’s stamina and inventiveness are admirable and he also conveys the broken heart beneath the devil-may-care exterior. But with all that running around and muddy delivery, we lose too much of Cyrano’s shattering charade of hiding his love for his beauteous cousin Roxanne. By the play’s end, we’re just as exhausted as the hero, who collapses in a prolonged death scene.
   Clemence Poesy’s Roxanne and Kyle Soller’s Christian, the young cavalier who woos her with Cyrano’s words, are too bland to register either physically or emotionally. This is a fatal casting flaw, as both characters are supposed to be dazzlingly attractive.
   Oddly, the most interesting performance is given by the villain, Patrick Page as the lecherous Comte de Guiche. This veteran of numerous Broadway cad roles such as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Scar in The Lion King, and Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch, takes this usually thrown-away part on a transformative journey from vain buffoon to tender, sympathetic friend. Maybe this production should have been called De Guiche instead of Cyrano.

October 11, 2012
 
An Enemy of the People
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People can be a bit preachy and heavy-handed. The play’s central premise of a Norwegian town’s toxic waters paralleling the citizens’ moral corruption is somewhat obvious symbolism; and its hero, Dr. Thomas Stockman, is so noble and enlightened, he comes across as more of a saint than a plausible hero. Perhaps that’s why the play is so infrequently revived. There have been only three major New York productions in the past 52 years. Frederic March headlined an adaptation by Arthur Miller in 1950, which drew parallels to the McCarthy witch hunts. Philip Bosco starred in a Lincoln Center Theater production in 1971, which echoed concerns of the newly popular environmentalist movement. Now Manhattan Theatre Club is mounting a new version by British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz (presented in London in 2008), and with Doug Hughes’ muscular direction and Boyd Gaines’s unflinching lead performance, Enemy becomes a complex, pulse-pounding examination of political pressure and courageous action.
   When Stockmann discovers the town’s spa, the source of its new prosperity, is polluted and causing illness among the guests, he believes he will be hailed for bringing a menace to light. But the forces of complacency, led by his brother Peter the mayor, chose to ignore his warnings and label him as a crank, a revolutionary, and finally, the epitaph of the title. Ibsen then turns Stockmann into a slogan-spouting spokesman for progressive thought in a provincial society and the character loses his human dimension.
   Fortunately, in Lenkiewicz’s version, Stockmann’s flaws are emphasized, and Gaines gives shadings to the doctor’s pomposity and narcissism, as well as his nobility. This guy’s no angel. He drinks excessively, loves to hear the sound of his own voice, and bears grudges, especially against his more conventional sibling, played with oily smoothness by Richard Thomas. You can believe these two are brothers; both have huge egos. It’s easy to imagine them as children fighting over toys. Gaines and Thomas remember that there is love between them, and their confrontational scenes are charged with twisted affection, as well as rage.
   Two more reasons for few Enemy productions are the expense of its relatively large cast and the fact that the supporting characters can be seen as one-sided representatives of community segments: the working class, the press, the intellectuals, the bureaucratic elites, etc. Lenkiewicz solves the first problem by slimming down the cast, banishing Stockmann’s two little boys offstage and reducing the crowd at the town meeting. Director Hughes and some skilled actors take care of the second by infusing the roles with reams of subtext. As Aslaksen, an opportunistic printer, Gerry Bamman is particularly adept at creating a realistic sniveling cravenness, as well as a convincing drive to protect Aslaksen’s most highly prized possession: his personal property. Michael Siberry makes an intense impression in two brief scenes as Morten Kiil, a grasping miser who runs the tannery causing the water poisoning. Kathleen McNenny goes beyond the cliché of the doting wife as Mrs. Stockmann to build a strong figure in her own right.
   John Lee Beatty’s ominous revolving set, Ben Stanton’s sculptural lighting, and David Van Tieghem’s bone-chilling original music and sound design create just the right repressive world for this unexpected and powerful production. With all the talk of haves and have-nots in today’s news, Enemy is as startlingly relevant as ever.

September 27, 2012
 
In Living Black-and-White
Rain Pryor is developing her own voice as storyteller and performer in her solo show at the Actors Temple Theatre.  

by Simi Horwitz

NEW YORK—Rain Pryor knows how complex and fluid racial/ethnic identity may be. She defines herself as an African-American and a Jew, “though because of my physicality—my big hair and olive skin, I suppose I define myself more as an African-American, unless I’m in Israel where I look like everyone else,” she says. “Some people call it ‘code-switching,’ meaning I become like the people I’m with. I’m one thing with Bubbee and something else with my friends in Bed-Stuy. I don’t plan that. It just happens.”
   Her dual identity is the lens through which she views the world, and nowhere is that more evident than in her solo show, Fried Chicken and Latkes [show closed] Off-Broadway at the Actors Temple Theatre. Interspersed with a few songs and spot-on mimicry, the piece focuses on Pryor’s experience of growing up emotionally dislocated in Beverly Hills. She is the biracial child of a Jewish activist mother (a go-go dancer–turned-scientist) and the iconic comic Richard Pryor. Despite the humor, in the end Fried Chickens and Latkes is sad.
   Forging the play posed multiple challenges, not least maintaining honesty while playing with stereotypes and straddling the thin line between parody and celebration. Most daunting was not allowing the story to become sensationalized. “Many people wanted to hear about my life with Richard Pryor,” notes his affable daughter. “But that’s not what this is about. He had a unique presence in my life and is part of my story. But it was more interesting for me to talk about Mama [paternal grandma who was a prostitute], Bubbee, and my mom and how they related to me as a biracial child.”
   Pryor has been performing the piece in various incarnations for more than seven years, its evolution reflecting her growth as an artist and person. Before her father’s death, in 2005, the show was cabaret in style with comic banter and many more songs. When the act re-emerged following his death, it still had its comedic elements but was darker in tone. “I delved deeper into who the characters were and what they were saying,” she comments. “Now people have to think. The angle is different.”
   Among other developments Pryor grew increasingly accepting of her biracial identity and had the freedom, perhaps for the first time, to be who she was on stage and off. Further, she was able to address the issues head-on. “When I was young, I wanted to be anyone other than myself—either blond with blue eyes or very, very dark,” she recalls. “I’m no longer afraid to be who I am. And I now talk about race.”

Type Caste

   As a youngster, she wanted to act, and her parents fully supported her ambitions. Nonetheless, Pryor earned a certificate as a relapse-prevention therapist, and she ultimately worked in a drug rehab center.  Still, she felt divided, aspiring to middle-class respectability, while craving the less than stable life as an actor. In the end she had both. But it was by no means smooth sailing.
  
Like the children of many celebrities, Pryor was helped and hindered by her lineage. Her dad’s name opened doors but also placed her under great scrutiny. After spending a number of years on the sitcom Head of the Class, she found herself typecast as a comic. “People don’t understand that serious actors may not be able to do comedy, but if you’re comedic, you tap into the pain,” Pryor insists. “I can do drama, I can do Shakespeare, but everyone assumed that I was only a comic. As Richard Pryor’s daughter they believed I was really a standup comic. I never did standup comedy.”  
   As a bi-racial actor, Pryor faced further obstacles in the industry. “I was not white enough to play a white role or black enough to play an African-American,” she says. Contrary to received wisdom, she does not believe the “ethnically ambiguous,” actor is hot. Indeed, she suggests the term is dishonest. “Ethnically ambiguous means having straight hair, Anglo features, and olive-colored skin,” she says. “When they start casting actors who look like me, then we can talk about ‘ethnically’ or ‘racially ambiguous.’”
   Despite the challenges, Pryor boasted a number of gigs over the years, such as playing Sarah Palin’s makeup artist Angela in the TV movie Game Change and a principal role as the lipstick lesbian drug addict on the Showtime series Rude Awakening, opposite the late Lynn Redgrave. Pryor’s guest-starring stints included appearances on The Division and Chicago Hope. On stage she played the title role of Billie Holiday in the UK tour of The Billie Holiday Story and Ella Fitzgerald in the UK premiere of Ella, Meet Marilyn. Among other productions, she has performed in The Exonerated, The Vagina Monologues, and The Who’s Tommy at La Jolla Playhouse.
   But her most significant role is “being a mom,” to her 4-year-old daughter, Lotus. Pryor is married to a police officer and is based in the Baltimore area, where she currently serves as the artistic director of the Strand Theater, a woman-centric company.   Pryor has no regrets about wanting a family, but she is sorry she was not career-savvy enough e
arly on to have “followed through on some of the opportunities,” she muses. To this day, she does not have an agent. “Of course I want one,” Pryor emphasizes. “I’m Off-Broadway, getting great reviews. You’d think….” The sentence remains incomplete. “The game has changed so much since I did a sitcom 20 years ago. I could ask my celebrity friends what I should do, but I’m weird about that. They assume I have an agent. No, I don’t have a manger either. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done on my own.”
   She’s hopeful this time around her luck will change.  But whether or not she lands that elusive representation, performing Fried Chicken and Latkes is a transforming experience. “It’s made me more aware of how race is so on the surface today,” she says. “Six years ago, audiences didn’t react the way they do now. That’s because we have a black president. We can’t hide it. We can’t run from it. We can’t sweep it under the rug. And we’re not past it. And we won’t be until we see it and deal with it. And then we’ll be able to discard it.”

August 27, 2012

Production photos by Peter Zimmern
 

 
Keeping Dad’s Legacy Alive in Harrison, TX
Hallie Foote is thrilled to appear once again in the work of her late father, Horton Foote.

by Simi Horwitz

NEW YORK—Hallie Foote is keenly identified with the work of her late father, playwright Horton Foote, and proud of it. Indeed, most of her career, spanning more than 30 years, has been spent acting in his plays, including The Orphans’ Home Cycle, Dividing the Estate, The Trip to Bount
iful, and The Last of the Thorntons, among many others. Currently she’s tackling two roles in Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote, at Primary Stage at 59E59 Theaters. [Show closed Sept. 10.]
   Set in the titular town, the three one-acts—Blind
Date, The One-Armed Man, and The Midnight Caller—explore the yearnings of ordinary townsfolk. The first two pieces take place in 1928, and the third unfolds in 1952. In Blind Date, Foote takes on a well-intentioned busybody aunt attempting to make her uninterested niece ready for a date, while in The Midnight Caller, she plays a world-weary boarding-house owner whose tenants are the lost and lonely. Jayne Houdyshell, making her Horton Foote debut, also stars in The Midnight Caller.
   Foote boasts other credits, but performing in her father’s work has
special resonance—and not simply because she has earned myriad honors, including a Tony nomination, for those roles. She loves his writing and the world he evokes, which is at once haunting, lyrical, dark, and comic. She finds inhabiting his characters deeply satisfying, and the challenges continue to excite her.
   “He’s not easy to do,” says the soft-spoken Foote during a phone conversation. “His style is deceptively simple, but the complexity reveals itself quickly.
You have to be an actor who enjoys investigating and peeling away the layers. His themes have universal resonance. They’re not regional.” The danger is over-simplification, playing these characters as quaint Southern relics, she adds.
   Since her father’s death in 2009, she is more determined than ever to keep his legacy alive. Not coincidentally, she and her siblings, including playwright Daisy Foote, have launched the Horton Foote Legacy Foundation, the mission of which is “to encourage other writers and educate people about my father’s work,” she says. “He is an important writer, and we want to make sure his work is produced and expand his visibility.”

A Child of the ’60s

   Born in New York City, Foote grew up in Nyack, NY, before moving with her family to New Hampshire when she was 16. Though she briefly toyed with the idea of being an opera singer—having studied voice at Juilliard—at the University of New Hampshire she majored in English literature with no particular goals in mind. “I liked to read, and it was the late ’60s, and we didn’t think in terms of plans,” she says.   Her decision to act came as an epiphany several years after she graduated from college. As she recalls, “I was sitting in the car with my father, and said ‘I want to try acting.’ There was a pause and then he said, ‘Start with a good acting teacher.’”
   At dad’s suggestion Foote studied with the Los Angeles–based Peggy Feury, a Lee Strasberg disciple. Foote trained with her intermittently for three years. In preparation for a class showcase, Feury urged Foote to do a scene from one of her father’s plays. When he saw his daughter perform, “He went back to my mother and said, ‘I’ve found my Elizabeth for The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” Foote remembers, enjoying the moment even in retrospect.   She launched her professional acting career in a production of Orphans at Herbert Berghof Studio in the late ’70s. In 2009–10, Foote took on several of the more mature roles—by turns quirky and prosaic—in a revival of the play staged at the Signature Theatre.
   Looking back, Foote concedes she has worked fairly steadily, thanks in large part to the roles her father afforded her. She emphasizes she has never been a career-driven strategist or had her sights set on film or television. Still, she’d like to have the chance to appear in a play by John Guare, Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard, or Will Eno.

A Family Affair
   Foote is slated to appear in Him, a drama centering on family relationships and the nature of legacy, written by her sister, Daisy. It is not unlike dad’s work in its unexpected depth, says Foote, who previously performed in Daisy’s God’s Pictures and the title role in When They Speak of Rita, the latter directed by their father. Him will bow at Primary Stages, Sept. 25.

   F
oote clearly enjoys working with her family. Harrison, TX features, not coincidentally, her husband, actor Devon Abner, who also starred in Orphans and Diving the Estate. Pointing out that many actors love to perform in her dad’s plays, Foote is hopeful theatergoers appreciate Harrison as much as she and fellow cast members do.
   Asked what challenges she faces in performing her father’s plays precisely because she is his daughter, she says, “Not trying to control everything. It’s easy to feel I have to micromanage. I now realize I can get out of the way. I don’t have to appear in every one of his plays.”

August 14, 2012

 
                          

 
When We Were Young and Unafraid
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward


Zoe Kazan and Cherry Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus

The title of Sarah Treem’s new play is ironic. The young characters are the most fearful, while the oldest one tempers her actions with caution based on scary previous experiences. Set at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s, Treem’s insightful work examines the damaging effect of gender stereotyping on different generations and how those assigned roles force everyone, but especially women, to hide their true identities.
   Even the setting serves a hidden agenda. We’re in the homey kitchen of a bed and breakfast on an island off the coast of Seattle (designed with attention to domestic detail by Scott Pask). The owner, no-nonsense former nurse Agnes (the magnificent Cherry Jones), does not allow guests here. That’s not just for reasons of privacy or professionalism. The inn also serves as a safe house for women escaping spousal abuse in an era before such establishments were commonplace or respectable, and the kitchen is the refugees’ entry point. One particular runaway, Mary Anne, a young Army bride (the subtle Zoe Kazan), and Hannah, a traveling African-American would-be revolutionary (the fiery Cherise Boothe) throw the house into disorder and upset Agnes’s delicate relationship with her 16-year-old daughter Penny (a brittle Morgan Saylor), a brainy girl who wants to attract boys and fit in with her classmates. There’s also Paul (a complex and pathetic Patch Darragh), a wimpy tourist licking his wounds from a recent divorce and seeking to escape the confusing sexual revolution taking over his home city of San Francisco.
   Treem, whose small-screen credits include In Treatment and House of Cards, tends to indulge in TV-style melodramatics, such as having Hannah break in through the window when she has no reason to do so and endowing too many characters with deep, dark secrets revealed at exactly the right moment. But her observations are strong and her portraiture is honest. Under the sensitive direction of Pam MacKinnon, the cast paints in all the various shades of grey these people whose attitudes are anything but black-and-white.
   As she did in the recent revival of The Glass Menagerie, Jones handily avoids the trap of making a protective mother a smothering monster. Nor is her Agnes a plaster saint. She can be flinty and harsh as well as compassionate. A closeted lesbian and abortion provider, Agnes has been through the sexual wars. Jones doesn’t display her battle scars, but you know they are there. Saylor (Homeland) makes an impressive stage debut, charting Penny’s rocky road through adolescence. Kazan again proves she’s one of our most intense performers, endowing Mary Anne with both street smarts and dangerous naïveté. Like Stella Kowalski in Streetcar, Mary Anne has spirit and intelligence, but she is still drawn to an abusive husband. Darragh and Boothe also find the conflicting emotions in their multidimensional roles in this finely tuned work displaying how the roles of women and men have changed and stayed the same.
   At one point Hannah informs Agnes the Supreme Court has decided in favor of abortion rights in Roe vs. Wade, and that things are changing. “Yes, but they’ll change back,” Agnes replies. It’s a chilling moment in an evening full of them.

June 30, 2014
 
June 17–Aug. 10. Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Tue-Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $89. (212) 581-1212.

www.nycitycenter.org
 

 
Much Ado About Nothing
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


John Glover, Lily Rabe, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Ismenia Mendes, and Jack Cutmore-Scott
Photo by Joan Marcus

Though at it times it seems as though they are playing The Taming of the Shrew rather than Much Ado About Nothing, Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe make a perfect pair of battling would-be lovers in the Public Theater’s first production of the 52nd season of free Shakespeare in Central Park. Linklater is particularly intense as the confirmed bachelor Benedick, tricked into believing Rabe’s waspish Beatrice is smitten with him. Sporting a full beard which he later only partially shaves off, Linklater makes Benedick an easily provoked hothead, and he perfectly times his rants for maximum comic effect. Rabe calls to mind a young Katharine Hepburn or Jean Arthur in one of those dazzlingly witty 1940s movies, as she willfully rejects the manifestations of romantic love but then gradually warms to them. When the two get together the wit flashes, and at times director Jack O’Brien allows the decibel level to get slightly higher than it should, but the sparks of mutual attraction are real and glittering.
   O’Brien has decided to take Shakespeare’s original setting as a cue for concept. Set designer John Lee Beatty has created a gorgeous Sicilian villa, complete with a vegetable garden, which serves as the single location, and costume designer Jane Greenwood dresses the cast in elegant early-20th-century clothes. The play opens with Italian dialogue, gradually seguing into the Bard’s immortal speeches. The director adds a hokey gimmick of moving a huge garden wall with the magic of music, but that’s the only sour note in an otherwise lyrical, enchanting production.
   The supporting company is full of able comedians, both experienced and new to the scene. Brian Stokes Mitchell lends his hearty baritone to the virile captain Don Pedro, while Pedro Pascal is a devilishly attractive villain as his bastard brother Don John. As Beatrice’s distinguished uncle Leonato, John Glover gives equal weigh to the merry fooling in the plot to deceive his niece and Benedick and to the heartrending sorrow required when he must sham mourning for his daughter, Hero (a lovely Ismenia Mendes). Jack Cutmore-Scott endows Hero’s suitor Claudio with the appropriate dash and impetuosity.
   The only segment of this zestful production that doesn’t quite work is the so-called comic relief. Perhaps because O’Brien has given the lead lovers a free hand to be as broad as they wish, the clownish types come across as exaggerated. John Pankow as the buffoonish constable Dogberry and Zoe Winters as the shrewish waiting gentlewoman Margaret are the worst offenders. But much of this Ado makes up for any deficiencies.

June 27, 2014
 
June 16–July 6. The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, W. 81 St. and Central Park West, NYC. Tue–Sun 8pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. Free. (212) 539-8500.

www.publictheater.org
 

 
Macbeth
Park Avenue Armory [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Part jousting tournament, part religious rite, Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh’s mammoth production of Macbeth, imported from England and now at the Park Avenue Armory for a brief run, is an overwhelming spectacle drawing the theatergoer into the ghoulish world of the play as few stagings can. It starts with the way you are brought to your seat: Patrons are divided into Scottish clans and marched into the cavernous space through set designer Christopher’s Oram’s blasted heath to one of two steep, stadium stands facing a narrow strip of playing space. At one end is a Stonehenge arrangement of rocks: the domain of the three witches. At the other is a massive altar adorned by hundreds of candles and early Christian mosaics. Lit like a nightmarish vision by Neil Austin, this is a setting for the battle between the otherworldly and the humane for the soul of Macbeth and all Scotland.
   Battle is the operative word here. Ashford and Branagh do not shy away from the bloodier aspects of Shakespeare’s dark tale of ambition and immorality. Fight director Terry King’s skirmishes and clashes are so realistic, audience members in the first four rows are warned they may be splattered with mud and other base matter. I was convinced one combatant was literally getting his brains bashed in right in front of me by the ferocious Branagh as the titular Thane.

In addition to his martial and co-directing skills, Branagh delivers one of the most incisive and detailed portrayals of the role in recent memory. His Macbeth is a thoughtful leader, genuinely troubled by the grandiose predictions of the weird sisters. His transformation to murderous tyrant is a slow and deliberate one. He wisely plays down the theatrics because there are enough of them in his staging with Ashford. As Macbeth’s fiend-like queen, Alex Kingston (known in the US as Dr. River Song on Doctor Who) is almost as subtle, though she overemphasizes the lady’s two-faced protestations of innocence. Kingston demonstrates too much that Lady M. is acting when she feigns shock at the death of Duncan (spoiler alert if you did not take high school English). But her sleepwalking scene atop the rough-hewn altar is truly disturbing, as is her relentless needling of the character’s spouse when he pulls back from their plan to slaughter their monarch.
   It’s also refreshing to have a huge cast so that the procession of Banquo’s successors to the throne and the movement of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane are truly massive. Richard Coyle is a passionate Macduff, Alexander Vlahos a noble Malcolm, and Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, and Anjana Vasan seem to actually fly as the witches in this supernatural Macbeth.

June 15, 2014
 
Time of My Life
Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

The wonder of a magic act is in our not understanding how it’s done. Alan Ayckbourn’s wonders far exceed his seemingly inexhaustible conjuring skills. But, after 77 plays, his work, for all its subtlety, insight, humor, and humanity, continues to amaze in its sheer craftsmanship. No playwright does what he does in constantly finding new theatrical ways to show us our foibles and follies.
   The setting this time is a birthday dinner at a restaurant. The attendees are the birthday lady (Sarah Parks), her husband (Russell Dixon), their two sons (James Powell and Richard Stacey), daughter-in-law (Emily Pithon), and prospective daughter-in-law (Rachel Caffrey). The service is provided by an array of waiters, each played by ben porter. As happens in Ayckbourn’s world, the chosen event is the jumping-off point for past revelations and future developments.
   Mother disapproves of Maureen as a match for her favored son Adam. Glyn, the son whom mother has never really loved, has a history of cheating on newly pregnant Stephanie. As parents Laura and Gerry try to sort out their different feelings about those respective situations, a long-past infidelity of Laura’s comes out, which leads to the denouement that in turn has ultimate cascading effects. As the evening proceeds, we are brought back to how each of the siblings’ relationships developed over time, including a hilarious and touching scene showing Adam and Maureen’s accidental first meeting. And at the center of everything is Laura and Gerry, who never leave the stage and whom we always see in the present. Time is very much an issue, both practically and metaphorically, for these people.
   As unique as each Ayckbourn play is, some elements remain constant. Within seconds, sometimes all at once, we are brought from mirth to pathos, then back again. When Stephanie learns that Glyn is leaving her for another woman, the waiter gives her dessert choices, to all of which she nods yes amidst uncontrollable sighing, leading to a mound of pastry no one could possibly eat.
   Ayckbourn’s verbal humor is effortless and character-driven, and this production is perfection in every way. The cast is universally brilliant, especially Caffrey, who earns prodigious laughs and sympathy. As director, Ayckbourn finds the rhythms of his writing to a fault, and he is served marvelously by a set and costumes that speak volumes about the world of these characters. The time of my life is an apt title for the play and description of the viewing experience.
  

June 10, 2014
 
The Killer
Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center [show closed]


Reviewed by David Sheward

Though it was written in 1957 and is seldom performed, Eugene Ionesco’s bizarre and absurdist comedy The Killer is a shockingly accurate portrayal of our media-crazed, technology-obsessed society in 2014. Darko Tresnjak’s almost-slapstick production—featuring a sleek and idiomatic translation by critic-adapator Michael Feingold, now at Theater for a New Audience’s elegant Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn—at times has the zany and satiric feel of the best of Woody Allen’s movies. Indeed, Allen may have been influenced by the play in his 1991 feature Shadows and Fog, one of his unfairly ignored pieces.
   The plotlines are somewhat similar. In both, a strange, Kafka-esque community is terrorized by an unidentified serial killer whom the hapless hero attempts to capture, only to find himself at the mercy of the fiend. In both works, the protagonist’s lame sleuthing and vain struggles against the irresistible forces of fate, represented by the faceless maniac, result in hilarious comedy.
   Berenger, the schlubby everyman who also appears in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, A Stroll in the Air, and Exit the King, has found an idyllic neighborhood not far from the depressing slum where he resides. He’s all ready to move in, but a murderer is slashing his way through this paradise, and the police and government officials have given up trying to stop him. Berenger vows to bring this Jack the Ripper to justice, but he is frustrated by endless obstacles, until he finally confronts the villain and finds there is no stopping him. After trying to placate the monster in a lengthy monologue, pleading for decency and reason, our nebbishy hero shrugs his shoulders, accepts his death, and says “What can you do?”

Michael Shannon, who has enacted his fair share of brutal thugs in movies, plays the victim this time and makes Berenger a lovable but hopeless schlemiel. He’s particularly brilliant in the climactic monologue, which runs close to 10 minutes. Any actor who can hold an audience’s attention for that long with a speech full of repetitive appeals to a figure covered in shadows deserves a standing ovation. The eccentric Kristine Nielsen is screamingly funny as Berenger’s nosy concierge and a brainless political leader who resembles a cross between Sarah Palin and Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Evoking a creepy Charles Addams cartoon and Peter Lorre at his most sniveling, the riotous Paul Sparks plays Edward, a sickly friend of the hero who might be the killer.
   At points, the action has an almost uncanny resemblance to our insane times. In the second of three acts, Berenger finds the murderer’s diary, and its depraved ravings could be those of any of the psychopathic shooters who have blasted their way through movie theaters and college campuses. An eerie chill went up my spine as I was laughing hysterically. That dual sensation is the mark of challenging theater.

June 7, 2014
 
The City of Conversation
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre

Reviewed by Reviewed by David Sheward


Kristen Bush and Jan Maxwell
Photo by Stephanie Berger

The title of Anthony Giardina’s witty and moving new play, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse, is how Henry James described Washington, D.C., in a time of civility as opposing parties would break bread at elegant dinner parties to hammer out their differences. Giardina skillfully documents how the conversation between friendly rivals has descended into partisan stalemate. Chronicling the ugly divide in one prominent family from the Carter to the Obama administrations with style and irony, the playwright traces our national decline into polarized camps armed with talking points and demographics. Staged with precision by Doug Hughes and acted by a sturdy company of vets and newcomers, The City of Conversation is well-worth talking about and seeing.
   The action revolves around liberal hostess Hester Ferris, the consort of a married senator. She deftly manipulates legislation between cocktails at her fashionable Georgetown mansion (tastefully designed by John Lee Beatty). But she seems to have met her match in Anna Fitzgerald, an ambitious, Reaganite graduate of London School of Economics who has set her cap on running D.C. and snagging Hester’s somewhat mediocre son Colin, also just matriculated from the same school and ready to rebel against mom. After Anna and Colin marry and as Anna’s star ascends, Hester continues work against her daughter-in-law’s policies, leading to a devastating family crisis that is resolved in the final act, set on the evening of Obama’s first inauguration.
   Giardina skews his argument to the progressive side and reduces his conservative characters to bitter malcontents, but his theme of people and positions coming into conflict still registers strongly. When an elderly Hester is confronted with her estranged grandson Ethan, she doesn’t pull any punches in letting him know that political actions have personal consequences. But, she firmly avers, you should be able to connect with family and friends without sacrificing your principles.

It seems every time she draws a breath, Jan Maxwell gets nominated for an award, but she really is outstanding here. Hester could easily have become a domineering schemer in the mold of a Joan Crawford heroine, but Maxwell fully and believably delineates both her noble fortitude and her down-and-dirty calculating side. Watch as she sweet-talks a Kentucky senator and his wife after having slammed their state as backward in an earlier scene. She’s equally convincing playing up to and mocking them. Then she transforms into a still-vital but physically diminished old woman in the last scene, documenting the arc of this fascinating character’s life.
   Kristen Bush provides the perfect counterweight as the equally driven Anna, while Michael Simpson gives life to the milquetoast Colin. He doubles as Colin’s gay son Ethan, and has been directed to play up the swishy stereotype more than a little. Beth Dixon endows the small role of Jean, Hester’s secretary-like sister, with a life’s worth of history, as does Maxwell and the author for all the personages in this meaty drama. It’s exciting to have a well-written play about ideas on or Off-Broadway, and no matter what your political persuasion, you’ll find much to relish in this one.
May 27, 2014
 
May 5–July 6. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $77-87. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
Casa Valentina
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Broadway has given us plenty of musicals exploring the fluid nature of gender and the role of clothes in that sexual puzzle—from La Cage Aux Folles to Kinky Boots to the current revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But there hasn’t been a serious Main Stem play about cross-dressing until Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina. The difference between this work and the tuners (the first two are also by Fierstein) is that the musical heroes are gay and the characters in Casa are heterosexual males who long to dress as women. The play is set in a pre-Stonewall Catskill vacation bungalow, based on an actual place, where the guests can indulge their sex switch in comfort and safety.
   Fierstein, a pioneer in depicting gays onstage with his autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy, structures his script much like another landmark gay work: Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. As in Boys, a diverse crew is gathered for a party-like event and the characters are a cross-sectional representation of their world. There’s the older generation reminiscing about corsets and petticoats, the pretty boy who is quite the ladies’ man in the traditional sense, the heavyset good-time “gal” hiding behind jokes, and the frightened novice who serves as a means for the hosts, Jonathon and his sympathetic wife, Rita (a “g.g.” or “genuine girl”), to explain the codes and by-laws of the cross-gendered society. Also like the Crawley work, a crisis is precipitated when the newcomer violently assaults one of the established patrons.

There is some rich characterization and even insight here, but Casa is too much like a social and political debate rather than an honest depiction of stigmatized people attempting to find solace and comfort with each other. The main talking point is provided by Charlotte, a manipulative crusader out to make transvestitism as acceptable as apple pie by means of declaring the group’s unquestionable straightness and scapegoating gays. When Fierstein has Charlotte declare, “In fifty years, cross-dressing will be as common as cigarette smoking while the homosexuals will be as reviled as they are now,” the author’s heavy irony practically drips. After the confab, the aforementioned physical dust-up, and a forced marital crack-up between Jonathon and Rita, the drama ends with a notable lack of resolution.
   Fortunately, director Joe Mantello and a sterling cast bring out the humanity in these delegates to Fierstein’s debate club. Most brilliant is veteran character actor Reed Birney as the devious Charlotte. Decked out in costume designer Rita Ryack’s fashion-forward Channel suit, he is the most ladylike of the company because he’s the most comfortable in his/her own skin. Gabriel Ebert is touchingly awkward as the virgin cross-dresser, and Patrick Page (a notable villain in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) is his usual commanding self as Jonathon the hotel owner, but he fails to find the woman in Valentina, his alter ego. Mare Winningham endows Rita with oodles of sympathy and almost leads her out of confusing forest of words the author has placed her in.

May 23, 2014
 
Act One
Lincoln Center Theater at Vivian Beaumont Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The bulk of James Lapine’s stage version of Act One, Moss Hart’s beloved memoir of his early life in the theater, concerns the arduous trek of Once in a Lifetime, Hart’s first collaboration with George S. Kaufman and his first hit, on its way to Broadway in 1930. During much of the action, the partners are whittling down the bulky script to make their satiric story of Hollywood’s frantic adapting to the new-fangled talkies more focused. Ironically, Lapine, who also directs, could have used some of his characters’ advice. While it does capture Hart’s passion for the theater and offers many pleasures, the play is more than a tad long and rambling. It’s almost intermission by the time we get to the Lifetime saga. Plus, Lapine has installed two narrators—Hart as an older man (Tony Shalhoub), and a young man (Santino Fontana) who also partakes in the action—when one would have sufficed.
   Much background is covered, including Hart’s impoverished childhood, early jobs at entertainment camps in the Catskills and offices of second-rate touring companies, acting with a legendary alcoholic, and his first stab at playwriting—a ridiculous melodrama called The Beloved Bandit. It’s all rich, funny, and enjoyable, especially as staged with verve by Lapine on Beowulf Boritt’s amazing, three-level, revolving set. But the script lacks the necessary tightness to get us to cheer for Moss’s big triumph when Lifetime finally turns into a smash after nearly closing out-of-town.

Despite the paunchiness of the plot, there is much to savor here—chiefly Shalhoub’s delightfully eccentric portrayal of Kaufman, which he plays in addition to the narrator and Hart’s brutish Cockney father. Reminiscent of Shalhoub’s turn as the defective detective Monk, Kaufman has an obsessive-compulsive aversion to being touched or any physical expressions of affection. The actor perfectly times these tics, as well as the odd playmaker’s sudden explosions of temper as when he barks at a pair of chattering matrons to take their seats before the curtain of his show goes up. He also subtly reveals his paternal affection for Hart, both as Kaufman and the gruff senior Hart.
   Fontana has the less showy role as the younger version of Moss, but once he takes over from an even younger iteration (Matthew Schechter), he is almost never offstage and becomes the play’s central support. He delivers on this difficult assignment with aplomb, expressing the intense desire to succeed as well as the fear of failure.
   Andrea Martin plays three key roles in Hart’s life: his narcissistic Aunt Kate who introduces him to theater, his first agent Frieda Fishbein, and Kaufman’s supportive wife Beatrice. Her Aunt Kate is the most memorable of this trio, a delusional woman capable of petty rudeness but also inspiring in her love of the stage.

The large cast features numerous tasty treats—including Chuck Cooper’s bitter, broken former star; Will LeBow’s fast-talking producer; Bob Stillman’s grand director; Mimi Lieber’s sympathetic mother; and Deborah Offner’s gossipy neighbor. If there were just a few less dishes, Act One would be the perfect feast.

May 18, 2014

Satchmo at the Waldorf
Westside Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

John Douglas Thompson. Remember the name. Or better yet, get yourself to the Westside Theatre so you can witness one of the great performances in a lifetime. Satchmo at the Waldorf, adapted by Terry Teachout from his biography of Louis Armstrong, takes place in the musician’s dressing room during his performances at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, four months before his death in July 1971. Establishing the event of a one-person show is always tricky; here, Armstrong simply addresses the audience as if we were there with him. As health fails him, he reviews his life and work, particularly and most important his relationship with Joe Glaser, an outsized character and mob-connected businessman who ultimately became his manager for 35 years. And as Thompson’s Armstrong recounts and describes, he becomes Glaser, then switches back to himself.
   The actor’s Satchmo is not only spot-on vocally and physically, it is filled with both the publicly seen joy and the private anger and pain. When he is presented with the song “Hello Dolly” to record, for example, his reaction to the song would not be printable in a family magazine. He talks of the disdain he experienced from his fellow black musicians, especially Miles Davis, whom Thompson’s Armstrong also “becomes,” for what they perceived as Armstrong’s Uncle Tom–like clownish persona meant to appease the white world that adopted him. He also harps on his unending discontent with Glaser as one who, despite enabling him to become an icon, used him as a vehicle for his own unsavory monetary needs.
   As remarkable and fulfilling as Thompson’s Armstrong is, his Glaser makes the performance monumental, thanks to the actor’s ability to inhabit someone so radically different not only from Armstrong but probably from himself as well. This Glaser is a fast-talking, volatile, street-smart conniver whose whole existence is predicated on making the deal and always being in control. Occasionally, the play seems a bit repetitive, and rather than have it end with Satchmo talking about how “What a Wonderful World” expressed much of his own attitude toward life despite his ever-present anguish, perhaps he should have switched-on his tape recorder, a central prop throughout, and walked offstage with the song playing as the embodiment of what made him special to us. But the show here is Thompson, and the man is something special indeed.

May 8, 2014

Irma La Douce
Encores! at NY City Center [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

As presented by Encores!, this musical is a totally unique creation and the epitome of old-style, late– Golden Age show-making. The original Irma La Douce premiered in Paris in 1956 and ran for four years. It then appeared in London with an English translation, directed by Peter Brook. David Merrick then acquired it for a New York production where its stars were again English. The cast here numbers 13; that of its Encores! predecessor, The Most Happy Fella, numbered 37. Of the 13, one is a female: the eponymous Irma. There is no subplot, only the central love affair, which is a mix of great warmth and mistaken-identity Marx Brothers–type farce. The orchestra, always sizable in keeping with the Encores mission of focusing on the music, here numbers 10 musicians, including an accordionist.
   And yet, in describing the essence and feel of the show, one has to conclude that it is very much a product of its time. In it, boy meets, loses, then gets girl. Its music includes lilting ballads, including the inevitable eventual standard (“Our Language of Love”), rousing up-tempo numbers, highlighted by the showstopping “Dis-Donc.” Its chorus assumes various roles. Storytelling is straightforward, with a happy ending. The score is richly melodic but still within the tradition of letting the songs move the story along. The tone is simplicity, but all the elements of standard Broadway fare circa 1960 are there.
   Elizabeth Seal won the Tony Award in 1961 for her Irma, despite competition from Julie Andrews, Carol Channing, and Nancy Walker. Jennifer Bowles does the job here and is more than up to the challenge; her singing, dancing, and acting capture the proverbial whore with the heart of gold. Rob McClure is a delight as her smitten suitor who soon becomes rabidly jealous—of himself. As our host, narrator, and quick-change artist, Malcolm Gets is solid. The remaining 10 gentlemen (Sam Bolen, Ben Crawford, Stephen DeRosa, Zachary James, Ken Krugman, Joseph Medeiros, Joseph Simeone, Manuel Stark, Chris Sullivan, and Caleb Teicher.) cavort wonderfully in doing the work usually handled by a much larger group of both genders. Despite the success of 2011’s Once, a show of this nature in today’s musical theater is not likely to receive future revivals. Thanks, therefore, to Encores! for allowing us a look back at this heralded but somewhat forgotten pleasure.

May 8, 2014

Violet
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Joshua Henry, Colin Donnell, and Sutton Foster
Photo by Joan Marcus


Sutton Foster proves she can do anything with her brilliantly grounded yet soaring performance in Violet, the 1997 musical that had a brief run Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons and is making its Broadway debut in a Roundabout Theatre Company production. (This staging by Leigh Silverman is an expansion of her concert version at Encores! last year.) Foster has previously done perky ingénues in Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone, spunky heroines in Shrek and Little Women, and a tough but soft-hearted hustler-showgirl in Anything Goes. But her Violet is a combination of all these women. She’s a determined yet vulnerable believer, traveling on a series of Greyhounds from her rural home in 1965 North Carolina to Tulsa, Okla., in search of the televangelist she believes will heal the scar on her face and make her beautiful. Along the way she meets a pair of GIs—the cocky Monty and the sensitive Flick—both of whom fall for her.
   Foster captures Violet’s desperate yearning to be normal and her steely determination to stay in control. Her strong voice is the perfect instrument for the eclectic score by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Brian Crawley, which offers a smorgasbord of sounds not usually heard on Broadway—rock, rhythm and blues, country and western, and gospel, energetically played by the onstage band.
   Colin Donnell skillfully conveys Monty’s smug confidence as well as his insecurities, particularly in “Last Time I Came to Memphis.” In Flick’s solo number, “Let It Sing,” Joshua Henry creates an inspiring message of hope and compassion delivered to Violet. There are solid characterization and vibrant vocals from Emerson Steele as young Violet, Alexander Gemignani as Violet’s loving but stern father, Annie Golden as an eccentric fellow passenger, Rema Webb as a gospel singer, and Ben Davis as the flashy TV preacher.
   Leigh Silverman’s staging re-creates the intimacy of the small-scale Encores! version with the large-scale excitement of a Broadway show. With the aide of Mark Barton’s versatile lighting, David Zinn’s atmospheric bus-station set allows us to be travelling one minute and in a juke joint the next. I loved the specific details such as the snack-food stand in the background, complete with a magazine rack. It’s the little touches that make this such a moving show about everyday people.

May 10, 2014
 
April 20–Aug. 10. Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. $67–142. (212) 719-1300.

www.roundabouttheatre.org
 

 
The Velocity of Autumn
Booth Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward [show closed]

There’s potential for a moving and realistic examination of old age and family dynamics in Eric Coble’s slender one-act The Velocity of Autumn, but the playwright opts for sitcom laughs and gimmicks instead. In this predictable two-hander, 79-year-old Alexandra (a reliable Estelle Parsons) has barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone, threatening to blow herself and the whole block up with improvised Molotov cocktails if her interfering children don’t stop hounding her to move into a nursing home or at least get some live-in help. (Not an unreasonable request.) Her estranged, middle-aged gay son, Chris (Stephen Spinella doing the best he can), scales the family tree, sneaks in a conveniently unlocked window, and negotiates on behalf of his siblings who are all for calling the cops on Mom.
   Over the next 90 minutes, the two of them joke, rake over past hurts, reveal their darkest fears, and, of course, reconnect. Molly Smith’s direction is perfunctory. But, with a pair of pros like these, there are pleasures offered, including Parsons’s laser-like timing and delivery of senior-moment gags. “You know you’re old when you start making sound effects for your body” is a typical zinger. Even though most are right out of The Golden Girls, she makes them sound like sparkling gems. Spinella exudes compassion and handily avoids oversentimentalizing Chris’s depression. Too bad their vehicle is so rickety. Due to a lack of Tony noms (though Parsons is up for Best Actress in a Play), the show has posted it closing notice for May 4.

April 29, 2014
 
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Circle in the Square

Reviewed by David Sheward


Audra McDonald
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

When attending a press preview of this production, I didn’t know that Audra McDonald would be attempting a re-creation of Billie Holiday’s distinctively scratchy and emotive voice. I had assumed she would be doing an interpretation, channeling her own smooth soprano into a jazz configuration. So when McDonald stepped onto set designer James Noone’s re-creation of a small nightclub stage in 1959 South Philadelphia and opened her mouth, I was shocked. The sounds that came out were not an approximation. There was that unique combination of honey and vinegar poured over barbed wire. There was the caress and the clawing. It was the voice I had heard on innumerable recordings plaintively crooning about love, betrayal, and loneliness. For the 90 minutes of this play with music, McDonald is Holiday.
   Lanie Robertson’s 1986 script, previously presented Off-Broadway with Lonette McKee, is more than a bit unimaginative. In this script, based on a real-life club engagement three months before her death at age 43, the legendary singer pours out her entire life story as if she were narrating a film biography in between performing a dozen or so numbers, downing vodka shots, and shooting heroin offstage. McDonald interacts a bit with conductor-pianist Shelton Becton as accompanist Jimmy Powers, and a cute little dog makes a cameo, but this is largely a one-woman show. Director Lonny Price uses photos and props, gorgeously illuminated by lighting designer Robert Wierzel behind a scrim, to illustrate various incidents and characters in Holiday’s past.
   Despite the predictable nature of the monologues, McDonald gives them as much blood and life as she gives her amazing musical performances. Both are staged with fluidity by Price. The actor moves around Noone’s set, creating the illusion of intimacy in the vast Circle in the Square. In her nonsinging moments, McDonald expertly captures Holiday’s unquenchable humor despite abusive treatment by racist whites and abusive boyfriends. Her casual mention of Holiday’s being raped at 10 and then joking about working in a bordello at 14 are devastating in their ease. Later, Holiday’s suppressed rage is triggered by certain songs, and McDonald unleashes it to heartbreaking effect in the harrowing “Strange Fruit,” a wail in protest of the too-common practice of lynching. She’s also yearningly bittersweet with “God Bless the Child,” raucously playful in “Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer),” and romantically pensive on “When a Woman Loves a Man.”
   The elegant white gown, complete with long sleeves to conceal needle marks, designed by Esosa, completes this indelible portrait of one great artist by another.

April 18, 2014
 
April 13–Aug. 10. Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway, NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $97–250. (212) 239-6200.

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The Realistic Joneses
Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Toni Collette and Michael C. Hall
Photo by Joan Marcus

“Words don’t do it for me anymore,” says John, one of four characters with the same last name in Will Eno’s absurdist comedy-drama The Realistic Joneses. Unfortunately, he could be describing this audience member as well as himself. Eno has a unique way with dialogue. Non-sequiturs pop out, interspersed with oddball observations and hilarious quips. But here, as with his earlier works such as Middletown and Oh, the Humanity, the people speaking them aren’t especially compelling and the action doesn’t add up to much.
   The play, which marks Eno’s Broadway debut following its production at Yale Repertory Theatre, begins promisingly. In set designer’s David Zinn’s generic backyard setting, unhappy suburban couple Jennifer and Bob Jones meet equally miserable John and Pony Jones who have just moved in down the street. The playwright supplies them with sharp banter, expertly delivered by the all-star cast consisting of Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei, and Michael C. Hall. (Letts is the only holdover from the Yale engagement; the other three star names were brought in presumably to boost the box office for this show, which, under normal circumstances, would be playing a limited run in an Off-Broadway company’s season.) “We moved here for the schools,” the newcomer Pony states. When asked if they have kids, she responds, “No. John just hates stupid children.” That’s the kind of off-kilter, quirky humor that punctuates the initial scene, directed with precision by Sam Gold. As the newbies are about to leave, a dead squirrel is found atop a garbage can. Perhaps a symbol of social decay or maybe just a sight gag.
   But nothing develops from there. We learn that both husbands suffer from the same rare neurological disease and it’s tearing the marriages apart. Jennifer and John flirt in the supermarket while, in parallel sequence, Bob and Pony stumble into a brief affair. This theme of dualism is rampant. The couples share a surname, a medical condition, and even furniture as the new guys acquire a cast-off lamp from their counterparts. The pairs are clearly meant to be mirror images of each other, but it’s not clear which are the “realistic” ones. Through all this confusion, the quirky quips keep coming, but they fail to illuminate the characters or their relations. “We’re just throwing words at each,” Jennifer complains at one point, and I couldn’t agree more.
   Eno offers a vague glimpse of how people react to catastrophic illness in different ways—Bob with resignation, John with confusion—and the playwright seems to want to say something cosmic about the human condition. Too bad it doesn’t get anymore specific than that. The all-star quartet makes the rambling bearable—especially Tomei, who infuses the bewildered Pony with a caffeinated energy, turning on a dime from despair to hysterics. It’s one of the few highlights in this meandering muddle.

April 14, 2014
  
April 6–July 6. Lyceum Thetre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $39–135. (212) 239-6200.

www.therealisticjoneses.com
 

 
If/Then
Richard Rodgers Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp
Photo by Joan Marcus

Heaven knows Idina Menzel is talented enough to play two different roles in a massive Broadway musical, but even she cannot save the bifurcated and bipolar If/Then. The show is an artistic failure, but it will probably be a financial success; it’s selling out thanks to Menzel’s Wicked and Frozen fans. (It’s also too long by a good 20 minutes.)
   Borrowing heavily from the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, this well-intentioned but ultimately befuddling and clichéd tuner follows two different possible life-paths for Elizabeth, a 40-ish city planner just moved to New York after 12 years of marriage in Arizona ended in divorce. The action starts in Madison Park as the heroine must chose between hanging out with impulsive and spunky new lesbian neighbor Kate (the sparkling LaChanze) or attending a protest meeting with her politically driven, bisexual college chum Lucas (the endearing Anthony Rapp). The premise: Seemingly insignificant choices like this one can alter your life. The script splits in two from there.
   In one scenario, the protagonist goes off with Kate, who rechristens her Lizzie, and she finds the man of her dreams, a gorgeous doctor named Josh (the robust but bland James Snyder). In the other she joins Lucas, who says she should be known by the more serious moniker Beth—so we can tell them apart, get it?—and is rewarded with a fulfilling government job but must pay for it with unhappy love affairs. Oh, and she wears glasses as Lizzie, to further help us differentiate between parallel plotlines.

Despite slick, clever staging by the always imaginative Michael Grief (Menzel and Rapp’s helmer on Rent) and fun, quirky choreography by Larry Keigwin, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on and even harder to care. There are some memorable songs by the Next to Normal team of composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, as well as witty spoken dialogue from Yorkey, but the musical seems to be saying you can either have love or career, ladies, not both.
   And then there is Menzel. She is seldom offstage, and her powerful voice fills the Richard Rodgers. Her dramatic skills go far to add dimension to Lizzie and Beth, half characters not even adding up to a single whole one. She runs the gamut from comically flummoxed after sleeping with the wrong man (“What the Fuck”) to coping with an avalanche of mixed emotions as her spouse must leave her for a tour of duty in Iraq (“I Hate You”). It’s a colossal performance that just might win her a second Tony and push the confused and confusing If/Then into the profit zone.

April 9, 2014

Opened March 30 for an open run. Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $67–142. (800) 745-3000.

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The Most Happy Fella
New York City Center Encores! Off-Center [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal


Laura Benanti and Shuler Hensley
Photo by Joan Marcus

From his work in Hollywood (the songs “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,”) through his journey to Broadway (the musicals Where’s Charley and Guys and Dolls), few could have foreseen Frank Loesser’s impulse to create his own musical-theater opera. At the preshow seminar for this Encores production of The Most Happy Fella, Jo Sullivan, aka Mrs. Loesser, aka Rosabella in the original production, quoted him as calling the show “a musical with music.”
   He certainly was not casting aspersions on existing or previous works in the canon, but he was merely expressing his goal of telling the story through an almost nonstop stream of music. Here, the songs are plentiful, the spoken dialogue minimal, and the sung dialogue frequent. The range of the music is almost impossible to comprehend. From some of the most breathtaking ballads ever written to two flat-out showstoppers, the inventiveness and the mix of Broadway and opera dazzles. All of this music is in the service of a story of unrequited love that transforms into a union that leaves not a dry eye in the theater.
   The work on the stage at City Center is astonishing. As Tony Esposito, the aging vintner who seeks a mail-order bride, Shuler Hensley possesses a magnificent baritone and acting craft to create a luminous and heartbreaking man. Playing his much younger romantic object Amy, to whom he gives the name Rosabella, Laura Benanti is vulnerable and filled with the same longing as Tony. Cheyenne Jackson is Tony’s handsome foreman, whose photograph Tony sends in lieu of his own, and whose song expressing his own longing (“Joey, Joey, Joey”) is among the evening’s parade of highlights.
   Heidi Blickenstaff (Cleo) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Herman), the traditional and always necessary comic pair, create pandemonium in the audience with the roof-lifting “Big D.” The classic “Standing on the Corner” is executed to perfection by Johnson, Ryan Bauer-Walsh, Ward Billeisen, and Arlo Hill. All 37 performers filling the stage bring individual and collective voices to the production beyond anything else in the many years of Encores’s work. Given the size of the cast, the likelihood of a Broadway transfer would seem small. But, for those lucky enough to experience this masterpiece as presented in this production, the memories will remain.

April 2, 2014
 
Kung Fu
Signature Theatre Company [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Kung Fu, David Henry Hwang’s new play about the late martial arts expert and actor Bruce Lee, is fairly standard bio-play fodder. There are father-son mash-ups and shattering of stereotypes. The main action follows Lee’s efforts to break out of Asian cliche casting, such as his submissive sidekick to TV’s The Green Hornet, to become a Hollywood action hero. But the real action stars of this production at Signature Theater Company are director Leigh Silverman and choreographer Sonya Tayeh. Employing the athletic talents of Cole Horibe in the title role and a cast of superb dancers, actors, and acrobats, this boilerplate drama becomes a dazzling circus of kicks, leaps, chops, and punches. It’s like a Quentin Tarantino film mixed with the Chinese Opera. Kudos also to Ben Stanton’s atmospheric lighting.
March 31, 2014
   
Mothers and Sons
John Golden Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The most affecting moments in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons are silent. These take place when Tyne Daly as Katharine, a Dallas widow, is left alone in the gorgeous Upper West Side apartment of Cal, the lover of her late son Andre who died of AIDS 20 years earlier. Informing every movement and glance with volumes of subtext, Daly reveals Katharine’s gut-wrenching discomfort and yearning for some connection with her lost offspring. As she goes through old photographs, you can see the memories each one evokes on her subtly shifting features. But then she must speak one of McNally’s forced one-liners and the spell is broken.
   That’s the trouble with this underdeveloped 90-minute piece: Daly’s acting is superb, but the dialogue and basic premise are arch and contrived. McNally deserves credit for addressing a relevant new issue: the impact of the rapidly changing attitudes toward gays. Katharine and Cal were characters in McNally’s brief sketch Andre’s Mother, part of a 1988 Off-Broadway revue called Urban Blight. The author later expanded it to a television play for which he won an Emmy. In the TV version, the two confront each other over the course of the men’s relationship. Katharine is unable to let go of her anger, blaming Cal for turning her son gay and later causing him to contract the disease associated with the “lifestyle.” In the short play, Katharine is silent and Cal rails at her for rejecting her dead son because of his sexuality. In this sequel, Cal is financially prosperous and happily married—make that perfectly married—to the much younger Will, a writer with a New Yorker short story to his credit. They have an aggressively cute 6-year-old son named Bud. Katharine makes an unexpected visit on the pretext of returning Andre’s diary to Cal, but her motives are never fully explained.

McNally gives us a lot of pointed social observation and a fair amount of sharp dialogue, but the four characters come across as representatives of political positions rather than fleshed-out human beings. In addition, their psychological backgrounds are too easily brought to the surface. Each adult is able to eloquently articulate his or her diagnosis, as if attending a therapy conference. Even little Bud is annoyingly adept at deciphering everyone’s agenda. It’s ironic that Katharine rejects the possibility of therapy since she seems intelligent enough to figure out the reasons for her rage.
   By having his combatants blatantly state their positions, McNally condescends to his audience. He obviously broadcasts the conflicts rather than letting us figure them out for ourselves. Playwrights such as Donald Margulies (Dinner With Friends) and Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation) more accurately depict most human interactions by creating characters who attack their problems indirectly.

Director Sheryl Kaller moves the four actors around John Lee Beatty’s elegant setting with professional aplomb, but they still feel like participants in a debate. Fortunately, Daly convincingly conveys Katharine’s lifetime of hurt and yearning through telling, incomplete gestures such as the way she picks up a glass of scotch, decides not to drink it, and puts it down again. Frederick Weller’s Cal doesn’t reach this level of breathtaking verisimilitude, but he chronicles the man’s shattering sense of guilt over surviving the AIDS crisis and finding happiness. Bobby Steggert has a difficult time getting past Will’s politically correct smugness, but offers humor and bite. As Bud, Grayson Taylor makes for a startlingly self-possessed 6-year-old, but he seems too much like a poster child for gay families. And that’s what Mothers and Sons boils down to: a position paper rather than a realistic glimpse at how we live now.

March 29, 2014
 
Aladdin
New Amsterdam Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


James Monroe Iglehart
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Aladdin, the latest Disney theme-park attraction—I mean Broadway show based on one of the studio’s cartoon features—is not as pedestrian as the flabby Tarzan or the all-wet Little Mermaid. But it doesn’t reach the imaginative heights of Julie Taymor’s brilliant adaptation of The Lion King. This one is somewhere in the middle, depending too much on the screen version but with just enough silly fun to keep you going until the curtain call and that final walk past the merchandise counter.
   The fun is mostly provided by James Monroe Iglehart as the hyperactive genie, who grants Aladdin’s three wishes while reeling off contemporary pop culture references. In the film, Robin Williams voiced this magical maniac, and the animators had a field day transforming his image into thousands of different likenesses of the celebrities Williams impersonated. Iglehart, a burly guy with the infectious spirit of Fats Waller, comes close as any flesh-and-blood performer can to re-creating these zany cartoon antics. The shenanigans reach their zenith in Act 1 near-finale “Friend Like Me,” in which the genie displays his awesome powers along with Bob Crawley’s dazzling sets and Gregg Barnes’s fabulous costumes. Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw pulls out all the stops as Iglehart and a hardworking chorus parody game shows, reality TV, and previous Disney shows with wild glee. At the preview performance attended, the number earned a prolonged ovation with several fans standing.

The trouble is, the show doesn’t maintain that degree of inspired lunacy. The two leads— Adam Jacobs as the plucky Aladdin and Courtney Reed as the spunky Princess Jasmine—are attractive and possess acceptable voices, but they lack Iglehart’s charisma to carry an entire production. Even their iconic magic-carpet ride, which features the Oscar-winning song “A Whole New World,” fails to soar. The rest of the Alan Menkin–Howard Ashman–Tim Rice score, augmented by new songs with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, similarly doesn’t levitate.
   Beguelin’s book is serviceable but full of groan-inducing puns. “I feel awful” is rejoined with “Did someone say falafel?” by an always-hungry sidekick. Speaking of sidekicks, Beguelin ditches the trademark funny animals from the movie and replaces them with not-so-funny human assistants. Instead of Aladdin’s monkey, we have three caricaturish stooges, and the evil Jafar’s Gilbert Gottfried­–voiced parrot is switched out with an annoying clown. Fortunately, Jonathan Freeman repeats his delightfully snarly take on Jafar from the film. He and the bubbly Iglehart are the engines that keep this Aladdin flying as high as it goes. Too bad it doesn’t get far off the ground.

March 22, 2014

Opened March 20 at the New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $49.50–115.50. (866) 870-2717.

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Rocky
Winter Garden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Margo Seibert and Andy Karl
Photo by Morris Mac Matzen

Rocky was never one of my favorite movies. When it came out in 1976, I found Sylvester Stallone’s story of a hard-luck Philadelphia boxer given a shot at the heavyweight title predictable and trite (and I’m from Philly). I was furious it won the Best Picture Oscar over All the President’s Men, and I never bothered to see any of the endless sequels. So imagine my shock when the musical version of the film, now on Broadway after premiering in Hamburg, Germany, had me cheering for the titular underdog to go the distance and kayo the bombastic champ.
   This metamorphosis from schmaltzy to spectacular is largely due to director Alex Timbers, whose theatrical imagination has ignited such innovative productions as Peter and the Starcatcher, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Here Lies Love. Employing Christopher Barreca’s gritty sets, Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina’s grimy video projections, and Christopher Akerlind’s versatile lighting, Timbers creates a fast-paced, heart-pounding, grown-up fairy tale.
   The real charge arrives during the last 20 minutes of the show, when audience members in the first 20 rows are swiftly ushered on stage and Barreca’s massive boxing ring flies into the middle of the cavernous Winter Garden for the climactic bout. Unfortunately, patrons on the side sections must stand to view the match, expertly choreographed with ballet-like precision by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine. A Jumbotron with multiple TV screens descends, and all of a sudden we’re in a real match with video images and color commentary from two sportscasters high above the stage.

The score, by Ragtime veterans Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, has just the right amount of vinegar to keep it from getting too sugary. Likewise, the trim book by Stallone and Thomas Meehan wisely downplays sentiment and gets the story in fighting shape. But, on the negative side, the co-authors have spiffed up the schlubby characters. The dumb but full-of-heart Rocky, his mousy girlfriend Adrian, her self-destructive brother Paulie, the craggy manager Mickey—all become well-adjusted, likable winners too quickly. Even Terence Archie’s narcissistic champ, Apollo Creed, comes across as a generous guy.
   In the title role, Andy Karl is handsomer in a glamour-boy way than the rough-edged Stallone, making him slightly unconvincing as a washed-up club fighter, but Karl overcomes his good looks and endows Rocky with streetwise charm and intense determination to claw his way out of Palookaville. This is probably one of the most demanding roles on Broadway: The actor must sing, dance, run (along with a chorus of Spider-Man-like doubles), and go 15 rounds. Karl gets a vigorous workout and emerges triumphant.
   As Adrian, Margo Seibert transforms to a confident beauty a bit too easily, but she possesses a powerful, evocative voice. Dakin Matthews is appropriately crusty as Mickey, and Danny Mastrogiorgio gives Paulie needed acid, even though the script doesn’t allow him to pour on enough to make the character sting.
   While this Rocky is an improvement over the film, I would have preferred just a pinch more spice. But then that final boxing scene makes up for any quibbles.

March 16, 2014

Opened March 13 for an open run. Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $79–143. (212) 239-6200.

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All the Way
Neil Simon Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Bryan Cranston
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

The last time Robert Schenkkan had a play on Broadway, it was 20 years ago and covered two centuries of history. The Kentucky Cycle won the Tony, Pulitzer and just about every other major award, but similar, large-cast efforts are extremely rare for the Main Stem—that is unless they’re musicals. Now, Schenkkan is back, painting on a canvas almost as broad with an ambitious history lesson about the first year in office of President Lyndon Johnson. Kentucky was a critical, but not a commercial hit, but All the Way may land in the black, thanks largely to a dynamic Broadway debut from Bryan Cranston in the lead.
   Fresh from his multiseason run on Breaking Bad, Cranston transforms himself into the arm-twisting, profanity-spouting chief executive who managed to ram a civil rights bill through a reluctant Congress and win re-election despite challenges from racist elements in his own party and the reactionary Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. Thrusting his abdomen forward and twisting his features into an almost perpetual scowl, Cranston conveys Johnson’s relentless domination over allies and enemies alike. But he’s not all push and prod: The actor clearly relishes Johnson’s love of a good dirty story. Like a foul-mouthed Abe Lincoln, Cranston’s president dispenses outrageous, illustrative anecdotes with maximum effect, garnering audience guffaws and landing his point with precision.

Though Johnson is the engine of the play, this is not a solo effort. In addition to the ugly behind-the-scenes legislative machinations, Schenkkan gives us detailed tours of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its offshoots; J. Edgar Hoover’s shadowy FBI; and both sides of the aisle in both houses of Congress. It may seem like Schenkkan has taken on too much material to fit into a single evening (The Kentucky Cycle ran six hours over two nights), but the thread is never lost and our attention never wavers.
   Bill Rauch, artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the play premiered, deftly manipulates a cast of 20 around Christopher Acebo’s courtroom-like set. Shawn Sagady’s projections and Jane Cox’s lighting immeasurably aid in creating the numerous settings—from inside the White House to a crowded convention hotel room in Atlantic City to a lonely field where three civil rights workers were brutally murdered.
   In addition to Cranston’s volcanic Johnson, the most memorable impressions are created by Brandon J. Dirden’s sonorous Martin Luther King, Betsy Aidem’s long-suffering first lady, John McMartin’s genteel but stubborn Southern senator, William Jackson Harper’s passionate Stokely Carmichael, and Eric Lenox Abrams’s fiery protestor.

Schenkkan is developing The Great Society, a sequel covering the early years of Johnson’s administration and the deepening Vietnam War, and scheduled for production at OSF this summer. If it’s anything like this robust, fascinating look at our recent politics, I can hardly wait to see it.

March 9, 2014
 
Opened March 6 for an open run. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 50 minutes, including intermission. $52–142. (800) 745-3000.

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Love and Information
New York Theatre Workshop at the Minetta Lane Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Every time there’s a new play from Caryl Churchill, you can expect something different. From the gender-bending antics of Cloud 9 to the political and fantasy mash-ups of Mad Forest to the madness-in-verse of Serious Money, the works of this inventive British dramatist stretch our expectations of what a play can be and challenge our ideas about culture and social interaction. Her latest piece, Love and Information, now at the Minetta Lane Theatre in a production from New York Theatre Workshop, is no less daring and is perhaps the perfect play for these scattered, attention-deficit times.
   Set in Miriam Buether’s narrow, graph paper-lined box of a set, the two-hour play consists of 50-odd unrelated vignettes, each running no more than a few minutes. The 15-member cast plays all manner of distracted modern citizens attempting to gain information, love, or some combination thereof. Two squealing teenagers battle over their idol’s favorite smell. A runaway wife returns to her unforgiving husband. A woman cannot cope with being in the country without Internet access. A wealthy couple quarrel over getting together with friends they each dislike for different reasons. A downsized executive angrily confronts his supervisor. One segment about a man having an affair with a virtual woman is a little too similar to Her (though the play premiered in London in 2012 before Her’s release).
   The segments are grouped by numbers; a final extended segment is introduced with a mysterious plus sign. The groupings seem to reflect general themes such as secrets, language, memory, and emotions. In the final, plus-sign segment, a woman is quizzed by her boyfriend on arcane trivia. When he interrupts the cram session to tell her he loves her, she angrily demurs, “Don’t do that.” But she soon returns his affection in the middle of the questioning.

It’s difficult to grasp Churchill’s overall intention, as each of the mini-dramas is separate and unique. She appears to be saying that despite the 21st-century overload of data, the hunger for tenderness is the same as in the days of the telegraph and print newspaper. But the point is made early on, and, despite a marvelous cast and ingenious direction by James Macdonald, the rapid relay of scenes grows tedious after about 90 minutes. The effect is like binging on YouTube clips. Churchill could have cut 15 to 20 of the segments and gotten a tighter transmission of her point.
   Macdonald surmounts the script’s challenges with amazing dexterity. Interspersed with Christopher Shutt’s eclectic sound score, the scenes are fluidly and quickly staged. The setting and actors appear and disappear like tricks in a magic act. The versatile company—which includes veterans Maria Tucci, Randy Danson, Karen Kandel, and John Procaccino, as well as newcomers Noah Galvin and Zoe Winters—conveys the complex emotions in a matter of seconds, sometimes with only a line or two of dialogue. Susannah Flood is particularly moving as the returning wife, pouring a lifetime of sorrow into a few moments. Too bad she gets lost in the onslaught of images.

February 20, 2014

The Tribute Artist
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Any play that features the divine gender-bender Charles Busch quoting Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, Rosalind Russell in Picnic, and Bette Davis in Now Voyager starts out way ahead in my book. Yes, The Tribute Artist, the latest work from playwright-performer-diva Busch, has a few flaws, but it contains enough laughs, crazy plot twists, and gorgeous gowns worn by Busch to merit a visit.
   Unlike many of his previous works such as The Divine Sister, Die Mommy Die, Psycho Beach Party, and the long-running Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Tribute Artist is set in a relatively realistic world rather than the bizarre Hollywood dreamscape Busch adores. Busch stars as Jimmy, an unemployed female impersonator, living in the Greenwich Village townhouse of Adriana, an elderly eccentric fashion designer. When Adriana dies, Jimmy disguises himself as her and, with the aid of his best friend and former fellow performer Rita, plots to sell the highly desirable property. But as Rita points out, whenever there’s a perfect scheme in the movies, there’s always one little detail the conspirators overlook that destroys their plan and sends them to the hoosegow.
   That little detail arrives the form of Adriana’s alienated niece Christina (a subtle reference to Joan Crawford’s tattling daughter?) who claims the house as her own and moves in with her transgendered offspring Oliver, formerly Rachel. Matters get even more complicated when Oliver contacts Adriana’s old flame, the handsome and dangerous Rodney, and invites him over to get reacquainted. Madness naturally ensues as we discover that Jimmy is not the only one in the crazed household hiding a secret. Busch makes pointed insights about the masks people wear and changing identities amid the gags and movie references, while director Carl Andress keeps the action running smoothly without veering into slapstick. The plot gets too convoluted at times, and Mary Bacon allows Christina’s whining to become too one-note for too much of her screeching self-pitying speeches.

But as with any play written by and starring Busch, he is the center of attention and this time delivers a wildly funny turn. It’s not as exaggerated as his more over-the-top divas, but he admirably switches between the “real” Jimmy and his kooky version of Adriana. As Rita, Busch’s longtime co-star Julie Halston makes for a sharp-witted sidekick not unlike Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter. Cynthia Harris is martini-dry as the actual Adriana, Jonathan Walker gives Rodney the necessary rough edge, Keira Keeley is properly boyish as the transgendered Oliver, and, once she settles down, Mary Bacon is a sympathetic Christina.
   Set designer Anna Louizos has created the perfect elegant townhouse, and Gregory Gale’s costumes are suitably chic and satiric, just like this fizzy, funny cocktail from one of our most beloved entertainers.

February 11, 2014
 
Bill W. and Dr. Bob
SoHo Playhouse [show closed]

Reviewed by Simi Horwitz

Bill W. and Dr. Bob is strong theater for a broad-based audience, though a drama about the two men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 will hit a special nerve with recovering alcoholics (or recovering drug abusers) who are well-versed in the movement’s history, tenets, and rituals. Indeed, the play opens with Bill Wilson (Patrick Boll) facing the audience to introduce himself, saying, “My name is Bill W. and I am an alcoholic,” and many theatergoers responding, “Hi Bill,” as if they’re attending an AA meeting. Dr. Bob Smith (Steve Brady) then greets the gathering and confesses, “Dr Bob, alcoholic, good to be here sober.” He, too, receives a collective salutation, “Hi, Bob.”
   Co-written by husband and wife—doctor and psychologist—Sam Shem and Janet Surrey, the play recounts how the two long-term alcoholics met one night in Ohio and inadvertently launched the self-help movement. The high-functioning, high-IQ drunks discovered they were Vermont natives, admired William James, and had attended endless Temperance meetings in an effort to combat their alcoholism, and none of it worked. During that initial all-nighter, they shared their experiences and soon began to suspect that no one could help an alcoholic like another alcoholic who had been down the same road. They also concluded that, contrary to received wisdom, alcoholism was not a moral failing but a physical ailment, and the way to control it was through total sobriety that could be achieved only “one day at a time.” The two men forged an intense friendship as they attempted to spread the word, while battling their own demons and family crises. Each had hurt a loyal and loving wife (Denise Cormier, Anne Hedwall).

The script is earnest, but, given the topic and the goals of the creative team, perhaps that’s inevitable. Consider the authors’ stated mission: to “service the recovery community,” and to do “outreach to those who still suffer from substance abuse…and to educate about the myths of AA and other 12-step programs,” most notably the fact that AA is not a religious program but instead “spiritual.” The play has had an interesting journey during its seven-year existence. First mounted in New York at the New World Stages in 2007, it has been produced worldwide and has moved from functioning as a commercial venture to being funded entirely by tax-exempt donations made to a nonprofit, The Hazelden Foundation, a treatment center for alcoholics and drug abusers. The new business model is clearly working. Bill W. and Dr. Bob has been running at the SoHo Playhouse since July and is now slated to continue through the end of March.
   Seth Gordon’s tight direction and the high level acting throughout, especially the performances of Boll and Brady, bring to life an evolving friendship between two strong-willed, complex human beings who without each other might literally have died on the street well before their time. Boll is every bit the swaggering stockbroker who celebrates success with booze and turns to the bottle with even greater ferocity in the face of failure. Brady’s Dr. Bob is an anguished secret drinker, hiding full, half-full, and empty bottles all over the house as he continues to treat patients and perform surgery, plastered. One of the most powerful moments occurs when he gets on his knees and begs his wife’s forgiveness. As part of the treatment, recovering alcoholics must “make amends” to those they have harmed.
   In lesser hands the two women who play the wives could easily become shrewish caricatures. Instead, they are layered human beings who love their husbands. Cormier’s affection for Dr. Bob and her sense of helplessness are palpable. So too is Hedwall’s feeling that she is totally alone. Sarah Nealis and Michael Frederic are also impressive in multiple smaller roles, especially Frederic as a hospitalized boozer struggling with the idea of allowing Bill and Bob to help him. He is both funny and sad.

Though there are a few sluggish moments, for the most part the pacing is fast and the minimal set—designed to suggest a bar—is imaginative. The back wall is flanked with bottles, while the bar serves a dual function, flipping over to become a bed for scenes in which one is needed. This play tells an inspiring story that goes well beyond a tale of personal triumph to become a narrative about two lost souls who met almost accidentally, joined forces to experiment with an idea that had no precedent, and ultimately saved millions of lives.

February 4, 2014
 
Bronx Bombers
Circle in the Square [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

After covering football with Lombardi and basketball in Magic/Bird, playwright-director Eric Simonson steps up to the plate for baseball in his new work Bronx Bombers, now at Circle in the Square after an Off-Broadway run at Primary Stages earlier in the season. He hits a solid single, but gets caught off base while trying to steal home. If you’re a fan of the New York Yankees, this show is definitely for you, but if you’re not an aficionado of the national pastime, the second word of the title may be a bit too apt.
   The play begins promisingly. In June 1977, coach Yogi Berra, the Yankees’ malaprop-spouting former catcher, is desperately attempting to heal a potentially fatal rift in his beloved ball club. During a game with their arch rivals, the Boston Red Sox, Yankee manager Billy Martin and star hitter Reggie Jackson have just had a dugout brawl in front of millions of fans. Berra has called the antagonists along with team captain Thurman Munson to his Beantown hotel suite to settle the matter calmly before it gets to the suits in the front office. Jackson is a phenomenally talented player, but he refuses to mold his personality and attitude to be a part of Martin’s team. He’s the reason the fans are showing up, so why should he conform to Martin’s restrictive playing schedule?
   This is a meaty, fascinating set-up: a single room, fiery conflict, everybody with their own agenda. Somebody’s gotta win, somebody’s gotta lose. Even if you’re not obsessed with baseball history, you want to know who’s gonna come out on top. But this is just the first scene of the first act. Immediately afterwards, Simonson takes a turn into The Twilight Zone. After the Boston sequence, we find ourselves in Berra’s bedroom in New Jersey where he and his wife, Carmen, are coping with a lawn full of potatoes (don’t ask) and worries over the team’s declining morale. Their dialogue is interrupted by the ghost of Babe Ruth. Then after intermission, Simonson springs a jock version of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls where, instead of feminist icons sharing a lunch with the heroine, Yogi and Carmen are hosting a dinner party with Yankee greats of the past and present.

Simonson briskly and evenly stages the action in the oval-shaped Circle in the Square, while the cast brings much energy and wit to the exercise. Peter Scolari wisely doesn’t condescend to Berra, honestly portraying his rough wisdom and delivering his mangled aphorisms with a straight face (“I may be nostalgic, but I don’t like to live in the past” is a prime example). C.J. Wilson has a bear-like charm as Babe Ruth, while Chris Henry Coffey is suavely cool as Joe DiMaggio. Francois Battiste skillfully captures Reggie Jackson’s swagger and the humble pride of Elston Howard, the Yankees’ first African-American player. Similarly Bill Dawes gets two totally different portrayals—the tired but reasonable Munson and the cocky Mickey Mantle.
   There are plenty of anecdotes and much sports trivia, but the Martin-Jackson contretemps, the driving action of the first act, is never fully resolved. The play ends with a coda in 2008 as Berra attends the final ceremony before Yankee Stadium is torn down and we learn in passing that the antagonists patched up their differences. It’s an unsatisfying ending to a loose love letter to a New York institution. Maybe fervent Yankee fans will provide enough of an audience to keep the show running the bases for a few months, but don’t expect Bronx Bombers to last beyond the Tony Award playoffs.

February 6, 2014

Outside Mullingar
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Romance is making a comeback on Broadway this season with a plethora of plays and musicals putting love matches at the forefront (First Date, The Bridges of Madison County, etc.). Perhaps the most Cupid-conscious work of all is John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, now at the Friedman Theater as part of Manhattan Theater Club’s 2013–14 season. Set in the rural Ireland of his ancestors and beautifully realized by John Lee Beatty’s sets and Mark McCullough’s lighting, it’s a tenderhearted, sharp-tongued comedy that combines the author’s trademark acidic edge with his softer, lyrical side as seen in his screenplay for Moonstruck. In that film, Nicholas Cage and Cher as a pair of mismatched loners stumble toward love, battling each other all the way. Here, Shanley creates two similar outcasts, both fast approaching middle age, reaching out toward each other but wary of the stings love can bring. It’s a heartbreaking and heartwarming valentine featuring some of the most moving acting and directing to be seen on Broadway in years.
   Brian F. O’Byrne, the portrayer of isolated Irishmen in such plays as Shanley’s Doubt, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West, and Conor McPherson’s Shining City, stars as Anthony Reilly, a dreamy chap who feels at home only in the fields of his family farm. Debra Messing (TV’s Will & Grace) is his neighbor Rosemary Muldoon. She has had a crush on Anthony ever since he pushed her when they were kids. Ostensibly, the plot device keeping them apart is a dispute over a strip of land overlapping their two properties, but the real sticking point is their own fears and stubbornness. There’s also Anthony’s crusty old dad (veteran character actor Peter Maloney), who’s thinking of leaving the farm to an American cousin, and Rosemary’s sage mother (Irish actor Dearbhla Molloy), who has just buried her husband at the start of the play and fears for her daughter’s future.
   Shanley’s script is full of rich, Gaelic-flavored dialogue, mixing just the right amount of vinegary wit with the honey of poetic love talk. Director Doug Hughes perfectly balances the two elements. This is the kind of play where the characters can argue in colorful terms about seemingly trivial matters, such as Ireland’s boxing medals at the Bejing Olympics and the inconvenience of having to open two gates to get to one’s road home, yet they still discourse passionately on the nature of love, life, and mortality. “The middle is the best part,” says Aoife, Rosemary’s mother, of life. “The middle of anything is the heart of the thing.”
   The four-person cast couldn’t be better. O’Byrne expertly limns the suppressed emotions of Anthony, a man unable to express or even identify his inner aches. Messing employs her expert comic timing to land Shanley’s devastatingly funny lines and wisely underplays Rosemary’s longing for her neighbor. Molloy is a warm and loving presence as Aoife. Maloney is wonderfully nasty as Anthony’s stone-hearted father. It’s all the more sob-inducing when his rough exterior cracks in a deathbed scene, which could easily have become overly sudsy. Maloney has been turning in consistently first-rate work on and Off-Broadway for decades, and it’s thrilling to see him in such a magnificent performance in this sweet Irish love letter.

January 26, 2014
 
Machinal
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

A crowded subway car is the striking opening image of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s searing revival of Sophie Treadwell’s relatively obscure 1928 drama Machinal. (This is its first Broadway production in over 80 years, but there have been notable Off-Broadway and London stagings in the 1990s.) As Matthew Herbert’s jarring original score and Matt Tierney’s harsh sound design fills the audience’s ears, the curtain rises on a dark stage, and we gradually make out a mass of bodies costumed by Michael Krass in shades of grey. Jane Cox’s poetic lighting picks out the face of Rebecca Hall as the Young Girl, horrified by the relentless pace of modern city life. Suddenly she pushes her way out and Es Devlin’s box-like set revolves to an even more confining space—the stuffy office where the Young Girl works, filled with wage slaves who move and speak like automatons. This unforgettable beginning lasts only a few minutes, yet in Lyndsey Turner’s imaginative staging, it sets the tone for a frightening and riveting portrait of a woman trapped by social convention and economic necessity.
   Inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, the first woman to be electrocuted for murder, Machinal follows the Young Woman, also identified as Helen Jones. Employed as a stenographer, she marries her dull boss because she has no other choices in the pre-feminist 1920s. Her husband, her doctor, even her own mother push her into a blank, meaningless existence, until she meets a virile drifter (played originally by Clark Gable in his Broadway debut) and they embark on a brief affair. After her lover lights out for Mexico, Helen can no longer stand her loveless marriage and murders her banal spouse by bashing him on the head while he sleeps.
   Treadwell, a journalist as well as playwright, wrote the script in the sharp rat-a-tat staccato of tabloid news stories, including Helen’s stream-of-consciousness monologues. The bizarre style echoes the Expressionist style employed in Buchner’s Woyzeck, O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine. Turner creates the perfect staging for this nightmarish urban jungle with the large-for-Broadway cast playing the massive, faceless crowds crushing Helen. Even dancing couples and passers-by become menacing mobs as Devlin’s set revolves and Cox’s noirish lighting flashes by as if we were constantly looking in on that packed subway car of the first scene.
   The Young Woman is something of a cipher, like Mr. Zero of The Adding Machine, caught in the merciless machinery of a changing America. But Hall, in her Broadway debut, brings her to intense life. From the initial panic-stricken dash to her slow walk toward the electric chair, Hall charts Helen’s futile struggle to escape male domination with passion and pathos. Michael Cumpsty, cast as a boring clod as he was in Roundabout’s The Winslow Boy earlier this season, properly makes the Husband into a collection of corporate clichés. Morgan Spector makes a muscular irresistible lover. Turner brilliantly has him be the only character who steps outside of the confining box representing the dark, mechanical world the Young Woman cannot escape.

January 19, 2014

The Night Alive
Donmar Warehouse at the Atlantic Theater Company [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Many of Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s works such as The Weir, Shining City, St. Nicholas, and The Seafarer feature ghosts, vampires, and devils as metaphors for the forces of loneliness and bad luck that oppress his misbegotten characters. In his The Night Alive, now at the Atlantic Theater Company—in a spare and shattering production directed by the author from London’s Donmar Warehouse—there are no supernatural forces at play, only the demons of alienation and desolation besetting a group of downtrodden Dublin folk. There are no histrionics, tears, or melodrama here, just five believable people trying to cope with the bad hand life has dealt them.
   The action revolves around Tommy, a middle-aged drifter, divorced from his wife, and estranged from his two children. His only asset is a van, which allows him to perform odd jobs with his loopy mate Doc, who is even more unsettled, having just been thrown out of his sister’s house. Tommy lives in a disheveled room in the house of his uncle Maurice, a gruff old man drowning himself in booze over his wife’s recent death. This dysfunctional, makeshift family is thrown into a chaotic whirlwind when Tommy rescues Aimee, a pathetic sometime prostitute, from her psychotic boyfriend Brian.
   The Irish cast gives decidedly unflashy performances. Ciarán Hinds, who has been virile and commanding as Julius Caesar on the HBO series Rome and as Big Daddy in the last Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is almost unrecognizable as the unshaven, rootless Tommy. This is a guy you might pass on the street in any city and not give him a second thought. Hinds doesn’t wear Tommy’s sorrow on his sleeve, he covers it up with jokes and brash bravado. So when he bears his heart to Aimee in a brief plea for her to stay with him, it’s devastating. Likewise, Caoilfhionn Dunne doesn’t give us actress-y tears or screaming fits to demonstrate Aimee’s dodgy mental condition. She seems to be moving through a fog, which breaks only occasionally. It’s a frighteningly real depiction of a woman unable to connect and struggling to overcome her lack of affect.
   Jim Norton makes Maurice’s grief over his wife and disappointment over Tommy part of the man’s skin. He has accepted his sorry lot and only bemoans it when he has got a snootful. Michael McElhatton’s puppy-ish Doc is simultaneously lovable and infuriating. The guy is endearingly naïve, yet so clueless as to drive Tommy up the wall. Brian Gleeson is appropriately menacing as the dangerous Brian. He doesn’t telegraph the character’s psychosis, which makes it all the more scary.
   Kudos to Soutra Gilmour’s grubby and gritty setting and costumes, Neil Austin’s moody lighting, and J. David Brimmer who has the unique program credit of “violence consultant.” The violence, like every other element of the production, is subdued and admirably lifelike.

December 21, 2013
 
The Commons of Pensacola
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage In [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The characters in Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola are pretty careless. They forget their cellphones and leave condom wrappers and stacks of cash lying around where anyone could find them and advance the plot. That unconvincing looseness is just one of the problems with this featherweight little number from Manhattan Theatre Club, now at the Off-Broadway City Center Stage I. Fortunately, Blythe Danner as a down-on-her-luck matron and Sarah Jessica Parker as her devastated daughter lend their considerable skills to packing meat on the bones of this flimsy carcass.
   The paper-thin story takes places in the tiny Florida condo (set designer Santo Loquasto renders the tackiness to perfection) of Judith, the wife of a convicted Bernie Madoff–like financial swindler. It’s Thanksgiving, and she’s being visited by her elder daughter Becca, a failed actor, and Becca’s much-younger boyfriend, Gabe, an investigative journalist. That job description should tell you all you need to know about the oncoming conflict. Becca is hoping to jumpstart her career by co-starring in a reality TV show with her mother, to be produced by Gabe. The gimmick would be to go around begging forgiveness from the victims of Judith’s husband. Also on hand are Ali, Becca’s estranged sister, and Lizzy, Ali’s 16-year-old daughter whose sexual precociousness causes even more complications.
   An esteemed actor, Peet gives the cast plenty of histrionic opportunities, particularly Parker as Becca, and the playwright has a few intriguing themes here, such as the conflict between the entitled wealthy and those they take advantage of. But Peet barely scratches the surface, settling for predictable soap opera. We don’t even know if Judith’s husband is in jail or dead, because his fate is never discussed. Plus, Peet has a tendency to go for clichéd dialogue and low-grade humor (she has a fondness for fart jokes). Unfortunately, the comparisons to Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s much richer film on the same subject, are inevitable and unflattering.
   MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow gives the material the sharpest staging she can muster, avoiding the broadness that hampers the script. Danner’s patrician manner is slightly wrong for the ballsy Judith, but she makes it work. As noted, Parker has the juiciest role; Becca gets to go to pieces at least three times during the play’s mercifully swift 90 minutes. The Sex & the City star takes these moments and runs with them, creating a complex, shattered woman out of the scraps of Peet’s meager play. Ali Marsh has a satisfying ferocity as the furious Ali, determined to find hidden funds in Judith’s apartment. Michael Stahl-David is an attractive Gabe. The actor doesn’t minimize this taker’s greedy nature hidden behind platitudes about morality and being a vegan. Zoe Levin delivers a conflicted Lizzy, and Nilaja Sun gets a few good licks in as Judith’s feisty caregiver and housekeeper. Too bad Commons is all too common.

December 11, 2013

Little Miss Sunshine
Second Stage [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

It seemed like a perfect match: the edgy, off-center humor and compassion of songwriter William Finn and director–book author James Lapine (the Falsettos musicals, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, A New Brain) and the dark underdog losers of the 2006 hit indie film comedy Little Miss Sunshine. But the adaptors and the source material for this new Off-Broadway musical at Second Stage Theatre never quite get in synch.
   In Michael Arndt’s original screenplay, the woebegone family of misfits on its way to a toddlers-and-tiaras beauty pageant in a wrecked minivan was made up of lovable, heartbroken losers. In this adaptation, the characters are just whiny. That’s probably because Lapine’s limp book truncates the story to fit in Finn’s lengthy generic songs about how bad they all feel about their empty lives. It’s like a CliffsNotes (with notes) edition of the movie. Even the famous hilarious scene where the family gets the grandfather’s corpse past a traffic cop is missing. One of the few new elements is an unfunny running gag about a dictatorial GPS device nicknamed Map Bitch (get it?) Lapine has a few clever staging tricks employing Beowulf Boritt’s ingenious set and projection design, but they can’t overcome the shortcomings of the book and score.
   The cast has the unfortunate task of filling the shoes of the film’s Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, and Alan Arkin who won a Supporting Actor Oscar as the randy grandpa. Stephanie J. Block, Will Swenson, and Rory O’Malley are among our brightest musical comedy stars, but even they have a tough time with the comparisons. David Rasche relies on sitcom clichés in the grandfather role. In two smaller parts, Jennifer Sanchez has no memories to compete with, so she emerges unscathed and riotously funny as a nasty grief counselor and bubble-headed beauty queen. She’s one of the few bright spots in an otherwise failed screen-to-stage transfer.

December 3, 2013
 
All That Fall
59E59 [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Sound and visuals combine to create a unique fused portrait of a desolate yet comic world in the current revival of Samuel Beckett’s rarely performed All That Fall. The playwright conceived it as a radio play for the BBC’s Third Programme in 1957 and resisted many entreaties, including one from Laurence Olivier, to see it performed on stage. In a recent production from Dublin’s Pan Pan Theatre Company, performed a year ago at BAM, director Gavin Quinn had the audience seated in rocking chairs while recorded voices read the script. It was a fascinating and new way to experience radio and theater. In this current staging, previously presented in London, director Trevor Nunn has the intimate, Off-Broadway 59E59 space fitted out by designer Cherry Truluck like an old-fashioned recording studio with microphones dangling overhead and at the actors’ feet. The cast holds the scripts as if performing for the radio while Paul Groothuis’s soundscape creates their movements and that of their rural community, approaching trains and a torrential downpour.
   The combination illuminates Beckett’s bleak vision of an isolated Irish town where the inhabitants soldier on with the business of life despite a lack of comprehension and purpose. Not much happens during the play’s 75 minutes. Arthritic, obese Maddie Rooney must trudge to the train station to meet her blind husband, Dan. Along the way, she meets various neighbors, each with his or her own tale of woe. When she finally arrives, the train is 15 minutes late and her husband refuses to tell Maddie why. On the long slog home, the couple is beset by rain and tormenting children. A little boy runs after them to return an item Dan left on the train. Maddie asks if he knows the reason for the delay. The boy reveals a small child fell from the train—a heartbreaking echo of an earlier revelation that the Rooneys had a child who died long ago—lightning crashes, the train roars, and the play is over.
   The tragic circumstances are overlaid with comic moments, such as Maddie’s almost slapstick attempts to get in and out of automobiles and bicycles on her way to the station, and Dan’s deadpan dark pronouncements on the uselessness of existence. At one point, Dan quotes their minister praising God for his mercy, and the couple bursts into wild, sardonic laughter.
   Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, two of Britain’s finest actors, perfectly capture Beckett’s comic-tragic take on the universe, as the clownishly sad Rooneys. Both balance the raucous humor with the rending ache of man’s isolation. Atkins’s flute-like tones are beautifully balanced with Gambon’s deep bassoon as Maddie and Dan slowly trudge along on the dirt path home and through life.

November 24, 2013

Fun Home
Public Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

There have been numerous major musicals about gay men and their families—from La Cage Aux Folles to Falsettoes to the current Kinky Boots—but none with a lesbian at its center. That is until now. Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, puts the spotlight on a gay woman and her coming-out story. This moving and insightful tuner deserves to be seen beyond its current limited Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater.
   The compassionate book by Lisa Kron zigzags between the present and the past. An adult Alison looks back at her dysfunctional family, while two other actors play her as a child and a college student. The main thread of the narrative is Alison’s attempt to understand her secretive father, Bruce, a closeted English teacher who indulges in furtive affairs with men and boys while married to the long-suffering Helen, a former actor burying her ambitions in community theater. Bruce also runs a funeral home—the play’s title refers to the family’s nickname for the establishment—and he has a passion for restoring old houses. Not long after Alison comes to terms with her sexuality and comes out to her parents, Bruce commits suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming truck. The narrator-Alison is wracked with guilt, believing her openness about being gay forced her dad to confront his true nature. which he would have rather kept in the shadows.
   The score features warm, sweet music by Jeanine Tesori and clever, character-defining lyrics by Kron—who has previously addressed gay identity and family connections in such plays as Well, In the Wake, and her memoir solo show 2.5 Minute Ride. The songs range from riotously funny (a 1970s rock-disco takeoff in which young Alison and her brothers rehearse a TV commercial for the funeral home) to achingly tender (Alison as a little girl and a young woman joyously making self-discoveries), and sometimes are both simultaneously (a parody of The Partridge Family in which everyone ironically warbles, “Everything’s gonna be all right”).
   Sam Gold fluidly stages the action on David Zinn’s elegant revolving set with the grace and ease of memory, and the exquisite cast delivers all the heartbreaking layers of this conflicted clan. As the adult Alison, Beth Malone observes and lives the action with pain and depth. Alexandra Socha is delightfully awkward as the college-age Alison, charmingly fumbling as she makes her way to self-realization. As the child-stage version of the heroine, Sydney Lucas displays remarkable poise and insight for one so young.
   The neglected mother Helen has only one solo number, but Judy Kuhn pours so much sorrow and subtext into it, the song becomes a three-minute play all by itself. The father’s inner struggle between conformism and personal happiness is etched on Michael Cerveris’s eloquent features and comes through in his masterful singing voice—a powerful performance in one of the best musicals, small-scale or Broadway-sized blockbuster, in recent years.

November 18, 2013

Domesticated
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park—a satiric rethinking of A Raisin in the Sun—Bruce Norris turned liberal assumptions about race relations inside out. Now in Domesticated, he takes the same explosive approach to feminist and sexual issues. It’s a darkly funny, dangerous comedy, staged with a firecracker wit by Anna D. Shapiro that matches Norris’s and is sure to inspire plenty of after-theater arguments.
   At first, the playwright appears to be covering familiar territory. We open on a common sight in our 24/7 news-cycle world: a male politician making a public apology for sexual indiscretion, his tight-lipped spouse by his side. It looks like we’re in for another Good Wife. But the caustic playwright leads us on a labyrinthine journey through this individual couple’s hellish marriage and the minefield that heterosexual connections in contemporary America have become.
   Yes, disgraced office-holder Bill is something of a pig. Not only has he been caught consorting with prostitutes, but the latest one is in a coma—possibly because of his actions. The resultant negative publicity sends his entire life into a downward spiral. His wife, Judy; daughters Cassidy and Casey; and all the women in his life (almost all of the characters are female) berate him for the entire first act. In the second act, Bill gets to have his say, and his raw, blunt defense of his actions rips apart cherished beliefs and displays the human side of a political bogeyman. Norris adds another layer of irony by making Bill a gynecologist who returns to his former profession after resigning from public life, raising even more issues of male-female conflict.

Jeff Goldblum manages to make this lout understandable, if not sympathetic. In the first act, his silent reactions to the chaos surrounding him are timed with precision for maximum comic impact, and his outbursts in the second act are equally truthful and hilarious. Laurie Metcalf gives us a dozen gripping variations on the wronged wife, ranging from outraged defender of the home front to guilty accomplice in the wreck of her marriage. A cast of veterans skillfully juggles multiple roles. Especially memorable are Mia Barron as hypocritical lawyer, Karen Pittman as an Oprah-ish talk show host, and Mary Beth Peil as Bill’s imperious mother.
    The title comes from a science project by the younger daughter. Between scenes, the girl (a marvelously deadpan Misha Seo) dryly delivers a series of nasty lectures on female domination in the natural world, males of certain species becoming thoroughly submissive. It’s a riotous commentary on the wrangling between men and women in the play. Domesticated totally lacks the tameness this title suggests. It’s fierce and wild, qualities sadly lacking in too many of the mild, safe shows now on our stages.

November 12, 2013
 
After Midnight
Brooks Atkinson Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Daniel J. Watts, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Phillip Attmore
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Three decades ago, there was a seemingly endless parade on Broadway and off of plotless revues celebrating the magnificent heritage of African-American song and dance from the first half of the 20th century. One hit followed another—Ain’t Misbehavin’, Sophisticated Ladies, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Eubie, and Black and Blue, just to name a few. Now After Midnight, a new show for a new generation, evokes the music of Duke Ellington during his tenure at the Cotton Club, matching and even out-dazzling its predecessors.
   Derived from a series of concerts presented by Encores! and Jazz at Lincoln Center, this production re-creates a typical lightning-paced floor show at the legendary Harlem nightspot where Ellington and his contemporaries would make jazz history nightly. Fluidly staged and choreographed in 90 breathless minutes by Warren Carlyle, the revue is packed with showstoppers—including flawless tap numbers, sassy blues, sensuous solo and group songs, thrilling orchestral breaks, and much more.

As mentioned, there is no story. The only element holding the material together is a “host” character, who occasionally joins in the merriment and recites Langston Hughes’s poetry to provide context. Dulé Hill, best known for his TV work but with numerous Broadway credits, fulfills his narrator chores with style and is a superb showman in his musical numbers such as a sprightly “I’ve Got the World on a String.” American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, billed as a “special guest star,” gives her unique silky spin to such classics as “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “Stormy Weather.” Adriane Lenox channels blues divas Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters in two sizzling and sardonic solos. Everett Bradley recalls Cab Calloway in several humorous specialty spots. Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, and Bryonha Marie Parham impress as a vocal trio and in individual turns.
   On the dance side, Daniel J. Watts, Phillip Atmore, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Jared Grimes are tops in taps, Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’ O” Gadson elegantly contort their bodies like figures in a Max Fleischer cartoon, and Karine Plantadit moves like a flirtatious gazelle as a good-time seductress tempting various males, then playing the girl’s spirit in a mock-solemn funeral sequence. That latter is just one of Carlyle’s inspired dance vignettes. Others include “Peckin,” wherein the guys in the chorus are decked out in top hats, white tie and tails and move close together like cards in a deck, and “East St. Louis Toodleloo,” a naughty and fun depiction of a love triangle.
    Indeed, After Midnight is such an embarrassment of riches, crammed into such a fast running time, you won’t want to leave after the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars orchestra finishes “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” the socko curtain-call number.

November 3, 2013

Opened Nov. 3 for an open run. Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 265 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $60­–199. (800) 745-3000.

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Two Boys
Metropolitan Opera [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward  

The Metropolitan Opera enters the digital age with Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, a somber and sad study of loneliness in cyberspace. Ironically, this piece revolving around Internet chat rooms is already somewhat of a period piece. The young woman sitting next to me giggled aloud and said “Remember that?” as the characters anonymously hooked up in the pre-Facebook-and-Twitter world of 2001. This was after I had to ask her to stop texting on her I-phone, BTW. Despite the antiquated technology, Two Boys resonates with a melancholy beauty as it depicts the universal yearning for a match in an isolated environment.
   Derived from actual events, the plot begins like an episode of Prime Suspect. In a bleak industrial English city, Jake, a nerdy 13-year-old boy, has been stabbed by 16-year-old Brian. Detective Anne Strawson has been assigned the case, but she doesn’t want it. “No juveniles,” she sings. It’s revealed she gave up a baby for adoption and he would be the same age as Brian. During the investigation, the computer-illiterate Anne discovers  that Brian is almost constantly online, “chatting” with a bizarre cast of characters—including Jake, who claims to have hacked into government files; Jake’s worldly teenage sister; the family’s menacing gardener, Peter; and a mysterious aunt Fiona, who might be a professional spy. As Anne is drawn into this seductive, shadowy world, we discover she is just as needy and alienated as Brian and Jake. She lives with an invalid mother, drinks too much, and never dates. Anyone with the slightest degree of familiarity with computers should be able to guess the outcome, but the work is still gripping in its compassionate portrayal of desperate souls seeking love—a staple of opera for centuries.
   Muhly’s lyrical score parallels the drab world of harsh reality and the fantasy atmosphere of the Net, as does Bartlett Sher’s imaginative staging. When Brian enters the chat rooms, he’s in his bedroom, illuminated only by his laptop, while Michael Yeargan’s set opens up and dozens of chorus members appear, representing the other users seeking companionship. Dancers perform Hofesh Shechter’s intricate choreography, contorting their bodies in a desperate grasping for connection through the ether, while the singers vocalize cyberspeak pleas such as “Are u there?” and “What are u doin?” Playwright Craig Lucas’s libretto seamlessly combines these abbreviated messages, along with the incomplete sentences of everyday dialogue and poetic musings on the wispy nature of computer-inspired bonds. “Ghosts in the machine,” sings Detective Strawson as she contemplates the empty world of the two boys and the one she gave up.
   In one particularly haunting sequence, reality and its computer equivalent overlap as the stabbing is played out with live actors and the video of the incident is simultaneously projected over them. The boys seem overwhelmed by their huge screen images, as if the digital world had consumed them.
   Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote captures the sad ache of Alice’s isolation with her lovely tones. As Brian, Paul Appleby is a bit too mature to be entirely believable as a teenager, yet his soaring tenor conveys the insecure yearnings of this confused kid. Boy soprano Andrew Pulver is perfectly cast as the mysterious Jake, his sweet voice hiding the complex passions within.
   This eerie and stunning new work, now in its American premiere after a previous production at the English National Opera, addresses gay adolescents, voyeurism, and the void of modern life. Hopefully, it will inspire more operas on contemporary themes.

October 31, 2013

The Snow Geese
Manhattan Theatre Club and MCC Theater at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

You could play a great game of Spot the Literary Reference at Sharr White’s new play, now in a joint Broadway production from Manhattan Theatre Club and MCC Theater. Of course, there’s the most obvious one: Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, not only for the similarity in titular water fowl imagery, but also for the theme of comforting delusions provided by conventional society and a loaded pistol waved around in Act One which must go off in Act Two. Then there’s a load of Chekhovian points. The family refusing to face their desperate financial situation and inevitably giving up their beloved estate recalls The Cherry Orchard. They all sit around talking about how bored they are and how everyone talks and never takes any action which echoes all of the Russian master’s other stage classics. The dreamy mother has more than a touch of Blanche DuBois and Mary Tyrone in her as she indulges in drug-induced fantasies of a cherished past featuring her recently deceased husband. The feckless elder son is like the heroes of Fitzgerald, full of charm and swagger, but empty inside. Take your pick for the younger son, straining to escape the nonrealistic confines of his upbringing: either Look Homeward, Angel or The Glass Menagerie.
   This second-hand plotting is surprising coming from White, whose The Other Place, also presented by MTC and MCC in separate productions in previous seasons, was such an incisive and harrowing portrait of a woman losing her grip. Here the playwright has nothing new to say; the world is changing and the play’s family is ill equipped to cope with it. How many times have we heard that one? But at least he says it in an entertaining and compelling way. The dialogue is tangy and the plotting is involving, even if more than a trifle shopworn.
   The setting is the Gaesling clan’s hunting lodge outside of Syracuse, N.Y., in 1917 as America enters World War I. The family is holding a final shooting party before eldest sibling Duncan is about to ship off to France. But, younger brother Arnold is struggling with the financial disaster left behind by the late profligate father Teddy. In addition to the main conflict between the distracted mother Elizabeth and the more pragmatic Arnold over money worries, there is Elizabeth’s ultra religious sister Clarissa and her doctor-husband, Max, whose practice has dried up in xenophobic reaction to his German background and accent. There’s also the new maid Viktorya, a formerly rich Ukrainian refugee fleeing the horrors of her homeland.
   Director Daniel Sullivan delivers his usual tight, professional production with elegant period sets by John Lee Beatty and costumes by Jane Greenwood. Mary-Louise Parker seems lost as Elizabeth and finds a solid through-line only in a powerful confrontation with Arnold in which this overwhelmed widow defends her seemingly floundering attitude. Danny Burstein and Victoria Clark are impressive as Clarissa and Max. Brian Cross as Arnold carries the majority of the dramatic weight with admirable skill for his Broadway debut. Evan Jonigkeit is appropriately dashing and clueless as the shining but empty Duncan. Jessica Love adds texture to the displaced housemaid, and Christopher Innvar makes the most of his single scene as Teddy in a nostalgic flashback. With such talented cooks, too bad this goose is such an unimaginative meal.

October 25, 2013
 
A Time to Kill
Golden Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Turning A Time to Kill, the John Grisham page-turner and star-stuffed 1996 film, into a theatrical version was probably a sound financial decision. The box office may flourish based on the original author’s reputation as a bestselling tale spinner, but the results onstage are as shallow and showy as a below-average episode of a TV procedural.
   The story is manipulative and melodramatic. In early-1980s Mississippi where racism stubbornly lingers, Carl Lee Hailey, an African-American, is on trial for deliberately gunning down the two white men who brutally raped his 10-year-old daughter. Small-time street lawyer Jake Brigance takes on Carl Lee’s case against ambitious district attorney Rufus R. Buckley who plans to use the resultant publicity to fuel a campaign for governor. Grisham and Rupert Holmes, the author of this adaptation, attempt to maneuver the audience into commiserating with Carl Lee, even though it’s clear he planned the crime and was not legally out of his mind as he carried it out, despite the insanity plea Jake enters. Grisham’s hook is placing his defendant in a seemingly impossible fix and then having the idealistic defense lawyer get him out of it through a clever legal technicality. There are also themes of racial injustice, but they’re given an easy once-over by Holmes, whose script resembles a screenplay with numerous short scenes and multiple locations facilitated by James Noone’s constantly revolving set.
   Director Ethan McSweeny keeps the action moving, but, despite the obvious efforts of the authors and a large cast, the characters fail to generate any sympathy. All are calculating, with the possible exception of Jake, who seems to be a pawn of just about everyone else including Carl Lee. It doesn’t help that Sebastian Arcelus lacks charisma and that the strongest reason for casting him as Jake appears to be that he has a strong resemblance to Matthew McConaughey, who played the role in the movie. John Douglas Thompson, who has given impressive performances Off-Broadway as Macbeth, Othello, and O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, has searing dramatic moments as Carl Lee, while the magnificent Tonya Pinkins is reduced to standing to the side and looking stricken as Lee’s long-suffering wife.
    Former senator Fred Dalton Thompson and Tom Skerritt, actors with mostly film and TV credits, are tentative in their respective roles of a folksy judge and Jake’s rascally alcoholic mentor, while reliable stage vets Patrick Page, John Procaccino, and Lee Sellars bring solidity and conviction to their supporting turns. Ashley Williams, in her Broadway debut as Jake’s Ivy League intern, comes across as an entitled brat.
   If you’re bored with watching courtroom drama on TV and can afford to blow a couple hundred bucks, you might want to take in A Time to Kill, but, for anyone with higher standards, this show would more appropriately be called Killing Time.

October 22, 2013
 
Romeo and Juliet (CSC)
Classic Stage Company [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

This is a rare New York theatre season for Shakespeare lovers. There are so many productions of Willy the Shake’s canon, you’d think we were in London. But the first two major offerings in this Bardathon have proved disappointing. Not only one, but two stagings of Romeo and Juliet are, to quote another beloved classic, stale, flat, and unprofitable. The Classic Stage Company’s mounting of the star-crossed lovers’ tale is even more butchered and bland than its star-stuffed Broadway counterpart. Like the Main Stem version featuring movie heartthrob Orlando Bloom and Tony nominee Condola Rashad, director Tea Alagic’s Off-Broadway CSC version is given the contemporary treatment, and she borrows heavily from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film retelling, the houses of Montague and Capulet recast as warring crime families.
   Alagic layers on the Mafioso theme with such a heavy hand, and she adds on so many director’s concepts and gimmicks, the title teenagers’ central love story is totally lost. In the most glaringly inappropriate choice, she adds an incestuous affair between Lady Capulet and her nephew, a hot Tybalt, which distracts from the main pair. The script is cut with a machete, so we lose several beautiful passages of prose and plot, and Marsha Ginsberg’s set is so stripped down, Juliet has no balcony. Swords are eliminated, replaced with tiny, almost invisible switchblades. During the dueling scenes, antagonists smear each other with blobs of gooey stage blood rather than believably stabbing their opponents. In the ball sequence, costume designer Clint Ramos decks everyone out as if they were backup dancers for Miley Cyrus’s twerking number at the VMAs, and, for his first encounter with Juliet, Romeo wears a giant Winnie-the-Pooh head.
   This last wardrobe malfunction could have worked with the teeny-boppers kidding around with the cartoon masks and then removing them to assume grownup roles as mature lovers. But Julian Cihi and Elizabeth Olsen remain giggling or wailing kiddies throughout the evening until their characters’ tragic end, staged with limp impact by Alagic. That’s unfortunate, because both young actors display promise, exhibiting strong diction and fine basic technique, but they just don’t have the chops to fully convey the journey from childish puppy affection to consuming passion.
   Most of the cast is equally lost. At first T.R. Knight makes an intriguing Mercutio, but soon Knight becomes too jittery and manic. As the nurse, Daphne Rubin-Vega plays it too much for laughs and fails to make a vital connection with Olsen’s Juliet. David Garrison and Kathryn Meisle competently portray Alagic’s subtext for Lord and Lady Capulet (anger and jealousy over the mother’s affair with Tybalt). They were probably directed to play it that way, but it steals focus from the title lovers.
   Only Daniel Davis as Friar Laurence imparts the devastation of young amour destroyed by blind hatred. The first moving moment in the entire production doesn’t arrive until nearly the end. As the friar is informed his letters to Romeo about Juliet’s faked death have not been delivered, the forthcoming tragedy is written all over Davis’s eloquent and tear-stained features. When Friar Laurence is the most compelling person on stage, you know something is terribly wrong.

October 16, 2013
 
A Night With Janis Joplin
Lyceum Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Gee, that Janis Joplin was a nice kid. That bland and incongruous statement about the troubled, sandpaper-voiced vocalist seems to be the subtext of A Night With Janis Joplin, the latest jukebox tribute to a rock icon to reach Broadway. Sanctioned by the late singer’s estate, Joplin concentrates on her intense performances and downplays her troubled, booze-and-drug-fueled offstage life, which ended with an overdose at age 27. A hybrid of concert re-creation and half-hearted bio, the book by Randy Johnson—who also perfunctorily directed—has Joplin belt out all of her signature tunes, reveal scraps of childhood and early adult memories, and make a few vague aphorisms about music in general and the blues in particular (“Music is everything, man.” “People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singers to be alone.”) The most we learn about her nonsinging life is that she loved her mother and siblings; painted a lot; sang Broadway show tunes while cleaning her home in Port Arthur, Texas; and left there for San Francisco to pursue her rock and blues dreams as soon as she could. The demons that drove her to an early death are not even touched upon.
   Fortunately, the title character is played by the amazing Mary Bridget Davies, who sounds remarkably like her subject and recaptures the volcanic emotional power of such classics as “Me and Bobby McGee” and “A Piece of My Heart.” In between Davies’s solos and monologues, a quartet of supremely talented singers who play a backup group, the Joplinaires, double as iconic warblers who served as Joplin’s inspiration and influences. Taprena Michelle Augustine is a gritty Bessie Smith, De’Adre Aziza channels the smooth tones of Odetta and Nina Simone, Allison Blackwell makes for a dynamic Aretha Franklin, and Nikki Kimbrough is a sassy Etta James. (One weird choice: Playing “Good King Wenceslas” as an intro to Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” left me baffled. Is it supposed to be Christmas?)
   To be fair, Joplin does not purport to be full-fledged portrait. It only seeks to provide Joplin fans with a reasonable facsimile of her oceanic talent; and thanks to the dynamic Davies, a supercharged band, and music director Ross Seligman, it delivers. At the performance attended, baby boomers and youngsters alike rocked, screamed, and pumped their fists as it we were all in a marvelously seedy club in the late ’60s. If that’s your vibe, groove to it, baby.

October 15, 2013
 
Big Fish
Neil Simon Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Big Fish is an example of what I like to call benefit-of-the-doubt shows. These contain problems with the structure and storyline, but often have enough pizzazz and heart to merit a critical pass. In Big Fish’s case, the episodic, underdeveloped book by John August (based on Daniel Wallace’s novel and August’s screenplay for the 2003 Tim Burton–directed film version) is more than compensated for by the reliable Susan Stroman’s joyful and inventive staging and an amazing lead performance by Norbert Leo Butz. Along with a handful of others like Nathan Lane, Butz is fast becoming the kind of Broadway star who is little known outside the theater but who can transform an iffy proposition into a fun evening.
   He first burst into the ranks of musical leading men in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as a charming con man, and he’s playing the same kind of lovable narcissist here. Edward Bloom is a Southern good-ol’-boy traveling salesman—though what he sells is never specified—who constantly grabs the spotlight by spinning fantastic tales populated with witches, mermaids, giants, and werewolves. He’s enchanting and entertaining, but Edward’s loose relationship with the truth causes a rift with his straitlaced son Will, a just-the-facts journalist about to become a father.
   The arc of August’s book is Will’s quest to find the truth behind Edward’s fanciful stories when Edward is diagnosed with cancer. August fails to provide a strong enough reason for Will’s motivation; there’s a mysterious deed found among the family papers, but it’s not a powerful enough McGuffin to get us to care about it. Besides, Will must be a pretty poor reporter if he can’t ferret out the basic biographical facts about his own dad. Perhaps the show is set in the era before the Internet. As a result of the flimsy central plot, the evening becomes a series of loosely connected set pieces illustrating Edward’s exaggerated exploits. Fortunately, Stroman, one of Broadway’s most imaginative director-choreographers, executes them with her trademark flair. She’s backed up by Julian Crouch’s delightfully cartoonish sets, William Ivey Long’s spiffy costumes, and poetic projections by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions. The most startling bit of staging is the simplest: a dancer with a flame-colored skirt in one of Edward’s fantasies becomes the campfire for a Boy Scout sleepover. The show is full of smart, gasp-inducing moments like that.
   Andrew Lippa’s tuneful score is another asset. Though his lyrics are a bit simplistic, the music is rich and sweet, staying with the audience long after the curtain falls. “Time Stops,” a ravishingly beautiful duet between the young Edward and Sandra, his future wife, is particularly memorable.
   But the biggest fish in this pond is Butz, who splashes and swims with grace, confidence, and charisma. Even when Edward is being a jerk, as when he steals attention at his son’s wedding, Butz manages to show this man’s joy for life and generous spirit. Bobby Steggert as Will and Kate Baldwin as Sandra have exquisite voices and do what they can with their underdrawn roles, as does the rest of the cast, but all are minnows in comparisons to Butz’s smiling, lovable catfish.

October 9, 2013
 
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
Playwrights Horizons [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

If American civilization disintegrates in a nuclear holocaust, what will remain? According to playwright Anne Washburn, scraps of pop culture will survive and be reformed into kitschy entertainment, the underlying theme of humanity triumphing over its own destruction. That’s the basic premise of Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, now at Playwrights Horizons after a run at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company of Washington, D.C. Yet there’s much more here than this TV Guide-style summation. Washburn explores the capacity for art—whether low or high—to keep us going and reflect where we’ve been.
   The play takes places after an unspecified disaster has wiped out most of the world’s population along with the electrical grid. The program lists the setting as “Near. Soon.” A group of drifters are sitting around a campfire trying to reconstruct the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons. That’s the one that satirizes Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 thriller with Sideshow Bob, bad boy Bart’s erudite nemesis standing in for the demonic Robert De Niro. The Scorsese film in turn is a remake of a 1962 feature, and the episode also contains references to Gilbert and Sullivan and another cult cinema classic, The Night of the Hunter. In the second act, set seven years later, this collection of strangers has formed a theatrical troupe performing Simpsons episodes along with recollected commercials and Top 40 medleys for a TV-deprived, increasingly lawless society.
   The third act shoots ahead 75 more years and consists of a musical performance by a descendent of the second-act company in a weird, operetta-style mashup of all the Simpsons segments. The titular character, Homer’s craven boss at the nuclear power plant (played with hand-wringing relish by Sam Breslin Wright), becomes a radioactive supervillain representing all the terror that has poisoned the earth. Bart (a spunky Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is now a stand-in for beleaguered humanity bravely overcoming this grinning menace. In this bizarre, brilliant play, Washburn shows that by telling and retelling the same stories, distorted and reformed over time, art in general and theater in particular rejuvenates the human spirit. That’s a bit weighty and belies the seemingly trivial nature of much of the action. Yet, thanks to Steve Cosson’s simultaneously dark and hilarious staging and the unself-conscious performances of a tight ensemble, it somehow works.
   The ridiculous importance the characters place on throwaway details—such as finding the exact shade of grease to put on Sideshow Bob’s face—is perfectly balanced with a horrifying realistic depiction of their desperate situation. One minute they are arguing over the correct reading of a punch line, and the next their lives are threatened by unseen marauders breaking into their makeshift theater.
   Neil Patel’s ingenious set, Emily Rebholz’s time-tripping costumes, and Sam Hill’s mask and wig design create a scary, cobbled-together world like a cartoon-addict’s vision of the future.

September 28, 2013

Romeo and Juliet
Richard Rodgers Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Fire is a repeated theme in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and director David Leveaux uses it in his contemporary Broadway staging of the timeless classic of star-crossed lovers, starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad. But that fire is employed sparingly and tamely. A few flames leap out of long poles at the opening and closing of each act, yet there’s no real danger. Sadly, the same can be said for the production. There are a few stray sparks—literally and metaphorically—but not the conflagration necessary to evoke the burning passion that consumes the doomed pair and overpowers the hatred of their respective houses.
   Leveaux attempts to rev up that passion with superficial means. Romeo make his first entrance riding a motorcycle, and Leveaux casts the rival families with actors of different races: white for Romeo’s and African-American for Juliet’s. There are also balloons, a live dove, a giant bell, a cellist in one balcony and a percussionist in the other, and Shark-and-Jet knife fights. But these gimmicky touches can’t substitute for the missing ardor of the title lovers or the flatness of the staging. The chemistry between the leads and the racial tension is missing.
   Bloom certainly looks the part of Romeo—curly black hair, eyes to die for, slim athletic build—but his performance is tepid. He doesn’t seem to be that excited about Juliet, and if the hero doesn’t care, why should we? Leveaux further undermines his Romeo’s opportunity for displaying vigor by cutting the climactic duel with Paris at Juliet’s tomb. A few minutes of stage time and some billable work time for the crew may have been saved, but this sequence is essential to demonstrate the protagonist’s transformation from a callow, rash youth to full-blooded adult ready to stop at nothing to be reunited with his (supposed) dead love.
  Fortunately, Rashad redresses the balance with an intense, if rough interpretation of Juliet. She has trouble clearly delivering the Bard’s verse, but her intentions are there and strongly conveyed. The supporting cast is uneven. Brent Carver races through his lines as Friar Laurence. Christian Camargo is a mercurial Mercutio, setting off sizzling eruptions of fantasy during the Queen Mab speech and making us believe something is at stake during his dueling scenes (I would like to see what he would have done as Romeo). Jayne Houdyshell is a tart Nurse, while Chuck Cooper and Roslyn Ruff overemote as Juliet’s parents.
   On the plus side, the original music by David Van Tieghem, who also serves as percussionist, is quite lovely. Too bad the production it accompanies is so muted.

September 20, 2013

Fetch Clay, Make Man
New York Theatre Workshop [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Can you imagine two more unlikely historical figures to form a friendship than Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit? One was the unconquerable heavyweight boxing champion who kayoed African-American stereotypes with brash aggressiveness, while the other perpetuated the clichés of servility and laziness in dozens of Hollywood movies. But playwright Will Power found a photo of the two men in a bookstore, did copious research, and has constructed a powerful examination of race, manhood, and identity in Fetch Clay, Make Man, now at the New York Theatre Workshop after a previous production at the McCarter Theatre.
   The time is May 1965 on the weekend leading up to Ali’s big match-up with Sonny Liston to defend his title, with occasional flashbacks surveying Fetchit’s rise and fall in Hollywood. Power imagines that the cocky young boxer has summoned the older actor because the latter was close friends with Jack Johnson, the legendary African-American champ fictionally depicted in the boxing drama The Great White Hope. Ali wants the secret of Johnson’s legendary, almost mystical “anchor punch,” and he’s sure Fetchit has it locked inside his head. The actor has an agenda as well: If he can publicize his connection to Ali, his moribund film career could be resurrected. He might even convince the hot star of the ring to make a movie with him.
   Other players have games of their own. Brother Rashid, the bellicose representative of the Nation of Islam, to which the former Cassius Clay has recently converted, is intent on keeping their shining new athletic icon on the straight and very narrow path, while Ali’s wife Sonji wrestles with the restrictive Muslim entourage for access to her husband. She also battles internally between the oppressive role placed upon her by her new religion and her former free-spirited lifestyle. Even the brash studio mogul William Fox, who appears only in Fetchit’s flashbacks, has manipulations and machinations aplenty.
   The sleek and energetic staging by Des McAnuff on Riccardo Hernandez’s minimalist, boxing-ring set does much to alleviate the obviousness of some of Power’s construction. Ali’s conflict with his wife is wrapped up, and then the champ immediately demands Fetchit give him the secret of Johnson’s irresistible punch. All of this takes places just minutes before the big fight. It’s all bit too neat and tidy to fully deal with the messy and complicated issues Power raises. Yet the playwright throws a searing light on the nature of American celebrity and identity. Each of the characters wears a mask in order to get what he or she wants, and each actor powerfully conveys the assumed persona and the real person beneath it.
    K. Todd Freeman is a brilliantly sly Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Perry and who was able to play the white man’s game and become the first black millionaire in the movie business. You can see the wheels turning in his head as he plays the clown when it suits him and then almost imperceptibly becomes a lighting-fast hustler when necessary. Ray Fisher has the physical attributes of the young Ali and imparts his ferocious ego equally convincingly. The exciting new actor also captures the little-boy insecurities inside the hulking boxer. Nikki M. James delivers a fierce Sonji, John Earl Jelks a shark-like Rashid, and Richard Masur a crafty Fox. The play is not quite a knockout, but thanks to its director and cast, it’s a TKO.

September 13, 2013
 
Around the World in 80 Days
New Theater at 45th Street [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Economics are forcing commercial Off-Broadway runs into near extinction. These days you need a gimmick like percussion (Stomp!), New Age hijinks (Blue Man Group), acrobatics (Fuerza Bruta), or parody (satires of Fifty Shades of Gray, Harry Potter, etc.) to sustain a show in New York’s smaller theaters. So you have to admire the producers of Around the World in 80 Days, a slick adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic 1872 adventure novel, for their pluck. Previously presented in a limited engagement at the Irish Repertory Theater in 2008, this stage version by Mark Brown shrinks Phileas Fogg’s epic attempt to girdle the globe and win a £20,000 bet into two and a half hours. The entire planet is contained in one set, and five actors play 39 characters.
   Director Rachel Klein has given the proceedings a more circus-like atmosphere than that of the Irish Rep staging, with broader acting and clown-like costumes by Klein and Kae Burke. Some of the edge and wit of that previous edition is missing. Nevertheless, it’s a fun and fast-paced evening. Scenic designer Robert Andrew Kovach has created a Victorian funhouse extending into the small theater, the walls painted to resemble period scenes of exotic locations and bizarre modes of transportation. A huge clock suspended upstage left becomes a screen for projected images created by Kate Freer to accompany the story.
   With a few simple props, the action shifts from Fogg’s stuffy club to the wilds of India to the snowbound Wild West. Josh Segarra makes for a properly poised Fogg; John Gregorio is a riotous Passepartout, Fogg’s enthusiastic French manservant; Vanessa Morosco (understudy for Shirine Rabb at the performance attended) is an attractive Aouda, the Indian princess the duo rescues; and Jimmy Ray Bennett and Stephen Guarino display versatility in multiple roles.

August 14, 2013

Oresteia
Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College [show closed]

Reviewed By David Sheward

Sergey Taneyev’s Oresteia is unfamiliar territory for the average operagoer. Rarely performed in its entirety since its 1895 premiere in Russia, the mammoth work is in its North American premiere, at Bard College’s SummerScape Festival. Unlike many other Russian works of the same period, this opera’s source material is Aeschylus’s Greek trilogy on the doomed House of Atreus rather than traditional Slavic tales. (Stravinsky and Strauss tackled the same legend several years later.) But given the stunning and invigorating staging by Thaddeus Strassberger, it’s surprising that no other company has taken up the challenge in more than a century.
   Strassberger sets the action at the time of the opera’s composition and in the composer’s native land, drawing parallels between the interfamily murders of King Agamemnon’s bloodthirsty clan and the oppressive reign of the tsars. You’ll recall the basic plot from Classic 101: Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, only to be slaughtered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Then her son, Orestes, goaded by his sister Electra, murders his mother and her cohort in revenge. Orestes is hounded by the demonic Furies for this matricide and seeks aid from Apollo. The opera ends with a trial presided over by the goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena.
   Madeleine Boyd’s nightmarish set is crowded with a huge chorus of heavily babushkaed serfs, some of whom later morph into the zombie-like Furies. An ornately bejeweled Queen Clytemnestra (dazzling costumes by Mattie Ullrich) rules over them with an iron fist. When her son, Orestes, returns from exile to kill her, the servants rise up on his side—one of them even spits on her. Though the Communist revolution took place several decades after the opera’s completion, the production references to that cataclysmic event. In the climactic third act, Athena emerges like a beacon of socialist justice to declare an end to the cycle of violence and calls for an administration devoted to compassion as the Furies untwist themselves and become human comrades.
   There are dozens of memorable touches, such as the maid constantly sleeping the corner and occasionally sipping from a flask, later to be shot as collateral damage in Orestes’s fury; Agamemnon’s ghost appearing in a mirror that his guilt-wracked wife smashes with a brick; and servants calmly serving breakfast to the doomed Clytemnestra as she chain smokes nervously.
   All but one of the principal singers are native Russians; their facility with the language and powerful voices gives vibrant passion to the weighty material. Especially moving is Liuba Sokolova’s imperious Clytemnestra. Her dark, Slavic mezzo and detailed acting conveys this fiend-like queen’s journey from volcanic rage to hysterical psychosis. Mikhail Vekua displays an impressive tenor in the demanding role of Orestes. The silver-voiced Olga Tolkmit makes Electra into an impulsive teenager who quickly descends into madness. Maria Litke memorably doubles as the desperate Cassandra, Agamemnon’s trophy mistress, and Athena, the regal goddess who resolves all the loose ends of this enormous opera.

July 29, 2013
 
The World Goes ’Round
Bucks County Playhouse [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Six plaintive notes from a clarinet. The same six again. Then the vamp, and the first words are sung: “Sometimes you’re happy, and sometimes you’re sad, but the world goes ’round.” And if you’re expecting to read a rational, thoughtful, and reasoned response to what follows on the stage of the legendary Bucks County Playhouse, you might want to stop right here. What follows those lyrics is an unconscionably joyous hour and 45 minutes that leaves you laughing, crying, dazzled, breathless, and thankful beyond words for the collaboration between these special performers and the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb.
   This show, first produced in New York in 1991, is a compilation of songs from these two musical theater titans, who gave us, among other shows, Cabaret and Chicago, as well as a certain local anthem, “New York, New York.” The numbers alternate between rhythms and moods, and placement is astutely made based on story and theme, however different their original shows and contexts were. Thus, a young man’s plea to his girl, “Marry Me” (David Josefsberg), is followed by her expression of wondrous surprise at how it feels, “A Quiet Thing” (Michelle Aravena). “The Happy Time” (Tom Hewitt), in which the singer fondly recalls his true love recalling moments of shared happiness, prompts Emily Skinner’s take on the inadequacies of her own memory, “Colored Lights.”
   The level of imagination in director Don Stephenson’s and choreographer Lorin Latarro’s staging is astounding. “Me and My Baby,” traditionally a vaudeville-style romantic duet, has the entire cast pushing toy strollers with their supposed unseen little ones and singing proudly for the first verse, then showing us the contents—the latest in hand-held technology—as they sing the second verse. “Sara Lee,” a paean to the goddess of boxed pastries, has the lovesick swain being stuffed with cake as he reaches the song’s climax. And, in “Arthur in the Afternoon,” the object of the lady’s affections is represented first by a black-shirted muscle-bound male, then by a second, and then by a female.

July 24, 2013
 
Pygmalion
Williamstown Theatre Festival [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Anyone who has ever seen the film My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn—or a high-school or community theater production—is familiar with Henry Higgins, the arrogant phonetics expert, and Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl he transforms into a refined lady by improving her speech. Fewer are aware of the original play Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s scathing 1912 comedy that emphasizes class conflict over romantic endings. In Pygmalion, after acquiring a newfound independence thanks to her superior elocution, Eliza strikes out on her own; in the musical, she returns to the domineering, immature Higgins.
   In this smooth production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts (also presented at San Diego’s Old Globe earlier this year with many of the same actors), director Nicolas Martin emphasizes the cultural divide between Higgins and Eliza and downplays their possible romantic connection because that was what Shaw wanted. The director makes it quite clear that Eliza winds up marrying the poor but socially superior wastrel Freddy Enysford Hill (he sings “On the Street Where You Live” in the tuner) by adding a short wedding scene at the play’s finish. But Martin leaves a trace of amorous regret, Eliza casting a forlorn glance at her former teacher as the lights dim.
   The tension is beautifully played by Robert Sean Leonard and Heather Lind as Higgins and Eliza, but the still-youthful-at-44 Leonard fails to relish Higgins’s narcissistic nastiness. The actor delivers a dry, witty professor but not a truly memorable one. Lind, on the other hand, clearly enjoys Eliza’s guttersnipe-ish ways and frolics in her depiction of the girl’s fiery spirit. This makes her transformation to faux upper crust credible, though her Cockney is so thick and muddy at times as to be indecipherable.
   This is a thoughtful staging, letting you chew on Shaw’s radical ideas about language, feminism, and social strata. The big laughs don’t arrive until the entrance of Don Lee Sparks as Eliza’s philosophically inclined, dust collector father. The actor is well-named as he lights comic fires, using Shaw’s brilliant witticisms, blasting middle-class morality and upper-class hypocrisy. Paxton Whitehead is a delightfully befuddled Colonel Pickering, and Maureen Anderman is an elegant Mrs. Higgins. Caitlin O’Connell is properly authoritarian as Higgins’s motherly housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. Leonard’s boyishness and the strictness of the maternal figures in Higgins’s life (Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Pearce) further enforce the teacher’s immaturity and inability to form an adult relationship with Eliza, a fascinating strain from director Martin, one not brought out in most productions.
   Alexander Dodge created a gorgeous revolving set, and the costumes by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood evoke the general period, but some of the hemlines on the ladies’ gowns are a bit short for 1912.

July 21, 2013

The Explorers Club
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Mix a dash of Oscar Wilde with a generous serving of the Marx Brothers, stir in pratfalls and slamming doors, and you get The Explorers Club, Nell Benjamin’s perfectly intoxicating summertime cocktail, now available for imbibing courtesy of the talented theatrical bartenders at Manhattan Theatre Club. Benjamin (Legally Blonde: The Musical) combines myriad cultural stereotypes to create a wild comedy of clashing manners and mores, yet all the cartoonish characters retain their humanity. Yes, the zany goings-on are farcical and outlandish, but Benjamin keeps them honest within a bizarre framework.
   The setting is the titular Victorian establishment, impeccably designed by Donyale Werle to conjure up visions of New Yorker cartoons and those Jules Verne–inspired adventure movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth. You can imagine it being the kind of place from which intrepid Britons set out on thrilling expeditions to lost cities. But the most dangerous element to cross into the stuffy lounge is not the blue-skinned native from such a godforsaken location, but the person who found him and brought him back to the club—Phyllida Spotte-Hume. As a female scientist being proposed for membership, she represents a devastating challenge to male-dominated British society.
   Phyllida is not the only agent of change. Her aboriginal charge, nicknamed Luigi, slaps the queen in the face—his tribe’s form of greeting—and sets off an international incident. Meanwhile, one of the club’s more conservative members proposes that the 10 lost tribes of Israel wandered to Ireland and ignites another firestorm, this one involving the Irish furious at the suggestion that they migrate to Palestine. Meanwhile, clumsy but sincere botanist Lucius Fretway and dashingly handsome yet blindingly stupid adventurer Sir Harry Percy vie for Phyllida’s hand.
   There is a hysterical piece of business where Luigi, disguised as the incompetent club barman, violently and rapidly throws full glasses at the scientists and not a drop of liquor is spilled. Director Marc Bruni executes a similarly amazing juggling act by keeping all the comic bits in the air. Benjamin’s razor-sharp satiric barbs are skillfully balanced with kooky observations on the chauvinistic attitudes of the members and a complex, inventive storyline.   The cast couldn’t be better. As Lucius, the acrobatically gifted Lorenzo Pisoni evokes such cinematic scientific klutzes as Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. It takes a really agile performer to appear clumsy while executing such intricate maneuvers as Pisoni does. He also gets across Lucius’s desperate insecurity and longing for Phyllida, a poised and sparkling Jennifer Westfeldt, who also appears in another surprise role. David Furr is rugged and oblivious as the blustery Harry, while John McMartin, Brian Avers, and Steven Boyer are amusingly dotty as the remaining members. Max Baker is properly pompous as a representative of Her Majesty’s government, Carson Elrod creates a completely credible savage Luigi, and Arnie Burton does much with two small roles: an Irish assassin and an aggrieved explorer returning to the club after surviving a hideous ordeal in Tibet. His re-enactment of the incident is just one of dozens of hilarious moments in this delightfully daffy show.

July 19, 2013
 
The Cradle Will Rock
New York City Center Encores! Off-Center [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

According to Steven Suskin’s invaluable book Opening Nights on Broadway, critical responses to the 1947 revival of this 1937 Marc Blitzstein work consisted of two raves, two favorables, two mixed, one unfavorable, and two pans. Brooks Atkinson in The Times called it “a blistering revival of the most vivid proletarian drama ever written in this country.” Robert Garland in the Journal-American wrote that all monied characters are portrayed as venal and vindictive, while the downtrodden are bright, honest, and forgiving. The form, the content, and the backdrop of this Depression-era piece help to explain the contradictory responses to it.
   This politically charged allegory about unionization, labor, and management in the fictional Steeltown, U.S.A., populated by characters named Mr. Mister, Larry Foreman, Reverend Salvation, and Editor Daily, was shut down on its opening night by its creator, the Works Progress Administration, such was the fever pervading the country. Among other events, the Republic Steel plant outside of Chicago had been struck two weeks earlier, during which police gunfire killed four and injured 84. On opening night, after the WPA closed down the show, the show’s actors, musicians, and audience walked 20 blocks to another theater, where the performers, prohibited by their own union from appearing on stage, presented the show from the audience. Now, 76 years later, in a far different climate, composer Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie), in her first venture as producer of Encores! Off-Center, gives us this concert version.
   First, the unquestionable plusses. Raul Esparza is one of the treasures of our theater; his entrance two-thirds of the way into the show as labor organizer Larry Foreman lifts the proceedings in a way that only a great stage actor can. He is amply assisted by another giant, Danny Burstein, as industrialist Mr. Mister; by the wonderful Judy Kuhn as Editor Daily, and Anika Noni Rose as Mrs. Mister and hooker Moll; and by a roof-raising eleven o’clock number, “Joe Worker,” courtesy of the aptly named Da’Vine Joy Randolph. The voices are exceptional, the energy is strong, and the writing comes from a place of deep commitment and integrity.
   However, the book is very much a product of a very distinct time, which inevitably causes it to lose power today. It is deliberately constructed in broad, symbolic strokes, told unnaturalistically, in an uneasy mixture of burlesque and passion. And at least partly because of this form, Blitzstein seems intent on distancing us from feeling much for these archetypes.
   Musically, the work is largely sung, and there is a sameness to it that adds to the distancing effect. These issues are exacerbated by director Sam Gold’s choices. This is clearly a concert; the cast sits in a row of chairs across the stage, dressed in tuxedos and elegant dresses. This allows the words and music to be heard, but at the expense of dramatic progression and storytelling through staging. And when Gold throws in physical choices, they tend to cloud the action and call attention to him. Two men portray the Mister children (brother and sister), then switch clothes for no apparent reason other than to attempt a moment of levity. A child actor plays three adult roles, likewise for no apparent reason.   The use of hand mikes by the performers each time they speak further detracts from the production’s momentum. Perhaps budgetary constraints prevented general miking, but the standing downstage microphones would surely have sufficed, as they did when the actors used them.
   Should The Cradle Will Rock be seen in modern times? With a chance to see performers of this caliber, presenting material of this nature and boldness, most certainly it should. However, be advised that this piece is very much an intriguing enigma, at once worthy and troubling.

July 10, 2013

Animal Crackers
Williamstown Theatre Festival [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal


Can a 1928 musical farce with the slimmest of plots, held together by little but verbal and physical gymnastics, and first brought to life by the maniacal genius of the Marx Brothers, create any fireworks for an audience in 2013? If this first production of the summer from this venerable institution is any indication, the answer is an unmistakable yes.
   With a cast of unfamiliar names other than the luminous Renee Elise Goldsberry, and directed by Henry Wishcamper, who also adapted the original, this company hits every right note and keeps all the comedic balls juggling in the air (book by George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby).
   The difficulties in activating a piece like this are enormous: The audience must be carried along by the inventiveness of the physical life, by the charm of the romantic interests, and by the timing and personalities of the designated clowns. Happily, those difficulties are surmounted here. Wishcamper, choreographer John Carrafa, and physical comedy director Paul Kalina bring a rich imagination to the proceedings. Goldsberry, playing art swindler Grace and onstage partner Adam Chanler-Berat as artist John supply the charm, along with the dancing romantic duo of Joey Sorge and Mara Davi. And in the Herculean task of essentially channeling Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, Joey Slotnick, Joanathan Brody, and Brad Aldous respectively all rise gloriously to the occasion.
   The story, such as it is, rests on the substitution of a fake painting for a real one, followed by a mistaken replacement of the fake by another fake. All of course is happily resolved in the end, helped by a tuneful score. Integrated with the iconic “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” is the pearl “Why Am I So Romantic?” But the wit is everything here. From a Eugene O’Neill Strange Interlude moment, in which Groucho steps out of the scene to deliver an inner monologue, to a call for a flash (flashlight) that gets answered with a fish, a flask, a flute, and a frisk, to the immortal “I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know,” this is comic writing of the highest order.
   I saw the show with my two children, ages 8 and 10, and my niece, 16. Each time the physical craziness kicked in, they erupted in laughter, and even when the verbal humor escaped them—e.g. Strange Interlude—the rhythm alone was enough to engage them. Timeless is timeless, and Animal Crackers remains a fixture under that heading.

July 3, 2013

The Comedy of Errors
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Shakespeare in 90 minutes? Yes, director Daniel Sullivan and a company of madcap actors and dancers manages to cram The Comedy of Errors, the Bard’s early adaptation of a Roman farce, into a madcap hour and a half for the first offering of the Public Theater’s free season at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. No intermission and judicious cutting leads to the brief running time and even allows for snazzy jitterbugging choreographed by Mimi Lieber.
   This classic tale of two sets of identical twins causing confusion has seen a revival of interest in the last few years with productions set in contemporary London and a Caribbean playland, and adapted as a rap musical (The Bomb-Itty of Errors). Taking a reference from the Greek homeland of one set of twins (Syracuse), this production is set in 1940s upstate New York where Greyhound buses are substituted for ships and the Duke is replaced by a mafia boss. To add to the fun, the same actor plays a burly kitchen wench in drag.
   The trick of this production and the challenge for Sullivan is having the lookalikes, twin masters and servants with same names separated at birth by a wreck at sea, played by the same actors. Lanky Hamish Linklater (the masters) is the timid, retiring Antipholus of Syracuse and the tough, roughnecked Antipholus of Ephesus, while an almost manic Jesse Tyler Ferguson (the servants) doubles as the goofy Dromio of Syracuse and his crude brother from Ephesus. Both these comic actors, who’ve achieved a degree of fame through TV sitcoms, demonstrate their theatrical chops by creating strongly distinctive personalities for their dual identities.
   Sullivan skillfully creates the illusion they can be practically two places at the same time with his split-second staging. Toward the play’s end, the audience is just as dazzled as the characters when Linklater and Ferguson disappear into a convent onstage and then, moments later, emerge in the aisles of the Delacorte. Sullivan solves the final problem of having both sets of twins onstage simultaneously with an ingeniously simple device. He also offers a generous heaping of slapdash tomfoolery with pasta and pratfalls flying everywhere.
   Emily Bergl channels tough dames like Jean Harlow as the shrewish wife of one of the masters, and Heidi Schreck finds the backbone in her shyer sister. Skipp Sudduth conveys both the avuncular, slightly threatening authority of the Duke and the ribald lustiness of the kitchen maid. Jonathan Hadary hilariously doubles as the woebegone father of the Antipholuses and a Freudian Doctor Pinch. De’Adre Aziza is a vampy Courtesan, and Becky Ann Baker makes the most of the brief but vital role of the Abbess who wraps up all the loose plot strings in this frothy, fizzy summertime treat.

June 26, 2013
 
Far From Heaven
Playwrights Horizons [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

For a few decades now, the biggest musical theater trend is transferring hit movies to the stage. It usually works with uplifting comedies, quite often when drag is involved (La Cage Aux Folles, Hairspray, this season’s Tony Best Musical Kinky Boots). But serious film dramas getting the musical treatment don’t always work. Far From Heaven, the 2002 indie weepie directed and written by Todd Haynes, has been made over by composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, and book-writer Richard Greenberg. After a run at Williamstown Theatre Festival, the musical is now in an Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons. The results are competent but fail to convey the shattering emotions of the original.
   Caucasian housewife Cathy Whitaker finds herself dealing with sexual and racial repression in 1957 suburban Connecticut when her husband, Frank, reveals his long-hidden gay yearnings and she is attracted to Raymond, her African-American gardener. The film relied on Haynes’s highly stylized direction to convey the Technicolor idealization of Cathy’s supposed blissful domestic milieu and the turmoil underneath it. Greenberg has basically lifted Haynes’s screenplay and added a few names from the period (Joe McCarthy, NY Times film critic Bosley Crowther) to provide unneeded context. Likewise, Frankel’s music is too often on the nose, giving Frank jarring jazz and Raymond slow blues and soul as their leitmotifs. Korie’s lyrics are equally obvious. This is something of a surprise because Frankel and Korie did such a brilliant job of translating another film laden with subtext (Grey Gardens) to the stage. But the source material for that show, a documentary, allowed more leeway for adaptation of which the book-writer (Doug Wright) took full advantage.
   Here we are given the surface of the story without the broiling inner conflicts. In the film, the final scene finds a tragically bereft Cathy about to divorce Frank and bidding Raymond goodbye at the Hartford train station as he must leave the city because of their suspected but never consummated interracial romance. Julianne Moore as the movie Cathy was able to impart her stunning loss with a simple gesture of touching Raymond’s arm. Kelli O’Hara the stage Cathy has been given a soupy climactic aria that ends with her smiling, determined to overcome her woes and embracing her children with love and optimism. It’s not the same impact.
   Director Michael Grief delivers a slick production, aided by Allen Moyer’s flexible set and Peter Nigrini’s projections (kudos also to Catherine Zuber’s period costumes and Kenneth Posner’s picture-postcard lighting). But like the book and score, the staging fails to delve beneath the glossy exterior. The silver-voiced O’Hara doesn’t fully convey Cathy’s interior war. The only moments when she connects with the material on a deeper level are the brief moments when Cathy practices happy expressions in the mirror before answering her door. Then we see the split between the artificial Betty Crocker image and the suffering real woman. Raymond has been made into a saint of intelligence and compassion, and Isiah Johnson cannot breathe life into him. Steve Pasquale delivers Frank’s anguish, but that’s all. We don’t see the façade of the loving father and husband, which would have given his story arc tension.
   There are hints of wit and fire in Nancy Anderson’s Eve Arden-ish best friend, Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s sympathetic maid, Alma Cuervo’s nasty gossip, and Mary Stout and J.B. Adams in multiple roles, but this uneven show is far from dramatic heaven.

June 16, 2013

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Classic Stage Company [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

At first, Brian Kulick’s Classic Stage Company production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht’s classic of downtrodden peasants overcoming the upper classes, is just a bit too precious. The audience enters set designer Tony Straiges’s disheveled environment suggesting an abandoned theater in Russia during one of its many political upheavals. The program describes the setting as “Ancient Grusinia but also perhaps the fall of the Soviet Union, when the hammer and the sickle were replaced by the Coca-Cola bottle.” The cast, playing a band of wandering actors, shuffles in speaking Russian, has a few comic mishaps with the lighting and sound, and then explains to the audience in heavily-accented English that the actors are presenting a fable of Grusha, a servant girl who impulsively adopts the baby abandoned by her wealthy mistress during a revolution. This reality-versus-illusion gambit appears to approximate Brecht’s famous alienation effect, wherein the viewers are made aware they are watching a play and are forced to consider the issues raised without sentiment for the characters.
   Later in the play, audience members are recruited to play extras at a wedding scene and, in an embarrassing sing-along, moan the word oh in an exaggerated, “sad” Russian manner. Fortunately, these forced bits are kept to a minimum. When Grusha’s tale gets going, Kulick’s direction becomes engaging. After she has committed to adopting the baby and protecting it from marauding rebels, Grusha sacrifices everything for him, even her engagement to the soldier Simon. Following many adventures, she is forced to battle for her charge with the kid’s biological mother in a trial presided over by the peasant-made-magistrate Azdak. Even though the child is portrayed by a puppet, the emotions conveyed by the human cast create the Pinocchio-like illusion he is real.
   The idiomatic translation by James and Tania Stern, along with pithy lyrics by the poet W.H. Auden and soulful original music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), make the tale compelling. Things only slow down when Kulick interrupts with those audience-participation sequences.
   The action is largely propelled by Elizabeth A. Davis, who lends Grusha a fierce intensity in spoken and sung scenes, as well as when she plays the violin. Christopher Lloyd endows the other main character, Azdak, with a rascally cunning, but the Taxi veteran appeared not to have mastered all the lines in this massive role, and his otherwise rich performance was marred by hesitancy. Mary Testa, Tom Riis Farrell, Jason Babinsky, Deb Radloff, and Alex Hurt have individual moments to shine in their multiple characterizations. This is an almost full and satisfying Circle, only broken when the director attempts to draw his own lines rather than allowing Brecht to complete it.

June 6, 2013
 
Murder Ballad
Union Square Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Continuing the trend exemplified by Here Lies Love and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Murder Ballad experiments with environmental staging. Now in a commercial Off-Broadway engagement after a limited Manhattan Theatre Club run, this 90-minute rock musical places the actors amid the audience. Set designer Mark Wendland transforms the Union Square Theatre into a downtown club where the title act might happen at any moment. Patrons are seated on either side of a central playing area where even more audience members are placed at cabaret tables. The four-person cast belts out a tale of passion and jealousy on top of those tables, in the aisles, and all around us.
   Julia Jordan—credited with conceived the show, authoring the book, and collaborating on the lyrics with composer Juliana Nash—has constructed an unremarkable story which would be better suited for an episode of Law & Order: SVU. Sara, a wild party girl, breaks up with her equally hedonistic boyfriend, club owner Tom. Drunkenly stumbling home, she bumps into NYU professor Michael who is as loving, steady, and unexciting as Tom was unpredictable, attractive, and dangerous. Flash forward a few years. Sara and Michael are married with a little girl, but Sara is getting bored and launches into a hot affair with old flame Tom. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize somebody’s gonna get bumped off. The gimmick is we don’t know who the perp or the vic will be. That’s perpetrator and victim to you non-L&O fans. There’s also a gorgeous, sexy female narrator commenting on the action. Without giving too much away, the ending is something of a gyp, relying on a device not introduced until the last minute.
   The score is sung-through and the pulsating hard-rock songs, arranged and orchestrated with muscularity by Justin Levine, provide an adrenaline rush. Sound designer Leon Rothenberg amps up the volume so it feels as if we are in a Lower East Side booze-and-heavy-bass hangout. The trouble is Nash and Jordan’s lyrics are barely discernible for the first half of the show. Maybe it’s my aged ears, but it took a while to get used to high decibels. As noted, Trip Cullman’s staging pushes the action right in our faces and the four-person cast generates plenty of vocal and physical energy. Fortunately, we never see their figurative or literal sweat.
   Will Swenson channels Tom’s egotistical, libidinal drive while Caissie Levy conveys Sara’s twisted battle between lust for Tom and affection for Michael. A robust John Ellison Conlee overcomes the challenge of keeping the decent Michael from being a wimp. Rebecca Naomi Jones infuses her utilitarian narrator role with strong purpose and delivers a shocking surprise at the end. Unfortunately, that surprise isn’t earned and shows what Murder Ballad is about—a gimmicky show. It’s a cool treat to pretend to be in a bar watching a passionate triangle unfold, but the emotions aren’t honest or conveyed in a new and revealing way, as they are in Here Lies Love and Natasha, Pierre.

May 30, 2013

Into the Woods
Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

“No One Is Alone” is the title of Stephen Sondheim’s glorious penultimate song in this show. But it is also the ideal description of the theatrical magic that is happening in Princeton between actors and audience, thanks to this reimagining by the Fiasco Theatre Company.
   It starts with the set. Stretching across the back wall is a latticework of jeweled strings, with skeletal re-creations of musical instruments lining the side walls. A piano sits center stage, balanced on each side by a music stand, and costume pieces are set on stands or in boxes. The pianist (Matt Castle of John Doyle’s 2007 Broadway Company) enters and begins tuning a guitar at the piano; he is soon followed by the 10 other cast members. One of them, co-director Ben Steinfeld who plays the Baker, warns two patrons in the front that they are in the spittle zone, then assures the whole, suddenly quiet audience that it can keep talking because nothing is happening yet. Playfulness, musicality, and storytelling are thus established as the evening’s motifs.
   What follows is a production of this most frequently performed Sondheim show influenced largely by the techniques of Story Theatre. Actors take turns narrating the story and play multiple roles, often changing in the blink of an eye with a mere vocal alteration or small costume piece. This method is particularly apt for a show like this, which deconstructs fairy tales as significantly darker than traditionally perceived. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack of beanstalk fame are intertwined, along with the original characters of a childless baker and his wife. In the first act, each person, including the inevitable Witch, heads into the woods in pursuit of his or her strongest desire: a child, financial security, love. The extended title song parallels the first act ending of A Little Night Music in which the characters all express their feelings about the upcoming “Weekend in the Country.” By the end of Into the Woodss first act, all these characters have achieved their goal—but not for long, because, in Act 2, life’s vagaries intervene, leading to fear, frustration, and death. The monster attacking all the characters is external and internal—echoes of The Fantasticks. The characters are left to ponder their paths, though Sondheim encourages them, and us, with the aforementioned “No One Is Alone” and the equally uplifting “Children Will Listen.”
   The cast is pitch perfect and the quintessence of ensemble playing. Each member shines individually and collectively; particularly good are Emily Young as Red and Rapunzel, and, among the men, Andy Grotelueschen’s cow, wicked stepsister, and Prince.
   At the New York premiere of Into the Woods, in 1987, reaction was divided, as it perhaps still is. But notwithstanding the musical’s faults, its power and richness are given full and even new life by this vigorous and sparkling effort.

May 27, 2013
 
I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers
Booth Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Bette Midler is one of the few performers in the modern world who can hold an audience without moving from a sitting position for 80 minutes. In this one-woman play, her return to Broadway after more than 30 years, that’s exactly what she does. And the character is a perfect fit: Sue Mengers, loud, unstoppable superagent to the stars who shot to the top of the Hollywood hierarchy in the 1970s. Mengers’s ballsy, steamroller personality matches Midler’s Divine Miss M, the performer’s public persona we all fondly remember from her blockbuster concerts. Both are foulmouthed, unpretentious, and endowed with perfect comic timing. At the performance attended, the audience howled at her every line (except for the old lady sitting behind me who loudly declared, “Disgusting,” after Midler as Mengers called Barbra Streisand the “c” word).
   John Logan’s anecdote-laced script places the performer on a gorgeous sofa squarely in the middle of Scott Pask’s opulent Beverly Hills set. It’s hours before the high-powered guests arrive for yet another fabulous soiree, so Mengers kills time by telling the audience the story of her life. Through the magic of theater, we’ve managed to fit into her living room. One lucky patron is even invited onstage to play butler and bring the reclining star cigarettes and alcohol from a nearby breakfront. Midler sharply charts Mengers’s incredible journey from refugee from Hitler’s Germany to receptionist at William Morris to representative of such megastars as Gene Hackman, Ali MacGraw, Michael Caine, and Faye Dunaway.
   Along the way, we learn Mengers’s rules for success as an agent. Among the precepts are “Know the Spouse,” which she illustrates with the cautionary tale of Steve McQueen ruining the career of his wife MacGraw. “What happened to Ali MacGraw’s career?” quips Mengers. “I’ll tell you in four words: that c—t Steve McQueen.” The jokes and stories are juicy and rich, and Midler caresses every consonant; listening is like gobbling a boxful of expensive chocolates.
   Gradually, it’s revealed we’ve caught Mengers after her peak. She is not only waiting for her party guests but also anxiously watching the telephone for a call from her biggest client, Streisand, whom Mengers expects will join the growing list of those no longer in need of her representation. In a hubristic move, she placed two of her highest-flying clients, Streisand and Hackman, in a tremendous flop directed by Mengers’s husband. The defections started soon afterwards, and Mengers was no longer on the A-list. Not long after the action of the play, she retired from the biz and in 2011 died of cancer.
   Midler not only zestfully delivers Logan’s zingers but also imparts the broken woman underneath the brassy exterior. Listen as her voice catches when Mengers recalls having to tell client Julie Harris she’s considered too old to play Mary Todd Lincoln in a TV movie. It’s difficult to tell where director Joe Mantello’s contribution picks up and Midler’s leaves off. Although the actor leaves the sofa only at the play’s melancholy conclusion, it’s never static, so that’s a tribute to Mantello’s craft as much as Midler’s showmanship. They make this a sinfully delicious showbiz meal you’ll want to devour despite the high calorie count.

May 25, 2013
 
Pippin
Music Box Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Andrea Martin and Matthew James Thomas
Photo by Joan Marcus

Pippin is the ultimate razzle-dazzle con job, but it’s a magnificently entertaining one. The story purports to advocate the joys of ordinary, workaday life, but only after stunning its audience with two and half hours of amazing theatricality. Bob Fosse, the director-choreographer of the original 1972 production, knew Roger O. Hirson’s wafer-thin book and Stephen Schwartz’s pleasant songs would not be enough to put over the slight story of a medieval prince seeking his identity. So he threw in every trick he knew to distract from the plot’s deficiencies. And it worked. Pippin ran for almost 2,000 performances, and Fosse won Tonys for his choreography and direction (the latter over Harold Prince for A Little Night Music).
   Diane Paulus has the same idea for this amazing revival, previously presented at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where she serves as artistic director. With the collaboration of Gypsy Snider of the Canadian troupe Les 7 doigts de la main and set designer Scott Pask’s big-top environment, Paulus transforms Schwartz’s simple story, first conceived as a college show when the songwriter was a student at Carnegie Tech, into a Cirque du Soleil–type spectacle. The band of players enacting Pippin’s Candide-like voyage, memorably led by Ben Vereen in the first staging, is now a tribe of circus performers who are capable of astonishing, gravity-defying feats.
   Vereen’s role of Leading Player is now taken by the slinky, sexy Patina Miller, who moves like a snake escaping from Eden and ready to take as many into hell as she can gather. Miller, who made a hit two seasons ago in Sister Act, commands the stage with her flexible limbs and electric eyes. Matthew James Thomas as the titular young hero has a devil of a time keeping up with her, but, with his sunny voice and adorable demeanor, he keeps the somewhat whiny character from falling into the trap of self-pity. Terrence Mann and Charlotte d’Amboise, married offstage, wrangle and grind deftly as Pippin’s overbearing father, the Emperor Charles, and sneaky, youthful stepmother, Fastrada. Rachel Bay Jones is charming and captivating as Catherine, the lonely widow who convinces Pippin to give up his idealistic quest for fulfillment and settle down on her farm. Jones manages to create a convincing character with clear goals (land her man) amid the slick staging.
   But the show is totally stolen by Andrea Martin in the cameo role of Berthe, Pippin’s spry grandmother. The part was originally played by Irene Ryan of The Beverly Hillbillies, and she stopped the show with a sing-along of Schwartz’s peppy “No Time At All.” Martin goes her one better with an acrobatic routine you won’t believe. With only a few minutes of stage time, Martin conveys an unquenchable zest for life and conquers the audience with her warmth and impeccable timing. It’s a standout piece of a standout show, but don’t try to figure out what, if anything, is behind the tricks and the showmanship. Just sit back and enjoy the razzle-dazzle.

May 15, 2013
 
Opened April 25 for an open run. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2:30pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $59-142. (800) 432-7250.

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On Your Toes
Encores! at New York City Center [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Midway through the first act of this Encores! revival, a Russian dance troupe preparing to perform the climactic classic “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” breaks into a tap-dance to the title tune. This number, followed soon by the aforementioned ballet, lifts the roof of the City Center and sends the show into the stratosphere of musical comedy heaven.
   This 1936 effort, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s second after returning from an unrewarding sojourn in Hollywood, is a paean to and a sendup of classical ballet, in those days having come into vogue thanks to touring companies from Europe. The ostensible book attempts to mine the potential conflict between the traditional and the modern in dance, but it is really little more than an excuse for the feet to take over. Act One’s ballet finale “La Princese Zenobia,” the second act “Slaughter,” and the title number are the show here. And what a show these dancers put on! There are 25 of them plus two principals, Shonn Wiley and Irina Dvorovenko.
   However, as completely fulfilling as all the movement is, there is of course the Rodgers and Hart score, and typically sublime it is. Besides the rousing title song, we get the incomparable “There’s a Small Hotel” sung by the young lovers (Wiley and Kelli Barrett), the acerbic “Too Good for the Married Man” (Christine Baranski and Walter Bobbie), “Glad to Be Unhappy” (Hart’s de facto personal anthem), and the haunting “Quiet Night.” And again, we get the iconic melodies of the Slaughter ballet, producing what is doubtless one of the landmarks of musical theater.
   The great critic, teacher, and director Harold Clurman was known to believe that if you sat through a show patiently and long enough, something would eventually happen to reward your stay and your unflinching faith in theater. This On Your Toes is a validation of the master’s credo.

May 8, 2013
 
The Nance
Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The emotional high point of this Douglas Carter Beane play is the lowest for its title character, Chauncey Miles, a comic specializing in effeminate stereotypes who is gay offstage as well. Late in the play, Chauncey has fallen on hard times. A puritanical city official has clamped down on his act in burlesque, Chauncey has driven away his adoring lover, and he is reduced to playing drag because that’s considered “masquerade” rather than lewd comedy depicting “depravity” like homosexuality. As Chauncey, Nathan Lane, dressed by Ann Roth as a tawdry stage version of an over-the-hill hooker, stands on John Lee Beatty’s marvelously sleazy evocation of a run-down grindhouse in 1937 Greenwich Village, and delivers hoary—pardon the pun—wisecracks on straight sex. A few about a Romeo deserting his character cause the pitiful performer to break down, but he gathers himself up and goes on with the act. What’s amazing about this scene is Lane is hilariously funny while he breaks our hearts.
   It’s a stunning performance combining impeccable comic timing with intense pathos. Lane’s Chauncey believes the homophobic cant of the day. He sees himself as worthless and undeserving of love and the only way he can find it is to get the burlesque crowd, which includes gay patrons, to laugh at him. His much younger boyfriend, Ned, believes there’s nothing wrong with his sexuality, which sends Chauncey into the night seeking quick, anonymous tricks. The split eventually drives them apart, and Lane viscerally registers the loss, though Chauncey tries to hide it with gags and bravado.
   That the core of Beane’s script: Chauncey’s struggle to maintain his gay identity on his own terms, limited and twisted as they are. The playwright sometimes lays it on a bit thick with the political overlay, having his characters represent points of view rather than complex emotions. “In 80 years, who’s gonna ask about how we pay for Social Security?” says Sylvie, one of Chauncey’s stripper co-workers with Communist sympathies. Here, as in a few other points, the playwright seems to be speaking rather than one of his creations.
   But there are major compensations. Beane is brilliantly witty and knows how to write dialogue that’s simultaneously funny and moving. There’s also the fascinating device of employing burlesque sketches that comment on the real-life action. All these are smoothly and sensitively staged by Jack O’Brien on Beatty’s Edward Hopper-esque revolving set. Jonny Orsini is a sweet Ned, comfortable in his masculinity, yet eager to camp it up with a Tallulah Bankhead imitation. Lewis J. Stadlen as Efram, Chauncey’s straight stage partner, doesn’t shy away from his character’s repulsion to homosexuality and blends it with an appreciation for Chauncey as a talent and a person. Cady Huffman, Andrea Burns, and Jenni Barber earn laughs and admiration as they bump and strut as the strippers. But the engine that drives The Nance is Lane, and he guns it for all its worth.

May 6, 2013
 

The Big Knife
Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward
 
To cover a scene change during the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Big Knife, Clifford Odets’s 1948 cynical drama of Hollywood’s Golden Age, sound designer David Van Tieghem has created a marvelous audio parody of a typical period movie, headlined by the fictional protagonist, hot star Charlie Castle. It’s meant to be melodramatic, unlike the savagely realistic action of the play which chronicles Charlie’s struggle between his art and the soulless commerce of Tinseltown. This is a common theme in Odets, particularly in his earlier Golden Boy, revived earlier this season, in which the forces of refined classical music and brutal moneymaking battle within the compact frame of violinist-boxer Joe Bonaparte.
   The trouble is the play is as hokey as any assembly-line flick churned out by Marcus Hoff, the tyrannical studio head who is Charlie’s main nemesis. Odets has many valid points about the box-office-driven nature of America’s film industry and the country in general, which are even more pertinent in today’s multimillion-dollar movie biz. But he cheapens his purist views with a stale-even-for-1948 plot gimmick.
   Charlie is under pressure from Hoff to renew his contract for a hefty salary, but the actor, who yearns to make quality films, will be forced to perform Hoff’s dreck for 14 years. The star’s idealistic wife, Marian, threatens to leave him if he signs. That should be strong enough—the temptation of several millions versus starving for your art, with the love of a good woman thrown in. But Hoff blackmails Charlie with releasing the truth about a hit-and-run accident in which the actor caused the death of a child. When a gabby starlet with knowledge of the secret threatens to spill the beans, things get pretty ugly pretty quick. Charlie pompously compares himself to Macbeth and Hamlet, as Hoff and his minions involve their star and his wife in darker doings, finally ending with an over-the-top finish worthy of the schmaltzy Warner Bros. epic.
   Fortunately, Doug Hughes’s production is tight and honest, gorgeously realized by John Lee Beatty’s elegant set and Catherine Zuber’s stylish costumes, and the cast plays the hokey plot truthfully. Bobby Cannavale and Marin Ireland underplay Charlie and Marian’s earnest integrity, but they cannot overcome Odets’s soapy excesses and contrived dialogue. “Could you ever know I yearned for a world of people to bring out the best in me,” Charlie proclaims toward the end. Who talks like that?
   Given the delicious nastiness of Odets’s venom toward the movie industry, the villains get the choicest parts. Richard Kind dives into the Sam Goldwyn–like Hoff with relish. Reg Rogers is a slithering snake as Hoff’s henchman, the ironically named Smiley Coy. Brenda Wehle makes the gossip columnist Patty Benedict a fearsome force with a hatchet for a tongue. They do their best to sharpen this Knife, but it’s still got an old, dull blade.

April 28, 2013
 
Jekyll & Hyde
Marquis Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Why revive Jekyll & Hyde, the hideous, overwrought 1997 musical based on the classic thriller? The only saving grace of the original production was the intense, sexy performance of Robert Cuccioli in the leading role. The music by Frank Wildhorn is generic, and the usually witty Leslie Bricusse’s book and lyrics are simplistic (Wildhorn and Steven Cuden also contributed to the lyrics). The show ran an astonishing 1,543 performances, mostly due to stunt replacement casting including David Hasselhoff, but it never turned a profit. So why bring it back if it was neither a financial nor an artistic success in the first place? 
   The new production does nothing to enhance the musical’s reputation. The raison d’être seems to be showing off the stars’ singing. It’s an example of the American Idol-ization of Broadway. Depth of story or characterization doesn’t mean a thing as long as the leads hit their money notes and hold them for at least 20 seconds. Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis as the titular split personality and Grammy nominee Deborah Cox as the luckless prostitute Lucy were obviously hired to draw undiscerning fans of their breathy pop-oriented voices. Maroulis screams his way through both characterizations, alternating between approximating Bricusse’s former writing partner Anthony Newley as Jekyll and a screechy Alice Cooper as Hyde. Cox at least has a decent sound, but her acting lacks dimension. And, if you thought the British accents in Kinky Boots were weak, they’re all over the map here. Maroulis sounds as if his dialect coach gave him a DVD of My Week With Marilyn and told the star to imitate Kenneth Branagh imitating Laurence Olivier, while Cox’s Cockney comes and goes.
   The supporting company fares somewhat better. Teal Wicks makes a convincingly devoted Emma, Jekyll’s long-suffering fiancée, and Richard White lends solid support as her father. Brian Gallagher earns a few welcome laughs as a foppish victim of Hyde’s murderous rage. But Laird Mackintosh mugs up a storm both vocally and dramatically as Jekyll’s best friend. Ironically, the most consistent and strongest limning is done by James Judy in the tiny role of Poole, Jekyll’s loyal butler.
   Director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun, who has done much more interesting work with Newsies and Grey Gardens, does a competent job, but no more. He tries too hard to inject scary thrills with Jeff Croiter’s nightmarish lighting and Daniel Brodie’s horror-film projections instead of trusting the story. You could watch American Idol and then American Horror Story for free on your DVR and get the same effect.

April 18, 2013

Matilda the Musical
Shubert Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Photo by Joan Marcus

From the moment you enter the Shubert Theater and take in Rob Howell’s whimsical Scrabble tile–studded set, you know you’re in for a good time at Matilda the Musical. Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, this hit from London offers a nasty, twisted, and totally joyful view of youngsters and the adjustments they face on the path to adulthood. You see, little Matilda is a genius, devouring dozens of books in a week, making up spellbinding stories, and learning Russian in her spare time. But her horrible parents are too absorbed in ballroom dancing and television to cherish or even recognize her intellectual gifts. So they bundle her off to a hideously oppressive school presided over by the terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, a fiend who makes Miss Hannigan of Annie fame look like Mary Poppins. There, Matilda finds the ideal teacher in the shy Miss Honey, who encourages her and whom the brilliant child rescues from dire circumstances. 
   That’s the gist of this marvelously inventive musical, given a fun and fast-paced staging by director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling. Book writer Dennis Kelly keeps Dahl’s cartoonish sensibility in developing the outlandish characters and the bizarre dimension they inhabit: a funhouse version of the real world where smart little girls must find ways to stick up for themselves.
   The score, by Australian comic-musician Tim Minchin, captures this wacky flavor when it needs to (most of the time), but also expresses the wistful sentiments of childhood games and friendship without getting treacly. This duality is best exhibited in the opening number, “Miracle” (as in “My mommy says I’m a miracle”), and the Act 2 paean to innocence, “When I Grow Up.” In the former, spoiled brats smash one another with cake and rampage in torn superhero costumes during a nightmarish birthday party. In the latter, the same kids glide over the audience on swings, sweetly warbling about a fantasized version of maturity where they can do whatever they want, including watching cartoons and eating candy all day. Warchus and Darling stage these opposing views of kids with appropriate details—manic energy and mayhem in “Miracle” and subtle simplicity in the “Grow Up.”

Four young actors alternate in the role of Matilda. Milly Shapiro (at the show reviewed) is a pint-sized Maggie Smith with the face of a Norwegian saga. This little dynamo skillfully imparts the character’s dazzling intelligence and taste for mischief, as well as her raging indignation at injustice. Her cry of “That’s not right!” seems to reach out of the theater onto 44th Street. Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita are unabashedly and delightfully vulgar as the uncaring parents. Lauren Ward as Miss Honey and Karen Aldridge as Mrs. Phelps, a friendly librarian who craves Matilda’s cliffhanging tales, are sweetly supportive.
     But Bertie Carvel in drag as the grotesque Miss Trunchbull nearly steals the show. Resembling the living gargoyle from a famous episode of Jonny Quest (Howell also designed the clever costumes), Carvel creates a monster who still retains a touch of femininity. It’s a brilliantly funny performance in one of the best musicals Broadway has seen in years.

April 16, 2013
  
Opened April 11 for an open run. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $32­–147. (800) 432-7250.

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The Mound Builders
Signature Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal


“Attention must be paid.” Linda Loman’s exhortation on her husband’s behalf in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman may come from a particular context, but it applies in support of another of America’s foremost playwrights, Lanford Wilson. Poet, humanist, consummate artist, Wilson, in his command of language, creation of imagery, and, most important, precision and depth of characterization, never ceases to draw us to him, even when, as in this 1975 play, flaws appear and threaten to derail the journey. Fear not: This man of the theater and of the world will never let that happen.
   In an odd sense, one can compare Wilson’s jumping-off point in this play—an archeological dig in Blue Shoals, Ill.—to Alfred Hitchcock’s MacGuffin. This was Hitchcock’s device for launching the plot; its contents and importance were never revealed. Similarly here, we never really discover what the searchers are looking for, or what particular historical significance it might have. We get suggestions and hints, but because of obstacles both natural and human, that’s all we get. What emerges, however, is a confluence of human needs, longings, joys, sorrows, and behavior, all brought forth by the event of the dig.
   Wilson, particularly here, was not a writer with a great penchant for plot. His strengths and interests were language and people. Lisa Joyce’s pregnant Jean, a gynecologist married to the archeologist (Zachary Booth) obsessed with learning the secrets of these mound builders—the eponymous tribe under excavation—carries not only her unborn child but also a history of depression and confusion. The other lead archeologist (David Conrad) and his wife (Janie Brookshire) are hanging together by the slenderest of threads; she in turn is clearly involved with the owner (Will Rogers) of the land on which the dig is occurring. He is an unfulfilled outsider, inheritor of the land from his father, with plans to build a Holiday Inn with attendant shopping and an interstate highway. When he learns that the diggers have thwarted those plans, his response brings the play to a searing and unexpected climax. Also present is the drug-addicted sister (Danielle Skraastad) of the cuckolded archeologist, a formerly prolific writer who sees much of what the others, except Jean, cannot. As a writer of acute theatrical sensibility, Wilson succeeds here in tying all of his strands together in a totally satisfying way.
   Flights of poetic moments interrupt the story’s flow, however, and often, particularly as voiced by the sister, those moments sound more author-generated than character-generated. Occasionally, one begins to wonder where the play is going. But again, in the hands of this craftsman and humanitarian, we are brought back to the world that Wilson strives to create. That world is aided immeasurably by Jo Bonny’s direction. The mise-en-scène moves seamlessly from scene to scene, with great theatricality. And the production is wonderfully abetted by the sound design of Darron West; with its original music and sound effects, a mood of strangeness and longing is continually evoked.
   The Signature Theatre is an invaluable New York institution that specializes in excavating American plays; this play about that very topic is a fitting and welcome choice.

April 4, 2013

Kinky Boots
Al Hirschfeld Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Stark Sands, Annaleigh Ashford, and Billy Porter
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Kinky Boots is anything but. The new musical based on the 2005 British film is as comfortable as a pair of old slippers and not the dangerous kind of footwear the title suggests. Its plot and theme are becoming old hat—sorry to mix clothing metaphors—on Broadway these days. The young hero attempts to save a reliable but crumbling institution (the family shoe factory in the north of England) by introducing a radical new product (fabulous hip-high boots designed for male cross-dressers) with the aide of an outrageously self-reliant outsider (a drag performer named Lola). It’s sort of a cross between La Cage Aux Folles and Billy Elliot with a bit of Sister Act and The Full Monty thrown in for good measure.
   But with pros like director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, book-writer Harvey Fierstein, and pop icon Cyndi Lauper who is making her theatrical debut as a songwriter, on the creative team, these Boots are made for walkin’ and that’s just what they do. Fierstein’s book features the same uplifting-spirits and be-who-you-are tropes he inserted in La Cage and Newsies, but the characters are believable and deeply drawn. Even the belligerent factory homophobe changes his tune and does some growing up. Naturally, there is a crisis just before the big event, which will solve everyone’s problems (in this case, a shoe fashion show in Milan), the diva sings a power ballad of self-acceptance and love, and a big hand-clapping finale provides a happy resolution for all. Despite the predictability of the plot, Mitchell’s inventive moves and slick staging make it fun getting to the inevitable conclusion. Not surprisingly, the most exciting numbers feature a sextette of gorgeous dragsters, kicking and slinking around the stage in eye-pooping frocks by designer Gregg Barnes.
   Lauper’s score borrows a bit heavily from the 1980s vibe of her smash Top 40 hits (one song is too reminiscent of Vickie Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” for comfort) and her lyrics won’t be keeping Stephen Sondheim up at night. “Kitsch” and “bitch” are the most memorable rhymes. Still, as skillfully orchestrated by Stephen Oremus, they are infectious, fun, and expressive.
   Broadway veteran Billy Porter, who has starred in replacement companies of Miss Saigon and Dreamgirls, finally gets to originate a sockeroo role in Lola. Yes, we have seen divine drag artists in the three productions of La Cage as well as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but Porter gives this one his own stamp. He caresses each syllable, stretching out the word to sound like “shex,” and commanding the stage with dazzling charisma. We also see the shy male inside the fierce female when Porter steps out of drag into a vest, shirt, and pants as Simon, Lola’s masculine alter ego. Stark Sands has the more difficult challenge of playing Charlie, the nebbishy factory owner, opposite the glittering Porter. He manages to enliven Charlie’s struggle to find his own passion. When the two discover their common insecurities in “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” it’s a heart-stopping moment. Annaleigh Ashford integrates endlessly fresh comic bits into the obligatory love interest role, and Daniel Stewart Sherman is suitably gruff as the bullying Dan.
   Kinky Boots may not be as dazzling as the footwear on the show’s drag queens, but it’s certainly well-constructed, holds up under pressure, and will give you an entertaining two-and-a-half-hour walk.

April 6, 2013
 
Opened April 4 for an open run. Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $57–137. (800) 432-7250.

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Lucky Guy
Broadhurst Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

It’s chaotic, it’s grandiose, there’s too much drinking, smoking, swearing, sensationalism. Jeez, it’s just too much altogether. But, like the crazed tabloid journalism era of the 1980s and ’90s that it depicts, the late Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy is a wild, satisfying ride full of danger and passion. It’s not a neat little package, attempting to get a point across about the state of modern media. There’s a throwaway line late in the second act about how print is dead, having been killed by TV, but it’s almost an afterthought.
   This sprawling, episodic biography of the gutsy, gritty columnist Mike McAlary is a tribute to the kind of bare-knuckled reporting and the flawed lucky guy himself. Ephron’s frequent movie collaborator Tom Hanks makes his Broadway debut in the title role. Eschewing his nice-guy film image, Hanks tears into the red meat of the part with relish. From his first entrance when he directly asks an audience member, “This is New York. Who’s relaxed? Are you relaxed?” to a tearful speech for newsroom colleagues when McAlary wins a Pulitzer Prize, Hanks grabs us and never lets go. He may as well start dusting his shelf for a Tony Award to go alongside his two Oscars.
   The play is a bit of a jumble, starting in a smoke-filled bar with a chorus of rough-edged reporters singing an Irish folk song and then telling McAlary’s story as he progresses from lowly reporter relegated to the wilds of Queens to the highest-paid columnist in the city. He grabs the front page but also gets into trouble on occasion. A false report about a rape victim results in a lawsuit, which nearly ruins his reputation. Characters frequently trade off narrator duties, interrupt each other to get their viewpoints in, and assume different personae (“You play Jimmy Breslin,” one editor shouts to a bartender).
   Ephron reportedly intended it as a film or TV script, and that certainly shows the rapid pace and short scenes. Fortunately, director George C. Wolfe knows a thing or two about staging unwieldy scripts in a cinematic fashion. Remember Angels in America and Bring in ’da Noise…? Aided by David Rockwell’s fluid, suggestive sets and the black-and-white, in-your-face video projections of Batwin + Robin Productions, Wolfe gives Guy the necessary freight-train intensity. He also knows when to hit the brakes—as in an uncomfortable, heart-wrenching moment when McAlary interviews a ravaged Abner Louima (an understated Stephen Tyrone Williams) about being sodomized by rogue cops.
   Despite Hanks’s megawatt movie-star status—he gets the only solo curtain call—this is not a one-man show. Rare for Broadway nonmusicals, the cast boasts 16 additional actors, many of whom are given moments to stand out. Courtney B. Vance is sandpaper and satin as an editor who loves McAlary but hates his excesses. Deirdre Lovejoy is foul-mouthed and funny as one of the few women in a man’s world. Danny Mastrogiorgio lends fire to a jealous colleague.
   Playing McAlary’s alcoholic mentor, Peter Gerety makes his scenes with Hanks have such a relaxed authenticity, the two seem like just a couple of guys vigorously debating journalism after quite a few drinks rather than a pair of experienced actors on a Broadway stage. The only one who really gets lost in the mayhem is Maura Tierney as McAlary’s long-suffering wife, Alice. She is relegated to the role of occasionally complaining, but ultimately supportive spouse, one of the few dull characters in an otherwise explosive production.

April 5, 2013
 
It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman
Encores! at New York City Center [show closed]

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Encores! has done it again. This bastion of American musical theatre revivals in concert stagings—now in its 20th season of producing three to four pieces each year—flies high with this production. First staged in 1965, the show ran into the tongue-in-cheekiness of a new television upstart, Batman, and lasted just 129 performances. Thanks to a following that appreciated its wit and jaunty score, its cachet has never fully disappeared, and in this reincarnation its charms are clear and numerous.
   A delicate and astute blend of camp and sincerity, Superman revels in its affection for its source material (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams, book by David Newman and Robert Benton based on the comic strip Superman). Clark Kent is still the unprepossessing and mild-mannered reporter with a yen for fellow reporter Lois Lane. She continues to pine for the unavailable “Man of Steel,” who wishes he could reveal his true self to her.
   Into this familiar mix comes Max Mencken, the in-house lothario whose charms pale next to Superman’s prowess, and Abner Sedgwick, the mad—as in angry—scientist whose neglect by the Nobel Prize Committee has set him on the path to destroy Superman and thereby, in his mind, raise his own status. Add to the brew a very decent co-worker pining for Lois, a love-struck siren whose unrequited longings for Max cause her to make a pass at Clark, and an ensemble of regular folk with an ever-present and very human need for a hero, all assembled by director John Rando in a visually and tonally arresting creation, and Encores! continues to demonstrate its ability to bring our native art form’s past to a generation rooted in falling chandeliers and feline junkyards.
   A cast of relatively unfamiliar Broadway performers glows under Rando’s staging and Rob Berman’s music direction. Edward Watts achieves a perfect blend of strength and loneliness as our hero. Jenny Powers brings out Lois’s similar ambivalence. David Pittu is the showstopping Sedgwick, Will Swensen does his best to channel the immortal Jack Cassidy as Max, and the two bring down the house as they share their villainous dreams in “You’ve Got What I Need.” Perhaps the show’s most known song, “You’ve Got Possibilities,” is given all its due by Alli Mauzey.
   Once in a very rare while, the series comes a cropper, either because the material is problematic—On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Golden Boy—or because the production falters. But when, as in the past two years—Fiorello, Merrily We Roll Along, Pipe Dream, and now It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman—the combination of material and production meshes in every way, the value of this institution remains indisputable and incomparable.

March 26, 2013
 
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Cort Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The new Broadway adaptation of Truman Capote’s beloved 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s breaks at least two cardinal rules of show business: 1) Never work with animals, and 2) Never try to re-create an iconic screen role on stage. It didn’t work for On the Waterfront or The Graduate. Here, the first maximum is only violated slightly. A feline named Vito Vincent is carried on during a party scene, pulls focus, and then leaps into the wings. He later reappears briefly and easily steals a climactic and tearful farewell sequence. The second infraction about icons is a bit more serious. All comparisons may be odious, but Audrey Hepburn owned the part of heartbreaking party girl Holly Golightly in Blake Edwards’s 1961 film version. Emilia Clarke of HBO’s Games of Thrones makes a game go of it, but fails to enchant or capture Holly’s vulnerability.
   Richard Greenberg’s script may adhere more closely to the source material than Edwards’s movie, but it lacks the joy, fizz, and fun of the film and the wistful sadness and sweet nostalgia of Capote’s original. The novella takes place in World War II Manhattan where the dazzlingly attractive and effervescent Holly pursues millionaires and cocktails as a semi-prostitute, cadging $50 bills for cab fare and powder-room expenses. She represents the glamour and excitement of unbridled youth and unapologetic nonconformism, and is observed by a narrator—a stand-in for Capote—an aspiring writer whom she names Fred after her adored brother.
   The story is a mood piece and character study, the shadowy Capote figure admiring Holly as a devilish friend or delightfully sinful sister. In the movie, the author becomes Paul, a definite heterosexual played by George Peppard, whose frustrating but finally successful romance with Holly gives the plot a much needed arc. In Greenberg’s version, the narrator is bisexual with leanings toward Holly and other young men. The connection between the two leads is unclear and unresolved, so we don’t really care what happens to them.
    Cory Michael Smith handles the thankless narrator role with aplomb, though his honeysuckle-Southern accent comes and goes. There are a few bright spots in the large cast of Broadway veterans—including Suzanne Bertish who doubles up as a prudish, eccentric neighbor and a stern magazine editor; Lee Wilkof as a fast-taking agent; Tony Torn as an idiotic playboy; Murphy Guyer as Holly’s much older husband from her native Texas; and reliable George Wendt of Cheers fame as a sympathetic bartender.  
   Sean Mathias, who staged an earlier, unsuccessful Breakfast in London with Anna Friel, does a competent enough job of traffic management, but there’s no sizzle, sex, or spark in his staging. The original music and sound design of Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen are the only elements to succeed in re-creating a bygone era and weaving a spell of sophistication and charm so sadly lacking in the production as a whole.

March 23, 2013

Talley’s Folly
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

A common thread among America’s greatest playwrights is a compassionate view of our dreamers and outcasts. Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Lanford Wilson definitely belong in this class of poetic realists. In recent revivals, Broadway audiences have seen the sexual misfits of Williams’ Gothic Deep South (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Inge’s repressed Midwest (Picnic) howl out their frustrations. Now the Roundabout Theatre Company gives us Wilson’s sunnier but no less complex portrait of a conflicted nation through a seemingly simple love story in a captivating production at the Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theater. His Talley’s Folly was a huge hit for his home-base theater company, the dearly missed Circle Repertory Theatre, winning a Pulitzer Prize and running on and Off-Broadway in 1979 and ’80. You could argue that a large measure of the play’s initial success was due to the lead performance of Judd Hirsch, the star of a popular TV show (Taxi), but Michael Wilson’s sterling staging proves there is more to this enchanting valentine than juicy acting opportunities.
   The setting is a ruined boathouse beautifully designed by Jeff Cowie and poetically lit by Rui Rita. It’s July 4, 1944, and Jewish-European immigrant Matt Friedman is preparing to propose to Sally Talley, the 30-ish daughter of a prominent family in a small Missouri town. (The Talleys are also featured in Lanford Wilson’s other exquisite plays Talley and Son and Fifth of July.) Both are lonely souls and don’t quite fit into the traditional American template of picket fences, apple pie, and nuclear families in a soon-to-be post-atomic age. Matt lost his entire family when he was a child, and Sally is the outcast of the Talleys—not only for her outspoken progressive views but also for an illness that has rendered her barren. These two reach out to each other in a gentle push-pull mating dance of attraction and fear. Matt tells us the play is a waltz, and that’s just how Michael Wilson directs it: slow, elegant, and lilting.
   Danny Burstein is marvelous as the talkative Matt Friedman, slyly gaining the audience’s confidence in direct address, charming us and Sally with self-deprecating wit and unabashed sentiment. Sarah Paulson has the less showy role of Sally and therefore the greater acting challenge. She does not speak directly to us and must display Sally’s insecurities through subtle furtive side glances and halting speech. But both are proficient at hiding their characters’ fearful, bruised interiors with funny rapid patter and bravura bluster. When their defenses are finally down, we see these actors expose the quivering loners with a compassion equal to that of the playwright.

March 12, 2012

Passion
Classic Stage Company [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Originally conceived as half of a double-bill of one-act musicals, Stephen Sondheim’s Passion seemed more of a brief chamber opera rather than a full-blown Broadway musical when it premiered in 1994. Director John Doyle, who has staged innovative interpretations of the legendary composer-lyricist’s Company and Sweeney Todd, gives the piece a more appropriately intimate setting at the Off-Broadway Classic Stage Company for this revival. Doyle also designed the spare setting—a bare platform with a few furnishings and props—which perfectly serves this slight story. In the original staging, Donna Murphy’s volcanic performance and Sondheim’s gorgeous music made up for the frailness of the story, but here the production is just as wispy.
   Based on Ettore Scola’s film Passione D’Amore, James Lapine’s book follows the amorous trials of handsome Italian cavalryman Giorgio in a remote 19th century village. Separated from his lover, the married and beautiful Clara, he draws the borderline-obsessive attention of his commanding officer’s unattractive, invalid cousin Fosca. He initially rejects the manipulative, passive-aggressive Fosca, but gradually realizes her selfless affection is stronger than that of Clara who refuses to leave her husband and small son.
   In the original production, the stunning Murphy was made over to be truly ugly. Here Judy Kuhn is just plain, so the conflict within Giorgio between judging love by appearance or spirit is not as powerful. However, Kuhn delivers a moving performance, dramatically and vocally, but she fails to match Murphy’s depth of complexity. Similarly Ryan Silverman has the voice to put across Giorgio’s songs, but the actor lacks the necessary passion—pardon the pun—to make us care about him. Melissa Errico makes a lovely Clara, but the role is tangential to the main thread. Veterans Stephen Borgadus, Tom Nelis, Jeffrey Denman, and Ken Krugman do their best in support.
   Given Doyle’s previous productions of Sondheim shows in which all the characters played instruments, I expected Giorgio, Fosca and the whole regiment to be parading through the CSC space like a military band. He keeps the staging relatively free of such devices, with the exception of having the soldiers play all the roles—including female ones—in a flashback detailing Fosca’s disastrous marriage to a fake nobleman. Such ideas may have saved this Passion from the uninvolving staging. However, the score is beautifully played, so kudos to music director Rob Berman and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick who also worked on the original production.

March 3, 2013

The Madrid
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Late in the second act of Liz Flahive’s The Madrid, there is a moment that mixes sadness and silliness, melancholy and madness. Heidi Schreck as Becca, a suburban mom, is dressed for Halloween as the demented ballerina Natalie Portman played in the movie Black Swan. Becca is confronting Sarah, the 20-ish daughter of her best friend, with her suspicions about the young woman sleeping with her husband, Danny. There are many layers to the scene. Becca isn’t angry with Sarah, she wants to protect her from Danny’s fecklessness, he’s done this sort of the before and the previous girl, their son’s math tutor, got seriously hurt. Becca’s also jealous, not because of extramarital sex—there wasn’t any—but because Danny feels he can talk openly with these young women in a way he can’t with his wife. In another twist, Becca hasn’t even seen Black Swan; Danny saw it without her, and she chose this costume to please him. Flahive’s sensitive writing and Schreck’s brittle, broken-doll limning combine to make the vignette oddly sweet and heartbreaking. 
   The trouble is The Madrid is not about Becca; she’s a supporting character. The play is about her best friend Martha, played by the admirable Edie Falco. Martha has disappeared from her job as a kindergarten teacher and her loving home with fellow instructor John and their offspring the recent college grad Sarah. Martha cashes out her life insurance policy and takes up residence at the titular establishment, a nearby rundown apartment building with noisy neighbors and cracked walls (realized with appropriate sleaziness by set designer David Zinn). Martha doesn’t appear to have much ambition beyond being on her own and hanging out at a local bar where she secretly meets  Sarah with whom she still wants to maintain a relationship.
   Flahive, a writer and producer of Falco’s excellent Showtime series Nurse Jackie, has failed to develop Martha, John, or Sarah sufficiently to justify their position at the center of the play. We just know that Martha yearns to be free of family ties and has a history of running away. Despite Falco’s considerable talent, Martha comes across as selfish and disconnected. There is no internal conflict between her desire for freedom and her love for her daughter, which is stronger than her ties to John. Her husband is just a lovable lug with a fondness for history, and John Ellison Conlee cannot do much with the skimpy material except look sad. As the grown child torn between two parents, Sarah is the most developed of the family, and Phoebe Strole fiercely vivifies Sarah’s confusion, anger, and need to return to normalcy. There are also strong efforts from Frances Sternhagen as Martha’s cold mother and Christopher Evan Welch as the needy Danny. 
   Director Leigh Silverman manages to provide a few moments of gentle humor and realistic quirkiness. But with the exception of Schreck’s shattering performance, The Madrid seems like a bad imitation of the lovely, funny-sad novels of Anne Tyler.

February 26, 2013

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Richard Rodgers Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

We all know the adage about a feline having nine lives, but Tennessee Williams’s Maggie the Cat has an infinite number more. Since she first appeared in the person of Barbara Bel Geddes in the original 1955 Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, dozens of actresses have been yearning to sink their teeth into this meaty role. From Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Ashley to Ashley Judd, Kathleen Turner, and Anika Noni Rose, Maggie has been catnip to stars and audiences alike. The latest to succumb to her sizzling allure is Scarlett Johansson, who proved she’s more than just a pretty face from the movies by deservedly winning a Tony for an intense and direct performance in another revival of a heavy 1950s drama, A View from the Bridge. Despite some vocal limitations and a thick-as-molasses Southern accent, Johansson acquits herself quite well, but the overall production directed by Rob Ashford comes up short.
   Ashford is known mostly for staging and choreographing musicals like Thoroughly Modern Millie and How to Succeed in Business…, but he has recently ventured into the choppier waters of straight drama with revivals of Anna Christie and A Streetcar Named Desire in London. I haven’t seen those productions, but in his nonmusical Broadway debut, the musically inclined Ashford seemed to have concentrated on movement patterns and heavy Gothic atmosphere (Christopher Oram designed the operatic set) over character relationships. The tense interplay between Maggie and her alcoholic husband, Brick, who refuses to sleep with her is tightly staged but lacks electricity.

Likewise, the confrontations between Brick and his redneck father, the blunt but authentic Big Daddy, are competently choreographed, but there is no believable bond between the supposedly affectionate yet conflicted parent and child. Ashford is more concerned with ominous music, well-timed lightning flashes, and atmospheric spirituals sung by the African-American servants. There were rumors in the press that Ashford had included the onstage appearance of the ghost of Skipper, Brick’s football teammate who dies of drug and alcohol abuse when faced with the truth of his repressed homosexuality. This would have been a laughable, overly obvious ploy, yet even without it, Ashford’s production is efficient but hollow.
   Johansson imparts Maggie’s desperate need not only for Brick’s physical and emotional love, but also for the Pollitt clan’s money. But she has nothing to play against. Benjamin Walker as Brick succumbs to the trap of the role: mistaking his disgust for mendacity and withdrawal from life as lethargy. The Irish actor Ciaran Hinds blusters about as Big Daddy, but he fails to achieve the necessary surface brutishness and the basic compassion beneath. Debra Monk lends a welcome vulgar humor to Big Mama, yet she misses this clownish woman’s sad clinging to Big Daddy. Michael Park and Emily Begrl go for the usual stereotypical nastiness of Gooper and Mae, Brick’s avaricious brother and sister-in-law.  In the end, I didn’t believe the people on stage were a family fighting for their survival and happiness. It’s too bad Johansson’s spunky cat was given such a cool bedroom floor upon which to play rather than a hot tin roof.

January 25, 2013
 
Picnic
Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

There’s plenty of bulging pecs and washboard abs on display at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Picnic, William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize–winning play on repressed sexuality, but all those muscles are not as interesting as the chatter of two schoolteachers who briefly appear in a few scenes. When the big, strapping leading man is upstaged by actors in two tiny character roles, you know the show is in trouble.
   The hunk in question is the character called Hal Carter, a boastful drifter seeking a permanent home in the small Kansas town of his former college roommate, the well-to-do Alan Seymour. Like a rooster in a henhouse, Hal stomps around the backyard of Flo Owens, a widow with two daughters: Madge, the town beauty and girlfriend of Alan, and Millie, a tomboy outcast with brains and artistic leanings. Hal’s shirtless parading sets off all sorts of sexual fireworks in this female-dominated enclave. Not only is Madge bored with Alan and attracted to Hal, spinster schoolmarm Rosemary who rents a room in the Owens house is determined to land her longtime beau Howard in the matrimonial trap. All the various tensions come to a head as the characters set out for a Labor Day picnic.

Director Sam Gold makes effective use of Andrew Lieberman’s detailed set, staging action in and outside of the Owens house and the next-door residence of Helen Potts, a lonely lady who takes in Hal to help her forget about her ailing elderly mother. Unfortunately, the main performances of Sebastian Stan as Hal and Maggie Grace as Madge are sadly lacking. Both these attractive young actors have more experience in film and on TV than on the stage, and this dearth of theater savvy shows. Neither plumbs the depths of their characters’ longings to be appreciated for more than their good looks. Thus, they give shallow portrayals of people wishing to escape their shallowness.
   The more solid limning is done by those in the smallest roles. Maddie Corman and Cassie Beck offer such textured impressions of two of Rosemary’s attention-starved colleagues, I wanted to know more about them. The accomplished Elizabeth Marvel gives a flashy, attention-grabbing account of Rosemary’s desperation to escape loneliness, while Reed Birney is more subtle at conveying Howard’s almost comical reluctance to wed. Ellen Burstyn does what she can with the tiny role of Mrs. Potts, clearly imparting her desire to be young again. Mare Winningham does even more with Flo Owens. A lifetime of disappointment can be read on the actor’s sensitive features as this wise and sad mother sees her daughter treading the same path she did. As the misfit Millie, Madeleine Martin eloquently expresses the pain of being a smart girl in a provincial town that values prettiness above intelligence. Ben Rappaport infuses the thankless role of Alan with a spine.
   Even Chris Perfetti in the walk-on role of an obnoxious newspaper boy displays a focused sense of objective—to get a date with Madge. That’s more than can be said for the two leads in this unbalanced Picnic.

January 18, 2013
 
Water by the Spoonful
Second Stage Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


There’s a lot going on Quiara Alegria Hudes’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Water by the Spoonful: crack addiction, battle fatigue, family dysfunction, culture clashes, computer confusion. But somehow in Davis McCallum’s sensitive and tight production, now at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage after a world premiere at Hartford Stage, the multiple plotlines are woven together for a beautiful and moving tapestry of our diverse world.
   As the play opens, we are introduced to Yaz, an aspiring composer and music professor frustrated with her stalled career and faltering marriage, and her cousin and best friend Elliot, an Iraq veteran hustling for acting jobs and haunted by an Arab civilian he killed. Their immediate crisis is coping with their dying aunt, a saintly fixture in her rough Philadelphia neighborhood where many relatives have succumbed to violence and drugs.
   Then in a seemingly unrelated sequence, we meet Odessa, a recovering crack addict who administers a cyber chatroom for fellow ex-junkies around the world. Her clients, known by their web handles, include Orangutan, a Japanese orphan raised by an Anglo family in Maine; Chutes and Ladders, an IRS desk jockey located in California whose family has abandoned him; and newcomer Fountainhead, a smug entrepreneur looking for a simple way to kick his habit. It’s only at the end of the first act that we discover Odessa is Elliot’s real mother who gave him up to be raised her sister. In the second act, these characters’ lives intertwine in unexpected ways as they attempt to close the emotional and psychological distances that separate them.
   Hudes has a sharp wit and even sharper eye, which she deftly uses to illustrate the irony of rampant noncommunication in this super-communications age. The characters skype, chat, and text but fail to connect. It’s no wonder Odessa is closer to her digital friends than to her flesh and blood family. The playwright sometimes falls into the trap of sentimentality, and I didn’t buy that Fountainhead would drop everything to care for an almost total stranger (Odessa) when she suffers a devastating relapse. Despite these lapses, Water is refreshing and warm drink to fill the heart.
   McCallum’s taut direction keeps all the complex relationships and varying planes of reality clear. This includes Elliot’s ghost visions and the extended chatroom scenes in which Odessa and her charges speak as if typing on their keyboards. He’s immeasurably aided by Neil Patel’s fluid set, Russell H. Champa’s textured lighting, and Aaron Rhyme’s kaleidoscopic projections.
   A sensitive cast overcomes the temptation to indulge in treacly melodrama. Liza Colon-Zayas feelingly demonstrates that Odessa’s zealous attention to her cyber-buddies masks her heartbreak over failing her son. Zabryna Guevara and Armando Riesco expose the rough edges and even rougher humor of Yaz and Elliot; while Frankie Faison, Sue Jean Kim, and Bill Heck intensely chart the painful road to recovery of the reformed drug addicts.

January 9, 2013
 
Golden Age
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

If you’re an opera fan, Terrence McNally’s Golden Age, now at City Center in a production from Manhattan Theatre Club, is right up your alley. But if the majestic musical genre is not your thing, this lengthy behind-the-scenes peek at the opening night of I Puritani might be a bit of a snooze. Set backstage at the Theatre-Italien in Paris on Jan. 24, 1835 (elegantly realized by designer Santo Loquasto), the play treats us to endless rhapsodizing on the glory of composer Vincenzo Bellini’s masterwork. But we’re stuck backstage while all the action is occurring in front of the footlights. There’s a lot of listening going on but not much doing.
   Opera aficionado McNally attempts to channel his enthusiasm into a dramatic arc but fails. There is no vital question or risk in the plot. We are informed on numerous occasions that the four principal singers are the greatest in Europe and that the opera will be a smashing success, so there’s no suspense there. The youthful Bellini is dying of consumption, and the only tension with his situation is whether or not he will admit to his oncoming demise. There is also an appearance by superstar soprano Maria Malibran, whose formerly exquisite voice is now in ruins. McNally has already covered damaged diva territory in his brilliant Master Class, profiling the legendary Maria Callas. Sound designer Ryan Rumery even sneaks Callas in by having Bebe Neuwirth’s Milabran singing offstage to a recording of the great star.
   There’s romantic and professional rivalry among the songbirds, Bellini’s ambiguous gay relationship with a wealthy young man, and a brief appearance by the revered composer Rossini to bless the proceedings. None of it adds up to a vital reason to care about the outcome of the evening. Fortunately, director Walter Bobbie keeps the pacing up at a snappy clip, and there are gorgeous Jane Greenwood costumes to look at.
   The company does its level best to draw the play above a musical-history lecture. Neuwirth gets across Milabran’s haughty demeanor and conveys the star’s fiery temperament and talent. The ravishingly handsome Lee Pace passionately imparts Bellini’s burning artistic flame, while Will Rogers is devotedly adoring as his lover Francesco. Lorenzo Pisoni gains some laughs poking fun at the egotistical preening of baritone Antonio Tamburini; but Dierdre Friel, Eddie Kaye Thomas, and Ethan Philips as the remaining Puritani cast members are too bland to be convincing as opera royalty. F. Murray Abraham is onstage for too short of a time to make much of an impression as Rossini.
   There is one short sequence that offers a glimmering of the emotional heights the art form can reach. Neuwirth as Malibran movingly recites the spoken version of a heartbreaking scene from Puritani, and we fleetingly experience the kind of transcendence McNally must have been going for with the entire play.

December 6, 2012

Dead Accounts
Music Box Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Katie Holmes may be the main marquee attraction for Theresa Rebeck’s dark comedy Dead Accounts because of her film roles and recent divorce from Tom Cruise. But the real star is Norbert Leo Butz, who delivers a bravura performance as a manic New York banker on the run from his employers and his snooty wife in his family’s cozy Ohio home (perfect suburban set by David Rockwell). Butz has won Tony Awards for dynamic lead turns in the musicals Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can. He is just as vibrant without song and dance, giving off waves of intense heat and energy as he conveys the hopped-up, sugar-rush antics of Jack, the disillusioned son and husband desperate to escape what he sees as the phony values of Manhattan and to embrace the simpler, more honest pleasures of the Midwest. These include ice cream, hot dogs, and pizza—items which he buys in abundance—as well as going to church and living at home with his dying father and judgmental but loving mother. Butz makes Jack hysterically funny, frighteningly intense, and quietly pathetic all at once.
   Holmes who plays Lorna, Jack’s depressed sister who has retreated to the homestead after a bad breakup, is practically overwhelmed by Butz. She lacks the dramatic skills or vocal equipment to keep up with her co-star, and her voice was showing signs of wear and tear during Lorna’s long shouted diatribes against her crazy sibling and the unbalanced state of the American economy. However, she does endow her character with a snappy resilience.
   The play itself is a workman-like structure put together by Rebeck, who is fast becoming the Neil Simon of her generation. This prolific playwright and creator of the TV series Smash can be relied upon to produce at least one new work a year to be seen either on or Off-Broadway (Seminar, Mauritius, The Scene are recent examples) and we know it will be at least entertaining and soundly assembled. Dead Accounts fulfills these requirements but it also suffers from oversimplification.
  The world of glittering New York—represented by Jenny, Jack’s patrician wife who unexpectedly drops in—is seen as a two-dimensional cut-out of shallow materialism, while the Midwest is portrayed as uniformly wholesome and naive. A more nuanced portrait of both regions would have resulted in a deeper and more complex play.
   Nevertheless, there’s plenty of vinegar and wit in Rebeck’s dialogue, directed with precision by Jack O’Brien. Pay particular attention during a scene between Jack and his high-school buddy Phil. As Jack becomes more intense in his descriptions of Manhattan nightlife, he subtly edges closer to Phil who retreats back just as minutely. It’s a brilliant piece of blocking depicting the tense relationship between the two. Josh Hamilton makes the most of the bland role of Phil, as does Jayne Houdyshell as Barbara, the conventional, devout mother, and Judy Greer as the stereotypically snobbish Jenny.
   Despite the unfortunate title, which refers to a rare type of asset which Jack uses to his advantage, this strong comedy is far from dead and features a memorable, lively star performance.

November 29, 2012
  
Scandalous: The Life and Times of Aimee Semple McPherson [show closed]
Neil Simon Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Biographical musicals don’t have to be tedious, but Scandalous is the second Broadway tuner this season to focus on a pop cultural personality of the 1920s and lay an egg (the first was Chaplin). Based on the controversial life and career of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Scandalous drags on for two and half hours, but feels much longer. The book by TV hostess Kathie Lee Gifford covers too much territory and tries too hard to restore MacPherson’s reputation as a do-gooder. At the height of MacPherson’s fame as a preacher, radio star, and presenter of biblical pageants, she disappeared for five weeks. She claimed to have been kidnapped, but the Los Angeles district attorney produced evidence she had really shacked up with a married lover and prosecuted her for fraud. The resulting courtroom drama was the O.J. Simpson trial of its day. MacPherson was acquitted and continued her broadcasts and sermons to overflow audiences.
   There is plenty of fascinating material to explore here, and this show could have been a sort of American Evita, examining a morally ambiguous woman exploiting media and the populace in order to get ahead in a man’s world. But Gifford does not go very deep in her Biography Channel–like script. Rather than zeroing in on the trial itself or employing it as a means to peer into MacPherson’s career  or why she became such a success, Gifford crams in every possible detail from the subject’s life. An editor would have been welcome.
   The only time the action comes semi-alive is during quick-witted parodies of MacPherson’s flashy religious spectacles, staged with wit by director David Armstrong and costumed with pizzazz by Gregory A. Poplyk. The rest of the show plods along and feels overstuffed, as if Gifford and her collaborators felt they had to get in every musical theater cliché from lively Irish dancers to sassy hookers to cocktail-swilling Hollywood phonies. Gifford also wrote the lyrics and additional music with composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman.  Much of the score is standard issue, but there are occasional memorable numbers such as “It’s Just You,” a smooth and snappy duet between two rivals for Aimee’s affections.

Soaring above the uneven material is Carolee Carmello in the lead. Onstage almost constantly, Carmello takes on the challenge of blasting power ballads, as her character ages from eager child to complex woman, and suffers multiple nervous breakdowns. It’s an endurance test she passes with flying colors without showing a drop of sweat. Roz Ryan and Candy Buckley are talented and reliable Broadway vets, but they don’t get beyond the respective rigid outlines of brutally honest confidante and stern mother. George Hearn lends sturdy support in dual roles as Aimee’s loving father and a hypocritical competing pastor. Edward Watts and Andrew Samonsky are attractive eye candy as the men in MacPherson’s life, but they aren’t given much to do beyond propping up the star who will probably get a Tony nomination out of this show. Unfortunately, Scandalous will probably be just a memory by the end of the season.

November 24, 2012

Giant
The Public Theater [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Giant, the epic musical version of Edna Ferber’s soapy novel about a wealthy Texas ranching family now at the Public Theater after a run at Virginia’s Signature Theatre, has a lot working against it. It’s melodramatic, too long, and must overcome memories of the Technicolor 1955 movie version—which contained star-wattage performances by Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. But somehow the creators have tamed this bronco-busting wild stallion and made it race like the wind.
   Sybille Pearson’s book telescopes Ferber’s complicated plot to focus on the marriage of tough but loving Bick Benedict, owner of the sprawling cattle ranch Riata, and Leslie Lynnton, his fiery, independent bride from patrician Virginia. In the film, cocky ranch hand Jett Rink is just as prominent, forming the third part of a romantic triangle, but here Jett is a supporting character, a vital, attractive one, but still supporting. We learn about Bick and Leslie’s children, their friends, and the battle between cattle interests and oilmen, but the main couple’s relationship provides a vital throughline. Michael John LaChiusa delivers a varied and melodic score reflecting the eras covered from the 1920s into the ’50s, and avoids the uncomfortable sounds and awkward rhymes this talented composer-lyricist can sometimes indulge in.
   The most vital contribution is made by director Michael Grief, who keeps the action tight and controlled. He’s the cowboy in the saddle, and he knows just how to ride this mount. Despite a daunting three-hour running time, Giant holds you, save for a prolonged ending which needs to be cut by at least 20 minutes.
   Brian D’Arcy James captures Bick’s stubbornness, pride, and hidden tenderness, while Kate Baldwin taps into Leslie’s surprising strength and ambiguous emotions about her husband and his land. PJ Griffith skirts comparison to James Dean’s iconic original (it was his last film performance) by focusing on Jett Rink’s deviousness and anger; it makes for a more limited characterization than Dean’s, but a wolfishly seductive lout emerges. All the leads and the massive supporting cast have exciting voices, and Bruce Coughlin’s lush orchestrations serve them and the score well.
   Most memorable are the women in smaller roles. Michele Pawk’s leathery Luz, Bick’s domineering elder sister, is a fascinating old buzzard, and Pearson wisely keeps her in the mix as a ghost after she dies in a riding accident early in the show. Katie Thompson also shines as the outdoorsy Vashti, a neighboring rancher’s daughter with a girlhood crush on Bick. Thompson beautifully handles the transformation from hefty tomboy to blowsy hostess and puts across two strikingly different ballads of romantic frustration—one as a disappointed girl, the other as an experienced woman. MacKenzie Mauzy is a sizzling sparkplug as Bick and Leslie’s rebellious daughter. Mary Bacon makes the most of one big monologue as Adarene, a dying friend of Leslie and Vashti.
   Giant has announced an extension of its limited Off-Broadway run. A Broadway transfer of this huge show would be an expensive and risky proposition, but it would be in keeping with its outsize ambitions.

November 21, 2012
  
GUEST ESSAY  

Speaking of Theater

by Jerry Beal


Speaking in Tongues, by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell, was presented at the Roundabout Theatre in New York in 2002, then made into the film Lantana. This October, my production of the play just finished a seven-performance run at William Paterson University, my 20th production there. The power and the theatricality of the piece, abetted by a sterling cast of four, struck a chord with audiences, as evidenced by the reception and discussion each night. Bovell’s sense of theater and its unique possibilities is extraordinary, and make this a play worth revisiting. 
   The first scene shows two couples in two motel rooms, preparing for mutual affairs. The dialogue is coordinated and often simultaneous. In the second scene, in two living rooms, we see that the initial coupling was with each other’s spouse; the dialogue is again overlapping, with one member of each pair confessing and the other realizing there was mutual culpability. The third and fourth scenes respectively show the two husbands at a chance meeting in a bar, then the two wives in another bar.
   It is at that point Bovell’s craft kicks into overdrive. Returning to the living rooms, in successive scenes we see first one husband then one wife relate an extended story about a disturbing experience they’ve just had. The husband’s purpose in telling his story is to show his wife his remorse and need for her. The wife’s purpose is to show her husband why their marriage is failing. Each of their stories brings in characters who very much whet our appetites. And sure enough, intermission arrives and ends, the lights come up on the action, and the actors have become the characters described in the two stories. By play’s end, we have been brought into these people’s worlds and seen the connections with all that preceded this in the first act.
   Through this dazzling, non-chronological inventiveness, Bovell delves into an array of profound and basic themes. Isolation, miscommunication, passion, betrayal, the difficulty of really knowing someone, loneliness—indeed, the very fact of human interaction impeded by our frequent and perhaps intrinsic need for a pattern of speaking in tongues. With the proper cast, suitably evocative lighting, and a set that helps tell the story, this is a play for those who thrive on theater.
October 29, 2012
 

   Jerry Beal is Assistant Professor of Theatre at William Paterson University. He earned his undergraduate degree at Brandeis University and a master’s degree in directing from Brooklyn College. 
 
Photo: Australian playwright Andrew Bovell
 

 
The Performers
Longacre Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

The only piece of useful information you will get from The Performers, David West Read’s sloppy sitcom of a play, is the definition of the acronym MYLF—Mother You’d Like to Fuck, meaning a somewhat mature adult-film actress, say in her 30s. It’s handy in conversation if you ever happen to be chatting about the porn industry. Otherwise, this ramshackle piece of work can be overlooked. The jokes are crude. (Typical exchange: “How’s your sick mother?” “She’s in remission.” “She’s in Michigan?”) The characters are thin. The observations on the nature of sex and how men and women view it are obvious.
   But some of the bodies on display are gorgeous, particularly the stunning Cheyenne Jackson who opens the evening gratuitously displaying his muscular physique in a skimpy outfit. He plays the ludicrously named adult star Mandrew who is being interviewed by reporter Lee (an embarrassed Daniel Breaker) who happens to be his high school chum. Mandrew and his wife, fellow porn performer Peeps (short for Pussy Boots), are in Las Vegas for the Adult Film Awards, and Lee is doing a story on his old friend for the New York Post. Lee has brought along his fiancée, Sara, and both are worried their vanilla sex life will pale in comparison with the outrageous professional hijinks of Mandrew, Peeps, and the other nominees—who include veteran Chuck Wood, known for his enormous endowment, and Sundown LeMay, a recent breast augmentation purchaser. They all fall in and out of bed with each other, but it’s surprisingly unsexy.
   There are plenty of gags on porn film titles (“Planet of the Tits,” “Das Booty,” etc.) and painful puns on body parts and sexual activities (“You opened your heart and your legs to me”), but with no strong story or characters with whom to identify, these get tired pretty fast.
   The game actors try their level best to get it up (pardon the pun) for Read’s randy groan-inducing humor, and director Evan Cabnet at least keeps the action bright and reasonably fast. Anna Louizos’s glitzy sets and Jessica Wegener Shay’s purposely tacky costumes distract from the banal goings-on. Breaker and Alicia Silverstone as Sara are two skilled actors largely wasted in throwaway roles. Those playing the porn stars get to have some fun even though they are given the stereotype of dim-bulb stupidity.  Jackson wisely underplays Mandrew’s cluelessness and narcissism. Jennie Barber earns yuks as the frothy Sundown. Henry Winkler is bland as the grandiose Chuck Wood. As the conflicted Peeps who is dealing with aging and pregnancy, Ari Graynor creates a semi-believable person from the script’s lame jokes and stale pathos. So it is possible to take a serious and funny look at the porn industry, but The Performers comes up short in the sack.

November 15, 2012
   
Annie
Palace Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

Who could possibly carp about a show stuffed with cute little girls and an adorable dog during the holiday season? Call me a bit of a Scrooge, but the new Broadway revival of the perennial kiddie favorite Annie is not quite a delicious slice of Christmas pie. It’s sugary and gooey, but not as well-baked as it should be. Director James Lapine’s pacing is not sharp and focused, and there’s serious miscasting in a major adult role. On the plus side, David Korins’s clever storybook sets and Susan Hilferty’s tasteful costumes make the physical production spare and suggestive without looking cheap.
   Of course, for the show to work, you need the perfect pint-sized leading lady who can convey Annie’s sunny optimism and flinty toughness without turning too saccharine or scrappy. Fortunately, Lilla Crawford is the right girl. She has the strong pipes and spunky demeanor required and keeps the titular moppet from becoming a cartoon. Thomas Meehan’s book has a few somber scenes, such as the moment when Annie realizes her real parents are never coming for her. Crawford makes those vignettes believable, and Lapine introduces notes of Depression-era reality throughout this usually lighthearted frolic.

The casting issue occurs with the potentially show-stopping role of Miss Hannigan, the deliciously evil orphanage superintendent. Dorothy Loudon, the original actor, took every pratfall, mugging reaction, and comic line-reading and wrung pure gold out of them. You would think two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran, a brilliant comedienne, would be the perfect choice for this plum assignment. Unfortunately, she’s not. Finneran is attractive in both face and figure, and Hilferty’s costumes do not disguise this. Most of Hannigan’s laughs derive from her frustrated attempts at escaping her hated job by throwing herself at every available man. Finneran is so good-looking, even as a disheveled Hannigan, the jokes and business don’t make sense. She also pushes the material too hard and fails to make it believable, and thus it’s not funny.
   Australian star Anthony Warlow has the right brisk bluster for Daddy Warbucks, and he melts effectively under Crawford’s childish warmth. He has also got a rich baritone. It’s too bad there is no chemistry between Warlow and Brynn O’Malley’s charming Grace Farrell, Warbucks’s private secretary. There are also several bright spots in ensemble—including Ashley Blanchet’s full-throated Star-To-Be, Jeremy Davis’s dead-on 1930s radio star, Merwin Foard’s patrician FDR, Jane Blass in a variety of roles, and a gaggle of talented little girls as Annie’s fellow orphans.
   It’s a mixed Annie, and if you’re a child being taken by your parents for free, the sun’ll come out tomorrow. But, for paying customers, it may be a hard-knock on your wallet.

November 9, 2012
  

Detroit [show closed]
Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by David Sheward

In Lisa D’Amour harshly funny play Detroit, at Playwrights Horizons after an acclaimed production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, everyone knows the price of everything. A self-help book is $65. Drinks at a strip club for a boys’ night out are at least $9 and there’s a two-drink minimum. These figures are the life currency of two couples whose suburban world is blown up by economics and addiction. Mary and Ben are struggling with a sliding situation since Ben lost his job as a loan officer and Mary started drinking heavily. But they’re in great shape compared with Sharon and Kenny, recovering drug addicts scraping by in minimum-wage jobs. When the former duo attempt to be neighborly to the latter, all hell breaks loose and burns down—literally—as the author offers a searing and scary snapshot of recession-ridden America.
   Lawn furniture falls apart, minor injuries take on major significance due to lack of insurance, and nightmares of instability become self-fulfilling prophecies. The two couples yearn for the community that exists in 1950s TV sitcoms. Mary longs to escape in a fantasy of Girl Scout camping while Ben spends his days on a role-playing website where he can take on the identity of a British schoolteacher. Sharon and Kenny seem to making up their stories as they go along. You never know if they are telling the truth as they relate contradictory anecdotes. In addition, their house is just as empty as their future (a snooping Mary discovers the only furniture is a mattress and a few chairs). The play ends with Frank, Kenny’s great-uncle, delivering a mournful elegy for the society the neighborhood used to represent with all the streets named after types of light and block associations throwing dances.
   D’Amour captures the dark outlook of these lost souls with compassion and acidic humor, while director Anne Kauffman strikes the right tone of irony without condescending to the characters. The physical environment is ably delineated by Louisa Thompson’s versatile, appropriately tacky set and Matt Tierney’s detailed sound design.
   As the uncertain Ben, David Schwimmer carefully balances the hangdog demeanor he perfected on Friends with a sweaty desperation. Amy Ryan captures Mary’s jittery intensity and strongly pursues the character’s goal of finding a safe place, if not in reality then in her fantasies. Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie convince as the flighty Sharon and Kenny. You really can believe these two are capable of anything from substance abuse to arson to random acts of kindness. They skillfully portray the utter rootlessness of this pair of drifters. As Frank, Broadway veteran John Cullum provides the play’s summation with bittersweet tenderness. Surveying Frank’s former friendly community, now a cold emotional wasteland where neighbors don’t even say hello, Cullum’s eyes glaze over and his voice catches just the tiniest bit. It’s a heart-touching ending to this brilliant and blistering work.

October 9, 2012
 
Grace
Cort Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

In Grace, at the Cort Theatre after regional productions in Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and Pasadena, playwright Craig Wright tackles a complex subject—the nature of faith—with ambiguity, compassion, and wit. But he also lays on too many gimmicks and delivers a melodramatic finish that feels forced rather than organic.
   Devout Christian couple Steve and Sara have moved to Florida from Minnesota to launch a chain of gospel-themed hotels. Their next-door neighbor in an identically furnished rental condo is Sam, a NASA scientist recovering from a gruesome auto accident that has disfigured him and killed his fiancée. These three clash when the funds for the hotel project come up short, Steve asks Sam for a loan, and Sara begins to visit Sam and they develop more than neighborly affection. There is a fourth character—a German-born exterminator named Karl—who at first seems to have been placed in the play only to provide exposition and an opposing force to Steve’s evangelical proselytizing. Yet he figures prominently in that somewhat hokey finale.
   The interaction among the characters does provide a fascinating spectrum of belief systems. Steve goes for a rigid adherence to conventional Christianity and wants to force it on everyone else. But when the world crashes in on him, he collapses. At first, Sara appears to be as doctrinaire as her husband, but Wright gradually reveals she is uncertain about the existence of a beneficent creator, yet she derives comfort from prayer and the community her church provides. Likewise, Sam is painted as a cynical agnostic after his tragedy, but when he connects with Sara, he joins in her prayers for peace and acceptance. Karl is a confirmed atheist following his harrowing experiences under the Nazi regime. After a miraculous encounter, he is open to there being “something” more to this world than meets the eye.

If Wright had left these crosscurrents of faith alone, Grace would be a moving and thought-provoking examination of religion. But he muddies the waters by running certain scenes backwards and placing the ending at the beginning. Why he does so is not entirely clear, except maybe to build suspense or telegraph his intentions.
   The direction and acting cannot be faulted. Dexter Bullard’s smooth staging takes on the challenges of Wright’s script. The action takes place simultaneously in two separate apartments on Beowulf Boritt’s spare and slowly revolving set, yet it’s never confusing and we always know which characters are in which dwelling.  David Weiner’s poetic lighting also aides in delineation of mood and setting.
   Paul Rudd eschews his nice-guy persona from his numerous film comedy roles to give full-bodied fervor to Steve’s insecurities and dogmatic determination. It’s no surprise Michael Shannon is willing to dive into the subterranean depths of Sam’s despair. Kate Arrington has the tough assignment of keeping Sara from appearing a wimpy dishrag, and she does so by strongly pursuing her character’s objective of seeking a purpose in a seemingly meaningless universe. As Karl, Ed Asner takes what could have been a dramatic device rather than a person and subtly endows him with dimension.
   It’s refreshing to see a serious play about difficult issues on song-and-dance-laden Broadway, yet disappointing when a skilled playwright employs tricks and soap suds to make his point.

October 4, 2012
 
If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward

It isn’t clear what the “it” refers to in the title of If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, Nick Payne’s painfully moving play presented at the Off-Broadway Laura Pels by the Roundabout Theatre Company. It could be happiness, a purpose for living, or just a connection with another person. Each of the four members of Payne’s dysfunctional British family is desperately lacking in those qualities and much more. Their stumbling, funny, and sad search is the core of Payne’s detailed work. The fact that the production is the American stage debut of film star Jake Gyllenhaal is secondary.
   Gyllenhaal delivers a nuanced and touching performance, but he’s only one piece of an intricate puzzle. Gyllenhaal plays Terry, the foul-mouthed, irresponsible uncle to Anna, an awkward, overweight teenager driven to desperate ends when she is neglected by her parents and tormented by her peers. The unexpectedly tender relationship between Terry and Anna is the main thread of the plot, but there is also the tenuous dynamic of her parents, Fiona and George, Terry’s brother. Both are consumed by their careers—Fiona teaches at Anna’s school, and George is a highbrow expert on climate change—to the determent of Anna’s development. In search of affection and guidance, the girl turns to her volatile uncle, himself a wreck after a major breakup with Fiona’s cousin. But at least he pays attention to Anna in his own explosive way.
   Under Michael Longhurst’s taut direction, the quartet of actors carefully mines the emotional ores buried just beneath the surfaces of these incomplete people. Young Annie Funke is a revelation as the needy Anna, combining a tough bluster with a tender, almost kittenish vulnerability.  Michelle Gomez expertly conceals Fiona’s blighted interior with icy efficiency.  (Fiona deals with her mother’s encroaching senility as an annoyance rather than a devastating illness of a loved one.)  When this solid woman breaks down, Gomez makes it silently shattering.
   Gyllenhaal gives a refreshingly unflashy performance. Like Anna, Terry uses anger and profanity to cover up his wounded heart, and Gyllenhaal carefully keeps Terry from becoming a repulsive lout. The guy is a bit of a jerk, and you can see why his bid at romance failed, but Gyllenhaal remembers Terry has feelings too, and the actor exposes them with subtlety. Best of all is Brian F. O’Bryne’s George. This absent-minded professor is so consumed with his cause of protecting the melting polar icecaps, he doesn’t notice the disintegration of his family. O’Bryne buries George’s needs deeply and only allows them to creep up slowly. Like George’s icecaps, O’Bryne keeps the emotions way below the surface so that when we see them, it’s tremendously touching.
   In addition to Gyllenhaal’s star power, another element is potentially distracting. As audience members enter the Laura Pels, they are greeted with a cascading rainfall emptying into a tank attached to the stage apron. As the characters’ world falls apart, Payne and Longhurst provide a literal parallel meltdown as the stage is flooded. This provides a startling metaphor between George’s feared watery end of the world and the family’s slipping away from each other. By the end of the play, the cast is sloshing around in a knee-deep river and the characters are ignoring it just as they ignore their lack of connection. This could be a major detraction, but somehow the strength of the performances and direction keeps the action from being as waterlogged as Beowulf Borritt’s flooded set.

September 20, 2012

Chaplin
Ethel Barrymore Theatre [show closed}

Reviewed by David Sheward


Early in the new musical Chaplin, silent-film pioneer Mack Sennett explains to the titular future legend on the latter’s first day on a film set when the comic is not quite getting the difference between performing on stage and for the screen, “They call them movies because they move.” Well, this show doesn’t. The bland bio-tuner, now at the Barrymore Theatre after a run at the La Jolla Playhouse, is directed by Warren Carlyle at a snail’s pace and fails to provide any deep new insight into Chaplin the man or the star.
   The show opens with its strongest element: a giant image of Rob McClure as the Little Tramp on the screen, standing motionlessly. When McClure bursts out of that frozen stance—we first see him balancing on a tightrope, symbolically keeping his poise as the voices of Chaplin’s past bombard the great entertainer—the actor bears a striking resemblance to the iconic cinematic figure and nimbly captures his graceful and endearing clowning.
   But the score by Christopher Curtis and the book by Curtis and Thomas Meehan don’t exploit that gift sufficiently or tell the genius’s story in a compelling fashion. It’s always a bad sign when one person is largely responsible for all words and music in the collaborative world of musicals. Curtis solely authored the book when the piece was in its early developmental stages; veteran Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) was brought in for a polish job once investors bankrolled a La Jolla and Broadway production.
   The script follows Charlie from the slums of London to the heights of Hollywood to his exile from America because of his controversial left-wing sympathies. It’s all pretty standard stuff, told in stiff Biography Channel style, punctuated by Curtis’s forgettable songs. The authors rely too heavily on repeated flashbacks to a deplorable childhood featuring a mentally distracted mother and an alcoholic father.

There are occasional flashes of originality in Curtis and Meehan’s work and Carlyle’s direction and choreography. Chaplin’s ill-considered first wedding is staged as a lunatic, Jazz Age romp full of frantic Charlestons and gin-guzzling. His three marriages become prizefights refereed by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (a refreshingly waspish Jenn Colella) echoing comic pugilistic bits from Chaplin’s comedies.
   But these brief moments of originality are few and far between. What’s missing is a reason for us to care about what happens to Chaplin next or an explanation of the star’s universal appeal and what he gave to his audiences. Curtis, Carlyle, and company merely repeat famous vignettes such as the potato-dance from The Gold Rush and stitch them together with biographical snatches we could have gleaned from Wikipedia.
   McClure deserves a medal for battlefield bravery and injecting a degree of Chaplin’s joy and sweetness into this dreary exercise. The reliable Michael McCormack (Elf, Curtains, The Pajama Game) who seems to be in nearly every Broadway musical, lends substance to three supporting roles. The lovely Christiane Noll and Erin Mackey are wasted in cardboard renditions of Chaplin’s long-suffering mother and his adoring fourth wife Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright Eugene. The writers could have benefitted from inspiration from their subject and from his equally famous father-in-law: both knew how to tell a story and make it compelling.

September 10, 2012

Bring It On
St. James Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Bring It On may not win any Pulitzer Prizes, but it’s a fun summer treat, stopping on Broadway for a brief fling during its national tour. “Inspired” by the 2000 movie of the same name, this brainless romp bears little resemblance to its source material, except that both feature girls being thrown into the air and follow the high drama behind national cheerleading competitions. These events are much more than kids with megaphones, poms-poms, and acres of pep. There is serious athleticism and gymnastics on display, and that’s the basic draw here—that and the cashing in on the whole “Glee-High-School-Musical” vibe.
   When cheerleading captain Campbell from white-bread Truman High finds herself transferred to dicey, multiracial Jackson High, she recruits the African-American, Hispanic, and cross-dressing hip-hop “crew” into a pep squad to rival her formal school. It turns out her forced exit from popularity was engineered by the evil sophomore Eva who, in a possible reference to All About Eve for the gay audience, takes Campbell’s place as queen bee of Truman. At Jackson, Campbell gets a taste of being the odd one out, and dorky team mascot Bridget, another transferee, is suddenly seen as quirky, cute, and fashion forward. The book by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) is full of unbelievable plot twists, including the idea that the fierce drag student La Cienega would be part of the cool crowd.
   Despite these slips, Whitty’s book lives up to his name and is full of quick comebacks and not-too-syrupy sentiment. Not only does the story show traces of Glee, but influences of Hairspray and Legally Blonde can also be detected in its roots. The score (music by Tom Kitt of Next to Normal and Lin-Manuel Miranda of In the Heights, and lyrics by Amanda Green and Miranda) features the same kind of snappy humor and vibrant rhymes as in those young-adult-appeal musicals.
   The message of accepting differences in others and not striving for winning at all costs is overshadowed by the truly spectacular flips, flops, pyramids, and leaps made by the Olympic-level performers. Director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler seamlessly blends the book scenes, dance numbers, and cheerleading segments with the aid of David Korins’s fluid sets, which cleverly incorporate giant scoreboards and Jeff Sugg’s video graphics.
   The young cast, many of whom are making their Main Stem debut, combine energetic panache with edgy insight. Particularly fresh and memorable are Ryan Redmond’s quick-thinking Bridget and Elle McLemore’s sweetly sinister Eva. Redmond takes the cliché of the wallflower heavy girl and gives her unexpected spunk. McLemore, a twisted version of Kristen Chenoweth, mines the devious Eva for satiric snark. As Campbell, Taylor Louderman carries much of the weight of the show on her shoulders, and she pulls it off with grace and professionalism. Adrienne Warren is equally polished as Campbell’s Jackson High cohort Danielle. Kate Rockwell is a perfect snobby cheerleader, Gregory Hanes is a sassy dragster, and Jason Gotay makes an ingratiating love interest for Campbell. They make a great squad for this silly but cheer-worthy summer sundae.

August 1, 2012
 
New Girl in Town [show closed]
Irish Repertory Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Yes, there actually is a musical version of Anna Christie, Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize winner about a former prostitute who finds love and redemption in the arms of an Irish sailor. New Girl in Town had a moderately successful run of 431 Broadway performances in 1957 and is chiefly remembered for its stars Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter winning Tony Awards for Best Actress in a rare tie. The Off-Broadway Irish Repertory Theatre is bravely mounting a new production of this seldom-seen piece, which is mainly of interest to musical theater buffs and fails to rise above the status of an odd curio.
   There’s a reason the show is rarely revived. The book, by legendary director George Abbott, rips the guts out of O’Neill’s epic narrative and replaces them with sweet candy filling. Originally conceived as a vehicle for Verdon to display her dramatic and dancing abilities after scoring a hit with Damn Yankees, Anna’s tragic story is prettied up with a happy ending, bouncy tunes, and cute supporting characters.
   The original plot takes places in the grimy world of New York’s waterfront where Anna is reunited with her Swedish sea captain father Chris Christopherson after she turned her last trick as a hooker in the Midwest and ran out of money. Unaware of her shady past, her dad takes Anna in after booting out his common-law wife Marthy Owens, an amiable bar rat. Anna finds love with Matt Burke, a rip-roaring seaman who washes up on her father’s barge. But when Matt discovers Anna’s previous occupation, he sanctimoniously rejects her despite his own less-than-pure love life. The couple are reunited but only after Matt and Chris have signed on for a long nautical voyage during a drunken bender. All are still captives of “dat ole devil sea,” as Chris puts in.
   In the musical’s conclusion, Anna and Matt are happily paired, as are Chris and Marthy, and the curtain falls as the chorus sings of the wholesome recreation of chess and checkers everyone will enjoy at the Sailors’ Home. O’Neill’s dark vision of lonely souls swept along by the all-consuming ocean is taken over by songwriter Bob Merrill’s lighthearted confections and Abbott’s romantic clichés.
   Charlotte Moore delivers a well-paced production, making economic use of the tiny Irish Rep stage. But she can’t overcome the choppiness of Abbott’s book. Fortunately, Margaret Loesser Robinson delivers an insightful account of Anna. She recoils at any human contact, like an abused cat. Each flinch contains the history of Anna’s abuse at the hands of her Midwestern relatives and rough johns. Robinson also has a sure voice and dances expressively in choreographer Barry McNabb’s solo of Anna’s dejection “If That Was Love.”
   Patrick Cummings adds salt and sweetness as the love-struck Matt and Cliff Bemis lends Chris a hardy bonhomie. Danielle Ferland is too young to be credible as the crusty Marthy, and she rattles off her lines like a sitcom character, pushing for laughs rather than reacting to the situation.
   Unfortunately, Abbott and Merrill are guilty of the same crime, jerking easy tears and tickling ribs instead of giving us O’Neill’s tragic vision in musical terms.

August 1, 2012

Into the Woods [show closed]
Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Placing Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical fairy-tale mash-up Into the Woods in the bucolic setting of Central Park’s Delacorte Theater seems like a natural fit. The beloved tuner employs the metaphor of the mystical forest of childhood stories as a source of learning life’s harsh lessons and a place to find your maturity. But the show is also a rollicking good time with one of Sondheim’s most melodic and intricate scores, while Lapine’s clever book gives a new spin to familiar characters and explores the subtext beneath the Grimm Brothers. The original 1987 production and the 2002 revival, both directed by Lapine, were like giant storybooks with adult sensibilities tucked inside. The show has since become a favorite of high school and community theaters.
   For this free outdoor production, director Timothy Sheader and co-director Liam Steel have adapted their version from Regents Park in London and given a modern twist to Lapine’s traditional approach. The libretto connects the tales of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk, as well as an invented one about a baker and his wife and their quest to have a child, all overseen by a ubiquitous narrator. In Sheader and Steel’s staging, the storyteller is a little boy (a professional and poised Noah Radcliffe at the performance reviewed) running away from a difficult home situation. He camps out in the forest and tells the complex tale using a knapsack full of dolls and action figures.
   The production design perfectly reimagines the milieu as seen through the eyes of a modern kid. Emily Rebholz’s hip costumes blend pop culture with Mother Goose chic (catch the skunk stole on Cinderella’s stepmother and the tree-like claws on the Witch). The set, by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour, is a sort of creepy tree house that evokes both suburban playground and horror flick, with the aid of Ben Stanton’s mood-setting lighting. In a stunning coup de theatre, puppet designer Rachael Canning creates a monstrous female giant out of umbrellas, spades, and other found objects.
   Rumors of bungled rehearsals surfaced in the press prior to opening, but the performance attended was sleekly and inventively staged. There were a few issues with crowd control in the opening scenes when multiple protagonists and storylines are introduced and it got a mite confusing. However, once the story gets rolling, the pacing and blocking across Beatty and Gilmour’s multilevel set flow smoothly.
   The peerless Donna Murphy is a frightening wicked witch, but she also reveals the lonely heart of this overprotective mother in crystal-clear renditions of the moving ballads “Stay With Me” and “Children Will Listen.” Denis O’Hare delivers a textured performance as the Baker, combining tenderness with confusion over the moral uncertainties rife in this fairy-tale kingdom. Film star Amy Adams makes an adept transition to the musical stage, drily conveying the wit of the Baker’s Wife.
   But the show is nearly stolen by Sarah Stiles as a gritty Red Riding Hood. Encased in short-shorts and a flaming red bicycle helmet, this girl is totally 21st century and knows exactly what the wolf wants when they meet on the path to Granny’s house. Her dirty giggle and sly smile brings out the sexual undertones in the seductive “Hello, Little Girl” sung with lupine lasciviousness by Ivan Hernandez as the wolf. He charmingly doubles as a vain prince. Chip Zien, the Baker in the original production, is a crafty Mysterious Man, and Gideon Glick makes Jack’s naiveté endearing. Kristin Zbornik and Ellen Harvey make valuable comic contributions as Jack’s cigarette-puffing mom and Cinderella’s Cruella de Vil–ish stepmother.

August 9, 2012
      
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