Sunday, September 25, 2016

All the Ways To Say I Love You **

Neil LaBute’s new play for MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre is really just an hour-long monologue for an actress on the far side of 50. But when that actress is Tony winner Judith Light, who’s going to complain about it? Light plays Mrs. Johnson, a long-time high school English teacher and counselor, looking back 15 years to a relationship that profoundly affected her marriage, her career and her soul. To say more would be to give away too much. Those expecting the usual dose of bile and surprise from LaBute will be disappointed. Light is impressive — just learning all those lines is amazing — but her performance is too often overheated with few quieter moments to relieve the intensity. Rachel Hauck’s set recreates a high school office convincingly. Emily Rebholz’s has dressed Light plausibly. I wish director Leigh Silverman had gone for a wider emotional palette. Running time: one hour, no intermissionion.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Front Page ***

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s much revived and adapted 1928 comedy is back on Broadway in a lavish, star-studded production led by Nathan Lane as editor Walter Burns and John Slattery as reporter Hildy Johnson. A slimmed-down John Goodman plays Sheriff Hartman, Jefferson Mays is the hypochondriac reporter Bensinger, Holland Taylor is Mrs. Grant, Hildy’s intended mother-in-law, Sherie Renee Scott is Mollie Malloy, the doxy with a heart of gold, and Robert Morse is Mr. Pincus, the befuddled messenger. And those are just the actors listed above the title! When minor roles are filled by the likes of Dylan Baker, Patricia Connolly, David Pittu and Lewis J. Stadlen, the casting can only be called profligate. The action takes place in the press room of the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago, which overlooks the gallows where an alleged Communist who killed a black policeman is scheduled to be hanged in several hours. The repartee among the reporters fills most of the first act, which takes a long time to build up steam. Things get livelier in the second act after the doomed man escapes. There is snappy dialogue and madcap physical comedy. The play really comes to life when Nathan Lane finally makes his entrance late in Act II. A touch of tragedy struck a discordant note. The third act ties up loose ends nicely. The actors are in top form, most of all Mays and Morse. I was slightly disappointed with John Slattery, an actor I have long admired but who seemed a bit old and a bit off as Hildy. In some ways, the material seemed dated: the print media no longer command the attention they did in 1928 and are no longer the exclusive province of men. Other things seemed all too timely: there are still trigger-happy cops, civic corruption and cynical courting of the black vote. The set design by Douglas W. Schmidt is excellent and the costumes by Ann Roth are spot-on. Jack O’Brien’s direction is fluid, but he has not yet found a way to enliven the first act. It was an enjoyable, if not memorable, opportunity to return to the era when plays could have three acts and more than two dozen roles. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including two intermissions.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Wolves ****

The Playwrights Realm is a theater company, now in its tenth year, with a clear mission: developing and presenting first-rate productions of plays by emerging playwrights. Every Fall they present a play by a newcomer (e.g. Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes). The lucky playwright receives a year-long residency with substantial perks. In the Spring they offer a play by one of their alumni playwrights (e.g. Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship). The latest evidence that they have found a winning formula is this debut work by Sarah DeLappe now at the Duke on 42nd Street. The title refers to an indoor soccer team of nine adolescent — 17-ish — suburban girls whom we see mostly during their pre-game warm-ups and practice sessions. The play opens with two overlapping conversations, one about the Khmer Rouge, the other about feminine hygiene products. As the play progresses, we observe how each player attempts to navigate the difficult shoals between girlhood and womanhood, moving between personal concerns and the world at large. Although each one has her moment, some characters are developed more fully than others. I had some trouble remembering who was who, especially since they are only identified by the numbers on their identical uniforms. The numbers are often hard to see and there are strong physical resemblances among a few of the actors. The emphasis is not on plot, although there is a major offstage development that propels the last section of the play. The cast (Brenna Coates, Jenna Dioguardi, Samia Finnerty, Midori Francis, Lizzy Jutila, Sarah Mezzanotte, Tedra Millan, Lauren Patten and Susannah Perkins as the team members and Mia Barron as a soccer mom) is outstanding, individually and collectively. The ensemble work in their drills is amazing (and looks exhausting). Director Lila Neugebauer (The Wayside Motor Inn) certainly knows how to manage a lot people onstage at once. Laura Jelinek’s scenic design features an astroturf field, brightly lit by Lap Chi Chu, flanked by facing stadium seating. Asta Bennie Hotsetter’s costumes looked like authentic uniforms. Although I found the final part of the play a bit manipulative (and I wished that the armless wooden seats were more comfortable), my overall impression was highly favorable. I look forward to Sarah DeLappe’s future work, as well as The Playwrights Realm’s Spring alumni production — The Moors by Jen Silverman. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Nat Turner in Jerusalem **

In a period of seemingly endless racial strife, what could be more timely than another look at the oft-told tale of Nat Turner and the bloody, unsuccessful slave rebellion of 1831? Alas, this particular version, set in Turner’s jail cell in Jerusalem, Virginia on the night before his hanging, does not shed much light or heat on events and is too dependent on gimmicks. To give playwright Nathan Alan Davis his due, he does not attempt to sugarcoat Turner’s brutal murder of white women and children. It is easy to believe that the Turner portrayed by Phillip James Brannon thought he was doing God’s will. We also meet Thomas R. Gray, the attorney to whom Turner allegedly dictated his confession, and one of the prison guards. The gimmick here is that both characters are played by the same actor, Rowan Vickers. The main thrust is that Gray is determined to get Turner to confess to knowledge of other rebellions. His goal is not so much to find the truth as to increase the marketability of his book, which he has already hastened to copyright. The alternating scenes with the guard do not seem to have much point and culminate in a scene that is so over-the-top that I was embarrassed. The scenic design, by Susan Zeeman Rogers, was gimmicky too: the platform on which the action takes place is moved between scenes from one end of the rectangle between the facing bleacher seats toward the other — and then back again. The costumes by Montana Blanco were fine and the lighting by Mary Louise Geiger was effective. The sound design by Nathan Leigh was aggressively loud. The direction by Megan Sandberg-Zakian was sluggish. The hard bleacher seats are extremely uncomfortable; there is a thin cushion for the seat but nothing to pad the wooden back. Discomfort made the 90 minutes seem longer. After 185 years, Nat Turner’s slave rebellion and its aftereffects still evoke deeply conflicted reactions. Perhaps it is enough that the play reminds us of that, even if it doesn't contribute much to the ongoing conversation.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

What Did You Expect? ***

The second installment of Richard Nelson’s trilogy “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” now at the Public Theater, brings us back to the kitchen of the Gabriel family in Rhinebeck, New York, this time on September 16, 2016. Those of you who saw the first play, “Hungry,” will recall that it is set in the same place on March 4 of this year. Thomas Gabriel, a playwright and novelist, had died several months before. Mary Gabriel (Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor, was his third wife and now his widow. His younger brother George (Jay O. Sanders) is a piano teacher and cabinetmaker. George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley) works for a local caterer. George’s sister Joyce (Amy Warren), an unmarried assistant costume designer, is visiting from Brooklyn. Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), George and Joyce’s mother, now resides in a nearby assisted living facility, but is there for dinner. Somewhat peculiarly, George’s first wife Karin (Meg Gibson), an actress, is also there, having rented the room over the garage. As the family prepares supper, they discuss a wide range of subjects, many of them literary. An erotic passage from Wharton, a famous picnic attended by Melville and Hawthorne, and a found letter from a famous artist all command their attention. The topics they are trying to avoid are the pressing ones — a family financial crisis brought on by Patricia’s gullibility. the downside of the gentrification of Rhineback for locals, the disinterest of wealthy Democrats in the working class. a generalized sense of anxiety and the upcoming election. As usual, Nelson brings things right up to date with a reference to Hillary’s pneumonia and Jimmy Fallon’s messing up Donald Trump’s hair on TV. The political elements seemed less important and less integral this time, almost as if they were grafted onto the play. The varied conversations also seemed less part of a coherent whole this time. Anyone who has not seen the previous play may not get a lot out of this one. Nevertheless, the ensemble cast is once again superb. Susan Hilferty again designed the costumes and, with Jason Ardizzone West, the cozy set. The playwright directed. We will have to wait until Election Day for the final play “Women of a Certain Age” to see what is in store for the Gabriels. Running time: one hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Aubergine ***

Julia Cho’s new play at Playwrights Horizons is a flawed, uneven work, but it packs an emotional wallop. Ray (Tim Kang), an assimilated Korean-American chef, moves in with his estranged father (Stephen Park) to care for him during his final days. Ray’s former girlfriend Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim) forgives him and pitches in to help. Lucien (Michael Potts), a refugee from a war-torn African country, is the kindly, helpful home hospice nurse. Ray’s uncle (Joseph Steven Yang) flies in from Korea as soon as hears about his brother’s condition. Diane (Jessica Love) is a wealthy foodie who appears in the opening and final scenes (and, in my humble opinion, should be excised). A common thread that stitches the play together is the important role of food in our memories and family relationships. Each character gets a food-centered monologue. Some of the dialog is in Korean with translations projected on the rear wall. There are many engaging moments, but they don’t fit together all that well. Some trimming would improve the play, especially dropping the facile ending. Derek McLane’s high-concept scenic design is dominated by a huge semicircular wooden wall that looks like the side of a huge vat. It parts and swings away to reveal a semicircular interior with partial concentric rings. The circle of life, perhaps? Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are appropriate to each character. Kate Whoriskey’s direction is a bit sluggish at times. Don’t see it when you are hungry. You also might want to avoid it you have recently faced or are about to face the loss of a loved one. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Maestro **

Perhaps I am becoming jaded or maybe I just have been making bad choices lately. In any case, for the third time this week, I found myself surrounded by an audience having a far better time than I was. Onstage at 59E59 Theatre A was Hershey Felder performing as Leonard Bernstein. Apparently Felder has made a career out of using his pianistic and acting skills to create one-man theater pieces about such composers as Beethoven, Grieg and Gershwin. Bernstein does not fit neatly into this  group as he was more renowned as conductor than composer, a never-ending sore spot for him. Felder’s approach to his life is mainly chronological and gamely attempts to cover many aspects: conductor, educator, social activist, bisexual and flawed husband. The early scenes with his father, speaking with a heavy Yiddish accent, were embarrassingly stereotypical. Were it not for the lavish production featuring an impressive set by François-Pierre Couture and projections by Christopher Ash, I might have thought I was attending an enrichment program at a home for elderly Jews. The musical clips were frustratingly brief with more music by other composers and less by Bernstein than I would have expected. I was certainly surprised that the longest and most prominent excerpt was from Wagner’s Liebestod. There was a brief moment near the end, in which Bernstein lashes out at the world, that gave me a sense of how much more powerful the piece could have been. Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) directed. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.