Saturday, March 25, 2017

Latin History for Morons


It’s hard to believe that it’s over 25 years since I first saw John Leguizamo in his one-man show Mambo Mouth. On the basis of his new show at the Public Theater, I can report that he is still a consummate entertainer who owns the audience. Marriage and fatherhood may have mellowed him a bit, but he still ventures into X-rated territory. Upset that his 8th-grade son has been repeatedly bullied at school, he sets out to boost his son's self-estem by helping him write a report about his hero. He tries to instill the son with Latino pride by telling him about heroic historical examples from the Aztecs to the Incas and onward. It’s a loose structure that gives Leguizamo plenty of opportunity for hilarious impersonations and dance moves. He presents his findings as a mock lecture complete with blackboard scribblings.. At its best, it’s very entertaining, but it occasionally sags and becomes repetitive. Nevertheless, it’s always a pleasure to see Leguizamo at work. Rachel Hauck designed the classroom-like set. Tony Taccone, whose work with one-person shows includes Bridge & Tunnel and Wishful Drinking, directed. Running time: one hour 40 minutes: no intermission.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

How To Transcend a Happy Marriage


In case the bird-headed huntress featured on James McMullan’s wonderful poster for Sarah Ruhl’s new play at Lincoln Center Theater is insufficient warning to expect something unusual, the dead goat hanging upside down over the living room set should surely do the job. An attractive young woman removes it from the hook and carries it off before the play proper begins. A fortyish couple, George (Marisa Tomei) [was it really necessary for the playwright to name the female lead George?] and Paul (Oscar Metwally) are having dinner at the suburban home of their closest friends, Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison). Jane mentions Pip (Lena Hall), a temp in her office who is both polyamorous and hunts her own meat. They are all intrigued and decide to invite Pip and her two live-in lovers, Freddie (David McElwee) and David (Austin Smith) for a New Year’s Eve party. The party proceeds rather well as they discover such common interests as Pythagoras and Shakespeare. They move on to a karaoke session that spins out of control. Their revels are interrupted by the untimely arrival home of the hosts’ 16-year-old daughter Jenna (Naian Gonzalez Norvind.) The dialogue is smart, funny and sexy, the actors have achieved a fine ensemble and the direction is seamless, once again demonstrating how well-attuned Rebecca Taichman (The Oldest Boy) is to Ruhl’s sensibility. The set design by David Zine and costumes by Susan Hilferty are first-rate. While the first act is nearly perfect, the play has serious second-act problems. An attempt by Pip to teach George to hunt deer has unfortunate consequences. In the scene that follows, there is a sudden introduction of possibly magical events, which, to me, weakens rather than strengthens the play. Freddie and David become mere plot contrivances. Worst of all, we are forced to question or even invalidate what we have seen with our own eyes in the first act. The play partially recovers its footing, but not soon enough to restore all the positive feelings it generated before intermission. While I have no problem with magical realism, I don't feel it works here. The points that I thought Ruhl wanted to make about the limits or limitlessness of love and the difficulties of parent and child to acknowledge each other’s sexuality do not need magical embellishment. It’s a flawed play with a very enjoyable first act. Running time: one hour 50 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Light Years


Somewhere in the Playwrights Horizons program notes, it says that The Debate Society (Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, writers; Oliver Butler, developer and director) have been working on this piece for seven years. I wish the results of all their time and effort had produced a more satisfying result. This tale of thwarted aspirations loosely ties together two family stories linked to the Chicago world’s fairs of 1893 and 1933. One of the plots involves a real person, Steele MacKaye, a flamboyant actor, playwright, producer and inventor of such theater innovations as folding seats and fireproof curtains. In 1893 MacKaye (Rocco Sisto) had grandiose plans to build the Spectatorium, a 12,000-seat theater filled with the latest in theatrical technology, to house an epic panorama about Columbus. Master electrician Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld) and his loyal assistant Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh) are working on the “mooncart,” a large contraption with hundreds of light bulbs that will provide the celestial climax of the Spectatorium show. He even brings it home so he can work on it at night. Hillary’s lively, attractive wife Adeline (Aya Cash) displays a keen interest in her husband’s work. The Panic of 1893 leads MacKaye’s investors to abandon him and the Spectatorium is never completed. The second story introduces us to Lou (Ken Barnett), an unsuccessful jingle writer who hopes to find work at the 1933 fair. His wife Ruth (Aya Cash again) struggles to keep the family from starving by working long shifts at a pancake house at the fair. Their 11-year-old son Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz) has his heart set on a stamp commemorating the Graf zeppelin. Out of desperation, Lou reluctantly seeks employment as a musician in a night club. The apartment Lou and family have rented is in the home formerly occupied by Hillary and Adeline. Their landlord is a mysterious figure who lives in the attic. In the play’s most implausible premise, the unfinished mooncart still sits in the living room. Things do not end happily for either family. The alternation of scenes between the two time periods is not really confusing, but produces a repeated loss of focus. Just as the aspirations of almost everyone in the play are not achieved, neither are the aspirations of the play’s creators. Despite the fine acting, impressive set design by Laura Jellinek, great period costumes by Michael Krass and an amazing lighting design by Russell H. Champa, the play fizzles rather than sizzles. I would have preferred a play about the fascinating life of Steele MacKaye. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Seating alert: During a few short scenes, the actors are in the wide aisle between rows D and E. If your seat is in rows A through D, be prepared to twist around in your seat to see the action.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

War Paint


Take the librettist (Doug Wright), composer (Scott Frankel), lyricist (Michael Korie), Tony-winning star (Christine Ebersole) and director (Michael Greif) of a much-loved musical (Grey Gardens); for good measure, add another Tony-winning diva (Patti Lupone), throw in Tony winners for choreography (Christopher Gatelli) and costume design (Catherine Zuber) plus the scenic designer of Hamilton (David Korins), and you should have all the ingredients of a wonderful show. And don't forget to include plot points that will appeal to Jews and gays, two staples of the Broadway audience. Unfortunately, this new musical about Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, now in previews at the Nederlander Theatre, does not fully deliver on its promise. While there is much to admire — the two leads, a sumptuous production, some good songs with intelligent lyrics — there is little to love. The story of the parallel careers of these two cosmetic giants, while instructive about an interesting aspect of American social history, is a bit bloodless. There were very few moments when I was moved. John Dossett plays Arden’s husband and sales manager. Douglas Sills plays Rubenstein’s closeted business manager and companion. Their switcheroo seemed a bit too formulaic. Some judicious trimming is in order. At two hours 45 minutes including intermission, it risks wearing out its welcome. It’s far from terrible, but with all that talent involved, the results are disappointing.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

If I Forget


If the goal of Steven Levenson (The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, book for Dear Evan Hansen) was to write a play that would elicit lively discussion afterwards, his new play at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre is a success. While at its core an intimate family drama, the play connects the personal to a wider arena of religious, political, sociological and philosophical concerns. We meet the three Fischer siblings, all in their forties, in July 2000 at the family’s longtime home in a middle class Washington neighborhood. They are gathered to celebrate their recently widowed father’s 75th birthday. The middle child Michael (the superb Jeremy Shamos), although an atheist, is a professor of Jewish studies at a New York area university where he has just been recommended for tenure. He mentions in passing that he is faculty advisor to Students for Nader. He and his gentile wife Ellen (Tasha Lawrence) have an emotionally troubled college-age daughter Abby who is currently on a trip to Israel. Michael was opposed to letting her go because peace talks between Arabs and Israelis have just collapsed and he fears for her safety. Elder daughter Holly (the assured Kate Walsh from TV’s Private Practice), a dilettante who fancies herself an interior decorator, has a bratty teenage son Joey (Seth Steinberg) and a shallow but wealthy lawyer husband Howard (Gary Wilmes) who is Joey’s stepfather. The younger daughter Sharon (Renata Friedman, u/s for Maria Dizzia), an unmarried teacher, who has borne the brunt of caring for her late mother and her ailing father, never fails to remind her siblings of that fact. Sharon has recently broken up with her boyfriend after finding him in bed with the [female] cantor. We learn that Michael has just completed an incendiary book called Forget the Holocaust that suggests that American Jews should stop using the Holocaust as a reason to give Israel a free pass for some of its actions. (If you think it unlikely that a professor would publish a controversial book likely to damage his career while he is awaiting tenure, just google Norman Finkelstein.) Although Michael sent his father Lou (Larry Bryggman) a manuscript of his book to read six month ago, Lou has never said a word about it. In a moving scene near the end of the first act, Lou describes what it was like to liberate Dachau. The second act takes place six months later, not long after the Supreme Court has interceded to elect Bush. Lou has suffered a stroke. Michael’s book has had consequences. The family has gathered to decide what to do about Lou’s care. Lou’s only asset is his former clothing store, now leased to a Guatemalan family at a below-market rate. Sharon’s opposition to selling the store because it is the family legacy has another less noble motive. Holly’s plan to rent the store for her own nonexistent design practice is mysteriously not supported by her husband, who turns out to have an unsavory secret. Michael pushes hard to sell the store, betraying some confidences in the process. At play’s end Joey asks Michael about his cousin Abby’s condition. We learn that she had an experience in Jerusalem that was either transcendent or symptomatic of her worsening mental condition. The play shifts gears from naturalistic to expressionistic in its final scene, which didn't work for me. One can fault the play for being overstuffed; there’s enough plot for three plays. On the positive side, the play presents a compelling picture of family dynamics, fortunately relieved by frequent flashes of humor. It raises important questions about Jewish identity in America today that seem even more relevant in the light of recent headlines. The dialogue is sharp and the cast is excellent. Derek McLane’s revolving two-level set and Jess Goldstein’s costumes serve the play well. Daniel Sullivan (Proof, Rabbit Hole) directs with his usual skill. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Come from Away


This Canadian musical with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein could not have arrived on Broadway at a better time. With our national psyche bruised by angst, doubt, resentment and divisiveness, it is comforting to be reminded that people can behave with kindness, charity, openness and unity. The show tells the story of what occurred in Gander, Newfoundland where 38 flights were forced to land after U.S. airspace was closed on 9/11. 7,000 passengers and crew — and a few animals — were housed, fed, comforted and entertained by the residents of a town whose population barely exceeded the number of unexpected guests. An excellent ensemble of twelve play both the residents and the guests, changing roles faster than you can blink. The book is based on actual interviews the creators conducted during the tenth anniversary observance of the event. The locals include the mayor (Joel Hatch), a teacher, the librarian (Astrid Van Wieren), the head of the striking bus drivers union, an animal welfare lady (Petrina Bromley) and a newly arrived television reporter (Kendra Kassebaum). The passengers include a woman (Q. Smith) whose son is a NYC fireman, a gay couple both named Kevin (Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa), a rabbi (Geno Carr), an Egyptian chef, an African family who speak no English, a young African-American man (Rodney Hicks) and an unlikely couple —a middle aged Texas divorcee (Sharon Wheatley) and a shy Englishman (Lee MacDougall) who take a fancy to each other. If a character can be singled out as the lead, it would be Beverley (Jenn Colella of High Fidelity and Closer Than Ever), a pilot, who gets the show’s only solo. The style of the music is mainly Celtic folk. Many of the songs sounded alike to my untrained ear. There is one lovely number where several passengers pray, each according to his or her custom. There’s  a rousing foot-stomping number set in a bar when some of the “come-from-aways” are initiated as honorary Newfoundlanders. The set by Beowulf Boritt features a forest of tree trunks on either side of the stage behind which the musicians are seated, a slatted back wall suitable for projections, a dozen or so mismatched wooden chairs and a turntable. Near the center of the back wall stand two damaged tree trunks possibly symbolizing the twin towers. The costumes by Toni-Leslie James help distinguish the characters. Kelly Devine is credited for “musical staging,” rather than as choreographer. Christopher Ashley’s direction keeps things flowing smoothly. The musicians get a well-deserved chance to show off during the curtain call. Judging from the audience’s enthusiasm, Broadway will welcome this feel-good musical. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Glass Menagerie


I don’t think that the new production of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece, now on view at the Belasco Theatre, is a good choice for anyone who has not seen the play before. It is too quirky. Director Sam Gold seems to be operating in Ivo van Hove mode, trying too hard to put his own revisionist stamp on a classic. He has chosen to emphasize the comic over the poetic; I have never heard that much laughter at any previous production. Sally Field’s Amanda is understated, avoids histrionics, and works rather well. I do miss a Southern accent though. Joe Mantello at first seems much too old to play Tom, but since he is narrating a memory play, his age doesn’t really matter. His performance is very strong and dominates the evening. Finn Wittrock’s Jim O’Connor is a tad too energetic, veering dangerously close to cartoonish at times. And then there is Madison Ferris as Laura. The decision to cast someone confined to a wheelchair as Laura was a noble but misguided choice. It is unsupported by the text, which specifically refers to her walking around and makes no sense at all when her mother sends her out to run an errand. It might matter less if Ferris were better able to hold her own with the other actors. Andrew Lieberman’s set design has the enormous stage bare except for a table and chairs, some metal shelves and a crate of phonograph records. The costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic are appropriate. There are two scenes where rain falls on the set, which leaves the actors senselessly splashing around in puddles by play’s end; there seemed absolutely no point to it. Gold’s take on the play is interesting, but distorts the piece too much for my taste. Running time: two hours, five minutes; no intermission.