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Friday, July 7, 2017
The second production of Soulpepper on 42nd Street, the month-long showcase of Canadian theater now at Signature Center is Vern Thiessen’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel. Although three films have been made from the novel, this is the first stage version. I haven’t read the novel and don’t remember the film version I saw long ago, so I can’t comment on the relative fidelity to the source. However, as an independent work, it held my interest for its creative storytelling, innovate staging and fine cast. Gregory Prest plays the protagonist, Philip Carey, the clubfooted orphan who reluctantly gives up becoming an artist for the more practical choice of a career in medicine. His progress in life is repeatedly threatened by his obsessive desire for Mildred Rogers (Michelle Monteith), a manipulative waitress he meets, who treats him horribly again and again. [This is the role that made Bette Davis a movie star.] As her abusive treatment continued, I could barely stifle the image of Lucy forever pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. After many misadventures, mostly caused directly or indirectly by Mildred, Philip eventually is liberated from his obsession and finds direction and contentment. Press and Monteith are both very good. The other ten hardworking cast members play multiple roles adroitly, play incidental music on various instruments and move the set elements around for each scene. Lorenzo Savoini's set features a bright red square in the center of the stage floor, a brick back wall and cleverly multipurpose stage furniture repositioned as needed. Erika Connor’s period costumes are attractive. The direction by Albert Schultz, Soulpepper’s artistic director, provides many creative touches. To describe them would eliminate the surprise, so I won’t say more. The pace is a bit slow in the first act, but picks up after intermission. Overall, it was a worthwhile evening. Running time: two hours 40 minutes including intermission.
The Canadians have invaded New York and established a foothold on 42nd Street. More specifically, Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company has taken over the entire Pershing Square Signature Center for the month of July and has brought along seven plays, plus concerts, cabaret and other events to show their mettle. Judging from the two productions I have seen so far, we are the better for it.
Soulpepper led off with what they are billing as “the most successful Canadian play of the last decade,” Ins Choi’s family dramedy about a Korean immigrant family running a convenience store in a gentrifying Toronto neighborhood. Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) comes across as the Korean-Canadian answer to Archie Bunker. Umma (Jean Hoon), his long-suffering wife, does not get much stage time, which is probably appropriate to her role in the family. Daughter Janet (Rosie Simon) is 30 years old, highly assimilated and single, working as a photographer, but still living at home. Her brother Jung (playwright Choi) ran off with the contents of the family safe when he was 16 after a violent argument with his father that left Jung in the hospital for a few days. There are also four customers all played by Ronnie Rowe Jr.
The early scenes are hilarious, especially one in which Appa tries to teach Janet how to detect a potential thief. His rules have something to offend everyone including blacks, fat people, lesbians and others, but his presentation of them is irresistibly funny. A scene between father and daughter during which she complains over her exploitation and he berates her for ingratitude is quite moving. His failure to interest Janet into taking over the store leads him to be tempted by a lucrative offer to buy out the store. Next we learn that Umma has been secretly meeting her son at her church. Once Jung reappears at the store, you can no doubt figure out the rest.
Lee is a force of nature as Appa. Simon captures all the right notes for the daughter. Hoon, alas, does not have much opportunity to make an impression. Choi is a stronger playwright than actor. Rowe is wonderful in creating four distinct roles.
The set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie create a realistic foundation. Weyni Mingesha directs with assurance.
There are many objective grounds on which I could find fault, but the play overcame them all with its heartwarming, universal look at the immigrant family experience and intergenerational conflicts. The situations occasionally veer close to sitcom humor (indeed, the play has been adapted as a television series) and become predictable, but the execution is so flawless that resistance is futile. I had a good time. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
I would not have been so disappointed with Abe Koogler’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II if had not started promisingly. For the first 30 minutes or so, I thought it was heading confidently to an interesting destination. Unfortunately, as it progressed, the playwright seemed to lose control of his material and the play ended up at a dead end. In the well-written first scene, Alex (Bobby Moreno; Grand Concourse), the 30ish manager of an Amazon-like warehouse in New Mexico, is testing the speed of a 60ish prospective employee, Suzan (Deirdre O’Connell; By the Water, The Vandal). The interaction between the nice guy stuck in an unforgiving job and the down-on-her-luck ex-singer who desperately needs work is both funny and revealing. In the next scene we see Alex with his longtime girlfriend, the sassy Madeleine (Eboni Booth), who has just moved, reluctantly, from New York to be with Alex until an expected move to greener pastures in Seattle in six months. How they came to be an interracial couple and why they have stayed together almost ten years without even getting engaged are questions that remain unanswered. In the third scene we see Madeleine at the campground where she is staying as she tries to strike up a conversation with John (Frederick Weller; Mother and Sons; Glengarry Glen Ross), a taciturn 40ish carpenter whose most recent girlfriend has kicked him out. In the remaining scenes, each character meets with one of two others. The men never meet and the women never meet. The writing weakens, the play meanders and it finally grinds to a halt. Andrew Lieberman’s set, such as it is, is a long sand-colored platform running the length of the theater plus a couple of folding metal chairs. The audience sits on both long sides of the platform. Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are apt. Daniel Aukin is a director whose work has included some fine evenings of theater (4000 Miles, Bad Jews, The Fortress of Solitude) as well as some terrible ones (Fool for Love, Rancho Viejo, Placebo, What Rhymes with America?). His work here includes one gesture that I hate: forcing the actors not in the present scene to sit impassively at the edge of the stage in plain sight. It’s always a pleasure to see Deirdre O’Connell. Eboni Booth is a fresh new face. Bobby Moreno makes his “nice guy” role believable. Frederick Weller’s mannerisms annoyed me less than usual. With more work, the play might have amounted to something better. As is, it’s a missed opportunity. I very much doubt that the playwright knew where he was headed when he began. Running time: one hour 25 minutes; no intermission.
Friday, June 16, 2017
This revival of Horton Foote’s 1954 play now in previews at the Cherry Lane Theatre does not make a strong case for the play. As usual for Foote, the setting is the mythical Harrison, Texas in the 1950’s. Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty), an attractive young woman, arrives in town with her five-year old daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow), looking for a cheap house to rent. She is directed to Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen) who plies her for personal information. It turns out that her husband Henry (PJ Sosko) has been in prison for six years and has never met his daughter. She expects him to arrive in Harrison, where he grew up, within the week. She is startled to find out that Henry has already been in town for a month and is living with and working for Mrs. Tillman (Jill Tanner), a do-gooder who fancies herself able to cure alcoholics. While the neighbors try to locate her husband, Georgette and her daughter rest at the home of Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi) and her brother Slim Murray (Larry Bull), a young widower. We learn that Siim’s allegedly beloved wife actually abandoned him and wouldn’t even let him visit her as she lay dying. We also meet Clara’s next-door neighbors, the crusty old Mrs. Mavis (Lynne Cohen) who wanders off every chance she gets and her hapless daughter Sitter (Karen Ziemba) [Really, where do Southerners come up with these awful names for their daughters!]. Will Henry stay sober? Will Margaret Rose get to meet her father? Will Slim find true love? Will Mrs. Tillman keep her faith in human nature? Will Georgette catch a break? I was not at the edge of my seat waiting to find out. While the ensemble is mostly good, Austin Pendleton’s direction is flat. The set by Harry Feiner and costumes by Theresa Squire are adequate. The need for most of the actors to enter via the theater’s center aisle and up a few stairs grows tiresome quickly. While it’s always a pleasure to see Karen Ziemba, she is wasted in a nondescript supporting role. In the short-lived 1954 Broadway production, the title role was played by Kim Stanley. Perhaps someone with her charisma is needed to breathe life into this play. Unless you are a fanatic Foote fan, you can skip this one. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission
Monday, June 12, 2017
This drama now at 59e59 Theaters as part of their Brits Off Broadway season is based on an actual event. In the summer of 2002, the wife, son and daughter of Vitaly Kaloyev, an architect from the North Ossetia region of Russia, died in a collision between two airplanes near the German-Swiss border. [Spoilers ahead] Kaloyev was unhinged with grief, became obsessed with the flight controller on duty at the time of the crash and decided to take justice into his own hands. When he returned to Russia, he was treated as a hero. There are only two actors in playwright/director Matthew Wilkinson’s version of the story. Declan Conlon plays the architect, now called Nikolai Koslov. Thusitha Jayasundera plays Koslov’s wife as well as several other roles. This should have been a powerful story, but it failed to engage me for one important reason. The character of Koslov, at least as interpreted by Conlon, is so unremittingly unlikable that it was difficult to be invested in his fate. Furthermore, the story is told out of sequence and is sometimes confusing. Resorting to colored lights and loud noises does not improve the material. Late in the play, it is suggested that Koslov’s rage against the flight controller was caused by displaced guilt. By that point, I no longer cared. Running time: one hour 15 minutes; no intermission.
As a fan of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, I was disappointed that the current Brits Off Broadway season at 59e59 Theaters does not include one of his plays. Not to worry. Instead, we have this impressive play by Torben Betts, an Ayckbourn acolyte who learned his lessons well. In this comedy of manners with strong sociopolitical overtones, we meet two memorable couples. Oliver (Alastair Whatley) and Emily (Emily Bowker) have recently moved to northern England from London. They rationalize that their move is to provide a better life for their children, but the truth is that they can no longer afford London since Oliver has lost his civil service writing job in the latest government belt-tightening. Abstract painter Emily, whose idea of a coffee table book is Das Kapital, claims she wants to live among the “real people.” They rent, because she does not believe in private ownership of property and they are not married, because she thinks it is a decadent institution. She is, to put it mildly, high-strung and overprotective, for reasons we will find out later, of their sleeping toddler, checking the monitor constantly. The ineffectual Oliver generally yields to her wishes. They decide to invite their next-door neighbors, Alan (a perfectly cast Graeme Brookes) and Dawn (the marvelous Elizabeth Boag, seen in New York in Ayckbourn’s Hero’s Welcome and Arrivals and Departures) over for tea. Postman Alan is an ordinary bloke whose only sin is that he is boring. Voluptuous Dawn married too soon and now regrets it. The awkward encounter between the privileged hosts and their down-to-earth guests is a monumental clash of class and culture. One example: when Alan goes on about watching football on TV, Emily counters that devotion to sports teams and watching TV makes people stupid. The hilarious first act leads to darker moments in the second act. Dawn, worried over the safety of her son on duty in the Iraq war, observes that the sons of the upper classes never have to serve. Alan muses on the difficulty of scraping together a living. We gain insight on why Emily is so dour. Oliver finally asserts himself. There are crises. The characters are extremely vividly drawn and their problems resonate for us. The actors are all strong, especially Graeme Brookes, whose take on Alan is worth the price of admission. The set and, particularly, the costumes by Victoria Spearing, assisted by Minglu Wang, are assets to the production. Director Stephen Darcy is not afraid to give each scene time to breathe. It’s a play that provides both lots of laughs and lots to think about. Running time: two hours 20 minutes including intermission.