Sunday, December 4, 2016

Theater Reviews: A Change in Scoring

Loyal reader,

For some months, I have been concerned that my 0-to-5 star rating system lacks sufficient nuance. In particular, a 3-star rating covers so much territory that it is not all that informative. Therefore, I am testing a letter-grade system with pluses and minuses to see whether that is more helpful. I have added a letter score to all the reviews since July of this year to give you an idea how it would work. If you scroll to the bottom of this screen, you will see "Blog Archive." Click on the name of each month starting with July 2016 and you will see the names of the plays I reviewed that month with both a star and a letter rating. Please let me know what you think. If you have trouble using the comment function, just send me an email at rsholiton@gmail.com. If there is general approval, I will switch from stars to letters starting in January.

Best wishes for a wonderful holiday season.

Bob Sholiton

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Babylon Line ** C-

Making fun of the conformity of life in Levittown 50 years ago is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. The target is too easy. Nevertheless, Richard Greenberg’s look at a creative writing class in the local adult education program, now in previews at Lincoln Center Theater, initially shows promise. The presence of such stalwarts of the New York stage as Randy Graff, Julie Halston and Frank Wood as three of the students is a big help. Josh Radnor (Disgraced) is no slouch either as their teacher, an unsuccessful writer who makes the weekly trip from Manhattan to earn a few dollars. Ms. Graff plays a stereotypical overbearing yenta, who would be objectionable if she weren’t so amusing. Ms. Halston, as one of her friends, is more open-minded. Maddie Corman portrays another friend, who has a rocky marriage. Frank Wood plays a veteran suffering from what we now call PTSD, who seeks release in his writing. Michael Oberholtzer plays a strange young man, possibly on the spectrum, who is working on a magnum opus. The final student is a mysterious woman who has lived in Levittown for many years, but is unknown to the others. This character, portrayed by Elizabeth Reaser, whom I have admired on other occasions, has for some reason been saddled with a Southern accent that comes and goes. (Perhaps there was a course on Tennessee Williams next door and she wandered into the wrong classroom.) The first act proceeds smoothly, but after intermission things go seriously off the rails. The second act is overlong and overwrought, burdened with lame gimmicks and false endings. Richard Hoover’s classroom set is excellent. I can't vouch for the accuracy of  Sarah J. Holden’s period costumes, but they seem appropriate. Director Terry Kinney gets tripped up in the second act problems. There are several entertaining moments along the way, but by the end most of the goodwill I felt after Act One had vanished. At least it’s an improvement over Greenberg's last play, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” which he briefly references. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dead Poets Society ** C-

One of the mini-trends of the current season is the adaptation of award-winning films into plays. First there was Terms of Endearment (which I have not seen) and now this Classic Stage Company production based on the 1989 film which starred Robin Williams and included a trio of young actors (Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles) who went on to successful careers. I hope this trend of recycling movies is nipped in the bud. While there have been many films that were turned into successful musicals, adapting a movie for the stage without musicalizing it doesn’t seem to add any value. In this case, even though the adaptation was done by the screenwriter, Tom Schulman himself, who has trimmed over 20 minutes from the film, the result is a Cliff Notes version that came across to me as bland and pointless. Jason Sudeikis is fine as the charismatic English teacher who urges the preppies in his class at Welton Academy to seize the day. The six young men who play the students (Zane Pais, Thomas Mann, Cody Kostro, Bubba Weiler, William Hochman and Yaron Lotan) are also very good. David Garrison is effective as the headmaster, Paul Nolan. Stephen Barker Turner does his best with the one-note role of Mr. Perry, whose demands on his son provoke a crisis, and Francesca Carpanini looks pretty as the love interest of one of the students. Their valiant efforts were largely sunk by the play’s blandness. Even the ending misfires: after disappearing from the stage for several minutes, Sudeikis briefly returns, but his reappearance has little impact. John Doyle’s direction is mostly straightforward, the main quirk being that books pulled off the library shelves are used in place of classroom furniture. Scott Pask’s attractive set features a library wall of books, complete with rolling ladder. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes looked right for 1959. Japhy Weideman’s lighting and Matt Stine’s sound design are quite effective. All this effort seems misguided as the play itself has so little point to it. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Band's Visit *** B+

Atlantic Theater Company is presenting this musical adaptation of the popular 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian police band that inadvertently becomes stranded overnight in an isolated town while on a goodwill visit to Israel. The music and lyrics are by David Yazbek (The Full Monty) and the book is by Itamar Moses (Bach at Leipzig). The songs are well-integrated into the story with much of the music being performed by actors playing band members. The book, faithful to the screenplay almost to a fault, incorporates large chunks of dialog from the film. It is virtually impossible to develop 20 characters in any depth in 95 minutes even without making time for a dozen songs. In some cases, we get a bare sketch, but in others, the characterization actually goes deeper than in the film. The show is greatly enhanced by a fine cast and high production values. Katrina Lenk makes an excellent Dina. John Cariani (Something Rotten!) brings richness to the role of Itzik. Ari’el Stachel is just right as the band’s young hunk Haled. George Abud and Sam Sadigursky are standouts as actor-musicians. Last but not least, Tony Shalhoub brings dignity and compassion to the role of Tewfiq, the bandleader. The evocative scenic design by Scott Pask (Something Rotten!) makes effective use of a revolving stage. Sarah Laux’s (The Humans) costumes fit their characters well. The direction by David Cromer (Tribes, Our Town) is fluid and assured. The result is an intimate, engaging show with an edge of poignancy. I could not suppress a twinge of regret over how badly the situation in Egypt and Israel has deteriorated since 1996, the year in which the story is set. Running time: one hour, 35 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Ride the Cyclone *** B

I wish I had not read the rapturous Chicago reviews of this offbeat musical by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond now playing in an MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theater. My expectations were so high that I ended up being slightly disappointed. The plot is unusual in that the characters are all dead when the show begins. Six teenagers from the chamber choir of St. Cassian School in Uranium City, Saskatchewan have just been killed in a freak roller coaster accident. They find themselves in a macabre purgatory presided over by The Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton), a mechanical fortune teller who has the power to grant one of them a return to life. Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau), born to hippie parents, is an obnoxious overachiever. Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo), the chubby nice girl, is Ocean’s best friend. Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), the only gay boy in town, idolizes Marlene Dietrich. Ricky Potts (Alex Wyse), a nerd with a physical disability, dreams of being an intergalactic superhero. Mischa Bachinski (Gus Halper) puts on a tough act but is a romantic at heart, longing for his fiancee back in the Ukraine. Finally, there is the mysterious Jane Doe (the vocally blessed Emily Rohm), who was decapitated in the accident, whom her fellow students do not recognize and whose body remained unclaimed. Each teenager sings a song to make the case for being the one chosen to return to life. The eclectic score has a wide variety of styles from pop rock to hip hop to faux Ukrainian folk song. The performers are all appealing. The scenic design by Scott Davis is wonderful, as are the costumes by Theresa Ham and the projections by Mike Tutaj. The choreography by Rachel Rockwell, who also directed, is lively. Why then was I slightly disappointed? In trying to tell us enough to care about each character, the show occasionally loses momentum. The interaction between the students and Karnak drops out for an extended stretch. The ending somehow did not have the impact I anticipated. Nevertheless, there is much to admire, particularly for a younger audience. If you liked “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which I was reminded of, you will probably enjoy this show. Running time: one hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Women of a Certain Age *** B+

The final play in Richard Nelson’s trilogy “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” now at the Public Theater, is set in the kitchen of the Gabriel family home in Rhinebeck, New York a couple of hours before the polls close on Election Day. The characters are the same as in the first two plays: Mary Gabriel (the superb Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor, was the third wife and now widow of Thomas Gabriel, a playwright who died exactly a year ago. His younger brother George (Jay O. Sanders), a cabinetmaker, also taught piano until hard times forced them to sell the family piano. George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley) works for a local caterer, but business is slow so she is also working part-time as a maid in a nearby hotel. Their son Paul is away at college, but his future there is uncertain because of their reduced financial status. George’s sister Joyce (Amy Warren), an unmarried assistant costume designer, is visiting from Brooklyn. Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), George and Joyce’s mother, who resides in a nearby assisted living facility, has had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. Thomas’s first wife Karin (Meg Gibson), an actress and teacher, is renting the room over the garage. She is performing a solo piece that evening based on the writings of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The modest supper of shepherd’s pie and paintbrush cookies they are preparing may be the last time the family is together in the family home. A financial crisis brought on by Patricia’s gullibility has forced the sale of the house. Their conversation ranges far and wide, from vintage cookbooks to gentrification to outside money’s influence on local politics. In preparing the house for sale, they run across a box of letters sent to Patricia when she was 13, shortly after the sudden death of her older sister. The attempt to tie the reasons for the sister’s death to a notorious incident long ago at Harvard seemed clumsy and out of place. The Gabriels do not yet know the election results, but their future does not look bright regardless of the outcome. In contrast to the family in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, their misfortune is entirely unearned. Anyone who has not seen at least the middle play of the trilogy may not get a lot out of this one. The ensemble cast is outstanding. Susan Hilferty designed the costumes and, with Jason Ardizzone West, the cozy set. The playwright directed. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Rancho Viejo ** C-

When I looked back at my review of Dan LeFranc’s previous production at Playwrights Horizons (The Big Meal in 2012), my heart sank. If I found that one overlong at 90 minutes, how would I possibly make it through his new 3-act play, which clocked in at 3 1/2 hours at the first preview? (It’s down to 3 hours 5 minutes as of last night.) From what I gather, there have been so many changes almost nightly that the play might be substantially different by the time it opens next week. I doubt that its essential core will be altered though. Basically, it’s a look — a long look — at the vacuousness of comfortable suburban life in a fictional community in Southern California, likely in Orange County. Add to that several absurdist touches and a few less than profound discussions of the nature of happiness and art. We meet four couples, three of retirement age and one still working, plus an enigmatic teenage boy and a scene-stealing dog. The main focus is on Pete (a marvelous Mark Blum) and Mary (a subdued Mare Winningham), a childless couple who have just moved to town and are trying without much success to fit in. Pete is a marvelous creation. If there were an Olympic event in social awkwardness, he would take home the gold. Mary might nab bronze. One of the play’s main sources of pleasure is to await the next unbelievably awkward remark out of Pete’s mouth. Forget Asperger’s; he’s on a spectrum of his own. Mary’s problem is subtler: it is her neediness for friendship that drives people away. When Pete learns that Richie, the unseen son of Patti (Julia Duffy) and Gary (Mark Zeisler), is getting divorced, he becomes inappropriately upset and obsessed with the idea of saving Richie’s marriage. The other couples are Mike (Bill Buell) and Anita (Ruth Aguilar). The vibrant Anita is Guatemalan; she has a few long speeches in Spanish that go untranslated. Leon (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), an African-American IT guy, and Suzanne (Lusia Strus), a real estate agent with an eye problem, are an unmarried couple with a large dog Mochi (Marti). Much of the first two acts takes place at parties at the home of one couple or another. Since the same set (by Dane Laffrey) represents the generic Southwestern living room of all four homes, it is sometimes hard to figure out where a given scene is taking place. Not that it matters much. Tate (Ethan Dubin), the sullen teenager who has little to do except lurk in the first two acts, comes into focus in a very strange scene near the beginning of Act 3. Does he ever! Jessica Pabst has dressed everyone aptly. Daniel Aukin’s direction seems attuned to the material. There are several funny moments, but the plot and the character development are minimal. I doubt that these are people that you would seek out to spend an evening with. I was pleasantly surprised that very few audience members left during either intermission.