Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Angels in America ***

I wondered how well Tony Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on American Themes" would hold up today since it was so much a product of its time. The answer for me is "better than I expected." Part 1: Millennium Approaches retains much of its theatrical power to mix the personal and the political during the early years of the AIDS crisis. The current Signature Theatre production makes up in intimacy what it lacks in grandeur. The cast mostly shines: Christian Borle (Prior Walter), Bill Heck (Joe Pitt), Billy Porter (Belize), Zachary Quinto (Louis Aronson), Frank Wood (Roy Cohn), Robin Bartlett (Hannah Pitt/the Rabbi/Ethel Rosenberg/Old Bolshevik), Robin Weigert (The Angel et al.). Although I have enjoyed her in other plays, I did not care for Zoe Kazan as Harper Pitt, but I'm not sure whether it was the character or the actor that I found lacking. The flexible set assumes many identities with the aid of intelligently used projections. However, I did find the appearance of stagehands on stage a bit distracting. Alas, Part 2: Perestroika has not improved with age. I once again found it vastly inferior to Part 1 and became increasingly restless as it dragged on and on. I recommend against seeing both parts in one day as I did. Kudos to Signature for reviving an ambitious play for a new generation. It's far from perfect but well worth the effort.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Divine Sister ***

Charles Busch returns to his downtown roots with this send-up of Hollywood films about nuns now at the Soho Playhouse. Kiss tastefulness goodbye and sit back for 90 minutes of outrageous campy fun with the nuns of St. Veronica's. The plot, too convoluted to summarize here, takes a back seat to the larger-than-life performances. The entire cast (Busch, Alison Fraser, Julie Halston, Amy Rutberg, Jennifer Van Dyck and Jonathan Walker) is pitch-perfect with great timing. Even the sets (by B.T. Whitehill) and costumes (by Fabio Tolblini) contribute to the hilarity. Director Carl Andress keeps things moving briskly. The humor is often downright silly and even offensive, but hard to resist. There are more laughs per minute here than in any comedy I have seen in a long time. Depending on your tolerance for camp, you'll either be delighted or miserable.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Collection & A Kind of Alaska **

Lovers of the pregnant pause, rejoice! Pinter's back in town with two quite different one-act plays at the Atlantic Theater. The Collection, from 1961, follows the repercussions of an adulterous act which may or may not have taken place. Bill (Matt McGrath), a dress designer who was saved from the slums by his older roommate Harry (Larry Bryggman), may have had a one-night fling with Stella (Rebecca Henderson), James' wife. James (Darren Pattie) menaces Bill to find out the truth and Harry visits Stella to hear her version. There is a sensual undercurrent between James and Bill and class tension between Harry and everyone else. The stylish split set is very effective and the costumes, especially Bill's over-the-top wardrobe, go a long way to create the characters. The dialogue is wittily absurd. It's a pleasant hour with no pretense of profundity. A Kind of Alaska, inspired by Oliver Sacks' book Awakenings, describes what happens when a teenage girl awakens from a 29-year coma. Lisa Emery stunningly captures the anguish of the confused girl/woman. Bryggman and Henderson as her doctor and sister don't have much chance to shine. While I was moved by Emery's big scene, I thought the rest of the play was rather flat. Karen Kohlhaas directed both plays.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

There Are No More Big Secrets *

Heidi Schreck's new play at the Rattlestick starts with a drunken reunion of two couples who haven't seen each other in 15 years. The hosts, a pair of schoolteachers (a fine Gibson Frazier and a compulsively watchable Christina Kirk), welcome into their home an old friend (an overemoting Adam Rothenberg) and his Russian wife (Dagmara Dominczyk, who shines in the play's showiest role) who may be fleeing Russia because her investigative journalism angered the wrong people. Her husband was a childhood friend of both the hosts and had an affair with the wife. Their relationships are further complicated by a half-hearted dose of the supernatural that, for me at least, undermined the play. Nadia Alexander appears in the second act as a troubled teenager. John McDermott's set of an old country house well serves the play. I'm not sure whether Kip Fagan's direction was lacking or whether the writing just slacked off. With some misgivings, I stayed for the second act and regretted it. Unfortunately the liveliest character does not return and the promise of the play's early moments are largely dissipated. It's one of those frustrating plays that's just good enough that you wish it were better.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Coward ***

The Coward, Nick Jones' new comedy now in an LCT3 production at the Duke, is a mess, albeit an intermittently hilarious one. All about honor and duelling in late 18th century England, it revolves around Lucidus Culling (Jeremy Strong), an effete young gentleman whose placid behavior does not meet with his father's (Richard Poe's) approval. His two brothers have died in duels and his father expects no less from him. He challenges an old man to a duel, but when he learns that the man's son, a great shot, will stand in for the father, he hires a commoner (the always enjoyable Christopher Evan Welch) to represent him. The duel spins wildly out of control, but the result is to gain admiration and celebrity for Lucidus. Further complications ensue, to put it mildly. It's a wild blend of period comedy, black humor and the absurd, with some very funny one-liners and anachronisms. David Zinn's lovely set and Gabriel Berry's lavish costumes are a pleasure to behold. Director Sam Gold keeps things moving briskly. The fun is slow to build in Act One and runs down too soon in Act Two, but during its best moments, the play is very funny... and it's only $20.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Elling **

Simon Bent's English adaptation of a Norwegian play (and Oscar-nominated film) by Axel Hellstenius based on a series of novels by Ingmar Ambjornsen was a big hit in London. Having successfully crossed the North Sea, the play has now made it across the Atlantic in a production starring Denis O'Hare and Brendan Fraser directed by Doug Hughes at the Ethel Barrymore. Any opportunity to see O'Hare in action is a pleasure for me. He does not disappoint here in the title role of an agoraphobic momma's boy who was institutionalized after his mother's death. His roommate in the asylum, Kjell Bjarne (whose name is annoyingly repeated at least every five minutes), is a simple lug who is simultaneously lascivious and innocent -- it's a good role for Fraser. Released to a state-owned apartment in Oslo on a trial basis, this Norwegian odd couple strive to find their place in the world. Richard Easton is somewhat wasted in the role of a poet who befriends Elling. Jennifer Coolidge is hilarious in several roles, particularly as a poet at a slam. Jeremy Shamos is solid as their social worker. While there are many very funny one-liners, the humor tends to be broad and occasionally descends to the level of a tv sitcom. The second act runs downhill rapidly. The audience was wildly enthusiastic though. Maybe I just don't find the struggle of ex-mental patients to adjust that suitable a topic for comedy.

Friday, November 12, 2010

That Hopey Changey Thing ***

Richard Nelson's latest effort, now in a production directed by the playwright at The Public Theater, could serve as a bookend to Lisa Kron's "In the Wake," which is also playing there. While Kron's work chronicles the life of New York lefties in the W. era, Nelson portrays a liberal family's dinner two years into the Obama era on election night 2010. The four grown Apple siblings gather at the Rhinebeck home of the unmarried sister who is caring for their uncle, an actor who is suffering from loss of memory after a heart attack. The divorced sister has brought along her current interest, who is also an actor, to meet the family. During the early scenes, we pick up on the complicated relationships that unite and divide the family. When the conversation turns to politics, everyone voices opinions that arise naturally from what we have learned about them. Noone's behavior escapes criticism. The best that can be said is that some politicians are less bad than others. Not much happens, nothing is resolved, yet the experience is mildly bracing, mainly because of the superb ensemble acting, The entire cast -- Jon Devries, Shuler Hensley, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robbins, Jay O. Sanders and J. Smith-Cameron -- is topnotch.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In the Wake ***

Lisa Kron's latest play, now at The Public Theater, in a production directed by Leigh Silverman, chronicles the travails, both public and private, of an East Village activist and her circle during the Bush (W.) years. Ellen, the right-thinking (i.e. left-thinking), annoying yet appealing heroine is played by Marin Ireland. Although I enjoyed her immensely in "Reasons To Be Pretty," I thought she was too perky and manic here. Most of the other characters are vividly portrayed, in particular Deirdre O'Connell's Judy, a visiting international aid worker who challenges Ellen's view of life. The Thanksgiving 2000 dinner that opens the play gets things off to a very good start, but things bog down a bit, particularly in the second act. At 2 1/2 hours, it could have been trimmed a bit. Nevertheless, it makes for a mostly lively evening.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Break of Noon **

MCC's world premiere production of Neil Labute's latest play is now in previews at the Lucille Lortel. The role of John Smith, the sole survivor of an office slaughter, is a comfortable fit for David Duchovny -- perhaps too comfortable. Smith is convinced that he has been spared by divine intervention to spread God's word. His attempts to be a better person and a worthy vessel get a mixed reaction. After an opening monologue describing his view of the massacre, he has scenes with a media rights attorney (to negotiate a million dollar sale of a photograph of killer and victims that he has somehow managed to take), a smarmy TV talk show host, his ex-wife, his ex-wife's cousin (and ex-lover), a prostitute who is the daughter of one of the victims, and a detective who doubts his story. Amanda Peet has little to work with in the underwritten roles of sister and ex-wife. Tracee Chimo is luckier with two juicy parts -- the tv host and the prostitute. John Earl Jelks is effective both as lawyer and detective. The 90-minute play concludes with another monologue, this time in the form of a sermon, in which Smith gives an alternate version of the office slaughter. The final image is both surprising and ambiguous. When it was over, I was left in a state of puzzlement over what Labute was trying to achieve. Clearly he is against today's infotainment media, but what is his attitude toward faith and religion? This is not Labute at his best.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown ***: a first look

NOTE: It's highly likely that the show that opens on November 4 will differ significantly from what I saw today, but I thought it was still worthwhile to share my impressions of the show in its present form.

How brave it was for anyone to attempt a musical adaptation of Almodovar's wickedly funny 1988 film. His sensibility is so idiosyncratic that it must have been quite a challenge to rework his comedy for the musical stage. (Rumor has it that he has played an active role in the effort.) Overall, I would say that the result is successful. Jeffrey Lane's book is funny and clever with several laugh-out-loud moments. David Yazbek's lyrics and Latin-infused music serve the story well even if there are no breakout hits. Director Bartlett Sher once again shows he has a way with a musical. The costumes are wildly over the top, as is appropriate. The set is a wonder, with its colorful projections of Madrid (which malfunctioned in the second act) and its restlessly moving components, which include a taxi and a motorcycle. The choreography is lively with nods to flamenco and tango. The casting is good down to the smallest role. Sherie Renee Scott is not an obvious choice for Pepa, but she handles the role creditably. Patti LuPone is a hoot as Lucia and Laura Benanti, as Candela, steals every scene she is in. Brian Stokes Mitchell makes Ivan's caddishness a joy to behold. However, there are second act problems.The last two musical numbers listed on the program were not performed. The show ended so abruptly that I was caught by surprise. I'm sure they are working hard to get the ending right before opening night. Despite these problems, I found the show a delight and can happily recommend it.

P.S. Kudos to the Shubert Organization for "refurbishing" the Belasco Theatre. With its glittering stained glass, its lavish gilding and its overripe murals, it provides the perfect setting for Almodovar's larger-than-life emotions.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Middletown *

When Will Eno's one-man play Thom Pain (about nothing) opened off-Broadway in 2005, it received rapturous reviews, a Pulitzer nomination, and a year-long run. For me, all it offered was 70 of the longest, deadliest minutes I have ever spent in a theater. Even though his new play Middletown, now in previews at the Vineyard Theatre has already been awarded the initial Horton Foote prize for Promising New American Play, I still would not have ventured anywhere near it had it not been part of my Vineyard subscription. It started well enough with a long, amusing salutation to the audience, but rapidly went downhill for me. It's an absurdirst, somewhat surreal, faux-folksy pastiche of life in a small town. The characters are poorly drawn and their relationships are feebly developed. Our Town it's not! My companion fled at intermission. Only my loyalty to you, dear readers, kept me in my seat for Act II. I wish I could say it got better, but, if anything, it got worse. Call me a Philistine, but I just don't get the acclaim for Will Eno. I predict that the critics will fall over themselves to praise Middletown, but don't be fooled.

Gatz ***

When a production receives the lavish praise that the staged reading cum story theater piece Gatz by Elevator Repair Service now at the Public Theater has garnered, there is a danger of high expectations leading to disappointment. By and large, this did not happen for me. The underlying concept is that an office worker whose computer won't start runs across a paperback copy of Fitzgerald's masterpiece and begins reading it aloud. Through a very clever transition, his office mates are gradually drawn in and assume the roles of characters in the book. Once this transformation has been accomplished, I found the subsequent office routines we see (signing papers, opening mail, filing) a bit intrusive. Some of the comedy was slapstick and coarse, amusing but not really supported by the text. These are minor quibbles though and did not seriously diminish my enjoyment. The cast is uniformly strong and all their characterizations are vivid, but I must single out Scott Shepherd for his yeoman service as Nick, the reader/narrator. Excellent sound and lighting design contribute greatly to establishing the settings. I won't say that I was enthralled every moment of its 6 1/2 hours (plus intermissions), but I left happy that I had experienced The Great Gatsby in this unique form. Caution: Dress warmly -- the theater was so cold that people had to keep their coats on during the first half.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Spirit Control *

Since I enjoyed Beau Willimon's political campaign drama Farragut North two years ago at the Atlantic, I was looking forward to his latest play, Spirit Control, now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club. In it, Jeremy Sisto plays an air traffic controller who must guide a frightened passenger to land a small plane whose pilot has suffered a heart attack. This incident makes for a tension-filled 15 minutes at the play's beginning. The balance of the play depicts the immediate and long-term consequences of this event. The surrealistic direction it takes does not make much sense and, for me at least, the play ends up chasing its tail. Not recommended.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Human Scale ***

"A plague on both your houses" could well be a summary of Lawrence Wright's theater piece "The Human Scale." More an illustrated lecture than a play, this 80-minute work about Gaza finds more than enough blame to go around on both sides of the conflict. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wright has expanded an article he wrote for The New Yorker and adapted it for the stage. Wright is no actor and is not blessed with charisma, but these shortcomings are more than balanced by his skill as a journalist. Using the capture of Israeli soldier Gidan Shalit by Hamas as a framework, Wright delves into the causes, both immediate and ancient, of this event, as well as its consequences for the present and the future. The video clips and photographs are well-chosen and add greatly to the impact of his words. The overall effect on me was powerful, although I left the theater feeling even more hopeless than before about the prospects for peace.

Friday, October 8, 2010

La Bête ***

David Hirson's Broadway record is unenviable-- in 1991, La Bête ran for 25 performances; in 2000, Wrong Mountain lasted 28 performances. Who would have guessed that a revival of La Bête would be one of the hottest tickets on Broadway?  A faux-Moliere comedy in rhymed couplets hardly seems a sure bet, but, with the right cast, it might overcome its reputation as a "cult flop." Reuniting award-winning director Matthew Warchus with Tony-award winner Mark Rylance and adding David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley certainly improves the odds. Rylance is simply brilliant as the vulgar egotistical street performer Valere. No one does righteous indignation better than Hyde Pierce: the part of actor-manager Elomire (an anagram of Moliere) fits him like a glove. Only Lumley seems out of her element as the acting troupe's royal patron: her performance is shrill and lacks nuance. (For some reason the current production changes the patron from prince to princess and the location from Languedoc to Paris.) Rylance's astonishing 30-minute outburst of logorrhea early in the play is something I will never forget. Alas, it sets the bar so high that anything that follows is bound to disappoint. Once the princess arrives and the play turns into an extended argument over the merits of "pure" vs. popular art, it loses much of its sparkle. The play-within-a-play performed by Valere and the troupe's actors is surprisingly flat. Mark Thompson's set and costumes are wonderful. Although the play fizzles a bit during its second hour, it is well worth seeing. Mark Rylance's Valere is simply not to be missed.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Life in the Theatre **

Although David Mamet's 1977 affectionate tribute to actors played off- and off-off-Broadway as well as in London, the new production directed by Neal Pepe is the first time it has been seen on Broadway. Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight star as two repertory actors, one old and the other young, seen both onstage and backstage over the course of a season. There are 20-some scenes, some of them very short. The excerpts from their performances are a virtual catalog of all that can go wrong on a stage. Some are quiet hilarious, while others misfire. The main connecting tissue of the play is a series of conversations while the two are sitting at their adjacent make-up tables. Their relationship gradually changes from welcome mentoring to unwelcome interference and competition. Stewart's role is by far the juicier and he is both amusing and touching as an actor whose best days are behind him. Knight's role seemed underwritten to me; I did not detect much development or even much underlying personality. This being Mamet, women do not escape unscathed. Using the "C" word only once in 85 minutes is relatively benign for him. I don't think putting this play on a huge stage serves it well. For me, it emphasized how slight the material is. In culinary terms, it's a snack, not a meal.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Orlando **

Five reasons why you shouldn't take my comments on Sarah Ruhl's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel at CSC too seriously:
1. I haven't read the novel.
2. I haven't seen the movie with Tilda Swinton.
3. My previous experience with Sarah Ruhl's work has been, at best, mixed.
4. A little David Greenspan goes a long, long way for me.
5. When I saw it, I was under the influence of antihistamines and was in a semi-trancelike state.

Considering all that, it's no surprise that I didn't find the work compelling. The dominance of narration over dialog a la story theater was a distancing factor. Francesca Faridany made for a fetching Orlando, the three actors in the ensemble demonstrated admirable versatility, but Annika Boras as Sasha made little impression. The minimalist set worked well, the costumes and lighting were excellent, the choreographed movements were graceful, but for me it was all for naught.

I would very much like to hear dissenting opinions from those who have read the book and/or seen the film.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Office Hours ***

A.R. Gurney's latest play is a series of related sketches taking place in the offices of the instructors who teach a required Great Books course at an unnamed university in the early 1970's. The play takes us from morning to evening, September to June, Plato to Shakespeare. Written for The Flea Theater's young resident company, The Bats, it provides the opportunity for 6 young actors (actually 12, because there are two alternating casts) to demonstrate their acting chops by taking on 5 roles each. Some of the sketch topics include plagiarism, faculty romance, the ambiguities of mentoring, emerging feminism, the difficulty of engaging students' interests and the fallout from the Vietnam War. Underlying all is the question of whether courses dealing strictly with "dead white men" are still valid. The quality of the sketches was a bit uneven, but the overall effect, for me, was positive. (Caveat: I have always been a Gurney fan and have found even his lesser efforts enjoyable.) On Tuesday nights, there are "pay what you can" performances.

Brief Encounter ***

Like the current The 39 Steps, Emma Rice's Brief Encounter is a cleverly deconstructed take on a classic British film. Interestingly the film itself was an adaptation by Coward of his play Still Life, so what we are watching is a play based on a film based on a play. Unlike The 39 Steps which reduces the film to its essentials and relies on the audience's imagination to carry it along, Brief Encounter opens up the film with songs (by Noel Coward, of course), projections, puppets, amusing props and even a bit of vaudeville. It won Rice the Olivier Award for best director. After an acclaimed limited run at St. Ann's Warehouse late last year, it is now back in New York as a Roundabout production at Studio 54. Most of the dialogue is taken verbatim from Coward's screenplay, but there are liberties such as an added character to provide a love interest for the young waitress. Some scenes have been truncated to make room for the interpolations and the ending has been tweaked a bit to be more optimistic. The actors' accents are plummy, but not overripe. They effortlessly navigate the shoals between twee and camp without running aground. At 90 minutes, it does not wear out its welcome.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Alphabetical Order **

Michael Frayn's versatility amazes me. Anyone who could write both Noises Off and Copenhagen is a playwright to be reckoned with. Besides being a playwright, Frayn is a successful translator (of Chekhov's plays) and a gifted novelist. His Headlong, a send-up of art collectors, is one of the funniest novels I have ever read. I was therefore quite keen to see Keen Company's revival of his 1977 play Alphabetical Order. This time out, his subject is the foibles of seven employees of a failing provincial newspaper. The set, a monumentally cluttered newspaper library, effectively mirrors the characters' chaotic lives. Unfortunately, I didn't find the characters all that interesting: some were one-dimensional and others were fuzzily motivated. The play builds to frenetic farce in each of its two acts, but doesn't come near the inspired madness of Noises Off. There is an undercurrent of sadness about aging and obsolescence that contrasts with the workplace highjinks. The acting was a bit broad for my taste. Some of the British references do not travel well. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see an example of Frayn's early work.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Pitmen Painters **

I was really looking forward to this MTC import because it had been well received in London.  Lee Hall, whose book and lyrics for Billy Elliot: The Musical were so satisfying, once again mines the vein of northern England and its miners in his adaptation of a book by William Feaver about the Ashington Group. This group of miners learned to paint in the late 1930's under the auspices of their union's education program. Their paintings attracted first local, then national attention, which, judging from the projections seen in the play, was well-deserved. Unfortunately, I found the paintings and the underlying story more interesting than the play. The characters seemed mostly stereotypical and the situations predictable. Hall too often settles for an easy laugh. He aspires to high seriousness about the proper role of art and the promise of socialism, but the narrative lacks a clear arc and pretty much fizzles out when the mines are nationalized. Having said all this, I hasten to add that the play is far from an unpleasant experience. I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more if my expectations, based on Hall's previous work, had not been so high.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Through the Night **

I'm not a big fan of one-person shows, but I decided to take a chance on Daniel Beaty's 80-minute solo piece now at the Union Square Theater. Beaty portrays six black males in Harlem, ranging from a 10-year-old boy scientist to a 60-year-old overweight diabetic bishop with a passion for HoHos. With a supple voice and a quick change of posture, Beaty breathes life into each character and reveals the pressures each faces as an urban black male. How the characters are connected gradually becomes apparent as the show progresses. Some of the speeches turn into poems and even songs. The simple white-slat set is complemented by video projections to mark scene changes. Some sections of the play were extremely moving, while others seemed facile. While the whole impressed me less than its parts, the show was worthwhile for the opportunity to see a very talented actor displaying his craft.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Freud's Last Session ****

This lively two-hander by Mark St. Germaine presents an imagined conversation between Freud and C.S. Lewis on the day Britain enters WWII. Martin Raynor makes a powerful impression as Freud, wracked with the horrible pain of oral cancer, but still in possession of his wits and his wit. Mark H. Dold is slightly less effective as Lewis. The two argue the existence of God and poke at each other's beliefs with entertaining and moving results. The set, a detailed recreation of Freud's Hampstead study, is a treat to see. The Little Theater at the West Side Y is a gem (but avoid rows B and C because they are not raked). All in all, a very enjoyable 80 minutes.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Me, Myself & I *

"Much Ado about Nothing" would have been a more appropriate title for Edward Albee's play at Playwrights Horizons. I suspect Albee had more fun writing it than you will watching it. Tons of style, milligrams of content. Lots of shouting and posturing. Ashley and Murray are fun though. Zachary Booth has a nice backside. Don't leave at intermission or you'll miss an amusing stage effect near the end.