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.