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.