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.