Saturday, December 17, 2011

The 10 Best * and 10 Worst Plays I Saw in 2011

(Be sure to click the title to see the complete lists!)
Here, in alphabetical order, is the list of the ten plays I enjoyed most in 2011:

The Book of Mormon
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
4000 Miles
Good People
The Motherf**ker with the Hat
The School for Lies
Sons of the Prophet
War Horse

Here, also alphabetically, are the ten plays I enjoyed least this year:

Close Up Space
Dreams of Flying, Dreams of Falling
Man and Boy
Marie and Bruce
The People in the Picture
Relatively Speaking
We Live Here
Wild Animals You Should Know

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays **

(Always click on the title to see the complete review!)
Over 90 minutes, nine playlets by eight playwrights examine various aspects of marriage equality. The actors read from scripts on music stands. As in any venture of this type, the results are uneven. Most successful are two hilarious works by Paul Rudnick featuring the irrepressible Harriet Harris: in one, she is a member of a dozen anti-same-sex marriage groups who is tormented by gay voices everywhere; in the other, she is a trendy liberal New York mother who is ashamed that her gay son isn't married yet. Richard Thomas is moving in Moises Kaufman's eulogy for a partner of 46 years. Neil LaBute's overlapping monologues for two men, played by Craig Bierko and Mark Sullivan (Mark Consuelos's understudy), is called "Strange Fruit." With that title, you know things won't end happily. The remaining works, by Jordan Harrison, Wendy MacLeod, Doug Wright, Mo Gaffney and Jose Rivera don't fare as well. It's a thankless task for any actress to share a stage with the likes of Ms. Harris, but Polly Draper and Beth Leavel do their best. Behind the actors, Sarah Zeitler fills the Minetta Lane stage with transparent chairs, flower arrangements and an enormous white swag passing through two interlocked rings, dramaticallly lit by Josh Starr. Stuart Ross directed. As I looked around at the audience, it was a clear case of preaching to the choir.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Close Up Space *

The title of Molly Smith Metzler's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I refers to a proofreading instruction. As I suffered through its long 90 minutes, it crossed my mind that the title might well be an imperative for MTC. If they can't find better plays to fill their space at City Center than the two duds we have had so far this season (the other being We Live Here), perhaps they have too much space to fill. When one purchases a subscription, one doesn't expect that every play will be a masterpiece, but one does expect better than this. The cartoonish characters include an editor (David Hyde Pierce) alienated from his teen-age daughter (Colby Minifie), who has been expelled from her latest boarding school; a socially challenged office manager (Michael Chernus); a demanding author (Rosie Perez) and a naive intern from Vassar (Jessica DiGiovanni). The twists and turns of the plot make no sense at all. Leigh Silverman, who did so well directing Chinglish, can't get this turkey to fly. A clever set by Todd Rosenthal is wasted here. Maybe MTC should cut its budget for scenic design and put that money into finding better plays.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lysistrata Jones ***

Once again, Douglas Carter Beane has turned to ancient Greece for inspiration, this time for a modern take on Aristophanes, with music and lyrics by Lewis Flinn. In this version, now at the Walter Kerr, the cheerleaders of Athens U decide not to "give it up" to their boyfriends on the basketball team until they snap the team's 30-year losing streak. Excluding the bodacious Hetaira (look it up, folks), the combined body fat of the cast must be near zero. This incredibly talented bunch do wonders in the sensational dance numbers by director/choreographer Dan Knechtges. They dance, they sing, they act, they even shoot a few hoops. Patti Murin shines as the title character. Liz Mikel, Josh Segarra, Jason Tam and Lindsay Nicole Chambers stand out in the uniformly excellent cast of 12. The music is lively, but unmemorable. Allen Moyer's scenic design is a bit too slick for the production: who needs a back wall of annoyingly bright lights shining in the audience's eyes for a few seconds? The costumes by David C. Woodward and Thomas Charles LeGalley are terrific, especially in the final scene. Don't worry too much about the plot -- it's silly but sweet. It could use some judicious trimming in the second act. When the show was given in the gym at Judson Church last summer, it drew enthusiastic reviews, including Critic's Pick from the Times. Whether it's right for Broadway remains to be seen. I personally think it would be more successful in a less lavish production off-Broadway. In any case, I had fun and hope it succeeds. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including intermission.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Seminar ***

(Always click on the title to see the complete review!)
Theresa Rebeck's new play at the Golden is a guilty pleasure. If you stop to analyze it for even a moment, the plot is full of implausibilities and contrivances, but, for me at least, they were more than compensated by a terrific cast, some very funny dialogue, and a first-rate production. Alan Rickman stars as Leonard, a famous writer/editor, both sinister and sexy, who has been paid $20,000 to lead a 10-week writing seminar for four budding writers: Kate (Lily Rabe), Martin (Hamish Linklater), Douglas (Jerry O'Connell) and Izzy (Etienne Park). Each of the four has a somewhat stereotypical set of traits. The group banter is entertaining for a while. Then Leonard arrives with his take-no-prisoners critique of their writing. Egos are bruised, sheets are rumpled, careers are molded. Since onstage nudity is almost de rigeur these days, Etienne displays her lovely breasts. The focus of the play wavers and finally settles on Martin, who has thus far been unwilling to submit his work for critique. The role of Leonard is hardly a stretch for Rickman, but he handles it with subtlety. The other cast members are excellent, the direction by Sam Gold is fine, and the sets and costumes by the ubiquitous David Zinn are wonderful. There is a moment (when some of the audience thought the play had ended) when the entire set flies upward to reveal a terrific new set underneath. It's not great theater, but it's entertaining. The audience loved it. Running time: 100 minutes; no intermission.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Maple and Vine **

The intriguing premise of Jordan Harrison's new work at Playwrights Horizons is the existence of the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a group that has created a community where it's always 1955. The reenactors who have moved there are fleeing the burdensome freedoms of 21st-century America for a place and time where roles may be clearly defined, choices limited, secrets hidden, repression prevalent and prejudice rampant, but where there is a stronger sense of community than now. Katha (Marin Ireland), a harried book editor, and Ryu (Peter Kim), her Japanese-American husband unhappy in his career as a plastic surgeon, are recruited for a six-month trial stay by Dean (Trent Dawson) and his wife Ellen (Jeanine Serralles), a seemingly perfect 1950's couple. Omar, Katha's gay office mate in the present, and Roger, Ryu's mercurial boss in 1955, are both played by Pedro Pascal. Serrales doubles as a worker in Katha's office. The play's premise is elaborated in many short scenes, leading to an ending that is a bit pat. The set, by Alexander Dodge, is a technical marvel: the center section of the stage disappears into the floor several times and comes up with a new set on it. Smaller modular sets are pushed around by a crew of four. Frankly, I found all the set changing a distraction. Both side aisles of the theater are used for several scenes. If you are seated in the first five or six rows, you risk whiplash spinning around trying to find the actors. I think director Anne Kauffman could have found a better solution. Ilona Somogyi's period costumes are wonderful. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Hour **

(Always click on the title to see the complete review!)
Ethan Coen's trio of one-act plays is the third evening of short works he has done for the Atlantic Theater. I wasn't much impressed with the other two -- and even less so with his lame contribution to "Relatively Speaking" -- so I went with low expectations. To say that this is the best of his three programs for Atlantic is not saying a lot, but it's not nothing. It begins well with "End Days," in which a depressive barfly (the excellent Gordon MacDonald)  rants about the evils of the digital age. His rants alternate with short scenes of his home life. As is so often the case with Coen, he doesn't know when to stop: the play would work better if it ended after the first scene. In "City Lights," Ted, a dyspeptic musician (Joey Slotnick) tries to track down a cabbie (Rock Kohli), in whose taxi he may have left a demo tape. Ted meets an idealistic schoolteacher (Aya Cash), who takes a liking to him, and her friend (Cassie Beck), who does not. Although he retrieves his demo tape, things do not end well. This being the play in which Coen is most closely channeling Mamet, using the C word at least once is obligatory. In the final play, "Wayfarer's Inn," two road warriors forced to stay at a third-rate hotel are planning their evening. The cynical one (Clark Gregg), unhampered by guilt over adultery, is lining up a double date for himself and his depressed traveling companion (Lenny Venito), who decides not to go. A scene at an "authentic" Japanese restaurant introduces us to the two dates, one bodacious and carefree (Ana Reeder), the other (Amanda Quaid), not so much, and also the stern waitress (Susan Hyon). There's a long story about a man and a fish which each of them interprets differently. Back at the hotel, things have taken a bad turn. I was left with a feeling of frustration: Coen knows how to write a good scene, but he still hasn't figured out how to combine scenes into a cohesive whole. I wish his screenwriting skills were more in evidence. The set by Riccardo Hernandez is a bit generic. Sarah Edwards' costumes are fine. Neil Pepe directed. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Blood and GIfts **

J.T. Rogers' play about American policy in Afghanistan during the 1980's, now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse,  has much to admire: a fine cast, Michael Yeargan's elegantly simple set, Catharine Zuber's costumes, Bartlett Sher's smooth direction, a few terrific scenes, and, most of all, an important subject. Why is it then that I didn't like it more? Perhaps it's because watching anything that depends for some of its impact on the wisdom of hindsight makes me a bit uncomfortable, because it's too easy for the audience to feel smug and superior. Perhaps it's because the attempt to flesh out the private lives of the leading characters seemed half-hearted. Perhaps it's because its arrival in New York now a year after "The Great Game"(for which a 20-minute version was written, but omitted in New York) seems almost superfluous. Nevertheless, it is a worthy attempt to dramatize complicated events in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Washington. The focus is on James Warnock (Jeremy Davidson, who I thought shouted more than necessary), the CIA field operative in Pakistan, and his dealings with his Russian counterpart (the fine Michael Aronov); the longtime MI6 man in town (the always excellent Jefferson Mays), Warnock's liaison in the ISI (the believable Gabriel Ruiz); Abdullah Khan (the credible Bernard White), an Afghan warlord that Warnock trusts; Walter Barnes (the adroit John Procaccino), his CIA boss, and others.  Their complicated interactions flew by in rapid succession for over 2 1/2 hours,  leaving me a bit exhausted. There is one revelation in the final scene that Warnock seemed to be the only person in the entire theater to be surprised by.  I wasn't sure whether this was the playwright's attempt to show how clueless he had been for 10 years or just poor writing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Burning *

Anal intercourse (straight and gay), anilingus, cunnilingus, fellatio, incestuous masturbation, pedophilia -- all are onstage in Thomas Bradshaw's new play, now in a New Group production on Theatre Row. Long after the shock and titillation wore off, the sex scenes continued until a groan was audible at the sight of yet another character disrobing. All this carnal activity is allegedly in service to a convoluted plot that takes place both in the 1980's and the present. Among the characters in New York are a 14-year-old hustler who wants to be an actor, a gay producer and actor who take him in to be their slave, a black artist who keeps his race a professional secret, his British wife, and his late cousin's sexually confused son. In Berlin we meet a neo-Nazi brother and sister, their constipated friend, and a gorgeous prostitute allegedly from Ethiopia. An occasional quotation from the Marquis de Sade is thrown in to supply philosophical ballast. And so it goes, on and on for almost three hours. It was often unclear to me whether the playwright was being satirical or in earnest. If there was a point to it all, it was lost on me. I will spare the actors mentioning their names. Scott Elliott directed.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Suicide, Incorporated ***

Andrew Hinderaker's interesting but flawed new play is the latest offering at the Black Box, the tiny theater below the Laura Pels where Roundabout Underground presents work by young, emerging playwrights for a mere $20. In it, we are asked to imagine the existence of Legacy Letters, a company that writes farewell notes for prospective suicides. Scott, the soulless boss straight out of Mamet (Toby Leonard Moore), sadistically mistreats his sole employee Perry (Corey Hawkins). Jason (Gabriel Ebert, who made such a fine impression last year in 4000 Miles) applies for a writing job, but has hidden motives which might have something to do with his younger brother Tommy (Jake O'Connor). His first client is the sad sack Norm (the excellent James McMenamin), whose tale is truly wrenching. Mike DiSalvo has a tiny role as a police officer. The simple set by Daniel Zimmerman transforms from a sterile office to Jason's home with the movement of a few panels and a lot of furniture shlepping back and forth by the actors. Jessica Wegener Shay's costumes fit the characters like a glove. Jonathan Berry's direction is unobtrusive. The play may drift from black comedy to melodrama, but it is sufficiently promising to make Hinderaker a talent to watch. Running time: 85 minutes without intermission. General admission.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Godspell ***

(Always click on the title to see the complete review!)
I must be one of three people on the planet who have never seen Godspell either on stage or screen. My reaction to the current Broadway revival at Circle in the Square is therefore uncontaminated by previous exposure or expectations. Neither its music (by Stephen Schwartz) nor its topic (the Gospel of Matthew) is something that would normally attract me, but curiosity led me to take the plunge and buy a ticket. On the whole, I was glad I did. The nonstop energy and prodigious talent of the cast go a long way to offset the show's gimmickry and simplistic core. The choreography by Christopher Gattelli is very lively and makes excellent use of theater in the round. The book really does not provide much opportunity to develop distinctive characters. Casting the same actor (Wallace Smith) as John and Judas sounds more interesting than it is. Hunter Parrish is adequate but not memorable as Jesus. Daniel Goldstein's direction rarely lets things flag. The many groups in the audience included a bunch of nuns, who looked very happy at play's end.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wild Animals You Should Know *

I know the year has several weeks to go, but I think it is safe to say that Thomas Higgins' new play now in an MCC production at the Lucille Lortel will prove to be one of the worst I have seen this year. The material is hardly original: take confused teenager, adoring friend, sensitive scoutmaster, distant parents, fat drunk for comic relief -- shake and stir. As high school friends Matthew and Jacob, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Gideon Glick look a bit long in the tooth. John Behlmann and Daniel Stuart Sherman make the best of stereotypical roles. Not even fine actors like Alice Ripley and Patrick Breen can breathe life into the wooden dialog they are saddled with. About two minutes into the play, Matthew strips to his jockey shorts as an online birthday gift to Jacob. It's all downhill from there. Running time: 95 minutes without intermission.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sons of the Prophet ****

Stephen Karam brings a fresh new voice to the theater in this drama with strong comic overtones, now in a Roundabout production at the Laura Pels Theatre. The play introduces us to the Douaihys, a Lebanese-American family in northeast Pennsylvania, whose lives are repeatedly touched by adversity. In order to get health insurance, Joseph (the superb Santino Fontana), a gay man in his late 20s who has been experiencing knee problems and mysterious neurological symptoms, has accepted a job as assistant to Gloria (the always wonderful Joanna Gleason), a lonely, neurotic editor who has been exiled from literary New York for publishing a memoir that turned out to be a fake. Joseph's younger brother Charles (Chris Perfetti), who was born with one ear missing, is flamboyantly gay and a geography buff. Their mother has died years before. Their father dies as a result of a high school prank that goes awry. Their uncle Bill (Yusef Bulos) suffers from a debilitating disease and moves in with them. The local school board must decide whether to allow Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent), whose prank led to the father's death, to finish the football season. Timothy (Charles Socarides), an ambitious reporter assigned to cover the school board hearing, has a liaison with Joseph. The prophet of the title refers to Kahlil Gibran's classic. The Douaihys are distantly related to Gibran and Gloria thinks she can turn that relationship into a book that will redeem her publishing career. Each scene begins with a chapter title from Gibran's book. One of the refrains from the book, "all is well," is an ironic comment on the family's travails. There are many funny moments. Most of the play's conversations are wonderfully off-kilter. Joseph's attempt to navigate the voice mail system of a medical office is hilarious. The playwright resists the temptation to tie up all the loose ends neatly, which better reflects real life. Seeing a loving family on stage is a rare treat these days. The cast is uniformly excellent, including Dee Nelson and Lizbeth Mackay who play multiple roles. The set design by Anna Louizos works well, Bobby Frederick Tilley II's costumes are fine, and Peter DuBois's direction is excellent. My one quibble is that a scene in which the prankster visits the family falls flat. All in all, the play is certainly one of the highlights of the Fall season. Running time: 1hour 45 minutes. No intermission.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Asuncion *

Jesse Eisenberg's comedy, now at the Cherry Lane in a Rattlestick production, is the third play by a young actor turned playwright that I have seen since June. The others were Zach Braff's "All New People" at Second Stage and Zoe Kazan's "We Live Here" at Manhattan Theatre Club. Of the three, Zach Braff was the most successful. His play was no masterpiece, but was at least a guilty pleasure. The Kazan play landed with a thud. Now along comes Eisenberg's play, which falls somewhere in between. Unlike the other two actor/playwrights, who did not appear in their plays, Eisenberg wrote the showiest role for himself. He plays Edgar, a wildly frenetic self-styled journalist, a hanger-on in an upstate college town, who never stops talking and whose capacity for self-delusion and misunderstanding is limitless. He shares the apartment of Vinny (Justin Bartha, who starred in Braff's play), his former teaching assistant in a Black Studies course, whom he worships and who treats him like his manservant. Edgar's older brother Stuart (Remy Auburgonois) makes a surprise visit from New York with his new Filipina bride Asuncion (Camille Mana) in tow and asks them to let her stay with them for the weekend without explaining why. The disequilibrium brought on by her presence drives the action. The character of Edgar is written so broadly that he is almost a cartoon character. For a few minutes, it was fun to see Eisenberg's Edgar, but it became tiresome very quickly. Bartha captures both the charm and the sinister edge to Vinny. Mana makes the best of an ill-defined role. There are some funny lines along the way, but not enough to hide the play's substantial flaws. John McDermott's set is appropriately seedy for a walk-up off-campus apartment and Jessica Pabst's costumes are fine. Kip Fagan's direction is blameless.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes plus intermission

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Milk Like Sugar ***

(Always click on the title to see the complete review!)
Kirsten Greenidge's ambitious new play is now at Playwrights Horizons in a coproduction with Women's Project Theater and the La Jolla Playhouse. Among the many topics it takes on are teenage pregnancy, rampant consumerism, mother-daughter relations, friendship and loyalty, the fear of loneliness, and the degradation of feeling that arises from living in a circumscribed world. That's a big agenda for a 100-minute play, perhaps too big. However, the production is so heartfelt that it is impossible not to be drawn into the world of these four African-American 16-year-old girls (Angela Lewis as the main character Annie, Cherise Boothe as mean girl Talisha, Nikiya Mathis as follower Margie and Adrienne C. Moore as Keera, the religious, plump outcast), two young men (J. Mallory McCree as Malik, a high school senior determined to break out of the ghetto, and LeRoy McClain as Antwoine, a would-be tattoo artist), and, finally, Annie's bitter, unloving mother Myrna (the superb Tonya Pinkins). The desire to have a baby to offer the unconditional love missing from their lives leads Annie, Talisha and Margie to form a pact to get pregnant at the same time. Annie is fixed up with Malik, whom she sees as just a sperm donor, but he has other plans. It's unusual that the men are the more sensitive characters, while the women are often mean and uncaring. The play has several riveting scenes. That not all the loose ends get tied up is a minor flaw. The play tries to end on a slightly hopeful note, but I was left with a feeling of deep sorrow for those who are trapped by their circumstances. The cast is uniformly strong. The set by Mimi Lien includes a moveable wall that suggests how the world is closing in. The costumes by Toni-Leslie James vividly capture the characters even before they say a word. Rebecca Taichman's direction in smooth and assured.

The title refers to the powdered milk that is often a staple in low-income households. It may look like sugar, but it's not sweet.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Venus in Fur **

After all the buzz about last year's off-Broadway production of David Ives' play, I arrived at Manhattan Theatre Club's Friedman Theater prepared for 90 minutes of kinky fun. Nina Ariadna, as the mysterious woman who arrives to audition for the role of Vanda in an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel about sadomasochistic love, is sensational. She effortlessly commands the stage and captures all the character's many facets. My only complaint is that she swallowed a few lines. Hugh Dancy is fine as the playwright/director who is first scornful toward and then enthralled by her. The power balance of their relationship seesaws until the final revelation of her identity. Not even Ives' cleverness or Walter Bobbie's smooth direction is enough to keep the play from sagging for seemingly long stretches. John Lee Beatty's set is appropriately spartan and Anita Yavich's costumes are wonderful. Had this been a 30-minute sketch, I would have been thoroughly delighted, but at almost two hours, I found it tediously repetitive. The extra 10 or 15 minutes it picked up on the way uptown could not have improved it. I was delighted to get to see Ariadna and Dancy, but was disappointed in the play.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lemon Sky ***

The Keen Company has revived this 1970 memory play by Lanford Wilson, a playwright whose role in American theater seemed assured, but whose work has lately fallen into neglect. While not one of Wilson's best efforts, it still makes an intermittently strong impression. It is an autobiographical work about the six months that the 17-year-old Wilson (here called Alan and played by the excellent Keith Nobbs) spent in southern California with his estranged father and his second family. The household consists of Douglas (a fine Kevin Kilner), his second wife Ronnie (a terrific Kellie Overbey), their two young sons Jerry (Logan Riley Bruner) and Jack (Zachary Mackiewicz), and two teenaged foster children, sexpot Carol (Alyssa May Gold) and studious but plain Penny (Annie Tedesco). The play makes heavy use of narration, repetition, addressing the audience, commenting on the action or lack thereof, and prefiguring future events, techniques that must have seemed more daring in 1970. The play sags a bit in the middle, but the simmering tensions explode in a final scene that grabs your attention and doesn't let go. Jonathan Silverman's directed. Bill Clarke's recreation of a 1950's California house made the best of the Clurman Theater's awkwardly wide but shallow stage and Jennifer Paer's costumes perfectly evoked the time and place.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Man and Boy *

A play about an unscrupulous financier during a time of economic distress -- what could be more timely? And by that crafter of well-made plays, Terence Rattigan, no less, starring multiple-award winner Frank Langella -- surely a recipe for success? Guess again. Instead, this Roundabout production was 2 1/2 dreary hours of creaky contrivances that went far beyond implausible. Although the play flopped in London when it was first presented, it had a successful revival with David Suchet in 2005 directed by Maria Aitken, the same director as this production. It's a mystery to me how that version succeeded when this one falls so flat. The plot revolves around a shady 1930's wheeler and dealer, Gregor Antonescu (Langella), whose international business empire is on the verge of collapse. He chooses to hide out, first from the press, then from the law, in the apartment of his estranged son (Adam Driver), a piano player in a Village bar who goes by the name Basil Anthony. Other characters include Basil's girlfriend Carol (Virginia Kull), Gregor's longtime lieutenant Sven (Michael Siberry), Gregor's current wife (Francesca Faridany) for whom he has bought the title of countess; Mark Herries (Zach Grenier), head of a company Gregor wants to merge with, and Herries' high-strung accountant David Beeston (Brian Hutchison). The main question of the evening is how low Gregor will stoop to save his skin. Surprisingly, Langella's performance lacked nuance and fire and was (dare I say it?) boring. Siberry and Grenier fared better. Driver was good at playing whiny and weak. Kull and Faridany had little chance to shine. The staging was awkward, with various characters forced to sit silently in Basil's bedroom for long periods. Derek McLane's set made a basement apartment in Greenwich Village look very gloomy, an appropriate setting for a dispiriting evening.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Motherhood Out Loud ***

This new offering at Primary Stages, a collection of 20 sketches, some funny, some sad, by 14 playwrights, some well-known, some not, makes for a very pleasant way to spend 90 minutes. Each sketch deals with some aspect of motherhood, from giving birth to being a great-grandmother. Some of the sketches that most impressed me dealt with an autistic son's mother trying to be helpful on his first date, a mother answering her adopted Chinese daughter's questions, a mother trying to deal with her young son's desire to dress as Queen Esther for Purim, a soldier's mother trying to allay her fears, and an adult son facing the first signs of his mother's memory loss. The quartet of actors -- Mary Bacon, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Randy Graff and James Lecsene -- are all excellent. (I will confess that I always welcome the opportunity to see Ms. Graff onstage.) The large colorful squares of the Mondrian-like backdrop by Rachel Hauck turn into screens for Emily Hubley's whimsical animations and Jan Hartley's projections. Lisa Peterson's direction is seamless. Susan Rose and Joan Stein conceived the project. Admittedly, some of the material seemed cliched, but for me its sincerity made up for its familiarity. I'm sure it will be eagerly performed by theater groups around the country. I hope it finds its audience here in New York.

Friday, September 30, 2011

We Live Here *

Earlier this month I saw a play (The Submission) that revolved around whether a budding playwright could get his play produced under his own name. Call me a cynic, but after seeing Zoe Kazan's new play now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, I had to wonder whether this playwright could have gotten this play produced if she had any other name. The attention MTC lavished on it -- a great set by John Lee Beatty, a good cast (Amy Irving, Mark Blum, Betty Gilpin, Jessica Collins, Jeremy Shamos and Oscar Isaac), who do their best, and one of today's hottest directors, Sam Gold -- all suggest that they found the material worthy. I wish I could agree. The plot evolves from the enforced family togetherness occasioned by the wedding of one of the daughters, whose twin sister died several years prior. The younger daughter brings home a wedding date who she knows will upset her family. Tensions boil over, secrets are revealed. I suspect you will guess each plot development well before it happens. (What Chekhov said about shotguns could equally well apply to motorcycles.) A pivotal character displays personality traits in the second act that are at odds with her behavior in the first act. The dialogue ranges from trendily clever to flat-footed. Even the title is lackluster. There must be many talented young playwrights out there wishing they had greater name recognition. The audience response was tepid.

Running time: just under two hours including intermission

Follies ***

(Always click on the title to see the complete review!)
It's unlikely that you'll see anything as lavish as the current Broadway production of Sondheim's 1971 classic now at the Marquis anytime soon. With its cast of 41 and a 28-piece orchestra, it is amazing that it could even be offered at normal Broadway prices. Consider it a gift from the Kennedy Center, where this production originated last spring. There is so much here to admire: Sondheim's music and lyrics, Derek McLane's sets, Gregg Barnes' lavish costumes, Natasha Katz's excellent lighting and, most of all, a superb cast led by Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell, Bernadette Peters and Ron Raines. For the few out there who may not know the plot, it's about the reunion of entertainers from a Ziegfeld-type show 30 years after its closure, before the imminent destruction of the theater for a parking lot. At the center are two regretful ex-showgirls and their husbands, seen both as they are and as they were. The show is also a tribute to a musical world that had vanished, with solos for several of the old entertainers, most notably characters played by Elaine Page, Jayne Houdyshell, Terri White, Mary Beth Peil and Rosalind Elias. Most of act two is an extended fantasy sequence, Loveland, in which each of the four principals gets a show-stopping number in a different genre. Much to admire indeed. And yet..... somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The book by James Goldman (revised here by unnamed hands) never achieves the promise of its concept. The characters, especially their younger versions, seem a bit underwritten. I mostly liked Eric Schaeffer's direction, but I did tire of seeing the spectral showgirls wandering aimlessly along the dark catwalks. Do not let these misgivings keep you away though. It's a rare treat to see so much talent on one stage. The revelation for me was Jan Maxwell, whose acting chops I have long admired, but whose singing and dancing talents were unknown to me. The only problem is that she is so gorgeous and charming that it is impossible to imagine anyone falling out of love with her.

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes with intermission.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Relatively Speaking: A Second Opinion

As a new feature, I am presenting a guest review by Dan M.
Feel free to follow suit if you are so inclined.
Once again, I encourage you to add your comments to reviews. For those of you who don't know how, look for the yellow pencil in the line of icons below each review. When you click on it, a box opens where you can type your comments.

It was worthwhile and funny, but particularly if you are a Woody Allen fan which we are. We had many good laughs and especially in the most significant (the third) one-act play by Allen called Honeymoon Hotel. It was the best of the evening and it would have been almost better to have expended this one-act into a full play. This is prime zany Woody and many may not like this type of humor,  especially non-New Yorkers. 
The first play The Talking Cure was by Ethan Coen and like all his material  was idiosyncratic: a two character play set in a prison. Well acted and set, but  it would have not  have been a good concluding spot for the trilogy.  It had a few good laughs and the 2 characters are re-used in the third play.
The second play, George is Dead was better and if you like Elaine May you will like this too. Marlo Thomas was quite good, and May took very funny swipes at  elites, the Hampton's and the habits of the upper crust.
I am not sure of the mass appeal of these combined plays and I predict it will not become a NY hit.

-- Dan M.

Relatively Speaking **

Three one-act plays by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen, now in previews at the Brooks Atkinson, are loosely linked by the theme of dysfunctional families.

The evening begins with Coen's "The Talking Cure," a series of sessions between psychiatrist (Jason Kravits) and patient (Danny Hoch). When the audience thought the play was over and started to applaud, the set suddenly opened to reveal the patient's parents (Fred Melamed and Katherine Borowitz) bickering at the dining room table when he was still in the womb. For me this scene detracted from, rather than added to, the play. I had previously seen two evenings of Coen's short plays and was underwhelmed both times. This one didn't change my opinion. In the presence of the great masters Elaine May and Woody Allen, Coen's work seemed not ready for prime time. I admire Coen's persistence, but the magic he works on screen doesn't seem to carry over to the stage.

Next up is Elaine May's "George Is Dead." Marlo Thomas shines as Doreen, a rich, selfish woman who has been so pampered that she is unable to act on her own. When her husband dies in a skiing accident, she turns up on the doorstep of Carla, her ex-nanny's grown daughter (the excellent Lisa Emery), on a night that she has fought with her husband Michael (Grant Shaud). Michael is a disillusioned liberal who is furious when he finds that Doreen, the woman to whom Carla's mother (Patricia O'Connell) had given precedence over her own daughter, is ensconced in their apartment. What follows goes on a bit too long, but the pleasure of hearing May's sparkling lines outweighed the play's shortcomings, at least for me.

Last but certainly not least is Woody Allen's hilarious farce "Honeymoon Motel," which by itself is worth the price of admission. This is the Woody Allen of old with nonstop funny dialogue and no pretense of seriousness. Allen presents the wedding night from Hell in the tacky honeymoon suite of a Long Island motel. We have a bride and groom, Nina Roth and Paul Jessup (the marvelous Ari Graynor and Bill Army), the bride's parents Sam and Fay Roth (Mark Linn-Baker and Allen veteran Julie Kavner), the groom's mother and stepfather Judy and Jerry Spector (Caroline Aaron and Steve Guttenberg, both terrific), Jerry's friend Eddie (Grant Shaud again), Jerry's shrink (Jason Kravits again), a rabbi (Richard Libertini) and a pizza delivery man (Danny Hoch again.) Mayhem ensues.

There are over three weeks until opening night, ample time for the playwrights and director John Turturro to work out some of the rough spots. I personally would have preferred seeing a longer version of the Allen play all by itself.

There was a service dog sitting under the seat next to the friend I attended with. Judging from the vigorous way he wagged his tail when the play ended, we were convinced that he enjoyed it too.

Running time:  2 hours, 20 minutes including a pause and an intermission

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Lyons ***

Since I didn't much like Nicky Silver's black comedy when I saw it in a lab production at the Vineyard Theatre last season, I had low expectations when I returned today to see the finished product. I was pleasantly surprised. The humor has been sharpened, the pathos has been deepened, and Silver displays more sympathy toward his characters. While I still have some misgivings, I thought it played much better this time around.

Terminally ill patriarch Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa). who has been a distant husband and father; his embittered wife Rita (Linda Lavin), who looks forward to widowhood; divorced daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), who met her ex at an AA meeting; and gay son Curtis (Michael Esper), an unsuccessful writer who has never let his family meet his lover, all go at each other in Ben's hospital room. The nurse (Brenda Pressley) appears now and then to check on Ben. Later, when Curtis goes apartment hunting with hunky realtor/actor Brian (Gregory Wooddell), there are unanticipated consequences. The final scene, back at the hospital, provides vivid proof that being surrounded by one's family can be the loneliest place of all.  Mark Brokaw's direction, Allen Moyer's sets and Michael Krass's costumes are all on the mark.

When Linda Lavin turned down the chance to move to Broadway with "Other Desert Cities" in order to play Rita Lyons at the Vineyard, many people were surprised. Smart move! This is a role that she was born to play and is much juicier than her smallish part in the Baitz play. If you are a Lavin fan and/or a Nicky Silver fan, you will have a good time at "The Lyons."

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission

Friday, September 23, 2011

Dreams of Flying, Dreams of Falling *

What's Adam Rapp's new play about? About 90 minutes. That's all I can say with certainty about his absurdist comedy now in an Atlantic Theater Company production at CSC. The cast is led by two wonderful actors (Christine Lahti and Reed Birney). The set (by Andrew Boyce & Takeshi Kata) and costumes (by Theresa Squire) perfectly establish the gracious milieu of privileged Connecticut WASPs. Two families, the Cabots and their guests, the Von Stofenburgs, are about to sit down to dinner. Things soon spin out of control. Mrs. Cabot tries to persuade Von Stofenburg (Cotter Smith), whose reputation has been tarnished by a Madoff-like affair,  to poison her husband so they can run off together. The Cabot daughter (Katherine Waterston), who likes to pluck the hairs out of men's arms for an art project, maintains that there is a she lion in the basement. The Von Stofenburg son (Shane McRae), just returned from two years in a clinic after believing his stuffed animals when they told him he could fly, is in correspondence with a young Iraqi insurgent whom he is helping to acquire "materials." The two young adults have vigorous sex all around the dining room. The black maid (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), is learning French and likes to recite Shakespeare. Mrs. Von Stofenburg (Betsy Aidem) is so bland that her presence barely registers. Wild geese crash against the house, the sky turns strange colors, the murder plots goes awry.... and so forth. While some of the plot lines might have been interesting if developed more fully, here they just seem part of a mishmash. While there were some entertaining moments along the way, there was no sense of unity. Neil Pepe directed.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cymbeline ****

(Always click on the title to see the complete review!)
Let me add my voice to the chorus of praise for this very clever production of Shakespeare's problematic late romance.  Fiasco Theater, a group of six recent graduates of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program (Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Ben Steinfeld and Emily Young), have shaped this thorny work into an entertaining production. It ran for two sold-out weeks last winter at the New Victory Theater and recently reopened at Barrow Street Theatre. Proving that less is sometimes more, the cast of six play 14 roles on a set consisting of two wooden crates, a sheet, and what's billed as a "fabulous trunk." They also play musical instruments and sing beautifully. And who said a little Appalachian folk music can't serve Shakespeare well? The acting mostly avoids crossing the line into tongue-in-cheek. The second half, with its battle scene, headless corpse, and final reconciliation scene, is especially gratifying. Brody and Steinfeld codirected with Brody also serving as fight director and Steinfeld as music director. You needn't be an ardent Shakespearean to enjoy this ingenious version. Running time: 2 1/2 hours including intermission.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Submission ***

Jeff Talbott's new play at MCC, for which he became the first recipient of the Laurents/Hatcher Award, asks us to accept the premise that a privileged white gay male could write a stirring play about an alcoholic black woman and her ne'er-do-well son. In order to improve his chances of getting the play produced, playwright Danny Larsen (Jonathan Groff of "Spring Awakening" and "Glee") submits it under an African-sounding woman's name. When the Humana Festival decides to produce it, he hires Emilie (Rutina Wesley of "True Blood"), a black actress, to impersonate the fictitious playwright. His uptight lover Pete (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and his best friend Trevor (Will Rogers) think this deception will end badly, but reluctantly support him. There is much snappy dialogue and a few hilarious scenes, including a cellphone conversation between Trevor and Emilie, who have become an item. The relationships between Danny and Pete and Danny and Trevor seemed underwritten. The play darkens when Danny reveals his latent racism to Emilie and she, in turn, shows a touch of homophobia. For me, the play became repetitive and ran out of gas several minutes before it ended. Nevertheless, at its best, it was quite entertaining. The cast was strong, except that I found Groff too relentlessly energetic. Anita Yavich designed the costumes and Walter Bobbie directed. A clever set by David Zinn made me want to visit my nearest Starbuck's on the way home. Zinn must be the busiest man in town: his sets and costumes can also be seen in "The Select" and "Completeness." Running time: 95 minutes without intermission.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Invasion! **

As I looked around the lobby at The Flea before the house opened for the Play Company's production of Jonas Hassen Khemri's hit play, I suspected I was in trouble. 75% of the audience looked under 30 and very downtown. My qualms proved to be justified. Rarely have I seen such a generational divide in an audience. The under-30's whooped and hollered at lines that barely drew a chuckle from me. A startling coup de theatre about five minutes into the play clearly caused less angst among the young people near me, who quickly recovered from the shock. Too bad this was the most interesting moment in the play, at least for me. The playwright, whose father is Tunisian and whose mother is Swedish, has written a shaggy-dog story/farce/cautionary tale revolving around issues of Middle Eastern identity in Western society. It has played to packed houses in Europe and had a well-received brief run in New York last winter. In it, the mysterious name Abulkasem becomes a repository of attitudes toward the exotic and the foreign. The appealing cast of four (Francis Benhamou, Nick Choksi, Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte and Bobby Moreno) excel at playing multiple roles. The play's title had no clear connection to anything that transpired. Some of the loosely linked scenes are much better than others. One scene about a biased translator mistranslating the words of a migrant worker starts strong, but goes on too long. Another scene about pretentious drama students totally misfires. Two scenes that give his and her versions of an encounter in a bar are amusing, but not closely tied to the play's theme. The device of introducing a panel of "experts" to bloviate about a mysterious possible terrorist seemed tired. Furthermore, the director, Erica Schmidt, was guilty of one of the worst sins on my list of theatrical pet peeves -- shining bright lights in the audience's eyes. Although I salute the Play Company for translating and staging international plays that might not make it to New York, in this case I admired the result more than I enjoyed it. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sweet and Sad **

Last November, the Public Theater presented Richard Nelson's play "The Hopey Changey Thing," which was set on and opened on Election Day 2010. Now we have Nelson's "Sweet and Sad" (the title comes from a line in Whitman's "The Wound Dresser") which takes place on and opens on 9/11/11. In both plays, we visit the three adult Apple daughters (Barbara, Marian and Jane) their brother Richard, their uncle Benjamin, and Jane's partner Tim at Barbara's home in Rhinebeck. This time out, they are gathered to attend a 9/11 commemoration put on by Barbara's students, at which Benjamin, a retired actor with amnesia, will give a recitation. As the Apples eat supper, the conversation ebbs and flows, alternating between the personal and the public spheres, with the topic of 9/11 often rising to the surface. As in last year's play, nothing much happens. Although seeing the earlier play is not essential, it did help to flesh out the characters. The excellent cast from last year (see my November 2010 review for their names) inhabits their roles even more fully. While I admire Nelson for undertaking this series of plays reflecting current events through the prism of the Apple family, I didn't find this instalment as satisfying as the first. Nelson also directed. Running time: 110 minutes; no intermission.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Select (The Sun Also Rises) **

After seeing Gatz, Elevator Repair Service's brilliantly staged version of The Great Gatsby last Fall, I was keenly anticipating their adaptation of Hemingway's novel, now in previews at New York Theatre Workshop. Alas, lightning did not strike twice, at least not for me. At 3 1/2 hours, it seemed twice as long as Gatz's 6 1/2 hours. If all the scenes of people drinking or talking about being drunk were omitted, it would barely run 30 minutes. The material rarely engaged my full interest, for which I blame Hemingway more than the adaptors. Also, the anti-Semitic streak left a very bad taste in my mouth. Of the mostly excellent cast of ten, I would single out Ben Williams (as Bill Gorton) and Susie Sokol (as Pedro Romero) as especially notable. Casting a woman as the macho bullfighter was a clever choice. There are two lively dance sequences and a marvelously staged bullfight. Special mention must be made of the sound design: Every clink of glasses, gurgle of wine pouring and pop of champagne corks is there, plus sound gags from a typewriter and a hotel desk bell. When the sound effects are more memorable than the words, something is amiss. John Collins directed.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Completeness **

With a very appealing cast, an interesting situation, a clever set (by David Zinn) and able direction (by Pam MacKinnon), Itamar Moses' play at Playwrights Horizons has a lot going for it. Two ambitious graduate students, Elliot (Karl Miller), a computer scientist, and Molly (Aubrey Dollar), a molecular biologist, meet cute in a university computer lab. Can these two scientists from different disciplines, each freshly out of a bad relationship, form a lasting bond? That is the focus of the play, with detours for scenes with their past and potential partners (multiple roles well played by Brian Avers and, especially, Meredith Forlenza) and a subplot about sexual politics in academia. With all their lengthy speeches about protein sequences and esoteric algorithms, one wonders whether this attractive pair will ever stop talking long enough to have sex. (They do -- there is a brief nude scene.) The play starts spinning its wheels in Act Two and resorts to a questionable gimmick near the end. Although the play ultimately disappointed me, its many merits outbalanced its weaknesses. Running time: 2 1/4 hours including intermission.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Traces ***

From the city that brought us Cirque du Soleil comes a much more modest, but no less talented, group of circus artists called 7 Fingers, now appearing at the Union Square Theatre. Without costumes, makeup or fancy sets, the five men and a woman perform a series of breathtaking stunts that had the audience gasping. Jumping through hoops or riding skateboards may not sound very exciting, but it is when they do it. The brief introduction of each performer and the size of the theater help create an intimate atmosphere. The attempt at a unifying theme fell flat, but that's a minor quibble. I do wish they had left out the occasional overpowering blast of music and the seemingly obligatory strobe lights. Instead of 7 performers and 90 minutes, there were only 6 performers and 75 minutes. I do hope the adjustment was not due to injury. The theater was far from full, which is quite surprising considering the critics' unanimously favorable reviews. Note: There are rush seats at $25 available two hours before each performance.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Looking Back

It's hard to believe that a year has passed since I began these reviews. What strikes me most looking back on the list of plays I have covered is how transitory theater is. Of the 76 plays that I have reviewed, only ten of them are still running -- Anything Goes, Bluebird, The Book of Mormon, Catch Me If You Can, Death Takes a Holiday, Freud's Last Session, Master Class, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and War Horse. One is reopening (Other Desert Cities) and another is yet to open in New York (Chinglish.) The second thing that strikes me is how many frogs you have to kiss to find a prince. There were only 21 shows that I could enthusiastically recommend -- Anything Goes, Benefactors, Black Tie, Blood from a Stone;  The Book of Mormon, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark; Catch Me If You Can, Chinglish, Death Takes a Holiday, Divine Sister, 4000 Miles, Freud's Last Session, Gatz, Good People, The Motherf**ker with a Hat, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, No Child..., The Normal Heart, School for Lies, Unnatural Acts and War Horse. If I were a ballplayer, my batting average would be .276. Not horrible, but not impressive either. Am I discouraged? A little. Will I give up? Not likely. As the new theater season approaches, I am filled with unwarranted optimism that the year ahead will a better one. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Bluebird **

Don't be brokenhearted if you weren't able to get tickets to see Simon Russell Beale in Simon Stephens' 1998 play, now in a sold-out run at Atlantic Stage 2. While Beale is fine as Jimmy, a taxi driver to whom fares seem compelled to unburden themselves, the play itself is a mixed blessing. Some of the passengers' stories are involving, but others misfire. A long scene between Jimmy and his estranged wife Clare (the excellent Mary McCann) is a bit contrived and unconvincing. The cast also includes Kate Blumberg, Michael Countryman, Mara Measor, Charlotte Parry, Tobias Segal, John Sharian and Todd Weeks. The pokey direction by Gaye Taylor Upchurch has more pregnant pauses than a Pinter play. The lighting by Ben Stanton attempts to suggest movement through traffic at night, but the flickering was a distraction. Incidentally, the title comes from the name of a small car popular as a London minicab. Running time: 110 minutes without intermission.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Olive and the Bitter Herbs *

Charles Busch's latest comedy, now in previews at Primary Stages, lacks one essential ingredient -- Charles Busch. As playwright, he is at his best when he is writing for himself. Alas, he is not on stage this time around. Although the cast (Dan Butler, David Garrison, Julie Halston, Marcia Jean Kurtz and Richard Masur) struggle valiantly to bring Busch's thin material to life, it is mostly a losing battle. Busch shamelessly panders to gays, Jews and senior citizens -- the very people most likely to attend. There is a dyspeptic aging actress, her unfulfilled do-gooder friend, the gay couple next door, the co-op board president's widowed father and a ghost. Mix and match. The comedy is more a series of setups for punchlines than a coherent plot. There is a seder like none you ever attended in act one and a sporadically funny series of increasingly implausible coincidences in act two. The set by Anna Louizos captures the look of a pre-war rent-controlled Manhattan apartment and Suzy Benzinger's costumes help define the characters. Mark Brokaw directed. I won't pretend I didn't have a few laughs, but the evening was instantly forgettable..Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Chinglish ****

(Always click on the title to see the complete review!)

David Henry Hwang's hilarious new play, now in a sold-out run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, is coming to New York this Fall. Because of its enthusiastic reception in Chicago, it will open on Broadway instead of at the Public Theater as originally planned. Don't miss it! Ostensibly about the perils of mistranslation while doing business in China, it slyly raises issues of cultural differences and universal human folly. It has satirical bite and knee-slapping humor. The cast is superb: Jennifer Lim, Stephen Pucci, James Waterston and Larry Zhang all create vivid characters. Leigh Silverman's direction is exemplary, filled with grace notes. David Korins' evocative sets revolve amazingly and Anita Yavich's costumes are just right. In short, it was one of my most enjoyable nights in a theater this year. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Death Takes a Holiday ***

When I say that this new musical at the Laura Pels Theatre is old-fashioned, I mean that as a compliment. With tuneful music by Maury Yeston and a romantic book begun by Peter Stone and completed, after Stone's death, by Thomas Meehan, this Roundabout premiere is an adaptation of Alberto Casella's 1924 popular play. Death assumes human form to experience life by spending a weekend at the lakeside villa of Duke Vittorio Lamberti in northern Italy. While there, he experiences love for the first time with the duke's daughter Grazia, whom he wishes to take with him when he leaves. The cast of 14 is excellent with Jill Paice as Grazia and Julian Ovenden as Death/Prince Sirki especially strong. Matt Cavenaugh makes the most of his one number. The lovely set by Derek Lane and period costumes by Catherine Zuber help create a romantic atmosphere. The fine voices and melodic music are the play's greatest strengths. The book sometimes gives the impression of following a checklist and the lyrics are occasionally sappy, but my overall impression was favorable. Doug Hughes directed. Running time: 2 1/2 hours including one intermission

Sunday, July 10, 2011

All New People ***

Zach Braff is back at Second Stage, this time as playwright rather than actor. His dark comedy, now in previews, is about a very depressed man (Justin Bartha) seeking solitude on his 35th birthday at a Jersey Shore beach house in midwinter. He is soon interrupted by an attractive British real estate agent with a secret (Krysten Ritter), the town fire chief/drug dealer (David Wilson Barnes) and an expensive call girl (Anna Camp), a birthday present from a wealthy friend. A lot of alcohol and drugs are consumed and some very funny lines are spoken. There's also some hilarious physical humor. The action is periodically interrupted by film clips (with Kevin Conway, Tony Goldwyn and S. Epatha Merkerson) that illuminate the characters' back stories. Braff is good at writing funny dialogue and setting up an interesting situation, but the play's energy gradually runs down until it sputters to a close. Perhaps that will be fixed by opening night. Alexander Dodge's set of an ultramodern beach house is perfect and Bobby Frederick Tilley II's costumes are excellent. Peter DuBois' direction is flawless. It's not a great play, but it's a guilty pleasure. Running time: 90 minutes.

Note: Sitting next to me was a girl of about 10 who was with a man I assume was her father. I doubt that he intentionally chose a play that would give her a crash course in drug use and kinky sex. Shouldn't there be some way to alert ticket buyers when a play is not suitable for children? What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Unnatural Acts: Harvard's Secret Court of 1920 ***

I hope Ben Brantley's negative review won't dissuade anyone from seeing this worthwhile play at CSC, especially since all the other reviews were favorable. The story of Harvard's secret trial of students suspected of being "homosexualists" and its devastating consequences remained virtually unknown for 80 years, until a student on the Harvard Crimson discovered the locked file that contained handwritten transcripts of the trial and Harvard was forced to make the information available. The Plastic Theatre, a collective led by Tony Speciale, has a process similar to that of Moises Kaufman's Tectonic Theater group (The Laramie Project). The group of actors and writers spent two years on research, character development and improvisation workshops to create this play. The results are mostly excellent. The few weak moments are outweighed by several scenes that pack a tremendous wallop. It's a rare pleasure to see an ensemble of 11 actors on a New York stage these days. One interesting point is that the same actors play both the young men on trial and their judges. Reducing the number of characters would no doubt have made things easier for both the creators and the audience, but verissimilitude took precedence. The acting is mostly strong and the set, costumes and especially the lighting all contribute greatly to the success of the production. The cast includes Jess Burkle, Joe Curnutte, Frank De Julio, Roe Hartrampf, Roderick Hill, Max Jenkins, Brad Koed, Jerry Marsini, Devin Norik, Will Rogers and Nick Westrate. Running time: 2hours, 10 minutes including intermission. Note: There is brief nudity.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sex Lives of Our Parents **

Michael Mitnick's new play at Second Stage Uptown gets off to a good start with a mimed montage showing how Virginia and Jeff (Viginia Kull and Ben Rappaport) met cute and became engaged, all to the strains of Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately that is the play's highlight. What follows is a mishmash about Virginia having visions of her mother Charlotte's life from the age of four when she witnessed her parents having sex, through adolescent sexual adventures, to young adulthood when she married out of spite rather than love. Since Charlotte is played by the always-interesting Lisa Emery, all is not lost. Daniel Jenkins is fine as her clueless husband whose love for her is unquestioning. Mark Zeisler is good as Lucas, the Juilliard professor with whom Charlotte has an affair, as well as the offstage voice of Virginia's grandfather vociferously enjoying an orgasm. Rappaport is especially good in his secondary role as Rodney, a lubricious teenage seducer. Teddy Bergman is droll as Elliot, Jeff's nerdy roommate and Virginia's coworker, who is saddled with a lisp for no apparent reason. The action, such as it is, involves Virginia's loss of certainty that she loves Jeff and her effort to reunite Charlotte and Lucas. Andromache Chalfant's set features a Wedgwood blue cameo wallpaper that overpowers everything else. David McCallum directs. Running time: 90 minutes

Through a Glass Darkly **

Jenny Worton's adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's shattering 1961 film is now at New York Theatre Workshop in an Atlantic Theater Company production starring the young British actress Carey Mulligan. Her riveting performance as Karin, an incurable schizophrenic who is trying to hold her family and herself together during a summer vacation on a remote island, is perhaps reason enough to see it. However, the very idea of turning Bergman's film into a play seems to me misguided. Without the stunning cinematography and its tight closeups, much is lost. I was also struck by strong resemblances to The Seagull. Both have mostly absent parents more interested in their artistic career than in their children, both have sons who have written a play that is treated dismissively by those parents and, in a stroke that could not be coincidental, both have Mulligan's character standing on a makeshift stage declaiming the son's play. Chekhov did it better. Ben Rosenfield is strong as Karin's younger brother with whom she is far too affectionate. Jason Butler Harner is earnest but a bit bland as Karin's long-suffering husband. Chris Sarandon seemed more distant than required as Karin's father. Karin's breakdown is extremely painful to sit through. There was palpable restlessness in the audience. Takeshi Kata's washed-out gray set reflects the play's bleakness, but doesn't capture the isolation of a remote island. David Levaux's direction seemed to lose clarity at times. Showing us Carey Mulligan's lovely breasts not once but twice was too much titillation. Running time: 90 minutes

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

10x25 - Series C ***

Atlantic Theater Company's Festival of 10-Minute Plays came to a lively close with this evening of nine short works. Six plays involved some aspect of parenthood: Bekah Brunstetter's Run, about a father trying to bond with his overweight teenage daughter; David Auburn's Two Dads, about two men confiding their problems with their children; Peter Parnell's Dada Woof Papa Hot, about two men navigating the uncharted waters of gay fatherhood; Tom Donaghy's I Need a Quote, a hilarious telephone conversation between a single mother and a home insurance salesman; Kate Robin's Inside Play, about a father trying to pick up a woman at a playground; and Kevin Heelan's As Himself, about a father/actor who confuses acting and real life. Moira Buffini's Sold is about a fundraiser in which souls are auctioned to the highest bidder, The low point of the evening was Sam Shepard's Evanescence/Shakespeare in the Alley, which involved a long, rambling monologue, exploding watermelons and a little person dressed as Shakespeare dragging a body bag across the stage. The evening ended with In Which I Tender My Resignation, a tongue-in-cheek piece by Jeff Whitty in which he attempts to explain to two Atlantic Theater subscribers the great debt that straight people owe to gays. The cast included Anthony Arkin, Kate Blumberg, Eddie Cahill, Michael Countryman, Marcia DeBonis, Kathryn Erbe, Kate Gersten, Zach Grenier, Brad Heberlee, Rick Holmes, T.R. Knight, Ilana Levine, Sydney Matthews, Chris Myers, Kari Nicolle, Nic Novicki, Ray Anthony Thomas and Jeff Whitty.

No Child... ****

This solo piece, written and performed by Nilaja Sun, was first seen here five years ago. After touring and winning many awards, it is now back at the Barrow Street Theatre for a limited run. Based on her experiences as a teaching artist in the New York City Schools, it describes a program that brings an idealistic actress to one of the worst classes in one of the worst high schools in the Bronx to lead a six-week workshop which will culminate in a class performance of "Our Country's Good," Timberlake Wertenbaker's play about Australian convicts putting on a play. The students are quick to notice the similarities between their treatment in school and the convicts' prison experiences. There may be only one actor onstage, but she convincingly creates over 15 different characters, including the school janitor, the acting teacher, the students, their parents, the principal and a security guard. Sun changes roles in a split second without the aid of makeup or costume changes. It's quite a tour de force. In turn hilarious and heartbreaking, the 70-minute play provides a vivid picture of life in a troubled urban school. Its hopeful message about the redeeming power of art seemed more wishful thinking than reality though. Hal Brooks directed. Sun got a well-deserved standing ovation.
Note: Avoid seats in Row B -- there is no riser between the first two rows.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Master Class **

I have always been a fan of Tyne Daly -- her Mamma Rose was the finest I have ever seen -- so I was quite eager to see her play Maria Callas in the Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Terrence McNally's 1995 hit Master Class. I'm sorry to report that I was disappointed with her performance. She does not get the Greek accent right -- sometimes it sounds more like an Irish brogue -- and she does not clearly differentiate between her voice and Onassis's during the two memory scenes. The actors playing the vocal students (Alexandra Silber, Garrett Sorenson and Sierra Boggess) are all excellent. Sorenson and Boggess have beautiful voices. Jeremy Cohen brings a lot of warmth to the role of the pianist and Clinton Brandhagen is amusing as the stagehand. Except for the accent problem, the class scenes still work well. Callas's stinging remarks are as funny as ever. The transitions to and from the memory scenes are awkward and the imagined conversations with Onassis misfired. Perhaps director Stephen Wadsworth is at fault. The set for the auditorium stage where the class is held has a beautiful parquet back wall. This set dissolves into a suggestion of La Scala with a large pillar decorated with roses. Although the play won the Tony in 1996 (as did Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald), it seemed a bit long and repetitious this time. Clearly, I am in the minority here because the audience was wildly enthusiastic.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

4000 Miles ***

The title of this new play by Amy Herzog, in an LCT3 production at the Duke, refers to the distance 21-year-old Leo (a strong Gabriel Ebert) has traveled on a cross-country bicycle ride that ends with his unexpected 3 a.m. arrival at the West Village apartment of his 91-year-old grandmother Vera Joseph (the incomparable Mary Louise Wilson). [The character of Vera, a devoted Marxist, also appeared in Herzog's recent well-received play After the Revolution]. Leo has been traumatized by the death of his best friend en route, a less-than-enthusiastic reception by his girlfriend Bec (Zoe Winters), a student at Columbia, and family problems back home in St. Paul. Grandmother and hippie grandson gradually overcome their differences and grow close. Greta Lee is hilarious as Amanda, a Parsons student Leo brings home one night. The characters are vivid, the dialogue is believable and the back story is interestingly complex. One can quibble over a few plot devices, but Herzog is clearly a talented playwright. The set by Lauren Helpern perfectly captures a slightly worn apartment that hasn't changed much in 50 years. Daniel Aukin's direction in unobtrusively fine. At $20, the play is a great bargain. See it before its short run is over.
Note: If you haven't been able to get tickets, don't despair -- LCT will reopen it at the Newhouse next March).

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Side Effects **

Michael Weller's two-character play, now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC production, is the third in a trio of plays with interlocking characters in troubled marriages. (The series will be published next month under the title Loving Longing Leaving.) The current play covers a year in the life of Melinda and Hugh Metz (Joely Richardson and Cotter Smith). Hugh, the buttoned-up CEO of a failing family-owned factory in a small Midwestern town, is tapped by the town's power broker to run for public office. Melinda is his sexy, bipolar wife who reluctantly gave up a vibrant life in New York when Hugh decided to return home to take over the family business. Both are resentful over what they feel they had to give up for the other. In their early years together, Hugh was allegedly a free spirit, but it's hard to imagine from his present dour manner. In several scenes we see their marriage put to the test as they try to figure out which is harder -- staying together or breaking up. Richardson is superb in the showier role; Melinda's snappy dialogue almost makes bipolar disorder seem appealing. Smith mostly succeeds at the more difficult task of making the audience care about, or at least understand, an unsympathetic character. Even at 90 minutes, the play seems a bit long and repetitive. I found the final scene awkward and unconvincing. The living room set by Beowulf Boritt captures the generic look of Midwestern affluence. David Auburn's direction is smooth. I wish some brave producer would stage the three plays together. Rumor has it that Showtime is interested in making them into a series.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Illusion ***

To round out their season devoted to Tony Kushner, Signature Theater Company is now presenting this odd early play, an adaptation of a work by Corneille, that Kushner wrote in 1988 before he was a cultural icon. Free of any sociopolitical trappings, it is unlike anything he has written since. The story tells of an elderly lawyer Pridamant (Donald Margulies), wracked with guilt for banishing his only son 15 years prior, who visits a sorcerer Alcandre (Lois Smith) to find out what became of him. She conjures up three visions wherein we see the son (Finn Wittrock), his beloved (Amanda Quaid), her crafty maidservant (Merritt Wever), two very different rivals (Sean Dugan and Peter Bartlett) and his beloved's father (Henry Stram). To complicate matters, the characters in the visions have different names and, in some cases, slightly different roles, although the basic story line continues throughout. The language ranges from the eloquent (especially Alcandre's final speech) to the maidservant's occasional rhymed couplets to unadorned modern speech. The stage veterans Smith, Margulies, Stram and Bartlett, are all a pleasure to watch. Among the younger generation, Dugan and Wever are fine. Wittrock's acting chops are not equal to his matinee idol looks, whereas Quaid's acting is fine in a part for which she seems miscast. Christine Jones' set, Susan Hilferty's costumes and Kevin Adams' lighting are all excellent. There's a nifty fencing scene staged by Rick Sordelet. Michael Mayer's direction seemed to me to drag scenes out a bit. The meaning of the visions is revealed at play's end in a surprise twist that delighted the audience.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Anything Goes ***

The Roundabout Theatre Company's  revival of Cole Porter's hit show about the shenanigans on a transatlantic crossing is now at the lovely Stephen Sondheim Theatre. It's great to hear Porter's wonderful music and lyrics and to see Kathleen Marshall's terrific dance numbers. Unfortunately, these pleasures come with one of the silliest books ever written (and rewritten.) The best thing to do is to turn off your need for coherence, relax and enjoy the show. As Reno Sweeney, Sutton Foster's singing and dancing are wonderful, but I thought she fell a bit short creating the character. Joel Grey is miscast as gangster Moonface Martin. In the ingenue roles, Colin Donnell made a slightly bland Billy Crocker, while Laura Osnes revealed a lovely voice as Hope Harcourt. John McMartin, as Elisha Whitney, once again proves why he has had such a long and successful career. It was fun to see Jessica Walter onstage as Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt. Adam Godley was absolutely hilarious as Hope's fiance, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Jessica Stone was fun as the sexually voracious gangster moll Erma. The three-tiered set by Derek McLane is super and Martin Pakledinaz's period costumes are sensational. Marshall's direction and Rob Fisher's music direction were excellent. In short, it was a pleasurable but not memorable experience.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

10x25 - Series B ***

After the middling record of Series A, I wasn't exactly bursting with enthusiasm to see the second evening of the Atlantic Theater's 25th Anniversary Festival of 10-Minute Plays. What a pleasant surprise it was. All eight plays were enjoyable and a couple of them were really quite good. Annie Baker's "Practice" led off the evening with an amusing but slight glimpse at a yoga class. "The New Paradigm" presents Keith Reddin's clever take on a meeting of Bush's minions discussing a memo justifying "enhanced interrogation." "The Naked Eye" by Jez Butterworth is a monologue affectionately recalling the night the family stayed up to watch Halley's Comet. Tina Howe's "Caution, This Bus Kneels. Stand Clear" puts assorted New Yorkers on a bus headed for Lincoln Center on a stormy night, with hilarious results. Craig Lucas' "The Sell" is a funny interchange between a prospective art buyer and a painter whose work tends toward brutalism. Edwin Sanchez's "Smiling" is a sketch about a man so eager to appear "with it" that his face freezes in a smile. Leslie Ayvazian's "There You Are" brings together two friends with a complicated past who have not seen each other in 30 years. Finally there is Bill Wrubel's "This Backstage Life," a very funny look at the chaos behind the scenes on opening night. The cast of 19 were all fine, Mary Beth Peil and Larry Bryggman especially so. Tania Balsam, Reed Birney, Kate Blumberg, Michael Chernus, Nick Choksi, John Early, David Fonteno, Rick Holmes, Zosia Mamet, Mary McCann, Rod McLachlan, Matthew Montelongo, Stephen Park, Susan Pourfar, Danielle Slavick, Joey Slotnick and Maria Tucci rounded out the cast. The evening's directors were Leslie Ayvazian, Annie Baker, Jaime Castaneda, Christian Parker, Neal Pepe and Todd Weeks. I hope Series C will be equally enjoyable.

Tennessee Williams' One Arm **

In 1946 Tennessee Williams wrote a short story about an 18-year-old Navy boxing champion who loses an arm in an auto accident, turns to hustling when he can't find a job, and ends up on death row for killing a client in a fit of rage. In the mid-'60s Williams made the story into a screenplay which he periodically tried to get produced, without success. It's not hard to imagine why: an actor may be willing to do many things to get a part, but losing an arm is not one of them. Moises Kaufman has now adapted the screenplay for the stage under the aegis of his Tectonic Theater Project as well as The New Group. Kaufman's previous work has always interested me, so I was curious to see what he would do with One Arm. Claybourne Elder (is that a name worthy of a character on a soap opera or what?) makes Ollie Olsen so striking that it is easy to understand the mesmerizing effect he had on his clients. The matter of the missing arm is cleverly handled by strapping Elder's right arm to his torso so it is not usable. Clearly, this would not work in a movie. The rest of the fine cast (Noah Bean, Todd Lawson, KC Comeaux, Steven Hauck, Christopher McCann, Greg Pierotti and Larisa Polonsky) all play multiple characters. Polonsky is especially good in three very different roles. Derek McLane's stark set and David Lander's harsh lighting convincingly suggest Olson's cell on death row. In a series of flashbacks, we gradually learn how he got there. At play's end there is a coup de theatre that is clever but ultimately pointless. Although I found the adaptation sporadically interesting, I still think Williams - and Kaufman - should have left well enough alone. The short story is a classic and loses rather than gains impact from being blown up into a screenplay or a theater piece.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Best Is Yet To Come: The Music of Cy Coleman ***

31 songs in 85 minutes -- that's what this lively revue at 59E59 has to offer. A strong cast of six -- David Burnham (who is new to me), Sally Mayes, Howard McGillin, Billy Stritch (who also serves as pianist and music director), Lillias White and Rachel York, backed by eight musicians, provide a whirlwind tour of Coleman's music, including such well-known songs as "I've Got Your Number," "Big Spender" and "Witchcraft." Since David Zippel directed, it's no surprise that 8 of the songs chosen are songs for which he wrote the lyrics, which makes the selection somewhat unrepresentative. Douglas Schmidt's sleek recreation of a supper club bandstand looks great, but doesn't give the singers much room to move around. Lorin Lattaro's choreography makes the best of this limitation. The band was wonderful, but occasionally drowned out the vocalists. The highlight of the evening was Lillias White's rendition of her big number from The Life, "The Oldest Profession." Each of the singers gets a chance to shine, but no one else comes even close to her. Instead of being disappointed that it wasn't better, I'm grateful that it got produced.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark ****

This time around, the prodigiously talented Lynn Nottage has written a wickedly funny, yet thought-provoking satire about the portrayal of black women in the movies. The first act, set in 1933, is a madcap comedy about the machinations that four actresses go through to get parts in the antebellum epic "Belle of New Orleans." Making fun of Hollywood is all too easy, but Nottage does it hilariously. Vera (the excellent Sanaa Lathan) is the maid and confidante of Gloria Mitchell (the deliciously hammy Stephanie J. Block), a former child actress who desperately wants the film's lead role to rescue her career. Vera and her roommate Lottie (the scene-stealing Kimberly Hebert Gregory) hope to find parts as "slaves with lines." Their light-skinned roommate Anne Mae (the exuberant Karen Olivo), posing as a Brazilian, is dating the film's director Maxmillian von Oster (Kevin Isola), actually Russian but given a German name by studio head Fredrick Slasvick (David Forrester) who is convinced that he knows best what the American public wants. Leroy Barksdale (Daniel Breaker) plays a musician working as a chauffeur who takes a shine to Vera.

For the second act, Nottage creates an unusual structure. After presenting a long clip from "Belle of New Orleans" in which all four actresses from act one are featured, the stage divides in two. On the right we are in 2003 with a panel of three bloviating panelists (Breaker, Gregory and Olivo) at a seminar on "Rediscovering Vera Stark: the Legacy of 'Belle of New Orleans'". They are watching and discussing a film clip from a 1973 talk show, the last public sighting of Vera Stark, which we see on the left. The send-up of the talk show has it all -- an unctuous host (Garrison), the obligatory androgynous British rock star guest (Isola) and a surprise guest, Gloria Mitchell, who has not seen Vera in over 25 years. Vera is now an embittered alcoholic truth-teller who bemoans the demeaning roles she was continuously offered after the great success of "Belle." Nottage pulls off the time-shifting brilliantly.

Jo Bonney's direction, Neal Patel's sets and ESosa's costumes are all excellent. The play is not perfect -- some of satire is too heavy-handed, but it is certainly one of the most original and entertaining plays of the season. The Second Stage audience loved it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

10x25 - Series A **

10x25 is the Atlantic Theater Company's 25th Anniversary Festival of 10-Minute Plays. Series A presents the first eight plays. As is so often the case in projects like this, the results vary widely in quality. First off was Ethan Coen's "The Redeemers," about patricidal brothers out West, in which a gurgling Mr. Coffee has the best part. Next was the evening's low point, "Posh Pill" by Kia Corthron, a clumsy harangue about health care disguised as a play, that seemed to drag on much longer than 10 minutes. David Mamet's "In a Linguistic Class," about a professor and student negotiating a grade for the student's poem, was the shortest and, to me, most amusing offering. Kate Moira Ryan's "Master Class with Cassiopeia O'Hara" is a monologue for the always entertaining Kristen Johnston as a has-been (or never-was) actress passing her "wisdom" on to a new generation. It was over the top, but fun. For me, the most interesting play was John Guare's "Elzbieta," a biographical sketch about a famous Polish actress, that blended narration and impersonation. Stephen Belber's "Various Rigors," about a very strange physical examination, seemed weird and pointless. Lucy Thurber's "Marriage," a dinner conversation for a long-married couple, their unhappy daughter and her husband, was lively and well-made. David Pittu is lyricist, star and director of "Jacob Sterling, Distinguished Alumnus," during which the hapless alum returns to his alma mater, S.P.A.S.M. (South Palo Alto School of Music) for an interview with excerpts from his music for unproduced musicals. Randy Redd wrote the music. Amusing on its own, the play is even funnier for those who saw Pittu's earlier turn as Sterling in "What's That Smell?" Among the 16 actors I have not mentioned, Tim Blake Nelson, Kristin Griffith, Peter Maloney, Glenn Fitzgerald and Mikaela Feely-Lehmann stood out.
Series B and C are coming up in June with playwrights including Tina Howe, Craig Lucas, Keith Reddin, David Auburn, Peter Parnell and Sam Shepard.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Future Anxiety **

Lauren Haines' satire at The Flea imagines a grim future in which environmental depredation has taken its toll and 12 billion people are competing for ever-diminishing resources. The Chinese import American debtors as slave labor. A woman who "collects" people for deportation to China is too ashamed to admit her occupation to her friends. People who chose cryogenics return to a world far worse than the one they left and must undergo two years of reorientation as wards of the state. A rapacious businessman scours the world for traces of vanished plant species. A poet softens the heart of a stern Chinese guard. A homeless man gives survival tips. A possibly crazed leader recruits followers to build a spaceship to travel to a new planet where they can start over -- and destroy a new environment. The various plot lines alternate in short scenes. 23 members of the Bats, the Flea's talented resident company of young actors, form the cast. The results are uneven and the whole is somehow less than its parts. The direction by Jim Simpson is fluid and the set by Kyle Chepulis makes good use of a small budget. The highlight for me actually took place before the play even started -- there is 15 minutes of weird vocalization by an uncredited male that is hysterically funny. Running time: 80 minutes.

P.S. Alas, there were more people in the cast than in the audience.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Knickerbocker **

In this current LAB production at the Public, Jonathan Marc Sherman describes the angst of 40-year-old first time expectant father Jerry over a 5-month period from early pregnancy to the eve of childbirth. Jerry (Alexander Chaplin) holds court in his favorite booth at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill. In a series of conversations with his wife Pauline (Mia Barron), his best friend Melvyn (Ben Shenkman), his ex-girlfriend Tara (Christina Kirk), his other best friend Chester (Zak Orth) and his father Leonard (Bob Dishy), Jerry tries to answer the question "Are you ready?" It's a promising concept, but the conversations vary widely in quality, occasionally run on too long, and don't really build to any climax. If you blink, you will miss Drew Madland as Steve, the waiter. Peter Ksander's set and Pippin Parker's direction are fine. At $15 a ticket, it's worth taking a chance on. Running time: 90 minutes.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The School for Lies ****

Have I died and gone to heaven or did I really just see four wonderful plays in a row? I am ready to forgive all the long hours I have spent suffereing through unworthy plays this season just to experience a week like this.  It began with The Book of Mormon, followed by The Normal Heart and The Motherf**ker with the Hat  andcame to a exhilarating conclusion with The School for Lies at Classic Stage Company. David Ives’ brilliant riff on Moliere’s Misanthrope was sheer pleasure, a triumph of style over substance. The uniformly superb cast, the marvelous costumes by William Ivey Long, the elegantly minimalist set by John Lee Beatty, the brilliant direction by Walter Bobbie are all outstanding, but the greatest praise must go to Ives for his ingenious rhymed couplets and his clever reworking of the plot. He mixes classic diction with modern slang, criticism of 17th century French society with parody of contemporary America, witty lines with slapstick humor, all in an irresistible blend. Hamish Linklater and Mamie Gummer shine, as do all the others. Steven Boyer, Alison Fraser, Jenn Gambatese, Frank Harts, Rick Holmes, Hoon Lee and Matthew Maher each get at least one moment of glory. It has been a long time since I have laughed so hard or so often at the theater.  It’s a limited run. Get a ticket if you can!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Motherf**ker with the Hat ****

I've already gone on record as not being partial to plays about drug users and dealers, but I will gladly make an exception for Stephen Adly Guirgis's new play at the Schoenfeld. Unless you are totally averse to profanity, don't let the play's title keep you away. Guirgis is a master of using vivid dialogue to build memorable characters, a bit like early Mamet without the pauses.  Knee-slapping humor leavens the painful and the profound. The cast is superb. Bobby Cannavale as Jackie, a recent parolee with a volatile temperament, is simply riveting and, in my opinion, Tony-worthy. Elizabeth Rodriguez is fierce as his addict girlfriend Veronica. Yul Vazquez, as Cousin Julio, steals every scene he is in. Annabella Sciorra, as the unhappy wife of Jackie's AA sponsor, Ralph D., is touching. In this high-powered company, Chris Rock as Jackie's duplicitous sponsor Ralph D. is slightly disappointing, although his performance improves as the play progresses. The rotating set by Todd Rosenthal nails the milieu perfectly. Anna D. Shapiro's direction could not be better. I'm glad I didn't let the topic or the language deter me from seeing one of the season's best plays.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Normal Heart ***

This 25th anniversary production of Larry Kramer's ferocious drama about the early years of the health crisis that didn't yet even have a definitive name is actually its Broadway debut. For the occasion, the producers have gathered a powerful cast led by the superb Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks and the excellent Ellen Barkin as Dr. Emma Bruckner. The ensemble includes four stars of present or past TV series -- John Benjamin Hickey as Weeks' lover Felix Turner, Lee Pace as Bruce Niles, Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatwright and Luke Macfarlane in two small roles. All are fine, Hickey especially so. Patrick Breen shines in his big scene as Mickey Marcus,  Richard Topol impresses as two unsympathetic characters -- Hiram Keeler and the Examining Doctor, Wayne Alan Wilcox makes the most of a brief but shocking appearance early in Act One, but Mark Harelik seemed a bit wooden as Ned's brother Ben. The stark scenic design by David Rockwell serves the play well. The use of projections is restrained and effective. Several times, actors not in a particular scene are sitting around the edges of the set unlit; they are both bearing witness and in the dark. Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe share credit for directing. After 25 years, the play's weaknesses seemed diminished and its strengths increased.

P.S. You would be hard put to find a grimmer setting on Broadway than the Golden Theatre. The seats are tight, the decor (if one can call it that) is drab and the lighting is so dim that the ushers can't see the row or seat numbers. I hope the Shuberts will spring for some badly needed improvements!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Book of Mormon ****

The critical praise heaped upon "The Book of Mormon" was so lavish that I was afraid that my expectations might be too high. I needn't have worried -- it really does live up to all the hype. This clever musical by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone describes what happens when two mismatched young Mormons (Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, both outstanding) are sent on a mission to an impoverished, AIDS-ridden village in Uganda. Much has been made about the show's naughty language and ridicule of religion, but its heart is sweet and pure. It is the model of a well-made Broadway musical with hummable songs, terrific production numbers, and a satisfying narrative arc. The ensemble is the best I have seen since "The Scottsboro Boys" and Casey Nicholaw's lively choreography puts them through their paces. Scott Pask's sets and Ann Roth's costumes are excellent. The direction, shared by Nicholaw and Parker, keeps things moving without slack. It's one of the rare shows where the best is yet to come after intermission. All in all, a very satisfying experience.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The People in the Picture *

When the best the critics can say about a play is that it is "well-meaning," take it as a warning that it's not likely to be a great night. Such is the case with this new musical at Roundabout's Studio 54. There is plenty of drama inherent in the story of a Holocaust survivor succumbing to Alzheimer's, but  the book by Iris Rainer Dart is a lumpy mix of soap opera and shtick, punctuated my songs by Mike Stoller & Artie Butler with banal lyrics by Dart. Bad taste dips to a new low with a dance number set in the Warsaw Ghetto. The literal-minded set by Riccardo Hernandez consists of picture frames -- lots of picture frames. Leonard Foglia directed. Star Donna Murphy escapes with her reputation intact, but just barely. The running time is 2 1/2 hours with intermission. It seemed longer.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Minister's Wife **

The four new musicals that I have seen at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater over the last several years (the other three being "A Man of No Importance," "The Glorious Ones" and "Happiness") shared one thing in common:  they were just good enough that I wished they were better. The current one, in my opinion the least interesting of the four, is a musicalization of Shaw's "Candida.." It is a modest effort with five actors (the character of Candida's father has been dropped) and four musicians in one 95-minute act. The music and lyrics are by Joshua Schmidt and Jan Levy Tranen, respectively, and the book is by Austin Pendelton. Michael Halberstam is listed as conceiver/director. Marc Kudisch plays Morell and Bobby Steggert is Marchbanks. While I have enjoyed both in the past, I did not think they excelled here. Kate Fry impressed as Candida. Liz Baltes was lively as Morell's secretary, but Drew Gehling was not as the curate. I liked the Victorian clutter of Allen Moyer's set. My major complaint is that the music too rarely carried the emotional weight of the play, and when it did, I didn't find it very pleasant to listen to.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Picked **

Christopher Shinn is a playwright whose popularity has always puzzled me. Once again, as with four earlier plays, I left the theater with the same feeling of disappointment that I get after eating a meal that looked great but turned out to be both undercooked and underseasoned. In Picked, now at the Vineyard Theatre, Shinn describes what happens to Kevin (Michael Stahl-David), a sensitive young actor who is plucked from obscurity by a major Hollywood director (Mark Blum) to star in a "project" that should launch his career. The overcomplicated set-up of the first act spells out how he must bare his soul to the writer/director for six months while wired up to a machine that scans his brain activity. The original intention is for him to play both the hero and the villain (a robot), but another actor, Nick (Tom Lipinski) is brought in to play the villain because Kevin's ability to differentiate the two roles doesn't satisfy the director. Meanwhile Kevin's relationship with his girlfriend Jen (Liz Stauber), an actress/waitress who can't get "picked," becomes increasingly strained. At the end of filming, Nick leaves without saying goodbye and doesn't return calls. What little tension there is fizzles out in the second act. After the film's release, it gradually becomes apparent that what was supposed to be Kevin's breakout role turns out to be a dead end. Stahl-David captures Kevin's introspective passivity well. Lipinski is a lively presence, but Stauber seemed rather flat. Blum shines as the bigshot director who can be sympathetic, menacing, foolish and astute all at once. Donna Hanover is adequate in two small generic roles. Rachel Hauck's sleek unit set is both beautiful and effective. Director Michael Wilson makes the most of what he has to work with.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jerusalem *

Lured by the prospect of seeing Mark Rylance in another prize-winning performance, I attended the final preview of the London import Jerusalem at the Music Box. Three things that I have a very low tolerance for are plays about trailer dwellers, plays about heavy drug users and/or drunks, and plays that resort to blasting my eardrums with loud rock music to get my attention. Within 30 seconds, it was clear that I had hit the trifecta and was in for a long (3 hours and 5 minutes, to be exact) tough slog. Rylance plays Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a modern Pied Piper, whose drugs and booze attract a sorry lot of hangers-on to his trailer in the woods on the edge of a Wiltshire town. The action takes place on St. George's Day, on the eve of Rooster's threatened eviction by the local town council to make way for a housing estate. Much drinking, snorting and using the "c" word ensue. Perhaps playwright Jez Butterworth's goal was to bemoan the sterility of life in present-day England and lament the loss of any connection to ancient English folk traditions. The hymn Jerusalem from a poem by Blake is sung at the beginning of Acts I and II, but the significance of the words was lost on me because they were either inaudible or unintelligible. The only bright spots of the evening were the tall tales Rooster tells with such great flair. Rylance's performance is indeed a tour de force, but not sufficient reason to endure a tedious evening. For me to enjoy a play, there must be at least a character or two that I care for or want to know more about; in this case there were none. The play was enthusiastically received in London. Maybe you have to be English to fully appreciate it. Fairness requires that I report that many people around me seemed to be enjoying the evening. Ian Rickson directed the mostly British cast.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Other Place ***

A gripping performance by Laurie Metcalf overcame qualms I had about some of the plot points in Sharr White's new drama at the Lucille Lortel. Metcalf plays a prickly research scientist who has an "episode" during a lecture to a group of doctors. In a kaleidoscope of brief scenes that move backward and forward in time, we gradually learn that all is not what it seems. When all the pieces fall into place and we understand what really ails her, the effect is devastating. Dennis Boutsikaris is excellent as her husband and Aya Cash succeeds in multiple roles. John Schiappa has very little opportunity to shine. The stark set by Eugene Lee and the lighting by Justin Townsend are very effective. Joe Mantello ably directed this MCC production. The play's 80 minutes flew by. Although sometimes painful to watch, Metcalf's riveting performance made it worthwhile.

Is it a trend? The last two plays I saw had the leading characters already onstage when the audience arrived.