Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gruesome Playground Injuries *

As I had very much enjoyed Rajiv Joseph's Animals out of Paper a few years back, I was very much looking forward to his latest play now at Second Stage in a production starring Pablo Schreiber and Jennifer Carpenter directed by Scott Ellis. Alas, lightning did not strike twice for me. This tale of accident-prone Doug and troubled Kayleen from ages 8 to 38 failed to grab my interest despite fine acting, good direction and a clever minimalist set by Neel Patel. The several scenes, presented out of chronological order, each present the characters in the wake of some personal injury. The tone drifts between comedy and drama. As adults, they only meet about once every five years. What happened during the gaps between visits is left for us to imagine, which leaves the characters' motivation insufficiently clear. I found the experience frustrating and have decided to pass on Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, soon to be on Broadway with Robin Williams.

The running time is 80 minutes without intermission.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The New York Idea ***

Langdon Mitchell's 1906 farcical comedy of manners about divorce among New York's horsey set, revived in 1915 and 1933 and turned into a film with Hedda Hopper in 1920, is back on home turf in a new adaptation by David Auburn. Despite a silly, predictable plot, the play provides a surprisingly entertaining evening. The uniformly excellent cast of 12 (Patricia Connelly, Michael Countryman, Francesca Faridany, Mikaela Feely-Lehmann, Rick Holmes, John Keating, Peter Maloney, Jaime Ray Newman, Patricia O'Connell, Jeremy Shamos, Joey Slotnick, Tom Patrick Stephens) successfully avoid the temptation to condescend to the material.. Director Mark Brokaw keeps things moving briskly. The stylish period costumes by Michael Krass and lovely set by Allen Moyer added to my enjoyment. I'm not sure why Atlantic Theater Company chose to revive this chestnut, but they have done so lovingly and with great flair.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Whipping Man ***

Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting the New York premiere of Matthew Lopez's historical drama on its City Center stage. The premise that Lopez asks us to accept -- that the household slaves in a Jewish household in Richmond practiced Judaism -- is not totally implausible: in Biblical times, Jews encouraged their slaves to convert and circumcised the males whether or not they converted. Lopez takes the coincidence that the Confederate surrender occurred one day before the beginning of Passover and runs with it to spin an interesting tale of deceit, betrayal and mutual dependence that culminates in a seder. Caleb DeLeon (Jay Wilkinson), the Jewish family's son, is a seriously wounded Confederate officer who returns from the war to find  his home looted, partially destroyed and deserted except for the family's longtime servant Simon (Andre Braugher). The two are soon joined by John (Andre Holland), a former slave Caleb's age with a knack for trouble. At Simon's suggestion, they hold a seder, during which they read and discuss verses about the nature of slavery and freedom.  At the seder, secrets are revealed that forever alter their ties. The play has some awkward moments, but was consistently interesting. The acting was good and Doug Hughes's direction was smooth. John Lee Beatty's set and Ben Stanton's lighting were grimly effective, although I could have done without the symbolic lightning, thunder and rain that never cease.Warning: the first scene is extremely grisly.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Three Pianos *

I was supposed to see this New York Theatre Workshop production on the day of the post-Christmas blizzard. Instead of accepting the blizzard as divine intervention, I foolishly persisted and finally saw it today, the day before it closes. Have you ever known within 30 seconds that a play was not for you? That was my experience here. My heart sank as I realized I was trapped for two long hours of pointless, furious activity. I suppose the intent of the three writer/arranger/performers, Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy, was to deconstruct Schubert's Winterreise to make it more "accessible" to a modern audience. The opening gimmick is that the three men serving wine to the audience upon arrival turn out to be the performers. They commiserate about their lives, talk about the difficulties of being a composer now as well as in Schubert's day, gradually drift into a reenactment of an alcohol-fueled Schubertiade, assuming the roles of Schubert and his friends. Now and then they perform a song from the cycle, often with commentary. Leonard Bernstein they're not. Nor the Marx Brothers. Andreea Mincic's set, featuring a miniature village whose windows light up occasionally, a birch forest with vertical flourescent lights hanging from the trees, a clothes dryer with period costumes stored in it, a metal stand with numerous house plants, a birdhouse with a bottle of booze hidden inside, a cemetery, two crystal chandeliers over the audience and three upright pianos that get pushed around the stage frantically, perfectly captures the chaotic nature of the piece. On the rare occasion when the shenanigans cease long enough for a song to presented in a form reasonably close to the original, Schubert's music gets a chance to shine through. Alas, these moments are rare. I cannot imagine that this play could instill any desire to listen to more Schubert in anyone. Nevertheless, a substantial number of people seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly. Maybe they had more wine than I did.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mistakes Were Made **

Michael Shannon seems to thrive at the Barrow Street Theatre. First in "Bug," then in "Our Town," and now in Craig Wright's new comedy, Shannon grabs your attention and doesn't let go. "Mistakes Were Made" is the title of a play about the French Revolution by a new playwright that small-time producer Felix Artifex (Shannon) is trying to bring to New York. During the play's 90-minutes, his plans spectacularly unravel in a series of phone calls from a Hollywood star who would like the play rewritten for him, the unwilling playwright, his agent, the drivers of a 10-truck convoy of sheep in Iraq (don't ask!) and various other nemeses who lead Felix to a meltdown. Except for messages from Felix's secretary (Mierka Girten) and a few one-way conversations with his overfed pet fish (controlled by puppeteer Sam Deutsch), Felix's half of the phone calls is the whole play. The fish is apt because making fun of show biz types is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. A brief effort near the end to supply Felix with a back story that would make his behavior more comprehensible mostly misfires. The humor wore thin for me, but Shannon's performance was dazzling. Dexter Bullard directed.

Blood from a Stone ***

This over-the-top blue-collar family drama with comic flashes, now at the Acorn Theater in a New Group production, has already extended its run before it even opens. The box-office draw is probably Ethan Hawke as the damaged elder son Travis, a former war hero who returns to his small-town Connecticut home before Christmas to try to sort out some family problems before taking off for the West Coast. His character is the glue that holds the play together: he has a scene alone with each of the other characters. The excellent cast includes Gordon Clapp and Ann Dowd as parents who are locked in constant combat, Thomas Guiry as the younger brother who is a gambler and chronic liar, Natasha Lyonne as the sister who has struggled with some success to escape the toxic pull of her family, and Daphne Rubin-Vega as the sexy married neighbor whom Travis beds whenever he is in town. Tommy Nohilly is an actor turned playwright and the juicy roles he has written here give each actor a chance to shine. Director Scott Elliott is in good form as usual. Derek McLane's set of a house in disrepair appropriately mirrors the play's chaos. There really isn't anything new or revelatory, some of the scenes run a bit long, some of the motivation is a bit unclear, but the play is full of energy and very well acted. I overcame my initial lack of interest in these characters and eventually got caught up in the action. I"m not sure you'll like it, but I doubt that you'll be bored.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Other Desert Cities **

Jon Robin Baitz's new play, now in previews at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, brims with talent. With five worthy actors, a noted director (Joe Mantello), a wonderful set by John Lee Beatty and an interesting premise, it should have made for a stimulating evening. Alas, it didn't. The plot revolves around whether East Coast lefty writer-daughter Brooke Wyeth (Elizabeth Marvel) should publish her memoir about a family tragedy that happened 25 years previously, no matter what pain it causes her Republican parents Polly & Lyman Wyeth (Stockard Channing & Stacy Keach) who are living in Palm Springs splendor in self-exile from Hollywood. The underutilized Linda Lavin plays Polly's alcoholic sister who is using her niece to work out her own feelings against her sister. Thomas Sadoski plays Brooke's younger brother, producer of a "Judge Judy"-type tv show. They all have at each other for an act and a half, until we learn that things are not quite as they seem. A final scene set five years later detracts rather than adds to the plot. The dialog is mostly lackuster, the plot has gaping holes and any claims to a larger significance are unearned. The shock of the evening for me was Channing, whom I have always enjoyed in the past. Her face lacked expression and her delivery lacked conviction. I should add that most of the people around me responded enthusiastically to the play. I wish I could have shared their enthusiasm.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Free Man of Color **

This seems to be Lincoln Center Theater's season for wildly ambitious, lavishly produced, deeply flawed productions --first "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (which I enjoyed despite its flaws) and now John Guare's "A Free Man of Color." This melange of faux-Restoration comedy, historical pageant and Don Juan tribute, with a few metatheatrical tricks (a play within a play, allusions to future events) is a mess. But what an interesting mess! 26 actors portray 37 characters including Napoleon, Tousaint L'Ouverture, Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, Walter Reed and Feydeau  The plot revolves around Jacques Cornet, a freed mulatto, dandified Casanova and the wealthiest man in 1800 New Orleans, whose prodigious endowment makes him catnip to the ladies. Jeffrey Wright brings him vividly to life. The cast is a veritable cornucopia of New York stage actors, including Peter Bartlett, Veanne Cox, John McMartin, Mos, Reg Rogers, Robert Stanton, all of whom shine. George C. Wolfe keeps things moving smoothly.The sets and costumes, by David Rockwell and Ann Hould-Ward respectively, greatly enhance the production. Would that all the fine acting, gorgeous sets and lush costumes were in service of something a bit more coherent and substantive. Although the play certainly has many shortcomings, it also has its share of enjoyable moments. I salute Lincoln Center Theater for taking on an ambitious project that no commercial producer would touch.