Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Good People ***

David Lindsay-Abaire seems to reinvent himself with each new play for Manhattan Theater Club. His reputation rose with the quirky Fuddy Mears, took a hit after the awful Wonder of the World, and soared with his Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Hole. Now along comes Good People, which doesn't resemble any of his earlier plays. There's a strong autobiographic element in that the play mostly takes place in South Boston, the blue-class Irish stronghold where Lindsay (no Abaire at that point) grew up. The two main characters are Margaret, whose life has been a series of hard knocks and Mike, who had the intelligence, charm and luck to escape Southie to become a doctor with a home in tony Chestnut Hill. During the summer before he left for college, Mike and Margaret dated. They have not seen each other since. As ably played by Frances McDormand, Margaret raises passive aggression to an art form -- she knows where to draw the line, but then has an irresistible urge to cross it. Mike, suavely played by Tate Donovan, ignores several calls he gets from Margaret, who then roars back into his life like a tornado. Estelle Parsons creates a memorable character as Dottie, her landlady and babysitter. Becky Ann Baker is fine as Jean, the friend who loves to stir up trouble. The gorgeous Renee Elise Goldsberry excels as Mike's wife Kate. Patrick Carroll is sympathetic as Margaret's ex-boss and fellow bingo player. Each of John Lee Beatty's sets vividly creates a milieu and the set changes between scenes are admirably smooth. Daniel Sullivan's direction is assured. The play explores the gap between what a person says and what the other person hears.While there are a few plot developments that you will probably see coming, there is much here to admire.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Interviewing the Audience **

The Vineyard Theater is presenting L.A.-based screenwriter/director Zach Helm in a theatrical curiosity inspired by a work that Spalding Gray performed for several years. Zach inteviews three audience members for about 20 minutes each. In some sense, there is little point in reviewing the event since each performance is different. Nevertheless, I will describe the performance I attended. Helm chose three men to interview -- a college student, a middle-aged man and a senior citizen. Each interview began with the question "What brought you here today?" From that point, the interviews headed off in different directions. The college student realized that his "major" had in effect chosen him. The second man has a husband and three children that they are raising in a complicated network of six parents. The retiree has a son he broke ties with and an adopted son with special needs that he has worked hard to provide for. Helm knitted the interviews together with the question of whether we choose our lives or discover the lives we have chosen. Helm's interviewing technique is deceptively low-key. He managed to demonstrate that everyone has a story. Whether you will find it entertaining depends on how interested you are in the lives of others.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Black Tie ***

I have long been a fan of A.R. Gurney, so it came as no surprise that I greatly enjoyed his latest play Black Tie at Primary Stages. Early on, Gurney found his niche and stuck to it. Future cultural anthropologists need only study Gurney's collected plays to find out what it meant to be a WASP in 20th century America. This time out we meet Curtis (Gregg Edelman) who is dressing for his son's rehearsal dinner and thinking about the toast he must give. He has donned his late father's tuxedo (or evening suit, as his father would insist) which he has had altered for the occasion. Teddy, the groom (Ari Brand), is to wear Curtis's tuxedo, which Curtis has outgrown. Symbolism, anyone? When Curtis looks in the mirror, lo and behold, he evokes the ghost of his father (Daniel Davis, in a plummy role) who steps out from behind the mirror to advise him. A man untroubled by doubt, he knew the socially appropriate behavior for every occasion. With occasional interruptions from Curtis's wife Mimi (the excellent Carolyn McCormick) and daughter Elsie (Elvy Yost), neither of whom can see him, the father proceeds to instruct Curtis on how to give the perfect toast. Midway through the 85-minute play, we encounter a series of ever-escalating surprises funny enough (just barely) to outweigh their implausibility. With humor that is never mean-spirited, Gurney pokes fun at WASPS, East Coast liberals, and contemporary social mores. Midst the humor, he raises substantive questions about the role of tradition, continuity and the meaning of love. John Arone's set of a hotel room in a second-rate Adirondack hotel has all the proper accouterments, including antlers and a mounted fish. Mark Lamos, who has done right by Gurney on previous occasions, does so once again here.