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.