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.