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.