Saturday, April 23, 2011

Picked **

Christopher Shinn is a playwright whose popularity has always puzzled me. Once again, as with four earlier plays, I left the theater with the same feeling of disappointment that I get after eating a meal that looked great but turned out to be both undercooked and underseasoned. In Picked, now at the Vineyard Theatre, Shinn describes what happens to Kevin (Michael Stahl-David), a sensitive young actor who is plucked from obscurity by a major Hollywood director (Mark Blum) to star in a "project" that should launch his career. The overcomplicated set-up of the first act spells out how he must bare his soul to the writer/director for six months while wired up to a machine that scans his brain activity. The original intention is for him to play both the hero and the villain (a robot), but another actor, Nick (Tom Lipinski) is brought in to play the villain because Kevin's ability to differentiate the two roles doesn't satisfy the director. Meanwhile Kevin's relationship with his girlfriend Jen (Liz Stauber), an actress/waitress who can't get "picked," becomes increasingly strained. At the end of filming, Nick leaves without saying goodbye and doesn't return calls. What little tension there is fizzles out in the second act. After the film's release, it gradually becomes apparent that what was supposed to be Kevin's breakout role turns out to be a dead end. Stahl-David captures Kevin's introspective passivity well. Lipinski is a lively presence, but Stauber seemed rather flat. Blum shines as the bigshot director who can be sympathetic, menacing, foolish and astute all at once. Donna Hanover is adequate in two small generic roles. Rachel Hauck's sleek unit set is both beautiful and effective. Director Michael Wilson makes the most of what he has to work with.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jerusalem *

Lured by the prospect of seeing Mark Rylance in another prize-winning performance, I attended the final preview of the London import Jerusalem at the Music Box. Three things that I have a very low tolerance for are plays about trailer dwellers, plays about heavy drug users and/or drunks, and plays that resort to blasting my eardrums with loud rock music to get my attention. Within 30 seconds, it was clear that I had hit the trifecta and was in for a long (3 hours and 5 minutes, to be exact) tough slog. Rylance plays Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a modern Pied Piper, whose drugs and booze attract a sorry lot of hangers-on to his trailer in the woods on the edge of a Wiltshire town. The action takes place on St. George's Day, on the eve of Rooster's threatened eviction by the local town council to make way for a housing estate. Much drinking, snorting and using the "c" word ensue. Perhaps playwright Jez Butterworth's goal was to bemoan the sterility of life in present-day England and lament the loss of any connection to ancient English folk traditions. The hymn Jerusalem from a poem by Blake is sung at the beginning of Acts I and II, but the significance of the words was lost on me because they were either inaudible or unintelligible. The only bright spots of the evening were the tall tales Rooster tells with such great flair. Rylance's performance is indeed a tour de force, but not sufficient reason to endure a tedious evening. For me to enjoy a play, there must be at least a character or two that I care for or want to know more about; in this case there were none. The play was enthusiastically received in London. Maybe you have to be English to fully appreciate it. Fairness requires that I report that many people around me seemed to be enjoying the evening. Ian Rickson directed the mostly British cast.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Other Place ***

A gripping performance by Laurie Metcalf overcame qualms I had about some of the plot points in Sharr White's new drama at the Lucille Lortel. Metcalf plays a prickly research scientist who has an "episode" during a lecture to a group of doctors. In a kaleidoscope of brief scenes that move backward and forward in time, we gradually learn that all is not what it seems. When all the pieces fall into place and we understand what really ails her, the effect is devastating. Dennis Boutsikaris is excellent as her husband and Aya Cash succeeds in multiple roles. John Schiappa has very little opportunity to shine. The stark set by Eugene Lee and the lighting by Justin Townsend are very effective. Joe Mantello ably directed this MCC production. The play's 80 minutes flew by. Although sometimes painful to watch, Metcalf's riveting performance made it worthwhile.

Is it a trend? The last two plays I saw had the leading characters already onstage when the audience arrived.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Marie and Bruce *

Perhaps encouraged by their well-received revival of Wallace Shawn's play Aunt Dan and Lemon several years ago, The New Group has brought back this early black comedy by Shawn. Lightning did not strike twice. This absurdist look at a failed marriage was sheer agony to sit through. With no intermission, there was no chance to flee. Its 90 minutes seemed an eternity. Perhaps Shawn wanted to convey the banality of urban intellectuals and the difficulty of meaningful communication, but his fixation on bodily functions as a conversation topic was a turn-off. The central party scene exposed the foolishness of the guests and host, but seemed endless. Marisa Tomei and Frank Whaley made a brave effort to bring their characters to life, but they remained abstractions, not real people that I could care about. Scott Elliott directed. Many scholars regard Shawn as one of our most important playwrights. I don't understand why.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Girlfriend's Boyfriend ***

I greatly enjoyed Mike Birbiglia's comic monologue Sleepwalk with Me two years ago. His gentle self-deprecating manner and his way of embellishing a story with a multitude of funny detours appealed to me. I was afraid that his latest solo comedy, now at the Barrow Street Theatre, might be either repetitious or disappointing. My fears were unjustified. If anything, Birbiglia is even better now. To his previous strengths he has added a knack for physical comedy that is hilarious. His recreation of a queasy carnival ride and an airport run with an unwilling rolling suitcase were knee-slappers. The focus this time around is on the history of his social ineptitude from seventh grade to his thirties. Stories that first seen loosely knit turn out be part of a seamless arc. The 70 minutes flew by enjoyably without any letdowns. Seth Barrish directed.

I was surprised that there were only a handful of people over 40 in the sold-out house.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Go Back to Where You Are **

Playwrights Horizons' press release describes David Greenspan's latest work as a "melancholy comic romance." To me, it was a playful sketch masquerading as a play. The plot brings Passalus, a former Athenian chorus boy who has been languishing in Purgatory for over two centuries (Greenspan) back to earth on a mission from God (Tim Hopper) which involves visiting a theatrical (in both senses) family who are vacationing in the Hamptons. Claire (the always enjoyable Lisa Banes) is a bitchy middle-aged actress who has invited Charlotte (the hilarious Mariann Mayberry), an actress who can't seem to find work in New York; fellow actor Tom who is a bit of a rake (the still handsome Stephen Bogardus); his long-suffering partner Malcolm (Hopper, again);  her gay brother Bernard (Brian Hutchinson), an unsuccessful playwright; and her gay son Wally (Michael Izquierdo) who has moved to L.A. to write for television, to a party to celebrate the birthday of her never-seen daughter Caroline. Passalus, who has the ability to shape-shift, is also a guest at the party, both in his own guise and as an English dowager. Passalus and Bernard are unsettled by their feelings for each other.Got all that? The dialogue includes theater jokes, asides, interior monologues, self-references, and chronological liberties, many of them quite amusing. On the downside, some of the characters and relationships are underwritten. At 70 minutes, it is long for a sketch and short for a play. I was entertained, but undernourished.

The set by Rachel Hauck is elegant in its simplicity and the lighting by Matt Frey is excellent. As for the direction, I wish that Leigh Silverman did not repeatedly leave actors sitting or standing around awkwardly when others held the spotlight.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

War Horse ****

Three cheers to Lincoln Center Theater for bringing this thrilling production to New York! I will confess that I was not all that keen on seeing an adaptation (by Nick Stafford) of a 1982 children's novel (by Michael Morpurgo) about horses in World War I, with puppets no less. First produced at the National Theatre in 2007, it returned for a second run the next year and then moved in 2009 to the West End, where it is still drawing large crowds. LCT has mounted it (pun intended) at the Vivian Beaumont with the original London creative team and 35 American actors. The results are splendid. The word "puppet" doesn't begin to do justice to the magnificent life-size creatures, each inhabited by two or three actors, that grace the stage. The actors who play humans have their work cut out for them to win and hold our attention when there's a horse --or a goose -- onstage. They mostly succeed. Seth Numrich makes a winning Albert, the boy who raises the foal Joey only to have him sold to the British Army by his drunken father (Boris McGiver). What's a boy to do? Lie about his age and enlist, obviously, to search for Joey in war-torn France. Many adventures ensue, some of them sentimental, predictable and manipulative. But so what? It isn't often that you get to see such brilliant stagecraft. The puppets (by Handspring Puppet Company), the horse choreography (by Toby Sedgwick), the effective use of the Beaumont stage's rotation and elevation capabilities, the excellent projections and animations, the period songs, the fine ensemble cast and the fluid direction (by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris) all combine to produce a powerful experience. I dare you not to shed a tear!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Benefactors ***

The Keen Company's production of Michael Frayn's 1984 play Benefactors is a welcome addition to the season. "No good deed goes unpunished" might serve as a summary of Frayn's tale of the complicated relations between two London couples over a period of several years starting in 1968. David (Daniel Jenkins) is an architect developing a project for high- and low-rise council housing in South London. His wife Jane (Vivienne Benesch) is an anthropologist, who now helps her husband by interviewing residents of the neighborhood targeted for demolition. Colin (Stephen Barker Turner), an old university acquaintance of David, is a not-very-successful journalist married to Sheila (Deanne Lorette), an emotionally unstable ex-nurse. David and Jane have found a house across the road for Colin and Sheila and are "rewarded" by constant unannounced visits from Sheila, who has virtually made a lifestyle out of helplessness. Jane usually ends up including Sheila and her family at their supper table. David craves being loved by everyone, while Colin would prefer to be universally hated. He is jealous and hateful toward David, but David's good nature prevents him from comprehending that anyone could hate him. The attempts by Jane and David to mend Colin and Sheila's troubled marriage only make things worse. Their attempt to help Sheila by giving her a part-time job working with David backfires when Shelia foolishly relays information about the housing project to Colin, who leaks it to the press and begins a campaign to stop it. When Sheila leaves Colin, they end up housing her and her children. Jane loathes Colin. Sheila loves David. Things finally boil over in a shocking confrontation in the kitchen.

The American cast is uniformly excellent. Kudos to their dialect coach. Carl Forsman ably directed. Dane Lafftey's set is appropriately stark. The play makes extensive use of asides to the audience expressing each character's view of past events. Normally, I don't care for this technique, but it is used here quite effectively. The nature of good and evil, the pluses and minuses of governmental intervention in people's lives, the corrosive influence of jealousy and hatred on public and private affairs, and the harm that even love and goodness can wreak are all brought out in the play -- and in just 2 hours 10 minutes. (Tony Kushner, take note.)

P.S. Since the play was written in 1984, Frayn could not possibly have imagined what an eerie effect David's encomium to his proposed twin towers would have on a post-9/11 New York audience.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures *

First presented at the Guthrie Theater in 2009, Tony Kushner's latest effort is now in previews at The Public in a coproduction with Signature Theatre. The first sign of trouble occurred when I was reading the program. Two of the characters were named Empty and Pill. Was this going to be Kushner's homage to Beckett? As it turns out, the answer is "no" -- the names were based on their initials MT and PL. What was gained by this escapes me.

The action takes place during a long summer weekend in 2007 at the Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn home of Gus Marcantonio, played by the able Michael Cristofer. Gus, the father of this spectacularly dysfunctional family, is an avid Marxist, former longshoreman and union official who attempted suicide the year before. His sister Clio (Brenda Wehle), a nun who once was associated with S. American guerillas but is now devoted to serving the poor of Patterson, New Jersey, moved in with him after his suicide attempt. He thinks he is developing Alzheimer's and has called his three children together to take a vote on whether he should end it all. The eldest, Pill, played by Stephen Spinella, is a gay ABD history teacher who has been in a 20+ year relationship with the long-suffering Paul, a black theology professor (K. Todd Freeman). Pill also has an expensive yen for Yale-educated hustler Eli (Michael Esper) on whom he has spent $30,000 borrowed from his sister Empty (Linda Emond). Empty is a former nurse turned labor lawyer and lesbian whose partner Maeve (Danielle Skraastad) is very pregnant. Empty is not above an occasional toss in the hay with her ex-husband Adam (Matt Servitto) who conveniently lives in the basement apartment. At Maeve's insistence, Empty's younger brother V (Steven Pasquale) has donated his sperm. V has rebelled against his lefty upbringing and is now a contractor with a very low opinion of unions. His Asian-American wife Sooze (Hettienne Park) is a calming influence on him. Shelle (Molly Price), the widow of another longshoreman, has a small but important role.

The play alternates between one-on-one conversations and group confrontations.The chaotic shouting match that ends the second act was the most memorable moment of the play. An astute friend pointed out that this scene strongly resembles the Act II finale of "August: Osage County." A seemingly important discovery near the end of Act II is strangely ignored until the final moments of the play. The third act drags on and on until it finally sputters to a close. I give Kushner credit for addressing some Big Issues and writing some intermittently witty dialog, but the family members, especially Pill, are short on redeeming qualities that might have made me care more deeply about them. Despite the fine acting and fluid direction by Michael Greif, I found the play a disappointment. At almost 4 hours, it wore out its welcome long before it ended. I'm sure the major critics will be much kinder.