Tuesday, May 31, 2011

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark ****

This time around, the prodigiously talented Lynn Nottage has written a wickedly funny, yet thought-provoking satire about the portrayal of black women in the movies. The first act, set in 1933, is a madcap comedy about the machinations that four actresses go through to get parts in the antebellum epic "Belle of New Orleans." Making fun of Hollywood is all too easy, but Nottage does it hilariously. Vera (the excellent Sanaa Lathan) is the maid and confidante of Gloria Mitchell (the deliciously hammy Stephanie J. Block), a former child actress who desperately wants the film's lead role to rescue her career. Vera and her roommate Lottie (the scene-stealing Kimberly Hebert Gregory) hope to find parts as "slaves with lines." Their light-skinned roommate Anne Mae (the exuberant Karen Olivo), posing as a Brazilian, is dating the film's director Maxmillian von Oster (Kevin Isola), actually Russian but given a German name by studio head Fredrick Slasvick (David Forrester) who is convinced that he knows best what the American public wants. Leroy Barksdale (Daniel Breaker) plays a musician working as a chauffeur who takes a shine to Vera.

For the second act, Nottage creates an unusual structure. After presenting a long clip from "Belle of New Orleans" in which all four actresses from act one are featured, the stage divides in two. On the right we are in 2003 with a panel of three bloviating panelists (Breaker, Gregory and Olivo) at a seminar on "Rediscovering Vera Stark: the Legacy of 'Belle of New Orleans'". They are watching and discussing a film clip from a 1973 talk show, the last public sighting of Vera Stark, which we see on the left. The send-up of the talk show has it all -- an unctuous host (Garrison), the obligatory androgynous British rock star guest (Isola) and a surprise guest, Gloria Mitchell, who has not seen Vera in over 25 years. Vera is now an embittered alcoholic truth-teller who bemoans the demeaning roles she was continuously offered after the great success of "Belle." Nottage pulls off the time-shifting brilliantly.

Jo Bonney's direction, Neal Patel's sets and ESosa's costumes are all excellent. The play is not perfect -- some of satire is too heavy-handed, but it is certainly one of the most original and entertaining plays of the season. The Second Stage audience loved it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

10x25 - Series A **

10x25 is the Atlantic Theater Company's 25th Anniversary Festival of 10-Minute Plays. Series A presents the first eight plays. As is so often the case in projects like this, the results vary widely in quality. First off was Ethan Coen's "The Redeemers," about patricidal brothers out West, in which a gurgling Mr. Coffee has the best part. Next was the evening's low point, "Posh Pill" by Kia Corthron, a clumsy harangue about health care disguised as a play, that seemed to drag on much longer than 10 minutes. David Mamet's "In a Linguistic Class," about a professor and student negotiating a grade for the student's poem, was the shortest and, to me, most amusing offering. Kate Moira Ryan's "Master Class with Cassiopeia O'Hara" is a monologue for the always entertaining Kristen Johnston as a has-been (or never-was) actress passing her "wisdom" on to a new generation. It was over the top, but fun. For me, the most interesting play was John Guare's "Elzbieta," a biographical sketch about a famous Polish actress, that blended narration and impersonation. Stephen Belber's "Various Rigors," about a very strange physical examination, seemed weird and pointless. Lucy Thurber's "Marriage," a dinner conversation for a long-married couple, their unhappy daughter and her husband, was lively and well-made. David Pittu is lyricist, star and director of "Jacob Sterling, Distinguished Alumnus," during which the hapless alum returns to his alma mater, S.P.A.S.M. (South Palo Alto School of Music) for an interview with excerpts from his music for unproduced musicals. Randy Redd wrote the music. Amusing on its own, the play is even funnier for those who saw Pittu's earlier turn as Sterling in "What's That Smell?" Among the 16 actors I have not mentioned, Tim Blake Nelson, Kristin Griffith, Peter Maloney, Glenn Fitzgerald and Mikaela Feely-Lehmann stood out.
Series B and C are coming up in June with playwrights including Tina Howe, Craig Lucas, Keith Reddin, David Auburn, Peter Parnell and Sam Shepard.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Future Anxiety **

Lauren Haines' satire at The Flea imagines a grim future in which environmental depredation has taken its toll and 12 billion people are competing for ever-diminishing resources. The Chinese import American debtors as slave labor. A woman who "collects" people for deportation to China is too ashamed to admit her occupation to her friends. People who chose cryogenics return to a world far worse than the one they left and must undergo two years of reorientation as wards of the state. A rapacious businessman scours the world for traces of vanished plant species. A poet softens the heart of a stern Chinese guard. A homeless man gives survival tips. A possibly crazed leader recruits followers to build a spaceship to travel to a new planet where they can start over -- and destroy a new environment. The various plot lines alternate in short scenes. 23 members of the Bats, the Flea's talented resident company of young actors, form the cast. The results are uneven and the whole is somehow less than its parts. The direction by Jim Simpson is fluid and the set by Kyle Chepulis makes good use of a small budget. The highlight for me actually took place before the play even started -- there is 15 minutes of weird vocalization by an uncredited male that is hysterically funny. Running time: 80 minutes.

P.S. Alas, there were more people in the cast than in the audience.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Knickerbocker **

In this current LAB production at the Public, Jonathan Marc Sherman describes the angst of 40-year-old first time expectant father Jerry over a 5-month period from early pregnancy to the eve of childbirth. Jerry (Alexander Chaplin) holds court in his favorite booth at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill. In a series of conversations with his wife Pauline (Mia Barron), his best friend Melvyn (Ben Shenkman), his ex-girlfriend Tara (Christina Kirk), his other best friend Chester (Zak Orth) and his father Leonard (Bob Dishy), Jerry tries to answer the question "Are you ready?" It's a promising concept, but the conversations vary widely in quality, occasionally run on too long, and don't really build to any climax. If you blink, you will miss Drew Madland as Steve, the waiter. Peter Ksander's set and Pippin Parker's direction are fine. At $15 a ticket, it's worth taking a chance on. Running time: 90 minutes.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The School for Lies ****

Have I died and gone to heaven or did I really just see four wonderful plays in a row? I am ready to forgive all the long hours I have spent suffereing through unworthy plays this season just to experience a week like this.  It began with The Book of Mormon, followed by The Normal Heart and The Motherf**ker with the Hat  andcame to a exhilarating conclusion with The School for Lies at Classic Stage Company. David Ives’ brilliant riff on Moliere’s Misanthrope was sheer pleasure, a triumph of style over substance. The uniformly superb cast, the marvelous costumes by William Ivey Long, the elegantly minimalist set by John Lee Beatty, the brilliant direction by Walter Bobbie are all outstanding, but the greatest praise must go to Ives for his ingenious rhymed couplets and his clever reworking of the plot. He mixes classic diction with modern slang, criticism of 17th century French society with parody of contemporary America, witty lines with slapstick humor, all in an irresistible blend. Hamish Linklater and Mamie Gummer shine, as do all the others. Steven Boyer, Alison Fraser, Jenn Gambatese, Frank Harts, Rick Holmes, Hoon Lee and Matthew Maher each get at least one moment of glory. It has been a long time since I have laughed so hard or so often at the theater.  It’s a limited run. Get a ticket if you can!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Motherf**ker with the Hat ****

I've already gone on record as not being partial to plays about drug users and dealers, but I will gladly make an exception for Stephen Adly Guirgis's new play at the Schoenfeld. Unless you are totally averse to profanity, don't let the play's title keep you away. Guirgis is a master of using vivid dialogue to build memorable characters, a bit like early Mamet without the pauses.  Knee-slapping humor leavens the painful and the profound. The cast is superb. Bobby Canavale as Jackie, a recent parolee with a volatile temperament, is simply riveting and, in my opinion, Tony-worthy. Elizabeth Rodriguez is fierce as his addict girlfriend Veronica. Yul Vazquez, as Cousin Julio, steals every scene he is in. Annabella Sciorra, as the unhappy wife of Jackie's AA sponsor, Ralph D., is touching. In this high-powered company, Chris Rock as Jackie's duplicitous sponsor Ralph D. is slightly disappointing, although his performance improves as the play progresses. The rotating set by Todd Rosenthal nails the milieu perfectly. Anna D. Shapiro's direction could not be better. I'm glad I didn't let the topic or the language deter me from seeing one of the season's best plays.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Normal Heart ***

This 25th anniversary production of Larry Kramer's ferocious drama about the early years of the health crisis that didn't yet even have a definitive name is actually its Broadway debut. For the occasion, the producers have gathered a powerful cast led by the superb Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks and the excellent Ellen Barkin as Dr. Emma Bruckner. The ensemble includes four stars of present or past TV series -- John Benjamin Hickey as Weeks' lover Felix Turner, Lee Pace as Bruce Niles, Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatwright and Luke Macfarlane in two small roles. All are fine, Hickey especially so. Patrick Breen shines in his big scene as Mickey Marcus,  Richard Topol impresses as two unsympathetic characters -- Hiram Keeler and the Examining Doctor, Wayne Alan Wilcox makes the most of a brief but shocking appearance early in Act One, but Mark Harelik seemed a bit wooden as Ned's brother Ben. The stark scenic design by David Rockwell serves the play well. The use of projections is restrained and effective. Several times, actors not in a particular scene are sitting around the edges of the set unlit; they are both bearing witness and in the dark. Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe share credit for directing. After 25 years, the play's weaknesses seemed diminished and its strengths increased.

P.S. You would be hard put to find a grimmer setting on Broadway than the Golden Theatre. The seats are tight, the decor (if one can call it that) is drab and the lighting is so dim that the ushers can't see the row or seat numbers. I hope the Shuberts will spring for some badly needed improvements!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Book of Mormon ****

The critical praise heaped upon "The Book of Mormon" was so lavish that I was afraid that my expectations might be too high. I needn't have worried -- it really does live up to all the hype. This clever musical by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone describes what happens when two mismatched young Mormons (Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, both outstanding) are sent on a mission to an impoverished, AIDS-ridden village in Uganda. Much has been made about the show's naughty language and ridicule of religion, but its heart is sweet and pure. It is the model of a well-made Broadway musical with hummable songs, terrific production numbers, and a satisfying narrative arc. The ensemble is the best I have seen since "The Scottsboro Boys" and Casey Nicholaw's lively choreography puts them through their paces. Scott Pask's sets and Ann Roth's costumes are excellent. The direction, shared by Nicholaw and Parker, keeps things moving without slack. It's one of the rare shows where the best is yet to come after intermission. All in all, a very satisfying experience.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The People in the Picture *

When the best the critics can say about a play is that it is "well-meaning," take it as a warning that it's not likely to be a great night. Such is the case with this new musical at Roundabout's Studio 54. There is plenty of drama inherent in the story of a Holocaust survivor succumbing to Alzheimer's, but  the book by Iris Rainer Dart is a lumpy mix of soap opera and shtick, punctuated my songs by Mike Stoller & Artie Butler with banal lyrics by Dart. Bad taste dips to a new low with a dance number set in the Warsaw Ghetto. The literal-minded set by Riccardo Hernandez consists of picture frames -- lots of picture frames. Leonard Foglia directed. Star Donna Murphy escapes with her reputation intact, but just barely. The running time is 2 1/2 hours with intermission. It seemed longer.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Minister's Wife **

The four new musicals that I have seen at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater over the last several years (the other three being "A Man of No Importance," "The Glorious Ones" and "Happiness") shared one thing in common:  they were just good enough that I wished they were better. The current one, in my opinion the least interesting of the four, is a musicalization of Shaw's "Candida.." It is a modest effort with five actors (the character of Candida's father has been dropped) and four musicians in one 95-minute act. The music and lyrics are by Joshua Schmidt and Jan Levy Tranen, respectively, and the book is by Austin Pendelton. Michael Halberstam is listed as conceiver/director. Marc Kudisch plays Morell and Bobby Steggert is Marchbanks. While I have enjoyed both in the past, I did not think they excelled here. Kate Fry impressed as Candida. Liz Baltes was lively as Morell's secretary, but Drew Gehling was not as the curate. I liked the Victorian clutter of Allen Moyer's set. My major complaint is that the music too rarely carried the emotional weight of the play, and when it did, I didn't find it very pleasant to listen to.