Friday, September 30, 2011

We Live Here *

Earlier this month I saw a play (The Submission) that revolved around whether a budding playwright could get his play produced under his own name. Call me a cynic, but after seeing Zoe Kazan's new play now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, I had to wonder whether this playwright could have gotten this play produced if she had any other name. The attention MTC lavished on it -- a great set by John Lee Beatty, a good cast (Amy Irving, Mark Blum, Betty Gilpin, Jessica Collins, Jeremy Shamos and Oscar Isaac), who do their best, and one of today's hottest directors, Sam Gold -- all suggest that they found the material worthy. I wish I could agree. The plot evolves from the enforced family togetherness occasioned by the wedding of one of the daughters, whose twin sister died several years prior. The younger daughter brings home a wedding date who she knows will upset her family. Tensions boil over, secrets are revealed. I suspect you will guess each plot development well before it happens. (What Chekhov said about shotguns could equally well apply to motorcycles.) A pivotal character displays personality traits in the second act that are at odds with her behavior in the first act. The dialogue ranges from trendily clever to flat-footed. Even the title is lackluster. There must be many talented young playwrights out there wishing they had greater name recognition. The audience response was tepid.

Running time: just under two hours including intermission

Follies ***

(Always click on the title to see the complete review!)
It's unlikely that you'll see anything as lavish as the current Broadway production of Sondheim's 1971 classic now at the Marquis anytime soon. With its cast of 41 and a 28-piece orchestra, it is amazing that it could even be offered at normal Broadway prices. Consider it a gift from the Kennedy Center, where this production originated last spring. There is so much here to admire: Sondheim's music and lyrics, Derek McLane's sets, Gregg Barnes' lavish costumes, Natasha Katz's excellent lighting and, most of all, a superb cast led by Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell, Bernadette Peters and Ron Raines. For the few out there who may not know the plot, it's about the reunion of entertainers from a Ziegfeld-type show 30 years after its closure, before the imminent destruction of the theater for a parking lot. At the center are two regretful ex-showgirls and their husbands, seen both as they are and as they were. The show is also a tribute to a musical world that had vanished, with solos for several of the old entertainers, most notably characters played by Elaine Page, Jayne Houdyshell, Terri White, Mary Beth Peil and Rosalind Elias. Most of act two is an extended fantasy sequence, Loveland, in which each of the four principals gets a show-stopping number in a different genre. Much to admire indeed. And yet..... somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The book by James Goldman (revised here by unnamed hands) never achieves the promise of its concept. The characters, especially their younger versions, seem a bit underwritten. I mostly liked Eric Schaeffer's direction, but I did tire of seeing the spectral showgirls wandering aimlessly along the dark catwalks. Do not let these misgivings keep you away though. It's a rare treat to see so much talent on one stage. The revelation for me was Jan Maxwell, whose acting chops I have long admired, but whose singing and dancing talents were unknown to me. The only problem is that she is so gorgeous and charming that it is impossible to imagine anyone falling out of love with her.

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes with intermission.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Relatively Speaking: A Second Opinion

As a new feature, I am presenting a guest review by Dan M.
Feel free to follow suit if you are so inclined.
Once again, I encourage you to add your comments to reviews. For those of you who don't know how, look for the yellow pencil in the line of icons below each review. When you click on it, a box opens where you can type your comments.

It was worthwhile and funny, but particularly if you are a Woody Allen fan which we are. We had many good laughs and especially in the most significant (the third) one-act play by Allen called Honeymoon Hotel. It was the best of the evening and it would have been almost better to have expended this one-act into a full play. This is prime zany Woody and many may not like this type of humor,  especially non-New Yorkers. 
The first play The Talking Cure was by Ethan Coen and like all his material  was idiosyncratic: a two character play set in a prison. Well acted and set, but  it would have not  have been a good concluding spot for the trilogy.  It had a few good laughs and the 2 characters are re-used in the third play.
The second play, George is Dead was better and if you like Elaine May you will like this too. Marlo Thomas was quite good, and May took very funny swipes at  elites, the Hampton's and the habits of the upper crust.
I am not sure of the mass appeal of these combined plays and I predict it will not become a NY hit.

-- Dan M.

Relatively Speaking **

Three one-act plays by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen, now in previews at the Brooks Atkinson, are loosely linked by the theme of dysfunctional families.

The evening begins with Coen's "The Talking Cure," a series of sessions between psychiatrist (Jason Kravits) and patient (Danny Hoch). When the audience thought the play was over and started to applaud, the set suddenly opened to reveal the patient's parents (Fred Melamed and Katherine Borowitz) bickering at the dining room table when he was still in the womb. For me this scene detracted from, rather than added to, the play. I had previously seen two evenings of Coen's short plays and was underwhelmed both times. This one didn't change my opinion. In the presence of the great masters Elaine May and Woody Allen, Coen's work seemed not ready for prime time. I admire Coen's persistence, but the magic he works on screen doesn't seem to carry over to the stage.

Next up is Elaine May's "George Is Dead." Marlo Thomas shines as Doreen, a rich, selfish woman who has been so pampered that she is unable to act on her own. When her husband dies in a skiing accident, she turns up on the doorstep of Carla, her ex-nanny's grown daughter (the excellent Lisa Emery), on a night that she has fought with her husband Michael (Grant Shaud). Michael is a disillusioned liberal who is furious when he finds that Doreen, the woman to whom Carla's mother (Patricia O'Connell) had given precedence over her own daughter, is ensconced in their apartment. What follows goes on a bit too long, but the pleasure of hearing May's sparkling lines outweighed the play's shortcomings, at least for me.

Last but certainly not least is Woody Allen's hilarious farce "Honeymoon Motel," which by itself is worth the price of admission. This is the Woody Allen of old with nonstop funny dialogue and no pretense of seriousness. Allen presents the wedding night from Hell in the tacky honeymoon suite of a Long Island motel. We have a bride and groom, Nina Roth and Paul Jessup (the marvelous Ari Graynor and Bill Army), the bride's parents Sam and Fay Roth (Mark Linn-Baker and Allen veteran Julie Kavner), the groom's mother and stepfather Judy and Jerry Spector (Caroline Aaron and Steve Guttenberg, both terrific), Jerry's friend Eddie (Grant Shaud again), Jerry's shrink (Jason Kravits again), a rabbi (Richard Libertini) and a pizza delivery man (Danny Hoch again.) Mayhem ensues.

There are over three weeks until opening night, ample time for the playwrights and director John Turturro to work out some of the rough spots. I personally would have preferred seeing a longer version of the Allen play all by itself.

There was a service dog sitting under the seat next to the friend I attended with. Judging from the vigorous way he wagged his tail when the play ended, we were convinced that he enjoyed it too.

Running time:  2 hours, 20 minutes including a pause and an intermission

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Lyons ***

Since I didn't much like Nicky Silver's black comedy when I saw it in a lab production at the Vineyard Theatre last season, I had low expectations when I returned today to see the finished product. I was pleasantly surprised. The humor has been sharpened, the pathos has been deepened, and Silver displays more sympathy toward his characters. While I still have some misgivings, I thought it played much better this time around.

Terminally ill patriarch Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa). who has been a distant husband and father; his embittered wife Rita (Linda Lavin), who looks forward to widowhood; divorced daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), who met her ex at an AA meeting; and gay son Curtis (Michael Esper), an unsuccessful writer who has never let his family meet his lover, all go at each other in Ben's hospital room. The nurse (Brenda Pressley) appears now and then to check on Ben. Later, when Curtis goes apartment hunting with hunky realtor/actor Brian (Gregory Wooddell), there are unanticipated consequences. The final scene, back at the hospital, provides vivid proof that being surrounded by one's family can be the loneliest place of all.  Mark Brokaw's direction, Allen Moyer's sets and Michael Krass's costumes are all on the mark.

When Linda Lavin turned down the chance to move to Broadway with "Other Desert Cities" in order to play Rita Lyons at the Vineyard, many people were surprised. Smart move! This is a role that she was born to play and is much juicier than her smallish part in the Baitz play. If you are a Lavin fan and/or a Nicky Silver fan, you will have a good time at "The Lyons."

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission

Friday, September 23, 2011

Dreams of Flying, Dreams of Falling *

What's Adam Rapp's new play about? About 90 minutes. That's all I can say with certainty about his absurdist comedy now in an Atlantic Theater Company production at CSC. The cast is led by two wonderful actors (Christine Lahti and Reed Birney). The set (by Andrew Boyce & Takeshi Kata) and costumes (by Theresa Squire) perfectly establish the gracious milieu of privileged Connecticut WASPs. Two families, the Cabots and their guests, the Von Stofenburgs, are about to sit down to dinner. Things soon spin out of control. Mrs. Cabot tries to persuade Von Stofenburg (Cotter Smith), whose reputation has been tarnished by a Madoff-like affair,  to poison her husband so they can run off together. The Cabot daughter (Katherine Waterston), who likes to pluck the hairs out of men's arms for an art project, maintains that there is a she lion in the basement. The Von Stofenburg son (Shane McRae), just returned from two years in a clinic after believing his stuffed animals when they told him he could fly, is in correspondence with a young Iraqi insurgent whom he is helping to acquire "materials." The two young adults have vigorous sex all around the dining room. The black maid (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), is learning French and likes to recite Shakespeare. Mrs. Von Stofenburg (Betsy Aidem) is so bland that her presence barely registers. Wild geese crash against the house, the sky turns strange colors, the murder plots goes awry.... and so forth. While some of the plot lines might have been interesting if developed more fully, here they just seem part of a mishmash. While there were some entertaining moments along the way, there was no sense of unity. Neil Pepe directed.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cymbeline ****

(Always click on the title to see the complete review!)
Let me add my voice to the chorus of praise for this very clever production of Shakespeare's problematic late romance.  Fiasco Theater, a group of six recent graduates of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program (Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Ben Steinfeld and Emily Young), have shaped this thorny work into an entertaining production. It ran for two sold-out weeks last winter at the New Victory Theater and recently reopened at Barrow Street Theatre. Proving that less is sometimes more, the cast of six play 14 roles on a set consisting of two wooden crates, a sheet, and what's billed as a "fabulous trunk." They also play musical instruments and sing beautifully. And who said a little Appalachian folk music can't serve Shakespeare well? The acting mostly avoids crossing the line into tongue-in-cheek. The second half, with its battle scene, headless corpse, and final reconciliation scene, is especially gratifying. Brody and Steinfeld codirected with Brody also serving as fight director and Steinfeld as music director. You needn't be an ardent Shakespearean to enjoy this ingenious version. Running time: 2 1/2 hours including intermission.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Submission ***

Jeff Talbott's new play at MCC, for which he became the first recipient of the Laurents/Hatcher Award, asks us to accept the premise that a privileged white gay male could write a stirring play about an alcoholic black woman and her ne'er-do-well son. In order to improve his chances of getting the play produced, playwright Danny Larsen (Jonathan Groff of "Spring Awakening" and "Glee") submits it under an African-sounding woman's name. When the Humana Festival decides to produce it, he hires Emilie (Rutina Wesley of "True Blood"), a black actress, to impersonate the fictitious playwright. His uptight lover Pete (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and his best friend Trevor (Will Rogers) think this deception will end badly, but reluctantly support him. There is much snappy dialogue and a few hilarious scenes, including a cellphone conversation between Trevor and Emilie, who have become an item. The relationships between Danny and Pete and Danny and Trevor seemed underwritten. The play darkens when Danny reveals his latent racism to Emilie and she, in turn, shows a touch of homophobia. For me, the play became repetitive and ran out of gas several minutes before it ended. Nevertheless, at its best, it was quite entertaining. The cast was strong, except that I found Groff too relentlessly energetic. Anita Yavich designed the costumes and Walter Bobbie directed. A clever set by David Zinn made me want to visit my nearest Starbuck's on the way home. Zinn must be the busiest man in town: his sets and costumes can also be seen in "The Select" and "Completeness." Running time: 95 minutes without intermission.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Invasion! **

As I looked around the lobby at The Flea before the house opened for the Play Company's production of Jonas Hassen Khemri's hit play, I suspected I was in trouble. 75% of the audience looked under 30 and very downtown. My qualms proved to be justified. Rarely have I seen such a generational divide in an audience. The under-30's whooped and hollered at lines that barely drew a chuckle from me. A startling coup de theatre about five minutes into the play clearly caused less angst among the young people near me, who quickly recovered from the shock. Too bad this was the most interesting moment in the play, at least for me. The playwright, whose father is Tunisian and whose mother is Swedish, has written a shaggy-dog story/farce/cautionary tale revolving around issues of Middle Eastern identity in Western society. It has played to packed houses in Europe and had a well-received brief run in New York last winter. In it, the mysterious name Abulkasem becomes a repository of attitudes toward the exotic and the foreign. The appealing cast of four (Francis Benhamou, Nick Choksi, Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte and Bobby Moreno) excel at playing multiple roles. The play's title had no clear connection to anything that transpired. Some of the loosely linked scenes are much better than others. One scene about a biased translator mistranslating the words of a migrant worker starts strong, but goes on too long. Another scene about pretentious drama students totally misfires. Two scenes that give his and her versions of an encounter in a bar are amusing, but not closely tied to the play's theme. The device of introducing a panel of "experts" to bloviate about a mysterious possible terrorist seemed tired. Furthermore, the director, Erica Schmidt, was guilty of one of the worst sins on my list of theatrical pet peeves -- shining bright lights in the audience's eyes. Although I salute the Play Company for translating and staging international plays that might not make it to New York, in this case I admired the result more than I enjoyed it. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sweet and Sad **

Last November, the Public Theater presented Richard Nelson's play "The Hopey Changey Thing," which was set on and opened on Election Day 2010. Now we have Nelson's "Sweet and Sad" (the title comes from a line in Whitman's "The Wound Dresser") which takes place on and opens on 9/11/11. In both plays, we visit the three adult Apple daughters (Barbara, Marian and Jane) their brother Richard, their uncle Benjamin, and Jane's partner Tim at Barbara's home in Rhinebeck. This time out, they are gathered to attend a 9/11 commemoration put on by Barbara's students, at which Benjamin, a retired actor with amnesia, will give a recitation. As the Apples eat supper, the conversation ebbs and flows, alternating between the personal and the public spheres, with the topic of 9/11 often rising to the surface. As in last year's play, nothing much happens. Although seeing the earlier play is not essential, it did help to flesh out the characters. The excellent cast from last year (see my November 2010 review for their names) inhabits their roles even more fully. While I admire Nelson for undertaking this series of plays reflecting current events through the prism of the Apple family, I didn't find this instalment as satisfying as the first. Nelson also directed. Running time: 110 minutes; no intermission.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Select (The Sun Also Rises) **

After seeing Gatz, Elevator Repair Service's brilliantly staged version of The Great Gatsby last Fall, I was keenly anticipating their adaptation of Hemingway's novel, now in previews at New York Theatre Workshop. Alas, lightning did not strike twice, at least not for me. At 3 1/2 hours, it seemed twice as long as Gatz's 6 1/2 hours. If all the scenes of people drinking or talking about being drunk were omitted, it would barely run 30 minutes. The material rarely engaged my full interest, for which I blame Hemingway more than the adaptors. Also, the anti-Semitic streak left a very bad taste in my mouth. Of the mostly excellent cast of ten, I would single out Ben Williams (as Bill Gorton) and Susie Sokol (as Pedro Romero) as especially notable. Casting a woman as the macho bullfighter was a clever choice. There are two lively dance sequences and a marvelously staged bullfight. Special mention must be made of the sound design: Every clink of glasses, gurgle of wine pouring and pop of champagne corks is there, plus sound gags from a typewriter and a hotel desk bell. When the sound effects are more memorable than the words, something is amiss. John Collins directed.