Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Ten Best and Ten Worst Plays I Saw This Year

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Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of the ten plays I enjoyed most in 2012. It was hard choosing only 10 as I awarded a star to 26 plays:

Closer Than Ever, Disgraced, Dogfight, Forbidden Broadway, 4000 Miles, Golden Boy, The Piano Lesson, Rapture Blister Burn, Tribes, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Here, also alphabetically, are the ten plays I enjoyed least this year:
Bullet for Hitler, An Early History of Fire, The Good Mother, Heartless, Heresy, Look Back in Anger, Now Here This, Russian Transport, What Rhymes with America, Yosemite

Plays in italics are still running as of today.

My Name Is Asher Lev ***

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Aaron Posner's adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel about a young Hasid in 1950's Brooklyn who is driven to become an artist despite the conflicts it will create with his family and his community is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The title character ages roughly 15 years the course of the play from childhood to young adulthood. Ari Brand, through quiet intensity,  mostly meets the challenge of portraying several ages convincingly. Mark Nelson skillfully creates the roles of his father, his mentor and the rebbe with equal impact. Jenny Bacon is fine as his long-suffering mother, a gallery owner and a model. Eugene Lee's dark wooden set serves well as the Levs' apartment and an art studio. Ilona Somogyi's costumes and David Bova's wigs effectively delineate the characters. Gordon Edelstein's direction hits the right notes. The script's use of narration is greater than I would have preferred, but that did not significantly diminish my enjoyment. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Water by the Spoonful ***

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Being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama raised high expectations for Quiara Alegria Hudes' drama now in previews at Second Stage. By and large, these expectations were met. Even though the play did not fully win me over, I can easily understand why it was selected for the Pulitzer. Its ambition and complexity are admirable. In the first act, there are alternating scenes with two different sets of characters. A pair of Puerto Rican-American cousins, Elliot (Armando Riesco), an ex-Marine who was injured in Iraq, and Yaz (Zabryna Guevara), who teaches music at Swarthmore, are dealing with the illness of a relative. When the scene shifts, we meet Chutes and Ladders (Frankie Faison), Orangutan (Sue Jean Kim) and Fountainhead (Bill Heck) who, we gradually realize, are in a chat room for crack addicts moderated by Haikumom a/k/a Odessa (Liza Colon-Zayas). Ryan Shams also appears in three small roles. The connection between the two groups is not revealed until just before intermission. During the second act, their relationships develop and shift as they confront or avoid their personal demons. Some of these relationships are less than convincing.  Davis McCallum's assured direction handles the rapid changes of scene and characters smoothly. Neil Patel's scenic design is dominated by an abstract backdrop suggesting an aerial view of a rock garden. (Is this a trend? The set for "The Great God Pan" was also a scene from nature.) This play is the second in a trilogy in which Elliot plays a central role. I am sorry not to have seen the first one, but I look forward to catching the final one before too long. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Other Place (revisited) ***

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Are worthy new plays so hard to find that Manhattan Theatre Club must resort to offering subscribers a play that had a perfectly good off-Broadway production just last year? This was my review when I saw the play at MCC Theater April 17, 2011:

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.

I found that this is not a play that improves with a second viewing. The rapid alternation of short scenes was more annoying than intriguing this time. The weakness of some plot points stood out more. Daniel Stern and Zoe Perry have assumed the roles of the husband and The Woman; I preferred their counterparts at MCC. Although it's always worthwhile to see Laurie Metcalf, even her bravura performance seemed less nuanced In the new production. Eugene Lee's abstract set seemed overwhelming and the frequent use of harsh fluorescent lighting by Justin Townsend was unpleasant. I still don't understand how having Metcalf sit in a chair onstage for 15 minutes before the play begins improves anything. Running time: 80 minutes without intermission.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Great God Pan ***

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Amy Herzog's new play now in previews at Playwrights Horizons is never less than interesting, but does not provide the same level of satisfaction her previous play, 4000 Miles, did, at least not for me. If I had to state the theme, I would say it is the vicissitude of childhood memories, e.g. what is remembered, what is buried, what is simply forgotten, what is perceived as memory but was acquired from others, how memories of the same event differ. The high cost of being emotionally withholding is another issue. The seven vivid characters Herzog has created are superbly portrayed by a uniformly strong cast. Jamie (Jeremy Strong) is a 32-year-old freelance writer who struggles to piece together a living. Paige (Sarah Goldberg), his girlfriend of 6 years, is a former dancer whose career was ended abruptly by an injury, and is now studying to be a nutritional counselor. At the very moment when their relationship is in a severe crisis, Jamie is upset by a visit from Frank (Keith Nobbs), a former playmate whom he hasn't seen in 25 years, who has filed charges against his father for abusing him as a child. Frank's suggestion that Jamie might also have been a victim upsets Jamie's equilibrium. His conversations with his parents Cathy (Becky Ann Baker) and Doug (Peter Friedman) are far from comforting. His visit to his now senile former babysitter Polly (Joyce van Patten) does not provide answers. The remaining character, Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi), is a bulimic patient of Paige's. I suppose Paige's relationship with Joelle is intended to mirror her relationship with Jamie, but I did not feel their two scenes together were an integral part of the play. A final scene between Frank and Jamie ends the play on an ambiguous note. Carolyn Cantor's direction is assured. Mark Wendland's set of a forest glade with panels that pop out to form benches and tables is lovely, but distracting. Kaye Voyce's costumes serve the characters well. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.

Question: Are there any American playwrights left out there who can write a two-act play?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Christmas Story - The Musical ****

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Yes, it's corny and cartoonish, but who cares? This musical adaptation of the 1983 film based on Jean Shepherd stories exudes such warmth and good spirits that I quickly yielded to its charms. The book by Joseph Robinette dutifully hits all the high points of the nostalgic film. The clever music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and the lively choreography by Warren Carlyle greatly enrich the slender plot. The four members of the Parker are vividly and affectionately portrayed: nine-year old Ralphie (I saw Joe West, the alternate), kid brother Randy (Zac Ballard), patient mother (Erin Dilly) and goofy father (a winning John Bolton). Caroline O'Connor shines as Miss Shields, Ralphie's teacher. Luke Spring, as a tiny tap dancing powerhouse, is just amazing. The other members of the large cast (30 actors and two dogs) are uniformly good. The talented child actors successfully avoid any trace of cloying cuteness. There are two terrific production numbers -- "A Major Award" and "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" -- that stop the show. The costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy are delightful, but I found Walt Spangler's set too garish. John Rando directed with a sure hand. I hope the show will become a seasonal staple. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What Rhymes with America *

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When I saw Melissa James Gibson's play This at Playwrights Horizons three years ago, I thought she demonstrated great promise. Alas, she has not delivered on that promise in her new play, now in previews at Atlantic Theater. Hank (Chris Bauer) is an unemployed economist who is trying to win back his estranged wife after spending her retirement savings. He tries to recruit his 16-year-old daughter Marlene (Aimee Carrero) as a go-between. At the hospital where Marlene volunteers, Hank meets Lydia (Seana Kofoed), a 40-ish virgin with issues. The fourth character, who basically steals the show, is Sheryl (Da'vine Joy Randolph), an unsuccessful actress who, along with Hank, works as a super at the Met to earn some money. She gets two big scenes -- recreating her audition for Lady Macbeth and reciting a patter list of characters from Wagner operas. Unfortunately, neither of these scenes has much to do with the central plot of the play, assuming there is one. Gibson clearly has a love of language, but she has not used it to build a coherent play. Laura Jellinek's monochromatic grey set is appropriately bleak. Emily Rebholz's costumes for the supers from the Ring and Aida are amusing. Director Daniel Aukin did not succeed in making a silk purse. There was much grumbling in the audience at play's end. Running time: 80 minutes without intermission.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Golden Boy ***

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Lincoln Center Theater's lavish 75th anniversary production of this Clifford Odets classic is now in previews at the Belasco Theatre. The cast of 19, directed by Bartlett Sher, features such stalwarts as Tony Shalhoub, Danny Burstein and Jonathan Hadary, whose topnotch performances were, for me,  the main reason to see the play. Lucas Caleb Rooney, Dagmara Dominczyk and Michael Aronov are fine as Joe Bonaparte's brother, sister and brother-in-law respectively. Anthony Crivello is appropriately menacing as Eddie Fuselli. Yvonne Strahovski (Hanna on Dexter) makes an impressive debut as Lorna Moon. Danny Mastrogiorgio seemed a bit shaky as Joe's manager. And then there's Seth Numrich as Joe. Let me just say that he is not an obvious choice for the part. He is too big to be plausible as a welterweight, he doesn't look remotely Italian and his acting is outclassed by his fellow cast members. It is a tribute to the overall excellence of the production that this weakness does not seriously harm it. Michael Yeargan's multiple sets are excellent and Catherine Zuber's costumes are superb. I was surprised that the play did not seem as dated as I had expected and that Odets had managed to keep his usual sermonizing mostly in check until the third act. The ending is rather flat. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the evening more than I expected to. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes, including two intermissions.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Piano Lesson *****

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This lively revival of August Wilson's play about a black family in Pittsburgh in 1936 is one of the highlights of the season. This Signature Theatre production, ably directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, features an ensemble cast that is close to perfection. Roslyn Ruff's stern Berniece is a worthy opponent for Brandon J. Dirden's feisty Boy Willie, as the two siblings fight over the piano on which their grandfather had carved the family history. James A. Williams (Doaker), Jason Dirden (Lymon), Chuck Cooper (Wining Boy) and Eric Lenox Abrams (Avery) bring their distinctive characters vividly to life. Alexis Holt (Maretha) and Mandi Masden (Grace) are fine in smaller roles. Michael Carnahan's set is superb, as are Karen Perry's costumes and Rui Rita's lighting. I was surprised how much humor there is and how central a role music plays. From an a capella work song to boogie woogie to blues, the music is beautifully performed and seamlessly integrated into the action. The pace is leisurely, but gratifyingly so. All in all, a rare treat. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Golden Age **

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Terrence McNally's love of opera has yielded such notable plays as The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class, so there was reason for high hopes for his Bellini biodrama now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club. All the action takes place backstage during the premiere of I Puritani in 1835 Paris. Were I an avid opera buff,  the operatic shoptalk, musical and romantic rivalries and musical in-jokes might have been more involving. That not being the case, the proceedings quickly grew tiresome. When, at the 2 hour 15 minute mark, a character says "I thought it would never end," he expressed my thoughts perfectly. Unfortunately another 30 minutes remained. The cast features Lee Pace as Bellini, Bebe Neuwirth as Maria Malibran, his ex-flame and muse, and Will Rogers as Francesco Florimo, his patron, companion and, possibly, lover. The four leading singers, Giulia Grisi, Giovanni Battista Rubini, Antonio Tamburini and Luigi Lablanche, are played by Dierdre Friel, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Lorenzo Pisoni and Ethan Philips, respectively. F. Murray Abraham has a brief but memorable appearance as Rossini. The set by Santo Loquasto and costumes by Jane Greenwood are excellent. Walter Bobbie's direction does not disguise the flatness of the material. It's a disappointment.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Good Mother *

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Ads for Francine Volpe's new play at The New Group describe it as a "taut psychological thriller." I wish! It's anything but taut, devoid of thrills, and psychological only in the sense that much of the dialogue is psychobabble. Larissa (Gretchen Mol) is a 33-year-old single mother with an autistic 4-year-old daughter. In a series of scenes with her goth babysitter Angus (Eric Nielsen), her truck driver date Jonathan (Darren Goldstein), her former group therapist and mentor during her teen years -- and father of Angus -- Joel (Mark Blum), and an ex-boyfriend cop Buddy (Alfredo Narciso), we see several aspects of Larissa which still fall far short of creating a coherent character. The fine cast struggles valiantly, but they have little to work with. Scott Elliott's sluggish direction only emphasizes the play's flaws. I liked the set by Derek McLane -- a tacky living room with knotty pine walls, an overstuffed sectional and lace curtains. Cynthia Rowley's costumes were fine too. Applause was tepid at best at play's end. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Golden Child **

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Signature Theatre has opened their season devoted to David Henry Hwang with a revival of his 1996 play about how Christianity came to the Eng family of Fujian, China in 1918-19. Tieng-Bin (Greg Watanabe) has returned home to his three wives and children after a few years doing business in the Philippines, where he has been exposed to and fascinated by Western culture. His ultra-traditional first wife, Siu-Yong (Julyana Soelistyo), is threatened by the new ideas he brings home. His scheming second wife, Luan (Jennifer Lim), sees an opportunity to make his eagerness for change work to her advantage. His third wife, Eling (Lesley Hu), his favorite, is just happy to have him home. Trouble erupts when Tieng-Bin orders Siu-Yong to unbind the feet of their feisty daughter Ahn (Annie Q). The arrival of a missionary, Reverend Baines (Matthew Maher), and Tieng-Bin's subsequent decision that the family convert to Christianity, lead to tragedy. Act One, basically a comedy of manners centered on the rivalry of the three wives, is filled with bitchy zingers. The shift to a much more serious tone in Act Two is a bit jarring. The tale is wrapped in a framing device in which the now elderly Ahn relates the tale to her young grandson. Soelistyo and Q stand out, while Watanabe seems a bit stiff. The elegant wooden set by Neil Patel and the sumptuous costumes by Anita Yavich are visual treats. Leigh Silverman's direction is unobtrusive. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Twenty-Seventh Man **

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I might have liked Nathan Englander's adaptation of his own short story, now in previews at the Public Theater, better if I had not read the story when it first appeared.  In it, we meet four Jewish writers in a Russian jail. As part of Stalin's purge of Jewish intellectuals, 27 Yiddish writers have been rounded up and imprisoned. All are established authors except for one innocent young man who writes but has never been published. His inclusion, the apparent result of a bureaucratic error, must somehow be justified by the prison head. Yevgeny Zunser (Ron Rifkin) is a very old writer, once revered, now neglected. Moishe Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes) is an alcoholic sensualist who voluntarily gave up the chance to live abroad. Vasily Korinsky (Chip Zien) has been Stalin's loyal toady and thinks that will protect him. Pinchas Pelovits (Noah Robbins) is the young innocent whose greatest joy is to write something every day. Byron Jennings plays the "agent in charge" and Happy Anderson is a guard. The older writers bicker about their literary reputations while Pinchas, lacking pen and paper, commits to memory his final story and recites it for his cellmates. For me, the tale was far more powerful on the page than on the stage. Somehow the characters seemed less vivid in the flesh than they were in my imagination. The unevenness of the acting is a problem. Rifkin and Zien are very good, Oreskes and Jennings are alright, but Robbins is woefully inadequate in the difficult role of Pinchas. The simple sets by Michael McCarty are effective. With one exception, Katherine Roth's costumes are fine: Bretzky does not look nearly unkempt enough. Barry Edelstein's direction is unobtrusive. I suspect that the play will work better for those unfamiliar with the story. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes without intermission.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Whale **

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I wish I could join the chorus of praise for Obie winner Samuel D. Hunter's strange new play at Playwrights Horizons, but I found it thoroughly muddled and disagreeable. In it we meet Charlie (the superb Shuler Hensley), a 600+ lb. man who is eating himself to death in his apartment in northern Idaho. During the course of a week, he is visited by his nurse and devoted friend Liz (Cassie Beck); his ex-wife Mary (Tasha Lawrence); his estranged 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Reyna de Courcy), who has to be the most obnoxious character to grace a New York stage this year; and a mysterious Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith). We learn that Charlie left his wife and infant daughter for a male lover many years ago.  Charlie blames the Mormon Church for his lover's subsequent death and has been eating nonstop ever since. He supports himself by teaching an online expository writing course for the local university. We hear occasional snippets of his exchanges with students. Periodically there are references to Moby Dick and the story of Jonah. Between scenes we hear the symbolic pounding of the ocean. Unfortunately there are plot developments that make absolutely no sense, e.g. Liz's applying lipstick to Charlie. What first impressed me as fascinating soon became tedious and I found myself looking at my watch several times. The uncomfortable seats in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater did not help either. Mimi Lien's set and Jessica Pabst's costumes are admirable. Davis McCallum's direction is assured. Running time: I hour, 50 minutes without intermission.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike ****

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Just when New York City can really use a laugh, along comes Christopher Durang's latest play, now in previews at Lincoln Center Theater. Durang stalwarts Kristine Nielsen (Sonia), David Hyde Pierce (Vanya) and Sigourney Weaver (Masha) are joined by newcomers Genevieve Angelson (Nina), Shalita Grant (Cassandra) and Billy Magnussen (Spike) in this riotous Chekhov mash-up with a touch of Aeschylus and Walt Disney. Instead of 19th-century Russia, the time is now and the place is an idyllic farmhouse in Bucks County, where middle-aged siblings Sonia and Vanya rue the meaninglessness of their lives. They are visited by their sister Masha, a famous movie star who owns the house and supports them, her current boy toy Spike, a feckless actor who undresses at every possible opportunity, and their neighbors' guest Nina, an eager young actress. And then there's the cleaning woman Cassandra, who has second sight and a way with voodoo dolls. Durang gives each character ample opportunity to shine. Their antics provide a multitude of laughs. Underlying all the humor is a tinge of regret over the loss of community in a society that no longer watches Ozzie and Harriet or licks postage stamps. Plot has never been the main thing for Durang, and it isn't here either. The humor occasionally flags and the play could profit from a little tightening. The set by David Korins is gorgeous and Emily Rebholz's costumes are delightful. Nicholas Martin's direction is fine. I haven't laughed that much in a long time. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sorry **

The third installment in Richard Nelson's series of four plays about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, NY is now at the Public Theater. The first play, "That Hopey Changey Thing," was set on Election Day of 2010.; the second, "Sweet and Sad," on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The current play takes place on Election Day, 2012. Once again we meet the four middle-aged Apple siblings and their uncle. Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), the never-married eldest, and Marian (Laila Robbins), who has moved in with her after separating from her husband, are looking after Uncle Benjamin (Jon Devries), a retired actor of some note, who has suffered a heart attack and a subsequent loss of memory and inhibitions. Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), a writer, and Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer, have come up from Manhattan to provide moral support on the day that Uncle Benjamin will be moved to a care facility. These four intelligent people spend two early morning hours discussing life in general and the state of the nation. That's about it. Nelson may be our most Chekhovian playwright, but a Chekhov play is action-packed by comparison. Without the superb ensemble acting of this fine cast, it would not be worth anyone's time. After watching them create these vivid characters in the two earlier plays, it was a pleasure to see them together again. (I missed Shuler Hensley's character, absent from this play.) That pleasure began to wear a little thin after the first hour. At an hour, 45 minutes without intermission, the play did not sustain my interest.  I doubt that anyone who has not seen at least one of the previous plays would find it worthwhile. Nelson also directed.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Giant ***

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The Public Theater deserves an A for ambition for mounting this musical version of Edna Ferber's novel, with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and book by Sybille Pearson. With a cast of 26, a 17-piece orchestra, a two-level revolving set (by Allen Moyer) and lavish costumes (by Jeff Manshie), this production, now in previews, is indeed Texas-size. The action covers 27 years, from the mid 1920's to the early 1950's, in the marriage of rancher Jordan "Bick" Benedict (the versatile Brian D'Arcy James) and his Virginia bride Leslie (the radiant Kate Baldwin) on the family's gigantic southwest Texas ranch. LaChiusa's music is supple, varied and well-integrated into the action. While there are several effective numbers, there are none that you will leave humming. Also, many of the songs seemed to be pitched near the top of a singer's vocal range and sounded a bit strained and shrill. Some of the best songs go to supporting characters: Bick's domineering sister Luz (Michelle Pawk), Uncle Bawley (John Dossett), neighbor Vashti (Katie Thompson) and Mexican ranch hand Angel (Miguel Cervantes). PJ Griffith has a hard time finding a coherent character in Jett Rink, the bad boy turned oil magnate. Bobby Steggert plays sensitive son Jordy Benedict Jr. and Mackenzie Mauzy is his tomboy sister Lil Luz. The show seemed less than the sum of its parts; perhaps this is a result of an hour being trimmed from the show since its Dallas premiere. Four hours may have been impractical, but was probably more coherent. If you go expecting another "Showboat," you will be disappointed. If you approach it without such expectations, you may well enjoy yourself. Michael Greif directed. Running time: 3 hours, 5 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bad Jews ***

Roundabout Underground, now in its 6th year as a home for emerging playwrights, has an impressive track record for discovering new talent like Stephen Karam (Speech and Debate, Sons of the Prophet). Whether Joshua Harmon, author of this world premiere production, will also go on to greater things remains to be seen. In Bad Jews, three grandchildren of a just-deceased patriarch are forced to share an apartment overnight. Liam Haber (Michael Zegen), a graduate student in Japanese studies, has nothing but disdain for organized religion. He has missed the funeral because he was skiing in Aspen with his shiksa girlfriend Melody (Molly Ranson, recently seen as Carrie). His younger brother Jonah (Philip Ettinger) is a severely withdrawn college student, who only wants to play video games and avoid conflict. Last but certainly not least is the brothers' cousin Daphna (formerly Diane) Feygenbaum (Tracee Chimo, recently seen in Harvey), soon to graduate Vassar and then join her alleged boyfriend in Israel. Daphna is an unattractive, relentlessly abrasive, holier-than-thou, self-centered, covetous, domineering, hyperactive, logorrheic termagant. The role is an actress's dream: it probably is not true, but it seems that she has more dialog than the other three actors combined. Liam and Daphna passionately detest each other; their conflict over which one should receive their grandfather's chai necklace is the main focus. The play has many shortcomings, but it does have a lot of vitality. Daniel Aukin's direction is assured. Lauren Helpern's set and Dane Laffrey's costumes are fine. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes without intermission.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Mystery of Edwin Drood **

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The Roundabout Theatre has lovingly revived this 1985 musical adaptation of Dickens' unfinished novel.  Rupert Holmes had the idea of presenting the story as an English music hall entertainment of the 1890's, with the added twist of letting the audience vote for the ending at each performance. It ran for over 600 performances and won Tonys for best musical, best score and best book. That, to me, is the real mystery. The spirited and talented cast is led by Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Gregg Edelman, Jim Norton and Chita Rivera. The set design by Anna Louizos is excellent and William Ivey Long's costumes are a delight. Scott Ellis directed. There is abundant merriment, but it seemed forced rather than effortless. The audience was much younger than typical for Broadway and responded with wild enthusiasm all evening. It just wasn't my cup of tea. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Checkers ***

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Douglas McGrath's new play at the Vineyard Theatre manages the not inconsiderable task of winning one's sympathy for the Nixons, especially for Pat. McGrath has taken a footnote to the 1952 campaign --- Nixon's struggle to stay on the ticket after charges of financial impropriety -- and built a play around it. For added measure, the story is told as a flashback to the moment in 1966 when Nixon decided whether to run for president again in 1968. Anthony LaPaglia does a credible Nixon and Kathryn Erbe is a superb Pat. Lewis J. Stadlen is a lively Murray Chotiner. The other principals -- Ike (Jon Ottavino), Mamie (Kelly Coffield Park), Herbert Brownell (Robert Stanton) and Sherman Adams (Kevin O'Rourke) rarely rise above the level of cartoon figures. Mark Shanahan and Joel Marsh Garland also have small roles. Neil Patel's clever set is greatly enhanced by Darrrel Maloney's excellent projections. Sarah J. Holden's costumes and Leah J. Loukas's wigs help recreate the times. Terry Kinney's direction is fluid. While the play has many entertaining moments, I could not shake the feeling that more loving attention had been lavished on it than it deserved. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes without intermission.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf *****

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Edward Albee could not have hoped for a better way to celebrate his landmark play's 50th anniversary than opening night for a sensational Broadway revival that demonstrates the play's continuing power. This production at the Booth has been imported intact from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre with two Tony winners in tow. Amy Morton, who was so impressive in August: Osage County, gives a nuanced performance as Martha, showing the human behind the harridan. Tracy Letts, who won for writing August: Osage County, is no less impressive as actor than he was as playwright. His riveting characterization of George is the revelation of the evening. The supporting actors, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon as Nick and Honey, are both fine. I had forgotten how hilarious much of the dialogue is. The big third act reveal still doesn't work for me and the play is a bit longer than it needs to be, but these are mere quibbles compared to all that is so right about this production. Todd Rosenthal's set looks exactly like a professor's house should and Nan Cibula-Jenkins' costumes are just right. Pam MacKinnon's assured direction is flawless. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes including two intermissions.

Note: For a very interesting essay on this production, see www.bsonarts.com.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Disgraced ****

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Ayad Akhtar is having a banner year -- his first novel, American Dervish, was well-received last winter and this play, his first, has arrived at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater after making big waves in Chicago. It is easy to see why. In 90 tightly-plotted minutes, the playwright raises serious issues about life in contemporary America that, because they are painful, are usually ignored. The protagonist is Amir (Aasif Mandvi), a self-hating first-generation Pakistani-American, who has broken his ties with Islam. His blonde all-American wife Emily (Heidi Armbruster) is a painter who has found her inspiration in Islamic art. Isaac (Erik Jensen) is a Jewish gallery owner who is considering including Emily's work in an upcoming show. His African-American wife Jory (Karen Pittman) and Amir are both associates in the same New York law firm. Amir has a young nephew Abe (Omar Maskati) who has changed his name from Hussein; although largely assimilated, he is still a devout Muslim. When Emily and Abe bully Amir into attending a court hearing for an imam who has been accused of raising money for terrorists, things do not turn out well. At a dinner party for the two couples, prickly conversation escalates into verbal warfare and the evening ends disastrously. A final scene set several months later gives further insight into living as a Muslim-American, but does not provide a strong ending. The cast is quite good except for Mandvi, whose portrayal of Amir would profit from greater nuance and less stridency. Kimberly Senior's direction keeps things from lagging. Lauren Helpern's lovely set of a spacious Upper East Side apartment with modernist furnishings and a terrace will inspire real estate envy in most Manhattanites. Dane Laffrey's costumes are fine too. The powerful dinner party scene will probably stick in my memory longer than I would like. Tickets are only $20.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Him **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Being the daughter of a famous playwright must be a mixed blessing for Daisy Foote -- it probably opens doors, but it also sets expectations high. On the basis of her new play at Primary Stages, I think her achievement does not yet match her promise. An emotionally stunted father dying from a stroke is attended by his three adult children -- Pauline (Hallie Foote), still single in her 50s; Henry (Tim Hopper), a gay man in his late 40s who, bullied at college, returned home for keeps; and Farley (Adam LeFevre), the youngest, who is both obese and developmentally challenged. Ironically it is Farley who finds love in the form of a similarly challenged new neighbor, Louise (Adina Verson). The father has run his small-town New Hampshire general store into the ground and the family is barely surviving. Upon his death, the children find out that he secretly owned land that is now worth a fortune to developers. Pauline is driven by a need to become rich to show up the neighbors. When Henry discovers his father's journals revealing a love for the natural wonders of his property, he has second thoughts about developing it. One of the play's weaknesses is that every so often the action freezes and a spotlight shines on one of the actors who declaims a passage from the journals. This device grew stale very quickly. It also did not help that the characters' New England accent came and went. The strident monotone that Hallie Foote has chosen for her character grated on my ears after a while. Le Fevre and Verson grossly overact the behavior of a challenged person. Marion Williams' set recreates a slightly rundown kitchen of a particular time right down to the avocado appliances. Teresa Snider-Stein's costumes are fine. Evan Yionoulis directed. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Heresy *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Even as capable a playwright as A.R. Gurney can miss the mark occasionally, as he has with this lame parody at The Flea. It may have seemed a clever idea to transpose New Testament figures into a dystopian America of the near future, but it doesn't work for me. Joseph (Steve Mellor) and Mary (Annette O'Toole) have come to see Pontius (Reg E. Cathey), the prefect of the New American National Guard to plead for their son Chris, who has been arrested in the most recent in a long series of crackdowns. They are soon joined by Phyllis (Kathy Najimy), Pontius's ditsy wife; Pedro (Danny Rivera), the college roommate who betrayed Chris; and Lena -- short for Magdalena -- (Ariel Woodiwiss), a sex worker who has fallen for Chris. The proceedings are being transcribed by Pontius's aide Mark (Tommy Crawford), who has a way with words. Get the picture? It is always fun to see Najimy in action. Cathey gets a few laughs too, but most of the proceedings are leaden and lack bite. The play seemed far longer than its 85 minutes. Kate Foster's set makes a convincing meeting room for high government officials. Claudia Brown's costumes are amusing. The play was directed by Jim Simpson, The Flea's founder and artistic director.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Don't Go Gentle ***

Stephen Belber's new family drama, now in previews in an MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, raises several interesting questions: Can a conservative retired judge (Michael Crsitofer) recovering from cancer surgery still atone for his past mistakes and find some sort of redemption? Should his remaining time be devoted to repairing the toxic relationships with his adult children -- a divorced, unemployed, recovering addict son (David Wilson Barnes) and an ostensibly successful daughter (Jennifer Mudge) whose lifetime efforts to be family peacemaker have left her with a drinking problem? Or would his time be better spent trying to improve the lives of a black woman (Angela Lewis), whose pro bono case he has taken, and her sullen 16-year-old son (Maxx Brawer)? Can we each learn from our own history or are we condemned to repeat our mistakes? Belber skillfully creates crisp dialogue and complex characters who elicit both sympathy and antipathy. Parts of the plot may be implausible, but are nevertheless dramatically rewarding. The acting is strong, although Brawer looks too old for his part. Lucie Tiberghien's direction keeps things moving along briskly. Robin Vest's set evocatively suggests a prosperous home furnished long ago. Jenny Mannis' costumes are appropriate to their characters. It didn't leave me feeling happier or wiser, but glad I had seen it. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Marry Me a Little **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
If you are an avid Sondheim fan (and I am not), you will no doubt enjoy the Keen Company's revival of this two-person show conceived and developed by Craig Lucas and Norman René.  Two neighbors in a Brooklyn apartment building (Jason Tam and Lauren Molina), alone on a Saturday night, sing 19 songs, almost all numbers cut from Sondheim musicals. They also dance a little and Molina plays the cello a bit. That's basically it for 63 minutes. There were a handful of songs I liked, but for me most of them made the case for why they were cut in the first place. Both performers are personable, but not that strong vocally. From the third row, I had trouble hearing some of the lyrics. John Bell is the fine pianist.  Dan Knechtges choreographed. Jonathan Silverstein directed.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Harper Regan ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Simon Stephens's provocative play was a hit in London when it premiered at the National Theatre in 2008. It went on to well-received productions in Chicago and San Francisco. Now it is in previews at The Atlantic Theater Company. Let me start by saying that I found it fascinating and annoying in almost equal measure. Mary McCann, onstage for two hours, is superb as a 41-year-old woman having a midlife crisis in an England that has lost its way. We see her in a series of scenes with her obnoxious boss (Jordan Lage), a 17-year old black student (Stephen Tyrone Williams), her mysteriously unemployed husband (Gareth Saxe), her difficult teenaged daughter (Madeleine Martin), a well-meaning nurse (Mahira Kakkar), a rabidly antisemitic journalist that she meets in a bar (Peter Scanavino), a married man that she meets at a hotel (Christopher Innvar), her estranged mother (the always excellent Mary Beth Peil), her mother's younger second husband (John Sharian) and his apprentice (Vandit Bhatt.) Almost every scene has dialogue that is at least slightly off kilter and ends unpredictably. A series of gradually revealed secrets builds effectively. Some of Harper's motivations are muddy, some of her behavior seems implausible, and the somewhat upbeat ending seems less than fully earned. The set of movable grey slabs by Rachel Hauck is approprately stark. Gaye Taylor Upchurch's direction is assured. I was alternately intrigued, annoyed and exhilarated, but never bored. (Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Anderson Twins Play the Fabulous Dorseys **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Once I caught on that the word "play" in the title means "perform the music of" and not "portray," I relaxed and enjoyed this musical tribute to the Dorsey brothers at 59E59. Pete and Will Anderson are blond, handsome 25-year old identical twins, whose performances I greatly enjoyed when they were students in the Juilliard Jazz program. For the occasion, Stage C has been turned into a night club, complete with red fringed lamps. You can buy drinks at the bar and bring them to your table. About 20 swing standards orchestrated for sextet are interspersed with clips from the sappy 1947 biopic, an amusing clip from "What's My Line?" and some rather lame banter. It's hardly a theater piece, but far be it from me to complain when the music and the musicians are so good. And it's a bargain at $25. In addition to the Andersons on saxophone, clarinet and flute, the group includes Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Ehud Asherie on piano, Kevin Dorn on drums and Clovis Nicolas on bass. Since Tommy Dorsey was most notably associated with the trombone, it's puzzling that there is none here. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Grace ***

(Please click on the title to see the full review.)
If you want to see four fine actors in a satisfyingly complex play, don't wait too long to get a ticket for this limited run comedy/drama by Craig Wright, now in previews at the Cort Theatre. Steve and Sara (Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington) have recently moved to central Florida to open the first of a projected chain of biblically-themed hotels. Sam (Michael Shannon), their neighbor in the adjacent condo, is recovering from an auto accident that left him disfigured and his fiancée dead. Karl (Ed Asner), the crusty German immigrant who is the exterminator for the condo complex, has a dark episode in his past. Steve can't resist the opportunity to deliver a sales pitch, whether it is for God or for real estate. Stay-at-home housewife Sara is lonely and neglected. The play starts with a bang and, after a freeze frame, flashes back to describe how events reached this point. The ties between the occupants of the two apartments are intensified by Beowulf Boritt's clever, elegantly simple set that uses the same space to represent both condos simultaneously. (I now forgive him for the set that overpowers "If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet.") Dexter Bullard's direction is excellent. At times I thought the play had more style than substance, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes without intermission.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Forbidden Broadway: Alive & Kicking ****

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
How good it is to have Gerard Alessandrini's arsenic-laced valentine to the Broadway musical back in town after a three-year absence. Alessandrini certainly has not mellowed during the hiatus -- the cleverness of some of the skits does not hide the brutality with which he deflates some Broadway egos. A few of the returning numbers could well have been left out, but the new material is overwhelmingly hilarious and on target. The cast this time out (Natalie Charlé Ellis, Scott Richard Foster, Jenny Lee Stern and Marcus Stevens) is uniformly strong; some of the impersonations are uncannily accurate. David Caldwell is back as the topnotch pianist/music director. Philip Heckman's costumes and Bobbie Cliffton Zlotnik's wigs are a show in and of themselves. Directors Phillip George and Alessandrini keep the show moving at a fast pace. I actually felt guilty for enjoying some of the shows and performers that are skewered. While you do not need to have seen many of the shows to enjoy the fun, you will enjoy it more if you have.  Running time: one hour, forty minutes with intermission.

Note: Avoid getting seats in the first three rows, particularly on the right (even-numbered) side because of poor sight lines.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet *

The title of this new play by the award-winning young British playwright Nick Payne could easily be my answer to the question "Is there a unifying theme that holds this play together?" The consequences of neglecting family for career is central, but the parents are both so emotionally constipated that it is unclear whether they are withholding affection for their daughter or simply have none to give. Brian F. O'Byrne plays George, a self-absorbed academic out to save the world from global warming with a book on carbon footprints. Michelle Gomez plays his wife Fiona, an unpopular teacher at the school where their overweight teenaged daughter Anna, played by Annie Funke, is regularly bullied. Jake Gyllenhaal plays George's prodigal brother Terry, a free spirit just returned from a long trip he took to get over a love affair that ended badly, who forms a bond with Anna. O'Byrne and Funke are excellent. I am no judge of British dialects, but Gyllenhaal's often impenetrable accent had no traces of American. At least every third word of his dialog is the F word. Gomez's character is underwritten, so she doesn't have a lot to work with. In this Roundabout production, directed by Michael Longhurst, now in previews at the Laura Pels, the scenic design by Beowulf Boritt literally upstages the play. Before the play begins, a curtain of rain separates the stage from the audience and center stage is occupied by a pile of household furnishings. As the play progresses, the actors grab the furnishings they need for the next scene. At scene's end they toss them into the trough. Is this a metaphor for the wastefulness of our way of life? About 2/3 of the way through the play, an onstage bathtub overflows and the stage is inundated in 3 or 4 inches of water. The actors pay no heed as they slosh around in it for the play's final 30 minutes. Does this represent our heedlessness to the rising sea levels that global warming will bring or is it just a distraction to hide the play's thinness? Decide for yourself. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes without intermission.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

An Enemy of the People *

(Please click on the title to see the full review.)

The years have not been kind to Ibsen's 1882 landmark play. What must have seemed daring and original at the time can easily come across as both overheated and shopworn now. Perhaps a strong case can still be made for this play, but the production now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club does not make it. First of all, there is far too much shouting. Director Doug Hughes seems to think that increasing the volume will improve the dialog; he is wrong. Richard Thomas, whose performances usually disappoint me, does so once again here as Mayor Stockmann. Even Boyd Gaines, whose performaces never disappoint me, seems a bit off his game here as the protagonist, Dr. Stockmann. The other actors perform their stereotypical roles enthusiastically. John Lee Beatty's attractive revolving set creates four different locations effectively. Catherine Zuber's costumes do not distract. If only the play were not so leaden and self-righteous and had at least a smidgen of nuance. The best thing I can say about Rebecca Lenkiewicz's adaptation is that it makes the play a bit shorter. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Few Words about This Blog's Second Anniversary

(Please click on the title to see the complete posting.)
It's hard to believe that two years have passed since I wrote the first of 162 reviews for this blog. I hope that I have managed to steer you toward at least one good play you might have missed and/or away from at least one dud you might have wasted time and money on. Thank you for loyal readership. I have enjoyed your comments and only wish there were more of them. Please share your thoughts by clicking on the icon at the end of each review. Let's hope that the 2012-13 season will have more hits and fewer misses.

P.S. Here's what's I expect to review during the rest of the month: Enemy of the People, If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, Forbidden Broadway, Grace, The Fabulous Dorseys, Harper Regan and Marry Me a Little.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Detroit ****

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
With widely acclaimed runs in Chicago and London as well as nominations for both the Pulitzer and Blackburn Prizes, Lisa D'Amour's play arrives in New York with expectations high. Instead of Broadway, where it was originally destined, it has ended up at Playwrights Horizons, a more suitable home. The action takes place in two adjacent houses in a Levittown-like suburb that is showing the effects of changing times. Mary (Amy Ryan) and Ben (David Schwimmer) invite their new neighbors Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic) and Kenny (Darren Pettie) over for a backyard barbecue. Ben, laid off from his bank job, is home all day working on an internet-based business start-up while Mary works as a paralegal. Although stung by the Great Recession, they have thus far successfully hung onto their middle-class life. Kenny works in a warehouse and Sharon, in a call center; they recently met in rehab. They are virtually penniless and are making, at best, a half-hearted effort to better their lives. The two couples have very different world views and would never have become friends if proximity had not intervened. A series of mishaps plagues their get-togethers and their relationship eventually spins into chaos. The awkward final scene introduces a new character, Frank (John Cullum), to put events into historical perspective. Each character has at least one highly charged monologue. The women's parts are developed much more fully than the men's. Schwimmer seems to play the same character whatever he is in. Pettie is fine and the two actresses are excellent. Cullum is mostly wasted. The revolving set by Louisa Thompson is perfect. Kaye Voyce's costumes are fine. Anne Kauffman's direction gets over the play's lumpy spots fairly well. The theme of the loss of neighborliness in a declining America is not particularly original. The play has many flaws, but also many virtues, including lots of energy. D'Amour has an original voice and I look forward to her future work. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes without intermission.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Heartless *

The world premiere production of Sam Shepard's latest play is now in previews at the Signature Theatre. Let me begin by confessing that I have always preferred Shepard the actor to Shepard the playwright. There is something about his subject matter, his blend of humor, drama, lyricism and the absurd that has rarely appealed to me. Seeing Heartless has not made me a convert. The action takes place at a home overlooking Los Angeles inhabited by two sisters, their wheelchair-bound mother and her mysterious nurse. The younger sister, who has a huge scar running down her torso, has invited an older professor of Spanish literature, who has run out on his marriage, to move in. What follows is a hodgepodge of half-developed ideas that do not lead anywhere. Just when a situation gets interesting, Shepard drops it and goes elsewhere. Shepard does give each member of the fine cast (Jenny Bacon, Gary Cole, Betty Gilpin, Julianne Nicholson and Lois Smith) a chance to shine. I found Gilpin and Smith especially strong. Cole looked a bit too young for a 65-year old. Eugene Lee's bleak set makes awkward use of the stage, wasting most of the available space and thrusting into the front row of seats. Daniel Aukin's direction seemed sluggish, but that could just be the play. It was a frustrating evening. Running time: 2 hours, including intermission.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Harrison, TX ***

(Please click on the title to see the entire review.)
This evening of three short plays by Horton Foote, now in previews at Primary Stages, is not on the same high level as The Orphans' Home Cycle or Dividing the Estate, but it does offer moments of pleasure. Only the location -- the fictionalized version of Foote's hometown where most of his works take place -- unites the three plays. The first, Blind Date, is an affectionately satirical sketch about an aunt trying to teach her visiting niece a lesson in charm before an arranged date. Although the sketch eventually runs out of steam, it is the most satisfying of the trio. The One-Armed Man, a short but brutal confrontation between an injured man and the boss he blames. presents a jarring and unpleasant contrast. The longest and most ambitious play, The Midnight Caller, vividly portrays the soul-sucking, circumscribed life of the residents of a boarding house and the disruption caused by the arrival of two newcomers. The cast of nine (Devon AbnerMary BaconJeremy BobbAlexander CendeseHallie FooteAndrea Lynn GreenJayne Houdyshell, Evan Jonigkeit, and Jenny Dare Paulin) are all excellent. Kaye Voyce's costumes clearly evoke the time and place. Marion Williams' set is also evocative, but falters a bit in the third play when a corner of the stage suddenly has to represent a bedroom. Pam MacKinnon's direction is smooth and direct. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes without an intermission.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bullet for Hitler *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Memo to Woody Harrelson: Don't give up your day job. While I admire this fine actor for trying his hand at playwriting and directing, I could find little to admire at New World Stages where his play is now in previews. The story, such as it is, was inspired by events in Houston in 1983, when Harrelson and writing partner Frankie Hyman worked on an interracial construction crew. Their boss is a crusty German emigrant whose prize possession, a luger that allegedly jammed when it was aimed at Hitler, is stolen. The characters are as broadly drawn as cartoons. The slapstick physical comedy scenes are fitfully amusing, but the long stretches in between are not even up to sitcom standards. Projections of 1983 events and cultural icons between scenes are far more interesting than anything happening onstage. This vanity production would never have made it this far without Harrelson's name attached. At 2 hours 20 minutes, it is about 2 hours too long.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Common Pursuit **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
I would be curious to know why director Moises Kaufman, known for his superb work on landmark plays like Gross Indecency, The Laramie Project and I Am My Own Wife, was drawn to one of Simon Gray's lesser plays. In any case, he has no magic tricks up his sleeve for this Roundabout production at the Laura Pels. The oft-told tale of idealistic youth, in this case six students at Cambridge setting out to publish a literary magazine, gradually losing their ideals to compromise and betrayal is not told particularly well. While I have nothing against talky plays as long as the dialog is interesting, little of it sparkles here. The competent American cast (Kristen Bush, Kieran Campion, Josh Cooke, Jacob Fishel, Tim McGeever and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) manage their Oxbridge accents fairly well but the effort shows, particularly early on. The characters are not portrayed with sufficient vividness for the audience to care very much what happens to them. Perhaps that is why at least 10% of the audience did not return after intermission. By the time the play finally springs to life halfway through the second act, it is too little too late. Derek McLane's set is quite attractive and Clint Ramos' costumes are evocative. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Bring It On, The Musical **

(Please click on the title to see the full review.)
After last year's unsuccessful move uptown by Lysistrata Jones [reviewed 12/3/11], the last thing I expected to see on a Broadway stage this summer was another cheerleader musical. And yet here is Bring It On, "inspired by" the immensely popular five-movie series of the same name, now in previews at the St. James Theatre. Its impressive creative roster includes composers Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), librettist Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehhler (In the Heights). While the hard-working cast of 35 is performing high-flying cheerleading stunts and lively dance numbers, it is great fun. The book is only fitfully entertaining and doesn't really spring fully to life until the captain of the lily-white Truman High cheerleading squad is forced to transfer to the inner-city Jackson High. The characters are little more than stereotypes -- the dumb blonde, the chubby but spunky girl, the teen-aged Eve Harrington, the tough-tender girl, the comic rapper, the sensitive boy, and even the black drag queen. The music is often engaging, but the lyrics were not always intelligible. The show would benefit from some judicious trimming: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission) is too long to sustain its momentum. The simple set by David Korins makes heavy use of video projections (excellent ones by Jeff Sugg) on four large moving panels. Andrea Lauer's costumes are delightful. Lighting designer Jason Lyons is guilty of the cardinal sin of shining bright lights in the eyes of the audience not once but twice. Judging from the reaction on the night I attended, the show is critic-proof. Wild cheering began even before the show started. The audience stayed on their feet even after the standing ovation to watch projected photos of the cast in rehearsal. The crowd was slighter older than at Newsies and even more enthusiastic. If you are looking for uncomplicated summer entertainment, you could do far worse than to catch this limited run.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Triassic Parq, The Musical *

(Please click on the title to see the entire review.)
After suffering through "Silence: The Musical" [reviewed 2/27/12], I should have learned my lesson and avoided all musical spoofs of hit movies. Nevertheless, when the opportunity arose to see this send-up of "Jurassic Park" at minimal cost, curiosity got the better of me and I headed to the SoHo Playhouse. While not without redeeming features, especially an appealing and talented cast, the muddled book caused my interest to evaporate long before the 90 minutes were over. It's the kind of downtown show that might be a lot more amusing after a few drinks. Wade McCollum, Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Shelley Thomas are stand-outs in a strong cast. Brandon Espinoza, as Mime-a-saurus, steals every scene he is in. Marshall Pailet's music is lively, but the book by Pailet, Bruce Norbitz and Stephen Wargo, is lame. Caite Hevner's set an Dina Perez's costumes are amusingly clever.  Pailet also directed.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Closer Than Ever ****

(Please click on the title to see the entire review.)
Hurry to the York Theatre by July 14th if you want to catch one of the most enjoyable musicals in town. This revival of the 1989 revue by Maltby and Shire, featuring 24 songs tied loosely together by themes related to the pains and pleasures of adulthood, is splendidly performed by a very talented quartet (Jenn Colella, George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll and Sal Viviano). Each song is a tale in miniature that engages both mind and heart. The set by James Morgan is simple but effective. The choreography by Kurt Stamm is refreshingly clever. The piano and bass accompaniment is perfect. The direction, also by Maltby, is fluid. How sad that the revue has become an endangered species and that songs like this rarely reach the New York stage these days. I hope that we haven't heard the last of Maltby and Shire. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dogfight ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The latest entry in the seemingly endless parade of movie to musical adaptations is this production now in previews at Second Stage. The source is a 1991 movie starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor that did not do well at the box office. This dogfight has nothing to do with aerial combat; it is the name of a cruel game played by a group of marines in San Francisco on the night before they ship out for Vietnam in 1963. They pool their money to throw a party at which the guy bringing the ugliest date wins the game and the cash. Their dates are obviously not in on the joke. Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena) meets Rose (Lindsay Mendez), a waitress in a coffee shop, and invites her to the party. As they say, complications arise. The ensemble cast of 11 is uniformly strong; Josh Segarra as Boland, the lead Marine, and Annaleigh Ashford as Marcie, the prostitute, are standouts. The music and lyrics, jointly credited to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are mostly quite good and well-integrated into the book. The first act is tightly knit and satisfying. Alas, Peter Duchan's book loses momentum after intermission and never fully recovers. David Zinn's set design and costumes are admirable. What Christopher Gattelli, this year's "go-to" choreographer, offers is more stylized movement than dancing, but it is nonetheless effective. Joe Mantello's direction, except for the doldrums midway through act two, holds everything together well. I hope they work out the second act problems, because the show has much to offer. Among the many things that it gets right is showing the gap between Vietnam veterans' expectations for their welcome home and the one they actually received. Running time: 2 hours including intermission. Note: Most of the audience was under 35, a refreshing change from the usual.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Most Happy Fella ****

(Please click on the title to see the full review.)
Perhaps I should have called this an opera review, because this fine production is actually at Dicapo Opera Theatre. Whether it's a musical or an opera may be open to argument, but there's no arguing over whether Frank Loesser's masterpiece is a milestone of American music. This was my first time at Dicapo, and I was both surprised and delighted at the lavishness and high quality of their work. I wasn't expecting a chorus of 20 or an orchestra of 32. Their theater in the community center of St. Jean Baptiste Church is attractive and has excellent acoustics and sight lines. The cast was almost universally strong. Although Michael Corvino's slight build is untraditional for Tony, his voice is anything but slight. Molly Mustonen makes a lovely Rosabella, but needs a bit more volume. Lauren Hoffmeier's Cleo, on the contrary, needs to turn it down a bit. Peter Kendall Clark looks and sings a fine Joey. Brance Cornelius is both funny and affecting as Herman. The three chefs' rendition of "Abbondanza" stopped the show. The choral numbers are exemplary. Francine Harman's choreography shines in a very lively "Big D." John Farrell's sets are simple but functional. Julie Wyma's costumes are excellent. The orchestra, seated at the back of the stage, plays well under the baton of Pacien Mazzagatti. Michael Capasso's direction keeps things moving. All things considered, this production is a winner. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including intermission. Note: It closes July 8, so hurry if you want to see it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Empire ***

(Please click on the title to see the full review.)
As I had very much enjoyed Spiegelworld's show "Absinthe" several summers ago when their tent was pitched at South Street Seaport, I was happy to hear that they were back in a new location smack in the middle of the theater district. The new version of their circus-vaudeville mashup has several sensational acts, who unfortunately remain uncredited, since there were no programs and their names weren't even announced. Only a couple acts were disappointing -- one ran on too long and another, involving bananas, verged on gross. The others ran from good to excellent. This time around, the tone was more raunchy than risqué. Many of the performers definitely qualify as eye candy. It's much more modest and downscale than Cirque du Soleil, but it makes for a pleasant summer evening. Running time: 95 minutes without intermission. Note: the wood slat folding chairs are not tuchas-friendly.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Harvey **

(To see the complete review, please click on the title.)
I should have learned by now that I rarely respond well to theatrical whimsy. Only my curiosity to see Jim Parsons onstage in a leading role led me to buy a ticket for the Roundabout Theatre's revival of Mary Chase's 1944 comedy. Parsons acquits himself well enough as Elwood P. Dowd, but the role isn't much of a stretch from Dr. Sheldon Cooper, his TV persona. The play itself may be of sociological interest as a relic of a more innocent age, but it is about as frothy as stale beer. Most of the writing is leaden and obvious. For a few moments late in the first act, it rises to the level of farce, but it fails to offer much in the way of humor, charm or wisdom. (It is simply inconceivable that it won the Pulitzer over "The Glass Menagerie' in 1944. I can only assume that it offered a welcome respite from the anxiety of wartime.) To make matters worse, some of the casting is unfortunate. Jessica Hecht, whom I usually admire, is terribly miscast as Veta. I don't know whether anyone could humanize the stereotypical role of her daughter Myrtle Mae, but Tracie Chimo is not the one. Charles Kimbrough and Larry Bryggman, two old pros, are convincing in their roles; Morgan Spector and Rich Sommer are adequate in theirs. Carol Kane is fine in her usual role of a a ditz. David Rockwell's evocative set of the library a fusty mansion neatly splits in thirds and rotates to become the reception room of Chumley's Rest. Jane Greenwood's costumes vividly recreate the look of the '40s. Scott Ellis's direction lacks effervescence. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

These Seven Sicknesses ****

(Please click on the title to see the full review.)
The Flea Theater's clever adaptation of the seven surviving plays of Sophocles (Oedipus, In Trachis, In Colonus, Philoktetes, Ajax, Elektra and Antigone) was a New York Times Critic's Pick when it ran last winter. Now it is back for an encore run until July 1. Although the running time is about 4 1/2 hours including breaks for dinner and dessert (both included in the ticket price), the time passes very quickly. Sean Graney's clever reworking of the plays is greatly enhanced by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar's able direction and Michael Wieser's terrific fight direction. Performances by the 30+ actors, all members of The Bats, the Flea's young resident company, are all enthusiasic and, in most cases, very good. The actors also chat up the audience before the play starts and during the two breaks. They even serve the food. Unlike the original works, where violence always takes place offstage, lots of blood is shed here. Don't let that keep you away. There are several passages that speak to current events without being heavy-handed about it. The simple but effective set by Julia Noulin-Merat resembles two sets of facing jury boxes. Loren Shaw's costumes, both period-appropriate and modern dress, are excellent. The dinner from Macao Trading Company (tonight was eggplant curry over jasmine rice with pork buns) and the dessert from Billy's Bakery (miniature cupcakes) were delicious. It all made for a very enjoyable evening. My compliments to The Flea for taking on such an ambitious project.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Slowgirl ***

(Please click the title to see the complete review.)
LCT3 inaugurates its new Claire Tow Theater, built atop the Vivian Beaumont, with this new play by Greg Pierce. Becky (Sarah Steele) is a 17-year-old extrovert who leaves no unfiltered thought go unspoken. Sterling (Zeljko Ivanek) is her reclusive uncle who lives in a remote home in the Costa Rican jungle. Becky, fleeing the horrible consequences of a cruel prank against a developmentally challenged classmate, is visiting him for a week. Several years earlier, Sterling fled the United States for reasons that are gradually revealed. Although they had not seen each other in nine years, their shared alienation forges a bond as the week progresses. There are some awkward plot points and too many long pregnant pauses, but the play held my interest. Steele, who had impressed me in Russian Transport earlier this season, is quite good. Ivanek is fine in a much less showy role. The sets by Rachel Hauck are evocative, effective and technically impressive. Emily Rebholz's costumes are appropriate to the characters. Anne Kauffman's direction could use a little more energy. Running time: 95 minutes without intermission.

The Claire Tow Theater is a welcome addition to the local theater scene. A simple but elegant black box with 131 comfortable red plush seats, it has a lovely terrace overlooking the newly green roof of the Beaumont. All tickets are only $20.

WIth LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater is "reaching out to younger and more ethnically diverse audiences."  I assume their decision not to market Slowgirl to LCT members was part of this plan. Judging from this afternoon's audience, they are not reaching that goal. I was shocked that the theater was half-empty. I think they need a new marketing plan.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chimichangas and Zoloft **

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In the unlikely event that I remember this Atlantic Stage 2 production by Fernanda Coppel at all a year from now, it will be as the play that begins with a fart. The characters are two 15-year old best friends, Penelope Lopez (Xochitl Romero) and Jackie Martinez (Carmen Zilles); their fathers Alejandro Lopez (Alfredo Narciso), a bartender, and Ricardo Martinez (Teddy Cañez), an attorney; and the extremely depressed Sonia Martinez (Zabryna Guevara), who is taking a vacation from the roles of wife and mother. Except for a very brief scene near play's end, Sonia is presented only through a series of overwritten monologues. The teenagers address each other as "dude" with annoying frequency. Their fathers are hiding a sexual secret which is less of a secret than they suppose. The reason that Penelope has no mother is never explained. Each scene begins with a rather pointless projected title. Setting the play in a Mexican-American L.A. neighborhood gives it a bit of ethnic flavor, but the situations are not particular to any community. The ending of the play is so low key that I didn't realize it was over. The play is not without interest, but simply doesn't seem ready for public viewing. Jaime Castañeda directed. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission. Note: Atlantic Stage 2 is not an audience-friendly theater. Some of the rows are not staggered. Avoid seats in Row A, because there is a Row AA in front of it and no rake. Since the stage, unlike most theaters, is not elevated, it is often hard to see the actors.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Storefront Church ***

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The final installment of John Patrick Shanley's Church and State trilogy, now in previews at the newly reopened Atlantic Theater mainstage, is quite different from the other two plays, first of all in length. It has two leisurely acts over two hours as compared to their economical 90 minutes. Although not as good as Doubt (not many plays are), it is much better than Defiance. Actors must love Shanley; he certainly can write a juicy part. All six actors get a chance to shine here. Tonya Pinkins, who made such a strong impression in both Milk Like Sugar and Hurt Village earlier this season, gets to use a Spanish accent and show off her beautiful singing voice. Poor Zach Grenier has to keep his face grotesquely contorted throughout the play. The role of Pinkins's Jewish husband fits Bob Dishy like a glove. Ron Cephas Jones, who also impressed in Hurt Village, portrays a pentecostal minister who is spiritually blocked. Jordan Lage is both amusing and convincing as a bank CEO. The central character is Giancarlo Esposito, as the Bronx borough president. The action takes place at the intersection of politics, religion and commerce. It is loosely based on the controversy over redeveloping the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx (which still sits empty today), as well as the current mortgage crisis. The play has its flaws -- it rambles a bit, some of the motivations are unclear (particular those of Pinkins' character), some of the themes are underdeveloped and the final scene doesn't pack as much punch as I hoped it would. The sets by Takeshi Kata are bland, perhaps deliberately so, but the costumes by Alejo Vietti are perfect. Shanley's direction is assured. and full of grace notes.  Although far from perfect, it is consistently entertaining. I urge you to see it.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Medieval Play (Act One) [zero stars]

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It had to happen sooner or later -- encountering a play so bad that returning after intermission was unthinkable. Alas, today was the day and this was the play. It is hard to imagine that Kenneth Lonergan, author of "This Is Our Youth," "Lobby Hero" and the screenplay for "You Can Count on Me," is responsible for this pointless mess, now in previews at Signature Theatre.  His play "The Starry Messenger" last year was no great shakes, but it was a masterpiece by comparison. This one is allegedly a comedy about the misadventures of two 14th-century Breton knights, one idealistic (Josh Hamilton), the other cynical and not too bright (Tate Donovan). The melange of anachronisms, bodily function jokes, four-letter words and comic book violence might make a mildly amusing five-minute sketch on Saturday Night Live, but sitting through an hour and twenty minutes of it was painful. Staying for the remaining hour and twenty minutes would qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. Most depressing of all, judging from the laughter, there was a substantial minority of the audience who loved every minute of it. Also in the cast are Anthony Arkin, Heather Burns, Halley Feiffer, Kevin Geer, John Pankow and C.J. Wilson.The storybook sets by Walt Spangler and costumes by Michael Krass were far more amusing that any lines in the play. The swordfights were well-staged by J. David Brimmer. Lonergan directed his own play, so he has no one else to blame. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Rapture, Blister, Burn ****

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With her new play now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, Gina Gionfriddo (Becky Shaw) once again demonstrates that she is one of the most promising American playwrights. In it, two fortyish women, formerly best friends in graduate school, meet again after a 12-year lapse during which their lives have taken very different directions. Catherine (Amy Brenneman), who has enjoyed a thriving career as an author, media critic and academic, has remained single. Gwen (Kellie Overbey) married Catherine's intended, Don (Lee Tergesen), while Catherine was away in London, dropped out of grad school and became a stay-at-home housewife and mother. Now, however, they both question their choices, wonder what they might have missed out on, and take steps to find out. Catherine's mother Alice (Beth Dixon) and college student/baby sitter Avery (Virginia Kull) observe and comment on the goings-on. While the plot is engaging, the main attraction is the intelligence, substance and wit of the dialog. Conversations about generational attitudes toward feminism, the views of Phyllis Schlafly, and the cultural significance of horror films and internet porn are skillfully woven into the play without a trace of didacticism. The cast is uniformly excellent. Alexander Dodge's scenic design is attractive and functional. Mimi O'Donnell's costumes are spot-on. Peter DuBois's direction serves the play well. Don't be put off by the strange title, which comes from a Courtney Love lyric of dubious signifance to the play. This is one of the finest plays I have seen this year. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

February House **

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The Public Theater is to be commended for commissioning Gabriel Kahane, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter, to write music and lyrics for a musical based on life at 7 Middagh Street in 1940-41. The flamboyantly gay editor George Davis hoped to turn a rundown Victorian house in Brooklyn Heights into a communal home for an unlikely bunch of talented misfits that included W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee. Surely, the concept was a promising one. Unfortunately, the result is wildly uneven. In general, Kahane's lyrics are better than his music. The way he makes seamless transitions from dialog to song is admirable. Through words and music, the first act leisurely portrays the characters and their relationships. The second, livelier, act describes the loss of utopia. The cast of nine (Stanley Bahorek, Ken Barnett, Ken Clark, Julian Fleisher, Stephanie Hayes, Erik Lochtefeld, Kacie Sheik, A.J. Shively, Kristen Sieh) is mostly strong, although Sieh's voice lacks color. For me, the play's worst moments involved Gypsy Rose Lee. Her character is much too broadly written and played. It is unfortunate that they felt compelled to include a striptease number -- after the one in Gypsy, it was doomed to fall flat. The book, by Seth Bockley, could use some more tweaking. Riccardo Hernandez's set and Jess Goldstein's costumes are excellent. Director Davis McCallum as allowed the play to gain 20 minutes since previews began. They should be trimming, not adding. A book doctor might be able to make significant improvements. In the unlikely event you are not familiar with the past and future achievements of the house's residents, you probably will not find the play interesting. Even if you are, you still might not. Nevertheless, I am glad I saw it and support the Public for taking it on. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including intermission.

TItle and Deed (guest review) *

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Having found Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) deadly and Middletown deadly dull, I decided to pass on his new play now in previews at the Signature Theatre. A report from MH, whose reaction is often similar to mine, testifies to the wisdom of my decision. She writes: "Knowing you were not a big fan of Thom Pain, I thought I might save you more Pain by warning you about the new Eno at the Signature -- a one-man 90-minute yawnfest. I rather like one-handers if there's a plot or a lot of intriguing characters. This one starts off amiably enough, then wanders into an existential meditation on -- I don't know exactly -- life, where we are, why, ... then I fell asleep. The actor [Conor Lovett] is amiable also, but lacks the Gaelic charm which might make the material compelling. You have been warned!"

Friday, May 11, 2012

Cock ****

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The sensationalistic title of this British play by Mike Bartlett, now in previews at the Duke, may sell tickets, but it ill serves the play by coarsening audience expectations. Those who arrive expecting nudity and graphic sex will go home disappointed. The actors remain fully clothed and physical contact between them is sparing. In the play's sexiest scene,  the only body parts to touch are foreheads. The plot revolves around John (Cory Michael Smith), a youngish gay man who is tired of being a trophy boy and who, during a brief split from his longtime lover "M" (Jason Butler Harner), meets and begins an affair with "W" (Amanda Quaid), a divorcee. Vacillating between his two lovers, John is finally forced to choose at an awkward dinner at which the three are joined by M's father "F"(Cotter Smith). The staging contributes greatly to the play's impact. A five-row wooden circular arena fills The entire Duke Theater. There are no sets or props and the house lights remain on. The short scenes are punctuated by an electronic tone. The actors are like combatants in a high-stakes competition. The rapid-fire dialogue is voluminous and often very funny. The acting is simply superb, reason enough to see the play. Never have I seen American actors so comfortable with British accents. James Macdonald, who directed the Olivier-winning Royal Court production, does an outstanding job. The ending will probably satisfy no one, but that almost doesn't matter. The play raises complicated issues and treats them both intelligently and humorously. Running time: 95 minutes without intermission. Warning: the stadium-style seating has no seat backs and only a thin foam cushion. If your back needs support, get a seat in the last row.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Leap of Faith **

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As a fan of Raul Esparza, I jumped at the opportunity to see this much-maligned Broadway musical at a steep discount. Although the part does not show him to best advantage, it still offers the pleasure of seeing him onstage again. The show has many flaws, but it is not the total disaster some of the critics would have you believe. Jessica Phillips is fine as the love interest/antagonist and Kecia Lewis-Evans is terrific as leader of the gospel choir. Alan Menken's music is an improvement over his score for Newsies, but still unmemorable. Glenn Slater's lyrics are bland. The set by Robin Wagner moves around effectively without calling too much attention to itself. The costumes by William Ivey Long are suitably colorful. Don Holder's lighting unfortunately illuminates the bald head of the conductor, who is awkwardly placed right up against the stage. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo is pedestrian. The book by Janus Cercone (who wrote the screenplay for the 1992 film) and Warren Leight has its bumpy spots. It's one of the rare shows that improves in the second act. Christopher Ashley directed. The big question for me is why they undertook this project in the first place. If you've seen 110 in the Shade, The Music Man or Elmer Gantry, you've already seen a far better version of the story of a con man descending on an innocent Midwestern town. Leap of Faith adds nothing to the mix, except that is does provide employment for several fine black actors and therefore is drawing a more racially diverse audience than is usual on Broadway. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Newsies ***

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What I should have been more aware of about Newsies is that it is a Disney production, with all that implies -- family-friendly, squeaky clean, lavishly produced, slick, inoffensive, bland. The audience was filled with busloads of teenaged girls who wildly cheered just about everything when they weren't texting. Jeremy Jordan shines as Jack Kelly, leader of the 1899 NYC newsboys' strike. Kara Lindsay is perky as Katherine, the love interest that has been added in Harvey Fierstein's adaptation of the Disney film. The music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, respectively, are unmemorably efficient. The athletic choreography by Christopher Gattelli is performed with brio by a prodigiously talented ensemble. The huge metal multilevel set by Tobin Ost calls too much attention to itself: it moves back and forth, spins and reconfigures itself restlessly. Jess Goldstein's period costumes are fine. Jeff Calhoun directed. If you go expecting something on the level of The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, you will be disappointed, but, if you have a young person in your life, by all means take him or her to Newsies -- it's the perfect starter musical. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It ****

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I am baffled by the middling to negative reviews this Gershwin musical has received, because I thought it 's wonderful. Joe DiPietro's tongue-in-cheek book cleverly blends about 20 Gershwin songs into a delightfully absurd plot loosely based on Oh Kay! The almost uniformly excellent cast (more about that later), stunning sets by Derek McLane, gorgeous costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, lush orchestrations by Bill Elliott and endlessly inventive choreography by Kathleen Marshall, who also directed, offer a lot to enjoy. Kelli O'Hara is marvelous as singer, dancer and comedienne. Michael McGrath stands out among a strong supporting cast that includes Judy Kaye and Estelle Parsons. The only weak link is Matthew Broderick; his singing and dancing are competent, but his signature nebbishy persona has lost its charm for me. I guess his name still sells tickets. With a stronger male lead, the show would be an unqualified success. As it is, it still provides a most pleasant evening. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Regrets **

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I was surprised to learn that Matt Charman, the author of this period drama about the inhabitants of a divorce ranch for men in Nevada in 1954, is British. It's hardly an obvious topic for a contemporary playwright, especially one from across the pond. Charman succeeds in setting up an interesting situation, when a mysterious young arrival, Caleb Farley (Ansel Elgort),  disturbs the equilibrium of the three current residents -- Alvin Novotny (Richard Topol), Gerald Driscoll (Lucas Caleb Rooney) and Ben Clancy (Brian Hutchinson). Adriane Lenox is fine as Mrs. Duke, the scrappy black owner of the ranch. Alexis Bledel is less convinicing as a kind-hearted young prostitute who visits the ranch, but the role is poorly written. The arrival of Robert Hanraty (Curt Bouril), an investigator from the House Unamerican Activities Committee sets the plot in motion. Unfortunately, the second act runs downhill and fails to fulfill the play's early promise. The set by Rachel Hauck, the costumes by Ilona Somogyi and the direction by Carolyn Cantor are all effective. The results are sufficiently interesting that I had no regrets about seeing it. It was certainly the best of the three new plays that Manhattan Theatre Club has offered at City Center this season. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher **

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I wish that I could join the chorus of praise for Rick Elice's Peter Pan prequel, which moved to Broadway from the New York Theatre Workshop. Unfortunately, despite inventive stagecraft, committed performances (especially by the three leads -- Christian Borle, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Adam Chanler-Berat), a wonderful scenic design by Donyale Werle, fine costumes by Paloma Young, pleasant music by Wayne Barker, terrific lighting by Jeff Croiter and assured direction by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, the play did not captivate me. The first fart joke should have been a warning signal. The frenzied action, sophomoric humor and stratospheric twee quotient merely wore me down. All the cleverness did not compensate for the play's basic hollowness. Since everyone around me, especially the children, seemed to be having a wonderful time, I felt that the fault must surely be mine. It was an alienating experience. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gore Vidal's The Best Man ****

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Ah,  for the good old days before focus groups, 24-hour cable bloviators, nonstop polls and super-PACS. You can escape there for a few hours at the Schoenfeld Theatre, where this star-packed revival of Vidal's 1960 drama is playing. The theater is decorated with patriotic bunting, state delegation signs and black-and-white tv monitors and the sound design by John Gromada recreates the background noise of a lively convention. William Russell (John Larroquette), a principled, patrician, intellectual, womanizing, liberal candidate is competing with Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack), a younger, telegenic, unscrupulous, ambitious, straight-laced, populist conservative, for the endorsement of former president Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones). Cantwell is prepared to sabotage Russell's campaign by releasing a report on a nervous breakdown in his past. Dick Jensen (Michael McKean), Russell's campaign manager, turns up a witness, Sheldon Marcus (Jefferson Mays), to a potentially damaging episode in Cantwell's past. Russell must decide whether to violate his own principles by using this information to neutralize Cantwell's attack. Russell's estranged wife Alice (Candace Bergen), Cantwell's relentlessly ambitious southern belle wife Mabel (Kerry Butler) and Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Angela Lansbury), chair of the party's women's division, fulfill the traditional roles expected of the distaff side. The action progresses through three well-formed acts to a satisfying conclusion. The play is far less dated than I expected it to be. In a sense, only the forms have changed; politics is basically the same. It's a treat to see actors the caliber of Jones and Lansbury chew up the scenery. Larroquette is more effective than McCormack, although the latter improves as the play progresses. Bergen is to be commended for taking on an unglamorous role and playing it well. Butler and Mays are a bit over the top, in Mays' case delightfully so. Even the minor roles are well-cast. Derek McLane's sets, Ann Roth's costumes and Michael Wilson's direction are all admirable. All in all, it was an enjoyable evening. Running time: two hours, 40 minutes including two intermissions.

Monday, April 23, 2012

How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying ***

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After the string of disappointing plays I have recently endured, I decided I needed a musical break, so I picked up a TDF ticket for this long-running 50th anniversary revival. While it's not at the exalted level of Guys and Dolls or The Most Happy Fella, even lesser Loesser is a treat. The original cast is long gone, but the current leads (Nick Jonas and Beau Bridges) are fine. Jonas is a natural-born entertainer whose Finch, according to many, is an improvement over Daniel Radcliffe's. Michael Urie is hilarious as Finch's nemesis. The women did not fare quite as well. Stephanie Rothenberg was a bit colorless as Finch's love interest. In a shameless nod to Mad Men, Tammy Blanchard's Hedy LaRue is dolled up as a Christina Hendricks clone. The satirical book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert is corny, but that is part of the charm. Catherine Zuber's costumes are delightful. Derek McLane's attractive scenic design is a technical marvel, almost to the point of distraction. Rob Ashford's direction is smooth and his choreography is clever. Loesser's music and lyrics are fresh as ever. It was an enjoyable afternoon. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

An Early History of Fire [zero stars]

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To say that David Rabe's first new play to be seen in New York in a decade is a disappointment is a gross understatement. While this alleged drama set in 1962 in middle America may have deep meaning for the playwright, its trite half-baked ideas and half-developed characters did not hold my interest for even five minutes. I will not force you waste your time reading about the many ways it fails. While I can't recover the time I lost on this dud, I can at least warn you away. The cast (Gordon Clapp, Erin Darke, Jonny Orsini, Devin Ratray, Dennis Staroselsky, Theo Stockman and Claire van der Bloom) and director Jo Bonney do their best to breathe some life into this New Group production,  but you can't light a fire with wet matches. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Now. Here. This. **

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The appealing quartet (Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff & Jeff Bowen) whose [title of show] was a big hit at the Vineyard Theatre a few years ago are back with a new show. I wish I could say that lightning struck twice in the same place. Alas, what seemed fresh and cute the first time around seemed to me stale and trite this time out. The book puzzlingly tries to link Merton's philosophy of the importance of staying in the present moment to the group's excursion to the Museum of Natural History, where each recalls moments from his or her past. Though I was unimpressed by a lab production last year, I was hopeful that further work might improve the show. The production values are now first-rate, with an excellent projection design by Richard DiBella. Michael Berresse's smooth direction and clever choreography cannot hide the thinness of the material by Bell & Blackwell or the mediocrity of Bowen's music. I would be remiss not to report that the vast majority of the audience looked under 30 and appeared to be having a wonderful time. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes without intermission.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Columnist **

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It's wonderful to see John Lithgow back on Broadway in David Auburn's new biographical play about Joseph Alsop, now in previews in a Manhattan Theatre Club production. Lithgow's Alsop is arrogant, egotistical, irascible, untroubled by self-doubt, yet not without charm. Boyd Gaines ably plays his brother Stewart. Margaret Colin is less impressive in the somewhat underwritten role of Alsop's wife Susan Mary. Grace Gummer (who is the spitting image of sister Mamie) brings a welcome warmth to the role of Abigail, Alsop's stepdaughter. Stephen Kunken makes a fine David Halberstam. Brian J. Smith, despite being saddled with a thick Russian accent as Andrei, makes a good impression. Marc Bonan has a walk-on as Abigail's visiting friend Philip. The scenic design by John Lee Beatty is attractive, as are the costumes by Jess Goldstein. Daniel Sullivan's direction is unobtrusive. The weak link, alas, is playwright Auburn. The play has a certain connect-the-dots, made for television biopic quality about it. The highs aren't very high and the lows aren't very low. One of the main plot points turns out to be a red herring (or, in this case, a Red herring). Nevertheless, Lithgow's performance makes it essential viewing. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.