Monday, February 27, 2012

Silence! The Musical **

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When the "unauthorized parody" of Silence of the Lambs now playing at PS 122 turned up on TDF, I decided to give it a try. I knew it would be raunchy, but it was even coarser than I expected. I would blush to repeat the name of Dr. Lecter's big number. Wine and beer are available to bring into the theater -- with a few drinks, it might be more entertaining. As it was, I was growing weary of it long before its 90 minutes were over. The uncomfortable seats didn't help. An earlier version ran for two hours; I was glad I didn't have to sit through that. Jenn Harris's Clarice Starling is delightfully over the top and David Garrison is fine as Hannibal Lecter. The rest of the cast is good too: Annie Funke and Deidre Goodwin can really belt out a song. Ashlee Dupré and Callan Bergmann's dance number as the dream versions of Clarice and Hannibal is hilarious. The songs by Jon and Al Kaplan are serviceable at best. Hunter Bell's book manages to hit most of the film's highlights. Christopher Gattelli's choreography was consistently clever. He also directed. Unless you are a big fan of the movie and have a high tolerance for raunch as well as camp, this is one to skip.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tribes ****

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Director David Cromer, whose production of Our Town at Barrow Street Theatre was so widely acclaimed, is back with an Olivier-nominated family drama by Nina Raine about deafness and language. Billy (Russell Harvard), the deaf youngest child of an intellectual family headed by retired academic Christopher (Jeff Perry) and would-be novelist Beth (Mare Winningham), is a very skilled lip-reader, but was deliberately never taught sign language. His seriously depressed brother Daniel (Will Brill) is writing a dissertation on the inadequacy of language. His sister Ruth (Gayle Rankin) is an unsuccessful opera singer. His self-absorbed parents and siblings may hear, but they don't listen. Billy's feeling of isolation when he is left out of their intellectual battles goes unnoticed. When he falls in love with Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), a young woman active in the deaf community who is herself going deaf and who teaches him sign language, Billy's feelings toward his family change dramatically. A subplot about him working for the court system reading lips from surveillance videos misfires. The cast is uniformly excellent. The set by Scott Pask makes good use of the limited space. Staging the play in the round (in the square, actually) works quite well. The play presents interesting arguments about whether embracing deaf culture is liberating or limiting. It is far from perfect, but it is thought-provoking and deeply felt. It's not for everyone, but I was glad I saw it. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Lady from Dubuque **

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When the new play Edward Albee was writing for Signature Theatre wasn't ready in time, they bravely -- or foolishly -- decided to replace it with this play, Albee's most notorious flop, which ran for 12 performances on Broadway in 1980. It is indeed a very strange play, uncomfortably blending black humor and pathos. Three suburban couples are playing 20 Questions in the home of Sam (Michael Hayden) and Jo (Laila Robins). Lucinda (Catherine Curtin), a friend of Jo's since college, and her husband Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) are treated with contempt by the others. The thrice-married Fred (C.J. Wilson) keeps telling prospective wife #4 Carol (Tricia Paoluccio) to shut up as she tries unsuccessfully to fit in. There is much bickering with occasional asides to the audience. Jo is terminally ill and in great pain, a circumstance that she uses as a license to treat everyone horridly. After the guests leave and the hosts go to bed, Elizabeth (Jane Alexander), an enigmatic older woman of regal bearing and her mysterious black companion Oscar (Peter Francis James) suddenly appear. When Sam discovers the pair in his living room the next morning, Elizabeth tells him that she is Jo's estranged mother. He refuses to believe her. The party guests from the previous night reappear and resume their bickering. Jo unquestioningly accepts the comfort offered by Elizabeth. Is she Jo's mother, the angel of death, or just the lady from Dubuque? Your guess is as good as mine. The play alternates hilarity with inscrutability and tragedy. Jo's piercing screams of pain will not leave my memory soon enough. It is not top-drawer Albee, but I was glad to have the opportunity to see it. I won't go so far as to recommend it though. The cast is fine, except that Hayden's performance seemed a bit overheated. David Esbjornson directed. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rutherford & Son **

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The Mint Theater fills an important niche in New York theatrical life by reviving plays that have either been lost or forgotten. Their latest production is this family drama by Githa Sowerby, a smash hit in London in 1912, when women playwrights were rarely heard from. John Rutherford (Robert Hogan) is head of a large glassworks in the north of England. His tyrannical behavior has, to a greater or lesser extent, ruined the lives of his three adult children -- John Jr. (Eli James), who had run off and married a London shopgirl Mary (Allison McLemore), and has reluctantly returned home upon the birth of their child; Richard (James Patrick Nelson), a well-meaning but ineffectual priest; and Janet (Sara Surrey), an embittered 37-year-old who has begun a secret affair with the trusted plant manager Martin (David Van Pelt). John Sr.'s dour sister Ann (Sandra Shipley) completes this loveless household. Dale Soules has a juicy part as the mother of a plant worker whom Rutherford has fired. When John Jr. claims to have invented a manufacturing process that could save the glassworks and tries to sell it to his father, all the family strains reach the breaking point. The socioeconomic tensions of the period add to the drama. The quality of the acting varies widely: Surrey makes a strong Janet, but James is consistently overwrought and declamatory as John Jr. A word about the accents: I question whether the authenticity gained by trying (with varying degrees of success) to imitate a regional accent, in this case Geordie,  justifies the loss of comprehensibility it entails, particularly when the play is performed outside England. I also wonder why the Mint has seen fit to revive this play for the second time in ten years with the same director (Richard Corley), set designer (Vicki R. Davis), costume designer (Charlotte Palmer-Lane) and three of the same actors. All in all, it makes for an interesting, but longish evening. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including two intermissions.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hurt Village **

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Katori Hall's new play at Signature Theatre about a family from the projects in North Memphis is a mixed bag. On the plus side, the play has great vitality and sharp characterizations by an excellent cast. On the other hand, every 4th word is the N word, the conversations are often extremely obscene, and much of the rapping was beyond my comprehension. I was strongly tempted to leave at intermission (as a handful of people did). Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you won't find this sad tale of how people get trapped in poverty surprising. I especially liked Joaquina Kalukango as Cookie, the 13-year old girl who is the focus of the play. Tonya Pinkins is powerful as her grandmother, the only working member of the family. Marsha Stephanie Blake makes a strong impression as her mother Crank, a recovered crack addict, as does Corey Hawkins as Buggy, her long-absent father, just returned from the war in Iraq. David Gallo's set and Clint Ramos' costumes serve the play well. Patricia McGregor directed. At 2 hours 40 minutes, the play could definitely use some trimming.

A few comments about the Signature Center:

With two plays now running, all the seats in the cafe and the rest of the lobby were taken. It will be interesting to see how crowded it will get when the third theater opens.

The configuration of the Linney Theatre for Hurt Village allows seating access from only one side, making it necessary to climb over as many as 12 people to get to your seat. Neither the Linney nor the Griffin Theater has any shield to prevent bright light from the lobby from flooding the theater if anyone exits during the play. I hope these kinks can be ironed out.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Assistance ***

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If the miracle drug that combats workplace depression in the current play Rx actually existed, the good folks at Primary Stages should rush a shipment to Playwrights Horizons pronto. The characters in Leslye Headland's new play now in previews there could really use it! The six under-30s in her play are all personal assistants or interns whose hellish job is to cater to the needs of their tyrannical, abusive boss Daniel. Although Daniel is never seen or heard, we get a vivid picture of him from the assistants' half of many phone conversations. Each character finds some way to cope with the constant pressure, sometimes supporting, other times subverting each other. Some of the strongest scenes in the play are monologues during which the character absolutely loses it. Some of their scenes together are hilarious, others are just annoying. The fine cast -- Michael Esper, Virginia Kull, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Sue Jean Kim, Amy Rosoff and Bobby Steggert -- show deep commitment to their roles. David Korins' set of a Tribeca office complete with cast iron pillars, brick walls, exposed ducts, industrial lighting, fire sprinklers, Aero chairs and lots of clutter is terrific (just how terrific will be apparent before the play is over!) Trip Cullman's direction keeps the play moving along at a brisk pace. Nevertheless, I found the play tiresome a good deal of the time. But then.... the final scene brought the play to an unexpected and highly theatrical ending that the audience (myself included) absolutely loved. I don't recall being so exasperated and so exhilarated by the same play. Running time: 85 minutes.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Blood Knot ***

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As the opening play in its magnificent new three-theater complex at W. 42nd Street and 10th Avenue, Signature Theatre has mounted a revival of Athol Fugard's 1961 two-character play, directed by the playwright himself. In this production, now in previews, two fine actors, Scott Shepherd (Gatz) and Colman Domingo (Scottsboro Boys), take over the roles originated by Fugard and Zakes Mokae. Two half-brothers -- Morris, light enough to pass for white, and Zachariah, quite dark -- live in a squalid hut in a colored area of Port Elisabeth, South Africa. Zachariah works as a gatekeeper whose job it is to keep out black children while Morris, who has returned after many years away, keeps house and attentively looks after his brother. Morris has dreams of saving enough money to start a small two-man farm. Zach craves female companionship. Morris talks him into starting a pen pal correspondence with an 18-year old girl who lives far away. Things get complicated when she turns out to be white and writes that she is coming to town on holiday. The decision to spend their hard-earned savings on a gentleman's suit for Morris to pretend to be his brother and meet the girl in his place leads to unintended consequences. Long-suppressed feelings arise and bring out the toxic side of the brothers' relationship. This is the play that made Fugard's career: in it, both his strengths and weakness are already evident. The first act drags on a bit, while the second act has a surfeit of drama. For me, the play's requirement for the characters to serve both as vivid individuals as well as symbols in a parable of apartheid leads to some awkwardness. I have to confess that I have long admired Fugard more than I have enjoyed most of his plays. Christopher H. Barreca's set, Susan Hilferty's costumes, Rick Sordelet's fight direction, and Barbara Rubin's dialect coaching are all excellent.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Carrie **

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I probably would not have seen Carrie, had it not turned up on my MCC subscription. I was dubious that a musical version of Stephen King's novel could be an improvement over the 1976 film. Apparently it wasn't: the 1988 musical closed after five performances. The creators (Michael Gore, music; Dean Pitchford, lyrics; Lawrence D. Cohen, book) recently decided to give it another go in a downsized off-Broadway version, now in previews at the Lucille Lortel, that lowers the gore quotient and emphasizes the relationship between Carrie (Molly Ranson) and her mother Margaret (Marin Mazzie). The two leads do not disappoint: they make good use of their vocal and dramatic skills to flesh out their roles. The other characters are little more than stereotypes. The set, by David Zinn, is basically a bare stage and some metal chairs, with ample use of projections and lighting to differentiate settings. The special effects, to put it politely, are extremely modest. The choreography, by Matt Williams, is twitchy and generic. And then there are the songs ... I knew right away that this was not my kind of music. The melodies are rudimentary and the lyrics, often simplistic. Only in the mother-daughter scenes did the show really come to life. It's not awful, just not artful. Stafford Arima directed. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Russian Transport **

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An immigrant family struggling to achieve the good life in Brooklyn is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a relative from the old country.  No, I'm not talking about "A View from the Bridge." In this New Group production,  the family are Russian Jews living in Sheepshead Bay and the arriving relative is the wife's younger brother Boris (Morgan Spector.) Misha, the hen-pecked husband (Daniel Oreskes), runs a struggling car service. When she is not bullying her family, domineering wife Diana (Janeane Garofolo) works in a store. Son Alex (Raviv Ullman), still in high school, drives for his father, works in a mobile phone store, and deals a few drugs on the side. He is unrelentingly nasty to his younger sister Mira (Sarah Steele), who dreams of attending a summer program in Florence and must be the first 14-year-old girl in history uninterested in getting her first bra or wearing makeup. Even before Boris arrived, I was not looking forward to spending 2 1/2 hours with these unpleasant people. Diana's brother Boris is a sinisterly seductive sociopath who immediately sets out to corrupt Alex and Mira. He enlists Alex as an initially unwitting driver to transport newly-arrived Russian girls to mysterious locations. He turns on the charm with Mira and shows her his gun. (No, Freudians, an actual gun.) The family members have at each other for 2 1/2 hours, as various secrets are revealed. Playwright Erika Sheffer is not adept at telling a story clearly. At intermission, people around me were arguing about what exactly happened in the final scene of Act One. There is another scene near the end of the play that takes place so quickly and in such darkness that it wasn't clear what actually transpired. Director Scott Elliott shares some of the blame here. The actors are excellent with the exception of Garofolo, who struggles a bit with the Russian accent. Spector is an absolutely chilling Boris. Steele and Ullman are both fine, but I thought that she looked older than her brother, not three years younger. Oreskes deftly avoids stereotype. The two-level set by Derek McLane captures Diana's concept of good taste. I am surprised by the mostly positive reviews the play received. The audience was far less enthusiastic.

Friday, February 3, 2012

CQ/CX **

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First, the title: it's a newsroom symbol for "fact verified" and "fact corrected." Not exactly a grabber.
Alas, neither is this new play, by former Times news assistant Gabe McKinley, now in an Atlantic Theater Company production at the Peter Norton Space. The Atlantic is billing it as a "docudrama," which is a very tricky genre. What is the value of reanimating a decade-old scandal, unless it is to provide new insight, clarify the context and motivation or make it more coherent dramatically? Alas, CQ/CX does not really succeed at any of these things. It presents real-life identifiable New York Times figures under slightly altered names, along with characters who may or may not be fictionalized. The imagined conversations and monologues of Times honchos as played by David Pittu, Arliss Howard, Peter Jay Fernandez and Tim Hopper deliberately include several remarks that, colored by the wisdom of hindsight, now sound either foolish or ironic and allow the audience to feel superior. The relations among the three interns in the Times diversity program - a black man, an Hispanic woman and a Jew, respectively played by Kobi Libii, Sheila Tapia and Steve Rosen -- are ploddingly depicted. The old editor played by Larry Bryggman adds a note of pathos, but has little to do with the main action. The biggest flaw is the version of Jayson Blair written by McKinley and played by Libii. Either the role is poorly written or his acting is not up to snuff or both. We leave the theater with no deeper understanding of why he did what he did, which makes the whole proceeding rather pointless. David Levaux directed. The production values are all first-rate, but for me that only emphasized that the play isn't. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including an intermission.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rx ***

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Kate Fodor's new satire now in previews at Primary Stages has a lot going for it -- intriguing situations, sharply drawn characters, snappy dialogue, a flexible set, and smooth direction. The main characters are Meena Pierotti (Marin Hinkle), the editor of a trade publication about cattle and swine who so hates her job that she signs up for the clinical trial of a drug to combat workplace depression that is being conducted by the nerdy Phil Gray (Stephen Kunken), a researcher at Schmidt Pharma. Other characters include Allison (Elizabeth Rich), Phil's compulsively rigid boss: Simon (Michael Bakkenen), Meena's hunky boss; Frances (Marylouise Burke), a flaky widow that Meena meets in the underwear department of a nearby store where Meena flees when she has to cry; Richard, a Pharma marketing executive, and Ed, an absent-minded Pharma researcher (both played by Paul Niebanck). The cast is uniformly strong. The plot covers many bases: the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry, cruelty to animals in the food industry, job satisfaction, rekindling interest in life at an advanced age, the placebo effect, and even foot fetishism. Perhaps there are a few themes too many, because they don't fit together all that well and the result, at least for me, was a fuzzy focus. Perhaps they will smooth some of the rough edges before opening night. I hope so, because there is much to enjoy despite the play's flaws. Ethan McSweeny directed. Running time: 1 hour, 45 mintues, without an intermission.