Friday, March 9, 2012

The Big Meal *

Do you like watching people eat? Do you enjoy listening to family squabbles in restaurants? If so, Playwrights Horizons has the play for you. It is playwright Dan LeFranc's conceit to present the story of five generations of a family through a series of short restaurant scenes. As the characters age, the actors keep changing the roles they play. Since the story is told sequentially, it's relatively easy to keep track of who's playing whom. The constant bickering quickly becomes tiresome. The periodic arrival of the server with a plate of food becomes a cause for dread. Tom Bloom and Anita Gillette stand out in a fine cast that includes Jennifer Mudge, David Wilson Barnes, Phoebe Strole, Cameron Scoggins, Rachel Resheff, Griffin Birney and Mollly Ward. With too few stirring scenes, the play becomes repetitive and tedious. The decision by this season's hot director Sam Gold (Seminar, Look Back in Anger, We Live Here) to freeze the action whenever someone starts to eat loses its effectiveness rapidly. The set and costumes are by David Zinn (Seminar, Completeness).The play seemed longer than its 90 minutes. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Once **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review).
Clearly the producers of this musical based on the popular 2006 Irish movie knew what they were doing when they moved it uptown from the New York Theatre Workshop. As I looked around, I guessed that the audience probably had a median age in the low 30's. Not only were they young -- they were enthusiastic, greeting every song with raucous applause and every line of dialogue with peals of laughter. A festive mood is established by the musicians playing lively Irish music onstage before the play. The onstage bar service, which was repeated at intermission, didn't hurt either. The cast of musician-actors, led by Steve Kazee as Guy and Cristin Milioti as Girl, is extremely talented. The cozy bar setting by Bob Crowley is most inviting. It seems almost ungracious of me to admit that I didn't much care for the show. The dividing line between charming and trite was crossed too often for my taste. But so what? I applaud the producers for attracting a young, involved audience to Broadway. Unless you are a major fan of the film or of Irish music, you may want to skip it. Send your grandchildren instead. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova wrote the songs, Enda Walsh wrote the book and John Tiffany directed. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Painting Churches ***

(Please click on the title to see the full review.)
It is a rare opportunity to see two such fine actors as Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham on a New York stage. For me that is reason enough to catch the Keen Company's revival of Tina Howe's 1976 play. In it we meet the Churches -- Gardner (Cunningham), a prize-winning poet now sinking into senility and his wife Fanny (Chalfant), whose constricted life now revolves around caring for her husband. Straitened circumstances have forced them to sell their Beacon Hill townhouse to move to their cottage on Cape Cod. Their daughter Mags (Kate Turnbull), an instructor at Pratt, who has just been promised a solo show at Castelli Gallery, returns to Boston for a rare visit, allegedly to help them pack, but really to paint their portrait. Fanny is a fascinating mixture of imperiousness, cruelty, tenderness, compassion, depression and bravery, all memorably captured by Chalfant's performance. She has a powerful monologue that is the high point of the play. Cunningham lets us see the patrician he was through the impaired man he has become. They vividly convey the togetherness gradually acquired over many years. Unfortunately, their strengths accentuate Turnbull's inadequate performance as Mags. She is far too strident and lacks nuance, which upsets the play's balance. Despite any flaws, the performances by Chalfant and Cunningham provide strong incentive to attend. Beowulf Boritt's set cleverly suggests the outlines of a Beacon Hill living room. Carl Forsman directed. Running time: 2 hours, including intermission.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Look Back in Anger *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Roundabout Theatre's current revival of John Osborne's 1956 play is a puzzler. Granted, it's impossible to recreate the shock waves the play set off when it first appeared. But what's the point of reviving it if you strip out almost all the social and political background that makes the play comprehensible? One of the characters has been eliminated too. In the present version you would be hard put to figure out just what Jimmy Porter is so angry about. Matthew Rhys captures Jimmy's anger, but comes up short on the magnetism that would explain what holds people in his thrall. Also, it's a stretch to believe in him as a 25-year-old. Sarah Goldberg, as Jimmy's wife Alison, is fine in the first two acts, but doesn't find the right note for the final act. Adam Driver, as Cliff Lewis, is eminently watchable, but the reasons for his devotion to Jimmy remain a riddle. Charlotte Parry is strong as Helena. The production is very poorly served by Andrew Lieberman's set. A charcoal gray wall without windows or doors covers the entire stage, leaving a strip perhaps four feet deep for the action. This strip is cluttered with decrepit furniture, an iconic ironing board, and piles of trash and rotting food. If this is a metaphor for their circumscribed, squalid lives, it is a heavy-handed one. Mark Barton's lighting is problematic too. The audience is bathed in harsh bright light which gradually fades once the play begins. Sam Gold, in his third New York play this season, directed. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.