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 His younger brother Jonah (Philip Ettinger) is a severely withdrawn college student, who only wants to play video games and avoid conflict.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 **

(Please click on the title for the full review.)
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 ***

(Please click on the title to see the entire review.)
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 *****

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

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 **

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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 *

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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.