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.