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.