Saturday, January 28, 2012

Yosemite *

(Please click on the title to read the full review.)
The set, by Raul Abrego, is a lovely scene of northern California woods in winter. Unfortunately, the set is the highlight of Daniel Talbott's new play at the Rattlestick Theater. The set is populated by two brothers and a sister who live nearby in a trailer. Jake (Seth Numrich), the eldest,  is digging a hole in which to bury their infant brother, whose death is vaguely blamed on their troubled mother. (If you are foolish enough to attend after reading this, don't sit in the front row or you may get covered by flying dirt.) The three siblings exchange inane chatter until their mother arrives with her shotgun. After a lively exchange, she leaves and you can guess the rest. It seemed to last for hours, but it was only 70 minutes. The younger sister and brother are played by Libby Woodbridge and Noah Galvin. The usually interesting Kathryn Erbe misfires as the mother. Numrich displays a prodigious talent for shoveling; why he left a good role in War Horse for this is a mystery. Director Raul Abrego is unsuccessful in hiding the vacuity of the proceedings.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Theater Recommendation: 4000 Miles ****

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Amy Herzog's play received universal acclaim during its brief run at the Duke last summer. It will be moving into the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center in mid-March with the original cast for a limited run. If you missed it the first time, be ready to order tickets as soon as they go on sale -- February 6 for LCT members, February 12 for the general public.

Here is my review from last June:
The title of this new play by Amy Herzog, in an LCT3 production at the Duke, refers to the distance 21-year-old Leo (a strong Gabriel Ebert) has traveled on a cross-country bicycle ride that ends with his unexpected 3 a.m. arrival at the West Village apartment of his 91-year-old grandmother Vera Joseph (the incomparable Mary Louise Wilson). [The character of Vera, a devoted Marxist, also appeared in Herzog's recent well-received play After the Revolution]. Leo has been traumatized by the death of his best friend en route, a less-than-enthusiastic reception by his girlfriend Bec (Zoe Winters), a student at Columbia, and family problems back home in St. Paul. Grandmother and hippie grandson gradually overcome their differences and grow close. Greta Lee is hilarious as Amanda, a Parsons student Leo brings home one night. The characters are vivid, the dialogue is believable and the back story is interestingly complex. One can quibble over a few plot devices, but Herzog is clearly a talented playwright. The set by Lauren Helpern perfectly captures a slightly worn apartment that hasn't changed much in 50 years. Daniel Aukin's direction in unobtrusively fine. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Other Desert Cities (revisited) ***

(Click on the title to read the entire review.)
When I saw this play at the Mitzi Newhouse a year ago, I wrote the following review:
Jon Robin Baitz's new play, now in previews at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, brims with talent. With five worthy actors, a noted director (Joe Mantello), a wonderful set by John Lee Beatty and an interesting premise, it should have made for a stimulating evening. Alas, it didn't. The plot revolves around whether East Coast lefty writer-daughter Brooke Wyeth (Elizabeth Marvel) should publish her memoir about a family tragedy that happened 25 years previously, no matter what pain it causes her Republican parents Polly & Lyman Wyeth (Stockard Channing & Stacy Keach) who are living in Palm Springs splendor in self-exile from Hollywood. The underutilized Linda Lavin plays Polly's alcoholic sister who is using her niece to work out her own feelings against her sister. Thomas Sadoski plays Brooke's younger brother, producer of a "Judge Judy"-type tv show. They all have at each other for an act and a half, until we learn that things are not quite as they seem. A final scene set five years later detracts rather than adds to the plot. The dialog is mostly lackuster, the plot has gaping holes and any claims to a larger significance are unearned. The shock of the evening for me was Channing, whom I have always enjoyed in the past. Her face lacked expression and her delivery lacked conviction. I should add that most of the people around me responded enthusiastically to the play. I wish I could have shared their enthusiasm.
Seeing the Broadway production now, my reaction was quite different. Of the original cast, only Channing and Keach remain. I am happy to report that Channing's face has regained most of its expressiveness and her delivery most assuredly does not lack conviction. Keach's big scene in the second act remains one of the play's best moments. Rachel Griffiths as Brooke is less shrill than Marvel. Justin Kirk inhabits the role of the younger brother Trip more fully than Sadoski.  Judith Light, as Polly's sister Silda, seems to be channeling Linda Lavin, so there is no significant impact in that particular cast change. I am surprised that I had found the dialog lackluster, because this time out I thought it was both extremely funny and, at times, quite moving. The play has grown deeper, so that wide acclaim it has received is more understandable. I still think that the plot has a few problems, especially the final scene. Nevertheless, I am very glad I gave it a second chance.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Porgy and Bess ****

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Considering today's glut of high-concept, revisionist opera productions, I find it ironic that the new Broadway production of "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" directed by Diane Paulus has caused such a stir. Surely much more violence is done to composers' and librettists' intentions on any given night in opera houses around the world than anything that takes place on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. A Broadway musical is not an opera; it has different conventions. A viable Broadway version of Porgy in no way detracts from its validity as an opera. For me the question is whether the present adaptation, by Suzanne-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray, works as a Broadway musical and my answer is an emphatic "yes." It is musically glorious and emotionally gripping. Rarely will you find such a talented group of singing actors on one stage. There is not a weak link in the cast. I expected Audra McDonald to shine as Bess and she does not disappoint; her singing and acting are marvelous. The revelation for me was Norm Lewis, whose Porgy is absolutely riveting. David Alan Grier makes a properly lubricious Sportin' Life and Phillip Boykin perfectly captures Crown's malevolence. Much as I enjoyed the evening, I will grant that all is not perfection. Some of the orchestration seemed too jazzy. Occasionally the blocking seemed awkward. Finally, the set by Riccardo Hernandez is oppressively ugly and looks more like a decrepit airplane hangar than a tenement in Charleston. I know Catfish Row shouldn't look like Park Avenue, but this hideous set cheapens the entire production. Nevertheless, it was a very enjoyable evening.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wit ***

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Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a middle-aged John Donne scholar undergoing a grueling clinical trial for stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer, has been revived by Manhattan Theatre Club in a production starring Cynthia Nixon. The lead character's name -- Dr. Vivian Bearing -- is fitting: Vivian indeed has much to bear during her excruciating treatment. Kathleen Chalfant's searing performance in the original New York production set the bar very high. Nixon's Vivian does not reach that stratospheric level, but is nonetheless quite compelling. (Emma Thompson's portrayal in the television movie was also quite different from Chalfant's, but still admirable. I did not see Judith Light, who followed Chalfant in New York, but her reviews were quite good.) Greg Keller is fine as research fellow Dr. Jason Posner, a former student of Vivian's, who shares with her an analytical approach to life that often appears to lack humanity. Michael Countryman makes less of an impression as Dr. Harvey Kelekian, the lead physician, than he does as Vivian's father in a short flashback. Suzanne Bertish is fine as Vivian's mentor, Dr. E.M. Ashford, during a touching, probably imaginary, visit to the dying Vivian. Carra Patterson brings a natural warmth to the role of nurse Susie Monahan. Santo Loquasto's hospital set is unobtrusively authentic and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting is excellent. I thought Lynne Meadow's direction let the pacing lag occasionally. The play, at just short of two hours without intermission, seemed longer than I remember it. Although the play has many flashes of humor, there is no getting around the fact that is very painful to watch. Even though I had seen the play as well as the movie before, it was just as upsetting to see Wit a third time. Whether you should see it depends on your tolerance for disturbing material.

The Cherry Orchard **

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Writing this review is rather pointless since this CSC production directed by Andrei Belgrader closes tomorrow. Nevertheless, I'll weigh in if only to assure those who couldn't score tickets that they did not miss the revelatory experience suggested by some of the reviews. The production is wildly uneven, with superb moments alternating with others that are downright crude and/or pointless. (Does audience participation really have a role in a Chekhov play?) Chekhov did regard the play as a comedy, but I doubt he was thinking of slapstick. Throwing in a scene of attempted fellatio is sheer sensationalism. In abridging the text to get the evening down to 2 1/2 hours with intermission, the roles of some minor characters have been so truncated that what remains doesn't make much sense. There is some fine acting, especially by Daniel Davis, Alvin Epstein and Juliet Rylance. John Turturro has a wonderful drunk scene, but is a bit too overbearing elsewhere. Dianne Wiest, to my surprise, just isn't that interesting here; I thought she was much better in CSC's Seagull a few years back. The evening moves in fits and starts. I have never thought the play has the emotional power of Uncle Vanya or The Seagull, but it can have more impact than in this abridged version.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Outside People **

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Is there room in New York for a second play about an American experiencing culture shock in today's China? The producers at Vineyard Theatre and Naked Angels apparently think so. We now have Zayd Dohrn's new play opening at the Vineyard. It does not really share much in common with "Chinglish." The comedy is much darker here. Each of the characters is in some sense an outsider -- Malcolm (Matt Dellapina) is an extremely neurotic schlemiel from Hoboken whose Chinese former roommate at Stanford, David (Nelson Lee), has invited him to visit and possibly live in Beijing. David's years in America have alienated him from his roots and left him with a taste for non-Chinese women. His current girlfriend Samanya (Sonequa Martin-Green) is the daughter of an African diplomat, raised in China, who will never be considered Chinese. On Malcolm's first night in town, David fixes Malcolm up with Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li), an attractive girl from the countryside trying to make it in the big city, with whom Malcolm promptly falls in love. Even the audience is at times an outsider, because there are a couple of scenes where the Chinese dialogue in not translated. The motivations for what transpires are complicated and not always made clear. The cast is excellent and the situation is sufficiently intriguing that my hopes were raised. Ultimately, I found it just good enough that I wish it had been better. Evan Cabnet's direction is smooth and the sets by Takeshi Kata are attractive and functional. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.

Note: Dohrn, the son of Weather Underground members Bernadine Dohrn and William Ayers, should know about being an outsider -- he was raised in hiding for his first four years.