Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Storefront Church ***

(Please click on the title to see the full review.) 
The final installment of John Patrick Shanley's Church and State trilogy, now in previews at the newly reopened Atlantic Theater mainstage, is quite different from the other two plays, first of all in length. It has two leisurely acts over two hours as compared to their economical 90 minutes. Although not as good as Doubt (not many plays are), it is much better than Defiance. Actors must love Shanley; he certainly can write a juicy part. All six actors get a chance to shine here. Tonya Pinkins, who made such a strong impression in both Milk Like Sugar and Hurt Village earlier this season, gets to use a Spanish accent and show off her beautiful singing voice. Poor Zach Grenier has to keep his face grotesquely contorted throughout the play. The role of Pinkins's Jewish husband fits Bob Dishy like a glove. Ron Cephas Jones, who also impressed in Hurt Village, portrays a pentecostal minister who is spiritually blocked. Jordan Lage is both amusing and convincing as a bank CEO. The central character is Giancarlo Esposito, as the Bronx borough president. The action takes place at the intersection of politics, religion and commerce. It is loosely based on the controversy over redeveloping the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx (which still sits empty today), as well as the current mortgage crisis. The play has its flaws -- it rambles a bit, some of the motivations are unclear (particular those of Pinkins' character), some of the themes are underdeveloped and the final scene doesn't pack as much punch as I hoped it would. The sets by Takeshi Kata are bland, perhaps deliberately so, but the costumes by Alejo Vietti are perfect. Shanley's direction is assured. and full of grace notes.  Although far from perfect, it is consistently entertaining. I urge you to see it.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Medieval Play (Act One) [zero stars]

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It had to happen sooner or later -- encountering a play so bad that returning after intermission was unthinkable. Alas, today was the day and this was the play. It is hard to imagine that Kenneth Lonergan, author of "This Is Our Youth," "Lobby Hero" and the screenplay for "You Can Count on Me," is responsible for this pointless mess, now in previews at Signature Theatre.  His play "The Starry Messenger" last year was no great shakes, but it was a masterpiece by comparison. This one is allegedly a comedy about the misadventures of two 14th-century Breton knights, one idealistic (Josh Hamilton), the other cynical and not too bright (Tate Donovan). The melange of anachronisms, bodily function jokes, four-letter words and comic book violence might make a mildly amusing five-minute sketch on Saturday Night Live, but sitting through an hour and twenty minutes of it was painful. Staying for the remaining hour and twenty minutes would qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. Most depressing of all, judging from the laughter, there was a substantial minority of the audience who loved every minute of it. Also in the cast are Anthony Arkin, Heather Burns, Halley Feiffer, Kevin Geer, John Pankow and C.J. Wilson.The storybook sets by Walt Spangler and costumes by Michael Krass were far more amusing that any lines in the play. The swordfights were well-staged by J. David Brimmer. Lonergan directed his own play, so he has no one else to blame. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Rapture, Blister, Burn ****

With her new play now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, Gina Gionfriddo (Becky Shaw) once again demonstrates that she is one of the most promising American playwrights. In it, two fortyish women, formerly best friends in graduate school, meet again after a 12-year lapse during which their lives have taken very different directions. Catherine (Amy Brenneman), who has enjoyed a thriving career as an author, media critic and academic, has remained single. Gwen (Kellie Overbey) married Catherine's intended, Don (Lee Tergesen), while Catherine was away in London, dropped out of grad school and became a stay-at-home housewife and mother. Now, however, they both question their choices, wonder what they might have missed out on, and take steps to find out. Catherine's mother Alice (Beth Dixon) and college student/baby sitter Avery (Virginia Kull) observe and comment on the goings-on. While the plot is engaging, the main attraction is the intelligence, substance and wit of the dialog. Conversations about generational attitudes toward feminism, the views of Phyllis Schlafly, and the cultural significance of horror films and internet porn are skillfully woven into the play without a trace of didacticism. The cast is uniformly excellent. Alexander Dodge's scenic design is attractive and functional. Mimi O'Donnell's costumes are spot-on. Peter DuBois's direction serves the play well. Don't be put off by the strange title, which comes from a Courtney Love lyric of dubious signifance to the play. This is one of the finest plays I have seen this year. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

February House **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The Public Theater is to be commended for commissioning Gabriel Kahane, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter, to write music and lyrics for a musical based on life at 7 Middagh Street in 1940-41. The flamboyantly gay editor George Davis hoped to turn a rundown Victorian house in Brooklyn Heights into a communal home for an unlikely bunch of talented misfits that included W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee. Surely, the concept was a promising one. Unfortunately, the result is wildly uneven. In general, Kahane's lyrics are better than his music. The way he makes seamless transitions from dialog to song is admirable. Through words and music, the first act leisurely portrays the characters and their relationships. The second, livelier, act describes the loss of utopia. The cast of nine (Stanley Bahorek, Ken Barnett, Ken Clark, Julian Fleisher, Stephanie Hayes, Erik Lochtefeld, Kacie Sheik, A.J. Shively, Kristen Sieh) is mostly strong, although Sieh's voice lacks color. For me, the play's worst moments involved Gypsy Rose Lee. Her character is much too broadly written and played. It is unfortunate that they felt compelled to include a striptease number -- after the one in Gypsy, it was doomed to fall flat. The book, by Seth Bockley, could use some more tweaking. Riccardo Hernandez's set and Jess Goldstein's costumes are excellent. Director Davis McCallum as allowed the play to gain 20 minutes since previews began. They should be trimming, not adding. A book doctor might be able to make significant improvements. In the unlikely event you are not familiar with the past and future achievements of the house's residents, you probably will not find the play interesting. Even if you are, you still might not. Nevertheless, I am glad I saw it and support the Public for taking it on. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including intermission.

TItle and Deed (guest review) *

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Having found Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) deadly and Middletown deadly dull, I decided to pass on his new play now in previews at the Signature Theatre. A report from MH, whose reaction is often similar to mine, testifies to the wisdom of my decision. She writes: "Knowing you were not a big fan of Thom Pain, I thought I might save you more Pain by warning you about the new Eno at the Signature -- a one-man 90-minute yawnfest. I rather like one-handers if there's a plot or a lot of intriguing characters. This one starts off amiably enough, then wanders into an existential meditation on -- I don't know exactly -- life, where we are, why, ... then I fell asleep. The actor [Conor Lovett] is amiable also, but lacks the Gaelic charm which might make the material compelling. You have been warned!"

Friday, May 11, 2012

Cock ****

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The sensationalistic title of this British play by Mike Bartlett, now in previews at the Duke, may sell tickets, but it ill serves the play by coarsening audience expectations. Those who arrive expecting nudity and graphic sex will go home disappointed. The actors remain fully clothed and physical contact between them is sparing. In the play's sexiest scene,  the only body parts to touch are foreheads. The plot revolves around John (Cory Michael Smith), a youngish gay man who is tired of being a trophy boy and who, during a brief split from his longtime lover "M" (Jason Butler Harner), meets and begins an affair with "W" (Amanda Quaid), a divorcee. Vacillating between his two lovers, John is finally forced to choose at an awkward dinner at which the three are joined by M's father "F"(Cotter Smith). The staging contributes greatly to the play's impact. A five-row wooden circular arena fills The entire Duke Theater. There are no sets or props and the house lights remain on. The short scenes are punctuated by an electronic tone. The actors are like combatants in a high-stakes competition. The rapid-fire dialogue is voluminous and often very funny. The acting is simply superb, reason enough to see the play. Never have I seen American actors so comfortable with British accents. James Macdonald, who directed the Olivier-winning Royal Court production, does an outstanding job. The ending will probably satisfy no one, but that almost doesn't matter. The play raises complicated issues and treats them both intelligently and humorously. Running time: 95 minutes without intermission. Warning: the stadium-style seating has no seat backs and only a thin foam cushion. If your back needs support, get a seat in the last row.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Leap of Faith **

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As a fan of Raul Esparza, I jumped at the opportunity to see this much-maligned Broadway musical at a steep discount. Although the part does not show him to best advantage, it still offers the pleasure of seeing him onstage again. The show has many flaws, but it is not the total disaster some of the critics would have you believe. Jessica Phillips is fine as the love interest/antagonist and Kecia Lewis-Evans is terrific as leader of the gospel choir. Alan Menken's music is an improvement over his score for Newsies, but still unmemorable. Glenn Slater's lyrics are bland. The set by Robin Wagner moves around effectively without calling too much attention to itself. The costumes by William Ivey Long are suitably colorful. Don Holder's lighting unfortunately illuminates the bald head of the conductor, who is awkwardly placed right up against the stage. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo is pedestrian. The book by Janus Cercone (who wrote the screenplay for the 1992 film) and Warren Leight has its bumpy spots. It's one of the rare shows that improves in the second act. Christopher Ashley directed. The big question for me is why they undertook this project in the first place. If you've seen 110 in the Shade, The Music Man or Elmer Gantry, you've already seen a far better version of the story of a con man descending on an innocent Midwestern town. Leap of Faith adds nothing to the mix, except that is does provide employment for several fine black actors and therefore is drawing a more racially diverse audience than is usual on Broadway. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Newsies ***

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What I should have been more aware of about Newsies is that it is a Disney production, with all that implies -- family-friendly, squeaky clean, lavishly produced, slick, inoffensive, bland. The audience was filled with busloads of teenaged girls who wildly cheered just about everything when they weren't texting. Jeremy Jordan shines as Jack Kelly, leader of the 1899 NYC newsboys' strike. Kara Lindsay is perky as Katherine, the love interest that has been added in Harvey Fierstein's adaptation of the Disney film. The music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, respectively, are unmemorably efficient. The athletic choreography by Christopher Gattelli is performed with brio by a prodigiously talented ensemble. The huge metal multilevel set by Tobin Ost calls too much attention to itself: it moves back and forth, spins and reconfigures itself restlessly. Jess Goldstein's period costumes are fine. Jeff Calhoun directed. If you go expecting something on the level of The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, you will be disappointed, but, if you have a young person in your life, by all means take him or her to Newsies -- it's the perfect starter musical. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It ****

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I am baffled by the middling to negative reviews this Gershwin musical has received, because I thought it 's wonderful. Joe DiPietro's tongue-in-cheek book cleverly blends about 20 Gershwin songs into a delightfully absurd plot loosely based on Oh Kay! The almost uniformly excellent cast (more about that later), stunning sets by Derek McLane, gorgeous costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, lush orchestrations by Bill Elliott and endlessly inventive choreography by Kathleen Marshall, who also directed, offer a lot to enjoy. Kelli O'Hara is marvelous as singer, dancer and comedienne. Michael McGrath stands out among a strong supporting cast that includes Judy Kaye and Estelle Parsons. The only weak link is Matthew Broderick; his singing and dancing are competent, but his signature nebbishy persona has lost its charm for me. I guess his name still sells tickets. With a stronger male lead, the show would be an unqualified success. As it is, it still provides a most pleasant evening. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission.