Friday, December 27, 2013

Disaster! ***

The subtitle "A 70s Disaster Movie Musical" is an accurate description of what this entertaining show at St. Luke's Theatre offers. Imagine a blend of all the disaster movies of that decade rolled into one complete with earthquake, tidal wave, fire, killer bees, rats and sharks and set to the disco music of the period and you've got an inkling of what writers Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick have wrought. Part of the fun is to see how cleverly the lyrics of 70s songs are incorporated into the action. An energetic cast of 15 that includes Rudetsky and the always amusing Mary Testa keeps this ship afloat. Some of the sight gags are inspired and the wait for the next laugh is never long. Josh Iacovelli's set is appropriately cheesy and Brian Hemesath's costumes are hilarious. Plotnick also directed. At 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission, it's a little too much of a good thing.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Ten Best and Ten Worst Plays I Saw This Year

Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of the ten plays I enjoyed most in 2013:
All in the Timing, Buyer and Cellar, The Explorers Club, Fetch Clay Make Man, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Kinky Boots; Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812; Old Hats, Small Engine Repair, The Winslow Boy
Here, also alphabetically, are the ten plays I enjoyed least this year:
Breakfast at Tiffany's, Bull, Clive, Lying Lessons, The Madrid, The Model Apartment, The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters, Snow Geese, Somewhere Fun, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin

Plays in italics are still running as of today.

The Night Alive ***

The Atlantic Theater Company continues its role as New York home of contemporary Irish playwrights Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Cripple of Inishmaan by the former; Port Authority and Dublin Carol by the latter) with this production of McPherson's latest play, imported from London's Donmar Warehouse and directed by the playwright. We meet five marginal Dubliners -- Tommy (Ciaran Hinds), a man-with-van, divorced and alienated from his children; his needy sidekick Doc (Michael McElhatton), who may be a bit slow; Tommy's disapproving uncle Maurice (Jim Norton), in whose house Tommy rents a room; Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne), the prostitute Tommy brings home after rescuing her from a beating; and Kenneth (Brian Gleeseon), her ex-boyfriend/pimp with anger issues. At a very leisurely pace, we are introduced to the first four characters, whose banter is often very funny. We are jolted to attention when the play takes a sudden violent turn with the arrival of Kenneth. Complications arise. The combination of humor, pathos, dread, violence and possible redemption did not blend easily for me. Tommy, Doc and Maurice come across as well-developed characters, but Aimee is underwritten and Kenneth is an enigma. The actors are simply superb; in lesser hands, their roles would be reduced to cliches. Soutra Gilmour's set and costumes are very effective. McPherson seems to be that exceptional playwright who is the best possible director of his own work. The play has much to admire, but I wish it ended one scene sooner. The ending seemed sentimental and unearned. Running time: one hour, 45 minutes; no intermission.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Back by Popular Demand: A Christmas Story -- The Musical ****

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

This 4-star seasonal delight is back for a three-week run at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Here's what I had to say last year:

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.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder ****

Jefferson Mays, established master of multiple roles since "I Am My Own Wife," outdoes himself by playing eight distinct characters in this delightful new Broadway musical by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics). He portrays all the members of the D'Ysquith family, male and female, who are blocking Monty Navarro's (Bryce Pinkham) ambition to become Earl of Highhurst. The news from Miss Shingle (Jane Carr), an old family friend, that Monty's mother was disinherited by the D'Ysquiths for marrying a Castilian sets Monty on a path of revenge. If the plot sounds familiar, it's based on the same novel as the classic Alec Guinness film "Kind Hearts and Coronets." There are two women in his life, Sibella (Lisa O'Hare), a sexy schemer he can't resist, and Phoebe (Lauren Worsham), a virginal D'Ysquith cousin who falls for him. Part of the fun is seeing how Monty does each family member in. The wonderful Edwardian jewel-box set by Alexander Dodge, the excellent costumes by Lisa Cho, the clever projections by Aaron Rhyne and the amusing choreography by Peggy Hickey add greatly to the experience. Director Darko Tresnjak keeps everything lively. Pinkham manages the difficult task of making us care about a serial killer and Mays is simply amazing. The music, falling somewhere between operetta and music hall, is pleasant and the lyrics are a witty treat. My only quibble is that it's a bit too much of a good thing -- the first act is just short of 90 minutes. I hope that the lack of a star with greater name recognition in the hinterlands will not prevent it from having the success it deserves. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
While I have come to expect edgier fare from New York Theatre Workshop than an evening of Burt Bacharach melodies, their management just may be on to something. In their new soft-rock arrangements, Bacharach's songs seem to appeal to a new audience. The average age of the sold-out house was decades younger than usual and the crowd was wildly enthusiastic. The production is elaborate in the extreme: the theater walls are covered with a variety of rugs and acoustical foam, there are two overstuffed sofas suspended from the back wall, a dozen or so floor lamps with antique shades fill the stage, and a tower of guitars and other instruments is prominently featured. The lighting is often synchronized with the music in lurid colors and the stage has not one but two revolving platforms. Apparently director Steven Hoggett ("Once") thinks all this is necessary to hold our attention. In my opinion, the extremely talented group of seven young performers (arranger Kyle Riabko plus Daniel Bailen, Laura Dreyfuss, James Nathan Hopkins, Nathaly Lopez, James Williams, Daniel Woods) would be just as compelling on a bare stage. Basically, it's just a gussied-up concert, more suitable to a different venue, but, if you like Bacharach, it's quite entertaining. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Taking Care of Baby**

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
British playwright Dennis Kelly's faux documentary is now at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II for its New York premiere. An initial advisory that all the dialogue has been lifted from actual transcripts is deliberately garbled a couple of times later, perhaps as a clue that it is all fiction. The play crosscuts between Donna (Kristen Bush), a mother who has been jailed for murder after the death of her two young children; her mother Lynn (Margaret Colin), a politician whose positions change as often as the wind direction; the controversial Dr. Millard (Reed Birney), who has posited a disease that causes oversensitive women to murder their children; and Martin (Francois Battiste), Donna's traumatized former husband. Peripheral characters include Mrs. Millard (Amelia Campbell), Lynn's campaign manager Jim (Ethan Phillips) and an odious, sexually addicted reporter (Michael Crane.) Talking head interviews alternate with reenactments. The acting is top-notch, especially by Bush, Colin and Birney. I wish that the rapid alteration of fragmentary scenes did not diminish the momentum so that none of the individual stories was adequately developed. Despite the fine acting, the play's concept was more interesting than the execution. Erica Schmidt's direction seemed unfocused and uninvolving. Running time: two hours, fifteen minutes including intermission.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How I Learned What I Learned ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Signature Theatre is presenting the New York premiere of this one-man show, written and first performed by August Wilson in 2003 in Seattle. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who has a sterling record interpreting Wilson's work, portrays him in this set of reminiscences about being a young black man in Pittsburgh in the 1960's. The pieces range from comedic to contemplative. Some are poetic, others are angry. Santiago-Hudson, a charismatic performer, gives them their due. Set designer David Gallo projects the name of each sketch typed on a backdrop of hundreds of sheets of paper hanging from wires. The rough wood platform with rusty stairs on which the performance takes place rests on a layer of urban detritus. Costanza Romero did the costumes. Wilson expert Todd Kreidler's direction is fluid and assured. The format runs the risk of monotony and the vitality of the sketches does take a dip midway, but then it returns to its initial high level of interest. All in all, it makes for a short but worthwhile experience. Sadly, there were very, very few blacks in the audience. Running time: one hour, 20 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
No one can accuse playwright Madeleine George of lack of ambition for her new work at Playwrights Horizons. The action, set in 1876, 1889, 1931 and 2011 with three actors playing multiple roles, alternates time periods and characters in rapid succession. We are presented with four Watsons -- Alexander Graham Bell's assistant; Shelock Holmes's sidekick; Jerry Watson, a present-day computer repairman, and a supercomputer based on IBM's, reprogrammed to be empathetic. All are played by the delightful John Ellison Conlee. The talented Amanda Quaid plays Eliza, the supercomputer's creator; Mrs. Merrick, a troubled Victorian wife who consults Holmes's Watson; and an unnamed BBC interviewer. David Costabile, master of high dudgeon, appears as Merrick, a Tea Party-style politician and ex-husband of Eliza; a mysterious Victorian inventor also named Merrick, and Alexander Graham Bell. Present-day Merrick inadvertently brings ex-wife Eliza and Jerry together with surprising results. Some of the ideas touched upon are dependency and the fear thereof, usefulness, and the downside of finding a soulmate. The alternation of times, locations and characters is greatly assisted by  Louisa Thompson's amazingly flexible set and Anita Yavich's excellent costumes. Playwright George successfully keeps her juggling act going through the first act and into the second, before she drops the ball with a thud. The play whimpers to an end, which is all the more disappointing since it started with such promise. Director Leigh Silverman keeps things moving along smoothly until the play trips over its own cleverness. In what my sound like a left-handed compliment, let me say that even the plays that fall short at Playwrights Horizons fail in interesting ways. Running time: two hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Friday, November 22, 2013

No Man's Land ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Let me admit up front that I have never found the works of Pinter a good fit for my tastes. That may qualify me as a card-carrying philistine, but I don't find his usual blend of humor, cruelty and obscurantism appealing. While his plays, including this one, offer some wonderful opportunities for actors to show their stuff, the whole usually is less than the sum of its parts, at least for me. It's not so much that I ask myself "What does this mean?" as "Why should I care?" The reason to care about this production is to see two of Britain's finest actors, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, sharing a stage. When the two of them are alone, there is theatrical magic to behold. When the other two characters, played by Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup, appear, it seemed an intrusion on the magic. Half the time I was entranced and the other half I was bored. On the balance, the chance to see Stewart and McKellen in action outweighed the misgivings I have about the play. Stephen Brimson Lewis designed the atmospheric set and character-appropriate costumes. Sean Mathias directed. Running time: 2 hours, including intermission.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Regular Singing ***

The fourth and final installment in Richard Nelson's saga about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York brings the series to a satisfying conclusion. I confess that I approached this one with a bit of trepidation, because, by the end of the third play, the pleasure of the Apple family's company was wearing a bit thin for me. In addition, two members of the superb original cast (Shuler Hensley and J. Smith-Cameron) were unavailable for the final play and I was uncomfortable about seeing new actors in their roles. Like the three previous plays, the action or, more accurately, the conversation is set on a day significant for American history. "That Hopey Changey Thing" was set on Election Night 2010; "Sweet and Sad" on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and "Sorry"on Election Day 2012. (I suggest you use the search box near the top right to read my reviews of the three previous plays.) This time the occasion is the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination. The Apple siblings -- Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), a spinster schoolteacher; Marian (Laila Robins), also a teacher, whose marriage collapsed after her daughter's suicide and who now lives with Barbara; Jane (Sally Murphy, replacing Smith-Cameron), a writer who has recently moved to Rhinebeck with partner Tim (Stephen Kunken, replacing Hensley), an actor/waiter; and Richard (Jay O. Sanders), an attorney who has fled his failed marriage in New York for a job in the Cuomo administration in Albany -- and their Uncle Benjamin (John Devries), a former actor whose failing memory has landed him in an assisted living home, have gathered at Barbara's house, where Marian's ex-husband Adam lies dying upstairs. As they go over Adam's detailed plans for his funeral, they discuss many things, from the state of the country to their personal demons. There is no action in the usual sense, but there are occasional moments of great pathos. Murphy seemed a bit young to play Jane and was barely audible at times. Kunken, always a fine actor, fit in well as Tim. The four returning actors are as excellent as we have come to expect. It was a real pleasure to spend time with them again. Nelson as director serves his own material well. For one of the Public Theater's Lab productions, the modest set and costumes by Susan Hilferty are commensurate with the low ticket price. At one hour, 50 minutes without intermission, the play could use some judicious trimming.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Too Much, Too Much, Too Many ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Meghan Kennedy's new work is the latest offering at Roundabout Underground's Black Box Theatre, their "launching pad for emergent playwrights." In 22 short, concentrated scenes, Kennedy depicts some of the ways people deal with grief and loss. The four characters are Emma (Rebecca Henderson), a depressed 39-year-old single woman who has lost her father James (James Rebhorn) to Alzheimer's, her grieving mother Rose (Phyllis Somerville) who has locked herself in her room for almost a year, and the enigmatic Pastor Hidge (Luke Kirby) who has been sent by the local church to offer comfort. The actors rise to the challenge of performing with people they cannot see because of an intervening door. It's a pleasure to see two old pros like Rebhorn (Homeland) and Somerville (The Big C) onstage. Rebhorn's portrayal of the descent into dementia is heartbreaking. The younger actors are also fine and the production is first-rate. The set by Wilson Chin looks wonderfully lived in. Jess Goldstein's costumes, Zach Blane's lighting design and the sound design by Broken Chord all greatly enhance the production. Sheryl Kaller's direction is sure and steady. Despite some misgivings about the script, I found the play worthwhile. I do wish they had found a more appealing title though! Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Small Engine Repair ****

For the first 45 minutes or so, John Pollono's play at MCC Theater appears to be just one more raunchy blue-collar buddy reunion comedy, albeit one with unusually well-written dialogue and well-differentiated characters.  Frank (playwright Pollono), the mid-30's owner of the titular repair shop in Manchester, NH, has tricked his two oldest friends, the slight, sensitive Packie (James Ransone) and the commitment-phobic ladies' man Swaino (James Badge Dale), into coming over to the shop after work. Although their friendship dates back to childhood, Packie and Swaino have become estranged and the three have not spent time together in years. Frank plies them with beer, scotch, weed and the promise of the drug Ecstasy, soon to be delivered by Chad (Keegan Allen), a college boy from Boston, who deals on the side. I don't want to give too much away, but I don't think it will hurt to mention that the perils of social interaction in the internet age come into play. When there is a sudden shift from comedy to thriller, it comes as a real jolt. Rarely have I seen an audience more engrossed than during the climactic scene. I will grant that the play is manipulative, but sometimes it's fun to be manipulated. The resolution may be politically incorrect, but it has the ring of plausibility. The actors are all sensational. The set by Richard Hoover is terrific and the costumes by Theresa Squire are wonderful. Jo Bonney's direction is assured. Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Jacksonian ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Beth Henley's bizarre Southern gothic mystery set in the Mississippi of 1964 is so over the top that it flirts dangerously with parody. Without superb acting, it might be virtually unwatchable. But what a cast The New Group has assembled! For the opportunity to see Ed Harris, Glenne Headly, Bill Pullman and Amy Madigan together on the same stage, I'll put up with a lot. They are joined by newcomer Juliet Brett. The plot revolves around the Perch family -- Bill (Harris), a dentist exiled from the family home, his difficult wife Susan (Madigan), and their troubled 16-year-old daughter Rosy (Brett). Bill is staying at the titular motel whose staff include the memorably creepy bartender Fred (Pullman) and the lusciously overripe maid Eva (Headly). We learn early on there will be a murder. The lurid action moves back and forth in time over a 7-month period. The casual racism of the time and place is never far from the surface. Walt Spangler's evocative set makes good use of the awkwardly wide stage. Ana Kuzmanic's costumes are perfection. Director Robert Falls skillfully keeps the grotesquerie within bounds. It is a puzzling play that will probably displease many, but I thought it was redeemed by the outstanding acting and high production values. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Family Furniture ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The Bard of Buffalo is back with a lovely new play, now in previews at the Flea Theater. Fortunately for us, A.R. Gurney has found a seemingly inexhaustible font of inspiration in the lives of mid-century WASP residents of that city. Through this prism, he has repeatedly given us a vivid portrait of American social mores circa 1950. The present play is an intimate one, depicting events at the summer home of an upper-middle-class Buffalo family. The father Russell (Peter Scolari), devoted to upholding tradition, is unhappy that daughter Peggy (Ismenia Mendes) is seriously involved with an Italian-American. Son Nick (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), a couple years younger, is working hard all summer to buy a car to have at Williams, so he can drive up to Bennington to visit his girlfriend Betsy (Molly Nordin). The mother Claire (Carolyn McCormick) is busy playing tennis at the club, arranging charity events, and, perhaps, having an affair with a family friend. Peggy is dispatched to Europe for a month to get her away from her boyfriend, with unanticipated consequences. Nick has great difficulty coming to terms with his mother's possible adultery. Two beautiful scenes for father and daughter and another for mother and son were, for me, the highlights of the play. I was puzzled why Russell and Claire seemed much less concerned about their son dating a Jew than about their daughter dating an Italian. A scene in which Betsy tries to help Nick break out of his personal crisis by reading a scene from Hamlet seemed contrived and could have easily been omitted. In fact, I would have omitted the character of Betsy entirely, because the scenes with her diluted the intimacy of the family scenes a bit. The cast is excellent Rachel Hauck's minimalist set, consisting of a few tables, a couple of benches, a chair and a bookshelf, works just fine. Claudia Brown's costumes evoke the period effectively. Thomas Kail's direction is unobtrusive and assured. It's not a major Gurney work, but is nonetheless satisfying. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

La Soiree *** (adult content)

The folks who brought "Absinthe" and "Empire" to the Spiegelworld tent are back in town with a newly titled, if not newly minted, show at Union Square Theatre. This erotically charged circus-cabaret-burlesque show is definitely not for the kiddies. Many of the acts are either identical or similar to previous ones. There's beefcake aplenty including The English Gents, a sensational two-man balancing act, and Bath Boy, a hunky bare-chested man in wet Levis performing tricks on parallel hanging straps from a bathtub. Plastic sheets are thoughtfully provided to protect those sitting in front. There are a few other enjoyable acts I can't name for lack of a program. This year's show adds full frontal female nudity to the mix and seemed generally a bit raunchier. There were two acts with lots of audience participation that dragged a bit. At almost two hours including intermission, it was too much of a good thing. If you enjoyed either or both of their previous shows -- and I did -- you should like this one too.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Domesticated ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Bruce Norris's acidic take on contemporary American gender relations, now at Lincoln Center Theater, is thoroughly entertaining and provocative without being fully satisfying. The by now iconic scene of a politician caught in a sex scandal resigning in public with his stoic wife at his side is our starting point. Fortunately for us, Bill and Judy are played flawlessly by Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf. The first act gives us Judy's view of the aftermath on herself, their daughters --  the self-absorbed Casey (Emily Meade) and adopted, virtually mute Cambodian daughter Cassidy (Misha Seo) --, housekeeper Pilar (Vanessa Aspillaga), Judy's best friend Bobbie (Mia Barron) and Bill's mother (Mary Beth Peil.) After his resignation speech, Bill does not get another chance to open his mouth until the very end of act one. We finally get Bill's side of the story in the second act as Norris sets him on a downward spiral, attacked by a transsexual (Robin de Jesus), rejected by patients, lectured by a Muslim woman on America's evils, estranged from his daughters, and finally confronted by Judy in a take-no-prisoners showdown. The play ends ambiguously. Norris is not subtle; he sometimes pushes his points too far and goes for easy targets like the talk show host (Karen Pittman) who uses the comatose prostitute Becky and her mother (Lizbeth Mackay) to pump up ratings. (Becky suffered a head injury during her session with Bill.) The play's scenes are cleverly interwoven by slides from daughter Casey's science report on varying gender roles in the animal kingdom, depicting an ever-diminishing role for the male of the species. The play is presented in the round with an effective minimalist set by Todd Rosenthal that suggests an arena. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes are attractive. Anna D. Shapiro's direction is fluid and confident. I have some misgivings, particularly about the second act, but I nevertheless found it worthwhile. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including intermission.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The lifelike stuffed animals surrounding the set were the first sign of trouble. The inclusion on the list of characters of "Animals, both real and imagined" was the next. The opening scene of the play that revealed who the play was about was, for me, strike three. Readers of this blog will know by now that I am not drawn to plays about people who live in trailers. Call me a snob if you like, but that's just how it is. And so I knew I was in for a rough evening getting through Marlane Meyer's ambitious new work now in previews at Playwrights Horizons. Her script throws together obsessive love, faith, the veneration of saints, animism, broad satire, social commentary and fantasy. Will the love of a good woman (Laura Heisler) redeem a sinful man (Rob Campbell) or will he drag her down to his level? About 10% of the audience will never know, because they fled at intermission. Lucky them. On the plus side, the versatile cast does wonders playing multiple roles, especially Candy Buckley and Danny Wolohan. There are some entertaining moments along the way, but not enough to hold my interest. Rachel Hauck did the set and Paloma Young created the amusing costumes. Lisa Peterson directed. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Little Miss Sunshine ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
William Finn and James Lapine, whose previous collaborations include "Falsettos" and "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," have turned this quirky 2006 indie film into a musical now in previews at Second Stage. To take on a film that owed so much of its success to its perfect casting and one that has become somewhat of a cult classic, was an act of bravery. To their credit, they have captured both the satire and the pathos in this story of a really dysfunctional family from Albuquerque for whom the American dream has turned sour.  Frazzled wife Sheryl (Stephanie J. Block), feckless husband Richard (Will Erat, for Will Swenson), silent son Dwayne (Logan Rowland), 7-year-old daughter and would-be beauty contestant Olive (Hannah Nordberg), Sheryl's suicidal brother Frank (Rory O'Malley) and Grandpa (a surprisingly delightful David Rasche) are all vividly portrayed. (Understudy Erat is so unlike Swenson in appearance that it put a different spin on the character.) To my surprise, the characters in the musical seemed less cartoonish and more sympathetic than in the film. Finn's music, while not memorable, is easy on the ear and Lapine's book has some nice touches. Beowulf Boritt's unit set extends a map of the southwestern U.S. over most of the theater ceiling. Michele Lynch's choreography is clever. Jennifer Caprio's costumes are a treat. Lapine also directed. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

A question: What was the last musical you saw that was not based on a film or book?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Commons of Pensacola **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Few first-time playwrights are lucky enough to have their debut effort presented by a major New York theater company, Manhattan Theater Club, directed by its artistic director, Lynne Meadow, starring two esteemed actresses, Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker. Amanda Peet, an actress known for "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"  and "The Good Wife," is that lucky person. Her play imagines the post-scandal life of Judith, a Ruth Madoff-like character (Danner), forced to live in straitened circumstances in a Florida condo, and the collateral damage to her family. Daughter Becca (Parker), an unsuccessful 43-year-old actress and her 29-year-old boyfriend Gabe (Michael Stahl-David), a self-styled "guerilla journalist," have arrived for a Thanksgiving visit. They are joined by teenaged granddaughter Lizzy (Zoe Levin), whose mother Ali (Ali Marsh) has broken off contact with Judith for reasons unknown. We also meet Judith's capable part-time homemaker-health aide Lorena (Nilaja Sun). What Judith knew about her husband's criminal activities is at issue. The troubled relationship between Judith and Becca is another focus. The play contains several interesting touches and the dialogue is actor-friendlly, but it doesn't add up to much. Although less than a rousing success, it at least provides the pleasure of seeing Danner and Parker on a New York stage again. I attended an early preview, so chances are it might improve before it opens. Santo Loquasto's set is appropriately nondescript. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Model Apartment *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Since I had been warned not once but twice that the Primary Stages revival of this early play by Donald Margulies was terrible, I was quite surprised to read the ecstatic reviews in the press. As a wise person once said, "Don't believe everything you read in the papers." The warnings were well-founded. While survival guilt and the corrosive effects of the Holocaust on survivors' offspring are certainly worthy of theatrical treatment, what Margulies has written seems to me a strange melange with characters that are more constructs than human beings. Lola (Kathryn Grody) and Max (Mark Blum), survivors who met and married in New York, are now a middle-age couple who have left Brooklyn for the expected refuge of retirement in Florida. Since their condo is not yet ready, they are forced to move temporarily into the development's model apartment where things are not as they appear. Metaphor, anyone? We learn that they have left behind their daughter Debby (Diane Davis), a morbidly obese, emotionally disturbed adult who tracks them down and bursts in on their intended idyll. Her mentally challenged, homeless boyfriend Neil (Hubert Point-du Jour) mysteriously arrives shortly thereafter. In several short scenes, they have at each other and their private ghosts. Even at 85 minutes, the play seemed repetitious. The emotional payoff that critics thought made the ordeal of sitting through the play worthwhile was insufficient for me. I think the play would have succeeded better as a shorter one-act without the character of Neil diluting the toxic family dynamic, or as a two-act play with greater character development. Lauren Helpern's set design perfectly captures the Florida condo aesthetic. The production's tone is wobbly, but the fault lies more in the writing than in Evan Cabnet's direction. Running time: one hour, 25 mintues; no intermission.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Luce **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The publicity for JC Lee’s new play at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater says that it is about a high-school student, adopted from the Congo ten years before, who has a secret. Unfortunately, this sounds more intriguing than it turns out to be. What we get is a look at a teenager reacting to the heavy burden of high expectations, abetted by the unconditional love of an overeager mother. I reacted with ambivalence to all the characters -- Luce (Okieriete Onaodowan), his parents Amy (Marin Hinkle) and Peter (Neal Huff), Luce's teacher Harriet (Sharon Washington), who makes an unsettling discovery about him, and Stephanie (Olivia Oguma), a girl Luce dated. Along the way, the playwright pokes mild fun at educational, parental and social-network doublespeak. Luce expresses the opinion that cultural diversity is often misused as a way to avoid treating people as individuals. For me, the play’s focus got lost in the shuffle. Timothy R. Mackabee’s multipurpose set features a blackboard that doubles as a scrim through which we see part of the family home. Kaye Voyce’s costumes seemed appropriate. May Adrales’s direction, so effective for The Dance and the Railroad earlier this year, worked no magic here. It made for an interesting, but ultimately disappointing, evening. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Big Fish **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Had I seen Tim Burton’s 2003 film about Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz), a tall-tale-telling traveling salesman from Alabama and his uneasy relationship with his son Will (Bobby Steggert), I probably would have passed on the musical. The film’s combination of fantasy, whimsy and sentimentality is not a blend I generally seek out. The creative team led by director-choreographer Susan Stroman has made a noble, but largely unsuccessful, effort to adapt the film for the musical stage. The elaborate scenic design by Julian Crouch, colorful costumes by William Ivey Long and complex projections by Benjamin Pearcy provide lots to look at, almost to the point of distraction. The book, by the film’s screenwriter John August, crams too much exposition with too little emotion into the long first act, but improves a bit after intermission. The talented Kate Baldwin as Edward’s wife Sandra gets a nice ballad, but little in the way of a character to develop. Krystal Joy Brown is lovely as Will’s wife, but the point of casting the role with an African-American actor puzzled me. Since the action takes place in Alabama, what, if anything, are we supposed to make of this choice (which is not in the movie)? To me, the music is the main point of a musical. That’s where “Big Fish” really falls short. Andrew Lippa’s music is bland and his lyrics, banal. Butz apparently has a very devoted fan base -- when he first appeared onstage, the applause was thunderous. If you loved the movie and have time and money to burn, there are worse ways to spend an evening. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including intermission.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Landing **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
"Be careful what you wish for" seems to be the moral of the three playlets that comprise this chamber musical now in previews at the Vineyard Theatre. Whether it's a young boy who needs a friend, a bored housewife who wants a link to her fantasy world of late-night gangster movies, or a gay couple hoping to adopt the perfect child, getting one's wish does not turn out well. If you were wishing for a show with music by John Kander (most recently Scottsboro Boys and Curtains), lyrics and book by promising playwright Greg Pierce (Slowgirl) and a talented cast led by David Hyde Pierce (Greg's uncle), the same might apply to you. The evening is curiously flat. "Andra," basically story theater with a little music added, goes on much too long. "The Brick," the most inventive and lively of the three, could use some trimming too. The final piece, "The Landing," is sketchy and its theme problematic. The shortcomings of the material are almost compensated for by an excellent cast -- Pierce, Julia Murney, Paul Anthony Stewart and appealing child actor Frankie Seratch. There is not as much music as I would have expected and what there is not top-drawer Kander. The evening is by no means terrible, just not very interesting. The simple, functional set design is by the busy John Lee Beatty. Talented director Walter Bobbie makes the most of what he has to work with. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Snow Geese *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Somewhere inside the shapeless drama now in previews at MTC's Friedman Theatre, there's a play struggling to get out. There are plenty of plot points that could be interesting -- a family's suddenly diminished fortunes, the effects of parental favoritism on character, sibling rivalry in two generations, the treatment of German-Americans in 1917, the horrors of war, the plight of a war refugee, the difficulty of overcoming grief and a few nods to Chekhov. Why then don't they come together to form a rewarding, involving whole? It's not the acting -- the cast (Mary-Louise Parker, Danny Burstein, Victoria Clark, Evan Jonigkeit, Brian Cross, Christopher Innvar and Jessica Love) is mostly strong. It's certainly not the set -- once again Jon Lee Beatty has outdone himself with an attractive, flexible design. I think those most blame-worthy are playwright Sharr White ("The Other Place") for not locating and emphasizing the play's emotional center, the director (Daniel Sullivan) for overlooking serious problems (including a second act scene and character that should be excised), and Manhattan Theatre Club, for presenting a play before it was ready. Let's hope for a miracle -- maybe they'll whip it into shape before opening night. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fun Home **

Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” made many top ten lists and became something of a cult classic. In it, Bechdel describes growing up in small-town Pennsylvania in a repressed family led by a difficult father with a passion for house restoration. The “fun home” of the title is the family’s affectionate shorthand for “funeral home,” the family business that supplements the parents’ schoolteacher salaries. Alison and her father had a complicated relationship -- their common interest in literature was the closest thing to a bond. Shortly after Alison came out as a lesbian, her father died, perhaps a suicide. Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change) and Lisa Kron (Well) have bravely adapted Bechdel’s memoir for the musical stage, in a production now in previews at the Public Theater. Tesori’s music and Kron’s lyrics have produced several fine songs, but some of the best have little to do with Bechdel’s material. Alison is played by three actors -- Alison as a child (Sydney Lucas), college-age Alison (Alexandra Socha) and 43-year-old Alison (Beth Malone). Lucas and Socha are very engaging, but Malone is a bit of a stick (not helped by the fact that she is frightfully thin). Michael Cerveris as the father and Judy Kuhn as the mother do not get enough to work with to develop complex characters. Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale play Alison’s younger brothers, Roberta Colindrez is Joan, her first lover, and Joel Perez plays Ron, the sexy handyman. Musicals must inevitably simplify, but oversimplification is sometimes a hazard. The book’s many literary allusions disappear. David Zinn’s set and costumes are good, but do not compare favorably with Bechtel’s wonderful line drawings. I think the play needs further work, particularly on the opening and the final scene. Sam Gold directed. The audience was clearly made up of fans. It was obvious even before the play began that, whatever transpired, the reaction would be an enthusiastic one. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Glass Menagerie ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Whenever the critics seem to be competing to see who can lavish the most praise on a play, I begin to worry that I am being set up for disappointment. To some extent, that is the case here. While I will grant that the current Broadway version of Tennessee Williams' iconic early masterpiece, under the direction of John Tiffany,  has an intelligent unified vision, I do not think that it is a definitive version for the ages. Bob Crowley's symbolic set emphasizing the isolation from reality of the Wingfields' apartment is an interesting choice. Nico Muhly's incidental music is quietly evocative. Steven Hoggett's stylized movement design seemed more often a distraction than an asset. Crowley's costumes for the women seemed off -- Amanda's gown in the last act seemed better suited to Miss Havisham. To my surprise, the main disappointment for me was Cherry Jones as Amanda. I found her monotonously strident and lacking any trace of vulnerability in the early scenes. Zachary Quinto made a fine Tom. The scene between Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and the gentleman caller (Brian J. Smith) was beautifully rendered. I feel like Scrooge, but I can't honestly say that I was swept away by this production. I liked it, but I didn't love it. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including intermission.

The Winslow Boy ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
After the Roundabout's dreary revival of "Man and Boy" two years ago, I was both surprised and dismayed to learn that they were presenting another Rattigan play this season. Fortunately, this time out they got things right. "The Winslow Boy" is a much better play and this is a much better production -- imported from the Old Vic with a new cast. This drawing-room drama with comic overtones is based on an actual case in early 20th-century England in which a 13-year-old cadet was accused of theft and expelled from the Royal Naval College after a dubious investigation. His father believes in his son's innocence and embarks on a two-year search for justice which exacts a steep price on the family, both financially and emotionally. The Winslow paterfamilias is Arthur (Roger Rees), a retired banker with a strong sense of his own correctness. His wife Grace (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) has her hands full with him. Their eldest child Catherine (Charlotte Parry) is an active suffragette, newly betrothed to officer John Watherstone (Chandler Williams), who is a bit of a prig. Middle child Dickie (Zachary Booth), who is at Oxford, is far more interested in partying than studying. Ronnie (Spencer Davis Milford), the accused thief, is still very much a child. Violet (Henny Russell), the family maid, is a bit rough around the edges, even after 24 years of service. The family solicitor Desmond Curry (Michael Cumpsty), a former cricket star, has long felt the pangs of unrequited love for Catherine. He introduces the family to Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola), London's leading barrister, who, after an almost brutal interrogation of Ronnie, agrees to take the case. Over the next two years, the case became a cause celebre and fodder for the tabloid press, whom Rattigan mercilessly parodied in the person of young reporter Miss Barnes (Meredith Forlenza). Rattigan wisely concentrates on the family's changing relationships, rather than on the complicated legal details of the case. In a strong cast, Cumpsty, Parry and Nivola stand out. I was slightly disappointed that Rees's performance was not more nuanced. The sets and costumes by Peter McKintosh are outstanding, as is Lindsay Posner's direction. Although the play's pace is leisurely, I was never bored. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

NOTE: Reality is often crueler than fiction. George Archer-Shee, the accused thief in the actual case, died at Ypres at the age of 19.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Film Society **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
When first produced, this play put the then 25-year-old Jon Robin Baitz firmly on the list of promising young American playwrights. Now, roughly 25 years later, the Keen Company has revived it. The setting is Blenheim School for Boys in Durban, South Africa in 1970, a prep school that has passed its prime. Its facilities are crumbling and its senior staff are plagued by such illnesses as spinal cancer and vision problems. A metaphor for the British Empire perhaps, or white rule under apartheid? The central character is the slightly effete Jonathon Balton (Euan Morton), who graduated from and now teaches at Blenheim and is faculty sponsor of weekly film screenings for the boys. Jonathon's closest friends since childhood as well as faculty colleagues are Terry Sinclair (David Barlow) and his wife Nan (Mandy Siegfried). When Terry invites a black speaker to a school event, he precipitates a crisis that puts his and his wife's careers in jeopardy. Other characters include headmaster Neville Sutter (Gerry Bamman), reactionary faculty member Hamish Fox (Richmond Hoxie) and Jonathon's manipulative mother (Roberta Maxwell), who uses her pursestrings to advance her son's career. Jonathon is reluctantly pushed into the spotlight where his mettle is put to the test. He has a long, dramatic monologue near play's end that, to me, did not ring true. The three actors playing the younger generation of teachers did not seem fully up to the task, particularly Siegfried, who seemed a bit wooden. The fact that Jonathan Silverstein's direction leaves her standing like a tree throughout a few speeches did not help. Steven C. Kemp's efficient tripartite set is complemented by a symbolic backdrop of African textile designs peeking through a flaking Union Jack. Jennifer Paar's costumes seemed appropriate. It was good to get a look at Baitz's early work, even in this less than ideal production. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Philip Goes Forth **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The Mint Theater Company’s noble mission to reclaim neglected plays occasionally turns up treasure, but more often than not proves how rare neglected masterpieces are. Their current offering is a tepid 1931 play by George Kelly, who had a few successes in the 20’s including a Pulitzer Prize for Craig’s Wife. 23-year-old Philip (Bernardo Cubria), the only son of widowed businessman Mr. Eldridge (Cliff Bennis), decides he wants out of the family business to move to New York to become a playwright. His romantic involvement with Cynthia (Natalie Kuhn), daughter of flamboyant family friend Mrs. Oliver (Carole Healey), seems to have ended for reasons unknown. His well-meaning aunt Mrs. Randolph (Christine Toy Johnson) tries to mediate between father and son. Her all-white drawing room, setting for Act One, looks right out of a Fred and Ginger movie. Philip moves to New York to a boarding house for artistic types run by former actress Mrs. Ferris (Kathryn Kates). Her drawing room is a riot of bilious color and pattern. The other residents include Mr. Shronk (Teddy Bergman), Philip’s former college roommate who has encouraged him to take up playwriting, Miss Krail (Rachel Moulton), an ethereal poetic soul who seems to belong to a different play, and Haines (Brian Keith MacDonald), an unsuccessful musician. Whether Philip really has the talent or true desire to become a playwright is a central issue. The acting ranges from overly broad (Cubria) to adept (Kates). Steven C. Kemp’s set design certainly commands our attention. Some of Carissa Kelly’s costumes are outlandishly distracting. Jerry Ruiz’s direction is slack. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Arguendo **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Elevator Repair Service, the innovative group that brought theatrical versions of The Great Gatsby (Gatz) and The Sun Also Rises (The Select) to the Public Theater, has headed off in a new direction with Arguendo. The underlying text this time is not a work of fiction, but the transcript of oral arguments from a 1991 Supreme Court case dealing with go-go dancers in Indiana. The issue under consideration is whether requiring them to wear pasties and G-strings violates their First Amendment rights. The talented cast of five (Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol and Ben Williams) portray all nine justices, the opposing attorneys, a clerk, several reporters and an exotic dancer. The proceedings begin conventionally enough. Actors move their chairs and change their voices as they portray different justices. At a certain point they roll down ramps from their elevated platform and move around the stage to confront each attorney. The backdrop is an animated projection of legal texts that behave as it they have a life of their own, at times wildly spinning at dizzying speeds. As the case progresses, the action grows ever more surrealistic, even as the actors stick to the transcript. There’s nudity, but I guarantee that you will not find it arousing. The activity becomes so frenetic that the decision itself almost gets lost in the shuffle. There is an odd final section with Justices Ginsburg and Rehnquist comparing notes on their sartorial choices. I compliment the group for the originality of their concept. It’s clever and sometimes amusing, but, to me at least, ultimately pointless. The audience greeted it with great enthusiasm. John Collins directed. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.

Women or Nothing **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Whether or not you will enjoy Ethan Coen's new comedy for the Atlantic Theater Company depends largely on how much disbelief you are willing to suspend for some snappy dialogue and a few laughs. For me, accepting the premise of a pair of affluent sophisticated lesbians hatching a lame plot to trick a man into supplying the sperm for the child they want was too much of a stretch. Their plan makes little sense and is divorced from anything remotely resembling reality. On the plus side, the four actors (Halley Feiffer, Susan Pourfar, Robert Beitzel and Deborah Rush) play well together and two of the four scenes work quite well. Unfortunately, the final scene is a letdown. David Cromer's direction gets the most out of the script. Michele Spadaro's lavish set design of a Manhattan apartment incorporates a strange mixture of styles. Sarah Laux's costumes are apt. The play shows progress over Coen's recent one-act efforts, but still lacks the off-kilter inventiveness of a Coen screenplay. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes including intermission. NOTE: Avoid Row B at Atlantic's Linda Gross Theater -- there is no rake between Rows A and B and the seats are not staggered.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

stop. reset. *

I wish playwright/director Regina Taylor had taken the advice of her title. As it is, her play makes a strong case for a playwright not directing her own work. Another pair of eyes and ears might have turned this shapeless mess into something more coherent or, better still, persuaded her that it was not ready for the stage. It starts out as an office drama about which of four cardboard stereotypes, an Asian woman (Michi Barall), an older black woman (Latanya Richardson Jackson), a white man (Donald Sage Mackay) and a younger black man (Teagle F. Bougere) will be laid off by their boss (Carl Lumbly) as the black publishing house he heads seems doomed for failure by the digital age. Then it veers off into science fiction when the janitor (Ismael Cruz Cordova) turns out to be an avatar from the future. Got that? I am always suspicious when a play longer than 90 minutes is performed without intermission, suggesting the fear that the audience might not return after intermission. In this case, the fear was well-founded. Neil Patel's set is fine, but Shawn Sagady's projections of quotations, definitions and what-not were a distraction. Maybe that was the intent. I'm not sure what statement costume designer Karen Perry was making by giving one the characters shoes with individual toes. Finally, I think is was presumptuous for Taylor to give herself first billing in the "Who's Who in the Cast." While iconic playwrights like August Wilson and Horton Foote might deserve that honor, Taylor is clearly not in their league. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Recommendation ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Jonathan Caren's modern moral tale, first produced at the Old Globe in San Diego, takes on big themes, such as race, class, envy, friendship, loyalty, trustworthiness and ingratitude. The play, now at The Flea's tiny downstairs theater, is narrated by Iskinder Iudoku (James Fouhey), who, with his half-Ethiopian half-Caucasian parentage, doesn't know quite where he belongs. In his freshman year at Brown, his roommate is Aaron Feldman (Austin Trow), wealthy, popular, privileged, self-absorbed, whose sense of entitlement is boundless. He takes Iskinder under his wing, gives him a taste of the good life, and gets his father to write Iskinder a recommendation for law school. They both end up in LA, Iskinder at a white-shoe law firm and Aaron as a filmmaker's assistant. When Aaron is stopped by the police for a broken taillight, he is arrested on an outstanding warrant and thrown in jail where he meets Dwight Barnes (Barron B. Bass), a fast-talking second offender who offers Aaron protection in jail in return for his promise of legal assistance. Five years later, against Aaron's wishes, Iskinder has written an appeal that wins Dwight's release from prison. Iskinder's letter of recommendation helps Dwight land a job at Aaron's health club, where there is a final melodramatic confrontation. The play is flawed, especially in the over-formulaic second act, but it is ambitious, energetic and very well-performed. Caile Hevner Kemp's extremely simple set makes good use of the wide, shallow stage. Sydney Maresca's costumes are apt. Kel Haney's direction is fine. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes including intermission. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fetch Clay, Make Man ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Intrigued by a photograph he ran across 8 years ago showing Stepin Fetchit next to Muhammad Ali at the press conference preceding Ali's 1965 rematch with Sonny Liston, playwright Will Power began to research what might have brought such an unlikely pair together. In this ambitious comic drama, now in a first-rate production at New York Theatre Workshop, Power imagines the story behind the picture. Without giving too much away, let me just say that both men, Fetchit (K. Todd Freeman), the actor reviled for making a career out of playing a submissive Negro and Ali (Ray Fisher), the boxer reviled for being a braggart and a Black Muslim, think they have something to gain from their time together. Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks), Ali's tightly-wound bodyguard, is determined to prevent anything from tarnishing Ali as the poster boy for the Nation of Islam. The resistance of Ali's beautiful wife Sonji (Nikki M. James) to following the harsh strictures on Muslim women is such a threat. Another imminent threat is the possibility that supporters of the recently assassinated Malcolm X might target Ali. The scenes that take place the week before the fight are intertwined with flashbacks to moments in Fetchit's Hollywood years and his relations with William Fox (Richard Masur), head of Fox Films. This  does not always work to the play's advantage. Nevertheless, I am not going to quibble about a play that has so much energy, such a fine cast and an absolutely superb production. Ricardo Hernandez's elegantly simple set, Paul Tazewell's costumes, Howell Binkley's lighting, Peter Nigrini's projections, and Des McAnuff's smooth direction are all exemplary. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission. NOTE: I strongly urge to to take a look at NYTW's online resource "The Brief" [] for valuable background information before you see the play.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Breakfast with Mugabe ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Fraser Grace's thought-provoking drama, first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006, has finally reached Manhattan via Centenary College in New Jersey, where the present production originated a few years back.  It was worth the wait. At the center of the play are Robert Mugabe (Michael Rogers), strongman of Zimbabwe since 1980, and Andrew Peric (Ezra Barnes), a fictive white psychiatrist engaged to treat him in the Fall of 2001 when he was plagued by an ngozi, the malevolent spirit of someone who died violently. Peric, a native Rhodesian/Zimbabwean, has a small tobacco farm overseen by his black African wife while he attends to patients in the capital. We also meet Grace (Rosalyn Coleman), Mugabe's attractive second wife, 40 years his junior, and Gabriel (Che Ayende), Mugabe's bodyguard, who have their own agendas. The therapy sessions are not just a sparring match between patient and therapist, but a microcosm of the struggle between the races and a displaced battleground for settling colonial scores. One justifiably fears for Peric's safety. The penultimate scene is a rousing campaign speech by Mugabe during the 2002 campaign. Powerful though it is, it seemed an intrusion in the flow of events. However, it does set up the touching scene that closes the play. The actors are all excellent, as is David Shukhoff's direction. Lee Savage's set design and Teresa Snider-Stein's costumes are effective. A Two Planks production at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission. NOTE: I suggest arriving a few minutes early to have time to read the helpful glossary inserted in the program.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Old Friends ***

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Horton Foote, Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of small-town American life as lived in Harrison, TX, worked on this play off and on for over 40 years, but apparently was still not completely satisfied with it when he died in 2009. Signature Theatre is now presenting its world premiere. In Foote Country, we are never far from family rivalries, greed, the lust for power, and in this instance, the nearest liquor bottle. Borden family matriarch Mamie (Lois Smith) is forced to live with her wealthy but greedy, unhappily married daughter Julia (Veanne Cox) and Julia’s rotund alcoholic husband Albert (Adam LeFevre) who makes no attempt to disguise his hatred of his mother-in-law. Their old friend Gertrude, a monstrously greedy, needy lush (Betty Buckley), is filled with unrequited love for her business manager Howard (Cotter Smith), younger brother of her late husband. Mamie’s long-absent daughter-in-law Sybil (Hallie Foote) returns to the family with news of her husband Hugo’s untimely demise. 30 year ago, she broke off her engagement to Howard and married Hugo out of spite. Gertrude regards Sybil’s return as a threat and acts accordingly. The equilibrium is further upset by the arrival in town of Tom (Sean Lyons), a good-looking young man on the make, who ignites a rivalry between Gertrude and Julia. For most of the play, Julia, Albert and Gertrude are drunk. The play’s imperfections include too many over-the-top emotions and a weak narrative arc. Nevertheless, Foote created a gallery of vivid characters superbly portrayed by a stellar cast. Novella Nelson and Melle Powers have little to do in roles as maids. Jeff Cowie’s set design and David C. Woolard’s costumes are excellent. Michael Wilson directs with the sure hand he always brings to a Foote play. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

A reminder about ratings: I use a scale from 0 to 5 stars. 0 = Dreadful. * = Poor. ** = Fair.
*** = Good. **** = Very Good. ***** = Outstanding.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play **

Your reaction to Anne Washburn’s innovative play, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, may hinge on whether you are an avid fan of the animated TV series The Simpsons. Your familiarity with the characters will give you a head start in appreciating the plot. Washburn uses this popular cartoon series to show the important role pop culture plays in binding our society together. Much of the action focuses on an episode from the series’s fifth season called “Cape Feare,” a spoof of the twice-made Hollywood thriller. During the first act, survivors of a recent nuclear disaster sit around a campfire and pass the time by remembering lines from the show. In the second act, set seven years later, rival bands of roving performers survive by reenacting episodes from TV shows, complete with commercials. In the third act, set 75 years later, we see a stylized version of the “Cape Feare” episode in music and verse, presented as an inspirational pageant. The play was commissioned by The Civilians, a self-styled center for investigative theater; most of the cast (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer R. Morris, Colleen Worthmann, Sam Breslin Wright) are associate artists of the group and director Steve Cosson is their artistic director. The play is enlivened by Michael Friedman’s music and Sam Pinkleton’s choreography. Neil Patel’s sets and Emily Rebholz’s costumes hit the mark. There is a terrific two-part theatrical effect at play’s end. I wish the first two acts were tightened up a bit: it’s a long slog to intermission and a smattering of people did not return. The final act ties many loose ends together, but it’s a long wait to get there. In case you were wondering, Mr. Burns is the name of Homer Simpson’s boss, the owner of the nuclear power plant responsible for the disaster. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including intermission.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Old Jews Telling Jokes ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
If laughter is indeed the best medicine, this comedy revue, which has been running at the Westside Theatre for over a year but is closing next month, will give you a generous dose. At a trim 70 minutes, it's longer than an hour of therapy, much cheaper (especially on TDF), and much more entertaining. The title is a bit misleading -- two of the actors are young and I doubt they are all Jewish -- but who cares? Many of the jokes are old chestnuts, but the affable cast (original cast members Marilyn Sokol and Todd Susman, plus replacements Dara Cameron, Chuck Rea and Steve Vinovich and pianist Jeremy Cohen) deliver them as if they were newly minted. A surprisingly high percentage of them are very funny. The jokes are arranged around various themes and presented at a rapid pace. David Gallo's minimalist set includes an upholstered sectional which, of course, has transparent plastic covers. The videos are stylishly clever. As a bonus, we get a clip of Alan King performing. I feared it would become monotonous, but it moves along so briskly thanks to director Marc Bruni, that I was sorry when it was over.  Alejo Vietti's costumes are a hoot. Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent are credited as the "conceivers."

Sunday, August 18, 2013

rogerandtom ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
If you are looking for something a bit different, head to HERE in SoHo for Personal Space Theatrics' revival of Julien Schwab's Pirandellian comedy. First off, the clever set design by David Esler will grab your attention: a typical urban apartment suggested by room outlines taped to the floor with a few furnishings including a sofa, a toilet and sink, a miniature bed and taut horizontal wires to indicate each room's corners. The apartment is occupied by Penny (Suzy Jane Hunt), whose soon-to-be ex-husband Richard (Richard Thieriot) is in the process of moving out. Suzy is awaiting the arrival of her brother Roger (Eric T. Miller), who is due shortly to join her for the opening night of a play by their brother Tom, from whom he has long been estranged. Instead, Richard arrives with one last box to pack up. When Penny calls Roger to find out why he is late, a cellphone goes off in the audience. The phone belongs to Roger, whom Richard (or William if you prefer -- the name of the actor allegedly playing Richard) badgers to come up onstage and join the play. Thus, the fun begins. Roger says he has no sister. Penny claims to be unaware that she is an actress in a play. And so it goes for 65 minutes. I will confess that for me, the inventiveness got a bit stale before the play ended. I think it would be better as a 30-minute one-acter. Nevertheless, the actors are uniformly excellent, the direction by Nicholas Cotz is assured, and the attempt to stray from the tried-and-true was refreshing.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Harbor **

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In this Primary Stages production at 59E59, the harbor is Sag Harbor, where architect Ted (Paul Anthony Stewart) and his somewhat younger husband Kevin (Randy Harrison), a would-be writer, live a seemingly idyllic, unencumbered life. This idyl is punctured by the unexpected arrival in a live-in van of Kevin's long-absent sister Donna (Erin Cummings), a single mother who fancies herself a singer, and her preternaturally wise 15-year-old daughter Lottie (Alexis Molnar), who has a taste for Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. Early on, Ted has a terrific rant about his hatred of young children and mothers who display an undeserved sense of entitlement. His feelings do not deter Donna from her mission of manipulating her brother into persuading Ted that they should raise her forthcoming child so she can go off and get a job singing on a cruise ship. (The fact that she claims it is too late for an abortion when she is not even showing the slightest baby bump perplexed me.) Their one-night visit turns into a few months. When Ted learns of Donna's plan and Kevin's reluctance to turn her down, he and Kevin have a gripping conversation that lays bare Ted's true perception of Kevin and of the underlying nature of their relationship. A new equilibrium emerges. The play touches on many interesting topics, such as peer pressure on gay couples to parent, the fragility of equilibrium in a relationship, and the dangers of a life based on illusion. Unfortunately, the tone is wildly uneven: playwright Chad Beguelin seems uncertain whether he is writing a sitcom, a soap opera or a serious drama. When the snappy one-liners recede and the tone turns more serious in the second act, it is a bit unsettling. The actors acquit themselves honorably with the sometimes unconvincing dialogue. Andrew Jackness's scenic design cleverly has the living room walls covered in a faint pastel representation of the house's exterior, but the furnishings looked a bit sparse for this couple. Candice Donnelly's costumes are apt. Director Mark Lamos keeps things moving briskly. (Something strange happened about 10 minutes into the play. An amplified voice instructed the actors to stop while they traced the source of a hearing aid that was creating interference. After a few minutes, the play resumed with the actors repeating most of one scene. It was an unfortunate intrusion). Running time: 2 hours, including intermission.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Choir Boy **

I wish I had not read the glowing reviews of Tarell Alvin McCraney's drama with music at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II, because they set me up for disappointment. The a cappella singing of the actors portraying members of the gospel choir and the headmaster of an elite black prep school is gorgeous, but the drama into which the music is blended could use deeper character development and fewer subplots. Jeremy Pope is strong as the effeminate student choir leader who is as much bully as victim. Nicholas L. Ashe, Kyle Beltran, Grantham Coleman and John Stewart are all fine as the other students. Charles E. Wallace is admirable as the headmaster and Austin Pendleton is believable as the retired historian brought in to hone the boys' intellect (a la "History Boys"). The plot is often contrived and predictable. Jason Michael Webb made the fine vocal arrangements. David Zinn's set and costumes are excellent and Trip Cullman's direction is smooth. I might have enjoyed it more had I been expecting less. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

First Date ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
This new musical at the Longacre Theatre takes us through a blind date between Aaron (Zachary Levi of TV's "Chuck"), an uptight, awkward Jewish financial analyst, and Casey (Krysta Rodriguez of TV's "Smash"), a Gentile free spirit with commitment issues and a taste for bad boys. The clever gimmick is that we also get to meet all the significant people in their lives who supply a ton of emotional baggage for the encounter. A versatile ensemble of five (Bryce Ryness, Kristoffer Cusick, Blake Hammond, Sara Chase and Kate Loprest) portray the waiter, Aaron's best friend, mother, grandmother, future son and ex-fiancee as well as Casey's sister, father, ex-boyfriends, therapist and gay best friend. The music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, who have written for Disney, is merely serviceable, but the book by Austin Winsberg has many flashes of wit. It helps a lot that Levi and Rodriguez are such appealing performers with good chemistry. David Gallo's set is not very attractive but functional. David C. Woolard's costumes are appropriate for the characters. Bill Berry's direction is unobtrusive. The theater was full and the mostly young audience was wildly enthusiastic. Good word of mouth may trump the critics here. I enjoyed it a lot more than "Nobody Loves You," which the Times made a Critic's Pick. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Murder for Two **

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So soon after being disappointed by Murder Ballad, I was not looking forward to seeing another off-Broadway murder musical  This new show at Second Stage Uptown with music by Joe Kinosian, lyrics by Kellen Blair and a book by both, however, bears no resemblance to that overheated drama. It is more like an extended vaudeville act for two than a murder mystery whose solution is of primary importance. (If you remember who did it five minutes after the show ends, you're better than I am.) Fortunately, the two actors are the multi-talented Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback. These two energetic performers act, sing, dance and play a mean piano, both separately and together. Ryback plays Marcus, a young police officer out to make detective by solving the murder of a famous novelist. The rubber-faced Blumenkrantz plays all the suspects, who include the victim's wife, his mistress, his niece, an unscrupulous psychiatrist and members of a boys choir. The proceedings too often rely on frenetic activity rather than wit. There is less music than I would have expected. Beowulf Boritt's clever set promises more than the play delivers. Scott Schwartz's direction keeps up a lively pace. It's not a terrible way to spend a summer evening, but it's not as much fun as I hoped for. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Serious Money *** and The Castle **

(Please click on the title to see the complete reviews.)
PTP/NYC [Potomac Theatre Project], back in town for their annual summer repertory season at Atlantic Stage 2, is presenting two ensemble works by living British playwrights. By far the better known of the two, at least on this side of the pond, is Caryl Churchill, whose 1987 satire in verse about greed in the financial markets is a delectable treat that has not lost its relevance. This lively and energetic production with a cast of 17 never gets bogged down in the arcane details of financial trading that drive the action. Director Cheryl Faraone's direction is assured. No choreographer or movement consultant is credited, but the blocking of the group scenes is very effective. Hallie Zieselman's witty set includes chandeliers that are inverted pyramids of champagne bottles. The costumes by Jule Emerson and Krista Duke are a delight. At times the author seemed to be trying too hard to cover the subject comprehensively, which made the evening a bit long, but nonetheless enjoyable. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes including intermission.

Although he has written over 50 plays, Howard Barker's name was new to me. He calls his work the "theater of catastrophe." The Castle is set in 12th century England when a Crusader returns home to find that the women have wrought many changes in his absence. The lord attempts to reestablish order by building a large castle. There are too many themes such as arms proliferation, church-state relations, the nature of God, relations between the sexes that are touched upon but not fully developed. I applaud the playwright for his Shakespearean ambition, but found the execution wanting. This production's number one attraction is that it provides a juicy role for Jan Maxwell, whose presence on a stage is always a treat. Jon Crane's simple set makes heavy use of draped cloth. Jule Emerson's costumes help establish the setting. Richard Romagnoli directed. A recent article quotes the author as saying: "A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I'm not interested in entertainment." To which I would add: "Goal achieved." Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Nobody Loves You **

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As I have found much to admire in Itamar Moses's past work (Bach at Leipzig, The Four of Us, Completeness), I was looking forward to the current show now in previews at Second Stage. This musical send-up of the "reality" television show for which the play is named has a book by Moses, music by Gaby Alter and lyrics by both. The production is blessed with a talented, energetic cast that is impossible not to like. Unfortunately, the performances are better than the material. The satire is bland and the music is instantly forgettable. The book has occasional flashes of wit, but they are too few. Heath Calvert is marvelous as the reality show's vapid MC. Leslie Kritzer and Rory O'Malley are triple threats with three distinctive roles each. O'Malley is especially hilarious as a flamboyantly gay fan, a Lothario and a nerd. Bryan Fenkart and Aleque Reid are respectable as the lead couple. Roe Hartrampf, Autumn Hurlbert and Lauren Molina all shine as the other contestants. I only wish that they had more to work with. Mark Wendland's set is simple but effective. Jessica Pabst's costumes are terrific. Michelle Tattenbaum's direction keeps things moving briskly. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Designated Mourner ***

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The Public Theater has revived Wallace Shawn's 1996 play with the original cast of the 2000 New York production -- the playwright as Jack, the title character; Deborah Eisenberg (in real life, Shawn's life partner and accomplished author) as his wife Judy, and Larry Pine as her father Howard, a poet. The play takes place in an unnamed country with an oppressive regime battling a proletarian underground, with collateral damage to the intelligentsia. Howard has a devoted clique who share his contempt for everyone outside their circle. Howard and Judy's leftist leanings eventually lead them both to grief. When things get rough, the apolitical Jack abandons them and undergoes a series of inner crises that lead to his increasing alienation from reality. The play is basically a set of interlocking monologues, with occasional snippets of conversation and virtually no onstage action. To be honest, there was a point about 45 minutes into the play when I wondered how I could make it to intermission (at the 1 hour, 40 minute mark), let alone to play's end. But then, I became more engrossed in it and stayed. I am glad I did because the best scenes are in the second act. Shawn's vivid writing ranges from the poetic to the grotesque. His performance is gripping. Eisenberg grew on me as the evening progressed. Pine, in the smallest role, seemed bland and devoid of charisma. Andre Gregory's direction is, as one would expect, assured, but he made some quirky choices, such as having the audio technician install the actors' mikes after they arrived onstage and placing a glaringly bright fluorescent light on the front edge of the stage for the second act. The minimalist set was effective and the sound design was excellent. I would credit those responsible, but, for reasons unknown, the theater did not give out programs. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Cornelius **

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This Finborough Theatre production of J.B. Priestly's virtually forgotten 1935 play now at 59E59 in their Brits Off Broadway series received uniformly glowing reviews in London and a rave from the New York Times. This story of a small aluminium importing firm struggling unsuccessfully to stay afloat during the Depression revolves around partner James Cornelius (Alan Cox), who puts on a brave face to keep up the morale of his staff and fend off the creditors until his partner Robert Murrison (Jamie Newall) returns from an extended business trip that is the firm's last hope for survival. Longtime bookkeeper Biddle (the excellent Col Farrell) is a man who loves his work and manages to maintain a positive view of life. Secretary Miss Porrin (Pandora Colin) is an embittered spinster with an unrequited love for Cornelius. Lawrence (David Ellis) is frustrated by his dead-end five-year stint as office boy. Judy Evison (the lovely Emily Barber), a feisty typist filling in temporarily for her sister, elicits Miss Porrin's hatred and strikes a long-dormant chord in Cornelius. Vendors with increasing degrees of desperation visit the office to peddle their wares. Murrison returns from his trip half-crazed and broken. When the play concentrates on how different people deal with adversity, it is on solid ground. Unfortunately, it too often resorts to workplace cliches and, near the end, a very unlikely coincidence. I did not find Cornelius, at least as played by Cox, a convincing character; his various traits did not cohere. It was a pleasure to see an fine ensemble of 12 sharing the stage, but the play ultimately lacked bite. David Woodhead's set and costumes are excellent. Sam Yates's direction is assured. To call Cornelius a forgotten masterpiece would be a gross exaggeration. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, including intermission.

1. Change in Rating System. 2. A Second Chance

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1. I have changed my rating system from a zero-to-one-star system to a zero-to-five-star system to give a more nuanced idea of my response to a play. Under the new system,
***** = Excellent
**** = Very Good
*** = Good
** =  Fair
* = Poor
0 = Horrible

I have applied the new ratings to all reviews since January 1, 2012 and will work my way further back as time permits. I hope the new ratings will be more helpful to readers.

2. Three plays that I reviewed positively are returning:

Buyer and Cellar has opened at Barrow Street Theater.
Bad Jews will open at the Laura Pels in September.
A Christmas Story: The Musical will open at the Theater at Madison Square Garden for a limited run in December.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin *

It is admirable that Roundabout Theatre Company is trying to encourage young talent by giving playwrights who have had a success in their Underground space a chance to move upstairs to the Laura Pels. On the basis of his 2008 play "The Language of Trees," Roundabout has given that chance to Steven Levenson. Unfortunately, at least to me, his new work did not seem ready for prime time. Tom Durnin (David Morse) has just finished a five-year sentence for perpetrating a Ponzi scheme that wiped out the fortunes of his family and friends. His adult son James (Christopher Denham), who was forced to drop out of Yale when the money vanished, has been particularly traumatized, to the point that he become an emotional cipher. Tom bullies his son into letting him sleep on his couch for a month and blackmails his son-in-law Chris (Rich Sommer of "Mad Men") into putting him in contact with wife Karen (Lisa Emery). James cautiously begins a relationship with Katie (Sarah Goldberg), a woman he meets in writing class. The premise is intriguing, but the play mostly spins its wheels aimlessly. The tone moves uneasily between comedy (such as the wretched writing samples we are forced to hear) to drama that mostly fizzles. The character of Katie is so annoyingly vapid that I cringed whenever she appeared. The always interesting Morse mostly underplays the part of a manipulative liar. The usually fine Emery does not get much opportunity to shine. Sommer's character verges on the cartoonish. Denham was convincing as someone with crippling depression. Beowulf Boritt's revolving set concentrates too much of the action on the right half of the stage. Jeff Mahsie's costumes did not call attention to themselves. Scott Ellis directed. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Somewhere Fun *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
I am sorry to report that Jenny Schwartz's surrealist comedy now at the Vineyard Theatre is not on the level of her well-regarded "God's Ear" of a few years back. After a promising, delightful first act, it goes off the rails and spins its wheels for two more acts. Although it's always a pleasure to see Kathleen Chalfant (despite the fact her role here not so cleverly recalls her part in "Wit"), the biggest treat here is Kate Mulgrew, who has a brilliant monologue (dialogue if you count the few words her friend is able to get in) before her character melts into a puddle on the street. Chalfant plays Evelyn Armstrong, who is dying of anal cancer. Mulgrew is Rosemary Rappaport, a long-lost friend she runs into on Madison Avenue. Rosemary' estranged son Benjamin (Greg Keller, recently of "Belleville") was a childhood friend of Evelyn's daughter Beatrice (Brooke Bloom), who lost her face to a Dalmatian. Rosemary's real estate client Cecilia (Mary Shulz) is a widow looking for love on the internet. Richard Bekins is T, Evelyn's emotionally distant husband. Maria Elena Ramirez is Lolita, her health care aide. Griffin Birney and Makenna Ballard appear as the young Benjamin and Bernice. Schwartz's clever word play grew tedious after a while. I would have left happy if the play ended after the first act, but my good feelings had evaporated long before the play finally ended. Marsha Ginsberg's set is simple and uncluttered and Jessica Pabst's costumes are fine. I don't know what more director Anne Kauffman could have done to whip the play into a coherent whole. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including two short intermissions.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Kid Like Jake ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
As the recipient of the prestigious Laurents-Hatcher prize for 2013, Daniel Pearle's new play arrives at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater with expectations high. By and large, these expectations have been met and its worthiness for an award is clear. This tale of a Manhattan couple, probably Upper West Siders, struggling through the process of getting their only child into a prestigious private school has a twist: Little Jake, whom we never meet, is obsessed with Cinderella and likes to dress up like a girl. Jake's mom Alex (Carla Gugino), who abandoned a career in dance for the law and then for full-time motherhood, is still emotionally fragile after a recent miscarriage. Her husband Greg (Peter Grosz) is a laid-back psychotherapist. They are not sure whether Jake's predilection for "gender-variant" play, with which they seem mostly comfortable, is an obstacle to admission or, as their counselor/friend Judy (Caroline Aaron) suggests, a selling point for a school to achieve diversity. The application process with its essays, testing, visits, interviews and strategizing places their marriage under tremendous pressure that eventually opens fissures that release a painful outpouring of raw emotion. The three lead actors are superb and the buildup to their catharsis is gripping. I have qualms about the penultimate scene with Alex and a nurse (Michelle Beck), but my reaction to the play as a whole is overwhelmingly positive. Andromache Chalfant's flexible set serves well as several locales. Jessica Wegener Shay's costumes do not call attention to themselves. Evan Cabnet's direction is assured. Running time: one hour, 45 minutes, no intermission. Note: I am told that the entire run is sold out, but watch for a possible extension. Incidentally, LCT3's marketing plan finally seems to be paying off -- the audience had a substantially higher percentage of young people than usual.

The Silver Cord *

Peccadillo Theater Company specializes in reviving classic American plays. Some years back, I attended their fine production of Elmer Rice’s Counsellor-at-Law, which went on to win awards for best revival and best direction. Thus I was eager to see their current offering, Sidney Howard’s “Freudian melodrama,” which was a Broadway hit in the 1926-27 season and was later adapted for film. The fact that Peccadillo had already revived it once, 18 years ago, piqued my curiosity even more. Howard wrote this play the year after he won the Pulitzer for They Knew What They Wanted (later musicalized as The Most Happy Fella). Alas, the years have not been kind to The Silver Cord. This tale of a pathologically overprotective, manipulative mother may have seemed fresh, original and even shocking almost 80 years ago, but now seems tired, overheated and unintentionally funny. When I discovered that Mrs. Phelps would be played by a man, Dale Carman, I worried that might lead to campiness. On the contrary, Carman gives a subdued performance, which may have been the wrong way to go. The level of performance of the cast, which includes Thomas Matthew Kelley as David, the elder son, Victoria Mack as Christina, his feminist wife, Wilson Bridges as wimpy younger brother Robert and Caroline Kaplan as his flapper fiancee, is disappointing, but it would be unkind to be too hard on any actors forced to mouth such ludicrous dialog. Harry Feiner’s set, Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costumes and Gerard James Kelly’s wigs are fine. I cannot imagine what prompted artistic director Dan Wackerman to revive and helm this chestnut a second time. If nothing else, it proves that not every play a Pulitzer-winner writes will be a gem. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Venice **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
After productions in Kansas City and Los Angeles, this hip-hop musical “inspired by” Othello has arrived at the Public Theater. Shakespeare’s plot has been so substantially reworked that you would do well to forget that connection. Shakespeare did not give us a dystopian society, chemical warfare, government by corporation enforced by mercenaries, revolution, half-brothers, a Lady Gaga-type singer or a bomb at a public occasion (too soon after Boston, in my opinion). The book by Eric Rosen, who also directed, is cluttered and overcomplicated. The music is by Matt Sax, who collaborated with Rosen on the lyrics. There is also a frustratingly vague credit for additional music by Curtis Moore. Sax, who appears as the play’s MC, bears an uncanny resemblance to Lin Manuel Miranda. So do his lyrics (maybe all hip-hop just sounds alike to my uneducated ear.) The cast is generally strong. For me the standouts were Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam on “Smash”) in the Iago-like role and Victoria Platt as Emilia, his wife. Haaz Sleiman (“Nurse Jackie”) and Jennifer Damiano (“Next to Normal”) are fine as the central couple, Venice and Willow. Jonathan-David (“A Civil War Christmas”) and Claybourne Elder (“One Arm”) make the most of their parts. While I found hip-hop appropriate for “In the Heights”, it seemed monotonous and alien here. Some of the musical numbers that break away from sing-song are quite moving, particularly a duet for Willow and Emilia in Act Two. The ending with the MC’s reminder that it’s just a play, followed by an upbeat song, struck a false note. Since this is a Lab production, the set and costumes, by Beowulf Boritt and Clint Ramos respectively, are simple but effective. The audience was wildly appreciative. I would not be surprised if it moves to an extended run at another venue. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes with intermission.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Explorers Club ***

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If you go to Nell Benjamin's new play now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, be sure to arrive a few minutes early so you will have time to savor Donyale Werle's spectacular set. Just seeing this recreation of a Victorian men's club in London with its dark paneling, oriental rugs, stuffed animals, animal heads, horns, tusks and pelts, shrunken heads, spears and swords is almost worth the price of admission. Another reason to see the show is a brilliant piece of stage business in the second act that elicits appreciative gasps from the audience each time it is repeated. A final plus is the superb ensemble cast giving their all to animate what is billed as a "madcap comedy." Carson Elrod, who was so good in All in the Timing recently, is wonderful as Luigi, the blue-painted native brought back from the Lost City by Phyllida Spot-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt), who would like to become the first woman in the Explorers Club. Lorenzo Pisoni, who usually plays a heartthrob, is cast against type as Lucius Fretway, a shy, clumsy botanist who yearns for Phyllida. David Furr is delightful as Harry Percy, the club's none-too-bright president, whose expeditions have an unusually high mortality rate. John McMartin is droll as a Professor of Bible Science whose hypothesis that the Irish are the lost tribes of Israel causes an international incident. A snafu when Luigi is presented to the Queen leads to a declaration of war. Act One gets a bit bogged down in exposition and seems more like satire than farce. Act two, however, rises to hilarity several times. I wish the humor had been more consistently maintained, but it would be churlish to dislike a play that is so amiable. Anita Yavich's costumes are excellent. Marc Bruni's direction is mostly smooth. Running time: one hour, 50 minutes with intermission.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

3 Kinds of Exile **

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John Guare's strange hodgepodge for the Atlantic Theater Company throws together three pieces loosely connected by the theme of exile. The first piece "Karel" is an extended anecdote about a man with a seemingly incurable rash, who, at the age of 12, had been sent to England with the Kindertransport and had remained there. Martin Moran tells the slight but interesting tale well.

The second piece "Elzbieta Erased" is a reworking of a one-act play Guare wrote for Atlantic's 25x10 series a few years ago about famous Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska. The author, playing himself, and charismatic actor Omar Sangare, portraying several characters including the actress, give us the highlights of her life -- a successful career in Poland, following by expulsion after her marriage to David Halberstam and her years in America, repeatedly dogged by bad luck. Her story is fascinating, but the telling is a bit too long.

If only there were an intermission at this point, one could escape "Funiage," a biographical sketch about absurdist novelist and playwright Witold Gombrowicz, who spent much of his adult life in Argentinian exile. Guare has chosen to emulate his subject's style with an absurdist approach incorporating Brechtian touches. It's hard to sit through. Against all odds, David Pittu as Gombrowicz acquits himself honorably. The rest of the ensemble shall remain nameless. Neil Pepe directed. The talent the playwright once exhibited with House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation and Lydie Breeze is not apparent here. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.