Thursday, February 28, 2013

Talley's Folly **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Roundabout Theatre's revival of Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an unlikely romance in small-town Missouri in 1944 is now in previews at the Laura Pels. The good news is that it much more successful than their recent revival of "Picnic." The not-so-good news is that the casting is less than ideal. If I had not seen the original production with Judd Hirsch as Matt Friedman, I might not have had as much difficulty accepting Danny Burstein in the part. Although I have admired Burstein in other plays, I thought he was miscast here. He seems too old, too unattractive, too given to shtick and too devoid of charm to be a plausible love interest for Sally Talley. Sarah Paulson also looked a bit old for her part, but handled the role well. Jeff Cowie's enormous set, so big that they had to remove two rows of seats to make room for it, calls too much attention to itself and subverts the intimacy of the play. David C. Woolard's costumes are fine.   Michael Wilson's direction lacked nuance. Nevertheless, even a flawed production of this fine play is welcome. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes without intermission.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Lying Lesson *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The publicity for Craig Lucas's new play at the Atlantic Theater bills it as a "comic thriller." Alas, it is neither amusing nor thrilling. This strange two-character play imagines an 1981 episode in which Bette Davis, in her early 70's, returns to a coastal Maine town where she had summered in her teens to buy a house and rekindle her acquaintance with her former heartthrob. Shortly after her arrival, she meets a young local woman who attempts to make herself indispensable. Carol Kane looks amazingly like Davis, especially in Ilona Somogyi's great costumes, but, when she opens her mouth, the illusion is shattered. I am sure there are still bars in Manhattan where any patron picked at random can do a more convincing Bette Davis. Mickey Sumner, lean and lanky, is convincing as the mysterious young woman, except when her down-East accent slips. The plot, such as it is, revolves around discovering her identity and motivation. Neil Patel seems off his stride with a set in drab shades of beige. Even director Pam MacKinnon, who did so well with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Clybourne Park,"can't make a silk purse out of this. Running time: two hours, ten minutes including intermission.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Flick (Act One) *

Annie Baker may be one of our most acclaimed young playwrights (and Sam Gold, one of the hottest young directors), but I must confess with some sadness that I don't "get" her work. I find her closely observed scenes of ordinary people doing everyday things boring and banal. I was astounded that "Circle Mirror Transformation" won an Obie and is among one of today's most frequently produced plays. Her new play at Playwrights Horizons chronicles the relationships of employees of a slightly seedy movie theater in small-town Massachusetts, likely soon to be a victim of the move to digital projection. Sam (Matthew Mayer), a man in his late 30's, is breaking in a new employee, Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), a depressed black 20-year-old. Rose (Louisa Krause), the green-haired, free-spirited projectionist, takes a shine to Avery. Alex Hanna plays a man who falls asleep in the theater. Perhaps he was destined for greater things in Act Two. I'll never know. After 90 minutes of watching Stan and Avery clean the theater numerous times and having the bright light of the projector repeatedly shined in the audience's eyes, I had had enough. The thought of returning after intermission for another 90 minutes of same was not appealing. I did enjoy seeing David Zinn's perfect recreation of a movie theater. I wish I could join the Annie Baker fan club, but clearly that is never going to happen. Running time: 3 hours, plus a 15 minute intermission.

From White Plains ****

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Hidden deep in the recesses of the Signature Center complex is the Studio, a cozy performing space available for rental by other groups. The current occupant is this production by the Fault Line Theatre, a group of alumni of the Brown University/Trinity Theatre drama program. Playwright/director Michael Perlman, in collaboration with the four actors, has written a timely drama about the long-term effects of bullying. Two straight 30-year-old buddies, Ethan (Aaron Rossini) and John (Craig Wesley Divino), are watching the Oscars and are shocked to hear Dennis (Karl Gregory), Oscar-winning screenwriter of an indie film about high school bullying name Ethan as the student whose relentless gay-baiting 15 years ago drove a fellow classmate to commit suicide years later. Ethan posts an apology on the internet, but it is rejected by Dennis, who becomes increasingly obsessed with conducting a vendetta against Ethan via an escalating exchange of internet videos. Ethan loses his girlfriend, his job and his self-confidence. He has to close his online accounts to stop the multitude of verbal attacks. Even best friend John is pulling away from him. Meanwhile Dennis's boyfriend Gregory (Jimmy King) becomes increasingly upset over Dennis's obsession with punishing Ethan as well as his seeming lack of commitment to their relationship. Dennis rejects Gregory's right to criticize him because Gregory has never come out to his parents. Dennis and Ethan agree to appear together on a tv talk show. Their conversation in the green room before the show provides the play's emotional climax. What I liked about the play, in addition to the fine acting, was the respect for complexity and nuance. As in life, no one is either blameless or all bad and no simple answers are provided. Tristan Jeffers's simple set works well and Jessica Wegener Shay's costumes are appropriate. Perlman's direction goes for the long pregnant pause a few times too many. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission. NOTE: If you use the code FWP5D, you will save $5 off the $34 ticket price.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cinderella ***

(Please click on the title to see the full review.)
Rodgers and Hammerstein's  TV musical written for Julie Andrews in 1957 has been subjected to much  tinkering over the years. None of its many versions made it to Broadway until now. Douglas Carter Beane has substantially rewritten the book, with uneven results. The king and queen are gone and there are several new characters including a wicked prime minister and a revolutionary. In this version, Cinderella has a social conscience. Another twist is that it is not at the ball that she loses her glass slipper. One of the stepsisters is not mean and gets a love interest. The best argument for this production is that it provides employment for such stalwarts as Harriet Harris, Victoria Clark and Peter Bartlett. Laura Osnes has the loveliness and vocal talent for the title role. Santino Fontana is dark and handsome, although not tall. His abundant charm makes up for his unremarkable voice. The score is not  one of their best, but does include enjoyable numbers like "Ten Minutes Ago," "Stepsisters' Lament." "A Lovely Night" and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful." Anna Louizos's scenic design is lavish. William Ivey Long's costumes are often garish. His unflattering high-necked jackets with tails for Fontana make him look short and squat. The fairy godmother has an unfortunate headpiece that looks like the antennae of an insect. Mark Brokaw's direction is assured. It adds up to a mildly pleasant evening, especially if you have a young daughter, niece or granddaughter in tow. Running time: two hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Old Hats *****

It has been 20 years since Bill Irwin and David Shiner brought their two-man show"Fool Moon" to Broadway. It was such a hit that it returned three years later and again three years after that. I hope that their new show "Old Hats." now in previews at Signature Theatre, will be equally successful. With the possible exception of "All in the Timing," you won't find as many laughs in any other New York theater today. Their hair may be a bit grayer and sparser, but these two talented mimes have not lost an iota of inventiveness or plasticity. The several skits they perform alone and together keep the laughs coming, almost without pause. Between skits and at intermission, the lovely composer/singer/pianist Nellie McKay leads a band of five in her catchy songs with wry lyrics. Individually, Irwin and Shiner are superb, but the sparks they create together make their joint skits even funnier. "A Magic Act," featuring Shiner as a slinky magician with a pomaded ponytail and Irwin in a blonde curly wig and high heels as his assistant, is by itself worth the price of admission. The two break their silence for a moment early in the second act with an amusing outcome. In a reprise from their earlier show, Shiner plays a silent film director shooting a scene from a cowboy movie with four "volunteers" from the audience with hilarious results. The clever projections by Wendall K. Harrington add to the fun. G.W. Mercier's scenic and costume designs are delightful. The lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski and the sound design by John Gromada contribute to the merriment. Tina Landau's direction keeps things lively. Get your ticket while you can or you'll miss out on two hours of delight.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Luck of the Irish **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Ownership of a house in a formerly all-white neighborhood is the focus of a play that takes place in two time frames -- the present and 50 years ago. That may sound like "Clybourne Park II," but it turns out to be something quite different. Playwright Kirsten Greenidge and director Rebecca Taichman, who had a solid success together with "Milk Like Sugar" at Playwrights Horizons in 2011 are teamed once again in this latest production of LCT3 at the Claire Tow Theater. Did lightning strike twice? Not quite. The new play lacks the clear focus and intensity of their earlier collaboration. Two sisters, the married Hannah (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and her single sister Nessa (Carra Patterson) have inherited the home which their recently deceased grandparents Rex (Victor Williams) and Lucy (Eisa Davis) Taylor purchased 50 years back. A young impoverished Irish Catholic couple Joe (Dashiell Eaves) and Patty Ann (Amanda Quaid) Donovan are enlisted as "ghost buyers" who, for a fee, are to make the purchase and then sign the title over to the Taylors. In what seemed to me an implausible development, the Taylors move into the home before the title has been signed over to them. Hannah and her laid-back husband Rich (Frank Harts) are now living in the house with their unseen son Miles, who has ADHD, and whose problems at school Hannah sees as racially based. She stubbornly wants to keep the house although her sister wants to sell it. Out of the blue, the elderly Mr. Donovan (now played by Robert Hogan) shows up to tell the sisters that the title was never signed over to their grandparents and his wife now wants the house. Eventually, his wife (now played by Jenny O'Hara) shows up, title in hand. I won't say more about the outcome. The first act is burdened with too much shouting -- parents shouting at misbehaving children, shouting spouses, shouting siblings. The dialog between shouts is often banal. However, this is one of the rare plays that improves in the second act. There is a lovely scene between Lucy and Joe and a powerful scene between Lucy and Patty Ann. The elderly Patty Ann has a fine speech near the end. Surprisingly, at least for me, the Donovans -- both the young and old versions -- came across as more sympathetic than any of the black characters. Lucy is an intriguing creation -- beautiful, refined, well-traveled, well-read and well-dressed (and superbly played by Davis), but is too much of a stereotype turned inside out. Joe, as portrayed by both Eaves and Hogan, had more humanity than all the others. There were a few things that puzzled me. Why does the playwright bring up the mysterious deal broker John, whom we never meet and whose existence seemed superfluous? Why have the sisters been raised by their grandparents? Mimi Lien, whose set for "Dance and the Railroad" I greatly admired, has created another attractive minimalist set. Oana Botez's costumes, especially for Lucy, are a treat. Taichman's direction is fluid and assured. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Dance and the Railroad ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Signature Theatre's has revived David Henry Hwang's 1981 play about two Chinese workers on the Transcontinental Railroad during the strike of 1867. Lone (Yuekun Wu) is a former student of Chinese opera, who has been forced by his family to abandon his studies to support them, He has become unpopular in the camp by remaining aloof from his countrymen and heading off to the mountain before and after work to practice his opera training routines. Ma (Ruy Iskander) is a naive young recent arrival who has an unrealistic view of the world. Ma begs Lone to teach him Chinese opera moves. Lone sorely tests his resolve. The two men share stories of how they left China. They improvise their own Chinese opera based on their personal experiences. The strike ends and they prepare to return to work. The play's major strength is not its narrative. The beauty of the men's graceful and evocative moves is what one is likely to remember. Wu makes a perfect Lone: his gravitas, his arrogance and his grace are all superbly captured. Iskander has the right moves and naivete for Ma, but unfortunately sounds more like a native of the Bronx than of China. Mimi Lien's stunningly simple abstract set is gorgeous, especially as lit by Jiyoun Chang. Huang Ruo's evocative music provides much pleasure and Jennifer Moeller's costumes are fine. Much credit is due Qian Yi for superb work as Chinese opera consultant. May Adrales direction is assured. While the play may not be a dramatic triumph, it is an aesthetic one. Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Madrid *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Alas, the curse that the theater gods apparently placed on Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I at City Center has not yet lifted. On paper "The Madrid" looked like a sure thing. With a cast led by Edie Falco and including Frances Sternhagen and Christopher Evan Welch; a playwright, Liz Flahive, with a previous MTC success and a strong track record writing for Falco on "Nurse Jackie;" and a first-rate director, Leigh Silverman, who helmed Flahive's previous MTC play, what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as  it turns out. Falco plays Martha, a teacher in a Chicago suburb who suddenly walks out on her family and job and starts a new life in a seedy downtown apartment named The Madrid. Her 20-year old daughter Sarah (Phoebe Strole) tries to find a connection with her. Her long-suffering husband John (John Ellison Conlee) copes by selling everything that reminds him of her. Their meddlesome, needy neighbor Becca (Heidi Schreck) and her slightly creepy husband Danny (Welch) try to help in counterproductive ways. Martha's mother Rose (the always fine Sternhagen) tries desperate measures to bring her daughter home. Becca and Danny's gangly 16-year-old son Dylan (Seth Clayton) provides a brief moment of comic relief. The trouble is that the proceedings offer so little to involve the viewer that, by the end of two long listless acts, I no longer cared why Martha left or whether she would return. David Zinn's multipurpose set is efficiently versatile and Emily Rebholz's costumes are fine. Silverman does her best with the hand she has been dealt. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Really Really **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review). 
MCC Theater is to be congratulated for bringing the work of a promising young playwright to New York. In this intriguing but ultimately frustrating drama now in previews at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 26-year-old playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo offers a blistering view of the Me Generation. The plot revolves around what actually happened at a drunken college party at the house of Cooper (David Hull), a slacker who is on the rugby team. Leigh (Zosia Mamet from "Girls"), a student whose boyfriend Jimmy (Evan Jonigkeit) is away for the weekend, claims she was raped at the party by Davis (Matt Lauria), a campus heartthrob who shares the house. He has no memory of what transpired. We question her claim because she has already lied about being pregnant to hang on to her wealthy boyfriend, she has a slutty reputation, and she sees her accusation as a way out of poverty. Also, Davis has a sterling reputation as a good guy. As the situation develops, we learn the responses of Davis's career-minded teammate Johnson (Kobi Libii), Leigh's cynical sister Haley (Aleque Reid) and her earnest roommate Grace (Lauren Culpepper). The relentlessly self-serving message of the speeches Grace gives as president of the Future Leaders of America is a counterpoint to the plot. By play's end, almost everyone has revealed a dark side that changes our perceptions. It's never boring, but a little too schematic. There is one puzzling plot development in the second act that makes no sense at all. The play is ill-served by David Korins' set design that involves frequent shoving of furniture back and forth and doesn't really capture the differences between the two student homes. Sarah Laux's costumes are suitable to each character. David Cromer's direction was not up to the high standard he set with "Our Town" and "Tribes." Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Upcoming Reviews for February

(Please click above to see the complete list.)

These are the shows that I plan to review this month:

Feb. 2    All in the Timing (Primary Stages)
Feb. 5    Really Really (MCC)
Feb. 10  The Madrid (Manhattan Theatre Club)
Feb. 12  The Dance and the Railroad (Signature)
Feb. 15  The Luck of the Irish (LCT3)
Feb. 17  Old Hats (Signature)
Feb. 20  Cinderella (Broadway)
Feb. 24  The Flick (Playwrights Horizons)
Feb. 26  The Lying Lesson (Atlantic)
Feb. 28  Talley's Folly (Roundabout)

I have heard that a few who have tried to send a comment were confused by the "Comment as" dialog box. If you have opened the full review, you should see a place to "Add Comment" at the bottom of the review. Type your comment in the box provided. Click to open the "Comment as" dialog box and select "Anonymous." This defies logic, but in no way prevents you from including your name in your comment. Then hit the "Publish" button and your comment should go through without difficulty. I hope this explanation will stimulate more comments.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

All in the Timing *****

It was with some apprehension that I attended a preview of Primary Stages' 20th anniversary revival of David Ives's early hit. I remembered these zany sketches so fondly that I feared I could not possibly enjoy them as much a second time. I need not have worried. Under John Rando's flawless direction, Ives's six playlets are fresh as ever. The excellent cast (Eric Clem, Carson Elrod, Jenn Harris, Liv Rooth and Matthew Saldivar) are up to the high standards set by the original actors. Beowulf Boritt's set and Anita Yavich's costumes add greatly to the fun. Ives' delightful wordplay and comic social observations stand the test of time. "Sure Thing" and "The Universal Language" remain my personal favorites, although "Words, Words, Words" and "Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" are not far behind. "The Philadelphia" is amusing, but runs on a bit too long. Only "Variations of the Death of Trotsky" disappointed, lacking the inventiveness of the other plays; unfortunately, it concludes the evening. Even the scene changes are amusing. If your funny bone needs a tickle, hurry to 59E59. You won't regret it. Running time: one hour, 45 minutes including intermission.