Sunday, March 31, 2013

Kinky Boots ****

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The industrial decline of Britain has been a promising topic for movies that were then turned into musicals. In 1997 we got "The Full Monty," in 2000 along came "Billy Elliot." In 2005 a lesser known film, "Kinky Boots," developed mainly as a vehicle for the talented Chiwetel Ejiofor, arrived on the screen. Despite a mixed reception from American critics, it became a cult film in some circles. Now, with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, a book by Harvey Fierstein and direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell, "Kinky Boots" has arrived on Broadway. The reputation of its creators and the buzz from the sold-out Chicago run have raised expectations very high, perhaps too high. Although I enjoyed the show thoroughly, I will confess that it did not quite live up to all the hype. The fine cast is led by Stark Sands as Charlie Price, the young man who is suddenly burdened with responsibility for the family's moribund shoe factory, and Billy Porter as Lola (a/k/a Simon), the black drag queen who inspires him to replace the factory's men's dress shoe line with a niche product -- glamorous boots for transvestites. There are problems along the way with Charlie's unsupportive fiancee, homophobic employees, financial difficulties and the self-doubt that Charlie and Lola share. In addition to a strong cast that includes The Angels, Lola's six back-up drag performers, there is a terrific factory set by David Rockwell and marvelous costumes by Gregg Barnes. The book is witty, but the score is merely serviceable and the lyrics rarely rise above the banal. There is one touching number "I'm Not My Father's Son," during which Charlie and Lola/Simon bond. The choreography of the first act finale is wonderfully inventive, with clever use of conveyer belts  and other factory equipment. The show's closing number is also a winner, with everyone donning the kinky boots for a blowout finale. Although not everything was as fantastic as I had hoped, these two numbers went a long way to winning me over. I left with a big smile. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Buyer and Cellar ****

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Jonathan Tolins' one-person comedy in previews at the Rattlestick Theater is a guilty pleasure. It's sheer fluff, but what delightful fluff. The premise is so wacky that I just gave into it to see where it would lead: a certain superstar, whose first name is Barbra, has built an underground mall beneath the barn on her Malibu estate to house the many possessions she has acquired over the years. She likes to visit her stash, but doesn't like to be alone, so she hires an unemployed actor, Alex More, to impersonate a salesperson and be on call for her visits. Luckily for us, Alex is played by the talented Michael Urie, who also portrays Alex's cynical screenwriter boyfriend Barry, Barbra, her personal assistant Sharon and hubby James Brolin. A series of scenes in which Barbra haggles to buy a doll (which she of course already owns) is hilarious. Will Alex ever be invited upstairs to see her home? Will Barbra ever play Mama Rose on film? If you are a fan of divas in general or Barbra in particular, or a Urie fan or a lover of musicals or an unemployed actor or all of the above, you will have a good time. Andrew Boyce's simple set is greatly enhanced by Eric Southern's excellent lighting and Alex Koch's projections. Director Stephen Brackett might want to consider trimming a few minutes. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Assembled Parties **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Richard Greenberg's family chronicle, now in previews at MTC's Friedman Theatre, introduces us to a highly assimilated Jewish family comfortably ensconced in their 14-room Central Park West apartment on Christmas Day 1980. Julie (Jessica Hecht), her husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) and their two sons, Scotty, 24, (Jake Silbermann) and Timmy, 4, (Alex Dreier) are joined for the holiday dinner by Ben's sister Faye (Judith Light), her husband Mort (Mark Blum) and their 30-year old daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld). The only non-family member present is Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), Scotty's college friend, visiting for the first time. Julie was a movie actress before marriage. Faye married downward after getting pregnant. Her daughter appears to be at the low end of the IQ range. Julie and Ben joke that Scotty will be president some day. Jeff falls in love with their life. A necklace of possibly genuine rubies owned by Faye and Ben's mother plays an important role in the plot. Act Two takes place 20 years later. Reality has intervened. The survivors gather for a smaller, sadder Christmas dinner. On the plus side, there are juicy roles for three fine actors: Hecht, Light and Shamos. They all shine, although I found Hecht a little too mannered at times. There are many witty lines for them to deliver. Another big plus is Santo Loquasto's amazing revolving set which includes most of the rooms in the apartment. Jane Greenwood's costumes are first-rate too. The play's negatives include a few plot points that make very little sense, a sluggish pace in the first act and a few roles that are underwritten. As I write this, there are over 3 weeks left before opening night. Perhaps director Lynne Meadow will tighten things up by then. As it stands now, there are many entertaining moments and a few touching ones, but it doesn't add up to a lot. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, including intermission.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Breakfast at Tiffany's *

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For me, the most interesting part of this production takes place before it begins: huge photographs of New York in the 1940's and wartime propaganda posters are projected on the main panel of the set. Even this is muddled though -- instead of projecting them on a plain background where they could be clearly seen, they are superimposed on a projection of the Manhattan skyline with glass towers not built until decades later. I'm afraid it's downhill from there. Richard Greenberg's adaptation hews much more closely to Capote's novella than the sanitized Hollywood film did, but he includes long stretches of narration that quickly become tiresome. The first act moves at a snail's pace. Neither Emilia Clarke as Holly nor Cory Michael Smith as Fred has much charisma, although (gratuitous nudity alert!) they do look nice together in a bathtub. George Wendt is an understated Joe Bell, the bartender, but the rest of the cast perform much too broadly. Things improve in the second act, but by then it's too late to save the day. Derek McLane's scenic design morphs effortlessly from one setting to the next and Colleen Atwood's costumes are appropriate. Sean Mathias's direction seemed muddled. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, including intermission.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Mound Builders **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Allegedly Lanford Wilson named this play as his personal favorite. Judging from the current revival at Signature Theatre, it is difficult to understand why. During the lengthy first act, we meet August Howe (David Conrad), a famous professor who is conducting an archeological dig in 1975 in southern Illinois on the site of a vanished pre-Columbian culture. As the play's framing device, Howe is recording his notes on the disastrous events of the previous summer for his unseen secretary to transcribe. His comments are interspersed with slides photographed by his wife. The dig is a race against time, because the site is soon to be inundated and obliterated by a new dam and interstate highway. He shares a house at the site with his wife Cynthia (Janie Brookshire), their daughter Kirsten (Rachel Resheff), his colleague Dr. Dan Loggins (Zachary Booth) and his pregnant wife Jean (Lisa Joyce) who is on leave from her job as a gynecologist and who, as a child, had a nervous breakdown after winning the national spelling bee. They are frequently visited by Chad Jasker (Will Rogers), the son of the site's owner, who has dollar signs in his eyes anticipating the wealth that will be generated by the upcoming construction. Jasker is also sleeping with one of the wives and lusting after the other -- and possibly her husband too, which would be more plausible if Rogers displayed a scintilla of sex appeal and didn't come across as the village idiot. This motley crew is suddenly augmented by the arrival of August's sister D.K. (Danielle Skraastad), a former novelist and present addict. As the lady next to me aptly remarked: "She must be a visitor from a more interesting play." In the second act, the underlying conflicts erupt tragically, but not without leaving time for several lyrical speeches. One does not have to dig very deep to unearth a slew of metaphors about society, academic hubris, greed and the high cost of failure to focus on the people closest to you. The actors do not seem to have an affinity for Wilson's language and Jo Bonney's direction fails to keep them all on the same page. Neil Patel's simple set is evocative and Theresa Squire's costumes are fine. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Belleville ***

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I have extremely mixed feelings concerning Amy Herzog's thriller about the unraveling of a codependent relationship. On the one hand, the production values of this New York Theatre Workshop production are superb -- the acting (by Maria Dizza and Greg Keller as the couple and Pascale Armand and Phillip James Brannon as the landlords of their Parisian flat), direction (by Anne Kauffman), set design (by Julia C. Lee), costumes (by Mark Nagle) and sound design (by Robert Kaplowitz). As in her previous work, Herzog excels at creating vivid characters and capturing the twisted patterns of communications in close relationships. Also admirable is the way she builds a feeling of menace and paranoia. On the other hand, I found the big reveal about what underlies the current situation disconcertingly implausible and the denouement (annoyingly in French) unnecessary. Although Annie Baker seems to be the current darling of the lemming critics, I'll stick with Amy Herzog even at less than her best. Running time: one hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hit the Wall **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Ike Holter's version of the Stonewall Riot of June 1969, now at the Barrow Street Theatre, is lively and contains some affecting moments, but it offers no new insights about the event and isn't even a very effective history lesson. The energetic ensemble cast tries, with varying success, to breathe life into stereotypical characters, chosen to reflect the diversity of the participants. Thus we get one drag queen, one black militant feminist, a WASP from suburbia appopriately called Newbie; a pair of wisecracking friends, one black and the other Hispanic; an innocent draft-dodger, a butch teen-aged lesbian, her straight sister, a closeted Wall Streeter, a cop and some hippie street musicians. Mix and match. There's dancing, rioting and a little gratuitous nudity. Nathan Lee Graham and Rania Salem Manganaro stand out as the drag queen and the young lesbian. Lauren Helpern's set design is a bit fragmented. David Hyman's costumes are fine. Director Eric Hoff keeps things moving. Ultimately, the play sheds more heat than light. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Neva **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
It's not often that we get to see a play by a contemporary Chilean playwright in New York. Now, courtesy of the Public Theater, we can see Guillermo Calderon's absurdist comedy set in early 1905 in St. Petersburg (the one on the Neva River, of course). The woman in black pacing back and forth before the play begins is Olga Knipper (Bianca Amato), star of the Moscow Art Theater and widow of Anton Chekhov. She has accepted a guest role with a theater in Russia's capital and is waiting for a rehearsal to begin. The noble-born Aleko (Luke Robertson) and the revolutionary activist Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) are the only other actors to arrive. The rest of the cast may or may not be victims of the Bloody Sunday riot which is under way. Dissatisfied with her own interpretation of her current role, Olga segues from the monologue in the play to her own monologue about the actor's need for love and acclaim. The border between acting and real life is a porous one. Olga enlists Aleko and Masha to reenact scenes from her life, including different version's of Chekhov's death and his sister's reaction to learning about his impending marriage. Masha closes the play with a showy monologue about the irrelevance of theater in a time of revolution. The play contains many lively, entertaining moments, but at times drifts aimlessly. The playwright directed, which is not always a good idea. The nimble translation is by Andrea Thome, herself a playwright. Susan Hilferty's black costumes blend well into the prevailing murk. No set designer is credited. A fight director, Thomas Schall, is listed although the play contains no fights. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.

NOTE: I really dislike attending the Martinson Theater at the Public. Judging from the amount of time it takes to exit the theater and gain access to the only stairway to the street, I would not want to be there in an emergency.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ann ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
I am not generally a fan of solo theatrical performances, so I was pleasantly surprised that I found this Lincoln Center Theater production quite enjoyable. In a bravura performance which keeps her onstage for almost two hours, Holland Taylor creates a vivid incarnation of Ann Richards, former Texas governor. Even though Taylor is also the playwright, I find her feat of memory remarkable. In the frame of a college commencement speech, we get a look back at Richards' early life and influences, her political career including a detailed look at one day in office, life after her defeat by George Bush and even a look beyond the grave. The emphasis is on anecdotes and reminiscences, many of them hilarious. Her battle with alcohol and her unhappy marriage are mentioned very briefly. It's more effective as an entertaining extended character sketch than as a history lesson. Some judicious trimming, particularly in the second act, would improve it. Nevertheless, it makes for a diverting evening. Michael Fagin's set design morphs from a generic auditorium stage to an attractive gubernatorial office. Julie Weiss's costume looks like something Richards would choose. Benjamin Endsley Klein's direction includes a few lovely grace notes, such as the office set receding as Richards looks back on her term as governor. Running time: two hours, including intermission.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Old Boy ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The Keen Company's revival of A.R. Gurney's 1991 play proves once again that no other playwright does the world of WASPs as well as he. Sam (Peter Rini), a politician and diplomat who is considering a run for governor, has returned to his prestigious boarding school to give the commencement speech against the advice of his political aide Bud (Cary Donaldson). Dexter (Tom Riis Farrell), the Anglican clergyman who is second in command at the school, also asks Sam to announce the donation of an indoor tennis court by Harriet (the wonderful Laura Esterman) in memory of her son Perry (Chris Dwan), for whom Sam acted as old boy (mentor) during his first year. Perry's widow Alison (Marsha Dietlein Bennett). whom Sam had dated before Perry, is there for the occasion. The ever-cautious Bud has Perry's demise investigated and reveals to Sam that he died of AIDS. There are several flashbacks to Sam and Perry's years at school, during which Rini and Esterman continue to play their respective characters. Sam's speech at commencement is the play's climax. The play is topical and some of the action seems more driven by political correctness than dramatic impulse. Nevertheless, the characters are well-delineated and the dialogue is sharp. Even second-drawer Gurney is better than most people's top drawer. Rini looks a little too Mediterranean to be plausible as a WASP, but he captures Sam's callow charm. The rest of the cast is fine too. Jonathan Silverstein's direction is unobtrusive. Jennifer Paar's costumes are very good. The wide set by Stephen C. Kemp looked a bit underfurnished. Running time: 75 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Upcoming Reviews for March

(Please click above to see the complete list.)

March 2   The North Pool
March 3   The Old Boy
March 6   Ann
March 10 Neva
March 13 Hit the Wall
March 16 Belleville
March 19 The Mound Builders
March 21 Breakfast at Tiffany's
March 24 The Assembled Parties
March 30 Kinky Boots

The North Pool ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
When Dr. Danielson (Stephen Barker Turner), the vice-principal of a large public high school, summons Khadim Asmaan (Babak Tafti), a Middle-Eastern-born transfer student, to his office at the end of classes on the final day before Spring Break, Khadim has no idea why. For the next 85 minutes, they engage in an escalating verbal duel. Danielson is not the one-note bureaucrat he first appears to be and Khadim is not just a cocky student he is badgering. Joseph effectively holds the audience is his grip as he springs a series of surprises that keep changing our perception of the two characters. The play almost never heads in a predictable direction. The story has too many subplots for its own good and some of them are less than plausible. Nevertheless, the play is well worth seeing for the gripping performances of Turner and Tafti. Donyale Werle's set is the perfect recreation of a high school office and Paloma Young's costumes are just right. Director Giovanna Sardelli certainly knows how to build and maintain tension.