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 ***

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