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**

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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 **

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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 ***

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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 ***

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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 ***

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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 ***

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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 ***

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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 *

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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.