Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Good Television ***

(Please click on the title to see the entire review.)
A TV reality show called "Rehabilitation" might seem too easy a target, but Rod McLachlan's off-Broadway debut play in previews at Atlantic Stage 2 generally avoids easy satire. Bernice (Talia Balsam) is the cynical show runner. Connie (Kelly McAndrew) is the senior producer responsible for selecting which addicts will be cast for the show and, thereby, get a family intervention and a chance for free rehab. Tara (Jessica Cummings) is the idealistic new hire fresh out of film school (and the boss's cousin). Ethan (Andrew Stewart-Jones) is brought in to run the show when Bernice bails for an infotainment show on Fox. The production team must decide whether to cast Clemson MacAddy (John Magaro) of Aiken, SC, a teen-aged meth addict, for the show. His sister Brittany (Zoe Perry) is a single mom struggling to care for her kids, her dying mother and her addict younger brother. Their older brother Mackson (Luke Robertson) is rarely around to help, but shows up as soon as he sniffs opportunity. Their long-absent abusive father (Ned Van Zandt) puts in an appearance too. When film crew and MacAddy family meet in Act Two, things do not go smoothly -- to put it mildly. All the actors are good, but McAndrew and Perry are superb. The bond that grows between their characters is the play's backbone. Eric Southern's set, Theresa Squire's costumes and Bob Krakower's direction are all fine. The play raises interesting ethical questions: who is deserving vs. who is likely to yield "good television?" What, if any, are the differences between documentary and reality show? Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes including intermission. Note: Avoid Row A at Atlantic Stage 2. It is actually the second row and not raised above the front row.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Tutors **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
In Erica Lipez's new play at Second Stage Uptown, we meet Joe, Toby and Heidi, friends since college and now roommates, struggling with very little success to make a go of their Facebook-wanabee website. Toby (Keith Nobbs) and Heidi (Audrey Dollar) put in lonely hours running the website while outside man Joe (Matt Dellapina) allegedly tries to line up investors. To support themselves, Joe and Toby tutor wealthy high school students, while Heidi edits admission essays online. She has fantasies about Kwan (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a client from Hong Kong, whom she turns into an imaginary confidant and lover. And then the real Kwan shows up. Last but not least is Milo (Chris Perfetti), a spoiled rich kid who disrupts the status quo when he blackmails his way into their lives. The situations are intriguing, the characters are vivid, the cast is excellent, but the play seemed like it needed more work. The ending is particularly flat. Rachel Hauck's set captures the feel of an apartment shared by three young people. Heidi's messy bedroom speaks volumes about her. Jessica Jahn's costumes are inconspicuously appropriate. Thomas Kail's direction is assured. The play has its flaws, but it reveals a talent to watch. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes with intermission.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Reasons To Be Happy ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Neil LaBute's seriocomedy, now in previews at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC production, revisits the four characters he introduced in "reasons to be pretty" three years later. However, familiarity with the earlier play is by no means a requirement for this one. The four are working stiffs; many of the scenes take place in the break room of the plant where three of them are or have been employed. Greg (Josh Hamilton), the one who has finished college and aspires to be a teacher, is nonconfrontational and commitment-shy in the extreme. Carly (Leslie Bibb), the pretty one, is a security guard and single mom, recently divorced from Kent (Fred Weller), the macho jock with anger-management issues. Steph (Jenna Fischer) is the not-as-pretty hair stylist who, although now married, suddenly has renewed feelings for ex-boyfriend Greg as soon as he takes up with her close friend Carly. Complications ensue. LaBute is a master at creating pitch-perfect dialog for awkward situations that is funny, vulgar, yet wise. He seems to regard his blue-collar characters with a mixture of sympathy and condescension. Their life is governed by the harsh buzzer at the factory and even the buzzing device at the restaurant announcing that their table is ready. Except for Greg, they hold book learning in low regard. Watching these four bounce off each other may not lead to anything profound, but I found it highly entertaining. Hamilton perfectly captures Greg's tentativeness, but does not display the charm that would make it more plausible for the two women to be so attracted to him. Weller plays Kent almost as a caricature, but it works. Fischer has some fine moments and Bibb was consistently fine. Neil Patel's scenic design has the stage platform painted in diagonal yellow and black stripes like a loading platform; his break room at the plant nails every detail. Sarah J. Holden's costumes befit the characters. LaBute's direction is assured, but the play might have been tightened up a bit if it had the benefit of another director's views. Running time: two hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Far from Heaven **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Todd Haynes' 2002 film tribute to Douglas Sirk's lush melodramas of the 1950's must have seemed like suitable material for a musical, but the current adaptation with book by the ubiquitous Richard Greenberg, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie does not make the case. Despite fine performances by Kelli O'Hara, Stephen Pasquale and Isaiah Johnson in the leading roles, this production, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, falls flat. One hopes that paring down a screenplay to make room for songs that will amplify emotions and/or move the plot along will yield a net gain. In this instance, at least for me, the results diminish rather than enhance the film. I missed the film's gorgeous cinematography that went so far to create the feel of suburban Connecticut in 1957. The basic story of a seemingly perfect marriage destroyed by the husband's homosexuality and the wife's friendship with her black gardener is still there, but the weaknesses in the plot seem more nakedly exposed here. The music and lyrics are far from memorable. Allen Moyer's Mondrian-like set is complemented by Peter Nigrini's projections. Catherine Zuber's costumes are period-appropriate. Kenneth Posner's lighting is especially fine. I hoped that Frankel, Korie and director Michael Greif, the people who had a great success at Playwrights Horizons with another film adaptation, Grey Gardens, would strike gold twice. Unfortunately, they have not. Running time: two hours, 25 minutes including intermission.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 ****

For a unique evening of musical entertainment and Russian cuisine, head to Kazino, the ersatz Russian nightclub in a tent under the High Line in the Meatpacking District. When you enter, you are greeted with a vodka drink and carnival entertainment while you wait to be seated. The nightclub is stunning -- the red velvet walls are covered with period paintings, the ceiling is studded with chandeliers reminiscent of those at the Met, and the long rectangular space is filled with small tables and cafe chairs, set on three different levels. Musicians playing both traditional and electronic instruments are scattered around the room. By the time you have finished your meal (crudites, black bread, borscht, chicken, salmon, couscous and pierogi) and any optional drinks you have ordered, you may have forgotten that you were there to see a musical! And then comes the main event, Dave Malloy's clever pop opera adapted from the section of War and Peace that describes Natasha's arrival in Moscow, her introduction to society at the opera, her disastrous meeting with the father and sister of her fiance Andrey who is away at war, her seduction and attempted abduction by the unscrupulous Anatole, her ensuing misery, and the spark of sympathy for her that ignites Pierre. With one dramatic exception near the end, the piece is entirely sung. The eclectic score has touches of folk, pop, rock and club music. The staging is, to put it mildly, fluid: the performers run up and down the central aisle and along platforms that encircle the room and even sit down amid the audience occasionally. Both the acting and vocal skills of the cast are strong. Phillipa Soo as Natasha, Lucas Steele as Anatole, Brittain Ashford as Natasha's cousin Sonya and playwright/composer Malloy as Pierre stand out. Rachel Chavkin's direction, Mimi Lien's scenic design, Paloma Young's costumes, Bradley King's lighting and Sam Pinkleton's choreography are all first-rate. It all added up to a very enjoyable evening. Running time: two hours, 35 minutes including intermission. However, dinner is served an hour before it begins and the play started late, so it added up to almost four hours. Note that you may be seated at a table with strangers and that the wooden seats are not cushioned.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bull *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The latest production in 59E59's Brits Off Broadway series is Mike Bartlett's companion piece to his clever play "Cock (a/k/a The Cockfight Play)." Like the earlier play, this one, subtitled "The Bullfight Play," takes place in an arena-like setting. The arena in "Cock" actually resembled a bullring more than this set, which looks more like a carpeted boxing ring with a water cooler in the corner. There's a low glass wall around the playing area for a portion of the audience to stand behind. The setup is simple: three employees are about to meet their boss Carter (Neil Stuke) to find out which one is going to be fired. The icy Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) and the smooth, devious Tony (Adam James) take turns tormenting the milquetoast Thomas (Sam Troughton) until he can endure it no longer. Apparently "bull" is really short for "bullying" in this instance. Toward play's end, Isobel makes a case that victims of bullying deserves it, because it is a necessary Darwinian tool for culling the gene pool. The actors are all first-rate, but the proceedings are too nasty for my taste. I fear that Bartlett has lost his way, giving too much attention to set design gimmickry and too little attention to substantive playwriting. Claire Lizzimore's direction is assured. Running time: only 55 minutes, but that was more than enough.