Saturday, June 22, 2013

Cornelius **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
This Finborough Theatre production of J.B. Priestly's virtually forgotten 1935 play now at 59E59 in their Brits Off Broadway series received uniformly glowing reviews in London and a rave from the New York Times. This story of a small aluminium importing firm struggling unsuccessfully to stay afloat during the Depression revolves around partner James Cornelius (Alan Cox), who puts on a brave face to keep up the morale of his staff and fend off the creditors until his partner Robert Murrison (Jamie Newall) returns from an extended business trip that is the firm's last hope for survival. Longtime bookkeeper Biddle (the excellent Col Farrell) is a man who loves his work and manages to maintain a positive view of life. Secretary Miss Porrin (Pandora Colin) is an embittered spinster with an unrequited love for Cornelius. Lawrence (David Ellis) is frustrated by his dead-end five-year stint as office boy. Judy Evison (the lovely Emily Barber), a feisty typist filling in temporarily for her sister, elicits Miss Porrin's hatred and strikes a long-dormant chord in Cornelius. Vendors with increasing degrees of desperation visit the office to peddle their wares. Murrison returns from his trip half-crazed and broken. When the play concentrates on how different people deal with adversity, it is on solid ground. Unfortunately, it too often resorts to workplace cliches and, near the end, a very unlikely coincidence. I did not find Cornelius, at least as played by Cox, a convincing character; his various traits did not cohere. It was a pleasure to see an fine ensemble of 12 sharing the stage, but the play ultimately lacked bite. David Woodhead's set and costumes are excellent. Sam Yates's direction is assured. To call Cornelius a forgotten masterpiece would be a gross exaggeration. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, including intermission.

1. Change in Rating System. 2. A Second Chance

(Please click on the title above to see the complete posting.)
1. I have changed my rating system from a zero-to-one-star system to a zero-to-five-star system to give a more nuanced idea of my response to a play. Under the new system,
***** = Excellent
**** = Very Good
*** = Good
** =  Fair
* = Poor
0 = Horrible

I have applied the new ratings to all reviews since January 1, 2012 and will work my way further back as time permits. I hope the new ratings will be more helpful to readers.

2. Three plays that I reviewed positively are returning:

Buyer and Cellar has opened at Barrow Street Theater.
Bad Jews will open at the Laura Pels in September.
A Christmas Story: The Musical will open at the Theater at Madison Square Garden for a limited run in December.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin *

It is admirable that Roundabout Theatre Company is trying to encourage young talent by giving playwrights who have had a success in their Underground space a chance to move upstairs to the Laura Pels. On the basis of his 2008 play "The Language of Trees," Roundabout has given that chance to Steven Levenson. Unfortunately, at least to me, his new work did not seem ready for prime time. Tom Durnin (David Morse) has just finished a five-year sentence for perpetrating a Ponzi scheme that wiped out the fortunes of his family and friends. His adult son James (Christopher Denham), who was forced to drop out of Yale when the money vanished, has been particularly traumatized, to the point that he become an emotional cipher. Tom bullies his son into letting him sleep on his couch for a month and blackmails his son-in-law Chris (Rich Sommer of "Mad Men") into putting him in contact with wife Karen (Lisa Emery). James cautiously begins a relationship with Katie (Sarah Goldberg), a woman he meets in writing class. The premise is intriguing, but the play mostly spins its wheels aimlessly. The tone moves uneasily between comedy (such as the wretched writing samples we are forced to hear) to drama that mostly fizzles. The character of Katie is so annoyingly vapid that I cringed whenever she appeared. The always interesting Morse mostly underplays the part of a manipulative liar. The usually fine Emery does not get much opportunity to shine. Sommer's character verges on the cartoonish. Denham was convincing as someone with crippling depression. Beowulf Boritt's revolving set concentrates too much of the action on the right half of the stage. Jeff Mahsie's costumes did not call attention to themselves. Scott Ellis directed. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Somewhere Fun *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
I am sorry to report that Jenny Schwartz's surrealist comedy now at the Vineyard Theatre is not on the level of her well-regarded "God's Ear" of a few years back. After a promising, delightful first act, it goes off the rails and spins its wheels for two more acts. Although it's always a pleasure to see Kathleen Chalfant (despite the fact her role here not so cleverly recalls her part in "Wit"), the biggest treat here is Kate Mulgrew, who has a brilliant monologue (dialogue if you count the few words her friend is able to get in) before her character melts into a puddle on the street. Chalfant plays Evelyn Armstrong, who is dying of anal cancer. Mulgrew is Rosemary Rappaport, a long-lost friend she runs into on Madison Avenue. Rosemary' estranged son Benjamin (Greg Keller, recently of "Belleville") was a childhood friend of Evelyn's daughter Beatrice (Brooke Bloom), who lost her face to a Dalmatian. Rosemary's real estate client Cecilia (Mary Shulz) is a widow looking for love on the internet. Richard Bekins is T, Evelyn's emotionally distant husband. Maria Elena Ramirez is Lolita, her health care aide. Griffin Birney and Makenna Ballard appear as the young Benjamin and Bernice. Schwartz's clever word play grew tedious after a while. I would have left happy if the play ended after the first act, but my good feelings had evaporated long before the play finally ended. Marsha Ginsberg's set is simple and uncluttered and Jessica Pabst's costumes are fine. I don't know what more director Anne Kauffman could have done to whip the play into a coherent whole. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including two short intermissions.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Kid Like Jake ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
As the recipient of the prestigious Laurents-Hatcher prize for 2013, Daniel Pearle's new play arrives at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater with expectations high. By and large, these expectations have been met and its worthiness for an award is clear. This tale of a Manhattan couple, probably Upper West Siders, struggling through the process of getting their only child into a prestigious private school has a twist: Little Jake, whom we never meet, is obsessed with Cinderella and likes to dress up like a girl. Jake's mom Alex (Carla Gugino), who abandoned a career in dance for the law and then for full-time motherhood, is still emotionally fragile after a recent miscarriage. Her husband Greg (Peter Grosz) is a laid-back psychotherapist. They are not sure whether Jake's predilection for "gender-variant" play, with which they seem mostly comfortable, is an obstacle to admission or, as their counselor/friend Judy (Caroline Aaron) suggests, a selling point for a school to achieve diversity. The application process with its essays, testing, visits, interviews and strategizing places their marriage under tremendous pressure that eventually opens fissures that release a painful outpouring of raw emotion. The three lead actors are superb and the buildup to their catharsis is gripping. I have qualms about the penultimate scene with Alex and a nurse (Michelle Beck), but my reaction to the play as a whole is overwhelmingly positive. Andromache Chalfant's flexible set serves well as several locales. Jessica Wegener Shay's costumes do not call attention to themselves. Evan Cabnet's direction is assured. Running time: one hour, 45 minutes, no intermission. Note: I am told that the entire run is sold out, but watch for a possible extension. Incidentally, LCT3's marketing plan finally seems to be paying off -- the audience had a substantially higher percentage of young people than usual.

The Silver Cord *

Peccadillo Theater Company specializes in reviving classic American plays. Some years back, I attended their fine production of Elmer Rice’s Counsellor-at-Law, which went on to win awards for best revival and best direction. Thus I was eager to see their current offering, Sidney Howard’s “Freudian melodrama,” which was a Broadway hit in the 1926-27 season and was later adapted for film. The fact that Peccadillo had already revived it once, 18 years ago, piqued my curiosity even more. Howard wrote this play the year after he won the Pulitzer for They Knew What They Wanted (later musicalized as The Most Happy Fella). Alas, the years have not been kind to The Silver Cord. This tale of a pathologically overprotective, manipulative mother may have seemed fresh, original and even shocking almost 80 years ago, but now seems tired, overheated and unintentionally funny. When I discovered that Mrs. Phelps would be played by a man, Dale Carman, I worried that might lead to campiness. On the contrary, Carman gives a subdued performance, which may have been the wrong way to go. The level of performance of the cast, which includes Thomas Matthew Kelley as David, the elder son, Victoria Mack as Christina, his feminist wife, Wilson Bridges as wimpy younger brother Robert and Caroline Kaplan as his flapper fiancee, is disappointing, but it would be unkind to be too hard on any actors forced to mouth such ludicrous dialog. Harry Feiner’s set, Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costumes and Gerard James Kelly’s wigs are fine. I cannot imagine what prompted artistic director Dan Wackerman to revive and helm this chestnut a second time. If nothing else, it proves that not every play a Pulitzer-winner writes will be a gem. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Venice **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
After productions in Kansas City and Los Angeles, this hip-hop musical “inspired by” Othello has arrived at the Public Theater. Shakespeare’s plot has been so substantially reworked that you would do well to forget that connection. Shakespeare did not give us a dystopian society, chemical warfare, government by corporation enforced by mercenaries, revolution, half-brothers, a Lady Gaga-type singer or a bomb at a public occasion (too soon after Boston, in my opinion). The book by Eric Rosen, who also directed, is cluttered and overcomplicated. The music is by Matt Sax, who collaborated with Rosen on the lyrics. There is also a frustratingly vague credit for additional music by Curtis Moore. Sax, who appears as the play’s MC, bears an uncanny resemblance to Lin Manuel Miranda. So do his lyrics (maybe all hip-hop just sounds alike to my uneducated ear.) The cast is generally strong. For me the standouts were Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam on “Smash”) in the Iago-like role and Victoria Platt as Emilia, his wife. Haaz Sleiman (“Nurse Jackie”) and Jennifer Damiano (“Next to Normal”) are fine as the central couple, Venice and Willow. Jonathan-David (“A Civil War Christmas”) and Claybourne Elder (“One Arm”) make the most of their parts. While I found hip-hop appropriate for “In the Heights”, it seemed monotonous and alien here. Some of the musical numbers that break away from sing-song are quite moving, particularly a duet for Willow and Emilia in Act Two. The ending with the MC’s reminder that it’s just a play, followed by an upbeat song, struck a false note. Since this is a Lab production, the set and costumes, by Beowulf Boritt and Clint Ramos respectively, are simple but effective. The audience was wildly appreciative. I would not be surprised if it moves to an extended run at another venue. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes with intermission.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Explorers Club ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
If you go to Nell Benjamin's new play now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, be sure to arrive a few minutes early so you will have time to savor Donyale Werle's spectacular set. Just seeing this recreation of a Victorian men's club in London with its dark paneling, oriental rugs, stuffed animals, animal heads, horns, tusks and pelts, shrunken heads, spears and swords is almost worth the price of admission. Another reason to see the show is a brilliant piece of stage business in the second act that elicits appreciative gasps from the audience each time it is repeated. A final plus is the superb ensemble cast giving their all to animate what is billed as a "madcap comedy." Carson Elrod, who was so good in All in the Timing recently, is wonderful as Luigi, the blue-painted native brought back from the Lost City by Phyllida Spot-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt), who would like to become the first woman in the Explorers Club. Lorenzo Pisoni, who usually plays a heartthrob, is cast against type as Lucius Fretway, a shy, clumsy botanist who yearns for Phyllida. David Furr is delightful as Harry Percy, the club's none-too-bright president, whose expeditions have an unusually high mortality rate. John McMartin is droll as a Professor of Bible Science whose hypothesis that the Irish are the lost tribes of Israel causes an international incident. A snafu when Luigi is presented to the Queen leads to a declaration of war. Act One gets a bit bogged down in exposition and seems more like satire than farce. Act two, however, rises to hilarity several times. I wish the humor had been more consistently maintained, but it would be churlish to dislike a play that is so amiable. Anita Yavich's costumes are excellent. Marc Bruni's direction is mostly smooth. Running time: one hour, 50 minutes with intermission.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

3 Kinds of Exile **

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John Guare's strange hodgepodge for the Atlantic Theater Company throws together three pieces loosely connected by the theme of exile. The first piece "Karel" is an extended anecdote about a man with a seemingly incurable rash, who, at the age of 12, had been sent to England with the Kindertransport and had remained there. Martin Moran tells the slight but interesting tale well.

The second piece "Elzbieta Erased" is a reworking of a one-act play Guare wrote for Atlantic's 25x10 series a few years ago about famous Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska. The author, playing himself, and charismatic actor Omar Sangare, portraying several characters including the actress, give us the highlights of her life -- a successful career in Poland, following by expulsion after her marriage to David Halberstam and her years in America, repeatedly dogged by bad luck. Her story is fascinating, but the telling is a bit too long.

If only there were an intermission at this point, one could escape "Funiage," a biographical sketch about absurdist novelist and playwright Witold Gombrowicz, who spent much of his adult life in Argentinian exile. Guare has chosen to emulate his subject's style with an absurdist approach incorporating Brechtian touches. It's hard to sit through. Against all odds, David Pittu as Gombrowicz acquits himself honorably. The rest of the ensemble shall remain nameless. Neil Pepe directed. The talent the playwright once exhibited with House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation and Lydie Breeze is not apparent here. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Murder Ballad **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
This through-sung rock opera by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, which received positive reviews at Manhattan Theater Club Stage II last year, has reopened at the Union Square Theater, which has been reconfigured for the occasion. Traditional seats in a U surround a central area set up as a bar, complete with pool table and cabaret seating for those who want to be in on the action. The four characters are lovely Sara (Cassie Levy), who, after a tempestuous affair with hot bartender Tom (Will Swenson), settles for marriage to Michael (John Ellison Conlee), an older, less photogenic professor of poetry. (Too bad the professor wasn't available to assist with the lame lyrics.) When Sara gets the seven year itch and resumes her affair with Tom, there's trouble, as sexy narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones) tells us. I wish I could join the chorus of praise for the show, but it did not engage me at any level. The tabloid-worthy tale, the deafening music, the pointless running to and fro and standing on chairs were turnoffs for me. I did not particularly care who would be murdered or who did it. The performances are energetic and the voices are fine when they can be heard over the musicians. The large set, designed by Mark Wendland, diffuses the action too much. Jessica Pabst's costumes are apt. Ben Stanton's garish lighting in neon colors is bilious. Trip Cullman's direction seems to be based on the idea that if you keep the actors running around enough, no one will notice the thinness of the material. I might have liked it better had I not seen the other far better environmental pop opera ("Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812") first, but I doubt it. Fairness compels me to state that most of the audience seemed to be enjoying it. Running time:  80 minutes without intermission.