After being underwhelmed by Nick Payne’s previous play with Jake Gyllenhaal, “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” two years ago (my review is at http://bobs-theater-blog.blogspot.com/2012/09/if-there-is-i-havent-found-it.html), I approached this MTC production of “Constellations” with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this two-hander is a considerably more interesting and better written play. In just over an hour, it gives us the arc of a relationship between Marianne (the phenomenal Ruth Wilson, recently of Showtime’s “The Affair”), a quantum physicist, and Roland (Gyllenhaal, in fine form), a beekeeper. With the possibility that there are parallel universes where different versions of ourselves behave differently, Payne presents us with multiple short variations of scenes where things turn out differently based on as little as a different emphasis in a line reading. Some will find these variations fascinating, while others may find them just annoyingly repetitive. The love story has a beginning, middle and end; just don’t expect them to be presented in strict chronological order. As an opportunity for two fine actors to show their stuff, the play succeeds brilliantly. As a story, it appealed more to my head than to my heart. Michael Longhurst’s direction is completely assured. Tom Scutt’s scenic design of white balloons above a raised platform is simple and effective. Lee Curran’s lighting and David McSeveney’s sound design punctuate the scenes emphatically. Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of the 15 plays I rated as Very Good (****) in 2014:
Between Riverside and Crazy
The City of Conversation
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging
Honeymoon in Vegas
The Invisible Hand
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
My Mañana Comes
The Mystery of Irma Vep
The Oldest Boy
On the Town
Satchmo at the Waldorf
Here, also alphabetically, are the six plays I rated as poor (*) this year:
The Happiest Song Plays Last
While I Yet Live
This year I did not rate any play as Excellent (*****) — although there were a few that came very close —or as Horrible (0 stars)
2014 came out significantly better than 2013: last year I rated only six plays as 4-star, while there were 11 with one star and one play with none.
It’s easy to understand why this one-man show was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but it’s hard to describe it in a manner that makes it sound appealing. It’s a comedy about depression, told by a narrator who, as a 7-year-old, started compiling a list of things that make life worth living, e.g. ice cream, roller coasters, water fights and the color yellow. The list is intended to cheer up his mother, who has just attempted suicide for the first time. The narrator is winningly played by British comedian Jonny Donahoe, who perfectly navigates a path between sentimentality and despair without a scratch. Before the show, he hands out slips of paper with items from the list to be called out by audience members at the appropriate moment. He also invites a few people to join him in scenes that involve important people in his life. I generally dread shows with audience participation, but it is handled here with gentleness and finesse. The play is filled with interludes of soulful music from his father’s record collection, which he has learned to use as a barometer of his father’s mood. As life goes on, the narrator keeps adding to the list, which plays a role in helping him find true love. However, his unshakeable fear of following in his mother’s footsteps keeps him from enjoying life fully for a long time. There are so many ways the tricky material could go wrong, but playwright Duncan Macmillan, co-writer and performer Donahoe and director George Perrin handle it brilliantly. If you’re going to be near the Barrow Street Theatre anytime soon, it’s a very pleasant way to spend an hour.
This hilarious show which was a hit at Paper Mill Playhouse last year puts the comedy back in Broadway musical comedy. No conjoined twins, economic malaise, alternative realities or political strife here — just wacky comedy without any pretension of deeper meaning. Jason Robert Brown’s catchy music, wonderfully orchestrated, recalls the brassy big band era, but his clever lyrics are full of up-to-the-minute references. Andrew Bergman’s book captures the best of his 1992 film. The fine cast is led by the talented Rob McClure as the marriage-averse nebbishy Jack, Brynn O’Malley as his long-suffering fiancee Betsy and Tony Danza as the shady gambler Tommy who takes a shine to Betsy because she is a look-alike of his late wife. Nancy Opel is hilarious as the ghost of Jack’s mother, who forced him into a deathbed promise never to marry. Tommy schemes to lure Jack into losing a fortune at poker and then proposes to forgive the debt if he can spend a weekend in Hawaii with Betsy. The escalating silliness includes a harpist who plays the instrument with her breasts and a troupe of skydiving Elvis impersonators. Anita Louizos’s scenic design is complex and attractive. The set constantly reconfigures to create locations in New York, Las Vegas and Hawaii with the assistance of evocative projections. The costumes by Brian C. Hemesath are delightful. The choreography by Denis Jones is lively. Gary Griffin’s direction keeps everything moving smoothly. If you are looking for a show with substance, don’t look here. If you just want an entertaining evening, you’ve come to the right place. Now in previews at the Nederlander Theatre. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
The sexual peccadillos of four of our politicians form the basis of this comic romp at the Lynn Redgrave Theater. Idaho’s Sen. Larry Craig (Josh Eakright, u/s for Sean Dugan), master of the wide stance; Florida’s Rep. Mark Foley (Arnie Burton), enthusiastic pal of underage congressional pages; NY’s own Rep. Anthony Wiener (Nate Smith), sexter par excellence, and South Carolina’s Gov. Mark Sanford (Tom Galantich), who turned up far from the Appalachian Trail, are captured through their own words. Rachel Dratch portrays “wives, tails, beards and Barbara Walters.” Most of the material will be thoroughly familiar to anyone who hasn’t been hiding in a cave, but playwright Mario Correa has sliced and diced it in amusing ways. Caite Hevner Kemp’s attractive set has all the right patriotic trimmings and is well lighted by Ryan O’Gara. In addition to their main characters, each actor has other roles. Projected surtitles remind us who is portraying whom at any given moment. Director Dan Knechtges maintains a lively pace. The enthusiastic cast are very good, but the material seemed to me only marginally funnier — and racier — than a series of above average Saturday Night Live skits. At 70 minutes, it was both too short and too long — too short to justify the effort and expense of attending and too long to remain fresh.
Sunday, December 7, 2014
In the last three years, Samuel D. Hunter has garnered Obie, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel and GLAAD awards and, most recently, a MacArthur Fellowship. He is regarded as one of our most promising young playwrights. However, I was not smitten either by The Whale (despite a memorable performance by Shuler Hensley) or by The Few. His interest in chronicling the lives of marginalized Idahoans seemed too limited. I am happy to report that I found his latest play, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, considerably more ambitious and universal. Even though the setting is once again Idaho, the location could be any small American city experiencing economic decline and a loss of its uniqueness. Hunter compassionately illustrates the psychological damage on ten people whose hometown has slid into a jumble of fast food joints and big box stores. The lead character is Eddie (T.R. Knight), manager of the failing local outlet of a national Italian restaurant chain known for its soft breadsticks and salads. One would think that a sensitive gay man would flee Pocatello at his earliest opportunity, but Eddie feels strong roots dating back to his great-grandfather and has delusions that he can somehow forestall the closing of the restaurant and reunite, however briefly, his fractured family. His cold, distant mother Doris (Brenda Wehle) seems to want to have nothing to do with him. His older brother Nick (Brian Hutchison), who has only come back from Minnesota for a brief visit at the urging of his wife Kelly (Crystal Finn), cannot contain his eagerness to get away as rapidly as possible. Troy (Danny Wolohan), the waiter who has known Eddie since childhood, has a troubled marriage. His wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey) has a problem trying to stay on the wagon, their bright but troubled 17-year-old daughter Becky (Leah Karpel) is so environmentally concerned that she can barely eat, and Troy’s father Cole (Jonathan Hogan) suffers from dementia. Waiter Max (Cameron Scoggins) is grateful to Eddie for being the only employer in town willing to hire him after his stint in drug rehab. Waitress Isabelle (Elvy Yost) tries to skim along life’s surface without making waves. The opening scene, with all ten characters onstage, is quite a tour de force. Hunter generously gives each character at least a moment in the spotlight that gives us insight into what makes them tick. The cast is very strong, especially Knight as Eddie. One look into the combination of hurt and hope in his eyes speaks more than paragraphs of dialogue. Davis McCallum’s direction is superb. There is a silent moment when Tammy decides whether to take a drink of wine that is almost painful to watch. Lauren Helpern’s set accurately captures the look of a faux-Italian chain restaurant and Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit the characters well. There is more than enough sorrow to go around, especially for a relatively brief play. The ending needs to be more emphatic — no one applauded until the lights came up as if uncertain the play had really ended. The play impressed me as a big step forward for Hunter. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission.
Saturday, December 6, 2014
When your first play to reach New York wins a Pulitzer, can things only go downhill from there? After seeing Ayad Akhtar’s gripping new thriller, now in previews at New York Theatre Workshop, I can report that, in his case, the answer is an emphatic “No.” Nick Bright (Justin Kirk) is a mid-level American banker who has been erroneously kidnapped by a militant group in Pakistan. They were after his boss, but he was filling in for him that day. The huge ransom they are demanding is far more than the bank thinks he is worth, so he is stuck in captivity. His captor is the volatile Bashir (Usman Ally), British born and raised, who left England to fight in Pakistan where he has become a follower of the charismatic Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani). Nick has befriended his guard Dar (Jameal Ali) and even taught him some rudimentary economics that yield a bit of extra income. When it becomes clear that the bank will never pay his ransom, Nick suggests raising the amount himself by some tricky trading using an offshore account of his. Bashar initially objects, but the imam agrees. Since they will not allow him near a computer, Nick has to teach Bashir how to make the trades. Bashir proves to be an able student. The twists and turns that follow kept me on the edge of my seat. Who knew that high finance could be so dramatic? The play is not only exciting but so topical it could be ripped from today’s headlines. Akhtar provides insight into what turns a British Muslim into a militant, how militant groups are becoming more sophisticated about fundraising and how American influence can be both beneficent and corrupting. While the entire cast is strong, Ally’s Bashir is absolutely mesmerizing; I defy you to take your eyes off of him. Director Ken Rus Schmoll has paced the action skillfully. Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design, featuring lots of corrugated metal and fluorescent lighting that extends over the audience, is effective, as are ESOSA’s costumes. This was a highlight of my theatergoing for 2014. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.
Playwright Katori Hall’s residency at Signature Theatre resumes with this theatrically engrossing play based on actual events in Rwanda in the early 1980’s when three young women at a Catholic school claimed to have visions of Mary. As the play opens, Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera),a young handsome priest and Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford), an older martinet nun in charge of the students — two stock characters who could be right out of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt — are arguing about what to do with 17-year-old Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor), the first to claim to see the Virgin. The priest secretly hopes the apparitions are real while the nun wants to stamp out attention-seeking nonsense. When another student, Anathalie (Mandi Masden), begins to see the visions, Sister Evangelique enlists Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango), the eldest student and a bit of a bully, to interfere should there be other apparitions. Marie-Claire too sees the Virgin in the gripping scene with gasp-inducing special effects that concludes the first act. When word gets out about the visions, the long absent Bishop Gahamanyi (Brent Jennings) shows up and threatens to close the school if the rumors are not contained. Eventually the Vatican sends Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith) to investigate. The manner in which he tests the girls is barbaric. As the visions come to be accepted, there is much shifting of positions among those who at first belittled the visions and those who supported them. Some are motivated by crass economic considerations, others by faith. But few are able to accept the warning of a coming bloodbath the apparitions portend. In restricting herself to the immediate period of the visions, Hall does not supply much context for what happens. The audience is expected to know in advance about the tribal rivalries between Hutu and Tutsi and the massacres that took place in Rwanda a decade later. That narrowing of focus may rob the play of a bit of its import but not of its theatricality. Rachel Hauck’s modular set is attractive and efficient. Peter Nigrini’s evocative projections add much to the atmosphere. Greg Meeh and Paul Rubin create some marvelous effects. Emily Rebholz’s costumes are very good. Director Michael Greif keeps things moving. One word of caution: a walkway that bisects the theater between rows F and G is used for part of the action, particularly in the second act. If your seat is in Rows A-F, you either will miss some of the action or twist your neck trying not to. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including intermission.
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Let me confess that this play, despite its Pulitzer Prize, has never seemed to me on a par with Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or “Three Tall Women.” Based on Pam MacKinnon’s superb direction of the former play and the promising cast she assembled for this one, I hoped that this production might change my mind. It didn’t. I found the first half of the play listless and lacking any sense of ensemble. Things improved with the second scene of Act II and cohered even more for Act III. By then it was almost too late, because a solid foundation had not been built. The quality of the acting was below my expectations. Glenn Close, in the key role of Agnes, projected poorly, stumbled over her lines more than once and seemed generally distracted. Lindsay Duncan, as her drunk sister Claire, underplayed her role; Martha Plimpton, as much-married daughter Julia, overplayed hers. Of the four main characters, only John Lithgow, as Agnes’s husband Tobias, seemed to fully inhabit his role. Claire Higgins and Bob Balaban, as the terrified neighbors Edna and Harry, who move in, are very good. However, if it’s Harry and Edna that grab the most attention, something is wrong with the play’s delicate balance. The lavish living room designed by Santo Loquasto is imposing, but Ann Roth’s color-coordinated costumes were a bit much. I should mention that the conditions for enjoying the play were less than ideal. Legroom in the Golden Theatre’s mezzanine was minimal. The audience was annoying, laughing at inappropriate moments such as during Tobias’ impassioned monologue. Not a great evening for theater, alas. Running time: two hours, forty minutes, including two intermissions.
Sunday, November 30, 2014
For Rodgers and Hammerstein, the third time was not a charm. Their 1947 attempt to do something a bit experimental, with a Greek chorus, ballet sequences and a plot that could be described as Thornton Wilder with a touch of Brecht, was a letdown after Oklahoma! and Carousel. It ran nine months, had a brief national tour and was thereafter largely neglected. Now Classic Stage Company has revived it. Sort of. One could argue whether reducing the cast from 67 to 12, throwing out the DeMille ballets, simplifying the plot to fit into 90 minutes and subjecting Allegro to the John Doyle treatment with actors doubling as musicians leaves enough of the original to even be called a revival. There are still a handful of good songs including “A Fellow Needs a Girl.” “ So Far” and “The Gentleman Is a Dope,” but the moralistic plot about the virtues of small-town life and the evils of the big bad city is embarrassingly simplistic. Claiborne Elder is fine as Joseph Taylor Jr. as are Malcolm Gets and Jessica Tyler Wright as his parents and Alma Cuervo as his grandmother. Elizabeth A. Davis is strong as Jenny. Megan Loomis and Jane Pfitsch each do well with their respective songs. The other members of the hardworking cast are praiseworthy too. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are evocative of the period. Theater history buffs will want to see the show, but for others it is not a “must-see.”
Saturday, November 29, 2014
This new family drama with comic overtones, the first product of a collaboration between Manhattan Theater Club and Ars Nova at The Studio at Stage II at City Center, bodes well for their cooperative effort. Playwright Sharon Rothstein depicts the devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy on the Murphy family of Staten Island. Not only has the storm extensively damaged their home and neighborhood, it has uncovered long-standing family tensions and secrets. Marty (Vyto Ruginis) and Mary Murphy (the wonderful Deirdre O’Connell) seem determined to repair and remain in their home. The Murphys’ older son Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker), who has married and made a successful life for himself in Manhattan, makes a rare appearance to persuade his parents to sell. Their younger son Brian (Tom Pelphrey), a recovering addict recently out of jail, also turns up, but he supports his father’s wishes. There is bad blood between the brothers. We learn that Marty is no saint either — he barely escaped jail for tax evasion and lost the family business. Their long-time neighbors Philip (Ethan Phillips) and Andrea Carter (Charlotte Maier), whose home has been destroyed, want to take a government buyout and relocate. Marty’s campaign to prevent the buyout plan from reaching the necessary 80% consensus puts a strain on their friendship. When it turns out that Marty’s determination to stay put has reasons that are far from noble, even Mary’s relationship with him is shaken. If all that were not enough plot, there is a rekindling of feelings between Brian and the Carters’ divorced daughter Emily (Cassie Beck). What holds it all together is Rothstein’s skill in creating vivid, believable, complex characters and convincing dialogue. Wilson Chin’s set makes the devastation very real and Jessica Pabst’s costumes reflect their characters well. Director Hal Brooks elicits fine work from a strong cast. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
This much-revised comedy by Terrrence McNally, which is breaking box office records on Broadway, has a stellar cast including Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally, F. Murray Abraham and Rupert Grint (from Harry Potter films), plus promising newcomer Micah Stock. Lane and Channing are at the top of their form, rattling off a nonstop series of bitchy zingers, many of them theatrical insider jokes that flatter the audience by making them feel in the know. Abraham, as an acerbic critic, reveals a manic comic side that I never knew he had. Mullally was out so I can’t comment on her; understudy Isabel Keating seemed flightier than necessary. Rupert Grint, as a hotshot British director who claims to crave failure, has to cope with a poorly written role and a hideous costume. Stock, who resembles a young Jim Parsons, holds his own in a long, hilarious scene with Lane. And then there’s Matthew Broderick as the author of the play whose opening night is being celebrated. He copes reasonably well with difficult material in Act One — a lecture on the depressing state of Broadway theater and a prayer for those involved in the business — but seems to retreat into a shell of blandness in Act Two. The fun is greatly abetted by an over-the-top set design by Scott Pask and hilarious costumes, including the outerwear of unseen celebrities from other Broadway shows, by Ann Roth. Director Jack O’Brien occasionally lets the pace lag. The wisp of a plot is about the anxieties of waiting for reviews on opening night, a somewhat dated concept in the age of instantly accessible reviews on newspapers’ digital sites. The second act fizzles more than it fizzes. McNally would have done well to follow one of the theatrical trends he deplores in the Act One lecture — 90-minute plays without an intermission. A string of one-liners, no matter how funny, does not stay fresh for two hours and forty minutes. It’s too much of a good thing.
Monday, November 24, 2014
This new show at New World Stages combines musical improv with a smartphone app that allows the audience to contribute to the evening's entertainment by choosing the title, the 4-note musical motif, three song titles, a choreographic style, a line of dialogue and the cast member who speaks it. Tonight the winning title was “Gluten Free, The Musical,” the songs chosen were “My Name Is Goat-Boy,” “Wheat Is the Devil,” and “I’m Full” and the line was “Don’t you DARE touch my smoothie!” Remarkably, the talented cast of seven actors (Katie Dufresne, Nicole C. Hastings, Tessa Hersh, Andrew Knox, T.J. Mannix, Matthew Van Colton and Douglas Widick) and three musicians pulled these diverse elements together into a reasonably coherent and very entertaining musical. Most of the cast honed their improv skills at Second City, so they are very good indeed. Congrats to creator/producer Michael Girts, co-creator/director T.J. Shanoff and music director/pianist Mike Descoteaux for proving that you don’t need five years of development and millions of dollars to put together an enjoyable musical and you don't have to charge an arm and a leg for tickets. It was a pleasure to attend the opening — and closing — night of “Gluten Free.” Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
I didn’t see this cult musical during its brief Broadway run in 1997, so I can’t comment on whether this new version is an improvement over the original. The score by Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Russell (lyrics) has replaced some old songs with new ones and Russell’s book has had substantial new material added by director Bill Condon. The subject may be unconventional — the story of the show biz career of the conjoined Hilton twins — the extroverted Daisy (Emily Padgett) and the reclusive Violet (Erin Davie) — but the book seemed quite conventional. The early scenes in the side show are unnervingly graphic in their depiction of the freaks. The flashback to the twins’ early life in England seemed unnecessary. Robert Joy is chilling as Sir, the show’s proprietor who thinks he owns the twins. David St. Louis is a vocal powerhouse as Jake (a/k/a King of the Cannibals), employed by Sir to keep an eye on the twins. Ryan Silverman is Terry Connor, the talent scout who wants to make vaudeville stars out of the twins. Matthew Hydzik is Terry’s pal Buddy Foster, the song and dance man tasked with readying them for the stage. Violet has feelings for Buddy, Jake has feelings for Violet and Ryan has hidden (too well hidden) feelings for Daisy. The arrival of Hollywood filmmaker Tod Browning carries a promise of success that is never realized. Padgett and Davie are quite strong both vocally and dramatically. Krieger’s fine music is often dragged down by Russell’s leaden lyrics. David Rockwell’s scenic design and Paul Tazewell’s costumes are excellent. While the show seemed a bit lumpy, it nevertheless managed to deeply engage my feelings for its characters. Running time: two hours 30 minutes including intermission.
Friday, November 14, 2014
I found much to admire in this new romantic comedy at the Flea Theater by Kate Robin, a writer on “Six Feet Under” and Showtime’s “The Affair.” The two characters are recognizable New York types. Nina (Danielle Slavick), a motor-mouthed neurotic obsessed with irreversible environmental degradation, would be a royal pain if she were not also a charmer. Jesse (Stephen Barker Turner), a laid-off teacher and stay-at-home dad, is a much calmer person who usually finds the bright side of any situation. They meet while watching their children play at the Children’s Museum. Opposites attract. We next see them in the waiting room of an I.C.U. (cf. the title), then at a New Age center in lower Manhattan when a Sandy-like storm hits, and later at the light show at the Children’s Museum. They are both changed for having met the other, but the durability of their relationship is an open question. The dialogue often sparkles and the actors are both appealing. By Flea standards, the production is lavish. The set design by Kyle Chepulis features a large turntable (which frankly seemed unnecessary) and the lighting design by Brian Aldous includes a brief light show worthy of a low-budget production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TIme.” Claudia Brown’s costumes are appropriate. There's also some high-powered piano playing by Or Matias. Jim Simpson’s direction is assured. Some might find the play too talky and tentative, but I found it offbeat and satisfying. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
Let me confess right off that I wasn’t that impressed by Stoppard’s romantic comedy when I saw the 2000 Tony-awarded revival with Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle. However, that version was superior to the current revival at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater. I only attended out of curiosity to see Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal in their Broadway debuts. McGregor is fine as Henry, the Stoppard surrogate who writes plays that have more wit than heart. Gyllenhaal is equally good as Annie, Henry’s mistress in act one and wife in act two. They should have more chemistry together though. Cynthia Nixon as Henry’s first wife Charlotte and Josh Hamilton as Annie’s first husband Max are less successful. Director Sam Gold does not seem to have a firm grip on the material; his decision to interpolate songs of the period sung by the cast between scenes misfires. He seems to like sets that are wide and shallow. The set by David Zinn is almost as unattractive as the one for “Look Back in Anger,” another Roundabout production directed by Gold. For an allegedly well-made play, I found the second act to be a bit scattershot and its echoes of the play’s opening scene rather clumsy. I grew increasingly restless as the second act dragged on. If you crave Stoppard, you'll do better with Roundabout's other revival, "Indian Ink." Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.
Sunday, November 9, 2014
In the 13 years since winning the Pulitzer and a Tony for Proof, playwright David Auburn’s work has rarely been seen in New York. His 2011 adaptation of The New York Idea was rather flat and his 2012 bipolay about Joseph Alsop, The Columnist, did not have much to offer beyond a juicy role for John Lithgow. Now he is back at Manhattan Theatre Club with this two-character play about Veronica (Tracie Thoms), an African-American nurse from New York City who rents a summer home in Putnam County for a week and Hogan (John Hawkes), the man she rents it from. The widowed Veronica is a hard-working nurse who just wants to offer her two children a week in the country. Hogan, a free spirit who could all too easily be dismissed as one of life’s losers, is a man unable to deliver on his good intentions. The landlord-tenant relationship that throws them together develops into something different as they confide in each other and eventually reach out to help each other. It is a pleasure to see award-winning indie film actor Hawkes on stage. Thoms, whose previous work I was not familiar with, holds her own performing with him. Auburn has written two characters that are both vivid and compassionate. The ending may not bring us to a happy place, but the journey is worthwhile. Daniel Sullivan’s direction is skillful. J. Michael Griggs’s set is appropriately both rustic and a bit seedy. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are apt. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes; no intermission.
Saturday, November 8, 2014
When I saw two previous plays by Simon Stephens (Harper Regan [http://bobs-theater-blog.blogspot.com/2012/09/harper-regan.html] and Bluebird [http://bobs-theater-blog.blogspot.com/2011/08/bluebird.html}) at the Atlantic Theater, I thought his work was moderately interesting. When I saw his adaptation for the stage of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time [http://bobs-theater-blog.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-curious-incident-of-dog-in-night.html], I thought his work was brilliant. Therefore, I was looking forward to seeing the New York premiere of this 2009 drama, which received almost unanimous raves from the London critics. To say I was keenly disappointed with this MCC production would be a major understatement. Those who wish to avoid spoilers should stop reading here. One London critic described it as The History Boys meets Columbine, a comparison that is an insult to the former. Both plays are about the stress of English public (i.e. private) school students preparing for their A-levels, but all resemblance ends there. The teenagers in this play are all stereotypes: Bennett (Will Pullen), the bully; Cissy (Lilly Englert), his compliant girlfriend; Tanya (Annie Funke), overweight and usually overlooked; Chadwick (Noah Robbins), the bullied nerd; Lilly (Colby Minifie), the new girl with a dark secret; William (Douglas Smith), the troubled boy with a casual relationship to the truth who wants to date her; and Nicholas (Pico Alexander), the handsome jock that she prefers. The author puts them together in a pressure cooker and we wait to see who will explode. The final scene introduces the lone adult character, Dr. Harvey, played by David Greenspan, who, for once, manages to avoid his usual excesses. In a country where school shootings were not almost weekly occurrences, perhaps the play seemed more profound. For me it seemed merely extremely unpleasant and tedious. I will grant that the young cast is very good. The dialect coach Stephen Gabis got excellent results from them. Director Trip Cullman has not helped the play by tarting it up with the actors running around in animal masks between scenes. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes; no intermission (wise decision).
Tuesday, November 4, 2014
On the basis of this first installment of Suzan-Lori Parks’s nine-part epic about the African-American experience from the mid-19th century to the present, now at the Public Theater, it is easy to understand why this highly original playwright won both a Pulitzer and a MacArthur grant. In “A Measure of a Man” Hero (Sterling K. Brown), a slave on a Texas plantation, must decide whether to follow his master to war in exchange for a promise of freedom. His wife Penny (Jenny Jules), his father figure The Oldest Old Man (Peter Jay Fernandez) and his oft-time rival Homer (Jeremie Harris) weigh in with their opinions and The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves make bets on his decision. Parks’s mashup of Greek drama, poetic language, anachronisms, music and humor somehow works. In “A Battle in the Wilderness,” the most naturalistic of the evening’s plays, we meet Hero’s master (Ken Marks), now a Confederate colonel, and the Union soldier he has captured (Louis Cancelmi). The two of them spar over the nature of slavery. The colonel is allowed to display a soft side and the captured soldier reveals a couple of surprises. Hero and the soldier find a common bond. In “The Union of My Confederate Parts” we return to the plantation many months later. Only Penny and Homer are left of the original slaves. Three runaway slaves who are hiding at the plantation try to persuade Homer to run off with them, but he is unwilling to leave Penny, who is tormented by nightmares about Hero. Word reaches the plantation that both the master and Hero are dead. However, Odyssey (Jacob Ming-Trent), Hero’s long lost dog, arrives and tells of Hero’s imminent return. When Hero, who has renamed himself Ulysses, arrives, he reveals previously unseen aspects of his character that are far from heroic. The question of what freedom costs remains open. Parks's incidental music and songs are beautifully performed by Steven Bargonetti. Jo Bonney’s direction is exemplary. The simple set by Neil Patel is effective and Esosa’s deliberately anachronistic costumes are a hoot. Parks proves that dealing with serious subjects can still leave lots of room to be entertaining. I hope the remaining six parts maintain the high level of these three. Running time: 3 hours, including one intermission.
Sunday, November 2, 2014
Lincoln Center Theater is presenting the world premiere of this fascinating work by Sarah Ruhl, one of our most versatile and interesting playwrights. Her plays are so varied that it is difficult to find a common denominator other than flashes of her intelligence and humor. The present work almost has the aura of a fairy tale. An American woman identified only as Mother (a superb Celia Keenan-Bolger) is married to a Tibetan refugee (James Yaegashi) who owns a restaurant in an unnamed American city. Each of them has broken an engagement to marry. One day two Tibetan Buddhist monks (Jon Norman Schneider and James Saito) pay an unexpected visit. They think that the family’s three-year old son may be the reincarnation of an important Buddhist teacher. When the son (Ernest Abuba) passes their tests, they are convinced that he is indeed their late teacher reborn and ask to take him back to India, their home in exile, to be educated in their monastery. I will say no more about the outcome. Rebecca Taichman, who has directed many of Ruhl’s previous plays, once again demonstrates her affinity for Ruhl’s sensibility. It is hard to imagine a better production. The sets by Mimi Lien, the gorgeous costumes by Anita Yavich, the evocative lighting by Japhy Weideman, the sound design by Darron L. West, the puppetry by Matt Acheson, the choreography by Barney O’Hanlon and Taichman’s skillful direction combined to weave an almost hypnotic spell over me. It was a stimulating experience. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.
Saturday, November 1, 2014
If good intentions and heartfelt sincerity were all it took to write a successful play, Kimber Lee (who apparently has an aversion to capital letters) would have hit the jackpot with her drama at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater. We know before the play begins that Tray (Sheldon Best), an 18-year-old black Brooklynite just finishing high school, is dead. The play opens with a grief-filled monologue by Tray’s grandma Lena (Lizan Mitchell) advising us that Tray’s life is worth far more than the few lines the newspaper will devote to his senseless death in a street shooting. After this strong start, the play moves backward and forward in time to describe Tray and the effects of his death on his grandmother, his beloved little half-sister Devine (Taliyah Whitaker), his long-estranged stepmother Merrell (Sun Mee Chomet) and, to a lesser extent, his friend Junior (Chris Myers). Unfortunately, the play begins to lose its course and ultimately resorts to some manipulative sentimentality. A few things puzzled me. What happened to Tray’s biological mother? Was the choice of an Asian-American actor to play Merrell an indication of his stepmother’s ethnicity or just a bit of nontraditional casting? (I concluded it was the former.) Some of the plot points stretched my willingness to suspend disbelief too far. Merrell’s reappearance, first as a tutor for Tray’s college admission essay, and then as a job applicant at the Starbuck’s where he is a barista, seemed too pat. The play’s sentimental but nonetheless wrenching ending reinforces our sense of tragic, senseless loss. The production is first-rate: the cast is very good, the set by Andromache Chalfant is excellent, the costumes by Dede M. Ayite are apt, the lighting by Jijoun Chang and the sound design by Asa Wember are effective and the direction by Patricia McGregor is assured. Would that the playwright had been able to maintain the high level of the play’s opening scene. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes, no intermission.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
In her new play now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, Heidi Schreck displays a talent for creating vivid characters whom she treats with compassion and humanity. Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a 39-year-old nun who runs a soup kitchen in the Bronx, is undergoing a crisis of faith. Oscar (Bobby Moreno), the handsome Hispanic handyman, affects a working-class macho facade that he doesn’t entirely feel. Frog (Lee Wilkof), a homeless regular client, struggles against mental illness. When Emma (Ismenia Mendes), a troubled 19-year-old with a reckless streak, begins work as a volunteer, her behavior has an impact on the other three, especially Shelley. The play is a series of short scenes, punctuated by blackouts, that gradually reveal the characters as they perform their jobs. Many vegetables are chopped. Director Kip Fagan (Schreck’s husband) does an excellent job of choreographing the work sequences. The cast is uniformly excellent. Rachel Hauck’s set design really looks like a working kitchen. Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit each character. The play examines issues of faith and forgiveness, the motivations for doing good, the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of help given, the extremes to which neediness can lead, and the sense of workplace community. The results are both enlightening and entertaining. I do wish that Schreck had further clarified the reasons for Emma's strong impact on Shelley. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
I wish I had been able to keep thoughts of the original production of Terrence McNally’s 1991 play out of my head while I watched this revival, now in previews at Second Stage. However, the memory of Christine Baranski, Swoosie Kurtz, Nathan Lane and Anthony Heald performing parts that (with the exception of Kurtz) were written for them was too strong to suppress. Their superb performances went a long way to minimize the play’s faults. Furthermore, at a time when AIDS was front and center in the nation’s consciousness, the play had a much greater resonance than it has today. It is not so much an AIDS play as a play about how straight people related to gays, at least in 1991. In a time of Ebola panic and gay marriage, its concerns seem almost quaint now. Sally and Sam Truman (America Ferrera and Michael Chernus) have invited Sam’s sister Chloe (Tracee Chimo) and her husband John (Austin Lysy) to join them for 4th of July weekend at the Fire Island Pines home that Sally has just inherited from her brother, recently deceased from AIDS. Although Sally loved her brother, she could not really deal with his homosexuality. The two couples are perfectly happy to enjoy the fruits of his labors as long as they stay out of the pool, which they fear might give them AIDS, and don’t get too friendly with the gay neighbors. At some point in the play each character addresses the audience to reveal his or her personal demons, including serious illness, low self-image, guilt over adultery, fear of miscarriage and fear of parenthood. The personalities of the two couples are so mismatched that it is difficult to imagine why they married. The play marks time for much of the first two acts, wasting moments on lame running jokes such as Sally’s inability to remember movie titles correctly and Chloe’s changing clothes constantly. At the end of the second intermission, there were more than a few empty seats in the theater. McNally finally raises the stakes in the final act, but then allows the tension to dissipate once more. Since “Bad Jews,” Chimo has become the go-to actress to play overbearing. Chernus lends a lot of humanity to his character and Lysy hits the right notes in a difficult role. Surprisingly, it is Ferrera, whom I have much admired in the past, who is the weak link here. Alexander Dodge’s set and Esosa’s costumes are attractive. Peter DuBois’s direction seemed a bit unfocused. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including two intermissions.
Saturday, October 25, 2014
My heart sank when the usher leading me to my seat at 59E59 Theater A for a preview of Walter Mosley’s play announced that the intermission listed in the program had been eliminated. From painful experience, I have learned that the usual reason for dropping intermission is that a substantial portion of the audience was not returning afterwards. I suspect that was the case here. Given the opportunity, I know that I would have fled. Alas, I did not get the opportunity so I had to sit through almost two hours of clumsy theatrics about two people trapped in an elevator in a building that has been bombed by terrorists. The two are Tina Pardon (Maamayaa Boafo), a seemingly prim Princeton grad, and Theodore “Big Time” Southmore (Biko Eisen-Martin), a highly placed analyst at the financial firm they both work for. Before the elevator accident, we briefly meet Tina’s sassy friend Noni Tariq (Shavona Banks) and the company CEO John Thomas Resterly (Martin Kushner), the only Caucasian character, who spouts more odious remarks in five minutes than one would think possible. We do learn eventually that the terrorists who bombed the building are also white, out to strike a blow against “the Jew banks.” During the long period they are trapped in the elevator, Tina and Theodore share secrets. We learn how she paid her way through college and how he deals with the pressures of a stressful job and a mother with dementia. In case their stories were not enough, Mosley throws in scraps of melodrama we hear from unseen people trapped in other elevators. They are not the only people feeling trapped. Andrei Onegin designed the somewhat flimsy cut-away elevator. Marshall Jones III directed. With his long successful writing career, Mosley's reputation will survive this fiasco. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes without intermission.
Monday, October 20, 2014
You have to give a lot of credit to director Daniel Aukin for conceiving the idea of turning Jonathan Lethem’s 528-page novel into a musical. Itamar Moses’s book manages to retain much of the book’s spirit and keeps the narrative reasonably clear. For me, the outstanding feature of this production, now in previews at the Public Theater, is Michael Friedman’s wonderful score. Ranging from R&B through gospel to hip-hop, Friedman’s music and lyrics brilliantly capture the musical background underpinning the lives of two Brooklyn boys, one white, the other black, starting in the 1970’s, before Gowanus became Boerum Hill. Dylan Ebdus (Adam Chanler-Berat) is the son of Abraham (Ken Barnett), an emotionally distant artist, and Rachel (Kristen Sieh), an activist who is proud that her son is one of only three white students in his school, but soon abandons him. Adam befriends Mingus (Kyle Beltran), a black neighbor who is also motherless and also named for a musician. Mingus protects Dylan from the neighborhood bully Robert Woolfolk (Brian Tyree Henry). The close friendship between Mingus and Dylan includes a bit of teenage sexual experimentation. Mingus’s father Barrett Rude Jr. (Kevin Mambo) is a burned-out coke addict, who once had a musical career that seemed promising but never caught fire. When Mingus’s preacher grandfather Barrett Rude Sr. (Andre de Shields) is released from jail and moves in with his kin, tragedy ensues. For anyone living in New York during the mid-seventies, the show recreates much of the societal context of racial strife, drugs, graffiti, blackouts, the so-called justice system, and the first stages of gentrification. The music is terrific, especially when sung by Barrett Rude Jr.’s singing group --the Subtle Distinctions -- and by de Shields. Eugene Lee’s set is appropriately drab and Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit the characters well. In both the novel and the musical, the introduction of a ring with magical properties seemed both unnecessary and a distraction. I am not sure how clear the story will be for those who have not read the book. Nevertheless, the wonderful score, the excellent performances and the show’s bold ambition won me over. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
The best feature of this new musical now in previews at the Neil Simon Theatre is the appealing score by Sting. The music is lively, varied, and well-performed by a vocally gifted cast. Unfortunately, muddy amplification and occasional diction problems made it difficult to decipher some of the lyrics. Choreographer Steven Hoggett, whose work added so much to “Once” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” does a fine job again here. The set and costumes by David Zinn are unexceptional. Director Joe Mantello keeps things moving briskly. The show’s weak link, in my opinion, is the book by John Logan (“Red”) and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”), which suffers from implausibility and sentimentality. The main character, Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper of "Red Vienna"), is the son of an abusive shipbuilder who flees the dying town as a teenager, leaving behind his girlfriend Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker), vowing to return for her. Fifteen years later, he finally does return, but only because he has been summoned by the earthy but wise Irish priest Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate). Meg has a new man in her life, Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar), who was smart enough to leave shipbuilding before it collapsed. Gideon’s return causes her much turmoil. There’s also young Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), whose relationship to the other characters will not be revealed here. Jimmy Nail and Sally Ann Triplett are strong as foreman Jackie White and his wife Peggy. After the shipyard has been closed and about to be turned into a salvage operation, the shipbuilders plan a last hurrah with the aid of Father O’Brien. The character of Gideon is not very sympathetic, which wouldn’t matter if he were more interestingly flawed and the role had more coherence. As it stands, I did not feel greatly involved in his fate. If you go to enjoy Sting’s music without worrying too much about the book, you’ll have a pleasant evening. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
When I saw the production of Ayad Akhtar’s powerful drama at LCT3 two years ago, before it won the Pulitzer Prize, I found it deeply affecting. (For my 4-star review of that version, go to http://bobs-theater-blog.blogspot.com/2012/10/disgraced.html). I wondered how it would hold up on second viewing in a much larger theater with a mostly new cast. The answer is that it still packs a wallop, but a slighter lesser one. The intimacy — and menace — of being only a few feet away from the action has been lost and the new cast members are, to my mind, less effective than their predecessors. As Amir, the assimilated Pakistani-American attorney and apostate Muslim, Hari Dhillon was a bit tepid. As Emily, his blonde artist wife with a penchant for Islamic art, Gretchen Mol also seemed a bit weak. Josh Radnor, as Isaac, the Jewish gallery owner who is considering showing her art, fared better. Karen Pittman, the lone holdover, is fine as Jory, Isaac’s African-American wife and Amir’s colleague. Danny Ashok, as Amir’s devout nephew Abe (f/k/a Hussein), was a bid broad. When Emily and Abe browbeat Amir into attending a hearing for an imprisoned imam, Amir’s carefully constructed world begins to collapse. The play’s commentary on religious and ethnic tensions in today’s America holds up very well. I had forgotten how many laughs the play has. The ending still seemed weak. Perhaps because the surprise element was gone for me the second time around, the play’s schematic structure seemed more apparent. John Lee Beatty must have been having an off day when he designed the set — the furnishings are quite unattractive and not at all what you would expect this couple to have. Lauren Helpern’s lovely set at LCT3 was far more apt. Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes are fine — Jory’s killer heels fit her to a tee. Kimberly Senior’s direction is strong. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes; no intermission.
Saturday, October 11, 2014
Would that there were talents like Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green writing for the Broadway stage today! To see their 1994 love letter to New York in this wonderful revival, originally developed for Barrington Stage, is sheer pleasure. What the cast lacks in name recognition it more than makes up for in talent. Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alvez are superb as Gabey, Chip and Ozzie, three sailors out to make their most of a 24-hour leave in New York City. Alysha Umphress is a hoot as Hildy, the taxi driver who virtually kidnaps Chip. NYCB principal Megan Fairchild makes an auspicious Broadway debut as Ivy Smith, the Miss Turnstiles for June that Gabey is determined to meet. Elizabeth Stanley is just OK as Claire, the anthropologist who gets carried away with Ozzie. Audience favorite Jackie Hoffman is a barrel of laughs in her four roles. Phillip Boykin is wonderful too in multiple roles. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic and production design relies heavily on sophisticated projections and translucent panels, to fine effect, especially as lit by Jason Lyons. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are wonderfully over the top. Joshua Bergasse had a touch act to follow after Jerome Robbins’s original choreography, but he handles the task well. It has been a while since a Broadway show has taken the time for extended pure dance sequences. The orchestra under James Moore does full justice to Bernstein's score. John Rando’s direction is uncluttered and assured. The audience was large and enthusiastic. This show’s 1971 and 1998 revivals barely lasted two months. This production deserves to fare better. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission.
Sunday, October 5, 2014
I hope that writing this family memoir was therapeutic for Billy Porter. That would at least provide some compensation for the ordeal of sitting through it. There are more family secrets under the roof of this home in Pittsburgh than one play can possibly handle. The fact that the only son of this religious black family is gay is far from the worst of its troubles. If only heartfelt emotions and good intentions were enough to make a play, this might have succeeded. Alas, the exposition is very clumsy. There are moments when it is difficult to tell not only when a scene is taking place but which characters are alive and which are dead. It does provide a fine opportunity for S. Epatha Merkerson, as the mother, to emote. I was looking forward to seeing Lillias White, but her underwritten role does not offer much chance to shine. The other cast members — Elain Graham, Sheria Irving, Kevyn Morrow, Larry Powell and Sharon Washington — do their best with the material. The second act meanders to a resolution that smacks of the wisdom of Oprah. I will give Porter credit for not sugarcoating the shortcomings of the character representing him. James Noone’s set is attractive and Esosa’s costumes are appropriate to their characters. I enjoyed the player piano. I’m not sure what director Sheryl Kaller could have done to improve things for this Primary Stages production at the Duke. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.
Not since “War Horse” have I seen a play whose success owed so much to its production design. What set and costume designer Bunny Christie, video designer Finn Ross and, especially, lighting designer Paule Constable have accomplished is no less than to provide a visual analog of the mind of a 15-year old autistic boy with a talent for mathematics. This is not to denigrate the considerable accomplishments of Simon Stephens in adapting Mark Haddon’s award-winning book, of Marianne Elliott for so skillfully directing the play, and of the superb cast for bringing its characters to vivid life. Alex Sharp is remarkable as Christopher Boone, the boy who gets more than he bargained for when he sets out to discover who killed the neighbor’s dog. Ian Banford is excellent as his loving, but often misguided father. Enid Graham shines as the mother worn down by the difficulties of raising Christopher. Francesca Faridany is convincing as his sympathetic teacher Siobhan who helps him navigate his daily challenges and persuades him to write this story. Her reading of the story aloud serves as the narration that brings us in to the play. Stephens has remained quite faithful to the original text. Dialect coach Ben Furey has made the American cast sound convincingly British. I would not have believed that a book that is primarily based on Christopher’s inner thoughts could be brought so vibrantly to the stage. It is easy to understand how it won the Olivier for Best Play. NOTE: Be sure not to rush out the theater right after the curtain calls or you'll miss a treat. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.
Sunday, September 28, 2014
Donald Margulies’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club could well bear the subtitle “Variations on Chekhovian Themes.” Characters and situations from “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya” are borrowed, tweaked and conflated to produce a clever mash-up that works more often than not. The action takes place in the Williamstown home of Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner), an acclaimed actress of a certain age who is in town to play the title role in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. For the first anniversary of her daughter Kathy’s death, she is joined by her granddaughter Susie (Sarah Steele), a senior at Yale; her daughter’s widower Walter (David Rasche), a successful Hollywood director who has his new girlfriend Nell (Kate Jennings Grant), an actress, in tow; and Anna’s unhappy son Elliot (Eric Lange), an unsuccessful actor and would-be playwright. The family are joined by a surprise guest, Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), a television celebrity who has come to town to play The Guardsman. As a young actor, he had appeared with Anna and had an affair with Kathy; he is still catnip to three generations of women. Eleven years ago, Nell and Elliot had acted together in Louisville, leaving Elliot smitten with unrequited love for her. All this is laid out cleverly in the first act with amusing dialogue. And then things head south. The second act seemed formulaic and the third act, which hews too slavishly to Chekhov, did not offer any sense of resolution. The play is peppered with droll observations on the state of theater and film. The cast are uniformly excellent, John Lee Beatty’s set is luscious, Rita Ryack’s costumes are appropriate and Daniel Sullivan’s direction is smooth and assured. Although the destination was a disappointment, it was an entertaining ride for most of the journey. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission
Saturday, September 20, 2014
A clever friend referred to Ivo van Hove as a “destination director.” When he directs a play, the main attraction for many people is to see what he has done with the material rather than to see the work itself. Although his relationship with New York Theatre Workshop goes back to 1996, I have thus far avoided seeing any of his productions. Perhaps I have an innate suspicion of directors who think they know better than playwrights or filmmakers. In any case, his adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s superb television series and theatrical film was on my NYTW subscription, so I attended today’s preview. Van Hove’s first directorial stroke was to assign the roles of Johan and Marianne to three different couples portraying them at different stages of their marriage — Alex Hurt and Susannah Flood at the 10-year mark, Dallas Roberts and Roslyn Ruff a few years later, and Arliss Howard and Tina Benko at the moment they separate. Act One consists of three scenes roughly corresponding to the first three chapters of the filmed version. The gimmick is that the three scenes are performed simultaneously in three different areas of the theater. The audience moves from area to area in the order prescribed by the color of the wristband received upon arrival. I was in the pink group and saw the scenes in 3-1-2 time sequence. This was unfortunate because each scene had less impact than the preceding one. Howard and Benko are by far the strongest couple and, I thought, Roberts and Ruff are the least effective and have the weakest scene. Since the partitions are not soundproof, the audience hears snippets of dialogue and slamming doors from the other two scenes. No doubt this was a directorial choice. After a 30-minute intermission, the entire audience returns to the full theater, now configured in the round. Act Two follows the course of their post-separation relationship. Van Hove’s next distraction is that the opening scene of Act Two is played with all three couples on stage, sometimes speaking in unison, sometimes fugally, and sometimes changing partners in mid-sentence. Tripling the roles did not serve any purpose to me other than to demonstrate the director’s cleverness. The final two scenes are much more conventional and even touched by tenderness. The question I was left with at play’s end was “Why?” The film is regarded by many as a masterpiece and the acting by Erland Josephson and Liv Ulmann was incredible. Although much of the acting here is fine and the production is never boring, nothing approaches the film’s level, so I must again ask “Why mess with success?” The only answer I can think of is that the director wanted to. Running time: 3 hours, 30 minutes including 30-minute intermission.
Except for “Oliver” and “A Christmas Story,” I have not cared for musicals with lots of children in them. That plus high ticket prices kept me away from this hit from London for a year and a half. However, when orchestra seats for under $100 became available, I decided to give it a try. The production values are top of the line. Rob Howell’s set design is one of the cleverest I have seen in several years; his costumes are fine too. Peter Darling’s choreography is spirited and often ingenious. The direction by Matthew Warchus is seamless and assured. The producers have kept the show in fine shape despite multiple cast changes. The current cast is quite good. Christopher Sieber is a hoot as Miss Trunchbull, Alison Liff makes a sympathetic Miss Honey, and Matt Harrington and Lesli Margherita are delightfully over the top as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. Matilda was played at my performance by Eliza Holland Madore, a tiny powerhouse. The other children and the secondary adult roles are well cast too. The curtain call number was among the best I have seen. So why did I admire the show more than I liked it? Roald Dahl’s story didn’t really engage me, at least not as presented in Dennis Kelly’s book, and Tim MInchin’s music and lyrics seemed merely serviceable. I liked it better than I expected to, but found it a bit chilly at its heart. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Saturday, September 13, 2014
The poster for Neil LaBute’s new comedy, now in previews at MCC Theater, is doubly misleading: the four actors do not end up in bed together and Fred Weller does not have hair on his chest. The play raises the question of whether the world really needs another satirical look at the denizens of Hollywood. They are both too easy and too frequent a target, unless the playwright has some new insight to share. That is not the case here. Steve (Weller) is an obtuse 50-ish action film hero whose fight against Father Time has led him to marry Missy (Gia Crovatin), an ex-cheerleader and would-be actress less than half his age. Since Karen (Elizabeth Reaser) came out as a lesbian, her movie career has been on the skids, despite her attempts to pump it up with a cookbook, website, charitable activities and marketing ploys. Her lover Bev (Callie Thorne) is a film editor with a pugnacious personality, to put it mildly. Steve and Karen are currently filming a movie that they hope will revive their careers. The European director has suggested that they liven up an upcoming bedroom scene by actually having sex. The four are gathered at Karen’s luxurious home in the Hollywood hills the night before filming, allegedly to negotiate with their loved ones how far they are allowed to go in the shoot. However, it is more than an hour into the play before they finally get around to the matter at hand. The first hour is devoted to a series of arguments over such weighty questions as whether David Crosby is Bing’s son and whether Belgium is really part of Europe. By the time they get around to arguing over where tongues may or may not be placed during the shoot, we have realized that LaBute’s own tongue is planted firmly in his cheek. There are many amusing lines, but it all adds up to absolutely nothing. The actors give it their all. Weller, who was billed as Frederick in Mothers and Sons is listed here as Fred; I wish he had also shed the pinched voice that was so annoying in McNally’s play. Derek McLane’s set is lovely, Sarah J. Holden’s costumes are just right and Terry Kinney’s direction is fluid. Too bad they didn’t have something more substantive to work on. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission.
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
I had not previously heard of The Playwrights Realm, a theater company “dedicated to serving early-career playwrights” that offers a year-long residency culminating in a full-scale off-Broadway production. On the basis of Elizabeth Irwin’s new play at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater until September 20, I would say they have a sharp eye for talent and a commitment to high production values. Irwin’s workplace drama with comedic overtones presents a vivid slice-of-life about four busboys in an Upper East Side restaurant. Peter (Jason Bowen), a black man with a child, is the senior among them and the only one who takes professional pride in his work. Two busboys are undocumented Mexican immigrants; frugal Jorge (José Joaquin Pérez) left wife and children behind almost four years ago to earn enough money to build them a new home. Spendthrift Pepe (Reza Salazar) is a recently arrived young man who dreams of saving enough to bring his younger brother to New York. The junior busboy Whalid (Brian Quijada), a second-generation Hispanic who lives with his parents and has vague dreams of getting a civil service job, teases Jorge and Pepe mercilessly. We follow the four through their daily rounds at work and learn what pressures in the outside world make their lives difficult. A crisis at work puts each of them to a test of solidarity. I do not generally like the use of monologues, but Irwin has skillfully incorporated them here. The actors are all very good, particularly Bowen and Pérez. Chay Yew’s direction is seamless. The set design by Wilson Chin is worth arriving a few minutes early just to admire; he captures the details of a working kitchen right down to the scrapes on the walls. Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes are excellent. The play illustrates the personal dimension of large social issues, including immigration policy, race relations, exploitation of the vulnerable, the corrosive effects of poverty. Irwin shows a lot of talent and I look forward to seeing what she does next. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission.
NOTE: The Peter Jay Sharp Theater (the smaller upstairs theater at Playwrights Horizons) has less than ideal seating. The seats are directly behind each other rather than staggered and have no padding on the seat backs. If you have back problems, bring a cushion.
QUESTION: Why would a character who is identified as Hispanic be named Whalid, a name I have always thought was of Arabic origin? Ideas, anyone?
Sunday, September 7, 2014
We should be grateful to Shane Baker for taking on the task of translating Beckett’s landmark tragicomedy to Yiddish and to New Yiddish Rep for bringing it to the Barrow Street Theatre.. Somehow the words spoken by Beckett’s characters Vladimir (Baker), Estragon (David Mandelbaum), Pozzo (Allen Lewis Rickman) and Lucky (Rafael Goldwaser) take on an added emotional weight when they are heard in Yiddish. It helps that all four actors are superb in their roles. Rickman and Goldwaser are so good that they almost steal the limelight from the two main characters. Despite his gray hair and balding pate, Baker has such a youthful face that he appears much younger than Mandelbaum. Lucky’s long soliloquy in the first act is absolutely mesmerizing. (There is a video of it out there. Google it). In a nice touch, Godot’s messenger is played by a young African-American boy with dreadlocks (Nicholas Jenkins) The simple set by George Xenos is effective. Moshe Yassur not only skillfully directed the play but designed the costumes. Even in this fine production the play’s second act never reaches the high level of the first. It is a play that I admire but will never wholeheartedly like. I’m glad to see it presented so well though. There are English supertitles. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission.
Friday, September 5, 2014
It took almost 20 years to get here, but Tom Stoppard’s 1995 play (based on his 1991 radio play “In the Native State”) has finally reached New York in a first-rate production by Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre. One can speculate on the reasons it took so long — its large cast (15), its relative lack of the playwright’s customary intellectual showmanship, and its appearance between the flashier “Arcadia” and “The Invention of Love.” In any case, we should be glad it has at last arrived. The central character is Flora Crewe (a fine Romola Garai), a free-spirited young British woman whose erotic poetry has caused a bit of a scandal and who has gone to India early in 1930. Her alleged purpose is to give a lecture tour about the British literary world, but actually she has traveled for health reasons. While in Jummapur, she meets an Indian artist Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji,) who paints her portrait, and is wooed by a British colonial functionary David Durance (Lee Aaron Rosen). Shortly after leaving Jummapur for the Indian highlands, she dies. Although her work was scorned in her lifetime, 50 years later she has become all the rage. Her younger sister Eleanor (the always wonderful Rosemary Harris), now in her late sixties, is visited by an American professor Eldon Pike (Neal Huff) who is publishing her collected letters and is far more interested in unimportant details than in the truth. She is also visited by Anish Das (Bhavesh Patel), the painter’s son, who is trying to discover what transpired between Flora and his father. The action alternates between India in the early 1930s and England and India in the 1980s. Sometimes characters from both time periods are onstage at the same time, but there is no possibility of confusion. The play touches upon contrasting aesthetic traditions, the common bond that art provides and some of the effects of imperialism. The pace is unhurried, but if you are patient you should find the emotional payoff in the final scenes gratifying. The supporting cast is excellent. Neil Patel’s set design and Candice Donnelly’s costumes are attractively effective. Carey Perloff’s direction is straightforward and uncluttered. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission. NOTE: There is a brief moment of full frontal female nudity.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
This work by Robert O’Hara, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, is a loose assemblage of sketches, most of them comedic, that don’t really fit together very well. The central character is Sutter (Phillip James Brannon) whom we see as an effeminate black child, a misunderstood teenager, a black playwright with a taste for racial vengeance, and a loving grandson. The scenes that include him have a loose narrative thread. Other scenes include a monologue by a preacher who comes out as a cross dresser and another by a man trying to talk himself out of a mugging. A clever costume trick is the gimmick of a hilarious scene depicting a phone conversation with two actors playing four characters. In a darker vein there is a long scene about two brothers-in-law who have a complex and painful relationship. The final scene of act one is an amusing faux conference at Playwrights Horizons with a panel comprised of the alleged authors of the previous sketches and a clueless white moderator. After intermission there is a funny yet moving scene of Sutter’s family at the dinner table. This is followed by an overlong sketch of two lesbians, Genitalia and Intifada, undoing their commitment ceremony. A friend accurately described it as a Saturday Night Live sketch that wears out its welcome. The evening turns very dark with a playlet about Sutter and a flaming butch queen friend picking up a drunk, emotionally unstable white man in a bar and going back to his hotel. In the aftermath, there is a Brechtian moment in which the actors rebel against the playwright and decide to skip the (nonexistent) prison scene. We end with Sutter reminiscing with his grandmother at her nursing home. The language is consistently and outrageously vulgar and there is both graphic description of sexual acts and extended male nudity (tellingly, by the only white actor). The best argument for the play is the opportunity it provides for five terrific actors to show their mettle. Jessica Frances Dukes, Jesse Pennington, Benja Kay Thomas and Lance Coadie Williams play multiple roles with great gusto. The revolving set and appropriately over-the-top costumes by Clint Ramos are first-rate. Once again I am persuaded that, in general, playwrights should not direct their own work. There are multiple instances where scenes run on much too long, a fault another director might well have corrected. I really hoped I could recommend it with more enthusiasm, but its many faults cancel out most of its strengths. I won't give away the meaning of the title. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
I guess I wasn’t paying close attention when I booked a ticket for Kim Davies’s new play now in previews at The Flea’s tiny downstairs theater. Their website clearly describes it as a “BDSM erotic power game” so I can’t claim I wasn't warned. Although I usually try to avoid “spoilers” on this blog, I think it only fair to warn you that, unless your idea of the erotic encompasses having sex with knives, this 75-minute play will be a tough slog. (I should also warn you that many cigarettes are smoked.) I know I would have fled halfway through the play had I been able to. John (Stephen Stout) plays a 31-year old would-be artist who is the intern of a famous photographer. Julie (Madeleine Bundy) is a spoiled college student who, conveniently, turns out to be his employer’s daughter. They meet in the kitchen of a home where a sex party is in progress. Their encounter eventually leads to the aforementioned sex scene. If there was a point to it, I missed it. The actors make a very attractive couple (although Stout has the worst haircut in New York) and perform their roles with conviction. Director Tom Costello keeps things moving. Andrew Diaz’s set is simple but effective. Beth Goldenberg’s costumes are apt. I find it offensive that The Flea is presenting this. Maybe I am a prude after all. In fairness, I should report that the audience, almost exclusively under 35, gave it enthusiastic applause.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Regular readers of this blog know that I am a devoted fan of A. R. Gurney’ plays. I was therefore very pleased to learn that Signature Theatre would present three of his works — two revivals and a new play — this season. In addition, a Broadway revival of “Love Letters” with star (or stunt, depending on your point of view) casting is forthcoming. The play Signature chose to start the Gurney series is a rarely produced work from 1977. We meet five sets of people staying (or, in one case, working) at a nondescript motel outside of Boston. An elderly couple, Frank (the always fine Jon DeVries), who is suffering from heart trouble, and Jessie (Lizbeth Mackay, also very good) are in town to visit their newest grandchild. Vince, an overbearing father (Marc Kudisch, usually excellent, but stuck here with a one-note role) has brought his long-suffering son Mark (Will Pullen) for a Harvard interview that the father wants far more than his son. Andy (Kelly AuCoin) and Ruth (Rebecca Henderson) are a divorcing couple whose attempt to divide their possessions amicably goes awry. Phil (David McElwee) is a college student who has rented a room for the night to bed his girlfriend Sally (Ismenia Mendes) for the first time. Ray (Quincy Dunn-Baker) is a married traveling salesman who tries to pick up Sharon (an amusing Jenn Lyon), a waitress whose concern for her customers’ health is not appreciated by her employers. (Mendes, Henderson and Pullen appeared together recently in Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra at Playwrights Horizons.) The play’s gimmick is that all five stories take place simultaneously on the same set. (Gurney’s acknowledges Ayckbourn’s similar experiments.) This idea turns out not to be as interesting as it sounds. The set becomes cluttered with characters from different stories who barely manage not to bump into each other. It would have helped if the stories were more compelling and if they somehow enriched each other. Unfortunately, there is only one fleeting moment when two stories connect. Andrew Lieberman must have had fun designing the set; the plaid wallpaper and orange chenille bedspreads raise hideousness to new heights. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are unremarkable. I’m not sure what director Lila Neugebauer could have done to prevent this slender work from making such a tepid impression. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission.
Note: The stage is unusually high. Sitting in the third row, my eyes were level with its floor. Those in the first few rows on the right have a partially obstructed view.
Friday, August 15, 2014
Naomi Wallace, a playwright in residence at Signature Theatre this season, has a most impressive resume. It includes a MacArthur Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an Obie Award, the 2012 Horton Foote Prize and the 2013 Windham Campbell prize for drama. I wish I could say that the reasons for all her honors were more evident in her new drama now in previews at Signature. The action follows the story of two young women both as teenagers in prison in 1950 and as roommates nine years later. Scenes of their hardships in the outside world are juxtaposed with scenes of their budding friendship in prison. Many of the prison scenes involve Young Jamie (Trae Harris), who is black, coaching Young Dee (Emily Skeggs), who is white, how to be a proper servant, the career they look forward to pursuing after prison. Part of the lessons involve learning where to establish lines that must not be crossed in dealings with their future employers. After prison Jamie (Rachel Nicks) and Dee (Samantha Soule) are living in abject poverty, struggling to find and hold jobs as servants. The disconnect between their personalities in prison and later is exacerbated by the lack of physical resemblance between the two actors playing them. Skeggs’s body type is so different from Soule’s that it is a stretch to accept the two as the same character at different ages. The reasons for their desperation are not made sufficiently clear. The sudden explosion of repressed lesbianism took me by surprise. The actors invest their roles with sincerity and energy. The spartan set by Rachel Hauck is effective, as are Cliff Ramos’s costumes. With the audience split into two facing sides, director Caitlin McLeod needs to work harder to insure that fewer lines are lost when the actors are facing away. It all seemed like a mash-up of “Girls in Prison” and “Thelma and Louise” with a touch of “The Maids” thrown in. I hope that Wallace’s remaining two plays will deliver more evidence of her talents. In case you were wondering, the title is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Thursday, August 7, 2014
The creators of this indie rock musical from Iceland, now in previews at the Minetta Lane Theatre, certainly deserve credit for originality. Its producers are also to be commended for their daring in bringing this lavish production to New York. Its talented cast of 12 includes Cady Huffman (The Producers) as Manuela, mayor of Elbowville, a town of lobster fisherman who live simply and worship Robert Redford. The arrival of the Prosperity Machine leads them to rampant capitalism, unbridled consumerism and eventually economic collapse. (It’s not too different from what actually happened in Iceland not that long ago.) Overlaid on this cautionary tale is the story of three brothers, two of whom fall for the same woman. The production values are topnotch. When you enter, the entire back wall of the simple set (by Petr Hlousek) is covered with a projected film of a scruffy middle-aged man in camouflage trousers and a sleeveless polka-dot undershirt trying to fall asleep. It is in his elbow that the action takes place. The costumes (by Hrafnhildur Arnardottir and Edda Gudmundsdottir), mainly in black and red, are fanciful, especially the mayor’s. The evocative lighting (by Jeff Croiter) is very effective. Choreographer Lee Proud (Billy Elliot) moves the cast skillfully and throws in a lively tap dance number which has almost nothing to do with the plot, but is entertaining. Music director Stefan Orn Gunnlaugsson and the Revolution Cellular Orchestra make the most of Ivar Pall Jonsson’s songs. Jonsson also wrote the book and lyrics and his brother Gunnlaugur Jonsson wrote the story. The songs are varied and, in a couple of instances are quite powerful, particularly one near the end of the second act called “Alone.” Bergur Ingolfsson’s smooth direction hides many of the show’s flaws. If more of the songs had reached the level of the best ones and the plot had been less simplistic, the show could have been remarkable. As it is, it’s a welcome curiosity unlike anything you are likely to have seen. If you are thinking of going, I urge you to look at the show’s website, where you are able to listen to a few of the songs. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission.
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Primary Stages' first play of the season is now in previews at its new home at The Duke on 42nd Street. If you crave 2+ hours of arguing, bickering, shouting and throwing tantrums, punctuated only by chunks of pseudophilosophical blather and a few feeble attempts at humor, this is the play for you. Two childless married couples, probably in their late thirties and wed for about a decade, are gathered at the vacation home of one of the couples for a weekend in the country. The hosts, Peter (Jeff Biehl) and Ella (Katie Kreisler), seem relatively sane and happy, at least compared to the other couple. Ian (Brian Avers) is an abrasive Irishman who may have married the hysterical Maureen (Heidi Armbruster) either for her money or a green card. After a long night of drinking, Maureen makes an accusation of infidelity which leads to serious consequences. There is much talk about the nature of "good." The actors did not dishonor themselves coping with this less than stellar material, although Avers shouted louder than necessary much of the time. Lauren Helpern's set of the kitchen, dining nook and entryway of the house was quite attractive and looked lived in. Jessica Pabst's costumes were apt. I find it hard to judge Evan Cabnet's direction, because Theresa Rebeck's script presents so many problems. Rebeck, whose work includes Mauritius, Seminar, and Our House, has the rare distinction of being the playwright whose latest play I always like less than the previous one. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.
Friday, August 1, 2014
When strong sexual attraction clashes with literary incompatibility, which will win out? How does a young person deal with the acute anxiety of being temporarily without access to the internet? How can we ever really know someone? These are some of the questions posed by Laura Eason’s entertaining two-character play at Second Stage. Olivia is a near-40 novelist turned teacher who was so traumatized by her first book’s lukewarm reception many years ago that she refuses to show anyone the manuscript of her second novel. Ethan is a 28-year-old hunk who has chronicled his sexual exploits in the blog after which the play is named and turned them into two e-books that spent 5 years on the Times best-seller list. They meet on a stormy winter night at a remote Michigan b&b where they both have come to work, Olivia on her novel and Ethan on the screenplay for his first book. This set-up has more than a touch of sitcom about it, but a sitcom with good dialog and literary ambitions. Fortunately for us, Olivia and Ethan are played by Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) and Billy Magnussen (Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike), two very appealing actors who have palpable chemistry. They have sex on the table, on the couch, in the bed — and that’s just in Act One. They are less compatible out of the sack. Ethan has read and admired Olivia’s first novel and pushes her to resume her writing career with his help. He longs to get past the image of his previous books and write something serious. Olivia cannot help wondering whether the bad boy persona in Ethan’s books is just a character or the actual person. Complications arise in the second act, many of them arising from the perils of the publishing world in the digital age. We have to take it on faith that both are talented writers. Andromache Chalfant’s sets are fine, particularly her set for Olivia’s apartment. Esosa’s costumes befit their characters. David Schwimmer’s direction is assured, although I did feel the sex scenes were longer than necessary. I found the characters to be more like constructs than real people, but the committed acting allayed my qualms. As summer entertainment, the play hits the mark as long as you don’t examine it too closely. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
This dark 1993 comedy by Nicky Silver, the play that first brought him wide recognition, has been revived off-off-Broadway in an earnest production by the Strain Theatre Company at Teatro Circulo. It provides an interesting opportunity to see an early version of the classic dysfunctional family Silver has written about as recently as The Lyons. The entire Duncan family of suburban Philadelphia is living in denial. Son Todd (Roger Manix), just returned home after five promiscuous years away, denies his mortality even though he has AIDS. His sister Emma (Lori Kee) is a hypochondriac whose severe memory problems keep her from facing her problems, which, it is strongly suggested, include sexual abuse by her father. The adulterous father Arthur (Dennis Gagomiros) is a bank president who confuses his own memories with his childrens’ and is too fond of his daughter. The mother Grace (Maggie Low) is an alcoholic who tries to find meaning in party planning, virtually indifferent to whether the event is her daughter’s wedding or her son’s funeral. Tommy McKorckle (Jeremiah Maestas), Emma’s fiance, is a sexually confused, orphaned homeless waiter whom Grace presses into service as the family maid. Silver’s blends the absurd, the lyrical, the shocking and, occasionally, the realistic. Navigating these rapid changes is a challenge that the actors meet with varying degrees of success. The looming dinosaur skeleton Todd is assembling from bones found in the backyard is a rather ponderous symbol of the family’s imminent extinction. I suspect that theatrical developments since 1993 have robbed the play of some of its shock value. Peri Grabin Leong’s living room set is quite attractive. Marisa Kaugars’s costumes are apt. Stephen Kaliski’s direction is a bit tentative. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
With his new play now in previews at the Atlantic Theater Company, Stephen Adly Guirgis proves once again that he is one of our most entertaining playwrights. Walter “Pops” Washington (the superb Stephen McKinley Henderson) is a black former cop whose career was ended by a hail of bullets in a dicey bar 8 years before the play opens. He has been recently widowed, his son Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas) has been in and out of jail and consorts with criminals such as Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar) who has moved in with them. Their household is completed by Lulu (Rosal Colon), Junior’s girlfriend, who has more curves than brains. We also meet Walter’s former partner Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and her fiance Lieutenant Caro (Michael Rispoli), an ambitious, politically well-connected cop. Last but not least is the Church Lady (Liza Colon-Zayas), a visitor who is not what she seems. Walter’s landlord is out to evict him from his rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. Lt. Caro is determined to do whatever it takes to get Walter to sign a settlement with the city that he has been fighting for 8 years to remove loose ends in an election year and enhance his career. What makes the play so exciting is Guirgis’s dialogue. The language is rough, but the humor is wonderful. The play opens with a discussion of nutrition unlike any you are likely to hear again. Guirgis skillfully softens up the audience with humor so that when he turns serious, the impact is twice as strong. The first scene of the second act features the most bizarre sex scene I have seen on a stage — and there’s no nudity involved. The remainder of the second act was less successful and I found the ending weak. Nevertheless, everything else was so enjoyable that these defects barely diminished my pleasure. Walt Spangler’s revolving set captures the look of a grand apartment that had seen better days. Alexis Forte’s costumes suit their characters well. Austin Pendelton’s direction is assured. If you enjoyed “The Motherf**ker with The Hat,” you will love this one; if you didn’t, you probably won’t. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission.