Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Outside Mullingar ***

If you are willing to turn off your critical faculties and yield to the skillful manipulations of a master, you can have a good time at John Patrick Shanley's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club. Not for nothing has it been called the Irish "Moonstruck." It too is a rather slight but enjoyable rom-com with a prickly couple at the center. Fortunately Anthony and Rosemary are played by Shanley veteran Brian F. O'Byrne and, in her Broadway debut, Debra Messing, who play well off each other and are joined by two wonderful actors, Peter Maloney and Dearbhla Molloy as Anthony's father and Rosemary's mother. The wisp of a plot involves a spiteful real estate transaction 30 years prior, the alienation between father and son, the loneliness of Irish farm life and a long-smoldering unrequited love. There are some fine set pieces that allow each actor to shine, but for me, a ludicrous revelation in the final scene undid some of the good will the play had earned. John Lee Beatty's set design is topnotch and Catherine Zuber's costumes are fine. Doug Hughes's direction is assured. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner **

In this stage adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's 1959 story about class in England, now at Atlantic Stage 2, playwright Roy Williams has moved the action to the present and changed the race of the protagonist to black to add an additional level of conflict. This transposition might have worked better if it had been more fully developed. Sheldon Best plays the title character Colin with more stamina than clarity of motivation. The flashbacks that punctuate the play, showing him in short scenes with his parents, best friend, girl and fellow residents of the juvenile facility seemed scatter-shot and did not have cumulative impact. There are several scenes between Colin and Stevens, the social worker who urges him to run in a race against a local private school. Granted that Stevens is supposed to be smarmy, in his portrayal by Todd Weeks he comes across as little more than a buffoon given to bombastic declamation. A general lack of nuance hurts the production. In the strong supporting cast, Zainab Jah, Joshua E. Nelson and Jasmine Cephas Jones stood out. The spare set by Lauren Helpern and projections by Pauline Lu and Paul Piekarz are effective, as are the costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II. Leah C. Gardiner directed.  I really wanted to like the play, but even at 80 minutes felt it dragged.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Tribute Artist ***

If you are not a fan of Charles Busch's brand of female impersonation or of the kind of silliness that is often based on vulgarity, you can skip this play and the rest of this review. If, on the other hand, you enjoy high camp, you'll want to get to 59E59 for his newest play's Primary Stages premiere. To call the plot "convoluted" would be to oversimplify it; "preposterous" is a closer fit. The characters are Adriana (Cynthia Harris), a dying dowager with a townhouse in Greenwich Village; Jimmy (Busch), a drag queen --- oops, forgive me, celebrity tribute artist -- who stays with Adriana when he is in town; Rita (Busch stalwart Julie Halston), their lesbian friend who is an unsuccessful real estate broker; Christina (Mary Bacon), Adriana's feckless estranged niece; Oliver (Keira Keeley), Christina's teenage son who until recently was Rachel; and Rodney (Jonathan Walker), Adriana's shady long-lost lover. The madness does not reach the inspired level of Busch's "The Divine Sister" and it drags in spots [pun intended] but there are lots of funny lines along the way. Anita Louizos's townhouse living room set is sumptuous, Gregory Gale's costumes are droll, and Katherine Carr's wigs are perfect. Carl Andress, Busch's long-time director, does the honors again here. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


My theatergoing year got off to a very promising start with Roundabout Theatre's dazzling revival of Sophie Treadwell's expressionistic 1928 play. Helen (Rebecca Hall), a woman in her 20s who lives with and supports her unloving widowed mother (Suzanne Bertish), suffers from what used to be called neurasthenia, a kind of mental exhaustion brought on by the stresses of the impersonal, mechanistic, modern urban world. The stylized opening scene, set in the office where Helen works as a stenographer, brilliantly captures the relentless monotony and banality of the workplace. After Helen's older self-absorbed boss (Michael Cumpsty) takes a shine to her, she reluctantly marries him even though she cringes at his touch. When she visits a speakeasy with a friend, she meets a sexy young man (Morgan Spector) and begins an affair. Her powerful attraction to her lover makes her loveless marriage seem ever more intolerable. Complications ensue. Supporting the four excellent leads, 14 actors deftly handle multiple roles. A great deal of the success of the play is owed to its outstanding production design -- Es Devlin's set of beige geometrically etched panels mounted on a large turntable seems to bring us to a new location each time it revolves. It functions almost like one of the characters. When the set turns between scenes, we get fleeting vignettes choreographed by Sam Pinkleton which Jane Cox has dramatically lit by moving horizontal bands of light. The excellent sound design by Matt Tierney underscores the emotions onstage. Michael Krass has costumed the supporting cast in appropriately bleak monochromes. Director Lyndsey Turner has skillfully blended all these elements with brilliant results. Bravo to Roundabout for bringing us this rare treat. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.