Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Happiest Song Plays Last *

The final play in Quiara Alegria Hudes's Elliot Trilogy is now in previews at Second Stage Theatre. Since I mostly enjoyed their production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning second installment, Water by the Spoonful, a little over a year ago, I was looking forward to the third play. I am sorry to report that the final play is a big step backwards from its predecessor. It is an unfocused melange of plot lines that are long on talk and short on cohesion -- community activism, after effects of the Iraq War, the important role of music in Puerto Rican culture, docudrama moviemaking, the events of Tahrir Square, the middle-aged desire to procreate, emergency room failings, and on and on. The focus is once more on Elliot (Armando Riesco again) and Yaz (Lauren Velez), Puerto Rican-American cousins from North Philadelphia. Elliot, a former Marine who served in Iraq is in Jordan making a film about the war. The film's female lead is Shar (Annapurna Sriram), an attractive actress with some Iranian and Egyptian blood. Their driver is Ali (Dariush Kashani), a refugee from Iraq trying to survive in Jordan. Back in Philly, Yaz has abandoned life in an upscale highrise for a house in the hood, where she cooks for and looks after her needy neighbors, especially Lefty (Anthony Chisholm), a homeless man. One of her neighbors is Agustin (Tony Plana) an alcoholic musician 20 years her senior who would like to have a baby with her. The action, such as it is, jumps back and forth among these characters with little effect. A polemic outburst in the second act seems to come out of nowhere. Allegedly, much of the material is autobiographical. Unfortunately it has not been shaped into a unified whole. A three-piece band provides welcome musical interludes that briefly stop the endless talk. Michael Carnahan's massive wooden slat set suggests Puerto Rico rather than either Philadelphia or Jordan. The usually fine Ruben Santiago-Hudson does not show a sure directorial hand. Fans of the television show "Ugly Betty" will at least enjoy the opportunity to see Plana and Velez together again. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Stage Kiss ***

Sarah Ruhl’s delightful backstage comedy, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, is at heart a love letter to theater and actors. Along with loads of hilarity, there is an exploration of how permeable the border between art and life is and how hard it sometimes is to tell which is imitating which. The premise is that an actress (Jessica Hecht) making a return to the stage after a long time off for childrearing is cast in the revival of a short-lived period drams from the 30’s about a woman whose dying wish is to see her old lover again. The actor playing her long lost lover is none other than her real-life former lover (Dominic Fumusa) from whom she split acrimoniously 20 years prior. When they are forced to kiss on stage eight times a week, their affair is rekindled. For most of the play’s first hour, I was doubled over with laughter. In the opening audition from hell, Hecht demonstrates that she can be a first-class comedienne; her mannered style, which I have often found so annoying, serves her well here. The audition is followed by several funny rehearsal scenes and, finally, by opening night. Fumusa has a scene on crutches that is a comic triumph. The revelation for me was Michael Cyril Creighton, who at various points plays the butler, the understudy, the doctor and, in the second act, a pimp; he is wickedly funny in all his guises. The rest of the supporting cast (Todd Almond, Clea Alsip, Emma Galvin, Daniel Jenkins and Patrick Kerr) are fine too. At intermission, I feared that Ruhl would be unable to maintain so high a level for another act. To some extent, my fears were justified. Act Two explores the consequences of their rekindled affair and throws in another audition and a scene from another play-within-a-play. Although there are a few extremely funny scenes, the resolution is a bit anticlimactic. Neil Patel’s scenic design is excellent, as are Susan Hilferty’s costumes. She dresses Hecht in a gown that is an absolute knockout. Rebecca Taichman’s direction skillfully manages the abrupt changes of tone. I wish the second act had been as wonderful as the first, but I am grateful for the first hour, which is one of the most entertaining I have spent in a theater. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Arlington **

This chamber musical by Victor Lodato (book and lyrics) and Polly Pen (music), now in previews at the Vineyard Theatre, is basically an hour-long solo song cycle. To qualify that, the actress and pianist do join forces for a few critical moments and much of the music is more like a long recitative than a series of songs. The piece depicts a day in the life of a young woman from a military family whose husband is away at war in an unspecified desert country. Hyperactive and loquacious, Sara Jane (Alexandra Silber) gradually reveals her feelings about war in general and her husband's role in it in particular. We see her preparing for a visit by her mother who has just had her third plastic surgery and, later, recovering from that visit. I wish we had met the mother; it might have livened things up a bit. The pianist (Ben Moss), hidden behind a scrim, occasionally portrays the husband. A revelation near the end makes some of Sara Jane's behavior seem quite reprehensible. It's a real tour-de-force for Silber, who, except for occasional diction problems, performs well. Moss's role, though relatively small, is important and he is very good. The creative team has impressive credentials: Lodato is a successful novelist/playwright and Guggenheim fellow; Pen has previously succeeded at the Vineyard with Bed and Sofa and Goblin Market; Carolyn Cantor directed the highly praised After the Revolution. Unfortunately, much as I admire what they were aiming for, I found the results of their collaboration less than satisfying.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Love and Information ***

Caryl Churchill is acclaimed by many as Britain's foremost living playwright; she is certainly one of its most prolific and unpredictable. Her 40+ works range from the sublime (Cloud 9) to the ridiculous (Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?). Since she never repeats herself, each play is in some sense experimental. Her latest work to arrive in New York, courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop, is a set of over 50 sketches, mostly for two actors, ranging in length from a few seconds to a few minutes. They are loosely connected by the theme of information -- the overwhelming amount of it, the ways we remember it, forget it, communicate it or withhold it. The sketches are grouped into seven sections plus an epilogue, but the unifying theme of each section is far from clear; nor is the rationale for the sequence of sections. I did not feel any sense of the beginning, middle or end that I would expect a play to have. The blackouts between sketches are accompanied by an aggressive sound design by Christopher Shutt with loud noises that act as an aural palate cleanser. What made the evening intriguing is that Churchill has a rare ability to create vividly specific characters and situations in just a few moments; what made it entertaining is that many of the sketches are extremely funny. The cast of 16 is excellent, the costumes by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood are a delight, Miriam Buether's set design is effective and James Macdonald's direction is superb. Although the evening was entertaining, I felt the work lacked coherence and depth and would benefit from 15 minutes of cuts. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Middle of the Night **

It has been 60 years since Paddy Chayefsky's tale of a romance between a 56-year-old Jewish garment manufacturer and his pretty 24-year-old Gentile receptionist first appeared as a television drama starring E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint. Two years later came the Broadway version with Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands. 1959 brought the film with Frederic March and Kim Novak. Now the Keen Company's artistic director, Jonathan Silverstein, has revived the play. I was curious to see how well it has withstood the ravages of time and how well the current leads measure up to their illustrious predecessors. My answer to both questions is "not very well." In the age of Viagra, it is hard to relate to the idea that a man's life is as good as over at 56. The play's impact is also undercut by a shoestring production with three actors playing dual roles and a set (by Steven C. Kemp) that is forced to represent both the apartment of an affluent manufacturer and that of a lower middle class family. Since class difference is almost as important an issue as age difference, this double use of the set undercuts the heart of the play. Jonathan Hadary is respectable as the manufacturer, but Nicole Lowrence plays the girl as so needy that she was painful to watch. I'm not sure whether the problem is the actress or Silverstein's direction. I have seen enough of his work by now to conclude that he is better at selecting plays than at directing them. The level of the other actors varied widely. Chayefsky's writing also veers wildly between the theatrically adept and the clunky. His basic sympathy for his characters is admirable though. This material seemed to work better on television and film than on the stage. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, including intermission.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Stop Hitting Yourself **

To misquote Mae West, "too much of a gold thing can be wonderful." That could well describe the sight that greets you when you enter the Claire Tow Theater: 17 gold chandeliers of various shapes and sizes, a gold baby grand piano, oversized gold statues, gold palm trees and a fountain that spouts queso, a golden melted cheese. And let's not forget the gigantic dollar sign with flashing lights. How could we not be in for an evening of madcap frivolity with a dash of surrealism? Alas, 90 long minutes later you'll know how. A wisp of a plot -- something about a contest to win a good deed from the queen at her charity ball -- tries to knit together this intermittently entertaining melange of speechifying about selfishness, the environment and the nature of art, audience participation games, tap dancing, songs and a grand finale in which the actors attack each other with queso. I have a hunch that the members of the Austin-based theater collaborative Rude Mechs had considerably more fun putting the show together than the audience did watching it. I admire LCT3 for taking a risk on something so different, but in this case, the result was disappointing. Getting to see Mimi Lien's over-the-top set and Emily Rebholz's costumes was almost worth the $20 ticket price. By the way, I have absolutely no idea where the title came from.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Bridges of Madison County ***

If you found the novel by Robert James Walker or the movie with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep too treacly, you were probably planning to take a pass on the musical version, now in previews, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Marsha Norman. That would be a shame, because you would miss seeing two of our finest musical theater talents, Kelli O'Hara as Francesca and Stephen Pasquale as Robert, both in top form; their chemistry together is absolutely sizzling (which you might not have expected after their previous outing, "Far from Heaven"). Add a beautiful score by Brown, an excellent set by Michael Yeargan, attractively appropriate costumes by Catherine Zuber, evocative lighting by Donald Holder and sensitive direction by Bartlett Sher, and you end up with a lot to admire. Norman's book has its ups and downs. She has opened the story up with more time given to Francesca's family and neighbors and Robert's former wife. The addition of the neighbor couple, Marge and Charlie, works out fine because they are played by two fine actors, Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin. I would have preferred omitting Francesca's sister and Robert's ex, especially since the show could use some trimming. For me, its flaws were far outweighed by its strengths. I would overlook a lot to catch O'Hara and Pasquale together onstage. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including intermission.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Intimacy **

The previous play I saw by Thomas Bradshaw -- "Burning" in 2011 -- made my Ten Worst list for that year, so I was not looking forward to Bradshaw's new X-rated comedy at The New Group. This muddled satire about sex in suburbia has lots of nudity and simulated sex but not much point. In the first act we are presented with the sexual proclivities of three neighboring families who get together in the second act to produce a neighborhood porn film. The graphic sex is more comical than erotic. The characters are a jumble of unconvincing traits and the plot, such as it is, makes very little sense. Bradshaw's desire to shock often serves no apparent purpose; he throws in a toilet scene with sound effects and a vomit scene to up the gross-out factor. A subplot about casual racism seems almost an afterthought. To see such fine actors as Daniel Gerroll, Laura Esterman and Keith Randolph Smith involved in this evoked a mixture of admiration and pity. David Anzuelo, Austin Cauldwell, Ella Dershowitz and Dea Julien all look good with their clothes off. Derek McLane's set with a candy color backdrop and quilted walls makes good use of the extremely wide stage. Director Scott Elliott also designed the costumes. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.