Monday, March 31, 2014

Bullets over Broadway ***

Woody Allen's musicalization of his 1994 film, now in previews at the St. James Theatre, provides a consistently entertaining, if not inspired, evening. Susan Stroman's choreography and direction add significantly to the show's strengths, but her collaboration with Allen does not lead to the giddy heights of her work with Mel Brooks. The decision to use popular songs of the 20's instead of an original score works out surprisingly well, with many songs fitting into the plot in clever unexpected ways. Best of all is the strong cast, particularly Marin Mazzie as Helen Sinclair, Nick Cordero as Cheech, Helene Yorke as Olive Neal and Brooks Ashmanskas as Walter Purcell. Zach Braff was out, so I got his understudy Andy Jones as David Shayne. Jones was fine in a vanilla way, but unfortunately looked at least 10 years younger than Betsy Wolfe, his love interest Ellen. Karen Ziemba makes the most of her one number. Santo Loquasto's sets and William Ivey Long's costumes are the best that money can buy. The show moves along at a rapid clip and rarely sags. I was a bit disappointed in the finale, which somehow seemed less than the rousing conclusion the show needed, but I had a good time. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Mothers and Sons **

A new Terrence McNally play starring Tyne Daly -- what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as it turns out. When the usually admirable Frederick Weller first opens his mouth, the mannered, almost falsetto voice that comes out resembles nothing found in nature. What was director Sheryl Kaller thinking to steer him in this strange direction? After a few seconds of this unnatural sound, it was clear that it was going to be a long 90 minutes. Remember the Emmy-winning 1990 television drama "Andre's Mother" starring Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas, about the confrontation between a woman who has lost her son to AIDS and the lover he left behind? McNally picks up these characters 20 years later when Katharine (Daly) unexpectedly visits the former lover Cal (Weller) to return Andre's diary, which neither of them has read. The years have not mellowed Katharine; if anything, she has only grown more bitter and filled with hate. Cal, on the other hand, has moved on; he now has a Central Park West apartment, a husband, Will (Bobby Steggert), 15 years his junior, and a 6-year-old son Bud (the too-cute-by-half Grayson Taylor). The play drifts from clumsy exposition to clever zingers to didactic speeches in no particular order. Daly does not get to display much range. Steggert is the only one who resembles an actual human being. Even set designer John Lee Beatty is off his stride -- the unattractive apartment does not look like one any gay couple would inhabit. The play's only interest is to document the dramatic changes that have taken place for gay Americans in the last 20 years. After three weeks of previews, the play still seems far from polished. A major disappointment.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Open House ***

Another day, another play about a dysfunctional family. Since my two previous experiences with Will Eno's work were negative -- I hated "Thom Pain (based on nothing)" and was bored with "Middletown" -- I planned to skip his new play at Signature Theatre until a respected friend persuaded me it to see it. I won't go so far as to say that the third time was a charm, but I did find this droll absurdist comedy by far the most entertaining of the three. The unnamed family consists of the tyrannical Father (Peter Friedman), confined to a wheelchair by a stroke, Mother (Carolyn McCormick), a shell of a woman after years of living with a verbally abusive husband, Uncle (Michael Countryman), Father's sad sack widowed brother, and Son (Danny McCarthy) and Daughter (Hannah Bos), the two adult children who have returned home for their parents' anniversary. Father's vicious tongue is a deadly weapon, ready to wound anyone who dares to engage him. Even the family dog has fled. Unbeknownst to his family, Father has decided to sell the house. The high concept is that each of the five characters we meet leaves the house and is replaced by a new character played by the same actor. Before play's end, the stage is occupied by a much happier bunch -- a real estate agent, a painter-landscaper, a couple who might buy the house and their attorney. It's a clever stunt, but I refuse to glean any deep metaphysical thoughts from it. The cast is excellent (especially Friedman), the living room set by Antje Ellermann is picture perfect, Bobby Frederick Tilley II's costumes are fine and Oliver Butler's direction is smooth. I liked it enough that I bought a ticket for Eno's upcoming Broadway debut "The Realistic Joneses." Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Appropriate ***

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has created a southern family, the Lafayettes, who are right up there in theatrically dysfunctional behavior with any characters penned by Tennessee Williams, Horton Foote or Tracy Letts. The three Lafayette siblings have gathered at the family home in Arkansas, a former plantation, not long after their father's demise to hold an estate sale and auction the dilapidated house. The eldest, Toni (Johanna Day), an embittered recent divorcee, is in from Atlanta with her teen-aged son Rhys (Mike Faist), whose recent brush will the law has cost her her job. Bo (Michael Laurence) is a type-A New York executive who has brought along his Jewish wife Rachael (Maddie Corman) and two children, Cassidy (Izzy Hanson-Johnston) and Ainsley (Alex Dreier). To the consternation of his siblings, younger brother Franz f/k/a Frank (Patch Darragh), who had vanished 10 years prior after an incident with an underage girl, has reappeared with his New Age fiancee River f/k/a Trisha (Sonya Harum). It's not long before the three siblings are having at each other, pouring out resentment and blame. In sorting through the vast piles of their father's stuff, they come across an old album with photos of lynched blacks. Discovery of this album raises troubling questions about their father. The shouting and screaming are punctuated by a series of surprises. The playwright lays it on a bit thick, but the result is never boring. Clint Ramos's set is remarkable: it quickly creates a mood and has some surprises of its own. Director Liesl Tommy really keeps things moving. While the play has lots of negatives, for me at least, they were outweighed by its energy and ambition. I am not sure whether the title is the adjective or the verb or perhaps both. In selecting Jacobs-Jenkins for its Residency Five program, Signature Theatre has made a promising choice. I look forward to seeing what he does next. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission (at 3/9 preview). Nudity alert: There's a short scene of partial male nudity.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Rocky **

Since I am not a fan of Sylvester Stallone's 1976 movie, I'm not sure what possessed me to buy a ticket for the musical version, now in previews at the Winter Garden. Curiosity, I guess. After all, it was a hit in Hamburg. The creative team is impressive: music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, a book by Thomas Meehan and Stallone, choreography by Steven Hoggett (and Kelly Devine) and direction by Alex Timbers. The cast has no big names, but that's not an essential. The real stars here are the designers; there is a spectacularly mobile set by Christopher Barreca with projections by Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina, vivid costumes by David Zinn, fine lighting by Christopher Akerlind and excellent sound by Peter Hylenski. Alas, when the show's design is its strongest feature, it does not bode well. Andy Karl is terrific as Rocky and the other actors are energetic, but their roles are so lacking in nuance that they are little more than caricatures. The show belatedly springs to life for the last 10 or 15 minutes with the wonderfully choreographed fight scene. The first several rows of the theater are emptied and their occupants are invited onstage for ringside seats as the boxing ring moves forward into the theater. It's a gimmick, but it works. The fight itself is spectacular, but for me it was not worth over two hours of boredom waiting for it. The music made so little impression that the point of turning the film into a musical was lost on me. All that being said, most of the audience seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hand to God ***

This very dark comedy by Robert Askins was both a sell-out and an Obie winner when it appeared at Ensemble Studio Theatre a couple of years ago, so it is easy to understand why MCC has brought it back in a new production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. A Texas church includes a puppet ministry among its programs. Margery (Geneva Carr) is a recent widow who tries valiantly to interest three teenagers in her puppetry class. Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) has a yen for Margery, as does Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), one of her students. Her other students are the nerdy Jessica (Sarah Stiles) and Margery's shy son Jason (Steven Boyer) whose attachment to his demonic hand puppet Tyrone is, to put it mildly, extreme. Is the foul-mouthed violent Tyrone the devil or just an expression of Jason's (or humanity's) dark side? When Jason and Tyrone end up in hand to hand combat, who will win? There is much to admire here -- a lively script, a fine cast (especially Boyer), smooth direction by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the spot-on set design by Beowulf Boritt and costumes by Sydney Maresca. At times the playwright tries too hard to shock. The coarseness of the language and the bloodiness of the action go further than necessary to make their point. There are some extremely entertaining scenes along the way, but I'm not sure where it all leads. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, including intermission.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Tales from Red Vienna ***

Although far from flawless, this new play by David Grimm is the most interesting thing I have seen at Manhattan Theatre Club so far this season. It presents a vivid cross-section of Viennese life right after World War I. Austria has lost its empire, the socialists are in control in Vienna, the resentful aristocrats have lost their titles and the Jews are, as so often, convenient scapegoats. Helena Altman (Nina Arianda) is a war widow forced to take extreme measures to survive. Edda Schmidt (Kathleen Chalfant) is her loyal longtime housekeeper. "Mutzi" von Fessendorf (Tina Benko) is a haughty self-centered childhood friend who has ulterior motives for introducing Helena to Bela Hoyos (Michael Esper), a handsome Hungarian socialist journalist. Rudy Zuckermaier (Michael Goldsmith) is a young Jewish grocery deliveryman with a crush on Helena. Karl Hupka (Lucas Hall) is a mysterious figure about whom I dare not say more.  In this era of 90-minute plays sans intermission, it is a novelty to see a play with three acts and two intermissions. The play starts with a gripping scene that certainly gets your attention. The rest of the first act plays out well, but the second act is considerably weaker with an abrupt turn to melodrama. For me, the final act did not provide a satisfactory resolution. Why then, you may ask, am I giving it three stars? The two main reasons are Arianda and Chalfant, who are among our finest stage actresses. It is always a privilege to see them in action. Also, I credit the play for its ambitions, even though it doesn't fully realize them. Esper needs to turn up the volume a bit and Benko needs to tone things down a smidgen. With over two weeks until opening night, I suspect that everything will be more polished by then. John Lee Beatty's set design is appropriately oppressive and Anita Yavich's costumes are very good. Kate Whoriskey's direction does not call attention to itself. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including 2 intermissions.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Kung Fu **

Although David Henry Hwang's biographical play about martial arts star Bruce Lee, now at Signature Theatre, comes to life fitfully during the many action sequences that skillfully combine martial arts, Chinese opera moves and modern dance, it is dragged down by sketchy "and then this happened next" scenes with surprisingly inert dialogue. It explores his difficult father-son relationship and his unending battle against the prevailing American image of Asian men, but simplifies or omits many facets of Lee's life in favor of what could pass for the comic book version. Allegedly, the work was originally conceived as a musical, but things didn't work out. Too bad -- that might have been considerably more interesting. Cole Horibe makes an impressive theatrical debut as Lee, Francis Jue is superb as his father and Bradley Fong is endearing in the double role of the young Lee and his son Brandon. Phoebe Strole does her best with the two-dimensional role of Lee's wife Linda. Clifton Duncan, in an amusing stroke of color-blind casting, is a convincing James Coburn. The remainder of the energetic cast are fine too. The play cuts off just as Lee achieves his big breakthrough, sparing us his tragic early death only a few years later. David Zinn's set is generic and unattractive. Anita Yavich's costumes are excellent. Director Leigh Silverman, who has done well with Hwang's work on other occasions, does what she can to hold it all together. There's no escaping the fact that this work is not Hwang at his best. Running time: two hours including intermission.