Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Village Bike ***

This British import, now in previews in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, marks two auspicious debuts — the American debut of up-and-coming English playwright Penelope Skinner and the stage debut of indie film actress Greta Gerwig. Both firsts are cause for celebration. Skinner’s play provides a fresh look at female libido, the confines of English country life and the uses and abuses of porn. Gerwig is superb as Becky, an English teacher, newly pregnant, starting the summer holiday with environmentally correct hubby John (the fine Jason Butler Harner) in their just-acquired country home. In a twist on convention, it is the pregnant wife who becomes sexually needy, while her baby-obsessed husband loses all interest in sex. Becky cannot tempt him even with favorites from their large collection of porn films. Skinner teases us with classic porn cliches — the plumber Mike (Max Baker) who arrives to fix Becky’s pipes and an eccentric neighbor Oliver (Scott Shepherd) who delivers the used bike Becky has purchased from him dressed as a highwayman in tight britches. Becky dreads the visits of Jenny (Cara Seymour), a well-meaning but desperately lonely neighbor whose husband is rarely around and who is bullied by her children. Becky’s bicycle gives her the freedom to pursue an affair that begins as a carefree exploration of porn-inspired fantasies but soon turns into obsession and desperation. We also meet Alice (Lucy Owen), Oliver’s wife, in a part so small that it could easily have been dispensed with. For me, the play did not provide a satisfactory resolution, but it kept me engrossed almost to the end. It could benefit from a slight trim. In a uniformly strong cast, the American actors handled their English accents with assurance. The cottage setting by Laura Jellinek was so thoroughly reconfigured during intermission that the stage crew got a round of applause. It may have been a technical triumph, but I thought it was an inelegant solution to the changes of location. Clint Ramos’ costumes were excellent. Ubiquitous director Sam Gold handles the material well. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission. NOTE: In British slang, "village bike" means "local slut."

Saturday, May 24, 2014

An Octoroon ****

After showing great promise with his recent play "Appropriate" at the Signature Theatre, Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins has fulfilled that promise -- and then some -- with this new work at Soho Rep. Jacobs-Jenkins is a master at appropriating theatrical tropes and reworking them into something new and more interesting. In the earlier play, he took the Southern dysfunctional family play and turned it inside out. In the current play the object of his deconstruction is "The Octoroon," an antebellum melodrama by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, that opened at the Winter Garden in 1859 and ran for several years in road companies. The result is a meta-melodrama unlike anything I have seen before. The play opens with a depressed black actor, BJJ (Chris Myers) claiming to be the playwright, in his underwear, discussing a recent session with his therapist, during which he reveals his admiration for Boucicault. Suddenly Boucicault (Danny Wolohan) appears onstage and a shouting match ensues. They are joined by an assistant (Ben Horner) who helps them prepare for the play. BJJ applies whiteface makeup, the white assistant puts on blackface, and Boucicault adds redface, dresses in an Indian (no political correctness here!) costume with an elaborate feather headdress and performs a vigorous dance. Suddenly the rear wall of the stage collapses forward to reveal a bright all-white set with the floor covered with cotton balls, representing the Louisiana plantation Terrebonne where the action takes place. A trio of slaves -- Minnie (Jocelyn Bloh), Dido (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Grace (Shyko Amos) -- take the place of a Greek chorus, but one that talks trash and contemporary psychobabble. The characters include George (Myers again), the young master who loves his 1/8th black cousin Zoe (Amber Gray), the evil overseer McClosky (Myers yet again) who also desires Zoe, the wealthy heiress Dora (Zoe Winters) who wants to wed George, the old house slave Peter (Horner again), the innocent young slave Paul (Horner once more) and his devoted Indian friend Wahnotee (Wolohan again), the auctioneer LaFouche (Wolohan) and a ship captain (uncredited). They are joined onstage by cellist Lester St. Louis whose music subtly underlines the action. The dialogue blends excerpts from Boucicault's play with Jacobs-Jenkins's inventions. The cast doubling opens clever opportunities such as a one-actor fight scene between George and McClosky. Meandering through the play at several points is an enigmatic Br'er Rabbit figure, a sharply dressed rabbit/man with a cottontail and a very expressive face. (It turns out that he is none other than the playwright himself.) Director Sarah Benson works wonders with the complex material, Mimi Lien's set is amazing, Wade Laboissonniere's costumes are wonderful, as are all other aspects of the production design. My compliments to Soho Rep for mounting such an ambtious play and congratulations to the playwright for his well-deserved Obie. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

If/Then **

Unless you’re a really dedicated Idina Menzel fan, you can take a pass on this high-concept musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Menzel plays Elizabeth, a recently divorced almost-40 city planner returning to NYC after 12 years in Phoenix. She seems more interested in dwelling on past choices than in moving ahead with her life. A seemingly trivial decision about which friend to hang out with after an encounter in Madison Square Park leads her down two different paths, one as Beth, more interested in her career than her personal life and the other as Liz, who values love above career. Following her down these two different roads sounds more interesting than it turns out to be. Neither story is particularly compelling and the alternation between them is both confusing and unproductive. The people who surround Liz/Beth are right out of the cliche book — Lucas (Anthony Rapp), a mostly gay housing activist, Kate (LaChanze), a sassy black kindergarten teacher, Josh (James Snyder), a noble doctor just returned from military service; Anne (Jenn Colella) and David (Jason Tam), two cardboard characters to provide romantic interest for Kate and Lucas, and Beth’s boss and mentor Stephen (Jerry Dixon). Mark Wendland has designed an attractive, flexible set complete with turntable and huge overhead mirror. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design features a glowing backdrop of changing colors, some of them quite bilious. Emily Rebholz’s costumes do not distract. Michael Greif keeps things both stories moving with only occasional confusing moments. And then there’s the music, none of which I could hum if my life depended on it, and the lyrics, which rarely rise above the humdrum. Since I am old-fashioned enough to think that the music is the main point of a musical, I find the show wanting at its core. Menzel is a commanding performer, but she can’t elevate mediocre material. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including intermission.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Few **

Longtime readers of this blog know that I have little taste for plays set in trailers. Once again, I am reminded why by this latest work of playwright Samuel D. Hunter, chronicler of marginalized Idahoans. Although his previous play, The Whale, won many prizes, I found its characters too grotesque to care very much about, much as I admired Shuler Hensley’s fantastic performance in that play.  The three characters in his new play, now at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, are far less extreme and easier, at least for me, to feel compassion for. They are Bryan (Michael Laurence), a former trucker who founded a newspaper for lonely truckers, his high school friend and lover QZ (Tasha Lawrence) and a needy effeminate teenager Matthew (Jacob Perkins, u/s for Gideon Glick) who has helped QZ (no explanation for her strange name is given) run the newspaper since Bryan abruptly disappeared four years ago after the funeral of their trucker friend and newspaper co-founder Jim. In Bryan’s absence, QZ has turned the newspaper, called “The Few,” from a financial flop into a barely viable entity by shedding its content to concentrate on personal ads for truckers. Matthew, Jim’s nephew, who has been rescued by QZ from an abusive family, hopes that Bryan’s return will restore the glory days of the newspaper, when its office, the cluttered double-wide trailer skillfully realized by Dane Laffrey’s set, will once again be a welcoming oasis for alienated truckers. Gradually — very gradually — we learn the reason’s for Bryan’s departure and his sudden return. I felt that a viable one-act play had been stretched to make an evening of it. The acting is first-rate and Davis McCallum’s sympathetic direction shows the material to best advantage. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are fine too. Some of the telephone recording of trucker personals are amusing. I liked it better than The Whale, but that isn’t saying a lot. Running time: 1 hr 40 minutes, no intermission.

NOTE: I must confess that I really do not like attending plays at The Rattlestick. There is no handicap access, the stairways within the theater are rickety, the absence of an aisle on one side of the theater is a safety hazard, the seats are barely more comfortable than rocks, and the offstage bathrooms make the starting time dependent on people’s bladders. I try hard not to let the decrepit surroundings influence my opinion of the play, but I wish a wealthy benefactor would favor Rattlestick with the money to bring the place into the 21st century.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Too Much Sun ***

While Nicky Silver’s new play starring Linda Lavin at The Vineyard may be a disappointment to those expecting a variation on his hit play The Lyons, It can still provide a lot of enjoyment to those willing to consider it on its own merits. Although it offers another juicy role for Lavin, it has quite a different spirit from the earlier play. This time out Lavin plays Audrey Langham, an actress of a certain age who has a meltdown performing Medea in Chicago and shows up, unannounced and unwelcome, at the beach house where her estranged daughter Kitty (Jennifer Westfeldt) and her husband Dennis (Ken Barnett) are spending the summer. Kitty is an unhappy schoolteacher and Dennis is an ad man who has taken the summer off to write the Great American Sci-Fi Novel. The next-door neighbors are Winston (Richard Bekins), a wealthy widower, and his gay teenaged son Lucas (Matt Dickson) who sells weed to the locals. They are joined by Gil (Matt Dellapina), the assistant to Audrey’s agent, who has been sent to bring Audrey back to Chicago. Over the course of the summer, new relationships blossom as old ones wither, with a few surprises along the way. The balance tips toward more drama and less humor, although there are many funny moments. Some of the characters are insufficiently developed and there are some awkward structural flaws (Silver seems unable to resist including at least one blackout with a character addressing the audience). The set by Donyale Werle is quite attractive and Michael Krass’s costumes are fine. Mark Brokaw’s direction is assured. The play's final line is memorable. Despite the play’s flaws, I found it consistently enjoyable.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Mysteries ***

No one can accuse Ed Sylvanus Iskandar of thinking small. After his previous two hits at the Flea Theater — “These Seven Sicknesses,” a 4 1/2-hour Sophocles mash-up (use this site's search tool to see my review) and the 3 1/2-hour “Restoration Comedy” — Iskandar is back with his most ambitious project yet, a modern version of a medieval mystery play cycle, covering Bible stories from Creation to the Last Judgment, as interpreted by 48 different playwrights. The cast of 50 (almost as many actors as there are people in the audience) are members of the Flea’s talented young resident company, The Bats. The staging is highly immersive, with the audience seated in facing sections of only two rows of seats. The actors also use runways behind the seats separated by a curtain of semi-transparent plastic strips. You are literally only inches away from the action. The four dozen plus playlets include a wide variety of styles and genres, ranging from the reverent to the blasphemous, the sophisticated to the sophomoric, the philosophical to the salacious. Some follow the underlying story fairly closely while others are original riffs on biblical themes. God is played by an actor who is about four feet tall. The angels Lucifer and Gabriel, whose competition is one of the threads running through the play, are played by women. Mary is first seen as a Valley Girl, worried about whether her pregnancy will prevent her from finishing high school. Pontius Pilate is portrayed as a Western sheriff. After the resurrection, Jesus’s first sighting is in Brooklyn. You get the idea. There’s nudity, which makes sense for Adam and Eve, but less so for Lazarus. Who knew that the Apostles were all so buff? There’s lots of music throughout with an angel chorus, a gospel choir and a band of musicians. There’s also dancing and some convincing fight scenes. Iskandar is credited as conceiver and director, with ample support from dramaturg Jill Rafson. CollaborationTown provided the interstitial text that, with varying success, glues the disparate segments together. As with any anthology, some stories work better than others. The third and final section, in my opinion, contained both some of the best and the worst material. After recruiting so many playwrights to contribute, the creative team may have felt bound to include all their work. This is unfortunate, because some judicious trimming would have significantly improved the work. Having the actors chat with the audience before and after the play and during intermission while serving us dinner and dessert is an integral part of Iskandar’s view of theater as a communal experience. During the first intermission, audience members were also invited to pose with some of the actors for a selfie as Jesus in a nativity scene. I compliment the Flea for this ambitious effort. At 5 hours, 35 minutes (including two intermissions), it was simply too much of a mostly good thing. 

P.S. Here's a link to the full credits:

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging! ****

Rejoice, musical theater lovers! The ever-inventive Gerard Alessandrini is back with a new edition of this classic series that affectionately (and, sometimes, not so affectionately) skewers the latest Broadway musicals and their creators. For over 30 years, he has managed to keep us laughing with his punchy satires. The current version, now at the Davenport Theatre (fka 45th Street Theatre), provides ample proof that he hasn’t lost his touch. Among his latest targets are Pippin, Matilda, Cinderella, Bridges of Madison County, Rocky, Aladdin, Les Miz (sans turntable), The Sound of Music (live on TV), Book of Mormon, Bullets over Broadway, Cabaret and Kinky Boots. Jason Robert Brown, Idina Menzel, Michelle Williams, Liza Minelli and Mandy Patinkin take their lumps. Not every sketch is a knockout, but enough are to make for a thoroughly delightful evening. As usual, Alessandrini has assembled a terrific cast: Carter Calvert, Scott Richard Foster, Mia Gentile and Marcus Stevens all display an amazing ability to disappear into their roles and are vocally strong. Music director/pianist David Caldwell is excellent. Costume designers Dustin Cross and Philip Heckman and wig designer Bobbie Cliffton Zlotnik deserve special mention. One quibble: the sound was too loud for the first 20 minutes or so. In addition to creating and writing the show, Alessandrini co-directed with Phillip George. For those of you who have seen many of the shows or who just follow the Broadway scene, an evening of fun awaits you. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The City of Conversation ****

The latest offering of Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse is Anthony Giardina's engrossing new political/family drama spanning the period from the Carter years to the Obama inauguration as seen through the household of Hester Ferris (the magnificent Jan Maxwell). Hester, her married lover Chandler (Kevin O'Rourke) and her widowed sister Jean (Beth Dixon) are active in liberal Washington causes. In her Georgetown home, she hosts dinners where politicians of different views are able to meet for unfettered conversation. The arrival home a day earlier than expected of Hester's lone child Colin (Michael Simpson) after studies at the London School of Economics, with a Reaganite girlfriend Anna (Kristen Bush) in tow, is a double surprise for Hester. She and the nakedly ambitious Anna immediately lock horns. A Kentucky senator (John Aylward) and his wife (Barbara Garrick) have been invited to dinner to try to win his vote for a bill to require resignation from segregated country clubs for judicial appointment. When Anna breaks tradition and intrudes on the men's after-dinner conversation, Hester's plans are thwarted. Eight years later, Colin is working for a Republican senator and wife Anna has a job in Reagan's Justice Department. Both are working hard to assure Robert Bork's appointment to the Supreme Court. Hester takes care of their son Ethan (Luke Niehaus) during the day and tries to subvert his parents' conservative influence. Despite her promise to her son not to interfere, Hester is actively campaigning against Bork. When Anna finds out, she presents Hester with a terrible choice. How that works out is revealed in the final scene, set on the night of Obama's first inauguration. A new character, Donald (Phillip James Brannon), a black graduate student of American political history, appears in that scene. I won't give any more away. The play has its problems. Some of the relationships, e.g. between Hester and Chandler and between Hester and Jean, are underdeveloped. Its depiction of the difficulties in balancing the political and the personal is a bit extreme. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to listen to intelligent, often witty conversation about matters of substance. The play provides a marvelous role for Maxwell and she makes the most of it. The rest of the cast are fine too. John Lee Beatty's set and Catherine Zuber's costumes establish the right tone. Director Doug Hughes brings out the play's strengths. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission.