Thursday, June 26, 2014

Cabaret ***

Roundabout’s revival of the revival of this classic musical is mostly successful. The Sam Mendes/Rob Marshall production has lost little of its bite. Alan Cumming’s Emcee is as compelling a presence as ever. Bill Heck makes a fine Clifford Bradshaw. The ever-reliable Danny Burstein is a natural for Herr Schultz. Linda Emond is a revelation as Fraulein Schneider — who knew she had the vocal chops to go with her fine acting? Gayle Rankin and Aaron Krohn do right by the roles of Fraulein Kost and Ernst Ludwig. The talented (and beautiful!) Kit Kat Band once again plays Kander & Ebb's terrific score sensationally and the Kit Kat Girls and Boys are easy on the eyes and light on their feet. And then, alas, there’s Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles. I can’t explain precisely why she fails — her voice is not bad — but the role somehow seems beyond her expressive range. It doesn’t sink the show, but it definitely weakens its impact. Robert Brill’s set successfully turns Studio 54 into the Kit Kat Klub. The audience was wildly enthusiastic. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

The Other Mozart ***

                          Sylvia Milo in THE OTHER MOZART. Photo by Peter Griesser, DIVA Arts Collective. (Click to enlarge.)

After earlier productions at Piccolo Spoleto, the Cherry Lane Theatre, the Berkshire Fringe and the Mozarteum in Salzburg, this solo piece written and performed by Sylvia Milo is now at the HERE Theater in SoHo. The title character is Marianne Mozart, nicknamed Nannerl, older than her brother Wolfgang by almost 5 years, and also a musical prodigy. Nannerl was a superb harpsichordist and, during their childhood concerts together, she was originally the main attraction. That soon changed. Since there was no career path available to a woman musician, father Leopold shifted all of his attention to Wolfgang. As Nannerl reached marriageable age, her parents encouraged her to devote all her time to learning the household skills that would please her future husband. Her musical career faded away. She was prevented from marrying the man she loved (for reasons not made clear) and, at 32, was wed to a widowed baron with five children and forced to live as a provincial housefrau. For mysterious reasons, she gave her infant son to her father to raise during his first two years. She lived until the age of 78. Her gravestone is inscribed “sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” Milo tells this story, mostly in chronological order. She is skillful in portraying Nannerl at the various stages of her life, less so portraying other family members. Much of the text comes from family letters she saved. She observes sadly that no one saved her letters. Milo captures the conflicting feelings of love, devotion, admiration, resentment and jealousy Nannerl felt for her brother. Throughout the piece, we are presented with many (perhaps too many) examples of how her gender prevented her from having a satisfying, creative life. The production is visually striking. We see Nannerl in her bloomers, with a lofty coiffure (by Courtney Bednarowski), standing on a white dress that covers almost the entire stage with a pannier (by Miodrag Guberinic) in its center. The dress (by Magdalena Dabrowska) is covered with letters and musical scores and has hidden pockets out of which Nannerl pulls such objects as a miniature keyboard and a teacup. The play has background music by Mozart (father and son), supplemented by original music by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen. It made for an interesting 75 minutes, although I was left wishing there had been more biographical explication and less repetitiveness about how Nannerl suffered for her gender. Isaac Byrne directed.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Ayckbourn Ensemble ****

All praise to the folks at the Brits off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theater for bringing us three works by Alan Ayckbourn (two world premieres and a New York premiere) performed in repertory by a superb ensemble of 11 actors from the Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough, the company that Ayckbourn directed for 37 years. I know that I have said on other occasions that playwrights should not direct their own plays, but I hereby make a notable exception for Ayckbourn. After working with a core of the same actors for many years, he knows how to get exactly the right tone from them. I have seen other productions that were marred by overemphatic acting either allowed or encouraged by their directors. 

Farcicals ***
Realizing that only 7 of the 11 actors appeared in both the other plays, Ayckbourn whipped up a pair of one-act farces for the remaining four. “Chloe with Love” and “The Kidderminster Affair” share the same characters, two rather mismatched couples — Penny (Elizabeth Boag) and Reggie (Kim Wall) plus Teddy (Bill Champion) and Lottie (Sarah Stanley). The first shows Lottie’s hilarious attempts to stoke her husband’s interest. The latter describes a hysterical attempt to hide an adulterous indiscretion. Both are sheer froth, but the word play and physical humor in the second play rise to a high level of inspiration. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes including intermission.

Playing with time and space is a frequent feature of Ayckbourn’s work. We see it again here, both in “Time of My Life” from 1992 and “Arrivals and Departures,” his new play (#76). 
Time of My Life ***
We meet the Stratton family, parents Gerry (Russell Dixon) and Laura (Sarah Parks), their elder son Glyn (Richard Stacey) and his wife Stephanie (Emily Pithon), who have just recently reconciled after a separation, and their younger son Adam (James Powell) and his new girlfriend Maureen (Rachel Caffrey) as they gather at the family’s favorite restaurant, a vaguely Middle Eastern place, for a boozy celebration of Laura’s birthday. After the initial party scene, the play fractures into three strands: we follow Gerry and Laura as they remain at the restaurant, we move a year or two into the future with Glyn and Stephanie, and we go backwards in time with Adam and Maureen to their first meeting. All the action takes place in the restaurant. An added touch is that one actor (Ben Porter) plays the restaurant’s owner and all its diverse waiters. We end up where we started as the birthday party begins. It sounds gimmicky, but it works surprisingly well except for a scene in the second act that goes on much too long. The play’s theme seems to be “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including intermission.

Arrivals and Departures ***
This new play is deliberately less comic than the others. It combines a satiric look at bureaucratic ineptitude with the recollections of two disparate characters, each of whom has been subject to betrayal. A military special forces group led by Quentin (Bill Champion) has concocted a hare-brained scheme to catch a terrorist at a rail terminal in London. Disguised as ordinary people, the group ineptly rehearse their roles before the train arrives. Ez, short for Esme, (Elizabeth Boag) a sullen soldier who is awaiting court martial, is assigned to babysit a chatty older man, Barry (Kim Wall), a traffic warden from Yorkshire who can possibly confirm the suspect’s identity. Awaiting the train’s arrival, Ez looks back on the personal history that has turned her into an edgy, mistrustful person. Much of the second act is a mirror image of the first, except that this time it is Barry who reminisces about his unhappy past. The plan to capture the terrorist does not end happily. I found the ending a bit jarring. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

The ensemble is so uniformly fine that it almost seems unfair to single out anyone. Nevertheless, I will mention that Boag, Champion, Parks, Porter and Wall made especially strong impressions. Jan Bee Brown's set designs for all three plays are simple but effective. 

You may wonder why I rated Ayckbourn Ensemble higher than any of its components. In this case the whole IS greater than the sum of its parts. Seeing the three pieces together in one day increased my admiration of the playwright/director and the superb ensemble cast. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Who & the What ***

Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama must have put a lot of pressure on playwright Ayad Akhtar to come up with another play that is equally impressive. While his new play at LCT3 lacks the explosive power of “Disgraced,” it does have much to recommend it. Afzal (Bernard White) is a wealthy widowed Pakistani immigrant who has risen from cabdriver to owner of the largest taxi fleet in Atlanta. His two adult daughters are Zarina (Madine Malouf), a bookish, somewhat aloof Harvard grad who has been working on a novel for years, and Mahwish (Tala Ashe), her slightly flighty younger sister who would like to marry but cannot because tradition demands that the older daughter marry first. When Zarina wanted to marry a non-Muslim some years past, Afzal forbade her and she acquiesced. Unbeknownst to her, he has recently set up a profile for her on and even impersonated her to meet prospects he deemed worthy. One of them is Eli (Gregg Keller, "Belleville"), a white convert to Islam who is imam of a poor congregation, founder of a soup kitchen, and also a plumber. In the second act, which takes place a couple of years later, both daughters have married. Zarina has finally finished her novel (its title is the title of the play, which doesn’t explain a lot) which deals with the life of Mohammed as a flawed human rather than a sanitized prophet, as well as with the constricted role of women in Islam. When her family discovers the nature of her novel and considers the devastating effect its publication is likely to have on them (shades of “Other Desert Cities”), a deep fracture occurs. The well-crafted first act crackles with snappy, often comic, dialogue between pairs of characters. The play’s two scenes between the sisters are especially fine. The second act is not as tightly knit and the big confrontation scene fizzles a bit. Unlike “Disgraced” which peaked with an ensemble scene, the current play seems to flounder when more than two people are on stage. The acting is mostly strong. Jack Magaw’s three-module set with filigreed panels suggestive of Muslim art, is quite attractive and highly functional. Emily Rebholz’s costumes work well too. Kimberly Senior, who also directed “Disgraced,” is effective again here. I found it well worth my time despite its imperfections. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Violet ****

What a pleasure it is to attend a musical where the music is the main attraction! This intimate musical theater piece originally produced at Playwrights Horizons in 1997 has finally made it to Broadway in a thrilling production that shows off the beautiful score by Jeanine Tesori to full advantage. Sutton Foster is amazing as a 25-year-old North Carolina farm woman whose face had been horribly scarred in a freak accident at the age of 13. (Her father’s axe flew off the handle while he was chopping wood.) The time is 1964, months after the Civil Rights Act became law. She is taking a bus to Tulsa, fully believing that her scar will be healed by a TV evangelist there. Along the way she meets two soldiers recently out of boot camp. Monty (Colin Donnell) is a charming skirt-chaser about to leave for Vietnam. Flick (Joshua Henry), as a black man, knows what it means to be an outsider. After Violet recruits them for a poker game at a rest stop, they both take a shine to her and the three decide to spend their overnight in Memphis together. Violet’s visit to Tulsa leads to a different kind of healing than she hoped for. Tesori’s score is a wonderful melange of country, blues and gospel that, in my humble opinion, outshines any other currently on Broadway. The lyrics and book by Brian Crawley are also fine, but I did have occasional trouble making out words. The excellent supporting cast includes Emerson Steele as the young Violet, Alexander Gemignani as her father, Ben Davis as the preacher, Annie Golden as both an old lady on the bus and a aged hotel hooker, and Rema Webb as the lead singer in the gospel choir. The onstage orchestra was excellent. Leigh Silverman’s direction skillfully blends past and present. David Zinn’s set and Clint Ramos’s costumes work well. I was afraid that such an intimate show would be lost in Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, but it is not. It was a thoroughly bracing evening. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Blink ***

If you are in the mood for something a bit different, head to 59E59 for this latest entry in their Brits Off Broadway festival. This off-beat love story by Phil Porter has been skillfully crafted, creatively staged, and, most importantly, superbly performed by two fine actors. Sophie (Lizzy Watts) and Jonah (Thomas Pickles) are two socially awkward young people for whom London is a very lonely place. Sophie lives above Jonah as his landlord, but they have never met. Impulsively, she sends him the screen of a baby monitor she had used to look after her late father. He has no idea who sent it, but soon becomes addicted to watching the woman on the screen. When he accidentally finds out who she is, he begins following her everywhere and she pretends not to notice. For a good part of the play, the two address the audience rather than each other. They also play other characters, including a talkative human relations officer and a German conceptual artist, using microphones when they portray them. A good deal of the dialogue at first seems irrelevant, e.g. a detailed plot summary of the soap opera they both watch, but the haziness of the border between background and foreground is part of the off-kilter nature of the play. When an unexpected circumstance leads the two to actually meet, they must learn that a face-to-face relationship is much harder than one based on exhibitionism, voyeurism and stalking. The set design by Hannah Clark, combining generic office furniture with a sylvan backdrop and a grassy surface is both attractive and effective. Her choice of pale beige costumes with sky-blue socks for both actors is apt. Joe Murphy’s direction is admirable. A word of caution: the two friends I ran into afterwards did not share my enthusiasm. Running time: 77 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Fly by Night **

This new musical, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, tries so hard to be likable that I am feeling guilty that I am unable to surrender uncritically to its charms. Three graduate drama students at Yale (Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Kim Rosenstock) wrote it for a student production five years ago. It has since been produced in Palo Alto and Dallas, where it received enthusiastic reviews. Its plot concerns Harold (Adam Chanler-Berat), a nerdy young sandwich maker in New York who falls for two sisters from South Dakota — Daphne (Patti Murin), a bubbly extrovert who wants to make it as an actress in New York, and Miriam (Allison Case), the introverted older sister Daphne has dragged with her to New York, who enjoys being a waitress and would rather be back home looking at the stars. That’s my first problem: the two sisters are such complete opposites that I found it hard to believe that anyone could fall for both of them. In addition to the central triangle, we meet Harold’s recently widowed father (the always excellent Peter Friedman), his cranky boss Crabble (the fine Michael McCormick); Joey Storms (Bryce Reness), a wealthy playwright/producer/director who takes Daphne as his muse, and, finally, the narrator (the admirable Henry Stram), whose various roles include the sisters’ mother and a gypsy fortune teller, and who keeps the audience apprised of the play’s many time shifts back and forth during the year leading up to the great Northeast blackout of 1965. My second problem with the show was that I didn’t find the central characters nearly as interesting as the people who surround them. Harold’s father and his boss are considerably more vivid than Harold. Why Harold behaves so thoughtlessly to his father was not clear. The sisters seemed more like bundles of characteristics than characters. The music, played by an onstage band of four, is serviceable and perhaps more than that for those who like rock. There is one ditty that you will have trouble getting out of your head. The authors are skillful at knitting their material together: a song heard early on develops entirely new meaning by the time it returns. The climactic blackout is a well-played narrative device to knit many strands together. I give the authors credit for not flinching at presenting moments of sadness. The second act, after a promising start, began to drag. I think the play would gain from a substantial trim that would allow it to be performed without an intermission breaking the flow. The uncluttered unit set by David Korins is quite attractive. Jeff Croiter’s lighting design adds much to the play. Paloma Young’s costumes are appropriate. Carolyn Cantor’s direction is fluid. It’s hard to imagine a better production. Whether the slightness of the material can support this deluxe treatment is another matter. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Our New Girl ***

Irish playwright Nancy Harris’s gripping psychological drama, after a highly praised London run, has reached New York and is now in previews at Atlantic Stage 2. The title character is Annie (Lisa Joyce), an Irish farm girl who turns up unexpectedly in the London kitchen of the quite pregnant and quite overwhelmed Hazel (excellent Atlantic stalwart Mary McCann) to be the new nanny for her troubled 8-year-old son Daniel (a remarkable Henry Keleman). Trouble is Hazel’s husband Richard (CJ Wilson), a plastic surgeon away doing charity work in Haiti, has not bothered to tell Hazel about it. Daniel is a handful, acting out in school and at home, with a stare that could turn water to ice. When Richard returns, he and Hazel continually fight over just about everything, especially about how to raise Daniel. Since Richard hates his day job injecting wealthy ladies with botox, he finds satisfaction and a bit of glory with charity missions in world trouble spots. An added benefit is the chance to escape his unhappy household. Hazel had been a high-powered attorney. On holiday in Sicily a year previous, she was so smitten with Alessandra, an earth mother figure who seemed able to do it all, that she impulsively decided to quit the law and open a home business importing Sicilian olive oil. Crates of it now clutter her kitchen. Hazel would be the first to admit that motherhood does not come easily to her. Annie bears the scars of an unhappy past and tries as a nanny to provide better nurturing than she got. One of the play’s greatest strengths is that the characters are all complex, alternately evoking our sympathy and our disapproval. The play opens with a shocking wordless prologue that is difficult to watch but is definitely an attention grabber. Harris is skillful at building suspense. I found the ending less than satisfying and was puzzled why a woman who found motherhood so difficult would even consider having a second child. Timothy R. Mackabee has designed a sleek, aptly sterile kitchen. Sarah J. Holden’s costumes are appropriate. Dialect coach Ben Furey has wrought convincing British and Irish accents. Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs seamlessly. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Simon Green: So, This Then Is Life ***

As part of its Brits Off Broadway festival, British actor Simon Green and his musical director David Shrubsole are appearing in this cabaret-style theater piece, cleverly crafted from a melange of song, poem and spoken word. The eclectic material runs the gamut from Noel Coward to Stephen Sondheim, Walt Whitman to Maya Angelou,  M.F.K. Fisher to Tennessee Williams. The theme is the advice a middle-aged man would give his 21-year-old self were he able to. Green's engaging presentation overcomes a sometimes pinched voice and a wobbly pitch. All in all, it's a pleasant way to spend 80 minutes.