Sunday, August 31, 2014

Smoke *

I guess I wasn’t paying close attention when I booked a ticket for Kim Davies’s new play now in previews at The Flea’s tiny downstairs theater. Their website clearly describes it as a “BDSM erotic power game” so I can’t claim I wasn't warned. Although I usually try to avoid “spoilers” on this blog, I think it only fair to warn you that, unless your idea of the erotic encompasses having sex with knives, this 75-minute play will be a tough slog. (I should also warn you that many cigarettes are smoked.) I know I would have fled halfway through the play had I been able to. John (Stephen Stout) plays a 31-year old would-be artist who is the intern of a famous photographer. Julie (Madeleine Bundy) is a spoiled college student who, conveniently, turns out to be his employer’s daughter. They meet in the kitchen of a home where a sex party is in progress. Their encounter eventually leads to the aforementioned sex scene. If there was a point to it, I missed it. The actors make a very attractive couple (although Stout has the worst haircut in New York) and perform their roles with conviction. Director Tom Costello keeps things moving. Andrew Diaz’s set is simple but effective. Beth Goldenberg’s costumes are apt. I find it offensive that The Flea is presenting this. Maybe I am a prude after all. In fairness, I should report that the audience, almost exclusively under 35, gave it enthusiastic applause.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Wayside Motor Inn **

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a devoted fan of A. R. Gurney’ plays. I was therefore very pleased to learn that Signature Theatre would present three of his works — two revivals and a new play —  this season. In addition, a Broadway revival of “Love Letters” with star (or stunt, depending on your point of view) casting is forthcoming. The play Signature chose to start the Gurney series is a rarely produced work from 1977. We meet five sets of people staying (or, in one case, working) at a nondescript motel outside of Boston. An elderly couple, Frank (the always fine Jon DeVries), who is suffering from heart trouble, and Jessie (Lizbeth Mackay, also very good) are in town to visit their newest grandchild. Vince, an overbearing father (Marc Kudisch, usually excellent, but stuck here with a one-note role) has brought his long-suffering son Mark (Will Pullen) for a Harvard interview that the father wants far more than his son. Andy (Kelly AuCoin) and Ruth (Rebecca Henderson) are a divorcing couple whose attempt to divide their possessions amicably goes awry. Phil (David McElwee) is a college student who has rented a room for the night to bed his girlfriend Sally (Ismenia Mendes) for the first time. Ray (Quincy Dunn-Baker) is a married traveling salesman who tries to pick up Sharon (an amusing Jenn Lyon), a waitress whose concern for her customers’ health is not appreciated by her employers. (Mendes, Henderson and Pullen appeared together recently in Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra at Playwrights Horizons.) The play’s gimmick is that all five stories take place simultaneously on the same set. (Gurney’s acknowledges Ayckbourn’s similar experiments.) This idea turns out not to be as interesting as it sounds. The set becomes cluttered with characters from different stories who barely manage not to bump into each other. It would have helped if the stories were more compelling and if they somehow enriched each other. Unfortunately, there is only one fleeting moment when two stories connect. Andrew Lieberman must have had fun designing the set; the plaid wallpaper and orange chenille bedspreads raise hideousness to new heights. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are unremarkable. I’m not sure what director Lila Neugebauer could have done to prevent this slender work from making such a tepid impression. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission.

Note: The stage is unusually high. Sitting in the third row, my eyes were level with its floor. Those in the first few rows on the right have a partially obstructed view.

Friday, August 15, 2014

And I and Silence **

Naomi Wallace, a playwright in residence at Signature Theatre this season, has a most impressive resume. It includes a MacArthur Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an Obie Award, the 2012 Horton Foote Prize and the 2013 Windham Campbell prize for drama. I wish I could say that the reasons for all her honors were more evident in her new drama now in previews at Signature. The action follows the story of two young women both as teenagers in prison in 1950 and as roommates nine years later. Scenes of their hardships in the outside world are juxtaposed with scenes of their budding friendship in prison. Many of the prison scenes involve Young Jamie (Trae Harris), who is black, coaching Young Dee (Emily Skeggs), who is white, how to be a proper servant, the career they look forward to pursuing after prison. Part of the lessons involve learning where to establish lines that must not be crossed in dealings with their future employers. After prison Jamie (Rachel Nicks) and Dee (Samantha Soule) are living in abject poverty, struggling to find and hold jobs as servants. The disconnect between their personalities in prison and later is exacerbated by the lack of physical resemblance between the two actors playing them. Skeggs’s body type is so different from Soule’s that it is a stretch to accept the two as the same character at different ages. The reasons for their desperation are not made sufficiently clear. The sudden explosion of repressed lesbianism took me by surprise. The actors invest their roles with sincerity and energy. The spartan set by Rachel Hauck is effective, as are Cliff Ramos’s costumes. With the audience split into two facing sides, director Caitlin McLeod needs to work harder to insure that fewer lines are lost when the actors are facing away. It all seemed like a mash-up of “Girls in Prison” and “Thelma and Louise” with a touch of “The Maids” thrown in. I hope that Wallace’s remaining two plays will deliver more evidence of her talents. In case you were wondering, the title is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter **

The creators of this indie rock musical from Iceland, now in previews at the Minetta Lane Theatre, certainly deserve credit for originality. Its producers are also to be commended for their daring in bringing this lavish production to New York. Its talented cast of 12 includes Cady Huffman (The Producers) as Manuela, mayor of Elbowville, a town of lobster fisherman who live simply and worship Robert Redford. The arrival of the Prosperity Machine leads them to rampant capitalism, unbridled consumerism and eventually economic collapse. (It’s not too different from what actually happened in Iceland not that long ago.) Overlaid on this cautionary tale is the story of three brothers, two of whom fall for the same woman. The production values are topnotch. When you enter, the entire back wall of the simple set (by Petr Hlousek) is covered with a projected film of a scruffy middle-aged man in camouflage trousers and a sleeveless polka-dot undershirt trying to fall asleep. It is in his elbow that the action takes place. The costumes (by Hrafnhildur Arnardottir and Edda Gudmundsdottir), mainly in black and red, are fanciful, especially the mayor’s. The evocative lighting (by Jeff Croiter) is very effective. Choreographer Lee Proud (Billy Elliot) moves the cast skillfully and throws in a lively tap dance number which has almost nothing to do with the plot, but is entertaining. Music director Stefan Orn Gunnlaugsson and the Revolution Cellular Orchestra make the most of Ivar Pall Jonsson’s songs. Jonsson also wrote the book and lyrics and his brother Gunnlaugur Jonsson wrote the story. The songs are varied and, in a couple of instances are quite powerful, particularly one near the end of the second act called “Alone.” Bergur Ingolfsson’s smooth direction hides many of the show’s flaws. If more of the songs had reached the level of the best ones and the plot had been less simplistic, the show could have been remarkable. As it is, it’s a welcome curiosity unlike anything you are likely to have seen. If you are thinking of going, I urge you to look at the show’s website, where you are able to listen to a few of the songs. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Poor Behavior *

Primary Stages' first play of the season is now in previews at its new home at The Duke on 42nd Street. If you crave 2+ hours of arguing, bickering, shouting and throwing tantrums, punctuated only by chunks of pseudophilosophical blather and a few feeble attempts at humor, this is the play for you. Two childless married couples, probably in their late thirties and wed for about a decade, are gathered at the vacation home of one of the couples for a weekend in the country. The hosts, Peter (Jeff Biehl) and Ella (Katie Kreisler), seem relatively sane and happy, at least compared to the other couple. Ian (Brian Avers) is an abrasive Irishman who may have married the hysterical Maureen (Heidi Armbruster) either for her money or a green card. After a long night of drinking, Maureen makes an accusation of infidelity which leads to serious consequences. There is much talk about the nature of "good." The actors did not dishonor themselves coping with this less than stellar material, although Avers shouted louder than necessary much of the time. Lauren Helpern's set of the kitchen, dining nook and entryway of the house was quite attractive and looked lived in. Jessica Pabst's costumes were apt. I find it hard to judge Evan Cabnet's direction, because Theresa Rebeck's script presents so many problems. Rebeck, whose work includes Mauritius, Seminar, and Our House, has the rare distinction of being the playwright whose latest play I always like less than the previous one. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Sex with Strangers ***

When strong sexual attraction clashes with literary incompatibility, which will win out? How does a young person deal with the acute anxiety of being temporarily without access to the internet? How can we ever really know someone? These are some of the questions posed by Laura Eason’s entertaining two-character play at Second Stage. Olivia is a near-40 novelist turned teacher who was so traumatized by her first book’s lukewarm reception many years ago that she refuses to show anyone the manuscript of her second novel. Ethan is a 28-year-old hunk who has chronicled his sexual exploits in the blog after which the play is named and turned them into two e-books that spent 5 years on the Times best-seller list. They meet on a stormy winter night at a remote Michigan b&b where they both have come to work, Olivia on her novel and Ethan on the screenplay for his first book. This set-up has more than a touch of sitcom about it, but a sitcom with good dialog and literary ambitions. Fortunately for us, Olivia and Ethan are played by Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) and Billy Magnussen (Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike), two very appealing actors who have palpable chemistry. They have sex on the table, on the couch, in the bed — and that’s just in Act One. They are less compatible out of the sack. Ethan has read and admired Olivia’s first novel and pushes her to resume her writing career with his help. He longs to get past the image of his previous books and write something serious. Olivia cannot help wondering whether the bad boy persona in Ethan’s books is just a character or the actual person. Complications arise in the second act, many of them arising from the perils of the publishing world in the digital age. We have to take it on faith that both are talented writers. Andromache Chalfant’s sets are fine, particularly her set for Olivia’s apartment. Esosa’s costumes befit their characters. David Schwimmer’s direction is assured, although I did feel the sex scenes were longer than necessary. I found the characters to be more like constructs than real people, but the committed acting allayed my qualms. As summer entertainment, the play hits the mark as long as you don’t examine it too closely. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.