Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Country House ***

Donald Margulies’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club could well bear the subtitle “Variations on Chekhovian Themes.” Characters and situations from “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya” are borrowed, tweaked and conflated to produce a clever mash-up that works more often than not. The action takes place in the Williamstown home of Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner), an acclaimed actress of a certain age who is in town to play the title role in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. For the first anniversary of her daughter Kathy’s death, she is joined by her granddaughter Susie (Sarah Steele), a senior at Yale; her daughter’s widower Walter (David Rasche), a successful Hollywood director who has his new girlfriend Nell (Kate Jennings Grant), an actress, in tow; and Anna’s unhappy son Elliot (Eric Lange), an unsuccessful actor and would-be playwright. The family are joined by a surprise guest, Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), a television celebrity who has come to town to play The Guardsman. As a young actor, he had appeared with Anna and had an affair with Kathy; he is still catnip to three generations of women. Eleven years ago, Nell and Elliot had acted together in Louisville, leaving Elliot smitten with unrequited love for her. All this is laid out cleverly in the first act with amusing dialogue. And then things head south. The second act seemed formulaic and the third act, which hews too slavishly to Chekhov, did not offer any sense of resolution. The play is peppered with droll observations on the state of theater and film. The cast are uniformly excellent, John Lee Beatty’s set is luscious, Rita Ryack’s costumes are appropriate and Daniel Sullivan’s direction is smooth and assured. Although the destination was a disappointment, it was an entertaining ride for most of the journey. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Scenes from a Marriage ***

A clever friend referred to Ivo van Hove as a “destination director.” When he directs a play, the main attraction for many people is to see what he has done with the material rather than to see the work itself. Although his relationship with New York Theatre Workshop goes back to 1996, I have thus far avoided seeing any of his productions. Perhaps I have an innate suspicion of directors who think they know better than playwrights or filmmakers. In any case, his adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s superb television series and theatrical film was on my NYTW subscription, so I attended today’s preview. Van Hove’s first directorial stroke was to assign the roles of Johan and Marianne to three different couples portraying them at different stages of their marriage — Alex Hurt and Susannah Flood at the 10-year mark, Dallas Roberts and Roslyn Ruff a few years later, and Arliss Howard and Tina Benko at the moment they separate. Act One consists of three scenes roughly corresponding to the first three chapters of the filmed version. The gimmick is that the three scenes are performed simultaneously in three different areas of the theater. The audience moves from area to area in the order prescribed by the color of the wristband received upon arrival. I was in the pink group and saw the scenes in 3-1-2 time sequence. This was unfortunate because each scene had less impact than the preceding one. Howard and Benko are by far the strongest couple and, I thought, Roberts and Ruff are the least effective and have the weakest scene. Since the partitions are not soundproof, the audience hears snippets of dialogue and slamming doors from the other two scenes. No doubt this was a directorial choice. After a 30-minute intermission, the entire audience returns to the full theater, now configured in the round. Act Two follows the course of their post-separation relationship. Van Hove’s next distraction is that the opening scene of Act Two is played with all three couples on stage, sometimes speaking in unison, sometimes fugally, and sometimes changing partners in mid-sentence. Tripling the roles did not serve any purpose to me other than to demonstrate the director’s cleverness. The final two scenes are much more conventional and even touched by tenderness. The question I was left with at play’s end was “Why?” The film is regarded by many as a masterpiece and the acting by Erland Josephson and Liv Ulmann was incredible. Although much of the acting here is fine and the production is never boring, nothing approaches the film’s level, so I must again ask “Why mess with success?” The only answer I can think of is that the director wanted to. Running time: 3 hours, 30 minutes including 30-minute intermission.

Matilda the Musical ***

Except for “Oliver” and “A Christmas Story,” I have not cared for musicals with lots of children in them. That plus high ticket prices kept me away from this hit from London for a year and a half. However, when orchestra seats for under $100 became available, I decided to give it a try. The production values are top of the line. Rob Howell’s set design is one of the cleverest I have seen in several years; his costumes are fine too. Peter Darling’s choreography is spirited and often ingenious. The direction by Matthew Warchus is seamless and assured. The producers have kept the show in fine shape despite multiple cast changes. The current cast is quite good. Christopher Sieber is a hoot as Miss Trunchbull, Alison Liff makes a sympathetic Miss Honey, and Matt Harrington and Lesli Margherita are delightfully over the top as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. Matilda was played at my performance by Eliza Holland Madore, a tiny powerhouse. The other children and the secondary adult roles are well cast too. The curtain call number was among the best I have seen. So why did I admire the show more than I liked it? Roald Dahl’s story didn’t really engage me, at least not as presented in Dennis Kelly’s book, and Tim MInchin’s music and lyrics seemed merely serviceable. I liked it better than I expected to, but found it a bit chilly at its heart. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Money Shot **

The poster for Neil LaBute’s new comedy, now in previews at MCC Theater, is doubly misleading: the four actors do not end up in bed together and Fred Weller does not have hair on his chest. The play raises the question of whether the world really needs another satirical look at the denizens of Hollywood. They are both too easy and too frequent a target, unless the playwright has some new insight to share. That is not the case here. Steve (Weller) is an obtuse 50-ish action film hero whose fight against Father Time has led him to marry Missy (Gia Crovatin), an ex-cheerleader and would-be actress less than half his age. Since Karen (Elizabeth Reaser) came out as a lesbian, her movie career has been on the skids, despite her attempts to pump it up with a cookbook, website, charitable activities and marketing ploys. Her lover Bev (Callie Thorne) is a film editor with a pugnacious personality, to put it mildly. Steve and Karen are currently filming a movie that they hope will revive their careers. The European director has suggested that they liven up an upcoming bedroom scene by actually having sex. The four are gathered at Karen’s luxurious home in the Hollywood hills the night before filming, allegedly to negotiate with their loved ones how far they are allowed to go in the shoot. However, it is more than an hour into the play before they finally get around to the matter at hand. The first hour is devoted to a series of arguments over such weighty questions as whether David Crosby is Bing’s son and whether Belgium is really part of Europe. By the time they get around to arguing over where tongues may or may not be placed during the shoot, we have realized that LaBute’s own tongue is planted firmly in his cheek. There are many amusing lines, but it all adds up to absolutely nothing. The actors give it their all. Weller, who was billed as Frederick in Mothers and Sons is listed here as Fred; I wish he had also shed the pinched voice that was so annoying in McNally’s play. Derek McLane’s set is lovely, Sarah J. Holden’s costumes are just right and Terry Kinney’s direction is fluid. Too bad they didn’t have something more substantive to work on. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

My Mañana Comes ****

I had not previously heard of The Playwrights Realm, a theater company “dedicated to serving early-career playwrights” that offers a year-long residency culminating in a full-scale off-Broadway production. On the basis of Elizabeth Irwin’s new play at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater until September 20, I would say they have a sharp eye for talent and a commitment to high production values. Irwin’s workplace drama with comedic overtones presents a vivid slice-of-life about four busboys in an Upper East Side restaurant. Peter (Jason Bowen), a black man with a child, is the senior among them and the only one who takes professional pride in his work. Two busboys are undocumented Mexican immigrants; frugal Jorge (José Joaquin Pérez) left wife and children behind almost four years ago to earn enough money to build them a new home. Spendthrift Pepe (Reza Salazar) is a recently arrived young man who dreams of saving enough to bring his younger brother to New York. The junior busboy Whalid (Brian Quijada), a second-generation Hispanic who lives with his parents and has vague dreams of getting a civil service job, teases Jorge and Pepe mercilessly. We follow the four through their daily rounds at work and learn what pressures in the outside world make their lives difficult. A crisis at work puts each of them to a test of solidarity. I do not generally like the use of monologues, but Irwin has skillfully incorporated them here. The actors are all very good, particularly Bowen and Pérez. Chay Yew’s direction is seamless. The set design by Wilson Chin is worth arriving a few minutes early just to admire; he captures the details of a working kitchen right down to the scrapes on the walls. Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes are excellent. The play illustrates the personal dimension of large social issues, including immigration policy, race relations, exploitation of the vulnerable, the corrosive effects of poverty. Irwin shows a lot of talent and I look forward to seeing what she does next. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

NOTE: The Peter Jay Sharp Theater (the smaller upstairs theater at Playwrights Horizons) has less than ideal seating. The seats are directly behind each other rather than staggered and have no padding on the seat backs. If you have back problems, bring a cushion.

QUESTION: Why would a character who is identified as Hispanic be named Whalid, a name I have always thought was of Arabic origin? Ideas, anyone?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Waiting for Godot (in Yiddish) ***

We should be grateful to Shane Baker for taking on the task of translating Beckett’s landmark tragicomedy to Yiddish and to New Yiddish Rep for bringing it to the Barrow Street Theatre.. Somehow the words spoken by Beckett’s characters Vladimir (Baker), Estragon (David Mandelbaum), Pozzo (Allen Lewis Rickman) and Lucky (Rafael Goldwaser) take on an added emotional weight when they are heard in Yiddish. It helps that all four actors are superb in their roles. Rickman and Goldwaser are so good that they almost steal the limelight from the two main characters. Despite his gray hair and balding pate, Baker has such a youthful face that he appears much younger than Mandelbaum. Lucky’s long soliloquy in the first act is absolutely mesmerizing. (There is a video of it out there. Google it). In a nice touch, Godot’s messenger is played by a young African-American boy with dreadlocks (Nicholas Jenkins) The simple set by George Xenos is effective. Moshe Yassur not only skillfully directed the play but designed the costumes. Even in this fine production the play’s second act never reaches the high level of the first. It is a play that I admire but will never wholeheartedly like. I’m glad to see it presented so well though. There are English supertitles. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Indian Ink ***

It took almost 20 years to get here, but Tom Stoppard’s 1995 play (based on his 1991 radio play “In the Native State”) has finally reached New York in a first-rate production by Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre. One can speculate on the reasons it took so long — its large cast (15), its relative lack of the playwright’s customary intellectual showmanship, and its appearance between the flashier “Arcadia” and “The Invention of Love.” In any case, we should be glad it has at last arrived. The central character is Flora Crewe (a fine Romola Garai), a free-spirited young British woman whose erotic poetry has caused a bit of a scandal and who has gone to India early in 1930. Her alleged purpose is to give a lecture tour about the British literary world, but actually she has traveled for health reasons. While in Jummapur, she meets an Indian artist Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji,) who paints her portrait, and is wooed by a British colonial functionary David Durance (Lee Aaron Rosen). Shortly after leaving Jummapur for the Indian highlands, she dies. Although her work was scorned in her lifetime, 50 years later she has become all the rage. Her younger sister Eleanor (the always wonderful Rosemary Harris), now in her late sixties, is visited by an American professor Eldon Pike (Neal Huff) who is publishing her collected letters and is far more interested in unimportant details than in the truth. She is also visited by Anish Das (Bhavesh Patel), the painter’s son, who is trying to discover what transpired between Flora and his father. The action alternates between India in the early 1930s and England and India in the 1980s. Sometimes characters from both time periods are onstage at the same time, but there is no possibility of confusion. The play touches upon contrasting aesthetic traditions, the common bond that art provides and some of the effects of imperialism. The pace is unhurried, but if you are patient you should find the emotional payoff in the final scenes gratifying. The supporting cast is excellent. Neil Patel’s set design and Candice Donnelly’s costumes are attractively effective. Carey Perloff’s direction is straightforward and uncluttered. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission. NOTE: There is a brief moment of full frontal female nudity.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Bootycandy **

This work by Robert O’Hara, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, is a loose assemblage of sketches, most of them comedic, that don’t really fit together very well. The central character is Sutter (Phillip James Brannon) whom we see as an effeminate black child, a misunderstood teenager, a black playwright with a taste for racial vengeance, and a loving grandson. The scenes that include him have a loose narrative thread. Other scenes include a monologue by a preacher who comes out as a cross dresser and another by a man trying to talk himself out of a mugging. A clever costume trick is the gimmick of a hilarious scene depicting a phone conversation with two actors playing four characters. In a darker vein there is a long scene about two brothers-in-law who have a complex and painful relationship. The final scene of act one is an amusing faux conference at Playwrights Horizons with a panel comprised of the alleged authors of the previous sketches and a clueless white moderator. After intermission there is a funny yet moving scene of Sutter’s family at the dinner table. This is followed by an overlong sketch of two lesbians, Genitalia and Intifada, undoing their commitment ceremony. A friend accurately described it as a Saturday Night Live sketch that wears out its welcome. The evening turns very dark with a playlet about Sutter and a flaming butch queen friend picking up a drunk, emotionally unstable white man in a bar and going back to his hotel. In the aftermath, there is a Brechtian moment in which the actors rebel against the playwright and decide to skip the (nonexistent) prison scene. We end with Sutter reminiscing with his grandmother at her nursing home. The language is consistently and outrageously vulgar and there is both graphic description of sexual acts and extended male nudity (tellingly, by the only white actor). The best argument for the play is the opportunity it provides for five terrific actors to show their mettle. Jessica Frances Dukes, Jesse Pennington, Benja Kay Thomas and Lance Coadie Williams play multiple roles with great gusto. The revolving set and appropriately over-the-top costumes by Clint Ramos are first-rate. Once again I am persuaded that, in general, playwrights should not direct their own work. There are multiple instances where scenes run on much too long, a fault another director might well have corrected. I really hoped I could recommend it with more enthusiasm, but its many faults cancel out most of its strengths. I won't give away the meaning of the title. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.