Sunday, December 28, 2014

Constellations ***

After being underwhelmed by Nick Payne’s previous play with Jake Gyllenhaal, “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” two years ago (my review is at, I approached this MTC production of “Constellations” with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this two-hander is a considerably more interesting and better written play. In just over an hour, it gives us the arc of a relationship between Marianne (the phenomenal Ruth Wilson, recently of Showtime’s “The Affair”), a quantum physicist, and Roland (Gyllenhaal, in fine form), a beekeeper. With the possibility that there are parallel universes where different versions of ourselves behave differently, Payne presents us with multiple short variations of scenes where things turn out differently based on as little as a different emphasis in a line reading. Some will find these variations fascinating, while others may find them just annoyingly repetitive. The love story has a beginning, middle and end; just don’t expect them to be presented in strict chronological order. As an opportunity for two fine actors to show their stuff, the play succeeds brilliantly. As a story, it appealed more to my head than to my heart. Michael Longhurst’s direction is completely assured. Tom Scutt’s scenic design of white balloons above a raised platform is simple and effective. Lee Curran’s lighting and David McSeveney’s sound design punctuate the scenes emphatically. Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Best and Worst Plays I Saw in 2014

Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of the 15 plays I rated as Very Good (****) in 2014:

Ayckbourn Ensemble
Between Riverside and Crazy
The City of Conversation
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging
Honeymoon in Vegas
The Invisible Hand
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
My MaƱana Comes
The Mystery of Irma Vep
An Octoroon
The Oldest Boy
On the Town
Satchmo at the Waldorf

Here, also alphabetically, are the six plays I rated as poor (*) this year:

The Happiest Song Plays Last
Punk Rock
Poor Behavior
While I Yet Live

This year I did not rate any play as Excellent (*****) — although there were a few that came very close —or as Horrible (0 stars) 

2014 came out significantly better than 2013: last year I rated only six plays as 4-star, while there were 11 with one star and one play with none.

Every Brilliant Thing ***

It’s easy to understand why this one-man show was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but it’s hard to describe it in a manner that makes it sound appealing. It’s a comedy about depression, told by a narrator who, as a 7-year-old, started compiling a list of things that make life worth living, e.g. ice cream, roller coasters, water fights and the color yellow. The list is intended to cheer up his mother, who has just attempted suicide for the first time. The narrator is winningly played by British comedian Jonny Donahoe, who perfectly navigates a path between sentimentality and despair without a scratch. Before the show, he hands out slips of paper with items from the list to be called out by audience members at the appropriate moment. He also invites a few people to join him in scenes that involve important people in his life. I generally dread shows with audience participation, but it is handled here with gentleness and finesse. The play is filled with interludes of soulful music from his father’s record collection, which he has learned to use as a barometer of his father’s mood. As life goes on, the narrator keeps adding to the list, which plays a role in helping him find true love. However, his unshakeable fear of following in his mother’s footsteps keeps him from enjoying life fully for a long time. There are so many ways the tricky material could go wrong, but playwright Duncan Macmillan, co-writer and performer Donahoe and director George Perrin handle it brilliantly. If you’re going to be near the Barrow Street Theatre anytime soon, it’s a very pleasant way to spend an hour.

Honeymoon in Vegas ****

This hilarious show which was a hit at Paper Mill Playhouse last year puts the comedy back in Broadway musical comedy. No conjoined twins, economic malaise, alternative realities or political strife here — just wacky comedy without any pretension of deeper meaning. Jason Robert Brown’s catchy music, wonderfully orchestrated, recalls the brassy big band era, but his clever lyrics are full of up-to-the-minute references. Andrew Bergman’s book captures the best of his 1992 film. The fine cast is led by the talented Rob McClure as the marriage-averse nebbishy Jack, Brynn O’Malley as his long-suffering fiancee Betsy and Tony Danza as the shady gambler Tommy who takes a shine to Betsy because she is a look-alike of his late wife. Nancy Opel is hilarious as the ghost of Jack’s mother, who forced him into a deathbed promise never to marry. Tommy schemes to lure Jack into losing a fortune at poker and then proposes to forgive the debt if he can spend a weekend in Hawaii with Betsy. The escalating silliness includes a harpist who plays the instrument with her breasts and a troupe of skydiving Elvis impersonators. Anita Louizos’s scenic design is complex and attractive. The set constantly reconfigures to create locations in New York, Las Vegas and Hawaii with the assistance of evocative projections. The costumes by Brian C. Hemesath are delightful. The choreography by Denis Jones is lively. Gary Griffin’s direction keeps everything moving smoothly. If you are looking for a show with substance, don’t look here. If you just want an entertaining evening, you’ve come to the right place. Now in previews at the Nederlander Theatre. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tail! Spin! **

The sexual peccadillos of four of our politicians form the basis of this comic romp at the Lynn Redgrave Theater. Idaho’s Sen. Larry Craig (Josh Eakright, u/s for Sean Dugan), master of the wide stance; Florida’s Rep. Mark Foley (Arnie Burton), enthusiastic pal of underage congressional pages; NY’s own Rep. Anthony Wiener (Nate Smith), sexter par excellence, and South Carolina’s Gov. Mark Sanford (Tom Galantich), who turned up far from the Appalachian Trail, are captured through their own words. Rachel Dratch portrays “wives, tails, beards and Barbara Walters.” Most of the material will be thoroughly familiar to anyone who hasn’t been hiding in a cave, but playwright Mario Correa has sliced and diced it in amusing ways. Caite Hevner Kemp’s attractive set has all the right patriotic trimmings and is well lighted by Ryan O’Gara. In addition to their main characters, each actor has other roles. Projected surtitles remind us who is portraying whom at any given moment. Director Dan Knechtges maintains a lively pace. The enthusiastic cast are very good, but the material seemed to me only marginally funnier — and racier — than a series of above average Saturday Night Live skits. At 70 minutes, it was both too short and too long — too short to justify the effort and expense of attending and too long to remain fresh. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Pocatello ***

In the last three years, Samuel D. Hunter has garnered Obie, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel and GLAAD awards and, most recently, a MacArthur Fellowship. He is regarded as one of our most promising young playwrights. However, I was not smitten either by The Whale (despite a memorable performance by Shuler Hensley) or by The Few. His interest in chronicling the lives of marginalized Idahoans seemed too limited. I am happy to report that I found his latest play, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, considerably more ambitious and universal. Even though the setting is once again Idaho, the location could be any small American city experiencing economic decline and a loss of its uniqueness. Hunter compassionately illustrates the psychological damage on ten people whose hometown has slid into a jumble of fast food joints and big box stores. The lead character is Eddie (T.R. Knight), manager of the failing local outlet of a national Italian restaurant chain known for its soft breadsticks and salads. One would think that a sensitive gay man would flee Pocatello at his earliest opportunity, but Eddie feels strong roots dating back to his great-grandfather and has delusions that he can somehow forestall the closing of the restaurant and reunite, however briefly, his fractured family. His cold, distant mother Doris (Brenda Wehle) seems to want to have nothing to do with him. His older brother Nick (Brian Hutchison), who has only come back from Minnesota for a brief visit at the urging of his wife Kelly (Crystal Finn), cannot contain his eagerness to get away as rapidly as possible. Troy (Danny Wolohan), the waiter who has known Eddie since childhood, has a troubled marriage. His wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey) has a problem trying to stay on the wagon, their bright but troubled 17-year-old daughter Becky (Leah Karpel) is so environmentally concerned that she can barely eat, and Troy’s father Cole (Jonathan Hogan) suffers from dementia. Waiter Max (Cameron Scoggins) is grateful to Eddie for being the only employer in town willing to hire him after his stint in drug rehab. Waitress Isabelle (Elvy Yost) tries to skim along life’s surface without making waves. The opening scene, with all ten characters onstage, is quite a tour de force. Hunter generously gives each character at least a moment in the spotlight that gives us insight into what makes them tick. The cast is very strong, especially Knight as Eddie. One look into the combination of hurt and hope in his eyes speaks more than paragraphs of dialogue. Davis McCallum’s direction is superb. There is a silent moment when Tammy decides whether to take a drink of wine that is almost painful to watch. Lauren Helpern’s set accurately captures the look of a faux-Italian chain restaurant and Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit the characters well. There is more than enough sorrow to go around, especially for a relatively brief play. The ending needs to be more emphatic — no one applauded until the lights came up as if uncertain the play had really ended. The play impressed me as a big step forward for Hunter. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Invisible Hand ****

When your first play to reach New York wins a Pulitzer, can things only go downhill from there? After seeing Ayad Akhtar’s gripping new thriller, now in previews at New York Theatre Workshop, I can report that, in his case, the answer is an emphatic “No.” Nick Bright (Justin Kirk) is a mid-level American banker who has been erroneously kidnapped by a militant group in Pakistan. They were after his boss, but he was filling in for him that day. The huge ransom they are demanding is far more than the bank thinks he is worth, so he is stuck in captivity. His captor is the volatile Bashir (Usman Ally), British born and raised, who left England to fight in Pakistan where he has become a follower of the charismatic Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani). Nick has befriended his guard Dar (Jameal Ali) and even taught him some rudimentary economics that yield a bit of extra income. When it becomes clear that the bank will never pay his ransom, Nick suggests raising the amount himself by some tricky trading using an offshore account of his. Bashar initially objects, but the imam agrees. Since they will not allow him near a computer, Nick has to teach Bashir how to make the trades. Bashir proves to be an able student. The twists and turns that follow kept me on the edge of my seat. Who knew that high finance could be so dramatic? The play is not only exciting but so topical it could be ripped from today’s headlines. Akhtar provides insight into what turns a British Muslim into a militant, how militant groups are becoming more sophisticated about fundraising and how American influence can be both beneficent and corrupting. While the entire cast is strong, Ally’s Bashir is absolutely mesmerizing; I defy you to take your eyes off of him. Director Ken Rus Schmoll has paced the action skillfully. Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design, featuring lots of corrugated metal and fluorescent lighting that extends over the audience, is effective, as are ESOSA’s costumes. This was a highlight of my theatergoing for 2014. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Our Lady of Kibeho ***

Playwright Katori Hall’s residency at Signature Theatre resumes with this theatrically engrossing play based on actual events in Rwanda in the early 1980’s when three young women at a Catholic school claimed to have visions of Mary. As the play opens, Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera),a young handsome priest and Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford), an older martinet nun in charge of the students — two stock characters who could be right out of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt — are arguing about what to do with 17-year-old Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor), the first to claim to see the Virgin. The priest secretly hopes the apparitions are real while the nun wants to stamp out attention-seeking nonsense. When another student, Anathalie (Mandi Masden), begins to see the visions, Sister Evangelique enlists Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango), the eldest student and a bit of a bully, to interfere should there be other apparitions. Marie-Claire too sees the Virgin in the gripping scene with gasp-inducing special effects that concludes the first act. When word gets out about the visions, the long absent Bishop Gahamanyi (Brent Jennings) shows up and threatens to close the school if the rumors are not contained. Eventually the Vatican sends Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith) to investigate. The manner in which he tests the girls is barbaric. As the visions come to be accepted, there is much shifting of positions among those who at first belittled the visions and those who supported them. Some are motivated by crass economic considerations, others by faith. But few are able to accept the warning of a coming bloodbath the apparitions portend. In restricting herself to the immediate period of the visions, Hall does not supply much context for what happens. The audience is expected to know in advance about the tribal rivalries between Hutu and Tutsi and the massacres that took place in Rwanda a decade later. That narrowing of focus may rob the play of a bit of its import but not of its theatricality. Rachel Hauck’s modular set is attractive and efficient. Peter Nigrini’s evocative projections add much to the atmosphere. Greg Meeh and Paul Rubin create some marvelous effects. Emily Rebholz’s costumes are very good. Director Michael Greif keeps things moving. One word of caution: a walkway that bisects the theater between rows F and G is used for part of the action, particularly in the second act. If your seat is in Rows A-F, you either will miss some of the action or twist your neck trying not to. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Delicate Balance **

Let me confess that this play, despite its Pulitzer Prize, has never seemed to me on a par with Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or “Three Tall Women.” Based on Pam MacKinnon’s superb direction of the former play and the promising cast she assembled for this one, I hoped that this production might change my mind. It didn’t. I found the first half of the play listless and lacking any sense of ensemble. Things improved with the second scene of Act II and cohered even more for Act III. By then it was almost too late, because a solid foundation had not been built. The quality of the acting was below my expectations. Glenn Close, in the key role of Agnes, projected poorly, stumbled over her lines more than once and seemed generally distracted. Lindsay Duncan, as her drunk sister Claire, underplayed her role; Martha Plimpton, as much-married daughter Julia, overplayed hers. Of the four main characters, only John Lithgow, as Agnes’s husband Tobias, seemed to fully inhabit his role. Claire Higgins and Bob Balaban, as the terrified neighbors Edna and Harry, who move in, are very good. However, if it’s Harry and Edna that grab the most attention, something is wrong with the play’s delicate balance. The lavish living room designed by Santo Loquasto is imposing, but Ann Roth’s color-coordinated costumes were a bit much. I should mention that the conditions for enjoying the play were less than ideal. Legroom in the Golden Theatre’s mezzanine was minimal. The audience was annoying, laughing at inappropriate moments such as during Tobias’ impassioned monologue. Not a great evening for theater, alas. Running time: two hours, forty minutes, including two intermissions.