Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace **

The fact that New York Theatre Workshop recently resorted to an evening of Bacharach songs to fill its stage made me worry a bit that they had lost their creative edge. No need to worry! With this latest production, now in previews, they are back on the edge. This avant-garde musical loosely based on the last days of Edgar Allen Poe is unlike anything else you are likely to see this year (some might add “if you’re lucky”). The very name of the co-producer, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, suggests that this will be unorthodox fare. In this treatment of his laudanum-laced last months, we see Poe (Ean Sheehy) continually pursued by the ghost of his late wife Virginia (Alessandra L. Larson). The play is introduced amusingly by Ranger Steve (Jeremy Wilhelm), allegedly from the Poe House in Philadelphia, who proceeds to play multiple characters who cross Poe’s path. More importantly, he sings almost all of the show’s songs, which are drawn from Poe’s late poems and letters to his former mother-in-law/aunt, whom Poe affectionally calls “Muddy.” He also plays a mean clarinet. Most of the musical accompaniment is provided by his brother David Wilhelm on two pianos, a deliberately out-of-tune upright and a baby grand. The Wilhelm brothers are the show’s composers and, with director Thaddeus Phillips, its co-creators. Phillips also designed the set, which uses doors and tables to represent a multitude of objects as well as a bed frame floating in midair. In one of the play’s most striking images, Virginia first appears by rising from an opening in the grass beneath Poe’s feet and trying to pull him back into the earth with her. Another highlight is Poe’s memorable reading of “The Raven.” Near the end, the musical version of the poem “El Dorado” is repeated, for reasons unclear to me, in a colorful Spanish version with Larson’s character suddenly on stilts in a bright red gown. That was just one of the many moments I did not grasp. The play seemed increasingly to be spinning its wheels as it progressed. Sheehy is quite affecting as the fading Poe, Larson is evocative in her mostly silent dance role and Wilhelm is a versatile actor with a strong pleasant voice. I admire the creators for their ambition, but I think they lost their way at some point in the play’s 10-year gestation. Running time 95 minutes, no intermission.

P.S. Isherwood loved it in Philadelphia, so you can expect a rave in the Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/theater/reviews/red-eye-to-havre-de-grace-a-musical-about-edgar-allan-poe.html]

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Annapurna **

It's beginning to look like the promise that playwright Sharr White demonstrated with "The Other Place" will not be fulfilled. His next play seen in NY, "Snow Geese" at Manhattan Theatre Club, was an ambitious but unfocused family drama that made my 10 Worst List for last year. Now along comes this flawed two-hander at The New Group, starring real-life couple Karen Mullally and Nick Offerman, best-known for their roles in sitcoms -- "Will and Grace" and "Parks and Recreation," respectively. Offerman plays Ulysses, a once-successful poet and professor, now dying of emphysema and lung cancer in a messy trailer in the Colorado Rockies. Mullally is Emma, his ex-wife, who ran off with their five-year-old son Sam in the middle of the night 20 years ago and who suddenly turns up unexpectedly on his doorstep. Apprently her second marriage has also failed. This set-up sounds promising and the play begins with a few lively scenes separated by blackouts. Then, unfortunately, the scenes get longer -- much longer -- and less lively. The answer to the question of why Emma left so suddenly with their son way back when, is very gradually teased out, with much verbal padding along the way. The truth that is more or less revealed seemed to me full of logical holes which I cannot discuss without telling too much. Offerman is superb; he knows how to command a stage. Mullally is strangely restrained and a bit monotonous. The set design by Thomas A. Walsh and costumes by Ann Closs-Farley are first-rate. Bart DeLorenzo's direction was problematic for me: the tone and pace of the first few minutes suddenly turn into something quite different from the tone he has established. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Casa Valentina (revisited) ***

When the opportunity to attend opening night arose unexpectedly, I decided to pay a return visit to see how the play had changed since I saw an early preview 2 1/2 weeks ago. Here's what I had to say the first time around:

For Harvey Fierstein to have three plays running on Broadway simultaneously is quite an achievement, but in this instance the third time is not a charm. His first non-musical (I dare not say "straight" play) in decades, now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club, has a lot going for it, especially an outstanding cast and an intriguing fact-inspired premise. In the early 60's there was a resort colony in the Catskills that catered to the needs of married heterosexual transvestites. To see such New York theater stalwarts as Patrick Page (George/Valentina), Reed Birney (Charlotte), John Cullum (Terry) and Larry Pine (The Judge/Amy) in full drag is an experience not soon to be forgotten. (Birney's Charlotte bears an uncanny resemblance to both Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead.) Gabriel Ebert (Jonathon/Miranda) plays a younger first-time visitor and Nick Westrate (Gloria) is the friend who encouraged his visit. Tom McGowan is hilarious as Bessie, an overweight ex-sergeant who has a Wilde quotation for every occasion. Mare Winningham is George's devoted wife Rita. Lisa Emery has a short but important role as Eleanor, the daughter of one of the guests. The play has some comic moments, but ends up in much darker territory. The lengthy first act sags (I resisted the urge to say "drags") in the middle for a long stretch. Although the play addresses many interesting themes such as heterosexual transvestites' hatred of homosexuals, governmental intrusion and manipulation, budding activism and the collateral damage caused by people's life choices, I could not fathom what it was the playwright wanted the audience to take away from it. David Zinn's set and Kaye Voyce's costumes are effective. Director Joe Mantello makes the best of what is there, but cannot overcome the play's lack of focus. I'm sure things will be tightened up a bit during the two weeks of previews that remain, but I doubt that tinkering can solve the play's problems. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission.

This time around, I was even more impressed by the excellence of the cast. They have deepened their performances and grown as an ensemble. The pace of the first act has improved and the arguments at the "sorority" meeting better reflect the individuality of the characters without seeming as pedantic as I first found them. Unfortunately, the problems of the second act have not gone away. What had seemed a sensitive group character study turns melodramatic. While I did not expect the ending to tie everything up with a neat bow, I still felt frustrated that the abrupt ending left too many issues unresolved. I wish the play had been given more time for workshops or an out-of-town tryout, because I think there is still a better play hiding somewhere inside. Nevertheless, because of the deeply affecting performances of the outstanding cast, I have changed my rating from two stars to three.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Heir Apparent ***

I wish I had been able to approach the CSC production of David Ives's "translaptation" (his neologism) of Jean-Fran├žois Regnard's 1708 comedy unburdened by expectations. Unfortunately, I could not drive away the memory of CSC's brilliant 2011 production of "The School for Lies." Ives's riff on Moliere's "The Misanthrope," which I thought was one of the best plays of that year. The problem with this work is that Regnard is no Moliere. The humor is broader, less witty and more scatological. Although it makes for an enjoyable evening, the play doesn't reach the heights of Ives's best adaptations or original work. The plot is an old standby -- scheming to win the inheritance of an allegedly dying miser. The major source of the fun is in Ives' delightful rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. His verses are filled with delightful anachronisms and modern cultural references, e.g. soccer moms, the 99%, CPR. The entire cast is excellent, first among them the always hilarious Carson Elrod ("The Explorers Club," "All in the Timing") as the servant whose crazy plans drive most of the action. Suzanne Bertish, Paxton Whitehead and David Pittu, ever the reliable actors, shine in their roles. Dave Quay, Amelia Pedlow and Claire Karpen are all fine too. John Lee Beatty's set is marvelously cluttered and David C. Woolard's costumes are appealing. Director John Rando keeps things moving along briskly, but I didn't like the choice to have an actor break character and address the audience a few times. I liked the play, but I would have liked it more if I had not seen other better work from Ives. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill ****

One could argue whether Lanie Robertson's 1986 work is a bioplay with music or a concert with monologues. Whichever it is, let's just be grateful that it has been revived as a vehicle for the multi-Tonied Audra McDonald in a limited-run production at Circle in the Square. Adding another superb performance to her long list, McDonald both vocally and dramatically inhabits the role of troubled jazz singer Billie Holiday near the end of her tragically short life.  McDonald's ability to disappear into Lady Day's persona is uncanny. In between songs, she relates many -- perhaps too many -- stories of her difficult life and career. Also onstage are a talented jazz trio (Sheldon Becton, piano; Clayton Craddock, drums; George Farmer, bass). Becton plays her music director and babysitter Jimmy Powers. Her pet chihuahua Pepi (Roxie) makes a memorable appearance too. James Noone's set designs fills most of the playing space with nightclub tables with a bandstand at one end and a bar at the other. Holiday's costume by Esosa is perfection. Lonny Price's direction is effective. The half-hearted use of projections is not. Ultimately, who cares as long as we have 90 glorious minutes of Lady Day as channeled by McDonald.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra **

Playwrights Horizons describes this new play by Kirk Lynn as a "tough-love comedy." So that's what it is? I never would have guessed with all the phony baloney goings on. I could barely get past the play's ridiculous premise -- that Carla (Zoe Sophia Garcia) will not marry Reggie (Chris Stack) unless he agrees to reenact their respective sexual histories "on" each other before they wed. She also does not want Reggie's ex, Tony (short for Antoinette, played by Rebecca Henderson), to be their best man. Got that? Alternating with scenes of these three adults are other ones involving three teenagers -- awkwardly intense Bernie (short for Bernadette, played by Ismenia Mendes);  Sean (Maxx Brawer), a shy boy who has a crush on her; and Cole (Will Pullen), a friend with suspect motives who suggests that Sean use a date-rape drug on her. The party they attend does not turn out well for them. The relationship between the two sets of characters is not revealed until the second act, which takes places 20 years after some, but not all, of the action in act one. The tough love comes then when we learn that it is hard to be a single parent with a teenager. The play is a literal mess as well as a figurative one -- the stage is regularly littered with clothes, books, beer cans, the contents of a purse, etc. for reasons that escaped me. Why two of the three females have boys' nicknames was also a mystery. Any relation the titillating title has to the play is faint and forced. What I was left with was a craving for lasagna, which is mentioned several times during the play. Laura Jellinek's set is appropriately dreary. Emily Rebholz's costumes are apt. Anne Kauffman, whose direction I have enjoyed twice before, does not shine here. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful ****

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since Charles Ludlum’s satire of Victorian melodrama was first staged. Red Bull Theater is celebrating this anniversary with a hilarious revival now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The play’s main gimmick is that all seven roles, both male and female, are played by two male actors — Ludlum and his longtime partner Everett Quinton in the original production. Ludlum died tragically three years after the play’s opening, but Quinton is fortunately still with us and has lovingly directed this revival starring Robert Sella and Arnie Burton. The play holds up surprisingly well and the actors acquit themselves quite honorably in all their roles: Lord Edgar and Lady Edith Hillcrest, the masters of Mandacrest; loyal servant Jane, one-legged swineherd Nicodemus, Egyptologist Alcazar, the mysterious Pev Amri, and, of course, Irma Vep. The convoluted plot is ridiculous in the extreme — just know that it involves the deceased first Lady Hillcrest, a vampire, a werewolf and a mummy. The language is floridly archaic (think “fain” and “gibbous”) with nods to Shakespeare and Poe, among others. The fast character changes are very funny, with one brilliant tour de force in the second act. And it’s not often you get to hear a dulcimer duet. The play’s Egyptian scene is side-slappingly funny. Scenic designer John Arnone, costume designer Ramona Ponce, lighting designer Peter West, sound designer Brandon Wolcott and wig designer Aaron Kinchen have all made delightful contributions to the production’s success. Be forewarned — if your tolerance for silliness and high camp is limited, you will not enjoy this show. There is absolutely no redeeming social value, just a lot of laughs. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Act One ***

It's a bit ironic that this play about the storied theatrical collaboration of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman was written and directed by James Lapine, who is noted for his own collaborative work but this time is working solo. Maybe that's the problem. Perhaps he needed another voice to rein him in from the play's excesses, particularly its excessive length. Maybe he was too smitten with Moss Hart's memoir to pare it down to a more manageable size. Nevertheless, this bioplay, now in previews at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, offers much to enjoy -- many will say too much. Any play that puts Santino Fontana, Tony Shalhoub and Andrea Martin on a stage together won't get too many complaints from me. Fontana is irresistibly charming as always and we get to enjoy Shalhoub and Martin in three roles each. The other 19 cast members are fine too. Yes, the play is old-fashioned and a bit sentimental, but it has many delightful moments. Only a nonprofit like Lincoln Center Theater is likely to take on such an expensive production. With some judicious trimming, it would be much improved. Beowulf Boritt's set works overtime to revolve between the play's many locales. Jane Greenwood's costumes are terrific. In general, I do not think it is a good idea for a playwright to direct his own work. There are exceptions, but this is not one of them. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Library **

Since I have enjoyed several films by Steven Soderbergh, I was excited to learn he would direct a play this Spring by one of his frequent collaborators, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. My anticipation dimmed a bit when I found out that the play, now in previews at the Public Theater, was about a mass murder in a high school library. I assumed that this talented duo must have some new insight to share that would justify putting the audience through this ordeal again, even if only on stage. Such is not the case. The work is shallow, muddled and manipulative, exploiting a Columbine-like incident without deepening our understanding. Caitlin Gabriel (a fine Chloe Grace Moretz), severely wounded in the shooting, is named by classmate Ryan Mayes (Daryl Sabara) as the person who caused the death of several students by telling the gunman where they were hiding. Caitlin denies this, but no one believes her --  not her estranged parents Elizabeth (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Nolan (a smarmy Michael O'Keefe), nor her preacher (Ben Livingston), nor the detective (Tamara Tunie), especially after a dicey lie detector test. Abused by the media and reviled by her friends and neighbors, Caitlin tells a reporter that Joy Sheridan, a girl who was murdered after leading the endangered students in prayer, was the one who gave away the hiding place. Her story is distorted by the press and only inflames the situation. Joy's religious mother Dawn (Lili Taylor) finds comfort in prayer -- and a book deal. Caitlin's parents are suffering financially, but their request for a share of the victims' fund is a political hot potato. Getting a slice of the pie depends on their ability to persuade Caitlin to change her story. Meanwhile, she is undergoing repeated operations for her injuries. After all this, we get a deus ex machinae in the form of a cellphone. What was the point? What I will remember most about this play is the lighting design (by David Lander): the back wall is brightly illuminated in a series of brilliant color fields of many hues. The actors are occasionally bathed in dramatic yellow light. When the lighting is the most interesting part of a production, something is drastically wrong with the play. I must grudgingly report that the people around me seemed to be enjoying it. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Satchmo at the Waldorf ****

John Douglas Thompson gives an absolutely mesmerizing performance as Louis Armstrong in this one-person play by Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, now at the Westside Theater upstairs. In his dressing room at the Waldorf just a few months before his death, Armstrong reflects on the highs and lows of his long career. His success has been blemished by the disappearance of his black audience and unfair branding by younger black musicians like Miles Davis as an Uncle Tom. He is especially troubled by the unhappy outcome of his long and seemingly friendly relationship with his manager Joe Glaser. As if playing a convincing Armstrong were not enough, Thompson also portrays both Glaser and Davis. Lee Savage's clever set design and Kevin Adams's lighting make the transitions between characters crystal clear. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are appropriate. Gordon Edelstein's direction is assuredly smooth. I have a few quibbles: the opening scene seemed unnecessarily crude, there is very little music, and there are a few lumpy spots in the script. Nevertheless, Thompson's dazzling performance conquers all and makes this a memorable experience. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Casa Valentina **

For Harvey Fierstein to have three plays running on Broadway simultaneously is quite an achievement, but in this instance the third time is not a charm. His first non-musical (I dare not say "straight" play) in decades, now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club, has a lot going for it, especially an outstanding cast and an intriguing fact-inspired premise. In the early 60's there was a resort colony in the Catskills that catered to the needs of married heterosexual transvestites. To see such New York theater stalwarts as Patrick Page (George/Valentina), Reed Birney (Charlotte), John Cullum (Terry) and Larry Pine (The Judge/Amy) in full drag is an experience not soon to be forgotten. (Birney's Charlotte bears an uncanny resemblance to both Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead.) Gabriel Ebert (Jonathon/Miranda) plays a younger first-time visitor and Nick Westrate (Gloria) is the friend who encouraged his visit. Tom McGowan is hilarious as Bessie, an overweight ex-sergeant who has a Wilde quotation for every occasion. Mare Winningham is George's devoted wife Rita. Lisa Emery has a short but important role as Eleanor, the daughter of one of the guests. The play has some comic moments, but ends up in much darker territory. The lengthy first act sags (I resisted the urge to say "drags") in the middle for a long stretch. Although the play addresses many interesting themes such as heterosexual transvestites' hatred of homosexuals, governmental intrusion and manipulation, budding activism and the collateral damage caused by people's life choices, I could not fathom what it was the playwright wanted the audience to take away from it. David Zinn's set and Kaye Voyce's costumes are effective. Director Joe Mantello makes the best of what is there, but cannot overcome the play's lack of focus. I'm sure things will be tightened up a bit during the two weeks of previews that remain, but I doubt that tinkering can solve the play's problems. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Threepenny Opera **

Literally from the very first note, I felt that something was amiss with the new Atlantic Theater production of this Brecht-Weill classic. Although the seven musicians were visible onstage, the sound was coming from a spot somewhere over my head. The decision to amplify the music in a theater ot this size seems both unnecessary and wrongheaded. It creates an artificial gap between the musicians and the actors and diminishes any sense of intimacy. Furthermore, the production lacks both a clear unifying vision and a strong sense of time and place. It rarely engaged me at any level. In the past, I have not been a fan of Martha Clarke and her direction and choreography here do nothing to change my mind. On the plus side,  there are abundant vocal treats; both Laura Osnes as Polly and Sally Murphy as Jenny sing beautifully. It's a pleasure to see and hear Mary Beth Peil as Mrs. Peachum and Michael Park is a fine Macheath. F. Murray Abraham is adequate as Mr. Peachum. Robert Israel's set is dark and dreary. Donna Zakowska's costumes fared better. The whole came across to me as considerably less than the sum of its parts. In the long production annals of the show, this production will be remembered, if at all, as the one that featured an English bulldog in a key role. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Realistic Joneses ***

Will Eno's Broadway debut play, now in previews at the Lyceum is a strange mashup of the absurd and the hilarious, with a strong undercurrent of ruefulness and resignation. In it, we meet two couples, both named Jones. The older long-married couple, Bob (Tracy Letts) and Jennifer (Toni Collette) rarely converse, especially since Bob fell ill with an incurable neurological disorder. While sitting on their patio, they are surprised by a visit from their new neighbors, John (Michael C. Hall) and Pony (Marisa Tomei), who have just moved to town. Their initial conversation might be described as a combination of Beckett and Borscht Belt. Hall gets most of the good lines. The two couples at first seem to have little in common, but are drawn to each other and eventually form a peculiar bond. The play explores the uses of conversation both as a way to express, avoid and conceal feelings. Its blend of hilarity and humanity works well most of the time, but the one-liners grow a bit tiresome after a while. The high-profile cast handles Eno's off-kilter dialog with aplomb under Sam Gold's nimble direction. David Zinn's scenic design, Kaye Voyce's costumes and Mark Barton's lighting set the appropriate mood. Of the four Eno plays I have seen, this one was both the funniest and the most affecting. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission.