Thursday, October 30, 2014

Grand Concourse ***

In her new play now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, Heidi Schreck displays a talent for creating vivid characters whom she treats with compassion and humanity. Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a 39-year-old nun who runs a soup kitchen in the Bronx, is undergoing a crisis of faith. Oscar (Bobby Moreno), the handsome Hispanic handyman, affects a working-class macho facade that he doesn’t entirely feel. Frog (Lee Wilkof), a homeless regular client, struggles against mental illness. When Emma (Ismenia Mendes), a troubled 19-year-old with a reckless streak, begins work as a volunteer, her behavior has an impact on the other three, especially Shelley. The play is a series of short scenes, punctuated by blackouts, that gradually reveal the characters as they perform their jobs. Many vegetables are chopped. Director Kip Fagan (Schreck’s husband) does an excellent job of choreographing the work sequences. The cast is uniformly excellent. Rachel Hauck’s set design really looks like a working kitchen. Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit each character. The play examines issues of faith and forgiveness, the motivations for doing good, the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of help given, the extremes to which neediness can lead, and the sense of workplace community. The results are both enlightening and entertaining. I do wish that Schreck had further clarified the reasons for Emma's strong impact on Shelley. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Lips Together, Teeth Apart **

I wish I had been able to keep thoughts of the original production of Terrence McNally’s 1991 play out of my head while I watched this revival, now in previews at Second Stage. However, the memory of Christine Baranski, Swoosie Kurtz, Nathan Lane and Anthony Heald performing parts that (with the exception of Kurtz) were written for them was too strong to suppress. Their superb performances went a long way to minimize the play’s faults. Furthermore, at a time when AIDS was front and center in the nation’s consciousness, the play had a much greater resonance than it has today. It is not so much an AIDS play as a play about how straight people related to gays, at least in 1991. In a time of Ebola panic and gay marriage, its concerns seem almost quaint now. Sally and Sam Truman (America Ferrera and Michael Chernus) have invited Sam’s sister Chloe (Tracee Chimo) and her husband John (Austin Lysy) to join them for 4th of July weekend at the Fire Island Pines home that Sally has just inherited from her brother, recently deceased from AIDS. Although Sally loved her brother, she could not really deal with his homosexuality. The two couples are perfectly happy to enjoy the fruits of his labors as long as they stay out of the pool, which they fear might give them AIDS, and don’t get too friendly with the gay neighbors. At some point in the play each character addresses the audience to reveal his or her personal demons, including serious illness, low self-image, guilt over adultery, fear of miscarriage and fear of parenthood. The personalities of the two couples are so mismatched that it is difficult to imagine why they married. The play marks time for much of the first two acts, wasting moments on lame running jokes such as Sally’s inability to remember movie titles correctly and Chloe’s changing clothes constantly. At the end of the second intermission, there were more than a few empty seats in the theater. McNally finally raises the stakes in the final act, but then allows the tension to dissipate once more. Since “Bad Jews,” Chimo has become the go-to actress to play overbearing. Chernus lends a lot of humanity to his character and Lysy hits the right notes in a difficult role. Surprisingly, it is Ferrera, whom I have much admired in the past, who is the weak link here. Alexander Dodge’s set and Esosa’s costumes are attractive. Peter DuBois’s direction seemed a bit unfocused. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including two intermissions.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Lift *

My heart sank when the usher leading me to my seat at 59E59 Theater A for a preview of Walter Mosley’s play announced that the intermission listed in the program had been eliminated. From painful experience, I have learned that the usual reason for dropping intermission is that a substantial portion of the audience was not returning afterwards. I suspect that was the case here. Given the opportunity, I know that I would have fled. Alas, I did not get the opportunity so I had to sit through almost two hours of clumsy theatrics about two people trapped in an elevator in a building that has been bombed by terrorists. The two are Tina Pardon (Maamayaa Boafo), a seemingly prim Princeton grad, and Theodore “Big Time” Southmore (Biko Eisen-Martin), a highly placed analyst at the financial firm they both work for. Before the elevator accident, we briefly meet Tina’s sassy friend Noni Tariq (Shavona Banks) and the company CEO John Thomas Resterly (Martin Kushner), the only Caucasian character, who spouts more odious remarks in five minutes than one would think possible. We do learn eventually that the terrorists who bombed the building are also white, out to strike a blow against “the Jew banks.” During the long period they are trapped in the elevator, Tina and Theodore share secrets. We learn how she paid her way through college and how he deals with the pressures of a stressful job and a mother with dementia. In case their stories were not enough, Mosley throws in scraps of melodrama we hear from unseen people trapped in other elevators. They are not the only people feeling trapped. Andrei Onegin designed the somewhat flimsy cut-away elevator. Marshall Jones III directed. With his long successful writing career, Mosley's reputation will survive this fiasco. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes without intermission.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Fortress of Solitude ***

You have to give a lot of credit to director Daniel Aukin for conceiving the idea of turning Jonathan Lethem’s 528-page novel into a musical. Itamar Moses’s book manages to retain much of the book’s spirit and keeps the narrative reasonably clear. For me, the outstanding feature of this production, now in previews at the Public Theater, is Michael Friedman’s wonderful score. Ranging from R&B through gospel to hip-hop, Friedman’s music and lyrics brilliantly capture the musical background underpinning the lives of two Brooklyn boys, one white, the other black, starting in the 1970’s, before Gowanus became Boerum Hill. Dylan Ebdus (Adam Chanler-Berat) is the son of Abraham (Ken Barnett), an emotionally distant artist, and Rachel (Kristen Sieh), an activist who is proud that her son is one of only three white students in his school, but soon abandons him. Adam befriends Mingus (Kyle Beltran), a black neighbor who is also motherless and also named for a musician. Mingus protects Dylan from the neighborhood bully Robert Woolfolk (Brian Tyree Henry). The close friendship between Mingus and Dylan includes a bit of teenage sexual experimentation. Mingus’s father Barrett Rude Jr. (Kevin Mambo) is a burned-out coke addict, who once had a musical career that seemed promising but never caught fire. When Mingus’s preacher grandfather Barrett Rude Sr. (Andre de Shields) is released from jail and moves in with his kin, tragedy ensues. For anyone living in New York during the mid-seventies, the show recreates much of the societal context of racial strife, drugs, graffiti, blackouts, the so-called justice system, and the first stages of gentrification. The music is terrific, especially when sung by Barrett Rude Jr.’s singing group --the Subtle Distinctions -- and by de Shields. Eugene Lee’s set is appropriately drab and Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit the characters well. In both the novel and the musical, the introduction of a ring with magical properties seemed both unnecessary and a distraction. I am not sure how clear the story will be for those who have not read the book. Nevertheless, the wonderful score, the excellent performances and the show’s bold ambition won me over. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Last Ship ***

The best feature of this new musical now in previews at the Neil Simon Theatre is the appealing score by Sting. The music is lively, varied, and well-performed by a vocally gifted cast. Unfortunately, muddy amplification and occasional diction problems made it difficult to decipher some of the lyrics. Choreographer Steven Hoggett, whose work added so much to “Once” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” does a fine job again here. The set and costumes by David Zinn are unexceptional. Director Joe Mantello keeps things moving briskly. The show’s weak link, in my opinion, is the book by John Logan (“Red”) and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”), which suffers from implausibility and sentimentality. The main character, Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper of "Red Vienna"), is the son of an abusive shipbuilder who flees the dying town as a teenager, leaving behind his girlfriend Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker), vowing to return for her. Fifteen years later, he finally does return, but only because he has been summoned by the earthy but wise Irish priest Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate). Meg has a new man in her life, Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar), who was smart enough to leave shipbuilding before it collapsed. Gideon’s return causes her much turmoil.  There’s also young Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), whose relationship to the other characters will not be revealed here. Jimmy Nail and Sally Ann Triplett are strong as foreman Jackie White and his wife Peggy. After the shipyard has been closed and about to be turned into a salvage operation, the shipbuilders plan a last hurrah with the aid of Father O’Brien. The character of Gideon is not very sympathetic, which wouldn’t matter if he were more interestingly flawed and the role had more coherence. As it stands, I did not feel greatly involved in his fate. If you go to enjoy Sting’s music without worrying too much about the book, you’ll have a pleasant evening. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Disgraced (on Broadway) ***

When I saw the production of Ayad Akhtar’s powerful drama at LCT3 two years ago, before it won the Pulitzer Prize, I found it deeply affecting. (For my 4-star review of that version, go to I wondered how it would hold up on second viewing in a much larger theater with a mostly new cast. The answer is that it still packs a wallop, but a slighter lesser one. The intimacy — and menace — of being only a few feet away from the action has been lost and the new cast members are, to my mind, less effective than their predecessors. As Amir, the assimilated Pakistani-American attorney and apostate Muslim, Hari Dhillon was a bit tepid. As Emily, his blonde artist wife with a penchant for Islamic art, Gretchen Mol also seemed a bit weak. Josh Radnor, as Isaac, the Jewish gallery owner who is considering showing her art, fared better. Karen Pittman, the lone holdover, is fine as Jory, Isaac’s African-American wife and Amir’s colleague. Danny Ashok, as Amir’s devout nephew Abe (f/k/a Hussein), was a bid broad. When Emily and Abe browbeat Amir into attending a hearing for an imprisoned imam, Amir’s carefully constructed world begins to collapse. The play’s commentary on religious and ethnic tensions in today’s America holds up very well. I had forgotten how many laughs the play has. The ending still seemed weak. Perhaps because the surprise element was gone for me the second time around, the play’s schematic structure seemed more apparent. John Lee Beatty must have been having an off day when he designed the set — the furnishings are quite unattractive and not at all what you would expect this couple to have. Lauren Helpern’s lovely set at LCT3 was far more apt. Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes are fine — Jory’s killer heels fit her to a tee. Kimberly Senior’s direction is strong. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

On the Town ****

Would that there were talents like Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green writing for the Broadway stage today! To see their 1994 love letter to New York in this wonderful revival, originally developed for Barrington Stage, is sheer pleasure. What the cast lacks in name recognition it more than makes up for in talent. Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alvez are superb as Gabey, Chip and Ozzie, three sailors out to make their most of a 24-hour leave in New York City. Alysha Umphress is a hoot as Hildy, the taxi driver who virtually kidnaps Chip. NYCB principal Megan Fairchild makes an auspicious Broadway debut as Ivy Smith, the Miss Turnstiles for June that Gabey is determined to meet. Elizabeth Stanley is just OK as Claire, the anthropologist who gets carried away with Ozzie. Audience favorite Jackie Hoffman is a barrel of laughs in her four roles. Phillip Boykin is wonderful too in multiple roles. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic and production design relies heavily on sophisticated projections and translucent panels, to fine effect, especially as lit by Jason Lyons. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are wonderfully over the top. Joshua Bergasse had a touch act to follow after Jerome Robbins’s original choreography, but he handles the task well. It has been a while since a Broadway show has taken the time for extended pure dance sequences. The orchestra under James Moore does full justice to Bernstein's score. John Rando’s direction is uncluttered and assured. The audience was large and enthusiastic. This show’s 1971 and 1998 revivals barely lasted two months. This production deserves to fare better. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

While I Yet Live *

I hope that writing this family memoir was therapeutic for Billy Porter. That would at least provide some compensation for the ordeal of sitting through it. There are more family secrets under the roof of this home in Pittsburgh than one play can possibly handle. The fact that the only son of this religious black family is gay is far from the worst of its troubles. If only heartfelt emotions and good intentions were enough to make a play, this might have succeeded. Alas, the exposition is very clumsy. There are moments when it is difficult to tell not only when a scene is taking place but which characters are alive and which are dead. It does provide a fine opportunity for S. Epatha Merkerson, as the mother, to emote. I was looking forward to seeing Lillias White, but her underwritten role does not offer much chance to shine. The other cast members — Elain Graham, Sheria Irving, Kevyn Morrow, Larry Powell and Sharon Washington — do their best with the material. The second act meanders to a resolution that smacks of the wisdom of Oprah. I will give Porter credit for not sugarcoating the shortcomings of the character representing him.  James Noone’s set is attractive and Esosa’s costumes are appropriate to their characters. I enjoyed the player piano. I’m not sure what director Sheryl Kaller could have done to improve things for this Primary Stages production at the Duke. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time ****

Not since “War Horse” have I seen a play whose success owed so much to its production design. What set and costume designer Bunny Christie, video designer Finn Ross and, especially, lighting designer Paule Constable have accomplished is no less than to provide a visual analog of the mind of a 15-year old autistic boy with a talent for mathematics. This is not to denigrate the considerable accomplishments of Simon Stephens in adapting Mark Haddon’s award-winning book, of Marianne Elliott for so skillfully directing the play, and of the superb cast for bringing its characters to vivid life. Alex Sharp is remarkable as Christopher Boone, the boy who gets more than he bargained for when he sets out to discover who killed the neighbor’s dog. Ian Banford is excellent as his loving, but often misguided father. Enid Graham shines as the mother worn down by the difficulties of raising Christopher. Francesca Faridany is convincing as his sympathetic teacher Siobhan who helps him navigate his daily challenges and persuades him to write this story. Her reading of the story aloud serves as the narration that brings us in to the play. Stephens has remained quite faithful to the original text. Dialect coach Ben Furey has made the American cast sound convincingly British. I would not have believed that a book that is primarily based on Christopher’s inner thoughts could be brought so vibrantly to the stage. It is easy to understand how it won the Olivier for Best Play. NOTE: Be sure not to rush out the theater right after the curtain calls or you'll miss a treat. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.