Sunday, November 30, 2014

Allegro **

For Rodgers and Hammerstein, the third time was not a charm. Their 1947 attempt to do something a bit experimental, with a Greek chorus, ballet sequences and a plot that could be described as Thornton Wilder with a touch of Brecht, was a letdown after Oklahoma! and Carousel. It ran nine months, had a brief national tour and was thereafter largely neglected. Now Classic Stage Company has revived it. Sort of. One could argue whether reducing the cast from 67 to 12, throwing out the DeMille ballets, simplifying the plot to fit into 90 minutes and subjecting Allegro to the John Doyle treatment with actors doubling as musicians leaves enough of the original to even be called a revival. There are still a handful of good songs including “A Fellow Needs a Girl.” “ So Far” and “The Gentleman Is a Dope,” but the moralistic plot about the virtues of small-town life and the evils of the big bad city is embarrassingly simplistic. Claiborne Elder is fine as Joseph Taylor Jr. as are Malcolm Gets and Jessica Tyler Wright as his parents and Alma Cuervo as his grandmother. Elizabeth A. Davis is strong as Jenny. Megan Loomis and Jane Pfitsch each do well with their respective songs. The other members of the hardworking cast are praiseworthy too. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are evocative of the period. Theater history buffs will want to see the show, but for others it is not a “must-see.” 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

By the Water ***

This new family drama with comic overtones, the first product of a collaboration between Manhattan Theater Club and Ars Nova at The Studio at Stage II at City Center, bodes well for their cooperative effort. Playwright Sharon Rothstein depicts the devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy on the Murphy family of Staten Island. Not only has the storm extensively damaged their home and neighborhood, it has uncovered long-standing family tensions and secrets. Marty (Vyto Ruginis) and Mary Murphy (the wonderful Deirdre O’Connell) seem determined to repair and remain in their home. The Murphys’ older son Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker), who has married and made a successful life for himself in Manhattan, makes a rare appearance to persuade his parents to sell. Their younger son Brian (Tom Pelphrey), a recovering addict recently out of jail, also turns up, but he supports his father’s wishes. There is bad blood between the brothers. We learn that Marty is no saint either — he barely escaped jail for tax evasion and lost the family business. Their long-time neighbors Philip (Ethan Phillips) and Andrea Carter (Charlotte Maier), whose home has been destroyed, want to take a government buyout and relocate. Marty’s campaign to prevent the buyout plan from reaching the necessary 80% consensus puts a strain on their friendship. When it turns out that Marty’s determination to stay put has reasons that are far from noble, even Mary’s relationship with him is shaken. If all that were not enough plot, there is a rekindling of feelings between Brian and the Carters’ divorced daughter Emily (Cassie Beck). What holds it all together is Rothstein’s skill in creating vivid, believable, complex characters and convincing dialogue. Wilson Chin’s set makes the devastation very real and Jessica Pabst’s costumes reflect their characters well. Director Hal Brooks elicits fine work from a strong cast. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

It's Only a Play ***

This much-revised comedy by Terrrence McNally, which is breaking box office records on Broadway, has a stellar cast including Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally, F. Murray Abraham and Rupert Grint (from Harry Potter films), plus promising newcomer Micah Stock. Lane and Channing are at the top of their form, rattling off a nonstop series of bitchy zingers, many of them theatrical insider jokes that flatter the audience by making them feel in the know. Abraham, as an acerbic critic, reveals a manic comic side that I never knew he had. Mullally was out so I can’t comment on her; understudy Isabel Keating seemed flightier than necessary. Rupert Grint, as a hotshot British director who claims to crave failure, has to cope with a poorly written role and a hideous costume. Stock, who resembles a young Jim Parsons, holds his own in a long, hilarious scene with Lane. And then there’s Matthew Broderick as the author of the play whose opening night is being celebrated. He copes reasonably well with difficult material in Act One — a lecture on the depressing state of Broadway theater and a prayer for those involved in the business — but seems to retreat into a shell of blandness in Act Two. The fun is greatly abetted by an over-the-top set design by Scott Pask and hilarious costumes, including the outerwear of unseen celebrities from other Broadway shows, by Ann Roth. Director Jack O’Brien occasionally lets the pace lag. The wisp of a plot is about the anxieties of waiting for reviews on opening night, a somewhat dated concept in the age of instantly accessible reviews on newspapers’ digital sites. The second act fizzles more than it fizzes. McNally would have done well to follow one of the theatrical trends he deplores in the Act One lecture — 90-minute plays without an intermission. A string of one-liners, no matter how funny, does not stay fresh for two hours and forty minutes. It’s too much of a good thing.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Blank! The Musical ***

This new show at New World Stages combines musical improv with a smartphone app that allows the audience to contribute to the evening's entertainment by choosing the title, the 4-note musical motif, three song titles, a choreographic style, a line of dialogue and the cast member who speaks it. Tonight the winning title was “Gluten Free, The Musical,” the songs chosen were “My Name Is Goat-Boy,” “Wheat Is the Devil,” and “I’m Full” and the line was “Don’t you DARE touch my smoothie!” Remarkably, the talented cast of seven actors (Katie Dufresne, Nicole C. Hastings, Tessa Hersh, Andrew Knox, T.J. Mannix, Matthew Van Colton and Douglas Widick) and three musicians pulled these diverse elements together into a reasonably coherent and very entertaining musical. Most of the cast honed their improv skills at Second City, so they are very good indeed. Congrats to creator/producer Michael Girts, co-creator/director T.J. Shanoff and music director/pianist Mike Descoteaux for proving that you don’t need five years of development and millions of dollars to put together an enjoyable musical and you don't have to charge an arm and a leg for tickets. It was a pleasure to attend the opening — and closing — night of “Gluten Free.” Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Side Show ***

I didn’t see this cult musical during its brief Broadway run in 1997, so I can’t comment on whether this new version is an improvement over the original. The score by Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Russell (lyrics) has replaced some old songs with new ones and Russell’s book has had substantial new material added by director Bill Condon. The subject may be unconventional — the story of the show biz career of the conjoined Hilton twins — the extroverted Daisy (Emily Padgett) and the reclusive Violet (Erin Davie) — but the book seemed quite conventional. The early scenes in the side show are unnervingly graphic in their depiction of the freaks. The flashback to the twins’ early life in England seemed unnecessary. Robert Joy is chilling as Sir, the show’s proprietor who thinks he owns the twins. David St. Louis is a vocal powerhouse as Jake (a/k/a King of the Cannibals), employed by Sir to keep an eye on the twins. Ryan Silverman is Terry Connor, the talent scout who wants to make vaudeville stars out of the twins. Matthew Hydzik is Terry’s pal Buddy Foster, the song and dance man tasked with readying them for the stage. Violet has feelings for Buddy, Jake has feelings for Violet and Ryan has hidden (too well hidden) feelings for Daisy. The arrival of Hollywood filmmaker Tod Browning carries a promise of success that is never realized. Padgett and Davie are quite strong both vocally and dramatically. Krieger’s fine music is often dragged down by Russell’s leaden lyrics. David Rockwell’s scenic design and Paul Tazewell’s costumes are excellent. While the show seemed a bit lumpy, it nevertheless managed to deeply engage my feelings for its characters. Running time: two hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Friday, November 14, 2014

I See You ***

I found much to admire in this new romantic comedy at the Flea Theater by Kate Robin, a writer on “Six Feet Under” and Showtime’s “The Affair.” The two characters are recognizable New York types. Nina (Danielle Slavick), a motor-mouthed neurotic obsessed with irreversible environmental degradation, would be a royal pain if she were not also a charmer. Jesse (Stephen Barker Turner), a laid-off teacher and stay-at-home dad, is a much calmer person who usually finds the bright side of any situation. They meet while watching their children play at the Children’s Museum. Opposites attract. We next see them in the waiting room of an I.C.U. (cf. the title), then at a New Age center in lower Manhattan when a Sandy-like storm hits, and later at the light show at the Children’s Museum. They are both changed for having met the other, but the durability of their relationship is an open question. The dialogue often sparkles and the actors are both appealing. By Flea standards, the production is lavish. The set design by Kyle Chepulis features a large turntable (which frankly seemed unnecessary) and the lighting design by Brian Aldous includes a brief light show worthy of a low-budget production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TIme.” Claudia Brown’s costumes are appropriate. There's also some high-powered piano playing by Or Matias. Jim Simpson’s direction is assured. Some might find the play too talky and tentative, but I found it offbeat and satisfying. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Real Thing **

Let me confess right off that I wasn’t that impressed by Stoppard’s romantic comedy when I saw the 2000 Tony-awarded revival with Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle. However, that version was superior to the current revival at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater. I only attended out of curiosity to see Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal in their Broadway debuts. McGregor is fine as Henry, the Stoppard surrogate who writes plays that have more wit than heart. Gyllenhaal is equally good as Annie, Henry’s mistress in act one and wife in act two. They should have more chemistry together though. Cynthia Nixon as Henry’s first wife Charlotte and Josh Hamilton as Annie’s first husband Max are less successful. Director Sam Gold does not seem to have a firm grip on the material; his decision to interpolate songs of the period sung by the cast between scenes misfires. He seems to like sets that are wide and shallow. The set by David Zinn is almost as unattractive as the one for “Look Back in Anger,” another Roundabout production directed by Gold. For an allegedly well-made play, I found the second act to be a bit scattershot and its echoes of the play’s opening scene rather clumsy. I grew increasingly restless as the second act dragged on. If you crave Stoppard, you'll do better with Roundabout's other revival, "Indian Ink." Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lost Lake ***

In the 13 years since winning the Pulitzer and a Tony for Proof, playwright David Auburn’s work has rarely been seen in New York. His 2011 adaptation of The New York Idea was rather flat and his 2012 bipolay about Joseph Alsop, The Columnist, did not have much to offer beyond a juicy role for John Lithgow. Now he is back at Manhattan Theatre Club with this two-character play about Veronica (Tracie Thoms), an African-American nurse from New York City who rents a summer home in Putnam County for a week and Hogan (John Hawkes), the man she rents it from. The widowed Veronica is a hard-working nurse who just wants to offer her two children a week in the country. Hogan, a free spirit who could all too easily be dismissed as one of life’s losers, is a man unable to deliver on his good intentions. The landlord-tenant relationship that throws them together develops into something different as they confide in each other and eventually reach out to help each other. It is a pleasure to see award-winning indie film actor Hawkes on stage. Thoms, whose previous work I was not familiar with, holds her own performing with him. Auburn has written two characters that are both vivid and compassionate. The ending may not bring us to a happy place, but the journey is worthwhile. Daniel Sullivan’s direction is skillful. J. Michael Griggs’s set is appropriately both rustic and a bit seedy. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are apt. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Punk Rock *

When I saw two previous plays by Simon Stephens (Harper Regan [] and Bluebird [}) at the Atlantic Theater, I thought his work was moderately interesting. When I saw his adaptation for the stage of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time [], I thought his work was brilliant. Therefore, I was looking forward to seeing the New York premiere of this 2009 drama, which received almost unanimous raves from the London critics. To say I was keenly disappointed with this MCC production would be a major understatement. Those who wish to avoid spoilers should stop reading here. One London critic described it as The History Boys meets Columbine, a comparison that is an insult to the former. Both plays are about the stress of English public (i.e. private) school students preparing for their A-levels, but all resemblance ends there. The teenagers in this play are all stereotypes: Bennett (Will Pullen), the bully; Cissy (Lilly Englert), his compliant girlfriend; Tanya (Annie Funke), overweight and usually overlooked; Chadwick (Noah Robbins), the bullied nerd; Lilly (Colby Minifie), the new girl with a dark secret; William (Douglas Smith), the troubled boy with a casual relationship to the truth who wants to date her; and Nicholas (Pico Alexander), the handsome jock that she prefers. The author puts them together in a pressure cooker and we wait to see who will explode. The final scene introduces the lone adult character, Dr. Harvey, played by David Greenspan, who, for once, manages to avoid his usual excesses. In a country where school shootings were not almost weekly occurrences, perhaps the play seemed more profound. For me it seemed merely extremely unpleasant and tedious. I will grant that the young cast is very good. The dialect coach Stephen Gabis got excellent results from them. Director Trip Cullman has not helped the play by tarting it up with the actors running around in animal masks between scenes. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes; no intermission (wise decision).

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) ***

On the basis of this first installment of Suzan-Lori Parks’s nine-part epic about the African-American experience from the mid-19th century to the present, now at the Public Theater, it is easy to understand why this highly original playwright won both a Pulitzer and a MacArthur grant. In “A Measure of a Man” Hero (Sterling K. Brown), a slave on a Texas plantation, must decide whether to follow his master to war in exchange for a promise of freedom. His wife Penny (Jenny Jules), his father figure The Oldest Old Man (Peter Jay Fernandez) and his oft-time rival Homer (Jeremie Harris) weigh in with their opinions and The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves make bets on his decision. Parks’s mashup of Greek drama, poetic language, anachronisms, music and humor somehow works. In “A Battle in the Wilderness,” the most naturalistic of the evening’s plays, we meet Hero’s master (Ken Marks), now a Confederate colonel, and the Union soldier he has captured (Louis Cancelmi). The two of them spar over the nature of slavery. The colonel is allowed to display a soft side and the captured soldier reveals a couple of surprises. Hero and the soldier find a common bond. In “The Union of My Confederate Parts” we return to the plantation many months later. Only Penny and Homer are left of the original slaves. Three runaway slaves who are hiding at the plantation try to persuade Homer to run off with them, but he is unwilling to leave Penny, who is tormented by nightmares about Hero. Word reaches the plantation that both the master and Hero are dead. However, Odyssey (Jacob Ming-Trent), Hero’s long lost dog, arrives and tells of Hero’s imminent return. When Hero, who has renamed himself Ulysses, arrives, he reveals previously unseen aspects of his character that are far from heroic. The question of what freedom costs remains open. Parks's incidental music and songs are beautifully performed by Steven Bargonetti. Jo Bonney’s direction is exemplary. The simple set by Neil Patel is effective and Esosa’s deliberately anachronistic costumes are a hoot. Parks proves that dealing with serious subjects can still leave lots of room to be entertaining. I hope the remaining six parts maintain the high level of these three. Running time: 3 hours, including one intermission.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Oldest Boy ****

Lincoln Center Theater is presenting the world premiere of this fascinating work by Sarah Ruhl, one of our most versatile and interesting playwrights. Her plays are so varied that it is difficult to find a common denominator other than flashes of her intelligence and humor. The present work almost has the aura of a fairy tale. An American woman identified only as Mother (a superb Celia Keenan-Bolger) is married to a Tibetan refugee (James Yaegashi) who owns a restaurant in an unnamed American city. Each of them has broken an engagement to marry. One day two Tibetan Buddhist monks (Jon Norman Schneider and James Saito) pay an unexpected visit. They think that the family’s three-year old son may be the reincarnation of an important Buddhist teacher. When the son (Ernest Abuba) passes their tests, they are convinced that he is indeed their late teacher reborn and ask to take him back to India, their home in exile, to be educated in their monastery. I will say no more about the outcome. Rebecca Taichman, who has directed many of Ruhl’s previous plays, once again demonstrates her affinity for Ruhl’s sensibility. It is hard to imagine a better production. The sets by Mimi Lien, the gorgeous costumes by Anita Yavich, the evocative lighting by Japhy Weideman, the sound design by Darron L. West, the puppetry by Matt Acheson, the choreography by Barney O’Hanlon and Taichman’s skillful direction combined to weave an almost hypnotic spell over me. It was a stimulating experience. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

brownsville song (b-side for tray) **

If good intentions and heartfelt sincerity were all it took to write a successful play, Kimber Lee (who apparently has an aversion to capital letters) would have hit the jackpot with her drama at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater. We know before the play begins that Tray (Sheldon Best), an 18-year-old black Brooklynite just finishing high school, is dead. The play opens with a grief-filled monologue by Tray’s grandma Lena (Lizan Mitchell) advising us that Tray’s life is worth far more than the few lines the newspaper will devote to his senseless death in a street shooting. After this strong start, the play moves backward and forward in time to describe Tray and the effects of his death on his grandmother, his beloved little half-sister Devine (Taliyah Whitaker), his long-estranged stepmother Merrell (Sun Mee Chomet) and, to a lesser extent, his friend Junior (Chris Myers). Unfortunately, the play begins to lose its course and ultimately resorts to some manipulative sentimentality. A few things puzzled me. What happened to Tray’s biological mother? Was the choice of an Asian-American actor to play Merrell an indication of his stepmother’s ethnicity or just a bit of nontraditional casting? (I concluded it was the former.) Some of the plot points stretched my willingness to suspend disbelief too far. Merrell’s reappearance, first as a tutor for Tray’s college admission essay, and then as a job applicant at the Starbuck’s where he is a barista, seemed too pat. The play’s sentimental but nonetheless wrenching ending reinforces our sense of tragic, senseless loss. The production is first-rate: the cast is very good, the set by Andromache Chalfant is excellent, the costumes by Dede M. Ayite are apt, the lighting by Jijoun Chang and the sound design by Asa Wember are effective and the direction by Patricia McGregor is assured. Would that the playwright had been able to maintain the high level of the play’s opening scene. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes, no intermission.