Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Theatrical Year in Review

My Theatrical Year in Review

Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of the nine shows that I rated Very Good (****) in 2015.


An American in Paris 
Fun Home 
The King and I
On the 20th Century


Big Love
The Qualms

Here, also alphabetically, are the eight plays I rated Poor (*) this year:

Airline Highway
Fondly, Collette Richland 
Guards at the Taj
Important Hats of the Twentieth Century
Shear Madness
Summer Shorts: Series B

Once again this year, I did not rate any productions as Excellent (*****), although “Hamilton” came very close, or as Horrible (0 stars).

The comparisons with last year are a bit disturbing. In 2014, I gave four stars to 16 shows; this year, to just 9. In 2014, I rated 45 shows as Good (***); this year, 40. In the Fair (**) category there were 28 shows in 2014 v. 32 this year. Last year I rated 5 plays as Poor (*); this year there were 8. 

Looked at slightly differently, last year 61 shows were rated either very good or excellent; this year there were only 49. In 2014 I rated 33 shows as fair or poor; this year there were 40.

Whether the difference can be attributed to an actual decline in quality, my impaired ability to select worthwhile plays, a random occurrence or a harshening of my critical faculties is open to speculation. As always, comments are welcome. Send them to:

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Therese Raquin **

The best reason to see this Roundabout production, an uneven adaptation of Zola’s 1867 novel by British playwright Helen Edmundson, is the spectacular set design by Beowulf Boritt. From the simple suggestion of a village cottage to a fully detailed sepulchral Paris apartment that falls from above as if to crush the characters to a skylit attic suspended in the night sky to a riverbank complete with water and rowboat, he sets the right note for this tale of limited choices, adultery, murder and guilt. His sets at least give you a focus for your attention during the glacially paced first act. As the title character, Keira Knightley doesn’t get to do much except stare soulfully during the first half hour. The always watchable Judith Light is fine as her aunt and soon-to-be mother-in-law. It is easy to understand why Therese is repelled by her sickly, spoiled cousin-then-husband Camille (Gabriel Ebert) and even easier to understand why she is magnetically attracted to his childhood chum Laurent (Matt Ryan) whom Camille runs into in Paris and, unfortunately for him, brings home to meet the family. Their sex scenes are brief and brutish.The habitués of Madame Raquin’s Thursday domino sessions — Monsieur Grivet (Jeff Still), Superintendent Michaud (David Patrick Kelly) snd his niece Suzanne (Mary Wiseman) — do not get much development. The pace picks up from late in the first act to midway through the second act. The subsequent descent into guilt and madness seemed anticlimactic. The use of many brief scenes seemed more suitable for film than the stage. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are appropriate. Keith Parham’s lighting is excellent. I did not care for the sound design and music by Josh Schmidt. The suggestions of Camille’s continued presence seemed out of a B movie. Director Evan Cabnet really should have picked up the pace a bit during the play’s early scenes. My interest lagged, but I really liked the sets. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission. On the afternoon I attended, the performance was followed by a 25-minute Q&A with five of the actors which I enjoyed more than the play.

Friday, December 11, 2015

My Son the Waiter, a Jewish Tragedy ***

When the suggestion was made to attend this one-man comedy show at the Triad Theater Stage 72, I was skeptical. A glance at the glowing reviews and the fact it has been running for over a year persuaded me to take a chance on it. I was glad I did. Brad Zimmerman is a very talented comic who can make 90 minutes of standup fly by. The evening is loosely organized around the story of his career, which took him from waiting tables for 29 years without ever taking an acting job to enrolling in a standup class in his forties and becoming good enough to open for Joan Rivers and George Carlin. His relationship with his affectionately overbearing mother is a gold mine of material. His observations on such features of modern life as reality TV are wryly amusing. The biographical material and the jokes are not always closely related, but he has far more hits than misses. If you enjoy standup comedy, you will have a good time. Don't wait too long -- the show closes New Year's Eve.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Shear Madness *

This interactive comedy whodunit opened in Boston 35 years ago and has been running there ever since. After spawning 42 productions in 11 languages on six continents, it has finally arrived in New York at New World Stages. The play is loosely based upon a German story by Paul Portner. The current setting is a Hells Kitchen unisex hair salon whose two stylists are the flamboyantly gay Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist) and blonde bimbo Barbara DeMarco (Kate Middleton). The customers include a salon regular, East Side society lady Mrs. Shubert (Lynne Wintersteller), and three first timers  — Mike Thomas (Adam Gerber), Nick O’Brien (Patrick Noonan) and Eddie Lawrence (Jeremy Kushnier) — two of whom turn out to be cops. When Madame Czerny, the former concert pianist/landlady who lives upstairs is stabbed to death with a pair of scissors, the cops are convinced that the murderer is someone at the salon. They ask the suspects to reenact the events, inviting the audience to point out holes in their stories and eventually to vote on who the murderer is. Along the way there are many slapstick jokes, naughty innuendos and comic references to current public figures. Each performance varies depending upon the input of the audience. On the sparsely attended Monday evening I was there, the energy level was low. Perhaps with a larger, more enthusiastic audience, the material might come across as funnier. As it was, the jokes seemed forced and the actors seemed to be working hard. How this show has attracted audiences for over 35 years is the real mystery to me. Why TDF is lending its support is another question. The set by Will Cotton looks authentic. Bruce Jordan’s direction is indulgent. If you attend, get there a few minutes early because the onstage action starts before the curtain time. Running time; two hours including intermission.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Marjorie Prime ***

As a Pulitzer finalist and the basis for an upcoming film with Jon Hamm and Geena Davis, this futuristic family drama by Jordan Harrison (Maple and Vine) arrives at Playwrights Horizons with the burden of high expectations. Set in the not-too-distant future, it depicts a world that includes primes, creations of artificial intelligence in the guise of avatars of deceased loved ones, whose purpose is to provide therapy for the living, whether it be the preservation of fading memories for the demented, closure for unresolved relationships or balm for raw grief. Marjorie (the wonderful Lois Smith) is an 85-year-old woman who is rapidly losing the memories of a lifetime. Against the wishes of her prickly daughter Tess (a superb Lisa Emery), her son-in-law Jon (an ultimately touching Stephen Root) has provided her with Walter (Noah Bean), a prime modeled on her late husband when he was 30. Walter only learns what he hears, which raises the ethical question of whether we have the right to curate someone’s memories. Should Walter be kept ignorant of a family tragedy that happened 40 or so years prior so that he cannot cause Marjorie to recall it? We follow the family through the next few years, which turn out to be difficult ones. To say much more would lead into “spoiler” territory. The plot is intriguing, but a bit schematic. I wish the family’s long-ago tragedy were not based on something that has become a dramatic cliche. Nevertheless, there is much to admire. The actors are uniformly wonderful. The final scene is both a satisfying and unexpected one, filled with humanity. Laura Jelinek’s set all in aqua and white has an exaggerated spaciousness that I assume is deliberate. Jessica Pabst’s costumes do not call attention to themselves. Anne Kauffman’s direction is uncluttered and assured. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Nutcracker Rouge **

Laura Careless & Steven Trumon Gray
(photo by Mark Shelby Perry)
This show by Austin McCormick’s Company XIV now at the Minetta Lane Theatre is back for another holiday season. A review of an earlier production called it a melange of 3 B’s — ballet, baroque and burlesque. It could just as easily be 3 C’s — circus, cabaret and camp. It does not earn a fourth C for coherence. The overwhelmingly favorably reviews from previous years compared it to an adults-only Cirque du Soleil, but it reminded me more of a naughty cabaret show called “Absinthe” that played the late, lamented Spiegeltent at South Street Seaport some years back. Whereas that show wisely made no attempt to provide a unifying narrative, this show presents itself as an erotic version of The Nutcracker. First of all, this led me to expect music from the Tchaikovsky ballet, which, it turns out, provides a small percentage of the score, which ranges from Madonna to Vivaldi. Secondly, the attempt to graft some of the excellent acrobatic routines onto the Nutcracker story are strained, to to put it mildly. The 14 scantily-clad cast members are talented performers who provide lots of eye candy. Marcy Richardson, the singer/aerialist, is most impressive. The final pas de deux by Laura Careless and Steven Trumon Gray is something I won’t soon forget. Shelly Watson as the buxom Madame Drosselmeyer who presides over the event, is a hoot. The scenery and costumes by Zane Pihlstrom are appropriately over the top, but I found the thick haze more annoying than atmospheric. Both men and women wear high-heeled pointy baroque shoes — and often very little else. Strangely, the show is not very sexy. The audience was young and enthusiastic. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Old Times **

The circumstances for attending this Roundabout production were far from ideal. Fighting Times Square holiday crowds to see a 65-minute play was a dubious enterprise at best. Trying to maintain attention when there were FIVE interruptions by cellphones was nigh impossible. That being said, the play was not without its merits. The three actors — Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best — inhabited their roles thoroughly and even sang snippets of song pleasantly. The dialogue had moments of entertaining word play. Under Douglas Hodge’s direction, the usual long Pinter silences were virtually absent. That alone must have chopped at least ten minutes off the play’s length. The austere set by Christine Jones with a back wall of arcs radiating like rings from a pebble dropped in a pond and a door that resembled a block of ice was evocative. The costumes by Constance Hoffman suited the characters well. The moody sound design by Clive Goodman and dramatic lighting by Japhy Weideman enhanced the proceedings. The basic situation of a married couple in a remote house being visited by the wife’s former roommate of 20 years prior had promise. I just did not find the competing memories that involving. Under better circumstances, I might have enjoyed it more. In my opinion, offering a 65-minute play at Broadway prices is pushing the limits.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Gigantic **

This musical with a book by Randy Blair and Tim Drucker, music by Matthew roi Berger and lyrics by Blair has been kicking around in various forms since 2009. As “Fat Camp,” it won Best of Fest award at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in a production directed by Alex Timbers. In 2012 American Theatre of Actors revived it with several cast changes and a set by Beowulf Boritt. Why talents such as Timbers or Boritt were attracted to this pedestrian show and why Vineyard Theatre decided to give it a third New York outing are mysteries to me. The antics at a summer camp for overweight teenagers are a slender {pun not intended} thread for a full-evening musical. During the second act, the authors try frantically to liven things up with a production number featuring a dozen or so life-size dancing animals that bears no relation to anything else in the show. Likewise, as part of the color war, one team, with no rationale whatever, performs a scene from “The Crucible” dressed in Pilgrim costumes made from trash bags. The energetic, appealing cast give it their all. They are all good, but Bonnie Milligan, Larry Owens and Leslie Kritzer stand out. The music is generic pop-rock, with many songs sounding almost alike to me. I might have appreciated the music more had it not been blasted at levels that were painful to bear. The woodsy set by Timothy R. Mackabee is quite attractive and Gregory Gale’s costumes are inspired. The choreography by Chase Brock is lively and the direction by Scott Schwartz is smooth. Too bad the the quality of the material does not match the high level of the production. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Night Is a Room **

To say that I liked this play the best of Naomi Wallace’s three plays for Signature Theatre’s residency program amounts to faint praise. The current play is set in Leeds, England where we meet Liana (Dagmara Dominczyk), an ad executive with beauty and style who is happily married to Marcus (Bill Heck), a popular history teacher in a girls’ school. In the first scene Liana is visiting the modest garden flat of Doré (Ann Dowd), a frumpy 55-year-old cleaning woman, who at age 15 was forced to give up the baby boy she bore. Doré is Marcus’s birth mother, whom Liana has tracked down at great expense, so she could unite mother and son as a surprise present for Marcus’s 40th birthday. Big mistake. The play skips the reunion and moves ahead three months. Liana, jealous at the many evenings Marcus has been spending at Doré’s, invites her to their upscale flat for tea. Their lives all change dramatically after that evening. After the big “reveal” which I will not give away here, what follows seems anti-climactic. The final scene, set six years later, spins its wheels and ends unconvincingly. The production is better than the material. All three actors, particularly the women, are excellent. Rachel Hauck’s set design is simple but evocative. Clint Ramos’s costumes are well-chosen. Bill Rauch’s direction is confident. If only the play did not peak too early and then go on too long, it would have been a more satisfying experience. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Important Hats of the Twentieth Century *

I wasn’t all that fond of Nick Jones’s “Verité” at LCT3 last winter, but it seems like “Hamlet” compared to his new comedy at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II. Imagine a very, very long Saturday Night Live sketch or a class play whipped up by stoned students at some fashion school. The insipid plot involves Sam Greevy (a misused Carson Elrod), a top 1930’s designer of haute couture; T.B. Doyle (John Behlmann), the fashion reporter he is sleeping with; and Paul Roms (Matthew Saldivar), a rival designer who introduces future fashion ideas such as sweatshirts and skater pants, using a time travel hat that he has stolen from mad scientist Dr. Cromwell (Remy Auberjonois). Roms’s portal to the future is through the closet of Albany teenager Jonathan (Jon Bass) whose father Darryl (Triney Sandoval) he accidentally kidnaps. Reed Campbell, Maria Elena Ramirez and Henry Vick round out the cast in multiple roles. Timothy R. Mackabee designed the minimalist set. Jennifer Moeller's clever costumes are the production's creative highlight. Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Verité, Hand To God) directed. Prepare yourself to be traumatized by the sight of masturbating yetis. And did I mention that mysterious glowing space balls are attacking New York? What were the folks at MTC thinking when they decided to subject us to this drivel? Honesty demands that I report there were a few in the audience who expressed their approval loudly and often. Running time: two hours, including intermission.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Steve **

If you arrive early at the Signature Center for the New Group’s production of Mark Gerrard’s dramedy Steve, you will find Malcolm Gets already onstage playing show tunes on an upright piano. He is joined by four other cast members for an enjoyable 15-minute Broadway songfest. At play’s end, there’s a charming musical curtain call. Unfortunately, between those two points there is the play itself which, for me, wore out its welcome long before its 90 minutes had passed. Although there are strong superficial similarities with the recently opened Dada Woof Papa Hot — both plays deal with a gay couple approaching middle age who are raising a child, their fears about losing attractiveness, their worries about infidelity and their relations with another gay couple, the play that Steve really reminded me of was Matt Crowley’s 1968 hit The Boys in the Band. Both begin with a birthday party that turns out badly. Despite all the ways that gay life has changed in the intervening years, the characters’ mode of relating to each other has not made much progress. If anything, modern technology has increased the possibility of bad behavior. There was no sexting in 1968. Steven (Matt McGrath, so good recently in The Legend of Georgia McBride), once a chorus boy and singing waiter, has just turned 47. His partner Stephen (Gets) is a successful attorney. Steven is now a stay-at-home dad raising their unseen 8-year-old son Zach. (For some reason that have not chosen to marry.) When Steven retrieves his partner’s cellphone from Zach, who has “borrowed” it, he finds a sexting exchange between Stephen and Brian (Jerry Dixon), the partner of Steven’s oldest friend Matt (Mario Cantone). The fifth guest at the birthday dinner is Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), their terminally ill lesbian friend whose lover abandoned her when she became sick. Their waiter is a hunky Argentinian named Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat) who keeps turning up at various locations throughout the play. Just to round out the name game, there is a fourth Steven, Brian and Matt’s prodigiously endowed trainer, who is unseen but much commented upon. Any attempt at meaningful communication is short-circuited by turning either to show-queen bitchiness or raunch. One scene is instantly replayed with a different ending, but that device goes nowhere. There is a funny scene where Stephen is juggling texts, sexts and a phone conversation with his mother. The capable cast does their best to animate characters that aren’t well-developed. Allen Moyer’s set is elegantly simple and Tom Broecker’s costumes are fine. Director Cynthia Nixon plays a weak hand well. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Invisible Thread ***

After a successful run last year at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge where it was titled “Witness Uganda,” this energetic, ambitious, inspirational musical is now raising the roof at Second Stage Theatre, where it is in previews. Co-authors Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews are founders of the Uganda Project, a charity that pays the educational expenses of ten Ugandan students each year. When Griffin (Jeremy Pope from “Choir Boy” filling in for Matthews at my performance), an unemployed black New York actor, is kicked out of his church choir for being gay, he decides to do something meaningful with his life and signs up as a volunteer to build a school in a Ugandan village. Why a gay man would pick one of the world’s most virulently homophobic countries as a place to volunteer is never explained. His Jewish lover Ryan (Corey Mach), a songwriter, unexpectedly joins him there. The compound Griffin lives in belongs to the unseen Pastor Jim. It is run by the stern Joy (Adeola Role) assisted by her younger brother Jacob (Michael Luwoye, a wonderful actor but, in my opinion, too massive and mature for this role). Jacob befriends Griffin, who, he hopes, will take him back to New York. When Griffin learns that the school-building project is a scam that will only benefit Pastor Jim, he quits and decides to teach a small group of teenage AIDS orphans that he meets. When their improvised school mysteriously burns down, Griffin takes them to a safe village far from Pastor Jim and pays to enroll them in school. When he and Ryan return to New York, they struggle to raise money to support the students. They get the bright idea of doing a benefit concert to raise money. The present musical gradually emerged from their efforts. They learn some hard lessons about the difficulty of matching the help offered with the help needed. The songs run the gamut from generic ballads to rousing African-infused numbers. The show’s title is the title of one of the less interesting songs (“There is a long invisible thread that wraps around my heart and wraps around your head…”). An orchestra of nine supply the music. The appealing cast is very good. Nicolette Robinson (“Brooklynite”) is a standout. The lively choreography is by Sergio Trujillo assisted by Darrell Grand Moultrie. Tom Pye’s simple uncluttered set is enhanced by Peter Nigrini’s projections. ESosa's costumes are colorful. Director Diane Paulus pulls it all together with panache. I hope that they adjust the amplification so that the big numbers are not ear-splitting. The audience was appreciative. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lost Girls ***

It’s almost exactly two years since John Pollono’s play “Small Engine Repair” made a big splash at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. That testosterone-driven tale of three working stiffs in Manchester, NH and the college boy who crossed their path packed quite a wallop. (And it made my 10 best play list for 2013.) The new play, also produced by MCC Theater, could almost serve as a bookend. We are back among the working class in southern New Hampshire, but this time it’s the women who hold center stage. During a nor’easter that has made driving perilous, sharp-tongued Maggie (Piper Perabo), who is struggling to hang onto a place in the lower middle class, discovers that her 10-year-old Honda is missing. When she reports the theft to the police, they alert her cop ex-husband Lou (Ebon Moss-Bacharach) who turns up uninvited with his annoyingly perky second wife Penny (Meghann Fahy). Linda (Tasha Lawrence), Maggie’s equally foul-mouthed mother, who lives with her, repeatedly demonstrates her skill at getting under people’s skin. It turns out that the car thief is none other than Maggie and Lou’s teenage daughter. The set rotates from Maggie’s modest house to a motel room in Connecticut where we meet a pair of high school classmates who have run off together. More specifically, the brassy girl (Lizzy Declement) has talked the innocent boy (Josh Green) into driving her to Florida for a rendezvous with her much older boyfriend. He has reluctantly agreed because he has been smitten with her since second grade. The scenes alternate between Maggie’s house and the motel room. Maggie and Lou learn that the Honda has been involved in a major highway accident, but the power goes out before they can learn how their daughter is. Back at the motel, things have turned romantic. I won’t reveal the outcome except to say that there is a tricky development near the end that I have mixed feelings about. Two of three theater-savvy friends who attended the same performance missed it, so I think director Jo Bonney needs to do something to make the ending clearer. I wish the actors didn't need to struggle so hard with the New England accent. Richard Hoover’s revolving set and Theresa Squire’s costumes capture the correct ambience. While this play is not as good as “Small Engine Repair,” it’s consistently involving and entertaining. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Dada Woof Papa Hot ***

Yet another play about life among the white and wealthy gay residents of Manhattan? That was my first reaction upon learning about Peter Parnell’s unfortunately titled new play at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. My lack of enthusiasm was misplaced. The play examines interesting questions of what has been gained and what has been lost with the arrival of gay marriage and gay parenthood. At the play’s center are two sets of gay fathers — Alan (John Benjamin Hickey) and Rob (Patrick Breen), the former a writer, the latter a psychotherapist, both in their forties — and a younger couple they meet at a gay parents’ group — staid financier Scott (Stephen Plunkett) and studly painter Jason (Alex Hurt). We also meet a straight couple —Alan’s best friend Michael (John Pankow), whose latest show on Broadway has just flopped, and his wife Serena (Kellie Overbey) — and Julia (Tammy Blanchard), an actress they both know. We follow them over the course of a year as they navigate pitfalls of parenthood and marriage, some common to all marriages and others unique to gay couples. The production is top-notch with an excellent cast, a wonderful set by John Lee Beatty that elegantly reconfigures to half a dozen locations, appropriate costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser and smooth direction by Scott Ellis. Parnell’s snappy dialogue is a treat. The play does sag slightly towards the end, but not enough to spoil it. Running time: one hour, 40 minutes; no intermission. NOTE: there is brief male frontal nudity, almost a requirement these days.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Hir **

This play by downtown performance artist Taylor Mac, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, might be called a kitchen sink drama, but the sink is filled with dirty dishes and the drama is covered by a thick layer of absurdist comedy. This semi-autobiographical play presents a family living on the edge in Stockton, California. Paige (the always wonderful Kristine Nielsen), the mother, is getting her revenge on her stroke-diminished husband Arnold (Daniel Orestes) for the years of abuse he subjected her and her children to by dressing him up in women’s clothes, clown wig and makeup and keeping him overmedicated. Teen-age daughter Maxine has become Max (Tom Phelan), a transgendered young man sporting a scruffy beard. Paige is home schooling Max to protect hir (the transgender pronoun) from bullying. Paige is convinced that a new golden age is arising where gender fluidity is the norm and patriarchal power is a thing of the past. Early in the play older son Isaac (a strong Cameron Scoggins) returns home after three years in a Marine mortuary unit in Afghanistan. He is shocked by what he finds — a cluttered home worthy of the Collyer brothers, a barely coherent father, a sister turned brother and a newly assertive mother. This is not the comforting home he hoped to return to. A power struggle between Isaac and Paige ensues. The play’s frequently hilarious moments do not hide the underlying sadness. Paige’s philosophy seemed half-baked and its presentation, repetitious. A certain amount of chaos is necessary to the play, but there was too much for my taste. Any play that offers Kristine Nielsen a starring role is worth seeing in my book, but this play puts that to the test. David Zinn’s set is a cluttered wonder. Gabriel Berry’s costumes suit their characters well. Director Niegel Smith’s direction is assured. Running time: one hour 50 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A View from the Bridge ***

I wonder how I would have reacted to the current Broadway production of this Arthur Miller classic had I not known that this Young Vic import won three Oliviers — best actor for Mark Strong, best director for Ivo van Hove, and best play revival. Perhaps this foreknowledge raised my expectations too high. I will grant that this production has many strengths, foremost among them a riveting performance by Strong as Eddie Carbone. Of the other carryovers from the London cast, Nicola Walker skillfully underplays the role of Eddie’s wife Beatrice and Michael Gould is strong as Alfieri, the lawyer who serves as narrator and Greek chorus. On the other hand, I did not admire Phoebe Fox as Beatrice’s orphaned niece Catherine, for whom Eddie’s feelings are far more than fatherly. At a critical early point, her accent slipped from Brooklyn to Britain, which, for me at least, undermined much of what followed. Richard Hansell was fine in the smallish role of Louis, Eddie’s coworker. Of the newcomers to the cast, Michael Zegen is superb as Beatrice’s married cousin Marco, an illegal immigrant who made the difficult choice to leave wife and children behind in Sicily to save them from starvation. Russell Tovey is fine as Rodolpho, Marco’s blond younger brother, whose budding relationship with Beatrice leads to trouble. Admittedly it is very hard to imagine Tovey and Zegen as brothers. Thomas Michael Hammond has the tiny role of police officer. Jan Versweyveld’s strikingly simple set suggests a boxing ring, which is reinforced by the fact that several rows of theatergoers are seated on either side of the stage. The production is greatly enhanced by Tom Gibbons’s sophisticated sound design which makes effective use of snippets of sacred music, barely audible droning and a drum that punctuates the action. An D’Huys’s costume for Beatrice strains credibility. I can’t imagine that any overprotected girl in Red Hook in the 1950’s would be allowed to run around in a skirt that skimpy. It does fit with the crudely overdone first scene between Catherine and Eddie, during which she jumps on him and wraps her legs around him and he casually rests his hand on her thigh. No subtlety there. The choice to have the actors perform barefoot seemed an arbitrary touch to show the director’s cleverness. There is one long conversation scene that breaks the mounting tension. The final scene is a real audience grabber. Unfortunately it doesn’t make clear what actually transpired. For parallelism it is matched with an opening shower scene far from Miller territory. During  its best moments, the play is absolutely gripping. However, I felt that there are also flaws that detract from the general excellence. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, no intermission.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

King Charles III ***

Playwright Mike Bartlett, whose plays “Cock” and “Bull” had successful New York runs, certainly deserves an “A” for audacity. In this ‘future history play,’ now on Broadway, he speculates on what might happen when Queen Elizabeth II finally leaves the scene. His portrayal of the surviving royals is less than flattering, so it is a tribute to British openness that this play could even appear on a London stage, let alone win a bunch of prizes. To up the ante, Bartlett has written the play in blank verse and filled it with allusions to several Shakespeare plays. When the aged Charles (a fine Tim Pigott-Smith) at last becomes king, the first thing he does is provoke a crisis by his principled but ill-advised refusal to sign a privacy bill that Parliament has passed because he feels it is too restrictive to the press. Considering the treatment by the press that he had endured over the years, his stand is ironic. During the more satirical first act, we meet all the members of the immediate royal family whose portrayal both supports and subverts our preconceptions, as well as the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. The 11 other cast members, all from the West End production, (Anthony Calf, Oliver Chris, Richard Goulding, Nyasia Hatendi, Adam James, Margot Leicester, Miles Richardson, Tom Robertson, Sally Scott, Tafline Steen and Lydia Wilson) are excellent. As the crisis deepens, the second act turns darker and more Lear-like. The splendid production, fluidly directed by Rupert Goold, has a simple but effective set by Tom Scutt with a large carpeted dais surrounded by stone walls with a few doors. There is a band high on the walls that at first looks like it is composed of round stones, but when the lighting changes they are revealed to be the suggestions of faces watching the action. The costumes are mostly black except for the ceremonial outfits worn on occasion by the three male royals. We are also treated to live music by Joyce Pook, played by two musicians in one of the boxes. The play has interesting things to say about the role of royalty in the 21st century and the current state of life in the UK. However, if you are not a devoted Anglophile or an avid follower of the royal family, you may find the evening a bit tedious. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Travels with My Aunt **

Keen Company is currently presenting Giles Havergal’s clever stage adaptation of Graham Greene’s light 1969 novel about Henry Pulling, an uptight, recently retired suburban banker and his freewheeling Aunt Augusta. They meet after a gap of 50-years at the funeral of Henry’s mother, who, his aunt soon informs him, was not really his mother. Augusta soon embroils Henry in her complicated amoral life and takes him along on a trip across Europe. The present man in Augusta’s life is Wordsworth, a Sierra Leonean who is absolutely devoted to her. Augusta is determined to rescue an ex-lover Mr. Visconti, a former Nazi collaborator who, despite taking all her money, still holds her in his thrall. The gimmick on which Havergal’s adaptation is based is that four hard-working actors (Thomas Jay Ryan, Jay Russell, Dan Jenkins and Rory Kulz), identically dressed in three-piece suits and bowlers, play the 20+ roles. The role of Henry is divided among the four of them. Ryan has only one additional role, the important one of Aunt Augusta, while the others all have multiple roles. Russell’s roles range from Tooley, a college girl to O’Toole, a CIA man who just happens to be her father. Jenkins appears as both Wordsworth and Visconti. Kulz has small roles, most memorably that of a wolfhound. When the second act takes us to Paraguay, the actors change to white suits and straw hats. It’s clever, but the trick grows tiresome before long. You can figure out the ending at least an hour in advance. I found the material too thin to hold my interest for over two hours. Apparently, Havergal has approved a 50-minute one-act version which sounds about right to me. Steven C. Kemp’s set shouts “low budget,” but it gets the job done. Jennifer Paar’s matching costumes are delightful. The direction by Keen artistic director Jonathan Silverstein is competent. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Useful New Website for New York Theater

Show-Score is a new site that aggregates reviews, keeps track of your preference of actors, playwrights, theater companies, ticket prices and notifies you when a new show opens that meets your criteria. You can join at I recommend it. It's free.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ripcord ***

Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has a new addition to his long string of successes at Manhattan Theatre Club. His new comedy stars Marylouise Burke, his oft-time muse, and Holland Taylor (replacing the originally announced Mary Louise Wilson) as Marilyn and Abby, residents of the Bristol Place Assisted Living Facility. Over four years, the unfriendly secretive  Abby has driven away a long string of roommates by her acerbic personality. Her latest, Marilyn, drives her wild with her cheerful gregariousness. Marilyn is quite happy where she is and has no intention of leaving. The roommates make a secret bet: if Abby wins, Marilyn moves out; if Marilyn wins, she gets the bed by the window. The attempt to win leads the pair to increasingly outrageous and hilarious stunts. Marilyn enlists her daughter Cathleen (Rachel Dratch) and son-in-law Derek (Daoud Heidami) in her campaign. Scotty (Nate Miller), a good-natured attendant and would-be actor, tries unsuccessfully to keep the peace. The second act takes on a somewhat darker tone as the competition gets more personal and nastier. A new character, Benjamin (Glenn Fitzgerald) makes an appearance. The resolution was a bit disappointing, to me at least. Burke and Taylor are outstanding as the rival roommates. The supporting cast is strong too. The play resembles Lindsay-Abaire’s early playful works such as “Fuddy Mears” more than his more serious recent plays like “Good People.” David Hyde Pierce has a real knack for directing comedy. Alexander Dodge’s clever scenic design switches seamlessly between their shared room and a few other very different locations. Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes are apt. All in all, it’s a very entertaining, but not very substantial work. Running time: two hours including intermission.

The Humans ***

Stephen Karam’s new play joins a long list of theater works and films about Thanksgiving family dinners from Hell. The very Irish Blake family are gathered in the Chinatown apartment into which younger daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed) have just moved. The blue-collar parents Erik (Reed Birney) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) have driven in from Scranton with Erik’s demented mother Fiona (Lauren Klein) for the occasion. Older sister Aimee (Cassie Beck), an attorney in Philadelphia, is also there. In the wake of 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, Erik is upset that Brigid’s ground-level-and-below duplex apartment is both in a flood zone and near Ground Zero. During the course of dinner, we learn some of the other fears that afflict the family members. Economic insecurity continues to play an important role in all their lives. Thwarted careers, health issues, fragile relationships, recurring nightmares and other problems beset them as well. The characters seem very real and the authentic dialogue illustrates their skill at pushing each other’s buttons. The playwright has chosen to make the apartment, with its sudden loud noises and its abruptly failing lighting, a metaphor — a rather clumsy one, in my opinion —for the entropy in the characters’ lives. Karam treats his characters with compassion. The acting is very strong and the situations are mostly easy to empathize with. However, the play loses steam toward the end and the final moments were a disappointment. Nevertheless, its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The bilevel under-furnished apartment set by David Zinn provides an apt background for the action. I didn’t even notice Sarah Laux’s costumes, which is a good thing. Joe Mantello’s direction is confident without being showy. While I don’t feel that the play is on a par with Karam’s excellent “Sons of the Prophet,” it still has much to recommend it. Running time: one hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

NOTE: Try to avoid seats in the first few rows because you will be too close to see a substantial part of the set’s upper level.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Sylvia ***

Twenty years after its debut at Manhattan Theatre Club, A.R. Gurney’s charming but inconsequential play has finally made it to Broadway. It presents the playwright in a much more favorable light than any of the three Gurney plays that Signature recently mounted. Annaleigh Ashford’s performance as the eponymous canine is sheer delight, reason enough to see the show. As Greg, the man with a midlife crisis who is instantly smitten with Sylvia when she plops into his lap in Central Park, Matthew Broderick is the best he has been since “The Producers.” The ever-watchable Julie White strikes all the right notes as Greg’s wife Kate, who does not want a dog to upset their newly-empty nest or her budding career as a teacher bringing Shakespeare to uptown middle school students. Robert Sella is a triple threat as Tom, another dog owner in Central Park; Phyllis, Kate’s friend from Vassar days whose struggle to stay on the wagon is threatened by Sylvia’s enthusiastic attentiveness; and Leslie, the androgynous couple counselor Kate and Greg visit. As Sylvia becomes more entrenched and gets more attention from Greg than his wife does, a showdown looms. I’m sure you can guess the outcome. The play’s conceit is really too slender for a work that runs over two hours, but director Daniel Sullivan does an excellent job of hiding that. The triple casting of Sella is droll, but seems cut from a different cloth than the rest of the play. David Rockwell’s set offer a lovely scene of Central Park with the essentials of a park-view apartment that materialize when needed. Ann Roth’s costumes are excellent; the ones for Sylvia are truly inspired. You may forget the play five minutes after it ends, but you will likely enjoy it while you're watching it. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Theater Trends: At the Workplace

Since so much of our time and energy are devoted to work, it is only appropriate that several contemporary American playwrights have turned to the workplace as the focus of their latest plays. During the 2014-15 season, I saw seven plays set at work. While they differ greatly in their plots and techniques, they share a common bond: each uses the workplace to mirror some aspect of American society today.
First up was “My Mañana Comes” by Elizabeth Irwin in a production of The Playwrights Realm. In the kitchen of an Upper East Side restaurant, we meet four busboys. 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 external pressures 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 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 and the corrosive effects of poverty. Playwright Irwin shows a lot of talent and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

Heidi Schreck's “Grand Concourse” at Playwrights Horizons also takes place in a working kitchen, a soup kitchen in the Bronx. Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the 39-year-old nun who runs it 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 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 the help proferred, the extremes to which neediness can lead and the sense of workplace community. Schreck displays a talent for creating vivid characters whom she treats with compassion and humanity. The results are both enlightening and entertaining.

In Obie winner Samuel D. Hunter’s “Pocatello”, also at Playwrights Horizons, we have moved from the kitchen to the front of the restaurant, the failing local outlet of a national Italian restaurant chain known for its soft breadsticks and salads The lead character is the manager Eddie (T.R. Knight), a sensitive gay man who does not flee Pocatello at his earliest opportunity because he 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 difficult 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’s (Elvy Yost) only goal is to skim along life’s surface without making waves. The opening scene, with all ten characters onstage talking at once, is quite a tour de force. Hunter generously gives all the characters at least a moment in the spotlight that gives us insight into what makes them tick, sometimes without a word of dialogue. One look into the combination of hurt and hope in Eddie’s eyes speaks more than paragraphs. A silent moment when Tammy decides whether to take a drink of wine is almost painful to watch. Davis McCallum’s direction is superb. Lauren Helpern’s set accurately captures the look of a faux-Italian chain restaurant and Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit the characters well. The play impressed me as a big step forward for the playwright. Hunter compassionately illustrates the psychological damage caused by economic decline and a loss of uniqueness on people whose hometown has slid into a jumble of fast food joints and big box stores. 

Annie Baker may be one of our most acclaimed young playwrights (and Sam Gold, one of the hottest young directors), but I must confess with some sadness that I don't "get" her work. I find her closely observed scenes of ordinary people doing everyday things boring and banal. Her play “The Flick” at Playwrights Horizons chronicles the relationships of employees of a slightly seedy movie theater in small-town Massachusetts, likely soon to be a victim of the move to digital projection. Sam (Matthew Maher), a man in his late 30's, is breaking in a new employee, Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten, a depressed black 20-year-old. Rose (Louisa Krause), the green-haired, free-spirited projectionist, takes a shine to Avery, to Sam’s chagrin. After 90 minutes of watching Sam and Avery clean the theater numerous times and having the projector light repeatedly shined in my eyes, I had had enough. The thought of returning after intermission for another 90 minutes of same was not appealing, so I left. When the play won the Pulitzer and was remounted at Barrow Street Theatre, I felt honor bound to try again. This time around, I found the first act less annoying, because I knew in advance that there would be very little action in any traditional sense. Act Two deepens the portrayal of Avery and Sam, but does not shed much light on what makes Rose tick. There is a narrative arc of sorts, at least for Avery. I did enjoy David Zinn's perfect recreation of a movie theater that has seen better days. Baker’s mastery of the mundane does hold a certain fascination. She nails the boring repetitiveness of the low-paying jobs that so many people must endure as well as the rewards and limitations of workplace relationships.

In George Brant’s timely one-person play “Grounded” at the Public Theater we meet the Pilot Anne Hathaway), first seen as an F-16 pilot in Iraq who loves her work, especially the freedom of being alone in “the blue.” While home on leave, she meets a man who is not intimidated by her job and falls in love. After she gets pregnant, they marry and she tries unsuccessfully to adjust to the life of housewife and mother. She returns to the Air Force, but instead of being reunited with her fighter jet, she is reassigned to the “Chair Force,” serving 12-hour shifts controlling a drone halfway around the world from a chair in an air-conditioned trailer at a base near Las Vegas. At first she likes the new job with its godlike sense of power and its allowing her to return home to her husband and child every night. Gradually her attitude changes. While the carnage she caused with her F-16 never bothered her because she would be miles away before the bombs hit, her drone lingers over the target afterwards and she is forced to see the flying body parts on her screen. She also has become increasingly aware of the ubiquitous surveillance cameras in today’s America. Her work life traces a path from elation to despair. The set by Riccardo Hernandez is covered with rippled sand and there’s a pyramid in one corner. We are not in the Middle East though. This is Nevada sand and the pyramid is the Luxor in Las Vegas. The production is greatly enhanced by excellent projections by Peter Nigrini. Director Julie Taymor mostly resists stamping the play with her trademark tricks. In a time of increasing dependence on drone warfare, the play casts needed light on the psychological damage to the people who must operate the drones.

Joel Drake Johnson’s play “Rasheeda Speaking” at The New Group is notable mainly for providing juicy roles for two fine actresses, Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest, and for marking the directorial debut of Cynthia Nixon. The action takes place in the in-hospital office of Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), a surgeon who is both smug and cowardly. The two clerical jobs in the office are filled by the white Ilene (Wiest, overwrought as usual), who has been there for eight years and loves her job, and the black Jaclyn (Pinkins), who has been there for six months and does not. The doctor wants to get rid of Jaclyn for not being a team player. When Jaclyn is out for a week suffering from exposure to mysterious office toxins (racism, perhaps?), he promotes Ilene to office manager and enlists her reluctant help to find and document reasons to let Jaclyn go that will pass muster with Human Resources. He makes clear that truthfulness is not a requirement. Whether Jaclyn is really a satisfactory employee is called into question by her generally truculent demeanor and her brusque treatment of Rose (Patricia Connolly), an elderly patient. When she catches on to the plan to get rid of her, Jaclyn fights back with mind games that threaten Ilene’s stability. The dialog is smart, but the workings of the plot are a bit repetitious and predictable. Although its various strands don’t cohere all that well, the play presents an interesting look at racism in the workplace, 21st century style.

In his new play “Gloria” at the Vineyard Theatre, Obie winner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins draws upon his experience working at the New Yorker for a few years. In Act One we meet three editorial assistants — Dean (Ryan Spahn), Ani (Catherine Combs) and Kendra (Jennifer Kim); Miles (Kyle Beltran), a college intern; Lorin (Michael Crane), a somewhat older fact checker; and the title character(Jeanine Serralles), a socially awkward longtime employee from another department. Each character is vividly sketched and the dialogue rings true. For the first 45 minutes, the play seems to be a witty workplace satire about relationships at a prestigious magazine. Then the mood abruptly shifts. The remainder of the play depicts the effects of a life-changing event on some of the people who experienced it and raises this question: when something newsworthy happens, who “owns” the story? The first act is literally a tough act to follow. In the second act, all the actors except Crane play one or more new characters. One of the play’s strengths is that, at any given moment, I had no idea where it was heading. The scenic design by Takeshi Kata captures the sterility of the modern cubicled office. The costumes by Ilona Somogyi are unobtrusively apt. Evan Cabnet’s direction is rock solid. The playwright paints an all-too plausible picture of what can happen when workplace tensions escalate as well as an unflattering portrait of today's media scene in which stories become mere fodder for the ravenous film/television/social media/publishing beast. In case there was any doubt, Jacobs-Jenkins demonstrates that he belongs in the first rank of contemporary American playwrights.

In all seven plays, the workplace provides an opportunity for the playwright to examine important social issues in today’s America. When we read about immigration policy, poverty, exploitation, charity, economic decline, cultural homogenization, dead end jobs, racism and the commodification of media, they may seem abstract and somewhat distant. By personalizing these issues through vivid characters and situations, these seven playwrights have demonstrated the rich potential for a focus on the workplace both to enlighten and entertain.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Fool for Love **

Full disclosure: While I have often admired Sam Shepard as an actor, his plays have never appealed to me. The overwrought characters and situations just do not draw me in. The present play, a Williamstown export to Broadway via Manhattan Theatre Club, is no exception. Had it not turned up on my subscription, I never would have seen it. Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda play Eddie and May, a pair of sometime lovers who can’t get along with or without each other. May has tried to start a new life in a small town on the edge of the Mojave Desert, but Eddie has tracked her down and shown up at her rundown motel room to try to rekindle their relationship. Gordon Joseph Weiss is The Old Man, who, although presently unseen by the pair, has played a crucial role in shaping their lives. Tom Pelphrey plays Martin, May’s intended date for the evening, with delightful obtuseness. Ariana and Weiss are fine. Although Rockwell certainly aced his lasso lessons, I wish he displayed more of the charisma that would explain his hold over May. The big secret seemed more like a plot contrivance than an organic development. Dane Laffrey’s set for the motel room goes beyond seedy. Anita Yavich’s costumes are apt. The lighting design by Justin Townsend and the sound design by Ryan Rumery add much to the production. The initial scenes seemed a bit slack, but director Daniel Aukin picks up the pace as the play progresses. I wish I had found it more involving. Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission. It seemed longer.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Barbecue ****

Robert O’Hara’s raunchy and raucous new play at the Public Theater is full of surprises. It’s a challenge to describe the play in any detail without giving something away and spoiling the fun. Suffice to say that in the first act an extremely dysfunctional family lures their crack-addicted sister to a barbecue in her favorite park so they can perform an intervention. All is not what it seems. In the second act we move backward and forward in time to discover what preceded and followed the action of the first act. I wish I could be more specific, but to tell more might ruin your experience. The playwright skewers several cliches and pop cultural icons along the way. The talented cast of ten (Becky Ann Baker, Marc Damon Johnson, Arden Myrin, Paul Niebanck, Tamberla Perry, Constance Shulman, Heather Alicia Simms, Samantha Soule, Benja Kay Thomas and Kim Wayans) attack their roles with gusto (Perry, in particular). Clint Ramos’s set captures the feel of a picnic pavilion in a verdant park. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are delightful. O'Hara's inventiveness does not flag. Happily, he chose not to direct his own work this time (his direction of “Bootycandy” did it no favors.) Kent Cash handles the assignment admirably. While the satire is far from subtle, the play is so entertaining that I didn’t mind the heavy-handedness. The audience was demonstratively enthusiastic. It's not for everyone, especially those with an aversion to profanity and vulgarity. Running time: one hour 50 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Ugly Lies the Bone ***

With this new play by Lindsey Ferrentino, now at the Black Box Theatre, Roundabout Underground continues its commitment to presenting emerging young playwrights, an effort that has previously paid off with playwrights Stephen Karam and Joshua Harmon. Jess (Mamie Gummer), a soldier badly burned by an IED in Afghanistan, has just returned to her small town on Florida’s Space Coast after a year and a half in a military hospital. She is a participant in an experimental study of virtual reality as a non-drug pain management treatment. Caitlin O’Connell plays the unseen experimenter. Jess shares the family home with her sister Kacie (Karron Graves), a schoolteacher. Their mother has been institutionalized for reasons unspecified. Katie has a dodgy boyfriend Kelvin (Haynes Thigpen) whom she met online. We also meet Jess’s former boyfriend Stevie (Chris Stack), now married and clerking at a convenience store, and eventually learn the reasons for their breakup. Just as Jess has suffered grievous injuries, the town has been devastated by mass layoffs when the shuttle program ended. We follow Jess’s struggles to find a way forward with her life. The cast is mostly strong, especially Gummer. Thigpen's approach to his character, particularly in his early scenes, is too broad. Tim Brown’s set looks lived in and authentic. Dede M. Ayite’s costumes are spot-on. The prosthetics designed and created by Vincent T. Schicchi and Thomas Denier Jr. are convincing.The projections by Caite Hevner Kemp are effective. Patricia McGregor’s direction has a few bumpy spots. I would call the play a diamond in the rough. Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Cloud Nine *** (performance) / zero stars (audience comfort)

There were two problems interfering with my enjoyment of the Atlantic Theater revival of this groundbreaking Caryl Churchill play from 1979 now previewing at the Linda Gross Theater. First, my fond memories of the 1981 production at the Theater de Lys set the bar extremely high. Secondly, the seating is terribly uncomfortable. In principle, I have no objection to the theater’s decision to spend what was no doubt a large amount of money to pull out all the seats and erect stadium-like bleachers to provide theater in the round. Director James Macdonald had great success with that formula when he staged “Cock” three years ago. At least this time the seats are padded and have backs. However, in order to preserve the usual number of seats, they skimped on the space between rows. If you are of average height or taller, there is simply not enough legroom and there are no seat arms for stability. It is hard to concentrate on the actors when you are struggling to find room for your legs. It’s a shame, because both the play and the production have their merits. Churchill has devised a complicated scheme whereby the first act takes place in colonial Africa in 1880, the second act takes place in London a century later, but the three characters carried over from the first act have only aged 25 years and are played by different actors. Clive (Clarke Thorell) is an English functionary in a colonial outpost. His wife Betty (Chris Perfetti) [who the playwright specifies must be played by a man], their effeminate son Edward (Brooke Bloom) [specified to be played by a woman], their daughter Victoria [played by a doll], the children’s governess Ellen (Izzie Steele) and Betty’s mother Maud (Lucy Owen) are soon joined by an explorer friend Harry Bagley (John Sanders).The family’s African manservant is Joshua (Sean Dugan) [specified to be played by a Caucasian]. Their neighbor Mrs. Saunders [specified to be played by the same actress who plays Ellen] moves in when she becomes alarmed at the prospect of native unrest. An age of sexual repression doesn’t slow down this crowd much. We soon learn of pederasty, homosexuality, lesbianism, interracial sex and adultery. The style of the first act is heightened and a bit arch. In the second, much more naturalistic act, we once again meet Betty (now played by Bloom), Edward (now played by Perfetti) and Victoria (now played by  Owen). New are Gerry (Dugan), Edward’s promiscuous roommate; Lin (Steele), a single mother and lesbian with a free-spirited young daughter Cathy (Thorell) [specified to be played by a man] and Victoria’s husband Martin (Sanders). There is a brief appearance by Lin’s brother Bill (Thorell again). For an age of sexual liberation, the playwright adds incest and orgies to the activities of act one. Liberation has not brought much happiness to the characters, except for Betty who finally manages to find a path forward. I remember the play’s final moment where she achieves self-integration as magical in 1981. It didn’t have that effect on me this time. I could not help feeling nostalgic for the time in which act two is set — just before AIDS put a damper on sexual liberation and the worst international crisis was conflict in Northern Ireland. The actors are fine without exception and it is fun to see them change roles. Credit — or blame —Dane Laffrey for the set. Gabriel Berry’s costumes are fine. Dialect coach Ben Furey has done his job well. It is good that Atlantic has revived the play that brought Caryl Churchill to major attention. If only they had given some thought to audience comfort. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Fondly, Collette Richland *

The first thing you should know about this collaboration between Elevator Repair Service  (Gatz, The Select, Arguendo and The Sound and the Fury) and playwright Sibyl Kempson is that at least one-fourth of the audience did not return after intermission. If coherence and intelligibility are among your requirements for a theatrical experience, this new play at New York Theatre Workshop is definitely not for you. It has plenty of interesting characters, a clever set by David Zinn, Inspired costumes by Jacob A. Climer and Zinn and an intricate sound design by Ben Williams, assisted by Gavin Price. Unfortunately these strong points are overwhelmed by the lack of a discernible narrative arc and an unfortunate tendency to pile on the surreal and the ridiculous beyond what the play can bear. The plot, to the extent that one exists, involves a middle age couple Fritz (Vin Knight) and Mabrel (Laurena Allan) FItzhubert whose supper is interrupted by the arrival of Local Representative Wheatsun (Greig Sergeant). They show him a tiny door within the house that eventually leads them to a Grand Hotel in the Alps populated by a motley array of guests and staff. Once there, things grow increasingly incomprehensible. Nativism and ancient Rome are somehow involved. The terrific cast seem to be having a wonderful time. Notable are Mike Iveson as a priest who narrates the first part of the play while playing the piano and later plays a hotel waiter, April Matthis as the title character (a radio show host) and Fritz’s sister Dora, and Susie Sokol as a Cat Butler (really!) and the hotel’s milkmaid. I will confess that I had several chuckles along the way, but became restless during the second act when the fun became increasingly labored. ERS founder John Collins directed. Perhaps ERS should rethink the idea of working with playwrights. They did far better when they started with an existing text. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Iphigenia in Aulis **

This production of Euripides’s final play, the centerpiece of Classic Stage Company’s Greek Festival, is a decidedly mixed bag. The text is a “transadaptation” (her word, not mine) by Anne Washburn (Mr. Burns and 10 out of 12) that throws in a few modern words like “dynamite” and “centrifuge” for no particular reason. Director Rachel Chavkin (Preludes and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) has doubled roles so that there are three actors playing the seven parts in addition to a mixed-gender chorus of seven, dressed as if on their way to a Carmen Miranda look-alike contest. They sing rock songs by The Bengsons and dance vigorously to choreography by Sonya Tayeh. I would comment on the lyrics, but I was unable to make out most of them. Rob Campbell initially shouts too much as Agamemnon, but is stirring in the later scenes. As Achilles, he seems to be aiming for a mixture of Harvey Keitel and Donald Trump. Amber Gray (Oklahoma! at Bard, Natasha, Pierre…) is a fierce Clytemnestra, but having her also play Menelaus was a bad idea. Kristen SIeh, in addition to the title character, plays an old man and a messenger. As Iphigenia, her transition from rage against her fate to acceptance seemed too abrupt. The elegantly simple scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado depicts a tent and forest in the background with a bare square platform in front. There is a lovely stage effect at the end. Except for the incongruous costumes for the chorus, Normandy Sherwood’s costumes are tasteful. The thrust of the play survives, but this production’s innovations are not improvements. Running time: one hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

NOTE: The performance was marred by cellphones ringing not just once or twice, but FOUR times, a record I hope I never see broken. The last two times it was clearly the same phone and the culprit, apparently too embarrassed to be identified, let the phone ring — at least twelve rings each time. Both of these occurrences were at key moments of the play when concentration was essential. I don’t know how the actors kept their cool. It was most disruptive.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Desire **/***

The Acting Company commissioned six playwrights to write short plays based on stories by Tennessee Williams which are now playing at 59E59 Theater. The results are decidedly mixed. 

In “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” ** adapted by Beth Henley, Roe (Juliet Brett) is a pre-teen with an alleged talent for the piano who is preparing for a recital. Tom (Mickey Theis), her friendly younger brother, resents that her practice time has cut into their playtime together. The decision by the piano teacher Miss Alley (Kristen Adele) to include a Chopin sonata for violin and piano with Roe and Richard Miles (Brian Cross), a hunky new student, does not turn out well. Roe’s onset of puberty brings uncontrollable urges and a negative effect on her music. Megan Bartle and Liv Rooth have small roles as Roe’s mother and grandmother, respectively. The staging tried to hard to pump up the slight material.
 Juliet Brett and Brian Cross. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In “Tent Worms” ** by Elizabeth Egloff, Billy (Derek Smith) is a middle-aged blocked writer vacationing on Cape Cod with his boozy wife Clara (Rooth). He is obsessed with the eponymous pests that have infested their property. We learn from a phone call between Clara and Billy’s doctor that he is suffering from a serious illness that has taken a turn for the worse. Billy resorts to extreme measures to get rid of the pests. It did not cohere for me.

Liv Rooth and Derek Smith. Photo by Carol Rosegg

“You Lied to Me about Centralia” *** is John Guare’s clever riff on “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” the story on which Williams based “The Glass Menagerie.” In it, we learn what happened to Jim O’Connor (Theis), the gentleman caller, after his dinner at the Wingfields’. When we meet Jim and his fiancee Betty (Bartle) on a bench at Union Station in St. Louis, we learn that she has lied about a trip. She did not go to Centralia. Instead she made an abortive trip to get money from her estranged Uncle Clyde. She recounts the details of her visit, during which she was puzzled by the absence of Mrs. Lovejoy, Clyde’s alleged fiancee, and the presence of Rainbow, a black man who was clearly not his servant. Jim, in turn, tells Betty about his experience of dinner with the Wingfields. It’s a clever conceit well written and performed.
Mickey Theis and Megan Bartle. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In “Desire Quenched by Touch,” *** Marcus Gardley’s adaptation of “Desire and the Black Masseur,” we meet Grand (Yoegel T. Welch), a cellist turned bath house masseur, and Bacon (Smith), a crusty detective who is interrogating Grand over the disappearance of his best client, a gay masochist named Burns (John Skelley), who has been missing for two weeks. We see some of the encounters between masseur and client during which the violence gradually escalates. After the interview, Grand returns home and we get a truly macabre ending. Painful to watch, but hard to forget.

Yaegel T. Welch (top) and John Skelley. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In “Oriflamme” ** by David Grimm. Anna (Rooth) is an attractive woman in a blood-red evening dress who strikes up a conversation with Rodney (Smith), a slightly rough-edged man reading his racing form on a park bench. She waxes poetic about cloud formations and complains about the banality of people like the shopgirl who was upset she wanted to wear her new gown in broad daylight. Anna definitely has a touch of Blanche in her. Rodney plies her with alcohol and makes a clumsy move on her. Slight and forgettable.

With its cellphones and sorority girls, it is somewhat hard to imagine that the source of Rebecca Gilman’s “The Field of Blue Children” ** is a Williams story. Dylan (Skelley), a budding poet in a college composition class, is infatuated with Layley (Bartle), an attractive blonde sorority girl for whom his poetry stirs memories. Although going steady with frat boy Grant (Cross), she agrees to a date with Dylan. The date turns out far better for Dylan than he could have imagined, but he reads too much into it. Cee Cee (Brett) and Curry (Rooth) are cartoonish sorority sisters. Other small roles are played by Welch, Theis and Adele. It has entertaining moments but its spirit wanders far from Williams territory.
John Skelley and Megan Bartle. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Jeff Cowie’s set design of weathered planks provides a neutral background for his projections. David C. Woolard’s costumes are fine. Michael Wilson’s direction is fluid. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

The Christians **

My college roommate made a useful distinction between “interesting” and “enjoyable.” I would have to put this new play by Lucas Hnath now previewing at Playwrights Horizons, in the former category. Hnath’s ambition in tackling the thorny topic of religion, his unusual structuring, his stylistic choices such as having the actors only speak through microphones are all intriguing. And yet, the results, at least for me, were less than stirring. The imposing set that greets us shows the platform of a church, complete with burnished wood, five throne-like chairs, a gigantic illuminated cross, an organ and huge television screens. A choir of 20 serenades us. Four of the characters are seated. Each has a mic tethered to a cord. Paul (a plausibly charismatic Andrew Garman), pastor of the impressive megachurch that is celebrating paying off its debt, gives a sermon that includes a drastic reinterpretation of an important church tenet. Joshua (Larry Powell), the associate pastor, who cannot accept the new dogma, is forced to resign and takes 50 congregants with him. Church elder Jay (Philip Kerr) tries unsuccessfully to be a mediator. When Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a seemingly naive congregant emerges from the choir to give testimony, she raises a series of provocative questions both about the content of the sermon and its timing, Paul’s answers make a bad situation worse. When he turns to his wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell), who has been sitting there for an hour without saying a word, for support, he does not get the response he expects. Joshua returns briefly to explain his views to Paul. In an effective scene, we get Paul’s inner thoughts whispered through his mic. We can follow Paul’s deepening crisis through the way he handles his mic cord through the play, first wrangling it like a cowboy and eventually struggling not to get tripped by it. The ending of the play is quiet and flat. Dane Laffrey's set is a knockout. Connie Furr Soloman's costumes are apt. Les Waters's direction is assured. I admire Hnath’s bold ambition and look forward to his upcoming play at New York Theatre Workshop. I just wish the results had turned out better this time. Running time 95 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Legend of Georgia McBride ***

Dave Thomas Brown & Afton Williamson. Photo by Joan Marcus

This play by Matthew Lopez (The Whipping Man), kicking off MCC’s new season at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, could serve as a textbook example of a guilty pleasure. Its plot is as predictable as a Swiss train and as deep as a thin mint, but its appeal is hard to resist. Casey (Dave Thomas Brown), a charming slacker with an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, and Jo (Afton Williamson), his lovely wife, are already struggling to get by when they learn Jo is pregnant.

Casey loses his gig as Elvis impersonator at a failing bar in the Florida panhandle when Eddie (Wayne Duvall), the owner, decides to see whether a drag show will attract more business. Eddie's cousin Tracy (the superb Matt McGrath) turns up with friend Rexy (the ever-reliable Keith Nobbs, who also plays Jason, Casey’s old friend and landlord) to take over the entertainment. They let Casey stay on as bartender. When Rexy goes on a bender, Casey is pressed into service to do her faux Edith Piaf act. A one-time favor turns into a smart career move. As Georgia McBride, Casey become a local star.

Dave Thomas Brown. Photo by Joan Marcus
Of course, he has not told his wife about his change of occupation. You can figure out the rest. This slender material is greatly enhanced by a terrific cast, outlandish costumes by Anita Yavich, even more outlandish wigs by Jason Hayes, an appropriately seedy set by Donyale Werle, hilarious choreography by Paul McGill and smooth direction by Mike Donahue. You may not remember it five minutes later, but you are likely to have a good time. Running time: 1 hr, 40 minutes, no intermission.