Saturday, February 28, 2015

I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard **

The best I can say for Halley Feiffer’s overwrought drama at Atlantic Stage 2 is that it offers a chance for Reed Birney to once again demonstrate that he is one of New York’s finest actors. As David, an embittered alcoholic playwright, he spends the first hour venting spleen against everyone involved in New York theater. His audience is his daughter Ella (Betty Gilpin), an aspiring actress waiting for the reviews of her performance as Masha in “The Seagull.” During the long first scene, Gilpin is called upon mainly to shriek, screech, scream, squeal and shout, to the point that I thought her character was developmentally challenged. David’s casual cruelty to Ella escalates as the evening progresses, fueled by wine, weed and coke, and finally reaches a breaking point. In the second scene, five years later, we learn that Ella has truly become her father’s daughter. Birney’s performance in this scene is absolutely riveting and Gilpin finally gets a chance to do more than make appreciative noises. Mark Wendland’s version of the kitchen of an Upper West Side apartment is appropriately claustrophobic. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are fine, especially her blood-red dress for Ella in the second scene. Trip Cullman directed. Although I really disliked the material, I was happy for the opportunity to see Birney in action. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lives of the Saints ***

When Primary Stages offered a near-perfect production of “All in the Timing,” David Ives’s collection of six hilarious short plays, two years ago, I awarded it five stars. Now they are back with an evening of six more Ives playlets. Those expecting a reprise of Ives’s delicious word-play based sketches will be disappointed. The current collection is more substantive, but less stylistically successful. Most of the six plays (a seventh listed in the program was dropped to shorten the evening) are loosely tied together by the theme of goodness. “The Goodness of Your Heart” examines what one can expect from a good friend. “Soap Opera,” a pun-filled extended sketch about a repairman (think Maytag) who falls in love with a washing machine, shows the downside of perfection. “Enigma Variations” did not seem to fit the evening’s theme. With doubled characters and reversing roles, it was more frenetic than coherent. My favorite was “Life Signs,” in which a newly deceased mother thought to have lived an upright life suddenly begins talking to her grieving son and vividly disabusing him of that notion. “It’s All Good” shows a successful New York writer the life he might have had if he had never left southside Chicago. The title play, which closes the evening, demonstrates the simple goodness of two older Polish Catholic women preparing a funeral breakfast. Although the evening does not reach the delirious heights of “All in the Timing,” there are still lots of laughs. Returning from the previous production are director John Rando, set designer Beowulf Boritt, costume designer Anita Yavich and actors Carson Elrod (a comic genius) and Liv Rooth. They are joined by Arnie Burton, Rick Holmes and Kelly Hutchinson, who are just as adept at animating Ives’s characters. Although a bit disappointed that lightning did not strike twice, I had a good time. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes, including intermission.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Brooklynite **

This new musical about superheroes in Brooklyn, now in previews at the Vineyard Theatre, has lots of talent behind it. Composer/lyricist/ book co-author Peter Lerman has won both a Jonathan Larson Award and a Stephen Sondheim Young Artist Citation. Director and book co-author Michael Mayer brought us “Spring Awakening.” Choreographer Steven Hoggett’s many successes include “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Once.” The story is based on characters created by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. The cast includes Nick Cordero, so impressive in “Bullets over Broadway,” and the always entertaining Ann Harada. The production is lavish by Vineyard standards. Donyale Werle’s modular set creates several diverse locales, Andrea Lauer’s superhero costumes are wonderful, as are Andrew Lazarow’s projections. With all this talent, why did I find the show curiously flat and uninvolving? I think the main problems are the book and the music. The story of six superheroes created when an asteroid hit Gowanus and the nebbishy hardware store clerk who would like to join their ranks works better for a comic book than an off-Broadway musical. Except for a couple of songs, the music seemed merely serviceable. The cast, led by Matt Doyle and Nicolette Robinson, do their best to animate cardboard characters. The other recent musical about Brooklyn, “Fortress of Solitude,” was superior in every way. With its story of Brooklyn superheroes and in-jokes about that borough, this show might have been more suitable for some Williamsburg venue than for the Vineyard. I think a younger audience would appreciate it more. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Nether **

After a highly acclaimed London run that included a West End transfer, Jennifer Haley’s mashup of a police procedural and a sci-fi story is now having its New York premiere in an MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The Nether is what the internet has become in the near future, an online medium where virtual reality is the main attraction. Since trees have disappeared in the real world, even the sight of an online forest can offer comfort. Schools have been largely supplanted by interactive educational games. As on the internet, porn is an important part of The Nether. As the play opens Detective Morris (Merritt Wever) is interviewing Sims (Frank Wood), a man she suspects of operating a virtual realm called The Hideaway, a Victorian estate where avatars of pedophiles can anonymously have their way with children. One issue raised is whether, since the “children” are actually avatars of adults, there is anything immoral about it. The detective is also questioning Doyle (Peter Friedman), a school teacher in his 60’s who frequents The Hideaway, offering him immunity if he will provide evidence to nail Sims. We also meet Woodnut (Ben Rosenfield), an undercover agent sent to gather evidence, and, most notably, Iris (Sophia Anne Caruso), a nine-year old at The Hideaway, much favored both by “guests” and Papa (Sims’s avatar). There are some surprising developments. It all sounds more interesting than it turns out to be. After reading the ecstatic London reviews, I feel that the problem is a deeply flawed production. The set, by Laura Jellinek, concentrates on the drab interrogation room and merely gives us hints of The Hideaway’s charms, whereas in London the scenic design went to great lengths to show its seductive beauty. Another weakness, at least for me, is Wever’s performance, which I found monotonously off-putting. To see Peter Friedman and Frank Wood is, as always, a pleasure. Rosenfield is quite effective and Caruso is amazing. Jessica Pabst's costumes are excellent. Anne Kauffman’s direction did not pull things together for me. A botched opportunity. Most memorable line: “Don’t tell me that you never fucked an elf!” Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Verité **

I envied the people around me who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves at a preview performance of Nick Jones’s new play at LCT3. From the get-go, I did not buy into the play’s premise — that a mysterious publishing house whose catalog cannot be found on the “normal” internet would offer a $50,000 advance to Jo Darum (Anna Camp), a stay-at-home suburban mom, whose only work is a fantasy novel that took her over a decade to complete, to write a memoir for them. The stipulations are that she make “interesting choices” in her life and write only about things that actually happened. Jo lives with her blue-collar husband Josh (Danny Wolohan) and young son Lincoln (Oliver Hollmann) in the attic apartment of Josh’s sister Liz’s (Jeanine Serralles) home. The comic/creepy publishers Sven (Robert Sella) and Andreas (Matt McGrath) have broad accents that somehow simultaneously combine elements from Scandinavia and South Asia. When the handsome Winston (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) appears, claiming to be a former high school classmate who has long had a crush on her, Jo assumes that he is a ringer, sent by the publishers to help her make some interesting choices. She refuses to join her family for a trip to Myrtle Beach and instead runs off with Winston. Complications ensue. I won’t give away more except to say there is an amusing surprise ending. The tone varies from satire to farce to melodrama. The characters seemed one-dimensional and the theme of illustrating the lengths people will go to achieve recognition seemed a bit tired. Although there were flashes of wit along the way, the play did not involve me sufficiently to care much about the outcome. Andrew Boyce has devised a rotating modular set that works efficiently. (I am still trying to figure out how he managed to change the contents of an onstage refrigerator.) Paloma Young’s costumes are amusingly apt, especially Sven and Andreas’s footwear. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s (Hand of God) direction is uncluttered. Running time: one hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Little Children Dream of God **

The mission of Roundabout Underground is to present works by emerging playwrights in the Black Box Theatre below the Laura Pels. In past years they have presented promising plays by Stephen Karam (Speech and Debate) and Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews.) Currently onstage is this ambitious work by Jeff Augustin, which deals mainly with Haitian refugees in Miami. We meet seven vivid characters. Sula (Carra Patterson) is a young pregnant woman from Haiti who struggles to delay her baby’s arrival until she is in the U.S. She is haunted by nightmares about her past. Her baby does not cry. Joel (Maurice Jones) is the son of the landlord who has turned his apartment house into a de facto refuge for immigrants. Carolyn (Deirdre O’Connell) is a nursing home aide with 11 children who lives in one of the apartments and who reluctantly takes Sula in. Vishal (Chris Myers) is the resident drag queen who sometimes sits for Carolyn’s children. Madison (Crystal Lucas-Perry) is Joel’s stereotypically yuppy cousin who hires Sula as her nanny. Manuel (Gilbert Cruz) is a dying patient of Carolyn’s who is estranged from his children. The Man (Carl Hendrick Louis) is the figure from Sula’s past who figures prominently in her nightmares. Some of the topics touched upon include the struggle to preserve a family heritage, the corrosive effects of gentrification, the disappearance of God, the attempt to escape one’s past, the efficacy of voodoo and the pain of dying alone unloved. I wished that the playwright had narrowed his scope and presented fewer but more fully developed themes. Some of the actors had trouble maintaining a Creole accent. Andrew Boyce’s flexible set design is simple but effective. Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are appropriate. Giovanna Sardelli’s direction cannot hide the unevenness of the material. Augustin shows promise if his control can catch up with his ambition. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Note: Judging from tonight’s theatergoers, Roundabout’s marketing to nontraditional audiences has been far more successful than LCT3’s. Tickets are $5 cheaper ($20 vs. $25), but I doubt that difference is significant.

Big Love ****

Since suffering through Charles Mee’s play First Love in 2001, I have studiously avoided seeing anything else by him. I was dismayed to learn that a revival of his Big Love had turned up on my subscription series at Signature Theatre. To my great surprise, the preview I attended turned out to be thoroughly entertaining. I was put in a good mood even before entering the theater. Outside the entrance was an enormous pile of Tiffany-like gift boxes. Inside, the entire ceiling was covered with upside-down flowers. The white walls of the set (by Brent J. Banakis) featured projections of pastoral Italian scenes (by Austin Switser). The back wall of the stage was a beautiful blue sky above rippling Mediterranean waters. The tranquility did not last long. Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones) bursts in in a dirty wedding gown, which she promptly strips off for a bath in the onstage tub. She and her 49 sisters have fled Greece for Italy to escape forced marriage to their 50 cousins. The two other sisters that we meet are Olympia (Libby Winters), a valley-girl style airhead who likes to take selfies, and Thyona (Stacey Sargeant), a very angry militant feminist. They seek refuge from Piero (Christopher Innvar), owner of the villa. When their jilted grooms arrive by helicopter to claim their brides, Piero attempts to negotiate a compromise with them. We meet three of the grooms, the assertive Constantine (Ryan James Hatanaka), the sweet Nikos (Bobby Steggert) and the nondescript Oed (Emmanuel Brown). When the grooms refuse to compromise, the sisters decide to take drastic action. When one sister fails to follow through on their pact, she is tried for her betrayal. The judge is Piero’s wise mother Bella (Lynn Cohen). The other characters are Giuliano (Preston Sadleir), Piero’s gay son, and Eleanor (Ellen Harvey) and Leo (Nathaniel Stampley), two weekend guests; their role in the play seemed superfluous. Some of the themes touched on are the conflicting roles that a society expects of its men and the competing claims of love and justice. Much is demanded of the actors. The trio of sisters, as well as the three brothers, burst into song periodically. When frustrated, they throw themselves to the floor or against the nearest wall. Fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet somehow have taught them not to injure themselves in the process. The tongue-in-cheek costumes by Anita Yavich are wonderful. Director Tina Landau has successfully knit all the elements together into a very enjoyable theater piece. Running time: one hour, 40 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rasheeda Speaking ***

This workplace drama by Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson, now in previews 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 setting is 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), 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 brusque treatment of a patient, Rose (Patricia Connolly), and her generally truculent demeanor. When she catches on to the plan to get rid of her, she 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. About ten minutes before the play’s actual conclusion, there is a scene that ends with the words of the title. Most of the audience thought the play had ended and acted surprised when the lights came back up for an additional scene. Since the final scene did not really add to the play’s impact, the playwright might well have ended the play one scene sooner. Although the play addresses the issue of racism, 21st century style, its various strands don’t cohere all that well. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the opportunity to enjoy such uniformly fine acting. Allen Moyer’s set looks just like many doctor’s offices I have visited and Toni-Leslie James’s costumes are apt. Aside from the problem of the false ending, Nixon’s direction is effective. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutew; no intermission.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Month in the Country **

Turgenev’s theater masterpiece has a peculiar history. Written in 1850, a good 50 years before the Chekhov plays it prefigures, it was not produced until 1872 and did not receive proper recognition until the Moscow Art Theatre took it up, at Chekhov’s urging, during the early 1900’s.   It never achieved the popularity of the plays it inspired. Here in New York, Roundabout presented it three times — in 1976, 1979 and, on Broadway, in 1995 in a production directed by Scott Ellis. I saw the 1995 production, which starred Helen Mirren in her Broadway debut. (She almost made me forget that she was a 50-year-old playing a 29-year-old.) Despite the star-studded cast, which also included F. Murray Abraham, Ron Rifkin and Alessandro Nivola, Times critic Vincent Canby panned the production. I recall my reaction as being less negative, although I was disappointed that it didn’t make me re-experience the pleasure I had reading the play. Now CSC has revived the play in a brisk production starring two current television stars, Taylor Schilling of “Orange Is the New Black” and Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones,” and a former one, Anthony Edwards of “ER.” The results are wildly uneven. While Schilling looks perfect for the alluring but chilly Natalya, her interpretation does not dig very deep. Dinklage, on the other hand, makes Rakitin a touching figure. Edwards is properly obtuse as Natalya’s husband Arkady. (Turgenev specifies his age as 36, only 7 years his wife’s senior, but, once again, he has been cast as much older.) Megan West, who plays the murdered girl on “How To Get Away with Murder,” struck me as too perky and childlike in the early scenes, but got better as the play progressed. For me, the weakest link was Mike Faist as Belyaev, the young tutor whose presence destabilizes the household; he lacks the looks and charm to make his attractiveness plausible. The ever watchable Elizabeth Franz makes the most of the role of Arkady’s mother. Thomas Jay Ryan, as the cynical Dr. Shpigelsky, almost steals the show; his proposal to Lizaveta (Annabelle Sciorra) was, at least for me, the play’s highlight. Director Erica Schmidt rushes the play along to its detriment. I was appalled at the interjected scene of Natalya and Belyaev ripping each other’s clothes off, because there is absolutely no basis for it in the text. Tom Broecker’s costumes are fine, but Mark Wendland’s set is strange. A low wall, similar to a courtroom barrier, surrounds the stage. The back wall is a birch forest, which has to be the most cliched shorthand for a Russian setting ever. An oppressive large box overhangs the entire stage, semitransparent in front, which fulfills no function that I could think of unless it is supposed to suggest how confined their world is. The program lists the son as Koyla, instead of Kolya — twice. To his discredit, the Times critic repeated the error. I suppose it’s better to have a flawed production of an important play than none, but it’s a close call. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Hamilton ****

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s highly anticipated hip-hop musical about the life of one of our most intriguing founding fathers is now in previews at the Public Theater. Stop reading long enough to buy a ticket, if you can snag one. [As of February 4, the Public website indicates that there are tickets available starting in early April.] The multi-talented Miranda not only wrote the music, lyrics and book; he is the co-arranger and, last but not least, the star. This ambitious, inventive show is strong across the board: the entertaining, informative and emotionally involving book is filled with moments of humor and pathos, the characters are vividly drawn, the lyrics are extremely clever, the deceptively simple scenic design (by David Korins) is effective, the costumes (by Paul Tazewell) are attractive, the choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler) supports the action well, the cast is uniformly excellent and the direction (by Thomas Kail) is fluid and assured. As for the music, hip-hop will never be a genre that I gravitate to, but Miranda makes a strong case for its expressive possibilities. Miranda captures the complexities of Hamilton’s personality. Brian D’Arcy James almost steals the show as King George. Daveed Diggs excels at his two juicy roles — Lafayette and Jefferson. Leslie Odom Jr. is a fine Aaron Burr. Philllipa Soo is touching as Elizabeth, Hamilton’s loyal wife, and Renée Elise Goldsberry is excellent as her sister Angelica. Christopher Jackson has just the right gravitas for George Washington. Miranda was inspired by Ron Chernow’s 818-page revisionist biography of Hamilton. If there is a fault, it is that he was overambitious and included too much material. I was a bit exhausted by play’s end, but it was a pleasant kind of exhaustion. A transfer to Broadway seems inevitable. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including intermission.