Monday, April 27, 2015

’Tis Pity She’s a Whore ***

Red Bull Theater, which specializes in plays of the Jacobean era, is presenting John Ford’s bloody revenge drama in a solid production at The Duke on 42nd Street. Amelia Pedlow and Matthew Amendt, as incestuous siblings Annabella and Giovanni, lead a strong cast of fifteen. Annabella’s three suitors, Lord Soranzo, Grimaldi and Bergetto, are well-played by Clifton Duncan, Tramell Tillman and Ryan Garbayo respectively. Derek Smith is impressive in the critical role of Vasques, Soranzo’s loyal servant. Franchelle Stewart Dorn makes a fine Putana, Annabella’s tutoress. Everett Quinton is good as Signor Donado, Bergetto’s uncle. Christopher Innvar, as Giovanni’s tutor and confessor Friar Bonaventura, seemed less comfortable than the others with verse. Philip Goodwin, Ryan Farley, Kelley Curran, Marc Vietor, Auden Thornton and Rocco Sisto round out the cast. The complicated plot of competing revenge plots runs like a Swiss clock under Jesse Bergers brisk, confident direction. David M. Barber’s scenic design is elegantly simple and Sara Jean Tosetti’s costumes are attractive. The second act is quite a blood fest, but such were the conventions of the time. The production does not sensationalize the gore. All in all, it was an evening well-spent. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including intermission.                                                                           

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Grounded ***

Before I discuss the play, let me warn you that the entire run of this solo play starring Public Theater board member Anne Hathaway is practically sold out, even at the extravagant prices her star power has enabled the Public to charge. It’s a win-win situation — extra income for the Public and a chance for Hathaway to display her acting chops. In this timely play by George Brant (seen in New York last year in a downtown production with a different actress and director), she plays The Pilot, first seen as an F-16 pilot in Iraq who loves her job, 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 becomes increasingly aware of the ubiquitous surveillance cameras in today’s America. Hathaway gives a controlled, convincing performance that 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, although there is a bit that begins and ends the play that seemed pointlessly distracting. The play does not achieve greatness, but it presents a thoughtful look at aspects of our society that merit our attention. Running time: one hour 15 minutes, no intermission.

Something Rotten! ***

Emerging out of the blue late in the season comes this dark horse of a musical that is clearly destined for lots of awards and a long run. The creators are an unlikely combo —  Karey Kirkpatrick, a Hollywood based screenwriter/director/songwriter with no theatrical credits; his brother Wayne Kirkpatrick, a Nashville-based songwriter; and John O’Farrell, a British satirist. The brothers are jointly credited with the music, lyrics and concept, while Karey and O’Farrell wrote the book. The only person on the creative side with name recognition is award-winning director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw  The topic and setting are equally unlikely — the invention of the musical in 1595 London. The Bottom brothers, Nick (Brian d’Arcy James) and Nigel (John Cariani) are struggling to keep their theatrical company afloat. To his regret, Nick had previously urged a certain actor whose initials are W.S. to leave the troupe and take up playwriting. Christian Borle plays The Bard as the rock star of his age with a nasty habit of stealing material. Nick, unable to come up with a plot that Shakespeare didn’t get to first, consults soothsayer Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) to find out what will be the “next big thing” and what will be Shakespeare’s best play. Unfortunately Nostradamus never gets things quite right, with the result that Nick sets out to write the world’s first musical — “Omelet.” Nick’s wife Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff) is a proto-feminist.  Nigel falls in love with Portia (Kate Reinders), daughter of leading Puritan Brother Jeremiah (Brad Ashmanskas) who thinks theater and music are the devil’s work. An uncharacteristically restrained Peter Bartlett appears in the dual roles of Lord Clapham and the Minister of Justice. The more familiar you are with the Shakespearean canon and the musicals of the last 60 years, the more you will enjoy the show. Running through the show are snippets from the bard and signature lines from virtually every musical you can think of, each received with delighted recognition by the audience. The music, in a variety of styles, works well within the context of the show. Midway through the first act there’s a show-stopping number (“A Musical”) that brought the loudest, longest applause I have ever witnessed in a theater. The uniformly strong cast seemed to be enjoying themselves.The scenic design by Scott Pask and the costumes by Gregg Barnes are top-notch. The show is entertaining, relentlessly so. I sometimes felt that it was trying too hard to amuse. For me, its clever conceits were stretched beyond their potential. As so often happens, the second act did not live up to the promise of the first. The dance numbers, while lively, were monotonously alike. Despite these reservations, I had a good time. The wildly enthusiastic audience portends a successful run. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Airline Highway *

Playwright Lisa D’Amour was a Pulitzer nominee for Detroit. Chicago’s Steppenwolf is a multi-award-winning ensemble theater company with an enviable record of successful transfers to Broadway including August: Osage County. Joe Mantello is a two-time Tony Award-winning director. Julie White is an excellent actress. Putting them all together for this Manhattan Theatre Club import must have seemed like a good idea. It wasn’t. Despite the talented cast of 16, the splendid scenic design (by Scott Pask) and the evocative costumes (by David Zinn), the results are curiously flat. The play takes us through one day at the Hummingbird Hotel, a place that has seen better days and that is now frequented mostly by people who live on the margins of society. We meet a pill-addicted hooker (White), a stripper (Caroline Neff), an unhandy handyman (Tim Edward Rhoze), a wise drag queen (K. Todd Freeman), a poet (Ken Marks) and the hotel manager (Scott Jaeck). At the request of Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), the dying former strip club owner who serves as materfamilias to the residents and who wants to enjoy her own funeral, they are planning a party for her in the hotel parking lot. Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), a former club employee who was swept off by a wealthy older woman from Atlanta three years before, has returned for the party. In the play’s most unlikely device, he has brought along his gal pal’s teenaged daughter (Carolyn Braver) to interview the denizens of the hotel for a high school report on subcultures. The playwright’s point of view is obscure. The play offers not much heat and very little light. In no way does it provide the emotional payoff of Lanford Wilson’s far-better models, Balm in Gilead and Hot l Baltimore. Surprisingly few people near me failed to return after intermission. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Fish in the Dark ***

Larry David’s comedy, his Broadway debut both as playwright and actor, has a lot in common with “It Shoulda Been You.” Both plays demonstrate that if you have a marvelous cast, good direction (by Steppenwolf’s Anna D. Shapiro) and a stylish production (sets by Todd Rosenthal, costumes by Ann Roth), you can go a long way toward making mediocre material seem better than it is. The fractious Drexel family is further fractured by an argument over the deathbed wish of family patriarch Sidney (Jerry Adler) that one of the sons welcome their mother Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell) into his home. Neither Norman (David) nor his younger brother Arthur (Ben Shenkman) wants the job. This basic situation is embellished by the machinations of other family members and retainers to gain an advantage. Glenn Headly (replacing Rita Wilson, who had to drop out to have surgery) is delightful as Norman’s wife Brenda. Rosie Perez is fine as the family maid Fabiana and Jake Cannavale is a hoot as her son Diego. Fine actors such as Richard Topol, Lewis J. Stadlen, Marylouise Burke and Jonny Orsini are underutilized in small parts, but it is still good to see them. Horny senior citizens play an important role in the story. This is one of the rare plays where things improve after intermission. David’s role is largely a copy of his TV persona. If you like ”Curb Your Enthusiasm,” you will very likely enjoy this too. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fun Home ****

Since I first saw this musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s revered graphic novel in an early preview at the Public Theater in 2013, it has improved dramatically. Lisa Kron’s book now seems tighter and more coherent and Jeanine Tesori’s songs seem better integrated into the action. Sam Gold has skillfully reworked the staging to play to the audience on all four sides of Circle in the Square’s awkward rectangular stage. David Zinn’s wonderful set has been fitted out with multiple trapdoors that whisk furniture out of sight and back in a flash and his costumes are evocative. The Bechdel family lives in the funeral home that barely closeted father Bruce (the always compelling Michael Cerveris) has inherited. He is much more interested in restoring the home and entertaining handsome young men than in attending to his wife Helen (the wonderful Judy Kuhn). His daughter Alison comes out as a lesbian at college. Her hopes for a closer relationship with her father are thwarted. Alison is played by three fine actresses — Sydney Lucas as a child, Emily Skeggs as a college freshman, and Beth Malone as the 43-year-old cartoonist who is telling the story. Lucas has shot up a bit in two years, which puts a slightly different spin on her role. Skeggs is not quite as good as her predecessor Alexandra Socha, but good enough. Malone seemed more engaged this time out. She is still so thin that I feared for her health, but that’s my problem. Roberta Colindrez is fine as Joan, Alison’s first lover, and Joel Perez is good as several young men Bruce fancies. As at the Public, the audience was primed to enjoy the play no matter what. Fortunately their enthusiasm was deserved. Running time: one hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The King and I ****

Lincoln Center Theater has revived this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in a lavish production directed by Bartlett Sher. While it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of his “South Pacific” at LCT, it is still very good indeed. It should come as no surprise that Kelli O’Hara is superb as Anna. Ken Watanabe, with the unenviable task of playing a role virtually owned by Yul Brynner, acquits himself quite honorably. Ashley Park and Conrad Ricamora are fine as the young lovers. Ruth Ann Miles is an exemplary Lady Thiang. Paul Nakauchi is good as the prime minister, as is Jon Viktor Corpuz as the young prince. The children could not be any cuter. Xiaochuan XIe is excellent as Eliza in “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet. Christopher Gatelli’s choreography, based on Jerome Robbins’s original, is quite good. The costumes by Catherine Zuber are very attractive. I have mixed feelings about Michael Yeargen’s scenic design. The arrival of the ship in Bangkok harbor is quite a spectacle, but his treatment of the palace is unconventionally bland. Except for ornate carvings on the pillars, the set is extremely plain, dominated by an ominous grey wall across the back. I thought the wall symbolized how cut off the palace was from the world, but then it lifted briefly for no apparent reason during the second act. The music retains all its appeal and the plot still tugs at the heartstrings. While I think about 10 minutes of judicious cuts would be a good idea, the length isn’t really a problem. It was a treat to see it again so lovingly produced. Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including intermission.

Friday, April 10, 2015

It Shoulda Been You ***

This farcical musical with book and some lyrics by Brian Hargrove and music and concept by Barbara Anselmi has reached Broadway after a successful 2011 run at George St. Playhouse in New Jersey. It raises the question of whether loads of talent and style can overcome a lack of substance and answers it with a definite “maybe.” If for no other reason, we should be grateful that it provides employment for such troupers as Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris, Edward Hibbert and Chip Zien as well as talented younger performers including Lisa Howard, Sierra Boggess and Josh Grisetti. The hoary plot involves the wedding of a Jewish woman and a Catholic man. Both sets of parents are unhappy about the impending marriage and a former boyfriend is determined to stop it. Yes, this field has been plowed many times before, but this time there’s a mildly surprising twist that I won’t reveal here. No cliche escapes. The luxurious hotel set by Anita Louizos is very attractive, as are William Ivey Long’s costumes. David Hyde Pierce shows a real talent for directing. The music, in a variety of styles, is pleasant. The lyrics are wildly uneven. Some are fine, but others are clunkily unmusical. Five people get credits for additional lyrics. In case you are wondering how anything this slight could have reached Broadway, the fact that Hargrove is Pierce's husband certainly didn't hurt. The show could serve as the textbook definition of a guilty pleasure. You might hate yourself for laughing at some of the one-liners, but laugh you will. With its shameless pandering to two pillars of the Broadway audience, Jews and gays, it should have a long run. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission.

On the Twentieth Century ****

Roundabout Theatre is presenting the first Broadway revival of this 1978 show with music by Cy Coleman and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Based on the 1932 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, this screwball comedy with music takes us back to the glory days of rail travel. The lavish art deco set by David Rockwell and glamorous costumes by William Ivey Long establish the perfect mood, which is enhanced by the stylized movement of Warren Carlyle’s choreography and the assured direction of Scott Ellis.  The lead characters are Oscar Jaffee (the adequate Peter Gallagher), a down-but-not-out producer, and Lily Garland (the incomparable Kristin Chenoweth), his former lover and muse who has left him and the theater for Hollywood stardom. Jaffee hopes to use the 16-hour train trip from Chicago to New York to sign Garland for a new show to revive his career. Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath are amusing as Jaffee’s loyal aides. Mary Louise Wilson is a hoot as Letitia Peabody Primrose, a dotty, wealthy woman with a checkbook who might bankroll Jaffee. As Lily’s more brawny than brainy boy toy Bruce Granit, Andy Karl almost steals the show. The four porters who tap their way through the show are delightful. It’s all so stylish and entertaining that you might wonder why it took over 35 years to revive the show. One reason is the extreme vocal demands of the operetta-tinged score which require someone of Chenoweth’s rare talents. It’s good to have her back on Broadway. Another possible explanation is that the music, which works well within the framework of the show, lacks any songs that you are likely to leave the theater humming. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Wolf Hall, Parts One & Two ***

There is much to admire about this Royal Shakespeare Company’s production now at the Winter Garden Theatre. First off, Mike Poulton’s page-to-stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s two novels about Thomas Cromwell (a third is in progress) streamlines the plot without seriously diminishing the author’s voice. Secondly, the production is gorgeous with an elegantly simple set and attractive costumes by Christopher Oram. Thirdly, the 23-member cast, led by Ben Miles as Cromwell, is uniformly strong. Finally, director Jeremy Herrin stages the play with grace and fluidity. Why then did I not find the experience more gratifying? The multitude of characters and the doubling of roles occasionally confused me about who was who, even though I had read the first book. Seeing the two plays together on one day strained my powers of concentration as the hour grew late. Maybe I have just been overexposed to works about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. In any case, the material rarely engaged me at the emotional level. When it was over, I felt I had seen an intelligent, but rather chilly historical pageant. Running time, Part I: two hours 45 minutes; Part II: two hours 50 minutes.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Iowa ***

Playwright Jenny Schwartz combines a quirky sensibility with a marvelous facility for language. Her characters speak in riffs and arias. When she is at her best (God’s Ear), the results are wonderful, but on an off-day (Somewhere Fun), they can be dreadful. While her new absurdist comedy with music, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, does not reach the heights of “God’s Ear,” it has some very good moments. Becca (Jill Shackner) is a 14-year-old who must abruptly leave her high school to move to Iowa, where her mother Sandy’s (the hilarious Karen Quackenbush) Facebook fiancĂ© Roger (Lee Sellars) lives. After an opening song by a child (Kolette Tetlow) whose identity is not immediately revealed, there are about 20 minutes before we hear the next song. Fortunately, this time is mostly filled by a virtually non-stop wacky monologue by Sandy. I was almost sorry when it ended and the music resumed. Early on we meet Becca’s sole friend Amanda (Carolina Sanchez), a misunderstood cheerleader (Annie McNamara), four versions of Nancy Drew including one who is African-American (April Matthis), Becca’s remote father Jim (Sellars again) and his pregnant girlfriend Liz (CIndy Cheung), Becca’s math teacher Mr. Hill, on whom she has a crush (Sellars once more) and a randy singing pony (Sellars yet again). The frequency and importance of the songs (music by Todd Almond, lyrics by Almond and Schwartz) picks up as the play progresses. A trio of piano, viola and bass produces a lovely sound soft enough to avoid the need to mic the singers. About 2/3 of the way through the play, Becca and Sandy reach Iowa. The mood abruptly shifts and, for me, the play lost much of its vitality. I did not care for the Iowa scenes, but they did not seriously diminish my appreciation for what came before. The scenic design by Dane Laffrey is simple but effective. Arnulfo Maldonado’s costumes are delightful. Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction is assured. Schwartz has an original voice and it was good to see her work again. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Buzzer **

I had high hopes for Tracey Scott Wilson’s play, newly arrived at the Public Theater after productions in Minneapolis and Chicago. The premise of an interracial couple moving into a gentrifying neighborhood with an addict friend in tow seemed promising. Jackson (Grantham Coleman) is an African-American from the ‘hood who got a scholarship to Exeter, went on to Harvard and Harvard Law and is now a successful lawyer. Don (Michael Stahl-David), a privileged white who has been his close friend since Exeter, is now an oft-relapsed addict. Jackson has been an intensely loyal friend who has taken Don in after each failed attempt at rehab. Jackson’s seemingly implausible decision to move back to the neighborhood he escaped from is motivated by a desire to return as victor. Jackson’s longtime live-in girlfriend Suzy (Tessa Ferrer, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Sandra Bullock), teaches school in a low-income area. She is not keen on moving to the old ‘hood and is definitely against allowing Don to move in with them while he once again attempts to get his act together. Jackson moves ahead on both fronts anyway. It does not turn out well for them. The apartment's broken buzzer is a metaphor. Although the play touches on race, class, codependency, gentrification and betrayal, it doesn’t shed much light on any of these topics. Don has by far the showiest role and Stall-David makes the most of it. Ferrer is an appropriately edgy Suzy. Coleman seemed a bit underpowered as Jackson, but the problem may be in the writing. Laura Jellinek’s attractive set suggests the appeal of the apartment and opens up to reveal the building’s lobby. Clint Ramos’s costumes were appropriate. The end of the play seemed rushed, but I don’t know whether the fault lies with director Anne Kauffmann or with the playwright. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.