Saturday, June 27, 2015

Shows for Days ***

Douglas Carter Beane’s comedic memoir, now in previews at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitizi E. Newhouse Theater, recounts the events of the year the playwright turned 15 in a suburb of Reading, Pennsylvania and joined a local community theater where he discovered his place in the world and first experienced sex and unrequited love. His story is not particularly original or well-told and he panders shamelessly to an audience largely composed of gays and Jews.  The second act is a mess with plot developments that are downright implausible. However, if you forget about the plot and sit back to enjoy an almost nonstop series of hilarious one-liners, you will have a very good time. It helps tremendously that the young Beane, known here as Car, is played by the always-appealing Michael Urie (Buyer & Cellar) and that the theater’s artistic director Irene is the iconic Patti LuPone. We also meet Sid, the theater’s lesbian co-founder and manager (a wonderful Dale Soules); Clive, the company’s flamboyantly gay lead actor (a delightful Lance Coadie Williams); Damien, a handsome actor/waiter who is bisexual (Jordan Dean); and Maria, the young actress (Zoë Winters) whose role is notably underwritten. John Lee Beatty’s set combines an open stage with a back wall over-cluttered with props. The costumes by William Ivey Long are a good part of the fun. Jerry Zaks’s direction does not aim for subtlety.  The opportunity to see Urie, LuPone and a fine supporting cast keeping the zingers flying went a long way, at least for me, to overcome the play’s weaknesses. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Of Good Stock **

When Richard Greenberg’s scheduled play wasn’t ready on time, Manhattan Theatre Club replaced it with this piece by Melissa Ross that premiered at South Coast Repertory earlier this year. In it we meet the Stockton sisters — Jess (Jennifer Mudge), Amy (Alicia Silverstone) and Celia (Heather Lind) — the adult daughters of a long deceased famous author, Mick Stockton, an inveterate womanizer whose wandering ways did not even slow down when his wife was dying of cancer. The family is gathered for a long Summer weekend at their Cape Cod home, which Mick left to Jess, along with his literary estate. Jess’s husband Fred (Kelly AuCoin) is a food writer who met Jess when he was Mick’s assistant. The occasion for the get-together is Jess’s 41st birthday, which is significant because it marks the year that she outlives her mother. Amy, a simpering narcissist engaged to the equally vapid Josh (Gregg Keller), is preoccupied by her upcoming destination wedding. Celia, a hippy do-gooder with commitment issues, has invited her current interest Hunter (Nate Miller), whom she met while building houses for Habitat for Humanity in Missoula. If the sisters are accomplished or lead interesting lives, you wouldn't know it from the play. During the course of the weekend, we learn more about all their relationships, usually at a high decibel level. The playwright could not have asked for a better production. Santo Loquasto’s evocative revolving set made me want to head for Cape Cod as soon as possible. Tom Broecker’s costumes suit the characters well. The cast is fine, especially AuCoin and Mudge. The direction, by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow, does not hide the play’s shortcomings. The three-sister play has a long honorable tradition that includes works by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Henley, Wasserstein and Letts. I wish I could say that this play was a welcome addition to the canon, but after more than two hours of bickering and shouting, the only thing I welcomed was the end. One of the characters makes an exit before intermission. Lucky him. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Consent *

Sex and spanking seem to be popular off-Broadway this season. First we had “Permission” at MCC; now we have “Consent” at the Black Box Theatre below Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. Roundabout apparently insisted on adding a line to the program indicating that the play is not a Roundabout production. It’s not a good sign when the landlord demands a disclaimer. “Consent” or, as I prefer to call it, “50 Shades of Gay,” tells what happens when Ron (Mark McCullough Thomas),a 40-something ex-pro footballer turned architect leaves wife and children behind in suburbia for a Manhattan loft where he hopes to live freely as a gay man. He picks up Kurt (Michael Goldstein), a hunky lad who turns out to be a Yale law student, on a subway platform and brings him home for a night of sex. When they next get together, a BDSM relationship begins. Kurt initiates Ron into the receiving end of anal sex, an act that Ron did not consciously consent to. Susie (Angela Pierce), Ron’s soon-to-be ex-wife, puts in a couple of appearances that make it clear why he is divorcing her. When Ron has trouble handling his feelings for Kurt, he turns to his big sister Emily (the wildly overacting Catherine Curtin) who does her best to comfort him. The play is crudely written. Some of the rough language seems designed merely to shock. There are plot points that don’t go anywhere and others that make no sense. The play skirts dangerously close to soft porn, providing as many occasions as possible for Ron and Kurt to cavort in their skimpy underwear. Alas, eye candy does not a play make. Scott Tedman-Jones’s loft set is quite attractive. Izzy Field’s costume budget must have been low, because underwear doesn’t cost that much. The lighting design by John Eckert and the sound design by Chad Raines both seemed overwrought. Playwright David Rhodes directed. The audience included four or five brave women. If you take the elevator at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, be sure to get off at the right floor. Otherwise, you’ll end up with “Consent” instead of “Significant Other.” Running time: one hour 45 minutes, no intermission. (They were smart enough to remove the 10-minute intermission indicated in the program.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

SIgnificant Other ***

After the success of his play “Bad Jews," Joshua Harmon is back at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre with a new comedy-drama about Jordan Berman (Gideon Glick, in a breakout performance), a depressive 29-year-old gay New Yorker, and his three gal pals — Kiki (the hilarious Sas Goldberg), Vanessa (Carra Patterson) and Laura (the wonderful Lindsay Mendez). The play might have been called “Three Weddings and a Meltdown.” As his three friends find husbands and have less time for him, Jordan feels the deepening pain of not having his own significant other and the growing fear that he never will. John Behlmann and Luke Smith play the three husbands as well as three men that Jordan fails to connect with. Finally, there is the superb Barbara Barrie as Jordan’s grandmother, who has outlived her friends and whose mind may be slipping. I found the play irritating and moving in almost equal measure — irritating in that it too often goes for the easy laugh and moving in its wrenching portrayal of loneliness. I thought that at times the playwright was trying too hard to entertain, but the audience, at least 30 years younger than the usual subscription profile, seemed to be loving it, greeting every line, funny or not, with nervous laughter. It’s one of the rare plays where the second act is better than the first, with two stunning monologues for Jordan. The high quality of the acting elevated the material. Mark Wendland’s set impressed me as unnecessarily complicated and not very attractive. Kaye Voyce’s costumes were excellent. Trip Cullman’s direction was a bit overheated for my taste. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, including intermission.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Gloria ****

No one can accuse Obie winner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, An Octoroon) of repeating himself. Each of his three plays that I have seen creates its own world completely unlike that of the other two. His latest play, now at Vineyard Theatre, draws upon his experience working at the New Yorker for a few years. For the first 45 minutes, the play seems to be a witty workplace satire about assistants at a prestigious magazine. Then the mood abruptly shifts, to put it mildly. To say more would spoil your experience. 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 playwright also paints an unflattering picture of today's media scene in which stories become mere fodder for the ravenous film/television/social media/publishing beast. In Act One we meet three editorial assistants — Dean (Ryan Spahn), Ani (Catherine Combs) and Kendra (Jennifer Kim); Miles (Kyle Beltran, who made such a strong impression in Fortress of Solitude), a college intern; Lorin (Michael Crane), a somewhat older fact checker; and the title character (Jeanine Serralles, recently in Verite), a socially awkward longtime employee from another department. Each character is vividly sketched and the dialogue rings true. 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. The excellent cast is adept at changing roles. 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. In case there was any doubt, Jacobs-Jenkins demonstrates that he belongs in the first rank of contemporary American iplaywrights. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ghost Stories: The Shawl **** & Prairie du Chien **

In the run-up to their 30th anniversary season, Atlantic Theater Company is presenting two early one-act plays by the group’s co-founder David Mamet on Stage 2. 

“Prairie du Chien” takes place at 3 a.m. in the parlor car of a train speeding across Wisconsin in 1910. On one end of the car a slick card dealer (Nate Dendy) keeps winning at gin at the expense of another passenger (Jim Frangione). At the other end of the car, a traveling salesman (Atlantic founding member Jordan Lage) is telling a ghost tale of jealousy, murder and suicide to a father (Jason Ritter) whose young son (Henry Kellemen) is asleep next to him. A porter (Dereks Thomas) appears from time to time. The salesman’s story was not that interesting, at least the portion I was able to hear. Lage speaks so softly that he was often drowned out by the card players’ banter and the frequent squeaking of the theater’s ancient seats. There is a brief outburst of violence when the gin player accuses the dealer of cheating. That’s about it. Lauren Helpern’s set is evocative. Although the program lists a violence consultant (J. David Brimmer), no sound designer is credited. This omission is unfortunate, because the background noise sounded more like the tumble of a clothes dryer than the clackety-clack of a train.

“The Shawl,” from 1985, is a far more interesting proposition. Miss A (founding member Mary McCann) consults a medium named John (Arliss Howard) about a problem involving her late mother. In the first scene he skillfully teases information out of her to gain her confidence. In the second scene John explains his methods to his hunky young acolyte/boy toy Charles (Ritter again), who wants to learn the trade and hopes that somehow the supernatural really is involved. Charles is broke and threatens to leave John if he doesn’t bring in some money soon. The next meeting between Miss A and John takes some surprising turns. Their final scene together ends on a delightfully equivocal note. Howard and McCann are both superb. The production has one major flaw. The table at which John and Miss A sit is below the stage at the side. Since it is at the same level as the front row of seats, much of the view is blocked by the audience’s heads. I can’t imagine why the director (founding member Scott Zigler) made that choice.

In any case, it was entertaining to see two pieces written by Mamet when his voice was still fresh. 

Running time: one hour, 40 minutes including intermission. NOTE: Do not get seats in Row A. It’s behind row AA and not elevated.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Preludes ***

The creative team that brought us Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 — author/composer Dave Malloy, director Rachel Chavkin, set designer Mimi Lien, costume designer Paloma Young, lighting designer Bradley King, sound designer Matt Hubbs and music director Or Matias — have reunited at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater for another production based on Russian history. In 1900 the 27-year-old composer Sergei Rachmaninoff consulted a Moscow hypnotherapist, Nikolai Dahl, for a cure to the three-year writer’s block that followed the poor reception of his first symphony. Their daily sessions were successful and Rachmaninoff returned to composition in a blaze of glory with his Second Piano Concerto. Malloy and Chavkin have taken this incident as the basis of their new musical. There are interesting embellishments. The character of the composer has been divided between two actors, Rach (the wonderful Gabriel Ebert) and Rachmaninoff the pianist (Or Matias). Dahl, with a change of gender that opens more musical possibilities, is charmingly portrayed by Eisa Davis. The composer’s fiancee Natalya is played by Nikki M. James, whose voice is glorious. The play’s conceit that opera star Chaliapin (well played and sung by Joseph Keckler) is the composer’s close friend adds a sonorous Russian bass to the mix. We also meet Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov and Tsar Nicholas II, all played with élan by Chris Sarandon. The music includes pure Rachmaninoff, adaptations by Malloy, original songs by Malloy, and a dash of Bach, Beethoven and Mussorgsky. Deliberate anachronisms punctuate the dialogue. The wonderfully cluttered set includes a modern refrigerator filled with pop-top cans of beverage. A character drinks from a Zabar’s mug. The men wear period costumes, the women are mainly in modern dress. If you go expecting another Natasha… , you will be disappointed. The broad scope of Tolstoy’s novel and that play’s nightclub setting lent themselves to a theatricality that is not inherent in the story of a composer’s writer’s block. Also, the play takes a long time to build up steam and is quite uneven. More time in workshops might have produced a better result. Nevertheless, there is lots to admire including the fine cast. I give the creative team credit for their ambitious efforts. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including a short break midway.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Guards at the Taj *

If this is the play that won the 2015 Laurents-Hatcher Foundation Award of $150,000 ($50,000 to playwright Rajiv Joseph, $100,000 for the production), the pickings must have been mighty slim. The best I can say about it is that it provides employment for two excellent actors, Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed. I was happy to learn that a generous donor financed a trip to India for the actors to see the Taj Mahal. With what they have to endure every night at the Atlantic Theater, they earned it. Humayun (Metwally) and Babur (Moayed) are members of the Royal Guard at Agra. Although from very different backgrounds, they have been friends since childhood. Humayun, from a privileged family, is the organization man ready to obediently do whatever he is asked. Babur, of humble origins, has a rebellious streak and is a dreamer, thinking up fanciful inventions like a transportable hole and a palanquin that can fly to the stars. When the play begins, they are on guard just before dawn on the day the Taj will first be revealed after 16 years of construction. When the emperor decides to insure that no one who worked on it will ever be able to build something more beautiful, they must carry out his order. The tone of the play wavers unsteadily between Grand Guignol and black comedy. About two-thirds of the way through the play’s seemingly endless 80 minutes, one of the characters says “There is no point.” I could not have said it better. Timothy R. Maccabee’s set is effective in its simplicity and Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s costumes are evocative. Steppenwolf member Amy Morton (Who’s Afraid of Virginina Woolf, August: Osage County) directed. If you are unlucky enough to already have a ticket, I suggest not dining before the performance. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Twentieth-Century Way **

Theater can be so educational. Today I learned that fellatio became popular in the early twentieth century because of recent improvements in hygiene and the invention of the zipper. I also learned that the play’s title was a euphemism for that sex act. Tom Jacobson’s two-hander (pun not intended), now at Rattlestick Theater in a co-production with L.A.’s Theatre @ Boston Court, is based on a true story. In 1914 the Long Beach, California police hired two actors named Warren and Brown to entrap homosexuals in both public and private places and arrest them for “social vagrancy.” Apparently the California sodomy law did not specifically cover oral sex, which one of the characters refers to as “sodomy as a snack.” To get the evidence, the entrapping officer marked an X on the exposed member with indelible ink. I’m not making this up. Their campaign was so successful that they were hired by other California cities and their efforts were at least partly responsible for the state passing a law explicitly banning fellatio and cunnilingus the following year. Certainly this material could lead to an interesting play. Unfortunately the playwright chose to embellish it with a framework in which two present-day actors are waiting for an audition for the role of a con man in a movie. Brown (Will Bradley), the slighter and more sensitive of the two, is an actor who builds a role from within. Warren (Robert Mammana), bigger and butcher, follows the technique of building a role from the outside in. To pass the time, they improvise scenes about the people involved in the 1914 story, including the two actor-policemen, the chief of police, a newspaper editor, a reporter, an attorney, a florist, a respected churchgoer. Warren seems oblivious to the harm they are doing to people, while Brown is uncomfortable betraying men he has befriended. There are philosophical arguments about the difference between actor and role and a moment when the fourth wall is broken. And, of course, there is the obligatory nude scene before the end. I credit the actors for giving it their all. The near bare set is by Clifton Chadick. Garry Lennon’s period costumes are evocative. Michael Michetti directed. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

How To Publish a Comment

Comments have always been encouraged on this blog, but a few readers have complained that they couldn't figure out how to send one. It's really not difficult once you know how. Just below the text of every review, you will see the word "Comments" which is preceded either by a number or the word "No." Click on "Comments" and a box should open that allows you to type your remarks. The next step is the tricky one. When asked to choose an identity, select "Anonymous." I'm not sure why this is the way to go, but it seems to work. That doesn't prevent you from identifying yourself in your remarks if you so choose. Then, check the box that says "I'm not a robot" and hit "Publish Your Comment." Got that? I hope you will be inspired to share your opinions. Comments are an important part of a blog.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Heisenberg **

When I reviewed Bluebird at the Atlantic Theater in 2011, I said: “Don't be brokenhearted if you weren't able to get tickets to see Simon Russell Beale in Simon Stephens' 1998 play, now in a sold-out run at Atlantic Stage 2.” I could say the same about his new play at Manhattan Theatre Club. Unless you are a die-hard Mary-Louise Parker fan, you won’t be missing much if you didn’t score tickets to this one. After seeing three of his plays (Harper Regan, Bluebird and Punk Rock) and his adaptation of the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I have concluded that Stephens shows much more talent as an adaptor than as a playwright. In this two-hander, Parker once again plays the quirky, troubled soul that she was born to play — over and over and over. She is joined by the impressive Denis Arndt, an actor with a long list of regional credits, but who is new to me. Parker plays Georgie Burns, a 40-ish American expat in London, who, as the play begins, has just impulsively kissed Alex Priest (Arndt), a 75-year-old butcher sitting on a bench in a train station. The motor-mouthed Georgie then practically drowns Alex in a sea of words. A week later she shows up at his shop unexpectedly. The nature of her interest in this older man is a mystery. We eventually learn the reason or, at least, the purported one. With Georgie there’s always uncertainty, because she is prone to expressing two diametrically opposed views simultaneously. (Perhaps that’s where the title comes from.) We follow their interactions over the next six weeks. I will say no more about the slender plot. It’s a tour de force for the actors, particularly Parker, but it didn’t otherwise hold much interest for me. City Center’s Studio at Stage II has been reconfigured with the audience on both sides of the elongated stage. Except for two tables and two chairs, the set by Mark Wendland is bare. The costumes by Michael Krass do not call attention to themselves. Mark Brokaw’s direction is uncluttered. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.