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.