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 habitu├ęs 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.