Saturday, March 28, 2015

Small Mouth Sounds ***

After seeing Bess Wohl’s clever new play at Ars Nova, you may agree with the old adage that actions speak louder than words. Six participants in a spiritual retreat in the woods must observe silence for five days. Judy (Sakina Jaffrey) and Joan (Marcia DeBonis) are a lesbian couple going through a rough patch. The weepy Alicia (Jessica Almasy) is trying to get over a breakup. Ned (Brad Heberlee) is a hard-luck guy with a back story worthy of Job. Rodney (Babak Tafti) is a seemingly cool exhibitionist always ready for a showy yoga pose. Jan (Erik Lochtefeld) carries a framed photo of a young child with him everywhere. The unseen teacher (Jojo Gonzalez) spouts words of dubious wisdom which are practically the only ones we hear. Thanks to a uniformly strong cast, even through the silence we gain an understanding of and, in most cases, a sympathy for each person. (One character does break his silence with a well-timed monologue.) The costumes go a long way to establishing character. The cozy theater is a perfect setting for the production. It is a long, narrow shoebox all in blond woods and white panels with two rows of facing seats along the long walls and a small platform stage at one end. The panels above the seats serve as screens for projections of rain falling on leaves, sunsets and other images from nature that are reinforced by an excellent sound design. The bulk of the action takes place on the floor. Subtle lighting cues guide your attention to which of the six characters merits the most attention at any given moment. Their foibles are satirized with gentle affection. The talented director is Rachel Chavkin, who did such a fine job with “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812."  The play bears some similarities to Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” but I think this is the better play. NOTE: There is some male nudity which is more comic than prurient. Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The World of Extreme Happiness ***

The title of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club is ironic to put it mildly. Her unflattering portrait of life in contemporary China is more characterized by ambition than polish. She attempts to tell many stories: the effects of the one-child policy, the great divide between rural and urban China, the horrendous working conditions in factories, the prejudice rural migrants suffer in the cities, the uneasy relationship between communism and capitalism, the limited opportunity for women, the rise of American-style pop psychology as a substitute for religion, and the harsh repression of dissent. It’s a lot for one play to contain. A strong cast of six portrays 13 characters. The wonderful Jennifer Lim (last seen here in “Chinglish”) plays the protagonist Sunny. The other five actors (Francis Jue, Telly Leung, Jo Mei, James Saito and Sue Jin Song) handle two or three roles each, convincingly differentiating their multiple characters. The deliberately bleak set by the talented Mimi Lien (“The Oldest Boy”) is flexible and effective. The costumes by Jenny Mannis are apt. Eric Ting’s direction is fluid. The playwright is not given to subtlety: her favored tool seems to be the sledgehammer. Nevertheless, she is to be commended for taking on such timely, substantive topics and presenting them dramatically. Although the play is flawed, I found it worthwhile. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Heidi Chronicles **

I wish I had stuck with my memories of enjoying the original production of Wendy Wasserstein’s landmark play instead of trying to relive them by seeing the current Broadway production. Her whirlwind tour of 25 years in the changing life of educated, affluent Americans, particularly women, was a breath of fresh air when it first appeared. While several of the play’s 11 scenes retain some of their impact, many others seemed stale --either too long or too broadly satirical or both. Elisabeth Moss is a creditable Heidi. While Bryce Pinkham is believable as Peter, Jason Biggs lacks the charm so essential to the role of Scoop. None of them compares favorably with the wonderful original cast. The supporting cast (Tracee Chimo, Ali Ahn, Andy Truschinski, Leighton Bryan and Elise Kibler) is quite good. The revolving set by John Lee Beatty and the projections by Peter Nigrini are excellent, as are Jessica Pabst’s costumes. Director Pam MacKinnon keeps things moving well through the first act, but the second act seemed interminable. If you’ve seen the play before, I suggest passing on this version. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Posterity **

I really had high hopes for Doug Wright’s new play at Atlantic Theater Company. I had enjoyed his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “I Am My Own Wife” and thought his book for “Grey Gardens” was well-crafted. The topic of the play — the interplay between recalcitrant subject Henrik Ibsen (the excellent Australian actor John Noble) and reluctant sculptor Gustav Vigeland (Hamish LInklater, fine in a role for which he was not an obvious choice) when Ibsen’s bust was sculpted — sounded promising.  I wish I could say my expectations were met. Things start well with a scene with the sculptor and his nude models, the middle-aged Mrs. Bergstrøm (Dale Soules) and his hunky young apprentice Anfinn (Mickey Theis). They are interrupted by the arrival of the prissy Sophus Larpent (Henry Stram), VIgeland’s solicitor and agent. He tries to induce Vigeland to to do a bust of Ibsen in order to win the backing of a key bureaucrat for the ambitious fountain celebrating humanity that he wants to create for a space in the heart of Oslo. When Ibsen arrives to meet Vigeland, things go badly. Their sparring match goes on for far too long and lacks nuance. Changing circumstances persuade Ibsen to agree to sitting for Vigeland and pouring out his heart to him. There are distracting subplots concerning the apprentice and the absence of usable clay. Very little light is shed on either Ibsen or Vigeland. There are very few peaks or valleys along the way, just lots of talk. We don’t even get to see the bust. Derek McLane’s effective set presents a rustic studio lined with busts covered in cheesecloth. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are apt. Wright also directed, which was probably a mistake. While I admired the playwright’s ambitions, I was quite disappointed with the results. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Placebo *

I very much enjoyed the Playwrights Horizons production of “This,” the first play I saw by Melissa James Gibson several years ago, but it’s been downhill since then. The second play I saw, “What Rhymes with America” at the Atlantic, left me cold. Now Gibson has returned to Playwrights Horizons with “Placebo,” which might be subtitled “Four Characters and a Vending Machine in Search of a Play.” Louise (Carrie Coon) is a graduate student in female sexuality, earning money by working with patients enrolled in a double-blind study of an experimental drug to increase female libido. Mary (Florencia Lozano) is one of the patients who is eager to know whether she is receiving the new drug or the placebo. Louise has lived for four years with Jonathan (William Jackson Harper), a 7th year graduate student in Classics who has hit a brick wall in his dissertation on Pliny the Elder. (The fact that Jonathan is played by a black actor seems to be of no significance to the plot, such as it is.) Louise tells her dying mother the white lie that she and Jonathan are getting married soon. Jonathan does not find Louise’s attempts to be supportive helpful. Tom (Alex Hurt), who works for another study at the hospital, becomes friendly with Louise. The game they play with a vending machine is the liveliest scene in the play. The experimental drug study and the placebo abruptly disappear from view and the action shifts to the troubled relationship between Louise and Jonathan. The play ends with a very long, often ludicrous scene of them breaking up — or not. I found the characters little more than collections of tics despite the efforts of an appealing cast to breathe some life into them. The play is not helped by David Zinn’s dreary and confusing set which uses the entire width of the theater to represent both the hospital and Jonathan’s apartment. I’m not sure what more director Daniel Aukin could have done with this material. Gibson seems to appeal to the younger generation; the audience included a group of twenty-somethings who whooped and hollered at every opportunity. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission.

NOTE: Why the sudden spate of one-word play titles beginning with P— Pocatello, Posterity, Placebo, Permission?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Mystery of Love and Sex ***

About an hour into the first act of Bathsheba Doran’s new play at LCT’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater, I began to wonder whether the playwright suffered from AD/HD. Roughly every 10 minutes, a new plot line arrived, seemingly out of left field. By the end of this overstuffed dramedy, I felt like a guest at a dinner party where too many courses were served. Fortunately, we have four fine actors — Tony Shalhoub, Diane Lane, Gayle Rankin and Mamoudou Athie — onstage to guide us through the many twists and turns. Howard (Shalhoub) is a successful Jewish author of mysteries. Lucinda (Lane) is a southern belle who met him at Yale, converted to Judaism and married him. Charlotte (Rankin) is their neurotic daughter who turned down Yale to attend a Southern college with Jonny (Athie), her friend since childhood. Charlotte and Jonny may or may not be falling in love. Howard is opposed, but alleges that it is not because Jonny is black. Among the semi-digested themes that are hurled at us like pitches from a batting machine are conscious and unconscious racism, sexism and homophobia; the angst of confused sexual identity, the self-centeredness of writers, Jewish-Black relations, intermarriage, same-sex marriage, strained marriage, the tricky relationships between parent and child, the porous border between friendship and love, the chances for a fresh start. Lest our interest lag, the author throws in a little semi-gratuitous nudity — twice. Andrew Lieberman’s simple set has a wall of curtains at the back that are tugged this way and that from time to time. The actors have to shlep a lot of furniture between scenes. The overlong first act had a few false endings that were greeted by applause because the audience thought the act was over. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are fine. The ubiquitous Sam Gold directed. It is far from a good play, but nonetheless an entertaining one, thanks largely to the appealing cast and several comic moments. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.