Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Qualms ****

With this comedy, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, Bruce Norris (The Pain and the Itch, Clybourne Park, Domesticated) once again demonstrates that he is one of our most consistently entertaining playwrights. His depiction of a swingers’ party that goes awry is hysterically funny, occasionally touching, and uncomfortably perceptive about the foibles of human sexuality and other social behavior. For reasons that are a bit implausible, investment banker Chris (the always reliable Jeremy Shamos) has accepted an invitation to attend a swingers’ party with his attractive wife Kristy (Sarah Goldberg) at the home of Gary (John Procaccino) and his sexy but slightly dim partner Teri (the superb Kate Arrington), whom they had met on vacation. Gary argues at length about the unnaturalness of monogamy. They are joined by the plus-size Deb (the delightful Donna Lynn Champlin) and her younger black lover Ken (Andy Lucien) who combines an ultra-buff body with  a touch of swish. Last to arrive are Regine (Chinasa Ogbuagu), a sultry beauty from Martinique, and Roger (the fine Noah Emmerich), an ex-military libertarian. There’s also a delivery guy (Julian Leong) who earns laughs without saying a word. Chris quickly develops misgivings about being at the party and provokes the others by expressing unfashionably conservative views. His increasingly obnoxious behavior is a buzz-kill for the evening’s anticipated amorous adventures. Norris skillfully uses both overlapping dialog and the absence of dialog. A long silent scene near the end of the play is powerful in its impact. There's a momentary breach of the fourth wall that is very effective too. Director Pam MacKinnon manages all the action with aplomb. Todd Rosenthal has designed a condo living room that looks authentic and lived in. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are spot-on. Some may dismiss the play as lightweight, but I think there are some thought-provoking ideas lurking behind the humor. Besides, it was so funny that I wasn’t really looking for gravitas. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

An Act of God ***

David Javerbaum, the winner of 13 Emmy awards for his work as head writer on The Daily Show, has adapted his book The Last Testament: A Memoir by God and his comedic twitter feed @TheTweetOfGod to create a star vehicle for Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory fame. If none of these references has awakened at least a tingle of anticipation in you, this is a show you can skip. Nor should you attend if you are arch-conservative, homophobic or anti-Semitic. Parsons portrays the Almighty as a volatile figure with wrath-management issues, who enjoys dropping one liners in profusion. Tired of the existing Ten Commandments, he has come up with a new set that he finds more suitable for our times. As he retells familiar bible stories from his unique point of view, he is assisted by the archangels Gabriel (Tim Kazurinsky), who intones an appropriate passage from his Gutenberg bible from time to time, and Michael (Christopher Fitzgerald), who roams the audience with a mic to take questions for God and asks some difficult ones of his own. Depending on your sensibility, the prevailing spirit is either hilarious irreverence or offensive blasphemy. My own response favored the former, although there were a few times that things crossed the line a bit. The production, at Studio 54, features an elegant white set by Scott Pask beautifully lit by Hugh Vanstone and enhanced by Peter Nigrini’s projections and Gregory Meeh’s special effects. David Zinn’s costumes are droll. Joe Mantello’s direction is assured and uncluttered. It’s not for everyone, but Parsons fans will leave happy. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What I Did Last Summer **

For the second revival in their A.R. Gurney residency, Signature Theatre has chosen this semi-autobiographical memory play from 1981. Charlie (Noah Galvin), the 14-year-old Gurney stand-in, recalls the Summer of 1945 when his father was away at war in the Pacific and his mother Grace (Carolyn McKormick) was trying valiantly to hold their WASP family together in his absence. Charlie, his mother and his older sister Elsie (Kate McGonigle) are spending the summer at their vacation home on the Canadian side of Lake Erie not far from Buffalo. Charlie and Ted (Pico Alexander), a townie two years his senior, both like to spend time with Bonny (Juliet Brett), a girl near their age but much wiser. The rebellious Charlie answers a “Help Wanted” ad placed by the local outcast Anna Trumbull (Kristine Nielsen). A free spirit, she has abandoned her WASP upbringing to live a hermit-like existence on the lakeside property left her by her former lover. She claims to see artistic potential in Charlie and gives him art lessons after his chores are done. He shows no aptitude for painting, sculpture, macrame or anything else she tries to teach him. She also fills his head with anti-establishment socialistic ideas. After one argument too many with his mother, Charlie flees home and moves into Anna’s barn. There is a battle for Charlie’s soul between Anna and Grace who, it turns out, had her own experiences with Anna 20 years prior. Clumsy plot devices intrude and the ending is less than satisfactory. Director Jim Simpson has chosen to introduce a drummer (Dan Weiner) to punctuate the action, a needless distraction. Michael Yeargan’s minimalist set is enhanced by John Narun’s projections of typed characters filling the back wall with stage directions. Claudia Brown's costumes are attractive and appropriate. All the characters save one address the audience to ponder whether the play is really about them. Despite the fine cast (although I found Galvin a bit too hyperactive) and a snazzy production, the play simply did not engage me. So far, the Gurney residency has been underwhelming. “The Wayside Motor Inn” showed him in his Ayckbourn mode and this play has echoes of Wilder. Let’s hope that next season’s Gurney premiere will salvage the residency and display more of the characteristics that made me a Gurney fan. Running time: two hours including intermission.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Way We Get By **

Neil LaBute’s new two-hander, now in previews at Second Stage, represents somewhat of a new direction for him — misogyny and misanthropy are nowhere to be seen and love is in the air. Doug (Thomas Sadoski) and Beth (Amanda Seyfried) have shared a night of lust after hooking up at a party. The morning after is awkward as they attempt to determine what the future holds for their relationship. We learn that they are not strangers and the nature of their past relationship presents an obstacle to any future one. A greater problem is the inability of one of them to commit. Doug, a socially awkward motor-mouth, would become annoying very fast if he were not played by the superb Sadoski, who, I think, is one of the finest younger actors on the New York stage. Seyfried has a less showy — dare I say underwritten — role. I felt that her inability to make a stronger impression was primarily a problem with the script. She does have lovely breasts though. I am curious whether Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”), who was originally announced for the role, could have done more with it. Much of the dialogue seemed artificial. The play became repetitive after a while and ended with a ridiculous scene that diminished what preceded it. Neil Patel’s apartment set is spot-on as are Emily Rebholz’s costumes. Leigh Silverman’s direction does not call attention to itself. I admire LaBute for trying something different and thank him for providing a juicy role for Sadoski. Other than his performance, there wasn’t much to admire. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Flick (Second Try) **

I can hardly believe that I went back to see the revival of Annie Baker’s workplace dramedy, now at Barrow Street Theatre with the original cast and production team intact. When it premiered  at Playwrights Horizons two years ago, I fled (along with a good portion of the audience) at intermission. Since it subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize,  I was curious to see whether staying for Act Two might have changed my mind. To some extent, it did improve my opinion of the play. Here’s what I had to say two years ago:

The Flick (Act One) *

Annie Baker may be one of our most acclaimed young playwrights (and Sam Gold, one of the hottest young directors), but I must confess with some sadness that I don't "get" her work. I find her closely observed scenes of ordinary people doing everyday things boring and banal. I was astounded that "Circle Mirror Transformation" won an Obie and is among one of today's most frequently produced plays. Her new play at Playwrights Horizons chronicles the relationships of employees of a slightly seedy movie theater in small-town Massachusetts, likely soon to be a victim of the move to digital projection. Sam (Matthew Maher), a man in his late 30's, is breaking in a new employee, Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), a depressed black 20-year-old. Rose (Louisa Krause), the green-haired, free-spirited projectionist, takes a shine to Avery. Alex Hanna plays a man who falls asleep in the theater. Perhaps he was destined for greater things in Act Two. I'll never know. After 90 minutes of watching Sam and Avery clean the theater numerous times and having the bright light of the projector repeatedly shined in the audience's eyes, I had had enough. The thought of returning after intermission for another 90 minutes of same was not appealing. I did enjoy seeing David Zinn's perfect recreation of a movie theater. I wish I could join the Annie Baker fan club, but clearly that is never going to happen. Running time: 3 hours, plus a 15 minute intermission.

This time around, I found the first act less annoying, because I knew in advance that there would be very little action in any traditional sense. Baker’s mastery of the mundane does hold a certain fascination and the excellence of the cast merits appreciation. She nails the boring repetitiveness of low-paying jobs and the rewards and limitations of workplace relationships. Nevertheless, I could not escape the feeling that playwright and director were testing the audience to see how much (or how little) they could get away with. Very few people left at intermission this time. Act Two was worth hanging around for. It deepens the portrayal of Avery and Sam, but does not shed much light on what makes Rose tick. There is a narrative arc of sorts, at least for Avery.

There were a few surprising weaknesses. Much of Sam’s big speech in Act Two was inaudible even from the second row. In a couple of scenes the actors were facing away from the audience as they spoke. 

I guess I’ll have to accept the fact Annie Baker’s close observations of the quotidian simply do not appeal to me.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek ***

Even though he has already written over a score of plays about life in South Africa during and after apartheid, Athol Fugard still has things to say on the subject. His new play at Signature Theatre is loosely based on the career of outside artist Nukain Mabuza, a black farm laborer who painted colorful designs on the boulders located on the farm owned by the Afrikaaner family who employed him. They encouraged him and bought him paint to spend his Sundays turning the rocks into stone “flowers.” In Fugard’s fictionalized version of his life, the aged Nukain (Leon Addison Brown) arrives with his 11-year old assistant Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin) to tackle the last unpainted boulder, a gigantic one he calls “The Big One.” He feels artistically blocked and unable to paint the rock until Bokkie’s suggestion that he paint eyes on it. Doing so releases a flood of creative energy and, instead of a flower, he turns the rock into an abstract record of his life. When the boss’s wife Elmarie (Bianca Amato) arrives bearing leftovers, she dislikes his painting and tells him to paint over it the following weekend and replace it with another floral design. Bokkie is horrified and sasses her. She is enraged at his cheekiness and tells Nukain to use his belt on him. The irony is that Nukain is so poor he doesn’t even own a belt. 

22 years later, the adult Bokkie, now known by his given name Jonathan (Sahr Ngaujah) returns to Revolver Creek where he is greeted by a hostile Elmarie brandishing a pistol. She does not recognize him and is on edge because of the recent murder and torture of her neighbors by blacks. Most of the act consists of long alternating speeches by the two, each passionately defending a point of view. Fugard plays fair in presenting their perspectives and mostly avoids didacticism. The play ends on a cautiously optimistic note.

The production is exemplary. The cast could not be better. Christopher H. Barreca’s evocative set draws you in immediately. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are appropriate. The playwright’s direction is uncluttered. It’s not a major Fugard play, but still a welcome addition to his canon. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes including intermission. 

NOTE: I suggest staying in your seat at intermission because the set change is extremely interesting. I also suggest avoiding the first two rows (unless you have a foot fetish) because you’ll be staring at the performers’ feet.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Permission **

Can lightning strike twice in the same place? Not if the place is the Lucille Lortel Theatre and the bolt is aimed by playwright Robert Askins. His “Hand to God” was so successful there that it ended up on Broadway. I don’t see that future for this messy satire which deals with two thirtyish couples in Waco, Texas who are trying to make marriage work. Zach (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and Michelle (Nicole Lowrance) are practitioners of Christian Domestic Discipline — an actual movement — whereby the husband is clearly the wife’s boss and disciplinarian. When the wife misbehaves, it’s time for a spanking. Zach encourages his old friend Eric (a wonderful Justin Bartha), who’s a bit of a milquetoast, to follow their example. Since his wife Cynthia (a hilarious Elizabeth Reaser) spends her days lying around, drinking wine and watching “Matlock” reruns instead of working on her novel and cleaning house, Eric decides to give it a try. In the short run it works out well for him and Cynthia, but it can’t overcome serious problems in the other couple’s marriage. Using his new-found confidence, Eric foolishly gives encouragement to his adoring student secretary Jeanie (Talene Monahon). A get-together in Act Two turns into a near orgy for all five characters. While the play ends up spinning its wheels and not taking us to a clear destination, the ride is often hilarious. There are some very funny scenes and the fine cast wrings every drop of humor from them. The audience reaction was enthusiastic. I enjoyed it more than I admired it. I suspect that more time in workshop might have ironed out some of the rough spots. I would have left out the secretary subplot. David Korins’s set design cleverly transforms into several locations. Paloma Young’s costumes suit their characters well. Director Alex Timbers handles the physical humor admirably but can’t lend a sense of direction where it’s not present on the page. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes including intermission.

Monday, May 4, 2015

An American in Paris ****

The just-ended Broadway season blessed dance lovers with two productions featuring dance in a central role. The season started with a wonderful revival of On the Town and ended with this stylish adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. In his first outing as director, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon does himself proud. It doesn’t hurt that he has wonderful Gershwin music to work with, as well as a pair of talented leads. Robert Fairchild, a principal with the New York City Ballet, is simply marvelous as Jerry Mulligan, the GI who stayed in Paris to become an artist. In addition to his impeccable dance skills, he is a natural actor with matinee looks and a pleasant voice. Leanne Cope, a Caron look-alike from the Royal Ballet, would also be a triple-threat if her singing voice were more expressive. The supporting cast is strong — Brandon Uranowitz as the expat composer Adam Hochberg, Max von Essen as Henri Baurel, Lise’s somewhat ambivalent fiancĂ©, and Jill Paice as Milo Davenport, the American heiress who has her eye on Jerry. Each gets at least one chance to shine. Veanne Cox does her best with the cardboard role of Henri’s uptight mother. Bob Crowley’s costumes are excellent and his fluid set design, complimented by wonderful projections by 59 Productions, are amazing. However, the incessant motion of the sets and projections in the early scenes almost made me dizzy. The ambitious — perhaps overambitious — book by Craig Lucas moves the action back to 1945 when Paris is just emerging from the Nazi occupation. To me, the attempt to add gravitas to the plot was misguided and less than successful. My only other disappointment is that there was less Gershwin music than I hoped for. I missed “Embraceable You,” “Nice Work if You Can Get It” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay.” Despite these reservations, I had a wonderful time and highly recommend the show, especially to dance lovers. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including intermission. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Forever **

Dael Orlandersmith is a poet, playwright and actress with a long association with New York Theatre Workshop where this autobiographical solo piece is now in previews. In it she describes the painful process of replacing her terrible biological family, in particular her cruel alcoholic mother, with a chosen family of the artists who inspired her, including Richard Wright and Jim Morrison, who are laid to rest in Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery. The play opens with a long scene describing her visit there (too long for me apparently as I nodded off for about ten minutes). She recalls scenes from her early years in Harlem. Fortunately I awoke in time to hear her absolutely harrowing story of being raped by an intruder in the middle of the night when she was 14. A bit of levity is introduced by her telling of a crush on a handsome Irish cop who was kind to her and her fantasy of running off to Ireland with him. Even her rape could not alter her mother’s inability to give her the attention she deserved. She is unsparing in describing her own understandably cruel behavior toward her monstrous mother. A little rage goes a long way and, for me at least, hers went too far. We eventually return to the cemetery in Paris where she provides a not too convincing sign of making peace with her late mother’s memory. Takeshi Kata’s simple set has a raised platform with a table with a phonograph and two chairs; the surrounding walls have panels covered with family photographs. The theater is lined with similar panels on which the audience is invited to post messages about people influential in their lives who have passed on. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting design is very effective. Neel Keller directed. I thought that Ms. Orlandersmith’s impressive performance exceeded her accomplishment as playwright. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.