Saturday, October 31, 2015

A View from the Bridge ***

I wonder how I would have reacted to the current Broadway production of this Arthur Miller classic had I not known that this Young Vic import won three Oliviers — best actor for Mark Strong, best director for Ivo van Hove, and best play revival. Perhaps this foreknowledge raised my expectations too high. I will grant that this production has many strengths, foremost among them a riveting performance by Strong as Eddie Carbone. Of the other carryovers from the London cast, Nicola Walker skillfully underplays the role of Eddie’s wife Beatrice and Michael Gould is strong as Alfieri, the lawyer who serves as narrator and Greek chorus. On the other hand, I did not admire Phoebe Fox as Beatrice’s orphaned niece Catherine, for whom Eddie’s feelings are far more than fatherly. At a critical early point, her accent slipped from Brooklyn to Britain, which, for me at least, undermined much of what followed. Richard Hansell was fine in the smallish role of Louis, Eddie’s coworker. Of the newcomers to the cast, Michael Zegen is superb as Beatrice’s married cousin Marco, an illegal immigrant who made the difficult choice to leave wife and children behind in Sicily to save them from starvation. Russell Tovey is fine as Rodolpho, Marco’s blond younger brother, whose budding relationship with Beatrice leads to trouble. Admittedly it is very hard to imagine Tovey and Zegen as brothers. Thomas Michael Hammond has the tiny role of police officer. Jan Versweyveld’s strikingly simple set suggests a boxing ring, which is reinforced by the fact that several rows of theatergoers are seated on either side of the stage. The production is greatly enhanced by Tom Gibbons’s sophisticated sound design which makes effective use of snippets of sacred music, barely audible droning and a drum that punctuates the action. An D’Huys’s costume for Beatrice strains credibility. I can’t imagine that any overprotected girl in Red Hook in the 1950’s would be allowed to run around in a skirt that skimpy. It does fit with the crudely overdone first scene between Catherine and Eddie, during which she jumps on him and wraps her legs around him and he casually rests his hand on her thigh. No subtlety there. The choice to have the actors perform barefoot seemed an arbitrary touch to show the director’s cleverness. There is one long conversation scene that breaks the mounting tension. The final scene is a real audience grabber. Unfortunately it doesn’t make clear what actually transpired. For parallelism it is matched with an opening shower scene far from Miller territory. During  its best moments, the play is absolutely gripping. However, I felt that there are also flaws that detract from the general excellence. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, no intermission.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

King Charles III ***

Playwright Mike Bartlett, whose plays “Cock” and “Bull” had successful New York runs, certainly deserves an “A” for audacity. In this ‘future history play,’ now on Broadway, he speculates on what might happen when Queen Elizabeth II finally leaves the scene. His portrayal of the surviving royals is less than flattering, so it is a tribute to British openness that this play could even appear on a London stage, let alone win a bunch of prizes. To up the ante, Bartlett has written the play in blank verse and filled it with allusions to several Shakespeare plays. When the aged Charles (a fine Tim Pigott-Smith) at last becomes king, the first thing he does is provoke a crisis by his principled but ill-advised refusal to sign a privacy bill that Parliament has passed because he feels it is too restrictive to the press. Considering the treatment by the press that he had endured over the years, his stand is ironic. During the more satirical first act, we meet all the members of the immediate royal family whose portrayal both supports and subverts our preconceptions, as well as the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. The 11 other cast members, all from the West End production, (Anthony Calf, Oliver Chris, Richard Goulding, Nyasia Hatendi, Adam James, Margot Leicester, Miles Richardson, Tom Robertson, Sally Scott, Tafline Steen and Lydia Wilson) are excellent. As the crisis deepens, the second act turns darker and more Lear-like. The splendid production, fluidly directed by Rupert Goold, has a simple but effective set by Tom Scutt with a large carpeted dais surrounded by stone walls with a few doors. There is a band high on the walls that at first looks like it is composed of round stones, but when the lighting changes they are revealed to be the suggestions of faces watching the action. The costumes are mostly black except for the ceremonial outfits worn on occasion by the three male royals. We are also treated to live music by Joyce Pook, played by two musicians in one of the boxes. The play has interesting things to say about the role of royalty in the 21st century and the current state of life in the UK. However, if you are not a devoted Anglophile or an avid follower of the royal family, you may find the evening a bit tedious. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Travels with My Aunt **

Keen Company is currently presenting Giles Havergal’s clever stage adaptation of Graham Greene’s light 1969 novel about Henry Pulling, an uptight, recently retired suburban banker and his freewheeling Aunt Augusta. They meet after a gap of 50-years at the funeral of Henry’s mother, who, his aunt soon informs him, was not really his mother. Augusta soon embroils Henry in her complicated amoral life and takes him along on a trip across Europe. The present man in Augusta’s life is Wordsworth, a Sierra Leonean who is absolutely devoted to her. Augusta is determined to rescue an ex-lover Mr. Visconti, a former Nazi collaborator who, despite taking all her money, still holds her in his thrall. The gimmick on which Havergal’s adaptation is based is that four hard-working actors (Thomas Jay Ryan, Jay Russell, Dan Jenkins and Rory Kulz), identically dressed in three-piece suits and bowlers, play the 20+ roles. The role of Henry is divided among the four of them. Ryan has only one additional role, the important one of Aunt Augusta, while the others all have multiple roles. Russell’s roles range from Tooley, a college girl to O’Toole, a CIA man who just happens to be her father. Jenkins appears as both Wordsworth and Visconti. Kulz has small roles, most memorably that of a wolfhound. When the second act takes us to Paraguay, the actors change to white suits and straw hats. It’s clever, but the trick grows tiresome before long. You can figure out the ending at least an hour in advance. I found the material too thin to hold my interest for over two hours. Apparently, Havergal has approved a 50-minute one-act version which sounds about right to me. Steven C. Kemp’s set shouts “low budget,” but it gets the job done. Jennifer Paar’s matching costumes are delightful. The direction by Keen artistic director Jonathan Silverstein is competent. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Useful New Website for New York Theater

Show-Score is a new site that aggregates reviews, keeps track of your preference of actors, playwrights, theater companies, ticket prices and notifies you when a new show opens that meets your criteria. You can join at I recommend it. It's free.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ripcord ***

Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has a new addition to his long string of successes at Manhattan Theatre Club. His new comedy stars Marylouise Burke, his oft-time muse, and Holland Taylor (replacing the originally announced Mary Louise Wilson) as Marilyn and Abby, residents of the Bristol Place Assisted Living Facility. Over four years, the unfriendly secretive  Abby has driven away a long string of roommates by her acerbic personality. Her latest, Marilyn, drives her wild with her cheerful gregariousness. Marilyn is quite happy where she is and has no intention of leaving. The roommates make a secret bet: if Abby wins, Marilyn moves out; if Marilyn wins, she gets the bed by the window. The attempt to win leads the pair to increasingly outrageous and hilarious stunts. Marilyn enlists her daughter Cathleen (Rachel Dratch) and son-in-law Derek (Daoud Heidami) in her campaign. Scotty (Nate Miller), a good-natured attendant and would-be actor, tries unsuccessfully to keep the peace. The second act takes on a somewhat darker tone as the competition gets more personal and nastier. A new character, Benjamin (Glenn Fitzgerald) makes an appearance. The resolution was a bit disappointing, to me at least. Burke and Taylor are outstanding as the rival roommates. The supporting cast is strong too. The play resembles Lindsay-Abaire’s early playful works such as “Fuddy Mears” more than his more serious recent plays like “Good People.” David Hyde Pierce has a real knack for directing comedy. Alexander Dodge’s clever scenic design switches seamlessly between their shared room and a few other very different locations. Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes are apt. All in all, it’s a very entertaining, but not very substantial work. Running time: two hours including intermission.

The Humans ***

Stephen Karam’s new play joins a long list of theater works and films about Thanksgiving family dinners from Hell. The very Irish Blake family are gathered in the Chinatown apartment into which younger daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed) have just moved. The blue-collar parents Erik (Reed Birney) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) have driven in from Scranton with Erik’s demented mother Fiona (Lauren Klein) for the occasion. Older sister Aimee (Cassie Beck), an attorney in Philadelphia, is also there. In the wake of 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, Erik is upset that Brigid’s ground-level-and-below duplex apartment is both in a flood zone and near Ground Zero. During the course of dinner, we learn some of the other fears that afflict the family members. Economic insecurity continues to play an important role in all their lives. Thwarted careers, health issues, fragile relationships, recurring nightmares and other problems beset them as well. The characters seem very real and the authentic dialogue illustrates their skill at pushing each other’s buttons. The playwright has chosen to make the apartment, with its sudden loud noises and its abruptly failing lighting, a metaphor — a rather clumsy one, in my opinion —for the entropy in the characters’ lives. Karam treats his characters with compassion. The acting is very strong and the situations are mostly easy to empathize with. However, the play loses steam toward the end and the final moments were a disappointment. Nevertheless, its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The bilevel under-furnished apartment set by David Zinn provides an apt background for the action. I didn’t even notice Sarah Laux’s costumes, which is a good thing. Joe Mantello’s direction is confident without being showy. While I don’t feel that the play is on a par with Karam’s excellent “Sons of the Prophet,” it still has much to recommend it. Running time: one hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

NOTE: Try to avoid seats in the first few rows because you will be too close to see a substantial part of the set’s upper level.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Sylvia ***

Twenty years after its debut at Manhattan Theatre Club, A.R. Gurney’s charming but inconsequential play has finally made it to Broadway. It presents the playwright in a much more favorable light than any of the three Gurney plays that Signature recently mounted. Annaleigh Ashford’s performance as the eponymous canine is sheer delight, reason enough to see the show. As Greg, the man with a midlife crisis who is instantly smitten with Sylvia when she plops into his lap in Central Park, Matthew Broderick is the best he has been since “The Producers.” The ever-watchable Julie White strikes all the right notes as Greg’s wife Kate, who does not want a dog to upset their newly-empty nest or her budding career as a teacher bringing Shakespeare to uptown middle school students. Robert Sella is a triple threat as Tom, another dog owner in Central Park; Phyllis, Kate’s friend from Vassar days whose struggle to stay on the wagon is threatened by Sylvia’s enthusiastic attentiveness; and Leslie, the androgynous couple counselor Kate and Greg visit. As Sylvia becomes more entrenched and gets more attention from Greg than his wife does, a showdown looms. I’m sure you can guess the outcome. The play’s conceit is really too slender for a work that runs over two hours, but director Daniel Sullivan does an excellent job of hiding that. The triple casting of Sella is droll, but seems cut from a different cloth than the rest of the play. David Rockwell’s set offer a lovely scene of Central Park with the essentials of a park-view apartment that materialize when needed. Ann Roth’s costumes are excellent; the ones for Sylvia are truly inspired. You may forget the play five minutes after it ends, but you will likely enjoy it while you're watching it. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Theater Trends: At the Workplace

Since so much of our time and energy are devoted to work, it is only appropriate that several contemporary American playwrights have turned to the workplace as the focus of their latest plays. During the 2014-15 season, I saw seven plays set at work. While they differ greatly in their plots and techniques, they share a common bond: each uses the workplace to mirror some aspect of American society today.
First up was “My Mañana Comes” by Elizabeth Irwin in a production of The Playwrights Realm. In the kitchen of an Upper East Side restaurant, we meet four busboys. Peter (Jason Bowen), a black man with a child, is the senior among them and the only one who takes professional pride in his work. Two busboys are undocumented Mexican immigrants; frugal Jorge (José Joaquin Pérez) left wife and children behind almost four years ago to earn enough money to build them a new home. Spendthrift Pepe (Reza Salazar) is a recently arrived young man who dreams of saving enough to bring his younger brother to New York. The junior busboy Whalid (Brian Quijada), a second-generation Hispanic who lives with his parents and has vague dreams of getting a civil service job, teases Jorge and Pepe mercilessly. We follow the four through their daily rounds at work and learn what external pressures make their lives difficult. A crisis at work puts each of them to a test of solidarity. I do not generally like the use of monologues, but Irwin has skillfully incorporated them here. The actors are all very good, particularly Bowen and Pérez. Chay Yew’s direction is seamless. The set design by Wilson Chin captures the details of a working kitchen right down to the scrapes on the walls. Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes are excellent. The play illustrates the personal dimension of large social issues, including immigration policy, race relations, exploitation of the vulnerable and the corrosive effects of poverty. Playwright Irwin shows a lot of talent and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

Heidi Schreck's “Grand Concourse” at Playwrights Horizons also takes place in a working kitchen, a soup kitchen in the Bronx. Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the 39-year-old nun who runs it is undergoing a crisis of faith. Oscar (Bobby Moreno), the handsome Hispanic handyman, affects a working-class macho facade that he doesn’t entirely feel. Frog (Lee Wilkof), a homeless regular client, struggles against mental illness. When Emma (Ismenia Mendes), a troubled 19-year-old with a reckless streak, begins work as a volunteer, her behavior has an impact on the other three, especially Shelley. The play is a series of short scenes, punctuated by blackouts, that gradually reveal the characters as they perform their jobs. Many vegetables are chopped. Director Kip Fagan does an excellent job of choreographing the work sequences. The cast is uniformly excellent. Rachel Hauck’s set design really looks like a working kitchen. Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit each character. The play examines issues of faith and forgiveness, the motivations for doing good, the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of the help proferred, the extremes to which neediness can lead and the sense of workplace community. Schreck displays a talent for creating vivid characters whom she treats with compassion and humanity. The results are both enlightening and entertaining.

In Obie winner Samuel D. Hunter’s “Pocatello”, also at Playwrights Horizons, we have moved from the kitchen to the front of the restaurant, the failing local outlet of a national Italian restaurant chain known for its soft breadsticks and salads The lead character is the manager Eddie (T.R. Knight), a sensitive gay man who does not flee Pocatello at his earliest opportunity because he feels strong roots dating back to his great-grandfather and has delusions that he can somehow forestall the closing of the restaurant and reunite, however briefly, his fractured family. His cold, distant mother Doris (Brenda Wehle) seems to want to have nothing to do with him. His older brother Nick (Brian Hutchison), who has only come back from Minnesota for a brief visit at the urging of his wife Kelly (Crystal Finn), cannot contain his eagerness to get away as rapidly as possible. Troy (Danny Wolohan, the waiter who has known Eddie since childhood, has a difficult marriage. His wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey has a problem trying to stay on the wagon. Their bright but troubled 17-year-old daughter Becky (Leah Karpel) is so environmentally concerned that she can barely eat and Troy’s father Cole (Jonathan Hogan) suffers from dementia. Waiter Max (Cameron Scoggins) is grateful to Eddie for being the only employer in town willing to hire him after his stint in drug rehab. Waitress Isabelle’s (Elvy Yost) only goal is to skim along life’s surface without making waves. The opening scene, with all ten characters onstage talking at once, is quite a tour de force. Hunter generously gives all the characters at least a moment in the spotlight that gives us insight into what makes them tick, sometimes without a word of dialogue. One look into the combination of hurt and hope in Eddie’s eyes speaks more than paragraphs. A silent moment when Tammy decides whether to take a drink of wine is almost painful to watch. Davis McCallum’s direction is superb. Lauren Helpern’s set accurately captures the look of a faux-Italian chain restaurant and Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit the characters well. The play impressed me as a big step forward for the playwright. Hunter compassionately illustrates the psychological damage caused by economic decline and a loss of uniqueness on people whose hometown has slid into a jumble of fast food joints and big box stores. 

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. Her play “The Flick” 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, to Sam’s chagrin. After 90 minutes of watching Sam and Avery clean the theater numerous times and having the projector light repeatedly shined in my eyes, I had had enough. The thought of returning after intermission for another 90 minutes of same was not appealing, so I left. When the play won the Pulitzer and was remounted at Barrow Street Theatre, I felt honor bound to try again. 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. Act Two 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. I did enjoy David Zinn's perfect recreation of a movie theater that has seen better days. Baker’s mastery of the mundane does hold a certain fascination. She nails the boring repetitiveness of the low-paying jobs that so many people must endure as well as the rewards and limitations of workplace relationships.

In George Brant’s timely one-person play “Grounded” at the Public Theater we meet the Pilot Anne Hathaway), first seen as an F-16 pilot in Iraq who loves her work, especially the freedom of being alone in “the blue.” While home on leave, she meets a man who is not intimidated by her job and falls in love. After she gets pregnant, they marry and she tries unsuccessfully to adjust to the life of housewife and mother. She returns to the Air Force, but instead of being reunited with her fighter jet, she is reassigned to the “Chair Force,” serving 12-hour shifts controlling a drone halfway around the world from a chair in an air-conditioned trailer at a base near Las Vegas. At first she likes the new job with its godlike sense of power and its allowing her to return home to her husband and child every night. Gradually her attitude changes. While the carnage she caused with her F-16 never bothered her because she would be miles away before the bombs hit, her drone lingers over the target afterwards and she is forced to see the flying body parts on her screen. She also has become increasingly aware of the ubiquitous surveillance cameras in today’s America. Her work life traces a path from elation to despair. The set by Riccardo Hernandez is covered with rippled sand and there’s a pyramid in one corner. We are not in the Middle East though. This is Nevada sand and the pyramid is the Luxor in Las Vegas. The production is greatly enhanced by excellent projections by Peter Nigrini. Director Julie Taymor mostly resists stamping the play with her trademark tricks. In a time of increasing dependence on drone warfare, the play casts needed light on the psychological damage to the people who must operate the drones.

Joel Drake Johnson’s play “Rasheeda Speaking” at The New Group is notable mainly for providing juicy roles for two fine actresses, Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest, and for marking the directorial debut of Cynthia Nixon. The action takes place in the in-hospital office of Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), a surgeon who is both smug and cowardly. The two clerical jobs in the office are filled by the white Ilene (Wiest, overwrought as usual), who has been there for eight years and loves her job, and the black Jaclyn (Pinkins), who has been there for six months and does not. The doctor wants to get rid of Jaclyn for not being a team player. When Jaclyn is out for a week suffering from exposure to mysterious office toxins (racism, perhaps?), he promotes Ilene to office manager and enlists her reluctant help to find and document reasons to let Jaclyn go that will pass muster with Human Resources. He makes clear that truthfulness is not a requirement. Whether Jaclyn is really a satisfactory employee is called into question by her generally truculent demeanor and her brusque treatment of Rose (Patricia Connolly), an elderly patient. When she catches on to the plan to get rid of her, Jaclyn fights back with mind games that threaten Ilene’s stability. The dialog is smart, but the workings of the plot are a bit repetitious and predictable. Although its various strands don’t cohere all that well, the play presents an interesting look at racism in the workplace, 21st century style.

In his new play “Gloria” at the Vineyard Theatre, Obie winner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins draws upon his experience working at the New Yorker for a few years. In Act One we meet three editorial assistants — Dean (Ryan Spahn), Ani (Catherine Combs) and Kendra (Jennifer Kim); Miles (Kyle Beltran), a college intern; Lorin (Michael Crane), a somewhat older fact checker; and the title character(Jeanine Serralles), a socially awkward longtime employee from another department. Each character is vividly sketched and the dialogue rings true. For the first 45 minutes, the play seems to be a witty workplace satire about relationships at a prestigious magazine. Then the mood abruptly shifts. 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 first act is literally a tough act to follow. In the second act, all the actors except Crane play one or more new characters. 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. The playwright paints an all-too plausible picture of what can happen when workplace tensions escalate as well as an unflattering portrait of today's media scene in which stories become mere fodder for the ravenous film/television/social media/publishing beast. In case there was any doubt, Jacobs-Jenkins demonstrates that he belongs in the first rank of contemporary American playwrights.

In all seven plays, the workplace provides an opportunity for the playwright to examine important social issues in today’s America. When we read about immigration policy, poverty, exploitation, charity, economic decline, cultural homogenization, dead end jobs, racism and the commodification of media, they may seem abstract and somewhat distant. By personalizing these issues through vivid characters and situations, these seven playwrights have demonstrated the rich potential for a focus on the workplace both to enlighten and entertain.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Fool for Love **

Full disclosure: While I have often admired Sam Shepard as an actor, his plays have never appealed to me. The overwrought characters and situations just do not draw me in. The present play, a Williamstown export to Broadway via Manhattan Theatre Club, is no exception. Had it not turned up on my subscription, I never would have seen it. Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda play Eddie and May, a pair of sometime lovers who can’t get along with or without each other. May has tried to start a new life in a small town on the edge of the Mojave Desert, but Eddie has tracked her down and shown up at her rundown motel room to try to rekindle their relationship. Gordon Joseph Weiss is The Old Man, who, although presently unseen by the pair, has played a crucial role in shaping their lives. Tom Pelphrey plays Martin, May’s intended date for the evening, with delightful obtuseness. Ariana and Weiss are fine. Although Rockwell certainly aced his lasso lessons, I wish he displayed more of the charisma that would explain his hold over May. The big secret seemed more like a plot contrivance than an organic development. Dane Laffrey’s set for the motel room goes beyond seedy. Anita Yavich’s costumes are apt. The lighting design by Justin Townsend and the sound design by Ryan Rumery add much to the production. The initial scenes seemed a bit slack, but director Daniel Aukin picks up the pace as the play progresses. I wish I had found it more involving. Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission. It seemed longer.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Barbecue ****

Robert O’Hara’s raunchy and raucous new play at the Public Theater is full of surprises. It’s a challenge to describe the play in any detail without giving something away and spoiling the fun. Suffice to say that in the first act an extremely dysfunctional family lures their crack-addicted sister to a barbecue in her favorite park so they can perform an intervention. All is not what it seems. In the second act we move backward and forward in time to discover what preceded and followed the action of the first act. I wish I could be more specific, but to tell more might ruin your experience. The playwright skewers several cliches and pop cultural icons along the way. The talented cast of ten (Becky Ann Baker, Marc Damon Johnson, Arden Myrin, Paul Niebanck, Tamberla Perry, Constance Shulman, Heather Alicia Simms, Samantha Soule, Benja Kay Thomas and Kim Wayans) attack their roles with gusto (Perry, in particular). Clint Ramos’s set captures the feel of a picnic pavilion in a verdant park. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are delightful. O'Hara's inventiveness does not flag. Happily, he chose not to direct his own work this time (his direction of “Bootycandy” did it no favors.) Kent Cash handles the assignment admirably. While the satire is far from subtle, the play is so entertaining that I didn’t mind the heavy-handedness. The audience was demonstratively enthusiastic. It's not for everyone, especially those with an aversion to profanity and vulgarity. Running time: one hour 50 minutes including intermission.