Monday, November 30, 2015

Old Times **

The circumstances for attending this Roundabout production were far from ideal. Fighting Times Square holiday crowds to see a 65-minute play was a dubious enterprise at best. Trying to maintain attention when there were FIVE interruptions by cellphones was nigh impossible. That being said, the play was not without its merits. The three actors — Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best — inhabited their roles thoroughly and even sang snippets of song pleasantly. The dialogue had moments of entertaining word play. Under Douglas Hodge’s direction, the usual long Pinter silences were virtually absent. That alone must have chopped at least ten minutes off the play’s length. The austere set by Christine Jones with a back wall of arcs radiating like rings from a pebble dropped in a pond and a door that resembled a block of ice was evocative. The costumes by Constance Hoffman suited the characters well. The moody sound design by Clive Goodman and dramatic lighting by Japhy Weideman enhanced the proceedings. The basic situation of a married couple in a remote house being visited by the wife’s former roommate of 20 years prior had promise. I just did not find the competing memories that involving. Under better circumstances, I might have enjoyed it more. In my opinion, offering a 65-minute play at Broadway prices is pushing the limits.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Gigantic **

This musical with a book by Randy Blair and Tim Drucker, music by Matthew roi Berger and lyrics by Blair has been kicking around in various forms since 2009. As “Fat Camp,” it won Best of Fest award at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in a production directed by Alex Timbers. In 2012 American Theatre of Actors revived it with several cast changes and a set by Beowulf Boritt. Why talents such as Timbers or Boritt were attracted to this pedestrian show and why Vineyard Theatre decided to give it a third New York outing are mysteries to me. The antics at a summer camp for overweight teenagers are a slender {pun not intended} thread for a full-evening musical. During the second act, the authors try frantically to liven things up with a production number featuring a dozen or so life-size dancing animals that bears no relation to anything else in the show. Likewise, as part of the color war, one team, with no rationale whatever, performs a scene from “The Crucible” dressed in Pilgrim costumes made from trash bags. The energetic, appealing cast give it their all. They are all good, but Bonnie Milligan, Larry Owens and Leslie Kritzer stand out. The music is generic pop-rock, with many songs sounding almost alike to me. I might have appreciated the music more had it not been blasted at levels that were painful to bear. The woodsy set by Timothy R. Mackabee is quite attractive and Gregory Gale’s costumes are inspired. The choreography by Chase Brock is lively and the direction by Scott Schwartz is smooth. Too bad the the quality of the material does not match the high level of the production. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Night Is a Room **

To say that I liked this play the best of Naomi Wallace’s three plays for Signature Theatre’s residency program amounts to faint praise. The current play is set in Leeds, England where we meet Liana (Dagmara Dominczyk), an ad executive with beauty and style who is happily married to Marcus (Bill Heck), a popular history teacher in a girls’ school. In the first scene Liana is visiting the modest garden flat of Doré (Ann Dowd), a frumpy 55-year-old cleaning woman, who at age 15 was forced to give up the baby boy she bore. Doré is Marcus’s birth mother, whom Liana has tracked down at great expense, so she could unite mother and son as a surprise present for Marcus’s 40th birthday. Big mistake. The play skips the reunion and moves ahead three months. Liana, jealous at the many evenings Marcus has been spending at Doré’s, invites her to their upscale flat for tea. Their lives all change dramatically after that evening. After the big “reveal” which I will not give away here, what follows seems anti-climactic. The final scene, set six years later, spins its wheels and ends unconvincingly. The production is better than the material. All three actors, particularly the women, are excellent. Rachel Hauck’s set design is simple but evocative. Clint Ramos’s costumes are well-chosen. Bill Rauch’s direction is confident. If only the play did not peak too early and then go on too long, it would have been a more satisfying experience. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Important Hats of the Twentieth Century *

I wasn’t all that fond of Nick Jones’s “Verité” at LCT3 last winter, but it seems like “Hamlet” compared to his new comedy at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II. Imagine a very, very long Saturday Night Live sketch or a class play whipped up by stoned students at some fashion school. The insipid plot involves Sam Greevy (a misused Carson Elrod), a top 1930’s designer of haute couture; T.B. Doyle (John Behlmann), the fashion reporter he is sleeping with; and Paul Roms (Matthew Saldivar), a rival designer who introduces future fashion ideas such as sweatshirts and skater pants, using a time travel hat that he has stolen from mad scientist Dr. Cromwell (Remy Auberjonois). Roms’s portal to the future is through the closet of Albany teenager Jonathan (Jon Bass) whose father Darryl (Triney Sandoval) he accidentally kidnaps. Reed Campbell, Maria Elena Ramirez and Henry Vick round out the cast in multiple roles. Timothy R. Mackabee designed the minimalist set. Jennifer Moeller's clever costumes are the production's creative highlight. Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Verité, Hand To God) directed. Prepare yourself to be traumatized by the sight of masturbating yetis. And did I mention that mysterious glowing space balls are attacking New York? What were the folks at MTC thinking when they decided to subject us to this drivel? Honesty demands that I report there were a few in the audience who expressed their approval loudly and often. Running time: two hours, including intermission.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Steve **

If you arrive early at the Signature Center for the New Group’s production of Mark Gerrard’s dramedy Steve, you will find Malcolm Gets already onstage playing show tunes on an upright piano. He is joined by four other cast members for an enjoyable 15-minute Broadway songfest. At play’s end, there’s a charming musical curtain call. Unfortunately, between those two points there is the play itself which, for me, wore out its welcome long before its 90 minutes had passed. Although there are strong superficial similarities with the recently opened Dada Woof Papa Hot — both plays deal with a gay couple approaching middle age who are raising a child, their fears about losing attractiveness, their worries about infidelity and their relations with another gay couple, the play that Steve really reminded me of was Matt Crowley’s 1968 hit The Boys in the Band. Both begin with a birthday party that turns out badly. Despite all the ways that gay life has changed in the intervening years, the characters’ mode of relating to each other has not made much progress. If anything, modern technology has increased the possibility of bad behavior. There was no sexting in 1968. Steven (Matt McGrath, so good recently in The Legend of Georgia McBride), once a chorus boy and singing waiter, has just turned 47. His partner Stephen (Gets) is a successful attorney. Steven is now a stay-at-home dad raising their unseen 8-year-old son Zach. (For some reason that have not chosen to marry.) When Steven retrieves his partner’s cellphone from Zach, who has “borrowed” it, he finds a sexting exchange between Stephen and Brian (Jerry Dixon), the partner of Steven’s oldest friend Matt (Mario Cantone). The fifth guest at the birthday dinner is Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), their terminally ill lesbian friend whose lover abandoned her when she became sick. Their waiter is a hunky Argentinian named Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat) who keeps turning up at various locations throughout the play. Just to round out the name game, there is a fourth Steven, Brian and Matt’s prodigiously endowed trainer, who is unseen but much commented upon. Any attempt at meaningful communication is short-circuited by turning either to show-queen bitchiness or raunch. One scene is instantly replayed with a different ending, but that device goes nowhere. There is a funny scene where Stephen is juggling texts, sexts and a phone conversation with his mother. The capable cast does their best to animate characters that aren’t well-developed. Allen Moyer’s set is elegantly simple and Tom Broecker’s costumes are fine. Director Cynthia Nixon plays a weak hand well. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Invisible Thread ***

After a successful run last year at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge where it was titled “Witness Uganda,” this energetic, ambitious, inspirational musical is now raising the roof at Second Stage Theatre, where it is in previews. Co-authors Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews are founders of the Uganda Project, a charity that pays the educational expenses of ten Ugandan students each year. When Griffin (Jeremy Pope from “Choir Boy” filling in for Matthews at my performance), an unemployed black New York actor, is kicked out of his church choir for being gay, he decides to do something meaningful with his life and signs up as a volunteer to build a school in a Ugandan village. Why a gay man would pick one of the world’s most virulently homophobic countries as a place to volunteer is never explained. His Jewish lover Ryan (Corey Mach), a songwriter, unexpectedly joins him there. The compound Griffin lives in belongs to the unseen Pastor Jim. It is run by the stern Joy (Adeola Role) assisted by her younger brother Jacob (Michael Luwoye, a wonderful actor but, in my opinion, too massive and mature for this role). Jacob befriends Griffin, who, he hopes, will take him back to New York. When Griffin learns that the school-building project is a scam that will only benefit Pastor Jim, he quits and decides to teach a small group of teenage AIDS orphans that he meets. When their improvised school mysteriously burns down, Griffin takes them to a safe village far from Pastor Jim and pays to enroll them in school. When he and Ryan return to New York, they struggle to raise money to support the students. They get the bright idea of doing a benefit concert to raise money. The present musical gradually emerged from their efforts. They learn some hard lessons about the difficulty of matching the help offered with the help needed. The songs run the gamut from generic ballads to rousing African-infused numbers. The show’s title is the title of one of the less interesting songs (“There is a long invisible thread that wraps around my heart and wraps around your head…”). An orchestra of nine supply the music. The appealing cast is very good. Nicolette Robinson (“Brooklynite”) is a standout. The lively choreography is by Sergio Trujillo assisted by Darrell Grand Moultrie. Tom Pye’s simple uncluttered set is enhanced by Peter Nigrini’s projections. ESosa's costumes are colorful. Director Diane Paulus pulls it all together with panache. I hope that they adjust the amplification so that the big numbers are not ear-splitting. The audience was appreciative. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lost Girls ***

It’s almost exactly two years since John Pollono’s play “Small Engine Repair” made a big splash at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. That testosterone-driven tale of three working stiffs in Manchester, NH and the college boy who crossed their path packed quite a wallop. (And it made my 10 best play list for 2013.) The new play, also produced by MCC Theater, could almost serve as a bookend. We are back among the working class in southern New Hampshire, but this time it’s the women who hold center stage. During a nor’easter that has made driving perilous, sharp-tongued Maggie (Piper Perabo), who is struggling to hang onto a place in the lower middle class, discovers that her 10-year-old Honda is missing. When she reports the theft to the police, they alert her cop ex-husband Lou (Ebon Moss-Bacharach) who turns up uninvited with his annoyingly perky second wife Penny (Meghann Fahy). Linda (Tasha Lawrence), Maggie’s equally foul-mouthed mother, who lives with her, repeatedly demonstrates her skill at getting under people’s skin. It turns out that the car thief is none other than Maggie and Lou’s teenage daughter. The set rotates from Maggie’s modest house to a motel room in Connecticut where we meet a pair of high school classmates who have run off together. More specifically, the brassy girl (Lizzy Declement) has talked the innocent boy (Josh Green) into driving her to Florida for a rendezvous with her much older boyfriend. He has reluctantly agreed because he has been smitten with her since second grade. The scenes alternate between Maggie’s house and the motel room. Maggie and Lou learn that the Honda has been involved in a major highway accident, but the power goes out before they can learn how their daughter is. Back at the motel, things have turned romantic. I won’t reveal the outcome except to say that there is a tricky development near the end that I have mixed feelings about. Two of three theater-savvy friends who attended the same performance missed it, so I think director Jo Bonney needs to do something to make the ending clearer. I wish the actors didn't need to struggle so hard with the New England accent. Richard Hoover’s revolving set and Theresa Squire’s costumes capture the correct ambience. While this play is not as good as “Small Engine Repair,” it’s consistently involving and entertaining. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Dada Woof Papa Hot ***

Yet another play about life among the white and wealthy gay residents of Manhattan? That was my first reaction upon learning about Peter Parnell’s unfortunately titled new play at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. My lack of enthusiasm was misplaced. The play examines interesting questions of what has been gained and what has been lost with the arrival of gay marriage and gay parenthood. At the play’s center are two sets of gay fathers — Alan (John Benjamin Hickey) and Rob (Patrick Breen), the former a writer, the latter a psychotherapist, both in their forties — and a younger couple they meet at a gay parents’ group — staid financier Scott (Stephen Plunkett) and studly painter Jason (Alex Hurt). We also meet a straight couple —Alan’s best friend Michael (John Pankow), whose latest show on Broadway has just flopped, and his wife Serena (Kellie Overbey) — and Julia (Tammy Blanchard), an actress they both know. We follow them over the course of a year as they navigate pitfalls of parenthood and marriage, some common to all marriages and others unique to gay couples. The production is top-notch with an excellent cast, a wonderful set by John Lee Beatty that elegantly reconfigures to half a dozen locations, appropriate costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser and smooth direction by Scott Ellis. Parnell’s snappy dialogue is a treat. The play does sag slightly towards the end, but not enough to spoil it. Running time: one hour, 40 minutes; no intermission. NOTE: there is brief male frontal nudity, almost a requirement these days.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Hir **

This play by downtown performance artist Taylor Mac, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, might be called a kitchen sink drama, but the sink is filled with dirty dishes and the drama is covered by a thick layer of absurdist comedy. This semi-autobiographical play presents a family living on the edge in Stockton, California. Paige (the always wonderful Kristine Nielsen), the mother, is getting her revenge on her stroke-diminished husband Arnold (Daniel Orestes) for the years of abuse he subjected her and her children to by dressing him up in women’s clothes, clown wig and makeup and keeping him overmedicated. Teen-age daughter Maxine has become Max (Tom Phelan), a transgendered young man sporting a scruffy beard. Paige is home schooling Max to protect hir (the transgender pronoun) from bullying. Paige is convinced that a new golden age is arising where gender fluidity is the norm and patriarchal power is a thing of the past. Early in the play older son Isaac (a strong Cameron Scoggins) returns home after three years in a Marine mortuary unit in Afghanistan. He is shocked by what he finds — a cluttered home worthy of the Collyer brothers, a barely coherent father, a sister turned brother and a newly assertive mother. This is not the comforting home he hoped to return to. A power struggle between Isaac and Paige ensues. The play’s frequently hilarious moments do not hide the underlying sadness. Paige’s philosophy seemed half-baked and its presentation, repetitious. A certain amount of chaos is necessary to the play, but there was too much for my taste. Any play that offers Kristine Nielsen a starring role is worth seeing in my book, but this play puts that to the test. David Zinn’s set is a cluttered wonder. Gabriel Berry’s costumes suit their characters well. Director Niegel Smith’s direction is assured. Running time: one hour 50 minutes including intermission.