Sunday, January 31, 2016

Our Mother's Brief Affair *

Noone knows how to pander to a Manhattan Theatre Club audience better than Richard Greenberg. String together some witty one-liners, throw in a Jewish matron, add a few Yiddish words, mention Great Neck at least once and, voila, MTC awaits with open arms. If you can get Linda Lavin to play the matron, all the better. And so we now have this strange lumpy play occupying the stage of the Friedman Theater. Anna (Lavin), on her deathbed for the umpteenth time and not fully of sound mind, confides to her son Seth (Gregg Keller), a gay solitary obit writer, that she had an affair when he was a teenager. Having trouble processing this information on his own, he summons his twin sister Abby (Kate Arrington) back from Southern California, leaving her wife and infant behind. Anna claims that while Seth was taking unwanted viola lessons at Juilliard, she was carrying on with a man (John Procaccino) she met on a park bench in Central Park who said his name was Fred Weintraub. SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you don’t want to know an important plot point. Fred later reveals that he is actually David Greenglass, the man largely responsible for sending his sister Ether Rosenberg to the electric chair. (I confess that I find it distasteful when a playwright drags in a well-known historical moment, be it 9/11 or the Rosenberg case, to prop up his play.) To remind the audience who Greenglass was, director Lynn Meadow turns up the house lights so Seth can give us a short lecture, thereby destroying whatever mood had been established. David's confession is not a turnoff for Anna who responds with a confession of her own, recalling a shameful incident from her early adulthood. Time passes, Anna worsens, moves to assisted living and the family home is sold. Seth and Abby have their doubts about the truthfulness of Anna’s story. Unfortunately, Anna is so unsympathetic and her adult children so emotionally stunted that it is hard to develop much concern for them. The exposition involves long scenes of Anna and Phil/David reenacting her story while Seth and Abby are reduced to standing around and injecting an occasional sarcastic remark. Keller and Arrington make the best of their underwritten roles. Procaccino is fine and Lavin is Lavin. She looks smashing in her Burberry coat and still has great legs. That seemed enough to satisfy the audience. Santo Loquasto's understated set is a far cry from MTC's typically lavish set designs. Running time: two hours including intermission.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

LaBute New Theater Festival **

St. Louis Actors’ Studio has produced this festival of one-act plays for the last three years with Neil LaBute serving on the selection jury and contributing one play each year. 59E59 Theater has brought six plays from the festival to New York. As with any such collection I have attended, the results are mixed. Of the six plays, only one and a half made a strong impression on me. 

“Stand up for Yourself” by British playwright Lexi Wolfe introduces us to the free-spirited 26-year-old Lila (Alicia Smith) who flirts with Lucas (Mark Ryan Anderson), a rather somber 42-year-old professor with a cane, at a London party. It’s a pity that the actors were saddled with less than successful British accents rather than just relocating the play to our shores. 

“Present Tense” by Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell follows the difficult face-to-face encounter of an adulterous couple Debra (Jenny Smith) and Martin (Justin Ivan Brown) whose previous intimate relations have been via their laptops and cellphones. It is basically a sketch that wears out its welcome rapidly.

“Two Irishmen Are Digging a Ditch” by G.D. Kimble is awkwardly divided into two scenes. The first is an unnerving overheated monologue by the naked and battered Doyle (a powerful Anderson), an apparent victim of the Northern Irish troubles confronting his unseen captors. I wish the play had ended there. The second scene presents Hagerty (Brown) digging a ditch under the supervision of Evans (Neil Magnuson), a man in a lawn chair. Their connection and the relationship of the scene with the previous one ultimately become clear. For me, at least, it diminished rather than enhanced the force of the first half.

in “The Comeback Special” by JJ Strong, Bonnie (Alicia Smith) and Jesse (Michael Hogan) are a young couple visiting Graceland who slip into the master bedroom where they encounter none other than Elvis himself (Magnuson), who is trapped in a purgatory of sorts by the ignominious nature of his demise and requests the couple’s assistance to make his departure. It’s pretty slim.

“Coffee House, Greenwich Village” by John Doble is the setting for a blind date by Jack (Anderson) and Pamela (Jenny Smith), readers of the personals column in The New York Review of Books. Their attempts to find something in common lead off into the realm of fantasy and a rather drastic comeuppance for their annoying waiter (Brown). Nichols and May might have made something more entertaining out of this.

Last and best is LaBute’s contribution “Kandahar.” An unnamed soldier (Hogan) recently back from Afghanistan is sitting at a table facing us explaining the reasons for the violent crime he has just committed. In contrast to the emotional outburst in the monologue in Kimble’s play, LaBute’s character remains chillingly calm, which makes the situation all the more disturbing. Hogan is brilliant. I hope we will see more of him.

The production values are rather basic. Patrick Huber’s set design is simple in the extreme. The set changes between plays are a bit awkward, but are accompanied by musical selections that comment, sometimes amusingly, on the previous play. The costumes by Carla Evans are very good. Hogan and Anderson are standouts among the cast. Of the five new playwrights, I thought that G.D. Kimble showed the most promise. Directors Milton Zoth and John Pierson are unobtrusively effective. The evening had its moments, but they were relatively few. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Skeleton Crew ***

Dominique Morisseau has, on a smaller scale, done for Detroit what August Wilson did for Pittsburgh — chronicled the lives of some of its African-American residents over the decades. The final play in her Detroit trilogy, now at Atlantic Stage 2, is a workplace drama set in the break room of a failing auto parts plant in 2008 just as the Great Recession hits. An opening radio bulletin raises the question of how the city has fared in the 40 years since the bloody riots of 1968. We meet three workers — the crusty lesbian Faye (Lynda Gravatt), the union rep who is approaching the 30-year mark at work; Dez (Jason Dirden), a hotheaded young man with authority issues who is putting in as much overtime as possible to be able to leave and start his own garage; Shanita (Nikiya Mathis), a very pregnant second-generation worker who takes pride in her work. Their foreman Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin) got his job with Faye’s help and rose through the ranks to low-level management. Faye is secretly facing serious difficulties, some of her own making. Dez has a crush on Shakita, who has troubling dreams. We learn that Reggie’s late mother was the love of Faye’s life. Reggie is torn by divided loyalties. Management has cut back relentlessly. Supplies are disappearing in night-time thefts. The threat of closure hangs over everyone. The situations are involving and the dialogue is lively. Morisseau’s characters, brought to life by a superb cast, are easy to care about. At its best moments, it recalls August Wilson’s work. The play is greatly assisted by a first-rate production directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Michael Carnahan’s set creates a believable factory break room down to the smallest detail. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are excellent — Faye’s sequined Obama jacket speaks volumes. Rui Rita’s lighting design sets the right mood. The sound design by Robert Kaplowitz is supplemented by original songs by Jimmy “J.Keys” Keys. The breaks between scenes are marked by dance sequences choreographed and performed by Adesola Osakalumi that capture the repetitive, robotic nature of the work. Some of these interludes are punctuated by uncredited projections of the factory floor, the final one showing robots at work. I hope a brave producer mounts Morisseau’s complete trilogy soon. Running time: one hour 50 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fiddler on the Roof ****

My theater-going year got off to a very satisfying start with the excellent revival of this beloved 1964 musical now on Broadway. With its wonderful music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and excellent book by Joseph Stein, the show is virtually indestructible. Not even the absence of Jerome Robbins’s direction and choreography threatens its almost inevitable success. Bartlett Sher, who has so adeptly directed revivals of classic musicals at Lincoln Center, does not disappoint. Except for a brief framing device that I found somewhat ineffective, he is entirely respectful to the material. Hofesh Sheather’s choreography is true to the spirit of Robbins. Ultimately, the show’s success rests on its Tevye. Danny Burstein is superb, offering more humanity and less shtick than some of his predecessors. I was skeptical of casting Jessica Hecht, an actress I often find too mannered, as Golde, but she surprised me with a thoughtful, understated performance. Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell and Melanie Moore are all fine as daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava. Adam Kantor as Motel and Ben Rappaport as Perchik are also strong. Alix Korey as Yente seemed a bit too broad in her first scene, but calmed down a bit later. The other actors, too numerous to list here, were generally strong. The set by Michael Yeargan, through its use of floating buildings that grow smaller as the story progresses, reinforces the play’s theme. Catherine Zuber's costumes are fine too. Ted Sperling’s musical direction is exemplary. The show’s emotional highlights worked their usual magic on me. It’s good to have this stellar example of the golden age of American musicals back in town. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.