Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Crucible **

I am not a great admirer of this Arthur Miller play based on the Salem witch trials of 1692-93. While the witch hunt theme is just as resonant today as it was during the McCarthy era when it was written, the play seems to me too long, too wordy and too didactic. It has too many characters to flesh out sufficiently to be more than embodiments of points of view. Nevertheless, the stellar casting and my curiosity to see how hotshot director Ivo van Hove would impose his stamp on the material led me to buy a ticket. While I had some reservations about van Hove’s take on View from the Bridge, I did find it compelling and unified. Not so with The Crucible. Setting it in modern dress (costumed by Wojciech Dziedzic) didn’t bother me, but making the set (by Jan Versweyveld) a schoolroom featuring a giant blackboard and dressing the girls in school uniforms seemed pointless. Although he scrupulously follows Miller’s text, van Hove interpolates a couple of very brief nonverbal non-Miller scenes at the beginning and end of the first act. It disturbs me that one of them (and another scene later) virtually eliminates any ambiguity we should feel about whether witchcraft was actually taking place. And then there’s that strange four-footed visitor at the beginning of Act Three. Not even the curtain call escapes van Hove’s tinkering. As for the actors, it’s a mixed bag. The casting is nontraditional and the accents vary widely. Of the four stars, Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth Proctor comes across the best by far. The role of John Proctor does not seem a natural fit for Ben Whishaw, but he handles it rather well. Ciaran Hinds is adequate but unmemorable as Deputy Governor Danforth. As Abigail Williams, Saoirse Ronan disappoints; her stage presence falls short of the powerful impression she makes onscreen. Jason Butler Harner is strong as Reverend Parris, as are Brenda Wehle as Rebecca Nurse and Jim Norton as Giles Corey. Tavi Gevinson’s Mary Warren seems too young. While I have often enjoyed the music of Philip Glass, I found his score, most of which consisted of a relentless background drone, a distraction rather than an enhancement. Running time: two hours 50 minutes.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

She Loves Me ****

How lucky we are to have first-rate revivals of not one but two Bock and Harnick masterpieces on Broadway this season — 1964’s Fiddler on the Roof  and 1963’s She Loves Me. The two shows are so different that it’s hard to believe that they were working on both at the same time. One thing they have in common is that they are both set in vanishing worlds. Whereas Fiddler presents a momentous story embellished with all the accoutrements of a 60’s Broadway musical, She Loves Me tells a romantic tale on an intimate scale with little razzle dazzle. The skillful book by Joe Masteroff is based on Parfumerie, the play by Milosz Laszlo that inspired three films (The Shop around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime and You’ve Got Mail). We meet the staff of a Budapest parfumerie in the early 1930’s: owner Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings), assistant manager Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi), longtime sales clerk Ladislav Sipos (Michael McGrath), caddish clerk Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), pliant cashier Ilona Ritter (Jane Krakowski) and ambitious delivery boy Arpad Laszlo (Nicholas Barasch). The new sales clerk Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti) and Georg immediately get off on the wrong foot. Neither knows that they have been anonymously corresponding with the other for months after answering a lonely hearts ad. In their sometimes affair, Kodaly repeatedly takes advantage of Ilona. Mr. Maraczek suddenly begins to mistreat Georg after misinterpreting an anonymous letter he received. Fear not! All will be happily resolved. One of this well-crafted show's many accomplishments is that each character gets at least one song that both describes the character and advances the plot. The excellent cast does full justice to the wonderful music and lyrics. Benanti’s glorious voice and comic chops are perfection and Krakowski adds dimensions to her role that I didn’t know were there. Levi makes a fine foil for Benanti. Only Creel seemed slightly out of his element. Peter Bartlett is the swishy but ultimately sympathetic headwaiter at the Café Imperiale and Michael Fatica is amusing as the clumsy busboy. Warren Carlyle’s choreography for the scenes at Maraczek’s played very well, but I thought his work in the café scene was too broad and did not fit in with the rest of the show. David Rockwell’s jewel box of a set is a joy to see. Jeff Mahshie’s period costumes are attention grabbers — think pink, fuschia and purple. Paul Gemignani conducts the score with panache. Director Scott Ellis, whose 1993 revival, also for Roundabout, was excellent, does even better this time out. I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying this wonderful production. Running time: two hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Thank God for Jokes ****

Ever since catching his first off-Broadway show, Sleepwalk with Me, seven years ago, I have been a fan of comedian Mike Birbiglia. His ingratiating, slightly self-deprecating persona, his skillful ability to seamlessly incorporate the audience into his monologue and the effortlessness with which he picks up motifs from earlier in the show and deftly weaves them into the performance make time spent with him a thoroughly rewarding experience. His 2011 show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend was equally enjoyable and his new show, now at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, is, if anything, even better. Loosely organized around his anxiety preparing to host the Gotham Awards, the current monologue digresses in many amusing directions. At a more serious level, he addresses the power of jokes to offend as illustrated most brutally by the Charlie Hebdo murders. The 85 minutes flew by with very few moments that did not grab my attention. Beowulf Boritt’s simple set features a round wood platform backed by a wall with a few stained glass windows. Seth Barrish, his usual director, is back. Birbiglia’s plaid shirt and jeans suit the image he wants to project. He is a master of the monologue and we are lucky to have him back onstage. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Antlia Pneumatica **

After three previous disappointments (Mr. Burns, Ipheginia in Aulis at CSC and 10 out of 12) I did not have high hopes for Anne Washburn’s new play now at Playwrights Horizons. Alas, my low expectations were met. This reunion of 40-somethings to bury a college friend is only superficially similar to “The Big Chill.” It has a major gimmick and a few minor ones, none of which worked for me. Nina (Annie Parisse) and Liz (April Matthis) are sisters from California who have chosen their family’s vacation ranch in the Texas hill country as the site of the memorial service for Sean, their friend from college days in Austin. Ula (Maria Striar) and Len (Nat DeWolf) are friends who have come for the ceremony. Adrian (Rob Campbell), Nina’s former lover with whom she has been out of touch for 14 years, is an unexpected arrival. We also hear the offstage voices of Nina’s children Casey (Skylar Dunn) and Wally (Azhy Robertson). Late in the play, another friend Bama (Crystal Finn) arrives with a story that casts all that has transpired in a new light. We watch the preparations for the feast. We hear snippets of conversations from offstage. A few scenes are performed in near total darkness. The sequence of events is deliberately muddled. All this might have involved me more if the characters had been more interesting. They are clearly individuated, but insufficiently developed. The big reveal was a meager payoff for the long, slow, talky buildup. Rachel Hauck's rustic set is attractive, as are Jessica Pabst's costumes. Ken Rus Schmoll (The Invisible Hand) directs with a sure hand. Washburn is greatly admired by many in the theatrical community. I wish I could see what they see. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes without intermission.

NOTE: Antlia Pneumatica (The Air Pump) is the name of an obscure constellation, one of several named for scientific instruments by French astronomer Lacalle.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Effect **

My hopes were high for this London import that garnered the Critics Circle Award for Best New Play for its 2013 National Theatre production. I much admired playwright Lucy Prebble’s clever Enron and have almost always enjoyed David Cromer’s work as a director (Tribes, Our Town). Furthermore, the topic certainly sounded intriguing — an experimental study on an antidepressant that might act as a love drug. Nevertheless, something seems to have been lost crossing the pond, because I fail to see what the fuss was about. I note that the running time at the National was 45 minutes longer than the version now at Barrow Street Theatre — 2 3/4 hours vs. two hours — so it’s possible they trimmed too much. However, even at its present length, it seemed at times repetitive. We meet two of the experimental subjects, Connie (Susannah Flood), a rather straight-laced psychology student, and Tristan (Carter Hudson), a free-spirited drifter, who are supposed to spend 4 weeks under observation as they take the drug in a double-blind study with a control group on placebos. They are supposed to forgo sex and cellphones. It comes as no surprise that they break both rules and fall in love. The question is whether it is “real” or just the effect of the drug and whether the answer actually matters. We also meet Dr. Toby Sealy (Steve Key), the big pharma honcho who has hired the depressive Dr. Lorna James (Kati Brazda) to run the study. As it turns out, they have a history. I mostly enjoyed the first act, but was disappointed when the playwright turned to melodrama midway through the second. The play raises many interesting questions such as whether pharmaceutical experiments justify deceit, whether antidepressants are a good or bad thing, and what it is that makes us us, without providing easy answers. Hudson and Brazda are both superb. I found Flood’s alternately nasal and shrill voice hard to listen to. Key seemed to change affect too suddenly. The set design by Marsha Ginsberg is flexible and looks just like a hospital. Sarah Laux’s costumes are unobtrusive. Cromer’s staging leaves some actors awkwardly frozen in position during a rather lengthy scene for others. This play is certainly an improvement over last year’s somewhat similarly themed Placebo at Playwrights Horizons, but that is faint praise. NOTE: Avoid seats in row B; there is no elevation over row A.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Woodsman ***

James Ortiz is a man of many talents. He is not only the playwright, but the set and puppet designer, co-director (with Claire Karpen) and star of this imaginative version of the back story of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. After three previous productions, the play has settled in at New World Stages. After a short prologue, words cease and the tragic tale is told through movement, mime, nonverbal exclamations, percussive sounds and marvelous Bunraku-like puppetry. The action is accompanied by Edward W. Hardy’s evocative score played by violinist Naomi Florin with lyrics by Jen Loring. The talented cast of nine portray Mick Chopper (Ortiz), his parents (Will Gallacher and Lauren Nordvig), his true love Nimmee (Eliza Martin Simpson), the tinker (Gallacher, Alex Gould and Amanda A. Lederer) and assorted munchkins (Benjamin Bass, Gould, Meghan St. Thomas and Sophia Zukoski).The actors also manipulate life-size puppets of the Wicked Witch of the West, a terrifying kalidah (half bear, half tiger) and the tin man. The lovely immersive set has lots of bare branches, dozens of hanging mason jar lights and a back wall of thick tree trunks. The lighting by Catherine Clark and Jamie Roderick adds greatly to the atmosphere. The forest sounds that greet the audience upon arrival also help set the mood. The peasant-like costumes by Molly Seidel are described as blue but looked gray to me. The play’s various elements blend seamlessly to produce an enchanted world. The use of puppets is the finest I have seen since War Horse. If you are intrigued by inventive stagecraft, you will have a fine time. If you prefer your storytelling more conventional, you may be unhappy. It is not recommended for children under eight. Don’t sit in the front row if an axe swinging near your head would make you nervous. Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Southern Comfort ***

Kate Davis’s 2001 documentary of the same title is an extremely moving film about Robert Eads, a female-to-male transgender person dying, ironically, of ovarian cancer in rural Georgia, surrounded by his mostly transgender friends. Robert Dusold and Thomas Caruso have conceived the work for the stage, with music by Julianne Wick Davis and book and lyrics by Dan Collins. During his final year of life Eads (Annette O’Toole) finds true love with Lola Cola, (Jeff McCarthy) a tall transexual who has not yet committed to hormones or surgery. Jackson (Jeff Kuhn) is a younger F-to-M who has been friends with Robert for 10 years and regards him as his spiritual father. Sam (Donnie Cianciotto), another F-to-M transexual, and Melanie (Robin Skye), a biological woman, are a devoted couple who are also friends of Robert’s. Carly (Aneesh Sheth) is a sexy M-to-F transexual who is currently seeing Jackson. Four of the five musicians (David M. Lutken, Lizzie Hagstedt, Joel Waggoner and Elizabeth Ward Land) also sing and step into the action to play secondary characters such as Robert’s parents and Jackson’s father.  (David Morse, the pianist, does not.) Southern Comfort is the name of the annual transgender event in Atlanta that Robert and his friends regularly attend. While the book is mostlly faithful to the essentials of the film, it makes things a bit more schematic. As I am not a fan of country/bluegrass music, I did not really enjoy the score. To my ears, much of the music seemed monotonous and repetitive. The present Public Theater production features the same cast as the 2011 CAP 21 version except for Cianciotto and Sheth who are transgendered. The song list is almost identical too. The rustic set by James J. Fenton is dominated by a large tree filled with boxes of tchotchkes a la Joseph Cornell. Patricia Doherty’s costumes are spot-on. Thomas Caruso’s direction is seamless. The entire cast, especially O’Toole and McCarthy, are excellent. Although, for me, the music did not really enhance the story, it is still a moving and timely tale that I am glad will be seen by new audiences. I highly recommend renting the film too. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Hold On to Me Darling ***

It’s good to see Kenneth Lonergan get his playwriting chops back in this new comedy at Atlantic Theater Company, his best work for the stage since Lobby Hero in 2001. Timothy Olyphant (“Damages” and “Justified” on TV) plays Strings McCrane, a 39-year-old comically self-absorbed country western singer and movie star who reexamines his life upon the death of his mother. When he heads back home to rural Tennessee for the funeral, he decides to cast off the trappings of celebrity and try the simple life. It may not turn out well for him, but it certainly pays off for the audience. The satire is broad and the dialogue, frequently hilarious. Jenn Lyon from “The Wayside Motor Inn” plays Nancy, the seemingly good-hearted masseuse he meets at his hotel. Adelaide Clemens is Essie, the second cousin twice removed that he encounters at the funeral. C.J. Wilson is Duke, his big brother, with whom he has a volatile relationship. The rarely unemployed Keith Nobbs (“The Legend of Georgia McBride”) plays Jimmy, his overly devoted, long-suffering personal assistant. Jonathan Hogan is Mitch, a figure from the distant past who suddenly reappears. The actors are uniformly excellent. The play could benefit from some trimming as it’s a bit too slight for its length. The second act loses steam and the final scene does not seem to fit very well. Walt Spangler (“Between Riverside and Crazy”) once again comes up with a terrific revolving set that includes seven distinct locations. The costumes by Suttriat Anne Larlarb help greatly in creating the characters. Neil Pepe’s fluid direction keeps everything moving smoothly. It’s a little too much of a good thing, but I’m not complaining. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Hungry ***

Theatergoers who enjoyed Richard Nelson’s set of four plays about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York will be delighted that Nelson is back at the Public Theater with a new series of three plays about a different local family. “Hungry,” the first installment of “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family” opened on March 4, the same day that it is set. Coming up in September is “What Did You Expect?” and, on Election Day, the final play “Women of a Certain Age.” With “Hungry,” the series is off to a fine start. Nelson’s skill at incorporating feelings about events in the larger world into naturalistic family conversations is even more seamlessly realized here than in the Apple plays. The cost of this seamlessness is a lessening of drama and traditional plot, a tradeoff I can readily accept. The Gabriels have gathered to scatter the ashes of Thomas Gabriel, a playwright who died four months prior. The absolutely superb ensemble cast includes two holdovers from the Apple plays — Maryann Plunkett as Thomas’s widow, third wife and retired doctor, and Jay O. Sanders as his brother George, a piano teacher and cabinetmaker. The other family members present are George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley), who works for a local caterer; George’s sister Joyce (Amy Warren), an assistant costume designer who has come up from Brooklyn; and Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), George and Joyce’s frail but crusty mother who now resides in an assisted living facility. Thomas’s first wife Karin (Meg Gibson) is also there, a not wholly welcome guest. As the women prepare a supper of homemade bread, ratatouille over pasta, salad and apple crisp, they all discuss a multitude of issues, many of which suggest an underlying feeling of unease that has gripped the family and the country. Gentrification, carpetbagging, a diminishing sense of history, the toxic political environment, the need to preserve memories, an old book on housewifery and a unique method of determining the correct portion of pasta are all discussed. There is a sense of introducing the characters to lay the foundation for following their course in the two remaining installments. The archangel Gabriel was a messenger. We shall see what message these Gabriels bring. Susan Hilferty designed the costumes and, with Jason Ardizzone West, the cozy set. Nelson is a notable exception (along with Alan Ayckbourn) to my rule that playwrights should not direct their own plays. I doubt that anyone could do as well. If you demand fast-acting drama, you will be miserable, but if you enjoy leisurely conversation by intelligent people, you will be quite content. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Straight **

“Bisexual” or “Closeted” might have been a more accurate title for this dramedy by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola now at the Acorn Theatre. Perhaps the authors were aiming for irony by their choice. I had decided to skip it because of its insipid marketing campaign, but a positive review in the Times piqued my curiosity. Ben (a very fine Jake Epstein) is a handsome, intelligent, superficially charming, “straight-acting” 26-year-old investment banker comfortably ensconced in a generically attractive Boston apartment, which is symbolically decorated in shades of gray. We meet him drinking beer and watching football on his sofa with Chris (the promising Thomas E. Sullivan), a 20-year-old student at Boston College. They probably met through an online hookup site and this is their first encounter. After drinking lots of beer, they finally get around to canoodling, but not before being interrupted by a phone call that reveals that Ben has a girlfriend, Emily (Jenna Gavigan, good in a mostly thankless role). In a gentler age, Ben would have been called a cad. Emily is a 27-year-old overworked biology graduate student, conveniently working on a project exploring the problem of nature vs. nurture. Ben and Emily have been a couple for five years, but the commitment-phobic Ben keeps fending off Emily’s suggestions that they move on to the next level. As Ben and Chris become more involved, Emily implausibly remains blissfully ignorant even after walking in on them in their skivvies. Somewhat surprisingly, the seemingly free-spirited Chris turns out to be just as closeted as Ben. Both are reluctant to be known as gay because, even today, people regard gayness as the crux of one’s identity rather than one aspect of it. Despite all the progress of the last few decades, the play suggests that being gay is still no picnic. When Emily presses Ben to move in with her, the situation reaches a crisis. There are occasional comments that relate to the status of 20-somethings in today’s America, but the core issue of the play seems a bit dated.  Andy Sandberg’s fluid direction moves the action along briskly. The absence of a bed or even a sofa bed in Charlie Corcoran’s attractive set is puzzling; the couch gets quite a workout. Michael McDonald’s costumes suit the characters well. When the brief final scene abruptly ended with a blackout, the audience reacted with total silence. Not until the actors appeared for the curtain call did the applause begin. I’m not sure the delayed reaction was due to shock or just uncertainty that the play had ended, but it was a peculiar experience. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Boy *

I had high hopes for Anna Ziegler’s new play, now in previews at Keen Company in a co-production with Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Ziegler’s recent play “A Delicate Ship” was intriguing, the topic of nature vs. nurture in the context of gender reassignment surgery sounded promising, and the star was Bobby Steggert, an actor whose work I have always admired. The play is based on an actual case. When Sam, one of their twin boys is accidentally mutilated in a botched circumcision, his parents turn to a famous physician who persuades them to remove the boy’s remaining genitals and raise him as a girl. Eventually, nature trumps nurture and the adolescent Samantha decides to live in accordance with genetic makeup. Most of the action takes place when the protagonist, now known as Adam, is 22, but there are flashbacks to the birth year and the years in between. Trudy and Doug, the parents faced with the terrible decision of how to raise their damaged child, are well-played by Heidi Armbruster and Ted Koch. Jenny (Rebecca Rittenhouse) is effective as the woman Adam takes a shine to. Paul Niebanck as Dr. Wendell Barnes, the doctor who treated Samantha for a dozen years and is blinded by the desire to prove his theories, comes across as stiff. Steggert’s character seems too childlike as an adult and too grown up as a child, a fault I blame on the playwright and, to a lesser extent, on director Linsay Firman. The dialog is extremely clunky at times and the situation’s inherent potential for drama is largely unrealized. The scenic design by Sandra Goldmark featuring a second set of furnishings upside down and in reverse above the main set behind a scrim seemed like a clumsy metaphor. Unfortunately, my high expectations led to deep disappointment. Running time: 85  minutes; no intermission.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Royale ***

After the success of The Great White Hope, Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 play about the career of early 20th-century black boxer Jack Johnson, starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, it takes an act of bravery to write another play on that subject. Playwright Marco Ramirez’s drama, now in previews at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, focuses on the attempt to arrange an interracial championship bout between the black champion, called here Jay “The Sport” Jackson, with Bixby, the retired world champion. We meet Jay (Khris Davis); his trainer Wynton (Clarke Peters); Fish (McKinley Belcher III), Jay’s sparring partner; Max (John Lavelle), his white manager; and Nina (Montego Glover of “Memphis”), his sister. The emphasis is on what motivates Jackson and what collateral damage he is willing to overlook. The play would be rather pedestrian if not for the superbly stylized direction by Rachel Chavkin (“Preludes” and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”) which dramatically elevates the material. No choreographer is listed so the credit for staging the almost balletic fight scenes must belong to Chavkin. Punches are percussively replaced by claps and stomps. The staging of the climactic match is even more surprising. The production is enhanced by Nick Vaughn’s monochromatic brown plank set and Dede M. Ayile’s period costumes. The actors mostly succeed in enlivening their rather generic characters. Although the material is a bit thin and formulaic, Chaikin's energetic staging made me more than willing to overlook the play’s flaws. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.