Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nathan the Wise **

For his final production as artistic director of Classic Stage Company (CSC), Brian Kulick has chosen this 1779 “drama of ideas” by German Enlightenment philosopher/playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Set in Jerusalem in 1192 during the Third Crusade, it makes a case for religious tolerance between Jews, Muslims and Christians. The title character (F. Murray Abraham) is a wealthy Jewish merchant, just back from a long journey, who learns that his daughter Rachel (Erin Neufer) has been rescued from a fire by a mysterious Knight Templar (Stark Sands) who had been spared from execution by the Muslim ruler Saladin (Austin Durant) because of his strong resemblance to Saladin’s late brother. The Templar at first vehemently refuses to have anything to do with the Jew Nathan, but is rather suddenly won over by his intellect and soon falls in love with his daughter. Daya (Caroline Lagerfelt), Rachel’s Christian nurse, tells the Templar a secret that puts Nathan at great risk from the Patriarch of Jerusalem (also played by Lagerfelt). The other characters are Al-Hafi (George Abud), a dervish who provides comic relief; Sittah (Shiva Kalaiselvan), Saladin’s clever sister; and Brother (John Christopher Jones), a monk with a secret. The central portion of the play deals with a perilous challenge from Saladin for Nathan to tell him which religion most pleases God. Nathan adroitly handles the situation by telling a parable about three rings, one of which has magical powers. A father who loved his three sons equally had two duplicates made and told each son that he had been given the original ring. A wise judge told the sons that the only way to determine who had the magic ring was for each to behave as if worthy of it. Saladin succumbs to the powers of Nathan’s intellect and takes him as his friend. A pair of revelations about two orphans provides a rather hackneyed ending. I found some of Kulick’s choices perplexing. The entire back wall of Tony Straiges’s set is covered with a sepia photograph of a bombed-out street in a place like Syria or Gaza. This wall is covered by an unexplained projected Arabic script at the beginning of each act. There is a row of chairs across the back of this wall where the actors sometimes sit when they are not in a scene. The floor is covered with oriental carpets which are rolled, unrolled or pulled up at various moments. In a framing device, the play opens with the actors in modern dress arguing in Arabic until Abraham shushes them so he can tell a story. The costume design by Anita Yavich has each don an attractive white robe covered with ornamental calligraphy appropriate to the character’s religion. The actors wait for the second act to begin while Durant and Abud say their evening prayers. What we are to make of this mishmash of imagery was not clear to me. The acting is uneven. Lagerfelt was very good in both roles. Sands coped well with the abrupt changes in his character's behavior. Abraham was blessedly restrained. It was a minor pleasure to be exposed to this rarely seen curiosity. Running time: two hours.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Long Day’s Journey into Night **

When a Pulitzer and Tony winning play regarded by many as a masterpiece is revived with a stellar cast, it is cause for keen anticipation. And so I was eagerly awaiting Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play starring Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr. as the members of the Tyrone family. O’Neill forbade publication until 25 years after his death, but his widow overrode his wishes and published the play in 1956, only three years after he died. James Tyrone (Byrne) is a miserly 65-year-old actor who sold out by repeating the same lucrative role for too many years. James Jr. (Shannon) is the 33-year-old elder son, a ne’er-do-well who has managed to have a third-rate acting career trading on his father’s name. Edmund (Gallagher), ten years younger, has always been frail and sickly. A would-be writer, he is O’Neill’s stand-in. All three Tyrone men are devoted to the bottle. Finally there is wife and mother Mary (Lange), a faded beauty who became addicted to morphine after Edmund’s birth and has just returned from yet another sanitorium stay. Over four acts stretching from morning to midnight on a day in August 1912, we watch this ultimate dysfunctional family lacerate themselves and each other, expressing affection, hatred, exasperation, blame, sympathy and denial. Brevity and subtlety are not among O’Neill’s strengths. While I remember being tremendously moved by the 1962 film version with Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards Jr. and Dean Stockwell, today I found myself restless and impatient. When intermission arrived at the 1 1/2 hour mark, I realized with dread that there were still two hours to go afterwards. The fourth and final act seemed endless. I have been trying to figure out why it didn’t work for me this time. The first problem for me was that Shannon is so much bigger than Byrne that he literally and figuratively overshadows him. In a restrained performance, Byrne is not convincing as a former matinee idol. Lange’s Mary, on the other hand, is much too theatrical for my taste. Shannon has so much presence that he dominates any scene he is in. Gallagher’s Edmund is adequate but unmemorable. Colby Minifie is fine as Cathleen, the maid. The effective set design by Tom Pye features a low ceiling that ominously hangs over the family. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are fine, especially Mary’s dresses in pale colors that suggest her fading away. Jonathan Kent’s direction does not produce a unity of approach from the actors. If you have never seen the play and have the patience to sit for almost four hours, see it. If you have fond memories of an earlier production, treasure them and sit this one out. Running time: 3 hours 45 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dry Powder ***

Sarah Burgess must be the luckiest playwright in town. For her New York debut, she scored a top-drawer Public Theater production of this dark comedy about the workings of a private equity firm. The starry cast includes Hank Azaria (Spamalot), Claire Danes (Homeland) and John Krasinski (The Office) and the director is Thomas Kail (Hamilton). The Martinson Theater has been reconfigured with seating on four sides surrounding a starkly minimalist set by Rachel Hauck (Night Is a Room) all in cobalt blue, brilliantly lit by Jason Lyons. The actors are sleekly costumed in business attire by Clint Ramos; even the stagehands are dressed for the office. The production values set a high standard for the play to match. It almost succeeds. Burgess has written snappy dialog for vivid characters: Rick (Azaria), head of KMM Capital, has left Goldman and brought along two proteges, Seth (Krasinski) and Jenny (Danes), as founding partners. Blinded by privilege, Rick has precipitated a P.R. nightmare by holding an extravagant engagement party on the very day that hundreds of employees were laid off at a firm KMM recently acquired. KMM’s "dry powder" (available capital) is threatened when some limited partners, angered at being targeted by demonstrators, have pulled out their investments. Seth brings Rick a deal to acquire Landmark Luggage, a failing California firm that, he maintains, will offer both an opportunity to create American jobs and thereby improve KMM’s reputation, as well as a chance to make serious money. Jenny counters that they can make more money doing their usual “rip and flip,” cannibalizing the firm and selling off its assets. The central conflict is between Seth, a pleasant guy who seems to think that private equity is not inherently evil, and Jenny, a near-robotic number cruncher, whose sole focus is on maximizing profit irrespective of public relations concerns. Jenny, in today’s parlance, is “on the spectrum;” her example alone would be enough to give Asperger’s a bad name. If a man had written her character, he would have without a doubt drawn the wrath of all feminists. Her monomania and ongoing disdain for Seth are a source of many of the play’s laughs. Seth’s values are tested when the plans for the deal he has worked out with Landmark’s CEO Jeff (Sanjit de Silva), seemingly a man of principle, are threatened. Rick adapts to each changing situation without concern for morality or consistency. For most viewers there will be few surprises and little new information about high finance. The play also becomes somewhat cartoonish and repetitive at times. Nevertheless, with its outstanding cast and stylish production, it is often tremendously entertaining. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

School of Rock - The Musical ***

It may be simplistic, manipulative and slick, but this musical version of the popular 2003 film is a fast-paced family-friendly entertainment that is hard to resist. Its creative team includes a pair of big names: the music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the book is by Julian Fellowes (who, in addition to Downton Abbey, wrote the book for Mary Poppins). Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid) wrote the lyrics. Alex Brightman is a veritable powerhouse as Dewey Finn, the ersatz substitute teacher who turns his class at the preppy Horace Green School into a rock band. Sierra Boggess is delightful as the principal who, unexpectedly,  breaks into excerpts from Mozart’s aria for the Queen of the Night. Best of all are the appealing child actors who have prodigious musical talents. Anna Louizos’s attractive set design changes locations smoothly and her costumes are appropriate. The choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter is lively and the direction by Laurence Connor is seamless and assured. The show is far from subtle, but resistance is futile. The audience, which included many families as well as foreign tourists, loved it. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Dear Evan Hansen ****

Fresh from a highly acclaimed run at Arena Stage in Washington, this bracing new musical with music and lyrics by Benj Hasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight and A Christmas Story: The Musical, both of which I admired) and book by Steven Levenson (The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, which I did not) is now running at Second Stage. Levenson’s well-crafted book brings the oft-told tale of a teenage misfit trying to cope with the torments of high school up to date for today’s world of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Kickstarter -- social media that are all too available to magnify and commodify events that used to remain private. The title character (a superb Ben Platt) inadvertently becomes involved in a misunderstanding and, through his efforts to be kind to the parents of Connor Murphy (Mike Faist) a classmate who has committed suicide, becomes enveloped in a quicksand of lies. Evan has a difficult relationship with his stressed-out single mother Heidi (a fine Rachel Bay Jones) who is too swamped with work and night school to provide him with the attention he craves. Larry and Cynthia Murphy (John Dossett and a moving Jennifer Laura Thompson), Connor’s grieving and unhappily wed parents, are comforted by the stories Evan manufactures for them and make him almost a family member. An added benefit for Evan is that he is able to spend more time with their daughter Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss) on whom he has long had a crush. Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd) and Jared Kleinman (Will Roland) provide comic relief as two classmates who assist Evan with his deception. The contemporary pop score is well-integrated into the book. The emotional moments are quite gripping. David Korins’s set design has round platforms that whirl in and out of sight and black backdrops for the projection of social media. Emily Rebholz’s costumes befit the characters. Michael Greif (Next to Normal and Grey Gardens) once again shows his skill in directing thought-provoking musicals. The audience, far younger than the usual subscription crowd, loved it. I would not be surprised if a transfer to Broadway is in the works. Running time: 2 1/2 hours, including intermission.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sense & Sensibility ****

Bedlam is a theater group that presents “creative reappraisals of the classics.” Their bracing version of Jane Austen’s first novel is now playing at The Gym at Judson. Kate Hamill’s ingenious adaptation offers sheer delight with its creative stagecraft, lively exuberance, clever storytelling and fine acting. The talented cast of ten, some doubling and even tripling roles, vividly bring Austen’s characters to life. Andrus Nichols has the right gravitas for Elinor Dashwood and Hamill is appropriately overwrought as her sister Marianne. Jason O’Connell as both Edward Ferrars and his brother Robert, John Russell as John Willoughby and Edmund Lewis as Colonel Brandon are all fine. The other actors (Laura Baranik, Samantha Steinmetz, Jessica Frey, Stephan Wolfert and Gabra Zackman) are equally able. One clever scene has two actors simultaneously portraying two pairs of sisters. John McDermott’s set features four full-length windows, a door frame, a sofa, a few tables and numerous chairs, all mounted on casters that allow them to be moved around the stage by the actors with near-dizzying speed. Angela Huff’s period costumes, hidden below modern clothes at the opening, fit in with the spirit of the production. Director Eric Tucker deftly keeps everything under control. It all makes for a very enjoyable experience. Running time: 2 1/2 hours including intermission. NOTE: The show is going on a two-month hiatus soon but will reopen in mid-June and run through September. For information see

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Father ***

The universally extravagant praise from across the pond for French playwright Florian Zeller’s unnerving portrait of a proud man’s descent into dementia set my expectations a bit too high. That is not to say that this Manhattan Theater Club production starring the magnificent Frank Langella is not worth seeing. Quite the contrary. I just felt that his performance was better than the material. Zeller cleverly presents things from the confused point of view of the person with dementia. Andre (Langella), a retired engineer, has once again driven away a caregiver that his daughter Anne (a fine Kathryn Erbe) has hired to help him cope with his increasingly confused state. The audience is forced to feel Andre’s disorientation as we are presented with conflicting sets of facts and even different actors playing the same roles. Anne is either divorced, married to Pierre (Brian Avers) or moving to London with her new lover. Laura (Hannah Cabell), a prospective caregiver, reminds Andre of his mysteriously absent daughter Elise whom he always favored over Anne. Charles Borland (Man) and Kathleen McNenny (Woman) round out the good cast. There’s more than a touch of Pinter lurking here. Even Scott Pask’s set reflects Andre’s confusion as objects disappear from the elegant Parisian apartment between scenes. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are fine. Doug Hughes’s direction is assured. Multiple short scenes are punctuated by flashing lights around the proscenium and loud strings, which becomes tiresome rather quickly. Go for the bravura performance by Langella and you won’t be disappointed. The audience reaction varied widely. The man next to me abruptly left midway through the play. The woman behind me was weeping softly. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Head of Passes **

A program note says that playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s current play, now at the Public Theater, was inspired by the Book of Job. While the faith of matriarch Shelah (Phylicia Rashad) is also sorely tested by multiple tragedies, there is an important difference between her and Job. Despite her outward piety, we learn in the play’s final moments that she is far from guiltless. The setting is a former b&b at the mouth of the Mississippi where Shelah has lived alone since the death of her beloved husband. She has two sons, the successful but hot-tempered Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and the likable but unreliable Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway), who both live nearby. They have arranged a surprise party for her birthday and invited her vivacious old friend Mae (Arnetia Walker) and Dr. Anderson (Robert Joy), the only person who knows that Shelah is dying. Breaker (John Earl Jelks), a crusty old family friend, snd his son Crier (Kyle Beltran) have been hired to serve at the party. We also meet the mercurial Cookie (Alana Arenas), the illegitimate daughter that Shelah’s husband brought home as an infant whom Shelah has raised as her own, but who is now a drug addict who avoids the family home. The raging storm and leaky roof portend ill. The first act is a sometimes uneven mix of comedy and drama that ends with a bang.  Most of the second act is an extended monologue for Shelah, who tries unsuccessfully to find the divine purpose in her misfortunes. Rashad is superb but her full-throttle performance was not enough to distract me from the play’s weaknesses. The entire cast is strong. I was disappointed that Beltran, so fine in McCraney’s Choir Boy as well as in Fortress of Solitude, never gets to perform the song he was supposed to sing at the party. The set by G.W. Mercier certainly commands our attention. Toni-Leslie James's costumes are appropriate. Tina Landau directs with a feeling for the material. I give McCraney credit for trying something different with each play, but I found the current play overwrought, muddled and disjointed, less satisfying than either his Choir Boy or Wig Out. The audience was very enthusiastic. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.