Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City **

If you are not offended by the idea of a black comedy with cancer jokes, raunchy language and sexual situations set in a hospital room with two cancer patients lying silently in their beds, you are in for some very funny moments during this MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. You may feel guilty for laughing at times, but laugh you will. Good taste is not on the agenda. Karla (Beth Behrs of “2 Broke Girls” in a promising debut), a struggling comedienne with a potty mouth, tries out new comedy bits on her sleeping mother Marcie (the ever-watchable Lisa Emery). Don (a fine Eric Lochtefeld), a rumpled middle-aged guy dealing with a messy divorce and an unruly son, is visiting his mother Geena (Jacqueline Sydney) who lies in bed with a shaved head and has at most a handful of lines. Don and Karla get off on the wrong foot, but gradually share confidences and grow closer. There are several effective set pieces, either comedic or dramatic, with dry stretches in between. Too often getting an easy laugh trumps plausibility. Even a hilarious sex scene milks laughs for too long. The ending is weak. Nevertheless, the dialogue is snappy, the acting is fine and the attempt by playwright Halley Feiffer (I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard) to try something different is admirable. The hospital room set design by Lauren Helpern looks extremely authentic and the costumes by Kaye Voyce help define the characters. Trip Cullman’s direction is assured. Those not turned off by the play’s premise are likely to enjoy themselves for most of the time. Running time: 90 minutes.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Hero's Welcome ***

The annual Brits Off Broadway season is back at 59E59 Theatre. The prodigiously prolific Alan Ayckbourn is represented by the U.S. premiere of his 79th play as well as an evening of older short plays which I will review next week.. One of the pleasures of an Ayckbourn season is becoming reacquainted with fine actors who have appeared in previous seasons. This year three actors who graced the 2014 season have returned. Richard Stacey plays Murray, an acclaimed military hero whose return to his home town after 17 years wreaks general havoc. Elizabeth Boag plays Alice, the town’s mayor, whom Murray jilted at the altar. Russell Dixon is her much older husband Derek, a model train fanatic. They are joined by two other stalwarts of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT) of Scarborough, Ayckbourn’s artistic home — Charlotte Harwood doubling as Kara, the abused wife of Murray’s old friend Brad and as Simone, her daughter, and Evelyn Hoskins as Madrababacascabuna (Baba), the young war bride Murray has brought home. Stephen Billington, although an apparent newcomer to SJT, fits in seamlessly as the toxic Brad. Murray’s return is not welcomed by those he upset long ago; nor is his plan to remodel and reopen the pub once owned by his father but now the property of the town council and a candidate for demolition. Past events are explained more fully in a way that generates compassion for the characters. Designer Michael Holt’s set design, greatly assisted by Jason Taylor’s excellent lighting, delineates four distinct areas — a BBC studio, the living room of a mansion, a generic hotel room and a large kitchen with a model train running through it. The play is plot-heavy and would benefit from a bit of tightening. While it does not represent Ayckbourn at his best, it nevertheless offers much to enjoy. As is his custom, the playwright directed. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Peer Gynt **

Classic Stage Company’s new production directed and adapted by its incoming artistic director John Doyle is a case of too little Ibsen and too much Doyle. Up to a point, Doyle’s stripped-down version with just seven actors works, but there is so little specificity about location or identity of the characters that it all runs together into a blur. Perhaps Doyle thought this would give the play more universality, but I wasn’t buying it. Doyle’s signature tic of having the actors play instruments has become a cliche; fortunately, only two actors (Jane Pfitsch and George Abud) are so burdened in this production. Other directorial choices puzzled me — the character called The Undertaker (Adam Heller) speaks with a New York accent while The Mother (Becky Ann Baker) has a Southern accent. The usually fine Dylan Baker (The Doctor) and Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Solveig) do not have much opportunity to show their strengths. Not even the amazing performance by Gabriel Ebert as the title character is enough to hold things together. Doyle must have instructed him to downplay Peer Gynt’s age in the final scenes, which robs the play of some of its pathos. Nevertheless, Ebert is a wonder to behold. He is onstage for virtually the entire play and probably has 90% of the lines. This adaptation falls between two stools: it’s too long to sit comfortably through for two hours but too short to do justice to Ibsen. David L. Asenault’s scenic design features a raised rectangular platform with a step on each end. Ann Hould-Ward’s modern-dress costumes are stylish. The music for violin by Dan Moses Schreier is no threat to Grieg. I hope this production will not set the template for what we can expect during Doyle’s reign as artistic director. Running time: 2 hours, no intermission. NOTE: Avoid seats in the 200 section where you will often face the actors’ backs and in the front row of the two side sections which are benches with no arms or back.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Robber Bridegroom **

It’s unfortunate that I saw the Roundabout revival of this 1975 musical so soon after seeing the wonderful Hadestown. The afterglow of the latter show made this one seem even cruder and more insipid by comparison. This adaptation of a novella by Eudora Welty, with a book by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and music by Robert Waldman (40 songs for "Captain Kangaroo'), has been given the full Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher, Here Lies Love) treatment, abetted by Donyale Werle’s over-cluttered set and Emily Rebholz’s attention-grabbing costumes. Everything is geared to being relentlessly entertaining and the effort shows. A Mississippi folk tale of a gentleman by day/robber by night turns into little more than an animated cartoon set to loud bluegrass music. The usually excellent Stephen Pasquale (The Bridges of Madison County, Far from Heaven) does not get much chance to show his strengths and the always enjoyable Leslie Kritzer (Legally Blonde, School of Rock) is ill-used. Ahna O’Reilly is lovely and spirited as the ingenue. The other hard-working cast members do their best with roles untouched by subtlety. Maybe I just got up on the wrong side of bed, but I found the entire production tedious. It was a long 90 minutes and I had a headache when it was finally over. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Hadestown ****

New York Theatre Workshop has pulled out all the stops for its production of Anais Mitchell’s folk opera based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. They have completely reconfigured the interior of the theater, building a 3/4 circular wooden amphitheater with room for the musicians in the gap. They brought in one of our finest young directors, Rachel Chavkin (The Royale; Small Mouth Sounds; Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812), to develop the project with Mitchell. The casting is nothing less than superb: Damon Daunno (Curly in Oklahoma! at Bard) as Orpheus, Nabiyah Be (Queen of the Night) as Eurydice, Patrick Page (Spring Awakening, Casa Valentina, Spider-Man) as Hades and Amber Gray (Laurey in Bard’s Oklahoma!) as Persephone. From Daunno’s gorgeous falsetto to Page’s mesmerizing basso, they cover the vocal range admirably. Chris Sullivan is a charismatic Hermes, who serves as our narrator. The Fates — Shaina Taub (Old Hats), Lulu Fall and Jessie Shelton — not only sing well, but break out instruments at key moments. The seven-piece band does right by Mitchell’s outstanding score, a blend of folk, country, gospel, blues and New Orleans jazz. Rachel Hauck’s set features a leafless, gnarly tree that overhangs the performing space. Michael Krass’s costumes are suitable without being showy. David Neumann’s choreography provides needed fluidity to the production. Chavkin's masterful direction holds everything together beautifully. It’s not perfect. Some of the narrative themes, particularly in the first act, were either confusing or underdeveloped. However, it’s one of the rare shows that improves in the second act. I’m not sure the production shakes off its concept album roots sufficiently to qualify as a folk opera, but I’m not going to quibble over category in the face of so much talent. The audience included many young people who were fans of the album. The seating is on a motley array of wooden chairs with cushions thoughtfully provided. I enjoyed the afternoon thoroughly. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Daphne's Dive **

The barroom drama is not a genre that I have ever had an affinity for. Nothing about Quiara Algeria Hudes’s latest play at Signature Theatre has changed my opinion, although I will grant that, unlike some, it at least avoids focusing on a group of alcoholics. Set in the eponymous North Philly bar over an 18-year period, the play introduces us to the strangely reticent bar owner Daphne (Vanessa Aspillaga) and her adopted daughter Ruby (Samira Wiley), whom she rescued from an abusive family when Ruby was 11. We also meet Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Daphne’s older sister who has married Acosta (Carlos Gomez), a wealthy entrepreneur from the hood, and moved to a Main Line suburb. Three denizens of the bar who all look to Acosta for favors are Pablo (Matt Saldivar), an artist who likes to paint garbage; Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a reluctant day laborer who only works enough to support his beloved motorcycle; and Jenn (KK Moggie), a seemingly free-spirited political activist/performance artist. In six scenes that take Ruby from age 11 to 29 (and back again), we follow the changes in these characters over the years. Unfortunately, most of their stories are not that compelling and Hudes does not take us very deeply into their motivation. If I didn’t already know that the playwright had won a Pulitzer Prize (for her play “Water by the Spoonful”), I would not have guessed it from the present work. The actors are fine, the set (by Donyale Werle) is evocative, the costumes (by Toni-Leslie James) are appropriate, the direction (by Thomas Kail) is assured, but somehow, for me at least, the payoff was meager. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes; no intermission. NOTE: Avoid row A because of a high stage.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Ruins of Civilization ***

For its final play of the season, Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting the world premiere of an unsettling drama by award-winning British playwright Penelope Skinner (The Village Bike). The play is set in a dystopian England of the future where the government tightly regulates most aspects of life and empathy is in short supply. Silver (Tim Daly) is an anal-retentive writer who has been doing research on a novel for nine years. His sensitive wife Dolores (Rachael Holmes) has been troubled by things they have just seen on a trip to an island that is about to vanish due to climate change. Joy (Orlagh Cassidy) is the government functionary who visits the couple periodically to check on Dolores. Apparently the couple’s stipend has been temporarily trimmed until Dolores gets over having thoughts that are against government policy. Without consulting her husband, Dolores invites Mara (Roxanna Hope), an immigrant from the doomed island, to occupy their spare room. Complications ensue. Through seemingly offhand remarks, Skinner builds a chilling picture of a society that is plausible enough to make one uncomfortable. The actors were fine except for an occasional stumble over accents. Neil Patel’s attractive set has subtle hints of futurity and Jessica Pabst’s costumes, particularly the jackets and shoes for Silver, are stylishly modern. Some aspects of the plot do not stand up to close examination, the emotional temperature could use a boost and the first act could use a trim. Nevertheless, the play held my interest and raised issues that merit our attention. Leah C. Gardiner directed. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes, including intermission.

NOTE: The three most interesting plays of the MTC season were all by foreign playwrights (Florian Zeller, Nick Payne and Penelope Skinner). Three others were by MTC old timers — Richard Greenberg, David Lindsay-Abaire and John Patrick Shanley. Add in a mediocre revival (Fool for Love) and an absolutely ghastly new play (Important Hats of the Twentieth Century). Can MTC do better? Hope springs eternal.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Incognito ***

Nick Payne’s intriguing play at Manhattan Theatre Club is cerebral both figuratively and literally: it’s brainy and it’s about the brain. Just as quantum physics played an important role in “Constellations,” his last play at MTC, neuroscience is at the center of this one. In an author’s note, Payne says that the play is loosely based on real events and cites ten sources that inspired him. The three main narratives are about Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who took Einstein’s brain and wasted the rest of his career trying to find something special about it; Henry Maison, a young man who, after experimental surgery for epilepsy, was unable to form new memories for the rest of his long life; and Martha Murphy, a fictional middle-aged neuropsychologist with a dim view of human autonomy, trying to reboot her life after a divorce. There are also several subsidiary stories woven into the narrative. The gimmick is that all 20 roles are played by four actors — Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind and Morgan Spector —who transition between characters with lightning speed. Text on the rear wall identifies the play’s three sections — Encoding, Storing and Retrieving. This segmentation seemed arbitrary and the moment of stylized movement and gestures that introduced each one was an unnecessary distraction. As in any pastiche, some stories are better than others. I wished that some had been prolonged and others had been attenuated or even eliminated. I found Martha’s story not very compelling, but was extremely moved by Henry’s tale. The actors are wonderful, particularly Carr and Cox. Scott Pask’s strikingly simple set consists of a large circular platform with four chairs backed by a semicircular wall, all in charcoal, with a ring of lights above the wall. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are all in various shades of gray. Director Doug Hughes skillfully juggles the many strands so that the audience can usually find its bearings without undue difficulty. I admired Payne’s ambition and intelligence even when an occasional scene misfired. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Indecent ***

Borrowing from “Shuffle Along,” I could say that “Indecent” might well be subtitled  “The Making of the Broadway Sensation of 1923 and All That Followed.” Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel has written a complex, ambitious work, “created by” herself and director Rebecca Taichman, about the rocky history of “God of Vengeance,” Sholem Asch’s controversial 1907 play. The melodramatic story of a Jewish brothel owner whose daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes, the play’s second act contains the notorious “rain scene” that shows the tender love between the two women. The depiction of Jews as pimps and prostitutes and the desecration of a torah in the final scene made the play problematic. After a striking opening image, the present play takes us from Asch’s play’s raucous first reading at a Warsaw salon for Yiddish writers through its success in several European capitals to its move to the Bowery, then on to Greenwich Village. To secure an English-language production on Broadway, the producer, much to the devoted cast’s dismay, excised the rain scene. Nevertheless, inflamed by condemnation by the rabbi of Temple Emmanuel, the city closed the play down after one performance and successfully tried the cast and producer for obscenity. Asch neither protested the play’s mutilation nor attended the trial to defend the loyal cast. Allegedly, he had just returned from a mission to Eastern Europe and was too traumatized by what he saw there to care much about what happened to his play. The transformative power of his play on the devoted cast who perform it for so many years is in stark contrast with Asch’s loss of interest in it. I fear that the present play attempts to tell too many stories at once: the importance of Yiddish literature and especially Yiddish theater, the bonds within a theater troupe, the positive presentation of lesbianism, the fear of encouraging anti-Semitism, the difficulties of assimilation, fragments of Asch’s long career and the tragic loss of a Yiddish audience. The playwright posits a final performance of Asch’s play in an attic in the Lodz Ghetto. The entire cast is superb: Richard Topol is Lemml, the stage manager. The other actors — Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi and Adina Verson — all play multiple roles and succeed in making us care about characters that are not that fully developed. The production is greatly enhanced by a trio of klezmer musicians and choreography by David Dorfman. The set by Riccardo Hernandez is simple but effective and Emily Rebholz’s costumes are appropriate. While there is much to admire in this production at Vineyard Theatre, the many elements did not cohere as well as I would have liked. Perhaps my expectations were too high because of my high regard for the previous work of both the playwright and the director. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission. NOTE: Do not get front row seats because the stage is very high.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Signature Plays **

On paper it must have seemed like a good idea to present a triple bill of revived short works by playwrights who were in Signature Theatre’s Legacy program. For someone like me who has a limited tolerance for absurdist theater, the results were not gratifying. Yesterday’s avant garde often seems quaint or just annoying today. 

Edward Albee’s “The Sandbox” at least offered a bit of drollery and a chance to see three fine actors — Alison Fraser, Frank Wood and Phyllis Somerville as Mommy, Daddy and Grandma, respectively— and hunky Ryan-James Hatanaka as The Young Man. Melody Giron played the cello. 

Maria Irene Fornes’s “Drowning” is a strange tale of unrequited love in which the three characters — Pea (Mikeah Ernest Jennings), Roe (Sahr Ngaujah) and Stephen (Wood again) — are dressed like humans but inexplicably wear grotesque masks that make them look more like sea lions. 

The longest and most complex work is Adrienne Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” a surrealistic look at racial identity and racism through the mind of Sarah (Crystal Dickinson), a mixed-race graduate student on the Upper West Side. Except for her landlady (Fraser) and her boyfriend (Nicholas Bruder), all the characters represent aspects of Sarah’s inner conflict. They include Queen Victoria Regina (April Matthis), the Duchess of Hapsburg (January LaVoy), Patrice Lumumba (Ngaujah), Jesus (Jennings), and Sarah’s mother (Pia Glenn.) The short scenes are punctuated by blackouts. Along about the tenth one, I began praying that the next would be the last. While I can appreciate the impact the play must have had when new, it just didn’t work for me now.

The production values are first-rate with sets by Mimi Lien, costumes by Kaye Voyce and lighting by Mark Barton. Lila Neugebauer directed. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including two intermissions.

American Psycho ***

This musical version of Brett Easton Ellis’s controversial 1991 novel about Patrick Bateman (the mesmerizing Benjamin Walker), an investment banker by day and serial killer by night, is a triumph of style over substance. Although I have neither read the book nor seen the movie, I gather that the musical has smoothed out a lot of the rough edges and reduced the body count substantially. Satire trumps gore most of the time. The soullessness of consumerist capitalism in the Reagan era is well-captured by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s book, Duncan Sheik’s music, Lynn Page’s choreography and Rupert Goold’s direction. The gadgets, brands, clubs and restaurants may have changed but the spirit of entitlement in 1989 New York is not all that different from today’s. Bateman and his coworkers are as vacuous as their pecs are buff. The women are equally unlikable. The monochromatic scenic design by Es Devlin and sophisticated projections by Finn Ross are so striking that they sometimes threaten to upstage the actors. Among them are Helene York as Bateman’s obnoxious fiancee, Jennifer Damiano as his love-struck secretary, Drew Moerlein as his rival, Morgan Weed as his mistress and Alice Ripley, basically wasted, as his mother. The whirling sets, hyperactive videos, bright lights (by Justin Townsend) and gaudy costumes (by Katrina Lindsay) eventually produced a feeling of sensory overload and a diminishing conviction that the story was worth all the effort involved. The second act loses some of the early energy. Nevertheless, as its best moments, the show’s style overcomes its flaws and makes for edgy entertainment. The audience, considerably younger than usual for Broadway, was quite enthusiastic. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey ***

This off-beat “fantasy memoir” by Travis Russ (who also directed) employs three actors who simultaneously portray the reclusive author/illustrator at different stages of life — Phil Gillen as a young man, Aidan Sank in middle age and Andrew Dawson as septuagenarian. Events in Gorey’s life are told in nonlinear order, cued by items discovered in an inventory of Gorey’s Cape Cod home after his death. Considerable time is devoted to Gorey’s close friendship with Balanchine and his devotion to the New York City Ballet. We even get an amusing recreation (by choreographer Katie Proulx) of an excerpt from Balanchine’s ballet PAMTGG, a notorious flop. Gorey’s longtime association with Frank O’Hara is also covered. There are insights into Gorey’s creative process and a raw look at his abiding loneliness. The set by Russ and Carl Vorwerk evokes the clutter of Gorey’s life. John Narun’s projections are an enjoyable addition. A brief scene with a puppet by Elizabeth Ostler is one of the few misfires. There are moments of humor as well as pathos in this amiable production, but little in the way of a narrative arc. The actors are all appealing. My only quibble is that the play assumes a prior knowledge of Gorey’s work and would probably be puzzling to anyone who doesn’t have that. This production by Life Jacket Theatre Co. is running at HERE in SoHo. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes..