Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Band's Visit *** B+

Atlantic Theater Company is presenting this musical adaptation of the popular 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian police band that inadvertently becomes stranded overnight in an isolated town while on a goodwill visit to Israel. The music and lyrics are by David Yazbek (The Full Monty) and the book is by Itamar Moses (Bach at Leipzig). The songs are well-integrated into the story with much of the music being performed by actors playing band members. The book, faithful to the screenplay almost to a fault, incorporates large chunks of dialog from the film. It is virtually impossible to develop 20 characters in any depth in 95 minutes even without making time for a dozen songs. In some cases, we get a bare sketch, but in others, the characterization actually goes deeper than in the film. The show is greatly enhanced by a fine cast and high production values. Katrina Lenk makes an excellent Dina. John Cariani (Something Rotten!) brings richness to the role of Itzik. Ari’el Stachel is just right as the band’s young hunk Haled. George Abud and Sam Sadigursky are standouts as actor-musicians. Last but not least, Tony Shalhoub brings dignity and compassion to the role of Tewfiq, the bandleader. The evocative scenic design by Scott Pask (Something Rotten!) makes effective use of a revolving stage. Sarah Laux’s (The Humans) costumes fit their characters well. The direction by David Cromer (Tribes, Our Town) is fluid and assured. The result is an intimate, engaging show with an edge of poignancy. I could not suppress a twinge of regret over how badly the situation in Egypt and Israel has deteriorated since 1996, the year in which the story is set. Running time: one hour, 35 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Ride the Cyclone *** B

I wish I had not read the rapturous Chicago reviews of this offbeat musical by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond now playing in an MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theater. My expectations were so high that I ended up being slightly disappointed. The plot is unusual in that the characters are all dead when the show begins. Six teenagers from the chamber choir of St. Cassian School in Uranium City, Saskatchewan have just been killed in a freak roller coaster accident. They find themselves in a macabre purgatory presided over by The Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton), a mechanical fortune teller who has the power to grant one of them a return to life. Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau), born to hippie parents, is an obnoxious overachiever. Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo), the chubby nice girl, is Ocean’s best friend. Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), the only gay boy in town, idolizes Marlene Dietrich. Ricky Potts (Alex Wyse), a nerd with a physical disability, dreams of being an intergalactic superhero. Mischa Bachinski (Gus Halper) puts on a tough act but is a romantic at heart, longing for his fiancee back in the Ukraine. Finally, there is the mysterious Jane Doe (the vocally blessed Emily Rohm), who was decapitated in the accident, whom her fellow students do not recognize and whose body remained unclaimed. Each teenager sings a song to make the case for being the one chosen to return to life. The eclectic score has a wide variety of styles from pop rock to hip hop to faux Ukrainian folk song. The performers are all appealing. The scenic design by Scott Davis is wonderful, as are the costumes by Theresa Ham and the projections by Mike Tutaj. The choreography by Rachel Rockwell, who also directed, is lively. Why then was I slightly disappointed? In trying to tell us enough to care about each character, the show occasionally loses momentum. The interaction between the students and Karnak drops out for an extended stretch. The ending somehow did not have the impact I anticipated. Nevertheless, there is much to admire, particularly for a younger audience. If you liked “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which I was reminded of, you will probably enjoy this show. Running time: one hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Women of a Certain Age *** B+

The final play in Richard Nelson’s trilogy “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” now at the Public Theater, is set in the kitchen of the Gabriel family home in Rhinebeck, New York a couple of hours before the polls close on Election Day. The characters are the same as in the first two plays: Mary Gabriel (the superb Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor, was the third wife and now widow of Thomas Gabriel, a playwright who died exactly a year ago. His younger brother George (Jay O. Sanders), a cabinetmaker, also taught piano until hard times forced them to sell the family piano. George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley) works for a local caterer, but business is slow so she is also working part-time as a maid in a nearby hotel. Their son Paul is away at college, but his future there is uncertain because of their reduced financial status. George’s sister Joyce (Amy Warren), an unmarried assistant costume designer, is visiting from Brooklyn. Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), George and Joyce’s mother, who resides in a nearby assisted living facility, has had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. Thomas’s first wife Karin (Meg Gibson), an actress and teacher, is renting the room over the garage. She is performing a solo piece that evening based on the writings of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The modest supper of shepherd’s pie and paintbrush cookies they are preparing may be the last time the family is together in the family home. A financial crisis brought on by Patricia’s gullibility has forced the sale of the house. Their conversation ranges far and wide, from vintage cookbooks to gentrification to outside money’s influence on local politics. In preparing the house for sale, they run across a box of letters sent to Patricia when she was 13, shortly after the sudden death of her older sister. The attempt to tie the reasons for the sister’s death to a notorious incident long ago at Harvard seemed clumsy and out of place. The Gabriels do not yet know the election results, but their future does not look bright regardless of the outcome. In contrast to the family in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, their misfortune is entirely unearned. Anyone who has not seen at least the middle play of the trilogy may not get a lot out of this one. The ensemble cast is outstanding. Susan Hilferty designed the costumes and, with Jason Ardizzone West, the cozy set. The playwright directed. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Rancho Viejo ** C-

When I looked back at my review of Dan LeFranc’s previous production at Playwrights Horizons (The Big Meal in 2012), my heart sank. If I found that one overlong at 90 minutes, how would I possibly make it through his new 3-act play, which clocked in at 3 1/2 hours at the first preview? (It’s down to 3 hours 5 minutes as of last night.) From what I gather, there have been so many changes almost nightly that the play might be substantially different by the time it opens next week. I doubt that its essential core will be altered though. Basically, it’s a look — a long look — at the vacuousness of comfortable suburban life in a fictional community in Southern California, likely in Orange County. Add to that several absurdist touches and a few less than profound discussions of the nature of happiness and art. We meet four couples, three of retirement age and one still working, plus an enigmatic teenage boy and a scene-stealing dog. The main focus is on Pete (a marvelous Mark Blum) and Mary (a subdued Mare Winningham), a childless couple who have just moved to town and are trying without much success to fit in. Pete is a marvelous creation. If there were an Olympic event in social awkwardness, he would take home the gold. Mary might nab bronze. One of the play’s main sources of pleasure is to await the next unbelievably awkward remark out of Pete’s mouth. Forget Asperger’s; he’s on a spectrum of his own. Mary’s problem is subtler: it is her neediness for friendship that drives people away. When Pete learns that Richie, the unseen son of Patti (Julia Duffy) and Gary (Mark Zeisler), is getting divorced, he becomes inappropriately upset and obsessed with the idea of saving Richie’s marriage. The other couples are Mike (Bill Buell) and Anita (Ruth Aguilar). The vibrant Anita is Guatemalan; she has a few long speeches in Spanish that go untranslated. Leon (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), an African-American IT guy, and Suzanne (Lusia Strus), a real estate agent with an eye problem, are an unmarried couple with a large dog Mochi (Marti). Much of the first two acts takes place at parties at the home of one couple or another. Since the same set (by Dane Laffrey) represents the generic Southwestern living room of all four homes, it is sometimes hard to figure out where a given scene is taking place. Not that it matters much. Tate (Ethan Dubin), the sullen teenager who has little to do except lurk in the first two acts, comes into focus in a very strange scene near the beginning of Act 3. Does he ever! Jessica Pabst has dressed everyone aptly. Daniel Aukin’s direction seems attuned to the material. There are several funny moments, but the plot and the character development are minimal. I doubt that these are people that you would seek out to spend an evening with. I was pleasantly surprised that very few audience members left during either intermission.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical *** B

While it’s hardly new, this adaptation of the 1942 film that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire is a welcome addition to the Broadway season. If you are stressed out by the state of the nation, get yourself to Studio 54 where you can return to a simpler, gentler America, at least for 2+ hours. Gordon Greenberg (who also directed) and Chad Hodge have tossed out a few songs (including the blackface number), added several other Berlin standbys, and reworked the plot to make it slightly less ridiculous. For those old enough to remember, it wasn’t the plots that drew us to Hollywood musicals. As Jim Hardy, Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) lacks Bing Crosby’s pipes, but is otherwise fine. As Ted Hanover, Corbin Bleu is an amazing dancer and a charming presence. Megan Sikora is a hoot as Lila Dixon, their dance partner with more ambition than loyalty. As Linda Mason, Lora Lee Gayer looks and acts the part of the local schoolteacher with hidden talents. Comic relief is added by two new characters — Louise (Megan Lawrence), the politically incorrect lesbian live-in “fix-it man” and Charlie Winslow (Morgan Gao), a local child who usually bears ill tidings. The production is quite lavish. The scenic design by Anna Louizos features multiple sets. The 40’s costumes by Alejo Vietti are sensational. The lively choreography by Denis Jones (Honeymoon in Vegas) is well executed by a chorus of 16. Two numbers are showstoppers — “Shaking the Blues Away” and “Let’s Say It with Firecrackers.” The large orchestra and attractive arrangements give Berlin his due. And hearing “White Christmas” twice more won’t kill you. This Roundabout production may be the musical equivalent of comfort food, but a little comfort is most welcome these days. Running time: two hours 15 minutes, including intermission.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

This Day Forward *** B-

It’s good to have another Nicky Silver play onstage at the Vineyard Theatre, which has nurtured his work for over 20 years. Few playwrights can spin hilarity out of tragic circumstances as well as Silver. Perhaps his most popular play is The Lyons, with its deeply dysfunctional Jewish family that included an overbearing mother (a role Linda Lavin was born to play), a tyrannical father, a conflicted gay son and a less-than-appreciated daughter. If you enjoyed The Lyons, you will feel right at home here. The first act, set in 1958 in a room at the St. Regis, features a bridal couple whose wedding night is thrown into disarray by the revelation of a secret. In the second act, we learn how the consequences of that night have played out 46 years later. The dialog is often brutally funny. To say more would be to reveal too much. The entire production is topnotch. The cast of six (Andrew Burnap, Michael Crane, Holley Fain, Francesca Faridany, June Gable and Joe Tippett), some doubling roles, are all superb. The sets for both acts, by Allen Moyer, are perfection. Kaye Voyce’s costumes suit their characters well. J. David Brimmer’s  fight direction is worthy of note. Longtime Silver collaborator Mark Brokaw directs with a sure hand. With Silver, the style sometimes threatens to overwhelm the substance, but that is a flaw I can accept. Running time: 2 hours, including intermission.

Sweet Charity *** B-

It has been 50 years since this show arrived on Broadway with a formidable array of talent behind it: music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, a book by Neil Simon based on a Fellini film, Gwen Verdon in the title role and, last but certainly not least, choreography and direction by Bob Fosse. To be honest, it has never been one of my favorite musicals. I find the book too disjointed and cliched and the characterizations exaggerated. Still, it has some catchy songs and several terrific dance numbers. Now The New Group has revived the show in a stripped-down version, modest even by Encores standards. The cast has 12 instead of the original 30 and the orchestra has been reduced to five over-amplified musicians. For a show that has so many dance numbers, the choreography is critical. Joshua Bergasse has the unenviable task of following Fosse’s exceptional work. While he has demonstrated talent elsewhere (On the Town), he is no Fosse. Sutton Foster, while one of the most talented actresses in musicals, is no Gwen Verdon. In the opening number, her neediness is shown as so grotesque that it is hard to feel much sympathy for her. Her perkiness is tiring, but she demonstrates a real flair for physical comedy. The always watchable Shuler Hensley makes a fine Oscar, the man she hopes will be her rescuer. Joel Perez is a standout in all four of his roles. The racially mixed ensemble is very good. Derek McLane’s scenic design features a a bare square stage with a brick back wall and two runways. Furniture is rolled in as needed. The audience is seated on three sides. The costumes by Clint Ramos bring back the 60s in all their excess. I do wish they had sprung for more than one dress for Charity. The directorial choice by Leigh Silverman to emphasize the extent to which the show is an artifact of the 60s robs it of some immediacy. Nevertheless, it is always a pleasure to see Foster and Hensley on stage. If you never saw or don’t remember Fosse’s choreography, you won’t be bothered by its absence. Despite some reservations, I did not regret seeing this production.  Running time: two hours, ten minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Homos, or Everyone in America ** C

Jordan Seavey’s new play at Labyrinth Theater Company presents a lot of problems. First, there’s that title. Why the pejorative? Why the claim to universality? Forget everyone in America; even with respect to the gay community, the play’s focus is on a very narrow segment. Then there’s the staging. The small theater has been reconfigured into several sections of platforms of various heights. Most of the action takes place in the narrow corridor between sections. Where you sit can either leave you too far from the actors or too close for comfort. Then there's the tricky sequencing; the story is told in fragments that move backward and forward in time. Often it’s hard to tell what precedes what. Jumbling the timeline does not lend the material greater heft. We follow the ups and downs of the relationship between The Academic (Robin de Jesus) and The Writer (Michael Urie) over several years. We also meet Dan (Aaron Costa Ganis), a hunky guy that both hanker for, and, briefly, Laila (Stacey Sargeant), a sales clerk in a fancy soap shop. For much of the play, the two lead characters are bickering. They touch base, at least superficially, with a variety of topics, both personal and social. The Writer is described at one point as a gay Woody Allen. I found him basically unsympathetic, even when played by an actor as appealing as Urie. Robin de Jesus is very strong, especially at the play's climax. The scenic design, such as it is, is by Dane Laffrey (The Christians). Jessica Pabst’s costumes are apt. Mike Donahue (The Legend of Georgia McBride) directed. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World a/k/a The Negro Book of the Dead ** C

Seeing Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the War, Parts 1, 2 & 3 was one of the highlights of my theater-going year in 2014, so I was eagerly awaiting Signature Theatre’s revival of this early work from 1990. Be careful what you wish for. According to the ushers, the running time was 80 minutes; it actually came in at 67 minutes. Let’s just say that I was not sorry that it ended 13 minutes sooner than expected. In principle, I admire the decision to mount such a complex, significant work, but in actuality I found it tough to sit through. The cast of 11, led by the talented Roslyn Ruff as Black Woman With Fried Drumstick and Daniel J. Watts as Black Man With Watermelon, perform with total commitment. I found the structure, in which the play is divided into panels and choruses, the titles of which are projected on the rear wall, confusing. The dialog has a lyrical, almost incantatory quality at times with many phrases and sentences returning, often with slight variation as in jazz. I got that the central character repeatedly dies, by electrocution, hanging and other unpleasant means and understood the plea that black history should not be allowed to remain undocumented and therefore become lost. I grasped why Ham (Patrena Murray), the source of biblical justification for animus against blacks, is a character. Ditto for Old Man River Jordan (Julian Rozzell) as well as And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger (Reyanldo Piniella), an allusion to Native Son. But why Before Columbus (David Ryan Smith) and Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman)? I missed the apparent allusion of a character named Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Nike Kadri) or one called Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams) or Prunes and Prisms (Mirirai Sithole.) Calling one the Voice on Thuh Tee V (William Demeritt) seemed pointless. The significance of breaking eggs and eating feathers was lost on me. There are some funny moments, including a scene that’s a worthy riff on Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First.” The choreography by Raja Feather Kelly provided some of the most enjoyable moments. Riccardo Hernandez’s set design is effectively spare. Montana Blanco’s costumes are wonderful. Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction is fluid. What the play lacks in coherence, it almost makes up for in sheer energy. Unfortunately for me, I prefer coherence. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Sweat **** A

After acclaimed productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage, the timely new play by Pulitzer winner and MacArthur fellow Lynn Nottage (Ruined; By the Way, Meet Vera Stark; Intimate Apparel) has finally arrived at the Public Theater. It was worth the wait. The play might have been subtitled “Reasons To Hate NAFTA” or “How the Rust Belt Creates Trump Voters.” However, while corporate greed, globalization, racism and immigration policy all underlie the action, the play is not a sociopolitical screed. Nottage wisely keeps our attention on vividly drawn characters and on how forces beyond their control are refracted in their lives. Most of the action is set in 2000 at an after-work bar popular with employees of a metal tubing plant in Reading, PA. We meet three middle-age women — Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), Tracey (Johanna Day) and Jessie (Miriam Shor) — who have worked together on the plant floor for over 20 years. Cynthia’s son Chris (Khris Davis) and Tracey’s son Jason (Will Pullen), who also work at the plant, are best buddies. Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie (John Earl Jelks) also frequents the bar. Stan the bartender (James Colby) used to work at the plant too until he was injured by a defective piece of equipment. Oscar (Carlo Alban), the bar’s Hispanic porter, might as well be invisible for all the attention he gets from customers. Cynthia is black, but her race has never been an issue until she is promoted to management over others. Her new position is hardly enviable when the plant owners decide to downsize. The play’s first and final scenes are set in 2008. As the play opens, parole officer Evan (Lance Coadie Williams) is conducting separate interviews with Jason and Chris, who have finished prison terms for a crime they committed eight years earlier. We flash back to 2000 to see the escalating events that led to the shocking crime and finally back to 2008 to see the consequences. It all makes for a gripping experience. The cast is uniformly excellent. John Lee Beatty’s revolving set is evocative, as are Jennifer Moeller’s costumes. Director Kate Whoriskey (Ruined) once again does Nottage full justice. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Notes from the Field *** B-

Anna Deavere Smith’s latest foray into “first person documentary storytelling,” now at Second Stage Theatre, is about the failure of our education and criminal justice systems, which have created a school-to-prison pipeline for youth from poor communities. As she did so memorably in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” she impersonates a diverse array of people related to an event or social problem and brings us their own words verbatim. Before the evening begins, a grim series of statistics about racial inequities in our schools and so-called justice system is projected on six large panels, putting me in a funk before Ms. Smith even reached the stage. The 18 scenes of excerpts from interviews and speeches that followed were intercut with photographs and video clips of some of the most egregious examples of racial bias in recent years. Some of the moments were painful to relive. Much attention is devoted to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. The sermon at Gray’s funeral is one of the most powerful sections of the evening. Stockton and Klamath, CA and Columbia, SC are the locales of some other important pieces. Although there is an attempt to shed a ray of hope at the end of the evening, I did not find it convincing or comforting. The scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez and projections by Elaine McCarthy are effective. Some of Ann Hould-Ward’s costume choices are peculiar: I have no idea why Smith’s slacks in the first act had worn-through patches or why she was barefoot. For some stretches of the evening, bassist Marcus Shelby is onstage with Ms. Smith, to little effect. Some of the dialects and intonations came across as artificial: I have never heard anyone say “impurr” instead of “impair.” The material lacked a clear arc and some of the excerpts should have been trimmed. Leonard Foglia directed. While most of the audience responded enthusiastically, several people near me did not return after intermission. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.