Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Government Inspector


Red Bull Theater is presenting Jeffrey Hatcher’s clever adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 comic masterpiece about corruption in a provincial Russian town. One of the strengths of the play is that it is simultaneously deeply Russian and universal. Hatcher has wisely decided not to update it or deemphasize its Russianness. He lets the audience find their own similarities to our times. This production’s biggest plus is the casting of Michael Urie (Buyer and Cellar, TV’s Ugly Betty) as Hlestakov, the wastrel who is mistaken for the visiting inspector. He demonstrates a previously unseen talent for physical comedy that is prodigious. As the mayor, Michael McGrath channels his inner Nathan Lane to our delight. Mary Testa is a hoot as the mayor’s wife. Arnie Burton chews the scenery as the postmaster and is droll as Hlestakhov’s servant Osip. Most of the other ten actors (Stephen DeRosa, Ryan Garbayo, Kelly Hutchinson, David Manis, Ben Mehl, Talent Monohon, Luis Moreno, James Rana, Tom Alan Robbins, Mary Lou Rosato) create vivid characters and work well as an ensemble. At two hours, the comedy wears a little thin. Alexis Distler’s set design is problematic. While the sets for each of the play’s three locations are effective, presenting them as a bilevel unit seems to be an inelegant and unnecessary solution. I advise against sitting in the first two rows, because you might get a stiff neck from looking up at the set’s upper level, where the last 3/4 of the action takes place. Tilly Grimes’s period costumes are wonderful. Red Bull’s artistic director Jesse Berger keeps things moving fluidly. If you enjoy farce and slapstick, well-performed, you will have an enjoyable time. Running time: two hours including intermission.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The End of Longing


The final play in MCC’s season at the Lucille Lortel Theatre marks the debut of Matthew Perry (TV’s Friends) both as playwright and as New York stage actor. I wish I could say that his dual debut were more auspicious. MCC’s promotional material describes this “bittersweet comedy” as follows: “An alcoholic, an escort, a self-diagnosed neurotic and a well-intentioned dimwit walk into a bar... “ That would be the forlorn Perry, the luscious Jennifer Morrison (ABC's Once Upon a Time), the hilarious Sue Jean Kim (Aubergine) and the laid-back Quincy Dunn-Baker (The Wayside Motor Inn). In a rapid succession of short scenes, we learn what happens when they pair off into two unlikely couples. I could not get past the implausibility of a gorgeous, smart woman settling for a downbeat older lush. The pairing of an tightly-wound texting addict with an easygoing construction worker was only slightly more plausible. The play’s prevailing levity turns darker near the end, but then reverts to a predictable happy ending. Kim and Dunn-Baker do wonders to flesh out their basically one-note characters. Morrison does reasonably well with the thankless task of making her character seem believable. Perry is a notch below the others. While a failure on many levels, the play does have some good one-liners. Derek McLane’s revolving set cleverly lines the walls and even the ceiling with squares of wine and liquor bottles. Sarah Laux’s costumes are apt. Lindsay Posner's direction is brisk, perhaps to prevent us from having too much time to think about the play’s flaws. Matthew Perry is apparently still a big draw; after the play the street was crowded with people outside the stage door. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Can You Forgive Her?


Gina Gionfriddo has borrowed the title of an 1864 Trollope novel for her new play at the Vineyard Theatre. We are left to guess to whom “Her” refers. Is it Tanya (Ella Dershowitz, Alan’s daughter), the virtuous young single mother who is doggedly trying to win a place in the middle class after a bad marriage and who wants to avoid getting stuck with another PWP (partner without prospects)? Is it the flamboyant Miranda (Amber Tamblyn, Russ’s daughter) who is trying to work off the six-figure debt she ran up largely due to the cost of her liberal education by getting together twice a week with David (the wonderful Frank Wood), a sugar daddy she met online? Could it be Miranda’s unseen mother who enabled her irresponsible lifestyle? Is it the late mother of 40-year-old twice-divorced Graham (a solid Darren Pettie), who has left him a run-down beach cottage and boxes of her unpublished manuscripts that he feels both compelled to and reluctant to read? My choice for the identity of “Her” is the playwright herself and my answer is a qualified “yes.” After greatly enjoying her two Pulitzer-nominated plays “Becky Shaw” and “Rapture, Blister, Burn,”  I had high expectations. Unfortunately they were not met. There won’t be any Pulitzer nominations for this play. Nevertheless, despite the dubious premise that brings these four characters together, despite the awkward structure with a long opening scene between Graham and Tanya followed by an even longer scene between Graham and Miranda, the play has its redeeming features, including some wonderful dialogue. The scene following David’s arrival works particularly well. Unfortunately it is followed by a weak ending. Eshan Bay has a small role as Sateesh, the Indian man who is allegedly Miranda's date for the weekend. I would have guessed that the play was a piece that needed further work, but learned that it was produced in Boston a year ago. Maybe its problems are resistant to further improvement. In any case, I forgive the playwright for not being at the top of her form. Even her second-drawer material can be entertaining. Allen Moyer’s set presents an appropriately drab living room. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are excellent. I’m not sure what director Peter DuBois might could have done to improve the play’s coherence. Running time: one hour 35 minutes; no intermission. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Iphigenia in Splott


Every Spring, 59E59 Theaters bring us a series of imports from the UK under the rubric Brits off Broadway. This one-person play by Gary Owen originated in Cardiff and then had an acclaimed run in London. The main reason to see it is the electric performance by Sophie Melville as Effie, an angry young woman from Splott, a working-class neighborhood of Cardiff. Effie, whose means of support is unclear, alternates between binges and hangovers and describes herself as the kind of person you cross the street to avoid. I wish we learned more about what led to her self-defeating lifestyle. Effie stops spewing invective long enough to tell us the story of a recent affair with a wounded veteran that made her let down her guard long enough to hope for a better life. Of course it turned out badly. Effie pays a terrible price but acts nobly when she has an opportunity to seek redress. I was disappointed that the play morphed from a fascinating character study to a screed against social welfare cuts, even though, as a cautionary tale, it is certainly timely on this side of the pond as well. My other reservation is the difficulty I had making out some of the words because of the thick Welsh accent and rapid speech. Designer Hayley Grindle and lighting designer Rachel Mortimer have come up with a striking set that features a series of fluorescent lights that resemble a venetian blind aptly falling into disarray. Rachel O’Riordan’s direction is straightforward. The title’s comparison of Effie to Iphigenia is a bit of a stretch. Running time: 80 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Derren Brown: Secret


When I first heard that Atlantic Theater Company was filling a slot in their season with a performance by an Olivier-winning British mentalist rather than with a play, I was annoyed. After seeing Derren Brown in action, I forgive them. The show is not only very entertaining, but a lot more rewarding to sit through than their last play (The Penitent). It’s better crafted too, with a knockout finale that reveals in a delightful way how tightly structured the entire performance has been. It’s hard to say much about it, because the audience has been sworn to secrecy. What I can say is that Brown is a consummate performer who quickly has the audience in the palm of his hand. He establishes trust by sharing a secret from his own life. The often amazing mental feats he performs on audience members range from the simple to the intricate, with one packing quite an emotional wallop. Along the way, Brown also demonstrates a real talent for portraiture. The theme that we limit what we experience because of selective perception is vividly demonstrated. Of course, I wondered how these tricks worked, but explanations are not on the agenda. The seemingly random way he selected audience members made it unlikely that they were “plants.”  If you like to be amazed and delighted, you will have a good time. Just don’t expect a traditional play. My one reservation is that, at 2 3/4 hours including intermission, it is a bit too much of a good thing. Brown’s co-writers Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor also directed.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation


It isn’t often these days that you see a straight play with 18 actors on Broadway, so I salute the producers for bringing us this expensive revival. John Guare’s popular 1990 send-up of limousine liberals is based on a true story about a young man (the excellent Corey Hawkins) who passes himself off as Paul Poitier, son of actor Sidney, to worm his way into the homes of several wealthy East Side couples who should know better.The story is told by one such couple, art dealer Flan Kittredge (a surprisingly underwhelming John Benjamin Hickey) and his wife Ouisa (Allison Janney, competent but no match for my memories of Stockard Channing),. “Paul” is well dressed, charming and articulate, knows details about their children at Harvard, and  dangles the promise of casting them in the film Cats that his father is coming to New York to direct. They let him stay overnight. When Ouisa goes to wake him the next morning, he is in bed with a hustler (James Cusati-Moyer). During the long scene in which his hosts chase him around the apartment, the naked hustler has ample time to demonstrate that he has all the requisites for a successful career. Later the Kittredges learn that their friends Kitty (Lisa Emery) and Larkin (Michael Countryman) had their own encounter with “Paul” the previous night. We eventually meet their horrid children (Colby Minifie, Keenan Jolliff and Ned Riseley) who are portrayed as cartoon characters. Chris Perfetti fares better as Trent, the young man who has inadvertently set the events in motion. My biggest complaint about the play is the episode in which “Paul” cons two young would-be actors from Utah (Peter Mark Kendall and Sarah Mezzanotte) with tragic results. It is an abrupt shift from the satire of the rest of the play. I found director Trip Cullman’s approach to the play generally too broad. Mark Wendland’s set is very red and very tall. Clint Ramos’s costumes are fine. The play aspires to deeper meanings that it never reaches. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Little Foxes


While the critics never placed Lillian Hellman in the first rank of American playwrights, her work, at least as exemplified by this 1939 family drama, has much to recommend it and is certainly worthy of an occasional revival. She surely knew how to write a tight plot and juicy roles that allow actors to show their mettle. Manhattan Theatre Club has assembled a first-rate cast for this production, led by Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon who alternate the roles of Regina and Birdie. This tale of an avaricious family greedy to progress from rich to filthy rich bears an extra frisson of timeliness today. We meet the Hubbard family in Alabama in 1900. Brothers Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein) are wooing a Chicago industrialist Mr. Marshall (David Alford) to build a cotton mill on their property. To keep the deal in the family, they need their sister Regina Giddens (Linney at my performance) to raise a third of the investment. Trouble is her husband Horace (Richard Thomas), who controls the pursestrings, is away in Baltimore convalescing from a heart condition and shows no inclination to return or even to respond to their increasingly frantic letters. Regina skillfully uses her leverage to win a better deal from her brothers and persuades her virtuous 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini) to go to Baltimore to fetch Horace. Leo Hubbard (Michael Benz), the unsavory son of Oscar and Birdie, works in Horace’s bank and comes up with a shady plan that allows the brothers to proceed without Regina. When Horace returns, he discovers their plot and, unfortunately for him, reveals it to his wife. There is more scheming, a shocking scene between Horace and Regina and, surprisingly for its time, an ending in which evil is not punished, at least not explicitly. The role of Regina, catnip for such actresses as Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis, suits Linney well; she captures both the steeliness and the traces of charm. However, she is almost overshadowed by Cynthia Nixon’s superb performance as her sister-in-law Birdie, a delicate wounded bird driven to drink by her husband’s abuse; her monologue in the final act is absolutely wrenching. Linney and Nixon are so persuasive in these roles that is hard to imagine them in reverse. Even the servants are well-cast — Charles Turner as the butler Cal and Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie, the housekeeper whose eye rolls and facial expressions speak louder than words. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are marvelous. Scott Pask’s living room set is fine except that the staircase, focus of a crucial scene, looks strangely cramped. Daniel Sullivan directs with a sure hand. The play is far from subtle, but, with such a fine production,  it is very entertaining. Running time: two hours 25 minutes including two intermissions.