Sunday, February 26, 2017

All the Fine Boys


Maybe I would have reacted less harshly to this new play at The New Group had it not been the second play I had seen in a week dealing with inappropriate sex between adults and the underage. Maybe not. It is awful enough in its own right. We meet two 14-year-old girls, Jenny (Abigail Breslin, who played Little Miss Sunshine in the film) and Emily (Isabelle Fuhrman), hanging out in Jenny’s basement with a stack of videos for a sleepover. Although he play is set in 1980’s South Carolina, there is little sense of time or place. At least we are spared ersatz Southern accents. Their inane conversation drags on and on with he girls discussing the various boys at school, and Jenny observing that the ones Emily likes are beyond her reach. The play then alternates scenes of Emily and Adam (Alex Wolff), an artsy high school boy she has a crush on, with scenes of Jenny and Joseph (Joe Tippett, of Indian Summer and Familiar), a man twice her age that she inexplicably goes home with. One girl gets more than she set out for; the other gets less. The most glaring flaw in the play is the cartoonish depiction of Jenny as a grotesque figure with an unlimited appetite for junk food. The long scenes of her and Joseph are hard to watch. The staging is awkward with characters from the previous scene lingering on the set until after the next scene begins. It’s a stretch to believe the two women are teenagers, but that’s probably a blessing. I admire their gutsiness in taking on their roles. The set by Amy Rubin is appropriately ugly with dark deep-pile carpeting covering the floors and the walls and a much-used sofa. Tom Broecker’s costumes are apt. Playwright Erica Schmidt can’t blame the director for the outcome: she directed. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission.

NOTE: If the play weren’t bad enough, the seats in the Ford Studio at Signature Center are wood laminate with no upholstery. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Penitent


I wish I could say that David Mamet’s new play at the Atlantic Theater Company marks his return to greatness. While it’s by no means his worst, it falls far short of his best work. It is about a psychiatrist Charles (Chris Bauer) who suddenly gets religion when a young patient commits a terrible crime. Although he has frequently testified as a mitigating witness for the defense, he refuses to do so in this instance. The boy accuses him of antipathy toward gay people, a charge supported by a newspaper piece misquoting the title of an article he wrote as “Homosexuality as an Aberration” instead of “Homosexuality as an Adaptation.” The bad press leads to worse for Charles. Meanwhile, his wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife) does not understand his position. The stilted opening scene between them really gets things off to a bad start. We next see Charles with his friend/lawyer Richard (Jordan Lage), who urges him to relent and testify. The second act begins energetically with a scene between Charles and an attorney (the fine Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) deposing him who knows his way around the Old Testament. In the final scene, we learn the cost of Charles’s allegedly principled stand and, to my great annoyance, find out information that casts everything that preceded it in a new light.Tim Mackabee designed the minimalist set — a table and two chairs and two angled walls. Laura Bauer designed the costumes. Perhaps there was some deep significance I missed in the fact that Kath alternated between jeans with holes in the knees and jeans without holes. Atlantic’s artistic director Neil Pepe (Marie & Rosetta, Hold on to Me Darling) directed. The press, the legal system, psychiatry, religion, marriage and friendship all take a beating. There are no winners here, including the audience. Running time: 85 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On the Exhale


Marin Ireland (Ironbound, reasons to be pretty), one of our most talented stage actors, seems incapable of giving a less than compelling performance. In this dark drama by Martin Zimmerman now at Roundabout Underground’s Black Box Theatre, she plays a professor in a “concealed carry” state, who is morbidly afraid that some male student, unhappy with a grade, might settle his grievance with a gun. As a single mother, her main fear is that no one would be there to raise her only child. When a gunman does strike, it is not at the university, but at her son’s elementary school. Her son is one of the victims. She deals with her grief in quite unexpected ways. While the acting is impeccable, the material seemed a bit formulaic. During the last 15 minutes, the play took what I felt was a wrong turn that undermined some of its force. The set design by Rachel Hauck is minimal in the extreme — a platform with a black wall behind it. Emily Rehbolz’s costume does not call attention to itself. The lighting by Jen Schriever very effectively enhances the production. Leigh Silverman’s (Violet, Chinglish) unfussy direction is assured. It’s only an hour long, but it’s a very intense hour.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Kid Victory


One look at Clint Ramos’s deliberately dreary set design featuring a cluttered basement with a set of chains hanging on the wall put me on edge even before this very dark musical at the Vineyard Theatre began. It is hard to say much about it without spoiling the experience, but I will try. Luke (Brandon Flynn) is a teenager who has returned to his God-fearing Kansas family after disappearing under murky and possibly sinister circumstances for almost a year. Readjustment is difficult for all concerned. Luke’s mother Eileen (Karen Ziemba) wants to sweep everything under the rug and proceed as if nothing happened. Luke’s quiet father Joseph (Daniel Jenkins) appears to Luke to be avoiding him. Emily (Dee Roscoli) is a free-spirited shop owner Luke can be open with because she did not know him before his disappearance. Gail (Ann Arvia) is a well-meaning church member with an unusual approach to healing. Michael (Jeffry Denman) is a former history teacher with whom Luke shares an interest in boats. Suze (Laura Darrell) just wants Luke to be her boyfriend again. Mara (Darrell again) is Emily’s estranged daughter. Detective Marks (Joel Blum) thinks that Luke is withholding information. Andrew (Blake Zolfo) is a young man that Luke briefly meets. The story is told in fragments that move back and forth in time. To my surprise, I liked Greg Pierce’s book far more than John Kander’s music. In general, I did not think the music either heightened emotions or advanced the plot. There is a dance number that is wildly incongruous with the rest of the show. There are two or three characters that could easily be dispensed with. I really think the material would have worked better as a play without music. There are many strong points — fitting together the pieces of a complex story, keeping the audience waiting for the title character to burst into song, throwing in a few surprises, ending with a genre-defying scene. The cast is uniformly strong and the story is consistently interesting. Liesl Tommy’s direction is mostly assured, but occasionally leaves characters doing nothing for long periods. I admire Kander and Pierce for taking on such a difficult subject, but am not sure that musicalizing it was the best approach. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


Tooting Arts Club originated this innovative version of Sondheim and Wheeler’s dark musical at London’s oldest pie and mash shop where it had a sold-out run followed by another in the West End. Luckily for us, Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop has been lovingly recreated at the Barrow Street Theatre so we are able to see this wonderful production, including the four leads from London. With his dead eyes, hollow cheeks and slicked-back hair, Jeremy Secomb is a very scary Todd. Any vocal shortcomings are more than made up for by his commanding presence. Siobhan McCarthy is as fine a Mrs. Lovett as I have seen. Duncan Smith is strong as Judge Turpin and Joseph Taylor is wonderful as Tobias. (Starting in April, these four will be replaced by American actors including Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello). Brad Oscar is surprisingly subdued as the Beadle. Matt Doyle and Alex Finke make a fine pair of young lovers as Anthony and Johanna. Betsy Morgan plays two roles: she is fine as the beggar woman, but I am not sure that casting any woman as Pirelli was a good idea. Much of the action takes place near the counter at the front of the pie shop, but the actors occasionally hop up on the four long tables that are perpendicular to the counter and move around other parts of the shop as well. I was amazed that the music was provided by just three musicians — a pianist, a violinist and a clarinetist; they serve the score well. The stripped-down staging works fine throughout the first act, but falters slightly in the last minutes, when the action intensifies quickly. It’s not really a problem. Simon Kenny gets credit for the wonderful set and costumes. Georgina Lamb is listed as choreographer, but there is very little dance in the traditional sense. Fight director Bryce Bermingham does an effective job. Kudos to director Bill Buckhurst for holding everything together. It’s a unique theatrical experience that I highly recommend. I also suggesting ordering the pre-show pot pie and mash for $20 with beverage. The delicious chicken or vegetarian pies are the creation of former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission.

A few words about seating: All the seating is on benches that have upholstered seats but wooden backs and no arms. The seats in rows A through F are perpendicular to the front of the shop. If you are in rows B through E, be prepared to have actors performing on your table. Rows G and H are parallel to the front of the shop and provide a good overall view. Rows AA and BB are in the balcony.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Man from Nebraska


Four years before Tracy Letts wrote Pulitzer Prize winner “August: Osage County,” he wrote another play that was nominated for the Pulitzer, this one. After seeing the play, I can understand why it took over 13 years to reach New York. It is a play that will provoke wildly divergent reactions. What some will regard as alternately droll and touching, others will find merely banal and tedious. My own reaction falls somewhere in between. I never pass up a chance to see the work of actor Reed Birney (“The Humans”), playwright Letts or director David Cromer (“The Band’s Visit”). Birney plays Ken Carpenter, a 60-something insurance man from Lincoln, Nebraska who faces a sudden crisis of faith. We see him and his wife Nancy (Annette O’Toole) on a typical Sunday on the way to church, during the service, at a cafeteria, visiting Ken’s physically and mentally declining mother (Kathleen Peirce) at her nursing home, watching tv and going to bed. During the night Ken begins weeping uncontrollably and tells Nancy that he no longer believes in God. His uptight married daughter Ashley (Annika Boras) is less than supportive. Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale) counsels Ken to take a vacation alone. He decides to go to London which he had enjoyed 40 years before when he was in the Air Force. On the flight, he meets Pat (Heidi Armbruster), a predatory divorcee with a taste for bondage who seduces him. At his hotel, he strikes up a friendship of sorts with the lovely black bartender Tamyra (Nana Mensah). Eventually he meets her sculptor flatmate Harry (Max Gordon Moore) and takes lessons from him. Back at home, lonely and depressed Nancy starts spending a lot of time with Reverend Todd’s father Bud (Tom Bloom). Ken’s reception upon his return is uncertain. The play’s episodic structure does not seem organic. Birney, as always, is superb. Mensah is also strong. O”Toole, to me at least, seemed mannered. The set by Takeshi Kata makes full use of Second Stage’s wide stage, with furniture lined up against the back wall brought forward as needed. The top two-thirds of the back wall is covered by sometimes illuminated clouds that are both fluffy and ominous. The costumes by Sarah Laux suit their characters well. Particularly in the first act, director Cromer lets scenes breathe longer than some can easily tolerate. I predict that you will have a strong reaction to the play. Whether it will be negative or positive is the question. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, including intermission.

Sunday, February 12, 2017



A third play by award-winning British playwright Penelope Skinner (The Village Bike, The Ruins of Civilization) has reached New York in a Manhattan Theatre Club production helmed by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow. Linda Wilde (Olivier winner Janie Dee), a 50-something executive at a cosmetic company, seems to have it all — a great job, a loyal husband, two daughters, a lovely home. (We are told that her elder daughter Alice (Jennifer Ikeda, recently seen at MTC in “Vietgone”) has a different father and that Linda had to raise her alone, but we don’t learn the circumstances.) Linda won an important advertising prize 10 years before with a campaign emphasizing women’s inner beauty. When she proposes targeting the company’s new anti-aging cream to women over 50, her boss Dave (John C. Vennema) vetoes the idea. He thinks it’s better to trade on the insecurities of younger women and market to them and has brought in Amy (Molly Griggs), a 25-year old hotshot, to head the campaign. Linda learns that her husband Neil (Donald Sage Mackay) is canoodling with Stevie (Meghann Fahy), the attractive young singer in his band. Daughter Alice is a mess; she has been vegetating at home and won’t take off her skunk costume onesie. Apparently, she was permanently traumatized by a shaming incident at school 10 years ago. Younger daughter Bridget (Molly Janson) is about to audition for a drama academy, but wants to do a man’s speech since she thinks there are few good speeches for women. Luke (Maurice Jones) is a flirty temp at Linda’s office who is leaving soon for Bali. It turns out that Amy was in school with Alice and was complicit in her shaming. In another unlikely twist, mother imitates daughter with similarly disastrous consequences. Even the elements conspire; we get a Lear-worthy storm, for no discernible reason. The underlying problem of being an aging woman in contemporary society gets lost in the melodrama. On the plus side, we get a strong performance from Janie Dee and a sleek revolving set by Walt Spangler that is even color-coordinated with Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s attractive costumes. Too bad that the work came across, to me at least, as a heavy-handed polemic that did not do justice to its topic. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Evening at the Talk House


It sounded so promising: a New York premiere of a work by the provocative and often amusing Wallace Shawn with a cast that includes Matthew Broderick, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker (remember them in L.A. Law?), John Epperson (Lypsinka), Larry Pine, Claudia Shear (Dirty Blonde) and Shawn himself. The cast also includes a fine young actress previously unknown to me, Annapurna Sriram. Upon entering the Romulus Linney Theater at Signature Center, the audience sees a cozy area that looks like the living room of a private club, filled with overstuffed chairs and ottomans, a leather sofa, a large coffee table and an upright piano. It took me a split second to realize that the attractive woman offering a tray of marshmallows, gummy bears and colored sparkling water was Eikenberry, looking barely a day older than she did on L.A. Law. For several minutes (too long in my opinion) the actors mix with the audience before the play. Most of those gathered at the theatrical club were associated with a play that opened ten years before  — Robert, the playwright (Broderick); Tom, the star (Pine); Bill,  the producer (Tucker); Ted, composer of the incidental music (Epperson); Annette, the wardrobe mistress (Shear); Nellie, the struggling club’s proprietor (Eikenberry) and Jane, her assistant (Sriram). An unexpected guest is Dick, an old actor (Shawn) who had been turned down for a part in the production ten years ago. Robert opens the play with a very long (at least 10-minute) monologue, during which we learn that much has changed in the past 10 years. Theater has practically disappeared. The country has become vaguely dystopian with quarterly predictable elections and frequent blackouts. Robert and Tom have abandoned serious theater for the lucrative world of television comedy. Bill has become a successful agent. Ted, Annette and Jane have had to scramble to make ends meet, filling in by participating in a government program to target people “who mean to do us harm.” Dick is staying at the club temporarily after a beating from his “friends.” Despite the underlying menace, the guests prattle on about tv shows and other gossip. One topic is the mysterious recent poisoning of at least two actors. The lights go out, but the talk continues. The play grinds to a halt with an ending that seems almost arbitrary. Somewhere lurking inside this disjointed mess lies an interesting play. I wish Shawn had waited until it emerged. Derek McLane did the wonderful set and Jeff Mahshie, the fine costumes. New Group artistic director Scott Elliott directed. Running time: one hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sunset Boulevard


To say that this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical, now in a limited run at the Palace Theatre, was greeted with wild enthusiasm would be a gross understatement. From the moment that Glenn Close first appeared, it was clear that the evening would be a love fest between her and her fans. Not that she doesn’t deserve the acclaim. Although her voice sounded a bit pinched at times, her Norma Desmond is one for the ages. She is joined by a fine supporting cast — Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Fred Johanson as Max von Mayerling and Siobhan Dillon as Betty Schaeffer. The production, an import from the English National Opera, makes an interesting trade-off: instead of lavish sets, we get a 40-piece orchestra onstage. Unfortunately, the larger orchestra does not improve the quality of the music. The reduced emphasis on set design somehow makes the story stand out more. The production is more than semi-staged, but the bare-bones set by James Noone is only one step above a typical Encores production. The book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton is respectful to the screenplay of the Billy Wilder film and includes some of its best lines. Tracy Christensen’s evocative costumes are a major asset. Lonny Price directs with a sure hand. If you love the film and are a fan of Glenn Close, you will have a good time. If you do not appreciate Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, you might not. Running time: 2 1/2 hours, including intermission.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Mother of Invention


Since I enjoyed James Lecesne's last play, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, I was glad to see that Abingdon Theatre Company was presenting the world premiere of his latest work. Alas, the new play is not ready for prime time. It’s a grab bag of assorted plot lines: Alzheimer’s, sibling rivalry, paranoia over terrorism, filial obligations, New Age mysticism, sexy Latino as con man, gay fear of intimacy, surprising revelations in a diary, infidelity, euthanasia, gun violence and gratuitous nudity. Apparently the playwright thought that if he threw enough darts at the board, some of them would stick. Through most of the play, the mother Dottie (Concetta Tomei) addresses the other characters, although she is not actually with them. Her two unlikable children, Leanne and David, played by Angela Reed and James Davis, are packing up Dottie’s possessions in preparation to sell her house. Dale Soules (Shows for Days) breathes some life into the play in two roles — the paranoid neighbor and a homeless woman. Dan Domingues plays Frankie Rey, the sexy South American who is either a con man or a mystic or possibly both. Isabella Russo plays Ryder, Leanne’s precocious daughter. The walls of Jo Winiarski’s set are made of packing cartons, which the characters gradually remove as the play moves along, a process that was not fast enough for me. Tony Speciale (Unnatural Acts) directed. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes; no intermission.