THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN
THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN at Hartford Stage is an interesting true story made theatrical as possible by the very skillful direction, wholly respectful of the material, of Jo Bonney. BODY tells of the friendship between playwright and poet Dan O'Brien and Canadian, war-junkie, international photojournalist Paul Watson, but it's really a hybrid of O'Brien's own personal journey as author and dramatist and O'Brien's account of Watson's more consequential experience. Most famously, Watson was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the shocking picture of the dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 during Somalia's civil war. The core conflict in BODY comes from how Watson is haunted by his notion he heard the corpse whisper as he leaned in to get his shot - “If you do this, I will own you forever.” Powerful stuff but, unfortunately, its drama is diluted by O’Brien’s efforts to parallel his own personal demons with Watson’s. They just don’t compare. The play’s construct has an intellectual expedience, but it doesn’t lead to catharsis.
Still, it’s a compelling production in the hands of director Bonney, who has demonstrated her skill with men finding their way in a world without a map in SMALL ENGINE REPAIR a few season back Off-Broadway. Here she’s adroitly marshaled the talents of lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, set designer Richard Hoover and projection designer Alex Koch to create – on a propless stage save two metal chairs - settings from Africa to the Arctic Circle and to infuse a talky 100 minutes with engaging stage movement. Besides playing almost 20 characters between them, actors Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty manage to completely inhabit the personalities of O’Brien and Watson, but the principals share so many layers of emotional exoskeletons, they’re tough to crack. BODY covers a lot of real geography plus emotional landscape, but I wished it had forged deeper into spiritual territory. Given the deep, personal terrain BODY covers, there’s more drama to be discovered there.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
Director Bartlett Sher and his creative team set a very high bar for reviving great American Broadway musicals with their superb SOUTH PACIFIC. Their second effort, KING AND I, was aptly described by a producer friend of mine as “carpentered”: it’s sturdily built, with solid workmanship, but it’s no exemplar of master craftsmanship. To extend the metaphor, I’d describe FIDDLER ON THE ROOF - although certainly superior to KING AND I - as refurbished: its structure’s been reinforced, and it's been given a coat of fresh paint. So, yes, Sher’s FIDDLER is more useful and appealing than its previous revivals.
I’m somewhat bothered by Sher bookending the show so obviously with Tevye as Everyman, as a contemporary, red-parka’ed diasporist because the story’s universal theme should be obvious to anyone who even fleetingly observes, for example, Syrian refugees made international flotsam by yet another turn of man’s inhumanity to man. But given the dumbing down of literacy at all levels – political as well as cultural – perhaps Sher’s device is a harbinger of how directors see a need these days to telegraph to audiences “what this play is really about.”
Too bad, because real emotion is all there in Joseph Stein’s text based on Sholom Aleichem’s stories. If you’re brainless enough not to get the message in Tevye’s tale, then you might be heartless, too, if you don’t at least get a catch in your throat when Tevye refuses to acknowledge his youngest daughter who’ s fallen in love with a Christian or when he gives his scarf to the Siberia-bound middle daughter – never to see either again.Ted Sperling’s new orchestrations reveal nuances in Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics and lovely little melodies in the score’s less popular songs, like “Now I Have Everything”, that I hadn’t appreciated before.
Don Holder’s lighting design brings depth to the bare-bones storybook set design by Michael Yeargen, which melds nicely with the naturalistic costumes by Catherine Zuber. Most arresting about the production is the new, robust choreography by Hofesh Shechter on its most muscular display in “To Life”. That scene and the costumed puppet effects in “The Wedding” dream sequence are this production’s theatrical highlights. Danny Burstein’s Tevye, refreshingly more youthful than world-weary, brings us movingly along with him from naïve trust in traditions past to painful acceptance of the cost of change and a future unknown. After all these years, Tevye is still reminding us that - in his world and ours today - ya gotta have faith.
A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE at the Lyceum Theater
Belgian director Ivo van Hove redefines coherence in the unparalleled production of Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE now at the Lyceum on Broadway via London’s West End from its original venue at the Young Vic. The production packs as much force from its Atlantic crossing as it did on the south bank of the Thames, where I saw it in the spring of 2014, twice in one day. I was so astonished by the sold-out matinee performance (on a return ticket I procured standing online early that morning) that I cajoled theater management for a seat at the sold-out performance that evening. In between performances, by fluke, I chatted with Mark Strong, who plays the doomed Eddie Carbone, whose performance won him an Olivier, as it may well a Tony here. His comments I best recall were that the play was all about Arthur Miller’s language, and that it was Ivo van Hove’s direction that unearthed new power in it.
Indeed, the production at the Lyceum, where I’ve seen the play twice again, bears down on the text with the same intensity of the original London production. Miller’s morality tale of Eddie, the Italian-American Brooklyn longshoreman, obsessed with jealousy over his teenage, adopted niece falling in love with an undocumented, young Italian dock worker whom Eddie and his wife Beatrice give safe haven, has been revived successfully many times since it was first performed - in London, actually - in 1956. Narratively, the tale assumes classic Greek structure - a tragedy springing from a protagonist’s private demons leading to public consequence with cathartic effect. What makes the Young Vic production such a marvel is how van Hove has seamlessly integrated impeccably timed acting and meticulous, minimalist staging and design to drill deep to the essential text, revealing stunningly its subtext. (Eddie’s percolating homophobia, for example, presents so shockingly, there’s an audible gasp from the audience.)
Mark Strong anchors the uniformly solid cast, although I still can’t cotton to the single casting change in Rodolpho, the younger of the Italian immigrant brothers with whom Eddie’s niece Catherine falls in love. Russell Tovey, a beefy hunk popularly known for his gay role on HBO’s LOOKING, has the acting credentials - British-trained, in his youth a schoolboy in the original production of THE HISTORY BOYS - but he’s tad too old for the part, and over-muscled, too. Instead of presenting Rudolpho as an agile, boy/man, angel/devil with Latin, romantic flair - making credible Eddie’s notion that he’s “not right” - he comes across more as hard-edged, he-man. (The casting change doesn’t diminish the power of the Broadway production, mind you, but I wouldn’t put any actor with Tobey’s body type in the part.)
The rest of the cast is as right as before, especially Nicola Walker as Beatrice and Phoebe Fox as Catherine, even if her Brooklyn accent doesn’t always ring as true as Strong’s and Walker’s. What impressed me more in this US production was Michael Gould as Alfieri, the neighborhood lawyer who provides moral counsel to Eddie. His is a beautiful, understated performance where as both narrator and Greek chorus, he tells Miller’s memory tale initially with a cool detachment, but ultimately with profound personal grief, completing a narrative arc while bringing the audience to mutual catharsis with his character.
Van Hove’s modus operandi of stripping his material down to its dramatic basics depends critically on his working with his partner Jan Versweyveld, formally credited with scenic and lighting design, but with whom from the outset of any project van Hove conceives a production. The resulting coherence is evident here, from the prop-less, bare, thrust stage (the only prop in the production is a single chair, which is used by Eddie to challenge the masculinity of Rodolpho’s older brother Marco) to sound designer Tom Gibbon’s elegiac soundtrack. Indeed the thrust stage worked ideally at the small, intimate Young Vic, but it’s been transplanted, effectively, to a proscenium stage at the Lyceum as it was in the West End. (Still, the preferred seating is on the stage, right and left of the thrust, to get the fullest impact of van Hove’s blocking and stage movement.) An under-lit, opaque floor, framed all round with a low bench, and a black backdrop with one tunnel-like opening create a claustrophobic arena for conflict , suggesting streetscape, Carbone’s kitchen, front-stoop, lawyer’s office all. It's the text that prevails.
Faure’s Requiem is the underscore, and bookends the play. Gibbons provides a slowly pulsating, low-decibel buzz as background, punctuated by a metallic, reverberating tick-tick-tick at key narrative points. The cumulative effect is like a time-bomb, which unleashes its explosive charge in the jaw-dropping climax with a specific spectacle I won’t spoil. As Beatrice cradles Eddie in a Pieta tableau, a sarcophagus scrim descends boxing-in the stage, the requiem reaches crescendo. Alfieri’s coda about Eddie and his “pure” individuality and the rule of community permeates. It’s theater at its cathartic best.
THESE PAPER BULLETS at Atlantic Theater Company
Despite the clever adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to a Beatles-like group in Sixties London and an energetic and talented acting ensemble, what’s most successful about THESE PAPER BULLETS at the Atlantic Theater are its six songs by Billie Joe Armstrong, front man for Green Day and lyricist and author of American Idiot. Played by a group called The Quartos, the songs both perfectly mimic the music of the early Beatles and stand on their own as masterfully composed exemplars of British period pop. Too bad their clarity isn’t found in the rest of the production.
Playwright Rolin Jones’ take on Shakespeare’s hilarious comedy is inventive enough, but it de-emphasizes the relationship between Quartos’ guitarist Ben (Shakespeare’s Benedict) and chic fashion designer Bea (the Bard’s Beatrice) from which sparks need to fly - but not enough do here - and upon which the plot twists. Director Jackson Gray chases down hilarity fast and furiously but that only detracts from Ben and Bea even more. In the early press performance I saw the timing in Act I was off, enough to recall an under-rehearsed Noises Off, and the diction of many actors armed with aggressive British accents made some dialogue incomprehensible even in the acoustically sound Linda Gross auditorium.
The very busy sets by Michael Yeargen clutter, rather than focus, the action. By Act II, the players even joke about it: (I’m paraphrasing) “see we’re getting on the turntable again to play a song” or “why are there so many lampshades on the stage?” (which I had been wondering about since Act I, too.) Jessica Ford's eye-popping costumes, while lots of fun, fuel the busyness further. Remember the Crayola-colored and clear plastic rainwear of Twiggy? It’s back, with a fashion model called Higgy, which sounds like Twiggy, who is really Shakespeare’s Hero. By George, you’ve got it!
THESE PAPER BULLETS’ ambition doesn’t get in its own way as much as its too-many moving parts don’t cohere. Shakespeare’s mirth and mischief don’t have space to conspire. Instead of enjoying a sleek, witty, lightning ride The Beatles took in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, The Quartos in THESE PAPER BULLETS seem stuck in the Chinese firedrill in HELP!
SCHOOL OF ROCK the Winter Garden
Watching SCHOOL OF ROCK - a thematically familiar parable of personal redemption this time about a slob of a rocker who finds self worth by bonding musically with a classroom of private school pre-teens - is like observing the 2003 movie, on which it is painstakingly replicated, being assembled - the old fashioned way - on a manually-operated editing machine. Scene change? Easy. Just splice with another scenery backdrop that slides in to replace the other sliding out. To plod from scene to scene a little less obviously add transitional instrumentals, and to adrenalize the A to B to C story line stuff each scene with at least one song (18 of the 20 scenes have at least one, 8 have two or more). Legendary showtune composer and stage musical impresario Andrew Lloyd Weber obliges without inspiration: lots of boiler-plate rock, mind-numbingly derivative of the unmemorable 90s. One number lingers post-show; “Stick it to the Man” but it is reprised once, plus encored. It seems like more. Occasionally, there’s some clever lyric, as when the stereotypical, tight-ass, hair-in-a-bun, headmistress sings (and I’m paraphrasing) “we prep our students well, to get to Harvard, or at least Cornell’), but not enough.
SCHOOL’s 2 1/2 hours aren’t without interest. It’s amazing to watch the hugely talented Alex Brightman almost singlehandedly carry the whole production. He’s on stage for almost the entire time, and brings so much good-natured energy and his own brand of wise-ass, nerdy charm to Dewey, the archetypal loser who triumphs, the indelible image of Jack Black in the original movie role disappears soon into Act I. Brightman’s enormously aided by the student cast – a multi-ethnic group of kids, all shapes and sizes, many recruited from children theater and church choirs around New York. Just watching these kids rock-out lets one ignore the story’s predictable ho-hum. Special shout out to a kooky, pigtailed Evie Dolan, a powerhouse of a back-up singer Taylor Caldwell and Bobbie MacKenzie, whose young pipes would be the envy of any performer with an 11 o'clock number. The last scene, including finale, rips a page out of the Kinky Boots’ playbook: it serves up multiple songs, it goes on and on, and everybody ends up happy. Except - despite the irrepressibly appealing Brightman and the kinetic, lovable kids - it’s missing the magic.
HIR at Playwrights Horizons
If you haven’t had enough black comedy about family dysfunction and trauma to the American dream then HIR is for you. Playwright Taylor Mac compensates for HIR’s lack of thematic novelty with a rarified parallax: in his view, systemic shock to the American family unit derives from radical re-assignment of gender roles. When older son Isaac returns home from a Middle East military tour to see his family and its domicile turned upside down, David Rabe crossed my mind. (Think vet returning from foreign battlefield to domestic battlefield as in Sticks and Bones.) When Isaac quickly sees that his mother, Paige, has found a new self in ruling the roost by a campaign of emasculation of his father Harold Pinter occurred to me. (Think how matriarchal power finally prevails in The Homecoming).
These high-falutin notions evaporated immediately in the face of dialogue like “My best friend is my penis” and “if you slap me once more, I’ll flush all your supply of testosterone down the toilet.” Mom, while appearing blissful in a New Age kind of self-rediscovery, executes rage from years of physical and emotional abuse from her husband, Arnold, now compromised by a stroke, by dressing him in drag - garish makeup, a rainbow colored synthetic Afro, and soiled house dress. She takes politically correct delight, in her former daughter, now transgendering to her son called Max, being referred to as hir, an amalgam of him and her. Get it?
Playwright Mac, the hugely talented, drag/ gender-bending, downtown vocalist/performer, scores plenty of observations about the role of gender in society, masculinity/ femininity, the decline of the middle class, blah-blah-blah but it all plays sophomorically. When HIR dives for something deeper, there’s nothing there because the play has no subtext. The narrative elements of the play - like, how meth can be anally ingested by it being blown through a straw – are excruciatingly literal. Fortunately, Mac’s humor has an accessible self-deprecating quality, exemplified by a clever rift on the often-mangled LGBT acronym.
The ever-appealing Kristine Nielsen as Paige the Mom survives the proceedings largely on the back of her theatrical persona of comic goodwill. Cameron Scoggins as Isaac shouts his lines and demonstrates his revulsion to family events by throwing up a lot. Somehow newcomer Tom Phelan in his Off-Broadway debut brings a verisimilitude to the role of Max all by hirself. Daniel Oreskes as Dad, former abuser and the current abused, manages to preserve some dignity dressed the whole while in a diaper. But, there is nothing funny about a diapered adult. Try taking care of an infirmed, demented parent or, for that matter, just strolling through a nursing home.
INCIDENT AT VICHY at Pershing Square Signature Center
With news headlines full of racial, ethnic and religious hatred and atrocity, Arthur Miller’s INCIDENT AT VICHY, first staged in 1964 and now revived by Signature Theater, couldn’t be timelier. The setting is a large waiting area in a deserted factory - a makeshift detention center - in Vichy France in 1942. French authorities cooperate with the Germans to round-up suspected Jews. One-by-one detainees are led into an interrogation room off stage. Nazis check identification papers for forgeries, but nose size and a circumcised penis are more critical. The 15 year old boy supporting his mother, the religious elder, the waiter with wife and small kids – all Jews – plus the activist, Communist plumber and the gay actor disappear into history.
Director Michael Wilson superbly combines a hard, keen almost documentary style with a detached sensitivity, averting didactics and letting human tragedy speak for itself. There’s no room for grandstanding in this understated revival. Miller's intellectual debate about morality, individual culpability, and civilization’s future is presented with restraint - through intense, personal exchanges between a Jewish-sympathizing Austrian nobleman and a Jewish psychiatrist, expertly played by Richard Thomas and Brian Cross. Special credit to Jonathan Hadary as the old Jew, whose silence for most of his role waiting for his decisive moment emerges as a quiet, dignified testament to millions of perished Jews. Jeff Cowies’ scenic design of cold, empty, industrial space of crumbling concrete and rust evokes not only death camps of WWII but also all the Abu Ghraibs and POW camps the world has seen since.
Arthur Miler once said that “(plays) that last are of course the works that address the condition of mankind at any one time. They’re simply not private emotional worlds that deal simply with the relationship between private people. They somehow echo the condition of the whole nation or the world.” Do the American elected officials who call for only people of one religion to be allowed immigration to the US have any notion INCIDENT AT VICHY relates to us?
STEVE (and Steven and Stephen)
The first scene of STEVE, at The New Group, is such a tour-de-force of perfectly-timed, snap-crackle-pop ensemble acting it makes Mark Gerrard’s play irresistibly fun right from the get-go. It’s not that the script isn’t funny, it’s just that it’s made often hilarious by the sextet up on stage, largely thanks, I suspect, that it is an actor, Cynthia Nixon ( in her second directorial effort after last season’s memorable Rasheeda Speaking) who is directing, or perhaps letting actors do what they do best - act. And each one of these actors so effectively realizes his or her character, it’s easy to breeze right through this gay romp (or gaily romp through this breezy comedy) right in step with the cast.
The set-up: the partnership of one of two longtime, forty(plus)something, gay, New York couples, Steven and Stephen, is threatened by presumed infidelity. Steven, who sees himself as cheated-on, finds sexual diversion in a much younger, sexy Argentinean waiter, all the while enjoying the confidence of his best friend, Carrie, a lesbian who is dying of cancer. Intertwined seamlessly into the laugh-a-minute dialogue is an endless supply of showbiz allusions, which have germinated for decades in musical theater culture. I stopped counting at “fasten your seat belts” and if you don’t know what movie that comes from, you can still giggle right through its quickly-paced, 90-minute, one-act.
Director Nixon cleverly and thematically segues from one scene to the next with the cast singing show tunes that comment on the storyline. Actually, the entire evening of theater kicks off with the cast casually huddled around an upright piano (yes, It’s OK to think piano bar) for a pre-show of merrily sung Broadway favorites that not only establish the ensemble as old friends but also immediately lets the audience roll along in all the fun. (The pre-show starts about 15 minutes before curtain time. Don’t miss it.) There’s also a musical coda after bows that in grand Broadway musical tradition leaves ‘em smilin’, too.
Gerrard’s humor is so naturally, unabashedly gay, it gleefully acknowledges cliché without slipping into self-consciousnes. And, his narrative is so unapologetically, politically incorrect, it eschews the hetero-normative vogue. Steven and Stephen, although they have a seven year-old son, remain “partnered” rather than married. Their best friends, Brian and Matt, easily accommodate a live-in ménage-a-trois with a young gym trainer, Steve (whom we never see) without any notion of risk to their relationship. (I can’t wait to read the bitchy review that proclaims STEVE a post-modern Boys in the Band absent the neurotic self-loathing.)
Ensemble rules but big shout-out to the splendid Ashlie Atkinson as Carrie whose struggle with cancer won’t tolerate victimhood and the spunky Mario Cantone whose wiseass persona is charming as hell even when he’s hamming it up. Matt McGrath’s Steven is not just a one-dimensional mid-life crisis; he’s a complex of youthful contradictions. Humor - and his sly, self-deprecatory brand at that - is his lifeboat.
Gerrard might have thinned the final scene so the soupy melodrama isn’t as thick. Still, for gay men and women and all our family and friends, STEVE celebrates, keenly, authentically, with smart, comic identity, we are what we are. And that's one Broadway reference STEVE does not make.
KING CHARLES III
Quintessentially British in content and form is Mike Bartlett’s KING CHARLES III now on Broadway - the same production and principal cast from its Olivier-award winning London run. Billed as “a future history play” it posits a benignly dystopian England where Prince Charles, having finally ascended the throne, refuses, against modern custom, to ceremoniously sign a bill passed by Parliament, this one to curtail some press freedoms . As un-coronated King he disbands Parliament, jeopardizing the Realm’s future and creating a conflict of wills between him and the next-in-line, Prince William, encouraged by an emboldened Kate Middleton.
It’s ingeniously conceived and cleverly crafted, and enfolds not only as an homage to Shakespeare and his royal tragedies but also an allegory for the grand British traditions of monarchy and theatre both. Shakespearians can readily find character and plot allusions to Hamlet, Richard II and III and Henry IV: even a casual Bardist will handily recognize Kate Middletown as Lady Macbeth and Princess Di as the ghost casting peril on the throne. Bartlett’s language and its rhythms are spot-on; much of the dialogue is composed in the Bard’s iambic pentameter. It’s all highly engaging and mounted in a veddy, veddy British stage style by director Rupert Goold who serves up the proceedings with a delicious blend of satire and wit.
The set, designed by Tom Scutt, deftly acknowledges the sweep of Anglo-Saxon history with a semi-circular stone wall backdrop - which evokes Stonehenge, an Anglican cathedral altar, and the Old Globe theatre - with a mural of common figures, the Vox Populi as observant audience.
Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles strikes perfect notes as royal descendant of a limited gene pool and weary survivor of a lifetime of waiting to assume the only job he was reared for. The cast is uniformly solid but Lydia Wilson’s Kate Middletown kept grabbing my attention. The comic relief, a traditional, Shakespeare staple, comes from the kids - the ginger Prince Harry played by Richard Goulding and his punk. anti-Royal, wise-ass girlfriend, played by newcomer Tafline Steen.
There’s more that director Goold might have wrought from the fight for power between a Machiavellian Prince William preserving the throne and a stubbornly principled King fighting for fundamental liberty. Still, it's absorbing theatre at its British finest, indeed.
THERESE RAQUIN at Roundabout
Inert describes in one word Roundabout’s production of THERESE RAQUIN at Studio 54. This paint-by-numbers adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1867 novel tells how the title character, stuck in a contrived, loveless marriage to a nerdy, sickly momma’s boy, finds sexual escape with a young, handsome stud and how they kill her husband. That exposition occupies all of Act I, where there’s more action in the constantly shifting scenic change dropping in, flying up, sliding stage left to right, right to left, than in the characters. As Therese, film actress Keira Knightley spends most of the first act in a bug-eyed, zombied, wanton trance. When her adulterous desire is addressed by her young Lothario, Laurent, obligingly performed by Matt Ryan, their union happens so inexplicably and passionlessly - and the sex scenes so clumsily staged - it’s just not believable. The tiniest hint of drama in this morality tale (Be Careful What You Wish For) comes fleetingly in Act II, where there is a glimmer of paranoia and guilty torment that haunts the murderous couple. But no matter, this senselessly over-designed show doesn't have the depth or intimacy to plumb the psychological intensity of the story nor the vitality or imagination to unleash its inherent operatics. Up on the Studio54 stage, it’s all lost in space.
THE HUMANS at Roundabout Theatre Company
Rarely do script, acting, directing, and all creative elements cohere as beautifully as they do in Stephen Karam’s THE HUMANS: the real star of the show is director Joe Mantello. None of the plot elements in this impeccably crafted play are particularly original. The setting is Thanksgiving dinner, the family dynamics intergenerational. Erik and Deidre Blake, hard-working (still), middle-income, Irish- American, sixtysomething parents from Scranton PA are visiting, with Erik’s demented wheelchair-bound mother, along with their down-on-her-luck, older daughter Aimee, the first Manhattan apartment of the younger, spoiled, aspiring artist daughter Brigid and her live-in boyfriend Richard. In lesser skilled hands than Karam’s, what besets the Blakes could make them another egg-heady metaphor for the downturn of the American Dream or tired fodder of family dysfunction already over-supplied on stage and film these days.
But Karam gets down to basics in THE HUMANS and reveals fundamental truths in the everyday plight of everyday people with everyday problems. Indeed, Karam’s Irish-American Blakes have less in common with the neurosis of Eugene O’Neill’s’ Irish-American Tyrones, and more to do with the aspirations of Clifford Odet’s Jewish immigrant Bergers, except in the Blake’s case - unlike the Berger’s - the task is not hoping for a better future but just hanging onto a diminished present.
What makes the familiar seem so fresh is the verisimilitude Karam captures in the family unit and each member of it, expressed by an incredibly skilled cast, especially Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell as the parents shouldering a bucket of daily woe. But it’s Mantello’s direction that allows kitchen tabletalk to flow as realistically and piercingly as Karam writes it. Mantello’s cast gives universal witness to sibling rivalry, spousal pain, and parental burdens with impeccably timed under-breath comments, overlapping conversations, bitten lips, hasty tongues. The I-wish-I-hadn’t-said-that moments land with a stomach punch.
Mantello brilliantly optimizes set design by David Zinn, lighting by Justin Townsend and sound by Fitz Patton. Zinn’s double-tiered, sunlight-less, semi-basement, unfurnished Chinatown apartment not only tells of the daughter’s expensive desperation to make it in the big city, but also contrasts with the parents’ debt-burdened frugality and lifetime of sacrifice. Mantello uses the apartment's clumsy, non-room spaces for individual family members to eek-out some privacy, but there’s nowhere to hide from family ties that bind. Townsend’s lighting conveys the cheap, harsh features of the subterranean rental; the building’s electricity proves as undependable as the social contract on which the Blakes hung their work ethic. Patton’s sound design makes ominous the menacing building noises bellowing down to the basement apartment that threaten stability and peace of mind. Mantello orchestrates it all seamlessly, creating theater that ranks THE HUMANS among the best of dramas about the American family.
RED VELVET AT SHAKESPEARE & COMPANY (Lenox MA)
RED VELVET is not only a very good play, but also an opportunity to see the wonderful John Douglas Thompson on stage in the Berkshires. At Shakespeare & Company, Thompson plays the famous, pioneering 19thC American actor, Ira Aldridge, who not only broke the color barrier in Shakespearian theater but also introduced modern acting technique to the dramatic stage.
The play’s events center on Aldridge becoming the first Black to play Othello in 1833 in a major London theatre, assuming the role from the famous Edmund Kean. Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti melds historical research about the anti-slavery movement deftly with behind-the-scenes theater protocol. The scenes in which Aldridge instructs veddy-veddy British actors in more naturalistic acting techniques are especially entertaining. The play is dramatically bookended with Aldridge in a dressing room at the end of his career, but an unexpected, poignant touch comes in the curtain call when Thompson holds high a framed portrait of his forebear and then places it on an easel for the entire cast to applaud in tribute.
Shakespeare’s & Company’s production is sturdy, its ensemble uniformly reliable. I had seen the US premiere of the original UK Tricycle Theatre production of RED VELVET at St. Ann’s Warehouse a few seasons back, with Adrian Lester in the title role. Thompson’s uniquely graceful power gives this production a distinct quality.
ADDENDUM. Unfortunately in the evening performance I attended, a cell phone went off - front row, stage right of the thrust - in Act 1 within 20 feet of Thompson in a pivotal scene with just one other actor. The actor who took the hit stayed on book, albeit a tad off-balance. As Thompson, waiting for his line, was facing stage right he took the opportunity to stare down the offending theatergoer. THAT was worth observing. Before the second act started, theater management took the rare occasion to make another announcement to shut off mobiles. THAT was worth applauding, which many in the audience, myself included, did with enthusiasm.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Shakespeare & Co.)
“Bitter!” pronounces the intellectual, world-famous, late-middle age author in the first line of THE UNEXPECTED MAN. In a series of internal monologues, he recounts his life disappointments in a train compartment en route Frankfurt from Paris. Across from him, a handsome, stylish late-middle age woman, a devoted reader who secrets the author's recent bestseller in her handbang, reveals, in her own monologues , her own life disappointments, too. Naturally, they each check the other out and imagine what the other might be thinking.
The premise sounds thin, but this beautifully crafted, one- act play from French playwright Yasmina Reza - best known for her more cynical fare like ART and THE GOD OF CARNAGE - succeeds largely because of two immensely skilled actors and a very sensitive director.
We get to know a lot about these isolated souls, but seldom anything detailed. For example, we know the author is upset by the marriage of his daughter to a man his own age, and that she, a mother of two, still mourns the death of a male friend whom she loved unrequitedly, but they never speak about their marriages. No matter, because actors Corinna May and John Woodson fill in all the blanks about these characters; oddly, we feel we know as much about them as if they had told their stories to each other in dialogue.
Director Seth Green picks up the internal rhythms in Christopher Hampton’s translation of Reza’s original, French script, and re-enforces these with a slowly rotating set and unobtrusive timing of subtle shifts in lighting by Robyn Warfield.
The woman traveler toys with setting a conversational trap by reading the copy of the author’s newest book. What happens to these strangers on a train is more bittersweet than bitter
On the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival there is an exercise called AN INTERVENTION, a one-act, two-character play by Mike Bartlett, Olivier-winning playwright of the Broadway-bound Charles III. The play’s dramatic premise is the limits of platonic friendship. The gimmick is that the play has two productions - same script - with two sets of actors, the original intent being that any one of the four actors could have played any one of the roles on any given performance. The conceit of cast-switching can have dramatic relevance when it's integral to the play - for example, when Kristen Thomas and Lia Williams changed roles in alternating performances in Harold Pinter’s Old Times in the West End a couple of years ago, where the women’s identities were key to the play’s transaction. No such dynamic applies here. The double cast scheme is pointless to an audience; whatever value it might have seems best realized as an acting or directing practicum in drama school.
In any event, I saw the version with Betty Gilpin and Debargo Sanyal, not the one with Josh Hamilton and Justin Long. The play’s London setting has no effect on plot or theme; regrettably, it only serves to make the obvious efforts at English accents of these American actors a distraction. Worse, the first 30 minutes of the play is all talk and no action, and the actors, especially Gilpin, compensate with what a baseball scout might call fake hustle. It’s not until the second half when the script displays some action that the character s’ motivations become clearer, but, unfortunately, no more empathetic.
Bartlett intertwines the friends’ opposing views about armed intervention in an unnamed, undeveloped country by a superpower (in this case Great Britain) with emotional confrontations about personal matters in their private lives. The construct allows for some heady, thematic parallelism, but, in the end, AN INTERVENTION is basically a melodrama about one friend who is a terminal alcoholic and the other who’s been traumatized by a disastrous love affair.
The last scene is twice as long as it need be. I won’t reveal its narrative specifics even though the actors and a member of the WTF management in a talkback session after the performance inappropriately revealed, in detail, the actual, behind-the-scenes production trick that makes it possible.
Sometimes Eugene O’Neill wrote about African Americans. Mostly, though, he stuck to his Irish Catholic kin, but you’d never know that from the conceptually flawed and sometimes preposterous rendition of A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Had color-blind casting applied just to the part of Josie Hogan played by Audra McDonald, WTF's version might have fared better, but artistic director Mandy Greenfield and director Gordon Edelstein have co-conspired to “explore the notion of making the Hogans African American tenant farmers”, (Edelstein in the WTF program). In doing so, they have unnecessarily interposed so many cultural and social externalities into O'Neill, this MOON has no context, at best, and, at worst, denies historical realities.
The setting is so far removed from a Connecticut farm in the 1920s - and the parts of Josie and her father Phil (played by Glynn Turman) delivered in such a pronounced African American dialect - the only thing that rescues the play in Act 1 from not taking place on a Depression-era rundown plantation is that landowner James Tyrone doesn't have a Southern gentleman’s drawl. Reportedly, director Edelstein thought that the tensions between the Hogans as poorer Irish Catholic farmers and James Tyrone (played by McDonald’s husband Will Swenson, who uncannily resembles a youthful Eugene O’Neill) as the richer Irish Catholic landowner would be lost on contemporary audiences, so he heightened the tension by recasting the Hogans as Blacks. How about trusting the audience?
Great plays can be re-envisioned; it’s done with Shakespeare all the time, but it requires a coherent whole, as director Daniel Fish recently achieved with his brilliant re-imagining of Oklahoma, or as playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins accomplished in deconstructing the forgotten 19th century Octoroon, or as Richard Eyre realized in the 1990s at the National Theatre in morphing Richard III into a 1930s Hitler. It’s not as simple as making under-casting racially conform to the marquee name splashed at the top of the bill.
WTF’s Black Hogan family gambit glosses over the hateful past. Take for example, the cruel derision and abject harassment Josie and her father heap on the super-rich abutting landowner Harder, disquietingly played to comic effect. In the 1920s, in places like the South, this would have resulted in lynching, let alone getting thrown off the land. And, is it fair to portray an African American woman in the 1920's to be so empowered that she could speak to a white rich landowner like James Tyrone the way Josie does, let alone try to seduce him? Just look what happens now - almost 100 years later - when a Black female driver changed lanes without signaling. The casual assignment of the Hogans as Blacks stretches narrative credulity. Worse, it whitewashes history.
McDonald’s performance in Act II makes evident how casting should have been left alone so she could play Josie straight. She’s no stranger in taking widely diverse roles and finding her own way, from Mrs. Snow (talk about white) in Carousel to Sharon in Master Class. In the tragic second act, where Josie and James confront their delusions and their futile love, McDonald drops the affect required of her in the first act and, in O’Neill’s masterful “ritual of confession, expiation, absolution, forgiveness, and grace” (Edelstein again), palpable emotion shines through. How about trusting the actress? She can follow the text. It’s all there.
Kudos to scenic designer Lee Savage who's restored and adapted Ming Cho Lee's stunning set from Long Wharf’s 2005 production. There’s more honesty and integrity in the make-believe rocky patch of dirt on stage than in much of what’s played on it.
ACCENT ON COMEDY FOR SURE
Actor Patrick Page, who plays the title role CYMBELINE, posted on Facebook that Meryl Streep told him CYMBELINE was the best Shakespeare she’d ever seen in the Park. Being a wise-ass, I quip that doesn’t necessarily include those that she’s played in, but in any event, I agree with her, even though I’ve seen less than a half a dozen plays at the Delacorte and had never seen Cymbeline before. So, I’m no Shakespeare scholar, but this is the first Shakespeare I’ve seen where I understood every and could make sense of every action even based on a cursory, rushed reading of my Playbill's synopsis (in marked contrast to Hudson Valley Shakespeare’s confusing Winter’s Tale even though I had read the full text - twice! - and it was discussed for hours in the dramaturgy class in the directors’ workshop I was in at Yale a few weeks ago.)
CYMBELINE is one of four of Shakespeare’s tragicomedies and in director Daniel Sullivan's celebratory version, the emphasis is quite definitely on comedy, which Sullivan presents as the story WITHIN the story of the tragic plight of separated lovers Imogen (played by Lily Rabe) and Posthumus (Hamish Linklater). To re-enforce that notion, set designer Riccardo Hernandez has positioned two open, rectangular proscenia on the oval, elevated stage to achieve, literally, a frame within a frame. Sullivan’s pace is borderline madcap, making hay of a magic potion, disguised gender, and mistaken death from Shakespeare's bag of plot tricks at every turn. Sullivan stirs the pot more deliciously by having principal players play double roles: Linklater as both an earnest Posthumus and a hilarious, buffoonish Cloten and Kate Burton as both trouble-making Queen and secret- keeper Belarius.
Composer Tom Kitt (Next To Normal) outfits the production with an original score of sprightly interstitial orchestrations and two brand, new knockout songs: a fully choreographed, razzle-dazzle showbiz number performed by Broadway's Raul Esparza as a conniving, sharkskin-suited RatPackish lounge lizard Iachimo, and a lovely folk ballad by Guiderius and Arvirargus lamenting (what they think is) their brother Fidele's (Imogen's) death.
The wondrous Lily Rabe bears the tragedy, along with the wonderful Linklater when he’s in Posthumus mode, but lovers' turmoil gets resolved lightning fast in the end, with good natured, world-weary aplomb. The queen’s dead? She was a bitch anyway. Cloten's been be-headed? The jerk - good riddance to bad rubbish. Forgive that son-of-bitch Iachimo even though he’s a double-crossing traitor? Yeah, he’s an asshole, but he’s OUR asshole. All’s well that ends well. Let's get on with life and enjoy the hell out of it.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY
There’s so many moving pieces in plot and action in Barrington Stage Company’s HIS GIRL FRIDAY, it’s a wonder how director Julie Boyd has kept the characters from not colliding - literally - in this physical, hyper-kinetic production on BSC’s main stage in Pittsfield. John Guare adapted the play in 2003 from the original Hecht and MacArthur’s 1928 The Front Page and the Howard Hawks’ 1940 classic comedy, creating a 1939 setting politically backdropped with a pre-WWII, isolationist America and its benign notions about Nazi Germany.
Guare‘s writing blends snap-crackle-pop moviespeak and hard-boiled, pulp-fiction one-liners. His story’s a smorgasbord of crime melodrama, pressroom shenanigans, sexual politics, social satire, romantic comedy and screwball farce. (Did I mention political anarchy, suicide and murder?) It’s a smart, rollicking, busy script and a helluva challenge for any director to tackle to the ground while still letting the actors have at it. Boyd wrestles it all into a manageable two hours and fifteen minutes, spiriting an unusually large (16, all in) and well-rehearsed cast that rolls with almost perfect timing.
A superb Jane Pfitsch’s got the spunk Hildy Johnson needs (she literally wrestles a character to the ground in Act II) and Christopher Innvar's got plenty of wise-guy swagger as Walter Burns, even if the sexual cat and mouse doesn't spark between the two as hot as I’d expect. Mark H. Dold almost steals the show as Hildy’s tight-ass, fuss-budget fiancé. (It’s hard to believe he was the tormented ex-priest last month in BSC’s Shining City.)
Ethan Dubin, Robert Zuckerman and Ben Caplan each do double duty playing dual roles; I challenge any theatergoer to keep up with their character switches and costume changes. Peggy Pharr Wilson chews up the scenery as a bellowing, fox-furred Godzilla of a battle-axe. David M. Barber's set ingeniously accommodates all the mayhem. It's great fun. Exhausting, but fun.
A CELL PHONE IS NOT A HATE CRIME
At the end of THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY, playwright and performer James Lecesne tells the audience that real purpose of the hate that resulted in the murder of the flamboyant 14 year old was for us to stand up to evil and do better with our lives. Lecesne’s message isn’t preachy. It’s just a plea for good, old-fashioned goodwill, which was made evident by the performer himself beyond what he has lovingly scripted in this tragic but inspirational parable at the Westside Theatre.
At Wednesday’s matinee, Lecesne was downstage right, in the middle of playing the Mafia widow with the binoculars who spots Leonard’s rainbow-colored platformed sneaker floating in the pond below her house. Sitting at the end of the first row - just five feet below Lecesne - was a patron whose chiming cell phone went off multiple times before she ran up the aisle (presumably out of the theater, or maybe she took a seat in the back – she certainly didn’t come back to her first row seat). Without missing a beat, or demonstrating any consternation, Lecesne stayed in character and ad-libbed (I'm paraphrasing) “sometimes the neighbors play their music too loud…don’t mind them”.
By making lemonade out of lemons, Lecesne not only created a spontaneous moment of theatrical delight, but also embodied the message of tolerance, acceptance, and humanity that underpins his play. I’m not excusing the dolt who forgot to turn off her cell phone at all, but it's Lecesne’s integrity, cool and craft I’ll be remembering.
SCENIC DESIGN RULES
Structurally, UNKNOWN SOLDIER, in its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is puzzling in that it’s supposed to be principally about one character but it spends a lot of time being about another. The innocent Lucy Lemay of Troy, New York (played by Lauren Worsham as a young woman and Estelle Parsons at end of Lucy’s life) falls in love with a young soldier in Grand Central Terminal in 1918 the day before he leaves for the front. Presumed killed in action, he returns and is discovered by her as the amnesiac, celebrated “unknown soldier” in government care. Unable to prove he is hers, Lucy is separated from him for life, leaving her alone (having been impregnated in some very brief moment before he shipped out) to care for their infant daughter. All this is pieced together by Lucy’s granddaughter, Ellen (Jessica Phillips), in 2003 with the help of a Cornell librarian.
Daniel Goldstein, who wrote the book, constructs a clever device in telling Lucy’s tragic tale through Ellen. It’s a fertile path for multi-generational parallels of love and loss, and daughterhood and motherhood, but it’s also an emotional detour through Ellen’s own, less interesting, modern-day story.
UNKNOWN SOLDIER covers lots of ground - an astonishing amount, really - in 90 minutes, deftly plotted by director Trip Cullman. Writer Goldstein cleverly weaves a complicated tale, though the lyrics, co-penned with composer Michael Friedman, best known for the innovative Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, often smack of the talk-sung, everyday (“...sometimes a milk shake is just a milk shake”). Friedman peppers the score, most of which seems sung-through, with a handful of haunting, bittersweet melodies (like “My Husband Took Care of Things”), any one of which might have served as an over-arching musical theme, a missed opportunity as the orchestrations, from a bare-bones group of five musicians, have a striking clarity.
Most compelling about Cullman's vision for UNKNOWN SOLDIER is the simple (almost prop-less), yet elegant, scenic design by Mark Wendland, who suggests deep library recesses from plain tables and archival boxes, and an old, run-down house from a formica kitchen table. The set achieves different locales like the Victorian skyline of Troy and steeples on a Cornell campus with doll-house constructions, and time shifts with a handless clock affixed against a backdrop of open sky, which, with Ben Stanton's sensitive lighting, doubles as the moon. Ingeniously, Wendland and Stanton have conspired to drop the center of gravity for scenes that occur in the “present” with very low suspended, covered lamps; for the youthful love scenes that occur during WWI period, the lamps fly out to suggest a wide open sky of romantic possibility. The production's most magical moment comes when the twilight’s twinkling stars morph into the celestial Pegasus, creating the setting for Grand Central where Lucy casts her first look upon the first, and only, love.
But for all the pathos in Lucy’s story, there’s a disappointing level of romance. The musical was workshopped at the Huntington, and, after four weeks of studio rehearsals at Williamstown, the entire production was staged in just two and half days - a remarkable feat. But what Unknown Soldier perhaps needs – besides some narrative re-alignment - is time to ripen, to mellow, so that the romance on the boards is as magical as the stars in its make-believe Grand Central ceiling.
AH…THE PROMISE OF YOUTH
There’s a happy ending in a happy beginning. That comes through loud and clear in Sharon Playhouse’s endearing production of Stephen Sondheim’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG . It’s one of the rarest in Stephen Sondheim’s musical cannon, favored by Sondheim cultists (the original 1981 Broadway production ran for only 16 performances), and has one of his more accessible, melodic musical scores. It’s eluded lots of full-scale re-staging in the US: the most successful revival was London’s Menier Chocolate Factory's in 2013. (I’m kind of a Sondheim nut myself, and I love this musical. I’ve seen both the original and, twice, the recent London production.)
Structurally, MERRILY is a tricky proposition: it tells the story backward from 1976 to 1957 of three friends - Franklin, the composer, Charlie, his lyricist partner, and Mary, their best friend - beginning at the height of Franklin’s Hollywood fame, tracing back the road to Franklins’ success through betrayals, personal crisis, and compromises to when they were “kids” struggling to start their careers in New York. Think of hybrid of backstage showbiz and coming-of-age stories told in reverse. Smartly, director John Simpkins has cast three, solid charismatic leads who solidly deliver a string of glorious Sondheim songs, played by an on-stage orchestra of 10 - yes 10 (as large as has many Broadway shows these days).
Jason Tam as Franklin is the trio’s most seasoned. (He burst onto the Broadway stage as the gay Puerto Rican go-go dancer in 2007’s revival of A Chorus Line). Tam’s star energy, supported by an enthusiastic youthful ensemble that acts as a chorus linking the passage of time from scene-to-scene, propels the story forward (err… backwards). He really takes the reins in the wonderful number “Old Friends” that’s been given new, youthful choreography by Jennifer Werner. A.J. Shively, as Charlie, claims “Franklin Shepard Inc” as his own. If “Another Hundred People …” from Company is arguably the most difficult female solo Sondheim has ever written, then “Franklin Shepard Inc” is the most difficult male solo. Shively nails it, and stunningly. As Mary, Lauren Marcus, last seen in the Playhouse’s They’re Playing Our Song, heart-wrenchingly sums up of a lifetime of unrequited love in the reprise of the torch-song “Not a Day Goes By."
It’s the finale number, “Our Time”, that really sends me, though. The three young friends, meeting for the first time on a tenement rooftop in Manhattan, search the pre-dawn sky for Sputnik orbiting the earth. “Our Time” lyrics are innocent and simple, it’s music sweet and comforting. It’s a rare, uncomplicated Sondheim moment, full of naïve wonder and the promise of youth. It gets me every time.
Sharon Playhouse’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is a rare chance to see this Sondheim rarity. Take advantage of it. Only six performances, through July 19.
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