Monday, November 18, 2013

The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence

The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, at Playwrights Horizons, November 16, 2013

Madeleine George's gimmicky new play, a riff on sidekicks named Watson and their roles in history (real and fictionalized), is Playwrights Horizons' latest commission to reach their main stage.

The concept has merit, four Watsons all played by the same actor (John Ellison Conlee) flanked by three Mr. and Mrs. Merricks (David Costabile and Amanda Quaid), covering Sherlock Holmes' doctor friend, Alexander Graham Bell's assistant Thomas Watson, a computer repairman dweeb Josh Watson, and a fictional computer successor to IBM's 2011 Watson (a contestant on television's Jeopardy!). 

Ms. George spent a great deal of time trying to add intricacy in blending the story lines, but in the second act, things begin to unravel. After carefully allowing for proper costume changes, the transitions no longer allow the visual to match the script.  She also falls prey to a gratuitous nude scene at the top of Act 2 and an absurd and superfluous overuse of the word "preternatural."

This three-hander bounces about from sub-plot to sub-plot in increasingly frenetic jumps.  Initially, each scene is introduced with a shadowy variation on the line "Mr. Watson - come here - I want you," the delivered inflection of which intends to foreshadow the nature of the following interaction. After all the stumbling around, Bell's infamous quote becomes an odd moral of the play about one person's commitment to another, be they spouse, co-worker, whatever in a rambling speech from Ms. Quaid's contemporary Mrs. Merrick.  (Yeah, I was confused, too.) 

Director Leigh Silverman has assembled a talented cast to take on this effort.  Mr. Conlee's brings his four Watsons as much delineation as he can, though it is the artificial Watson's pleasant dead-pan that rang the truest.  Ms. Quaid fares a bit better in the writing of her Mrs. Merrick variations, the most contemporary being a brilliant computer engineer who conceived, built and programmed the artificial-intelligence Watson with the purpose of gathering input from users to help in medical diagnoses. Oddly, given a play's "free-pass" in the suspension of disbelief, Ms. George decides not to name the new computer Watson.  (Why not Dr. Watson, or Watson MD??)  Mr. Costabile gets the juiciest speeches from a political diatribe at the beginning when his account Merrick is running for local Auditor, to a Holmesian villain inventing weapons of death. Overall, the performances are consistent, but the flaws in the book hold back both the cast and director. 

Louisa Thompson's set is serviceable and sufficiently lit by Mark Barton. Anita Yavich does her best with costumes, but the script interferes with successful changes more than once.

The...Watson Intelligence runs through December 29.  See my previous post for discount ticket information.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Playwrights Horizons Discount - The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence

"The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence" at Playwrights Horizons

DISCOUNT TICKETS TO THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE for YOUR READERS:

Regular run:  Nov 15-Dec 29
Tues-Wed at 7, Thu-Fri at 8, Sat at 2:30 & 8, Sun at 2:30 & 7:30

Order by Dec. 2 with the code WATBLOG and tickets are $45 (reg. $70) for all performances Nov 15-Dec 29

Online  www.ticketcentral.com/playwrightshorizons/online/

Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 Noon to 8PM daily
In Person: Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues

PH Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues

All That Fall

"All That Fall" at 59E59 Theatre, November 10, 2013

(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

All was gray - the afternoon, the audience, and for the most part, the somewhat starry cast, featuring Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, arrives from London (mostly) in this minimally staged radio play by Samuel Beckett, directed by Trevor Nunn. 

The story, being Beckett, is a bit nihilist, about an older woman of questionable health making her way to meet her blind husband at the train station.  We shuffle along with Mrs. Rooney (Ms. Atkins) as she encounters a menu of rural British characters, the dung peddler Christy (Ruairi Conaghan) on his cart, the retired Mr. Tyler (Frank Grimes) on his bike, the Clerk of the Racecourse Mr. Slocum (Trevor Cooper) in his car, each in advancing means of transportation, but none speeding the dreary tale along.  The aptly named Miss Fitt (Catherine Cusack), a protestant zealot gives Mrs Rooney the final bit of assistance upon arrival at the station.

After much consternation about the late arrival of Mr. Rooney's (Mr. Gambon) train, he finally appears slightly worse for wear, but tight-lipped about the cause of the delay.  I won't spoil the source, but there's an obscure plot moment near the end that suggests his part in it.

Performances are generally even, with Ms. Atkins bearing the majority of the spoken burden.  Her characterization is, as one would certainly expect, spot on, mumbling, grumbling, beseeching and complaining in every interaction.  Mr. Gambon arrives prepared to deliver to a full Broadway house, filling every inch of the theatre and then some.  Despite this overbalance, he still turns in a well-crafted performance.  The supporting roles are capably executed as well.

Mr. Nunn seems to have had little to do given the strength of his leading couple (both on book), other than lay out their traffic pattern and arrange the supporting roles around them.  Paul Groothuis' sound design distracts as much as it adds, featuring dragging footfalls for Mrs. Rooney that sound more like a spirit's presence in a mediocre haunted house.  The set, as it is, features suspended microphones which go largely ignored in a black room. 

Still Ms. Atkins and Mr. Gambon are the justifiable draw, evoking the ennui, frustration and anger of losing one's power in the world by remaining in it for so long.

This limited engagement of All That Fall runs through December 8.  Find tickets here.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters

"The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters" at Playwrights Horizons, October 26, 2013

PH continues to develop new work for the stage, with this new play running in their Peter Jay Sharp Theater by Marlane Meyer.  Develop is an accurate description in this case because, in addition to being a preview performance during which new changes were being performed for the first time, the play still needs a lot of work.

The premise is interesting: how people are perceived and how relationships can bring change to those involved either because of, or in spite of those perceptions.  (That's my take, at any rate, since it took well into Act 2 for that theme to emerge.)

Until then, however, main characters Aubrey (Laura Heisler) and Calvin (Rob Campbell) bounce around a very clunky and unfocused first act, surrounded by a chorus of  two-dimensional, comic-book stereotypes, from white trash to murderous (Candy Buckley, Danny Wolohan, Jacqueline Wright, Haynes Thigpen).  Ms. Meyer seems to be reaching for grand allegories as Aubrey, a disabled doctor with an unhealthy faith in an obscure saint, falls in love with Calvin, the former high school jock who peaked sophomore year and now can't hold a job because of his drinking and drug habits.   Flaws in the supporting characters abound, from a sociopath brother, to a less-than-visionary medium.  Ms. Buckley makes the most of her various roles, delivering a spot-on Lois Smith impression as Aubrey's conservative landlady.  She's also a delicious, white trash Cruella DeVille as Calvin's mother in leopard leggings.

Director Lisa Peterson struggles with connecting the comic-book aspects to the more heartfelt moments and the pacing suffers as a result.  Rachel Hauck's set adds much and flexes well to accommodate the myriad scene locations.

PH offers discount tickets to The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters for my readers (both of you):

Regular run:  Oct 18-Dec 1
Tues 7, Wed-Fri at 8, Sat at 2:30 & 8, Sun at 2:30 & 7:30

Order by Nov. 5 and use the code SAINTBLOG
$40 (reg. $60) for all performances Oct. 18-Dec. 1

Online  https://www.ticketcentral.com/playwrightshorizons/online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=D0D7E210-A98C-4C65-A44B-2355AAD20268

Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 Noon to 8PM daily
In Person: Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues


Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Snow Geese

"The Snow Geese" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, October 20, 2013

An approaching winter of discontent is stirring as the lights come up on The Snow Geese, Sharr White's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club.  It's November, 1917, and the Gaeslings have gathered at their country lodge outside Syracuse, NY to celebrate the opening of goose hunting season.  The gloom of Theodore Gaesling's recent death looms over the proceedings as his widow Elizabeth (Mary Louise Parker) struggles to keep her chin up as her first-born Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) prepares to ship out to fight in WWI France.  Elizabeth's pious sister Clarissa (Victoria Clark) and husband Max (Danny Burstein) have taken up residence with Elizabeth after local anti-German sentiment has forced them out of their own home and Max's medical practice. The house staff has reduced to a new Ukrainian immigrant maid, Viktorya, whose beauty has enraptured younger son Arnold (Brian Cross).

Arnold has also been tasked with sorting out the books following his father's death, which turns out to me more of an autopsy of the family finances.  It seems Theodore was no savvy businessman.  Previous staff and accountants had drained the family's wealth.

What to do?

Ms. Parker's Elizabeth is a woman in desperate denial following the loss of the love of her life and on the eve of her golden child leaving for war.  She gives a solid and respectable performance, dour as reality smacks her in the face then basking in the glow of a laudanum-inspired dream that reunites her with Theodore.  As Clarissa, Ms. Clark tut-tuts about, frowning on the free-flow of alcohol as a good, obtuse and American Methodist should thriving in the search for practical solutions to the family problems. Her sisterly tension with Ms. Parker works nicely.  Jessica Love gives a strong turn as Viktorya, particularly when she schools Duncan on harshness of loss, sharing her own  trauma when the Austrians invaded.

Mr. Burstein turns in another nicely shaded performance as the German ex-patriate doctor, betrayed and shunned by his adopted country because of his accent. Mr. Jonigkeit's Duncan swaggers appropriately as the favored and petted heir.  He manages a fine line between shock and melodrama as he learns all that his family has given up for him.  It's Mr. Cross' Arnold who really shines as a young man, still a teenager, who shoulders the burden of his father's financial mistakes and shortcomings, as well as the burden of not being first-born and therefore never given credit for brains or effort.

The bigger weaknesses of this production are in the script.  Mr. White gives Duncan a line that includes, "...because we're Americans.  That's what we do."  Given the history of US entry into WWI, and the previous position of isolationism, that kind of statement comes across as an anachronism.  Another example is Arnold shouting about "...expressing my feelings...," not exactly language of the period.

Director Daniel Sullivan manages to rise above the weaknesses in the script, supported by his strong cast.  John Lee Beatty's sliding platform sets are excellent,even if some of the set elements are a little reminiscent of Cinderella which is playing around the corner and up Broadway.  Jane Greenwood's costumes are spot on.

In all, it's a solid production carried by the strength of the company. The Snow Geese runs through December 15, 2013.  Get tickets here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Old Friends

"The Old Friends" at The Pershing Square Signature Center, October 17, 2013

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Horton Foote was a prolific playwright.  The Old Friends is actually a sequel to his second full-length play, Only the Heart first produced in 1942.  It took nearly 20 years to get the first exploratory production of TOF, and another 20 before Signature Theatre produced a reading.  This 2002 event inspired Mr. Foote to write the version currently on stage at the Signature.

I would love to say that this "new" work from the late Mr. Foote rises as a crowning achievement on a lifetime of good work.  Sometimes, there are reasons a play takes so long to make it to the stage.  Renowned playwrights from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams wrote plays late in their careers that failed to achieve the same level of mastery as works form their primes (Cymbeline, anyone?).

Nonetheless, TOF tells us of the Borden/Prices and their titular old friends Gertrude (Betty Buckley) and Gaynor Ratliff and his brother Howard (Cotter Smith).  Gaynor has mercifully died before the play begins and escapes the indignities both caused and suffered by his now filthy rich widow and the almost-as-well-off Borden-Prices.  Also dead as the play begins, is Sybil's (Hallie Foote) husband Hugo who has left her penniless, much like her mother-in-law Mamie Borden (Lois Smith). 

Sybil's sister-in-law Julia (Veanne Cox) and her husband Albert Price (Adam LeFevre) have grudgingly taken Mamie in after forcing her to sign over her remaining assets.  Sybil and her husband had planned to retire nearby, but with him gone and leaving her destitute, Julia is less than pleased with the prospect of supporting another widow. Toss into the mix a cloudy history of Sybil's father losing everything to Getrude's father, and selling the rest to Julia's father and you've got a Russian tragedy in the making.  

My biggest complaint is with the play's uneven story-telling.  Characters get dragged down with paragraphs of dull exposition, much of it repeated by various characters.  It's only when the action picks up with the plot at hand that things get interesting.

The cast is excellent.  Ms. Buckley dominates as the brutish, selfish Gertrude. Her rants are the highlights of the evening, the funniest of which is one ending in the mating call of the southern belle, "I'm drunk!"  Ms. Smith matches that bravura with her usual understated intensity (though she did seem a bit shaky on her lines in a couple of spots).  Ms. Foote's Sybil strives for a quiet dignity, but sometimes comes off as merely mousy.  Mr. Smith's Howard spends most of the play as kind to the point of spineless.  Even when he finally stands up for himself, Howard remains an apology of a role.

Director Michael Wilson keeps things apace, but probably could have cut 10-15 minutes in redundant exposition.  Production values are excellent, particularly David C. Woolard's costumes.

The Old Friends closed on October 20 after a two-week extension.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Time to Kill

"A Time to Kill"  at John Golden Theatre,October 10, 2103

(photo: Carol Rosegg)

The prodigious author John Grisham has entered a third medium to recycle his work with Rupert Holmes' adaptation of his first novel "A Time to Kill" now running on the Great White Way.  I've been a Grisham fan for many years, getting hooked first with "The Firm," which led me to "A Time..." and I've read almost everything he's written since then, good, bad or indifferent.  I like that his work is an easy read, sometimes a little pulpy, but generally perfect for an afternoon on the beach or a couple of hours on an airplane.

Wisely, Mr. Grisham has turned over the adaptation of his work to someone who has strong experience in writing for the theatre.  He gets off scott-free if the effort tanks, or gets all the glory for creating the source if the play becomes a hit.  Don't forget, he's a lawyer at heart and understands how to balance the risk/reward equation.
 
For him, that's a good thing. 

This tepid attempt at a pot-boiler follows Mr. Grisham's plot, but fails to capture the high stakes of a white Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus) defending Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson) a black man for the murder of two white men who brutally and viciously raped  and beat his daughter in the 1980s.  A sheriff's deputy was also injured in the cross-fire, an unintended casualty in this act of vengeance.

The cast is widely uneven with Patrick Page giving the strongest performance as the slick and greasy prosecuting attorney coming in from the state capitol to helm the state's case.  Mr. Arcelus has his moments, but is serviceable at best.

It seems the producers have also hedged their bets by casting Fred Thompson and Tom Skerritt in supporting roles.  At the preview performance I saw, neither had adjusted their acting for stage, instead giving rather internal performances as though a camera were taking close-ups. Mr. Thompson rushed his lines to the point of being unintelligible, where Mr. Skerritt underplayed even the most dramatic moments. It's a shame, given the inherent theatricality of their roles as the trial judge and Jake's disgraced former law partner. Ashley Williams as Ellen Roark, the senior law student looking to jump start her own career with a high-profile case, also arrives with an extensive TV resume and fails to find the balance between her character's intelligence and lack of experience.  She comes across as much too old and jaded, ignoring the southern blue-blood heritage of Ellen's Ole Miss education.

Director Ethan McSweeny struggles to morph a period piece into contemporary relevance, borrowing noisy musical transitions from British political works like Enron and more recently, The Machine.  An over-worked set by James Noone with a completely superfluous turntable might be the cause.  Mr. Noone also undermines what should have been a dignified courtroom setting with a barn-like structure - talk about silk purse.  Costumer David C. Woolard also misfires with a significant lack of seersucker, only giving that to the character least likely to wear it during the Reagan-era.

In the end, I still don't understand why this story needed to be told onstage.  Mr. Grisham's writing lends itself much better to film and even then, there are better choices to adapt his work to the stage.  A Time to Kill is not a bad book. It's also not another To Kill a Mockingbird, missing its inherent theatricality of time and place to work well in a live performance.

Playwrights Horizons discount - "The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters"

"The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters" at Playwrights Horizons

Discount tickets to The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters for my readers (both of you):

Regular run:  Oct 18-Dec 1
Tues 7, Wed-Fri at 8, Sat at 2:30 & 8, Sun at 2:30 & 7:30

Order by Nov. 5 and use the code SAINTBLOG
$40 (reg. $60) for all performances Oct. 18-Dec. 1

Online  https://www.ticketcentral.com/playwrightshorizons/online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=D0D7E210-A98C-4C65-A44B-2355AAD20268

Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 Noon to 8PM daily
In Person: Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Cirque du Soleil - "Quidam"

"Quidam" presented by Cirque du Soleil at Barclay's Center, July 25, 2013

In a tentless production, Cirque returns to NY with the long-running Quidam for a short stint at the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn.

Quidam, which means "anonymous passerby" originally opened in 1996, converting to its current format for arena staging in 2010 (thanks, Wikipedia!).

When I first discovered Cirque years ago, I was a huge fan, anxiously waiting to find out when the next tour would be performing nearby.  After the third or fourth production, however, my enthusiasm waned.  Perhaps the novelty had worn off compared to the ticket price.

The various acts are ostensibly connected with a through-line story of Zoe, "...bored yet curious, and she longs for the fun and excitement she believes lie just beyond her reach."  Based on how the ensemble moves from white-hooded oompa-loompas to dirty ragged eastern Euro ghetto residents, I failed to connect the fun and excitement.  The most intriguing aspect I found was the aerial rigging system created for this arena version which allows performers to fly in from behind the stage, or remain suspended for extended periods of time.

Of the elements, the ensemble acts fared best in an impressive double-dutch rope jumping segment early in Act 1, and a tumbling/balancing/acrobatic piece at the end described as a Banquine.  The hand balancing, aerial silks, aerial ropes and hoops acts were all merely interesting.  Even the balancing pair, stripped to their skivvies lacked enough sensuality to raise it to truly remarkable.  More disappointing was the clown routine, which I'm pretty sure I had seen in another Cirque production along the way.

On a related note, this was my first visit to the Barclay's Center.  Subway transportation to and from is particularly easy and the facility is quite impressive.

This stop on the tour ends on July 28. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Comedy of Errors

"The Comedy of Error" presented by The Public Theater at Delacorte Theater, June 2, 2013

(photo by Joan Marcus)


The first of the Public Theater's presentations of Shakespeare in the Park is Shakespeare's take on Plautus' Menaechmi, complicated with an extra set of twins separated as small children.  There's no adaptation credit given in the playbill, but one might presume that dramaturg Robert Blacker was pivotal in the streamlining of the book down to a 90 minute one-act.  The result is a farce set in a 1940s Ephesus, complete with a jitterbugging, lindy hopping chorus gathered around the jukebox - - Shakespeare meets Guy and Dolls

Director Daniel Sullivan focuses his energies around Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as they take on the dual roles of Antipholus and Dromio, respectively.  Mr. Linklater achieves the greater success in creating two distinct characters around the long-lost brothers.  Mr. Ferguson comes in a close second.  Heidi Schreck also manages to find her way as Luciana.  Skip Suddeth brings us a Tony Soprano-style Duke.  The rest of the cast is serviceable if unremarkable, except for Emily Bergl's gasp-worthy pratfall as Adriana.

The pace is good.  The costumes colorful and sets work nicely.  There are plenty of laughs. It's a good night in Central Park.

Tickets are free, distributed the day of each show at the Delacorte box office in Central Park.  The Comedy of Errors runs through June 30.