Sunday, July 23, 2006

All This, And a Dirt Floor, Too!

"Druid Synge" Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, part of the 2006 Lincoln Center Festival. July 23, 2006

I just sat through one-third of "Druid Synge" after a friend called. His companion for this marathon of all of John Millington Synge's plays wasn't going to make it past the supper break. This 8.5 hour theatrical event is a production by the Irish troupe, Druid Theatre Company, under the direction of Garry Hynes. I enjoyed the evening, but two Irish plays back-to-back were plenty for me.

The six plays presented were:
  • Riders to the Sea
  • The Tinker's Wedding
  • The Well of the Saints
  • The Shadow of the Glen
  • The Playboy of the Western World
  • Dierdre of the Sorrows
I caught the last two, which presented very different styles.

In "Playboy, " the play opens in the 1800's in a tavern of sorts run by Pegeen. Her father, Michael, and his two drinking buddies , Philly and Jimmy, are headed to a wake, encouraging the young man, Shawn, who wants to marry Pegeen to join them. Shawn is trying to live a clean and proper lifestyle, rather than become yet another drunken Irishman. Amid this, it is revealed that there is a fugitive about who has killed his father. Pegeen is at first shocked, but when Christopher appears at the tavern looking for shelter, she is smitten. As Christopher tells his tale, time and time again, its legendary qualities grow. Soon the entire village is enthralled with the brave young man who stood up to a tyrannical father. Also in the market for a husband is the Widow Quin, who stops by to attempt her claim on the boy, accompanied by three villagers, Honor, Sara and Susan. This trio treat Christopher like a movie star idol, complete with screams of adoration. Pegeen rejects Shawn and promises to marry Christopher. It's not long into Act II that the not-so-dead father shows up to take his whiny and wimpy son home. Christopher now believes his own story of his courage and stands up, replaying the scene from when he thought he killed the man the first time. Since this occurs in the presence of the entire village, Christopher is now rejected and shunned as a murderer by Pegeen and the rest of the village. Widow Quin again makes a play to help when yet again, the not-so-dead father appears. At this point, Christopher has had enough and turns the tables, becoming the tyrant in the relationship.

As Pegeen, Catherine Walsh carries much of the weight of this play. Her Pegeen is typically fiery Irish. Derry Power as her father Michael displays the stereotypical drunken Irishman, with just a hint of Alfred Doolittle tossed in. Marie Mullen, who appears in 5 of the 6 plays is a scheming and self-serving Widow Quin. She balances the nurturing of a mother figure for Christopher with a woman pursuing her own sexual interests without letting it get creepy. As Christopher, Aaron Monaghan has a real actor's workout, physically and emotionally. Even when Christopher is revealed as a fraud, the audience still cares about what brought him to do the things he's done.

As dark as all of this sounds, it was all quite funny. Director Garry Hynes uses a deft hand to broaden the appeal of these very specifically Irish characters.

In "Deirdre," the setting is much darker, approaching a bloody Shakespearean quality. Set in an ancient Ireland, Conor is an older local king who has identified and groomed Deirdre to become his wife. Fiery and red-headed (yeah, go ahead and think Maureen O'Hara), Deirdre only knows that she's been locked away from the world since childhood and is ready for that to end. What follows is a combination of themes from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth. Deirdre has met a young soldier, with whom she escapes on the eve of her wedding to Conor. This has incited war. Seven years later, Conor makes overtures of peace to reconcile the land. Double-crosses prevail and the stage ends littered with bodies.

As Deirdre, Gemma Reeves brings a striking appearance, but her red hair doesn't have quite enough fire to make her Deirdre anything more than just interesting. Mick Lally as Conor attempts a few Claudius-like moments but ultimately ends up as Lear. As Naisi, Deirdre's soldier-husband, Richard Flood is a most handsome knight in shining armor, eager and passionate to save Deirdre from her fate. When Deirdre has figured out that there is no way to escape Conor's final plot, she tells Naisi basically "we had a good run, let's end it while we can still remember how much we loved each other." That should be a gut-wrenching and tear-inducing moment, but with Ms. Reeves it's only kind of sad. Mr. Monaghan also appears in this play, but I couldn't tell what he was supposed to be at first. His initial entrance was through a window, wearing only plaid pants, torn off just below the knee. He crept about the stage, making me wonder whether he was supposed to be a cat or a monkey (or Mr Peepers, a la Chris Kattan from SNL). Only in the second act do we learn that he is indeed human and also in love with Deirdre. (He waits seven years to cut his own throat after yet another rejection of him to run off with Naisi.)

The set design by Francis O'Connor, which consisted primarily of a dirt floor stage and worn plaster walls worked pretty well for these two plays, but the loose dirt getting kicked around became very distracting for me. Costumes by Kathy Strachen were serviceable for "Playboy" but a little more interesting if not as successful for "Deirdre." With the latter, there was a rather odd mix of contemporary clothing and an ancient traditional gown, along with a couple of kilts, some military coats that looked like design rejects from Elton John's "Aida" and an dress coat/robe that might have belonged to Idi Amin.

This production moves next to the Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

"Your Arm's Too Short to Write this Show"

"[title of show]" - Vineyard Theatre, July 15, 2006

The Vineyard Theatre has brought back this production which ran earlier this year. I guess it's too soon to call it a "revival."

The premise for [tos]: Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen decide to submit a new musical to a theatre festival. The hitch is they don't have anything underway, let alone an idea for a show and only 3 weeks to complete it. Jeff suggests that they treat it as a writing exercise and submit whatever they have at the end of the 3 weeks. Quickly, the idea arises to make the show about writing the show.
Jeff: "What if what we say could be said in a lyric? What if what we say could be part of a song?"
Hunter: "Music in a musical, how could we go wrong?"
As the ideas grow, so does the cast. They bring in their friend Susan, who is ..."no longer auditioning since I started a new role of corporate whore, appearing as the office manager." She adds "[and I'm] a handsome woman - a tough sell [as an actor]." She is followed by Jeff's friend, Heidi; cute, perky, very "broadway." Susan and Heidi foster a semi-competitive, semi-envious relationship together - "She's so great! What kind of girl is she? Does she like me?" - all in great fun.

All along the way, Messr's Bell and Bowen pack their script with inside jokes about the New York theatre community. They go on to talk about the nobility of an original musical, rather than one based on a book or a movie, then listing the endless number of musicals based on books or movies (or both: "Lestat," "Mary Poppins"). Another great concept they use is a series of voice messages on Hunter's answering machine from Broadway actresses. They've called each one to ask them to be in their show. One by one, they decline. Several, however, have their own quirks revealed during their message.
Marin Mazzie: lets out a terrific belch during her message
Victoria Clark: rambles on and on and is eventually cut off by the machine
Amy Spanger: leaves a very polite message, then continues to talk not knowing that she hasn't ended the call. "I can't believe they gave out my fucking home number! Who are these people? this still on?"
The great lines abound as well. One of my favorites is a reference to the musical "Ruthless." Hunter and Jeff see no problem with criticizing a show they've never seen - priceless! Another follows a scene Hunter has written where the cast are flying in a dream sequence. Jeff doesn't like it at all and Hunter says the idea "...was like a drag queen - fabulous late at night, but in the light of day, not so much."

As you might guess, the script is completed and the festival accepts the submission, followed by a run at the Vineyard Theatre.

Hunter Bell, a little doughy but cute, has an endearing self-conciousness to his performance that I think only works because he's playing himself. When he and Jeff are faced with feedback from their reading for professional producers his "actor" side kicks in. In these scenes, he is intense and believable, but it seems to undercut his lighter and funnier moments a little. In "Original Musical" Jeff faces the writer's blank page, embodied by Hunter in a blank notebook page sandwich board. Jeff says at one point in the number that he can't tell if Hunter is trying to channel Randy Newman or Ben Vereen - just hilarious!!

Jeff Bowen, also very cute, gives a more focused and direct performance. He takes a little longer to buy in to the possibility that what they're writing will work, remaining a stabilizing force in the cast. In "Playbills and Monkeys," he sorts through his collection of playbills looking for inspiration from some very obscure shows from the musical version of "Carrie" to "Oh, Kaye." The interplay of titles into the lyrics of the song

Susan Blackwell, the "handsome woman," brings a neurotic sophistication to her role. At times quirky, then bitchy, then insecure, or all three at the same time. She presents first as a typical, jaded NY actress (see her introduction above), but reveals true warmth as the group bonds into something like a family. Her "Die Vampire, Die" number exposes all the fears and insecurities every performer or artist experiences in their quest for success.

Heidi Blickenstaff rounds out the quartet nicely. A bright presence and excellent voice provide a balance to some of the quirks in the rest of the cast. She provides one of the dramatic moments in the show when offered a role in a production at Goodspeed while Hunter and Jeff are trying to get a commercial production of the show.

As director and choreographer, Michael Berresse has done a beautiful job with this unusual piece. His clear eye keeps the show sensitive, when it could easily slip into meaningless farce. He doesn't shy away from the self-awareness of the writing and premise, using it instead to enhance the show.

It's rather a shame that this production is scheduled for a limited run through Sept 10. I could easily see this intimate and thoroughly entertaining show in a successful open run at a facility like New World Stages.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Dirty Dollars

"Burleigh Grime$" New World Stages, July 13, 2006

Mark Moses (Desperate Housewives) and Wendy Malick (Just Shoot Me) star in this new Wall Street comedy by Roger Kirby. What could have been a fresh and interesting look at backroom business deals and market manipulations remains another cliche. Mr. Kirby has written this quasi-comedy about a Wall Street high roller, Burleigh Grimes (Mr. Moses) who has discovered a chance to get back at his first boss by putting the former boss' son through his own torture in the world of stock trading. Grimes has a quid pro quo relationship with a television financial reporter Elizabeth Bigley (Ms. Malick) in which he makes stock trades to take advantage of rumored stories he feeds to her (avian flu to global warming are credited among the fictions). Once the profit is made, Grimes and Bigley share in the profits.

Grimes has two henchmen working his trading desk, Buck (the hilarious John Lavelle) and Hap (jason Antoon). Igors to his Grimes' Frankenstein, they carry out his plots and misdeeds all for shared financial fortune. Along come George Radbourn (James Badge Dale), son of Grimes' one-time boss, eager and wet behind the ears. Grimes hires him on the spot to effect his life-long revenge. Also coming along about the same time is Grace Redding (Ashley Williams), brand-new assistant and protege to Ms. Bigley. Wrapping all this up in a nice package is the fact that Grace, George and Buck all went to college together.

Surprise, surprise! George and Grace were lovers in college and friends with Buck, then known as Theo. George is anxious to reunite with Grace, despite the fact that both of them have taken 180 degree turns from their respective majors to their current jobs. She was part of the long-hair, environmentally aware, modern-day hippie crowed and is now being groomed for CNN-style news talking head.

Plots and subplots abound, with most characters making major and unexplained directional changes. Grace starts out wanting to return integrity and honesty to broadcast financial reporting and ends up clawing her way into Bigley's job. George, having erred in his first job authenticating provenance at an auction house finally reveals himself to wanting his own unexplained revenge on a distant (and never seen) father.

Buck, however, wants to be the next Burleigh Grimes and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there. Mr. Lavelle gives Buck, what could have been a 2-dimensional role, significant detail and specificity. His energy and focus as this nerdy, driven, and idiosyncratic character are tremendous. This is one of the least inhibited performances I've seen in New York since seeing Norbert Leo Butz as Freddie in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Less fortunate is Mr. Antoon in the role of Hap. Hap never gets significant focus or motivation to do much of anything other than play straight man to Buck. Mr. Dale, as George, brings a fresh-faced exuberance to his role, but the script seems to hold him back.

As Grace, Ashley Williams (currently appearing in Showtime's "Huff") brings the same sweetness to this role. She gets a little bi-polar in the second act as she tries to manipulate George into giving up confidential information about Burleigh and Bigley's illegal activities. I think she's doing the best she can with a poorly written character. Just naming a character Grace doesn't endow her with that quality.

Ms. Malick gives Bigley the same quick-talking edgy performance she demonstrated on television, but is missing the softness that a Rosalind Russell would have used to humanize her character. Bigley is a cartoon (even demonstrated in her name "Big"ley).

Mr. Moses also suffers from a poorly written role, and doesn't seem able to overcome it with any style or wit. His Grimes (a dirty player of sort - another hand-grenade of character naming) is ruthless and blustering, and generally unlikeable. To see him fall in the end brings no pathos to the proceedings.

David Yazbek has helped out by writing a rock score to back up the action, but the fine performance by the band adds little to the evening. It does provide a basis for Andy Blankenbuehler's competent choreography (a serviceable tango between Mr. Moses and Ms. Malick, and a less serviceable attempt by Mr. Dale and Ms. Williams) to try to present some interest to these two couples' relationships, but again, little is revealed. For me, Mr. Yazbek should have either gone ahead and written songs to make this a full musical, or cut back the music to let it have a more profound effect in pivotal scenes. The current result is mostly noise.

I've been pretty critical of the script, but some of this blame may go to director David Warren. He did create some very interesting blocking and transitions, but seems to have left the actors to their own devices when it came to character and scene development.

It felt, once again, like this show would have been better served as a 1/2 hour pilot for TV, rather than a 2 hour evening of theatre.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

So, You Think You Want to be a Therapist

"Shining City" is Conor McPherson's new play presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore Theatre. Starring Oliver Platt, Brian O'Byrne and Martha Plimpton, the potential for this show seemed boundless.

(Spoiler alert - ending plot twist revealed in this review.)

Mr. O'Byrne plays Ian, a new therapist who had been a catholic priest not so very long ago. He's just set up his office in a run-down building in Dublin. Mr. Platt is John, one of Ian's first patients. Ms. Plimpton has a brief but expository appearance as Neasa, Ian's girlfriend and the mother of their infant daughter.

John arrives as an obvious emotional wreck. A roll of offstage thunder accompanies him. (That seemed a little too much telegraphing for my taste.) He reveals that his wife has recently died following a car accident. He feels significant guilt over her death because their relationship had become somewhat distant in the months leading up to her death. His nervous state turns out to be the result of coming into his house, opening a door and when he closes it, he sees the ghost of his wife hovering there, trembling, bloody and reaching for him, in their home. Desperate for validation he demands to know if Ian believes him. Ian, who has little to say during the scene tries to be supportive without explicitly agreeing.

The next scene introduces Neasa, concerned about having to live with Ian's brother and family with their baby. Ian announces that he's working on getting her a place of her own, and attempts to end their relationship as lovers. During the exchange, Neasa reveals that she was unfaithful to Ian before she got pregnant. The turnabout of pain and recrimination for the problems in the relationship bounce about plenty in this scene. Neasa arrived in a mood to fight about the living situation, but leaves with an apology to Ian "'s not your fault."

John returns, looking a little more together, but as it turns out, really isn't yet. He reveals a flirtation with another woman that almost became an affair. It ended clumsily and he ended up in a brothel in another situation that did not consummate. After returning home from the brothel, he had lashed out at his wife quite violently and lets us know that her death and haunting of him is his punishment.

The next scene, oddly, finds Ian returning to the office with Laurence, a street hustler. Laurence has a wounded hand from a firecracker accident. Strangely, Laurence is the only character whose wounds are physical. In a moment of reversal, Ian sits down on the couch for the first time and Laurence is in the therapist's chair. Ian breaks down as Laurence attempts to get down to business confessing he's never been with another man before. Laurence comforts him, but that seems to be the extent of their contact.

In the final scene, Ian is packing up to move. He's trying to wrap a teddy bear, presumably for his child, but doesn't have enough paper. This seems to demonstrate the running theme for Ian's inability to make things fit. John arrives with a gift to thank Ian for his help. He has moved on, having sold the house and bought an apartment. Time to start fresh. Ian tells him of his own move to Limerick to be with Neasa, to whom he is now engaged. John has seen the woman from his flirtation, realizing there never really was a connection with her. He says of his ghostly visions "Seeing something is one thing. How it makes you the reality." Ian holds the door open as John leaves. Ian closes the door to reveal the ghost of John's wife, trembling, bloody and reaching for him as the curtain falls.

Other than Mr. McPherson being Irish and born in Dublin, I was uncertain why this play was set there. Nothing in the plot seemed to require that, nor did any of the characters seem to have any traits that seemed particularly Irish. It could have easily been New York, Chicago, London or any large city.

As the play progressed, I kept thinking to myself that there are some great monologues here, but it's doesn't feel very cohesive - just a collection of random scenes tied together by a single character. This shocking image of the dead wife at the end seems to be that Ian has only helped John by assuming his guilt, and as a result, the burden of this ghost.

Mr. Platt brings his usual rapid-fire, sometime non-sequitur-ish, acting style to John. He gives John a decent humanity to a flawed man. Mr. O'Byrne didn't really have as much to do in this role, compared to his last two Tony-nominated appearances in "Doubt" and "Frozen." He spent most of his time listening to Mr. Platt, effectively giving us a picture of man in transition, unsure of where his life will lead. Ms. Plimpton's Neasa was quite compelling, arriving in a blustery fury and quite successfully transforming from accuser to one accused and guilty.

Robert Falls has given this 100-minute (no intermission) set of scenes as much cohesiveness as he can. Transitions and passing of time is accomplished with Mr. O'Byrne doing the heavy lifting (sometimes literally) bringing props and furniture on and offstage between scenes. Santo Loquato's dilapidated office and darkened skyline bring the appropriate Irish brooding to the proceedings. The large window upstage center evokes a cross with the top cut off, perhaps a reference to Ian's departure from the priesthood, which is usually accompanied by excommunication in the Catholic Church. Christopher Akerlind's lighting complemented the sets and direction quite nicely.

Of the other Manhattan Theatre Club shows I've seen at the Biltmore - "Rabbit Hole," "Sight Unseen," "Reckless," "The Violet Hour," this one was very good, but not great.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

"Mamma Mia" That's a Pretty Bland Meatball

OK, so it took me 5 years to get to this show. It’s been selling to packed houses since it opened in October, 2001. One of the early jukebox musicals, it uses the entire Abba songbook. Right, wrong or indifferent it uses the ENTIRE Abba songbook.

The very loose plot surrounds Donna, whose 20 year old daughter Sophie is about to be married. Sophie has discovered that her father, heretofore unknown, could be one of 3 men with whom Donna “engaged” in a 2 month period 21 years ago. Harry Bright is British and has become a banker. Bill Austin is Australian and has become a travel writer. Sam Carmichael left Donna to return to a fiance in the US. Sophie has invited all three to her wedding, hoping to identify one as her father who will walk her down the aisle. Revelations abound, but no information is exchanged.

Catherine Johnson appears to have made her musical placements in the book by only the first line of the song. I’ve got to say I laughed out loud more than once when I recognized the song that had just begun. Unfortunately, those occasions should have been ones of higher drama. The worst example was “The Winner Takes It All” after an exchange between Donna and Sam.

And what a young cast! The playbill identifies 19 Broadway debuts among the cast. They are all young and pretty…and kinda bland. One or two may even be talented, though it’s hard to tell among Anthony Van Laast’s muddy choreography. As long as the show has been running, it’s difficult to say whether that’s the fault of the choreographer or the dance captain.

Worth mention among the cast is John Dossett as Sam (the American dad), in yet another thankless male lead in musical theatre (last thankless role was Herbie in “Gypsy” with Bernadette a couple of years ago). His vocal range almost meets what the score requires, but he manages enough conviction in his performance to achieve believability. Leah Hocking as Donna gives a valiant effort, but one can tell she’d much rather have played the role of Donna's glam-glam buddy Tanya, the only character with costumes that flatter. Judy McLane (Tanya) misses a couple of chances to push her over-the-top role, over the top in “Take a Chance on Me” while Ben Gettinger (Pepper, one of the groom-to-be’s buddies) makes a play for her. Gettinger is a prime example of this pretty, but vapid cast; handsome, great body, but he phones in the dance solo.

Naturally, the crowd was on their feet for this schlock-fest at the end. What else could they do? Most of them paid $100 or so for their seat and they’re gonna want to say they gave a standing ovation. The production encourages this as well, with a mini-Abba concert at the end which practically announces that the audience must stand and clap along.

As for production values, the sets are serviceable. Costumes presumably by production designer Mark Thompson make a swing from rural Greek peasant to 70’s Abba chic – and not in a good way. Still there’s plenty of color to distract you. There are a few overstrokes tying together the three adult women with their eventual partners – black for Donna and Sam, red for Rosie and Bill, and orange for Tanya and Pepper. There’s another scene when Sam, Bill and Harry first arrive wearing shades of blue to connect them to Sophie’s tie-dyed peasant skirt.

In the end, it was an evening of brain candy – bright colors, pretty people, fun and familiar music with no thought or analysis required. It was nominated for a Tony in 2002, but then again, so was “The Sweet Smell of Success.” Starts to sound like the nominees for last month’s awards.