Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Horizontal for 2.5 Hours

"The Vertical Hour" at the Music Box Theatre, November 29, 2006

Sam Mendes has brought David Hare's new play to New York. With it is an impressive performance by an actor who has demonstrated quite an impressive range of skills in many varying film roles over the past few years.

It's unfortunate that the sentence above does not describe Julianna Moore.

Mr. Hare's diatribe on US activities from Bosnia (basically none) to Iraq (overthrowing a sitting government) is the plot contrivance employed for what little plot he presents. Nadia Blye (Ms. Moore) is an instructor at Yale on the topic of political studies, following an early career as a war correspondent during the events in Bosnia following the fall of Yugoslavia. She is now engaged to Phillip (Andrew Scott), a physical therapist and British ex-pat, who has taken her to Wales to meet his father, Oliver (Bill Nighy). Oliver, a doctor, who has a cordial but strained relationship with his son, is intrigued by Nadia, but finds it necessary to challenge her belief structure.

The play opens with Ms. Moore counseling Dennis (Dan Bittner), a student who has turned in a less than acceptable essay, which evolves into his confession of love for her. He uses his three weeks of studying Freud to justify his behavior and his belief that "underneath" she has encouraged this from him. She quickly discounts any value in psychology, to which he replies "...[people of the world] know that reality is real, that it exists, but what they think of it is more important." Her response "are you talking about Americans?" Mr. Hare accurately points out that news is no longer the reporting of events, but of the reactions by those involved or not.

This topic surfaces again during a discussion with Mr. Nighy in the next scene. She had been summoned to visit the White House over circumstances in Irag. A proud American, she reported for duty and shared her opinions with the president. Mr. Nighy's Oliver responds "If the Prime Minister called me, I'd let the phone ring." Another pithy observation from Oliver when Nadia talks about America's responsibility to the rest of the world, "Don't forget. You're building an empire, we (Great Britain) just dismantled one."

The other plot in play is the competition between Phillip and Oliver. Phillip felt torn in his parents' loveless marriage, playing the peacekeeper until events finally drove them to separate. He sees Oliver as an unrepentant philanderer and a phony. He suspects Oliver will attempt to seduce Nadia, but despite these faults he goes through the motions in hopes of healing his emotional wounds.

Mr. Nighy's Oliver is an awkwardly charming man, smoothly uncomfortable in his own skin. His presence and performance are organic and real. It is this reality that brings the audience to care for him in spite of his faults and past misdeeds. He is the doctor Oliver defines as "someone who tells you the truth and stays till the end."

Mr. Scott is warm and needy as the son who has spent most of his life trying to differentiate himself from his father. His Phillip loves the silence that so unnerves Oliver, leaves Britain to live in the US and chooses a career as a physical therapist with multiple locations of wellness centers which include massage and personal training. He feels most successful when his father learns that his patients " someone to send them out for a jog," a most ignoble use of one's time as a health professional. He wants to be calm, warm and safe. This is the man Nadia thinks she's looking for.

Alas, it is Ms. Moore who is out of her element here. She has proven herself a talented film actress, having moved from daytime television serials playing twin sisters (or was it half? cousins?) separated at birth and being kidnapped by a fiance who was secretly in love with her aunt on As the World Turns (unmentioned in her bio, BTW) to moving portrayals in the films Safe, The Hours, and End of the Affair. I had high hopes for her skills on stage. Her technical ability to merely project her lines seems to be her biggest weakness. Beyond that, when she says at a critical moment, "I've seen the results of western indifference" describing the genocide that went on in Bosnia, she's not believable. She speaks with neither the passion nor the numbed indifference of one emotionally beaten down by the events she describes. I won't blubber like Ben Brantley did over Ms. Roberts earlier this year, but she is quite beautiful onstage.

It appears that Mr. Mendes is the one who let her down here. There seems to be no assistance provided to her in interpreting her role with a spectrum of how real people speak, how painful memories can choke, how tension can stifle one's speech pattern. Though not to that extreme, some of her deliveries sounded reminded me of the porn film scenes from Boogie Nights. She does give an emotional outpouring during a cathartic moment with Mr. Nighy, but by then it's too little too late. Waterworks are an easy skill to summon from an actor's bag of tricks.

Mr. Hare, too, may share some of the blame. Nadia's character arc is telegraphed pretty openly from the first scene, and ends with no surprise in her "surprise" announcement in the final line of the play. Her references to psychological motives in the final scene don't ring true having discounted them so specifically in the opening scene. Nadia's issues are many, but none are really resolved during the course of the play, only exposed.

Scott Pask's sets, using a cinematic black aperture to reveal first Nadia's jewel-box, paneled, ivy-league office open to reveal a stoic oak on the lawn of Oliver's self-imposed, lonely residence of exile. The mismatch of tables and chairs on this lawn evoked the edwardian eclecticism of rural Wales, although it appeared a bit forced.

When Ms. Moore appeared in the first scene in a brown dress that faded her (and her red hair , believe it or not) into the wookwork of her office, I was hoping for some interesting costuming choices. I wish that Ann Roth had provided some.

It's an interesting play and Mr. Nighy is certainly well-worth seeing. I hope that Ms. Moore will try Broadway again in a role that suits her skills better.

Here's what Ben Brantley had to say in the NY Times. I'm unsure what show Clive Barnes saw, as reported here in the NY Post.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Maybe a Little More Evolution is in Order

"Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!" at the Helen Hayes Theatre, November 14, 2006

He seems like such a nice man, but I kept asking myself, "Why is this on Broadway?"

Jay Johnson, most notable for the roles of Chuck and Bob on the groundbreaking 1970's TV show "Soap," has evolved this performance over the past couple of years, its most recent installment at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2004. Apparently the 10+ producers whose names appear above the title thought the show was worthy of Broadway.

The structure of the show is mechanical. He begins with some obscure history about ventriloquism, taking the audience back into ancient history with claims that the Oracles were ventriloquists. Fast forward to a book written a couple of hundred years ago by a Frenchman who concluded that ventriloquism was a mental disorder.

Once the actual ventriloquism starts, Mr. Johnson shows his significant talent for his art, (a bottle, a severed head). It's too bad he doesn't have more to say beyond the description of it as a difficult career choice. Certainly, the high points are when the dummies land the jokes, and there are several funny moments. When he speaks of his mentor, there is real emotion in his voice, but it's not really moving to the audience.

He parades a series of vehicles:
  • a speaking snake who's afraid of snakes (1-joke)
  • a vulture who feels a sense of death on the stage (more profound than was intended)
  • a telephone conversation with imaginary friends (no jokes, despite the effort)
  • his first custom-made partner, Squeaky (another almost-touching moment)
  • Bob, from "Soap"
  • Darwin, a monkey (the name? it just evolved)
Of these characters, we either don't get a chance to really know them or they stay beyond their welcome before they are folded up and packed away. I would have liked more time with Squeaky and Bob, given what we're told about how they entered and impacted Mr. Johnson's life.

The set, by Beowulf Boritt foreshadows a tale of a man on the road, living out of the numerous trunks and suitcases that litter the stage. We don't really get a "road story" in spite of this. Clifton Taylor's lighting is effective, but anticlimactic.

It is the direction by Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel that is the most puzzling. One would expect much more visual interest from a dancer/choreographer like Ms. Murphy. Mr. Kreppel's resume is much more eclectic which should have provided a more interesting evening with such experience, as well.

In the end, what could have been a very entertaining evening was more like listening to someone look through his photo album.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

To See Such a Sight

"The Little Dog Laughed" at the Cort Theatre, October 28, 2006

Second Stages has had pretty decent luck with transferring shows to Broadway, most recently "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" which is still running at the Circle in the Square Theatre after picking up a couple of Tony Awards.

Now we have the transfer of "The Little Dog Laughed," a dull poke in the eye of Hollywood by Douglas Carter Beane. The premise is that Mitchell (Tom Everett Scott) an actor just on the verge of Hollywood mega-stardom is debating coming out of the closet. His agent Diane (Julie White), a lesbian herself, is totally and adamantly against it, seeing it as total career suicide. A new play has just opened off-Broadway that is catching lots and lots of buzz and interest from Hollywood as a new movie vehicle. She has come to NY to see it and has brought Mitchell along to see it as well, if it meets up to her expectations. It does and the chase is on. (Spoiler Alert!)

Mitchell, however, has hired a young hustler Alex (Johnny Galecki) to spend a little time while Diane is at the theatre. He stumbles through the whole "businessman-traveling, not-really-gay-just-curious" schtick. Alex responds in kind with the "only-in-it-for-the-money, have-a-girlfriend" reply that makes both closted men feel better about themselves. Alex almost makes a clean escape. Mitchell passes out drunk before the "deed" and just as Alex has emptied Mitchell's wallet, Mitchell stirs in his sleep and stirs something in Alex. They wake the next morning, hung over and uncomfortable, respectively. As they stumble through good-byes, a real passion ignites. Diane enters just as they've gotten naked and brings the proceedings to a halt. She dismisses Alex and chews out Mitchell over the indiscretion.

Alex meets up with his girlfriend Ellen (Ari Graynor), who has recently been dumped by her own sugar daddy, but she's retained custody of his AMEX gold card. They tumble into bed after making a pact that they won't let the other end up alone.

In an hilarious lunch scene with the playwright (unseen) Diane and Mitchell snare the movie rights. Mitchell and Alex continue to see each other after Diane returns to Hollywood to sell the picture. Ellen suspects that Alex and Mitchell have paired up and all seems relatively wrapped up until she discovers that she's pregnant with Alex's baby. Diane arrives back to NYC with a deal that will make everyone happy - it's a brilliant scene of manipulation.

Scott Ellis has directed this comedy with an economy of motion and scale. There haven't been significant changes in the production from the off-Broadway run, but it has tightened up in a couple of scenes.

Sets by Allen Moyer are also basically unchanged from the original production. Jeff Mahshie's costumes have also streamlined somewhat. Most of the cast spend their time wearing black and white, but Diane gets an early flash of color (red soles on some great high heels) and resolves the show in a striking red dress.

As Ellen, Ms. Graynor joins the cast as the only member who's appeared on Broadway. Her Ellen is a tiring party girl who's more ready to settle down that anyone might have realized, especially her. In a pretty good blond wig, she makes a nice contrast to the two dark-headed actors and Ms. White's red mane.

TomEverett Scott is also a new member to this production, making his Broadway debut. His Mitchell is a contradiction as he struggles with wanting happiness as well as a career that has no interest in supporting his sexual orientation. I really wanted to like him in this role, but had trouble doing so. He stumbled on a line or two, which is not a major sin, but he also seems to have lost that youthful optimism he has demonstrated in his film and TV roles. Mitchell is a brash young man. Mr. Scott looked just a little too tired and jaded for me. Maybe if he lost the facial stubble, he might appear more youthful. I also wonder if perhaps the way his character is written adds to this. The first scene with Alex has him already drunk with a cigarette when Alex arrives.

As Alex, Mr. Galecki nails the awkward, unsure and hesitating profile of a wandering young man. His Alex knows what he knows, but absolutely has no idea what he doesn't know. He finds in Mitchell someone he thinks he can help, or help fix. It's a classic dynamic that can draw two people together, but rarely will it keep them so. This debut is one to be proud of.

It's Julie White that walks away with this show, however. From her first moment as she describes an awards banquet where Mitchell gets his first major industry recognition, she grabs the audience by whatever appendage is available and doesn't let go until the curtain call. Her Diane is the composite of every agent/manager/producer you can imagine - cold, calculating, charming and ruthless, she plays the game because she's rewriting the rules and she goes along. There is not a line, moment or gesture that is wasted in this performance. She's been long overdue for a starring role on Broadway - let's hope there will be many more to follow this one.