Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Did You Hear the One About....?

"The Clean House" at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center, January 23, 2007

Lane (Blair Brown) is a doctor. She likes things neat, tidy and organized. Matilde (Vanessa Aspillaga) is her Brazilian maid, depressed over her mother's death a year before. Virginia (Jill Clayburgh) is Lane's home-maker sister with too little to do. Charles (John Dossett) is Lane's surgeon husband who's just left her for an older woman, Ana (Concetta Tomei) on whom he recently performed a mastectomy. (Spoiler Alert)

Opening with Matilde (dressed in all black) standing on a white set, telling a joke in Portuguese, the show tries to get to shades of grey but never quite did for me. Ms. Aspillaga looks like a human version of comfort food - buxom and zaftig (is that redundant?). She longs for the kind of love her parents had - based on affection and most of all, humor. But she's torn by it - - her mother died laughing from a new joke her father told her. Her father immediately commited suicide from he guilt. As a result, she has no interest in cleaning. Still, Matilde seeks to make up the funniest joke, ever.

Along comes Ms. Clayburgh, also depressed but who finds purpose in cleaning up after others. Her own husband doesn't need her anymore and with no children, there's little to be cleaned at home that hasn't been scrubbed beyond recognition already. So she adopts Matilde and gladly begins doing her job for her. Ms. Clayburgh's Virginia is a little manic, and eager to mother someone - anyone. I wonder if her character's name is symbolically tied to her lack of children?

As Lane, Ms. Brown is in her typical fine form, brusque and busy in an effort to avoid the messiness of life. Her efforts are unsuccessful, both literally and figuratively. By the end of the show, she's pushed/plowed into her estranged husband's life, taking care of his new love when her cancer comes back. (He's gone off to find a rare artic tree, whose bark is supposed to contain a curative chemical compound - and yes, he drags the whole tree into Lane's no-longer clean, white house.)

Mr. Dossett and Ms. Tomei play both the husband and lover, respectively, as well as Matilde's parents in flashbacks. Mr. Dossett, always in solid form, seems a little lost at times. Not sure if that's because of Sarah Ruhl's writing or Bill Rauch's direction here. His role does seem a bit of an apology lost among the high estrogen levels of cast and script. Ms. Tomei comes off stronger, with a nice display of accent for her South American roles.

There is the trashing of the "clean house" as Lane's pristine world falls apart. I thought the symbolism of the whole apple-picking sequence was particularly heavy-handed from Eve's original sin (Charles and Ana's affair) the "apple a day keeps the doctor away" (Ana's illness), followed by the littering of the stage with said apples.

Christopher Acebo's set and James F. Ingalls' lighting work nicely for most of the action - the artic trek is a bit of a stretch, but with the apron stage of the Newhouse, there are going to be limitations. There are also projections of supertitles for the Portuguese dialogue, but these aren't effective for some of the audience - again because of the auditorium's design.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of laughs and a few nice moments of catharsis.

(Starwatch: Jane Alexander in the audience - she seemed to have a lovely time.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Bit of Dirty Business

"The Voysey Inheritance" at Atlantic Theatre Company, January 16, 2007

David Mamet's adaptation of the Harley Granville Barker play points out to me that Mr. Mamet loves a bit of dirty business. (Spoiler Alert)

Edward Voysey (Michael Stuhlbarg) has just figured out that his father Mr. Voysey (Fritz Weaver) has been cooking the books in the family trust business for at least the last ten years. When confronted about it, Mr. Voysey informs Edward that he "inherited" the same situation with the business from his own father many years earlier. Nearly apoplectic about the ramifications in 1905 London, Edward is cut to the core on how to proceed. If he announces the matter to his clientele, the result will be disgrace and bankruptcy for the entire family, including his brothers the pompous one, Major Booth Voysey (C. J. Wilson), the practical one, Trenchard Voysey (Christopher Duva), and the sensitive one, Hugh Voysey (Todd Weeks), as well as sisters Honor (Rachel Black) and Ethel (Tricia Paoluccio). Further, both Edward and Mr. Voysey would likely end up in prison. Frozen by the decision, Edward begins working to restore the missing money, but within a year, Mr. Voysey has died. It is then he learns that there were many others, including his own mother (Judith Roberts), who knew of the ongoing fraud. One skill Mr. Voysey, and now Edward, had mastered was never missing scheduled distribution payments to the beneficiaries of each trust.

I heard an interview with Mr. Stuhlbarg about the play, who commented that after reading the original, there were large sections left untouched by Mr. Mamet in his adaptation. I'm not sure whose work it is on which I'll be commenting. There's somewhat of a "Chekhovian" feel to the premise of the play - once rich folks still acting so and able to take desparate measures to keep their status quo. What seems key to making such a situation compelling is that one cares about the characters either in spite of, or because of their flaws. This was only partly successful for me, and I think more as a result of the performances than of the writing.

Mr. Stuhlbarg's Edward is so overwhelmed in the first few scenes that he can hardly speak without betraying his own feelings of misery and woe over his recent discovery. He does, however, keep Edward at somewhat of a whimper, even when the company secretary, Mr. Peacey (Steven Goldstein) asks for his annual "bonus" after helping Edward begin the recovery of their clients' assets the year after Mr. Voysey has died. Once might have expected Edward to show more strength, and even though he still refuses the request, it is the potential freeing of the burden by exposure that lets him go head to head with Mr. Peacey. Mr. Stuhlbarg remains torn over the higher concept of the rich protecting themselves and each other to maintain one's station in life, as it were. During a conversation with brother Hugh, the artist, Edward says "...the poor are always with us." Hugh replies "But does it follow that we must betray the rich?" Edward's fiancee Alice (Samantha Soule) also factors in with her own situation. Having inherited her own money which she also manages herself (making her quite modern for the era) she shares what she was told upon taking control of it, "You did nothing to earn it. Don't be surprised if someone tries to take it away from you."

The rest of the cast were solid. Notable was Mr. Weaver as the elder Mr. Voysey, regal and charming, even when confronted with his own misdeeds. Ms. Roberts as Mrs. Voysey recalled a certain Julie Christie quality for me. Ms. Soule as Edward's fiancee Alice was warm and loving. Ms. Paoluccio and Ms. Black as sisters Ethel and Honor, respectively held true to their contrasts - Ethel, somewhat selfish and immature - Honor, silent and above reproach.

Director David Warren does his best to keep the action moving, but it's still an Edwardian era drawing room melodrama. I found the occasional opening of scenes with singing a bit forced for the proceedings. Derek McLane remains a master of sets, well supported by Jeff Croiter's lighting. I had a few questions on some of the men's dinner wear choices in the first act - perhaps Gregory Gale's research time was limited to the gorgeous black jet-beaded gown worn by Ms. Roberts in the first act. Much of the rest seemed like an afterthought.

(Starwatch: Estelle Parsons in the audience at this performance)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Lost in Translation

"A Spanish Play" at Classic Stage Company, January 13, 2007

(Spoiler Alert) The Classic Stage Company presents Yasmina Reza's latest play in its English-language debut. From the Theatre Communication Group's website:
A Spanish Play is a meta-drama about a group of five actors rehearsing a foreign play (a Spanish one) that they will stage in their native language (French). Which is to say, they are performing a play in translation. For American audiences, the actors won't be speaking Spanish or French, but English, which is of course what is always spoken in Reza's plays when they're performed in the U.S.
For more from this article about Ms. Reza and this translation by David Ives, click here.

Director John Turturro has taken on the play, using a clever technique to capture some of the actors as they step out of their "Spanish Play" roles and talk about their characters or speak to one or another member of the play's creative team. To accomplish this for the two younger women and the younger man, he uses a hand-held video camera projecting the image on the back wall of the set following the actors, sometimes backstage, sometimes onstage, in a confessional manner. Why he didn't follow through with this for the older couple is not clear. That lack of clarity foreshadows the rest of the production. It also may have helped Mr. Turturro provide structure instead of a rambling series of scenes and monologues. The whole notion of translating the Spanish to French (and then to English for this production) starts to remind me of an old SNL skit set in the smallest restaurant in NY in which the live entertainment sings "Send In The Clowns" in English translated into French, translated back into English. "I'm not that rich. Aren't you a queer?"

The premise of the play within the play is that recently widowed Fernan (Larry Pine), a real estate building manager has begun an affair with an older woman Pilar (Zoe Caldwell) who lives in one of the buildings he manages. She has three daughters, Nuria (Katherine Borowitz), Aurelia (Linda Emond) and Crystal (unseen). Nuria and Aurelia are both actors, but only Nuria has achieved success. Aurelia is married to Mariano (Denis O'Hare) a math teacher with a teeny, tiny, little drinking problem. Nuria is up for the Spanish equivalent of the Academy Award and has come home to visit for the weekend. Aurelia is rehearsing a Bulgarian play from the '70s and is struggling with sibling rivalry. Both daughters are concerned about their mother's affair with Fernan. The play within the play is conventional and does reduce the mother-daughter and sister-sister relationships to stereotype, though there are some great lines. Following Aurelia's panic attack, a drunken Mariano says "The brain needs a mess. Nothing good comes out of clarity." The real interest should be in the transitions to and from the rehearsal we're watching - if only those transitions were more clear.

Riccardo Hernandez' set is a wash of bright yellow punctuated with red that provides two areas sometimes used to delineate whether we're watching the rehearsal or listening to the actor discuss his role. Again, consistent use in this manner would have helped. Christopher Akerlind's lighting provides proper emphasis to make these accomodations as well. Credit must be given to Donna Zakowska for creating two of the ugliest dresses I've seen onstage, candidates for Nuria to wear to her awards ceremony.

The company is consistently strong throughout, communicating their various insecurities and control issues both in and out of character. I'm particularly impressed with the moments when the actors speak directly to the video camera - this close proximity brings their performance even closer than the apron stage provides. In the end, though, there wasn't much substance presented - - form over function, as it were.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Tangent of Tales

"The Fever" presented by The New Group at the Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row, January 13, 2007

I missed the invitation to join Mr. Shawn onstage for champagne when I arrived at today's matinee of his new play, "The Fever." Given the nature of the material, I couldn't help but wonder if that was part of the intended effect.

It was also difficult at first to tell when the "pre-show" ended and the play began. Mr. Shawn warns the audience against short people as dangerous. He offers examples that include Napoleon and Wagner. He then gave a quick overview of his vision of plays today, a clever poke in the eye at Stoppard's Coast of Utopia running at Lincoln Center. He makes the following points:
  • Plays are too long
  • Stages are too big, taking the actors too long to get in place for their next scene
  • Too many characters to follow, too many actors onstage
  • Too much preparation required to follow the story
  • Too many scenes
He then takes his place in the slice of a set (a clever execution of Pottery Barn/West Elm decor by Derek McLane along with clever lighting by Jennifer Tipton) seated in a leather chair accompanied by a glass of red wine. A one-man show, he begins speaking in total darkness, describing his illness during a visit to an unnamed country in the midst of a revolution. It is here that his "fever" gets the play going.

At times, he speaks in something akin to stream of conscious, but then veers into rambling a la Bette Davis but is generally more pithy than entertaining. He spends a great deal of time talking about the role of poor people and how their lot in life is controlled by the rich, which of course, is for their own good. Without them, how would the rich people know that they're still rich. (It was during this part that I wondered if I were supposed to feel like the poor, on the outside looking in during the pre-show champagne.)

It's a long one-act, roughly an hour and forty-five minutes during which Mr. Shawn never leaves the stage. His performance is quite compelling. He carries the audience along his tale from the fevered moments lying on the floor of the hotel bathroom, unable to return to bed, through his memories and visions (for lack of a better word) of his world. He captures the dream-like momentum and skillfully plays the transitions.

Who's Getting Married in the Morning?

"Regrets Only" presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, January 9, 2007

(Spoiler Alert)

Paul Rudnick's new play asks a rather pertinent question, given the current these days on gay marriage in the US: What would happen if every gay and lesbian took the day off?

As confrontational as that sounds, Mr. Rudnick uses the upper crust of NYC society to set up events leading to just that.

Hank Hadley (George Grizzard) is a world-class clothing designer. He arrives at the top of the show to pick up his dear friend Tibby McCullough (Christine Baransky) to resume their tour of society parties and events. Hank's "longtime companion" of 38 years, Michael, has recently died and Tibby is anxious to get Hank back into life. Tibby's husband Jack (David Rasche) and daughter Spencer (Diane Davis) arrive in short order, both with exciting announcements. Spencer is getting married and Jack has been asked to come to Washington to work on a new constitutional amendment which would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This is what sets off Hank, that his best friends would take on a project that overtly discriminates against him.

If all this sounds a little serious and even dark, remember that it's written by Paul Rudnick. Every character, including Myra the Jewish maid, the only one in NY (Jackie Hoffman) gets at least a couple of bon mots to toss out from time to time. Spencer gets one of the first when reflecting on her pending nuptials "...because I'm a lawyer, I can write my own pre-nup." As the topic moves to something more important to this group, that of the dress, Hank is immediately commissioned. During this discussion, Hank gets in a number of pokes at some of the more current popular designers. On Donna Karan: "You should have Donna do your gown. Then you can wear it to work." On Vera Wang: "...always perfect, because they're always the same." On Ralph Lauren: " the little embroidered polo players that he puts on everything. Did you know that's really a portrait of him - life size?" Myra gets her own jab in here, when Hank is reminded that he'd done one of Nancy Reagan's inaugural gowns, "... a 98 pound , sun-damaged, 64 year old woman in a strapless gown. Your country thanks you!"

Hank does come back to life by casually organizing a gay strike the day before Spencer's wedding. No service organization, from caterers to florists to Hank's design studio are open and those depending on them are unhinged. Marietta had gone to Hank's for her final gown fitting and was abandoned unclothed. Improvising an outfit of garbage bags and shoe boxes, she runs into a friend on the street who asked, "Prada?" When Spencer's fiance goes missing the same day, Marietta offers: "There is no shame in marrying a gay man as long as he went to a good school." (Tibby responds: "That's true.")

Ms. Baransky returns to NY after a praised run of "Mame" at the Kennedy Center last year. Her Tibby is a graceful, empathetic, thoughtful "rich white woman." She wears the wounds of a girl whose teenaged bout with anorexia was praised by her own mother, but does so with style and panache.

Mr. Rache's Jack is a proper foil to Ms. Baranky's Tibby, handsome, well-dressed, well-educated, well-mannered, but falls a bit into stereotype as a man whose supposed self-awareness covers his lack of it. He says all the right things, but only because he's fallen into the timing of Hank and Tibby's conversations, not their subtext.

As Spencer, Ms. Davis makes one of the most frenetic entrances I've seen onstage. She's truly the product of her parents' contradictions. Ms. Phillips' Marietta is rather two-dimensional, coming across in appearance as a poor man's Marlena Dietrich.

Jackie Hoffman's Myra gets to have the most fun in this show, popping in and out with a world (literally) of accents, tossing verbal hand grenades with each exit.

As Hank, Mr. Grizzard captures the poise and elegance of the premiere designer. His contained grief is touching as he asks Tibby not to spout the platitudes usually bestowed on the grieving, which of course, she can't help but get at least one out. His polite discomfort masks his outrage as Jack announces his plan to help with the marriage amendment.

Michael Yeargin's NY apartment set is just terrific. Contemporary without looking overtly modern, he uses warm tones that serve as a neutral background for the color in the dialogue. William Ivey Long is perfectly in his element with some gorgeous gowns, particularly Tibby's first act red beaded and strapless sheath with a short train. (It doesn't hurt to have an actress with Ms. Baransky's body either.) I was slightly disappointed with Spencer's wedding gown. I found it didn't quite have that unique flair that I would have expected a "Hank Hadley original" would demonstrate.

Overall it's quite a fun show, lots of laughs. I think the political jabs are singing to the choir, though. It plays very well in NYC. I'll be interested to see how it travels to other productions across the country.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Everything's Comin' Up Merman

"The Big Voice: God or Merman?" at the Actor's Temple, January 6, 2006

I had seen several reviews on the show, as well as many mentions on some of the blogs that I follow. It was time to see it. (Spoiler Alert)

The show reviews (revues?) the life that Jim and Steve have put together, despite the challenges of church, because of the love they share, and because of the unwitting support of Ethel Merman. They recount their lives from childhood, demonstrating how paralyzing a religious upbringing can be to a gay man's youth. As young men, they both figure out the connection between church and show business, Robes = Costumes, Bishops = Actors, Liturgy = Script. They come from particularly different backgrounds.

Steve, from the buckle of the Bible Belt and the son of a Baptist preacher, discovers early his talent for music. He sings "I Wanna Make Music," a very sweet song about the first song he wrote as a child.

Jim is a good Catholic boy from Brooklyn whose childhood dream is to be the first Brooklyn-born Pope ("Pope Jimmy!"). Desperate for his first true religious experience that will validate and begin his ascent to Pope-dom. A trip as a teenager to Lourdes and Rome with a lack of a miracle in the former and disregard from Pope Pius in the latter leads him to begin questioning his career plan.

Steve tells the Southern Baptist version with evangelists, culminating in active disregard from James Robertson at a stadium revival. Both are looking to find the way to spend their lives providing help and spiritual support to others.

Jim finally discovers what he's looking for following his first listen to the cast album of "Annie Get Your Gun." "You're either an Ethel Queen or Judy Queen - I signed up for the Ethel camp." It turns out that his father actually knows Miss Merman, and soon Jim is standing onstage with Miss Merman following a matinee of "Gypsy." This moment secures his belief that a Broadway theatre is " church, but with energy." She continues to be an unknowing catalyst in Jim's life until her death in 1984.

Jim seems to have had a better school experience in the all-male military school (with all the opportunities one might find there), while Steve suffers in the closet well into college. Both are now questioning how the God they were raised to know can allow them to be so miserable ("Where is God?").

At the end of Act I, they finally meet on the SS Galileo (sister ship to the Andrea Doria) where Steve is the on board pianist in the "Fantasy Lounge." He begins playing "Falling in Love is Wonderful" from "Annie Get Your Gun" to which Jim immediately sings along. Within weeks they are living together in NYC.

Act II begins with Steve's family visiting the boys for Christmas for the first time. They write their first song together as a present to Steve's mother, "Christmastime Around the World."

What has been quite a light and funny show suddenly turns dark and touching. The boys have moved to Los Angeles. Steve has contracted "it." It is Mother's Day, 1994 when Jim has to call to tell Steve's mother that the prognosis is very dim. A rather funny appearance by Anson Williams (Potsie from Happy Days) in the hospital emergency room gives Steve the motivation to survive ("I didn't want the last celebrity I ever saw in my life to be Potsie.") This and some goading from Jim inspire Steve to channel his anger into producing songs that will become a show, "The Last Session." Basically autobiographical, it tells the story of Gideon, a songwriter with AIDS and how he finds a reason to live. The show goes on to award-winning productions in NY and LA.

Trouble enters again when "Mark," (one of the NY producers?) takes Steve under wing. Apparently this is Mark's modus operandi, collecting composers from season to season. This combined with the side effects of Steve's medication drive the two apart after the NY production of "TLS" closes. Jim stays in NY and Steve returns to LA. Only the sinking of the SS Galileo is enough to draw them back together, "How Do You Fall Back in Love?"

The show comes to a close when, during picketing of the Dallas production by a Fred Phelps-like group led by Steve's college roommate. Steve observes that the roommate "...thought he was a sower, but he was a scarecrow." He thought he was sowing the word of God, but he was really scaring people away. During this confrontation, a young woman steps forward and thanks Steve and Jim for saving her life. She had been diagnosed with AIDS and was planning ton commit suicide on her next birthday. A friend took her to see a production of "The Last Session" and she figured that if Gideon could find a purpose to live for, so could she.

As performers, Jim is the stronger of the two. Steve does have some very tender moments in song, particularly in "Where Is God?" and "How Do You Fall in Love Again?"

I can't remember seeing a more personal glimpse into the lives of the performers telling their story, certainly not "Confessions of a Mormon Boy" and not even Billy Crystal's "700 Sundays." Thanks to Steve and Jim for sharing this intimate tale. I wish you a long and successful run.