Monday, June 25, 2007


"BE" by Mayumana at the Union Square Theatre, June 23, 2007

Think of:
  • Stomp
  • Tap Dogs
  • Cirque Du Soleil clowns
  • Bobby McFerrin
...and a taste of flamenco tossed in - but none of it done nearly as well. (Although, I did think the flamenco number wasn't bad.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What Was Up With The Lollipops?

"Old Acquaintance" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Oh, the glamour of pre-war NYC! Kit and Millie have been friends and friendly competitors since college. Millie married, had a child and divorced, while Kit has moved from romance to romance, never managing to settle down. Millie cranks out at least one novel a year, always a good seller, but rarely the critics' choice. Kit is much less prolific, but the critics' darling when she does publish. Now Millie's daughter, Deirdre has finished school and at the age of 19 is ready to take on life in NYC as a modern woman of 1940. Kit's current affair is with a younger office worker at her publisher's.

John Van Druten's script, originally ran on Broadway in 1940 is in its first revival. Mr. Van Druten, also the author of "I Remember Mama," "Leave Her to Heaven," Bell, Book and Candle," and "I Am a Camera." This effort, one of his first, seems to follow the style of George S. Kaufman and other drawing room comedies of the '20s and '30s holds a couple of clever lines, such as Kit's first reference to Millie, "She has an extraordinary gift of common sense that never finds its way into her books." (Inexplicably, Kit also has some sort of oral fixation, appearing in nearly every scene sucking on a lollipop or candy cane.) Millie, ever the on-the-verge-of-hysterics mother of the period is totally involved her daughter's life, feeling incomplete since her husband left and now feels worse when she learns he is to remarry a young artist whom Millie herself had promoted a few years before. Deirdre, a classic ingenue looking to shake off the shackles of her mother and her youth, and considers kick-starting her new life via an affair with a well-heeled cad. Kit's inamorata, Rudd, has proposed and was quickly and kindly declined. Of course, when Rudd and Deirdre meet, true love appears, confusion arises, hilarity ensues and all is resolved by the end of Act 3.

As Kit, Margaret Colin is ever-lovely and elegant, but missing the fun her character is described as having. We know her affection for Rudd is real, but she seems to have lost sight of the care-free sophisticate she's playing. I was looking for Rosalind Russell a la "Auntie Mame," but she came across more like Norma Shearer from "The Women."

As Rudd, her much-younger boyfriend, Cory Stoll is earnest with a touch of callow. Diane Davis' Deirdre is very much a 1940 version of her willful daughter from "Regrets Only" earlier this year at Manhattan Theatre Club. Stephen Bogardus gets the thankless role of her father, who only shows up to give Millie another chance to chew some scenery.

And chew she does. Harriet Harris' Millie sparkles, wails, cries and staggers in this performance of a manic woman on the crest of middle age. She sweeps in on every entrance, whether in Kit's pseudo-edwardian/eclectic Greenwich Village garret, or the pepto-pink damask and white marble Park Avenue apartment she sublets for the winter. She seems to be the only one on stage having any real fun in this comedy.

Director Michael Wilson keeps a brisk pace with this three-acter, but he doesn't seem to have connected with Ms. Colin. Why else would she come across so dour? Alexander Dodge's NY apartments are in keeping with the period, complemented but not overly enhanced by Rui Rita's lighting. David Woolard's costumes lean heavily in favor of Ms. Harris' character as well. The rest are appropriate though not exemplary.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

In The Eye Of The Beholder

"Phallacy" at Cherry Lane Theatre, June 9, 2007

In an Austrian art museum, Dr. Regina Leitner-Opfermann rules (get it?) as a foremost authority on ancient sculpture. The pride of the museum's collection is an original Roman Bronze statue of a nude youth dating back to something like 300 BC. She authenticated the find several years before, published a book about it and is so totally invested in its artistic and historic value, that she cannot (or will not) see room for error. Enter Dr. Rex Stolzfuss, renowned scientist of chemistry, who has done a bit of his own testing on the statue, discovering that the statue is more likely a Renaissance reproduction than a Roman original. When he comes to Dr. Leitner-Opfermann to discuss his findings, she dismisses him out of hand, insulted that her word and work could have been questioned.

The plotting and scheming starts immediately, with Dr. Stolzfuzz ("Proud Foot") out for revenge. Dr. Leitner-Opfermann ("Lead-Victim") instantly knows where she went wrong in her own analysis and begins to search for a way to acknowledge the fact without losing face in the art community. Each is assisted in their efforts, Regina by Emma Finger, a Renaissance Art expert assigned by the museum and Rex by Otto Ellenbogen ("elbow"), his graduate assistant. It's all tied up nicely in that Otto and Emma have their own brief history of flirtation, which may have included one lusty encounter. He's smitten, but she knows it and plays it to her advantage even though she's equally as smitten, which in turn plays to his advantage.

Sounding a little contrived yet?

There's more - a sub-plot connected to the illegitimate son of HRE Charles V and his mother that ties back to the statue in question.

Playwright Carl Djerassi is by training and education a scientist and professor of chemistry at Stanford University, with both a National Medal of Science for developing "the Pill" and a National Medal of Technology, just to name a few of his professional accomplishments. Some 10 years ago, he began writing plays which have been performed around the world. "Phallacy" represents his fifth play and premiered in London in 2005. Written with a broad stroke, its exploration of art vs. science receives treatment which is, at time, a bit heavy-handed. Just the naming of the characters demonstrates that. Rex and Regina - king and queen, he the proud foot kicking down her world, she the lead victim, assistants named for bodily extremities. It doesn't really qualify as subtle, does it? Not to say that the play is without entertainment value or even a bit of education along the way. I would not have otherwise known that during the Renaissance, artists were paid by the pound for bronze sculpture which lead to pretty thick and heavy statues - a big reason why so many more survive, as opposed to the much thinner and therefore more vulnerable bronze castings from the Roman era.

As Regina, Lisa Harrow excels during her lecture monologues about the statue. She conveys a passion and love for this art that might have led to her divorce from Herr Opfermann. This actually seems like a plot point that went unexplored and might have provided some interesting depth to an otherwise simply arrogant woman. In her scenes, Ms. Harrow occasionally gets caught up in the lines, losing some of that passion so well-displayed when she described each square centimeter of the bronze.

Simon Jones' Rex doesn't quite get the same opportunity to shine. Reduced to an insulted academic with an ax to grind, he comes off as rather petty, seeking revenge against Regina for having tossed out his offer to release the news of the true age of the bronze.

As Emma, Carrie Heitman does the best she can with what she's given. She did come off a little colder than necessary in her scenes with Vince Nappo as Rex's assistant, Otto Ellenbogen. Mr. Nappo's moments to shine were in the few flashback-subplot scenes where he and Ms. Harrow played the illegitimate son of HRE Charles V and his mother.

Director Elena Araoz keeps a nice pace on this little pot-boiler, but there's not enough fuel in the material for it to really build into something worthwhile. Susan Zeeman Rogers' sets place everything just a bit off-center in her abstract setting that allows for easy transition from office to museum gallery to 16th Century Luxembourg. Katy Tucker's projection design is a clever technique projecting images over Mr. Nappo's and Ms. Harrow's bodies to effect a costume change.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Questioning Faith

"Horizon" at New York Theatre Workshop, June 7, 2007

(Disclaimer: I was invited to attend this performance by NYTW. Thanks for the seats!)

Reinhart Poole, minister and professor of ethics at a seminary has just been fired and is preparing to teach his last class. This is Rinde Eckert's premise for his evening of exploring theology and faith through a highly theatrical performance of song and scenes. A quote from the NYTW press release:
Rinde Eckert says, "The basis for many of the ruminations in Horizon is a modest study of the life and ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential American theologian and social theorist. But although those familiar with Niebuhr's ideas may see the ghost of them here, one ought not to strain the comparison. My grandfather Thomas D. Rinde, a Lutheran minister, taught religious history at a seminary in Fremont, Nebraska, also serving as its director for many years. I like to think he would be pleased to find himself implicated here in my imagined teacher Reinhart Poole."
For more information about Mr. Niebuhr, check out the article from the NY Times here.

Having been raised Lutheran, my personal spiritual state is one of moderation in life and deeds. I found this discussion of faith and its meaning in one's life one a most interesting evening. This is not a play where one sits back and is "entertained." This thoughtful play kept me engaged for the entire 90 minutes. It was both the subject matter and the clever and skillful staging and direction which accomplished this.

The structure of the evening seemed to follow something of a Lutheran church service presenting, in effect, two Lessons and a Gospel, followed by a Sermon and Benediction. Not having been a regular church-goer since high school, there was a comforting familiarity with this approach. There was one scene transition that felt much like the dressing of an altar.

One of the Lessons showed two men walking along a road. One of the men (Howard Swain) is looking for God. The other (David Barlow) reveals himself to be Lucifer, guarding the road to God. Like an Oedipal Sphinx, the man has to answer three questions to gain entry to God. Otherwise the road never ends. Lucifer appears again later in a creepy monologue that starts out sounding like a fundamental evangelist (an apt likening - Jim Bakker comes to mind), discussing how his intense love and loyalty to God led to his own dismissal from Heaven. Mr. Barlow then makes an even creepier transition from evangelist to evil angel when his voice drops several octaves as his intensity increases. Lucifer becomes the original stalker.

Mr. Eckert explores various teaching methods of Allegory and Parable to communicate, with simple yet clever staging techniques. The play opens with Mr. Poole (Eckert) onstage, reviewing his notes for his final class. Understandably needing an outlet for his thoughts, Mr. Poole has also been writing a play as a means to exorcise/distract him from his personal situation with his job.

In his play (which I interpreted as the Gospel delivered as an Allegory), two stone masons are building the foundation for a cathedral, but never finish because they don't have enough stones to complete the work. This theme continues periodically throughout the evening as he adds to that story. Cinder blocks are used as their stones and a small wall rises over the course of several scenes. The stone masons learn that they are only characters in a play and discuss the ramifications of that. "No wonder I feel incomplete," one of them says. The other responds, "You look well-drawn to me." They learn that they've been working on the foundation for 1750 years and finally find comfort when they realize that their play will remain unfinished, just like their task.

His Sermon addressed the parable of the Prodigal Son. In its own way, this was a parable of Reinhart's own life when his older brother ran away as a child following an argument between the two of them, but without the triumphal return. This spurs much questioning by Reinhart and leads nicely into the last section of the play.

The largest concept/theme I found in this work was the discussion of belief and faith - something of the Benediction. Mr. Eckert posits that belief, when seen as the absence of doubt, undermines faith. Unquestioning faith is blind faith and, therefore, no faith at all. From this, I can only draw my own conclusion that in our current environment of blind faith among the religious right, this is a dangerous truth. For me, it brings to mind the following quote,
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
Edmund Burke
Irish orator, philosopher, & politician (1729 - 1797)
I'm not sure that I'm following the mental path Mr. Eckert might have intended, since he did not take the opportunity to get into the evil that men do, but it stuck out in my mind.

All three actors are skilled, talented and compelling. Mr. Eckert, bald and deadpan, gives us a very human man, questioning the world around him. He struggles to both learn and teach, even if he is only teaching others to ask more questions. In the various supporting roles ranging from Reinhart's wife to the stone masons, to Reinhart's brother, father and mother, Howard Swain and David Barlow excel. Mr. Barlow's Lucifer was particularly chilling.

Alexander Nichols' sets and lighting are particularly effective while simple. Seven lighted easels with chalkboards line the back of the stage and serve as Reinhart's classroom as he punctuates each topic with visual representations.

Director David Schweizer is to be commended for his contribution to this work. What could have been a dreary theological dissertation is instead a significant evening of thought and theatre.

I've rambled in this review - sorry about that. The concepts are large and thought-provoking. This is an important and powerful piece. I recommend it highly to anyone who has the opportunity to see it.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Eurydice's Lament

"eurydice" at 2econd Stage Theatre, June 3, 2007

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Sarah Ruhl follows her last play "Clean House" at Lincoln Center Theatre with this retelling of the Orpheus myth at 2econd Stage Theatre. (Spoiler alert - if there can be one about a Greek Myth).

With an eye for significant theatricality, but lacking a bit of the polish she achieved at Lincoln Center, the published premise is that this version will tell the tale from Eurydice's perspective. What we get is not quite as clear, with much of the perspective delivered from her father, who has been waiting for his daughter to join him in the underworld.

Director Les Waters, who has directed this play in other productions at Yale Repertory and Berkeley Repertory Theatres has retained many in the cast from both the Yale and Berkeley productions. The result is a mix of skills.

This Eurydice arrives in the Underworld as a traveler with suitcase in hand and umbrella opened, shielding her from the water of the river which washes away one's memory of life before (shown as a shower of water pouring over her as she exits an elevator). Greeted by three stones, Big Stone (Ramiz Monsef), Little Stone (Carla Harting) and Loud Stone (Gian-Murray Gianino), this truly Greek Chorus establishes that the language of the dead is silent and that all who enter the Underworld forget their lives above existing in peace and quiet for eternity. (Some folks need an extra dip, on occasion.)

She quickly starts to forget anyway, and is met by her father (Charles Shaw Robinson) whom she doesn't recognize. (Apparently he didn't get much of a dip in the river either.) He has continually written letters to her, but not being able to send them, he pastes them on the tiled walls creating a mosaic of sorts. Only one had gotten through. It was that letter, delivered by The Nasty and Interesting Man (Mark Zeisler) that lead to Eurydice's death as he lured her away from her wedding to give her the letter. The death sequence was a bit inelegant.

In the Underworld, she soon recognizes her father and longs for Orpheus to come find her and take her home. In an interesting bit of business, she asks where her "room" is and he creates one outlined in string using hooks in the floor and a hanging framework.

As Eurydice, Maria Dizzia seems limited by a role missing significant depth in the writing. This tone-deaf, rythm-less Eurydice wants to be more interesting than she is - reading books because they are "interesting" yet not really understanding Orpheus' (Joseph Parks) devotion to his music when she asks him repeatedly, "What are you thinking about?" to which he repeatedly responds, "Music." How does a musician as intense as Orpheus fall in love with someone who has no clue what motivates him?

As Orpheus, Joseph Parks has some wonderful moments, but they are few and far between. His heartbreak at losing Eurydice on their wedding day only grows as he manages to send her letters in the underworld. Once he finds his way down and convinces the Lord of the Underworld (Mark Zeisler) to let her return to him, he obediently takes up his task. I felt a little short-changed when Eurydice calls his name before they finish their journey, sabotaging her own return. That moment should have been one for him to indicate his grief at losing her for a second time. It also strikes a bitter chord when Orpheus dies in the end, hoping to join Eurydice but is dipped in the river (presumable Styx, though unnamed) and loses all memory from life.

Charles Shaw Robinson as the Father gives an uneven performance, coming across weak and unsure in his first scenes, but finding his footing once the relationship with Eurydice is reestablished. He has a touching moment as he says good-bye to her, sending her to follow Orpheus back to her life above. In his grief, he dips himself back in the river and loses his memory of her.

Scott Bradley's set is an interesting blue-green tiled creation, with no flat or plumb levels or angles and just enough water not to make the audience feel they should have worn swim fins. Russell Champa's lighting is a key to the successful theatricality in this production and serves well through most of the show. Meg Neville's costumes are an odd mix, from Dickensian England for the Stones' attire, to a blue and pink wedding dress for Eurydice. (I'm still trying to figure out what her goal was for Eurydice's pink suit worn during her time in the Underworld since it seemed to make no connection to any other character or style of dress.)

Director Les Waters has been involved with this play, now in its third production. I can't help but wonder if he's too close to see where shortfalls remain in the play and cast.

The production is an interesting work, but felt a bit like a workshop of a play that still needs some attention. The Orpheus tale should be heart-wrenching, but here we only get that Eurydice was confused about what she wanted, and only a little sad at the result. As she returns to the Underworld, she writes a letter to Orpheus that oddly reminded me of Eve's song "What Makes Me Love Him" from The Apple Tree, sweet but not tragic. Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses" from 2002 at Circle in the Square presented the Orpheus myth in her evening with much more interest and emotion.

Star-watch: Deborah Rush (Sara Blank: "Strangers With Candy") and Michael Emerson (Ben Linus - head bad guy of "the others") in the house.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Grief Has Its Limitations

"The Year of Magical Thinking" at the Booth Theatre, May 31, 2007

(photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Joan Didion's memoir of the same title is the basis for the 90 minute recitation now in a limited run in New York. It is billed as a play, but with only one character's point of view expressed, it is more an abridged version of her book told aloud by the very compelling Vanessa Redgrave. It's certainly not a happy tale, of the loss of both husband and daughter in a year's time.

Miss Redgrave's demeanor and vocal qualities, though compelling in skill, don't seem to create a character of a woman in the kind of denial and grieving she describes. Attired in an off-white silk tunic over a full bias-cut grey skirt, she does mention throughout the evening of her need to maintain control, to "manage" the events as they transpire in order to correct the errors and bring her loved ones back. And, she never loses that control as she tells her story. Wouldn't this have been the opportunity to increase the drama? She does describe her emotions, but never displays them so that the audience can share this tale of grief. Perhaps it was the release of the tension of being onstage alone for 90 minutes, but I felt more emotion from Miss Redgrave as she accepted her applause than anytime before during the evening.

Bob Crowley's sets, primarily a series of abstract drops, washed in greys, evoke a cloudy sky or beach scene, each dropping through the floor to reveal the next as the tale continues.

Director David Hare is quite spare in his role here. Much of the recitation is performed with Miss Redgrave sitting in a plain wooden armchair on a bare stage. She delivers certain lines and questions directly to audience members, but these gesture feel terribly forced. It's a difficult task, setting a reading as an evening of theatre. I think his goal was to juxtapose the color of Ms. Didion's language and story against the severe neutral palette of the sets and costumes, as well as a neutral delivery by Miss Redgrave. I wish he had been more successful.