Monday, January 28, 2008

Crimes of the Stage

"Crimes of the Heart" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, January 26, 2008

It is a shame that such a crime has been committed. I have always considered this Pulitzer Prize winning play by Beth Henley as effectively a bullet-proof event. For me, it's in a category with shows like Gurney's The Dining Room or Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. One has to work pretty hard to mess it up. I remember seeing it produced twice in the same season by two community theatre groups in my home town of Columbia, SC in the 1980s. Both productions were excellent with completely different casts. It continues to be a strong standby for theatres needing a solid offering during any given season.

I was excited when I learned that the Roundabout was planning to put up a new production in their off Broadway space, combining the talents of Kathleen Turner, Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe from the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer.

I sat in disbelief, watching the evisceration of this dark comedy about three sisters from semi-rural Mississippi in a misguided attempt to combine Greek tragedy with 19Th century melodrama without the virtue of either. Director Kathleen Turner, who recently gave a delicious turn as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has totally missed the point of southern Gothic humor.

Her accomplice in this crime is dialect coach Deborah Hecht. (Note to Ms. Hecht: Dropping the "r" at the end of a word does not sound southern, it sounds affected.) As an American by birth, and a Southerner by the grace of God (ok, it's a bit much, but I'm trying to make a point here) I'm continually offended by the number of horrendous southern accents I hear delivered by (supposedly) trained and coached actors. Up till now, the worst I've heard is that poor woman in the Daisy Mae BBQ television commercials here in New York. She now has been outdone by Ms. Paulson and Jennifer Dundas in their respective roles of Meg and Lenny McGrath. (Note to Ms. Hecht: There are very few southern women who sound like Vivien Leigh. The only ones who do are Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Dubois. Neither of those characters are from Hazelhurst, Mississippi in the 1970s.)

But I digress...

For those of you who don't know the plot: The three McGrath sisters were raised by their grandparents after their father ran off, which was followed shortly by the suicide of their mother. Babe (Lily Rabe) (now 24), married at 18 to Zach, an older and now very successful and powerful attorney in the state, has shot him in the stomach ("I didn't like his looks.") and has just been released after her arrest. Lenny (Jennifer Dundas) turns 30 today, is the spinster with a shrunken ovary and a matching self-esteem who has been Old-Granddaddy's caretaker since Old-Grandmother died a few years ago. He's currently in the hospital after his last health event. Lenny has been sleeping on a cot in the kitchen of the family homestead to be available to him at night as his health has deteriorated. Meg (Sarah Paulson) (27) returns from Los Angeles where she has been unsuccessfully pursuing a singing career. She fled there 5 years before in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille, which she rode out at the Gulf shore with Doc Porter (Patch Darragh), whose leg was crushed during the storm ending his hopes for a medical career. Doc has since married a Yankee girl and has two "half-Yankee" children. The McGrath's cousin Chick (Jessica Stone), lives next door to Lenny and Old-Granddaddy. (Note to cast: "Old-Granddaddy" is spoken as one word. Otherwise, it sounds like each use of it is to remind the audience that he's an old man - that's not why it's written that way. It's his name as used by all his grandchildren.) Chick is a busy-body from the old school - a combination of Gladys Kravits from Bewitched and Sister-woman Mae from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" but without the kindness. Chick has hired Barnette Lloyd (Chandler Williams) to represent Babe for the shooting as a favor to Barnette's mother.

As Lenny, Ms. Dundas gets the worst of the treatment. Even though her character mentions that she's losing her hair, that doesn't mean she doesn't know how to comb it. And her costume is inappropriate to the point of being miscast on its own (a long-sleeve polyester double-knit shirtwaist dress that couldn't have been a hand-me-down from anybody). She's on the verge of old-maid-hood, but here she looks and acts like she's turning 50 instead of 30. Her accent fails her, as does her director. Lenny does develop a spine during the course of the play, which results in chasing cousin Chick out of the house with a broom. If Lenny really had the opportunities to wail on Chick like Ms. Dundas did on Ms. Stone, Ms. Stone would still be lying on the stage bleeding. Instead, we got a bit of poorly staged running around the kitchen table.

Ms. Paulson is also poorly served with a truly tragic long blond wig. I can't believe that's where the Roundabout ran out of money. Otherwise, she looks great. Her Meg, however, lacks the raw sexuality that would lead her former inamorato astray, as well as the restless nature that drove her out of Mississippi in the first place. She seems perfectly content to be home, when that's the last place she ever wanted to see again.

Ms. Rabe's Babe is only slightly more successful with her accent, but is poorly directed. A woman, whether she married at 18 or not, who married a successful attorney would not fold her legs up under herself (like the oft-referred-to yellow cat) every time she sits down. One can be relatively certain that Babe has learned how to behave among polite society, and knows to display proper behavior, even among those to whom she is closest. This Babe is at times lifeless, which runs completely counter to her dialog. I also had to wonder why she and Meg had the same long blond hair. Though Ms. Rabe's is natural (which further pointed up Ms. Paulson's dreadful wig), it's out of character.

As Chick, Ms. Stone seems to be the only one in the cast who really gets the required matter-of-fact delivery style required for this play. Bossy and presumptuous, she still suffers too from the poor staging and direction.

Chander Williams, sadly, is totally miscast as the meek milquetoast Barnette. Mr. Williams' Barnette is a bantam rooster (putting quite the fine stretch on the chest of his dress shirt and the seat and thighs of his polyester gabardine pants, I might add). When he rhapsodizes about his "personal vendetta" against Babe's corrupt and abusive husband, one wonders why, instead of strutting around the kitchen with his arms folded back and bobbing his head, he hasn't just gone round to deliver the well-deserved punch in the nose to Zach. He certainly appears capable of such. (Note to Ms. Turner/Ms. Rubin: Barnette is supposed to be a geek, quite young and a bit on the awkward side.) This appearance also undercuts what should seem the tender beginnings of a new and unlikely relationship between Babe and Barnette. No wonder she remembers having sold him that pie a few years before - he's hot!

Mr. Darragh fares a bit better as Doc, solid and credible. He still looks good in those jeans, even with the semi-gimpy leg as Chick's lascivious once-over attests early in Act I. He also manages to avoid some of the leaden pace that pervades this production.

David Murin's costumes are, for the most part, uninspired. Seems that Lenny only owns the one dress which she apparently puts back on after going upstairs to get some sleep along with little old lady sandals (in October?). Ms. Rabe is left in a couple of unflattering shades of yellow (like her Mama's cat again, I suppose) and Ms. Paulson gets the joy of mismatched blues (royal and teal - I don't remember that from the 70s). Just because Chick describes the girls as the "trashy McGraths" doesn't mean they're color blind.

Natasha Katz' lighting gives no sense of time or its passing, whatsoever. The brightest spot of production values for the evening is Anna Louizos' aged kitchen set even though there's a particularly awkward placement of the sink, refrigerator and stove.

I hadn't remembered seeing any reviews from when Ms. Turner directed this play last year at Williamstown, but found the Variety review here. and another from here. Accounts of that production were excellent - not ground-breaking perhaps, but excellent nonetheless.

What happened to that show? It's the same cast with an improved budget in an excellent auditorium produced by a well-known and successful theatre company. Why did the pace of every scene feeling like pouring cold molasses? Why were transitions endless, as though they were place-holders for commercials? Why did the line deliveries feel like MacBeth? The well-known secret to playing comedy is to play it straight, not wring the life from it. Where was the subtlety? Where was the truth?

Where was Ms. Turner? Did she expect her work from last summer to revive itself?

I also found a quote from Ms. Turner from an interview she gave about the Williamstown Theatre run last summer. She refers to the night Ms. Henley attended a performance, "She was crying at the end," said Turner. "She said, 'I've forgotten how the play felt.' "

I can only imagine how she'd feel now.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Remembering Loss

"Next to Normal" at Second Stage Theatre, January 20, 2008

"Next to Normal" is at first a tale of typical family dysfunction in the new millennium. Among the innocently named Goodmans, Gabe (Aaron Tveit) comes in very late to find his mother Diana (Alice Ripley) waiting up for him. Hearing his father Dan (Brian d'Arcy James) stirring, she quickly sends Gabe off to bed before his father enters the room. Gabe says, "Why does he hate me?" Gabe's sister Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) is on the straightest and narrowest path she can find to get out of high school and her parents' house and into Yale on a music scholarship. Her classmate Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat) has a crush and finally strikes up a conversation which leads to a relationship. Meanwhile, Diana has a melt-down at Costco and we learn she's been on medication for depression, et. al., for the last 16 years.

(Spoiler Alert)

With a generic rock score by Tom Kitt, (who is better partnered this go-round than his last effort High Fidelity) and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, "Next to Normal" takes us into the dark world of a family who can't escape the loss of their first child. It takes a while to reveal this, and even longer to learn how he died, but the effort is a worthy one. The songs do what songs are supposed to do for the most part, expand on character and/or further the plot. The result is reminiscent of William Finn's "Falsettos" with its heavily integrated score, but here there are no tunes to hum along as you leave the theatre, other than the music box tune "I Dreamed a Dance with You" (that starts off sounding remarkably like "Real Live Girl" from Little Me).

Mr. Tveit's Gabe (ostensibly, an angel) would be around 18 years old, though he comes off a bit less mature, probably resulting from the fact that he's primarily a deluded projection of his mother's mind. He gives a strong performance with a powerful voice, although his "I'm Alive" song drags out about 64 bars too long (not necessarily the actor's fault there).

As Diana, Ms. Ripley capably demonstrates the struggles of a woman swallowed by her own grief, but also seems to struggle a bit vocally with the musical style of some of her songs. She gets a few good lines here and there. In her first session with a new psychologist As she regains her memory following the electric shock therapy, it's very moving to see her experience the grief of losing her son all over again late in Act II.

Mr. d'Arcy James' Dan Goodman is just that, a good man. He only wants what is best for his wife and family and does everything he knows how to provide a stable and happy life for them. Credit to Mr. Yorkey for the really interesting twist at the end when Dan recognizes Gabe's presence and we learn he's starting his own counseling to deal with his own grief. It's particularly interesting because it's not clear whether Dan's step in that direction will be a healing one or not. Like Ms. Ripley, he had occasions vocal struggles here as well, perhaps the result of vocal arranger AnnMarie Milazzo's efforts. His plea to Diana to undergo the shock therapy "Light in the Dark" is touchingly effective.

Ms. Damiano had a more difficult time as the straight and narrow surviving child Natalie who takes a particularly late and sudden turn to pilfering her mother's drugs to insulate herself from the dysfunction around her. She's on the verge of graduating high school with good chances of a college scholarship to take her away. I just didn't understand why she would make such a choice with her goal so near, despite a bad showing at her piano recital because her mother didn't attend. Mr. Chanler-Berat's Henry, Natalie's boyfriend, sweet and tender, awkward and loving, wants to help but really can't grasp all that she's dealing with. It's too bad there wasn't more chemistry between them, despite his efforts.

Mr. Yorkey's book is basically solid, but the music box plot contrivance didn't work for me in the contemporary setting of the play. Musical sounds for infants at what would have been the time of Gabe's birth were more often built into toys and crib mobiles rather than an old-style music box.

Michael Greif has done pretty well with this new material though some of his supporting creative team hasn't made it so easy. Kevin Adams' lighting overpowers on occasion, masking Sergio Trujillo's musical staging (which hints at pole dancing from time to time). It's not a happy musical, but the catharsis is satisfying overall.

Mark Wendland's three-level black and white stage pulls from current Broadway shows, with industrial flavor from Klara Zieglerova (Jersey Boys, The Farnsworth Invention) as well as bone-like references of construction from Todd Rosenthal (August: Osage County) and James Noone (Come Back, Little Sheba). Jeff Mahshie's costumes use color effectively to tie both characters and mood together.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Perfecting Codependence

"Come Back, Little Sheba" presented by the Manhattan Theater Club at the Biltmore Theatre, January 13, 2008

William Inge's classic play of dysfunction and longing returns for its first Broadway revival under the sensitive direction of Michael Pressman. He has assembled an admirable cast. The story centers around Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson), a faded beauty married and childless slogging into middle age. She longs for happier times and her dog Sheba who ran away sometime ago. Her sometime-recovering-alcoholic husband Doc (Kevin Anderson) longs for the youthful freedom he never had, as well as Marie (Zoe Kazan), the college student who boards with them.

Ms. Merkerson braves the challenge to take on a role so closely associated with the inimitable Shirley Booth who originated the role of Lola on stage and on film winning both a Tony and an Oscar for her portrayal. I've never seen the film, but I can easily imagine the power Ms. Booth brought to that performance. Ms. Merkerson's Lola is a woman lost in her love for a man who can't raise himself to what he wants to be, and lost after the death of their child during childbirth. She is prompted to action by Marie, who serves as something of a surrogate child. Yet she remains child-like and starved for companionship, striking up conversations with the postman and milkman, and developing an odd friendship with her neighbor.

Mr. Anderson's Doc is the strongest characterization of the cast. His desire for Marie torments him more than the bottle of bourbon in the pantry. After being pushed over the edge, his drunken violent rage was particularly visceral.

Ms. Kazan continues to establish herself as one of the brightest stage talents in New York. Her Marie is practical and forward-thinking, juggling romance with two boys, school athlete and classmate Turk (the delectably athletic Brian Smith) and her long distance boyfriend Bruce (Chad Hoeppner) who shows up with a ring and sweeps her off late in Act II.

I made comparisons to Mr. Inge's work in my comments on "August: Osage County" which seem all the more relevant after seeing tonight's play. I also noticed some striking comparisons to characters in Mr. Inge's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," faded beauties discovering themselves stuck in middle age with undependable men who require their support instead of being the support they thought they had chosen.

James Noone's semi-skeletal set functions relatively well, though also reminiscent of the set for "August: Osage County." Must be something about Midwestern dysfunction that inspires such a design. I did find the set a bit ineffective with some action taking place upstage left blocked by the lace curtains surrounding the front door for those of on the right side of the audience. Jane Cox's lighting added the appropriate level of intimacy.

Mr. Pressman is to be commended for his work here. Pace and intensity provide a nice flow.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Strange Bedfellows

"November" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, January 5, 2008

David Mamet's latest play "November" has begun performances with Nathan Lane playing an incumbent president on the verge of losing his re-election bid. The jokes begin early with plenty of less-than-veiled references to the current situation in US politics. (Spoiler Alert)

Taking place late in the week before election day, there's an unpopular war in Iraq, instigated by this now unpopular (and presumably Republican) President Charles Smith (Mr. Lane). His Chief of Staff, Archer Brown (Dylan Baker) quickly summarizes the source of his issues, "You've f****d up everything you've touched."

President Smith's unseen campaign director Barry has already given up the ship and headed to Nantucket to ride out the aftermath. His head speech writer, Clarice Bernstein (Laurie Metcalf) has just returned from adopting a Chinese girl with her partner, their new child and the flu. Smith demands her presence despite her illness in a last-ditch effort to save his legacy. A Representative of the National Association of Turkey By-Products Manufacturers (Ethan Philips) has arrived with two turkeys in tow for Smith to provide the annual "pardon" for this year's Thanksgiving at a press conference to be held the next day. Seizing on the opportunity, Smith demands the Turkey Association to increase their donation from $50,000 to $200,000,000. When they balk, he attempts to discredit the consumption of turkey at the original Thanksgiving in favor of tuna ("Isn't the Indian word for codfish pronounced "toona?"). He then insults the head of one of the Indian nations, after declining the chief's request for the island of Nantucket on which the Indians would build a 2000 bed hotel and gambling casino in exchange for endorsing the "toona" story.

Clarice drafts a quite moving speech in her feverish state, then demands that Smith marry her to her partner before she gives him the speech to deliver, during the press conference when he pardons the turkeys. Her plea unwittingly convinces Smith to try to win the election using the money from the Turkey Association.

So there it is, gay marriage, the war in Iraq, Native American relations and a threat of bird flu all peppered with enough racial and politically incorrect insults to make you think it was by Mel Brooks, except for the missing bathroom humor. There are plenty of funny moments in this evening of one-liners (Smith: "I always thought I'd do something memorable. I assumed it would be getting impeached."), and the energy of the production is good. Mr. Mamet's use of the "f" word as his go-to adjective is as faithful as ever in this play, though he hasn't matched the 12.5% penetration high water mark he set early in his career with "American Buffalo." Still, it felt a bit like a sitcom love-child of NBC and HBO, dragged out in 2-act form. Some trimming would be in order to the tune of about 25 minutes plus the intermission.

Mr. Lane is in his most Gleason-esque form here, rubber-faced and chewing up the remarkably beautiful Oval Office set by Scott Pask. He's got all the great tricks at hand, telephone calls and asides. Mr. Baker is suitably obsequious, playing straight man to Mr. Lane's antics. Ms. Metcalf's Clarice is passionate and real, despite some of the stereotypical dialogue provided by Mr. Mamet.

Joe Mantello directs, keeping the play moving appropriately apace.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


"Pygmalion" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, December 12, 2007

This classic tale of creation, as told by George Bernard Shaw has been carefully revived by the Roundabout under the wise direction of David Grindley, who so skillfully brought WWI in last season's revival of "Journey's End."

Mr. Grindley has assembled a diverse, yet talented cast including Claire Danes in her Broadway debut as Eliza. Ms. Danes does come from a stage background, but primarily as a dancer before her breakout portrayal of the vulnerable and misunderstood teen in the excellent but short-lived "My So-Called Life" on television.

As Higgins, Jefferson Mays brings his significant skill to play as an overgrown boy, a spoiled technician who spends his intelligence on the minutiae of dialects rather than pay attention to those around him. This callow portrayal works very well, fulfilling Shaw's own interpretation that there was never any intention of romantic feelings between Eliza and Higgins. Boyd Gaines, turning in yet another solid and commendable performance this year, plays the shy, if sometimes befuddled Pickering, bringing the needed tenderness to Eliza's journey from the gutter to the ballroom.

In supporting roles, Jay O. Sanders' Alfred Doolittle is a blustering bear, reduced to Davey's lion with the thorn once the weight of middle class respectability has become his burden to bear upon his inheritance.

I give credit to Ms. Danes for taking on one of the theater's more challenging roles. In her case, it requires significant effort in that she must master not one, but two accents and pull off the transition from one to the other seamlessly. Her youth does show through in her first scene at Mrs. Higgins' (and the discussion of "the influenza" and "the straw hat what was to have come to me"), tossing away several of the jokes. She seemed to be missing a certain conviction of self - even though Eliza is still in mid-transformation. There were also a few moments in the second act when she still seemed to have the marbles in her mouth, but perhaps I'm expecting too much. Overall, she was lovely and performed admirably.

Sets and costumes are up to the Roundabout's usual standards of excellence under the talents of Jonathan Fensom. I'll admit that I'm a sucker for a rainstorm onstage - love that. I also liked the cinematic effect of the diagonally traveling set wagons and blackout curtains. Jason Taylor's lighting was an effective complement.