Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Catholic High School Boys in Trouble

"Good Boys and True" at Second Stage Theatre, April 27, 2008

High school senior Brandon (Brian J. Smith) seems to have it all: looks, brains, athletic prowess, attends the prep school in town, and rich parents. And, he's just been accepted to Dartmouth. He's tall, handsome, captain of the football team and on varsity basketball too.

Wonder what he's up to? (spoiler alert)

You guessed it. This "best little boy in the world" has a bit of a dark side. Turns out he's got a one-way "arrangement" with best-buddy Justin (Christopher Abbott) including plans to room together at Dartmouth. Meanwhile, Coach Shea (Lee Tergesen) has come across a sex tape showing a young man debauching a young woman. It's difficult to tell who the boy is, but the girl is clearly visible. Shea calls Brandon's mother Elizabeth (J. Smith-Cameron) in an attempt to handle the matter discreetly, hoping to rule out Brandon as the perpetrator. Mom can't really tell, and Brandon insists it's not him when confronted (Dad's permanently offstage as a "doctors without borders" type). Mom talks to her sister Maddy (Kellie Overby) about it. Eventually, the girl is found, Cheryl (Betty Gilpin) and she identifies Brandon. Mom talks to Cheryl too. Brandon has also insisted to Justin that it wasn't him. Toss in a bit of back story about the politics of getting football captain involving Coach Shea and Brandon's dad and a somewhat similar event that Elizabeth knew about. Eventually you learn that Justin and Brandon have raised suspicion about their relationship. Brandon finally confesses to Mom, but fails to explain that he taped the event to make the rest of the team thinks he's not gay. The tape was planted in the locker of the guy who stumbled on Justin and Brandon in flagrante.

And it ends.

Right there.

It's not really a new premise (foibles and damaging choices of schoolboys), but Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa has planted some seeds for some really interesting things here. The back story of Brandon's dad and Coach Shea and how the school has turned a blind eye to boys being boys over the years is one. Resolving Brandon's situation is another. It's a frustrating act of shortchange.

As Brandon, Mr. Smith retains the football-hero, boy-next-door appeal he demonstrated last in Manhattan Theatre Club's "Come Back, Little Sheba." Truly tender and callow like most high school senior boys (I was one), he knows everything, and as such, everything will work out all right.

Mr. Abbott's Justin played his outcast role about halfway. He's got the outcast part down pat - aware that he's never going to be "one of the guys." He comes close to being in love with Brandon, but I didn't quite get the heartbreak I had expected when Brandon finally confessed about the tape.

As Elizabeth, Ms. Smith-Cameron gives her best as a mother who realizes her surgical career has indeed kept her from raising the son she thought Brandon was. It was rather a nice moment as she realized that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, remembering the incident with her classmate and classmates of her husband.

Mr. Tergesen's Coach is a bit of an apology of a role. It would have been nice to see him given more to work with.

Director Scott Ellis has done fairly well with a strong cast and a not-so-strong script. Coming in under 90 minutes with no intermission, I'd love to see a re-work that streamlines a bit of what has been presented and really provides some resolution in something like, maybe, a second act?

Derek McLane continues his good work with a set filled with trophy cases, nicely enhanced by Kenneth Posner's lighting. Tom Broecker's costumes are serviceable, if unremarkable.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Dismal Affair

"A Catered Affair" at the Walter Kerr Theatre, April 26, 2008

(photo: Jim Cox)

Another Rialto musical that does little to charm, provoke, stir or interest, "A Catered Affair" is based on material by Paddy Chayefsky first produced for television, then in film. I'm sure most of you are familiar with the film version which starred Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine and Debbie Reynolds as a working class family in the Bronx torn between investing in the father's taxi medallion and giving their daughter a wedding she'll never forget.

The creative team for this show has pedigree: director John Doyle, bookwriter Harvey Fierstein, sets by David Gallo and lighting by Brian McDevitt, with an experienced cast led by Mr. Fierstein and Faith Prince should have added up to a solid offering.

So much for pedigree, sadly.

In this adaptation by Harvey Fierstein, the story is basically the same. Tom (Tom Wopat) and Aggie (Ms. Prince) have just returned from a memorial in Washington, DC for their son, killed in Korea. Their remaining child Janey (Leslie Kritzer) announces that she and her boyfriend Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh) are engaged, with plans to wed in a couple of days. The rush is to take advantage of an offer from a friend of Janey's who is also marrying and moving to California. Janey and Ralph have the chance to drive the friend's car and belongings cross country, which they would treat as a paid honeymoon. As soon as the announcement is made, Aggie's brother Winston (Mr. Fierstein) turns up. He lives with Aggie and Tom and has "evolved" in Mr. Fierstein's adaptation from a drunken Irishman into a fey florist.

Suffice to say, the small plans get overblown and Tom's hope of finally earning a better share from the taxi fades as Aggie realizes she favored the now-dead son over her daughter. Strife, woe and a lot of noisy shouting ensue before Aggie realizes that she was the reason she felt her marriage was loveless all those years.

I knew early on that things weren't promising when the first song in the show didn't start until ten minutes after the lights went up. John Bucchino's score is sometimes cinematic, but the songs tend to just stop rather than ending. The results on more than one occasion were uncomfortable silences when the music stopped.

Other than to provide Mr. Fierstein with a vehicle for himself (not that I would begrudge that), I never understood why it was necessary to make Uncle Winston gay. It only served as an anachronistic distraction from the story. I don't think a 1953 Winston would have announced his orientation so loudly at the first meeting with the new in-laws-to-be.

As Aggie, Ms. Prince returns to Broadway for the first time since her 2001 appearance in the revival of "Noises Off." Her Aggie is pragmatic (performing without mascara), but longs to give her child what she didn't get. I found it interesting that in the longer dialog scenes, Ms. Prince's delivery reverted to clipped, Bette Davis-style meter and inflection.

Mr. Wopat felt a bit miscast and underused in the role of Tom. He shuffles and grumbles until Aggie finally says out loud that their life was loveless, when he replies that he never felt that way.

Ms. Kritzer's Janey is practical and nicely voiced, but doesn't get much to work with. Mr. Cavenaugh's Ralph sounded a lot like his Joe Kennedy, Jr. from "Grey Gardens."

Kristine Zbornik is the only one of the remaining company that manages to create an impression with the material she's given.

David Gallo's set follows the current trend of projected images on a white background. It's a nice moment for the song at the catering hall when the image takes on color as Aggie describes what she imagines for the reception. Brian McDevitt's lights create plenty of shadows for the company to avoid so they can be seen. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes were serviceable, but why did she feel compelled to put Matt Cavenaugh's pretty face behind those ugly horn-rimmed glasses?

Director John Doyle appears to focused on characters at the expense of entertainment. There's a lack of sweetness that should encompass a story like this. He seems to have only spent time on the conflicts, perhaps thinking the sweetness would rise on its own.

It didn't.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Stream of Consciousness Weekend - Part 2

"The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928)" created by Elevator Repair Service at New York Theatre Workshop, April 19, 2008

Somehow, I was able to escape both high school and college without having to read William Faulkner's 1929 novel. More often than not, I've counted myself lucky on that point. I can remember talking with friends who were suffering through the stream of consciousness style as the plodded through the text, rarely understanding what it was they were reading.

With that in mind, I have to admit that I was more than a little apprehensive about seeing this new staging of the work, particularly having noted in the playbill from my last NYTW outing that the production is created by Elevator Repair Service (ERS), a theatre ensemble which has appeared in New York's downtown performance circuit since 1991. (For those of you who haven't picked up on it yet, I tend to be a bit of traditionalist when it comes to the theatre. I know, I know, hard to imagine...anyway) TSATF is the fifth production I've seen at NYTW and I knew I could count on an intellectual challenge at the least. Having just seen "God's Ear" at the Vineyard the night before, I remained skeptical. My post about that show immediately precedes this post and reading it, you should understand my skepticism.

I won't go into the plot as such, and if you're really interested in learning more about the original work, Wikipedia has an excellent summary here. Basically, the story surrounds the Compson family: father Jason, mother Caroline, oldest son Quentin, daughter Candace (Caddie), son Jason, and mentally retarded and mute son Benjy. Supporting the Compsons are the Gibsons, a black servant family: father Roskus, mother Dilsey, oldest son Versh, son T. P., daughter Frony and her son Luster. Versh, T.P. and Luster are primary caretakers for Benjy through his life. Part one is written from Benjy's perspective, so the stream of consciousness technique is perfectly apt. You can also take a look at more information on Mr. Faulkner here.

Under the detailed and insightful direction of John Collins, ERS captures the essence of Benjy's perspective. Using a combination of reading from a paperback copy of the book, supertitle projections and line readings which include all the "Luster said"s, "Caddie said"s, etc., the entire text of the book is delivered in the two act production. Maintaining the stream of consciousness concept, ERS uses the full company with multiple cast members playing the same role and multiple roles. Some character changes are indicated with simple costume additions, such as an apron for Dilsey, or a nightgown for the hypochondriac Caroline, or a red rugby shirt for Benjy. Casting also occurs regardless of the actor's gender. Dilsey is played by two men and two women, occasionally simultaneously. Benjy is played primarily by a woman, but also by a man in some segments and again, occasionally simultaneously.

Standout performers are Susie Sokol (in an unfortunate wig) as the mute Benjy, Vin Knight as son Jason, servants Dilsey and Versh, and Ben Williams as Luster.

David Zinn's set serves ERS' needs beautifully, while creating a visible gap at each side of the stage. It reminds me a bit of the design requirements at the Atlantic Theatre (which do so because the restrooms are backstage at that facility - not so at NYTW), but the result is a bit of a jewel box effect that somehow helps contain the random and non-linear story they tell.

It's a truly remarkable production and should not be missed.

NYTW is offering a discount to my readers (both of you) - you should take advantage of it.

Tickets for all performances April 15 – May 18 are just $40 each (reg. $55).

Use code SDFBLG7 when ordering.

To purchase tickets, call (212) 947-8844 or visit www.broadwayoffers.com

New York Theatre Workshop also offers both Student Tickets and CheapTix Sundays.

CheapTix Sundays: All tickets for all Sunday evening performances at 7pm are just $20 each! Tickets are available in advance but must be purchased at the NYTW box office on a cash-only basis.

Student Tickets: Full-time students with a valid student ID may purchase $20 tickets for all performances (subject to availability). Limit one ticket per ID. Tickets must be purchased in person and require an ID at the box office.

The NYTW box office is located at 79 East 4th Street (between Second Avenue and Bowery) and is open Tuesday - Saturday from 1pm - 6pm.

Stream of Consciousness Weekend - Part 1

"God's Ear" at the Vineyard Theatre, April 18, 2008

I like the risks that the Vineyard Theatre takes. Most of what I've seen here I've liked a lot. With their last offering of "The Slugbearers of Kayrol Island" and "God's Ear" they seem to have gotten a bit distracted with achieving superior production values spent on works that don't necessarily merit that kind of investment.

I try not to read other reviews before I write my own, but I did happen to catch the review of "God's Ear" in the NY Times after having seen it, but before I started this post. I certainly don't have the literary background of Mr. Isherwood, but I couldn't see the merits he found in this work by Jenny Schwartz.

"God's Ear" follows (sort of) a family in grief after the death of their young son. I can't imagine anything more difficult in life than the loss of a child, and I certainly hope that was not a true-life experience for Ms. Schwartz. If so, I can understand writing something like this as a form of therapy to deal with her grief.

The result however, is an absurdist, stream of consciousness, semi-linear, platitudinous, cliche-ridden mess written in verse.

I knew going in that the story was sad and based on loss and children, so I tried to prepare myself for an emotional evening. I anticipated something moving and cathartic, perhaps not as painful as a French film I saw more than ten years ago called "Ponette" about how a four year old girl copes with her mother's death (I was sad for a week after that one).

Mel (Christina Kirk) and Ted (Gibson Frazier) have lost their son following an accident at the lake. Their young daughter Lanie (Monique Vukovic) doesn't really understand as children sometimes don't. Ted detaches in his own grief, seeking solace in his travel for his job. Along the way, The Tooth Fairy ( Judith Greentree) drops in (yes, The Tooth Fairy), followed by a transvestite Flight Attendant and GI Joe (Matthew Montelongo). Ted also meets Lenora (Rebecca Wisocky) and Guy (Raymond McAnally) in some of the hotel and airport bars.

Ms. Kirk's Mel, scrubbed and plainly pretty attempts to pull at the heartstrings, but she never quite reaches them. I found her delivery stilted, with noticeably odd breathing choices in her line readings. Maybe Anne Kaufman directed her to do this? Hard to tell. I saw glimmers of Frances Conroy in her, but overall she lacked consistency.

Mr. Frazier's Ted is a bit more natural, but never establishes any chemistry with Ms. Kirk to make their uncomfortable distance feel plausible.

It is Ms. Wisocky's Lenora who brings Ted to life, both in the script and in the performance. She is the newcomer to this cast from its production in May of 2007 at New Georges and she's the only one who seems to *get* it. She makes the cliches and platitudes sound spontaneous and natural.

Ms. Vukovic's Lanie is serviceable, but unremarkable, as is Ms. Greentree's Tooth Fairy.

I'm still trying to figure out why Mr. Montelongo's Flight Attendant had to be a transvestite, other than they wanted a hunky man to play GI Joe and the economics pointed toward combining the roles.

Ms. Kaufman's direction attempts to keep the proceedings apace, but more often than not, the actors are dragged under by the weight of the lugubrious scrip.

The star of this production is Kris Stone's shiny dark blue paneled platform. I really liked how the panels opened to suggest various settings including Lanie's bed, Lenora's hotel bar and a snowy outdoor scene. The effect of compartmentalizing grief to process it a bit at a time was most effective. Tyler Micoleau's lighting, though occasionally dim, was generally complementary.

The Art and Politics of Seduction

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater, April 13, 2008

As much as I admire Laura Linney, when I found out that the Roundabout was reviving "Les Liaisons..." hers was not the first name I thought of.

Foolish me.

In a stylish and glamorous production, sex and intrigue are back on the boards. Director Rufus Norris has assembled, for the most part, a first-rate cast to tell the tale of La Marquise de Merteuil (Ms. Linney) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Ben Daniels) and those who foolishly stumble into their sights. Valmont is a noble cad, received by proper society but not respected by them. La Marquise, well-widowed, feels slighted over a society issue and seeks revenge by having Valmont seduce Cecile Volanges (Mamie Gummer) the teenage daughter of her offender, already betrothed to a much older man who is also in need of social distress. La Marquise and Valmont have their own romantic history. Disinterested at first because he has set his sights on seducing someone else, La Presidente De Tourvel (Jessica Collins) a beautiful, devoutly religious and devoted wife of another. The Marquise offers an enticement: if Valmont is successful in seducing Cecile, La Marquise will give herself to Valmont for a night of passion.

Turns out that Cecile and her mother Madame de Volanges (Kristine Nielsen) have been invited to stay with Valmont's aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (Sian Phillips), to get Cecile away from the young and unsuitable (meaning no money) Le Chevalier Danceny (Benjamin Walker). The confident Valmont decides to kill two birds with one stone and accepts the challenge.

Plots are twisted, bodices ripped, seductions completed and Valmont wins his challenge. Along the way, however, he and Mme de Tourvel are truly in love with each other. Knowing he would ruin her life, he rejects her. Sword play, dying confessions ensue.

It's really a plot of operatic proportions. I'm amazed at how well it works as a straight play.

Let's start with the supporting roles. Ms. Collins' Mme de Tourvel is a porcelain beauty, but doesn't quite rise to the level of performances around her. Fine-boned and delicate, her accent comes and goes (thanks to my good friend, voice and speech coach Deborah Hecht, no doubt).

Ms. Gummer continues to rack up excellent performances, here in her Broadway debut. Mama Streep should be awfully proud of the child-like petulance we get in Cecile. Her transition from mortified to randy after her first romp with Valmont is delightful. Ms. Nielsen's Mme de Volanges is appropriately befuddled and dotty.

As Mme de Rosemonde, Ms. Phillips was a significant disappointment. Is it just me, or shouldn't all the actors have learned their lines by the time previews have started. Ms. Phillips played not one, but two scenes with pages from her script poorly hidden behind a fan or oversized playing cards. The scenes were near the end of each act - wasn't she studying her lines backstage? Adding insult to injury, she also insisted on wearing her very contemporary spectacles, so she could follow along when other actors are speaking. She practically traced her finger along each line spoken.

Now, it might be one thing, had she been a last minute replacement, but I've heard nothing to that effect and her photo and bio were present in the playbill which certainly requires some lead time. (I remember during last fall's "The Ritz" at Studio 54, Ashlie Atkinson was a last minute replacement, requiring the cancellation of only one preview performance to accommodate learning the role.)

I asked myself, "Where was Marian, Marian Seldes?" (SarahB, that was for you!)

Mr. Walker's Danceny is brash and eager, easily seduced by La Marquise as a ploy to enrage Valmont when she realizes he's falling for Mme de Tourvel.

As Valmont, Mr. Daniels brings to mind a younger (and shorter) Jeremy Irons. He struts and poses like a bantam rooster, sprawling lewdly on the furniture and cutting quite a fine figure during his nude seduction of Cecile. His dying confession to Danceny, however, didn't ring true yet. I'm certain by opening, it will be a heartbreaker.

Ms Linney is triumphant, regal and conspiring, haughty and preening as La Marquise. The fire in her eyes when she realizes Valmont truly loves another is startling. Her stifled reaction to learning of Valmont's death almost makes one feel sorry for her, despite the fact that it's a result of her own manipulations. (There was a moment or two when Lady Bracknell seemed to be speaking, but again I'm sure her performance will be ravishing by opening night.) I feel certain she'll be a contender come Tony time, and as well she should.

Director Norris wields a fine hand in this stylized production, employing baroque singers to evoke the setting of Paris in the 1780's, the calm before the storm, as it were. He employs the dark glass-paneled sets by Scott Pask with simple manipulations to move from salon to salon to bedroom, complemented by heavy silk drapes and swags, all evoking the gilded and mirrored French architecture with ease.

Donald Holder's lighting, however, creates more shadows than illumination. More often than not, it seemed an actor was adjusting his or her blocking to move where a face could be seen. I can't imagine such was intentional.

Katrina Lindsay's lush costumes seemed straight out of a Fragonard painting, subtle and rich silks for all.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jasmine Guy Syndrome

"The Country Girl" at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, April 11, 2008

It looked like a dream team: Frances McDormand, Morgan Freeman, Peter Gallagher under the able direction of Mike Nichols in a revival of Clifford Odets' 1950 classic backstage drama.

The piece certainly has pedigree. It won a Tony for Uta Hagen's Georgie in the original, and one for Jason Robards' Frank in the 1972 revival, not to mention the Oscar for Grace Kelly in the 1954 movie version. In its current outing on the Rialto, it seems that the third time is not the charm. I'll try to keep in mind that this was an early preview, but if a production is selling seats at full fare, they should be ready.

The story follows that of Frank Elgin (Mr. Freeman), an aging actor with a teeny, tiny drinking problem. He's playing a walk-on role in a new play when the director Bernie Dodds (Mr. Gallagher) loses his leading actor. Producer Phil Cook (Chip Zien) wants to call in a named star, but Bernie thinks Frank can finally make his mark, based on a performance Bernie saw Frank give 20 years before. Skeptical of his skills and ability to stay dry, Frank accepts the role after talking it over with his long-suffering wife Georgie (Ms. McDormand). Through painful rehearsals, difficulty learning lines, and a drinking relapse during the Boston tryout, Frank pulls through and is a triumph. The drama lies in Frank's obfuscation of his own reality, blaming Georgie and creating a fictitious backstory of insecurity and weakness for her to explain why he drinks and cannot leave her.

Of the three leads, Mr. Gallagher's Bernie comes off the most successfully. There were one or two line stumbles, but it could have been the result of others' stumbling with their own lines as the cause. Ms. McDormand has some great moments as well, but she also suffers from the real weakness in the cast, Mr. Freeman. In her scenes with Mr. Gallagher, the energy returns and their chemistry is quite good together.

The title of this post goes back to the preview I saw of Richard Greenberg's play, "The Violet Hour" at Manhattan Theatre club's inaugural performance at the Biltmore. In it, Ms. Guy played a Josephine Baker-like character. Every time she walked on, it was as if someone had suddenly vacuumed every bit of energy out of the building. She was replaced in her role during previews by Robin Miles, "due to illness" and did not return to the play.

Mr. Freeman suffers a similar fate, but not quite to the same painful result. His trademark sardonic delivery works for some scenes, but the role of Frank needs a significantly larger range of emotions. Perhaps it is art imitating life, or vice versa, but Mr. Freeman struggled frequently with lines, even using the wrong character names at times (for example, referring to Mr. Gallagher's character as Frank, and then corrected by Ms. McDormand). It's difficult to say what caused the lack of chemistry between him and Ms. McDormand, but I never saw any inkling of what drew, and kept, the two characters together.

I also have to question the color-blind casting here. Mr. Freeman is the only role cast with a "minority" similar to the recent revival of "Come Back, Little Sheba" with Epatha Merkerson. In her case, the argument could be made for casting as such without needing to address it in the text of the script. Here it only seems to add to the lack of chemistry found between Ms. McDormand and Mr. Freeman.

Tim Hatley's strongly skewed perspective sets reached back to a similar concept he used in "Private Lives" in 2002. Natasha Katz' lighting complemented nicely. Albert Wolsky's costumes were spot-on to the 1950 setting.

I'm not sure what Mr. Nichols might have done to improve the situation, other than recast Mr. Freeman. I can say for certain that he was still around during previews. There was a technical glitch during the change between scenes 2 and 3, resulting in about a 30 minute delay (broken winch). Mr. Nichols addressed the audience over the PA, thanking us for our patience and graciousness. Perhaps his closing comment summed things up: "If you have drugs, do them." He gets fine performances out of the rest of the cast and keeps things moving, but he just didn't seem able to reach Mr. Freeman.

Starwatch: Actor Sam Rockwell in the audience. (He's not very tall!)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Times Stole My Headline

"From Up Here" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, April 9, 2008

Julie White returns to the NY stage after her triumphant (and Tony-winning) performance in "The Little Dog Laughed." It's a triumphant return as the mother of a troubled teen who came close to an act of Columbine proportions. (spoiler alert)

Director Leigh Silverman has assembled an excellent cast including Ms. White as Grace, the mother of Kenny (Tobias Segal) and Lauren (Aya Cash) and one year into her second marriage to Daniel (Brian Hutchison). Kenny is trying to return to some kind of normalcy after being caught with a handgun at school. He can't go anywhere unescorted by an adult and gets his book bag searched at every turn (can't even carry pencils - too weapon-like). With an unscrupulous class-mate assigned as a "mentor," Kate (Jenni Barber) is more interested in him as fodder for her college application essays. Lauren has a dorky suitor in the form of Charlie (Will Rogers). Grace's sister Caroline (Arija Bareikis) drops in for Kenny's birthday from her world travels with the Peace Corps - she's the cool aunt whom Kenny adores. Seeing the havoc of her sister's reality, she ultimately reveals that she's unable to be more than a fun distraction and bolts when Kenny probably needs her most.

As Kenny, Mr. Segal brings us a troubled, confused and vulnerable teen. Conversation requires major effort and expressing himself is nearly impossible. It's a painfully accurate portrait of a teenager in crisis. He provided glimpses of this previously as the Young Man in "Doris to Darlene" at Playwrights Horizons last December.

Ms. Cash's smart-mouthed Lauren is trying to keep a low profile while her family's problems fly around her. She reveals her own vulnerability filtered through the backtalk. She is pursued by Charlie, another callow, yet gawkingly endearing performance by Will Rogers. She treats him like dirt and he keeps coming back for more like a hungry puppy until she finally realizes that despite his feet being crammed permanently in his own mouth, he's a sweet guy she should hang onto.

Mr. Hutchison's Daniel is struggling to keep his new family together. He's a well-meaning, almost noble guy who has a vision of the long-term value of family, despite the fact that his wife's two teenagers treat him like an alien. Coming off initially as almost spineless, he reveals Daniel's layers slowly and tenderly. It's a subtle and tender performance. Ms. Bareikis' Caroline, while appropriately athletic and crunchy, doesn't quite land the discomfort when she realizes that she can't do much more than provide a distraction from Kenny's troubles.

It's Ms. White who once again delivers the goods. Her Grace, at first distracted, well-intended, but seemingly unaware almost dissolves before you. The pain in her eyes as attempt after attempt to connect with her troubled son cuts to the core. Constantly cleaning up, she never finds success. Finally, a literal spilling of milk leads Grace to her breakdown after discovering a neighbor's hired gardener relieving himself in her bushes, she ends up in the same police station that Kenny landed in a few weeks before. From tears to anger to laughter, she gives everything she has - another master class in acting.

Director Silverman keeps the pace moving and the transitions from light to serious are handled with great delicacy. (I did wonder what the symbolism was of having all three female characters shirtless in the first act.) Allen Moyer's sets move from realistic to more suggestive without interrupting the story. Mattie Ullrich's costumes are functional as is Pat Collins' lighting.

Starwatch: Playwright David Henry Hwang in the audience.

The Most Loving Mother of All Time

"The New Century" presented by Lincoln Center Theatre at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, April 9, 2008

Paul Rudnick's latest outing is a collection of four one-acts. He opens with the first of the four one-acts in the evening in "Pride and Joy," expanding on a character that originated in his earlier play "Jeffrey," Mrs. Marcangelo. Now named Helene Nadler and played without apology by Linda Lavin, she is the self-proclaimed "...most tolerant and accepting mother...EVER!!" Ms. Lavin, whose hair has been bleached platinum to the point of blisters in her part and dolled up in Long Island designer drag, is speaking to a parental support group - the PLGTBCCC&O - PFLAG on steroids, it would seem. She recounts how each of her three children came out to her - Leslie the lesbian ("Leslie, what was I thinking?"); Ronnie, the lesbian transgendered Veronica ("For what we spent on hormones, I could have had a new kitchen."); and David, who is gay and into leather as well as a number of initialed interests beyond BDSM ("In this house we use a toilet, not a friend from Tribeca.") She expands a bit on each. Leslie and her partner, who announced their commitment in the paper with a photo ("...Dennis the Menace marries Opie...") are having a baby. Wanting the child to be the ultimate symbol of diversity, they've combined donors of Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Hispanic origin ("Why not just have them add it to the menus they slip under the door?").

"Pride and Joy" is the most successful act of the evening, sold purely on the skill and delivery of Ms. Lavin. She professes her love like a fencer with an epee in a masterful performance.

In "Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach," Peter Bartlett gets stuck with 20+ minutes of stereotype as Mr. Charles in the form of a bare bones public access TV show called "Too Gay" which airs at 3am, once a week. It borders on offensive, but only when it strays from pointless. He does get a clever 60-second history of gay theatre, punctuated by the mention of gratuitous male frontal nudity, both verbally and literally (Shane, played by Mike Doyle, who makes a full tour of the stage perimeter in the altogether.

Jayne Houdyshell greets us next as Barbara Ellen Diggs in "Crafty." Her Mrs. Diggs seems to have suffered from agoraphobia before discovering crafting. Now she's found her purpose in life and travels the country to glamorous spots like the conference room in a municipal building in Decatur, Illinois. She's there to deliver a talk on the importance of crafts in our community. Oh, and her son Hank died of AIDS. She made a square for the AIDS quilt. ("It looks like a cemetery by the Ladies Home Journal.) She came to NYC for the first time after Hank's death during The Gates exhibition in Central Park by Jeanne Claude and Christo. ("...like a county fair at a graduate school...[my friend] Susan said I'd found closure. I said 'Susan, Oprah is just a person.'") This was the first time I had seen Ms. Houdyshell perform. I was anxious to see her following the recognition she'd received in "Well" on Broadway (2006 Tony nomination) and last season's "The Receptionist" at Manhattan Theatre Club. I wish she'd had better material.

Finally all four characters come crashing back together, inexplicably, in the the maternity ward in New York where Leslie has just given birth. The most loving mother is now the most loving grandmother. Mr. Charles and Shane have snuck into town...I can't remember why. And, for some reason, Mr. Charles has chosen to take some time to turn the children in the ward gay through the viewing window. Mrs. Diggs has fallen down in the street and hurt her leg outside Madison Square Garden where she's competing in a cat clothing contest.

Director Nicholas Martin seems to have done best by standing out of the way to let Ms. Lavin and Ms. Houdyshell do what they do best. He's made a valiant effort with Mr. Charles, but I'm not sure if anyone could have done any better, although I think the dance number finale was particularly anti-climatic.

Allen Moyer's sets are functional, as is Kenneth Posner's lighting. William Ivey Long's costumes are typically spot-on from Helene's high-end schmatta to Mr. Charles' upholstery-coordinated ensembles to Mrs. Diggs' polyester ("[worn] without irony.").

Friday, April 04, 2008

Omigod You Guys!

It looks like they've pulled it off!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Something Bloody This Way Comes

"MacBeth" at the Lyceum Theatre, April 1, 2008

(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Transferring to Broadway after a sold-out run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month, this British import has lodged at the Lyceum for a limited run.

With Patrick Stewart in the title role, it's no wonder the attraction to this unusual production. The plot is still a bit stupefying in operatic proportions, and Rupert Goold's placement in a quasi-Stalinist era kitchen doesn't really add much for me.

Mr. Stewart gets to play quite a bizarre range of moods, from fearful and hesitant before his ascent to the Scottish throne, to an almost Caligula-like impetuousness. In the end, he's so resigned to his fate and such a victim of bad luck that he can't even kill himself.

I found Kate Fleetwood's Lady MacBeth to be the more interesting interpretation. At her first entrance, she's young and glamorous, as well as a power hungry climber, pushing her husband well beyond his comfort and, likely, his sense of right and wrong to his first act of assassinating the current King Duncan (Byron Jennings). Almost as quickly as the deed is done, she begins her disintegration into insanity. By the time we get through Banquo's ghostly appearance, she's well on her way to her very effective mad scene.

Other standouts include Christopher Patrick Nolan's porter, Seyton. Greasy and profane, he oozes foreshadows of MacBeth's fall that is yet to come. Michael Feast's MacDuff smacked a bit too detached in early scenes, but rose to the moment when he learns the fate of his wife and children.

I did like the treatment of the witches first as nurses, then as housemaids. The rap version of "Double Double Toil and Trouble" felt a bit more comic than might have been intended.

The staging also seemed to take on a totally different feel toward the end of the first act (Banquo's ghostly appearance). What had been relatively straightforward staging and use of the space before suddenly felt much more conceptual and abstract. Duncan's murder happens off-stage, then suddenly we get a very stylized murder of Banquo on a train. I hadn't remembered from senior English class that his murder lined up so closely with that of Rasputin (poisoned, stabbed and shot - the only act missing was dropping him in the river.).

Despite the pre-show hype, discount tickets seem to be readily available. It's worth the visit.

How Are Things in Irish Drama?

"Juno" presented by Encores! at New York City Center, March 30, 2008

Based on the 1926 play "Juno and the Paycock" by Sean O'Casey, this "Juno" is the musical adaptation by Joseph Stein (book) and Marc Blitzstein from 1959. With its dark tale of Irish struggles during the 1921 Irish Rebellion, it's not quite the happy-go-lucky Irish tale the art to the left might indicate.

Much more in the tradition of Irish drama, it follows the tale of Juno Boyle (Victoria Clark) and her family. Her ne'er-do-well husband Captain Jack (Conrad John Schuck) falls victim to Irish stereotype as does his sidekick Joxer Daly (Dermot Crowley), allergic to work and overly fond of drink. Daughter Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger) longs for a better life than the one Jerry Devine (Michael Arden) might provide. Son Johnny (Tyler Hanes) lost his arm during the rebellion and can't seem to get any focus on where his life may lead. His best friend Robbie Tancred (Kurt Froman) is killed at the outset of the story, the result of a betrayal.

With unemployment rampant and a recalcitrant husband, a distracted daughter and an injured son, Juno's luck appears to change when an English lawyer, Charlie Bentham (Clarke Thorell) arrives bearing news of a dead cousin of Capt. Jack's and a sizable inheritance. Mary is immediately smitten and Capt. Jack starts the words land in his ears. Meanwhile, rebellion forces are snooping around looking for the one who betrayed Robbie (duh, guess who!).

And you can guess what happens with the inheritance and the lawyer.

As the worn and haggard Juno, Ms. Clark sings as beautifully as ever. She shows a genuine bond with her children, but never really showed why she let Capt. Jack continue to hang around without contributing to the household. Her madrigal duet with Ms. Keenan-Bolger, Bird Upon the Tree, stopped the show (or as close as anything that evening might have). Ms. Keenan-Bolger's Mary showed me precisely why she was originally cast as Clara in "The Light in the Piazza" as well as why the role was later recast with Kelli O'Hara. Her soprano voice effectively portrayed the young woman who longs for more.

Mr. Schuck's Capt. Jack staggers, but never really lands on his character. As brother Johnny, Mr. Hanes makes a particularly powerful turn in the Act II ballet (talk about dancing with one arm tied behind your back).

Messrs. Stein and Blitzstein also give us a kind of Greek chorus with Mr. Madigan, Mrs. Coyne, Mrs. Brady and Miss Quinn - a quartet that reminded me of the crones from Boublil and Shonberg's Martin Guerre - providing a bit of humorous relief and various crossovers.

Irish director Garry Hynes, known for award-winning work with Irish drama captures the book scenes with the gravitas and sense of hopelessness one might expect. Unfortunately, this doesn't extend quite so successfully to the songs.

Warren Carlyle's choreography in the Act II ballet is the highlight of the performance. I'd have been happy to cut directly to the ballet from the madrigal and called it a night.

Mr. Blitzstein's remarkably modern score captures the darkness of the subject matter, flavored with Irish inflections. Given the way the songs are packed together, I can't help but wonder why he and Mr. Stein didn't go ahead and make the piece entirely sung-through.

The original only ran 16 performances in 1959. In a year that included "The Sound of Music," "Fiorello!," "Gypsy," "Once Upon a Mattress," "The Most Happy Fella," "Flower Drum Song" and "Redhead," there wasn't much room for a dark horse like "Juno." It's one I'm glad to have seen, but don't think I need to see again. Thanks to Encores! for providing this kind of programming.