Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nine (the movie)

When I heard that the tale of Guido Contini was coming back to film, I was excited.  Having seen the revival of Nine on Broadway in 2003 (even with the replacement cast), I had high hopes.  With Rob Marshall at the helm, following his great success with "Chicago" in 2002, the potential was great.

Casting announcements were also pretty exciting - - Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, even Fergie - - quite a starry production.  I was skeptical at first when Daniel Day-Lewis was announced as Guido, but knowing his work in such a wide variety of characters, I thought he would be a pleasant surprise.

Then I went to see it last weekend.

(Spoiler alert)

Mr. Marshall has once again proven that there is not a formula for creating a successful movie (or stage, for that matter) musical.  Each is unique, and must be approached as such to maximize its potential.  Mel Brooks proved it recently with his adaptation of Young Frankenstein forced into the mold of The Producers.

Here, Mr. Marshall has crammed Fellini's story of a man in a mid-life crisis through his "Chicago" mold.  The musical numbers are all in Guido's head, instead of Roxie's this time around.  Plus, Mr. Marshall has reverted to a proscenium staging for the mounting of the numbers, rather than really making use of the flexibility that film offers.  There are some cuts back and forth, both in time and setting of the songs, but it's ultimately his "Chicago" film with music by Maury Yeston.  The parallel of "Cell Block Tango" to "Be Italian" was particularly prominent.

Bigger than that, however, was the total misconception of the central character.  Guido Contini (now turning 50 instead of 40) seems muddled and unfocused, but it's never really clear why. 

I never saw Fellini's "Eight and a Half" on which the stage version was based, but the main issue on stage was a flamboyant, wildly talented and sometimes manic man facing his mortality for the first time as he is about to turn 40. With several critical and popular successes from earlier in his career, Guido's last two films have flopped.  He has dived headlong into this new project, without a script or concept, and pulls from all the women in his life (of which there are many) for inspiration.

On screen, Guido is turning 50, to no concern of his, other than he's blocked to finding a new inspiration for his next project.  Fellini's film was titled "8 1/2" because that was the number of times he directed a film.  Cleverly, Mr. Yeston and Mario Fratti titled the stage version Nine, with Guido remembering himself as a boy about to turn 9, told by his mother that it's time to grow up a little, come out of his shell - a perfect parallel for a man facing and fearing 40.  All this is gone from the movie, leaving little motivation other than ego to drive Guido.

Most of the characters return, but some are inexplicably changed, undercutting the power of the source (the stage version).  Liliane Le Fleur (Miss Dench) has been rewritten as Guido's costumier and confidante, rather than his producer and mentor.  Miss Dench does as much as she can with it, but the simple notion that she's already designing clothes for a movie with no script or story is silly, carried so far as to justify the use of the "Folies Bergere" number. 

Kate Hudson's plot line and musical number are new to the story.  She's a reporter for Vogue, following Guido for an interview ("Who's your favorite designer?")  How do you spell anachronism?  Ms Hudson is excellent in her song, however, a runway number with lots of handsome skinny Italian man in skinny Italian suits, but it adds nothing to the film or the plot (other than about 10 minutes).

As Claudia, Guido's muse, Nicole Kidman gets to float in and out on her own terms, appropriately so.  Her song, "Unusual Way" is a lovely and tender farewell, pushing Guido away and ending their long professional relationship.  Miss Loren is given little to do in a role reduced to a cameo, other than appear pulled from formaldehyde and look glorious.

Penelop Cruz' Carla is obsessive to the point of pitiful.  This Carla doesn't seem strong enough to have attracted Guido in the first place.  Her number, "A Call From the Vatican" plays, as others have written, like a Victoria's Secret commercial.  I was impressed with her music and dance skills, never having really experienced either in her film work.  (Come to Broadway, Penelope - revive Irma La Douce if you want to play fallen virtue with a heart of gold.)

Marion Cotillard fares very nicely as Luisa, Guido's put-upon wife.  She also gets a new number, played as a strip tease that Guido imagines filming, in which she vents her anger toward him.

Mr. Day-Lewis' Guido just doesn't work for me.  He manages the physicality of it, with the whole Euro-skinny look of the early 1960s, but he never showed me the passionate Lothario that is Guido.  Guido is caught up in his head, but he's never unaware of his body, let alone any woman's around him.  Mr. Day-Lewis looks on occasion, but never leers, missing the passion within.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Jew of Malta

"The Jew of Malta" presented by The York Shakespeare Company at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, December 17, 2009.

(Photo by Michelle Sims)

Christopher Marlowe's sixteenth century tragedy is presented as a farce in this barebones production by The York Shakespeare Company, running in repertory with Shakespeare's later "Merchant of Venice."

It's an interesting concept, but questionably executed by the large and attractive, yet minimally skilled cast in this production directed by artistic director Seth Duerr.  The plot, almost Byzantine in its twists, turns and reversals is summarized here. More interesting is the premise and attitude towards Jews afforded by Mr. Marlowe.  The titular Jew, Barabas (Paul Rubin) is presented as a scheming, godless villain, quick to deception and murder in the name of greed and revenge.  His only daughter Abigail (Emily Rose Prats) only gets sympathy for her repentant conversion to Christianity as she learns of her father's evil deeds.  In what was apparently the style at the time, bodies litter the stage both on and off in ever-increasing numbers as the villain-Jew is vanquished.

Mr. Rubin's Barabas suffers under the burden of the period language leaving us with a stiff and stilted performance.  Faring far better is Matthew Foster as the Maltese Governor, Ferneze.  His command of the character and the language are commendable in an energetic performance.  One or two other exceptions raise themselves from the rest of the cast, including Brian Morvant's Don Mathias and Nate Washburn's Don Lodowick, in excellent swordplay as they murder each other over the hand of the fair Abigail.  My old friend David Dewitt, returning to the NY stage after an extended absence shows his own core skills as Father Barnardine.

As I mentioned above, the concept of tragedy as farce is an interesting approach, but only occasionally successful.  Playing upon a bare stage, Mr. Duerr does little to differentiate scene locations other than the filing in of the various characters and their supporting entourages.  The traffic is directed pretty well, but it feels that a little more time might have been spent on character development.

A Christmas Carol: Scrooge & Marley

"A Christmas Carol: Scrooge & Marley" Barefoot Theatre Company presented by Horse Trade Theater Group at The Kraine Theater, December 16, 2009

As part of their 70/70 Horovits Project, celebrating playwright Israel Horovitz' 70th birthday with 70 of his plays presented around the world, Barefoot Theatre company presents his adaptation of the Dicken's short story.

The 85 minute piece, performed without intermission is a faithful retelling of the greed and redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge (John Gazzale).  Here, the story is narrated by the ghost of Jacob Marley (Ken Glickfield) and directed in an eclectic mixture of styles by Robert Bruce McIntosh.  I'm sure many of his choices, such as mixing in a bit of kabuki,  were directed by budget (or lack thereof), with some more successful than others, but resulting in a uneven performance with sometimes jarring transitions.  Also uneven were the performances among the cast.

Carrying the majority of the burden, and successfully so to our fortune is Mr. Gazzale.  Whether written or directed as such, his Scrooge is quite the teary and regretful soul, with the waterworks beginning during the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past (Caitlin Davies), and flowing freely until the final curtain.  Still, he commands the stage and delivers with conviction, head and shoulders above his castmates.  Almost as successful is Mr. Glickfield's Jacob Marley. While his makeup looked more canine than rotted, his delivery stumbled and stammered from time to time.  Sadly, the rest of the cast, for the most part, were rather amateurish despite their energy and intent.  Despite that, the play's excellent writing does manage to shine through.

Altar Boyz

"Altar Boyz" at New World Stages, December 10, 2010

After an almost 5 year run, "Altar Boyz" is closing January 10, 2010, having played over 2,000 performances.  I've seen the show on two other occasions during its run, as it evolved from a full two-act production, to a 90 minute one-act.  Hatched from a successful premiere at the New York Musical Theater Festival in September, 2004, it moved quickly to its current home in February of 2005.

The first two visits were to a tightly-run performance, with some nuance and detail in the story of the Christian boy band of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham.  In this last visit, the age is showing with character performances reduced to mere stereotypes.  Guiltiest of this was Travis Nesbitt's Mark, played more like a 15 year old girl, rather than the twink of questionable sexual orientation that Mr. Nesbitt's predecessor's accomplished more credibly.  Michael Kadin Craig's Matthew is also missing some of the pretty boy glamour of those who came before him.

Still it's a high energy evening, with plenty of heavy-handed laughs.

Noel Coward's Brief Encounter

"Noel Coward's Brief Encounter" presented by Kneehigh Theatre at St. Ann's Warehouse, December 8, 2009

(photo by Pavel Antonov)

In a lovely production mixing film, theatre and British music hall style numbers, the tale of two noble lovers comes to life in Brooklyn.  Director Emma Rice has adapted the classic 1945 film, which actually began as part of Noel Coward's cycle of ten one-acts, "Tonight at 8:30" entitled "Still Life" from 1936.

The event begins in the lobby as the ensemble, dressed as uniformed movie ushers, entertain the waiting audience with musical numbers from the 1930s and 1940s, accompanied by a snare drum, ukelele, and trumpet. 

Ms. Rice's staging makes great use of simple stage elements, which reminded me a bit of the staging technique used by Maria Aitken in another British film adaptation of "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps" in 2008.  She does take a slightly different approach, using black and white film sequences which the actors appear to jump in and from for various transitions.  The film relies heavily on Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, though Ms. Rice makes quite judicious use of its lush music, at one point using a choral vocalise of one section when emotion runs high.  The impact is breathtaking.

Leading the cast is a truly lovely and touching performance by  Hannah Yelland as Laura.  There's a bit of Dorothy McGuire about her, which adds a sweet layer of vulnerability.  Tristan Sturrock's Alec, dashing and handsome, matches Ms. Yelland's intensity, but edges near melodrama from time to time.  Their story is cleverly supported by an eclectic ensemble chorus playing all of the supporting roles to often hilarious effect. Special mention goes to Dorothy Atkinson, small in stature, but bringing in some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

The show has been extended to run through January 17, 2010.

Didn't I say this was a good idea?


Let's hope it happens!

Friday, December 18, 2009


"Ragtime" at the Neil Simon Theatre, December 6, 2009

In its first Broadway revival, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's epic tale of three very different American families makes a triumphant return, focusing on their excellent score.

I count myself fortunate for having seen the original production, at what is now the Hilton Theatre, even if it was late in the run (none of the original leads remained).  It was an overwhelming experience - a three story set on which they drove and destroyed a Model T Ford eight times a week.

The focus here, as I mentioned, is now on the score, not a mammoth theatrical installation, although you can't describe Derek McLane's cast iron set small. It's a nice tribute to the old Pennsylvania Station designed by Stanford White, whose personal demise is featured early in the show as Evelyn Nesbitt (Savannah Wise) is introduced.

But I digress.

This revival, while not perfect, is attentive and careful.  There have been some judicious cuts here and there and I couldn't help but feel that the book has been "massaged" a bit as well.  Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge interweaves the staging to match the interweaving of the plot lines surrounding the rich white folks from New Rochelle, the Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side and the black folks up in Harlem in the first decade of the twentieth century from E. L. Doctorow's book.  Her general staging is thoughtful, though the choreography begs for more attention.

Performances are generally good, but some stand out more than others.  Christiane Noll's Mother takes charge, not only of Father's business while he travels to the North Pole with Admiral Perry, but of her family's story line.  She's in lovely voice and makes the role her own.  Ron Bohmer is at first a stuffed shirt, but ultimately is the only character to say "I love you" in the show. He watches puzzled and lost as the world he thought he knew and ruled falls apart in front of him.  As Younger Brother, I had high hopes for Bobby Steggart, but he seems miscast and misdirected.  This Younger Brother lacks a boiling passion within, missing the energy and restlessness needed for the role.  He seems to nearly sleepwalk through the first act. By the time he works up the courage to join Coalhouse's crusade, it seems to come from nowhere.

Robert Petkoff's Tateh, starts and finishes pretty well, but gets a bit lost along the way.  It doesn't help that the slicing of the scene prior to "Gliding" undercuts the power of the lullaby.  Stephanie Umoh is a breathtakingly beautiful Sarah.  She acts it well, but doesn't seem quite up to the vocal demands of the role.  Much the same, Quentin Earl Darrington is a linebacker-sized Coalhouse Walker, Jr. His acting is also strong, but suffers pitch problems, most severely in "Coalhouse's Soliloquy" at the beginning of Act II.

I was surprised to find that this production had not really addressed the flashback to the night Coalhouse and Sarah met which is plopped rather awkwardly in the middle of Act II.  Still, the Act I moment when Sarah and Coalhouse reconcile was beautiful and heartbreaking.

Looking back over what I've just written, you'd think I didn't like it very much.  Not true - it's a lovely and moving production - not to be missed!

Monday, December 14, 2009

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

"In The Next Room or the vibrator play" presented by Lincoln Center Theatre at the Lyceum Theatre, December 5, 2009

(photo: uncredited from Theatremania.com)

Sarah Ruhl's first play on the Great White Way
Is a story of people, not so long ago.
Dr. Givings' new treatments are the talk of the day.
(He treats ladies' "hysteria," you know.)

The treatment releases congestion, you see,
not the head but the womb, with electricity
through a smooth knob that vibrates, applied for three minutes,
she gets her release, then sings like the linnets.

Mrs. G, with inadequate milk for her child
Seeks a wet nurse to help the babe thrive.
Maid Elizabeth, mourning the loss of her own
Needs the cash and a way to survive.

She works for the Daldry's, Mrs. D. suffers so
And her Mr. has brought her to give it a go.
"Such an anguish for me" blindly moans Mr. D.
Then he finally adds, "And for her, of course, too."

Hearing moans from her husband's professional room,
Mrs. G. wants to know how it works.
Mrs. D. sneaks her in for a try and "kaboom!"
A new sensory world starts to perk.

Mr. Irving arrives, having just been jilted
With his own hysteria, raging in throes.
Dr. G. has an implement, sadness is tilted
And Irving feels better, (He's "artistic" you know).

Laura Benanti continues to show a lovely range of acting skill.  This is her first non-singing lead on Broadway and she carries it nicely. Her Mrs. Givings is eager and unsophisticated, guileless and unfiltered, with a tendency to speak of less than appropriate subjects in the height of the Victorian era.  Michael Cerveris is consistently stiff as the ever-proper Dr. Givings, careful to shield his wife from everything a proper lady of the era should not see.  Maria Dizzia's Mrs. Daldry is a woman whose treatments awaken more than just sexual pleasure.  Her responses to the treatments are quite funny.  She shares a lovely moment with Dr. Givings' assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson) after an intimate "manual" treatment when the machine is insufficient.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine's Elizabeth is appropriately shy, demurring from the attention afforded by both Mrs. Givings and the artist Leo Irving (Chandler Williams) who wants to paint her while she is nursing the baby. Her second act monologue about losing her own child is quite touching.  Mr. Williams' Irving struts like a rooster, attempting to regain his composure after his first treatment.  Dr. Givings explains, "Hysteria is rare in a man." He adds, "But then again, he is an artist."

Director Les Waters smooths over the occasional anachronism with a gentle hand, eliciting some very nice moments as mentioned above.  He truly rises to the occasion with the revelations in the lovely final scene between Dr. and Mrs. Givings.

Annie Smart's period set captures the candy store colors of the period, perfectly tufted and tasseled. David Zinn's gorgeous costumes transport delightfully.

I was charmed and thoroughly entertained by this play.  I found it a marked improvement over Ms. Ruhl's previous efforts in NY in the last couple of years, Eurydice and Clean House.  There is a natural feminist angle, a usual feature of Ms. Ruhl's work, but delivered with more ease this time.  She enlightens Dr. Givings with a marked self-awareness of his gender, "What men do not observe because their intellect would prevent the seeing would fill many books."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Private Lives Revealed: The Letters of Noel Coward

"Private Lives Revealed: The Letters of Noel Coward" at St. Ann's Warehouse, December 7, 2009

(photo from Library of Congress collection)

An evening of highlights from his book The Letters of Noel Coward, Barry Day (looking a bit like a Springer Spaniel with his Dickensian sideburns brushing his collar) narrates as Anna Bergman, Patricia Conolly, Edward Hibbert, and Dana Ivey read as Mr. Coward and his correspondents, accompanied by Steve Ross on piano.

Mr. Day opened the evening with a quote from Mr. Coward's dear friend, Lord Mountbatten on the event of Coward's seventieth birthday:
"There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. If there are, they are fourteen different people. Only one man combined all fourteen different labels – The Master."

Mr. Day did not dive particularly deeply for this presentation, compared to the depths he explored in his book.  It's very much a theatrical focus, starting with letters to and from Mr. Coward and his beloved mother, Viola. Things move quickly as his career advances, to his relationship with the Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.  Gertrude Lawrence is up next, followed by a quick dish on Mary Martin, who clashed with Noel over his "Pacific 1860."  A word of advice to her followed on what NOT to say to Princess Margaret.

There's a hop and a skip on to "Stritchie" with a bon mot or two about Dietrich and Garbo.  A couple of drive-by barbs take aim at David Niven, Clifton Webb and Ian Fleming as his life shifted to Jamaica.  I was sorry that they spent so little time on Mr. Coward's intelligence activities during WWII, since that makes up a major portion of the book.  Only a mere mention of his time in Paris felt like such a discount of the years he spent traveling the world on behalf of his country and the war effort.  When I read it last summer, I was really surprised and touched over his affection and devotion to "Mother England."

Mr. Hibbert managed nicely, reading as Mr. Coward.  Ms. Ivey fared better as Viola than Ms. Stritch and Ms. Conolly's Gertie was lovely.  The songs were interspersed effectively, but I thought they should have ended with the more upbeat "I Went To A Marvelous Party" instead of  "The Party's Over," though the sentimentality of the latter may have been truer to what Mr. Coward may have done himself.

Friday, December 04, 2009


"Loaded" at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, December 3, 2009

This is at least the third time I've seen this story - two men, supposedly very different from each other, hooking up and then trying to take the time to get to know each other.  The result is a series of miscommunications, competitions, disagreements, potential violence, all with a bit of nudity tossed in to keep the audiences' interest. The first two on my list are Together Alone and Two Boys in Bed on a Cold Winter's Night.

This time around, 47 year old Patrick (Kevin Spirtas) has invited adorable 24 year old Jude (Scott Kerns) to spend the night for the first time following several previous hookups.  The short-lived nudity opens this one-act, followed quickly by a series of arguments in which each finds and repeatedly pushes the other's buttons on topics ranging from HIV and safe sex, to lesbians to gay marriage. Both Mr. Spirtas and Mr. Kerns find a nice moment or two when each is able to rise above their two dimensional characters, but it's a difficult task given the weak script by Elliot Ramon Potts.

Even with all the arguing between the two, Mr. Potts brings little enlightenment to the varying subjects. The dialog is frequently trite, despite the best efforts of the two handsome actors.  Director Michael Unger attempts to keep things moving, but the poor transitions keep the flow bogged down.

Adam Koch's NYC apartment set manages well under Herrick Goldman's unremarkable lighting.

Sadly, there's little to recommend here beyond watching two handsome actors for 90 minutes.

Orpheus X

"Orpheus X" presented by Theatre for a New Audience at The Duke, December 3, 2009

I was fascinated by Greek Mythology as a child and couldn't get enough of the stories of gods and mortals, all courtesy of the Scholastic Book Club at school.  It would be much later in life when I realized just how homogenized and sterilized were the tales I pored over in those slim paperbacks.  Mythology is a ripe source with innumerable versions in plays and music.  The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is among the most popular stretching from the Greeks to the Romans, through the Renaissance into and beyond the twentieth century.

Rinde Eckert's Orpheus X, is the latest entry to receive a significant NY mounting, following Sara Ruhl's eurydice at 2econd Stage in 2007.  As Ryan McKittrick shares in the program notes for Orpheus X, using Eurydice as the focus in the story is a bit more recent, following the centuries of Orpheus as the suffering lover, lost without his love.  Ms. Ruhl's version took a similar Eurydicean approach by leaving Orpheus completely out of the title, reducing him to merely a featured player.

Mr. Eckert has taken steps in this direction as well.  In this post-modern, rock-operetta interpretation, Orpheus (Mr. Ecker) and Eurydice (Suzan Hanson) are unknown lovers in an apocalyptic world where "...half-formed creatures [rise] from the sea."  He is a rock star, she a poet.  They meet when she is struck by the taxi he occupied on the way to an event, stepping off the curb to retrieve her dropped glasses case.  She dies in his arms - her first and last words to him, "Oh it's you, how strange."  It's very much a "New York" story in this way.  Eurydice is continuously questioned by Persephone (John Kelly), wife of Hades and therefore, queen of the dead.  Persephone is fascinated that Eurydice is a writer, particularly a poet. After reading a selection of Eurydice's work Persephone says, "Like a list, you accpet its terms and let it run until it stops.  You'll do well here. Poets generally do...poets come closest to what I'd call thriving...all the narrative junkies feel perpetually unsatisfied."  Eurydice, twitching with a chalk in her hand, is compelled to continue writing, scribbling across glass panels what appears to evolve from gibberish into Greek.

In true rock star fashion, Orpheus is obsessed with her and withdraws from the world trying to resolve how she came into and left his life so quickly.  The thought of her overtakes his mind.   He can picture her image, but it's not real enough.  He spends hours just sitting at the impromptu shrine where she died surrounded by candles, copies of her book of poems and dried flowers.  He convinces his manager John (also Mr. Kelly) to find a way to bring her back so he can see her as "A woman displacing volume as she enters or leaves the room."

Blindfolded, Orpheus casts the spell and follows the instructions from John, meeting Persephone and convincing her to release Eurydice back to him.   Dragged away from her writing, Eurydice recognizes him and tears off the blindfold. This action sends herself back for eternity, to bathe away her memory and pain.

Ms. Hanson's Eurydice is a mature woman, lost and confused in the underworld.  She seems to have known of Orpheus, but had never met him.  She sings the difficult score well, nicely managing its demands. Mr. Eckert's Orpheus is less than a protagonist but more than a plot contrivance.  Generally deadpan, this Orpheus relies more on the content of his words and lyrics.  Mr. Kelly's androgynous dual roles of John and Persephone becomes almost an on-stage stage manager, John fueling Orpheus to resolve his grief and return to life, and Persephone convincing Eurydice to let go of her own life and memories.

Mr. Eckert and director Robert Woodruff have created quite a unique evening of theatre, unusual in the way Mr. Eckert's Horizon was unusual in 2007 - thoughtful and thought-provoking.  Mr. Eckert's score is operatic and hard rock all at the same time.  The cacophony created as he sings the spell to take himself into the underworld is ear shattering and effective (if about 16 bars too long).  Mr. Woodruff presents a nude and oblivious Eurydice scribbling on the floor beneath the seating risers as the audience enters, stripped both literally and figuratively of everything - her life, her possessions - except her need to write.  Scenic Designers David Zinn & Denise Marika have created a set of patinated steel floors, panels and I-beams, surrounded by glass walls.  Ms. Marika's video projections get a clever and interesting display throughout the performance, sometimes flowing water, dripping honey (another homage to the Eurydice myth), Eurydice scribbling, Eurydice dropping her glasses case.  The impact is powerful.  The ending, when Eurydice snatches Orpheus' blindfold and challenges him "Did you think I would welcome a rescue? Did you think you were saving me from something?" is a variation I hadn't expected.  "I'm done with the world." she says, "I won't remember anything but my name. I'll hear my words without their pain."  The two stand close in silence, almost kissing, almost daring the other to respond until Eurydice turns away. 

As the lights went black, the audience sat in perfect silence, each of us entranced by the moment.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Is Someone Out There Listening?


I have thought this was a good idea since May of 2008.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


"This" at Playwrights Horizons, November 17, 2009

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Jane (Julianne Nicholson) doesn't like games, particularly since her husband died almost a year ago, leaving her with a precocious child and no energy or ambition to expand her world. Long-time college friend Marrell (Eisha Davis) has found a sexy French doctor, Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi) for Jane, sublimating her own lust and frustration of life with cabinet-maker husband Tom (Darren Pettie) and a newborn son who only sleeps in 15 minute increments. Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald) is the annoying, long-time gay friend/plot contrivance that facilitates exposition.

Playwright Melissa James Gibson sets her oddly titled story in various New York-like locations, Jane spends most of her time avoiding her own grief while placating her friends. In the opening game, Jane is sent out of the room, while her friends supposedly make up a story. Actually they don't, but Jane is to figure out the story by asking questions. Those ending in a vowel are answered "yes." Those ending in consonant are answered "no" and those in a Y, "maybe." Unwittingly, Jane's series of questions point the story to that of her own, revealing the dead husband. It's an interesting device to raise the emotional stakes early on. I had hoped to see the game repeated throughout the 100 minute, intermissionless evening, continuing its early success. Still, Ms. Gibson tosses in some interesting plot twists along with nice dialog, though each of the characters does have a tendency to sound like a grammar lesson on occasion.

Ms. Nicholson, fresh from "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" is actually a replacement in the role of Jane, originally intended for Parker Posey. I don't know the details behind the change, but it has turned out to be a wise one. Her Jane is grounded and lost, focused and distracted, all at the same time. Her final monologue, apologizing to her daughter for losing her temper is lovely.

Ms. Davis' Marrell twists and writhes under the pressure of new motherhood and her own self-pressure to do it perfectly, while also trying to perfect her less-than-perfect husband. There's a lovely humanity in her portrayal of this flawed character.

Mr. Pettie, rugged and handsome, gives a nicely shaded performance as the blue-collar type holding his own among a collegiate social circle. Mr. Fitzgerald does the best he can with the limited character sketch he's been provided, a coincidental mnemologist (one who can remember conversations verbatim - his one solo scene demonstrating this skill is superfluous and could easily be cut). Mr. Canclemi's sexy Jean-Pierre brings a sense of reason and balance to the group of naval-gazing friends. It is his inability to translate a description of the self-centered climactic plot revelations that awkwardly provides the play's title.

Director Daniel Aukin props the humor up front when things could get miserably dark, keeping the pace moving, though the cut mentioned above is only one possibility for tightening up the evening. Louisa Thompson's heavily layered set serves well as three different apartments, a nightclub and a sidewalk, accomplished with complementary lighting by Matt Frey.

Playwrights Horizons is offering discounted tickets:

Order by Nov.25 with the code
THGR to get tickets for only $40 for performances Nov. 6 - Nov. 15 (reg. $65), or $50 for performances October Nov. 17 - Dec. 13 (reg. $65).

To order: visit www.playwrightshorizons.org or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, open daily noon-8:00 pm.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wolves at the Window

"Wolves at the Window" Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters, November 14, 2009

Toby Davies has adapted 10 short stories by Saki, a/k/a Hector Hugh Munro as part of the Brits Off Broadway 2009 festival. The result is an evening of Wildean sitcom vignettes as if presented by Monty Python.

Subtitled "(and other tales of immorality)" some segments land better than others. More successful are the sequences around Filboid Studge, a dreadful breakfast cereal renamed by a hopeful suitor for his true love's father. The four actors carrying the evening of Edwardian era tales, Gus Brown, Jeremy Booth, Anna Francolini and Sarah Moyle, each bring varying comic strengths. The laughs, however, tend to undercut what seem intended as more serious or frightening moments.

Director Thomas Hescott manages the frequents shifts from tale to tale nicely, drawing the best of each actor. Using simple set pieces like chairs and a steamer trunk, Mr. Hescott doesn't quite reach the heights achieved in 39 Steps, but does create an interesting forest of hat racks for the final tale of feuding neighbors who, when trapped by a fallen branch on the land that's the source of their disagreement, resolve their differences as they realize that the approaching figures are wolves.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Steady Rain

"A Steady Rain" at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, November 12, 2009

Wolverine meets James Bond onstage in Keith Huff's two-hander, A Steady Rain. Interweaving two monologues of a pair of police partners, Messrs. Jackman and Craig don Chicago-style accents with mixed results in this intermissionless event.

Mr. Huff's tale of friendship, betrayal, corruption and devotion provides great opportunities for these two talented men to flex some emotional muscles. If only there were more of a play here, rather than 80 minutes of "... then I said..." This technique undercuts the bond that each character describes having with the other. The good-cop/bad-cop dynamic is one they've played out since childhood that forces its easily anticipated final blow. Toss in a drive-by shooting, a hooker, her pimp and his little brother, hush money, and a Jeffrey Dahmer type and it's time for the undershirt auction fundraiser for Broadway Cares.

Mr. Jackman is the bad cop, Denny, married with kids, and a fatal attraction to lost causes. He drags Joey along with him every sordid step of the way, setting him up with a hooker he hopes to raise out of her downward spiral. He's got the dark, fiery Italian thing down pretty well (though his accent occasionally escapes Chicago).

Meanwhile, Mr. Craig's Joey, fighting alcohol and a crush on Denny's wife doesn't have the willpower to pull himself away. His despair is palpable as he continues to let Denny pummel him emotionally and physically. When Denny finally hits bottom, Mr. Craig creates credibility despite the weak writing.

Director John Crowley handles the proceedings nicely, smoothing through the awkward transitions. Scott Pask's sets introduce impressive, if unnecessary, cinematic effects bleeding through the back scrim.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Alexander Pushkin's Little Tragedies

"Alexander Pushkin's Little Tragedies" at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Howard Gilman Theatre, November 10, 2009

Julian Henry Lowenfeld translates, directs, composes and appears in the four stories written by the 19th century Russian author.

IMHO, that's at least two jobs too many.

Mr. Lowenfeld provides 5 pages of program notes about Mr. Pushkin and an analysis of his writing - all very interesting, but a bit of overkill for an evening of theatre. The four stories that comprise Little Tragedies are The Knight-Miser, Mozart and Salieri, The Stone Guest and The Feast in Time of Plague. He seems most interested that none of the four stories are set in Russia.

After an oddly contemporary Requiem opening (seemingly composed in the style of Burt Bachrach) the ill-fitting evening begins. The Knight-Miser, set in France, is a familiar tale of Albert (Mr. Ruckdashel) a brash young knight whose lifestyle his miserly father (Mr. Von Berg) refuses to fund. Solomon the moneylender (Mr. Thompson) has cut off Albert's credit. After calling upon the Duke (Mr. Carin) to plead his case, the father reveals his son's greed and has him banished from court, then dies. Here the anachronisms surface with a reference to "Dad." The static and grand-ish staging, perhaps fitting for an opera, is markedly ineffective for a play, regardless of any "music" in the text.

If you've seen Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, either on stage or in film, think of Mozart and Salieri set in Austria as his outline. The weakest of the four scenes, Mr. Lowenfeld's Salieri calls to mind as if played by Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean. Mr. Simas, quite a talented pianist, is even more poorly cast as Mozart. Anachronisms continue: "See ya later."

The Stone Guest set in Spain is Mr. Pushkin's retelling of Don Juan. Mr. Innocenzi has a couple of nice moments as the legendary Lothario, but gets no support from Ms. Chapman's wooden Dona Ana. Mr. Ruckdashel's Leporello flails in contrast, and in vain. Soprano Niki Leoni has a lovely voice, but brings no interest to Don Juan's on-again-off-again lover, Laura. There are one or two fleeting moments of camp melodrama, likely unintended, which might have saved this leaden mess. Anachronisms continue - Don Juan asking about Dona Ana: "Is she cute?"

Finally, The Feast in Time of Plague set in England, staggers with overlong songs and an unclear goal. That lack of clarity hovers over the entire evening. Are these tragedies supposed to be sad? Is the goal that of irony?

Mr. Lowenfeld has assembled quite an eclectic cast, including Brandon Ruckdashel, Robert Carin, Karen Chapman, Stephen Innocenzi, Nika Leoni, Luiz Simas, John Leonard Thompson and Peter Von Berg. Each actor plays multiple roles among the four offerings. Of them, Messrs. Thompson and Von Berg come off the most effective and polished, delivering the stylized prose translations, and minimizing the numerous anachronisms among them. Offering his own interesting interpretation, Mr. Ruckdashel overlays a very natural style on the text. The result is a bit disruptive, particularly as the remainder of the cast infrequently manage to pull off their respective roles at all. Otherwise, the actors appear to wander aimlessly about the stage more often than not. Mr. Lowenfeld's academic credits are impressive. His devotion is clear, but his success in this theatrical venture is not.

There are some interesting staging moments, using split traveller panels and different sized black cubes to create various settings courtesy of Lea Orth. Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes make a valiant attempt to raise the production quality, as do Derek Wright's lighting. Neither overcomes the weak direction.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

What Once We Felt

"What Once We Felt" presented by LCT3 at The Duke, November 7, 2009

(photo from LCT Web site)

Lincoln Center Theater opens its season of LCT3 with a new play by Ann Marie Healy. This tale of a future feminist dystopian society in the midst of the "Transition" leaves as many questions unanswered as it asks.

(Spoiler Alert)

Positioned as a memory play, it is narrated by Violet (Ronete Levenson), the very last of the Tradepacks who worked as a comforter to other Tradepacks who have elected suicide to end their dismal and unproductive lives. Ms. Levenson's monotonous delivery only emphasized that her role added little to the story-telling. She sets the stage for the tale of Macy (Mia Barron), a struggling novelist who is trying to get her latest work published, the last book ever published in paper form. Macy is a "keeper," one of 70-80% of the population who are allowed freedoms and privileges not afforded to "tradepacks." Tradepacks seem to have some kind of physical or genetic flaw and have become a service caste, lesser and subservient to the keepers. In order to get her book published, Macy trades her only chance to "download" a baby to her publisher Claire (Opal Alladin), a tradepack, arranged by her agent Astrid (Ellen Parker).

Claire has masterminded the process of Digi-direct where data downloads have expanded to include DNA. Her assistant Laura (Marsha Stephanie Blake) then hijacks the book as propaganda for the next phase of the transition. Laura's goal with Macy's book is for it to be the first to include a fully virtual experience, extending for volumes of experiential downloads directly to reader's brains.

A cruel subplot of a tradepack who euthanizes her mother with a knitting needle struggles for counterpoint, along with a couple whose downloaded baby has an "error." The unseen and undefined RSS tighten security which will presumably reveal the child as a tradepack, doomed to a life of misery - Violet, perhaps?

With these elements of Faust, Orwell and Huxley, with a touch of "Handmaid's Tale" Ms. Healy packs a lot of plot into her script. If she'd spent a little more time on exposition and/or character development, she might not have needed so much plot. The unanswered questions abound: Where did the term Tradepack originate? Who started the Transition? Why are there no men anymore?

Ms. Barron suffers the most, finding little to play beyond the strident self-promotion of a self-doubting writer. Ms. Parker's Astrid has the most fun and a couple of great lines. Ms. Alladin never finds a third dimension to her character, despite the interesting concept of a tradepack "passing" in a keeper's world.

Perhaps it's a sexist reaction on my part, but I found it interesting that this high-estrogen package was assembled by a man, director Ken Rus Schmoll. Mr. Schmoll keeps things moving well with a thoughtful hand.

One nice thing about LCT3 productions are the high quality production values. The slick set (Kris Stone) and costumes (Linda Cho) evoke a future that's not terribly different from the present without falling into stereotype.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

I Got Sick Then I Got Better

"I Got Sick Then I Got Better" presented by New York Theatre Workshop at 4th Street Theatre, October 30, 2009

(photo: Chad Batka)

Women's health issues are the basis for at least five theatre pieces currently onstage in New York City. Carrie Fisher is fighting mental illness and alcoholism at Studio 54 in Wishful Drinking. Anna Deavere Smith is battling the health care system at Second Stage in Let Me Down Easy. Kelly Samara is dancing her way through dependency on pain killers at TBG Theatre in ...Being Patient. And, Jenny Allen is recovering from cancer courtesy of the New York Theatre Workshop in I Got Sick Then I Got Better.

Ms. Allen's friend James Lapine along with Darren Katz has directed this 80 minute tale of illness and recovery. She enters the theatre while the houselights are still up, chatting with members of the audience in the small house of the 4th St Theater. She transitions into the piece fairly smoothly, but promises a few more laughs in her introduction than she ends up delivering.

Her story is deeply personal and she shares freely, but more often than not it feels significantly more cathartic for her than the audience. She's great with one-liners, describing her cancer surgeon as "a brunette Ann Coulter," and describing herself in the midst of chemo "...looked like a dandelion going to seed."

She speaks sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes condescendingly of her feckless, unperceptive husband and typically teen-aged daughter. She reveals her mother's life-long battle with mental illness. She confesses that she enjoyed the anger and suffering she endured through her plight.

All of this draws appropriate empathy when she shares an oddly touching story of how she resolves her anger in the parking lot of LL Bean.

In the end, the evening felt more like a recitation, similar to Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, well-written but not really "asking" to be staged.

Necessary Adjustments

"Necessary Adjustments" presented by Phare Play Productions at the Beckmann Theatre, October 24, 2009

I'm in something of a quandary.

As my blog profile indicates, I am pursuing acting here in NYC.

The case has arisen where I am now reviewing a play for which I not only auditioned, but was called back. Based on my limited observations during the call back, I didn't think I would get the part, so the surprise of an email from the director letting me know officially, was actually a pleasant one (the first time I've ever had this kind of response from an audition). Usually, no news is bad news in this business.

Next, as a member of the Independent Theatre Bloggers Association, I received an invitation to review Necessary Adjustments. I was anxious to see what I had gotten near to participating in.

I wanted it to be good. I really did.

Now, as some of you know (and some of you may not), producing *any* theatre in NYC is difficult. Everything costs a lot more than you think it might, so production values often suffer. The producers at New World Stages have recognized that the value in staging more than one show at a time in the same theatre can help manage costs.

Phare Play Productions has made a similar choice, producing Necessary Adjustments along with Jellyroll Shoes at the Beckmann, filling the theatre 9 times per week instead of one off-off-Broadway production running 4 or 5 times per week (not uncommon for OOB).

Even then, finding an affordable and appropriate performance space is more easily said than done. I've seen enough off-off Broadway to know that the right performance space can be a pivotal factor in the success of a play.

For Necessary Adjustments, this has landed the show in an unfortunate space which does nothing to foster an evening of entertainment. Likewise, director Christine Vinh Weems hasn't figured out how to effectively overcome this fatal flaw in her production. The result is a series of overlong and clunky set changes which include actors moving sofas on, off and around the stage.

Playwright Michael Weems, sporting a number of scripts produced in NYC has landed on an interesting premise. His story focuses on the pending nuptials of Jeff (Jaike Foley-Schultz) and Millie (Maggie Parker), an unhappy event for her mother Beverly (Carol Palmaro) who dislikes the young man. Bev's husband Brent (David Merrick) is much easier-going, particularly after a cocktail or two and tries to keep the peace. Younger brother Ken (Austin Mitchell) can't draw the kind of attention that will instill in him the confidence he needs to move out of his parents' basement, nor has he the maturity to figure out how to get it. Jeff's old college buddies Darren (Joey Mintz) and single father Nolan (Paul Herbig) along with Millie's life-long chum and maid of honor Kate (Rebecca Servon) round out the wedding party. Don't forget the stripper Ivy/Hope (Megan Channell) who brings an oddly unexpected twist to the proceedings. Mr. Weems has a good ear for dialogue, but has chopped up the plot into lots of little scenes. Had there been a better stage (or staging) this might not have been such a liability. There are a couple of other odd choices. The mother of the bride, inexplicably, conducts the ceremony. The groom, feeling that his in-laws-to-be hate him, takes a "groomzilla" approach to creating a perfect event in the hope that such will bring them around. This might have rung true, except for the counterpoint that the in-laws had to borrow from the maternal grandmother to pay for the wedding.

Beyond that, there are some bright spots among the very attractive cast. Mr. Foley-Schultz finds a third dimension to his role on a fairly regular basis, as do Mr. Herbig, Ms. Parker, Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Servon, though less frequently. The rest are serviceable, but none demonstrated the ability to pick up a cue. The cast could have cut 10 minutes off the run time with this alone.

I also felt like there wasn't enough focus on the story since each member of the audience got a program tied with a ribbon like a wedding bulletin and a handful of M&Ms tied in tulle like wedding favors. As hands-on as Mrs. Weems was (also running box office the night I attended), I got the feeling it was her time spent creating these superfluous touches that should have been spent working on the performance.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


"Broke-ology" presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, October 22, 2009

Lincoln Center Theater continues its commitment to new plays with Nathan Louis Jackson's latest work, Broke-ology.

(Possible spoiler alert)

The story begins with something of a prologue in 1982 when a pregnant Sonia (Crystal A Dickinson) is painting graphics on t-shirts to mimic something she and her husband William (Wendell Pierce) can't afford in the home they've bought in a gang-infiltrated Kansas City neighborhood. But, the have each other and hope for the future of their family. William, uneducated works a blue collar job and picks up extra HVAC work for neighbors and friends (
"I never charged anyone more than they could afford.") - he's a good man.

Fast-forward 27 years and younger son Malcolm (Alano Miller) has just finished his Master's at UConn and returned home to work for the EPA. Older son Ennis (Francois Battiste) hasn't demonstrated the same academic intellect and is preparing to become a father for the first time ("baby-daddy" as the kids might say). William's eyesight and health are failing from advancing MS and Ennis is looking for Malcolm to pick up the slack now that the baby's arrival is imminent. Malcolm wants to return to Connecticut to continue his environmental interest, which could lead to teaching at the college.

As William, Mr. Pierce doesn't look much older than his grown sons. He does have some nice emotional moments, but not many. The rest of his role is telegraphed pretty early in the first act. Mr. Miller's Malcolm doesn't fare quite as well. His language never sounds natural and we never get a real explanation as to how he managed to escape his family for college and grad school in the east. Ms. Dickinson's Sonia sashays on for a couple of dream-sequences. She does the best she can with her unevenly written material (one sequence delivered a pretty bizarre mood swing from loving to resentful back to loving in about 4 lines).

Mr. Battiste seems to handle the weak script with the most skill, finding some semblance of reality among the cliche's. (Pirates? Really?)

Donyale Werle's set cuts away to reveal the trusses and beams of the run-down house. Jason Lyons' lights work overtime to imbue more emotion than was originally written.

Yet, despite its weaknesses, it's a good thing that LCT continues to pursue and develop new material (Broke-ology originated at the Williamstown festival) for all three of its venues.

Mr. Jackson's story of role-reversal is familiar and compelling, but is hampered by poor dialogue and some structural elements that feels confusing.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Avenue Q

"Avenue Q" at New World Stages, October 19, 2009

Coming off its successful 6-year run on Broadway, Avenue Q returns transfers to another open-ended off-Broadway engagement. New World Stages has just taken a large artistic step forward in its production quality, adding this Tony-winning show to its roster of continuing shows. This is not the first unconventional step for this show. Where most shows normally follow an initial Broadway run with a national tour, Avenue Q headed directly for Las Vegas for a sit-down production first.

With set, props, and for the most part, cast, intact, Avenue Q is still a tight, funny, irreverent send-up of TV's Sesame Street. The muppet-like puppets, mixed with single character actors tell the story of Princeton, a new college graduate living in New York and trying to find his "purpose" in life. With only an entry-level salary, he can't afford Manhattan and ends up on Avenue Q, far in the outer boroughs.

Seth Rettberg takes on the puppet roles of Princeton and Rod, the closeted investment banker, giving a terrific (if diaphoretic) performance. Matching his energy is Anika Larsen, as Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut. She sounds a LOT like Stephanie D'Abruzzo, but makes the roles her own. Nicholas Kohn seemed to be phoning it in as Brian, the out-of-work comedian. (I was a little surprised to see that he had been part of the Broadway cast.) The other standout is Maggie Lakis, taking on one of the Bad Idea Bears among other supporting puppets.

The sets only occasionally feel cramped in the 350 seat house and the sound quality could use a tweak here and there, but it's nice to see this show find yet another life in New York.

Congratulations to the producers at New World Stages for keeping this show alive. I hope they're talking to 39 Steps about making a similar transfer.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


"Nightingale" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage 1, October 18, 2009

Lynn Redgrave returns to the NY stage in her latest opus, focused on her maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson. Under treatment again at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, her performance is that of a recitation from her script. Given the premise, this brings no detraction from the event.

This "alteration" is a bit heavily hammered out with both a program insert, and an appearance by Ms. Redgrave's understudy at the beginning to tell us what we've just read, again.

Ms. Redgrave opens her script with a faux-ominous look, then launches into this meditation she has written, creating a back-story about this grandmother whom she merely tolerated as a teen. Her recurring health issue, combined with the recent loss of her niece and the discovery of the acid-rain-induced erosion of said grandmother's gravestone seem to be the premise for her piece.

Most of the story she writes is a fictionalization, imposing her own preconceptions of "Beanie" as a post-Victorian teen, a frightened and unenlightened bride, an unwilling new mother, a weak-spirited Lady Chatterly wannabe, a dismissive wife, a smothering mother to her favorite. The result is a dour and dark portrait of a sad and self-centered woman trapped in a life she doesn't like and feels unable to change. Her character shifts from Beanie, to her grandfather, to her Aunt Maude are clear and effective.

The vibrant Ms. Redgrave, in her illness, feels a kinship to her, that somehow their lives parallel. Yet, Ms. Redgrave has made many of the choices that her grandmother both couldn't and wouldn't fifty years before. She seems to find catharsis in her endeavor, but much of it didn't play for me. Still, her talent and skill make for a compelling bit of theatre.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Brighton Beach Memoirs

"Brighton Beach Memoirs" at the Nederlander Theatre, October 16, 2009

(photo by Joan Marcus)

The first of Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical series of plays is about to open in an excellent revival directed by the very talented David Cromer and will run in repertory with the third in the series, Broadway Bound, which begins previews on November 18, 2009.

Mr. Cromer has assembled a terrific cast of Rialto veterans and newcomers to create the extended Jerome family living in Brooklyn. 15 year old Eugene (Noah Robbins) is our narrator and hero, sharing his "unbelievable, fantastic and completely privately thoughts" of the late depression era of his youth. His widowed aunt Blanche (Jessica Hecht) has moved in following the untimely death of her husband along with her daughters Nora (Alexandra Socha) and Laurie (Gracie Bea Lawrence). His older brother Stanley (Santino Fontana) is making some usual stumbles on his way to manhood, while his father Jack (Dennis Boutsikaris) has just lost his extra sales work and is worried about making ends meet to support all seven. All through this his mother Kate (Laurie Metcalf) rules the roost with a mother's most nefarious weapons - guilt and a knowing, withering look.

Mr. Robbins (fresh from the role of Max Bialystock in his high school performance of The Producers) handles this pivotal role with aplomb, smoothly transitioning from expository asides to complete immersion in the scenes. Mr. Fontana's Stanley, handsome and awkward, fulfills the role of Eugene's idol nicely, balancing the torture and tenderness of their relationship evenly. Mr. Boutsikaris' Jack is particularly understated, giving us a real glimpse of the weight of supporting his household.

Ms. Hecht provides a focused and subtly nuanced performance as Blanche, befuddled and lost as a single parent in a time when women were still particularly unempowered. She plays beautifully off of Ms. Metcalf's Kate. Through the rants and guilt trips, Ms. Metcalf provides the backbone of the family and the play. Her timing is impeccable, giving us the mother of all Jewish mothers. It should prove to be one of the high points of the season.

John Lee Beatty's detailed set fills the entire stage, yet still feels a bit cramped with all the elements lined up across the proscenium.

Mr. Cromer's eagle-eyed focus pulls the text to the forefront, confirming this as one of Mr. Simon's strongest plays. The staging and timing are elegantly simple, pulling each of us into the Jerome living room.

Now I can't wait to see Broadway Bound.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Understudy

"The Understudy" presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, October 15, 2009

Theresa Rebeck's latest opus graces the off-Broadway stage of the Roundabout Theatre, a backstage comic three-hander. Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is a movie star on the rise, making his Broadway debut in a newly discovered work by Kafka appearing alongside the unseen Bruce, another movie star, but of a higher magnitude. Harry (Justin Kirk) has been hired to understudy Jake. Roxanne (Julie White) is the production stage manager charged with conducting Harry's first rehearsal with Jake.

I must give credit to Mr. Gosselaar for having the courage to make his NY stage debut in a role opposite Ms. White. His Jake, though written in two dimensions for the most part, captures that essence of an out-of-touch Hollywood actor now successful enough to think that CGI enhanced performances qualify as art. Mr. Gosselaar portrayal demonstrates this both intentionally, and unintentionally in his early scenes, seeming to warm up as the action progresses.

Mr. Kirk's Harry is more fully framed as a working and talented actor who can't seem to get that break. His baggage trails behind him with a long shadow, sharpened by the revelation of his previous relationship with Roxanne. Both are flabbergasted to meet the other after he jilted her six years before - disappeared without a word. His new stage name is unknown to Roxanne, though it's never really explained why he changed it.

But, as she carried the show in "Little Dog Laughed" Ms. White is in fine form again here. Having given up her own acting ambitions, her Roxanne has moved into stage managing to stay in the business she loves. We get a glimpse of the actor she was as she and Jake discuss the sexual politics of Kafka's writing and work through some of the play's interactions. He's mesmerized, but she's only demonstrating her training.

Director Scott Ellis handles his cast well, giving Ms. White and Mr. Kirk the leeway needed for them to expand on the profiles provided by Ms. Rebeck. He's given Mr. Gosselaar a good start as well, helping him to keep up with his cast mates and avoid getting steam-rolled by them.

Alexander Dodge's "Broadway" sets are ambitious for the Pels Theatre, but don't overpower the space. With a little tweaking to the script here and there, this piece could have some legs.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


"Oleanna" at the Golden Theatre, October 9, 2009

David Mamet's 1992 work, "Oleanna" twists a tale of a college professor trapped into a battle with a female student. John (Bill Pullman) came reluctantly to the world of academia, never having fully jettisoned the baggage of his upbringing which labeled him as stupid. Capitalizing on this weakness, Carol (Julia Stiles) first appears in his office after class, desperate for help to pass his course. It's a frustrating and unsatisfying work. (Spoiler Alert)

In the first scene, John is trying to negotiate the purchase of a new house - something more befitting his incipient tenure at the college. Phone calls repeatedly (and predictably) interrupt his appointment with Carol. She appears vulnerable and near her wit's end at what to do, since failing the course would cause a significant setback to her ambitions. Emotions run high and John wants to help, offering to work with her individually to get her back on track and through the class successfully. Some of Carol's own baggage is intimated along the way as she wavers on the edge of emotional control.

When the lights come up on scene two, the tables are dramatically (almost inexplicably) turned. John's tenure is now in jeopardy, since Carol has filed a complaint of sexual harassment against him following their first meeting. By the third scene, not only has John been suspended from the school, Carol has filed attempted rape charges with the local police. John finally snaps and the curtain falls as he attacks her.

Mr. Pullman brings us a man strung so tightly, it's a wonder he didn't snap years before, yet there is a kindness within despite the haughty attitude of "esteemed academia." His stammered delivery works very well with the rat-a-tat style of Mr. Mamet's writing.

Ms. Stiles, in her third appearance in this role following productions in London and Los Angeles, brings a full emotional commitment to her scheming and heartless character. We get no foreshadow of the evil intent during the first scene, making the character shift all the more shocking. Despite her sense of emotion, her actual delivery of the lines sound as though she's reciting verse, rather than speaking naturally as her character. I've always thought that Mr. Mamet's rapid-fire, overlapping writing style is one that only certain actors can master. Sadly, Ms. Stiles isn't there yet.

Director Doug Hughes seems to have needed more time to get the "Mamet-speak" smoothed out. He has clearly come down on John's side here, leaving Carol as a vicious and bitter harpy. And bitter is the taste that will leave the theatre with you.

Neil Patel's office set is dramatically nicer than any college office I've ever seen, though the annoying automatic raising and lowering of the levelors between scenes felt totally pointless. This was exacerbated by the poor quality sound design resulting in ear-splitting feedback reverberation.

It's nice to see Mr. Pullman back on stage in NY and I'm glad that Ms. Stiles is making her first open-run appearance. I hope to see her back again in a more suitable vehicle.

Monday, October 05, 2009


"Memphis" at the Shubert Theatre, October 2, 2009

The twenty-two plus producers of "Memphis" bring this new musical to Broadway with a tale of Huey (Chad Kimball) and Felicia (Montego Glover), a high school drop out cum disc jockey and the singer he discovers singing in a south side Memphis nightclub in the late 1950s.

Think "Dreamgirls" meets "Hairspray."

Mr. Kimball's Huey schemes and plans for a big break, falling in love with Ms. Glover's Felicia along the way. There's not a lot of chemistry between them, however. Ms. Glover is lovely and a terrific singer. She brings much more to the production. It's too bad the material isn't as strong a she is. The energy is high, and the production values are far above the book and miles above the lyrics, both contributed by Joe DiPietro. David Bryan offers an excellent pastiche score when featuring the period "radio" songs. When the music is called on to move the plot or expand a moment, things tend to falter into cliche.

Sergio Trujillo's choreography keeps the energy high and director Christopher Ashley supports accordingly. David Gallo has been given half of an apparently unlimited budget, and has spent every dime with full width bridges, multiple trapdoor elevators and spinning columns. Paul Tazewell's costumes spend the rest of the budget on some gorgeous clothes. All this flash and polish looks great, but ultimately undercuts the impact by glossing over the roughness that would really have been found at the time, particularly a south side club in 1950s Memphis.

Still, it's an entertaining evening with the potential for a popular following.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

circle mirror transformation

"circle mirror transformation" at Playwrights Horizons, October 3, 2009

The world premiere of Annie Baker's latest play, "circle mirror transformation" is now in previews at Playwrights Horizons. In it, middle-aged Marty (Dierdre O'Connell) conducts a six-week acting workshop at the community center in Shirley, Vermont. this very small town only generates a class of five, including Marty's GGG economics professor husband James (Peter Friedman), the middle-aged, newly divorced and lonely Schultze (Reed Birney), awkward high school student Lauren (Tracee Chimo) and new-to-town twenty-something actress Theresa (Heidi Schreck), each carrying a bit of emotional baggage.

For anyone who has ever suffered through the unbearable theatre games (a la Viola Spolin) in an acting class, Ms. Baker has cleverly incorporated some of the worst offenders into her script, neatly tucking in both character exposition and a couple of interesting plot points. One that I particularly enjoyed was having each character deliver an impromptu monologue talking about themselves as a classmate - each doubly revealing.

It's a terrific ensemble piece, smoothly and sweetly directed by Sam Gold. I'm guessing that both Mr. Gold and Ms. Baker have suffered through many of the afore-mentioned theatre games, which are handled with respect and to hilarious results.

Ms. O'Connell's Marty is a classic small-town, studied poser of a bohemian, from the curly mop of hair tamed by the omnipresent scarf, to the firm belief that she actually has a clue about what she thinks she's teaching. Mr. Friedman's James grins and bears it all, hoping to hold onto his marriage. Mr. Birney's Schultze shows every moment's pain of a man dumped, without understanding what happened to his marriage, or how. As Lauren, Ms. Chimo has mastered the rolling eyes, flabbergasted disbelief, and uncertainty of a disdainful teenager wanting something more, but really unsure what it is she wants (even though she thinks it is to be an actress). Ms. Schreck's Theresa is sweet, yet callow, unaware that even the slightest flirtation can wreak havoc on a man under any emotional strain.

David Zinn's simple institutional studio/classroom set and no-nonsense costumes serve well, along with Mark Barton's straightforward lighting.

Starwatch: Jay O. Sanders in the audience.

Don't forget the discount ticket offer here.

UPDATE: Offer extended until October 13, 2009

(photos by Joan Marcus)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Superior Donuts

"Superior Donuts" at the Music Box, September 30, 2009

Steppenwolf comes to Broadway, following the success of "August: Osage County" two years ago, once again courtesy of company member Tracy Letts.

From the heat of an Oklahoma summer, now we're in uptown Chicago with winter approaching at Arthur Przybyszewski's shop, Superior Donuts, opened by his immigrant parents in 1950. The neighborhood ain't what it was, nor is the donut shop.

Arthur (Michael McKean) is a 1960's draft dodger (amnesty courtesy of Jimmy Carter) whose fear of confrontation cripples him, ruining his marriage and relationship with his daughter. Divorced for five years, his ex-wife has just died and Arthur is further adrift. The day the shop is vandalized, young Franco (Jon Michael Hill) shows up to apply for the open counter job. All sales from the beginning, he convinces Arthur to hire him, then sets about trying to revive the business. Max (Yasen Peyankov), is a Russian immigrant who owns the electronics shop next door has been after Arthur to sell him the space so he can expand before Best Buy discovers the area and moves in. Franco's own issues soon catch up with him as Luther (Robert Maffia) arrives looking to collect an overdue debt.

Mr. Letts' script slowly reveals bits and pieces of Arthur's past in a series of spotlighted monologues, which I thought worked very well. I'm not usually a big fan of direct address, but the staging and flow make it work. There is a certain "Chico and the Man" aspect in motion, but the play doesn't necessarily suffer from a sitcom feel.

Mr. McKean's Arthur, looking like a Dead-head wannabe with a grey ponytail, scruffy beard and tie-dyed tshirt, suffers miserably over his feelings of loss that are the result of his inability to face and confront his fears. It's an admirable performance. The other supporting players are clear and distinct, each bringing a genuine life to their roles.

It is Mr. Hill as Franco who gets, and makes the most of, the best material. Street-wise, savvy, insightful and clever, his "fatal flaw" remains carefully hidden as he makes an honest attempt to clear up the worries in his life. It's a carefully shaded performance that's certain to bring attention - the kind any young actor strives for.

Director Tina Landau avoids sentimentality with a no-nonsense approach. The last thing I saw her direct was J. M. Barrie's "Mary Rose" at The Vineyard in 2007. These two pieces couldn't be much more different, but there is a common thoughtfulness in both productions.

James Schuette's donut shop, to me, hearkens a bit toward Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" with its long counter and harsh lighting, courtesy of Christopher Akerlind.

I've got to say, it's looking like another good season for plays on Broadway!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


"Hamlet" presented by Donmar New York at the Broadhurst Theatre

(Photo by Johan Persson)

In its 66th appearance on the Great White Way, Shakespeare once again proves that good writing gets produced.

It doesn't hurt that the latest version stars Jude Law, directed by Tony Award winner Michael Grandage in a transfer from the Donmar Warehouse production in London earlier this year.

With a production design reminiscent of a Calvin Klein ad ("Discontentment...by Calvin Klein" - ok, I might have borrowed that analogy), this dark, dreary and brooding evening in contemporary dress does hold the audience's attention for its 3+ hour running time. I'll dispense with a plot summary and get directly to the performances.

Mr. Law's is a cynical and jaded prince, managing some shades (about four) as he wails and sobs through his manic portrayal. He acquits himself well overall, but comes across a bit self-indulgent from time to time in his direct address monologues. Gugu Mbatha- is a lovely, delicate and fragile Ophelia (though I missed the gossamer gown for her mad scene when she entered in a gray hoodie). Kevin McNally's Claudius was suitably scheming and devious. Geraldine James' Gertrude, tall and elegant, felt a little unsure of herself at times. Ron Cook's Gravedigger fared a bit better than his Polonius, who tossed away several of his laughs.

Mr. Grandage keeps the production moving relatively well, guiding with a thoughtful hand. Christopher Oram's sets saved a buck or two by keeping the upstage wall of the theatre black, left over from the previous tenants at the Broadhurst, Mary Stuart. His costumes I've already commented about. Neil Austin's moody lighting provided ample challenges for the actors to find a place for their faces to be seen.

This limited run closes December 6, 2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet

"Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet" at the Atlantic Theater Company, September 26, 2009

It seems as though Mr. Mamet has taken up the economy of writing that Ethan Coen has exhibited at the Atlantic Theatre Company over the last couple of seasons (Offices, Almost An Evening) and presented a similar character study, along with a more fully written one-act play.

In the character study/sketch, "School," Mr. Mamet begins with something of a riff on the old Abbott and Costello "Who's On First" as two school administrators (ostensibly) argue the merits of a grade-level wide project to create hundreds of posters extolling the theme of "Recycle Paper and Save the World." The following stream of concious (or more simply non-sequiturs) run the topic from recycling to the destruction of matter to the destruction of Dresden to the nature of history to the registration of child molesters and then bouncing back through, resulting in conspiracy theory suspecting the Custodial Union of political plotting. We never learn anything about these characters named only A (John Pankow) and B (Rod McLachlan), though the actors do manage to sustain the patter for the full 10 minutes of the piece.

In the second presentation "Keep Your Pantheon," Strabo (Brian Murray), the actor/manager of a Roman troupe, struggles to keep the act booked while lusting after his young protege Philius (Michael Cassidy). Pelargon (John Pankow), the other troupe member hangs out attempting to be a seldom successful voice of reason. Havoc ensues as they search for ways to get the troupe hired, ending up in the wrong house and insulting the General who enlists them to die at Caesar's command following the legion's recent military loss. Toss in a drunken hobo and a lucky (or unlucky) talisman and you end up almost as confused as I was. Beside the convoluted plot, the dialogue is pretty funny, reminiscent of the anachronistic humor of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Mr. Murray's Shakespearean Strabo, replete with an old man's beer gut carries most of the show. Mr. Cassidy's Philius is a Roman twinkie in the truest sense, barely able to speak but a physical beauty. Jordan Lage gives an understated take on Lupus Albus (white wolf) the insulted General reminding me a bit of Patrick Warburton (Elaine's boyfriend Puddy on Seinfeld).

Takeshi Kata's sets are serviceable if a bit spartan, generally complemented by Christopher Akerlind's lighting. Director Neil Pepe uses a heavy hand for the almost vaudevillian proceedings, heavy on the sight gags, stand-up one-liners and double-takes.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Royal Family

"The Royal Family" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's classic play, based on the Barrymores is in a new revival directed by Doug Hughes.

It's a terrific cast with Rosemary Harris, Jan Maxwell, Tony Roberts, John Glover, Ana Gasteyer and Larry Pine.

With Mr. Hughes at the helm of such a talented crew, you'd expect a rollicking evening of smashing theatre.

Sadly, it's merely cute and fun.

I will grant that having seen a preview, there may be some bugs still to work through, but even then the bones should be in place if things are going to work well or not. Mr. Roberts, miscast as business manager, Oscar Wolfe, was still fumbling with lines. Ms. Harris as the matriarch, Fanny Cavendish was regal, as always. Her death scene was remarkable, particularly since she faces upstage at that moment - a tribute to the art and craft of stage performance. Ms. Maxwell, one of my favorite NY actors, felt oddly miscast as the reigning stage diva, Julie Cavendish. She had the patter and flourishes in place, but they somehow felt forced.

It looks as though John Lee Beatty recycled the apartment set from last spring's Accent on Youth, embellishing for the grandness of the Cavendishes. Catherine Zuber's costumes are spot on.

It's certainly a worthy goal get Rosemary Harris on a Broadway stage, but shouldn't the production be worth her time and effort? This traditional staging seems to offer no reasons to explain why this revival has come to pass. It certainly meets none of the points outlined in the MTC mission statement, being neither new nor innovative.