Friday, January 09, 2009

Hedda Gabler

"Hedda Gabler" presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, January 8, 2009

Ibsen's great a new adaptation that is both literal and anachronistic at the same time.

Here's another one I had really high hopes for, although I'll admit to having a few feelings of wariness about it. I'm a big Mary Louise Parker fan - "Weeds"? Love her, all the way back to "Longtime Companion." "Proof" blew me away - what an amazing tour-de-force performance!

Then I hear that the Roundabout is producing "Hedda Gabler" which I found a bit curious after the fairly recent and most excellent production featuring Cate Blanchett at BAM.

Disclaimer: I did see a fairly early preview, so there may be some issues that resolve themselves before opening.

Director Ian Rickson, coming off a lovely (if partly miscast) "Seagull" starts out with some eerie mood music and the first of several bizarrre "furniture ballets" which never really seem to indicate anything about the play or move the story along. The static and irregular staging became difficult to follow, particularly in a slow passage before Hedda shoves Lovborg's hand up her dress as she shoves her tongue down his throat. If that sentence sounds jarring, imagine that same response when you see it performed.

And don't get me started on fumbling lines.

Ms. Parker fully commits to her role, but here our Hedda is so disdainful and contemptuous of everyone around her, it's hard to imagine what has earned her such reverence and respect. She insults, dismisses, stalks and plots with total disregard for those around her. It isn't until Act II that she even touches her husband with anything nearing tenderness. Michael Cerveris' Jorgen Tesman bows and scrapes to the point of humiliation - not one of his finer performances.

Christopher Shinn's adaptation comes up short on subtlety and long on sarcasm. I think others have done better with this material. Hildegard Bechtler's tall and heavy set creates more viewing problems than it solves, moving some action so far to stage right that much of the audience can't see what's going on, as well as a small dark room upstage center that distracts more than it hides. Ann Roth's costumes are an eclectic mix of period and Art Nouveau.

I really wanted it to be good - I really did.

Star watch: Annie Parisse in the audience.

The American Plan

"The American Plan" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore Theatre, January 8, 2009

Richard Greenberg's latest outing on the Rialto is a revival of his fractured fairy tale of sorts, set in a Catskills resort area in 1960.

The princess, Lili Adler (Lily Rabe) sits on a dock watching the social games going on across the lake at the all-inclusive and exclusive resort. Her callow and flawed prince, Nick Lockridge (Kieran Campion) climbs from his swim across the lake onto the dock to join her, apparently unaware that the property is not part of the hotel.

Lili's widowed mother Eva (Mercedes Ruehl), controls the ample purse strings left from her father's death, and the accusations quickly begin. "She murdered him, my father, you know." Eva enjoys her notoriety among the summer guests who refer to her as the Duchess or Czarina ("One should always have a population one can be superior to!"). Rounding out the household is Olivia (Brenda Pressley), the maid.

Seeing such a damsel in distress, Nick is soon enthralled to save her despite already being engaged to a social climber at the hotel, but has motives of his own. Family fortune lost, mother dead, his father was killed when cleaning his gun. Lili forces Nick's loyalty when she starts a rumor that he has an STD. This ends the engagement, not because the fiance' is disgusted, but because she fears she may have been the one to give it to him.

Eva, after some research of her own, learns some of Nick's secrets and rather than use them to get rid of the boy, she lures him into her own trap masked in goodwill. After Gil Harbison (Austin Lysy), another hotel visitor, wanders onto the property several week later, the plot thickens with some not unexpected Greenberg plot twists over who is telling the truth and when.

The story moves well enough at the lakeside, but Mr. Greenberg has tacked on an epilogue of sorts which takes place ten years later in the Adler's NYC apartment. Eva has died and Nick turns up to see Lili - it was never really clear why he came, nor were the protests heard outside her window given so much attention. Their cause was never stated, presumably Columbia students protesting the Vietnam war, but who knows?

As Lili, Ms. Rabe captures the manic child who can't escape the safe, if cloying, clutches of her domineering mother. Mr Campion, who makes his first entrance in only bathing trunks (thankfully!), masks his character a bit too much, leaving his performance slightly lacking. Ms. Pressley avoids the stereotype of household staff (unlike those in "Dividing The Estate"), in a slightly underwritten role.

It is Ms. Ruehl who commands every moment she is on stage. Though the German accent tended to obscure her lines, the character was always clear. She's the monster who suspects she may be a monster, enough so to tell other that possibility exists, but in the end fulfills the foregone conclusion without admitting the truth.

Jonathan Fensom, whose WWI trenches for last year's "Journey's End" evoked such cool dampness has put a nice spin on this revolving set, a tilting dock on a glassy black floor. He has also repeated the use of a traveling curtain for changes, quite similar to his design for "Faith Healer" from 2006. Mark McCullough's lighting completes the effect nicely.

Director David Grindley, who sat silently in the back of the orchestra section as cell phones and pagers continuously sounded during both acts, could work a bit on the pace. The show opens in two weeks, so time remains to tighten up scenes and get all the lines down cold.

I would hope that Manhattan Theatre Club might invest a bit of the Dentyne money to toss out some of the offending cell phone using ticket-holders, since the company sponsored the pre-show announcements and program stuffers. Shame on the offenders and shame on MTC for their inaction afterwards!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

All My Sons

"All My Sons" at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, January 3, 2009

Arthur Miller's classic, nearing the end of its limited run and featuring the stunt-casting of Katie Holmes gets the Greek tragedy treatment in this uneven revival.

John Lithgow opens the show literally reading the stage direction from the script with the full cast standing behind him. It's an uninteresting choice of direction that didn't feel particularly fresh or unique, something one might have expected from this third revival on the Rialto. Simon McBurney directs with very broad strokes, aiming for the highest theatricality, but only getting there with some remarkable stagecraft. The storm sequence felt so real, I expected the wind to blow my hair back as rain fell on my cheek. Kudos to Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Downing's sound design. The highly-stylized train sequence was also impressive, but ultimately distracted from the realism with which the rest of the play was performed.

As for the performances, Mr. Lithgow is in his ever-fine form as Joe Keller, the flawed father whose overturned conviction for selling substandard parts to the military during WWII resulting in the deaths of 21 aviators tortures the remaining family and friends who surround him.

Dianne Wiest approaches Wagnerian form as his wife Kate. She doesn't quite get to the "Don't speak...don', don't...speak" theatricality that defined her brilliance in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, but she gets close as she rails in denial over her missing son Larry, who disappeared during a regular mission during the war and has never been recovered.

Patrick Wilson, playing Larry's older brother Chris seemed a bit too attractive for the role of one overshadowed by a sibling. Mr. Wilson struggles for gravitas and insecurity as a young man trying to move on with life by starting a new life with Anne, his brother's sweetheart. At least he meets the requirement of at least one shirtless scene per show.

As Anne, Ms. Holmes is lovely to look at and does exceed the low standard set by other television and film actors who have trod the boards such as Ashley Judd. She claws to approach the bar set for her by the rest of the cast, but never quite makes it, wavering between the self-conscious and amateurish. Still, her voice seems to have suffered from the strain of 8 shows per week, sounding gravelly and hoarse as she substitutes poor technique for emotional delivery.

It also bothered me that she spent so much time speaking while facing upstage. Note that she was not alone in this type of action. Much of the rest of the cast seemed to have been directed this way as well. (Had the original plan been to have onstage seating like Equus, Xanadu, Spring Awakening, and Inherit The Wind?)

The use of mixed media on the back wall creating ghostly images of the war, the family house profile and a disappearing window to Larry's old room distracted more than it added to Tom Pye's scenic design.

Star watch: Jim Norton (The Seafarer, Port Authority) in the mezzanine near me.

Dividing the Estate

"Dividing the Estate" at the Booth Theatre, January 1, 2009

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Horton Foote's version of a Tennessee Williams premise left a bit of a disappointing legacy for me, despite what should have been an excellent cast.

I had decided to see this show mostly to see Elizabeth Ashley. Much to my disappointment, Miss Ashley (or Ahsley, as it was spelled on the notice) was out for this performance and her role was played by less than impressive Jill Tanner. It's got to be terrifically difficult to serve as an understudy on a Broadway show, and I don't mean to diminish Ms. Tanner's efforts. However, minimum requirements when stepping in are to know ALL of the lines as well as NOT throwing away ALL of the jokes. Sadly, Ms. Tanner failed on both counts.

I found the plot relatively predictable, telegraphing character deaths in short order. I also found several characters to be severely one-dimensional, either by script, direction or performance. It was sometimes difficult to tell which was most at fault.

There were one or two bright spots. Penny Fuller as Lucille turns in a lovely performance as the widowed daughter fighting for her son's legacy. Hallie Foote's portrayal of Lucille's sister, the greedy and selfish Mary Jo took until the second act for me to find any note of character shading. The rest of the cast fell victim to either stereotype (in the case of the house staff roles) or wooden delivery (in the case of Devon Abner, Maggie Lacey, Nicole Lawrence and Jenny Dare Paulin).

Jeff Cowie's set works hard to cram in the plethora of features required by the script, but doing so ultimately compromised the grand, but fading elegance of the family manse.

Director Michael Wilson provides a meandering pace giving room to allow the mouse I saw crossing the house left aisle to upstage the entire first act. (Really, a mouse in the aisle!)