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!