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 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.