Thursday, February 25, 2010

Signs of Life

"Signs of Life" presented by Amas Musical Theatre at The Marjorie S. Dean Little Theater, February 21, 2010

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

The horrors of the Holocaust are again fodder for a new musical that explores the lives of the Jews sent to Terezin.  Composer Joel Derfer sums it up as:

Signs of Life is the story of a young girl who comes of age in the Czech ghetto Terezin, rechristened Theresienstadt by the Nazis, who filled it with Jewish artists, musicians, and intellectuals and turned it into a propaganda tool. Once she and her friends and family realize what lies in store for them, they begin to discover that some truths might be worth dying for.
As a freshman effort, Mr. Derfner shows promise with his score.  His is a more heavily sung-through approach to story-telling, first explored with composers like Richard Rodgers, and more recently with Boublil & Schoenburg, and Adam Guettel.  He hasn't mastered their finesse, but is on his way to finding his own musical voice.

The story told is compelling, of 19 year old Lorelei (Patricia Noonan) studying art and discovering boys, whose life is tragically interrupted and forever changed by the Germans.  Peter Ullian's book is functional, but does have a few burps here and there.  One is when Lorelei, who has obviously met her love interest, Simon (Wilson Bridges), instead trades a dumpling to the pan-sexual cabaret star, Kurt (Jason Collins), for her first kiss.

Ms. Noonan makes a noble effort to carry the weight of the proceedings.  She gets nice support from Mr. Collins, less from Mr. Bridges. Erika Amato as Berta Pluhar, a former Jew abandoned by her Christian husband sings well, but falls victim to poor direction and comes across as overplayed.  Allen E. Read's Officer Heindel provides a short-lived glimpse of humanity behind the torture of the Nazis.

Director Jeremy Dobrish has staged the show for a much bigger house than one as intimately sized as the Deane Little Theater.  From a clunky series of silhouette images at the opening (which looked more like lighting mistakes) to oversized emoting that might work in an 1500 seat Broadway house.  He would have done better to rely on the strength of the score and the story instead of inflating the staging beyond the scope of the hall.

Alexis Distler's sets of stacked suitcases effectively provides the reminder of all the bags that were packed by the doomed to be hauled off to their deaths.  Jennifer Caprio's costumes function well, as do Michael Gottlieb's lights.

The show runs through March 21.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Next Fall

"Next Fall" at The Helen Hayes Theatre, February 20, 2010

(Photo: Francesco Carrozzini)

Transferring from an Off-Broadway run last summer, Geoffrey Nauffts' play is a touching and provocative story of religion and homosexuality.

Working back and forth in time, we learn the tale of how Adam (Patrick Breen) and Luke (Patrick Heusinger) met, fell in love and struggled to work through the issues of Adam's agnosticism versus Luke's Christian faith.  Since that's not enough, Adam is also roughly 20 years older than Luke, though emotionally they are much closer in age.

As the play opens, Luke has been hit by a car and is hospitalized in a coma.  His divorced parents Arlene (Connie Ray) and Butch (Cotter Smith) have arrived along with Luke's boss Holly (Maddie Corman) and college friend Brandon (Sean Dugan).  Adam arrives late, having been out of town for a class reunion.

Arlene and Buddy have instilled their faith in Luke, and still carry it openly, increasing the tension when Adam expresses his secular beliefs.

Mr. Nauffts has written a very intelligent story that actually manages to explore the issues of faith and science.  Both sides get full measure to present their respective cases.  The heart of the problem between Adam and Luke is that Adam doesn't understand why Luke can't see the missing logic of faith, where Luke doesn't understand why Adam can't take the leap and believe.  During one of their arguments, Adam accuses Luke of loving God more than him.  Luke doesn't respond.  Without spoiling it, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed by the choice in the final scene.

Don't be mistaken, as somber as this may sound, there are plenty of laughs to be found.  Mr. Nauffts has assembled a slew of one-liners and quips that keep the audience bright.  While the parents are out of the room, Adam, Holly and Brandon are discussing how to handle his relationship with Luke, who hasn't come out to his family yet.  Adam says, "You don't see me in a thong on a float, but I'm still a fag!" 

Having seen The Boys in the Band within a few days of this show, it was interesting to see how the openly vicious self-hatred of that story has modulated only a little into a more quiet version. This is noted particularly in the character of Brandon, who can hardly bring himself to say out loud that he's only attracted to black men.  Luke suffers similarly, praying for forgiveness after each time he and Adam are intimate.  Luke is also afraid of his family's rejection, specifically that his father will cut him off from contact with his little brother.  "Next fall" he says, "that's when he'll be off to college, and I'll tell them then. He'll be old enough to decide for himself."

In Arlene, Ms. Ray has managed to take hold of a Julie White character and truly make it her own. Arlene was a confused and unprepared young mother who ended up in prison for marijuana, leaving the care of Luke to his father, who remarried shortly thereafter and had another son.  Ms. Ray enters like a tornado and takes control in a touching yet hilarious performance.  Mr. Cotter's Butch is a father in denial, both of his son's sexual orientation and the severity of his condition.  His emotion is palpable during a climactic scene in Act II.

Mr. Heusinger's Luke is earnest, hopeful and occasionally callow - appropriate for a young man who dropped out of law school to move to NYC to chase an acting dream.  Mr. Breen's Adam does most of the heavy lifting in the play, balancing the feelings of Luke's family and friends against his own.  When he's told he can't see Luke in ICU because he's not "family," you can see his heart drop in his chest. Ms. Corman, and Mr. Dugan get little to do, more than sit around suffering supportively over Luke.

Wilson Chin's set flexes easily into the various locations, hospital waiting room, Adam's apartment, a bench in the park, all service-ably lit by Jeff Croiter.

This is a powerful and emotional play, beautifully written, directed and acted. It's another one not to be missed. 

It got a rare standing ovation from me. 

The Boys in the Band

"The Boys in the Band" presented by Transport Group Theatre Company, February 17, 2010

(photo: Carol Rosegg)

Have you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall at someone's party?  That's exactly what director Jack Cummings, III has done with this revival of Mart Crowley's 1968 play.  Mr. Cummings has furnished a loft space in the Flatiron District and seated the audience all around the large room to observe the fireworks.  We are all guests at Michael's to celebrate Harold's 32 birthday.

The setting is still approximately 1968 as Michael (Jonathan Hammond) starts his warm-up with a little Judy at Carnegie Hall playing full blast on the record player.  Just as the first guest is scheduled to arrive, Michael's college roommate Alan (Kevin Isola) is in town from DC, very upset, calls up and invites himself over.  As the guests begin to arrive, Michael begs them to act "normal" when Alan appears and the spewing of self-hate begins.  If you need a plot summary and a history of the show, click here.

Playing now as a period piece (to a certain extent), everyone at the party has been in therapy over his own issues with homosexuality.  The resulting self-hate is the usual by-product from a time when the American Psychiatric Association still regarded homosexuality as a mental illness.

Mr. Cummings has assembled an attractive and, for the most part, very able cast to tell this tale of bitchy queens who care for each other, but hate themselves.  The characters cover the gamut of stereotypes of the day (hell, of today for that matter), from the bitter, unattractive, Jewish Harold (Jon Levenson), to his birthday present, the twinkie hustler known only as Cowboy (Aaron Sharff), from the swishy, nelly Emory (John Wellman) to the divorced bisexual Hank (Graham Rowat).

Mr. Hammond's Michael gives us an early peek into his neurotic tendencies, changing his sweater three times to fussing over who didn't eat the cracked crab leg hors d'oeuvres.  There's a lot more to work with in this character than his recent pared down role of Harry Houdini in "Ragtime" from last year. He carries Michael's baggage very well.

As Bernard, the token black man, Kevyn Morrow walks the fine line between camp and "straight acting." Mr. Wellman's Emory moves and croons perfectly, but with the close viewing proximity in the setting, I never saw the truth of it in his eyes.  As the unwitting guest, Alan, Mr. Isolda plays it a little passively, perhaps to remain ambiguous through the suspicions and accusations that ensue.  Not much falls into gray in this play, so the ambiguity didn't always work for me.  The very handsome Christopher Innvar's Larry never exuded the "polyamorous-ness" of his role. Mr. Sharff's Cowboy was little more than a twink out of his element, in more ways than one.

Mr. Cummings is to be commended for his work. The pace is brisk, a vital requirement since the two hours are passed without intermission.  He seems to have focused on the stronger actors, rather than bringing up the weaker ones.  Still, it's a full ride of emotion in one evening.

The show runs through March 14.  If you haven't seen it before, you shouldn't miss it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ages of the Moon

"Ages of the Moon" at Atlantic Theater Company, February 17, 2010

Sam Shepard's newest play comes to New York after its London premiere, a rambling, almost stream of conscious, 80 minute, two-hander.  The premise is that of Byron (Sean McGinley) arriving to comfort Ames (Stephen Rea), whose wife has just walked out on him after discovering a recent act of infidelity.  Slowly we learn that Byron and Ames haven't been all that close after all as the drinking progresses and the confessions and long-forgotten memories waft in and out.  This meandering exposition includes a tale spilling a pot of coffee on Roger Miller, the possible death of Byron's wife, a badly staged fight resulting in a possible heart attack.

The location of the action appears to be rural America, though this is never explicitly stated.  The rural accents attempted by Messrs. Rea and McGinley travel all across the world, so perhaps that's why it's indefinite.  The age of the two characters is also a bit confusing, since neither actor appears to be pushing 70, as the exposition would propose. (The Roger Miller incident took place in the early 1960s on Ames' honeymoon.)  On top of that, Mr. Rea's dark hair belies his character's age as well.

There are some standard, required elements of a Shepard play - - guns, whiskey and fisticuffs. The gun comes along to address the issue with the "finicky" ceiling fan on the porch which turns of its own volition.

As Ames, Mr. Rea is whiny, needy, jealous and agressive.  Mr. McGinley's Byron comes off like a bit of Forrest Gump, restating the obvious more often than not. Pace lags from time to time as the two men sit and stare off into the distance, sipping their bourbon.  I'm certain these are two very talented actors, but am hard pressed to find them well cast in these roles.

Director Jimmy Fay doesn't seem to have landed on the message in this play of grumpy old men.  I'm not certain Mr. Shepard has either.  Brien Vahey's front porch set serves well, complemented by Paul Keogan's lights.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Clybourne Park

"Clybourne Park" at Playwrights Horizons, February 6, 2010

Bruce Norris' new play tells the tale of an urban neighborhood, specifically one house as it suffers and recovers from white flight over the course of 50 years.

(Spoiler alert)

In 1959, Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood) are fleeing the pain of losing their Korean War veteran son to suicide following accusations of war crimes.  They've relinquished responsibility for the sale of their house to the realtor who has sold it to a black family, the first in the neighborhood.  Russ' depression has practically paralyzed him, so Bev has called Jim (Brendan Griffin) their pastor for a little counsel.  As news of the sale gets out, Russ' co-worker Karl (Jeremy Shamos) and his hearing-impaired and pregnant wife (Anne Parisse).  Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), Bev and Russ' maid and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton) get dragged into the discussion about the impact of the property's sale on the rest of the homeowners in the area.

Fifty years later, the proximity of the neighborhood to downtown has created new interest in the area and a white couple expecting their first child has bought the same house with plans to raze it and build new.  The politics now include a neighborhood association concerned that their plans will destroy the personality that has evolved over the last 50 years.

Mr. Norris manages to avoid a replay of "All In The Family" when the Jeffersons moved in next door, but does create a tense environment in both eras.  He doesn't quite reach the "pitch black" comedy put forth in the marketing materials, but there is an awkward reality to the premise, highlighting two generations of white guilt on each side of political correctness.  The plot construction is good, but the writing pales at times, falling to stereotype particularly in the second act.

Ms. Kirk's Bev never quite rings true, but Mr. Wood's Russ demonstrates his consummate skill as a character actor.  Mr. Shamos pulls off the most convincing transformation from the panicky neighbor Karl to the new homebuyer Steve in Act II.  Ms. Parisse doesn't have so much to do in Act I as the deaf Betsy, but gets a chance to put in a bit of work through her second act apology of a character, Lindsey.

Daniel Ostling's set ages well, complemented by Allen Lee Hughes lighting.  Ilona Somogyi's costumes capture both periods effectively.  Director Pam McKinnon tries to keep things apace, but gets bogged down from time to time.

Overall it's a nice effort.  The show runs through March 7, 2010.

Playwrights Horizons is offering a discount:

Order by February 21 with code CPGR and tickets are only
  • $40 (reg. $65) for all performances Jan 29-Feb 14
  • $50 (reg. $65) for all performances Feb 16-March 17
How to Order: Order online at  Use code CPGR.
Call Ticket Central at (212)279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
Present the discount code at the Ticket Central box office, 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Little Night Music

"A Little Night Music" at the Walter Kerr Theatre, February 3, 2010

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music first bowed on Broadway in 1973.  Tales of potential Broadway revivals have floated for years until a tiny theatre, The Menier Chocolate Factory in London, started a string of stripped down revivals that have transferred over the last couple of years.  Among them, Sondheim's Sunday In The Park With George, which took residence via Roundabout Theatre Company in 2008.  Coming soon is La Cage Aux Folles, starting previews in April.  Under the direction of Trevor Nunn, ALNM has arrived in New York with a well-assembled cast including Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree in her Broadway debut.

Miss Z-J's Desiree is almost painfully beautiful, creating an interesting take on the role as a woman facing middle age who's gotten by on her looks, rather than her acting talent.  This Desiree is one from the bus and truck crowd of late 19th century Swedish theatre, a glamorous facade covering a woman growing lonely and tired of the continual games of lovers and roles.  Miss Z-J was not in her finest voice at this performance (though it was matinee day), but overall managed to find a lovely heart in the role. Her regret was almost palpable in Sondheim's only pop hit, "Send In The Clowns."

Nearly walking off with the show was Angela Lansbury as Mme Armfeldt.  This aging courtesan, now full of unsolicited advice and Wildean quips, lands each zinger with finesse.  "Liaisons" (one of my favorite Sondheim songs) sums up the evolution of the expedience of love and lust from the feudal system to the aftermath of the industrial revolution as she shares her exploits with and acquisitions.  Ms. Lansbury's performance is masterful.  She took home her 5th Tony for last season's Blithe Spirit and is likely lined up for another nomination.

As Frederick Egerman, Alexander Hanson brings a naturalism to the unsettled lawyer trapped in a new marriage with a friend's daughter that remains unconsummated.  His discomfort and resignation to middle age ring true.  As his son Henrik, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka never seems to find much beyond two dimensions.  Ramona Mallory,  playing Anne, the role her mother Victoria originated in the original Broadway production, is neither a lookalike or soundalike, but makes the role her own - an auspicious debut.  I look forward to her next outing.  Rounding out the cast are Erin Davie as Charlotte, giving us a glimpse of what Little Edie might have been had she actually married and left Long Island.  Leigh Ann Larkin cruises through the role of the maid, Petra, until "The Miller's Son" late in Act II turning the boast into a confession.  Aaron Lazar wins the vocal competition as Carl Magnus, flourishing through "In Praise of Women."

David Farley's low-key and adaptable mirror-panel sets were mostly visible under Hartley T. A. Kemp's minimal lighting. Mr. Farley's costumes were nicely serviceable as well.

Director Trevor Nunn has followed TMCF's tradition of musical "down-sizing" paring the story down to its core, with a focus on the story telling.  Even the once-lush score gets trimmed with a scaled-down 8-piece orchestra.  The reduction doesn't necessarily hinder the performance, but a fuller accompaniment might have gone a long way.  The show opens a bit darkly, with a funereal tempo and black-clad ensemble soon waltzing to Lynne Page's swirling choreography.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Betty Buckley "For The Love of Broadway"

Betty Buckley: "For the Love of Broadway!" at Feinstein's at Loew's Regency, February 2, 2010

Kicking off a month-long run at Feinstein's, Miss Buckley is back to singing a more familiar book from the Broadway canon.  Apparently, she has steered into a very significant jazz mode over the last few years.  Based on her performance last week, she hasn't left that path.  While the titles are all from contemporary and classic musicals of this century and the last, her style is still jazz, through and through.

The opening mix of Rodgers and Hart is her first statement to that effect.  Supported by three pieces, piano, bass and percussion/woodwinds, the ballads come through a bit better, though the percussion choices during the King & I sequence of "I Have Dreamed" and "We Kiss in a Shadow" were distracting at best.

Her take on "There's A Fine, Fine Line" from Avenue Q pointed up for me that not every song has the depth or ability to "age" based on the performer.  She seemed to be reaching for a level of gravitas that just isn't there in the lyrics.  A new song, "When I Belt" brings home her true feelings about the dissatisfaction many of her fans have expressed over her move away from theatre to jazz..  Then, she segues into "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" from Pal Joey and one wonders what kind of a Vera we have missed.

Other highlights were the songs "Simple" and "Be On Your Own" from Nine, neither of which made it into Rob Marshall's film (sadly).  She closed with "Home" bringing a bit of insight to the final showstopper from The Wiz.

"For the Love of Broadway" runs Tuesdays through Saturdays until February 27 at Feinstein's at Loew's Regency, 540 Park Ave.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

the picture of Dorian Gray

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" at the Kirk Theatre at Theatre Row, February 1, 2010

The source material is a compelling tale of "be careful what you wish for" a la Oscar Wilde.  It's a cautionary tale, much like attending the evening of theatre it presents.

This anachronistic interpretation of Wilde's only novel, with a beautiful cast and an overly aspirational concept, drones for over 90 minutes with no intermission and no hope of entertainment.  It opens with a pretentious tableau in silhouette.  I have no issue with an opening tableau, but the pose was neither revealing nor indicative of the story, other than to put all actors on stage.  The lights rose to reveal a very attractive assembly of actors.  Alas, beauty is only skin deep after all.

Daniel Mitura's adaptation sets the action in 1890s Britain, then seems to dash directly for his latest edition of Bartleby's to snatch every quip ever attributed to Mr. Wilde.  95% of these are given to the role of Henry Wotton (Vayu O'Donnell).  If only Mr. Mitura had spread the love around a bit. (Also, I'm pretty sure that the concept of hip replacement hadn't occurred at the time as mentioned by Henry in one scene, um...dramaturg?)  I fully expected Dorian's (Wil Petre) final words to be "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do!"

As Henry, Mr. O'Donnell rushes so quickly through his lines that by the time he's popped off a punch line, he has either garbled the words or ignored their impact.  In the title role, Mr. Petre brings the requisite youth and beauty, but fails to display the bitterness that undercuts the gift of everlasting youth as everyone ages around him.

As the painter Basil Hallward, Leif Huckman trails around like a puppy, but can't bring much depth to his poorly sketched character.  When he finally gushes forth of his love for Dorian, the moment falls untrue on two counts.  First is the fault of Mr. Mitura for failing to recognize that subtext is meant to be felt, not spoken.  I think Mr. Huckman's inability to make the moment true as an actor shows that he doesn't buy it either.

Director Henning Hegland has made some odd choices in this production.  First was the earlier mention of the opening tableau. Next, when not active in a scene, the remaining actors are seated at the rear of the stage behind a red satin rope, where they also make their costume changes.  If his purpose is to reveal something with this technique, it would be interesting to know what it was. Not all his choices were flawed, though their execution may have been.  The scene where Henry, Dorian and Basil attend the theatre to see a performance by Sybil, the object of Dorian's affections was a good idea. Sadly, art painfully imitated art as Sybil ruins her own performance for Dorian with terrible acting, while the audience watched as Messrs. Huckman, O'Donnell, and Petre ruined theirs in the same way.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

As You Like It

"As You Like It" presented by the Bridge Project at Brooklyn Academy of Music, January 26, 2010

(photo: Joan Marcus)

This is my first opportunity to see a production by the Bridge Project, a three-year partnership between the Old Vic Theatre in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Neal Street (Sam Mendes' film and theater production company).  Last season's offerings were Chekov's The Cherry Orchard in a new adaptation by Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, both of which were pretty well-received (well enough received that I couldn't get a ticket!).  For their second season, it's a Shakespeare double-bill of As You Like It and The Tempest.

Tickets have been much more readily available for the first of this year's productions.  Telling the story of Orlando, searching for a reason to be in the world, coached by his love, Rosalind, hiding in front of him wearing trousers, Mr. Shakespeare asks for a substantial suspension of disbelief from his audience.  Certainly the writing is romantic and the story, at times, compelling.  Still, never having seen or read this play, I couldn't help but feel that this production, while pleasant, is unremarkable.  The actors are generally skilled in the language, with an exception here and there, and the staging is functional.  It was all very pretty.

There still seems something missing.  Where is the force that required this play to be produced with this cast in this theatre?  The story itself is typical Shakespeare at his operatic best, banished fathers, feuding brothers, greedy villains, masquerades and unfortunate love triangles. Juliet Rylance's Rosalind is lovely.  She really carries the evening, most of which is spent in a khaki suit and pork-pie hat as her alter-ego, Ganymede. Equally nice is Christian Camargo's Orlando, the youngest son forced into the forest after his older brother drives him from the family estate following their father's death.  As the middle son Jacques, Stephan Dillane strolls through the proceedings, content in his own discontentment.

Directed by Mr. Mendes, he keeps the action apace, but never seems to draw out any particular thoughts on the events of the plot.  The laughs are muted, resulting in a general sense of melancholy for most of the show.  Even the supposed joy of the ending is trampled a bit in the uncomfortable choreography stomped out by a willing if less than graceful cast.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Venus in Fur

"Venus in Fur" at Classic Stage Company, January 23, 2010

A tale of lust, domination and submission, based on a German novel from the late 1800s, David Ives has adapted Leopold von Sacher Masoch's Venus in Furs into a contemporary, clever, 90 minute two-hander.  The theatricality is heightened as he juxtaposes the tale into the setting of a playwright conducting auditions for his own stage adaptation of the original text.

Frustrated by poor productions of earlier work, Thomas (Wes Bentley) is directing his new play himself.  His "perfect" Wanda and she hasn't turned up yet at his auditions.  He is about to give up for the day when Vanda (Nina Arianda) bursts into the room.  She's late for her appointment (weather, trains, blah, blah) but wants to read even though Thomas didn't have her name on the list.  She quizzes him on the finer points of the story, "It's really just porn, isn't it? I mean...really?"  Exposition ensues and the games begin.  Power flips back and forth as they read each character, and as director and actress work through the story.

Ms. Arianda takes the upper hand very quickly and doesn't let go, even until the confusing and slightly bizarre ending.  It's a powerful performance and worth the price of admission.  Mr. Bentley seems a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing, but manages a few nice moments.  It pointed up, for me, the difference between acting for an audience vs. acting for a camera. There were moments when he seemed to be looking for the lens to register an internal moment.  Nonetheless, he has matured nicely since his role as the quiet bad boy in "American Beauty" so many years ago.  Being pretty can count for something from time to time.

Director Walter Bobbie shows a firm hand as he guides the cat and mouse games, each actor moving to and from each position.  He keeps the tension high without losing the laughs.

Mr. Ives' adaptation starts with a great premise and builds beautifully, keeping the audience on edge.  At the last minute, he suddenly loses focus and as a result, the audience.  I have a vague idea of what I think he intended, but I'm still not really sure.  With some proper attention to the last scene, this could be a pretty darn good play.

John Lee Beatty's sterile audition studio set makes a great canvas for Peter Kaczorowski's lighting.