Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Family Week

"Family Week" presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, April 9, 2010

Beth Henley has revisited this work from 2000 courtesy of Jonathan Demme, making his theatrical directing debut.
It is familiar ground for Ms. Henley, this high-estrogen tale of an emotionally shattered mother Claire (Rosemarie DeWitt), self-admitted to "the best facility in the country" to come to terms with the unsolved murder of her son.  Coming in to assist during family week are her mother Lena (Kathleen Chalfant), sister Rickie (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and daughter Kay (Sami Gayle).

This production is something of a rework from earlier productions of this story, though I think there's still a good bit of work to be done.  Ms. Henley's knack for finding humor in the darkest of moments doesn't ring with the same intensity as found in other works, such as Crimes of the Heart, and  The Miss Firecracker Contest.

Mr. Demme has assembled a talented cast.  Ms. DeWitt gives an admirable performance as the unbalanced Claire, intoning the various mantras of the institution's psycho-babble-double-talk.  As we are continually reminded, it is "...the best treatment facility in the country," though no one ever supplies the credentials that Ms. Chalfant's mother of the patient demands.  Ms. Chalfant, ever professional, does seem to bridle a bit under the two dimensional character who seems as interested in maintaining a calm facade than opening up enough to help her struggling child.  Ms. Bernstine, playing Claire's (inexplicably black) sister, Jessica, has a grand time. Navel-gazing and self-important, she floats along for as long as she can bear it, finally abandoning the "healing" effort for another hare-brained, get rich quick scheme.  As Kay, Sami Gayle poses but never quite lands credibly as the surviving daughter, who has only attended after accepting a bribe from her father.

With this talent, however, Mr. Demme has fallen into traps that many film directors tend to when first attempting the stage by reaching for cinematic moments when a theatrical one is called for.  A prime example of this was one of Claire's emotional tirades staged such that she faced the stage left wall, closed off to most of the audience.  Film-wise, such a scene of the two characters in profile would be quite effective.  Here, we only lose the effect of Claire's emotion as we watch the back of her head.  Still, I hope he will keep at it.

Kenneth Posner's dry lighting emphasizes Derek McLane's desert spa-like setting.

Family Week runs through May 23.

Sondheim on Sondheim

"Sondheim on Sondheim" presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, April 3, 2010

In a continuing year of celebration of Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday, the Roundabout presents a new revue of his life and works.  Frequent collaborator James Lapine conceived and directed the event, including songs from his earliest to the most recent efforts, combined with a series of recorded video clips of various interviews with the man himself.

Mr. Lapine has assembled an attractive, if uneven, cast for the show, including Barbara Cook in her first extended Broadway run in almost 30 years.  Vanessa Williams also returns to the boards, along with Tom Wopat, Euan Morton, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott.

The songs are wide-ranging, covering stage and television musicals from 1946 By George, written while a student at the George School, to 2008's Road Show.  The early work reflects the period, at times Porter-esque, though Oscar Hammerstein was as much a father figure as he was a mentor and teacher.  There are also a couple of numbers that were written and cut, including "Smile Girls, Smile" from Gypsy, "Invocation/Forget War" and "Love Is in the Air" from ...Forum and "My Husband the Pig" from A Little Night Music.  ("Invocation" turned up later in The Frogs, which was otherwise unrepresented during the evening.) 

Performance-wise, this is Ms. Williams' evening.  Nearing the painful beauty of Catherine Zeta Jones, her impeccable presence captivates the audience.  Ms. Cook, frail, but in fine voice comes in a close second, reminding the audience of her unmatched skill as a singing actress.  Mr. Wopat, however, is only occasionally serviceable. His discomfort, most particularly in "Soliloquy" from Sweeney Todd is painful to watch. The other songs are better, but not by much.  It's Mr. Morton who stands out among the supporting performers.  He finds interesting and distinct characterizations, notably in the Merrily We Roll Along sequence.  Mr. Lewis sings well, though comes off a little bland.  Ms. Kritzer also finds a few nice moments, but felt a little restrained as Mary Jane Moore in the Assassins segment.

Mr. Lapine's compilation of songs are interesting, even puzzling at times.  The materials is good, but I think there have been better arranged revues of Mr. Sondheim's work.  His direction is simple and elegant, though Beowulf Boritt's set pushes Dan Knechteges' musical staging toward the awkward on occasion.

Sondheim on Sondheim runs through June 13.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The 39 Steps

"The 39 Steps" at New World Stages, March 27, 2010

The transfer from it's two-year run on Broadway, including stints at the Roundabout's American Airlines, to the Cort, to the Helen Hayes is starting to show its wear now that Maria Aitken's skillfully and cleverly directed farce has moved off-Broadway to New World Stages.

I had hoped to find this production as tight as the transfer of Avenue Q a few months ago, but such is not the case.

John Behlmann certainly has the requisite movie star looks of protagonist Richard Hannay, though he looks a bit young for the role.  Kate MacCluggage also falls just a hair short of the Hitchcock blonde.  It's still quite funny, but some of the sophistication seems to have been lost along the way.

I still think this is the right venue for this production.  I hope the producers will give the audience enough time and direction to find it in its new home.

Click here for my original review.

Time Stands Still

"Time Stands Still" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, March 24, 2010

Donald Margulies continues his successful relationship with MTC in his latest work, Time Stands Still, an exploration of two war journalists trying to survive the aftermath of recording the gore and horrors in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Jamie (Brian D'Arcy James) brings home long-time girlfriend, Sarah (Laura Linney), in the last stages of recovery from injuries by a roadside bomb.  Her scarred and broken body belies her passion for the value of her photography as a means to expose the injustice and cruelty of war.

Tightly directed by Daniel Sullivan, the able cast brings us a compelling tale of a warrior who can't stop fighting despite the love she receives.  Ms. Linney is, as always, clear and focused in her portrayal of Sarah.  Mr. Bogosian and Ms. Silverstone support very well as Jamie's editor/publisher and his new, young girlfriend, respectively.  It is Mr. D'Arcy James who carries the evening.  His Jamie is exhausted from the real battles that he and Sarah cover, the battle of her infidelity as well as the battle to get Sarah to leave the danger of that life behind.  He's always first to reach out and always ends up rejected.  It's a remarkable performance.

Time Stands Still closed on March 27.

Starwatch - Mary Louise Parker was in the audience (scouting for the movie, perhaps?).

All About Me

"All About Me" at Henry Miller's Theatre, March 25, 2010

It's as odd as you might imagine.  Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna Everage have combined forces for an evening of music and Dame Edna.

Mercifully, it has closed, but one can't help but wonder if Max Bialystock was a part of this bizarre mash-up.  The wannabe Vegas style set, complete with 12 piece band and a white grand piano filled most of the stage, shoving the unfortunate action to the apron.  Why Christopher Durang allowed his name to be associated with this travesty is beyond me.  It must have been an impressive check that arrived with no performance clauses in the contract.

Alas, maybe the third time will be the charm for this newest house on Broadway, now named the Stephen Sondheim.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Lend Me A Tenor

"Lend Me A Tenor" at the Music Box, March 13, 2010

I have always thought Stanley Tucci was a very smart actor.  Making his directorial debut on Broadway, he has only proved that theory by reviving a war horse of a play, Ken Ludwig's Lend Me A Tenor.  On top of that he has assembled, for the most part, a most excellent and talented cast to carry out this farce of egos and ambitions courtesy of the fictional Cleveland Grand Opera. 

World-class opera star, Tito Merelli (Anthony LaPaglia) has arrived to sing the title role in Verdi's Otello for the company, with his wife Maria (Jan Maxwell) in tow.  CGO assistant Max (Justin Bartha) is under strict orders from general manager Saunders (Tony Shalhoub) to keep Signor Merelli from wine and women until after the performance.  The entire city is eager to meet the star, including Max's sometime girlfriend and Saunders' niece, Maggie (Mary Catherine Garrison), her aunt Julia (Brooke Adams), company soprano Diana (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and the Bellhop (Jay Klaitz).  As befitting a farce, mistaken identity, false deaths and bed-hopping all follow in due course.  All that's missing are the Marx Brothers, whom surely must have been in Mr. Ludwig's mind as he wrote.

Beyond intelligent selection of material and cast, Mr. Tucci guides this production with a sure, if sometimes heavy, hand.  Not to discount, by any means, this is a farce, for which a heavy hand is often called.  I'm sure this was also necessary in the rehearsal room, combining the skills and talents of the likes of Messrs. LaPaglia and Shalhoub and Ms. Maxwell.  Each bring larger than life attention to their respective roles.  Mr. Shalhoub's Saunders simmers continually with occasional boil overs as the story unfolds.  His intensity is masterful.  Mr. LaPaglia isn't a world-class tenor, but the singing moments are few and far between.  His Tito, however, is a world-class spoiled star, red-faced and alternately barking and pouting.  Ms. Maxwell's Maria sweeps in and snubs all around.

As Max, Mr. Bartha also doesn't quite have the vocal chops purported to his role, but he's nonetheless endearing and adorable.  Ms. Garrison has managed to get herself cast in another period piece.  This time, however, she is a bit more serviceable though still not quite on the mark.  Ms. Adam (Mrs. Shalhoub) comes off a bit young for her role and doesn't get all that much to do, other than point out that Mr. Ludwig is a Mel Brooks fan. "How do I look?" she asks Saunders. "Like the Chrysler Building" he replies.

Mr. Tucci wraps up the evening with a Buster Keaton style pantomime that retells the whole story.

John Lee Beatty's hotel suite set is gorgeous, with all the requisite doors to accommodate the farce. Kenneth Posner's lights complement nicely.  Martin Pakledinaz' costumes are equally gorgeous.

It's a great evening, and one I recommend.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


"Red" at the Golden Theatre, March 18, 2010

The Donmar Warehouse has transferred its latest London hit to Broadway, creating the story behind Mark Rothko's creation of the murals commissioned for The Four Seasons restaurant in 1958.  In this two-hander dramatization by John Logan, Rothko (Alfred Molina), once l'enfant terrible of the modern art world has just accepted the commission and hires Ken (Eddie Redmayne) to assist him in the project.  Ken, an aspiring young artist himself from Iowa, is looking to learn from a master with hopes of jump-starting his own career.

Mr. Logan's script creates lots of tension and drama as Rothko rants, raves, mocks and insults with total disregard, while expounding his own bloviations of how the younger generation doesn't "get" the meaning of his art, convinced that those who don't are too stupid to realize true genius.  Ultimately, Ken has had enough abuse and speaks out for the first time, declaring Rothko's movement as obsolete just as Rothko himself once declared of the cubists.  Ken plays the final straw as he accuses Rothko of selling out with the commission.  Rothko rescinds the commission and keeps the art for himself, firing Ken to push him forward in his own career.

As Rothko, Mr. Molina delivers.  He stalks the stage, berating and brutalizing everything and everyone around him, yet we still see just how much of his posturing is simply that each time Ken "passes" another test.  The nuances are well-played.  Mr. Redmayne's Ken is passionate and driven, though he has not mastered a flat midwestern accent - his brogue rings through frequently, occasionally disrupting the fourth wall.  I'm at a bit of a loss to understand why Actor's Equity felt it necessary to grant a waiver for Mr. Redmayne to accompany this transfer.  He's obviously a talented actor, but I found nothing in his performance (or the role for that matter) that required his presence in this production.  Surely there are a dozen young actors in New York alone who could have offered as much or more as Mr. Redmayne.

Mr. Grandage keeps the tension high, making clever use of music for old-style crossovers between scenes.  He keeps up the choreographed approach when Ken and Rothko prime an oversized canvas, the two splashing almost as much paint on themselves and the stage as they do on the canvas.  He may have been going for a parallel effect that was used in "Pollock" when Ed Harris recreated a full painting onscreen.  Many in the audience were more impressed than I was with the demonstration.

It's a compelling production, well-acted and solidly directed but I didn't quite see the reputed brilliance from its billing.