Thursday, December 15, 2011

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" at St. James Theatre, December 15, 2012 


Why change the focus of the story from Daisy, now David (David Turner) to the psychologist Mark (Harry Connick, Jr.) 

Why hire Mr. Connick to perform on Broadway and not let him do what he does best? Did none of the producers and/or creative team see Pajama Game?  "Hernando's Hideaway" turned that show on its ear, combined with the infused chemistry playing opposite Kelli O'Hara.  We get neither here.

Why not have him accompany Melinda's (Jessie Mueller) numbers, particularly "Ev'ry Night at Seven," among several others of which could have been beefed up to accommodate him.

Why give him book scenes that really require an actor?  He's a singer, not an actor.  Even here, he's not even trying.  He might as well be texting the performance in from his dressing room.  He sings solidly, but that, too, comes across as uninspired.

Why did he stick with this show?  It's painfully obvious that he'd rather be somewhere else.  Is he working his own slowdown in hopes of closing it before his contract expires?  That would seem remarkably inconsistent from his last outing.

Why take what was a questionable property and re-write the story to a period when the concept of homosexuality was still highly controversial?  If the idea is to ignore the doctor's struggle over the fact that the woman he loves is in the body of a man, shouldn't it be in a time when that isn't such a struggle?  There's no reason why Melinda had to be David's most immediate past life. Why not hire a book writer with a stronger gay sensibility like Douglas Carter Beane or Richard Greenberg? 

Why does David literally and completely disappear in the flashback scenes, except for "You're All the World to Me?"  That number was the only one that really worked, thanks to the rare, effective bit of choreography by Joann M. Hunter.

Why is the rest of the musical staging such a series of park and barks?

Why wasn't David more adorable?  Drew Gehling's Warren came across much better.  Why was David's BFF Muriel (Sarah Stiles) so obnoxiously written and performed?

Why take such a wonderful song like "What Did I Have That I Don't Have" and reduce it to a single punchline sung by David?  Why waste the talent of Kerry O'Malley?   Why not give it to Sharone (Ms. O'Malley) as she gets more involved in Mark's apparent self-destructive actions, rather than the disrespectful nod of acknowledgement she gets from the secretary late in Act II.

Why waste the talents of Catherine Zuber on such a fashion-deficient era as the '70s?  If that's the look, Mr. Producer, save your cash.


Friday, December 09, 2011

The Cherry Orchard

"The Cherry Orchard" at Classic Stage Company, December 2, 2012

(photo: Carol Rosegg)

Classic Stage puts up The Cherry Orchard, the last production of its Chekhov Initiative, that included The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters in a new and very casual translation by John Christopher Jones.

Mr. Jones reportedly worked directly with the cast during rehearsals to make the vocabulary choices for their respective characters.  It had to have been great fun for the actors, but the result ends up straddling the border of anachronism and "huh?"  It was my first time seeing this play and I can't help but wonder there's something about Chekov that never makes it through translation.

Still, director Orlando Pabotoy manages to massage the tragic material into some laughs, though they range from clever to uncomfortable.  Beyond that, it still has plenty of dull moments as the dysfunctional family watches their legacy waste away.

Mr. Chekov spins a standard Russian tale of waning fortunes and prideful nobles falling on hard times. Ranevskaya (Dianne Wiest) dithers, giggles and lives in the past, covering her fear of a future of which she can't grasp control.  Lopakhin, a blustering John Tuturro, the former-peasant-made-good, presents the solution, but Ranevskaya can't bring herself to act on his advice.  Daughter Varya the cast-aside homebody, is a consistently engaging Julie Rylance. Katherine Waterston is the favorite, dewy-eyed daughter Anya.  Their uncle Gaev (Daniel Davis) also teeters on the edge of reality.  The more interesting moments come from Michael Urie's Epikhodov, who nearly needs an ER visit as the master of disaster desperately in love with servant Dunyasha (Elisabeth Waterston).  Her eyes fall (quite understandably) for Yasha, another peasant-now-servant (a very sexy Slate Holmgren), whose interest beyond pleasure is living in Ranevskaya's trail of dribbling cash.  With a couple of other archetypes tossed in, the plot is as Russian as they come.

Pacing, however, was a different issue, and it was leaden this night, pushing the few laughs farther between.

Santo Loquasto's white set creates a sepia tone for this family who lives in the past.  I will say that his gauze act curtain around the thrust stage created some difficulty for the audience to get to their seats.  Marco Piemontese continues the finely detailed work for Ms. Wiest's gowns, but phones in a bit for some of the supporting roles.

The Cherry Orchard runs through December 30.  Tickets here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lysistrata Jones

 "Lysistrata Jones" at Walter Kerr Theatre, November 18, 2011

Transferring from off-Broadway run downtown, Douglas Carter Beane takes on the Greeks again in this re-telling of the Aristophanes classic.  Tongue remains firmly in cheek, much as it did with Xanadu a few years ago.

From one perspective, it's an extended episode of "Glee."  But that's slightly dismissive and I did have a great time.  Liz Mikel kicks things off as the goddess Hetaira, quickly moving the location from Olympus to Athens University, where the basketball team hasn't won a game in 33 years.  Lysistrata Jones (Pati Murin) arrives as a transfer student and starts to stir things up right away, putting together a cheerleading squad to motivate the team.

When the players tell the squad they're not interested in improving, Lys searches for a new plan, coming across the Aristophanes' play for which she was named.  Borrowing its plot points for her own devices, Lys has little immediate success.  School nerd, Xander (Jason Tam) learns to dance from an app on his smart phone. Adorable team captain Mick (Josh Segarra) delivers what will likely be short-lived jokes about Herman Cain.  Women's study major (duck before the subtext knocks you over) Robin (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) makes her own conversion of sorts, too.

Mr. Beane, as usual, plays with gender roles and mixes up the couples with both expected and unexpected pairings, pulling much from pop culture as mentioned above.  (By the way, the Athens University team mascot?  Yes...the Spartans.)  Lewis Flinn's score serves well, moving the story along, though there aren't many memorable songs.  Director/choreographer Dan Knechtges keeps the pace moving, borrowing a bit of Bill T. Jones here and there among the basketball exercise drills.

It may not outrun "Chicago," it may not provide the catharsis of "War Horse," but it's lots of fun.  There should be plenty of discounts available.  Check out and get tickets.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Private Lives

"Private Lives" at The Music Box, November 15, 2011

This London transfer brings Kim Cattrall back to the Rialto for the first time in 25 years, leading this production of the Noel Coward classic.  Her Amanda was hailed in London and she arrives in New York with a new Elyot in the very handsome Paul Gross.

The crossing seems to have had an impact on the production.  I will confess that there was much to live up to in my eyes, having basked in the glorious revival of 2002 with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan. (Unfair?  Perhaps.)

Mr. Gross' Elyot succeeds best among this cast, urbane, elegant and sophisticated.  Lacking is any sense of chemistry between him and Ms. Cattrall's Amanda.  Ms. Cattrall, rather than rising to meet Mr. Gross' level of sophistication, goes instead for the physical laughs with a sense of awkwardness that undercuts the lyrical writing in the first act.  Fortunately, it's in the power of the writing that this approach still works.

The supporting cast also arrives with mixed results.  Anna Madeley is also a new addition and dithers beautifully as Elyot's new wife, Sybil.  She's an excellent physical match to Ms. Cattrall, even drawing entrance applause by an eager audience who didn't realize that it wasn't Ms. Cattrall.  The more curious appearance is the styling and physical appearance of Simon Paisley Day as Victor.  The role is written and usually cast with a more handsome actor who favors the actor playing Elyot.  A brief internet search did reveal a more consistent appearance with the London production's Elyot, Matthew MacFadyen.  Nonetheless, Mr. Day's Victor is much more of a stick-in-the-mud than I had expected.

It's unclear why director Richard Eyre couldn't help these actors find some chemistry.  Each are certainly capable performers, but never manage to deliver any kind of spark.  Even Anna Madeley as Louise, the maid, fails to deliver any laughs, instead merely strolling through the carnage with disinterest.

Rob Howell's costumes effect the period beautifully, but his sets didn't quite hit the mark for me.  Ms. Cattrall's costumes are particularly exquisite, first the bias-cut, champagne silk gown in Act 1, followed by the lovely navy suit in Act 3.  The Deauville balcony felt a bit skimpy where Amanda's Paris apartment stretched credulity in its excessive splendor of art deco chinoise in silver and verdigris.  The aquarium in the apartment is particularly impressive, echoing the circular theme of the room.  It's a gorgeous set, but hardly Amanda's Paris hideaway. David Howe's lighting draws more attention to itself than truly effective lighting should - too many sharply honed edges in selected zones on the stage.

Private Lives is on a limited run through February 5, 2012.  Get tickets here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A "Burning" Quandry

I can't call it a review I have to write about today, though it is about a new play I attended over the weekend.

Let's put some things on the table first, stipulations, if you will:
  • Getting a new play produced, particularly in New York, particularly by a company of the reputation of The New Group, is an incredible feat of effort.
  • Provocative topics and situations are excellent fodder for playwrights looking to get attention to their work (see The Submission).
  • "Downtown NYC" is a great place to exercise those skills.
A few more things to stipulate:
  • I've seen a lot of lousy theatre in New York and have walked out on the full range, from multi-million dollar Broadway to dusty, uncomfortable black-box off-off-off Bway productions.  
  • I've even performed in a couple of the latter types.
As a member of the ITBA, I see frequent invitations to attend and review theatre of all sorts in the city, as mentioned above, Broadway to black-box, off-off-off Broadway productions.  I don't see everything, but I was excited to see the invitation from The New Group for their production of the world premiere of Burning by up-and-coming playwright Thomas Bradshaw.  I've seen a couple of other productions from this company and looked forward to this.  The premise sounded interesting.  The director has made a name for himself.

This play was the first time I've ever walked out despite having been invited to write a review.

I consulted with a few associates about what to do and received a range of responses, two of which I'll paraphrase:
  • "don't write a review of a show of which you only saw Act 1" 
  • "write about what you did see, then explain why you left"
  • "write a 'non-review', discussing the circumstances and your decision to leave early"
As you can see, I've opted for the third suggestion.

Producers offer tickets to reviewers like me to get the word out about their shows.  I have never had a publicist make any requests or qualifications about what I write, other than holding a post until the show officially opens.  As a result, I generally believe my obligation to include seeing the entire show.

Maybe I've been lucky so far.  Maybe I've been in more tolerant moods when I saw shows I didn't like.  Maybe I've just had nothing better to do on those occasions, but until this weekend, I've never walked out of a show I've been invited to review.

I mentioned having performed in dismal shows produced in less-than-stellar facilities.  I've also been in shows when a critic left at intermission and stated that in his review.  As an actor, that really hurts.  I know that pain.

Still, here's the summary I sent to my associates when I asked their advice on how to proceed:

Tonight I attended a performance of a play following a solicitation to the ITBA.  I say attended - actually I left at intermission.

This particular play, with an interesting premise, was produced by a reputable company of notable pedigree, with a notable director.  The actors are skilled and the production values are excellent.  The playwright has an interesting resume, and appears to be in an early and successful phase of career.

But the play itself is the problem.  From the complete lack of compelling (let alone likable) characters, to the unclear shifts in time periods, to the absurd (and not in the Albee style) dialog and reprehensible actions of some characters, to the gratuitous nudity and simulated sex acts, I found no artistic merit in the literary effort.   

I am dumbfounded, not even that someone wrote it, but that others read it and said "hey gang, let's spend the cash to put on this show!"
So, dear readers (both of you), what advice would you offer?

Burning runs through December 17.  Click here for tickets.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

In the Family

This film by Patrick Wang opened at Quad Cinemas last night with a pretty strong review from the NY Times.  Check the review out here.  There's not much I would add to Mr. Brunick's observations.

Leaving the theatre, Mr. Wang was standing shyly on the sidewalk, waiting to get some direct feedback about the film.  Within minutes, Stone Phillips (who looks even better since he stopped coloring his hair) was leading the conversation among a group of us who had stopped to congratulate Mr. Wang, exploring some of his plot choices and inspirations.

As you'll see in the review, Mr. Wang hasn't had much success in his distribution efforts.  The film runs a little long, but it's well worth seeing.

Check it out at the Quad before it closes next Thursday.  Get tickets here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Milk Like Sugar

"Milk Like Sugar" at Playwrights Horizons, October 21, 2011

A few years ago, there were news reports of unhappy high school girls who formed pacts to all get pregnant and drop out of school.  Playwright Kirsten Greenidge has written this concept into the premise of Milk Like Sugar, in which Talisha (Cherise Boothe), Margie (Nikiya Mathis) and Annie (Angela Lewis) are planning their gift list for their shared baby shower including Coach diaper bags and better cellphones.  Margie is already pregnant. Talisha has plans in place.  Only Annie seems to be dragging her feet even though Talisha has picked out a partner for her as well, Malik (J. Mallory-McCree).

As the play opens, the girls have turned up at a tattoo parlor after hours for Annie to get free ink from an uncertified tattooist.  This only one in a continuing series of bad decisions.  Annie's mother Myrna (Tonya Pinkins), cleans offices to support her family.  She fancies herself a writer,  but doesn't seem to understand why she can't use the computers in the offices she cleans.

Ms. Greenidge seems to surf the story on the backs of stereotypes, from the materialistic, frighteningly misinformed, teen girls (Margie says: "Annie, you should get a red tattoo, cuz Malik's phone is red!"), to the sensitive, poet-type Malik trying to escape his ill mother, to the jaded and bitter mother whose life potential ended with her own teenage pregnancy.  Even the tattooist is a misunderstood artist.  Ms. Greenidge also overworks a flame motif from Annie's tattoo to one of the many heavy-handed scene transitions with overstated symbolism. 

Better served might have been the ladybug nursery rhyme that felt much more organic to the proceedings.  It certainly would have made a better title than the line pulled from one of Annie's later monologues when she recounts the image of powdered milk in a cupboard as a hungry child.  About the only scene that really played truthfully was Margie's traumatic first visit to the doctor and the reality check that followed.

Director Rebecca Taichman, who directed Classic Stage's recent Orlando, keeps things moving once the scenes start, but pushes too hard with the choreographed transitions and seems no more at home in the 21st century than she did in the 16th.

Production values are well up to Playwrights' standards with sets by Mimi Lien and lighting by Justin Townsend.  Toni-Leslie James has some fun with the girls' costumes, particularly Margie's penchant for monochromatic outfits.

Milk Like Sugar runs through November 20, 2011.  Tickets are available here.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Man and Boy

"Man and Boy" presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, September 10,  2011

Back to reviving classic American theatre, the Roundabout has scored Frank Langella to lead Terrence Rattigan's 1963 story of a corrupt, big-money, business mogul.  Set in 1934 New York, Gregor Antonescu (Mr. Langella), who single-handedly saved the the Franc in 1926, is viewed as the Warren Buffett of his day.  The parallels to today continue with the Great Depression era during which dissatisfaction with Roosevelt sound a lot like the criticisms of President Obama. The truth turns out to reveal Antonescu as a Madoff-like cretin, who created an elaborate Ponzi scheme which is about to collapse.

Antonescu is laying low in NY, and turns to his estranged, illegitimate son Basil (Adam Driver), for help to complete a last ditch deal to re-supply his organization with cash.  Basil has cut ties and abandoned the lifestyle that might have been his after a failed attempt to shoot his father on his 21st birthday.

Mr. Langella is masterful in this creakily written role, finding depth and nuance that likely aren't on the page.  Mr. Driver is miscast as Basil.  His physical presence is anachronistically buff for the sensitive musician that is this bastard son.  Francesca Faridany turns up for another shallow socialite, similar to her role of Vida Philmore from the Atlantic Theatre Company's The New York Idea from earlier this year.

Director Maria Aitken keeps things moving, but the play might have benefited from a bit of adaptation 50 years later.  Derek McLane's Greenwich Village basement apartment works nicely, but is more serviceable than remarkable, as do Martin Pakledinaz' costumes.

Man and Boy is scheduled to run through November 27.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Playwrights Horizons - Discount on "Milk Like Sugar"

The good folks at Playwrights Horizons have made the following offer.


Order by October 25 and use the code MILKGR
$35 (reg. $55) for Fri, Sat, and Sun evenings, Oct. 14-16; Oct 21-23
$40 (reg. $55) for all other performances Oct. 13-Nov 20

Call: (212) 279-4200 Noon to 8PM daily
In Person: Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lemon Sky

"Lemon Sky" presented by the Keen Company at the Theatre Row, September 24, 2011

(photo by Richard Termine)

My experience with the Keen Company has usually been very good - solid productions and strong scripts.  This production is a tribute to the late Lanford Wilson in this autobiographical play.  This is the first time they have missed the mark for me.

17 year old Alan (Keith Nobbs) has traveled west to live with Douglas (Kevin Kilner) his estranged father who has remarried and has two sons by his second wife Ronnie (Kellie Overbey).  Douglas is eager to make up for lost time, and Alan is at first receptive, but as time passes,  Doug's old habits resurface.  Complicating the matter are the two foster daughters, Penny (Amie Tedesco) and Carol (Alyssa May Gold), who bring in needed cash to the household budget with their monthly state allocation.

Director Jonathan Silverstein has some strong actors among the uneven cast, but doesn't maximize their strengths.  Mr. Nobbs, last seen in a similar part as narrator/character in Broadway's Lombardi admirably carries much of the load, sharing lots of exposition in direct-address monologues, then quickly stepping into a scene as a confused high school graduate in the early 70s trying to figure out what his life will be. Ms. Overbey also steps up to an underwritten role.

Scenic designer Bill Clark makes excellent use of space for the California suburban ranch house setting, complemented by Josh Bradford's unobtrusive lighting.

Mr. Wilson has many other better-remembered titles in his canon.  Other than the autobiographical nature of this play, it's unclear what drew Keen Company to select it.

I'm hopeful for better results with their next production.

Lemon Sky runs through October 22.

The Submission

The Submission, presented by MCC Theatre at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, September 11, 2011

Writing a play is a daunting task.  Getting a new play produced takes "daunting" to exponential levels.

Danny (Jonathan Groff) has been writing for a couple of years, trying to get established on the new play festival circuit.  In a unexplained fit of inspiration, he writes a fresh, powerful and highly provocative tale of a young African-American trying to escape from the life his family has led for generations.  He shows it first to his best friend Trevor (Will Rogers), an aspiring actor, who gives him the first inclination that he's written something very special.  Danny finally shows it to his boyfriend Pete (Eddie Kaye-Thomas), who echoes the praise.

Danny, however, has already made submissions to several new play festivals and has just been accepted by the renowned Humana Festival.  All sounds good, looks positive - except for one thing: Danny has submitted under a name that suggests a woman of recent African-American extract.  He justifies the action on the rationale that no festival committee would take him seriously as the author of such a play.  With the pseudonym, the subject matter doesn't conflict with its source, and it seems to have worked.

That is, until he realizes the playwright is part of the staging process at Humana.  He hires Emilie (Rutina Welsey) an aspiring actress to play his playwright and channel information to and from him as the production comes to life.

Playwright Jeff Talbot has taken this Cyrano concept and given it enough twist to make it work.  Along the way, he starts a really interesting dialogue on the comparison of discrimination among two disparate groups, gays and blacks.  His characters of Danny and Emilie are better drawn than the supporting roles of Pete and Trevor, and interestingly, none of them are thoroughly likeable.  Each presents a bristle or mean streak at one point or another.  He has a tendency to beat a dead horse, as Emilie and Danny repeat the same argument at least three times.  The first time is riveting, the last - deafening.

Mr. Groff is effective as the young man getting a little long in the tooth to be so callow.  His Danny rationalizes and justifies each miscalculation as immature young adults do.  Ms. Wesley matches him well as Emilie evolves from playing the role of the playwright to developing a real affection and feeling of ownership of Danny's script.  Messrs. Rogers and Thomas support well.

David Zinn's set functions well, serving the multiple locations and is suitably complemented by David Weiner's interesting lighting.

Director Walter Bobbie gets caught up in the argument scenes where a bit of trimming would have better served the play, but otherwise keeps things moving well.

The Submission runs through October 22.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


"Follies" at the Marquis Theatre, September 8, 2011

Stephen Sondheim's 1972 musical returns to Broadway via the Kennedy Center transfer from a successful run this summer. 

It's got star power with Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell as Sally and Phyllis, respectively.  There's some depth in the cast as well, with Danny Burstein, Jayne Houdyshell and featuring Elaine Paige as Carlotta.

Director Eric Shaeffer creates an aptly dark mood with a ghostly chorus line of deco-clad follies girls haunting the stage, already in motion as the house opens pre-show.  His sound designer carried it a bit too far, employing effects from Disney's Haunted Mansion before the show begins.  Derek McLane's sets also straddle the line of success.  The crumbling proscenium and brick-walled set, with iron catwalks and stairs evoke nicely, but draping the entire theatre in dirty oil cloth pushes too far. 

Performances are strong.  Ms. Peters excels as Sally, though she's a bit too pitiful at times.  Still, her "Losing My Mind" pulls the heartstrings, and in "Buddy's Eyes" she matches the emotion of her "Send in the Clowns."  Mr. Burstein's Buddy was as usual a bit more fey than necessary, a habit that was better controlled in South Pacific.  Ron Raines as Ben fills the bill.

It's Ms. Maxwell's Phyllis that clinches this production.  Icy, aloof and piercing, she clips and quips through Phyllis' bitter facade.  The highlight is "Could I Leave You" when the bile and resentment of 30 years of an unhappy marriage spew out.  She's electrifying.

Follies, on a limited run, has just announced an extension through January 22, 2012.  This is one to see.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I lived through Hurricane Irene, and I'm here

I've finally ended a period of travel and have gotten back to the theatre.

Reviews are coming of:
  • Follies
  • Man and Boy
  • The Submission

Stay tuned...

Friday, August 26, 2011

Discount Offer - Playwrights Horizons

COMPLETENESS by Itamar Moses — Discount Tix!

How does a computer scientist hook up with a molecular biologist?  He blinds her with science, of course. When Elliot builds a computer program to help Molly with her research project, the variables in their evolving relationship shift as rapidly as the terms of their experiment. This deft and imaginative new ROM-comedy, also featuring Brian Avers and Meredith Forlenza, shows that even the most sophisticated algorithm may freeze in the face of life’s infinite possibilities.

Order by Sept 13 and tickets are $40 (reg. $70) for performances August 19-Sept. 4; and $50 (reg. $70) for perfs. Sept. 6-25.  Use code COMPBLOG when ordering.  For tix or more information, visit<><> or call (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily).

Friday, July 08, 2011

Side Effects

"Side Effects" presented by MCC Theatre at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, June 30, 2011

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Michael Weller returns to MCC Theatre with the other side of the story from 2008's Fifty Words.  He's got a little more to say this time around, but it's the performances that make the visit worthwhile.

Bipolar Melinda (Joely Richarson) doesn't like to take her medicine, which frustrates her politically ambitious husband Hugh (Cotter Smith) to no end.  With two sons echoing Melinda's polar split (perfect son vs. screw-up son), both Melinda and Hugh maintain a total disregard for human nature that encourages this.  Their relationship devolves quickly as Hugh's political star begins to rise. Melinda is angry at being dragged along the for the ride and takes every opportunity to spoil the possibilities.  Hugh remains the definition of calm, cool and collected, until Melinda pushes him over the edge following the boys' car accident with her own breakdown.  Melinda's affair with Adam (from Fifty Words) shows up to push the plot along, but feels contrived since it's no more than a couple of one-sided telephone calls for exposition.

Ms. Richardson elevates the proceedings merely by walking on stage.  Elegant and glamorous, she builds a third dimension that would challenge a lesser talent.  Mr. Smith supports sufficiently, though not quite demonstrating skill to the level of Ms. Richardson.

Mr. Weller provides lots of emotion and gains considerable benefit with the very talented cast.  Were it not for the considerable skill of Ms. Richardson, particularly, the stilted dialog would drag even more than it did.  It's a better effort than Fifty Words, but not by much.

The exquisite living room is by Beowulf Boritt (and Ethan Allan) in warm neutrals with earthy red accents.  Jeff Croiter's lighting complements well.

Side Effects closed on July 3.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Master Class

"Master Class" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, June 26, 2011

Terrence McNalley's 1995 fantasia of Maria Callas conducting a master class at the Julliard School in the 1970s returns to Broadway courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club. 

Playing La Divina is an unlikely Tyne Daly, whose Callas simmers and seethes through the thinnest of skins, bristling at the smallest perception of a slight to a star of her caliber.  Ms. Daly masters the intricate diction of the singer beautifully, though she felt occasionally less than clear as she navigated the memory segments, interacting with her first husband, then Onassis.  Callas was a consummate acting singer - a novelty in opera at the time.  As she coaches each of the three "victims" (her word), she sends each one back to their score to find the answers in the composer's music and text.  (It's a solid performance/coaching/directing technique best and most recently demonstrated by David Cromer's recent productions of "Our Town" and "Brighton Beach Memoirs.")  Ms. Daly's Callas is not subtle though she strives for elegance.  The narcissistic fragility interrupts too often.

The first victim, Sophia De Palma (Alexandra Silber) whimpers and gushes through interruption after interruption of her aria from La Sonnambula. Awed by Callas, Sophie takes every verbal jab and asks for more.  Ms. Silber holds up well.

Next is Sharon Graham (Sierra Boggess in the role which won Audra MacDonald her first Tony).  She doesn't even get her first note out before fleeing in humiliation.

Anthony Candolino (Garrett Sorenson), the tenor, strides on next and in stereotypical tenor form, pushes back on every shove from Callas.  Her disdain melts as he sings Cavaradossi's first aria from Tosca. Visibly shaken by it, she dismisses him with the same advice to focus on the score.   The classically trained Mr. Sorenson does indeed have the voice that Anthony claims.  And, like Anthony, he still needs to work on the acting.

Sharon returns to prove herself, setting off a veritable battle of Lady MacBeths, as she sings the entrance from Verdi's opera.  Ms. Boggess gives it her best, and for the most part succeeds.

This is Mr. McNalley at his best, juxtaposing the rejected, fading diva against three vocal students whose chosen material strikes careful parallels to her own life and relationship with Aristotle Onassis.  Sophie's aria echoes Callas' memory of the news that Onassis had married Jackie Kennedy.  Tony's aria prompts the memory of how Onassis first loved her.  It is Sharon's that gets the most interesting.  In it, Lady MacBeth begins her plot to push her husband into actions that would make him king.  As she coaches and intimidates Sharon, Callas becomes Lady MacBeth and Sharon, MacBeth, the target of her machinations - it's brilliant writing.

Master Class is on a limited run through August 14.  Get ticket information here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Unnatural Acts

"Unnatural Acts" at Classic Stage Company, June 18, 2011

This new dramatization by the Plastic Theatre chronicles the events leading up to the "secret court" hearings conducted by Harvard University in 1920, following the apparent suicide of Cyril Wilcox.

Amit Paley, a student journalist for The Harvard Crimson, discovered a reference to the incident in university archives.  Harvard eventually allowed Mr. Paley to review the documents, prompting Tony Speciale of Plastic Theatre to make his own investigation.

The events of the story tumble like dominoes almost immediately as the hearings begin.  First interviewed is Kenneth Day (Roe Bartrampf), the jock of the group who resided in the dormitory where everything took place.  Ken folds quickly, confessing to sexual acts with his dorm mates.  The ring leader is Ernest Roberst (Nick Westrate), the son of a prominent US Congressman.   he attempts to create solidarity among the remaining students facing the hearings, encouraging all to deny the charges.  The remaining students include senior pre-med Nathaniel Wollf (Joe Curnutte), aspiring actor Keith Smerage (Frank De Julio), pre-law Joseph Lumbard (Will Rogers), his roommate, Dartmouth transfer Edward Say (Jess Burkle), senior Eugene Cummings (Brad Koed), senior and drama club president Stanley Gilkey (Max Jenkins), tutor Harold Saxton (Devin Norik) and classics professor Donald Clark (Jerry Marsini).

As Cummings, Mr. Koed serves as something of a narrator, providing the exposition from time to time.  Mr. Bartrampf's Ken Day is every inch the athlete, fully exposed in an early shower scene.  Mr. Burkle's Say swishes and minces bitterly.  He and Mr. Rogers pull off an impressive scene at the top of Act II when their testimony monologues overlap, both supporting and contradicting each other in their individual moments of panic at the ramifications of the hearings' outcome.  It's a beautifully crafted sequence.  A similar juxtaposition occurs with Messrs. Wollf and Smerage, who had their own affair.  As Mr. Wollf testifies, Mr. Smerage delivers his audition monologue, reciting from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Mr. Wollf betrays Mr. Smerage, as Antony's speech explores the betrayal of Cleopatra and Caesar, another clever scene.

Messrs Burkle and Jenkins turn in outstanding performances.  Mr. Burkle's Ernest is spoiled, fierce, flaming and unrepentant.  Mr. Jenkins' Stanley is mean, cruel, vicious and vindictive, turning on his friends instantly and ends up as one of the only two found not guilty by the court.

This is an impressive and important moment in gay history that shouldn't be overlooked.  Mr. Speciale and his company have documented this dark period when even the hint of homosexuality could ruin reputations and even incite suicide.  The play is well-structured and well-directed by Mr. Speciale.

My only real criticism is a bizarre Bill T. Jones-style choreography that accompanies Mr. Koed's final testimony at the end of the play.  All the staging up to this point was clear and purposeful, powerful and effective.  This change in story-telling does little more than distract from the testimony.

Unnatural Acts runs through July 10.  Get tickets here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

ITBA 2010 - 2011 Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Awards


The Independent Theater Bloggers Association (the “ITBA”) is proud to announce the 2011 recipients of the Third Annual Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Awards.   Patrick Lee was one of the ITBA's founding members. Patrick passed away suddenly last June, and was an erudite, passionate, and tireless advocate for theater in all its forms. Patrick was also the ITBA's first awards director, and was a regular contributor to Theatermania and TDF Stages.
The 2010-2011 Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Award Winners:
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Anything Goes
The Normal Heart
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
The Kid
Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches
Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made
Feeder: A Love Story
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Belarus Free Theater's Discover Love
Black Watch
Sleep No More
The Scottsboro Boys
Nina Arianda, Born Yesterday
Laura Benanti, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Reed Birney, A Small Fire
Christian Borle, Peter and the Starcatcher
Norbert Leo Butz, Catch Me If You Can
Bobby Cannavale, The Motherfucker with the Hat
Colman Domingo, The Scottsboro Boys
Sutton Foster, Anything Goes
Josh Gad, The Book of Mormon
Hamish Linklater, School for Lies
Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart
Arian Moayed, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Lily Rabe, The Merchant of Venice
Mark Rylance, Jerusalem
Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made
Benjamin Walker, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
La Mama
The list of the 2011 recipients of The Patrick is read by Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, the cast and creators of the acclaimed [title of show] and who are currently collaborating on Now. Here. This.", a Developmental Lab Production at the Vineyard Theatre:   A video of their reading is on Youtube at  which was filmed by ITBA member Jesse North
The ITBA, is comprised of bloggers who regularly see live performances in all its forms in New York City and beyond.   Members are in New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, and London.  For further information and a list of our members, our website is  If you are interested in learning more about the ITBA, email  To invite the members of the ITBA to your show or event, please send an email to

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Catching Up the Backlog

It's been a busy spring.  Here's a collection of summaries on what I've seen of late.

"The House of Blue Leaves" at the Walter Kerr Theatre, April 11, 2011

This revival was a big hit in its 1986 production at Lincoln Center Theatre with John Mahoney, Swoosie Kurtz and Stockard Channing.  I wish I'd seen it.  Instead we get Ben Stiller, who was also in the 1986 production, with Edie Falco and Jennifer Jason Leigh.  Ms. Leigh is the only one close to being appropriately cast.  Director David Cromer seems to have strayed from what made his last two successful productions work (Our Town and Brighton Beach Memoirs) - focus on the text.  One has to wonder how much pressure there was for commercial success after the unfortunate end of the latter.  Mr. Stiller flails but never nails the desperation of Artie, making the ending twist all the more flabbergasting for the wrong reasons.  This limited run ends July 23, 2011.

"The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures" at the Public Theater, April 13, 2011

Tony Kushner returns to New York with a new play on an operatic scale (and length).  Taking on themes of communism, socialism, labor unions, sexuality and betrayal, this production is its latest incarnation after a premiere at the Guthrie.  Powerful and sweeping, one can see the work that has taken place, and the work still to be done.  Where it lacks the extravagant theatricality of Angels in America, it makes up in character development.  Stephen Spinella's Pil, gives us a glimpse of what Louis Ironson might have grown up to be.   Director Michael Greif, who also directed the Signature's revival of Angels... handles the mammoth work with finesse.  It's not Mr. Kushner's greatest work to date, but will rank among the better ones.  This limited run ends June 12, 2011

"Picked" at the Vineyard Theatre, April 15, 2011

Christopher Shinn brings us a tale of "be careful what you wish for" with this story of an actor who finally gets his big break to work with a world-class director (think James Cameron) on a new concept of film-making in which the process is reversed, writing the script after casting the actors.  It's an interesting concept and relatively well-written.  Coming off a starring role in "Cloverfield" Michael Stahl-David handles the scenes of insecurity experienced by most actors well.  He fails to deliver on the more emotional moments where the honesty his character purports to demonstrate don't come through.  Picked runs through May 22, 2011.

"Jerusalem" at The Music Box, April 16, 2011

Mark Rylance returns to Broadway in this story of a down-and-almost-out man fighting to keep the land he claims as a birthright from development.  He supports himself by selling drugs to the wayward youth in the area, drawing them in like the Pied Piper.  The subplot of a missing girl gets a bit lost in the shuffle from time to time, but Mr. Rylance is at his usual stellar performance level playing his own kind of St. George saving the maiden from the dragon.  This limited run ends July 24, 2011.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, April 21, 2011

Brian Bedford directs and makes Lady Bracknell the ultimate travesty role in this delightful revival of the Oscar Wilde classic.  Even the likes of Jane Houdyshell as Miss Prism can't steal the spotlight from Mr. Bedford.  This limited run ends July 3, 2011.

"The People in the Picture" presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, April 24, 2011

Once again, the Roundabout varies from their core mission of producing revivals to attempt a new production.  Even talented star power like Donna Murphy and Chip Zien can't help turn this overearnest effort into a hit.  Crossing elements of To Be or Not To Be with Sophie's Choice it finds neither the laughs nor heartache of either.  This limited run ends on June 19, 2011.

"The Normal Heart" at the Golden Theatre, April 25, 2011

What was first received as Larry Kramer's ranting polemic about the origins of the AIDS crisis and the failure of both the US and New York City governments to act in the best interests of homosexual men to stem the plague, it reveals itself as remarkably relevant today.  It also reveals itself as a particularly  good play, well-constructed and very powerful.  This all-star production in its first bow on Broadway features an excellent cast including director wunderkind Joe Mantello in the leading role of Ned Weeks, Kramer's thinly-veiled self-portrait.  Directors Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe channel the pain and anger into power.  David Rockwell's stark black and white set cleverly reveals the seemingly endless headlines and quotes from the period as the situation deteriorates, with stark projections of the increasing number of victims' names eventually covering the walls of the theatre itself.

Not to be missed, this limited run ends July 10, 2011.

"War Horse" presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, April 26, 2011

Based on a novel for young adults (think Coram Boy), this story of a young man's relationship with his horse during World War I is beautifully staged following its transfer from London.  The use of puppetry figuratively and literally anthropomorphizes the horse Joey, 1/2 thoroughbred, 1/2 workhorse as he struggles to survive the horror of war.  Eight million horses died during WWI - only 62,000 of them were brought back to England.  Even though the script is often predictable, the staging is breathtaking and the emotions are strong.

It's a brilliant production - not to be missed.  War Horse is on an open-ended run.