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.