Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Snow Geese

"The Snow Geese" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, October 20, 2013

An approaching winter of discontent is stirring as the lights come up on The Snow Geese, Sharr White's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club.  It's November, 1917, and the Gaeslings have gathered at their country lodge outside Syracuse, NY to celebrate the opening of goose hunting season.  The gloom of Theodore Gaesling's recent death looms over the proceedings as his widow Elizabeth (Mary Louise Parker) struggles to keep her chin up as her first-born Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) prepares to ship out to fight in WWI France.  Elizabeth's pious sister Clarissa (Victoria Clark) and husband Max (Danny Burstein) have taken up residence with Elizabeth after local anti-German sentiment has forced them out of their own home and Max's medical practice. The house staff has reduced to a new Ukrainian immigrant maid, Viktorya, whose beauty has enraptured younger son Arnold (Brian Cross).

Arnold has also been tasked with sorting out the books following his father's death, which turns out to me more of an autopsy of the family finances.  It seems Theodore was no savvy businessman.  Previous staff and accountants had drained the family's wealth.

What to do?

Ms. Parker's Elizabeth is a woman in desperate denial following the loss of the love of her life and on the eve of her golden child leaving for war.  She gives a solid and respectable performance, dour as reality smacks her in the face then basking in the glow of a laudanum-inspired dream that reunites her with Theodore.  As Clarissa, Ms. Clark tut-tuts about, frowning on the free-flow of alcohol as a good, obtuse and American Methodist should thriving in the search for practical solutions to the family problems. Her sisterly tension with Ms. Parker works nicely.  Jessica Love gives a strong turn as Viktorya, particularly when she schools Duncan on harshness of loss, sharing her own  trauma when the Austrians invaded.

Mr. Burstein turns in another nicely shaded performance as the German ex-patriate doctor, betrayed and shunned by his adopted country because of his accent. Mr. Jonigkeit's Duncan swaggers appropriately as the favored and petted heir.  He manages a fine line between shock and melodrama as he learns all that his family has given up for him.  It's Mr. Cross' Arnold who really shines as a young man, still a teenager, who shoulders the burden of his father's financial mistakes and shortcomings, as well as the burden of not being first-born and therefore never given credit for brains or effort.

The bigger weaknesses of this production are in the script.  Mr. White gives Duncan a line that includes, "...because we're Americans.  That's what we do."  Given the history of US entry into WWI, and the previous position of isolationism, that kind of statement comes across as an anachronism.  Another example is Arnold shouting about "...expressing my feelings...," not exactly language of the period.

Director Daniel Sullivan manages to rise above the weaknesses in the script, supported by his strong cast.  John Lee Beatty's sliding platform sets are excellent,even if some of the set elements are a little reminiscent of Cinderella which is playing around the corner and up Broadway.  Jane Greenwood's costumes are spot on.

In all, it's a solid production carried by the strength of the company. The Snow Geese runs through December 15, 2013.  Get tickets here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Old Friends

"The Old Friends" at The Pershing Square Signature Center, October 17, 2013

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Horton Foote was a prolific playwright.  The Old Friends is actually a sequel to his second full-length play, Only the Heart first produced in 1942.  It took nearly 20 years to get the first exploratory production of TOF, and another 20 before Signature Theatre produced a reading.  This 2002 event inspired Mr. Foote to write the version currently on stage at the Signature.

I would love to say that this "new" work from the late Mr. Foote rises as a crowning achievement on a lifetime of good work.  Sometimes, there are reasons a play takes so long to make it to the stage.  Renowned playwrights from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams wrote plays late in their careers that failed to achieve the same level of mastery as works form their primes (Cymbeline, anyone?).

Nonetheless, TOF tells us of the Borden/Prices and their titular old friends Gertrude (Betty Buckley) and Gaynor Ratliff and his brother Howard (Cotter Smith).  Gaynor has mercifully died before the play begins and escapes the indignities both caused and suffered by his now filthy rich widow and the almost-as-well-off Borden-Prices.  Also dead as the play begins, is Sybil's (Hallie Foote) husband Hugo who has left her penniless, much like her mother-in-law Mamie Borden (Lois Smith). 

Sybil's sister-in-law Julia (Veanne Cox) and her husband Albert Price (Adam LeFevre) have grudgingly taken Mamie in after forcing her to sign over her remaining assets.  Sybil and her husband had planned to retire nearby, but with him gone and leaving her destitute, Julia is less than pleased with the prospect of supporting another widow. Toss into the mix a cloudy history of Sybil's father losing everything to Getrude's father, and selling the rest to Julia's father and you've got a Russian tragedy in the making.  

My biggest complaint is with the play's uneven story-telling.  Characters get dragged down with paragraphs of dull exposition, much of it repeated by various characters.  It's only when the action picks up with the plot at hand that things get interesting.

The cast is excellent.  Ms. Buckley dominates as the brutish, selfish Gertrude. Her rants are the highlights of the evening, the funniest of which is one ending in the mating call of the southern belle, "I'm drunk!"  Ms. Smith matches that bravura with her usual understated intensity (though she did seem a bit shaky on her lines in a couple of spots).  Ms. Foote's Sybil strives for a quiet dignity, but sometimes comes off as merely mousy.  Mr. Smith's Howard spends most of the play as kind to the point of spineless.  Even when he finally stands up for himself, Howard remains an apology of a role.

Director Michael Wilson keeps things apace, but probably could have cut 10-15 minutes in redundant exposition.  Production values are excellent, particularly David C. Woolard's costumes.

The Old Friends closed on October 20 after a two-week extension.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Time to Kill

"A Time to Kill"  at John Golden Theatre,October 10, 2103

(photo: Carol Rosegg)

The prodigious author John Grisham has entered a third medium to recycle his work with Rupert Holmes' adaptation of his first novel "A Time to Kill" now running on the Great White Way.  I've been a Grisham fan for many years, getting hooked first with "The Firm," which led me to "A Time..." and I've read almost everything he's written since then, good, bad or indifferent.  I like that his work is an easy read, sometimes a little pulpy, but generally perfect for an afternoon on the beach or a couple of hours on an airplane.

Wisely, Mr. Grisham has turned over the adaptation of his work to someone who has strong experience in writing for the theatre.  He gets off scott-free if the effort tanks, or gets all the glory for creating the source if the play becomes a hit.  Don't forget, he's a lawyer at heart and understands how to balance the risk/reward equation.
For him, that's a good thing. 

This tepid attempt at a pot-boiler follows Mr. Grisham's plot, but fails to capture the high stakes of a white Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus) defending Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson) a black man for the murder of two white men who brutally and viciously raped  and beat his daughter in the 1980s.  A sheriff's deputy was also injured in the cross-fire, an unintended casualty in this act of vengeance.

The cast is widely uneven with Patrick Page giving the strongest performance as the slick and greasy prosecuting attorney coming in from the state capitol to helm the state's case.  Mr. Arcelus has his moments, but is serviceable at best.

It seems the producers have also hedged their bets by casting Fred Thompson and Tom Skerritt in supporting roles.  At the preview performance I saw, neither had adjusted their acting for stage, instead giving rather internal performances as though a camera were taking close-ups. Mr. Thompson rushed his lines to the point of being unintelligible, where Mr. Skerritt underplayed even the most dramatic moments. It's a shame, given the inherent theatricality of their roles as the trial judge and Jake's disgraced former law partner. Ashley Williams as Ellen Roark, the senior law student looking to jump start her own career with a high-profile case, also arrives with an extensive TV resume and fails to find the balance between her character's intelligence and lack of experience.  She comes across as much too old and jaded, ignoring the southern blue-blood heritage of Ellen's Ole Miss education.

Director Ethan McSweeny struggles to morph a period piece into contemporary relevance, borrowing noisy musical transitions from British political works like Enron and more recently, The Machine.  An over-worked set by James Noone with a completely superfluous turntable might be the cause.  Mr. Noone also undermines what should have been a dignified courtroom setting with a barn-like structure - talk about silk purse.  Costumer David C. Woolard also misfires with a significant lack of seersucker, only giving that to the character least likely to wear it during the Reagan-era.

In the end, I still don't understand why this story needed to be told onstage.  Mr. Grisham's writing lends itself much better to film and even then, there are better choices to adapt his work to the stage.  A Time to Kill is not a bad book. It's also not another To Kill a Mockingbird, missing its inherent theatricality of time and place to work well in a live performance.

Playwrights Horizons discount - "The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters"

"The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters" at Playwrights Horizons

Discount tickets to The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters for my readers (both of you):

Regular run:  Oct 18-Dec 1
Tues 7, Wed-Fri at 8, Sat at 2:30 & 8, Sun at 2:30 & 7:30

Order by Nov. 5 and use the code SAINTBLOG
$40 (reg. $60) for all performances Oct. 18-Dec. 1


Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 Noon to 8PM daily
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