A Note to the Reader
If you are reading this, you have probably noticed that I have not posted anything for a year and a half. When I started this blog, I had hoped to write reflective pieces rather than more traditional production reviews. However, I got so involved with other commitments that I have not had the amount of time and energy needed for comparative analyses. Friends and colleagues frequently ask me for recommendations (or condemnations), so I am going to try to provide brief reviews on a more regular basis. I am going to model my comments after those of my friend and colleague, Bob Sholiton, whose very regular reviews of much of the New York theatre scene I recommend at www.bobs-theater-blog.blogspot.com.
I hate reading reviews before I see a production. However, I am interested in knowing “the bottom line”: Did you like it? Do you recommend it? I have learned to skim reviews for the answers to those two basic questions. Bob has developed an effective scoring system that we former academics know all too well. He rates shows from A+ to F and I have decided to adopt his method and place that rating at the top of each of my comments. These types of ratings are inherently problematic — a “B” for the production of a Samuel Beckett play is unlikely to match the criteria for a “B” rating of a new David Ives French farce adaptation. You might enjoy comparing my take to Bob’s response, since we tend to see most of the same productions. Another great source for comparative reviews is www.show-score.com. This free website features brief summaries of “mainstream critics” reviews (with links to the full review) as well as numerical ratings and brief “pros and cons” comments from literally hundreds of NYC theatre addicts. All Show-Score reviews are rated on a 0-100 scale (even Hamilton didn’t get an average score of 100, it’s at 97). When Show-Score started, I was reluctant to identify myself on an unproven site, so my reviews appear under the screen name “Buzzy.”
So here goes my blog revival…
Sunset Boulevard by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Don Black, and Christopher Hampton
Palace Theatre on Broadway
BS Grade: C
BS on Show-Score: 70
I saw the original production of this Andrew Lloyd Weber favorite in its pre-Broadway run in Los Angeles with its original star, Glenn Close. That production was over produced with sets and costumes that overwhelmed the show. For example, a huge mansion staircase and reception room, reminiscent of the original movie, actually flew into the air and hung over the cramped apartment where writer/victim Joe retreated to his friends’ New Year’s party. I was already a huge Glenn Close fan from her film debut in The World According to Garp and her musical debut in Barnum. Even though the show was (and still is) filled with the sweeping melodies that make Weber a commercial success and was fairly faithful to Billy Wilder’s classic film, I found the show itself less-than-satisfying. I assumed that a decent musical lurked under all of that messy production nonsense. Well, I was wrong,
The current production is scaled down with a unit set and a few projections to remind us of the period and the classic age of movies. But the show is still unsatisfying. Most of the current critics have raved about Close’s performance, usually with reservations about the show itself. I thought her performance brings up a classic question: “Can you give an inspired performance with mediocre material?” The audience went wild over her every move. A significant portion rose from their seats with a standing ovation as she sat silently absorbing the film studio when she returns to Paramount to meet C. B. DeMille. And I agree, she was good. But the thin book and mundane lyrics gave her very little to work with. And like so many performers blessed with a strong voice, her upper range has become a struggle as the actress’s age surpasses her character’s years. The rest of the production, that started as a concert version with the English National Opera, is more than adequate. It also has something you cannot find in any other musical on Broadway, a 40-piece on-stage orchestra. But now it is clear to me, the show itself is not “ready for its close-up.”
If I Forget by Steven Levinson
Roundabout Theatre at the Laura Pels Theatre on 46th Street
BS Grade: B-
BS on Show-Score: 75
Sitting and watching this family drama stimulated by circumstances that brings them together, I could not help but compare it to the other play with a similar structure that started at the Laura Pels and then moved on to Broadway, The Humans, by Stephen Karam. Both plays focus on the value of family. What was so phenomenal about Karam’s play was his reversal of the usual portrayal of dysfunctionality – it shows us a functional family in a dysfunctional society. They have their issues, but it is their relationships with each other that give them a fractured stability. Steven Levinson’s portrait of a Jewish family falls into the more traditional dysfunctional family syndrome. Three siblings, two married and one longing, and their spouses gather first around the death of their mother and later when their father suffers a stroke.
The set up in dysfunctional family dramas is pretty consistent. The first establishes the characters and defines their beliefs and personal characteristics that will eventually lead to a break down in the family’s unification in the second half. Many great plays follow this pattern, e.g., Long Day’s Journey into Night, Death of a Salesman, and August: Osage County. The beauty of The Humans is the way Karam reversed the second half – they take refuge in the family.
Unfortunately, Levinson’s play lacks the unity of either approach. The first half is a sort of analysis of the impact of Jewish religion and tradition on the lives of a family with the usual differences in commitment and beliefs. The chief adversary is a professor of Jewish Studies at an unidentified university in New York City. Despite his field of study, he has come to see American Jews’ identification with the holocaust as a major flaw that inhibits their identity in the present. He is also a non-believer (go figure!). One of his sisters is a classic “Jewish American Princess,” married to a lawyer, more concerned about appearance than substance. The other sister is a believer, more in the Jewish tradition than in the Talmud itself. And the father was one of the American soldiers who liberated Dachau and spent the rest of his life running a discount clothing store in an oppressed black neighborhood in North West Washington, DC.
Through the first act you come to expect that the family will have to confront their religious and social differences to either unite (as in The Humans) or disintegrate around their contradistinctions (a la “Osage County”). But instead, Levinson gives each character an unrelated external calamity that unravels their security and separates them from any type of family unity. While each individual calamity is credible, cramming them all into the second act challenges our “willing suspension of disbelief.” More important, the focus on religion and tradition in the first act appears to have little to do with the events and the characters’ responses in the second act.
Still, Levinson is a skilled character craftsman – as illustrated in his much more successful book for the hit Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen. He draws us into the world of each character, even if (or maybe because) those characters tend to be people we have met before. While If I Forget lacks the humor, focus and punch of another Jewish family play that was housed in the Laura Pels, Bad Jews, it’s still an interesting portrait of a contemporary American “mishpacha.”
Yen by Anna Jordan
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street
BS Grade: B+
BS on Show-Score: 85
This is not a play for everyone’s taste, but I found it fascinating and, in the end, moving. It’s by an award-winning, relatively young British playwright named Anna Jordan and received rave reviews first in Manchester and then at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Two half-brothers in their teens have been virtually abandoned by their alcoholic, drug addicted mother, living by themselves in a barren apartment in a housing project in West London. They meet their essential needs with petty thefts in local stores and spend their time playing video games and drooling at internet pornography. One brother appears to be the victim of some type of mental disorder that makes him super-energetic, literally running, jumping and tumbling all the time. The other older brother has an addiction with the TV, subsumed in games and porn. Both long for the relationship that their non-existent family has denied them, but neither ventures outside of their secure, if bleak, environment. When a young girl with a similarly deprived family background forces her way into their lives, the boys are driven to confront their need for human contact with completely different outcomes.
The two lead actors are truly remarkable. Justice Smith as the hyper-active Bobbie gives a “how does he do that” type of performance without sacrificing the audience’s empathy with his circumstances. Lucas Hedges, who is nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of another youth struggling with loss in “Manchester by the Sea,” gives an equally dimensioned and entirely engaging performance as Hench, the older and more internalized brother. What is going inside of him is the core of the play and it becomes apparent when a young woman enters his life. Ari Graynor and Stefani LaVie Owen as the girl and mother respectively give equally fitting performances and Trip Cullman’s direction creates an unpleasant but evocative tension throughout.