Aug 282017

Prince of Broadway

Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J Friedman Theatre, Broadway

BS rating: B-

Show-Score Rating: 75

On the way out of the theatre after experiencing “Prince of Broadway,” my husband turned to me and said, “Well that was the best cruise ship show I have ever seen.”  For those of you not familiar with the type of entertainment on large-scale cruise ships, Broadway medleys sung by young performers are standard fare in these floating theatres.  It’s unfair to compare the overwhelmingly talented cast at the Friedman Theatre to the choristers turned soloists on the ship stage.  But the overall effect of this tribute to a Broadway legend is not unlike the musical diversions at sea.

There is a sort of “Catch-22” in attempting to capture the genius of Hal Prince by stringing together many of the most popular (and a few lesser known) songs from his many decades of Broadway shows. Prince is a director and producer.  He doesn’t write songs.  He does not create lyrics.  And he does not write the dialog that tells the story – although all of these elements are tools for a director and their success relies on his skill in integrating all of the elements into an artistic whole.  It’s that “artistic whole” that distinguishes the work of a great director (and producer).  So, it is not surprising that an evening of knock-out singing and dancing does not fully satisfy those who have experienced Prince’s “whole.”

Prince and Susan Stroman (the co-director and choreographer) certainly evoke the memories of those Broadway hits and misses.  Each sequence from a show has scenery (by Beowolf Boritt) that replicates the style of the original production as do the costumes by former Prince collaborator, William Ivey Long.  The book (and there is not much) by David Thompson uses quotes by Prince, most of which sound like they were pulled from a press release rather than containing any specific insights about any of the productions or wisdom about the art of directing and producing.

But “Prince on Broadway” is entertaining. It is full of juicy numbers that let a brilliant collection of musical theatre pros sell each song as if they were introducing it to an audience who had never heard “Tonight” from “West Side Story” or “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita.  For me, the stand-out performer is Tony Yazbeck who went from a wide-eyed, beautifully sung WSS Tony to a reflective Buddy in the “Follies” sequence.  Brandon Uranowitz brings a freshness to the Emcee in “Cabaret.”  One of the treats from lesser known Prince creation, “You’ve Got Possibilities” from “It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman,” was deliciously delivered by Michael Xavier and Janet Dacal.  If there’s an award for adaptability, it should go to Chuck Cooper.  He goes from Tevye’s “If I Were a Rich Man” to “Ol’ Man River” to “My Friends” (Sweeney Todd’s tribute to his razor blades) – all carried out totally “in character.” 

There is also a bit of a “Catch 22” for the singers in this Broadway potpourri.  They are singing these songs to replicate their impact in the productions that Prince produced.  So it is quite natural to think of the late and very great Barbara Cook as Bryonha Marie Parham beautifully delivers “Will He Like Me?” from “She Loves Me.”  Ms. Parham is given another classic memory to compete with in the title song from “Cabaret,” although, ironically she is not up against the original Broadway Sally Bowles (Jill Haworth) but the unforgettable Liza Minelli in the film.  However, Ms. Parham provides good competition with those recollections, bringing her own take on these memorable numbers as well as “Show Boat’s” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”.

As with any retrospective, the memory that each number triggers inside the head of each audience member depends on how that audience member first experienced each of the shows –the original production, a revival, a road company, etc.   And some of those memories might not have been Hal Prince’s original production.  Yet is was the Prince of Broadway who made the shows part of the history of great musicals.

There is not a weak number in the show.  But it does go on too long — there is too much of a good thing.  But after two hours and fifty minutes you leave the theatre satisfied, even if this tribute fails to go beyond a pleasing review of songs from Hal Prince’s Broadway creations without capturing the genius behind their original incarnation.

 Posted by at 1:52 pm
Aug 142017

Michael Moore: The Terms of My Surrender by Michael Moore

Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street

BS Rating: B

Show-Score Rating: 80

It’s a revival meeting with brother Moore preaching to a choir that believes it has lost its voice and cannot sing.  That is what it is like to experience Michael Moore’s “The Terms of My Surrender.” The audience is self-selective, not unlike the audiences that flock to holy rollers.  We come into the theatre knowing what to expect from the Prophet who predicted the victory of the devil Trump and he delivers.

But rather than wallow in self-pity or scream futile outrage, Moore is on a mission in his Broadway debut. Like the preacher, he is out to convert his believers into action.  His message is about the power and responsibility of the individual.  At the start of the meeting, he directs his audience to a website that makes it amazingly easy to phone their representatives with daily directive messages.  He does not let his congregation escape responsibility by blaming the current fall from grace on those misguided people who “live between the Hudson River and La Cienega Boulevard.”  “We let it happen,” he declares. 

For Mr. Moore, we need to take responsibility for allowing the extreme voices to go unchallenged among the people who are listening to those voices. We cannot sit back and say, “we’ll let Rachel Maddow or Elizabeth Warren take care of that.” 

Moore’s approach is to illustrate each of his points with a recollection of his personal experiences.  So, he plays a recording of Glenn Beck: “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore.” Beck muses, “And I’m wondering if I could kill him myself or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. I think I could…is that wrong?” Well, yes, it is!  And Moore wants us to combat this type of hate speech.  He does not want to arouse the masses; he wants to motivate the individual.  So, he explains how, as a teenager, he got himself elected to the local school board because he objected to the high school’s corporal punishment policy.  When Ronald Reagan went to Germany during his presidency and he decided to lay a wreath at a cemetery for dead Nazi’s, Moore and his Jewish friend who lost family in the Holocaust went to Germany and infiltrated the press to raise a protest sign in front the then-President Reagan.

Some have taken this personal story approach to be “bragging” or self-aggrandizing.  But that criticism misses Mr. Moore’s point.  These stories are designed to show his congregants that each one of them, as single person, can make a difference.  As with his acclaimed documentaries, Moore establishes a direct relationship with his audience.  When he sits in his lounge chair or at his desk, we feel like we are alone in a room with our down-to-earth but witty friend.

As an almost one-man show, there are times when things seem to drag a bit and other times where Moore and director Michael Mayer mistakenly try to “Broadway-ize” the presentation.  For me, the long and detailed description of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis was way too drawn out.  Yes, it’s a perfect example of the “we let it happen” accusation.  But putting that lengthily (and fairly well-known) report toward the end of the of the show’s two hours was a strain.  In a sort of 10:15 number, there is a glitzy quiz show that pits American and Canadian audience members against each other with questions about their respective countries. It’s the one of the two times that the show breaks with the one-on-one relationship between Moore and the audience and it felt out of place. 

The other break occurs at the end of the show with a rather silly “finale,” but I will avoid a spoiler except to say that there is little that is silly about the rest of Mr. Moore’s on-the-mark musings.  They are insightful, frequently funny, and definitely worth heeding, even when he appears to be rambling.  It’s not surprising that so many viewers have described “The Terms of My Surrender” as uplifting in a time that has so little that is positive or comforting.  But then, isn’t that exactly why the preacher preaches and the congregation responds, “hallelujah and amen”?

 Posted by at 1:59 pm
Jul 122017

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

The Public Theater at Lafayette and Astor Place

BS Rating: C+

Show-Score Rating: 60

Sam Gold’s production of Hamlet at the Public Theater is just that: SAM GOLD’s production.  It has the hallmarks of his recent interpretations of classic works: minimalist design, modern street dress, emphasis on text while rather than the writing style, lights on the audience during the first act.  This approach brought some interesting portrayals and unique insights in his production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” and many viewers felt his recent “Othello” at New York Theatre Workshop had a similar effect.

But each of those productions had lead actors who were capable of living in their reinterpretations of the classic.  In “Glass Menagerie,” Sally Field and Joe Mantella abandoned the accents and stripped their characters of most of their embellishments, but there was never a moment that you did not believe they were experiencing what they were expressing.  Mr. Gold’s “Hamlet” is filled with competent actors.  They make sense of the lines; they reflect emotion; they put emphasis where emphasis is required.  But you never feel they are living their characters’ lives.

At the head of the cast, Oscar Isaac knows his craft.  He delivers Shakespeare’s lines with a clarity of meaning and colored with appropriate emotion.  He dominates the stage.  But I never felt like he was experiencing the tortured indecisiveness that is at the core of Hamlet’s being.  His interpretation is broad and aggressive with little questioning.  If Hamlet were that assured, those of us in the audience would not have to wait four hours for him to seek revenge. However, even allowing for that textual inconsistency, Mr. Isaac’s Hamlet never seems to have any internal life.  Even in the famous “To be, or not to be” speech, he seems to be debating a philosophical idea rather personally reflecting on how “conscience makes cowards of us all.”  In fairness, Hamlet is one of those roles that really requires an actor with great natural magnetism; no amount of craft can substitute for that rare quality.

Without a riveting Hamlet, there is little the other actors can do to make this any more than a competent but insignificant production.  And that company is truly a mixed bag.  Ritchie Coster as Claudius demonstrates the skills of an experienced classical actor.  Even though Shakespeare shares very little about Claudius’ internal conflicts or even his motivations, he is a man who killed his brother and married the brother’s widow.  Coster gives him a sort of “Trumpian” pushiness along with little awareness of its effect.  Peter Friedman gives Polonius more dimension than this character is usually accorded.  There are certainly times when Friedman’s Polonius evokes the laughter so commonly associated with this role; but Friedman also makes him a voice of reason and his advice is treated as good advice. Anatol Yusef brings a background in the Royal Shakespeare Company to Laertes and it shows.  He is able to inhabit the character and we feel his tragedy within the tragedy.

Neither Charlayne Woodward as Gertrude or Gayle Rankin as Ophelia live up to the potential of their roles.  Ms. Woodward is in a character-defining costume – a baggy maroon dress with huge arms and legs that swell when she moves – that suggest a woman of style and strength.  But Ms. Woodward’s Gertrude is almost meek.  It’s never clear how she is responding to Claudius or Hamlet and Mr. Gold consistently places her out of focus.  Gayle Rankin is miscast as Ophelia, but she is certainly not helped by the costume and hair style she has been given.  A dark baggy romper suit topped by a heavy gray men’s sweeter with a rolled-up hair-do usually found on 19th century downstairs servants.   Nothing in her performance (or appearance) make her look or sound like the love of Hamlet’s life.

Keegan-Michael Key plays the ever-loyal Horatio and carries it off fairly well.  There is a wonderful moment in Hamlet’s advice to the players when he discusses keeping the clowns in check with Mr. Isaac looking accusingly at Mr. Key.  In Mr. Gold’s typical (and frequently laudable) embrace of casting-against-type, Roberta Colindrez (the original Joan, the college-lover in “Fun Home”) plays Rosencrantz.  It’s not clear what (if anything) Mr. Gold means to be saying in this odd casting, but Ms. Colindrez is terribly miscast.  She looks and sounds silly especially against the entirely successful casting of Matthew Saldivar as Guildenstern.  Both of these “gentlemen of the court” are dressed for a bar-b-que in the back yard.

BTW – All the other roles are played by one of the nine members of the company.  In a wonderfully effective piece of direction, Mr. Friedman and Ms. Rankin (the dead Claudius and Ophelia) play the grave diggers.  If only the other choices Mr. Gold made were as clever and potentially insightful as the dead father and daughter discussing the appropriateness of the daughter’s burial and the legacy of the dead.  Instead, we have another example of the director’s style without the requisite connections between his style and what he is trying to communicate to the audience. Style should be in service of meaning, not the opposite.


 Posted by at 10:24 pm
Jul 062017

Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi

Soulpepper on 42nd Street at Pershing Square Signature Center

BSonArts Rating: B+

Show-Score Rating: 85

If you are resisting seeing “Kim’s Convenience” at Signature’s most intimate theater because you heard it has been made into a sitcom of Canada’s public broadcasting system, fear not.  The original play is a beautifully written (and frequently insightful) family dramedy.  And even though the acclaimed Soulpepper Theater Company has revived this play many times since it’s 2012 premiere, the production remains fresh and warmly funny with its original cast intact.

Appa (father) Kim and his wife Umma (mother) moved to Canada from South Korea in the 1980s and opened a small convenience store in Toronto.  They had two children, Janet, a single struggling photographer, and Jung, their estranged son who left the family years ago after a violent disagreement with his father.  Kim is resisting retiring because he sees his store as his life-long legacy, but Janet has no desire to follow in her father’s footsteps and take over the business.  The neighborhood is experiencing a gentrification that bodes well for the convenience store’s future; in fact, Kim has a generous offer to buy his store from Mr. Lee, described by Kim as “my favorite black man with a Korean name.”

Against this family drama, we begin to appreciate why Canada is viewed as a model of positive immigration practices without a history of extreme racial and ethnic prejudice and oppression. No, it’s not the promised land, and Mr. Choi explores these issues from a Canadian point-of-view with humor and ingenuity.  Much of this exploration is in the hands of Appa, played by Paul Sun-Yung Lee.  Whenever he starts a story about race, we are sure it will not end pleasingly; but his tale usually ends in an unexpected manner. Mr. Choi balances his upbeat view of the relations between Blacks and Asians with a few reminders of the reality of life running a bodega.

But “Kim’s Convenience” is a family drama at its core.  It’s interested in what an aging generation should or could expect from their children.  Are the accomplishments of the parents part of their child’s identity?  And how do ethnicity and identity interact?  This is not a weighty play.  There is lots of humor in its 90 minutes.  The play’s main weakness is the underdeveloped characters of the mother and the son.   As played by Jean Yoon, with very few lines outside of one scene, Umma appears to be a very traditional Asian female stereotype: quiet and seemingly subservient.  The plot keeps the son, played by playwright Choi, out of most of the play, although there are ways to give us a much fuller picture of his views, especially considering the very dramatic circumstances that separated him from his family many years ago.

Nevertheless, the play running through July 15, is worth seeing.  In a brief curtain speech on opening night, Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz acknowledged the enthusiastic, flag-waving Canadians in the audience.  “I see there are some Canadians in the house,” after a brief pause, he continued, “and some who want to go there soon.”  His company’s production gives us a small but delightful view of what awaits us.

 Posted by at 11:44 pm
Jun 262017

The Crusade of Connor Stephens by Dewey Moss

The Jerry Orbach Theater at 50th and Broadway

BSonArts Rating:  B

Show-Score Rating: 80

If timing has any influence on the success of a serious drama, “The Crusade of Connor Stephens” has certainly found the right moment for its off-Broadway reincarnation.  It opens on the eve of the US Supreme Court agreeing to hear a case that purports that selling a cake for a gay wedding is a religious act.  “Crusade” is about preaching hate and the way it destroys families, and in this play, lives.

Set in the sticks of Texas, Kris and Jim Jr. have lost their young daughter to a deranged teenage gunman who sees his religion as not just accepting but advocating violence against gay people, ending “sin” before it will infect others.  It’s the day of the funeral and Kris and Jim’s families have gathered, some willingly, some obligingly.  These families are torn apart by their beliefs and their loyalties.  Jim Jr’s father, Big Jim, is a holy roller Baptist minister who has turned his church into a commercial operation and demands from his followers an acceptance of his distortions of scripture, and his wife is follower #1.  Jim Sr’s mother knows there is more than just religion driving her preacher son as Kris’ sister and brother-in-law demand respect for the grieving couple and their loss.

Playwright Dewey Moss has crafted a very complex and illuminating family drama about acceptance, loss, religion, and hate.  Every week we hear of another “red state” effort to limit the freedoms of LGBT people, but Moss shows us what those efforts mean at the ground level – how families are torn apart, how people lose their friends and siblings, and, most profoundly, how the innocent become the victims.  The play cunningly reveals each character’s values and builds to a climax that forces each to take action.  But this is not a play with happy endings; the characters do not go through catharsis.  The New York audience just leaves with a portrait of how those “those people” live.

In many ways, “Crusade” and the recently closed “Sweat,” by Lynn Nottage, are complimentary views of Trump’s America.  Nottage focused on the troubles of the working class; Moss shows us the power and destructiveness of those who believe the first amendment empowers them to govern others with their religion.  Both playwrights are not interested in the politics; they want to show us the people and the extremes to which they are driven.

However, the current production does not fully realize the potential of the play.  James Kiberd gives a terrifying performance as Big Jim and Kathleen Huber gives warm dimension to the stereotypical portrait of the wise elder in a wheel chair.  Ben Curtis as Jim Jr. gives a convincing performance as a father in shock, but his role is also about a man who is torn between family and identity, a core insight in this play. That struggle is never revealed until the end, presumably because the actor and director felt that internalizing that conflict was a function of his loss. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast falls somewhere between competent and community theatre.  In addition, Mr. Moss’ direction once again demonstrates that playwrights should let someone else direct their works.  Much of the staging is awkward and potentially meaningful pauses lack significance.  The script builds to a rather emotional climax, but Mr. Moss has not controlled the rhythms of the buildup to maximum effect.

This production is still worth seeing for a New York audience, and not just New York’s faithful queer audience.  No number of New York Times editorials can give us the sense of the people behind these conflicting beliefs and values.  Mr. Moss clearly knows these people and understands the complexities of their existence.  Too frequently we think they are simple people and their beliefs are designed to keep them that way.  But Moss shows us the struggle of a gay man to keep his family and his sexual identity; a preacher’s wife who has been lead into darkness; in-laws who only want their families to coexist; and, yes, a preacher’s mother whose wisdom goes beyond the scripture.  We need to understand these people if we hope to “crusade against hate.”

 Posted by at 10:21 pm
Jun 102017

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie

Devised by David M. Lutkin, Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein

Irish Repertory Theatre at 132 West 22nd Street

BS rating: A

Show Score rating: 95

If folk music is your passion, then “Woody Sez,” at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is a “must-see.”  The Woody, of course, is Woody Guthrie, the seminal influence on popular American folk music in the second half of the 20th century.  His music and his politics inspired the likes of Joan Baez, Paul Simon, and the equally influential Bob Dylan.  A cast of four thoroughly authentic folk performers combine the major events in Guthrie’s life with the music he created at each stage of his career in a wonderfully entertaining and frequently moving tribute to the “hobo poet.”

Guthrie’s life was full of challenges.  His mother suffered from hereditary Huntington’s disease that went undiagnosed as the family suffered from a set of house fires, the death of one of his sisters, and the serious injury from fire to his father – all possibly related to the mother’s uncontrollable dementia. Even though his father had been a successful business man, the series of fires and the father’s debts from bad real estate deals left the family living in poverty throughout Guthrie’s teenage years. At 19, the self-trained troubadour set off to California where he mingled with farm workers and mid-westerners displaced by the great depression and the destructive dust storms.  Guthrie’s music became the voice of the oppressed and an advocate for social justice.

Throughout his life, Woody Guthrie’s music was directly connected to social and political events of his time and he developed his understanding of these issues by interacting directly with the people.  This musical tribute carefully illustrates the context for many of Guthrie’s famous, and not-so-famous, songs with brief narratives that meld into the music and lyrics that Guthrie created to define American workers in the 1930s and 40s. For anyone who knows Guthrie from the songs that were made famous by his disciples in the 1960s and 70s, this tribute includes many familiar songs – This Land Is Your Land, Union Maid, Deportees. But there are also many lesser known but equally insightful pieces – Pastures of Plenty, Vigilante Man, sand Talking Merchant Marine.

“Woody Sez” was originally produced at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and, since that time, it has been performed all over the United States and Europe but not in New York.  The four performers, who also developed the piece, have diverse backgrounds in theatre and music, but they communicate a truly authentic feeling for Guthrie’s style and perspective. Each play multiple stringed instruments in the tradition of classic folk performers.  Also in that tradition, their singing is less about beautiful sounds than it is about communicating ideas.

The cast is led by David Lutken as the voice of Woody.  Mr. Lutken does not try to imitate the sound of Guthrie’s voice but instead focuses very successfully on his style and his attitude. He creates a Woody who can move seamlessly from the outrage of “Dust Bowl Disaster” to the whimsy of “Riding in My Car” to the spirit of “This Land is Your Land.”  He is supported by Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russel, and Andy Tierstein – each of whom have effective solos and combine “pitch-perfectly” in ensemble numbers.  Together, these four performers create the sense of a get-together remembering our old friend, Woody Guthrie.

And it is the genius of that old friend that makes this get-together so entertaining and enlightening.  In addition to producing this tribute, the Irish Reparatory has also developed a fascinating display of Guthrie memorabilia and historical documents in its newly remodeled gallery.   In a section on Guthrie’s impact on contemporary music, a quote from Billy Bragg, the British folk/punk artist, defines Woody’s place in folk music evolution: “He’s not a link in the chain.  He’s the stake that’s grounded in the earth that the chain is linked to.”  In “Woody Sez,” we experience the outrage, the insight, and the joy of that stake in the ground.


 Posted by at 5:51 pm
May 222017

Can You Forgiver Her? by Gina Gionfriddo

At the Vineyard Theatre on 15th Street

BS Rating: F

Show-Score Rating: 30

It’s not really clear who is the “her” in the title of Gina Gionfriddo’s “Can You Forgive Her?”, but after 95 minutes of tolerating this nonsensical, pretentious, and ill-conceived play, I cannot bring myself to forgive Ms. Gionfriddo.  Billed as a comedy, there is little that is amusing in this portrait of four characters who are both the victims of, and enthusiastic participants in, their misguided lives. There is also very little in Ms. Gionfriddo’s writing that makes these characters believable and the structure of the play anything more than a very forced set of circumstances that give each character the opportunity to reveal their personal history and deepest secrets.

Tanya is a single mother struggling to support her young child while laboring not to “make another mistake” in her love life with a seemingly flagrantly unemployed and unfocused man (Graham) who has spent the last six months in some type of unexplained but inescapable haze over the death of his mother. Graham spends much of the play in high anxiety over whether he must read all of the unpublished manuscripts by his mother, a would-be but never published author of poetry, novels, short stories, and memoirs.

Enter Miranda who is taking refuge at Graham’s home after she causes a ruckus with an “Indian man” at the bar where Tanya is the bartender. Miranda was brought up in a loveless childhood where money was poured upon her in lieu of affection and care. When the money stopped pouring, she ran up “monstrous debt” and now she survives on the goodwill of sugar daddies, yet refuses to see herself as a prostitute.  And then there is Miranda’s prime client, David, a 50-something successful face-lifter who cannot face the unbearable but obvious perception that he lacks the ability to have any form of emotional attachment.

The play really does not have a plot.  Instead, the collision of these troubled souls is mainly motivated by their concern that Sateesh, the Indian man (you remember him, the guy in the bar, who is also a client of Miranda), will do harm to Miranda, David, the people who David’s country-club companion is entertaining, or even Tanya and Graham.  If this all sounds rather ridiculous, well it is.

Ms. Gionfriddo adds to the nonsense by imbuing each of her characters with a tendency to speak in literary metaphors, sometimes appropriate, frequently mangled. Much of the character revelation comes in the form of passionate soliloquys that are less motivated by the events in the play than they are by a contrived moment that allows the character to reveal his or her “big blackness” (Ms. Gionfriddo’s words, not mine).  As Miranda so offensively declares, “big blackness’ is something only gay men can understand since “the act of coming out makes them understand pain.”

Each of the actors appears to make a decent effort toward creating believable characters even though the writing is so broad and their actions so inconsistent that the viewer cannot help but say “come on now, really?” Unfortunately, Ms. Gionfriddo puts the actors and director into an untenable position, being exposed.  Can they forgive her?

 Posted by at 9:21 pm
Apr 272017

A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath

At the Golden Theatre on Broadway

 BS rating: A

Show-Score rating: 98

Several years ago, I attended a Q&A session with Edward Albee, then the greatest living American playwright.  One of the audience members asked Mr. Albee, “What happens to George and Martha the next day in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’”  Albee, never one to mince words, responded, “Nothing!  The play is over.  There is no tomorrow for George and Martha.”  But the question was fair, if not the playwright’s responsibility.  Much of the post-performance discussion of Albee’s play, and many other plays, centers on what happens to the characters and their circumstances in the future.  That is what makes the theatre such a stimulating and thought-provoking experience.  And occasionally, some misguided playwright tries to write a sequel to a great play, usually with disastrous results.

So it was with great trepidation that I entered the Golden Theatre to see A Doll’s House, Part.2.  In this case, the up-and-coming playwright is Lucas Hnath, who has recently caught the attention of New York audiences with two fairly successful off-Broadway productions: The Christians at Playwrights Horizons, and Red Speedo at the New York Theatre Workshop.  But now he was doing what several previous playwrights had tried and failed at: writing a sequel to the play that many see as the birth of modern drama, Henrik Ibsen’s classic and controversial portrait of marriage, identity, and responsibility.

To use the vernacular, I was “blown away” by Mr. Hnath’s extraordinary success, particularly considering several of the additional obstacles that he has overcome.  In the current state of Broadway theatre, it is very rare for any new play to have its premiere on Broadway without some type of try-out, either off-Broadway or in a regional not-for-profit venue, giving the playwright the opportunity to revise and rework the play away from the buzz of the Great White Way. It is unheard of for a playwright’s first Broadway endeavor to open without a previous production.  Actually, Part 2 was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Theatre, one of California’s most acclaimed NFPs.  However, according to reports, when the New York producer Scott Rudin read the script, he decided it was ready for Broadway and negotiated an agreement that allowed him and his producer associates as well as South Coast to premiere the play simultaneously. He was right!

Mr. Hnath’s play is not so much a sequel as it is a very modern look at marriage, identity, and the role of man and woman in- and outside of the home, set in the time and circumstances of Ibsen’s original. The four characters from the original speak in contemporary language even though the action takes place only fifteen years after Nora’s “door slam heard around the world.” We are never given the feeling that we are watching a play about the past.  Hnath has used the context of the original to reexamine much of its content as currently relevant.  What happens as a marriage evolves (or devolves)?  What are the responsibilities of each partner?  What happens to individual identity when that individual becomes a mother or father?  And most importantly, for what and to whom are we responsible?

Hnath investigates these questions with wonderful pointed humor, something rarely seen in the original playwright’s oeuvre. He also develops a sequence of events that forces each character to confront their situation using a combination of pressures both within and outside of the home, a quality that mirror’s Ibsen’s techniques without the feeling of a poor imitation.  There are some similarities to Mr. Hnath’s recent off-Broadway successes.  As with The Christians, his discussions of issues are tinged with a dialectic.  That play investigated the breakdown of religious belief for a holy-roller minister and his conflicts with his faithful associates (including his wife).  In Part 2 he is interested in the most fundamental aspect of dialectal thought: choice.  While choice was a fundamental undercurrent of Ibsen’s original, in Hnath’s sequel it is the main current.  What is choice; are we free to make choice; how do we live with our choices?  Sounds like a heavy evening in the theatre, but this is all accomplished with lots of laugh-out-loud humor combined with thoroughly believable character development.

The production at the Golden Theatre is near perfect.  Laurie Metcalf gives a fully dimensioned performance as Nora. Returning home after fifteen years of independent success in the outside world, Metcalf portrays Nora’s conflicted soul and current challenges with clarity and empathy.  Chris Cooper makes Nora’s husband, Torvald, into a deeply internalized and equally conflicted man who has never gotten beyond the original door slam.  It’s not surprising to find Jayne Houdyshell cast as the maid, Anne Marie.  But Hnath has made this minor character into a central figure and, also not surprisingly, Ms. Houdyshell gives yet another outstanding performance as a follow-up to her recent Tony award winning role in The Humans. In fact, these two roles, one as a loyal wife, the other as a vested family servant, give Houdyshell the opportunity to help us understand two very different versions of the woman who keeps the house together.  Condola Rashad effectively plays the grown-up daughter, Emmy, who was merely a very young child in the original play.  She embodies the other side of Nora’s dialectic, ready to marry a banker and afraid of scandal. Rashad plays her as quietly forceful, not unlike her mother in the original.  Miriam Buether’s set is stark, tall white walls with four simple chairs, a small table, and “that door.” Thrust into the audience, the almost vacant stage tells us to focus on what is said, not where or when it’s said.  Sam Gold’s direction is clear and smart, including the color-blind casting that gives Emmy a sort of “otherness,” not to mention the benefits of the choices made by a very fine actor, Ms. Rashad.  But the real star of this production is Mr. Hnath’s script.  Rarely is something from the past made so present.



 Posted by at 11:05 pm
Apr 072017

War Paint by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie

At the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway

BS rating: D

Show Score rating: 55

Two certified Broadway legends do not a musical make any more than the simple facts about the conflicts between two of America’s first female corporate heads are likely to engage an audience.  But that’s about all you get with “War Paint,” the new musical that stars Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.  The writing team and director that brought us the deservedly praised “Grey Gardens” several years ago have adapted two biographies into a stylish but sadly boring musical documentary.  Even the power and polish of the two leads could not keep me from longing for this thing to end.

There is a difference between a star vehicle and a good musical with great stars.  Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie, the book, music and lyrics writers, seem to have been obsessed with the former.  For every passionate ballad given to Ms. LuPone, there is an equally fervent number for Ms. Ebersole.  The rest of the show is taken up with a sort of history of the evolution of cosmetics couched in production numbers that neither excite nor provide any insightful observations.  There is little originality but lots of sparkle and occasional spectacle.

The basic story has a lot of potential.  The tale of two women who rise to corporate superiority in the 1930s and 40s and then lose their power as they refused to respond to the changes in American culture in the 1950s and 60s certainly has the making of an intriguing journey.  Add to that the disdain that each woman had for the other and their starkly different backgrounds, one a Jewish refugee from Poland, the other an immigrant from Canada who could never break into the white society circles of New York.  That sounds like the making of wonderfully complex and engaging story line.   This musical has ability to use songs to go inside the heads of these two feminist ground-breakers under the tutelage of two Broadway stars with a history of bringing conflicted women to life. How can it go wrong?

But Doug Wright’s book is more interested in recording history than it is in delving into the inner workings each of these women’s minds.  Their hate for each other is portrayed largely as a matter of corporate competition with little reference to how either views the person behind the business.  Both characters express frustration at their own circumstances, but the “war” of the title never goes beyond their desire to dominate (as so many wars do). There are many scenes that go back and forth between the two women in their own environments, but even those scenes do not amplify their inner thoughts and vulnerabilities.  They merely reaffirm their competitiveness and their need to succeed at all costs. There is never a hint of the irony that these two women broke the corporate glass ceiling by inventing and perpetuating an image of women that would come to be seen as a major challenge to women in corporate cultures.  The most telling moments in the entire show occur at the very end when both women are asked to speak at a “woman of the year” event and they finally meet each other in the dressing room.  Here Rubinstein and Arden confront their view of each other and what their lives have meant to them in a touching musical interchange, made totally disarming by two actresses with the power to captivate.

The songs in a musical can amplify, explain, and analyze.  However, Mr. Frankel and Mr. More’s score rarely enters those realms.  The music is largely bland and unmemorable. There are several production numbers that describe the history and marketing of cosmetic products.  There are also a number of songs, distributed evenly between our two stars, that suggest some insight into these two dynamic women.  But Mr. More’s lyrics are mundane, superficial, and, at times, misguided.  An example of the latter is a duet in which these corporate heads lament “If I’d Been a Man.”  The lyrics carefully articulate the stereotypical qualities of male CEOs.  What they do not show us is what it is like to be a woman who is entering new territory – do they really want to be like a man or are they forging the qualities that will eventually lead to the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 70s?  Are we expected to empathize with these two women who can only express their identity in terms of the opposite gender?  Surely the real Arden and Rubinstein had more “balls” than that.

The show has plenty of the pizzazz that comes along with Broadway ticket prices – chorus lines, evocative settings, lush orchestrations, etc.  But none of those elements show much invention nor provoke the desired “oh, wow!” response in the audience.  Michael Grief, a veteran of any number of highly imaginative Broadway stagings – look no further than his current hit, Dear Even Hansen — seems to have simply provided whatever the audience expects rather than taking them to places they never imagined.

So, if your admiration for Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole is enough to sustain you for two-and-half hours, this is your show.  Just be sure to have coffee or some other stimulant before you enter the theatre – It’s a long way to that beautiful final scene.



 Posted by at 6:54 pm
Apr 062017

Present Laughter by Noel Coward

St. James Theatre on Broadway 

BS Rating: B-

Show-Score Rating: 75

The current production of “Present Laughter” might more appropriately be titled “Past Laughter.”  That observation is not so much a criticism of the play or its ability to entertain an audience 75 years after its premiere. It is a reference to the play’s style and it’s place in the evolution of what used to be called “sitting room comedies.”  Coward wrote the play at the out-break of the Second World War and toured it with himself in the lead role for many years.  It has been revived on both sides of the Atlantic regularly since Coward has yielded the central part to the likes of Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, Ian McKellen, Frank Langella, and George C. Scott. But a successful production of this type of play relies on an understanding of its essential structure.

The sitting room comedies of the 1920s to 1950 had a fairly common organization.  The first act introduces a collection of characters, usually with exaggerated personalities that make their relationship to each other delightfully complicated, although not necessarily terribly realistic.  The initial act is peppered with humorous asides, cultural sniggers, and giggles at each character’s exaggerated behaviors.  The real laughter occurs in the second act, when the twists of the plot cause the characters to be caught in awkward circumstances and compromised situations, usually in a sort of farcical format with slamming doors and mismatched pairs.  The final act is a classic denouement where the various lovers are reunited and the plot is neatly wrapped up.  That is certainly the model for “Present Laughter.”

Coward was a master of this format and this play has the added fun of portraying an over-the-hill matinee idol who cannot bring himself to see himself, except to fix his hair in the mirror. He is a man of the T-H-E-A-T-R-E.  Gathered around him is a collection of servants, colleagues and hangers-on who are themselves exaggerated stereotypes.  Each role gives the actor impersonating these stock characters the opportunity to play big and not worry about credibility.  As Coward himself said, the play “was written with the sensible object of providing me with a bravura part.”

Occupying the role of the matinee idol, Garry, in this production is Kevin Kline, an actor known for making bravo bravura.  He does not disappoint.  He has that special ability to mug deliciously and he uses it with style throughout the show.  However, he frequently takes his license to over-act a bit too far, making his character into a cartoon that eventually wears thin for the audience and distracts from the little bits of plot that Coward uses to structure the comic interchanges.  This is especially true in the first act as he encounters each of the ten characters who will make the second act revelations so enjoyable.  By contrast, the always delightful Kristine Nielsen shows exactly how to use a distorted facial expression or the turn of a phrase to make her character so enjoyable that we miss her presence in the final resolution of the play – strange that Mr. Coward had her exit before everything is resolved since she is the secretarial organizer of the main character’s life. Kate Burton, as Garry’s separated but faithful wife, Liz, plays the straight-woman with class. She is the voice of reason and much of the humor bounces off her resolute sense of order.  All of the remaining cast adopts Kline’s over-the-top style, usually quite effectively since they are not on stage long enough for the audience to tire of their antics.

The main problem in this production, and the reason it fails to make its “present laughter” evoke as much joy as it did in the past, is its format.  Originally, the play was written in the classic three-act structure.  Bowing to the resistance of contemporary audiences to sit in a theatre for three hours, director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, has combined Act 1 with the first scene from Act 2, making the new first act an hour and twenty minutes long.  Given that all of this material in the new first act is the precursor to the rollicking fun of the second half of the original Act 2, these first 80 minutes seem to go on forever with only occasional humor and seemingly endless mugging.  The new second act delivers the truly hysterical farce that is at the core of this play’s style.  However, combining that uproariously funny sequence of events with the rather low key reconciliation that was previously Act 3, makes the play’s finale seem like an unsatisfying tag-line rather than the inevitable ending for a classic well-made play.

Noel Coward knew what he was doing in structuring his three-act comedy.  His audience also knew what he was doing.  Contemporary audiences occasionally don’t balk at spending three hours in the theatre, but they are not accustomed to the classic three-act structure. For some inexplicable reason, three hours are OK, but three acts are not.  There are certainly successful productions that carefully restructure the acts in classic plays from earlier periods whether it be Chekov or Shakespeare.  But a play has a rhythm and the audience must be in sync with that rhythm.  This production of “Present Laughter” changes that tempo and, in the process, makes us wish we could experience this classic sitting room comedy as it was intended to unfold in the past.


 Posted by at 11:19 pm