Jan 012018
 

As I look back at my theatre experiences this year, it was full of interesting “first-time” plays and musicals as well as a number of revivals that stood out.  There were also more than a few premieres and revivals that were remarkably disappointing.  I have decided to classify these plays as memorable and disappointing.  So, first, the memorable standouts.

One play took me completely by surprise and qualifies as a truly extraordinary playwriting accomplishment.  I entered the theatre to see Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Pt. 2” with great trepidation.  A number of playwrights have tried to tackle “the post-door slam” of Ibsen’s masterpiece; the most memorable failure being Comden and Green’s musical “A Doll’s Life,” that I saw in a Los Angeles try-out before it closed after five performances on Broadway in 1982.  Hnath’s Nora returns home after fifteen years during which she became a controversial author of books critiquing society’s treatment of women (in 19th century Norway).  The play is very funny and as dramatic and engaging as the original.  The Broadway production had a great cast lead by Laurie Metcalf who won the Tony Award for best female actor.  It’s one of the best plays I have seen in years, full of stimulating observations about marriage, family, and the roles of men and women.

“Indecent” by Paula Vogel, based on a concept by the play’s director, Rebecca Taichman, was a fascinating look at a Yiddish theatre company’s presentation of “God of Vengeance” by Sholem Asch as it moved from unprecedented success in Europe eventually to Broadway in 1923, where it was closed for “indecency.”  I found Vogel’s script a bit lumpy – over emphasizing a lesbian relationship in “God of Vengeance” when its portrayal of a Jewish house of prostitution and the duplicity of the orthodox father/pimp were just as “indecent.”  But Taichman’s direction was pitch perfect and made Vogel’s script into a fascinating portrait of the theatre company’s trials and tribulations. I was as surprised and gratified as she appeared to be accepting the Tony Award for best direction – well deserved.  Another distinguished Broadway play was “Oslo,” which I saw last year in Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway Newhouse Theater before it moved upstairs to the Beaumont.  Playwright J. T. Rogers and director Bartlett Sher combined to make a three-hour, very detailed retelling of the back-story of the Oslo Agreement on Israel and Palestine into an almost sit-on-the-edge of your seat drama.  That’s no small achievement, especially since 24 years later the audience knows this play might have been titled “Much Ado about Nothing.”

Another play that I saw last year at The Public Theatre made it to Broadway.  Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” won the Pulitzer Prize and no play more fully meets the definition of that prize: “For a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.”  I had the good fortune to see “Sweat” at The Public a few days before the presidential election.  Nottage’s portrait of factory workers losing their jobs in Reading, PA, was an insightful examination of the pressures and frustrations that drove so many middle Americans to believe the lies of Trump.  The play is not political; it’s about struggling people – their fears, desires, and their racial attitudes.  But it was a depiction of Trump’s America playing to an “elite” audience at The Public, many of whom had a hand in creating this desparate version of America.  That’s what makes live theatre so powerful.

One straight play revival stands out: Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of August Wilson’s “Jitney.”  This was the first play written by Wilson in his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, although in terms of 20th Century decades, it represents the 1970s.  Like so many of his plays, it is a character study, carefully observed and fully recreated.  The MTC production employed many of the most experienced and talented African American actors on the US stage.  Very little actually happens, but so much is communicated.

The new traditional Broadway musicals that I saw were pretty lackluster.  But three less traditional shows were definitely worth seeing.  At the top of the list is “Dear Evan Hanson,” a show I saw in its Off-Broadway incarnation.  The story of a pathologically shy teenager who becomes the center of a social media extravaganza is deserving of the buzz and awards it achieved, including Tonys for best musical and best performance by Ben Platt, a truly remarkable Broadway debut. The book by Steven Levenson and the music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul work together seamlessly to portray the world of youth in the age of the internet.  The other remarkable achievement in musical theatre is “The Band’s Visit,” an adaptation of an Israeli film that tells the story of the Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving in the wrong city in the Negev Desert of Israel to give a concert at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center.  They are taken in by members of the small town and what follows is a beautiful and moving portrayal of ennui.  With a gorgeous score by David Yazbek and an equally engaging book by Itmar Moses, the two leads, Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, bring new dimensions to angst.

“Come from Away” is a much happier portrayal of people ending up in the wrong place even though 9/11 hangs over every moment of joy.  When air traffic is frozen and planes are diverted to the nearest airport, the small Newfoundland town of Gander is forced to accept 38 planeloads of disoriented passengers.  The writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein carefully researched the events surrounding Gander’s open-armed acceptance of their visitors and created credible and delightful composites of stranded passengers and town-folk.  For me, much of the charm of this show grew out of the music that was (with one exception) sung as ensemble numbers.  While there are clear connections to tragedy down below – a mother worried about her son, a NYC fireman – the consistently upbeat atmosphere of the show creates a sort of anxiety in viewer who vividly remembers those very dark days.

And then there is best musical revival: “Hello Dolly.”  Yes, the main attraction was Bette Midler as the resourceful Dolly Levi and she certainly met and surpassed the challenge of the Broadway legends who have tackled this role.  But what really made this show so wonderful was the production and its magnificent cast.  Director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle resisted any temptation to reconceptualize the style of the show; instead they make anew the elements that have made this show a musical classic with flair and panache. Truly, Dolly was back where she belonged!

“Big River,” presented as part of the Encores series at New York City Center, confirmed my love of this melodic musical.  Encores revives shows for six performances, billed as staged readings; but scripts were nowhere to be seen and “Big River” does not need great sets to portray Mark Twain’s nuanced story of Huckleberry Finn and his friend (and adopted mother’s slave) Jim.  William Hampton’s book avoids some of the thorny elements of Twain’s original and Roger Miller’s score captures the atmosphere and the challenges of life on the Mississippi River.

As usual, the really “meaty” offerings were Off-Broadway.  Amy Herzog’s “Mary Jane” is another play that I entered with some trepidation.  The story of a single-mother caring for a severely ill young child sounded like another “woe is me” drama (not that that type of story is not a good case for “woe is me”).  But Herzog portrays a mother with an immutable positive attitude, a woman who cannot let herself get in the way of what she cares for.  We never see the child; instead we see the details of this mother’s everyday life played with subtlety and strength  by Carrie Coon.  The audience is drawn into this mother’s world and cannot escape empathy and deep feelings.

Annie Baker’s “Antipodes” has the opposite effect using a completely different style – it portrays a group of writers trying to develop a unique story for some type of unnamed entertainment outlet.  Nine men and women gathered around, and eventually locked in, a stark office conference room.  It’s hard to describe exactly what the play means – it explores the role of storytelling in cultures past and present.  But it also portrays story creators unable to master their task and escape the personal stories.  Some found this play unfocused and boring; but I was taken on a fascinating ride through the impact that myth and legend has on our existence.  Baker is probably the hottest young playwright on the New York scene these days.  I was mystified by the acclaim she received (including a Pulitzer) for “The Flick.”  But her two most recent plays, including last year’s totally different but equally as fascinating “John,” have made me anxious to see what comes next.

Zayd Dohrn’s “The Profane” at Playwrights Horizons introduced a fascinating twist into the portrayal of Muslim Americans, a topic that has become the subject of many new plays recently – and rightly so.  On the surface, the play is about the daughter in a fully assimilated Muslim family who is in love with a young man from a very traditional orthodox Muslim family. In fact, it could be argued that Dohrn’s play is less about levels of belief and more about the conflict between liberal progressivism and any form of orthodoxy.  The play has some structural weaknesses, but like so many of the Playwrights Horizon’s productions, it provided a lot of food for thought.

The Canadian Soulpepper “National Civic Theatre” shares many characteristics with Playwrights Horizons and this summer they brought several of their most successful productions to the Signature Theatre.  “Kim’s Convenience” is a fairly traditional comedy about an immigrant Korean family that runs a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park.  In fact, the original production of this play lead to the creation of a very popular Canadian television sit-com.  The timing of this American premiere could not have been more timely.  The underlying themes of this very funny sit-com are race relations and the acceptance of immigrants by our neighbors to the north, playing in New York as our nation was confronting the Trump administration’s suppression of immigrants and uttering racial slurs.  I saw the opening performance after which the company’s artistic director greeted the audience.  “Any Canadians in the audience?” he asked.  Following a round of applause he said, “Any people hoping to be Canadians in the audience?”  Much more applause.

The Public Theater put Louis Elfaro’s “Oedipus El Rey” in its smallest theatre, but this was anything but a small undertaking.  Elfaro moves Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” to gang-infested South Central Los Angeles.  The amazing and fully credible achievement of this work is how faithful Alfaro is to the original – an up-and-coming gang lord who ends up killing his father and marrying his mother with every twist and turn reconceived in the traditions of southwestern American Latino populations.

Several Off-Broadway revivals are worth recognizing.  “Sweeney Todd” is given an intimate environment in an English production that originated in an actual pie shop. The small Barrow Street Playhouse was converted into a pie shop and the audience sits at tables as they are threatened (and cajoled) by the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Having seen the original production in its beautifully inflated environment meant to give the sense of a dark opera, it was truly enlightening to re-experience this masterpiece up close and uncomfortable.

Two revivals benefited from the multitalented Michael Urie.  The first was a hilarious adaptation of Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” presented by The Red Bull Theater, a company that specializes in producing classics.  While some of Gogol’s political edginess was missing, who cares when you are laughing your head off.  The second Urie spectacle was “Torch Song,” a slightly edited version of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” (all three acts compressed in two acts and 2 ½ hours).  The most rewarding aspect of that production at the 2nd Stage Company was how well the play stands up after 35 years.  So much has changed since I saw the original Broadway production, yet Fierstein’s insights are as current and valid as ever.  Urie’s performances was very good, as expected.  However, when he was in his drag scenes, you could not separate this Arnold from Urie’s wonderful take on Barbra Streisand in Buyer and Cellar.  But then, what drag queen hasn’t dabbled in the funny girl.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” was given a shattering revival at Signature Theatre.  On the surface, this play appears to be about the treatment of prisoners at New York’s legendary Rikers Island.  But the main action in the play is the conflict between a serial killer who has adopted salvation in religion and a young, relatively innocent man who committed a murder trying to rescue his best friend from the cult-like Unification Church.  While Guirgis seems to have no real message about either religion or prisons, he draws the audience into each character’s point of view and the Signature Production, plagued by last-minute cast changes, was totally absorbing.

The Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) in Brooklyn specializes in revivals of classics, most often Shakespeare.  But last February they turned their attention to an American classic – one that is very difficult to pull off.  Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” is about war and love and catastrophe and evolution and…!  The cast includes dinosaurs, Plato, Mosses and a mammoth, as well as an all-American family struggling to maintain some type of order in the world of chaos.  Frankly, when I read this play in graduate school, I dismissed it as an unproducable vestige of WWII insecurities – little did I know that it is one of the most produced plays in the American canon. TFANA’s production showed me everything I had missed – the charm, the insight, the fun and the horrors — and when in our current American history is it better to remind us that we will survive by the skin of our teeth?

Now for a brief look at the disappointments. There were lots of plays that just were not good, but some had promise and failed so miserably that I left the theatre more disappointed than angry at the production’s failure.  Sam Gold’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” with Sally Field and Joe Mantella in the lead roles stripped the play of costumes, scenery, and even Amanda’s southern drawl.  The theatre lights stayed on for the first half hour for some inexplicable reason.  Gold’s actors refused to give any rhythm or musical tone to Tennessee Williams’ poetic language.  While there were moments when Joe Mantella helped us to understand that the play is really about Williams and not his mother or sister, there was little else to recommend this interpretation.

Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” was given a star-driven production lead by Kevin Kline, full of his usual comic stage antics.  The critics loved it, but I felt that director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s decision to violate the classic structure of a sitting comedy by turning the three acts into two was a big mistake.  For me, this destroyed the rhythm of the play – Coward knew that the first act sets up the very funny and chaotic second act while the third provides resolution.  In an effort to cater to our contemporary audiences’ fear of a full-length play and expectation that a good play lasts only 90 minutes, the craft and joy of Mr. Coward was lost.

Another production that got raves from the critics and a “so what” from me was another Sam Gold production, “Hamlet” at The Public Theater in another stripped-down production starring Oscar Isaac.  This was a flat interpretation with no flare even in its most dramatic moments.  Sitting in the Anspacher Theatre, my mind kept wandering to my memories of Joe Papp’s totally unorthodox production that starred Cleavon Little fifty years ago.  At the plays end, using all sorts of lethal weapons, Hamlet survived.  Little looked at the audience and said, “Well you know this is not how this is supposed to end” and then he started up a set of stairs where he tripped and his gun went off.  Revisionist, yes.  But then this is a play about indecisiveness in the face of a chaotic world.

Two new Broadway musicals held out a lot of promise but failed to deliver.  “War Paint” had the dynamic duo of Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole playing the fascinating founders of the cosmetic industry, as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.  I thought with a book by Doug Wright, who turned another unusual duo into mesmerizing figures in “Grey Gardens,” this musical would be a war of personalities.  But it played more like a documentary of the founding of the women’s makeup industry with a forgettable score and production numbers that did little to advance the story or reflect on the characters.  “Groundhog Day” was equally disappointing.  After London reviews that went so far as to describe it as an “instant classic,” I looked forward to a movie adaptation that was a natural for conversion to a musical.  Alas, the repetitiveness that made the film charming (and at times meaningful) was just plain tiring on stage.  Another meritless score did not help.

A tribute to the brilliance of Hal Prince has been in the workings for years.  It finally got produced this fall by the usually inventive Manhattan Theater Club.  It may have been impossible to meet the audience’s expectations for this show.  After all, the best work of a director or producer in a musical is usually invisible and trying to select tid-bits that might demonstrate the director’s impact is nearly impossible.  Instead, “Prince of Broadway” was a collection of mainly famous songs from Prince’s shows.  Occasionally, there were lesser known songs that gave some unexpected pleasure and the performers were outstanding.  There was a rather lame narration culled from some of Prince’s public statements.  It was pleasant, but unremarkable in light of the towering figure it meant to celebrate.

Finally, we looked forward to a tribute that LaMama is running to one of my favorite “off-off” playwrights, Charles Ludlam, who sadly perished in the early days of AIDS.  I was a devoted advocate for the extraordinary way Ludlam could take a classic format and turn it inside out with comedy and insight.  His adaptations of Hamlet and Camille were classic and his ever popular “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is still produced regularly.  So, when LaMama announced that it would produce of one his earliest pieces that I had never seen, “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide” under the direction (and starring) Ludlam’s theatrical and personal partner, Everett Quinten, I rushed to purchase tickets.  Theoretically, the play is inspired by Marlow’s “Tamburlaine,” but 45 minutes into the play I was thoroughly confused and perceived little humor and none of the wonderful poking fun at form and content that was at the core of Ludlam’s genius.  It was awkward to walk out in LaMama’s main theatre, but I succeeded.

The good certainly outweighed the not-so-good this year.  And even when you see a turkey, there’s a sense that live theatre gives you something no other form provides – a chance to live with live artists making something to entertain, challenge and/or enlighten you and you are an essential part of what they are producing.  Without a live audience, there is no theatre. It’s that communion between me and the performers that makes every outing worthwhile.

Dec 072017
 

The Parisian Woman by Beau Willimon

At the Hudson Theatre on 44th Street

BS Rating:  D

Show-Score Rating: 50

“The Parisian Woman” offers its audience a fairly unique experience.  Unfortunately, it’s not a very pleasurable sensation because the play and its production patronizes its audience.  The production’s website describes it as “dark humor and drama collide at this pivotal moment in Chloe’s life [the title character], and in our nation’s, when the truth isn’t obvious and the stakes couldn’t be higher.”  But the humor is anything but “dark” and the “high stakes” relate solely to a successful tax attorney’s efforts to secure an appointment to a federal district court.

The humor in the show, based on audience responses, occurs whenever there is a reference to Donald Trump.  But these are not richly satirical lines; they are merely pandering to the frustrations of a liberal New York audience.  “Public opinion doesn’t matter anymore,” declares one character.  “If it’s good enough for the President, it’s good enough for me.”  These lines get laughs, but this is not the sort of rich humor or insightful observations that make a political drama worth attention.  They are nervous defense mechanisms that give the audience the illusion of understanding.

The play also portends to reflect the behind-the-scenes life styles and maneuverings of the Washington elite.  This is not surprising since the playwright, Beau Willimon, is the creator of the highly successful television series, “House of Cards.”  And like that series, the plot is full of sex (or more accurately, would-be sex), political intrigue, and betrayal.  But this is not a TV series.  We expect a Broadway political drama to provide some insight, some viewpoint that we have not previously considered.  There is none of that in “The Parisian Woman’s” 90 minutes – full of very broad strokes of plot and stereotypical characterizations.

That is not to say that this short play does not arouse our interest in a number of its complications.  The central couple, the conniving Chloe and her ambitious attorney husband Tom, have an open relationship in their marriage.  Much of the first twenty minutes of the play focus on Chloe’s effort to end her affair with Peter, a self-centered banker whose helpless persona makes us wonder how he could have ever seduced Chloe into anything other than a polite “no thank you.”  Chloe and Tom try to entice, Jeanette, POTUS’s recent appointment to Chair of the Federal Reserve, into helping Tom secure his judgeship. When Tom’s nomination seems to be almost lost, Chloe’s open relationships become the source of power in a plot twist that mirrors so many political dramas while pandering the liberal audience’s support for “non-traditional” relationships.

The box-office draw for this show is Uma Thurman’s debut on Broadway.  On paper, it’s clear why a movie star who made her name as a hyper-sexual seductress in films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” would be a perfect Chloe.  She certainly looks the part.  But there is nothing subtle about her performance and she is rarely able to project what is going on inside of her.  Playwright Willimon deserves some of that blame – he touches on several interesting observations about a loyal wife who does not seek anything other than the success of her husband and her own earthly pleasures.  But Willimon never provides anything other than hints of her inner life and Thurman does not fill in those blank spaces.

Josh Lucas as Tom faces similar challenges based on the limited character development that the playwright has provided.  There’s plenty of possibilities – open marriage, a “fixer” tax lawyer, a man obsessed with making a mark – but they are not explored.  I felt sorry for Marton Czokas who has to play a totally over-the-top lover of Chloe with writing that makes Cyrano de Bergerac look subtle.  Blair Brown is in her element as the stereotypical Washington operative, Jeanette, who thinks she has everything that she wants.  Phillipa Soo is believable as Jeanette’s ambitious daughter, although the play’s final plot twist requires her to evoke the audience’s empathy without enough development to make us care. Director Pam MacKinnon seems to have tried to cover up the play’s underdeveloped elements by encouraging the broadest possible performances from her actors.  But the play’s 90 minutes seemed to pass very slowly, punctuated by nervous laughs at the mention of “The Donald.” So little about so much.

 Posted by at 8:15 pm
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