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
Mar 122017
 

Come From Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Gerald Shoenfield Theatre on Broadway

BS Rating: A-
Show-Score Rating: 88

“Come From Away” is a very entertaining musical that is given a near pitch-perfect production on Broadway. Yet there is something strange and unnerving about this show that comes to New York after two highly acclaimed West Coast productions. I believe every theatre production tells the audience how the viewer should receive the play or musical and our assessment of its success should rely heavily on what it tries to accomplish. Otherwise, we fall into the trap that critics so often encounter – telling us what the play and production should have tried to accomplish. This show is very clear on its intent and it most definitely attains it goal.

As we all know, on September 11, 2001, all air traffic into and out of the United State was put on hold for five days as our government tried to grapple with the worst terrorist attack in this country’s history. Planes were diverted to the nearby international airports as our government and foreign officials evaluated the safety of resuming air travel. “Come From Away” celebrates the story of an isolated small town in Newfoundland that becomes the refuge for 7,000 passengers on deferred flights to the United States. The show demonstrates the goodness of the town’s people to stranded strangers, the way they pull together to relieve the passengers’ stress and divert their attention from terrors of the news, and the way strangers become friends under the most taxing conditions.

The music, book and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein combine seamlessly to reveal the struggles within the town and the difficulties that a truly international, dare I say alien, set of passengers have adapting to circumstances beyond their control. But adapt they do and their combined spirit turns toils into a celebration of the things that make humanity human. The show is full of humor and a company of sixteen talented performers play multiple characters – residents and visitors – with aplomb and warmth. Most of the music is sung in ensemble and is staged with imagination and skill. The set is simple and there are only the barest of effects. It’s about the people and the way they form a “more perfect union” in the face of such adversity.

The score is a sort of country-western sound mixed with the Irish, English and Cornish influences brought to Newfoundland by their ancestors. Much of the music sounds the same but it blends perfectly with the story and the sound of a full ensemble gives credence to the sense of unity and developing solidarity. In 100 minutes with no intermission, we become a part of this celebration as only a good musical can induce. So, on its own terms, the show does exactly what it sets out to do and it brings its audience very pleasantly along with it.

But as the show progressed and the sense of disorder and disillusion gave way to camaraderie and merriment, something was tugging at me. This was 9/11. This exuberance played against the picture of ground zero in my mind, and I felt almost a sense of guilt for being seduced by the show. The script does not ignore the unimaginable tension that these stranded passengers faced. One of the women has a son who is a NYC fire fighter and she cannot get any information about his whereabouts. Others must wait in long lines for access to telephones in this isolated township just to assure worried relatives that they are safe and being treated well. And in the process, we are given tidbits about each character’s back-story and their evolving relationships with each other. But there is still this nagging sense of what’s going on “out there.”

This show is relatively unique in its structure. It’s a docu-musical – an attempt to dramatize actual events. Documentary musicals are fairly common but usually they are about well-known people: Carole King in “Beautiful;” James Cagney in “Cagney;” or, on a more serious side, a set of perverse assassins and would-be killers in Sondheim’s “Assassins.” Word has it that the authors did copious research on the people involved in this less famous set of events and they have done a very effective job of making them real, although occasionally inescapably predictable: the Muslim chef who evokes suspicion, the Orthodox Rabbi who needs to observe kosher, the gay couple who are torn apart by their different response to the welcoming strangers. But the story is less about the characters than it is a portrait of collaboration and caring.

It is significant that this show found very receptive audiences in Seattle, Washington, and La Jolla, California. Certainly our whole country was drawn into the horrors and anxieties of 9/11. But I lived in San Francisco when this terrorist attack occurred and, even though I knew the city and site quite well, in those days, I was still a tourist. Now that I am New Yorker, somehow this show has a sort-of inexplicable tension for me, a sensation that I should not be feeling so good about all of this. It will be interesting to see how “the NYC natives” respond.

 Posted by at 12:21 pm
Mar 092017
 

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

At the Belasco Theatre on Broadway

BS Rating: C+

Show-Score Rating: 70

If you are familiar with Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (and who isn’t?), when you walk into the Belasco Theatre you are likely to whisper to yourself, “Oh, no, it’s going to be one of those productions.” The stage is bare revealing the theatre’s walls, fly gallery, and service doors.  There is a 1950s-style dinette on stage right and a few Knickknacks on stage left.  That’s it.

Sam Gold’s production is an interesting, if not always successful, rethinking of this classic.  In the process, he sheds light on aspects of the play that are rarely as clear in more traditional productions.  But he also distorts some qualities that are central to Williams’ style and intent. The most fascinating innovation is the main focus of this production, an interpretation that I think is faithful to the playwright’s intent.  It is a battle between mother (Sally Field) and son (Joe Mantello): the story of a young artist who is oppressed by his commitment to his sister and his desire to break free of his domineering mother.  More traditional productions usually use these clashes to reveal Amanda, the mother, as a deluded, self-possessed remnant of the old South.  This production shows us two people who cannot get what they want from each other, and every effort they make toward accomplishing their individual goals only causes them to move further apart.

The acting style in this production is contemporary.  The actors are no longer caught in some sentimentalized memory – they speak with none of the embellishments that Williams’ poetic grace usually requires.  Joe Mantello makes the most of this new freedom playing Tom as a fully realized person struggling to break away from his entrapment.  It is a very fine and enlightening performance.  Ms. Field brings her well-honed skills to a very different Amanda.  Most of the time she is very successful as a nagging, insensitive, domineering mother – certainly “playing against type” of the roles we are used to seeing her perform.  She has abandoned the deep southern accent.  Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to utter some of the speeches that Williams has given Amanda without replicating the rhythms and tone that the playwright so deftly created around the sound of a Southern drawl.  So, at times her speech sounds oddly stilted and her naturalistic acting style trips over the language.

Tom tells us “the play is memory, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”  Gold’s production ignores that description; in fact, he is intent in stripping the play of its sentimentality. The lack of period dress and settings, the stark lighting (the house lights remain on for the first 30 minutes), the simple and spare furnishings — all make this play more of an interpersonal horror story than a place where “in memory everything seems to happen to music.”   There is much to be gained from this alternate point of view.  This radical departure from the expected forces an audience who has seen this play too many times to rethink its meaning.  That’s what reinterpretation should do.  But there are limits on how effective such a transformation can be with material that is so poetic and expressionistic in tone.

And then there is Laura, Tom’s sister.  Williams tells us “a childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other…this defect need not be more than suggested on stage.”  At the core of Laura’s character is her extreme reaction to her differentness causing her to cut herself off from the outside world, obsessed with her glass menagerie and old music on the phonograph. Mr. Gold made a bold move in casting this role.  Madison Ferris is a disabled actor; however, her disability is far more incapacitating than the “slight disability” Williams describes for Laura’s character.  This difference makes much of the action around Laura awkward and occasionally totally unbelievable, like when Amanda sends Laura on an errand to the grocery store and Ms. Ferris must work her way out of her wheel chair and crawl down a set of stairs to leave by one of the theatre’s exit doors.  There are some interesting interpretive choices that Ms. Ferris makes.  When she opens up to her “gentleman caller,” there is a sort wry quality to her observations about her past and her current state of mind.  She is not the introverted fragile glass unicorn that usually restrains actors playing Laura.  But as with Ms. Field’s more grounded portrayal, there is a bit of disjointedness between the way Ms. Ferris plays Laura and the character Mr. Williams wrote.  Her encounter with Mr. O’Connor, the gentleman caller (Finn Wittrock), is less tender and more didactic, consistent with Mr. Gold’s effort to de-romanticize the action, even though it’s lit solely by candlelight.

It’s not surprising that this production elicits none of the emotional impact that more traditional approaches stimulate.  This is a “thinking man’s” “Glass Menagerie” – and the oddity of those two phrases in the same sentence reflects the best and worst of this unusual interpretation of this legendary play.

 

 

 

 

 Posted by at 11:35 pm
Mar 042017
 

Kid Victory by John Kander and Greg Pierce

At the Vineyard Theatre on 15th Street

BS Rating: B+

Show-Score Rating: 85

This is a powerful play and, at times, it’s also a powerful musical play. If you who had the misfortune to see the first collaboration by the Broadway legend, John Kander, and his new (much younger) collaborator, Greg Pierce, you should give these new partners another chance.  This is a much more substantive work than “The Landing,” also produced at the Vineyard Theatre. You also need to be warned that this is a disturbing and decidedly “adults only” piece that may not be to everyone’s taste for entertainment.

I use the term “musical play” very intentionally because this is not the type of show that you leave singing the songs, although there are some very effective musical moments.  The “kid” in the title is a troubled teenager named Luke who has been kidnapped, seduced, and held captive by a disturbed middle-aged former history teacher.  The play portrays the boy’s struggles in dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the failure of his family to recognize that he needs help beyond their middle-America assurance that his well-being is in the hands of God. At one point, Luke asks his father, “Do you believe in God?” His dad tries to defend his belief in a God that would allow his son to experience such awfulness, replying, “He’s a good God that can make bad plans.” The only comfort Luke receives from family and friends is their assurance that they continue “to pray for him” and wait to see the boy they once knew.

Pierce’s well-crafted book shows the boy’s need to be accepted as someone different – no one can go through what he experienced and come out of it the same person.  His inability to communicate with his Christianity-possessed mother and his passive father drives him to cultivate a relationship with a confidante and surrogate mother in a person who is a sort of 2017 flower child.  She employs him in her struggling gardening store and they openly share their deepest secrets and personal troubles.  Pierce uses brief flashbacks to show the horrors and, strangely, the attractions of his relationship with his abductor. As the story progresses, we come to learn Luke’s back story – a narrative that shows the challenges he faces in recovery, in discovering himself as a different person, and the fact that he might not have been exactly the same person everyone thought he was before this traumatic event.

The show has the type of music that made Kander a legend.  However, the lyrics, by both Kander and Pierce, frequently lack the bite that made his late-partner, Fred Ebb, so revered. There are several numbers that use the musical convention of the song as a commentary on its content – the specialty of the former team.  For example, the boy’s effort to elicit empathy for his evolving identity from his family and friends is turned into a tap dance as he rejects being trapped in their view of his former self — “What’s the Point?.”  But most of Kander’s music is sabotaged by mundane and less than revelatory lyrics. There is also space for added development of the story by Pierce.  Luke’s relationship with his father deserves more attention and the questions of the investigating police officer about the nature of the relationship between the captor and captive might add to the dimension of the boy’s personal struggles.

Brandon Flynn gives a perfect performance as Luke.  This newcomer can shift mood and attitude as quickly and effectively as required in a story that goes freely back and forth in time.  Even if the characters in the play fail to have empathy for him, we certainly do.  Daniel Jenkins does an effective job portraying the underdeveloped father.  Some will find Karen Ziemba’s portrayal of the bible-thumping momma overdone; but in this time when so many believe religious doctrine is an essential part of “making America great again,” she is disturbingly believable.  The weak link in the cast is Jeffry Denman as the predator. Denman is faced with communicating lechery, brutality, and warmth with little room for character development in the boy’s flashbacks. That takes an actor capable of projecting an aura, and while Denman is a very competent actor, we never feel that unnerving quality that masters of the perverse like Anthony Hopkins evoke so naturally.

John Kander has a long history of tackling stories that do not fit the usual mold for a musical – last year’s unfortunate commercial failure of “The Visit” after an extended period of development is the most recent example.  That adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s darkly satirical masterpiece still had the benefit of Fred Ebb’s talents. At a point in life where many artists rest on their laurels, Kander has found a talented and willing collaborator in Greg Pierce.  Now they both need to find an equally talented lyricist.  In the meantime, this is a thoughtful and moving production that is worth the visit, if intense musical drama appeals to you.

 Posted by at 12:56 pm
Mar 012017
 

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler

At the Barrow Street Theatre on Barrow Street

BS Rating: A+

Show-Score Rating: 97

One of the tests of greatness for a theatre work is its ability to be reinterpreted in ways that give the audience a fresh perspective without losing the essential qualities of the work itself.  The Tooting Arts Club’s extraordinary production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is just such a verification, not that there was any doubt that this “musical thriller” is one of the great works of the post-Golden Age of musical theatre.

Tooting Arts does not actually change any aspect of the show itself – the book, the music, and the period are held sacred. But unlike most revivals of this show, Tooting Arts makes this an intimate drama, rather than the large scale, quasi-operatic versions so frequently presented.  The Barrow Street Theatre has been converted into a meat pie shop and many members of the audience sit on benches at tables in the center of the action (not to worry, there are regular seats in and under the theatre’s balcony).  This is environmental theatre at its finest.  All too frequently this type of theatre distracts the audience from the play itself, focusing on the setting rather than amplifying the material.  This production does the opposite – you in the environment and there is no escape from this story of love and revenge. There is no fourth wall to protect the audience and distance these 19th century English low-life characters.  We are in the drama.

The power of this production comes from the relative simplicity of its elements.  Eight actors portray the main characters and shift into an ensemble chorus when necessary.  The show is accompanied by a violin, a clarinet, and piano played by the production’s very talented music director, Matt Aument.  The cast is without fault.  Jeremy Secomb is a scary Sweeney.  He can stand right next to you and give a blank stare that draws you into his world while making you just a little bit afraid as you lose the sense that this is an actor, not a real serial killer.  Siobhan McCarthy manages to give a fresh portrait of Mrs. Lovett, even for those of us who cannot get Angela Lansbury out of their minds.  Matt Doyle, as the hopelessly romantic Anthony Hope, is the consistent barer of normalcy against terrors of this horrifying story. He also has very sweet tenor voice that makes his love ballads into respites of beauty.  The rest of the cast is equally terrific, each bringing new insights and entertaining twists to these dark characters.

But the real allure of this production is the clarity and the effectiveness of the way it reveals the wonderful marriage between Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics and Hugh Wheeler’s book.  Many see Sondheim’s ability to endow his words with the same power he gives to his music as his major contribution to the modern musical.  The intimacy of the Barrow Street environment and the company’s careful attention to detail amplifies this power and we are drawn into this world in ways no large-scale production could accomplish.

If you have difficulty with productions that break the fourth wall and “touch” the audience, then get seats under or in the balcony.  But be warned: you will miss some of the excitement and truly scary moments that make this production a compelling call to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”

 

 

 Posted by at 11:29 pm
Feb 272017
 

The Penitent by David Mamet

Atlantic Theatre Company on 20th Street

BS Rating: B

BS on Show-Score: 85

At last, a new play by David Mamet that is worth experiencing.  After his last two disappointing endeavors, The Anarchist and China Doll, I entered the Atlantic Theatre for The Penitent with some trepidation.  But this new work is a well crafted exploration of ethics, responsibility and religious salvation.

Charles is a well-respected psychiatrist.  A young gay patient of his has committed a heinous crime and Charles is struggling with the demands that are being made of him to testify in his patient’s behalf.  The boy’s published ramblings have accused his analyst of homophobia and Charles’ dilemma is complicated by his desire to seek an apology from the newspaper that made these accusations public.  His lawyer, a friend of both Charles and his wife, Kath, tries to give him sound and practical advice.  While Charles agrees to settle with the news outlet, he adamantly defends the confidentiality of the records of his work with the disturbed young man and refuses involvement in the boy’s trial. He is torn by his sense of responsibility to the ethics of his profession, a new-found commitment to his Jewish religion, and a underlying sense of guilt that he feels for the boy’s murderous actions.

Mamet has intentionally not drawn full, three dimensional characters.  The play is less about the personal lives and relationships of the three main characters, but more a sort-of sequence of debates, increasing in complexity as legal pressures mount.  The play is structured as a series of brief scenes, each devoted to one of the ethical, religious, social or legal issues that the psychiatrist and his wife are forced to confront together and individually.  Mamet draws these parleys into a complex set of interdependent arguments that engage the audience in an intellectual rather than an emotional empathy with the characters.

Neil Pepe’s direction, and the work of the designers, Tim Mackabee, Donald Holder, and Laura Bauer, keep the audience in a state of objectivity – we are involved with the ideas. While their impact on the people is not lost, it’s secondary.  The set has a simple back wall and a table and two chairs that are rearranged by the actors between scenes.  These changes in dim light take a hair longer than is needed, almost instructing the audience to detach themselves from what preceded and maintain their objectivity in evaluating what follows.  The actors also adopt a deliberative, at times argumentative, style of delivery – they are not emotionless, they are just not playing for emotion.  While this may sound dry and clinical, it’s not.  The audience is drawn into these deliberations much as they might be drawn into a more traditional character-based development in a drama.

The play ends with the revelation of a major piece of hidden information that forces the audience to reevaluate every aspect of the arguments and actions previously presented. Usually, these late disclosures tie up the plot into a logical conclusion commonly referred to as a dénouement, or falling action that resolves or explains the outcome.  But Mamet drops this “bomb-shell” and the lights go out – the play is over. He provides none of the debate over the ethical, moral or religious issues that must be completely reevaluated in light of this new information.  The audience has a whole new perspective on everything that preceded without the benefit of an explication of those issues.  It’s too easy to jump to a conclusion about the true nature and motivations of Charles; but just as the pre-revelation arguments were complex, so too are the post-revelation issues, even if Mr. Mamet fails to explore them. I guess they’re reserved for your walk to the subway and ride home.

 Posted by at 12:33 am
Feb 152017
 

Man from Nebraska by Tracy Letts

Second Stage on 43rd Street

BS Rating: D+

BS on Show-Score: 60

This Tracy Letts play is tough to describe and even harder to critique.  In fact, I need to warn you — the only way can I comment on this production is to ignore “the spoilers.”  Man from Nebraska is not a new play.  It was first staged at Letts’ home company, Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, in 2003, and falls between two of Letts’ most acclaimed works, Bug and August: Osage County.  I can hardly think of two plays by a single author that are more different that those two works, and Man from Nebraska continues that diversity in style, subject matter, and themes.  However, it is different in one very crucial sense — it’s almost impossible to figure out what this play is about.

Ken Carpenter, the man from Nebraska, is an insurance broker with a faithful wife and two grown daughters.  He and his wife are devout Baptists who lead a very traditional and respectable life in middle America.  That is until Ken wakes up one morning and realizes he no longer believes in God.  His wife, Nancy, is shocked but committed to seeing him through this difficult period.  His young minister, who comes off more like an amateur advice columnist than a religious confidant, suggests that Ken get away from Nebraska for a vacation so that he can sort things out.  Ken follows his advice and goes off to London where he gets involved with an artist and his roommate/model, doing drugs and trying his hand at sculpture for several months, leaving his wife to believe he has abandoned her. I will not give way the ending, but suffice to say, it has an appropriate Baptist Nebraska conclusion.

However, that brief description of the plot does not communicate the audience’s experience of this play.  While Ken continues to confess to his confusion throughout the two acts, we are never allowed to hear or see what is going on in inside of his head.  In fact, it does not appear that the struggles with the acceptance or rejection of religion is of much interest to Letts. Ken’s relation to his family, wife and daughters (one in the play, the other only referenced), is not Letts’ focus either.  We watch the central character discover ways of living that he never dreamed of — casual sex, drinking and smoking dope, being “an artist” — but while each of these experiences is graphically dramatized, we are never given any sense of the effect that these strange exploits have on Ken  — not his struggle with belief, his family in Nebraska, or any other aspect of his life. The action (and that stretches the meaning of that word) goes back and forth between Ken’s London escapades and Nancy’s growing realization that she may be losing her mate. However, even Nancy’s coming to terms with her situation is never given any dimension or explanation — we just see her losing her faith in Ken through her facial expressions. 

The style of the play is even more confounding.  Much of the dialog is very simple, rarely revealing, and filled with very long pauses.  It almost feels like a Pinter play without the biting double meanings in the characters’ speech. Each scene is a sort of vignette that just fades out. The cast is quite good, led by the reliable Reed Birney as Ken and Annette O’Toole as Nancy.  Director David Cromer creates a dark atmosphere that seems appropriate to Letts’ tone and episodic style.  But the strong performances and the evocative direction only leave the audience wondering what was the point of the play they had just experienced.

February 14, 2017

 Posted by at 11:07 am
Feb 132017
 

A Note to the Reader

If you are reading this, you have probably noticed that I have not posted anything for a year and a half.  When I started this blog, I had hoped to write reflective pieces rather than more traditional production reviews.  However, I got so involved with other commitments that I have not had the amount of time and energy needed for comparative analyses. Friends and colleagues frequently ask me for recommendations (or condemnations), so I am going to try to provide brief reviews on a more regular basis.  I am going to model my comments after those of my friend and colleague, Bob Sholiton, whose very regular reviews of much of the New York theatre scene I recommend at www.bobs-theater-blog.blogspot.com.

I hate reading reviews before I see a production.  However, I am interested in knowing “the bottom line”:  Did you like it?  Do you recommend it?  I have learned to skim reviews for the answers to those two basic questions.  Bob has developed an effective scoring system that we former academics know all too well.  He rates shows from A+ to F and I have decided to adopt his method and place that rating at the top of each of my comments.  These types of ratings are inherently problematic — a “B” for the production of a Samuel Beckett play is unlikely to match the criteria for a “B” rating of a new David Ives French farce adaptation.  You might enjoy comparing my take to Bob’s response, since we tend to see most of the same productions.  Another great source for comparative reviews is www.show-score.com.  This free website features brief summaries of “mainstream critics” reviews (with links to the full review) as well as numerical ratings and brief “pros and cons” comments from literally hundreds of NYC theatre addicts.  All Show-Score reviews are rated on a 0-100 scale (even Hamilton didn’t get an average score of 100, it’s at 97).  When Show-Score started, I was reluctant to identify myself on an unproven site, so my reviews appear under the screen name “Buzzy.”

So here goes my blog revival…

Sunset Boulevard by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Don Black, and Christopher Hampton

Palace Theatre on Broadway

BS Grade: C

BS on Show-Score: 70

I saw the original production of this Andrew Lloyd Weber favorite in its pre-Broadway run in Los Angeles with its original star, Glenn Close.  That production was over produced with sets and costumes that overwhelmed the show. For example, a huge mansion staircase and reception room, reminiscent of the original movie, actually flew into the air and hung over the cramped apartment where writer/victim Joe retreated to his friends’ New Year’s party.  I was already a huge Glenn Close fan from her film debut in The World According to Garp and her musical debut in Barnum.  Even though the show was (and still is) filled with the sweeping melodies that make Weber a commercial success and was fairly faithful to Billy Wilder’s classic film, I found the show itself less-than-satisfying.  I assumed that a decent musical lurked under all of that messy production nonsense.  Well, I was wrong,

The current production is scaled down with a unit set and a few projections to remind us of the period and the classic age of movies.  But the show is still unsatisfying.  Most of the current critics have raved about Close’s performance, usually with reservations about the show itself.  I thought her performance brings up a classic question: “Can you give an inspired performance with mediocre material?”  The audience went wild over her every move.  A significant portion rose from their seats with a standing ovation as she sat silently absorbing the film studio when she returns to Paramount to meet C. B. DeMille.  And I agree, she was good.  But the thin book and mundane lyrics gave her very little to work with.  And like so many performers blessed with a strong voice, her upper range has become a struggle as the actress’s age surpasses her character’s years. The rest of the production, that started as a concert version with the English National Opera, is more than adequate.  It also has something you cannot find in any other musical on Broadway, a 40-piece on-stage orchestra.  But now it is clear to me, the show itself is not “ready for its close-up.”

If I Forget by Steven Levinson

Roundabout Theatre at the Laura Pels Theatre on 46th Street

BS Grade: B-

BS on Show-Score: 75

Sitting and watching this family drama stimulated by circumstances that brings them together, I could not help but compare it to the other play with a similar structure that started at the Laura Pels and then moved on to Broadway, The Humans, by Stephen Karam.  Both plays focus on the value of family.  What was so phenomenal about Karam’s play was his reversal of the usual portrayal of dysfunctionality – it shows us a functional family in a dysfunctional society.  They have their issues, but it is their relationships with each other that give them a fractured stability.  Steven Levinson’s portrait of a Jewish family falls into the more traditional dysfunctional family syndrome.  Three siblings, two married and one longing, and their spouses gather first around the death of their mother and later when their father suffers a stroke.

The set up in dysfunctional family dramas is pretty consistent.  The first establishes the characters and defines their beliefs and personal characteristics that will eventually lead to a break down in the family’s unification in the second half.  Many great plays follow this pattern, e.g., Long Day’s Journey into Night, Death of a Salesman, and August: Osage County.  The beauty of The Humans is the way Karam reversed the second half – they take refuge in the family.

Unfortunately, Levinson’s play lacks the unity of either approach.  The first half is a sort of analysis of the impact of Jewish religion and tradition on the lives of a family with the usual differences in commitment and beliefs.  The chief adversary is a professor of Jewish Studies at an unidentified university in New York City.  Despite his field of study, he has come to see American Jews’ identification with the holocaust as a major flaw that inhibits their identity in the present.  He is also a non-believer (go figure!). One of his sisters is a classic “Jewish American Princess,” married to a lawyer, more concerned about appearance than substance.  The other sister is a believer, more in the Jewish tradition than in the Talmud itself.  And the father was one of the American soldiers who liberated Dachau and spent the rest of his life running a discount clothing store in an oppressed black neighborhood in North West Washington, DC.

Through the first act you come to expect that the family will have to confront their religious and social differences to either unite (as in The Humans) or disintegrate around their contradistinctions (a la “Osage County”). But instead, Levinson gives each character an unrelated external calamity that unravels their security and separates them from any type of family unity.  While each individual calamity is credible, cramming them all into the second act challenges our “willing suspension of disbelief.”  More important, the focus on religion and tradition in the first act appears to have little to do with the events and the characters’ responses in the second act.

Still, Levinson is a skilled character craftsman – as illustrated in his much more successful book for the hit Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen.  He draws us into the world of each character, even if (or maybe because) those characters tend to be people we have met before.  While If I Forget lacks the humor, focus and punch of another Jewish family play that was housed in the Laura Pels, Bad Jews, it’s still an interesting portrait of a contemporary American “mishpacha.”

Yen by Anna Jordan

MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street

BS Grade: B+

BS on Show-Score: 85

This is not a play for everyone’s taste, but I found it fascinating and, in the end, moving.  It’s by an award-winning, relatively young British playwright named Anna Jordan and received rave reviews first in Manchester and then at the Royal Court Theatre in London.  Two half-brothers in their teens have been virtually abandoned by their alcoholic, drug addicted mother, living by themselves in a barren apartment in a housing project in West London. They meet their essential needs with petty thefts in local stores and spend their time playing video games and drooling at internet pornography.  One brother appears to be the victim of some type of mental disorder that makes him super-energetic, literally running, jumping and tumbling all the time.  The other older brother has an addiction with the TV, subsumed in games and porn.  Both long for the relationship that their non-existent family has denied them, but neither ventures outside of their secure, if bleak, environment.  When a young girl with a similarly deprived family background forces her way into their lives, the boys are driven to confront their need for human contact with completely different outcomes.

The two lead actors are truly remarkable.  Justice Smith as the hyper-active Bobbie gives a “how does he do that” type of performance without sacrificing the audience’s empathy with his circumstances.  Lucas Hedges, who is nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of another youth struggling with loss in “Manchester by the Sea,” gives an equally dimensioned and entirely engaging performance as Hench, the older and more internalized brother.  What is going inside of him is the core of the play and it becomes apparent when a young woman enters his life.  Ari Graynor and Stefani LaVie Owen as the girl and mother respectively give equally fitting performances and Trip Cullman’s direction creates an unpleasant but evocative tension throughout.

2-13-17

 

 

 

 

 Posted by at 5:32 pm
May 172014
 

This year’s Tony nominating committee chose to pass over several respectable musicals to nominate only four shows rather than the usual five. And I would suggest that there are only two “authentic” musicals in the nomination pool: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “Aladdin.” The other two, “After Midnight” and “Beautiful,” are what is commonly referred to a “Jukebox Musicals” because they are based on the work of a recording artist or a theme or period in commercial music. Jukebox musicals pose an interesting conundrum: they purport to tell a story (for me, a characteristic of authentic musicals), although their primary focus for audiences is the recreation of the music of the original artists. “Beautiful,” like the reigning king of these musicals, Jersey Boys, tells the story of it’s music maker, Carole King. But A”fter Midnight,” a tribute to the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem, dispenses with story entirely. Between 2001 and 2009, the Tony’s gave an award for “Best Special Theatrical Event” but discontinued this recognition after a few seasons failed to produce enough presentations to make the competition credible. Since then, the “would-be” musicals have been assigned to the “Best Musical” category.

This year, much attention has focused on the prevalence of musicals adapted from movies. By their very nature, these shows always contain what I consider to be the essential elements of authentic musicals: a story line of some type and a musical score that contributes to or reflects upon the story. Ironically, only one of the six eligible movie adaptations ended up with a nomination, “Aladdin.” The creators of “Gentleman’s Guide” insist their show is based on Roy Horniman’s novel and not the beloved English movie adaptation, “Kind Hearts and Coronets;” although the popularity of the film certainly was a factor in raising funds for the musical on Broadway.

Each of the unnominated adaptation musicals had their weaknesses, but each also tackled the challenges of converting from one medium to the other creatively and admirably, if not totally successfully. The one that did get nominated, “Aladdin,” was neither creative nor admirable; its strength was that it appeared to have no obvious weakness, at least in the view of the critics for the mainstream press. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times was careful to point out that he entered the theatre with particularly low expectations but felt the show’s mixed up styles and anachronisms created a “breezy insouciance that scrubs away some of the material’s bland gloss” – not exactly a rave, but enough to assuage the fears of those who resist Disney’s brand of “family musicals.”

It was that very “breezy insouciance” that made “Aladdin” my least favorite Broadway musical experience this season. I remember commenting to an out-of-town friend who accompanied me to the Disney show that I thought they had cleaned up prostitution on 42nd Street, but “Aladdin” seemed to refute that claim. My dictionary describes prostitution as “the unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for the sake of personal or financial gain.” And, as I watched the latest adaptation of a Disney animation hit, I kept wondering how such a strong production team and a producing organization with such vast resources (Disney Theatrical Productions) could “corrupt” their talent to create such an “unworthy” product for “financial gain.”

The artists creating “Aladdin” are well established in their field. The composer, Alan Menken, has a long list of Broadway credits including the current Disney hit, “Newsies,” and the iconic off-Broadway musicalization of “Little Shop of Horrors.” He has expanded his score from the popular Aladdin movie. The original lyrics by the late Howard Ashman are supplemented by no less than Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s original collaborator, and the less well-known Chad Beguelin, who also wrote the book for the stage “Aladdin”. In a show adapted from a lush animated feature, the designers of the sets, costumes, and lighting must find a way to translate the seemingly infinite possibilities available to the animator to the confines of the live stage and this show has a very experienced team of designers: Bob Crowley, Gregg Barnes, and Natasha Katz. Finally leading this talented crew as director and choreographer is Casey Nicholaw, the co-director of the mega-hit, “The Book of Mormon.”

From the moment the curtain rose on a very old fashioned and not very elegant set for the mythical sultanate of Agrabah, it was clear that all of this talent had gone to waste — little painted box-like miniature buildings vaguely reflecting Persian architectural styles against a backdrop with a cut-out skyline that looked like something I might have created for my 6th grade President’s Day pageant. Some of the sets that followed were a little richer but none fully exploited the exotic possibilities that might have animated this fairy tale. The costumes varied from vaguely authentic to totally anachronistic (like the feathered head-pieces carried by the women of the sultanate in a Las Vegas-style production number).  The most entertaining production number was a full company tap-dance. What, you don’t know about the rich history of tap dancing in the Middle-East?

The book maintains the basic plot elements of the fairy tale. But its style varies from dialog you might find in a book on a child’s bedroom night table to self-deprecating jokes about the unrealistic aspects of fairytales. The songs do little to amplify the characters or advance the narrative. The dances are repetitious: how many times can you get away with putting your hands above your head with your palms turned out and upward while you move your head as if it is seemingly detached from your neck – you know, the belly dancer move? The sets frequently use nothing more than a painted backdrop so the actors frequently appear to be playing in front of, rather than inside of, the environment. The unspecial special effects include streamers shot into the audience and the occasional fire spark in reaction to the villain Jafar’s evil pronouncements. James Monroe Iglehart plays the Genie pleasantly, if incongruously, as a cross between Tyler Perry’s Momma characters and Arsenio Hall delivering a late-night monologue.

The audience anxiously awaits the flying carpet scene in the second act, but even this piece of theatrical magic is disappointing. Yes, the young lovers fly around the stage seemingly with no visible line of support. But the scene is set against a dark, twinkling star sky, hardly the trip around the world portrayed in the original. Given the variety of styles in the script, it’s hard for the audience to care about any of the characters, least of all the romantic leads that are individually quite good but have very little chemistry as “true lovers.”

Sitting through a press preview performance, it was difficult to judge the audience’s response to the production. However, they did seem to like it. The production numbers received lots of applause (nothing unusual about that). They laughed at the vaudevillian humor. There were even “oohs” and “ahs” for the flying carpet scene and appearance of the Genie in the hidden cave, one of the few sets that came close to being imaginative. But I found the lack of a creative vision, a less than opulent production of a story about the temptation of opulence, and a book, music, and lyrics that could not decide whether it was a beautiful fairy tale or a Las Vegas nightclub act to be artistic prostitution. You get what you paid for, but it’s more commerce than art.

My “Aladdin” experience came just one week after I saw another less-than-satisfying adaptation of a classic movie theater property, “Rocky.” But “Rocky” did not provoke the same sense of artistic corruption as the Disney travesty. In fact, “Rocky’s” weaknesses are exactly what might have made “Aladdin” a worthy Disney product. The original “Rocky” was a small, rather intimate movie about an oafy but endearing Philadelphia “wanna-be” boxer, his awkward romance with a young woman who suffers from extreme self-worth deficiencies, and his unexpected shot at being a contender. But intimacy is a tough sell for Broadway musicals, particularly shows that have the tourist industry as their target audience, just ask the people behind “The Bridges of Madison County,” a show that struggled at the box office in spite of its cinematic provenance. Even though “Bridges” receive three Tony nominations, including one for its popular star, Kelli O’Hara, it closed before the Awards.

Similarly, another movie adaptation, “Big Fish,” could not find an audience for its spectacular (but misguided) production by Susan Stroman. Unlike “Bridges,” that took an intimate film treatment and tried to replicate its intimacy in a big Broadway theatre, “Big Fish” took a highly stylized original film and blew it up with one fantastic piece of scenery after another, failing the capture the movie’s anguished portrayal of the relations between father, son, and mother. Clearly, Stroman and company were banking on the salability of spectacle.

So it was not surprising that the production team for “Rocky” decided to convert this small film into an oversized Broadway extravaganza. “Rocky – The Musical” is full of huge sets, large-scale projections, and evocative lighting effects. Even though the romantic scenes between Rocky and his true love, Adrian, are scaled down into realistically cramped apartments on old-fashioned theatre wagons, they are still dwarfed by the combination of large grey panels and sky-high scaffolding in the background. And for the all-important boxing finale between Rocky and the world champ, Apollo Creed, the production converts the Wintergarden Theater into a fighting arena by relocating the people in the front rows of the orchestra to bleachers on the stage while the boxing ring is projected out into the center of the theatre. What follows is a very well choreographed fight sequence that actually captures the “strum und drang” of Rocky’s one chance to prove himself.

Frankly, I found the ten minutes of transition into the fight scene rather distracting as stage hands ran down the aisles to install support devices for the fight ring while TV screens attempted to distract the audience with the usual pre-fight commentary — gratuitous comments since everyone in the audience already knew the information being shared, not to mention the outcome of the fight we were about to witness. But, as most of the mainstream critics noted, it certainly gave the show a rousing finale, for some, making the whole evening worthwhile.

While this inflated aesthetic and the inevitable simplification of character development that frequently plagues movies converted to Broadway musicals did not satisfy me, “Rocky” does seem to give its target audience what it paid to see. As Ben Brantley observed in his New York Times review, “This is surely the first Broadway production in which sides of butcher’s beef receive entrance applause” in the famous training scene in the storage refrigerator. Similarly, the appearance of a long flight of steps arouses a similar audience response (even if there is not the slightest suggestion that they are attached to the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

I had hoped that “Rocky” would find musical theatre solutions to the challenges of converting a movie into a musical. The book was adapted by Thomas Meehan who won Tonys for his work on “The Producers” and “Hairspray,” both screen-to-stage translations. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens who made “Ragtime – The Musical” into a rich and moving version of the book by E. L. Doctorow and the less-than-successful movie adaptation. While “Ragtime’s” songs memorably elucidated characters and carried the narrative forward, “Rocky’s” music adds virtually nothing to the story or the character development.

But I am not “Rocky’s” target audience. Two-thirds of Broadway’s audiences are tourists; many visit a Broadway show as part of their sightseeing agenda. A Broadway musical is like a trip to the top of the Empire State Building, meant to be a known commodity full of “oohs” and “ahs.” This audience is not experimenting; they expect to be impressed with the familiar made spectacular. And that is exactly the focus of “Rocky – The Musical” and the failure of “Aladdin – The Musical.”

Many theatre commentators lament this aspect of the contemporary Broadway economy, pointing to “Mama Mia” and the string of jukebox musicals that play on the audience’s memories of the original musical groups. But there is clearly a market for this type of entertainment. And sometimes Broadway can have its cake and eat it, too. We need to look no further than the current highest grossing Broadway musical for a near perfect meeting of art and commerce. “The Lion King,” now in its 17th year on Broadway, continues to produce the requisite “oohs” and “ahs.” Julie Taymor’s wonderfully inventive production reinvented the source material, bringing a uniquely theatrical richness to the Broadway musical.

While the production originally won raves from almost every type of theatregoer and commentator, its continued success relies on the same target audience as “Rocky” and “Aladdin.” A recent New York Times article detailed how Disney Theatrical Productions uses a secret computer algorithm to predict audience patterns and modestly increase ticket prices at peak tourist periods to keep it on top (“Ticket Pricing Puts ‘Lion King’ Atop Broadway’s Circle of Life,” by Patrick Healy, New York Times, 3/17/14). While many new Broadway musicals charge $300-$400 for premium seats, Disney caps their premiums at $227 and makes up the difference by adding $10-$20 to the regular tickets that are more in the price range of an average tourist looking for something he or she can check off of their bucket list.

“Wicked” is another long running, amazingly profitable show with a popular movie selling point. While it’s not an adaptation of “Wizard of Oz” or L. Frank Baum’s classic book (it’s actually adapted from a popular series of prequels by Gregory McGuire), its marketability was predicated on “Wizard’s” niche in American culture. “Wicked’s” long run though can only be attributed to the ingenuity and creativity of the original production team that fully realized the fantasy of McGuire’s invention. This show, that (deservedly) received mixed reviews, has developed a cult following of people willing to pay for full-priced tickets repeatedly on their visits to the Big Apple.

Two other Broadway hits are also adaptations from movies, but those films reached such a limited audience that their success can only be attributed to artistry of the Broadway production teams. “Once” was a minor hit in the art-house cinemas, but that hardly helped its chances for success on the Great White Way. And, like the struggling “Bridges of Madison County,” it’s an intimate love story with little opportunity for spectacle. But the Broadway production team adopted John Doyle’s technique of having the actors double as the orchestra and broke the fourth wall by inviting the audience to have a beer on stage before the show and during intermission. Essentially, they forced the audience to become a part of the story’s intimacy. In the Tony Award world, it’s pretty rare that a show with so many unknowns (film, cast, writers, etc.) wins best musical over a splashy Disney hit like “Newsies” (another film adaptation). But art became commerce for “Once.”

“Kinky Boots” was also adapted from a less-than-successful film with very limited audience recognition. But unlike “Once,” “Kinky Boots brought pop music royalty to Broadway with a score by Cindi Lauper and then employed Broadway royalty, Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Mitchell, to adapt the film into a very old fashioned but thoroughly entertaining musical. While “Kinky Boots” is still riding the wave of a Best Musical Tony, it will be interesting to see whether this very traditional musical (albeit with a chorus line of drag queens) is able to maintain its attraction to the tourist audience.

Ironically, “Kinky Boots” beat a much more “marketable” musical adaptation for last year’s Tony. “Matilda” opened to strongest reviews since “The Book of Mormon.” Ben Brantley’s New York Times homage exclaimed:

Rejoice, my theatergoing comrades. The children’s revolution has arrived on these shores, and it is even more glorious than we were promised. Rush now, barricade stormers of culture, to the Shubert Theater, and join the insurrection against tyranny, television, illiteracy, unjust punishment and impoverished imaginations, led by a 5-year-old La Pasionaria with a poker face and an off-the-charts I.Q.

Alas, I was not as enthusiastic as almost every mainstream critic, but it is certainly a show that has found an extraordinary style to convey the warped children’s tale by Roald Dahl, also adapted into a movie with limited success. And it comes to Broadway adapted with a theatre enthusiast’s ideal provenance: The Royal Shakespeare Company. Again, it’s a little early to see the long-term prospects for this show that continues to draw full houses, but it’s clear that its target audience is families looking for a spectacular Broadway experience as memorable as the Statue of Liberty (or even a side trip to see the steps leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

One new musical adaptation this season fell victim to its cinematic origins. I found “Bullets Over Broadway” to be a thoroughly entertaining old fashioned musical. This is a vehicle perfectly suited to Susan Stroman’s talents; she really knows how to “put on a show” and “Bullets” had all of the qualities of a traditional book-musical and most of those qualities were satisfyingly (if not overly originally) fulfilled. The same friend that shared my dislike for “Aladdin” dismissed “Bullets” saying “it’s too much like the movie.” Well, actually, it’s not like the movie – it’s a musical that adapted music from its period to its story. The book does not have the level of wit that would have made this show a sure-fire hit with local and tourist audiences. And it is very old-fashioned. Most of the people attracted to the show by the Woody Allen brand forget that the original was not as funny or as bitingly satirical as some of his other homages to a period or a style. The show got raves and pans from the mainstream critics (the latter most significantly from Ben Brantley in the New York Times).

Some more snobbish theatre devotees consider all of these shows to be acts of artistic prostitution. They lament “the old days” when original work dominated the musical stage. But they seem to forget that those original works were no more original than the current crop of shows. “Oklahoma!” was adapted from a play that flopped; “Carousel” was adapted from a popular foreign play and a little known film adaptation; “My Fair Lady” was based on Shaw’s classic play and the ever-popular 1938 screen adaptation.

Broadway is not corrupted by the prevalence of musicals adapted from film. Shows are corrupted when the values of commerce are allowed to outweigh art. The musical is a popular art form. While we occasionally get a musical that challenges us intellectually, those shows usually have short lives (think “The Scottsboro Boys” or “Caroline or Change”). Even successful shows based on great works like “Les Miserables” owe their success to the craft of the musical creators, not the draw of their source material (no one said, I can’t wait to hear Victor Hugo set to music). After “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins,” “Aladdin” is a big disappointment. But it’s not the fault of the source material. As Beckett so aptly warns us, man tends to “blame his on shoes the problems of his feet.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 202014
 

The last play I commented on (The Library at The Public Theatre) I described as not the sort of play that you feel comfortable saying you “liked.” It was not a bad play, but its subject matter is not something one “likes” even if it’s presented in an engaging and enlightening manner.  I’m tempted to qualify my most recent theatre experience with a similar caveat.  However, it’s very difficult not to like “The Velocity of Autumn.”  It is a very funny and frequently moving play with bravura performances by two of Broadway’s most engaging actors:  Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella.

But this two-hander dramatic comedy by a first-time-on-Broadway playwright and director is about the experience of aging; more accurately, about the things we risk losing control of as we age: our bodies, our memory, and, for some, our ability to live as we want to live, not as some others want us to live.  The basic premise of the play concerns the steps that a feisty but weakening woman is taking to prevent her children from moving her into an assisted-living environment.  In her rather radical (but fully credible) response, she has barricaded herself in her home and threatens to blow up her house with improvised Molotov cocktails if her offsprings attempt to remove her.  One of her sons, the one that followed in her artistic footsteps, comes through her second-story window by climbing her favorite tree and what follows is 90 minutes of negotiations, recollections and reflections, and bonding around shared values and experiences.

As I said above, this is a comedy and this play uses its comedic viewpoint to investigate and elucidate the challenges of maintaining a sense of self as the individual loses more and more control over that self.  Struggling to remember a word (as I do so often these days), the mother (Ms. Parsons) observes, “proper nouns are the first thing to leave the body.” At one point, she struggles a bit to get out of her chair, making sounds that illustrate her labor and comments, “That’s how you know you are growing old, when you start to make sound effects for your body.”  Not all of the comedy centers on aging; there is plenty of humor in the relationship between mother and son, the familial history, and plain old one-liners that come naturally from two characters that have spent their lives being different.

Parsons and Spinella give vitality and full life to these characters and director Molly Smith (the Artistic Director for Washington’s Arena Stage) has kept the play, with very little plot, focused and balanced between its humor and its portrait of two people struggling to control what is beyond their control.  This is a play worth seeing and laughing with.

[Note: The play is currently on TDF and Playbill.com for discounts.  After a talk back with the playwright and one of the producers, we were also given a discount code to give to our friends on the play’s website: VelocityofAutumnBroadway.com/offer.  Code: VAFNF01]

 

 

 Posted by at 8:32 pm