March 25, 2023

"A Doll's House" is Chic But Underfurnished

Despite the projection of the date 1879 on the brick wall at the back of the Hudson Theatre, the new revival of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House could be taking place in some cool Brooklyn neighborhood today. For everyone on stage is dressed in hipster black outfits. Minimalism is so prioritized that there’s no set and no props, except for some wooden chairs. And when wanting to express deep frustration, its main character Nora just utters the word “Fuck.”

 As you might be able to tell, I wasn’t thrilled with British director Jamie Lloyd’s riff on this classic proto-feminist drama about a 19th century woman finding the courage to break out of the restrictions that society has imposed on her. 

Now I do appreciate the need for revivals to make old works relevant to modern times. Although I didn't see Lloyd's Cyrano de Bergerac, which played at BAM last year, I very much liked his production of Betrayal that ran on Broadway in 2019. Both of them shared the same stripped-down aesthetic as this new production does—and did so to general acclaim. But no one-size-fits-all approach works for every show. 

And alas, Lloyd is showing signs of becoming a straight-play version of John Doyle, whose innovation of having the actors in his musicals accompany themselves on instruments started out as a novel idea but eventually became an annoying gimmick. 

Another Lloyd tic seems to be the casting of famous screen actors in his productions. Tom Hiddleston anchored Betrayal, James McAvoy starred in Cyrano and now Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain is his Nora. Chastain's centrality to this production is on display even before the show starts: when audience members enter the theater, she’s sitting silently in one of the wooden chairs as a turntable revolves so that she can be seen—and photographed—from every angle.

The Juilliard-trained Chastain is a fine actress and she is compelling to watch here (click here to read more about her involvement in the project). She’s also backed by a strong supporting cast that includes Arian Moayed as Nora’s husband Torvald and Okieriete Onaodowan as the bank officer Krogstad. 

But the way this production presents them seems less like an actual play than the showcase night at a drama school where the best students get to show off how much they've learned. 

Meanwhile, playwright Amy Herzog’s updated adaptation softens the alpha-male characters, leaving Moayed and Onaodowan adrift, unsure what beats to play. Adding insult to injury, poor Onaodowan has apparently been directed to deliver many of his lines upstage, facing the wall.

It also doesn’t help that the plot of A Doll’s House pivots around Nora’s forging a bank document because women in her day couldn’t take out loans unless they were signed by a male relative. That obviously poses a problem for any updating because, of course, women now have direct access to their own finances. 

I get that the loan restrictions could be a metaphor for current-day attempts to control what women can and can’t do with their bodies but having the action (or lack of action in this case) take place in some timeless limbo undercuts that connection.

But even more egregiously, Herzog’s script and Lloyd’s direction fail to show Nora's evolving consciousness as she transforms from a flighty trophy wife into a strong woman with a mind of her own. And since that's the whole point of the play, I’m going to have to count this version of it as a failure.

March 18, 2023

How To Defend Yourself" Grapples With Gen-Z Concerns About Intimacy and Consent

Thousands of dollars and countless hours have been spent trying to figure out how to get young people into the theater. But I’ve got a hunch that the answer is simple: offer things they want to see and hear. I suspect that How to Defend Yourself, the bittersweet comedy of modern-day manners that opened this week at New York Theatre Workshop, is just that kind of show.

The narrative centers around a self-defense class organized by a group of college students after a couple of fraternity brothers so brutally raped a female classmate that she’s ended up in the hospital. The sessions are led by Brandi, a taut—in every sense of that word—senior who is determined to share her knowledge of the fighting techniques that she’s mastered and believes can disarm sexual predators.

The women in her class like practicing the martial arts moves (energetically choreographed by Steph Paul, one of the show’s three credited directors) but they’re more ambivalent when it comes to handling their feelings about sex. 

An eager freshman is excited about the prospect of losing her virginity to a hot guy on campus no matter what it takes. Another student is willing to hook up with just about anyone in exchange for even the slightest display of affection. While a third admits she likes it when her sex partners are a little rough.    

Two guys also come to the sessions to demonstrate their ally support but they’re even more confused. “Girls want you to read their fucking minds and then be everything to them,” one, who is perhaps too intentionally named Eggo, laments. “If you’re flirting with me, if you come up to me at a bar and press your tits on me, I’m assuming you want to fuck, sorry!”  

Such quandries about intimacy and consent are high on the list of issues that young people today are wrestling with and Eggo’s comments echo the way they talk about them. Which isn’t surprising. Playwright Liliana Padilla, who is part Asian, part Latinx and identifies as nonbinary, is just a few years out of grad school and has said that they themself are a rape survivor (click here to read more about that). 

But this isn’t a soapbox drama attempting to teach life lessons. Padilla, a winner of the 2019 Yale Drama Prize for emerging playwrights, accepts that life is messy and, allowing form to follow function, permits this play to be messy too. 

So How to Defend Yourself poses the challenging questions and then dares its audiences to figure out for ourselves what today’s young women and men should do to protect themselves—or at least to develop some compassion for those struggling to do so.

This may be frustrating for viewers who want a play that stakes out a clear position on what's right and what's wrong. But even they are likely to be entertained by this play’s bantering humor, its game cast and the kinetic staging, jointly crafted by Padilla, Paul and the always inventive Rachel Chavkin.

I’ll confess that I have no idea what the final five minutes of the play were trying to say but it probably wasn’t speaking to baby boomer me anyway. On the other hand, I happened to be sitting in the midst of a bunch of twentysomethings and I could tell by their head nods and murmurs of assent that it was speaking their language. And that’s why they were there.

March 4, 2023

"The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" Is a Sign of Better Things That Never Came

Lorraine Hansberry only lived long enough to see two of her plays produced. The first was A Raisin in the Sun, celebrated when it opened in 1959 as the first play by an African-American woman to be performed on Broadway and now a revered part of the theatrical canon that has so far had five major revivals here in New York and countless others around the country. 

The second was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which limped through a three-month run that ended in 1965 just two days before Hansberry died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 34 and that play has rarely been seen since then.  

So when I heard that the Brooklyn Academy of Music was giving Sidney Brustein its first major revival in New York and that it would be starring the power players Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan, I made sure to buy a ticket within an hour of they’re going on sale last year and made my way out to Brooklyn last weekend. What I saw wasn’t exactly what I expected but I’m so glad I got to see it.

Hansberry’s script is brimming with ideas and wit and passion. But it’s also filled with too many characters, meandering storylines and more political themes than a State of the Union address. “The truth must be faced,” New York Times critic Howard Taubman wrote when the original production opened, “Miss Hansberry's play lacks concision and cohesion.”

I can’t argue with that but what’s missing from Taubman's review and others at the time is an appreciation for how much ambition this play shows. For while Raisin focused almost entirely on a poor black family’s struggle to better their lives, Hansberry did something in Sidney Brustein that is still rare for playwrights of color to do: she wrote about white people. And they’re not just generic white people but the kind of white bohemians that Hansberry knew well when she lived in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

As the play opens its title character Sidney has just traded in one failing enterprise (a local nightclub that didn't serve alcohol) for another (a community newspaper that won’t engage with local politics). He can do these things because he’s financially supported by his wife Iris, a would-be actress who works as a waitress and whom he idolizes and puts down as the mood strikes him.  

Their motley crew of friends and relatives include their upstairs neighbor David, a gay playwright whose latest work has become a surprise hit; Wally, a glad-handing reform politician; Iris’ sisters Mavis, an Upper East Side matron stuck in a marriage of convenience, and Gloria, a free-spirited but fragile call girl; and Alton, a biracial ex-communist who’s in love with Gloria.  

Race aside, each of them represents an aspect of Hansberry herself, who grew up in an affluent family (her father was a big realtor in Chicago) wrote for progressive magazines before moving into playwrighting, married a white man even though she was a lesbian, and remained a committed activist who was a fellow traveler if not an out-and-out member of the communist party.  

Sidney Brustein refuses to let any of Hansberry’s disparate alter egos off the hook, zeroing in on the self-delusions of each of the characters in the play. How much, it asks, are they willing to pay for their pipe dreams? The sign in the title refers to the one that Sidney hangs when he impulsively decides to drop his apolitical stance and endorse a candidate—only to ultimately regret doing so. 

Hansberry’s efforts to wrestle with the many themes in this play can come off as pedantic in some places and as superficial in others. But much of that might have been ironed out (and the three-hour running time trimmed) if she could have focused on the play during its rehearsal period instead of literally fighting to stay alive. Her ex-husband and literary executor until his death in 1991 made some later revisions to the script but that’s hardly the same.

So kudos to director Anne Kauffman, who also did an earlier production of Sidney Brustein in Chicago back in 2016, for being such a steadfast ally of the play and for staging a production that is as engaging as most of this one is (click here to read about how it came together). 

Now there are some hiccups in the production. Some of the costumes for Iris look as though they'd be more at home on Park Avenue than in Washington Square Park. And I still can’t figure out why three of the actors set up chairs in front of the stage to watch their colleagues perform a few scenes. But Kauffman’s casting works beautifully.  

Brosnahan, now best known for her turn as a Joan Rivers-style comic in the Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel,” is poignant here as a less assertive woman struggling to define who she is at the dawn of the modern feminist era. Meanwhile Isaac brings his trademark intensity to a man who yearns to be great but knows he lacks the capacity to be so. 

Watching them made me wish that Hansberry could see them too, and made me wish even more that she'd been able to give us lots of other works for actors and audiences to explore.

February 18, 2023

A Grateful Sixteenth Anniversary Message

So here we are celebrating—albeit slightly belatedly—the 16th anniversary of Broadway & Me. My first post went up on Feb. 14, 2007 and in the intervening years, 
I've seen so many wonderful shows (and yes, some not-so-great ones too) and I've had so many other wonderful theater-related experiences and I've loved sharing so much of all that with you. 

The most recent of those experiences was the opportunity to appear on my friend Patrick Pacheco’s TV show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts,” where I joined the theater critics Adam Feldman of Time Out New York and Helen Shaw of The New Yorker to talk about the upcoming spring theater season here in the city. You can watch our discussion by clicking here.

I’m hoping that I’ll also be able to talk to the creators of some of those new shows for my playwrights podcast “Stagecraft.” In the meantime, I’m continuing to produce my podcast "All the Drama" about the plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The latest episode, which hit the feeds just last weekend, is on the 1953 winner Picnic by William Inge, who, along with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, was a titan of Broadway in the fifties but whose name isn’t as well remembered today as Williams and Millers still are (you can listen to that by clicking here).  

And finally, I want to give my continuing thanks to those of you who over the years have subscribed to and read these postings, listened to my podcasts or checked out my Flipboard magazine. I also want to extend a welcome to those of you who may have just stumbled onto this post for the first time. I'm so very grateful for all of you and I hope you will continue keeping me company as I share my joy for the theater we all love.  

February 11, 2023

"Pictures From Home" Lacks A Clear Focus


Around 1982 the photographer Larry Sultan began taking photos of his parents at their home in California’s affluent San Fernando Valley. And he kept at it over the next 10 years, finally publishing a curated selection of the images along with film stills from the family’s home movies in a book called “Pictures From Home.” 

The visual memoir was a meditation on aging, an investigation into the ways we create images of ourselves and a commentary on the American Dream. And now, the playwright Sharr White has turned all of that into a play also called Pictures From Home that opened this week at Studio 54.

A photo album, even one as artful and acclaimed as Sultan’s (click here to see more about it), is unusual source material for a play and I want to applaud such originality. So that makes it even more disappointing for me to have to tell you that White and his director Bartlett Sher haven't been as creative in transferring the book's complexities to the stage. 

Sultan died in 2009 at the age of 63 but, using texts from the book and taped interviews he conducted with his folks as he worked on the project (many of the quotes are used verbatim in the play), White has tried to imagine what the dynamics were between the Sultans during that decade-long process of working on the book and what motivated each of them to stick with it through to its conclusion (click here to read more about the transfer process).

Irving Sultan moved his family from Brooklyn to California in the early ‘50s to make a better life for his wife and kids (there were actually two other sons who are mentioned but don’t appear in the play). He succeeded, working his way up from a traveling salesman in hard-to-sell markets and into the executive suite at the Schick razor blade company before being pushed into early retirement. 

White and Sher are helped immeasurably in bringing that journey to life by an all-star cast consisting of Danny Burstein as Sultan, Zoë Wanamaker making the most of a smaller role as his mother Jean and most especially by Nathan Lane as his dad. 

Lane perfectly captures the alpha-male pride of the self-made man, the mid-century allegiance to American exceptionalism and the underlying uneasiness that things won’t be the same for his son who, despite all the differences between them, he deeply loves. And of course being Nathan Lane, he also wrings every bit of humor out of White’s text and then adds some more equally entertaining bits of his own for good measure.  

And yet the play’s center doesn’t quite hold. In fact, I had a hard time finding a center. Arguments about why Sultan is photographing his parents, how long the project is taking and whether art is more important than real life are repeated and then repeated again. Attempts at insights into the bonds that hold this family together are proclaimed in big speeches toward the end of the play but little groundwork is laid for them earlier and the revelations seem to come out of nowhere.  

Photos from the book of the real-life Sultans are projected on the back wall of the stage throughout the 105-minute performance and both my eye and mind kept drifting to them and away from the live action going on in front of them. Like the best art, those images not only invite you to look at them but prod you to look at yourself. Alas, that artfulness doesn't make the transfer from the page to the stage.

February 4, 2023

Cozy At-Home Theater for a Cold Weekend

A frigid cold front is sweeping across a large part of the country this weekend. And that can be a disincentive to go outside for even the most avid theatergoer. Luckily, there are—thanks to the internet—other options for us theater junkies. I’m going to suggest just a few of my current faves before snuggling up with my own remote control and a mug of tea.

My So-Called High School Rank: This awkwardly named but terrific documentary starts off as the story of how two high-school drama teachers wrote a musical in 2019 inspired by the pressure so many of their students felt to get into a top-rated college. Word of the show quickly traveled to other schools around the country who asked for permission to stage their own productions.  

The filmmakers focused in on the auditions and rehearsals at three of them: one in an affluent California community largely populated by highly-educated immigrants working in the upper levels of the tech industry and dreaming of even more successful careers for their kids; the second in a white working-class community in rural West Virginia where theater takes a backseat to sports; and the third at an arts high school in the Bronx where nearly all of the students are Black and Hispanic and hoping that their talent will push open doors to opportunities their parents never had. 

But the narrative really kicks into high drive when Covid arrives. The schools lockdown and all of the kids struggle to find ways to still put on their shows. The results in this 90-minute doc are both heartbreaking and heartwarming and a potent reminder of how theater really can change lives, particularly young ones. You can find it on HBOMax.

Kiss Me, Petruchio: The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions have been a beloved summer tradition in New York for over six decades but one of the most fondly remembered of its shows still remains the 1978 production of The Taming of The Shrew with Raúl Juliá as Petruchio and Meryl Streep as Kate. 

Beautiful and sexy, both actors were also full of the sass that comes from working with a scene partner who is as game and talented as the other. So it’s great fun to watch the back and forth between their characters in this classic battle of the sexes. But it’s even more of a treat to view the interviews the two gave backstage as dressers tighten Streep’s corset before one performance while she talks about bringing a feminist perspective to her role and as Juliá towels off sweat during an intermission while also explaining the importance of adding the rhythms of his native Puerto Rico to Shakespeare’s speeches. You can see it all for free on YouTube.

Streep, of course, is still with us, even if not onstage as much as we might want. But Juliá died in 1994 when he was just 54. His premature death was greatly mourned by the theater community, which you can also see in the documentary that the PBS “American Masters” series did on his life and which you can find here.

Between Riverside and Crazy: Second Stage’s current revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis' dramedy is still playing at the Helen Hayes Theater through Feb. 19 but the company is also simulcasting performances during the final two weeks of the show’s run. 

I finally caught up with the onstage version a couple of weeks ago and it’s as thoroughly entertaining as it was when I saw the off-Broadway production back in 2014 (click here to read my review). 

The plot centers around a Black ex- cop who is battling his landlord to stay in a large rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive (that provides part of the show’s title) and battling the police department over the compensation he feels he’s owed because a white cop shot and disabled him (which supplies the other part of the title).  

However the true joy of this Pulitzer Prize-winner rests in the colorful characters Guirgis has created and the even more colorful language—simultaneously scatological and lyrical—that he’s crafted for them to speak. 

Most of the original cast has returned, including the invaluable Stephen McKinley Henderson who has nestled himself even more snuggly into the role-of-a-lifetime that Guirgis reportedly wrote specifically for him. 

The ticket price for each of the dozen or so remaining simulcast performances is $77, including a $9 service fee, and you can find out more about those shows by clicking here. I haven’t seen any of them so far but my blogger pal Jonathan Mandell has and he compares the experiences of seeing the show live and online in a recent posting that you can check out here.

There are other screen options too, including the latest installment of Paula Vogel's Bard at the Gate series. You can find that and some others on the TDF site by clicking here. Whichever you choose, have a great time and stay warm.

January 28, 2023

Why the OCC (and Me) Made the Switch to More Gender-Inclusive Acting Awards

Giving awards can be tricky. We all want to—and should—celebrate extraordinary theatrical talent. But every time one person is ushered into the winner’s circle, a whole lot of other folks are left out of it. And adding insult to injury, it's often been really hard for some outsiders to find a way in at all. 

In the not-so-distant past, most of those who took home the honors and trophies looked like one another: lots of white men and some white women. That’s begun to change over the past few years in the wake of the reckonings brought on by the #OscarSoWhite and We See You White American Theater campaigns and the representation reports issued by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. 

So more opportunities to make their way into the circle have opened up for a wider range of people and some of those people have been really, really talented: seven of the last 10 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama have been playwrights of color.  

But there’s still more work to be done to level the playing field. Which is why I’m taking time out from talking about shows I’ve recently seen to note that this week the Outer Critics Circle announced that it is eliminating gendered acting categories.  

So instead of giving awards for, say, Outstanding Actor in a Play and Outstanding Actress in a Play, the OCC will now celebrate the Outstanding Performer in a Play, regardless of whether that performer is male, female or nonbinary.

I sit on the OCC’s executive board and although our deliberations are private, I’m going to out myself by admitting that the decision was complicated for me. I worried that we might end up with a slate of all male-identifying performers since they get so many more of the attention-grabbing roles. Only 37% of the 233 principal roles in the 30 new shows that opened on Broadway in 2018 were for women (click here to read more about that). 

Those numbers clearly run the risk of putting female performers at a disadvantage if all performances are being weighed against one another. But after doing a lot of reading, talking and soul searching, I also came to the conclusion that nonbinary actors were at an even greater disadvantage. Fitting into neither the category of Outstanding Actor or Actress, left no place for them be considered at all, unless they shoehorned themselves into a misnomer category (click here to read about one actor's experience). 

Changing the awards to Outstanding Performance in a Male or Female Role seemed like an option. But playwrights and musical book writers have begun creating characters like May in & Juliet or Daphne in Some Like It Hot who don’t fit into those slots either. Which meant, at least for me, that there was only one way to go.

And in the end, the board rethought entirely how we would distribute our acting awards. Now instead of dividing them by who’s doing them, we’re dividing them by where they’re being done. So there will now be awards for actors in Broadway shows and for those performing Off-Broadway. This evens things up in a different way since fantastic work by actors in smaller productions has long been overshadowed by that of their peers in big Broadway shows. 

But of course, awards tend to say as much, if not more, about the people giving them as the people receiving them. So it’s incumbent on all of us who see shows, lobby for favorites on social media or actually vote—be it for the OCC, Drama Desk, Drama League, New York Drama Critics or Tony awards—to make sure that it is as fair and easy as possible for any of the most talented performers, regardless of celebrity, ethnicity, gender identity or physical ability, to get into that winner’s circle.