April 13, 2019

Back in the Hole...

Life has gotten away from me again.  In my role as a diligent awards nominator (and in preparation for a live reunion episode of "Theater Talk-click here to read more about that) I'm seeing four shows this weekend, plus working! So I've slipped back in the hole with no time to write more than this before I run out the door...

April 6, 2019

"Accidentally Brave" is Honestly Good

The producer Daryl Roth acquired a bank building near Union Square and converted it into an off-Broadway theater back in 1996 but I’ve only begun attending shows there recently. In its early years, Roth's eponymous theater tended to feature shows like De La Guarda and Fuerza Bruta, quasi-circus productions that seemed aimed at young people whose idea of entertainment was still defined by a mosh pit and lots of beer. 

But in the past year, Roth seems to have switched the focus to other demographics. Last fall, she opened Gloria: A Life, a full-throttled tribute to the feminist Gloria Steinem that was catnip for baby boom women. And now ensconced in the theater’s smaller DR2 space is Accidentally Brave, Maddie Corman’s one-woman bio-show that seems destined to be just as enticing for that segment of Gen-X women who grew up believing that they actually could have it all.

For 20 years, the now 48-year-old Corman did seem to have it all. Although not a marquee name, she enjoyed a thriving acting career, appearing in scores of movies, TV series and a few plays. At the same time, she was happily married to Jace Alexander, the actor son of the actress Jane Alexander who eventually became a successful TV director. 

They had three children, a big house in Westchester, lots of friends, great vacations, warm family traditions and the kind of picture-perfect life that people always seem to be boasting about on Facebook or in the pages of alumni magazines.

Then, as Corman says right at the beginning of her show, it all fell apart four years ago when police raided their home, seized the family computers and arrested her husband on charges of promoting child pornography. He later plead guilty. The remainder of the 90-minute show is Corman’s account of how she attempted to put her life back together. 

Under Kristin Hanggi’s sharp direction, her storytelling is aided by projections of family photos, a few props and some sound effects. But mainly it’s just one small woman on a stage reliving the worst months of her life.

A recent New York Times story about the show (click here to read it) made me think it would be somehow icky or self-indulgent. But it isn’t. Corman has the quirky charm of a Beta girl determined to be everybody’s best friend and despite the woes she shares and the pain she still obviously bares, she’s fun to hang out with.

There’s virtually no suspense to the story she tells.  She says at the top that she’s still recovering and that she’s still with her husband. And she also makes it clear that she’s going to focus solely on her response to what happened, with only minimal references to what her husband actually did, why he did it or how her kids dealt with it.

Still, Corman is unflinchingly honest about the way she pinged between moments of anger at her husband, shame over the publicity his case drew, fear about becoming the family's sole breadwinner after he was fired from all his jobs and gratitude when people said and did kind things like keeping the kids for a weekend or gifting her a massage.

The only thing she doesn’t share is the identity of the famous woman she’s nicknamed the Angel, who served as a sounding board and Oprah-like life coach, bucking Corman up whenever she most despaired. I have my suspicions about who the mystery woman might be but since it’s just pure speculation, I’m following Corman's lead and keeping my guess to myself.

Going through it all at each performance seems to be cathartic for Corman. If you’re sitting close enough, you can see the tears welling up in her eyes. I couldn't help wondering what effect having their mom rehash the whole thing over and over again might be having on her now teen kids but she says they’re fine. We'll have to wait for their plays to know if that's true.

In the meantime, Corman also says she wants her story to serve as a morality tale. And it just might. Her life certainly isn’t typical.  And it isn’t monumental as Steinem’s is. But it is a model of feminine perseverance. And it seems quite at home in Roth’s theater and judging by the full house at the performance I attended, its' likely to settle in for a good stay.

March 30, 2019

Why "The Lehman Trilogy" Disappointed Me

Sometimes you want to like something more than you actually do. That’s how I feel about The Lehman Trilogy, which has just opened at the Park Avenue Armory to rapturous reviews.

I’d been expecting rapture too. I’d read the exultant reviews when the show, a nearly three-and-a-half hour chronicle of the rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers investment firm, wowed London audiences. I knew that it was one of those big British state-of-the-world pieces that I admire (I’m among the few who loved the short-lived New York production of Enron) that it starred three fantastic actors, led by the always-great Simon Russell Beale; that it was staged by Sam Mendes, now at the top of his directorial powers (click here to read about him); and that it even had a clever modernist set by the hip designer Es Devlin.

So what was there not to like? I prayed for the show to come to New York. My theatergoing buddy Bill and I bought tickets back in September, within an hour of their going on sale. And I felt smug as we made our way into the cavernous Armory to see it. I’m not sure when the show lost me.

Maybe it was within the first few moments when I realized that the story of the three Jewish brothers who emigrated from Bavaria to the U.S. in the mid-1800s wasn’t going to be dramatized but narrated with the actors speaking in the third person to describe how their characters made the journey from poor immigrants to cotton merchants to merchant bankers to the avatars of Wall Street greed when the firm’s collapse in 2008 helped spark The Great Recession. 

Or perhaps it lost me as I struggled vainly to keep the relationships between all of the characters straight. For without ever changing their 18th century frock coats, Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley play not only the three founding brothers but their children and grandchildren, their wives, customers, business associates, rivals and eventual successors.

Or it could be that it’s just harder than I thought it would be for me to work up much sympathy for people whose foundational fortune was rooted in the slave labor of the 18th century and whose irresponsibility later lead to the misery of the millions who lost their livelihood and their life savings in the economic downturn of the 21st.

And it didn't help when I got home and discovered (thanks Wikipedia) that many of the events chronicled in The Lehman Trilogy hadn’t occurred at all. This may be a spoiler for those of you who have tickets to the show's sold-out run but Bobby Lehman, the last family member to chair the firm, died at age 77.

I suppose the Italian playwright Stefano Massini who conceived The Lehman Trilogy as a five-and-half hour radio piece; and Ben Powers, the longtime dramaturg at London’s National Theatre who adapted it into English for the stage, mean the play to be a parable about the perils of unbridled capitalism. 

But the play's tender attitude toward the Lehmans, accompanied by a melancholy piano score performed live by Candida Caldicott, undercuts that. And I just can’t mourn this loss of American innocence when I know it was steeped in self-interested collusion with the country’s original sin.

Not all is lost. Mendes’ direction keeps things moving along and Luke Hall's projections are acid-trip glorious. Devlin’s set, a transparent box that revolves between a modern-day conference room on one side and stacks of timeless cardboard boxes on the other, is as elegant as advertised, albeit not as innovative for theatergoers who've seen similar setups in the recent Young Vic revivals of A Street Car Named Desire and Yerma.

And the actors are flat-out terrific, adeptly modifying the inflection of their voices and the physicality of their movements as they slip into the roles of different characters (the toad-shaped Beale is a particular delight when he morphs into female characters). But there were simply too many people to keep track of and too little time to develop real feeling for any of them once the original siblings died.

A family tree in the program tries to help, as does a timeline a page or so later and several essays on immigration and Jewish identity in America. But shouldn't a play be able to stand on its own two feet?

And while I’m griping, let me register a complaint about that program itself, which is the unwieldly size of an old copy of Life magazine. Like The Lehman Trilogy, its ambition seems outsized. As perhaps were my expectations for what is essentially a pretty pageant of America’s checkered financial past that I really wanted to like but found difficult to cheer.

March 23, 2019

"White Noises" Makes Sadly Familiar Sounds

Maybe it’s just me but I’m troubled by the fact that over the past year I’ve seen or read three works (all by very talented African-American writers) in which a black person has tried to solve a personal problem by asking someone to treat them as a slave. Critical acclaim has greeted all three.

First up was Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel “The Sellout.” I was a latecomer to this satire about a black man who is so distressed by the way poor black people are treated that he appeals to the Supreme Court to reinstitute both segregation and slavery but it not only won that year’s National Book Award but was the first American novel to win London’s prestigious Man Booker prize for the year’s best novel written in the English language. 

Last fall, both critics and serious theatergoers (including me) couldn’t stop talking about Yale Drama School wunderkind Jeremy O. Harris’s pointedly-named Slave Play, which had interracial couples trying to salvage their broken relationships by voluntarily engaging in role play as masters and slaves. 

And now we have Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan Lori-Park’s White Noise, which opened Wednesday at the Public Theater with a story about a black guy so traumatized by an encounter with white cops that he offers to sell himself to his white best friend.

What is going on?  I get that these are satires and allegories that are trying to provoke serious discussions about the fractured state of race relations in this country but is this truly the only vocabulary that we can use to talk about it?  Do white people really need to hear that things are so bad that black people think being enslaved would be better?

And let’s face it, most of the people reading Beatty’s book, attending shows at New York Theatre Workshop or the Public and maybe even reading this blog are white, as are most of the critics who have cheered on these works. Are these shows giving critics and other “woke” white folks a too easy way to show that they're on the right side of things?

To be fair, all of these works, especially Park’s, try to offer a nuanced take on race. Leo, the lead character in White Noise is a college-educated artist who lives with a white attorney named Dawn who defends poor black people. Their best friends are their college buddies, Ralph, a wealthy white guy who has a day job as a professor, and his girlfriend Misha, an African-American vlogger who hosts a web show called ‘Ask A Black.” 

The couples regularly hang out in a bowling alley (cleverly realized by set designer Clint Ramos) that is part of a chain that Ralph inherited but seems to have been written in primarily because Parks thinks it’s funny. Or maybe I missed the meaning of that metaphor.

The not-at-all-funny deal that Leo proposes during one of the couples' regular nights out calls for him to spend 40 days as Ralph’s slave because he thinks it will relieve him of the pressures that contemporary society places on black men and that going back to the roots of America’s original sin will help him find the fortitude his ancestors used to survive.

The first week or so goes according to plan, curing Leo’s lifelong insomnia (I'm sure there's a "woke" metaphor somewhere in that) and changing his interactions with the white people he encounters. But then the shift in their dynamic begins to affect Ralph too. He starts making imperious demands on Leo that lead to a series of humiliations, all confusingly complicated by the fact that Leo has brought this on himself. Meanwhile, Dawn and Misha are sorting out their own relationship and why they’ve chosen to be with men of their opposite race.  

Each character is given a soliloquy in which to examine his or her own psyche, with an emphasis on how race and sex have shaped it. And under the sure-handed direction of the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis, they’re all brilliantly performed by a sensational cast.

Daveed Diggs, who won him a Tony for his portrayal of Hamilton’s Thomas Jefferson, brings the same can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him charisma to Leo, making it hard not to root for the character even when he’s making stupid choices (click here to read an interview with the actor).  Thomas Sadoski taps into an amiable malevolence for his portrayal of Ralph that may someday make him a superb Iago.

Although given somewhat less to do, Zoë Winters and Sheria Irving are also strong as Dawn and Misha, with Irving supplying most of the humor that both the character and the play use to camouflage the toll this society’s demands can put on educated black women.

Yet even these performances can’t mask the fact that these soliloquies—and even this three-hour play itself—aren’t really saying anything we haven’t heard before about race in this country.  Except, of course, for the slavery thing. In the end, it’s what I—as I'm betting most of folks who see this show—walked out of the theater thinking about.

So now, just in case anyone is wondering, I feel compelled to get it on the record that no matter how bad things are or how many books and plays posit the possibility, there are not lots of black people sitting around and thinking that a return to slavery is a way to make America great again.