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September 20, 2014

Why "Bootycandy" Seems Stale to Me

Judging by the raves it’s been getting, everybody seems to be eating up Bootycandy, Robert O’Hara’s satirical look at growing up black and gay. Everybody that is but me.

Sitting in the audience at Playwrights Horizon, where the show is running through Oct. 19, I had a feeling of déjà vu: been there, seen it before—  and seen it done better.

Coming of age plays about black gay men are becoming a genre unto themselves. We’ve recently had the fine works of Tarell Alvin McCraney and Colman Domingo. And next month will bring the world premiere of While I Yet Live, an autobiographical drama by Billy Porter, who won a Tony for starring in Kinky Boots, which deals with some of the same issues. 
O’Hara, who also directs, knows his way around the genre after having directed the world premieres of the plays by McCraney and Domingo. And like those earlier works, his Bootycandy is a bittersweet memoir based on the life of the guy who wrote it and accompanied by a soundtrack of music from the ‘70s.

I'll admit the show made me laugh at times but it seems to have pretensions of doing more than that. Which is where it falls down for me because Bootycandy doesn’t offer any original insights into the still-difficult passage of growing up as an effeminate boy in a working-class black world, except for some monologs that very graphically describe gay sex. 
Borrowing more than a page from George C. Wolfe’s 1986 classic The Colored Museum and the '90s-era TV sketch show “In Living Color,” Bootycandy is a series of skits that poke fun at various aspects of the African-American experience (one segment is even called “The Last Gay Play,” echoing The Colored Museum's “The Last Mama on the Couch”). 

But the objects this play chooses to mock have now been so often parodied—the black preacher dressing down his congregation, the swivel-necked, round-the-way girls putting down everyone else—that they’ve become clichés. And Bootcandy doesn’t find a way to make them fresh. 

Flipping back and forth between farce, drama and even tragedy, the play's scenes are also uneven in quality and tone—and nearly all go on far too long. The playwright himself says that he basically stitched together a group of unrelated pieces when the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in D.C. asked him for a play (click here to read about his process).  And the rough seams show.
O’Hara attempts to cover them up and to add some underlying meaning with a postmodern twist at the end of the first act. But even it calls to mind a similar—and better rendered—scene in Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark in which a panel of academics show up to comment on how African-Americans are portrayed in movies and plays. 

But none of this carping should take away from the fact that the hardworking cast O’Hara has assembled is terrific, particularly Phillip James Brannon, who plays the O’Hara stand-in, here called Sutter. 
I’ve seen Brannon in smaller parts before, but here he gets the chance to show off how truly talented he is, adeptly playing the character from his bewildering boyhood days (the source of the play’s comedy) into his more troubled manhood (the cause of the shakier dramatic moments).

Not far behind is Lance Coadie Williams, who so seamlessly transformed himself into five completely different characters that the play was halfway over before I realized those parts were being played by the same guy.
My theatergoing buddy Bill says I'm being too hard on the rest of the show and that O'Hara just wants the audience to have a good time. That's probably true and everyone in the audience at the performance we attended seemed to be doing just that. And, as I said, I joined in some of the laughter. Yet, it left a hollow taste in my mouth. 

September 17, 2014

"Dry Land" is Rich Terrain for Theater Lovers

Ruby Rae Spiegel is only 21 and just starting her senior year at Yale but she’s already had two plays professionally produced in New York and has gotten the kind of reviews that a playwright would kill for at any age.  

"Few things are as bracing as the shock of new talent,” is how the New York Post critic Elisabeth Vincentelli opened her review of Dry Land, Spiegel’s second play, which is running at Here, down in SoHo, through Sept. 27.  In his rave review, the New York Time’s Ben Brantley declared the play “remarkable.”
And you’re not going to hear much differently from me. I may not have been as gob-smacked by Dry Land as Brantley and Vincentelli were (the end was a bit fuzzy for me) but it’s clear that Spiegel has an ear for the way people talk and an eye for the inconsistencies in the way they behave that make them human. 

Now here’s where I must confess to a special rooting interest in Spiegel’s career: I wrote the first profile of Ruby when her first play debuted in the Summer Shorts festival back in 2011 (click here to read that earlier piece) and found the young playwright to be just as bright and winning as her work, which, at least so far, has focused on the lives of teen girls struggling to figure out who they are. 
The central characters this time out are Amy, a Queen Bee-type, who has gotten pregnant by a boy she says she no longer likes; and Ester, the insecure newcomer at their Florida high school that she’s recruited to help with a DIY abortion plan.
So all the elements are in place for Dry Land to be a drama about mean-girl bullying, a morality play about whether or not to have an abortion or a comedy about the silly ways in which the girls try to get rid of the baby only to discover that Amy isn’t really pregnant after all. Spiegel chooses none of these.  
Instead, she uses the unwanted pregnancy as a kind of McGuffin to explore the constantly shifting dynamics of friendship between girls on the slippery edge of young womanhood. But the smartest decision Spiegel and her director Adrienne Campbell-Holt made was to resist the temptation to make Ester the clichéd loser who'll do anything to hang with the cool kids. 
To the contrary, Ester’s the star of the school’s swim team (most of the action takes place in the girls’ locker room, nicely rendered by John McDermott). She’s also just as pretty as Amy. In the one scene outside the locker room, Ester has an encounter with a college guy who’s clearly into her. And in many ways she’s better prepared than Amy for the responsibilities of adulthood.
That becomes apparent in a climactic scene that comes near the end of this 90-minute piece. In the very capable hands of Sarah Mezzanotte, who plays Amy, and Tina Ivlev, who plays Ester, it’s as powerful as anything you’re likely to see on the stage this fall.  
In fact it’s so intense that an older patrician woman sitting near me clenched her eyes shut during the whole of it and then bolted out of the theater as soon as the play ended. I wandered out more slowly, ruminating on what I'd just seen and looking forward to what Spiegel might do next.

September 13, 2014

My Purposefully Female-Centric Fall Preview

Wish lists, which are what my fall previews tend to be, can be hit or miss things. So many of the shows and performances I was most excited about at the start of previous seasons turned out to be disappointments (don't even ask about my 2012 list).  

So although I’m as eager as the next theater lover to see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in It’s Only a Play, Hugh Jackman in The River and the all-star casts in Love Letters and A Delicate Balance, I thought I’d try something different this year. 

There’s been so much talk about the small number of major productions given to works by female playwrights (click here to read about the latest effort to change that) that I decided my preview would highlight upcoming shows written or directed by women.
But that’s turned out to be a disappointment of a different kind. Diversity advocates complained that only two plays by women were produced on Broadway during the 2013-14 season and that both—Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal—were written by women who'd died years earlier.  

Now that season is looking like the good old days because there are no plays by women at all scheduled for Broadway this fall. And I only identified seven that are being done by major off-Broadway companies. Make of it what you will, but those shows also account for the majority of the fall shows that are being directed by women.  
I certainly don’t want to keep anyone away from the promising pleasures of shows like Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Disgraced or Donald Margulies’ Chekov-inspired new play The Country House just because they were written by men. But women buy the majority of theater tickets and it might be helpful if we gals (and our smart guy pals) also actively supported the work of female playwrights—and not just out of solidarity but because there’s some promising stuff by women coming this fall too. 
Here are four, all dealing with the kind of big, brawny issues that most interest me. The fact that the playwrights turned out to be (since I didn't choose them for this reason) so racially diverse is an extra bonus:

THE OLDEST BOY:  Written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Rebecca Taichman, this show would have been high on my list, even if I weren’t focusing on women this season because Ruhl, who has just published a smart collection of essays on playwriting (click here to browse it) is one of the most intellectually ambitous writers working in the theater today. Her latest centers on a woman, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, who discovers that her young son is considered to be the next incarnation of the Buddha. It opens at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in November.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO:  Before she turned 30, Katori Hall had become the first black woman to win the prestigious Olivier Award for best new play of a London season for The Mountaintop, her meditation on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final night before his assassination, seen it produced on Broadway, been the subject of a profile in the New Yorker and named an artist in residence at the Signature Theatre Company.  Despite all that, I wasn’t that big a fan of either The Mountaintop or Hall's subsequent play Hurt Village but I’m intrigued by the potential for a potent mix of politics and religion in her latest offering about a Rwandan girl who believes she’s seen The Virgin Mary. Directed by the male but always-inventive Michael Greif, it opens at Signature on Nov. 16.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN: The issues of race, class and gender fascinate the playwright Young Jean Lee as much as they do me. Her past plays have been determinedly edgy and avant-garde (African-American actors wore blackface in The Shipment and a troupe of women performed naked in Untitled Feminist Show) but this one, directed by Lee herself and featuring a quartet that includes the master actors Austin Pendleton and Scott Shepherd, is said to be a naturalistic look at white male privilege. It’s scheduled for a month-long run in November at the Public Theater, which is also presenting Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 &3), a Civil War drama written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Jo Bonney.
TO THE BONE:  Plays about poor people are still rare—or at least rarely given significant productions—and so I’m intrigued by this play about Latina immigrants working in American poultry factories even though the playwright Lisa Ramirez, who also appears in the show, is new to me. It opens next week, under the direction of the stage vet Lisa Peterson, for a limited run at the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre, which is celebrating its 90th season.

Now let's all keep our fingers crossed that come this time next year we'll be remembering how each of the shows on this list made my good wishes for them come true.

September 10, 2014

Who’s Dancing Off With a New "Fiddler" Book?

As I suspected, Fiddler on the Roof, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, remains a beloved show and so everyone who wrote in for the chance to win a free copy of my friend Barbara Isenberg’s new book “Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World's Most Beloved Musical,” got the right answer to my question about the name of the village in which the show's beleaguered milkman Tevye lives: Anatevka.

But there can only be one winner and the lucky guy is Gerardo González Fernandez, who wrote in from Mexico, where, he says, he's currently in rehearsals to play Uncle Fester in a production of The Addams Family. Congratulations to him, best wishes to his show and thanks to all of who you who participated in this giveaway.

And here's a consolation prize for Fiddler fans in L.A.: Barbara's giving a talk about the book tonight at the Skirball Cultural Center.  You can find out more about that by clicking here.
There's no additional post today but if you feel in the need for some theater-related stuff to read, I hope you'll check out "Broadway & Me: The Magazine," a collection of articles, photos and videos I update regularly. You can find it by clicking here and I hope you'll enjoy it enough to subscribe to it too.  

September 4, 2014

"And I And Silence" Gives Lyrical Voice to the Woes of Society's Most Downtrodden Women

It seems fitting that playwright Naomi Wallace should draw the title of her play And I And Silence from a line in an Emily Dickinson poem (click here to read it). For this awkwardly-named drama is as simultaneously delicate and fierce as a sonnet.

Running in Signature Theatre’s intimate Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater through Sept. 14, the play, which is set in the 1950s, tells the story of two girls who meet in prison when they are just teenagers and the different ways in which society continues to cage them in even after they’re released nine years later.  
Dee, who is white, is serving time for stabbing one of her mother’s hands-too-loose boyfriends. Jamie, who is black, is in because she accompanied her brother on a robbery that went bad. 
The prison where they’ve been sentenced is segregated but the girls manage to form a bond and to share modest dreams of finding work as maids, marrying brothers and living together happily ever after. It should come as no spoiler for me to say that this doesn’t happen.  
Wallace has constructed her 90-minute tone poem so that each woman is played by two different actors. Neither Samantha Soule and Emily Skeggs, who play the older and younger Dee; nor Trae Harris and Rachel Nicks, who portray the corresponding Jamies, actually resemble one another but it doesn’t really matter because all four are so good. 
And under Caitlin McLeod’s pitch-perfect direction, they are able to convey emotional through lines for Dee and Jamie even as the story skips back and forth in time (click here to read about how they did it). 
Special shout outs have to go to the set, costume, lighting and sound designers, who make the single set, little more than a solitary bed, thrum with meaning, from the menacing clank of cell doors to the thread-bare clothes that the paroled women carefully wash each night in a declaration of their dignity.
Some critics have put down the play’s overt politics (it pointedly condemns the options that exist for poor women).  While others have decried its flights of poetic fancy (some of the lines intentionally rhyme).  
But Jamie and Dee’s fate reminded me of those of some other desperate dreamers, like George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, Solange and Claire in The Maids and, ultimately, the movie’s Thelma and Louise. They all know, and force us to see, that love can’t be the answer to all woes.

September 3, 2014

Hey, It's a Broadway & Me Book Giveaway

It may not be a groundbreaking musical like Oklahoma, Hair or Company, but it’s hard to find a show more beloved than Fiddler on the Roof, which opened 50 years ago this month.

That original production ran for over 3,200 performances and the show has had four Broadway revivals since then.  But that doesn't count the legions of high school, community theater and summer camp productions that have sung and danced their way through the story of the Jewish milkman Tevye and his endless struggles to hang onto a traditional way of life.

To commemorate Fiddler's 50th anniversary, my friend Barbara Isenberg has written “Tradition,” a new book on the making of the show, its most noteworthy subsequent productions and, of course, the 1971 film.

I’ve just started the book, which only came out yesterday, but I've already gotten a kick out of discovering that the Sholom Aleichem stories on which Fiddler is based had previously been adapted into a musical called Tevye's Daughters that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein actually considered producing for Broadway.

But I'm getting an even bigger kick out of the fact that Barbara and her publisher are giving me the opportunity to give away a copy of the book to one of you. 
Here's how you can get it: email the name of Tevye’s village to me at jan@broadwayandme.com by midnight this Sunday, Sept. 7.

I’ll put all the right answers in a hat and, as usual, have my husband K pluck one out. Then I’ll announce the lucky winner next Wednesday. 
Mazel tov.

August 30, 2014

A Labor Day Salute to Actors Via Two DVDs

The temperature in New York has been so unseasonably cool this month that it prompted a friend to post a comment on her Facebook page declaring “August is the new September.”   

But now Monday will mark not only the beginning of the real September but Labor Day as well. And that means that, as I’ve done for the last few years, I’m taking time out from my regular posts to salute the work of some of the people who make the theater that folks like you and me love.

Over the past few years, I’ve tipped my hat to casting directors, playwrights, composers and lyricists but it’s been a while since I last singled out actors. Watching two recently released DVDs over the summer convinced me that it’s time to do that again. 
The first DVD is “Now: In the Wings on a World Stage,” a chronicle of the Richard III production that director Sam Mendes and star Kevin Spacey toured around the world in 2011.

The second is "Theatreland," an up-close-and-personal look at London’s historic Theatre Royal Haymarket, from its founding during the Restoration period that brought the British monarchy back to the throne and theater back to London after both had been chucked out by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan brethren to the 2009 productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the musical Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 

Bioth documentaries offer peeks at the process of putting a show together, from the jitters of the first meet-and-greet rehearsal straight through to the parting farewells of closing night, with lots of time in between to show the grit and sweat that go into making the magic we see onstage.
Richard III was the final production of the three-year Bridge Project that Mendes and Spacey conceived to bring British and American actors together to do the classics. So Spacey decided to film the behind-the-scenes workings of that last show and even took on the task of distributing the doc himself (click here to stream it or order a copy).  

The result is a fancy version of a home movie and it focuses almost entirely on the good stuff (backstage feuds or other backstabbings are totally absent). But it’s still fascinating to hear company members talk about the challenge of mixing styles between the Americans (some of whom had never before done Shakespeare professionally) and the Brits (for whom speaking the Bard’s verse is virtually a native language). 
And equally compelling is the chance to watch as actors on different levels of the success ladder interact with one another. Almost everyone is initially intimidated by Spacey, who is not only an Oscar winner but, until next year, the artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre. But many also are in awe of the British stage vet Gemma Jones, whose career stretches back nearly 50 years.

So it's fun to watch as the walls come down. At one point during the tour, Spacey rents a yacht and gives everyone a luxurious day off. Several of his cast mates have never been on a boat that big. “I’ve got to get more rich friends,” says one. Meanwhile, the 70 year-old Jones admits to having a crush on one of the buff young men in the cast and it’s sweet when you later see the two of them innocently canoodling. 
But most of the 90-minute film deals with the nuts and bolts of being an actor on tour—the logistics of doing the same role in different playing spaces from the ancient Greek amphitheater of Epidaurus to a high-tech new theater in Beijing, the pre-curtain rituals that help each actor prepare for his or her performance, the loneliness of being away from home and family for such a long stretch.

By the time the actors who also had stops in Istanbul, Naples, San Francisco, Sydney and Doha, say goodbye to one another after their final performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I found myself having enjoyed the documentary more than I enjoyed the production itself (click here to read my review of the show). 
"Theatreland," (which you can find by clicking here) is divided into eight episodes that total 201 minutes, and a lot of that time is centered around the celebrated revival of Waiting for Godot directed by Sean Mathias and starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as Beckett’s existential hobos. 

The production also had a triumphant run on Broadway last season and the documentary shows McKellen and Stewart as they originally rehearsed, performed and promoted the show. The stars are, of course, thoroughly entertaining to watch but the most memorable moments belong to the film’s bit players.  
An aspiring young actress who has been hired to work as an usher is giddy at the prospect of serving tea during the intermission to the theatrical grande dames Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, who is also the widow of Laurence Olivier. 

In another episode, an understudy gets to go on when Stewart loses his voice. It’s the biggest night of the understudy’s career and he basks in the applause of the audience and a gracious backstage compliment from McKellen. But when it comes time to leave the theater, he walks out unnoticed and heads for public transportation home as autograph seekers wait for the well-known face to come out. 
In the end, both films seem to say, the greatest reward for theater actors—those famous and those not—is just the chance to create magic on a stage. And as we head into this Labor Day weekend, it seems a good time to say that I appreciate their work and am grateful to them for doing it.