September 15, 2018

"Heartbreak House" is Totally Welcoming

It may be a sacrilege to say this but I've never been a fan of the plays of George Bernard Shaw. I appreciate Shaw's place in the theatrical pantheon and his role as a pioneering progressive and feminist but his plays tend to be too long and too talky for me. So imagine my surprise when I found myself having a good time at the Gingold Theatrical Group's production of his 1920 play Heartbreak House, which is running in the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row through Sept. 29. 

Shaw reportedly wrote Heartbreak House as an anti-war manifesto designed to condemn the British upper classes for blundering into WWI, which lasted four years and eventually claimed over 20 million lives. 

Subtitling the play "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes," he centered the action around a Chekhov-style country weekend attended by clueless aristocrats, egocentric bohemians and callous industrialists.

They gather in 1914, a few weeks after the war has begun, but the oblivious guests spend their time spouting their philosophies and attempting to hook up with one another out of love, lust and the desire to make the best deal they can to advance their personal positions in society.

Director David Staller, artistic director of the Gingold, which was started in 2006 to champion Shaw’s work, has taken some liberties with the plot, cutting the text roughly in half from four hours to a relatively brisk 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Staller has also added an anachronistic framing device that opens the evening in the basement of a London theater during WWII where some actors decide to put on Heartbreak House to distract the audience supposedly huddled there from worrying about the blitz attack raining down bombs above. 

This turns out to be a very smart idea. It excuses a mix of acting styles and some mismatched costumes since the framing device calls for the fictional theater's backstage staff to take on roles in Shaw's play. 

Thus, performances range from the perhaps too earnest sincerity of Karen Ziemba's party hostess to the trademark daffiness of Jeff Hiller in a variety of roles including the female housekeeper and a burglar with special reasons for breaking into the house.

The conceit also reduces the need to create a fancy upper-class home. Instead, the entire theater is decked out with WWII posters featuring Winston Churchill, while the actual set resembles the dusty underbelly of a stage, complete with rigging and old props.

Perhaps most importantly, the device creates a we're-all-in-this-together spirit by having the actors periodically lead sing-alongs of such determinedly uplifting numbers as "Pack Up Your Troubles" and "Keep the Home Fires Burning," whose lyrics are included in a faux "In the Event of an Air Raid" program.

It’s silly but still hard to resist.  And hardest of all to resist is the deliciously arch performance by Alison Fraser, who plays Lady Ariadne Utterword, an old-school aristocrat who has unabashed disdain for the lower classes.  

Every line Fraser utters through tightly pursed lips and every gesture of exaggerated ennui she makes is a hoot. She pretty much walks away with the show and my friend Joy and I gave her an extra ovation when she entered the nearby Chez Josephine when we were having dinner there after the show.

Every other Shaw production I've seen has taken itself very seriously, waving its social commentary in the air like a banner at a protest demonstration. The message in this Heartbreak House that leaders have a responsibility to the people they serve is still urgent but the production isn't afraid to have fun. And to paraphrase the great anarchist Emma Goldman, a revolution (or a play) without a little fun isn't one worth having. 

September 8, 2018

My Usual Idiosyncratic Fall Theater Preview

Drawing up a list of the fall shows I most want to see is my way of making myself feel better that summer (my favorite season) is ending. It's something I've done for even longer than I've been writing this blog. In most years, the choices are easy and obvious. Every so often, it's tougher because the pickings, to be frank, aren't all that great.  But this year, the theater season is offering an embarrassment of riches and I'm excited about almost everything that's coming. 

However being a woman of a certain age, I find that I'm most looking forward to all the shows that are giving some fabulous actresses around my age—and even older—the chance to strut their stuff.  Those much anticipated shows include:

APOLOGIA:  Even before last year's presidential inauguration caused me to begin obsessively re-watching "The West Wing," I've been a Stockard Channing fan and so I'm really looking forward to seeing her in the flesh in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play about a Baby Boomer who writes a controversial memoir about her past as a '60s-era radical.  Channing won raves when the show played in London last year and odds are that she'll do the same when it opens at the Laura Pels Theatre on Oct. 16.

BERNHARDT/HAMLET: Sarah Bernhardt was the greatest actress of her day (you can read more about her fascinating life and that of her rival Eleonora Duse in the new book "Playing to the Gods") and so it's fitting that the Divine Sarah, as she was known, is now being played by the also magnificent Janet McTeer in Theresa Rebeck's backstage comedy about Bernhardt's now-legendary decision to play the title role in Hamlet. It opens at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre on Sept. 27.

GLORIA: A LIFE: As a writer and editor, advocate and mentor, Gloria Steinem has earned her status as an icon of the modern feminist movement and now her story is being told in a play written by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus and starring Christine Lahti, who I'd appreciated primarily as an excellent movie and TV actress until I saw her terrific turn last season in Suzan-Lori Parks' Fucking AGloria opens at the Daryl Roth Theatre on Oct. 10 and I now suspect this staged version of Steinem's story couldn't be in better hands.

THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT: There are lots of reasons to see this timely new stage adaptation of a book by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. It's about fact checking fake news and it will bring the always-welcomed Daniel Radcliffe back to Broadway when it opens at Studio 54 on Oct 18. But what makes me happiest is that it's also bringing the great Cherry Jones back to the New York stage for the first time in five years. She plays the editor of a Harpers-style magazine but I would see her if she were just standing onstage reading a newspaper out loud. 

MOTHER OF THE MAID: The Public Theater's attempt to turn the story of Joan of Arc into a musical last year was a disappointment but Jane Anderson's alternate version of the tale of the 15th century saint may offer some redemption. It focuses on Joan's mother and the fact that she will be played by the redoubtable Glenn Close has made this morality tale about the joys and sorrows of raising an unconventional child one of the hottest tickets of the season even before it opens on Oct. 17.  

THE TRUE: Playwright Sharr White likes to write about complicated women and this time out he's chosen to fictionalize the story of Polly Noonan, a real-life political operative (and the grandmother of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) who was a major force in Albany politics, known for her tough talk and fierce loyalty to that city's longtime mayor.  So who better to play her in this New Group production that opens Sept. 20 at the Pershing Square Signature Center than Edie Falco, the doyenne of complex, no-nonsense female characters.

THE WAVERLEY GALLERY: The last time the comic legend Elaine May performed on a Broadway stage was back in 1966 when she and her then partner did An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May and so the 86-year-old's return in this revival of Kenneth Lonergan's comedy is all the reason that any theater lover would need to see the show.  The icing on the cake is that the all-star cast for this limited run also includes Michael Cera, David Cromer, Lucas Hedges and Joan Allen, making her own return to the New York stage for the first time in nine years when the show opens at the John Golden Theatre on Oct. 25.

As I said, an embarrassment of riches. 

September 1, 2018

A Labor Day Salute to Theatrical Unions

Maybe it's because I'm getting older but time seems to be passing more quickly than ever and the entire summer just flew by. One minute, I was watching my DVD version of 1776, which I try to do every Fourth of July, and now we're at Labor Day weekend. I usually observe the latter by using my blog post to celebrate some of the people who work hard to make the theater that folks like you and me love but I'm going to do something a little different this year. I want to salute the labor unions that represent the people who work in theater.

This isn't a good time for labor unions in general. Membership is down and just as the summer was starting, the Supreme Court ruled, 4-5, that government workers who choose not to join unions won't be required to pay fees that support collective bargaining efforts even though they benefit from those efforts. The decision doesn't have a direct effect on theater unions but it contributes to the overall belief that labor unions don't serve an important function. But they really do.

All the theater unions—the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802 (of which my husband K remains a proud member); the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers, Local 18032; the Dramatists Guild, which represents playwrights; the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees; the International Makeup Artists-Hair Stylists Union Local 798; the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers; the Theatrical Protective Union Stage Hands, Local 1; the Theatrical Wardrobe Union, Local 764; and the Treasurers & Ticket Sellers Union, Local 751—make sure that their members work under safe conditions and for decent pay.

But I'm going to give an extra cheer to the Actors' Equity Association, which started in 1913 with 112 actors and now represents more than 50,000. Its creation was a game changer back at the turn of the last century, when actors were held in low esteem and treated worse. They often had to buy their own costumes and pay their own travel expenses. And even then, it wasn't unusual for some shady producers to run off and leave the actors stranded without pay at the end of a tour.

From 1913 to 1929, the union fought for the right to represent its members in contract negotiations with producers. During that time, some of the biggest names on the stage, like Tallulah Bankhead and the Barrymore siblings, leant their names to the cause, even joining  strikes and walking picket lines.

Once its authority was established, Equity took up other progressive causes, advocating against racial segregation as early as the 1940s, refusing to participate in the McCarthy blacklists of the '50s, lobbying for government support of the arts in the 1960s and responding to the AIDS crisis in the 1970s and right up to today with its Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraising campaigns. You can find out more about the organization's history in "Performance of the Century" by Robert Simonson (which you can find by clicking here).

Equity is currently lead by Kate Shindle, a former Miss America and the youngest president in the union's history. Under her leadership, the group has continued to champion the underdog. It's renamed the ceremony in which the chorus member with the most Broadway credits dons a robe on opening night and circles the stage for good luck. That garment is now known as the Legacy Robe instead of the Gypsy Robe, a term some found offensive. Equity is also lobbying for the Tonys to create an award for ensemble members in Broadway shows. 

I support the robe decision, have some issues with the idea of an ensemble Tony but am grateful that Equity and all the Broadway unions are standing up for their members and for the belief that it takes a village to make a show.

August 25, 2018

Gettin' the Band Back Together Falls Apart

Because I’ve always believed there should be shows on Broadway that cater to all kinds of tastes, it’s not easy for me to say this but the new musical Gettin' the Band Back Together doesn't belong on Broadway.

I’m not being snobbish. The show simply isn't good enough. If you like a show with a rock beat, you'd be better off catching SpongeBob SquarePants before it closes next month.  Or if battle-of-the-band narratives are your thing, you'll have much more fun at School of Rock. 

Gettin' the Band Back Together's pop-rock music and lyrics by newcomer Mark Allen are generic. Its book by the show's lead producer Ken Davenport (click here to read a piece about him) and a group of actors who call themselves The Grundleshotz does a piss-pour job of telling the story of some 40 year-old guys trying to revive their high school rock band. And the humor is puerile; "I slept with your mom," goes the refrain of one song.

Even the earnest efforts of director John Rando, who won a Tony for staging the original production of Urinetown; and choreographer Chris Bailey, who put together the entertaining moves for The New Group's recent production of Jerry Springer—The Opera, can't save Gettin' The Band Back Together.

Instead the show emits an air of desperation that has actors dropping their pants, running through the aisles to high-five audience members and, in the case of Marilu Henner, the only name in the cast, handing out Rice Krispies Treats and posing for selfies with audience members during the intermission.

The rest of the cast works hard too. And despite its other failings, there is an audience for this show. People who've seen it have given it an average 74 rating on Show-Score. The guy across the aisle from my sister and me laughed so loudly and rocked out to the music so vigorously that I couldn't help wondering if he were a paid plant or had just mismanaged some medication before coming to the theater.

But that guy and other fans of Gettin' the Band Back Together might be better served if the show were playing off-Broadway in a venue where ticket prices are cheaper and alcoholic beverages widely available to everyone in the room.

Now, it's no fun for me to kick a show when it's so down (the professional critics on Show-Score gave Gettin' The Band Back Together an average 54 rating and the box office is anemic with grosses of just $175,000 last week) so I'm going to cut this short with just one final piece of advice:

If you go to see the show, avoid the first couple of rows at the Belasco Theatre. There's a confetti shower in the middle of the second act and one of the actors cleans the stage by taking a big broom and sweeping the debris into the audience. Which, come to think of it, is a fairly apt metaphor for this entire endeavor.