December 8, 2018

Turning on the Ghost Light, Yes Again

Life has gotten crazy again and I couldn't find the time to write this week. So as I usually do when this happens, I'm turning on the ghost light that theaters use when they're temporarily empty. I do hope to get back on track next week but in the meantime, I did manage to do an interview with playwright Christopher Demos-Brown for Stagecraft, the podcast series I do for BroadwayRadio. Brown is making an auspicious Broadway debut with American Son, a contemporary drama that stars Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan and Eugene Lee. You can listen to our conversation about the show by clicking here.

December 1, 2018

Its Stars Are the Only Upside to "Downstairs"

Over the past decade the playwright Theresa Rebeck has had four shows premiere on Broadway and at least a half dozen others open in major off-Broadway productions.  And I can’t figure out why. Rebeck has a fine ear for dialog and a knack for coming up with intriguing situations and interesting characters for her shows but she never seems to know quite what to do with them. 

That was certainly the case with Bernhardt/Hamlet, her comedy in which Janet McTeer played the legendary 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt and that finished an eight-week run at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre last month. And it's true once again with Downstairs, a drama that is now playing in a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Dec. 22.

This time out the characters are the middle-aged siblings Teddy and Irene. The situation is that Teddy, who’s lost his job and maybe his grip on reality, has moved into the basement of the home that Irene, a timid woman who keeps her head down as though bracing for a blow, shares with her husband Gerry.

As attentively designed by Narelle Sissons, the cramped and cluttered basement is not a comfortable space. But Teddy—sleeping on a discarded sagging sofa, making breakfast out of coffee brewed in an electronic pot and dry cereal poured into a dusty bowl, and idling away his time on an old computer—seems eager to extend his stay there.

 And although the siblings squabble over trite things like whether Teddy should be puttering around all day in his underwear; and not-so-trite things like the way their inheritance was divided; and even far-out things like Teddy’s musings about his belief in demons and whether Gerry may be one, Irene likes having her brother there even as she makes it clear that her husband wants her brother to go.

That sets up a triangle of competing loyalties and creates opportunities for some Hitchcockian-style storytelling.  Is Teddy insane?  Is Gerry a menace? Will Irene realize that either possibility could endanger her?  

But having set her thriller in motion, Rebeck seems to have gotten bored by it and doesn’t even bother to come up with satisfying answers. By the play's end, I was left with even more questions than I had at its beginning.

That’s not the fault of the cast. Once again, Rebeck has attracted terrific actors. In fact, Tim Daly, who plays Teddy, reportedly asked Rebeck to write a play that would give him and his real-life sister Tyne the chance to appear onstage together for the first time (click here to read about that). 

Under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s supportive direction, the Dalys are both charming in their roles, using the warm bonds of their own relationship to infuse the one between Teddy and Irene. 

They’re also having a ball playing against type with the usually dashing Tim schlumping around as Teddy and the usually brassy Tyne nestling into Irene’s meekness. And the veteran character actor John Procaccino chips in with a chilling performance as the domineering Gerry.

All three make the show watchable. But not even their collective talents can make Downstairs more than that because the playwright hasn’t given them enough to work with.  

Rebeck has complained in the past that critics are tough on her because she’s so prolific and because she's a woman (click here to read an interview with her). But maybe it's just because, as in this case, we think her work isn't good. 

November 24, 2018

Do "The Ferryman" and the "The Waverly Gallery" Live Up to The Hype About Them?

Most theatergoers, especially those with limited time and resources, try to figure out which shows to see through a combination of word of mouth, social media and official reviews, particularly the ones in The New York Times. And when the reviews are raves, that can mean they walk into a show with very high expectations—and the risk of being very disappointed. 

So far this season, clamorous buzz and unbridled praise has circled around The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s family saga set against the backdrop of the Irish hunger strikes in the 1980s; and The Waverly Gallery, Kenneth Lonergan’s memory play about caring for an aging relative who is descending into dementia. Each has been proclaimed a production not to be missed. So should you believe the hype?

Like legions of theatergoers on both sides of the ocean, I was gobsmacked by Butterworth’s previous play Jerusalem (click here to read my review), an ode to the eroding myths of British identity that made a star out of Mark Rylance almost a decade ago. And so Ferryman, with its mythological allusions to the god who carries souls to the underworld, was at the top of my want-to-see-list this fall. Amazingly, it surpassed my expectations. 

With the exception of a brief prologue, the play is set in the farmhouse of Quinn Carney, a former member of the Irish Republican Army who has given up politics and now devotes his time to heading a multigenerational family and farming their land in the rural Northern Ireland county of Armagh.  

Living in the house are Quinn’s sickly wife and their six children, his whiskey-loving uncle, two maiden aunts and his sister-in-law Caitlin and her teen son Oisin, widowed and orphaned when Quinn's brother Seamus mysteriously disappeared a decade earlier. The family has long suspected that Seamus was assassinated by the IRA but while still mourning his absence, Quinn and Caitlin have fallen in love with one another.

As the play opens, Seamus’ body has been discovered in a bog with a bullet hole in its head. IRA leaders want to protect the sympathy for their cause that's recently been engendered by the starvation deaths of incarcerated members waging a hunger strike for the right to be treated as political prisoners. So the IRA will do whatever it takes to get the Carney family to release a statement absolving the group of Seamus’ murder.

That’s a lot of plot and a lot of characters—21 actors take a bow at the curtain call—but Butterworth, who based the play on the real-life disappearance of the uncle of his life partner Laura Donnelly (she also reprises her Olivier Award-winning portrayal of Caitlin) weaves it altogether in thrillingly satisfying fashion.

In fact the play serves as a master class in theatrical storytelling. Butterworth is superb with language, be it the colloquial braggadocio of a group of teen boys trying to act older and wiser than they are or the poetic musings of the elderly aunt who lives in the past but can foretell the future.

He’s equally adept with plotting. Not a word in this nearly three-and-a-half-hour play is wasted. A seemingly random conversation about a radio program tells us everything we need to know about the characters having it. A funny scene with a live rabbit in Act I foreshadows devastating consequences in Act III.  

His brilliant script is brought to life by an equally brilliant cast lead by Donnelly and Paddy Considine who originated the roles of Caitlin and Quinn at London’s Royal Court Theatre, but everyone, down to a real-life baby (click here to read about the infants who share the role) is pitch perfect.

And the vibrant direction of Sam Mendes (click here to read a profile of him) fills the stage with movement, music and an underlying menace, subtly echoed in Nick Powell’s soundscape, Peter Mumford’s lighting and the slightly askew farmhouse that set designer Rob Howell has created.

The play is long, the authentic-sounding accents can at times be difficult to understand and a few naysayers have accused the play of indulging in stereotypes (click here to read one such objection) but I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a theater so exhilarated by what I'd just seen that I wanted to turn around and go right back in to see the whole thing all over again.

Alas, I didn’t feel that way when I left the Golden Theatre after seeing The Waverly Gallery. This is the third of the plays Lonergan wrote in the ‘90s to get a star-studded Broadway production over the last four years. I was so taken with last spring’s revival of Lobby Hero (click here for my review of that), that I was really looking forward to this one, especially because some critics have called it Lonergan’s masterwork.  

Lonergan has called the play his most personal because it’s based on the experiences he had with his grandmother who operated an art gallery in Greenwich Village in the 1970s until she began to suffer from dementia, forcing him and his mother to make tough decisions about the best way to care for her and to deal with the gallery that had become the main focus of her life.

Waverly Gallery ran for just 70 performances in 2000 but Eileen Heckart picked up the Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Obie and Outer Critics Circle awards for her portrayal of the declining Gladys Green. This time out, Elaine May, returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in 57 years, is destined to make a similar sweep. 

May, herself a comparatively youthful 86, turns in a performance that is heartbreaking in both its emotional and physical truthfulness as her Gladys becomes frailer, and more fearful about what is happening to her, in each scene.

There is also strong work from Joan Allen as her daughter and Lucas Hedges as her grandson (click here to read an interview with him).  And yet the play failed to move me. Maybe it’s because there have been so many books, movies and plays (including the devastating The Father) about the ravages of dementia since Lonergan wrote The Waverly Gallery that the material seemed overly familiar. 

Or maybe it’s because of the distracting directorial and design choices that Lila Neugebauer, a usually deft director, has made in her Broadway debut. Long pauses between each scene to allow stagehands to change the sets broke the momentum of the storytelling and sucked the energy out of the whole enterprise.

Meanwhile, the video projections of scenes from the Village in earlier years that Neugebauer and projection designer Tal Yarden chose to show during those intervals quickly grew monotonous and had very little to do with the plot.

But I’m in the minority on this one.  The Waverly Gallery has drawn raves. People who usually dismiss plays that deal with social issues, have touted this one. Perhaps that’s because the issue of aging directly affects most critics (older folks) and Broadway theatergoers (also older folks).

I’m no spring chicken myself. I’ve seen elderly loved ones lose both their physical and mental abilities.  And my own mortality is peeping around the corner. But I like to think none of that would matter and I’d still be moved if there were truly a great play. After all, I’m not Irish and I was knocked out by The Ferryman.

November 17, 2018

Why It's Radical to Let Girls (Of Color) Just Be Girls in "Good Grief" and "Usual Girls"

Something radical is happening on New York stages this season. It’s mainly taking place off-Broadway and it’s largely being driven by women of color who have written that most traditional of forms, a memory play about coming of age.

What’s radical about that, you ask?  Here’s what: these stories aren’t set in the inner city or some ethnic enclave and their primary focus isn’t on how badly white people have treated black, brown, yellow or red people. Instead, these are stories about middle-class kids growing up in the suburbs and struggling to figure out who they are, who they love and how to navigate the world. And the truly impressive thing is that they’re doing it without losing touch with their cultural roots, which only serves to enrich these plays all the more.

Two worthwhile examples of this phenomenon are Ngozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief, which ends its turn at the Vineyard Theatre this weekend and Ming Peiffer’s Usual Girls, which is playing in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s small black box theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center through Dec. 23. Both productions have flaws but each is daring us to look at the young women at the center of these stories in a different way than theater usually views young women who look like them.

The young woman at the center of Good Grief is Nkechi, a Nigerian-American teenager whom we first see in the ‘90s, growing up in affluent Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the black population is tiny and she’s falling for her best friend MJ, a mixed-race kid whose good looks make him popular with all the girls and who is played here by the charismatic Bruno Mars-lookalike Ian Quinlan.

To Nkechi’s delight, MJ falls in love with her too and when, early in the 90-minute play, she loses him when he dies in a car crash, her grief is so overwhelming that she resists all the efforts to ease her pain offered by her physician parents, adoring older brother or JD, the white guy who has had a crush on her since grade school and who is played by TV hunk Hunter Parrish.

The playwright herself, a dark-skinned woman with long black braids and an athletic build, plays Nkechi and it took me a moment to realize how rare it was for someone who looks like her to be the main object of desire, as opposed to the thin, fair-skinned, whiter featured black women who usually get such roles onstage and onscreen regardless of whether the writers and directors are white or black.

So Anyanwu’s mere presence is a radical statement (click here to read an interview with the playwright) but also is the fact that her character’s parents are well-educated immigrants, who love their child and draw on both the traditions of their native homeland (which allows the production to include African dance and bits of magical realism) and the contemporary options of their adopted home country (which offers opportunities for the play’s humorous psychobabble exchanges) to comfort her. We don’t see people like them onstage often enough either.

Nor do we see people like Kyeoung, the young Korean-American woman whose story Usual Girls follows over three decades, beginning on an elementary school playground in the ‘80s, where she is the only non-white kid in her suburban town. Some kids taunt Kyeoung because of the shape of her eyes but the real problem for her is that she’s an innately sensual girl in a world that privileges male sexuality.

Through the years, Kyeoung and her friends have experiences that encourage them to be sexual (grade school boys daring them to exchange a kiss; later older boys demanding blow jobs) and then punish them when they act on those feelings.

By the time Kyeoung’s in her teens, boys are taunting her with ignorantly racist remarks about Asian women having differently shaped vaginas. But all the girls are under relentless attack and in their confusion, they turn on one another or find ways to retreat by becoming less individualistic, identifying themselves through the men they hook up with or indulging in pathologies ranging from bulimia to drugs.

What keeps this play from being a downer is Peiffer’s sharp ear for dialog, much of it laugh-out-loud funny (click here to read a similarly entertaining interview with her) and the performances lead by Midori Francis’ fearless portrayal of Kyeoung, who may blame herself for bad dates that descend into date rape but finds the inner strength to resist being defined by those encounters.

The rest of the cast is terrific too. In fact the five actresses portraying revolving groups of Kyeoung’s friends were so good (particularly a standout Abby Corrigan as her quirky best friend Anna) that I was stunned when so relatively few people came out for the curtain call.

With the exception of the racist remarks, Kyeoung’s story could be that of any middle-class girl growing up in Middle America over the last few decades. And that’s the whole point. Korean-Americans, Nigerian-Americans, Muslim-Americans aren’t exotic or obsessed with being other; they’re just people and it’s gratifying to see them portrayed that way onstage.

It’s also gratifying that theaters are beginning to realize they should do that. Just this week, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company announced that it had compiled a list of 208 plays that “feature a mix of diverse central characters who resist simple categorization and lead richly textured lives as they navigate a complex world.” 
They’re calling their list “The Mix” and making it available to companies everywhere. Seeing all kinds of people of color onstage in all kinds of ways would cease to be radical, and maybe become normal, if a whole bunch of them got staged.