February 16, 2019

Celebrating a Dozen Years of B&Me

As longtime readers know, I started this blog on Feb. 14, 2007, and so every year, I get to observe Valentine’s Day by celebrating the big loves of my life: my husband K (we had a great dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, although I may have overindulged on the Cosmopolitans) and seeing theater and writing about it here. So I’m taking time out to toast 12 years of doing the latter.

The last 12 months have been really great. I saw some terrific shows and I got to talk to several of the playwrights who created them for the “Stagecraft” podcast I do for BroadwayRadio (you can check out those interviews by clicking here). 

And I got to talk to other theater makers for stories I wrote for American Theatre magazine (click here to read that piece) Broadway News (click here for this one) and TDFStages (click here for it).

I also had the honor of being elected to the executive committee of the Outer Critics Circle and to the American Theatre Critics Association, for whom I moderated a panel at last fall’s New York conference whose timely theme was “Beyond Straight White Men: Diversity on Page and Stage.”

But all of that began here, with this blog. And I am so grateful to those of you who've been reading these posts over the past dozen years and to those of you who might be visiting for the first time today. 

My calendar is already filling up with all kinds of promising shows and I hope all of you will stick around so that I look can share my thoughts about them with you in the coming year. In the meantime, a belated Happy Valentine's Day and, of course, happy theatergoing too.

February 9, 2019

"God Said This" is Quietly Eloquent

The only thing I didn’t like about Leah Nanako Winkler’s play God Said This is its all-purpose title which seems too generic for this simultaneously very specific and totally universal drama about a fractured family struggling to come together as its matriarch battles cancer.

The daughter of a Japanese mother and a white father, the play’s protagonist Hiro grew up in Kentucky but has made a life in New York City where she has distanced herself from a troubled childhood that included the alcoholism of her father, the acquiescence to domestic abuse by her mother and her younger sister's attempt to find refuge from it all in an early marriage and her evangelical faith. All these circumstances collide when her mother's worsening condition causes Hiro to return home.

Granted all this is the stuff from which Lifetime movies get made but Winkler, herself a transplanted southerner and the daughter of interracial parents (click here to read more about her), wrote the play during her own mother’s chemotherapy sessions and it pulses with an authenticity and a generosity of spirit steeped in that lived experience. 

And although laced with wry humor, God Said This also dares to ponder serious questions about what it means to live a good life or to have a good death. In the process, the play admirably manages to sidestep every conventional trope it encounters.

The white guy from high school that Hiro hooks up with during her visit home isn’t a good-ole-boy redneck. Sophie’s born-again faith isn’t ridiculed. And the women’s ethnicity isn’t the determining factor in their identity. What we get instead is just recognizable people who, like all of us, are just doing what they can to play the cards life has dealt them.

The result isn’t the kind of genre-pushing play that gets critics cheering (only a half dozen middling reviews can be found on the aggregation site Show Score) but God Said This is a fresh riff on an old standard and it's easy to see why it won last year’s Yale Prize for Drama, awarded annually to an emerging playwright (check here to read about that).

This Primary Stages production directed by Morgan Gould offers a lovely showcase for the play, filled with entertaining performances, especially from Tom Coiner as the high school friend and Ako as the mother. It’s running at the Cherry Lane Theater only through Feb. 15 17 but if you can, you should see it.

February 2, 2019

“Eddie and Dave” Has Little to Say—or Sing

One of the questions I often ask myself after seeing a new show is: why are the show makers telling me this story?  
I haven’t been able to figure out the answer to that question for Eddie and Dave, the bio-play about the rise and fall of the rock band Van Halen that is running at the Atlantic Theater Stage Two through Feb. 17.

Maybe it would have helped if I were a Gen-Xer who grew up with the band during its big-hair heyday from the late ‘70s to the mid-‘80s. But I doubt it. Cause Eddie and Dave is little more than a shallow “Behind the Music”-style account of the drugs, sex and rock and roll that undid the partnership between Eddie Van Halen, the shy lead guitarist and principal songwriter for the eponymous band; and David Lee Roth, its flamboyant vocalist.

Playwright Amy Staats is clearly unabashed in her love for the band and she attempts to draw the audience in by framing her homage to it as a mystery that will reveal what lead to Roth’s infamous (at least to his fans) meltdown during a failed band reunion on the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards. But (spoiler alert) that question isn’t really answered either. We get what happened but not why.

Nor, probably for budgetary reasons, do we get much of the band's music. There are snatches here and there, including the familiar opening chords of the group’s biggest hit “Jump.” But the rest is mainly pastiche music from composer Michael Thurber, setting up the odd phenomenon of a riff on the standard jukebox musical that offers lots of juke but little authentic music.

But the thing that really sets Eddie and Dave apart from the recent rash of rock biographies around is that all the male characters are portrayed by women, including Staats as Eddie, Megan Hill as Dave and Adina Verson as Dave’s older brother and the group’s drummer Alex (bassist Michael Anthony is inexplicably portrayed by a photo on the wall). The female characters are played by one man, Omer Abbas-Salem, who is clearly having a great time but projects none of the sweet-faced optimism of the actress Valerie Bertinelli who began a 26-year marriage with Eddie in 1981.

Hair designer Cookie Jordan’s long mullet wigs and costume designer Montana Levi Blance’s heavy metal-chic outfits are amusing but neither the actual performances nor the narration supplied by a music journalist character provide any fresh commentary on what it means to be a rock star or a man and the gender-crossing conceit quickly wears thin. 

Despite Margot Bordelon’s lively direction my mind kept wandering even though the show only runs 90-minutes. By the end, Eddie and Dave seemed little more than a comedy skit that had overstayed its welcome and might have been more at home on the bill of some Lilith Fair version of a fringe festival.  

January 26, 2019

"The Convent" in Uninspiring

The Convent, the new play by Jessica Dickey, is like a mashup of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds about a disparate group of people trying to find themselves on a spiritual retreat, and Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which starts off with an imaginary dinner party attended by famous women from history. Alas, this new work, now playing at The A.R.T./New York Theatres thru Feb. 17, is nowhere near as good as either.

And that saddens me because I had been a great fan of Dickey’s debut play The Amish Project, which is not only a sensitive recreation of the 2006 slaughter of five young girls in a one-room Amish school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but a rare theatrical meditation on the grace of faith (click here to read my review of that one).

Faith plays a role in the new play too. Dickey says she wrote it during a period of emotional upheaval in her own life (click here to read more about that) and this time out, she places a group of contemporary women of various ages and personality types at a retreat in a medieval convent in the south of France, where they ditch their cellphones, don peasant gowns and seek inspiration from the lives of female saints like Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen as they try to sort through the problems in their lives.

The convent is led by a sixtysomething woman called the Mother Abbess (Wendy vanden Heuvel) who hands out Oprahesque platitudes and hallucinogenic-spiked drinks to help the process along. It’s not a bad premise but the plot gets hijacked when a rebellious woman (Samantha Soule) shows up at the convent, flouting its rules, flirting with the other participants and dropping heavy hints that she knows secrets that could create additional havoc, even though the eventual revelation is hardly a surprise.

Meanwhile, each of the other women strikes the one note the play has assigned her—the ditzy free spirit, the good-girl high achiever, the innocent naïf, the repressed do-gooder and, in the sole novel twist, a nun who’s lost her faith—over and over again. They’re not given much in the way of motivation or backstory but each gets the chance to chew the tapestry and under Daniel Talbott’s lax direction, they gnaw away to varying effect.

The one saving grace for this production is the set by scenic designer Raul Abrego who seats the audience on opposite sides of a transverse and then projects images created by Katherine Freer on large screens at either end to simulate the chapel, refectory and gardens of the cloister. Their work sparks a sense of wonder that the play itself only aspires to.