September 22, 2018

An "Uncle Vanya" That's Truly Stuck in a Rut

Just like the rest of us, theater makers can fall into ruts and end up doing the same thing over and over. That's what happened to John Doyle who repeated his conceit of having actors play their own instruments in the musicals he directed until the idea went from sublime (for some people, albeit never for me) to tiresome.  

It's also happened to playwright Richard Nelson, whose go-to is putting a group of actors around a table where they eat some real food and whine about the unfairness of life. That's what Nelson, who likes to direct his own work, did with the cycle of Apple Family plays that ran at the Public Theater between 2010 and 2013 and The Gabriels trilogy, which played there in 2016. And now he's doing it with a new adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya that opened this week at the Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College.

Some people loved the extreme naturalism of Nelson's family plays but I bailed on the Apples midway through their saga and passed entirely on the Gabriels. I can't say I'm all that happy with Nelson's treatment of Chekhov's clan either. Although I can see what probably drew him to them (click here to read about his adaptation process).

Like most of Chekhov's plays, Uncle Vanya is set on a country estate where a group of aristocrats, their relatives, retainers and other hangers-on sit around and bemoan their lives. In this case, the place is owned by Alexander Serebryakov, a retired art professor who has lived for years in the city but has returned to the rural estate he inherited from his long-deceased first wife with his much younger new wife Elena.

Managing the estate while the professor has been away have been Sonya, his grown daughter by his first marriage, and Vanya, his middle-aged former brother-in-law. Their most frequent guest has been Astrov, the perpetually disgruntled local doctor on whom Sonya has a not-so-secret crush.

Conflicts arise when both Astrov and Vanya fall for Elena and, separately, when Alexander decides to sell the estate so that he can afford to move back to the more exciting life of the city even though such a sale will upend the lives of Sonya and Vanya.

But, as with so much of Chekhov, the true drama occurs in the subtext, in the silences between the lines and on the faces of the actors playing the roles. And so the problems with this production began for me with the idea to stage the play in the round, which meant that I often couldn't see the expressions on the actors' faces because they were turned away from me even though I was sitting in good seats that had been reserved for critics.

It also doesn't help that Nelson has the actors speak without any attempt to project their voices. This, like the decision to outfit them in contemporary leisurewear, is in keeping with his low-key aesthetic but it struck me as a stage version of Mumblecore, those indie films that are so hell-bent on being natural that they often forget to be dramatic—or entertaining. 

Jesse Pennington's apathetic spin on Astrov encapsulates that aesthetic but it was particularly off-putting to me because it conveyed little of the self-flagellating contempt with which the character views himself—and that makes him catnip to the women around him.

The one bright spot is Jay O. Sanders' sympathetic portrayal of Vanya. The burly actor was a mainstay of both the Apple and Gabriels plays and seems to have figured out how to be faithful to his director's understated approach without sacrificing the heightened emotion called for when Vanya realizes the futility of both the dreams he has nurtured and the sacrifices he's made.  

This Vanya is the debut production of the Hunter Theater Project, a new initiative designed to make theater more accessible and affordable. By cutting some scenes and a couple of characters, Nelson and his co-translators have brought the play down to under two intermissionless hours. And tickets are just $37 for general admission and $15 for students.

Still if, by chance, you've never seen Uncle Vanya this isn't the one you should begin with. And you probably won't have to wait long before another production comes along because artistic directors can get in ruts too. This is the fourth major production of the play I've seen in just the past nine years.

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.