October 21, 2017

Moments Linger in "Time and the Conways"

The word sentimental has become one of the deepest insults you can hurl at a play. But I don't mind a bit of sentimentality if it's done well. And although the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways has some flaws (most notably the shaky British accents by a mainly American cast) it's being done very well.

The play, which moves back and forth between two time periods, is one of a series of works that Priestly wrote to explore philosopher John William Dunne's idea that the past, present and future are all happening simultaneously even if our human minds can only grasp time as a linear concept.

In equal parts a family drama, a comedy of manners and a metaphysical meditation, Time and the Conways begins in 1919, shortly after World War I has ended. Its protagoinists are the Conways, a large upper class family of four daughters and two sons, headed by their recently widowed mother who is eager to put grief behind her and celebrate all the glorious possibilities ahead for her children. 

As the play opens in the weakest of its three acts, the family is celebrating the 21st birthday of Kay, the sister with writerly aspirations, and the return home from the army of family golden boy Robin. Most of the festivities occur offstage but we do get to meet various would-be love interests for the siblings.

They include the flirty neighbor Joan who catches the eye of both Robin and his less glittery older brother Alan; a young lawyer named Gerald who shares a desire to do good in the world with the family socialist Madge; and Ernest, an outsider with working-class roots who looks up to the Conways, especially the family beauty Hazel, but who is looked down on by all of them, except for the youngest sister Carol.

That's a lot of characters and a lot of storylines and Priestley, who has bigger things on his mind, only sketches them in. But the play—and especially this production—gets going in the second act, which flashes forward to 1937, just before Britain is about to enter World War II and as the Conways are forced to reckon with the choices they've made over the decades. 

Their disappointments are made all the more painful by the third act, which returns to 1919. But the play not only moves back and forth in time but also breaks the fourth wall as two characters find themselves lost in a time warp and struggling to make sense of the recondite themes that most intrigued Priestley.

All of this was no doubt quite heady when Time and the Conways was first staged in London in 1937 and later for a very brief run on Broadway in 1938. It's less provocative nowadays when fractured narratives in TV shows like "Mr. Robot" and novels like Emily Fridlund's "The History of Wolves" are so commonplace, but the play's underlying themes of dashed dreams and the compromises that life demands remain relevant.

Director Rebecca Taichman, fresh from her Tony win for helming Indecent, doesn't shy away from the sentimentality of what happens to the Conways but she and—accents aside—her top-flight cast give each storyline a poignant clarity (click here to read an interview with the director).

Elizabeth McGovern, now best known as the mother on TV's "Downton Abbey," gets the final bow for portraying the more self-centered matriarch of the Conway clan but the always-amazing Gabriel Ebert gives a quietly sympathetic performance that turns the awkward sibling Alan into the emotional center of the play.

Still, the true star of this production is Neil Patel's set, which, aided by Christopher Akerlind's delicate lighting, underscores Dunne's concepts about the confluence of time with an elegant coup d'theatre that truly makes the case that we are all haunted by the past.

October 14, 2017

"Tiny Beautiful Things" is Too Small for Me

Sometimes you need to just follow your gut when it comes to deciding whether or not to see a show.  My gut told me Tiny Beautiful Things wouldn't be for me. But I wanted to see this staged adaptation of the personal advice column Sheryl Strayed wrote because the word of mouth about it was so good. Turns out my gut was right.

Not that my gut should keep you away. Strayed has a big following. Her memoir “Wild,” an account of the solo pilgrimage she made from the Mojave Desert in California to the Bridge of the Gods, the natural dam in Washington State, was a bestseller, an Oprah Book Club selection and the basis for the 2014 film in which Reese Witherspoon portrayed the young Strayed.

But Strayed may be best known and most loved for the pep talks she wrote under the pen name Dear Sugar. Her responses to people’s questions about love, loneliness and the meaning of life were poetic and often very personal.

Nia Vardalos (the creator and star of the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and Thomas Kail (director of the theatrical phenomenon Hamilton) have turned Strayed's affirmations into a 75-minute play that had such a successful workshop production at the Public Theater last winter that it’s now been moved into the Public’s large Newman theater space (click here to read more about the genesis of the production).

There's no narrative. Instead, three actors, eschewing any allegiance to ethnicity or gender, play a variety of letter writers and recite the contents of their queries. Then Vardalos as Strayed shares both the writer's wisdom and the experiences (the death of her beloved mother, an early divorce, a struggle with heroin addiction) through which she earned it.

Kail moves everyone nicely around Rachel Hauck's homey set but I got antsy after the first 15-minutes. That’s partly because I’m not big on the pop psychology that gets peddled in most advice columns. But it’s also because most of the show's dialog sounds like the kind of aphorisms you might find on posters at your local yoga studio. There’s even some deep breathing.

But that’s just me. Most of the folks at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended seemed enraptured.  And the show has been extended through Dec. 10. So the decision about whether you should see it is up to you—and your gut.

October 7, 2017

The Latest News About "Broadway & Me"

Regular readers may have noticed that I haven't been posting as often as I usually do. But that doesn't mean I haven't been seeing shows and having thoughts about them. In fact, I seem to be doing more of that than ever. It's just that I've been doing it in different places and now I want to share some of that with you. 

I didn't get the chance to write about Suzan-Lori Park's The Red Letter Plays, which are now coming to the ends of their runs at Signature Theatre. Both plays were inspired by "The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel about a woman ostracized by her 17th century Puritan community for having a child out of wedlock, and by the more contemporary disgrace of income inequality. Director Jo Bonney's production of Fucking A, a Brechtian piece in which the letter stigmatizes the local abortionist, worked best for me largely because of its brilliant cast which included Christine Lahti, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joaquina Kalukango and Marc Kudisch. But there are also moments to recommend in Sarah Benson's more absurdist take on In the Blood, in which the letter is the only part of the alphabet recognized by a poor illiterate mother struggling to care for her six illegitimate children. You can hear my thoughts about both on the Sept. 17 episode of "This Week on Broadway" in which I filled in for podcast regular Peter Filichia by clicking here.

I'm a longtime fan of Amy Herzog's work and her latest play Mary Jane is running at New York Theatre Workshop through Oct. 29 with Carrie Coon giving a quietly devastating performance as a single mom caring for a severely ill child. The production is directed by Anne Kauffman who collaborated for the sixth time with the up-and-coming designer Laura Jellinek to create a set that captures the hermetic world in which the mother and child exist—and which I discussed with Jellinek for a story that ran in "TDF Stages" and which you can find here.

And just this week, I saw Too Heavy for Your Pocket, an affecting new play set against the backdrop of the Freedom Rides in 1961. It opened in the Roundabout Theatre's Underground space Thursday night and marks the New York debut of Jiréh Breon Holder, who won this year's Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for emerging playwrights. I also got to interview Holder and my conversation with him marks the debut of the new BroadwayRadio podcast "Stagecraft," in which I'll be talking to playwrights and muscial book writers about their shows. I'm really excited about this new venture, already have some other fascinating writers lined up and hope you will listen in, which you can begin to do here.

Finally, you may have heard that I've also been invited to be one of the guest co-hosts on the long-running TV series "TheatreTalk." It's all adding up to a busy and exciting theater season for me and I hope to continue sharing it with all of you in all those places and, of course, right here.

September 30, 2017

"Charm" Celebrates Gender Fluidity

It's hard not to be charmed by Charm, the new play about a 67-year-old transgender woman who offers etiquette lessons to underprivileged and gender-fluid youths. For everyone associated with this MCC Theater production—playwright Philip Dawkins, director Will Davis and the gender-diverse cast led by Sandra Caldwell—is earnestly committed to doing and saying the right thing. The result is sentimental—but inspirational too.

The play itself, or at least its first act, was inspired by the experiences of Miss Gloria Allen, a now 73-year-old transgender woman who has lived her true identity since she was 19, mentored homeless youths at Chicago's LGBTQ center and been described as a blend of RuPaul and Auntie Mame (click here to read more about her and the show's genesis).

But, as though he were one of her students, Dawkins takes a decorous approach to Allen's story that not only beatifies his subject but makes her fictional stand-in Mama Darleena Andrews less colorful than the real woman seems to be.

And while the students in the play's class are a span-the-gamut mix of rainbow ethnicities, identities ranging from the gender proud to the gender confused and social backgrounds that include a rich kid seeking a safe place to figure out who he is and a homeless teen who supports herself by working the streets as a prostitute, there's a polite quality to all of them too.

They're all looking for love and affirmation and Dawkins gives each of them the chance to act out a bit. But they too easily buy into Mama Darleena's anachronistic ideas about the right way to eat, sit and conform to conventional rules about the way men and women (transgender or cisgender) should behave.

In fact, the play's best conflict is between Mama and D, the gender-non-conforming director of the center who has a more contemporary view on what it means to be a trans person. 

That should be drama enough but in the second act, Dawkins mixes in jealousies and rivalries that eventually threaten the future of the etiquette program and Mama Dareleena's very life. Then he quickly whirls through resolutions to these problems as though they were plot points on a TV procedural.

Yet, it's still great to see a story about transgender people that isn't unrelentingly depressing or sad but is instead upbeat and celebratory. That's due, in part to the substantial transgender presence on the creative team, starting with Davis, the artistic director of Chicago's American Theatre Company and the first acknowledged transgender person to lead a mainstream theatre company in this country (click here to read more about him).

Davis actively recruited transgender actors to be a part of his cast. Their abilities vary but, under Davis' steady hand, they all bring authenticity and obvious delight to the roles they play. And the production really lucked out with Caldwell, a longtime actress who was moved to come out as transgender by the opportunity to be in this play (click here to read an interview with her).

Caldwell is warm and funny as she delivers the snappy lines Dawkins has written for Mama Darleena but she also imbues the role with a gravitas hewn from her own experiencces of what it has been like to live as a trans person in this society. 

Charm, which is running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through Oct. 15, isn't a great play but, particularly in these tolerance-testing times, it's one worth seeing and cheering on.

September 23, 2017

"The Violin" Plays an Old-Fashioned Tune

The instrument that gives The Violin its title is what the film director Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin, a plot device to provide some momentum for what in this play, which opened at the 59E59 Theaters this week, is really a character study of three lost souls.

They are Bobby, a twentysomething petty crook; Terry, his slow-witted younger brother and Giovanni, a middle-aged tailor who has been a surrogate father to the brothers since their parents were killed by local mobsters when they were still boys and their Lower East Side neighborhood had yet to gentrify.

As the play opens, Terry has just quit his job as a cab driver and brought home a violin case someone left in the backseat. Inside they find an 18th century Stradivarius which Bobby believes can be ransomed for a six-figure fee from its owner. 

Gio, as the brothers call the tailor, initially wants nothing to do with the extortion scheme but is gradually seduced into it. I hope it's no spoiler to say that their plan goes awry.

But even the conspiracy is another MacGuffin. For what really interests playwright Dan McCormick are the ways in which we define family and the obligations we owe—and should be able to demand from—those we love.

These are familiar themes and there's a thrown-back quality to director Joseph Discher's production too. In dress, mannerisms and dems-and-dese speech, all three men would be right at home in an Elia Kazan-era melodrama. Even Gio's antiquated tailor shop looks as though it's been left over from the Eisenhower Administration. 

And the dramaturgy—dependent on anguished soliloquies about unrequited dreams and not-so-surprising revelations about the past—is a little timeworn too.

But despite all this, my husband K and I had a good time. And that's largely due to the committed performances from Peter Bradbury, Kevin Isola and most especially Robert LuPone, the co-artistic director of MCC Theatre who hasn't been onstage since 2001 (click here to read an interview with him) but seems happy to be back.They all chomp a bit on the scenery but it's fun to watch them do it.

September 16, 2017

"For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday" is a Gift for Theater Lovers Ready to Grow Up

Ever since a friend died earlier this summer at the relatively young age of 62, I've been preoccupied with death. So For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, Sarah Ruhl's warm-hearted meditation on mortality which opened at Playwrights Horizons this week, really hit my sweet spot, even if most critics are sour on the show (click here for those reviews).

Although the play runs just 90 minutes, it's a triptych that moves from a deathbed, to the quotidian rituals of mourning to the reluctant acknowledgement that some day we too must die.

Ruhl has said that she wrote the play as a present for her mother, an occasional actress whose favorite role was playing the character Peter Pan, who famously never wants to grow old.  (Click here to read more about its origins). 

Ann, the central character in the play, is one of the five siblings who sit vigil in a hospital room as their aged father dies. She's also the odd duck in her Iowa-raised clan, an early widow who has raised a child on her own and lost a little of her faith unlike her still-married and pious sister, gotten a degree later in life than her doctor brothers and still cherishes the memory of appearing as the title character in her high school production of Peter Pan.

As Ann and her brothers and sister grieve their beloved father, they hold a wake, complete with Irish whiskey, and retell old stories about the past and share their thoughts about what death and the afterlife may bring, from the nihilism of nothingness to the comforting spiritualism of ever-present ghosts, to the whimsy of a Neverland where life and youth are eternal.

Director Les Waters has assembled a top-notch cast to spin this tale. David Chandler, Lisa Emery, Daniel Jenkins and Keith Reddin are lovely as Ann's siblings whose lives have taken them to different parts of the country and down disparate philosophical paths but whose love for one another binds them together. Ron Crawford is particularly affecting as their dad.

But this production had me from the moment I learned that Ann would be played by Kathleen Chalfant, an actor who seems incapable of giving less than a brilliant performance. Here she soars again, and in more ways than one as she grounds the character in a determined optimism and literally takes to the air as Ann assumes her Peter Pan personae.

As my theatergoing buddy Bill and I left the theater, I overhead some audience members grumbling that the show, particularly the wake part, had been too slow. But it seemed just right to me, calling to mind the times that sitting with other mourners and sharing old stories had brought comfort when I lost someone.  

I hate audience participation but when, evoking a moment in J.M. Barrie's original play, we were asked to clap so that Peter could live, I slapped my hands together as hard as I could. 

This is the second Playwrights Horizons production this year, following Adam Bock's A Life, to deal head-on with the subject of death but Ruhl's wry humor keeps For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday from being depressing. Instead it's a reminder that the best way to face death may be with a defiant smile. 

September 9, 2017

A Female-Focused Fall Theater Preview

Experience has taught me that I'm a terrible prognosticator. So many of the shows I get all worked up about at the beginning of a theater season end up disappointing me. And then shows that I'm kind of ho-hum about when I first hear or read about them turn out to be some of my all-time faves. Yet, I can't resist looking ahead and thinking about what's to come this fall. And this year, the thing that pleases me the most (and that will continue to do so regardless of what I eventually think about the shows) is the presence of female directors at the helm of some of the most anticipated productions of this fall season:

M. Butterfly directed by JULIE TAYMOR. Playwright David Henry Hwang explored cultural and gender stereotypes in this mash-up of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and the real-life story of a French diplomat who fell for a Chinese opera star who seduced him into betraying his country before he discovered that his lover was actually a man masquerading as a woman. The original 1988 production won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Best Play Tony and ran for over two years. Now Taymor, herself a Tony winner for The Lion King, now in its 20th year, is directing M. Butterfly's first Broadway revival. That's exciting enough but the production will also mark Taymor's first return to Broadway since she was infamously fired from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. M. Butterfly's themes seem more up Taymor's alley and like most avid theatergoers, I'm eager to see how she will use the music, dance, puppets and Asian theater techniques she loves to make it her own. The play, which will star Clive Owen and Jin Ha as the mismatched lovers, is scheduled to open at the Cort Theatre Oct. 26.

The Parisian Woman directed by PAM MACKINNON. Set in contemporary Washington, this new comedy of manners centers around a woman who tries to get her lover to help her husband get a high-level position in the government. Beau Willimon, the creator of the Netflix series "House of Cards," specializes in political satire and he based his play on the similarly-named 19th century political drama by the French playwright Henry François Becque. MacKinnon, who won a Tony for directing the 2013 revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, knows how to wrangle strong female characters and the strong actors who play them. This time out she'll be working with Uma Thurman, who has played lots of tough women in movies but will be making her Broadway debut. The supporting cast includes Blair Brown, Phillipa Soo and Josh Lucas. The show is set to make its world premiere at the Hudson Theatre on Nov. 30.

SpongeBob SquarePants directed by TINA LANDAU. I've got to be honest and say that I have my doubts about this one but the word-of-mouth has been surprisingly good for this musical version of the animated TV show about the titular sea creature and his oddball friends who live in an underwater town called Bikini Bottom. The musical also features an oddball score of original songs by a boatload of major contemporary songwriters including Susan Bareilles, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum and David Bowie. Just the fact that they all wanted to be involved in this project makes me want to see it. But the show's ultimate success will rest on the shoulders of Landau, who is not only directing SpongeBob but conceived the musical and has nurtured what's being touted as a paean to tolerance and acceptance of others through a tryout in Chicago last year and soon onto the stage at the legendary Palace Theatre, where the good-natured parazoan and his pals are scheduled to open on Dec. 4

Time and the Conways directed by REBECCA TAICHMAN. Fresh off her Tony win for the luminous Indecent, which marked her Broadway debut, Taichman is now leading a revival of J. B. Priestley's 1937 drama about the changing fortunes of an upper-class British family. The play is part family saga, part allegory about Britain between the World Wars and a meditation on the metaphysics of time. The versatile Taichman directed a well-received production of the play at the Old Globe in San Diego last year. In this Roundabout Theatre production, the family matriarch will be played by Elizabeth McGovern, returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in 25 years but already conditioned for the part by her turn as the mistress of the house for six seasons on "Downton Abbey." McGovern, along with a nine-member supporting cast that includes the always-watchable Gabriel Ebert and Stephen Boyer, will open The Conways at the American Airlines Theatre on  Oct. 10.