February 18, 2017

"Man From Nebraska" Doesn't Go Anywhere

Tickets for Man from Nebraska sold out almost as soon as Second Stage Theatre put them on sale. That's because the show was written by Tracy Letts (a Pulitzer Prize-winner for August: Osage County) is directed by David Cromer (who master-minded the redefining revivals of Adding Machine and Our Town) and stars Reed Birney (the winner of last year's Tony for his performance in The Humans).

And so like every other self-respecting theater fanatic, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I pounced on tickets the moment we could. I'm happy that we did. Although not as happy as I thought I would be.

Man from Nebraska, a Pulitzer Prize finalist first produced by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company back in 2003, starts off as a story about a crisis of faith when a devout churchgoer named Ken discovers that he no longer believes in God.

Ken's pastor suggests that a break from the routines of his daily life may give him the time and space he needs to restore his faith. And so Ken sets off to, of all places, London.

Once there, he engages in a variety of behaviors he's never tried before, from drinking and casual sex to taking up with the black bartender at his hotel (he's never known anyone black before he tells her) and her flatmate a sculptor who introduces Ken to the power of art.

The specificity of the locale (again, why London?) and the characters suggest that Letts may be recounting a personal story that happened to him or someone he knew (click here to read more about the playwright).

Or maybe Letts intended Ken's journey to be an update on the classic Everyman pilgrimage. Whichever, the quest for God turns out to be a McGuffin and what we get instead is yet another story about a middle-class, middle-aged white guy going through a midlife crisis.

What saved it for me were the performances. Birney, with his hangdog looks and mild manner, was made for this role and he is, as always, wonderfully sympathetic.

And Annette O'Toole is even better as Ken's wife Nancy who dutifully cares for her dementia-addled mother-in-law, tries to calm the couple's high-strung adult daughter and wrestles with the fear that her husband may have left her for good.

I've seen O'Toole in three different shows over the past year and she so thoroughly transforms herself into each character she's playing that I hardly recognize her from one to the next, except that I'm always blown away by her performance.

I wasn't as wowed by Cromer's staging. When the audience walks in, all of the furniture that will be used throughout the first act is arranged at the back of the stage and as the scenes change from one to the other, a small army of black-clad stage hands move pieces into place.

I kept wondering if things might have been easier and worked better if the set had been more impressionistic in keeping with the metaphorical nature of the play itself. Although set designer Takeshi Kata does deserve kudos for a reveal in the second act that awed Ken—and me.

In keeping with the traditional hero's journey, Ken eventually returns home but the transition is abrupt and makes Man from Nebraska's ending both unbelievably tidy and unsatisfying shaggy. I suppose real life can be that way too.  But I look to the theater for a more transcendent view of it.

February 15, 2017

A Real Landmark for Broadway & Me

Yesterday was a really special day for me. Of course, it was Valentine's Day, which my much-adored husband K and I delight in celebrating. But it also marked the 10th anniversary of Broadway & Me.  

Yep, you read that right: I've been sharing my experiences with you about the shows I've seen, theater books I've read, theater podcasts I listen to, theater events I've attended and my entire obsession with theater for a full decade now.

And I'm just as excited to do it as I was back in 2007 when I followed my introductory post up with one about a little musical I saw about the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights that had been written by a then 27-year-old newcomer named Lin-Manuel Miranda (click here to read that review). 

I've loved sharing it all with you and look forward to many more years of doing it. In the meantime, I'm more grateful than I can find the words to say to those of you who subscribe to this blog, who follow me on Twitter, have befriended me on Facebook, found me on Show Score, read my Flipboard magazine, discovered B&Me by clicking on a link, Googled your way here or learned about it by old-fashioned word-of-mouth. 

Many, many thanks to all of you.

February 8, 2017

Taking Time Out For (Bad) News

News for us theater junkies usually means a new show or a major cast replacement but this still-new year has brought some events that will shake up the way that those of obsessed with theater interact with what is going on in the theater world.  So I'm taking some time out from the usual reviews to try to figure out what's going on. 

Three weeks ago, "On Stage," the cable news show that covers theater here in New York, disrupted (to use the word of the moment) its format, including ousting its longtime host and producer Donna Karger, who has been with the show since it debuted in 1998. Then this week, came word that the New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood has left the paper after serving as its No. 2 critic for 12 years.

Both developments have left me in a kind of mourning state. Which really surprises me because I wasn't a big fan of either Karger or Isherwood. But the holes they've left worry me.

Karger always seemed a nice woman but she was stiff on camera and seldom strayed from a few set phrases that she repeated each episode. She was a terrible interviewer too, reading overly-long questions from index cards that she nervously shuffled and barely listening to her guests' answers before barreling on with the next query. 

But, as my husband K observes, Karger put the spotlight on the shows and the people who made them instead of on herself.  The same can't be said for her successor Frank DiLella, who has been playing the Eve Harrington to Karger's Margot Channing for over a decade now. 

DiLella started off as an occasional contributor and then worked his way up to a show regular who often sat in for Karger when she was on vacation. He was good-looking (resembling a young Jerry Mitchell) and hard-working (he not only covered every major opening but made reporting trips to London and other theater centers, reportedly on his own dime or his rich dad's).

An unabashed fanboy, he also clearly loved the segments in which he dressed up and joined actors for a performance. It was sometimes silly but it provided a cute alternative to the interviews and reviews that made up the rest of the show. But last month, Karger disappeared with no explanation, DiLella took over and the show is now nothing but silliness. 

Over the past three weeks, DiLella, the show's chief critic Roma Torre and a couple of contributors have hopped around to different Broadway hangouts such as Chez Josephine and  54 Below and pretended to run into the guests lined up for the show. Torre's reviews have been shortened and corny stunts like gossip from a shadowy masked figure (maybe DiLella himself?) have been added. 

Lost in all the hoopla is any true sense of what recent and upcoming shows are about or what their creators and stars have to say about them. I wouldn't mind so much if "On Stage" weren't one of the only sources of theater news on TV. 

It's as though a nourishing, if predictable, meal has been replaced with a big bowl of Marshmallow Fluff.  I really do hope the network execs are reading the chat room comments about the changes cause they're even more harsh than I've been.

And now onto the news about Isherwood. His taste (he chastised his fellow critics, the public and the Tony nominating committee for not liking Will Eno's abstruse play The Realistic Jones three years ago) and mine (I couldn't wait to get out of the theater after seeing that Eno play) seldom aligned but I appreciated Isherwood's intelligence and I hate to see anyone lose their job.

What really worried me, though, is that his departure has come in the midst of changes in cultural coverage at the Times and the threat that the paper's commitment to theater might lessen. 

We now have lots of online sites and blogs like this one that focus on theater but average theatergoers, those who see four or so shows a year, still depend on the Times. Which means that all of us who love theater do as well.

So I'm going to end this post on a positive note: the paper says it has already begun to advertise for a critic to replace Isherwood. And I don't know about you but I'm going to take what comfort I can from that.

February 4, 2017

The Acting Is Why You'll Need to See "Yen"

The Brits have such a fondness for plays about unhappy people who live in squalid settings and do unpleasant—and often violent—things to one another that they've even given the genre a name: "in-your-face theatre." 

And it was truly shocking in 1965 when a trio of young people stoned a baby to death in Edward Bond's forerunning Saved. It was equally disquieting in the '90s when young playwrights channeled their despair with Margaret Thatcher's conservative policies into plays like Sarah Kane's Blasted and Mark Ravehill's Shopping and Fucking, both of which had scenes in which one young man rapes and otherwise humiliates another. 

But nowadays, a play filled with similar aggressions can feel a little been-there-done-that. At least that's the way I felt watching Yen, the award-winning drama by the young British playwright Anna Jordan that MCC Theater opened Monday night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Yen is set in a grungy housing project apartment (kudos for the squalor to set designer Mark Wendland) where half brothers, Hench, 16, and Bobbie, 14, fend for themselves while their diabetic and drug-addicted mother is shacked up elsewhere with her latest boyfriend. 

The boys, neither of whom goes to school, spend their days playing video games, watching porn, shoplifting things to eat and failing to walk their dog Taliban. They share a foldout bed in the living room because their bedroom is filled with his waste.

The unseen dog's whelps draw the concern of Jennifer, a young newcomer from Wales who has recently moved into the project with her widowed mom. In no time, Jenny's not only bringing the dog food and taking him out for walks but looking after the boys as well. Eventually, however, the damage that neglect—and perhaps abuse—has done to the brothers overwhelms them all.

It's clear that Jordan is a talented writer but her play seems a bit too grim, not to mention predictable. Poor people do have hard lives. But hardness isn't all they have. Yet that's what we tend to get in plays about them, verging on a kind of poverty porn that allows theatergoers to feel virtuous just for watching it.  

Although in this case, I have to admit the watching is worthwhile because the acting, guided by Trip Cullman's finely calibrated direction, is uniformly superb. 

I'd expected as much from Ari Graynor, whose work I've enjoyed in the past and who is again terrific as the boys' mom. Graynor captures the jittery desperation of a woman who, despite her demons, loves her children but because of those demons isn't capable of giving them what they need.

But what's even more impressive is the fact that the actors playing the three young people, none of them is older than 21, are all making their professional stage debuts. 

Justice Smith is heartbreakingly convincing as the infantile Bobbie who literally bounces off walls when he's excited, collapses into crying jags when he's disappointed and crawls needily into his mother's lap when she makes one of her rare visits to the apartment.

Stefania LaVie Owen rings just as true as Jennifer, giving a creditable Welsh twang to her lines (in fact, everyone's accent seems spot-on) and a flintiness to the character that suggests an inner toughness that makes Jennifer more than just the girl next door (click here to read an interview with the actress).

But all eyes were on Lucas Hedges the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the play. Hedges, who is still a student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, has just been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "Manchester by the Sea" but he seems made for the stage (click here to read more about him).

Hedges' Hench is the most muted of this sad quartet and it would be easy to play him with standard-issue sullenness. But Hedges manages to convey the quiet yearning that gives this play its title. He and his cast mates make Yen, running only through March 4, worth seeing.

February 1, 2017

Yours Unfaithfully Takes On Marital Fidelity

A card-carrying member of the Bright Young Things, the bohemian artists and aristocrats who flouted conventional norms in England during the 1920s, the actor and playwright Miles Malleson had an open marriage. He saw other women and his wife carried on a years-long love affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

They all continued to socialize amicably even after the Mallesons divorced but in 1933, he wrote Yours Unfaithfully, a play that wrestles with the idea of that kind of marriage. Unable to get pass the censors of that day, it was never produced. Until now. The Mint Theater Company, known for showcasing neglected works, staged the world premiere last week at the Beckett Theater on Theatre Row, where it will run through Feb. 18.

Everyone loves the Mint for its theatrical resurrections but I've found that there's often a sameness about its shows. The scripts, by definition, tend to be old-fashioned and the productions lean toward the staid and somewhat reverent. But Yours Unfaithfully is surprisingly contemporary for a play written more than 80 years ago, and this production is totally engaging.

As my friend Phil said when he emailed me after we saw the show, "I don't know which time in history would best suit it but it seems like Yours Unfaithfully could've been a small hit."

Unlike Noel Coward, who turned similar scenarios into frothy comedies such as Design for Living and Private Lives, Malleson, having lived through the experience as a married man, takes the idea of polyamory more seriously and hones in on the emotional fallout it can create. You can feel him struggling to figure out if people really can share one another in this way.

His drama starts off like the traditional drawing-room play, with a small dinner party hosted by a writer named Stephen Meredith and his wife Anne, who runs a progressive school. Their guests are Diana, a recent widow; and Alan, a psychiatrist who serves as a confidante to both the husband and wife.

Stephen has been suffering a case of writers block and Anne, after eight years of marriage, a bout of boredom. In a moment of inspiration, Anne decides that they might reignite both sparks if Stephen and Diana have an affair and she not-so-subtly encourages them to do so.

Almost everything goes according to plan. Stephen and Diana hook up. He starts writing again. And the Merediths reconfirm their love for one another. But when Stephen and Diana plan to take off on a holiday together, Anne discovers that she's jealous.

The realization distresses her because she truly wants Stephen to enjoy the happiness the affair is bringing him, because he was accepting when she had an earlier fling but, most important of all, because the jealousy violates the sense she has of the kind of woman she wants to be.

Anne's attempt to tame that jealousy puts a different strain on the marriage that director Jonathan Bank underscores with a series of beautifully orchestrated silent scenes that speak just as loudly as Malleson's well-crafted dialog.

It's all executed by an excellent cast. Max von Essen, fresh from his run as the conflicted French aristocrat in An American in Paris, confidently assumes a British accent and the demeanor of a passionate man used to getting his own way.

The willowy Elisabeth Gray, who grew up in the South but trained in England, captures both the casual hauteur of a freethinking patrician like Anne and the genuine pain that commitment to such freedom can cause.

Not everything works. We're told that the Merediths have young children but they're never seen or even taken into account as the couple works through their complicated relationship. Meanwhile, Alan's wife is mentioned several times but never appears, not even at the dinner party. 

Also, there's far too much talk about cricket, a sport beloved by Stephen and his father, a parson who is the stand-in for traditional morality. I suppose there's a metaphor somewhere in there but knowing nothing about cricket, it escaped me.

Finally, theatergoers who like tidy endings may balk at Malleson's ambiguous one. But those of a more open-minded disposition will find it gives them a lot to think about.

January 28, 2017

"The Liar" is Honestly Just So-So

Staging a farce is a little like whipping up a soufflé. You need good ingredients, a skillful cook and the ineffable airiness that turns ordinary egg custard into a fluffy delight. The Liar, which opened Thursday night at Classic Stage Company, has only two out of the three going for it.

The ingredients are time-tested since the show is based on a comedy by the 17th century French playwright Pierre Corneille. Although he isn't as well-known today as his contemporaries Molière and Racine, Corneille penned more than two dozen plays and was just as big a deal as they in his day.

Most of his plays were tragedies but Le Menteur was a satire that poked good-natured fun at the aristocracy. Its main character is a provincial nobleman named Dorante, who is the title's serial fabricator. As soon as he arrives in Paris, Dorante makes up a glamorous backstory for himself to woo one of the two young women he meets in the Tuileries.

Problems ensue when he not only confuses their names (Clarice and Lucrece) but discovers that one of them is secretly engaged to his childhood friend. Also around are Dorante's father, who is trying to arrange a marriage for his son, and some servants who have issues of their own. 

Notes get passed to the wrong person, a duel is fought, faces are slapped and doors are slammed, albeit metaphorically on Alexander Dodge's simple set, which has only door frames.

And skillful hands mix all of this altogether. The play has been adapted by David Ives, the master renovator of old plays who transformed Molière's The Misanthrope into the deliciously funny School for Lies that also played at Classic Stage six years ago (click here for my review of it).

Once again, Ives has maintained the rhyming couplets of the original but spiced them up with witty topical references and some amusing anachronisms. He also throws in a few riffs on Shakespeare just for the hell of it.

Another experienced hand Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company, which commissioned the adaptation and staged it back in 2010, directs the show with brio, although perhaps too much of it. 

The Liar also boasts a game cast, whose members have performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare in the Park, the Red Bull Theatre and a bunch of other companies that specialize in 16th and 17th century plays.

They all work hard and mainly land their jokes, particularly the invaluable funnyman Carson Elrod, who plays Dorante's manservant and also serves as the production's affable master-of-ceremonies. Meanwhile, Murell Horton's costumes, borrowed from the earlier D.C. production, are sumptuous and witty (click here to read more about them).

And yet, the airiness is missing. It's as though Kahn and his actors couldn't decide if they should be ironic or all-out silly and so got caught in the mushy middle. That can sometimes be OK for an eggy custard but not for a soufflé—or a French farce.

January 25, 2017

"Dear Evan Hansen" Leads this Spring's Invasion of New Shows by New Show Makers

It's hard not to be won over by Dear Evan Hansen, the new musical that has made a triumphant transfer from Second Stage Theatre, where it played last spring, to Broadway's The Music Box theater, where it seems destined for a very long run.

A wholly original show, Dear Evan Hansen has a book by Steven Levenson that deals sensitively with such contemporary issues as teen suicide, economic disparity and the power of social media. And it also features a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that echoes the sounds of today, while respecting the time-honored conventions of musical theater (click here for my review of its off-Broadway production).

In fact, under normal circumstances, Dear Evan Hansen would be a shoo-in for this year's Tony for Best Musical. But there's nothing normal about this Broadway season. At least 12 shows will be eligible for the four, or maybe five, nomination slots and seven of those shows haven't yet opened.

Yet what strikes me as even more exciting is the fact that the winner is likely to be, just as it was last year when Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton took the top honors, created by a Gen-Xer or maybe even by Millennials, like the just barely thirtysomething year-olds Pasek, Paul and Levenson.

Now to be sure there are anticipated shows by talented old-hands. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Tony winners for Hairspray, have adapted Roald Dahl's classic children's story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with the always-delightful Christian Borle as the eccentric candy maker Willy Wonka. It opens at the Lunt-Fontanne on April 23.

Meanwhile, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, creators of the cult classic Grey Gardens, have turned the rivalry between cosmetics divas Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden into War Paint, a showcase for the Broadway divas Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole that opens April 6 at the Nederlander Theatre. And the formidable team of Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Terrence McNally is doing a musical version of Anastasia, the oft-told tale of the Romanov princess whose family was massacred during the Russian Revolution, which will make its bow at the Broadhurst Theatre on April 24.

But there are signs everywhere that the musicals torch has been passed to a new generation and the shows stirring up the most buzz this season are by Broadway newcomers.

Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, a pop-opera spin on an excerpt from Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," has already opened next door to Evan Hansen at the aptly named Imperial Theatre and received loud cheers from the critics (although a somewhat more muted one from me; click here to read what I thought of it).

And still to come are more adaptations of popular movies, as well as original works whose subjects range from a showbiz story about swing bands in the 1940s to an uplifting tale set against the backdrop of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Amélie is an adaptation of the whimsical film about a shy French woman and her neighbors in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre that will open April 3 at the Walter Kerr Theatre with Hamilton's Phillipa Soo in the title role. Its book is by Broadway fave Craig Lucas but the music is by Daniel Messé, leader of the folk-rock band Hem; and its lyrics are by Nathan Tysen, best known for the off-Broadway musical The Burnt Part Boys, both of whom are Broadway first-timers.

Tim Minchin isn't new to Broadway (he got a Tony nomination for the distinctive lyrics he wrote for Matilda) but his age and attitude make him part of the youth brigade and he's coming back with a score for Groundhog Day, a musical version of the 1993 Bill Murray rom-com about a weatherman who gets stuck in a time loop. The show, scheduled to open April 17 at the August Wilson Theatre, was such a sensation when it opened in London last year and its star Andy Karl is so beloved by the Broadway community that Groundhog Day is almost guaranteed a slot on the Tony ballot.

Although his day job has been music director for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, Richard Oberacker has spent his free time writing musicals and now he and his writing partner Robert Taylor seem to have hit the jackpot with Bandstand, their original show about a group of WWII vets vying to win a radio talent contest that will open April 26 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Oberacker and Taylor have also been lucky enough to get everyone's favorite ingénue Laura Osnes to star as a girl singer who becomes the love interest for their fictional band's leader played by Corey Cott.

Probably the least known of the new show creators are the husband-and-wife team of  David Hein and Irene Sankoff who have written Come From Away, which is based on the real-life story in which the residents of a Newfoundland town rallied together to provide food, shelter and inspiration for the thousands of passengers who were stranded there when all flights were ordered to land in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The subject matter and the relative inexperience of the creative team whose previous work has gone little further than fringe festivals might suggest a tough sell but the show has been a crowd-pleaser in its out-of-town engagements from California's La Jolla Playhouse to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, where it broke the box office record at the 109-year-old theater. So don't count it out when it opens at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on March 12.

In other words, it's promising to be a really tough season for Tony nominators but a really great one for musical theater lovers.