March 17, 2018

Turning on the Ghost Light and Heading West...

No post this week because my husband K and I have gone off on a quick vacation to the west coast.  But the theater season is kicking into high gear and I'll be back next week.  In the meantime, I hope you'll check out the piece I did for The National Book Review on "The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America," a terrific oral history about the Tony Kushner masterpiece, whose first Broadway revival opens March 21.  And you can find my book review by clicking here.

March 10, 2018

"A Letter to Harvey Milk" is Truly Sincere

There is an unapologetic sweetness to the musical A Letter to Harvey Milk that won me over despite the many flaws of this show which opened this week in the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row.

Based on a short story by Lesléa Newman, the feminist author of "Heather Has Two Mommies," it tells the story of a retired and widowed Jewish man named Harry who befriends a much younger woman named Barbara when he takes her writing course at his local senior center. But not to fear: this isn't yet another one of those May-December love stories.

The year is 1986 and Harry is still mourning the recent death of his wife Frannie and that of his friend Harvey Milk, the real-life gay activist and politician who was assassinated eight years earlier. Barbara has her own woes: she's a lesbian whose lover has dumped her and whose family rejects both her and the Jewish traditions she's always yearned to be a part of.

Each wants to ease the sadness in the other. In the process, secrets are revealed, the Holocaust is invoked, homophobia is confronted and 16 musical numbers are performed.

That's a whole lot to cram into 90 minutes but A Letter to Harvey Milk won the prize for "Best Promising New Musical" at the New York Musical Theatre Festival back in 2012. A follow-up professional production was delayed when its lyricist Ellen M. Schwartz died shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. 

Composer Laura I. Kramer eventually recruited the actress Cheryl Stern (who also plays the ghost of Frannie) to help polish the lyrics. All three women are credited, along with Jerry James, for the book, which, perhaps because of all the hands involved, has the feel of something hammered out in a sitcom writers' room, complete with some wince-inducing one-liners. (click here to read more about the show's journey).

The score is pleasant but equally generic and unmemorable, although some of the lyrics are clever enough ("shanda," the Yiddish word for shame, gets rhymed with Rwanda) to elicit approving chuckles. The overall production is economically directed by Evan Pappas, a reflection of its clearly having been put together on a stingy budget.

So why, you might ask, was I won over?  Well, the performances by Adam Heller as Harry and Julia Knitel as Barbara are sincere and well sung. Michael Bartoli is a doppelgänger for Milk, who appears in several flashbacks. And while Stern's Frannie is a bit shticky and pitchy, she also provides a dash of Borsch-Belt high-spiritedness that gives the show a little ooomph.

But I think what most appeals to me about A Letter to Harvey Milk is the fact that this show isn't trying to be anything but what it is: an earnest ode to the beliefs that loss is a part of life and that love, even under the most difficult circumstances, is what makes it worthwhile.

March 3, 2018

Yes, There Are Shows I Like: "Edward Albee's At Home At the Zoo" and "Hangmen"

A couple of weeks ago, a friend remarked that most of my recent reviews have been negative. "Haven't you liked anything you've seen," she asked.

Well, yes I have. But since starting the Stagecraft podcast for BroadwayRadio, I've expressed my interest in the shows I most admire by interviewing their playwrights, as I recently did with Martyna Majok for queens, her timely play about the plight of women who immigrate to the U.S. (you can check out that interview here) and with Hammaad Choudry for An Ordinary Muslim, a gimlet-eyed look at the struggles of a Muslim family trying to adapt to contemporary life while remaining true to their cultural values (you can listen to that interview here).

Still, I don't want to gain a reputation as the Grinch of Show-Score (you can see my review ratings here) so below is one of my highlights-and-lowlights rundowns of two other shows I've seen over the past few weeks and liked a lot:

EDWARD ALBEE'S AT HOME AT THE ZOO: Albee was the third playwright to have an entire season devoted to his work by the Signature Theatre Company back in 1993 and Signature has been a home for him ever since (so much so that I often saw him in the lobby at the company's Pershing Square home before his death in 2016). The relationship continues with this awkwardly-named new show, a double bill of The Zoo Story, Albee's first produced play; and Homelife, a prequel he wrote 45 years later. Both are two-handers. In Homelife, a discussion between an affluent couple named Peter and Ann spirals into revelations about the perilous state of their marriage that both have tried to repress. The Zoo Story opens with Peter seeking refuge on a Central Park bench when he's interrupted by a talkative and slightly menacing guy named Jerry who becomes increasingly more volatile as their encounter goes on.
Highlight: The cast, under Lila Neugebauer's pitch-perfect direction, is superb. Paul Sparks brings a finely-calibrated mix of peevishness and unpredictability to the role of Jerry. And Katie Finneran, most familiar to me as a master comedienne, shows that she is equally deft at the drama stuff with her poignant portrayal of Ann. But the MVP is Robert Sean Leonard, whose role is the least flashy but the most essential and, in Leonard's fearless performance, the most devastating.
Lowlight: I don't know what costume designer Kaye Voyce was thinking with the distracting and inappropriate outfit she designed for Finneran's Ann. It's hard to imagine that an Upper East Side housewife spends her time cooking in a slinky white jumpsuit.

HANGMENBritish playwright Martin McDonagh is famous for his gallows humor but he gets literal with it in this entertaining black comedy about a famous executioner adjusting to the end of capital punishment in Britain. I'm something of a McDonagh agnostic but even I got a big kick out of this smart production which originated at London's Royal Court Theatre and has landed at the Atlantic Theater Company with several key cast members in tow and its tongue wiggling waggishly in its cheek.
Highlight: Director Matthew Dunster treats the play like an old-school farce and it's a luxury to watch 12 actors hitting every beat just right and without any of them burdened with the indignity of having to double. But the biggest kudos have to go to the sets and costumes by Anna Fleischle that are so witty they deserve a curtain call of their own.
Lowlight: The intentionally lower-class British accents, even from the American cast members, can be difficult to understand, which caused some grumbling, particularly from those already hard of hearing, at the performance I attended.
Both shows are playing only through March 25 (although there have been rumors that Hangmen might move to Broadway) and are largely sold out but if you love theater, you should do what you can to see them.

February 24, 2018

"In the Body of the World" is an Ego Trip

It's been 20 years since the dance critic Joan Acocella declared that she wouldn't critique a piece that the choreographer Bill T. Jones had centered on terminally ill people and his own diagnosis of AIDS. While acknowledging the pain and suffering of Jones' subjects and of the artist himself, Croce said she found the work "intolerably voyeuristic." She seemed churlish to me at the time but I got what she meant as I sat wondering what I would write about the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of In the Body of the World, the new solo show in which Eve Ensler recounts her battle with uterine cancer: I'm sorry that Ensler had to go through such a harrowing experience but I'm also sorry that her show dragged me through it.

And I'd been looking forward to the show because I'd been such a fan of The Vagina Monologues, Ensler's 1996 breakthrough show about women and their bodies that has now been performed all over the world and caused Valentine's Day to be rebranded in feminist circles as V-Day.

But I also wanted to see the new work because it had been touted as a show about Ensler's efforts to help women in the Congo struggling to recover from the systematic rape that has become a brutal weapon in that country's many civil wars. Those efforts are in In the Body of the World but the body that gets the most attention is Ensler's own.

Under Diane Paulus' indulgent direction (click here to read an interview with the director), Ensler recounts in excruciating detail the examinations and treatments she underwent, including the bruising insensitivity of some doctors, the shame of a bursting colostomy bag and the almost paralyzing fear of dying. 

I'm happy that she seems to have gotten past all that. And I'm assuming it must be cathartic for her to relive these awful times in her life but isn't that what therapy is for? 

Ensler is a witty woman and there are genuine moments of levity (when a doctor recommends radiating her vagina, she wryly reminds him who she is) but other moments are forced. The man next to me and I silently bonded when we both refused to participate when she insisted that audience members stand up and join her in a victory dance. 

Yet what I resented most was Ensler's attempt to draw parallels between her experience and that of the Congolese women. I know that Ensler has worked diligently for disenfranchised women over the past two decades. So perhaps the metaphorical linkages between the personal and the political worked better in her 2013 memoir that shares a name with this show. 

But for me, equating the ordeal of a privileged white woman battling cancer when surrounded by supportive friends and cared for with the best treatments the American medical establishment has to offer with the trauma of being a poor black woman raped, mutilated and later shunned by her community comes off as the kind of cultural imperialism that Ensler herself usually abhors. 

February 17, 2018

Celebrating B&Me's 11th Anniversary

It's hard to believe that I've been writing this blog for 11 years but that's what the calendar tells me. As longtime readers may remember, I posted a "Curtain-Raiser" on Feb. 14, 2007 (I've always loved the kismet of its being Valentine's Day) and followed up two days later with a review of the off-Broadway production of In the Heights, which you can read here.

I've enjoyed every minute since then but this past year has been a particularly fortuitous—and busy—one. For starters, I was invited to be one of the revolving guest hosts on the long-running and Emmy-winning TV show "Theater Talk" (you can check out my first episode by clicking here).

And thanks to BroadwayRadio honcho James Marino, I've continued to fill in on the network's popular "This Week on Broadway" podcast when one of its two regulars commentators Peter Filichia or Michael Portantiere can't make it. But I also launched two podcasts of my own.

On "Tony Talk," a few of my friends and I tracked last year's theater awards season from the Pulitzer Prize for Drama straight through to Tony night and we're hoping to start up again as this year's theater season moves into the heat of the awards phase.

"Stagecraft" is my series of conversations with playwrights and musical book writers. I've talked to some really interesting folks from Sarah DeLappe, author of the Pulitzer finalist The Wolves to Kyle Jarrow, who wrote the book for the fun musical SpongeBob Squarepants. The podcast has been in hibernation during the New York theater season's winter lull but will return on BroadwayRadio in a few weeks (you can catch up with all the past episodes by clicking here).

Other highlights over the past 12 months have included the chance to talk at a panel hosted by the American Theatre Critics Association last fall and another sponsored by the Drama Desk at this year's BroadwayCon. And I also got to be one of the "experts" handicapping last year's Tony race on the awards site "Gold Derby;" I'm proud to say that my predictions put me in second place in a field of some pretty savvy folks. 

Plus there was the pleasure of seeing the number of followers for the magazines I curate on the Flipboard site climb to over 4,000, with half of them following the flagship publication "Broadway & Me: the Magazine," (you can find it by clicking here).

But all of these opportunities and experiences began here, with these posts. And so I remain grateful to those of you who've made the journey with me and to those of you who took the time to join it today. I look forward to continuing our conversations. 

In the meantime, I hope your Valentine's Day was as lovely as mine (I really am a lucky gal to have my husband K) and I hope too that the next year brings us lots of theater we all can love.

February 10, 2018

"[porto]" is a Romcom for Millennials to Love

[Porto],  the oddly punctuated romcom that opened this week at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre on the Upper West Side isn't for me. But I don't mean that as a knock against the show. Kate Benson, its young Brooklyn-based playwright, clearly aimed the show at her contemporaries, the demographic cohort we call Millennials.  And judging by the knowing laughter from the 20- and 30-somethings in the audience at the performance I attended, she's hit her intended mark.

A kind of latter-day everywoman, the titular character Porto is recovering from a relationship gone sour and finds solace by hanging out at her neighborhood bar, the kind of place where the bartender not only knows your name but what you like to drink and pours it unasked as soon as you walk in.

The bar is located in hipster Brooklyn and so it serves craft beers and artisanal sandwiches like foie gras sausage rolls. Its denizens are the sort of people who profess that their favorite parts of "Moby-Dick" are the sections on the logistics of whaling. I imagine all this self-referential satire went over really big when the show played a sold-out run at The Bushwick Star last year.

But now, the Women's Project Theater is seeking a larger audience for [porto] and promoting it as something of a female empowerment tale that explores the all-ages dilemma of how a woman can be in a romantic relationship without succumbing to gender stereotypes or surrendering her sense of self. 

Much of this is spelled out in a deadpan voice-over narration, delivered from offstage by Benson herself. But, at one point, actors playing Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem, take up the debate in an absurdist scene, amusingly directed by Lee Sunday Evans and imaginatively designed by Kristen Robinson. The fact that the uber-feminists writers are played by men puts an ironic spin on what they say but I can't tell how cynical it's all meant to be.

There's also a tongue-in-check quality to most of the characters, who are named for their jobs—Doug the Bartender and Raphael the Waiter—or for their drinks of choice—Hennepin (the guy that Porto attempts to hook up with) and Dry Sac (her anorexic girlfriend who despite her name seems to favor drinking vodka on an empty stomach, which is played for cheap laughs). 

The one exception to these one-note characters is Porto, (although I'm still trying to figure out what the brackets in the title mean). She is presented as an average-looking woman with an above-average intelligence, a healthy sex drive and a quick wit. In short, she is, as she notes, the kind of woman who usually plays the sidekick in traditional romcoms. 

But Julia Sirna-Frest makes her the anchor of this one. And she gives Porto (and [porto]) such sincere vulnerability that you almost don't need to be a millennial to appreciate it.