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August 30, 2014

A Labor Day Salute to Actors Via Two DVDs


The temperature in New York has been so unseasonably cool this month that it prompted a friend to post a comment on her Facebook page declaring “August is the new September.”   

But now Monday will mark not only the beginning of the real September but Labor Day as well. And that means that, as I’ve done for the last few years, I’m taking time out from my regular posts to salute the work of some of the people who make the theater that folks like you and me love.

Over the past few years, I’ve tipped my hat to casting directors, playwrights, composers and lyricists but it’s been a while since I last singled out actors. Watching two recently released DVDs over the summer convinced me that it’s time to do that again. 
 
The first DVD is “Now: In the Wings on a World Stage,” a chronicle of the Richard III production that director Sam Mendes and star Kevin Spacey toured around the world in 2011.

The second is "Theatreland," an up-close-and-personal look at London’s historic Theatre Royal Haymarket, from its founding during the Restoration period that brought the British monarchy back to the throne and theater back to London after both had been chucked out by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan brethren to the 2009 productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the musical Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 

Bioth documentaries offer peeks at the process of putting a show together, from the jitters of the first meet-and-greet rehearsal straight through to the parting farewells of closing night, with lots of time in between to show the grit and sweat that go into making the magic we see onstage.
 
Richard III was the final production of the three-year Bridge Project that Mendes and Spacey conceived to bring British and American actors together to do the classics. So Spacey decided to film the behind-the-scenes workings of that last show and even took on the task of distributing the doc himself (click here to stream it or order a copy).  

The result is a fancy version of a home movie and it focuses almost entirely on the good stuff (backstage feuds or other backstabbings are totally absent). But it’s still fascinating to hear company members talk about the challenge of mixing styles between the Americans (some of whom had never before done Shakespeare professionally) and the Brits (for whom speaking the Bard’s verse is virtually a native language). 
 
And equally compelling is the chance to watch as actors on different levels of the success ladder interact with one another. Almost everyone is initially intimidated by Spacey, who is not only an Oscar winner but, until next year, the artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre. But many also are in awe of the British stage vet Gemma Jones, whose career stretches back nearly 50 years.

So it's fun to watch as the walls come down. At one point during the tour, Spacey rents a yacht and gives everyone a luxurious day off. Several of his cast mates have never been on a boat that big. “I’ve got to get more rich friends,” says one. Meanwhile, the 70 year-old Jones admits to having a crush on one of the buff young men in the cast and it’s sweet when you later see the two of them innocently canoodling. 
 
But most of the 90-minute film deals with the nuts and bolts of being an actor on tour—the logistics of doing the same role in different playing spaces from the ancient Greek amphitheater of Epidaurus to a high-tech new theater in Beijing, the pre-curtain rituals that help each actor prepare for his or her performance, the loneliness of being away from home and family for such a long stretch.

By the time the actors who also had stops in Istanbul, Naples, San Francisco, Sydney and Doha, say goodbye to one another after their final performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I found myself having enjoyed the documentary more than I enjoyed the production itself (click here to read my review of the show). 
 
"Theatreland," (which you can find by clicking here) is divided into eight episodes that total 201 minutes, and a lot of that time is centered around the celebrated revival of Waiting for Godot directed by Sean Mathias and starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as Beckett’s existential hobos. 

The production also had a triumphant run on Broadway last season and the documentary shows McKellen and Stewart as they originally rehearsed, performed and promoted the show. The stars are, of course, thoroughly entertaining to watch but the most memorable moments belong to the film’s bit players.  
 
An aspiring young actress who has been hired to work as an usher is giddy at the prospect of serving tea during the intermission to the theatrical grande dames Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, who is also the widow of Laurence Olivier. 

In another episode, an understudy gets to go on when Stewart loses his voice. It’s the biggest night of the understudy’s career and he basks in the applause of the audience and a gracious backstage compliment from McKellen. But when it comes time to leave the theater, he walks out unnoticed and heads for public transportation home as autograph seekers wait for the well-known face to come out. 
 
In the end, both films seem to say, the greatest reward for theater actors—those famous and those not—is just the chance to create magic on a stage. And as we head into this Labor Day weekend, it seems a good time to say that I appreciate their work and am grateful to them for doing it.




August 27, 2014

"Poor Behavior" isn't Nearly Good Enough


Ever since she was canned as executive producer of “Smash,” that misbegotten TV series about putting on a Broadway show, Theresa Rebeck has said that she didn’t get the chance to fully realize her vision of what she wanted it to be. I bought her argument because network execs have a bad rep for interfering with creative visions.

It’s different in the theater, where, by tradition, the playwright has the final say. So I’m now wondering what excuse Rebeck has for Poor Behavior, the misbegotten new play that Primary Stages opened last week at its new home at The Duke on 42nd Street.
 
Poor Behavior starts off well enough. Two couples are spending a weekend at a vacation home and after a long boozy dinner, Ella, the wife of the host couple; and Ian, the husband from the visiting pair, have gotten into a shouting match about what it means to be a good person. A few minutes later, Ian’s wife Maureen discovers the erstwhile antagonists in a quieter encounter that leads her to suspect they’re having an affair. 

But having established the premise, Rebeck has no idea where to go with it. Accusations are just lobbed back and forth, with occasional time outs for snappy one liners and puffed-up monologs from Ian. 
 
Rebeck clearly intends the play to be a provocative meditation on morality and infidelity but she paints with such broad cartoonish strokes that the message is no more profound than the slick self-help advice you might get from a TV psychologist.

Poor Behavior might have had a better chance if Rebeck had created believable characters but she doesn’t even make it clear who these folks are (I’ve no idea what any of them do for a living) why they’re friends or even why they’re with their spouses.  

Ella (Katie Kreisler) is supposed to be the most responsible of the group and yet, for the sake of some cheap laughs, Rebeck has her carelessly destroy the only thing they have in the house for breakfast (and who, by the way, invites people for the weekend without stocking up enough food to feed them?).

Ian (Brian Avers), who, for some reason, has been made Irish, is supposed to be the kind of rogue that women find irresistible but seems more like a psychopath. Meanwhile, Maureen (poor Heidi Armbruster) is given little more to do than be hysterical in scene after scene.  And Ella’s husband Paul (Jeff Biehl) is more a prop device than a person.

Director Evan Cabnet and his cast, all of whom have done better work in other shows, seem as frustrated in trying to put this show together as my theatergoing buddy Bill and I were by watching it. 

There was no chemistry between any of the actors. What’s worse, there was no reason, except again for the convenience of the plot, that any of their characters would have stuck around instead of hightailing it back to the city.  
 
Over the last two decades, Rebeck has had 15 new plays produced in New York, three of them on Broadway and she’s already got another one in the pipeline (click here to read about it). I started out a fan but each production of hers that I’ve seen has been less satisfying than the last. 

I don’t begrudge Rebeck her success. It’s so difficult for female playwrights to get their work done that a group of them recently issued the Kilroys’ List, a roster of 46 new plays by women, and a plea that they be put on (click here to read more about their campaign). 

So it's good to see a woman getting so much attention. I just think it may be time for producers and artistic directors to to give some other women a shot and for Rebeck to take some time out so that she can get her act back together and realize whatever vision and talent she may still have.

August 23, 2014

Between Riverside and Crazy is the Place to Be


Between Riverside and Crazy, the new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, ends its six-week run tonight. And that’s a shame because the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater space only seats about 200 people and a whole lot more should have had the chance to see this flamboyantly entertaining play.

My husband K and I only caught up with it this week and are so glad we did. For like Guirgis' previous play, The Motherfucker With The Hat (click here to read my review) this one realizes that poor people are primarily just people without money and so it treats them and their concerns with the kind of respect, humor and affection that far too many other plays usually reserve for the well-off.
 
The story centers around Walter Washington, a former cop with more problems than Job (the religious allusions are entirely appropriate since faith is a constant undercurrent in Guirgis’ work, which includes Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train).  

Walter’s beloved wife has recently died. He’s drinking all day and struggling through weekly visits from a proselytizing Church Lady. His grown son Junior, recently released from prison, has moved back home and brought along a floozy girlfriend and an ex-con pal with daddy issues. 
 
Meanwhile, Walter’s landlord, eager to gentrify, wants to evict him from the rambling rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive that has been Walter’s home for years. And, most egregiously, the NYPD still refuses to pay the settlement that Walter, who is black, has been demanding ever since a white cop mistakenly shot and disabled him eight years earlier. 

That’s a whole lot of plot and, to be honest, narrative is not Guirgis’ strong suit (lots of ends remain loose at the play's conclusion). But he is a master at creating robust characters whose rough surfaces belie their rich inner lives and dialog that seamlessly mixes scatology and philosophy, street talk and poetry.

 These are the kind of rare parts that all actors yearn to play and that tend to be in even shorter supply for actors of color. Which is why Guirgis, a longtime member of the LAByrinth Theater Company, probably the most diverse company in the city, if not the country, has made a habit of creating roles specifically for African-American and Latino actors. 

And the entire Between Riverside and Crazy cast, under the nimble direction of Austin Pendleton, shows its appreciation for the gifts they've been given by turning in one bang-up performance after another. 
 
Leading the pack is Stephen McKinley Henderson, the rotund character actor who has leant invaluable support to dozens of plays, particularly those by August Wilson. But this time out Henderson gets to command center stage. Guirgis is reported to have written the role of Walter for him and Henderson’s natural and yet nuanced performance proves that he deserved the honor (click her to read a profile of the actor).
 
And although she doesn’t arrive until the second act, Liza Colón-Zayas goes toe-to-toe with Henderson as a mysterious woman who helps Walter achieve an epiphany (click here to listen to a short interview with her). 

I could go on but as I do, I get more and more annoyed that there's been no talk of transferring this show. Hello producers and artistic directors out there: someone should give Between Riverside and Crazy the full respect—and longer run—it deserves.

August 20, 2014

A Personal Postscript on This Year's Fringe


When I finished last Saturday’s post, I thought I was done with this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. But then I got an email from a friend inviting me to see a show directed by his daughter Anna Strasser. So yesterday I went to see Chemistry, a two-hander by Jacob Marx Rice about the relationship between a couple who meet cute while waiting outside a psychopharmacologist's office to get prescriptions for their meds. 

Jamie (Jonathan Hopkins) has been newly diagnosed with a manic-obsessive disorder.  Steph (Lauren LaRocca) is a longstanding depressive. They are, as Steph says, “A pair so perfect they named a disease after us.”

It wouldn’t be fair for me to review this show since I have a relationship with Strasser's dad but I can say that Chemistry has been so popular that the festival administrators added an extra performance this week (the final one scheduled for Friday is already sold out) and have selected the show for its Encore series of productions that have drawn the strongest word of mouth (click here to read what one reviewer said). 

And although it might be flirting a bit close with the conflict-of-interest line, I’m also going to say that if you can, you should make an effort to see it.

August 16, 2014

Youth, Love and Sex at This Year's Fringe


Every spring I tell myself I should see the end-of-school productions at Juilliard or New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts so that I can get a peek at the newest crop of talented hopefuls ready to storm the theater world.  Inevitably, other things come up and I end up not going. But a visit to this year’s New York International Fringe Festival has given me the chance to make up for that.

The Fringe is always filled with young up-and-comers hoping for their big break. Yet I had almost skipped it too because, as always, it's so difficult choosing what to see when 200 shows are running at 18 different venues from Aug. 8 to Aug 24. But my undaunted theatergoing buddy Bill valiantly sorted through the offerings and came up with a trio of shows for us to see in one day of marathon theatergoing.

 Two of the three—Vestments of the Gods and The Picture (of Dorian Gray)—featured fresh-faced casts and left me admiring the intensity of their young actors' energy and unbridled commitment to their craft, even if I wasn’t swept away by the shows themselves.

Vestments of the Gods, a musical that lists Lin-Manuel Miranda as a producer, uses Sophocles’ Antigone as a jumping off point. Here the principled young woman daring to go up against the establishment is Annie, a sixth grader at Thebes Street Elementary School, and the cause she’s fighting for is an end to bullying, particularly of the effeminate boy who is her best friend.  

The book writer Owen Panettieri works hard to create modern-day cognates for the characters in the original story—Ismene, Antigone’s more compliant sister, becomes Ms. Mene, the school teacher who looks the other way when the bullying occurs; Tiresias, the soothsayer in the Greek version becomes, a bit more improbably, Terry, the truth-telling janitor at the school. 

But Panettieri isn’t able to add anything to the tale beyond the obvious message that bullying is bad and so his show carries the whiff of an old-style public service announcement. A program note says the music by David Carl was added late in the development process.  It’s pleasant, if undistinguished, but the lyrics, also by Panettieri, don’t say much about the characters singing them or move the plot along.

Still the cast is game. Erica Diaz does a fine job as the noble Annie, stage vet Jennifer Cody seems to be having a good time as the school’s narrow-minded PTA president and although the eight actors who make up this show’s Greek chorus are a decade older than the grade schoolers they're playing, they are energetic and sing well. 

Vestments of the Gods, which is scheduled for three more performances at Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place, is unlikely to have much of an afterlife but some of its eager young cast members may.

The odds that the five comely actors in The Picture (of Dorian Gray) may have careers seem even stronger. The three men and two women apparently all come from Juniata College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania that prides itself on its science program, and they’re almost vibrating with the desire to show how much theater matters.

Their show takes a highly-stylized approach to Oscar Wilde’s classic novella about a hedonist who trades his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Neal Utterback is listed as the adapter and director and he has the actors, all dressed in androgynous jeans and white t-shirts, pass the characters around irrespective of gender. The change is signaled when an actor puts on one of the distinctive pairs of sunglasses that symbolize each role.  

A narrator periodically recites Wilde's prose. The actors sometimes speak in unison. They also perform choreographed movements and sing snatches of contemporary songs chosen to underscore telling moments in the story. Bill found it all to be a bit too precious. And the story can be difficult to follow if you come to it new. But I'm a sucker for this kind of flamboyant stagecraft.
 
Watching these young actors, particularly the eyecatching Jamison Monella, reminded me of my own acting class days when my fellow students and I felt that we didn’t need props or costumes to make a show but just passion. You can catch a similar spirit on display at The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre on MacDougal Street, where The Picture (of Dorian Gray) is slated for four more performances, including one today.

And yet, contrary to the up-with-youth theme of this post, the show that both Bill and I like most was Bedroom Secrets, a two hander about middle-aged people written and directed by Thomas and Judy Heath, the husband-and-wife team whose previous play Perfectly Normel People won the festival’s Audience Award last year. 
 
The set-up for Bedroom Secrets is simple: a therapist listens to and tries to help the sexual problems of a series of clients. The therapist is played by Ashlie Atkinson, who made a terrific debut nine years ago as the overweight title character in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig but hasn’t done much in New York since then. I hope this production changes that because she’s a marvelously genuine and sympathetic actor.

All five of the clients—male and female—are played by Stephen Wallem, who will be familiar to TV watchers as the male nurse Thor on Edie Falco’s Showtime series “Nurse Jackie.” Wallem's stage credits seem to be mainly musicals and concerts but he does a very nice job here, moving in just a beat from character to character, aided only by a simple prop—a water bottle, a cellphone, some neck wear—to distinguish each. 
 
The play’s underlying message is that all of us—gay or straight, single or married, young or not so young—want to be loved. That’s not exactly original but it’s sweetly told and just the kind of show that budget-minded regional theaters might appreciate. But New Yorkers will have to rush to see it because there’s only one more performance scheduled and it’s tonight at the Players Theatre on MacDougal.

There are however lots of other Fringe performances to see over the next week and a half and you can check them all out here.

August 13, 2014

This "Phoenix" Never Soars


Nothing makes sense in Phoenix, the totally inept two-hander that’s playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Aug. 23.  Ostensibly, it’s a rom-com about two lonely souls who hooked up one night, later discover that she’s pregnant and then spend the next 85 minutes trying to figure out where to go from there.

If that scenario sounds familiar it may be because you’ve seen the 2007 Judd Apatow movie “Knocked Up,” in which Seth Rogen and Kathryn Heigel play a couple who hook up one night, later discover that she’s pregnant and then try to figure out where to go from there. 

Of course, it’s absolutely OK to appropriate a familiar storyline (look at Shakespeare) but if you do, then you’ve got to bring something to it (look at Shakespeare). Unfortunately, playwright Scott Organ only brings vapid dialogue and half-realized characters.
 
The first scene of Phoenix is a meeting, four weeks after the couple's initial get-together, between the woman Sue and the man, whose name is listed as James in the Playbill but who is called Bruce onstage. And that mix-up is just the first sign that this production is in trouble. 

Sue has summoned James/Bruce to a coffee shop to tell him three things: (1) she had a good time when they were together; (2) she doesn’t want to see him anymore and (3) she’s pregnant and plans to get rid of the baby but isn't expecting any help from him. 

Really? I’m all for suspension of belief in the theater but are we actually supposed to believe that a woman would go out of her way to get in touch with a one-night stand just to tell him that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him and is getting rid of the unintentional pregnancy that resulted from their encounter?  Really?
 
The absurd premise might matter less if the actors were able to convey the longing to connect that's supposed to be roiling underneath the slick surfaces of their characters—hers wary, his whimsical.  But, alas, that’s not the case either.  

Neither Julia Stiles, returning to the New York stage for the first time since she appeared in the short-lived Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Oleanna (click here to read an interview with her); nor newcomer James Wirt is at all up to that task. 

Although I have to say that barely seemed to matter to the legion of scantily-skirted young women in the audience who apparently see Stiles as a role model and, at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended, clapped madly after every scene.

Even so, under the misbegotten direction of Jennifer Delia, making her off-Broadway directorial debut, the actors display little chemistry, deliver their lines woodenly and indulge in unnecessary and distracting stage business:  at one point, Stiles literally stands on her head.
 
But, as I said, nothing makes sense in this production. The set is dominated by a collection of suspended paintings, including glitter portraits of the two actors, that do nothing to establish where the action is taking place. The interstitial music is loud, the lighting garish. 

And the costuming is equally clueless: would the no-nonsense woman that Sue is made out to be really change from her sweats into a pink and white chiffon sundress when heading out to an early-morning abortion? 

I'm not the only one who was put off by the choices this show made and director Delia has written a detailed response to the earlier criticism (click here to read what she says). But it seems to me that if you've got to explain the effect your choices were supposed to make, then they didn't make them.

Part of the problem may be that from the producers on down, everyone involved in this project, with the exception of Stiles, is a theatrical first-timer. Most of them hail from the movie world and the Playbill says that a film based on Phoenix is already in pre-production.  Maybe it will fare better in that medium.   

In the meantime, anyone seeking a robust onstage portrayal of what can happen when opposites attract should take a detour from Phoenix and head over to Second Stage to see Sex with Strangers.

August 9, 2014

Hot and Cold on This Year's "Summer Shorts"


Summer Shorts, the festival of short plays that appears every August at the 59E59 Theaters, is always a grab bag. Its contributors are a motley crew of known and lesser-known playwrights. They can—and do—write about anything and in any form. Which means the shows, divided into two evenings of three plays each, include small comedies, tiny tragedies, solo works and the occasional mini musical. The quality varies too, from the very good to the nearly unbearable.

Both the highs and lows of the festival were on display when my friend Jessie and I saw the three plays that make up this year’s Series B, which consists of works by Albert Innaurato, Neil LaBute and Daniel Reitz, all performed on a simple but elegant and highly versatile set designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt.
 
The evening opened with Napoleon in Exile, a two-hander by Reitz, who, according to his bio, is well-known on the regional and play development circuit although he’s new to me. But after seeing this affecting piece about a mother and her grown son who has Asperger’s syndrome, I’ll be on the look out for more of his work.

Under the excellent direction of Paul Schnee, Henny Russell is wrenching as a mother who realizes perhaps too late that her efforts to protect her son may have put him at greater risk. But the piece rises or falls on the performance of the son Corey and Will Dagger is outstanding, capturing the physical tics and emotional inhibitions of the syndrome without surrendering to stereotype. 

Dagger makes Corey funny and smart but also fearfully aware of how unable he is to function in the world on his own. My heart broke for both mother and child and for the real life families in similar situations.
 
LaBute is a Summer Shorts regular and his latest offering The Mulberry Bush shows how well he has mastered the form. It starts with two apparent strangers sitting on neighboring park benches and striking up a conversation. The talk turns more serious, secrets are revealed, tensions rise. But the most difficult role is left for the audience, which is challenged to find empathy for someone easy to detest.

Once again, the acting is superb, particularly from Victor Slezak, who, under the sensitive direction of Maria Mileaf, slowly peels back the fragile layers of a man at war with himself and desperately afraid of losing.

But most of the advanced attention for this collection of plays has gone to Innaurato, the onetime theatrical wunderkind who wrote such highly acclaimed plays as Gemini and The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie but hasn’t had a new work produced in New York since 1989 (click here to read a recent New York Times piece about him). Alas, his Shorts offering Doubtless was a real disappointment. 
 
A smug farce whose characters included lesbian nuns, priapic priests and a vampire Jesus, it takes hits at the Catholic Church, the political right and people who have been more successful in the theater than its author, including his former Yale Drama School classmates Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang. Even the title is an intentional slam at Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer-Prize winner about sex abuse in the Church.

The bitterness might be tolerable if the production were truly funny but director Jack Hofsiss seems undone by that challenge. Three women sitting near me (ex-nuns?  members of the Innaurato family?) guffawed loudly at each put down but the whole thing struck me as silly and sophomoric and like several other people in the audience, I kept sneaking peeks at my watch.
 
Doubtless runs twice as long as each of its companions and isn’t nearly half as satisfying as either. But, as my husband K said when I got home, “two out of three ain’t bad.” That's particularly so when they’ve been plucked from a grab bag.