July 4, 2015

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2015

Some people claim Memorial Day as the beginning of summer. Other say the season starts when the school year ends and people begin to skip out from work early on Fridays. Sticklers insist that summer arrives with the summer solstice. But just about everyone agrees that the Fourth of July means it’s time to slow down, kick back and relax a bit. For me, that means the time to do two of my favorite things: (1) sitting out on our terrace, reading, snoozing and sipping cocktails as the sun goes down and (2) putting together the latest of my annual summer reading list of books about the theater. This year’s selections are all biographies, oral histories and other non-fiction about the theatrical world that should keep you good company from now until Labor Day. So happy reading and, of course, Happy Fourth of July:

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl. The author of at least a dozen plays, including The Clean House and Stage Kiss, and the mother of three, Ruhl has somehow found time to craft this marvelous collection of mini essays (some running only a couple of sentences) that examine what it means to be a playwright and a parent in the 21st century. Her musings range from the way mothers, from the child-slaying Medea to the suicidal mom in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, are portrayed onstage to a loving tribute to her mentor Paula Vogel. The writing and thinking in this book are as fresh and insightful as they are in her plays and I highlighted so many lines that my copy now looks as though some yellow-blooded creature hemorrhaged all over it.

Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart:  After I posted last year’s list, a reader left a comment suggesting that I read this memoir about the early career of the legendary playwright and director Moss Hart. As it turns out, not only had I already read it but this is one of my favorite books of any kind and I don't know why I haven't put it on one of these lists before now. His biographers point out that Hart, who wrote such classics as The Man Who Came to Dinner and Lady in the Dark and directed such iconic shows as My Fair Lady and Camelot, romanticized his rise from office boy to toast of the town but this often hilarious tale, which centers around his first collaboration with the veteran showmaker George S. Kaufman, is filled with famous names, funny stories and a love for the theater that is totally enchanting and far more entertaining than last year's stage adaptation.

Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way by Stewart F. Lane. Broadway is often called The Great White Way but black performers have been there, acting, singing, dancing and creating shows right from the start, as Lane, himself a six-time Tony-winning producer, chronicles in this terrific pictorial history. He brings the story right up to Cicely Tyson’s Tony-winning performance in the 2013 revival of The Trip to Bountiful but the best chapters are the early ones that focus on the challenges faced by 19th century all-black companies like the one lead by Ira Aldridge, the first African-American to play Othello on a professional stage;  the indignities of the minstrel shows that required performers to wear blackface and the rise of the much-imitated jazz-inflected musicals of the 1920s. It’s all a great read and great preparation for the eagerly anticipated new musical Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Follows, which will be directed by George C. Wolfe, choreographed by Savion Glover and starring Audra McDonald

Elia Kazan A Life: If Moss Hart’s book is the best ever written about a life in the theater (and it is) then Kazan’s memoir is a close runner-up. A member of the influential Group Theatre in the ‘30s and the dominant Broadway director from the ‘40s through the ‘60s who helmed the original productions of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan, who died in 2003 at the age of 94, was present at the creation of our modern dramatic theater. He was also a great writer and his memoir provides a no-holds-barred look at the rivalries among such Group heavyweights as Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets and Stella Adler; Kazan’s symbiotic relationships with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, his fateful decision to name names before Eugene McCarthy’s red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee and his discovery and/or nurturing of such then-young talents as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty.

Stage Blood: Five Tempestuous Years in the Early Life of the National Theatre by Michael Blakemore. They say that revenge is a dish best served cold but, as the subtitle suggests, you can still feel the heat of Blakemore’s fury as he describes his years as a director for London’s National Theatre under his mercurial mentor Laurence Olivier, who founded the company in 1963, and his detested nemesis Peter Hall, who ran it from 1973 to 1988. Blakemore still clearly smarts from what he considers to be his unfair treatment at the National and his whining about one perceived insult after another can get tiresome. Luckily, he also lards the book with lots of rich details about how shows get put together at one of the world’s greatest theaters and that’s catnip for any theater junkie.

Theatreland: A Journey Through the Heart of London's Theatreby Paul Ibell. This grab-bag of history, gossip and other tidbits tracks the London theater world from the days of Shakespeare’s original Globe theater right through to what was going on in the West End in 2009, when the book was published. Ibell has amusing stories to tell about everything from theatrical dynasties like the Redgraves to theatrical hangouts like the Hotel Savoy. And although his references to the shows on the boards in 2009 may date the book, the backstage stories are timeless, and it all adds up to a fun read, particularly if you’re planning a trip to London any time soon.

The Untold Stories of Broadway: Tales From the World's Most Famous Theaters by Jennifer Ashley Tepper. She now runs 54 Below, the cabaret spot that has become a clubhouse for Broadway performers, but Tepper’s true vocation is theater enthusiast of the highest order. Over the past few years, she’s made it her business to interview almost everyone who has had anything to do with the New York theater world and turned what they told her into a two-volume oral history of Broadway from its golden years after World War II, right up to the present. Adding to the fun is the fact that instead of telling the story in chronological order, she’s organized her tale around Broadway's iconic theaters, with people from producers like the legendary Hal Prince to the stagehands and doormen, who truly have seen it all, sharing bite-size anecdotes about those places where the magic happens.

July 1, 2015

A Last Look at Three June Shows: "Guards at the Taj," "The Qualms" and "The "Tempest"

June is the Indian summer of the New York theater season. Falling between the heat of the shows rushing out to qualify for the Tonys and other awards and the relative freeze that settles over the theater world during the summer months, it often plays host to smaller shows with milder ambitions, some of which in past years have turned out turned out to be my favorites of the year, others just pleasant ways to past the time. There was a bumper crop of such shows this year and I’ve already talked about some of them in recent posts but three significant ones that I haven't gotten to are closing within the next week and so, once again, I’m going to try to catch up by doing one of my highlights and lowlights summaries:

GUARDS AT THE TAJ: I’ve run hot and cold on the playwright Rajiv Joseph even though his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2010. But you should look for his meta-historical piece about two lowly guards keeping watch on the Taj Mahal to be on my 10 Best list at the end of the year. The play starts off as yet another riff on Vladimir and Estragon of Becket’s Waiting for Godot as the titular guards—boyhood friends with differing personalities, one a stickler for rules, the other an inveterate flouter of them—stand sentry on the eve of the unveiling of the Taj Mahal but it turns into a morality tale on art, friendship and the cost of blind obedience to authority.

Highlight: Joseph wrote his piece for the actors Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed, and their amazing performances, under Amy Morton’s brilliant direction, more than justify the faith he put in them. They—and this production—are alternately hysterically funny and profoundly heartrending

Lowlight: Some critics have carped at one thing (the colloquial language Joseph gives his characters) or another (the graphic violence in which he involves them) but not me. I thought every single thing worked just as it should and by the end, I was totally gobsmacked.

THE QUALMS. Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and so I, like everyone else who cares about theater, was eager to see what he would do next and even more intrigued when it was announced that the subject of race would be replaced by a focus on sexuality. Here’s the setup: a young couple makes its first visit to the regular meeting of a group of swingers, who get together to have guilt-free sex with one another but the newcomers may not be as open as they think they are.

Highlight: The show has a kick-ass cast, lead by Jeremy Shamos as the uneasy newbie husband and anchored by Donna Lynne Champlin, who plays a plus-sized swinger with a big heart and who seems incapable of giving a dishonest performance.

Lowlight:  But despite those performances and Pam MacKinnon’s straightforward direction, I didn’t believe a bit of the will-they-won’t-they debate that Norris creates (in any semblance of real life, the group would just kick out the troublemaker: I sure wanted to). And I was particularly pissed off by having yet one more white playwright create an effeminate black male character (switching the races of the group’s alpha male and its swishy one could even have been an interesting way to  heighten the drama).

THE TEMPEST. It’s always a treat to sit in the middle of Central Park on a balmy summer evening watching a free performance of Shakespeare in the Park, even when it’s a so-so production like this one of one of the Bard's most complex plays, which completes its five-week run this weekend.

Highlight: Director Michael Greif has created a sensual production that is  beautiful to look at and Michael Friedman’s original music played by percussionist Arthur Solari is lovely to hear. And it’s also nice to see that despite all his TV success, Jesse Tyler Ferguson continues to remain loyal to the company that gave him his start by coming back again and again to play one of his trademark clowns.

Lowlight: The problem is with the rest of the casting, particularly the lead. Sam Waterston is a Shakespeare in the Park stalwart who has performed in 13 productions over the past four decades and is often a fine actor with Emmy, Oscar and Tony nominations to his name. But he puts an idiosyncratic spin on this play’s main character Prospero that makes him seem less like the exiled duke and mighty sorcerer that Shakespeare created than an addled old guy who just wandered into the park.

June 27, 2015

Why "Significant Other" is a Significant Play

The gay best friend has become a stock character in contemporary plays. From The Heidi Chronicles to If/Then, he’s the sidekick there with a shoulder to cry on, a snappy wisecrack to add comic relief but no inner life of his own. Now, the gifted young playwright Joshua Harmon moves that character from the sidelines into the spotlight with his moving new play Significant Other.

Its protagonist is Jordan Berman, a twentysomething gay guy who has three female besties: the lovable narcissist Kiki, the wry cynic Vanessa and the quartet’s salt-of-the-earth anchor Laura, with whom Jordan is so close that they tell one another they will marry if no one else will have them. If this were Oz, Kiki would be the Lion; Vanessa, the Tinman; Laura, the loyal and most beloved Scarecrow but Jordan would have the central role of Dorothy.

The foursome have been BFFs since college, seeing one another through Vanessa’s on-again-off-again affair with a much older married man, Laura’s half-hearted romances and the timorous Jordan’s crush on a hottie who’s just started working at his office. When the play opens, they’re all at Kiki’s bachelorette party, trying to calm her bridezilla behavior and wondering what her marriage will mean for them as a group.

As everyone who has been through the rite of passage into adulthood will know, it will mean that the intimacy of even the tightest bonds between them will loosen, particularly as the others also find partners with whom to share their lives. And that, in turn, will mean feelings of loneliness and abandonment for the person who doesn’t find that special someone.

In this case that person is Jordan, whose only other significant relationship is with his aging grandmother. Jordan tries to be happy for his friends but because this is his play and not theirs, Harmon makes plain the painful cost of being the sidekick, the one who doesn’t get to be the bride, or in this case, even a bridesmaid.  

And yet, this is far from a dour evening in the theater. Harmon, the author of the rightly-praised Bad Jews (click here to read my review) knows how to balance humor and pathos (click here to read a Q&A with him). And he has great fun with the modern day rituals of mating and marrying, from I-like-you-do-you-like me email to the selection of just-for-us songs that couples choose for the first dance at their wedding.

Director Trip Cullman (click here to read an interview with him) has crafted an equally engaging production that moves in almost cinematic fashion, helped immensely by Mark Wendland’s smart, multi-tiered set, which I'll confess looked odd to me at first until my theatergoing buddy Bill pointed out how effortlessly it flowed, with the aid of Japhy Weideman’s astute lighting, from various wedding reception halls, to Jordan’s office, to the different apartments in which he, his grandmother and his friends live.

And the show is perfectly cast. Sas Goldberg as Kiki, Carra Patterson as Vanessa and, most especially, Lindsay Mendez as Laura are so spot-on that you know exactly the kind of woman each character is just by the way they’re sitting in their chairs when the light comes up on the first scene. 

An equal shoutout has to go to John Behlmann and Luke Smith, who play multiple roles and do it so effectively that it took me a while to realize that there weren’t more actors in the show. Meanwhile, the inestimable Barbara Barrie plays the grandmother without resorting to the clich├ęs of being overly-cute or overly-wise as she tries to provide hope for Jordan.

But it’s particularly hard to think of anyone who would make a better Jordan than Gideon Glick, who has made a specialty of these kinds of gawky but endearing characters in shows such as Speech and Debate and Spring Awakening (click here to read a profile of him). 

When Glick's Jordan said “no one has ever told me they loved me,” there was an audible chorus of empathetic sighs from the audience at the performance Bill and I attended. But Significant Other also allows Glick to show other colors—cruelty, selfishness—that help to make his character a fully-fleshed out man. 

Now, there are moments when Glick’s technique abandons him and emotions overtake him so much that it’s difficult to catch all the words pouring out of Jordan. But even so, his performance—and this play—is a testament to the fact that even the most hackneyed character can be made significant.

June 24, 2015

"Gloria" Takes Its Author into New Territory

In some ways, Gloria, which has been extended at the Vineyard Theatre through July 18, isn’t remarkable at all. Like a growing number of books, movies, magazine articles and even other plays, it tells the story of a traumatic incident and the media aftershocks that follow. 

But there is one really remarkable thing about Gloria: it’s written by the young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whose previous plays (Neighbors, Appropriate, An Octoroon) have dealt with the issue of race and this one doesn’t do that. 

And that's a good thing. Too often, in the theater and elsewhere, the assumption is made that the only thing people of color care about is the subject of race. Which, of course, isn’t true at all. 

So it’s significant that an African-American playwright as talented as Jacobs-Jenkins (click here to read a profile about him) has broken free from the pigeonhole and chosen to speak out about another strain on contemporary American society: the trivializing tendency to commercialize even the worst moments of our lives.

Gloria begins on an ordinary morning in the offices of a magazine, which some folks have speculated is a stand-in for The New Yorker, where Jacobs-Jenkins once worked. 

Its largely Ivy-educated editorial assistants are the usual motley crew of a slacker guy with a going-nowhere book proposal secreted away in his desk drawer, the office princess who can’t even bother getting to work on time and an earnest worker bee. 

Jacobs-Jenkins hasn't gone colorblind; parts are written specifically as African-American and Asian-American, as well as white. But the great thing is that their color doesn't define any of the characters. 

As the show opens, they're all griping about their demanding bosses and gossiping about a depressing party given the night before by the mousy copy editor Gloria and attended by only one of them, the slacker Dean.

The dialog is witty and entertaining, particularly for a New York audience filled with people who had or have jobs just like these. But eventually something happens so shocking that I literally gasped out loud. 

As regular readers know, I try to keep these posts spoiler free but I want to be even more careful than usual in describing this show because much of its power comes from not knowing what will happen next.

The scenes that followed my gasp deal with the aftermath of the event that precipitated it, as those affected by the incident not only struggle to recover from it but compete to cash in on their version of what happened. 

And here's another remarkable thing about Gloria: aided by the deft direction of Evan Cabnet, Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t overplay the characters' literal or moral tugs-of-war, which makes their solipsism—and, by implication, that of the broader society—all the more disturbing.

The six-member cast, a mix of off-Broadway vets and newbies, is superb. It’s tough to single any of them out, although Ryan Spahn as Dean and Michael Crane as a cranky fact-checker are given the meatiest parts and they make feasts of them. The creative crew does a bang-up job too, including (a bit of a spoiler) fight choreographer J. David Brimmer.

Theater companies are queuing up to work with Jacobs-Jenkins. Over the past five years, his plays have been done by the Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Soho Rep and Yale Rep and he’s got commissions to do new works for LCT3 and MTC. Smart theatergoers should be lining up too, whether he’s writing about race or anything else.

June 20, 2015

"Doctor Faustus" Commits Too Many Sins

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was “The Exorcist” of its day. Sixteenth century theatergoers were so horrified by Marlowe’s retelling of the tragic story of the ambitious scholar who sells his soul to the Devil that they reportedly passed out, vomited and even fled the theater in fear.

So imagine my confusion when the new adaptation of Doctor Faustus that opened at Classic Stage Company this week turned out to be a comedy. Then imagine my dismay when it turned out to be a not very funny one.

Marlowe’s plays get produced far less often than those of his contemporary Shakespeare but both my theatergoing buddy Bill and I had been so taken with the thrilling version of his tragedy Tamburlaine that Theatre for a New Audience put on last fall (click here for my review) that we were really curious to see what CSC would do with this one.

Also as fans (me former, Bill current) of the CBS drama “The Good Wife,” we were also up for seeing two of its stars Chris Noth and Zach Grenier as Faustus and Mephistopheles, the demon who acts as an intermediary between the doctor and the Devil.

Alas, they, in varying degrees, also disappointed. Grenier does manage to give Mephistopheles an appropriate—if one note—melancholy. But Noth seems cowed by the demands of his role. 

Noth captures neither the exhilaration Faustus feels as his deal with the Devil makes him all-powerful, even able to summon at whim Alexander the Great and Helen of Troy from the dead, nor the anguish Faustus experiences as he realizes that he has made a terrible bargain that will condemn him to eternal damnation.

Both Noth and Grenier are stage vets whom I've seen do fine work in the past (click here to read an interview with Noth) and so I’m laying most of the blame for this lackluster production on Andrei Belgrader, who not only directed it but, along with David Bridel, did the adaptation. 

Belgrader apparently felt that modern audiences are less into lofty musings about Heaven and Hell than those of five centuries ago and so he’s tried to hook them with the opiate of today’s young masses: comedy, the lower and the more ribald the better. 

Consequently he and Bridel have shifted the focus from Faustus and Mephistopheles to the doctor’s servant Robin and a pal, here pointedly called Dick, who steal a necromancy text from Faustus and haplessly attempt to conjure up the life they most desire. 

Some modern day scholars have argued that the original comic scenes are so out of keeping with the rest of the play that they must have been added after Marlowe's premature death from a stabbing at just 29. But others say that he wrote them himself as a way to alleviate some of the tension in his demonic tragedy. 

Either way, Belgrader doubles down on them. Lucas Caleb Rooney and Ken Cheeseman, the actors who play these fools, are amusing at first (they’d be great as Twelfth Night’s comic duo Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek) but the shtick here gets old fast. They also pull some audience members into their antics; I put on my evil face so they wouldn’t choose me.

But I wasn’t all that taken with the approach to the Faustus storyline either. I was particularly turned off by a scene in which one of the female actors was required to appear nude. And the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins that so shocked Elizabethan audiences just seemed tedious. Plus, I only counted six sins. 

In fact, there was a cut-rate air to the entire production, which Bill joked must have cost a nickel. There was practically no scenery, with the exception of a few pieces of furniture that a stagehand literally dragged on and off.  

Similarly, Mephistopheles is supposed to make his first appearance as a monstrous creature but the one that shows up here looks like it was borrowed from a junior high school production.

I’m going to resist the temptation to end this review with a pun on the words hell or sin. But feel free to invent your own.

June 17, 2015

"Office Politics" Sidesteps Its Real Drama

Office Politics is the kind of show that I rarely see. Its playwright, director and actors are all new to me. Its entire run, including previews, is just two weeks (it closes this weekend). And it’s playing at the tiny June Havoc Theater in the Garment District, in a Cineplex-type space where you can intermittently hear the play that’s running next door.

But what drew me to the show was the description of its storyline: “when a white male co-worker makes an off-the-cuff racially insensitive remark to his boss’s black female assistant, what seems like a harmless joke snowballs, suddenly catapulting the ad sales office of a women's magazine into turmoil.”

I’m always up for plays that deal with meaty subjects like race and class and this one sounded like a not-so-distant relative of Rasheeda Speaking, another play about interracial office politics that fascinated my friend Joy and me earlier this year (click here for my review).

And so she and I thought it might be fun to see this one and compare the approaches that the playwrights, both white, took to the continually knotty issue of race, particularly as it plays out in the kinds of quotidian offices where most of have, at one time or another, worked.

The central character in Office Politics is Tonya, the black single mom of a teenage son and a recent hire at a magazine called Healthy Woman. Tonya’s the only black person on the staff but that doesn’t cause any problems initially. She’s great at her job as the publisher’s assistant and her co-workers are genuinely welcoming, especially Len, a nice-guy sales rep who develops a crush on her.

Conflict arises when Bruce, the alpha-male in the office, says something suggesting that Tonya’s son, whom he's never met, is a street hood. She demands an apology. He refuses to give one. Len gets stuck in the middle. 

It’s the kind of he-said-she-said scenario that takes on an even more volatile edge when race is mixed in. Playwright Marcy Lovitch, who has a degree in journalism, works hard to give equal time to every side of the argument so that no one comes off as entirely right or entirely wrong. 

That might be admirable in real life but such deliberate evenhandedness can suck the energy right out of a drama so Lovitch tries to jazz things up with a subplot involving an affair between Bruce and another woman in the office who are cuckolding her husband who also works there.

Unfortunately, that second storyline is just an unnecessary distraction from the main one. Joel Drake Johnson kept his focus tightly on the race question in Rasheeda Speaking but neither show reaches any satisfying conclusions, an accurate reflection, I suppose, of the current uneasy state of race relations.

Where Rasheeda, a New Group production, holds an advantage was in its high-grade production values, which included the casting of the award-winning actresses Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest. 

Office Politics, which was funded in part by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, has more limited resources but it does a surprising amount with the little it has.

Most of its seven-member cast have worked primarily in regional theater but they all, under the straight-ahead direction of Aimee Todoroff, do fine work, particularly Philip Guerette, whose naturally honest affect reminded me of a younger Thomas Sadowski.

The real standout, though, is set designer Sandy Yalkin, who found all sorts of clever ways to transform the small stage into various locales at the office and at a retreat where the co-workers go in a futile attempt to resolve their differences. 

Yalkin's ingenuity made me smile. In fact, the choices she made—and those of the committed actors—made me think that I should explore more of what the city's myriad small theaters have to offer.