April 22, 2018

My Last "King Lear"...At Least for A While

Traditions says that King Lear is the most difficult role in the English-speaking theatrical canon. So as soon as actors hit their 50s, they start itching to take on the challenge. Which explains why there always seem to be so many productions of King Lear. And it also explains why I've seen so many of them, including the Royal Shakespeare Company's current one, now running at BAM's Harvey Theater though next weekend.

I'd told myself that after having seen Derek Jacobi, Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, John Lithgow, Joseph Marcell, Christopher Plummer, Sam Waterston, and some others I can't even remember, I was going to give the play a rest. But when my theatergoing buddy Bill suggested that we see Antony Sher's interpretation of Shakespeare's mad and foolish king, I found I couldn't resist.

Besides being a celebrated Shakespearean actor, Sher is also a fine writer who has chronicled his experiences playing such iconic characters as Falstaff and Richard III. So I ordered tickets and a copy of his latest book, "The Year of the Mad King, which talks about his take on Lear (click here to listen to an interview with the actor). Alas, the new memoir, which focuses more on Sher's personal life than his preparation for King Lear, is the weakest of his books and the production isn't much stronger.

To be fair, King Lear has been done so much that it's hard to come up with anything new, as the book "Performing Lear," an analysis of 30 or more of the most significant performances over the last 70 years, makes clear (click here to see more about that book). Still, Gregory Doran, the RSC's artistic director and Sher's husband, tries.

Doran has put together some striking set pieces, including a majestic entry for Lear at the beginning of the play and a memorable scene in which a bunch of the king's rowdy knights abuse the hospitality of his eldest daughter Goneril, strengthening the case for why she and her sister Regan might be fed up with their father.

And the director has thoroughly integrated the cast (the prime roles of Lear's faithful youngest daughter Cordelia and his minister Gloucester's duplicitous son Edmund are both played by black actors). He's also come up with staging innovations that uses supernumeraries to play the wretched residents of Lear's kingdom and a big Plexiglas box that's probably supposed to symbolize something but, in all honesty, I can't figure out what.

Sher's Lear makes his first appearance sitting on a throne in that transparent box, which is initially brought in on the shoulders of four brawny litter carriers. Dwarfed by the large fur-trimmed robe he's wearing, this king might be mistaken for a little boy playing dress up if not for his gray beard.

The combination of the character's childish petulance and his dread of aging and his own mortality are used to fuel his decision to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, determining how much each will get on the basis of the declarations of love for him he forces them to give. This sets off the chain of jealousies and rivalries that will lead to the ruin of them all.

As you might expect from an RSC production, nearly everyone, from Sher to the actors playing the servants, speaks the Bard's lines beautifully. I admired them for it, particularly Paapa Essiedu, the RSC's sleek rising star who infuses Edmund with a disaffected disdain for both his enemies and his allies (click here to read more about the actor who is also slated to play Hamlet at the Kennedy Center next month). 

But none of the performances made me feel anything even though this is perhaps the saddest of Shakespeare's plays. That's no doubt because Doran and Sher have deliberately downplayed the histrionics that have enlivened—or overwhelmed—other Lear productions. 

It may be a smart choice but watching this King Lear made me realize that sometimes, particularly with an old warhorse like this one, a little fanfare helps. And although the timing is unfortunate since the Bard's birthday is tomorrow, it also made me think that it may be time for me to take a break from Shakespeare. So I'm declaring a six-month moratorium on seeing any of his plays.  We'll see how long I can resist.

April 14, 2018

A Totally Winning Revival of "Lobby Hero"

Few things make me happier than seeing my husband K enjoy a good laugh while he's watching a show. And so that alone would be reason enough for me to cheer the revival (and Broadway debut) of Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero, which is now running at Second Stage Theater's newly renovated The Hayes Theater through May 13 (click here to read more about the renovation).

However, there are also other reasons to cheer on this comic tragedy's deep dive into the complexities of power, morality and loyalty. Set in the lobby of an apartment building, it explores the interconnecting stories of a sad-sack security guard named Jeff, his by-the-book supervisor William and two beat cops, the macho veteran Bill and his female rookie partner Dawn.

Two things tie this foursome together: sexual rivalries over Dawn and a horrendous crime that involves a relative of William's. Now, I know none of this sounds funny but Lonergan has an ear for dialog and a taste for the ribald that rivals that of Stephen Adly Giurgis or David Mamet. His characters are laugh-out-loud funny even when they're just trading remarks about something as prosaic as who should sign the building's guest book.

But the primary question they're dealing with is deadly serious: is it more moral to tell the truth or to lie when you know that the system is stacked for or against someone because of their gender or the color of their skin?  The characters know that neither option is entirely right and the achievement of this production is that it makes the viewer feel just as conflicted.

I saw Lobby Hero when it played at Playwrights Horizons back in the spring of 2001 and I wasn't all that impressed. Maybe it's all the recent stories about workplace harassment or the increased attention to the legal system's mistreatment of black men but I responded viscerally this time. I actually squirmed in my seat as the characters made their choices, whether those decisions reflected good intentions or naked self-interest.

Much of the credit for that must go to director Trip Cullman who remains surefooted as he walks the tricky path Lonergan has laid out. Cullman is aided by David Rockwell's revolving set, which subtly mimics the characters' and the audience's shifting perspectives; and by a crackerjack cast, drawn primarily from movies and TV but still displaying impressive stage chops.

Most of the media attention has gone to Chris Evans, taking a break from his role as Captain America in the Marvel superhero movies to play the alpha-male Bill. It's a juicy role, full of swagger and bravado and Evans has fun with it. But he's stage wise enough to know that he could upset the delicate balance Lonergan and Cullman have established and so he doesn't push too hard (click here to read an interview with the actor).

Despite a tendency to talk a little too fast, Brian Tyree Henry, best known as the rapper Paper Boi on the FX sitcom "Atlanta," brings a world-weary naturalism to William that grounds the play in the realities of how difficult it can be to break out of the role that society so often assigns black men.

The British actress Bel Powley is a touch too wide-eyed for me, although that quality makes Dawn's determination to hold her own with the boys all the more poignant.

But it's Michael Cera who emerges as first among equals in this quartet. Skinny and nerdy looking, Cera has made a career out of playing beta-male losers. Here, his Jeff is the quintessential Lonergan protagonist who is eager to be seen as one of the guys but aware enough to know that he never will be.

It's an award-worthy performance and Lonergan has already signed up the actor, who also starred in the revival of This is Our Youth in 2014, for this fall's revival of his play Waverly Gallery, which will also mark Elaine May's return to the stage for the first time in 19 years, which is something else to cheer.

April 7, 2018

Against the Odds With "The Lucky Ones"

We're in the midst of an American musicals renascence so vibrant that even people who can't name the Big Five R&H shows know the names Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pasek & Paul and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez, all of whom have hit shows currently running on Broadway. 

Less well-known but also determined to rejuvenate the art form are Abigail and Shaun Bengson, the husband-and-wife duo who perform under the name The Bengsons and who've had three musicals produced within the past year, the most recent being The Lucky Ones, which Ars Nova opened at The Connelly Theater on the Lower East Side last week.

Weaned more on indie rock than the show tunes that influence the uptown musicals makers, The Bengsons create hard-charging shows hewn from their own life stories. I first saw them last November when their show Hundred Days enjoyed a well-received run at New York Theatre Workshop.

Backed by the members of the Bengson's touring band, Hundred Days (which received a Lucille Lortel nomination this past week) recounted the story of the couple's meeting, falling in love, wiggling out of the relationships they already had and moving in together within two days and then spending the remaining 98 fearing that it was all too good to be true and that one or the other would die as a form of retribution. 

Eventually—no spoiler alert since they're both alive and well and actually telling the tale onstage themselves—they find the courage to tie the knot and live happily ever after.

The Bengson's music isn't really my kind of music (there's a similarity to the songs that make it hard for me to remember them individually) and I'm usually turned off by solipsistic narratives that block out the rest of the world the way theirs do. But I found myself fascinated by Hundred Days. 

I was intrigued by the interplay between Abigail's frenetic intensity and banshee-inflected vocals and Shaun's even-keeled mellowness and easy virtuosity on the guitar and keyboards. And I wanted to see what else they might do and so I bought tickets for The Lucky Ones as soon as they went on sale.

Its story, drawn from a tragic incident in Abigail's early teen years, is personal too but this time the canvass is larger, making room for extended family members. 

A cast of 16—lead by Myra Lucretia Taylor as Abigail's mom, Maryann Plunkett as her aunt, Damon Daunno as her charismatic but unstable cousin and Adina Verson as the outsider he falls for—play Abigail's family members and classmates at the progressive prep school her parents once ran.

As she did with Hundred Days, the playwright Sarah Gancher helps shape the memories into the musical's book (click here to listen to an interview I did with the writer for the "Stagecraft" podcast I do for BroadwayRadio) but the narrative remains loose-limbed. It's more tell than actual show.

All three of the Bengson musicals (including Sundown, Yellow Moon, which had a short run at Ars Nova last year) have been directed by Anne Kauffman, the new co-artistic director of Encores! Off-Center, who leans into their material instead of trying to force it into a more conventional production.

The band in both Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones play onstage, the set looks like a smaller version of the metal-pipe jungle gym from last Sunday's televised version of Jesus Christ Superstar and Abigail and Shaun address the audience directly between musical numbers.

There's also galvanic movement choreographed by the couple's friend Sonya Tayeh, one of the best choreographers on TV's "So You Think You Can Dance," who is moving more and more into musical theater.  

So The Lucky Ones has a lot of things going for it, particularly for adventurous theatergoers. And while its parts may not add up to a convincing whole, I still feel lucky to have seen it.

March 31, 2018

"Escape to Margaritaville" and "Frozen" Are Aimed Directly at Their Fans' Sweet Spots

Tourists now make up 60% of the Broadway audience and seeing a Broadway show for most of those folks means seeing a big, splashy musical. And if it has a title they already know, so much the better. Critics tend to be New Yorkers and while they like musicals too, their tastes tend toward, how should I say, more serious stuff. 

Which is why despite what the critics may be saying, audiences may be pleased with Escape to Margaritaville, the jukebox musical built around the songs of Jimmy Buffett that is now playing at the Marquis Theatre; and Frozen, Disney's stage version of its megahit animated film, which is at the St. James Theatre.

To be honest, they're not the kinds of shows that hit my sweet spot either. And yet, I had a pleasant enough time at each. That's largely because both shows are competently put together and are unabashed in their desire to please.

That's particularly true of Escape to Margaritaville which extends the laid-back aesthetic that has become Buffett's trademark right out into the lobby where tequila baristas whip up margaritas ($16 for frozen, $12 for straight) that aren't bad at all.

A bar is featured onstage too. In the story that TV sitcom writers Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley have cobbled together, it's the place at Margaritaville, the eponymous down-on--its-heels Caribbean resort, where visiting tourists congregate.

They're kept soused and happy by the nice-guy bartender Brick (played with goofy charm by Eric Petersen) and his pal Tully, a good-looking-and-great-abs musician (played by the good-looking-and-great-abs Paul Alexander Nolan) who not only plays the guitar and sings but also entertains some ladies with weeklong romances.

The lives of both men are turned upside-down with the arrivals of Tammy (the always-sympathetic Lisa Howard who develops a fondness for Brick even though she's on a pre-wedding vacation before she's supposed to marry a lout back in Cincinnati) and her best friend Rachel (a somewhat bland Alison Luff as a workaholic environmentalist who's initially determined to resist Tully's charms).

Also on hand are Rema Webb as the resort's irascible owner Marley, Don Sparks as an old hippie named J.D. who's given to tall tales about past adventures and buried treasure and is sweet on Marley, plus a hard-working 20-member ensemble.

Most of the action, including a threatened volcano eruption, is dictated by titles and lyrics to Buffet's most popular songs such as ""Margaritaville," "A Pirate Looks at Forty," "Cheeseburger in Paradise" and, of course, "Volcano," all of which are listed alphabetically in the program so fans can see which of their faves made the cut (click here to read about the making of the show).

They're mainly the kind of catchy tunes that get people swaying in their seats and director Christopher Ashley, last year's Tony winner for helming Come From Away, does everything he can to keep the party mood going. But your enjoyment of the show is probably going to be determined by how big a fan you are of Buffet's music. The fiftysomething guy sitting next to me seemed to know the words to all the songs and he looked to be having a great time.

The twentysomethings sitting next to me at Frozen had a great time too. The 2013 movie was celebrated for putting sisterly love at the center of this story, which is set in a fairytale Norway and focuses on two young princesses who become estranged when the elder, Elsa, develops the power to freeze whatever she touches, including her younger sister Anna.

But the move is best known for the Oscar-winning anthem "Let It Go," written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, performed on the soundtrack by Idina Menzel and sung endlessly in living rooms across America by legions of little girls.

Disney originally tapped Alex Timbers, the director of such offbeat shows as Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher, to transfer Frozen to the stage but later changed its mind (click here to read more about that) and brought in the more mainstream British director Michael Grandage, who has produced the kind of show that a 1950s grandma would have felt comfortable taking her grandkids to see.

The book by Jennifer Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, hews close to the movie. When their parents die, as parents in children's stories almost always do, Elsa (here played by the stiff but clarion-voiced Caissie Levy) becomes queen but soon hides away in an isolated ice palace so that she won't hurt anyone.

That leaves Anna (a spunky and winning Patti Murin) to seek solace and companionship in the too-good-to-be-true Hans (John Riddle), a prince from a neighboring country but still determined to find her sister with the help of a stalwart peasant named Kristoff (who, in a nod to non-traditional casting, is played  by the African-American actor Jelani Alladin).

Once again, the familiar elements are there— the cartoonish sidekicks, Kristoff's reindeer Sven and the talking snowman Olaf, and, of course several helpings of "Let it Go"—but magic can be harder to recreate onstage than it is on screen.

Grandage and set designer Christopher Oram have come up with simple but sometimes beautiful ways to recreate the snow storms (click here to read about how their approach) but they don't inspire awe the way the movie's effects did. The new songs that the Lopezes have written fit in with the original score but none of them is a standout. And more importantly, the story's edges have been softened and sits feminist message has become muddier.

None of this, I hasten to say, stopped the young women next to me—nor the scores of little girls in the audience, some decked out in Elsa costumes—from having a good time. Like Escape to Margaritaville, Frozen is a show for people who were fans of it before they even bought their tickets. The rest of us should probably seek our entertainment elsewhere

March 24, 2018

"Admissions" Only Partially Succeeds

Race has long been—long as in ever since white settlers arrived in the New World, took territory from the natives and then imported enslaved Africans to work that land—a divisive issue in this country. Which may be why playwrights (at least white ones) avoid writing about race. So Joshua Harmon deserves credit for jumping into the thicket of it with Admissions, which has just been extended at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater through May 6. And I'm going to applaud his chutzpah even though I can't totally champion his play.

Its title is a triple word play because the main character Sherri is the liberal-minded admissions director at a New England prep school; her own son Charlie is in the process of applying to his dream college, Yale; and, before the 105-minute play ends, all kinds of uncomfortable confessions will be made.

Sherri, played with her usual fine-grained finesse by Jessica Hecht, is inordinately proud of the fact that she has tripled the enrollment of students of color at the school from 6% to 18% in the 15 years she's been on the job and she's determined to raise the number even higher. But both she and Charlie are severely shaken when Charlie doesn't get into Yale but his best friend, a mixed-race kid named Perry, does.

Perry never appears. Nor does his black dad. Instead, Harmon has Perry's white mother, who also happens to be Sherri's best friend, make the case for her son's Ivy League worthiness. 
Some critics have chastised the playwright for leaving out the black characters but I found it refreshing to see a group of white people grappling with the complications of race, privilege and how to distribute opportunity more equally, topics that the theater usually leaves to people of color to deal with. I just wish Admissions had dealt with it all better.

After setting up the situation, Harmon and his director Daniel Aukin forgo plot and just allow the characters to step up onto metaphorical soapboxes and spout their beliefs, anger and feelings about being treated unfairly (click here to read an interview with the director). Charlie actually gets to give a 15-minute diatribe that's supposed to reveal how even the most progressive whites will reach for the race card when they feel they've been dealt a bad hand.

People at the performance I attended broke into applause at the end of his monologue. But it sounded to me as though Harmon hadn't combed through all of the arguments he was trying to make (somehow both Willa Cather and Penelope Cruz get thrown into the mix) or was nervous about taking too firm a stand. So I wasn't sure what my fellow audience members were clapping for, unless it was in admiration of the actor Ben Edelman's having learned so many lines.

But what really distressed me is that this is the second show I've seen over the past month that danced up to a hot-button topic (the other was MCC's Relevance which tangoed with feminism) and then danced away just as quickly before it got burned. As my grandmother used to say, if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.