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.

February 3, 2018

"Fire and Air" Fails to Ignite Any Passion

The creative ferment at the beginning of the last century rivaled that of the Renaissance. Painters like Pablo Picasso and Vasily Kandisnky restructured painting. Composers like Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky reconfigured sound.  

In the midst of it all, working with all of them, was Sergei Diaghilev, the scion of a wealthy Russian family who had little innate talent of his own but possessed an unparalleled affinity for art that lead to his becoming a visionary impresario and the subject of Fire and Air, the new play by Terrence McNally that opened this week at Classic Stage Company.

Diaghilev created the legendary Ballets Russes, championed such dancers as Vaslav Nijinsky and George Balanchine and commissioned such scores as "The Firebird" and "The Rite of Spring." And he spent oodles of money to transform this work into such daringly innovative productions that audiences sometimes rioted when they saw them. 

An unabashed hedonist, he also loved good food, rare books and beautiful men. In short, Diaghilev is a great subject for a play about what it takes to make great art. Which makes it even sadder that Fire and Air isn't a good show.

McNally says he's been working on it for years and had originally envisioned a tribute as large and colorful as the man himself. But, under the direction of the notorious minimalist John Doyle, the show has been trimmed to just six actors who trudge through Diaghilev's life on a nearly bare set that Doyle has underdecorated with two large mirrors and five gilt-colored chairs (click here to read about the show's evolution).

Bits and pieces of Diaghilev's biography—his fear of drowning, his fondness for dandyish clothes, a long-running relationship with his cousin—are cited (actually recited since the play is more tell than show) but they pass by in a stream of scenes that are no more involving than reading an excerpt from Diaghilev's Wikipedia bio would be. There's no sense of why we should care about this man and no real conflict to pull us into his story.

McNally does attempt to build a narrative around Diaghilev's tempestuous relationship with Nijinsky but, at least as staged by Doyle, that consists mainly of Nijinsky striking pretty poses and Diaghilev alternately pouting and shouting.

The actors do the best with what they've been given. Douglas Hodge, a Tony winner for his turn as Albin in the 2010 revival of La Cage aux Folles, does even more—too much more. Perhaps sensing how inert the show is, Hodge tries to liven it up by emoting as though he were in a Diaghilev-era melodrama. Several times, he literally swoons to the floor. My theatergoing buddy Bill appreciated his efforts. I was distracted by the teeth marks in the scenery.

James Cusati-Moyer as Nijinsky and Jay Amstrong Johnson as Leonid Massine, come off better because their main function is to look beautiful, which they both do. But the prodigiously talented John Glover as Diaghilev's cousin, Marsha Mason as his nanny and Marin Mazzie as his patron are wasted, functioning more as a Greek chorus than as distinctive characters.

There were far too many moments when I lost track of what role each was supposed to be serving or even where we were in Diaghilev's life. And I mean that literally. The action moves from Paris to Venice, with other stops along the way but I'll be damned if I could tell where we were.

So instead of trying to figure that out, I sat there imagining all the wonderful things Diaghilev and his compatriots might have done with a story as potentially rich as this one.

January 27, 2018

"Balls" Falls Too Short of Its Ambitious Goals

People don't usually make too big a deal about a 45th anniversary. After all, the much more impressive-sounding 50th is so close. But the 1973 match between Billie Jean King, a 29-year-old tennis star and pioneering feminist; and Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old tennis has-been and misogynistic prankster, has been getting all kinds of attention lately. 

The movie "Battle of the Sexes," as their match was billed, came out in September with last year's Oscar winner Emma Stone as King and the popular actor Steve Carell as Riggs. And now Balls, a new play running at the 59E59 Theaters through Feb. 25, is offering a highly-stylized stage version of the event.

Created by One Year Lease Theater, a company known for its physical productions, Balls goes to great lengths to recreate the King-Riggs match. The theater has been decked out by scenic designer Kristen Robinson to resemble the Houston Astrodome where the televised match took place, with covered chairs for audience members, a big, brightly lit scoreboard and the stage serving as the green-lawned center court.

Two slump-shouldered clowns greet theatergoers as they take their seats, an overt allusion to the circus-like event that surrounded the affair. Budget constraints apparently prevented the show from reproducing the players' entry onto the court in which King arrived on a litter carried by four brawny men and Riggs in a rickshaw pulled by barely-dressed women.

But the actual game is replicated almost minute by minute as Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren, convincingly costumed and wigged by Kenisha Kelly, mimic each shot King and Riggs hit during the course of their three-set showdown.

Company member Richard Saudek served as the tennis coach and Natalie Lomonte choreographed the realistic movement. No balls are lobbed in the volleys but sound designer Brendan Aanes deserves a special shout out for matching the sound of a ball bouncing on the ground and whooshing over the net to each specific action.

Always confused by tennis scoring, I had a hard time following who was up and who was down but I was thoroughly engaged by the theatricality of it all. One moment that focuses solely on a ball moving across the court is sublime.

However, the show has more on its mind than being a live version of a YouTube experience. Like the match itself, it seeks to work on a metaphorical level and to make points about the gender politics of the past four decades.

At various points, the game fades into the background and attention is focused on a series of couples: Billie Jean's husband and her female lover, a twin brother and sister who share a mania for tennis and a disdain for homosexuality and the ball boy and girl whose 30-year relationship is anachronistically tracked from flirtation through divorce.

Each pair gets the chance to take center stage and comment on relations between the sexes. An unseen announcer throws in additional gender-related factoids that range from the birth of Bill Clinton's future paramour Monica Lewinsky in 1973 to the Supreme Court's upholding of the right to abortion with its Roe v. Wade decision that same year.

And I haven't even mentioned the appearances of athletes Chris Evert and Jim Brown or the references to the transgender pioneer Renèe Richards, although it's not clear why she's been invoked since she didn't make her transition until two years after the match.

That's a lot of stuff to cram into 85 minutes and, alas, none of the revelations are particularly fresh or insightful. And although the diverse company of actors, cast at times confusingly without regard for race, is energetic, it's also uneven.

There are too many moments when Balls resembles one of those school plays where the teacher insists that everyone has to have a part and get a chance to show off his or her skill whether it helps the production or not. In this case, one of the clowns juggles for no reason at all and another cast member leads a shaky version of the feminist anthem "I Am Woman."

Perhaps the problem may be that there were too many hands involved in the creation of so small a show (click here to read about the making of it).  Balls was directed by Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint and written by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery.  Doubles of this sort may work well in tennis but less so when it comes to making winning theater.

January 20, 2018

Why I Didn't Love "Stories By Heart"

When theater lovers want to express their deep devotion to an actor as formidably talented as John Lithgow, they often say they would be content to listen to him if he were just reading the phone book (not that anyone publishes those much anymore). 

I've been a big Lithgow fan too, applauding the virtuosity that ranges from his zaniness in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to the dramatic deftness of his recent Emmy-winning performance as Winston Churchill in the Netflix series "The Crown." But I'm now not so sure about the phone book thing because I barely made it through Stories by Heart, the one-man show Lithgow is doing at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre through March 4.

It may be sacrilege to say that because Lithgow is performing short stories written by Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse, masters of the form and beloved by generations of readers for both their genial humor and their shrewd insights into what high school English teachers like to call the human condition.

The first act of Stories by Heart is devoted to Lardner's "Haircut," a monologue in which a small-town barber gossips about his neighbors as he shaves and shears a local newcomer. It starts off folksy and funny and then takes a sharp Hitchcockian turn into the darker byways of the human condition.

Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By" is a more fulsome farce about an eccentric aristocrat, his browbeaten nephew and the people they encounter during one of the uncle's free-spirited adventures. But it too makes instructive observations about the careless ways humans sometimes treat one another.

Lithgow performs both with gusto. Under Daniel Sullivan's light-handed direction, the actor uses his rubbery face, limber body and a passel of accents to impersonate all the characters from the chatty barber to a smart-alecky parrot.

Through it all, he's aided only by a handful of props that include an easy chair, a glass of water and a copy of "Tellers of Tales," a 1939 short story anthology edited by W. Somerset Maugham.

The book also provides the narrative glue for the evening. It is, Lithgow says, the actual taped-together volume that his dad Arthur, an itinerant pioneer in the regional theater movement, read to his four children when they were small and that Lithgow later read to his father toward the end of the older man's life (click here to read more about all of that).

Those reminiscences—the kids mesmerized by their father's bedtime storytelling, the old man lifted from his depression by the welcomed levity of familiar passages—are the emotional core of the evening. I wish there had been more of them.

For despite Lithgow's ebullient performance, these old-fashioned tales failed to hold my attention. I found my mind drifting off, particularly during the Wodehouse story, whose loopy characters and their bon mots proved too slight and slippery for me to grasp.

My fellow audience members were split. The man sitting next to my husband K giggled with delight at Uncle Fred's antics. The two couples in the row ahead of us left at intermission.

Still, the continuing love Lithgow feels for his father—and for the mystical power of storytelling—shines through. Seemingly unwilling to let go of his father, Lithgow has been performing various incarnations of this show across the country almost since Arthur died in 2004 at the age of 88. It's a profound tribute—and perhaps an apology—from a son who became more successful than his father in the profession they both revered.

And so despite my disappointment in Stories by Heart, its underlying story got to me. When I got home, I logged onto Amazon.com and downloaded Lithgow's 2011 memoir "Drama: An Actor's Education." 

It's a beautifully written book and, like the show, much of it is inspired by Lithgow's recollections of his father in his prime and in his decline when sharing the stories in "Tellers of Tales" helped give the old man the will to live. 

But "Drama" opens up to tell much more about these two ardent storytellers. And if you get the audiobook version, you can even hear the younger Lithgow tell it to you.