March 8, 2014
Almost everything—the acting, the directing, the costumes, the set, and most especially the play itself—works in Stage Kiss, the romantic comedy now running at Playwrights Horizon through March 23.
And I couldn’t be happier about that because I’ve been wanting to see this play ever since it premiered in Chicago three years ago. Like most theater junkies, I love a backstage show but I was particularly curious about this one because it centers around a question I’ve long wondered about: what is it like for actors when a play requires them to kiss one another night after night?
That question is further complicated in playwright Sarah Ruhl’s multi-layered rumination on the illusion of love. Here’s her set-up: two mid-career actors, once lovers, are cast in a play about two middle-aged people who were once lovers. The line between their onstage and offstage lives quickly—and hilariously—blurs.
The play-within-a-play is a deliberately ridiculous melodrama set in the 1930s (the costumes and set manage to be simultaneously swanky and silly) and the antics of getting the show on and getting the lovers back together make for great farce, particularly the rehearsal sequences in which an effeminate understudy has to step in for the macho leading man. But Ruhl has more on her mind than just funny business.
Both the erstwhile lovers have moved on to other relationships—she a marriage to a banker with whom she has a teen daughter; he now dating a schoolteacher who would like something more permanent—but they have become restless with their status quo and are seduced into thinking that things might have been different if they’d made other choices.
And here's where the play becomes something more than just an enjoyable trifle because Ruhl knows that such romanticizing of roads not taken is an inevitable side effect of growing older and that it can be easy to confuse the stories we tell ourselves about love with the real thing (click here to read an essay she wrote).
Stage Kiss can be a little too on the nose about all of this. The characters occasionally lay out the themes in speeches that seem as though Ruhl doesn’t trust the audience to put two and two together. But she does so much else well that these lapses can be forgiven.
Ruhl and director Rebecca Taichman have done four plays together and Taichman not only gets what Ruhl is aiming to do with Stage Kiss but enhances it with smart staging that pays equal attention to both the laughs and the longing.
And the casting is just as pitch-perfect. Jessica Hecht has often come off as too affected for my taste but her tics—the little girl voice, the fluttery mannerisms—are just right here and she is totally enchanting.
Dominic Fumusa, familiar as the put-upon husband in TV’s “Nurse Jackie,” deftly balances the bravado and insecurity of a guy who refuses to grow up because doing so will be an acknowledgement that he may not be good enough to realize his dreams.
The supporting players are terrific too. Patrick Kerr is a hoot as the clueless director of the ‘30s melodrama and Michael Cyril Creighton just about steals the entire show in a series of roles, including the fey understudy. This is one case where the doubling and even tripling of roles actually contributes to the show.
The production is punctuated with musical numbers performed by a piano-playing crooner in a tuxedo. His final song is a rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” Which pretty aptly describes Stage Kiss.
March 5, 2014
Drag queens have long played a central role in gay life. In the old almost-everybody-in-the-closet days, they provided a way for gay men (those who dressed up as women and those who simply applauded them) to revel in their specialness and defy those who tried to squash it. And, of course, the queens were on the front lines (and reportedly among the fiercest fighters) at the Stonewall riots that sparked the gay liberation movement.
But the mood is less flamboyant nowadays as more and more same-sex couples in this country can marry, raise families and be as humdrum as everybody else. So I was curious about The Tribute Artist, the new comedy by Charles Busch that centers around the titular drag queen who is fired from a longtime Las Vegas gig because audiences are less and less interested in seeing a man impersonate old movie divas.
But life seemed to imitate art the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw The Tribute Artist, which Primary Stages is presenting at the 59E59 Theaters through March 16. For there were only occasional titters here and there in the audience as Busch and his fellow actors hammed it up in a plot similar to Loot, Joe Orton’s sardonic farce about corpses and cash that was itself limply revived earlier this year (click here to read my review of that one).
In Busch’s even more convoluted version, Jimmy, the recently fired drag queen, or as he prefers to be called tribute artist, assumes the identity—and flowy gowns—of his elderly landlady when she dies in her sleep. He and his best friend, a lesbian real estate broker, figure they can quickly sell the childless woman’s Greenwich Village townhouse (luxuriously designed by Anna Louizos,) split the money and live happily ever after on Easy Street.
Their plan begins to unravel when the dead woman’s estranged niece shows up with her transgender son (née Rachel, now Oliver) to claim the house. They’re followed by a shady ex-lover of the landlady’s who also wants a piece of the action. Hilarity is supposed to ensue. But it doesn’t.
Too many of the jokes depend on the exact kind of campy knowledge about old movies that fewer and fewer people have (even this year’s Oscar montages cut back on clips from movies made in the ‘30s and ‘40s) and too many of the other lines simply aren’t as funny as they must have seemed to Busch when he dashed them off.
The script makes no sense and Busch fills it with clunky exposition as he tries to explain what’s happening. What saddens me more is that he shies away from the issue of whether there is any room for drag queens in today’s gay society. Maybe it’s just too scary a question for a man who has spent so many years putting on dresses to face head-on.
He gets little help from his frequent director Carl Andress, except, perhaps, for the choice of some bouncy interlude music. The cast is filled with Busch regulars too, including his good pal Julie Halston (click here to read a piece about their longtime collaboration). But nearly everyone has played so many previous incarnations of his or her current character that they all seem to be operating on autopilot.
Busch is a charming guy and a beloved figure in certain corners of the theater world and so the professional critics have strained to be kind in their reviews (click here to read some of them). The couple sitting next to me clearly wanted to like the show too. They leaned forward eagerly as it began but before the first act finished, one of them had fallen asleep so soundly that he didn’t even wake up during the intermission.
The man’s partner later roused him and they did seem to get a kick out of the second-act references to Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and Mary Astor. If you’re wondering who those women are, you can click here for a handy guide the New York Times has helpfully put together. Or you could just decide that this show isn’t for you.
Labels: The Tribute Artist
March 1, 2014
When a revival doesn’t work, people often say it’s because the show has outlived its time. Well, we no longer live in a time when the marriage of a Jew and a gentile would be a scandal, when men wear hats to work and women put on shirtwaist dresses to play canasta at afternoon card parties or when working class people could afford large apartments on the Upper West Side. And yet, the Keen Company’s new production of Middle of the Night, which opened this week in The Clurman space on Theatre Row, is just as affecting as the original production was when it premiered back in 1956 and ran for over a year.
A large part of the credit for its continuing success goes to the play’s author, the great Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote scores of scripts during the Golden Age of Television, including the teleplay for “Marty,” which he later turned into an Academy Award-winning movie, and the screenplay for “Network,” which picked up four Oscars of its own.
Today's top writers celebrate the antihero, like those on the TV shows "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" but Chayefsky specialized in the lives of ordinary men and women, the kind of people he knew when he grew up in the Bronx during the ‘30s. He turned their New Yawkese into poetry, their yearnings for love and dignity into drama.
Middle of the Night tracks the unlikely romance between a 53-year-old Jewish widower named Jerry and the 23 year-old gentile receptionist Betty who works at the factory he owns. Her mother and recently estranged husband (a jazz musician who’s always on the road) want the affair to end. His grown daughter and over-protective sister aren’t crazy about the relationship either.
The audience needs to be won over as well. Which it is by this small-scale but big-hearted production. And a large part of the credit for that goes to the sensitive direction of Keen’s artistic director Jonathan Silverstein and a moving performance by Jonathan Hadary in the leading role originated by Edward G. Robinson.
The rest of the Keen cast is uneven. Although to be fair, they may have been hindered by having to double in roles (even the set does double duty with only the lowering and raising of a chandelier signalling a change in apartments). At one point, I found myself wondering what Jerry’s sister was doing in curlers at the apartment that Betty shares with her mother and younger sister.
I also would like to have seen a little more chemistry between Hadary and Nicole Lowrance, who steps into the Betty role that a young Gena Rowlands played in the original production. But Hadary and Lowrance still manage to be sweet and oddly touching as two lonely people awed to discover that they might have found a soul mate.
Anyone who has watched “Network” knows that Chayefsky had a knack for being ahead of his time and Middle of the Night is surprisingly frank about sex, be it Jerry’s fear that he won’t be able to satisfy a woman so much younger or Betty’s dismay that lovemaking is the only thing that worked in her marriage to the jazzman.
Such open talk probably raised eyebrows back in the ‘50s but it makes this old-fashioned play seem comfortably contemporary, despite the pointy bras and stiff crinoline slips the women wear. Its unabashed sincerity also helps Middle of the Night transcend time.
Labels: Middle of the Night
February 26, 2014
When Time magazine put together its list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, Bruce Lee won a spot, right alongside Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso and Mother Theresa. It might surprise some people that a martial artist and action film star would make the cut but Lee was also an icon for legions of Asian-American kids who grew up in mid-century America hungry for a hero who looked like them and who radiated the kind of macho sexiness that belied the commonly-held stereotype of Asian men as milquetoasts and nerds.
David Henry Hwang was apparently among those adoring kids, which may explain why the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s latest work is Kung Fu, a bioplay about Lee that opened in The Diamond theater at The Pershing Square Signature Center on Monday night. Now, here’s where I should say that the play kicks butt but, alas, it doesn’t, at least not for me.
Maybe Lee's charisma just plays better on the screen. A 1993 biopic did well with critics and moviegoers alike. But a planned musical about Lee’s life, with Hwang doing the book and David Yazbek the music, never got off the ground. And this new Kung Fu was supposed to be part of the season that Signature devoted to the playwright’s work last spring but it wasn’t ready then.
And it isn’t now. Hwang doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say about Lee and so he just offers an unnuanced tick-tock of the actor's life, peppered here and there with some non-revelatory observations about how difficult it was to be a yellow man in white Hollywood.
The play opens in the early ‘60s when the 18 year-old Lee, who was born in San Francisco but raised in Hong Kong, has moved back to the States and begun teaching martial arts in Seattle. The son of a Chinese opera star and himself a successful child actor, Lee eventually makes his way to Hollywood where he teaches martial arts to movie stars like Steve McQueen and James Coburn and eventually gets a gig as the sidekick Kato on the TV show “The Green Hornet.”
The play ends after Hollywood execs refuse to cast him in lead roles and Lee reluctantly returns to Hong Kong to make low-budget action movies. Left out are those films Lee made in Hong Kong, including the now-cult-classic “Enter the Dragon” and his premature death from brain edema when he was just 32.
But all is not lost. What gives this production, directed by Hwang’s frequent collaborator Leigh Silverman, some oomph are the dream sequences that incorporate Hwang’s trademark fascination with Chinese opera, plus lots and lots of kinetically choreographed fight scenes.
The choreography is a large part of what made my sister Joanne and me want to see the show. We’re both hardcore fans of the TV dance competition “So You Think You Can Dance” and were excited that one of its most imaginative choreographers Sonya Tayeh was hired to create the moves for Kung Fu.
Tayeh likes to work in a style she calls combat jazz, which, as you might imagine, is perfect for this show. The kicks, flips and clashes that she and Fight Director Emmanuel Brown have concocted are so dynamic that they made me fear for the safety of the actors performing them (click here to read about how they were put together).
As it should be, the most audacious of them all is Cole Horibe, a runner-up on “So You Think You Can Dance” and a Junior Olympic silver medalist in Taekwondo, who plays Lee. Just as Lee was, Horibe is short, sleekly chiseled and moves with panther-like grace.
Unfortunately, Horibe’s acting isn’t yet as dexterous. He looks particularly callow in the mano-a-mano scenes with the stage vet Francis Jue, who makes Lee’s father the only fully inhabited character onstage.
However a special nod must also be given to Clifton Duncan, an African-American actor who is colorblind-casted as Coburn and manages to play the white actor without looking ridiculous.
To be fair, none of the play looks silly and those fight scenes really are exciting to watch. But while the practice of kung fu emphasizes physical agility, it also prizes an inner grace which Kung Fu lacks.
Labels: Kung Fu
February 22, 2014
It turns out to be surprisingly easy to love Love and Information the new Caryl Churchill play that New York Theatre Workshop opened this week at the Minetta Lane Theatre. I don’t always feel that way about Churchill’s work which, with its highbrow intellectualism, can sometimes be too highfalutin for me. But Love and Information, which is running through April 6, has a lot of heart.
As you’ve no doubt heard by now the play consists of 57 vignettes that play out over two intermissionless hours in which 15 actors of varying ages, genders and ethnicities bring some 100 different characters to life in a cavalcade of relationships that are familiar to almost everyone.
Some of the scenes last only seconds, others stretch out for a minute or two. Most are exchanges between two people but a few are more amply populated. Parents and children reach out to one another. Friends try to chill out together. Colleagues—office rats, circus clowns, Elvis impersonators—exchange information. Lovers try to connect.
Almost every scene hits home. And the credit for that goes as much to the director, and Churchill's frequent collaborator, James Macdonald as it does to the playwright.
For Churchill's script reads almost as blank verse. The scenes are divided into seven sections but there are no stage directions. In fact, there are no characters. Churchill has just written lines to be spoken, leaving it to Macdonald and his design team to fill the spaces in between. Which they’ve done brilliantly.
All the action takes place within a white-tiled cube smartly designed by Miriam Buether so that the space takes on different personalities with the addition of just a prop or two and the occasional video projection.
The costumes by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood send subtle but clear signals about the kind of people their wearers are. And I can’t think of a time when the sound design, devised by Christopher Shutt, has been more integral to a production.
Plus a special shout-out has to go to Christine Catti, the production stage manager who orchestrates the split-second comings and goings in a clever way that I won’t spoil for you.
But the biggest kudos go to the cast. Each actor plays a different part every time she or he appears and, because the scenes change so rapidly, they have to establish the full stories of their characters within an instant. The degree of skill required is of the highest order and there isn’t a sluggard in the bunch—or a way to single out any one of them.
The audience is required to play a role too. You can’t just sit back in your seat for this one. It took me a while to figure out exactly what was going on, to see the relationship between the experimental form of the play and its functional meaning, to understand Churchill's underlying message about the evermore complicated struggle between the head and the heart, between knowing and feeling.
But it wasn’t a chore. Some of the scenes are laugh-out-loud funny; others surprisingly touching. They reminded me of George Saunders recent story collection. I know I’ve been name checking him quite a bit lately but both his stories and Churchill’s play are tapping into our worries about the too-much information world in which we now live—and are unabashedly reassuring us that love will find a way to make sense of it.
Labels: Love and Information
February 19, 2014
Death pops up fairly regularly in plays. But its companion grief—the agonizing bewilderment that follows the loss of a loved one—appears less frequently. And that’s why I thought it might be interesting to see The Correspondent, the new play about a man mourning the recent death of his wife that opened at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater last week. But, alas, seeing it sparked a different kind of grief for my theatergoing buddy Bill and me.
I don’t know if the playwright (Ken Urban) the director (Stephen Brackett) or even the set designer (Andrew Boyce) is to blame but The Correspondent turns what could have been a meaningful meditation on grief into a cheesy episode of “American Horror Story.”
My eyes started rolling right from the first scene when a middle-aged white guy with the overly-portentous name of Philip Graves (Thomas Jay Ryan) brings home a young black woman named Mirabel (Heather Alicia Simms) and starts discussing a transaction that seems to be about sex but is actually about the fact that Mirabel’s supposed to be dying and Philip is paying her to deliver a message to his late wife when she gets to heaven.
It’s no spoiler to say that Mirabel doesn’t die and that she and Philip fall into an uneasy—and unbelievable—relationship. Meanwhile communications with the dead wife somehow begin when letters filled with things only she would know start appearing on Philip’s doorstep.
The carrier turns out to be an overwrought young man (Jordan Geiger) who seems to know even more intimate details about the Graves’ married life. Cue scary sound effects and spooky lighting.
Urban’s underlying message that grief can lead to a kind of surreal insanity will ring true for anyone who has gone through that kind of anguish but he doesn’t know how to make a compelling story out of it. Extraneous plot points—Mirabel’s pimp, a dinner at the law firm Philip heads—are introduced and then casually abandoned.
And the playwright gets no help from his director. The staging here is some of the clumsiest I’ve seen in a long time. When one character is asked to give the other two privacy, Brackett has him go out what is supposed to be the door of the apartment instead of into what's been established as one of its other rooms. A graphic sex scene, complete with full frontal nudity, is embarrassing for both the actors and the audience.
Then there’s the set. Philip is supposed to be the senior partner of a major Boston firm but the dingy apartment looks as though he’s drawing a paralegal’s salary. I know that Rattlestick productions are done on a tight budget but that’s where creative imagination is supposed to step in.
The play only lasts 90 minutes but it seemed longer. I heard exasperated sighs all around me as we all sat there lamenting our lost time and the lost opportunity to give grief its proper due.
Labels: The Correspondents
February 15, 2014
As you surely know, yesterday was Valentine’s Day (hope you enjoyed yours as much as my husband K and I did ours). But, as you may not know, it was also the anniversary of Broadway & Me. I can hardly believe that seven years have gone by since I started this blog and so I’m taking time out from the usual posts to celebrate all the great—and not so great—shows I’ve seen during that time and to celebrate you, dear readers, for sharing it all with me. Cheers, jan