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October 18, 2014

"The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night- Time" Dazzles with Game-Changing Stagecraft

Although she grew up in a theatrical family (dad was a director and founder of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, mom’s an actor) the British director Marianne Elliott reportedly hated theater as a kid. And perhaps that’s why she’s able to be so daring about upending the way shows get made.

Elliott’s production of War Horse, which used life-sized puppets to tell the tale of a boy and his beloved horse trying to survive amid the horrors of World War I, became a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic and won Elliott a Tony in 2011. Now, she’s back on Broadway with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its stagecraft is even more dazzling than its predecessor’s (click here to read more about the director). 

The story is based on Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel about an autistic teen named Christopher Boone who attempts to solve the mysterious murder of a neighbor’s dog. In the process, Christopher, who is mathematically gifted but emotionally stunted, learns some hard-won truths about his parents and about his own ability to navigate the world that had previously baffled him. 

The boy's hero is Sherlock Holmes and the play takes its title from a short story about that idiosyncratic master of deduction. When I read the book 10 years ago, I found its deadpan first-person narrative, sly literary allusions and erudite mathematical references to be amusing, touching and impossible to imagine as a movie or a play. But playwright Simon Stephens has stepped up to the challenge. 

Stephens has reframed the storytelling: the first act is presented as an essay that Christopher has written for school and that his teacher reads out loud, creating a running narration for the action onstage; the even more meta second act becomes a play that she has adapted from his story (clear here to listen to an interview on the adaptation process).  

Then Stephens and the folks at London’s National Theatre, where the play originated before its move to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, had the good sense to enlist Elliott to direct the production. It's her inventive stagecraft that truly transforms the book. 

Elliott says she likes to collaborate and she and her equally resourceful design team are totally in sync. The Curious Incident unfolds on a stage shaped like a cube, which designer Bunny Christie has wallpapered in graph paper to simulate the hyper-orderliness of Christopher’s mind. 

Meanwhile, the kinetic lighting by Paule Constable and clever video projections by Finn Ross hook up with Adrian Sutton’s pulsating music and Steven Hoggett and Scott Graham’s distinctive choreography to mimic the thoughts, feelings and sensory overload the teen experiences as he unravels both the large and small mysteries of his life. A scene in London’s busy Paddington Station is stunning (click here to read about the design). 

A large supporting cast of 13 actors slip nimbly into and out of multiple roles, including some non-human. The father, played with bluff honesty by Ian Barford, is particularly winning. 
But anchoring the whole production (at least at the performance I saw, since another actor plays the matinees) is the performance of Alex Sharp, a 25-year-old who just graduated from NYU Juilliard in May and is now making his professional debut in the role of Christopher.  

Actors often draw accolades for portraying disabled people but Christopher is particularly tricky to pull off because he has such unappealing quirks (a visceral dread of being touched, a near monotone style of speaking) and he is aware of the often alienating effect that he can have on others and yet proud of his singularity. 

Sharp nails all of it, revealing the emotional inner life of a boy, who on the surface seems to have none. And he does this while giving an exhaustingly physical performance that has him at moments literally climbing the walls (click here for a Q& A with the young actor).

It's a career-making performance in a game-changing show.

October 15, 2014

"While I Yet Live"'s Women & Me in Playbill

To my delight, the editors at Playbill asked me to write a piece about 
S. Epatha Merkerson and Lillias White who are starring in While I Yet Live, the new play by the Tony-winning actor Billy Porter that Primary Stages just opened at The Duke on 42nd Street.  

I, of course, said yes. Which means I got the chance to meet and talk with Merkerson (perhaps still best known for playing Lt. Van Buren on TV’s “Law & Order”) and White (a Tony winner for the 1997 musical The Life). But it also means that I don’t feel quite right about reviewing While I Yet Live, which is a memory play based on Porter’s life growing up as a gay teen in a Pentacostal family and surrounded by strong women. 
However, I can’t keep myself from saying that it’s really nice to see a show that has four roles for women who are both black and over 50.  There’s also a fifth part for a young woman that is being given an eye-catching turn by Sheria Irving, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama.  You can read my piece about her veteran castmates by clicking here.

October 11, 2014

"Indian Ink" Traces Links to the Elusive Past

Tom Stoppard has a rep, deserved or not, for writing plays that are brainy but cold-hearted. The wonderful thing about Indian Ink, which the Roundabout Theatre Company is giving an elegant revival at its Laura Pels Theatre, is that it is both intellectually challenging and emotionally rewarding.

In fact, there are so many appealing facets to this play, which originally opened in London in 1995 but is just getting its first major New York production, that I hardly know where to begin talking about it. 
Like Stoppard’s more famous play Arcadia, Indian Ink is set in two interrelated time periods and deals with some of this playwright's favorite subjects: love, art and the elusiveness of the past. 

It opens in 1930, the same year that Ghandi began his Salt March to protest colonial rule in India, as Flora Crewe, a free-spirited British poet who specializes in erotic verse, arrives in the country and meets Nirad Das, an Indian artist who loves all thing English. 
A companion narrative is set in the 1980s, primarily in England, where the sister of the now-late poet is keeping protective watch over Flora’s legacy as an American literary scholar and Das’ Anglicized son attempt to uncover secrets about her life, especially the true nature of her relationship with Das. 
During the play's nearly three-hour running time, the narrative flows back and forth between the two eras. The letters Flora composes to her younger sister Nell back home supply the exposition and the connective link, with characters from the past and present occasionally occupying the stage at the same time. 

I’ll confess to being more enchanted by the earlier period but I fell for the whole thing. That could be because although Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia and has spent most of his life in Britain, he also lived in India for several years as a boy and the warmth of this play is infused with the passion he retains for that country on the cusp of change. 
Director Carey Perloff has put together a production that captures the magic of that time and place, from the vibrant colors of Neil Patel’s set and Robert Wierzel’s lighting to the subtle behaviors that mark the caste and class differences between the British and the Indians—and amongst the Indians themselves. 
The production also benefits from the performances of its leading ladies. Romola Garai, probably best known for the movie “Atonement” and the TV show “The Hour,” plays Flora. Garai seems to specialize in playing women who resist the constraints of society while maintaining the sensuality that draws the very men they’re challenging. 
A tall and commanding presence, Garai makes it easy to see why everyone is so enchanted with Flora.  But the poet is also supposed to to be suffering from tuberculosis and Garai is too robust to convey that fragility. She also sounded a little shrill in some early scenes. 

Still, Garai's overall performance is one of layered poignancy. She also looks fabulous in the beautiful costumes Candice Donnelly has created for Flora (click here to read more about the actress).
The rightly-revered Rosemary Harris plays Nell, now elderly and called Eleanor. Harris, who is now 87 but looks two decades younger, has lost none of her impressive skills. Her Eleanor is smart, prickly and because Harris, too, spent her girlhood in India where her father was stationed with the Royal Air Force, radiates an aura of authenticity that reflects Eleanor’s own complex feelings about that country.
The men in the show are good too. But it’s really the sum of all the parts that creates the magic. Some critics have found Indian Ink to be too melodramatic and call it second-tier Stoppard. They probably feel that way because it’s more accessible than some of his other plays. But its willingness to be open-heartedness is precisely why this one so works for me.

October 8, 2014

"This Is Our Youth" Seems Kind of Old

The four young men sitting in the row in front of my husband K and me were exactly the dream demographic the producers must have had in mind when they decided to do a revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth and cast it with the Millennial Generation icons Michael Cera (of the cult movies “Superbad” and “Juno”) Kieran Culkin (of a bunch of cool indies and the acting clan whose most famous member, at least until now, is “Home Alone’s” Macaulay Culkin) and Tavi Gevinson (the 18-year-old wunderkind fashion blogger and editor-in-chief of the online teen magazine “Rookie”—click here to read more about her).

And the play, which is running at the Cort Theatre through Jan. 4, apparently scored with our preppy fellow audience members, who, with their navy blazers, shawl-collared sweaters and carefully-tousled hair, might have been fugitives from a Ralph Lauren ad or the better behaved classmates of the characters in Lonergan’s dramedy about Reagan-era rich kids obsessed with sex, drugs and the lack of control from their clueless parents. But it fared less well with K and me.
Our somewhat muted response was certainly not the fault of the cast, who, despite their relative lack of theater experience, were terrific, especially the guys. Cera employs the awkward-but-endearing mannerisms that have become his trademark but he makes an impressive stage debut, seeming as comfortable on the boards as he is onscreen. 

Culkin, who has more stage credits, won an Obie back in 2005 for his performance as the survivor of a shooting tragedy in After Ashley but he is even better in this play’s flashiest role. Gevinson may not be quite up to her cast mates but she’s also much younger and less experienced than they are and her winsome performance is nothing for her to be embarrassed about. 

Nor can I shake a disapproving finger at director Anna D. Shapiro (who just last week was named the new artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company). Shapiro keeps the action focused and the energy high (although I hated the haranguing incidental music by Rostam Batmanglij from the indie-pop band Vampire Weekend) but her direction also mines the play's undercurrent of melancholy (click here to read about how she did it).  

So why was I so lukewarm about the overall production?  Well, I’m not sure. It could be that I’m just not a Lonergan gal. 

I missed the original 1996 production of This Is Our Youth that made a star of Mark Ruffalo and an-easier-to-get-a-job name out of Josh Hamilton. And I was somewhat mystified by the praise that greeted Lonergan’s Lobby Hero but completely in sync with the disapproving reception for his Medieval Play which debuted at Signature Theatre two years ago (click here to ready my review). 
The problem could also be that I have a high bar for plays about the 1%. This Is Our Youth is centered around Warren (Cera) a rich kid who steals $15,000 from his wealthy dad after the old man has kicked him out of the house, and Dennis (Culkin), a low-level drug dealer who is also the son of a famous painter. Gevinson plays Jessica, an equally privileged young woman who has been set up on a date with Warren.

The play unfolds over a 12-hour period in which the guys indulge in emotional and physical one-upmanship, Warren and Jessica joust over whether they can have a relationship and Warren and Dennis try to figure out how to replace the money that Warren has taken from his dad.  

But, as one of the characters admits, these are rebels with safety nets, cushioned by family wealth and status. And although, there’s a whole lot of yelling and running around in the first act, I found myself drifting off. 

And it apparently wasn’t just me. I saw a gray-haired couple fleeing toward the exit during the intermission. But they might—as K and I did—have felt somewhat differently if they had stayed. Lonergan reveals his purpose in the second act of this two-hour-and-twenty-minute play, even if he also mars it with two monologs that spell out his intent a bit too clearly.
I can imagine how daring all this youthful disaffection must have seemed back in the Morning-in-America era of the ‘80s but a play about rich kids whose parents focus more on their own personal satisfaction than on that of their kids seems off in this era when helicopter parents are hovering everywhere and many kids now include their moms and dads high on the list of their best friends.  

Or maybe, unlike the preppy foursome who sat in front of me, I'm just the wrong demographic for this show.

October 4, 2014

Why "A Walk in the Woods" is Worth the Trip

Kathleen Chalfant sits high on my list of the actors who I will see in almost anything (click here to see the whole list). And she’s as amazing as ever in the Keen Company’s revival of A Walk in the Woods, the 1988 Lee Blessing play about arms negotiations that opened at The Clurman on Theatre Row this past week.

The two-hander, set in the days of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, was both a Tony nominee for best play and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But it seems a bit musty now, even though some of the old hostilities between the two countries are heating up and Putin is yearning to put the USSR back together again.

Director Jonathan Silverstein has smartly added some contemporary fizz to Blessing's talky drama by changing the Russian negotiator from a man to a woman, as if in acknowledgment of the growing presence of women at the highest levels of world affairs from the International Monetary Fund’s managing director Christine Lagarde to our own former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. 

The play's text seems the same, except for the necessary pronoun substitutions, but the gender change subtly affects both the personal and political dynamics between the characters. Chalfant is as menschy as the late Robert Prosky was in the original Broadway production but her Irina Botvinnik also displays the qualities that so many high-powered women amass in their arsenals. 

She makes Irina girlish and flirty one minute; tough and schoolmarmish the next. And she beautifully conveys the wistfulness of a woman who has made personal sacrifices for the sake of her professional career and an almost maternal compassion as she tries to mentor her younger American counterpart. (click here toread about how she created the role).

In fact, Chalfant's performance is so convincing that my husband K, who had never seen A Walk in the Woods before, said he couldn’t imagine a man playing the part. 

Paul Niebanck works hard and does a nice job with the role of the American negotiator (played by Sam Waterston in the original production) but he is, like his character, outclassed by his more experienced partner.

The rest of the production—the set (cardboard trees, a few video projections) and the costumes (simple suits and coats to signal the change of seasons)—is modest but effective. Chalfant supplies the magnificence.

September 27, 2014

Falling Back in Love with "Love Letters"

When A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters played at the old Promenade Theatre in the spring of 1989, the actors cast as its epistolary partners—the very wealthy and very WASPy Melissa Gardner and the equally WASPy but only well-to-to Andrew Makepeace Ladd III—changed every week. 

I went to see three, or maybe four, of those pairings and would have gone more if I’d had the money. For this two-hander about the 50-year relationship between a wild child and a straight arrow moved me to tears each time I saw it. And now the revival that has just opened on Broadway with Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy has sent tears rolling down my cheeks again.

I think I so love Love Letters because it is theater at its most elemental. A female and a male actor sit at a table on a bare stage and read from a series of letters that begins when their characters are seven and, 90 minutes later, ends with the death of one of them. 
I know it doesn’t sound like much and as my theatergoing buddy Bill and I settled into our seats at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, even I had some qualms about whether this play, which hinges on the now quaint practice of writing letters, would live up to my memories of it, still hold my interest. But, under Gregory Mosher’s astute but unfussy direction, I once again fell completely under its thrall.

The letters exchanged are funny and gossipy but bits of more serious life—a stepfather’s unwanted touches, a son’s problems with drugs, an interracial affair, a return to rehab—sneak in between the lines and pierce the heart. 

All the while, Gurney and Mosher make it clear that the sustaining anchor point for Melissa and Andy is the love they share even as they drift into affairs and ultimately marriages with other people. 
Still, it’s the acting that sustains Love Letters. It offers a textbook lesson in the alchemy that can occur when talented actors bring their distinctive personalities to rich roles. And because the actors literally read the letters from the script and don't require much rehearsal, it’s always been easy to draw that top-shelf talent (click here to see a history of the play). 

A revolving cast for this production has already been set with Carol Burnett replacing Farrow when her run ends on Oct. 10. Then Alan Alda and Candice Bergen are scheduled to move into the chairs on Nov. 9, followed by Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg on Dec. 6 and Martin Sheen and Anjelica Huston on Jan. 10 (click here to read a feature in in which some of them share memories of personal love letters they've received or sent).
I’d expected the always formidable Dennehy to be terrific but he started out a little stiff at the performance Bill and I saw. It was almost as though he wasn't quite comfortable pretending to be the grade and prep school aged Andy. 

But as the character matured into manhood, Dennehy relaxed into the role and with the smallest of gestures—a halting intake of breath, the slump of his massive shoulders—masterfully conveyed the profound desperation of a man who always makes the choices society expects from him instead of the ones he yearns for. 
But it was Farrow who proved a revelation to me. Melissa, the poor little rich girl who never seems to do the right thing, is always the flashier part but this actress who last appeared on Broadway in 1980, digs deep into the marrow of the character. 

Combining her girlish voice and fluttery mannerisms along with the moxie that allowed her to be the consort of high-maintenance men from Frank Sinatra to Woody Allen, Farrow shows the fragility hiding behind the bravado as Melissa struggles to be accepted for who she is rather than what she should be or what she has. 
Even after having seen Stockard Channing, Joanna Gleason and Swoosie Kurtz (all magnificent) do the part in the ‘80s, I was knocked out by Farrow’s performance and can’t imagine a better Melissa.

 And yet, I've got to admit that I’m curious to see what all those others will do with the role when their turns come.

September 24, 2014

To the Bone Cuts to the Meat of Immigrant Life

As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of plays about poor and working class people. But I’m also a scourge about most of the ones I see because they tend to stereotype their subjects or condescend to the people they’re portraying. And that is why I so like To the Bone, the new play about undocumented immigrant women that treats its subjects with compassion and dignity.

The play, which is running at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Oct. 4, was written by Lisa Ramirez, whose last play Exit Cuckoo was a one-woman show about nannies based on her own experience of working as one.

For To the Bone, Ramirez got first-hand testimony from Latina women who work in the poultry farms that have sprung up in upstate New York over the past couple of decades and that are worked mainly by people who have made the long and dangerous trek from Central America for the chance to have a better life (click here to read some of their real-life stories). 
I had thought a show based on interviews would be one of those docudramas like The Exonerated, in which actors recite the comments of the interviewees verbatim. But Ramirez has written a traditional narrative, although it bristles with the kind of unabashed passion for social change that would make an old agitproper like Clifford Odets proud.  
And, like much of Odets’ work, the story she tells is melodramatic. That’s become a bad word for most critics and I’ve used it as a putdown too.  But I actually don’t mind melodrama if it’s put to good use and done well, as is the case here (click here to read about the making of the show).
What distinguishes To the Bone is that instead of viewing her subjects voyeuristically and harping on the alienating behaviors that poverty can provoke, Ramirez writes from the inside, underscoring the simple and complex human traits that her characters share with the rest of us.
At the center of her tale are four women who share a modest house in Sullivan County, the agricultural region about 75 miles from Manhattan. Olga (the playwright herself) is the dominant force. She’s a widow who owns the house, has a green card, and is the mother of a young-adult daughter Lupe (a vivid Paola Lázaro-Muñoz), who writes rap lyrics and aspires to go to NYU to study law so that she can better fight for rights for her people.  
The other two women, Reina and Juana, are in the U.S. illegally and rent rooms from Olga but have become like family. They all bicker, share meals, listen to one another’s dreams, rub one another’s aching muscles after 10-hour days on the assembly line at the nearby poultry factory, and chip in to pay a likeable guy named Jorge to drive them back and forth from the plant since none of the women can afford a car and public transportation is spotty.
The play kicks into action when Reina’s niece Carmen, who has abandoned her studies in Honduras to travel north for a job that will allow her to help her ailing mother back home, arrives to live with the others and to find work at the plant. But Carmen quickly catches the eyes of Jorge, the plant owner Daryl and, perhaps, of Lupe as well. 
Soon, a rape occurs. Reina and Juana, frightened of losing their jobs or being deported, advise Carmen to keep quiet about it. But Olga, who has a dangerously volatile temper, has other plans. 
The denouement may be predictable but director Lisa Peterson makes the journey there engrossing.  She and a design crew lead by set designer Rachel Hauck create the women’s hermetic world by lining the theater’s walls with chicken coops and positioning key fixtures—the time clock they have to punch, the lockers where they change into work clothes, the backyard picnic table where they eat on warm nights—within a playing space that is surrounded on three sides, bringing the audience in up close (click here to read about how they did it). 
Peterson adds additional theatrical flourishes that include choreographed routines that illustrate the soul-squelching monotony of spending hours on an assembly line and slowing down the action for poetic soliloquies.
The acting is first-rate, with each one of the eight-member cast giving a performance grounded in reality. The result is a nuanced portrait of the forgotten people behind the statistics in this country’s ongoing immigration debate.  Attention, to paraphrase another chronicler of the downtrodden, should be paid.