April 22, 2017

The Tony Talk Podcast, Episode 5: Supporting Players

The Tonys may be the top dog in awards season but it's not the only one in the game. Lots of other groups also celebrate the best of the theater season. The nominations for the Lucille Lortel Awards, which honor off-Broadway productions (click here to see the full list) were announced last week. This week brought the Drama League nominations which encompass Broadway and off-Broadway (click here for its full list). And this coming Tuesday, the Outer Critics Circle, of which I'm a member, will weigh in with its choices for both Broadway and off-Broadway as well (check back here on Wednesday for my thoughts about them).

Some categories are easier than others. Even in this jam-packed season, there are only 10 plays and nine revivals vying for one of the four slots in their respective categories and each of them has, at most, two people who would qualify for Lead Performer in a Play. But, depending on who you count, there are about 120 actors praying to hear their names when the nominations for Best Featured Actor or Actress in a Play are called out.

There are lots of reasons to single out one of those supporting players: maybe the actor managed to give a great performance in a so-so production, or perhaps a newcomer made an auspicious debut or a journeyman showed a different side of himself and dug deeper than he ever has before, or maybe an actress simply gave an unforgettable performance.

In this episode of the Tony Talk podcast, my pals, Chris Caggiano, Bill Tynan and I talk about our strategies for choosing actors for the four featured categories, as well as some of the week's other Tony-related news. Click the orange button below to hear what we have to say. You can also check out all the Tony Talk podcasts on SoundCloud by clicking here or on our new Tony Talk show page, which you can find here.

April 19, 2017

"The Profane" Seeks The Moral High Ground

Playwrights Horizons hasn't made a big deal of it but over the past year, the company seems to have gone out of its way to tell stories about people whose lives rarely get shown onstage and to try to sidestep stereotypes that tend to get used when telling them. Last spring, Danai Gurira's Familiar looked at Zimbabwean immigrants adjusting to an upper-middle class life in the U.S.  In the fall, Julia Cho's Aubergine focused on the uneasy relationship between a Korean-American chef and his dying father. And now, The Profane, Zayd Dohrn's play about two Muslim families, is running through May 9.

The Profane won the 2016 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New Play but it's received only lukewarm reviews. In some ways, that's understandable. The play exudes a heavy-handed earnestness that wouldn't be out of place on one of those network TV shows that like to take on the latest hot-button topic. And yet, the fact that there is a show about Muslims in which the subject of terrorism isn't even a subplot strikes me as something to be applauded.

The plot here centers around the romance between two young people, both from families who have immigrated to—and done very well in—the U.S.  Emina is the younger daughter of a novelist dad and a former dancer mom who are secular and proudly assimilated. Sam is the only son of a small business owner who sells restaurant equipment and his hijab-wearing wife who are culturally conservative and religiously observant.

Tensions arise when Emina and Sam announce their engagement and Emina's folks object to the idea of their progressively-raised child marrying into such a traditional family. Their fears allows playwright Dohrn to explore the internecine divisions that will be familiar to the members of just about every ethnic group and he's scrupulously even-handed about it. Probably too much so.

Every point gets a counterpoint. Emina is discovering her faith; Sam is beginning to doubt his. Her free-spirited parents are less tolerant than one might expect; his traditional parents are more forgiving than one might suspect. Even the settings are evenly divided with Act 1 taking place in Emina's family home (a book-lined apartment in Greenwich Village) and Act 2 in Sam's (a beautiful, if bland, house in White Plains).

But a lot of the criticism has been directed at the fact that despite his ambiguous sounding surname, Dohrn is white, the son of the former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. The naysayers complain that his outsider status has produced characters who are too generic and that his treatment of them is too p.c. 

I agree that a playwright of Middle Eastern descent like Ayad Akhtar or Mona Mansour might have provided more nuance but I don't think that Dohrn's effort should be automatically dissed. The issues of class and identity that he raises are valid. And he and director Kip Fagan treat them with respect and sensitivity.

The Profane has also given its seven-member cast the rare chance to stand center stage (click here to read a group interview with them).  Not one of those actors has appeared in a Playwrights Horizons production before this one. Here's hoping that this isn't the last time we see them there, in other plays about Muslim life and in ones about life in general too.

April 15, 2017

The Tony Talk Podcast, Episode 4: Too Much of A Good Thing

If you love musicals, this is the season for you. Fourteen new ones will have opened by the time the season officially ends on April 27. And they range from small edgy chamber pieces to big family-friendly spectacles, which means that whatever kind of musical you prefer, there's bound to be at least one show you'll like.

But if you produce musicals, this is a nail-biting season.  At most, only five shows can be nominated for the top Tony prize. And most of the media attention—along with a chunk of the ticket sales—is likely to go to those shows too. Everyone expects Dear Evan Hansen, Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and this year's surprise hit Come From Away to get on the ballot so that only leaves two spots for all the other contenders.

There are also nine original plays opening but most of them are doing only so-so at the box office and, again, since there will only be room for five, the nominators will have to do some triage, which means the runs for some shows—including good ones—may end prematurely.

In fact, a few shows have already posted their closing notices and there's a strong chance that others will follow after the nominations are announced on May 2. 

So in this episode of Tony Talk, my pals Chris Caggiano, Patrick Pacheco and I talk about which shows seem most at risk. [Note: today's podcast was recorded before Andy Karl injured himself during a preview performance of Groundhog Day.Click the orange button below to hear what we have to say or check out all the Tony Talk podcasts on SoundCloud by clicking here 

April 12, 2017

The Highly Theatrical Hijinks of "Vanity Fair," "The Play That Goes Wrong" and "946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips"

Sometimes you want a little sizzle with your theatrical steak. Or at least I do.  Which is why I'm such a fan of shows that take an imaginative approach to their storytelling, using all kinds of stagecraft from masks and puppets to having actors break out in stylized choreography or engage in loopy physical comedy. But it can be tricky to blend all of those elements into a fully satisfying evening in the theater and three shows I recently saw succeeded only in varying degrees:   

Vanity Fair:  Last year, the Bedlam theater company wowed audiences (and me) with a rollicking adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense & Sensibility." So I jumped at the chance to see what the same team of playwright Kate Hamill and director Eric Tucker would do with William Makepeace Thackeray's classic tale about the poor but upwardly mobile Becky Sharp and her genteel friend Amelia. But the first act is filled with so much razzle-dazzle—frequent forays into the audience, Monty Pythonesque slapstick, dance interludes set to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)"—that it nearly overwhelms the story.

Luckily, things settle down a bit in the second act, refocusing the spotlight on the limited options open to early 19th century women and to the adroit skills of the production's seven-member cast, most of whom play multiple characters with little regard for gender, age or ethnicity. The ultimately worth-seeing production, which is playing at the Pearl Theatre Co.'s Peter Norton Space, is scheduled to run through May 14. 

The Play That Goes Wrong: The Brits seem to excel at this kind of playful playmaking and the aptly named Mischief Theatre goes for broke with this antic farce about an amateur theater company that can't do anything right. The Play That Goes Wrong was conceived by company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, who seem to have nothing more on their minds than delivering a good time—and they take every opportunity to do so.

Funny faux credits for their play-within-a-play "The Murder at Haversham Manor" are listed inside the real Playbill. Onstage, cues are intentionally missed, sets collapse and actors perform pratfalls and spit takes with such manic abandon that I feared they might hurt themselves. The entire cast, under Mark Bell's exquisitely calibrated direction, is superb. Still, Dave Hearn, as a toothy scene-stealing ham, steals every scene he's in. 

I'm not usually that high on lowbrow comedy and this one goes on about half an hour longer than it should but I couldn't stop laughing at this show, which I suspect will appeal to people of all ages and humor inclinations. The production is already packing them in at the Lyceum Theatre, where it's currently scheduled to run until Labor Day.

946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. Few companies are as adept at magical show making as Britain's Kneehigh Theatre, which has been a frequent visitor to St. Ann's Warehouse over the last few years with such gorgeous productions as Tristan and Yseult and Brief Encounter. This year, Kneehigh brought over a show based on a children's book by Michael Morpurgo, the author of "War Horse." While that book, and the resulting Tony-winning show, centered on a boy trying to find his horse during World War I, the central character in 946 is a girl named Lily, who loses her cat when her family is forced to evacuate their village during World War II.

But the true heart of this story rests with the way African-American soldiers were treated during that war. Adi, a young black soldier who befriends Lily and helps look for her cat, is one of the soldiers assigned to rehearse for the Normandy invasion; 946 is the number of the men killed when that real-life military exercise went tragically awry. 

Emma Rice, Kneehigh's former artistic director, adapted the book with Morpurgo and directed the production, which ended its limited run this past weekend. She embellished it with bluesy songs and Lindy-Hopping dance numbers, both accompanied by an onstage jazz band. And there were other bits of theater business, including puppets and simulated battle scenes in which tiny toy ships floated in big tubs of water. But the show never achieved the wonder of War Horse. And this time out, all the clever stagecraft undermined the emotional gut punch of the deaths of the men it sought to honor.

April 8, 2017

The Tony Talk Podcast, Episode 3: The Pulitzer Effect

And we're off: the awards season has officially begun. Nominations for the Lucille Lortel Awards, which honor off-Broadway productions, were announced this week. And since lots of shows run off-Broadway before moving onto the Main Stem, three productions now on Broadway—Dear Evan Hansen, Indecent and Oslo—picked up four Lortel nominations each (click here to read the full list of nominees).

Meanwhile, the Pulitzer Prizes are scheduled to be announced on Monday. Last year, the winner of the prize for Drama, Hamilton, went on to win the Tony for Best Musical and the first runner-up The Humans took home the trophy for Best Play.  So in this episode of Tony Talk (recorded before Significant Other posted a closing notice for a final performance on April 23) my theatergoing buddy Bill Tynan and I talk about the leading contenders for this year's Pulitzer honor and what effect that win might have on this year's Tony races. Click the orange button below to hear what we have to say or check out all the Tony Talk podcasts on SoundCloud by clicking here

April 5, 2017

"How to Transcend a Happy Marriage" Gets Bogged Down in the Metaphysics of Love

Happy marriages don't get much love in plays; they don't provide enough dysfunction for drama and there's not enough cutting up in them for comedy. So gratefully ensconced in one myself and wanting to see something like it onstage, I was hoping that the title of Sarah Ruhl's latest play How To Transcend a Happy Marriage wasn't altogether ironic.

And indeed the two main couples in her dramedy, now running at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi Newhouse theater through May 7, start off content and end up somewhat that way too. It's what happens in the middle that's problematic for me.

The couples are a Latin teacher named George (short for Georgia) and her architect husband Paul and their best friends, Jane, a legal aid lawyer; and her husband Michael, a musician who writes jingles for a living. As the play opens they're all having drinks and gossiping about a young woman at Jane's office who is in a polyamorous relationship with two men. 

The friends are equally intrigued by the fact that the woman, her name is Pip, is so earthy that she will only eat meat she hunts and kills herself.  Indeed, one of her bloody carcasses is symbolically suspended over the stage when the audience enters the theater.

The couples' fascination leads to a dinner invitation for Pip and her mates. Which in turns leads to a Bacchanalia. Which results in a hunting expedition for George and Pip, an incarceration, a surreal transformation and some realizations about the animalistic instincts that influence our lives and the bonds-—comradely, familial, spousal—that temper those impulses.

The two-hour journey to these epiphanies is less a narrative than a series of vignettes, some more entertaining than others. I found Pip's pretentious companions to be annoying (a riff about Pythagoras seemed not only boring but with, all the allusions to triangles, too on the nose). Meanwhile Jane and Michael's shrill teenage daughter seemed less a character than a plot device.

But the dialog sparkles with Ruhl's trademark wit and lyricism. And director Rebecca Taichman ably juggles Ruhl's abiding interest in female sexuality with her more metaphysical fancies (at one point a character seems to transform into a bird).

The entire cast is excellent (click here to read their take on the show) with Lena Hall (who has played both Yitzhak and Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) bringing her wild-child energy to Pip, even turning a familiar folk song into a raunchy come-on.

But Marisa Tomei and Robin Weigert are particularly appealing as George and Jane, two fortysomething women happy with their lives but still rueful about the roads not taken and worried that it may be growing too late to explore others. Ruhl does give them a happy ending. Or maybe she's being ironic after all.

April 1, 2017

The Tony Talk Podcast, Episode 2: The New Generation of Music Men (and Women)

Spring is always kind of a crazy time for me. I'm happy to see the end of winter weather and excited by all the new shows coming in but am inevitably so busy seeing them (and juggling all the other demands in my life) that it's hard to find the time to write here as regularly as I like to. That usually means resorting to posting images of the ghost light that theaters turn on when they're temporarily vacant. But this year, I get to post episodes of my new Tony Talk podcast. This week, my pal Chris Caggiano and I talk about the new generation of composers who are bringing contemporary sounds to Broadway that have made them frontrunners for this year's Tony for Best Musical. Click the orange button below to give us a listen: