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October 30, 2010

"After the Revolution" Wins My Allegiance

The folks who stayed for the talkback following the performance of After the Revolution that my husband K and I attended were intense.  They wanted to know whether playwright Amy Herzog’s family had been active Communists.  They wanted to know if young people today knew that the Russians had been U.S. allies during World War II.  They wanted to know how close she was to her mother and father.  One or two confided stories about their own families.

The questions—and even the confessions—will all make sense if you see Herzog’s wonderfully layered play about three generations of Upper Westside lefties that is playing through the end of November at Playwrights Horizons. The play centers around the family’s varied reactions to a revelation about the recently deceased patriarch, a committed Communist who became a hero to the Left when took the Fifth and refused to name names during the McCarthy era (click here to see a video trailer). 

I knew I wanted to see After the Revolution from the minute I read the names of its cast members, who include Peter Friedman, David Margulies, Mare Winningham and Lois Smith.  Under the spot-on director of Carolyn Cantor, they make the characters seem so textured and true-to-life that I keep expecting to run into one of them (the characters not the actors) on the subway or while shopping at my neighborhood Whole Food. 

It’s great to see top-shelf actors play complicated people.  But scenic designer Clint Ramos, costume designer Kaye Voyce and, especially, lighting designer Ben Stanton all deserve shout-outs too for giving the world that the play inhabits a convincing verisimilitude.

But the real triumph is Herzog’s.  She takes on a full agenda of topics that range from the guilt of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the legacy of the blacklist to sibling rivalries and modern romance to the meaning of truth and the power of forgiveness. And she handles them all with intelligence and wit, and only occasionally succumbs to preachiness.  

This fall’s theater season is unusually busy and so I’ve been seeing a lot of shows.  And, as regular readers know, I’ve been sitting through far too many of them with my teeth gritted.  So I can give After the Revolution no higher praise than to say that as I watched it, I felt  my clenched jaws relax and a smile of satisfaction spread across my face. As far as I can tell, this is the first play of Herzog’s to be produced in New York.  I'm hoping it won’t be the last.

October 27, 2010

"Through the Night" is a Show with a Mission


Good roles are hard to come by.  And so over the years, more and more actors have started creating their own.  Their one-person shows are supposed to showcase what they do best. Daniel Beaty, the writer and star of Through the Night, the one-man show currently playing at the Union Square Theatre, does a lot of things well.  And that may be part of the reason that his one-man show is actually a multi-man show.

Through the Night tells the interconnected stories of six black men. At first glance, you might think they’re the usual suspects who so often turn up to represent contemporary black manhood—there’s a preacher, an ex-con and, this being the Age of Obama, an Ivy League grad.

But Beaty sidesteps the old stereotypes and puts his characters through a refreshingly different set of paces. The preacher’s vice isn’t lechery or larceny but overeating.  The ex-con has a steady job and is eager to marry his pregnant girlfriend.  The Ivy Leaguer isn’t a snooty elitist but a supportive Big Brother to an inner-city teen.

Rounding out the group is the teen, the hardworking owner of a local health food store and a precocious 10 year-old.  The men grapple with the full menu of issues confronting the African-American community—hypertension, homophobia, low expectations—and, even when they don’t triumph, they remain positive and determined to do the right thing.  

Through the Night was originally produced at The Riverside Church and it maintains the air of a sermon, right down to the spirituals that Beaty sings.  Bill Cosby, Ruby Dee, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have publicly endorsed the show’s uplifting message.  Still, there are times during its 80-minute running time when its exhortations can seem excessively preachy. 

What pulls the show back onto the entertainment track are Beaty’s infectious charm and sincerity. He manages to give each of his characters—not only the men but the supportive women in their lives—a distinct personality and voice. (Click here to read an essay he wrote about bringing them all to life). And he's gotten strong off-stage support from director Charles Randolph-Wright, video and lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols and sound designer Lindsay Jones.

What appeared to be a black church group took up several rows of seats at the performance I attended and they were obviously delighted by all of it.  But the show seems to be an equal opportunity-pleaser because the Asian couple sitting in front of me looked pretty satisfied too.

I tend to like a bit more edge to my shows but even a curmudgeon like me finds it difficult to naysay one that so unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve. After taking his bows, Beaty hushed the applause and asked the audience to spread the word about the show.  So that’s what I’m doing here.

October 24, 2010

"The Pumpkin Pie Show" is a Serious Treat

The name (and the drawing at the right) is a misnomer.  The Pumpkin Pie Show has nothing to do with desserts, Halloween or Thanksgiving.  Instead, this annual downtown event, is a collection of sensationally performed stories by the playwright and actor Clay McLeod Chapman. It would be too tricky for me to review the show because Clay and his wife Indrani Sen are friends but I just had to tell you that seeing the current installment, "Amber Alert," is a serious treat. You can find out more about the show, which ends its run next weekend, by clicking here.

October 23, 2010

"Lombardi" Acts As Its Own Cheerleader

The producers of the new play Lombardi have done everything they can to reach out to their target audience.  And it may be working.  “She really wants to see this play,” the woman sitting next to me told her husband, referring, I assumed, to a friend. “You know, she’s from Green Bay. 

Lombardi, just 95 minutes without intermission, as the ushers tell each audience member they show to a seat, is a panegyric to the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. The list of its producers include the CEO of a sports marketing firm, a group called the Friends of Lombardi and The National Football League, which apparently hasn’t put up any money but is throwing its considerable marketing muscle behind the show. 

In the weeks leading up to Thursday night’s opening, Lombardi has gotten air time on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Fox TV’s “Sports Extra,” and NPR’s “Only a Game.”  Theater traditionalists can turn up their noses if they like but the strategy seems to be having the desired effect.  I saw at least two men dressed in Packers jerseys at the performance I attended.

The video projections of old Packers games that scroll across the big screens hanging on two sides of the stage area help set the mood. The stadium-like seating at Circle in the Square, whose lobby has been decorated with poster-size photos of Lombardi and players, adds to the feeling that this isn’t your typical show queen fare.

Of course, the only thing most people under-40 probably know about Lombardi is that the Super Bowl trophy is named after him.  But baby boomers will remember his glory days and, as an added inducement to draw them out, the show has cast ‘80s-era TV stars Dan Lauria (“the father on ‘The Wonder Years,’” the woman next to me reminded her husband) as Lombardi and Judith Light, who is probably best known as Tony Danza’s love interest on the old sitcom “Who’s the Boss,” as the coach’s wife Marie.

Unfortunately, there’s not much to the show itself.  Playwright Eric Simonson employs the hoary device of  inventing a young journalist who interviews Lombardi, his wife and star players for a Look magazine profile.  Their answers to his questions supply the exposition and the reporter periodically spiels of the kinds of stats that sports fanatics love.

The actors are all fine. Luria looks a lot like the real Lombardi.  Light brings a wry crispness to Marie.  But the characters they’ve been given to play are wafer-thin.  Basically, Lombardi shouts a lot.  While Marie drinks a lot.  The players are based on real Packers but their personalities have been reduced to the randy one, the slow-talking one and the black one. Jokes are predictable and there’s no tension at all. Everyone just loves Lombardi cause, hell, he may be gruff but he’s a great guy.

O.K. I’m sounding snide and more than a little condescending, aren’t I?  Well, in some ways who cares what I think about this show. I’m not its target audience.  The guys wearing the Packers jerseys and a lot of other folks in the audience looked to be having a great time.  Some traditionalists are bound to argue that a show like this has no right taking up space in a Broadway theater.  But who cares what they think. Not every show can have, or needs, a touchdown to score. 

October 20, 2010

"Gatz" vs. the Greatness of The Great Gatsby


Getting ready to see a theatrical marathon can be like preparing for battle.  People gulp cups of coffee.  They anxiously line up at restrooms to empty their bladders.  They exchange gallows humor about whether they can survive what’s to come over the next few hours.  Or at least those are some of the things I saw people doing in the lobby of The Public Theater this past Saturday just before the start of the eight-and-a-half hour marathon performance of Gatz, a complete, word-for-word reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby.” 

Gatz is a creation of Elevator Repair Service, a downtown company that has specialized in turning literary works into theater (click here to read a New Yorker profile about them). I hadn’t seen any of ERS's work before but I’ve become a theatrical-marathon addict and so I bought tickets as soon as I heard that the show, which has toured around the country and abroad for the past five years, was coming to New York. And when my husband K, who loves the Fitzgerald novel, said he had no interest in watching someone else read the book, I persuaded my theatergoing buddy Bill to see the show with me. 

The play opens in a sad looking office. One of the employees comes in and when he can’t get his computer—by the looks of it, an ‘80s-era Mac—to turn on, he picks up a copy of a book that turns out to be “Gatsby” and starts reading it aloud.  Nearly half an hour passes before any of the other people who have entered the office and begun their day’s work speaks a word.  When one of them does, it’s a line of dialog from the book.   

And that’s the conceit of the show.  Like Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, the play's reader is our primary storyteller and we see the action unfold through his eyes. In essence, the reader becomes Nick and his fellow office workers assume the character and lines of the others in "Gatsby’s" story.

It’s an interesting idea. But it didn’t work for me. During the two 15-minute intermissions and the longer 75-minute dinner break (the Public has set up a dining area in the lobby and Indochine across the street, where we ate, has a prixe fixe $28 Gatz menu) Bill and I tried to figure out why the show had been set in an office.  And why one that seemed to be in the ‘80s, instead of the Jazz Age ‘20s, the time when Fitzgerald set his morality tale about the rich and mysterious Jay Gatsby who yearns for the all-American, but married, beauty named Daisy.

We also wondered why director John Collins, who founded ERS (click here to read an interview with him), hadn’t established distinct personalities for the office workers so that we could more easily see the parallels between them and the characters in the book whose lines they speak and lives they assume. And while we were at it, we wondered why the sound designer spends nearly the entire show sitting silently behind a desk on the right-hand side of the stage tapping away on his obviously up-to-the-minute MacBook.

There are some clever touches in the show. But in an effort to keep the audience entertained, Collins resorts to the kind of anything-for-a-laugh shenanigans that the old “Carol Burnett Show” used to do when it parodied movies like “Gone With The Wind.”

Gatz's 13-member cast (some of whom list their day jobs in the Playbill—one teaches second grade at a private school in Brooklyn, another is, remarkably, the chief of staff for the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C.) isn’t as adroit as Burnett, Harvey Korman and the rest of their gang but they’re still amusing. Yet, when the same joke is repeated over and over again over the course of eight hours, the novelty wears off.  And because so much attention is paid to getting those laughs (when the woman playing Daisy starts to cry, a co-worker spritzes her face with water to simulate the tears) the deeper emotions of Gatsby’s story get lost. 

It made me wonder if we’ve gotten to the point where we can no longer deal with classic stories and their sincere emotions in a straightforward manner.  Instead, we deconstruct them the way Flemish director Ivo van Hoven has done with the current production of The Little Foxes that’s playing at New York Theatre Workshop through the end of the month or we bubble wrap them in irony as does Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, the new one-woman show about the poet now playing at 59E59 Theaters.  

Do we really need to cut the culture of the past down to post-modern size before we can enjoy it? “This is awesome.  This is awesome,” the twentysomething young man sitting next to me kept exclaiming when the actors made some ironic joke.  But he fidgeted during the play's more serious moments. And his girlfriend used those quieter times to check for messages on her iPhone.

Others, however, have been swept up by the play (click here to read the reviews that earned it a top ranking on StageGrade, although the folks there seem to have ranked this one on a curve). It was only in the final hour, when the other actors receded and the reader sat alone, reciting the final chapter of the novel, that I felt the power of Fitzgerald’s work. 

Unlike my husband K, and generations of Literature majors, I’ve never quite gotten why “The Great Gatsby” is considered to be the great American novel. But as I listened to the actor Scott Shepherd, who posses a deceptively seductive voice and amazing stamina, speak Fitzgerald’s lyrical passages, I began to get a glimpse of “Gatsby’s” greatness in a way that neither reading the book several times over the years or watching the 1974 movie (with Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy) or seeing the 1999 opera (with Jerry Hadley and Dawn Upshaw in the roles) had ever revealed for me.  I would have been content to listen—just listen—to Shepherd read the book to me for hours.

October 16, 2010

Theater Stuff To Make A Theater Lover Smile


After reading some of my recent posts, a friend told me she was looking forward to seeing me write about something I liked.  She has a point.  For a self-avowed theater lover, I’ve been pretty dyspeptic lately.  Bad mouthing lots of shows and stingy with praise for the few I kind of liked. So this post is devoted entirely to three theater-related things that make me smile:

ALL THE GREAT NEW THEATER BOOKS There’s been so much over the past few months to see and do (I do have a life outside the theater) that I haven’t had time to read all the books that are now threatening to topple over the pile by my bed. The latest additions include: “The Girls of Murder City,” the story of the real murdering women who inspired the musical Chicago; “Showtime,” a new history of Broadway musical theater that starts all the way back with a musical version of Macbeth that played the old Astor Place Opera House in 1849 and “Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and the Biggest Flop of the Season - 1959 to 2009,” the brand new book by the theater know-it-all (and I mean that in a good way) Peter Filichia. 

ALL THE TERRIFIC THEATER ACTORS ON TV'S "THE GOOD WIFE" “Law & Order” is no longer around to help Broadway actors pay their rent but this dandy legal drama, now in its second year, has stepped up to fill the gap in a big way.  Just this past week, in the third episode of the season titled “Breaking Fast,” series regular Christine Baranski and Alan Cumming, who has a terrific recurring role as a sly political strategist, were joined by Patrick Breen, Priscilla Lopez, David Pittu, Dallas Roberts, Anika Noni Rose, and Bobby Steggert.  If you recognize at least two of these names, you should definitely put this show in your Tivo queue.

ALL THE FASCINATING MARK BLANKENSHIP COLUMNS FOR TDF STAGES I read a lot of stuff—newspaper and magazine articles, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, chatroom postings—about theater but the articles Blankenship writes for the Theater Development Fund’s online magazine always manage to tell me something I didn’t know.  I’ve never met the man but I’m a big fan.

October 13, 2010

"Mrs. Warren's Profession" Doesn't Payoff


The last time Cherry Jones and Doug Hughes worked together, they brought John Patrick Shanley’s Tony-award winning Doubt to the stage.  I saw it twice and each time, nearly moaned out loud from the pleasure of it.

Now, Jones and Hughes are together against as the title character and director of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession (click here to listen to an interview they did on New York's public radio station WNYC). But this time, my response is more of a sigh.

I confess that I’m just not that big on Shaw. I admire Shaw’s politics, respect his dedication to the theater and celebrate his constant championing of smart, independent women.  But his plays just don’t do it for me.  They seem in many ways more of their time than Shakespeare’s or even Sophocles’ do of theirs. 

Mrs. Warren’s Profession, set in the waning days of the Victorian era, features two smart and independent women: Vivie, a young Cambridge-educated woman; and her mother Kitty, who, unbeknownst to her daughter, has earned the money for that education and Vivie’s other comforts, as the madame of brothels that serve an elite clientele on the continent. 

That profession was so scandalous when Shaw wrote the play in 1893, that nearly a decade went by before it was performed publicly in 1902. The playwright wrote a long apologia for the printed version of the play. Nowadays, of course, the subject would more likely be fodder for a TV reality show.

Jones, returning to the New York stage for the first time in four years and after her Emmy-winning turn as the first female president of the U.S. on the now-departed TV series "24," commands the stage as Mrs. Warren.  Of course, Jones, arguably the best American stage actress of her generation, would do that in just about any role she chose to play. Her Kitty Warren is unabashed about the choices she’s made and bracingly crude around the edges.

But Jones gets spotty support from the rest of the cast. Edward Hibbert strikes the right note as an Oscar Wildeish artist who is a friend of the family and Michael Siberry looks every inch the part as a hypocritical clergyman.  But British actress Sally Hawkins gives such an idiosyncratic reading of Vivie that it comes off as whiny. Mark Harelik seems too young and debonair as Mrs. Warren’s upper-class partner-in-crime. While, as my friend Jessie observed, Adam Driver, a recent graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, lacks the sexiness that might tempt the prudish Vivie. 

Many of the non-acting choices for this production seemed just as off-kilter.  And that starts with the image on its posters and Playbill.  It's a Victorian-era woman whose eyes are obscured by two giant roses. Well, Mrs. Warren, who views prostitution as the preferable option for women who are prohibited from earning money in other ways, certainly doesn’t look at the world through rose-colored glasses.  And even Vivie’s view of the world turns out to be gimlet-eyed.

The jaunty original music by David Van Tieghem seems equally off-key and more appropriate for a ‘60s sitcom than a social drama set at the turn of the 20th century. Catherine Zuber’s costumes, particularly the ones for Mrs. Warren, stuck me as overly emphatic.  And Scott Pask, a designer whose work often impresses the hell out of me, seems to be trying simultaneously too hard and not enough. 

In fact, everyone here, from Jones and Hughes on down, seems to be trying too hard.  And, as Shaw himself, said, “It's so hard to know what to do when one wishes earnestly to do right.”

October 9, 2010

"Brief Encounter": The Second Time Around


Reviews for the production of Brief Encounter that recently opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 have been mostly rapturous (click here to read the raves—and a few pans too).  The production, which I saw during its sold-out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse last year, was my favorite show of all the ones I saw in 2009 (click here to read my review).  So I don’t know why I wasn’t as thrilled as I expected to be when I saw the show again with my husband K.

I was still charmed by the inventive theatricality (a delightful mashup of vaudeville, videos, puppetry and circus skills) that director Emma Rice and her colleagues at Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre use to retell the classic 1945 movie about two middle-aged married people who meet and fall in love in a British train station. The cast—largely in tact from the run at St. Ann’s—is still wonderful (click here to read about the lone American who has joined them). And there are still moments when the show makes me swoon with pleasure.

Yet, I have to confess that some of the magic was missing.

I know my disillusionment wasn’t caused by any thought that the show mocked  the movie and the original Noel Coward play on which it was based.  Which is what some critics—including John Simon and the guys who do the This Week on Broadway podcast—think.  In fact, I think the naysayers are totally wrong and that the show reveres the movie and the world that inspired it.

Maybe it was the venue that made the show feel less special for me this time. I had worried about that when I heard it was coming to Broadway. Over the years, Kneehigh has presented its shows in abandoned mines, deserted factories, vacant barns and other off-beat locations that showcase the company's unconventionality (click here to read about the company’s past productions).

The funkiness of St. Ann’s' repurposed warehouse provided the perfect environment for this unique show in which the action sometimes flows into the audience. Studio 54 seemed a good choice too.  But the band that plays before the show—and sets the mood for it—got lost in the crowd there. The intimacy suffered too.

Maybe the mild letdown I felt also reflected the fact neither my husband K nor my theatergoing buddy Bill were taken with the show.  “I kept thinking, what’s the point,” Bill told me.

But maybe it’s just that you can’t experience the intensity of that rush of emotion that comes when you first fall in love.  It’s that intensity that Brief Encounter celebrates.  And, despite any reservations I might have, it still does it better than any other show in town.

October 6, 2010

"The Pitmen Painters" Is a Vivid Display of Art


My husband K declined when I invited him to see The Pitmen Painters, the latest British import that opened last week at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. He said the show sounded too much like Billy Elliot.  And, having seen that musical about the miner’s son who becomes a ballet dancer here and in London, K said he didn’t need to see the same story again.

I got what he was saying. The Pitmen Painters, a stage adaptation of a book about real-life coal miners who were celebrated as artists during the 1930s and ‘40s, isn’t a musical but it was written by Lee Hall, who also did the book for Billy Elliot.  And, once again, Hall takes on the theme of the transformative power of art. 

Hall, who grew up in Britain’s coal country, is, at heart, a cultural populist, set on making the case that art isn’t just an elitist thing but can be appreciated and created by working class people. As one line in the play says, “Art belongs to everyone.”

That message resonates with me.  As does The Pitmen Painters. 

The play divides the miners’ tale into two parts.  The first act sketches out how the men discovered the joy of expressing themselves on canvas after a professor they recruited to tutor them in a continuing-ed style class decided that the best way to teach them about art was to have them make it. The second act focuses on the challenges the miners faced once their work was taken up by the art cognoscenti.

The eight-member cast, brought over intact from a successful run at London’s National Theatre and beautifully directed by Max Roberts, is superb in both acts. But the first is more fun. It’s filled with good-natured humor as the miners make their first forays into the art world.  And there are soul-stirring moments as their understanding and love of art deepens. As an added bonus, copies of the paintings the real miners made are projected on the overhead screens that are a central part of Gary McCann’s understated but effective design. 

The second act gets more serious and, at times, pedantic as Hall repeatedly drives home another of his favorite themes: the breach between Britain’s upper and lower classes.  The succession of soapbox speeches exhausts some listeners. Many of the critics say the play would be a masterpiece if it had ended with the intermission curtain (click here to read some of those reviews). 

Yet I liked a lot of that second act.  Yes, the upbeat energy flags a little but Hall isn’t afraid to use some of that time up on the soapbox to spout off about some less-feel-good—but still important—stuff like the way the people who became the miners’ patrons also patronized them. Or the way the most gifted of the miners wrestled with the fear that his talent would isolate him in a no man’s land between the two classes.  

Maybe it’s because my story—a poor kid whose passport to the wider world was marked by books, art and, of course, theater—isn’t so far from the miners’ story.  But from the first to the last, The Pitmen Painters rang true to me.  I suppose it is what's often dismissed as middlebrow entertainment. But that is pretty much the location of my brow—and those of the intellectually curious and courageous men who inspired The Pitmen Painters. 

October 2, 2010

"Alphabetical Order" is Much Too Tidy


I don’t know if there are Tony-style awards for stagehands.  But if so, there’s no question that the crew to beat this season is the one handling the set for Alphabetical Order, the Michael Frayn comedy that's playing through Oct. 23 at the Clurman Theater in the Theatre Row complex on 42nd Street.

The show takes place in the clippings library of a down-on-its-luck British newspaper, where the cluttered tables and overcrowded file cabinets match the messy lives of the reporters and editors who drop in to find background info for their stories. 

The time is 1974—long before the internet started committing fratricide on its print siblings—but the paper is teetering on the brink of closing. None of the staffers is paying much attention to that, however.  Everyone is too busy having affairs—or wanting to—with everyone else. The plot kicks off when a junior librarian arrives and sets about putting all of this chaos in order. 

Frayn began his career as a journalist (Frayn fans should click here for a lovely interview he did with the BBC about his recent memoir) and so the play is well steeped in verisimilitude.  The library, a delightfully realistic design by Nathan Heverin,  reminded me so much of ones I’ve known that I could almost smell the paper rot. 

And Frayn gets the types right—the overly cerebral columnist, the maternal features editor, the affable mailroom guy—and the way they all dance around and bounce off one another.  But, of course, this is a comedy, not a remember-the-good-old-days documentary. And that’s where Alphabetical Order falls down for me.

I admit that my humor gene isn't fully developed but that means I appreciate a really good laugh-out-loud comedy even more. This one only made me smile. And not all the time. Alphabetical Order is the first full-length play that Frayn, the author of the classic farce Noises Off, wrote and you can see him working out his kinks, just beginning to test how far he can push the nuttiness that a good farce, or even a smart comedy of manners, requires.

This production of Alphabetical Order, mounted by the Keen Company, might have played better during the ‘70s when all things British seemed cool.  Or in England, where the play recently enjoyed a well-received revival. Or with a British cast.   

The six Americans and one Brit in this cast are all swell and even maintain convincing British accents.  But even so, and director Carl Forsman probably bears some of the responsibility here, this production lacks the devil-may-care flair that the Brits seem to bring to this kind of thing.

The show runs just slightly more than 90 minutes, plus a 15 minute intermission.  The break gives the stage crew time to perform some predictable but still miraculous magic, which I appreciated even more by the end of the play.  Those unseen stagehands don't get a curtain call but my applause was mainly for them.