June 29, 2013

"Sontag: Reborn" is as Original as Its Subject

My mother gave me my first diary when I was eight years old and I continued to keep a journal into my 30s, thinking, I’m now chagrined to confess, that I might one day be famous and so should leave a road map showing how I had become so.

I assume that the young Susan Sontag had much the same thoughts. Only while I was checking out Nancy Drew on my adolescent trips to the library, she was racing through André Gide. Sontag: Reborn, the one-woman show that is ending its run at New York Theatre Workshop this weekend, provides other keen insights into what made Sontag, who died in 2004, perhaps the last great public intellectual in America and certainly one of the most fascinating.
I’m sorry that I’m just now getting to talking about this show because it’s one of the most thought-provoking I’ve seen this year.  Moe Angelos, a co-founder of the theatrical group Five Lesbian Brothers, has crafted a one-woman show out of excerpts from the journals Sontag started keeping in her teens. 

They're presented as an interior duologue between the younger Sontag and her older self, represented by the projection of a prerecorded image of Angelos, brandishing a cigarette and flaunting the skunk-like streak of white hair that became Sontag’s trademark in her later years.

 But it’s the younger Sontag who beguiles. Angelos makes her an earnest and often arrogant young woman, aware of her prodigious intellect (she started college at 15) and desperate to show it off. The young Susan lists the books she’s reading, the films (mainly foreign, of course) that she wants to see and, later, her wanderings across the intellectual landscape of Europe in the ‘50s.  
Other journal excerpts lament her marriage at 17 to a man 11 years older and the motherhood that quickly followed with the birth of her son David, whom she would leave for long stretches of his boyhood but who would eventually become the editor of her posthumously published journals. And still other entries agonize over her awakening identity as a gay woman and her tempestuous love affair with the director María Irene Fornés.

Angelos and director Marianne Weems have worked hard to find inventive ways to turn what might have been a boring reading into an engrossing theatrical experience. Sontag Reborn makes the most integrated use of video projections that I’ve yet seen. 
As Sontag’s observations pour out, video projections of her writing and photographic scenes of the places she describes fill large parts of the scrim, creating the feeling you’ve climbed inside her brain and are watching as the ideas are formed and her genius honed. Big kudos to video designer Austin Switser and lighting designer Laura Mroczkowski.

The play, which runs a tight 75 minutes, ends just before the publication of Sontag’s groundbreaking essay “Notes on Camp” (which you can read by clicking here).  
Unlike my more learned friend Jessie, who saw the show with me, I’d read very little Sontag beforehand and I had worried that Sontag: Reborn might be too heady for me. But I was riveted throughout.  

“Intelligence is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas,” Sontag once said.  Hers, of course, was first class.  As is this little show.

June 26, 2013

"The Comedy of Errors" Gets Lots of Laughs While "The King’s Man" Gets At the Dark Stuff

Given a choice between Shakespeare’s comedies and his tragedies, I’ll line up on the side of the serious stuff almost every time. Which is why I was nervous when I set off to meet my theatergoing buddy Bill for a performance of The Comedy of Errors, the first of The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park productions this summer. For Bill loves a good laugh and I didn’t want to be a wet blanket.  So I’m happy to report that this production of the Bard’s first—and probably his silliest—comedy is an irresistible romp that got even a Grinch like me grinning. 

Now it certainly helped that we saw the show at the always-magical Delacorte Theater on the balmy first night of summer and after a luscious dinner at Storico, the chic new restaurant at the New York Historical Society, just a couple of blocks away. But I’m pretty sure you’ll have a good time regardless of the weather or your pre-show menu.  

Like so many of Shakespeare’s tales, The Comedy of Errors pivots on the themes of lost children, separated twins and mistaken identity. In this case, a long-ago shipwreck has separated two pairs of twins, a merchant’s sons (both somehow named Antipholus) and the boy slaves the father bought to attend them (both similarly called Dromio).  

One master-servant pair washed ashore in the Greek town of Ephesus, the other grew up in its nearby rival Syracuse.  Confusion ensues and hilarity reigns when the Ephesians, searching for their long lost kin, wander into Syracuse and are mistaken for their local doppelgangers. 
Director Daniel Sullivan cheats a bit by placing the action in a Damon Runyonesque world. The setting doesn’t have anything to do with the play but its tropes are inherently funny and somehow fit right in.
That giddiness is underscored by a sextet of jitterbuggers who, both before the show starts and during the scene changes, dance to the happy-go-lucky tunes of The Andrews Sisters, Louis Prima and Fats Waller.

The big-shouldered suits, nip-waisted dresses, snappy fedoras and pompadour hairdos created by costume designer Toni-Leslie James and wig designer Robert-Charles Vallance add just the right visual panache to the merrymaking. 
And, of course, the actors do their part too. Particularly amusing is the Duke, played with comic swagger by Skipp Sudduth, who speaks with a dese-and-dem accent and is backed up by a daffy crew of courtiers, eager to brandish their pistols and tommy guns at the least provocation. 

But the biggest laughs are provided by the show’s stars Hamish Linklater, who does double duty as both Antipholuses, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who takes on the two Dromios. The roles are usually played by four actors and so having just two scurry about adds to the  mayhem (subtle costume clues like the color of a hatband help you keep track of who’s who). 
Both actors have made their names on TV sitcoms but they’re also stage vets and old hands at doing Shakespeare in the Park and this production allows them to show off their prowess with all kinds of humor from puns to slapstick (it’s a running joke that everyone keeps beating up the Dromios). 

The play has been streamlined to 90-minutes, which is just enough time before the silliness wears out its welcome.  And everyone is having such a good time hamming it up that you’d have to be a bigger sourpuss than me to resist. 
But if you still feel yourself antsy for a more serious Shakespearean fix this summer, you might consider buying or renting “Shakespeare: The King’s Man,” a 2012 BBC documentary, now available on DVD, that focuses on the plays Shakespeare wrote after 1603, during the reign of James I.

The three-part series (each an hour long) is hosted by the Columbia University professor James Shapiro, which is a pretty big coup for an American.  But Shapiro has written several books on the Bard including the much acclaimed “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599” and the more recent “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?”  So he knows his stuff and clearly loves talking about the plays.   
His speculations on how the political events of the time (the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 that almost blew up Parliament, the death of James’ beloved first son Henry in 1612 at age 18) shaped how Shakespeare wrote certain plays are accompanied by visits to historical archives and places referenced in the plays and scenes of classic performances by Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart among others, as well as from more recent productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The plays from that period are among Shakespeare’s greatest and include King Lear, Macbeth and Coriolanus. And even the works with happier endings have dark undertones like Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.  All very serious stuff indeed and you can find it by clicking here.

June 22, 2013

"Charles Ives Take Me Home" Loses Its Way

Maybe if I’d had a better sense of who Charles Ives is, I'd have had a better time at Charles Ives Take Me Home, the new play that is running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through June 29.

I knew that Ives was a major American composer and when I got home and Googled him, I discovered that he had been a major sports fan too. 

That little bit of knowledge made it a little easier to understood why playwright Jessica Dickey would use Ives as the pivotal figure in her three-hander about the difficult relationship between a classical violinist and his basketball prodigy daughter.

Having Ives serve as interlocutor has the potential to make the play more than a routine family drama, but Dickey fails to show why he's the right man for this job and not just a gimmick. 

Dickey has been better in the past. I’d originally wanted to see the show because I’d been so impressed four years ago when I saw her debut work, The Amish Project, an affective one-woman show about the real-life slaughter of five girls in an Amish schoolhouse back in 2006 (click here to see my review of it).   

But this time out, she struggles with the transition from the monolog format to the fuller style of storytelling that mines the complicated interplay between characters. The ones in Charles Ives Take Me Home seem more comfortable interacting with the audience than with one another. 

The play begins with a meta moment when the Ives character, who serves as its Our Town-style narrator, runs through a clever version of the pre-curtain announcement in which audience members are reminded to turn off cellphones and unwrap candies. 

He then introduces Laura Starr, a girls’ basketball coach who speaks directly to the audience as she delivers a tough-love speech to her team. 

A few minutes later, Ives brings on John Starr, Laura’s violinist dad, who studied at Juilliard, idolized Ives and, as he makes clear in his opening soliloquy, disappointed his own father who taught gym classes at the local high school and hoped his son would share his love of sports.

The monologs, which continue throughout the 70-minute show, are as strong as the ones in The Amish Project and it’s easy to imagine actors adopting them for auditions.  But the speeches are too much tell (“I looked at Charles Ives as a kind of new father,” John too explicitly says at one point) and not enough show. 

Flashback scenes to key moments between father and daughter or student and teacher are handled even less skillfully. But no blame can be assigned to the actors or to Daniella Topol's spare but lucid direction.

Kate Nowlin is amusing as the no-nonsense coach and poignant as she portrays the awkward bravado of the young Laura as she ages from grade school to college. 

And Drew McVety is equally adept at conveying the frustration of a man unable to achieve the career he’s always wanted or to forge a bond with the child he doesn’t understand.

Each is also impressively convincing at performing the requisite skill of dribbling a basketball or playing Ives tunes on the violin. Meanwhile, Henry Stram is congenial and equally adept at the piano as Ives. (Click here to read a piece about the casting process.) 

The play's fault lies with the play itself. Its conflict between the competing passions seems so rooted in personal experience that it’s hard not to imagine that Dickey is working out unfinished business with her own dad. 

That's fine. It’s what writers do. But it’s also their job to synthesize those experiences so that both they and their audiences can come to see those situations in new and unexpected ways.  

The Ives in Charles Ives Take Me Home remains too much of a cipher and that makes it hard to see him or this play clearly.

June 19, 2013

"3 Kinds of Exile" Wanders All Over the Place

Playwright John Guare has given us many enjoyable nights in the theater with such works as The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation and A Free Man of Color (click here to read my review of that).  

Alas, his latest work 3 Kinds of Exile, now running at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through this weekend, doesn't come off anywhere near as well.

The best things about the show, which runs 1 hour and 45 long intermissionless minutes, are its intriguing title and its motivating concept. As the title announces, 3 Kinds of Exile tells the stories of a trio of displaced persons. 
All three are real-life Polish emigrés whom Guare knew or admired and he gives each his or her own playlet. Their experiences aren’t uninteresting but neither Guare nor director Neil Pepe has figured out how to make them theatrically engaging.
The bookends are Karel, the opening monologue in which a man recounts the story of a 12-year-old boy sent out of Poland to the supposed safety of England during World War II; and Funiage, the Brechtian fantasia inspired by the work of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz that ends the evening. 
Karel is performed by the actor Martin Moran, who did his own one-man show earlier this spring and is comfortable holding a stage alone. But despite Moran’s congenial manner, my attention wandered. I’m told there’s a nice twist at the end of his tale but I missed it.
In Funiage, David Pittu plays Gombrowicz, a novelist and dramatist who found himself stranded in Argentina at the outbreak of the war in 1939 and never returned home. The always-game Pittu works hard but his efforts are overwhelmed by the hyperactive staging.

Pepe has filled this part of the production with all kinds of stage business. A nine-member ensemble sings, dances, does tricks with bowler hats and spouts surreal dialogue.  But it's all flash without any sustaining fire.

The centerpiece, and potentially most intriguing of the three plays, is Elzbieta Erased, a tribute to the Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska (say it Cha-zef-ska) who gave up a rising career in her homeland when she married the journalist David Halberstam in 1965 and moved to the U.S.
Their marriage didn’t last, her heavy accent made it difficult for Czyzewska to find acting jobs in this country and she died from esophageal cancer three years ago at just 72, still lamenting the hand fate had dealt her. 
Guare spoke at a memorial service for Czyzewska and says that he wrote Elzbieta Erased as a way to keep her from being forgotten (click here to watch a video in which he talks about his inspiration for the play).   

I once met Czyzewska at the home of a mutual friend and she told me her whole life’s story after less than 10 minutes of small talk. It is a compelling tale and it inspired the 1987 movie “Anna,” in which Sally Kirkland played the Czyzewska role.  But Guare doesn't do it justice here. 
For starters, Czyzewska isn’t actually a character in Elzbieta Erased. Instead, Guare and the Afro-Polish actor Omar Sangare, who appeared with her in a Polish production of Six Degrees of Separation, portray versions of themselves and, standing at podiums, tell anecdotes about their friend. 
Sangare is a charismatic guy but Guare, in his Off-Broadway acting debut, has little stage presence, less technique and a voice so weak that it fails to project even in the small space at the Linda Gross Theater.  
Still, my admiration for Guare continues despite this current disappointment. Few white playwrights create such textured roles for black actors as Guare has done in Six Degrees of Separation and A Freeman of Color and even here for Sangare.   

And that's not the only kind of reaching out Guare does.  He recently patiently mentored a trio of young playwrights on HBO’s “YoungArts MasterClass” series (click here to check it out). But when it comes to acting, he shouldn’t give up his day job. 

June 15, 2013

Move Over Hamlet, "Macbeth" Is Increasingly the Main Man for Some Major Stars

People— actors and theatergoers alike—can’t seem to get enough of Macbeth. The talented young Scottish actor James McAvoy took it on earlier this year in London A new production starring Kenneth Branagh is scheduled to run for the first three weeks in July at the Manchester International Festival—tickets sold out in half an hour, although the final performance on July 20 will be simulcast by NT Live (click here to read my Tidbit about the NT simulcast I saw of Helen Mirren's The Audience).  

On this side of the Atlantic, Lincoln Center Theater has just announced that Ethan Hawke is going to star in a production that will open on Nov. 21. Meanwhile, Sleep No More, the Punchdrunk Company’s immersive take on the play, will begin its third year next week and the versatile actor Alan Cumming is currently playing in an essentially one-man production at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through the end of this month (click here to see clips from some other legendary productions). 

Personally, I don’t mind the glut.  Macbeth was one of the first Shakespeare plays I ever saw back when I was in grade school (the play is a great choice for kids because it’s Shakespeare’s shortest and its witches are a familiar carryover from childhood fairy tales.) 

The Bard's tale of the Scottish thane who murders his way to the throne remains one of my favorites. Neither my husband K nor I can bring ourselves to erase the PBS telecast of Patrick Stewart’s 2008 production (click here to read what I thought about it when I saw the show at BAM before its move to Broadway). 

I wasn’t that crazy about Sleep No More (click here to read my review of it). But I was totally intrigued by the idea of the Cumming production in which he plays all the characters. So I was bummed when I missed its brief run during last summer’s Lincoln Center Festival and grateful to have the chance to see the show when it moved to Broadway this spring.

This version has been set in what appears to be the criminal ward of a psychiatric hospital and the play opens as a doctor and an orderly check in a patient who is clearly in shock and streaked with blood. They remove his clothes and help him into a hospital gown, scrape blood samples from underneath his fingernails and put him to bed.  

“When shall we three meet again?” the patient asks, invoking the play’s opening lines, as the attendants leave and lock him in the room. And then, over the course of the next 100 intermissionless minutes, Cumming, who grew up in a small Scottish market town and trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, acts out the rest of what actors call the Scottish play.

It’s a tour de force performance. To distinguish one character from another, Cumming changes the intonation of his voice and employs simple props like holding a towel demurely across his chest when he’s Lady Macbeth or bouncing an apple when he’s the ill-fated Banquo.  

There are several nude scenes and Cumming's emotions are on wholly naked display throughout the performance.  I found myself marveling at how he could put himself through the experience of it eight times a week.

And yet, the show isn’t a total success.  Directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg create lots of business (video projections, an eerie soundscape) to hold the audiences’ attention.  But It can be difficult to follow who’s saying what, even when you know the play as well as I do.  

It is a treat to hear Cumming speak in his own accent instead of the American twang he adapts for roles like the political fixer Eli Gold on TV’s “The Good Wife,” but it can, at times, be difficult to understand his burr.

Plus, the mystery is never revealed of who the patient is, what he did or why he’s obsessed with Macbeth.  And since I’m kind of obsessed with Macbeth myself, I ended up wanting a little less of Cumming and a little more of the actual play.

June 12, 2013

How Almost Everyone—Particularly Viewers and Theater Lovers—Came Away A Winner From this Year’s Tony Awards Ceremony

The question is the same every year:  should the Tony Awards be a celebration for Broadway insiders and their fellow travelers (like me) or should the televised ceremony be basically a commercial that sells the currently-running productions to regular folks who just want to know which shows to see? Well, the wonderful thing about this year’s telecast is that it was both.

Almost everyone agrees that the show was one of the best in the Tony’s 67-year history. As the Los Angeles Times said, “If anything could restore faith in the American theater it was Sunday's exuberant Tony Awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall.”

And the ratings bear that out. They were up an astonishing 20% over last year. Which is impressive in its own right but even more so when you consider that the show was up against Game 2 of the NBA Finals and the finale of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

Much of the credit for the ratings boost—and the terrific show—has to go to Neil Patrick Harris, the best host of any awards show since Bob Hope in his heyday as the go-to MC for the Oscars in the 1950s and ‘60s.   

I’m sure CBS loves having Harris do the Tony honors because of the synergy with its hit sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”  But we theatergoers revere NPH because he’s as smitten with the theater as we are. Plus he can sing, dance and tell jokes as well as most of the nominees.

The opening number of any awards show is tricky cause it has to grab the attention of the viewers at home and entertain folks in the live audience who mainly want to just get on with the trophy giving.  That first number also sets the tone for the rest of the show to come. 
Harris and his collaborators (a special shout out to director Glenn Weiss for getting the cameras where they should be) aced it on all accounts. The opener was a terrific mashup that gave every musical now playing on Broadway a chance to strut its stuff (click here to see the result). And everyone involved—particularly NPH—looked to be having so much fun that who wouldn’t want to join the party? 
And the team kept things bouncing along, despite a couple of rambling acceptance speeches.  Most, however, were gracious and heartfelt and you can hear them all by clicking here
The show finished with a great riff on Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” in which Audra McDonald took over the Alicia Keys accompanying role, while Harris summed up the evening with hip-hop lyrics that Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail wrote as the show was unfolding. 

Alas, some viewers around the country didn’t get to see it because the show ran over by four minutes and their numbskull stations switched away. But you can see the whole thing by clicking here.  

Now I’ll admit that I may be biased because the Tonys have always been my favorite awards show of the year.  It's an event that gets the Super Bowl treatment in my house. 

I fix a dinner that my husband K and I can eat on TV trays (this year’s menu: Teriyaki chicken legs, asparagus and cannellini bean salad in a lemon-and-tarragon vinaigrette and a bottle of rosé) and then we turn off the phone and settle ourselves in front of the set and root for our favorites.

I keep score of the wins.  K keeps the wine glasses filled. Yelling out loud and high-fiving are allowed.  A former pit musician, K actually got up and gave a standing O when Hal Prince, on hand to mark the 25-year run of Phantom of the Opera, cited his pride in having a full orchestra of 28 musicians for the show.  
There were lots of other things to cheer as well.  Four of the eight acting awards went to African-Americans (Patina Miller for Pippin, Billy Porter for Kinky Boots, Courtney Vance for Lucky Guy, and the great Cicely Tyson for The Trip to Bountiful).  And the two directing awards went to women (Pam MacKinnon for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Diane Paulus for Pippin).  In fact I’ve no complaints about the winners, even when my personal favorites failed to take home the prize. (Click here for the full list.)

 And even shows that walked away with no awards could claim some victory:  I’ve seen several bloggers and website commenters talking about how the production number from Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella prompted them to buy tickets for that show. 
Like most theater lovers, my buddy Bill and I were eager to hash over the show and so we decided to do another of our occasional recorded discussions to share some of what we thought with you.  Click the orange button below to hear us sound off on our favorite moments from the telecast:

June 8, 2013

Highs and Lows of the Season’s Biggest Shows

Off-Broadway shows usually come and go more quickly than big main-stem Broadway productions (unless those productions are duds or feature big Hollywood stars who sign up for limited runs or are both) and so I try to write about the little shows before they disappear. But that means I sometimes fall behind with the more high profile ones. Which is the predicament in which I now find myself. The Tonys are tomorrow night and there are at least half a dozen big—and nominated—shows that I’ve yet to weigh in on.

Some of them include Pippin, which has gotten 10 nominations, and is the frontrunner for Best Revival of a Musical; Matilda, the critical darling that is running neck and neck with Kinky Boots (click here for the review I did manage to do on that one) for Best Musical and The Nance, the play that has given the much beloved and multi-talented Nathan Lane the chance to make audiences both laugh and cry with one singular performance.
I’m not going to try to handicap the winners (there are plenty of other folks doing that; click here and here and here to read some of them). But below is my quick rundown of the highlights and lowlights of six of tomorrow night’s big contenders:
THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES. Playwright Richard Greenberg’s family drama hits all the sweet spots for New York theatergoers:  it’s about an affluent Jewish clan that likes to eat well and lives in a 14-room apartment on the Upper West Side.
Highlight: The performances, lead by Jessica Hecht, Judith Light and Jeremy Shamos, are warm and winning. And the gorgeous—room-flowing-into-room—set that Santo Loquasto has designed really is to die for.
Lowlight: The show’s message about how we define family isn’t as deep as it wants to be and its conclusion that friends with money are the best kind to have isn’t as admirable as I’d like it to be.
Tony Spotlight:  The Assembled Parties has three nominations, including for Best Play, Judith Light for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play and Loquasto for the set, which I hope he gets.  

MATILDA. The Brits loved this musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s sly children’s book about a very smart little girl who has to contend with very dumb parents and a malevolent schoolmistress. And the show has also received the best reviews of the New York spring season.
Highlight: The kids in the ensemble who play Matilda’s schoolmates are fantastic and totally ace Peter Darling’s ingeniously original choreography. Plus Gabriel Ebert, who gave a breakout performance as the troubled grandson in Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, is a hoot as Matilda’s dad and is now heir apparent to the rubbery-limbed funnyman roles once played by the likes of Ray Bolger and Dick Van Dyke.
Lowlight:  The sound is so muddy that it’s difficult to understand the lyrics. Meanwhile, although the set is great to look at, it’s been breaking down even weeks into the run and stopping the show until the machinery gets fixed. And while Bertie Carvel gives a fully committed performance as the gorgon headmistress, it also strikes me as a bit one-note.
Tony Spotlight: The show picked up 12 nominations, winning nods in all the categories for which it was eligible, except for sound design and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. The latter omission is because a quartet of young actresses alternates the title role of Matilda and rather than pit them against one another, they were taken out of the running for the best actress prize and all four have been given a special award by the Tony committee. 

MOTOWN: Berry Gordy both produced and wrote this jukebox musical about the legendary music label he founded over 50 years ago.

Highlight: D’uh.  The great Motown songbook is the draw here. And it's performed by an energetic cast that gamely mimics the look and sound of such acts as The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, little Michael Jackson and, of course, Diana Ross & The Supremes (click here to read a piece I wrote for TDF Stages about the casting process).   
Lowlight:  The book, which gives new meaning to the word hagiography.
Tony Spotlight: Motown got shut out of the Best Musical category and only managed to nab four other nominations, including best featured actor nods for Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross and Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson, but this musical is already a big winner at the box office and a featured production number from this crowd pleaser could steal the show on tomorrow night’s broadcast as well.
THE NANCE: A love story set against the backdrop of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s attempt to wipe out the burlesque world of the late 1930s, Douglas Carter Beane’s play evokes a time when prissy gay characters were a comic staple on New York stages while real-life gay men could be arrested for showing any sign of their sexuality.
Highlight: Lane gives a nuanced performance as a professional funny man (his comedic show-within-a-show routines are great) whose inner sadness and self-hatred keep him from the love he longs to have. 

Lowlight: The idea behind this show is great as are the commitment of its star, writer and director Jack O’Brien but I wish Beane had pontificated less and pushed himself to dig even deeper into the complexities of being a gay man in that time.
Tony Spotlight: Four of the show’s five nominations were for its design but Lane is definitely in the running in the über competitive category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play.  

PIPPIN: This Stephen Schwartz musical about a Medieval prince and his quest for the meaning of life is making its first return to Broadway since the landmark 1972 production that was directed by Bob Fosse and made a star—and  a Tony winner—out of Ben Vereen, who played the leader of a traveling band of actors and the narrator of the tale. 
Highlight: Even after all these years, Schwartz’s score is as familiar and enjoyable as it ever was and the show’s hippie-era message that all anyone—prince or commoner—really needs is love is still one we crave to believe. 

Lowlight:  Everyone seems to love director Diane Paulus’ idea to integrate circus performers into the production and their feats are fun to watch but they don’t really connect to the show and struck me as more gratuitous spectacle than inherently theatrical.
Tony Spotlight:  Casting Vereen’s old part of the Leading Player as a woman was a gamble but it’s earned Patina Miller her second nomination in as many years. She looks fabulous doing the Fosse-inspired dances that Chet Walker has choreographed for the show but people seem even more excited about the featured role nominations for the stage vets Terrence Mann as Pippin’s dad Charlemagne and Andrea Martin as his literally swinging grandmother Berthe.

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL: Horton Foote created a dream role for older actresses when he wrote the character Carrie Watts, a woman who is forced to live in close quarters with her grown son and daughter-in-law while yearning for one final visit to her childhood home. And director Michael Wilson has crafted a beautiful production in which the drama's major roles are played by African-American actors lead by Cicely Tyson as Carrie. 
Highlight:  No black actress has had a more successful career than Tyson, who turns 80 in December. And now she's giving the best and most unaffected performance she’s ever done.
Lowlight: Not much to complain about here. Except possibly that Vanessa Williams is a touch too cartoonish and maybe even too beautiful (although what can she do about that?) in the role of the shrewish daughter-in-law.  

Tony Spotlight: The play marks Tyson’s first time on Broadway in 30 years and she's a frontrunner for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play. The show also brings  the second nomination in a row for Condola Rashad who plays a young woman who befriends Carrie. Watching the scenes between the two of them is pure joy.

June 5, 2013

“Far From Heaven” is Too Aloof To Love

Nostalgia for the 1950s, the childhood years of the baby boomers, will probably hold strong as long as the boomers do.  But, as the TV series “Mad Men” has shown, ruminations about those days work best when tempered with a sharp awareness of the coming events—civil rights, feminism, gender equailty—that will eventually break open that circumscribed world. Far From Heaven, which opened at Playwrights Horizons on Sunday, beautifully evokes the look and sound of that era but it lacks that requisite ironic edge and ends up as emotionally repressed as the time in which it is set.

And I can’t tell you how much that disappoints me.  The 2002 movie on which this new musical is based, is one of my all-time favorites. Indie filmmaker Todd Haynes paid loving homage to Hollywood director Douglas Sirk, who specialized in big, romantic melodramas that usually centered around women quietly frustrated by the proprieties of midcentury society.
Haynes' film maintained Sirk’s aesthetics—super-saturated colors and a lush musical score—but updated the storylines to deal head-on with the once-taboo subjects of homosexuality and racism. 

In both his movie and the musical, Cathy, an affluent white housewife discovers that her husband is a closeted gay man and finds solace in a relationship with her African-American gardener, both scandalously unacceptable behaviors in her country-club world.

The pain caused by the constraints of the Eisenhower era moved me. And the material—right down to the comic relief provided by Cathy’s wry best friend—seemed ready-made for a similarly affective musical.   

So I kicked myself when I failed to get up to the Williamstown Theatre Festival when Far From Heaven debuted there last summer. And when I read that Playwrights Horizons planned to mount the play this spring, I subscribed for its entire season just so that I would be sure to get tickets.  
Good thing I did that, too, because the entire run for Far From Heaven sold out (as in no tickets available) even before previews began. And extensions are unlikely because, as is widely known and plain to see despite Catherine Zuber’s cleverly designed outfits, the show’s star Kelli O’Hara is pregnant and already showing; a rounder belly would undermine the believability of a woman who can’t get her husband to sleep with her. 

There’s plenty else about the show to like beyond Zuber’s gorgeous dresses. But every good element seems to require a caveat. 
As a fan of the movie, I appreciate that playwright Richard Greenberg, who had three shows open this season (this one plus the ill-fated Breakfast at Tiffany's and the more successful The Assembled Parties) has written a book that is so set-piece-by-set-piece faithful to the film. 

But Greenberg has taken the material so seriously that much of the life has been leached out of it. The show might have had more theatrical vitality if he’d been less reverential.  

Meanwhile, director Michael Greif, the man behind such emotionally satisfying musicals as Grey Gardens, Next to Normal and Rent, has given the show a cinematic feel with the use of scene-setting video projections that play against an ERECTOR-style set designed by Allen Moyer. 

But despite helpful lighting by Kenneth Posner, the interplay between the actors is often overshadowed and seems removed, which only underscored the show’s aloofness.
The score is by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, the award-wining duo who wrote Grey Gardens, and it echoes the big sweeping melodies that defined the romantic movies of the post-war era. (Click here to read about how they put the score together). 

But while the songs are pretty and unafraid of metaphors, this is largely a sung-through show and it can be difficult to understand all of the lyrics, at least on first hearing. 
However, I have no reservations when it comes to the performances. O’Hara is radiant as Cathy; there’s always been a Grace Kelly quality about her and it works wonderfully here. 

Also good are Steven Pasquale as her anguished husband Frank and relative newcomer Isaiah Johnson as the gardener Raymond, a sensitive and well-educated man struggling to find his own space during America's apartheid years  (click here to hear an audio interview with Johnson). 

The rest of the 15-member ensemble is strong too, particularly Nancy Anderson as Cathy's best friend and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who brings knowing empathy to the small and almost silent role of the family's maid.
And yet, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  Both my husband K and I walked out of the theater totally unmoved by what we'd seen.  And that’s too far away from heaven for any show to be.