January 30, 2013
January 26, 2013
Over the following 150 years, the fear of being found out, the horrors of being bullied or ostracized, the despair that ends in suicide have provided the dramatic story line for countless novels, movies and plays, including the pop musical bare, which opened at New World Stages last month but announced this week that what had been planned as an open run will now end on Feb 3.
Bare, which chronicles the secret—and tragic—romance between two boys at a posh Catholic boarding school, originally debuted at L.A.’s Hudson Theatre in 2000. Four years later, it had a brief run in New York.
But the show's creators, composer Damon Intrabartolo and book writer and lyricist Jon Hartmere, also put together an 11-song CD sampler that won bare a cult following among gay adolescents (click here to read about the role it played during the teen years of one its cast members).
I'm far outside the show's target demographic—straight, closer in age to senility than puberty—and so this was my first time seeing bare even though a video of an earlier production is on YouTube (click here to view it). But I've read about the changes that have been made over the years.
The biggest is that what had been a sung-through show is now a more traditional book musical. Characters have also been tweaked (one of the lovers’ sister is no longer the school’s lovelorn fat girl but its cynical drug supplier). Musical numbers have been moved around; new songs added. And, of course, a new production team has been brought in.
I had been particularly intrigued by the fact that this production marks the New York stage debut of Travis Wall, a runner-up on the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance,” who has become one of its leading choreographers and was hired to do the dances for this show.
I was eager to see what Wall would do with more than three minutes of dance time. The answer was disappointing: too many of the steps he devised were too similar to one another, too little of his movement connected to the characters or to the overall storytelling.
Still, the cast is energetic and winning (click here to read interviews with leads Taylor Trensch and Jason Hite) and does nice work under the direction of Stafford Arima, who seems to be making a specialty of these kinds of shows: he also helmed the recent evival of the similarly outsider-in-high-school themed Carrie. And now, like that production, this one too has failed to find an audience.
In this case, I think that may be because the stories we embrace tend to be the ones that not only reflect who we are but also show us how we want to see ourselves.
Maybe bare would have fared better if had been framed as a period piece (I still remember seeing a twentysomething couple weep—probably with sorrow and relief—at Signature Theater's recent revival of the AIDS-era Angels in America) but this production aggressively places the action in the present with lots of iPhones and social media references.
That's not enough of an update. As the general society’s attitude about homosexuality has changed in recent times, gay people, particularly young gay people, have less interest in seeing themselves as victims and are more eager for stories that show other aspects of their experience.
It’s not, of course, that gay kids aren’t still confused or sometimes bullied but I suspect that those kids in particular want tales about gay couples in love who openly walk down city streets holding hands, get married surrounded by loving parents and friends and don't stand out in any way unless they make a conscious effort to do so.
In other words, bare has been done in by the now-preferred narrative that life for gay adolescents, like life for most angst-ridden teens, gets better.
January 23, 2013
There are a dozen characters in Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a Labor Day weekend in a small Kansas town in the early 1950s and eight of them are significant- sized roles. Director Sam Gold has assembled a motley crew of actors—the now almost requisite Hollywood newcomers, some old stage vets and the sui generis Elizabeth Marvel, who almost always marches to her own beat—to fill them.
A couple of those choices work beautifully. But a few turn out to be so eccentric that they throw the production off-kilter.
The pivotal role—and the one that’s drawn a lot of attention in this production—is Hal, a hunk who drifts into town and upsets the humdrum lives of everyone he brushes up against. Gold has cast Sebastian Stan, best known as Bucky Barnes in the “Captain America” movie series and the possessor of possibly the most chiseled abs in America.
When Stan’s Hal, sweaty from doing some handy work for one of the town’s spinsters, took his shirt off in an early scene of the performance my husband K and I attended, you could hear gasps (yes, mine included) echo through the theater.
But Stan, who admits that he worked out to bulk up, doesn’t seem totally comfortable in his body (click here to read an interview with him) or in the role of Hal, a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks who went to college on a football scholarship, dropped out when the frat boys refused to accept him and is now trying to figure out where he fits in.
Of course, he’s not the only one struggling with that. So is Madge, the prettiest girl in town who is longing for someone to value her for something other than her looks. Like Stan, the eye-catching film and TV actress Maggie Grace more than fulfills the physical attributes of the part and, like Stan, she turns in a solid performance.
The problem is that’s not enough. These roles demand actors who can crack them open and reveal the inner turmoil that the characters don’t know how to express. Alas, neither of these performances managed to do that the night we saw them.
Marvel is a master at tearing apart a character and then putting it back together in a refreshingly original way and she was one of the key reasons that K and I wanted to see this production. Marvel has won kudos for her spirited performance as the old-maid schoolteacher Rosemary who boards with Madge’s mother. But K and I thought she played Rosemary’s bonhomie too broadly and her desperation too melodramatically.
The always-dependable Reed Birney tries to hold up his end with some quietly nuanced moments as Rosemary’s longtime boyfriend and reluctant fiance Howard but is overshadowed by Marvel’s showy performance. Which is a real shame because this production marks Birney’s first time on Broadway in 30 years after decades of terrific work off-Broadway. (Click here to read an interview with him.)
But, as I said, a couple of Gold’s choices did score. Ellyn Burstyn, although at 80 perhaps too old for the role, is winningly sympathetic as Mrs. Potts, the next-door neighbor whose life story includes a young marriage that was forcibly annulled and then long, lonely years of playing nursemaid to a crotchety mother that serve as a cautionary tale for the younger women in town.
But the true standout is Mare Winningham, who, and I don’t know what Broadway producers have been thinking, is also just making her Broadway debut in the role of Madge’s mother Flo. Widowed by a husband who drank and ran around when he was alive and then died early, leaving her with two girls and no money to care for them, Flo has pinned all her hopes on a marriage between Madge and Alan, the richest boy in town.
Winningham’s anguish when Flo senses that Hal may threaten that union is so visceral that all the pain that Inge embedded in Picnic seems to come pouring out of her. In those moments, she makes the show.
January 19, 2013
Rarely have we gotten a star in the supernova phase of her fame, as we now have with Jessica Chastain, who, at 35, is starring in the revival of The Heiress that is playing a limited engagement at the Walter Kerr Theatre through Feb. 10.
Within the past 10 days, Chastain has been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial movie about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, won a Golden Globe for that role, seen the film open wide in theaters across the country and had a second film, the horror flick “Mama,” open just yesterday.
It’s hard to get hotter than all that (click here to read the actress' take on all of her recent good fortune). So one has to applaud Chastain’s decision to do a play at this time. And I wish I could applaud what she’s done in it. But I can’t. For not only is Chastain miscast but the entire production is off-key and both are misdirected by Moisés Kaufman.
Of course they all had big shoes to fill. “Washington Square,” the Henry James novella on which the play is based, was one of the author’s most accessible and popular works. The current production of The Heiress is the fourth Broadway revival of the play since Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted the story for the stage in 1947. And William Wyler’s 1949 movie version won four Oscars, including best actress for its star Olivia de Havilland; it is also one of my all-time favorites.
The title character Catherine Sloper, a plain young woman whose courtship by a handsome suitor may be prompted more by his interest in her money than affection for her, has also been played by Wendy Hiller, Julie Harris, Jane Alexander and, in 1995, by Cherry Jones in a Tony-wining production so utterly terrific in every way that it remains my husband K’s gold standard for theater.
The Heiress may be Chastain’s Broadway debut but it wasn’t unrealistic to think that she might make a good Catherine too. She’s a Juilliard trained actress who has further tightened her chops by appearing in productions at Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theater and at Williamstown. And even before “Zero Dark Thirty” she’d been winning kudos for her nuanced work in movies like “The Help” and “The Tree of Life.”
But there’s little nuanced about her performance in The Heiress. When Catherine is supposed to be mousy, she’s mousy; when Catherine is supposed to be giddy, she’s giddy. Some critics have blamed Chastain’s high-cheekboned good looks, arguing that they undermine her ability to play someone so dowdy.
Nonsense. The problem isn't on the outside; it's on the inside. Chastain is unable to dig deep enough to show us what motivates Catherine or what her actions cost her. In the final scene in which Catherine ascends a flight of stairs that will seal her destiny—wrenching each previous time I’ve seen it—Chastain bounced up the steps as though she were running to get ready for a you-go-girl evening with some gal pals.
And she’s not the only one in the cast who missteps. Several of the critics have praised Judith Ivey’s performance as Catherine’s buttinsky Aunt Lavinia but while they found Ivey lively, she struck me as distractingly busy (click here to read an interview with that actress).
Similarly, although David Strathairn is appropriately stern as Catherine’s physician father, there’s no sense of the doctor's underlying contempt for the daughter who has never matched up in his eyes to his beloved wife who died giving birth to their child.
Dan Stevens, the heir on PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” has the difficult role of keeping the audience guessing about the suitor’s true feelings for Catherine and sounding American while he's doing it. His accent is fine but his character comes across as just a vapid fop.
None of this is going to dim the radiance currently surrounding Chastain. And I hope it doesn't dim her future willingness to do theater either. I just hope that she'll choose something more fitting to her considerable talents so that she's able to show how truly brilliant she can be.
Labels: The Heiress
January 16, 2013
GOLDEN BOY: Sixty years have passed since Clifford Odets’ melodrama about an immigrant kid torn between careers as a violinist and a boxer last played on Broadway. So it was great to have the chance to see Lincoln Center Theater’s elegant revival at the Belasco Theatre, the same place where the original Group Theatre production opened in 1937.
January 12, 2013
First off, its decision pissed off people like me who had been rooting for either of the other finalists, Other Desert Cities (click here for my review of it) or Sons of the Prophet (and here for my review of that one) two of the best American plays to come down the pike in a long time.
And, of course, the decision cranked up expectations (and brought out the schadenfreude patrol) for Water by the Spoonful, which is only now making its New York debut at Second Stage Theatre though Feb. 10.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that the description of the play in the committee’s citation—“an imaginative play about the search for meaning by a returning Iraq war veteran working in a sandwich shop in his hometown of Philadelphia”—is so half-assed that I now wonder whether its members really understood what the play was about.
Because even on the simplest level—and the play, albeit imperfect, operates on multiple planes—there is a lot more going on in Water by the Spoonful. It is the second in a planned trilogy in which the continuing character is Elliot Ortiz, the young vet in the committee’s description.
But sharing the stage this time, and just as important as Elliot, is a quartet of crack addicts from different ethnic and economic backgrounds who come together in an Internet chat room where they try to help one another stay clean.
These seemingly separate stories intersect and struggle toward resolutions in the second act. But, confused by the committee’s description and given too little help by the play itself or its director Davis McCallum, I spent too much time trying to figure out why the chat room folks were there, why the ghost of an Iraqi man kept floating through, why Elliot’s musicologist cousin Yaz was lecturing the audience about John Coltrane.
I was never bored but I was never fully engaged or, ultimately, moved either. There were a few too many coincidences. Far too many of the resolutions seemed contrived.
Still, I admired some of the acting (particularly Armando Riesco who is playing Elliot in all three parts of the trilogy and wraps himself in the role as though it were a favorite old sweater). I also appreciate the way Hudes treats race as though it is just one factor in her characters' lives—and not the totality of their being as it is so often portrayed in plays.
But I concede that my perceptions may have been colored by unrealistic expectations. I wish I had seen Water by the Spoonful before it won the Pulitzer. I also wish a think-outside-the-box director like David Cromer had staged it. But even so, the bold ambition of Hodes’ play makes me glad that I saw it.
Labels: Water by the Spoonful
January 9, 2013
Today, January 9th, is my husband K’s and my anniversary and so I’m taking time out to celebrate with the man I love even more than I love theater.
But before I sign off, I hope you won't mind my taking advantage of this down time to toot my own horn a bit: I moderated a panel discussion for American Theatre magazine on the rise of entrepreneurship programs in theater schools across the country. The transcript I edited is part of the magazine’s special education issue and you can find the whole thing by clicking here.
January 5, 2013
Instead, the fault should fall fully on its playwright Theresa Rebeck. Which makes me also want to raise the question whether Rebeck's play making abilities may be less than we've thought they were. Cause let’s not mince words: Dead Accounts is a hot mess. And this isn’t the first time that description could be applied to a Rebeck project.
Over the past five years, she’s had six major productions open in New York. Three of them have been on Broadway, making Rebeck one of the few female playwrights whose work is regularly done there. But during that same period, she’s also churned out at least two novels, a steady flow of magazine pieces, op-ed articles and blog posts, plus scripts for the TV series “Canterbury’s Law” and “Smash.”
While I applaud—and maybe even envy—that kind of productivity, it can also result in work that’s shallow and desultory. Which has been the case with several of the Rebeck plays I’ve seen (click here to read my review of the previous one). It may also explain why Rebeck has been replaced as executive producer for the second season of “Smash” which starts up again next month.
The sad thing about Dead Accounts is that Rebeck seems to have tried to go deeper. The plot centers around Jack, a New York banker who cooks up a scheme to siphon off the money held in inactive, or dead, accounts. He figures that since no one is using it, he might as well spend it.
The play opens after suspicions have arisen and Jack has fled to his boyhood home in Cincinnati where his mother is struggling to cope with an ill and bedridden husband and his thirtysomething sister is trying to figure out what to do with her aimless life.
Rebeck seems to want to say something serious about American values in this second decade of the new millennium but her ADHD tendencies make it difficult for her to focus. The play has long rants about money, religion, ice cream, trees and the superficialities of New Yorkers.
Snappy, joke-riddled dialog has always been Rebeck’s strong suit and she does get in a few zingers but she stumbles when she ventures into heavier terrain. The talk just circles around and around until it runs out of steam.
When the lights went off signaling the end of the show, you could feel the confusion rippling through the audience at the performance my husband K and I attended. None of us could figure out what the hell had happened.
That, again, is not the fault of the cast, which, in addition to Holmes, includes stage pros Norbert Leo Butz, Josh Hamilton and Jayne Houdyshell. Under the direction of Jack O’Brien, another old Broadway hand, they all work hard. Too hard.
Butz, in particular, summons up near-manic energy to give Jack some semblance of believability and almost pulls it off (click here for a Q&A with him). Houdyshell provides her usual emotional ballast and Holmes is fully committed to her role.
The camaraderie the actors feel for one another is apparent onstage and off—K and I spotted them having dinner at a Broadway hangout and they looked to be totally enjoying one another.
They've also protectively circled the wagons around Holmes, often doing group interviews to make it harder for journalists to grill her about her recent divorce from Tom Cruise (click here to read one of those group sessions).
Of course the curiosity about Holmes, making her first professional appearance since the breakup, was suppose to help draw audiences in. But audiences are often smarter than they're given credited for being. And in this case they were unwilling to shell out money just to celebrity gawk. Or to support a playwright whose bark is proving to be bigger than her ability to create work with bite.
January 2, 2013
Labels: 10 best list