March 27, 2014

Turning on the Ghost Light

I can't say exactly how it happened but I've obviously missed the deadline for Wednesday's post and so I'm belatedly turning on the ghost light, the traditional sign that theaters are temporarily empty. 

And the cold hard truth is that I'm not really sure when I can turn the light off because my life is looking unbelievably crazy over the next couple of weeks and I really don't know when I'll be able to find the time to write.  

That isn't great cause we're heading into the busiest part of the spring season with 13 shows yet to open on Broadway and some really intriguing off-Broadway productions hitting the boards too (including the Atlantic Theater Company's star-studded version of The Threepenny Opera and film director Steven Soderbergh's stage debut down at the Public.) 

I'm going to try really hope to steal time to post here whenever I can.  But when I can't, I hope you will check out the interesting articles I've aggregated in the Broadway & Me Flipboard magazine, which you can find here.

March 22, 2014

"The Open House" Is Underfurnished

After years of seeing dramas about dysfunctional families, I’d begun to wonder if it was even possible for there to be a good play about a happy family. So I suppose I should have been happy to see The Open House, the Will Eno play that is entering its final week in The Linney space at The Pershing Square Signature Center. 

The central family in The Open House is as wretched as you'll find in any other play but Eno literally (and I mean this in the dictionary sense of the word) replaces this screwed up crew with a smugly contented clan right before the audience’s eyes.  And yet his play just made me grumpy.

It opens with a family of five—an unnamed mom, dad, their grown son and daughter and the father’s brother—uncomfortably gathered in the family’s modest living room. They’re supposed to be celebrating the mother and father’s anniversary and the fact that the father, although wheelchair bound, has survived a recent stroke. Instead, he just tears into them all with one venomous—but admittedly funny—put-down after another. 
Eventually, they all leave and gradually their places are filled by a chirpy realtor, her complacent clients and a contractor who arrive to inspect the house that the dad has secretly put up for sale.  Then, after about 75 minutes, the play ends.
And that seems good enough for many critics who consider Eno heir apparent to the cool existentialism of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood almost single-handedly put Eno on the map with a review of the 2004 play Thom Pain (based on nothing)  that proclaimed the young playwright “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”  
Awards committees have drunk the Kool-Aid too.  Thom Pain was a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer. But having now seen three Eno plays—Middletown, which played down at the Vineyard Theatre in 2010, Title and Deed, which had a run at Signature two years ago, and now The Open House— 
I still don’t haven’t been able to develop a taste for him.
At the end of a play by Beckett, Pinter or Albee, I usually feel something for the people I’ve just seen onstage, even if I don’t fully understand everything that’s happened to them. But Eno hasn't made me give a damn about any of the people in his plays, including this one.  
So I don’t blame my disappointment with The Open House on its director Oliver Butler who squeezes as much entertainment as he can out of its spare text.  Nor do I blame the cast, who, lead by the always-fine Peter Friedman in the dad role, are deadpan perfect and seem to be enjoying themselves. Maybe too much: what appeared to be an ad lib broke two members of the cast up the night I saw the show.  

The problem is that Eno, who apparently wants to strip bare the artifices of the traditional genres that have sustained theater over the past century, goes so far with his deconstructions that too little remains to care about. It's all mind games and meta-theatrics without much heart.
He’s been down this road before. Middletown starts off by paying homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and then turns around and kicks it in the ass. And The Open House attempts to do the same to every family tragedy from Oedipus Tyrannus to August: Osage County.

Now Eno is headed to Broadway. His four-hander The Realistic Jones, with August’s Tracy Letts in one of the roles (so he clearly holds no grudge) is scheduled to open at the Lyceum Theatre next month.   

Isherwood, who saw the 2012 production at the Yale Repertory Theater, swears it’s the best thing Eno has ever done.  Ever a theater optimist, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.    

March 19, 2014

"Appropriate" Reformulates the Race Card

The two previous plays by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that I’ve seen– Neighbors and The Octoroon: An Adaptation of the Octoroon Based on the Octoroonfeatured black actors wearing black face and portraying stereotypical characters like Sambo, Topsy, Mammy and a tragic (is there any other kind) mulatto. 

But all the characters are white in Appropriate, Jacobs-Jenkins' new play that opened in The Griffin theater at The Pershing Square Signature Center on Sunday.  And yet, the people in Appropriate are as haunted by this country’s racial past as those in his other works.

Appropriate’s set-up will be familiar to anyone who has seen a domestic drama over the last 50 years: a family gathers at the death of its patriarch and the siblings and their spouses squabble over their financial and emotional patrimony.  
Jacobs-Jenkins has acknowledged his play’s kinship with Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County and all the other dysfunctional family classics. Hence, I suppose, the title if you pronounce it "Appropri-EIGHT". 

But the roots of the dysfunction here are distinctly different because this time they’re being cultivated by a young African-American playwright. The family Jacobs-Jenkins has imagined is the Lafayettes, an Arkansas clan descended from once-powerful slaveholders. But time has not been kind to them. 
Toni, the eldest, is divorced, recently fired from her job as a high school principal and losing the affection of her teenage son. The middle child Bo has escaped to New York but is married to a shrill wife, has two unruly kids and a writing career that’s sliding downhill. The baby brother is a pedophile, long estranged from the family but desperate for redemption.

The only things the siblings now seem to have in common are a desire to sell the decrepit plantation home in which they grew up and a discomfort with the collection of racist photographs they find among their father’s belongings. None of them seems to know what to make of—or do with—the unexpected discovery.
Jacobs-Jenkins, a Princeton grad who grew up in an affluent family (click here to read more about him) clearly wants to show how racism can have as corrosive an effect on the children of former slaveholders as on those of former slaves. 

His approach is more nuanced than one might expect—or than some critics have given him credit for. Almost every character’s bad behavior is balanced with some good: even the father who may have been a bigot is remembered as a loving parent, at least by his eldest child who deeply grieves his passing.

But the play is not all gloom, doom and white guilt. Many of the interactions between the family members are laugh-out-loud funny. Director Liesl Tommy has smartly cast actors who look as though they might actually be related to one another and she has skillfully guided them to create the kind of lived-in familiarity common to people who know one another so well that it breeds not only contempt but also caring. 
The performances are all good, from stage vets like Michael Laurence and Patch Darragh to newcomers like Mike Faist and Sonya Harum, even if Johanna Day’s Toni at times too closely resembles Amy Morton’s unforgettable performance as the eldest sibling in August: Osage County.

And the work by the creative team is just as accomplished, particularly Lap Chi Chu’s supple lighting and Broken Chord’s resourceful sound design, which ranges from the grating stridulation of crickets to the almost perceptible whispers from the graveyard that sits just a few yards away from the old house.
Appropriate is messy in spots (Jacobs-Jenkins struggles a bit to keep up with the myriad story lines of his eight characters) and it's sometimes overly noisy (“Get ready for a whole lot of shouting,” a friend told me before I saw it). But the walk-up to the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation has been surprisingly quiet and so it seems totally appropriate (pronounced appropri-ette) to have this play making some noise about the work all of us still have to do to liberate ourselves from the legacies of the past.

March 15, 2014

A Very Nourishing "Dinner with Friends"

If you asked a random sampling of playgoers to list the best living playwrights in the country today, names like Edward Albee, Tony Kushner and Sam Shepard would come up long before anyone got around to thinking about Donald Margulies, whose play Dinner with Friends is enjoying a superb revival that ends next week at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre. 

The oversight may be because Margulies’ plays aren’t brawny or genre-breaking like those of his contemporaries. And yet his small relationship dramas—Time Stands Still, Collected Stories, Sight Unseen, The Model Apartmentnever fail to hit me in the gut.

The story for Dinner with Friends, which won the Pulitzer back in 2000, is simple: the friendship of two fortysomething yuppie couples (a pair of food writers, a lawyer and a would-be artist) is shaken when the husband in one pair decides to leave his marriage for a younger woman. 
Of course, that kind of domestic drama plays out in real-life almost every day and some critics have dismissed Dinner with Friends as light fare. But I saw the original production of the play back in 1999 and the movie version made two years later and I was surprised each time by how deeply the story moved me. And this time was no exception.
For Margulies examines the ways in which people relate to one another with an unflinching, honesty. Most of us have, at one time or another, had to decide how much we’re willing to compromise for the sake of our partners, how much we’re willing to give in exchange for the companionship of our friends. Margulies takes those choices seriously and he treats them sensitively.
All four of the characters in Dinner with Friends offer actors the chance to stretch their dramatic—and comedic—muscles. And, under the sure-handed direction of Pam MacKinnon, the four in the current cast are uniformly excellent. The divorcing husband and wife are played by Darren Pettie and Heather Burns, who bring just the right amount of tone-deaf narcissism to people long unhappy with their lives and suddenly liberated by the realization that misery isn’t the only option. 

But the soul of the play manifests itself in the way the other couple reacts to the changes in the relationships the foursome have shared. Marin Hinkle, working her way onto my MVP list (click here to read a Q&A with her) and Jeremy Shamos, who is already one of my faves  (click here to read an interview with him) are achingly affecting as their characters struggle to reestablish the complacency that has allowed their own marriage to survive.

I saw Dinner with Friends alone and I could hardly wait to get home and wrap my arms around my husband K. And even though I’ve been known to gripe that there are far too many plays about yuppie woes, I also can hardly wait to see The Country House, the new Margulies play that Manhattan Theatre Club just announced it will produce in the fall. I'm betting it will offer more nourishing food for thought. 

March 12, 2014

Satchmo, Antony & Cleopatra + "Me" in Playbill

Two shows have recently opened that I’d like to talk about but don’t feel as though I should since I’ve a rooting interest in each. The first is Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man (but multi-character) bioplay about Louis Armstrong that was written by Terry Teachout and stars John Douglas Thompson as both the iconic black jazzman and his longtime (and mob connected) white manager Joe Glaser. 

Some of you may recognize Terry’s name because he’s the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal and others may know him as the author of “Pops,” a biography about Armstrong, but Terry also happens to be an old pal of mine and so I’m going to recuse myself from a formal review.  
But I think it’s OK to say that the word of mouth on his show (and Thompson's performance) has been good ever since Satchmo debuted in Orlando, Fla. three years ago and straight through its subsequent productions at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass, the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.  You can see it, and judge for yourself, at the Westside Theatre, where the show recently opened for an unlimited run. 

The second I-probably-shouldn’t-talk-about-it show is Antony and Cleopatra, which is running in The Public Theater’s Anspacher space through March 23.  It, of course, is by William Shakespeare, whom I don’t know personally.  But I have written a profile of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who has done what he calls a radical edit of the play, trimming about an hour from its usual three-and-a-half hour running time. 

McCraney, who has also directed the production, has set the romance between the Roman general (played by Jonathan Cake) and the Egyptian queen (played by Joaquina Kalukango) in 18th century Haiti, just before black slaves overthrew their French masters, and filled it with island music and invocations of voodoo. 

My story on McCraney is running all month in the current issue of Playbill, fulfilling a childhood dream of mine to write for that publication. You can also read the piece by clicking here

March 8, 2014

How I Fell in Love with "Stage Kiss"

Almost everything—the acting, the directing, the costumes, the set, and most especially the play itself—works in Stage Kiss, the romantic comedy now running at Playwrights Horizon through March 23.

And I couldn’t be happier about that because I’ve been wanting to see this play ever since it premiered in Chicago three years ago. Like most theater junkies, I love a backstage show but I was particularly curious about this one because it centers around a question I’ve long wondered about: what is it like for actors when a play requires them to kiss one another night after night? 

That question is further complicated in playwright Sarah Ruhl’s multi-layered rumination on the illusion of love. Here’s her set-up: two mid-career actors, once lovers, are cast in a play about two middle-aged people who were once lovers. The line between their onstage and offstage lives quickly—and hilariously—blurs. 
The play-within-a-play is a deliberately ridiculous melodrama set in the 1930s (the costumes and set manage to be simultaneously swanky and silly) and the antics of getting the show on and getting the lovers back together make for great farce, particularly the rehearsal sequences in which an effeminate understudy has to step in for the macho leading man. But Ruhl has more on her mind than just funny business. 
Both the erstwhile lovers have moved on to other relationships—she a marriage to a banker with whom she has a teen daughter; he now dating a schoolteacher who would like something more permanent—but they have become restless with their status quo and are seduced into thinking that things might have been different if they’d made other choices.

And here's where the play becomes something more than just an enjoyable trifle because Ruhl knows that such romanticizing of roads not taken is an inevitable side effect of growing older and that it can be easy to confuse the stories we tell ourselves about love with the real thing (click here to read an essay she wrote). 
Stage Kiss can be a little too on the nose about all of this. The characters occasionally lay out the themes in speeches that seem as though Ruhl doesn’t trust the audience to put two and two together. But she does so much else well that these lapses can be forgiven.
Ruhl and director Rebecca Taichman have done four plays together and Taichman not only gets what Ruhl is aiming to do with Stage Kiss but enhances it with smart staging that pays equal attention to both the laughs and the longing. 
And the casting is just as pitch-perfect. Jessica Hecht has often come off as too affected for my taste but her tics—the little girl voice, the fluttery mannerisms—are just right here and she is totally enchanting. 

Dominic Fumusa, familiar as the put-upon husband in TV’s “Nurse Jackie,” deftly balances the bravado and insecurity of a guy who refuses to grow up because doing so will be an acknowledgement that he may not be good enough to realize his dreams.  

The supporting players are terrific too. Patrick Kerr is a hoot as the clueless director of the ‘30s melodrama and Michael Cyril Creighton just about steals the entire show in a series of roles, including the fey understudy. This is one case where the doubling and even tripling of roles actually contributes to the show.
The production is punctuated with musical numbers performed by a piano-playing crooner in a tuxedo. His final song is a rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening.”  Which pretty aptly describes Stage Kiss.

March 5, 2014

"The Tribute Artist" is Stuck in the Past

Drag queens have long played a central role in gay life. In the old almost-everybody-in-the-closet days, they provided a way for gay men (those who dressed up as women and those who simply applauded them) to revel in their specialness and defy those who tried to squash it.  And, of course, the queens were on the front lines (and reportedly among the fiercest fighters) at the Stonewall riots that sparked the gay liberation movement.

But the mood is less flamboyant nowadays as more and more same-sex couples in this country can marry, raise families and be as humdrum as everybody else. So I was curious about The Tribute Artist, the new comedy by Charles Busch that centers around the titular drag queen who is fired from a longtime Las Vegas gig because audiences are less and less interested in seeing a man impersonate old movie divas.  
But life seemed to imitate art the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw The Tribute Artist, which Primary Stages is presenting at the 59E59 Theaters through March 16. For there were only occasional titters here and there in the audience as Busch and his fellow actors hammed it up in a plot similar to Loot, Joe Orton’s sardonic farce about corpses and cash that was itself limply revived earlier this year (click here to read my review of that one).

In Busch’s even more convoluted version, Jimmy, the recently fired drag queen, or as he prefers to be called tribute artist, assumes the identity—and flowy gowns—of his elderly landlady when she dies in her sleep. He and his best friend, a lesbian real estate broker, figure they can quickly sell the childless woman’s Greenwich Village townhouse (luxuriously designed by Anna Louizos,) split the money and live happily ever after on Easy Street. 

Their plan begins to unravel when the dead woman’s estranged niece shows up with her transgender son (née Rachel, now Oliver) to claim the house. They’re followed by a shady ex-lover of the landlady’s who also wants a piece of the action. Hilarity is supposed to ensue. But it doesn’t. 

Too many of the jokes depend on the exact kind of campy knowledge about old movies that fewer and fewer people have (even this year’s Oscar montages cut back on clips from movies made in the ‘30s and ‘40s) and too many of the other lines simply aren’t as funny as they must have seemed to Busch when he dashed them off.
The script makes no sense and Busch fills it with clunky exposition as he tries to explain what’s happening. What saddens me more is that he shies away from the issue of whether there is any room for drag queens in today’s gay society. Maybe it’s just too scary a question for a man who has spent so many years putting on dresses to face head-on.

He gets little help from his frequent director Carl Andress, except, perhaps, for the choice of some bouncy interlude music. The cast is filled with Busch regulars too, including his good pal Julie Halston (click here to read a piece about their longtime collaboration). But nearly everyone has played so many previous incarnations of his or her current character that they all seem to be operating on autopilot.

Busch is a charming guy and a beloved figure in certain corners of the theater world and so the professional critics have strained to be kind in their reviews (click here to read some of them). The couple sitting next to me clearly wanted to like the show too. They leaned forward eagerly as it began but before the first act finished, one of them had fallen asleep so soundly that he didn’t even wake up during the intermission. 

The man’s partner later roused him and they did seem to get a kick out of the second-act references to Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and Mary Astor. If you’re wondering who those women are, you can click here for a handy guide the New York Times has helpfully put together.  Or you could just decide that this show isn’t for you.

March 1, 2014

"Middle of the Night" Turns Out to Be Timeless

When a revival doesn’t work, people often say it’s because the show has outlived its time.  Well, we no longer live in a time when the marriage of a Jew and a gentile would be a scandal, when men wear hats to work and women put on shirtwaist dresses to play canasta at afternoon card parties or when working class people could afford large apartments on the Upper West Side. And yet, the Keen Company’s new production of Middle of the Night, which opened this week in The Clurman space on Theatre Row, is just as affecting as the original production was when it premiered back in 1956 and ran for over a year.

A large part of the credit for its continuing success goes to the play’s author, the great Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote scores of scripts during the Golden Age of Television, including the teleplay for “Marty,” which he later turned into an Academy Award-winning movie, and the screenplay for “Network,” which picked up four Oscars of its own.  
Today's top writers celebrate the antihero, like those on the TV shows "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" but Chayefsky specialized in the lives of ordinary men and women, the kind of people he knew when he grew up in the Bronx during the ‘30s. He turned their New Yawkese into poetry, their yearnings for love and dignity into drama. 

Middle of the Night tracks the unlikely romance between a 53-year-old Jewish widower named Jerry and the 23 year-old gentile receptionist Betty who works at the factory he owns. Her mother and recently estranged husband (a jazz musician who’s always on the road) want the affair to end. His grown daughter and over-protective sister aren’t crazy about the relationship either. 
The audience needs to be won over as well. Which it is by this small-scale but big-hearted production. And a large part of the credit for that goes to the sensitive direction of Keen’s artistic director Jonathan Silverstein and a moving performance by Jonathan Hadary in the leading role originated by Edward G. Robinson.  

The rest of the Keen cast is uneven. Although to be fair, they may have been hindered by having to double in roles (even the set does double duty with only the lowering and raising of a chandelier signalling a change in apartments). At one point, I found myself wondering what Jerry’s sister was doing in curlers at the apartment that Betty shares with her mother and younger sister.  
I also would like to have seen a little more chemistry between Hadary and Nicole Lowrance, who steps into the Betty role that a young Gena Rowlands played in the original production. But Hadary and Lowrance still manage to be sweet and oddly touching as two lonely people awed to discover that they might have found a soul mate.
Anyone who has watched “Network” knows that Chayefsky had a knack for being ahead of his time and Middle of the Night is surprisingly frank about sex, be it Jerry’s fear that he won’t be able to satisfy a woman so much younger or Betty’s dismay that lovemaking is the only thing that worked in her marriage to the jazzman. 

Such open talk probably raised eyebrows back in the ‘50s but it makes this old-fashioned play seem comfortably contemporary, despite the pointy bras and stiff crinoline slips the women wear. Its unabashed sincerity also helps Middle of the Night transcend time.