May 30, 2015

"Permission" is Too Self-Indulgent

Everything, including playwrights, gets branded these days. And Robert Askins has glommed onto what's turning out to be a surprisingly marketable one: he's the “religion guy.” 

Hand to God, his play that centers around the members of a church puppet ministry, is up for four Tony awards, including Best Play. Permission, his latest work which is being given a world premiere at the Lucille Lortel Theatre by MCC, deals with religion too but it’s unlikely to be picking up any prizes.

Permission draws its inspiration from Christian Domestic Discipline, a supposedly real practice (although its website looks a little hoaxy to me) in which religious couples are supposed to adhere to Bible teachings that grant husbands controlling authority over their wives, including the right to spank them. 

It’s that last part, of course, that titillates Askins. Permission opens at a dinner party at which a couple, Eric (Justin Bartha) and Cynthia (Elizabeth Reaser) discover that their male host Zach (Lucas Near-Verbbrugghe) regularly spanks his wife Michelle (Nicole Lowrance) when he feels she's misbehaved—and that Michelle not only likes the spankings but encourages them. They're doing it for Jesus, both she and Zach explain.

In no time at all, Eric and Cynthia, whose marriage has been a little shaky, take up the practice and find that it’s a real turn on in both their personal and professional lives. They have hot sex. Cynthia makes progress on a long-delayed novel; Eric displays a new boldness at the college where he teaches, pushing for a promotion and flirting with his young student intern (Talene Monahon). 

Director Alex Timbers, who seems more at home with the musicals he’s directed like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Here Lies Love, has his game five-member cast whirling around the Lortel’s small stage (which set designer David Korins has chosen to make even smaller) as the men find the slightest reason to  throw the women over their laps and wail away, the women wriggle in ostentatious pain and pleasure and, as in any farce, people end up with unexpected partners and doors get slammed.

But it all rings kind of hollow. Except for the resounding slaps on the women’s rumps. After a while, I began to worry about the damage being done and so was relieved when I came across an article explaining how costume designer Paloma Young had padded their outfits to blunt the blows (click here to read about how she did it).

Askins is a talented guy and he does touch on some observations about the shifting dynamics of modern marriages and the changing definitions of masculinity but he’s so busy making fun of evangelical beliefs and behaviors that he doesn't develop those larger themes.

And we know he could have. Cause Lord knows Hand to God poked plenty of fun at religion. But it also made its characters human and showed some empathy for all the ways in which they struggled for salvation. Permission, on the other hand, is all sound and fury signifying very, very little.

May 27, 2015

"Tuesdays at Tesco's" May Be Out-of-Date

When Le Mardi à Monoprix premiered in France five years ago, playwright Emmanuel Darley’s sympathetic look at the life of a transgender woman must have seemed a bold statement. The play may have maintained some of that cachet when Matthew Hurt and Sarah Vermande translated it into Tuesdays at Tesco’s for a London production starring the acclaimed actor Simon Callow in 2011. 

But both of those productions came before the women-in-prison series “Orange is the New Black” made a Time magazine cover girl out of its transgender co-star Laverne Cox, before “Transparent,” the sensitive dramedy about a middle-aged man’s transition to a woman won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy series and before former Olympian Bruce Jenner came out as a trans woman in a TV interview with Diane Sawyer that was watched by 17 million people.

So the arrival of Tuesdays at Tesco’s as part of this year’s annual Brits Off Broadway series at the 59E59 Theaters seems somewhat anti-climactic.  Even a little retrogressive.

The show is a 75-minute monologue in which Pauline, born Paul, tells the audience about her weekly visits to clean, cook and shop for her father, a recent widow who has no domestic skills. 

Dad, an Archie Bunker type as Pauline describes him, refuses to acknowledge that he now has a daughter and the neighbors, including the customers and cashiers at the eponymous British supermarket chain, have their own responses to her, which range from tittering ridicule to out-and-out hostility.

Director Simon Stokes’ staging is a little-too self-consciously stylized for my taste.  A glowing ring encircles the stage, symbolizing what I’m not sure. A pretty pink dress is suspended in the air, to underscore, I suppose, the life that is out of reach for Pauline. A pianist sits onstage but never interacts with Pauline, except when he occasionally plays a song and she sings or dances along to it.

Nevertheless, Callow, who is again playing Pauline, gives a courageous and affecting performance, in which all vanity is dispensed with (click here to read an interview with the actor). His Pauline is an awkwardly-dressed woman with broad shoulders, beefy muscles and the gait of a farmer with bad knees. She speaks in Callow’s own resonant baritone.

And yet, there is also an undeniable—an almost defiant—femininity about Pauline that, in an echo of the anthemic declaration of La Cage aux Folles' Alban, makes it clear that she truly is just being, as she puts it, “me, myself, now and forevermore.”

Still, the play makes Pauline seem more resigned to herself than accepting of it. And its final moments give into every tragic tranny cliché in the book. Life is still a challenge for trans people but the times they are a-changin' and they may already have passed Tuesdays at Tesco’s by. 

May 23, 2015

"The Way We Get By" and "What I Did Last Summer" Go Outside Their Comfort Zones

There’s a comfort in the familiar that makes it’s hard to try something new, particularly when the rewards roll in for doing the same old thing. So although I have mixed feelings about the latest works by the playwright Neil LaBute and the actress Kristine Nielsen, I admire their willingness to step outside their comfort zones with the recently-opened shows The Way We Get By and What I Did Last Summer.

LaBute’s stage rep was made with anti-romcom plays like The Shape of Things and Fat Pig in which someone seems to fall for someone else but then cruelly demeans the feigned object of that affection. But—spoiler alert—LaBute takes love seriously in The Way We Get By, which opened Wednesday at Second Stage Theatre's Tony Kiser Theatre. 

A two-hander, it opens in the middle of the night after two people have hooked up at a party, retreated to her place and indulged in some hot sex. Now he, Doug, is up and uneasily poking around the apartment while she, Beth, sleeps until he clumsily wakes her and they embark on a discussion about what will come next.

It’s the usual awkward—and, to be honest, somewhat boring—banter but, after almost an hour of it, LaBute springs an additional complication that doesn’t ring quite true but still livens things up a bit until the play ends about 20 minutes later.

Thomas Sadoski, so good in so many plays over the years, has been doing TV stuff for the past four years. Now, he’s returned looking more buff than I remember but, alas, his stage chops don’t seem to be as tight as his abs. 

Under Leigh Silverman’s lax direction, he seriously overacted the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show, shouting and waving his arms in an apparent, but futile, effort to make more of his thinly-drawn character.

Beth is played by Amanda Seyfried, who has done lots of TV and movies (most notably playing Meryl Streep’s daughter in “Mamma Mia!” and Cosette in “Les Misérables”) but is making her stage debut with The Way We Get By. She’s naturally charming and has a surprisingly easy stage presence (click here to read a profile of her) but the script doesn’t really give her a lot to work with either.

The play's moral seems to be that love can conquer all. That might be a revelation for LaBute, but it’s less so for the rest of us. 

We’ve also seen before the character that Nielsen plays in the revival of A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer, which opened at Signature Theater Company last Sunday.  

Nielsen is known for a campy comedic style, marked by lavish eye rolls, fluttery hand gestures and droll line readings.  But, with the occasional lapse here and there, she reigns in those tics even though her character in Gurney’s 1981 play is Anna Trumbull, the town eccentric in a Waspy vacation community on the shores of Lake Erie during World War II. 

Most of the adult men are still away fighting the war in the summer of 1945 and their teenaged sons are a bit more rambunctious than they might have been if their dads were home.

One, 15 year-old Charlie Higgins (the sweet-faced Noah Galvin,) falls under the spell of Anna’s bohemian lifestyle (she lives alone in the woods in a house that is rumored to have been given to her by a married lover) and her insistence that he explore his artistic impulses.  As happens in all such stories, reality intrudes, secrets are revealed and life lessons learned.

Director Jim Simpson has combined our lingering nostalgia for that time (complete with songs from the era and Claudia Brown’s period-perfect costumes) with modern day meta-theatrics (stage directions and some lines of dialog are projected on scrims, as though the story is being written as we see it; a live drummer sits stage right, punctuating the action with appropriate sound effects). 

The acting is first rate and although I confess to missing some of Nielsen’s usual shtick, she is ultimately heartbreaking as a woman whose spirit yearns to be freer than society will allow it to be. Gurney remains in his comfort zone but it's still a sweet evening. 

May 16, 2015

A Brief Intermission for a Very Happy Cause

My much adored niece Jennifer got married to a really great guy yesterday and we're all still celebrating so there will be no post today but I'll be back next week. In the meantime, I hope you'll check out the articles I've been collecting in my Tony Talk magazine, which you can find by clicking here.   

May 13, 2015

Gutsy Women Command the Stage in the Solo Shows "Forever" and "Grounded"

Holding a stage all by one’s self takes guts.  But two very talented actors step up to the challenge and, with varying degrees of success, show how it can be done in the new one-woman shows Forever and Grounded.

Forever, which opened last week at New York Theatre Workshop, is an autobiographical piece written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith, a playwright who doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable subjects. 

Her play Yellowman, a Pulitzer finalist in 2002, dealt with color bias in the African-American community. Forever recounts the troubled relationship Orlandersmith had with her mother, an alcoholic and emotionally abusive woman who seems to have permanently damaged her sensitive only child.

A chair, a table and a record player are the only props, except for photos from Orlandersmith’s family album that are taped along the wall surrounding the stage, serving as silent witnesses to what turns out to be a harrowing tale that includes a long and graphic description of a rape Orlandersmith endured when she was 14.

The subject matter is undeniably compelling, the writing is vivid and Orlandersmith, a large and impressive woman, radiates a powerful stage presence. This is the kind of story that seems destined to end with redemption and forgiveness. But that’s not quite how this version turns out.

Orlandersmith does find salvation of sorts in the world of music (most especially the ‘60s rock group The Doors and its lead singer Jim Morrison) and literature (the writers Richard Wright and Oscar Wilde) and she imagines that they are her spiritual family, a belief she confirms with the visit to their graves at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris that opens the play.

But the rage she feels for her mother runs deep and I have to confess that I eventually found it both exhausting and off-putting, making the show seem far longer than its 80-minutes running time. 

At the end, audience members are invited to come onstage and look more closely at the photos on the wall and as I peered at those faded images from long ago, I felt very sad that Orlandersmith’s mother is being continually vilified with each performance and that Orlandersmith still feeds the need to do so. 

Grounded, which is playing at The Public Theater only through May 24, is unsettling in a different kind of way. Written by George Brant, a playwright new to me, it’s the story of an unnamed female fighter pilot. She’s a badass who loves flying an F-16 and gets a kick out of the fact that she intimidates most men. 

Her life changes when she hooks up with a guy who’s turned on by her Top Gun-bravado and becomes pregnant. After the baby is born, she’s redeployed to a command center outside Las Vegas where she sits for 12 hours a day and pilots remote-control drones. She calls her new assignment the Chair Force.

The job keeps her out of harm's way and allows her to stay home with her new family but it also eats away at her soul as the exhiliration that comes from putting her life on the line is replaced by the anomie of long-distance killing.

It’s a morality tale for our times, daring us to take responsibility for the way war is now being waged in our name and it’s beautifully realized by Anne Hathaway and Julie Taymor, who are, respectively its star and director. Both women are prodigiously talented but each has something to prove with this production. 

Hathaway has kept a fairly low profile since winning the Oscar for her performance as Fantine in the movie version of "Les Misérables" and, unaccountably, becoming such a punching bag on social media that the pile on spawned the hash tag #hathahaters. (Click here to watch her talk about it.) 

Her exquisitely calibrated performance in Grounded, which tracks the Pilot’s descent from cocky to paranoid, puts the haters in their place and shows that whatever people may think of Hathaway, she’s a helluva an actor.

The knock on Taymor, particularly after the mishegash surrounding Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, has been that’s she’s a prima donna who only knows how to stage big extravaganzas. But here she shows that she can dazzle on a small scale as well.

The production is spare but effective: an elegant sand-covered set backed by a black ice mirror by Riccardo Hernandez, nimble lighting by Christopher Akerlind and simple but eye-pleasing video projections by Peter Nigrini.

But the greatest pleasures are to be found in the clever stagecraft Taymor has devised, like the ways in which the Pilot’s pregnancy is depicted and the monotony of her daily routine is portrayed.

These 80-minutes fly by, with the women at the helm in full—and gratifying—command.  

May 9, 2015

"Zorba!" Lacks the Zest It Needs to Succeed

Like so many Americans in the ‘60s, Broadway show makers were swept up in the free-spirit mania of the times and created shows with eccentric characters who thumbed their noses at the establishment, celebrated the unconventional, followed their own bliss and all those other clichés. 

Which is how we got shows like Anyone Can Whistle, A Thousand Clowns and Zorba!, the 1968 musical that is playing through Sunday as the final production in this season's Encores! series at New York City Center.

I’d never seen the show and only barely remember the movie with Anthony Quinn as the earthy Greek peasant who teaches an uptight intellectual how to let loose and enjoy life. But when a dear friend invited my husband K and me to the invited dress rehearsal that Encores! holds for family and friends, we decided to make a night of it, seeing the show and then eating dinner at Molyvos, the Greek restaurant around the corner from the theater.

Neither turned out quite as we expected.

Zorba! is set in a small tradition-bound village on the island of Crete and even though it has an Aegean-flavored score, complete with bouzouki and oud, by John Kander and Fred Ebb and its original production was directed by Hal Prince, it has often been considered a second-rate Fiddler on the Roof, perhaps because Joseph Stein wrote both books. But what it doesn’t share, at least not in this production, is Fiddler’s joyousness.

While the villagers in Fiddler sing “Be happy, be healthy, long life,” the leader of the Greek chorus in Zorba! starts that show by intoning "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die." And, indeed, there are three tragic deaths in Zorba!  

It's hard to get your toes tapping to—or feel inspired by—that. Even the original production, which starred Herschel Bernardi as Zorba and John Cunningham as his protégé, drew mixed reviews and at least both of them could sing. Which is not the case here.

Zorba is played by John Turturro, whose only familiarity with the concept of a key seems to be the one that unlocks a door. He’s not much of a dancer either, even though the character is probably best remembered for the finger-snapping, foot-stomping dance he does. And although Turturro works hard, he hasn't figured out how to replace his trademark dour demeanor with the devil-may-care brio that defines Zorba.

Santino Fontana, one of my favorite young actors, plays the protégé Niko who has come to the village to reopen a mine that his uncle left him. Fontana can certainly sing and he moves well enough too but he also seems miscast—not stiff enough in the early scenes and not spirited enough by the end.

His character’s journey isn’t helped by the choppy cuts that John Weidman has made to the book. When a major tragedy occurs in the second act, it flashes by and Niko seems no more disturbed by it than he might have been if someone had served him the wrong meal at the local taverna.

The women fare slightly better. Elizabeh A. Davis looks and sounds lovely as a young widow who catches Niko’s affection but she's required to spend most of her time onstage looking anxious. Marin Mazzie brings great voice to the role of the character who is called The Leader but is costumed so differently from everyone else and kept so much out of the main action that she seems to have wandered in from some other play.

Only Zoë Wanamaker, although no stronger a singer than Turturro, hits all the right notes as the aging local floozy Hortense who hopes that Zorba will give her the love and respectability she’s never had. It’s a sweetly winning performance.

Director Walter Bobbie has attempted a fully-realized production and it looks pretty, particularly Anna Louizos' storybook set. But I miss the old days when, except for the orchestra (still there and still sounding great) the stage was bare and the actors carried scripts and dressed in cocktail dresses or evening gowns for the women and tuxes for the men. 

That we're-just-doing-this-for-the-love-of-it approach somehow made the occasion seem all the more special. It also lessened the expectation that, after just limited rehearsal time, the performance would be as polished as those on Broadway.

As it is, this Zorba! seemed slick instead of zesty. The restaurant seemed that way too. Molyvos has been refurbished since K and I were last there. The rustic feel that called to mind a Greek tavern, has been replaced by the sleek modern look you’ll find at any midbrow hotel restaurant. 

The menu is still Greek and the food was fine but this new version of the restaurant, like this new production of Zorba!, just isn’t distinctive enough.

May 6, 2015

"Fun Home" Expands the Territory that Truly Ambitious Musicals Can Now Explore

The contests for this year’s theater awards are so tight—and so many of the nominees truly worthy—that I hardly know where to cast my allegiance. And that’s especially true in the category of Best Musical, which has developed into a three-way showdown.

I’ve already written about An American in Paris (click here for my review) and Something Rotten! (click here for my thoughts on that one), each earning its berth by accomplishing precisely what it set out to do. So, now I’m going to focus on Fun Home, which, like An American in Paris, drew 12 Tony nominations.

I first saw Fun Home about three years ago in a workshop production down at the Public Theater but while I admired its ambition, I wasn’t particularly moved so I skipped the 2013 off-Broadway run at the Public. But the word-of-mouth about it was so enthusiastic that I was eager to see the Broadway production that is now running at Circle in the Square. And this time, I think I got it: this is a remarkable show.

As you probably know, Fun Home is a musical memory play based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel. The book drew from her experience of coming out as a lesbian and discovering that her father Bruce was a closeted gay man, who, we learn right at the start, committed suicide within weeks of finding out about his daughter’s sexuality (click here for a Q&A with Bechdel).

Needless to say, this is not your typical musical comedy material and book writer and lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori raise the degree of difficulty even higher by using three actresses to portray Bechdel at various stages of her life.

The narrative is held together by the fortysomething Alison, who attempts to understand her father and her relationship to him by remembering, drawing and commenting on scenes from their life together, particularly her early years growing up in the small Pennsylvania town where Bruce was a high school English teacher, part-time funeral director (the family’s nickname for the funeral home gives the show its title), father of three and anguished seducer of young men.

His only daughter, Small Allison, as the play calls her, is a tomboy, who hates wearing dresses, loves drawing and has feelings she doesn’t quite understand. It’s not until she gets to college and becomes Middle Alison that she puts it altogether.

This sounds like grim goings. But it isn’t. Kron has written a book that is smart, often funny and familiar to anyone who has struggled to understand a remote parent, gay or not.

Meanwhile, Tesori’s score deftly navigates the line between the commercial music she wrote for Shrek: The Musical and the art songs she created for Tony Kushner's memory play Caroline, or Change: it’s equal parts playful tunes (there are some amusing homages to the bubblegum pop of the ‘70s) and tone poems that elegantly express the characters’ inner yearnings.

Director Sam Gold isn’t known for musicals but, as he’s proven in his collaborations with the playwright Annie Baker, he’s a master illuminator of new works and his staging here is first-rate, creating scenes in which even the unspoken is eloquently articulated.

He’s also assembled an incredible cast. Michael Cerveris transforms himself so completely that he's almost unrecognizable as a man tormented by the passions he can’t display but also can’t control (click here to read an interview with the actor). And Judy Kuhn is equally good as his wife, a woman working hard to juggle compassion, shame and resentment.

But best of all may be Sydney Lucas, who at just 11 years-old has been with the show since the workshop production I saw. She owns the role now and you can see the mind of her Small Alison at work as she pieces together the answers to the questions she doesn’t yet know to ask. Lucas' Tony nomination isn't a token of encouragement to a promising kid, it's recognition of a richly-developed performance (click here to read a profile of her).

Still since Fun Home's earliest days, some observers have questioned whether the general public will embrace a show about a gay family (click here for one of those discussions) but at this time when the Supreme Court is deliberating over the legitimacy of gay marriage, it seems just the right moment for a show that bears testimony to why people must be allowed to be who they are.  And it also shows how musicals can be all they should be.

May 2, 2015

People's Choice vs. Critic's Choice for "It Shoulda Been You" and "Something Rotten"

The average Broadway theatergoer sees four shows a year, according to the Broadway League. The average theater reviewer routinely sees more shows than that in a week. Which may be one reason there’s so often a gap between what the public likes and what the critics think the public should like.

Case in point:  Most of the major critics were ho-hum about It Shoulda Been You, the new musical about the hijinks that occur at an upscale wedding between two mismatched families. But the regular folks at the performance my sister and I attended, whose palates may be less jaded, laughed their asses off and, as I tweeted, I overheard a woman leaving the Brooks Atkinson Theatre tell her friend, “This is what theater should be: a good time.”

Another case in point: With the notable exception of the New York Times’ Ben Brantley, the critics are crazy about Something Rotten!, the brazenly-named meta-musical about two brothers, rivals to Shakespeare, who invent the musical in a desperate attempt to best the Bard. The show is filled with the kind of showbiz inside jokes that tickle critics and theater junkies but I couldn’t help wondering if anyone who sees fewer than four shows a week would enjoy it as much.

The really funny thing is that the shows have more in common than they might appear to have at first glance. Both are original musicals, drawn not from movies or books or someone’s songbook but from the imaginations of their creators. And yet each falls solidly within the tradition of shows that have come before it.

The about-to-be-weds at the center of It Shoulda Been You might be the great-great grandchildren of the young lovers in the 1922 comedy Abie’s Irish Rose; the critics at the time reportedly weren’t crazy about it either but the show ran for five years.

Meanwhile Something Rotten! might be the lovechild of all the shows that have musicalized Shakespeare over the years (from The Boys from Syracuse right through to The Lion Kingand the growing parade of self-referential musicals that make fun by making fun of musicals (Urinetown, The Drowsy Chaperone, [title of show], The Producers—click here to read about the making of the new show).

The creators of both new shows—composer Barbara Anselmi and book writer and lyricist Brian Hargrove for It Shoulda Been You; and the brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick who did the music and John O’Farrell who teamed up with Karey on the book for Something Rotten!—are making their Broadway debuts. But each show is helmed by an old-hand who knows how to bring the funny.

David Hyde Pierce, who as it happens is Hargrove’s husband, may be making his Broadway debut as a director with It Shoulda Been You but he’s starred in plenty of laugh fests, including Spamalot and Curtains. Meanwhile, the director and choreographer of Something Rotten! is Casey Nicholaw, the wizard behind such mirth-making musicals as The Drowsy Chaperone, Aladdin and of course, The Book of Mormon.

And both shows boast huge casts overflowing with big-name stage vets, living testimonies to how very, very deep the bench of talent is in this city. Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris play the malcontented future mothers-in-law in It Shoulda Been You and they are hysterical, Daly in particular having a ball after so many recent dramatic turns on the boards.

Pert Sierra Boggess hits all the notes, high and otherwise, as the bride (David Burtka, Neil Patrick Harris' real-life husband, is her groom). And Josh Grisetti and Lisa Howard are terrific, as the bride’s old boyfriend who crashes the wedding and her zaftig big sister who thinks she’ll never have one of her own. But the crowd pleaser is Edward Hibbert as a wedding planner in the old don’t-ask-just-fey tradition of Paul Lynde.

Over at Something Rotten!, Brian d’Arcy James puts his formidable talents to work as the most ambitious of the musical-creating brothers and Christian Borle, sporting a British accent and rock star braggadocio, steals the show as an arrogant Shakespeare (click here to read a Q&A with those two stars).

Or Borle would steal the show if he weren’t getting so much competition from John Cariani as the meeker of the brothers, Heidi Blickenstaff as James’ cross-dressing wife, Brad Oscar as a ditsy soothsayer, Brooks Ashmanskas as a disapproving Puritan and Peter Bartlett, also channeling Lynde, as a skittish aristocratic.

So which show should an average theatergoer see?  Alas, there’s no easy answer to that. The Tony nominators gave Something Rotten! 10 nominations on Tuesday, making it the dark horse in a three-way race for the Best Musical Tony with An American in Paris and Fun Home. 

It Shoulda Been You got no Tony love but the Outer Critics Circle nominated both shows for Outstanding Musical. Of course, if you go by the Times’ Ben Brantley, neither is worth your time.

I’ve had the good fortune to see both. And I believe there’s a difference between whether you like a kind of show that’s being done and whether that show is done well. I don’t expect either of these shows to end up on the list of my Top 10 favorites of the year but both are terrifically well done. So figure out what kind of show appeals to you, then go see it and have a good time, Ben Brantley (and even me) be damned.