July 1, 2015

A Last Look at Three June Shows: "Guards at the Taj," "The Qualms" and "The "Tempest"

June is the Indian summer of the New York theater season. Falling between the heat of the shows rushing out to qualify for the Tonys and other awards and the relative freeze that settles over the theater world during the summer months, it often plays host to smaller shows with milder ambitions, some of which in past years have turned out turned out to be my favorites of the year, others just pleasant ways to past the time. There was a bumper crop of such shows this year and I’ve already talked about some of them in recent posts but three significant ones that I haven't gotten to are closing within the next week and so, once again, I’m going to try to catch up by doing one of my highlights and lowlights summaries:

GUARDS AT THE TAJ: I’ve run hot and cold on the playwright Rajiv Joseph even though his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2010. But you should look for his meta-historical piece about two lowly guards keeping watch on the Taj Mahal to be on my 10 Best list at the end of the year. The play starts off as yet another riff on Vladimir and Estragon of Becket’s Waiting for Godot as the titular guards—boyhood friends with differing personalities, one a stickler for rules, the other an inveterate flouter of them—stand sentry on the eve of the unveiling of the Taj Mahal but it turns into a morality tale on art, friendship and the cost of blind obedience to authority.

Highlight: Joseph wrote his piece for the actors Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed, and their amazing performances, under Amy Morton’s brilliant direction, more than justify the faith he put in them. They—and this production—are alternately hysterically funny and profoundly heartrending

Lowlight: Some critics have carped at one thing (the colloquial language Joseph gives his characters) or another (the graphic violence in which he involves them) but not me. I thought every single thing worked just as it should and by the end, I was totally gobsmacked.

THE QUALMS. Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and so I, like everyone else who cares about theater, was eager to see what he would do next and even more intrigued when it was announced that the subject of race would be replaced by a focus on sexuality. Here’s the setup: a young couple makes its first visit to the regular meeting of a group of swingers, who get together to have guilt-free sex with one another but the newcomers may not be as open as they think they are.

Highlight: The show has a kick-ass cast, lead by Jeremy Shamos as the uneasy newbie husband and anchored by Donna Lynne Champlin, who plays a plus-sized swinger with a big heart and who seems incapable of giving a dishonest performance.

Lowlight:  But despite those performances and Pam MacKinnon’s straightforward direction, I didn’t believe a bit of the will-they-won’t-they debate that Norris creates (in any semblance of real life, the group would just kick out the troublemaker: I sure wanted to). And I was particularly pissed off by having yet one more white playwright create an effeminate black male character (switching the races of the group’s alpha male and its swishy one could even have been an interesting way to  heighten the drama).

THE TEMPEST. It’s always a treat to sit in the middle of Central Park on a balmy summer evening watching a free performance of Shakespeare in the Park, even when it’s a so-so production like this one of one of the Bard's most complex plays, which completes its five-week run this weekend.

Highlight: Director Michael Greif has created a sensual production that is  beautiful to look at and Michael Friedman’s original music played by percussionist Arthur Solari is lovely to hear. And it’s also nice to see that despite all his TV success, Jesse Tyler Ferguson continues to remain loyal to the company that gave him his start by coming back again and again to play one of his trademark clowns.

Lowlight: The problem is with the rest of the casting, particularly the lead. Sam Waterston is a Shakespeare in the Park stalwart who has performed in 13 productions over the past four decades and is often a fine actor with Emmy, Oscar and Tony nominations to his name. But he puts an idiosyncratic spin on this play’s main character Prospero that makes him seem less like the exiled duke and mighty sorcerer that Shakespeare created than an addled old guy who just wandered into the park.

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