November 18, 2017

"The Portuguese Kid" is Totally Juvenile

Nobody bats a thousand. It's unfair of us theater lovers to expect our favorite writers and directors to knock one out of the park (last sports metaphor, I promise) each time they come up with a new show. And it's commendable when a theater company sticks with a playwright through the ups and downs that come with any theatrical career. 

So I suppose I should be more gracious toward The Portuguese Kid, the new comedy by John Patrick Shanley that is being given the most supportive production possible by Manhattan Theatre Club, which has been producing Shanley's work since 1986. But I can't be: it's an awfully disappointing show.

As if paying homage to his own Oscar-winning movie "Moonstruck," Shanley, who is also the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning Doubt, has written (and, compounding the problem, directed) a romantic comedy about people who have settled for relationships of convenience although their passions clearly lie with someone else.

As in the movie, the central character in the play is an attractive and still randy widow, here named Atalanta Lagana. She's sleeping with a much younger dimwit named Freddie but truly longs for Barry, the childhood friend whom she once saved from being bullied by the titular but never seen Portuguese kid.

Barry, who is now the second-rate lawyer overseeing her late husband's estate, has the hots for Atalanta too but he is married to a Latina Barbie doll named Patty, who also happens to be Freddie's ex.

Sexual hijinks are supposed to ensue but what we get are lame jokes that lean heavily on the low humor of ethnic and gender stereotyping, lots of yelling and a few Trump references thrown in for good, or not so good, measure. 

Even a cast that includes such comic heavyweights as Sherrie Rene Scott, Jason Alexander (click here to read an interview with him) and the redoubtable Mary Testa as Barry's overbearing and overprotective mother can't get this one off the ground.

The true star of the production is John Lee Beatty's revolving set, which presents one faux-elegant setting after another and drew the loudest applause at the performance I attended and fidgeted my way through.

November 11, 2017

"People, Places & Things" is a Good Thing

The story that British playwright Duncan Macmillan tells in People, Places & Things isn't new. But the brilliant way in which this tale about a woman's struggles with alcoholism and addiction is told deserves all the accolades that the production running at St. Ann's Warehouse through Dec. 3 has been getting.

Much of the praise has been heaped on Denise Gough who portrays an actress called Emma who hits rocks bottom onstage during a performance of Chekhov's The Seagull, enters rehab with a bottle in one hand and some grams of coke in the other and then tries to bluff her way through recovery. Until she's forced to face her demons.

It's a demanding role that requires the actress playing Emma to be simultaneously funny and poignant and, as the Olivier Award she won for her performance during last year's run at London's National Theatre attests, Gough totally delivers.

The actress has said that she hadn't worked for a year before getting the part and had even considered quitting the profession. She smartly uses all that disappointment and desperation she must have felt back then to fuel her finely tuned portrayal of Emma  (click here to read an interview with her).

Still, I'm saving my loudest hurrahs for the totally imaginative staging by Jeremy Herrin that includes dance-club music and choreographed segments. And for the inventive set design by Bunny Christie that mimics the stark white-tiled interior of a hospital but regularly erupts into psychedelic fever dreams.

Equally dazzling are the lighting by James Farncombe, video projections by Andrzej Goulding and sound design by Tom Gibbons. All of it made all the more impressive because St. Ann's has been transformed into sports-arena style seating that places the audience on both sides of the playing space.

The Brits excel at this unabashedly flamboyant style of storytelling (Herrin also wrote the visceral adaptation of 1984 that ended its run last month) and the kinetic stagecraft is well used here as the onstage action moves in and out of Emma's mind.

Similarly, although some actors double in roles, the choice to have them do so seems more dramaturgically driven than economically motivated. The entire cast is excellent, although a special shout-out must go to Barbara Marten, whose main role is as Emma's therapist but most affecting one comes later in the evening (don't look at your program until after the show).

Herrin tacitly acknowledges the clichés that come with telling a story about the struggle to overcome substance abuse but he spices up his version with truly witty dialog. He also juxtaposes Emma's addiction against the backdrop of her theatrical career, drawing parallels between the artifice essential to each.

"Truth is difficult when you lie for a living," Emma tells the members of her therapy group as they all practice the behaviors they want to perform in the outside world. The make-believe serves as an insulation from pain for Emma, which makes the final two scenes of People, Places & Things all the more devastating for her and the play all the more memorable for those of us lucky enough to see it.

November 4, 2017

"After the Blast" Finds Uplift in a Dystopia

In these challenging times, a play that makes a convincing argument for why it's important to continue on despite overwhelming odds is especially welcomed. And that's exactly what LCT3's production of Zoe Kazan's After the Blast does.

Set in some unspecified future when environmental or man-made disaster has made the earth uninhabitable, it creates a world in which a curated group of humans live underground, technology has advanced to the point that robots can serve as companions and virtual reality allows people to escape into simulations of a better life. But all real resources in this society, from drinking water to the ability to have a child, are rationed.

As the play opens, Anna, a journalist, and her husband Oliver, one of the subterranean colony's leading scientists, are very much in love and desperate to have a child. But they've failed to pass the qualifying tests because of Anna's mental condition, a depression that deepens each time the couple is turned down. Now, when they have just one more chance to make the cut, Oliver tries to distract Anna from her mounting anxiety by bringing home a robot for her to train to work with the disabled.

Anna resists at first but gradually grows fond of the R2D2-style contraption, whom she nicknames Arthur in homage to the iconic "Star Wars" character it resembles. And as time goes on, her deepening bond with Artie, as she nicknames it, threatens her relationship with Oliver.

The fact that none of this seems at all silly or campy is a testament to Kazan, an accomplished actress who has matured as a playwright since her shaky authorial debut with We Live Here back in 2011 (click here to read my review of that one). This time out, she's in impressive command of both the text, which is smart and witty, and the subtext, which is heartwarming and inspirational.

But credit also must be shared with the sensitive staging by Lila Neugebauer, who in just the last three years has become one of New York's most astute directors (click here to read more about her). And still even more praise must go to the excellent cast, lead by Cristin Milioti and William Jackson Harper—and including Will Connolly who supplies the voice for Artie.

Milioti emerges as first among equals with a fine-spun performance that weaves together the desperation that haunts Anna and her determination to live life as honestly as she can.

 Plus Milioti gets bonus points for managing to be so authentic opposite an inanimate—albeit irresistibly cute—scene partner (click here to read an interview with the actress). Meanwhile, Harper runs a close second as a man ready to do anything, even betray her, to make his wife happy.

After the Blast, which runs 2 hours and 15 minutes, has its longeurs but they're leavened by its humor (much of it supplied by Anna's interactions with Artie) and by the play's resolute conviction that the sacrifices we make today are necessary if we want to build a better future for those coming after us—but also so that we can make life worth living for the people we love now.

October 28, 2017

"The Home Place" is Underfurnished

All the comments I overhead at the Irish Repertory Theatre Company's revival of Brian Friel's The Home Place seemed to be about the set. Decorated with prettily painted flats and lots of imitation greenery to simulate the fictional village of Ballybeg where Friel located so many of his plays, it is a nice set, especially for a company with a limited budget. Still, it might have gotten so much attention because it was hard to think of anything as complimentary to say about the rest of the production.

Back in 2007, the original production won London's Evening Standard Award but although the play deals with Friel's familiar themes of identity and oppression, be it on the basis of ethnicity as in Translations or gender as in Dancing at Lughnasa, this rendering of The Home Place seems unfocused.

The play's titular homestead is owned by Christopher Gore, an Anglo-Irishman who sees himself as a benevolent landlord but it's 1878 and he worries that his tenants will succumb to the growing demands for home rule that have caused locals in a nearby village to murder their squire.

It doesn't help that Gore is being visited by his arrogant cousin, a eugenicist who is conducting psuedoscientific tests on the townspeople in an effort to prove that the Irish are inferior to the British. And further complicating matters is the fact that the widowed Gore and his grown son David are both in love with their housekeeper Margaret, a local beauty who aspires to a better life than her neighbors.

The Home Place calls for a large cast, some appearing only in a scene or two, and the Irish Rep gets points for casting 11 actors instead of having some double as has become the custom for companies trying to stretch a dollar. The problem is that too few of those actors are up to the task of walking the fine line between grit and whimsy that defines so much of Friel's work.

And even some of the better actors are miscast. The lovely Rachel Pickup exudes grace, making it easy to see why the Gore men would be taken with her Margaret. But Margaret is not only torn between the father and son but between the town's social classes and Pickup's performance doesn't convey that inner turmoil. Nor does it get anywhere near the dramatic-rich question of whether Margaret is simply an opportunist trying to figure out the best deal for herself.

Meanwhile under Charlotte Moore's shaky direction (characters show little regard for where walls should be as they make their entrances and exits) several of the male actors make eccentric choices that undercut not only their characters but the narrative of the play. One mugs endlessly.

The Irish Rep has put on a Friel play almost every season and so it makes sense that it would want to mount this one, the last original work by Friel, who died two years ago at the age of 86. But alas, this production suggests that you can't always go home again.

October 21, 2017

Moments Linger in "Time and the Conways"

The word sentimental has become one of the deepest insults you can hurl at a play. But I don't mind a bit of sentimentality if it's done well. And although the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways has some flaws (most notably the shaky British accents by a mainly American cast) it's being done very well.

The play, which moves back and forth between two time periods, is one of a series of works that Priestly wrote to explore philosopher John William Dunne's idea that the past, present and future are all happening simultaneously even if our human minds can only grasp time as a linear concept.

In equal parts a family drama, a comedy of manners and a metaphysical meditation, Time and the Conways begins in 1919, shortly after World War I has ended. Its protagoinists are the Conways, a large upper class family of four daughters and two sons, headed by their recently widowed mother who is eager to put grief behind her and celebrate all the glorious possibilities ahead for her children. 

As the play opens in the weakest of its three acts, the family is celebrating the 21st birthday of Kay, the sister with writerly aspirations, and the return home from the army of family golden boy Robin. Most of the festivities occur offstage but we do get to meet various would-be love interests for the siblings.

They include the flirty neighbor Joan who catches the eye of both Robin and his less glittery older brother Alan; a young lawyer named Gerald who shares a desire to do good in the world with the family socialist Madge; and Ernest, an outsider with working-class roots who looks up to the Conways, especially the family beauty Hazel, but who is looked down on by all of them, except for the youngest sister Carol.

That's a lot of characters and a lot of storylines and Priestley, who has bigger things on his mind, only sketches them in. But the play—and especially this production—gets going in the second act, which flashes forward to 1937, just before Britain is about to enter World War II and as the Conways are forced to reckon with the choices they've made over the decades. 

Their disappointments are made all the more painful by the third act, which returns to 1919. But the play not only moves back and forth in time but also breaks the fourth wall as two characters find themselves lost in a time warp and struggling to make sense of the recondite themes that most intrigued Priestley.

All of this was no doubt quite heady when Time and the Conways was first staged in London in 1937 and later for a very brief run on Broadway in 1938. It's less provocative nowadays when fractured narratives in TV shows like "Mr. Robot" and novels like Emily Fridlund's "The History of Wolves" are so commonplace, but the play's underlying themes of dashed dreams and the compromises that life demands remain relevant.

Director Rebecca Taichman, fresh from her Tony win for helming Indecent, doesn't shy away from the sentimentality of what happens to the Conways but she and—accents aside—her top-flight cast give each storyline a poignant clarity (click here to read an interview with the director).

Elizabeth McGovern, now best known as the mother on TV's "Downton Abbey," gets the final bow for portraying the more self-centered matriarch of the Conway clan but the always-amazing Gabriel Ebert gives a quietly sympathetic performance that turns the awkward sibling Alan into the emotional center of the play.

Still, the true star of this production is Neil Patel's set, which, aided by Christopher Akerlind's delicate lighting, underscores Dunne's concepts about the confluence of time with an elegant coup d'theatre that truly makes the case that we are all haunted by the past.

October 14, 2017

"Tiny Beautiful Things" is Too Small for Me

Sometimes you need to just follow your gut when it comes to deciding whether or not to see a show.  My gut told me Tiny Beautiful Things wouldn't be for me. But I wanted to see this staged adaptation of the personal advice column Sheryl Strayed wrote because the word of mouth about it was so good. Turns out my gut was right.

Not that my gut should keep you away. Strayed has a big following. Her memoir “Wild,” an account of the solo pilgrimage she made from the Mojave Desert in California to the Bridge of the Gods, the natural dam in Washington State, was a bestseller, an Oprah Book Club selection and the basis for the 2014 film in which Reese Witherspoon portrayed the young Strayed.

But Strayed may be best known and most loved for the pep talks she wrote under the pen name Dear Sugar. Her responses to people’s questions about love, loneliness and the meaning of life were poetic and often very personal.

Nia Vardalos (the creator and star of the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and Thomas Kail (director of the theatrical phenomenon Hamilton) have turned Strayed's affirmations into a 75-minute play that had such a successful workshop production at the Public Theater last winter that it’s now been moved into the Public’s large Newman theater space (click here to read more about the genesis of the production).

There's no narrative. Instead, three actors, eschewing any allegiance to ethnicity or gender, play a variety of letter writers and recite the contents of their queries. Then Vardalos as Strayed shares both the writer's wisdom and the experiences (the death of her beloved mother, an early divorce, a struggle with heroin addiction) through which she earned it.

Kail moves everyone nicely around Rachel Hauck's homey set but I got antsy after the first 15-minutes. That’s partly because I’m not big on the pop psychology that gets peddled in most advice columns. But it’s also because most of the show's dialog sounds like the kind of aphorisms you might find on posters at your local yoga studio. There’s even some deep breathing.

But that’s just me. Most of the folks at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended seemed enraptured.  And the show has been extended through Dec. 10. So the decision about whether you should see it is up to you—and your gut.

October 7, 2017

The Latest News About "Broadway & Me"

Regular readers may have noticed that I haven't been posting as often as I usually do. But that doesn't mean I haven't been seeing shows and having thoughts about them. In fact, I seem to be doing more of that than ever. It's just that I've been doing it in different places and now I want to share some of that with you. 

I didn't get the chance to write about Suzan-Lori Park's The Red Letter Plays, which are now coming to the ends of their runs at Signature Theatre. Both plays were inspired by "The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel about a woman ostracized by her 17th century Puritan community for having a child out of wedlock, and by the more contemporary disgrace of income inequality. Director Jo Bonney's production of Fucking A, a Brechtian piece in which the letter stigmatizes the local abortionist, worked best for me largely because of its brilliant cast which included Christine Lahti, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joaquina Kalukango and Marc Kudisch. But there are also moments to recommend in Sarah Benson's more absurdist take on In the Blood, in which the letter is the only part of the alphabet recognized by a poor illiterate mother struggling to care for her six illegitimate children. You can hear my thoughts about both on the Sept. 17 episode of "This Week on Broadway" in which I filled in for podcast regular Peter Filichia by clicking here.

I'm a longtime fan of Amy Herzog's work and her latest play Mary Jane is running at New York Theatre Workshop through Oct. 29 with Carrie Coon giving a quietly devastating performance as a single mom caring for a severely ill child. The production is directed by Anne Kauffman who collaborated for the sixth time with the up-and-coming designer Laura Jellinek to create a set that captures the hermetic world in which the mother and child exist—and which I discussed with Jellinek for a story that ran in "TDF Stages" and which you can find here.

And just this week, I saw Too Heavy for Your Pocket, an affecting new play set against the backdrop of the Freedom Rides in 1961. It opened in the Roundabout Theatre's Underground space Thursday night and marks the New York debut of Jiréh Breon Holder, who won this year's Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for emerging playwrights. I also got to interview Holder and my conversation with him marks the debut of the new BroadwayRadio podcast "Stagecraft," in which I'll be talking to playwrights and muscial book writers about their shows. I'm really excited about this new venture, already have some other fascinating writers lined up and hope you will listen in, which you can begin to do here.

Finally, you may have heard that I've also been invited to be one of the guest co-hosts on the long-running TV series "TheatreTalk." It's all adding up to a busy and exciting theater season for me and I hope to continue sharing it with all of you in all those places and, of course, right here.

September 30, 2017

"Charm" Celebrates Gender Fluidity

It's hard not to be charmed by Charm, the new play about a 67-year-old transgender woman who offers etiquette lessons to underprivileged and gender-fluid youths. For everyone associated with this MCC Theater production—playwright Philip Dawkins, director Will Davis and the gender-diverse cast led by Sandra Caldwell—is earnestly committed to doing and saying the right thing. The result is sentimental—but inspirational too.

The play itself, or at least its first act, was inspired by the experiences of Miss Gloria Allen, a now 73-year-old transgender woman who has lived her true identity since she was 19, mentored homeless youths at Chicago's LGBTQ center and been described as a blend of RuPaul and Auntie Mame (click here to read more about her and the show's genesis).

But, as though he were one of her students, Dawkins takes a decorous approach to Allen's story that not only beatifies his subject but makes her fictional stand-in Mama Darleena Andrews less colorful than the real woman seems to be.

And while the students in the play's class are a span-the-gamut mix of rainbow ethnicities, identities ranging from the gender proud to the gender confused and social backgrounds that include a rich kid seeking a safe place to figure out who he is and a homeless teen who supports herself by working the streets as a prostitute, there's a polite quality to all of them too.

They're all looking for love and affirmation and Dawkins gives each of them the chance to act out a bit. But they too easily buy into Mama Darleena's anachronistic ideas about the right way to eat, sit and conform to conventional rules about the way men and women (transgender or cisgender) should behave.

In fact, the play's best conflict is between Mama and D, the gender-non-conforming director of the center who has a more contemporary view on what it means to be a trans person. 

That should be drama enough but in the second act, Dawkins mixes in jealousies and rivalries that eventually threaten the future of the etiquette program and Mama Dareleena's very life. Then he quickly whirls through resolutions to these problems as though they were plot points on a TV procedural.

Yet, it's still great to see a story about transgender people that isn't unrelentingly depressing or sad but is instead upbeat and celebratory. That's due, in part to the substantial transgender presence on the creative team, starting with Davis, the artistic director of Chicago's American Theatre Company and the first acknowledged transgender person to lead a mainstream theatre company in this country (click here to read more about him).

Davis actively recruited transgender actors to be a part of his cast. Their abilities vary but, under Davis' steady hand, they all bring authenticity and obvious delight to the roles they play. And the production really lucked out with Caldwell, a longtime actress who was moved to come out as transgender by the opportunity to be in this play (click here to read an interview with her).

Caldwell is warm and funny as she delivers the snappy lines Dawkins has written for Mama Darleena but she also imbues the role with a gravitas hewn from her own experiencces of what it has been like to live as a trans person in this society. 

Charm, which is running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through Oct. 15, isn't a great play but, particularly in these tolerance-testing times, it's one worth seeing and cheering on.