November 25, 2017

Too Pooped to Turn on the Ghost Light

No post today. And I'm too pooped to even turn on the ghost light that usually indicates I'm taking a break. Here's why: Over the past week, I've:
•taped my first episode of TheatreTalk (it's scheduled to air on public TV stations across the country the week of Dec. 4— and will later be available online at

•recorded another session of "Stagecraft," my BroadwayRadio podcast, which this week features a conversation with Rajiv Joseph that you can find at

•set up two more "Stagecraft" interviews

•seen three thought-provoking shows

•attended an out-of-town memorial service for one of my mentors

•edited stories for the journalism class I teach

•shopped for, cooked and hosted (along with my always-supportive husband K) our extended family's annual Thanksgiving dinner

I'm exhausted just typing that list. So I'm taking time out to recuperate.  But I'll be back next week and I hope you will be too.

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.