December 29, 2007

A Brief Encounter with "The Receptionist"

There are so many holiday-themed shows running between Thanksgiving and New Years that you wouldn't think a play centered around a chubby middle-aged woman who answers telephones for a living would be the choice for a multi-generational family outing during Christmas week. Yet sitting behind me at the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Receptionist were a grandmother and her three grandkids, who looked to be between the ages of 12 and 19. And, for the most part, they also looked to be having a pretty good time.

Perhaps they were primed for the show by its seeming similarity to "The Office," the NBC sitcom about an obnoxious boss and the poor saps who work for him. Or maybe they were simply amused, as I was, by Jayne Houdyshell's pitch-perfect performance as the good-natured busybody familiar to every workplace. And I suspect that the now-notorious twist in the play may have appealed to the sense of the macabre that, if the current popularity of horror movies is any indication, seems to excite lots of young people these days. "I wasn't so sure about this at the start," I overheard the grandson say during the curtain call. "But then things started getting interesting."
Finally, I imagine that the play's running time may also have played a part in their enjoyment. The Receptionist runs just 70 intermission-less minutes.

I'm a big fan of one-act plays. Unlike the opera, where you get a comfortable 30 minutes or so of intermission, the 10 to 15 minute breaks during plays always strike me as stingy and a waste of time and effort. By the time you shove your way into the lobby, it's time to shove your way back to your seat. Which is why I rarely leave mine. I also like the fact that a short performance gets you out at a decent hour so that you can go somewhere afterwards and linger over dinner talking about the show or, if you choose, find a cab home easily since the other shows haven't yet let out. But 70 minutes kind of startled me.

The brevity of The Receptionist seemed to take the rest of the audience by surprise too. When the stage lights went out, signaling the end of the show, it took a few seconds for the applause to start and even then it was tepid, although people had laughed and, in some cases even gasped, out loud during the performance. I think we all felt cheated.

Going to the theater obviously isn't like renting a car or seeing a shrink, you don’t pay for it by the hour. But the regular ticket price for The Receptionist, which ends its run this weekend, is $75, and that works out to more than a dollar a minute. I don't bear any resentment towards Houydshell and her co-stars—Josh Charles, Robert Foxworth and Kendra Kassebaum—who were all terrific. Or towards playwright Adam Bock, whose play deftly captures these distressing times; or director Joe Mantello, who paced the work perfectly; or sound designer Darron L. West, who created just the right undercurrent of menace.
But shouldn't someone at MTC have made the call that asking folks to pay more than a buck a minute for a performance is, well, distressing.

Luckily, other theater companies and producers are looking for ways to make theater more affordable for more people. Playwrights Horizons has a number of programs including Hot Tix, which sells $20 tickets to people who can prove they’re 30 or under; and LIVEforFIVE, an online lottery that offers $5 tickets for first preview performances (click here to see all of its discount programs). And earlier this month, the producers of August: Osage County, The Homecoming, and November announced a package deal to see all three for $199 (click here for more details on that offer).

I don't know how often the young people who sat behind me at
The Receptionist go to the theater. But I think seeing it may have persuaded them that a live show can be just as enthralling as a movie at the Cineplex. Alas, it may also have made them think that going to the theater is something that you can only afford to do when an indulgent, well-heeled grandmother takes you.

December 26, 2007

Discovering "Cymbeline"

The big question for me when I'm getting ready to see a play by Shakespeare is whether I should read the play, or at least a summary of it, beforehand. But I knew right from the moment I heard about Lincoln Center's production of Cymbeline that I wasn't going to read it. I'd never seen Cymbeline or studied it in school and the chance to "discover" a work by Shakespeare for the very first time, almost the way that a groundling at the Old Globe might have done in the Bard's day, seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

As you probably know by now, Cymbeline is kind of like a "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits" album. Characters and themes from other plays pop up so much that if you're familiar with just a little bit of Shakespeare, you feel quite at home. There are young lovers who are kept apart by wrongheaded parents (ala Romeo and Juliet), a scheming queen (just like Lady Macbeth), an unjustly jealous husband and the villain who eggs him on (hello, Othello and Iago), rousing battle scenes (all hail Henry V and Richard III), and spunky cross-dressing heroines and long-lost siblings (pick your favorite of his comedies). I've been trying to imagine what might have possessed Shakespeare to cram so many of his favorite tropes into one play. Was he cash-strapped and threw it all together fast to pay off a debt? Had he developed a case of writer's block and decided to treat it with remedies that had worked in the past? Who cares? What matters is that director Mark Lamos has whipped them all together into a delightfully entertaining evening full of pageantry, romance and liberal dollops of good-naturedly over-the-top humor.

Lots of directors these days seem to think that the best way to get a Broadway audience to sit through a Shakespeare play is simply to cast it with a big name star or two, or as many as they can get. Lamos didn't do that. Instead his large, color-blind cast (black Phylicia Rashad plays mom to white
Adam Dannheisser) is filled with accomplished stage actors and they return the favor by turning in nicely polished performances, particularly Martha Plimpton as the courageous heroine Imogen, Michael Cerveris as her secret-husband Posthumus and John Pankow as their loyal servant Pisanio. The always-dependable John Cullum makes a regal king and Dannheisser, as a totally hissable villain, provides comic relief and wins big laughs. Lamos doesn’t try to impose any overarching concept on the play either; he just lets it tell its story. And he's ably assisted by Michael Yeargan's simple but elegant set, which evokes the fairy tale that Cymbeline ultimately is, and Jess Goldstein's lavish costumes, which are a little more all over the map but fitting since the play is too.

I squeezed the show in during the pre-Christmas rush and its message of forgiveness and reconciliation fits right into the spirit of the season. Maybe too many other theatergoers had longer shopping lists than mine because there were lots of empty seats at the Vivian Beaumont, where the show is playing through Jan. 6. And that's too bad because although Cymbeline is too much of a grab-bag to be a great play, there’s enough in this production to make a theater-loving groundling like me grateful to have seen it. Plus, there's that extra treat of discovering a work by Shakespeare that hasn't been done to death.

December 22, 2007

The Joy of "A Child's Christmas in Wales"

Christmas is a wonderful time to be in New York. From the big glittering tree in Rockefeller Center to the lights strung around lampposts, and from the performances of "The Nutcracker" at the City Ballet to the Nativity pageants in neighborhood churches, the whole city seems to be aglow and putting on a show. Somehow, though, the season usually whirs right by me. But this year when I saw that the Irish Repertory Theatre was putting on a musical adaptation of the Dylan Thomas poem A Child's Christmas in Wales, I emailed my friend Ellie and asked if she wanted to go. I'd never read the poem but I knew that Ellie, a former actress who now writes and teaches poetry, loved it and I thought seeing the show would be a fun way for us to take some time out and celebrate the holidays. As with so much in life, it didn't quite turn out the way I thought it would.

The show, playing in the tiny 44-seat studio space in the basement of the Irish Rep's theater on West 22nd Street, was enthusiastically performed by five twentysomething actors and a pianist but it came off more as a school recital featuring the pluckiest students (right down to the red velvet dresses for the two girls and tuxedos for the three boys) than a professional production with a $35 ticket price. The Rep's artistic director Charlotte Moore has paired the recitation of the Thomas poem with a dramatic reading of Clement Clark Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and embellished both with carols and other holiday songs. Ellie, who'd thought there would be Welsh, or at least Irish, music, put her head in her hands and groaned when the two women started singing "Silver Bells." But watching the young actors and listening to both poems transported me back to my own childhood.

Like the Thomas clan, the uncles, aunts and cousins in my family gathered each year and ate and drank and argued and bonded throughout the day. For a few years, my cousins and I even did our own adaptation of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" (I wrote and directed) and performed it for our parents after the big family dinner and before the presents were exchanged. Nearly all of the elders have now passed on and it's been years since the extended family has gotten together. The Rep's 60-minute version of A Child's Christmas in Wales (click here to hear a recording of Thomas reciting his poem) isn't what I'd usually call a good show but, in reminding me of those joyful times, it touched me. So I'm glad, I took the time out to see it. And I hope each of you finds some time during this busy season to think about good holidays past, to make good memories for the ones yet to come and of course, if you can, to see a good show.

Merry Christmas.

December 19, 2007

Why "The Homecoming" Doesn't Hit Home

Harold Pinter's The Homecoming created a sensation when it opened at the Music Box Theatre in January of 1967, just as it had done during its earlier run in London. People took sides with the kind of passion displayed today only by fans at a World Cup final. In his opening night review, the New York Times critic Walter Kerr declared the play too slight and too slow. But a few weeks later, his colleague Clive Barnes proclaimed it "the most important English play since the war." The New Yorker wasn't impressed. Newsweek, however, thought it redefined drama. Readers heatedly debated the play in letters columns for weeks. Five months later, Tony voters chose it as the year's Best Play and gave it three other awards as well.

I know all of this because I was so befuddled about the meaning of The Homecoming after seeing the new production that opened on Sunday at the Cort Theatre that I started looking things up as soon as I got home. "What you need," said my husband K, who had decided to see it with me because he had never seen a Pinter play and thought he should see one, "is a kind of Cliff Notes." I checked the Cliff Notes website and they didn't have anything but I did find something like it on and was delighted to discover that I could download the PDF to my computer immediately (click here if you want to do the same) although I can't honestly say it helped.

I can say that it's unlikely the new production of The Homecoming will create the kind of commotion it did 40 years ago, even though it is nicely
directed by Dan Sullivan and performed by a superb cast that includes Raúl Esparza, Michael McKean, Ian McShane and Eve Best. Back then it arrived after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and in the midst of the burgeoning women’s movement but before the events of 1968 that many people consider the heart of that paradigm-changing period we call The Sixties and the play seemed fittingly emblematic of those disjointed times. But now it is an established classic, considered by many to be Pinter's masterpiece. And Pinter himself has become a revered theater elder who has won the Nobel Prize and been knighted by the Queen.

On its most basic level, The Homecoming tells the story of a philosophy professor, who, after living in the U.S. for nine years, returns with his wife to his native England to visit the all-male household of his widowed father, two brothers and the uncle who lives with them. They are—no surprise—a dysfunctional family (are there any other kind in dramas?) and so the play is also about the sexual dynamics, power plays and betrayals among them. What Pinter brings to all of this is that indefinable feeling of creepy unease that even people who haven't seen his plays refer to as Pinteresque.

Which raises the question, at least for me, of what I would have thought if I'd seen the same show but the playwright had been listed as some other name. Because, dear reader, as much as I wanted to, I couldn't figure out what the play was supposed to be telling me (is it a proto-feminist work? or just the familiar old male fantasy?). Admittedly trying to discern that kept me riveted. And I was equally fascinated by how Best, who played Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten last season, and Esparza, who most recently played Bobby in Company, transformed themselves into such completely different characters. And, of course, I came home and started reading (click here to read a terrific piece that the New Yorker critic John Lahr wrote about how The Homecoming changed his life) and found out lots of interesting things. But the play still hasn't hit home for me. Maybe that's because there’s really no way to turn the clock back and experience a breakthrough work in the same way that people did when it first broke through. Or maybe, it's just me.

December 15, 2007

The Many Faces of "Yellow Face"

The first thing I wanted to know when my husband K and I walked out of The Public Theater after seeing David Henry Hwang's new play Yellow Face was: what is the New York Times going to say about this? People in the theater world are always asking some variation of that question because the paper wields so much influence over what theatergoers choose to see and which plays get to run. But I had a very specific reason for my question: the New York Times plays a role in Yellow Face and it's not a pretty one.

The Times, as it turns out, gave the show a circumspect review (click here to read it). But K and I loved Yellow Face. I've been a Hwang fan since I saw his second play, The Dance and the Railroad at The Public back in 1981; it told the story of two Chinese laborers working on the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s and it was the first time I'd seen Asian-Americans portrayed on a stage as real people. Seven years later, Hwang hit the Broadway big time with M. Butterfly, his wry deconstruction of the "Madama Butterfly" story as refracted through the real-life spy case of a French diplomat and the Chinese transvestite who was his lover. That play won three Tonys, including Best Play, three Drama Desk awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination; it also ran for almost two years. Hwang produced a couple of more plays after that but he's spent most of the last decade working on books for musicals ranging from an update of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song to Disney's adaptations of Aida and Tarzan. So one of the reasons I'm so excited about Yellow Face is that it marks Hwang's return to the subject of racial identity that he does so well and that very few other playwrights do at all.

Yellow Face, which has been extended through Dec. 30, is the somewhat autobiographical story of Hwang's life since the success of M. Butterfly. It starts with the protests he helped lead when the white Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Eurasian pimp in the musical Miss Saigon, a role that Asian-American actors felt should have gone to one of them. It ends with the government investigations of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwan-born nuclear scientist who was erroneously charged with spying for China, and Hwang's father Henry Y. Hwang, an immigrant who founded the first Asian-American-owned bank in the U.S. and who was unjustly accused of laundering money for his native China. (This is where the New York Times, which aggressively covered both cases, enters the action.) Along the way, Hwang tells the tale of what happened to his infamous flop Face Value and the story of his mentorship of a white actor he mistakenly believed to be Asian.

That's a lot of plot. But Wong handles it deftly, with enough humor to keep you amused during the show (people who know Broadway will particularly enjoy his portrayals of producers Stuart Ostrow and Cameron Mackintosh and actors B.D. Wong and Jane Krakowski) and with enough perspicacity to keep you thinking about it for days afterwards (some critics complained about the serious turn in the play's second half; but it's the serious stuff that's the point). The show is also aided by Leigh Silverman's sharp direction and an agile seven-member cast headed by Hoon Lee, who plays Hwang, Noah Bean as the ambiguous actor, and Francis Jue, who portrays multiple characters including Hwang's father.

After the show, K and I walked to Five Points, our favorite downtown restaurant and a place that was almost a second home for us when K, a pit musician played in the orchestra for The Public's production of Elaine Stritch At Liberty. Our friend Lee, the nicest maitre d in New York, was off but they gave us a nice table and as we sipped two of their specialty cocktails—a pear mimosa for me, something with gin for K—I recalled how I'd once met Hwang during the Miss Saigon controversy and how even in the midst of it, he was ambivalent about taking on the role of spokesman for his race. Yellow Face is simultaneously his declaration of independence and a potent demonstration of what makes his voice so important.

[Update: Yellow Face has been extended through Jan. 13]

December 12, 2007

"Is He Dead?" Is Delightfully Alive!

How can you not like Mark Twain? His novels, particularly the great “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, were bestsellers in their day and progenitors of the Great American novel, and they're still smart and funny. He was a devoted father, an adoring husband and a great raconteur with a wide circle of friends and an international following. He had an iconic sense of style and an innate sense of decency. Of course, like everyone, he had his faults; his was being notoriously bad at managing money but even then, he was the kind of guy who, when he went bankrupt, paid back all his debts even though it took him years to do it. After reading his biography a couple of years ago, I developed a crush on him.

Still, I had my doubts about seeing the new Broadway production of Is He Dead?, the play that Twain wrote in 1898, but that was never produced and that was pretty much lost until a Stanford English professor discovered it in an archive five years ago. But I was curious too and so last week, I went with my friend Ann, a good sport who is up for any adventure, to see it. Hedging our bet, we had pre-show burgers at Angus McIndoe, the Broadway hangout that almost always guarantees a good time. Then, we crossed over to the east side of Broadway to get to the gorgeous old Lyceum Theatre where Is He Dead? is playing and where, it turns out, we had an even better time.

Is He Dead? isn't a great play but, as adapted by David Ives, directed by Michael Blakemore, and performed by a wonderfully game cast, it is great fun. Twain's tale takes the life of Jean-François Millet, a real-life 19th century French artist, and reimagines what would have happened if the impoverished painter had faked his own death in order to sell his works to a fickle public that only seems to appreciate artists when they're dead. The result is a farce filled with mistaken identities, cross dressing characters, mustachioed villains, clueless foreigners, silly jokes, sight gags and, of course, lots of slamming doors.

Ives, who has retrofitted 19 musicals for the Encores! series, and Blakemore, who directed the original production of the classic Noises Off and knows his way around a farce, whip all of these elements into a delightful confection that deftly captures the Twain aesthetic. There are also terrific performances from Byron Jennings, David Patu and Marylouise Burke. But the show's secret ingredient is its star, Norbert Leo Butz.

The funny thing is I wasn't all that impressed with Butz the first time I saw him, as the cute boy toy both witches wanted in Wicked. But I was knocked out by his Tony-award winning performance as the manic con man in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; and he was even more hilarious when Jonathan Pryce joined the cast and the two seemed to push one another to dizzier heights of do-anything-for-a-laugh zaniness.
Like Nathan Lane, whose comic brilliance often improves the roles he plays, Butz seems to work best when there's room for him to let his talents fly without restraints. Ives and Blakemore have cleared the decks for him and Butz is more delightfully antic than he's ever been, the play is better than it should have been and the audience is more entertained than it thought it could have been.

Historians speculate about why Is He Dead? was never produce during Twain's lifetime. Here's my thesis: Twain, a man with a great respect for the power of humor and a popular lecturer who drew thousands to his talks, knew what it took to be a crowd-pleaser and so he simply waited until an actor came along who could make his play one. And, of course, as he knew, death makes no difference, it just makes us appreciate his artistry more.

December 8, 2007

Turned Off By "The Farnsworth Invention"

My husband K was ambivalent about The Farnsworth Invention even before we saw it. On the one hand, the show is about the rivalry over who invented television between Philo T. Farnsworth, a naive, self-educated scientific genius, and David Sarnoff, the shrewd media visionary who ran RCA and founded NBC, and K isn't crazy about watching actors pretend to be famous people. On the other hand, the show is by Aaron Sorkin, who is famous for having written the smart courtroom drama A Few Good Men, the smart movies "Malice" and "The American President" and the smart TV series "Sports Night" and "The West Wing" and K is crazy about smart people. As it turns out, the characters in The Farnsworth Invention aren't famous enough to be distracting and the actors playing them—Jimmi Simpson as Farnsworth and Hank Azaria as Sarnoff—are talented performers but Sorkin may be too smart for his, and the audience's, own good.

Sorkin clearly did a lot of research into the technology behind the creation of television and the intricacies of patent law and he's clearly proud of that because long stretches of the play's dialog sound as though pages of “Popular Science” magazine or "The Journal of Intellectual Property Law" somehow got mixed up with the script. I like learning new stuff but I go to the theater to be entertained as much, if not more, than to be educated. At least half of the action in The Farnsworth Invention is simply narrated by the two main characters as they talk about major events in one another’s lives and the few dramatic scenes that are supposed to show those turning points have far too little drama. In short, there's a whole lot of head in this show but not enough heart.

The man sitting next to me kept sneaking peeks at his watch. K and I were bored too. Watching the show reminded me of Democracy, another play about a complex subject (German politics in the post-war era) and written by a smart playwright (Michael Frayn) that came off, at least in the New York production, as more of a lecture than a drama. Sorkin tries to spice up his work by peppering his speeches with anachronistic asides to the audience and expletives that reminded me of those desperate stand-up comics, who, knowing that their jokes are falling flat, try to prop them up by throwing in a barrage of f-words. Plays about serious subjects can be engaging without that kind of gratuitous pandering. Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon proved that last season. And now, right across 45th Street, Tom Stoppard is proving it as he recounts 30 years of modern Czech history in the winning Rock 'n' Roll.

After The Farnsworth Invention ended, K and I walked over to 46th Street for dinner at Orso, the country Italian restaurant that is such a part of the theater scene that you don't even need to give them a specific time when you're making a reservation for a post-theater dinner but instead can just tell them which show you'll be coming from because they know how long each one runs and how long it should take you to walk from the theater. As usual, the cozy room was filled with people who had just seen various shows. The couple who came in right after us and who were seated at a nearby table had just come from The Farnsworth Invention too and, seeing our Playbills, stopped and chatted for a bit. Former New Yorkers who now live in Colorado, they said they come in at least once a year to see shows. Grateful that the stagehands' strike had ended just before this visit had been scheduled to begin, they'd seen Cyrano de Bergerac, which they enjoyed; August: Osage County, which they loved; and, of course, The Farnsworth Invention. They said they were ambivalent about it.

December 5, 2007

The Wonders of "August: Osage County"

New York theater lovers are luckier than most. We have regular access to amazingly gifted actors, directors and designers. When a show is a hit somewhere else, it usually makes its way here, often with its stars. But what we don't always get to see are the often-equally talented people who do most of their work in cities outside of New York. And it's even rarer that we get a whole cast of them appearing in a show that was a bonafide hit in another part of the country. That's what makes the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of August: Osage County so wonderful.

People lined up in Chicago last summer to see Tracy Letts's three-act play about a large dysfunctional Oklahoma family. The production dominated the Joseph Jefferson Awards that honor theater in Chicago, winning best play, best director, best actress in a drama, and three other categories including best ensemble (click here to read a wonderful cast blog about the making of the Chicago production). Now, nearly all of the original 13-member cast, sensationally directed by Anna D. Shapiro, are recreating their roles in the production that opened last night at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. And they're all terrific. But the most terrific is Deanna Dunagan, who plays the clan's pill-popping, sharp-tongued matriarch (she's the one wearing the pearls and seated at the head of the table in the photo above).

Steppenwolf actors aren't total strangers to New York; many of the cast members' Playbill bios lists credits for Broadway and off-Broadway shows and even for the various “Law & Order” TV series that are the bread and butter jobs for New York actors. But Dunagan seems to have done most of her work in what we New Yorkers call the hinterlands—in Chicago, where she's won three Joseph Jefferson Awards including one for August: Osage County, in Madison, Wisconsin and Louisville, Kentucky and Washington D.C. I don't know what took her so long to get to New York but I’m mighty glad she came.

In fact, my friend Ellie, the erstwhile actor and current poetry professor, and I were pretty pleased about the whole evening. I'd worried beforehand about how I would respond to the show because I'd gone into it with such high expectations. Other friends who'd managed to see previews before the stagehands' strike shut down Broadway told me it was not to be missed. Even some people I'd just met at a party over the weekend started singing its praises. I usually find that few shows can live up to that kind of build up. And I also worried about making it through the show's three hour and 20 minute running time. (There are two intermissions and so many people were late getting back to their seats after the first one at the performance Ellie and I attended that the actors had to add some pauses to their dialog so that important lines wouldn’t be missed while the latecomers settled back into their seats.) But after a first act that struck me as a trifle twee, I had a great time. It’s been a while since I’ve laughed out loud as much as I did watching August: Osage County.

And that's something you wouldn’t necessarily expect because August: Osage County is another dysfunctional family play, reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill's Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, Sam Shepard's Buried Child and dozen of others. Letts, a member of Steppenwolf as both an actor and a writer, has acknowledged the influence of those earlier works but he has also said in interviews that he based the play on his own family.
And he finds just the right balance between humor and pathos that brings a freshness to this familiar trope and a renewed recognition of how the pains of one generation are transferred to the next. You might not want to go to the Letts family reunion but the characters it has inspired make for fascinating company on stage and a show that critics are already proclaiming the must-see of the season.

But it’s Letts' other family—his Steppenwolf brothers and sisters—that I left the theater wanting to spend more time with. "It was great to get see those Steppenwolf actors," Ellie remarked as we walked to the subway. Indeed.
Watching their wonderful work made me envious of my blogger buddies Steve on Broadway and Terry Teachout who regularly get to visit theater companies around the country. I bet there are other Deanna Dunagans out there. In the meantime, though, I consider myself very lucky to have seen this one.

December 1, 2007

True Genius in "The Piano Teacher"

In the weeks before the writers' strike shut down TV production, television execs were patting themselves on the back and boasting that, unlike the movies where a woman over 30 is considered long in the tooth, several TV series were giving older actresses a place to show off their talent. But, out of the women they were talking about—Glenn Close (a ball-busting lawyer on FX's "Damages"), Mary Louise Parker (a middle-class drug dealer on Showtime's "Weeds") Holly Hunter (a dysfunctional cop on TNT's "Saving Grace"), Kyra Sedgwick (a quixotic cop on TNT's "The Closer"), and Vanessa Williams (a narcissistic fashion editor on ABC's "Ugly Betty")—only Close is currently eligible for an AARP card.

Theater is different. One of the reasons I love it is that women of all ages (and sizes, shapes and ethnicities) can—and do—strut their stuff on its stages. Right now, Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba are kicking up their heels in Curtains. Sinéad Cusack is giving two kick-ass performances in Rock 'n' Roll. Phylicia Rashad, who has only come into her own in the past decade even winning the Tony in 2004, is in previews in Cymbeline. And, of course, the whole premise of Mamma Mia! pivots around a boomer-age mom and her pals.

I thought about all of this after watching the hands-down best performance I've seen this year: Elizabeth Franz in Julia Cho's The Piano Teacher. Although some theatergoers will remember her as the original unctuous nun in Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Franz first knocked me out in her Tony-winning performance as Linda Loman in the 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman, she isn't a big name. But she is a big talent. She's also 66.

And that's fitting because Cho's play tells the story of a retired and widowed piano teacher who, out of loneliness, tries to reconnect with some of her old students to find out why in one particular year so many of them stopped taking lessons. The two who show up—the very good Carmen M. Herlihy and the young and very promising John Boyd—bring with them unsettling answers that force the teacher to confront truths she has spent a lifetime trying to avoid.

Director Kate Whoriskey hits every chord of tension in the piece, which runs just under 90 minutes. She is ably assisted by Derek McLane's cozy, yet slightly creepy, set; and Obadiah Eaves' subtlety unnerving sound design. But it is Franz who makes the show worth a trip down to the Vineyard Theatre on 15th Street, where the run has been extended until Dec. 23. Her Mrs. K, as the piano teacher is called, is a complete person and Franz makes you feel every emotion she experiences.

Many of those feelings are disturbing because the play is intentionally ambiguous, allowing the viewer to bring her or his own nightmares to its mysteries. Cho totters at times on this ambitious tightrope she has set for herself but she is a playwright to be watched and supported. A Korean-American, she includes Asian characters in all of her works and yet race and politics seldom take center stage but, rather, add undertones that accentuate the commonality of human experience. And at just 32, Cho has created a master role that older actresses will treasure for years to come (click here to read an interview in which she discusses the genesis of The Piano Teacher).

Cho isn't the only playwright who has recognized the inherent drama that can be mined from centering plays around such characters. Contemporary writers from Horton Foote to Tom Stoppard have created big, juicy roles for actresses who are mature enough to bring a lifetime’s worth of experience and skill to those parts.The jobs don't pay as well as playing cops and robbers or comic foils on TV but the pay off—for the actors and their audiences
—is richer.

November 28, 2007

The Ups and Downs of "The Glorious Ones"

There are all sorts of reasons we choose to see a particular show. Sometimes it's because of the actors, writers or director involved. Or maybe we're drawn by rave reviews. Or because a friend said it was something that shouldn't be missed. Or, as in my case with The Glorious Ones, because it reminds us of something in our own lives.

The Glorious Ones, the new musical now playing in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, tells the story of a troupe of 16th century Italian actors who helped to create commedia dell'arte, the improvisational form of theater that took a comic view of subjects ranging from jealousy and chivalry to love and the fear of death. I obviously wasn't around then but during my sophomore year in college a group of us started our own commedia troupe. We divided its stock roles—the sexy maid, the innocent maiden, the crotchety old man, the swaggering hero, the clever jester—among us and performed skits for our fellow students, at schools and children’s fairs, wherever they would have us. The following summer, a small group got a tiny grant and took the show around to poor neighborhoods in New York. A scholarship kid, I needed to make more money than the grant could pay so I dropped out but I look back at my commedia days as some of the happiest I spent in school. And the moment I heard about The Glorious Ones, I looked forward to the chance to experience the pleasures I'd enjoyed back then. And when I found myself unexpectedly free one night, I went to see it.

Nothing, of course, could have lived up to the memories of my youth. But I think I would have been disappointed anyway. The Glorious Ones, based on the novel by Francine Prose, isn't a bad show. There are several affecting songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team that created Ragtime and Once on This Island, among many other shows. The cast, led by the superb Marc Kudisch as the leader of the troupe, is excellent; Julyana Soelistyo was particularly winning as the runt of the group. Graciela Daniele’s direction is lively, Mara Blumefeld’s costumes are eye-catching and Dan Ostling’s set is fittingly simple. But even with all of this going for it (which I grant is quite a bit; click here to see some video clips of the show) The Glorious Ones never achieves the wonderfully manic energy of commedia for me and Ahrens' book fails to make the narrative dramatic, in any sense of the word.

But The Glorious Ones does strive to pay tribute to the transformative power of art and to the particular exhilaration that actors draw from their art form. And even though I attended a performance in the middle of the show’s 12-week run that is scheduled to end on Jan. 6, the audience was still peppered with theater folk: I bumped into a Broadway house manager I know, sat next to a well-known publicist and in front of two men discussing their upcoming meeting with the director David Grindley. The show obviously holds some special meaning for all of them but it seems unlikely to hit with the general public. Even though Lincoln Center has a subscription audience, there were many empty seats at my performance.

I will always love commedia. And I have always loved backstage musicals, even if the stage is just a wooden plank in a 16th century Italian town square. I also have real respect for the people involved in this show and for the ambitious task they set themselves. But, in the end, I found myself wishing that they could take the show back and do it over because there’s a lot of good here and maybe, with some additional tweaking, it could be a truly glorious show.

November 24, 2007

Getting Up Close to "Iphigénie en Tauride"

Seeing a show or listening to an album is usually satisfying enough for most folks. But those of us who are fanatics crave more. We want to know the inside story. We want to peek behind the curtain. We want to get (or at least pretend to get) up close to the process. Which is why instead of sleeping in and recuperating from the rigors of preparing, eating, and cleaning up after our family Thanksgiving dinner, I got up early on Friday morning, finished hand washing our fancy glasses and took the bus down to the Metropolitan Opera for a final dress rehearsal of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, which is scheduled to open on Tuesday night.

My frequent theater companion Bill regularly attends these working rehearsals at the Met and he's invited me in the past but this was the first time I could make it. But, to my great dismay, I didn't make it there on time. I somehow confused the starting time and so got there after the performance had started. Bill left my ticket at the box office but there's no admittance into the hall once the singing starts and the ushers sent me to the late room, a recital space that has a large screen so that latecomers can see (via a static and dimly lit camera) and hear (via poor mics) what's happening on stage. There were five of us, slouching in our seats like the tardy kids in a high school detention room, and we nearly bolted for the door at intermission time. Bill was waiting for me in the lobby. I abjectly apologized for being late; he graciously filled me in on what I had missed. Then we went inside to his marvelous seats in the Grand Tier and watched the second half of the show.

This isn't the familiar tale of the doomed House of Atreus that you probably read in your middle school Greek mythology. That's the one where Iphigenia's father Agamemnon sacrifices her so that the gods will carry his troops safely to Troy, her vengeful mother Clytemnestra eventually kills Agamemnon, and her dutiful brother later helps slay the mom. That version, told in Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, was the Greek playwright’s second crack at the story and is perhaps most famous because it was his final work and posthumously won the Tony of its day, first prize at the Athenian Dramatic Festival. But a few years earlier, Euripides had written Iphigenia in Tauris, in which Iphigenia is saved at the last minute by the goddess Diana, carried away to a foreign land and, after much drama, eventually reconciled with her brother. The 18th century opera innovator Christopher Willibald Gluck set both versions to music and Iphigénie en Tauride is considered by many to be his masterpiece.

The production Bill and I saw debuted at the Seattle Opera last month and its New York appearance will mark the first time in 90 years that Gluck’s penultimate opera will be performed at the Met. The direction by Stephen Wadsworth, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz (you may have seen his Tony Award-winning work in Thoroughly Modern Millie and the most recent revival of Kiss Me, Kate), set by Thomas Lynch and choreography by Daniel Pelzig are all the same but the New York cast includes the dazzling mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Iphigénie, the great tenor Plácido Domingo in the role of her brother Orest (usually sung by a baritone) and rising tenor Paul Groves as Orest’s best friend Pylade.

I'm not a big operagoer and so I'll leave the appraisals to the experts (and to those who arrive early enough to avoid the late room) whose reviews should appear on Wednesday. But I love the theatricality of opera both on stage and off. And I can say that this Iphigenie is certainly theatrical.
But what I really loved was watching the musicians play in their street clothes and seeing techies run down the aisles and into the wings to make adjustments on one thing or another. I even liked watching my fellow audience members sit on the lobby floor and eat brown bag sandwiches during intermission. The production played straight through with no stops. But the cast and crew still seemed to be working on the curtain calls. At one point, Groves walked out only to scurry back off. Those of us lucky to be in the audience clapped anyway. After all, we hadn't come for perfection; we'd come to be insiders.

November 21, 2007

At Least The Shows Are Going On Online

No matter which side you're on, the stagehands' strike has depressed everyone who loves Broadway. (For the best coverage of the strike check out my blog buddy Steve on Broadway, who’s been doing a terrific job of keeping us all up-to-date). In an effort to relieve some of the gloom, I've been trolling the Internet, visiting the official websites that nearly every Broadway show now has. Some, like the one for Cyrano de Bergerac, are little more than online Playbills that simply list the credits of the cast and creative team. But others offer a cornucopia of treats for theater lovers, including production photos; audio and video clips of scenes from the shows; interviews with actors, directors and writers; newsletters with updates on events like which shows will be in this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (look for the casts of Legally Blonde, Mary Poppins, Xanadu and Young Frankenstein); downloadable wallpaper and screen savers for your computer; ringtones for your cellphone, online stores that sell cast albums, souvenirs and tickets; and fan forums where the most devoted can obsess even more about the show and its stars.

Here, in ascending order, are my Top 10 [just click the titles to visit the sites]:

10. The Little Mermaid
I'm not a big fan of the Disney sites, which seem kind of chintzy given the resources they have. But this one made it onto the list because it gives a sneak preview of the costumes and set design for the show (one of the four that has postponed its opening due to the strike). The designs look to me like "under the sea" versions of those for Wicked. I'll leave it up to you whether that's a good thing or not.

9. The Homecoming
It's obviously harder for plays to create entertaining sites than it is for musicals and this one for the revival of the Harold Pinter classic scheduled to open next month is still a work-in-progress. They haven't posted any photos or video clips yet and director Dan Sullivan has written only one entry on his blog. But it makes my Top 10 because of its wonderfully informative timeline of the Nobel Prize-winning writer's work on Broadway and in the movies, illustrated with the original posters from each production.

8. A Bronx Tale
You wouldn't expect a one-man show to offer much but in addition to clips of Chazz Palminteri's engaging performance, there's an audio clip in which he answers questions that fans have posted on his MySpace page.

7. The Drowsy Chaperone
Truth be told there's not that much really special about this site. But what it does—all the basics: photos, video clips, and an archive of articles about the show—it does really well. And that attention to detail includes making sure that the latest replacements, as well as the original cast, are included in the photos and video clips.

6. Spamalot
All the expected stuff is here (video clips of the big numbers, audio clips of favorite songs, production photos of the various companies) but what I love most is an absolutely silly interactive "Cow Toss" game that's completely in the zany spirit of the show and totally addictive.

5. Hairspray
This site pulls out all the stops. There's a history of the show's evolution from the local Baltimore dance show that inspired the John Waters film to the Tony winning musical now in its fifth year on Broadway. And there are video clips of some of the stage show's big numbers, a "jukebox" that plays audio versions of the songs, and a karaoke section that features sing-along instrumentals for hundreds of familiar tunes.

4. The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom folks clearly know how to market a show and they don't disappoint here either. There are photos and videos from the show's numerous companies around the world and over the years. And the many, many extras include a Cliff-notes style study guide that talks about subjects like the role of the outcast in literature, a list of interesting facts and numbers connected to the show (total ticket sales $3.2 billion, and counting), and a rundown of all the song numbers with the ability to download some of them for free.

3. Les Misérables
Everything you could possibly want to know about the show is on this dazzlingly comprehensive site. There's a scene-by-scene breakdown of the show, over two dozen photos, video clips of four production numbers, 10 audio clips and an "education" section that includes a mini-biography of Victor Hugo and a history of his classic novel. The online store offers souvenirs from both the US and UK productions.

2. Rock 'n' Roll
There's something for everyone on this site. History buffs will appreciate the timeline covering the real events,
from the Prague Spring of 1968 to the present, that inspired the play and short background articles on major events and players that figure in the action including the Czech rock band The Plastic People of the Universe and founding Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett. Music fans will enjoy the soundtrack area where they can listen to clips of the 22 songs that underscore the plot during the performance. And for theater lovers there are more than a dozen articles about playwright Tom Stoppard.

1. A Chorus Line
What makes this website stand out above the rest is the way it replicates the experience of the live performance. The best feature is a series of video clips in which each of the actors talk about what dance means to their lives, just the way the show’s characters do in the "audition" to become part of the chorus line. The webmasters also tie the site to the show by inviting visitors to put themselves on the line by video-recording stories about their lives and uploading them to YouTube. It sounds hokey but some of the entries are surprisingly sweet.

November 17, 2007

The "Radio City Christmas Spectacular"

See two updates on the stagehands' strike at the end of this entry.

Most kids probably get their first exposure to the theater during the holiday season that runs from the week before Thanksgiving to the week after New Year's. Lots of parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts buy tickets for their little ones to see big Broadway shows like Wicked and The Lion King. But a large part of the seasonal merriment comes from the special limited-run shows that play multiple times a day, offer at least some tickets at family-friendly prices and disappear before all the Christmas tinsel is packed away.

Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, with ticket prices running $25 to $99, was scheduled to do up to seven performances a weekend at the St. James Theatre before the stagehand’s strike shut it down (although settlement talks are underway even as I type this*). A few blocks uptown in a big tent in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, the Big Apple Circus is celebrating its 30th season with a new show called Celebrate! that, according to its press handout, features "a live, original musical score, a chic British ringmistress, and of course our own lovable Grandma the Clown" and seats starting at $28. This year the Cirque du Soleil folks got into the holiday spirit with Wintuk, a holiday-centered extravaganza at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden with ticket prices of $30 to $110. And then, of course, there's the granddaddy of holiday family shows, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, where tickets cost $40 to $100 until the end of its run on Dec. 30. Road companies of the Christmas Spectacular are playing across the country this season in places like Fort Lauderdale and Phoenix but, call me provincial if you like, there’s nothing like seeing it in the glorious performance cathedral that Radio City Music Hall is.

I first saw the Christmas Spectacular there when I was about seven and I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen. I loved the precision-dancing Rockettes and the pageantry of the show's version of the Nativity story with its parade of live animals, including camels and an elephant. I took my niece Jennifer when she was around the same age back in the mid '80s. But by then the show seemed a little run down and tacky. Jennifer, a veteran theatergoer by the time she was four, wasn't much impressed. And so it's been about 20 years since I've been back to see a Christmas Spectacular but my family is big on traditions and this year Jennifer and I took her four-year old god-brother Max to see it.

The show is celebrating its 75th anniversary and it's undergone a makeover to make it more attractive to kids who even at the earliest ages are more used to being entertained by Jay-Z music videos and CGI-animated cartoons (click here to see a behind-the scenes NYTimes video on the making of the new Spectacular). The result is a mix of the old and the new. The Rockettes, looking great, perform their traditional, and still amazing, "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" routine, which debuted in 1933, but they also do a few numbers that include some hip-hop moves. "The Living Nativity" is still there (albeit with fewer animals than I remember from the old days) but there's also a high-tech, 3-D animated tour of New York (3-D glasses are pasted in the program). They still do an excerpt from "The Nutcracker" with a lovely little girl ballerina but there's also a jazzy number with dancing Santa Clauses. And there's plenty of opportunity for audience participation (or interactive involvement, as we now call it) from carol sing-alongs to, at the finale, the spinning of small pen lights (they came with the programs too at the opening-night performance we attended).

The 90-minute show didn't live up to the memories of the ones I'd seen in my childhood. But I'm going to let four-year Max have the final the word here. "It was," he told his mother when he got home, "a great Christmas show."

[*An update on Nov 19: According to NY1, the local 24-hour news station with good sources in the Broadway community, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has a separate contract with the stagehands' union Local One and its producers, clearly unhappy to see the other kiddie shows thriving while theirs remained dark, made a separate arrangement with the strikers over the weekend so that its shows can go on starting Nov. 20.]

[A later update on Nov 19: the powers that be at the Jujamcyn Theaters are now threatening to lockout the Grinch producers, who, in turn, say they are going to court to fight for the right to put on their show. I got this info from by buddy Steve at Steve on, which has provided the most comprehensive and update coverage of the strike of any media outlet. So, click on to his blog if you want to know the latest on what has become Broadway's most riveting drama.]

November 14, 2007

Support for the Strike and for "Richard III"

Like many theater lovers, I have mixed feelings about the stagehands' strike that is now in its fifth day. On the one hand, I totally support the stagehands who deserve their share of the record-breaking ticket sales that The League of American Theatres and Producers keeps bragging about and I'm delighted that most of the public seems to feel that way too. "I definitely understand that people work hard and need an increase because of the cost of living," one mother told the New York Times on Saturday morning, the first day of the strike, even as she comforted her young daughter who was disappointed about not seeing Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas!. My husband K, a pit musician and a member of the musicians' union Local 802, also spent Saturday on the streets of the theater district showing his support for the stagehands. Local 802, to the dismay of K and many of our musician friends, stayed out only four days when its contract talks broke down during the holiday season of 2003. But the stagehands, apparently seeing how little the musicians got for playing nice, have built up a $4 million war chest and say they are prepared for a long siege. Right on, as we used to say back in the '70s.

On the other hand, I hate to see a dark theater. And street after street of them is depressing enough to make me want to down something strong like a double shot of Dewar’s, and I don't even like Scotch. The brightest spot in all of this is that off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway shows are still open. There's nothing like a Broadway show but there is some terrific stuff to be seen in the smaller venues too. Last weekend my friend Ellie and I went to see the Classic Stage Company's production of Richard III. It opens the company's 40th season and as we waited for the show to start, Ellie, a former actress, fondly remembered auditioning for CSC when she first got to New York. Ellie now teaches literature and writing to college kids but the folks at CSC are still her kind of people: actors and directors who love the classic canon and who love making it come alive for contemporary audiences. My relationship to the canon, particularly to Shakespeare, is somewhat more ambivalent than Ellie's. I'm usually eager to see what people do with one of the Bard's plays but I'm also often disappointed after I've seen what they've done. But I wasn't disappointed this time. In fact, I had one of the most enjoyable evenings I've had in the theater in months. And as regular readers know, I go to the theater a lot.

The evening didn't get off to a great start. The curtain was held for nearly half an hour while the crew worked on an electrical problem. And while they labored, the audience had to stand outside in the theater's small lobby down on East 13th Street. But then, to make the waiting easier, staff members passed around complimentary glasses of red and white wine and cups of espresso and latte. You don't get that kind of treatment on Broadway. What could have been a surly crowd turned into a festive group. Nearly everyone was in a good mood when the doors finally opened.
As it turns out, the show would have been worth the wait even without the libations.

Richard III may be the theater's greatest villain. He's totally evil but, in the right hands, he's also totally entertaining. Michael Cumpsty, an actor who deserves far more recognition than he's gotten, is as sure-handed as they come. For starters, he doesn't declaim the lines, as too many actors do, he just speaks the words as though he were telling you something you want to hear, and as a result you listen and are glad you did. Cumpsty also serves as the production's co-director and he and Brian Kulick have put together an excellent cast, lead by Roberta Maxwell's searing Queen Margaret, the vengeful widow of the king Richard and his brothers deposed and killed; and Michael Potts as the steadfast but ill-fated Duke of Buckingham.

Mark Wendland's simple but elegant set also gives literally brilliant support. Chandeliers are raised and lowered throughout the performance, a mirrored wall slides up and down at the back of the stage, both provide just the right lights, shadows and reflections to illuminate the play in every way. It's a low-budget production and so there's a doubling and tripling of roles that is sometimes confusing and there's some hokey audience participation but not hokey enough that you don't want to participate. All in all, though, it’s the kind of show that gets you involved on every level.

November 10, 2007

"Frankenstein," "Young Frankenstein" & Me

If you ran a popularity contest, Frankenstein would certainly be among the finalists for everyone's favorite monster story. Until now. I've never much cared for horror movies and so I belong to that embarrassed minority of people who have never seen James Whale's 1931 version of "Frankenstein" or Mel Brooks' original 1974 "Young Frankenstein." But even I have kind of an affection for the old green guy and over the past two weeks I couldn't resist seeing the off-Broadway musical, Frankenstein and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein (to call it by its full formal name), which, of course, was the most anticipated show of the Broadway season. I bet I would have had a better time at the movies.

Each of the musicals is a horror in its own way. The off-Broadway production at the 37 Arts theater is a gloomy affair with music by Mark Baron and book and lyrics by Jeffrey Jackson that evoke the worst of the British megamusicals that were big in the '80s. Young Frankenstein (to call it by the name everyone does) is little more than a remake of The Producers in monster drag; only this time the gags and Brooks' pastiche songs are only intermittently amusing and
there's no Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick to make you laugh even when the jokes aren't all that funny.

And that's one of the big problems that both these new shows share: leading men who aren't big enough to lead the productions they're in. Hunter Foster was just right for the boy ingénue parts of Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors and Bobby Strong in Urinetown, but I didn't believe for a second that he was the tormented doctor in Frankenstein driven mad by his obsession to recreate life so tha
t he might bring back the loved ones he'd lost. Roger Bart was an hilarious standout as the effeminate Carmen Ghia in The Producers but in Young Frankenstein, he is dwarfed by big-personality performers like Shuler Hensley as the monster; Sutton Foster as Inga, the doctor’s assistant; Megan Mullally as his fiancée Elizabeth; Christopher Fitzgerald as his humpbacked go-fer Igor; and the always magnificent Andrea Martin as his creepy housekeeper Frau Blucher.

The most successful Broadway horror stories have been anchored by spellbinding actors. The slyly seductive Frank Langella propelled the 1977 production of Dracula that went on to play 925 performances. A mesmerizing Michael Crawford helped launch the 8,200 and still counting performances of The Phantom of the Opera. And Robert Cuccioli brought a compelling angst to Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde, which ran for 1,543 performances. If you're going to see a play or a musical about a mad scientist or a monster, you want him to be frighteningly mad in a straight telling of the tale or zanily madcap in a comedic one. You don't want him to be as cute and chipper as a chipmunk.

My husband K and I had gone to see Young Frankenstein on the eve of K's birthday and, in need of some cheer after we left the Hilton Theatre (ironically one of the few theaters not affected by the stagehands’ strike that has closed down most of Broadway today) we walked down 42nd Street to Chez Josephine, the French bistro owned by Jean-Claude Baker, the adopted son of the legendary entertainer Josephine Baker. It is unfailingly one of the best shows in town, from the images of Josephine that decorate the red walls to the pianist who plays show tunes (Harry Connick, Jr. once had the job). But the biggest attraction is Jean-Claude himself. Always nattily dressed in smoking jackets or caftans, he makes a point of coming to each table and chatting with patrons as though they were old friends. We traded opinions about Young Frankenstein and he told us a story about how he had arranged for the cast of Three Mo’ Tenors to sing at a birthday party for Jessye Norman and how they so impressed the great opera star that she joined in singing to herself. Then he swept off to visit other tables and K and I tucked into our dinners (lobster cassoulet for him, boudin noir, the wonderful French black sausage, and crispy frites for me.) It was, by far, the most entertaining part of the evening.

November 7, 2007

Rockin' With Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll

There was a time in the 1960s when you could tell a lot about a person, or thought you could, by the rock bands he or she liked. Everyone loved The Beatles; it was the others that defined you. I split my loyalties between the arty surreality of Jefferson Airplane and the soulful loopiness of Sly & the Family Stone. The boy I loved was in thrall to Jimi Hendrix. My best friend was mad about Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. I knew people who worshiped The Doors, who adored The Rolling Stones, who idolized The Who and who were simply fanatic Deadheads. Apparently Tom Stoppard's bands of choice were Pink Floyd and a reluctantly rebellious Czech group called The Plastic People of the Universe. Both play pivotal roles in his thought-provoking new play Rock ‘n’ Roll about the Sixties, the revolutions it spawned, and the promises they did and didn't fulfill.

I didn't think Rock 'n' Roll was so wonderful while I was sitting there trying to get through its first act. There was so much to absorb about the cranky Cambridge professor, played by Brian Cox, who refuses to renounced communism even after Nikita Khrushchev had revealed Stalin's horrors during the purges of the 1930s and the Soviet Union had cracked down on Hungary's bid for independence in 1956. And about the professor's classics scholar wife, played by Sinead Cusack, who specializes in the poetry of Sappho and wages a fierce battle against cancer. And about the couple's hippie daughter, played by Alice Eve as a young girl and as a middle-aged woman by Cusack. And most especially about the professor's young Czech protégé Jan, brilliantly portrayed by Rufus Sewell, who loves the west and rock music but returns to his homeland shortly after the Soviets sent in tanks and troops to crack down on the reformist Alexander Dubček, whose election had set off a heady but ill-fated period that would come to be known as the Prague Spring.

You usually have to drag me out of my seat at intermission but I couldn't wait to get up after the first 90 minutes of Rock 'n' Roll. It was unseasonably cold outside and so my buddy Bill and I huddled together in a little niche at the back of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and commiserated about the fact that even though we both had admired Stoppard's nine-hour trilogy The Coast of Utopia last season and thought we were reasonably smart people who were aware of the momentous events of 1968, including the Prague Spring, we weren't having a good time. Others seemed to share our dismay. A few, including the people sitting right in front of us, left. "Oh," said Bill, "there's Nathan Lane walking out with his coat on. I wonder if he's coming back?" He did. Bill and I returned to our seats too. And how glad I am that we did. Just a few minutes into the second act, almost all the things I hadn't understood began to make sense and to emerge as a fascinating commentary on a tumultuous time.

It's become quite trendy for people to be rueful about the '60s. And there are traces of that in Rock 'n' Roll. But Stoppard being Stoppard, it doesn't stop there. The playwright, who was born in Czechoslovakia, left before he was 2 and was raised in England from the time he was 9, has said Jan is his alter ego, the person he might have been had he returned to his native country. The play ends with the triumph of Václav Havel's Velvet Revolution in 1989 and all of its scenes are punctuated with smartly-chosen cuts from rock albums of the 20-year period covered in the play (the song titles and all of the music's credits projected on a scrim between the scenes). Unlike The Coast of Utopia, which celebrated the big name revolutionaries of Russia’s 19th century, this play focuses on average people caught up in the convulsions of their time, people like you and me.

After the show, Bill and I walked to Thalia, which I think has the best burgers in the city, although their reputation suffers among cool-conscious foodies because the quick-cook TV chef Rachel Ray has endorsed them. We ordered the burgers, which come with gruyere cheese, great spicy fries and a lovely little salad, along with glasses of the restaurant's “Big House” red wine to wash them down. And we marveled at how much we had enjoyed Rock 'n' Roll. I said I wanted to see it again. But, of course, there's a big part of me that wants to relive the '60s again too.

November 3, 2007

A "Cyrano" With Too Little Panache

My mother never thought of herself as a romantic but she couldn't get enough of stories about unrequited love. The tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, the long-nosed French boulevardier who loves his cousin Roxane but, believing himself too ugly to win her heart, woos her for another man, may have been my mother's favorite and my sister Joanne and I grew up hearing her sing its praises. Our mom was far from the only one who fell in love with Cyrano. The French playwright Edmond Rostand debuted his fictionalized portrayal of a real-life 17th century soldier and writer in 1897. Some historians speculate that the real Cyrano may have been gay but Rostand's heterosexual love triangle was an immediate hit. Within a year, a production opened on Broadway.

Over the 110 years since, there have been Cyrano ballets and operas (including one that premiered at the Michigan Opera Theatre just three weeks ago), movies (most notably José Ferrer's Oscar winning portrayal in 1950), movie adaptations (among them, Steve Martin’s "Roxanne"), a samurai version ("Life of an Expert Swordsman"), a Bollywood version ("Padosan"), at least three Broadway musicals (none of which worked, not even one by Victor Herbert) and 12 play revivals, including the latest which opened this past week starring Kevin Kline as Cyrano, Jennifer Garner, who made her name as the butt-kicking spy on the ABC series "Alias", as Roxane, and Daniel Sunjata as Christian, the good-looking lunkhead who makes up the third in their love triangle.

Kevin Kline seems a natural for the role of the swashbuckling, poetry-spouting Cyrano who introduced the word panache into the English vocabulary. Kline is also my sister's favorite actor and so on her birthday Joanne and I went to see the new Cyrano de Bergerac which is playing a limited run through Dec. 21 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Kline, widely acknowledged as America's leading classical actor, was fine. And Garner, making her Broadway stage debut, was OK too. But both of them, along with director David Leveaux’s entire production—including a cavernous, barn-like set and strangely dim lighting—struck me as overly subdued. When you've come out to cheer on a grand old warhorse, you don't really want to see someone just trot it around the stage, you want them to get on and ride the hell out of it. And maybe that's unfair. Maybe, particularly when the works are so old and have been done so many times, both actors and audiences need to be open to new ways of presenting them.

There are two classics playing on Broadway right now and both have attempted to go off in new directions. In Pygmalion, Jefferson Mays plays Henry Higgins as a petulant man child instead of the crusty old coot that Rex Harrison, Peter O'Toole and others made of him. And instead of walking out of the theater thinking that there might be an after-the-curtain-falls romance between Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, I thought there was probably more of a chance of something blooming between Higgins and his sidekick Colonel Pickering. Pygmalion's playwright George Bernard Shaw famously disliked any suggestions that Higgins and Eliza would come together and so he might have been happy with the Roundabout's current production but the critics weren't crazy about the different interpretation.

Now, Kline has rejected the flamboyant grandiloquence that actors like Ferrer, Walter Hampden (who did three Broadway productions in the ‘20s and ‘30s), Ralph Richardson and Derek Jacobi brought to Cyrano; instead, Kline’s Cyrano is low-key, introspective and almost aloof. Garner, making her Broadway stage debut, puts a different spin on Roxane too, portraying her with the same kind of pluckines that made her "Alias" character Sydney Bristow such a you-go-girl icon; there's even a scene where her Roxane engages in a little swordplay of her own, which the audience at the performance we attended loved.

Some critics, most notably the New York Times' Ben Brantley, also seem to love this production. But I can't help it, I wanted a little more old-fashioned romance and well, a lot more panache.

October 31, 2007

Dancin’… But With Wade Robson

Word came earlier this month that a revival of Dancin', the Bob Fosse revue that opened in 1978, is coming to Broadway in the spring of 2009, following a run in Toronto. I'm crazy about Fosse's work but I'm also conflicted about this new production. The original ran for four years. Then in 1999, a posthumous tribute revue—Fosse—opened and ran for 18 months. And, of course, the now-and-forever revival of Fosse's Chicago is in its 11th year. So do we really need another Fosse fest? I imagine the producers want to trade in on the new surge of interest in dance generated by TV shows like "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing with the Stars" and "High School Musical." But if that's the case, why not go to some of the young choreographers who are helping to make those shows so popular? Why not draft Wade Robson to do a Broadway show?

Robson is a 25 year-old Australian who has been dancing professionally since he was five. He's earned his pop cultural street cred by having danced with Michael Jackson as a kid (in fact, he was one of the boys questioned about sharing a bed with Jackson during the Gloved One's pedophilia trial), dated Britney Spears (it's rumored that he broke up the pop singer's relationship with Justin Timberlake) and hosted "The Wade Robson Project," a hip-hop dance competition show on MTV. He's directed a bunch of music videos and even markets his own line of hip dance shoes. None of this would matter if it weren't for the fact that he's such a terrifically exciting dancemaker.

You might not think so if you only see his early work which borrows heavily from Jackson's "Thriller"-era moves and the booty-shaking gyrations of most music videos. But in the last couple of years, Robson has found his own movement vocabulary, one almost as distinctive as Fosse's: you can tell a Robson dance after the first few moves. One of the numbers he created for "So You Think You Can Dance" won an Emmy last month (click here to see it). And a couple of weeks ago he performed a splashy cameo on "Dancing With the Stars" that mixed contemporary hip hop sensibility with old school showmanship. I would have been happy to see it on a Broadway stage.

From Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins to Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, choreographers have helped to make the Broadway musical the great art form that is. Dancing fell out of favor during the reign of the British megamusicals in the 1980s but Savion Glover's Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out and Susan Stroman's Contact were the most viscerally enjoyable shows of the last 10 years. One of the things that helped make Spring Awakening so special for me was Bill T. Jones' dynamic choreography for which he deservedly won a Tony. Broadway needs more of that kind of kinetic energy and innovation. Wade Robson just might bring it, and he might even bring along some new fans too.