January 31, 2009

An Inadequate "Curtain Call"

Last week, I found myself with a couple of hours to spare between appointments and so I headed to one of my favorite places in the city: the exhibition gallery on the first floor of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The shows they mount there are catnip for theater lovers like me who can’t get enough of showbiz lore. Still, I hadn’t rushed to see the current exhibition, “Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance,” when it opened last November. And apparently I’m not the only one. The New York Times, which usually reviews the Library’s exhibits, seems to have skipped this one.

I don’t know why the Times snubbed the show but I dragged my feet about going because I hate ghettoizing of any kind. Why, I thought indignantly, should accomplished female costume, set and lighting designers be lumped together by gender instead of recognized right alongside their lauded male counterparts? But that, said a plaque at the beginning of the exhibit, is exactly the problem: “The multifaceted talents of women that translate into design are tragically absent from the histories of art and performance.” This show, declared its curators Barbara Cohen-Stratyner and Carrie Robbins, aims to remedy those past wrongs by documenting the work
of over 100 designing women.

These remarkable designers include pioneers like Caroline F. Siedle, the first woman recognized as a professional costume designer back around the turn of the last century; Aline Bernstein, the first to be admitted to the AFL’s Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers in the 1920s, and Lucinda Ballard, the recipient of the first Tony Award for design in 1947. But the show also celebrates the work of contemporary craftswomen like Sally Jacobs, wh
o created the seminal white box and trapeze swings for Peter Brook’s legendary 1971 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the prolific Anna Louizos, whose work includes the sets for Avenue Q, High Fidelity, Curtains, In the Heights and White Christmas; and the longtime lighting whiz Peggy Eisenhauer.

There are sketches and fabric swatches as well as full costumes, architectural drawings and small models of sets in addition to photos that show how it all fits together. It was fascinating to see and read about all of them. Or it would
have been if I could have concentrated on what I was seeing and reading. Instead, I had to fight to hear myself think over the continuous loops of two very loud and extremely annoying recordings that droned through the small space. The first, which lasted just under five minutes (I timed it) and then immediately repeated itself, served very little point, except to welcome visitors to the gallery. I would have preferred silent hospitality.

The second recording was m
ore informative. It offered interesting tidbits about some of the items on display. The problem here is that all of the costumes are jammed onto two platforms. Small numbers are placed in front of each one but the information about them is on a collective label in the middle of the platform and the recorded tour is so random that so you have to run from one spot to another if you want to see the details that are being explained.

Over the next couple of months, the Library, in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women, will be holding a series of
events showcasing the work of some of the pioneers and offering interviews with some of the designers working today (click here for more information about the dates and times). That should compensate a bit. Still it's a sad commentary that a show created to honor innovative designers who haven't gotten their proper due is perhaps the most poorly designed exhibit the Library has ever presented. The talented women whose works are on display here deserve a much better curtain call than they're getting.

January 28, 2009

Tough Choices with "The American Plan"

When I read that The American Plan was set in the Catskills during the summer of 1960, I thought it was going to be similar to the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing.” And it does hew closely to that hit film’s storyline of a rich girl who falls for a less-well-off guy and the overbearing parent who tries to interfere with the daughter’s affair. But Richard Greenberg’s 1990 play, which the Manhattan Theatre Club is currently reviving at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, also resembles a bunch of other movies and plays. As we sat over a post-show dinner at the theater canteen Orso, my husband K and I started listing them: The Glass Menagerie, The Heiress, The Light in the Piazza, Suddenly, Last Summer.

And yet, although it may be an oft-told tale, The American Plan adds a couple of contemporary twists. I can’t tell you about one because it’s a surprise that you should discover for yourself when you see the show (it’s playing through March 15) but the other deserves to be talked about. For unlike those other shows, The American Plan liberates the girl, making her less a naïve victim than a slyly perceptive woman who is aware of the trade offs that the pursuits of love and money can demand.

Even so, I’m mixed about this show. My pal Bill, who’d gone to an earlier performance, told me that I would get a kick out of the first scene. Which I did because one character establishes his bonafides by saying he works for Time Magazine (which I once did) and another hers by saying she attended Sarah Lawrence College (which I also did). And I enjoyed many of Greenberg's one-liners. But, for the most part, I felt let down.

I’m a big fan of the show's director, David Grindley. I loved what he did with the Tony-winning revival of the World War I-era drama Journey’s End a couple of seasons ago. And I respected him for daring a different interpretation of Pygmalion in the controversial 2007 production at the Roundabout. But he seems off his game here, never quite getting his hands around the multi-textured layers of this piece.

The acting was up and down too. Lily Rabe, who plays the rich girl, lives up to her pedigree as the daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh and makes her character poignantly believable. And Brenda Pressley brings an elegant dignity to the role of the family’s maid that turns her character into more than the stock family retainer. Kieran Campion impressed me less as the suitor. In fact, at first, I thought he might have been hired for his anachronistic but totally impressively-toned abs. Although he did fare better in the second act.
But the most problematic performance for me was Mercedes Ruehl’s.

Ruehl is one of my favorite stage actors and the role of the haughty mother who barely escaped the Holocaust would seem to be perfect for her usually formidable talent. But Ruehl doesn’t yet seem comfortable in the part. The mock German accent she assumes is part of the problem but far more damaging is her failure to express all the impulses roiling around inside the complicated character she plays. She gets the woman's humor and her deviousness but not the underlying fear and love that motivate them.

But I’m in the minority on this one. Most of the critics like the show. And I can’t say I’m really surprised by that. We seem to be growing increasingly obsessed with the repressive attitudes of mid-20th century America. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, stars of
the romantic 1997 blockbuster “Titanic,” are now onscreen in “Revolutionary Road,” a film adaptation of the Richard Yates novel about a couple battling conformity in the Eisenhower-era suburbs. TV viewers are mad about the series “Mad Men,” which revolves around a group of fettered ad execs and the women in their lives during the Kennedy presidency. Maybe we’re just trying to reconcile ourselves to the long period of unhappy choices that are heading our way.

January 24, 2009

The Sparseness of "The Cherry Orchard"

There should be no such thing as the definitive production of a play. Particularly not one by Shakespeare. Or by the Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Or by Chekhov. And yet, a few days before I went to see The Bridge Project’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, I watched the 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company version of the play that was recorded for the BBC. It starred Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Ian Holm and Judi Dench. And although a recorded version of a play almost always suffers in comparison to a live one, watching that nearly 50-year old interpretation of the final play Chekhov wrote before his premature death at 44 may have ruined me for any other.

That’s certainly how I felt as I sat at BAM’s Harvey Theater watching the recently opened production of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Sam Mendes, with a new translation by Tom Stoppard and a cast lead by Sinéad Cusack, Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall, Richard Easton and Ethan Hawke. The Bridge Project is a collaboration between artists on both sides of the Atlantic and the same production will be presented over the next six months at The Old Vic in London, as well as in Singapore, New Zealand, Spain, Germany and Greece. It’s a noble idea. The people involved are first rate. Most of the critics have raved. And yet, I was unmoved.

I confess I’ve always had a harder time with Chekhov than with Shakespeare or even the Greeks. But I loved the limited-run production of The Seagull that opened on Broadway last fall. The Cherry Orchard's story about people living above their means and poised on the brink of great societal change seemed even more timely. And the talented folks involved in the production made it all the more appealing. The minute I first read about the show, I emailed my pal Bill to see if he were interested and then ordered tickets for us to see it.

We met at the theater in downtown Brooklyn an hour before the 7:30 curtain. Zagat lists some nearby restaurants but all I ever see are fast food joints when I’m walking from the subway to the theater. So Bill and I decided to grab a bite at the lobby bar in the Harvey. According to a recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian, eating at theater bars has become increasingly popular in London (click here to read an evaluation of some of them).

I wish the practice would catch on here since a bar meal tends to be cheaper than one at a restaurant, not an inconsiderable benefit in these pinched-purse times. The Harvey bar’s menu is mainly sandwiches but my pulled pork was tasty and Bill seemed to enjoy his roast beef. There was Junior’s cheesecake for dessert and you can’t beat that. The small plastic cups of wine—though overpriced—didn’t hurt either.

If only the show had been as satisfying. Don’t get me wrong, there were good things about it. Cusack was touching as Madame Ranevskaya, the middle-aged aristocrat who is so unable to adjust to the changing times and her declining fortunes that she plans a party instead of tending to the threatened auction of her estate. Cusack was so poignant that Bill wondered at intermission why she isn’t better known in this country like her equally talented contemporary Helen Mirren.

The always formidable Beale captured the ambivalent mix of reverence and resentment in Lopakhin, a former peasant on the family estate who has become the wealthiest man in the area. But Morven Christie failed to convey the endearing distractedness that the young Judi Dench brought to the role of Anya, Ranevskaya’s daughter, and she didn't replace it with any other distinctive quality. Similarly, while Paul Jesson was fine as Ranevskaya’s prissy brother, no one does prissy like Gielgud.

I know. It’s silly to compare. And maybe the current cast members will grow into their roles and make them their own as they explore their characters over the weeks and months to come. But there are other things that are totally fair game to criticize. Mark Bennett’s incidental music called far too much attention to itself. Mendes’ visual imagery paid far too much homage to The Coast of Utopia. The entire production seemed much like the magic tricks the family governess performs in the show: well executed and yet failing to amaze.

January 21, 2009

Was Obama's Inauguration a Good Show?

There may never have been a more eagerly anticipated show than the Inauguration of Barak Obama as 44th president of the United States. There was, of course, the historic landmark of the nation’s swearing in a black man as its leader. Which partly explains why nearly two million people bundled up against frigid temperatures and packed themselves into the two mile stretch between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. But there was also the simultaneous simplicity and grandeur of the transition of power that so defines who we are as Americans.

I found the show itself to be just OK. The Chief Justice bungled his lines. The new president’s soliloquy wasn’t the most eloquent speech he’s given (the stock market dropped 300 points as soon as it was over) but expectations were so high that it was virtually impossible to meet them. The First Lady’s outfit was a touch too costumey for my taste (although the girls’ J.Crew outfits were very cute). And I’d have preferred to hear Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and their bandmates play real Aaron Copland instead of the faux Copland that John Williams composed for the occasion. But I thought the departure of George and Laura Bush was the best use of a helicopter prop since the takeoff in Miss Saigon. And the supernumeraries who made up the crowd performed magnificently—cheering, crying, radiantly diverse and sincerely inspired.

I got a particular kick out of watching so many of the most famous people in our country—Muhammad Ali, Steven Spielberg, Colin Powell, Elie Wiesel, Oprah and US Airways hero-pilot Sully Sullenberger—cram themselves in alongside political leaders of every stripe in the VIP section. After the ceremony, the networks showed glimpses of them all milling about before the formal inaugural luncheon, meeting and greeting one another like folks at any other reunion party. Senator Ted Kennedy’s collapse from a seizure towards the end of the meal, and his much-welcomed recovery at the hospital later, added an extra sense of drama to the day.

The theater lover in me was disappointed that there were no recognizable stage folks on the podium. But now the show has opened and I, along with everyone else, am fervently hoping for a long and successful run.

January 17, 2009

Remedial Study with "The History Boys"

What’s a theater lover to do when a nasty head-cold and a frigid cold snap keep her housebound and far away from any theater? Well, there’s listening to cast albums (Spring Awakening and the original Sweeney Todd) and reading (“Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart”) and watching videos (Richard III, both Ian McKellen’s sleek art deco 1995 version and Laurence Olivier’s devilishly entertaining 1956 classic). And, of course, there’s trolling the internet.

I’ve been reading my fellow bloggers and spending more time in chatrooms than, under other circumstances, might be considered healthy. And that is how I came across a comment someone named Jesse 21 posted on the All That Chat message boards about what’s happened to the members of the original coast of The History Boys. (Click here to see what the real-life boys have been doing since they took their final curtain call together in October, 2006.)

Even if you only once had a few lines in your high school play, you know that being part of a cast can be like serving in a military unit: people develop a special bond when they’ve been in the trenches together. That was particularly true for the eight young actors who portrayed the students in Alan Bennett’s play about a group of bright boys at a mediocre British public school and the two teachers who clash over how to prepare them for their Oxbridge entrance exams.

The cast spent over two and a half years with the show—doing the London production, going on a world tour that included a Tony-winning six month run on Broadway, recording a BBC radio play, and, of course, filming the movie. Amazingly all the actors—the four adults included—stayed through nearly every incarnation of the play, as did director Nicholas Hytner and, of course, Bennett.

And I became a fellow traveler for a good deal of their journey. My favorite times in the theater are when I’m watching a production that is utterly theatrical, something that I can’t imagine being wholly replicated in any other medium. That’s what it felt like when I first saw The History Boys on Broadway. But then one day I was poking around Amazon.com, discovered an audio version of the BBC radio play and, on a lark, downloaded it. The play became a different but still satisfying experience for me. Having seen it, I could put faces to voices but I was also free to imagine the action in alternate ways than it had played out onstage—to become, in effect, a kind of director.

What, I then wondered would it be like to just read the script? So, I did. And I found a new pleasure in having the time to re-read lines and really think about them. An extra treat was Bennett’s chatty introduction explaining how moments from his own life shaped the play, how rehearsals began with lessons to teach the boys all the pop culture and high culture references that get tossed around in the show, and how the song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” came to be identified with The History Boys almost as much as with its original show Pal Joey.

On a roll now, I ordered the screenplay. This time the intro was by Hytner, whom I met once and developed a big crush on because he is so articulate and passionate about theater. Bennett also chips in with a diary of the film shoot that mainly laments the additional scenes he wrote that ended up on the cutting room floor. It was fun to compare the two versions. The screenplay is more explicit than the stage script and less poetic but the basic stuff of the story is still there—it’s as though you had an excellent tailor let out a good suit after you’d gained weight: the lines become slightly less elegant but it’s still a fine piece of clothing.

Needless to say, I bought the DVD of the movie. And I watched it twice—once to see how the play had been “opened up” and then again to listen to the commentary by Bennett and Hytner. They concede that some of the humor is lost on screen. “The stage is so much more forgiving,” says Hytner. True. It’s a good film but I didn’t love it as much as I loved seeing the play. On the other hand, I do love the fact that those performances have been preserved.

You might think I’d be tired of The History Boys by now. You’d be wrong. I’m actually chafing at the bit for a revival. A brave one that doesn’t simply attempt to recreate the original production but that finds an equally talented group of actors and gives them free reign to show us new things about the characters. Because that sense of discovery is what theater is about.

January 14, 2009

The Post-Modern Romance of "Becky Shaw"

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl is one of the most recognizable, reliable and fecund tropes in the theater. It is how the story plays out that can tell you a lot not only about a playwright but about the times that have helped shape his or her work. Judging from the several plays about modern romance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I have seen over the past year—Hunting and Gathering, The Drunken City, Reasons to be Pretty—our time seems to be feeling decidedly unromantic about romance. Love, says one of the characters in Becky Shaw, the new post-modern romantic comedy currently playing at the Second Stage Theatre, is “doing stuff that you don’t want to do.”

Becky Shaw was written by Gina Gionfriddo, a writer for TV’s “Law & Order” shows and the author of After Ashley, a trenchant social comedy about fame that had a short but acclaimed run at the Vineyard Theatre four seasons ago. Gionfriddo’s new work about a quartet of star-crossed lovers was last year’s hit at the Humana Festival of New American Plays that is held each spring at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and the minute I read about it, I started lighting candles for it to come to New York.

It’s arrived with the same director, Peter DuBois, and two of the original cast members—Annie Parisse, who plays the title character; and David Wilson Barnes, who plays the central character, a cynic named Max. And the show's newcomers—Thomas Sadoski, terrific in the off-Broadway production of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty; Emily Bergl, an engaging spitfire; and the always wonderfully astringent Kelly Bishop—are just as intriguingly offbeat.

The play does get off to a somewhat slow and slightly confusing start. Parisse’s Becky doesn’t even show up until the middle of the first act. But the acting is smart throughout, Gionfriddo’s lines are laugh-out-loud funny and it’s hard not to have a good time. Even though that’s the last thing you’d be doing if you found yourself in the situations the characters face as they try to sort through their romantic entanglements and financial woes.

As many reviewers have pointed out, there’s an apparently intentional connection between the title character and Becky Sharp, the pointy-elbowed social climber in "Vanity Fair," William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel about 19th century British society. But I confess that although I have happy memories of reading the book alongside a pool during one winter vacation in Cancun, I wasn't able to draw the appropriate comparative lit parallels. (Although you can click here to read a CurtainUp exegesis that does exactly that.)

Maybe I was just too obsessed with the romantic stuff. For the characters in Becky Shaw don’t just enter relationships with baggage, they come with complete luggage sets. And the solace that Gionfriddo offers is as far from the old love-as-a-cure-all as you can get. Compromising your standards, she suggests, may be the best way to get a relationship. Lying—to your partner, to yourself—is probably the best way to keep it. Bishop’s character, the mother who is essentially the one true grown-up in the group, seems to sum up the philosophy when she urges everyone to stop worrying about their problems and instead just eat a nice dinner, accompanied by a good bottle of wine.

It’s a bleak take on love and yet, Bill and I felt surprisingly buoyant when we left the theater and walked down the street to have our own dinner and wine at Le Petit Un Deux Trois, which recently opened in the space that used to house the old Le Madeleine on the corner of 43rd and Ninth. Maybe tough-minded pragmatism is the best we can hope for in these unsettling times and so we’re particularly grateful when it comes leavened with a little humor: a tonic of sulfur mixed with molasses.

And Bill and I didn’t seem to be the only ones happy to quaff it down. “We’ve just seen the best play,” said one of the women who sat at the table next to us, obviously delighted to share the news. What?, we asked. She flashed us the Playbill of Becky Shaw.

January 12, 2009

The Backstory on Patti's Final Showstopper

No; it's not my usual posting day but I’ve been away for over a week and I’ve missed you guys. Besides, I just heard something that is too delicious to keep to myself and too big for a tweet.

I got back to the city to find almost everyone, including my fellow bloggers Steve on Broadway and Sarah B at Adventures in the Endless Pursuit of Entertainment, buzzing about how Patti LuPone literally stopped the show
during the penultimate performance of Gypsy on Saturday night to yell at someone in the audience who started taking pictures of her as she sang “Rose’s Turn.” My pit musician-husband K who played in the Gypsy orchestra immediately started lamenting the fact that our vacation had kept him away from being there for the historic moment.

Now I hear from an insider who was there that the whole incident was a simple misunderstanding. It seems that Patti had a photographer following her around backstage for several days doing a magazine article about her and the poor fella went around front to document some of her iconic moments in the show. And says my source, “That was the person she had thrown out! She forgot he was there!”

How can you not love Broadway?

January 7, 2009

Turning on the Ghost Light

My husband K and I are away, celebrating our anniversary and devoting our time totally to one another instead of sharing it with other passions, like blogging about theater. And so, as I usually do when I miss one of my biweekly posts, I've set out the ghost light in the spirit of the theater tradition that always leaves a light on when a theater is empty.

January 3, 2009

Repeat Performances

There are some theater lovers who will see a show over and over again. I’m not one of them. I always think there are too many other shows out there to see and only so much time—and even less money—with which to see them. And yet, over the past few weeks, I’ve gone back to see two shows that I’m particularly fond of and that were scheduled to close this month, along with so many others during this winter of our economic descent.

Spring Awakening opened in December, 2006, a few months before I started writing this blog and so although I’ve referred to it many times, there has been no one entry that says how much I love this show. Until now. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s
1891 play about German teens coming of age and into their sexuality moved me in a way I hadn’t expected.

After I first saw it,
I spent weeks listening to the cast album with the kind of obsession I hadn’t felt since, well, my own high school days. Not only do Sheik and Sater’s songs tell the characters’ story, as all good show tunes should, but they seem to tell the listener’s story too. And I was equally knocked out by Michael Mayer’s staging and Bill T. Jones’ kinetically expressive choreography.

Still, I was a little hesitant about seeing the show again when my theatergoing buddy Bill suggested that we should go back before it closes on Jan. 18. I worried that it wouldn’t be as wonderful as I
remembered. It wasn’t (what is?) but it was still deeply satisfying and confirmed my belief that this show deserves a longer run.

It’s tough to beat Jonathan Groff as the original Melchior, and John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony for his portrayal of his friend Moritz, but I thought Alexandra Socha was splendid as the naive Wendla and Matt Doyle put a delightfully arch spin on Hanschen, the more sophisticated member of the group. And the music continued to haunt me.

There were lots of young people at the performance Bill and I attended. Some of them had probably come to see Hunter Parrish, the teen heartthrob on the Showtime series “Weeds” who is now playing Melchior, but others were clearly there for the show. “I get a feeling this isn’t the first time for most of them,” Bill said as he looked around the audience during intermission. It was a potent reminder that Broadway’s constituency doesn’t have to be restricted to those over 50 and under 12.

My second repeat performance was different. Gerard Alessandrini is always updating Forbidden Broadway, the revue that lovingly parodies Broadway shows, so it is slightly different whenever you go. I went last year and had a good time. But my husband K had never seen any version and when we heard that the show was planning to shut down after 26 years, we ordered tickets.

This latest edition is called Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab. Musical numbers aren’t listed in the Playbill because they change according to Alessandrini’s creative whims. The performance we attended included a send-up of Liza's at the Palace,
just four days after Minnelli’s new show opened.

Rehab is winningly co-directed as always by Phillip George and credit for the costumes still goes to Alvin Colt, the venerable designer who died this past May at the age of 92. The hardworking quartet of performers—this time out Christina Bianco, James Donegan, Gina Kreiezmar and Michael West—is terrific, doing spot-on imitations of everyone from Patti LuPone to [title of show]’s Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell. K, a pit musician playing hooky that day from Gypsy, which is closing on Jan.11, got a particular kick out of Kreiezmar’s interpretation of LuPone.

Old fans, and we were seated in a row with a bunch of them, treat Forbidden Broadway the way fans do rock concerts, calling out for their favorite numbers. “I really hope they do Annie,” one man told his friends during intermission. Luckily for him, they did. Luckily for theatergoers in general, Rehab’s close date has been pushed back from Jan. 15 to March 1.

After the show, K and I walked up Broadway and then stopped at Café des Artistes, our favorite spot in the city. Max, the restaurant’s bartender extraordinaire, made our usual cocktails and we sat sipping them, talking theater talk, grateful that shows like these exists and hopeful that despite these tough times, others, equally bold and imaginative, will come to take their place.