February 28, 2009

"Our Town" is My Kind of Town

Our Town is one of those shows that everyone feels they know. And, in some ways, everyone does because for decades it was a favorite of high school drama teachers everywhere. I think they liked it because Thornton Wilder’s play about life in a small New England town at the turn of the last century seemed to celebrate an old-fashioned regard for family and community. Because the playwright’s famous stage directions “No Curtains. No Scenery” meant the school budget only had to spring for a few props. And because the play offers plenty of speaking parts and even the least talented kids could play one of the silent dead townspeople in the final act. But as I watched the striking new production of Our Town that opened at the Barrow Street Theatre this week, it hit me that the best time to appreciate the play’s true message about the evanescence of life isn’t when you’re young and feeling as though you’ll live forever but when, like me, you’ve begun to grapple with your own mortality.

But that isn’t why I initially wanted to see this version of Our Town. I went because I wanted to see what its director David Cromer would do with the play.
Last month, my friend Terry Teachout, the theater critic for The Wall Street Journal, praised a production of The Glass Menagerie that Cromer had staged for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and declared him one of the most exciting directors in the country today. “Mr. Cromer,” Terry wrote, “has the uncanny ability to take a too-familiar script and make it seem entirely new—yet it is his special gift to serve the plays that he stages, rather than twisting them into unrecognizable and irrelevant shapes. Such is the essence of re-creative genius.” (Click here to read more of Terry’s review.)

My buddy Bill and I had seen and loved Cromer’s terrific reinvention of Adding Machine at the Minetta Lane last year and so we were eager to catch his Our Town.
And he didn’t disappoint. Cromer has reconfigured the Barrow Street Theatre so that there is no barrier between the stage and the audience, which sits on risers around three sides of the floor-level playing space. Bill and I were seated in the front row and had to tuck in our toes as the actors walked by.

The lines between those performing and watching are further blurred by having the lights stay on during the performance, dressing the actors in regular
everyday street clothes and having them make their entrances and exits through the audience so that you’re never quite sure who’s in the play and who isn’t. One handsome silver-haired man sitting across from us kept leaning forward and I expected him to join the play at any moment but he turned out to be just a rapt audience member.

The realistic tone of the production is set right from the start when Cromer, who also appears as the Stage Manager who narrates the play, stands in the middle of the audience and, without any fanfare, begins speaking his lines. He bares a distinct resemblance to the actor Ian Holm and is totally comfortable and unaffected in the role. The actors he’s chosen—some holdovers from Chicago where the production debuted—are just as natural. Interestingly enough, Anna D. Shapiro, the Tony-winning director of August: Osage County, is mounting yet another production of Our Town in Chicago this month (click here to read a comparison of the two in Chicago Magazine).

Because nearly everything else in Cromer’s concept of the play has been stripped away, the entire focus is on the actors. And for the most part they merit that attention. With one significant lapse. The final scene, set in a graveyard, is usually the emotional heart of Our Town but Jennifer Grace, who plays the heroine Emily, didn’t quite deliver the epiphany that the rest of the show promised on the night Bill and I saw it. Still, I saw tears in the eyes of many audience members as the actors took their bows.

Our Town is now such a revered classic that I was surprised to read about its troubled beginnings in Ethan Mordden’s “All that Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959.” According to Mordden, Boston theatergoers were so turned off by the play when it opened there in 1938 that the Massachusetts governor’s wife led a walkout on opening night, forcing the show to close. Producer-director Jed Harris had to scramble to find a Broadway home for it, only to have it draw mixed reviews when he did.

Luckily, one of the positive notices came from the influential and insightful New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson who declared it “a beautifully haunting play.” The show went on to play 336 performances after that, to win a Pulitzer Prize, and to be revived four times on Broadway, including the now-legendary 2002 production with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. If current theater lovers are lucky, the Cromer production will enjoy a long run too.

February 25, 2009

Intar Cuts Two Ways at the Cherry Lane

When I told my friend Ellie I was going to see a show at the Cherry Lane Theatre she grinned. “That,” said Ellie, a one-time actress, “is the first theater in New York where I ever worked.”

She’s far from the only one who can claim that. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and some friends in the pioneering Provincetown Players converted an old box factory in the Village into the Cherry Lane back in 1924 and the theater has been a haven for experimental and emerging artists ever since. Early works by Elmer Rice, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson were performed there. Actors like Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, Frank Langella, Claudia Shear and Kiki & Herb honed their craft there. And this week, INTAR Theatre, which found itself homeless when the Zipper Factory Theater closed last month, debuted a double bill of one acts at the Cherry Lane.

INTAR is an acronym for International Arts Relations and for the past four decades the company has devoted itself to developing Latino theater artists. Despite its long existence, I had never seen an INTAR production even though a friend who knew Eduardo Machado, the company’s artistic director and leading playwright, had urged me to check out his work.

News stories about the Zipper closing and the last minute rescue by the Cherry Lane gave me the final push I needed to see the company and my always-up-for-a-theatrical-adventure buddy Bill and I head down to the Village to catch its two latest offerings. The first, In Paradise, is by the Cuban-born Machado and the second, She Plundered Him, is by Nick Norman, an Argentine-Brit who just graduated from Columbia University’s MFA playwriting program where he studied with Machado.

Both plays deal with older women who become infatuated with younger men. In Paradise further complicates things by making the man bisexual. Machado, who is 55 and openly gay, often bases his plays on his life and he seems to have borrowed the plot for this one from his marriage to a white woman who was twice his age when he wed her at 19. Her death in 2007 may have spurred him to write this eulogy for their relationship. Not much goes on in the play and there’s far too much exposition (the wife is constantly telling the husband things that he’d obviously already know) but Leslie Lyles and
Ed Vassallo do a nice job portraying a couple who love one another even when each knows that love isn’t always enough.

There may be too much love—and lust—in Norman’s She Plundered Him. The play is set in the family home of a mentally unstable writer, his sex-starved wife and their duplicitous grown son. The home is in Dorset, the county on the coast of the English Channel, and so all three actors affect British accents and the son, for some unexplained reason, wears jodhpurs. In a nod to colorblind casting, the son is played by the young Asian-American actor James Chen, while his parents are played by Caucasians Mark Elliot Wilson and Lyles, performing double duty. In a nod to traditional dramaturgy, the play centers around yet another long night’s journey into dysfunction.

The Cherry Lane has always been an intimate theater and it has been configured into a mini-theater-in-the-round, with about 25 seats on each side for this production, which runs less than 90 minutes, including a scene change between the two plays. Perhaps to create an illusion of more space, the walls, ceiling and floor have been mirrored so you can see your fellow audience members while you watch the play. In my sight line sat a pregnant woman who kept frowning and rubbing her belly as though she were trying to protect her unborn child from the horrors the members of the onstage families were inflicting on one another.

I frowned a bit too as I detected a streak of misogyny running through both plays. Women over 40, they seem to suggest, should just give up the whole sex thing and be maternal. I might have been just as put out by some of the histrionics these plays at times displayed. Instead, I started wondering what I might have thought if I’d had the chance to be in the Cherry Lane when unsettling works by O’Neill, Albee or Shepard first played there. The Cherry Lane has always offered a home for audaciousness. So although I may have some reservations about the Intar plays, it was good to see them there.

February 21, 2009

An Alternate View of "The Story of My Life"

Last week, I visited my old high school for the first time since The Phantom of the Opera was in previews and I’ve been in a sentimental mood ever since. Maybe that’s why I kind of like The Story of My Life, the new, sentimental mini-musical that opened this week at the Booth Theatre. And if I sound defensive (note the weaselly “kind of”) that’s because I’m in such a distinct minority on this one.

The critics haven’t been kind to this tale about two guys who bonded as six-year olds and what happens to their friendship as they grow up and one becomes a bestselling author while the other stays in their hometown and runs the local bookstore. It’s one of those familiar and oft told tales—the play Old Acquaintance, the movie “The Turning Point,” a whole shelf of chic lit novels—but the protagonists aren’t usually male. And they don’t usually sing.

The Story of My Life opens as one of the friends is struggling to write a eulogy to read at the funeral of the other, who has died under mysterious circumstances, and the rest of the show is a series of flashbacks. Neil Bartram, who did the music and lyrics, and Brian Hill who wrote the book, have said that they originally started to write about the platonic friendship between a man and a woman but when the story kept drifting into a romance, they changed the characters to two men. That wasn’t the only challenge they faced. And they haven’t finessed all the others quite as easily.

Like so many young musical writers, they have a hard time escaping the long shadow of Stephen Sondheim—they even use Sondheim’s favorite orchestrator, the masterly Jonathan Tunick . Some of the show’s songs are so reminiscent of his work that Sondheim, who, according to the chatrooms, attended a preview of The Story of My Life, probably should share in their royalties payments. And because the show only has two characters, there’s an inevitable sameness to the musical numbers—first one guys sings, then the other guy sings; a couple of times, they sing together.

When they’re not singing the guys are talking to one another about their past and about their peculiar devotion to the classic movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which has almost as much of an influence on this show as Sondheim does. Angels play a significant role.

And yet, I repeat, I liked The Story of My Life. It’s partly that the guys are played by Will Chase and Malcolm Gets who sing well and who use their considerable personal charm to flesh out characters who tend more toward types than real people. It’s partly that some of the songs and many of the lines are clever. But I think it’s mainly that, like most folks, I’ve been on both ends of the friendship thing—the one who left and the one who was left behind. The Story of My Life didn’t tell me anything new about friendship but it did remind me about the value of old friends. In the last few days, I’ve gotten in touch with three of my oldest ones.

Update: the show closed on Feb. 22, after just five performances

February 18, 2009

"Uncle Vanya" is Unfocused

“Do your own thing” was a major mantra back when I was in college. Now, the sentiment seems to have been revived in the Classic Stage Company’s new production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Because everyone involved—from the actors to the designers—seems to be following his or her individual bliss. You might have thought director Austin Pendleton, an old-hand at Chekhov as both an actor and a director, would have kept everyone marching in the same direction but like an indulgent parent, he has let them all go their own way. And the result is a production that is all over the place.

This show has gotten a lot of attention for two reasons. One: it comes in the middle of a coincidental Chekhov festival, with the appearances of The Seagull on Broadway last fall, The Cherry Orchard at BAM now and the upcoming Three Sisters from the Classical Theatre of Harlem opening later this month. Two: it has a starry cast lead by the real-life couple Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard (whom one critic has called our local Brangelina) as, respectively, Yelena, a bored trophy wife, and Astrov, the environmentally-conscious doctor who loves her; Tony-winner Dennis O’Hare (who’s recently gotten lots of big screen time playing villains in the movies "Milk" and "Changeling") in the title role; and Mamie Gummer (whose mother is Meryl Streep) as the plain-Jane niece Sofya.

Only Gummer worked for me. She gives her character a gawky poignancy that seems most in keeping with Chekhov’s theme of repressed and thwarted dreams. Yelena is supposed to express her disillusionment through a restless ennui but Gyllenhaal is so languid that my attention kept wandering to the details of the beautiful period costumes Suzy Benzinger has designed for her. And I didn’t like Sarsgaard any more in this than I liked him as Trigorin in The Seagull. I’m a big fan of Sarsgaard’s movie work and I’m all for actors stretching and taking roles outside their comfort zone but try as he might, Sarsgaard seems as at ease in Chekhov as a skinny kid in a superhero’s suit.

But it was O’Hare who drove me up a wall. He has said that Uncle Vanya is his first professional production of Chekhov and he plays the title character as though he were the dacha’s resident smart ass—willing to do anything, including literally chewing the scenery, to get a laugh. This might have worked if Pendleton had decided to give the entire production a similar contemporary sensibility; instead O’Hare seems to have time-traveled in from a Judd Apatow flick.

The design team appears to have had just as difficult a time deciding what to make of the production. The talented set designer Santo Loquasto has created a beautifully atmospheric two-story house. But the actors seldom use the upper level and it’s hard to see what’s happening when they move to the back of the large set. If you’re sitting in the seats on either side of the three-sided stage, it’s a challenge to see anything since supporting beams block so many sight lines. And because the actors vary so radically in the way they deliver their lines, sound designer Daniel Baker apparently has had a tough time figuring out how to amplify them so that you can hear everything that’s being said.

After the show, my friend Ellie and I left CSC’s 13th Street theater in search of a drink but the neighborhood bars that Ellie likes were closed or so crowded that we ended up walking over to the West Village where we found seats at the bar of Mario Batali’s Otto and treated ourselves to drinks and a couple of plates of his delicious and surprisingly affordable antipasti. On the way there, Ellie, a former actress and a longtime Chekhov lover, asked me what I’d liked about the production. “Nothing,” I snapped and then changed the subject. My response was an overstatement. But, alas, not by much.

February 14, 2009

A Second Anniversary Message

I love that today is Valentine’s Day and that it marks the second anniversary of Broadway & Me. You already know how much I love theater and I’ve come to love writing about it in these blog entries almost as much. As always my heartfelt thanks to each of you for sharing even a small part of these passions with me. I wish you a year filled with lots of good theater and much love too. Cheers, jan

February 11, 2009

Proper Recompense for the "Ruined"

Good parts are hard to find for any actor. But you can start multiplying that by exponentials when it comes to black actresses. Even the August Wilson canon, a virtual jobs program for black actors over the last couple of decades, gives most of the great stuff to the guys (it may be Ma Rainey’s black bottom but it’s the volatile trumpeter Levee’s show).

So black actresses everywhere ought to sit down right now and write a thank you note to playwright Lynn Nottage for Ruined, her brave and affective new play about the sexual atrocities committed against women in the war-ravaged Congo that opened last night at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage 1 space at City Center. Theater lovers should send thank you notes too. And here’s mine.

Ruined is one of those rare plays that has something important to say about the world we live in and the wisdom to say it in a way that will both engage and entertain. Plus it has four fantastic female parts.

And I’m not surprised. Intimate Apparel, her 2003 play about a lonely black seamstress at the turn of the last century, established Nottage as a playwright of true consequence. The New York Drama Critics Circle named it the best play of that season and it is my favorite new work of the past 10 years. But before her writing career took off, Nottage worked as the national press officer for the human rights group Amnesty International and when she decided to write this play, she traveled to Congo and interviewed women who have suffered through the devastation there. Ruined combines their stories with her artistry (click here to read a New York Times interview with Nottage about the genesis of the play).

Ruined is set in a brothel owned by Mama Nadi (an intentional homage to Brecht's Mother Courage) who brazenly attempts to profit from the war by catering to both sides of the conflict. As the play opens, she acquires two new girls, who will be mentored by one of her most successful workers. All three have come to Mama Nadi because they have been repeatedly raped by marauding soldiers, then rejected by their shamed families and now have nowhere else to go. One of them has been so badly abused that her insides have been damaged to the point that she is sexually ineffective or, as it is called, ruined (click hear to listen to an NPR report about efforts to help the real-life victims of such atrocities).

The subject is harrowing but Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey smartly add music, dance and even moments of humor that ease the tension without undermining it. The technical team—Scenic Designer Derek McLane, Costume Designer Paul Tazewell, Lighting Designer Peter Kaczorowski and Sound Designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen—creates a thoroughly believable environment for the action.

All four of the actresses have a chance to shine and each clearly relishes this chance to dazzle.
The lovely Condola Rashad brings an ethereal quality to Sophie, the most damaged of the women. Cherise Boothe, captures the seething rage of Josephine, the brothel’s veteran. And Quincy Tyler Bernstine is devastating as Salima, the plain everywoman of the group. The male actors, particularly Russell Gebert Jones as the fixer who fantasizes about a relationship with Mama Nadi, lend able support.

But the play centers around Mama Nadi, her complex relationship with her girls and her struggle to avoid taking sides in the war. Saidah Arrika Ekulona does a fine job, particularly with the earth-mother aspects of the part, but Adriane Lenox, who won a Tony for her brief but unforgettable appearance as the mother in Doubt, was originally cast in the role and I kept imagining the flintiness she would have added to it.

A couple of other things bothered me too. The accents the actors assume seemed arbitrary and unnecessary; after all, actors playing Chekhov don’t fake Russian accents. The references to Mama Nadi’s large stable of girls were distracting since we only see three. And then there’s the ending. I think I get why Nottage chose it. I just wish she’d chosen differently. But these are nitpicks. This is a play you should see.

February 7, 2009

"You're Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush" is Funny But Far Too Polite

It probably wasn’t intentional but the Cort Theatre, home for the next five weeks to You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush, comedian Will Ferrell’s genial send-up of the Bush presidency, is just half a block away from the headquarters of Fox News, perhaps the only place in Manhattan where people are actually lamenting the end of the Bush presidency.

I doubt you’ll find many Fox staffers in the Cort audience but there’s nothing really mean-spirited about the show, a reprise and extension of the sketches Ferrell did on “Saturday Night Live” before he left to star in such endearingly goofy movie comedies as “Elf,” “Anchorman” and “Blades of Glory.” In fact, Ferrell is such a likeable guy that I, who literally wept when Bush was re-elected in 2004, found myself thinking that maybe the man who is the worst president in the nation’s history may not have been all that bad.

Which bothers me a little and makes me wonder why we Americans, who so revere our freedom of expression, express so little political dissent in our theater. Are today’s playwrights just too unconcerned with the sad state of our current affairs? Are today’s producers just too reluctant to put on works that deal with them? Are today’s theatergoers just too uninterested in seeing shows like that? If it weren’t for the folks down at the Culture Project there would hardly be any serious examination of American politics on a New York stage.

The Brits, as anyone who has seen the “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” number in Billy Elliot (or seen any number of David Hare plays) knows, are less squeamish about taking on their leaders. And this week I read an article about how even Russian playwrights are going after the tsar-like Vladimir Putin (click here to read it). But when you look around at the plays scheduled to open on and off-Broadway this spring, nearly all deal with interpersonal relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, old friends. Important stuff sure, but what about the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global warming?

Ferrell and his longtime collaborator Adam McKay, who co-wrote and directed the show, do throw some barbs about Bush’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and mishandling of the Iraq war into their 90-minute show. But You’re Welcome America is mainly a revue of Bush bloopers—the endless malapropisms, the Mission Accomplished flight suit prematurely celebrating victory in Iraq, the attempted exit through a stuck door at a summit meeting in China—leavened with the comedians’ trademark loony humor. There are funny bits about Barbara Bush, Condi Rice and Dubya’s delight in bestowing silly nicknames as well as frat-boy jokes about penises, “fags” and pole dancing.

The audience the night my buddy Bill and I saw the show was filled with Ferrell lovers and Bush haters who lapped up all of it. The run is pretty much sold out but even if you can’t get a ticket, you can catch the show when HBO airs the final performance on March 14.

You’re Welcome America
is funny and
I had a good time. Unless you’re related to Dick Cheney you probably will too. But, in the end, I can’t help thinking about the mess the real George W. Bush has left us in. And that’s no laughing matter.

February 4, 2009

The Siren Song of "The Third Story"

I’m not usually big on drag and I’m often uncomfortable with camp. So I would hardly seem to be the best candidate for a Charles Busch show. But what prompted me to see this cross-dressing master’s latest creation, The Third Story, which opened in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Monday night, is that its cast includes that authentic femme fatale Kathleen Turner.

Turner has been a favorite of mine since her breakthrough as the seductress in the 1981 movie “Body Heat” and I’ve grown even more fond of her over the years as, unlike so many movie stars, she’s aged the way real women I know age — a little heavier, a little wrinklier but without sacrificing any innate sexiness. I’ve also appreciated how, like so many of us Boomers, she has continued to take on, and triumph in, more challenging roles — in her case, Martha in the sensational 2005 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

So imagine my surprise when Turner turned out to be my least favorite part of the entertaining, and at times moving, evening that The Third Story was for me. Although I’m not sure I would have felt the same way about the play if I hadn’t listened to the podcast of a Playbill Radio interview with Busch the morning before I saw the show.

My ninth grade English teacher always insisted that you don’t need to know anything personal about an author to appreciate his or her work. But in this case I think Miss Pillsbury was wrong. Busch’s honest and insightful discussion about how his work has been influenced by the lost of his mother when he was seven, watching old movies with his dad as a boy and discovering Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous when he was in college gave me a deeper appreciation of both the man and his work. (Click here if you’d like to listen to the interview).

The Third Story uses all of Busch’s now-familiar tropes. There are actually three interconnected stories—each has a different style but all three deal with parent-child relationships and the transformative power of storytelling. And two feature Busch playing female characters.
Even at 54, Busch, dressed in Gregory Gale’s swanky ‘40s-style costumes, still makes a good-looking gal. But while many of the laughs are derived from the broad campy humor of having a man play a woman, his performance is also, at times, delicately nuanced.

Turner also hits a few poignant notes but she doesn’t really seem comfortable in either of her roles as a formerly successful screenwriter trying to persuade her grown son (nicely played by Jonathan Walker) to collaborate on a new script that will revive her career or as a mad scientist (don’t ask, you gotta see it to get it and I haven’t even mentioned the third storyline about the Russian witch and the enchanted princess).

The rest of the cast—particularly Scott Parkinson as the most peculiar of the characters and Jennifer Van Dyck as the most straitlaced—is impressively versatile as many of them play multiple roles, and seemingly tireless as some fast-change from costume to costume . Director Carl Andress, aided by set designer David Gallo, lighting designer David Weiner and sound designer Chris Luessmann, gives each of the stories its own distinctive and yet harmonious tone.

I saw the show with my friend Jesse, an old Ludlam fan, who said The Third Story wasn’t as zany as his Ridiculous Theatrical Company used to be but she still laughed a lot. I laughed too. But as a mama’s girl, my heart also ached a bit for the little boy beneath the crinoline slip who so obviously still misses his mother.