April 29, 2009

No Desire for "Desire Under the Elms"

Pity the modern theater director who wants to stage the revival of a classic play. It seems that it’s no longer enough to just realize the writer’s text. Or to draw nuanced performances from the actors. Nowadays, you need to have an original concept, a new spin on the material, or, as the strippers in Gypsy might say, “you gotta get a gimmick.”

Sometimes the revisionism works, as with the current modern-dress productions of Mary Stuart and Our Town. Sometimes it falls short of its mark, as with the semi-Spanish version of West Side Story and the completely expressionistic interpretation of All My Sons. And sometimes it falls on its ass, as with the new revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms that opened at the St. James Theatre on Sunday night.

No one was more surprised to see Desire Under the Elms land on its butt than me. I’m a sucker for O’Neill, despite—or maybe because of—his florid language and melodramatic plots. And I’m a big fan of the creative team behind this production. Its director Robert Falls and lead actor Brian Dennehy have done wonderful work together in the past with their collaborations on Death of A Salesman and Long Days Journey Into Night. Its co-stars Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber have given standout performances in previous shows. But, this time, they all get so tangled up in the concept that they forget the play.

Desire Under the Elms is set shortly before the Civil War and tells that eternally titillating story of the older man with the younger wife who falls for a young man—in this case, the young man is also her stepson. The original production, which opened in 1924, had 20 actors—12 of them townsfolk who attend a party where they make fun of the cuckolded older husband, played then by Walter Huston, father of the film director John and grandfather of the movie actors Anjelica and Danny. It ran for a solid year.

The play was revived in 1952, with a 39-year old Karl Malden, who made a career of playing guys older than he actually was, as the 75-year old husband, even though the actor playing his perfidious son turned 31 the day after the short 46-performance run ended. A young, 27 year-old Colleen Dewhurst played one of the busybody neighbors.

There are no neighbors in the current production. Instead there are just five actors—the members of the love triangle and two other sons who disappear early in the play. So there is no party scene. Other stuff has been cut too so that the play, which usually sprawls over three acts and three hours, clocks in at under two intermissionless hours. It just feels a lot longer.

There are no elms either. Instead set designer Walt Spangler has filled the stage with boulders that I guess are suppose to symbolize some kind of oppression but instead create such a bleak landscape that I found myself wondering if Spangler and Falls had secretly longed to show what they might have done with the existential wasteland of Waiting for Godot.

So what does Falls add? Well, a lot of sex. Schreiber—who apparently has been working out in preparation for the role—does the full monty for a gratuitous bath scene. Gugino, who showed her sexual fearlessness when she played the Marilyn Monroe character in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall a few seasons back, slinks around the stage in dresses that keep falling in revealing ways. And the two of them get down on places like the kitchen table.

When they’re not clinched together or trading smoldering stares, they—and Dennehy too—are yelling at one another. And they do it in gratingly different accents. The family’s farm—presented here as a kind of doll house that is raised, lowered and hovers over the stage—is set in New England. But, except for the occasional “Ay-yup,” you wouldn’t know it. Schreiber affects a southern drawl, Dennehy favors a kind of Irish brogue and Gugino, who apparently hasn’t yet made up her mind, alternates throughout the performance. O’Neill, who liked to write in dialect, bears some of the blame; but if Falls was willing to change the other stuff, why not downplay that?

None of the actors manages to convey real emotions and so Falls resorts to musical underscoring to cue the audience on how it should feel. At one point, he even plays a complete version of the anachronistic Bob Dylan song “Not Yet Dark.”

Several of the major critics, including the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood, have raved about this interpretation of Desire Under the Elms. But the only desire I felt was for the chance to see a fine production of the play that the playwright wrote.

April 25, 2009

Total Surrender to "The Norman Conquests"

When my buddy Bill first invited me to go to the all-day marathon of The Norman Conquests, I said no thanks. Unlike so many theater lovers, I’ve never been that into Alan Ayckbourn. And I worried about what would happen if I hated the first of the three separate plays that compose the marathon. I know well the sinking feeling that can come just a few minutes into a play when you realize that you’re stuck with a loser for the next two hours or more. So how would I feel if I thought I was going to be stuck for the next seven?

Still, it did seem like one of those-once-in-a-lifetime experiences, so I emailed Bill and told him I'd changed my mind. And thank goodness I did. Because after just the first 10 minutes of The Norman Conquests, I felt terrific. And my feelings got better and better as the day wore on. So this entry is going to be slightly longer than usual because I want to tell you all about it.

The Normal Conquests tells the Chekhov-like story of friends and relatives who come together for a weekend in the country. In this case, they are Annie, a thirtysomething spinster who is caring for her ailing gorgon of a mother (whom we never see,) the neighborhood vet Tom, who is more or less courting Annie; her brother Reg and his prissy wife Sarah; and Annie and Reg’s sister Ruth and her randy husband Norman, whose conquests—or attempts at them—the plays detail.

The famously prolific Ayckbourn (he’s written over 70 plays) likes to construct interlocking plays that work—and can be viewed—separately but create a more rewarding experience when seen in tandem. (Click here to read a Michael Riedel interview with the playwright.) This time out, each play takes place in a different part of the house but at roughly the same time. So, for example, when we see a character walk out of the dining room to look for something in one play, we pick up his journey—and some belly laughs—as we watch him find it in another.

It must be a great challenge for the actors to keep it all straight. But each of the six members in the Norman cast, all of whom originated their roles in London but none of whom I’d ever seen before, is brilliant. And together, they may be the best ensemble I’ve ever seen. Ayckbourn gives them plenty of funny things to play and witty lines to say and a moment for each to shine. And Matthew Warchus, who directed last year’s Boeing-Boeing and this season’s God of Carnage, confirms his position as theater’s reigning king of comedy with pitch-perfect staging. In fact, he had me before any of the characters even said hello.

One of the things I lament about going to the theater these days is how seldom you get to see a curtain rise. Instead, most of the time you walk into a theater and the set is sitting right there staring out at you. But Warchus and his equally clever set designer Rob Howell have devised the most charmingly appropriate curtain I’ve ever seen—I won’t spoil the surprise of it for you, except to say it’s a particularly neat feat since the plays are presented in the round.

A funny insert in the Playbill insists that it doesn’t matter which of the three plays you see first. But here’s the order in which they ran at the marathon Bill and I attended: Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden. Bill later told me that a friend asked him which of the three should be seen if you can see only one. (Special marathon tickets are priced at $255, about $80 less than if you see the plays on separate nights, but that could still eat up your show budget if you’re an occasional theatergoer.) I said Table Manners because it’s so thoroughly hilarious. Bill chose Round and Round the Garden because he thinks it provides the best overview of the entire trilogy.

And yet, my favorite is probably Living Together. It’s slightly less funny than the other two, but it cuts deeper, revealing the real pain beneath what at first glance seem to be superficial lives. Norman and his relatives become less caricatures and more human. Part of the pleasure of seeing the shows one after the other in the marathon is the chance to build a relationship with these characters, almost in the way we develop one with people we meet and then get to know—and for better or worse—accept as time goes on.

But another part of the joy of the marathon was the event itself. I’d never spent an entire day in the theater before. (Click here to read the New York Post’s suggestions for how to survive the all-day experience, which is schedule every Saturday; single performances of each of the individual plays alternate during the week). Each play has a 20 minute intermission and because the audience at the performance Bill and I attended was filled with Tony nominators, the major theater critics and other Broadway insiders, including the actors Julie White, Mary Stuart Masterson and Jeremy Davidson, the breaks had the air of a cocktail party or family reunion with everyone milling about in the downstairs lobby at Circle in the Square, catching up with old friends, greeting new acquaintances and gushing about the plays until the ushers shooed us back to our seats.

Our first performance was supposed to begin at 11:30 but it started about 15 minutes late and ran until just before 2. Several restaurants in the area are offering deals for marathoners but Bill and I just ducked across the street to Thalia for its usual bargain brunch special. We spotted one of the actors there, apparently grabbing a quick bite with friends.

The 3 pm installment also started late. Because the plays are being presented in the round, the folks at the box office or on Telecharge will tell you it doesn’t matter where you sit but, if you can, get an even-numbered seat for Living Together. It ended minutes before 6, allowing us just enough time to run down the street to meet our friend and my fellow blogger Steve on Broadway for dinner at Vice Versa and then return for the 8 pm finale, which let out around 10:30.

I left feeling tired (partly from laughing so hard) but exhilarated (by having seen such superb theater). Bill loved it so much that he says he’s ready to do the whole seven and a half hours all over again.

April 22, 2009

Two Queens Reign in "Mary Stuart"

Mary Stuart, Friedrich Schiller’s drama about the deadly rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, was high on the list of the plays I most wanted to see this season for two reasons: (1) I am hopelessly obsessed with works about England’s Tudor kings and queens and (2) great parts for female actors of, as they say, a certain age remain hard to find. My one reservation was that the play, which dates from 1800, had originally been written in German free verse and I wasn’t sure I was up for that, not even in translation.

I needn’t have worried, and nor should you. The Donmar Warehouse production that opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on Sunday night has been given a contemporary makeover by the British playwright Peter Oswald that’s colloquial and easy on the modern ear. And director Phyllida Lloyd and designer Anthony Ward have added updated touches too.

Back in 1971, when Mary Stuart was last performed on Broadway (with Nancy Marchand as Elizabeth and someone named Salome Jens as Mary) it had a cast of 25 and everyone wore Elizabethan dress. This time out, there are just 15 actors and only the queens—Harriet Walter (who is 58) as Elizabeth and Janet McTeer (who turns 48 next month) as Mary—are decked out in 16th century garb, while their male courtiers are dressed in modern-day business suits. The scenery is practically non-existent—a few benches, a table and a trunk, all positioned in front of a brick wall that is as formidable and immutable as the fate that awaits the two women.

The spare look seems to have been born of necessity: the budget was too small to support a full court and period dress and so, "This made us look for more imaginative ideas than we might have if we'd had the big cast and lavish costumes that Schiller's play calls for,” Walter told Playbill (click here to read the full interview she and McTeer gavee the magazine).

I confess that I was disappointed when the first group of noblemen walked on stage wielding attaché cases instead of broad swords. And I found the play's first act a bit talky and stuffed with exposition (although my husband K pointed out that can be helpful for people who aren't up on their Tudor history). But, in the end, the magnificent acting won me over.

McTeer's performance is the crowd-pleaser. Schiller makes Mary, who provides a rallying point for the Catholics who opposed the new Protestant faith that brought Elizabeth to the throne, the most sympathetic character and it's her story the play charts, as she is convicted of trying to usurp the English crown and vainly seeks a stay of execution from her cousin Elizabeth or a paladin who will help her escape before she is lead to the scaffold. McTeer burns through the full spectrum of emotionsanguish, defiance, coquettishness, contrition, courageousness, submission— that Mary experiences.

Schiller’s view of Elizabeth gives Walter a somewhat narrower emotional range to play—imperiousness, insecurity, and ultimately isolation—but the actress burrows deep into them. And it was her performance that won the Evening Standard Best Actress Award when Mary Stuart played in London in 2005. The climactic scene where the queens meet lives up to the anticipation, even though the event never happened in real life. And it’s preceded by a great coup de theatre: a 10 minute rain storm that soaks Mary, the stage, and probably a few of the audience members in the first row.

The male characters, ably played by American actors and the South-African born Brian Murray, are the courtiers who flock around both queens. They are also symbols of all the ways in which men often seek to control women—sex, patronization, betrayal—even when, or perhaps especially when, the women are powerful ones.

It’s a very good thing that McTeer, Walter and their costars are so very good because there were all kinds of distractions at the performance K and I attended. One of the speakers hissed static during some of the key speeches. A woman brought her dog to the theater and when several audience members complained to an usher, he insisted that the dog—a tiny dust-mop of a thing with long bangs—was a seeing eye dog and thus had a legitimate right to be there even though I later saw the dog’s owner waving at friends in the balcony. But at least the dog was quiet. A nearby audience member snored loudly throughout the performance, prompting some around him (or her) to giggle at inopportune moments.

Despite all that the production was majestically impressive. This season has brought many treats for people who like their theater smart and witty—Exit the King, God of Savage, 33 Variations, The Norman Conquests, which opens later this week—and Mary Stuart ranks high among them.

April 18, 2009

A Misguided "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"

Back in December, when Lincoln Center Theater first announced that it had tapped Bartlett Sher to direct its revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, some people questioned whether a white director could do justice to this installment of Wilson’s 10-part cycle of plays that chronicle the African-American experience. (Click here to read Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout’s take on the controversy.) I figured why not, so long as the director is talented, which the Tony Award-winning Sher clearly is. Now, after having seen the production that opened at the Belasco Theatre this week, I’m having second thoughts.

Each of Wilson’s plays takes place in a different decade of the 20th century and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is set in 1911. It focuses on the children of freed slaves who have migrated north to find a new identity for themselves. It is also my favorite of his works.

I think I love the play because it reminds me so much of my grandmother and her siblings who were part of that same exodus knows as the Great Migration. The original production of Joe Turner, which opened in 1988, brilliantly captured their sustaining belief in the supernatural, which sometimes frightened me; their love of humor which always entertained me; and the innate poetry in the way they spoke. It was directed by Lloyd Richards, the African-American director who brought the original production of A Raisin in the Sun to Broadway in 1959 and who eventually went on to become dean of the Yale School of Drama and head of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Center

August Wilson felt strongly about having black people direct his plays. And Richards, who discovered Wilson when the unknown writer submitted a script to the O’Neill conference, directed and helped shape the first six in the cycle. When the two men fell out in 1996, the black directors Marion McClinton and Kenny Leon were tapped to bring Wilson’s work to the stage.

Indeed the playwright felt so strongly about the ethnicity of his collaborators that when Hollywood producers tried to turn his Tony and Pulitzer-winning play Fences into a movie, Wilson refused to sell it to them unless they agreed to hire a black director. No movie has yet been made. "We cannot allow others to have authority over our cultural and spiritual products," Wilson later declared during the course of a highly-public debate with the critic Robert Brustein over the role of blacks in the theater.

Sher’s production is skillful and at times entertaining (the major critics have raved) but for me it lacks the essential soul of the play. Instead, it’s all shiny surface (at times, alas, literally) with too little feeling for the deep-rooted emotions that drive its characters. His work here is too literal and earthbound for a writer as intensely metaphorical and metaphysical as Wilson.

Joe Turner’s plot centers around a Pittsburgh boarding house and the people who live there. One resident is Bynum Walker, one of Wilson’s trademark conjure men, and the other is Herald Loomis, a mysterious new arrival who travels with his young daughter and says he is looking for his missing wife. Part of Sher’s problem may rest in his casting choices. There are very nice turns by Ernie Hudson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson as the boarding house owner and his wife. But they represent the prose of Joe Turner and the success of the play rises or falls on the more poetic characters Bynum and Herald.

In the 1988 production, Ed Hall, a character actor Richards had known since Hall played the tiny part of one of the movers in A Raisin in the Sun, brought a transcendent mysticism to Bynum and Delroy Lindo imbued Herald with a deep sense of wounded menace. But while Roger Robinson’s Bynum is emotionally solid and Chad L. Coleman’s Herald appropriately brooding, neither man is imposing enough, at least they weren't at the performance my buddy Bill and I attended. They are good actors but they needed more guidance from their director than he seems to have been able to give.

I’ve read that Wilson and Sher knew one another from having lived in Seattle at the same time but given Wilson’s views on who should direct his plays, I’m not sure Sher would have been given a shot at Joe Turner if the playwright, who died from liver cancer in 2004, were still alive. I’m still not ready to say that no white director should be given the chance to direct a play by and about black people. But I will say that in this case, I don’t think they had the right man for the job. I will also say that Joe Turner remains my favorite Wilson play, is a major contribution to the American theatrical canon and a work that, even in a flawed production, every theater lover ought to see.

April 15, 2009

“Chasing Manet” Stumbles on Its Clichés

Maybe graduates of all colleges are the same way, but those of us who went to Sarah Lawrence College tend to be fiercely chauvinistic about the school and about our sister and brother alums. So I went into the 59E59 Theaters ready to cheer for Chasing Manet, the new play written by Tina Howe (Class of 1959) and starring Jane Alexander (Class of ‘61,) even though I’ve never met either woman and both graduated years before I got there. (Click here to read a NY Times story about their 50-year friendship that began at SLC).

And of course I did applaud. Although not as loudly as I thought I would. Chasing Manet tells the story of two octogenarian roommates in a nursing home and their scheme to escape for one final fling in Paris. And despite a few lovely moments, it falls victim to the clichés that so often turn up in plays and movies about old people. Alexander’s character is Catherine Sargent, a bitter Boston Brahmin and a successful painter who was an intimate of intellectuals like André Malraux but a distant mother to her one unhappy son. Her roommate Rennie Waltzer, played by Lynn Cohen, is a lovably addled middle-class Jewish woman who enjoyed a successful marriage and is cherished by her large extended family.

So once again, we’re left with the notion that old people only come in two varieties: crotchety and cute. It also would have been a welcomed change if the WASP had been the warm and cuddly one and the Jew cold and aloof. And haven’t we gotten to the point, three decades after the start of the modern feminist movement, where a woman can be portrayed as having a successful career and being a good mother?

There are small suggestions that Howe’s characters may be more complex than they seem but the play, at least as directed by Michael Wilson, is largely a collection of stereotypes and a cataloging of the indecencies that come with aging. The sounds of moans from other rooms are occasionally audible in the background and from time to time, other characters are wheeled on stage for physical therapy classes, offering up still more clichés: the horny old guy, the crazy old lady, the poor nearly catatonic soul who is already lost to the living.

Alexander, who looks wonderful, is always a pleasure to watch and she seems to delight in portraying a tough dame but also manages to offer an occasional glimpse of the emotional wounds beneath the calluses. Cohen is convincingly sweet but also finds moments of sharp poignancy amidst the funny bits she’s given to play. And the five other actors in the ensemble, each of whom plays multiple roles as family members and nursing home staff, acquit themselves equally well, especially David Margulies in a touching soliloquy that is the play’s best moment.

But I expected more from the author of Painting Churches and Pride’s Crossing, both trenchant explorations of the ways in which we do and don’t change as we move into the final phase of our lives. Perhaps it's because of personal experiences with aging family members or because of my own advancing years but I found it hard to just sit and laugh at Chasing Manet’s old-folks jokes. And I wasn’t the only one. The two middle-aged women sitting on my right left at intermission. Unlike me, they didn't have to worry about being excommunicated from the SLC alumnae association.

April 11, 2009

Rocking out with "Rock of Ages"

As soon as I hear about a new jukebox musical, I call my sister Joanne. She loves them. And she’s not ashamed of that. It’s been eight years but I still regret rushing her out of the Winter Garden before she’d finished bopping out to Mamma Mia!’s curtain call reprise of “Dancing Queen.” And I knew Good Vibrations had no chance when she tried to hurry me out of that theater. So it was a no-brainer to ask her to go with me to see Rock of Ages.

Unlike Mamma Mia! (ABBA) or Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys) or All Shook Up (Elvis), Rock of Ages isn’t built around the songbook of one artist. Instead, it’s a kind of three-dimensional tribute album to the arena-rock era of the ‘80s (Pat Benatar, Bon Jovi, Journey, Styx). The musical’s first-time lead producers say they got the idea for the show when they heard a Journey song on the radio and thought it would be great to have a whole theater of people singing along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (click here to read a New York Times article about the making of the musical).

I have to confess that I didn’t know the Journey song because it came out during that period of music, between ‘70s folk rock and disco and ‘90s grunge and gangsta rap, that I tuned out entirely.
What excited me about seeing Rock of Ages is its policy of in-seat drink service during the performance. Just the idea of that has appalled many traditional theatergoers (“I hope you don’t sit next to some hurling college student,” my husband K said as I was leaving home for the theater that night). But I was willing to take the risk for a chance to kick back and sip a little chardonnay while I watched a show.

The wine ($10 bucks for a big plastic cup that contained very little of the grape) was only so-so. But it was amusing to watch the waiters scoot up and down the aisles in a Grouch Marx crouch as they looked for thirsty customers and tried to stay out of people's sight lines. Somehow they missed the woman sitting in the row in front of Joanne and me, who kept waving and flashing one of the mini-lights the ushers handed out and that our waiter said would summon drink service. It didn’t. She bolted for the bar at intermission.

To my surprise, however, the real fun was on stage. Now let me say it as clearly as I can: this is not a good show. But let me also say this: it’s a totally entertaining show. The boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl plot is predictable and silly and the jokes and Kelly Devine’s pole-dancing-centric choreography are cheesy. But Rock of Ages doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. Book writer Chris D’Arienzo and director Kristin Hanggi have made sure that when you laugh, you’re laughing with them, not at them. This is a Xanadu for straight guys.

The action takes place in a soon-to-be demolished rock club on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. The boy, a recent arrival from the Midwest with dreams of rock stardom, is winningly played by Constatine Maroulis, a finalist from the fourth season of TV’s “American Idol,” which is turning out to be quite a farm team for Broadway. The waitress he loves is played by the talented Broadway vet Amy Spanger. The other man, the lead singer of a hit rock band who temporarily lures her away, is James Carpinello, who, as his Playbill bio points out, has become the king of juke box musicals with roles in
Saturday Night Fever and Xanadu (although he broke his foot before opening night). The crowd-pleasing role of a Cabaret-style emcee is played by Mitchell Jarvis, who looks like the love child of Jack Black and Norbert Leo Butz and gets extra points from me for one of the funniest Playbill bios I’ve ever read.

The music is LOUD. But the songs are nicely integrated into the flimsy plot. And hearing them is what most of the people who will go to see Rock of Ages will care about. And they won’t all be aging Gen-Xers either. Music video games like “Guitar Hero” have created a whole new audience for rock music and those young fans will get a kick out of this too. The producers (all 25 of them) are doing everything they can to woo both of these groups to Broadway. Instead of holding audience talkbacks, they've invited real arena bands to play after some performances. And in a move that I hope will catch on, they've capped the ticket price at $99. Rock on!

April 8, 2009

"Why Torture is Wrong" is Kind of Right Too

Nicholas Martin, the director of the new Christopher Durang play Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them (and no, there are no typos in the title), was sitting in a wheel chair outside the Public Theater the night my buddy Bill and I saw the play. Martin, who is also the director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is recovering from a stroke and people were literally lining up to greet him and wish him well. (Click here to read an interview with Martin.)

John Guare, whose new play was postponed this season when the Public ran out of money, had already chatted with Martin but he returned, guiding a young man by the elbow. “I want you to meet John Gallagher,” he told Martin, as the director and the Tony-winning star shook hands. A few other recognizable faces drifted by, waved or stopped for a quick hello. It all put me in a good mood before I even got inside.

It also reminded me of the old times in the Village that I’ve read about when everyone in the downtown theater world hung out together at places like Joe Cino’s café and put on outrageous shows for one another. It seemed that way once the show began too. For Why Torture is Wrong would fit comfortably on the bill of the often campy theatricals that were the feature attractions at Café Cino.

It tells the zany story of a woman who wakes up from a night on the town to find that she’s married to a guy with an Arab-sounding name and a quick temper. She thinks he may be a terrorist and wants to annul the marriage but just the word sets him off. Her parents also have suspicions about their new son-in-law and her dad, a right-wing nutcase who has his own secrets, thinks he knows how to find out the truth.

As ridiculous as it may seem, the previous graf is eons more sane than the show actually is. It has a mysterious narrator and a lady spy, lots of meta-references to shows like Wicked and The Coast of Utopia and self-conscious wordplay (“a porn-again Christian”). And, of course, there is the eponymous torture. A lot of this comes off as silly but not quite as funny as it should. Still Durang gets credit in my book for at least trying to deal with the politics of the day. (Click here to read an interview with Durang).

And the cast gets credit for going at the show with real gusto. Laura Benanti, fresh off her Tony-winning performance in Gypsy, is a little out of her comfort zone as the reluctant bride but also gets points for trying something new. Richard Poe as the dad and Audrie Neenan as his Agent 99 are delightfully loony. And Kristine Nielsen, a longtime Durang favorite, is so divinely daffy that all she has to do is arch an eyebrow to set the audience off. She does a lot more than that, though, and almost walks away with the play.

The other scene-stealer is the scenery. David Korins has created a merry-go-round set that, aided by Ben Stanton’s lighting and composer Mark Bennett’s jaunty music, is funny in its own right. This isn’t a show for everyone. But the ones it’s aimed at will have a jolly time.

April 4, 2009

The Magnificent Reentry of "Exit the King"

Have you ever played the truth-or-consequences style game where you drink a lot and then say which celebrities you’d kick your spouse out of bed to sleep with? Regardless of your sexual orientation, you’re supposed to choose both a man and a woman. My guy-of-choice depends on my mood but I always pick the same woman: Susan Sarandon. So I was really excited about the prospect of seeing her in the new revival of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King.

Sarandon doesn’t turn me on just because she’s a great looking dame and a gifted actor but because she’s also smart, politically courageous, and refreshingly honest. Exit the King marks her return to Broadway for the first time in 37 years and right from the start, she’s been open about her nervousness and about how, as rehearsals went on, she worried whether she was up to the challenge. (Click here to see the interview she gave New York magazine.) Reading all that just made me want to love her more.

Frankly, I was more excited about seeing Sarandon than I was about seeing the play. It was cool to be into the theater of the absurd when I was studying theater in college but, with the exception of Waiting for Godot, plays by writers like Beckett and Ionesco usually left me cold. So imagine my surprise when I found myself shrugging at Sarandon but head-over-heels crazy about the play and totally gaga about her co-star Geoffrey Rush.

The exit in Exit the King is death. At the beginning of the play, Sarandon, playing the monarch’s first wife, tells us that he’s going to die by the end of the show. But even though he is 400 years old, the king doesn’t want to die and the play is a chronicle of his attempts to resist his foretold fate.

Death has been stalking Broadway this season. Everywhere you turn, spirits from the afterworld are haunting this one (the ex-wife in Blithe Spirit,
the mom in Billy Elliot, the bookstore owner in The Story of My Life.) Meanwhile, the live characters are wrestling with the inevitability of their mortality (the musicologist in 33 Variations, the matriarch in Dividing the Estate). Still none of those dealings with death display more pathos or panache than Rush does in this sensational Broadway debut.

Rush and his friend and fellow Aussie, director Neil Armfield developed the production and even wrote the adaptation of Ionesco’s original French script. Their translation is fresh and surprisingly funny. But it’s the staging that enchanted me. The play is presented in commedia dell’arte style with clown-face makeup, oversized costumes, live music (a trumpeter plays fanfares and serenades) and hearty doses of slapstick.

Laughing at death, Armfield and Rush seem to say, may be the only weapon we have against it. I’ve read that Ionesco wouldn’t like this approach to his work. I obviously don’t know enough about him to know if that’s true but I do know that I loved it.

I especially loved Rush who literally tries to outrace death or, in limber-limbed displays of acrobatics, to tumble free of it. His antics are matched by the scene-stealing Andrea Martin’s as the palace’s severely overworked servant. Lauren Ambrose is lovely and appropriately sincere as the king’s devoted younger wife. And William Sadler and Brian Hutchinson
are pitch perfect as the king’s doctor and his sole remaining guard.

Alas, only Sarandon seems off-key. Her role is, admittedly, the most difficult. She is the voice of reason, which, in this case, means the voice of doom. While the other characters are engaging in all kinds of macabre tomfoolery, she is the show’s straight man. And a nervous one on the night my friend Mary Anne and I saw the show.

“Did you see her hands?” Mary Anne asked when the lights came o
n for intermission. “I know,” the man sitting on the other side of me leaned over to say before I could answer. “She kept opening and closing them like she was trying to grab hold of her lines.” Her voice, particularly in the early scenes, also carried less well than her castmates’s. But Sarandon comes into her own, and Rush achieves true dramatic greatness, in the show’s remarkable closing scene. I won’t tell you what happens but I will say those final moments are to die for.

April 1, 2009

A Truly Arresting "Incident at Vichy"

The large number of theater companies in New York means that loads of good productions often go overlooked, particularly at a time like this when big Broadway shows are opening almost every night and hogging the spotlight. But here’s one production that shouldn’t be missed: the outstanding revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy that The Actors Company Theatre is currently presenting at the Beckett Theatre on 42nd Street’s Theatre Row.

TACT, as the company is known, was started 17 years ago to do rarely seen plays by major playwrights. So, instead of mounting yet another revival of A Streetcar Named Desire or The Little Foxes, it does Tennessee William’s The Eccentricities of a Nightingale and Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. Miller's Incident at Vichy fits the mold perfectly

This Holocaust-themed play may be the least performed of Miller’s early works. It also happens to be one of my favorites since I first read it back in high school for a paper I was writing on the playwright. Its musings about what moral responsibilities we owe to one another and to ourselves appealed to the young idealist in me and it still grabs me, although I am far older and
, alas, far more practical now.

The reviews for Incident at Vichy were mixed when it opened in 1964 as part of the first season of the short-lived Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. The New York Times critic Howard Taubman called it a “stunning play” but The New Yorker dismissed it as didactic, lethargic and lacking dramatic flair. A TV production of the play was filmed in 1973 but it’s never been revived on Broadway and got its last off-Broadway outing in a Jewish Repertory Theatre production in 1981.

The plot is a simple one. Eight men and one 15 year-old boy are brought into a detention center in Vichy, France during World War II. Over the course of the play’s 90 minutes running time, they discover that most of them are Jews, worry about what will happen to them and argue about whether there is any way to avoid their fate as, one after another, they are called into an office by a team of German inquisitors. Almost none of the interrogated return.

The waiting men come from different walks of life—they are businessmen and artists, peasants and noblemen, tradesmen and intellectuals—and they represent different responses to the moral questions Miller poses but in this production, each one emerges as a distinct individual and every member of the all-male cast gets—and makes the most of—his moment to shine, including the silent bearded man who is identified only as the Old Jew and the conflicted German officer who manages to turn a now-familiar cliché into a believably tormented man. I don’t remember seeing any of these actors before but I’m now eager to see all of them again. (Click here to see a trailer of the production.)

But the biggest praise goes to director Scott Alan Evans who has created a potent production that fulfils TACT’s mission to revive neglected works and the playwright’s to make us confront uncomfortable truths. Evan's Incident at Vichy is both emotionally and intellectually satisfying for any one who professes to love good theater. To paraphrase Miller, attention should be paid.