June 27, 2009

A Salute for "Father Comes Home From the Wars"

Suzan-Lori Parks is that rare, real deal: a playwright with a dazzlingly original voice. And she has the trophies to prove it. There are a couple of Obies and a Tony nomination, not to mention a Guggen- heim Fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant and a Pulitzer Prize for her 2002 play Topdog/Underdog. And this past Tuesday, she got recognition of an even more rarefied sort. Sitting side-by-side in the back row of the tiny Shiva Theater at The Public Theater were the equally big-deal playwrights John Guare, Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard and the performance artist Reno. They had all turned out to see Father Comes Home From the Wars, the ambitious work-in-progress that Parks has been workshopping under the auspices of the Public’s Lab series.

Parks, the daughter of a career military man, says the play was inspired by childhood memories of her father’s homecomings from his tours of duty in Vietnam and other war zones. She says she envisions the work as a nine-part piece and already has drafts, in various stages, of all nine.

Although Father Comes Home has been running since June 5 and is scheduled to close on Sunday, I haven’t been able to find any reviews. That may be because the play is still constantly changing, making any criticism outdated before it’s even published.

The Lab production was to offer Part 1 (The Union of My Confederate Parts) Part 8 ( The Way We Live Now) and Part 9 (In Between The Wars) but before the evening began we were told we’d only see Parts One and Eight, which would be performed simultaneously, with the latter presented on the two video screens that flanked the small stage. The whole thing lasted just under an hour. But what we got to see was fascinating and made me eager for more.

Some parts of Parks' projected nonet will take place in the present but The Union of My Confederate Parts is set in Texas, on June 19, 1865. That's the date, now celebrated as Juneteenth, that slaves in Texas finally got the news that they’d been set free by the Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln had signed over two years earlier.

This segment of the longer work is also a riff on the Odysseus myth, complete with a Greek chorus and characters named Homer, Penny and Hero. Its main narrative centers around a love triangle and its main theme focuses on the many definitions of loyalty. It's all underscored with blues songs, written and sung by the winsome Parks, who functions as the play’s narrator and remains on stage the whole time.

The Way We Live Now
, set in the present, doesn’t quite seem to exist yet. The images on the screens were mainly scenes of a long and deserted road.

I know it’s typical for actors to come and go over the course of readings and workshops during a play’s development but I hope this cast gets to stick with the show. During the talkback session after Tuesday night's performance, nearly all of them said they’d signed up without even seeing a script because they simply wanted to work with Parks. And you can feel that commitment in their performances.

They’re all terrific but the standouts are Seth Gilliam (most familiar to me for his role as Sgt. Carver on HBO’s “The Wire”) as Homer, a slave whose foot has been cut off because he tried to runaway; and Patrice Johnson (whose credits include playing Desdemona opposite Patrick Stewart’s Othello in the 1997 production that I am heartsick to have missed) as Penny, a slave woman torn between two men she loves.

But as good as Gilliam and Johnson are, I couldn’t help periodically turning my eyes to the side of the stage to sneak a peek at Parks. And she couldn’t take her eyes off the actors bringing her words to life. She quietly chuckled at their jokes as though she were hearing them for the first time and wiped away the tears they evoked in the play's moving conclusion.

After the 30-minute talkback, moderated by the Public’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, Parks and the actors mingled with audience members, hugging friends (“Oh, my God. Oh my God,” Parks said as she recognized the denizens of the back row. “I’m so glad I didn’t know who was here before we did it tonight”) and accepting compliments from folks they didn’t know.

I never know what to do in situations like that. I always worry about imposing on the actors and I didn’t say anything. So let me say it now: Thank you. It was an evening I'll long remember.

June 24, 2009

A Nicely Old-fashioned "Accent on Youth"

There were so many plays opening in the pre-Tony crush at the end of April that I had to do triage. Accent on Youth got left on the trolley. But a couple of weeks ago my husband K and I saw an interview with the show’s smart and articulate star David Hyde Pierce and K was so impressed by the actor that he turned to me and said, “Let’s see his show.” So we got tickets.

Accent on Youth is a revival of a 1934 comedy by Samson Raphaelson, who is most famous for having written The Jazz Singer, which went on to become the first movie talkie. Accent's art-imitates-life plot centers around a successful 50 year-old playwright who falls in love with his twentysomething secretary while writing a play about a middle-aged guy who falls for a much younger woman.

The men wear tuxedos and smoking jackets. The women, thanks to costume designer Jane Greenwood, wear gorgeous evening gowns. Everyone waves around cigarettes, drinks a lot and cracks witticisms. And the whole confection is sprinkled with self-referential showbiz jokes and the kind of meta references that we take for granted today but that were very cutting edge seven decades ago. The show ran for 229 performances back then. Now the revival is scheduled to close on June 28 and won’t even crack 80.

Still, we had a good time. K has a sweet tooth for movies from the ‘30s and this was like watching one of that era's screwball comedies—only in 3-D. And, of course, watching Pierce is always a treat. He seems to have dedicated himself to Broadway since his old sitcom "Frasier" ended five years ago—not just turning in a charming performance in Spamalot and a Tony-winning one in Curtains, but hanging out at Broadway watering holes like Angus McIndoe and Bar Centrale, donating time to all kinds of theater causes, and, according to my blogger pals who track this kind of thing, being a generous autographer of programs for people who wait at the stage door after his performances—and he looks as though he’s having so much fun that it’s almost infectious.

The rest of the Accent on Youth cast—including Mary Catherine Garrison as the secretary, Byron Jennings as a leading man of the day, and Charles Kimbrough as the playwright’s loyal butler—is terrific too. And director Daniel Sullivan does a swell job of keeping things moving along.

All that said, as K and I walked over to Orso for a late supper after the show, we tried to figure out why Manhattan Theatre Club had decided to revive such an old-fashioned show. “I imagine it’s just because Pierce wanted to do it,” K concluded as our vodka gimlets arrived and we picked up our menus. I thought seriously about having something I’d never tried before but in the end, I ordered, as I so often do, the grilled chicken with brussel sprouts. Sometimes, you don’t want an adventure or a challenge, you just want to cozy up with some good comfort food. If you haven’t already done so, and you hurry, you can do that at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre before Accent on Youth ends it run there this weekend.

June 20, 2009

Muddy History in "Pure Confidence"

The Americas Off Broadway festival playing through July 3 at the 59E59 Theaters bills itself as a survey of “the American experience—past, present and future—through five critically-acclaimed productions from theaters across the Country.” As you might expect, the chance to see shows that had originated in places other than the familiar Broadway farm teams in Chicago (Steppenwolf, the Goodman), Seattle (Intiman, the Seattle Rep) and San Diego (the Old Globe, LaJolla Playhouse) appealed to me. And both my husband K and I were particularly intrigued when we read about Pure Confidence, a production from the Minneapolis-based Mixed Blood Theatre. So we bought tickets.

Playwright Carlyle Brown centers his narrative around the little-remembered time when black jockeys, most of them slaves, dominated horse racing in the years before the Civil War (click here to read an informative interview with Brown). Pure Confidence tells the story of a fictional jockey named Simon Cato, played with great ebullience by Gavin Lawrence. Acknowledged as the best rider in the nation, Cato lives a privileged life and Colonel Johnson, the white man who owns the horses Cato rides, treats him with respect and even affection. But, like the horses, Cato is a piece of property. He yearns for his freedom but the colonel considers him far too valuable a commodity to release.

Their dilemma holds great potential for drama and for a more nuanced look at the peculiar institution of slavery that would allow a black man to be a super star at a time when all blacks were considered “niggers” (the N-word is used liberally in the play). Unfortunately, the promise wasn’t fulfilled for me.

In an apparent effort to make the show palatable to modern audiences, both black and white, Brown has given his characters anachronistic attitudes. It’s unlikely that any slave would have dared to be as arrogant as Cato is in this play (“I'm the one with a whip,” the character boasts). And if white slave owners had been as empathetic as the colonel and his wife, then there wouldn’t have been a need for a Civil War.

This isn’t to say that all slaves were Uncle Tom and all masters Simon Legree. I’m endlessly fascinated by the complexities of the relationships that existed between blacks and whites during slavery as explored in works like Edward Ball’s “Slaves in the Family”, which traces the history of the author’s slave-owning ancestors and the black men and women who worked for them. Or in Annette Gordon-Reed’s "The Hemingses of Monticello", the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave concubine Sally Hemings. But Pure Confidence treats the past as an Etch a Sketch that we can redraw as we would like it to have been rather than providing a real in-depth look at what was and what we might draw from it.

Mine, however, is a minority view. Most critics are quite taken with the play (click here to read some of their reviews), and it has already had at least six productions around the country. There were interesting moments even for me—a second act meeting between the men’s wives hints at what the play might have been if Brown had taken a less revisionist approach—and Marion McClinton, who has directed numerous productions of August Wilson plays, creates some nice stagecraft to simulate the races.

It was also good to see that at least a third of the faces in the audience were black. Seated in front of K and me were a black grandmother who was apparently treating her grandson and his white date to the play. It seemed to be the young people’s first show—despite admonitions from K, they kept surreptitiously snapping photos of the actors with their iPhone—but they were the first to leap to their feet and applaud at the end. So maybe they’ll try another show.

And it was good too to see actors who seldom get a chance to perform in New York but whose program bios suggest that they have full and active careers elsewhere. They’re a great reminder that you don’t have to live near Broadway to be able to see and enjoy live theater.

June 17, 2009

A Bid for Understanding from "Dov and Ali"

For the first 10 minutes or so of Dov and Ali, the new 90-minute play that recently opened at the Cherry Lane Theater, I kept my eye on the backpack that the young Muslim character carried. I was waiting for it to be revealed as a bomb and him as a terrorist. Which is, I’m sad to say, the stereotype that so many plays and movie now assign actors of Middle Eastern and Asian descent. But this play avoided that, which alone is enough to endear it to me.

Instead, Anna Ziegler’s drama tells the parallel stories of Dov, a rabbi’s son teaching in a Detroit high school, and Ali, a devout Muslim who is one of his students. Both young men are wrestling with the restrictions imposed by their faiths but unable to break free from them entirely. It’s an interesting premise and certainly a relevant one. But in her admirable desire to be fair, Ziegler reduces her characters to mouthpieces debating various sides of the issue.

Adam Green and Utkarsh Ambudkar give sincere performances but their Dov and Ali still play more to the intellect than to the heart. The two female roles—a feisty Heidi Armbruster as Dov’s shiksa girlfriend Sonya and the lovely Anitha Gandhi as Ali’s sister Sameh—come off better. Sameh is the narrator of the story as well as the catalyst for its climax and I found the character, at least as portrayed by Gandhi, so intriguing that I wish Ziegler had focused the story entirely around her.

I was also taken by Steven C. Kemp’s set design: a simple blackboard on which various screens have been attached. The actors pull down the appropriate screen when the locales change. It's a smartly low-tech piece of stagecraft and a reminder that you don’t always need a lot of money to do clever work in the theater.

Dov and Ali premiered in London earlier this year and drew very good reviews (click here to read one). It’s also already scheduled for a run at the Chester Theater in the Berkshires next month. And I wish it continued success. After all, it’s hard not to pull for a show that not only speaks up for tolerance but also puts its actions where its mouth is by treating its Muslim characters with the same respect as the others in the play.

June 13, 2009

"The Amish Project" has Moments of Grace

Some people look at theater as an escape. But for me the best theater doesn’t take me away from the world but helps me better understand what is going on in it. So I was blown away back in 1991 when I first saw the documentary theater Anna Deavere Smith created with her one-woman show Fires in the Mirror.

Culling a series of monologues from interviews with real-life people who had participated in or observed the riots that ensued after a car driven by an Hasidic man killed a seven-year old black boy in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Deavere Smith made better sense of those tumultuous events than any of the scores of news accounts I saw at the time. Moisés Kaufman did something similarly affective with The Laramie Project, which used interviews, private documents and published news reports to tell the story of the homophobia-inspired murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard in 1998.

My vivid memories of those brilliant productions made me eager to see The Amish Project, the new show about the slaughter of five girls in an Amish schoolhouse in 2006 that opened this week at the tiny Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the Village. Like Fires in the Mirror, The Amish Project, written and performed by Jessica Dickey, is a one-woman show told through the voices of various people connected to that tragic incident. But as the program notes make clear, Dickey has taken a different approach to creating her voices.

Unlike Deveare Smith and Kaufman who spent weeks interviewing people about the incidents they portrayed, Dickey has simply imagined the thoughts and feelings of the people involved. “I was highly aware through the entire process that somewhere out there are the real people who went through the event,” she writes. But, she continues, “I purposefully did not research the gunman or his widow nor did I conduct interviews of any kind.”

Oh dear, I thought, my heart sinking as I read her comments, so this is going to be documentary theater lite. The fact that I like Dickey’s work as much as I do and that I found it so moving is a testament to her strong writing and acting skills and to the sensitive direction of Sarah Cameron Sunde.

Working on a stage with a minimal set—a chair, a few suspended window frames—and dressed in traditional Amish garb, Dickey creates seven characters, including two victims of the shooting and the widow of the man who committed the crime. She has changed the names of these people but slips into and out of their personalities with impressive agility, etching them so sharply that, in most cases, you can tell, by the hunch of a shoulder or the way the eyes move, who is going to speak before she or he even says a word.

Dickey is particularly winning as the young, wide-eyed Amish girl who opens the play. Having done some homework, she also does a good job of conveying the details of Amish beliefs and customs, channeling much of the information through her impersonation of a local college professor who has studied the group.

But Dickey makes missteps too. Far too much time is spent on the only marginally-related story of a stereotypically sassy Puerto Rican salesgirl who works in a store near the shootings. The character provides some levity but Dickey seems to keep her around largely because she so clearly gets a kick out of playing that character. Meanwhile, the gunman's wife that Dickey imagines seems unnecessarily crude. The program note says she doesn’t want to hurt any of those involved in the tragedy but it’s hard to see how the real-life widow wouldn’t be further wounded by this portrait.

For the most part, though, this small 70-minute show fulfills its mission as a hymn of praise to the Amish community. It doesn’t explain why such terrible things as the massacre happen but
Dickey's admiration for the Amish way of life is sincere and her heartfelt play shows that even the most tragic events can produce moments of grace. And so does The Amish Project.

June 10, 2009

There's No One Home at "Our House"

Does where you sit affect the show you see? I don’t mean if you’re sitting behind a pole or a tall guy or a woman with a bouffant and you can’t see anything. But whether you experience a show differently if you’re sitting in the balcony, in a center aisle seat, or in the front row. I didn’t have much of a choice when I called to buy tickets for my pal Bill and me to see a preview performance of Our House, the new play by Theresa Rebeck that opened at Playwrights Horizons last night. Rebeck is popular and the Telecharge guy said all he had left were seats in the front row. So we took them.

When I was a kid, I thought first row orchestra seats must be the best seats because they were, well, first. I’ve learned better over the years (like when my husband K and I sat damp and shivering as the steady rain shower in the otherwise terrific 1994 revival of An Inspector Calls splashed on us and the other poor souls in the front row) and so I usually avoid front row seats. But, like I said, I had no choice for Our House. As it turns out, I found it fascinating to watch the actors at such close range—to see which ones were truly listening to the dialog and which were just waiting for their time to speak. And I'm going on and on about this because that exercise proved to be far more interesting than the play itself.

Our House cobbles together two story lines to offer a satirical look at the blurring line between TV’s news and reality shows. The first centers on an ambitious reporter and her lust for fame. The second involves a group of graduate students sharing a house in St. Louis and dealing with a deadbeat roommate who is obsessed with TV. The stories appear to have nothing to do with one another until a totally unbelievable incident brings them together.

Rebeck has written scripts for shows like “L.A. Law”, “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order” and judging from this play, she appears to have personal grievances to settle. But aside from some thinly veiled and gratuitously mean-spirted jabs at CBS head Les Moonves and his wife, the reporter Julie Chen, Rebeck doesn’t have much fresh to say. She doesn’t give her actors much to play either. The characters are one-dimensional, the dialog equally flat, the jokes predictable. Director Michael Mayer and the actors do what they can but as my Grandma used to say, you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.

After the show, Bill and I ran into actor friends of his in the lobby. The wife rolled her eyes in exasperation. “If you can’t say it better than ‘Network,’” she said, referring to the great Paddy Chayefsky’s classic 1976 movie about the news business, “then why bother saying it again?” Good question. Because Rebeck is a talented woman. Her play Omnium Gatherum was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2003. She’s smart too. She has a Ph.D. from Brandeis. And she and I share a love of living in New York, a love of the theater and a love of Marian Seldes. Just try not to like Rebeck after reading the Q&A New York Magazine did with her (click here to check it out).

But I fear that Rebeck’s long years in TV have gotten her too used to churning out material. Over the last five years, she’s turned out at least six plays, a novel, a bunch of magazine pieces and op-ed articles, occasional blogs for Huffington Post, and reportedly has been working on the book for a musical version of Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella movie “Ever After.” Maybe she just didn’t have the time to furnish this play with any real substance or original insight. Because no matter where you sit, there’s not enough in Our House to make it a home worth visiting.

June 6, 2009

How "Next Fall" Made a Believer Out of Me

In all honesty, Next Fall, the new play that opened this week at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, didn’t sound promising. First there is the title, the kind of bland, generic label that tells you absolutely nothing about the play. Then there is its confused marketing campaign which bounces between cutesy man-on-the street quotes about what people are planning to do next fall and a serious effort to position the play as a gay rights manifesto.

My theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to see it anyway. In part because it had been a while since we’d seen anything together. In part because the play is produced by Naked Angels, the theater cooperative that has spawned such terrific works in the past as Warren Leight’s Side Man and Jon Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire. And I'm happy to report that our going to see Next Fall turned out to be a very smart decision. Because it is one of the best new plays of the year.

Like so many contemporary plays, Next Fall is a drama about a dysfunctional family. Like far too few, it stretches out to encompass issues that are roiling the larger society. Lots of them. Like sexuality, love, friendship and faith.

The play opens in a hospital waiting room where family and friends have anxiously gathered after a car accident has put Luke, an aspiring actor and an evangelical Christian, into a coma. Flashbacks reveal Luke’s relationship with each of them, particularly with his lover Adam, a steadfast non-believer. Although they are committed to one another and live together, Luke believes that his sleeping with a man is a sin and the couple quarrel regularly over his inability to come out to his equally pious parents.

This is thought-provoking stuff. But playwright Geoffrey Nauffts, who is also the artistic director of Naked Angels, doesn’t forget that people come to the theater to be entertained as much as informed. Philosophical arguments are made but good jokes are also cracked—and the humor comes from who the characters are and isn’t just sugar coating slapped on to make the serious debate more palatable.

Some critics have been skeptical that such people could actually exist. They ask whether a fundamentalist Christian would live openly with his male lover. If an atheist could love such a fervent believer. And what would such a young hunk see in such a nebbishy older guy. Perhaps the situation doesn’t seem so unlikely to me because I have a good friend who is currently wrestling with many of these same issues. But I also buy it because Nauffts has created characters who come across as real human beings—sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing, just as we all are.

Most tellingly, his religious characters aren’t the usual one-note yokels who play the villains in so much of secular culture. Even the sanctimonious father, perhaps too pointedly named Butch, is a nuanced character, particularly as brought to life by Cotter Smith. In fact, the entire cast is pitch perfect and director Sheryl Kaller, aided by Wilson Chin’s versatile set and Jeff Croiter’s smart lighting, keeps the action flowing as smoothly as can be done in the theater’s intimate space.

But what I liked best is that Nauffts refuses to settle for easy answers to the difficult questions he poses. The Far Right has held serious discussion about faith hostage for over 20 years now and this play is seeking to free it. You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate that. You don’t have to be or even know someone gay to be moved by this play. But if you believe in smart and meaningful theater, you just should make an effort to see Next Fall. Fortunately, its run has just been extended through July 5.

June 3, 2009

Celebrating the Theatre World Awards

The Broadway community is in a celebratory mood. Last week, The Broadway League announced that, despite these recessionary times, total gross receipts for the 2008-9 season were slightly higher than the previous season’s. There has also been rejoicing that 43 shows opened on Broadway between June, 2008 and April, 2009, the most in 26 years and eight of them were new plays. And now, all kinds of groups are giving out awards to honor the very best of the season, culminating with the Tonys on Sunday. Still, it would be hard to find a more jubilant group than the people who crowded into the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Tuesday for the 65th Annual Theatre World Awards ceremony.

It’s a particularly sweet award because it honors outstanding Broadway or off-Broadway debuts and is often the first official recognition an actor gets. Past winners read like a Who’s Who of theater greats and include Betty Comden and John Raitt from the inaugural class of 1945, as well as Julie Andrews, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Barbara Cook, George Grizzard, Julie Harris, James Earl Jones, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Plummer, and Meryl Streep.

The ceremony is part pep rally to encourage the newcomers and part family reunion because former honorees return to present the awards. Also mothers, fathers, spouses and other significant others turn out. And, because the event is free, plain old theater lovers like me can show up too.

It was a great way to spend an afternoon. There are no nominees, just winners. So no one has to pretend to be happy when his or her name isn't call. Everyone just is happy. The three Billy Elliot boys got awards. And the entire cast of The Norman Conquests did too. Amelia Bullmore and Ben Miles, the two who weren’t nominated for Tonys, spoke for the group, all of whom have long and accomplished stage careers back home in Britain. “Not being excessively burdened by youth means we don’t need to wait 10 years to realize the value of this award,” Bullmore said in a gracious acceptance speech. “We get it now.”

Both the presenters and the recipients spoke. There is no time limit on the speeches and there was intimate quality to them. Some speakers like Presenters Craig Bierko (a winner in 2000 for The Music Man) and Andrea Martin (a winner in 1993 for My Favorite Year) were very funny. Martin got big laughs when she joked about how tired she is of honoring her Exit the King castmate Geoffrey Rush, an Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA winner, who recently added Drama Desk and Drama League gold to his collection, but is eligible for this one because it’s his first time on Broadway.

Other speeches were very moving. Chad L. Coleman of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone talked about growing up as a foster kid and how theater gave him a true home and helped to save his life. Marin Ireland of reasons to be pretty told a lovely story about meeting Julie Harris when she was a young acting student, seeing Harris perform at the Lyceum Theatre where reasons to be pretty is now playing and being touched on opening night when flowers arrived at the Lyceum from Harris.

I had planned to tell you more but then I read the blog by Peter Filichia, the theater critic and columnist who chairs the seven-member Theatre World Awards committee and served as host of the ceremony. It’s so fly-on-the-wall thorough and entertaining that I can’t really add anything more. So click here to read it. And start making plans now to be there next year.