September 30, 2009

The Stars Shine in "A Steady Rain"

The moment it’s announced that a Hollywood star will do a Broadway show, the naysayers start sharpening their knives and hurling barbs about what a shame it is that people will only go to shows when they can see movie stars and how the parts should go to real actors.  What they seem to forget in their huff is that people have been flocking to see stars since Richard Burbage was a juvenile player and that being a famous movie star and being a fine stage actor aren’t always mutually exclusive.  Which, I’m happy to report isn’t an issue with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, the stars of A Steady Rain, the two-hander that opened last night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

Long before Craig kick started the James Bond franchise and Jackman strapped on the claws of the comix superhero Wolverine for the "X-Men" movies, both were accomplished stage vets.  Craig starred in the London productions of Hurlyburly and Angels in America.  Jackman won kudos for his Curly in the West End production of Oklahoma! and a Tony for reincarnating Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz on Broadway.  So, although the folks lining up to see A Steady Rain may be there to stare at two great looking movie stars (a friend calls it “The Hunk Show”) what they’ll see are two stage actors having the time of their lives.

A Steady Rain, which premiered in Chicago in 2007 with a far less star-studded cast, is not a great play.  It’s a buddy story, told primarily in a series of monologues, in which two cops who grew up together and became squad car partners recount the events that lead them awry.  The 85-minute play is stuffed with more drama than a season of “Law & Order” but it is still sketchy enough to seem like the treatment pitch for a movie.  And indeed, the script by playwright Keith Huff (the editor of a medical website) has already been optioned by the folks who produce the James Bond movies (click here to read a story about Huff, who, after writing 60 plays, is now about to quit his day job)

In the meantime, however, the play does provide a terrific showcase for actors (audition directors should get ready to hear endless recitations of these speeches).  In director John Crowley’s taut production, the characters sit on straight-backed chairs under interrogation lights and speak directly to the audience, although there are moments when they roam the stage and interact. Some of the stories they tell are funny; others almost excruciatingly painful and intense, which explains why the actors got pissed off last Wednesday when a cell phone went off in the audience during a key scene.  (Click here to watch the incident, apparently recorded by someone else's cell phone.)

Craig and Jackman bite into their roles with the gusto of men who haven’t had a decent meal in a long while. Jackman plays Denny, the alpha male in the relationship, the one who has the beautiful wife and the kids, who drives the patrol car and takes the lead in roughing up suspects and taunting them with racial epithets. Craig is Joey, his lifelong sidekick, a recovering alcoholic who lives alone and has learned over the years to go along to get along.  Both actors—one Brit, the other an Aussie—assume working-class Chicago accents. The accents are O.K. but the performances are terrific. 

At the Sunday matinee my husband K and I attended Jackman seemed more comfortable onstage and better able to project his voice when the play began.  But Craig used what seemed an early tentativeness to the advantage of his meek character and by the time the play ends, he, like Harriet Walter in last season’s Mary Stuart, has turned an unflashy role into the heart and soul of the show.

The actors are supported by a crackerjack design team.  Scott Pask’s spare scenery is surprisingly cinematic and, aided by Hugh Vanstone’s smart lighting, wonderfully effective. Musical underscoring can sometimes be obtrusive but the soundscape by Mark Bennett helps establish the mood. Yes, you can see the end of the play coming long before it gets there but the journey is thoroughly enjoyable and its conductors give theatrical carpetbagging a good name. 

September 26, 2009

"Into the Daylight" Fails to Shine

Some of my best memories in the theater were created in the old Promenade Theater at Broadway and 76th Street. It saddened me when it closed three years ago to make room for a cosmetics store. So I carried some residual good will with me when my husband K and I went to see In the Daylight, the new thriller that opened at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre which is now in that same building, albeit not the same space. 

The new theater is named for—and its lobby is decorated with photos of—the actors Walter McGinn and John Cazale who died within a year of one another in the late ‘70s when both were only in their early 40s.  McGinn’s biggest role was playing the alcoholic former jock in That Championship Season and while Cazale did a number of off-Broadway shows in the ‘70s, he is best known as Fredo Corleone, the weak, middle brother in “The Godfather” movies, and as the early love of the young Meryl Streep.

It’s not easy to get to the McGinn/Cazale. You have to take an elevator to the third floor and then walk up a flight of stairs. I wish I could tell you the trip was worth it.  But In the Daylight’s playwright Tony Glazer falls into the trap that trips up so many young playwrights:  too much self-conscious style and not enough substance.

In the Daylight centers around the uneasy reunion between a writer, who moved across country after his father’s mysterious death, and his mother and sister, who stayed behind in the family home with an urn filled with ashes that sits on a side table. Essentially, a standard-issue dysfunctional-family drama, the play also ambitiously takes on the publishing business (the son has written a not-so-truthful bestselling book about the incident)  and Big Pharma (the dad’s company researches and markets cancer cures). The problem is that Glazer doesn’t really have anything fresh to say on any of these subjects.

Over the course of the 100-minute play, secrets are revealed, witticisms are cracked (although they aren’t nearly as clever as Glazer seems to think they are—“I haven’t had a date since Bill Clinton was impeached,” the sister laments) barrels of liquor are consumed and a gun appears, and following Chekhov’s dictum, is fired.  Both fight choreographer Qui Nguyen and special effects designer Arielle Toelke deserve special kudos for the smartness of the latter scene.

But it’s probably not a good thing when the most dramatic moments in a play come from  its technical staff.  Scenic designer Christopher Barreca grabs attention with a set in which everything is tilted to signal that something is off-kilter in this household.  But so much imagination seems to have gone into that concept that there was little left over to figure out where the actors would sit and how they would stand. Meanwhile, sound designer Elizabeth Rhodes and lighting designer Thom Weaver open the play with a thunderstorm so tumultuous that K leaned over and asked if the play was supposed to be set during Hurricane Katrina.

After all that literal sturm und drang, the rest of the play can't help but be anti-climatic. None of the actors seem to be having nearly as good a time as the designers so obviously did. One kept stumbling over her lines.  Ashley Austin Morris provides a few minutes of campy fun as a mysterious stranger who braves the storm to visit the family but she’s quickly burdened with so much exposition that she becomes as leaden as the other characters.  

Maybe a more naturalistic approach might have worked better.  Or maybe you really can’t home again.

September 23, 2009

The Many Modern Woes of "Othello"

As my mother used to say, you need to be careful what you ask for.  It was just this past weekend that I was singing the praises of theater companies that provide background information on their productions and wishing that more would do the same.  Well, by the time my friend Jessie and I got to our seats at the NYU Skirball Center, we’d been given enough material for a graduate seminar on the new version of Othello (click here to read the CliffsNotes version in a Sunday New York Times article) which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago and his longtime buddy John Ortiz as Shakespeare’s tragic Moor.  And yet this production still didn’t make any sense.

The show is a joint-production of The Public Theater and the Labyrinth Theater Company, where Hoffman and Ortiz are co-artistic directors. They brought in the eternal enfant terrible Peter Sellars to direct their Othello. According to the handouts, the trio decided that the play needed an update to reflect the Obama era. They said they wanted to reclaim it from the notion that “blackness is ‘other,’” while emphasizing that “every soul is in line to be saved.” And so Iago isn’t really a villain in this telling of the tale and Othello isn’t the only black guy in town; in fact, over half the cast is black or Hispanic. Part of the fun of seeing Shakespeare for me is seeing how directors and actors reinterpret the text but in this case, they seem to be trying to rewrite it.

At times, Shakespeare’s work is almost unrecognizable. Sellars mashes up characters (the bureaucrat Montano, the courtesan Bianca and the Clown are fused into one female military officer). He creates relationships for others (Othello and Iago’s wife Emilia—here envisioned as a Santeria priestess—have an onstage sexual fling and the young officer Cassio date rapes the now-combined Bianca Montano character).  And he reconceives one role entirely (
Brabantio, Desdemona’s dad and Othello’s reluctant father-in-law, doesn’t even appear on stage but is heard only through a cell phone). All of the characters wear modern dress but while most of the men, including Othello, wear contemporary military uniforms, Iago, who is Othello’s ensign, wears loose-fitting tops and dark baggy pants that keep slipping off Hoffman’s butt.

Works by far-inferior playwrights have been saved for me by the actors performing the piece.  But not this time. Actors don’t need to speak like old BBC announcers to do Shakespeare.  But there is poetry in the Bard’s language that shouldn’t be completely ignored.  And even if Sellars decided to downplay the lyricism, the actors still need to speak clearly enough so that you can understand them.  Merely shouting the lines isn’t enough to get across the points they’re trying to make. 

In movies from "Happiness" to "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead," Hoffman has displayed a gift for burrowing into a bad guy and emerging with a wholly original and totally fascinating portrayal. So I was eager to see his take on one of the baddest of all baddies.  But the actor is out-of-shape.  He’s now big-bellied and heavy-footed and he doesn't seem comfortable in his body.  He needs to tighten up his stage chops too.  He mumbles too many of his lines and wonders around the stage without the slightest trace of grace.  Ortiz speaks more clearly and moves with more agility but his Othello is so refined and so sensitive that you get the feeling he wouldn’t have strangled Desdemona but would have suggested they take discuss their problems up with someone like Oprah or Dr. Phil. 

Even the scenery let me down.  Set designer Gregor Holzinger spent almost his entire budget on a huge bed consisting of 45 video screens that play distracting images throughout the play. The explanation of his concept included in the reading materials (“The bed as a window projecting into space, into a blurred distance, a baffling parallel reality, abstract half-dreamscapes of a sleepless night”) didn’t help me understand what he was getting at one bit.

I know what I said about my mother’s advice about being careful what you ask for but after sitting through four mind and butt-numbing hours, I  wish I’d seen a more engaging version of Othello

September 19, 2009

"Is Life Worth Living?" Worth Seeing?

I like to fancy myself a student of the theater. But I confess I had no idea who Lennox Robinson was until my husband K and I went to see the Mint Theater’s new revival of Robinson’s comedy Is Life Worth Living?

The Mint is an Eden for people like me (you know, the kind who go home after a show and obsessively Goggle everything about it).  For the Mint dedicates itself to producing unknown or neglected plays by major writers and provides informative information in its Playbills and even books in its lobby so that curious theatergoers can learn more about them—a practice I wish more theaters would adapt. Robinson, it turns out, is the perfect Mint guy.

A protégé of William Butler Yeats, a personal secretary to George Bernard Shaw, a disciple of Harley Granville-Barker, he was one of the major figures in Irish theater during the first half of the last century.  Over a 50-year career, Robinson managed Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre, wrote more than 30 plays (in addition to radio dramas, poetry, short stories and an historical novel) and lead the Drama League, which celebrated trailblazing work by August Strindberg, Eugene O’Neill and Robinson’s favorite, Henrik Ibsen.

Is Life Worth Living? is Robinson’s satirical tribute to the theater world he loved throughout his life (and beyond; he bequeathed his royalties to a fund for “playwrights, producers, stage managers and stage musicians, any other servant of the theater,” according to the Playbill) and to the modern plays he championed.  This comedy, which played just 12 performances when it opened on Broadway in 1933, chronicles the events that occur when a theater troupe that specializes in tragedies comes to a traditional Irish seaside village.  It doesn’t violate my no-spoilers rule to say that mayhem ensues.

The entire cast—although uneven—gets into the spirit of the zaniness. Real-life spouses Kevin Kilner and Jordan Baker put their personal chemistry to good use as the vainglorious actor-manager and the flamboyant leading lady who is also his wife (click here to read a piece about Kilner and Baker). But the standouts for me were John Keating and Erin Moon, so seriously funny as the servants at the hotel where the troupe stays that I started smiling the moment either of them walked onstage and missed them when they were off. 

The play is simultaneously serious (Robinson believes that theater really can change people’s lives) and silly (he subtitles his play “an exaggeration,” a euphemism for farce—there is only one door in Susan Zeeman Rogers’ pretty, albeit cramped, set but it is constantly being flung open and slammed shut).
Costume designer Martha Hally dresses the 12-member cast beautifully despite what is clearly a limited budget, while lighting designer Jeff Nellis shows them all off to great effect.

 Robinson has a good time making his case that even lovers of serious drama need to make room for the uplift that entertaining comedy can offer. Much of the play’s merriment stems from his amiable jabs at such works as A Doll’s House, Dance of Death and Enemy of the People and most people who fancy themselves students of the theater will get a kick out of identifying the references.  

I wasn’t as blown away by the show as I thought I would be but I did enjoy the gentle breeze of its good cheer.  “That was sweet,” K said as we walked around the corner to the West Bank Cafe for a light supper after the show. Sweet seems exactly the right word and if you, like most of the critics, have a sweet tooth for backstage plays, then you just might eat this one right up.

September 16, 2009

No Redemption with "The Retributionists"

Valor in World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust have fueled popular culture for nearly 70 years now—from “Casablanca” and Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine to last year’s little-seen movie “The Reader” and the short-lived Broadway production of Irena’s Vow with Tovah Feldshuh as a Polish Catholic who hid Jews from the Nazis. The life-and-death drama of that time can still stir audiences but it makes sense that storytellers start looking for new ways to tell those now-familiar tales. Lately, they’ve been finding the answer in stories of revenge.  

I don’t know if they’re sprouting up because Nazis are still the only bad guys that everyone agrees it’s OK to bash or it’s just heavy-duty wish fulfillment about kicking some al-Qaeda butt.  Whatever the reason, over the past month, I’ve seen Jews engaging in some heavy-duty payback in Quentin Tarantino’s new movie “Inglourious Basterds,” on the DVD of “Defiance” with Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as Jewish partisans, and in The Retributionists, a new play by Daniel Goldfarb that opened Monday night at Playwrights Horizons.  The play, alas, proved the least satisfying.

But it wasn’t the vengeance-is-mine theme that drew my buddy Bill and me to see The Retributionists.  We were intrigued by the folks on its creative team. Leigh Silverman has directed shows like Well, Yellow Face and Hunting and Gathering that one or the other of us enjoyed in the past and we were both eager to see what she would do with this one. Susan Hilferty, the Tony-winning costume designer for Wicked is a wiz when it comes to outfitting shows (click here to listen to her recent Downstage Center interview).  And Tom Kitt, fresh from his Tony wins for Next to Normal, wrote the incidental music.  We bought tickets.

The play, inspired by a true story (a New York Times clip is posted in the lobby),  is about a group of young people who band together after the war to kill one German for every Jew who died in the Holocaust. Their plan eventually settles on having one of their members who can pass as an Aryan get a job in a German bakery so that he can poison the bread. Complicating thing is the fact that all of the conspirators, at least in this play, seem to have been lovers at one time or another.

It isn’t as silly as the summary above sounds.  But it’s not as involving as it should be either. Goldfarb, who often writes about Jewish identity, says he wanted to do a play that looks at what happens when “all the rules of civilization go out the window” (click here to listen to an interview with him) and he clearly wants to look at the effect revenge has on the avengers. That’s all worthy stuff for a play to consider. But this production simply doesn’t have enough muscle to shoulder that kind of existential weight.  

Goldfarb’s efforts to recreate 1940s-style dialogue come across as self-conscious and stilted. Silverman’s previous works have dealt with modern subjects and she seems far more comfortable with that sensibility than she is navigating a period piece. Neither the characters nor the situations come off as believable. Hilferty’s film-noirish costumes are fine but Kitt’s movie-score music barely registers. 

Good acting might have saved the day but the performances are no better than you might find on the stage of a decent community theater. Almost everything—the mix of desperation and determination the characters feel—is played on the surface and the few attempts to go deeper slip over the line into melodrama. Revenge, the saying goes, is a dish that is best served cold but what we get here is simultaneously overheated and undercooked.

September 12, 2009

The Annual Idiosyncratic Fall Theater Preview

It’s been chilly and rainy in New York this week. Fall has come early.  But it’s not all gloomy. Because that means the new theater season is shifting into high gear.  While it’s true that only 15 shows are scheduled to open on Broadway between now and the end of the calendar year, they’re a diverse bunch: at least three new plays, a Shakespeare star turn, a few revivals by more recent masters of the craft, a couple of new musicals and this year’s version of the celebrity confessional show.  Plus there are dozens more off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions in the wings.  It all adds up to far more than even the most fervid theater lover can manage to see.  But one can try.  So I’ve begun making my must-see list.  As you might expect, Jude Law’s Hamlet and Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in A Steady Rain (a friend calls it “The Hunk Show”) are definitely on it.  But so are some lesser-known shows that for one idiosyncratic reason or another have also grabbed my attention and that may pique your interest too.  Here are 10 of them:

THE BROTHER SISTER PLAYS. Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is just 28 but he’s already been a protégé of both August Wilson and British director Peter Brook, won the Cole Porter Playwriting Award at the Yale School of Drama, been named the first recipient of the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award and is currently the International Playwright in Residence at London’s Royal Shakespeare Company.  McCraney’s plays are a unique mix of hip-hop and Homer, African mythology and post-modern sensibilities and this season three — In The Red And Brown Water, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or The Secret Of Sweet — will play in repertory at the Public Theatre from Oct. 21 thru Dec. 13, with marathon performances on weekends. 

ECLIPSED.  Like nearly everyone else, I was blown away by Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s searing account of the horrors of war in the Congo that justifiably won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and just completed an unprecedented seven-month run at the Manhattan Theatre Club.  So I can’t help but be intrigued by this new drama about the civil war in Liberia by Danai Gurira, the co-author of In the Continuum. It opens at the Yale Rep in New Haven on Oct. 29 and I’m thinking that it may be worth the trip before the run ends on Nov 14.

THE LARAMIE PROJECT: TEN YEARS LATER AN EPILOGUE. One of the most memorable evenings I’ve ever spent in the theatre was back in 2000 when my friend June and I saw The Laramie Project, which used published news reports and personal interviews with people in Laramie, Wyoming to tell the story of the homophobia-inspired murder of college student Matthew Shepard. Last year, director Moisés Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project went back to Laramie for an update. What they found will be presented as a staged reading on Oct. 12 at some 200 theaters across the country, including Alice Tully Hall here in New York.

LET ME DOWN EASY.  Anna Deveare Smith has been so busy doing TV shows like “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie” and movies like “Rachel Getting Married” that it’s been nearly a decade since she’s done one of her one-woman documentary theater pieces. But she’s finally back with a timely one on health care that will begin previews next week at Second Stage Theatre. The brief run is scheduled to end on Nov. 8 but my theatergoing buddy Bill and I already have our tickets.

LOVE, LINDA.  A one-woman musical sounds like the set up for a bad joke.  But I'm optimistic about this one because the music is all by Cole Porter and the story is the unconventional—but totally loving—marriage between the gay composer and his socialite wife Linda.  I’m a longtime Porter fanatic. I own about two dozen albums devoted solely to his music and even sat through “De-Lovely,” the awful 2004 movie in which Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd were miscast as the Porters.  So I’m more than willing to give jazz singer Stevie Holland a chance to show what she can do with their story in the 70-minute show that is scheduled for a limited run at the Triad Theatre from Oct. 28 to Nov. 21.

THE NEIL SIMON PLAYS.  There are so many reasons I want to see the upcoming revivals of Simon’s autobiographical plays Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, which will begin playing at the Nederlander Theatre starting Oct. 25.  1: Starting in November, the shows will play in repertory so theatergoers can follow the story from Simon’s boyhood years until he breaks into show business. 2: Josh Grisetti, who gave a breakout performance in last year’s similarly-themed Enter Laughing, is playing the Simon stand-in.  3: David Cromer, fresh off his Our Town triumph, will be directing.  4: I somehow missed both plays their first time around.  But not, this time. 

RACE. David Mamet says his new play centers around three law partners—two black and one white—who are trying to decide whether to defend a white man who has been charged with a crime against a black woman. He calls it "a play about lies." The cast includes James Spader, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, and Richard Thomas. And the playwright’s well-earned rep for being provocative is enough for this play to stand out amidst a bumper crop of race-related shows — Superior Donuts, Ragtime, Memphis and Finian's Rainbow — that are scheduled for Broadway this fall even though Race is scheduled to be the last to open on Dec. 6. 

THE ROYAL FAMILY.  This classic 1927 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber was based on a day in the life of the famous Barrymore clan and I’ve wanted to see it ever since reading “The House of Barrymore,” Margot Peters’ fascinating 1990 biography of this country’s leading theatrical family. Now I’ll get my chance when Manhattan Theatre Club revives the play for an Oct. 8 opening at the Friedman Theatre with a terrific cast that includes the great Rosemary Harris, who starred as the daughter Julie Cavendish in the now-legendary 1975 production and now plays family matriarch Fanny. 

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Yes, I’ve seen this Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece more times than Elizabeth Taylor has been married and I even did the show’s “He was a boy, just a boy” speech for my audition when I applied to the old High School of Performing Arts.  But Cate Blanchett is playing Blanche this time out and if there’s anyone who can bring new life to this old work, it’s the Great Cate.  So, if I can get a seat once the subscribers at BAM have all gotten theirs, I’ll be taking that ride once again some time between when performances start on Nov. 27 and are scheduled to end on Dec. 20.

THE UNDERSTUDY.  As regular readers know, I’ve had my problems with some of Theresa Rebeck’s work in the past.  But I know that she loves theater as much as I do and so I’m really eager to see the Roundabout Theatre’s production of her comedic tribute to that eternal underdog, the stage understudy.  The fact that it stars the always-amusing Julie White as the company stage manager is icing on what could be a very delicious cake. Opening night is scheduled for Nov. 5 at the Laura Pels Theatre and the show will run there through Jan. 3.

September 5, 2009

The Annual Labor Day Ovation for Actors

Labor Day, which comes late in the calendar this year, signals that summer is about to end (tears) but also that the fall theater season is about to begin (big cheers). Of course the day itself is set aside to honor working stiffs.  And, as has now become an annual tradition here, the theater lover in me considers that an opportunity to salute blue collar actors—the folks at the bottom of the Playbill, the ones who trek across the country in national tours and those who do off-off Broadway shows for love because there usually ain’t much money in it. 

In a season when theater lovers are scrambling to get tickets to see Jude Law and Philip Seymour Hoffman do Shakespeare, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman play cops and Cate Blanchett take on Blanche DuBois, it’s easy to forget that most actors are journeymen battling against the odds to make a living in the career that they consider a calling. Even stars like Law, Hoffman, Craig, Jackman and Blanchett started off that way.  And that struggle to make it is the subject of an engaging book called “Making It On Broadway: Actors’ Tales of Climbing to the Top.”

Authors David Wienir (an entertainment lawyer) and Jodie Langel (an actress whose credits include ensemble work in Les Misérables and other shows) have constructed the book as a tour through the phases of every Broadway actor’s life: the first shows they saw as kids and the decision to go into show business, the move to the city and the first open calls and auditions, finding day jobs and getting an Equity Card, the first Broadway show and the scarcity of gigs that can follow it, even after winning a Tony. The stories are excerpts from interviews with 150 actors.  Marquee names like Chita Rivera, Donna Murphy, John Rubinstein and Antonio Banderas participate, as well as scores of below-the-title folks.

Some of the tales are amusing. Marissa Jaret Winokur, who won a Best Actress in a Musical Tony for Hairspray, recalls an earlier part in a children’s theater show about nutrition in which she played a character called “Okra Winfrey.” But this isn’t one of those starry-eyed books about the glories of being in show business.  Instead, there’s a lot of unvarnished talk about things like the monotony of long runs and the deadening effect of performing in mediocre shows (“When I was in Grease, I felt like I was trapped,” Hunter Foster confesses.  “I was unhappy because I was unfulfilled”) as well as the frustration and humiliation of always having to look for work (Donna McKechnie tells of auditioning for a part that called for “a Donna McKechnie type” and not getting the role.)

Reading “Making It on Broadway” is like eavesdropping on after-the-third-drink conversations among actors at the theater watering holes Joe Allen or Angus McIndoe.  What keeps these folks going is their love of the work.  What we usually love about them is their talent and how well they use it to entertain us.  But this Labor Day weekend, I applaud their fortitude as well.