October 31, 2009

Renewing My Fealty to "The Royal Family"

For some reason I can’t remember, I became obsessed with the Algonquin Round Table during my 20s.  Dorothy Parker—the only woman among the 10 witty journalists and theater folk who lunched, drank and cracked jokes there every day during the 1920s—was, of course, my favorite.  But I read everything I could find about the whole bunch.  Which meant that I kept coming across references to The Royal Family, charter Round Table member George S. Kaufman and frequent guest Edna Ferber’s affectionate satire about the Barrymores, America’s then-leading theatrical dynasty. 

The more I read about it, the more I wanted to see the play. I missed the now-legendary production that opened in 1975 with Rosemary Harris and George Grizzard as siblings Ethel and John Barrymore because I was living in San Francisco at the time. (There's a Broadway Theatre Archives DVD but this show is a love letter to stage life and should be seen there.)  And with three acts, 16 characters, two greyhounds, and a full three-minute fencing scene, this is not the kind of show that gets revived often. So hats off to Manhattan Theatre Club for stepping up and putting on the charming revival of The Royal Family, currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Be warned that the play starts slowly as all the characters are introduced in the first act.  It probably played better when the show first opened in 1927 and the Barrymores were famous enough that theatergoers could pick up on all the inside digs at them.  But stick with it because the plot gets rolling in the second act and there’s lingering resonance in the play’s underlying theme about the choices women have to make between the families they love and the work they love. 

The women in the play’s Cavendish family—matriarch Fanny, daughter Julie and granddaughter Gwen—are all brilliant actresses and each finds her own solution to the problem.  Their men folk—movie-star idol Tony, journeyman actor uncle Bert and various suitors—provide the comic relief. It’s a surprisingly feminist message for the time.

Kaufman and Ferber originally hoped that Ethel Barrymore and her brother John would play the characters based on themselves.  Or at least so says Margot Peters, who wrote “The House of Barrymore,” the gossipy 1990 biography of the clan.  But, according to Peters, Ethel not only turned down the role but tried to sue the playwrights.  (The book is out of print but click here for the Audible.com download).

The suit fizzled when John refused to cooperate but Ethel took some satisfaction from the difficulty the producer Jed Harris had in finding someone dynamic enough to play her.  Harris finally settled on the journeywoman actress Ann Andrews.  “One can admire Ann Andrew’s conscientious, thorough acting of Julie Cavendish—without considering her supremely well cast in the part,” wrote New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, damning poor Andrews with faint praise in his otherwise rave review. 

Jan Maxwell, who plays Julie in the current production, isn’t as grand as Ethel herself might have been but she fares far better than “conscientious,” particularly in her show-stopping breakdown in the second act. Reg Rogers is appropriately manic as Tony. Tony Roberts is somewhat halting as the family manager Oscar Wolfe but it’s just good to see him following the minor seizure he suffered on stage a few days before the play opened. And Rosemary Harris now makes an elegant and touching Fanny (click here to red a lovely piece she wrote for Broadway Buzz about appearing in both productions). But best for me was John Glover, sleek and amusingly pompous as the under-talented Bert. 

Doug Hughes clearly had a good time directing them all. Alas, I found Catherine Zuber’s costumes a little too obvious—did all the Cavendish women have to wear the royal color purple?  But John Lee Beatty’s lavish set, nicely lit by Kenneth Posner, seems just the kind of flamboyantly theatrical apartment the Cavendishes would call home. The fight director might have called a few more fencing rehearsals but kudos to the dog wrangler and to Maury Yeston for the jaunty incidental music.

Of course it's unlikely that any production could live up to my long-gestating fantasies about The Royal Family. But both my husband K and I ended up having a good time.  I do, wonder, though, what Dorothy Parker might have said about it. 

October 28, 2009

The Good Old Days of "Brighton Beach Memoirs"

My grandmother was one of nine southern farm kids and the first to move to New York City.  Over the years, three of her siblings and nearly all her nieces and nephews followed her here and although that was during the Great Depression and she was struggling to raise her own three children, Grandma took her relatives in and shared what she had until they could afford to support themselves.

Such Depression-era survival stories and the familial loyalty that helped people get through those days are common to many families, inspiring as we struggle to pull ourselves out of the current economic morass and the reason that the new revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Neil Simon’s comedy about coming of age during the ‘30s that opened at the Nederlander Theatre on Sunday night, may win over theatergoers as it did my theatergoing buddy Bill and me.

For over 30 years, starting with Come Blow Your Horn in 1962, a new Simon play opened on Broadway every season but it was Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first of the autobiographical works now known as the Eugene Trilogy, that established Simon as more than just a guy who knew how to write jokey dialog. (Click here to read a New York Magazine appraisal of his career.)  Simon is now 82 and his trademark mix of comedy and sentimentality seemed to have gone out of style.  He hasn’t had a new show on Broadway since 45 Seconds from Broadway closed after just 73 performances in 2002.  And recent revivals of three of his other works—Sweet Charity, The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park—performed only slightly better. 

It may prove different for Bright Beach Memoirs.  For starters, David Cromer has been brought in to direct the show.  Cromer, who helmed the brilliantly revisionist production of Our Town that is still playing down at the Barrow Street Theatre, establishes a naturalistic tone that cares less about hitting the punch lines (although there are still plenty of laughs) than mining the emotional bonds that connects the extended Jewish family in the play. The result is that the audience doesn’t so much laugh at the characters as smile with them.  And wistfully wonders why more families today aren’t as loving and forgiving of one another.  Or at least that’s what I found myself thinking.

The play’s household consists of Jack Jerome, who works two jobs to support the six other family members who live in his Brooklyn home and still finds the time and sensitivity to counsel all of them, his world-wary wife Kate, their two sons Stanley and Eugene, Kate’s widowed sister Blanche and her two daughters.  Things in the real Simon household (and in my grandmother’s) probably weren’t as rhapsodic as memory or this play would have it but Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf give the elder Jeromes an unaffected sexiness that undercuts Jack and Kate’s saintliness. Jessica Hecht perfectly captures the passive-aggressiveness of the destitute relative forced to take handouts. And Santino Fontana brings real brio to the role of the eldest son and big brother every kid longs to have (click here to see scenes from the show)

But the central character and narrator is 15-year-old Eugene, the stand-in for Simon’s younger self, and the weight of the show rests on his pubescent shoulders.  Matthew Broderick made his Broadway debut and won a Tony for his portrayal of Eugene in the original 1983 production. Now, the character is brought to vivid life by Noah Robbins, a gifted 19 year-old whose Playbill bio charmingly lists his most recent previous credit as appearing “Off- Off- Off- Off- Off-Broadway as Max Bialystock in his high school’s production of The Producers.” (Click here to read a Washington Post profile of him.)

I’m more ambivalent about the production design.  John Lee Beatty has created a terrific-looking two-story set but it seemed pretty roomy and comfortable for a family struggling to make ends meet. The sound design by Josh Schmidt and Fitz Patton has its problems too. Instead of body mics, they’ve placed 23 mics around the set (click here to read a Wall Street Journal article about how and why they did it) and since actors don’t project the way they once did what you hear is uneven. The entire production is overseen by Simon’s longtime producer Emanuel Azenberg (click here to listen to a Downstage Center interview with him) and at the performance Bill and I attended, he stood at the back of the theater making sure that everything was right. 

And, for the most part, it is.  Starting in December, Brighton Beach Memoirs will play in repertory with Broadway Bound, the final part of the trilogy.  Robbins is too young-looking to play an older Eugene so the part will be taken over by Josh Grisetti who was terrific last year when he played Carl Reiner’s alter-ego in the revival of the coming-of age play based on Reiner’s novel  "Enter Laughing." Advances for the two Simons plays are reportedly low and there’s been some nervousness about whether they will survive but I’m already looking forward to a return visit to the Jerome’s.   

Update: Unable to sell tickets, despite generally good reviews, the producers canceled Broadway Bound and closed Brighton Beach Memoirs a week after it opened.

October 24, 2009

"Avenue Q" is at Home in Its New Address

The cheeky little musical Avenue Q ran for six years on Broadway, arm wrestled the Tony for Best Musical away from the bigger and glitzier Wicked, and convinced legions of twentysomethings that Broadway could be a fun place for them to go. But somehow my twentysomething niece Jennifer managed to miss it.  So she was delighted to hear that just five weeks after Avenue Q closed on Broadway, the show was reopening at New World Stages. Judging by the response at the performance we attended, it could enjoy an even longer run off-Broadway. 

The show is, famously, a parody of "Sesame Street", complete with a multi-ethnic cast of characters, puppets, and cheery message songs.  Except that Avenue Q’s characters are potty-mouthed, the puppets sexually active, and the songs about the dilemmas twentysomethings face like finding meaningful jobs, committing to relationships and coming out of the closet.  Jennifer kept nodding and sighing in recognition as the things she and her friends are experiencing unfolded on stage. She loved the show.

I had a good time too.  I saw the show back in 2003 and so I already knew all the jokes but I still laughed at most of them anyway.  And I didn’t even notice the new production’s smaller set or even the smaller orchestra. I even found myself liking some members of the cast more than the originals. It can’t be easy to act with a sock puppet on your hand but Anika Larsen is thoroughly engaging as both good-girl Kate Monster and the Miss Piggyesque vamp Lucy

The laid-back atmosphere at New World Stages, the one-time cineplex that was converted to a theater complex a few years ago, is a perfect venue for Avenue Q.  People queued up at the bar before the show to order drinks, including a fruity sangria, that could be taken to their seats. In another part of the lobby, people milled around chatting about shows they were going to see that night and might see some other night (The Toxic Avenger was playing in the theater next door to Avenue Q's, Altar Boyz down the hall.)  Inside the
Avenue Q theater, waiters worked the aisles hawking drinks and CDs. Later as we left after the show, a singing duo serenaded a group in the bar area.  It all made going to the theater seem like a fun thing to do.  But you don’t have to be in your 20s to enjoy it, or to enjoy Avenue Q.

October 21, 2009

Race, Rock & Romance in Amiable "Memphis"

If they gave Miss Congeniality awards on Broadway the way they do in the Miss America Pageant, the new musical Memphis, which opened at the Shubert Theatre on Monday night, would win hands down.  It’s not the best show on Broadway but it’s hard working, audience-friendly and eager to please. Even my notoriously picky husband K liked it.

Memphis also gets points, at least from me, for being a truly original musical—one that isn’t based on a movie or a comic book or a record album. In fact, the veteran producer George W. George, who died two years ago, is prominently credited in the Playbill for the story concept.  

The tale George came up with is loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips, the white Memphis DJ who was one of the first to introduce white audiences to black music on his show back in the ‘50s and the very first to play Elvis Presley on the radio.  Phillips was a local celebrity for nearly a decade and even hosted a local teen dance show but he fell on hard times when most radio stations switched to a Top 40 format.  He died at just 42 after a life of heavy drinking and drug use. 

The show embroiders those basic facts with an interracial love story.  The Phillips-inspired character, who's called Huey Calhoun in the show, falls for a beautiful singer he meets while prowling the black blues clubs on the city’s famous Beale Street. In traditional showbiz-story fashion, he promises to make her a star and it’s no spoiler to say that he does. But their love is tested by disapproving relatives (her brother, his mother) racist goons, and their conflicting ambitions (he wants to stay in the south where he’s a big man, she wants to go north where it’s easier for a black woman to make the big time).  Along the way there’s lots of singing and dancing. 

The producers—all 30 of them—have poured money into the show. The production, overseen by director Christopher Ashley, looks great. David Gallo’s sets are fluid and clever without calling too much attention to themselves (even the video projections that he co-designed with Shawn Sagady are smartly done).  Same goes for Howell Binkley’s felicitous lighting. And the only word for Paul Tazewell’s period costumes is fabulous.

Alas, the show’s weak links are its book, lyrics and music.  Joe DePietro did the book and co-wrote the lyrics and both kind of resemble a scrapbook of favorite moments from Dreamgirls and Hairspray.  There’s an attempt to add some serious social commentary but there's also a simultaneous reluctance to scare audiences away and that creates lapses and bumpy transitions in the narrative.

The music by David Bryan, of Bon Jovi fame, isn't bad (in fact, the guy sitting in front of me got so into the show’s rousing R&B tunes that he could barely stay in his seat) but there’s nothing distinguishing about the songs either. Not one of them has stuck in my head. And that’s a shame in a musical that’s about music, particularly this paradigm-shattering music. 

But all the main characters get their power ballads or character numbers and they all do well by them, especially Chad Kimball who plays Huey and Montego Glover who plays his lady love Felicia (click here to read a Wall Street Journal interview with her).  And the dance numbers, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, are energetically performed by a large ensemble of talented dancers, although a shout out has to be given to Vivian Nixon, who looks just like her mother Debbie Allen and may be even a better dancer.

So Memphis may not walk away with the crown but it’s got a winning personality. And that counts for a lot. It will also give theatergoers a really good time. And, when all is said and done, that's what really counts most.

October 17, 2009

"Superior Donuts" Is a Savory Treat

The soulful black character who teaches an emotionally stunted white character how to live is as familiar in American novels, movies and plays as flags are on the Fourth of July.   If you’re a black person like me, you’ve long ago made peace with the fact that Jim is going to mentor Huck, Bubba Blue is going to inspire Forrest Gump. And, if need be, they’ll willing sacrifice themselves to get the job done.

So I figured I knew exactly what to expect from Superior Donuts, the new play by Tracy Letts.   For Superior Donuts, which is currently playing at The Music Box, centers around the relationship between Arthur, an aging and burnt-out white hippie who owns an equally down-and-out donut shop in Chicago, and Franco, the energetic young black man who comes there to work for him. What I didn’t know was how entertaining—and, in some ways inspiring—an evening it was going to turn out to be. 

The eponymous shop is located in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago and scenic designer James Schuette has created such a realistic set that you can almost smell the grease in the air.  The action unfolds over a few winter weeks (more shoutouts to lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen for recreating the convincing look and sound of the season.) 

Things get complicated when Arthur fends off a buyout offer from his next door neighbor Max, an irrepressible Russian immigrant. The newly-hired Franco tries to persuade Arthur to update his store to cater to the more upscale clientele that gentrification has brought to the neighborhood and to respond to the romantic advances of the female cop who, along with her black partner, regularly frequents the shop.  And, most importantly, Arthur discovers that Franco is a very talented writer and that he has a very dangerous gambling problem. 

Letts, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, is clearly not afraid to take on familiar tropes—the dysfunctional family in August, the interracial bonding in Donuts—and tweak them so that what might have been stereotypes become instead archetypes with whom we can all identify.  Also, he’s terrific at dialog that can be alternately snappy and poignant.  And, as with August, he’s been blessed with actors who know just how to deliver his lines. 

Donut’s nine-member cast is uniformly superb. Yasen Peyankov is hilarious as Max and Kate Buddeke brings a touching vulnerability to the lady cop. James Vincent Meredith, Jane Alderman, Robert Maffia and Cliff Chamberlain are just as good in smaller roles. And Michael Garvey deserves to be singled out for making an impression in the nearly silent role of  Max's nephew. Director Tina Landau gets kudos for bringing out the best in each of them.  But it’s the performances by Michael McKean as Arthur and Jon Michael Hill as Franco that fuel this production, which originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre last year. 

Over the years McKean has played supporting roles ranging from the goofy Lenny on the ‘70s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” to the sad sack uncle in last season’s revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. Now, he’s front and center and wonderfully convincing as a man who’s just going through the motions of living. Letts has given Arthur a series of soliloquies about his past as a draft dodger and a failed husband and father.  They might have interrupted the narrative flow but in this actor’s skilled hands they actually deepen the experience of the play.

Hill, just 24 years old, is making his Broadway debut and it’s a sensational one.  He radiates the kind of star presence that makes it hard to take your eyes off him even when he’s painting a wall in the background of a scene (click here to read an interview with him.)  I’m already looking forward to seeing what Hill does next. And in this age of Obama, there’s a good chance that he’ll get a crack at roles that go beyond the street thugs or inspirational sidekicks that young black actors so often have to play. 

In fact, Letts is already expanding the possibilities.  The black cop in Superior Donuts isn’t the usual streetwise or world weary figure we’ve seen in scores of TV cop shows.  He spends his weekends attending "Star Trek" conventions dressed as Captain Sisko, the black captain on the old “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” series.  Similarly, while Franco does inspire changes in Arthur’s life, he doesn’t have to sacrifice his own to do it.  And that alone for me, is worth waving a flag about.

October 14, 2009

On the Losing Side in "Oleanna's" Battle-of-the Sexes

Back in 1992, I had tea with the actor William H. Macy. It was shortly before he was to open in the original production of David Mamet’s he-said-she-said drama Oleanna at the Orpheum Theatre down on Second Avenue.  Macy told me how he and Mamet had met at Goddard College in the late ‘60s.  Over the years, Macy would star in so many Mamet plays that people started calling him the “Mamet Man.” 

Macy was ambivalent about the sobriquet and about his career, resigned to never being more than a journeyman stage actor. As film fans now know, he was wrong to doubt himself.  But, at the time, he didn’t have any doubts about Oleanna.  He thought it was a winner. About that, at least as it’s presented in the revival that opened at the Golden Theatre on Sunday night, he may also be wrong. 

Oleanna is divided into three tense scenes in which a male professor and a female student meet in his office. By the end of the production with Macy and Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon in the roles, I wanted desperately to rewind the action to hear again not only what had been said but how it had been said.  The play may tend towards the polemical and Mamet's politics may lean towards the right but he is a gifted enough playwright to allow subtext, room for ambiguity. I left the theater shaken, not sure where I stood.  And I wasn’t the only one.  People who saw it—and even those who didn’t—debated the play for weeks.

Comparing productions is unfair and particularly tricky in this case. Because Mamet wrote Oleanna in the red-hot aftermath of the hearings for Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court that were almost derailed by law professor Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment. People lined up on both sides of that confrontation, the fallout forced the harassment issue into the spotlight and Mamet’s play turned up the heat.  

But Thomas has been on the bench for years now.  And harassment is widely acknowledged as bad behavior.  So producers of the current production are trying to provoke a new debateand ticket sales—by holding regular talkbacks after the performances. But, alas, this new interpretation of the play strips away the subtleties for me.

The missteps start with Neil Patel's set.  It’s beautiful.  Too beautiful.  Oleanna (the name seems to refer to a failed 19th century utopian community)  opens as the professor is waiting to hear that he’s gotten tenure. But the sleek, wood-paneled set looks as though he’s already working as one of the pampered movie moguls in Mamet’s other gender power play Speed-the-Plow.

The usually deft director Doug Hughes makes matters worse by having mechanized Venetian blinds rise and lower at an agonizingly slow—and noisy—pace to signal scene changes.  Couldn’t we have figure out that the scenes were changing on our own?   Couldn’t he have found a more clever way to give the actors time to make their minimal costume changes?  

But the biggest problem may be the casting. Julia Stiles, who began acting on the professional stage when she was 12, radiates an intelligence and assuredness that has made her one my favorite young movie actresses (click here to read a short New York magazine piece about her).  But her character Carol should be insecure at the beginning of the play and Stiles bristles with perspicacity right from the start.

Meanwhile, Bill Pullman brings the same finely-tuned hangdog quality to Oleanna that he brought to Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?  Problem is it fit the Albee play perfectly, while it subverts the transformation that Mamet’s requires for his.  

I've read that Hughes wanted to create a more naturalistic production. So the actors speak without the rat-a-tat abruptness that we think of us as Mamet-speak.  The director also seems to think that the play's sexual politics may be outdated. So all the sympathy is shifted to one of the characters, which unbalanced the whole thing for me.

Some members in the audience at the performance my friend Priscilla and I attended gasped at moments in the climactic third scene. But I kept looking at my watch and wondering where we'd go for dinner.  It’s hard to enjoy a contest of any kind when the deck is stacked.

October 10, 2009

"Let Me Down Easy" Takes on the Hard Stuff

Asking the question “is there a doctor in the house?” could have set off a stampede the night my buddy Bill and I went to see Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith’s latest one-woman show that opened this week at 2econd Stage Theatre.  The play’s theme is illness, dying and the health care system that mediates between the two. The appeal to the medical community is obvious and the doctors were in the house.  At the end of the 95-minute show, we recognized the former head of one major New York hospital standing near the stage and greeting colleagues like the father of the bride at a wedding reception or a minister at a wake. 

But you don’t need to be a physician to appreciate Smith’s examination of the human body.  As she did with previous documentary theater pieces, she has interviewed a diverse group of people about their thoughts on her subject and shaped the verbatim comments of 22 of them (ums and digressions included) into a work that is both entertaining and insightful. 

But unlike Fires in the Mirror, which focused on the tragic events that followed when a car driven by a Jewish man accidentally killed a young black boy in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn; or Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which focused on the riots that ensued in that city after the acquittal of the four white cops accused in the videotaped beating of a black man named Rodney King, Let Me Down Easy lacks a catalytic event and the narrative tension such an incident provides. So it takes a while for the theme to emerge and even then the play meanders a bit.  I missed the tighter focus of the earlier shows.

I also missed their simpler production values. Smith, who has gone on to roles in TV’s “West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie” and movies like “Rachel Getting Married,” is much better known than she was when Fires in the Mirror first put her on the map with a modest staging down at the Public Theater and the folks at 2econd Stage have given her a production suitable to her now more august position.  Riccardo Hernandez’s stylish set gives her a comfortable sofa to sit on instead of a straight-back chair.  Slick video projections by Zak Borovay announce the various characters Smith portrays.  A factotum appears regularly to help with the small  changes of costume devised by Ann Hould-Ward.

The one thing that has remained the same is Smith’s uncanny ability to capture the distinguishing traits of each person she impersonates. This time her subjects include celebrity athletes and models like Lance Armstrong and Lauren Hutton whose bodies are the instruments of their life's work, lesser-known folks like New Orleans physician Kiersta Kurtz-Burke and Johannesburg orphanage director Trudy Howell who care for the sick and the dying, and clergy like Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes and the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard who are as concerned with the soul as they are with the body.

Smith doesn’t mimic them but, with subtle adjustments to her speech patterns and body language and aided by the direction of Leonard Foglia, she captures the essence of who they are (click here to read about the Smith-Foglia collaboration).  “Is he really that full of himself?” Bill asked about one of the male characters who he knew I’d met.  You bet. She’d totally gotten the guy.  She also gets that death is a subject we prefer not to discuss but desperately need to talk about.  The result is a show that is just what the doctor ordered.

October 7, 2009

Getting Hitched to NYMF with "Marrying Meg"

The New York Musical Theatre Festival has been around for 26 years now.  Among the more illustrious NYMF alumni are shows like Altar Boyz, Next to Normal and [title of show].  So I have no excuse for never having gone to one of the festival productions.  Except for a bad case of festival phobia.  Festivals offer so many choices that I suffer the symptoms of Stendhal syndrome and by the time I've recovered my senses it's too late to see any of them.

But this year, I discovered the Broadway Bullet podcast and its host Michael Gilboe provided such terrific previews of 21 of NYMF's 30 full productions, complete with two musical selections from each (click here to hear them) that I was able to summon up the courage to overcome my trepidations.  And so on Saturday afternoon, I went to see my first NYMF show: Marrying Meg at the Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th. 

Why that one?  Well a large number of the Festival shows tend to be spoofs or variations on campy monsters, vampires and other goofy ghouls and the horrors of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein have left a bad taste in my mouth for those.  A few NYMF productions are imports sung in foreign languages (like the Korean My Scary Girl and the Spanish Anjou) and others sounded like outtakes from somebody’s Guitar Hero sessions.  But I liked the musical excerpts I heard for Marrying Meg and its creator Mark Robertson, a Scot with an easy sense of humor, came across in Gilboe’s preview as a nice guy who, as he says in his program notes, simply wants to make the audience smile.  Which he did.

Marrying Meg is based on Scottish playwright Alexander Reid’s 1950 play The Lass with the Muckle Mou.  It combines two folktales to tell the whimsical story of a medieval troubadour who’s struggling to write a ballad and a nobleman’s daughter who can’t find a husband because she has such a big mouth. Robertson has tweaked the story to draw a comparison between troubadours and their modern-descendants: celebrity journalists.  And he’s added lots of funny songs (plus a couple of ballads, although those aren’t his strong suit).  

The result is no more than a really good children’s theater piece.  But that was fine with me because I once studied with two co-founders of the Paper Bag Players. I know how hard it is to do good theater for kids and how important it is to do it well so that they grow up thinking that going to the theater is a cool thing to do.

There were six little girls sitting two rows in front of me (since all NYMF tickets are just $20, it cost less for all of them to see Marrying Meg than it would have for one of them to see Shrek) and they were delighted, sitting literally on the edges of their seats as one of the reluctant suitors was taken to the gallows after refusing to marry the nobleman’s daughter. It was fun to watch kids enjoying a witty and entertaining show that didn’t feel the need to show how hip it was by throwing in gratuitous profanity (although it did succumb to some fart jokes).

It’s too late for you to see it because the musical’s four-performance run ended last night.  And  the show is unlikely to be picked up for a larger production but I’m writing about it anyway because it’s my first NYMF show. And because it made me see how valuable the festival can be for theater folks who want to experiment with musicals (something that can no longer be done in Broadway's high-stakes arena), for theater lovers who want to see the genre grow and for the theater fans of tomorrow like the kids at Marrying Meg. So go see a NYMF show before the festival ends on Oct. 18.  You may even see me there.  

October 3, 2009

A Full Cycle with "circle mirror transformation"

I've heard it said that choosing the right cast can account for more than half of a play's  success. If that's true, circle mirror transformation, the new show at Playwrights Horizons, should be a big hit.  Because it's got the finest ensemble I've seen in a long while. 

The play, a genuinely warm-hearted comedy that runs nearly two hours but is performed straight through, centers around the group of people who sign up for an acting class at a community center in a small Vermont town.  The participants include the predictable misfits—a smugly happy married couple (Deirdre O’Connell and Peter Friedman), a free-spirited single gal who’s new in town (Heidi Schreck), a recently divorced guy who’s clumsy around women (Reed Birney), and a spaced-out but precocious teen (the scene-stealing Tracee Chimo).

Nearly all the actors have been with the play since playwright Annie Baker workshopped it at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab a year or so ago. And the result, under Sam Gold’s excellent direction, is that they inhabit these parts with such unaffected attention to detail that superficiality morphs into individuality and you feel as though you’re watching real people through one of those two-way windows they like to feature on cop shows.  (Click here to listen to an interview with Baker and Gold.)

Costume and set designer David Zinn deserves kudos too. His attention to detail extends to differentiating the kinds of water bottles each character would choose and making sure that there are used tape marks on the walls of the rehearsal room where the group meets.

Baker’s wistful message is that following your bliss doesn’t always take you where you want to go.  But she’s not heavy-handed about it.  Each scene, which represents one of the six summer weeks over which the action unfolds, cleverly mixes the group-dynamic style theater games that are common in so many acting classes with the personal dramas of the students in circle mirror transformation (the lower case title seems a tongue-in-cheek homage to "eat, pray, love,"  Elizbeth Gilbert's self-actualization bestseller).

But you don’t need to know the difference between Viola Spolin and Jerzy Grotowski to have a good time at circle mirror transformation.  The uptight businessman sitting next to me started the evening off sighing and looking as though he were thinking of ways to make his wife pay for dragging him to the show. But in no time at all he was throwing his head back and guffawing with the rest of us.  Proving Baker’s other point that theater really does have transformative powers.