November 28, 2009

Why "This" is Not for Me

The term “comedy of manners” doesn’t get used much nowadays.  But that seems the best way to describe, This, the new play by Melissa James Gibson that’s currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons.  Except that This didn’t amuse me at all.  And that’s not just because one of its characters refers to blogs as “a large accumulation of snot.”   I can take that kind of joke.  What I can’t take is pretentious self-indulgence.  And This is full of that.

This (and what’s up with that title?) centers around a group of artsy thirtysomethings who have been friends since college and are finally dragging themselves into adulthood—two have just had a baby, another wants a more meaningful job, the fourth, and central character, is being forced to grow up by recent widowhood. Sure, they’re the hyper self-involved types we used to call yuppies but a good play could be made from such people and situations and several have been, including Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw and Adam Bock’s The Drunken City. 

But while those works found fresh ways to look at familiar characters, Gibson fills her play with the shallow stereotypes and predictable ready quips of a middling TV sitcom. I had thought the pudgy, wisecracking gay friend who has no sex life of his own and is around solely to lend support to his great-looking and totally randy straight friends had gone out with shoulder pads. But he’s center stage in This and no matter how nicely played by Glenn Fitzgerald, is indicative of how superficial this show is.

Gibson pays so little attention to the plot that the characters lurch from scene to scene without rhyme or reason. The play offers two bi-racial couples and one bisexual guy.  But it doesn’t explore how either of these things affects the people involved. And it isn’t helped by Gibson's frequent collaborator Daniel Aukin, who directs the show in a similarly helter-skelter manner. The last scene has a monologue that is supposed to be an epiphany but instead wallows in totally unearned sentimentality.

Even the set is misguided.  Louisa Thompson has designed an elaborate loft apartment to be the home of a couple in the play.  It’s well appointed with a piano (she’s a musician) a work studio (he’s a carpenter) and floor to ceiling bookshelves (they’re both intellectuals).  Problem is only half of the play takes place there so the actors have to haul furniture around each time the scene changes to simulate other locations even though the loft is always visible.  Which just looks silly when two of the characters are supposed to be sitting on a park bench eating ice cream cones.

I could go on but somehow it seems bad manners to say more.

November 25, 2009

"Dreamgirls" Remains an Audience Favorite

Audiences at the Apollo are almost as famous as the legendary Harlem theater itself. They have helped launch the careers of musicians from Ella Fitzgerald (who won the Apollo’s celebrated amateurs contest in 1934) to Jimi Hendrix (who took home the same honor in 1964). They pride themselves for this role in making dreams come true and so they are notoriously outspoken about what they do and don’t like.  They were cheering even before the curtain went up the night my sister Joanne, her friend Diane and I went to the new revival of Dreamgirls that is kicking off a national tour with a five week stop at the Apollo.

I was excited too.  I’m a longtime Dreamgirls fan.  I was dazzled by it when I saw the original production that opened back in 1981. Tom Eyen’s book about the rise of a girl group similar to The Supremes is behind-the-music melodrama at its most delicious. And Henry Krieger perfectly captures the dynamism of the soul music that formed the soundtrack of my teen years.  The performances—from Jennifer Holliday’s star-making turn as Effie, the most talented of the trio who is cast aside because she isn’t glamorous enough,  to Cleavant Derricks’ high-powered homage to James Brown as the irrepressible R&B pioneer James Thunder Early, whose style is too emotionally raw to crossover into the mainstream—were phenomenal. But the real standout was Michael Bennett’s cinematic direction—with scenes dissolving into one another and jump cutting between perspectives just the way they do in the movies only more magically because Bennett didn’t rely on cameras or special effects.  

I liked the 2006 movie that earned Jennifer Hudson an Oscar for her portrayal of Effie. But for me, Dreamgirls belongs on a stage and I was eager to see it on the stage of the Apollo, where some of the key moments in the show are set.  And I’m happy to say that it looks fine there.  Not great.  But good enough. 

Bennett’s staging is as integral to Dreamgirls as Jerome Robbins’ dances are to West Side Story and Robert Longbottom, who directed and choreographed the revival, is smart enough to know that and to hew close to the original.  He even got Robin Wagner, who created the original sets, to do the new ones, updated with some smart video projections.  Longbottom didn’t tap Theoni Aldredge to do the costumes this time around but William Ivey Long was clearly inspired by Aldredge’s work and, as one theatergoer who spotted him at the back of the theater after the show told him, Long’s costumes—simultaneously sumptuous and witty—were the stars of the current production. They were topped only by the usually unacknowledged dressers, who managed amazing changes.

I don’t say any of this as a slap at the current cast.  They’re hardworking and, buoyed, by the material, they do just fine.  Still, there is a callow quality to this production and at times, it comes across as the work of a very bright high school drama club. Moya Angela has the requisite soulful sound for Effie but she clearly feels the burden of her predecessors' success in the role, particularly in the show’s signature song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”  Her rendition did the job and brought the house down but I thought I detected her sighing with relief once the song was done. 

The audience also loved Chester Gregory in the James Thunder Early role.  Gregory’s a good singer, an incredibly agile dancer and a do-anything-for-a-laugh entertainer. But he was a bit cartoonish at times and too willing to trade the pathos that deepens the character for easy laughs. Chaz Lamar Shepherd does even less well as the ambitious manager who drives the Dreams, as the girl group is called, to success, playing him largely as a one-note villain.  Syesha Mercado, yet another “American Idol” finalist, is pretty but little more as the Diana Ross-character. Adrienne Warren does add some true grit to her character as the third Dream but eventually succumbs to power ballad fever in her big number “Ain’t No Party.”

And yet, I am telling you that I had a good time. So did most of the critics, even while finding some of the very same faults with the production as I did.  My fellow blogger  Parabasis was so stunned by this response that he’s accused everyone of grading the production on a curve (click here to read his review of the reviews.)  Maybe.  But try telling that to the audience at the Apollo.

November 21, 2009

In Love with "The Brother/Sister Plays"

I’m not sure you can call yourself a card-carrying theater lover if you haven’t at least heard of Tarell Alvin McCraney. He’s the wunderkind who won both the exemplary artist award when he attended Miami’s New World School of the Arts High School and the Cole Porter Playwriting Award at the Yale School of Drama; who was named the International Playwright in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company this year and the first recipient of the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award in June; and who can claim as mentors both the late great playwright August Wilson and the great British director Peter Brook. He’s also the creator of the startlingly original The Brother/Sister Plays that opened at The Public Theater this week.

McCraney, who is just 29, mixes classical Greek myths, Yoruba mythology, innercity street culture, 20th century soul music and post-modern sensibilities to create a distinctly 21st century take on the African-American experience. The Brother/Sister Plays is a trilogy of separate but interconnected plays that tell the multigenerational story of people living in a poor largely black Bayou community in Louisiana over the last 30 or so years.  It’s the work of a young man and so it isn’t perfect but it bristles with brilliance.

The plays are divided into two performances that are playing in repertory on alternate evenings or in a marathon on Saturdays.  My friend Jesse, who loves avant garde stuff, and I went to the latter last week and so got to totally immerse ourselves in McCraney’s enthralling world.

The first, and longest of the plays, is In the Red and Brown Water, which centers around a girl named Oya.  (All of the characters have names derived from those of Yoruba deities which makes me wish I had paid more attention in my college comparative religions course.) Oya is a gifted runner who has to choose between a scholarship that will take her away to college and staying at home to care for her ailing mother, and later between two completely different lovers. 

The focus shifts to three men in Oya’s life in the second and most affecting of the plays, The Brothers Size.  And the third, Marcus: or The Secret of Sweet, is a coming-of-age and coming-out story in which the children of people in the earlier plays take center stage.

Nine actors assume multiple roles in the three plays and they are all sensational. Kimberly Hébert Gregory earns the audience’s overt affection as a sassy aunt who pops up in each installment.  But I was most taken with Marc Damon Johnson, who plays the eldest of the Size brothers.  Over the course of the plays he ages from an awkward but optimistic young suitor to the world-weary elder statesman of his community and, without makeup or other artificial devices, he made it seem as though he’s playing his own age each time.  He’s a remarkable actor.

An extra bonus, at least for me, is that the plays are directed by two different people and so you get to see what happens when different approaches interact with McCraney’s idiosyncratic style.  Tina Landau treats In the Red and Brown Water as a fable—the characters, all dressed in white, stay on stage the entire time, serving as a watchful Greek chorus when they’re not speaking. Robert O’Hara gives the other two plays a more naturalistic feel but, particularly in The Brothers Size, still acknowledges their allegorical roots.

Elements of tragedy run through all three but so does a lot of humor. The plays are totally accessible even if you don’t know your Yoruba gods.  Or your theatrical ones.  McCraney, who grew up in a community much like the one in the plays, has said often that he wants to write works that will attract young people and others who don’t think theater is for them.  

It's obvious how deeply he feels about that mission. During a talkback after last Saturday’s matinee performance he recalled performing at a drug rehab center when he was just 14 and how a woman in the audience said the show made her realize for the first time how her drug use had affected her children. Then he broke down as he told the Public audience how he wished something similar had happened for his mother who had been in the same facility a year earlier and who would eventually die from AIDs. (Click here to read about his personal story).

The critics are divided in their opinions of The Brother/Sister Plays. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley found the plays “pumped full of a senses-heightening oxygen that leaves you tingling.”  But the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli accuses them of “self indulgence” and “heavy-handed staginess.” Naysayers like Vincentelli particularly object to McCraney’s theatrical device of having his characters speak their stage directions. “As precious and redundant, naive and obvious as it is, this affectation is an integral part of McCraney's poetic storytelling style. Too bad it often feels like an MFA writing assignment,” complained Vincentelli.  

But I’m a sucker for theatrical stagecraft and I loved this device, even its way of provoking audience participation, something I usually hate.  I admired it even more after hearing McCraney explain during the talkback how he’d derived the technique from the southern style of storytelling, the sermons his grandfather used to give, and a desire to create an experience that “does what the theater does well—keeping you here with me while I’m telling you this story.” 

It’s a story every theater lover should experience and since the run has just been extended through Dec. 20, you can.

November 18, 2009

It's Hard to Warm Up to "After Miss Julie"

Every theater lover knows that Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and August Strindberg are the holy trinity of modern drama.  But I have to confess that it hasn’t always been easy for me to love them. Maybe something gets lost in the translations.  In recent years, some good productions have brought me around on Chekhov. And I’ve begun slowly warming up to Ibsen too.  But Strindberg still leaves me cold.  Alas, seeing After Miss Julie, Patrick Marber’s reworking of Strindberg’s best known play, hasn’t helped.

A quick look at the grosses suggests that I’m not the only one feeling lukewarm about this Roundabout Theatre production which opened at the American Airlines Theatre earlier this month.  It was supposed to be a hot ticket. Strindberg’s Miss Julie tells the story of an aristocrat’s privileged daughter who seduces one of the household servants. The play’s power struggles involving sex and class would seem perfect for Marber who dealt with similar dynamics in his own Closer

Marber hews close to Strindberg's 1888 original, although he sets his version in post-World War II Britain when class lines there are beginning to collapse and he roughens up the language and the sex. What he does makes sense but the way the story unfolds just doesn’t.  And director Mark Brokaw does him no favors by directing the show with endless pauses that make the play seem far longer than its 85-minutes running time.

The casting of Sienna Miller (Jude Law’s former fiancée) as the title character and Jonny Lee Miller (Angelina Jolie’s ex-husband) as the manservant was supposed to add heat too.  Sienna Miller clearly wants to be taken seriously as an actress (click here to read a New York Times piece about her) and she gives it her all. But it’s just not enough.  She’s good at the sexy stuff but gets stuck when she tries to convey the inner turmoil that drives Julie to be so self-destructive. I kept imagining what an actress like the late Natasha Richardson might have done with the part in her younger days. 

Jonny Miller, on the other hand, worked for me, neatly capturing the ambivalence of a man trapped in reverence for the class system that he longs to bring down. Marin Ireland, the only non-Brit in the three-person cast, struggles with her accent but still manages to hold her own as the cook who is Jonny’s sweetheart and the only one of the three able to navigate the old order and the coming one.

Strindberg pioneered naturalism on stage and instead of placing his play in a fashionable drawing room, he purposefully set the action in the mansion’s utilitarian kitchen. Marber keeps it there and Allen Moyer's handsome set is perfect, as is Mark McCullough's subtle but evocative lighting.  David Van Tieghem gets extra credit for the smart sound design, which has to stand in for the off-stage noises of the other servants that this production has dropped, probably for budgetary reasons.

But even the savviest designs can’t save a production.  Or maybe, it’s just that I don’t like Strindberg.  Because I also didn’t care for his other well known work Dance of Death when I saw it back in 2002.  And it starred Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren. If they can’t heat up a show for you, then it's unlikely that anyone can.

November 14, 2009

The Varied Charms of "Finian's Rainbow"

Lines in front of Broadway theaters used to form organically when people queued up to get tickets to the latest hit.  They don’t need to do that now when you can just call Telecharge or click onto SmartTix.  But there’s something about a line winding around a theater that radiates excitement, so producers and theater owners have come up with their own way to replicate it.  They keep the doors closed until literally minutes before the show is scheduled to start and make ticketholders line up while they wait.  Some shows have even started cashing in on this by selling stuff to people while they’re standing outside on the street. 

There was a long line in front of the St. James Theatre and an usher hawking bottled water when my husband K and I arrived to see the new production of Finian’s Rainbow.  We have friends in the orchestra and K went to the first preview back on Oct. 8.  He came home wishing our friends well but wondering if the musical was just too old-fashioned to survive.  Still, he’d been entertained enough to return with me and he had a better time.  I was less enchanted.

There’s no complaining about the lovely music by Burton Lane or the witty lyrics by Yip Harburg that produced such standards as “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”  The problem is the book.  It weaves a ridiculously complicated tale about an Irish man named Finian who steals a leprechaun’s pot of gold and brings it and his comely daughter Sharon to a southern state in the U.S. where a corrupt and bigoted white senator is trying to steal the land of an upstanding young farmer named Woody and the valiant sharecroppers who work for him. Got it?  Through magic, the leprechaun arrives to reclaim his treasure, the white politician is turned black, and Woody’s mute sister, who can only communicate through dance, undergoes two miraculous transformations.  Woody’s farm grows tobacco but it might as well be corn.

I was more won over by the show’s back story.  Finian’s Rainbow opened in 1947 when Jim Crow laws were oppressing black people in the South and McCarthyism was starting to terrify liberal-minded people throughout the country. But Lane, Harburg and co-book writer Fred Saidy created a show that condemned racism and poked fun at politicians.  And their show was the first on Broadway to feature a mixed company of black and white singers and dancers. Cloaking its beliefs under the mantle of fantasy helped Finian’s Rainbow run for a then-healthy 725 performances but its progressive message was still apparent for anyone who cared to look. A courageous act for the time.  And one that deserves to be remembered today.

Ironically, there’s never been a Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow until now because the show has been considered racist.  That’s because the actor playing the senator traditionally donned black face makeup after the character’s been turned black, a definite no-no in these more enlightened times. The current production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle with the unself-conscious gusto of a big Fifties musicals, has found a smart way around the problem that actually adds to the merry-making.

It’s also found a terrific cast.  Jim Norton, an authentic Irishman who I only knew from his dramatic roles in Conor McPherson plays, is delightful as Finian and Kate Baldwin makes a radiant Sharon. Christopher Fitzgerald, Chuck Cooper and Terri White are excellent in key parts but my personal favorites were Guy Davis, the son of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, as a blues harmonica-playing field hand and Alina Faye, a former member of the American Ballet Theatre, as the dancing sister. I wanted an immediate encore when her solo number ended. Only Cheyenne Jackson’s Woody disappointed me.  As usual, Jackson looks great and sings well but he seems to have attended the Al Gore School of Acting. 

I enjoyed the show despite it corniness but the audience at our performance loved the show.  Although it might have been biased.  At least three rows were filled with friends and family members there to cheer on Christopher Borger, one of the kids in the show (click here to read his story). And after the show ended, White, who had recently been homeless (click here to read her story) was scheduled to have an onstage commitment ceremony with her partner Donna Barnett.  But the critics love the show too (click here for some of their reviews) and they’ve given it the kind of raves that, in the old days, would have created lines around the block. 

November 11, 2009

Jude Law Plays It Smart in "Hamlet"

I’d told myself that I was done with Hamlet. As anyone who paid even the slightest attention in high school English knows, the play tells the tale of the young Danish prince who seeks revenge against an uncle whom he believes has killed his father, married his widowed mother and taken the throne that should have been his. For centuries now, every actor who can pull on a pair of tights has yearned to play the title part. I’ve seen more than my fair share of them and I told myself I didn’t need to see any more.

But that, of course, was before I heard that Jude Law was playing Shakespeare’s moody Dane. I’ve been an unabashed Jude Law fan since seeing him in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and despite his spotty record in movies since then, I’ve remained convinced that he’s more than just a pretty face.  So I was eager to see what he would bring to Hamlet.

Although not apparently as eager as the woman I spotted in the eighth row of the orchestra who hauled out her binoculars as soon as she sat down.  There was a great deal to see.  Law, although, as movie stars tend to be, smaller than one expects, gives a big performance.  His Hamlet is vigorously nimble—both his body and his mind constantly moving.  And Law delivers his speeches—even the well known soliloquies—with a naturalness that makes the goings on totally accessible. He also finds bits of humor in the prince and he’s terrific in the fencing scene with Laertes. 

No fight director is listed in the Playbill so I suppose director Michael Grandage should get part of the credit for the fine swordplay.  Grandage also gets credit for moving the proceedings along at a nice clip that suffers few languors despite the play’s three hour and 10 minute running time.  As its chic dark modern-dress costumes, stark set and dance-club lighting suggest, this is a Hamlet for contemporary times.  And yet, at least for me, this production, which started out in London last spring and played at the real Kronberg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark before opening at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre last month, fails to achieve greatness.

The supporting cast is part of the problem.  No one really stands out. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is pretty but pallid as Ophelia. Ron Cook is too prissy even for the prissy counselor Polonius.  And Kevin R. McNally is far too avuncular for the duplicitous uncle Claudius.  I kind of liked Geraldine James as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude.  But my friend Ellie, the one-time actress-turned professor who’s just finished teaching Hamlet in her class, found James too bland.

But the main problem with the production is that it’s too smart for it’s own good. Law is wonderfully charismatic and he doesn’t set a wrong foot during the time he’s on stage but I could see him thinking the whole time about exactly where he should step.  Still, it’s a treat, with or without binoculars, to watch him figure it out. Which you can do until the limited run ends on Dec. 6.

November 7, 2009

There's True Value in "Broke-ology"

The folks at Lincoln Center aren’t selling a cast album for Broke-ology, the new family drama by Nathan Louis Jackson, but maybe they should.  The show isn’t a musical but disco-era tunes by Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang and McFadden & Whitehead are playing when you walk into The Mitzi E. Newhouse theater where the show is running through the end of the month.  The twentysomething woman in the seat next to me mouthed all the lyrics.  “Aren’t you too young to know these songs?” I asked.  She laughed.  “It’s good stuff,” she said. 

And it is.  Disco music often gets dismissed as superficial but hearing those songs took me back to the ‘late ‘70s and early ‘80s when disco anthems like McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now” expressed an against-the-odds optimism about the future of black people in this country.  The play took me back too.  And not just because the opening scene is set in 1982.  The entire play reminded me of the shows I used to see at the Negro Ensemble Company during those years. Edgier shows by playwrights like Tarell Alvin McCraney and Suzan-Lori Parks are now more popular than the black family dramas that were the NEC’s specialty but there was good stuff in those old shows and there’s some good stuff in Broke-ology too. 

The play tells the story of the working-class King family. The Kings are a loving, not dysfunctional, family but internal fractures and outside pressures strain their bonds. The show’s title is drawn from the eldest son’s joking suggestion that there should be an academic field devoted to “the study of being broke.”

When the play opens, parents-to-be William and Sonia are awaiting the birth of their first child and dreaming about making a better life beyond the Kansas City ghetto where they live. The next scene takes place 27 years later.  Sonia has been dead for 10 years, William is battling multiple sclerosis, the eldest son Ennis is trapped in a dead-end job and expecting his first child, and the youngest son Malcolm is returning home from college with a master’s degree and ambitions of his own.

The conflicts develop quickly and predictably but the show’s 30 year-old playwright, who admits that the play is partly autobiographical (click here to read his story) knows that love and resentment exist in equal measure in most families and that envy and encouragement stand side-by-side in poor families where one member has the chance of making it out but only at the expense of the equally-deserving others.  Broke-ology is at its best when it clicks into those moments. 

It’s also blessed with a fine cast.  Wendell Pierce and Crystal A. Dickinson are wonderfully touching as the parents.  Alano Miller captures the awkward self-consciousness of a young man simultaneously eager and reluctant to enter a middle-class life that means leaving his family behind. And Francois Battiste, who was terrific in last season’s production of The Good Negro at the Public Theater, is just as dynamic as the brother who knows that he will be the collateral damage of his younger sibling’s success.

This isn’t a great play. It veers into melodrama and indulges in some heavy-handed symbolism.  But it also portrays contemporary working-class people with an authenticity and respect too seldom seen on stage.  And, in my book, that makes it good stuff.

November 4, 2009

What's the Play That Changed Your Life?

If you love theater, there’s some play way back at the beginning that sparked your obsession, that really got to you, that changed your life.  That’s why people go to the theater.  That’s why they make it. And that's why the American Theatre Wing is publishing a new book called “The Play That Changed My Life: America’s Foremost Playwrights on the Plays that Influenced Them.” In it, 19 of the best playwrights working today share their stories about the shows that made that all important difference to them.

The book will be out in December but, in the meantime, the Wing is holding an online essay contest that will give other theater lovers a chance to speak up about the shows that changed their lives.  It could have been your grade school play, your first Broadway musical, a magical touring production or a terrific one at a regional theater.  Whatever it is, ATW wants to hear from you about that theatrical experience and why it meant so much. The contest started Monday and closes at midnight on Sunday, Nov. 29. Entries of up to 350 words will be accepted.

The final judging panel includes
Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization who is also chairman of ATW's Board of Directors; Carol Flannery, the editorial director of Applause Books; the award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang; and me (really, I’m one of the judges). We’ll be evaluating the entries on creativity, clarity, and most importantly, passion. Prizes include a copy of “The Play That Changed My Life” signed by some of the contributing playwrights and other you-ought-to-have-in-your-library books from Applause Books.  Submissions will be posted online and additional prizes will be given based on voting by the public; you can cast your vote through Dec. 11.

In the meantime, the Wing has asked the same question of other people who make shows on and off-Broadway because, of course, just like the rest of us there was a first time for them too. Here’s the answer Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, gave: 

“I have to say, Hair had an enormous influence on me.  When I was fourteen years old, I had run away from home, I was in England hitchhiking through- I had been hitchhiking through Europe, and I went to the Shaftesbury Theatre in London to see Hair.  And at the end of the production I got up on stage and I danced with the tribe.  And it had this huge impact on me, because I was a very alienated young man and angry and disaffected, and dancing onstage there with that tribe both gave me the feeling that the theatre was a place where I might find a home and I might belong, but it also gave me a sense that America was a country that might have a place for me, that I might be able to find a home in.”

Now, I’m looking forward to reading yours.  You can enter it at