December 29, 2010

"The Divine Sister" is a Miracle of Good Fun

I’m not a big fan of drag and I'm not fond of camp and yet, like just about everyone else who has seen it, I had a great time at The Divine Sister.

This campfest, written by and starring that irrepressible comic genius Charles Busch as the Mother Superior of a down-at-its-heels convent, is a high-spirited send-up of Hollywood’s fascination with nuns. I hadn’t realize what an extensive genre this is until I saw the show, which is filled with winking nods to, among others, “The Song of Bernadette,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “The Nun’s Story,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Trouble with Angels,” “The Singing Nun,” “Agnes of God,” “Sister Act” and, of course, “Doubt”—with a little bit of “The Da Vinci Code” thrown in for good measure. 

But enjoyment of The Divine Sister isn’t dependent on your having seen any of them because Busch knows how to get a laugh. He piles ridiculous story line (the Mother Superior’s prior life as an intrepid girl reporter, told in flashbacks) on top of ridiculous story line (the dizzy young novitiate who is intent on seeing visions) on top of ridiculous story line (the mysterious mission of a nun visiting from Germany) until they all tumble over into hilarity.

The trick of high camp—and The Divine Sister's is of the highest orderis to play it, well, straight.  This cast may chew the scenery, but it does it with sincere gusto. And perfect etiquette.  There's no sloppiness here. 

Busch is ably abetted in his merrymaking by co-conspirators he’s worked with over the years including director Carl Andress and the top-notch cast lead by the droll Julie Halston as the Mother Superior’s no-nunsense (sorry I couldn’t resist the pun) second-in-command and Alison Fraser, who gives a deliciously deadpan performance as the Teutonic nun. Even B.T. Whitehill’s cartoonish set is a hoot. 

This show, which has been extended at the Soho Playhouse through Feb. 27, won’t change your life.  Or even give you much to talk about over dinner after the show (it only runs 90 minutes so you have plenty of time to take a short walk down Spring Street to Bistro Les Amis, a cozy spot with yummy food that's perfect for a wintry evening).  But The Divine Sister will entertain you and that, in what has been a somewhat lackluster fall season, is as welcomed as any act of Divine Intervention should be.

December 26, 2010

Turning on the (Christmas) Ghost Light

I got so wrapped up in our family merrymaking that I forgot it was Saturday as well as Christmas Day and so failed to post an entry yesterday.  But I still want to wish each of you a happy holiday, whichever and however you celebrate it.  As you know, theaters always leave on a light—or as it’s called in the business, a ghost light—when they’re empty. So, as is my custom during the holidays, I’ve now turned on a Christmas-inspired ghost light. And just in case I succumb to absentmindedness again at the end of this week, I want to wish you all a very Happy New Year too.

December 22, 2010

"Angels in America" Soars Above Them All

Weeks—actually months—have gone by since my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw Angels in America, which is enjoying a sensational run at Signature Theatre as part of the company’s year-long tribute to the playwright Tony Kushner.  In fact, I’ve seen nearly three dozen plays and musicals since then and Angels in America is, hands down, the very best show I’ve seen. It’s the first one I’ve recommended whenever anyone has asked me what they should see this season. So I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write about it here.

Maybe it’s my history with the show.  Everyone I knew was blown away by Angels in America when it first opened on Broadway in 1993.  But not me.  I thought it was OK but I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. I did have some second thoughts 10 years later when I saw the excellent HBO miniseries that was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson.  But  it took watching this current production, the first stage revival in New York since the original, to make me realize what a truly remarkable piece of work this is. 

In an article last fall, the New York Times declared Angels in America “the most influential American play of the last two decades,” and predicted that it would stand the test of time, joining the Mount Rushmore of classic American plays that includes Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (click here to read the article). That’s probably true. I just wonder how I could have missed the play’s brilliance the first time around.  I suspect it’s because I didn’t want to take it in.

Set during the conservative Reagan years, Angels in America pivots around two unhappy couples: one a closeted gay man and his depressed wife; the other a gay man who has AIDS and the lover who abandons him. Also on hand is a third couple: the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed for espionage in 1953, and Roy Cohn, the ruthless  attorney who persecuted her and later died from AIDS complications in 1986. 

Lots of people were still dying from AIDS during the play’s run in the early ‘90s. Some of them were my friends.  And like the wife in the play, I, too, had once been in an unhappy relationship with a man whom I knew loved other men. I had even had a terrible encounter with Roy Cohn. (Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you about that one later.)  I was already living the horrors of Angels in America.  No wonder I didn’t want to see it.

But a diagnosis of AIDS is no longer a death sentence.  I am happily married to the wonderful K.  Roy Cohn is just a bad memory. And I am now gobsmacked by how, in the midst of all the old terrors, Kushner managed to capture the emotional complexities of that time (click here to read a New York Magazine profile of the playwright).  

Angels in America takes on all the big stuff—politics, religion, relationships. Divided into two parts that run a combined 6 hours and 40 minutes, the play is both naturalistic and surreal, more than living up to its subtitle of “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”

The two parts—“Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”—are playing in repertory, with all day marathons on Saturdays and Sundays.  Because Bill and I attended the very first marathon, it would be unfair to say a lot about the performances, which the actors were still refining.  Except to say that Zachary Quinto is superb as the runaway lover Louis, the role originated by Joe Mantello, now one of our finest directors. 

Quinto, best known for playing the villainous Sylar on the NBC sci-fi series “Heroes” and for taking over the iconic role of Spock in the 2009 movie “Star Trek,” seemed at first like stunt casting, the usual attempt to bring in a younger crowd.  Instead, he turns out to be very smart casting. For Quinto gives Louis the poignantly conflicted authenticity of a good man who knows he’s doing a wrong thing but is too weak to do otherwise. (Click here to read a NYTimes profile of the actor.) 

But the biggest props have to go to director Michael Greif.  Without slighting the play's poetic language and grand metaphoric flights of fancy, he delineates the narrative, unsnarls the separate but interlocking storylines and combines them into a satisfying whole, even if “Perestroika” starts to drag toward the end. (Click here to listen to Greif talk about the casting and rehearsal process.)

My one complaint is the set design.  Angels in America is a big play set in multiple locations that are difficult to recreate on a Signature-size budget. And that’s even before the climactic moment in “Millennium” when the Angel is supposed to make a glorious scene-shattering appearance.  Set designer Mark Wendland's solution is two rolling scaffolds that are pushed around by black-clad stage hands and a curtain on which Wendall K. Harrington's video projections are shown. (Click here to read a TDF interview with Harrington and lighting designer Ben Stanton.) I wish they’d gone even simpler and just used the projections.

But that’s just a quibble.  If you love theater, you must see this production, which has now been extended through March 27.  Five of the eight cast members, including Quinto, are leaving on Jan. 30 and so it’s impossible to predict how the newcomers will change the show.  But great plays are, by definition, survivors.  And Angels in America is a great play.

December 18, 2010

"Mistakes Were Made"—But Not By this Actor

If there’s a would-be actor on your Christmas list then you can find him or her no better present than a ticket to see Mistakes Were Made, the satirical comedy about a producer trying to put together a Broadway show that is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre. 

In this case, however, it’s not so much the play that’s the thing, although it’s as entertaining as all get out. The main attraction here is the actor who is giving what is basically a one-man show that is the equivalent of a master class in acting. 

He is Michael Shannon, who is probably best known for his role as the mentally unstable realtor’s son in  the 2008 movie “Revolutionary Road” and now as Special Agent Nelson Van Alden on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”  But Sheehan is a creature of the theater, in Chicago and New York, and with this performance he is staking his claim as one of the jungle’s big cats (click here to read an interview with him)

Mistakes Were Made charts a day in the life of a harried producer named Felix Artifex.  He’s trying to get a big-name Hollywood princeling (think “Twilight’s” Robert Pattinson or "Harry Potter’s" Daniel Radcliffe) to star in a play that's been written by a high-brow, first-time playwright who is finicky about his text. To raise money for the project, Felix has gone in on a shady deal to sell sheep in a dangerous unnamed desert country, but the deal isn’t going so well. To complicate matters even further, he’s still in love with his ex-wife who won’t answer his calls and with his pet goldfish Denise, who is his only friend and confidante. 

The play runs just 90-minutes and I have to confess that there are moments when that can seem too long.  Luckily, most of them are laughter-filled.  As regular readers know, it's not that easy to tickle my funny bone.  But I literally doubled over with laughter during this show.  And gauging from the yelps of delight that kept erupting all over the theater, other folks were having a good time too.

Admittedly, the house seemed filled with theater folks the night I saw Mistakes Were Made.  The kind of people who instantly got all the insidey references—not dropped names so much as playwright Craig Wright’s wry commentary on the familiar woes of commercial theater.

And because savvy ticket buyers can find discounts that make the show affordable on even a modest budget, the theater was filled with young people—many of whom gave off the air of  actors.  Some of them, like the guy in the row behind me, were back for a second or third time. Others had become part of a Shannon cult.  “Michael. Michael. Michael,” chanted one woman at the curtain call.  Others around her nodded in more restrained agreement.

Crafty. Angry. Pompous. Melancholy. Terrified. The character Felix offers a Crayola box of emotions for an actor to play. And since all of the action takes place in his crummy office  where the producer juggles phone calls relayed to him by a mostly unseen secretary, Shannon has to serve as his own scene partner.

The potential for falling into overacting is obvious—and tempting—particularly in the scenes when Felix gets hysterical. But, under the nimble direction of Dexter Bullard, Shannon walks right up to the edge and dangles his leg over that abyss without ever once losing his balance.  It’s a bravura performance.  And witnessing it would be a treat for any fledgling thespian. Or for any other theater lover.

December 15, 2010

"The Great Game" Isn't Winning Enough

What would I do without my theatergoing buddy Bill?  My husband K is a news junkie and my niece Jennifer is a history nut but both looked at me as though I were crazy when I brought up seeing The Great Game: Afghanistan, the 12-play cycle about that country’s troubled relationship with the outside world, from the rivalry between Britain and Russia to control it in the 1840s to the current U.S. war there that is now in its ninth year.

Bill, who is always up for a new theatrical experience, didn’t blink.  Count me in, he said.  Which is how he and I found ourselves sitting in the NYU Skirball Center  last Saturday for the Public Theater’s all-day marathon performance of The Great Game, which is running only through Dec. 19.

The production, which has been imported from London’s Tricycle Theatre, is not for the faint-hearted. Tricycle made its name by presenting works that deal with contemporary issues and its artistic director Nicolas Kent commissioned 12 politically savvy playwrights (the best known being Lee Blessing, who wrote A Walk in the Woods) to dramatize key moments in Afghanistan’s history.

The result is a series of playlets in which 14 actors (including Jemma Redgrave, who is Corin’s daughter and Vanessa and Lynn’s niece) play multiple roles that range from the revered 15th century queen Gohar Shahd to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, from Henry Mortimer Durand, the British minister in charge of the region in the 19th century, to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader who was strategically assassinated two days before Sept. 11.

The plays have been grouped into three sections—the colonial period, Russia’s misadventure in the ‘80s and the current post-9/11 morass—that can be seen on individual evenings (if you can only see one, I’d recommend the Russian section) or, as Bill and I did, in one fell swoop.

The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan for almost a decade but I confess that most of what I know about that country, I learned from reading Khaled Hosseini's novels “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns." Apparently the Public Theater, which is presenting this New York stop of Tricycle’s U.S. tour, has assumed that most of the audience knows just as little and so it’s put together a crash course in all things Afghani.

The walls outside the Skirball Center have been decorated with imposing images by the veteran photojournalist Bob Nickelsberg, whose wife is an old colleague of mine.  A mini-bazaar has been set up in the lobby. Theatergoers, serenaded by a musician playing the lute-like instrument called the rubab, can shop for Oriental rugs, lapis bowls, embroidered robes, patterned kites and all kinds of books.  “This is how we like to show our country’s culture,” I overhead one vendor telling a customer. 

Inside the theater, ushers hand out an enhanced Playbill that includes a map of the region, an extensive timeline of the country's history and a glossary of unfamiliar names and terms that are used in the show. They also give out separate four-page inserts for each of the three parts that contain even more detailed background information.

Bill and others around us started reading immediately, trying to cram in as much as they could before the lights went down and the show began. But that all struck me as too academic.  And so, alas, did the show itself, which at best seemed to me like a history pageant and, in its more prosaic moments, like a 3-D PowerPoint presentation.

The reviews have been largely positive (click here to read them on StageGrade). But I can’t help feeling that those critics are congratulating the show for what it intends to do rather than what it actually does. As regular readers know, I’m a big support of political theater too.  But I like my theater to be more theatrical.

There are a few minutes of smart stagecraft—the Taliban’s desecration of an art work, the fall of the twin towers on 9/11. But events grind to a halt for interstitial soliloquies that seem to present verbatim speeches by people like Clinton, Massoud, fired General Stanley McChrystal and the Scottish journalist William Dalrymple.   

Each of the playlets presents an interesting situation and idea but the fictional characters come and go so quickly that it’s hard to develop a rooting interest in any of them.  The firm hand of a good dramaturge might have have helped hold the whole thing together

My mind wandered throughout the seven and a half hours (intermissions and meal breaks raised the marathon commitment by another three hours). That’s not the fault of the actors who do a crackerjack job with the material they’ve been given. In fact, they so effectively disappear into the multiple roles they play that I was surprised when I realized there were so relatively few cast members.

I found myself wishing that Kent, who shares directing duties with Indhu Rubasingham,  had adapted the old James Michener approach to history, in which the tale is told through the linked stories of a couple of families with Zelig-like connections to the major events that hook you into the saga in both an intellectual and visceral way. Instead, The Great Game offers a lot of important “tell” but far too little compelling “show.” 

December 12, 2010

"A Free Man of Color" is Vivid to a Fault

The folks at Lincoln Center Theater probably aren’t having the merriest holiday season. Over the past six weeks, they’ve opened two big shows—Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and A Free Man of Color—and both have been as warmly received by the critics as Sarah Palin would be at the White House Christmas dinner. 

Audiences don’t seem all that crazy about the shows either—the houses for the performances of Women on the Verge have barely been two-thirds full and A Free Man’s have averaged around only 50%. I had problems with these shows too (click here to read my review of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown).  And yet, I think we should be celebrating the folks who run Lincoln Center Theater.

The company must have made boat loads of money on its justly acclaimed production of South Pacific that closed in August after playing to sell-out audiences for most of its 996 performances. Instead of playing it safe and scheduling more revivals, LCT did what nonprofit theater companies should be doing: it used the money to mount ambitious new shows by talented theatermakers.  Not every experiment is going to work.  But how else can people figure out what will unless work they’re given the room—and the dollarsto try something new, even if it does fail.

LCT should get extra credit for putting on A Free Man of Color.  The show was originally scheduled for the 2008-2009 season at the Public Theatre but was dropped, in part, because of the stock market crash and, in part, Guare told the New York Times, because of “artistic differences” (click here to read the complete article). Now, LCT is giving this fantasia of history, comedy and identity politics a home and it has spared no expense to do it.

There’s original music by Jeanine Tesori, scores of lavish and witty costumes by Ann Hould-Ward and an inventive set by David Rockwell that uses every inch of the Vivian Beaumont’s vast stage. The play runs nearly three hours. There are 33 people in the cast. And more ideas in the play than in a graduate-level humanities course—Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson and the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture all make appearances and deliver thought-provoking speeches. You may not like A Free Man of Color but you’re unlikely to be bored by it.

A Free Man of Color was written by John Guare, best known for The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, but the handprints of director George C. Wolfe are all over the play.  And what you think of it may well depend on how you feel about Wolfe’s style of  theatermaking—flamboyant stagecraft, heavy doses of sardonic humor and an abundant use of anachronistically modern references from Frank Sinatra to Hurricane Katrina.   

Your response may also depend on your sensitivities about the issue of race in America. As often happens when Wolfe is dealing with African-American subject matter, blacks in the audience seemed to have a better time than whites.

The story opens in 1801,  right before the U.S. purchases the Louisiana Territory. It is a time, at least as this play would have it, when a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups mingled in an egalitarian New Orleans. The play’s protagonist is  Jacques Cornet,  the title character who was born to a slave mother but has inherited a fortune from his white father that makes him the wealthiest man in New Orleans.  He’s also the vainest (which is why he dresses like a Restoration comedy fop, complete with a cascading periwig) and the randiest (which is why he beds nearly all the women—of all races—in town).

Jeffrey Wright, always a pleasure to see on stage, portrays Cornet with brio and unbridled sexiness. He looks like he’s having a great time (understandable since African-American actors rarely get to play roles like this one) but his antics keep the audience at bay, which makes it hard to care as much as one should when the Louisiana Purchase causes a reversal of fortune for Cornet. 

But Mos, the rapper who has now dropped the surname Def, is marvelously sympathetic and winning in the dual roles of Cornet’s manservant Murmur and the Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture. I found myself wondering if the play might better have been told entirely from Murmur's point of view.

Some point of view might have helped make it more successful. Even though Guare and Wolfe reportedly cut about two hours worth of material, there’s still a lot going on in this play.  Too much. It lacks the discipline and focus that might make it easier for people to digest.   

Still, I’m glad they and Lincoln Center were daring enough to do it.  And that I got the chance to see it.  If you hurry, you can too; it’s playing through Jan. 9.

December 8, 2010

Why "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" Really Breaks Down

Maybe there can be too much of a good thing.  There was no show that I wanted to see more this fall than Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Many people, like my friend Joy, wanted to see it because they were fans of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's kaleidoscopic 1988 movie about a group of friends and lovers in post-Franco Madrid.  But I was looking forward to the Broadway musical version because of its cast: Laura Benanti! Brian Stokes Mitchell! Sherie Rene Scott! and Patti LuPone!!   

The Lincoln Center production now playing at the Belasco Theatre is like one of those extravaganza movies from the 1950s when desperate producers packed as many stars into a film as they could, even if they weren’t quite sure what to do with all of them. Alas, that seems to be the problem here too.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has too many marquee-name talents and each of them obviously—maybe even contractually for all I know—has to have a big number. So the action slows down to give one to each of them, as well as to their slightly less luminary co-stars who include de’Adre Aziza, Danny Burstein, Mary Beth Peil, and Justin Guarini, fulfilling what seems to be a requirement that every Broadway musical now must have at least one former “American Idol” contestant. 

This beneficence causes another set of problems because Almodòvar packed a lot of plot into his movie.  And the challenge for book writer Jeffrey Lane was to hone in on the essence of its multiple storylines. (Click here to read a piece in London’s Independent on the difficulty of the task.) 

Lane squeezes in the familiar stuff from the film—the mambo-loving cabbie, the model with the Shiite terrorist boyfriend, the missed answering machine messages (this is the ‘80s) a burning bed and the gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills—but he fails to make sense of it all.  Or to make it fun.  Halfway in, I was still trying to figure out what was going on.  And I hadn’t cracked one smile.

The musical might still have worked if director Bartlett Sher had managed to transport the spirit of the film’s flamboyant zaniness onto the stage but, with one or two exceptions, he falls down on the job too. Sher keeps things moving but people don’t seem to know where they’re going.  Sometimes they’re left hanging in midair. Literally. Maybe it just took too much energy to wrangle all those idiosyncratic talents into a cohesive whole. 

One exception to all this bad news is the performance Benanti gives as the airhead model Candela.  Benanti dares to turn her character into an over-the-top cartoon, which turns out to be just the kind of loopiness that would have done the whole show good. 

LuPone, who plays a jilted wife, has a couple of moments too. One involves a wig.  The other comes when she simply stands center stage in a black dress and sings the hell out of a ballad called “Invisible,” which is the best number in David Yazbek’s Latin-flavored score.  Burstein brings his innate likeability to the role of the cabbie but the rest of the cast, particularly Scott, who plays the woman at the center of the maelstrom,  remains adrift.

Lincoln Center has spared no expense on the show. There are 25 people in the cast and 17 musicians in the pit (not up to the glorious standard of the 30 in the company's now-legendary production of South Pacific, but still impressive these days when the first thing producers cut is the size of the orchestra). 

Michael Yeargan’s multi-faceted set uses just about every gadget in the toolkit including Sven Ortel’s frenetic video projections. Catherine Zuber has just as much fun with her extravagant, neon-colored costumes. While Charles LaPointe deserves a special shout-out for his intentionally hilarious wigs.

But no show this fall, not even the ones that closed prematurely, has gotten worse reviews than Women on the Verge.  Even the few critics who kind of liked it, like the New York Post’s Elizabeth Vincentelli, consider it a “mess.” (Click here to check out the StageGrade rundown of all the reviews)

Sometimes, of course, real folks embrace a show that the critics reject, as has happened with last spring’s even more critically reviled The Addams Family.  That might be the case with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  But I doubt it.  

The trailer, however, is quite entertaining.  So, in the spirit of holiday giving, here it is:

December 4, 2010

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"--The Recount

A windfall of shows descended on Broadway over the past couple of months but it came at a time when many people are still digging out from the recession. So it’s sad but not surprising that shows are closing almost as fast as they’re opening (click here to read my fellow blogger Jonathan Mandell’s excellent rundown of departing shows).  And this week came news that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is going to pack it in on Jan. 2.

I wasn’t a big fan of this satirical musical about the nation’s seventh president when I saw it down at the Public Theater last spring (click here to read my review) but I liked it more when my niece Jennifer and I saw it at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre this week.  

I'll admit that my semi-aboutface was probably influenced by seeing the show with Jennifer this time around. As regular readers know, she can be a far tougher critic than I and not one to mince her words. But she loved this show.  What I had called jejune, she thought hilarious.  What I’d found a sophomoric mishmash, Jennifer, a history nut, considered to be a sophisticated mashup of historical and contemporary events.

But what also won me over this time was the go-for-broke performance that Benjamin Walker gives in the title role. I'd thought he was terrific when I first saw the show but I've become an even bigger fan after learning that Walker, who has been with the show from the very start, turned down a part in one of the “X-Men” movies to bring Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson to Broadway.  It was a noble thing to do and it nearly broke my heart when I watched how unresponsive the audience was the night Jennifer and I saw the show.  But their listlessness didn’t deter Walker. Trouper to the bone, he pumped himself up and performed as though people were standing on their seats and cheering.

I suspect the wrong people were in the house.  The problem is that I have no idea how to get the right people there.  The reviews split right down the middle.  Some folks found the show sublime; others thought it silly. But the audience down at the Public, where tickets were less than half as expensive, was largely young, hip and rowdy in their appreciation. 

The seat warmers at the Jacobs looked to be their grandparents. And I mean that literally. Some of the oldtimers, like the guy sitting next to Jennifer, got into the spirit of things and looked to be having a good time. But too many others were like the woman in front of me, who slouched down in her seat and clearly wished she’d gone to see Promises, Promises instead.

Broadway can’t survive this way.  Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson isn't going to end up on my top 10 list this year but there are some terrific young people doing some adventurous work that other adventurous young people deserve to have the chance to see on Broadway.  But most of them, like Jennifer and my stepdaughter Anika, can’t afford Broadway prices.  It’s not enough just to bring new material to Broadway, someone has got to figure out a way to bring new audiences there too. Because
we old diehards are eventually going to die out.

Producers are handicapped by the small size of the old landmark Broadway theaters we all love. Costs go up but the number of seats stay the same. That means ticket prices have to go up.  And that means fewer people can afford to go see a show. Which in turn means that fewer young people are getting in the habit of seeing one. Something’s got to give. 

Here’s a thought: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs just 90 minutes.  I wondered if it might have done better if it had offered two performances a night—say one at 6:30, another at 10
and cut the ticket price for each performance in half so that the show’s real target audience could afford to see it.

I know the unions would have to be persuaded to bend all kinds of rules to allow something like that to happen. And it's not my intention to pick on the unions cause I’m married to a longtime member of Local 802. Investor equations would probably have to change too. But unless the folks on the business end start coming up with ideas as imaginative as those on the creative side, Broadway could one day become no more than a memory just like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson will soon be.

December 1, 2010

Long Story Short Serves Up Quick Laughs

In the spirit of the show-at-hand’s title and its concise running time, I’m going to try to keep this relatively short.  I didn’t expect to have a good time at Long Story Short, the one-man show currently playing at The Helen Hayes Theatre after a successful off-Broadway run last summer. It’s written and performed by Colin Quinn, who is probably most famous for having appeared on five seasons of the sketch comedy TV show “Saturday Night Live.” 

I’ve never seen a complete episode of “SNL.” Stand-up comedy may be my second least favorite form of entertainment (ice hockey is probably the first) and a stand-up routine is basically what this show is. For Quinn just stands alone on stage for 75 minutes and riffs on the rise and decline of empires over the past 3,000 or so years. And yet, he had me about five minutes into the show.

It wasn’t his opening bit about how all humanity is descendant from the pricks who grabbed everything for themselves, dooming the survival of the less fit. It was the supporting anecdote about visiting his sick aunt in the hospital and his family’s battle for the visitors’ chairs that had to be shared with the family of the patient in the other bed. I’ve been there and done that. It was funny and true.  And so is the rest of this show. 

Quinn’s musing about history aren’t all that original but they’re smart, amusing and surprisingly mild-mannered. People—whole races of them—get put down in Quinn’s jokes (laughing at someone’s foibles is what humor is all about) but he puts them down gently. The show is directed by his buddy Jerry Seinfeld (who modestly identifies himself in the Playbill as “a comedian who resides in New York City with his wife and three children”) and it shares the genial misanthropy that made the old “Seinfeld” sitcom such a big hit.

One can imagine the good time Quinn and Seinfeld had putting this show together, although Seinfeld's later gratuitous remarks about Broadway on the Letterman Show aren’t likely to win him any friends come Tony time.  “Main thing people want to know when they’re at a Broadway show is “When do I get the hell out of here,” he told Dave, explaining the brevity of Long Story Short.

That isn’t so funny.  Nor, as New York Post theater critic Elisabeth Vincentelli pointed out on her blog, is the ticket price, which runs up to $98, and more for the premium aisle seats.  Quinn’s performance is probably twice as long as the routine he might do at a comedy club and the stage show has some flashy video projections by David Gallo but the cost of seeing it all at the Helen Hayes is more than twice as expensive as it would be to see a headliner at one of the city’s top comedy clubs. Plus at the club, you can drown your sorrow about the laugh-to-keep-from-crying state of the world in a drink.

November 27, 2010

Holiday Gifts for Theater Lovers-The 2010 List

They say it’s not the gift but the thought that counts.  Still, the gifts that tend to be the most fun to get—and give—are the ones that are mindful of what will most please the recipient. If you’ve got theater lovers on your list, you already know you can’t lose if you give them tickets to a show.  And, as usual, the folks at Telecharge  and TKTS are offering special holiday gift cards.  But there are other treats that will also delight your favorite show queen (or king) and so here are a few of them on my annual list of 12 gift ideas ( you can find other still goodies on last year's list and the one for 2008). As usual, there's one idea for each day of Christmas, although I suspect that those who prefer to celebrate Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Ashura or just the Winter Solstice would be happy to get them too:

“GLEE STUFF:  Know a Gleek? That's what fans of the hit TV series about a high school glee club call themselves. The show has become must-see TV for theater lovers because it showcases show tunes and star turns from stage folks like series’ regulars Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele as well as guest appearances by such Broadway faves as Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff, Cheyenne Jackson and Idina Menzel.  So either a “Glee” wall calendar or the show’s Christmas album (12 songs from “We Need A Little Christmas” to “O Holy Night”) are sure to make welcome stocking stuffers. Both are just $9.99 at

SHOW MASKS JEWELRY: The ancient symbols of comedy and tragedy date back to the Greeks but over the millennia, designers have never seemed to tire of coming up with new ways to portray them. The folks at Showbits, an online gift shop for theater lovers, have collected over two dozen masks in the form of cuff links, earrings, lapel pins, key chains, and money clips. None is priced higher than $20 at

SHAKESPEARE COASTERS.  The Royal Shakespeare Company is offering a clever set of drink coasters, engraved with appropriate sayings from the Bard.  There is, as you might expect, "If music be the food of love play on" from Twelfth Night but also "The Tartness of his face sours ripe grapes" from Coriolanus. The set of six costs £5.45, or about $8.50 at the current exchange rate, although that doesn’t include the shipping.

BE A BROADWAY STAR BOARDGAME. Who wants to just acquire property and land on Boardwalk in "Monopoly," when they can acquire fans and maybe end up in the Broadway Hall of Fame with the new board game created by the industrious producer Ken Davenport? "Be A Broadway Star" is an interactive game that recreates each step of the actor’s journey from training in acting school to winning a Tony and, along the way, players have to actually perform songs and dialog. The winner is the one who ends up with the most fan cards.  It's $35 at

WII'S DANCE ON BRAODWAY:  Rock fans have "Guitar Hero" and now people who love musical theater have our own music video game too. You need a video console like Microsoft’s Xbox 360 or Sony's PlayStation 3 if you want to indulge your fantasy of being a Broadway showgirl or guy. But the game offers a fun workout as players dance along to choreographed routines for 20 Broadway numbers including "Let The Sunshine In" from Hair, "You Can't Stop the Beat" from Hairspray, and “Roxie” from Chicago. Plus it’s great to see Broadway tipping its toe back into mainstream pop culture. The games are available at big box stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy and at, where it cost about $21 at

THE BROADWAY MUSICAL QUIZ BOOK  Serious theater lovers can’t help boasting about how much they know about old shows.  And so the ones on your list are bound to be delighted—and challenged—by this terrific collection of quizzes on every aspect of the Broadway musical from the name of the island that provided the setting for Sunday in the Park with George to the name of the only musical inspired by a work of Anton Chekhov. It’s like the Sunday Times crossword puzzle for theater geeks and for only $11.55 at

FINISHING THE HAT BY STEPHEN SONDHEIM.  There are shelf loads of theater books that would make great holiday presents. But it will be hard this year to beat this compilation of lyrics that Sondheim wrote between 1954 and 1981 (that’s West Side Story through Merrily We Roll Along, with stops along the way for Gypsy, Company, Follies and Sweeney Todd, among others).  Just the chance to read the lyrics is a treat but Broadway’s resident genius has sweetened the experience by annotating them with his memories about making the shows, anecdotes about his collaborators and some pointed remarks about his peers, all for just $23.

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN'S AMERICAN SONGBOOK DVD. Feinstein has been a tireless advocate for the songs, many of them written for Broadway musicals from the ‘20s through the ‘60s, that form the Great American Songbook but never more so than in this three-part documentary that ran on PBS.  The two-DVD set includes not only Feinstein’s performance of tunes by Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and the Gershwins but rare archival footage of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Nat King Cole that he’s collected over the years. It's $39.95 from the PBS shop at

BROADWAY CARES/EQUITY FIGHTS AIDS SNOW GLOBE:  The folks at the theater community’s leading service organization come up with a new goodie each Christmas and this year’s is a collectible snow globe designed by the Tony-winning set designer David Gallo. It features an imaginative cityscape of the Theater District complete with logoed posters, taxi cabs and dancing chorus girls.  $80 at

BROADWAY LEGENDS CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS:  These special-edition figurines of Carol Channing in her signature role from Hello, Dolly! and Chita Rivera as Anita in West Side Story, will look good both on and under the tree. Chita (Item# OR750) cost $50 and Carol (Item# OR751) $55 but the money goes to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

PLAYBILL WRAPPING PAPER  I realize that I’m running the risk of coming off as a shill for Broadway Cares by including this third item from its store.  But I can’t resist the idea of wrapping paper (Item# GW423) decorated with the Playbills of classic shows ranging from Annie Get Your Gun and the Music Man to Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia!  It’s $10 a roll (26 inches wide by 10 feet long) at

VINTAGE PLAYBILLS:  In an act of incredible generosity, my friend Joy gave me a birthday gift of the complete set of Playbills from my birth year. It’s a wonderful treat because you not only get to see who appeared in the show, which you can do on, but the ads, the prices that restaurants were charging for dinner and the feature articles, which are full of information and insight about the theater of the time.  You needn’t be as munificent as Joy, just one carefully chosen Playbill can delight the fan of that show.  Prices start for as little as 99 cents on eBay

 Finally, I hope you’ll forgive me for making this a baker’s dozen by tooting my own horn but I can't help reminding you that there are also some really fun (and affordable) gifts at the Broadway & Me store at http://www.broadwayandmestore

So, happy shopping.  Happy holidays. And, of course, happy theatergoing.

November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Turkey can  be a tricky word in the theater, even on Thanksgiving Day. So, I’m just going to wish you and yours a day, a season, a year full of things to be thankful for—including lots of good shows to see.

November 24, 2010

"The Pee-Wee Herman Show" is Big Fun

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  So says the Bible.   

But that’s not the way we do things anymore.  We cling to our childish things. Fiercely.  Fans who grew up with the Harry Potter series haven’t abandoned their hero just because they’re now old enough to have kids of their own. The New York Times reports that 25% of the people who saw the latest film installment of the boy wizard’s saga this past weekend were between the ages of 18 and 34. 

And judging by the ovation that greets Paul Reubens when he walks onto the stage of the newly named Stephen Sondheim Theatre, his fans are still crazy about him too.  For most of the people clapping madly, stomping their feet and whistling with delight grew up with Reubens’ signature character Pee-Wee Herman and they were giddy about being there to see his new live version of The Pee-Wee Herman Show (click here to read a droll New York Magazine Q&A with Reubens). 

Producers are always wondering how to get people who aren’t collecting Social Security into the theater, well this show seems to have cracked the secret: put something on that people under 50 relate to.

In fact, the last time I heard an ovation like the one that Reubens got was when I went to see Spamalot and the Monty Python fans started laughing at skits before they’d even begun. The folks at the Sondheim knew their gags too. They cheered when the curtain rose to reveal Dave Korins’ faithful reproduction of the set from the old 1980s TV show and they welcomed each of the show’s iconic characters with screams of delight.

The loudest noise—after the din for Reubens—was reserved for the old series regulars Lynne Marie Stewart, who reprised her role as Pee-Wee’s neighbor Miss Yvonne, and John Paragon as the blue-faced genie-in-a-box Jambi.  The non-human characters like Chairry, a plush and affectionate armchair; Globey, a spinning globe; and Conky, the resident robot, are back too but wittily animated this time by the inventive puppeteer Basil Twist. 

The new stage show, directed by Alex Timbers (who, having helmed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and this, is emerging as Broadway’s go-to-guy for hip fare) doesn’t have much of a plot.  Pee-Wee, the eternal manchild, wants to fly and has to decide whether to use the magic wishes he’s been given to fulfill his dream or help-out his friends. In a nod to contemporary times, he also tries to buy and hook up a new computer.

It’s thin stuff. But sturdy enough for the fans, who come to revel in the old bits, including Pee-Wee’s herky-jerky jitterbug and the required screaming at each utterance of the secret word of the day.  Spoiler alert: the word is “fun.”

But the audience also chuckled heartily at the new double entendres including a couple of sly references to the 1991 arrest for indecent exposure inside a porno movie theater that almost ruined Reuben’s career.  “I’m glad he mentioned it,” said my friend Jessie, a longtime Pee-Wee fan who feels that Reubens was unfairly hounded and a victim of homophobia.

There’s always been a subversive not-just-for-the-kids quality to the Pee-Wee character that plays both to youngsters and hipsters. The perennially cool Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller were in the audience at the performance Jessie and I attended. 

Such broad appeal probably reflects Reubens’ training with the Groundlings, the legendary L.A.-based improv troupe where Will Ferrell, Kathy Griffin, and the late Phil Hartman also cut their comedy teeth.  Hartman actually appeared on the TV show as did Laurence Fishburne and S. Epatha Merkerson.

Watching the 90-minute show at the Sondheim can feel like being at someone else’s school reunion. But newcomers aren’t entirely shut out.  A little girl in the row behind me who looked to be about seven shrieked with laughter. And even I smiled more than a few times.  I guess The Pee-Wee Herman Show brought out the child in me.

November 20, 2010

"Elf" is a Sugarplum-Sweet Christmas Treat

It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that a semi-professional grouch like me is not the target audience for Elf, the new musical version of the 2003 Will Ferrell movie about a man who believes he’s a Christmas elf.  But my sister Joanne sits right in the bullseye of that demographic. She has a huge soft spot for holiday shows. And she’s not alone.

Joanne and I ran into an old colleague of mine and her 14 year-old daughter Melissa at the performance we attended. Melissa was so excited about the show that she was snapping pictures of everything—the marquee outside the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, the curtain inside, the ushers—with her cell phone camera and instant mailing the photos to her envious friends.   

In fact, cameras were popping all over the place and the anticipation in the air was as rich and thick as an eggnog. A quartet of Russian speakers sitting next to me chatted excitedly—Miss Daisy and Mamma Mia! were the only words I recognized—but they kept looking at their watches, obviously impatient for Elf to begin.

Two hours and 15 minutes later, Joanne, Melissa and the Russian ladies all left with big smiles on their faces. And I hadn’t had a bad time either. Sebastian Arcelus, who plays Buddy the Elf, is no Will Ferrell but he’s tall and hardworking and once his nerves settle down quite appealing in a relentlessly cheery way that’s totally appropriate for the title role.

The rest of the 26-member cast, which includes Broadway stalwarts like Beth Leavel, Amy Spanger and Michael McCormick, is out to please too. And director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps them bouncing along with the kind of song-and-dance numbers that don’t break any new ground but are fun to watch.

The show is produced by Warner Bros., which made sack loads of money off the movie and clearly hopes that it can extend the brand with this stage version (click here to read an article about its strategy), and so the book sticks close to the film script.  But you can still make out the handprints of the writers Thomas Meehan (a triple Tony winner for Annie, The Producers and Hairspray) and Bob Martin (who took home his own statue for The Drowsy Chaperone).

The show starts right off with a sly homage to Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in Chair: the first thing you see in Elf is a joke-cracking Santa who’s seated in an armchair and talking directly to the audience.  The fact that he’s played by George Wendt (forever beloved as Norm from the old sitcom “Cheers”) only adds to the audience's delight.

This Elf goes all out to please kids of all ages. There are sight gags and topical jokes about Charlie Sheen and iPads, right in step with the pop cultural references that have made recent movie cartoons like "Shrek" such moneymakers. 

David Rockwell’s sets intentionally echo Christmas pop-up books, Gregg Barnes’ costumes are seasonably jolly and the music by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, the duo behind the stage version of The Wedding Singer, is so Christmasy that people in the audience started to sing along as though they already knew the songs.  

Now, it probably won’t surprise you that most of the critics, who get paid for being grouches, are crying “Humbug.”  Grinches to the bone, they find Elf “helplessly corny,” “sappy,” “too sweet” and “sentimental.”  They’re right. Elf is not hip.  Or ironic. It’s an unabashedly schmaltzy show. But hell, if you can't be corny, sentimental and sweet at Christmas, when can you be?

November 17, 2010

"La Bête" Draws Another Losing Hand

It’s a dog- eat-dog season on Broadway this fall.  And having big names in the cast doesn’t seem to be enough to guarantee survival. Last week, A Life in the Theatre, which has movie and TV stars Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, announced that it was going to close five weeks ahead of schedule. And now has come word that La Bête, which stars David Hyde Pierce, still beloved for his years on the old hit sitcom “Frasier,” and the less-well known but also Tony-winning British actor Mark Rylance, will end its run on Jan. 9, a month earlier than originally planned. 

I think the culprit is too many shows. Over a dozen new productions have opened on Broadway in just the past two months. And that’s been alongside an equal number of high-profile off-Broadway shows, like the Signature Theatre Company’s sensational revival of Angels in America. So it’s taking more than a well-known face to stand out in the crowd.

 La Bête was probably an iffy proposition right from the start. The critics panned the original production back in 1991 and it ran just 40 performances, including previews.  I managed to see one of those performances and I came away beguiled by the show. The image of its startling white and slightly askew set is as vivid in my mind’s eye as it was when I saw it at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre nearly 20 years ago.  But this time around, my feelings are mixed.

It’s not just that I no longer get the satisfaction of being one of the few who’s seen the show on a Broadway stage but that this production isn’t entirely satisfying. I'm not blaming the play itself.  La Bête is as ambitious a show as has appeared on Broadway this season. Playwright David Hirson takes on the age-old battle between art and commerce—and he does it in rhymed couplets. 

The plot centers around two 17th century men of the theater. Elomire (the name is an anagram for the great French playwright Molière) is the highbrow head of a court-sponsored theater troupe. Valere is a lowbrow street entertainer (he’s the beast of the title). They’re thrust together when the royal patron who supports both men (a prince in the original production but here a princess played by “Absolutely Fabulous” co-diva Joanna Lumley) orders them to collaborate on a new production. What ensues is an amusing but thought-provoking clash between class and crass.

Ironically, that same struggle is reflected in this production. And it isn’t a spoiler to say that this time out, crass wins.  You can tell that by the cover of the Playbill on which a wary-eyed Hyde Pierce, who plays Elomire, has been assigned a Snidely Whiplash mustache, while Rylance, the show’s Valere, sports a cheerful clown’s nose. 

But the production’s true colors are on their most vivid display in the 30-minute monologue that Rylance gives near the start of the show. The speech, a tour-de-force for any actor, is intended to underscore how pretentious Valere is but, with the complicity of director Matthew Warchus, Rylance resorts to the kind of gross-out humor (belches, farts, food spitting) that would be at home in the crudest Farrelly brothers movie (click here to read a piece about he put his schtick together). It’s an audacious performance but that doesn’t mean it’s an apt one.

Still, the audience the night my friend Ann and I saw the show couldn’t get enough of it. The twentysomething couple sitting next to me guffawed delightedly at all of Rylance’s antics. I grimaced.  In the days of Shakespeare and even Molière, the choice presented here between high and low art was a false dichotomy: they brilliantly embraced both.  We may live in less ecumenical theatrical times but the deck in this production seems unfairly stacked. 

The set may have been off-kilter in the original production but the values were in balance; a theater lover could appreciate the tension between art’s often conflicting desires to enlighten, entertain and earn a living for its practitioners. This time however, Hyde Pierce’s elegant performance doesn’t stand a chance next to Rylance’s beastly shenanigans. That means that in the end, everybody, even my amused seatmates, loses. Taking the higher road, La Bête still might have closed early but at least it would have done so with its dignity intact.

November 13, 2010

"Spirit Control" Spins Too Far Out of Control

It usually takes no more than the first 15 minutes of a play for me to tell if I’m going to be in for something special or for one of those evenings when I’m sneaking peeks at my watch. Spirit Control, the new drama currently playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club through Dec. 5, proved to be an exception to that rule.

I was totally riveted during the play’s first 15 minutes as an air traffic controller tries to talk down a small plane flown by a terrified woman whose boyfriend has suffered a heart attack while he was flying.  I was totally bored by the rest of the play, as it tracks the lives of the incident’s survivors over the next 25 years.

I’d had higher hopes for this show. Playwright Beau Willimon has won a slew of awards, been playwright-in-residence at London’s famed Donmar Warehouse and previously wrote Farragut North, a much-praised political drama inspired by Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign that is being made into a movie by George Clooney. But neither Willimon nor director Henry Wishcamper has figured out how to make us care about Spirit Control’s characters or about what happens to them after those first gut-wrenching moments.

In fact, they seem confused about what kind of play this is. It unfolds at times like an existential thriller; at others like a domestic melodrama—sometimes within the same scene. Two women sitting behind my buddy Bill and me apparently decided that it was a comedy.  They kept barking out laughs at inappropriate moments while the rest of the audience sat dazed and confused.  “What’s the point?,” I finally whispered to Bill.

The acting almost rescues it. Jeremy Sisto, who has made a name for himself on TV in HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and as one of the detectives on the recently departed “Law & Order,” has the stage chops to make the air controller a compelling character and Mia Barron brings an appropriately unsettling seductiveness to the role of a mysterious woman he meets. But Willimon gives them and the rest of the able cast too little to work with. 

Sisto told the New York Post that he asked the playwright for help with his character (click here to read the article). Willimon says he complied with a letter explaining why he’d written the play. I wish he’d send a copy to me.

November 10, 2010

"A Life in the Theatre" Suffers an Early Death

Who would have thought that a play starring “Star Trek”s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard and “Grey’s Anatomy”s  Dr. George O’ Malley would be playing to a half-full house on a Friday night?  But that was the case when my husband K and I saw Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight in the current revival of A Life in the Theatre, which opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Oct. 12. And it's what made it less of a surprise when the word came yesterday that the play has shortened its limited run and will close at the end of this month, five week’s ahead of schedule.

A Life in the Theatre, which has been called playwright David Mamet’s love letter to the theater, charts the travails of two actors in a middling repertory company.  One is older and trying to hang on to a career that hasn’t turned out quite as he’d dreamed it would.  The other is an up-and-comer whose future is still full of possibilities. They’re played here—and winningly—by Stewart and Knight, who not only have their movie and TV followings but the stage chops to bring off the parts.

The high star wattage and the low overhead of just a two-man cast would seem to be a producer’s dream.  But there were early signs that the production might not have been destined for a long life: it took 20 producers to bring the 90-minute show to Broadway.  And maybe it shouldn’t have come.

A Life in the Theatre is a small show and Santo Loquasto’s nimble set, which places the actors onstage, in the wings, and at their dressing tables, is almost too grand, as though it has to justify ticket prices that go up as high as $121.50. 

I remember being both amused and moved when I saw the original, and considerably more modest, production back in the late ‘70s. But this time, I was only slightly amused and found myself wondering what’s the point?  What’s the story here? Some of the blame for that has to go to director Neil Pepe. 

Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company, which Mamet co-founded, is an old hand at helming Mamet plays but this one is something of an anomaly in the Mamet canon and requires a different touch than the playwright’s usual macho slugfests. 

Pepe hits the laughs in A Life in the Theatre hard as the characters withstand all kinds of mishaps—from scenery malfunctions to missed cues—during the play’s 26 quick-fire scenes and as many costume changes. Kudos are due to costume designer Laura Bauer and to the unsung dressers Moira Conrad and Julien Havard who get Stewart and Knight in and out of a series of hilarious outfits and wigs within seconds (click here to read Stewart’s account of the fast changes).

But Pepe’s direction falls short when it comes to showing how the relationship between the two men evolves over time and how, in essence, they represent the continuum in the life of most actors.  Without that,  A Life in the Theatre comes off as little more than an acting exercise.  Which, in light of the show’s premature closing, apparently isn’t enough.