February 27, 2010

Smart Gay History with "The Pride" and "Yank!"

February is supposed to be black history month.  But over the past few weeks, theater in New York has seemed obsessed with gay history, particularly the period from the late-‘40s to the mid-‘60s when, as Charles Kaiser argues in his seminal book “The Gay Metropolis,” homosexuals who had once felt isolated discovered legions of others like themselves during World War II and began to dream of—and in some cases to fight for—a society in which they would be treated the same as anyone else. 

The stories of that time are brought to vivid life in The Temperamentals,  the moving docu-drama about the founding of the first gay rights organization in the U.S. that recently moved to an open-ended run at New World Stages (click here to read my review); The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley’s pioneering look at gay life in pre-Stonewall Manhattan, currently being revived in a site-specific Transport Group production that has just been extended to March 28; and in two fascinating new shows that have opened over the past couple of weeks: the drama The Pride and the musical Yank!

The Pride, which MCC Theater is presenting at the Lucille Lortel Theatre down in the Village, is a wonderfully theatrical British import that juxtaposes the experiences of gay men in scenes that alternate between 1958 and 2008.  The main characters are called by the same names in both time periods but the lives they lead are vastly different. In the earlier period, the men are forced to hide their sexuality and their love for one another, at times even from themselves. Their modern counterparts live openly and celebrate themselves in gay pride parades but struggle with issues of love and commitment.

Playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell may have overworked the contrasts (nearly all the gay men I know are in loving long-term relationships or want them as much as my hetero friends do) but that doesn’t make his play any less affecting, particularly as directed by Joe Mantello and performed by the rising movie stars Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw, equally brilliant as the men in both eras and superbly supported by Andrea Riseborough who fully realizes the two very different woman in their lives and Adam James as three characters, all of whom he plays with distinctive panache. (Click here to watch a video in which Campbell and the cast members discuss the play).

Some audience members who attended previews—including my pal Bill—were initially confused by the time shifting. Bill actually went back to see the show and emailed me that he he now appreciates it as much as I do. The 1958 scenes, which have the advantage of distance and an inherent drama, are particularly touching. The scene that opens the second act is, by itself, worth the ticket price. If you’re under 30, you can get one for just $20 bucks by clicking here.

Yank!, which is playing at York Theatre through March 21, is an unabashedly more simple and sentimental show.  Written by the brothers Joseph and David Zellnik, it’s one of those they-don’t-make-them-like-they-used-to musical romances, right down to the Agnes de Mille-style dream ballet in the second act, except that this time the lovers are two men.

The main character Stu is a young soldier during World War II, who comes out during basic training and falls in love with a more closeted member of his squad. The score is a pastiche of 1940s music but, although World War II probably ended before the Zellnik’s parents were even born, the brothers have a good ear for that era and some of their songs, particularly the love ballads, sound as though they might actually have come from the Hit Parade of that time. (Click here to read an interview the brothers did with my fellow blogger Patrick Lee).

Stu is played with all-out charm by Bobby Steggert, who recently won raves for his performance as Mother’s Younger Brother in the revival of Ragtime that closed last month, and he pairs perfectly Ivan Hernandez, who brings brooding good looks and a virile baritone to the part of Stu’s lover Mitch. Nancy Anderson, the only woman in the show (there aren’t lots of female parts in these gay plays and as the New York Post critic Elisabeth Vincentelli has pointed out—click here to read it
the lesbian experience is largely missing from these staged histories) but Anderson would standout any way for her game turn in a wide variety of roles.  

But I, and judging by the applause, the rest of the audience at the performance I attended, was particularly won over by Jeffry Denman, who not only plays Stu’s flamboyant mentor at the military magazine "Yank" where they both end up working (yes, I know, you thought the title meant something else) but he also choreographed the show. Denman, who’s appeared in a slew of Broadway shows and Encores! productions, is an old-fashioned song-and-dance guy and he always looks happiest when he’s doing a tap routine so he’s included a few in the show and they’re terrific. The entertainment even continues in the lobby, where real WWII-era copies of “Yank’ decorate the walls.
Yet I have to confess that the most memorable thing about seeing Yank! for me was the 45 minutes I spent stuck in the elevator at Saint Peter’s Church where the show is playing in its basement theater.  Firemen had to be called to rescue the nine of us who were trapped and they had to lower a ladder through the roof so that we could climb out and then jump from the top of the elevator car to the landing. The York folks were great and actually held the show for us. While we waited for the firemen to get there, one of the men who works at the church regaled the rest of us with stories about how the elevator breaks down fairly regularly.  

So here’s what I've learned from my history lessons over the past couple of weeks:  people who love theater that is as socially-conscious as it is entertaining should  go see both The Pride and Yank!  But if they opt for the musical, they definitely should take the stairs.

February 24, 2010

Lamenting the Misadventure of "Mr. & Mrs. Fitch"

Here’s my dilemma. I want to applaud good actors for taking risks and good theater companies for supporting new works. But I can’t help feeling cranky when the attempt fizzles. And that, alas, is precisely what happens with Mr. & Mrs. Fitch, the new comedy that opened at Second Stage Theatre on Monday night.

The play, a two-hander, is about a married pair of gossip columnists who are finding it harder and harder to dig up scoops in our celebrity-saturated society where the famous announce their indiscretions on Twitter or hold press conferences to apologize for them.  The subject would seem to be perfect for Douglas Carter Beane, who has shown himself to be a master of both highbrow and lowbrow satire with such works as As Bees in Honey Drown, The Little Dog Laughed and the book for Xanadu

This time out, however, Beane’s observations aren’t as fresh and his jokes aren’t so funny.  Most of the reviews I’ve seen have quoted the quip “You know, theater, that thing that movie people do when they want to announce they’re available for television.” It does get one of the evening’s biggest laughs but it also sounds as though it were a not-quite-good-enough line that got dropped from The Little Dog Laughed.

The agonies of desperate columnists might have worked well as a sketch for “Saturday Night Live” but there simply isn’t enough here to fill out the plays’s one hour and 50 minutes running time.  Or for the actors to flesh out real characters. Still, they try. John Lithgow, who, as fans of his old sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun” know, can and will do anything for a laugh, pulls out all his tricks—contorted facial expressions, droll vocal inflections, rubbery-limbed dances—all to little avail.  It’s even tougher for Jennifer Ehle. She's a superb dramatic actress, as two Tonys attest, but playing funny doesn’t come naturally for her. Ehle, like Lithgow, is too talented and too smart to be out-and-out bad but you can see her straining to be just O.K.

The technical crew is off-kilter too. Scott Ellis directs everything at a high pitch. After a while, that simply becomes shrill. Set designer Allen Moyer, who apparently has never been in the home of a working journalist, has designed a duplex apartment for the Fitches that is fabulous in both the sublime and ridiculous senses of the word. Jeff Mahshie’s costumes are snazzy but don’t seemed designed with the script’s fast changes, or Ehle's elegant beauty, in mind.

I still think artists should be able to experiment.  But I also wish that ticket-buying audiences didn't have to pay the price for it.

February 20, 2010

A Distancing "View From the Bridge"

Say what you will about having movie stars in Broadway shows but they bring out an audience.  And an excited one too.  A young woman picking up her tickets at the Cort Theatre for A View from the Bridge the night my husband K and I saw the show was apparently so thrilled at the prospect of seeing its stars Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson that she literally kissed her tickets before waving them triumphantly at her girlfriend. 

The excitement carried over to the inside too.  In fact, some members of the audience were so worked up that they kept breaking into applause.  Right in the middle of the performance. I saved my clapping for the curtain call but I was excited about seeing the show too.  And not just because of its stars, although I’ve admired their work in the past. I was eager to see A View from the Bridge because it’s my favorite Arthur Miller play. It’s not as great as his Death of a Salesman or The Crucible but it’s the one that made me cry when I was 16, first fell in love with Miller and read every play he'd written up to that point. 

I'll concede that the tears may have had something to do with the fact that I was so close in age to Catherine, the 17 year-old at the center of the drama. But even now, there’s a poignancy to this play that touches me. Miller first wrote A View From the Bridge as a short one-act play and though he later expanded it to the current two-hours running time, the storyline remains simple. Eddie, a Brooklyn-Italian longshoreman, and his wife who have lived for several years with their orphaned niece open their home to two illegal immigrants from the old country. A budding romance between the niece and one of the immigrants stirs the uncle’s own repressed longings for the girl. Tragedy ensues.

There are often echoes of Greek tragedy in Miller’s plays and never more so than in A View From the Bridge, which even has a one-man chorus, the family lawyer, who comments on the action (click here to read a Wall Street Journal about the real Red Hook attorney who inspired the play).  Miller originally wrote the play in verse and its language still retains some of that lyricism.  But the connection to the Theban plays of Sophocles is strongest in the character of Eddie, a decent man undone by a tragic flaw—his unacknowledged feelings for the young woman who is his surrogate daughter.

It’s a juicy role. The sturdy Van Heflin played it in the original 1955 production and 12 years ago, Anthony LaPaglia deservedly won a Tony for his heartrendering performance (he was fighting a cold at the performance I saw and still magnificent).  Now, Schreiber has taken the part. He is, of course, one of our very best stage actors and it’s hard to think of another who is more dedicated to or more thoughtful about his craft. It’s no surprise that he’s the first guest to kick off the new “Broadway Talks” series at the 92nd Street Y that begins on March 1. (Click here  for more information about it OR here to watch a recent interview Schreiber did on Theater Talk.)  The problem may be that Schreiber is too smart to play the part.  His Eddie comes across as too self-aware.  And that undercuts the dawning realizations that make the play a true tragedy.

Much of the attention for this production has focused on Johansson who’s making her Broadway debut as the niece.  The good news is that she’s good enough that I hope she’ll make room in her busy movie career to do more stage work.  I was less pleased with Jessica Hecht, who brought a one-note quality to Eddie’s wary wife but the rest of the cast is fine.  As are the cinematic set by John Lee Beatty, nicely lit by Peter Kaczorowski, the period costumes by Jane Greenwood and the unflashy direction by Gregory Mosher.

Both K and I admired the production and were glad that we got to see it. But I left the theater dry-eyed.

February 17, 2010

A Third Anniversary Message

My mother used to say that time flies when you’re having fun. And, as mothers tend to be more times than we care to admit, she was right.  Because I have been having so much fun writing Broadway & Me and, somehow, three years have now gone by since I started it.

My deepest thanks to those of you who have read, commented, befriended and otherwise kept me company over this time.  I hope each of you—those who subscribe, who follow me on Twitter, are Facebook friends, discovered this blog by clicking on a link, learned about it by old-fashioned word of mouth or Googled your way here—will continue reading and that this next year will be filled for all of us with theater that is thought-provoking, heartwarming and just plain fun.  Cheers,  jan

February 13, 2010

Conversations about Race in "Clybourne Park"

How do we talk about race in the Age of Obama?  Well, this season, it seems that almost every other playwright—on and off Broadway—has something to say on the subject. David Mamet has his characters screaming about it in his new play Race. David Bryan and Joe DePietro have theirs singing about it in Memphis.  And now comes Chicago-based playwright Bruce Norris with Clybourne Park, a new work at Playwrights Horizons that offers an audacious riff on the ur-race play in the American theatrical canon: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

The homage is divided into two very different acts.  The first, contemporaneous with Hansberry’s play, is set in the then all-white enclave of Clybourne Park in the home of the middle-aged couple whose house the black Younger family is preparing to move into when Raisin ends. The second act moves the action up 50 years to the present when an affluent young white couple is attempting to buy and renovate the same house in what during the intervening decades had become a poor black neighborhood. It’s the gentrification story that is playing out across the country as the children and grandchildren of white families that fled to the suburbs now flow back into the center city.

The seven members of the cast, well directed by Pam MacKinnon, play different roles in each act and it’s entertaining to watch such talented actors explore the varied colors in the their emotional palettes. Singling out one seems totally unfair to the others and yet I can’t help giving extra kudos to Frank Wood who changes so much from the first act to the second that I almost didn’t recognize him except that he was so good in both. 

The play’s subject is serious, and of course, sensitive. So Norris works hard to find common ground. There are no heroes or villains. There are a couple of emotional subplots so that everyone who’s ever felt oppressed—and really, who hasn’t—gets at least a nod of recognition. The characters form alliances across race and gender lines. Then break them and form others. Norris also throws in as many tension-relieving laughs as he can, particularly in the second act.

But long before the curtain call, I was feeling unsatisfied.  Very little gets resolved in either act and I found myself asking, “what’s the point?”  After the show, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I stood in the lobby debating the show as the rest of the audience filed out around us.  And who knows, maybe that’s the point of Clybourne Park: to get people talking—not arguing or lecturing or haranguing or justifying—just talking about race.

February 10, 2010

A Grumpy Response to "Happy Now?"

The folks at Primary Stages decided to celebrate their 25th anniversary by dedicating the season to female playwrights.  And you’ve got to give them credit for going beyond the usual suspects. They haven’t staged any Lillian Hellman revivals, Yasmina Reza leftovers or yet another quickie whipped up by Theresa Rebeck.  

Instead, over the past six months, the company has presented a Cusi Cram comedy that's driven by the prickly relationship between two sisters and Charlayne Woodard's one-woman show about a childless woman's relationships with other people's children. And last night, it rounded out the season with Happy Now?, an import by the British playwright Lucinda Coxon about a woman with a demanding job, difficult parents and a needy husband and kids.  I liked the first, missed the second and was totally turned off by the third.

Call me heartless.  Or a traitor to the sisterhood.  But I’ve had it with books, movies or plays where women discover that it’s tough to juggle their personal and professional lives.  D’uh?  And if a writer insists on working this well tilled soil, then she ought to try to come up with some fresh insights.  Instead what we get in Happy Now? is the same old same old we’ve seen countless times before.  In fact, I saw almost the exact same thing a couple of months ago when Playwrights Horizons mounted Melissa James Gibson’s This.

Just as in that also blandly named play, the plot of Happy Now? pivots around whether or not its female protagonist will or won’t have an affair to spice up her humdrum bourgeois life. The women in both plays have smart, quippy friends, wine-stoked dinner parties and the de rigueur gay best friend who is so faithful and, for all intents and purposes, asexual, that’s he’s always available to babysit whenever there’s a family crisis.

The cast in Happy Now?, lead by Mary Bacon as the frazzled heroine, is fine, particularly CJ Wilson in an entertaining turn as the would-be Lothario. Director Liz Diamond has found smart ways to turn the limited space at 59E59 Theaters to the play’s advantage. And I’ve no complaints about the technical team either. But I would still rather get a root canal without novocaine than sit through another two hours of a play like this one.

Of course, I know that one woman’s "too much" can be another woman’s "not enough." Coxon, who’s enjoyed a successful stage and screen career, says she wrote the play because its story “was nowhere to be found on stage.” (Click here to read an interview she gave London’s The Independent last year.)  My friend Joy laughed out loud all during the first act. And Coxon’s play was a hit in London last year and sold out its run at the National Theater.

Most of the New York reviewers loved This and the big-boy critics Charles Isherwood of the New York Times and John Simon at Bloomberg.com have kind things to say about Happy Now? too. But both shows just got on my nerves. I mean
don't women—and women playwrights in particularhave more to say than this? 

Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids.  Or because most of my gay male friends are in decades-long relationships and have active social and sexual lives of their own. Or because the very busy women I know just suck it up and get on with doing what they have to do. But all this yuppie whining just makes me grumpy. 

February 6, 2010

"Time Stands Still" is Time Well Spent

I always feel as though I want to move into the sets at Manhattan Theatre Club productions.  And I totally felt that way about the funky Brooklyn loft that John Lee Beatty has designed for Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies' thought-provoking drama about two war-ravaged journalists.

But I don’t at all envy the lives of the play’s characters.  I tried working as a journalist in a war zone during the mid-80s and it didn’t work for me.  Too scary. Too lonely. Too emotionally draining. The folks who excel at that work are a rare and complex breed and they make fine subjects in this play about the costs of constantly coming face-to-face with the world’s horrors.

The play opens when Sarah, a celebrated war photographer, has returned home after being badly wounded in a car bombing in Iraq. Her partner Jamie, a print journalist, had left a few weeks before bearing his own wounds. The plot centers around their attempts to recuperate and rebuild their lives. The injuries they’ve suffered seem obvious at first but as the play progresses, deeper damage is revealed.

People with first-hand knowledge about a subject can be picky when the world they know is portrayed on stage or on screen (my musician husband K is always rolling his eyes at fictional portrayals of musicians) and so, after having spent my career in the news business, I was prepared to find fault with the play’s depiction of journalists and the work we do. But what I saw rang true. 

Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends about a couple trying to hold on to their marriage in the wake of their best friends’ divorce, obviously knows how to do relationship drama.  But here he also pulls off the trick of making what is essentially an ideas play (what responsibility do journalists have to the subjects they cover? how voyeuristic is watching the suffering of others?) into an affective personal story. 

He is also well served by his frequent collaborator director Daniel Sullivan, who establishes just the right tone of unfussy authenticity.  And the acting is so fine that both K and I felt as though we were peeping toms, peering through a window at real people.

One of the joys of seeing lots of plays over the years is the chance to see good actors take on different roles. Laura Linney seemed miscast the last time I saw her as the sly La Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses but she’s magnificent here as a woman addicted to the adrenalin rush of being on the frontlines.  And so is Brian D’Arcy James, who last appeared under layers of green latex as Shrek but now brings tender humanity to the role of a man who has learned the hard way how to value the quotidian. 

Rounding out the cast and every bit as good are Eric Bogosian as the couple’s best friend and editor and Alicia Silverstone as the younger woman in his life. Bogosian, still best known as the raging shock jock in his Talk Radio, is surprisingly sweet and nobody plays smart-dumb better than Silverstone.

This is the kind of play you want your friends to see so that you can debate it with them. So consider yourself told.  And hurry because it’s scheduled to close on March 21. 

Update:  due to appropriately popular demand, the run has been extended to March 27.

February 3, 2010

Ladies Night at "Love , Loss, and What I Wore"

You could count the number of men at the performance I attended of Love, Loss, and What I Wore.  So I did.  There were 23.  The other 241 seats at the Westside Theatre/Downstairs were filled with women of all ages, sizes and seemingly just about every ethnicity. Love, Loss, a charming rumination on the relationship between women and the clothes they wear, was written by the sisters Nora and Delia Ephron.  So I asked my sister Joanne, an inveterate clothes horse, to see it with me.  We’ve been seeing plays together since before we could legally drink and I can’t remember seeing her have a better time in the theater.

The Ephron sisters adapted the play from a small illustrated memoir in which the ad woman Ilene Beckerman recalled significant clothes in her life. The Ephrons enhanced her tale with stories they solicited from other women they knew. The sisters travel in pretty posh circles (they're the daughters of the screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron who wrote the movie "Desk Set” for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and, of course, Nora has written and/or directed “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Julie & Julia”) so a lot of the tales hail from Manhattan’s Upper East Side or similarly ritzy zip codes. Luckily, good humor leaps over geographic and economic borders.

The show borrows a page from the Vagina Monologues, which played at the same theater, and it features a rotating cast composed of five women who sit on stools with scripts in hand but still manage to give full-out performances. Tyne Daly and Rosie O’Donnell were in the opening night cast and drew the best notices but our gals— Michele Lee,
Tracee Ellis Ross, Debra Monk,  Katie Finneran, and Casey Wilson—were thoroughly entertaining  And they looked to be having as much fun onstage as we were in the audience.  In fact, Lee was having such a good time that she kept cracking herself up.  Which just added to the general merriment.

The stories the women tell include selections from Beckerman’s book, one about a purse borrowed from Nora Ephron’s most recent collection of essays, another that O’Donnell wrote about her mother's favorite bathrobe specifically for the production and the solicited anecdotes organized around subjects like “The Prom Dress” and “The Bra.”  Most were amusing, a few were touching and all were totally relatable. You could hear women in the audience murmuring in recognition throughout the entire 85 minutes of the show.  “Oh, oh, yeah,”  the woman in front of me kept saying.  Joanne and I nodded and poked one another in the ribs more than a few times too.  

Like, I suspect, many of the audience members, we made a girls night out of seeing
Love, Loss, and What I Wore.  Before the show, we had dinner around the corner at the West Bank Cafe, where we saw Marisa Tomei, looking lovely and sipping a big martini which she never finished.  We, on the other hand, gobbled up our scallops and salmon and shared a yummy rice pudding.  Which probably explains why she’s about a size 2 and we are not. 

And, I also suspect, like most people who saw the show, we spent the ride home reminiscing about articles of clothing that had special meaning in our lives.  Right now I’m thinking about the halter top, mini skirt and strappy platform shoes I wore to a party the summer I turned 22.  The description probably sounds to you like hooker gear but it was fashionable stuff that year and because I was at what was to be my tiniest size ever, I felt sexy even though I nearly toppled off the shoes. My college wardrobe had tended towards overalls and clogs and so my date beamed when he saw me. I would eventually lose that love.  But not the pleasure that came from what I wore that day.

Evoking memories like that one, Love, Loss and What I Wore is as cozy as old bathrobe.  And just to keep it all from being too self-indulgent, a portion of each ticket goes to the charity Dress for Success, that provides business outfits for low-income women seeking better jobs.