May 29, 2010

The Stars Shine in "This Wide Night"

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, named for an actress who worked in both the U.S. and London, is awarded annually to a female playwright whose work is deemed “of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theater.” Nominations come in from all over the world but most people, including me, assumed that Ruined would make Lynn Nottage a shoo-in for the prestigious prize two years ago.  Instead, the jury, which that year included such notables as Edward Albee, Emily Mann and Sigourney Weaver, gave the Blackburn to the British playwright Chloë Moss for her two-hander This Wide Night

I knew right then, I wanted to see that play.  And now, the Naked Angels company has given me that chance with an all-star production of
This Wide Night that’s running at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater thru June 27.

Moss was commissioned to write This Wide Night as part of a project to help imprisoned women understand how difficult life on the outside can be. In a note at the front of the production’s annoyingly odd-shaped program, she dedicates the play to six inmates she interviewed four summers ago. I found myself wondering if, after watching the grim 90-minute drama their stories inspired, those women had all appealed for longer sentences.

The play is set in a room that designer Rachel Hauck has made so convincingly seedy that you can practically smell the cheap but ineffective disinfectant used to ward off the rot. The lighting by Matt Frey and sound by Robert Kaplowitz are equally evocative.  

The room’s tenant is a twentysomething woman named Marie who spends most of her time starring at a small, fuzzy-screened television that has no sound because the audio doesn’t work. Her listless days are interrupted when her recently-released former cellmate, an older woman named Lorraine, arrives, clearly hoping that they can be roomies again.

I’m not really sure what the Blackburn jury members saw in the play because not much happens, what does happen isn’t all that surprising and the play’s insights—it’s tough to move on after you’ve been in jail—aren’t really original.  But maybe what their experienced eyes saw is that the play offers one of those rare opportunities for two actresses to pull out all their stops. And it would be hard to find two finer actresses to do that than Edie Falco and Alison Pill. 

Falco, of course, has won fame and a following as Carmela, the mafia wife on “The Sopranos,” and now as the title character on the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie” (her co-star Merritt Wever, looking much trimmer than the junior nurse Zoey Barkow she plays on the show, sat behind my pal Bill and me at the performance we saw). But Falco is an old theater hand who regularly returns to the stage and she is almost unrecognizable and totally
heartbreaking here as a woman who has had everything, including her vanity, stripped from her and so clings desperately to whatever shred of optimism she can grab.

Pill is every bit as good. The actress, who is only 25, has practically grown up on the New York stage, having appeared in some nine plays (and earning raves and award nominations for nearly all of them) since moving here from her native Canada in 2003. Her Marie is a woman-child, and Pill makes her simultaneously flinty and needy.

Both actresses struggle a bit with their working class British accents but they adeptly mine every nuance of these displaced women.  (Click here to see them, along with Moss and the show’s director Anne Kauffman talk about the play.) They are so fine together and so supportive of one another, that I wish someone would offer a commission for playwrights—female or male—to write a whole series of plays for them to team up on.

May 26, 2010

Its Director Tarnishes "The Metal Children"

Adam Rapp is one of those up-and-coming playwrights whose work every theater lover should have seen at least once by now.  He’s written more than 15 plays over the past decade and a half, including Red Light Winter, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2006. I, however, somehow managed to miss all of them. And, adding insult to injury, I’ve usually confused Rapp with his actor brother Anthony, the once-and-forever Mark in Rent. Eager to correct these shortcomings, I jumped at the chance to see The Metal Children, Rapp’s latest play which is currently running at the Vineyard Theatre.  Maybe I should have waited a little longer.

The play’s subject is certainly compelling: its protagonist is Tobin Falmouth, a New York writer whose young adult novel has been banned by the school board in a small, white-bread town called Midlothia.  Upping the stakes, Rapp makes the book a supernatural tale in which pregnant teens mysteriously disappear, leaving behind metal statues of themselves. It ends when the novel's main character defiantly aborts herself with her father's hunting knife.

As one might expect, religious conservatives in Midlothia are outraged by the book. The head of the town’s high school English department (nicely played by Connor Barrett) just as fervently believes that it's an appropriately artistic expression of the kind of issues young people face. Local teens have lined up on both sides; some are beating up the book’s supporters, others are showing their solidarity with it by actually getting pregnant themselves. Falmouth is invited to town to defend his work. 

Plays that deal with big ideas and issues like the tension between artistic freedom and responsibility are usually right up my alley. And Rapp, who has written young adult novels and had one banned (click here to read a New York Times article about how an incident in his life inspired The Metal Children) would seem the ideal person to take on this one.

He does get points for writing a play that allows both sides to have their say—there’s an emotional speech by a conservative woman near the beginning of the second act. But he loses them for directing the play himself in such a cartoonish way—the speeches the townsfolk give may raise valid points but what they say is largely undermined by their portrayal as eccentric yokels—that I ended up not caring who was right or what happened to the characters and sneaking peeks at my watch to see when the whole thing would end. And I felt that way despite a brave performance by the always-fascinating Billy Crudup, who fought hard against the temptation to portray Falmouth as an avatar of lefty virtue.

Despite my reservations, however, both the play and this production have their supporters.  The critical response is split (click here to read the reviews on StageGrade.) But the night my friend Ellie and I saw the show, the audience was peppered with people I’d seen on other stages, including the talented actress Annie Parisse, terrific in both Becky Shaw and Clybourne Park

There’s a small area outside the green room at the Vineyard where people waiting to see cast members after a show can stand.  About a quarter of the audience seemed to gather there that night, as though the word had gone out on the theater insiders' grapevine that The Metal Children shouldn’t be missed or that its actors would need support.

May 22, 2010

"The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" is a Total—and Totally Delightful—Knockout

Even those of us who consider ourselves theater lovers have to admit that there are few nights in the theater that can truly be described as fun. But I defy anyone to find a more fun-packed evening of theater than The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, the outrageously entertaining new play that opened at Second Stage Theatre on Thursday night.

Let me say right off the bat that I had no intention of seeing this show.  It has a silly-sounding title and the advanced publicity said it was about wrestling, something I haven’t paid any attention to since Hulk Hogan’s heyday back in the late ‘80s.  But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the play was listed as a runner-up for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. My theatergoing buddy Bill and I decided we had to see for ourselves how that had happened and we bought tickets immediately. 

Good move on our part because we had a ball and it’s now going to be a tough ticket to get.  The show is a kinetic mix of gut-busting jokes, fast-paced video projections, blaring music, hip-hop-infused dialog, real wrestling moves and energetic audience participation that even I, who usually cringe when actors run into the audience, loved, although I confess that may have something to do with the fact that one of the wrestlers chose Bill to brandish the America flag while he ripped his muscles and whipped the crowd into a U.S.A chanting frenzy. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity could turn a frat-boy into a show queen. (Click here to see some scenes from the show.)

But beneath all the razzle dazzle—and the reason the smart Pulitzer jury singled the play out—is a sharp, satirical look at many of the major issues that keep body-slamming the U.S. in the 21st century: the fascination with celebrity, the obsession with money, and the preoccupation with race that constantly pits one ethnic group against another.

As advertised, the show centers around the stars and supporting players of a fictional wrestling federation. A Puerto Rican wrestler named Mace serves as the color commentator, in all senses of the word, as the action unfolds.  Mace is the perpetual fall guy, whose assignment is to lose to the pretty boy and pop-muscled stars in a way that makes them look like better wrestlers than they really are.

Mace’s usual opponent is the title character, Chad Deity, a black showboat with limited talent.  Mace’s new protégée is Vigneshwar Paduar, a wiry Indian kid, whom the sleazy white owner of the federation assigns the ring name The Fundamentalist and costumes as Osama bin Laden, complete with turban, beard and a signature move called the “sleeper cell kick.”  The wrestlers know it’s all just show biz but their festering resentment about the roles they’re forced to play moves The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity from an amusing cartoon into a cautionary tale.

Black and brown actors don’t often get layered roles like these. And Terence Archie as the charismatic Chad and Usman Ally as the conflicted Paduar are both sensational (not to mention sensationally buffed--kudos to the casting team for finding actors who both look the part and play it so well). The standout, however, is Desmin Borges, whose Mace won me over from his first speech in which he declares a love for wrestling (feel free to substitute America) that began in childhood and that he can’t give up despite how badly it treats him. Borges is both funny and touching.  It’s a bravura performance.

But everyone involved in this show has brought his or her A-game.  Christine Pascual’s costumes are LOL funny. Brian Sidney Bembridge has conceived an equally amusing set that centers around a large wrestling ring, overseen by giant video screens (well stocked with images designed by Peter Nigrini) and magnificently lit by Jesse Klug.  Meanwhile, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design keeps the proceedings at an appropriately high pitch.  And, needless to say, fight director David Woolley deserves a big shout out for the wrestling choreography
(click here to read a New York Times piece about how the actors trained).

Still, star billing has to go Edward Torres, the artistic director of Teatro Vista in Chicago, where the show recently had its world premiere earlier this year.  It’s hard to imagine how any succeeding director is going to top the stagecraft he devised for this high-powered production. The critics have gone crazy for the show (click here to read some of the reviews on StageGrade).  All I can add is, Believe the hype.

May 20, 2010

The ITBA Awards for the Season's Best

The winners of this year’s ITBA Awards, given out by the Independent Theater Bloggers Association, the group of theater watchers who regularly express ourselves online, have just been announced. I can’t say I voted for everyone of the winners but I can say that they’re all deserving and I applaud all of them.  You can see our full list of nominees by clicking here and below is the video of the official announcement of the winners read by Jeannine Frumess, Susan Blackwell, and Ann Harada, all currently appearing in the new off-Broadway musical The Kid:

Here's the complete list of the winners:

A View From The Bridge

American Idiot

La Cage Aux Folles

circle mirror transformation


The Glass Menagerie


A Boy And His Soul

circle mirror transformation

Nina Arianda, Venus In Fur
Kate Baldwin, Finian's Rainbow
Desiree Burch, The Soup Show
Rebecca Comtois, Viral
Viola Davis, Fences
Jon Michael Hill, Superior Donuts
Douglas Hodge, La Cage Aux Folles
Sarah Lemp, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side & Happy In The Poorhouse
Laura Linney, Time Stands Still
Jan Maxwell, The Royal Family & Lend Me A Tenor
Bobby Steggert, Ragtime & Yank!
Amy Lynn Stewart, Viral

May 19, 2010

Coming Face to Face With "That Face"

Over the years I’ve found there are several ways to gauge how an audience feels about a play.  One is the number of Playbills left behind when people leave at the end of the show. A Playbill is a keepsake, a tangible reminder of that evening’s performance. When people go home without one it often means they’re not all that interested in remembering what they’ve seen.

So make of it what you will that the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage 1 auditorium was littered with Playbills the night my friend Jesse and I saw That Face, young British playwright Polly Stenham’s musings about a dysfunctional family.  “Looks like the inside of a plane after a long flight,” I overheard one man saying to his wife as they surveyed all the programs left behind.

Now I grant you that the greyheads at that performance probably aren’t the target audience for this show.  Stenham was only 19 when she wrote That Face and just 21 when it was produced in London’s West End in 2008.  And this is definitely a young person’s play.  I mean for really young people, whose primary relationship struggles are with their parents, as opposed to cheating spouses or needling bosses or the sickle-bearing specter of imminent death, as are so many plays with an eye on attracting the AARP set. And that is refreshing.
But it’s also a young person’s play because the playwright, while precocious, is still immature.  Like many fledgling writers, Stenham oversamples works from those who have tread similar ground before her.  I spotted bits of Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams in her work.  And like many young people, her passions overflow and she tends to repeat her point over and over again.  The point nailed home here being that parents these days are so screwed up that their kids have to screw up their own lives to care for them.

That Face begins at a ritzy girl’s boarding school and then moves to the home of Mia, a girl who has committed a horrendous deed there and is facing expulsion from the place. But Mia's home is something of a horror too. Her businessman dad Hugh has abandoned the family and lives in Hong Kong with a younger woman.  Her divorced mother Martha is strung out on booze and drugs.  Her older brother Henry has dropped out of art school to become a fulltime caretaker, surrogate parent and maybe even the incestuous lover of their gorgon of a mum. It’s Henry’s face that seems to be the one alluded to in the self-consciously elliptical title.
I had been eager to see That Face because it got marvelous reviews in London. The Telegraph’s Charles Spencer called it “one of the most astonishing dramatic debuts I had seen in more than 30 years of reviewing.” While the Independent proclaimed it “a razor-sharp dissection of a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family that achieves a rare balance of raw emotion and knowing, black comedy.”  

The play was nominated for an Olivier and won awards from both the Evening Standard and London’s Critics Circle. Feature stories chronicled Stenham's upbringing, fashion sense and ambisexual dating habits (click here to read one in the Evening Standard.)
Only my fellow bloggers The West End Whingers demurred. “The Whingers just didn’t get what all the fuss has been about,” they wrote. “True, Stenham paints a shocking portrait of an dysfunctional family where children are forced to act like parents and parents behave selfishly but sadly the Whingers couldn’t quite suspend their disbelief sufficiently to be shocked.” (Click here to read their review.) 

According to the raves, the terrific British actress Lindsay Duncan found a way to make audiences feel for the mother.  But the MTC production is an entirely American affair, directed by Sarah Benson, the artistic director of Soho Rep who won kudos for  the brutal war drama Blasted, and starring an entirely new cast that, at least at a very early preview, seemed overwhelmed by the material.

Laila Robins, another terrific actress, was working hard to make the mom more than just a monster but her Martha still came off as shrill and totally unlikeable.  In fact, it was hard to feel for—or even believe in—any of the characters.  Instead, although I know you’re not supposed to assume that plays are autobiographical, I ended up feeling sorry for Stenham’s real-life mother, about whom her daughter seems to care for as little as I do this play.

May 15, 2010

Lost in "The Forest"

The best part of the Classic Stage Company’s current production of The Forest came the day after my husband K and I saw the show. It was reading the background information about the play in the company’s newsletter.

I’d never heard of the play’s author Alexander Ostrovsky before but it was fascinating to learn about how he had been a contemporary of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, is considered by many to be the father of Russian drama and was an inspiration for both Chekhov and Stanislavski (click here to read about Ostrovsky yourself).  Alas, seeing the show was nowhere near as satisfying. 

Like so many Russian stories, The Forest involves a country estate. The one in this comedy of manners is owned by Raisa, a wealthy but miserly woman who is the uneasy guardian of a destitute niece and an equally impoverished nobleman’s son. The plot centers around her efforts to marry them off to one another and is complicated by the surprise visit of her nephew Gennady, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Other characters include a greedy businessman and his timid son, sycophantic local merchants, and, this being a 19th century Russian work, the requisite recalcitrant servants. 

Ostrovsky idolized Shakespeare and he also filled The Forest with comically misbegotten romances, cases of confused identity and philosophical soliloquies. It is supposedly one of his most popular plays in Russia, where his work is still frequently performed. But something obviously got lost in the translation. And much of the blame for that goes to Kathleen Tolan’s adaptation, which seemed to clatter back and forth between the colloquial and the highfalutin', comfortable in neither. 

According to the newsletter, Brian Kulick, the CSC's artistic director, came up with the idea of doing an Ostrovsky play, but Kulick's direction of the production offers this one little help. I’ve always thought one of the primary jobs of a director is to make sure that all the actors perform as though they’re in the same play.  But everyone here seems to wander off on his or her own, including the show’s stars Dianne Wiest as Raisa and John Douglas Thompson as Gennady.

It was the chance to see Wiest and Thompson that made K and me want to see The Forest.  Both disappointed us. Wiest usually delivers work filled with original and nuanced choices, as she did in the Broadway revival of All My Sons a couple of years ago.  But she seems off her game in The Forest, unsure of how to play Raisa and so scurrying between the comedy and the pathos in the character instead of finding a way to fuse the two. Thompson, by contrast, seems bursting with confidence.  Unfortunately, the wrong kind.  

Thompson is an actor blessed with a rich baritone, majestic stage presence and dimples so deep and alluring that if I weren’t a happily married woman, I’d want to curl up in them. His bravura performances as Othello (which I didn’t see) and the Emperor Jones (which I did and was impressed by as much as everyone else) earned him deserved accolades last year.  So I was more than willing to go along with having him, a black actor, play a Russian character. And that's not the problem. What bothered me is how Thompson's performance this time out amounts too little more than stentorian declarations and flashing those dimples. He, like the others, seems lost in The Forest.

May 12, 2010

Why Broadway Went Short on "Enron"

I don’t usually write about shows that have already closed but I’m making an exception in this case. Enron, the much anticipated British import about the financial skullduggery that brought down the big Houston-based energy company, closed on Sunday after just 16 performances at the Broadhurst Theatre and its premature departure has set off a grudge match between critics on opposite sides of the Atlantic about why the show energized theatergoers in London but flat lined in New York.

The first punch was thrown when Michael Billington, recently voted the most influential critic in London, posted a column on The Guardian website entitled “Enron's failure shows Broadway's flaws,” which lamented “the aesthetic conservatism of a theatre culture” in the U.S. (click here to read Billington’s column.)  

Some New York critics like Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray took immediate offense and jumped to the defense of the American theatergoer, declaring that Billington should mind his own business (click here to listen to Murray on Broadway Radio’s “This Week on Broadway.”)

But others took a more measured approach. Jason Zinoman, writing on, suggested that Enron may have failed on Broadway because the show’s 29 year-old playwright Lucy Prebble misunderstood and oversimplified the financial tanglings at the company (click here to read Zinoman’s argument.) While Bloomberg’s Jeremy Gerard hypothesized that Americans may be too familiar with the story or find the 2000 Enron scandal dated in the light of the current shenanigans at Goldman Sachs (click here to read Gerard’s argument.)

I don’t know why Enron flopped. I liked the show.   Or maybe admired is a better word.  I’m a sucker for imaginative stagecraft (my favorite show in 2009 was the Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Brief Encounters, a delightful mash-up of musical hall numbers, video imagery, puppetry and other spectacular coup d’theatre) and Enron’s director Rupert Goold used every trick in the book, and more.

Puppets and masks turned arcane accounting practices into amusing metaphors—the dummy corporations that Enron execs called raptors because they were supposed to eat up the parent company’s debt were represented onstage by actors wearing dinosaur masks.  The complicitous accounting firm Arthur Andersen was portrayed as a ventriloquist’s dummy. Flashy video projections simulated office settings and a giant stock ticker.  

And although Enron is a play, there were several musical numbers, exuberantly choreographed by Scott Ambler. Adam Cork’s score earned one of the four Tony nominations the show received (although none in the major categories, which is probably what caused the show’s 35 producers to pull the plug on Sunday; but you can see a few scenes from the show by clicking here.)

I hope I don’t come off as some Broadway Benedict Arnold if I say that the Brits do seem more comfortable playing with this kind of stuff than we do here in the U.S.  Inventive shows like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White, a video-projection pioneer that replaced conventional sets with computer-animated scenery of rooms and hallways in a ghost-ridden mansion; and Coram Boy, which mixed narrative recitations, 19th century period dance and Handel choruses, were more successful over there than here. 

The Woman in White ran for a year and a half on the West End but lasted just 109 performance on Broadway.  Coram Boy enjoyed two limited runs at London’s National Theatre but eked out just 30 performances at the Imperial Theatre where Billy Elliot is now playing.

Like Enron, The Woman in White and Coram Boy also fared poorly with the New York critics, who accuse them all of having more sizzle than steak.  Well, I welcome the innovative stylization but I disagree that these shows lack substance.   

Coram Boy dealt with the plight of orphans in the 18th century and the horrors of the slave trade.  While Enron plunged right into one of the major issues of our day: how to bridle the greed of capitalism without crippling the entrepreneurial spirit

Still, as noble as these intentions may be, what these shows haven’t figured out is how to involve the audience emotionally.  They are all head and almost no heart. 

The Broadway cast of Enron, lead by Norbert Leo Butz as the company’s ruthless former president Jeffrey Skilling; Gregory Itzin as its good old boy CEO Ken Lay, Stephen Kunken, as the diabolically nerdy chief financial officer Andrew Fastow and Marin Mazzie, playing a fictionalized character based on the sole woman in the corporate hierarchy who got out before things fell apart, are all terrific.  But you don’t want to root for any of them. I wasn’t bored at Enron but I wasn’t moved by it either.

Still, I’m really sorry to see it go.  And not just because I hate to see any show close.  Shows that deal with complicated subjects should have a place on Broadway.  Shows that experiment with innovative storytelling should have a place on Broadway.  And Enron was both. 

May 8, 2010

True-to-Life Characters in "Collected Stories"

We’ve now opened a branch of the Donald Margulies fan club at my house.  Our admiration for his witty and thought-provoking plays started last fall when my husband K and I saw Time Stands Still, the playwright’s affective drama about war journalists that closed in March but, it’s just been announced, is returning in September with three members—Laura Linney, Brian d’Arcy James, and Eric Bogosian—of its original four-person cast.

Our feelings about Margulies intensified after we rented the film version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Dinner with Friends. And they blossomed into full-fledged adoration when we went to see the new revival of his Collected Stories, which opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre last week.

Margulies writes what once were revered—but are now too often dismissed—as well-crafted plays. His work is specific and metaphoric at the same time, rooted in individual people but often asking big questions about the role art plays in our lives.  The individuals in Collected Stories are Ruth Steiner, a respected short story writer who lives in Greenwich Village, and Lisa Morrison, the young woman who becomes her protégée. The stories in the play’s title are both the ones the characters write and the ones that we all tell to define who we are.

K had never seen the play before but it was the third time around for me.  I’d seen Collected Stories when it originally played at the Manhattan Theatre Club back in 1997 with Maria Tucci as Ruth and Debra Messing (before her “Will & Grace” days) as Lisa, and then a year later with the legendary actor and acting teacher Uta Hagen, then 79, and her own protégée, the young actress Lorca Simons. 

Now, Linda Lavin and Sarah Paulson have taken over the roles.  It’s been a special treat for me to have had the opportunity to see how each of the older actresses has played Ruth because I suspect the character was based on my first college advisor and writing teacher, the Greenwich Village short story writer Grace Paley. Tucci brought a wounded sensitivity to Ruth. Hagen imbued the part with her own intimidating majesty.  Lavin brings Grace, who died three years ago, vividly back to life for me.

I never visited Grace’s apartment (although I doubt it was as lavish as Santo Loquasto’s gorgeous set) and our relationship was nowhere near as intimate as the one between the characters in the play but we did sit many times in Grace's cozy office at school as she handed out the same mix of tea, tough-love criticism and shrewd advice that Ruth gives to Lisa. The similarities, however, end there.

The plot of Collected Stories was reportedly inspired by the poet Stephen Spender's plagiarism suit against David Leavitt who wrote a novel that echoed incidents in the older writer’s life and memoir. But the plot also resembles the story of the aging actress and the ambitious younger one in the classic Bette Davis film “All About Eve.”  I sided with the younger writer the first two times I saw Collected Stories but this time, I found myself identifying with the older one.

That’s probably a result of my own aging and the fact that I began teaching a couple of years ago and juggling myriad emotions about my own students. But credit also goes to Lavin and director Lynne Meadow who have created a Ruth who is both a maven and a mensch, qualities that are ideal for a mentor.  But they also allow us to see and feel Ruth’s vulnerabilities, the price she has paid for the sake of her art. Lisa has just as much stage time and Paulson holds her own but Ruth is a plum role for an older actress and Lavin, now 73, lets us savor her every bite.

After the show, K and I walked over to Orso for a late supper.  Shortly after our pastas arrived, Lavin came in and joined friends at a nearby table, perhaps to celebrate the Tony nomination she’d gotten that morning. When she was making her way back to the table after a trip to the ladies room, K stopped her. “I don’t usually do this,” he said (and he really doesn’t) “but we just saw the play and I had to thank you because you were wonderful.”  Lavin smiled.  “Stop me anytime for that,” she said, “I always have time to hear that.”

I was uncharacteristically tongue-tied, so let me say it now, Linda Lavin offers such a master class in how an actor should inhabit a part that we’re in danger of starting another fan club in our house.

May 6, 2010

Bonus Post: The Newest Theater Nominations

Yeah, I know.  I usually only post on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  But awards season is upon us. The Outer Critics Circle announced its nominations last Monday and a few days later, the New York Drama Critics Circle named its top shows. Just this week, the Lucille Lortels were handed out and both the Drama Desk and Tonys named the candidates for their awards (click here for Playbill's handy roundup of all the awards news thus far)

Now it’s the turn of the Independent Theater Bloggers Association, the group of theater watchers who regularly express themselves online.  This morning, the ITBA, of which I’m proud to be a member, posted its nominations for the best of the season that just ended. Here are our choices:

American Idiot
Everyday Rapture

In The Next Room (or the vibrator play)
Next Fall
Superior Donuts
Time Stands Still

Finian’s Rainbow
La Cage Aux Folles
A Little Night Music

Brighton Beach Memoirs
Lend Me A Tenor
A View From The Bridge

circle mirror transformation
Clybourne Park
Orphans Home Cycle
The Temperamentals

Bloodsong of Love
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The Scottsboro Boys

The Glass Menagerie
A Lie of The Mind
Twelfth Night

Alice in Slasherland
Girls in Trouble
In Fields Where They Lay
Rescue Me
Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War
The Soup Show

The Lily’s Revenge

Company XIV

A Boy and His Soul
Zero Hour

circle mirror transformation
A Lie of The Mind
Twelfth Night

May 5, 2010

Time Out for Tony Talk

As usual, so much has been written in the less than 24 hours since the Tony nominations were announced that there isn’t much left to say (although if you’re still in the market for some smart commentary click here to read the recap by my fellow blogger The Playgoer).  So instead of chiming in my two cents about the slaps in the face to The Addams Family, Enron, Race and Daniel Craig, or the pats on the back for Fela!, In the Next Room, Next Fall and Jan Maxwell, I’m going to talk about just one thing: how very sad it is that there are so few musicals with original scores this season that the nominators had to include music from the straight plays Enron and Fences

I’m not trying to diss the work done by Adam Cork for Enron or Branford Marsalis for Fences.  I haven’t even seen either of those shows yet.  But I am lamenting the fact that the Broadway musical is in such a dismal state that it can’t fill out the music part of its own category. You could blame the whole thing on the current obsession with branding.  At least that’s what I’m doing.

Branding has taken over the entire culture.  That’s why we get movie sequels and remakes, novels based on characters from other novels and, in the theater, jukebox musicals.  Producers know that it’s easier to sell shows with built-in name recognition so they build them around movies and TV shows like The Addams Family or repackage a musician’s past hits be they from the Green Day album American Idiot or the Stephen Sondheim songbook that fuels Sondheim on Sondheim.

And speaking of Sondheim, there’s no question that he’s a genius but so were Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers and the theater of their day found a way to nurture their very different talents.  As it did the varying musical styles of Sondheim and his contemporaries Jerry Herman and John Kander and Fred Ebb. 

We need to find a way to do that for a new generation of musical talent today. That means not putting down Elton John or Phil Collins or Paul Simon (I still love his score for The Capeman) when they write shows that don’t sound like Sondheim’s (the schadenfreude when John lost last year’s award for Best Original Score was thicker than the jam on a Linzer torte). 

Instead, we should all welcome the fact that these songwriters, who’ve already made their bones in the pop field, want to write for Broadway and we should encourage them to keep trying their hand at it.  We should champion new talents too.  Which means a few less revivals, a few more original musicals by folks like Next to Normal’s Tom Kitt, In the Heights’ Lin-Manuel Miranda and Passing Strange’s Stew. 

All their shows may not be great ones. But Sondheim, Porter, Herman, Kander & Ebb and Rodgers and Hammerstein flopped at times too.  Maybe Broadway, where musicals now routinely cost eight figures to produce, can’t afford that kind of experimentation any more but isn’t that what nonprofits like Roundabout, Lincoln Center and the Public Theater should be doing?  Which is why, even though I wasn’t crazy about the show, I give the Public Theater props for mounting the emo musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

I love a show tune as much as the next theater geek but I tell you, I’d be delighted if the Best Original Score ballot in 2020 were composed of Lady Antebellum, Radiohead, Jay-Z, Tom Kitt for his fourth or fifth Broadway show and some 25 year-old wunderkind who'd recently come out of the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. 

May 1, 2010

"Promises, Promises" Doesn't Meet Its Obligations

The first Broadway show my pit musician husband K ever played was the original production of Promises, Promises back in 1968. So, there was no question that we were going to see the show’s first ever Broadway revival, which opened at The Broadway Theatre last Sunday.

The 1968 production drew raves (Clive Barnes opened his New York Times review by saying that he wanted more to “send it a congratulatory telegram than write a review.”)  Audiences agreed and the show went on to play for a then-impressive 1,281 performances.

There was a lot to cheer.  Promises, Promises is an adaptation of the classic 1960 Billy Wilder comedy “The Apartment” with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.  The stage version starred the great Jerry Orbach in Lemmon’s role as Chuck Baxter, a young office worker so eager to get ahead in his company that he lets the firm’s married executives use his apartment for their trysts with the hope that they’ll repay him with a promotion. Complications arise when the object of his own affection, a waitresses in the executive dining room named Fran Kubelik (then played by Jill O’Hara) turns out to be one boss’s mistress. 

Neil Simon, then at the top of his wise-cracking game, wrote the musical’s book.  An up-and-coming young choreographer named Michael Bennett created the dances and the ensemble was filled with dancers—Kelly (then Carole) Bishop, Baayork Lee and Donna McKechnie—who would shortly create iconic roles in A Chorus Line. (Click here to see a YouTube clip of them in the Promises, Promises showstopper “Turkey Lurkey Time”).

But it was the score, composed by that era’s cooler-than-cool music men Burt Bacharach and Hal David, that drew the most attention. Barnes, for one, couldn’t say enough about the show’s “modern pop and delightful” music and its “happily colloquial lyrics.”

It is all, alas, a different song now. Promises, Promises’ sexist premise doesn’t sit all that well with post-feminist audiences.  And yes, I know that “Mad Men” is supposed to have made bed-hopping men and the women who adore them hip again. But this new production of the musical lacks the self-satirical irony that makes such retro behavior an acceptably guilty pleasure on the TV series.

Clever casting might have helped but the leads in this production are off the mark. Sean Hayes, who will probably forever be known as the outrageously gay Jack on the old NBC sitcom “Will & Grace” and who recently came out in “The Advocate” (click here to read that) takes on the Lemmon/Orbach role. Hayes is a charming comedian and sings just well enough but, and I feel bad saying this, he works better as a supporting player than a leading man.

Kristin Chenoweth certainly has leading-lady chops and I get why the producers decided to go with her as Fran. Chenoweth’s teeny physique and Minnie Mouse speaking voice do suggest the character's girlishness and, of course, there’s the hope that the fans who discovered her in Wicked when they were girls will come out to see her in Promises, Promises now that they’re on the threshold of young womanhood.  But her feistiness has always been part of Chenoweth’s appeal and that’s not who Fran is. Plus, director Rob Ashford and costume designer Bruce Pask have done her up to look like a sophisticate (more glamorous Betty Draper than the naive outer borough Peggy Olson from the first season of “Mad Men”) and that’s not who Fran should be either.

Chenoweth distorts the show in another way too. To beef up a smallish role that had only two solo numbers, the revival has interpolated two of Bacharach and David’s biggest hits—“I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home—into the score, even though their lyrics don’t fit the show’s action or her character’s motivation.  K, who still knows the score by heart after all these years, shook his head and sighed heavily at the conclusion of each of those numbers.

The one bright spot, judging by the cheers at the curtain call, was Katie Finneran’s second-act performance as a woman the jilted Chuck picks up in a bar.  Finneran gives a go-for-broke, physically comedic performance that might have made Lucille Ball proud. And although Finneran was a bit too broad for my taste (Christine Baranski’s world-weary tartness in the 1997 Encores! staging seems more fitting for the role) she did liven things up.

But don’t panic if you’ve already bought tickets for the current production.  It’s fun to see familiar faces like Hayes and Chenoweth's in-person, Ashford has created all kinds of stage business to keep you engaged, and supporting players like Finneran and Dick Latessa as Chuck’s nosey next door neighbor, who fortuitously is also a doctor, are pros who know how to entertain. You’ll probably have a good enough time. Even if not a memorable one.

As we walked down the street for a late supper at the venerable Italian restaurant Remi, K wistfully reminisced about the original production of Promises, Promises.  Finally, over glasses of wine and bowls of pasta that added up to far more than the $86 Chuck sang about paying for his apartment in the show, we acknowledged that sometimes, you just can’t go home again.