August 25, 2010

An Unfulfilled "Wife to James Whelan"

The eight words most commonly used by diehard theater lovers may be: “They don’t make them like they used to.”  But that may be because we have such a distorted sense of what they used to make. It’s the greatest hits (works by Shakespeare, Molière, Chekhov and O’Neill) that get taught and revived, not the one-play wonders or Salieri-style crowd-pleasers that filled the stages in those days. It would be as though you defined contemporary Broadway solely in terms of Sweeney Todd with no mention of Mamma Mia! 

And that’s why, regardless of how I might feel about an individual production, I so like seeing shows at the Mint Theatre Company.  For the Mint specializes in works by playwrights who have been forgotten and those of well-known writers that have been overlooked, filling out the picture of what the old days really looked like.

Wife to James Whelan, which opened there on Monday night, falls into the forgotten playwright category.  It was written by Teresa Deevy, an Irish woman who had six plays produced at Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre in the 1930s. An achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that a rare disease caused Deevy to completely lose her hearing when she was 20, a whole decade before her run at the Abbey began (click here to read a New York Times profile about her).

The Abbey turned down Wife to James Whelan.  Disappointed but undaunted, Deevy continued to work on the play and it was eventually produced by an Abbey off-shoot called The Players Theater.  But, at least as presented in this production directed by the Mint’s executive director Jonathan Bank, I sympathize with the Abbey’s decision.

The play tells the story of a charismatic and quick-tempered young Irishman who puts work and success above love.  At the beginning of the show’s first three acts the 21 year-old Whelan is about to leave his village for a better job in Dublin.  He’s also leaving behind two women who adore him (nicely played by Janie Brookshire and Rosie Benton). By the second act, seven years have passed and Whelan has returned home with enough money to start a business and to begin a flirtation with the daughter of the richest man in town (a lively turn by Liv Rooth).

It’s a nice slice of Irish life in the ‘30s but Deevy seems uncertain about the message she wants to serve up.  Her theme is an update of those old 19th century novels of thwarted passion like Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (which I confess is not one of my favorites) but less sharply honed.  

Wife to James Whelan leans heavily on how the audience feels about the title character and its concern for how he balances his passions. Alas, actor Shawn Fagan, who has done most of his work in regional theaters from the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival to the Dallas Theater Center, isn’t strong enough to bear this weight.

Part of the problem for me may be (and I know how tacky this is going to sound) Fagan's height. His Whelan is just about the shortest person on the stage and it just doesn’t come across as convincing when his rages are supposed to intimidate the other male characters. It seems equally awkward when two of the women have to slump a bit and scrunch their shoulders to keep from towering over him.  That’s not to say that short actors can’t be forceful (hello, James Cagney) and sexy (hey there, Billy Crudup) but Fagan isn’t able to pull it off and his inability to inject any sense of danger into his performance saps the energy out of the play.

The rest of the cast fares better—particularly the women—but they all wrestle with their Irish accents and with the tone of the play.  Bank is clearly beguiled by Deevy (he traveled to her hometown in Ireland and has set up a whole schedule of Deevy-related events over the next month) but he hasn’t found a way to bring the fascination home for me. Although several other critics seem to have been persuaded (click here to read some of their reviews) and the show has been extended through Oct. 3.

August 18, 2010

"Trust" is Amusing But Ultimately Unreliable

So many people were crowded outside Second Stage Theatre when I arrived to see Trust, the new comedy that opened there last week, that I thought for a second a bomb threat might have forced an emergency evacuation. Instead, I discovered a long queue of stand-bys apparently desperate to see Zach Braff, the star of the recently-departed sitcom “Scrubs”, who is appearing in the play along with Broadway vets Sutton Foster, Bobby Cannavale and Ari Graynor.

A good number of Braff’s followers seemed to have made it inside too because the audience, which the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw Trust included Foster’s brother Hunter and his actress wife Jennifer Cody, seemed younger and hipper-dressed than the folks I usually see at Broadway or even off-Broadway shows. And they were exuberant with their support—laughingly raucously at all the lewd jokes, nodding knowingly (at least the folks in front of me) at the more philosophical turns. 

I was amused too. Even if I can’t say the play is really good.  Playwright Paul Weitz made his bones in the movies as the director and or writer of such films as “American Pie” (the very best of the gross-out teen comedies) “In Good Company” and “About a Boy” but a big piece of his heart is clearly in the theater and he’s had four plays produced in New York in the last six years.  I haven’t seen the others but Weitz, who is 45, knows his way around a laugh line and he’s clearly devoted to chronicling the angst of his generation (or at least the white and wealthy part of it).

Trust centers around two thirtysomething couples: a dotcom millionaire and his depressed artist wife and a dominatrix and her thuggish ne'-do-well boyfriend.  The theme is power. As a character in the play says “everyone wants to be dominated.”  I don't know if I buy that but Trust sets out to show how that dynamic plays out between this troubled foursome. 

Both the cast and crew are marvelously game. Braff may come from TV but he has natural stage chops and mines all the ambivalence of a geek who has brained his way into wealth and success and now isn’t sure what to do with them.  Graynor, a longtime favorite of Bill’s, skillfully limns the passive-aggressive languor of the millionaire’s unhappy wife.  Cannavale, whom I saw a few days later toting groceries home on the Upper West Side, has played the swaggeringly sexy brute before but no one does it better.  And Foster, beloved by musicals fans for her portrayal of feisty ingénues, is surprisingly good as the conflicted dominatrix (click here to read a New York Post interview about her decision to take the role). 

Alexander Dodge creates smart and believable sets and Emilio Sosa’s costumes are just as witty. Peter DuBois’s sure-handed direction ties it altogether, creating a template for 21st century sex comedy, a genre that Second Stage, which also produced the similarly-themed Becky Shaw last season, seems to enjoy promoting. It’s hard to imagine a better cast or a better production. And yet something is missing.

And it's not just the titular "trust" in one another or in themselves that the characters all lack. I hate to sound like a scold.  Or an ingrate. Weitz has some intriguing ideas here but another revise or two might have honed them into a work of significance instead of the amusing trifle that Trust is. 

It’s great that someone like Weitz, who has and can earn pocketfuls of money in Hollywood, even deigns to write plays but as long as theater is just a sideline (Weitz is the executive producer of the new Fox series “Lone Star” and the director of the upcoming movie “Little Fockers”)  then the resulting work is unlikely to be trustworthy, no matter how much his fans mob the box office.

August 14, 2010

Still on Vacation Schedule..., it's my birthday weekend so no post today but I'll be back with one on Wednesday.

August 11, 2010

"Secrets of the Trade" Deserves to Be Known

For the past six years, Primary Stages has been in residence at the 59E59 Theaters, which is one of my favorite places to see an off-Broadway show.  For starters, the address is easy to remember: 59 East 59 (as in Street). I also like the way someone from the Primary Stages staff personally welcomes the audience at the beginning of each show (some other companies do this too but unlike Primary Stages, they usually sneak in a pitch asking you to make a donation, buy more tickets or purchase a CD in the lobby).  The Primary Stages folks also have a good number of ushers on hand, who actually take you to your seat, instead of just waving in its direction as has become the custom in so many theaters off and on Broadway. 

But the main reason I like going to Primary Stages is because the company puts on some of the best shows in the city.  Secrets of the Trade, the wry new comedy by Jonathan Tolins that is playing through Sept. 4, is one of its very best. The play follows a decade in the life of an ambitious Long Island kid who dreams of making it big in the theater and finds a seemingly-supportive mentor in a legendary Broadway writer and director.

Tolins pulls off the neat trick of combining three well-known theatrical genres (the coming-out play, the Jewish family comedy and the backstage drama) and finding something fresh in each. Things don’t turn out in predictable ways in Secrets of the Trade.  Characters are more complex than they appear at first. Along the way, gimlet-eyed observations about art are made.

The play is set largely during the Reagan years when the playwright, who is openly gay, was growing up and I couldn’t help wondering how much of a roman à clef it is and who the real-life model for the famous mentor might be. Tolins has anticipated the curiosity and you can click here to find his explanation embedded in the Primary Stages website.

The play’s verisimilitude is aided by the supple direction of Matt Shakman and some of the most honest acting I’ve seen on stage in a long while.  All five cast members—Amy Aquino, Bill Brochtrup, John Glover, Mark Nelson and Noah Robbins—are stellar, although Glover, pitch-perfect as the celebrated (six Tonys!) writer-director, and Robbins, who believably ages from 16 to 26, shine brightest.  Robbins' character may be similar to the one he played in last fall’s too short-lived revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs but I dare you to find anyone who plays a smart—and smart-mouthed—Jewish kid better (click here to see a video in which the young actor talks about his experiences with both shows.) 

Mark Worthington’s witty sets show how a limited budget doesn’t have to limit the imagination (my husband K and I got a particular kick out of his re-creation of the elegant eatery Café des Artistes, whose abrupt closing a year ago we are still mourning and recently-announced winter return under new ownership we’re nervously anticipating.) The lighting by Mike Durst and the sound design by John Gromada deserve their own curtain calls. 

“Isn’t it nice,”  K, a notoriously picky theatergoer, asked as we left the theater, “to see a really good play?”  Indeed, it sure is.

August 7, 2010

Still on Vacation Schedule... no post today but I'll be back with one on Wednesday.

August 4, 2010

"Falling For Eve" Falls Short of Paradise

Fair warning:  the remarks you’re about to read are going to sound sexist.  So I apologize in advance.  But last week I caught up with Falling for Eve, The York Theatre Company’s new musical retelling of the Adam and Eve story that is ending a three-week run at the Theatre at St. Peter’s on Aug. 8. A few minutes into the show, God (confusingly played in alternate scenes by male and female actors) creates Adam. And that's when Jose Llana appears, his back to the audience, but totally naked.  “Yep,” I thought as he turned around and I ogled his perfect pecs, six-pack abs and come-hither thighs.  “When God created man, this is definitely what he had in mind.” 

And now that I’ve gone this far, let me be an equal opportunity offender: Krystal Joy Brown, who played Eve (she’s being replaced this week by Stephanie Umoh), is no slouch in the great body department either. On the way home, instead of humming the music, I tried to imagine what the casting sessions must have been like. 

It’s not that the songs by Bret Simmons and David Howard are bad.  I got a kick out of their list song "Good Things Are A-Comin,” which manages to squeeze the pop cultural history of the world from the Creation to the Obama Administration into three minutes. And some of their pop-flavored ballads are nice too.  In fact, the entire show, as directed by Larry Raben, is sweet—in a freshman-class musical kind of way. 

All six cast members (in addition to the original First Couple and the dual deities, two angels  provide the comic relief) are enthusiastic, ethnically diverse in a way that you seldom see in a show that doesn’t center around race and several of them, particularly Brown, have great voices.  Beowulf Boritt’s set is intentionally and amusingly tacky.  And I’ve nothing but praise for Bobby Pearce’s costumes, even though that’s solely because he keeps Llana in a loincloth.

But Falling for Eve’s calling card is that its book is by Joe DiPietro who just won two fistfuls of Tonys for Memphis.  This new book, based on a play written by the show’s lyricist, does come up with some original twists on how Paradise got lost.  For instance—and there are spoilers at the end of this sentence—the snake is M.I.A. and Eve is a girl-power gal who can make her own decisions and pick her own fruit, while Adam is more of a slacker dude.

Still, the bottom line is that DiPietro once again has something to say about love, self-determination and the price one has to be willing to pay for them. But this time out he’s so eager to please that he ends up condescending to the audience with weak jokes that flaunt their anachronisms.  

Falling for Eve is essentially a situation comedy and too little of the humor comes from the situation itself.  The show dragged more often than it should have in 90 intermissionless minutes.  Although I didn't so much mind since it gave me more time to gaze at Llana, whose heavenly physique is as close to paradise as this show gets.