January 29, 2011

"What the Public Wants" Lacks Mass Appeal

The first thing I do when I go to see a play at the Mint Theater Company is check out the bookshelf in its lobby. The Mint specializes in works by playwrights who have been forgotten and those of well-known writers that have been overlooked.  The bookshelf is usually well stocked with relevant readings—histories, biographies, novels about the period—that put that evening’s play in perspective. 

But there were only two books on display when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to see the company’s latest effort, What the Public Wants. The first book was a copy of the play, written by Arnold Bennett, the British journalist and author once ranked the literary equal of his contemporaries H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling and J.M. Barrie and who was so revered that London's Savoy Hotel even named an omelette after him (it was made with haddock, heavy cream and parmesan cheese)

The second book was a biography of Rupert Murdoch called “The Man Who Owns the News.”  That might also have been the subtitle of What the Public Wants. For the play centers around a turn-of-the-last-century press baron named Charles Worgan, who, as Murdoch later would, has made a bundle from publishing tabloids whose stock and trade are sensationalist stories about sex and crime.

Worgan's papers, he proudly says several times during the play, are “what the public wants.”  The trouble comes when he falls in love with a woman of more refined taste.  The play is supposed to have been inspired by the life of Alfred Harmsworth, a tabloid pioneer who later gained the title of Lord Northcliffe. So you might think of What The Public Wants as kind of a "Citizen Kane," only without the Rosebud.

I suspect that, as with "Citizen Kane," much of the play’s appeal when it debuted in 1909 came from the zing of guessing which parts of it were true and who the characters were in real life. But What the Public Wants, a fairly straight forward piece of work, is less daring in its artistic form than "Citizen Kane" was in filmmaking. There’s less fizz in the satire without the contemporary comparisons, which means the play is less fun.  And the Murdoch similarities are far too few and removed in time to help. 

Of course, the trick with any revival, but most especially with the Mint's old plays that don’t enjoy the protective cloak of familiarity, is to find a way to make them relevant to contemporary audiences. Embedded in What the Public Wants are some still sharp observations about social mobility, cultural authority and whether journalism has the responsibility to give the masses what they want or the right to determine what they need.

But the acting in What the Public Wants is wildly uneven (the most glaring example is that all of the characters are supposed to be British but only a few of the actors attempt English accents). And because the company’s small budget requires several cast members to double (and in one case triple) in roles, the characters aren’t as clearly drawn as they might be.

Meanwhile director Matthew Arbour has clearly struggled to find the through line that will pull them and the play altogether (click here to listen to him discuss the challenge).  

The Mint always manages to mount handsome shows and set designer Roger Hanna and costume designer Erin Murphy have maintained that standard this time out. And the company continues to get points for doing works you never see anywhere else. But sometimes you need more than that.  Sometimes, what the public wants is the payoff of a Rosebud.

January 26, 2011

"The Importance of Being Earnest" Reminds Me of the True Legacy of Oscar Wilde

Thanks to books (fictional homages by Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, and George Bernard Shaw), movies (like the 1997 Stephen Fry biopic “Wilde,” in which Jude Law played his lover) and, of course, plays (most notably Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency and David Hare’s The Judas Kiss) I’m far more familiar with Oscar Wilde’s persona than I am with his writing.  And over the years, I’ve come to think of Wilde as the prototype for so much of what we now consider to be a gay sensibility: the droll demeanor, the verbal wit, the simultaneous fascination withand condescension towards—high society.

All of these qualities are on vivid display in Wilde's masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. And they are being shown off to enjoyable effect in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s much-acclaimed revival of that play, which just extended its run at the American Airlines Theatre through July 3.

The Importance of Being Earnest is, of course, the one Wilde work that everyone (including me) knows because it used to be such a staple of the high school play and community theater canon. It was just as popular when it opened in London in 1895. Wilde had just turned 40 and was at the height of his powers and success.

But the play closed after just 86 performances, unable to withstand the scandal when the Marquess of Queensbury publicly accused the writer of being a sodomite (then a crime in England) and of seducing his son Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde foolishly sued for libel and, after several trials, was eventually sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison. He died three years after his release in impoverished exile in Paris. 

The Importance of Being Earnest, however, has lived on with eight Broadway revivals and three major movie versions, the most recent with Rupert Everett and Colin Firth as the Victorian dandies Algernon and Jack, who, for various reasons, pretend that their name is Ernest and then find themselves in love with women who insist they can only marry a man who has that name. 

But the most beloved character in the play has always been Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, a paragon of aristocratic virtue and one-liner putdowns. It’s a delicious part and over the years it’s been played by such theatrical grand dames as Margaret Rutherford, Edith Evans, Nancy Marchand, Lynn Redgrave, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, who currently can be seen doing a riff on Lady B in the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” 

Yet it’s hard to believe the role could ever have been done better than the tour de force performance that Brian Bedford is now giving.  It’s the chief reason to see the show.  It’s also a master class in comic acting. What makes Bedford’s performance so remarkable is that he never succumbs to camp or winking at the audience. Like any great actor, he simply plays the part and makes his character as believable as his superb talent allows. (Click here to read a terrific profile of him in the New York Times.)

Bedford also directs the show and he has surrounded himself with a game cast, including the reliable old hands Dana Ivey as Miss Prism, a governess to one of the love interests, and Paxton Whitehead as the clueless clergyman Rev. Canon Chasuble, characters so revered that even Spell Check recognizes them.  

 Also good is Santino Fontana, who shows here that he can be just as convincing as a fop as he was as the angry older brother in Billy Elliot and the menchy one in the recent revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs.  And they’re all wittily dressed by Desmond Heeley, who did the eye-pleasing costumes and sets.

Still, I have to confess that The Importance of Being Earnest struck me as dated (albeit undeniably cleverly crafted) and it flagged for me when Bedford’s Lady Bracknell was off stage.  During those moments, I found myself wondering what Wilde might have done if his career and his life hadn’t been cut short by the scandal, how pleased he’d be that the love that dare not speak its name in his time is increasingly being accepted in ours, and how gratified it would make him to see playwrights like Douglas Carter Beane carrying on in the tradition he set.

January 22, 2011

Other Desert Cities Blooms, Thanks to Its Cast

Lincoln Center Theater must be a great place to work.  The best actors in the theater today seem to be queuing up at its door. Just reading its cast lineups this season has been like looking at a crib sheet for future inductees into the Theater Hall of Fame.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown may have closed down before its limited run was supposed to end but it starred Laura Benanti, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sherie Rene Scott and Patti LuPone.  Now, with Other Desert Cities, playing at The Mitzi E. Newhouse through Feb. 27, Lincoln Center has assembled not only an all-star cast but a thoroughly winning show. So much so, that it’s already announced plans to move Other Desert Cities to Broadway next fall.

Here’s hoping that it can keep the cast in tact. The play, a tart-tongued drama about family secrets and lingering resentments between an affluent older couple and their baby boomer children, is custom-made for the prime Broadway theatergoing audience, which, of course, falls right into those demographics. But it’s the sensational performances by Thomas Sadoski, Linda Lavin, Elizabeth Marvel, Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach that make this a production you won’t want to miss. 

The play opens on Christmas Eve 2004, as Lyman Wyeth, a genial Ronald Reagan-grade movie star who’s achieved greater success in politics, and his wife Polly, a former screenwriter, are preparing to celebrate the holidays at their luxurious Palm Springs home. Joining them are her sister Silda, a newly recovering alcoholic; their son Trip, who produces cheesy reality TV shows; and their daughter Brooke, a depressive writer who has brought along the manuscript of her latest book, a memoir about a tragic incident in the family’s past. Battles of the '60s are refought, conservative ideals clash against liberal passions, dirty linen is pulled out of the closets.

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz, making his return to the stage after working in television for the past six years (he created the series "Brothers & Sisters"), has explored the generational divide before, most memorably in The Substance of Fire, which played at the Mitzi back in 1992. But Baitz, 49, is older now and less willing to pick sides. What works best about Other Desert Cities is how effectively he switches his allegiances as each member of the family gets a chance to present grievances and defenses about past wrongs. Alas, that same fair-mindedness also undermines the ending, at least for me.

But even that didn’t spoil the evening. For director Joe Mantello, Baitz’s one-time romantic partner, has mounted a production that otherwise glistens.  John Lee Beatty’s living room set is so creamy and ostentatiously unostentatious that you know instantly what kind of people live in it.  Same goes for David Zinn’s spot-on costumes, particularly the women’s shoes, which are so expressive—and amusing—that they should get a curtain call of their own.

Yet it is Channing, Keach, Lavin, Marvel and Sadoski who deserve the biggest ovation.  Baitz reportedly turned down the chance to open the play directly on Broadway because he wanted to make sure he got the best actors for the roles—and not just Hollywood names with the power to draw audiences (click here to read his thoughts about his play). 

He was smart to hold out. What he got are actors who are equally adept at delivering both the humor and the pathos in his play and who are as interesting to watch while they’re quietly listening—or in Lavin’s case, even sleeping—as when they’re delivering center stage speeches. 

They make a believable family too.  Channing and Lavin are totally convincing as sisters struggling with unfinished business of their own. Keach and Sadoski seem to share the same DNA as large men who deliberately make the choice to hide behind facades of deceptively even-keeled bonhomie.  And Marvel and Channing, both powerhouse performers, capture the essence of the mothers and daughters who are emotionally linked despite the surface differences that may threaten to keep them apart.  

What binds this family, as it does most, is love, even when unrecognized. What makes this production so remarkable is the actors’ love of their craft, which, thankfully, is on brilliant display.

January 19, 2011

Why "John Gabriel Borkman" Left Me Cold

Everyone sitting around me in BAM’s Harvey Theater this past Saturday seemed to be a diehard theatergoer.  The woman next to me was boasting about how she already had tickets to see Company at the New York Philharmonic in April with Neil Patrick Harris as the unhappy bachelor Bobby and Patti LuPone as his friend Joanne who sings about the also unhappy ladies who lunch. The two couples behind me were debating what was currently playing at the small Duke Theater on 42nd Street (the answer turned out to be Nearly Lear—a one-woman version of Shakespeare’s tragedy that closed Sunday).  

I wasn’t surprised by the conversations because, after all, we were there to see The Abbey Theatre’s production of John Gabriel Borkman, one of Henrik Ibsen's least known and least performed plays. It's about a bank manager who has embezzled the funds of his clients and, in the doing, destroyed the lives of his family.

The obvious comparisons to the Bernie Madoff scandal gIve the play a nice frisson of contemporary relevance. But what had really brought us—or at least me—out to see the play was its cast: Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan and Fiona Shaw. Those may not be marquee names for people who buy their tickets on the basis of movie star glamour but they’re stellar enough to flutter the heart of any true theater lover.

Duncan rightly won Tonys for her performances in the 2002 revival of Private Lives and the original 1987 production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses; Rickman was her co-star and a worthy Tony nominee in both. Shaw, meanwhile, was nominated for her powerhouse performance in the title role of the 2002 Broadway revival of Medea. And all three have shelves loaded with awards for their work in London.  Alas, this time out, they seem miscast.

Particularly Rickman in the title role. The play opens after Borkman has served five years in prison and three in self-imposed exile on the top floor of his home, where is he scheming for a comeback. But Rickman’s interpretation of the character is so phlegmatic that it’s hard to believe his Borkman can summon up the energy to get downstairs, less than to get back to the top (click here to read an interview with him)

Shaw displays more energy—maybe too much—as  Borkman’s estranged wife Gunhild who is desperate to restore the family honor. By default, Duncan probably comes off best as Gunhild’s rich twin sister Ella, who also happens to be Borkman’s true love and is seeking redemption of her own (click here to read an interview with her).

All three main characters want to win the allegiance of the Borkmans’ son Erhart.  But the young man has plans of his own, and the affection of a sassy older widow who's ready to help him achieve them. That should provide enough tension to hold an audience’s attention and Frank McGuinness’s translation makes it all accessible without being overly contemporary. But James Macdonald’s direction is as listless as Rickman’s performance. Misguided too.  Audience members tittered several times at moments in the play that I don’t think Ibsen meant to be funny.

And while it may not have been Macdonald’s idea to decorate the stage with giant mounds of snow, he didn’t stop set designer Tom Pye from doing it. They look like chillier cousins of the boulders in the ill-conceived 2009 revival of Desire Under the Elms.  I get that the snow drifts are supposed to symbolize the frozen relationships between the characters but I like my metaphors to be a little more elegantly presented than that. 

Add Jean Kalman’s tenebrous lighting and Ian Dickinson’s attenuated sound design and it was a challenge to stay awake, despite the misplaced audience giggles.

I roused myself at the end and made my way to the Harvey’s very nice ladies’ room (rows and rows of stalls, forestalling the usual ridiculously long wait) before making the trek back to Manhattan.  “Did you like it,” asked a woman as I shrugged into my coat.  “No,” I said.  Which pretty much ended that conversation.

January 13, 2011

Paying Last Respects to the Mama of La MaMa

The news came today that Ellen Stewart has died.  She was 91 and news report say that she died peacefully in her sleep.  So this is less a note of mourning than one of celebration for the remarkable life she lead—and how she used it to help change theater in this country.  

It couldn't have been easy for a black woman to start an experimental theater company--not even in the Village and not even in the 1960s.  But Stewart founded Café La MaMa in 1961 and for the next 50 years, she was a leading advocate of avantgarde theater.  

Stewart was an early champion of Harold Pinter, whose first American production was done at La MaMa. Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson  also develop some of their early plays there, as did Philip Glass and Elizabeth Swados. Plays like Steven Schwartz's Godspell and Harvey Feirstein's Torch Song Trilogy got their starts there. Game-changing directors like Peter Brooks, Andrei Serban and Robert Wilson worked there.  And Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Bette Midler and scores of other now iconic actors performed there.  

When I was in college, there was no cooler place to do theater than at La MaMa and I remember stifling my jealousy (partially) when my roommate got a small part in a play there. The heat cooled over the years but Stewart's enthusiasm didn't flag.  She put on as many as 70 productions a year, brought in from literally all over the world. 

The last time I went down to La MaMa was in 2008 to see The Raven, an adaptation of a play by the 18th century Italian writer Carlo Gozzi that Stewart reimagined as a Chinese opera (click here to see my review).  They had to wheel her on stage for her to take her curtain call bow but she looked as fabulous and as commanding as ever.  

The Public Theater has already announced that it will dedicate this season to her.  And there are sure to be more tributes. But the best way to honor Stewart's memory may be to go to a show that's outside the usual norms—maybe in a different part of town, by people you've never heard of, in a style that's unfamiliar but that is done, as Stewart did it, purely for the love of theater. 

January 12, 2011

Why "Driving Miss Daisy" Drove Me Crazy

Driving Miss Daisy and I go back a long way.  I saw the original 1987 off-Broadway production with Dana Ivey as the titular Jewish widow in post-War Atlanta and Morgan Freeman as the black man her son hires to be her chauffeur. This small 90-minute play about the unlikely friendship that develops between them over the following two decades was not only a crowd-pleaser that ran for over three years but won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And I not only saw the 1989 Academy Award-winning movie version, which also won Oscars for Jessica Tandy, who took over the role of Daisy, and Freeman, who reprised his role as the chauffeur Hoke, but I actually got the chance to spend a morning talking about all of it with Freeman.

The revival currently playing at the Golden Theatre has upped the horsepower by recruiting Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones to play Daisy and Hoke.  I am always grateful to see Redgrave on a stage and delighted to have Jones get the chance to show once again that his acting chops run deeper than just giving voice to Darth Vader and pitching stuff on TV (“Is he still the voice of CNN?” the woman behind me asked her companion minutes before the curtain went up.  “How much do you think he gets paid for that?”). And yet this time, I was much less charmed by Driving Miss Daisy than I was back in the ‘80s.

Of course, I’ve changed. And the times have changed too.  But I think the main reason I feel differently is that the whole good-black-servant genre has just worn out its welcome with me. I know that most of the plays, movies and books that deal with this subject are well-intentioned. And I know that they’ve given work to a lot of black actors who would have had far fewer roles to play without them. But I don’t care if it’s Whoopi Goldberg in the movie “Ghost,” the maids Aibileen and Minny in Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel “The Help”  or the maid Caroline in the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical Caroline, or Change, I’m tired of stories about black people helping white people find their humanity.

Isn’t it time we find some other ways for blacks and whites to interact? The good-servant trope has become so endemic in our culture that the benevolent black character has been labeled the “magic Negro.”  Say what you will about David Mamet’s Race (and I didn’t have a lot nice to say about it when I saw it last season) at least he tried something different. As did John Guare with A Free Man of Color, his play about race relations in New Orleans right before and after the Louisiana Purchase which limped to the end of its limited run this past Sunday.

Now, I know that the producers of Driving Miss Daisy couldn’t change a 23 year-old script any more than Alfred Uhry can change the memories of his grandmother that originally inspired the play (click here to listen to an interesting interview he did on Downstage Center). So once the decision was made to go ahead with the show, that placed an extra burden on the director and actors to take the play beyond the familiar territory.

Director David Esbjornson tries to do that by framing the play as a memory of Daisy’s son Boolie, who is played by the always-superb Boyd Gaines.  And Esbjornson has enlisted Wendall K. Harrington to provide video projections that supply added context about the Civil Rights Movement (in fact, the projections seem to have taken up the entire design budget because the rest of the set is extremely modest for a Broadway show, with chairs doubling as Miss Daisy's various cars). But none of that is enough. 

Back in 1987, Freeman brought a cagy edginess to his portrayal of Hoke, an undercurrent that gave audiences a visceral sense of the frustrations and humiliations that simmered behind the placid faces of black men in the South during those years. You felt the anger and the anguish when he gave the “I’m a man” speech after Miss Daisy’s benign racism has pushed Hoke too far. 

Jones is cuddlier and funnier in the role; his version of the speech seemed more like a mild temper tantrum than a wrenching cri de couer. Redgrave goes for the warmth and humor too (click here to listen to them discuss the play). I craved more of the subtext, the recognition of what that friendship (and I know such relationships exist) cost them both. 

But, despite my reservations, their approach seems to be a winning one.  While plays with younger and hotter stars (Brendan Fraser’s Elling, A Life in the Theater with Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight) closed early, Driving Miss Daisy has recouped its investment and extended its run through April 9. The audience the night my sister Joanne and I saw the show was clearly charmed by it.  But I think there was a reason that there were so few black faces among them.

January 8, 2011

Turning on the Ghost Light

No post today because all attention in our household is being paid to the anniversary that my husband K and I are celebrating this weekend. So, just as theaters do when they're temporarily vacant, I’m turning on the ghost light. But I'll be back, as usual, on Wednesday and I hope you will be too.

January 5, 2011

"A Small Fire" is Quietly Devastating

Marriage—especially what makes for a long-lasting one—has been on my mind a lot lately.  Maybe it’s the fact that my wedding anniversary is coming up at the end of this week. I suspect it may also have something to do with the fact that I just finished reading “Must You Go?,” Antonia Fraser’s moving memoir of her deliriously happy 33-year marriage to the playwright Harold Pinter.  But my nuptial fixation deepened even more when I saw A Small Fire, the oddly touching new play by Adam Bock that opens at Playwrights Horizons this week.

A Small Fire tells the story of a long-married, middle-aged couple. Emily is the gruff owner of a construction company who delights in driving hard, profanity-laden deals. Her husband John is a mild-mannered guy who works in human resources and has always been the more nurturing parent to their now-grown daughter. They are something of a mismatched pair but over the years they've figured out how to make themselves fit. Then a mysterious malady upsets that fragile equanimity (click here to see a spoiler-free trailer).  

The way the couple copes includes a pretty graphic sex scene, complete with frontal nudity.  But Bock and his frequent director Trip Cullman are more interested in a different kind of nakedness. They want to examine the emotional interplay when people are stripped of their usual ways of connecting so that the habitual accommodations that have held them together no longer work.

That places a heavy burden on the actors playing Emily and John but Michele Pawk and Reed Birney step up to the challenge and bring a poignant vulnerability to their roles (click here to read an interview Birney gave the Village Voice). This isn’t the kind of play that ties up all its loose ends but these actors are so effective at summing up the pain of losing the things we all take for granted that I found myself reaching out just to touch my husband K several times during the performance—and grateful that I could.

But Pawk and Birney aren’t the only ones who resonate in this four-character cautionary tale. Bock routinely integrates non-stereotypically gay characters into his plays (click here to see my review of his romantic comedy The Drunken City) and this time that role is filled by Emily’s easygoing foreman, winningly played by Victor Williams, who employs none of the usual fey clichés. 

A Small Fire runs just 90 minutes and after it was over, K and I walked across the street for dinner at the West Bank Cafe, one of the best places to eat in the theater district because the food is good (not just passable) the prices are affordable and everyone—famous faces and anonymous ones alike—gets the same welcoming treatment. 

Williams later came in and joined his wife and kids for dinner. On his way back from the men’s room, K stopped to congratulate the young actor, who, in turn, introduced him to Bock who was sitting at a nearby table. On his way out, Bock took the time to come over and shake my hand.  It was a lovely gesture and it moved me, just as does his play. 

January 1, 2011

The Best Theater of 2010

The best thing about 10 best lists is that they give you a chance to look back and remember all the things you’ve done.  I can’t say that 2010 was the best year I’ve had going to the theater.  There seem to have been fewer high points and it was easier than usual to whittle down the list to my 10 favorites.  Still, the shows that I’m listing below are ones that I really loved.  They may not have been the best ones produced last year but they are the ones that I am happiest to have been able to see.

After the Revolution:  Because it’s always a joy to discover a promising new playwright and with her incisive drama about a family of committed lefties,  Amy Herzog has marked herself as one worth watching. 

Angels in America: Because without slighting the play's glorious language and grand flights of fancy, Signature Theatre’s current revival brilliantly underscores the humanity in Tony Kushner’s epic look at America during the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity: Because this Pulitzer finalist by Kristoffer Diaz  deftly combines hip-hop-infused dialog and a sharp satirical eye to examine America’s fixations with celebrity, money and race—and was the best time I had in the theater all year.

Fences: Because Denzel Washington and Viola Davis gave powerhouse—but totally relatable—performances in Kenny Leon's superb revival of August Wilson’s now-classic drama about thwarted dreams.

The Glass House: Because this modest off-Broadway production of June Finfer’s thoughtful play about the rivalry between the great modernist architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson showed that you don’t need big names or a big production to do big work.

Lend Me A Tenor:  Because this revival of Ken Ludwig’s farce about the zaniness that ensues when a world-famous opera singer comes to a small Midwestern town pretended to be nothing more than a good time and succeeded by making my husband K laugh so hard that he cried and when K is happy, I'm happy.

A Lie of the Mind: Because it’s taken me a long time to appreciate Sam Shepard’s genius and I might have gotten it sooner if the productions I’d seen had been as affecting as this one directed by Ethan Hawke and performed by an all-star ensemble lead by the remarkable Marin Ireland.

The Pride: Because Brit playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell’s artful look at how the lives of gay men and the women who love them have changed between the 1950s and the present potently reminds us why we shouldn’t take the progress that’s been made for granted or fail to push for full equality.

Time Stands Still: Because Donald Margulies is a master of plays that make you both think and feel and his searing drama about journalists, indelibly played by Laura Linney and Brian d’Arcy James, and the collateral damages of wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is one of his best.

Yank!: Not just because the NYFD rescued my friend Jessie and me when we got stuck in the theater’s elevator but because it was lovely to see an old-fashioned musical, with humable songs by the brothers Joseph and David Zellnik, get a contemporary twist by giving the roles of the romantic leads to two guys.

So Happy New Year... and may 2011 bring us all lots of good theater to see.