March 30, 2011

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” Tries Really Hard But isn’t As Successful as It Should Be

My husband K is crazy about Frank Loesser.  The movie version of the composer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning final work, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, sat in our Tivo queue for years so that K could watch a few scenes whenever he wanted a quick pick-me-up.

But K passed on the chance to see the new revival of the show that opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Sunday night.  He simply couldn’t—wouldn’t—imagine anyone besides Robert Morse in the role of the musical’s sly get-ahead guy J. Pierrepont Finch, who finagles his way from humble window washer to the chairman of the board.

And, judging from the reviews that have come out over the past couple of days, that’s the way a lot of people feel.

I get it. There are some performances so iconic, so indelible that it seems almost like sacrilege for anyone else to even attempt the role. (Click here to read Morse and Donna McKechnie’s reminiscences about the 1961 production). But time does pass.  At least some memories fade.  A new generation of theatergoers comes along looking for its own icons. 

Which is why I think people should give Daniel Radcliffe a break.  And, with the notable exception of Ben Brantley in the New York Times, most critics have tried to do that. Now, I’m crawling up on that bandwagon too. 

It’s hard to say mean things about Radcliffe. As has to be obvious to everyone who has been even partially sentient during the past decade, Radcliffe knows how to be successful. Over the past 10 years, he has:

•played the eponymous boy wizard in the Harry Potter series, which will finally end this summer

•managed to go through puberty and into young adulthood without a whiff of scandal

•given scores of interviews in which he routinely comes off as smart, witty and immensely likeable (click here to read an interview he did for Out Magazine)

•earned good notices for his Broadway debut as the troubled stable boy in Equus (click here to see my review)

•won one of this year’s GLADD Awards for the public service announcement he did reassuring gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids that it’s perfectly fine to be who they are (click here to see the video)

Clearly, the lad (he’s only 21) could just rest on his laurels, good will and the piles of money he made from the Harry Potter movies. Instead, he’s jumped feet first into the role of Finch. I say “feet first” because Radcliffe has gone on record as saying how hard it’s been for him to learn to dance. But he more than holds his own with the dance pros onstage.

Director and choreographer Rob Ashford hasn’t made it easy on him either.  The dances are intense workouts particularly the rousing 11 o’clock gospel-like number, “Brotherhood of Man.”  But they reminded me of the ones in last season's revival of Promises, Promises, which Ashford also directed, and of the ones in the ill-fated 9 to 5, which he didn’t.  How great it would be to see some fresh notions about how dancers portraying mid-century businessmen and their secretaries might move. 

Despite the high-aerobic dance numbers (Radcliffe is, at times, lifted, flipped and hurled through the air) the performance my niece Jennifer and I saw lacked energy—it ambled along when it should have been strutting. 

The cast also struck me as uneven. As fond as I am of Radcliffe and as much as I admire how hard he's clearly working, his Finch seems too amiable, going along to get along instead of going along only until he can figure out a way to come out on top. And while Radcliffe's singing is pleasant it lacks oomph.

Similarly, both TV funnyman John Larroquette as the head of the company and newcomer Rose Hemingway as the secretary whose ambition is to marry Finch seemed blander than they should have been. In fact, the one person who really popped was Christopher J. Hanke, who plays Finch's foil. Hanke is the only real stage vet among the four main characters and clearly feels the most comfortable there.

But the audience seemed happy with them all.  Particularly the ticket holders under 30.  For them, Robert Morse is just the old guy on TV’s “Mad Men.”  Like my niece (a diehard Harry Potter fan) they had come to see Radcliffe and they cheered him every chance they got. And, in the end, it's their continued support that's going to determine how truly successful this revival will be.

March 26, 2011

"Ghetto Klown" is Stuck in Familiar Territory

I saw Mambo Mouth, John Leguizamo’s first one-man show when it played at the old American Place Theatre back in 1991.  And I had a really good time—a better time, alas, than I had at Ghetto Klown, Leguizamo’s fifth one-man show, which opened at the Lyceum Theatre this week.

Twenty years ago, Leguizamo’s manic energy and keenly observed stories about his Colombian and Puerto Rican relatives and friends were as fresh and funny as all get out. Plus he brought a Hispanic sensibility to the stage that, if you discount West Side Story, had been missing from mainstream theater and is only rarely seen now. 

Leguizamo, who is now 46, is a very talented guy and an irrepressible charmer so there are still a lot of laughs to be found in Ghetto Klown.  But the show is too long—nearly two and a half hours, when 90 minutes would have been fine.  And it’s self-indulgent in other ways too.

It is entertaining to listen to Leguizamo riff on his career, from his teen days when he’d sneak into the conductor’s booth on the subway and tell jokes over the p.a. system to his roles in movies co-starring with superstars like Al Pacino (“Carlito’s Way”) Sean Penn (“Casualties of War”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“Romeo + Juliet”) even if, as Leguizamo admits in a program note, he’s changed things around to suit the narrative he’s created for Ghetto Klown

Meanwhile director Fisher Stevens has done a nice job of folding in photos, videos and even dance moves from back in the day (click here to reada piece about the collaboration between the director and the star). 

But it’s less fun to have Leguizamo drone on and on about his emotionally stunted father, his overbearing mother, his rocky romances, and botched attempts to keep it real with his homeboys from the old neighborhood (click here to read a Daily News story in which he visits the block where he grew up in Queens) .

The result is a show that turns out to be more for Leguizamo’s good than for the audience's. It’s like a self-help group where only one person is getting most of the catharsis. As he says at one point, he should be paying the ticket buyers for the therapy he’s getting instead of the other way around. Indeed, I haven’t seen anyone feed off the energy of an audience that much since Liza Minnelli was at the Palace two seasons ago.

But Leguizamo has a following—two huge busses were parked outside the theater when my stepdaughter Anika and I left the theater to run across the street for a light supper at Bond 45. And there were more Hispanic faces in the theater than one usually sees. A cheering section up in the balcony expressed its exuberant support throughout the performance.  The 12-week run has already been extended to July 10.

And you don’t have to be Hispanic to appreciate Ghetto Klown.  Like Liza, Leguizamo is tireless—throughout the evening, he cracks jokes, sings, break dances, does imitations, and even declaims some Shakespeare. If you’ve never seen a Leguizamo show before, the comparisons to the previous ones won’t matter.  You might even have as good a time as I did the first time I saw him.

March 23, 2011

"Good People" is Good Theater

People I know keep asking me what I think about Good People, the new David Lindsay-Abaire play.  They don’t need my opinion to determine whether it’s, well, good because the show, now playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, has already scored a B+ on StageGrade, including high marks from the New York Times. 

Those glowing notices plus the movie-star sheen and innate coolness of Frances McDormand are causing the show to sell out.  And just yesterday, the producers added a three-week extension to the run, which will now end on May 29.

I think the real reason my friends and acquaintances are curious about my response is because they know my life story so closely resembles that of the character in the play who was a smart poor kid, won a scholarship to a prep school, went on to a good college (in my case Sarah Lawrence, which, as it happens, is also Lindsay-Abaire’s alma mater) and then moved away from the old neighborhood into a nice middle-class life.

Good People’s plot centers around an unexpected reunion that character, a doctor named Mike, has with an old friend named Margie (McDormand). They grew up together in the working-class and predominantly Irish neighborhood in Boston called Southie and had a brief fling in high school but haven’t seen one another in over 30 years. 

Her life hasn’t turned out nearly as well as his. Her husband ran out on her years ago, she’s got a severely disabled grown daughter and, as the play opens, she’s being fired from her barely-above minimum wage job as a cashier in a dollar store.

Do the one-time friends still have anything in common? Why did he make it out while she didn’t?  Was it luck?  Or hard work? Does he have any obligation to help her out now?  Those are the questions Lindsay-Abaire, who himself grew up in Southie, asks in Good People and they’re ones I’ve also asked myself over the years when I’ve run into people I once knew when we were kids. 

Questions about class differences don’t often make it into the theater nowadays—unless it’s a revival of some ‘20s-era farce about martini-swilling swells and their wisecracking servants—and there seems to be almost a ban against poor people appearing in plays. In fact, most contemporary plays are obsessed with the folks we used to call yuppies. So my hat is off to Lindsay-Abaire.  Even if some of his play doesn’t ring totally true for me.

Lindsay-Abaire clearly knows Southie better than I can ever hope to  (click here to listen to a terrific interview he did about his old neighborhood and his new play on the public radio show “Studio 360”) but in Good People he seems to me to be both patronizing towards and protective of the people he grew up with. 

Maybe Southies are as crude and casually racist as he portrays them but his characterizations of them seemed to veer into stereotype. I found myself wondering what the people who still live in his old neighborhood might think of how he’s portrayed them onstage.

The playwright, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for his last play Rabbit Hole and some nice paychecks for his movie work, also seems more than a little embarrassed by his own success. I’ve been there and I feel for Lindsay-Abaire.  He doesn’t want to penalize Mike for his hard work but he doesn’t want to kick Margie for her hard luck. That leaves the play in a somewhat mushy middle, refusing to take a stand on either side.  

The production, however, is rock solid. Good People has been sensitively staged by Daniel Sullivan, who after his similarly deft work with last year’s Time Stands Still is becoming one of my favorite directors. David Zinn’s costumes are spot-on. And John Lee Beatty outdoes himself with a marvelous turntable set that moves through five entirely different but fully realized and wholly believable settings from the church-basement bingo parlor where Margie and her friends hang out to the well-appointed living room in Mike’s suburban home.

The six-person cast is uniformly superb. McDormand, onstage throughout, makes you care about Margie even when she isn’t being a good person. Tate Donovan captures all the conflicting emotions that  a man like Mike might wrestle with. Becky Ann Baker, as Margie's best friend,  and Estelle Parsons, as her landlady, are a riot, and the source of much of the play’s leavening humor. While Patrick Carroll is sweetly earnest as the boss who fires but still admires Margie.

But the standout for me was Renée Elise Goldsberry, who gives a subtle but nuanced performance as Mike’s wife. In a nice touch, Lindsay-Abaire has made her African-American and, unlike Mike, she's second generation upper middle-class (her father is the doctor who was Mike's mentor).  She’s totally comfortable in her own skin and it’s really nice to see a black character who is affluent, well educated and unashamed of being either.

So this is what I think: Good People may not be a great play.  But it’s certainly good enough.

March 21, 2011

"Beautiful Burnout" is All Flash With No Fire

Beautiful Burnout, which is playing through March 27 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn Heights, is the textbook definition of style over substance.  But the style is sensational. 

The show was put together by some of the folks involved in Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland’s magnificently imaginative meditation on the war in Iraq that was a hit back in 2008 (click here to see my review) and is returning for a three-week run at St. Ann’s starting April 16.

Like Black Watch, Beautiful Burnout uses thumping rock music (the techno band Underworld supplies the recorded soundtrack) CSI-style video projections and stylized choreography to help tell its story. But the tale this time is set on a smaller canvas: the world of amateur boxing.

The fact that the actors have—or affect—thick Scottish burrs makes it difficult to understand much of the dialog. But you don’t really need it. The plot is familiar (working-class kids try to punch their way out of a dead-end existence with the guidance of a gruff but dedicated trainer) and the moral is too (boxing hurts everyone involved). Besides what really matters here is the pumped-up choreography.

Action is a metaphor for emotion in Beautiful Burnout. When its characters want to express their inner thoughts, they break into visceral movement, the way characters in traditional musicals break into song. 

The problem is that there are no real emotions to convey.  The characters are little more than stock figures—the cocky one, the dumb one, the sensitive one—and although the actors look nothing alike, I had a hard time telling them apart because Bryony Lavery’s script gives them so little that’s distinctive to play. 

The only one to stand out for me was the sole female boxer in the group and I can’t tell if that’s because Lavery found it easier to write for a woman (the mother of the main boxer is pretty good too) or because like her character, the actress Vicki Manderson is working extra hard to prove that women can hold their own in a pugilistic environment.

Luckily—and this is where the sensational style comes in—Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s dance sequences are terrific.  The synchronized calisthenics and slo-mo fighting routines they've concocted are unbelievably strenuous. (Click here for a quick look at some of it.)  I marveled at how the actors are able to pull it off night after night.

Hogget, who also did the choreography for American Idiot and Peter and the Starcatcher, the new Disney musical that’s playing down at New York Theatre Workshop, is one of the most exciting choreographers to come along in a long time (click here to read a Q&A with him about putting this show together). I want to see more and more of his work.

In fact, seeing it in Beautiful Burnout kept me from going home in what otherwise might have been a grumpy mood. The audience at St. Ann's was sparser and more tepid in its response than I had expected it would be.  And I was hungrier than I wanted to be (I wish there was somewhere to eat near St. Ann’s  besides pizzerias, pub bars, the too-expensive-for-a-pre-or-post-show-bite River Café or the theater's lobby bar where the specialty is microwaved jerked chicken). But I walked out of the old warehouse feeling as though I wanted to dance.  And if a show can do that, it can’t be all bad.

March 16, 2011

"That Championship Season" Fails to Score

The rap on the current revival of That Championship Season, which opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre last week, is that the play is outdated.  Which seems a silly thing to say.  I mean how up-to-date is The Importance of Being Earnest, which has been averaging 90% capacity at the huge American Airlines Theatre?  (Click here to read critic Peter Filichia's smart take on the datedness debate) Nope, the problem with That Championship Season is simply that this production isn’t as good as it should be.

Jason Miller’s 1972 play tells the contemporaneous story of the reunion of a basketball team and its coach some 20 years after winning their state’s championship, still the highlight of all their lives. Written during the social upheavals of the Vietnam War, the play's theme is the declining hegemony of the white American male. It ran for 700 performances and won both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. 

The cast back then included such everyman types as Charles Durning and Paul Sorvino. So when my husband K saw the poster with the GQ-ready cover boys in the current cast—Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric (both of whom once dated Julia Roberts) Chris Noth and Jim Gaffigan with Brian Cox as the coach—he bailed on seeing the show. I went anyway.  As is so often the case, K turned out to be right.

That Championship Season is a show whose success depends, even more than most shows do, on its cast.  Given the economic realities of Broadway, the producers clearly felt they had to opt for celebrity names.  Some of them work well. But at least one doesn’t at all. 

Gaffigan, the stand-up comedian who’s the least known of the bunch and the one who looks as though he would have had the easiest time fitting in with the original 1972 cast, is the best. He brings an authentic eager-to-please quality to the player who winds up being the hapless mayor of the team’s working-class Pennsylvania town. 

Sutherland, probably the biggest draw because of his years on the TV series “24,” gets points for playing against his alpha-male image and turning in a convincing performance as a week-kneed and two-faced 
high school principal.  

Noth plays the team member who has turned out to be the most successful, albeit at sleazy business deals and tacky love affairs, and after years as Mr. Big on "Sex and the City" and now the philandering husband on "The Good Wife," he knows how to play charming rogues.  And stage vet Cox is OK as the coach (click here to read an interview with him).

That leaves Patric, and he is by far the weakest link.  He was supposed to be the MVP. For he is the playwright’s son and plays the character Miller clearly designed to be his own stand-in (click here to listen to a terrific NPR interview in which Patric talk about his dad).   

Patric’s character is the only one of the group who has moved out of town and so has a bit of an outsider’s perspective.  But Patric’s performance is so disconnected from the other actors that his guy seems at times as though he were still in an entirely different state.

Director Gregory Mosher struggles to turn his five actors into a cohesive team but the tone staggers all over the place. What’s prompted the “outdated” talk are the many racist and sexist things the men say. The overt bigotry no doubt shocked audiences back then.  The feminist friend who agreed to see the show with me after K backed out said later, over a post-show dinner at nearby Ça Va, that she would have walked out if she’d seen it back then. 

But the brutish behavior that the team members display is no longer fresh nor revelatory and so the audience isn’t quite sure what to make of it. I heard gasps, laughs, grunts of disgusts and some yawns too. That makes the job harder for the directors and actors who have to dig even deeper into the hollowness of these men.  But this production just skates across the surface. 

Star gazers will no doubt enjoy seeing Patric, Sutherland and Noth onstage but for us theater lovers, there’s less to cheer about.

March 15, 2011

In Memoriam: Judd Jones

While reading the Times this morning, my husband K discovered that our friend Judd Jones had died.  That means the world is a less fun place.

Judd, who passed on March 9 at the age of 79, fell in love with performing when he participated in USO shows during his stint in the Army right after World War II and he never fell out of love with it. 

He moved to New York in 1954 after leaving the service, modeled for a while (he was one of the first African-Americans to be featured in national ads) studied acting (John Cassavettes was a mentor) and made tons of friends (the walls of his apartment near Lincoln Center were filled with personally-autographed photos of a Who’s Who of Broadway from the last half century).

At the suggestion of his pal Chita Rivera, Judd auditioned to be a replacement in the original production of  West Side Story and won the role of Chino, becoming the first black in the company.

Over the years, Judd performed in other shows on Broadway, off-Broadway and in the regional theaters. He also regularly toured his one-man tributes to his heroes Paul Robeson and Bert Williams.

But Judd was probably proudest of replacing David Carradine as the Incan king Atahuallpa towards the end of the run of The Royal Hunt of the Sun. It makes me smile now to remember his recreating  Atahuallpa's death scene 40 years later in his living room just for K and me.

But Judd loved being in the audience too.  He made a point of turning out—usually with flowers in hand—whenever one of his favorites like Betty Buckley, Audra McDonald or Patti LuPone was on a stage anywhere. One of the most magical nights I’ve ever had was going to Feinstein’s with him to see his buddy Brian Stokes Mitchell perform.

In fact, everything Judd did, he did with great exuberance—be it cooking (sweet potato pies were his specially) or gossiping (he was a great raconteur). He was, as I said, great fun to be around. K and I will miss him.

March 12, 2011

How Magical is "Peter and the Starcatcher"?

Monday is traditionally a dark night in the theater so performances are rare, which probably explains why the New York Theatre Workshop was filled with theater folks—press and otherwise—when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to see Peter and the Starcatcher, the new Disney kind-of-musical. 

I say “kind-of” because this isn’t your typical Disney show.  It’s not big, not brassy and there are few Technicolor costumes.  Instead, Peter and the Starcatcher is a self-conscious attempt to show that Disney can be hip, a little dark and edgy. But that mission is only partially successful. 

The show is a prequel to the Peter Pan story and has been adapted from the popular children’s book series created by the humorist Dave Barry and the mystery writer Ridley Pearson. Their books explain how Peter’s nemesis Captain Hook lost his hand, why the crocodile has a loud-ticking clock inside and, of course, how Peter and his lost boys got to the mystical island of Neverland and why they will never leave or grow up. 

Barry and Pearson added some other characters too, most notably a 14 year-old girl named Molly, who travels around the world with her father who has been commissioned by Queen Victoria to gather up magical stardust before it can fall into evil hands. When you add it all up that’s 
a lot of plot. 

Rick Elice, who co-authored the books for Jersey Boys and The Addams Family, tries to cram in as much of it as he can but the storytelling gets confusing.  Besides, Elice is clearly more interested in cracking anachronistic jokes about beer bongs and Philip Glass operas or tucking 
in up-to-the-minute sly references about the woes of Spider-Man.

Wayne Baker, whose previous biggest credit seems to have been working with Dame Edna, handles the music, which draws its inspiration from the English music hall. I don’t remember being annoyed by the songs but, alas, I don’t remember anything else about them either.

Still, the show is far from a shipwreck. It’s co-directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and each brings his distinctive gifts to the party. 

Rees has done scores of things over the years, including his new gig as Gomez in The Addams Family, but he is still best remembered as the plucky hero in the 1981 production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby, even though he fails to mention it in the Playbill bio for this new show. And Nicholas Nickelby is clearly the inspiration for Peter & The Starcatcher’s whimsical story-theater techniques in which the actors both narrate and perform the story.

Meanwhile, Timbers, who made his bones with last season’s irreverent Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, injects a similarly snarky sensibility into the proceedings. The antics he sets in motion are lively even if you don’t know what the hell is happening half the time.

The cast is game and seemingly up for anything.  Many of the actors play multiple parts, and both genders. They sing. They perform Steven Hoggett’s inventive but rigorous choreography (click here to read a piece about how he put it together).They help change the scenery; and sometimes even are the scenery.

But the standout is Christian Borle as the pirate Black Stache (the Anakin Skywalker to the Darth Vader of Captain Hook). Borle plays Black Stache as though he were the love child of Groucho Marx (complete with the phony moustache and rim shot timing) and the ostentatiously swishy Captain Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.  It’s 
a deliciously over-the-top performance and, following his sensational performance as Prior Walter in Angels in America, makes this as a breakout year for Borle.

The non-animate set and props are purposefully low-tech (lots of ladders, ropes and water buckets) but this is a Disney show and set designer Donyale Werle gets to show off with a witty curio-filled proscenium that transforms the NYTW stage into a period-appropriate frame for the action. Paloma Young’s costumes are equally delightful and Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Darron L. West’s sound design hit their marks too.

So you see, there’s a lot of good stuff here. Its producers clearly envision Peter and the Starcatcher (which is only playing at NYTW through April 3 [update: it's been extended through April 17] but clearly hopes to eventually land on Broadway) as a show that has something for everyone. But the problem with that approach is that it often ends up being not enough for anyone.

Sure, Monday night’s audience seemed delighted by the show. The actor sitting behind me whooped it up big at every joke. And The New York Times, Associated Press and Backstage have now given it rave reviews (click here to see what they and others say on StageGrade). But these are all insiders, people who see lots of shows and are therefore extra grateful when just about anything different comes along.  But what about the average ticket buyer?

Kids, the presumed target audience (click here to see a cool interactive study guide the Disney folks have set up for students and teachers), are likely to be baffled by much of what they see. And I’m not sure how many older folks will want to shell out money to see a kid’s adventure tale.

That leaves the hipsters in their 20s and 30s. The producers are probably hoping that word-of-mouth about what Timbers has done will draw them in.  But, as Bill noted over a post-show dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant, they didn’t turn out in sufficient numbers to keep Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson open.

Saying Happy 65th Birthday to Liza Minnelli

Bill Eppridge/TIME & LIFE Pictures,
Life’s other demands have gotten in the way of my writing here and so I am again missing my regular Saturday morning posting deadline. But I’m hoping to post later this weekend and so instead of turning on the ghost light, I thought it would be fun to put up this mini-post to join in the celebration for Liza Minnelli’s 65th birthday today. 

The picture here is a “never-before-seen” photo that Life magazine has released showing Liza back in 1965 when she was just 19 and rehearsing for her Broadway debut in Flora, The Red Menace, her first collaboration with John Kander and Fred Ebb.  

 As anyone who has followed the star’s career knows, it hasn’t been easy for her to get to 65.  So, Happy Birthday, Liza.  The rest of you can click here to see 15 more Liza pictures in the Life photo gallery.

March 9, 2011

"Kin" Tells a Familial Tale, and a Familiar One

There’s a   lively debate currently going on within the theater blogosphere.  The subject is whether M.F.A. programs, writers’ workshops   and the need to satisfy subscription audiences have leached the individuality out of the plays that today’s playwrights under-40 are turning out. 

“New wine in old bottles is how I'd sum up the preferred new-play product of most subscription theatres,” writes my always-thoughtful fellow blogger The Playgoer. “Writers who come up through the university system—and, perhaps, are reared on a diet of regional theatre and Broadway, too—are more likely to put out that kind of product.” (Click here to read more of what he has to say.)

The Playgoer’s words came to mind as I tried to sort out my feelings about Kin, the new show that opens at Playwrights Horizons later this month. I usually wait until a show has opened before posting my thoughts about it but the PH folks encourage us bloggers to get the word out early about their shows, so here goes.

There’s no question about the talent of Kin’s playwright Bathsheba Doran. And she's punched all the right tickets on the up-and-coming playwright's circuit.  She has an M.F.A. from Columbia University, was a playwright fellow at Juilliard and has developed work at the O’Neill Playwriting Center and the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab. 

This is the first of Doran’s plays I’ve seen but it clearly shows off her eye for quirky characters and her ear for quippy dialog that makes the audience feel smarter just from hearing it. The thing is, Kin also seems like a lot of other new plays I’ve seen over the last few years.

The characters in these works tend to be smart, talented, good-looking and, while they’re not usually rich, they always seem to have enough money to live in chic homes, wear great-looking clothes, eat out all the time and drink a lot. 

Yet, they’re unhappy.  They want their jobs to be more satisfying; their relationships too.  They don’t seem to care—or even notice—what’s going on in the rest of the world. Except for the chic homes part, you might call it the “Seinfeld” school of dramaturgy.

Kin, as its name suggests, is focused on kinship and the ways we relate to one another.  Its main characters are the unlikely couple of Anna, a poetry scholar; and Sean, an Irish immigrant who works as a personal trainer. 

Like most modern couples they come into their relationship with baggage, including various troublesome friends and relatives, among whom are a distant father (hers), an agoraphobic mother (his), a wacky best friend (hers) and a wisecracking uncle (his).

As tends to be the case at Playwrights Horizons, the show is nicely cast.  Although the supporting characters held my attention more than the central pair. Suzanne Bertish brings a salt-of-the-earth poignancy to the mother.  Cotter Smith once again sensitively plays a reserved man who, similarly to the dad he played in Next Fall, can’t figure out how to show the love he feels for his adult child.

And Laura Heisler is an unabashed scene stealer as the best friend Helena. Doran has said that she originally planned to center the play around Helena but switched to Anna when that character began to interest her more (click here to read a piece she wrote about the genesis and development of the play)

Heisler seems not to have gotten the memo about the change and she keeps the spotlight on the neurotic Helena, turning her into a person you simultaneously laugh at and care about.

Some of the credit has to go to director Sam Gold, who did equally fine work with Annie Baker’s circle, mirror transformation, the breakout production at Playwrights Horizons last year. Here he almost manages to cover over some of the lapses of logic (during a scene set in North Carolina) and melodramatic turns (during some in Ireland) that occur during the play's 1 hour and 45 intermissionless minutes.

But Gold made a big misstep when he signed off on Paul Steinberg’s set for Kin: a big wooden frame that has to be dragged around the stage by the actors and some stagehands called in for extra muscle. Maybe they’ll get more adept at it with practice but, at the performance I attended, they seemed to have a hard time getting the thing to hit its marks.

Still, if you haven't seen a lot of new plays lately, this isn't a bad one to start with—and seeing it will catch you right up on the main preoccupations of today's young playwrights. But, if you go, do whatever you can to avoid sitting in the first few rows of the theater. Kin has an onstage rainstorm that had people in the first three or four rows shrinking into their seats and clutching their coats around them for protection. Luckily, that's one thing you won't find in every other new play.

March 6, 2011

Is "Black Tie" Still Fashionable?

One of the best experiences I ever had in the theater was seeing A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters.  Many times.  And that’s a large part of why I so loved it.  The story is told through the letters of its two characters who start writing to one another when they are in grade school and continue to do so for the next 50 years.

The actors playing the roles sit onstage, letters in hand, and read them, which makes it comparatively easy for actors to perform since they don't have to memorize their parts. So the producers of the original 1989 production came up with a brilliant idea: they constantly changed the cast, which gave a succession of fantastic actors the chance to play the parts and people like me the chance to see the play reinterpreted for as many times as we could afford another ticket.

I had seen and enjoyed other Gurney plays before but seeing Love Letters so may times won him a special place in my heart. A lingering affection for the playwright has caused me to make a special effort to keep up with his work since then, including seeing the latest, Black Tie, which Primary Stages is presenting at the 59E59 Theaters through March 27.

Like most Gurney plays, Black Tie deals with members of the privileged white upper middle-class who are struggling to adjust to changing mores. I’d heard it was Gurney’s best in years (click here to read some of the reviews on StageGrade). But while his A-list works like The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour and, of course, Love Letters embedded real emotions inside their entertaining social satires, this one seems to me to settle for easy laughs. I'm giving it a gentleman's C.

The plot centers around the plight of Curtis, a middle-aged ad exec whose grown son is about to get married. The play opens as the father of the groom is getting ready for the rehearsal dinner. It’s to be a casual affair but he wants to wear the tuxedo (the titular formal wear) his dead father bequeathed him and to give a speech similar to the one his dad gave at the dinner the night before his own wedding. 

Of course, the bride, who just happens to be a multi-culti mix of black, Asian and Eastern European, has other ideas.  And thus, established WASP traditions are once again pitted against the more laissez-faire values of today.

But the battle lines seem false this time out.  The Playbill says that Black Tie is set in the present, which is confirmed by the late appearance of an Obama T shirt. So it’s hard to believe that Curtis, a man in his 50s, would be as shocked by the breaking down of old mid-century customs.  I mean where was he in the '70s? Hell, I doubt even “Mad Man’s” Don Draper would feel so dismayed. 

I’ll confess that it also bothered me that we never get to see the bride.  Instead, we get to see a lot of the dead father's ghost, who in Blithe Spirit-style can only be seen by Curtis and the audience. They have lively and frequently funny discussions when they’re alone and even when Curtis’ wife Mimi or his son Teddy and daughter Elsie, who appear to notice nothing awry, are in the room.

The cast does a nice enough job, as does Gurney’s frequent collaborator director Mark Lamos (click here to read an interview with him).  But there are moments when Gregg Edelman’s Curtis strays into the one-note territory of the befuddled sitcom dad, while Daniel Davis (the audience’s favorite) seems too fond of the laughs his portrayal of the dead dad draws.

The real star of the show may be John Arnone’s spot-on recreation of a room in a less than first-class hotel in the Adirondacks, complete with wood paneling, plaid upholstery, and a tiny moose head over the closet door. In fact, the whole creative team deserves kudos, with another special shout out for sound designer John Gromada.

Black Tie is a comedy and so it's no spoiler to tell you that everything works out in the end, which comes a tidy 90 minutes after its start. Your enjoyment may depend on your nostalgia about the good old days when you could judge a man's character by the jacket he wore. But I’m no longer sure those good old days were all that good. My affection for Gurney continues but seeing Black Tie once was more than enough for me.

March 2, 2011

Crazy About "Diary of a Madman"

Sign me up for the Geoffrey Rush fan club.  And make that a lifetime membership, please.  Like most people, I discovered the off-beat Australian actor when I saw his breakout—and Oscar-winning—performance in the 1996 movie “Shine.” And over the years, I’ve enjoyed watching Rush in all kinds of movies from “Quills,” in which     
he portrayed the licentious Marquis de Sade, to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, in which he plays the wicked Captain Barbossa.  

But I really fell—and fell hard—for Rush when I saw him on stage two seasons ago in Exit the King. His final moment in that play is one of the most memorable things I’ve ever witnessed in a theater (click here to read my review). Now Rush is on the boards again in The Diary of a Madman, which is running at BAM’s Harvey Theatre only through March 12.   

The Diary of a Madman is an adaptation of a short story by the 19th century Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol. It tracks the mental disintegration of a low-level government clerk named Poprishchin.  But that description doesn’t even begin to tell you about the extraordinary piece of work that Rush and his collaborators, writer David Holman and director Neil Armfield, have put together. 

Longtime friends Armfield and Rush first began working on The Diary of a Madman back in 1989 and, as Armfield explains in a program note, “it was a show where as young artists we shut the doors of the rehearsal room and worked to please ourselves…we were just doing a show from our own sense of play and love of Daffy Duck and outrageous theatrical gesture.” 

The result was a dazzling coup de théâtre in which an hilarious farce gradually spirals down into almost unbearable tragedy. It launched both their careers (Rush went into the movies and Armfield became artistic director of the Belvoir Street Theatre, one of Australia’s leading companies).  After seeing Rush’s amazing performance in this revival, I now want to see him in everything—Shakespeare, Chekhov, Albee and maybe some Dr. Seuss.  

For Rush is, in the best sense of the term, a theatrical actor, the kind that flourished before Marlon Brando arrived with the Method, naturalism and all the just-like-real-life techniques that we now expect to see on a stage. But in the old days, actors embraced artifice—training their voices to fill a theater even when the script calls for a whisper and disciplining their bodies to convey emotion with the smallest of gestures.

Old masters like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud had no patience for vanity and no fear of looking like fools. They threw themselves into their roles, be it king or clown. And they rejected the notion of a schism between art and entertainment, believing that both were worthy goals and could be achieved with the same performance.

Rush comes from that school of acting. The old-style techniques can come off as hammy in the wrong hands but he juggles them brilliantly (click here to read a Q&A he did with New York Magazine). And he is ably supported in The Diary of a Madman by Yael Stone, who goes toe-to-toe with Rush in three very different roles that are almost worth the price of the ticket on her own. They are backed up by Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim, the two onstage musicians who speak through their instruments with similarly bravura virtuosity.  

At the start of the play, Poprishchin, aided by Tess Schofield’s deliciously ridiculous costumes, is a pompous fool and all the more funny because he doesn’t know it. Rush turns 60 this year but I dare you to find a more agile actor working today and he uses his limber body to emphasize the character’s self-importance, twisting it and throwing it around Catherine Martin's smartly stylized set with the kind of flamboyant abandon that even a physical comedy genius like Buster Keaton might envy.

But Rush is just as affective at the play’s end, when Poprishchin has been stripped of everything, including the delusions that have buffered him from the prosaic cruelties of life.  “How can he go through that every night,” my theatergoing buddy Bill wondered as the lights came up at the end of the show.  I don’t know.  But I do know how very grateful I am to have gotten the chance to see Rush do it.  I’d urge you to see it too.  But I think the word has already gotten around and the run is sold out.