June 29, 2011

"Side Effects" Can Induce Crankiness

My theatergoing buddy Bill and I were standing outside the Lucille Lortel Theatre when a black town car pulled up and out stepped Vanessa Redgrave, looking just as you always imagine Vanessa Redgrave looking—lovely in an understated but chic black suit, her hair done up in a casual chignonboth imperial and ethereal at the same time. She was there because her youngest daughter Joely Richardson is starring in Side Effects, the new Michael Weller play that opened last week in an MCC Theater production that drew decidedly mixed reviews.

I’m sorry to say that you’re going to have to count me on the naysayer’s side. As longtime theatergoers know, Weller is no novice. He made his theatrical bones back in 1971 with his first play Moonchildren, a critically acclaimed look at college seniors grappling with their feelings about the Vietnam War and other approaching horrors of adulthood. 

Over the years, Weller, now 69, has continued to write about the dreams and disappointments of his generation in plays like Spoils of War and, most recently, Fifty Words, a two-hander about a severely dysfunctional couple on the eve of what could be the end of their marriage. There’s a pivotal phone call in Fifty Words and, it turns out, the person on the other end of the line is one of the characters in Side Effects.

That caller is Lindy, a Midwestern wife, who prefers memories of her laid-back hippie youth to the stringencies of her current life as the spouse of Hugh, the heir of a family business who now has political aspirations. Lindy also favors the mania of her bipolar disorder over the drug-numbing stasis of the prescribed medications she refuses to take.

The play opens in the couple’s living room after Lindy has acted out at a political dinner. The love-hate relationship between them then plays out in one histrionic scene after another, occasionally interrupted for an improbable plot twist.  At one point, they get a phone call about something terrible that’s happened to their sons but instead of rushing out, as any parents would do, they stand around and squabble some more.

The entire play runs only about 90 minutes but it was everything I could do to keep from shouting out, “Just break up already so that we can go eat.” 

I had my problems with Fifty Words too. Neither those characters nor the way they behaved seemed believable either (click here to read my review). But that show was almost salvaged by the go-for-broke performances of Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel, who so knocked themselves out that both actors got injured in their onstage brawling.

Both Richardson, who unlike her late sister Natasha has tended to do more TV and films than stage work (click here to read an interview with the actress), and her co-star Cotter Smith are good actors but they're much too well-behaved to make Lindy and Hugh seem like fully realized people. 

In roles like the fathers in Kin and Next Fall, Smith has shown that he can be a master at portraying the put-upon white middle-class male, struggling to reconcile the man he is and the man he thinks he should be.  But, at least in the performance Bill and I saw, Smith’s chin was drawn too tightly into his chest—there was no sign of why Lindy might have fallen in love with Hugh in the first place or why any political kingmaker would want to back him.

Richardson is as lovely to look at as her mother is but she’s also just as controlled as Smith, capturing too little of the recklessness that a woman like Lindy would display.  And she relies far too much on what Bill calls “hair acting,”—running her fingers through her hair, flicking it off her neck, tying it up in a rubber band, shaking it loose. 

The New York Post critic Elisabeth Vincentelli who saw the same performance that Bill and I did, mused in a later blog post that Richardson may have been intimidated by having her illustrious mom in the audience. But I think the actors and their director David Auburn just had a tough time making Weller’s melodrama more than an acting exercise.

But what do I know.  Both Side Effects, which closes this weekend, and Fifty Words are part of a trilogy about divorce (click here to hear Weller talk about it) and, according to his Playbill bio, Weller has already sold it for a series on the cable network Showtime. 

Actors will probably line up for the roles because the parts are big and over-the-top emotional but I hope they’ll realize that in order for the plays to work, the people in them may, just as Butz and Marvel did, have to leave blood on the floor.

June 25, 2011

"Unnatural Acts" Mourns a Past Injustice

The first time I heard about Harvard’s attempt to purge the school of gay men in 1920 was five years ago when someone sent me a copy of “Harvard’s Secret Court,” William Wright’s book about the witch hunt. The second was last year, when Veritas, Stan Richardson’s stage version of the story, played the New York International Fringe Festival, selling out before the festival opened and before I could get a ticket to see it. Now comes Unnatural Acts, another play conceived by the Plastic Theatre group that opened on Thursday at Classic Stage Company.

I’m not surprised by all the attention this tragic incident has drawn. It’s a compelling story. After a student committed suicide, his family discovered letters from his classmates revealing the secrets of gay life on campus. They turned them over to the administration. A secret tribunal was convened, the young man's friends were summoned, interrogated and pushed, as always happens in these cases, to name names. Some reluctantly did. A few managed to dissemble. Many lives were ruined. 

Then, the whole affair was hushed up and the files locked away until 2002, when an enterprising reporter for the student paper spotted a reference to the files in the school archives, pushed the administration to make them public and, with the help of his fellow reporters, pieced together the complete story. (Click here to read how he did it.)

Unnatural Acts was pieced together through further research and improvisation by Plastic company members under the leadership of Tony Speciale, who directed the show. They’ve used a variety of increasingly popular coups de theatre to bring their version of the story to the stage (click here to read about their process).

The 500 documents in the secret files have been mined, just as the Tectonic Theater Project used the transcripts from Oscar Wilde’s trials for that company’s 1997 play Gross Indecency. Cast members sit along the sides of the stage when they’re not performing in the same way the actors did in the recent musical The Scottsboro Boys. Choreographed dance movements, reminiscent of the ones in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, are used to express the inner turmoil of the characters. 

Some of the fancy stagecraft works. The overlapping speeches that some characters give during a testimony scene neatly underscore the double lives the young men are forced to lead. 

Some of it doesn’t.  The expressionistic choreography seems out of step with the naturalistic tone of the rest of the play.  A party scene goes on way too long, possibly because the actors were having such a great time improvising it that they forgot how much less fun it can be to have to watch someone else’s bacchanalia.

Still, the 11-member cast is amiable in every other way.  Unlike so many ensemble pieces in which it becomes difficult to tell one character from the other, each of the men here emerges as a distinct person. 

Each actor also gets his turn in the spotlight with a dramatic speech. The ones who make the most of those moments are Nick Westrate as the leader of the group and Max Jenkins as its most shrewd member. A brief full-frontal nude scene makes the buff Roe Hartrampf memorable in a different way.

The show’s technical values are first rate too. Walt Spangler’s spare set is elegantly efficient. Justin Townsend’s lighting subtly directs the eye exactly where it needs to be. And Andrea Lauer’s costumes are so stylishly beguiling that I couldn’t help wishing that men still dressed that way. 

And yet, as I told my theatergoing buddy Bill, himself a Harvard grad albeit of much later vintage, I felt that an opportunity had been missed. What I wanted was poetry (a musing on how and why such a thing could happen) but what I got was a documentary (a recounting of what happened—and, in at least one instance, a sloppy telling of that: one of the men talks about dating a Sarah Lawrence girl; as a proud grad of that school, I appreciate the shout-out but Sarah Lawrence didn’t open until six years later.)

Still, you should see Unnatural Acts before it closes on July 10. What Harvard did in 1920 is shameful. An epilogue that reveals what happened to each of the men is affective testament to that.  And despite whatever nitpicks I may have, the entire play is a valuable reminder of a past that must never be repeated.

We may finally have legalized same-sex marriage in New York and Gay Pride week is about to be celebrated all over the country but the wrongheaded values that drove Harvard to persecute its gay students aren’t as outdated as we might like to think, as is demonstrated by a recent case in Arkansas in which a local newspaper cut the name of a dead man’s surviving male partner out of the obituary.  It's difficult to imagine what could be more unnatural than that.

June 22, 2011

A Full Embrace of "One Arm"

Tennessee Williams was my first great love in the theater. I discovered him when I was 13 and looking for a monologue to perform for my audition to the High School of Performing Arts. I did Blanche’s “he was a boy just a boy” speech from A Streetcar Named Desire. I didn’t get in but I’ve never gotten over him. 

So there was no question about my wanting to see One Arm, the new play that Moisés Kaufman has adapted for the stage from a never-produced screenplay that Williams wrote back in the ‘60s.  And, call me a fool for love if you’d like, but seeing it made my heart ache for the pain and the loneliness that must have caused Williams to create it.

Williams based his screenplay on a short story of the same name that he wrote in 1942. Like his play Vieux Carré, the story draws on the time he lived in New Orleans and the down-and-out people he encountered there.

One Arm’s lost soul is a former boxer named Ollie Olsen (the surname is Winemiller in the short story) who tragically lost an arm and then spiraled down into a life of prostitution and crime. He is on death row when the play opens; the story of how he got there is told in flash-back scenes.

The familiar Williams themes of the desperate longing for love and the disillusionment that comes with depending on the kindness of strangers permeate the play.  As do strains of the lyricism that sets Williams, whose centenary is being observed this year, apart from all other claimants to the title of America’s greatest playwright. Ollie, Williams wrote, “Looked like a broken statue of Apollo, and he also had the coolness and impassivity of a stone figure.” (Click here to read the entire short story.)

As is also usual with Williams, the work oozes with sexuality. But the sex here doesn’t hide behind metaphor: One Arm deals openly with gay themes and, in this production, is sometimes almost leering in its depiction of the interactions between Ollie and his customers.  

I don’t know how explicit all of that was in the screenplay drafts that Williams reportedly kept revising right up to the time of his death in 1983. But it is clear that Kaufman has brought his own highly-theatrical sensibility—and storytelling techniques—to One Arm. 

A narrator introduces the play, occasionally reads excerpts from the screenplay, including stage directions, and portrays a writer—clearly based on Williamswho befriends Ollie. In other stage business, the pick-ups by the johns are ritualized; as is the murder.

But it works. And that’s largely because of Claybourne Elder’s courageous portrayal of Ollie. Playing a man with one arm isn’t that hard; Elder’s is visibly strapped to his body with a belt. But, while most of Williams’ protagonists leaven their tragedy with flashes of humor and wit, Ollie lacks all emotion.  And apathy ain't easy to play. Yet Elder impressively overcomes that handicap and shows the repressed passions roiling inside Ollie (click here to read a great Q&A with the actor).

The other seven actors, all of whom double and triple in roles, are good too, particularly Larisa Polonsky, the sole woman in the show who is such a shape-shifter that I thought there were at least two actresses in the cast until the curtain call.

The strong acting is aided by Derek McLane’s broodingly beautiful set that, aided by David Lander’s nimble lighting, is convincing as Ollie’s jail cell, the navy barracks of his youth, a brothel where he works later, and the various apartments in which he has his liaisons.

Not everything works. Some of Shane Rettig’s sound design is a bit overly emphatic. A last minute epiphany isn’t totally believable. Still, nearly every review of One Arm, even the ones that don’t like it much, say this production, which is playing at the Acorn Theatre through July 2, is a must-see for Williams devotees.  And it is.

June 18, 2011

How "Sleep No More" Gave Me Nightmares

Forget about War Horse or even The Book of Mormon. The hottest ticket in town 
is Sleep No More. That’s the Macbeth
takeoff in which theatergoers put on white-face masks and roam around a huge, 100,000-square-foot warehouse space in Chelsea. 

The British company Punchdrunk, which specializes in this style of "immersive theater," has outfitted the place with all kinds of weird paraphernalia. Actors appear seemingly out of nowhere to perform scenes and then disappear again. The show has the show-offy split personality of a James Franco: it's part theater, part art installation, part spook house.

The Drama Desk gave it a special award for being a “Unique Theatrical Experience.”  It won special Obie and ITBA citations too.  It also tops the leader board on StageGrade, the website that aggregates and scores the reviews of the top New York theater critics. 

And people are lining up to see Sleep No More—including celebrities.  Franco, Neil Patrick Harris, Matt Damon, Justin Timberlake, Tyra Banks, Joan Rivers, a pre-baby Natalie Portman and the Olsen twins have all reportedly hidden behind one of those white masks to see the show and, in some cases, have tweeted enthusiastically about it.  

Even the usually grouchy New York Post columnist Michael Riedel is smitten (click here to read his love letter to the show).  So, I’ve been trying to figure out why Sleep No More didn’t work for me. Although I’m not the only naysayer; click here to read about the New York Times critic Charles Isherwood’s experience with the show.

It could just be that neither Isherwood nor I is cool enough for Sleep No More. “You should check your bag,” the smiling coat check guy said to me as I walked into the warehouse space, which has been rechristened the McKittrick Hotel, an homage to the hotel in the Hitchcock movie “Vertigo,” the inspiration for the production's creepy film noir sensibility.   

“No thank you,” I said, just as pleasantly as I held on to my small purse. 

“It’s better to leave it here,” he said, a little less friendly.  “You’ll enjoy the show more.”   

I said I would keep it anyway.   

“You should trust me,” he said, now not that friendly at all.  

 “I’m keeping it,” I said, not at all pleasantly.

My stepdaughter Anika, my bag and I then made our way up some stairs and through the pitch black passageway that leads to a bar, where you can buy a drink while you wait for a guide to give out the masks (they look like the scary commedia dell'arte ones that Tom Cruise wore in the 1999 Stanley Kubric film “Eyes Wide Shut”). Then the guide ushers you onto an elevator that delivers you to a floor where you can begin your adventure.

There are five floors to wander around and you can go wherever you want to go whenever you want. One of the things that people seem to like most about Sleep No More is the fact that no two people see the same show. And, for those making return visits to see the things they missed the first time around, no person sees the same show twice. It’s a theatrical experience that fits right in with the current obsession for DIY culture.

You can either chase behind a performer as he or she flits from space to space or amble about on your own. Audience members are encouraged to riffle through the draws and closets in the rooms, read the letters lying on the table in the library, the folders in the file cabinet of a detective agency and the labels on the bottles in the apothecary.

But that kind of information foraging isn’t easy to do if you need eyeglasses the way I do.  Your glasses can’t fit over the mask, which you’re told you should not take off. Nor do glasses actually fit under the mask. Anika helpfully pointed out a few things to me but she couldn’t say much because you’re not supposed to talk either and black-masked guards are around to shush those who disobey.

I usually like surprises and serendipity. But I like them to add up to something.  The last time I had a theatrical adventure like this one was back in 1987 when I saw Tamara, a murder mystery that played out in the Park Avenue Armory. You followed the actors around, listened for clues and tried to figure out whodunit. You also got free champagne to drink and, if memory serves, food from Le Cirque to eat. 

There was no equivalent logical progression (or free vittles) at Sleep No More and that frustrated the narrative nerd in me.  When Anika and I spotted a woman desperately wringing her hands, we guessed that she was probably Lady Macbeth. But the actress (we knew she was in the show because she didn’t have a mask) never said a word and eventually just went off down a dark corridor. 

The male actors who engaged in a combative dance routine—were they Macduff and Macbeth duking it out?—were just as silent. In fact, the entire performance is dialog-free. Anika and I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on and eventually stopped trying. 

Instead, we resignedly made our away through as many dimly-lit rooms (there are said to be 100) as we could, including the infirmary, the graveyard, a forest in which effigies of headless babies hung from trees, and some offices, bedrooms and sitting rooms.  I vetoed the morgue.

Sometimes we saw actors (both dressed and not) but usually we didn’t. Throughout it all, ominous Bernard Herrmannesque music played in the background. The whole thing is supposed to evoke a dream, in which scenes and even people morph into one another and meaning is elusive.  

I got that.  But I got tired of it too.  Although I might have had a better time if I’d gotten a guided tour like the one that Kurt Andersen got for his public radio show Studio 360 and which you can listen to by clicking here.

Audience members can stay pretty much as long as they like but Anika and I left after an hour and a half and walked across the street to a little place called Ovest Pizzoteca where we had a nice little dinner and a more pleasurable time

The play followed me home though. For several nights afterward, my dreams were filled with images from it.  So I guess you’d have to say it was effective in that way at least.  But the biggest advantage of having seen Sleep No More, which has twice extended its run and is now scheduled to play through Labor Day, may be, as Anika says, that you can say that you saw it. 

June 15, 2011

"Through a Glass Darkly" is Too Murky

It probably makes me sound like a philistine to say this but I’ve never been a big Ingmar Bergman fan.  Which may make you wonder why I was so eager to see Through a Glass Darkly, the stage adaptation of Bergman’s 1961 Oscar-winning film that the Atlantic Theater Company recently opened at New York Theatre Workshop.  Easy answer: Carey Mulligan.

I can’t remember being more knocked out by an actor than I was when I saw Mulligan in The Seagull back in 2008. That production transferred to Broadway from London because of Kristin Scott Thomas’ movie-powered name recognition and much-lauded performance as the self-involved actress Arkadina. But Mulligan stole the show with a portrayal of the fledgling actress Nina that deftly captured both the fragility and tenacity of the character (click here to read my review).

Hollywood was gobsmacked too and swept Mulligan right up. I’ve since seen several of her subsequent movies—"An Education," "Public Enemies,"  "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,"  "Never Let Me Go"—and she’s been good in them too. But there is a more visceral quality to Mulligan’s stage work that makes you believe that this young actress, who just turned 26, has got the chops to become her generation’s Meryl Streep.  Or Judi Dench. (Click here to read an interview with her.)

Mulligan’s portrayal of Karin, the young woman in Through A Glass Darkly who is trying to fight off mental illness, lived up to my expectations.  And that made the theater lover in me happy.  The play fulfilled my expectations about Bergman too.  Which made me less so.

Through a Glass Darkly is set in a vacation house on an island off the coast of Sweden where Karin is vacationing with the three men in her life: her protective husband, her narcissistic father and her immature younger brother. The action centers around the men's efforts to keep Karin well but the battles are mainly interior ones, as all the characters wrestle with the idealistic images of the people they want to be and the cruel realities of who they actually are. 

Internal struggles can be hard to show on a stage and Jenny Worton, who did the adaptation, and David Leveaux, who directed the production, seem stymied about how to make it work. The result is a play that seems far longer than its 90-minutes running time.

I must confess that although I usually try to do my homework before seeing a show, I haven’t seen the film. Yet the play still seems like one of those bloodless musical remakes of movies where the characters are the same, the scenes are similar but the spirit is AWOL. As a consequence, the actors, with the exception of Mulligan, struggle too. They act the qualities of their characters instead of the people who inhabit them.

The rest of the creative team seems adrift too. Jess Goldstein's costumes are a mishmash of time periods. And Takeshi Kata has just as hard a time with the set, which is divided into the outside and inside of the family’s beach house. It’s beautiful to look at but parts of the set seemed misplaced (why is the sand dune inside?  why does the attic room seem outside?) and if, like my husband K and I, you’re sitting on the aisle, it can be hard to see what happens on the other side of the stage. Only David Van Tieghem’s sound design hits the spot, conveying the bewildering terror of the madness closing in around Karin.

Mulligan slices through all the murkiness. There is a crystalline precision to her performance as she works through all the stages—giddiness, despair, terror and resignation—of a mind unraveling. It’s hard to take your eyes off her and yet painful to watch. Which, in the end, turned out to be enough for me. But I can’t guarantee that non-Mulligan groupies will feel the same way.

June 14, 2011

Final Words on The Tonys—At Least From Me

The preliminary ratings for Sunday night’s Tony broadcast are 6.9 million, just a smidgen down from the 7 million who watched last year.  But it seems there was a 9% increase in viewers in the 18-49 demo that advertisers seem to think are the only people who exist. I can’t figure that increase out.  Maybe the anticipated—and eventual—dominance of The Book of Mormon brought in some “South Park” fans but what happened to the oldsters they replaced?  

Still, the overall numbers (the final tallies will be released later today) suggest just how many Broadway fans there are out there.  Or at least how many will tune in on a night when, as Chris Rock noted as he gave out the Best Musical Award, the best basketball game of the year was playing out on another channel. My always-supportive husband K watched the Tonys with me but then immediately switched to the game, which, thanks to our dual-tuner Tivo, he’d been recording.

Theater geeks and sports fanatics tend to have little in common but there is one thing we definitely share:  a love of Monday morning quarterbacking.  As usual, a lot of the virtual water cooler talk about Sunday night’s Tony Awards ceremony has been thumbs-up-and-thumbs-down reviews about the show (largely positive) the host (really positive) the winners (few surprises) and the fashion (what were Whoopi Goldberg and Frances McDormand thinking?)

But amidst all the chatter (Google News lists close to 3,000 articles on the awards) I came across six things that I thought you, my discerning readers, might enjoy before you your turn attention to the new Broadway season, which begins tonight with the opening of the long-delayed Spider-Man:

1. Lucky and the Mick, the authors of the Craptacular blog (and my sometimes bantering buddies on the Broadwaystars.com weekly podcast) offer a wrap-up that’s both funny and insightful:

2. New York Post critic Elisabeth Vincentelli explains why she—and seemingly lots of other folks—enjoyed the broadcast so much:

3. Martin Denton, the valiant defender of indie theater at nytheatre.com, chimes in with another point of view and laments the way plays—even in this year when a dozen new ones debuted—have become second-class citizens on Broadway:

4. Michael Billington, who writes for the Guardian in London, started off with what I thought was going to be some jingoistic chest-thumping about how so many of Sunday’s winners were British but ended up with a terrific call to arms in defense of the importance of government-subsidized theater everywhere:

5. At least eight musicals got to show-off during the broadcast (a good thing since that helps people decide what they want to see) but there were also some entertaining speeches, including Sutton Foster’s shout-out to her dresser, Norbert Leo Butz’s gracious tribute to all his colleagues at Catch Me If You Can (which needs a box-office boost) and to his sister who was murdered during the show’s tryout in Seattle, an adorable speech by The Book of Mormon’s Nikki M. James who in one of the few surprises of the night beat out Laura Benanti for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, and yet another perplexing one from Mark Rylance, who once again used his time to quote cryptic lyrics by the Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins.  Backstage has gathered those and others in a collection of video clips from the telecast:

6. Yesterday, I tweeted about the rap that the In the Heights duo Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail wrote for Neil Patrick Harris to end the show (click here to see a video clip of them as they compose the lyricsin the basement of the Beacon Theater during the show).  But I’m still not sure what I think of the opening number "Not Just for Gays Anymore,” written by the Cry Baby team David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger.  Was it, as some people suggest, an I-Am-What-I-Am affirmation of the relationship between gay people and theater?  Or, as others fret, was it a thumb-in-the-eye turnoff to middle America?  As luck would have it, Playbill has helpfully printed the lyrics so you can judge for yourself:

June 11, 2011

Shows to See, Whatever Happens at the Tonys

It’s finally Tony time and people who see only a few shows a year often use the Tony broadcast (on CBS this Sunday night at 9 p.m. eastern time) to decide which ones they should see.  That makes sense to me, particularly for the folks who’ll be vacationing in the city this summer and want to get some bang—or at least some bling—for their bucks.  But this has been a really fine year for Broadway (lots of original musicals, lots of original plays, lots of terrific revivals) and the Tonys can’t tell you everything you need to know about the season’s shows so I’ve decided to throw my two cents in on not just what you should see but why—and on which of you might enjoy each choice the most.

I’ve already given my shout-outs to: 
The Book of Mormon, the sure-fire winner for Best Musical but it’s sold out for months
Jerusalem, with its sensational people-will-be-talking-about-it-for-years performance by Mark Rylance 

Anything Goes, for Kathleen Marshall’s sensational dance numbers and Sutton Foster’s game performance, both also frontrunners in their Tony categories 

And Sister Act, not a big Tony contender but big on good old-fashioned fun. 

Now, here are six more that you should at least consider, and, in some cases, consider pretty quickly because Tony losers tend not to stick around too long after the ceremony:

Born Yesterday. This revival of the old Garson Kanin comedy about the political education of a not-so-dumb blonde isn’t doing that well at the box office but it should be selling out for Nina Arianda’s terrific performance. Whether she wins a Tony or not on Sunday, Arianda's performance has made the young actress a star and if you love great acting, you’ll want to be able to say that you saw her in the show that made it happen.

The House of Blue Leaves.  John Guare’s black comedy about a group of misfits on the day of the Pope’s visit to Queens in 1965 is directed by the hot director David Cromer and jam-packed with big names (Hollywood’s Ben Stiller and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Broadway’s Thomas Sadoski and Alison Pill) but the best thing about it is a heartrending performance by Edie Falco.  TV fans who have loved her as Carmela Soprano and Nurse Jackie should treasure the chance to see Falco disappear into the role of Bananas, a sad pill-popping wife who isn’t quite as crazy as her name suggests.

The Normal Heart.  You might think that this revival of Larry Kramer’s cri de coeur about the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s is outdated or too political but that means you’d miss a truly affecting love story, lots of laugh-out-loud moments and the best acting ensemble on Broadway this season.  The final moments alone are worth the price of admission and should be seen by serious theater lovers and everyone who believes that gay rights—be it the right to good health care or to marry and make a life with whomever you love—are human rights.

The People in the Picture.  This musical about a Holocaust survivor didn’t get great reviews and, to be honest, I don’t think it deserved them.  So why, you ask, have I put the show on this list?  Simple answer: Donna Murphy.  She’s giving a knockout performance in the show—actually she’s giving two knockout performances, as she portrays the same character in the 1930s and in the ‘70s.  Murphy's totally convincing in both eras and deserve to be seen. I’ve read that the show regularly brings tears to the eyes of the people who lived through the horrors of World War II. So this show might be just the one to take your bubbe or zeyde to see. 

Priscilla Queen of the Desert.  Just about everything in this musical version of the 1994 movie about a road trip taken by three drag queens—the singing, the dancing, the costumes, co-star Nick Adams’ amazing abs—is outrageous.  If you’ve got a sweet tooth for high-calorie camp, then this is the treat for you. 

War Horse. Steven Spielberg is already making a movie version of this children’s book about the cruelties of war experienced by a boy and his horse during World War I but no matter how splendid the movie may be, it won’t be as wondrous as this show, which is the odds-on-favorite to take Best Play honors tomorrow night. For all the animals in the stage production are portrayed by life-sized puppets the likes of which you’ve never seen.  This, as the saying goes, is a show for children—or inner-children—of all ages.  It’s what the magic of theater is all about.

June 8, 2011

"A Little Journey" Offers Another Nostalgic Trip

Is there a harder working or more admirable head of a theater company than Jonathan Bank, the artistic director of the Mint Theater Company?  Bank has not only delivered a welcoming message at every Mint show I’ve ever seen but he usually stays through the entire performance and mingles with audience members during the intermissions.

Now, I realize that I usually attend press performances and so that may account for some of the attentiveness.  But the Mint specializes in neglected plays and Bank is the guy who ferrets them out and frequently writes the smart program notes to explain why attention should again be paid. And he’s a tireless cheerleader for playwrights whom he feels have been unfairly forgotten. High among them is Rachel Crothers, the author of the company’s latest production, A Little Journey, which opened on Monday night.

Crothers was a big deal during the first third of the 20th century when around 30 of her plays opened on Broadway. Her mother was one of the first female doctors in Illinois and Crothers, who began making up plays as a child, was an ardent feminist who wrote about smart and spunky female characters and the challenges they faced.  

Both Katharine Cornell and Tallulah Bankhead got their first big breaks in one of Crothers' biggest hits Nice People. Joan Crawford later starred in the movie version of her most famous work Susan and God. How I wish that Crothers, who died in 1958, were alive and turning out similarly meaty roles for today’s actresses to sink their teeth into.

A Little Journey was first produced in 1918, about half way through Crothers' streak, and was nominated for the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama but lost to Why Marry?, a contemporary comedy about a modern couple who opt for cohabitation over marriage.

There’s a modern couple at the heart of A Little Journey too.  They are Julie, a young woman, who like Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, is forced to fend for herself when she is disinherited by the wealthy aunt who raised her; and Jim, a self-made man who has found himself and a new life in Montana. They meet cute on a train bound west when the cash-strapped Julie loses her ticket and Jim gallantly offers to buy a replacement.

Their traveling companions include a cross-section of America at the time: an old lady accompanied by her granddaughter, a glad-handing salesman, a nouveaux-riche matron, a haughty businessman, a poor woman with an infant, two callow college boys, the officious train conductor and a longanimous Pullman porter.

The journey they take together is both geographic (from the tightly-ordered East to the more broad-minded West) and emotional (from alienation to a sense of community, which includes the black porter—showing that Crothers could be just as progressive on race as she was on gender).

The acting is all first class. Samantha Soule may be a touch too contemporary as Julie and McCaleb Burnett struck me as too handsome for Jim but they provide strong anchors for the show. And Laurie Birmingham who is adept with both the laugh notes and the grace notes of the rich matron is a standout, bringing to mind Shelley Winters, who also would have had a ball with the role. 

But the real star may be Roger Hanna’s clever merry-go-round-style set which revolves as the focus moves from one traveler to another.  In fact, despite what one assumes must be a limited budget, all the design elements are handsomely done and Jackson Gay’s fluid direction shows them all off to good effect. 

Crothers can be wickedly funny in spots and the audience at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended had a great time. I liked it too.  Kind of.  I have to confess that the Mint shows—many of them set at the turn of the 20th century, many of them with two intermissions—are beginning to look alike to me.

“Have you ever seen a Mint show that you really loved ?” Bill asked as we walked up 43rd Street on our way to an after-show-supper at the West Bank Cafe.  I had to say No.  But I also have to say there’s no company I admire more.

June 4, 2011

Why "Sister Act" Deserves a Righteous Amen

The Tony Awards are just a week away but so many shows opened at the end of the season that I'm way behind in posting about all the ones that are eligible for awards.  I’ll still try to get to some of them later but, right now, I want to give a little love to a show that probably won’t hear its name called a lot next Sunday evening: Sister Act.

It doesn’t have the eye-popping costumes and sets that Wicked does or the familiar sing-along tunes that Mamma Mia! does but, like them, Sister Act is a feel-good show. However you might not be able to tell that from some of the griping reviews (click here to see a round-up of them).

They used to say that shows like Sister Act were for the tired businessman.  Now, they say they’re for the tourists. Both are meant as put-downs.  And I don’t know why. Tourists and business people, tired and otherwise, pay their money just like everyone else (except of course most critics—including me) and they deserve to be entertained too.  

Not every show has to be profound or break new ground.  Not every theatergoer wants them to be.  Sometimes, just singing, dancing and a few harmless jokes are exactly what hit the spot.  

Sister Act is based on the 1992 movie about a so-so nightclub singer who’s named herself Deloris Van Cartier and has ambitions far beyond her talent. After Deloris witnesses her gangster boyfriend commit a murder, she hides in a convent that is home to a no-nonsense Mother Superior and a pitiful-sounding choir. The eventual outcome is totally predictable.  But that doesn’t mean that getting there can’t be fun. 

The movie starred Whoopi Goldberg, who, along with Disney, is a name-above-the-title producer for the stage version. Goldberg has also been the show’s main cheerleader: stepping in for a short time as the Mother Superior during the show’s earlier run in London, talking it up in countless interviews, inviting it to perform on her daytime TV show “The View,” and steadily pushing for changes that would make an already energetic show even more exhilarating.

Unlike the movie, which playfully transformed pop songs into gospel numbers for the nuns to sing ("My Guy" becoming “My God,”) the stage show has all original music. Alan Menken supplies the hummable ‘70s-era soul and disco tunes (click here to read an essay he wrote on the making of the score) and Glenn Slater does the trying-too-hard-to-be-clever lyrics (click here to read a Q&A with him)

Book writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (with a later assist from Douglas Carter Beane) have also added a cute love story between Deloris and the cop (a winning Chester Gregory) who has placed her in the convent until she can testify. But the rest of the show hews closely to the movie. 

Sarah Bolt conveys a geniality similar to that of Kathy Najimy, who, in the film, played the chubby and cheerful nun who becomes Deloris’ best pal.  Meanwhile Audrie Neenan does a nice variation on the older wisecracking sister that the always-wry Mary Wickes played, plus Neenan raps.

The inimitable Maggie Smith played the Mother Superior in the movie but Victoria Clark brings her own charms to the role, elevating the show to another level whenever she sings. So much so that Menken and Slater added a second-act ballad for her that wasn’t in the London production.

Still, the show has to center around Deloris. Patina Miller, who was originally in the ensemble but moved up to the title role during the London previews, isn’t as effortlessly charismatic as Goldberg but she proves a spunky spoke around whom the show joyfully revolves. And she works her heart out (click here to read an interview with Miller).

In fact everyone does. There isn’t a lot that can be done with a nun’s habit but costume designer Lez Brotherston has come up with just about every funny option imaginable (I think my favorite might be the ones with the glitter-gold crosses) and Klara Zieglerova has been just as wittily audacious with the set, which at one point features a statue of the Madonna as a disco ball. 

Anthony van Laast’s choreography may not be all that original but it is spirited. And Broadway vet Jerry Zaks (someone with whom my husband K has worked and remains fond of) deftly pulls the whole thing together. In the end, that whole is entertainingly larger than the sum of its parts.

Now, Sister Act isn’t a show for the ages. But theatergoers too prudish for The Book of Mormon or too straight for Priscilla Queen of the Desert will have a great time.  And getting into the act will be the Obama supporters who will pay up to $10,000 a seat for a performance that Goldberg will host on June 23. 

June 1, 2011

A "King Lear" That May Be a Bit Too Foolish

The Donmar Warehouse’s production of King Lear with Derek Jacobi as the addled monarch closes at BAM this weekend but I still want to get in my two cents about the show.  Besides, it really wouldn’t have mattered much if I’d managed to add them four weeks ago when Lear opened because the run has been sold-out nearly from the start.

Some theater lovers collect Shakespeare productions, hoarding as many versions of one play as they can and then hauling out references about them to laud over their friends. I’m not as ambitious as some (click here to read about one avid collector) but I’ll confess to a weakness for Hamlets, Macbeths, Richard IIIs and, recently, I think I’ve average a Lear just about every other year. 

At the risk of sounding like Goldilocks, I found Kevin Kline’s at the Public Theatre back in 2007 to be too young and robust and Christopher Plummer’s at Lincoln Center in 2004 to be too old (unable to carry his Cordelia in at the end of the play, he had to drag her on stage).  But, alas, I can’t say I found this one, directed by the Donmar’s acclaimed but departing artistic director Michael Grandage, to be just right either.

It has, however,  been a hot ticket for a discerning kind of theatergoer. My friend Joy, a confirmed Manhattanite, didn’t hesitate when I asked if she wanted to tramp out to Brooklyn to see this Lear with me. And outside the theater, we ran into another friend of ours whose busy schedule keeps her from seeing much theater but made time to see this. 

Inside, I spotted Jon Meacham, the former editor of Newsweek chatting with Calvin Trillin, the longtime writer for The New Yorker.  We all seemed pretty pleased with ourselves for being there.

 I’ve been a Jacobi fan since I first saw him in the miniseries “I, Claudius”  back in the ‘70s and I got a kick out of his Archbishop of Canterbury in this year’s Oscar-winning movie “The King’s Speech” (click here to read a revealing profile of the actor). But t I found his take on Lear as a perpetual toddler to be odd and ultimately unsatisfying.

However, I can see the logic of his choice. Like indulged children, imperious potentates are used to having their way. Certainly a decision to give up a throne and divide up one’s kingdom is as childishly whimsical as the belief that closing one’s eyes will make the world disappear.  But Jacobi’s Lear seems so petulant and loopy right from his entrance that there isn't a lot of room left for further unraveling as the plot unfolds. 

With just a few exceptions, the supporting players strain to come up with distinctive spins on their characters as well. Alec Newman seemed so intent on making Edmund, the Earl of Kent's bastard son who tries to steal the patrimony from his legitimate brother, the most dastardly villain that even the most ardent Shakespeare collector has ever seen.  So much so that he might just as well have pasted on a Snidely Whiplash moustache and twirled it.

I breathed a sigh of relief each time Michael Hadley’s Kent appeared because he seemed not to have gotten the do-it-different memo and just turned in an unembellished but impressive performance. I also liked the ultra-chic look of the production designed by Christopher Oram: all black and white, except for the splotches of red blood in the gory scenes. I'd almost kill for the coat Goneril wore.

Now, I must say that my carping puts me in a distinct minority.  The show is currently one of the highest rated on StageGrade, the website that aggregates and averages the reviews of the top New York critics. Moreover, the New York Time’s Ben Brantley gave it his thumbs up, always a good thing for a production but particularly so for one aiming at the literati, as this one does. (Click here to read his and some other of those rave reviews.)

Maybe I’ve just OD’ed on Lears and I probably should just see some other Shakespeare for a while. Which I’d do, except that I’ve read that Sam Waterston is going to give the role a go at the Public this fall.  And I think he might make an interesting addition to my collection.