September 28, 2011

"The Submission": Sound and Fury About Race

The producers of The Submission initially attempted to stir up buzz by suggesting that one character’s identity should be kept secret until people saw the play.  But they didn’t need to do that because The Submission, which opened last night in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is designed to get people buzzing without any extra prodding.  

For playwright Jeff Talbott has jumped into the free-for-all about race with his fists flying and his tongue wagging.  Here’s the premise of his play: Danny, a gay white guy, writes a gritty drama about a poor black family but submits it to a prestigious theater festival under the pseudonym Shaleeha G’ntamobi. He believes it sounds like a black name and that the judges will consider the play more authentic and worthy of doing if they think it’s been written by an African-American woman. 

The ruse works. The play is scheduled for production but, of course, Danny can’t show up for the rehearsals so he hires Emilie, a black actress, to impersonate the imaginary Shaleeha. Emilie’s supposed to relay Danny’s feelings about any necessary changes to the director and actors but, as dramaturgy would have it, she begins to have her own ideas about what the play should and shouldn’t say about black people. The bickering between them escalates. Inevitably, the angriest words get uttered. 

The audience gasped when those unsayable words were said at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw but it’s the stuff that gets said during the rest of the play that’s actually more provocative.  Because Talbott says a lot of things that most people—black, white, Asian, Latino—have thought at one time or another but are usually careful not to say aloud, at least not in racially mixed company. 

So it’s kind of refreshing to hear Danny sound off about his annoyance with theater companies that try to fulfill their diversity obligations by scheduling plays by African-Americans during February’s Black History month whether the plays are good or not and then to have Emilie fire back that it pisses her off that black plays are rarely done any other time no matter how good they are.

Similarly, while it may make some audience members uneasy, there’s clearly honest pain motivating his belief that the bias he’s experienced as a gay man qualifies him to understand how black people feel when they’re discriminated against and hers that his being white and male give him options that a black woman can never have.

Talbott, the first recipient of the Laurents/Hatcher Award that Arthur Laurents set up to support emerging playwrights, leavens all this heavy stuff with heaping doses of humor and director Walter Bobbie does his part to keep the action popping along. 

They’ve also assembled a top-notch design team, lead by David Zinn, who’s created a handsome paneled set that nimbly morphs from the backroom at Starbucks into a living room in the Village and elsewhere. 

But they haven’t figured out how to transform Danny or Emilie into more than mouthpieces for the points of view Talbott has them espouse. Neither character comes across as a believable person, despite the considerable talent and valiant efforts of theater darling Jonathan Groff and the Juilliard-trained firecracker Rutina Wesley, as comfortable on stage as she is in her day job as a co-star of the HBO vampire series “True Blood (click here to read her thoughts on the show.)”  

There is also strong support from Eddie Kaye Thomas as Danny’s boyfriend and Will Rogers as his best friend from drama school (Yale, of course) who struggles to maintain allegiances to both Danny and Emilie.

Talbott himself takes no sides, proffers no solutions and doesn't offer much insight either.  He's just content with the self-satisfaction of having let it all hang out. He also makes the mistake of having his characters cite lines from Danny’s supposedly fantastic play, which, judging by the quoted excerpts, isn’t.

Still, this play is tapping into something in the zeitgeist.  It’s the third one I've seen or heard about in less than a month that has dealt with the issue of who has the right to tell black people’s stories.   

Chasing Heaven, which played at last month’s New York International Fringe Festival, looked at the issue through the lens of a black scholar trying to update a Porgy and Bess-style musical (click here to read my review).  The Kennedy Center is currently running a revival of Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress’ 1956 play about an integrated company working on a black play.  And, of course, there’s the flap over the new revival of Porgy and Bess into which Stephen Sondheim jumped with his fists flying and his tongue wagging (click here for a catch up on that).

So people are clearly already talking about the issues that The Submission raises. The question is how to pay them more than just lip service.

September 24, 2011

A "Follies" That Actually Earns Its Applause

Sweeney Todd may be Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece but Follies is his most beloved show. There have been at least a dozen major productions since this highly conceptual musical first debuted in 1971 and theater lovers have debated and analyzed each one with a fervent attention to detail that would put rabbis studying the Torah to shame.

They’ve been just as psyched about the latest revival that opened at the Marquis Theatre last week (click here to read theater maven Peter Filichia’s list of 40 things he likes about it). The show scored an A- on StageGrade and its limited run has already been extended to Jan. 22. 

The ongoing fascination stems partly from the fact that the original production was not only written by Sondheim but co-directed by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, who also did the choreography. Boris Aronson's now legendary set and the stunning costumes created by Florence Klotz helped raised the cost of the production to a then-astronomical $700,000. 

Ted Chapin, president of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, had the good fortune to be a production assistant, and has written a terrific book about the making of the show called “Everything Was Possible.”   
I, alas, didn’t see that production, but others who did, like my theatergoing buddy Bill and my pals at Broadway Radio, can’t stop talking about it (click here to listen to one discussion about it). 

The new production won me over the moment Bill and I walked into the Marquis and saw how set designer Derek McLane had covered the entire auditorium in drop-cloth material and carefully distressed the area around the proscenium. It’s a simple effect but it made the Marquis, usually a cold theater, seem like an old show palace and I felt instantly transported to the world of the Ziegfeld Follies to which the show pays homage.

For the tale that Sondheim and book writer James Goldman concocted famously revolves around the reunion of Ziegfeld-era chorus girls who have come together one last time before the dilapidated theater where they used to perform is torn down to make way for a parking lot. The former showgirls and their significant others reminisce, perform old routines, rue past decisions and think about other roads they might have taken, all while the ghosts of their younger selves roam the stage.

Two of the ex-showgirls—Phyllis and Sally—were once roommates but both are now in unhappy marriages. Phyllis feels emotionally estranged from her affluent husband Ben. Sally is depressed by the affair that her husband Buddy, a traveling salesman, is having and by her own long-simmering love for Ben. The heartaches the four experience have inspired some of Sondheim’s most memorable and most beautiful songs: “The Road You Didn’t Take” “In Buddy’s Eyes,” “Too Many Mornings,” “Could I Leave You” and “Losing My Mind.”

But Follies is also a tribute to the Tin Pan Alley writers and composers whose musicals dominated the first half of the 20th century. In his book “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim talks about the delight he took in imitating the old styles and he recreates numbers from that era for the returning showgirls to perform. Meanwhile the problematic second act of Follies includes big but surreal production numbers in which the main characters act out their innermost thoughts.

That’s always been a lot to stuff into a musical and how well each production does it is the main topic of scrutiny.  Director Eric Schaeffer, who first put this production together at the Kennedy Center last summer, emphasizes the love stories and he has done a good job of clarifying those narrative lines, even if the reunion numbers get shortchanged and Warren Carlyle’s generic choreography is unable to produce any true showstoppers. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are on the dowdy side too, except for the drop-dead gorgeous gown he designed for Jan Maxwell’s Phyllis.

There weren’t big stars in the original production but ever since then, musical stars have angled to play the main roles and fans have debated the subsequent casting choices with the intensity of people making out scorecards at the start of fantasy baseball season. I’m still putting my money on the 2007 Encores! production in which Donna Murphy was magnificent as a bitterly disillusioned Phyllis and Victoria Clark  equally so as the achingly wounded Sally.  But the current cast has some MVPs too.

Bernadette Peters gets top billing but she seems to be trying too hard and her voice sounds tired; some of her recorded renditions of “I’m Losing My Mind” are far more devastating than the one she delivered at the performance Bill and I attended.  But Maxwell has won raves for her portrayal of Phyllis (click here to read a Playbill interview with her). Ron Raines is in fine voice as Ben.  And while it’s far too early in the season for this kind of prediction, Danny Burstein should win a Tony for his bruising performance as Buddy (click here to read a Q&A with him).

In the smaller roles, Jayne Houdyshell and Terri White are delightful as the one-time showgirls who perform the upbeat numbers “Broadway Baby” and “Who’s That Womn.” But best of all is the British musical diva Elaine Paige who plays Carlotta, the most jaded of the former chorines who gets to sing Sondheim’s anthem of showbiz survival, “I’m Still Here.” The song has become a standard in the repertoire of older female singers. They usually stress its optimism and perseverance but Paige makes it clear that she’s angry as hell at all she’s had to go through. It’s thrilling to hear such a familiar song sung in such a fresh way.

In fact, this entire production, as imperfect as it is, has made me see the entire show in a new way. I’ve always admired Follies but this time it touched my heart.  I suspect that’s because I’ve reached an age where when I look in the mirror, I now see the ghost of my younger self peering back and asking questions of me. 

September 17, 2011

Why "Sweet and Sad" Left Me Feeling Sour

They say that all politics is local.  But that doesn’t mean it has to be banal.  And, alas, the latter turns out to be the case with Sweet and Sad, the new play by Richard Nelson that opened at The Public Theater this week. 

As regular readers know, I’m always up for a play that takes on major contemporary events.  And it’s hard to get more major or more contemporary than the effects of the 9/11 attacks.  Sweet and Sad is set on the 10th anniversary of that fateful day.

The Apple family—three school-teacher sisters, their corporate attorney brother, an uncle, once a well-known actor now suffering from Alzheimer’s, and the live-in boyfriend of the younger sister who is a struggling actor—has gathered in Rhinebeck, the town about 95 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, where the eldest sister fled after the attacks.

This pointedly Chekovian clan has come together to share a meal before heading off to a 9/11 memorial service at the local high school. As they eat, they bicker, reminisce and exchange observations about politics and life. Tensions surface. Feelings are hurt.  Truces negotiated. Anyone who’s ever attended a family dinner will recognize the dynamics.

And verisimilitude is clearly a big deal for Nelson. He and the folks at the Public set the opening for the show on Sept. 11. The play unfolds over two intermissionless hours, just as a  family get-together would.  The food is real and the actors really chow down.

There can be drama and even poetry in the quotidian but there’s very little of either in Sweet and Sad. Instead, Nelson indulges in lame clichés about politicians not keeping promises. The Apples were also the subject of his previous play That Hopey Changey Thing, which is set on the night of the 2010 midterm elections, and now there are yet more plays on words about President’s Obama’s unfulfilled pledges of hope and change.

There are no fresh insights into the meaning of 9/11 either. One of the characters tries to draw a connection between the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the story of Philippe Petit, the French hire-wire artist who walked a tightrope between the buildings on a bright summer day in 1974.  But that observation has already been made, and more brilliantly, in both the Academy-Award winning 2008 documentary “Man on Wire” and in Colum McCann’s 2009 National Book Award-winning novel, “Let the Great World Spin.”

During the last 20 minutes of the play, one of the sisters questions whether the government should have paid money to the families of the people who died in the attacks and whether it isn’t finally time to just move on. It’s supposed to be daring talk that lays bare unspoken truths.  But who hasn’t heard all this before?

Nelson has directed the play himself and he’s assembled an A-level cast of some of the city’s finest stage actors including Jay O. Sanders as the brother, Jon Devries as the uncle and Laila Robins as the highstrung middle sister. But Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens’ sound design undermines their efforts. My husband K and I were sitting in the fifth row of the middle section of the theater and still couldn’t make out large chunks of what was being said.

Early in the play, the actor boyfriend goes off on a tangent about the responsibility that audiences have when they see a play. I’m a believer in that too but I felt as though I were being unnecessarily chided and the reprimand pissed me off.  The first obligation in the theater is the playwright’s and it’s to write an interesting play. And for me, Sweet and Sad is a promise unfulfilled.

September 14, 2011

"The Select" is Too Eclectic for Its Own Good

Cleverness can be its own curse.  Elevator Repair Service became a critics’ darling with Gatz, the experimental company’s dramatized reading of the full text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” It followed that up with The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928,) a word-for-word depiction of the first chapter of William Faulkner’s masterpiece. Now, it completes its trilogy of great American novels with The Select (The Sun Also Rises,) an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel that opened on Sunday at New York Theatre Workshop.

ERS members famously work collaboratively to develop their shows but they don’t seem to have reached a consensus on this one. Too many of the choices seem arbitrary and the tone bounces all over the place. The strain to be clever and to do something different is evident.

Unlike its text-faithful predecessors, The Select edits down the words of the novel and the result is neither fish nor fowl: the thrill of watching how ERS has come up with imaginative ways to act out every word in a book is gone but the satisfaction of a well-crafted play with fully drawn characters isn’t fulfilled. 

There are other disjunctures too.  Hemingway’s novel is rooted in a defining place and time as it follows a group of expats roaming aimlessly around Europe after the upheavals of World War I. But director John Collins and set and costume designer David Zinn want to make this story a metaphor for all “lost generations” and so put some actors in Jazz Age flapper wear and others in hipster-style hoodies and leggings. It’s like setting “Gone With the Wind” in post-Katrina New Orleans; the underlying themes may be the same but a lot gets lost in the transposition.

Similarly, incidents that were written for dramatic effect in the novel are inexplicably played for laughs in The Select, which borrows the name of the bar where the characters gather and drink until they can barely stand up (everyone in the cast downs endless glasses of colored water). The Arcadian fishing scene in the book is staged as a comic sequence complete with flying plastic fish.

At other times, in an apparent effort to show the futility of the endless partying in which the characters indulge, the entire cast breaks into a silly dance that is amusing at first but goes on and on and on. And on.

Collins, who founded the company, started out as a sound engineer and ERS has always prided itself on its distinctive sound effects.  There are a lot of them in The Select and some are smart and amusing (click here to read a piece the NYTimes did on them). But they become less entertaining when they, too, are repeated Ad nauseum.

People in the audience the night I saw the show got antsy. The man behind me kept fidgeting in his seat and yawning loudly. The silver-haired gay couple in front of me exchanged distressed looks with one another throughout the first act and without saying a word fled as soon as the lights came up for intermission.   

They weren’t alone.  Lots of folks left.  I thought about it too but decided to suck it up and stay on for the full three hours.

And it wasn’t a total waste of time. There are fine scenes when the company stops trying so hard and simply relies on Hemingway’s words as it does with the novel’s set piece that introduces the young matador with whom the central female character Brett Ashley (vividly realized by Lucy Taylor) has an affair. And the simple but creatively-staged bullfight towards the end of the show actually had me leaning forward in my seat.

Playing the matador with total commitment and nary an ironic wink, Susie Sokol gives the character the same authentic nobility that the book does. She isn’t trying to be clever and she’s the best thing in the show.

September 10, 2011

My Annual Idiosyncratic Fall Theater Preview

This time of year is always bittersweet.  Labor Day has come and gone, which means that while summer doesn’t end until Sept. 23, the golden days of my favorite season are fast dwindling. On the other hand, the transition to fall always brings a rash of new shows to see. 

I have to be honest: this year’s line-up isn’t as enticing as last year's. But a lot of those shows turned out to be duds. So a lot of my current excitement comes from wondering what fate awaits the ones now in the wings.  

Stephen Sondheim fans are already besides themselves about the new revival of FOLLIES with Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell as the one-time BFFs attending a reunion of Ziegfeld-like chorus girls. And even people who pay only casual attention to what’s happening on Broadway are excited about THE MOUNTAINTOP, Katori Hall’s Olivier-winning two-hander about the last night in Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, because it will bring the powerhouse performers Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett back to Broadway for the first time in 20 years (they’re even scheduled to appear in the pages of Vogue).

There’s also a lot of chatter about the off-Broadway shows WE LIVE HERE, a play about the tensions arising from an unexpected guest at a wedding written by the up-and-coming young actress Zoe Kazan, who also happens to be the legendary Elia Kazan's granddaughter; and ASUNCION a drama about race and friendship, written by and starring Jesse Eisenberg, hot off his star turn in the movie “The Social Network.”

I’m just as eager to see all those shows as everyone else but below are five others—all plays, which, alas, says something about the state of the upcoming musicals this fall—that, for one idiosyncratic reason or another, intrigue me just as much if not more:

BLOOD AND GIFTS: J.T. Rogers is one of the few young American playwrights who regularly takes on big political subjects. His play The Overwhelming tackled the genocide in Rwanda and he was the only American to contribute to The Great Game: Afghanistan, the 12-play cycle about that country’s troubled relationship with the West over the past three centuries. Rogers has expanded his cycle play about the CIA and its support of the mujahideen who were fighting against the Soviet Union in the ‘80s but who later morphed into the Taliban that we’re still fighting today. A production of the longer version drew praise in London last fall.  Now Bartlett Sher is directing a new production of it for Lincoln Center that, although it comes 10 years after 9/11, is still totally timely.

DREAMS OF FLYING DREAMS OF FALLING. I run hot and cold on the plays of the prolific Adam Rapp but I do appreciate the fact that they always set me thinking. I’m even more impressed by the high-caliber actors who seem to line up for a chance to do his work. The cast in what the Atlantic Theater Company is billing as a “surreal” look at the lives of two wealthy American families includes  Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Cotter Smith, Katherine Waterston and the always-terrific Reed Birney, whose presence alone would be enough to justify this play’s place on my want-to-see list.

MAN AND BOY:  The British playwright Terence Rattigan turned out a play a year for almost 40 years, making him a mainstay of both the West End and Broadway until his death from cancer in 1977. Only one of Rattigan’s plays has been done on Broadway since then but this year marks the centenary of his birth and the Roundabout Theatre Company is marking the occasion with a revival of his drama about a ruthless businessman, starring the great Frank Langella.  I’ve been a Rattigan fan since my husband K and I stumbled on the movie version of his play Separate Tables on AMC and I’ve gobbled up whatever of his I could find ever since. Plus I’m always hungry for more Langella.

OTHER DESERT CITIES:  Jon Robin Baitz’s a tart-tongued drama about family secrets and lingering resentments between an affluent older couple and their baby-boomer children blew me away when I saw it at Lincoln Center earlier this year. Now it’s heading to Broadway.  The casting is slightly different:  Rachel Griffiths is replacing Elizabeth Marvel as the couple’s estranged daughter and Judith Light is taking over from Linda Lavin as the wisecracking aunt with sobriety issues. But Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach are still on board as the parents and so is Thomas Sadoski as the peacemaker son. I have high hopes that Joe Mantello, who did a bang-up job with the original production, will keep everything right on course.

THE LYONS.  Linda Lavin passed on both the chance to play the showbiz trouper Hattie Walker who sings “Broadway Baby” in Follies and the role of the aunt in Other Desert Cities so that she could portray the mother in Nicky Silver’s new play about a family struggling to come to terms with the death of the husband and father who bound them together. Mark Brokaw is directing the play, which is being done at the Vineyard Theatre.  I don’t know anything more about it than that.  But if it’s good enough for the prodigiously talented Lavin to give up a shot at two Broadway shows, that’s more than good enough for me.

September 7, 2011

"Completeness" is Chock Full of Smart Stuff

Everyone has their biases.  Mine is against what I’ve taken to calling yuppie tragedy: plays in which really great looking, really smart and usually really well-off people with really good jobs sit around, whine and trade quips about how hard life is. 

And so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Completeness, Itamar Moses’ new romantic comedy about two comely grad students—he’s in computer science, she molecular biology—who meet cute, recognize instantly that they’re made for each other and then spend the next two hours bantering and trying to figure out how to make their relationship work.

What sets Completeness apart from similar plays is how smartly it’s written.  Moses, a Yale grad and the son of academics, is clearly at home in the world of big thoughts (click here to read a profile that his alumni magazine did on him) and he’s not afraid to show off what he knows.

Some critics have compared the 34-year-old playwright to Tom Stoppard, who, as it turns out, was an early champion of Moses’ work. And indeed, the dialog in Completeness, which is currently running at Playwrights Horizons, bristles with Stoppard-like erudition. I had to listen extra hard to keep up with dialog about such concepts as the Traveling Salesman problem, a mathematical brainteaser about figuring out the most efficient route for hitting all the cities on a circuit.

But the science is really just a metaphor for the relationship and Moses aims Completeness at both the head and the heart. The science-speak is leavened with humor and down-to-earth insights into the ways in which smart people can act dumb. It’s a great first-date play. The guy in the couple seated behind me and my friend Jesse didn’t seem all that happy to be there at first but, if his laughter is any gauge, he ended up having a great time.

The production also benefits from Pam MacKinnon’s nimble direction and a crackerjack cast. Karl Miller and Aubrey Dollar are captivating and totally believable as the brainy couple. They toss of the scientific jargon with such ease that you’d think they’d spent hours in labs. And Miller and Dollar are equally unaffected in what is becoming a requisite nude scene.

They get sturdy support from Meredith Forlenza and Brian Avers, who do as much as they can to make the couple’s multiple ex and would-be lovers distinctive. But I do wish someone would set up an endowment fund so that theaters wouldn’t have to make actors double and triple up on roles.

The design crew also deserves a shout-out: so kudos to David Zinn's sly set and costumes, Russell H. Champa’s agile lighting and Bray Poor’s playful sound design.

Completeness is longer than it needs to be and there’s a postmodern coup de theatre in the second act that is too clever for its own good.  But that’s hardly a tragedy, yuppie or otherwise.

September 3, 2011

A Labor Day Ovation for All the Real Bit Players

My Labor Day weekend post is usually a salute to the people who work hard to make the shows we all love.  Past tributes have been to struggling playwrights and blue-collar actors.  But I’ve got another, less-lionized group in mind this year. For not even the most stage-struck kid grows up with dreams of becoming a prop manager or a wig maker.  And yet those folks and scores of others also do their bit to contribute to the magic we see on stage. 

The American Theatre Wing has been celebrating all of these below-the-line workers over the past couple of years in a video series called “In the Wings.” Each episode (most run around seven minutes)  takes a look at what goes into performing one of those under-recognized theater jobs.  

Many of the people who perform these tasks started out thinking that they wanted to be actors but, for one reason or another, drifted into something else that needed doing and then discovered that they loved it.

Among my favorites have been dramaturg Anne Cattaneo, special effects designer Gregory Meeh and sign language interpreter Alan Champion 
(I mean how cool is it to find a way to bring theater to people who might not have been able to enjoy it otherwise).

Now it’s true that I’m on the Wing’s Advisory Committee but I’d be touting these videos even if I weren’t.  Watching them (I’ve subscribed on iTunes so that I don’t miss a one) has made me value all the hard work that goes into making good theater.  Click here to see the full archive of videos.  In the meantime, here's a round of applause to these underappreciated players. And Happy Labor Day to you too.