November 30, 2011

"Maple and Vine" Needs Some Pruning

photo by Joan Marcus
Everybody knows that theater is a collaborative art, with its elements—the acting, the directing, the design, lighting and the play itself—all leaning on one another.  But we sometimes forget how a misstep by just one of them can tip the whole ship. 

I was reminded of that when I saw Maple and Vine, the new play by Jordan Harrison that is now in previews at Playwrights Horizons.  Its ship tipper is an unnecessarily clunky set but the ship itself was already wobbly.

This is the first play by Harrison that I’ve seen but from everything I’ve read (click here to see a profile in his alumni magazine from Stanford University) Harrison likes to set his characters in worlds that are slightly askew from reality. This time out he’s come up with the idea of a modern-day Arcadia where people fed up with our fast-paced, hyper-socially connected world retreat into a separate community that has chosen to live every day as though it were 1955. 

That means bouncy petticoats for the women, boxy suits for the men, high balls for everyone and evenings spent playing charades instead of watching TV or surfing the Internet. But I hope it’s no spoiler to say that life there turns out to be less than ideal.

Maple and Vine seems to have been a big hit at last spring’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, which takes place every year in Louisville.  But I’ve got to say it’s hard to tell why based on this production.

I’ll admit that there are things to admire in Harrison’s work. His willingness to explore unconventional worlds is a welcomed change from the usual navel gazing.  His tendency to include parts for non-white actors is admirable.  And, like so many playwrights who grew up in the Seinfeld era, he’s a master of droll dialog. 

But writing a play that juxtaposes life today against that in the ‘50s isn’t a new idea. The movies "Pleasantville" and "Far From Heaven" took that on a decade ago. And TV’s "Mad Men" has been scratching a similar itch for the last four years.

Of course it would be fine for Harrison to have his say on this period if he had something distinctive to add to the conversation. But after he sets up his version of the situation, he doesn’t seem sure of what do do with it.

I’m willing to let a playwright take me to a strange place. I've ventured into some weird territory with Albee, Durang and Rapp, all of whom have no doubt inspired Harrison. But Maple and Vine spoils the mood by breaking its own rules: community residents aren’t supposed to do anything that happens after 1955 and yet one character conspicuously reads “Peyton Place,” which didn’t come out until 1956.

And if you think that’s nitpicky, it's even more dislocating when a guy who makes boxes on a production line in 1955 is able to afford a split level home, complete with upscale mid-century furniture and a bar stocked with premium labels. 

What’s worse, however, is that Harrison has succumbed to a naive romanticizing of the past.  The play acknowledges that McCarthyism, overt racism and sexism, and socially-sanctioned discrimination against gays existed in the ‘50s but it conjectures that oppression is a good thing because it gives people something to struggle against.

Hmmmm. Well, tell that to the thousands of people in that era who were hounded out of their jobs on charges of being communist or gay and to the millions who had to take jobs beneath their ability because their skins were dark or they were born female. 

The actors do what they can with the roles. Trent Dawson and Jeanine Serralles are appropriately faux-upbeat as the leaders of the community and Pedro Pascal is a brooding malcontent who has secret reasons for his unhappiness. Both Pascal and Serralles do double duty in a couple of minor roles as well.

Playing the central couple who decide to join the society after suffering a tragedy are Marin Ireland and Peter Kim. As always, it’s a treat to see what spin Ireland will put on a line reading.  And Kim, who originated the role of the Asian-American husband in Louisville last spring, is clearly delighted to have the part since meaty roles for Asian actors are almost as rare as meat dishes at a vegan picnic.

But then there’s the set.  I don’t know if the blame for it rests with Harrison, director Anne Kauffman or set designer Alexander Dodge. There are over 30 scenes in Maple and Vine and Dodge vainly tries to recreate each one in naturalistic detail. 

That means dark-clad stagehands are constantly dragging on sets or clearing the way for others to pop up through the trap door in the stage floor. In their desperation to keep the action flowing, some of the grips started moving things before scenes were finished at the performance my best friend Phil and I attended. 

Of course, the scene changes may get smoother but that doesn’t mean that the scenery will be better.  Or, alas, that the show will be either.

November 26, 2011

Why "Blood and Gifts" Is a Sure-Fire Keeper

You gotta love the folks at Lincoln Center Theater.  Or at least I do.  Artistic director André Bishop and executive producer Bernard Gersten do what too few of their not-for-profit brethren do. Instead of just yakking about the need for big ambitious plays that tell big complex stories, Lincoln Center actually puts on shows like Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia and John Guare’s A Free Man of Color, which—be they hits or misses—do what art should do: take risks.

The latest example of this—the company’s 145th production, according to the Playbill—is Blood and Gifts, the potent new play by J.T. Rogers that opened this week at the Mitzi E. Newhouse.  And it’s a winner.

In fact, Rogers is a playwright after my own heart. Unlike so many contemporary American playwrights, he refuses to navel gaze and instead writes pieces that wrestle with the major political and global issues of our time or, as he called it in a now famous speech a couple of years ago, “theater that engages the public realm.” (Click here to read a recent NYTimes profile of him).

Rogers’ last play The Overwhelming, dealt with the genocide in Rwanda. While I appreciated the effort, I felt that it came across as more didactic than dramatic (click here to see my review). But the playwright has deepened his craft since then and Blood and Gifts offers a more satisfyingly visceral experience.

The idea for the play came to Rogers when he was the only American asked to contribute to The Great Game: Afghanistan, the 12-play cycle that London’s Tricycle Theatre produced about Afghanistan's troubled relationship with the West over the past three centuries.

Rogers focused on the CIA’s 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.  The story he ended up wanting to tell was longer and more involved than the cycle’s one-act would allow and so he later expanded it into a full-length play.

The one-act version of the play was withdrawn from The Great Game before the Public Theater presented a limited run last December (click here to see my review of that) so I can’t compare the two. But the one now at the Mitzi moves with the deftness and depth of a Graham Greene novel.

Blood and Gifts starts in 1981 when CIA agent James Warnock arrives in Pakistan to direct the agency’s supposedly covert support for the Afghan freedom fighters. It ends a decade later, shortly before the downfall of the Soviet puppet Mohammad Najibullah and the eventual takeover of Afghanistan by Islamic fundamentalists.

In between, the play follows the volatile political and personal alliances among the tribal leaders on the battlefront, their American, British, and Russian handlers just across the border in Pakistan and the politicians and agency bureaucrats pulling the strings back in Washington. 

Viewers should be advised that parts of the first act play like an eat-your-spinach "Frontline" documentary and so it can be hard to keep track of all the names and allegiances.  But the main characters eventually emerge—each a believably human mix of good and bad impulses and actions. And it isn’t all grim. Rogers has great fun with the Afghans’ fondness for ‘80s pop culture.

The acting is excellent almost across the board. Jeremy Davidson is a little stiff as Warnock but it works for the role. And there is nimble work by Jefferson Mays as a wryly frustrated MI5 agent (click here to read an interview with him) and Bernard White as an heroic warlord. In a smaller role, John Procaccino is so right-on as a CIA official back in Washington that it felt as though he’d just taken the Acela up from Langley.

The entire 14-member cast is well guided by director Bartlett Sher who refuses to give into the temptation to imitate a movie (it would make a good one) and keeps the show a truly theatrical experience. The main players never truly leave the stage but sit on benches along its sides, looming presences in the scenes in which they don’t appear.

Set designer Michael Yeargan’s mix of new stagecraft (the subtle use of video projections) and old (the draping of a large American flag) expertly signal the location of the action.  As do the very good sound effects by Peter John Still and lighting by Donald Holder. 

I saw Blood and Gifts on the night before Thanksgiving and there were a good number of empty seats.  I’m hoping that’s just a reflection of the holiday.  Because everyone who loves meaningful theater ought to do what Lincoln Center does: put their money where their mouth is and go see this show.

November 23, 2011

Is "Wild Animals You Should Know" Too Tame?

Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  A show like The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs took on a different meaning after the Apple co-founder’s death.  And Wild Animals You Should Know, the new play that MCC Theater opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Sunday, felt different, at least to me, in the wake of the recent pedophile scandal at Penn State. 

Playwright Thomas Higgins centers the action around a Boy Scouts camping trip.  
A few days before that weekend, a teen scout named Matthew, the alpha male of the troop, discovers that the scout master is gay and decides to use that information to his advantage. The way he does it made me squirm.

But that’s not the only thing going on in this play.  The closeted scout master is wrestling with some other secrets. Matthew’s best friend Jacob is also gay and desperate to hold on to their friendship. Matthew’s dad has just lost his job and is now dependent on his frustrated wife’s income. And the family’s neighbor is a macho beer-swiller who is more complex than he appears to be. 

Higgins, who just got his M.F.A. from Columbia University in 2008, clearly wants to examine how masculinity and the relationships between men are defined today but he doesn’t yet have the dexterity to keep all those, ahem, balls up in the air. 

His dialog is snappy, the scenarios intriguing and the questions he raises are worthwhile but the characters aren’t drawn clearly enough and the actions they take aren’t fully realized or rationalized. Higgins is still sorting things out and I wish he had taken this play on later in his career.

Still, director Trip Cullman has put together an engaging production, even if some of the parts seem miscast.  John Behlmann is appropriately sturdy as the scout master and Daniel Stewart Sherman goes enjoyably heavy on the comic relief as the neighbor. But the usually good Patrick Breen, who's made a specialty of playing milquetoasts, seems too fey here. 

Breen works hard but you can’t imagine that his version of the dad ever felt secure in himself and so the new doubts that the play gives him just get lost amidst the already existing ones. Meanwhile, Alice Ripley, dynamic and moving in her Tony-winning performance in Next to Normal, is almost unrecognizable and ultimately unmemorable as the mom. 

The boys come off better. Jay Armstrong Johnson has the looks and the bravado to play Matthew but, like the play as a whole, seems held back by Higgins’ inability or unwillingness to make the character’s motivations and goals less fuzzy. Gideon Glick pretty much nails Jacob but he has the advantage of having played a similar role in Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate a few years back (click here to read an interview with both actors). 

I know this isn’t sounding like much of a recommendation.  And most of the critics and my theatergoing buddy Bill were pretty much underwhelmed by Wild Animals You Should Know. So maybe it’s because the state of the economy and the Penn State mess already had me thinking about some of the issues the play raises but its 100 minutes went by swiftly for me and the questions Higgins raises have stayed with me. 

November 19, 2011

A Love Affair with "Venus in Fur"

My husband K is in love with the actress Nina Arianda.  Which is OK with me because—like every other true theater lover in New York right now—I, too, am in love with Arianda, the star of Venus in Fur, which is playing a limited run at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Dec. 18.

Arianda, who is only 27 and got her masters from NYU just two years ago, first created a sensation when she originated the role of Vanda, a young actress who undertakes an unusual audition in the Classic Stage Company production of Venus in Fur last year. The critics went mad for her and nearly exhausted the synonyms for great. 

Eager to see what all the fuss was about, I managed to get into one of the final performances of that run. I didn’t write about it but I was gobsmacked by Arianda too, and was even more so when she starred in last spring’s too-short-lived revival of Born Yesterday.

Arianda is the whole package—a dramatic actress who can pack a scene’s worth of emotions into a single-word, a physical comedienne who knows how to get the most out of her long, loose limbs and rubbery kewpie doll face (although she does need to learn how to pause until the laughter dies down) and a sexy woman who can turn up the heat with a glance (click here to read John Lahr’s profile of her in The New Yorker).

I have to be honest.  I’m not as crazy about the play that David Ives has adapted from the kinky 19th century novella “Venus im Pelz” or “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose surname and sexual predilections have been immortalized in the word masochism.

Ives’ two-hander, which has added an additional 15 minutes to the 90 minute running time at CSC, dances back and forth between the modern day rehearsal room where Vanda arrives late to audition for Thomas, the writer-director of a play based on Sacher-Masoch’s tale of a dominatrix and slave relationship, and scenes from Thomas’ play-within-a-play. 

It’s all too meta and smugly clever for me and not half as much fun as Ives’ School for Lies which played at CSC in May (click here to read my review of it). But Walter Bobbie’s sharp direction makes it easy to follow the transitions in Venus in Fur, except when they’re supposed to be fuzzy. He gets excellent support from Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and the sound design by ACME Sound Partners.

But this is an actors’ showcase. I already knew what Arianda was capable of doing. And so I looked forward to seeing how the British actor Hugh Dancy would play off her as Thomas.

Wes Bentley, the young actor who almost stole the 1999 movie “American Beauty” away from Kevin Spacey, made his New York stage debut in the role downtown. Arianda’s high-voltage performance seemed to blow him off the stage and I thought a more experienced stage actor might stand his ground better.

There’s no question that Dancy has the acting chops (click here to read an interview he did with Out Magazine) and he’s great in the early scenes but, to my surprise, I ended up preferring Bentley’s more vulnerable performance, which provided a story arc for the character that Dancy doesn’t quite deliver for me.

In the end, though, it’s still Arianda’s show. And if you love theater or just love to be able to brag about being in the know, you should see it because she’s the real deal.

November 16, 2011

"The Mountaintop" is More of a Molehill

Katori Hall became the first African-American woman to win the Olivier Award for Best New Play when The Mountaintop, her meditation on the last night in Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, played in London in 2009. That was impressive enough but what really got my attention is that the plays she beat out were the heavyweights Enron, Jerusalem and Red.

The fact that Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett signed onto the Broadway production to play King and a mysterious maid at the hotel where he stayed that night before he was killed made Hall’s show one of the must-see events of the fall season. Vogue did a fashion shoot with the stars. The New York Times scheduled one of its TimesTalks with Jackson. The New Yorker ran a profile of Hall (click here to see it).

But now that the show is running at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, I suspect that nearly everyone, including me, is scratching their heads and trying to figure out exactly what the fuss was all about.

Hall, who trained as an actor as well as a playwright, has an ear for dialog and, judging from interviews, a whole lot of moxie (click here to read another interview she did with The Guardian in London). She’s said repeatedly that she wanted to show King as a man and not an icon.

The trouble is that like so many young playwrights whose works have been showcased this fall, she relies too much on snappy dialog. And like so many young people, she thinks that the insights she makes are the first time anyone has ever thought of them.

To hammer home the fact that King is just a regular guy, the play opens with his entering his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and immediately heading to an offstage bathroom, where he relieves himself loudly enough for the audience to hear. It’s supposed to be a signal that King is human just like you and me it but comes off more like one of those potty scenes that now pass for humor in Judd Apatow comedies—hey, isn’t it funny that we can see the character piss, shit or barf?

Hall's other attempts to show the civil rights leader as a real person are cobbled together from a hodgepodge of other influences: King’s now-well-known eye for a pretty girl, Michelle Obama’s comments during the 2008 campaign about her husband’s “stinky feet,” the stress-relieving pillow fight between King and his aides that Taylor Branch describes in  "At Canaan's Edge," the final installment of his masterful biography of King.

There’s nothing wrong with Hall’s borrowing those things. Alchemizing the minutiae of everyday life into art is what artists do. But she falls short of that goal because she isn’t able to reveal anything about King that we don’t already know or to show him in a way we haven’t yet seen. 

In some interviews, Hall, who just turned 30 in May, has said that older people won’t get The Mountaintop because they don’t want to see King as a man with feet of clay. But his human frailties are hardly news after all the FBI revelations about his infidelities and use of profanity or the tales about his insecurities and other weaknesses that can be found in histories of the civil movement and memoirs by some of its other leaders. 

Maybe the audience for this play is younger people who haven’t taken the time to read any of that. The thirtysomething woman sitting behind my friend Joy and me whooped with delight each time Camae, the maid whose name is a tribute to the playwright’s mother Carrie Mae, said something to put King in his place. 

But maybe the whooping woman was just tickled because Bassett, under Kenny Leon’s direction, takes such a you-go-girl approach to the role that includes all the neck swiveling, eye rolling and hip thrusting that have come to define the type. I’ve been a Bassett fan since she played Tina Turner in the biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It” but this performance was too over the top for me.

Jackson, however, fares much better. Make-up and prosthetics do a good enough job of helping him resemble King but it’s Jackson's unforced performance that makes the actor seem so convincing in the role. This is his Broadway debut but I hope it won’t be the last time we see him on the boards (click here to read an interview with him).

Kudos must also go to David Gallo, who not only faithfully recreates the room where King spent his final night but has concocted a coup d’theatre that may be the best moment in the show.

I haven’t given up on Hall, though. Young talent needs time to mature. Like President Obama's Nobel Prize, her Olivier may be premature but that doesn't mean that the ability isn't there. Hall's new play Hurt Village about the residents in a housing project is scheduled to open at Signature Theater Company in February and I’m ordering my tickets right after I post this entry. 

November 12, 2011

This "King Lear" is Listless

There’s not much scenery on the stage at The Public Theater’s Newman theater space where a new production of King Lear opened this week but that doesn’t stop nearly everyone on stage from chewing on it.  Including an actor in one scene who literally gnaws on a glove while he takes his time dying.

This is the third major Lear this year (click here to read my review of Derek Jacobi's turn in the role) but it’s always intriguing to see how actors at the top of their power will play the vain king who impetuously divides his kingdom between his two older daughters but banishes the third when she refuses to flatter him, setting off one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. This, however, may be the most hapless King Lear I’ve ever seen. 

The production has been nominally directed by James Macdonald but he doesn’t seem to have been able to get anyone to agree on how they should all approach the piece. Instead, each actor just does his or her own thing. The result is akin to what the Tower of Babel must have been. 

It’s not that the actors aren’t talented. Frank Wood, John Douglas Thompson, Kelli O’Hara, Arian Moayed, Michael McKean and Bill Irwin have all been justly acclaimed for their work in other productions.  But only Thompson, as the loyal Kent, manages to keep his footing in this one. 

Even an elegant actor like Moayed, who brought such understated poignancy to the role of the Iraqi interpreter in last season’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, flails about here, particularly in the scenes in which his character Edgar masquerades as the madman Tom.

McKean keeps his dignity as Edgar’s father Gloucester but at the price of being dull (click here to read a livelier interview he gave).  O’Hara is equally bland as Lear’s second daughter Regan. Wood plays Regan’s husband Cornwall as though he’s trying out for the role of a capo in a mobster movie.  And then there’s Irwin. 

It seemed an inspired idea to have Lear’s Fool played by Irwin, a professionally-trained clown who can also be dramatically affecting as he showed in the 2005 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  But Irwin, dressed in a costume of fluorescent yellow that looks as though it were borrowed from a Teletubbie, cuts up and shows off and throws an already wobbly production even further off-kilter. (Click here to read an interview with him.)

Of course it is Lear’s play and so all of the above would matter less if the title character were well played.  But Sam Waterston lost me almost from hello. Waterston is now best known for his long-running role as Jack McCoy on “Law & Order” but he got his start as a stage actor and has played a dozen Shakespearean roles at the Public, including, most notably, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet

Waterston's take on Lear seems to be that the king is suffering from some form of early onset senility or maybe Parkinson’s Disease.  Waterston’s voice shakes and his hands tremble so much in the first scene that I wondered if the actor might actually be ill. 

I suppose you could call that good acting but because his Lear seems so far gone right from the start, there isn’t really anyplace for him to go as madness descends. So, Waterston overacts, throwing out his arms like some hammy 19th century actor when he speaks and stomping his foot when he wants to be emphatic. He's too good and experienced an actor for such shenanigans.

The creative team has lost its way too.  The centerpiece of Miriam Buether’s set is an annoying chain curtain that clangs and drowns out the dialog anytime someone touches it. Which is often since it’s the main way the actors enter and exit the action. 

Costume designer Gabriel Berry apparently couldn’t make up her mind about which era to invoke and so takes a grab bag approach—some characters wear traditional 16th century garb, others look as though they’re in a movie from the ‘30s, a few sport contemporary looks and, of course, there’s Irwin. 

Meanwhile, sound designer Darron L. West has too grand a time booming out the noise of the thunder from the storm in which Lear has his famous mad scene and the bombs and machine guns that are used in the civil war that eventually breaks out after Lear’s abdication.

To paraphrase a line from another Shakespearean tragedy, the whole thing adds up to a lot of sound and fury signifying very little.

November 9, 2011

"Queen of the Mist" Has Moments of Greatness

No matter how talented they are, ample-bodied and strong-featured actresses like Mary Testa usually play the funny best friend or the sassy sidekick instead of the leading lady.  And so I can imagine how wonderful it must be for Testa, who is very talented indeed, to have the chance to be the star in Queen of the Mist, the new Michael John LaChiusa musical that the Transport Group Theatre Company just opened at The Gym at Judson Memorial Church.

LaChiusa, who does both the book and music for all his shows, loves to write big, complex pieces about strong, complicated women and he’s come up with a doozy this time. His subject is Annie Edson Taylor, who, at the age of 63, became the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

It’s a quirky tale but its swirling mixture of obsession, fame and a Greek-like fall from grace is right up LaChiusa’s alley (among my favorite of his shows is Marie Christine, his reworking of Medea). So I can imagine how wonderful it must be for him to see Testa throw everything she has into the role.

It will come as no surprise to regular theatergoers that Testa limns the considerable humor in the play with just a pause between words or the rise of an eyebrow.  But she’s just as adept at portraying the desperate yearning to be more than ordinary that pushes Annie to undertake her dramatic act. 

“There is Greatness in Me,” Annie sings repeatedly through the show. Testa is in marvelous voice and the song becomes an anthem for the foolishness and indomitability that allows all artists to take the plunge.

Critics run very hot or very cold on LaChiusa but his music almost always makes me swoon and that’s totally the case with this production. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that LaChiusa and my husband have worked together and so I’ve met Michael John several times.) 

Edson took her leap in 1901 and LaChiusa’s score evokes all the sounds of the turn of the 20th century from Victor Herbertish ballads to Scott Joplinesque rags (click here for a YouTube preview of the score).  The songs in Queen of the Mist are accessible and catchy. I overheard my theatergoing buddy Bill humming some of the tunes as we left the theater.

The lyrics aren’t always as clever as they might be (LaChiusa joins the growing number of songwriters who can’t seem to resist the gratuitous shock value of the c-word) but the lovely melodies have been gorgeously orchestrated by Michael Starobin and they’re well played by a tight six-piece band. 

The show has been beautifully directed too. The space at Judson is literally a gym, with bleachers on both long sides of the playing space but Jack Cummings III makes smart use of it and the narrowness of the space does double duty as a metaphor for both the confined space in which Annie realized her triumph and the constraints that society placed on women at the time. 

LaChiusa places Annie’s ascent to celebrity in the first act and her descent into ignominy in the second, which drags a bit. But the seven-member cast is game throughout. Aside from Testa and Andrew Samonsky, who turns in a nimble performance as Annie’s shady manager (click here to read an interview with him) the actors all play multiple roles. The women shine.

Theresa McCarthy shares a lovely duet with Testa as Annie’s sister and Julia Murney delighted the audience at the performance Bill and I attended as the hatchet-wielding temperance advocate Carrie Nation who snootily condescends towards Annie when they share the bill on the Chautauqua lecture circuit.  

But, in the end, it is Testa’s show and there are truly moments of greatness in her—and in it.

November 5, 2011

"Asuncion" Offers Too Many Glib Assumptions

Maybe I’m the wrong demographic for Asuncion, the new play by Jesse Eisenberg that just opened in a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production at the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre.  Or maybe even people born after 1980 will find this show as tiresome as I did. The 28-year old star of the movie “The Social Network” is a smart and oddly charming guy and he’s emerged as an avatar for the geek-chic that defines his generation but the plot of his play is sheer nonsense. 

Vinny, a cool white guy who’s working on a Ph.D. in Black Studies, is letting Edgar, a totally uncool white guy with delusions of being a modern-day muckraker, crash in his grungy apartment. Their Oscar-Felix domesticity is interrupted when Edgar’s wealthy older brother shows up with his new bride, a beautiful young Filipina named Asuncion, and asks the guys to let her stay with them for a few days. 

Predictably, Asuncion’s presence upends the bromance between Edgar and Vinny. Edgar imagines that she’s a prostitute or a mail-order bride purchased by his brother and in need of being rescued. Vinny thinks she’s just a fun chick to flirt with. At one point, the three of them suddenly decide to drop acid, which, of course, causes them to reveal their true selves. 

Oh please. As if a rich guy would want his wife to stay in a dump with two horny and hygienically-challenged dudes. As if any woman would agree to doing that. As if there’s no other way to reveal character than to insert a dope scene so people can just spill out their feelings.

Eisenberg clearly wants to say profound things about male bonding, cultural myopia and political correctness. But his observations are all shallow: liberals can be condescending about race, people from different cultures can misunderstand one another, homosexual tensions can exist in male friendships.  

Director Kip Fagan, who inexplicably gets the second bio in the Playbill, has clearly worked hard to keep the action popping.  And the design team has done its part too.  John McDermott’s set is so spot-on that its squalor made me itchy. But the play’s true saving grace is Justin Bartha’s performance as Vinny.

Bartha is probably best known for his role in “The Hangover” movies but in the past year, he has been building up a nice and varied body of theater work with appearances  in the recent revival of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor, where  he held his own against such heavyweights as Anthony LaPaglia and Tony Shalhoub, and in All New People by Zach Braff (yet another Hollywood actor moonlighting as a playwright) and he brings a lovely laidback charm to Vinny (click here to read a Q&A with Bartha).

I get why producers want movie and TV stars to appear in their plays and now increasingly to write them. Those names draw attention. Eisenberg, who not only wrote Asuncion but plays Edgar, got to go on Letterman to hawk his play, which isn’t the usual stomping ground for young playwrights (click here to see a clip). 

And, of course, when the Hollywood names are young ones and have been attached to hits like “The Social Network,” they also tend to draw young audiences that can be so difficult to get into the theater. The audience at the Asuncion performance I attended was filled with twentysomethings clearly excited about seeing Eisenberg and Bartha in the flesh. 

So, as I said, I get it.  And I want to get more young people into theater seats too.  But there’s a difference between bringing movie stars into act in a play and producing the plays they wrote. Some shows simply won’t get done without a name star and so that celebrity’s presence can mean jobs for other actors, even if not in the choicest roles. But when a theater company does the work of a celebrity playwright that means some other playwright—perhaps a talented young one whose work might even appeal to a broad demographicis out of a job.

November 2, 2011

"Relatively Speaking" Has Nothing New to Say

Lots of people seem almost angry that they don’t like Relatively Speaking, the trio of one-act comedies now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. It averaged a 
D+ on StageGrade, which aggregates the reviews of the top New York critics. Six of the 22 scored it an F.  “Relatively disgusting,” declared one.

I suspect the umbrage is a reflection of the high expectations that everyone had for the show. For its authors are the comic heavyweights Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen. (Click here to see a photo piece Vanity Fair did on them before previews started).  

Those names, in turn, attracted a bunch of actors who specialize in belly laughs, including Steve Guttenberg, Mark Linn-Baker, Marlo Thomas and Julie Kavner, the voice of Marge Simpson on the long-running TV show. So the prospects seemed high for a really fun evening and people got really pissed when it turned out to be something less. 

I’d been dubious all along (it seemed too many cooks in the kitchen for me) and so I’m not as put out as some of the critics.  But I can’t say that I enjoyed myself much more than the others did.

As the title vaguely suggests, the theme of this theatrical triptych is the way that families can drive one another crazy. Coen interprets this literally in the first play, Talking Cure, which opens in a mental hospital where a menacing patient is bullying his meek therapist; a movie-style flashback shows us how the patient’s parents made him the way he is.

The actor originally cast to play the father in that scene left the show during previews.  "We kind of weren't together on the character,” he told The New York Times. “There were things Ethan wanted that I didn’t like, that seemed to take the character in a direction that felt artificial. Stuff I couldn’t really make sense of.” (Click here to read the entire piece.)

I know what he means. The only good thing I can say about Talking Cure is that I’m glad I saw it before buying a ticket to the all-Coen bill of one acts that is scheduled to open at the Atlantic Theater in December.

Meanwhile, Allen has been riding a wave of goodwill since his latest movie “Midnight in Paris” opened in June.  But his contribution Honeymoon Hotel could cause people to feel about him the way they did in the ‘90s when he dumped his longtime love Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Allen may even have written Honeymoon Hotel back then because it has several stale jokes about Lorena Bobbitt who infamously bobbed her husband’s penis in 1993. 

The family tie in his short play is between a May-December couple who flee a wedding and escape to a tacky motel, where they’re eventually followed by the entire bridal party, including the rabbi.  A shrink shows up too. So Allen gets to make hoary jokes on all his favorite tropes—religion, psychology, sex and younger women besotted with much older men. There are a few chuckles but they were fresher and funnier years ago.

May’s George is Dead, which is sandwiched between the other two, comes off best. That's largely because Thomas gives a fully-realized and affecting performance as a narcissistic socialite who has no one to turn to when her husband dies in a freak accident and so seeks comfort from the daughter of her old nanny. (Click here to read an interview with Thomas.)

But all three plays hearken back, in one way or another, to the time when Borscht Belt comics got big laughs by portraying Jewish women as nagging mothers, whiny wives and selfish young twits. Neil Simon refined the genre and made a mint off it in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.  Most of us have moved on. 

Except it seems Allen, Coen and May. They bare the bulk of the blame for this dispiriting return to those times.  But they aren’t helped by director John Turturro, who exhibits as deft a touch for comedy as Lady Gaga does for sober attire. 

Turturro, an idiosyncratic but fine actor, should keep his day job. And even he seems to realize that he may have bit off more than he could chew by trying to direct the work of not one but three people who are comedy directors themselves.  (Click here to listen to an NPR interview he did.)

Still, people around me laughed a lot.  So maybe we haven’t made as much progress as I thought.  Or maybe we're just desperate for the chance to laugh at anything in these difficult times.