March 31, 2012

Why "Now. Here. This." is Not for Me

“What do you do,” a friend once asked me.  “If you don’t like something that everyone else likes?”  Well, we’re about to find out right now.  Because I really didn’t like Now. Here. This., the new musical by the creators of [title of show] that just opened at the Vineyard Theatre.  But lots of other people seem to be delighted with it, including Charles Isherwood at the Times, who declares the show “endearingly goofy” (click here to read his fawning review).

Of course, I’ve been down this street before because I wasn’t all that charmed by [title of show] (click here to my review of that).  But at least [title] had an amusing plot—the real-life story of how book writer Hunter Bell and composer Jeff Bowen put together a show with their friends Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff and managed to move it from the New York Musical Theatre Festival all the way to Broadway. And it also had some entertaining, albeit overly insidey, stuff about the world of show business too.

Now. Here. This. has loftier aspirations. In fact, it starts off with a spiel about the nature of the universe and each individual’s little spot in it. The show then invokes the  Zen-like teachings of the late mystical Catholic monk Thomas Merton, who encouraged his followers to focus on the present, which inspires the show's vainglorious title.

The rest of the 90-minute evening is filled with a series of musically annotated vignettes in which each of the quartet reflects on bad times in their lives—pretending to be straight, acting out for attention, overcompensating for seriously dysfunctional parents—and how he or she managed to overcome those situations in order to get to a New-Agey state of bliss.

But, of course, this kind of thing has been done before and, as anyone who has ever seen even a bus-and-truck version of A Chorus Line will tell you, it’s been done better.

I suppose Bowen’s songs are OK (click here to read a Q&A with him) although I don’t remember even one of them. But the book’s loose conceit of remembering the past incidents as the gang travels through the Museum of Natural History just seems silly and not worth the groaner jokes it provides. 

The actors, who are again playing themselves, are, as everyone always observes, likable. But they’re not remarkable singers or dancers and they haven’t found a way to make their personal problems theatrical or even interesting. “Who cares?,” my theatergoing buddy Bill asked as we stood outside after the show trying to makes some sense of what we’d just seen.

In many ways, Now. Here. This. seems like a production put on by well-meaning amateurs. Bell, the most winsome—and my favoriteof the four, even broke character the night Bill and I saw the show to wave at his dad in the audience.

It was a sweet moment.  But not nearly sweet enough to justify the price of the ticket.  And even less so since a friend of Bill's told him that Bell did exactly the same faux-spontaneous thing the night he saw the show.

March 28, 2012

The Real Shame of "'Tis Pity She's a Whore"

There’s no one who enjoys clever stagecraft more than I do.  But I’m old-school enough to believe that everything that appears on a stage—the acting, the set, any coup de theatre—should serve the play and not just flaunt its own ingenuity.

Alas, the latter seems to be more the case with the current production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which Britain’s Cheek by Jowl company is performing at BAM’s Harvey Theater through the end of this week.

‘Tis Pity is the most famous and controversial of the plays by the 17th century British playwright John Ford, who, had he been born five centuries later, might have ended up a sought-after showrunner for a Showtime series like “The Tudors" or, perhaps more to the point here, “The Borgias.”

For ‘Tis Pity’s plot pivots around the incestuous affair between a young man named Giovanni and his sister Annabella, a beauty who is also coveted by almost every other eligible bachelor in 17th century Parma. Annabella’s subsequent pregnancy by her brother and duplicitous marriage to one of the suitors sets off a series of tragic deaths that ends with a truly horrific act.

Now, that would seem to be enough juicy stuff to hold an audience’s attention in any era but director Declan Donnellan, who is also Cheek by Jowl’s joint artistic director, seems not to trust us—or Ford. 

Donnellan has trimmed the play to under two hours and updated it to the present (judging by the chic modern-dress costumes and ironic set decoration that includes posters from movies like “Gone With the Wind” and TV shows like “True Blood”). 

He’s added the latest theatrical affectations (punk-style dance routines, actors sitting on the side of the stage even when they’re not in scenes). 

And he’s amped up the sex and violence (people are either throwing off their clothes—all of them in several cases—and hopping into bed or drawing knives and goring those around them bloody.)

Clearly, Donnellan wants to make sure that nobody gets bored but all the directorial flair gets in the way of the play. And more’s the pity for that because although the play’s subject of incest (and Ford’s refusal to out-and-out condemn it) is no longer as shocking as it was when the play was written nearly 400 years ago, we don’t get to see 'Tis Pity much.

The play seems never to have been done on Broadway and the last major New York production I could find (thanks to the Lortel Archive’s Internet Off-Broadway Database) was a 1992 Public Theater production in which Val Kilmer and Jean Tripplehorn played the brother-sister lovers.   

And so while I appreciate the desire to put a new spin on an old play, this production made me wish I’d had a chance to see a more straightforward version of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

The cast, headed by Jack Gordon as a Byronic Giovanni and Lydia Wilson, sporting a Lisbeth Salander hair-do as the enthralling Annabella, is clearly talented enough to play it that way and still make it compelling. 

And the play is that and thought-provoking too.  For beneath the melodrama, Ford had some serious—and still resonant—things to say about the power of obsessive love, the hypocrisy of organizedd religion and the way society treats women. There are flickers of all this in the current production but despite all the tinder nothing really catches fire.

March 24, 2012

How "Once" Managed to Charm Even Me

Once, the new musical that opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre this week, may be the sweetest show to open on Broadway in years.  And I had worried about that.  My theatrical taste buds tend to favor the peppery and nothing I’d heard about the show, which had a sell-out run down at the New York Theatre Workshop late last year, sounded spicy enough. But, to my surprise, I ended up liking the show despite myself—and my taste buds.

Based on the 2006 film of the same name, Once tells the story of a depressed Irish street musician and an upbeat Czech immigrant who, over the course of a week, meet cute, bond over music, attempt to cut a record and try not to fall in love because they are involved with other people.

All the action takes place in Dublin and because I hadn’t seen the film, I went in dreading that all the music was going to be Irish. It isn’t. In fact, the show’s lilting pop and folk-rock ballads wouldn’t be out of place on a John Mayer or Adele playlist.   

The one criticism might be that there is a sameness to these songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who starred in the film and based it somewhat on their own lives.  But they’re all good. One, “Falling Slowly” actually won the Oscar for Best Song (click here to hear them sing it).

This time, a prize should go to the orchestrator Martin Lowe. For in John Doyle-style, the show’s music is all played by the actors on stage who strum guitars, violins, mandolins and even play an accordion. Yet Lowe has blended them into a sublime sound that’s both contemporary and totally at home in a Broadway house.

The actors-play-the-instruments thing also works here because, unlike in Doyle’s versions of Sweeney Todd and Company, the characters are all musicians and it makes more sense for them to pick up a guitar or drumstick than it did for Patti LuPone’s Mrs. Lovett to lug around a tuba. 

As the wife of a proud member of Local 802, I should be complaining about these interlopers but the players in the cast are all excellent musicians—and they’re fine actors too.   

All of the nine adult supporting players get at least one moment in the spotlight and each makes the best of it. Except for Paul Whitty, a burly guy with Bozo-like hair who’s unable to resist hijacking every scene he’s in. There’s also an adorable little girl who just gets to be adorable.

Still it’s the lead players who do the heavy lifting—and they’re adorable too.  Steve Kazee and Cristin Milliotti have been in Broadway shows before but as the whimsically named Guy and Girl, they’ve been given the breakout roles that every kid in the ensemble always dreams of getting. 

And they shine in them. Kazee literally sings his heart out (click here to read a Q&A with him) . Meanwhile Milliotti, who seems a little precious at the start of the play, ends up as the show's emotional center.

Among Once's other strengths are the highly-stylized staging by director John Tiffany and distinctive "movement" choreography by Steven Hoggett, the team that created Black Watch, the National Theater of Scotland’s magnificent performance piece about the Iraq War.   

As charming as it is, Once is a slight story and it might have turned saccharine in less sure hands. Tiffany and Hoggett aren’t afraid of being theatrical and they create the kind of deeply visceral theater that can’t be truly experienced anywhere else than on a stage.

Speaking of which, the set and costumes have been designed by the great Bob Crowley (click here to read an interview with him).  This time out, he has created an Irish pub so authentic that you can almost smell the Guinness.  Or drink one.  Literally.   

The doors open about 20 minutes before the show begins and while the musicians gather onstage to jam on Irish jigs, audience members are encouraged to come up and mingle and to buy drinks at the bar at the back of the stage. 

It’s nice to see a show doing things differently and still managing to work its magic on Broadway. Even diehard show queens who worship at the Church of Fosse have been singing the praises of Once so fervently that it could end up the frontrunner for this year’s Tony for best musical.  

 Which, I have to say, would be sweet in a good way.

March 21, 2012

Mad About NYPL'S "The World of Noel Coward"

The best new show in town right now is at Lincoln Center.  But I’m not talking about the mighty War Horse, which even after a year is still packing them in at the Vivian Beaumont, or even 4000 Miles, the endearing Amy Herzog play now in previews at the Mitzi Newhouse.

No, the show I’m talking about is next door to the theater, in the first-floor gallery space in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where the new exhibition “Star Quality: the World of Noël Coward” is running through Aug. 18. 

Coward is, of course, the artistic polymath who dominated British theater from the 1920s through the ‘40s with the plays and musicals that he wrote, composed, directed, produced and usually starred in. In his spare time, he made movies, performed cabaret, partied with café society, painted and wrote poetry and, for a brief period, served as a secret agent, gathering information for the British government before World War II.  All of it is on brilliant display in the new exhibit.

In the past, I’ve had problems with some of the Library’s shows.  The subjects have almost always been fascinating but the execution has sometimes been overzealous so that too much is stuffed into the space—and sometimes so willy-nilly—that it’s hard to absorb it all or even sort it out.  But this time the Library has got it right. 

The exhibit is as full as Coward’s life was and yet it’s so well laid out and nicely annotated that even Coward neophytes will be entertained. “Wow,” I can imagine them saying, “I didn’t know he was the one who did that.” Coward made his professional stage debut at 11 and he quickly developed the personae of a latter-day Oscar Wilde—sophisticated, self-consciously debonair and quick with just the right smart quip.

As one might expect, there are photos galore.  Coward seems to have never seen a camera for which he didn’t want to pose. He was born a week before Christmas in 1899 and there are shots of him from the time he was a toddler straight through to just days before he died in 1973 from heart failure at his beloved home Firefly in Jamaica.

The stuff in between dazzles for if you’ve ever longed for the glamor and the glory of the good old theatrical days, you’ve been fantasizing about Coward's life.  Friends called him “The Master” and this exhibit makes it easy to see why.

Coward's 1924 breakthrough play, The Vortex, was a drama but he made his reputation with comedies such as Hay Fever, Present Laughter, Private Lives, which he wrote for himself and his childhood and life-long friend Gertrude Lawrence, Design for Living, a daring-for-the-time ménage à trois written for himself and his great pals Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and Blithe Spirit.

Four of those now-classic plays have been revived on Broadway just since 2001. Meanwhile, the latest production of Hay Fever with Lindsay Duncan as the not-quite-retired actress Judith Bliss is currently a hit in London. And Coward could be serious too, as evidenced by such works as the unrequited romance Brief Encounter, which got its own Broadway revival during last year’s season.

One of the things that’s been most annoying about past Library shows is that the noise from the various sound and video recordings created an unpleasant din, making it difficult to hear the selection you wanted. But this show has listening stations with earphones and even small stools where people can sit.  Occasionally, there’s an outbreak of laughter from some listener who’s just encountered some of Coward's witty lyrics.

And speaking of lyrics, there are handwritten copies of a few of the over 300 songs Coward wrote, including the jocular “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and the romantic “Mad About the Boy” (they’re written in pencil but there don’t seem to be many cross outs or erasures—he was a famously fast and assured writer).

There are scrapbooks of reviews and stories, mainly put together by his pal Gertie Lawrence, and lots of show posters, including the one Coward himself designed for the show Sail Away, which featured a young Elaine Stritch, who became another dear and life-long friend.

It’s hard to resist making a list of Coward's close friends because the names are so glitzy but it would almost be easier to tote up the famous people who weren’t his friends because his chums included Charlie Chaplin, Beatrice Lillie, David Niven, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith, Lauren Bacall, Winston Churchill, Ian Fleming, Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Mountbatten and the Queen Mother.

Coward was a dedicated letter writer and the exhibit includes several between him and friends.  There’s a particularly poignant one from Leigh, expressing her gratitude for his allowing her to spend the Christmas holidays with him after her marriage to Olivier fell apart.

In fact, it’s the glimpses of the personal Coward—the piano from one of his homes, the typewriter he traveled with, the dressing gowns he wore, his favorite tuxedo, his battered makeup kit, his shiny cigarette cases (he was almost never without a smoke) the home movies of a vacation in St. Moritz, the unfinished painting he was working on the day he died, the copy of the book that was opened by his bedside that final night—that help make the exhibit so special.

Like many self-invented men, Coward worried that his achievements would fade after he was gone. That day may come but this superb tribute to his work and his life, almost 40 years after his death, should allow him to rest in peace for a while yet. Go pay homage. 

March 17, 2012

"The Maids" Should Be a Little Dirtier

Jean Genet was the enfant terrible of French writers.  And, as a convicted thief and a defiantly openly gay man, he reveled in his status as an outsider. So it was perfectly in character when Genet stole elements of a notoriously grisly murder case as the basis for his first second play The Maids. 

It revolves around two sisters who plot to kill the rich woman who employs them.  And, to poke a thumb even deeper in the eye of French society, Genet’s original stage directions called for the sisters to be portrayed by male actors.

His director ignored that suggestion but the play still scandalized theatergoers when it opened in 1947. Alas, the Red Bull Theater Company’s revival of The Maids that opened this week at St. Clements Church is unlikely to arouse much emotion of any kind.

That’s a shame because Genet’s outrage at the maddening disparities that existed between the moneyed and working classes in his time still, as the Occupy Movement attests, resonates in ours. 

The actresses playing the sisters and their mistress are all game.  But the story calls for them to whirl through a kaleidoscope of emotions over just 90 minutes and each woman is better at some than others.

Still, I’m putting most of the blame for the production’s tepidity on the shoulders of its director Jesse Berger.  And that starts with the odd decision he made to build a box on stage, place the bedroom set in which the action takes place inside it and then to seat the audience around all four open sides of the box.   

I get that this is supposed to amp up the intimacy and make the audience feel like voyeurs but it also means that you miss out on some of the actors' expressions and even dialog when they face the in the opposite direction. Try to get a side seat if you go before the run ends on April 1 because the ones at the top and bottom of the set are uncomfortable looking stools.

Berger fiddles with the content too, changing at least one key scene towards the end of the play from the way Genet wrote it. But the biggest problem is the production's inability to create the atmosphere of fear and futility that would drive the women to take such desperate measures.

Genet has the sisters take turns being the aggressor as they fantasize about the murder and he’s laced sadomasochism and intimations of incest into the games they play as they goad one another along.  But although there’s some kissing and rolling on the bed, there’s no real sexiness or danger in this version of The Maids. Without the threat of transgressiveness, the play can come off as silly.

“Well,” the woman sitting next to me sighed heavily after the actors took their bows.  “That was about nothing.” That may be an overstatement.  But I think it’s fair to say that this production of The Maids isn’t about enough.

March 14, 2012

Totally Mesmerized by "The Total Bent"

If you see The Total Bent— which, if you haven’t done, you’ll have to rush to do because it closes this weekend—you may or may not see the same show I saw. For The Total Bent, the latest work by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, is part of the PublicLab at the Public Theater, a workshop in which the creative team continues to tinker right through the last performance.  But at just $15, it’s a bargain for the adventurous theater lover.

Before my performance started, the director Joanna Settle came out and explained that a scene in the first act had been cut, the second act tightened and lines changed throughout the show, all during a four-hour rehearsal earlier that day. Some of the actors, she said, might have to carry their scripts to keep up with the changes. But, as it turned out, only one did and he only did it in one scene.  And despite what must have been a grueling day for them, everyone's energy level was heat-wave high.

Stew, who goes by the one name, and Rodewald are the hipster duo who wrote Passing Strange, the coming-of-age rock musical that opened at the Public five years ago before moving to Broadway, where it played 165 performances. That show was based on Stew’s own adventures as a middle-class kid who refused to settle for any of the stereotypes usually associated with young black men.

I’m not sure what the genesis was for The Total Bent but, once again, the issue of black male identity is in the spotlight.  This time out, the protagonist is a gospel prodigy named Marty Roy who is desperate to break away from his domineering father and some mysterious incident in their past. Marty wants to create a new life and his own kind of music. 

Despite the fact that Passing Strange won the Tony for best book of a musical, storytelling isn’t really Stew’s strong point.  The Total Bent seems to mash together plot points from "The Jazz Singer,"  the movies' first talkie about a cantor’s son who dreams of a career in show business, with bits and pieces from the life of soul singer  Marvin Gaye, whose contentious relationship with his preacher father ended with the older Gaye shooting the younger one to death. 

The result, to be honest, is kind of a mish-mash.  Some supporting players wander around without much to do. Scenes start and then just drift off so that story lines are left dangling. After the show, I overheard several of my fellow audience members trying to figure out what had happened to certain characters.  No one even tried to speculate on how the title related to what we'd just seen.

But then there’s the music. The savory blend of gospel, punk and show tunes that Stew and Rodewald have brewed into a 21st century version of art song is totally infectious and somehow makes up for the fractured narrative.  

I had groaned loudly when the usher told me that the show’s running time was three hours and then I groaned again, this time silently, when I realized that I was sitting across the aisle from Stew (instantly recognizable by his roly-poly physique and trademark pork-pie hat) and so couldn't easily sneak out or leave after the intermission. But the time whizzed by and during the few down moments, I got a kick out of peeking over at Stew as he openly grooved to his own music.

And he wasn’t the only one rocking out. Stew is big in the young, artsy and multi-culti parts of the city but his appeal is clearly spreading. The audience the night I saw the show was older, whiter and straighter dressed than the previous times I’ve seen his work. But they were totally to into it.  I don’t think anyone sneaked out at intermission and you could see grey heads bopping and expensively-heeled feet tapping all over the place.

Just as he was with Passing Strange, in which the marvelous Daniel Breaker played the Stew stand-in, Stew has again been blessed with a charismatic lead actor.  William Jackson Harper has a soul-stirring gospel voice and dare-you-to-look-away stage presence.  I would have been content to just look at and listen to him all night.

Meanwhile, Vondie Curtis Hall may be older and grayer than he was in his heyday as the James Brown character in the original production of Dreamgirls, but he’s no less dynamic as the father and is in equally great voice.  And David Cale almost steals the show from them both in a sweet comic turn as the white Brit who becomes Marty’s producer.

So what can I tell you?  The Total Bent may be a rollicking mess but I was totally mesmerized by it.

March 10, 2012

A Great Visit from "The Lady from Dubuque"

All great playwrights strive to make the people who see their plays think as well as feel.  And with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams now gone, Edward Albee is not only our greatest living playwright but the undisputed champ of that game. Right from the start, his plays have insisted that his audiences grapple with the way they think and feel about really tough stuff. So I always find it difficult to answer when people ask me if I’ve enjoyed something by Albee. For his plays are far too discomforting for that.  But I can say that I do enjoy wrestling with them. 

The Lady from Dubuque may not be one of Albee’s heavyweights like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Seascape or my favorite, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? but this 1980 meditation on dying is still a powerful piece of work and the Signature Theatre Company is giving it a fitting revival in the largest and most lovely of the three theaters at its brand new Pershing Square Center home.

The play opens on a familiar Albee scene: upper-middle class folks are sitting in a handsome home, swilling drinks and trading thinly-veiled put-downs. The hosts this time out are a guy named Sam and his wife Jo, who is terminally ill.  Although everyone—they, the couple’s next-door neighbors, their swinging bachelor pal and his new, not-quite-ditsy-as-she-seems girlfriend—is trying to ignore that fact. 

It is only at the end of the first act, when those guests have gone, that some mysterious latecomers arrive, ready to deal with the mortal pain that both Jo and Sam are suffering.

Albee isn’t one for explaining his plays but my usual theatergoing buddy Bill stayed for a talkback the night he saw the show (I’d attended the same performance with another friend and, hungry, we sneaked out for dinner when the play ended). Bill told me later that Albee shared one version of The Lady from Dubuque’s origins. 

It seems that he was playing bridge one night with his good friend Tallulah Bankhead and she suggested that it would be fun if he wrote a play in which she didn’t appear until the end of the first act because the anticipation for her arrival would make for a terrific entrance.  He eventually wrote it but she died in 1968, long before she could perform it. 

Irene Worth, another good friend of Albee's, played the part when The Lady from Dubuque opened in 1980. But the critics didn’t take to the play and it not only closed after just 12 performances but ushered in the dark decade of Albee’s career, a time in which, he recently admitted to the New York Times, he battled alcoholism and drug dependency (click here to read the piece) and turned out plays that disappointed critics, his fans and perhaps even himself.

That time in the wilderness continued until Signature devoted a season to Albee’s works in 1993 and finally ended when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Three Tall Women in 1994 and  returned to Broadway with the triumphant revival of A Delicate Balance in 1996.

The Signature continues to do right about Albee with this production, which is directed by David Esbjornson, who also helmed the original production of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?  Esbjornson clearly gets Albee and he has put together a cast that is equally simpatico. 

It’s hard—and unfair—to pick out favorites. Michael Hayden and Laila Robins are poignant as Sam and Jo and it’s always lovely to see Jane Alexander, who is both majestic and maternal as the title character (click here to read an interview with her). I also got a particular kick out of seeing Peter Francis James, who is having such a great time in the role of the Lady's droll black sidekick.

But in the end, it’s the play that’s the thing here. Anyone who has experienced the dying of a loved one or is struggling with their own mortality will identify with it. 

It took me days to sort out my thoughts and feelings about The Lady From Dubuque but I think I can now sum it up in a word: gratitude. 

March 3, 2012

"How I Learned to Drive" is a Great Ride

Whenever I’ve had the good fortune to talk to young playwrights, Paula Vogel’s name always seems to come up.  They’ve all read or seen her work.  Most have been inspired by it.  Many want to study with her. 

It would be easy to understand why they feel that way if you're lucky enough to see the current revival of Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, which will finish a month-long run at Second Stage Theatre on March 11. For it is a masterwork that deserves a place on the Mount Rushmore of great American plays.

Although rooted in a particular time and set of events, great plays reveal something about the broader struggle to be human and to be loved that is so elemental that these works can—and should be—revived for generation after generation, as is happening this season with Arthur Miller’s Death of  A Salesman  (opening March 15) and Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire (opening April 22).

This is the first time that How I Learned to Drive has been revived in New York since it premiered in a Vineyard Theatre production back in 1997 but this production should secure its place in the canon.  

How I Learned to Drive is a memory play about the complicated relationship between a young girl and the uncle who sexually abused her. It is told over 90 tight minutes in a series of scenes that jump back and forth in time, reflecting the way most of us tell stories about our lives.

As my friend Lisa and I walked to the always-reliable Joe Allen for a bite after the show, she reminded me how obsessed the country was with stories about child abuse and recovered memory in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Vogel was writing How I Learned to Drive.

Stories about satanic ritual abuse at the McMartin preschool in southern California filled newspapers, magazine and books back then. Novelist Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for 'A Thousand Acres,' a modern-day retelling of the King Lear story in which it is revealed that the Lear-figure, an Iowa farmer who prematurely divides his land among his three daughters, had earlier molested two of them. 

What set How I Learned to Drive apart then—and makes it just as compelling now—is Vogel’s ability to see that a man can be despicable and good at the same time.  For while the uncle's actions will damage the girl so profoundly that it will take years before she can heal, he is also  the only one in their extended family who appreciates her intelligence and encourages her to be a full person.   

The play, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, blew me away when I first saw it at the Vineyard. Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse won every possible award for their portrayals of the girl Li’l Bit and her Uncle Peck and so although I was eager to see the play again, I feared it might be impossible to match those indelible performances.  But Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz do a damn fine job.

Reaser is probably best known for appearing in the “Twilight” movie series (although I know her as the sportswriter girlfriend who almost stole Will away from Alicia on “The Good Wife”) but she is also a Juilliard-trained actor and is clearly at home on a stage (click here to read a Q&A with her). Her Li’l Bit comes across as less precocious than Parker’s but that naiveté may better reflect the helpless confusion that so many abused kids feel.

In many ways, Peck is the harder role. There is an underlying sadness and even a sweetness to him but the actor playing the part has to resist the temptation to overplay those qualities so that the audience can feel the same betrayal that Li’l Bit does. 

Butz, deservedly famous for his song-and-dance roles in shows like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can, wouldn’t seem a natural choice for this part but he’s more than up to the challenge and his Peck seduces and repels with equal conviction.

The leads get solid support from Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan and Marnie Schulenburg, who are the show’s Greek Chorus, portraying a variety of roles, some of which provide comic relief (a little too much at times) and Regan gets a lovely moment as Peck’s wife who knows his secrets and loves him still. 

They are  all smartly directed by Kate Whoriskey, making a triumphant return to the New York boards after an unexpectedly short stay at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, which revealed that it was broke just weeks after she took over as artistic director (click here to remind yourself about that). 

The production deserves a longer run but the actors have other commitments.  So hurry and see it if you can and if not, join me in praying that it won’t be so long before we get a chance to see How I Learned to Drive again.

March 1, 2012

The Real Pain of "Hurt Village"

A bumper crop of talented young playwrights has popped up over the last few years.  Annie Baker, Tarell Alvin McCraney and Amy Herzog have all had plays produced by major companies, received deservedly good notices and even picked up a few awards along the way.  But none of them has received as effusive a welcome as has Katori Hall, whose Hurt Village opened at The Pershing Square Signature Center on Monday night. 

Hall’s play The Mountaintop made her the first black woman to win the prestigious Olivier Award for best new play of a London season.  This past fall, that play, a fable about the last night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, opened on Broadway with movie stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, prompting the New Yorker magazine to run a five-page profile of its young author (click here to read it). 

And Hall, who just turned 30 last May, has won a slew of other honors including the Lorraine Hansberry Award for a play that best expresses the African-American experience and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for the best work by a woman in the English-speaking theatre.  Now, Hall is joining Edward Albee and Athold Fugard as a playwright-in-residence during Signature’s inaugural season in its new home.

But after having seen The Mountaintop (click here to read my review) and now Hurt Village, I’m wondering if all the accolades may be premature. To be fair, Hurt Village seems to have been written as a class project while Hall was still studying playwriting at Juilliard.  But while both plays have a lot of swagger, they are bantamweight fare that fail to pack a real punch.

Like The Mountaintop, Hurt Village is set in Hall’s hometown of Memphis. It centers around a real-life housing project and the lives of some fictional characters living there right before the buildings were demolished in 2002. 

To say that the lives of Hall’s characters are hard would be an understatement.  They’re plagued by every cliché in the ghetto-life handbook: drugs, teen pregnancies, illiteracy, obesity, welfare dependency and a seeming inability to speak even one sentence without uttering at least two profanities.

Don’t get me wrong, these are real issues and there are real people throughout the country struggling mightily to overcome them. But while Hall vividly lays out the problems, she shortchanges the people.

The main character in her play is Buggy, a twentysomething year-old soldier who has returned home from the Iraq War under mysterious circumstances. He wants to do right by the grandmother who raised him after his mother’s death and the teen-daughter he sired when he was no more than a boy himself.  

The women have aspirations too. The mother labors as a health aide trying to save up the money to move the family to a decent neighborhood. The precocious daughter wants to be a poet.  Even Buggy's baby mama, a recovering addict, dreams of owning her own beauty parlor. 

But they're all pulled down by the street life that has already trapped so many others around them and by a bureaucracy that doesn't care. There’s undeniable poignancy in their plight but similarly sad stories have been told before. And unlike works like McCraney's Brother/Sister plays or Kirsten Greenidge's Milk Like Sugar which recently played at Playwrights Horizons, Hurt Village doesn't offer any new insights that help us to see its characters as distinctive people rather than as mere avatars of misery.

Patricia McGregor’s direction also goes for the flamboyant. She uses loud music and video projections to signal scene changes. Some scenes are performed in rap (good luck trying to understand the lyrics). And there’s a gratuitous scene in which one poor actor has to vomit on the stage and the others have to try to avoid the mess while they continued to perform. 

The cast, filled with young actors, is uneven. The old-timers Ron Cephas Jones and Tonya Pinkins come off best but it’s sad to see Jones playing yet another wily drug dealer and Pinkins, padded in a fat suit, another dysfunctional mother, particularly after she just played one in Milk Like Sugar (click here to read an interview with her).

Complimentary reviews for Hurt Village have been filled with phrases like “eloquent explorations of tragedy and hope” and "raw, haunting and crackling."  But I can’t help feeling that those words reflect a misguided belief that this is truly the way that poor black people live and act.  

Some do, of course.  But even the most downtrodden of them possess a layered humanity.  Perhaps, once all the hoopla dies down, Hall will have the time to mature her craft and, in her future works, will dig deeper than the one dimension now on display in Hurt Village.