August 29, 2012

"Heartless" Lives Up to Its Name

There are some playwrights whose work you can just rear back and enjoy.  And then there are others who force you to sit up in your seat and work.  Sam Shepard has always fallen in the latter category.

Sometimes this call to do battle with a play is welcomed and the struggle to make one’s way through an emotionally or intellectually alien world results in fresh insights about one’s own.  But sometimes it doesn’t and I’m afraid the latter is the case with Heartless, Shepard’s latest play which had its world premiere at the Signature Theatre on Monday night.

I’d sum up the plot but there really doesn’t seem to be one. All that happens is that four women and one man sit in a house that they say is in Los Angelesbut just might be some Sartresque chamber in helland take turns declaiming about their unhappiness.    

As best as I can figure out, each of them represents some definition of the word heartless: a couple of them have acted selfishly, another craves love, while yet another has literally had to have a heart transplant. 

They’re played by a quintet of fine stage actors, lead by the great Lois Smith as a matriarch who is literally hell on wheels.  But they’ve been statically directed by Daniel Aukin and all five seem to have a hard time navigating Eugene Lee’s aggressively symbolic set and the arid emotional landscape that Shepard has laid out for them.

It’s fine—indeed, welcomedfor a play to be challenging but then it seems to me that the director has an extra responsibility to help the theatergoer through it.  That’s what David Esbjornson did with the revelatory production of The Lady from Dubuque that ran at Signature earlier this year (click here to see my review). 

Aukin, alas, doesn’t do that with Heartlesss.  Moments of naturalism bump up awkwardly against moments of absurdism.  Encounters that might be amusing fall flat.  Scenes that might be compelling drone on. 

“Do you understand what it’s about,” the woman next to me, a psychologist it turned out, asked during intermission.  I shook my head.  “Me neither,” she said.  “But it’s interesting that while he usually deals with men, he has so many women here.”  Which it true. But it doesn't help. It may be a cliché to say it, but Heartless simply doesn't have enough heart.

August 25, 2012

Three Small Journeys in "Harrison, Tx"

Even though he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (not to mention an Oscar for the screenplay of "To Kill a Mockingbird") Horton Foote was often considered to be the most unsung of America’s major playwrights. But Signature Theatre changed that in 2009, a few months after Foote’s death at the age of 92, with its landmark production of The Orphan’s Home Cycle. 

My friend Joy and I spent one full day and an evening watching Foote’s nine interconnected plays about the residents of Harrison, Texas, the fictional stand-in for his real-life hometown of Wharton, and we felt as though we had fallen into an epic novel. We were sorry to see it end (click here to see my review).

Now Primary Stages has launched a new celebration of Foote with the opening of Harrison, Tx: Three Plays by Horton Foote. The company is also co-sponsoring readings, seminars and screenings of some of Foote’s screen work with the Paley Center for Media and will present the world premiere of a play by his playwright daughter Daisy Foote later in the fall.

The setting for the plays in Harrison, Tx, is the same as those in The Orphan’s Home Cycle and the situations of longing and loss are also similar. But this new grouping of unrelated plays resembles a short story collection more than a novel. Or perhaps a compilation of poems since Foote conveys so much of his meaning in the rhythm of his words and in the space that falls between the lines.

This is another way of saying that not much happens in Harrison, Tx. The first play, Blind Date, is set in 1928 and recounts a former belle’s comic attempts to find a date for her socially awkward niece. 

The second, The One-Armed Man, takes place in that same year but is a far more sober encounter between a mill owner and an aggrieved former worker who was injured during an accident on the job.  

The Midnight Caller, the third, and longest of the trio, centers around a boarding house and how its female residents are affected by the romantic affairs of two newcomers. 

How you feel about these three musings on the vagaries of everyday life may depend on how you feel about Foote’s distinctively regional voice. And, of course, on how his work has been brought to life by the capable director Pam MacKinnon and the repertory of actors she’s recruited. 

That cast is lead by Hallie Foote, the playwright’s eldest daughter and most accomplished interpreter. And, as usual, she is the most adept of the actors at conveying the stouthearted essence of her father’s characters. She’s a scene-stealing hoot as the frustrated aunt in the first play and provides an emotional anchor in the quieter role of the boarding house landlady in the last.

And there is also good work by Mary Bacon as the boarding house’s resident busybody and Andrea Lynn Green as both the niece in the first play and a young woman slipping into spinsterhood in the third (click here to read an interview with her). 

But perhaps the most high-profile member of the cast is the always-worth-seeing Jayne Houdyshell, who plays the mother-figure in the boarding house.  Houdyshell has some lovely moments and will probably ripen in the role before the show closes on Sept. 15 but, at the performance my husband K and I attended, she still seemed to be straining to capture the knowing melancholy of an old-maid school teacher who has made peace with a lonely future.

These minor plays probably weren't in the top drawer of Foote's desk.  And if you've never seen any of his others, they're unlikely to convince you of his greatness.  But if you have, they'll probably make you wistful for the chance to see a major work of his again.

August 22, 2012

"Bullet for Adolf" Totally Misfires

We should all be so lucky as to have a friend as good as Woody Harrelson.  As has now been told many times, Harrelson worked a construction job in the summer of 1983 and became buddies with a black guy named Frankie Hyman. The two lost contact after that summer. Harrelson went on to become a TV and movie star but he never forgot Hyman and periodically tried to track him down, eventually using one of his appearances on Jay Leno’s show to ask if anyone knew his old friend and could help them reconnect.  The plea worked.  The two reunited and eventually decided to write a play about the glory days of their earlier relationship (click here to read more about their back story).  The result is Bullet for Adolf, which is playing at New World Stages through Sept. 9. 

Writing, promoting and even directing the play is a lovely thing for Harrelson to have done for Hyman, who seems to have fallen on hard times over the years.  But it turns out to be a lot less lovely for those of us who like plays with believable characters, compelling stories, interesting ideas or actions that make sense. 

The plot that Harrelson and Hyman have concocted pivots around the interactions between their old multi-racial construction crew and a Nazi sympathizer whose prized possession is a gun that jammed when someone tried to use it to assassinate Adolf Hitler. 

There are tasteless Holocaust jokes, tasteless pedophile jokes and some innocuous but still lame jokes that are most likely to be funny only after one has smoked certain uncontrolled substances, a pursuit for which Harrelson is proudly famous.

Set designer Dane Laffrey hints that the play is supposed to be a farce by including multiple doors.  But neither director Harrelson nor his cast know how to make the best use of them. In fact, nearly everyone onstage overacts like crazy. 

David Coomber, who plays a sexually ambiguous guy who shares an apartment with the stand-ins for Harrelson and Hyman, does manage to come up with a few genuinely funny moments but is so amused by his own performance that he soon wears out its welcome. 

There are some spotty attempts to deal seriously with race. When the gun is stolen, cops immediately arrest the Frankie character solely because he's black. But that storyline is dropped just like all of the others in the play. Instead there is plenty of pretend dope smoking, some flat-footed passes at romance and copious hip-hop-style use of the n-word.

The only thing that kind of works are video projections that pop up during the long set changes. It's fun to see and remember images of news events and movie and TV clips (including Harrelson’s “Cheers”) from the ‘80s and I groaned inwardly each time they faded out because it meant that Bullet for Adolf was starting up again. 

And it wasn’t just me. I was sitting across the aisle from a major critic and happened to look at him at just the moment that he put down his pen and placed his head in his hands in a gesture of abject despair, presumably because we were only in the first act and had another hour to go.

I had planned to end this post by saying something about how Harrelson should keep his day job.  But then I remembered the response of the audience at the performance. 

Most howled at the crude jokes.  A few danced to the ‘80s music that played before the show began and during the set changes and intermission.  And nearly all applauded wildly when they heard Harrelson’s voice in the pre-show announcement that is hands-down the best thing about Bullet for Adolf.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.  But if you are the kind of folks who value good theater, you should definitely dodge this Bullet.

August 18, 2012

A Surprisingly Satisfying Day at the Fringe

Unless a friend, relative or lover is doing one of its shows, deciding what to see at the New York International Fringe Festival can be daunting.  Not to mention disappointing. There are nearly 200 shows each year, ranging in quality from polished professionalism to flagrant narcissism. In the past I’ve either thrown up my hands and skipped the festival entirely or chosen haphazardly and then wish that I had skipped it. 

But I got smart this year and about a month ago, I enlisted the help of my intrepid theatergoing buddy Bill, who read through this year’s offerings (click here to do the same) checked out the early buzz on them and then made up a short list of candidates that we might want to see. Luckily, three of the shows that most intrigued us were playing on the same day and so this past Wednesday, Bill and I created our own mini-festival and for the first time ever I can say I had a great time at the Fringe.

All of the Fringe shows play at theaters downtown within walking distance of one another, which makes it easy to get from one to the other.  Bill and I started our day at 2 p.m. at the Gene Frankel Theatre with Pink Milk, a 90-minute meditation on the life of Alan Turing, the brilliant computer scientist and cryptologist who helped the Brits break the German code during World War II but later committed suicide after being prosecuted for gross indecency because he was gay when that was illegal in England.

The show's playwright Alex Paul Young and his seven-member cast are all current college students or recent grads and both the play and the performances reflect their youth. And Pink Milk doesn’t add much to our understanding of Turing beyond what Hugh Whitemore offered in his 1986 play Breaking the Code, which introduced Turing to the general public and gave Derek Jacobi his West End debut.

Still, there is a sweet earnest to Pink Milk that flows from a new generation’s delight in having discovered a martyr and hero.  And director Brandon Powers has gussied up the production with all kinds of stagecraft, including stylized dance routines and some symbolic business with apples. He slightly overdoes it but I wouldn’t mind seeing more from him—or from Young for that matter. And, if you hurry, you can see what they’ve done with this since there’s a performance tonight and one more on Sunday afternoon.

Our next show, Independents, was scheduled to start at 4 p.m. and so Bill and I scooted up Second Avenue to Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place. There was a great deal of interest in this musical because its book writer Marina Keegan was killed in an auto accident in May, just days after graduating from Yale and a few weeks before she was scheduled to start working as an assistant at The New Yorker (click here to read more about her).

Her collaborators and fellow Yalies, composer Stephen Feigenbaum, lyricist Mark Sonnenblick and director Charlie Polinger, have dedicated the show to Keegan’s memory and it turns out to be a very nice tribute. 

The plot centers around a group of young misfits who are living on a Revolutionary- era tall ship that is the only thing one of them inherited when his parents unexpectedly died. He and his crew try to raise the money to pay off some debt on the boat by performing as Colonial Williamsburg-style reenactors.  But they’re no good at it until a Corky St. Clair-style intern arrives.

There are additional subplots involving a brother in foster care, at least two troubled romances and drug smugglers that Keegan might have combed out and tightened had she lived. But as is, the show is buoyed up by its terrific score—an entertaining blend of pop-rock tunes, riffs on sea ditties and a lovely cabaret-ready ballad, “I Should Be Glad He’s Gone.” 

Polinger meanwhile has directed with a sure hand. The cast—a mix of vets from the original Yale production and young New York actors including Lilli Cooper, the original Martha in Spring Awakening who sings the hell out of that “He’s Gone” ballad—comes with varying degrees of talent but is so thoroughly natural and comfortable with one another that I thought they’d all been longtime friends until I read the Playbill. Kudos to both Polinger and casting director Holly Buczek.

The production values are similarly strong. The handsome nautical set by Brian Dudkiewicz reminded Bill and me of the one for Peter and the Starcatcher and appropriately so since this show is not only set on a ship but deals with a contemporary group of lost boys and girls. 

Independents is scheduled for three more performances next week before the whole Fringe Festival closes on Aug. 26.  The word is that all seats for it were sold out but there were a few vacant ones at our performance so go and you might get lucky.

It began to rain when Bill and I walked out of the theater and since we had an hour until our 7 p.m. show, we ducked into a café on Second Avenue and got a quick snack. When the rain slowed, we ran over to the Kraine Theater on 4th Street, where we saw the most professional of the three shows, Tail! Spin!, Mario Correa’s satirical spin on political sex scandals.

Excerpting verbatim transcripts from press conferences, interviews, emails and other public utterances, Correa revisits former Sen. Larry Craig’s arrest for lewd conduct in a men's airport bathroom, former Rep. Mark Foley’s salacious email exchanges with teen boys, former Gov. Mark Sanford’s extramarital affair with an Argentinean journalist and former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s sexting and emailing of lewd photos of himself. 

The fun derives from the way Correa juxtaposes the words each man said as he tried to control the damage after his alleged indiscretions had been revealed. Veteran comedy director Dan Knechtges brings a light but deft touch to the proceedings in which the actors sit on stools and occasionally refer to the scripts they carry. Video projections help the audience keep track of who’s speaking.

The shamed pols are played by a terrific quarter of actors who’ve honed their comedic skills on TV and onstage: Sean Dugan as Craig, Dan Hodapp as Foley, Mo Rocca as Sanford and Nate Smith as Weiner  But best of all is  “Saturday Night Live’s” Rachel Dratch, who, as the Playbill notes, plays the men’s “wives, tails, beards & Barbara Walters” and is LOL-funny as each. 

Bill and I caught the next-to-the-last performance of Tail! Spin! but it wouldn’t have mattered even if I’d told you about it earlier because all of the seats sold out as soon as the tickets went on sale last month.

So, we did three plays in six hours. None was perfect but they were good enough that I would have been up for even another.

August 15, 2012

Summer Shorts Remains a Summer Treat

Summer is supposed to be the quiet season for New York theatergoers but somebody apparently forgot to send that memo to the folks who organized all the theater festivals that have been going on around town these past few weeks.

There was the Lincoln Center Festival, which sponsors international productions and this year featured the National Theatre of Scotland’s one-man Macbeth with Alan Cumming playing all the roles and the Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya with Cate Blanchett (click here for my review of that).  The New York Musical Theatre Festival which usually sets up camp in September even moved its operations into July this year (click here to listen to an interview with its executive director Robert Hurwitz)

And now we’ve got the New York International Fringe Festival, which began last Friday and will present nearly 200 different shows before it closes on Aug. 26. I’m scheduled for a three-show marathon today and plan to post about what I see on Saturday.  

In the meantime, my favorite summer theater festival may be Summer Shorts, the series of original short plays that opened a four-week run at the 59E59 Theaters last week. There are only six plays in the festival and they’re presented in bills of three (Series A and Series B) on alternate nights. And you don’t have to travel around from place to place to see them as you do with other festivals because all the Summer Shorts offerings are presented on the same stage.

The playwrights, directors, actors and designers who mount these shows tend to be pros with solid Broadway and off-Broadway credits so there’s a polish to Summer Shorts productions despite obviously limited budgets. In fact, each play is the theatrical equivalent of an amuse-bouche, a little treat that doesn’t pretend to be a full meal but still offers a satisfying taste of the playwright’s specialties.

The play groupings aren’t usually meant to be thematic but Series B, the trio I saw, might easily have been called Series G, for each of the three playlets involves gay characters in comic situations. 

Two masters of high-camp humor, playwright Paul Rudnick and actor Peter Bartlett, join forces in Cabin Pressure, a monologue about a gay flight attendant who is being awarded for having thwarted a terrorist attack on his flight. Rudnick riddles the acceptance speech with non-sequitur zingers about hedge fund managers and movie celebrities, and Bartlett, under the gleeful direction of Walter Bobbie, nails almost every one of them.

Next up is Love and Real Estate, a mini-musical by Sam Davis, a frequent Broadway conductor who has branched into composing his own shows, and Sean Hartley,a book writer and lyricist whose best known credit is Little Women. They’ve updated the Three Little Pigs story to modern-day Manhattan: the piggies are now the three human Bacon sisters played by Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Sarah Corey and Jessica Hershberg; the wolf is a sly guy (Kevin Greene) who woos all three siblings and Edward Hibbert plays an Into the Woods-style narrator, whose role is more than it seems.  I can’t remember even one song from the show but its silly antics still make me smile.

Neil LaBute is a Summer Shorts regular and he’s back with his trademark misogyny in The Furies, a tale about an older and recently out gay man (Victor Slezak) whose attempt to break up with his younger lover (J.J. Kandel) arouses the suspicion and the vengeance-is-mine fury of the lover’s sister, played with comic finesse by Alicia Goranson.

Altogether, the three plays lasted a total of just 90 minutes.  Afterward, I walked over to Madison Avenue, caught a bus uptown and stopped in the 90s to have dinner at Paola's, an Italian place that my husband K and I used to like a lot but haven't been to for a while. I got an outside table, ordered a nice bowl of pasta and a chilled glass of wine.  In every way, a light, easy and savory summer evening.

August 11, 2012

Why "Into the Woods" Fails to Enchant Me

The first real writing I ever did was a reworking of Grimm’s Fairy Tales because they just didn’t make sense to my 8 year-old self. As I recall, I made them more agreeable by changing some endings and giving the princesses more backbone.

That love of fairy tales and bent for deconstructing them would seem to make me the perfect audience for Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical revamping of those same fables about witches and princes, evil spells and magic wishes. But when I first saw Into the Woods during its original Broadway previews back in 1987, I was so unhappy with it that I left after the first act.   

Now the Public Theater has imported a much acclaimed 2010 revival from London that opened at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park on Thursday night. I stayed through both acts this time but Into the Woods still failed to enchant me.

Most of the familiar storybook figures are there: Little Red Riding Hood, her grandmother and the Wolf; Jack of the beanstalk fame and his giant nemesis; Rapunzel and her long golden hair, Cinderella, her mean stepmother and stepsisters and her benevolent fairy godmother, a couple of charming princes and an ugly old witch.  And as though that weren't enough, Sondheim and Lapine also invented two central characters: a baker and his barren wife who are desperate to have a child. 

The fun of the first act is supposed to be seeing how all the stories are tied together and all the characters brought to the point where they’re ready to live, as these stories always promise, happily ever after. The pleasure of the second is supposed to be watching how the show makes good on the old adage “be careful what you wish for.”

Into the Woods came during the second half of Sondheim’s career but still centers around one of his favorite themes:  life is a real bitch unless you can find a way to connect to someone but you shouldn’t expect any miracles even if you do manage to open up your heart and commit.

The fact that this existential reckoning is happening to fairy tale characters, the Jungian avatars of our desires, is suppose to drive the point home even further. The problem for me is that even a slightly precocious 8 year-old knows that fairy tales characters are unrealistic and so I’ve never been able to truly care about the ones who inhabit Into the Woods or to be moved, or even surprised, by their eventual fates. 

The show's musical themes are similar too.  There are some lovely songs in Into the Woods, including the classic ballads "Stay With Me" and "Children Will Listen" and the underrated comic number "Agony", an anthem for the grass-is-always greener set.  

But other numbers like the title song seem like reprises from other, better shows. The jaunty ditty the characters sing as they head into the woods very closely echoes the one another group sang as it set out for a weekend in the country.

Indeed, there are several almost paint-by-the-number moments in both the book (every character has to get his or her comeuppance) and the score (nearly every character gets his or her "I want" song) that made me wish I were seeing some other, more subtly drawn Sondheim show. 

But that apparently is just me. The original production won Tonys for that book and that score and ran for a healthy 765 performances, longer than the original outings of Company, Follies or Sweeney Todd (click here to read about the making of that production).

The run for the current production has already been extended a week through Sept. 1 and people are already camping out over night to be first in line for the free tickets that are distributed at 1 p.m. each day. 

What they’ll see is different in several ways from earlier productions. The biggest difference is that the show was originally narrated by an older man but in this telling, co-directed by the Brits Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel, a framing device has been added that changes the narrator to a small boy who seems to have run away from home and is imagining all the stories that play out onstage.  But this extra story just adds another layer to a show that already has too many of them.  And the direction doesn't help make following those storylines any easier.

The characters in this version don’t wear traditional fairy tale garb but are dressed in an assortment of styles including steampunk outfits that allow Little Red Riding Hood to combine a straw basket with a motorcycle helmet and cutoffs, while Cinderella’s stepsisters go Goth. Emily Rebholz, who took a similar approach with the costumes for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, has great fun with the mash-ups and perfectly captures the self-parodying tone that Sheader and Steel have set for the entire show. 

Alas, the cast has a harder time maintaining that attitude.  Sarah Stiles nails it with a delightfully feisty portrayal of Little Red Ridinghood (even her giggle is in character). And Ivan Hernandez and Paris Remillard (filling in the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show for an ailing Cooper Grodin) are appropriately fey and funny as the preening princes. On the other hand, Denis O’Hare and the movie actress Amy Adams (burdened under the oddest-looking wig) still seem to be searching for their characters as the Baker and his Wife.

Luckily, the redoubtable Donna Murphy plays the Witch and is all by herself worth the wait on line. She isn’t called upon to rap her lyrics as Bernadette Peters was in the original production, but she is both wryly funny and heartbreakingly moving. Needless to say, she also sings the hell out of the show’s signature ballads.

And, of course, there is the park. It almost doesn’t matter what show is playing at the Delacorte if you have the good fortune to be there on a balmy summer evening.  Plus, set designer John Lee Beatty has cooked up a magical coup d’park in the second act that made even the finicky 8 year-old inside of me smile.