September 29, 2012

How "If There is I Haven’t Found It Yet" Lost Its Way

If There is I Haven’t Found It Yet, the dysfunctional family drama that opened at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre this week, has been getting all kinds of attention because the movie actor Jake Gyllenhaal chose it for his New York stage debut. Gyllenhaal acquits himself well enough (click here to read an interview with him). But nearly everything else about this production is too cute for its own good.

And that starts with its title, which is not only self-consciously opaque and hard to remember but not nearly as clever as its playwright Nick Payne, only 25 when the play debuted in London in 2009, clearly intended it to be.

The plot, however, holds promise. It's ostensibly about Anna, a chubby teen who gets bullied at school by mean-girl classmates and neglected at home by parents who are too busy with their careers. Her savior is supposed to be her Uncle Terry, a slacker who shows up for an unannounced visit, pays her the attention she craves and tries to persuade her that there’s more to life than her current predicament suggests.  

Critics both here and in London have applauded the play’s naturalistic language (click here to read some of the raves on StageGrade). But most of today’s young playwrights seem comfortable with dialog, it’s the rest of it—believable characters, nimble plots—that gives them trouble.  

 Payne does better than most but he crams in so many trendy topics—global warming, school bullying, the vapidity of Hollywood movies—that Anna’s tale, the most compelling of his storylines, often gets pushed too far to the side. 

Yet what really sends this production careening in the wrong direction is a cutesy decision that director Michael Longhurst and set designer Beowulf Boritt have made in a vain attempt to be hip.

Instead of using a naturalistic set, they’ve opted for one that screams metaphorical. The centerpiece of their concept is a transparent moat placed between the stage and the audience. Streams of water are falling into it as theatergoers enter. The shower stops once the play begins but the moat’s role has only just begun. 

For a pile of furniture has been heaped in the middle of the stage. The actors yank out chairs, tables, even a refrigerator as needed and then discard them after each scene, usually by tossing them into the moat.  And there’s more water to come.

I suppose it’s all meant to symbolize a combination of our careless disrespect for the environment and for family life and, who knows, maybe there’s even an allusion to Noah and the Flood in there too.  But I think we could have gotten the point of the play without all the splashing water because the actors are fully committed to what they’re doing.

That’s particularly true of Annie Funke, the young actress who plays Anna and is the best thing about the production. She shows both the vulnerability and the resilience in the emotionally battered Anna and there’s not a faux cute thing about her very brave performance. 

Gyllenhaal isn’t bad either, although he speaks with a thick British accent that sometimes makes it hard to understand what he’s saying.  And although this isn’t his first time onstage (he won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Newcomer when he starred in the West End revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth back in 2002) he still doesn’t have his projection techniques down, which makes it chancy that you’ll hear him in the last row of the theater—or even, sometimes, in one of the middle rows where I was sitting. 

To my surprise, the weakest link for me was Brian F. O’Byrne’s performance as Terry’s brother and Anna’s dad, a professor so obsessed with charting the carbon footprint of everything the family does that he, well, can’t see the forest for the trees. O’Byrne still seems to be finding his way into the role but even a middling performance from this fine actor is worth seeing (click here to read an interview with him).

Whether the play is worth seeing is another matter.  But if you go, avoid sitting in the front row if you can. The people there were continually spattered as objects were thrown into the moat.  And, as the water level rose, I could see them leaning back in their seats in apparent fear that the whole mess would flow right onto them.

September 26, 2012

"Red Dog Howls": Bravura Acting Gives it Bite

Red Dog Howls, which opened at the New York Theatre Workshop this week, isn’t a well-made play.  It has no real conflict. Crucial bits of information are held back in a strained effort to manufacture suspense. And the narrative depends far too much on the exposition that one character, repeatedly standing center stage, delivers directly to the audience. But, despite all of that, it is still an affecting piece of work. 

Much of that is due to the fact that Alexander Dinelaris’ play deals with the legacy of the Armenian Genocide in which soldiers of the Ottoman Empire massacred over 1 million people between 1915 and 1923. But it draws even more of its power from a searing performance by Kathleen Chalfant.

The plot of this three-hander centers around the relationship between Chalfant’s character, a 91-year old recluse named Rose, and a thirtysomething writer named Michael, played by Alfredo Narciso. His father has just died and he and his wife Gabriella (Florencia Lozano) are just about to have their first child. A mysterious legacy from his father leads Michael to believe that Rose, a woman he’s never met before, holds the key to a secret in his family’s past.

As I said, it’s all a bit strained but director Ken Rus Schmoll has given Red Dog Howls a streamlined production that keeps the focus tightly on the interaction between Rose and Michael. And that is a good thing because Rose is a show horse role for older actresses, who get so few chances to strut their stuff.

And Chalfant, a thoroughbred talent who has been with the play since its first reading in 2007, doesn’t miss a step. Her Rose is a deft mix of chicken-soup coziness and dry-wit crankiness. Then, just as Michael—and the audience—is getting comfortable with her, she breaks into the anguishing aria that is the whole point of the play. 

Although Red Dog Howls runs just 90 minutes, I had been somewhat restless up until then.  But as Chalfant howled, I hung on to every word.

September 22, 2012

“Detroit”: Why I'm Cool on This Hot Show

Sometimes, as hard as I might try, I just don’t get it. For instance, I know that I’m supposed to like Detroit, the new dark comedy that opened at Playwrights Horizons this past week.  And I can give you at least five reasons why I should:

1. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. 

2. It was a hit when it premiered at Chicago’s hip Steppenwolf Theatre Company the year before that. 

3. It has a hot cast lead by the-can-do-anything actress Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer, the co-star of the beloved sitcom “Friends” who also has serious theater chops.

4. It takes on the subject of class in America, which is exactly the kind of serious thing I’m always saying that theater companies should do.  

5. It has drawn mash notes from just about every critic in town (click here to read the raves on StageGrade). 

And yet, I have to say that I just don’t get what all the fuss is about.

Although the play is called Detroit, playwright Lisa D’Amour has set it in an unnamed “first ring suburb outside of a mid-sized American city” that seems to be located deep in Edward Albee territory.

For Detroit opens with a seemingly placid backyard barbeque shared by two couples who are just getting to know one another.  And then, pretty quickly, everything starts to go to George-and-Martha-type hell as they all struggle to hold on to their illusions about the American Dream. 

Actually, things aren’t so great from the get-go. The host couple, Mary and Ben, are reeling from the Great Recession; he’s lost his job as a bank loan officer and spends his days on their home computer ostensibly setting up a consulting business. Meanwhile she's struggling to keep their heads above water with the salary from her job as a lowly paralegal.

Their new neighbors Kenny and Sharon have the kind of even lower-wage jobs that seem to define the new economy: he works in a warehouse, she in a call center.  Kenny and Sharon confess that they’re also recovering addicts but it’s obvious that they’re struggling with other demons as well.

Now I get—and even appreciate—the fact that D’Amour wants to drive home the point that the post-War promises of the ‘50s were hollow and that today’s middle class has been seriously wounded (literally here; the fake blood flows). But this isn’t really news and Detroit doesn't offer any more insights into this discontent than an Occupy poster on an episode of TV's "Mad Men."

And although some of the absurdist touches D’Amour and director Anne Kauffman stir into their brew are undeniably amusing, they also struck me as dramaturgical filigree instead of organic moments.

Moreover, her characters live in such apparent isolation from the rest of the world and go off on such surrealistic tangents that it’s hard to feel much for them, even though all of the actors are quite fine.   

Ryan and Schwimmer are first-rate as Mary and Ben (click here to read their take on the play).  but I was even more impressed by Darren Pettie and Sarah Sokolovic who bring a bracing sense of menace and disruptive energy to Kenny and Sharon.

Who knows, perhaps I might have received the play differently if the scenic turntable hadn’t stalled midway through the performance I saw, causing the stage manager to call the actors off the stage and the house lights to be turned up for the 10 or so minutes that it took to get it turning again.

Or maybe I would have gotten more into Detroit if I hadn’t been sitting in front of a row of old-codger theatergoers who spent half of the show’s 100-minutes loudly asking their spouses to repeat lines that the actors had just said. And then spent the other half making sarcastic, and equally loud, comments about the ones they had managed to hear. Shame on them and all their ilk.

Or it could just be that Detroit is one of those plays that, no matter what the circumstance, just doesn't get to me.

September 19, 2012

"Chaplin" is More Flatfooted than It Should Be

People have been so eager to badmouth the new musical Chaplin that opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre last week that I’ve been trying to figure out why they’ve been so hostile towards it. Because this certainly isn’t the worst show that any of us have seen. Indeed, there are several things that might recommend it.

The show tracks the career of the great silent movie star Charlie Chaplin, whose Little Tramp character remains an instantly recognizable icon almost 50 years after Chaplin made his last film and whose personal life was just as flamboyantly theatrical.

Just some of the highlights include his born-in-a-trunk beginnings to British music hall performers, his stubborn refusal to switch to talking films, his penchant for under-aged girls (three of his four wives were in their teens when he married them) his self-imposed exile from the U.S. after being accused of having communist sympathies and his dramatic return 20 years later to receive an honorary Oscar.

Another plus is the show’s elegant black and white design. Beowulf Boritt did the set and Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz, who died this past July, did the costumes and both cleverly mimic the stylized look of silent films.   

Meanwhile, lighting designer Ken Billington and video designer Jon Driscoll have been just as nimble at incorporating film sequences into the show.  Some are clips from Chaplin movies but others were filmed specifically for this show and it’s the highest compliment to say that you can’t always tell which is which.

And that brings us to the show’s single best attribute: a star-is-born performance by the young actor Rob McClure.  Posters and the Playbill boast that the show is “Introducing Rob McClure as ‘Charlie Chaplin’” but some of us were lucky enough to have spotted him earlier. 

Last year McClure starred in the Encores! production of  Where’s Charley? and was totally delightful in the title role long identified with another grand old clown, Ray Bolger.  Even I, usually a grinch when it comes to audience-participation, joined in the sing-along McClure lead of the ditty “Once in Love With Amy.”

Now, McClure is even more winning as Chaplin. It helps that he looks a bit like the comedian and he’s got down all Chaplin's trademark gestures: the bowlegged walk, the jauntily popping shoulders, the coy tilt of the head.   

But this is a performance that is as emotionally resourceful as it is physically agile. McClure makes Chaplin a real-flesh-and-blood genius: someone who was probably difficult to live with but impossible to resist.

Kudos to the producers for going with him instead of some big-name, but less well-suited star. McClure may not have the ineffable charisma that Chaplin possessed but who could?  This is still a performance that should be remembered at Tony time.  (Click here to read a piece about how he built his performance.)

And yet, I can understand why Chaplin has scored just a C on StageGrade, the site that aggregates the reviews of the top New York critics (click here to read what some of them had to say).  Here, in brief, is why I think we may all feel so let down by the show:

The book: Predictably, it’s the biggest problem. Theatrical newcomer Christopher Curtis (he seems to be a cabaret guy who has written TV theme songs and studied at Disney Animation’s musicals workshop) and Broadway vet Thomas Meehan (he’s won Tonys for the books of Annie, The Producers and Hairspray) have cobbled together a story that simultaneously offers too much and too little. 

The book tries to cover Chaplin’s entire life right up to his death, at 88, in 1977. So everything has to move along at the fast-paced clip of one of those silent movie two-reelers. 

Curtis and Meehan try to add depth by larding in some sibling rivalry with Chaplin’s older half-brother and sometime manager Sydney and by making their mother Hannah, who spent most of her life in and out of mental asylums, the cause of Chaplin’s almost manic drive to succeed.

But they skip over his problematic love life (perhaps in deference to the Chaplin family) and they give short-shrift to his political beliefs, which here are played as more of a grudge match with the conservative gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Like so many musicals today, this one lacks focus.  And that makes it hard to say interested.

The music: Curtis did both the music and the lyrics. And they’re OK but only in a generic kind of way. A couple of the ballads drew loud applause the night my sister Joanne and I saw the show and what passes for the title tune still echoes in my ear, in part because it’s reprised so many times throughout the show. But the music doesn’t put a distinctive stamp on its interpretation of Chaplin’s world.

•Our expectations:  I suspect that the reason the disappointment has been so widespread and so bitter is that this show had so much potential and has so much talent both onstage and behind the curtain.  We theater lovers wanted it to be more, to pay proper tribute to its title character, to open this new theater season with a bang.  What we got isn’t as underwhelming as some are saying but it isn’t enough either.  

September 15, 2012

My More Idiosyncratic Fall Preview Than Usual

Like most of you, I’ve been looking through all the fall previews that everyone else has been doing and, to be honest, I don’t know that there are all that many shows that I’m really looking forward to this season. 

However, one thing I am eager to see is Giant, Michael John LaChiusa’s musical adaptation of the old James Dean-Rock Hudson-Elizabeth Taylor movie that’s scheduled to open at the Public Theater in November. I saw an earlier production of the show when it played down at Washington’s Signature Theatre four years ago and am curious about how it’s evolved. 

And I’m also intrigued by The Twenty-Seventh Man, a new play about the persecution of writers and poets in Stalinist Russia that’s also opening at the Public in November. Nathan Englander has adapted his short story of the same name and if his play is anywhere near as good as his most recent short story collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Ann Frank,” then this show could be something very special.

Rounding off my must-see list is The Great God Pan, the latest Amy Herzog play about the lives of liberal New Yorkers that’s scheduled to open at Playwrights Horizons in December because I’m an unabashed Herzog groupie.

But what I am really looking forward to this fall is the continuing privilege of seeing some of the actors I most admire—some famous, some less sotackle new challenges.  Here are six of them:

Brian F. O’Byrne in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.  I know that most people are excited about this new dark, dysfunctional-family comedy because it will be the New York stage debut of the movie actor Jake Gyllenhaal but what's got me jazzed is that it also will mark the return to the stage of O’Byrne, who originated the role of Father Flynn in Doubt. He then spent the next five years in Hollywood which, for my money, didn’t make anywhere near the best use of his considerable talent. So I can hardly wait to welcome him home when the show opens at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre next week.

Kathleen Chalfant in Red Dog Howls. Chalfant long ago proved that she’s unbeatable when it comes to delivering the emotional goods without even a hint of bathos.  Plus she has one of the most mellifluous voices in the business. So even if this new role isn’t up to her iconic ones in Wit or Angels in America, it’ll be a treat to see—and listen to—Chalfant in this new play about an elderly woman with a connection to the Armenian Genocide in which over 1 million people were massacred between 1915 and 1923. It opens on Sept. 24 at the New York Theatre Workshop.

Boyd Gaines in An Enemy of the People. The unwavering integrity that Gaines brings to every role is one of the main reasons that he’s already won four Tonys and probably should have won several others along the way. It’s also what makes me want to see him in this new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s morality play about a man who takes a principled but unpopular stand against corruption in his hometown. The fact that Gaines' main nemesis will be played by the equally unaffected Richard Thomas makes this production all the more alluring. It opens at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Sept. 27. 

Bobby Cannavale and Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross. Talk about a no-brainer. Cannavale’s streetwise flair seems tailor-made for Ricky Roma, the office hot shot in David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic about a group of desperate real estate agents.  While Pacino, who played Roma in the 1992 film version, seems to be at just the right time in his life to take on the role of Shelley "The Machine" Levene, the old-timer who is down on his luck but not ready to count himself out. I mean is there any self-respecting theater lover who doesn’t want to see these two mix it up when the show opens at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Nov. 11?

Norbert Leo Butz in Dead Accounts. There doesn’t seem to be anything that Butz can’t do.  He can be side-splittingly funny (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) or devastatingly heart-breaking (last season’s revival of How I Learned to Drive) and his manic song-and-dance number almost single-handedly kept Catch Me if You Can afloat. So how can I not be curious about what he’s going to do when he stars opposite Katie Holmes (aka the former Mrs. Tom Cruise) in the latest comedy by Theresa Rebeck (the erstwhile show-runner of the Broadway-on-TV series “Smash”) that’s scheduled to open at the Music Box Theatre on Nov. 29. 

Patti LuPone in The Anarchist. Everybody knows that LuPone is one of Broadway’s reigning musical comedy divas but what some of us may have forgotten is that she can do straight drama too.  And this season, LuPone is teaming up with her old buddy David Mamet (this is their fifth project together) to star in his new two-hander about a Weather Undergroundish inmate who is seeking parole from her prison warden. It raises the ante even more that the warden will be played by the fine film actress Debra Winger, making her Broadway debut when this philosophical drama opens at the Lyceum Theatre on Dec. 2.  

September 12, 2012

Hey! Hey! Whadya Say! A Clap for "Bring It On"

Let’s face it, I’m not the demographic that the producers had in mind when they decided to bring Bring It On to Broadway.  And yet, like just about everyone else who has seen this high-spirited musical currently playing at the St. James Theatre, I had a good time.

Based on a series of popular teen movies, Bring It On tells the story of Campbell, a blonde cheerleader from a suburban high school who is redistricted into a multi-ethnic, inner-city high school without a cheerleading squad. They have a hip-hop dance team instead. 

I don’t think it violates the no-spoilers code to tell you that despite some initial misunderstandings on both sides, Campbell and her new schoolmates learn that they aren’t so different from one another after all.

The fun of this deceptively clever show is watching how they get there. Because Bring It On manages to be more than your average fish-out-of-water story.  

It may be stocked with every high school stereotype you can think of—the alpha-male jocks, the snooty queen bees, the cheery chubby girl, the nerdy computer guy and even the wisecracking LGBT kid—but each one gets to play with his or her cliché in a surprising and entertaining way. 

The credit for this genre bending goes to an all-star creative team that knows how to put on a show for the Millennial Generation.  Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty did the book (click here to read about how he did it.) Next to Normal’s Tom Kitt and In the Heights’ Lin-Manuel Miranda shared music duties. Miranda and High Fidelity’s Amanda Green collaborated on the lyrics. And Andy Blankenbuehler, who won a Tony for the choreography he did for In the Heights, both directed and choreographed Bring It On.

I’m not going to pretend that I left humming the show's tunes but I can say that I found them suitably bouncy and the lyrics often witty while I was there listening to them. And the book provides a not overly tidy morale that makes the show family-friendly without being icky sweet. 

But what really sets Bring It On apart is the choreography, which incorporates real competitive cheerleading stunts that are so impressively athletic—and so heart-in-your-mouth thrilling—that it’s easy to see why the cheerleading establishment has been pressing for a slot in the summer Olympic Games. 

Some actual cheerleaders have been recruited for the show and they’re usually the ones who climb to the top of the human pyramids that Blankenbuehler has devised. But the other members of the cast also jump, tumble and fly through the air with equally joyful abandon. 

There are 35 people in the cast and 30 of them are making their Broadway debuts (click here to read about some of them).  Taylor Louderman and Adrienne Warren ably lead the team as Campbell and her frenemy Danielle.  But everyone looks to be having a good time. 

And, just like me, you probably will too.

September 5, 2012

In Memoriam: Two Much Beloved Mentors

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve lost two people who played significant roles in shaping my life. So I’m taking time out from my usual posts to pay honor to their memories. 

Remy Charlip taught me theater in college. He was an enchanting man and an artistic polymath who was a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, a co-founder of the Paper Bag Players children’s theater troupe, a painter, a children’s book author (my favorite was “Arm in Arm” about two octopuses who got married and “walked down the aisle arm in arm in arm in arm in arm”) and he was an inspiring teacher who started the Children’s Theater department at my alma mater Sarah Lawrence and ushered all of us in that first group of students into the realm of the imagination that, blessedly, we’ve never totally abandoned.  Remy was 83 when he died on Aug. 14 (click here to read his obituary and here to see a clip in which he talks about his life and performs).

John Stacks wasn’t a man of the theater but he was a grand champion of my career in journalism.  John spent most of his working years at Time Magazine,  where he made his name as the magazine’s point man on the Watergate scandal and later rose through the ranks to become New York bureau chief, chief of correspondents overseeing some 100 reporters around the world and eventually deputy managing editor.  He had a true zest for life and thoroughly enjoyed good food (which he loved to cook as much as he loved to eat), good wine, fine cigars, nicely-made suits and a friendly round of golf.  He was curious about the world and enthusiastically poked around every corner of it.  He cared deeply about his friends and the people who worked for him and often went out of his way to help us.  And he had an infectious laugh.  John was just 70 when he died yesterday.  No official obituaries have yet been published but they will come once the initial shock has eased for those of us who so cherished him.

I feel blessed to have known them both.

September 1, 2012

A Labor Day Salute to the Real Score Keepers

How did the summer pass so quickly that we’re now staring in the face of Labor Day?  This is always a bittersweet time of year for me because it means that the idylls of summer are ending but it simultaneously means that the excitement of a new theater season is about to begin. 

One unambivalently good thing about Labor Day is that it’s the perfect time to salute some of the worker bees who make possible the theater that we all so love. Over the past few years, I’ve paid tribute to blue-collar actors whose names seldom appear on marquees and to struggling playwrights who toil off, off-off  and even farther away from Broadway.  But this year, I want to celebrate the composers, lyricists and book writers who participate in the BMI Workshop.

BMI, of course, is the organization that collects royalty fees for songwriters. As many of you know, its Workshop was created in 1961 by the Tony-award winning conductor Lehman Engel and is now officially called the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.

The Workshop’s mission is to give show makers a supportive place in which they can develop their talent. They hone their skills through such exercises as writing a song for Blanche DuBois, musicalizing the suicide scene from Death of a Salesman and, eventually, writing full shows.

There might not be a Broadway musical today if the Workshop didn’t exist.  Its graduates include Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Tom Kitt, Michael John LaChiusa, Robert Lopez and a whole bunch of other folks whose shows every musical theater lover knows.  But there are scores of others, some equally talented, who still labor in relative obscurity.

About four years ago, the Workshop produced a CD of songs written by a wide range of its members.  One of them, Jeff Blumenkrantz, hosted a companion podcast in which each episode is divided among interviews with a composer or songwriting team, a performance of one of their songs by a Broadway or cabaret star and then an interview with that performer.

I recently discovered the series and devoured all 20 episodes (each under 30 minutes) in a marathon binge over just a couple of days. They provide an intimate look at the hard work that goes into creating melodies and lyrics that seem effortless, at the years of often unremunerated toil that go into bringing that work to the stage and at the sheer determination and love of the craft that keep these artists going against the odds.

Because Blumenkrantz is a well known and popular figure in the Broadway community, his guests obviously feel comfortable with him and they share more of themselves in these conversations than they would in the average showbiz interview. 

In the third episode, the actress Erin Dilly talks honestly about being fired from the title role in Thoroughly Modern Millie.  Sutton Foster, her replacement, became an overnight star while Dilly had to work hard just to stay in the business. 

In a later episode, Cheyenne Jackson talks about his decision to be openly gay and how he doesn’t care if that costs him jobs in movies or on TV because it is so important for him to be himself.

And it’s not just the actors who bare their souls.  Songwriters sound-off on the frustration of being denied the rights to books and films they hoped to adapt and in many cases had already spent weeks, months, sometimes years writing songs for.  And even when rights are granted and some money is scrounged up, the end result may be just a showcase production.

And yet, they all keep laboring away.  Even when they may have to take day jobs—playing rehearsal piano, teaching school, even waiting tables—to pay their rent.   

Listening to their stories and their work is yet another reminder of the toil, tears and sweat that go into making the theater that we enjoy. So I hope you’ll join me in a round of applause for these too often unsung players.  You can click here to access the full archive of the podcasts.  In the meantime, Happy Labor Day to you too.