October 31, 2012

Surviving Sandy and Beyond

Hurricane Sandy has done its considerable damage and is now gone. My husband K and I hunkered down and got through it with no problems at all, save for a few flickering lights during the worst hours on Monday, and we feel blessed for having done so. 

Meanwhile, most Broadway shows, forced to shut down when all public transportation in the city was halted on Sunday, are returning to the stage, starting with today’s matinees.  Still, it feels somehow off to chatter about the shows I’ve been seeing when so many people are still grappling with the storm’s devastating aftermath. 

Large parts of the city, including Lower Manhattan, where theaters like the Public and the Vineyard operate, are still without power. There’s no subway service anywhere because many of the tunnels are still filled with water. Thousands of people, including one venerable Broadway book writer, have had to evacuate their homes.  

So although I had a post ready for today, I’m going to save it. Instead, I want to refer you to a piece my friend Howard Sherman wrote about the lingering effect the storm may have on the theater community that we all love. Click here to read it.  

And, when you can, help the theater recover by going to see a show. 

October 27, 2012

"An Enemy of the People" Fails to Win Me Over

With just 10 days to go before the election and Romney steadily gaining on Obama, you probably don’t need anyone to tell you how disappointing idealism can sometimes be, how messy democracy often is, or how money always holds the power to corrupt. But just in case you need a reminder, the Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting a revival of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, now playing at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Ibsen was a true iconoclast, dedicated to punching holes in the hypocrisies of his day. In An Enemy of the People, which he wrote in 1882, he jabs at both sides when the the forces of morality line up against those of expediency. 

On the side of righteouness is Thomas Stockman, a doctor and public health official who discovers that the water in his town is contaminated and prepares a report detailing both the problem and a costly remedy that he thinks will be well received because it will keep people from becoming ill.

On the pragmatic side is his brother Peter, the town’s mayor who is determined to keep the doctor’s findings secret because the news will drive away the tourists who visit the baths in which the town has invested heavily and that are its main source of revenue.

This being Ibsen, An Enemy of the People is a talky play but the talk in this production has been updated by the British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz (click here to read an interview with her).   

Her adaptation makes for easier listening—and a shorter running time of just two hours—but my husband K and I found the 21st century colloquialisms, including a lot of non-deleted expletives, to be jarring in the mouths of 19th century characters.

The Stockman brothers are played by Boyd Gaines, usually one of my faves; and Richard Thomas, whose work I’ve also enjoyed in the past.  But both seem off their game in this production.   

Gaines plays Thomas as more of a petulant naïf than a man of burning conviction. Meanwhile Thomas turns Peter into a Snidely Whiplash, complete with cape, top hat and a sneering smile. 

The characterizations undermine the complexities that Ibsen created. And it’s hard to root for either side when the advocates are so unconvincing. 

In fact, the entire production has the air of a melodrama performed by a well-meaning but minor-league theater troupe, complete with overwrought emoting, conspicuous sound effects and dreary lighting. 

When that much is wrong, the buck has to stop at the desk of the director, who in this case is Doug Hughes. Even his idea of having actors sit in the front row in an effort to make the audience part of the play's climactic town meeting comes off as hokey.

In that final debate, the Stockman brothers compete for the support of the townspeople.  All I can say is that I hope life doesn’t imitate art on Nov. 6.

October 24, 2012

It Would Be a Shame to Miss "Disgraced"

It’s not easy to talk honestly about race.  And the fact that it’s no longer just a black-and-white issue in this country ups the degree of difficulty.  Still, many of today’s brightest young playwrights are taking up the challenge and the latest to shoulder it on is Ayad Akhtar, whose ambitious new play Disgraced opened at Lincoln Center’s still-new Claire Tow Theater on Monday night.

Its central character is Amir, who, like Akhtar, is Pakistani-American. Amir is also as assimilated as a guy can get. He’s Ivy League-educated and on the fast track to a partnership at a corporate law firm. He lives in a swanky Upper East Side apartment and is married to a WASPy blonde named Emily who has a promising art career. And his attitude towards Islam is determinedly casual, even a bit contemptuous. 

But the good life begins to unravel for Amir when, as a reluctant favor to his more religious nephew and his liberal wife, he pays a courtesy call on a jailed imam who has been accused of terrorist activities. 

The gesture causes the Jewish managing partners at his firm to doubt Amir’s loyalty. It unsettles the relationship with his friend Jory, an African-American woman who also works at the firm and whose husband Isaac is Emily’s art dealer. It strains his marriage.  But even more important, it causes Amir to question his identity as a Muslim in a post-9/11 America. 

All these issues collide in a liquor-fueled dinner party in which political correctness is abandoned, racial epithets exchanged and the rawest of emotions revealed.

That’s a lot to pack into a 90-minute play and I haven’t even gotten to the other problems in Amir and Emily’s marriage. Yet, despite a tendency towards some soapbox speechifying, Akhtar handles it all pretty well. 

That's because he's created credible characters who push beyond the usual stereotypes. The people in Disgraced are like most human beings, sometimes arrogant when they're right, defensive when they're not but most often stumbling through the murkiness inbetween those certainties.

Akhtar gets superb support from a five-member cast that is sensitively directed by Kimberly Senior.  Leading them is Aasif Mandvi who gives a kickass performance as Amir. 

Mandvi is probably best known for his satirical news reports on the “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” but he’s also an experienced stage actor with credits both off-Broadway and in the regional theaters (click here to read a Q&A with the actor) and he is outstanding in this complex role.

Kudos also must go to Erik Jensen, who stepped in at the very last minute to play Isaac when the actor originally cast got sick and had to drop out. Jensen had only been on the job three days when my friend Stan and I saw the show but he was not only off book but had already begun to turn Isaac into a distinctive character.

As we left the theater, Stan said he had enjoyed the play but he questioned whether people really talk like that, particularly about race.  I knew what he meant.  I’d felt much the same way after I saw The Submission (click here for my review) Clybourne Park (click for my review of it) and David Mamet’s defiantly named Race (and click for my review of this one) when I saw them.   

The truth of the matter is that despite all the rhetoric, we don’t really talk honestly about race.  Courageous plays like Disgraced remind us that we really need to find a way to do it. 

October 20, 2012

"Him" Offers a Portrait of Complex Family Dynamics—Both On and Off the Stage

Hallie Foote has been celebrated as the foremost interpreter of the plays by her late father Horton Foote and more recently of those by her younger sister Daisy.  But as I watched Daisy Foote’s latest play Him, now playing in a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters, I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to see some other actress in the part.

Like her father, Daisy Foote focuses on people who live in small towns but have big dreams. He set his plays in his native Texas.  She puts her in New Hampshire where she grew up. Family dynamics fuel the action in the works of both father and daughter.  

The title character in Him is the dying owner of his town’s failing general store. He is cared for by three middle-aged children who have never left home, are financially dependent on their father and desperate because business is so bad that their own cupboard is almost bare of food.  

The eldest is Pauline, a spinster who is haunted by the memory of the unborn child she either aborted or miscarried years earlier and by the feeling that life owes her more.  The middle brother Henry is a gay man who secretly yearns after a married drinking buddy.  And the youngest is Farley, a mentally impaired man-child.

After the unseen patriarch dies offstage early in the first act, the siblings discover that he had secretly bought parcels of land that are now extremely valuable. This legacy has the potential to change everything about the way they live—including their relationships with one another.

Comparisons between their situation and that of the dysfunctional family squabbling over property in Horton Footes’ Dividing the Estate are not only unavoidable (click here to see my review of that) but underscored by the presence of Hallie Foote who plays a similar character in both.

In fact, Hallie Foote’s portrayal of Him’s Pauline will be familiar to anyone who has seen her in almost any other play in which she’s appeared. There is the same slightly southern drawl to her voice, the same jittery nervousness in her mannerisms, the same deadpan affect.

The effect can be entertaining and Foote won a deserved Tony nomination for her humorous supporting turn in Dividing the Estate. But Pauline is the pivotal figure in Him and the role demands more subtle skills.

Alas, Evan Yinoulis’ straightforward direction is unable to push Foote into new territory or to bring out the nuances that would turn Pauline into a distinctive person. I sat there imagining what a more inventive actor like Elizabeth Marvel or Marin Ireland might have done with the role.

Other members of the cast fare better.  Tim Hopper’s Henry is particularly sympathetic and it’s great to see a gay man played as a regular guy without any clichéd affectations, which is the way most of the gay men I know are.

And Adam LeFevre does an equally nice job with Farley.  Actors tend to go overboard when playing the mentally disabled but LeFevre makes Farley a particular person with passions of his own, including a romance with a similarly impaired neighbor played by Adina Verson.

 The three main actors step out of their roles at moments during the play to deliver poetic monologs. It takes a while to figure out the connection between their recitations and the rest of the play. Both Daisy Foote and Yinoulis share the blame for that confusion but Him’s bigger problem cuts closer to home. 

By all accounts, the Footes are devoted to one another and nothing like the battling kin in the plays they put on (click here to read a piece about the sisters) and so I imagine that Hallie Foote will continue to perform the family's works even though it might be better— perhaps even for her—if she didn't.

October 17, 2012

"Grace" is Blessed with Fine Performances

Polls say that atheism is rising in the U.S. and that even believers go to church less often than they once did. But God still seems to be talking to America’s playwrights. 

Faith was in the background of John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt, but it was front and center in his Storefront Church, which played at the Atlantic Theater Company in June. And A.R. Gurney is currently offering a contemporary spin on the story of Jesus in his new play Heresy at the Flea Theater through Nov. 4. 

Now comes Craig Wright’s Grace, a homily on faith, love and forgiveness that opened at Broadway's Cort Theatre last week.

Theatergoers don’t seem to know what to make of all this sermonizing. They’re OK with it if it comes cushioned in layers of irony or humor, as it does in The Book of Mormon. But they’re much less comfortable when the religious talk is earnest.  And it’s very earnest in Grace

The story centers around Sara and Steve, a young evangelical couple who have moved from Minnesota to Florida to start a chain of religious-themed hotels; and their new neighbor, a NASA scientist named Sam, who has not only lost his faith but his fiancée and half of his face in a car crash.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the interactions between them will end badly because the play actually starts with its final scene and then flashes back to show how things got to that tragic conclusion. 

And that’s not the only metaphysical trick Grace employs. The action, the Playbill tells us, takes place in two identically furnished rentals that are next door to one another. In this production, designer Beowulf Boritt has created one set that doubles for the two apartments and the characters often—and sometimes confusinglyoccupy the supposedly different spaces at the same time.

Wright, a former seminarian, might have made better use of his time if he’d devoted as much thought to his plotting. For too many of the changes that happen to his characters seem unearned. The audience isn’t given a chance to see relationships build; one minute Sara and Sam are wary friends and the next they’re considerably more. 

And, perhaps in a bid to add some humor or to pander to secular theatergoers, Dexter Bullard has directed Paul Rudd to portray Steve as a priggish jerk, which undercuts the dramatic arc for that character.

Luckily, Grace has been blessed with a particularly able set of actors. Rudd has become famous for his roles in Judd Apatow’s comic movies but he's got admirable stage chops as well And both he and Kate Arrington, a member of Chicago’s top-notch Steppenwolf Theatre Company, work hard to fill in the gaps and, ultimately, make Steve and Sara believable.

But the evening belongs to the indie-theater favorite Michael Shannon. In his Broadway debut, he is simply brilliant as Sam. 

Shannon, known for such flamboyant turns as the frustrated producer in Mistakes Happen, gives a restrained and yet still compelling performance. You can see just from the way he folds his arms the changes that occur in Sam as he dares to believe in his love for Sara and in the possibility of God. (Click here to read a profile of the actor.)

And even though Ed Asner, forever famous as TV’s Lou Grant and making his first appearance on the stage in over two decades, seems slightly befuddled at times, he is enough of a pro to use that discomfort to inform his character of a Holocaust survivor who now works as an exterminator. And, particularly in the second of his two brief scenes, Asner brings a kind of Old Testament-wisdom to the play.    

The presence of three recognizable movie and TV actors (Shannon has developed a following for his role as the federal agent on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) is drawing non-traditional ticket buyers to Grace.  And they greeted their idols with enthusiastic entrance applause at the performance my husband K and I saw

But I don’t think that Grace will convert many of them into regular theatergoers. Certainly not the frat boy sitting next to me, who threw back his head and laughed uproariously at each small joke (the slogan for Steve’s hotel chain is “Where would Jesus sleep?”) but spent most of the show’s 100 minutes squirming in his seat.

Grace is unlikely to convert any religious atheists or agnostics either.  Its theological message is too fuzzy for that.  But, if you worship good acting, then you probably won’t want to miss Shannon’s performance because it will make a believer out of you.

October 10, 2012

"Ten Chimneys" Doesn't Give Off Enough Heat

In some ways, the Theatre at St. Clement’s, a haven for so many theatrical endeavors over the years, is the perfect place for Ten Chimneys, a play about the legendary actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne that The Peccadillo Theater Company is presenting there through Oct. 27.

But in other ways, the old church, which opened its doors in 1920 and has no elevators, isn’t a good place for this show at all. Because judging by all the people leaning on canes at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended, the audience most likely to be drawn to this show is barely younger than the building itself. 

Somehow, however, everyone seemed to make it up the staircase to the theater and I suspect that most of them had a good time once they got seated. For playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has put together an amusing, if slight, tribute to a storied era in the theater. Dan Wackerman has directed it with obvious affection. And the real-life husband-and-wife actors Bryon Jennings and Carolyn McCormick are delightful as the Lunts.

The problem is that I’m not sure who besides my aged audience mates and a few slightly younger theater fanatics like me will want to see this show. In their heyday, the Lunts were among the most famous stage actors in the country. But despite having a theater named for them, they’re far less familiar to today’s theatergoers.

Even the Playbill acknowledges that. After the standard bios of the cast and production team, it includes little cheat-sheet biographies of Lunt and Fontanne and of Sydney Greenstreet and Uta Hagen, who also turn up as characters in Ten Chimneys.

The title is taken from the name of the home in Wisconsin where the Lunts spent their summer vacations.  It’s also the setting of the play, which begins in 1937 when the actors were preparing a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Hagen, just 18, was cast to play the ingénue Nina.

The story has often been told of how Hagen, who went on to many great roles including Paul Robeson’s Desdemona in Othello and the original Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, missed an entrance during the run. Lunt, left onstage waiting, was so infuriated that when Hagen did appear he took revenge during a stage kiss by biting her lip until it bled.

Afterward, Fontanne added insult to the injury by calling Hagen an amateur in front of the entire company.  In later years when she became a legendary acting teacher, Hagen would tell the story herself, using it as a cautionary tale for her students, one of whom was my buddy Bill.

Ironically the notorious incident never makes it onstage in Ten Chimneys.  Instead, Hatcher focuses on the less-fascinating, at least as he presents it, domestic lives of his characters: Fontanne’s squabbles with her overbearing mother-in-law, Greenstreet’s guilt towards his manic-depressive wife, Lunt’s uneasiness with his bisexuality and Hagen’s feelings of obligation towards her émigré parents. 

I’m a sucker for backstage stories, no matter how dated or inconsequential, and Hatcher peppers his play with enough tidbits about theatrical life, plus a few good bon mots, that I was satisfyingly amused. I even got a kick out of watching the stagehands shove around the elaborate but endearingly old-fashioned set during the intermission.

Still, Ten Chimneys has too much in common with The Grand Manner, A.R. Gurney’s memory play about the Lunts’ contemporary Katharine Cornell (click here to read my review of that). Neither tells a compelling enough story. If you don’t already care about these stars of yesteryear when you walk into the theater, you’re unlikely to care about them by the time you walk out.

October 6, 2012

"AdA: Author directing Author" Rates an A

It’s not often that I’m haunted by a piece of theater but AdA: Author directing Author, a pair of one-act plays that opened at La MaMa this week, won’t let me go. The funny thing is that I had no idea what the plays were about when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I left the theater.  And yet, even so, they gnawed at me.

Over glasses of Cotes du Rhone at Calliope, the nearby French bistro that just got a rave in the Times, Bill and I tried to figure out what we’d just seen. Then, right before the waiter brought our dinners—rabbit pappardelle for Bill, roast chicken for me—Bill had an epiphany.

Once he shared it, everything we’d seen fell into place and we both marveled at the ingenuity that went into it all. For as it turns out, AdA is one of the most emotionally audacious ruminations on loneliness that I’ve seen in a long time.

Now I’m in a quandary because I don’t want to say so much that I ruin the thrill of discovering its secrets for you.  But here’s what I can tell you. The plays are by the young Italian playwright Marco Calvani and the prolific American playwright Neil LaBute, who share a fascination with the psychodynamics of power in relationships. 

The two met a few years ago, bonded and decided they wanted to collaborate on a project.  Last summer, working together at La MaMa’s artist retreat in the Italian countryside of Umbria, they came up with AdA

The two plays share no common characters or plot lines but they are symbiotically linked to one another. One might work without the other but the potency of each is intensified when you see them together.

Calvani’s Things of This World comes first in the evening and stars the great Estelle Parsons as an older woman and Craig Bierko as a younger man who appears, at first, to be her butler. The pleasure of the piece comes in the artful peeling back of the layers that conceal the young man’s true identity, and that of another man sitting silently in a chair in the woman’s living room.  

The gender roles are reversed in LaBute’s Lovely Head.  Here the older person is a man, played by the accomplished veteran actor Larry Pine. He has purchased the services of a young call girl, played by newcomer Gia Crovatin. Their cat-and-mouse game is intentionally more explicit than the earlier piece but holds surprises of its own.

All four actors are superb but it’s the women who are the true knockouts.  Parsons, who turns 85 next month, not only looks fabulous but has memorized a shitload of dialog and delivers a performance that is simultaneously buoyant and poignant. 

Crovatin, who has the coltish beauty of a high-fashion model, brings a tense energy to her portrayal of a hooker who refuses to have a heart of gold and keeps everything around her perfectly off balance.

Some of the credit has to be saved for the directors. As the title suggests, LaBute directs the play Calvani wrote and Calvani does the honors for LaBute’s. Each incorporates just enough clues into his staging without ruining the mysteries of the other’s work.

They’ve also recruited a stellar design team, whose members have created a spare but elegant production in which each small prop, lighting cue and sound effect plays a significant role. I thought that set designer Neil Patel had made a big mistake with the magazines he selected for Parsons’ character to read until I later surmised the subtly telling reason he’d chosen them. 

Not all of the mysteries are cleared up but I suspect the memory of these engagingly enigmatic plays, which are running only through Oct. 14, will linger with me for a longtime to come.

October 3, 2012

Endorsing the Message of "My America": 50 Online Monologs On The State of the Nation

Even if you’ve been in a coma for the past month, the news certainly must have gotten to you by now that the first of the debates between President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney will be held tonight.  A record-breaking number of people are expected to watch.

But regardless of whether or not you intend to watch tonight’s faceoff, I’ve found what may be an even better way for us theater lovers to satisfy our patriotic urges: it’s My America, an online series of 50 mini monologues about the state of the nation written by an impressive lineup of playwrights that includes Christopher Durang, Danny Hoch, Rajiv Joseph, Neil LaBute,  Lynn Nottage and this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama Quiara Alegría Hudes.

All of the playwrights were asked to write a response to the questions “What is my America? Where is my America?” Their answers run between three and 15 minutes in length and touch on such hot-button topics as immigration, gay marriage, health care, income inequality, education reform, race relations, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the definitions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Each is performed by a kickass stage actor like L. Scott Caldwell, Bobby Cannavale, Kathleen Chalfant, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Jefferson Mays. The ones I’ve seen so far are all totally cool.  Some are LOL funny, others defiantly provocative and a few downright touching. Together they form a vibrant portrait of America at this moment in time. one of best stage actors in the business, people

Ironically, the whole project is the brainchild of a Brit. The British actor, director and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah came up with the idea as a way to get to know more about this country when he took over as artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage theater company a year ago. He also smartly figured out that it would be a great way to grab some attention for the company’s current 50th anniversary season during this election year. 

So Kwei-Armah and his staff drew up a wish list of playwrights. They wanted it to be diverse ethnically and geographically, by age and gender and by political beliefs. The latter proved the greatest challenge. 

“This is theater in America and there’s a leftward tilt to that,” says  Susanna Gellert, the artistic producer of the project. “But we did want to figure out how to get some balance.” She was particularly disappointed that the conservative playwrights David Mamet and Jeremy Kareken declined the invitation to participate. [Correction:  Karaken did participate in the project;  sorry for the error]

Another disappointment came when, Gellert says, Edward Albee begged off because he was in rehearsals with Signature Theatre’s revival of The Lady from Dubuque earlier this year. But, she told me in a phone interview, nearly everyone else asked said yes. LaBute was so excited about the project that he's actually contributed two pieces.

Kwei-Armah and Gellert brought filmmaker Hal Hartley onboard to record the monologs and he spent about a week in New York and a day in L.A. filming the performances in various theater rehearsal rooms. 

The first 10 were released online last Friday and seven more came out yesterday.  A new group will be released each Tuesday through Election Day. You can check them all out by clicking here.