November 28, 2012

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is Still Great

Just about everyone who has seen it is saying that the new revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not to be missed.  And they’re right.

This latest version of Edward Albee’s masterwork opened at the Booth Theatre  on Oct. 13, 50 years to the day that the original opened at the old Billy Rose Theater (now the Nederlander and home to Newsies). But there is nothing dated about Albee’s gimlet-eyed look at the desperate games unhappy people can play to keep themselves going.

Albee had been a success in the downtown theater scene but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was his Broadway debut. His chronicle of a night in which two college professors and their wives drink oceans of alcohol, flirt with adultery and reveal the secrets that have kept their unhappy marriages together gob smacked the uptown crowd.

The New York Times declared that it “towers over the common run of contemporary plays.” But there were dissenters too.  “If Edward Albee is the white hope of the American theater, then our nation is in need of a strong detergent,” huffed one letter to the paper’s editor.

The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama but the board was apparently as prudish as the letter writer and awarded no prize that year. But the theater community knew what it had been given. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? took home four big Tonys for direction, best actor and best actress for Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen as the battling older couple George and Martha, and, of course, best play.

Four years later, Mike Nichols directed a movie version that starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who won her second Oscar for her performance as the bitterly frustrated Martha. I was in my teens then but my mother took me to see it and while I won’t pretend that I understood everything I was seeing, I do remember being transfixed.

Director Pam McKinnon’s crackerjack production is the third Broadway revival.  The last, in 2005, which starred Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin was so good that my husband K decided not to see this one because he didn’t want to taint the memory of such a great evening in the theater.

But this new production drew raves when it opened at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2010 and later when it moved to Washington. So I decided to risk it and I had little trouble persuading my theatergoing buddy Bill to see it with me.  

And we were so glad we went. The play runs 3 hours and 15 minutes with two intermissions but the time flew by.

That’s in part because Albee’s play is often throw-you-head-back-and- laugh funny. But it’s also because McKinnon and her outstanding cast found new ways to unleash its devastating pain as well. 

Amy Morton, best known as the oldest daughter in August: Osage County, makes Martha less of a gorgon than others have.  Bill said he missed that harpyish streak in the character but Morton’s human-sized Martha seemed more like the college president’s daughter that Martha is—and more vulnerable. This Martha touched me in a way that others—even very good ones like Turner’s—didn’t.  (Click here to read an interview with Morton.)

Tracy Letts, who wrote August: Osage Country confirms how theatrically ambidextrous he is because, while, just as you'd expect one playwright to treat the work of another, he is totally faithful to the text, he's also managed to subtlety reimagine George. 

The wounds that Letts' George has suffered over the years throb right beneath the surface but over them he has grown a blister that numbs the pain just enough so that he's able to push ruthlessly ahead.  (Click here to read an interview with Letts.)

I also have to give a shout-out to Carrie Coon, who plays Honey, the puerile wife in the younger couple, and who may be the best onstage drunk I’ve ever seen. But everything about this production—Todd Rosenthal’s set, Nan Dibula-Jenkins’ costumes, Aileen Lee Hughes’ lighting and, of course, McKinnon's deft direction—works, the pieces adding up to a magnificent whole. 

There was silence for the first few seconds after the performance that Bill and I saw ended as those of us in the audience (dotted with celebrities including Stephen Sondheim and the movie actor Bradley Cooper, as I said, everyone who loves theater is trying to see this) pulled ourselves together and then erupted into applause, including opera-house bravos. 

After the show, Bill and I walked through Shubert Alley for a late dinner at Sardi’s.  As we were leaving the restaurant, I spotted my old friend the veteran publicist Irene Gandy having dinner with McKinnon.  I went over and when Irene introduced me, I put my palms together in a gesture of thanks and bowed. “I’ve been hungry for a nourishing evening in the theater,” I told McKinnon.  “Thank you so much for giving it to me.” 

And now here's what I want to tell you: go see it and be fulfilled too.

November 21, 2012

Why "The Performers" Should Have Been Able to Perform At Least A Little Bit Longer

I’ve had a soft spot for the porn industry ever since a blind date turned out to be a cameraman in the business and took me to the party of a producer he worked with. I was reminded of that kinky evening (details supplied to close friends upon request) a few years later when I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s terrific 1997 movie “Boogie Nights.”  

 And now, although I don’t usually write about shows that have already closed, I can’t keep myself from chiming in on The Performers, the porn-world comedy that opened last Thursday night and closed on Sunday after just 22 previews and five performances. 

It may have been a premature evacuation (sorry; I'm really going to try to make that be the last of the sex puns in this post). There have been far worse shows that got—and are getting—longer runs.  

 And while this one was silly and sitcomy and riddled with gratuitous profanity and clichés galore, it was also, at moments, surprisingly sweet and LOL funny. Plus it opened with the super-hunky Cheyenne Jackson in a loincloth.  Now how bad could that be?

The audience at the performance I saw—a true bridge-and-tunnel Saturday matinee crowd—absolutely loved the show.  And I suspect they would have told their friends and neighbors to see it if the producers, who seem to have had a capitalization only slightly larger than my checking account, hadn’t pulled the plug so quickly.

What’s truly a shame is that The Performers had some terrific performances. But first let me tell you what it's about. The whole thing takes place in a Las Vegas hotel that is hosting a porn industry awards ceremony in which Jackson’s character Mandrew is up for a major prize that he’s desperate to win. 

Mandrew's chief competitor is the veteran star Chuck Wood, played by a game, if slightly stiff (give me a break, it’s hard to avoid the puns) Henry Winkler, who will be forever known as The Fonz from the hit ‘70s sitcom “Happy Days.” 

Also competing for awards are Mandrew’s wife Peeps (Ari Graynor) and her big-busted frenemy Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber). On hand to chronicle the doings is Mandrew’s old high school pal Lee, a reporter for the New York Post, played in classic straight-man style by Daniel Breaker, and Lee’s fiancée Sara, an appropriately wide-eyed Alicia Silverstone.

These are all good actors and they knew that the material was gossamer thin but they also knew that the play wasn’t aiming to resolve the problems of the world and so under the zippy direction of Evan Cabnet, they jumped right into the spirit of the thing. 

There was no pretentious irony or conspicuous winking to signal that they were better than the show. Instead, the cast just embraced the silliness and, in the process, found some humanity in their cartoonish characters. 

That’s particularly true of Jackson and Graynor, both hysterical as the Brad and Angelina of their porno universe and endearing as a couple trying to make their marriage work.

Most critics paid props to Jackson and Graynor but they seemed almost offended by the show itself. It averaged a C on StageGrade, where an overenthusiastic A from Entertainment Weekly was overwhelmed by five Fs (click here to read them all). 

The naysayers weren’t turned off by the subject matter or because they thought the show was salacious (which it actually wasn’t—the loincloth was as risqué as it got) but, I think, because they were so disappointed that this show had been written by the promising young playwright David West Read (click here to read a Q&A with him).

The 29-year-old Read’s first produced play, The Dream of the Burning Boy, was a hit with critics and audiences when it played in the Roundabout Theater’s Underground series for emerging playwrights a few seasons ago. But that play was a wry coming-of-age tale.  The Performers was a silly just-for-kicks farce. There ought to be room for both.

November 17, 2012

"Checkers" Is a Monochromatic View of Nixon

Love him or hate him, Richard Nixon was rarely boring.  But, alas, he is in Checkers, the new play about the nation’s controversial 37th president that is currently playing at the Vineyard Theatre.

Nixon, of course, is no stranger to the stage. He is the subject of John Adams' 1987 opera Nixon in China, which was inspired by his triumphant diplomatic journey there; and of Frost/Nixon, the 2006 Peter Morgan play about his attempt at redemption after the Watergate scandal.

Now, Checkers focuses on two other turning points in Nixon’s life. It opens in 1966 when, having lost his bids for both the presidency and the governorship of California, he has moved to Manhattan, become a partner in a white-shoe law firm and promised his wife Pat that he'll never run for public office again.

But most of the action takes place in a long flashback to 1952 when a financial scandal threatened to get Nixon thrown out of the No. 2 spot on the Republican ticket. He famously threw himself on the mercy of the public with a televised speech in which a reference to his daughters’ dog Checkers helped saved his political career and gave this play its name.

That’s a lot of exposition and playwright Douglas McGrath isn’t much better at presenting it than the previous two paragraphs just did. An accomplished screenwriter (he co-authored “Bullets Over Broadway” with Woody Allen) McGrath hasn’t written a bad play (click here to read an interview with him). He just hasn’t written an involving one.

Checkers fails to build up any suspense about what will happen or to provide any fresh insights into Nixon. That’s a tall order, considering that we know the outcomes in both ’52 and ‘66 and that Nixon’s life has been analyzed endlessly over the last 60 years.

Still, Morgan managed to pull it off in Frost/Nixon. That was, in part, because of a brilliant performance by Frank Langella (click here to read my review).  Anthony LaPaglia is no acting slouch either but he isn’t as comfortable in Nixon's skin.  

 LaPaglia’s got the outer stuff—Nixon’s trademark hunched shoulders, shifty eyes and growly voice—but he hasn’t figure out a way to tap into the soul of this enigmatic man.  

Kathryn Erbe comes off better as Nixon’s wife Pat. There’s a poignancy to her performance as a very private woman forced into the most public kind of life that belies the nickname Plastic Pat that the real-life woman was callously given.  

Best of all—and clearly having the most fun—is the veteran scene-stealer Lewis J. Stadlen as Nixon’s old cigar-chomping and wisecracking campaign manager Murray Chotiner. The play livens up whenever Stadlen is onstage.

The rest of it falls flat.  Some of the fault for that must be borne by director Terry Kinney, whose imaginative ideas about what to do with the show seem to have ended with the decision to hire Darrel Maloney to do a series of clever video projections that play between scene changes. 

 McGrath and Kinney devote a large part of the play to recreating the Checkers speech and LaPaglia does a good job with it, even stumbling over the very same word (integrity) that Nixon did in the original.  But you can learn a lot more about the man just by watching a video of the real-life version, which you can do by clicking here.

November 10, 2012

Turning on the Ghost Light

There will be, alas, no post day, and maybe not again until next Saturday.  And here's why: in addition to the usual madness that always descends at this time of year—the sprint towards the end of the school semester, the deluge of late fall theater openings, preparations for our family Thanksgiving dinner and celebrating my husband K’s birthday weekend—I’m also crashing a major freelance project.  So, I'm putting up the ghost light that theaters turn on when they're temporarily empty.  I’ll try to get back to posting as soon as I can and I hope you’ll return then too.

November 7, 2012

Guest blogger Bill Sights "The Whale"

From Jan: Samuel D. Hunter knew that he was going to alienate some people by making a 600-pound man the central character in his new play The Whale.  As he told the online theater magazine TDF Stages,  “I wanted to set it up where the audience was keeping this character at arm’s length at first, and then gradually shrink that distance.” The problem is that the distance never shrank for me.  I just couldn't get past my discomfort with the character’s size.  That surprised me because I'm not usually a looksist and, God knows, I could stand to lose a few pounds myself.  But my visceral unease also made me realize that it wouldn't be fair for me to write about the play. Luckily I saw it with my theatergoing buddy Bill, who has agreed to share his less prejudiced view of the show with you:

I thought I knew what to expect from The Whale. In one major sense, I was right.  In most others, I was wrong—which, as this longish (one hour fifty minutes  when I saw it two weeks ago) one-act play unfolded, was what fascinated me.  Playwrights Horizons bills Samuel Hunter’s new play (first produced in Denver  and upcoming at Chicago’s Victory Gardens and California’s South Coast Rep) as  being about “a six-hundred pound recluse [who] hides away in his apartment  eating himself to death.” And yep, that’s what it’s about. 

PH also describes it, with what I took to be the usual hype, as “big-hearted and fiercely funny.” Yep again, that’s what I found it to beas well as eccentric and, ultimately and  unexpectedly, moving. In retrospect, I’ve come to think of The Whale as part of a trilogy of like-minded plays that I’ve very much enjoyed over the past six  months or so, each of which smartly, touchingly and with good will and great good humor focuses on a particular out-of-the-mainstream central character.   

 The other two plays in my make-believe trilogy are Nina Raine’s Tribes, whose central figure is a youngish deaf man, and Simon Stephens' The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose hero is a 15-year-old savant who attends a school for  special-needs youngsters and who appears to have Asperger’s Syndrome, though that phrase is never mentioned (to my recollection). Tribes has been playing in  Greenwich Village since March 4th and continues through January 6th. The Curious  Incident..., which just closed at London’s National Theater but is scheduled to  move to the West End in March, was screened worldwide recently as part of the National’s bargain-price, wonderful “live” commercial-movie-theater  program (for which I’ve become a shameless shill). I saw both of these plays  twice and liked each even more the second time.     

The playwrights of all three plays clearly want their audiences to regard their leading characters not with mere sympathy but rather to appreciate our commonality with them. Mr. Hunter, however, is aware that his grossly overweight Charlie, the titular Whale, presents an audience with particular challenges, as he explains in an audio interview that you can listen to here.

When I hear the word whale, I make three literary associations. The first is just a joke, from the musical Wonderful Town. Awkwardly trying to make party  conversation, one character says she’s been re-reading "Moby-Dick." Silence. “It’s  about this whale,” she continues, to no good effect. Well, Hunter’s The Whale also turns out to be partly about "Moby-Dick." And about the biblical Jonah, too  (he of the whale misadventure), in ways that become more and more clear as the  play progresses, though there are early references to each, both verbally and even visually, the latter in a subtle way that audiences should be allowed the pleasure of discovering on their own.        

Till now, I’d seen Shuler Hensley onstage only in musicals, but my gosh he’s an  accomplished “straight” actor. Wearing a huge “fat suit,” he makes Charlie into an appealing figureno small feat in playing a gay man so morbidly obese and slovenly that he chooses to make his living online, tutoring  young, mediocre students in the craft of essay writing, unseen by them and vice versa.    

Quite accomplished too are the other four members of The Whale’s small cast, playing the roles of Charlie’s estranged, hateful and hate-filled teenage  daughter (Reyna de Courcy, all angles and bile); his ex-wife (Tasha Lawrence, brusque but surprisingly sympathetic); Charlie’s best, perhaps only, friend and de facto caregiver (Cassie Beck, warmly direct); and a Mormon missionary (Cory Michael Smith, late of the needlessly salaciously titled Cock and quite nicely different here). 

As The Whale slowly unfolds, the latter two characters are revealed to have unexpected relationships to Charlieunexpected but dramatically credible.     

It’s that slow unfolding, though, that was for me the singular failing of this otherwise greatly satisfying play. Unlike Tribes and Dog in the Night-Time, which barrel along, The Whale takes its sweet time, a drawback in a play that sets up very little conflict among its characters to begin with. And when the  play finally yields its secrets, and its allusions to "Moby-Dick" and to the Jonah story are fully revealed, the revelations are a tad too cryptically brief to be  thoroughly absorbed and fulfilling. I could have used a little less “middle” and  little more “ending.”       

But along the way (as an essay by one of Charlie’s online tutees might have put  it), the time that I spent with Hunter’s characters gave me enormous pleasure  (pun intended). Individually they might seem to be potential clichés. But with empathy and expertise, Hunter has woven them into a rich, luminous tapestry.       


November 3, 2012

This "Cyrano de Bergerac" Doesn't Cut It

Nerds—even the homeliest ones—rule in today’s pop culture. They’re the stars of hit movies and TV shows. In real life, many are rich and envied. And the prettiest girls don’t even blink at hooking up with them. So maybe an old-fashioned romance like Cyrano de Bergerac in which the funny-looking guy ends up the loser has just outlived its time.

At least that’s what I found myself thinking as I watched the Roundabout Theatre Company’s pleasant but pallid revival of the play that is running at the American Airlines Theatre through Nov. 25.

The French poet and playwright Edmond Rostand wrote this paean to unrequited love in 1897. It played Broadway the very next year and there have been at least 15 major productions in the city since then—and that number doesn’t take into account the musical adaptations, including one composed by Victor Herbert.  

But Cyrano's popularity has been waning in recent years. The last time I saw it was back in 2007 when Kevin Kline played the title character who loves the beautiful Roxane but, believing that his big nose makes him too ugly to win her heart, helps a handsomer man woo her. 

Jennifer Garner, best known as the butt-kicking spy on the old ABC series "Alias", brought her fame and a contemporary approach to Roxane, playing her as a sword-wielding feminist. 

That production lasted just 56 performances. (Click here to read my review).

Now the British actor Douglas Hodge, who won a Tony for his portrayal of the cross-dressing Albin in the 2010 revival of La Cage Aux Folles, has climbed into the britches of a 17th century grenadier and donned Cyrano’s trademark feather-plumed hat. His Roxane is the French actress Clémence Poésy who is making her Broadway debut.

Call me heartless but I didn’t care what happened to either of them.   

Cyrano is supposed to have a swashbuckling swagger, which Hodge simply doesn’t have.  Hodge is a solid actor and he handles the play’s rhyming couplets and its low-humor moments well but his Cyrano is too meek and often gets lost in the crowd of soldiers onstage instead of commanding attention from them and from us theatergoers.

The only thing that really sets him apart is the ridiculously huge and fake-looking nose that’s been concocted for Hodge to wear.  Cyrano’s nose is obviously supposed to stand out but this snout is so outsized that seeing over it almost forces Hodge to cross his eyes.

Poésy’s Roxane seemed wimpy too.  And I’ve so totally forgotten Kyle Soller, who plays Christian, the dumb but good-looking guy who gets to get it on with Roxane, that I don’t even remember what he looks like.

Meanwhile, Jamie Lloyd’s direction is far too busy and messy (click here to read an interview with the director and his star).  Sure, it’s good for the members of the ensemble to play individual characters but Lloyd, a young Brit who spent the past three years as associate director at London’s Donmar Warehouse, should have found a way to rein in all the mugging.

But there is one saving grace: the performance by Patrick Page as Comte de Guiche, the vain nobleman who is also in love with Roxane (click here to read an interview in which the actor talks about his thoughts on love).  

The count is supposed to be the villain of the piece but Page has a plummy baritone voice and a winning stage presence. He’s not exactly a nerd but in the real world, Roxane would just ride off with him. Or at least that’s what I wanted to do.