December 28, 2013

Not the 10 Best, Just 10 I Really Liked in 2013

Who’s to say what were the best shows of 2013?  Even the august New York Times critics can’t agree on that; only two shows (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Twelfth Night) appeared on both their 10 Bests lists.  (Click here to check out a compilation of the lists from all the top critics.)

So my list this year isn’t going to try to determine which shows were the best, instead it’s just going to focus on the 10 shows I enjoyed the most—the ones that made me laugh out loud, tear up, sigh in wonder or that still linger in my mind no matter how long ago I saw them. And I’m going to share the moments that made me fall in love with each of them.
BAD JEWS.  Much praise—and deservedly so—has gone to the talented actress Tracee Chimo for her take-no-prisoners  performance as a young woman who is battling her cousins for a keepsake that helped their adored grandfather survive the horrors of the Holocaust. But underneath her performance and the appreciative laughs it engenders, is a serious meditation on how we define ourselves and how we should honor the memories of those who helped to shape us. 
The moment:  I had a good time but it was the revelation of how far the quietest of the three cousins would go to venerate their grandfather that clinched the play’s place on this list and makes it a show worth seeing regardless of who is in the cast.
You can read my original review by clicking here.

BUYER & CELLAR. The playwright Jonathan Tolins and the actor Michael Urie combined their considerable talents to turn this one-man reverie about a down-on-his-luck actor who gets a job tending the shops that the real-life Barbra Streisand has created in the basement of one of her homes into one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had in the theater in years.
The moment: Urie, who plays all the parts, doesn’t impersonate Streisand so much as channel her and he’s at his most affecting when she confesses her insecurities with such poignancy that I actually ached for the woman within the superstar.
You can read my original review by clicking here.

THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE. Playwrights Horizons has offered a slate of smart and innovatively told plays this year. Most critics have favored Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, in which “The Simpsons” sitcom becomes a talismanic text after the apocalypse.  But I prefer this time-shifting piece that links three stories about relationships involving men named Watson—Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick and a contemporary IT guy—because it deals so honestly with the tension between desire and dependence.
The moment: The IT guy’s attempt to hold on to the woman he loves was the most naked demonstration of unconditional love I’ve seen onstage since Donna Murphy's Fosca declared hers for Giorgio in the original production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion.   
You can read my original review by clicking here.   

THE EXPLORERS CLUB. Nell Benjamin’s giddy comedy about the eccentric members of a Victorian-era men’s club and the intrepid woman who wants to join their ranks had nothing more on its mind than good old-fashioned fun and it provided oodles of it for both the actors onstage and the theatergoers in the audience.
The moment:  I’m still giggling about the slapstick choreography in the cocktail hour scene in which drinks were literally flung through the air—and caught without spilling the liquid contents. 
You can read my original review here.

HERE LIES LOVE: Everything about David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s musical biography of Imelda Marcos worked for me. The songs were catchy. The actors were committed.  The story was well told. But best of all was Alex Timbers’ staging, which had the audience on its feet the whole time and moving around in a space outfitted as one of the discos Marcos loved to frequent during her heyday as the First Lady of the Philippines.
The moment: I usually hate audience participation and so I knew this show was something special when I found myself not only dancing but cheering as we audience members were encouraged to play a variety of roles, including the street mobs that supported Marcos and her husband Ferdinand. 
You can read my original review by clicking here.

JULIUS CAESAR. This nod goes to both the Royal Shakespeare Company’s all-black production set in a modern-day African nation that played at BAM’s Harvey Theater and the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female version set in a women’s prison, both of which brought new dynamism to Shakespeare’s political tragedy about friendship, honor and power.  
The moments: When the drums began to beat and a befeathered soothsayer chanted the warning to beware the Ides of March, the RSC production became so viscerally alive that I could hardly wait to see what the high-estrogen version would do with the play. And when Frances Barber’s butch Caesar swaggered onto the stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse and greeted Cush Jumbo’s Mark Antony with an anything-goes kiss, I knew I was in for another great night.
You can read my original reviews by clicking here and here

MY NAME IS ASHER LEV. I’m as surprised as you might be to find this one on my list.  For starters, it opened in November 2012 but I didn’t see it until February of this year and so here it is even though it didn’t make the cut on the lists of the major critics for either 2012 or 2013.  But Aaron Posner’s adaptation of the Chaim Potok novel about an Orthodox Jewish boy who breaks from his family’s tradition to fulfill his destiny as an artist touched me deeply.
The moment: The acting was superb but what still lingers in my mind were the way James F. Ingalls’ lighting subtly reflected the transcendence of an artist coming to terms with his own creative power.
You can read my original review by clicking here.

TALLEY'S FOLLY.  Lanford Wilson’s two-hander about the coming together of a middle-aged Jewish accountant and a Protestant spinster won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 but it won my heart with this revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company. 
The moment:  Actually, I fell for it as soon as Danny Burstein walked onstage at the beginning of the play and confided his plan to woo the reluctant object of his desire. The language was simple but eloquent, the acting natural and yet elegant, both reminders that great theater doesn’t always need razzle to dazzle.
You can read my original review by clicking here.

TWELFTH NIGHT. This is the one production that seems to have made it onto everyone’s list. And I'm joining the chorus of praise because it is great fun to see Shakespeare’s beloved comedy performed as it would have been done in his day with men playing the female parts and the stage illuminated by candlelight.  Plus there’s a fabulous pre-show in which the actors come out early to dress and put on their makeup right in front of the audience. 
The moment:  Watching Mark Rylance garb himself in not only the large hooped skirts but the small fluttery mannerisms of the noblewoman Olivia won me over instantly.
I haven’t yet reviewed this one but plan to talk about both it and Richard III, with which it is being performed in repertory.

WAITING FOR GODOT: What could any theater lover want more than to see two of the world’s most acclaimed classic actors in one of the world’s most revered classic plays?  Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are pitch perfect as Samuel Beckett’s existential vagabonds and it’s a privilege to be able to see them. 
The moment: Their first exchange has all the humor and pathos that the parts demand and signals that the you can just sit back and enjoy because there are masters at work.
I haven’t reviewed this one either but keep an eye out for my post about it and its repertory partner Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land.

December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!


May your holidays sparkle with peace, love, happiness —and, of course, the great pleasure of live theater. 

December 21, 2013

How I Unexpectedly Got Slayed by "A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder"

If you’re still looking for a show that will appeal to the entire family—antsy tots, sulky teens, grumpy grandparents and weary everyone else—I have just the thing for you:  A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, the surprisingly delightful musical that’s playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

I say surprising because I wasn’t so sure I was going to like this show. Its poster of a frock-coated gent wearing a top hat and a monocle made me think of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I’d just seen last season and although I’d enjoyed it (click here to read my review) I didn’t feel the need to see another Gilbert and Sullivan-era whodunit.

Of course there’s no mystery about who the culprit is in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder since it’s based on the 1949 British movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets” in which a poor relative systematically murders eight members of an aristocratic family (all eight—the men and the women—played by Alec Guinness) who callously disinherited his mother and now stand between him, a noble title and its accompanying great fortune.  

That movie is a cult classic and an old boyfriend once tried to make me watch it when it came on TV but, as I recall, I fell asleep. And I wasn’t any more excited by the creative team behind the new musical version. 

The book is by Robert L. Freedman and  the score is by Freedman and Steven Lutvak, neither of whom I’d ever heard of.  And the show is directed by Darko Tresnjak and choreographed by Peggy Hickey, both of whom are also new to me, although I’ve since learned that Tresnjak is the artistic director of Hartford Stage, where this show originated.
The one thing that did pique my interest is that I knew the marvelous actor Jefferson Mays would be playing all the murder victims. Having seen I Am My Own Wife, the one-person show in which he played nearly three dozen characters, I knew how versatile and entertaining Mays can be (click here for a cheat sheet on all the murder victims he plays in this musical).  

So the biggest surprise for me was discovering that Mays, as deliciously good as he is, wasn’t my favorite thing about the show or even my second or third favorite in what turns out to be a totally charming confection that whips together low-brow slapstick (for the tots and the teens) high-brow wit (for the grown-ups) and a dollop or two of sex farce (to spark some interest in the weary). 
The music is just a pastiche of music hall tunes but the lyrics are clever and the singers, particularly the women—Lisa O’Hare and Lauren Worsham—who play the larcenous main character’s two love interests have voices to die for.  

Freedman's book and the staging by Tresnjak come up with hilarious ways to dispatch each of the thoroughly despicable relatives.  And the design team is just as adept. 
Alexander Dodge has created a proscenium-within-a-proscenium set that looks as though it comes right off a vintage Christmas card. Meanwhile, costume designer Linda Cho is equally skillful at designing gorgeous and intricately detailed gowns for the women and laugh-out-loud funny costumes for Mays, including my favorite, a bodysuit with bulging biceps for the most ostentatiously macho of the doomed cousins. 

And special kudos for the dressers who get Mays out of and into costumes so fast (12 changes in the first act, according to AP) that the characters he plays—from a bosomy matron to a beaver-toothed parson—almost seem to be appearing onstage together (click here to read about how they do it).
But best of all is Bryce Pinkham who plays the murderous title gentleman (click here for a profile of him). The audience needs to root for the guy who is murdering almost everyone in sight for this show to work and Pinkham—who sings well and looks dreamy—is totally winning, particularly in a terrific second-act number that almost stopped the show at the performance my husband K and I saw.

When you add it all up, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder may not be a great show but it is great fun.  And who doesn’t need a little of that during the holidays?

December 18, 2013

A Theater Lovers' Guide to the Unhappy Families in "Betrayal," "Domesticated" and "The Commons of Pensacola"

It’s the holiday season so you probably don’t need any more family drama but there are three high profile (and star-studded) shows about familial relationships that I hadn’t gotten around to talking about and thought I'd mention now because seeing any one of them could make you feel a lot more grateful for your own crazy relatives.

BETRAYAL: This revival of Harold Pinter’s wry exploration of marital infidelity is such a big hit that you probably won’t be able to get a ticket before the run ends at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Jan. 5. That’s totally because it stars real-life celebrity spouses Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz and is directed by the much-revered Mike Nichols. Their version of this dark comedy which famously tracks a years-long affair from its end to its start, hits heavy on the humor, particularly in the intentionally goofy performance of Rafe Spall, who plays the wife’s lover and the husband’s best friend. The approach seems to have worked for a lot of folks; the production has scored an A- on StageGrade, the website that averages the reviews of the leading critics. But treating Betrayal as a sex farce didn’t work for me. Although Craig’s performance as the cuckolded husband totally did (click here to read Maureen Dowd’s interview with him).  Craig is, of course, now best known as James Bond but he earned his bones on the stage (including as the closeted Mormon attorney Joe Pitt in the inaugural production of Angels in America) and even through the din of this overly busy production, he manages to convey the simmering ruefulness of a man who may be able to forgive but who can never forget.  

THE COMMONS OF PENSACOLA:  The tragic saga of the investment swindler Bernie Madoff and his family is probably going to supply fodder for writers for generations to come (click here to read about how some of his victims are surviving five years after he bilked them out of their life's savings).  At least a dozen books have already come out, Woody Allen tackled the tale in last summer's movie “Blue Jasmine” and this fall, I saw the Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Lee Blessing’s A User’s Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff (click here for my review of that one).  Now, the actress Amanda Peet has taken on the story in her promising first play. Her main characters are a former society wife reduced to living in a modest Florida condo after her conman husband is sent to prison, and their grown daughter, a failed actress, who has come to visit her mother for the holidays. They are played by the high-wattage team of Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker and directed by Lynne Meadow in a potent production at Manhattan Theatre Club that ends on Jan. 26.  Peet’s dialog is snappy and entertaining (click here to read an interview with her) and it’s always a pleasure to see Danner on a stage but Parker is the lynchpin here.  Because of her work on the TV comedies “Sex and the City” and “Glee,” it’s sometimes easy to forget what a formidable actress she is.  But her performance as a shattered woman struggling to keep her family (and herself) together is an awards-worthy reminder.

DOMESTICATED:  The family in Bruce Norris' droll comedy, his first play since he won the Pulitzer Prize-for Clybourne Park, will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the news over the last few years: the husband is a high-profile politician who has gotten himself embroiled in a sex scandal; his wife is the woman with the deer-in-the-headlights stare who stands by his side at the press conference while he confesses his sins and begs forgiveness. In this production running at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse theater through Jan. 5, the husband is played by Jeff Goldblum and the wife by Laurie Metcalf.  They’re directed by Anna D. Shapiro, who knows something about dysfunctional families from helming August: Osage County, and supported by a top-notch ensemble of nine actors who play family members, friends and others who try to help the couple through their hard times (click here to read about the making of the production). But the show is performed in the round and where you sit may affect how you feel about it. Goldblum is almost entirely silent during the first act and because he sat with his back to me for most of that time, I missed the expressions on his face and the delight they apparently gave others who could see them (the show got a B+ on StageGrade).  Still, if you like TV’s “The Good Wife,” you may get a kick out of this.

December 14, 2013

"Big Fish" Should Have Made a Bigger Splash

Sometimes a show can have everything going for it and still flop. That’s certainly the case with Big Fish, the big splashy musical written by Andrew Lippa, directed by Susan Stroman and starring a powerhouse cast lead by Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert.  For it's now scheduled to close on Dec. 29 after what will be barely 100 performances.

Like most new musicals nowadays, Big Fish is based on a movie. The 2003 film version of this quirky story about the uneasy relationship between Edward Bloom, a father given to telling tall tales, and his son Will, who just wants an honest connection with his dad, didn’t do well at the box office. But it was a pet project of Tim Burton, the director who is revered enough by the high-art crowd that The Museum of Modern Art did a retrospective on his career, so it carries a kind of cool cachet. 
And although, unlike me, my sister Joanne had liked the film, its true target audience was the guys who cry at father-son movies like “Field of Dreams” (and even the Luke, I'm your father” scene in “The Empire Strikes Back”) and who Broadway is always angling to get into its theater seats. 

Of course, what excited the people who already love musicals were all those talented folks who signed on to make the show. But there may have been signals all along that Big Fish wouldn’t add up to the sum of its much-touted parts.  
As so often happens, much of the blame for the show’s failure has been heaped on its book writer John August, a Broadway newcomer who adapted the 1998 novel of the same name for the movie but wasn’t able to translate the story for the stage (click here to read a piece about his struggle to do it).   

Big Fish spins a complicated tale and because August's book didn't find a way to tell it simply, it probably lost a lot of the audience or bored them with far too much exposition.

But the more experienced stage vets stumbled too. Lippa has been a favorite son among musicals lovers since his version of The Wild Party, the Jazz-Age love-gone-wrong story that played at Manhattan Theatre Club back in 2000 and won both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. Yet the only other Lippa show to make it to New York between that one and this one is The Addams Family, which had a lame score and was only kept alive by the presence of Nathan Lane.   

And except for a ballad or two, the music for Big Fish isn’t much more distinctive. A shaky book and so-so music put a lot of burden on the stagecraft. And Stroman would seem to be the woman for the job.  

Stroman is, of course, the director behind Lane’s biggest success, The Producers.  She’s also a wonderfully imaginative choreographer and so the idea of setting her loose to concoct onstage versions of the wild stories that Edward tells must have seemed inspired. And, at moments, it is. 

Always resourceful, Stroman uses everything from circus techniques to magical sleight of hand to animate the giants, mermaids and other fanciful creatures who populate Edward’s stories. And she's recruited equally creative accomplices.

William Ivey Long’s costumes are, as usual, a delight and are equaled by the whimsical sets by Julian Crouch and video projections by Benjamin Pearcy, all perfectly illuminated by Donald Holder’s lighting.
But after a while, Stroman’s numbers become just one set piece following another, with each straining to top the “look-at-me” quality of the ones that came before it.

The cast members also work hard, using all their skills to flesh out the thinly drawn characters they’ve been given to play. I’m on record as saying that there is nothing that Butz can’t do and he delivers another charismatic performance. I got particular pleasure from watching him dance. If they ever do the Jimmy Cagney story, he should be a shoo-in for the role. 
I’ve usually been cooler towards Baldwin but she’s totally winning as a wife who is fully aware of her husband’s foibles but charmed by them nonetheless. Plus, as usual, Baldwin sings beautifully.  And Steggert, who is another favorite of mine, is also in strong singing voice, even though his spoken dialog gives him little to do but whine.

Their efforts aren't enough to make this show a winner but there’s still a lot to like about Big Fish.  In fact, it would make a great holiday treat for the family to see together and, because it isn’t a hit, you can probably find discount seats.

December 11, 2013

The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence Deserves the Attention of Smart Theatergoers

Whoever is picking the plays for Playwrights Horizons clearly wants the people who see them to come out thinking hard and talking seriously about them. 

So far this season, the company has produced Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (the after-the-apocalypse tale about a world in which “The Simpsons” sitcom is a sacred text that I didn’t initially warm to—click here for my review—but I’m still thinking about three whole months after having seen it) and The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters (a trying-too-hard-to-be-clever black comedy that I disliked so much, I left at intermission).  

Now comes The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, three thematically-linked and interwoven stories about the push and pull of relationships that managed to both challenge and charm me. 

Central to each story is someone named Watson. In one, it is Thomas A. Watson, the assistant to whom Alexander Graham Bell placed the world’s first telephone call. In another, it is Dr. John Watson, the trusty sidekick and Boswell to Sherlock Holmes.  And in the third, it is both a robot cousin to the IBM supercomputer that won the TV game show “Jeopardy!” and a sweet IT guy who bumbles into a romantic triangle.
Similarly, all the women in these three-character tales are named Eliza and all the other males are called Merrick. This could be confusing but sharp direction by Leigh Silverman,  smart costumes by Anita Yavich and a fast-moving team of dressers do a great job of keeping each narrative distinct while still allowing them to combine into a resonant meditation on the roles desire and need play in our quest to connect with one another.   

But of course, major credit must go to playwright Madeleine George, who came up with this period-jumping piece that boasts the same mix of post-modern cheekiness and heart that has made George Saunders' collection of short stories one of the most acclaimed books of this year.  

Madeleine George's exploration of love is so heartfelt that although she's a newlywed, I found myself wondering if she'd written the play to help her move past a bad breakup or a relationship she still regrets. She doesn’t pretend to have answers to the questions her play poses but she clearly delights in pondering them (click here to read an interview with her).
Yet the biggest hand must be saved for the three-member cast of David Costabile, Amanda Quaid, who was so very good in the play Cock and is becoming an actress worth seeking out, and most of all, John Ellison Conlee, who is giving one of the best performances of the entire year.

Now, this is where I say that this isn’t a perfect play.  Cause it's not. It trips over its own feet in places (including with the too cutsie title).  And there’s a coda that saps some of the momentum that has come before it. 

But there’s also an earlier scene in which IT guy Watson declares his love for modern-day Eliza that is going into my pantheon of all-time great romantic scenes alongside Bette Davis and Paul Henreid sharing a cigarette in “Now Voyager,” John Cusack holding up a boom box outside Ione Skye’s room in “Say Anything,” and Fosca’s singing “Loving You” in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion

That scene alone is worth making the effort to see The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence before it closes on Dec. 29. 

December 7, 2013

Hurrahs for Celebrated Moments in the Theater

Last night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to see an NT Live encore presentation of  the 50th anniversary celebration that London's National Theatre threw for itself last month.  And although I hadn't intended to write about it, I can't resist saying a few words because it was such great fun.  

There were video clips of performances by the company’s founder and guiding spirit Laurence Olivier and live appearances by actors who have been company members over the years from Maggie Smith (also utterly delightful in a clip from the 1964 production of Hay Fever, directed by Noel Coward) Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Olivier’s widow Joan Plowright to Adrian Lester, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddelston and Joey, the equestrian puppet from War Horse
I saw some of the later productions—The History Boys (terrific to see the play’s author Alan Bennett ably filling in for the late Richard Griffiths, who died earlier this year) One Man, Two Guvnors; Jerry Springer-The Opera.

And I wish I’d been able to see some of the earlier ones: the company's inaugural production of Hamlet with Peter O’Toole in the title role and Rosemary Harris as Ophelia, David Hare’s The Absence of War and, of course, all of Smith's Hay Fever.  
You can get a peek at several of them (as I did) with the iPad app “50 Years of the National Theatre” that the National released last month (click here for it) or with the wonderfully detailed and illustrated program from the Nov. 1 anniversary celebration (click here for that).  

And if your nostalgia runs more towards domestic theater, the folks at Marriott Hotels have put together a great interactive timeline of some of the best Broadway musicals from 1937’s Pins and Needles to the current day’s Kinky Boots,” (which you can see by clicking here).

December 4, 2013

How "Macbeth" Vanquishes Ethan Hawke

You’ve got to love Ethan Hawke.  Or at least I do.  I can’t think of another actor working today who displays such obvious love for the theater—from his choice of challenging roles in plays ranging from Chekhov to Stoppard to the comradely slaps on the back he gives his fellow actors at curtain calls to his enthusiastic participation in cast parties (my husband K and I spotted him at one at the West Bank Cafe and he wasn’t making one of those obligatory drive-by appearances; in fact, he was just about the last person to leave).

As I said, you gotta love the guy. So it pains me to say this but it’s hard to love Hawke’s interpretation of Macbeth in Lincoln Center Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the overly ambitious nobleman who murders his way to the Scottish throne.  

There has been a rash of Macbeths over the last few years—Patrick Stewart, Alan Cumming and Kenneth Branagh in an acclaimed production due here this summer—and each actor has burrowed into the character’s troubled soul. Hawke, however, isn’t able to breach the surface.  

In fact, the whole production, directed by the usually reliable Jack O’Brien is, as a famous line from the play says, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Just as David Leveaux did with his production of Romeo and Juliet (which is closing this weekend, a month ahead of schedule) O’Brien has filled the stage with dazzling things to look at.

Seemingly real flowers wither and decay in the blink of an eye. Blazing torches, lasers and other fancy lighting by Japhy Weideman create an appropriately eerie mood. 

And the stunning gowns Catherine Zuber has designed for Lady Macbeth are to die for (although her costumes for the men are all over the place—“Game of Thrones” leather for daywear and “Downton Abbey-style” frock coats for evening).

Where the production really falls down is in its performances. Nearly everyone on stage, most egregiously Hawke, races through his or her speeches as though afraid of forgetting the lines. 

Moreover, their voices not only lack projection but, with a few exceptions (Richard Easton’s dignified Duncan, Daniel Sunjata’s macho Macduff [click here for a Q&A with him] and, most especially Bianca Amato as an affecting Lady Macduff) they’re missing resonance and emotion as well.

It may be unfair to make comparisons to the Twelfth Night and Richard III that Mark Rylance has brought to Broadway from London’s Globe theater, but speech after speech in this Macbeth made me wonder if that old canard about American’s being unable to do Shakespeare as well as the Brits might be true. 

Except that Lady Macbeth is played by the celebrated British actress Anne-Marie Duff, who, in her American debut, fares little better. Her sleepwalking scene left most of the audience yawning.

As always, the crowd pleasers are the three witches who predict Macbeth’s fate. O’Brien has cast men—Malcolm Gets, John Glover and Byron Jenningsin the roles and they, particularly Glover, camp it up. 
But, as my sister Joanne said, at least they’re lively (click here to read about them).  Apparently deciding to make full use of the best card he's been dealt, O'Brien has added them to almost every scene. So, after a while, even they wear out their welcome.

Still, there is one area in which Hawke acquits himself well.  Popular with young women, who love his romantic movies “Before Sunrise” and "Before Sunset;” and with guys, who like his turns in horror films like “Sinister” and “The Purge,” he is drawing a young and racially diverse audience to the Vivian Beaumont theater where the production is scheduled to run until Jan. 12. The college-age girls sitting next to me swooned every time Hawke came onstage.

Theater lovers who are fussier about their Shakespeare would probably do better to head to the Belasco Theater, where the Rylance productions are playing in rep.  Or to wait for some other chance—and I'm sure it will come—to love Hawke again.

November 30, 2013

Why I'm Going Along with "And Away We Go"

People who love theater love shows about the theater.  Which is why there are so many backstage musicals, dramas and comedies from 42nd Street to the upcoming Bullets Over Broadway, from The Seagull to Noises Off.   

And it’s also why my theatergoing buddy Bill and I, diehard theater junkies, tramped over to the far western stretch of 42nd Street to see The Pearl Theatre Company’s production of And Away We Go, Terrence McNally’s chronicle of significant moments in theater history, which opened this week for a very limited run that’s scheduled to end Dec. 15.

I had been expecting a cavalcade of scenes similar to the ones in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre in which two actors dress up in an assortment of costumes to perform mock versions of plays that range from farce to melodrama. And Away We Go’s posters, with actors decked out in brocaded 18th century garb, seemed to promise something like that. 

But, with mixed results, McNally and director Jack Cummings III take a distinctly different approach.

And Away We Go does offer a waiting-in-the-wings look at performances ranging from the ancient Greek festivals at which mask-wearing members of the chorus invoke the mercy of the gods to the late 20th century morality plays in which AIDS-ravaged young men yearn for the deliverance of angels.

There are also stops in between at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Comédie-Française, the Moscow Art Theatre and the Coconut Grove Playhouse where Waiting for Godot made its American debut in 1956.  But, be it due to budget constraints or aesthetic preference, very little is done to simulate any of those settings.

Instead, the set, designed by Sandra Goldmark, looks like a ramshackle prop shop, crammed with period furniture, old lighting equipment, leftover costumes and casts of actors’ heads. It’s all great fun to look at and provides an entertaining alternative whenever the play's action flags.

The actors walk onto the stage in contemporary clothes, which they wear throughout the next 100 minutes, whether they are recreating a scene at the 16th century dining table of Richard Burbage, who originated the roles of Hamlet, Othello and Richard III, or a samovar break during a rehearsal for a Chekhov premiere around the turn of the last century.

This all puts a lot of burden on the performances. And, alas, the acting by six members of The Pearl's resident company, including two newcomers, is uneven.

Stripped of the conventional ways—costumes, makeup, props—to create their characters, the actors lean heavily on ethnic accents to distinguish the different people they play in each scene. But some focus so much on getting the intonation down that they forget it’s equally important to get the words out in a way that the audience can understand them.

They’re also called upon to be emotionally fluent as the scenes flow into one another, changing settings with no advanced warning. And here again, the results are spotty. Some actors hit the comedy too hard, while others make the pathos too hammy. One of the few to navigate a steady course through it all is the company’s longtime leading man Sean McNall.

And yet, it’s hard to resist McNally’s obvious love of actors and his deep appreciation for the survival of their art form. He lards And Away We Go with references to the precarious nature of the theater that draws intentional comparison to The Pearl’s own financial situation, which has been so shaky that it prompted an emergency letter to the company’s subscribers earlier this year (click here to read about it).

I usually hate that kind of meta stuff and I’ll confess that these embedded pleas for support did take me out of the play. But in the end, I got on board because I, too, want the theater—including The Pearl and its continuing commitment to performing classics like the Greeks, Shakespeare and Chekhov—to keep going and going.

November 27, 2013

"The Snow Geese" and "The Winslow Boy" Aren’t Flops But They Aren’t High-Fliers Either

Are theater producers becoming like their counterparts in the movie business and saving their best stuff for the time closest to awards season?  I ask because this is the second fall in a row in which the shows—at least the new ones—have been really disappointing. 

Sure, there’s a lot of excitement over this season’s prestige productions—Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto in The Glass Menagerie, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in Betrayal, Mark Rylance doing both Twelfth Night and Richard III and the “X-Men” (and RSC vets) Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in rep with Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land—but those are all revivals.

Eight original productions have opened since the romcom First Date arrived in August and they haven’t fared nearly as well. Two (Soul Doctor and A Time to Kill) have already closed and two others (First Date and Big Fish) have posted notices and will shut down at the end of the holidays. 
Meanwhile, limping along with the crutch of subscription audiences are the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Winslow Boy, which will end its scheduled run on Dec. 1, and MCC and the Manhattan Theatre Club’s joint production of The Snow Geese, which will fly off as originally announced on Dec. 15. 

They’re both nicely designed productions (I'd happily move into either of the homes created onstage) and cast with accomplished actors (a special shout-out to Michael Cumpsty in The Winslow Boy and Victoria Clark in The Snow Geese) but both shows are as bland as pabulum.
My husband K is a big Terence Rattigan fan and so we had high hopes for the revival of The Winslow Boy, Rattigan’s 1946 play about a father’s ruinous quest to preserve his family’s honor by clearing the name of his teen son who has been expelled from a prestigious military academy after being accused of stealing. 
Three movies have been made from this Edwardian-era morality tale, which Rattigan based on a real-life case. And the story not only has “Downton Abbey” appeal but juicy roles for all eight members of the cast, most particularly the father and the boy’s older sister.  Alas, it is there where this production falls down.  
I’m a big fan of the masterly actor Roger Rees (who’s been great in projects ranging from his Tony-winning turn as the title character in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby to his appearances as Sam Malone’s millionaire rival on TV’s “Cheers") but he’s miscast here (click here to read an interview with him). 
The father’s transformation from a bastion of overbearing rectitude to a man broken by his own bullheadedness is supposed to provide the play’s emotional arc but Rees, under the shaky direction of Lindsay Posner (click here to read her take on the production) is never able to summon up the requisite arrogance and the tragedy is softened without it.  
Similarly, the sister Catherine starts off as a dilettante who dabbles in suffragist causes but ends the show as a woman whose political mettle has been finely honed. But Charlotte Parry starts off iron-willed and has nowhere to grow. The Winslow Boy shaped by these performances isn’t bad but it fails to stir the heart.
The Snow Geese doesn’t generate much passion either. Although set in the same era around World War I, it's a brand new play by Sharr White, who won acclaim for last season’s production of The Other Place, although not from me (click here to read my review).
The story purports to be about a fortysomething widow whose idyllic life is shattered by the death of her husband and the unexpected debts he’s left behind. But the play is also yet another homage to Chekhov (seagull, snow geese, get it?) complete with a country home setting, world-weary relatives and a resident doctor, played here with customary finesse by Danny Burstein. 
The widow is played by Mary-Louise Parker, who looks lovely in the gowns Jane Greenwood has designed for her but neither Parker nor director Daniel Sullivan seem to have worked out what else the role demands (click here to read an interview with the star).
Further complicating matters is the fact that Parker, although an age appropriate 49, looks too young to be the mother of grown sons. This adds to the play’s general confusion because Evan Jonigkeit and newcomer Brian Cross (click here to read a piece about him) often look as though they might be her lovers instead of her sons. 
On the other hand, there are flashbacks to scenes with the husband that are equally confusing because they add so little to the storytelling.  In fact, I’ve no idea what White is trying to say at all. The Snow Goose is the kind of play that were it a movie would probably be released in the the stay-at-home months of winter.