March 30, 2013

An Exchange Between Signature Theatre & Me

Even before it opened the Pershing Square Center complex last year and turned it into a prime hangout for theater lovers, the Signature Theatre Company was beloved for focusing an entire season each year on the work of a single playwright, redeeming the reputations of some further deepening our appreciation of others. 

And so perhaps you, like me, were a little dismayed when you got the news that the 2013-2014 season will feature world premieres by multiple playwrights. Now there is no question that all of them—August Wilson, Martha Clarke, Regina Taylor, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins,  Edward Albee, Will Eno, David Henry Hwang—are terrific playwrights.  
Albee and Wilson have had previous Signature seasons devoted to their work and Hwang is currently in residence. The others are excellent additions to Signature’s new Residency Five program, which champions currently less-renowned playwrights. And the company has done all-premiere seasons before, from 2000-2002 when it introduced new works by Romulus Linney, Horton Foote, Sam Shepard and others.
And yet, I couldn’t help worrying that Signature might be abandoning the singular one-writer focus that has always made it so special. So I summoned up my courage and asked if I could talk to the company’s artistic director James Houghton about what was happening.  
It turns out that Houghton is traveling but he was gracious enough to take the time to send me a reassuring response that I now get to share with you.  Here’s what he said:

It was always our plan for David [Henry Hwang], as our Residency One playwright, to have three productions, as all our Residency One playwrights do. We had originally announced KUNG FU for Fall/Winter, but since we’re developing this piece with Chinese collaborators, and the scale of the project is so enormous, timing on all fronts made it make the most sense to do it in early 2014. This is really a change of just a couple of months to make sure we have time to develop the piece with the attention it deserves, with the parties we wanted to work with.

We’ve also found since opening the Center that it really makes sense to have our Res One writers with us for 14-18 months, instead of the traditional 12 months. It deepens the relationship and the commitment we make to each other, and gives some breathing room for each production, and has resulted in some exciting overlaps of Res One writers (like it did for David and Athol Fugard this past season). I imagine this overlap will continue to be the case going forward.

We’re looking at next season’s All Premiere line-up as a chance for our Residency Five program to catch up – since the program is about building new bodies of work, we always knew it would take three full years to fully launch, and next season will complete that launch, with four full Res Five productions (Taylor, Clarke, Eno, Jenkins). That, in combination with the continued Res One presence of KUNG FU and the new Albee and the Wilson piece, meant for this one year only we wouldn’t be introducing a new Residency One playwright. We don’t view this as a change in mission at all, and we’ll absolutely be announcing a new Residency One playwright for the next season.

March 27, 2013

"Honky" Has Good Fun with the Race Card

Honky, the provocatively named comedy now running at Urban Stages, kicks off with a not very funny incident: a black kid is killed for his sneakers and sales spike at the Nike-style company that makes them because the shooting makes white suburban teens regard the shoe as an authentic emblem of the black experience that so many of them want to imitate.

So it surprises me as much as it may surprise you that I found the show to be a smart and endearing look at the ways in which white and black people stereotype one another—and themselves. 

In fact, playwright Greg Kalleres’ tale has the kind of political-correctness-be-damned daring that reminded me of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s side-splitting satire that poked fun at the shibboleths of black culture back in 1986.  My friend Sydney and I laughed so hard when we saw it that we fell out of our seats (literally asses on the floor).

Honky isn’t quite as funny as that.  But it has its moments. Its characters include the white president of the company, the black guy who designed the shoe, the white ad man whose catchphrases made it popular, the ad man’s racially carefree girlfriend, a Buppy shrink, a two-person everyman chorus and the creator of a pill that promises to cure racism.

Their responses to the sales spike—varying degrees of liberal guilt and shameless self-interest—unfold in short scenes that bounce from the boardroom to the bedroom with stops along the way in affluent apartments, chic bars, the shrink’s office and the realm of magical realism.

All of these locales are smartly rendered by the clever stacking and restacking of simple black boxes that Roman Tatarowicz has devised for the set design, aided by the adroit video projections of Caite Hevner and lighting by Mirian Nilofa Crowe.

The actors are just as terrific and, under Luke Harlan’s sure-handed direction, nimble at navigating the tricky line Kalleres has drawn between being politically incorrect and being flat-out offensive (click here to read an interview with the playwright and director). 
The silver-haired men in blue blazers and the women with Ann Romney-style bouffants who showed up for the patrons night performance my sister and I happened to attend hardly seemed the target audience for Honky. And there was just a handful of black people in the audience that night. So the mix could have made for an awkward I-don’t-know-if-I-should-laugh situation.  But Honky is so disarming that none of us could help but chuckle along with it.

The play is far from being a cure for racism but it makes the case that the ability to laugh together is going to have to be part of the remedy

March 23, 2013

Why "My Name is Asher Lev" Is Different From All Other Plays Currently Running

Passover begins on Monday evening and although My Name is Asher Lev opened four months ago and has extended its run at the Westside Theatre through 
Sept. 1, it’s hard to think of a better time to talk about this show, which both challenges and celebrates what it means to be a Jew. 

I’ve never read the Chaim Potok novel from which Aaron Posner has adapted his play but male Jewish friends who were, like the title character, artistic or otherwise sensitive boys tell me that the book helped them get through their youths, making them believe, sometimes against great odds, that they could become the men they dreamed they might be. 

In both the book and this play, Asher Lev is a boy prodigy growing up in Brooklyn who becomes obsessed with making art at an early age. This brings him into conflict with his father Aryeh, a devout Hasidic who is equally obsessed with his work setting up yeshivas and preserving Jewish life in Europe in the difficult years after the Holocaust. 

Asher’s mother Rivkeh supports their son’s artistic ambitions but when the leader of their sect gives his approval and introduces the boy to a famous but non-observant artist named Jacob Kahn, Asher begins controversial work that takes him further into a world alien to that of his parent’s. 

Posner and his director Gordon Edelstein have decided to tell Asher’s story with just three actors—Ari Brand plays Asher from boyhood to young manhood; Mark Nelson plays Aryeh, Jacob Kahn and several other male characters as well; and when my husband K and I saw the show Jenny Bacon played all the women in Asher’s life, including Rivkeh. Ilana Levine now plays those roles (click here to read about her)

I usually hate it when actors double in roles because it can be so hard to keep the characters straight. But it works beautifully in this production. That’s a testament to Edelstein’s lucid direction, (click here to read about his approach to the show) James F. Ingall’s trully illuminatin lighting and a pitch-perfect cast. 

Brand only has the one character to play but he carefully delineates Asher’s evolving sense of himself over the years. And while I also usually hate having adults pretend to be children, Brand burrows so deep into the role that he even manages to be convincing as the six-year-old Asher. (Click here to read a Q&A with him). 

Nelson is not a subtle actor but he uses his innate extravagance to good effect and grounds every line and gesture in such emotional truth that I could tell which character he was playing before he said a word. 

But the real standout was Bacon, who seemed to physically transform herself right before one’s eyes as she moved from one character to the next. Her Rivkeh was the emotional heart of the play.

Another shout-out has to go the master set designer Eugene Lee, who has made a simple but exquisite set that is both specific and versatile, believable as both the Lev family’s home and Jacob Kahn’s studio. 

There are some missteps. Posner tries to pack in too much of the 369-page book—scenes with Asher’s uncle fill in some backstory but don’t seem necessary in a 90-minute play.  And at least half the play is delivered in direct address to the audience, as was the entire book. And yet, My Name is Asher Lev is still a richly theatrical experience.   

Like the religion at its center, My Name is Asher Lev proudly adheres to the traditions of its form.  It is an old-fashioned play that deals unironically with the big issues like the obligations of faith, the bonds of family love, and the power of art. And like Passover, it is a celebration of liberation.  But, to paraphrase a famous ad from my own youth, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love it.”

March 20, 2013

"The Mound Builders" Falls Totally Flat

The expectation we have for playwrights is the same as we have for parents: that they should love all their children equally.  Of course they don’t. Both tend to have a soft spot for their problem child.

By several accounts, Lanford Wilson’s favorite from the nearly two dozen plays he wrote was The Mound Builders, which has just been revived in the Linney theater at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

It tells the story of a group of archaeologists working a dig outside a small Illinois town in the mid-‘70s. Wilson clearly wanted to grapple with issues like how we define and value the past. But he didn’t make the task easy. 

The Mound Builders is a memory play that unfolds in a series of flashbacks recalled by the leader of the expedition and the action bounces back and forth between scenes in which he dictates notes about what happened during a fateful summer at the site and scenes of the events he is recounting.

The archaeologists are a rag tag group that includes the head of the expedition August Howe and his wife and tween daughter, Howe’s deputy and his wife, and Howe’s sister, a famous novelist and recovering addict.

Also on hand is Chad Jasker, the son of the man who owns the land on which the site is located. Jasker yearns to be accepted by the scholarly team but he also has other plans for the land on which they’ve set up camp. As others have noted, comparisons to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard were clearly intended. 

The original Circle Repertory Theater production won an Obie back in 1975 but the reaction to Wilson’s play was mixed.  “This is his most ambitious work," wrote New York Times critic Mel Gusow. "And it must have presented enormous problems to the director, Marshall W. Mason.” 

Judging from the rest of the review, Mason, Wilson’s frequent collaborator, proved up to the challenge.  Alas, Jo Bonney, who directed the Signature production that opened on Sunday night, has been less successful.

Bonney's muddled staging is so confusing that I gave up trying to figure it out about a third of the way into the first act. I wasn’t the only one either.  

During intermission, the two couples sitting behind me debated whether they should leave.  “There’s not much happening,” said one of the wives.  “Should we stay?” asked the other.  “I don’t think much more is going to happen,” chimed in one of the husbands.  The four of them left.  As did the couple sitting in the aisle seats next to me.  

I felt marooned by their departures but I stuck it out. The second act did pick up. Albeit not enough. The actors, several of them miscast, seemed as listless as the direction and as befuddled as the audience.   

And yet, poking through that debris are the bones of a potentially engaging play that, in the right hands, just might reveal how deserving it is of its father's love.

March 16, 2013

"Ann" and "All in the Timing" Make Me Smile

Sometimes you just need a good laugh.  At least that’s how I’ve been feeling over the past couple of weeks as I’ve gone from one disappointing show to the next.  I usually tack towards dramatic plays about meaty subjects but I found myself craving something lighter that might remind me of the simpler pleasure that going to the theater can be.

Thankfully, tucked in between all the duds were two small shows that offered just that (along with some smiles and even a few belly laughs). They are All in the Timing, the collection of comedy sketches by David Ives that is playing in a Primary Stages production at the 59E59 Theaters through April 14; and Ann, Holland Taylor’s paean to the life of the Texas politician Ann Richards that opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater last week.

I’d had my doubts about both.  The playlets in All in the Timing (which include one about three monkeys in a lab testing the theory that if they sit at a typewriter long enough one will end up writing Hamlet and another called “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread”) sounded to me like onstage versions of the kind of skits you might see on “Saturday Night Live,” which I’ve never watched a complete episode of during its 38 years on air.  Meanwhile, one-person shows like Ann tend to be my least favorite form of live entertainment.

But, as I said, I was desperate for a good time and the word of mouth on both shows promised that each would deliver that.  And so they did.

What sets the skits in All in the Timing apart from the average variety-show routine is Ives, who is wickedly smart and has a fondness for both highbrow wordplay and lowbrow slapstick. The combination in All in the Timing proves irresistible. And a couple of the skits—a man tries to pick up a woman at a cafe, a lonely woman enrolls at a shady language school—manage to touch the heart even while tickling the funny bone.

John Rando, the Tony-winning director of Urinetown and, more recently, of A Christmas Story, is a master of comic timing and he keeps the action moving along at a suitably snappy pace.

Big kudos also have to go to the five-member cast, all of whom are terrific. But first among equals are the wonderful Jenn Harris, who is even more hilarious than she was in Silence! The Musical; and the rubbery-faced, loose-limbed Carson Elrod, who has operated under the radar in supporting roles in shows like Peter and The Starcatcher and Noises Off but delivers a breakthrough performance here that draws the big laughs in scene after scene.

The man sitting in front of my friend Joy and me was so delighted with the whole thing that he bounced in his seat like a five-year-old who’d been expecting spinach for dinner but got double scoops of chocolate ice cream instead.  I appreciated the sugar rush too.

The laughs were gentler at Ann but the evening was just as entertaining.  Holland Taylor, most familiar form her TV stints in shows like the CBS sitcom “Two and a Half Men,” wrote the play herself after spending years doing research on Ann Richards, the big-haired, quick-tongued mother of four who became governor of Texas.  Done up in a white wig and one of the big-shouldered power suits that Richards used to favor, Taylor is a dead ringer for the governor.

She and her director Benjamin Endsley Klein have carefully calibrated the onstage action so that, unlike too many one-person shows, you don’t hanker for someone else to come on (click here to read how they did it).  Indeed Taylor’s performance so fills the huge stage at the Beaumont that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a show and not somehow eavesdropping on Richards herself.  She makes good company and so do both of these shows.

March 13, 2013

Let Down Badly by "Belleville" and "The Flick"

Maybe I’m just in a cranky mood. Because I’ve seen nearly two dozen show so far this calendar year and I can count the ones I’ve liked on one hand, with a few fingers left over.  And as if that weren’t bad enough, a lot of the shows that have disappointed me have been praised by other folks. 

That’s certainly the case with two new shows by two of my favorite playwrights:  Amy Herzog’s Belleville, which opened at the New York Theatre Workshop last week and Annie Baker’s The Flick, which opened at Playwrights Horizons last night.

Charles Isherwood, who reviewed both plays for the New York Times, called Belleville “a quietly devastating play” when he saw the current production during an earlier run at the Yale Repertory Theater.  And he’s almost as tickled by The Flick, which he declares a “moving, beautifully acted and challengingly long new play.”  
Now, I long ago realized that Isherwood and I hew to very different aesthetics so I might have discounted what he thought about the plays but a quick look at StageGrade, the site that aggregates the reviews of the city’s major theater critics, shows that a lot of other voices are cheering on these new works as well.    

And yet, even as I read their reviews, I find myself wishing that the plays had been better or that I’d been able to like them even a tiny bit as much as I’d liked earlier works by each of these playwrights, both of whom were recently nominated for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award, which honors female playwrights.

When I saw her circle mirror transformation back in 2009, Baker grabbed a spot at the top of my leader board for up-and-coming playwrights of either gender and her adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya was one of the highlights of my 2011-2012 theatergoing season.  
And I wasn’t the only one smitten. The New Yorker recently ran a profile of the 31 year-old playwright (click here to read it) and while my husband K and I were standing in the lobby at Playwrights Horizons waiting to see The Flick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage walked by, spotted Baker and came in to give her a big sisterly hug.  
Like Baker’s previous plays circle mirror transformation and The Aliens, The Flick is set in a small New England town and focuses on people who are biding their time because they’re unable to figure out how to make better use of it. This time, the action is set in an old movie theater (expertly rendered by David Zinn with tatty rows of seats facing us in the audience) and the biders are a trio of young people who work there.  
As with Baker’s past work, this play is directed by Sam Gold. They’ve been a winning combination in the past but Baker and Gold made some annoying choices for The Flick. 

Right at the beginning, they extend a joke until it wears out its welcome (the end credit music goes on and on and on for almost five minutes) and then they repeat similarly senseless interludes throughout the first act. 

In other scenes, the characters silently sweep the floor for minutes on end. A sequence in which the green-haired Louisa Krause freestyles a dance was amusing but it, too, didn’t know when to stop.
I can’t tell you anything about what happened in the second act because K and I (and a bunch of other people) left at intermission. Doing that is not a move I make lightly; in fact, it’s something I do less than once a year. Maybe all the action (and the lack of it) would have come together if we’d stayed through to the end but the odds seemed to weight heavily against that outcome.  
We did stay for all of Herzog’s Belleville but I found myself scratching my head about what it meant too. The plays that made Herzog’s name—After the Revolution and 4000 Miles—were inspired by the interactions between the extended members of Herzog’s leftist family but Belleville zeroes in on the relationship between a young married couple who’ve moved to the eponymous multi-ethnic neighborhood in Paris so that the husband can do AIDS research for Doctors Without Borders.  

The play opens with the wife Abby coming home in the middle of the day and finding her husband Zack whacking off to a porn video in their bedroom.  A few minutes later their Senegalese landlord shows up and, while Abby is taking a bath, tells Zack that he’s going to have to evict the couple unless they pay the back rent they owe. 
All this and some other stuff—Abby’s decision to quit her antidepressant medication, Zach’s over fondness for weed—is thrown into the pot during the first 10 minutes and director Anne Kauffman keeps it at a high simmer.  But neither she nor Herzog, who according to the Playbill has been working on the play since 2007 and put it through three complete rewrites, makes it clear why we should care about this couple.  
It does help that Abby and Zach are played by the attractive and talented Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller but not enough. Tidbits are doled out over the next hour and 40 minutes that reveal more about the couple and some major secrets are disclosed in the closing scene but they all add up to a picture of an improbable marriage and it’s hard to draw any life lessons from it since few marriages are based on lies to the extent that this one is.
But it’s the final scene that really made me cranky.  It, too, involved people silently cleaning up an untidy space.  And doing it for such a long time that I’m beginning to think that brooms should be banished from all plays, unless they’re directly associated with witches or wizards.

March 9, 2013

"Talley's Folly" is a Serious Treat

Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly is a small play in almost every way.  It’s a two-hander and all the action takes place on a single set, a rundown boathouse near a farm in Lebanon, Mo., a month after D-Day. The plot is slight: a 42-year-old Jewish accountant named Matt ardently woos a Protestant spinster named Sally who is a decade younger and a lot more wary about the idea of romance. The whole thing unfolds, as Matt tells the audience at the beginning of the play, in just 97 minutes. And yet, Talley’s Folly won the Pulitzer Prize.

The revival that opened this week at the Roundabout Theatre’s Laura Pels Theatre shows why this little play won that big prize. It’s not just that Wilson tells his tale in language that is simultaneously plainspoken (the way we are) and poetic (the way we yearn to be) but that he has created a love story that speaks to the heart of anyone who has ever believed him or herself to be unlovable. And who hasn't, at some time, felt that?

As luck would have it, my friend Phil and I had tickets for the original 1980 Broadway production (it transferred after a run at Circle Rep) on the very day that the play won the Pulitzer. The performances by Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins had already drawn lavish praise (“Mr. Hirsch’s performance is surely one of the finest of this season, last season, any season,” declared Walter Kerr in his review for the Times) and so Phil and I were feeling pretty smug about seeing the show.  But then our luck ran out.

Two women with large shopping bags sat right in front of us and began talking animatedly, which they continued to do throughout much of the performance, despite Phil’s polite requests that they quiet down.  I was so mad at, and distracted by, them that even when they finally did shut up, I couldn’t focus on the play.  So I was eager for this chance to see it again. And now I’m really glad that I got to see this production of it.

For director Michael Wilson doesn’t do anything fussy.  He simply trusts the play and the two wonderful actors that bring Matt and Sally to life.

Danny Burstein has been on a roll these past couple of years with his sensational performance as the lovelorn Buddy in last season’s revival of Follies and his scene-stealing turn as the loyal boxing trainer Tokio in Lincoln Center Theatre’s recent revival of Golden Boy (click here to read a piece about him). But he's never been better than he is as Matt, the unlikely suitor who, against the odds, decides to take a chance on love. Indeed, Burstein is so winning that he earns the affection of the audience as soon as he walks onstage.

Sarah Paulson has recently gained a following with her role on the cable TV show “American Horror Story” (click here to read a piece about her) but she, too, is an accomplished stage vet and she, too, has never been better. Sally’s role is less flashy than Matt’s; she’s the sensible yin to his exuberant yang.  And yet, it is gratifying to watch as Paulson strips away the defensive layers and allows Sally to open up to the possibility that someone might love her even if she isn’t perfect.

The production isn’t perfect either. Jeff Cowie, perhaps trying too hard to avoid copying the Tony-award winning set John Lee Beatty did for the original production, has created an overly prissy boathouse.  And I think costume designer David C. Woolard erred with Sally’s dress. Paulson looks lovely in it but it but it might have served the play better had she looked a little less so.

But these are nitpicks. Talley's Folly is a serious treat and serious theater lovers should make every effort to see it.

March 6, 2013

Why This "Passion" Failed to Seduce Me

Well, I guess it’s official:  I am truly not a John Doyle gal. The Scottish- born director has earned all kinds of kudos from critics (most notably the New York Times’ Ben Brantley) for his innovative staging of musicals, particularly those by Stephen Sondheim. But not from me.

I’ve acknowledged that, as the wife of a longtime pit musician, I might have been biased against Doyle’s revivals of Sweeney Todd in 2005 and Company in 2006 because his signature innovation for those productions was replacing the traditional orchestra with actors who could play instruments and accompany themselves.

But I’d read that Doyle had abandoned that gimmick for the revival of Sondheim’s Passion, which opened at Classic Stage Company last week, and I was looking forward to this show because it has always struck me as Sondheim’s most heartfelt.

So I was happy to see an eight-member band playing in a new skybox space the theater built to accommodate the musicians, some of whom are our friends. But, alas, I was disappointed by the overall production.

Doyle is most celebrated for the intimacy of his productions, which originally reflected the limited budgets he had at the small theater he lead in the south of England. I’ve no problem with intimacy (click here and here to read my praise for two other small-scale productions) but Doyle’s minimalist stagings also strip away most of the emotion from his shows. And when you strip away the emotion from Passion, there ain’t much left.

The story, adapted from the movie and epistolary novel “Passione d’Amore,” centers around Giorgio, an Italian military officer in the mid-19th century who becomes entangled with two women: Clara, a beautiful married woman with whom he is having an affair; and Fosca, a homely invalid who becomes obsessed with him.

But the musical’s true subject is the meaning of romantic love and its ability to incite both ecstasy and agony. Those themes inspired Sondheim to compose some of the most sumptuous music that he's ever written—“Happiness,” “I Wish I Could Forget You,” “Loving You”—filled with seductive melodic lines that mimic the swoon of falling uncontrollably in love. And the score remains as intoxicating as ever.

James Lapine’s book is a little awkward (it’s not easy to write for a character—Clara—whose main contributions are limited to the letters she writes) but the story is clear, moves quickly (there is no intermission) and is wrenching.

In the original 1994 production, Marin Mazzie played Clara, Donna Murphy won (as she should have) a Tony for her portrayal of Fosca and Jere Shea, a name less known to me, played Giorgio.  I was so shattered by their performances that I couldn’t move when the show ended and people had to squeeze around me to get out of our row at the theater.

This time out, Giorgio is played by Ryan Silverman (click here to read more about him), Melissa Errico portrays Clara and Judy Kuhn, who won praise for the role in a 2002 Kennedy Center production of Passion (click here to read more about her), takes on the major challenge of Fosca. 

They are all talented people and yet, although the Classic Stage is a far more intimate playing space than the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, which was called the Plymouth when the original production played there, I felt removed from what was happening to the love-longing trio. And I’m blaming Doyle for that.

Surrounded on three sides, CSC’s small thrust stage area is notoriously difficult to decorate and block and yet I’ve seen some terrific stuff there with smartly imagined sets. This production, designed by Doyle himself, has a set so bare-bones that key pieces are missing. 

Passion opens with Giorgio and Clara in bed after rapturous lovemaking but in Doyle’s staging, they are on the floor because there is no bed.  Nor is there one when a dying Fosca begs Giorgio to spend a night with her.  Instead, Kuhn and Silverman are forced to play the scene in straight-backed chairs.

In both cases, the staging undercuts the passions of the moment. Doyle may be trying to suggest that everything happening onstage is just Giorgio’s fractured memory of those events but it’s unlikely that even the most tortured mind would forget to include a bed.

But even more distressing is the way Doyle has directed his actors. Fosca is a particularly tricky role to pull off. Nearly every description of her in the play stresses how frail and unappealing she is and yet the actress who plays Fosca must project the inner steel that allows her to pursue Giorgio and the inner grace that makes it plausible for her to win him over.  

Audiences reportedly laughed at the character during previews of the original production until Sondheim added the song that explained her motivations (the achingly beautiful declaration “Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am”).  But Kuhn comes across as more persistent than passion-driven.  And that difference between being merely desirous and being unabashedly enthralled is what this show is all about.

Similarly, the success of Passion rises and falls on the journey that Giorgio takes as he discovers his true feelings for Fosca. But the arc is aborted in this version: first he is repelled by her, then, suddenly, he is inextricably drawn to her.  We, the audience, are cheated out of seeing him work through that transformation.

When my husband K and I got home from the theater, I dug out our DVD of the original production that was filmed for the old American Playhouse TV series. And watching it over this past weekend, I was able to surrender, once again, to the true pleasures of Passion.

March 2, 2013

Two Hot Plays by Two Celebrity Playwrights

Young Hollywood stars coming to New York to act in plays is so last year.  Now, they’re writing the plays. Just this past week, I saw The Revisionist, a new play by Jesse Eisenberg, most famous for playing Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network;” and The Vandal, by Hamish Linklater, best known for his role on the CBS sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” 

The Revisionist, which opened on Thursday night at the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, is the more high profile of the two because it stars not only its playwright but the great Vanessa Redgrave as well. However, The Vandal, which finishes a six-week run at The Flea Theater in Tribeca tomorrow, is the one that will stick with me.

Although Eisenberg is only 29 and Linklater 36, both plays center around older women struggling to cope with loss and loneliness. And both playwrights have been blessed with actors who are so natural and grounded in those roles that I almost forgot they were acting.

Of course it’s no surprise that Redgave delivers a performance like that. Indeed, no self-respecting theater lover should ever pass up the chance to see her on stage and so my theatergoing buddy Bill and I were really looking forward to seeing The Revisionist, despite my tepid response to Eisenberg’s first play, the quirky buddy comedy Asuncion, which was also produced by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (click here to see my review of that). 

This time Eisenberg's odd couple are David, a narcissistic young writer from New York who has traveled to Poland to stay with an elderly cousin he barely knows; and David's host Maria, a survivor of both the Holocaust and the Cold War who is so devoted to her American kin that she’s hung their photos over her bed. Maria sees David's visit as a reflection of their familial bond; he’s just looking for a place to crash.

This crone-succors-cub scenario is reminiscent of the dynamic in Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles and Alexander Dinelaris’ Red Dog Howls but this is a less accomplished effort than either of those. Eisenberg has created interesting characters and he’s given them some snappy things to say but he hasn’t given the play much heart (click here to read about him and the making of the play). 

That, luckily for theatergoers, is where Redgrave steps in. For with just a sideways glance or the shrug of a shoulder, she’s able to convey the emotional whirl thrumming beneath Maria’s affable exterior.

Redgrave doesn’t entirely make up for Eisenberg’s own self-indulgent acting (egged on by fans who hooted at everything he said and did at the performance Bill and I attended) or for Kip Fagan’s lackluster direction but she’s mesmerizing all the same and worth the price of the ticket.  

An intergenerational encounter also sparks the action in The Vandal. As a morose middle-aged woman and a garrulous teen wait for a bus, the boy chips way at the woman’s reserve until she finally agrees to purchase some beer for him since he’s too young to buy it himself.  

Complications arise when the curmudgeon who owns the nearby deli professes to be the boy’s father. As the play unspools over the next 70 minutes, the relationships between the three—who are identified only as Man, Woman, Boy—shift and secrets are revealed.

Another marquee name, Helen Hunt, was originally slated to play Woman but when she withdrew, Jim Simpson, the artistic director of The Flea, who also directed this production, wisely brought in Deirdre O’Connell, who seems incapable of giving anything less than a superb performance. Here, she makes the character’s somewhat surreal journey from despair to hope entirely believable.

O'Connell gets strong support from her co-stars along the way. Robbins, who in the past has brought a jittery but honest intensity to such roles as Eugene in the 2009 revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, is terrific here.  In fact, he’d probably be great as David in The Revisionist too.  

Meanwhile, Zach Grenier, who usually gets cast as bombastic grouches such as the divorce attorney David Lee on TV’s “The Good Wife,” is given the chance to show a softer side and makes the most of it in the quiet final moments of the play.  

Like Eisenberg, Linklater leans a little too heavily on a bet-you-didn’t-see-this-coming plot twist and on the hoary device of having a character tell all after drinking too much. But Linklater (click here to read a piece about him) seems to care more about his characters and in the end, aided by Simpson’s sensitive direction, so did I.

Update: I'm happy to be able to say that The Vandal has scheduled a week of encore performances from March 22 to March 31. You should go.