July 31, 2013

"Nobody Loves You" is Silly...But Loveable

Just like the TV reality shows it lampoons, the new musical Nobody Loves You, now playing at Second Stage Theatre through Aug. 11, is silly and yet enjoyable at the same time.

The playwright Itamar Moses wrote the book, his pal Gaby Alter wrote the music and the two collaborated on the lyrics.  Romantic comedies set among today’s over-educated, pop-culturally aware and tech-savvy twentysomethings are Moses’ specialty (click here to read my thumbs-up review of his previous rom-com Completeness).   
The premise this time out is that Jeff, a snooty philosophy Ph.D. student goes on a TV dating show (think the lovechild of “The Bachelor” and “Big Brother”) to win back his ex-girlfriend because he thinks she will be a contestant on what was, to his dismay, her favorite show.

It turns out that she’s already found someone else but Jeff sticks around, telling himself that the show is a perfect subject for his dissertation on the elusiveness of reality. In the process, he finds a new love and a whole new set of problems.
It’s all nonsense but Moses has a great time poking fun at Jeff's fellow contestants who span the gamut of reality types, from the wild-and-crazy gal to the devout Christian who’s trying to resist the temptations being hurled at him. Providing additional targets are a slick airhead emcee and a rabid fan who live blogs each episode of the show, which is also called "Nobody Loves You."
The jokes are pretty predictable but that doesn’t stop the show’s go-for-broke cast from squeezing fresh laughs out of even the lamest groaners. The veteran scene-stealers Leslie Kritzer and Rory O’Malley get extra points for each portraying three different characters and making them all distinctively different and often hilarious.  
But everyone, under the sure-handed direction of Michelle Tattenbaum, is terrific (click here to read about the making of the show). However, I do wish that three of the guys hadn't looked so tall-dark-and-handsome alike that they seemed almost interchangeable.  But the whole cast is so uniformly good looking and so well-toned that I wondered if the job contract included a clause requiring Pilates workouts.

Of course this is a musical and so it should be telling that I’m just now getting around to talking about the music.  The songs—at least the lyrics—aren’t that bad but the orchestrations by Alter and Dan Lipton are so generic that the score ends up sounding just like every other would-be rock musical and I can’t remember one tune.

Still, I left with a smile on my face.  As my theatergoing buddy Bill and I strolled over to 9th Avenue for a late dinner at the bistro 44 & X, he summed up Nobody Loves You as an amiable show. 

That’s an apt description but you could also think of it, as I often do reality shows (and yes, I do watch some of them) as a sweet guilty pleasure. 

July 27, 2013

Why "Me and Jezebel" Isn't for Me

We're all obsessed with celebrity these days and almost everyone (me included) has a story to tell about an encounter with one. Writer Elizabeth Fuller’s was with the movie star Bette Davis and she turned it into a book and then a play, both called Me and Jezebel. Readers seem to have loved the book; it’s got five stars on Amazon.com and earlier this year, one Goodreads’ reviewer declared “I challenge anyone to read this and not laugh at Bette's witty ripostes and much-earned wisdom.”

The play has fared less well. Wen it opened in 1994, New York Times critic David Richards wrote “this gossipy evening is just a string of anecdotes that goes on too long and amounts to too little.”  That’s even more true with the wan revival that opened at The Snapple Theater this week. 
I’ve no idea why the producers decided to bring this show back. The original’s reviews weren’t encouraging.  Davis, who died in 1989, is less familiar to audiences today who cheer on Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren in the kinds of strong-woman roles she helped pioneer.   

Meanwhile, the camp followers who might have been the show’s natural constituency are busy making wedding plans or lobbying for the right to get hitched in all 50 states. 
The people in the audience the night my friend Jesse and I saw the show seemed totally bemused by it. They looked to be tourists whose tour package included a voucher to see a show and I’m not sure most of them knew what they'd be seeing or even who Davis was.

The story of Me and Jezebel (the title refers to Davis’ second Oscar-winning role) centers around the actress’s request to spend a couple of nights with Fuller and her family during a hotel strike in New York.  The two women had only recently met but Fuller is thrilled with the idea of playing host to a movie star. Then, in The Man Who Came To Dinner fashion, Davis stays on far longer than expected.  Hilarity is supposed to ensue.

As she did in the original production, Fuller plays herself. Davis is played by Kelly Moore, a male actor whose bio says he has “brought Bette Davis to life for the past 17 years, from Key West to Kansas City and Connecticut to Sydney.”  

Fuller fluffed a few lines at our performance.  But Moore is pretty good at his job. Alas, the dialog in this two-hander strains to include all the Davis one-liners that drag queens, cigarettes waving in the air, have been braying for years and it’s hard for him to move beyond those clichés.

Plus, the show has the misfortune to follow closely on the heels of Bette Midler’s amusing portrayal of the Hollywood agent Sue Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last and Michael Urie’s brilliant rendering of Barbra Streisand in Buyer & Cellar, both of which give the sense that we're learning something more about the person beneath the celebrated façade. Me and Jezebel stays flat-footedly on the surface.

I feel badly about dumping on this little show.  Both Fuller and Moore clearly want to entertain.  But while Me and Jezebel may be innocuous, it’s also vacuous.

July 24, 2013

"The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin" Fails to Face Up to Its Consequences

Comeuppance for the financial scoundrels who bilked people out of their savings and helped wreck the broader economy is once again a hot topic.  In “Blue Jasmine,” the new Woody Allen movie that opens this week, Cate Blanchett plays the disgraced wife of a Bernie Madoff type who has defrauded his clients. Blythe Danner has signed on to a similar role in The Commons of Pensacola, the new play by Amanda Peet that the Manhattan Theatre Club will debut in November. And right now, we’ve got The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, which is playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre through Aug. 25.

Playwright Steven Levenson takes his time revealing the specific wrongs his title character did but he tells us right away that Durnin has done five years in jail for them. As the play opens, he is out and desperate to reconnect with his family, who now want no part of him. Using the same guile that got him into trouble, he insinuates himself into the life—and modest home—of his son James. 
While his mother and sister have moved on, James, the show’s true protagonist, is still trying to recover from what happened. He’s stuck in a job that he hates and so depressed that his wife has walked out. He blames it all on his father but somehow can’t turn his back on him.  

The father-son struggle is inherently dramatic, the economic overlay clearly remains relevant and Levenson is a talented guy (click here to read my review of The Language of Trees, his auspicious debut as part of the Roundabout Underground series for young playwrights in 2008) but The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin fails to pack the emotional wallop that it should.

Part of the problem is that Levenson doesn’t quite know what to make of Durnin.  The very gifted actor David Morse combines his own forceful charm with the same quiet menace that made him so effective as the pedophilic uncle in the original production of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive but he’s given too little to work with here. 
It’s never clear why Durnin did what he did.  I wasn’t expecting a Rosebud moment but some insight would have been welcomed.  And the character doesn’t seem the least bit contrite only selfishly hell bent on getting his old life back. Which could have been fine if that narcissism had been put to some dramaturgical use.
Meanwhile a side plot about a budding romance between the son (played with hangdog sincerity by Christopher Denham—click here to read an interview with him) and Katie, a woman he meets in a writing class, seems tacked on. Katie (at least as portrayed by Sarah Goldberg, who’s been better in other plays) is such a dithering airhead that she’s almost an insult to women. 
Director Scott Ellis doesn’t provide much help.  The stage is so ill used (the cramped set is by Beowulf Boritt) and the blocking at times so awkward that I wasn’t always sure where the actors were coming from or going to. 

When you add it all up, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, like its title character, simply fails to pay off.

July 20, 2013

“Choir Boy” Tries to Sing Too Many Notes

Choir Boy isn’t a musical but the best thing about it is the singing. Now playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s studio space at New York City Center through Aug. 4, this ambitious work about a choral group at an African-American prep school is the latest offering from the young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. 

And that was enough to make me want to see it. For the day I spent watching a marathon of The Brother/Sister Plays, McCraney’s trilogy about a poor black community in Louisiana, was one of the finest experiences I’ve ever had in the theater (click here to read my review). 

I’m not alone in my admiration for McCraney either. He won the top playwriting award when he graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2007. And since then, his kudos have included becoming the first recipient of the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award and winning London’s Evening Standard’s award for Most Promising Playwright, the Steinberg Playwright Award, the Whiting Writers Award and the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award. 

On top of all that, he spent two years as a writer in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And most critics—both here and in London, where this show debuted last year—have raved about Choir Boy too (click here to read some of the New York reviews). But, alas, I felt let down by it.

As I said above, Choir Boy is an ambitious work. And McCraney gets points for focusing on a different part of the black experience. African-American choral groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers played a central role in historically black schools (click here to read more about them).  

The Negro spirituals in which those groups specialize have been revered as a secret code that slaves used to communicate with one another. They've also become a cherished legacy for both blacks and whites. But McCraney suggests that now, in this sesquicentennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, we should look at the songs anew. 

It’s a daring idea and McCraney lays it out in an impassioned monolog. No playwright working today is better at mixing vernacular and lyrical language.

He also uses a-capella versions of the songs to demonstrate his theory—and to underscore the themes in the play (click here to read about how the music was woven into the show). If he had stuck solely to that, he might have created another brilliant piece of work.

Instead, Choir Boy also attempts to be a coming-of-age story and a coming-out tale. And McCraney gets overwhelmed as he tries to keep all those balls in the air. 

The play’s central character is Pharus, the effeminate lead singer of his school’s lionized choir. Played with puckish panache by the 21-year-old actor Jeremy Pope, Pharus is both brazenly flamboyant and sexually insecure. (Click here to read a Q&A with the actor.) 

McCraney, too, tries to play it both ways. At times, his classmates are surprisingly accepting of Pharus, especially his jock roommate. At other times, Pharus is subject to the kind of homophobic bullying that inspired the “It Gets Better” campaign: the play begins when a classmate interrupts a performance Pharus is giving by shouting out epithets and the intolerance later escalates to a climactic act of violence. 

Plus there are the boys' uneasy relationships with their families and with their sense of faith. That’s a lot to cram into 90 minutes. 

Director Trip Cullman provides a steady course, assisted by David Zinn’s clever set. And the cast—five young actors who play the students, along with the vets Chuck Cooper as the school’s anxious headmaster and Austin Pendleton as a retired white teacher whose devotion to the Civil Rights Movement brought him to the school—is  wholly first rate. 

But none of that is enough to keep the show from unspooling into a melodramatic muddle. What still makes it worth seeing, though, are the songs, handpicked by McCraney and beautifully arranged by Jason Michael Webb. When the boys are singing, Choir Boy achieves an emotional catharsis that the rest of the play can only aspire to.

July 17, 2013

The Explorers Club is a Delightful Discovery

I'm back and I bring news of something light and breezy and perfect for summer theatergoing. Because it would be hard to find a more buoyant offering than The Explorers Club, the airy comedy that is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s NY City Center Stage I through Aug. 4.  

The plot, such as it is, centers around what happens when a snooty Victorian-era men’s club, populated by eccentric scientists and pompous adventurers, is faced with the question of whether to admit a woman whose scientific feat—discovering a long lost city—seriously trumps the more dubious accomplishments of the club’s male members. 

Of course “seriously” is the wrong word here for playwright Nell Benjamin, who co-wrote the music and lyrics for Legally Blonde, is playing it strictly for laughs. And she whips feminist politics, class strife, Irish rebels, Tibetan monks, an audience with the Queen and the art of cocktail making into a deliciously giddy confection.

Benjamin's invaluable comrade-in-arms in this endeavor is director Marc Bruni, whose work on Old Jews Telling Jokes proves that he knows how to turn what might seem corny material into something altogether cool. There’s a physical comedy bit in The Explorers Club so ingeniously entertaining that it deserves its own award.

It and the show’s other hijinks are performed by a crackerjack nine- member cast who aren’t afraid to look silly. First among equals are David Furr, a hoot as the club's blowhard leader who claims to have found the East Pole; the always-hilarious John McMartin as an old-fogey "archaeo-theologist" and Carson Elrod, who almost steals the show as a blue-hued and Mohawk-haired native of the long lost city nicknamed Luigi.  

I say Elrod almost steals the show, because Jennifer Westfeldt, beautifully dressed by Anita Yavich, is totally commanding as the show's sole woman. But even the set by Donyale Werle has its own goofy charms.  Make sure to check out the rug on the floor (click here to read more about it). 

Some scolds will fuss about the show’s un-p.c. elements—the Luigi character could be offensive if he weren’t so clearly a send-up of all the old noble savage tropes. And if Elrod and his cohorts weren’t so damned funny.  The woman sitting next to me laughed so hard that she snorted.  I didn’t mind cause the noise she made covered my own guffaws.

July 6, 2013

Turning on the Ghost Light

My husband K and I are off on our first big vacation in a long while and so there will be no new posts here for the next couple of weeks.  Which is why you're now looking at the ghost light that theaters set up when they're temporarily vacant. But I've already got shows booked to see when I get back and so I hope you'll rejoin me in mid-July so that I can tell you about them.

July 3, 2013

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2013

Summer is my favorite time of the year. And one of the things I love about it is sharing this annual list of books for theater lovers to read at the beach, under a tree or, perhaps like me, on a city terrace while sipping something cool, crisp and refreshing (Prosecco is my drink of choice this summer). The books this year are a bit more eclectic than usual, which I hope means there will be something to suit your theatrical interests whatever they may be:

Showbiz, A Novel by Ruby Preston. If you’re still in “Smash” withdrawal, this may be the one for you. For Showbiz is a mash-up of fiction (the murder of a theater critic) Broadway legends (an ogre-like producer named Margolies borrows the birth name and personality of David Merrick) and the contemporary Broadway scene (everyone is competing for Hollywood stars to anchor their shows). It follows the professional and amorous adventures of a young producer named Scarlett Savoy as she tries to solve the whodunit and put on her first show. Just as with “Smash,” true insiders may wince at some of the details (I mean does anyone really call the restaurant Angus McIndoe, “The Angus"?) but the story is still a romp and Preston has already written a sequel called Staged. (You can find it here.)
The Year of the King: An Actor's Diary and Sketchbook by Antony Sher. The South African-born actor is as accomplished a visual artist as he is a theatrical one and both of his talents are on vivid display in this illustrated memoir of the year 1984, from the time he was approached to star in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard III straight through to the triumphant opening night. It would be hard to find a finer book about the process an actor uses—or the angst he sometimes goes through—to create a memorable role. The book is also filled with cozy anecdotes about his friends and acquaintances (Michael Gambon, Laurence Olivier) and the pen and ink drawings that Sher made as he tried to envision his image of Richard. (You can find it here.)

In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin. The main characters in this literary novel are Catherine, a young heiress trying to make a name for herself in the New York theater world; and Harry, a former OSS officer struggling to save his family business from the mob after returning home from World War II. Their love affair plays out over 700-pages and the parts devoted to the theater are smaller than I wanted them to be but the writing is gorgeous. If beautiful prose is your thing, this could be an enchanting way to while away lazy summer afternoons. (You can find it here.) 

Jack Be NImble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director by Jack O'Brien. As his Tonys for Hairspray, Henry IV and The Coast of Utopia show, O’Brien is a hell of a director.  But who knew he was an equally gifted writer? I’m only half-way through this myself but O'Brien’s coming-of-age-in-the-theater memoir is shaping up to be one of the best books of any kind I’ve read this year. The heart of the book is his relationship as general factotum to the director Ellis Rabb, who founded the APA, the repertory company that took serious theater to cities across the country in the ‘60s before regional theaters were common. It’s a wonderful look back at an almost-forgotten time in American theater.  And it’s a great yarn too cause O’Brien doesn’t hold back; gossip is shared, secrets are told and the whole thing is a delight. (You can find it here.)
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. To be honest, this isn’t technically a book about theater but its fictional account of the teenage ballerina who posed for Edgar Degas’ famous statue, is the source material for the same story that will be told in Little Dancer, the new Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens musical that is scheduled to debut at the Kennedy Center in Fall 2014 in a production directed by Susan Stroman.  It’s also a heartrending look at how difficult life could be for young girls who aspired to be on the stage in the 19th century. (You can find it here.)

The Making of Cabaret by Keith Garebian. Based on interviews with the show’s creators, this detailed chronicle tracks the evolution of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s now-classic musical from its origins in the stories Christopher Isherwood wrote about his time in Weimar Germany through the original 1966 Broadway production—and beyond, including the 1972 movie version with Liza Minnelli and the landmark 1998 Broadway revival with the late Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming as the MC. Along the way, Garebian makes informative detours into such topics as the history of European cabarets. It's catnip for theater history junkies. (You can find it here.)

Bad Publicity by Joanne Sydney Lessner. Isobel Spice, the heroine of this mystery series, is a struggling actress who makes ends meet by taking temp jobs.  As luck would have it—and fiction demands—people keep turning up dead wherever she’s assigned and so, in between auditions, she helps suss out who the killer is. There are more red herrings in this book than you’ll find pickled at a kosher deli but Lessner, herself an actress (and, full disclosure, a friend) has a good time tossing in bits of theater lore as well. (You can find it here.)

Great Moments in the Theatre by Benedict Nightingale. Who doesn’t love lists?  And who better to put one together on the most significant productions in theater history than Nightingale, the longtime chief theater critic for The London Times?  The first production cited is The Oresteia back in 548 B.C. but the book quickly moves on to Richard Burbage’s Hamlet in 1601 (the Hamlets of David Garrick in 1742, Sarah Bernhardt in 1899 and Simon Russell Beale in 2000 get their own chapters too). Productions in Dublin, Madrid, Moscow, Paris, St. Petersburg and New York are noted but most of the shows discussed first appeared in London, including Mark Rylance’s performance in Jerusalem, which ends the book. Nightingale deftly weaves erudite scholarship, backstage gossip and personal memories into short, easily digestible chapters that can be read sequentially or at random. (You can find it here.)

And to keep things easy, here are the links to my previous summer reading suggestions: