September 28, 2013

"Fetch Clay, Make Man" Makes a Winning Show

Seeing a bioplay always makes me nervous that what I’m going to get is caricatures instead of characters. Seeing one with my husband K, who hates watching people pretend to be more famous people, makes me even more anxious.  And seeing one of these show with K about a person he admires holds the potential to turn me into a basket case.   

So I am really relieved to be able to tell you that both K and I were quite taken with Fetch Clay, Make Man, the bioplay about the boxing legend (and one of K's heroes)  Muhammad Ali that is playing at New York Theatre Workshop through Oct. 13. 

Most people now think of Ali as the beloved icon who appears, bent and silenced by Parkinson's, at national ceremonies.  But playwright Will Power has had the good sense to focus his tale on the tense days in May 1965 that surrounded Ali’s historic rematch with Sonny Liston, from whom he’d taken the heavyweight title the year before. 

Shortly after that first meeting, the 23-year-old champ became a member of the controversial Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, a gesture of racial pride and defiance that bewildered some fans, many of them white, and delighted others, most of them black.

Three months before the second fight, Malcolm X, Ali’s spiritual mentor, had been assassinated after breaking away from the group and because many people suspected that its members had been involved, threats were being made on Ali’s life.
Amidst all this, Ali reached out to an unlikely source for guidance: Stepin Fetchit, the black comedian whose roles in Hollywood movies made his name synonymous with the demeaning stereotype of blacks as dumb and lazy people. 
Ostensibly, Ali wants to ask about some boxing strategy that Jack Johnson, the first black man to hold the heavyweight title (and the subject of the bioplay The Great White Hope) may have shared with his friend Fetchit.  But what he’s really seeking is a different kind of survival lesson. 
Power says he decided to write the play after stumbling across a photo of the two black icons and wondering about the story behind it. He spent three years researching that question and the answer he came up with provides a perceptive look at the masks that black people, even famous ones, had to put on in order to get ahead in the segregated world of mid-century America.
Carrying that message are two superb lead performances.  Ray Fisher is as handsome and charismatic as Ali was in his young (“I’m so pretty”) days. And while he deftly mimics all the familiar Ali mannerisms—the bravado, the banter, the dancing steps—Fisher also captures the fear, insecurity and yearning of the young man who believes that Fetchit has secret knowledge that may help him survive.  He’s excellent.
In some ways, though, Fetchit is the tougher role. In flashbacks, the comedian, whose real name was Lincoln Perry, is shown to be a smart man, savvy enough to have become Hollywood’s first black millionaire. But by the time he gets the call from Ali, he is widely considered a disgrace to his race and he desperately hopes that the relationship with the young champ will help him reclaim his reputation.  
K. Todd Freeman delivers a finely textured performance that captures all the nuances of Fetchit’s wounded pride, seething self-loathing and intense longing to bask again in the spotlight. He's excellent too.
Not everything works as well. Powers crams in a subsidiary plot about the champ’s wife Sonji, played by Nikki M. James, the Tony-winning actress from The Book of Mormon, who loves Ali and likes Fetchit but has doubts about the Nation of Islam, and another about the boxer’s Black Muslim handler Rashid, whose angry-black-man storyline flirts with stereotypes of its own. Both siphon off energy from the main event.
Luckily, director Des McAnuff has put together a slick, fast-moving production, even if he does have the actors shouting too much. Riccardo Hernandez’s stylistic set places the action in a metaphorical boxing ring that Howell Binkley highlights with symbolically glaring white lights. Meanwhile, Peter Nigrini’s projections add a balancing injection of verisimilitude. 

It all adds up to a show that may not be a total knockout but still manages to pack a punch—and to redeem the rep of the bioplay.

September 25, 2013

"Brendan at the Chelsea" Offers a Portrait of the Poet-Playwright Best Suited for His Fans

Maybe if I’d known more about Brendan Behan, I would have had a better time at Brendan at the Chelsea, the gloomy drama about the Irish poet and playwright Brendan Behan that’s playing at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre through Oct. 6.  

Because the audience at the performance my friend Ellie and I attended, filled with Behan fans so devoted that they actually mouthed some of his famous lines along with the actors, seemed quite into this reenactment of the writer's descent into an early, alcohol-induced death at the age of 41.  

I could understand some of what pleased them. Written by Behan’s playwright niece Janet Behan (click here to read an interview with her), Brendan at the Chelsea sidesteps one big mistake that so often trips up bioplays: instead of trying to portray the poet’s whole life story, it focuses on one pivotal period of it. 

In this case that's the early ‘60s when Behan moved to New York, stayed at the famous Chelsea Hotel and wrote, or actually dictated because he could no longer hold a pen or use a typewriter, his book “Brendan Behan’s New York.”
There’s also the fact that this production, which originated at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, boasts a lovely performance by the Irish actor Adrian Dunbar, who also directed the show. Still, I found my attention wandering and I couldn’t help sneaking peeks at my watch.
The problem is that not much happens during the play’s roughly two-and-a-half hours running time. And I couldn’t figure out why I was being told this melancholy and predictable tale. 

It's hardly a revelation that Behan was a drinker or had a way with the blarney.  Even the play’s allusions to his bisexuality, come as little surprise since his first play The Quare Fellow deals with the subject even though it was written in the 1950s when gay activity was illegal in Ireland.

Brendan at the Chelsea includes references to that play and Behan’s other work (about which again, to my shame, I knew very little) and to his marital difficulties (about which I actually wanted to know more).   

But basically, the Behan in the play just drinks, passes out and then drinks some more. In between, there are hallucinatory scenes about his past gay affairs and other drunken encounters.  
Additional diversions are provided by visits from his neighbors, the composer George Kleinsinger and Lianne, a fictional stand-in for the dancers from choreographer Katherine Dunham’s company who helped to take care of him. 

All of the actors in the five-member cast, who, with the exception of Dunbar, play multiple parts, are good, particularly Pauline Hutton as Behan’s long suffering wife Beatrice.
It wasn’t enough for me but Ellie was drawn in enough to stay for part of a talk back with Janet Behan.  Of course, a poet herself, Ellie went into the play already a Behan fan. 

I, on the other hand, ducked out right after the play ended and, despite what I'd just seen on stage—or maybe because of it— went across the street to the West Bank Cafe for a drink. 

September 21, 2013

Head Trips with Bart Simpson and Bernie Madoff

You don’t have to love a show to admire it.  At least that’s how I’m feeling about two of the shows that have kicked off this new fall season.

The first I saw was A User’s Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff, which hasn’t gotten much love—or respect—from the professional critics. The second is Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which received a big wet kiss from the New York Times’ Ben Brantley (click here to see his review).
The Madoff play, now running at Atlantic Stage 2 through Sept. 28, imagines the afterlife of the financier who swindled millions in a Ponzi scheme and it deals with the big questions of evil and sin, punishment and redemption. Mr. Burns, named for a character from the long-running animated TV series “The Simpsons” and now at Playwrights Horizons through Oct. 20, takes ambitious aim at the role that culture, particularly the theater, plays in civilizing a society. 
Both riff off Medieval texts (Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” and Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” respectively) and both dare their audiences to sit up and engage in the heady debates that are being waged onstage.
That’s particularly true of Mr. Burns, which opens with a group of people huddled around a campfire and trying to recall the minute details of “Cape Feare” the celebrated episode of “The Simpsons” that parodied the 1962 movie (and its 1991 remake) in which a brutish ex-convict menaces a family he considers responsible for his having gone to prison. 
Like the storytelling characters in “The Decameron” who escaped to the countryside to avoid the plague that had ravaged their city, the people around the fire turn out to be survivors of a major catastrophe that, in this case, has wiped out electricity, and most of the world as they knew it when nuclear plants melted down. The thing that binds these random strangers together—and keeps them sane—is the shared memory of that TV show.
By the next act, which takes place seven years later, they have formed a theater troupe that recreates episodes of “The Simpsons,” which provide the lingua franca for the shaky new society they and others are trying to cobble together. The last act, set 75 years in the future, shows what happens to their efforts with a coup d’ theatre that evokes the very beginnings of theater.
Playwright Anne Washburn uses this meta conceit to examine the defining role pop culture plays in our society and the ways in which civilizations create their sustaining myths. I love this kind of stuff (I wrote a paper on creation myths in college and started consuming pop culture with my Pablum) and yet I can’t share Brantley’s enthusiasm for the show.
That may be, at least in part, because I don’t buy the central point that “The Simpsons” would be the primary thing these survivors would struggle so hard to remember and then build their new culture around. 

Other cultural remnants—Gilbert & Sullivan ditties, the novelty song “Who Let the Dogs Out" and a scene from Grease—do sneak into Mr. Burns.  But would none of the survivors have remembered the Bible, the Ring Cycle, the "Kama Sutra" or “The Godfather” trilogy?  

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve never seen a complete episode of “The Simpsons”. But my theatergoing buddy Bill checked out the "Cape Feare" episode (you can find it here) the day before we saw the show and it didn’t work for him either.

Maybe it's a generational thing. My husband K reminds me that people tend to cling to the cultural icons they discovered in their youth and so it makes perfect sense that Bart Simpson, who ended up on Time magazine's list of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th century, might be the cultural standard bearer of choice for the Millennial Generation.
I'm not totally convinced by that argument but I can still appreciate that Mr. Burns is thought-provoking, well-staged by Steve Cosson and nicely-performed by a cast composed of members from The Civilians theater company (click here to listen to a piece about the making of the show)

The production values, particularly the evocative lighting by Justin Townsend and costume work by Emily Rebholz and Sam Hill, are first rate.  The run is pretty much sold out but, even so I still doubt that Mr. Burns will be one for the ages.
And A User’s Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff is even more evanescent. It's written by Lee Blessing, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of A Walk in the Woods, the docudrama about the arms negotiations between the Russians and Americans in the ‘80s. But while Madoff is, of course, a real person, the new play is far from a docudrama.  It's set in Hell and, just as in the “Inferno” section of Dante’s tale, the poet Virgil, here called Verge, is on hand to offer a guided tour of the place. 

As Blessing imagines it, Madoff (stolidly played by Edward James Hyland) has yearned for death, which he believes will be the oblivion that will finally put an end to the lingering guilt he feels.  But finding himself in Hell, he tries to ready himself for eternal torment.

Verge, played by David Deblinger as a whiny nebbish, introduces Madoff to some of his fellow residents in Hell from the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele to an unnamed mother who murdered her children, all are played by Eric Sutton and the very good Erika Rose.  
As the miscreants recount their transgressions and reveal the nature of their damnation, both Madoff and, more importantly, the audience is pushed to consider how truly accountable we’re prepared to be, whether in this world or the next, for our own deeds.  

It’s a promising premise and Blessing earns admiration points for coming up with it. But he undermines himself by depicting the whole thing in broad jokey strokes that too often flout the play’s own internal logic.

Meanwhile, director Michole Biancosino embellishes it with so much badabing-badaboom shtick that she undercuts the moments of serious reflection when Madoff encounters someone he cheated or the mother remembers the cries of her doomed children.  
By the end of the show’s 90 minutes, it has produced a few laughs but it also has let both Madoff, and the audience, off far too easily.

September 14, 2013

My Annual Idiosyncratic Fall Theater Preview

Between you and me, I’m a little reluctant to list the shows I’m most looking forward to this fall.  That’s because my picks for past seasons have turned out to be some of my biggest disappointments (Patti LuPone in the anorexic The Anarchist, an underwhelming Brian F. O’Byrne in the befuddling If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet) and so I don’t want to jinx my favorites this year.

Besides this fall is shaping up to be even stranger than usual. Only a handful of musicals are opening on Broadway (producers seem to be saving the biggies for spring so they’ll be fresh in the minds of awards voters; so extra kudos to those behind BIG FISH, which will give us a chance to see the always-welcomed Norbert Leo Butz). Meanwhile,  just a couple of new straight plays will bow on the Great White Way before the end of the year (making me even more grateful than usual for the off-Broadway companies like Playwrights Horizons, MCC Theater and Lincoln Center Theater). 

Still, what kind of theater blogger would I be if I didn’t join in the traditional fall preview ritual? So here goes. 

The season’s hottest tickets are largely revivals, most of them starring big names: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen teaming up to do Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT and Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND in rep; Ethan Hawke taking on MACBETH, backed up by a trio of badass male witches.  And here are three other shows that I’m equally eager to see:

THE GLASS MENAGERIE: If I could only see one show this season, it would be this one.  I’ve loved Tennessee Williams almost as long as I’ve loved theater and his masterpiece memory play about his overbearing mother and frail sister almost never fails to move me. This production, which officially opens on Sept. 26, stars Cherry Jones as the mother Amanda, Celia Keenan-Bolger as the sister Laura and Zachary Quinto as Tom, William’s stand-in for his younger self. It’s directed by the always inventive Steven Hoggett and the word of mouth about last spring’s Boston run was rapturous. 

THE FILM SOCIETY: Jon Robin Baitz’s drama about a film club at a South African high school during that country's apartheid years only played 33 performances when it opened off-Broadway in 1988 but it moved the then 26-year-old playwright to the head of his class. The always-dependable Keen Company is giving the play its first major New York revival, opening on Oct. 1 with a cast lead by Euan Morton and Roberta Maxwell. And as his subsequent work for both TV and the stage has continued to make clear, you can count on Baitz to appeal to both the heart and the head.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM: There will be so much high profile Shakespeare on the boards this season—Hawke’s MACBETH, two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance’s acclaimed duo of TWELFTH NIGHT and RICHARD III, two ROMEO AND JULIETS (a Broadway production with Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad as the young lovers and a Classic Stage Company version with Elizabeth Olsen as Juliet and T.R. Knight as Mercutio) plus an all-female JULIUS CASEAR at St. Ann's Warehouse—that’s it’s hard to choose just one. But I’m going to go with Theater for a New Audiences’ production of one of the Bard’s best loved comedies because it will mark Julie Taymor’s first directorial outing since her ill-fated tenure at Spider-Man and this play’s mix of fantasy and reality should be right up her alley. Plus there will be the chance to see the company’s new Brooklyn home when the show opens on Nov. 2.

Still, the biggest thrill for me remains the chance to see new works cause new plays are the way we’ll get the classics of tomorrow. I’ve already caught a couple—FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN, a drama about the unlikely friendship between the boxer Muhammad Ali and the comic actor Stepin Fetchit that opened at the New York Theatre Workshop on Thursday, and MR. BURNS, the futuristic tale centered around The Simpsons TV show that opens tomorrow—and I hope to get a chance to tell you about them in later posts. In the meantime, here are three more new ones that have piqued my curiosity:

THE JACKSONIAN: Like just about everyone else, I’m looking forward to seeing the hottie husband-and-wife team of Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in Harold Pinter’s infidelity-drama BETRAYAL when it opens next month in a new production directed by Mike Nichols. But I’m just as excited about the also-sexy married duo of Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, who are starring in Beth Henley’s latest dark comedy.  It’s set in a Mississippi motel that gives the play its name and at a time when that state reluctantly began to desegregate, which should give the play its bite. The New Group Production is scheduled to open on Nov.7.

DOMESTICATED: Race was the central issue of Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play about 50 years of demographic changes in a Chicago neighborhood. Now, Norris is taking on gender politics, from marital infidelity to sexual identity—in this new work, which stars Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf and opens at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater on Nov. 4.

ONE NIGHT: Thirty years have passed since Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play opened in a Negro Ensemble Company production that included Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson as soldiers in a segregated Army regiment during the Jim Crow era and then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  Now Fuller is back with a new show, opening at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on Oct. 30, that looks at the contemporary complexities of being a woman in the military.

O.K. That does it.   Now let’s keep our fingers crossed that we’ll be just as excited about all these shows—and others—after having seen them.

September 7, 2013

"First Date" Fails to Sweep Me Off My Feet

Lots of people seem charmed by First Date, the first musical to open in this new Broadway season.  And I wish I could have been too.  

Because I admire the fact that First Date isn’t based on a movie, TV show, videogame or Baby Boomer songbook but seems to have sprung wholly out of the heads, or dating mishaps, of its creators, Austin Winsberg who wrote the book and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner who did the music and lyrics (click here to read a piece about the songwriting duo).
Maybe First Date didn’t sweep me off my feet because it’s not aimed at old happily married people like me but at those who are still playing the mating game. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t date enough before hooking up with my husband K and so don’t identify with all the awkward moments that so many people in the audience at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended obviously did.
First Date tells the story, from the initial bumbling small talk through the will-they-or-won’t-they kiss, of a blind date between Aaron, an easygoing nice guy who does something in finance and is on the rebound from a bad relationship; and Casey, an edgy artsy gal who has commitment problems and a preference for bad boys.  
All the action, which includes flashbacks and fantasy sequences performed by a talented five-member ensemble, takes place in the trendy bar where the mismatched pair have decided to meet for a drink, and maybe dinner if things go well. 
Director Bill Berry, producing director of the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle where First Date premiered last year, has concocted lots of clever business and some amusing scenes, although the phone calls from Casey’s gay BFF, flamboyantly portrayed by Kristoffer Cusick, made me wonder if there were a gay equivalent for blackface.  
Still, the performances were generally appealing. Even though I wasn’t as wowed as others were by Krysta Rodriguez, who plays Casey and got entrance applause from some folks who apparently recognized her from her breakout role on the now-infamous TV show “Smash” (click here to read a piece about her).   

But I was totally won over by Zachary Levi’s Aaron. Levi is best known for his role as the title character on the NBC series “Chuck” but his Playbill bio says he’s been acting in school and community theater productions since he was six and he seems wonderfully at home on stage.

The songs in the show aren’t as winning or particularly memorable but they were pleasant enough. And I might have enjoyed them even more if the lyrics weren’t so densely packed.

When you add it all up, this 95-minute mini-musical (there are only seven guys in the orchestra) comes off as kind of innocuous. It doesn’t seem quite large enough for a Broadway show—or for Broadway ticket prices. 

On the other hand, judging by the whoops of delight coming from the people seated around Bill and me, the show is clearly a crowd-pleaser. The trick for the producers will be in getting the right crowd in those seats.