February 26, 2014

"Kung Fu" Provides Too Few Real Kicks

When Time magazine put together its list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, Bruce Lee won a spot, right alongside Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso and Mother Theresa. It might surprise some people that a martial artist and action film star would make the cut but Lee was also an icon for legions of Asian-American kids who grew up in mid-century America hungry for a hero who looked like them and who radiated the kind of macho sexiness that belied the commonly-held stereotype of Asian men as milquetoasts and nerds.

David Henry Hwang was apparently among those adoring kids, which may explain why the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s latest work is Kung Fu, a bioplay about Lee that opened in The Diamond theater at The Pershing Square Signature Center on Monday night. Now, here’s where I should say that the play kicks butt but, alas, it doesn’t, at least not for me. 
Maybe Lee's charisma just plays better on the screen.  A 1993 biopic did well with critics and moviegoers alike. But a planned musical about Lee’s life, with Hwang doing the book and David Yazbek the music, never got off the ground. And this new Kung Fu was supposed to be part of the season that Signature devoted to the playwright’s work last spring but it wasn’t ready then. 

And it isn’t now. Hwang doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say about Lee and so he just offers an unnuanced tick-tock of the actor's life, peppered here and there with some non-revelatory observations about how difficult it was to be a yellow man in white Hollywood. 

The play opens in the early ‘60s when the 18 year-old Lee, who was born in San Francisco but raised in Hong Kong, has moved back to the States and begun teaching martial arts in Seattle. The son of a Chinese opera star and himself a successful child actor, Lee eventually makes his way to Hollywood where he teaches martial arts to movie stars like Steve McQueen and James Coburn and eventually gets a gig as the sidekick Kato on the TV show “The Green Hornet.” 
The play ends after Hollywood execs refuse to cast him in lead roles and Lee reluctantly returns to Hong Kong to make low-budget action movies. Left out are those films Lee made in Hong Kong, including the now-cult-classic “Enter the Dragon” and his premature death from brain edema when he was just 32. 
But all is not lost. What gives this production, directed by Hwang’s frequent collaborator Leigh Silverman, some oomph are the dream sequences that incorporate Hwang’s trademark fascination with Chinese opera, plus lots and lots of kinetically choreographed fight scenes.
The choreography is a large part of what made my sister Joanne and me want to see the show. We’re both hardcore fans of the TV dance competition “So You Think You Can Dance” and were excited that one of its most imaginative choreographers Sonya Tayeh was hired to create the moves for Kung Fu
Tayeh likes to work in a style she calls combat jazz, which, as you might imagine, is perfect for this show. The kicks, flips and clashes that she and Fight Director Emmanuel Brown have concocted are so dynamic that they made me fear for the safety of the actors performing them (click here to read about how they were put together).  
As it should be, the most audacious of them all is Cole Horibe, a runner-up on “So You Think You Can Dance” and a Junior Olympic silver medalist in Taekwondo, who plays Lee. Just as Lee was, Horibe is short, sleekly chiseled and moves with panther-like grace.
Unfortunately, Horibe’s acting isn’t yet as dexterous. He looks particularly callow in the mano-a-mano scenes with the stage vet Francis Jue, who makes Lee’s father the only fully inhabited character onstage. 
However a special nod must also be given to Clifton Duncan, an African-American actor who is colorblind-casted as Coburn and manages to play the white actor without looking ridiculous.  

To be fair, none of the play looks silly and those fight scenes really are exciting to watch.  But while the practice of kung fu emphasizes physical agility, it also prizes an inner grace which Kung Fu lacks.

February 22, 2014

"Love and Information" Offers Plenty of Both

It turns out to be surprisingly easy to love Love and Information the new Caryl Churchill play that New York Theatre Workshop opened this week at the Minetta Lane Theatre. I don’t always feel that way about Churchill’s work which, with its highbrow intellectualism, can sometimes be too highfalutin for me. But Love and Information, which is running through April 6, has a lot of heart.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now the play consists of 57 vignettes that play out over two intermissionless hours in which 15 actors of varying ages, genders and ethnicities bring some 100 different characters to life in a cavalcade of relationships that are familiar to almost everyone.   

Some of the scenes last only seconds, others stretch out for a minute or two. Most are exchanges between two people but a few are more amply populated. Parents and children reach out to one another. Friends try to chill out together. Colleagues—office rats, circus clowns, Elvis impersonators—exchange information.  Lovers try to connect.

Almost every scene hits home.  And the credit for that goes as much to the director, and Churchill's frequent collaborator, James Macdonald as it does to the playwright. 
For Churchill's script reads almost as blank verse. The scenes are divided into seven sections but there are no stage directions.  In fact, there are no characters. Churchill has just written lines to be spoken, leaving it to Macdonald and his design team to fill the spaces in between.  Which they’ve done brilliantly.

All the action takes place within a white-tiled cube smartly designed by Miriam Buether so that the space takes on different personalities with the addition of just a prop or two and the occasional video projection. 
The costumes by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood send subtle but clear signals about the kind of people their wearers are.  And I can’t think of a time when the sound design, devised by Christopher Shutt, has been more integral to a production. 

Plus a special shout-out has to go to Christine Catti, the production stage manager who orchestrates the split-second comings and goings in a clever way that I won’t spoil for you.

But the biggest kudos go to the cast. Each actor plays a different part every time she or he appears and, because the scenes change so rapidly, they have to establish the full stories of their characters within an instant. The degree of skill required is of the highest order and there isn’t a sluggard in the bunch—or a way to single out any one of them. 
The audience is required to play a role too. You can’t just sit back in your seat for this one.  It took me a while to figure out exactly what was going on, to see the relationship between the experimental form of the play and its functional meaning, to understand Churchill's underlying message about the evermore complicated struggle between the head and the heart, between knowing and feeling.  

But it wasn’t a chore. Some of the scenes are laugh-out-loud funny; others surprisingly touching. They reminded me of George Saunders recent story collection. I know I’ve been name checking him quite a bit lately but both his stories and Churchill’s play are tapping into our worries about the too-much information world in which we now live—and are unabashedly reassuring us that love will find a way to make sense of it.

February 19, 2014

"The Correspondent" Botches Its Message

Death pops up fairly regularly in plays. But its companion grief—the agonizing bewilderment that follows the loss of a loved one—appears less frequently. And that’s why I thought it might be interesting to see The Correspondent, the new play about a man mourning the recent death of his wife that opened at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater last week. But, alas, seeing it sparked a different kind of grief for my theatergoing buddy Bill and me.

I don’t know if the playwright (Ken Urban) the director (Stephen Brackett) or even the set designer (Andrew Boyce) is to blame but The Correspondent turns what could have been a meaningful meditation on grief into a cheesy episode of “American Horror Story.”
My eyes started rolling right from the first scene when a middle-aged white guy with the overly-portentous name of Philip Graves (Thomas Jay Ryan) brings home a young black woman named Mirabel (Heather Alicia Simms) and starts discussing a transaction that seems to be about sex but is actually about the fact that Mirabel’s supposed to be dying and Philip is paying her to deliver a message to his late wife when she gets to heaven. 

It’s no spoiler to say that Mirabel doesn’t die and that she and Philip fall into an uneasy—and unbelievable—relationship. Meanwhile communications with the dead wife somehow begin when letters filled with things only she would know start appearing on Philip’s doorstep. 

The carrier turns out to be an overwrought young man (Jordan Geiger) who seems to know even more intimate details about the Graves’ married life. Cue scary sound effects and spooky lighting.
Urban’s underlying message that grief can lead to a kind of surreal insanity will ring true for anyone who has gone through that kind of anguish but he doesn’t know how to make a compelling story out of it. Extraneous plot points—Mirabel’s pimp, a dinner at the law firm Philip heads—are introduced and then casually abandoned. 

And the playwright gets no help from his director. The staging here is some of the clumsiest I’ve seen in a long time.  When one character is asked to give the other two privacy, Brackett has him go out what is supposed to be the door of the apartment instead of into what's been established as one of its other rooms. A graphic sex scene, complete with full frontal nudity, is embarrassing for both the actors and the audience. 
Then there’s the set.  Philip is supposed to be the senior partner of a major Boston firm but the dingy apartment looks as though he’s drawing a paralegal’s salary. I know that Rattlestick productions are done on a tight budget but that’s where creative imagination is supposed to step in.

The play only lasts 90 minutes but it seemed longer. I heard exasperated sighs all around me as we all sat there lamenting our lost time and the lost opportunity to give grief its proper due.

February 15, 2014

A Seventh Anniversary Message

As you surely know, yesterday was Valentine’s Day (hope you enjoyed yours as much as my husband K and I did ours). But, as you may not know, it was also the anniversary of Broadway & Me. I can hardly believe that seven years have gone by since I started this blog and so I’m taking time out from the usual posts to celebrate all the great—and not so great—shows I’ve seen during that time and to celebrate you, dear readers, for sharing it all with me. Cheers,  jan

February 12, 2014

"Almost, Maine" is a Cozy Winter Treat

If you crossed the linked stories in the 2003 movie “Love Actually” with the quirky small-town characters of the ‘90s-era sitcom “Northern Exposure” you might end up with Almost, Maine, the slight but sweet rom-com that the Transport Group Theatre Company opened last week at The Gym at Judson.

The title refers to a blue-collar town in the northernmost part of Maine, where most residents work at the local mill and drink at places with names like the Moose Paddy. The action takes place on one wintry Friday night (the floor of The Gym is covered with fake snow) and consists of nine vignettes in which couples try to come together or break apart.
All of these amorous coming and goings were written by the actor John Cariani, who is best known for his performance as Motel the tailor in the 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof but who grew up in northern Maine (click here to read about him)

Cariani's play was first done in Portland in 2004, where it was warmly received. But an off-Broadway production in 2006 didn’t fare as well. “Almost, Maine may leave the cloying aftertaste of an overly sweetened Sno-Kone,” wrote New York Times critic Charles Isherwood. 
Of course, snow cones are a popular treat, at least they are outside New York. Over the past seven years, Almost, Maine has become one of the most performed plays in American high schools, even one year beating out the previous champ, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

So you can understand that there was no way my theatergoing buddy Bill and I could resist seeing the show when we heard about the current revival, which is playing through March 3.  How could we not see for ourselves what all the fuss was about?

Cariani started writing Almost, Maine as material he could perform for auditions. And the play still has that offhand air about it. Only one scene involves more than two people. Clichés abound. But each character is given the chance to show both humor (Cariani writes some genuinely funny lines) and pathos. 

The 19 parts are probably divvied up in high school productions but Almost, Maine was originally designed for a quartet of actors to play all the roles. All four actors in this production, including Cariani himself, clearly relish the challenge of fast changing from one set of snow wear to the next, cloaking themselves in the personalities of the different lovers and making believable the bits of whimsy embedded in the play: one character carries her broken heart around in a paper bag and occasionally rattles the pieces, others buckle at the knees when they literally fall in love.

Under the astute direction of Jack Cummings III, they’re all quite good but first among equals is Donna Lynne Champlin, a Rosie O’Donnell look-alike who can’t seem to do anything that’s not rooted in emotional truth.

Still, it all proved to be too twee for Bill. He harrumphed about how he didn't buy a bit of it all the way to our dinner at North Square, a little place on the corner of Washington Square Park where the chocolate cake put him in a much better mood. I, on the other hand, got a nice little kick out of the show. 
Maybe that’s because I went to high school in Maine and retain a fondness for the place. Maybe it’s because it’s nice to see a show that places as much value on ordinary people who go bowling and then chug a couple of beers at the local bad-named bar as is so often placed on Fitbit-wearing urbanites who quaff Sancerre at trendy gastropubs.

Or maybe it’s because we’re coming up on Valentine’s Day and like all those high school students directing and acting in productions of Almost, Maine across the country, I’m just in the mood for some sweet-tempered fantasies about being in love.

February 8, 2014

Guest Blogger: Bill's Big Praise for "Little Me"

From Jan: So much theater.  So little time.  I put the Encores! production of Little Me on my calendar as soon as I heard about it but somehow I didn’t get around to getting tickets and since, like all Encores! shows, it will close on Sunday after just five performances, I won’t get to see this beloved comedy about a poor girl named Belle Poitrine (née Schlumpfert) and the quest for love and security that takes her through seven different men, six of whom are usually played by one very talented comedian.

Luckily, my theatergoing buddy Bill managed to see the show at its second performance, and since this is such a cult favorite of people who really love musicals, I’m turning today’s post over to Bill so that he can share his thoughts about it:
Until sometime early in the second act, I'd been thinking pretty much nonstop:  "Move it to Broadway tomorrow." Leaving totally aside the question of whether it could succeed there without a nationally known star, the show and production were that wonderful. 
Neil Simon's book (I don't know how much it owes to the original novel by Patrick  Dennis of “Auntie Mame” fame) is as funny as anything around ("Book of Mormon" funny, "The  Producers" funny).  

The Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh score is chock-full with one catchy song after another. The production is expertly and wittily staged and choreographed, by John Rando and Joshua Bergasse, respectively. And from top to bottom the whole show is wonderfully cast (including terrific actors in small roles they'd be unlikely to want to play on Broadway.)

True, Christian Borle—clever and funny as he is—isn't as over-the-top as Sid Caesar was in the original 1962 production and Martin Short was in the 1998 revival, but what he lacks in outrageousness he makes up for with enormous likability, charm and inventiveness. It's a smart, sharp performance. 

But by the middle of the second act, I wanted something more from Borle: I wanted him to top himself. And he just didn't. Or perhaps, given the book, he couldn't. (Though with more rehearsal time and performances under his belt, and considering his Tony-winning performance in Peter and the Starcatcher, I'd like to think he could.) 
Just as disappointing, maybe more so: It's a front-loaded show. The second act has the knockout "Little Me" duet between Judy Kaye as the older Belle who’s dictating her memoirs and Rachel York (wow!) as the younger Belle, but not much else—certainly nothing to rival the string of winners in the first act. Still, what a score! (I've already started playing my CD of the Martin Short revival in the car as I drive.) 
The entire show is so expertly performed and played (with minor exceptions, no one except Kaye even carried the book—and she only because she bears the show's enormous story-telling burden) and so lavishly mounted, it's obvious a move is in mind.  But I'm afraid that this may be one of those wonderful Encores! productions, like so many have been, that will go down in the books as, "Glad to have been there, sorry that you weren't."

February 5, 2014

"A Man's A Man" is Brecht with Heart

Bertolt Brecht famously championed the theater of alienation but the revival of his A Man’s a Man that opened last week at Classic Stage Company is oddly endearing.

Like so many works by Brecht, the play (Man is Man, in the literal translation) deals with war, corruption and the suppression of individualism. In this case, the time is 1925 and the war is between nationalistic Indians seeking their country's independence and soldiers of the British Raj assigned to hold onto that part of their empire. 
The play opens with four of the soldiers trying to rob a temple so that they can get money for booze. When one of them suffers an injury that will connect them all to the crime, his mates hide him away and then draft a naïve farmer named Galy Gay to assume his identity so that their fierce unit commander Bloody Five (an almost unrecognizable but appropriately blustering Stephen Spinella) won’t become suspicious. 

Also important to the plot are the money-hungry Widow Begbick, who runs the local tavern and also happens to be Bloody Five’s paramour, and Mr. Wang, a local warlord.
It’s a ridiculous premise and Brecht knows it but that’s all part of the game. The idea is to reel in the audience with the silliness and then shock it with the way the guileless Galy is made over into a ruthless fighting machine.
Brian Kulick, CSC’s artistic director, seems most comfortable with the humor, staging the show with the kind of self-consciously arch zaniness that marked the old Ealing Studios comedies from the 1950s. 
He’s aided by an affable cast.  And to amp up the merriment, the widow is played by a man, the drag artist Justin Vivian Bond, formerly of Kiki and Herb, while Mr. Wang is played by a woman, Ching Valdes-Aran. 
In customary Brechtian style, there’s a lot of direct address to the audience and some musical interludes, supplied in this production by the busy Duncan Sheik, who, in addition to doing the score for American Psycho now playing in London, also composed the music for the less successful production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle that CSC did last spring (click here to read an interview with the composer). 

The set created by Paul Steinberg is spare but malleable. He uses a painted backdrop, a green carpet and a collection of orange oil cans that are rolled around to create a variety of settings, from the widow’s bar to the inside of a pagoda—and to make one inanimate character.

It all adds up to a good time and it seems unfair to single out any one performer but Bond is particularly winning. His Widow Begbick may have more heart than Brecht intended but Bond brings such ardent poignancy to the melodic ballads Sheik has composed that even Brecht might have been moved. 

This was my first encounter with A Man’s a Man so I can't say for sure that this approach is exactly what Brecht intended it to be (a few characters have been cut and maybe some scenes too) but I enjoyed it. So much so that even though I usually shrink from any kind of audience participation, I was drawn in this time.  When one of the soldiers came over and, with the full audience looking on, locked eyes with me, I leaned in and gazed right back.

February 1, 2014

Love Overcomes All in "Outside Mullingar"

Plays about the Irish so often portray their characters in such a twee way that you’d think they were just one step removed from leprechauns. And I feared I was in for more of that kind of blarney during the first few minutes of Outside Mullingar, the new romantic comedy by John Patrick Shanley. But then I got charmed.

Outside Mullingar, which is set on two adjoining farms in the Midlands of Ireland, isn’t a serious, thought-provoking work like Shanley’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Doubt. And it’s as predictable as any other rom-com, including the 1987 movie “Moonstruck,” which won Shanley an Oscar for his script and to which even he has compared this new romance (click here to read a piece he did on why he wrote this play). 
But what Outside Mullingar has going for it is an eagerness to entertain and ingratiating performances by all four of its cast members. 

Here’s the plot: Anthony Reilly and Rosemary Muldoon have been neighbors all their lives and even though Rosemary, now pushing 40, has been pining for him since she was 6, neither has married. Now their parents are dying (the play opens right after the burial of her father) and decisions have to be made about what will happen to the land since the apparent heirs seemed destined for spinsterhood.  
The action unspools over a few years and there’s a touching deathbed scene between Anthony and his father, played by the character actor Peter Maloney, who is clearly delighted to have been given something he can sink his teeth into and makes a nice meal of it. And Dearbhla Molloy is equally affecting as Rosemary’s fatalistic mother. 

Despite all the talk about death, doom and real estate, Shanley packs in plenty of laugh, or at least chuckle, lines. But the best moment in this 95-minute love story is the sweet climactic scene he's crafted for the would-be lovers. 

Brían F. O’Byrne, so terrific as the priest in Doubt, stumbled as Jake Gyllenhaal's brother in last season’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. But he is back in top form as the socially awkward Anthony, portraying both the decency and the dignity of a simple man who yearns for happiness even while he fears it (click here for an interview with the actor). 

The more extroverted Rosemary is played by Debra Messing, who hasn’t been on the New York boards since the Manhattan Theatre Club's original production of Collected Stories back in 1997, before she got cast in the hit sitcom “Will & Grace.” But the raven-haired actress hasn’t lost her stage chops and she shines in her Broadway debut.

Messing makes Rosemary’s blunt speech and tenacious passion both amusing and poignant and she even manages a brogue that compares favorably with that of her Irish-born co-star's (click here to read about her). 

Anthony and Rosemary’s coming together is almost marred by a final bit of whimsy that Shanley apparently couldn’t resist adding. But under Doug Hughes’ steady direction, O’Byrne and Messing keep the show grounded.

No one would call Outside Mullingar, which is running at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through March 16, a major work.  But not every play has to be.  Sometimes, a theatergoer just wants a bit of pleasure. And this romantic tale offers plenty of it.