July 30, 2014

"When We Were Young and Unafraid" Looks Fearlessly at How Women Define Themselves

Playwright Sarah Treem is only 33 years-old, which means she’s much too young to have lived through the pre-Roe v. Wade days that provide the backdrop for her latest play When We Were Young and Unafraid, which is running at Manhattan Theatre Club through Aug. 10. 

But Treem, who broke onto the theater scene in 2007 with a play called Feminine Ending, has an abiding interest in the ways by which women define themselves in this society (click here to read an interview about her commitment to the subject) and so she has set this new work amidst the ferment of the women’s lib era when old shames were being shucked off and bold challenges taken up.
When We Were Young and Unafraid takes place at a seemingly placid bed and breakfast on an island off the coast of Seattle that’s run by an earth-mother named Agnes and her teenage daughter Penny. But it’s quickly revealed that their home also doubles as an underground railroad station for women fleeing abusive husbands.  

The latest arrival is Mary Anne, who bears both the tell-tale black eye of a particularly bruising beating and conventional beliefs about the way women should behave. Also on hand are Hannah, a radical lesbian ostensibly searching for a nearby women’s commune, and Paul, a male guest at the B&B.

The setup is a bit overly schematic—Mary Anne teaches Penny how to play dumb so that she can get the quarterback at school to invite her to the senior prom, Hannah rants about how women are better off without men—but the underlying issue of how to be feminine and feminist is one that many young women continue to struggle with (while recent polls show that most Americans now believe in gender equality, less than a quarter of the women under-35 surveyed were willing to call themselves feminists).

But the real problem arises as Treem tries to juggle too many options and serves them up with too little subtlety. Her characters too often act, well, out of character, doing what the plot needs them to do instead of what the people they’re supposed to be would do.  Penny, in particular, hops all over the place, Gloria Steinem at the barricades one minute, a do- anything-to-please-your-man Marabel Morgan in Saran wrap the next.
Still, Pam MacKinnon has assembled a crackerjack cast and directed them masterfully. Cherry Jones, fresh from her acclaimed turn as Amanda in last season's revival of The Glass Menagerie, convincingly grounds Agnes in the solidity on which others lean but, as happens with so many strong women, wobbles when it’s called upon to support her own needs. 

And Zoe Kazan is the best I’ve ever seen her, nailing the desperate, almost flamboyant, neediness that causes women like Mary Anne to make such disastrous choices (click here to read an interview with her). 
Some critics (most of them male) have dismissed When We Young and Unafraid, calling it inconsequential, outdated, unbelievable. But those are often the kinds of words that get thrown at women when they focus on women’s stories.  This may be an imperfect play but I applaud Treem for having had the balls to write it.

July 26, 2014

"The Long Shrift" is Short on Satisfaction

In another era, James Franco might have been hailed as a Renaissance man. Over just the past four years, he has appeared in some 30 movies; co-hosted the Oscars, turned up on several TV shows, including a recurring role on the daytime soap “General Hospital;” directed several films, including a documentary about “Saturday Night Live;” taught filmmaking classes at NYU, USC and UCLA, staged a performance art piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, published a collection of short stories and one of poems, volunteered at a children’s hospital, worked on a Ph.D. in English at Yale, maintained an active Twitter account (over two million followers) made his Broadway debut in the current revival of Of Mice and Men and directed his first play, The Long Shrift, which is playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through Aug. 24.

But such prodigious activity is suspect in our more cynical times and, with the exception of the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations he picked up for the 2010 film “127 Hours,” the prevailing attitude toward Franco has been not to praise him but to mock him as a dilettante (click here to read The New York Times review of his recent poetry collection). 
I'd vowed to resist the temptation to join in the hooting but that may be a losing cause. Franco more than held his own with his sympathetic portrayal of George in Of Mice and Men (click here to read my review) but his direction of The Long Shrift can only be described as shaky at best. 

Playwright Robert Boswell has focused on the hot-button issue of date rape. High school classmates Richard (the brooding Franco-look-alike Scott Haze) and Beth (the young Ahna O’Reilly, making her off-Broadway debut) hook up at a party. Afterward, she accuses him of assault. He says it was consensual. The bruises on her body are the deciding factor for a jury and he is sent to prison. 
The play opens with his parents moving into a crummy apartment after having sold their home to pay his legal bills. The dad, nice-guy Brian Lally,  steadfastly believes in the son’s innocence and visits him weekly. But the mom, played by an almost unrecognizable and somewhat shrill Ally Sheedy, suspects Richard may be guilty and refuses to see him.

By the second scene in this 95-minute melodrama, 10 years have passed, the mom has died, Richard is out on parole and Beth shows up at the apartment to make unwanted amends. Also on hand is the clueless organizer of the school’s reunion who thinks a reconciliation between Richard and Beth would make a perfect centerpiece for the event.
That last bit is ludicrous. And, so unfortunately, is much of the rest of the play. Which is too bad because underneath the nonsense, are some honest attempts to examine the gray area between what he said and she said and what he did and she did in these situations. 

A better director might have helped clarify those observations, encouraged the playwright to rethink some of the sillier plot points and gotten more unified performances out of the actors, each of whom seems to be performing in a separate play. 
But Franco doesn’t provide that kind of guidance and it’s no surprise that he didn’t because while his actors were in previews, the time when kinks are traditionally ironed out, he was uptown performing in his own show, which ends its run tomorrow. 

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for The Long Shrift is that it may teach Franco, who is both talented and smart, that there are limits to what one man can do. Even a polymath like the sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer Michelangelo would have had a hard time turning bring the Sistine Chapel to vivid splendor if he hadn’t been there to lay on the paint.

July 23, 2014

Back From a Vacation in London With Thoughts on the West End Hit "Bringing Up the Bodies"

When I told people that my sister, niece and I were going on a just-us-girls vacation that included five days in London, they automatically assumed that I was going to be spending every minute I could there seeing theater. 

But the trip was centered around the interests of my recently engaged niece Jennifer, which meant lots of churches and palaces, plus a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibit “Wedding Dresses 1775 to 2014”—but only one night of theater.  

We spent it seeing Bringing Up the Bodies, the second of two concurrently running plays that have been adapted from Hilary Mantel’s Booker-prize winning novels about the 16th century statesman Thomas Cromwell, who rose from being a humble blacksmith’s son to Henry VIII’s Machiavellian right-hand man. 
Bringing Up the Bodies focuses on Cromwell’s plot to replace Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, with Jane Seymour, his third and the only one of his six spouses to give him a son. In other words, it was right up my history-obsessed niece’s alley. And it’s gotten terrific reviews from the London critics (click here to read some) which also placed it squarely in my neck of the woods. 
Under the astute direction of Jeremy Herrin, the Royal Shakespeare Company has given the show an impressive production. More than two-dozen actors, all dressed in sumptuous 16th century garb, play the members of Henry’s court. The set, by contrast, is stark, the lighting emphatic, and the action fast-paced, even though this portion of the saga runs nearly three hours.
Mike Poulton, who specializes in adapting classic and historical novels for the stage, has had to condense Mantel’s 436-page book but he gets in all the tensions that unfolded as the king, already so desperate for an heir that he broke with the Catholic Church and divorced his first wife, charges Cromwell to find a way to get rid of the also son-less second.
The solution is to charge her with adultery. This will lead to torture and death for some (the accused are the “bodies” of the title) and it will create prestige and power for others. 

The program (which, as always, you have to pay for in London) helpfully organizes the characters according to their allegiances but it may still be hard to keep track of who’s who if you’re not well versed with the tale, particularly since some actors play multiple parts and so many of the male courtiers are named Thomas. 
But I had a different problem: I've already seen so many versions of this story. I've gone through the 1933 Charles Laughton movie “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” the Oscar-winning 1966 film  “A Man for All Seasons” (plus the Roundabout Theatre’s 2008 revival of the play on which it was based) the 1970s PBS series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” and the sexy late aughts TV series “The Tudors.” 

And that's not even counting my viewing of all the works about Henry and Anne Boleyn's daughter, who would grow up to be Elizabeth I, including the Glenda Jackson TV series from the '70s, the Cate Blanchett films and the terrific 2009 Broadway revival of Mary Stuart with Harriet Walter as Elizabeth and Janet McTeer as her rival Mary, Queen of Scots.

So watching Bringing Up the Bodies made me feel the way you do when your aunt once again brings out the family album: it's nice to see the old familiar faces but at this point you want to be told something new about them. And as well staged as this show is, it fails to do that.

Mantel distinguished her account of the story by writing mesmerizing prose and by transforming Cromwell from a one-dimensional villain into a multi-layered human. 

Ben Miles has been praised for his portrayal of Cromwell and I enjoyed his performance but I couldn’t help wishing that the role had been played by a more intense actor like Simon Russell Beale, Benedict Cumberbatch or Mark Rylance, who just finished filming a six-part TV series based on Mantel’s first book “Wulf Hall” that is scheduled to air next year.
Still, my niece Jennifer, who is even more steeped in Tudor stuff than I am, gave Bringing Up the Bodies a thumbs up. My sister Joanne liked it too, particularly after a brief tutorial that Jen gave her during intermission. And the people sitting around us all seemed equally pleased. 
The production, which is selling out, has been extended at London’s elegant Aldwych Theatre through Sept. 6 but even if you can’t make it to London before then, you’ll probably soon get a chance to make up your own mind about this recounting of the story cause a transfer to Broadway seems as inevitable as the king’s willingness to take a new wife.

July 12, 2014

Turning on the (Summer Vacatiion) Ghost Light

I’m off on a just-us-girls vacation with my sister and niece and since I won’t be writing here for the next couple of weeks, I’ve put on the ghost light that theaters set up when they're temporarily vacant. But, as usual, I've already got shows booked to see when I get back so please rejoin me later this month so that I can share my thoughts about them and other theater doings with you. 

July 9, 2014

"The Who & The What"

What does it mean to be a Muslim in a post-9/11 America? That’s the question the Pakistani-American writer Ayad Akhtar has explored in his Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced, his novel “American Dervish” and now in The Who & The What, the family drama that is running as part of the LCT3 series at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater through July 27.

The story this time out centers around Zarina, a young woman struggling to reconcile her devotion to the traditions of Islam with her dismay about their restrictions on women (click here to read about the author's inspirations for the play). 

The people closest to Zarina have developed their own ways of dealing with the discrepancies. Her younger sister Mahwish acquiesces to their father’s authority but is modern enough to give her fiancé hand-jobs. 

Their widower father Afzal, an immigrant who started off as a taxi driver and now owns a fleet of cabs, is steadfastly devout but also a loving parent who is proud of Zarina’s Harvard degree. 
Meanwhile, Eli, a convert to the faith whom Afzal thinks might be a good match for his eldest daughter, embraces a live-and-let-live approach. All are forced out of their complacency when Zarina writes a novel challenging the Quran and its interpretation of the prophet Muhammad’s relationship with his seventh wife.
The role of women in Islam is obviously a hot-button issue but The Who & The What fails to generate much heat. For while Akhtar is an engaging writer and some of the scenes, like the first meeting between Eli and Afzal, are entertaining, he also has a tendency towards pedantry, which is overindulged in this play. 

Too often the characters become symbolic avatars saying and doing things just to make a point and not because the words or action flow organically from who that person really is. Too often the situations in which they find themselves lack the tang of truth so that in the end, neither the who nor the what is wholly believable.
The production doesn’t help.  Akhtar’s frequent collaborator Kimberly Senior did an excellent job with Disgraced but she’s less confident with both the tone and pacing of this play, which runs nearly twice as long and hops around to several locales. 

The performances are similarly uneven. It's great to see actors of Middle Eastern descent getting the chance to play characters who aren't terrorists. But only Greg Keller seems to have found a consistent through line in his portrayal of Eli.
And yet, even though The Who & The What may have disappointed me, I'm sticking with Akhtar and looking forward to seeing his upcoming play The Invisible Hand, which has been scheduled for the new season at New York Theatre Workshop. 

Nobody bats a thousand. Disgraced, which is moving to Broadway in October, made my Top 10 list in 2012 (click here to read my review) and we've got to give promising young playwrights like Akhtar the room to experiment, and even to fail, without abandoning them.   


July 5, 2014

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2014

The Fourth of July was yesterday so that means summer is definitely here.  Which also means it’s time for my annual list of books to keep theater lovers company through the remaining eight lazy weeks until Labor Day. The selections this year are all novels and memoirs, just the kind of easy reading to do while you’re kicking back at the beach, in the backyard or, in my case, sitting on the terrace with a cool drink nearby (my husband K is into making sangria this year). I hope you’ll enjoy these reads as much as I’ve enjoyed finding them for you: 

Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark: A Novel by David Hewson and Richard Armitage. Rewriting Shakespeare has become a cottage industry; Amazon lists at least a half-dozen novelizations of Hamlet alone. But this latest one is so cleverly done I almost forgot that I knew how the story ends. Not all of the backstories the authors devise—turning Polonius from a foolish busybody into a Machiavellian manipulator, making Hamlet and Ophelia secret lovers—worked for me but this is fan fiction of the highest order. It’s only available as an audiobook but A.J. Harley is an elegant narrator and who doesn’t like to hear a good story well told?

The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble. No doubt borrowing from her own early years as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and 15-year marriage to an actor, Drabble tells the story of Emma, a restless young mother with two small children who is forced to leave London when her husband is hired for a season with a celebrated repertory company in residence in rural Hereford. Emma encounters all the usual backstage suspects, as well as the temptation of an affair with the company’s charismatic leader. This deliciously high-brow soap, which first came out in 1964, was out of print for a while but it’s now available as a download on both Amazon and iTunes. 
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón.  Four summers ago, The New Yorker named Alarcón one of the 20 most promising writers under 40 and so this novel sits high up on the literary food chain. Alarcón, who was born in Lima, Peru, but grew up in Birmingham, Ala., centers his tale around a young South American actor who joins a guerrilla theater troupe that travels through the countryside performing a politically provocative play. Then, unexpectedly, he finds himself playing a different kind of role in a real-life drama. The writing is languid, the narrative is quixotic but the belief in the power of theater is spellbinding. 

Little Did I Know by Mitchell Maxwell. It’s Andy Hardy meets “Chinatown” in this noirish novel about a freshly-minted college grad and his pals who open a summer stock theater in a New England town dominated by a powerful rich man, his floozy wife and a mysterious crime. It takes a while for this novel to get going (I'm only half way through) and there’s more noir than suits my taste but the let’s-put-on-a-show parts provide a fun, if idealistic, look a at what makes people fall in love with making theater.
Better Nate Than Ever and Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle.  These are really YA novels but more and more adults are reading kids’ books and this series is tailor-made for us grown-up theater geeks. They chronicle the adventures of Nate Foster, a middle-school misfit with a passion for musicals and a more than passable singing voice. With the help of his best friend Libby, he sneaks away from his small Pennsylvania hometown to a New York audition for a musical version of “E.T.” In the process, he meets all kinds of showbiz types, learns what goes into making a Broadway show and finds the courage to be himself.  The result are books that are equally heartwarming and hilarious. 

Carpets and Other Banana Skins: The Autobiography by Rupert Everett. As charming on the page as he is on the stage and the screen, Everett has written a piquant tell-all about his early years as a young actor in the 1970s and ‘80s.  He holds back little and his stories range from his days as a newbie in drama school and a regional rep company to his experiences on the celebrity party scene and as a rent boy for famous clients such as Ian McKellan. There’s lots of other nigh-profile name dropping too but it’s done with finesse, and Everett is such an excellent writer that his book is a guilt-free pleasure.

Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History by Glen Berger. The mega-expensive and problem-plagued musical may now be closed but this account of how it came to be is still entertaining. Berger, who was there from the beginning as Julie Taymor’s co-writer, is somewhat self-serving but he kept notes throughout the process and has turned them into a classic tale of theatrical hubris that’s hard for any theater junkie to resist.

Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater by Eddie Shapiro.  Celebrity interviews are a dime a dozen but I’ve never come across any as revealing as those in this collection of interviews with 20 of Broadway's biggest stars including Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald and Idina Menzel. In long, anecdote-rich conversations, these talented women talk honestly about the joys of being on stage, the difficulties of balancing family life with a career in the theater, the challenges of being a woman in a field still dominated by men, the realities of aging. If you only have time for one book this summer, make it this one.  

On the other hand, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to the suggestions from previous years:

July 2, 2014

A Few Thoughts on "Much Ado About Nothing"

The main lovers in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing are supposed to be Hero, the sweet young daughter of an Italian aristocrat; and Claudio, the gallant nobleman who falls for her. But almost from the start, audiences— and actors—have preferred the characters of Hero’s cousin Beatrice and Claudio’s pal Benedick, the bickering twosome who ostentatiously disavow love (particularly for one another) exchange flamboyant gibes and are just a helluva lot more fun.  

So the trick for companies putting on this comedy is to find evenly-matched actors who are witty and sexy enough to make both their characters—and the audience—fall in love with them. Past pairings have included Blythe Danner and Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh and Kathleen Widdoes and Sam Waterston in the 1973 production for the Public Theater that many New York theater lovers swear to be the best of the past half century.

Now, the Public has taken up the challenge again with the casting of Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater in the current production directed by Jack O’Brien and running through this weekend at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The tickets are, as usual, free. The chance to see Shakespeare outdoors on a summer evening is, as always, wonderful.
The choice of Rabe and Linklater for Beatrice and Benedick seems destined. Both actors are from theatrical families and each has become a stalwart of these summer-in-the-park productions. Rabe was so committed to playing Beatrice that she gave up a part in the latest installment of the blockbuster “Hunger Games” movie franchise because the filming conflicted with the schedule for Much Ado (click here to read an interview with her).

The daughter of the late actress Jill Clayburgh and the playwright David Rabe, the husky-voiced Rabe had her breakout four years ago as a perfect Portia in The Merchant of Venice, alongside her mom’s old beau Al Pacino’s Shylock.  Now she uses her innate intelligence to play Beatrice as the smart girl who manages to be cool without being mean. 

Her Beatrice’s hesitancy about love is self-protective: she wants to make sure that the guy she gives her heart to is smart enough to know that it will be accompanied by her sharp mind.   

Linklater made his name on TV sitcoms like “The New Adventures of Old Christine” but his mother is the celebrated acting coach Kristin Linklater,  who also co-founded the Shakespeare & Company acting troupe, and he started appearing in her Shakespeare productions when he was still in grade school (click here to read an interview with him).  

His Benedick is also unwilling to be made a fool for love and masks his feelings for Beatrice in pretend disdain until their friends connive to get them together by telling each that the other has already professed affection. More easily wooed, he turns almost giddy at the news, which puts a different spin on the role:  the guy is the greater romantic. 

This is the third time in the past four years that Rabe and Linklater, now reported to be a real-life couple, have performed together on a New York stage and there’s a familiarity between them that gives an intimate spark to the bantering between Beatrice and Benedick.

When Linklater seemed to bungle a line at the performance my husband K and I saw, Rabe swooped in to help cover the mistake and the looks of amusement and affection that passed between them was the kind of serendipitous moment that theatergoers like me cherish.

The supporting cast was, alas, less successful. Jack Cutmore-Scott and Ismenia Mendes are pretty but bland as Claudio and Hero and John Glover, a notorious scene-stealer, is unusually subdued as Hero’s father.

Meanwhile, Pedro Pascal, one of the multitude of stars on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with Don John, the Iago-like villain who tries to wreck the romance between Claudio and Hero by falsely accusing her of being unfaithful. And John Pankow isn't funny enough as Dogberry, the clownish constable who saves the day.
The one exception is Brian Stokes Mitchell, who plays Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick’s military commander. Judging from the Playbill, this is Mitchell’s professional Shakespeare debut (even though he was terrific in the 1991 revival of Cole Porter's Bard-inspired musical Kiss Me, Kate) but Mitchell's sonorous baritone and commanding stage presence make me hope that this won’t be his last venture in the canon.

And since I’m in a wish-fulfillment mood, I’ll also hope that producers will find new chances for Rabe and Linklater to put their Hepburn & Tracy-like chemistry to work. Maybe something like The Front Page.