October 29, 2014

"Deliverance" Delivers More Than Expected

Like the flashier Elevator Repair Service, the Godlight Theatre Company specializes in adapting literary works for the stage. But instead of putting on the word-for-word text as ERS likes to do (as with Gatz, its eight-hour rendition of “The Great Gatsby”) the Godlight folks tend toward stylized dramas. Their latest is Deliverance, a 90-minute adaptation of the James Dickey novel that is playing at the 59E59 Theatres through Nov. 9.  

I'll admit that I was wary when my friend Jessie and I entered the small black box space on the third floor at 59E59 to see a recent Saturday matinee of the show. I’d seen Godlight’s production of In the Heat of the Night, which although earnestly performed didn’t make the case for its page-to-screen-to stage conversion (click here for my review of it). 
And, of course, I’d seen the now-classic 1972 movie version of "Deliverance," in which four suburban guys get more than they bargained for when they take a river-rafting trip through rural Georgia and encounter a couple of malicious locals. I couldn’t imagine the story being done on a stage. At the very least, wouldn’t they need a river?  

Turns out they didn’t; a shiny black floor stands in for the water. There’s no banjo music either, as there famously was in the film, although someone does play guitar.  

There aren't even props. The actors mime them. Which, frankly, looks silly at the beginning of the play when the men are planning their trip and waving around imaginary cocktails. But it becomes surprisingly effective, almost poetic, when the the river journey gets underway and everything the men do becomes a metaphor.

The infamous scene in which one of the rafters is forcibly sodomized is there (and poignantly played) as are the subsequent crimes it sets off and the overall theme of how far a man will go to survive. 
And the narrative's tension, thanks to the taut direction of Godlight’s artistic director Joe Tantalo and the moody sound and lighting of his design team, is there too. I knew how the story was going to work out 
and yet there were moments when I was on the edge of my seat. 

Part of the credit for that also goes to the seven-man cast, who commit themselves to their roles with fierce intensity, made even more impressive by the fact that they perform in the round and within inches of the audience, including an apparently drunk guy in the front row who kept loudly commenting on the action at our performance. 
I’m still not sure there’s a need for a stage version of Deliverance but both Jessie and I left convinced that we were glad we'd seen this one.

October 25, 2014

“The Fortress of Solitude” and “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” Offer Riffs on the Stories of Boys Growing Up in the Hood

Everyone has been talking about what a busy fall season this is being (and it is; I’m booked solid seeing shows for the next month). But what they may have overlooked is that this season is also shaping up to be an unusually busy one for African-American actors, who are getting the chance to take center stage in some high-profile off-Broadway shows. 

There are the nearly all-black ensembles in the recently-departed Bootycandy, the currently-playing While I Yet Live and the soon-to-open Lift, Pitbulls and Our Lady of Kibeho. Then there’s the colorblind casting of Roslyn Ruff in Ivo van Hove’s production of Scenes from a Marriage (which closes this weekend) and John Douglas Thompson in the title role of the 16th century drama Tamburlaine, Parts I and II (which opens next weekend) plus major roles for Quincy Tyler Bernstein in Playwrights Horizons’ Grand Concourse and Tracie Thoms in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Lost Lake, both now in previews.

And just this past week came The Fortress of Solitude, a new musical at The Public Theater, and brownsville song (b-side for tray) a new drama at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theater. Both these shows attempt to offer fresh looks at the lives of young black men coming of age in rough neighborhoods in Brooklyn. But although there are things to recommend in each (including some fine performances) neither is totally successful. 
The Fortress of Solitude is based on Jonathan Lethem’s semi- autobiographical novel about Dylan Ebdus, a Jewish kid growing up in the predominantly black section of Gowanus during its pre-hipster days in the late ’70s and early ‘80s; and his best friend Mingus Rude, the son of a third-tier soul singer and the coolest kid on the block. 

It’s a terrific book that riffs on race, class, friendship, father-son relationships, pop music and superheroes (magical realism segments give the boys the power to fly over the city). The one thing it doesn't have is a well-structured narrative. 
That’s no problem for Lethem’s novel because it’s filled with full-bodied characters, great dialog, a visceral sense of time and place and all those ideas. But the loose-limbed plot is harder for this musical to deal with. 

Book writer Itmar Moses strains to include all the iconic moments from the novel—the attacks by the neighborhood bully, the mystical flights, the grownup Dylan’s reconciliation with his father—but that just muddies the storyline with sketchy scenes.
Moses also tries to keep the focus on Dylan, even though he’s clearly more interested in the tale of Mingus and his dad, as both spiral down into lives marked by disappointment and violence.

The show’s composer and lyricist Michael Friedman has an easier time with the music. He taps into the R&B, dance pop and early hip-hop that defined the ‘80s and the result is a surprisingly ingratiating score.  I hope they do a cast album.
Meanwhile, director Daniel Aukin manages to hold attention with all kinds of old-school stage tricks, including having the backup singers from the soul group double as a Greek chorus and ensemble members hoist Dylan and Mingus aloft to simulate their superhero escapades. 

And the cast, lead by Adam Chanler-Berat as Dylan and Kyle Beltran as Mingus, works hard. The stand out is Kevin Mambo, who turns in a sensational performance as Mingus’ dad, hitting all the right notes of remorse and singing the hell out of every song he’s given.

Brownsville song (b-side for tray) is less ambitious in every way. Running just 90 minutes, compared to the two-and-half-hours for Fortress, and featuring a cast of five, compared to the musical’s 18, it tells the more intimate story of a kid named Tray whose struggle to get out of the Brownsville projects and into college is thwarted by the senseless violence of his neighborhood.

The play opens after Tray’s death and playwright Kimber Lee clearly wants the audience to mourn the loss of this young everyman. So she and director Patrica McGregor make Tray a paragon of virtues. 
In flashbacks, he's revealed to have had enough athletic prowess to rank as a Golden Gloves contender and enough smarts to qualify for an academic scholarship. He worked at the local Starbucks, avoided local gangs, was a supportive big brother and grandson and displayed unusual grace when the stepmother who abandoned him and his little sister after their father’s death reappears to seek forgiveness. 

All this goodness is well meaning but it also saps the energy out of the play, despite a charismatic performance from Sheldon Best as Tray and a dynamic one from Lizan Mitchell as his no-nonsense grandmother Lena.

 Brownsville song (b-side for tray) and The Fortress of Solitude may be imperfect shows but the performances make them worth seeing and since both are scheduled to run through Nov. 16 and the tickets for brownsville are, like all LCT3 productions, just $20, there's a way for you to do that.

October 22, 2014

"Found" Targets Theater's Lost Generation

The amiable musical Found, now playing at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater though Nov. 9, wasn’t made for people like me.  

Don’t get me wrong; I had a good enough time but the show’s target audience is people under 40, more specifically those of them who read “n+1” instead of “The New Yorker,” have the “WTF with Mark Maron” podcast on automatic download and barely know Rodgers & Hammerstein from Hammachler Schlemmer.

Found is based loosely on the life of Davy Rothbart, founder of the "Found" magazine and website, which publish discarded letters and other random writings that are funny, touching or otherwise supposedly endearing (click here to read some of them). Think of it as "America's Funniest Home Video for People Who Prefer Words."

In this fictionalized version of his tale, Davy and his roommates (Mikey, the gay pal he’s known since they were six, and Denise, the gal pal on whom he has a secret crush) turn his idea into a media phenomenon that grows into a book, a road show, and a gig on public radio.   

The plot, as they say, thickens when Davy meets Kate, a TV exec who dangles the possibility of a reality show, a rich payday and romance. Will Davey go for the big Hollywood bucks or stay true to the DIY concept with his friends back home in Chicago?  Will he end up with Kate or Denise?

The book for the show was put together by Hunter Bell, one of the creators of the metamusical [title of show] and Lee Overtree, artistic director of the children’s theater group Story Pirates. The main conceit is that most of Found’s dialog and nearly all of its lyrics have been taken verbatim from the discarded writings Rothbart has collected over the past decade (click here to read more about the making of the show).

Members of a six-actor Greek chorus regularly pop out to perform excerpts. They’re all terrifically talented. Among them is Danny Pudi, who is best known as the pop-culture geek Abed on the cult comedy series “Community,” but my personal favorite was Orville Mendoza, a small guy with big stage presence and a mean twerk.
The leads deliver too. Nick Blaemire sings well, dances well and has a nerdy sex appeal. And the wonderfully-named Barrett Wilbert Weed, who was the best think in last spring's Heathers: The Musical (click here for my review of that), is great here too. Broadway is bound to kidnap her soon.

Overtree directs them all with madcap flair and some of the show is laugh-out-loud funny. An antic scene about the children’s book hero Johnny Tremain has been thrown in just for the hell of it and sends the cast capering through the audience. 

It’s all silly fun but I wish the writers had relied less on fart jokes and the f-word. And so many of the lines fit so snugly into the main storyline that it’s hard not to think that what we’re hearing is a good deal less than verbatim from the found writings. 
The music, composed by Eli Bolin, who also serves as music director for Story Pirates, is pop-rock pleasant but generic, although there are a couple of ballads—particularly one called “Stupid Love”—that aren’t bad.  

Still, as I said, this isn’t a show for everyone. It certainly wasn’t for the two seventysomething couples sitting in front of me. “I could tell within the first five minutes, that I was going to hate it,” said the alpha female of that group as she marched the others out at intermission. 
But judging by their guffaws, the Millennials in the audience at the performance I attended were having a great time. And my blogger pal The Mick over at the Craptacular raved that the show spoke to her “in a language that felt absolutely and utterly authentic to my life...There was no pandering to some idea of the Golden Age of Theater that’s long gone and maybe never really existed at all anyway. (click here to read more of what she had to say).” 

So there you have it.  The lines are drawn. And what you think of this show may well hinge on which side of that generation gap you sit. 

October 18, 2014

"The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night- Time" Dazzles with Game-Changing Stagecraft

Although she grew up in a theatrical family (dad was a director and founder of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, mom’s an actor) the British director Marianne Elliott reportedly hated theater as a kid. And perhaps that’s why she’s able to be so daring about upending the way shows get made.

Elliott’s production of War Horse, which used life-sized puppets to tell the tale of a boy and his beloved horse trying to survive amid the horrors of World War I, became a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic and won Elliott a Tony in 2011. Now, she’s back on Broadway with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its stagecraft is even more dazzling than its predecessor’s (click here to read more about the director). 

The story is based on Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel about an autistic teen named Christopher Boone who attempts to solve the mysterious murder of a neighbor’s dog. In the process, Christopher, who is mathematically gifted but emotionally stunted, learns some hard-won truths about his parents and about his own ability to navigate the world that had previously baffled him. 

The boy's hero is Sherlock Holmes and the play takes its title from a short story about that idiosyncratic master of deduction. When I read the book 10 years ago, I found its deadpan first-person narrative, sly literary allusions and erudite mathematical references to be amusing, touching and impossible to imagine as a movie or a play. But playwright Simon Stephens has stepped up to the challenge. 

Stephens has reframed the storytelling: the first act is presented as an essay that Christopher has written for school and that his teacher reads out loud, creating a running narration for the action onstage; the even more meta second act becomes a play that she has adapted from his story (clear here to listen to an interview on the adaptation process).  

Then Stephens and the folks at London’s National Theatre, where the play originated before its move to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, had the good sense to enlist Elliott to direct the production. It's her inventive stagecraft that truly transforms the book. 

Elliott says she likes to collaborate and she and her equally resourceful design team are totally in sync. The Curious Incident unfolds on a stage shaped like a cube, which designer Bunny Christie has wallpapered in graph paper to simulate the hyper-orderliness of Christopher’s mind. 

Meanwhile, the kinetic lighting by Paule Constable and clever video projections by Finn Ross hook up with Adrian Sutton’s pulsating music and Steven Hoggett and Scott Graham’s distinctive choreography to mimic the thoughts, feelings and sensory overload the teen experiences as he unravels both the large and small mysteries of his life. A scene in London’s busy Paddington Station is stunning (click here to read about the design). 

A large supporting cast of 13 actors slip nimbly into and out of multiple roles, including some non-human. The father, played with bluff honesty by Ian Barford, is particularly winning. 
But anchoring the whole production (at least at the performance I saw, since another actor plays the matinees) is the performance of Alex Sharp, a 25-year-old who just graduated from NYU Juilliard in May and is now making his professional debut in the role of Christopher.  

Actors often draw accolades for portraying disabled people but Christopher is particularly tricky to pull off because he has such unappealing quirks (a visceral dread of being touched, a near monotone style of speaking) and he is aware of the often alienating effect that he can have on others and yet proud of his singularity. 

Sharp nails all of it, revealing the emotional inner life of a boy, who on the surface seems to have none. And he does this while giving an exhaustingly physical performance that has him at moments literally climbing the walls (click here for a Q& A with the young actor).

It's a career-making performance in a game-changing show.

October 15, 2014

"While I Yet Live"'s Women & Me in Playbill

To my delight, the editors at Playbill asked me to write a piece about 
S. Epatha Merkerson and Lillias White who are starring in While I Yet Live, the new play by the Tony-winning actor Billy Porter that Primary Stages just opened at The Duke on 42nd Street.  

I, of course, said yes. Which means I got the chance to meet and talk with Merkerson (perhaps still best known for playing Lt. Van Buren on TV’s “Law & Order”) and White (a Tony winner for the 1997 musical The Life). But it also means that I don’t feel quite right about reviewing While I Yet Live, which is a memory play based on Porter’s life growing up as a gay teen in a Pentacostal family and surrounded by strong women. 
However, I can’t keep myself from saying that it’s really nice to see a show that has four roles for women who are both black and over 50.  There’s also a fifth part for a young woman that is being given an eye-catching turn by Sheria Irving, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama.  You can read my piece about her veteran castmates by clicking here.

October 11, 2014

"Indian Ink" Traces Links to the Elusive Past

Tom Stoppard has a rep, deserved or not, for writing plays that are brainy but cold-hearted. The wonderful thing about Indian Ink, which the Roundabout Theatre Company is giving an elegant revival at its Laura Pels Theatre, is that it is both intellectually challenging and emotionally rewarding.

In fact, there are so many appealing facets to this play, which originally opened in London in 1995 but is just getting its first major New York production, that I hardly know where to begin talking about it. 
Like Stoppard’s more famous play Arcadia, Indian Ink is set in two interrelated time periods and deals with some of this playwright's favorite subjects: love, art and the elusiveness of the past. 

It opens in 1930, the same year that Ghandi began his Salt March to protest colonial rule in India, as Flora Crewe, a free-spirited British poet who specializes in erotic verse, arrives in the country and meets Nirad Das, an Indian artist who loves all thing English. 
A companion narrative is set in the 1980s, primarily in England, where the sister of the now-late poet is keeping protective watch over Flora’s legacy as an American literary scholar and Das’ Anglicized son attempt to uncover secrets about her life, especially the true nature of her relationship with Das. 
During the play's nearly three-hour running time, the narrative flows back and forth between the two eras. The letters Flora composes to her younger sister Nell back home supply the exposition and the connective link, with characters from the past and present occasionally occupying the stage at the same time. 

I’ll confess to being more enchanted by the earlier period but I fell for the whole thing. That could be because although Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia and has spent most of his life in Britain, he also lived in India for several years as a boy and the warmth of this play is infused with the passion he retains for that country on the cusp of change. 
Director Carey Perloff has put together a production that captures the magic of that time and place, from the vibrant colors of Neil Patel’s set and Robert Wierzel’s lighting to the subtle behaviors that mark the caste and class differences between the British and the Indians—and amongst the Indians themselves. 
The production also benefits from the performances of its leading ladies. Romola Garai, probably best known for the movie “Atonement” and the TV show “The Hour,” plays Flora. Garai seems to specialize in playing women who resist the constraints of society while maintaining the sensuality that draws the very men they’re challenging. 
A tall and commanding presence, Garai makes it easy to see why everyone is so enchanted with Flora.  But the poet is also supposed to to be suffering from tuberculosis and Garai is too robust to convey that fragility. She also sounded a little shrill in some early scenes. 

Still, Garai's overall performance is one of layered poignancy. She also looks fabulous in the beautiful costumes Candice Donnelly has created for Flora (click here to read more about the actress).
The rightly-revered Rosemary Harris plays Nell, now elderly and called Eleanor. Harris, who is now 87 but looks two decades younger, has lost none of her impressive skills. Her Eleanor is smart, prickly and because Harris, too, spent her girlhood in India where her father was stationed with the Royal Air Force, radiates an aura of authenticity that reflects Eleanor’s own complex feelings about that country.
The men in the show are good too. But it’s really the sum of all the parts that creates the magic. Some critics have found Indian Ink to be too melodramatic and call it second-tier Stoppard. They probably feel that way because it’s more accessible than some of his other plays. But its willingness to be open-heartedness is precisely why this one so works for me.

October 8, 2014

"This Is Our Youth" Seems Kind of Old

The four young men sitting in the row in front of my husband K and me were exactly the dream demographic the producers must have had in mind when they decided to do a revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth and cast it with the Millennial Generation icons Michael Cera (of the cult movies “Superbad” and “Juno”) Kieran Culkin (of a bunch of cool indies and the acting clan whose most famous member, at least until now, is “Home Alone’s” Macaulay Culkin) and Tavi Gevinson (the 18-year-old wunderkind fashion blogger and editor-in-chief of the online teen magazine “Rookie”—click here to read more about her).

And the play, which is running at the Cort Theatre through Jan. 4, apparently scored with our preppy fellow audience members, who, with their navy blazers, shawl-collared sweaters and carefully-tousled hair, might have been fugitives from a Ralph Lauren ad or the better behaved classmates of the characters in Lonergan’s dramedy about Reagan-era rich kids obsessed with sex, drugs and the lack of control from their clueless parents. But it fared less well with K and me.
Our somewhat muted response was certainly not the fault of the cast, who, despite their relative lack of theater experience, were terrific, especially the guys. Cera employs the awkward-but-endearing mannerisms that have become his trademark but he makes an impressive stage debut, seeming as comfortable on the boards as he is onscreen. 

Culkin, who has more stage credits, won an Obie back in 2005 for his performance as the survivor of a shooting tragedy in After Ashley but he is even better in this play’s flashiest role. Gevinson may not be quite up to her cast mates but she’s also much younger and less experienced than they are and her winsome performance is nothing for her to be embarrassed about. 

Nor can I shake a disapproving finger at director Anna D. Shapiro (who just last week was named the new artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company). Shapiro keeps the action focused and the energy high (although I hated the haranguing incidental music by Rostam Batmanglij from the indie-pop band Vampire Weekend) but her direction also mines the play's undercurrent of melancholy (click here to read about how she did it).  

So why was I so lukewarm about the overall production?  Well, I’m not sure. It could be that I’m just not a Lonergan gal. 

I missed the original 1996 production of This Is Our Youth that made a star of Mark Ruffalo and an-easier-to-get-a-job name out of Josh Hamilton. And I was somewhat mystified by the praise that greeted Lonergan’s Lobby Hero but completely in sync with the disapproving reception for his Medieval Play which debuted at Signature Theatre two years ago (click here to ready my review). 
The problem could also be that I have a high bar for plays about the 1%. This Is Our Youth is centered around Warren (Cera) a rich kid who steals $15,000 from his wealthy dad after the old man has kicked him out of the house, and Dennis (Culkin), a low-level drug dealer who is also the son of a famous painter. Gevinson plays Jessica, an equally privileged young woman who has been set up on a date with Warren.

The play unfolds over a 12-hour period in which the guys indulge in emotional and physical one-upmanship, Warren and Jessica joust over whether they can have a relationship and Warren and Dennis try to figure out how to replace the money that Warren has taken from his dad.  

But, as one of the characters admits, these are rebels with safety nets, cushioned by family wealth and status. And although, there’s a whole lot of yelling and running around in the first act, I found myself drifting off. 

And it apparently wasn’t just me. I saw a gray-haired couple fleeing toward the exit during the intermission. But they might—as K and I did—have felt somewhat differently if they had stayed. Lonergan reveals his purpose in the second act of this two-hour-and-twenty-minute play, even if he also mars it with two monologs that spell out his intent a bit too clearly.
I can imagine how daring all this youthful disaffection must have seemed back in the Morning-in-America era of the ‘80s but a play about rich kids whose parents focus more on their own personal satisfaction than on that of their kids seems off in this era when helicopter parents are hovering everywhere and many kids now include their moms and dads high on the list of their best friends.  

Or maybe, unlike the preppy foursome who sat in front of me, I'm just the wrong demographic for this show.

October 4, 2014

Why "A Walk in the Woods" is Worth the Trip

Kathleen Chalfant sits high on my list of the actors who I will see in almost anything (click here to see the whole list). And she’s as amazing as ever in the Keen Company’s revival of A Walk in the Woods, the 1988 Lee Blessing play about arms negotiations that opened at The Clurman on Theatre Row this past week.

The two-hander, set in the days of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, was both a Tony nominee for best play and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But it seems a bit musty now, even though some of the old hostilities between the two countries are heating up and Putin is yearning to put the USSR back together again.

Director Jonathan Silverstein has smartly added some contemporary fizz to Blessing's talky drama by changing the Russian negotiator from a man to a woman, as if in acknowledgment of the growing presence of women at the highest levels of world affairs from the International Monetary Fund’s managing director Christine Lagarde to our own former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. 

The play's text seems the same, except for the necessary pronoun substitutions, but the gender change subtly affects both the personal and political dynamics between the characters. Chalfant is as menschy as the late Robert Prosky was in the original Broadway production but her Irina Botvinnik also displays the qualities that so many high-powered women amass in their arsenals. 

She makes Irina girlish and flirty one minute; tough and schoolmarmish the next. And she beautifully conveys the wistfulness of a woman who has made personal sacrifices for the sake of her professional career and an almost maternal compassion as she tries to mentor her younger American counterpart. (click here toread about how she created the role).

In fact, Chalfant's performance is so convincing that my husband K, who had never seen A Walk in the Woods before, said he couldn’t imagine a man playing the part. 

Paul Niebanck works hard and does a nice job with the role of the American negotiator (played by Sam Waterston in the original production) but he is, like his character, outclassed by his more experienced partner.

The rest of the production—the set (cardboard trees, a few video projections) and the costumes (simple suits and coats to signal the change of seasons)—is modest but effective. Chalfant supplies the magnificence.